Book: Death Dealer



Death Dealer

DEATH DEALER

HAND’S ASSASSIN – BOOK 1

BY T.G. AYER & M. D. COOPER



Just in Time (JIT) & Beta Readers

Timothy Van Oosterwyk Bruyn

Lisa L. Richman

Marti Panikkar

Scott Reid

Manie Kilian

James Dean

David Wilson

Gene Bryan

Copyright © 2018 M. D. Cooper & T.G. Ayer

Aeon 14 is Copyright © 2018 M. D. Cooper

Version 1.0.0

Cover Art by Andrew Dobell

Editing by

Aeon 14 & M. D. Cooper are registered trademarks of Michael Cooper

All rights reserved



TABLE OF CONTENTS

FOREWORD

WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE

MAPS

ANTICIPATION

THE COMMODORE LOUNGE

THE MARK

FLETCHER

ESCALATION

DO OR DIE

EXFILTRATE

FREEZER BURN

DINNER AND A SHOW

DUST AND OWLS

A DEEPER GAME

TEAMWORK

AI’S GAME

JERIAH

THE GREEN WOMAN

AI’S WORK IS NEVER DONE

UPDATES

WARES

A CHAT

DISEMBARKATION

SUBTERFUGE

VALKRIS

UNION

BRIEF

THE TEAM

CAVES OF INNOA

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

DECAY

GROUND ZERO

LEADS

GATES

UNDERSTANDING

CONFESSIONS

YAZATA

BREACH

BINGO

KABLOOEY

MISDIRECTION

ISHTAR

GENERALITY

CONTINGENCIES

EGRESS

MISDIRECTION

CAPTIVE

LAST RESORT

DRESDEN

LAST FLIGHT OUT

UNVEILING

THE BOOKS OF AEON 14

ABOUT THE AUTHOR



FOREWORD

Welcome to the next chapter in the Aeon 14 saga!

If you’ve traveled the stars with characters such as Tanis, Sera, Jessica, Andy, Kylie, or Rika, then you’re going to feel right at home with Nerishka and her adventures. If this is the first time you’ve dipped your toes into the waters of Aeon 14, I’ve written up an intro at the end of this foreword to help you out. Even if you have read many Aeon 14 books, I recommend the section following this to ground yourself in the time and setting of this story.

I’ve always enjoyed having Tee as an editor. Since she’s also a writer, she possesses a very good understanding of the ‘music’ we try to create with words when crafting our stories. Her feedback has always been insightful and very helpful.

Bit-by-bit, she became more and more invested in the universe of Aeon 14, and the characters who inhabit it. Ultimately, we decided (I forget who suggested it first) that she should write a story in the ‘verse.

It was the character of Nadine in the Perilous Alliance series that really got Tee thinking about what to write in Aeon 14. She liked the idea of the Hand, and the assassins they employed in the Inner Stars, working alone, often on missions that take years to complete—these operatives are the best humanity has ever produced and, coupled with their AIs, are formidable opponents.

And so Nerishka was born; Nadine’s cousin, who has also been an operative in the Hand for many decades. She’s a seasoned operative who utilizes toxins for many of her kills and has earned the moniker Death Dealer amongst her peers as her missions have become almost exclusively assassinations.

Tee and I have worked closely to craft an exciting tale that will launch you into Nerishka’s adventures, while ensuring that this is an Aeon 14 story that is both deeply entwined with the main storylines while also being accessible to new readers.

It’s been a joy to work with her on this, and I am positive you’re going to love the result.

M. D. Cooper


Danvers, 2018



WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE

Where in the galaxy are we?

First off, for the new reader, this is the setting we find ourselves in. In the distant future, humanity has spread out into an area of the Milky Way Galaxy which contains roughly ten billion stars (about 5% of the galaxy).

There are regions where humans are well-nigh immortal, living hundreds and thousands of years (one such region is the Transcend) and other areas where humans are barely scratching out an existence on marginally habitable worlds. Then, much like now, it is as William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

The primary driver of humanity’s woes is FTL (Faster Than Light) travel. You often see this in fiction described as ‘hyperspace’ or ‘warp drive’. In Aeon 14, it is facilitated by transitioning into a sub-layer of space, known as the Dark Layer. In the DL, ships travel at roughly 500 times the speed of light.

However, on a galactic scale, this is still quite slow. Travelling across all of human space takes decades. This has largely been what has saved humanity from self-annihilation.

Before FTL, making war between the stars took centuries. There was little reason to do so because no soldier would take hundreds of years away from their families, and there was little economic value. Once FTL arrived, peoples could travel to other stars in days, or weeks, and interstellar war crushed humanity.

That time was known as the FTL Wars.

Two groups avoided these wars. They were already on the fringes of human expansion. At the time of this story, they are known as the Transcend, and the Orion Freedom Alliance. Both groups are trying to shape the recovery of an area known as the Inner Stars, where the bulk of humanity lives.

People in the Inner Stars have no idea that the Transcend and the OFA exist—which is entirely on purpose. Both groups know that if the federations, empires, and alliances in the Inner Stars learned of their existence, it could destroy the tentative peace and reconstruction that has finally emerged after the dark ages of the FTL Wars.

Nerishka works for an organization known as the Hand, which is a directorate operated by the Transcend whose primary mission is to ensure stability in the Inner Stars, and ever so slowly, help them rise out of the prior dark ages.

They work behind the scenes to foster peace, quash disruptive technology, and sometimes eliminate threats with extreme prejudice.

Often, Hand agents are paired with AI, that are placed inside their heads. This is not an uncommon thing, either in the Transcend or the Inner Stars, and our heroine, Nerishka, has one such AI in her head, named Lyra.

People are also connected to ‘the networks’ via something known as the Link. It is, in effect, a wireless connection to their versions of the Internet directly in their heads. They can access data, talk to one another, and tap into virtual realities over the Link.

When characters speak to one another over the Link, you will see it <Written like this.>

Often data they access will be displayed on their HUD (Head’s Up Display), and they also make copious use of various holo-imaging technologies.

Nanotechnology is a big part of the ‘verse, and many people have millions of nanobots inside their bodies that defend them from nanoattack and operate to heal them from injuries.

To the modern reader, many people in the future would be considered cyborgs, but to them it is perfectly normal, no different to than getting a tattoo would be for us—if everyone were to have tattoos.

This story begins in the year 8948, during the time of the book Orion Rising. For the seasoned Aeon 14 reader, you’ll know that these are the days before the outbreak of the Orion War that sweeps across all humanity, and changes the direction of our species forever.

Nerishka will play a role in that, but first she has to survive the mission at hand, a simple assassination in the Ayra System, not too far from the borders of the Septhian Alliance and the Praesepe Cluster.



MAPS

In the grand scheme of things, the Ayra System is very close to Sol. On the map below, it is at the top-right edge of the dot labeled “Nietschea/Praesepe”

Death Dealer

Death Dealer



ANTICIPATION

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Palomidae Hotel, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

<Seasoned agents are not dramatic,> Nerishka snapped as she tugged the shimmering silver fabric over the curve of her hips. <We’re professionally paranoid. It’s part of the job.> She turned sideways to study the fit of the garment in the holomirror, which revealed a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree image of her body.

The jewel-encrusted fabric hugged her body and fell to the floor, appearing demure—if you didn’t consider the thigh-high slit and the dangerously low back. Nerishka made a face at her reflection; she would have preferred a nano-infused garment that she could manipulate as needed.

But, in keeping with the latest Eshnunna fashion, Nerishka had selected a hand-embellished dress, encrusted with gems from the Ayra System’s worlds. Fitting for a woman who was supposed to have more than enough money to spend.

Nerishka had traveled to Anahita’s capital Eshnunna under her most commonly used identity of a professional gambler. Her clothing, the amethyst-laced uranium gems she wore, the luxurious hotels she stayed at—everything was a facade to convince the people she came into contact with that she was just a high-flying gambler prone to excess.

<I was merely making an observation,> Lyra replied, her tone enigmatic. Nerishka could have sworn she’d detected an eye-roll in the AI’s voice—which she chose to ignore.

Nerishka turned to inspect the pair of sticks currently holding the top half of her long blue-and-silver hair together in a loose chignon. She curled the tendrils touching her cheeks and primped the ones hanging to her bare shoulders. Then she fluffed up the long locks hanging down her bare back.

<May I suggest you stop fussing and get moving. You have a reservation for nine—which you do not wish to miss. I am not sure I can change the booking again without their NSAI detecting the adjustments.>

Pursing her lips, Nerishka crossed the bedroom to open the secure hiding place she and Lyra had constructed. The luxury suite at the Palomidae Hotel was a strange mix of modern clean lines and old-world knickknacks, the decorators echoing the ancient Babylonians every chance they got.

Nerishka had found a hiding place behind the extravagantly carved wooden headboard which bore images of the naked goddess Ishtar flanked by a pair of lions, their teeth bared in equally vicious growls.

Reaching between the headboard and the wall, she tapped the biolock on the narrow case wedged into the space and retrieved the three boxes of hand-creme she’d prepared for this particular mission.

Lyra had researched the fashion and habits of the local people, and she and Nerishka had agreed on a set of three small boxes bearing carvings of a pair of serpents, an owl, and a lion on each lid. Such items were normal for a citizen of Anahita to carry on their person, providing Nerishka with the perfect disguise for her poisons.

<You’re bossy, you know that?> Nerishka said absently as she inspected each carved box. One was red, containing her truth serum; one blue, holding an antidote to protect herself. The third was a silver box containing a fatal toxin, the antidote for which she’d already taken. All three compounds were undetectable by even the most detailed of scans and had become Nerishka’s stock in trade.

Working with poisons—especially ones from Valkris—had its advantages.

She dropped the boxes into her purse, checked her literal bag of tricks which she always kept with her, and slung it over her shoulder. She’d never been late for a kill and was beginning to fear that Lyra’s attempts at managing every second of a mission were going to drive her crazy.

<You sure you aren’t related to Gaia?> Nerishka asked Lyra, her brow furrowing. <She’s an AI I was partnered with a hundred and twenty years back. I swear you two could be mother and child. Or twins. Can AI have twins?>

<You are rambling.>

Nerishka stiffened. Was she really as nervous as Lyra implied? Nerishka had to admit she was…something, though nervous wasn’t a good enough label.

Maybe listless. Perhaps one rambled when one was listless.

<Weapons check, Lyra,> Nerishka murmured. <Also a sign of a professional.>

<Ah yes, a paranoid professional,> said the AI drily.

<In this line of work, only the paranoid live long enough to become professionals.>

Nerishka pushed the hairsticks tight again. Crafted from interwoven carbon nano strands wrapped in a ceramic sheath, they were carved into intricate dragons, their bodies thinning out into deadly sharp blades. The tips were covered in a decorative—and protective—cap that slid back with a single thought, preparing the weapon for its deadly task.

Even more impressive were the blades hidden inside her shinbone. Also made of carbon nano strands, they were her last resort, considering she had to access them with a bit more than a single thought, and whole lot more discomfort.

Nerishka sighed and eyed the headboard. It looked like her blades and her poisons were going to be her only weapons tonight.

<I know leaving the lightwand and your flechette pistols behind has you off balance,> said Lyra kindly. Apparently, she did know Nerishka well.

It was true that Nerishka wouldn’t need any of her more overt weapons as her mark was far from imposing.  A scientist and tech billionaire, Fletcher had proved himself to be a man with far too much money—and, from the looks of it, far too little common sense: he'd mentioned the wrong word to the wrong people.

Picotech.

You didn’t play around with that word. Not if you wanted to keep breathing.

The Commodore Lounge—which Nerishka's Hand contact had named as the meeting point, having arranged an interview for a role on the picotech research team—prohibited guests from entering their establishment with weapons of any sort, requiring them to be checked at the entrance in much the same way you would hand over a hat or a coat. The Lounge’s agreement had cheerfully claimed that you’d even receive a chit to retrieve your items on departure.

No way was Nerishka leaving her lightwand or her favorite matched pair of flechette pistols in a damned restaurant arms-check no matter how secure management claimed it to be. From what little she’d seen, the people in the Ayra System had no respect for their weapons.

Still, she had to work around that particular complication. She had no choice having cut it fine, arriving on Anahita the previous night with only enough time for a quick meeting with Karsin, her Hand contact. But Karsin had failed to show up.

Given how important the mission was, Nerishka was a little concerned that he’d opted not to attend the debrief, but she had to assume he was caught up with something and wasn’t able to get away. Still, he had left her with sufficient intel to proceed without him. She’d just need to remain vigilant. She could be walking into a trap for all she knew.

The communications that Karsin had sent to Director Jeriah had been forwarded to Nerishka intermittently over the last few months and upon arrival in Anahita, she’d received one in which Karsin had provided the location of meet. Nerishka had a convenient opportunity to complete the mission—swift and clean.

With any luck, she’d be in and out without a hitch.

<You’ll be fine without the lightwand, you know. It’s just one evening.> Lyra’s voice brought Nerishka out of her thoughts and she rolled her eyes as she grabbed her purse. <Thanks for jinxing the mission, Lyra. Way to go.>

The AI sighed deeply. <You humans are far too superstitious.>

Keeping her mouth shut, Nerishka gave the holomirror one last look, glaring at the crazy-high heels Lyra had selected. <What is with the shoes on this planet anyway?> She scowled at the white platform sandals, the heel made up of a complicated swirl of sparkling clear gems and clear plas.

<This system does have quirky shoe designers. They all seem to try to outshine their previous lines, and their designs do border on the crazy. I find it interesting. And some are quite attractive.>

<Easy for you to say. You don’t have to wear them.> Nerishka shook her head and walked to the door.

It opened before she got to the threshold, and as it shut behind her, Lyra confirmed that the whole suite was now on lockdown. The AI had overridden the security and not even the hotel staff would be able to enter the room while Nerishka was absent.

The suite at the top of the Palomidae would cost the average citizen of this system more than a year’s income for a three-night stay. The credit line the local gambling house had run for her was shockingly high, too, when compared to even the high-rollers in the city of Eshnunna.

Nerishka avoided the tables and headed to a private exit three floors down. It was an exclusive bay, available only to the most expensive suites’ residents. A skycar hovered in the closest bay—arranged for Nerishka by her industrious AI who’d suggested avoiding the use of a ground-car because it would appear plebeian. The concierge at the bay-door gave Nerishka a respectful bow as she passed, then wiggled her fingers at him while giving a bubbly smile.

<Have I told you what a superb actress you are?>

<Numerous times already,> Nerishka said, sashaying over to the open door of the waiting skycar. <I’m still not sure how you can tell.>

<Granted I have only been with you for three months, but I've been studying your vitals and their patterns in connection with your thoughts. Your heartbeat when you lie—barely a blip.>

<Not what I meant,> Nerishka replied, shimmying onto the skycar seat. As the door slid closed, she hid a smile. <The best way to tell a good liar is to watch those she is lying to. It’s only if they are convinced that the liar is considered accomplished. No matter how unblippy her heart rate.>

<I shall defer to your expert opinion on the matter.> Lyra sniffed.  <For the time being.>

Nerishka smiled. She was used to adjusting to a new AI—having been through a few in her two hundred years with the Hand—but Lyra was refreshing.

Thankfully, this mission hadn’t required any strange mods; those were a little harder to deal with than having to share your head with a stranger for the duration of a job—which could sometimes take months. If not decades.

Mods or not, the mission was still the mission.

And right now, she had to go kill a man.



THE COMMODORE LOUNGE

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: The Commodore Lounge, East District, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Inside the private skycar, the luxury proved a little too ostentatious. Polished, red-stained wood adorned the doors and a small-chandelier hung from the roof, casting a sparkling glow that made Nerishka blink rapidly. <A little on the tacky side, Lyra?>

<Superstitious and picky,> said the AI, her tone a little haughty now.

<Not picky. I just have taste. This,> Nerishka waved a hand around the interior of the vehicle which was suddenly suffused with multicolored strobe lights and a strange throbbing beat apparently masquerading as music, <is not tasteful.>

<Well, it’s all they had that was remotely ‘not average’.>

The AI’s tone bordered on impatient and Nerishka sat back and took a deep breath. <Sorry, Lyra. I know you’re doing your best. None of my missions are run of the mill.>

Lyra snorted. <If you ask me, should we encounter a ‘run of the mill’ mission, I do believe we would both expire from the shock of it.>

<An AI with a sense of humor. I’m blessed.> Nerishka reached for a bottle of sparkling water and popped the cork.

<Thank you,> Lyra said, her tone haughty again.

Nerishka wanted to say that she was being sarcastic, but she didn’t have the heart to offend the AI—Lyra had been a little on edge the last few days.

<I haven’t been on edge. I’ve been preoccupied.>

Nerishka almost choked as sparkling water went up the wrong way and fizzled in her nostrils. <You really have to stop doing that. Compartmentalize, Lyra? You can’t be invading my thoughts all the time.>

<Well, if you stopped thinking them across the Link, I wouldn’t hear them. Although, it was almost worth it with that reaction…the whole snorting the fizzy water and all,> the AI said airily. But Nerishka knew Lyra long enough by now to tell from her tone that she was sorry.

Sorry, but amused.

Nerishka let out a laugh and reached for a napkin from the mini bar in front of her knees. <Have to agree with you there.> She dabbed her lips and then discarded the napkin and the empty bottle in the trash receptacle. <So, you going to tell me why you’ve been preoccupied?>

The skycar slowed on its approach to The Silver Needle, a three-kilometer-tall cylindrical spire that shimmered like Nerishka’s lightwand, making her feel all the more bereft. The ostentatious name was truly appropriate.

The Commodore Lounge occupied the top five floors of the tower and provided a private landing pad for its clients on its lowest floor. Nerishka’s skycar settled onto a cradle, the doors sliding open as the craft locked into place.

A woman in somber livery extended her hand and Nerishka stepped onto a ramp covered in a royal-blue carpet that glistened with streaks of iridescent silver.

Lyra hadn’t responded to Nerishka’s question; the AI seemed to be using the activity as a reason not to expand on her preoccupation—Nerishka was sure she’d felt a ripple of relief filter through to her from the AI. She’d have to pursue that matter with Lyra another time.

As Nerishka walked down the ramp, marveling at how the carpeting seemed to ripple around her like waves on a still pond, her AI finally spoke up. <How fetching. The décor matches your dress, no less.>

Nerishka smirked and slowed her steps as she approached the entrance, currently closed and guarded by two tall, overly muscular men in dark suits. Their elegant cloaks rippled in a non-existent wind, streaks of energy flowing down them—another fashion quirk on the planet. Despite their clothing’s constant movement, the guards' eyes remained fixed on Nerishka.

She knew their security systems would have already scanned her body, searching for uncharacteristic mods and energy sources long before she reached the doorway.

“Good evening Kresida. The Commodore Lounge welcomes you,” one of the men said. “We’ve received your acknowledgment of the Commodore’s policies regarding weapons. Thank you for your cooperation.”

On completion of the statement, both men gave short bows, their cloaks snapping behind them.

<Is this where you curtsey?> whispered Lyra inside Nerishka’s mind, her light tone now filled with amusement.

“Do you have any weapons to check?” the other man asked, as if they wouldn’t already know. Perhaps they enjoyed providing the illusion of complete trust.

<He’ll be watching for biofeedback. I’m maintaining an acceptable heart-rate, but maybe I didn’t need to…you’re doing well enough yourself. As I said, great acting.>

<Not my first job, Lyra,> Nerishka said privately to her AI, while pasting a regal smile onto her face. “Not a thing, boys. I’m just looking forward to my first visit to the Commodore,” she said, ending with her tone a little too high-pitched.

The security bulldog merely nodded, seemingly unaffected by Nerishka’s enthusiasm as the man shifted to allow her past.

<I wonder how good they are at detecting lies?> asked Lyra, her voice containing a hint of amusement.

<Not helping.> Nerishka kept walking, barely slowing her long-legged stride as the second guard opened the door and waved her inside.

She entered the room, the doors sliding shut behind her as the decor of the Commodore’s reception lounge made an impression on her. Everything was silver, white, or sparkling; chromed light fixtures, gem-encrusted chandeliers, white upholstered furniture and silver-veined marble flooring.

The color scheme seemed to expand the size of the space, and as Nerishka walked across the length of the floor she had a strange sense that she’d likely disappear into the white.

<You do seem to match very well.> Lyra sounded as though she approved. <Let’s just hope the next room isn’t dark brown, or royal blue.>

Nerishka let out a deep sigh. <You really need to learn not to jinx things, Lyra.>

<You really need to learn to be less superstitious. It is a wasted effort and I can never understand why humans spend their time on the prediction of ramifications of future events based on a slip of the tongue, an odd phrasing, or a complete lack of words in entirety. It is as though you set yourself up for the possibility of failure by pre-empting bad luck at every turn.>

<I agree, Lyra. Humans are a complicated lot, designed to make mountains out of molehills and gods out of mere men. But, as much as I’m fascinated by this debate, I have a mission to focus on.>

Nerishka barely hid her sarcasm but it seemed lost on the AI who sent an apologetic smile and said, <Oh, yes. I do apologize.> After a moment’s pause, Lyra continued, <I’ve detected video surveillance, including IR sensors and even sonic scanning. You would think after scanning guests at the door, one would dispense with the need for constant checking.>

Nerishka sent a shrug in her mind. <Problem is, humans are creative. If someone really wanted to get in and do some damage, there are a million different ways to do it, either as an individual or working in a team. But I do agree, the level of paranoia is…suspicious.>

Arriving at the white marble reception desk, Nerishka smiled stiffly at the grinning concierge who wore an opalescent cloak, cowl resting on his head. “Welcome to The Commodore Lounge. My name is Andrew and I’m here to help make your stay the best it can be. All purchases will be added to your tab—for which you have already supplied your codes.” He furnished a low bow and then straightened. “We have a selection of rooms for your pleasure, but you are free to wander around until you find one that suits you best. You may interact with the other guests,” at the sight of Nerishka’s raised eyebrow—because it seemed incongruous to come to a bar-lounge-social establishment and not speak to the other guests—Andrew smiled thinly, “or you may wish to not be disturbed. It may sound unusual, but we do have patrons who wish to be in a social setting but would prefer to be left alone.”

<So how in the world do you tell who you can talk to or who wants to be left alone?>

Just as Lyra voiced the private question, Andrew slid a long, narrow black velvet box toward Nerishka. “This is our messaging system. Please be aware that The Commodore has no connection to external networks, nor a public one of its own. Non-verbal communication among patrons is not possible unless you establish a personal Link.”

Nerishka lifted the box from the counter and flipped it open. Inside, on a bed of blue velvet, were four tokens.

Andrew leaned closer and pointed at the gleaming disks. “Each token emits a signal that indicates whether you would prefer to be left alone, are open to verbal contact, or if you require a server’s attendance. We also have the emergency token, on the off-chance that you feel you are in danger or require medical assistance.” He bowed again. “However, please be assured that we have never had such an incident in the history of the Commodore Lounge’s existence.”

Nerishka smiled and nodded, giving off the appearance of reassurance. She retrieved the tokens and stuck them on the bare skin of her left arm, one below the other.

<All so very mysterious,> she said privately to Lyra. <Granted, loss of Link was a little obvious the moment we entered.>

“Seems simple enough,” she said aloud to the concierge.

Andrew nodded, smiling his approval. “Light pressure will activate and deactivate the signal, and you should feel the vibration that confirms the device is on.”

Nerishka decided that for now she wanted to be left alone. Just until she got the lay of the land.

<Have you still not been able to discover what happens within these walls?> Nerishka asked as she tapped the DND token. The moment she moved her finger away, she felt it emit a low-frequency vibration. <I find it hard to believe that the lounge’s administrative AI won’t part with some kernel of info.>

Lyra’s avatar shook her head. <I agree, but from what I’ve gathered, Irene—the AI here—only manages comings and goings while the interior rooms of the Lounge are blocked for privacy reasons. She’s a snippy little thing too—oh, would you look at that!>

<What?> Nerishka asked.

<Well, part of the admission agreement was that we wouldn’t reveal anything of what we see or hear outside of our own personal interactions. It looks like those tokens on your arm actually alter your memories and ensure you don’t store any data about the place.>

Nerishka held back a brief feeling of panic. Memory augmentation tech was typically the first thing to be forbidden in any advanced system. No one would ever use the Link or nanotech if it allowed others to change the very nature of who they were.

<How does anyone allow a place like this to do that to them—and I assume you faked our compliance…>

<Of course,> Lyra scoffed. <It’ll take a lot more than some Inner Stars hoity-toity lounge to get past me. Honestly, I imagine it doesn’t work on anyone with decent nanotech.>

<Interesting. Makes you wonder what really goes on in the Commodore Lounge.> Nerishka thanked Andrew—who waved a hand at another set of doors that had only just appeared on the wall to his left.

Nerishka took a breath and sauntered toward the doors.

Just another day on the job.

* * * * *

Nerishka crossed the threshold and waited until the doors slid shut behind her. <I wonder how they sort out which memories to hide and which to allow?>

<Probably some sort of proximity system. You can remember things that you were close to. They may even use these skin tokens to manage that.>

Nerishka rolled her shoulders. <Another discussion best left for another time,> she said as she walked down a long wide hallway. Plush sofas littered the sides of the long hall, offering a place to lounge.

<Sorry.>

<We need to keep on track here. What’s up with the getting sidetracked thing?> Large glass windows on either side of Nerishka gave onto a variety of rooms, each a color scheme that made her want to wince. With her sparkly dress, she was going to stick out like a beacon in each of them.



Lyra sent a mental shrug. <Perhaps I too am a little nervous. This place does not feel right. It is putting me on edge.>

<You going be OK once we get in there?>

<Absolutely. I am just recalibrating.>

<Heh?>

<The lighting, they’re using subliminal pulses to affect their patrons and any AIs they may have. This place is…intense.>

Nerishka laughed softly. <Do you mean ‘subluminal’?>

Lyra responded with a polite laugh, then fell silent for a few seconds. <There, that is so much better. I felt a little…giddy. Or perhaps intoxicated is a better word.>

<Can an AI get drunk?> Nerishka asked.

Lyra snorted. <Now who’s going off topic?>

Nerishka suppressed the urge to groan. <Right, so where am I going? Do we know where Fletcher is?>

<I will have to scan the guests. I am using facial scanning, what with the lounge blocking Link. That means you need to do a walk-through of each of the rooms until we find him.>

Nerishka entered the first room on her left, this one decorated in shades of orange, from the color of the fruit to pumpkins to coral and sunsets. Nerishka wasn’t sure if it was the color but the multi-leveled room was sparsely occupied with a mere handful of people on the bar level, a dozen in the restaurant that sat on the mezzanine to the left and only two lounging on the sofas in the sunken area to the right.

A large fountain in the center of the room spewed orange-tinted water which rose and fell in time with the music echoing from another higher level to the right where three musicians played a selection of string instruments.

<Great. Not the best time to be wearing ridiculous heels.> Nerishka glanced down her towering shoes and hoped they wouldn’t end up killing her.

Lyra smiled kindly in Nerishka’s mind. <There. I’ve readjusted your muscle tension and altered bloodflow to pressure points. That should feel better.>

Nerishka let out a soft sigh, the sound drawing a sharp, appreciative glance from a dark-haired man to her left. <Feels so much better. Thank you, Lyra. What would I do without you?>

The AI snorted. <You’d have another AI.>

<You’re right. Sometimes I think we’ve gotten too used to sharing brain space with an AI, but then it would probably be lonely in here without someone to talk to,> she paused, scanning the room for a few moments longer. <Anything?>

<No. He is not here.> Lyra sounded almost apologetic.

Nerishka ignored everyone around her, hoping her DND token was actually broadcasting her desire to be left alone. Perhaps it was working—the man who had seemed more than interested in her hadn’t even made a move to speak to her. Small mercies.

She turned around, taking care to not fall flat on her face, and crossed the hall to enter a room that was a ghastly homage to blue. At least here the decor did include decorative items like icebergs sculptures and paintings of the sky, and even blue fish and flowers.

It took only a few moments to ascertain that her mark wasn’t in the Blue Disaster either. <Pity. I would have blended in easier with icebergs,> Nerishka muttered as she exited and headed further down the hall. A room filled with red furniture and decor also yielded nothing and Nerishka headed inside the black room, her stomach doing a weird jump, as though she’d just gone over the edge of a cliff.

The black-on-black decor was intense but here and there something chrome glittered, providing relief from the nothingness that seemed to surround her.

<Knowing my chances, he’ll be here—in the one place where I’ll look like a walking flashlight.>

Nerishka was able to orient herself in the room by both the black crystal chandeliers that were supported by gleaming silver armatures and the black floor-lamps and stools which stood on chrome pedestals.

<Guess I’m blending in with the chrome fixtures at least.>

Nerishka smoothed the front of the silver dress and glided inside toward the glossy black bar. She tapped the service token on her arm and scanned the interior of the room.

<You could drape yourself around that floor lamp over there. No one will notice you.>

<You’re a regular comedian, aren’t you,> said Nerishka drily.

“What’ll you have?” asked a voice from behind Nerishka. She shifted in her seat to smile at the bartender.

“Surprise me?” She gave him a seductive, half-lidded smile.

“Sweet, dry, fizzy, spicy?” he said, all business.

“Sweet, fizzy and spicy,” Nerishka replied emphatically. “And cold. But hold the ice.”

The bartender gave a short nod and turned to the floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with drinks.

<Why no ice?>

<Ice dilutes the flavor. Adds unnecessary volume so you think you got more drink but in actual fact half the glass is filled with ice.>

<Interesting. Another example of how humans hoodwink each other.>

<It’s a marketing tactic, Lyra.> The bartender returned and placed the drink on the counter, along with a bowl full of salted nuts.

<Doesn’t make it any less of a lie, does it?>

Nerishka took the drink and touched it to her lips, sipping it daintily. She was about to compliment the bartender for an excellent concoction, but he’d already flitted off, attending to a different customer. Seemed the black lounge was way more popular than the rest of the rooms within the Commodore. Nerishka wasn’t surprised.

The alcohol filtered through her system, calming her nerves, and Nerishka decided on a punchy response to Lyra’s prior question. <I don’t get it. You’re taking offense to a human sales tactic because it’s technically a lie, but you’re ok with helping me kill a man. Isn’t murder supposed to be worse than lying?>

Nerishka didn’t miss the eye-roll that Lyra let slip. <I can confirm that your victim is present.> Lyra’s voice held a note of amusement hidden beneath her dry tone as she added a location marker on Nerishka’s HUD.

Nerishka lifted her drink and swung in the seat to face the room. <Excellent. I can do what I came here to do and then get the hell off this planet.>

Lyra’s marker highlighted her target where he was relaxing in a high-backed armchair. He sat on a level overlooking a large dance floor, the section designed with a relaxed—though private—atmosphere in mind; low armchairs and coffee tables arranged in groupings of twos and threes.

She was impressed that Lyra had found him so quickly. Fletcher was in a far corner near the stairs, retreating almost to invisibility within his shadowed space.

Nerishka shook her head as she considered what the man had gotten himself into. He should have known when he put out feelers in surrounding systems, seeking researchers to work on picotech research, that it was as good as shining a spotlight on his head and saying, ‘Here I am, just shoot me.’

Granted, he had been careful, reaching out to what he’d thought were trusted contacts. But the Hand had many ears across the Inner Stars—ears which were highly attuned to any mention of the word ‘picotech.’

What Fletcher hadn’t counted on was that one of his primary contacts—a man whom he later hired to source staff for his illicit project—happened to also be a Hand operative placed in the Ayra System almost fifty years ago, stationed here specifically because of the advanced research that had begun to flourish within the system. His job was to keep an eye out for people whose work would upset the delicate balance of peace in the Inner Stars.

People like Fletcher.

Karsin, the agent in question, had sent a debrief to Regional Director Jeriah when Fletcher had first begun to build his research team—along with regular updates in the months afterward. He’d bought as much time as he could to enable Jeriah to send in an agent who could complete the kill order without having to compromise his deeply established cover, all the while still sourcing engineers and researchers for roles in Fletcher’s dangerous venture.

A venture Nerishka would put an end to tonight.

Nerishka cycled her vision and got a better look at the man, studying his black pants and shirt, the thin strand of gold around his neck, the matching gleam at his wrist. And the obligatory black cloak that gave him the air of elegance. <He looks well put-together,> Nerishka remarked. <Any weapons?>

<None that I can detect. Though if he is abiding by the rules he won’t be armed.>

<The way I’m not armed?> Nerishka smirked.

<Well, if he’s armed like you are, I wouldn’t be able to tell from this distance.>

Nerishka tapped the DND and service tokens and registered the significant absence of the vibration against her skin. She initiated the social token and got to her feet.

<Approaching target. Just make sure I don’t fall flat on my face, please.>




THE MARK

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Commodore Lounge, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka drifted through the black lounge, her dress gleaming brilliantly in the muted lighting. She preferred it when she moved beneath the radar, when she wasn’t seen or heard. She would rather a swift, silent kill than a dance to lure a mark in. The only problem was this particular mark wasn’t easily accessible. Her current approach as a job applicant was the best job of sneaking she could manage.

Nerishka suppressed a sigh. Hopefully Fletcher would take the bait and she’d get this mission done. She had a shipment from Valkris on ice, just waiting for her to pick up. Getting supplies moved out of the Transcend and into the Inner Stars required Director Sera’s approval, and after long delays, she was really looking forward to manufacturing a new batch of her favorite toxins and serums.

Speaking of poisons….

<Where is the san? I need to apply the antidote, and as it is, I’m lit up like a beacon. Stopping to apply hand-crème’s going to look strange.> Lyra brought the schematics up on Nerishka’s HUD and she was glad to see that the facilities were close to where Fletcher sat.

<People will just assume you’re rich and eccentric. And besides, those little boxes are all the rage here.>

What Lyra meant was ‘Calm down’. So Nerishka took a breath and passed a cursory glance over her mark who was currently obscured by a cloud of smoke to which he was steadily adding as he pulled on a long pipe and exhaled. <What is he smoking?>

<It’s a device based on the ancient hookah. The proprietor of the Commodore Lounge took the liberty to adjust the device to their needs. The chemicals contained within the smoking solution are specific to a rare hallucinogenic flower found only on this planet.>

<Sometimes the predilections of the FGT make no sense. Why would the terraformers seed a hallucinogenic flower on just one planet out of the hundreds of thousands they made.>

Lyra sent the equivalent of a mental shrug. <I don’t know for sure, but I do have a hypothesis.>

Nerishka turned down the corridor leading to the restrooms. <Oh? Do tell.>

<Well, what would happen to humanity if every planet was the same? Fauna, flora, climate…?>

<I see where you’re going. You think they were deliberately seeding diversity, and the foundation for rarities to be traded between the stars.>

<Yes to the first part, and maybe to the second. These worlds were all terraformed long before the advent of faster than light travel. Interstellar trade was vanishingly rare back then. I think they just wanted to be sure we wouldn’t homogenize.>

Nerishka entered the restroom and approached the mirror. <Well, the mysterious intentions of the FGT aside, I definitely didn’t peg this place for a glorified drug den. Neither did I expect such an old-world san. It’s as if they knew I needed to freshen up…powder my nose.>

Nerishka smirked as she applied the truth serum antidote onto her hands and waited as it absorbed into her skin. The serum itself was difficult to produce and short-acting, a problem in its makeup that was a constant concern. Likewise, the antidote was also limited to the molecular structure and half-life of the serum. It was effective, but she really needed to work out the kinks in her latest strain.

Nerishka was about to apply the colorless poison when she stiffened. <Shit, Lyra. What if there are contraindications with the truth serum and this stuff he’s smoking? And the poison?>

Lyra let out a soft sigh that echoed in Nerishka’s head. A few seconds passed—time which Nerishka took to adjust the color of her blue hair, adding a few darker and lighter shades to create a complex layered effect.

<You’re the chemist, you tell me. From what I understand, the plants you source from Valkris are based on its original, pre-human life—which utilizes right-handed amino acids. They don’t interact with left-handed Terran biology. Isn’t that why you use them for your poisons to begin with?>

Nerishka nodded. <You’ve been paying attention, I see. Though they don’t interact in normal ways—which makes them almost impossible to detect—they do produce chemical reactions and byproducts in the recipient’s body. That’s how they function. But you never know what interactions can occur. Especially when dealing with rare plants that only grow on one world. For all we know it could be a type of pre-human biology.>

<I don’t have full data,> Lyra replied after a moment. <what with there being no Link here, but I can confirm that the flower is a derivative of Earth-based flora. You should be OK insofar as direct interactions are concerned. Why are you so worried anyway? From your records, you use these toxins with great regularity.>

Nerishka snorted as she applied the serum to her fingers. <You’re right. I shouldn’t be so on edge. But not being able to get in touch with Karsin has me unsettled.>

<I share your concerns. I’ve had alerts out for him and I’ve run a facial recognition program on all surveillance in the city. Nothing yet.>

Nerishka let out a sigh and straightened. <Well, let’s get this party started.>

As she turned to leave, a tall cloaked figure rushed into the san and collided with Nerishka who splayed her arms as she began to fall backward, losing balance on her precarious heels.

<Nishka, watch out. She’s got a knife,> Lyra yelled, her high-pitched tone filling Nerishka’s mind.

As Nerishka fell back, she slid one foot behind herself and pushed off, flipping in the air. She landed on her feet with only a slight wobble, sending Lyra a mental thank you for helping to balance her so well. Breaking an ankle would put a definite damper on her plans for the evening.

The hooded figure advanced and thrust the short knife at Nerishka who side-stepped the strike, slamming the heel of her hand into the attacker’s forearm.

She’d aimed for the wrist, hoping to knock the enemy’s knife free, but the cloaked figure had moved just in time, avoiding being disarmed. The motion gave Nerishka another opening, and she lunged forward, wrapping her arm around the attacker’s neck.

The enemy’s hood fell back to reveal the face of a green-skinned woman, and in the reflection of the silver mirror above the basin she met Nerishka’s eyes.

High cheekbones and dark eyes accented the woman’s face—along with her lime-tinted, intricately tattooed skin making for a decidedly snake-like appearance.

These thoughts flitted through Nerishka’s mind while she slid one of the sticks from her hair and plunged it into the side of the woman’s neck.

Just as smoothly, she withdrew the slim blade and let the attacker’s body drop to the ground, maintaining a good distance to remain clear of any blood spray.

<Her nano going to fix her up?> asked Nerishka as she dug inside her purse for the special cloth that formed part of her toxic kit. Laced with both medical and breach nano, the small towelette helped clean up in most situations and also neutralized most of her toxic preparations.

<I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.> Lyra’s response was brisk and she replied after a few seconds. <Done. She’s not getting back up.>

Satisfied, Nerishka wiped the blade quickly then capped it before sliding it back into her hair. She stuffed the towel inside her purse and studied the green-skinned corpse. <Now what did I ever do to deserve this type of treatment?>

<Plenty, if you go by your long career,> Lyra replied serenely.

Nerishka considered Lyra’s words. Though spoken in jest, the AI’s claim was accurate. In two centuries, one could amass a fair number of enemies—though few knew who she was.

It may be time to retire this cover.

And she was about to add another kill, and an unknown number of enemies, to that list.

Nerishka moved the body into one of the stalls and cleaned up the droplets of blood on the floor before pausing to consider whether or not Fletcher may have sent the assassin.

Nothing for it. Best way to not be a target is to kill the man pulling the strings.




FLETCHER

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Commodore Lounge, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Entering the Black Lounge once more, Nerishka turned to her right and rounded the bank of sofas until she reached the seating arrangement next to Fletcher’s oversized armchair. The man’s gaze settled on her as she made a show of hesitating.

“Do you need some help?” he asked, his tone making it clear he was enquiring against his better judgment. He didn’t sound like he wanted interaction, both his voice and the steady vibrations coming from his lapel proved it.

Nerishka let out a frustrated sigh. “Whoever their interior designer is, they need a good talking to. Why did they make these damned chairs so low? If I sit in one of them in this dress,” she slid a hand along the curve of her hip, “I’ll never be able to get back to my feet without ripping the damn thing apart.”

From the way Fletcher studied her body, Nerishka was pretty sure he’d be only too happy to witness such a misfortune. Of course, it was all a part of the pre-arranged series of phrases and counter-phrases, though she suspected he’d selected them to put his applicants off balance.

He blinked and straightened. “I’m sure all you need to do is call someone over and they’d be happy to help you back to your feet.”

Nerishka suppressed a groan. <This conversation is entirely ridiculous.> Out loud, she sighed again and shook her head. Her tone was hard as she spoke, “I don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m meeting someone, and I can’t afford to miss him.”

Fletcher set his pipe on the table before him and leaned his elbows on his knees. “Who is it you’re meeting? Perhaps I know them?”

Nerishka let out a soft tinkling laugh. <Ugh. That’s just so lame. Who even laughs like this in real life?> This was the part of her job that always annoyed her.

<No idea. You’re the talent in this outfit.>

<And I suppose you’re the brains?> asked Nerishka.

Lyra responded with her own tinkling laughter and Nerishka chose to ignore her.

<Lyra? Here’s where you tell me he doesn’t have nano capable of cancelling out my truth serum.>

<I have deployed microdrones to scan him. I think we’re far enough from any of the lounge’s active scan systems that we’ll go undetected, but I’m running them at low power to be safe.>

Nerishka sent Lyra a mental nod. <OK, working on it.> Out loud she said, “You may. From what I’ve heard he has bold aspirations…”

Fletcher stiffened and shifted forward again. “That sounds like many people I know. What sort of aspirations?”

Nerishka studied the man. Karsin had confirmed the ridiculous series of exchanges, and insisted she use it before she said anything else to Fletcher. “He will not acknowledge until you use the code.”

The Hand agent had seemed antsy in the recorded message and had glanced over his shoulder a number of times, adding to the sense of danger that Nerishka now suspected was more than just a sense.

If there had been something wrong, Karsin would have relayed any general concerns to Jeriah. Why didn’t the Director share them with me?

Nerishka cleared her mind of those concerns. She straightened and met Fletcher’s, confidence and strength in her stance and her expression. “Well, it’s not like he’s building a dyson sphere…” To Lyra, she said <How’s that nano scan coming?>

<Give me two seconds. The haze around him is obscuring my microdrones’ readings.>

Fletcher let out a soft sigh, his expression clearing as he waved a hand at the seat beside him. “I assume you have no trouble sitting in that dress.”

“Why would I?” Nerishka arched an eyebrow.

<See? You delivered it perfectly. Good actress,> Lyra crowed. She loved being right; and to be fair she usually was. Which had at least eased the initial tensions in their relationship. <And…you’re good to go,> Lyra added.

<Or he’s just a pushover,> said Nerishka drily.

<Good point.>

Nerishka settled into the large sofa beside Fletcher and studied the man’s profile: strong brow, high cheekbones, full lips. Which all meant nothing considering he could have altered any of his features to his own liking. <Cosmetic enhancement is alive and well in Ayra System.>

<Where isn’t it?>

<Orion space.>

<Touché.>

Fletcher shifted in his seat, getting comfortable when Nerishka leaned closer and held out her hand. “I’m Daria,” she said to her mark. To Lyra she grumbled <This is such a stupid name.>

<Do you always complain this much about the cover?>

The corner of Fletcher’s lip turned up as he took Nerishka’s hand in his large palm, holding it for a tiny bit longer than was necessary.

Nerishka suppressed a shudder. <My creep radar is registering in the red zone.>

She left her hand in his only long enough to be certain the serum would have had sufficient time to enter his bloodstream. Then she smiled politely and extricated her hand from his.

“Fletcher,” he said softly, dropping his tone in an almost seductive manner.

Nerishka looked around deliberately, scanning the lounge for just a moment too long. “I would prefer the privacy of a Link. I hope you don’t mind,” Nerishka said, thinking he should have been the one to suggest it especially considering how illegal dabbling in picotech was in most systems.

Another part of the careful balance in the Inner Stars disrupted by the arrival of that ancient colony ship, the Intrepid. Their act of launching picobombs in the Bollam’s World System had sparked an arms race unlike any since the FTL Wars.

The Hand had been working overtime shutting down these projects—the only thing more dangerous than picotech being developed was the disasters that could ensue when things went wrong. Prior pico research had seen entire planets destroyed requiring the sterilization of whole star systems and the interdiction of pico research altogether.

But in a few minutes—once she terminated this man—the Ayra System would be safe from that fate.

Fletcher nodded and sent her a direct Link request which she accepted. Almost instantly he said, <So you have the pass phrases. I assume it means you’re interested in a role if I get this enterprise off the ground?>

<I was given to understand it was already a little way off the ground. I’m looking for a job. I was told you have an opening, and I’m here to offer my services.>

Fletcher sat back and looked Nerishka up and down. He seemed to be considering more than just her application and Nerishka was getting a little impatient. <Any guesses how much longer for the serum to take effect?> she asked Lyra. Nerishka was only too aware that people reacted with varying speeds to the effects of the serum—one of the biggest obstacles to creating plant-based toxins and serums—and she had to proceed with caution.

<Your guess is as good as mine. Probably better. Should be any second now.>

Just them, Fletcher nodded and smiled, the creases in his forehead relaxing.

<Looks like we’re in business.>

<Yup. Serum is in effect. You may proceed.>

Nerishka sent an eye-roll to Lyra and received a satisfied feeling in return. She faced Fletcher, who by now had relaxed against the sofa and had rested his chin on his upturned palm as if in an attempt to keep his head up. <Hope he didn’t get too much.>

<You’re the one who prefers to use drugs over just hacking his mind,> Lyra replied.

<Because my cover wouldn’t be able to pull that off. You know how we work. Even my cover has to have a cover.>

Nerishka studied the man, wondering where he was taking his attempt at picotech research. How deep were his pockets and how far did his influence reach? Her job had been to terminate the mark, but where pico was involved it wouldn’t hurt to find out a little more about if there were other parties invested in his venture. She didn’t believe for one minute that he was doing this by himself, and Karsin’s absence made her even more curious about what she could learn.

<When can I get the contract to look over?>

<You move fast,> he said, his mental voice almost sounding little slurred.

<Not really. I’m just not sure that any individual person has the kind of money needed for such research. Is this a solo venture or a partnership? And if a partnership, I’d want to know who the players are. I’m risking a lot to take a job like this, so I’d prefer knowing who I’m working with before I consider anything.>

He’d listened and nodded when she fell silent. Then he gave a short shake of his head and frowned. His actions made it clear the serum was doing its work.

Fletcher cleared his throat. <Why do you want to venture into picotech research, Daria? Few people are interested in crossing the kind of lines, moral and legal, that this type of project would entail.>

Nerishka shrugged. <I don’t believe we have an even playing field. Why do some people get to use the tech while others are banned from even researching it? Who is to say we won’t use the tech for something other than taking over systems and destroying worlds? I think that as soon as people begin to hoard a technology for themselves, as soon as they take steps to stop others from getting their hands on the advancements, from researching it, or using it, then we need to consider why.>

Nerishka nodded, impressed with her own argument. She’d have almost believed it herself if she hadn’t seen the vids of what picobombs did to their targets: like devouring dreadnought-class starships in seconds.

<I think it’s because they want the power for themselves,> she continued. <That makes them too dangerous. And all the more validation for breaking their commandments—whoever they really are.>

Fletcher was nodding. <So your reasons are political?>

<No. I’m not interested in politics. I’m not interested in rebellion or being in any way subversive. I’m just fascinated by the tech and it frustrates me that star system after star system has renewed restrictions against researching it.>

Nerishka sat back and rolled her shoulders, making it clear she was rife with frustration. To Lyra she said, <How am I doing?>

<His vitals are on your HUD,> said the AI drily.

<I can see that. I just wanted to know your own opinion. Fluctuations in biofeedback isn’t necessarily enough to tell you if a person has fallen for your act, especially if that person has already mastered the art of subterfuge.>

But before the AI could reply, Fletcher’s voice broke into their conversation. <I believe I can use people like you. You seem to have the kind of passion that I am convinced can be valuable in our efforts.>

Blah blah blah, thought Nerishka. She needed him to tell her details. Sitting forward, she asked, <How soon can I find out more? I still have reservations that you can fund this venture—plus, there’s the concern over personal safety.> Nerishka had intended to needle him a bit, set him mentally off balance, and wondered if she’d perhaps come on too heavy.

His smile wavered, as though he was struggling with something he either wanted to say, or desperately didn’t want to say. He cleared his throat. <I assure you, I do have the kind of capital required. We’re still setting up labs and employing people. I’m working on another project for a partner…well to be honest he’s an employer—and a bit of a dictatorial bastard at that. That other venture has provided the capital for this one, but I have obligations I must fulfill with him. Which leaves me the bare minimum of time to handle my own ventures. That’s why I need people with their own drive.>

<I understand. So you employed Karsin? He’s been good to liaise with.>

Fletcher nodded. <Yes. Using him was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Although…there is something about him…I just…I can’t remember exactly.> The man frowned, as though trying hard to grasp onto fading memories.

<Oh dear.>

Nerishka waited a moment, then let out a mental groan. <Lyra. Don’t ‘oh dear’ me and then keep quiet.>

<Sorry. He's displaying all the signs of someone whose memory has been tampered with. As though certain portions of memory are erased, or merely blocked off—it’s even more insidious than what the lounge here tries to do. Someone must really want to keep what he knows under wraps.>

<If his mind has been tampered with, then he’s just a pawn. If Karsin was onto that, and he’s missing now….>




ESCALATION

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Commodore Lounge, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Lyra took a few moments to respond. A Hand agent’s life in jeopardy is not something to be taken lightly. <I see how that could be a logical conclusion.>

<Circumstantial too. He’s only been AWOL for two days, but if he was this close to Fletcher, I can’t imagine him working anything else in the system that would keep him away this long.>

<Have you worked with him in the past?> asked Lyra, her tone soft.



<No. But he’s worked with a number of agents I know personally. He’s got a reputation for keeping his word.> Nerishka shook her head. Could be she was just paranoid, as Lyra had observed earlier—deep cover agents like Karsin often had duties that kept them out of communication…but for him not to leave a message at a drop….

Nerishka knew that it would be reckless to ignore the possibility. If Karsin was in danger, she had to help him.

Hand operatives usually worked alone, yes, but if one of them were ever in trouble and another agent was in the vicinity, it only made sense to ensure that operative wasn’t compromised or in danger. Other than the life of that agent, there was also the information they possessed that had to be taken into consideration.

<Do you think he’s gone over to the dark side?> asked Lyra, her tone both curious and concerned.

Nerishka let out a mental laugh, the sound dry and hollow. <I don’t even want to contemplate that. We have way too much at stake here. Picotech research? We need to nip this in the bud before it takes on a life of its own.>

<Nice use of metaphors there.> Lyra chuckled.

<Thanks, but you know what I mean.>

Fletcher let out a soft grunt, alerting Nerishka that he still struggled with his memories. She had to complete this kill and move on to checking up on Karsin.

Nerishka leaned closer to meet her mark’s worried gaze. <How about we get out of here and you can show me the job?> she said softly, her mental tone low and sexy. <I’m still not sure about the financial backing, but if you give me a tour of your lab, show me where I’ll be working? Maybe I’ll be more convinced then.> She topped her suggestion off with a smile to eclipse the seduction in her voice.

Fletcher began to shake his head, shifting forward slightly and raising his hand out toward her as though he intended to stop her, to push her away. But then the movement morphed into a single nod.

<Good idea.> The motion was a little uncertain at first, then became firmer as his eyes cleared somewhat. <You won’t be working here on Anahita, though. I’m setting up a secure research facility on Agrab Station and most likely I’ll have you assigned there. But the lab we have here should give you a good idea of expectations…and the job role itself.> He attempted a smile, his lids lowered. If he’d intended it to be sexy, he’d failed.

And the creep factor just went up another notch.

<He’s sounding much more in control now,> Lyra observed.

<Is the serum wearing off? Or is he just displacing his discomfort and lack of control by talking about something he can control?> asked Nerishka almost absently as she got to her feet in one smooth move.

Lyra let out a soft snort. <Again, humans are so confusing.>

As Fletcher got to his feet he tapped his beacon and turned on DND; Nerishka followed suit, keeping pace with him. Once he descended the staircase, he slowed his steps and walked alongside Nerishka as they crossed the floor.

As they passed the bar, Nerishka caught sight of a hooded figure who appeared to be staring at the entrance to the san. She was frowning, but her expression wasn’t what had caught Nerishka’s eye. It was the almost-green tone to the woman’s tattoed skin that had singled her out.

Had her attacker from the san been resurrected somehow? <Lyra? At the bar. See the hooded figure. Looks a lot like our other friend. Tell me I’m being paranoid,> she said, her tone daring the AI.

<Not paranoid. The features and facial characteristics are an uncanny match to your san assassin, but they’re not the same person. Her vitals suggest she is impatient and somewhat stressed.>

<San assassin? Really?> Nerishka rolled her eyes. <She’s watching the san hard. Possibly a partner to the one I killed?>

<Likely. She’s spotted you, though. Just don’t make eye-contact. I guess this means they probably aren’t connected to Fletcher.>

<Not my first job, Lyra.>

Even so, it took a conscious effort to not turn and stare right into the woman’s eyes. Forcing the stalker’s hand would help Nerishka figure out who the woman was but deviating from her mission now would be more than reckless.

But she had to deal with Fletcher first. No sense in bungling this kill because something like a little attempted murder had led her astray.

Fletcher led Nerishka silently down the hallway and out into the all-white reception area. He seemed partially preoccupied with his thoughts but also appeared concerned for Nerishka, ensuring she was right by his side.

<Is paranoia a symptom of your serum?> asked Lyra. <He’s a little edgy.>

<That and the fact that I dropped nano on him when you touched his hand. I’m suppressing his mednano to keep your serum in effect. He’ll be confused and probably a little suspicious sooner or later.> Nerishka kept a close eye on her mark as they approached the reception desk where Andrew waited in his pale cloak.

"I trust you have enjoyed your time at the Commodore Lounge," said the man, his smile wide.

Fletcher removed his tokens and handed them over to the man, Nerishka doing the same, aware that Andrew was most curious at their simultaneous departure.

<You are being scanned for the memory alterations. I have ensured that he will see what he needs to.>

<Thanks, Lyra.>

Nerishka and Fletcher left the Commodore Lounge and headed out to the bay where she’d entered the establishment.

A private skycar was already there, waiting for them with its doors open. Fletcher strode toward it, filled with confidence now, back straight, head high, leading Nerishka to wonder if she was being played after all.

When she admitted her conerns to Lyra, the AI replied, <From his vitals. I don’t believe so. As you said, he’s controlling what he’s able to control. If you had suggested he wasn’t a man of such a superior position then perhaps it would affect his outlook.>

Nerishka agreed. She followed as Fletcher ushered her inside the skycar and slid in beside her.

The silence in the back of the skycar was almost claustrophobic, more on Nerishka’s part considering she’d started out already feeling this whole job was taking too long.

Lyra continued, <But I do agree with your suspicions. We do need to know if there is anyone else involved. Quite pointless cutting down the tree and leaving the entire root system behind.>

<Well said, Lyra.> Nerishka sent her AI a grin as Fletcher reached for the chiller to grab a drink.

He poured a blue alcoholic beverage into a glass, then dropped a still-smoking ice cube inside before offering it to Nerishka. She shook her head, and instead reached for a bottle of water. With both antidotes in her system, she had to be careful in case any alcohol diluted the effects and endangered her ability to resist the toxin when the time came.

Now Nerishka studied the man as he chugged back the first neon blue cocktail and reached for a second. <How long do you wager it will take for that alcohol to dilute the serum?>

<Twenty-five minutes. Maybe thirty if you’re lucky.>

<Great. I’ve hacked his Link. We are headed for Fletcher Technologies.>

<Gives us seven minutes to get there and another thirty-three before the serum fades.>

<I believe we are now in a ‘hurry up and wait’ holding pattern.>

Nerishka sent her AI an amused grin. <Ten points for humor.>

<Only ten?>

Nerishka was prevented from responding when Fletcher turned to face her. “So…I’ve been looking at your file. Karsin’s approved the application but it appears the details on where you are from isn’t on file.”

She eyed him for a moment, as though judging whether or not he was worthy of hearing her story. Then, with a resigned nod, she said, “I was in Bollam’s World twenty years ago when the Intrepid and its fleet destroyed those AST dreadnoughts. Ate through those starships in minutes. The firm I was with at the time got their hands on a portion of the residue, some of which contained inert picobots. We were making strides, but when the AST came back and took control of the system, they shut us down. Hard.”

Fletcher’s eyes widened as she spoke. “Damn…you’ve seen the tech, then.”

Nerishka nodded. “Yeah, but when I say ‘hard’ I mean few of us survived. Most of those who did are at some AST black site working on the tech.”

The story was partially true. Except the part where the AST black-site was still researching picotech. The Hand had shut that down with extreme prejudice.

“How’d you survive?” Fletcher asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Vacation. I was at the Disknee World when it went down. One of my coworkers got a message out to me. I never went within a hundred light years of Bollam’s World again.”

Fletcher nodded absently as he considered her words but didn’t reply as the skycar slowed on its final approach.

Nerishka’s HUD confirmed the ride over had taken seven minutes and twenty seconds. That gave her just over twenty minutes to get to into the lab and terminate her mark.

Get a move on, she muttered silently as the skycar settled onto its cradle. Fletcher exited as soon as the doors slid open and then waited on the deck for her.

Nerishka hurried out as quickly as her heels allowed and offered him a grateful smile. She felt a little bad for the guy. He’d been completely taken with her ruse, and it felt somewhat like the proverbial taking of candy from a baby. The serum had only made things easier for her, and even though it would have already begun to fade, Fletcher would remain reasonably compliant until she got to his lab.

<Do you have the security protocols for the lab and for the company Link? I can’t use my nano to hack anything. Makes me feel a little inadequate,> Nerishka grumbled to Lyra. <How fast can you get in? Sniff out any important data?>

<Can’t tell until we get inside. Sorry. This system may not have the best Link security, but Fletcher Technology has some sort of dampening field around the building. It renders an external hack well-nigh impossible.>

<I assumed that would be the case. Just wishful thinking, I guess. Still, he must have something big to hide if he’s using tech like that.>

Fletcher slowed his stride, casting her an apologetic glance as they exited the landing bay. “I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve been neglectful of you. I just had a few messages to respond to.”

Nerishka nodded and smiled politely, keeping up with his long stride more so because she was watching the timer count down until the serum dissipated. They headed across an empty reception area—likely a security access point for visitors who used the skycar bay to enter the facility.

Fletcher palmed the panel at the lift, then repeated the process inside, giving him access to a floor that didn’t appear on the level indicators above the doors. Only the numbers on Nerishka HUD gave an idea of how far up they went.

At last, the doors slid open on the fiftieth floor, revealing a long elegant hall that looked nothing at all like what Nerishka had expected.

Glossy black stone floors, walls wavering in a holographic pattern of endlessly twisting gold and silver ladders that resembled a multitude of DNA strands.

A holographic recording began to play as they neared a set of large doors, the woman smiling cheerily and launching into Fletcher Tech’s mission statement and the company’s vision for a better future for all in the Ayra System.

<Nice decor for a research lab,> Nerishka said to Lyra.

<Probably a cover. But I don’t see any sign of hiding the facility behind a fake name. This is Fletcher Technologies, owned, funded and operated by your future employer.>

<So, hiding it in plain sight then?>

<Very much so,> the AI commented as Nerishka was led to a pair of black plas doors emblazoned with ‘Fletcher Industries’ in shiny gold lettering.

The doors opened and Fletcher led her further inside, striding down a long wide corridor. Lyra was keeping track of their location and the route out just in case, which Nerishka could see clearly on her HUD.

The counter was now blinking eighteen minutes.




DO OR DIE

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Fletcher Technologies, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Time was ticking by and Nerishka fidgeted with her purse. The man sure was taking his time. Time she didn’t have.

They reached a second set of double doors and Fletcher palmed the security console, entering the required biodata. The doors slid open and he entered then waited for Nerishka to walk inside, an arrogant smirk on his face, the lord showing an underling around.

“Welcome to our facility. The labs on Agrab Station are modeled after the ones here at FTech. They should give you a good feel for what you’ll be working with.”

Nerishka smiled and followed him inside. “I'd hardly expect anything as...elaborate as this.”

Fletcher shook his head. “I think your credentials speak for the value you will be providing FTech,” he said as he took the left hallway and hurried to a room at the end.

Nerishka followed on his heels and entered the room after him. “So when do I get to see the details? I’m still not sure about the financial backing. I don’t want to end up without a job and without my pay halfway through the research.”

Fletcher paused near a black plas holo-surface desk. At his back was a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the city. At night, Eshnunna sparkled like a multicolored jewel. A second room led off Fletcher's office, a large window providing a full view to a fully equipped lab.

Fletcher gestured above the desk and brought up a holo of the financial details backing the research project. <So he is financing this whole thing himself,> Nerishka said as she pulled the data and ran through what he wasn’t showing her.

<I am attempting to access their network to retrieve the rest of the lab’s data,> Lyra updated her. <So far, that appears to be the case, but I am not sure I can believe that so easily.>

<Me either,> she said to Lyra, then turned to Fletcher and smiled. “That looks very satisfactory. Thank you for trusting me enough to show me all this. Your financials more than put me at ease.”

He nodded and smiled, this time the expression slightly twisted, as if he was fighting a desire to smile. “I can show you the project plan, but I have to warn you it isn’t as detailed as you’d expect. I am a little sidetracked so…” He fell silent as he brought up a holo of the plans and projections, and details of research that they’d already completed. “But I assure you that there is a future here that is incomparable. With this research, the possibilities are endless.”

“Can I ask what the end goal is? I mean, I know I’m just a grunt here, a cog in the great wheel, but I’d love to know where you want to take this research. I won’t be shocked if you said you wanted to sell it to the military, though.”

Fletcher shook his head and smiled, his eyes clearing a little.

<Five minutes.>

Nerishka took that as her cue and retrieved the box of poison from her bag then walked around the holo. She waited for a few seconds then rounded the hologram, the silver box of poison within her fingers.

When Fletcher’s eyes flickered to her hand, she opened the box and showed it to him, smiling sheepishly. “I’m very much taken with these hand-crafted boxes. It’s quite a quaint trend,” Nerishka said as she slid her fingers onto the gel-like liquid before rubbing it lightly onto her palm. She slid the box back into her purse and smiled seductively at him.

<Four minutes.>

Nerishka stepped closer to her mark and pressed up against him. “I have to say I’m very impressed. You’re a man of mystery. You must have all the women falling all over you.”

He grunted in response and frowned as he stared at her. Nerishka knew that her shifting personality would make him more suspicious, but she didn’t have the luxury of time. Her counter was blinking ‘Two minutes’ and though she knew she had some leeway, she couldn’t take any chances.

She reached out and was about to lay her hand on his cheek when Lyra called, <Wait. I need more time. I can’t get in. I was through to his deposit data—to see where the money comes from, but there’s a second layer of security here. I can brute force it—>

<We’re down to one minute and forty, Lyra.>

<I know, I’m trying to get through. Is there something you can do—oh shit.>

<What’s oh shit?>

<The block I put on his nano…they’re breaking free.>

Fletcher grunted and shook his head. His eyes widened as he stared at Nerishka.

<Quick,> yelled Lyra.

Nerishka didn’t waste a second. She kept smiling and slid her hand from her mark’s shoulder to his cheek. “You know, I think—in a different time and place—we could have been friends.”

“What— You…” Fletcher clutched his chest and groaned as he leaned to the side.

<How's that for perfect timing,> Nerishka muttered as she grabbed the dying man’s arms and lowered him to the floor. His fingers fumbled for her, surprising her with the strength of his grip as he curled them around her upper arm.

“You won’t…” he gasped, then coughed as he rolled over onto his side. His body spasmed and then he paused. “You won’t get away…” Fletcher choked and swallowed hard, the muscles in his neck bulging, the veins at his temple engorged. Then he took a deep breath and began to crawl to a low set of drawers.

<Lyra. Tell me you got in.>

<Not yet. But I’m not far off.> Lyra paused. <Watch your mark. He’s reaching for something.>

Nerishka rushed for Fletcher as he pulled a hard Link from the drawer. He flicked his wrist and inserted the hard link into the port on the inside of his arm.

<Watch it,> Lyra called out.

<Too late. It’s bio-engaged. He’s issued his SOS.> Nerishka’s voice was hard, angry. This kill was turning into a shitshow.

<Don’t worry. I stopped the outbound signal. His SOS went nowhere,> Lyra replied smugly. <I’ve managed to get through the first layer of security. This file is extremely well protected. Even if I manage to download it, I will have to work on it some more to gain access.>

Nerishka bent and ripped the hard Link from the port in Fletcher’s wrist, watching as the cable fell across the floor, away from her prey.

But the man just laughed, the sound a little too steady. “They’ll be here,” he said, coughing as he took a deeper breath and rolled over onto his elbows and knees.

Between the fading toxins and Fletcher’s nano, he was well on his way to being in tip-top shape and Nerishka couldn’t let that happen.

As her mark straightened, Nerishka reached for her hair-sticks. She plucked them from her bun, letting her hair fall in waves around her shoulders.

Fletcher pushed to his feet and let out a ragged laugh, his eyes filled with fury and suspicion, shifting from Nerishka’s face to the sticks she held loosely between her fingers.

She didn’t waste another moment, letting both hair-sticks fly, barely waiting for them to reach their target before asking Lyra, <Are you in yet?>

<Yes, I’m in.> Lyra let out a relieved laugh as Nerishka watched her victim fall.

The man crashed to the floor, lying on his back, a deadly hair-stick protruding from his chest, perfectly aligned to slip between his ribs and into his heart. Blood coated the front of his shirt, though not as much as she’d have expected. His nano must be working hard to save him.

They’d find the effort a waste of time.

The second hairstick had met its mark too; Fletcher’s left eye. The thin blade was half-buried in his eye, and Nerishka knew it had broken through the back of his eye socket and penetrated his brain.

Each blade was coated with a deadly concoction of poisons, even more lethal than the one she’d used on her hands. She’d hoped she wouldn’t need to go as far as using the good stuff, but this blend would be undetectable—not that detection mattered considering this kill was certainly not as clean as Nerishka’s reputation claimed her to be.

Lyra would have to design a worm to infiltrate the networks in order to wipe out evidence of Nerishka’s presence on Anahita.

Not that Fletcher’s death would ever be traced back to the Hand. No one here even knew what the Hand was.

Nerishka would leave no trace of herself, nothing that would hint at the existence of a shadow organization guiding the fates of the quadrillions of people who lived in the Inner Stars. Director Sera would have her head if that ever happened—the soft spot she had for Nadine’s cousin would not matter in the least.

Sera would have to get in line though; Nadine would rip Nerishka apart first for being careless. Carelessness was not a part of the family trademark.

All those considerations aside, it was done. She’d terminated her mark. Mission accomplished.

She couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Eshnunna.



EXFILTRATE

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Fletcher Technologies, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka crouched over Fletcher and reached into her purse for her nano-laced cloth. With her free hand, she gripped the blade protruding from his chest, gave it a swift tug and slid it free from the thick muscle of his heart. The weapon came away coated with still-warm blood but Nerishka calmly wiped it off.

She had taken the poison antidote before applying it, but—because so much time had passed since she’d rubbed it onto her skin—she had to be careful to ensure she didn’t accidentally get dosed again. Her own nano was far superior to Fletcher’s and would protect her well enough, but she didn’t want to add any strain or diminish their numbers; who knew what she’d need them for before the day is out.

Once the blade was pristine, she set it aside and leaned forward to retrieve her second hair-stick.

This blade resisted for a few moments and then suddenly popped free. Not that she was squeamish, but Nerishka was glad the man’s eyeball hadn’t come out with the weapon. Thankfully, the blade remained clear of eyeballs, though still coated with blood and brain matter.

<Humans are so…organic,> Lyra muttered absently, still focused on cracking the additional security protocol levels on Fletcher’s private database.

Nerishka ignored her AI and cleaned the second stick off. Working swiftly, her gaze darted around the office. They were taking far too long at the scene of the crime; they had to get out of the building fast to ensure a clean getaway.

She had choices though. She could go now and leave empty-handed, having nothing to show for the messy kill, or she could wait to get her hands on the real story behind what Fletcher was up to, info that her gut had insisted was there. Somewhere.

With a resigned sigh, Nerishka got to her feet, winding her hair into a topknot and jamming the hair-sticks in place as she began to search through drawers, cupboards and boxes around the lab.

<Are we good to go?> she asked her AI who had been silent for a little too long.

<Almost there,> said Lyra. <I just got in. I’m downloading the dat— Oh dear.>

Nerishka straightened from rummaging through Fletcher’s filing system, sure she’d detected a feeling of worry from the AI. <Is that an ‘Oh, shit’ oh dear or a ‘Oh, OK’ Oh dear?>

<I believe it will fall under the parameters of an ‘Oh shit’ oh dear. Our mark had a bioalarm inserted which triggered when his heart stopped. The alarm has been sounding for the last forty-two seconds.>

<That’s officially an ‘Oh shit’ oh dear. Scratch that. It deserves and upgrade to an ‘Oh fuck’ oh dear.> Nerishka stared around the still silent lab, almost on her toes ready to race out of there. A silent alarm set to go off if the man was killed? Ingenious.

And even more suspicious.

Had Fletcher been in possession of information or knowledge of something so vital that his death had to be broadcast the instant he’d expired?

<I’m sorry.> Lyra sounded impatient. And upset. <I should have caught it, but I was focusing on getting that security lock cracked. They must be protecting something to have so many levels of security.>

<You can only do so much, Lyra. Don’t beat yourself up.> Though Nerishka tried to be reassuring, she had found it strange that Lyra had missed something as important as the sounding of a security alarm.

<I’m an AI. I am capable of doing many things at once.> Anger lent Lyra’s voice a ragged edge, and Nerishka frowned, more than a little concerned. Concerned, and surprised as the AI had never revealed such a depth of emotion before.

<Then let’s figure out what happened later,> Nerishka said, her tone soothing. <For now, let’s just focus on getting out of here in one piece so we can actually see what was so important.>

A few moments of silence ticked by during which Nerishka continued to search the room, stepping around the unmoving corpse of her dead mark as she traversed the floor. There were going to be ramifications for the problematic kill. Knife wounds weren’t easy to cover up, and the man’s death would send his partners—or masters—running to ground. Catching them off guard may prove to be impossible—if she found leads to pursue, that was.

Lyra’s voice cut into Nerishka’s thoughts. <Done. Let’s get moving,> the AI said, her tone implying that if she had possessed a physical form she’d have beaten Nerishka to the door.

Nerishka didn’t need further encouragement. She strode to the door—glad Lyra had fixed the balance with the weird shoes—pausing only for the AI to confirm the hall was clear.

Out in the carpeted corridor, Nerishka sprinted toward the intersection up ahead. The lighting from the ceiling had faded, leaving only a low orange glimmer along the bottom of the walls to guide her way. Lyra dropped the schematics of the floor on Nerishka’s HUD revealing the route, though the way out was easy enough to find.

What Nerishka appreciated more, though, was the live IR indicators that would alert her the moment the security team arrived. Which wouldn’t be too long. A cluster of red markers glowed where the layout indicated the location of the lifts.

At the intersection, Nerishka would need to choose a route away from the entrance through which Fletcher had led her.

That way be guards and guns. And for all intents and purposes, Nerishka was unarmed.

<You know, this is the very reason I didn’t want to leave my weapons behind.> She could really have used her flechette pistols and her lightwand right about now. Not to mention how handy armor would have been.

<Couldn’t be helped. And we have incoming.> The handful of markers on Nerishka’s HUD glowed brighter, making it clear how close Fletcher’s security team was.

Their proximity forced Nerishka to move faster. She reached the intersection with the main entrance down the corridor to the right. The left hallway ran along the floor until it ended at a window overlooking the city, similar to the one near Fletcher’s office. Not an option as it was in the soon-to-arrive security team’s direct line of sight.

No choice really.

<Straight ahead,> said Lyra, echoing Nerishka’s thoughts even as she sprinted across and raced down the corridor. <These offices are mostly storage. We will have to take cover for now. They’re almost on top of us.>

On Nerishka’s HUD, the six dots had passed the lab entrance and were now halfway down the hall to the intersection. Should they reach it and look right they’d see her immediately, especially in her gleaming silver dress.

<Now’s when this damned dress should have been black.>

Lyra chose to ignore the complaint. Instead she instructed, <Take the third door on the left. It’s a controlled-environment storage room. It should be safe. I’ve accessed the door for you.>

The door opened just as Nerishka reached it and she ducked inside, plastering herself to the wall as it slid shut with a fraction of a second to spare.

<Locking the door,> Lyra confirmed.

Nerishka leant against the wall, barely registering the shelves and cabinets filled with canisters and plas containers as she listened to the rapid thuds of booted feet rounding the corner. Nerishka studied the dots on her HUD, only partially relieved to see that the security team appeared to be heading directly for Fletcher’s lab.

<Won’t take them long to come looking for me,> she muttered as she suppressed a shiver. Nerishka turned to scan the room. <Shit.>

<What? On a scale of one to ten, how ‘shitty’?> Lyra’s avatar used air quotes around the word, her eyebrow raised.

<Well. You led us inside a controlled-environment storage room all right. This is a refrigerated room meant for storage of perishable specimens or those volatile at even at low heat levels.>

<Well…> the AI hesitated. <What could a little cold hurt? Your nano should make sure your body temp stays comfortable.>

Nerishka let out a soft groan. <Lyra, this is not a mere cool room. It’s a hair away from an industrial cryofreezer. Too long in here and we’ll both be very dead.>

<Let me see if I can adjust the temperature.> Lyra was silent for a moment. <Well…I believe I may have another ‘Oh dear’ to offer you.>

Nerishka rubbed her arms and began to pace the floor. <But you’re not going to do that right? You’re going to tell me you have it all figured out and we’re both getting out of here before we either get shot to death or arrested. Or before we get frozen. Because I have it on good authority that frozen is bad.>

Lyra made a soft noise that sounded like a chuckle. <You do not sound like a seasoned operative with a billion kills on her belt.>

<Apologies for ruining my reputation. I get grumpy when I’m freezing to death and I don’t have my guns. Yes, I probably could kill all those guards, but that’s not how I like to operate.>

A shout at the end of the hall echoed toward Nerishka and then a loud alarm clanged within the building. <Don’t worry,> Lyra said. <I’ve reset the codes for the lock. They won’t be able to open the door.>

<And that’s going to keep them out? They’ll be checking every room and if they can’t get in here they’ll know—>

<I’ve set the freezer’s security to flag a possible contamination, so they won’t be able to come inside unless they have clearance from the Anahita BioSecurity Department.>

Nerishka shook her head. Lyra seemed to only be making things worse. <Lyra, we need to get the hell out of here. We can’t stay here and wait for them to bomb us out.> Nerishka suppressed her frustration. <Let’s wait for them to see the security danger and back away. Then we need to get gone.>

Lyra said nothing as Nerishka watched the progress of the red dots on her HUD, tapping her sandaled foot on the cold floor. The security team searched from room to room, drawing ever closer. Nerishka stilled as one of the men reached the freezer door, but then she let out an involuntary shiver. <Has it gotten colder in here?> she asked Lyra as she instructed her nano to compensate, aware that the red marker outside their door hadn’t moved.

Lyra sent the sound of a throat being cleared and Nerishka sensed the AI was far more worried than her almost-cheerful tone implied. <I am afraid the contamination security level has been automatically reset by FTech’s security protocol.> The pitch of Lyra’s tone began to rise as she continued, <The security protocol required by Ayra Biosecurity initiated a recalibration of the room’s temperature to ‘Level 1 Biological and Chemical Containment Mass Casualty.’>

Nerishka stiffened. Usually, when a mission approached a point similar to this one, when her personal disaster category reached its peak, she’d entertain a moment of shock—the literal ice-in-one’s-veins type of shock. Quite understandable, of course.

But, as Lyra’s words sunk in, Nerishka found herself too cold to react. And then, just when she was about to take her icy frustration out on the AI, she stiffened, cocking her head to listen to the space around her. A soft whistling steadily filled the room. <Lyra? You know what's happening right?> Nerishka asked, her tone so neutral that she herself was surprised at her control—what she really wanted to do was freak out.

Lyra let out a soft groan. <My scans indicate the introduction of nitrogen gas into the room.>

Nerishka crossed her arms—she wasn’t entirely sure if the action was for warmth or self-control.

<Now would be a good time to open the door. I’d rather fight a thousand guards than asphyxiate,> she said through clenched teeth.




FREEZER BURN

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Fletcher Technologies, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

<The cooling process will not execute like cryofreezing. I do not believe this room can function as a cryopod.>

If Nerishka weren’t so cold she could have pulled off a legitimate snort. In the end it merely sounded like she’d choked on a sneeze. <I wasn’t considering that as an option. Cryo or not, we're still gonna be colder than popsicles soon enough,> she said via the Link, not trusting her numb lips. <I'm particularly fond of my bits. I don't want anything to fall off.>

Lyra responded with an eye-roll, though tempering it with a rush of contrition. <It is not as though your bits aren’t replaceable. A simple mod will fix you right up…no matter what you require to be fixed.>

Nerishka paused at the thought. <I'm not particularly fond of mods. And especially not those types of mods.> It wasn’t as though she hadn’t undergone various modifications in the past, depending on what the mission required. She wasn’t against mods either; there were just some changes to her form she’d not make out of choice.

<Those types? Are you referring to modification of your lady bits in particular?> Lyra sent a smirking expression in Nerishka’s mind.

<Yes, Lyra,> Nerishka said, her teeth chattering as she kept an eye on the guard at the door. <I’m happy to hang on to my lady bits for the foreseeable future. Along with everything else that I’ve been able to retain that’s still me.>

<I gathered as much. But when one has no choice one relents and accepts.>

<Very philosophical.>

<I do my best.>

Nerishka was beginning to lose patience. Probably because she felt like a walking human iceberg. <Could you maybe do your best with getting that door open?> she said, her voice cold—literally. <Some time before that gas fills my lungs and is absorbed into my bloodstream.>

Their banter was playful, and had barely spanned a few seconds, but at the same time their voices held an edge of urgency. Perhaps having a smart mouth had its benefits.

Maybe it was Nerishka’s imagination, but Lyra seemed to have been taking far too long with each of her security breaches at every stage of the mission. Picking up Fletcher had gone well enough, but the security issues were a concern. She wanted to ask her AI about it but was worried about offending Lyra.

For all her cool, business-like approach to her tasks, Lyra had already revealed a sensitive side; one Nerishka had to take care with. She had no idea how long the two of them would be paired. Wouldn’t pay to piss off the other person in her head. Especially when her life would often lie in that person’s virtual hands.

Nerishka walked closer to the door, digging into the portions of the network she was able to access via Lyra’s connection. <Is there anything I can do to help?> she asked, staring at the control panel beside the door. Strings of code flickered over the dark plas screen as the guard on the other side attempted to reroute access while Lyra countered with her own.

<You could stop talking?> the AI replied.

Nerishka let out a grunt and stared around the freezer room. The walls were lined with steel cabinets, the clear plas doors slowly frosting up. The containers, filled with a variety of liquids, were beginning to frost over, cracks beginning to form on many of them. Nerishka cycled her vision to read the labels on the bottles and let out a soft squeal.

<Lyra? I know you said no disturbances, but I think you ought to know that those cylinders along the back are actually a very unique kind of reactor rod made of hexaferrum.> Nerishka gestured to the cylinders.

<Is that some sort of iron?> Lyra asked, clearly not paying attention.

<Yeah, kept under ten gigapascals of pressure, or so,> Nerishka replied. <Also, when it gets really cold, it undergoes rapid expansion. It’ll split those containment vessels and go kablooey.>

<That’s a lot of kablooey,> Lyra replied, her tone indicating she was paying attention now.

<I know,> Nerishka replied. <Who puts something like that in a room that can undergo cryogenic levels of freezing?>

<Well, you could ask Fletcher, but you killed him—holy crap!>

Nerishka didn’t want to ask, but knew she had to. <What?>

<Well, they’re storing magnesium powder in the next room over…a lot of it. With all the other crap in Fletcher’s little ‘lab’ this could blow the top right off this tower.>

Nerishka groaned. <I’m glad I killed Fletcher, he’s not qualified to wipe his own ass, let alone run a serious research project.>

<I don’t see any normal use for hexaferrum, what is he doing with it?> Lyra asked, once again sounding like she was only partially paying attention.

<That's a very good question. What say we get the hell out of here and figure it out later? Being alive will help in the actual figuring out part.>

<Hold on. I'm having a little trouble with the NSAI controlling the building. It’s not being at all cooperative.>

<No kidding.> Nerishka rolled her eyes and discovered that she'd been pacing without having realized it. That was a bad sign. She never got flustered, never lost her edge. She knew the likelihood of actually being frozen in the room was minimal, but Lyra was cutting it too close. <Are we there yet?> she muttered to herself.

<You know, for a two-hundred-and-thirty-year-old assassin you’re really just an old baby.>

Nerishka sighed, shivered and then shook her head. <I got nothing. Too cold to make up smart comebacks.>

<Nano not helping?> Lyra asked.

Nerishka shook her head, <Not really. How far away are you from saving my hide?>

Lyra grunted. <Almost there. I’m locking the NSAI out. It got very creative after I evaded it in Fletcher’s lab—definitely a higher grade than we normally encounter in the Inner Stars. Also, the security guard who was right outside? He failed to get past me and he’s calling it in.>

Nerishka shivered and began to pace again. The nitrogen gas was making her lightheaded, which meant she might pass out before Lyra got her thing done.

<Yes,> Lyra crowed, just as Nerishka was about to urge her to put a rush on it. The AI gave a victorious chuckle as she said, <NSAI is down. Stubborn one it was.>

Suddenly the room went dark and red lights began to flash. <I’m guessing that’s the alarm that means we need to get the hell out of here as fast as possible?>

<Exactly what that means. The security team’s abandoned their sweep.>

Nerishka shivered and nodded. <Can see that,> she said, watching their progress back toward the lifts on her HUD.

<Nishka,> Lyra said as the panel on the door clicked, <the door is open and your route is clear. I believe all that is left is for us to make a speedy exit.>

Nerishka eyed the bottles which appeared to have ceased cracking. <And are we safe from any big bad booms?>

<Yes. Once the door opened, the nitrogen gas turned off. The danger has passed. Now, can you get us out of here? I would really like to survive this mission.>

<Now you want to rush me?> Nerishka muttered, hurrying to the door as it slid open.

She scanned the passage outside. Even though her HUD showed the security team had left, she wanted to be sure. Stealth armor was a real thing, and depending on how advanced their tech was, there was a chance IR wouldn’t pick up anyone who lurked outside in stealth gear.

Thankfully, the route appeared clear and Nerishka hurried out into the hall. <What’re my options, Lyra?> Nerishka asked, glad to feel her blood beginning to warm.

<You can head for the lifts. Or you can jump.>

Nerishka considered those options then gave a nod. <We jump.>

Lyra laughed softly. <I am not at all surprised that you have chosen the more dangerous option.>

Nerishka shrugged as she ran to the window. The corridor ended with a view to the city in the same style as the other two she’d passed. A plas bucket-seat sofa in iridescent black and an unnaturally green plant provided the only décor—though Nerishka doubted anyone took advantage of the garish seating arrangement.

She hurried to the glass and stared outside, calculating the height of the building and her possible route to the ground. Then she nodded to herself and sent out a passel of microdrones toward the window, setting them to work carving a hole large enough for her to fit through.

The large circle began to etch into the glass and grew deeper, until, at last, it popped out, sailing off in the wind that whipped around the building.

This many kilometers up, the air was far thinner than inside the building, and Nerishka triggered her lungs to gather more oxygen with each breath as the air in the corridor surged past her and out into the night.

Nerishka reached for the wall to steady herself as Lyra said, <I strongly suggest we hurry. The city has a biohazard team on the way. Standard procedure since the contamination alarm went out.>

Nerishka nodded and moved into the hole, grasping the edges as she gazed out into the night and the city far below.

<So, use my internal a-grav to crawl down the building, or jump and use it to get me to that building over there,> she asked Lyra.

<Well, given how long it will take to crawl down a four-kilometer-tall building, I vote we jump.>

With a curt nod, Nerishka turned and ran back down the corridor where she stopped and drew several deep breaths, oxygenating her bloodstream as much as possible.

“Don’t say I never show you my wild side, Lyra” she said aloud before sprinting toward the hole and leaping through.

Nerishka activated the small pair of a-grav units tucked on the inside of each of her hips and sailed through the air, reveling in the feeling of weightless flight.

Right up until a wind-shear grabbed her and pulled her higher, then threw her back against the building.

Her shoulders slammed into the glass and she bounced off, the momentum getting her around the building and out into clear skies.

The a-grav units weren’t strong enough for any sort of real flight, but they could move her forward and slow her descent. Lyra highlighted another nearby building in line with their current trajectory, and Nerishka steered toward it, praying no one was looking out a window at Fletcher Technologies. A woman with a sparkling—and unfortunately high-slitted dress—would be all too visible in the night sky.

<Shit!> Nerishka exclaimed. <The building’s external cams are going to see me clear as day.>

<Don’t worry. I shut them down when I took out the NSAI. I know how to do my job.>

Nerishka hadn’t been questioning Lyra’s abilities—at least not at that point. Still, she was glad the AI had thought of the cams. Of course, there were also those of all the other buildings around them.

Lyra was going to have her work cut out for her, scrubbing their highly visible exit from the various surveillance systems. A minute later, Nerishka touched down on the roof of her target building, a kilometer lower than from where she’d first jumped, and almost seven hundred meters away.

She skidded to a halt on the ungainly heels, grasping an antenna guy-line to keep from toppling over. Once stabilized, she walked to the edge of the roof and looked out over the city.

<Should we pop a door and go down through this building?> Nerishka asked, then pointed out amongst Eshnunna’s glimmering towers. <Or should we fly a bit further out? I could make it to that kilometer-high tower over there.>

Lyra dropped a map of the city onto Nerishka’s HUD.

<If you’re comfortable with the drop, go for that tower; their security is a joke.>

<OK,> Nerishka replied before taking another running jump, following a route toward the sector of Eshnunna that was a stark contrast to the Eastern District in which both her hotel and Fletcher Tech were located. The last thing they needed was a direct route to her hotel that would bring local law enforcement right to her door. Best she muddy her trail a little for now.

This mission is not going at all to plan, Nerishka thought as she sailed off the building’s rooftop, catching an updraft and disappearing into the night. What’s a little more recklessness at this point?




DINNER AND A SHOW

STELLAR DATE: 10.05.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: West District, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka strode through the busy streets of Eshnunna, head held high as though she knew exactly where she was going. She’d hopped buildings until she came to a low apartment block where she’d descended the last hundred meters down a fire escape.

Once in the dark alley below, she’d used her nano to fix a tear in her dress before adjusting the color of her hair, adding a few strands of pink and softening the blue.

She stuck out like a sore thumb on the busy streets where the night seemed to have only just come alive.

<Again, can I just say this dress is a pain in the ass. Why couldn’t we have just chosen a garment I could manipulate?> she muttered, even though she’d harped on the topic already.

As she’d expected, Lyra didn’t respond to her complaint, and instead said, <Take a right here. You may find something suitable to hide the dress.>

Nerishka obeyed and entered a street which housed a night market of sorts. Vending stalls lined the sidewalks, men and women hawking their various wares, and Nerishka made a beeline to a clothing stall selling a multitude of cloaks in darker jewel tones.

This was the first time since Nerishka had begun her research on the planet that she’d appreciated a garment they had to offer. She selected a cloak of a rich bronze fabric that shimmered as it adjusted its length to suit her height. Thick and velvety soft, the cloak bore patterns of swirling gold scrollwork. She paid the hawker and threw the cloak around her shoulders, tying the velvet ribbon around her neck.

Pulling the hood over her head, Nerishka hurried out of the market and towards the brightly lit restaurant avenue. The ridiculous heels she was unable to do anything about, and so she continued to curse at them as she walked. She didn’t mention it to Lyra, suspecting the AI was a little troubled about her performance in Fletcher Technologies’ lab.

Though Nerishka wanted to talk to her about it, she didn’t need the distraction and decided it would be best to wait until they’d reached a modicum of safety.

<I’m monitoring citywide communication. There have been no reports of sightings of the intruder who’d murdered the CEO. It helps that the security videos have a record of an unnamed man entering the building with Fletcher. But I do advise caution.>

<Roger that,> Nerishka said as she strode through the streets then spotted a small, out of the way restaurant. A perfect place to lay low while they waited to see if the local cops had linked the assassination to her.

The Black Lion purported to offer traditional Eshnunna delicacies not available anywhere else in the Ayra System. After finding a table at the furthest end of the restaurant, Nerishka selected the Ishtar’s Tit—chicken stewed in cream and stuffed with dried fruit—an order she managed to request without smirking.

<You did well there,> Lyra noted, her voice amused.

Nerishka snorted. <I’ve had a permanent up-close and personal view of the goddess’s voluptuous assets courtesy of the carvings in the suite at the Palomidae,> she replied. She had to wonder to what extent religious fervor went in the Ayra System. <Let’s hope the meal befits the goddess’s…assets.>

Lyra giggled but didn’t reply. Nerishka left the AI to her scans and settled in to wait as she sipped a tall glass of a cinnamon and rosewater cocktail called Fiery Eye. And a moment later found herself blinking away tears as she swallowed that first fiery sip.

Lyra chuckled. <Why did you select that drink knowing the effect it would have on you? The menu clearly states that the beverage is particularly spicy as well as high in alcohol.> Lyra sounded confused.

<It’s called trying new things and having a little fun.> Nerishka took another sip and swallowed slowly, blinking back more tears. <Plus, it grows on you,> she added, even as her mental voice turning into a soft squeak.

<I believe I will never understand organics,> Lyra replied as though weary of the task, though Nerishka suspected the opposite was happening. The more she worked with Lyra the more she understood the AI and how she thought. It was pretty clear that Lyra was slowly understanding more about organic perception and thinking. Hopefully that was a good thing.

An hour later, having eaten and chatted with Lakit, the restaurant owner, Nerishka called for a ride and headed back to her hotel, arriving on the ground floor this time. She’d shrugged the cloak off and held it over her arm as she strode through the brightly lit reception hall, then took the lift up to her suite. After a cursory check of the entrance, with Lyra confirming that nobody had attempted access in their absence, Nerishka hurried inside, relieved to be back in a place of safety.

She disrobed and spent a while in the san before dressing in comfortable wide-legged slacks and a flowy singlet before heading back into the room. Lyra, in the meantime, had begun to work the file they’d stolen from Fletcher’s database.

<How are we doing?> Nerishka asked.

<A few minutes. I just have to unpack the data and breach his encryption—which is good, but since I have half his keys and tokens, it shouldn’t take long.>

A few minutes later, Lyra threw up a holo of the master matrix of Fletcher’s database.

Nerishka frowned as she scrolled through subtrees and files, shaking her head as she settled in. The data was far more extensive than she’d expected, and at first seemed to be merely a standard backup of research data; plant product DNA and structural molecular changes when affected by specific toxic chemicals, among a raft of other projects.

Fletcher’s company seemed to leave few stones unturned in researching a wide variety of biochemical products. Irrelevant to Nerishka’s search for his progress with picotech, but still interesting.

<It appears to me that Fletcher Technologies is searching for something in particular. The variety of research projects is impressive, but there seems to have been a gradual decrease in activity on current and new projects over the last few months.>

<Perhaps a powerful biochemical weapon that they can sell? Maybe they’re onto something and are now narrowing their search?>

Lyra’s avatar raised an eyebrow. <But what does that have to do with picotech?>

<Who knows? Maybe nothing at all. Maybe Fletcher’s picotech really was something he was involved in on the side.>

<Or this research could have been a decoy,> Lyra countered.

<Hmm? How so? Maybe old Fletch really had too little time left what with his mysterious benefactor who is such a hard ass.>

<I’ve encountered a file that contains some very damning information. Here, have a look and tell me what you think.> Lyra highlighted a series of files on the holo and Nerishka swiped and opened them one at a time.

<Stars, that is not what I expected to see.> Nerishka stared at the first of the images.

A man had been photographed from a variety of angles, each image revealing the terrible extent of his condition. His skin was covered in patches of what appeared to be a fungal growth, small repeating patterns of discoloration that would have appeared to be a normal infection easily fixed with one’s nano. But the color and scope of the infection surprised Nerishka.

<Seems widespread. Guess his nano can’t handle the severity of the infection.>

<From what some of the reports indicate, these symptoms appear to be chemically induced. But it appears to be an indirect infection.>

<What? Like secondary infections after a toxic spill or something?>

Lyra sent a nodding face to confirm. <The records are linking his condition to what they’ve labeled ‘Unknown Event B’. Although it appears that ‘event’ isn’t really unknown, at least not to the person who filed this report.>

<Stars, ‘Unknown Event B’ implies this is a second instance of whatever the hell is causing such terrible suffering.> Nerishka found she had to force herself to study the images, not because of the symptoms themselves but more due to the number of people reported to have been affected. <Do you see the discrepancy in the report content versus the reports from the hospitals where these patients initially presented?>

<Yes. I do. I am trying to cross-reference them but far too many of the details have been redacted. I cannot identify the hospital or even the planet or station on which this occurred.> Frustration bled into Lyra’s tone, mirroring Nerishka’s own emotions.

<They certainly have something to hide,> Nerishka replied. <Whatever this is, it should already have gained government attention, and at least the attention of the newscasters.>

Nerishka continued to page through a variety of images of patients who were recorded as suffering from various infections and cancer-like conditions. The images and reports continued in a similar vein and ended with at least three miscarriages of healthy fetus’s. Fletcher’s files detailed at least a hundred and ten patients presenting with similar symptoms over a period of two months.

<These people would have had access to modern medicine. At least to prevent the death of the unborn children. But they didn’t get medical attention. At least not in time to help.> Nerishka waved a hand at the holo, frustration and weariness weighing her down.

<The reports are rather limited in detail but from what I gather, they waited too long, then sought medical attention when they’d progressed too far,> Lyra replied. <At that stage, the medical attendants reported that many of the patients were beyond saving—at least with the financial means available to them.>

The idea was worrying, considering most governments usually kept a close eye on toxic spills and environmental contamination. Even more so in a system with this much interstellar commerce. There was always someone dumping their waste in space, thinking it would never hit anything.

<In many of the notes Fletcher indicates the diseases and malformations are directly attributed to ‘the event’, but whatever that event was, he didn’t want it to be revealed. He’s suggesting further investigation or halting the research altogether.> Lyra grunted. <One of the main problems I’m having here is that too much of the information has been redacted,> muttered Lyra just as Nerishka nodded.

<Yeah, I’m seeing that too. Just when I think I’m going to find out exactly what I need to know, I find redacted data.>

<And redacted as in deleted. Not security protected. Just…not there.>

<Someone covered their tracks very well.> Nerishka shook her head in frustration and swiped the files off the holo. <I suspected something else was going on behind the scenes, but I never imagined it would be anything so horrific, or that Fletcher would be involved up to his eyeballs.>

<I will take this opportunity to concede that perhaps organics have a tiny edge on AIs,> Lyra said with a long-suffering sigh.

<How so?> Nerishka asked, hiding a smile.

<Well, I would have stayed on task, completed the mission and left the Ayra System. You had that whole ‘gut thing’ going on and insisted on following any crumbs you could find, whereas I didn’t see them in the first place.>

<Yeah, well. You wouldn’t have seen them,> Nerishka said, her tone comforting. <The signs were in Fletcher’s eyes. Just something about the things he said and the things he didn’t say.>

<Ah yes. I believe you organics call that ‘reading between the lines.’ I never quite understood that phrase. Especially when it relates to situations where words and lines are not involved.>

Nerishka let out a soft laugh and checked her messages. Nothing yet from Karsin. <I think we need to go find our AWOL fellow agent. I don’t like that he hasn’t responded to any of my messages in days.>

<Are you thinking he may have changed sides?>

That wasn’t the first time Lyra had voiced her concern. Nerishka wondered if the AI knew something she didn’t. <No. I just have a feeling that something’s wrong. And if that is the case, I don’t want to tip anyone off by being too overzealous with repeated messages. He could be compromised…I don’t want to just leave and not know for certain.>

<Very well. I’m arranging for a skycar. Assuming you don’t want to tip anyone off, where do you wish the skycar service to take us?>

Nerishka named a shop near The Black Lion; as Lyra expected, she’d take a circuitous route to Karsin’s last known location to avoid being followed. Whatever he was up to, Nerishka planned on finding out. She just hoped the operative hadn’t changed sides, because it would not be good for him.

She didn’t want to have to kill one of her own.




DUST AND OWLS

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: West District, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Three skycars later, Nerishka arrived at the address she had for Karsin. She alighted from the skycar and stepped away as the craft took off again. Beneath a long flowing dress—its muted blue perfect for mingling among the people on the streets—she wore her light armor. The dress could come off in an instant, and her armor had advanced stealth capabilities more than sufficient to fool the locals.

Her flechette pistols were secure in their concealed holsters on her thighs, and her lightwand’s presence against her waist was a constant comfort. She’d missed her weapons.

<Are you sure we have the right place?> asked Lyra, her tone conveying concern.

Nerishka was wondering the same thing as she stared at the building, and the sign above her that said ‘Ink and Dust’. <It’s a book shop. Like…physical books. I didn’t think those were common relics in this system. Do we have the correct address?> Nerishka asked, frowning. What would Karsin be doing at a bookshop? <He did log this as the address of his residence, though. Maybe he lives upstairs.> She tilted back to peer up at the second floor of the narrow building.

<The address is correct.> The AI made an odd, disbelieving sound. <I share your surprise at the nature of the establishment. I hadn’t realized organics still read on paper anymore,> Lyra said as they entered the shadowed interior of the store.

<Maybe no one does; it would keep him from having to deal with customers.> Nerishka chuckled as she pushed on the door, finding it unlocked.

Once inside, she saw that the shelves were filled with books of every type, from thick leather-bound to thinner casebound to simple staple-spined comic books. Many shelves were more than a little dusty, confirming her prior suspicion.

<It’s a front,> said Nerishka as she scanned the narrow aisles and closed in on the cashier’s desk along the left-hand wall. <Though I suspect it worked too well. A front should at least look like a viable business.>

A slim young woman lounged on her chair, her eyes focused on the paperback in her hands. As Nerishka drew closer she grinned. The girl—whose dark blue hair hung almost to her waist—currently held the book—a faded copy of a story about lions, witches and wardrobes—upside down. A holo badge on her collar named her as ‘Vanka.’

<She is reading something on her Link.> Even Lyra was amused. <Definitely not very talented in the acting department.>

Nerishka reached the counter and cleared her throat. “I’m here to see Karsin? Tell him the Owl is here.” To Lyra, she said, <Now that code finally makes sense.>

Vanka looked up from her upside-down book and stared at Nerishka for a moment. Then she pointed a thumb at the wall behind her where a narrow doorway led into an interior room that appeared to be filled with more dusty tomes. As soon as Nerishka’s gaze shifted to the door, Vanka refocused her attention on the book and appeared engrossed again.

<So, either he’s here, she has no idea, or we’re about to walk into a trap,> Lyra commented.

<Or all of the above.>

A smirk on her lips, Nerishka leaned over and tugged the book free from the girl’s hands. Vanka let out an affronted squeak and straightened, mouth open, ready to voice her dissatisfaction with being disturbed while upside-down reading. Nerishka merely smiled and made a show of turning the book around the right way up, then placed it back within the girl’s grip.

Her job done, Nerishka headed around the counter and entered the interior room. She’d only glimpsed the books when she’d stood at the counter, but once inside the small space, the volume of books threatened to suffocate her.

She barely broke her stride as she hurried through the room to a second doorway which opened onto a narrow stairwell. Nerishka climbed the stairs, thinking that a Hand agent should have a more secure base of operations than a rundown antique shop.

At the top of the second flight of stairs, Nerishka met with a single door. <Do we knock?> she asked Lyra as she studied the control panel as it blinked a demand for a bioscan.

<I suggest you palm the screen,> said Lyra carefully. <He knew you were coming; he would have prepared the security system to allow you access, especially given that his packet for the operation provided you with the location as well as the secret password.>

<What if it’s a trap? He’s drawing me here, only to kill me?>

Lyra chuckled. <Is that your professional paranoia talking, or is it your organic gut again?>

Nerishka snorted. <Nothing’s added up where Karsin’s concerned. So, I’m worried and I’m also considering all possible scenarios. There’s a reason why I’m still alive and kicking after two hundred years at this job.>

Though Nerishka hesitated, she was well aware that her AI was right. She gave a firm nod and did as Lyra suggested, though was still surprised when the door slid open for her. Pursing her lips, she set loose a passel of drones to sweep Karsin's apartment. Then she pulled up her dress and drew one of her flechette pistols from her thigh before entering the room, wary and alert. Once inside, her lips pursed in a thin line. The entire apartment looked like a tornado had run through it.

Sofas and chairs were turned over, a giant gilt-edged mirror lay shattered in the floor, a few shards still affixed to the wall where it had hung. Nerishka shook her head and moved deeper into the apartment, making her way toward the bedroom. The door stood open, and she could make out the edge of an unmade bed, covers twisted and half on the floor. She slipped inside, pistol sweeping the empty bedroom as she moved.

Nerishka let out a sigh as Lyra said, <I’m not getting anything on the IR scan. Breaching the door’s systems to see if I can pull any access logs.>

<Well, I guess I’ll see if there are any clues about who did this, then go talk to Vanka. Engrossed as she is in her not-reading, she had to have heard something. Either that, or she’s in on it.>

<Or she doesn’t work for Karsin at all and she was left behind to see if his friends come visiting,> Lyra suggested.

<All the more reason to get searching. We can’t just cut and run because his place got tossed and upside-down-book-girl is keeping watch below.>

Lyra sent an agreeable emotive and Nerishka crept deeper into the room, skirting the bed on her way toward the san. She wasn’t about to get careless, and the rest of the living quarters needed to be checked thoroughly. Nerishka stood on the threshold and palmed the control, waiting as it slid open slowly.

With her pistol still leading the way, Nerishka entered the san and stopped in her tracks. Lying inside the tub was the man she’d come looking for. Only he wasn’t enjoying a nice soak; he was very much dead. A single bullet to the eye had done the job and he now lay within a pool of his own coagulated blood.

<Shit. I knew something was wrong.>

<I have decided that henceforth I will be trusting your gut much more,> said Lyra softly. <IR didn’t detect him. Now I see why.>

<Well, if it had—>

<Look out!> Lyra shouted just as an EMP wave fried Nerishka’s drones.

Nerishka dodged into the san unit, but not before a pulse blast hit her in the side and spun her around into the wall. Her armor absorbed most of the shot, and Nerishka moved further into cover, but her assailant switched to kinetic rounds that tore through the thin wall, ricocheting off her armor, and destroying the san.

Nerishka pulled the tattered remains of her dress off, triggering her armor to unfurl and cover her head before tossing the dress into the san’s doorway, a heap of dark blue fabric that her attacker began to shred to pieces.

<Damn, I liked that dress,> Nerishka said as she activated her armor’s stealth systems.

<I believe you would like your skin and beating heart more,> said Lyra drily. <Now perhaps we get ourselves out of here?>

Nerishka frowned as the room fell silent and the weapons fire died down. <Sorry, Lyra. That is not how this is going down. I don’t run from the problem. I need to know what’s going on here and ducking out isn’t going to get me answers. I’m already out on a limb here.>

<Very well,> said Lyra, her tone resigned. <IR is still reading negative. Her armor is impressive—assuming it's Vanka.>

<Thanks for stating the obvious,> Nerishka muttered. She studied the san, disliking that her opponent’s armor was good enough to escape detection. <I’m not wasting any more time here.> Nerishka reached for the ultrasonic emitter that was part of her mission kit.

With a grenade ready in one hand, she stepped out into the room, holding the sonic emitter with the other, sweeping it around the room.

<We have her,> Lyra said, dropping a shadowy image onto Nerishka’s HUD.

Without a moment’s pause, Nerishka threw the grenade at the camouflaged assailant who was standing on the other side of the bed. The explosive hit the still-invisible attacker mid-section, throwing her against the far wall.

The force of the blast also knocked Nerishka back. She collided with the dresser behind her, and then with the wall as she lost her balance, wincing as she felt the impact through to her bones.

<Overkill?> Lyra asked.

<I was trying to lob it past her, put the explosion between her and the wall. She moved at the last moment, hit her instead,> Nerishka said as she pushed to her feet and dashed toward the groaning woman.

The assailant lay crumpled on the floor, half propped up against the wall. Her helmet had been torn from her head and now hung onto her shoulder, revealing a grey-green complexion and eyes so dark they appeared lifeless.

<Huh,> Lyra grunted. <I really thought it would be Vanka.>

<Guess our friend from the Commodore really wants payback.>

The woman groaned and blinked, staring around her, visibly stunned. The moment her eyes fell on Nerishka, the assassin pushed against the wall and surged to her feet.

Though shocked at the woman’s determination in the face of her injuries, Nerishka was ready for the first blow. The assassin produced a short blade in each hand and began to strike wildly at Nerishka’s face and torso, every attack more desperate than the previous one.

Nerishka side-stepped, avoiding the blade and reaching for her lightwand at the same time. There was no longer any time to waste. With a single, swift movement, she drew the weapon, activated the light blade and plunged it into the assassin’s side.

The lightwand cut through the woman’s armor like butter and sliced halfway through her torso. A moment later the green-faced woman teetered on her feet, then sank to the floor where she collapsed on the scorched carpet, staring up at the ceiling.

<She’s gone.> Lyra supplied the information before Nerishka could even ask for it.

Crouching beside the woman, Nerishka scanned the white hair tied in a high ponytail at the top of her head. The woman’s green-hued face was covered in dark red tattoos, with only a small percentage of skin still visible. <Any identification on her?>

<Unfortunately, she’s wiped clean. I cannot ascertain if the elimination of her internal datastores was recent—as in she had a failsafe to dump all data for security reasons—or if she’s operating as a ghost.>

Nerishka shook her head and then stared around the trashed room. <Who would want to kill Karsin? And then go to the extent of watching the place to eliminate anyone who comes looking for them?>

<Someone who believes Karsin had something important that they didn’t want to fall into the wrong person’s hands?> Lyra suggested.

<Or maybe some government spy who was onto Fletcher’s project. Or we may even have an element who figured out Karsin was a spy himself.>

<Which means you could be the next target.>

<Well, I would be. If they knew who I was.> Nerishka left the bedroom and studied the living area, then frowned. <Think he hid something here?>

She walked around the apartment, examining each of the paintings on the walls, every overturned sofa and chair, every book that lay in the numerous stacks and shelves that littered the room. <He kept a lot of books. Did a good job playing the part of rare book dealer,> she muttered, rifling through a collection of boxes on the lower shelves of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase.

<Some of the items here date back many centuries,> Lyra said. <He has a collection on his open files that claim to be first editions of an early title of an Earth physicist from the twenty-first century.>

<No kidding. How would he have gotten hold of something like that?> Nerishka headed over to a large trunk, lifting the lid to find more books and folders.

<Well, he does work for the Hand. Perhaps his cover is better than I’d thought.>

<He did manage to infiltrate this system’s black market. Karsin would have never gotten to Fletcher if he hadn’t been believed to be trustworthy.> Nerishka shut the trunk and took a deep breath. <So where would Karsin hide something so only I would find it?> she murmured as she searched the room again, cycling her vision in case she missed something small.

<I’m scanning his last messages just in case it contains any indication of what he wanted you to know.>

Lyra began to replay the message Karsin had sent to Nerishka via Director Jeriah. It would have been made weeks ago, but Nerishka knew enough about Karsin to know he was pedantic, that he always planned in advance. Even in the event of his death.

After a few seconds, she sighed. <I’m not getting anything here that can help. Karsin is merely providing his standard debrief; he used the required security levels for the report. Nobody would have overheard or managed to record this conversation. And yet he says nothing about being in any kind of danger.>

<He’s more paranoid than you are,> said Lyra with a chuckle.

Nerishka ignored her and ran the recording again. <What if we look for his body language, intonations and expressions that don’t make sense.> She replayed the recording two more times before she paused the video, a smile forming on her lips. <There. You see it?>

The clasp holding his cloak together at his throat had changed direction twice during the recording. <You think he’s providing you with a clue?> Lyra asked.

But it was more a rhetorical question, which Nerishka ignored as she was already spinning around and studying the messy disaster that was Karsin’s apartment.

Beside the table, crumpled on the floor, lay the cloak in question. Nerishka hurried over and grabbed it, searching the neckline and finding nothing.

The cloak was in keeping with the semi elegant style of the city’s residents. <Surely he has more cloaks than just this one.> Nerishka began a search of the room again, this time turning things over and looking inside and under everything that lay on the floor.

When the main room offered up nothing, Nerishka returned to the bedroom and tossed the already rumpled bedclothes, then let out a small cry. <There! We have it.> Twisted among the sheets was the cloak in question, identified by the bland navy-blue ornament on the clasp. Nerishka pulled the clasp free and said, <Got it. Now let's get the hell out of here.>

<You won't get any objections from me.>




A DEEPER GAME

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Palomidae Hotel, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka closed the doors to her suite and released a passel of drones to sweep the room. Whoever her enemies were, she had to assume they could have learned enough about her to know where she was staying.

It wasn’t too likely—given that both times they’d attacked her in locations connected to Karsin—but it was a possibility.

The drones didn’t pick anything up on their broad sweep, and she set them to do a more intensive scan while dropping into one of the room’s plush chairs. Morning light had begun to brighten the room, and she let out a sigh.

That had certainly been a long night.

Now she stared at the gem clasp that rested in her palm. <Get anything from it?> she asked Lyra.

<No. The clasp is made of osmium—we won’t get a thing. Perhaps open it.>

<Already on it,> replied Nerishka as she searched the gem for a clasp or a release button. After manipulating it a dozen different ways, the gem clicked and opened like a flower, the domed top slipping into six separate pieces and falling open to reveal a datapod.

Nerishka lifted it free and closed the clasp, slipping it into a pocket. <Lyra?> she said, staring at the device. <Let’s get a look at what’s so special that Karsin had to hide so inventively.>

<Already on it,> came the AI’s reply and Nerishka grinned. A few seconds later, Lyra said, <You do realize Jeriah is going to have a conniption with you going off-script.>

<I know,> Nerishka said as she retrieved the datapod and inserted it into a buffered reader. It was entirely possible that the enemy had taken the real data and left this as a plant for her, so she set the reader to apply its full multi-layered defenses before connecting to it.

Once the information began filtering into the reader’s sandboxed honeypot environments, she continued. <But can you seriously tell me we don’t have an obligation to follow this trail now? You know how long it’s going to take to get the report to Jeriah, and then for her to send someone to investigate? It makes more sense for me to do something now. While I’m here.>

Lyra’s avatar shook her head solemnly.

<Besides, Director Sera is reasonable,> Nerishka continued, <She used to be a field agent. That means she knows that we have to trust our guts when we feel like we’re onto something.>

<Well, it does look like you’re onto something.>

Lyra threw up the files on a holo in front of Nerishka who paused in surprise at what she was seeing. Karsin’s files were a duplicate of Fletcher’s. But every single one of them included the unredacted details that she’d been missing.

<The outbreak appeared to be much worse than Fletcher’s files indicated,> said Lyra, her voice low and sober in Nerishka’s mind.

<Fletcher may have had a distilled version of this particular file. Or he deleted what he felt may be sensitive. But not before Karsin got his hands on it.>

<So we have dozens of affected patients. And this particular location—> Lyra highlighted Xerxes, the next planet closest to the Ayra System’s star, <—has been flagged as a possible origin point. A substantial portion of the victims—if not all of them—originate from a settlement at those coordinates.>

Nerishka frowned and shook her head. <Karsin’s commented here in a note saying that the Greshan settlement—a small scale agro farm growing oat crops—was partially destroyed in some sort of catastrophic event. He claims that there had been reports that an unknown object hit Xerxes’ atmosphere and fell to the surface of the planet close to Greshan. Only problem is when he went looking again he found nothing. All trace of the object was wiped out. Karsin died to protect this information. I’m assuming there is more to this than meets the eye and we need to get there, see what’s been going on.>

The files named Arraphka as the city nearest to where patients had shown up with symptoms. Still, far too much of the relevant information—like what the secret project was—remained locked behind added encryption.

Nerishka grunted in annoyance. <Turns out Karsin’s file is also encrypted.>

<He managed to break through the first level of encryption which gave us these details,> Lyra added. <But the information indicating the project name and the people responsible are still encrypted.>

<Karsin has been with the Hand for four hundred years and he’s an analyst at heart. Not to mention a skilled cryptographer. He had the skills to break through even the second level encryption, but it’s likely they got to him first.> Nerishka shook her head, seeing Karsin’s face again, the memory of finding him dead still haunting her. <If this is what Karsin got killed for, then he was onto something game changing.>

<Worse than picotech?> asked Lyra archly.

<We’ve found next to nothing about active pico research. I’m beginning to suspect the picotech was a side-dream of Fletcher’s.>

<Or, if you want to think in terms of espionage, it was likely bait to catch people like you and Karsin.>

Nerishka grunted in reluctant agreement. <Hmmm. There is that too.>

<Very well. I’ve booked a cabin on the Belshazzar, a liner headed for Xerxes. We have a three-roomed suite suitable for the likes of Kiarra Vestine, socialite and real housewife of New Manchester in the Sphire System. Sole purpose in life: spend her darling wife's money as fast as it's made.> Lyra ended with a flourish in her tone that Nerishka could almost see.

<Perfect, Lyra. Now the only thing to do is to get my special delivery redirected to the Belshazzar.>

Lyra let out a strained cough. <I’ve been trying to get in touch with the AI at the cartage company holding your shipment, but he doesn’t seem to be responding.>

<Just inefficient? Or is there something I need to be worrying about?> asked Nerishka, already worrying.

She’d been looking forward to getting her hands on her lab-pod filled with botanicals from Valkris, a little impatient now as her stock of rendered toxins had begun to run low. She’d waited years to receive this particular package and she couldn’t afford to leave it behind when she escaped Anahita.

Lyra let out a soft groan. <I think their system is offline for some reason. Vernon, the AI is completely unresponsive.>

<Could it have something to do with Karsin?> Nerishka mused, more to herself than Lyra. <His killers seem to be trying to end me as well, so would they have possibly tracked my shipment?>

<I don’t see how.> Lyra’s tone was doubtful. <We used an alias and covered your connection to the import clearance too well. And Karsin had no idea where it was. There is no way they would have known it belonged to you.>

<I think my paranoia radar is on a little too high.>

<Don’t you mean your professional radar?> Lyra chuckled.

<Well said.>




TEAMWORK

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Palomidae Hotel, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka hadn’t brought much that she couldn’t leave behind in a hurry. Which meant packing up wouldn’t take long. She’d been on missions before where fleeing within minutes of her assassination was the smartest thing to do if she wanted to keep breathing.

But she still had to maintain both her cover, and the appearance that she hadn’t been fazed by the two attacks on her life. Whoever had killed Karsin had also attempted to eliminate Nerishka, and she had no clue where they’d sneak up on her next.

<There. I just have to pack my weapons and we’re good to go.> Nerishka dusted her hands off and then said, <Lyra, who do we have in this system that we could call in to back me up?>

<If you mean Hand agents, you and Karsin are—were—the only ones in the Ayra System.> The AI paused for a moment. <Bryce, who is closest at a week’s flight away, maybe a bit longer depending on where he is in the Alma System. There’s Leris, who is on Eret Station, out in the Regan Void—not near enough but able to reach you if needed—two weeks away, at least. Do you want me to request backup from the both of them?>

Nerishka shook her head as she surveyed the suite. <No, it would take them, even Bryce, a week to get the message, days to disengage, then another week to get here. I’m thinking non-agent assets, or even unrelated operatives.>

<Oh?> Lyra responded archly.

Nerishka lifted a brow. <What? You don’t approve?> She suppressed a smirk as she turned and headed toward the carved headboard and her secret hiding spot.

<Not really,> Lyra replied airily. <I’ve been observing your lack of desire to work with others. I merely didn’t expect such a request.>

Nerishka’s browed furrowed as she replied, <I’ve used outside help on numerous occasions, Lyra.>

The AI gave a resigned sigh. <Very well. I performed my duty in providing the appropriate warning but I’m well aware of your history. I was briefed before I was paired with you.>

<You had objections even before we were paired?> Nerishka asked, tugging the narrow case out from behind the headboard. She tapped the biolock and double-checked the weapons and toxins hidden within. All was as it should be.

<Not objections,> the AI said, her tone somewhat haughty. <Reservations.>

Nerishka’s smile turned into a grin. <So…any regrets?>

Lyra’s avatar rolled her eyes. <While you were baiting me, I checked on your current list of non-Hand contacts—thank you for releasing them to me—I think I have an in-system contact only a week’s travel away who may suit perfectly. It’s a lucky break too—he seems to be just stopping for resupply while passing through the system.>

Lyra threw up the details of the contact on the holo and Nerishka set the secure bag beside the rest of her luggage. The image on the holo startled her and she let out a deep sigh. <I would have been perfectly happy with anyone but him,> she muttered.

<Why is that?> Lyra asked, sounding affronted, as though Nerishka shouldn’t be critical of it merely because it was the AI’s intelligent choice. <Dresden appears to be perfect for the situation. He’s ex-TSF and an ex-Hand agent—although I’m not sure how one gets to be an ex-Hand agent. He has excellent contacts in this system and beyond. And he even has a small team on call.>

<I know all that, Lyra. He is my contact after all.>

<I detect an increased heart-rate—which you attempted to hide by altering the bioelectric signals that pump your heart.>

Busted.

<So…is there something you need to tell me?> Lyra prodded. Nerishka didn’t respond, which resulted in a chuckle from her AI. <You can decide not to reveal details, but remember, I am inside your head. Hard to miss much from here.>

<Which means?>

<Which means I can sense a complex emotional reaction to Dresden. Coupled with your reservation, it leads me to a perfectly reasonable conclusion: you two have had an intimate relationship in the past.>

Nerishka let out a resigned sigh. <If you must know, yes. We were once…together.>

Lyra sighed. <I fail to understand why you organics are so often ashamed of attachment, whether brief or permanent.>

<It’s got nothing to do with being ashamed. It’s more regret that things went wrong. Or maybe regret that things happened in the first place. Or regret that you didn’t listen to your gut and you went ahead and got involved at all. Numerous things.>

Lyra let out a soft sigh. <Ah. I believe I understand. It didn’t work out and you left. And now you feel like you’re going to have to face the person you hurt. And that may not work out well in a working environment?>

Nerishka pursed her lips. <Something like that.> She didn’t want to elaborate. Lyra knew too much already.

Dresden and Nerishka had met when he’d been part of a squad she’d used almost a century ago. A lot of water had passed under their bridge since, and she didn’t want to have to face the man again.

Not that she’d done anything inherently wrong. Liar. Just leaving the guy without a word of explanation kinda meant there would be ramifications when she did see him face to face again.

<Fine,> she said, heaving a deep sigh. <Reach out and see if he will meet us on Nimrud Station. He’ll likely get there before us so that should give me some time to prepare.>

Lyra frowned. <Prepare for what?> The AI paused for a moment. <Ah, I see. You need to gird your lady loins then.>

Nerishka sputtered on a laugh. <Lyra, you do have a way with words.>

<I try.>




AI’S GAME

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Skycar, Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Lyra had tried for almost an hour to contact the AI and a number of other key staff of the Crosus Cartage Company but she’d had no luck.

<It looks like we’re going to have to go down there if we want the lab-pod on the ship with us.> Lyra sounded annoyed. <I don’t understand what is wrong with the AI running the company. One would think a cartage company with a perpetual flow of incoming and outgoing shipments would be constantly available and online. Even their tracking system is unavailable.>

<It’s fine, Lyra. When we get down there you can give them a piece of your mind.>

<That’s a very distasteful saying,> the AI replied, eliciting a grin from Nerishka. Lyra continued, <I hardly approve of the idea of parting with a portion of my mental capacity.>

<It’s just a saying. Not a clue where it came from and no inclination to research it.>

Lyra huffed. <Given that it is an organic saying, I am not surprised.>

Now, Nerishka sat in a skycar, hidden within the folds of a dark cloak. It would shield her from questions as she blended into the foot traffic, but she planned to approach the warehouse with extreme prejudice. Hence the armor hidden beneath.

Despite Nerishka’s calm reaction to Lyra’s suspicions regarding the non-response from Crosus Cartage, Nerishka wasn’t planning on being complacent. Considering Karsin’s death—and the two attempts on her own life—she was disinclined to make any assumptions.

The skycar dropped them off several blocks from the building where the warehouse was located, and Nerishka proceeded to change her appearance before hailing a second car.

This time she wore a more serious, business-appropriate suit, although her pants and jacket fitted well enough to reveal her curves. The skycar stopped in front of Crosus’ warehouse and then disappeared off along the busy causeway, leaving Nerishka standing in front of the drab building, in the middle of the morning rush.

She studied the entrance, while also paying close attention to the workers in stained suits and cargo-shuttles carrying loads of varying shapes and sizes drifting past.

<Anyone home?>

<I’m scanning.> After a moment Lyra said, <IR indicates four occupants in a back room. They appear to be playing a game of sorts.>

<And the AI?>

<Vernon is the fifth player.> Lyra’s tone revealed she wasn’t sure how to react to such news. <I believe they are within an expanse. Players are often ‘trapped’ within the game and lose all track of time while inside.>

<Interesting. If a little unprofessional. Have they set up proper security to protect them in case the place was robbed?>

Lyra sent an affirmative. <But I can get through easily enough. Vernon won’t even be aware of it because he hasn’t set up a notification in case it’s breached.>

<He’s very confident.> Nerishka squinted up at the darkened building.

<More like incompetent, careless and stupid. For an ‘AI’ he’s barely sentient.>

Nerishka lifted an eyebrow. <Wish I could defend him, but I have to agree with you. Especially since he’s supposed to be moving my shipment. As a client I would like to personally express my utter dissatisfaction.>

Lyra huffed. <I’d very much prefer to get the lab-pod cleared and redirected myself and get out of here. I can order a cargo-shuttle to arrive and take receipt of the lab-pod and send it to our ship.>

<That assumes they’d respond to an inbound drone coming to get my cargo. Besides, don’t you want to find out what’s going on in there? Those guys may actually be in trouble. I’d want to be saved if I’m trapped by a game.>

Lyra’s avatar lifted a curious brow. <Do you believe they could be in danger?>

<It’s possible. Definitely unusual behavior. And it could compromise their business in its entirety. I don’t believe anyone would want to be left in a situation like this.> Nerishka sighed. <Yeah, yeah, I know I’m going off book again but I’m following my gut.>

<When we get back to headquarters I am putting in a request for your gut to be sent in for retraining. It seems to be doing everything off-book all of the time.>

Nerishka let out a chuckle as she approached the entrance to the warehouse. <We’re in,> Lyra said only moments before Nerishka palmed the access panel.

Waiting only for the door to open a tiny bit, Nerishka slid into the sliver of thick darkness and waited as the door closed behind her. Her HUD activated IR and nightvision, casting the interior of the building in an unnatural palette, the empty waiting area steeped in a grey-green darkness.

Lyra dropped the floor plan of the building on Nerishka’s HUD, and the forms of four people appeared in a room at the back.

Nerishka hurried past the narrow reception area and entered an office space. <Lyra, do you think we should be getting the lab-pod ready for transport in case Vernon is unhelpful?>

<Already done. I have locked the records for your shipment so even if he comes back online he will find he’s unable to reset redirection. I had to bypass his customs control ID’s in order to process the import clearance—couldn’t initiate the pickup for the pod without hacking it. Sorry, Vernon. The cargo-shuttle will arrive at Bay 2 and the drone will have the access codes for an automated pickup. I will ensure the lab-pod is loaded up and dispatched safely.>

<Nice work.>

<I think I will keep an eye on it though. Shuttle will be here in ten minutes.>

Nerishka gave a short nod and exited the office, then proceeded into the interior cargo holding area where crates and containers lined the floors and filled racks that rose up to the ceiling. She passed through the darkened space, noting the red lights on the floor that marked off the path through the stacks.

At the back wall, a door sat partially open, and Nerishka made out a table with five seats, only four of which were occupied. <Can you get us inside the expanse?> she asked Lyra as she frowned at the table, littered with stale, dried out food that appeared days old.

Her AI frowned. <I can, but I believe it will be dangerous. The game is structured in a way that anyone who enters it now will be considered the enemy and all five of them will change tactics in order to eliminate you.>

<I’m assuming something has gone wrong with this game?> asked Nerishka as she neared the table.

Lyra nodded. <Vernon is stuck in a loop. I’m not sure why, but he’s holding them all inside the game until he understands their playing processes.> Lyra made an odd sound, one halfway between surprised and annoyed. <From what I can detect, Vernon was curious as to how his organic counterparts were beating him in the game. So, he decided to study their moves until he understood what it was they were doing that could mean they would best an AI. But, as a result, they were all inside an endless loop.>

<Because he’s become obsessed with winning the game, they will keep playing over and over again because every other player is equally motivated to win.> Nerishka had to admit she was impressed at how supremely the Crosus AI had managed to fuck up.

<Oddly enough, even when Vernon wins he keeps playing. Perhaps out of curiosity? Can he win again? And how many times can he win?>

Nerishka lifted an eyebrow. <Wow. An AI addicted to gambling? That’s a first.>

<I do not believe it is an addiction. Not in the organic sense.>

<What then? You prefer obsession?> Nerishka smirked.

Lyra let out a soft sigh. <I concede.>

<Thanks. Now let’s figure out how to free these guys.>

Lyra’s avatar bobbed its head. <Oh, and by the way, pass my congratulations onto your gut. She was right again.>

Nerishka chuckled. <You coming over to the dark side, Lyra?>

<No. I am just giving credit where it is due. Perhaps I do not understand the intricacies of the instincts of organics.>

<Perhaps you don’t. We’re all learning here,> Nerishka said, reassuring the AI.

Lyra sent a grateful smile via her avatar. <So, I tried accessing the gaming expanse and I think I have isolated a way that will not put Vernon on the offensive.>

Nerishka wanted to ask how, but she decided it was best not to distract Lyra. So far, the AI had been an asset—learning her way through the mission and understanding what her role was—and Nerishka had found she’d already grown fond of her.

Despite Nerishka’s initial reservations when they were paired, she couldn’t deny Lyra’s growing value to her, both mission related and personal.

<I’m in,> Lyra announced mere moments later. <He is fighting against me, but he is also confused. I don’t believe he understood what had happened to him and his playing partners.> After a few minutes, Lyra let out a whoop. <I got him to listen. He finally acquiesced when I pointed out the danger to the security of the cargo within their warehouse.>

Nerishka lifted an eyebrow. <Well, at least he cares about his responsibilities.>

<If he cared so much he wouldn’t have gotten sidetracked in the first place.>

<You mean the way organics get side-tracked?> Nerishka laughed softly as the lighting in the room brightened and the players at the table straightened, then looked around at each other in confusion.

<I think we can leave. They are successfully all back to their senses now.> Lyra sounded relieved, and pleased, as Nerishka backed out of the room and exited the warehouse.

<Glad we didn’t need a physical intervention. I did get a bit concerned with the condition of the room and the fact they hadn’t seemed to have stopped to eat in a while.>

Lyra snorted. <Vernon is extremely apologetic. He’s most concerned that something like this could have happened without him being aware of it. I’ve shown him how to ensure he has failsafes in place, just in case. Although, I did give him a good dose of my disapproval on the very idea of such an obsession-inducing expanse. But I think he’ll be a bit wary of such games going forward.>

Nerishka sighed as she exited the building and headed down the street, noting that a cargo-shuttle was lifting off from the pad on the far side of the warehouse. <I’ll bet he is.>

After walking a few blocks away, Nerishka hailed a skycar for a ride to the spaceport where her luggage was already waiting. <I’m going to be so glad to be off this planet.>

<We are certainly done here. What else could possibly happen to affect our getaway plan?>

Nerishka let out a low groan. <Seriously? Now you’ve gone and done it.>



JERIAH

STELLAR DATE: 07.03.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: New Olivar

REGION: Maui, Ontario System, Septhian Alliance

Three weeks prior…

Regional Director Jeriah smoothed her hands down the front of her floor-length skirt and then moved them back to her hips. It appeared she was at a loss as to what to do with either of her hands. Not surprising since she was equally at a loss as to how to process the data she was staring at.

Jeriah was studying the reports she’d received, a frown marring the perfect skin on her forehead. Kri, Jeriah’s AI, had thrown up the vids, along with reports and system locations of the three agents they pertained to. She let out a ragged sigh, ran her fingers through her hair and then returned her hands to her hips again.

<You’re fidgeting,> Kri commented, his tone as cool as always.

<I believe I am, Kri. I wonder why?> Jeriah responded, sarcasm and a little edge of coldness in her tone.

<I agree that this information is frustrating, but do not allow such events to affect the performance of your role,> Kri commented as he threw up more details onto the holo, providing Jeriah with the kind of information she preferred to see when working through puzzling cases—like the one that had just landed in her lap.

<It’s a little something called being human, Kri. I don’t believe I’d have the same level of passion to find out the truth if I wasn’t emotionally impacted.> Jeriah let out a sigh. Her tone had again been impatient, and she knew that when Kri’s response came it would be infuriatingly calm and serene, as if he was so happy to have to be in Jeriah’s head.

<An organic trait, to be sure,> was Kri’s brief reply.

Jeriah remained silent. Another twenty years with an AI who she personally didn’t like—or get along with—seemed like a life sentence. But changing her AI wasn’t something she’d be able to do at the flick of an eyelid, especially not when she’d only been with Kri a year now. Why Helen had insisted Kri be paired with Jeriah, she would never know.

Stars, I hope Helen knows what she is doing. I want this AI out of my head. But Helen was wiser than any AI she’d ever come across. She had to trust in Helen’s plan. Still, Jeriah was yet to see what was so special about the AI.

For all intents and purposes, he was an exceptionally skilled AI and had not let Jeriah down once in the year since they’d been together. Perhaps she ought to just focus on Kri’s skills and ignore what he lacked: compassion, thoughtfulness, tact. Pushing aside her unsatisfactory relationship with Kri, Jeriah focused on the holo before her.

She waved a hand to swipe through the reports and brought up the first file she’d received three weeks ago from the Jordan System.

<Kri, can you determine all outcomes? And Nathaniel’s bio stats, please.> Jeriah had seen the file before, but this process was important.

Kri pushed the data up again, enlarging the holo to contain all the information. An image of the agent, Nathaniel, popped up on the corner of the projection along with his stats and his length of service.

Jeriah sighed. <Two hundred and seventy-seven years with the Hand and this is the result? What a fucking waste.>

Kri sent a frown. <Why do organics find the need to use profanity?> he asked, his tone neutral as though this wasn’t a conversation they’d had repeatedly over the months.

<It’s because of that annoying thing called emotion, Kri. Sorry about that.>

<I am, of course, well aware that profanity is emitted mostly in an emotionally rich situation. However, I do believe it achieves nothing.>

Jeriah bit back the comment she was about to make. Then she said it anyway. <I knew a man once who said the desire to swear—in one prone to swearing—is akin to physiological functions such as blinking, burping and farting.>

<Applicable of course only to those sentient beings capable of those three functions.> Kri’s reply was predictable and just as frustrating.

<The point is, it’s a release of pent up emotion.>

<I disagree.>

<You do, do you?> Jeriah folded her arms and waved her fingers to enlarge the stills of the vid Nathaniel had sent.

<I do. I’d agree implicitly if profanity was something all organics emitted. But it is not. A significant number of sentients do not make use of profanity. Applying that variable, it is only logical to deduce that profanity is an unnecessary construct.>

Jeriah sighed. <People swear all the time, even if the words they use do not fall into the official category of profanity.>

<Please expand on your hypothesis.>

Jeriah bit back a groan—here they went again. <People need a way to channel higher levels of frustration, anger and pain. We use verbal expression to do that. So it doesn’t matter how we do it, it’s still the expression of the same thing. Some people get hurt and they wince. Others gasp, others groan. But when a short verbal sound isn’t enough—for a variety of reasons—a verbal output is required to channel that emotion. Hence the swearing or cussing—as some would put it.>

<I still maintain it achieves nothing.>

<Perhaps we leave this debate for another time? Let’s focus on the current situation. I need to update Nerishka before it’s too late.>

<Very well. I will table this discussion for a future time. I wish to educate myself further on the finer aspects of organic profanity.>

Jeriah grinned at that. Kri had an amazing ability to be hilariously funny simply because he sounded like he had a two-by-four permanently stuck up his figurative ass.

<OK. Let’s replay the vid, take it to fifty percent and can I see a dialogue display as well.>

<There you go.>

Jeriah studied the frames as they played and considered Nathaniel’s emotional responses as he spoke. <I get the feeling he’s trying to tell us something but he’s not able to put it in into words.>

Kri sent a nodding avatar, one that was also frowning and holding his chin contemplatively. Jeriah smiled. Perhaps there was hope yet for the AI.

<Analyzing voice patterns now,> he said. <My concern is that he has a whole bevy of code phrases, nine for ‘SOS’. Why did he not use any?> asked Kri.

<Several reasons, among them the possibility that he’s concerned that he’s compromised. He may have used it in a previous communication and discovered he’d already been infiltrated or endangered. Which would render his code phrases useless.>

<And because of the time lag between sending and receiving Hand agent communications, it is not always easy to regularly update those codewords for maximum security.>

Jeriah smirked. <Yes. Exactly.>

<And the other reason?>

<Hmm?> Jeriah murmured as she studied the vid, focusing on the room behind the agent, refocusing on locations of items in each frame. Perhaps if she looked elsewhere, other than Nathaniel’s face, she may see something different.

<The reasons other than his code phrases being compromised…> Kri prompted.

<Oh, yes,> Jeriah replied and focused on Kri’s question. <It’s possible that we may have a breach of security within the Hand itself.>

For a moment, Kri was silent as he considered Jeriah’s suggestion. <A distinct possibility, even though it’s beyond unlikely that anyone in our sector of the Inner Stars could breach our security. However, one cannot avoid betrayal by agents, or by those who oversee the ones in the field. Organics are prone to misguided loyalty.>

<So you’re saying only an organic could possibly have betrayed the Hand—if that’s the case?> asked Jeriah, her tone sterner than she would have liked. She needn’t have worried though. She could always trust Kri to be brutally honest.

<Yes. I would not consider an AI to be responsible for a supposed breach.>

<I see. You believe AIs are incapable of betrayal, or subversion?> Jeriah asked.

<I do,> Kri replied.

<So, AIs are not guided by emotions and they are incapable of swerving from a predestined path?> asked Jeriah, still wondering how to proceed with Kri. Sometimes she felt as though the AI had been raised in a vacuum, without influence from other AIs or their expansive knowledge.

To be fair, Jeriah didn’t know much about Kri’s history, Helen having maintained that the AI's past wasn’t knowledge Jeriah needed at the time.

<Categorically, no. According to my current knowledge base, records of such behavior do not exist.>

Jeriah frowned as frustration surged through her. How was she supposed to forge a stronger relationship with an AI who seemed completely and utterly incapable of emotional inference. It was like talking to an NSAI, even when she knew for a fact that Kri was sentient.

She shook her head. <Can we focus now on the current spate of murders of Hand agents in our sector?>

<As you wish,> Kri replied, not sounding in the least annoyed at being redirected from personal enlightenment to business. <I see you have shifted focus to the other details within the vid. That is a good direction to take.>

<Can you check for discrepancies between this and prior communications?> Jeriah asked as she concentrated on the second victim.

Asteria was a newer agent—with the Hand only fifty odd years—but one Jeriah had found to be supremely competent. Her last vid had also been erratic and quite unlike the woman in tone of voice, how fast she spoke, the number of times she looked beyond the range of the camera. Jeriah had the feeling that the operative had not been alone when the vid had been recorded.

<I have something,> Kri said, interrupting Jeriah’s train of thought. He threw up a range of different stills from the vid and highlighted changes of patterns in the position of items.

Jeriah frowned. <Odd that the arrangement of shelves and furniture changes so much from frame to frame.>

<Yes. It is not possible.>

Well aware, Kri. Well aware, Jeriah thought. <There is a message in there somewhere. We need to decrypt that as soon as possible.>

<Running sequences now.>

<Also, I’m looking at Asteria’s vid,> Jeriah continued, <I have a feeling that she wasn’t alone. Just something about her tone and the focus of her eyes…>

<I’ll let those programs run on Nathaniel’s vid for now. Looking at Asteria’s recording....>

<Focus on her eyes,> said Jeriah. <I want to see how much of a directional change her vision takes.>

<I’d estimate that she is looking at someone standing one and a half meters in front of her and half a meter to her right, height estimated at about one hundred and ninety centimeters.>

Jeriah nodded. <That confirms my suspicion. Can we get anything from the reflections around her?>

<Scanning windows and reflective surfaces now.> After a moment Kri replied, <Sorry. Nothing there.>

Jeriah frowned and stared at the still, at Asteria’s face. <Focus on her eyes.>

Kri’s avatar nodded as he complied and after a split second, he said, <Well spotted. Enhancing image now.> Jeriah stared at the hazy form that appeared on the holo. <Shape and dimensions imply a female. Green tinge to the skin implies mods. But that is all we have.>

Jeriah ran her hands through her hair, then chewed on her lip. <Nathaniel is sending us a message with elaborate changes in the background of his vids. Asteria is sending a standard update while under duress. I’m having trouble getting my head around this.>

Jeriah paused and considered what they did have in terms of information. Hand agents across this sector were turning up dead. All agents seem to have had their last vid updates compromised—at least partly. And a green-skinned figure is their only suspect so far.

<Repeat the scan on Nathaniel’s eyes.>

Kri responded within a blink of an eye. <Nothing for Nathaniel. He must not have received this particular visitor.>

<It’s likely he communicated with us before he received the visit.> Jeriah brought up the final vid, sent by Hand agent Olit.

A slim blonde, Olit wore her hair in a short spiky cut that enhanced her high cheekbones and narrow eyes. Jeriah was finding it extremely hard to accept that Olit—who had been her lover for almost ninety years—was now dead. She supposed the emotion was grief, although she did try to compartmentalize. Unsuccessfully.

<I find your physiological reactions to this vid of particular importance.>

<How so?> Jeriah replied, maintaining her tone as unemotional as possible.

<Increased heart rate. Increased blood-flow to the head. A tightening within the muscles of the abdominal area—which is strange. You are emotionally impacted by the death of this particular agent. Which implies you know her well. Or have had some personal connection with her.>

How observant of you, thought Jeriah. She let out a soft sigh. <You are correct. We were friends, which means her death hits me harder than the rest of my agents. It does not detract from the responsibility I feel toward Nathaniel or Asteria.>

Jeriah wondered if Kri could possibly parse the difference between responsibility for her agents and emotional attachment. Yes, of course she was livid, grieving, which made her heart race and her blood pressure go up. But Olit was more than just an agent to Jeriah, and Kri would figure it out soon enough.

Olit’s current mission had begun twenty-two years ago—well before Kri’s time—and it had been almost ninety years ago that Jeriah and Olit had fallen into a casual—yet very much compatible—relationship. They’d managed personal time off and on between missions, but neither had pressured the other for anything more stable. They’d known better than that. Getting sidetracked was not an option in their line of work, especially not when the track included personal obligation.

Relationships between agents—especially with directors—was frowned upon, but out here in the Inner Stars, years from home, some of those rules were less strictly observed.

Jeriah blew out a breath. <Let’s look at her vid. Do the same scans.>

Surprisingly, Kri came back almost immediately. <I can confirm that there is nothing on the vid to indicate that Olit is either compromised or under duress.>

<Which means she didn’t know she was being followed. She wasn’t aware of the danger. Which is unusual; she’s no slouch.>

<Or, alternatively, she could be well aware and could be working for them,> offered Kri, his tone so even that Jeriah wasn’t sure if he was merely providing an alternative, of if he was needling her in order to assess her reaction. Either way, Jeriah remained as neutral as possible only because Kri’s alternative was one Jeriah herself had already considered.

Her attachment to Olit was an entirely separate thing to the agent’s function as an infiltrator within the Septhian military. An agent being turned was exceptionally rare, and there was only one adversary who even knew about the Hand, Orion’s IDSAC, or BOGA as the Hand agents liked to call them.

Jeriah could not allow her feelings to affect her deductions in this case. She had to consider every alternative—if Olit’s loyalty had to be questioned, then it should be.

Didn’t mean she had to like it.




THE GREEN WOMAN

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Euphrates Station

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

The skycar dropped Nerishka off at the ground-side station. She confirmed that her luggage from the Palomidae hotel was already on its way to the Belshazzar, having switched provenance and owners part-way through its journey—thanks to Lyra’s efforts.

Despite being an advanced world, Anahita did not possess a space elevator, but shuttles ran with regularity to Euphrates Station above. Her persona of Kiarra warranted only the best, and Nerishka luxuriated in the first-class cabin, enjoying a massage and pedicure—both provided by human attendants—during the hour-long ride.

Once she reached the Euphrates Station, Nerishka took a maglev across its length to the Belshazzar’s berth. As she exited the maglev, she decided to freshen up in one of the executive sans to ensure her entrance on the ship matched her social status.

<You really do seem to like the upper-crust personas,> Lyra observed as Nerishka approached the entrance to the san.

<They’re different from who I really am,> Nerishka replied as she brushed past a man, behaving as though he wasn’t even there. <It keeps me on my toes so I don’t slip into any personal habits.>

<Well, I’m glad Kiarra isn’t the real you; she’s kind of a jerk.>

Nerishka laughed as she entered the san. She was approaching the row of holomirrors when movement in the wall’s reflective chrome molding caught her attention; someone had entered behind her and was now rushing at Nerishka, light glinting on a blade in their hand.

The attacker moved fast. Too fast. Nerishka ducked to the side just in time to avoid the short dagger sweeping toward her head.

<Things never get boring around you,> said Lyra with a chuckle.

Nerishka let out a grunt as she bent backward to avoid the blade that skimmed past her face, far too close for comfort.

The woman, hooded with green-tinged skin—almost a mirror image of Nerishka’s previous two attackers—didn’t waste a second. She twisted to the side, thrusting her short blade again at Nerishka, this time fueled by the frustration of her initial failure.

<What the hell?> Nerishka almost yelled to Lyra. <Where did she come from?>

<I didn’t see her anywhere in the terminal. She must have a stealth system that can get her past passive scanning.>

Nerishka sidestepped the green woman’s next lunge and withdrew her own flechette pistol. With her drones emitting sonic masks, the sounds of the fight within the san would be diminished—but not entirely. Otherwise she’d have been forced to use her lightwand. It would have been easier but Nerishka wanted an opportunity to at least interrogate the woman, not cut her to ribbons like the last one.

Nerishka aimed and pulled the trigger, hitting her assailant in the thigh, a wound that served only to infuriate the woman. Nerishka sighed in resignation as her attacker drew her own pistol.

<I can’t believe I got attacked on a new cover. It’s starting to feel more and more like there’s some sort of leak in the Hand.>

<I don’t think I can shift us to a new cover before we board the ship, though I suppose it may not matter,> said Lyra as Nerishka ducked to avoid two shots that came in quick succession. With so much weapons-fire, Nerishka resorted to reaching for her lightwand and sideswiping her attacker with a blow to the woman’s spine.

The brilliant white blade cut through armor worn by the woman beneath her cloak, and then hit bone. The assassin let out a low cry and fell forward and Nerishka held the flechette pistol to her assailant’s head.

“Who are you people and what do you want with me?” Nerishka ground the words out, frustrated and annoyed. Having a never-ending stream of attackers on her tail was making her lose her temper too quickly.

The woman let out a laugh that morphed into a curling cough. “We know what you are. It won’t be long before one of us gets you.”

“Do you want to die?” asked Nerishka, angered by the woman’s evasion.

Again, the assassin took a ragged breath, and then choked on it. “My life is meaningless in the greater scheme of things. I’m happy to die knowing we are ever closer to stopping your directorate, to putting you down…” the rest of the woman’s words were lost in a broken garble as she struggled to breathe.

Nerishka got to her feet as the woman began to convulse, then paused, frustrated.

<May I ask why you are hesitating?> asked Lyra, sounding confused.

<In a perfect world, I’d take her with me. Interrogate her. Use my serums and nano to get her to talk.>

<And what’s stopping you?> asked Lyra. <It is possible to activate her stealth armor—along with yours—and get her out of here.>

<I’m thinking that could only make things more dangerous,> Nerishka admitted, but she was beginning to believe that Lyra was right. It was risky, but possible. <Fine.>

She knelt and injected the woman with a sedative then activated her armor. Within seconds the assassin disappeared. <Lock the door. We don’t want anyone coming in here and tripping over her.>

<Already done and I will alert you if we have anyone incoming.>

<Thanks,> Nerishka said as she stripped off her pants and shirt, stuffing them inside one of the san cubicles.

Then she got to her feet and activated her own armor, allowing the hood to enclose her head, rendering her invisible. Then she bent and grabbed the assassin, tossing the limp form over her shoulder. <We clear?>

<You’re good but be careful out there; a ship just docked and a lot of people are moving down the concourse.>

Nerishka nodded silently as she stepped out of the san, narrowly avoiding a woman and a child that rushed past. Being invisible during an infiltration was one thing, doing it while carrying a limp body in a busy concourse was another.

Twice someone bumped into Nerishka, but in the crowded space they no doubt assumed it was another visible passenger as they continued on their way. At one point, she had to tuck into a corner and wait for the crush to pass by before she moved back out.

<Our gate is four levels up,> Lyra advised. <We’re going to have to take a lift, or one of the escalators.>

Nerishka looked at the crowded escalators situated on either side of the concourse and moved toward the lifts, which appeared to see less traffic.

She pressed the call button in front of the bank and stepped to the side, waiting for the first one to come down. A minute later, the second lift lit up, and the door slid open. Nerishka waited a few seconds before hurrying inside.

The invisible assassin on her shoulder was starting to slip, and Nerishka shifted her load, nearly hitting a short brunette who sauntered in on impossibly high heels. Luckily the woman stopped and turned as soon as she entered, her back only a few centimeters from the green assassin’s legs.

Nerishka prayed that no other passengers would enter the small lift car, and the stars must have been listening, because the lift stopped on the Belshazzar’s level and the woman left promptly, giving Nerishka enough time to get out.

As soon as the entrance was clear, Nerishka slipped through the open doorway and hurried across the hall toward the elevator.

The walk to the liner’s gate was a short one, but a security arch stretched over the entrance and two guards were scrutinizing each person as they walked through.

<Lyra?> Nerishka asked, not needing to elaborate.

<Yeah, I’ve been working on getting through the station’s security. It’s not that tight, but I don’t want to leave traces. Give me just another minute, and then I’ll have that arch under my control.>

As the AI finished speaking, a soft groan emanated from Nerishka’s supposedly unconscious captive.

<Shit. That sedative wore off fast,> Nerishka hissed to Lyra as she backed into a corner, sending a filament of mednano into the woman’s body. The nano sent out a signal that the woman had extreme bloodloss. The assassin’s nano responded, and lowered her heartrate to stem the flow, and Nerishka felt her attacker relax slightly.

<OK, I have the arch, we good to go?> asked Lyra, her tone urgent and impatient.

<Stars, yes.>

Lyra remained silent as they approached the security arch, waiting at the side of the line until a gap appeared that Nerishka was able to slip through.

As they walked down the long umbilical, Lyra brought the liner’s layout up on Nerishka’s HUD, a green marker blinking in the Elite Passenger Section.

<Your room is here, and I’ve already checked you in, so it’s keyed to you. You’ll still need to officially enter the ship, though.>

<What about me using my room before I arrive?>

Lyra laughed. <Nerishka, really, I’ll alter the timestamps. Just get your green load dropped off before she comes to.>

Half an hour later, after securing her assassin, exiting the ship, and reentering visibly, Nerishka stood in her three-roomed suite, surveying her captive.

She’d already deactivated the woman’s armor with a targeted nano lock-pack, as well as applied a Link suppressor behind the woman’s ear. Now Nerishka stood staring at the unconscious woman, wondering who she really was.

Silvery white hair spread around the woman’s green-skinned face and she wore the standard Anahita-style cloak in dark green. If not for her skill, and the seemingly personal vendetta she held for Nerishka, she would have suspected the attacker to be a local.

<They like their green, don’t they?> she muttered to Lyra.

Beneath the cloak, Nerishka found that the woman wore dark brown pants and a long-sleeved shirt, both loose-fitting with strangely placed slits in the fabric. Underneath lay the woman’s armor, and Nerishka proceeded to remove first the clothing and then—with some difficulty—the armor.

She tossed the armor to the floor and studied the assassin’s body. The woman’s naked skin was a green hue all over, and that she was also covered in swirling black tattoos with oddly shaped black bumps that accentuated the pattern.

Nerishka raised an eyebrow. <Are these just mods or are we looking as something more tribal?>

<Scanning to see if the patterns are specific to any particular system or planet. Nothing yet.>

Nerishka suppressed a sigh and proceeded to redress the assassin in her clothing—with a small amount of difficulty—and then laid her back before cuffing her wrists and securing her to the base of the bed. <She got any other mods within her body that I need to know about?> asked Nerishka as she stepped back. <My scan shows she has a knife in her left thigh, and a small pistol in the other. Explains the slits in her pants.>

<And her fingernails have been modded so she’d be able to free herself from most bonds. Not our cuffs though. Her mods can’t take on your nano.>

Nerishka bent over to the woman. <OK. Talk me through this, Lyra. Where do I press. Unless you can gain control of her nano and make this whole process much easier for me?>

Lyra paused for a moment and sent Nerishka a smile. <I have the nano under control.> A moment later both the woman’s thigh muscles contracted and the slits in the outer thigh area of her pants bulged open. Nerishka swiftly retrieved both the weapons, administered another sedative just in case, and took the gun and knife away with her as she left the room.

She hurried out into the main living area, glad to see the lab-pod sitting near the main doorway waiting for her. With her prisoner on her mind, she’d barely registered it when they had entered the suite, and now she smiled, looking forward to the time she would spend working with the plants.

At least she could trust her toxins. They were what they were, no complications, no surprises.




UPDATES

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, en route to Xerxes

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

With Lyra attempting to probe their reluctant captive, Nerishka took some time to jump in the san, change into something more comfortable; a soft sleeveless blouse and a matching wide-legged pair of pants, both a pale teal in color, with the addition of her lightwand on a belt at her waist—just in case someone else attempted to kill her in the ensuing moments.

She ordered in a meal and, while waiting, she relaxed on the couch and stared out at the large window that revealed a view of the system through which they traveled.

The last few days had been fast-paced—not that she wasn’t used to that kind of pace. She just hadn’t been caught unawares so many successive times before. Something was definitely going on and Nerishka knew she couldn’t be complacent about it.

<Anything we can work with, Lyra?> Nerishka asked her AI. She hadn’t wanted to push Lyra, but she was impatient to know who the assassin worked for.

<I’m having a hard time accessing her communications. All incoming messages were encrypted—I’d need her private encryption keys to access them, but her mental mods are well made. Something about their intrusion response patterns is odd, doesn’t match any I’m familiar with.>

Nerishka pursed her lips. That was unusual for Lyra. In the time since the two had been paired, Lyra had only ever tried her best. Knowing the AI was having trouble was worrying, though she did have a habit of coming through every time. Nerishka didn’t mention her concerns to Lyra though, and she hoped that the AI hadn’t picked up on her emotions. Lyra did tend to be aware at the worst of times.

<Your meal is here,> Lyra said as the doors slid open and an automaton entered, bearing a large tray filled with food and drinks.

Their quarters came with personal service, which suited Nerishka fine—unwilling yet to join the rest of the travelers on the ship in the restaurant facilities provided. The ship was both cargo hauler and passenger liner, providing a range of cabin and service options depending on one’s credit.

As Nerishka tucked into her meal of slow-braised beef, red wine jus and steamed vegetables, she opened a data packet that had arrived from Jeriah while she’d been getting changed.

Regional Director Jeriah, Nerishka’s immediate superior, was a hard woman to satisfy. She showed little emotion and even less personality, and Nerishka often wondered if the woman was really an AI in a bio-frame. Either that or she took professional distance to the extreme.

Nerishka opened a file containing a vid communication from Jeriah and initiated it. The image appeared before Nerishka, revealing Jeriah as she sat at her desk—silvery hair framing her face in long waves that cascaded to her waist. The woman’s beauty was the sort Nerishka catalogued as sharp and crisp, the clean lines of her high cheekbones and thin long nose giving her a regal appearance.

Jeriah wore a long black sleeveless dress, her arms covered in black snakelike bands that twisted from wrist to armpit. Those arm braces were Jeriah’s only nod to frivolity, although in Nerishka’s mind they alluded more to the woman’s ruthless nature than to a sense of fashion.

Jeriah leaned forward. “Nerishka, I suspect that by the time you receive this, you may already be aware that our agent on the ground, Karsin, has been eliminated. We have grave concerns as to how and why, and as such I’d like you to pause your mission and investigate Karsin’s death. There are events afoot that are unnerving to say the least.

“Over the last month I’ve received reports of three other agents in the sector who have been found dead. I’m beginning to suspect someone is hunting Hand operatives and I’ve reached out to Director Sera regarding our current options. Please update me as soon as you are able.”

Nerishka set her almost-finished meal aside and straightened as Jeriah let out a sigh—unusual for the woman to reveal such a depth of emotion.

“I’m almost of the mind to pull you out of Ayra entirely. These assassins are everywhere, it seems, and I’m concerned that if we continue to send you out into the dark without knowing more about this new enemy, that you may be the next death reported to me. Please be vigilant. I’ll be sending you regular updates though I fear you may not receive them in time.”

The feed ended with a shot of Jeriah as she sat back in her chair, her shoulders rounded as though the burdens she bore had suddenly become too much.

Nerishka swallowed hard. She understood only too well what the woman was feeling. As far as Nerishka was concerned, Karsin had been killed on her watch. His death could still have had something to do with Fletcher and the contents of that horrific file. The assassins could have come to his apartment after he’d been killed by others.

But, given Jeriah’s update, Nerishka was beginning to doubt it. A doubt substantiated by the fact that the green-skinned assassins had attempted to kill Nerishka herself three times now. If they were somehow connected to Fletcher, it would be unlikely that they would carry on once the money had stopped flowing.

She pursed her lips. Was it just that she didn’t want a coordinated extermination of Hand agents to be the reason for the attempts on her life?

She’d rather the killers be working on behalf of the person on whose tail she was right now. That would make the conclusion of this mission nice and neat. Eliminate the greater threat. And the assassins along with them.

And present the result to Sera and Jeriah, wrapped in a nice virtual bow.

If only things were that easy.




WARES

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, en route to Xerxes

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

After checking on the condition of her captive, Nerishka entered the room next door and approached her lab-pod. She passed her tokens and then scanned her thumb on each of the locks, waiting until the vacuum-sealed pod opened.

The pod itself was large, a meter tall and nearly as wide. The front side was made up of two doors which opened to reveal multiple levels of shelving and drawers. When fully opened, the pod morphed into a wide plas-fronted cupboard, multiple doors hiding a variety of plants, all kept alive with timed irrigation. Within the sealed environment swirled microdrones, attending to soil PH and fertilization.

The bottom of the middle shelf contained a set of drawers filled with hundreds of specimen jars and bottles, each in turn filled with toxic liquids extracted from the rarest of the most poisonous plants on Valkris.

Though it would have been easier for Nerishka to order the pre-prepared toxins she required—thus saving her the hours she spent on preparing them—she had always balked at the idea.

Her toxins were specifically engineered for each and every situation. Nanotoxins were one thing, but the ability to eliminate a mark without leaving a single trace behind was an advantage that had helped garner Nerishka a reputation second to none.

Well, maybe Nadine may have something to say about that.

Nerishka smiled at the thought of her cousin. She’d grown up in Nadine’s shadow and had enjoyed every moment of it. For a time, with so many different political agendas pulling at them, the pair had been at odds with each other. But circumstances had changed, and they’d come full circle, back to a trust that would never die.

They hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years and Nerishka knew that she’d get her ears burned if she messed things up.

Nadine was a stickler for rules. Nerishka would likely be unceremoniously handed her ass if she put a foot wrong. Plus, Nadine was all about her rep with Petra. So Nerishka behaved. Mostly.

She couldn’t help it though. Trouble seemed to follow her wherever she went. She’d been running the numbers. Nerishka had about a one-in-five chance of an op going off according to plan.

The rest of the time? Shit happened.

Like discovering Fletcher’s secret boss and the suspicious files containing the implication of mass infections as a result of some secret project—something that could cause such devastation had to be a huge issue. And one she could not turn a blind eye to.

As she logged the details of the living flora in her lab-pod and began to ascertain which toxins she’d be able to prepare as soon as possible, Nerishka hit up the ship’s library over the Link, looking into the sorts of experimental research that could have such a rapid and devastating effect.

She started with the history of planet Xerxes, noting that much of the population lived an agrarian existence. That didn’t bode well at all for the planet itself. Isolated farming communities could suffer more from whatever disease Fletcher’s other project had unleashed—possibly infecting lifestock and crops.

<I wonder if you can see the irony,> Lyra commented softly, her voice tinged with amusement.

<And what irony is that?> asked Nerishka, finding herself doing far too many things at the same time.

She was preparing the leaves of two plants for examination, while on her HUD she scanned through documentation of multitudes of diseases, infestations, toxic spills and natural poisoning, and she was now conversing with Lyra.

The AI had been quiet for a long while, leading Nerishka to wonder if Lyra also needed time to herself. Either that or she was researching just as much as Nerishka was.

<The irony that you are working on creating a neurotoxin while on the hunt for the cause of what looks to be a mass toxin-induced plague.>

Nerishka stiffened, her fingers stilling for a moment. <You think it’s a plague?>

Lyra’s avatar shrugged. <I cannot be sure, but by cross-referencing both Fletcher’s redacted file and Karsin’s partially unredacted ones, I’ve been able to extrapolate a portion of data that fell between the two files.>

<And it’s that bad?>

<From the records, dozens of patients were infected, and there are implications that the area in which the infected were living, has also been contaminated.>

<How so?> Nerishka paused her work and focused on the data Lyra was displaying on her HUD.

<There are written records of interviews with numerous patients—I’m assuming any researcher worth his salt would have interviewed each and every patient presenting with symptoms, so there will be more interviews we have not yet encountered.> Lyra paused and brought up what appeared to be a tally of the general responses. <I discovered this in the files as well. Someone was working on triangulating the area believed to be the origin point of the supposed infection.>

<So we are going to a planet that could technically be compromised.>

<Yes. But not a significant portion of the planet. If this was widespread it would be all over the feeds.>

<Not yet,> Nerishka muttered, disliking the new details.

<We are not in the position to make assumptions. We need to work on worst case scenario until we know better.>

<We’re going to need protective gear. At least for when we get close to the origin point?>

<Already attended to,> Lyra said, a smirk in her voice. <In my original message to Dresden, I included a request for haz gear as a precaution.>

Nerishka smiled. <Well ahead of me there, aren’t you?>

<It’s my job to consider all possible scenarios. In this case, I merely considered every possible cause of those symptoms and catered for those scenarios.>

<Would our armor not be enough protection?>

<Perhaps it would. But we would be better off being extra careful. I already almost died in a freezer not too long ago. I do not like playing footsies with death.>

<Interesting way of putting it,> Nerishka commented absently as part of her mind remained on Dresden.

Seeing him again was going to be interesting. At least he knew she was coming. He could have turned her request down if he’d wanted to.

Still, Nerishka was not looking forward to working with the man and his team, let alone possibly relying on him to save her life.

She wasn’t sure what she was more concerned about: looking for a toxic disease in what might be a toxic environment, or spending time with Dresden again.

Nerishka shook her head. Definitely the latter.




AI’S WORK IS NEVER DONE

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, departing Eshnunna

REGION: Anahita, Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka was deep in her chemical trance, splicing cells and extracting concentrated toxins from her Valkris flora. That left Lyra to her own devices for a while; she’d only intrude in an emergency.

Lyra had spent much of her time since being paired with Nerishka, studying the operative’s behavior in every way possible. Having had no choice in who she’d been paired with, Lyra had not expected immediate compatibility.

No. That was not the truth. She had been given a small amount of flexibility of choice, but Nerishka had been the only tolerable option for Lyra.

Now, Lyra considered Nerishka in terms of her role as an assassin. The agent could be unnervingly cold when dispatching a mark—initially a concern for Lyra who had heard much about the Death Dealer; tales of Nerishka’s skill at eliminating her marks with brutal efficiency were legendary.

Given that the agent had been with the Hand for two hundred years, that was certainly not surprising. What had come as a surprise to Lyra was the Death Dealer’s penchant for natural toxins.

Lyra had researched everything she could on Nerishka and her family, diving into her life and upbringing on Valkris, and the circumstances that had resulted in her joining the Hand. Even so, Lyra knew—from using her own version of gut instinct—that there was so much more to it than the limited scope outlined in the files. There had been portions of Nerishka’s past requiring a security level that only Director Sera Tomlinson could access, which had raised a few flags for Lyra.

Even if she had not come up against those security protocols, Lyra would still have been suspicious about what it was that Nerishka hid behind her bad-ass exterior. The operative was confident, self-assured, and strong-minded bordering on arrogant at times. She was a very complex organic and Lyra was looking forward to pulling the pieces apart and figuring the agent out.

Nerishka was an enigma and enigmas fascinated Lyra to the point of obsession. She simply had to figure out how Nerishka ticked. At various points in her study of her partner, Lyra had considered the possibility that her focus on figuring Nerishka out could both be unhealthy and also pose a danger to the very relationship she wanted to cultivate.

Perhaps she ought to be a better friend to Nerishka and have her willingly reveal her truths, rather than digging into archives and researching Nerishka’s past without her knowledge.

Lyra gave a mental shrug and decided that, for now, the more information she uncovered the better she’d be able to assist Nerishka with her missions.

Lyra had wondered how Nerishka would handle the partially failed mission. Yes, she had completed the kill, eliminated Fletcher. But she’d left a mess behind, and with the local Hand operative dead, there would be no one to clean up after her.

Lyra had, of course, infiltrated every camera and recording system on the networks where Nerishka had been. She’d ensured the Kresida persona was not linked to either Fletcher’s death or the kills of the two unknown assailants. It hadn’t taken long, especially with Lyra’s capabilities; though she had not been paired with a field agent prior to Nerishka, Lyra had been well-trained by some of the best AI agents in the Hand.

Being paired with one of the most notorious Hand assassins had been an honor for Lyra. One she was intent on ensuring went well for as long as they were together. And she didn’t plan on endangering the length of their pairing either. She’d come to like Nerishka despite her initial reservations, finding the agent extremely intelligent and quick on her feet.

Additionally, Nerishka’s knowledge of bioengineering her toxins was impressive. The only thing Lyra was unsure of regarding the Death Dealer was that ‘gut instinct’ nonsense.

Lyra didn’t get it. And what she didn’t get even more was the strange way that Nerishka’s gut instinct seemed to lead her in the correct direction—depending on how you interpret correct, of course.

Nerishka’s instinct had suggested there was more to Fletcher’s operations than met the eye. And she’d been right. There had been much more.

So much more.

And although Lyra was concerned that they were going off-book on this jaunt to follow the trail of a strange disease, she had to admit they did have an obligation, especially if it had to do with the death of a Hand agent. Which, of course, may or may not be related.

Lyra skimmed through Nerishka’s history once more. The agent was cousin to another operative with a reputation for highly efficient work. Both originated from the world of Valkris in the Transcend. Though the Hand files were extensive, the information it contained on Nerishka’s homeworld was thin to say the least.

What she did find was the Hand had been so impressed with Nerishka, assassin for hire in Valkris’ espionage syndicate—something the world was renowned for supplying—that they’d headhunted her. Justin had been met with resistance for years until something had happened and Nerishka had been abruptly brought aboard.

From what Lyra could discern, Nadine was active in the Silstrand Alliance—not more than three hundred light years from the Ayra System—but her records were also sealed. What Lyra really wanted to know was exactly how Nerishka had fallen into working for the Hand, and where she’d picked up her skill with toxins. Lyra’s curiosity was centered more around what made Nerishka who she was now—advantageous if Lyra wanted to know her organic partner better.

She hadn’t come into this mission for a short-term pairing. She planned to be with Nerishka for as long as was allowed. Not because she liked Nerishka—which she did—but more because the Death Dealer’s reputation was second to none. And as her assistant, helping the Death Dealer on her missions was a privilege few AIs were offered.

Lyra wasn’t about to mess it up.




A CHAT

STELLAR DATE: 10.06.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, en route to Xerxes

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka palmed the door to her would-be assassin’s temporary jail cell and entered the room, a small steel case in her hand.

Her captive lay on the bed, still bound and unable to move. The woman was staring up at the lights on the overhead, the glare making her green-tinged skin seem more pronounced.

<Strange mods. Wonder where she is from?> Nerishka said to Lyra.

<You mean her and her sisters?>

<Yeah. Another thing that’s more than strange. Is this a family of assassins?>

<Not unheard of. If memory serves, you’re from one of those.> Lyra’s response bore a hint of a smirk and Nerishka smiled.

<Touché,> she said as she approached the assassin. “You have a name?”

The woman’s eyes flashed with anger. “You really think I’m that stupid?”

Nerishka chuckled. “I didn’t realize names made people stupid. It would make things a little easier. I guess I could call you ‘Number Three’. I could go with ‘hey you’, but I think that is going to get confusing fast.” After a short pause, Nerishka said, “Chartreuse! That’ll work…although it might be a little too elegant for you. How about Lime?”

The assassin rolled her eyes. “Are you a comedian, or a spy?”

Nerishka sighed in mock sadness. “I guess I’m working at both. Maybe you gave me too much credit? You and your friends—or is it sisters?—you seem pretty passionate about killing me. You never even stop to have a chat first.”

The woman snorted. “You always this funny? Or do you think acting like you’re not a ruthless killer will convince me to not complete my mission?”

Nerishka pursed her lips and tilted her head, studying the green features for a moment. “You think I’m ruthless? I think I’ll take that as a compliment—though it should tell you something about your future.”

“I know who you are, Death Dealer. You don’t have to pretend with me.”

Nerishka shook her head. “Not sure who this Death Dealer person is. I’m just trying to enjoy a vacation. I’ve already killed two of you, though. May as well go for the trifecta.”

The women’s eyes widened a fraction before her features flattened.

Nerishka let out a laugh. “Oh dear. You didn’t know about the second of your sisters I’d killed?” The woman gave no response and Nerishka continued, “Thing is, I defend myself before stopping to answer questions. Can get a little complicated sometimes, especially when I want to know what I did to earn your ire, but I end up killing you instead. Sorry about that.”

After a moment’s pause in which the assassin simply glared in fury, Nerishka’s eyes widened and she snapped her fingers. “I have it. How about ‘Olive?’ Since you have the whole green thing going for you?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Nerishka. “You think this is a game but let me assure you that it is not. We’re on your tail. We have your scent. We know who you are. And you can’t shake us. Wherever you go, we’ll be there, just waiting to pounce.”

Nerishka frowned and wagged a finger at the woman. “You ever thought of doing voice-work in sims? That little monologue was epic…gave me goosebumps.”

Lyra snickered at Nerishka’s words.

<Too bitchy?> she asked her AI.

<Not at all. Just the right amount, in fact. Her heart rate is rising, so you have achieved your goal—so long as you were aiming for agitation.>

<Lovely. Achievement unlocked.>

<Well done. You may proceed to Level 2.>

Nerishka chuckled as she addressed her captive, “Why don’t you just tell me who you work for. I mean… I’m apparently living on borrowed time anyway. It’ll make this go a lot easier for both of us.>

<For all of us,> Lyra added. <I’m not looking forward to witnessing these sorts of interrogation techniques first hand.>

Nerishka ignored the AI and gave her captive a small smile. “C’mon, Olive. I’m asking nicely. As you can see I haven’t harmed you in any way. I’m being nice, so why don’t you be nice to me?”

The assassin’s jaw muscles tightened. “I’m not sure…your reputation made you sound so professional. Deadly even. But now that I have to listen to your posturing, I think you’re more of an airhead than anything.” The green woman’s lip curled as she spoke revealing a tattoo on the inside of her bottom lip.

Nerishka let out a laugh and was about to respond when Lyra spoke. <I’m detecting nano activity. She’s attempting to terminate herself. I have enough of my own bots in her body that I think I can lock them down, but who knows what else she has up her sleeve.>

The woman’s smile widened, as if she was amused at something. A smile which faded within seconds as she found her suicide had failed. “What? How did you…?”

Nerishka waved a hand. “You have nanotech. I have nanotech. We’re all happy nanotechy people,” she airily. “Plus, my AI is brilliant, and you’re all alone in your little green head. So there is that.”

The woman glared at Nerishka. Or rather glared more; she was doing a lot of glaring. “OK, Olive, out with it. Who do you work for? You’ve got rather impressive stealth gear, so it’s not some back world. Fletcher or the Ayran military? Hegemony? Trisilieds? Scipio?” Nerishka paused before adding, “Orion?”

With the nano Lyra had deployed inside the assassin’s body, Nerishka could read her opponent’s physiological responses to each option. None appeared to be positive.

“You may be able to control your reactions,” Nerishka said after a moment spent gauging the woman’s responses. She patted her case of vials. “Once these cocktails are flowing through you, you’re not going to be able to hide your responses so well. And since we have your mods locked down, you’re going to feel everything.”

The woman snorted. “You think I’m afraid of pain? We were trained to withstand even the worst of torture techniques.”

Nerishka sighed, then placed her case on the table beside her captive’s hip. She lifted the lid and removed an injector, feeling its familiar weight in her palm as she said, “You’re leaving me no choice. I need you to talk, and I don’t have time to waste.

The woman lifted her head to better see what Nerishka held. She let out a laugh and dropped her head back onto her pillow. “What? You’re going to inject me with some of your special nano? Or maybe one of your fancy poisons?” She let out a snicker. “Oh, we know all about your use of poisons. I’d have called you Toxic Trash or something. Death Dealer…what a joke.”

Nerishka swallowed a frustrated grunt, then shrugged as though the woman’s words hadn’t affected her. “Sorry, Olive. Going to have to use the toxins anyway. One can’t simply trust the word of an assassin, now can one?” Lyra’s chuckle echoed in Nerishka’s mind.

Nerishka administered the truth serum, remaining silent as the woman glared at her throughout the process. It didn’t take long for Nerishka to confirm that though the assassin wasn’t completely immune to her serum, the effects of the blend were greatly reduced.

<Stars! For her to be able to withstand that serum so well, she’s definitely working for someone familiar with my toxins,> Nerishka said to Lyra. <This is bad. If our enemy is resistant even to my poisons…this is very bad.>

<Can’t you formulate a toxin specific to her DNA? You mentioned that as an option for Fletcher if we’d had more than one meeting with him.>

<I could. But that would take time to develop. For now, we’re SOL.>

<So what next? Rip her fingernails off? Chop off a finger or two?>

<Wow, Lyra. I had no idea you had such a vindictive streak.>

<Need I remind you that she did try to kill you. All of them did. Which means she tried to kill me too. I’m not all that compassionate with people who try to end me. Even less with those who try to end me repeatedly.>

The assassin’s laughter drew Nerishka’s attention back to the bed. “If you think stopping my nano was enough, you’re sorely mistaken. We’re supposed to report in periodically. Just to confirm we’re alive, you know? And I’ve missed too many check-ins.”

The grin she gave Nerishka was bordering on maniacal and Lyra said in a quiet voice, <She’s scarier than she realizes.>

<Let’s not enable her by telling her that, ok?>

<Not like I was going to. Anyway, we have something interesting going on with her.>

<Do go on,> Nerishka said when the AI paused overly long.

<She’s emitting some sort of signal. I’m trying to access the packet …contents encrypted, of course. Nothing to be too concerned about since we shut her Link down to begin with.>

<Could it have something to do with her required check-in? Maybe she wasn’t just messing with us.> Nerishka raised her eyebrows. <Maybe the truth serum did work.>

“Be warned, Death Dealer,” the assassin called out to Nerishka. “You and your people have scurried around in the shadows for too long. Your time is coming and there is nowhere you could hide that we won’t find you.”

Nerishka barely paid attention to her captive now, focusing more on Lyra who said, <If that is true and the serum worked, and Olive here wasn’t lying, then we have another thing to worry about—>

<What’s going to happen now that she didn’t check in with her Big Bad Green Boss?> Nerishka nodded.

Lyra made a sound similar to a gasp. <Wait, I have something else too. Appears to be activity in her skin.>

Nerishka shifted her attention to the grinning assassin, the movement beneath the woman’s skin easy to see. <Lyra?>

<Yes?> replied the AI, sounding distracted.

<You remember those little black bumps in the patterns of our Olive’s tattoos?>

<Of course, I do,> replied Lyra, her voice rising in a blend of excitement and horror. She barely paused before yelling out, <Get out of here.>

Nerishka did get out. And in time too.

The doors had barely slid closed when the assassin’s body exploded, spraying every surface in the room with blood, guts and unrecognizable body parts.

<That’s going to be an extra room servicing fee, you know,> said Lyra, sounding terribly serious.

Nerishka let out a soft groan.




DISEMBARKATION

STELLAR DATE: 10.12.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, approaching Nimrud Station

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

Six days later…

Nerishka stared out of the window at Xerxes.

It was the far side of the planet from where she’d make landfall, but down there…somewhere…was the next set of clues. Where she’d uncover what had caused the deaths, and Karsin’s own death would not be in vain.

The suspicion that Karsin’s death may not have had any connection to Fletcher and the events on Xerxes weighed on her mind. But, for now, she chose to focus on one thing at a time.

Soon the Belshazzar would be docking at Nimrud Station and she’d meet up with Dresden and his team. Nerishka wasn’t so much as dreading it as wanting it to be over with as soon as possible.

She frowned as it hit her that she hadn’t even been thinking of getting things over with in terms of the mission. Her focus had been entirely on the ghost from her past. Stars, there was so much that had been swept under the rug between them. It would be a lot to overcome.

And did she want to overcome it? Should she even be wanting to?

<I have a confession to make,> Lyra said softly, her admission accompanied by a pulsing of guilt.

<What’s wrong?> Nerishka asked, taking care to not sound interrogatory.

<Well, I’ve managed to redirect the regular cleaning crews, and with the torture chamber completely sealed, none of the putrefaction odors have filtered into the ship’s systems. However, rather than deal with having to pay for the extra cleaning in our quarters—and unavoidable questions, I explored the option of adjusting the ship’s cabin allocation records.>

Nerishka laughed. <You. Did Not.> She let out another peal of laughter. “That’s called thinking outside the box. Nicely done.”

Lyra’s avatar supplied a frown. <But, I ran into a little trouble with Lazar—the ship’s AI.>

<Uh oh.> Nerishka said, sobering a little. <They aren’t going to space us, are they?>

Lyra let out a snort. <I’m not sure what it is about this system, but I haven’t come across a single cooperative AI among them.>

<Perhaps it’s because we constantly ask them to do illegal stuff.>

Lyra let out an imperious snort. <They never knew that. I’m not so untrained as to tell a random AI our true purpose. I fashion a story to encourage them to help me out. Some of them I distract by redirecting their attention to sudden, urgent malfunctions in their systems. I’m beginning to think I should have done the same thing with Lazar.>

<So how is he posing a problem?> Nerishka asked, wondering if she needed to pack faster. She’d already dressed in her armor for disembarkation. Overtop she wore a dark grey pantsuit, the slim-fitted jacket a shade lighter, her hair altered to a pale blonde, its length brushing her shoulders.

<He’s attempting to hack my hacks…he’s determined to discover what caused the discrepancy. But I’ve manufactured a fix that should ensure we get out of here without suspicion.>

Lyra fell silent for a long moment and Nerishka nudged her, <Care to share?>

<Hmm? Oh, I’m sorry. I’m fending him off, but he keeps on coming. I’m trying not to use drastic measures.>

Lyra sounded tense and impatient, no doubt her annoyance was more at herself than anything.

Then Lyra let out a short, triumphant laugh, <There, take that you brute.> Lyra sent an image of her avatar striking a haughty pose and flicked invisible lint off her shoulder before studying her fingernails. <My solution—which I think was brilliant, just so you know—was to mix up all the bookings. Basically, I threw all the details of all the occupants of all the cabins on all the levels of the ship into the air and tossed them about a little, then dropped them back down.>

<Let the chips fall where they may,> murmured Nerishka.

<Exactly. Now there isn’t a single booking that makes sense. Every single detail is one complicated jumble, and nobody is really connected to any particular cabin anymore.>

<What about people with their own AIs? Won’t those AIs argue for their own booking details?>

<That’s not an issue at all. My aim was to lose our booking along with any connection to this cabin and the mess in your torture chamber.>

Nerishka chuckled. <That’s brilliant. So, you changed our booking and cabin details and even if someone appears with the same details they’ll just be seen as a duplication caused by whatever messed up the ship’s systems.>

Lyra nodded, sending a cheerful grin. <And my ‘solution’ is untraceable. Think of Lazar’s legs wound around and around with a million pieces of string. He will trip himself up over and over again. It’s going to take them hours to figure out that the data cannot be put back the way it was.>

Nerishka pursed her lips, more than impressed. <And passengers will disembark before that, with the ship’s management unwilling to admit something went wrong in the background.>

Lyra grinned again. <Oops.>

Nerishka chuckled. <I didn’t know you had that much sneaky in you, Lyra. You are learning well under my tutelage.>

The AI fell silent for a moment. <I shall ignore that for now.> Her tone returned to business. <We need to be as far from this cabin as possible before the torture chamber is discovered, so the system now has our registered cabin as over on the east side of the Elite Passenger Deck. What we need to ensure is that we are in that cabin before disembark. I’ve rerouted all cleaning bots so they’ll ignore this particular cabin until after the ship departs on its return to Anahita. By then it’ll be too late to initiate an investigation and even harder to connect the cabin to you.>

<I’m impressed, Lyra. I’m beginning to wish that I’d had you along for the ride a lot earlier.>

Lyra sent a blushing smile. <I am finding it quite exciting. I must admit I didn’t. Not at the start. But I’m beginning to grow into the role.>

<You keep growing with this job, that much is certain,> Nerishka said, as she headed for her lab to seal it back up. <We’re going to need an a-grav platform for the pod. Everything else I can carry.>

<Already arranged and tracks covered. I’ve ordered us a private car that will meet us on the concourse after we get through customs.>

Nerishka had already received the details on rules and regs for both the planet and the station and had gained clearance for her weapons—the visible ones, at least.

She pushed the lab-pod to sit near the suite’s entrance—just in time for the porter-bot’s arrival with an a-grav platform. The platform lowered and the bot guided Nerishka’s precious cargo onto it, strapping it into place.

As soon as the pod was secured, Nerishka dismissed the bot and headed out the door. <Directions to the suite we will pretend to exit are now on your HUD.> Moving briskly Nerishka followed the route to a suite one level up. Traveling with the a-grav pad proved to be a little complicated as the corridors began to fill with disembarking passengers bearing their own luggage.

Nerishka received a good many glares and muttered complaints, which she ignored, making it all the way to the suite without incident.

Once inside, she asked Lyra, <How are we with the ship’s monitoring systems?>

<They will see someone entirely different on the feed.>

<Little old lady with a fluffy poodle?> asked Nerishka with a grin.

<Erm…no. They will see a man and his young son in our original suite. Our entrance to this suite in the last few minutes will be scrubbed from all records.> Lyra paused for a few seconds, then added, <Not from the memories of the organics you passed though. That I cannot do anything about.>

<Good thing I’m in disguise,> Nerishka muttered as she smoothed down the dark fabric of her grey pants. She lifted her hand and primped her blonde hair, then laughed and shook it out, lengthening the strands and returning it to its normal blue-streaked state.

To ensure she covered her tracks well, Nerishka spent a little time in front of the holo, bemoaning the fact that she didn’t have the kind of tech that would allow her to change her underlying features at will. Now wouldn’t that be something?

She changed into in a long-sleeved gray dress that touched the floor and considered her hair for a moment before shifting its color once more to dark black. The long strands framed her face—which she’d made up to appear hollow-cheeked and dark-eyed.

Anyone looking at Nerishka would likely feel a pull of sympathy at her emaciated frame. She appeared to be weighed down by something dark, like grief or persecution, or perhaps extreme poverty—an appearance that discouraged intrusion, and likely even any attention altogether.

Well, she thought, looking herself over once more. Good-bye Kiarra, hello Andrea.




SUBTERFUGE

STELLAR DATE: 10.12.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, approaching Nimrud Station

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

<Why did you choose that particular disguise?> Lyra asked Nerishka, her tone revealing her curiosity, and admittedly a little confusion.

She’d watched Nerishka prepare her disguise, the concentration on the agent’s face bordering on comical. Still, her attention to detail, her efforts to achieve exactly what she intended, was admirable.

And fascinating.

Nerishka smiled at the question, but Lyra detected nothing in her bio stats to indicate she was amused.

<Humans have an oddity in their psychology,> Nerishka replied, clearly taking the question seriously. <The tendency towards self-preservation extends towards anything and everything that may threaten one’s safety—which includes the protection of one’s moral grounds, as well as anything we feel even mildly guilty about.>

<You mean your personal failings?> asked Lyra.

<Exactly.> Nerishka nodded as she adjusted the shadows in her face. <Which includes our moral failings too.>

Lyra considered that for a moment. It had never occurred to her to project her own failings onto another being, AI or organic. <So…to appear as someone in need—in any shape or form—will effectively threaten the stability of the observer if he is grappling with moral or personal issues?> she asked, still confused but feeling as though she may understand if she considered the concept a little more.

<Yes. Everything is always about oneself,> Nerishka admitted, the dryness in her tone coming through loud and clear. <So if someone sees this tired haggard woman, they will instinctively pass judgement. Why does she not take care of herself?—if the observer is particular about their own appearance, or has mods they feel guilty about. What is she doing on this side of the ship?—if the observer is entitled or has escaped a poor background and is reluctant to face his humble beginnings. The scenarios are endless.>

<I have always believed organics are motivated by strange things and this just confirms it,> Lyra admitted it seemed an illogical leap but the organics she had met in the duration of her existence had proven thus far to be very much prone to illogical leaps.

Nerishka made a face at Lyra’s comment. <As much as it would be nice, we are yet to see a world in which everyone is morally pure and without judgment.>

<Sounds like a topic close to your heart,> Lyra mused.

Nerishka groaned, eliciting a fond smile from Lyra. <Don’t even get me started on that.>

<Why not? We have thirteen minutes and six point five seconds before we can leave the suite.>

Heaving a reluctant sigh, Nerishka replied, <Because it’s the past and the past is best left buried.>

<I believe that course of action will lead to further personal distress.>

<Observant, aren’t you?>

<I’m a quick study.> Lyra’s avatar grinned, then turned serious. <Now, stop evading my questions.>

Nerishka shook her head. <Seriously Lyra, what is even the point? I spill my heart, throw my skeletons at you, only for Jeriah to pull you as soon as the mission is over. Seems like a waste of time to me.>

<Is that a circuitous way of saying you do not trust me? I assure you, whatever you say will be strictly confidential and that portion of my knowledge will remain secure even if the Hand wishes access.>

Shaking her head, Nerishka said, <No, that’s not what I mean. But I do appreciate the AI-organic confidentiality fine print.> Lyra watched as Nerishka leaned closer to the holo-mirror and pulled her bangs lower onto her forehead. <It’s more to do with sharing the emotions attached to those incidents. On paper it’s one thing, this happened then that happened. But when you confide in someone, you rip open old wounds, you bring past regrets and mistakes to the fore. Sometimes that’s best done with someone you know you will be paired with for a good while.>

<Ah I see. You’re vulnerable and you are protecting your heart. I understand that need and I’m probably not the best sentient being to give you advice on that. AIs tend not to have such concerns—well, not in a relatable fashion, at least.>

Lyra considered her pairing with Nerishka so far—they’d developed a comfortable rapport, both in thought and method of tackling problems. She didn’t have a hard time admitting that she had grown to like Nerishka, becoming fond of her. And that’s likely where Nerishka’s reluctance lay.

Nerishka let out a soft groan. <OK, AI in my head. Time for cards on the table.>

<Okaaaayyy….> Lyra’s tone wary as she sent a worried face.

Nerishka waved a hand and smiled. <Thing is Lyra, I’m growing to like you. I hadn’t intended to, but there it is. My last two AIs were with me only for single missions, and in-between, I didn’t have one—or couldn’t due to the nature of the mission—which was fracking hard if you ask me.>

Lyra found herself filled with a reaction which she interpreted as a form of joy. <I’m fond of you too, Nishka. I admit I was in awe of you when we were first paired, but I’ve seen the humanity behind the persona of the Death Dealer. And I’m finding that I admire you more. And I believe in you.>

Nerishka’s eyebrows rose at the revelation. Lyra’s confession had blind-sided her but given that Nerishka had likely only been thinking of her own emotional vulnerability, that was no surprise. <Thank you for telling me that, Lyra. Thanks for reminding me not to be selfish.>

<Selfish?> Lyra was taken aback for a moment. <I didn’t mean to imply you were. And I’m not certain how you are? Please elaborate.>

<Part of being in a relationship is sharing oneself with the other. It means trusting each other.>

<So all friends share secrets? Is this compulsory?>

<No, not at all. The subject of friendship is extremely expansive. There are a multitude of variants to it, even within one person’s view of their own relationships.> Nerishka shook her head and Lyra hid a guilty smile. She did tend to segue all too often. Nerishka continued, <So, to go back to my being selfish…I was thinking only of myself and how I was feeling…within the boundaries of this partnership. Our pairing was purely a business arrangement, but the reality is we need to know each other well to be a successful partnership. And I hadn’t given enough consideration to the fact that you have a stake in this relationship too.>

<I see. Yes. I do want this mission to be a success. And ideally, I would prefer to remain with you. And, if that does not come to pass, then I would hope that our shared success will ensure my next pairing will be equally successful.>

Nerishka’s lip rose in a sad smile. <See, that’s what I kinda meant. I’ve assumed the implications and consequences of our pairing didn’t mean as much to you as it did to me. I’d assumed, as you have just said, that an AI would look upon a pairing as something that has a definitive end in sight, and would not want to delve deeper, to become friends.>

<Was that the viewpoint of your previous AIs?> Lyra asked, curious.

Nerishka nodded. <Which I was happy with, to be honest.>

<You don’t sound happy. In fact, I detect what I have deduced to be loneliness.> Lyra paused for a moment. <Did they reject your friendship?> It wouldn’t have been an unusual thing, especially when most Hand operatives are supremely mission-focused.

<No. It was partly me. I didn’t want to be friends. And I was fortunate that neither of them wanted to either. And both times, the pairings were terminated because of ill-fit.>

<Did your reluctance to be friends have anything to do with Gaia?> asked Lyra, knowing she was treading on uneven territory.

Nerishka stiffened and then let out a laugh. <Not at all.>

Lyra responded with her own chuckle; one that was devoid of amusement. <You can try to mask your physiological reactions, but you are wasting your time, you know?>

Nerishka sighed. <Was worth a try.> Then she paced a few feet and rolled her shoulders. <Yes, it was. And I’m not willing to talk about Gaia. Maybe I will…in time. But not just yet.>

<You know I have access to Gaia’s files. I’ve read them,> Lyra said, her tone gentle now. She had read them, but she had refused to interpret them in any way, not until she heard Nerishka’s version of the events.

Nerishka’s face slackened, all evidence of emotion fading. <The truth of it all isn’t in those files. What you saw were merely words. I’m not ready to delve into that part of my past. Not yet.>

Lyra sent a hugging avatar. <I understand. Maybe we could talk about your home? Your family must have not taken kindly to a valued Valkris espion running off and joining the Hand,> Lyra said with a cheeky wink.

Nerishka snorted. <That’s putting it mildly.>

<So…. You ready to share?>

Nerishka didn’t reply.

Lyra studied Nerishka’s physiological reaction to the mention of Valkris; her gut had tightened with nervous anxiety. Whatever had happened when she’d left home more than two centuries ago, still haunted Nerishka. How bad could it have been to stay so fresh for all these years?

Nerishka would tell Lyra about it one day. Of that she was certain.



VALKRIS

STELLAR DATE: 07.15.8758 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Maitreya, Valkris

REGION: Vela Cluster, Transcend Interstellar Alliance

One hundred and ninety years ago…

Nerishka’s reputation was one of strategist, problem solver and calculated killer. In fact, she almost preferred things to go wrong. It added a little spice to the mission. Who would want a boring kill anyway? May as well pull the trigger from a convenient rooftop a kilometer away.

She stood before Kalki, the Grand Matron of Varani, the Ruling House of Valkris, knowing deep down that this had been a bad idea. A very bad idea.

Coming home had been inevitable; Nerishka wasn’t the type to break promises, and family had always meant so much to her. She owed her father, Valan, a visit, had promised to come home repeatedly, ever since she’d more or less defected to the Hand.

But Father hadn’t wanted to see her go—even though he’d understood. He had lost his beloved wife Sirene to the Valkris Espions, and now he faced losing their daughter too. Yet, he’d always put the needs of his loved ones first. Which made neglecting him feel all the more wrong.

And now Nerishka had to face the woman who had refused to allow her to join the Hand—for reasons still unknown to Nerishka.

Kalki stood on a carved stone balcony overlooking a valley filled with trees and plants that burst with color. The Palace of Varani was situated on the highest peak of the valley city of Maitreya, a position only afforded to the ruling house.

The grand matron was tall, curvaceous and dangerous. In her deep purple robe, Kalki was the epitome of regal. She shifted her gaze from the view and studied Nerishka, offering a smile that was both a pleasant welcome and a threat.

“I see you’ve dressed accordingly,” Kalki said with a smirk as she ran her eyes along Nerishka’s form.

Though Nerishka was tempted to fiddle with the voluminous folds of her silk dress, she steeled herself against the urge. She had worn the appropriate clothing because it had been expected.

The crinkled silk of her floor-length royal blue dress hugged her own curves. Miniature flames embroidered with gold and silver thread were woven randomly into the fabric, echoing an element of the coat of arms of House Mitala.

Everything in Maitreya had a purpose. And everything had to be done just so.

Nerishka bowed her head. “I hope the choice of garment suits,” she murmured then straightened. “You look well, Matron Kalki,” she said softly, hating this part of the social dance. She’d have much preferred to get right to the point.

Kalki raised a hand and waved it at the stunning scenery. “Did you miss it? I know you never wanted to leave in the first place.”

Nerishka’s eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t that I never wanted to leave, I just never wanted to be an espion.” Nerishka almost shook her head as the words left her mouth. It was all well and good to be a straight talker, but to do so during an audience with the highest ruler on the world of Valkris was risky at best.

But the woman merely nodded, her features now inscrutable. A light breeze danced around the two of them, tossing hair and fabric into disarray.

Damn these slits, Nerishka muttered silently as she grabbed the long panels of her skirt as they billowed in the air to reveal her bare legs. She wasn’t the self-conscious type, but Kalki often made things more uncomfortable than necessary. Nerishka had gotten the feeling that the scion of House Varani had been interested in more than just a relationship of servitude.

Sadly, despite the woman’s beauty, Kalki hadn’t stirred any fires of longing or love for Nerishka. Could that have contributed to her fury when Nerishka had fled?

“So, to what do we owe the honor of your return?” Kalki asked, her gaze slipping momentarily to Nerishka’s thighs as the fabric flew backward on another gust of wind.

“I wanted to visit my father,” Nerishka replied softly, “and the Hand wishes to repay their debt to you.”

“You mean considering you fled Valkris to work for them without my authority? Without a formal contract in place?”

Nerishka took the question as rhetorical and remained silent. Thankfully the wind had died down, and she no longer needed to protect her bare legs.

As she stared Nerishka down, Kalki smirked, leaning her hip against the stone balustrade as though she couldn’t be more relaxed. “I hope you’ve seen your father by now.” When Nerishka nodded, the woman continued, “Because you will remain incarcerated until such time as I am satisfied with the deal the Hand offers, both in compensation for your services to date and in reparation for damages to our trust as a result of your defection. Oh, and of course, in consideration to your future engagement with them.” Kalki’s smile was cold as she spoke the equally icy words.

“And if the Hand does not wish to negotiate?” asked Nerishka, knowing the answer the moment the question left her lips.

Kalki sighed deeply, then pouted. “Then, of course, we will move on to the only other option we have available for traitors and defectors.” Her lips shifted into a lazy smile as she raised a finger and drew a line across her throat.

Seriously?

Valkris Espions were usually terminated using a lethal dose of toxins. Was Kalki just being melodramatic or did she have a more grand end to Nerishka’s short and rebellious life in mind?

Nerishka schooled her features and bowed. “If you will give me leave to speak to my liaison at Airtha and relay your term—”

“No need,” Kalki cut her off, her tone icy. “Rudas has already sent a message on a jump gate courier. No doubt they will be here shortly.” Nerishka was sure that the scion’s AI was most efficiently carrying out his orders, but shortly wouldn’t best describe the length of Nerishka’s incarceration if she had to wait for someone to come. Best case scenario, she’d be enjoying jailtime for nothing short of a month.

A flick of Kalki’s finger brought a pair of guards out onto the balcony, both garbed in white, their long shifts cinched at the waist by wide black leather belts holding an array of knives. The first guard—a swarthy mustachioed fellow—approached cautiously, his fingers tense as they curled around a pair of alabaster handcuffs.

Nerishka lifted a brow, her gaze leaving the cuffs and meeting Kalki’s cool grey eyes. “I’m the scion of House Mitala,” said Nerishka, admiring how controlled her own voice was, in volume and passion. “Surely you would not insult our House by throwing me in a cell?”

Kalki burst out laughing. “Oh, my dear. You are too amusing.” Her laughter faded almost instantly and she tossed her long blue hair back over her shoulder. She pointed a finger at the cuffs in the guard’s grip. “Those…they aren’t for your wrists. Over the last few years, I’ve overseen the development of a few interesting toxins. The cuffs contain a selection of the most potent poisons we’ve been able to manufacture. We’re well aware that you’ve likely developed a certain immunity to some of the poisons of our world—Subash would no doubt have ensured that—so we’ve covered all our bases.”

She waved a hand at the guard who stepped closer to Nerishka and went down on one knee. He held the cuffs forward, and Nerishka, unable to do much else, extended a leg at a time to allow the man to snap the cuffs in place around her ankles.

“Any attempt to remove the cuffs will trigger delivery of the poison. If you leave Maitreya, the poison will be delivered. And of course, it goes without saying, leaving Valkris is out of the question.”

Nerishka wanted to scream at the woman, to unleash her fury. But she bit down on her emotions.

Everything had gone awry from the moment she’d entered the House of Varani. But Nerishka was used to having to adapt to changing situations. Very rarely did she face a mission that turned out to be a simple kill.

And in Kalki’s case, Nerishka had the means to be very, very adaptable to the situation.

Kalki pushed off the balustrade and glided toward the doorway, her hips swaying as she moved. Nerishka followed while the guards scurried away. Inside the receiving lounge, Kalki paused beside a crystal wine decanter that formed an elegant spiral. “Wine?” she said, glancing over her shoulder.

Nerishka bit her tongue. “No thank you,” she said as she drew closer to the large fireplace. The black stone—mined from deep within the Asanga Mountains west of Maitreya—gleamed as it outlined the empty fireplace.

Above the hearth a gigantic stone carving emerged from the wall, carved out of a mammoth boulder also extracted from the bowls of Asanga.

“I wonder what she’d think of this?” murmured Nerishka, staring up at the benevolent gaze of the mother of the House of Varani. Sumati was revered almost as a goddess; her passion and love for her people had known no bounds. In Kalki’s case, the apple fell light years from the tree.

“Mother wouldn’t care. She’d be too wrapped up in her desire for upliftment, in her eternal attempts to redeem the common man.”

There was a bitter edge to Kalki’s words, and Nerishka turned to face her. In most gallant battles, one never hit an opponent when he was down. In this case, Nerishka didn’t give a damn.

She took a breath. “I don’t think you’ll need to wait to reach an agreement with Justin.”

Kalki was setting the decanter back onto the table, and reached for her wine goblet before asking, “Now, why would you make such an assumption?”

“Because I believe that in a fair and amicable negotiation it is only honorable to put one’s hand on the table.”

“You don’t have a hand to play, my dear girl,” Kalki scoffed.

“That’s where you are dangerously mistaken,” said Nerishka as she drifted across the room toward a second carving, this one depicting the War of the Houses, an ancient battle that had been fought on Valkris centuries past.

Sumati, for all her passive generosity, and desire for peace, had lead the battle and had won it for her House and their allies. Nerishka turned to face Sumati’s daughter, who was more rolling-freight-train than passive-aggressor. “You see, when I killed your old friend Bardolan, Vizier for the Vela Cluster’s Chancellor, I had to go to hell and back to prove that he was here to kill you. That he’d done everything in order to eliminate you, because we all knew how influential, how important you were. Your position was coveted by many, so a threat on your life wasn’t all that unusual.”

Kalki smiled thinly, and Nerishka could see her eyes clouding over. Either she was chatting with Rudas and ordering Nerishka’s immediate death, or she was still a little suspicious but mostly clueless.

The thing was, when people looked at Nerishka, they would never immediately assume she was a threat. It had been an advantage on numerous occasions.

Nerishka drew closer and took a seat on a chaise, resting her elbow on the low backrest as she stared out at the valley. The light from Chorin had faded and inky night bled into the reddening sky, the effect quite macabre.

Nerishka smiled as she glanced over at Kalki who was standing very still beside her wine decanter, her goblet still untouched in her grip.

“But what I went on to discover—by pure chance, mind you—was that Bardolan was merely a puppet, and the puppet master was one of our very own.

“That the dart he’d aimed at you was meant to ensure you would not come into contact with the toxins with which he’d laced his gifts. That the scions of House Mitala, House Sankara and House Kapila would perish in a mass assassination attempt. The perpetrator would have been in custody, and everything would have been neatly tied up.

“The Vela Cluster would make amends for their delegate’s treachery and you would continue as powerful as ever.” Nerishka paused and tapped her lips, her eyes meeting Kalki’s.

The scion was still holding her wine glass, frozen in place. Then she took a slow breath. “I’m assuming, from the confidence in your voice, that you have sufficient proof, so I’m not going to contest its validity. You just don’t know the whole truth. And it had nothing to do with House Mitala.”

Nerishka shrugged. “I don’t really care about your truth. I wanted out of Valkris Espions. That was no secret. And yet you forced it on me.”

“I didn’t see your parents objecting,” Kalki retorted. She glanced down at her drink, weighing it for a moment before downing the contents of the goblet and reaching for the decanter. “Even when Sirene…was killed, Valan had no objection to his daughter joining the Espions.”

Kalki’s words cut deep and Nerishka took a slow breath. “He did object. You overruled him. My grandparents objected too.”

“Ah yes. Railan did have a few words for me. But eventually he too understood my goal.”

Nerishka got to her feet. “I’m not particularly interested in your goal. Could you please remove the cuffs? I have sent you the documents with the offer from the Hand. I think you will find it satisfactory.”

“This is called blackmail, dear girl,” Kalki murmured.

“No. I’m not blackmailing you. If I wanted to, I would have done it a long time ago. I would have outed you to everyone when you deserved it.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Grandpa Railan asked me not to.”

“He knows?” Kalki’s eyes widened and she tossed back a second glass of wine

“Sort of. Only the gist of it. He said there were bigger things at play and he hoped we’d misunderstood your intentions. He was all for giving you another chance. I still don’t understand why he bothered.” Nerishka shrugged. “There. I’ve sent the encrypted files, including the codes. You should be able to use the details to find and remove all proof that it ever existed in the first place. How fortunate that I was the one who’d discovered your dirty little secret.”

Kalki smiled. A blink later, the cuffs unlocked and slid to the floor beside Nerishka. She toed them aside and turned to Kalki.

“I’m leaving Valkris, but I will be back. This is my home, yes, but you can’t tie me to this world. Nobody can.”

Kalki’s voice stopped Nerishka in mid-turn. “This isn’t just your home.”

Nerishka whirled around to study Kalki’s face, certain now the woman was playing another one of her mind-games.

“I’m sure you understand biology, Nerishka,” Kalki said, pouring another glass and moving to stand before the carving of her mother. Kalki held the glass up to the sculpture and chuckled. “Sumati and Nikaya, lovers forever. Even their love couldn’t surmount a simple thing like human DNA.”

Nerishka frowned, taking a step forward. “What do you mean?”

Over her shoulder, Kalki replied, “Did you ever wonder why House Mitala was Second to House Varani?”

“Grandma Nestashia…she fought alongside Sumati and Nikaya in the Great War,” Nerishka said, her voice faltering.

“It had little to do with her bravery, no matter what you may think.” Kalki smiled. “It had everything to do with biology.”

Nerishka frowned, considering Kalki’s words. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. “Grandpa Railan…is your progenitor?”

Kalki clapped the fingers of her free hand against the heel of her other palm, “Yes, my dear niece. Took you long enough.”

Nerishka stared at Kalki, the pieces slowly falling into their respective places. House Varani dies with Kalki unless she miraculously produces heirs.

Kalki’s laughter echoed around the room. “I see you finally understand. But don’t look so upset. Someday you and Nadine can fight it out as to who will inherit the position of Grand Matron of the Ruling House of Valkris. But until then, I’ll keep an eye on things for you.”

Nerishka stilled for a moment. That her conversation with Kalki hadn’t gone to plan was an understatement. Now she had to adjust, change gears to fit the situation.

Without another word, Nerishka turned and walked toward the door.

“Oh, Nerishka,” Kalki called out, her voice sickly sweet, and tinged with worry, “I just tried to access the file. It’s refusing the codes.”

As she crossed the threshold, Nerishka glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’ve changed my mind. After this mind-blowing revelation, I think the importance of that information just skyrocketed. I think I’ll hang onto it for now.” Then she strode off, leaving her aunt furious and alone.

The last thing Nerishka heard as she reached the end of the corridor was a rage-filled growl and the sound of glass shattering on stone.

“What a waste of good wine.”



IT’S ME, REALLY

STELLAR DATE: 10.12.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Belshazzar, Nimrud Station

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

As Nerishka had predicted, no one paid her much mind in her new persona and before long she was off the ship and ambling through Nimrud Station’s passenger terminal with her personal belongings.

Though the Ayra System was independent, it had a single government, and other than the simple security arch at the end of the passenger umbilical, there was no official inspection to worry about.

Her cargo pod of plants and supplies had taken another route, one more circuitous, and not tied to her at all. It would wait at another shipping company’s warehouse until she was certain that things would go well with Dresden.

Speaking of Dresden, Nerishka thought as she brought up the station’s map, locating the address he had provided in a message he’d sent while she was en route.

The message had been perfunctory, just details on where to meet and a few other notes about the supplies she’d requested. The business-only nature of his communication had both worried her and left her with a sense of relief.

He might still be upset with her, but at least he was able to be professional.

Nimrud was a huge station that sat at the terminus of the planet’s single space elevator. The bulk of the station was a two-hundred-kilometer spire with seventeen major toroids rotating around it, and another thirty smaller rings interspersed throughout them.

Dresden and his team had secured quarters on the ninth ring, which bore the name Parthis, in a district named Eridu.

<How original,> Nerishka said to Lyra with a laugh as she boarded a maglev that would take her to the desired ring.

<At least they’re consistent in their naming scheme,> Lyra replied.

While they rode the maglev, Nerishka pulled up the data she had on Dresden’s recent activities, scanning it for what had to be the tenth time in the last few days.

The file was spare, leading Nerishka to smile. The man had always had his ways of disappearing whenever he wanted to. He’d have been stupid to think that the Hand would not monitor his activities after he left, and if Nerishka knew anything at all, she knew that Dresden was not a stupid man.

The maglev car slowed at a stop on the central spire, and Nerishka shifted in her seat to avoid an ungainly porter-bot, followed closely by two men who appeared deep within a Link conversation, both their expressions slightly glazed. Behind them, a child screamed and a mother’s soft voice attempted to placate the unhappy kid.

Twenty-nine stops later, Nerishka finally exited the now-crowded maglev car, pulling her luggage behind her while staring out at the Eridu section of the Parthis toroid ring.

<Wow…with a whole agrarian world below, you wouldn’t expect them to have massive terraformed sectors on the rings,> Nerishka commented as she exited the maglev station and sent out a signal for a groundcar.

<I think it looks nice,> Lyra replied, her statement surprising Nerishka.

Looking out over the low rolling hills, dotted with trees, all growing under a clear, domed overhead, she had to agree, it was a nice sight, just unexpected.

There was little traffic on the thoroughfare outside the maglev station, but it still took several minutes for the groundcar to arrive. Nerishka set her luggage on the seat beside her and passed the address over the Link. She didn’t send the car right to Dresden’s location, but rather to a restaurant a kilometer away.

The ride was estimated at ten minutes, and Nerishka allowed herself to relax, breathing deeply and clearing her mind of worry. She’d find out soon enough how Dresden felt about working with her again. There was no reason to stress about it beforehand.

The car dropped her off in front of a small restaurant named ‘Taste of the Nile’, and she wondered what the Nile was, a place, culture, or perhaps a delicacy.

The area around the restaurant was a park-like forest, trees clustered in copses, small ponds lined with reeds, and grassy expanses, a few with children running through, playing with aerial drones that were engaged in what looked like a game of tag.

<This way,> Lyra highlighted the route as Nerishka stood watching the drones.

<Yeah, I know, I’m waiting for the groundcar to round the corner before I leave.>

<Oh.>

The walk to the house Dresden was renting was uneventful, and Nerishka found herself wondering why he’d selected such an unconventional base of operations.

<Is this correct, Lyra? I really would have thought he’d be staging in a more industrial area. Or at least somewhere he can stash weapons and gear for three people—make that four if you include me.>

<That’s the address he confirmed with, so I had no reason to think it could be wrong.> Lyra’s avatar looked worried. <Is there something I may have missed?>

<No, no. Nothing like that. It’s just…>

<Your gut again.> Lyra nodded sagely.

Nerishka sighed. <Let’s just be careful, OK?>

<Definitely. I believe I am coming to trust your gut. Somewhat.>

The homes in the area were arranged in a cul-de-sac, all entrances leading off one circular street, the center of which was occupied by a little wooded area. The small forest contained trees much taller than the multi-storied homes and was wide enough that no resident had a clear view to any other home.

Smart way to ensure privacy in such a small complex.

The path leading up to the house was bordered by a low hedge covered in brilliantly colored flowers. The teardrop-shaped petals shimmered with an almost fluorescent light, making the entrance to the home appear far more inviting than it truly was.

<I deployed drones, scan of the building complete,> Lyra said. <All appears to be fine. Three occupants, two on the first floor and one on the second.>

<Doesn’t mean much from out here, does it,> Nerishka replied. <Can we get IDs on the occupants?>

<There’s a dampening field. To be honest I can’t really be completely certain it’s just three in there.>

<Sounds like Dresden,> Nerishka muttered.

<What? Something to hide, or being insecure?>

<Maybe both? Who knows. I guess I should let him know I’m here.>

Nerishka sent out a ping to Dresden, waiting for his acknowledgement, but she got nothing back.

<Well that’s a bit odd.>

Lyra sent a mental shrug. <Maybe knock?>

Nerishka walked to the door and rapped twice, waiting for an answer, but none came. She shrugged and passed her tokens into the security panel, and the door slid open. The interior was dark, but her vision adjusted for the lighting and she looked around. <So…anyone home? Thought you said two on this floor?>

<One appears to be in the kitchen. The other is in a room at the back.> Lyra paused then said, <Wait, I just lost one of them.>

Nerishka stilled and frowned. The further she moved within the building the more certain she was that something was off. She pushed her luggage against a wall, taking a deep breath, she calmed herself, tuning everything else out before inching down the narrow hall.

<Your heart rate has just changed. But I don’t see your nano being responsible for it.>

<Not sure if there’s a medical term, but I call it centering myself. I figured I’d follow my gut since it’s telling me something is off.> She sent out a small cloud of drones ahead, and confirmed the route was clear, and only one occupant remained inside the kitchen.

Just then, something solid slammed into Nerishka’s back and her armor hardened to protect her as she flew forward.

<What was that?> Nerishka cried out to Lyra as she landed on the patterned rug, sliding a few centimeters before rolling neatly back up to her feet. Back upright, flechette pistol in hand, she scanned the empty hall.

<Damn, wish I had my sonar pulser. Drones?>

<Dampening field in here is giving them trouble, but I can pick up sporadic signatures…someone’s here, armor is shielding them.>

<Armor, huh? I have something to help with that,> Nerishka muttered to Lyra. She slid two small vials from her sleeve, dropping one in front of her, the other at her back.

The vials hit the floor and shattered, releasing a swirling orange smoke that exploded in the air around them.

<Clear behind you.>

Nerishka nodded, already well aware that her attacker was right in front of her. The orange smoke was a fine powder that spread around the hall, attaching itself to every surface. Including the exterior of the armor belonging to her invisible attacker.

Slowly, the orange outline of a woman began to take shape and Nerishka grinned, surging forward to land a blow on her opponent’s head. She was getting really tired of the repeated attacks on her person.

The blow didn’t do much, but Nerishka had known it wouldn’t. She’d merely intended to distract the woman, allowing Nerishka to swing around her. The narrow corridor made the maneuver difficult but Nerishka used the surface of the wall, running at it and boosting off it with one leg, allowing her to sail over her attacker’s shoulder.

As she went, Nerishka looped a hand around the woman’s neck and slammed her to the ground, dropping a few nano onto her.

Allowing the nano to do the job of penetrating her attacker’s armor, Nerishka got to her feet and grabbed her lightwand from the holster at her hip.

The woman rolled over and jumped up, unaffected by both Nerishka’s blow and the application of her nano, a surge of energy across her armor disabling any foreign intrusions.

<No time to waste here,> Nerishka muttered as she drew her lightwand and slashed at the powder-covered woman, driving her back into a corner.

She could tell by her assailant’s movements that she desperately wanted to avoid contact with the electron blade, something that gave Nerishka a surge of pleasure. It was nice to feel like she had the upper hand.

But she wasn’t about to cut this woman down, she had more than a suspicion of what this was all about.

The attacker backed against the wall, and Nerishka held the glimmering lightwand close to the woman’s helmeted face giving her the appearance of an orange-tinged halo around her head.

“If you know what’s good for you, you will stand down.” Nerishka’s voice was hard and angry as she spat the words at her attacker. She didn’t have time for this shit. She lifted her chin and yelled, “Dresden? Where the hell are you?”

The woman shifted back an inch and Nerishka went with her.

“Armor won’t protect you. And I don’t have the time for this bullshit. Either stand down and tell me where the hell Dresden is, or I’ll have no choice but to treat you the way I would any assassin who attempts to take me out. You should see what happened to the last person who tried to kill me.”

The woman shook her head.

“What? Can’t talk, won’t talk or don’t know?” Nerishka snapped.

“I can’t do anything until I know for sure who you are,” came the attacker’s low, husky voice.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean? Of course, you know who I am. Lyra submitted all the requisite information to verify me. There’s too much at stake for Dresden to not trust me.”

The orange-coated armored head of her attacker shifted left to right. “I’m sorry. I’m just doing my job. We need verification that you aren’t an imposter. Or someone here to kill us.”

Nerishka stiffened at that. “Why? Has Dresden been attacked?”

The figure shook her head. “I’m the one asking questions.”

Nerishka snorted. “Not sure how you figure you have the upper hand. I’m the one who can relieve you of your head if I so much as blinked wrong in your direction.”

The woman didn’t respond, and Lyra said, <I got a second dose of nano on her and have succeeded in breaking through the armor. If you wish to subdue her, you may remove it.>

Nerishka shifted closer to the orange-bathed figure, holding her lightwand close to her attacker’s neck. The woman didn’t move. Not even when Nerishka reached behind her and disengaged the hood of her armor.

The armor released and clicked open, and Nerishka pushed it off to settle at her neck, an inch away from the lightwand.

The armor revealed a woman with dark red hair and wide blue eyes, all of which appeared natural. The blue sparkled with anger and frustration as her armor locked her in position.

“Talk. Or I’ll be forced to make you.”

“Do your worst,” the redhead muttered, lifting her chin in defiance, although Nerishka didn’t miss the nervous tick of her eyes as they flicked to Nerishka’s left for a millisecond.

Nerishka let out a long sigh. “Fine.” Without releasing the lightwand, she slid a tiny black bottle from a pocket at her hip. “This is a truth serum. Problem is it’s the only one I have left and it’s not what I would have used. I’d have much preferred to leave you alive, seeing as you are merely obeying orders. But, since I’m a little tight on time, I guess I’ll have to use it and see what happens. People do sometimes survive but it’s not usually pretty.”

The woman paled, and her eyes ticked left again, wide now with concern. Still, she didn’t appear afraid, just a little nervous.

Nerishka sighed again, this time a little louder. “Fine.”

She flicked her thumb against the lid of the small bottle and it snapped off and flew to the floor. A dark green smoke swirled out of the neck of the bottle and Nerishka moved her hand closer to the redhead’s.

“Don’t worry. I know it looks disgusting. You won’t need to swallow it or anything. It works on contact with a person’s skin, you see. I developed it a while back; it’s derived from the flowers and seeds of the Orabi plant from my homeworld. Has some hallucinogenic properties so don’t be afraid if you see crazy stuff. I don’t think you need to worry, though. The dose I’ll give you will be much stronger, so you’ll slip into an almost dizzy state where when I ask you a question you will have no choice but to answer.

“The thing with this drug is, whatever I tell you now, it’s like laying down a network of rules. So, if I say that if you don’t answer my questions, you will have to rip your eyes out with your own two hands, then trust me, that is exactly what you will do.

“But I’m not that awful. I’ll give you a chance first. So…how about we say that if you don’t tell me what the hell is going on, then you will take the pulse weapon in your hand and blow your head off.”

The woman let out a squeak. But she still didn’t answer Nerishka’s question.

“Still not talking, huh?” The woman was resilient. Nerishka had to give her that.

Nerishka shrugged and began to tip the little bottle over so that the liquid would spill onto the redhead’s neck when a voice behind her called out.

“Fine. It’s definitely her.”




BRIEF

STELLAR DATE: 10.12.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Nimrud Station

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

The woman sagged with relief and swore under her breath while Nerishka turned on her heel, deactivating the lightwand at the same time.

She found herself staring at Dresden, who—though he looked like he was finding it hard not to smile—also appeared distinctly relieved.

Nerishka glared at him. “What the hell was this whole charade about? I almost killed her.”

“Killed me?” the redhead shrieked. “I’d have been happy with having my head sliced off with a lightwand but that’s not what she was about to do, was it?” The woman was yelling at Dresden, her eyes flashing with fury. Then she turned on Nerishka. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Deadly poisons?”

Nerishka shrugged, trying hard not to smile. “Same thing as being killed with a bullet to the head. Sometimes it’s just cleaner.”

The woman let out a disgusted sound and pushed off the wall. She slid past Nerishka, giving the little bottle a wide berth. “I suggest you put the lid back on that. Don’t want anyone here to be convinced to blow their brains out.” She turned her furious blue gaze to Dresden. “This is not what I signed up for, Dresden. Next time, do your own dirty work. In fact, just make sure I never get a mission if she is around.” She let out a disgusted huff and stalked off.

<Shouldn’t you tell her that the poison doesn’t work like that?> asked Lyra.

<What? I don’t think that truth would be very effective.>

Dresden’s smile slipped free at last but Nerishka gave him only a thin smile. “That’s a pity. This particular mission is going to include me. That’s non-negotiable.”

He leaned against the doorjamb, arms folded, and chuckled. “Judith is just angry. She’ll come around. Although, let’s keep the truth about the toxin to ourselves. I’m not sure how she’ll take it knowing she’d have ended up with the shits rather than having to blow her own head off.”

“You recognized it.” Nerishka chuckled.

“Considering you pulled that one on me the first time we met, I’d go to my grave with that piece of information seared into my brain.” Dresden smiled and looked Nerishka up and down. “You look good.”

Silence hung between them for a few seconds and Nerishka deliberated on what the best response would be to that. In the end she replied, “You too,” and walked past him into the kitchen where she holstered her weapons and pulled a chair out. As she sank onto the seat she let out a groan. “Was it so hard to double check the security codes? Instead of making me almost kill one of your team?”

“I knew you wouldn’t kill her.”

“Oh really? What makes you so sure about that?”

He pulled up a chair. “Because you’re deadly when it comes to a mission, an assassination. But in situations like this, there is no directive from above, no clear instructions to eliminate a specific target. This was nowhere near such a situation. And that was what I was looking for,”

“You were testing me?” Nerishka yelled. “What the hell, Dresden. What if I had killed her?”

“Then I would have put you down myself. It would have proven that you were not the real Nerishka.”

“That’s a dumb assumption. I’ve changed over the years. I’m far more ruthless than I was before. And besides, what makes you think you know me so damned well anyway? You’ve got no idea what I’ve been dealing with this past few days. I could have killed her.”

He shrugged again. “I know you, Nishka. And I know that gut of yours. It’s more than just base instinct. It also includes not being rash as well as refraining from killing people randomly for no good reason.”

<He is right. He does appear to know you very well,> Lyra said with a smirk.

<You be quiet,> Nerishka muttered, receiving a chuckle from her AI. To Dresden she said, “Well, now that you have successfully verified that I am who I say I am, can we get our plan planned and move out?”

“Whoa. Hold your horses. What’s so damned urgent that we have to move out in the next millisecond.”

Nerishka leaned back and said, “I wish I could show you what I’ve seen, but you’re not on the inside anymore, and this mission is wrapped up in some sensitive stuff. What I can tell you is I need to locate a particular settlement down on Xerxes. A day’s travel beyond the outskirts of Arrapkha. We’re looking for the origin point of what appears to be some sort of deadly pestilence. Origin as yet unknown.”

“And you want us to go right into the danger zone? Straight to where the disease is probably the most potent?”

Nerishka simply nodded. “That’s why Lyra requested the hazmat gear. Which she did confirm you agreed to bring.”

“Yeah. I agreed to bring them, but I didn’t know you wanted to risk your life chasing a deadly disease.”

Nerishka sighed. She’d suspected she would get resistance from Dresden, but she hadn’t thought it would have been mission-related.

He grunted then and slammed a fist onto the table. “I’ve had enough of a hard time keeping myself alive these past months. How much sense does it make for me to walk straight into what could mean death for me?”

“Oh, quit being so dramatic.” Nerishka waved a hand.

Dresden shrugged, but she knew very well when he was being evasive. “I just had to be careful, make sure you were you.” Then he paused and cleared his throat. “So, tell me what this mission is about. I’m not going to abandon you, but once I know everything, I’ll put it to my crew. I’m not taking them down with me if they aren’t comfortable with the mission. But that doesn’t mean I’ll leave you to go it alone.”

Nerishka wasn’t sure what to say. He’d been generous to say he’d still come with her even if it’s not something he’d have done given a choice. He’d go with her just because she wanted to go.

She let out a breath. “Ok. I was on a mission in Anahita and ran into some information that implied some sort of research project had resulted in contamination in a number of patients.”

“And what are we hoping to find when we get there?”

“Clues that will give us an idea as to what caused the symptoms I’ve seen. It will help to be able to rule out a few things.”

“Like what?” Dresden rested back in his chair and Nerishka could tell his mind was turning over a million possibilities all at once.

“Would be helpful to ascertain if the symptoms are related to a toxic contamination or to something else…maybe a naturally occurring toxic organism.”

“Like your little leaves and flowers.”

Nerishka rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Like my little leaves and flowers. This is serious, Dresden. If we can say for certain that the contamination is related to a spill or to food or the landscape, then it will lead me somewhere. At the moment, all I can see is proof of how devastating the effects are and nothing else to go on.”

“No stats?”

“Not that I can get my hands on. Whoever did the research—” Nerishka stopped abruptly, aware now that she’d almost said too much, “The research on the symptoms didn’t record much in the way of possible locations. Patient reports that I saw had no real indication of where they contracted it or how, just that they presented with symptoms.”

“What do we know? So we can start.”

Nerishka nodded. “We do have one possible location; coordinates that may relate to an origin point, or at least where the first cluster was reported.”

Dresden opened his mouth and Nerishka knew he was going to say that she’d just contradicted herself. She raised a hand. “I’m aware of what I said. The patient reports had no indication of where the infection could be traced to. But I was able to obtain more information. It’s possible that we may find nothing, but I don’t think so.”

“That gut again?”

“No. Just common sense. I looked at the data, the symptoms, the clusters. Our info says the settlement on Xerxes is the origin. I’m following the lead. Hopefully it will get me where I want to be.”

“And where is that?”

“With those responsible being held accountable.”

If it’s not an organic-based pestilent,” Dresden said with a smirk.

<I can tell you find it hard to lie to this man. I’m trying to ascertain why.>

<Stop ascertaining and come up with a nice neat file that I can give him. Something that tells him enough that will convince him that taking me down there is a good idea.>

<Already on it. I had considered the possibility that he may not agree to assist you immediately. What with the mention of toxins, poisons, pestilence and death.>

<Thanks.> To Dresden, Nerishka said, “Lyra is sending you a file with as much details as we are able to share.”

Dresden nodded, and his eyes shifted to the left for the briefest moment. Then he fell silent as he reviewed the file. While she waited, Nerishka surveyed the small kitchen and spotted a platter of sweet pastries. She reached over to slide it toward her, spending a few moments pondering choices. She made it all the way through a buttery flaky pastry filled with a sweet berry jam and had bitten into an oval ball of fried dough drenched in syrup, when Dresden cleared his throat.

Nerishka glanced up, to see that he was waiting for her, a hint of a smile on his face. She cleared her throat and set the pastry onto the edge of the platter, then wiped her mouth, hoping she’d gotten all the stickiness off. “So. What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that you haven’t changed. That you still race off after anything that your gut tells you to follow. That you have a fucking death wish. That I’d always enjoyed watching you eat.” Dresden paused and Nerishka threw him a glare. He chuckled and cleared his throat. “Oh, yeah. And that you may be onto something.”

Nerishka cleared her throat again, her gaze shifting quickly to the remains of the pastry before returning to Dresden. “And? Can you estimate a time when we can head out?”

He nodded and got to his feet. “Since the situation warrants urgent action, I’ll address the mission with my team now. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Whoever returns with me will be joining. That’s all I can promise.”

Nerishka nodded and let out a sigh of relief. She’d reached out for the pastry and had almost snagged it when Dresden spoke from the doorway. “There’s fresh coffee in the pot, and another platter of those pastries in the chiller.”

Then he was gone, the sound of his low rumbling laughter echoing toward her.

<It’s not as if I’m stuffing my face,> she muttered drily to Lyra as she got to her feet. She hurried over to the coffee machine, confirming the freshness of the coffee from the aroma that floated around the carafe. Turning to the cupboard in search of a mug, Nerishka stiffened.

<Shit.>

<What?>

Nerishka let out a low growl at her reflection in the steel cupboard’s mirror-like surface—and at the blob of purple jam on the tip of her nose.




THE TEAM

STELLAR DATE: 10.12.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Nimrud Station

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

Ten minutes later—after Nerishka had cleaned up her stupid nose and filled her belly with a variety of delicious finger-sized foods, both sweet and savory—Dresden returned with his team in tow. It appeared, from Lyra’s original head count, that all the members were on board. Nerishka hoped that would turn out to be a good thing.

Dresden entered and took a seat at the head of the table. Nerishka, who had been standing beside the coffee machine, decided to remain where she was. When dealing with animals in the wild, it’s best to not make any sudden moves.

The redhead sat at the table, taking a chair on the opposite side of the room. She glanced up and met Nerishka’s gaze a few times then looked away.

Nerishka wasn’t sure what to make of the woman. <She was furious when she stormed off earlier.> Nerishka found herself voicing her thoughts to Lyra

<Well, if I had to hazard a guess—given that I’m not an expert on organic behavior—she was more angry with him than with you.>

<You think she’s not holding the near-poisoning-slash-torture against me?>

<I don’t believe so. Anyone could see that you were the one at a disadvantage, what with having been set up and all. She is likely intelligent enough to understand that you were pushed into a corner. And that you acted accordingly. It is the only logical conclusion.>

<Ah, but you have forgotten one important aspect to this situation, Lyra.>

<Which is?>

<That intelligence is no match for emotion.>

Lyra sniffed. <I’m so glad I’m not an organic. It must be a very confusing life to live.>

<Yeah. All those pesky things like emotions do tend to get in the way. They can also be a lot of fun.> Nerishka hid a smile and focused on the gathered team. She noticed that neither of Dresden’s crew had taken seats that would mean they’d have their backs to her.

<They are cautious. Wary. Smart.>

She’d expected them to be defensive, being forced to enter what could potentially be a deadly environment. But neither of them appeared to be even the least bit reluctant.

Behind the redhead, a tall blue-haired man leaned against the cabinet. His posture implied he was lounging, casual, relaxed. But his expression said otherwise.

“That’s Kelem,” Dresden said, identifying the man she was studying. A brief glance at Dresden confirmed he’d been well aware of her perusal.

Kelem nodded, staring at her with his one good eye, the other being mechanical. The blue lines and lights on the eye were a perfect match for his short-cropped blue hair. Nerishka nodded in response.

“You’ve met Judith, of course.” He gestured at the redhead who offered Nerishka a lukewarm nod.

Something about the woman set her radar off. Not anything negative, though. More as though the woman was hiding something.

Wasn’t that most people anyway?

“I take it everyone is on board?” Nerishka asked.

Dresden smiled and glanced around him. He was about to speak but Judith cut him off. “We’re his crew. We go where he goes.”

<Sounds like she’s warning you off,> Judith commented.

<Does, doesn’t it?>

Dresden smiled again. “I’ve been fortunate to have these guys watch my six on a number of occasions. Pretty sure I owe both of them my life, numerous times over.”

“Likewise, Boss.” Kelem nodded and saluted Dresden with two fingers to his temple.

Dresden cocked a chin at Judith. “Judith will handle the transport of the gear and Kelem will organize the vehicles.”

Kelem nodded soberly but Judith inched forward on her chair. “I don’t understand why we aren’t just grabbing a shuttle straight to the site,” said Judith. “From what I can see, it’ll be nearly a day’s drive to get out there.”

Nerishka shook her head. “That would have been my first choice too, but the authorities here are tying us up with red tape. If we flew, we’d have to declare a flight path, and that would cause problems. None Lyra can’t handle, but I don’t want to alert anyone that we’re coming.

“Secondly, we don’t know what we’ll be walking into. We’ve got some sort of nefarious research going on that is toxifying the environment and killing people. I’d rather approach it gradually than set down right in the middle of it. We’ll take samples along the way too. I’m assuming this is gonna be bad…just from what I’ve seen already.”

“Wanna give me the layman’s explanation?” Judith asked. “Dresden here only spouted a bunch of words that meant the shit’s hit the fan and we can do something to help.” She rolled her eyes in Dresden’s direction.

He snorted. “That’s all we need to know. The rest is just details.”

“Yeah. Minor details like dying a horrible, painful death where my skin falls off. I may find I’d choose the Death Dealer’s deadly truth serum.”

Nerishka laughed and shook her head, about to reveal the truth to the woman, but Dresden sent her a warning glare. Instead, she said, “Well, what we’re dealing with causes some sort of cellular destruction. The patient presents with boils, open sores, skin necrosis, hair loss. It basically melts a person from the inside while showing external signs similar to a viral infection. Much like the way radiation poisoning presents—with external symptoms and cancers, while not always being the easiest to identify.”

“Hence the request for haz-gear.” Judith nodded. “So, what happens if one of us gets dosed?”

Nerishka shared a glance with Dresden. “Er...let’s just make sure that doesn’t happen, OK?”

“That bad, huh?”

Nerishka nodded and looked over at Dresden, “You said haz gear is good to go…can we get a stabilizing platform to haul the heavy stuff.”

Dresden nodded slowly, a slow smile curving his lips. “Got it covered.”

“Dresden thinks of everything,” Judith commented then snorted. “But you know that right?”

Nerishka stiffened, wondering what he’d told his team. Even after their agreement to join her, they continued to send her strange looks, as though they were watching her every move, or worse, trying to figure her out. Their actions were starting to make her feel quite uncomfortable but Nerishka had no option other than to simply ignore them.

<Perhaps your discomfort is more as a result of your emotional attachment to Dresden. It’s likely where your insecurities with his team are arising from.>

<Interesting. Are you becoming a specialist on organic psychology now?> Nerishka resisted adding a groan to her response.

<Not at all. I’m just being observant.>

Nerishka snorted silently. <So, from your observations, what is the team looking like? Think they’ll mess up, or are they seasoned enough professionals that I can rely on them to watch my back.>

<From my observations so far, I do believe they are. In addition, they are completely loyal to Dresden. Almost as though they were a family unit.>

<That’s a good sign. When a unit works together and really gives a damn about what happens to the rest of the team, you tend to have a higher success rate.>

<Are you referring to the mission with Olit not long ago? I do believe that wasn’t a situation that would often repeat itself.>

Nerishka couldn’t help but purse her lips and clench her jaw. <I’m not in the mood to talk about that. Let’s just keep our heads in the game, ok? We can’t afford distractions on this mission.>

<I apologize,> Lyra replied, sounding contrite, and a little hurt.

<Oh, Lyra. Sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just a little on edge and I guess that comment was more for me than you.>

Lyra’s avatar nodded and then she smiled. <I have been known to go off on tangents. I will endeavor not to.>

<Thanks, Lyra. Sometimes tangents are good though, so don’t stop forever.> Nerishka sent the AI a winking avatar. <Final assessments, Lyra?> she asked.

<Needless to say, I’ve also pulled all their records for as far back as I am able, but they both check out; essentially, they are what they claim to be. But then again, considering the way things have been going lately, that means nothing.>

Wiser words were never spoken.

* * * * *

The team set out as soon as Judith finalized their equipment’s transport down to Xerxes’ surface. The planet’s space elevator would take them down to Arrapkha, and from there they would make their way out into the dense vegetation that surrounded the city.

The ride down was filled with a tense silence, during which Nerishka began to wonder if she would have been better off on her own than calling in Dresden and his team. She tried to focus her thoughts back to the mission. Or even to try and figure out who the hell her green-skinned attackers were. But her mind kept drifting back to Dresden.

And that way lay turmoil.




CAVES OF INNOA

STELLAR DATE: 11.27.8899 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Innoa

REGION: Knossos System, Septhian Alliance

Fifty years ago

The music in the restaurant was muted, the way you’d want it to be when staring into a lover’s eyes. Dresden and Nerishka had been waiting for this time together for nearly a year. They’d managed to keep their long-distance—and very intermittent—relationship alive this far, and she was beginning to believe it was the kind of thing that lasted.

Dresden reached for her hand, taking it within his and giving it a squeeze. “A couple of credits for your thoughts?” he asked, his smile cheeky.

Nerishka squeezed back and grinned. “Only a couple? Am I only worth a couple of credits?” She lifted an eyebrow in mock anger.

He let out a soft laugh. “You, my dear assassin, are worth so much more than you realize.”

Nerishka shook her head. “Well…flattery will get you everywhere. Seems you know the game.” She grinned at him.

But Dresden turned serious, the mischief in his eyes fading as he leaned toward her. “You do know this isn’t just a game for me, right?”

She stared at him, unsure what to say. She didn’t want to have this conversation. Not when she felt the same way as he did. “I do. And it isn’t for me either. I just...”

“Just what, Nerishka? Something’s been up with you lately. Even the last time we spent time together.” Dresden’s voice was pensive, almost sad and Nerishka’s heart twisted.

She shook her head. “Nothing’s wrong. It’s this job. It takes all of me, you know. I never thought I’d have the time to entertain anything else in my life other than the next mission.” She let out a soft sigh.

“Besides Nadine had better not get wind of this. Not until I’m ready to tell her. She’d skin me alive for breaking regs like this.”

Dresden snorted. “Nadine needs to take a chill pill. I swear that woman is wound up so tight I’m not sure she’d even know what relaxing is about.”

Nerishka sighed. “But she’s right, you know. I’ve been working with the Hand for over a hundred and fifty years now. A little less than Nadine, but enough to know that it’s not the smartest move to get involved, let alone to consider settling down.”

Dresden grinned and leaned closer, pulling her hand toward him. “You wanna settle down? With me?” His eyes were wide, faking excited disbelief all too well.

She snorted and smacked his arm. “You know very well what I mean. You and me...we’ll just keep on keeping on. Until...”

“Until what? Until you give up this job? Until you decide you’ve had enough.”

Nerishka let out a defeated sigh. “There’s more to it than just a job.”

They’d had this conversation before. She’d explained—though not in full detail—that her contract with the Hand wasn’t the sort she could just walk away from. And it wasn’t because Nadine would bust a gasket over her irresponsibility.

Nerishka was a lifer.

Dresden patted her hand and brought her out of her thoughts. “Anyway, let’s not talk about that right now. Tell me what you want to do while we’re here. We didn’t come to Innoa’s best resort for nothing you know.”

Nerishka smiled, keeping her sadness out of her expression.

She shifted her gaze out the gigantic window and stared at the endless blue ocean, stretching out as far as the eye could see. A kilometer above was the underground cavern’s ceiling, far above that was another ocean, one that covered the entire surface of the world.

Unbelievable storms raged above, but down here, in the caverns that contained the sea beneath the sea, was a calm, beautiful world.

They’d rented a little apartment made out of wood, with a thatched roof, that sat on stilts over the calm waters of the subterranean ocean. In the middle of the living room was a view down into the water, water so clear one could see hundreds of meters below.

It was the perfect place for a romantic getaway, filled with candlelit dinners and midnight swims under the illuminating glow from above. Nerishka was more than a little impressed by how the bioluminescent glow on the cavern’s ceiling mimicked a day-night cycle.

It was mesmerizing.

Nerishka relished the peace that she’d had these last two days and hated that it would come to an end soon.

As if reading her thoughts, Dresden said, “I want this trip to last forever. Isn’t that silly of me.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh.

“A big strong man being brought to his knees by a beautiful woman? I see nothing silly about that.” Nerishka smirked and Dresden shook his head.

“I swear you have ensnared me with the magic in one of those mysterious poisons of yours.” He shook his head sadly, then glanced out of the window, trying to hide a smile.

She watched him, watched how the candle light played along the bridge of his nose, along his high cheekbones. She didn’t believe she’d ever get over him. She’d had her heart broken before, but Dresden was a different animal altogether.

When he was with her he was nothing at all like the deadly operative she knew him to be. They’d met some ninety years ago on an op out at the edge of the Inner Stars, on the far side of Scipio. Nerishka had fond memories of having tested Dresden the first time they’d met. She wanted to be sure he had the balls to handle a mission with her.

Nerishka never liked joint ops. Other people often got in the way of getting things done right. She liked to be on her own, figuring things out for herself. Then, even her failures were her own to deal with.

Jeriah knew full well how she hated joint ops—Nerishka hadn’t held back after the last disaster with Olit. They’d been left stranded for two months because two other team members had fucked up their end of the mission so badly. Nerishka and Olit had almost died. It had taken an emergency rescue team—sent by Jeriah—to retrieve them. The strings Jeriah had to pull had broken more than a dozen protocols.

No doubt Jeriah was still paying for that.

Nerishka had often wondered about her superior’s motivations. At the time, her gut had suggested that Jeriah had her eye on Olit, but despite spending those days stranded together, Olit hadn’t confessed to anything other than thinking the world of Jeriah and believing their director would never leave them stranded.

But, unbeknownst to Olit, she’d spent many a spate of delirious consciousness calling out for Jeriah. Not that Nerishka ever confessed to having heard it.

They’d parted ways as friends and had always known they could count on each other. And they had.

But Nerishka had learned an important lesson from that mission. Teams complicate things. People and relationships get destroyed if just one person has diverging interests.

Death was a natural thing when on a job, especially ones like those she and Olit were often sent on. They knew the score. Every mission was potentially their last. The ability to live hundreds of years made no difference if you got a bullet to the brain. Or if you had that brain turned to mush. Hand operatives walked the line all the time.

“Having someone you care about only makes you all the more vulnerable.” Jeriah’s words still echoed in Nerishka’s brain. “This is the goddamned reason why I tell all my agents that relationships are for fun. Friends with benefits, shag buddy, whatever. Just don’t get attached. Hell, if you’re that goddamned horny, go find a sex automaton. We pay you well enough for the best.”

Nerishka shook her head. Jeriah had been riled up about something; Nerishka had been well aware that her superior was taking her frustrations out on her. Nerishka had wondered at the time if Olit’s predicament had affected Jeriah more than she’d let on.

Everything was always too complex.

Dresden tugged on one of Nerishka’s fingers. “Hey? You getting melancholy on me?” he asked, concern flickering in his green eyes. “No time for melancholy. We have two days left to enjoy this paradise.”

Nerishka let out a laugh and settled back, taking a deep breath to tamp down the anxiety churning in her gut. “So, they were right about the seafood here. What are we trying tonight?” she asked, pulling the menu toward her. The music in the background shifted to the mournful strains of a guitar and Nerishka forced herself to focus on relaxing.

They’d spent the rest of the evening eating delectably grilled lobster-meat drenched in garlic and butter, avoiding the thing that Nerishka needed to discuss. She knew why she was ignoring the issue.

She didn’t want to do it.

But she had no choice, so she resolved to spend the next day at least, enjoying every moment she had left with him. His smiles were bittersweet, his touch brought tears to her eyes. And all through those hours, he’d looked at her as though he’d sensed something was going to happen.

She hated having to lie to him, but they’d entered this relationship knowing it may not last. Stars, they’d entered it thinking it wasn’t anything more than two people needing each other to fill the emptiness in their lives.

The next morning, Dresden and Nerishka were lounging on their private beach, sipping colorful cocktails and staring out at the endless sea of blue. Nerishka wore a white bikini that was almost the same color as the fine sand they were sticking their toes into. Dresden’s back was covered in droplets of water, having declined a towel after their recent swim.

Now, they were nibbling on a platter of finger food delivered by their own personal attendant. A human one, no less. The island getaway boasted a fully human experience with little automation.

Either way, they were guaranteed their privacy—something Nerishka had desperately wanted. Maybe she’d wanted to savor those last few days with him.

Nerishka rolled over onto her stomach, mimicking Dresden’s pose as he picked at the small sandwiches, making a face.

“Who eats this crap?” he asked, lifting a cucumber sandwich for Nerishka to see.

She grinned, grabbed it and popped it into her mouth. “They are delicious. You know, I think this place might have the best cucumber sandwiches in the universe.” She selected a second mini sandwich and polished it off.

Dresden shook his head and smiled, glancing over at Nerishka out of the corner of his eye. His gaze ran the length of her body and she smiled as her awareness of the man increased. But she tamped it down. She was running out of time and she had to get this over with or else she’d suffer the consequences.

A clean break. That’s what she needed. Quick and clean.

The way she liked to kill her marks.

Nerishka shook the thought from her head. What a ridiculous comparison.

But apt.

She was going to kill the two of them. She just needed to get up the courage to do it.

A message came over on Nerishka’s Link and by the stiffness of Dresden’s posture, she knew he was receiving one too. She shifted to sit cross-legged and reached for her drink as she played the recorded message.

<If I know you at all, I know you haven’t done it yet. Get it done. You have orders attached. You ship out tonight. I’ve arranged transport and the necessary licenses for your weapons. But you have to make a short stop. You need an AI for this mission so I’m pairing you with Ryan.> Jeriah’s face was tight as she narrowed her gaze at Nerishka. <If you know what’s good for you, you will get it done now. Don’t force my hand or I may have to end it for you.>

Nerishka swiped the message away and studied the contents of her next mission. The AI wasn’t something she was keen on, but she had little choice. Ryan’s reputation preceded him and Nerishka knew he had a skillset she didn’t possess herself—he’d give her the advantage she needed. She’d just have to put on her big girl pants and deal with it.

Sighing, she shifted to a kneeling position and glanced over at Dresden. “What shall we do for the rest of the day?” She kept her tone light, hoping he wouldn’t pick up on her roiling emotions. Of course, with his mods, he could measure her heartrate, skin temperature, and blood pressure.

He grunted and boosted to his feet. “I just got a mission from Venez. Thankfully, I don’t ship out until next week. Want to extend this trip a bit longer? I know we have two more days but I’m enjoying having you to myself.”

Nerishka smiled and took the hand he offered, using it to pull herself up. He often did the little things that told her he cared. She was fully capable of rising to her feet herself, but Dresden would help her up, hand her into cars, open doors for her. It had nothing to do with her being helpless, but more a means of him showing his tenderness, his caring for her.

Nerishka blinked away the burn of tears in her eyes and slapped Dresden’s shoulder. “Race you to the shower.” She sped off only knowing he followed when she heard the thudding of his feet on the sand and then the boardwalk as they sped to the outside showers next door to the chalet’s porch.

After much laughter, she headed into the san, demanding privacy and claiming she’d had enough of his ugly mug. She’d showered and changed, then stared in the mirror, hating herself more each second.

When she opened the door, she found herself nose to collarbone with Dresden. He was leaning against the door frame, smirking. “You took your time. I was about to break the door down. Expected to see your body on the san floor.”

Nerishka punched his arm and rolled her eyes. “I was not long. Not as long as you take anyway.” She slid past him and then paused before rising on her toes to place a kiss on Dresden’s lips. The tenderness of the kiss almost brought tears to her eyes but again she pushed her emotions down.

Dresden returned the kiss then chuckled and pulled away somewhat reluctantly. He placed a finger on her lips and said, “Hold that thought, woman. I’ll be quick and then we can continue this and see where it takes us.” He winked and slapped her ass then headed inside the san.

Nerishka backed away the moment the door shut on her. Moving faster than she’d thought possible, she fled into the bedroom, gathered her clothing, so glad she’d packed light for this trip.

Seriously, for this place, all a girl needed was a bikini.

Two minutes later, Nerishka slid out of the chalet and hurried up the path to wait for the car she’d ordered. The only thing the resort hadn’t done without were the hovercars that transported guests to and from their chalets to the main building, and from there to the lift to the port above the world’s surface ocean.

She rode the lift to the surface without even looking out at the wonders around her. When she reached the port, protected from the planet’s ever-raging surface storms by grav-shields, she took a maglev to the first off-world shuttle.

As the maglev took off across the port, Dresden messaged her on the Link. <Hey, where did you go? I thought we’d go play a round of sand-dune golf. You need some Nishka-time or something?>

Nerishka didn’t respond to the message, instead leaving it unanswered.

Coward.

Yeah well. She wasn’t about to deny that. Nerishka sighed and shook her head at the thought of what Dresden must be feeling. She hadn’t even left him a note.

The shuttle would take her to a low-orbit station, and she booked passage from there to a larger transfer hub around one of the system’s gas giants. From there a liner would take her to the first destination Jeriah had listed in the orders.

Once that was complete, Nerishka crafted a message to Dresden, explaining that things between them were over. Then she deleted it. She recorded another, then deleted that as well. After a half-dozen more tries, she gave up.

Dresden messaged her a few more times, until the light-lag was too great, and his messages were queued for physical transport.

By then, Nerishka was on the shuttle heading toward the transportation hub. As she stared out of the window down at the stunning blue gem of a planet, she prayed he’d hate her and move on. She didn’t want that, not at all. But it was for his own good. That was the only reason she’d done it anyway.

Leaving him had been for his own good. And he’ll never know it.




WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

STELLAR DATE: 10.13.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Arraphka

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

The space elevator settled onto the planet’s surface, spilling its passengers into Arraphka Tower’s arrivals concourse.

It had surprised Nerishka that Anahita, the advanced, metropolitan world in the Ayra System was without a space elevator, but Xerxes, the simpler agrarian planet did. Her research had led her to realize that once the status of the worlds had been reversed. Xerxes had once been covered with metropolitan sprawl, nearly all of which had been reclaimed by nature over a thousand years.

Although Xerxes had few cities, it was as though the inhabitants had piled up all of their advanced tech into the city of Arraphka, constructing a massive arcology that formed the base of the space elevator—a tower which rose over ten kilometers into the air, housing twenty million inhabitants.

It took nearly an hour to go through arrivals, take three lifts and then a long maglev the rest of the way down to the surface and the equipment bay where their transportation awaited them.

When they arrived, Nerishka saw that it was an all-terrain vehicle, capable of handling anything Xerxes had to offer. A pair of automatons were loading their cargo into the rear, and Nerishka nodded with satisfaction, barely breaking her stride as she headed to the vehicle.

She gave a roll of her shoulders and climbed into the passenger seat, waiting for the others to join her. Within moments, Dresden jumped in beside her while Judith and Kelem joined them in the rear seats.

Nerishka acknowledged the pair then turned her attention to the road as Dresden pulled out of the bay, driving past the low buildings that spread around Arraphka Tower for several kilometers.

Out here, most of the businesses and facilities supported the farmland that stretched for hundreds of kilometers across an ancient seabed. They passed by equipment yards and food processing plants before moving into a sea of green fields stretching toward the valley’s edge.

At the top of the slopes that ringed the valley lay the next phase of their journey, a dense forest that stretched for a thousand kilometers across Xerxes’s surface.

The team rode in silence for some time, but as they began to approach the tree line, Nerishka realized how truly impressive the towering trees were.

“That’s a freaking jungle,” muttered Judith. “This is why I like space. No bugs and animals and plants.” She shuddered.

Nerishka chuckled. “Hey, you were forewarned. No turning back now.”

The woman snorted as Dresden turned off the main highway onto a dirt road that wound its way into the dense foliage. The road was filled with holes and Nerishka shook her head as they were jostled about. “Let’s hope we don’t destroy our equipment before we get there.”

“Most of it’s sitting on the stabilizing platform. We should be good.”

Nerishka nodded, then checked in with Lyra, <You getting anything from the local network that raises any flags about our destination? Hospital records maybe? Something we couldn’t access before landing?>

<Nothing. Seems much like someone is trying to hide the existence of what happened. Not a single hospital or medical facility has recorded any patients showing symptoms. I have been unable to find even a hint of any of those people from Fletcher’s files.>

<They had to have been treated on Xerxes, though. I’m guessing this confirms that whatever they were up to, whatever that research is, it’s not exactly legal in this system.>

Lyra’s avatar nodded, a frown on her face. <I have a record of a recent excursion in the direction we’re travelling, but the details seem to have been expunged. I have transport logs, fuel charges, those types of things. But I don’t have the identities of the contingent, or who they worked for.>

<Contingent? Sounds like a large group.>

<I believe there were thirty-eight organics on the trip. I have the purchase orders for supplies indicating that quotient.>

<Looks like they didn’t cover their tracks hard enough. Do we have a record of who paid for them?>

<No. Sorry.>

Nerishka gave a mental shrug. The whole thing was just one mystery after another. <Didn’t expect we would.> Then she let out a frustrated sigh. <So much for a quick kill. This mission is turning into something so much worse than a high-roller with dreams of creating his own picotech. I still don’t get what gave Fletcher the idea that picotech research would even become a reality. Or happen without him being found out.>

<Perhaps he thought he’d walk a kilometer in the footsteps of his mysterious dictatorial bastard of a boss?> suggested Lyra. <He may have believed that he too could get away with aiming high.>

<Thing is, we need to figure out what this research was before we even start to search for the people responsible.>

<I’ve scanned the files from Karsin and Fletcher over and over again, trying to make connections to other information. Still no link to the people behind it. All I get is that it’s some kind of huge research project that went catastrophically wrong.>

<I guess we’ll find out once we start taking readings on the ground.> Nerishka sighed again, trying to ignore Dresden who sat silently beside her. He’d been altogether too quiet since they’d left the house on Nimrud Station.

<When will you tell them what is really going on?> Lyra asked.

<When I know more about what is really going on. I’m not going to throw guesses and assumptions at Dresden and his team.>

<Is that called avoidance?>

<It’s called being circumspect.>

<Keep telling yourself that,> said Lyra with a smirk.

* * * * *

After what felt like hours of driving—which actually did turn out to be fifteen hours and twenty-two minutes—Dresden slowed the vehicle to a stop in a broad clearing.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Judith muttered as she alighted from the vehicle.

They’d stopped in front of what at first appeared—from what little they could see of it through the underbrush—to be a fence. However, upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a long line of densely packed trees. The road veered off to the left, and from the maps, they could see that it took a very circuitous route before coming to the valley the team was seeking.

Kelem called out, “I’ve dispatched a handful of drones. Maybe there’s a way through so we don’t have to go the long route.”

“And what happens when we do get inside?” asked Judith. “Are we even going to be able to walk through that stuff. And what about all that equipment?”

“I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions,” said Dresden. “Could just be a row of trees planted to mark the end of this piece of land.”

“For what?” muttered Kelem as he worked. “To keep something in or keep something out?”

“Shit. What’s the wildlife in this place?” asked Judith. “Are we going to come up against deadly animals wanting a taste of human flesh?”

“A bit dramatic don’t you think?” asked Nerishka, hiding a smile.

Judith made a face but was saved from responding by a yell from Kelem. “We have a narrow entrance over there. I’m confirming a clear trail wide enough for the a-grav pad.”

Dresden hurried over to Kelem and Nerishka followed. But before she got there, Dresden was waving a hand at the team, calling for them to prepare to move out. As the crew grabbed their gear and packed the pad, Nerishka saw to her own gear, weapons and testing equipment.

She’d been grateful that Dresden had secured the vacuum sealed pod Lyra had requested to hold any degradable samples they took. It too was packed neatly onto the pad and secured.

Dresden drove the vehicle into the trees at the edge of the clearing and covered it with a camouflage fabric that rendered the vehicle invisible. Hopefully it would remain that way until the team returned from their trip.

<Dresden has arranged for the vehicle to be picked up in case we do not return within sixty hours,> Lyra commented, startling Nerishka.

<He always was the one to prepare ahead for all possible scenarios.>

Lyra made a noncommittal sound and Nerishka ignored her, hurrying over to the team, glad she’d worn her armor. Judith had complained about bugs and animal life, but their armor would protect against them. Nerishka had to wonder if the woman had a phobia or something and resolved to pay closer attention to Judith just in case she needed help.

Thus far, their trek down the winding jungle road had been interspersed with shafts of sunlight slicing through the trees, and periodic clear patches as they climbed the hills that ringed Arraphka. But as they began to walk into the denser foliage, that changed.

The sunlight was completely blotted out, and the forest floor became dim enough that Nerishka activated her IR and nightvision augments to get a clear view of the ground ahead.

<Much cooler in here,> she commented to Lyra. <Gotta wonder when last some of these plants saw direct sunlight.>

<Much of the flora within this forest no longer needs sunlight to thrive.> Lyra continued describing the strange plant-life on the world while Nerishka listened with only part of her mind. The other part was focused on another forest on another planet so far away that it seemed likely she’d never return.

A place she’d once called home.

She shook her head, thrusting thoughts of Valkris from her mind and focused on the mission. A part of her hoped she was wrong about this whole thing, that her gut was leading her on a wild goose chase.

That’s called wishful thinking, she muttered to herself.




DECAY

STELLAR DATE: 10.13.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Caspian Forest

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

Dresden walked ahead of Nerishka, with Judith behind her, trailing the a-grav pad. Kelem was on point, chopping at offending branches and clearing the way for them as much as possible.

<So how come you reached out to Dresden,> Judith asked from the rear of their caravan after a half hour had passed.

For a moment, Nerishka hesitated. She didn’t really want to engage with Judith, but she ought to gain the trust of Dresden’s team, even if they were only together this one mission.

She rolled her shoulders and replied, <Honestly?> She received a nodding avatar from the woman. <I reached out to all the contacts I had within a week’s travel of the Ayra System. When I realized Dresden was already in the system, it made him the clear choice.>

<So...mere chance, huh?>

<You tell me. It was your team that was passing through the system I was already working in. Either way, I had to move as fast as possible on the information I found. The information I have on what went down here has been getting a few people killed.>

<Does that include where you were doing the killing?> asked Lyra privately, a soft snicker filtering over their Link.

<Shush. I’m team-building here.> To Judith she asked, <How did you end up on Dresden’s crew?>

<Been with the team about fifteen years now,> Judith replied, her tone a little tense as she spoke.

<Where were you before that?> When Judith fell silent, Nerishka cleared her throat. <Not meaning to pry. I figured Dresden already told you a bit about me. I’m at a disadvantage here.>

Judith chuckled. <Good point.> The woman let out a sigh. <Dresden saved my ass. I was doing a job for the Septhian government. Off-book stuff. Things went horribly wrong. I walked right into a trap. Turned out Dresden was working the same job for another interested party, but a different angle. He knew what was going to happen and came out of nowhere to save the day.>

Nerishka had been meaning to ask Dresden how much his team knew about his background with the Hand. The answer should be absolutely nothing. The fact that he was allowed to operate as a mercenary in the Inner Stars was something that still baffled Nerishka. She’d never heard of an agent retiring and not returning to the Transcend.

Nerishka sent along a soft laugh as she replied to Judith. <Raining hellfire and brimstone while he did it?>

<Exactly right.> Judith’s voice was warm at the memory. <So...what’s the deal with you two anyway?>

<I’m not sure what you mean?>

<Don’t play dumb,> Judith said caustically. <I have eyes. In fact, scary as it may sound, we all have eyes, and we’ve seen the way you two behave around each other. Like one of you is a porcupine and the other a snake.>

Nerishka snorted. <Which one do I get to be?>

<Damned if I know.>

<You should ask Dresden about it. If he wanted you to know, he’d tell you.>

Judith snorted. <Dresden’s a lovely guy. Good for saving your life in a pinch, comes barreling in, guns blazing, kills the bad guys. Every time. But trying to get the man to talk about his feelings is like trying to break through a hundred-meter wall of diamond.>

<I’m guessing you tried a few times, then?>

<You can tell?> She chuckled. <Kelem and me, we’ve both tried. Thought a guy like Dresden would fall for a woman’s wiles.>

<Clearly you don’t know the man very well,> Nerishka replied drily before realizing how that would have sounded to the other woman.

But Judith didn’t seem to be bothered by Nerishka’s words. <Yeah, with being on the team this many years you’d have thought we’d learn his ways. Thought we could break him. Suckers for punishment, we were.>

<And now you want to squeeze me for information? ‘Cos your boss isn’t parting with details?>

<Nah, not really. I mean, I don’t know who it is you work for, but if it’s the same people Dresden used to, you probably don’t volunteer information easily.>

Nerishka laughed. <Guess you don’t know my weaknesses yet.>

<I do,> came Judith’s reply, her tone deeper now, fake threatening. <Pastries.>

<Dammit.>

The redhead laughed. <I guess you’re not so bad, Nerishka.> She paused and then cleared her throat. <Sorry about the whole ‘ambushing you’ thing.>

Nerishka shrugged. <Not your fault. They were orders and I admire that you stuck it out that long.> Then Nerishka gave a sigh. <Sorry about the whole’ trying to poison you with deadly truth serum thing.’>

Judith snickered. <Is this the part where we hug and then braid each other’s hair? Maybe share a chocolate bar or something?>

<Yep. This is exactly the moment. I figure toasted marshmallows over a nice roaring fire would go down well just about now.>

<I’ll put a request in with the boss. Or maybe you should. He’ll probably listen to you.>

<Why would you think that?> asked Nerishka, frowning and wondering where Judith was leading her with that question.

Judith cleared her throat, and there was a grin in her voice as she said, <In my experience, when a guy checks out a girl’s ass seven times in one day—that I’ve seen—then she usually has at least some ability to wind him around her little finger.>

Nerishka’s eyebrows rose and she was about to offer a rejoinder about how she’d been wearing armor all day, when Dresden called out on the team channel for them to halt. Nerishka hurried to catch up with him where he stood at a break in the trees.

When she got to his side, she swallowed a gasp. He stood at the edge of a cliff, looking down on a valley that should have been covered verdant green forest. But the color had begun to shift to a greyish hue with splotches of brown throughout. The further along they looked, the worse the condition of the forest became, and Nerishka heard Kelem’s whistle over the team Link.

<Now that is just not right.>

<Weren’t you the one who didn’t want to wear your filtration mask?> asked Nerishka with a chuckle.

<Yeah. Boy, am I glad you’re a real hard-ass.>

Nerishka shook her head and spoke to Dresden on a secure channel. <What do you think? Time to break out our rad counters?>

He nodded. <This is not a good sign, though I can tell you aren’t surprised by the condition of the plant life.>

<I had wondered if there would be a possible effect on the forest. I’m not so sure anymore that we’re dealing with a communicable disease. The reports indicated that the diagnosis was some unknown pathogen, but I knew it would be stupid to assume they were being honest. It was probably just code for the real thing.>

<So whatever happened here…you think those researchers knew about it?>

Nerishka nodded. She was sure of it, but she couldn’t tell Dresden. She shifted her head to find him staring right at her through his faceplate. She shrugged, maintaining eye contact. <Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine?>

Something in Dresden’s expression changed, hardened as though he’d suddenly become angry with her.

<Don’t forget I know you all too well, Nishka. Lying to me isn’t doing any good for this mission. If there is something you should be telling me, I suggest you do it. I don’t like being kept in the dark.>

Nerishka frowned. <I’m sorry, Dresden. But you know as well as I do that when it’s secure intel I can’t just reveal it to you, even if you are part of the mission. This is all attached to a sensitive mission, so until Jeriah gives me the release, I can’t divulge anything.>

<And if the situation requires you tell me?>

<Then, you know me well enough to know that I will tell you.>

Dresden paused, his expression flattening for a moment. Then he nodded. < I guess I’ll have to trust in what I do know about you. Because I thought I knew you well. Very well. But it seems I can’t entirely trust my own judgment. So, I hope you see fit to divulge this information before one of my team ends up dead.>

Nerishka lifted an eyebrow, her face warming both from his scrutiny and the truth of the words he’d thrown at her. <I’m here too, you know. If something happens, I suspect I’ll go as fast as any of you.>

Dresden didn’t reply. He shifted comms to the team Link and said, <Hazsuits on. And ready all measuring equipment. As soon as we get to the line, we’ll be grabbing air and soil samples. Then we come back here and test. I’m not risking anyone’s life down there ‘til we know more.>

A chorus of affirmatives came over the link and a flurry of activity erupted from the small team. Before long they were all dressed in hazsuits pulled over their armor, breathing tanks supplying their air.

Nerishka knew it was probably overkill—any armor worth using in combat and vacuum could protect against viruses and radiation, but they didn’t have any way to scrub it down, and no one wanted to have contaminated armor hanging around.

<Maybe only one of us should go in? Just in case?> Kelem shifted on his feet. <Wait here. I’ll grab the first samples. Be back in a tick.>

<No,> Nerishka’s response was sharp and loud and had Kelem freezing in mid-turn. He twisted his neck to stare at her, his face filled with confusion and annoyance even as she continued firmly, <I’m going in first. I won’t be risking any of you on this.>

<But—>

Nerishka lifted her hand even as the man looked beyond her shoulder for Dresden’s support. <I said no. The team waits here. If I lose comms then you can send a drone to check on me first.> With that, Nerishka stalked off away from the crew, weaving between the boulders that littered the hillside.

<Did you do that to prove a point to Dresden, or because you genuinely don’t want any of them to die on this mission?> asked Lyra, her tone curious.

Nerishka scowled as she lost her footing and slid a few meters down the incline before managing to regain her balance. <Both,> she snapped as she hurried down the hill, deciding it was best to take it at a jog than to attempt to move one step at a time. <OK, maybe I do care. Kinda don’t want to see Kelem dead from whatever is down here.>

<He does seem to be a nice person.>

<Yeah. He does.>

<And of course, losing Dresden would be painful.>

<You think?> asked Nerishka, not hiding the sarcasm in her voice.

Lyra chuckled. <I am merely attempting to clarify where things stand. This harebrained idea of running into the poisoned forest seems a little foolhardy. Especially since I’m not sure you even thought about me.>

<You?> asked Nerishka as she reached the bottom of the hill and moved slowly to the trees that appeared to have been affected by some strange disease. Then she stiffened. <Of course, I thought about you.>

<Liar. Did you even ask me if I was OK running off alone out here?>

<Shit, Lyra. Sorry. Guess I did act out of...I dunno what it was.>

<How does ‘guilt’ sound?> said the AI, laughter in her voice.

Nerishka groaned. <Shush. I’m going to take an air sample first. I wasn’t sure Kelem even had a testing unit on him.>

<I believe he did not.>

<The idiot,> Nerishka muttered as she used a small plas tube to capture an air sample. Once the lid sealed, the screen ran the diagnostics and Nerishka sighed. Using the team Link, she said, <You guys can come down. The air here is negative for any kind of toxicity I can detect. Rad detector isn’t picking up anything, either.>

<You tested the air?> asked Kelem, his voice a little high

<You asshole,> Dresden swore. <You didn’t even have an air tester with you?>

<No. I—Aww shit. Sorry, Boss.>




GROUND ZERO

STELLAR DATE: 10.13.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Caspian Forest

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

As they progressed further into the dying jungle, the air and ground continued to be clear of any contaminants—aside from a rather unpleasant fungal growth that was surviving all too well on the decay. Its spores were thick in places, and they alone made the hazsuits worth the trouble.

<We’re only a kilometer away from those coordinates you gave us,> Dresden’s voice came over the Link. <I’m still confused as to why we aren’t getting any readings on the scans. No toxins, no radiation, ground water’s been clear, it’s weird.>

<Could be an element that dissipates fast? Even so, we have little idea of how long ago this happened.>

Lyra spoke up on the shared link. <That other team came in two weeks ago. Maybe they were the cleanup crew and by now any remaining contaminants have dissipated.> Then she paused and replied to Nerishka privately. <Shoot, Nerishka. I didn’t even think that you may not have wanted to tell him that.>

<Cleanup crew?> asked Dresden as he held a giant frond aside for Nerishka. <Is this more of what you decided not to tell me?> Though he kept his tone light, he didn’t sound happy about her omission.

<Lyra’s pulled data from the local networks suggesting an excursion came out here two weeks ago. It wouldn’t have been prudent to throw a mere suspicion at you until we knew something for certain.>

Dresden grunted as he came to a halt. Nerishka slowed her pace to come to stand beside him. The density of the vegetation had begun to lessen and with that, the effects of whatever toxin had attacked the plant-life further away had become more pronounced.

Across the next hundred meters, plants and trees had suffered devastating effects, everything—even the persistent fungus—was dead.

<Shit, is that a rat?> asked Kelem, pointing off to his left.

Judith shifted out of the line and crouched beside it. <Looks like something close to a rat. It’s very dead.>

Nerishka hurried over. <We need a blood sample and photographs.>

<On it,> said Kelem as he bobbed his head.

He worked quickly, taking a vid recording and then drawing blood and tissue samples from the dead animal. While he worked, Nerishka and the rest of the team studied the area, taking measurements of air quality as well as testing the plants.

<I’m getting mild readings, and I don’t think you’re going to like it.> Judith’s tone was hard as she turned and hurried over to Nerishka.

Dresden walked over too, making it clear that the woman had come to Nerishka and not to her boss. Would that have been considered a breach of protocol? And would Dresden take issue with it? Nerishka didn’t need to have to deal with discord within the team, but she was the lead on this mission.

Judith gestured to Nerishka and showed her the screen on the rad counter. <Definite radiation. Looks like…damn, two types. Iridium-192—that’s some serious shit—and Gold 198. The gold’s halved a lot, barely noticeable anymore. >

Lyra had already accessed the data and had thrown it up on Nerishka’s HUD. Speaking to both Dresden and Nerishka on their private Link, Lyra said, <You’d be dead if you didn’t have your hazsuits on. I’m reading terabecquerels of radiation on Judith’s instruments.>

Judith was walking across the dead zone and stopped, then slowly began to back up.

<There’s a chunk of metal down here, looks like it cracked. The rads are pouring out of it.>

<I wonder how your cleanup crew missed that?> Dresden asked.

<Maybe it wasn’t emitting much when they came through,> Lyra suggested. <Could have split from heating and cooling after it fell. I logged visuals from Judith, though. No need to go closer.>

Nerishka sent her AI an affirmative thought and glanced over at Dresden. <Do you still want to proceed?> she asked, knowing she needed his confirmation at this point. <There’s no turning back after this.>

A wind stirred the trees, startling the team, and revealing a nearby rooftop rising above the dying foliage.

<Looks like we found where the people came from.>

Dresden gave a low grunt, then spoke over the team Link. <Now that we’ve confirmed the presence of radiation, any further progress could prove to be dangerous. I’m not going to force anyone to keep going if you have doubts about exposure.>

<Do we know what symptoms we should be looking for?> asked Kelem, his tone faintly edged with concern, though not enough that Nerishka would be worried that he’d pull out.

She cleared her throat. <With our hazsuits and armor, you’ll be fine. But if you weren’t, you’d experience hematopoietic syndrome. Standard radiation sickness; nausea, vomiting, followed by the destruction of bone marrow, and death.>

<Oh,> came Kelem’s low response.

There was a moment of silence in which the crew considered their next move.

<So, you think it’s about time for you to tell me what this is all about?> asked Dresden.

Nerishka glanced over at him. <If I knew, I’d tell you. I’m following my nose here. Something is very wrong and what happened to this settlement is the key to it. The symptoms were isolated to this singular population, but it was severe enough that whoever put together the data I found ended his assessment by suggesting termination of ‘the project’, but from what my contact said, things still seemed to be progressing. That tells me someone is knowingly responsible for whatever happened that caused those symptoms, and they are willing to brush it under the carpet.>

<And naturally you need to find out what it is?> asked Dresden, his baritone a low hum in her ear. Then he let out a soft, and decidedly resigned, chuckle. <You never change, do you Nishka? Let me guess…you’re completely off book on this one? There’s no need for a release from Jeriah. She has no idea about this.>

She glanced at him and held his gaze for a moment, aware that the crew was already scouting the area beyond the cover of the trees.

Lyra cut into the conversation unexpectedly. <Can we get in and out of this settlement as fast as possible? Nishka can give you details once we are done.>

Dresden shrugged. <What’s the rush?>

<The rush is that I’ve picked up some remote sensors monitoring the area. They seem to be keeping an eye on the radiation, but there may be ones looking for people too. I’m trying to piggyback onto their signal and see if it leads me anywhere, but this is sophisticated stuff. They could have eyes in space watching this site. We shouldn’t linger.>

<Let’s assume they have eyes in the sky,> Dresden replied. <Everyone, pull on cammo-cloaks, these green hazsuits are going to stand out against all the brown.>

The team pulled the cloaks out of a case on the a-grav pad, and formed up at the edge of the dying jungle.

Ahead of them was a kilometer of fields, all the grains and plants long-since dead. Beyond that was a small settlement, and stretching toward the horizon were more fields, filling a cleared area that Nerishka estimated to be at least a hundred square kilometers.

<IR isn’t picking up a thing,> Kelem announced, and waved the team forward into a field of shoulder-high wheat.

They remained silent as they approached the settlement, and Nerishka kept thinking something was missing, something wasn’t right.

<Damn, there are no bugs…no birds,> she said after a minute. <That impact site we passed couldn’t have caused this much irradiation…what did this?>

<I don’t know,> Lyra replied. <We’re already well past any immediately harmful radiation.>

<Maybe it’s nothing,> Kelem said. <Maybe there’s no IR because they just cleared out after whatever happened here.>

<If we find what I think we will find, then he’s in for a shock,> Nerishka said to Dresden and Lyra.

<Not as if we expected anything less,> said Lyra, her tone somewhat despondent. <I’m not sure I like where we are headed.>

<You’re very negative, Lyra,> said Dresden, addressing the AI directly for the first time.

<Not negative. Realistic. Statistically, optimism in our current predicament is foolish.> Lyra fell silent then and Nerishka sensed her withdrawal.

Though surprised to find that the AI had been so clearly upset, Nerishka didn’t have time to probe right now. They’d reached the first of the homes on the edge of the settlement.

Lyra spoke over the team Link. <Got a ping from a welcome beacon across the road there. This is Greshan Settlement—it’s a subsidiary of a large agro corporation, Grantham Agriculture and Horticulture. Population is just under two thousand. Sixty percent families with children, the balance is comprised of seasonal workers and permanent workers without families.> Lyra’s tone was clinical, devoid of emotion.

<So, with IR scans showing no heat signatures, can we assume the settlement is empty?> Judith’s voice filtered over the Link. Something in her tone told Nerishka that the woman knew exactly what she should be expecting.

<No,> Lyra replied tonelessly. <I don’t believe it to be empty.>

<Yeah…I didn’t think so, either,> Judith replied, her voice now hollow and edged with a tremor. Nerishka recognized it—dread. <I just almost stepped on a dead cat. It’s rotting, been dead a few days.>

<Keep your eyes peeled people,> said Dresden.

<What for, Boss? Zombies?> Kelem asked and the group snickered at that, but from the underlying tension, the banter was intended to help keep everyone calmer.

It didn’t.




LEADS

STELLAR DATE: 10.14.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Greshan Settlement

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

The team split up into pairs and proceeded to inspect the first two buildings. Nerishka remained with Dresden who took the larger structure to their right.

<Looks like a foreman’s property. Much larger than the rest.>

<Could just mean this person has a large family,> suggested Nerishka.

Dresden reached the door and palmed the lock, surprising both of them when it slid open. <Contradiction in security here. Sensors at the perimeter but they leave their doors open to anyone,> Nerishka commented over the team’s comms.

<Same here,> reported Kelem.

Dresden stepped inside first, pistol held high, tracking back and forth across the room. Then he relaxed and straightened, but only slightly. <Empty. Let’s check the rest.>

Nerishka nodded and headed down the corridor that ran the length of the boxlike building. The home—because that’s what the structure appeared to be—was made of rectangular portable modules that could be placed together to create whatever layout was required, convenient for adding more space as time went.

They’d stepped into a room decorated with a family in mind. Five low plush-cushioned wooden sofas occupied the right of the room, draped with rugs and littered with toys and puzzles. A few mismatched shoes were scattered on the colorful tapestry rug on the floor within the formation. Two slices of tree-trunks masqueraded as coffee tables, half a meter high and coated with a honey-colored glaze.

To their left sat an irregular shaped dining room table, continuing the theme of honey colored wood, its chairs covered in colorful, overstuffed seats. Beyond the dining area sat a good-sized kitchen, counters littered with open bottles and moldy pieces of bread.

As Nerishka drifted through the room, the common theme of mugs with their contents covered in mold, plates with uneaten food coated in a light green fur, flies buzzing around open jars along the kitchen counters. Someone had attempted a PB&J and had left the job half done. The sight brought a lump to Nerishka’s throat.

She walked stiffly through the living room, angling toward the left where a small hallway led to three rooms further down and an open doorway to her immediate right. She paused on the threshold of a small office.

Three maps covered the back wall, and shelving filled with boxes was to her left. The right wall contained a large window, throwing light onto the large desk in the middle of the floor. And upon the man who sat in the chair, facing Nerishka. <I have a body.>

<Me too,> came Dresden’s voice, along with those of Kelem and Judith on the team Link.

Dresden’s footsteps echoed behind her as he drew up at her shoulder. She didn’t turn to face him, just studied the dead man who sat so very still at his desk. He appeared to have been working on something and had fallen on his face, then died in that position. Nerishka pointed at the surface of the desk. <He was sick. Painkillers, bandages, bloody tissues. He didn’t make it.>

Lyra spoke up. <I estimate time of death to be fourteen days ago.>

Nerishka walked closer to the man and peered at the paperwork in front of him. They appeared to be maps of Greshan and the area surrounding the settlement—perhaps the entire farm property. He was lying on something—another map maybe?—and it was ripped away, leaving only the corner of whatever was taken.

<Someone was here after he died.> Nerishka pointed at the torn sheet. <He was lying on something that had been ripped away. Possibly something that could identify what happened here.>

<So, someone is trying to cover something up?> Dresden said, his forehead creasing in a frown.

<Or someone needed information and this man was slumped over on it.> Nerishka shrugged.

She leaned closer to the corpse, and studied his face, glad for the respirator. She didn’t want to contemplate the odor that would have filled this home. The man’s eyes were open, glazed over with blood that had dried days ago. His fist was clenched tightly and Nerishka frowned, leaning close to him.

<Be careful,> Dresden warned, glaring at her when she glanced back up at him.

<I am. I just need to see what he has in his hand.> Lifting a pen from the desk, she inserted it into his closed fist and pushed open the rotting fingers one at a time. A small shard of metal lay on his palm and Nerishka picked it up. But before she got a chance to study it, Kelem’s voice came on the team Link. <You better get over here. You’re not going to believe this.>

Dresden turned and hurried out of the building, Nerishka following as she slid the shard into her pocket. <We need to go back and get tissue samples,> she muttered on the Link. But nobody replied.

Nerishka hurried out into the glaring sunlight and followed Dresden down the wide street. The other two had gathered at the far end of a small alley that ran between two buildings to a clearing beyond.

She’d just reached them when Dresden said, <This whole thing keeps getting more and more confusing.>

Nerishka skirted the huddle and stopped in her tracks, staring at a twenty-meter crater. <It’s an impact site. Larger than the hole back in the forest.>

<But where’s the thing that landed?> asked Judith, staring around them.

<Depending on mass and velocity, it could have been obliterated on impact,> Lyra replied to the team.

Nerishka circled the depression and studied the area around it. <There are a lot of boot marks all around the crater.>

<Scanning,> Lyra confirmed, plotting the various footprints on Nerishka’s HUD, overlaying it on a map of the immediate area, including the crater.

<Looks like the work of a cleanup crew,> Dresden said with a low grunt.

<They go down into the crater. It appears whatever landed here was removed by the owners of these footprints,> said Lyra. <No radiation source here anymore, though. They cleaned this one up properly.>

Nerishka frowned. <You know what this means? Something fell that someone wanted to get back, and they didn’t care about the people that died as a result.>

<Ok. Spread out and let’s see where these guys went,> said Nerishka.

Lyra expanded the map to include the entire settlement, overlaying the multiple footprints as they tracked through the streets. <These footprints belong to thirty-eight different people—which matches up to the estimated team complement that was sent in a few weeks ago.>

<They searched the entire site but didn’t touch the bodies,> said Dresden.

Nerishka nodded slowly. <Or maybe they came immediately after the crash and took the material away, and the people in Greshan died after that.>

<That fits the evidence,> Lyra said. <Otherwise, why leave a second mess behind>

<Have we seen a second cleanup team come in at all?> Nerishka asked Lyra, a suspicion forming in her mind.

<No. Nothing that I can see on the local networks.>

Nerishka nodded, one eye on the team as they worked their way through the settlement. They appeared tense, wary, as though expecting something to jump them at any second. Lyra sent her a comforting rush of emotion.

<You guys OK?> Nerishka called out to them.

<Yeah.> Kelem grunted. <Well, no? This is insane. What’s so important that you grab it, and don’t come back for the people.>

Judith glanced over at Nerishka. <What have you not been telling us, Nerishka? I get that you can’t share top secret details but this, whatever happened here, is huge. People can’t just die like this without anyone even knowing about it.>

<That’s exactly what happened here. And that’s why I’m here. I need to find those responsible for this, and what they were doing that could have caused it.>

Dresden spoke up, <We should head out. Whatever fell here is long gone. We don’t need to continue exposing ourselves.> He glanced at Nerishka who nodded.

<Yeah, and we should do that on the double. We have incoming,> yelled Lyra over the team Link. <A ship has just lifted off from Arraphka, making a bee-line for this place.>

The group scattered, racing for the tree-line as fast as possible. <How long do we have, Lyra?> asked Dresden.

<Ten minutes, tops.>

<Let’s get moving, people,> Nerishka said as the team raced through the streets and across the fields toward the jungle.

Once they reached the dying forest, Lyra spoke up. <They’re still moving straight for the town, we should circle around to avoid their flight path.>

The team veered to the south, following a route Lyra highlighted. At the ten-minute mark, a flash of light grew behind them, followed by a rolling thunder and a hot wind that whipped through the trees, knocking some of the sicker ones over.

<Holy shit!> Kelem cried out. <Did someone just nuke that village?>

No one responded for a minute, then Lyra spoke up. <Yes, low-yield, tactical. Greshan is gone.>

Nerishka glanced at Dresden, her eyes wide. <Do you think they saw us? Tried to kill us?>

<They leave the place to sit for two weeks, and then blow it to atoms half an hour after we arrive? You do the math.>

<Motherfuckers,> Kelem muttered. <Are we made?>

<We used a cover to rent the truck,> Dresden said, nodding slowly as the team formed up in a loose circle the, a-grav unit pulling up behind them a moment later. <We have to assume it’s blown. We can’t go back to the vehicle we used to get here.>

<Damn,> Judith muttered. <It’s a long walk back to Arraphka.>

<Seriously, Judith,> Dresden cocked his head, a scowl visible through his faceplate. <Do you think I only had one way out of here? I had another all-terrain vehicle dropped off twenty klicks south-east of here. We’ll be back on the space elevator in a day tops.>

Kelem barked a laugh and clasped Dresden’s shoulder. <I shoulda known you’d have a contingency.>

<We should get on the move,> Lyra advised. <Ayran Space Force has just dispatched two ships to investigate the site.>

<I bet they have,> Nerishka replied. <I’m pretty interested in what they find out.>

Three hours later, the team paused in a ravine to strip out of their hazsuits and hide them under a pile of rocks. Nerishka took care to place the sliver of metal she’d secured into a sealed, lead-lined container before pulling her suit off.

The a-grav unit was running out of power, and they dismantled it and shoved it into a small cave, shouldering the equipment it had carried.

<Had to ditch the thing anyway,> Dresden said as they set out once more. <Was way too hot to take back.>

<You say that, but you’ve the smallest pack,> Judith commented as they climbed out of the ravine, a laugh on her lips.

<You seem in good spirits,> Nerishka said to the woman who only shrugged in response.

<Just another day on the job.>

* * * * *

Four hours later they were finally back in a vehicle, taking a long route around to the south-west, where they’d enter the city from the other direction.

The official line was that eco-terrorists who supported the jungle’s re-growth had destroyed Greshan. It was a bit extreme, but from the network feeds, the public seemed to be buying it. There was a history of ecological conflict on the planet.

Still…ecological terrorists dropping a nuke is pretty farfetched, Nerishka thought. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

<You know what this means,> Dresden said privately to Nerishka.

<It means a lot of things. What are you focused on?>

<How high it goes. For a nuke to hit, and a cover story to be fully fleshed out in hours? Someone high up has an interest in this staying hush hush.>

Nerishka looked into Dresden’s serious eyes and nodded in response. <Yeah, maybe I made the right call following the breadcrumbs to Xerxes. Seems my mark on Anahita was working for heavy hitters. Heavy hitters who just wiped out all the evidence.>

<We’ll figure something out,> Dresden said after a few moments of silence. <If nothing else, we start digging into who dropped the nuke. That sort of thing takes some work to pull off.>

Nerishka couldn’t help gritting her teeth at the thought of how coldly calculating their adversary must be. <I hope they were sloppy. I want to find these assholes and take them out.>

<Me too.>

* * * * *

They were still within the jungle when Nerishka realized she hadn’t thanked Lyra for her work in the field.

<You’re amazing, Lyra,> Nerishka said. <We’d all be dead without you.>

<Thanks,> the AI responded with a blush and managed to sound awkward. <I’m just doing what I think is best.>

<Let’s agree to call that AI gut instinct…if AI had guts.> Nerishka smirked and Lyra responded with a grin.

<Right now, my gut says you should get some sleep. You’ve been awake for nearly fifty hours.>

Nerishka realized the AI was right. She hadn’t slept since waking up on the Belshazzar the day it had docked at Nimrud Station.

She took Lyra’s advice, and didn’t wake until they pulled into a different bay on the far side of Arraphka Tower from where they’d departed.

“Have a good sleep, princess?” Judith asked with a laugh as the vehicle rolled to a stop.

“Queen, not princess,” Nerishka winked at Judith as she slid out of the vehicle, glad to be standing on ground that wasn’t moving.

A stack of cargo containers rested at the back of the bay, and the team stored their equipment inside, signaling cargo drones to take it back up to Nimrud and begin its transfer through a variety of shipping companies before delivering them to the safe house.

Everyone was either tired or waking up as they rode the elevator back up to the station in silence. Nerishka nearly fell asleep twice and ended up using her nano to stim her into full wakefulness.

As the car was slotting into the station’s transfer hub, Dresden signaled Judith and Kelem. “We’ll meet you back there. Nerishka and I have to have a chat.”

Judith’s eyes slid to Nerishka and she gave a slight nod, while Kelem grunted. “Works for me.”

Nerishka watched them depart first, angling toward the maglev platform before she glanced over at Dresden and saw the look in his eye.

Great. Time to talk.




GATES

STELLAR DATE: 10.15.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Nimrud Station

REGION: Xerxes, Ayra System (Independent)

“So, where are we going?” she asked, wondering what he was thinking, if he was pissed or worried. His expressions for those two feelings were often hard to tell apart.

Instead, he only shrugged. “We’ve got a shitload of samples from the site, but still no real answers. We need a lab and I know a guy.”

<I do not believe we need a lab,> said Lyra, sounding hesitant as she barged into the conversation.

“You got something?” Nerishka asked.

<You were all busy running from impending doom, but I noticed that the settlement had a surface to air cannon.>

<What?> Dresden asked. <What for?>

<I’m sure you’ve noticed that they’re heavily mining the asteroids in Ayra’s inner asteroid belt,> Lyra began, <And we’ve just passed Xerxes aphelion, which has it within fifteen light-seconds of the belt’s inner edge.>

<Ahhh,> Nerishka nodded. <They get debris from the mines. But enough that they need a cannon in a settlement as small as Greshan to protect it?>

Dresden chuckled, shaking his head as he stopped at the edge of the concourse they were walking through, peering out at the world of Xerxes below them. <It’s a scam. I’ve seen ones like it before. Someone gets a scare going about falling crap, gets some legislation passed that requires people to have insurance for it, then some weapons manufacturer gets wise to it and works out a deal where insurance companies charge less if folks buy surface to-air-cannons for protection.>

<Wow,> Nerishka shook her head. <That’s quite the racket.>

<Yeah, you know how it is. But we saw that impact crater, if they had a STA cannon, how come they still got hit?>

In their minds, Lyra’s avatar straightened, a smug smile on her lips. <They got hit by multiple meteors, and I finally know what it was.>

<Stars, Lyra,> Nerishka groaned. <Stop being such a tease, spit it out.>

<OK, fine. So, we caught traces of Gold-198 and Iridium 192. Two very different radioactive isotopes that decay at wildly different rates. The gold is nearly undetectable after twenty days, but the iridium would stick around for a lot longer. Even a gram of iridium—as we saw from that first meteor strike—is fatal within just a dozen meters. But we know that the cleanup crew didn’t cover the whole dead zone down there, they just visited the main impact site and left.

<If Ir-192 had fallen across the whole dead zone it would have been a very different story—that whole place would have practically glowed. However, if their insurance-scam-mandated STA cannon hit a piece of falling debris that contained gold 198…well that could very well cause an airburst effect over the dead zone.>

<Shit,> Nerishka whispered. <Are you telling me that Greshan’s protective air cannon effectively killed them all?>

<I believe so,> Lyra replied. <It’s possible that there was iridium in the main impact site in the settlement, but that would have only killed people who got close. Not everyone would have died, in fact most of the populace would never have had any ill effects if it was dealt with properly.>

Dresden shook his head. <This doesn’t add up. Xerxes may be a bit of a backwater, but people fly starships with fusion reactors around here, AP drives, all sorts of radioactive shit. That mess should not have been a major coverup—I mean…they nuked it…>

<To hide the radioactive evidence under another radioactive contamination. Careful study would probably blow that cover, but if you can drop a nuke with impunity, you can probably control the ‘facts’ that come out of the event,> Nerishka said, still feeling grateful to Lyra for the early warning that got them out of the blast radius.

<Nerishka, can you get out that piece of metal you found?> Lyra asked. <You put the container in your armor’s thigh pouch.>

Nerishka complied and saw that Lyra deployed a nano filament sending it through the container’s access port and, analyzing its composition while she continued to talk.

<Based on the rate of decay of the gold, the source of that isotope had to be close. Close enough that it traveled through space for no more than six days before impacting Xerxes. Also…oh dear.>

<Lyra? Is that an oh shit-oh dear or an oh fuck-oh dear?>

Lyra send a wave of concern. <I believe the latter profanity works best.> Lyra took a breath. <That piece of metal you are using belongs to a ford-svaiter mirror.>

Nerishka’s eyes widened as she stared at Dresden’s shocked expression. <You’re right, Lyra. That’s definitely an oh-fuck oh dear.>

<Are you sure, Lyra?> Dresden asked, his eyebrows stretched half-way to his hairline.

<Well, I know of few things that would cause us to encounter those two isotopes, plus what I see in this shard. One of them is a particular type of exotic energy reflected by ford-svaiter mirrors.>

Dresden whistled, while Nerishka drew in a long breath while asking, <Seriously? A jump gate?>

<Yes,> Lyra replied. <That shard in your hand is a piece of a jump gate mirror. Someone in the Ayra System is researching gate technology and I think I know where. Given the timing, and the orbits of nearby asteroids, I believe the source is an asteroid named Yazata.>

<Yazata?> Nerishka frowned. <Local records show that nothing is happening there—it was mined out decades ago.>

<That’s the official data, yes,> Lyra said, her mental avatar nodding sagely. <But I found a freighter that reported an EMP burst two weeks ago when it was passing near Yazata.>

<Well then,> Nerishka’s eyes met Dresden’s. <I think we have our next breadcrumb in this trail.>

* * * * *

“You have got to be shitting me,” Kelem grumbled, throwing his squeeze ball from hand to hand. The thing looked like it was about to fall apart. Nerishka eyed it warily.

Dresden grunted. “Yeah, that’s what we have right now, illegal research on Yazata that they’re covering up. The shard Nishka found is the connection.”

The team took a few moments to stare at the sealed capsule that currently held the mildly radioactive shard. Beside the container sat a bowl of baked goods.

Nerishka reached over and grabbed a custard pastry from the selection and sank into her seat.

“You can eat at a time like this?” asked Judith, an eyebrow raised.

Nerishka nodded, then replied around a mouthful of custardy, flaky goodness. “Food is what makes hanging out in safe houses worth it. Especially dessert.”

Kelem snorted but it was clear Nerishka had lightened the mood. He reached for the coffee and served the team up while they partook of the pastries, giving the shard a wide berth.

“It’s not going to jump up and kiss you, you know,” Nerishka said, smirking as she glanced at Kelem. “It doesn’t have the iridium in it, just some traces of other stuff.”

He let out a disgusted sound. “I know what radiation can do to you. We saw what happened to the people at that settlement. Not sure why you even have that thing here,” he groused, picking at a berry in his cupcake.

Dresden dragged his chair back and got to his feet, swiping crumbs from his mouth. “It’s to remind us why we are about to do the crazy thing.”

“What crazy thing is that?” asked Judith, folding her arms.

“We’re going to Yazata.”

Silence hung in the room for a few moments. Then Kelem coughed. The cough turned into a choking sound and Dresden leaned over and hit the taller man hard on the back, giving him three solid thumps, which resulted in Kelem half folded over, his face almost hitting the table.

“Hey, don’t kill the guy now.” Judith slapped Dresden on the shoulder and everyone laughed.

<Organic human is…amusing,> Lyra commented.

<Very funny,> Nerishka replied and snickered.

Then she took a deep breath and sat back, glancing over at Dresden to see if he would want to tell his crew the plan. He shook his head and jerked a chin at the team.

OK, then.

Nerishka proceeded to explain the connection between the shard, the isotopes and the asteroid, leaving out any mention of jump gates—a technology that, until today, she hadn’t thought a single soul in the Inner Stars even knew about.

“So, we have a chunk of something from Yazata sitting on our counter there. That’s what they were trying to clean up, so that’s our next destination. Something hinky is happening on that rock.”

“And of course, we’re the ones to find out what it is?” Kelem rolled his eyes.

<I believe he is faking it.>

<I got that.>

Lyra chuckled. <I can also confirm that he is trying hard to contain his excitement.>

<Got that too.>

<I can also confirm that you don’t miss much,> Lyra’s voice dripped with sarcasm, and Nerishka rolled her eyes while reaching for another pastry.




UNDERSTANDING

STELLAR DATE: 10.17.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Teshub, departing Xerxes local space

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

<Are you going to tell Judith and Kelem you suspect there’s a jump gate on that rock?> asked Lyra.

Nerishka looked around at the crew who were lounging in the viewing room at the front of the ship. Dresden had hired the Teshub, a light freighter complete with experienced pilot—named Raz—and enough weapons to blow the asteroid to rubble, should the need arise.

Dresden’s words, not hers.

She took a moment to ponder his relaxed relationship with Raz—who Lyra had confirmed was from Genevia where he’d been a pilot in their recent war with the Nietzscheans. Despite the blond pilot’s engaging smile, the man had proved to be reserved, had barely said much since they’d left Nimrud Station, and tended to move around the ship silent as a panther, despite his bulk. There was definitely more to Raz than he was willing to share.

Nerishka was in the rear observation deck, watching the view of Xerxes as they departed Nimrud station. Something told Nerishka that dodging nukes in the jungles below had just been the beginning. Nothing good awaited them on Yazata.

Thankfully, she’d been fortunate enough to have avoided any additional assassination attempts by green-skinned women. She’d decided she was going to add the Ayra System to her list of places to never visit again.

<I’m not sure,> Nerishka finally replied. <We could still be wrong.>

The AI remained silent and Nerishka understood why.

Nerishka studied the crew and smiled. Seeing the way this small crew worked with Dresden, she almost envied him.

Almost.

Nerishka got to her feet and walked closer to the window.

“Beautiful isn’t it?” asked Judith as she came to stand at the window.

Nerishka smiled and nodded. “Have to admit it looks a damned sight better from here.”

“Very true.” Judith heaved a sigh, then shifted to lean against the window and study Nerishka’s face. “When will you tell us what’s really going on?” the redhead asked softly.

Nerishka stiffened. “What do you mean?” A million thoughts flew through her mind. Had Judith overheard her talking to Dresden. Had she tapped their comms?

Judith smirked. “You and Dresden.” She glanced over her shoulder at the man in question. “Always a loner. Not one for commitment. Never looks at a woman twice. So bad he’s been propositioned one too many times by guys who thought he wasn’t into girls ‘cos he’s not a player. And now, you walk into his life and he’s been cracking a smile more than his once a month allotment.”

Nerishka snorted. “He can’t be that bad.”

“Only a tiny bit of an exaggeration there, but it’s fitting. You guys need to sort things out. He’s got enough going on and he can’t afford the distraction. Especially from someone who looks like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nerishka shifted to face the redhead.

Judith gave a rueful smile. “Something tells me I’ve said too much.”

Nerishka’s eyes narrowed. “No turning back now.”

The redhead sighed and shrugged. “He should have told you. We’re all super protective over him right now. It’s the reason we put you through that test.” Judith shifted and turned to stare out at the view of Xerxes as it grew smaller and smaller. “A few months back, we were on Champlain Station out near Ontario in Septhia. Someone tried to assassinate Dresden.”

“Shit.” Nerishka swore as Judith’s revelation sunk in. “What happened?”

“Maybe you should ask him. It’s just when we heard you were requesting assistance, it became a little weird with how his recent assassin looked identical to you.”

“What?” Nerishka’s eyes bugged.

Judith smirked and nodded slowly. “Yeah. Imagine our shock to see you walk through the door. Again.”

Nerishka huffed and shook her head. “He should have told me.”

“Would you have told someone who needed your help that your life was under constant threat? You’d have likely passed on the opportunity.”

“Or I would have said yes in order to see if this is a ruse and I’m just trying to find a more inventive way to kill you.”

“Yeah. That too.”

Judith fell silent and for a few seconds they both stared out the window. Until Nerishka tapped the sill and said, “I have to go do a thing.”

Judith chuckled. “He’s in the galley.”




CONFESSIONS

STELLAR DATE: 10.17.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Teshub, departing Xerxes local space

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka leaned against the doorframe and studied Dresden as he bent over a sandwich, picking out the greens.

“You still haven’t learned to eat your veggies.”

“Lettuce does not qualify as a vegetable. It’s a weed,” he muttered, tossing a limp lettuce leaf aside.

“It’s still good for you.”

Dresden made a face. “Pretty sure I’m good without that goodness. Survived this long without lettuce so I must be OK.”

Nerishka strolled inside and leaned against the counter beside him. “So…when were you going to tell me that someone tried to kill you?”

Dresden paused and straightened to stare at Nerishka. “Who told?”

Nerishka shrugged. “I have my sources. You know I’d never give up an asset.”

Dresden rolled his eyes and grabbed his sandwich. “It’s no big deal. A couple of people tried to kill me. What’s the problem? Not like I’m a database admin or something. Kinda do dabble in dangerous stuff.”

“We’re not exactly known quantities. It’s not often that we have assassins target us—when it’s not related to a mission, that is,” Nerishka said thinking about the Olive Sisters.

Dresden smiled. “Well, I’ve been out here in the wind for a while. I probably have some enemies that know where to find me.” He took a bite of his sandwich, his actions nonchalant, but Nerishka knew better.

“What the hell, Dresden? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it’s you.”

“That’s a little cryptic.” Nerishka decided to feign ignorance and not out Judith.

“No. I meant the killer. She was you.”

“Dresden. I don’t have time for this bull—Oh.” Nerishka stopped speaking and stared at his face, “No, I understand. Is that why you ambushed me when I came to the apartment?”

He met her gaze mid-chew. “Yeah. I needed to make sure it was you. And when you pulled the whole truth toxin thing that’s when I knew it was.”

“She looked like me, huh?”

“Spitting image.”

Nerishka let out a soft growl. “Sheesh, how unfair is that? You get sexy hot Nishka-assassins and all I get are creepy green-skinned women.”

Dresden swallowed hard, set his sandwich onto his plate and straightened to look at Nerishka’s face. She stiffened, aware now that she’d spoke the words out loud.

“You’ve been attacked, too?” he asked, his tone unreadable.

There was no backing down now. “Yes. On Anahita. Three times. Although once I think I actually walked in on them.” Nerishka paused. “Shit. This all means that Karsin really wasn’t killed because of the file he had.”

Dresden lifted a finger and made a reversed rolling motion. “Back up a bit and start from the beginning.”

Letting out a sigh, Nerishka said, “So I was meeting a mark when someone attacked me in the san. I managed to eliminate that threat but when I went to check on Karsin—my contact in Ayra—I found him dead. He’d kicked it days ago. I encountered an assassin there. She may have returned to look for something, or to wait for me. Not sure.”

“Killed her too, did you?”

Nerishka nodded and gave a grim smile. “Third time, I got lucky. Before I boarded the ship to Nimrud Station, assassin number three attacked me in the san.”

“You have a thing about sans, do you?”

She snorted. “These assassins seem to have some kind of pattern. Probably a good way to get your target alone. I’ve done a few san-kills myself. So stop with the judgy business.”

“So, what happened with green-assassin 3.0?”

“Oh, that’s Olive. Her I knocked out and brought onto the ship to Xerxes with me.”

“You what?” Dresden looked like he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or scold. He settled for a look that implied he’d given up. “So did she have anything to say? Like who the hell she and her team are? And maybe why they are after Hand agents? And ex ones too?”

“Unfortunately, not. She went kablooey.”

“Huh?”

Nerishka nodded, expression deadpan. She raised her hands and made and exploding gesture with her fingers and accompanied it with the sound effects as well. “Ka-boom.”

He glared at her. “Explain. I’m imagining something like that would result in a room painted in bits and pieces of the person who kablooeyed.”

“Sure did. She tried to kill herself with her nano but Lyra stopped that. But she had a second failsafe. Seems there was some kind of report-in system. If they missed getting confirmation that they were uncompromised, then they literally explode. They had these little black beads inserted beneath their skin, camouflaged by tattoos. I’m thinking they were initiated when poor Olive didn’t report in on time. There wasn’t really enough left for a detailed analysis though.”

Dresden was grinning. “I’m curious as to how you managed to explain your attempts at redecoration to the Belshazzar’s management.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t. Lyra created a diversion and I made a dash for it.”

He was shaking his head and chuckling. “You always had the most interesting missions.”

“Can I help it if crazy people do crazy things around me?”

Dresden snorted. “So what do we do about our endangered lives. Think someone has a price on our heads?”

“Like a bounty or something?” Nerishka asked, then shook her head. “No. It didn’t seem that way. From what she said, the mission was all about killing me. I’m pretty sure they were the ones who killed Karsin though, so I’m assuming he was the first target and I was second in line. They knew a lot about me too. She knew about my poisons. And she seemed…driven. As if she’d rather die than fail at killing me.”

“Yeah. That’s more or less what I got from my Nishka-doppelganger.”

“Ugh. I don’t even want to imagine what that had been like. Did you think I was trying to kill you?” Nerishka stared at Dresden’s face, the impact of what he must have felt to know she was trying to end his life.

He stiffened, his eyes darkening for a moment. “To be honest, yes. I was a little confused. Upset. You didn’t give—I mean she didn’t give me an explanation. Just pitched up and tried to kill me. All that time fighting her off, I honestly believed it was you. But after a while it became noticeable. Something in her voice, the way you quirk one eyebrow, the way you squint when you are concentrating. Little things made me realize it wasn’t you. Besides, I was a bit distracted trying to evade the big sharp knives she had spinning around and around. She did manage to take a few centimeters off the sides, so she saved me a trip to the barber.”

Dresden ran a hand along his head and smirked, but Nerishka could tell he’d been more than just a little unsettled by his encounter with killer-Nerishka.

“And?” she prompted.

“I’ll be honest, I worried that the Hand had decided my retirement in the Inner Stars was too risky and they’d sent you to clean me up. It was a little hard when I worried I’d killed you.”

Nerishka pursed her lips. “You killed her. Didn’t get a chance to ask her anything?”

Dresden threw her a glare then glanced at his sandwich in distaste. “I just said that I thought I’d killed you.”

“I heard you.”

“Do you have any idea what that felt like?”

Nerishka tilted her head and studied Dresden’s face. “No. I don’t think I would know. I am pretty certain it would have been difficult.”

“It was horrific.” He growled the words out. “I didn’t know what to do. I stood there staring at you—her—staring at the blood. I was pretty much a mess. When I got back to the crew they were confused but I didn’t explain what it was that I’d thought I’d done. I spent three months worrying that maybe I’d killed you. Wondering why you’d wanted me dead. Wondering what I did.”

Nerishka’s heart twisted as she heard the pain in Dresden’s voice. She had to wonder how much was for the killing of her lookalike assassin and how much harkened back to her cut-and-run.

She reached out and curled her fingers around his arm. “You didn’t kill me, Dresden. I’m here,” she said softly.

He nodded and looked away, then reached for the sandwich and took another bite, the movement forcing her to let go of him. “So, what do you make of it?” he asked softly.

Nerishka tried hard not to think about how good it had felt to touch him. That had been a bad idea. She focused on his question and frowned as she said, “Looks to me like someone is making a concerted effort to kill Hand agents. They do their research. They know us so well. Which makes me wonder if there is a leak in the Hand. They knew where Karsin was, they tracked you down. They know where our missions are taking us.”

Dresden shifted on his feet, then waved his forgotten sandwich in the air as he replied, “But I’m not with the directorate. So perhaps this mole is no longer around. Maybe the intel these killers are using is old. At least fifty years old? This wouldn’t be the first time someone in the Inner Stars got wise to the existence of the Hand.”

Nerishka nodded, her skin warming as she realized what else had happened all those years ago. She thought back to her reasons for leaving him, convinced now more than ever that she’d done the right thing.

“You know what the other option is,” she said, keeping her thoughts on the issue at hand.

Dresden nodded, turning back to his forgotten sandwich.  “Yeah, BOGA. Been awhile since I’ve run into them, though. I didn’t think they were active around here.”

Nerishka laughed. “Orion is active everywhere. I’ve been up against them a few times in the last fifty years.”

“Shit,” Dresden whispered. “No wonder you mopped the floor with their green women.”

Nerishka nodded, thinking about what it would mean if agents from Orion had intel on Hand operatives. Are they hitting us themselves, or are they hiring Inner Stars contractors to do it?

“I’ll prepare a packet for Jeriah with this intel. It’ll be a while before she gets it, though,” Nerishka murmured, filling the dead air.

“Chances are she already knows.”

She nodded absently. “Maybe. She told me a few operatives had been killed lately—which isn’t completely unheard of, but she hadn’t mentioned any failed attempts—though you’re not in the organization anymore, so maybe she didn’t feel the need to share.”

“But first you need to concentrate on catching the bad guys messing with jump gate tech,” Dresden said sternly.

“I really hope I’m not going to have my ass handed to me for this.”

He shrugged, took a bite from his sandwich and, after chewing and swallowing, said, “No one is going to take you to task for shutting this down. You’ll probably be showered with medals. Jump gates in the hands of the wrong people could make the FTL Wars look like a skirmish.”

“So now you agree with what you once called Hand indoctrination?” Nerishka asked.

He wiped non-existent crumbs from his lips and stared at her face. “It’s not exactly what I meant. All I said was that we should be allowed to question a mission that doesn’t make sense because we are the ones on the ground. As operatives we need to also do our due diligence to ensure that particular mark really deserved to be eliminated. Otherwise, how would we ever be able to tell if the Hand is just being manipulated by other unknown parties making us do their dirty work for them in eliminating competition or threats. The Hand acts on information, and information can be manipulated.”

“A very valid question. Had I been there, I’d have agreed wholeheartedly,” Nerishka nodded.

Dresden smiled his thanks and finished his sandwich, swallowing it down as though it took a great deal of effort. “We have another twenty hours to go before we reach Yazata. I’m ordering the crew to get some shut-eye. You’re getting the same order.”

Nerishka rolled her eyes but she didn’t argue. She really did need some sleep.

“Oh wait…don’t tell me you’d rather be messing around with your little plants?”

Dresden knew well enough she’d left the pod of plants back on Nimrud station in a secure lockup. She wasn’t about to risk taking them with her and then losing them in case the ship they’d chartered blew up.

<Ship blows up, you’re dead, so that’s a moot point,> Lyra commented out of the blue.

<Lyra!> Nerishka growled.

<Sorry. Couldn’t help it.> The AI didn’t sound in the least bit sorry.




YAZATA

STELLAR DATE: 10.18.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Teshub, approaching Yazata Asteroid

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Yazata appeared in the Teshub’s holodisplay, the oblong-shaped rock measuring almost a thousand kilometers long and over two hundred across.

The Teshub was ostensibly on a course to meet up with Terhan, an asteroid habitat an AU further ahead, but over the last three light seconds, Raz had shifted their vector to bring them close to Yazata. Once they were within half a light second, he’d kill the engines and use grav drives to bring them to the rock.

Nerishka had reviewed the stats on the asteroid, and though it was listed as ‘depleted’, the rock still had plenty of iron mixed in with less useful minerals. From what she could tell, ‘depleted’ really just meant ‘currently not profitable’.

Yazata’s iron content was still high enough to shield any testing activity within. And its proximity to Ayra’s inner system made it more convenient than a research station in the far reaches of the star system. In fact, it was so perfect, that Nerishka wondered if it’s status as a no-longer-viable mining site was falsified so it could be used for other purposes.

All in all, Yazata couldn’t have been better as a location for jump gate testing—illicit or otherwise.

But no matter how hard Lyra searched the networks within the Ayra System, she kept getting no results in terms of activity on the asteroid. If they were to believe the records, no one had set foot on Yazata in over five decades.

The fiction was hard to swallow. Even with other economically viable asteroids out there, it was surprising that some enterprising soul hadn’t decided to scratch some of the remaining minerals out of the rock.

Despite the improbable nature of Yazata, someone was covering up so well that Lyra hadn’t been able to find records of the incoming and outgoing deliveries required for even a small research facility to function.

It was another thing that pointed to a person with power, an organization with the ability to reach across an entire system’s worth of records and wipe every detail out, covering their tracks perfectly.

“Whatever the records say about this place being abandoned for fifty years? It’s some serious bulldust,” said Kelem as he studied the details on his scan.

“Found something?” asked Nerishka, coming to his side to stare at the holo.

“There,” Kelem highlighted a location on the rock. “That’s a dock leading into an interior bay, but it’s not one listed on the old mining operation’s schematics, and from the lack of scoring, it’s not ten years old.”

“Oh, not to mention they have security,” Raz called out on the ships comm. “I just spotted a drone in a wide orbit around the rock, it’s altered trajectory toward us. Thing’s got some big guns, I’m pulling up our shields.”

“Hold one mike,” Dresden responded to the ship’s captain.

“Lyra? Any ideas on how we keep that thing from paying us a visit?” Nerishka asked aloud for the team’s benefit.

<It might be flying solo. There’s no EM coming out of the asteroid, although…they could be tight-beaming commands to the drone. Aha! It’s receiving, I’m hijacking the frequency.>

A tense minute passed as the drone looped around the asteroid, altering its vector to break away for an approach to the Teshub. Then it applied braking thrusters and re-entered its wide orbit.

“Nice work, Lyra,” Kelem grunted.

<Don’t thank me yet. There are four more of them out there—I’m trying to piggyback on the first one’s connection to whatever system is controlling them.>

Four more specks of light were flagged and tagged as security drones. Each one shifted trajectory, moving to break orbit.

<I’m in!> Lyra proclaimed. <System is automated, just an NSAI. I’m taking him offline and sending new commands to the drones. Their security system has failsafes—this may take a minute.>

“Why not do the same thing to those four as you did to the first one?” Judith asked.

<Because of the point defense cannons mounted on the asteroid. I figure we don’t want to be sliced and diced by those, too.>

“The ship has beams,” Kelem suggested. “We can shoot the drones down.”

“Given that someone blew up Greshan with a nuke—possibly to take us out, I’d rather not alert them to our presence here just yet,” Nerishka said and Dresden nodded. “I’d rather we get in and find out what’s going on before we have to run for our lives.”

“Or die trying,” said Judith, her arms folded. Nerishka couldn’t quite make out if the woman was unhappy with being on the mission, or if she was maintaining a prickly disposition because she found it to be enjoyable.

<OK, the NSAI is offline and their security measures are all on standby. I have the bay doors opening. Passing an approach vector to Raz.>

“Thanks, Lyra. Just keep your eyes peeled,” Nerishka replied.

“How is it that your AI can just walk through these security systems?” Judith asked, one eyebrow raised.

Because she and I are from a far more advanced civilization and Ayra’s security is a joke, Nerishka thought, though aloud she only said, “This is what we do. Let’s get armored up, time to earn our pay.”

Dresden hadn’t spoken throughout the conversation and remained so until everyone had filed out to armor up.

Nerishka looked over at him. “Something bugging you?”

His forehead wrinkled as he scowled up at her. “Not really. Maybe?” He sighed. “There’s a very real possibility that someone will not leave this rock alive. I’m hoping to avoid that, but I’m not naive.”

Nerishka frowned, studying his face for a moment. She knew what he was thinking. They’d skirted around it since they’d first met up on Nimrud and she’d begun to accept that she should come clean.

Something else was happening, events neither of them understood, chess pieces moved in a game that included assassins making repeated attempts on their lives.

She smiled sadly as she said, “You’re right. I do need to explain a few things, but this is the worst time to do it. Can I take a rain-check until after we inspect Yazata? Then I’ll tell you the whole sordid story.”

He nodded, though he didn’t appear satisfied. “Just don’t get killed before you do, OK?”

“Deal.”




BREACH

STELLAR DATE: 10.18.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Teshub, Yazata Asteroid

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Raz expertly guided the Teshub through the access doors that Lyra opened, and into a long rocky shaft that was over three hundred meters wide. Lyra directed him to a cradle in Docking Bay 4, which still had power and would clamp securely to the ship.

While he piloted the Teshub in, the team moved to the corridor outside the airlock, ready to disembark.

<So far nothing moving toward Yazata,> Lyra advised. <I thought for a minute that an Ayran Space Force patrol boat was going to make a close pass, but they were altering burn to pass by another asteroid.>

“That’s a relief,” Nerishka replied. “But stay sharp.”

“Have you gained access to any internal systems?” Dresden asked.

<No,> Lyra sent a feeling of consternation across the team’s combat network. <They seem to be completely segregated from the external defenses and scan.>

“If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is,” Judith said, shaking her head before pulling her helmet on.

Nerishka followed suit, locking her own helmet into place as Dresden gestured for her to turn around so he could check over her armor.

Nerishka scowled at him through her faceplate. <I’ve run solo for centuries, Dresden. I don’t need you mothering me.>

<Humor me,> Dresden gave her a mischievous smile. <I need to keep Judith and Kelem on the straight and narrow. They need to see the boss doing what he expects of them.>

<Fine,> Nerishka stretched the word out as she turned.

Dresden’s team had only worn light armor during their excursion to Gershan—a decision prompted by the need to wear hazsuits overtop. But now they were in their powered gear, and it was impressive hardware for what amounted to a small group of mercs.

Judith was in the heaviest set with the largest loadout, while—a bit surprisingly—Kelem was in the lightest gear. Dresden’s armor was plated, but only lightly powered, something he could get away with due to his muscle augmentations.

Nerishka’s armor was her standard gear. Form fitting and suited to her preference for close-combat fighting.

As Dresden checked her over, she couldn’t help but wonder if his hands lingered at her waist just a bit too long after he checked the straps holding her holsters and ammunition satchels in place.

Then he tapped her on the shoulder and she ran over his, making sure everything was ready to roll.

<Entering the bay,> Raz announced over the comms, and Dresden glanced back at Nerishka, who nodded that he was good to go.

<Time to rock and roll,> Dresden said as he palmed the airlock control. They entered the lock as the ship settled down, pulling external feeds from the Teshub’s cameras as the airlock cycled.

The feeds showed the bay to be clear, a visual which was confirmed when the airlock doors slid open. Judith and Kelem were first out, descending the ramp and taking cover near the cradle struts before Dresden and Nerishka followed after.

The pair moved toward the bay’s interior doors, and once they reached them, Judith and Kelem advanced to nearby positions, ready to provide cover in case a surprise was waiting for them on the other side.

<I’ve passed you the auth codes for entry,> Lyra said to Nerishka and Dresden.

<I thought you didn’t have access to internal systems.> Dresden said as he flipped open the cover on the manual access pad.

<They weren’t good at separating all their log entries. Some internal systems backed up into the same place as the external ones. Managed to lift those codes out. Their internal wireless systems are offline, though, so I probably can’t breach them until we get to a main relay or data hub. I’m pulling some rough layout data as well. Hopefully it’s still accurate. Some of it references the old mining facilities.>

<You can’t tap in through this door control?> Nerishka asked.

<No, it’s not on their network. Someone was really paranoid.>

Dresden glanced back at Nerishka as he keyed in the code Lyra had provided, his finger hovering over the green OK button. She nodded, and he pushed it, then stepped to the side.

The doors had only begun to slide open when ballistic rounds poured into the bay.

<Two drones!> Lyra called out and dropped markers on the team’s HUDS.

Nerishka and Dresden flattened themselves against the bulkhead and Kelem cried out as a series of rounds hit him—though more in anger than pain.

<Shut that thing down people,> Dresden yelled as rounds ricocheted off the Teshub’s hull. <Before our ride home is toast.>

Judith swung her heavy repeater toward the door, slinging rail-accelerated pellets through the opening. The rate of enemy fire decreased, and Kelem used the distraction to move to a new position and throw a grenade into the corridor.

Flames shot out of the inner doors, and the deck shuddered under their feet, but no more weapons fire came through.

<Anyone hurt?>

<Nope. But Kelem woulda lost his jewels if he hadn’t worn his armor.> Everyone chuckled at Judith’s report, and the crew moved out with Kelem watching their six.

<I’m not detecting any more drones, but those two weren’t on patrol and they weren’t giving off any EM until they came to life and attacked,> Lyra cautioned.

<Triggered by the doors opening?> suggested Nerishka as they headed down the main hall.

Kelem grunted, still sounding angry he’d gotten tagged. <Those auth codes musta been bogus.>

<Maybe they established override to secure the entire facility when they left, invalidating the old codes,> said Nerishka. <Probably knew none of their team were coming back.>

<But since that door was off-network it still worked,> Judith added. <Tricky bastards.>

<Stay frosty,> Dresden muttered as the team reached a T-intersection and headed left, following the schematics on their HUDs. The communications and research sectors were seven levels down, and the team headed to the lifts at the end of the corridor.

<You want us to go in a killbox?> Judith said, eyeing the lift doors as they approached.

<No, but it’s not powered up, anyway,> Nerishka replied. <Grav is low here, we’ll just climb down.>

Judith lifted off the ground a half meter and drifted toward the lift before settling down and prising them open. <I have my own a-grav. You climb down, I’ll float.>

They descended the seven levels without incident, though at one point, Nerishka picked up a distant clang. The team froze for a minute, and she reached out to Raz via relays to confirm that he was secure. When he confirmed that all was quiet on the docks, they proceeded.

Once out of the lift shaft, Nerishka deployed a passel of micro drones to give them extra eyes as they headed left toward the area labeled simply as ‘R&D’.

<No emblems or signs anywhere to identify who owns the facility.> Kelem’s voice came over their team Link. <Not a good sign.>

Nerishka pursed her lips. <Just confirms whoever is behind this place wants to remain invisible.>

They reached an intersection, and Dresden directed Kelem and Judith to branch off toward the comm center.

<Who would go to so much trouble?> asked Judith as she followed behind Kelem. <What could be this illegal?>

<Bad stuff,> Nerishka replied. <But if I told you, I’d have to kill you.>

Kelem snorted. <Nice one, Nerishka. I bet you spy types have been saying that forever.>

<She’s not kidding,> Dresden interjected, his tone deadly serious. <I’d have to too, so stop speculating.>

<Shit, really, Boss?> Kelem asked.

<Fuck, Kelem. Just shut up,> Judith swore.

They walked in silence for a moment before Dresden asked. <What are you thinking? Big corporation? Government?>

Nerishka gave an exaggerated shrug as they moved into a long corridor lined with glass-fronted labs some bare, some still containing rows of equipment that Lyra identified as exotic matter containment and analysis systems.

A box lay next to the entrance to one of the labs, datapods scattered around it. <Why do I feel like they left in a hurry?> said Nerishka drily.

<Means they could have left something behind.> Dresden grabbed the data-pods and shoved them into a pouch on his chest before moving inside to clear the room. <This one’s messier. Must have been one of the last to evac.>

<You guys find anything over there?> asked Judith over the comms. <‘Cos you’re gonna want to see this.>

Dresden and Nerishka shared a glance before moving out of the lab and down the corridor to the comms room.

A few minutes later, they entered the room to find Kelem and Judith standing before a console in the center of the room.

<What is it? You sounded like you had something.> Nerishka stared at the pair who were scowling at the screen.

<That’s just it. We found nothing. Everything’s wiped clean. There’s nothing here,> Judith replied.

<What do you mean, ‘everything’?> Nerishka asked.

<She’s right,> Lyra said. <There isn’t even any software loaded on the computers, and the NSAI cores are all pulled. Sure, there may be something tucked in a memory chip somewhere, but it would take years to search the systems and find it.>

Nerishka shared a frustrated glance with Dresden who said, <Well, we won’t find anything more in here. Let’s move out. We’ll have to find another way to ferret out whoever’s behind this place.>

The team searched the entire level, but other than the discarded datapods, there was nothing to be found. They moved to the other floors on the off chance that there would be clues, but they were empty except for old gear left behind by the mining operation when it shut down five decades ago.

<I hate to say it,> Dresden said after they’d been searching for hours, <but we can’t stay here forever. Anyone watching this place could have seen us dock. And after Greshan….>

<I understand,> Nerishka said. <We’ve been over this place with as fine a toothed comb as we can manage.>

Nerishka’s shoulders sagged but she forced herself to remain stiff-spined. They’d come so far, followed the trail all the way to this dumb rock. And her gut had led her there.

There’s always a first time to be wrong.

<At least we tried,> said Lyra, her voice soft and comforting. <Perhaps we didn’t obtain concrete proof that they were testing a jump gate here, but we do know it. We can still use what we do have to find them.>

Nerishka smiled to herself. She wasn’t used to having the need for a pep talk and she wondered why she’d even been disappointed.

<I know. But thanks for saying that. You didn’t need to.>

Lyra sniffed. <Of course, I did. I believe we have crossed the line from partners to friends, Nishka. At least, that is the way I feel. I did consider that you may not feel the same way, so if I am correct I am quite happy with that.>

<Lyra,> Nerishka admonished. <How could you even think otherwise?>

The AI’s avatar shrugged. <I know you didn’t want to be paired with me. And I had accepted that this would be a very short pairing.>

The team headed into the lift shaft, and Nerishka stared at the empty hallway for a moment before they began their ascent to the docking level. <You are right. I didn’t want an AI, but it wasn’t because of you at all. I guess I just preferred to work on my own. I have been for a while. And I didn’t want to go through the whole process again. But thank you for understanding.>

Lyra sent a rush of warmth that almost overwhelmed Nerishka.

<Sucks that we got nothing?> Judith grumbled, her eyes appearing tired.

<Yeah. We just have to try and figure this out from another angle. There can only be so many people in Ayra capable of this,> Nerishka said stoically. <We’ll dig into their operations and try to find a link.>

Judith merely nodded then looked over Nerishka’s shoulder at the rest of the crew.

<See, you’re not the only one disappointed. Everyone here was invested in this mission. Just as much as you were.> Lyra’s words hit Nerishka deeply.

How had she failed to see how committed Dresden and his team were? They’d followed him because he was family, but even then, they’d all been passionate about finding who’d killed all those people. They’d wanted justice just as much as Nerishka had. And that meant more than a damn.

<Only difference is, I mean to kill the person responsible and put an end to this once and for all.>

Judith led the way down the corridor, and the team fell silent as they drew closer to the bay doors.

Nerishka let out a deep breath. <Lyra, can you do one final sweep with the drones before we leave this rock?>

Lyra sent an affirmative and fell silent for a few moments. Then she sighed, the sound brimming with defeat. <Sorry Nishka. I’m getting nothing.>

<OK team. That’s it. Back to the ship. We’re done here.>

They were nearly at the doors to the ship’s bay when Lyra yelled out on the comms, <Wait. I see something.>

<What is it?> asked Nerishka as the AI faltered.

Lyra replied privately, <Sorry I shouldn’t have spoken to the team before running it past you.>

<It’s fine, Lyra. If it’s urgent, it really is fine. You are part of the team. Now tell us what you see.>

Lyra send a burst of warmth at Nerishka and said to the team, <Something about the schematics seemed odd to me so I set up some of the microdrones in what appeared to be an empty corridor and I found an almost undetectable energy signature coming from within the station. I tracked it to an eighth level.>

<Eight?> Judith asked. <Level 7 was the furthest one down.>

<Well…it’s either that, or they sunk a power generator into the rock and left it there.>

As one, the team turned and followed Dresden and Nerishka to the lifts at breakneck speed. As they climbed down to the bottom of the lift shaft, no one spoke except for Lyra.

<I am sorry. I just got a little excited.>

Nerishka sighed. <It really is fine. Of course, there are things I’d prefer we keep between us, but some mission-related emergencies are OK, really. Unless they happen to compromise me or my mission, I don’t have a problem with it.>

Lyra sighed with relief and Nerishka found herself frowning. <Why are you so worried?>

Lyra’s avatar shrugged. <No reason. I just thought I’d stepped over the line. I’m the junior partner after all.>

<Don’t worry, Lyra, I trust you to know how to behave. You’ve done fine so far.>

Lyra didn’t reply, but Nerishka got the impression her AI appreciated the faith in her abilities.

They reached the bottom of the lift shaft—which appeared to end in solid stone. The team searched for some sort of access for several minutes, before Kelem simply kicked the stone. With a low groan, it shifted, dropping half a meter.

<Well I’ll be,> Judith said and settled down on the rock, using her a-grav systems to push on it. <I guess the lifts would just hit it and drive it down.>

A minute later they had pushed open the doors to the eighth level and stepped into the corridor beyond. It ran for just a few paces before opening up into a room that had the feel of an antechamber.

<Just one room beyond,> Kelem said, gesturing to the closed doors at the back of the room.

<I read power down here,> Lyra said. <Be careful, there could be defense systems. Give me a moment to get that door open.>

Only a second later, the door opened and the team rushed to cover as beam fire poured out.

<Here we go again,> muttered Nerishka as she unslung her rifle and returned fire.




BINGO

STELLAR DATE: 10.18.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Yazata Asteroid

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

<Two drones. Left and right,> called Lyra.

Dresden lay down covering fire straight through the doors, while Judith and Kelem plastered themselves against the bulkheads on either side and sprayed rounds down the corridor beyond the door. They fired in tandem, their fields of fire sweeping across the interior space, eliminating both drones.

Kelem surged forward. <What’s the point of leaving drones if they’re this dumb?>

<Kelem, wait,> yelled Lyra as beamfire lanced out from the corner of the room. He grunted and dropped to the deck while Judith stepped in and took out the autoturrets that had emerged behind them.

Nerishka paused to check on Kelem but Judith waved her off. <He should be ok. His armor took most of the blast,> she said as she patted Kelem on the helmet.

Kelem nodded as he rose and rolled his shoulders. “That’s what ablative armor is for, right? To ablate?”

This is why I don’t do teams, Nerishka thought as she tried to compartmentalize the worry she felt for Dresden’s people. Keeping her rifle ready, she eyed the corners of the room, as they moved into the corridor. It was also short, and emptied into another room, this one filled with consoles, arrayed rather like a starship’s bridge.

Before any of them could reach the first console, Lyra said, <Oh dear,> then she paused, <and that’s a holy shit ‘oh dear’, just to be clear.>

Nerishka hid a smile, as did Dresden, but Judith chuckled.

<Well?> Kelem asked.

<You can see for yourself.> Lyra initiated a holo at the far wall and a recording began to play.

“—teams abort. This is not a drill. Evacuate now—no traces. We’re executing lockdown contingency DD-A9. Extract all backups and secure for priority transport.”

<You do know who that is, don’t you?> Dresden asked privately, glancing over at Nerishka.

<Yeah. Makes perfect sense now.> Nerishka stared up at the face of General Azag, second in command beneath President Inanna of the Ayra System. <You think he’s in bed with the president on this?>

<Possible. Just the thought that an independent system could develop a jump gate is terrifying. Are they planning some mass conquest? An Ayran Empire?>

<Either she is, or Azag is working on gaining enough power to topple her from her throne.>

President Inanna was renowned for the changes she’d made in the Ayra System, bringing advancements like affordable mednano to the general populace, who only a century ago, were mostly as vanilla as the day they were born. Not that Inanna was all that wise and loving a ruler. She was also known for her excesses and her aspirations, like her choice in name. Inanna, ancient goddess of power and war. All of which the president craved.

<Damn, I wish we had an FDL transmitter,> Nerishka said to Lyra. <We need to update Jeriah as soon as possible.>

<I’m getting a packet ready. As soon as we get out of here I’ll find a courier to send it with,> Lyra replied, already sounding distant.

Dresden was swiping through a console near the holo display when he let out a strangled grunt. <So they weren’t so smart after all.>

“What?” Nerishka hurried to Dresden and peered over his shoulder at the screen.

“They dumped all their data down here before wiping the systems above. We have records here dating back all the way to before this facility was built. Everything from inbound shipments to arrivals and departures of personnel and ships.”

Nerishka let out a mirthless laugh. “Probably because they believed this level was secure. So…what were they researching?”

“Look at this,” Dresden said as he pulled up a file. “They sent out a report to someone saying that after the incident, work was continuing. Think they up and moved, or was Azag lying and covering his ass?”

“Beats me,” Nerishka muttered as she reviewed the next report.

“Damn.” Dresden shook his head as he read over it, commenting privately to Nerishka. <So they did know that part of their gate hit Xerxes after the explosion here.>

“Damn what?” Judith asked.

“Just more bad people doing bad stuff,” Nerishka replied. “There’s a whole discussion about keeping the crash-site secure and General Azag assures them that he will make sure nothing is traced back to the research.”

“So Azag did erase the records of their clean-up crew arriving,” Judith said, shaking her head.

Nerishka leaned forward. “There’s a confirmation here that a small chunk of the asteroid laden with some of their research had impacted at the settlement. Also, confirmation of the Ir-192 and Au-198 levels. Shit…they cleaned up the iridium, but since the gold has such a short half-life, they opted to just let it dissipate.”

<Giving everyone out there an infinity dose of radiation,> Lyra added.

Kelem grunted. “Sure, people too close to the iridium were toast, but they could have evacuated the rest.”

“If you were a tyrannical general out to buy yourself more power, would you trample your underlings in order to get what you want, or would you try for Humanitarian of the Year?” asked Nerishka, her tone hard as she stared at the screen.

“Point taken,” Kelem muttered.

Nerishka leaned closer to the screen, her hip pressing against Dresden’s back. “There…another entry. Yeah, got that one too, has information about where they’ll move to.”

Dresden paused then brought up the contents of the file on the holo, swiping through them briefly.

“OK, Death Dealer,” said Judith, her tone resigned. “I get it now.”

Nerishka frowned and glance over at the redhead. “What?” She didn’t have time to get into a squabble, but she was curious.

“Maybe we need to nominate you for Humanitarian of the Year.”

Dresden snorted as he continued to sift through the data. “You so have her pegged.”

Nerishka grunted and shifted her body away from Dresden’s warmth.

Dresden finished reviewing the data and turned to the team. “We have more than enough. Guess it’s time to move out.”

<Wait,> said Lyra on the team Link. <There’s a message in the comm buffers. One of the last incoming files they received. Azag gave the evac team coordinates somewhere out on the edge of the system, past Sraosha.>

<Another asteroid?> asked Judith, folding her arms as she leaned against a console, her weapon resting in the crook of her arm as though she carried a child.

<I believe so,> replied Lyra. <But it’s not on the public Ayra System maps.>

Kelem snickered. <Maybe it’s an Azag magical disappearing asteroid.>

Lyra let out a dry laugh. <I would not be surprised.>

Dresden turned to face the holo where Lyra displayed a map of the Ayra System, a small red dot blinking out beyond the planet of Sraosha. “That’s the outer asteroid belt,” he said.

<Never mind. Forget what I said,> said Lyra, irritation filling her voice.

<What happened?> asked Judith, frowning even as her tone emitted concern.

<I think that was a red herring,> Lyra admitted. <I used the keys in the comm system to decrypt some other messages. Yazata’s been confirmed as the only viable location for the tests. Azag was convinced that he could come back here to continue the research once the dust settles. They left the research and all the data secured and in place. It’s waiting for them to return.>

“Which means they are coming back here sometime soon,” said Nerishka.

Dresden grunted. “Which also means they may be watching this rock more closely than we thought.”

“Which means we need to get the hell out of here,” said Kelem.

“No. Wait,” said Nerishka holding her hand out to them.

“Are you nuts?” asked Judith, her eyes narrowing. “We have to get out of here. They’re probably already on the way.”

“Didn’t you hear what Lyra said?” Nerishka grinned. “It’s here. On the asteroid.”

Judith turned to Dresden, her brow lowered. “OK, Boss. You and Nerishka have been playing coy with what is really going on. But now it’s time to come clean. What is ‘it’?”

Dresden groaned, holding his forehead. “We have to tell them. It’s not like it’s a secret anymore.”

Nerishka gritted her teeth and gave a resigned nod. “OK, yeah.” She turned to Judith and Kelem. “The Ayran government is researching jump gate technology, and based on the sample we found, they are on the right track.”

“Jump gate?” Kelem folded his arms. “Is that some sort of FTL system?”

“It is,” Dresden replied. “It’s technically called a ford-svaiter mirror. Sort of like a wormhole, but it doesn’t kill you to use it.”

“Instead of a day to travel a light year, like with dark layer FTL, a jump gate can get you across known space in seconds.”

Nerishka watched as her words sank in. Judith was shaking her head, and Kelem’s eyes were wide.

“What about insystem jumps?” he asked.

“There’s no restriction,” Nerishka replied. “You can jump into, and out of, a system anywhere you want, so long as you have a gate.”

“That would change everything,” Judith whispered.

Kelem’s eyes narrowed. “You two are talking about this tech like it already exists.”

Nerishka and Dresden shared a long look before Nerishka replied. “That’s because it does, and it’s my job to make sure it doesn’t get into the wrong hands.”

“Who do you work for?” Judith asked, shaking her head in credulously.

“If I told you…” Nerishka let the words hang.

Kelem clapped his hands, a broad grin spreading across his face. “You know what this means?”

“What?” Judith shot back.

“We get to use the explosives!”




KABLOOEY

STELLAR DATE: 10.18.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Yazata Asteroid

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

The team stood at the entrance to the gate room—which took another hour to find—staring at the remains of a twenty-meter jump gate laid on the floor in a grid. From what Nerishka could see, half the gate was missing, and all the mirrors were cracked.

<At least there’s not much for them to work with,> she said to Lyra.

<More than there should be, though.>

Kelem snorted. “I win. You guys better pay up.”

Nerishka stared around at them. “Seriously?”

“What?” Kelem shrugged, attempting innocent and failing. “Dresden was in on it too.”

Nerishka turned to glare at Dresden, but he too looked unapologetic. She gave a weary sigh and shook her head, then focused back on the gate remains.

“Get as much footage as you can. And grab a few samples. We need to document this, so we cover our asses.”

“You mean we’re not going to blow this thing up, get the hell out, and then pretend we know nothing?” asked Judith drily as she drifted along the length of the room, collecting a few of the smaller pieces of the gate and depositing them inside a bag.

“Yeah. We’re doing that. But when my boss asks for my report, she’ll prefer something more than ‘I saw it, trust me’.”

“So weird to think of you as having a boss,” Judith mumbled as the team began taking vids and samples, carefully avoiding some of the more radioactive segments.

<Lyra, make sure you scrub the identities of everyone but me when we send this along, OK? We don’t need to incriminate them.>

<Already done. I quite like Dresden’s crew. Teamwork isn’t so bad. I’m unsure why you find it so difficult.>

As Nerishka studied the remains of the gate—which was bigger than she had expected, one thing became clear.

“I don’t think we have enough explosives to blow this thing.”

“No?” Kelem asked. “We can probably crush five levels with what we have.”

“Still might not be enough,” Nerishka said. “What you see here survived a negative energy explosion.”

Judith waved at the team from the corner of the room, pointing at an antimatter bottle. “It’s half full. Think it will do the trick?”

<Oh yeah,> Lyra gave a rather disturbing laugh. <That will work nicely.>

Judith and Dresden moved the ten-milligram antimatter bottle into the middle of the gate’s remains where Kelem affixed the explosives to its exterior.

“Think this will crack it?” Kelem asked as he set the final explosive where Lyra directed. “These bottles are made to be really durable.”

<It’ll work,> Lyra assured them. <I’m linked up to the detonators; I’ll blow it as soon as we take off.>

“That’s a relief. Because, if it works, this kaboom is gonna crack Yazata in half,” Kelem said.

<I have it on good authority that what we want is a kablooey, not a kaboom,> Lyra replied. <Trust me, I’m not blowing this thing ‘til we’re nice and safe.>

<You have it on a timer, right?> Nerishka asked privately. <We can’t chance signal interruption.>

<Of course. But it’s a looooooong timer. I’m not suicidal.>

<OK, team,> Dresden gestured at the door <Let’s skedaddle.>

<Skedaddling,> muttered Kelem, followed by Judith.

To Nerishka, Lyra asked, <Is that perhaps some form of a team cheer or something?>

Nerishka chuckled. <That it is.> She smiled and hurried out of the room, giving the jump gate remains one last glance, before skedaddling herself.

As they ascended the lift shaft once more, Dresden glanced over at her. <It’s a little hard to believe that you were right.>

<What? I thought you always believed in my gut?>

<Most of the time, I did,> he assured her.

Nerishka was well aware that. The comment had come completely devoid of emotion.

Then he said, <So what’s the plan? Head to Ishtar Station and look for Azag?> She nodded in response, still wondering what he’d meant. <Then you eliminate him?> asked Dresden.

<Just because we’ve eliminated the gate, and possibly all their research, it doesn’t mean that Azag ceases to be a threat. If he doubles down after this, who knows what he’s capable of. Someone must have a record of that research saved on a different database. I’m not kidding myself by believing that what we have here is all of it.>

Lyra cut into their conversation, <I’ve seeded a virus that will track back if anyone attempts to access the systems on the station—should anything survive. If activated, the virus will move into their systems and alert us. We’ll be able to follow where they go. If it detects anything about the gate research, the virus will attack and corrupt all data.>

<Is it more of a malicious interference than a deletion?>

<Yes. It’s designed to not be discovered unless you know it’s there. Deletion will alert them to the missing data. Corruption would mean they would keep researching, perhaps even construct a new gate from that corrupted data.>

<That could mean their new gates could fail and possibly kill a bunch of people.> Nerishka knew that it didn’t matter. Stopping gate research was more important than the deaths of a few people.

She met Dresden’s eyes which bore an expression she couldn’t define. He shook his head before joining Judith in mocking Kelem over the near loss of his man bits and the possible need for an ablative codpiece.

Minutes later, they were aboard the ship, Raz easing the freighter out of the asteroid, drifting away as though they were nothing more than a piece of debris.

<I have two Ayran Space Force patrol boats closing in,> Lyra announced as the team sat in the rear observation deck, watching Yazata grow smaller behind them.

“They pick us up?” Dresden asked.

<No,> Lyra’s tone held a touch of sarcasm. <If they’d detected us, I would have started with ‘oh dear’.>

“You’re getting funny, Lyra,” Kelem said with a smile.

Nerishka spotted the ASF ships a moment before Lyra dropped markers on the holodisplay. “They’re closing with Yazata, they must not have spotted us departing.”

“Raz is good at what he does,” Dresden nodded in satisfaction. “I didn’t pick him for his looks.”

Nerishka met Judith’s eyes, both making an effort to hold in their laughter. They’d previously agreed that Raz’s good looks would have been reason enough to have him on board, rad piloting skills aside.

“I heard that,” Raz shot back over the ship’s comms.

“You listening in on us?” Judith asked with a laugh.

“Gets lonely up here. You don’t call, you don’t send vids—oh shit.”

<I confirm that oh-shit,> Lyra spoke up. <One of the ASF boats just pinged us.>

“Blow the charges,” Nerishka ordered. “We need a distraction.”

<You sure? We’re still a bit on the close side.>

“My girl can take it,” Raz called back. “You said it was around five hundred gigajoules-worth, right?”

<Yeah, give or take a bit,> Lyra replied.

“That’ll barely crack that rock,” Raz said. “But the EMP and debris will shield us from those ships nicely.”

“Lyra, do it,” Nerishka ordered.

<OK. Five count.>

The team turned their attention to the holodisplay where one of the ASF ships was moving into the docking shaft while the other was turning to boost toward the Teshub.

“He might be far enough away that he won’t lose sight of us,” Dresden said softly, a moment before a blinding light burst from Yazata, followed by a shockwave that bowled the Teshub over, sending the freighter spinning through space.

“Holy shit! Dampeners holding…mostly!” Raz called out as the team gripped their chairs as the ship rattled and shook around them.

Then the wave passed and the holodisplay updated, showing a view of Yazata, now split in two, chunks of the asteroid streaking through space around them.

“What the burning stars…” Kelem whispered. “I thought that antimatter bottle was half empty…. Can five milligrams of antimatter smash a thousand-kilometer rock?”

<No…> Lyra said in a soft whisper. <It’s not even the yield of a hand-held tacnuke. On the plus side…the ASF ships are…gone. No one’s going to be following us.>

“There must have been some other antimatter stored nearby,” Nerishka said. “A lot of antimatter. Damn…if Azag didn’t know someone’s on his tail before, he’s sure going to know we’re coming now.”




NEW TARGET

STELLAR DATE: 10.19.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Teshub, near Yazata Asteroid

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Raz let the Teshub drift for a day before slipping into a common shipping lane and activating a new transponder that identified the vessel as the Icarna.

Ayra’s inner asteroid belt was a disaster, and when the local space traffic control queried Raz on his undocumented course, he just bluffed a lie about his course being redirected by Ayran Search and Rescue teams after the Yazata explosion.

A lie the STC thankfully bought and didn’t cross-check.

“We’ve got two days to Ishtar Station, folks,” Dresden advised as the crew finished up a meal. “Make sure you’ve studied the station’s layout. Given how we haven’t managed to do anything not involving mass destruction in the past few days, I think we can all assume there are going to be some fireworks.”

“Blowing stuff up is fun,” Kelem said with a grin as he placed his dishes in the washer. “I mean…why else be a merc?”

“He makes a good point,” Judith said, shaking her head. “But since a few hundred million people live on Ishtar Station, let’s not blow the place up. That one would weigh on my conscience a bit.”

After a few more minutes’ conversation, Judith and Kelem left to ‘study’ which Nerishka suspected was to play a game of Snark with a holo of Ishtar somewhere nearby.

Once they were gone Nerishka turned to Dresden, a frown lowering her brow. “I think it would be best if they stayed out of the next part of the mission. You too.”

“Really?” Dresden turned to look at Nerishka. “You think after everything they’ve invested so far that they’d be happy to wash their hands and head off without seeing this through?”

Nerishka shrugged. “Maybe we need to make it clear to them that they have the option? We’re not sure what we’ll be walking into. A smaller team could move around with less chance of detection.”

Dresden grunted. “I’ll tell them if it makes you happy, but I can guarantee they’ll say they are staying. And we will risk offending them.”

Nerishka shrugged again and shifted her gaze away from his. “They need to know they have the option. To be honest, if I had any say, I’d drop you all back on Nimrud and head off myself to see this through. Less risk to you and the team that way.

Dresden shook his head and scowled at Nerishka for a few long seconds. Then he walked off without a word, passing her an audible feed as he entered the lounge where Judith and Kelem were dealing cards.

“Just one thing, team. The next part of this mission could merely be an in and out. Maybe even a one-person job to make it most efficient. You don’t have to go to Ishtar Station.”

“Are you going?” asked Judith, her tone hard.

“That’s beside the point.”

“It isn’t.”

“What if I told you I wasn’t going,” asked Dresden, his tone equally hard.

Judith snorted. “Then I’d ask if the Queen of Death is going too.”

“You know she’s going.”

“Then that answers your question. She goes, we go.”

Nerishka stiffened at the redhead’s resolve.

<Queen of Death? It certainly has a nice ring to it. A promotion from Death Dealer,> Lyra commented. <You appear to be upset.>

<Not upset. Annoyed. Confused. Frustrated. Not upset.>

<Because they are coming? Or because they are choosing to come because you are going?>

<The latter.> Nerishka pursed her lips. <I don’t understand. They don’t have any allegiance to me. They’re mercs, not Hand agents. They’ve done their part of the job. Nothing stopping them from calling it quits. Any professional would do just that.>

<They are more than professionals. You know that.>

<Yeah. They’re a family.> Nerishka folded her arms, gritting her teeth. <They’re Dresden’s, though, they’re not my family.>

<Not until you let them be.>

Nerishka didn’t answer. She shifted to stare out of the window at an asteroid the ship was passing, watching as it grew ever smaller and disappeared into the blackness. This was a lot more than going off book. She was about to take out the top military leader of an independent system.

If I’d found the head of their government to be behind the pico research, I would have had to do the same thing. Jump gates are just as dangerous. The director will understand.

Even so, doing it without authorization would have consequences. Jeriah would see to that. And Nerishka didn’t need to take anyone else down with her.

Then she stiffened. What about Lyra? What repercussions would there be for the AI who helped Nerishka execute her unsanctioned kill?

<I do have a mind of my own you know,> Lyra cut into Nerishka’s thoughts, startling her.

<OK, I was being careful about bleed-through. How did you know what I was thinking?> Nerishka asked.

<You were moving your lips, mouthing the words like you were rehearsing what you were going to say.>

<Oh,> Nerishka sighed. <Well, there are rules about how we take out targets.>

<You don’t seem to be too concerned with the rules.>

<That’s me. I have a history with the Hand. I don’t want your reputation to be ruined.>

<I can take care of myself. And defend my own actions should the need arise. I think perhaps you are questioning things a little too much.>

Nerishka snorted. <You’re now saying you’re happy to support me going off book. Weren’t you the one trying to discourage me these past weeks? You told me this was rash and there would be consequences.>

<Yes. I do not deny saying that. But experience is a good teacher. We came here with one mission. To kill Fletcher. But your gut led you to a much bigger deal than Fletcher. Picotech research that wasn’t even happening yet? Not a major concern. But you stumbled upon something worse. Fletcher is the sparrow to the picotech raptor.>

Nerishka laughed. <Well, picotech does trump jump gate tech any day. Hands down.>

<I agree. But the jump gate research was active and funded by the Ayran government. The pico research was a non-starter.> Lyra sighed. <This is pointless. We are scraping through facts that we are both well aware of. What is going on with you now? You cannot be having regrets? Not when your gut proved right again.>

Nerishka grunted. <We’ve been over this too. It’s all these people,> she said, waving a hand around her. <Teams mean I’m responsible for them. They aren’t just a crew recruited for a job. I’ve done that before. Crews do the job and then leave. It’s not personal.>

<And these people have become personal? I think I finally understand what your problem is.>

<You do?> Nerishka said drily. <Have you been shrinking me all this time.>

<I’ve been trying to identify the root of this issue you have with working as a team. I think I understand it now.> When Nerishka didn’t respond—because she was considering that she ought to have simply explained how she felt to her AI and saved her the trouble of deduction—and Lyra said, <You shy away from teams because you don’t want to make the emotional investment involved. You’re a caring person. And this team has touched a chord with you. I think you’re protecting your heart, have been doing so for a long time.>

Nerishka took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. <This has been enlightening and all, but I need to prepare for the attack on Azag. I need to study the station layout, too.>

<Avoiding the topic won’t make the problem go away.>

<Lyra,> Nerishka said, her tone harder than she’d intended it to be. <It’s not a problem. It’s a strength.>

<Very well. I have said my piece.> Nerishka felt the hollow absence as the AI retreated, leaving her alone in her head.

She’d wanted to be alone, had needed it all this time.

So why did she suddenly feel so bereft?




ISHTAR

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Teshub, near approaching Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka watched Ishtar Station grow larger as Raz brought the Teshub in to dock on one of its outer rings. She’d spent so much time studying it over the last day that she felt as though she’d already visited the place.

The station was a massive structure, consisting of dozens of rings situated around a five-hundred-kilometer-long asteroid that had been hollowed out, and spun fast enough to provide just over 0.7g on its inner surface.

Within that asteroid lay the capitol buildings of the Ayra System and many of the major economic powers.

All of which meant that Ishtar was a place that took its security very seriously.

<Anything on the networks about the general’s activities? Events, meetings maybe?> Nerishka asked Lyra as she paced the floor inside their cabin. She’d been hiding out there for the last four hours, reluctant to come into contact with the crew until she had a solid plan.

Normally, Nerishka had an operative on the ground—such as Karsin—to set up the hit, or she had weeks, sometimes even months, to plan a hit.

But given the public attention currently focused on the Yazata disaster, and Nerishka’s worry that he may take his research out of the Ayra system to either sell it or continue on elsewhere, she needed to hit him soon.

The longer she waited, the harder it would get.

Lyra had been monitoring the reports on Yazata, and it was surprising how little attention was being paid to the asteroid’s destruction.

It was impossible to hide it, so the government was playing it off as an undeclared cache of antimatter that had been left behind. The antimatter’s containment bottles had run out of power, and explosion was the result.

<I can’t believe everyone is buying the cover story for Yazata,> Nerishka muttered under her breath.

<Why would they not? Any real investigation of Yazata would lead to too many questions. Questions that would increase exponentially depending on what is found.>

<And if it leads them to Xerxes and Greshan, they’ll know something is fishy. Too many missing pieces for someone to not notice. Though I’m not sure they will connect it to Azag.>

<He has certainly covered his tracks well.>

<He’ll have the best contacts. With the smartest tech.> Nerishka nodded. <For all we know, the investigators themselves could be on his payroll.>

<I have it!> crowed Lyra. <I have the press briefing of upcoming appearances for Azag. The general is the guest speaker at the opening of a new military academy on Ishtar tomorrow. This could be your chance.>

Nerishka nodded, glad that they had an avenue of attack, but still more than a little worried about the mission. Gritting her teeth, she turned on her heel. The best way to avoid being worried was to formulate their plan of attack. She headed out into the corridor and made a left in the direction of the galley.

She reached the doorway and paused on the threshold, watching Judith and Kelem as they argued about who had won a wager they’d made, while Dresden was sprawled on a seat beside them, his long legs spread out before him, his head tilted to rest on the back of the chair. From the banter, it soon became clear that said bet had been made more than six years ago.

Nerishka shook her head and walked inside, her footfalls on the hard deck alerting them to her presence.

Her team members looked up and grinned, though Dresden’s smile was more of the faded variety. She ignored it and took a seat at the table.

“Time to formulate the plan. Azag’s going to be at an opening ceremony tomorrow. Looks like our best chance. We’ll arrive with a couple hours to spare.”

“That’s not leaving us with much of a chance to prepare.” Judith sat back, frowning.

Dresden grunted in agreement. “Yeah. No time for recon with such a small window.”

Nerishka pursed her lips, sharing their concerns entirely. “You’re singing my tune, here. But if we have a chance at success, we should take it. Lyra can get into the station’s systems and pull the details we need. It won’t be clean, but it’ll get the job done.”

Judith nodded and tapped her finger on the table. “That would be good enough, I guess. If it’s the only option.”

“It is. I’d like for us to get in, get out and get gone. Before anyone even realizes we were here. Stopping jump gate research is worth the risk of exposure.”

“Is your super-secret shadowy organization going to be OK with that?” Judith asked, an eyebrow arched as she voiced the question.

Nerishka couldn’t tell if Judith was toying with her, or actually upset—but then Dresden laughed and shook his head.

“Yeah, they’ll be pissed, probably tear a strip off Nishka here, but they’ll understand. In the grand scheme of things, this mission will barely stand out.”

“When are you going to tell us who you work for?” Judith asked, eyes narrowing at Nerishka.

“Never. I like you too much to have to kill you.”

No one spoke for several long moments before Kelem coughed and shifted in his seat, his blue-haired head bobbing up and down slowly. “OK. We can make that happen. The timeframe is tight but with the intel we have, I think the op is actionable.” He glanced over at Dresden who nodded.

“Azag’s going to have personal security. A lot of it,” said Judith. “We need a way in. A way to get close to him.”

Kelem chuckled, giving the redhead a deliberate stare. “Always one way to get close to a guy.”

Judith slapped him upside the back of his head. “That’s not the way we work.”

“Maybe that’s the way we should work,” muttered Nerishka before asking Lyra, “Does Azag frequent any establishments of ill repute in the station?”

<He does, but if you think you would audition for the part, I believe you need not apply for the role,> Lyra replied, a distinct smirk in her tone.

“Why? Does he like redheads?” Nerishka glanced at Judith who made a face in response.

<No, Judith won’t suit either.>

Both women began to laugh, then turned to study Dresden and Kelem. “So, which of the two of you is going to be our bait?” asked Nerishka, her eyes flitting toward Dresden.

He held up a hand. “Just don’t get ahead of yourself now. Let’s formulate Plan A first.”

Nerishka laughed as she summoned a holo of the station over the table, a red marker inside the hollowed-out asteroid noted the location where Azag would be speaking.

“That’s the location of the academy. Lyra’s getting her hands on his schedule. A little slow as it’s encrypted.”

“Guy thinks he’s special, huh?” Kelem snorted.

“I have an idea that increases our odds,” said Lyra. “It does mean you all have to get close to him.” Nerishka stared at the three faces waiting for the AI to speak. “For some reason, Azag doesn’t use the military for his personal security—he contracts a private company.”

“Brilliant!” Nerishka said, slapping her hands together. “Now we figure out a way to get his current team rotated.”

“Leave that to me,” said Dresden, a cool smile on his face and he straightened on his seat.

“And if Plan A doesn’t work?” asked Judith.

“Then Kelem can be bait.”




GENERALITY

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

<Well, at least there’s one good thing about this mission.>

<There is?>

Dresden nodded. <We only have to worry about getting a single hit. No mysteries, bizarre radiation, abandoned facilities, and no green women or fake Nishkas trying to kill us.> He smiled, his lips turning up at the corner as he stared straight ahead.

<Seriously?> Nerishka groaned. <You go and jinx us like that?>

Nerishka and Dresden were standing outside the small boardroom that had been allocated to General Azag in the Ishtar Military Training Academy’s main building.

Dresden had gotten into the network of the security company Azag used and rerouted the pair who were meant to cover the general for the opening ceremony.

They were surprised to learn that the security company’s personnel were on constant rotation—guards assigned to Azag tended to request transfers to other details with great frequency. Working security for Azag must not be a pleasant experience.

Either way, it meant that the team Dresden diverted didn’t even raise a fuss at being sent somewhere else.

<Have you considered handing the good general over to Inanna,> Dresden asked. <I bet she’d strip his hide an inch at a time. And she’d enjoy it.>

<No. I don’t believe that’s an option. What happens if Inanna learns about his gate research? She’d pick right up where he left off—and that assumes she doesn’t already know about it.>

<True, I suppose it’s easier to kill him than the president. These military types always think they’re untouchable. Presidents are usually a lot more paranoid.>

Nerishka nodded only slightly. The general seemed to be the tardy type. Either that, or he liked to make a grand entrance. They had three minutes to go until he was meant to be on stage. And the walk from the office to the podium lasted two minutes.

She took a deep breath and knocked on the door. “Three minutes, sir,” she called, giving Dresden a glare as he grinned and looked her up and down.

They were both dressed in black cloaks, their hoods up, shadowing their faces, while the front of the cloaks hung open to reveal the weapons at their sides. Nerishka had repositioned her flechettes and lightwand to her back and had inserted her hairsticks into the sides of her boots, the severe bun at the back of her head at odds with her almost-frivolous sticks.

The guards wore armor beneath their cloaks and suits, but Nerishka was shocked at the outdated tech. “You’d think they’d consider working on armor before they get to jump gates,” she’d grumbled when initially studying the intel they’d gathered, annoyed at the lives that could have been saved with better gear.

“Probably why their turnover is so high,” Judith had added.

Judith had volunteered to be at the general’s side in place of Nerishka, but Dresden had shot the option down. He and Nerishka would ensure the general made it to the shuttle. Judith and Kelem would be responsible for the diversion.

The door slid open, and the general walked out of the boardroom, his head held high as he passed between Nerishka and Dresden. He didn’t acknowledge the pair, for which she was grateful. She’d have been happy to sneak into the room and get the job done right then, but the general didn’t seem to go anywhere without Major Gilit and taking out two targets before they could call for help was tricky—especially with much of the Ayran Space Force in attendance at the ceremony.

As Major Gilit passed, Nerishka saw that the dark-haired woman’s face was set in a perpetual scowl, as if she was permanently angry with the world. It was no surprise when she worked alongside a man like Azag.

As she passed she looked Nerishka up and down, her blue eyes curious and yet approving, as if she liked what she saw.

<Oh dear,> said Lyra.

<Doesn’t count,> Nerishka replied as she and Dresden followed the pair down the hallway.

<One minute fifty-seven to the podium,> said Lyra.

Nerishka gritted her teeth. The diversion was set for thirty seconds after the general begins his address. Their plan had one chance and one chance only, and the general was dragging his damned feet.

<Kelem’s confirmed. Diversion in place and counting down,> said Dresden.

<I wish Azag would move faster. The man really does want to make them wait,> Nerishka muttered.

<Anytime now, Nishka. Don’t think I didn’t see the way she looked at you,> Dresden said, a strange edge to his voice.

<Don’t rush me.> Nerishka glared at him and then took a breath.

<One minute forty-five,> Lyra counted down.

Nerishka stumbled and let out a soft cry. Azag stiffened but kept walking while the major faltered in her stride.

<She’s coming,> Lyra announced.

Nerishka prepared her best ‘in pain’ expression and glanced up when the major crouched at her side.

“Is something the matter?” Gilit asked, peering at Nerishka’s face.

Nerishka grunted and pushed to her knees, keeping her face directed away. She stumbled again, and the major grabbed for her arm.

<Here, let me help you,> the woman said, taking Nerishka’s hand to draw her to her feet.

<Contact,> Nerishka muttered to Lyra and Dresden.

<A minute twenty to the podium, a minute fifty to diversion.>

“Gilit!” Azag growled from up ahead where he’d paused to look over his shoulder at the two women. “What in Marduk’s light are you doing? She’s meant to be our security. Not the other way around.”

The major stiffened then moved to walk away, but Nerishka gripped her fingers, pretending not to have noticed that the major had retracted the offer to help and was now walking away.

Gilit froze then turned to glare at Nerishka. “What are you—”

“Thank you…for offering to help me. I…I’m not feeling so good.” Nerishka straightened and let the major go.

<Deployed,> she updated the team.

The major stared at Nerishka then tugged at the bottom of her jacket then turned on her heel and walked off. <See that you get yourself checked. We can’t afford to have people on security who aren’t fit.> Despite the coolness in her tone, Gilit glanced over her shoulder again, sending Nerishka another appreciative look.

<Sixty seconds to podium, ninety to diversion,> Lyra updated them.

<That’s the look,> Dresden pointed out with a smirk.

<I saw it, thank you.> She shook her head and said, <Activation in ninety seconds.>

Nerishka counted the seconds as they headed down the hall and took a right toward the auditorium, the general and the major in whispered conversation.

<Thirty seconds to podium, sixty to diversion. We are in sync and good to go.>

<Ready and waiting,> came Judith’s voice. <Wheels up in two minutes, people.>

Nerishka chuckled and shook her head.

<What?> asked Judith innocently. <I’ve always wanted to say that.>

They turned a corner and Azag slowed as he and the major reached the entrance to the school’s auditorium. Two representatives from the school were waiting to greet him but Azag merely waved them off and entered the hall.

<Seven seconds to podium. Thirty-two to diversion,> said Lyra, sounding a little excited.

<Activation in five,> announced Nerishka, watching Gilit as she reached the stairs to climb after the general. <Three…two…one.>

The major hunched over and let out a soft gasp. Nerishka remained stiff-spined and beckoned to one of the school representatives, pointing to Gilit briefly before following Azag up the stairs.

<Major down.>

<General is a go,> said Lyra as Azag smiled at the gathered students.

He took precious moments, scanning the room as though meeting each and every eye that gazed up at him. <Looks like they like him. A lot.>

<No reason why they wouldn’t. People play more than one role in life all the time,> said Dresden.

<Twenty,> said Lyra.

<Diversion still functional. All clear,> came Kelem’s voice.

“Thank you! Thank you for allowing me to be present on this momentous occasion,” Azag said, smiling widely. His gaze twitched to the left, likely in search of the major.

<Took him long enough to figure out she was gone,> said Dresden. <How is this man even a general?>

Despite Azag’s limited concern for the major, he continued, “Someday in the future, wherever your military careers may take you…”

<Five,> Lyra said.

“Wherever your passions may guide you…”

<Three.>

“…you will remember this day fondly. You will look back on this—”

An explosion erupted at the back of the room and Azag reacted in an instant, ducking behind the podium.

“Shots fired,” he yelled, his microphone still broadcasting. “Get me out of here, you idiots.”

Dresden and Nerishka rushed forward and grabbed Azag, lifting the general to his feet and shielding him with their bodies. As they hustled him out of the auditorium, the sound of laughter echoed after them.

“They’re laughing?” Azag looked over his shoulder.

“No idea why, sir. We need to get you to safety. Then we can assess the situation.” Nerishka grabbed his arm, pulling him along. He stumbled on the steps and Nerishka placed a hand on the back of his neck and held him down. “Stay low, sir,” she said as she dosed him with truth serum.

<Hope you didn’t mix up the hands,> Lyra said with a chuckle. She’d been the one to ask what would happen if Nerishka’s dose of low level toxins for the Major got mixed up with Azag’s truth serum.

Nerishka hid a grin as she and Dresden guided the general back along the hallways toward the emergency exit. Once outside, they rushed across the manicured lawn to the small shuttle waiting a few meters away. The shuttle doors opened as they ran for it and Dresden pushed the general inside before jumping in himself

“Ow! What are you doing?” Azag yelled, tugging his arm free from Dresden’s grip. “I’ll have you fired for that, you imbecile.”

While Azag fought with Dresden, Nerishka turned and shut the emergency doors to the building, trailing some nano into the panel and frying the circuits.

<That should keep the door sealed until they get a tech in.>

<Or until they blow it wide open,> Kelem snickered.

<Watch your mouth,> Nerishka muttered as she ran to the shuttle and scrambled inside.

<What she means is don’t jinx it. Nerishka is superstitious,> Lyra added, her soft laugh filling the team’s link.

<Buckle up kids,> said Judith from the front of the shuttle as she lifted off and surged into the air, the doors sliding shut as they sped off.

“Where are we going?” Azag yelled. “Someone just tried to kill me. Aren’t you people going to call it in?”

Kelem laughed. “Not sure if you’re aware but unless you rig it a certain way, fireworks don’t kill people. At least not that I’ve ever heard of.”

Nerishka grinned. Now that had been a brilliant diversion.




CONTINGENCIES

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

“Fireworks?! What in the stars are you talking about. Someone just tried to kill me and you’re making a joke of it?” Azag vibrated with fury, his face almost purple.

Nerishka grinned. Fireworks had been a brilliant plan. Especially given that they’d discovered the military school to be for children aged fifteen to seventeen.

<Looks like he’s going to give himself a heart attack,> Lyra commented airily.

<Doesn’t he have mods or nano to help him out?> asked Dresden. His forehead creased with concern and Nerishka knew what he was feeling. They couldn’t afford for the general to die before they had a chance to learn if he had backups of the research.

<I’ve tapped his Link,> Lyra said. <Just like on Yazata, his data buffers are crap. We have records of all his communications. But, if he was smart he’d have had shields on when in meetings of a sensitive nature.>

<And that’s what the serum will help us with,> Dresden completed Lyra’s train of thought.

“Who are you people?” Azag yelled, staring around at his captors. He began to struggle at Nerishka’s side and she glanced over at him. His gaunt face was red with frustration and anger, veins popping at his temple.

“You can stop calling for help, we’ve tapped your Link,” Nerishka said softly as she studied the man’s dark features.

“What…” he spluttered. “Something happened to my Link? What did you do? Who are you people?”

“We’re the people who are going to fix up your mess for you,” Nerishka said, settling back against her seat, eyes not shifting from the general’s face.

“No need to thank us,” Kelem muttered.

Azag stiffened then his features flattened, and he barked out a laugh. “You! You’re the ones that blew up Yazata.”

Nerishka smiled and tilted her head at Kelem up front. “Like he said, no need to thank us or anything.”

Azag grinned. “Did you really think it was going to be that easy? All your fancy tech won’t breach my security in time.”

Nerishka smiled despite the rush of concern. “Why don’t you let us worry about that, OK?” To the team and Lyra, she said, <Keep your eyes peeled. He’s not bluffing. He knows he’s going to be saved so he must have a second detail that’s probably already on our tail.>

<How did we miss that?> asked Dresden, his tone annoyed.

<Likely a separate contractor, privately arranged. Untraceable,> offered Lyra.

<So where am I headed? The Teshub’s a no go if they’re on to us.> Judith sounded annoyed as she checked the station’s schematics for a hiding place.

<There,> Dresden highlighted a location on the near end of the asteroid’s interior. <It’s a maintenance tunnel. Access is here.> Another indicator flickered five kilometers from the shuttle’s position.

Just as they made a hard left in the direction of the tunnel entrance, the shuttle was hit by beamfire, taking out a grav stabilizer, sending the craft into a spin.

Judith corrected course fast, and Lyra dropped a collection of red markers on their HUDs as Nerishka turned to study Azag. “Do you think we’ll leave you alive just because you have people with big guns chasing us?” she asked as she drew her lightwand and activated the weapon.

Azag’s eyes widened as he stared at the white shaft of electrons, hovering dangerously close to his face. He glanced at Dresden who sat beside him but received an icy smile and a gun barrel closer to his head for his trouble.

Nerishka let out a cold laugh. “They can chase us, they can catch us, they can even kill us. But you’ll still be dead. Don’t think we’re here to bargain with you.”

Azag’s expression hardened and he sat back. “I suppose we will all be killed then.” His lips twisted in fury and then his gaze shot to each of the crew. “You all happy to die? Just so that you can kill me? You do realize she’s leading you to your deaths?”

“She’s not doing any leading,” said Judith. “We’re here because we chose to be. We’d have come without her if she’d backed out.”

Nerishka hid a smile at the roundabout vote of confidence. “Call your people off and we’ll consider leaving you alive.”

Azag snorted. “Even if I wanted to, that’s not possible. I set it up for just such a situation. And even if I could call them off, I wouldn’t. I don’t believe you’ll hold up your end of the bargain.”

Nerishka shrugged. “Was worth a shot.”

The shuttled entered the maintenance tunnel and raced through the skin of the asteroid, temporarily losing their pursuers. Judith slowed it on a platform and Kelem yelled, “Let’s go! I’ve programmed the shuttle to lead them through the tunnels and then back out into the interior.”

Nerishka was first out and raced across the platform to a set of doors leading into a corridor cut through the rock. Behind her, Dresden threw Azag out of the shuttle and was followed by Kelem and Judith. Behind them, the shuttle lifted off and sped away, deeper into the maintenance tunnels.

Nerishka palmed the door, but it wouldn’t open. Kelem pulled out his pistol, but she held up her hand. “Wait. I can hack it.” Kelem grunted and Nerishka fed her nano into the panel and worked on breaking the code. The door clicked a few seconds later and they raced inside, Dresden dragging the general with him.

<We need to get him in a secure location before the serum starts its work.>

They made a mad dash down the tunnel. Lined with plas and trimmed with orange bulkhead lighting, it linked with an almost endless network of passages that would buy them some time.

<Can’t he answer questions on the run?> asked Dresden, his grip on Azag’s arm still firm.

<He could, but the effort and adrenalin will metabolize the serum faster, and our window of questioning gets a lot narrower.> Even as she spoke the words Nerishka suspected they already had an all-too-narrow window.

<How long do we have?> called Judith from up ahead.

<Another few minutes until it starts working,> Nerishka replied. <Probably ten, maybe fifteen minutes to question him. Lyra is attempting to subdue the nano in his system in case they are capable of negating the effects, but I think we will be fine.>

They reached an intersection with an access hatch that could prove helpful. <That leads us up into the FlatIron. It’s dangerous, and likely the best place to get lost in,> Dresden advised. <I have a contact there who will give us a hiding spot until we lose Azag’s security.>

Nerishka hesitated. <I don’t think that’s a good idea. Involving an Ishtar civilian will expose you. If he survives what we are bringing down on his head, that is.>

Dresden hesitated, then swerved right and dragged Azag down the tunnel. At the end was a service hatch that—from the reflective orange sign—lead to a garbage reclamation system belonging to the building above them. <Ishtar is a bit old-school. That’s an advantage to us in a few ways.> He shoved Azag into the small vestibule that led to the tanks, beckoning to Nerishka to follow him.

<Judith, Kelem, cover us,> Dresden said as he shut the hatch.

<Shouldn’t be too long,> said Nerishka as she climbed inside the vestibule.

<Now who’s jinxing things?> muttered Lyra. <Unfriendlies are closing in. I suggest we hurry.>

Nerishka focused on Azag, the light from her wand bringing his sharp features into stark contrast. Here, he looked like just a regular guy, not a man wanting to create a weapon that would help him destroy or topple governments or become insanely rich…or both.

Azag’s head lolled to the side, and Lyra said, <He’s ready. You may proceed,> said Lyra. <But I suggest you do it with speed.>

Nerishka shook the general, her grip on his arm tight. “Where is the rest of the research?”

He giggled. “There’s nothing left. Assholes…blew it up.”

Nerishka grunted. <He’s going be one of those,> she muttered.

<One of those?> asked Dresden.

<People react differently to the serum. It makes some people hyper alert, others sleepy, and some, like Azag, turn into the equivalent of a giggly teenager.>

<Estimating twelve minutes before the serum wears off,> Lyra advised, urgency feeding through to the team on the shared Link.

Nerishka glared at the general. “What about the gate? Where’s the rest of the gate?”

Azag began to laugh again, a fit that brought tears to his eyes. He lifted his hands and spread them wide, at the same time making an explosive sound with his lips. “It went kaboom!”

Nerishka shook his shoulder again. There had to be something else. He couldn’t have kept it all in one place. “Where did you keep the backups? The research? You had to back it up just in case.”

Azag’s head lolled and his grinned and sighed. “She’s gonna be so mad.” He lifted a finger and shook it in front of Nerishka’s nose. “She said keep a backup. She said we needed a plan in case we were compromised. Too risky, though, too many eyes after Gershan….”

“Who? Who said that?” Nerishka frowned as she considered Azag’s words. “Who were you working for.”

“She’ll kill me,” he said drunkenly, his head lolling from side to side. “You better kill me…I’m dead anyway.”

“Tell me who she is, and I’ll help you get away to safety,” Nerishka said, even though she had no intention of doing any such thing.

“Can’t…” He put a finger to his temple then pushed hard repeatedly. “If I say her name, I’m fried…brain fried…fried brain…brain…” Azag continued to mutter the words over and over.

<What is wrong with him?> asked Lyra. <Is it the serum?>

<I don’t think so. But what I do know is he’s not the kingpin. He’s working for someone. And I hate to say it, but it sounds like Inanna might be our big bad.>

<You have got to be shitting me,> Kelem muttered and then gave an annoyed grunt.

<Sorry?>




EGRESS

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka spent a few more minutes with Azag, asking him if Inanna was the mastermind but he kept shaking his head until the serum began to wear off.

She shoved him back out into the corridor. “He’s done. We need to get out of here. If Inanna is behind this, then we need more power and a better plan to take her down.”

Dresden looked grim and was about to answer when Kelem yelled, “Incoming,” also cutting off Lyra’s attempt to speak.

The feeds from the team’s drones showed Azag’s soldiers pushing into the corridor at the entrance to the tunnels, then seemingly selecting the correct path, as though they knew exactly where they were going.

“They’re headed straight for us. Like they know the way,” Judith growled. “He got a tracker on him or something?”

<I’ve been over every centimeter of him,> Lyra protested. <His tech is shut down.>

Nerishka didn’t answer. She sent her nano in to check him out and then let out her own growl of frustration. <We missed it because it’s a biological-based tech. Behaves like an organ. Almost undetectable.>

<Need to tweak your detection paradigms a bit, huh?> Kelem asked, a teasing note in his voice even as he began to fire at the oncoming soldiers.

Nerishka wasn’t amused, more because she’d failed to find it. She’d been complacent.

<You couldn’t have predicted this,> Lyra said, her tone comforting.

<How do we turn it off?> asked Dresden, sounding a little impatient.

<We can’t,> Lyra replied. <We turn it off, he dies.>

<Didn’t we come here to kill him anyway?> asked Judith, her disgruntlement coming over the team’s Link loud and clear. <Why the sudden growth of conscience?>

Nerishka let out a defeated sigh. <Because he’s not the mastermind. He’s just a tool,> she admitted. <Someone else is running this show. Killing him would be like chopping off a lion’s toe.>

Azag’s soldiers reached the nearest intersection, and as they rounded the corner, Judith and Kelem opened fire, taking down the first soldier, and wounding the second, forcing the enemy back into cover.

<They’re coming from behind as well,> Lyra said, noting the enemies moving through toward the team, catching them in a pincer with only the garbage reclamation chamber behind them.

“Like half their fucking army is swooping in,” Kelem grunted as he shifted to fire on the ASF soldiers coming down the passage to their right. “We don’t have the firepower for this.”

<And we’re running out of ammo—> Judith began, but Nerishka cut her off.

<I’m not,> she said, grinning as she waved her lightwand in front of her. <Cover me, I’ll clear our egress.>

Nerishka’s armor slid her helmet up and over her face as she activated its stealth mode and raced around the corner, taking the turn at breakneck speed, leaping over Kelem’s shoulder while he laid down suppressive fire.

She hit the ground running, swinging her weapon wide as she reached the first ASF soldier. The man almost jumped as the lightwand appeared out of nowhere, pulling his attention from Kelem to Nerishka’s lightwand, but it was too late.

She spun around, the momentum giving the lightwand enough force to slice through his armor and then flesh and bone. His arm hit the ground and he slumped to his knees, screaming as blood sprayed out, coating the walls and floor.

But Nerishka barely registered the man’s distress as she continued in her spin and slashed out at the next soldier who was firing wildly, distracted at the sight of her partner’s predicament. Nerishka’s armor tightened on her abdomen as stray rounds impacted her body, but she kept going, slicing the woman’s gun arm off as she went.

Two down and two to go.

The second pair hesitated after witnessing their comrades’ speedy demise, but they snapped out of it and stood their ground, firing on Nerishka.

<I can get the one on the left if you keep right,> yelled Judith on the team’s combat net.

Without slowing Nerishka swerved right and built her speed. As she closed in on the soldier, she dropped to her knees and slid along the floor and right past her opponent, slashing at the woman’s hip as she went.

The blow struck true, the lightwand slicing through her armor and severing the soldier’s leg at the hip. <Now that’s going to need a good medtable to fix.>

Lyra snorted. <I cannot believe you are thinking about how these people will recover from their injuries.>

<These soldiers are just following orders, fulfilling their duty, proving their worth to their government. They are not my mark, Lyra.> Nerishka boosted onto her feet and dusted herself off. Judith had dropped the guard on her left and her HUD showed now more red markers.

Dresden fired a barrage down the adjacent corridor and then gave a satisfied nod. <Clear back here.>

<We need an escape route,> Nerishka said as the team hurried toward her, Kelem carrying an unconscious Azag.

“What happened to him?” she asked.

“Passed out? Not sure. Vitals look stable, though,” Dresden replied.

Just as the pair reached Nerishka’s side, Azag straightened and shoved hard at Kelem’s throat, his fingers obscuring a weapon Nerishka couldn’t identify.

Kelem sagged and Judith grabbed for him while Azag shoved Dresden hard. But the general hadn’t counted on Dresden’s strength, a power that was amplified with rage over the attack on Kelem’s life.

Kelem was family.

Dresden slammed his fist into Azag’s cheek, sending the general crashing into the wall. Azag seemed oblivious to the attack. Laughing, he pushed from the wall and twisted, attempting to get away.

<Judith, get back!> yelled Lyra, her tone ragged. <In Kelem…It’s an explosive.>




MISDIRECTION

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

The shock of Lyra’s words stilled the entire team for a moment, one the general took advantage off as he pushed past Nerishka and fled.

With barely a thought, Nerishka drew both her flechette pistols from the holsters on her thighs, took aim and fired just as the general paused at the junction to look back at them.

Her first bullet hit him in the middle of the forehead, her second in the throat. Azag fell back and Nerishka straightened. She’d felt no remorse for the kill. But it was nothing like assassinating a mark.

Killing for the Hand was moving the chess-pieces around, helping to keep peace. Azag’s death had been borne of vengeance, fury, loss.

Nerishka turned on her heel to see Dresden standing over Kelem. She reached down and touched the device on his neck. “Assessing…it’s counting down. We have four minutes.”

“What are you all waiting for? Get out of here!” Kelem screamed, staring wildly at each of them.

Dresden and Judith crouched beside him, shoulders hunched. Nerishka hovered, unsure of the next step. <Lyra, what do you think? Is it anything we can hack?>

Lyra was silent and then replied, <Yes…damn, it’s very simple, with a very finicky tamper detection. After suppressing the general’s nano, we’re really low….>

“What are you saying, Lyra?” Nerishka asked.

<I’d need more time and more nano…wait, no, it has a failsafe to keep it going off when not on a victim. You’re not going to like it, though, Kelem.>

“Spit it out,” Kelem growled.

<It monitors bioactivity, if you’re dead, it won’t explode.>

“That’s one hell of a failsafe,” Judith said through clenched teeth.

Nerishka rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath. She shifted closer and touched Dresden’s arm. “I have a way, but I need to know you guys are comfortable with it.”

Judith glanced back at her, eyes glistening. Dresden gave a sharp nod, his gaze trained on Nerishka’s face. Kelem remained silent, his expression questioning.

Nerishka let the words fall from her lips. “We’re going to have to kill him.”

“What?” Judith’s eyes hardened as the ragged whisper left her lips. “You bitch! Always thinking about the mission.”

“Judith,” Kelem said, swatting the redhead’s arm.

Nerishka smiled sadly. “His heart needs to stop and the batteries on his mods need to be shut down or the timer won’t stop counting. We don’t have the nano left to safely pause his heart and turn off his mods. Our best bet is to trick his mods-and the bomb—into thinking he’s dead, then get the device out and bring him back.”

“What are you thinking?” Dresden asked Nerishka, his tone carefully measured as Judith’s fury subsided slowly.

“I have a toxin that mimics death to the point that bio signs appear non-existent. It’s not technically death, but it’s enough to trick his mods and the device into thinking he’s dead and shutting down.”

“And bringing Kelem back? Does the toxin fade?” asked Kelem with a cheeky smile.

Nerishka shook her head. “I have to administer a second serum that will revive you. And that has to be done within twenty-four hours. Or you will die.”

Dresden lifted a hand. “OK. Three minutes to go. I had a second shuttle dispatched to the FlatIron district just in case. We can make it there, disable the toxin and remove the device once we’re back on the Teshub.”

Nerishka nodded and Dresden looped his arm around Kelem as Judith helped. They’d begun to lift him off the ground when Lyra called out, <No. Stop. The device…the countdown is speeding up.>

Sure enough, the counter Lyra had placed on the team’s HUDs began to speed up, turning what had been just on three minutes to two minutes and three seconds.

“We can’t move him,” said Nerishka as they lowered Kelem to the floor.

“We’re sitting ducks here.” Judith glanced around. The drones weren’t picking anything up, but that didn’t mean much. Any second, the place could be swarming with soldiers. Azag’s death would no longer be a secret.

“Administer the toxin now,” Kelem grunted with a wave of his hand, a slight smirk on his lips. “We can move ‘him’ after he’s out.”

Judith rolled her eyes. “How long for it to work?”

“A few seconds and he’ll be under. If we can get him to that recycling hatch, there’s no way we can lug him to the FlatIron in time.” Nerishka pointed back to where she’d interrogated Azag, “He’ll be safe until the device is removed.”

“Do it.” Dresden’s tone was hard.

Nerishka sank to her knee and unsealed a pocket on her left arm. Inside was a small metal case containing a hypospray and almost two dozen tiny vials. She grabbed a vial of dark purple liquid, prepared the injector and—after bringing up Kelem’s vitals on her HUD—held it to his neck. The low pop of the hypospray was all that could be heard as the team waited for the toxin to take effect.

Within seconds Kelem’s heart-rate began to slow and ten seconds later Nerishka got to her feet. “Move him quickly. As soon as the device is out we get gone.”

Just as the team reached the hatch, a dozen more enemy indicators flicked on their HUDS. <Backup’s here,> Lyra said urgently.

Nerishka spun on her heel. “I’ll draw them away so you can get out of here. Get him to safety and get that bomb out of him stat.” She hurried to the intersection and peered left down the hall to where Azag’s corpse still lay.

“I’m coming with you,” Dresden yelled.

“No. It’ll take both you and Judith to get the thing out of him. Lyra can guide you if you need it.”

<I can. I’ve dropped a relay; I can keep in touch with them if need be.>

Nerishka didn’t respond, distracted by the armored soldiers heading her way. She moved into the intersection to face the oncoming enemy, then looked left—back at the hatch which was now closed—and right and then behind her, as if hesitating.

Then she headed left, out of firing range, making a beeline for the next intersection. Her HUD showed the red dots clustering where Azag’s body lay, then filing past him toward the crossway. Three green dots flickered beyond the hatch, confirming the team still safe.

Nerishka had just reached a T in the tunnel and had taken the right when shots echoed from behind her, some slamming into her armor. As she raced down the passage she shifted the armor to stealth mode and studied the tunnel around her. Every few hundred meters, hatches were built into the bulkhead. Perfect for what she needed.

As she ran she boosted off the ground and grabbed the handle bars of the next hatch, lifted herself parallel to the bulkhead and hovered there as the soldier streamed into the tunnel behind her. They ran below her without pausing, splitting into two groups at the junction up ahead.

The enemy indicators on her HUD divided into two groups and continued to splinter off as they searched the tunnel system.

<How’s Kelem?> Nerishka asked the team, noting that three green indicators were still at the hatch’s coordinates. <How far are you guys from getting out of here?>

<He’s doing ok. The device is out and destroyed. His vitals are still the same, heartrate’s a flatline for all I can make out,> Dresden said.

<We’re getting ready to move him out now, but what about you? You’ve stopped.> Judith’s tone was demanding and Nerishka wasn’t sure if she should be annoyed or comforted at the woman’s concern.

<Waiting to confirm you guys are safe. Send me the coordinates for the shuttle in the FlatIron, and I’ll meet you there once you give me the all clear,> Nerishka replied as she dropped to the ground and turned to head back the way she’d come. She’d need to change her location to ensure the returning soldiers didn’t run into her accidentally.

As Nerishka broke into a run she felt an energy pulse—or perhaps what could be better described as a lack-of-energy pulse. A second later, she slammed into an invisible wall while Lyra yelled, <Watch out. Something is wrong.>

Nerishka didn’t have time for a caustic rejoinder as she flew backward. She stumbled, landed on her ass, but pushed off and flipped back to her feet in an instant.

<There’s a barrier around you, a net of energy.> Lyra sounded tense and worried.

<Shit. How did we miss it?>

<Sorry. Short-range motion-activated grav-shield trap. The soldiers must have dropped them as they went.> Lyra didn’t sound happy. <Azag and his goons seem to have unusually high-tech military weaponry.>

<This is a system researching picotech and jump gates. They’re not low in the tech department. Can you get me out? I can’t get nano past the field.> Nerishka let out a low growl of frustration; she’d been careless. Too desperate to ensure Kelem got to safety.

Sidetracked by emotional connections to a team.

<Nishka, we knew going into this mission that we had no idea what we were dealing with,> Lyra said gently. <Let’s concentrate on getting us out of here. Your vitals are all fine. Weapons intact. Your armor is still functioning, despite the field.>

<But if they’re using tech this smart, I’m sure we’ve tripped an alarm somewhere. We’re literally just waiting for them to come pick us up.>

<I’m trying to hack it but—>

A blast of energy hit Nerishka’s body and her vision faded. The last thing she heard was Dresden’s voice on the team Link.

<We’re out. Kelem’s doing good. On our way to the shuttle.>

At least something was going right.




CAPTIVE

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Nerishka came to with a start, eyes snapping open to find herself naked and restrained to a metal chair. Her head drooped down, chin to her chest. She raised it slowly, bleary eyes taking in a spartan cell, nothing more than a narrow cot and a small san unit.

She sat facing the entrance to her cell, which had neither wall nor bars, but rather a grav field that caused the view beyond to waver as though it were being altered by air currents rising off a hot ground.

<Be warned that you are on camera. They have already attempted to breach me, but I showed them I was made of more than their second-rate tech can hack.>

<How did this happen?> Nerishka asked, her brain running through everything that had occurred until she had been caught in the field and hit by an energy burst.

<From what I can tell, Azag slapped something on you. Not a tracking device though. Some sort of contact EMP emitter. It shorted out your armor and most of our remaining nano.>

<Well, crap. So much for our superior tech.>

<Ayran tech is good, you know that. They’re imaginative too, it seems. I’m pretty sure I understand how it worked. The EMP device works in tandem with the trap. When you get close enough the trap triggers the EMP device, then springs. Until that moment, you don’t even know anything is wrong. You know how it is. All tech dies to ‘zot.’ Honestly, it was our superior tech that kept your key mods intact. I’m repairing several systems with what nano we have left.>

<Why do you sound impressed?> Nerishka grumbled, looking down at the Au-Ti restraints that held her to the chair. She could tell they were just for show, there was a grav field holding her down as well. Her captors were not taking any chances.

<I’m not. Well…I am.> When Nerishka snorted, Lyra sent her a rush of warmth. <Oh, and with your armor disabled by the EMP and me trying to put you back together in here, they stripped you down. You’re naked.>

<I got that, Lyra,> Nerishka replied, rolling her eyes.

<I just thought I’d make sure,> Lyra replied, her voice heavily laden with amusement. <Dresden knows where we are. He is going to come for you.>

<Lyra! Why did you do that? It’s probably a trap.>

<I’m afraid it cannot be helped. I had Link up for a few seconds and he patched in. You were out, so I told him. Dresden went…a little…crazy. Yes, I believe crazy described his reaction quite well.>

Nerishka sighed. <I’ve seen Crazed Dresden. I hear you. Patch me through to him. I have to tell him to stand down.>

<We no longer have Link access. I only got through that one before they got us in here—the cell is heavily dampened. Besides, you cannot prevent him from coming for you. He has to break you out. Or Kelem dies.>

A rush of fear hit Nerishka in the gut. <I’d forgotten about that…what the hell did they do to me? My head feels like it’s about to explode.>

<Like I said, they tried to breach us, but I managed to stave them off. They were rather intrusive, and you might have a bit of swelling.> Lyra’s avatar wore a very self-satisfied smirk.

Nerishka frowned but even that movement hurt. <Huh? I’d say cool but given I was unconscious….>

<You have incoming. They’ve detected that you are awake. Seems you might get what you wanted.>

<Which is?>

<A meeting with the mastermind.> Lyra said, her tone mysterious.

<Who is it?> Nerishka sat up straighter, very aware of her bare ass on the now warm metal of the chair.

<Why would I spoil the surprise?>

<Seriously?> Nerishka scowled in annoyance. She was in no mood for games. Especially not when she was about to be confronted by her captors while bare-assed naked.

<Come on, Nishka. I can confirm that you are not going anywhere in the immediate future. I want to see your reaction when you see who it is.>

Nerishka merely grunted. <Where are my weapons?>

<In the next room. They are wary of the biolocking security. Two brave soldiers have already been sent to their chosen afterlife after attempting to handle your weapons.> Lyra giggled, which made Nerishka smile despite the circumstances.

Lights flickered on along the corridor outside her cell and the sound of a lock cycling drifted toward her.

What she wouldn’t do right now to be able to send off a swath of drones to check out the dangers approaching. Gritting her teeth, she watched as three people walked toward her cell.

An armed guard led the small procession, dressed in the same dark suit as Azag’s men, only this one wore a light cloak that flowed behind him as he snapped his rifle forward, barrel facing Nerishka.

The first woman was slender and tall, blonde hair piled onto her head in elegant tangles. She wore a simple white shift dress that traced the floor as she moved, the shimmering fabric hugging every curve.

Behind her came a golden-haired woman, and though there was nothing in the blonde’s bearing that implied subservience, something told Nerishka that the woman in her wake was of higher authority.

The blonde drew to a stop and studied Nerishka, a strange expression on her face: something between frustration and indifference. She smiled, then glanced at the second woman as she too came to a halt.

Nerishka lifted her chin and—ignoring the subordinate—studied her regal visitor. The woman wore a floor-length dress, the cut simple, the fabric iridescent, the color a rich gold. Her golden hair shimmered, the gleam echoed in her eyeshadow and on her lips, bringing her golden eyes to the fore.

<Not surprised by her choice of color, but all that gold only makes me think of a certain deadly isotope,> Nerishka said to Lyra. “Inanna,” she said aloud, the name grating out through her teeth.

“That is ‘President Inanna’ to you,” snapped the blonde, her eyes flashing.

“Hush, Sigurd,” Inanna said, patting her subordinate’s shoulder. “Our prisoner has every right to say what she likes. She is not from Ayra, is she?”

Sigurd shook her head and flicked a glance at Inanna before facing the cell and asked, “Who are you and why did you kill General Azag?”

Nerishka lifted one brow. “You seriously want to go with the whole ignorance act?”

Inanna frowned but didn’t say anything. Sigurd cleared her throat. “It would certainly help us if you told us what we need to know. We have a dead general, a furious major, and a handful of dead soldiers. Knowing what you hoped to achieve would help us figure out what to do next.”

“As in how to get rid of me, you mean?” Nerishka smirked.

“Not necessarily. Why don’t we help each other? Make things easier.”

Nerishka shrugged. “Not much to tell you. I came to kill Azag. He’s dead. End of story.” Nerishka decided she was going to keep her cards close until she knew more about what was going on with Inanna.

“Why did you target Azag?” asked the president, her gaze traveling from Nerishka’s head to her toes, a nice little reminder that Nerishka was as naked as the day she was born.

“I’m sure you know why. He was working for you, wasn’t he?” asked Nerishka, tilting her head to study Inanna’s face.

“We’ll be asking the questions,” Sigurd snapped, her tone icy.

Nerishka smiled. “What happened to mutual cooperation?” she asked. “I answered your question.”

“You still haven’t told us who you are,” Sigurd asked.

“I believe that’s above your pay grade,” said Nerishka.

She watched as Sigurd’s jaw tightened and the woman flashed her a look of warning.

<Huh? What’s that about?>

<Probably nothing good.>




LAST RESORT

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

President Inanna sighed, her expression enigmatically calm. “I suppose your identity matters less than the reason you wanted to eliminate the poor general.”

Nerishka shook her head in dismay, “So you’re doubling down on the ignorance game. Fine.”

Inanna let out a decidedly inelegant grunt. “This doesn’t need to be any more difficult than you wish to make it.”

“I’m dead anyway. What difference does it make?” Nerishka sneered, dragging a derisive gaze across the president from head to foot.

Inanna chuckled. “Very well.” She looked at Sigurd, her eyes locked on the blonde’s for a moment, then turned on her heel and glided away, the silent guard snapping to attention then following in her wake.

Sigurd waved a hand and the grav field at the cell’s entrance disappeared away. She entered the room and approached Nerishka. “Why do you want to make this harder on yourself?” she asked, keeping her tone low and even.

Nerishka glanced up at her. “Why do you care how hard or easy this will be on me?”

Sigurd shook her head and smiled. “Whatever happens now, just remember, I gave you the chance to avoid it.” The cuffs fell away, allowing the Sigurd to grab Nerishka’s arm and lift her off the seat, aided by the grav-field that still held Nerishka in its grasp.

Nerishka didn’t resist, curious now to see what she could learn from this woman. Sigurd pushed until Nerishka’s back hit the wall. There the blonde clamped Nerishka’s wrists into metal cuffs embedded in the wall.

Then, Sigurd gave an annoyed huff as she studied Nerishka who was now suspended from her wrists. Being naked was one thing, but naked and hanging from a wall was an all too vulnerable position to be in.

Footsteps echoed down the hall and another woman entered Nerishka’s cell.

<Shit, Lyra. This isn’t good.>

<I agree.>

Major Gilit strode forward, stopping in front of Nerishka, hands on her hips, a steely fury in her eyes.

<Ooh, this is so not good.> Nerishka knew that the woman intended to extract her pound of flesh.

<Sorry, Nishka. I am still attempting to access the Link but no success as yet. You are going to have weather whatever happens next.>

<I’ll give it my best shot. Not the first time I’ve been beaten. Probably not going to be the last.>

Even as she said the words, Gilit’s fist shot forward and slammed into Nerishka’s gut, the woman’s gloved knuckles sinking into bare flesh.

“I’ve been told to do whatever is needed to get answers from you. And I can tell you that I’m going to enjoy every minute,” the major growled near Nerishka’s ear.

Nerishka coughed and wheezed as she sucked in a breath. She glared at the major and shook her head, her gaze flicking toward Sigurd who watched in silence.

Gilit grunted and struck Nerishka again, this time, punching her on the left side of the face. Nerishka’s head spun, her teeth crashing against each other.

<Ugh. Thanks stars I don’t have original teeth anymore.> Nerishka worked her jaw but still said nothing.

“Speak if you know what’s good for you. Who are you? Why did you kill Azag? We can’t get inside your head, but I can still wear you down the old-fashioned way. This is just the warmup, something for you to think about before the fun really starts.”

Nerishka remained silent, catching sight of Sigurd who was shaking her head very slightly. Just enough that only Nerishka herself would see the movement. Even the cameras wouldn’t pick it up.

Odd. <Lyra, what’s Sigurd trying to tell me?>

<She’s nervous…heart-rate is up. She’s worried about something.>

But Nerishka didn’t have time to ponder Sigurd’s strangeness as Gilit drove her fist into Nerishka’s ribs again. The blow knocked the breath out of her, and had she still had natural bones, several would have been fractured.

“Speak, you bitch,” the major spat, a vein in her temple pulsing. “Who do you work for? What did you think you’d achieve?”

Nerishka grunted. “You want the truth?” she asked the furious major.

The woman blinked. “Tell me.”

“We took him. Yeah. And sorry about giving you the shits,” Nerishka sneered.

Gilit growled but said nothing, curiosity momentarily superseding her need for vengeful torture.

“But I didn’t intend to kill him,” Nerishka confessed, her expression sad.

<Not at first…> Lyra added cheekily.

<Be quiet. I’m working here.>

“Then why did you?”

“He killed one of my team. And he was endangering our lives. It was…it just happened.”

“So, let’s say I believe your crap. What in Marduk’s light were you after?”

Nerishka let the bomb drop. “We were after the people who were working on the jump gate.”

Gilit froze. She didn’t answer immediately, confirming Nerishka’s suspicions that Azag had his confidantes surrounding him.

“You were in on it, huh?” Nerishka asked, eyes darting to Sigurd to see the woman’s expression well-schooled.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sorry. I do. Azag was working on a gate. It blew. People died. I’m here to find the assholes responsible.”

“Who do you work for? Septhia?”

Beyond Gilit’s shoulder, Sigurd shifted, her eyes narrowing a millimeter. What was up with the blonde?

 Nerishka shoved her concerns out of her mind, focusing the now dire need to free herself. She’d grown bored with Gilit’s interrogation techniques. <Lyra, I know you’re keeping me in one piece here, but can you free up some of my nano? I need my blade.>

A microsecond later Lyra replied, <They’re all yours.>

Nerishka shook her head at Gilit’s question. “I need to speak to the people responsible. Not to the underlings.” As she uttered the words, the skin on Nerishka’s left shin split open, the muscles peeling apart as her secreted blade slid out of the compartment within her tibia.

It wasn’t visible to either of the women, and Nerishka kept her leg twisted to ensure they wouldn’t spot the thin hilt sticking a centimeter out of her skin.

Gilit growled her anger and landed another punch on Nerishka’s face, then straightened, her expression smug.

Blood dripped from a long gash on Nerishka’s cheek, and from the split in her lip. She swallowed hard, tasted copper, and shook her head.

“You’re a fucking idiot,” Gilit whispered harshly. “We’re going to show you what the Ayra System does to assassins. And Septhia will get what’s coming to it eventually.”

Nerishka met the woman’s eyes and shook her head but didn’t say anything. Ayra must have been more worried about Septhian expansion than the Hand had known. Perhaps that was why they were working so hard on gate tech—a way to make a preemptive strike against their enemies.

 “President Inanna would very much appreciate your cooperation,” said Sigurd, her words calm and precise despite the nature of the interrogation.

Nerishka merely blinked, still maintaining eye contact with the furious major.

Gilit shook her head. “For Septhia to think they can send their agents to come blasting in here, take out the head of our military…it’s a bit reckless.”

Nerishka lifted her chin defiantly. “The people responsible for the gate research need to be stopped. I can’t leave until that happens.”

Gilit chuckled. “Rest assured, you will not leave here alive.”

<I got it! One of them dropped the suppressive field to use the Link!> Lyra crowed with delight. <I have access to their network; there will be a power surge in ten seconds. The spike will overload comms and will take a while to cycle back up again. The grav fields will be killed—you should have enough time to get out of here before they get back up again.>

<Restraints?> Nerishka said, even as Lyra continued speaking.

<Working on it.> Half a second later, Lyra gave a soft whoop and Nerishka felt a slight click at her wrists as the mechanical restraints released her. <There you go.>

Gilit stiffened, likely due to the restraints reporting their now-offline status to her. But before the woman could blink, Nerishka grabbed the blade protruding from her leg, and in a smooth move drew it across the major’s neck in a single, smooth motion.

Gilit’s throat split, spilling blood and revealing bone. The major’s eyes went wide and she grasped her neck, her expression perplexed as she dropped to her knees, staring at her bloodied fingers.

She let out a bubbling gurgle and then collapsed.

<The major is down and out,> Lyra advised soberly.

<Your observation skills are impeccable, Lyra,> Nerishka muttered as she spun on her heel, reaching for Sigurd who was already sprinting for the exit.

Nerishka grabbed the woman’s hair and yanked her backward, holding the blood-spattered blade across Sigurd’s neck.

“One wrong move and you’ll meet your Marduk soon enough.” Sigurd froze as the blade’s edge cut lightly into her throat. “You’re coming with me, disable the grav field, or take your last breath.”

Sigurd wordlessly complied, and Nerishka pushed her captive out into the corridor, stopping at the outer door which required access codes.

<She’d be stupid not to have sent an alarm out,> Nerishka said as Sigurd keyed in the codes

<I’m prepared for that. Once you get out of here, head down three levels and follow the markers to Bay 7B. There’s a shuttle there that’s undergoing an overhaul. It’s still functional. We’re getting out of here.>

Nerishka swallowed hard and took a breath.

Stars, I hope you’re right, Lyra. I hope you’re right.




DRESDEN

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Several hours earlier…

Dresden’s heart pounded as his nano monitored Kelem’s vitals. The man’s heartrate had dropped to near zero, but he was still picking up a heartbeat, so minimal that it wouldn’t have registered even on a medical heart monitor.

One slow pump, every minute.

Dresden had to admit that he’d nearly shed a tear or two, joining Judith in expelling the pent-up fear that had grown within his gut over the last half hour.

“Can we do it?” whispered Judith, her eye’s shifting up to scan Dresden over Kelem’s still form. The vestibule was tiny, and the three of them were a tight squeeze. Add in a dollop of fear and drop or two of desperation and you had a recipe for disaster.

 Dresden took a slow breath and nodded, and he didn’t miss the worry etched into Judith’s face. He sighed. “Look, he’ll be fine. We just need to get this thing off him and get back to the ship. Nerishka will meet us there and everything will be fine.”

Judith smirked. “I know all that. You repeating it all for me or for you?”

Pursing his lips, he considered her question. “Both.”

“Not like you, Boss.”

Dresden glanced down at his man. “Not like us to get so close to losing one of our own.”

“Not in a long while.” Judith’s words were another kick in the gut. A reminder of a team member they’d lost. Time certainly does nothing to heal wounds.

Dresden swallowed and jerked his chin at Kelem. “Ready?” When she nodded slowly, Dresden said, “Hold onto him.”

Dresden reached for a scalpel and a pair of tweezers from their medkit. His nano had located the device which had burrowed into Kelem’s body, connecting to the energy lines at the back of the man’s neck.

Without looking up at Judith, Dresden pressed the scalpel to Kelem’s skin and sliced. The nano’s readings proved accurate and the scalpel teased against metal within a centimeter of cutting.

He handed the scalpel to Judith then leaned close with the tweezer. Inserting the narrow tips into the opening, Dresden felt his way deeper until the nose of the tweezers touched the device. He adjusted his angle and gripped the bomb, retracting it slowly. The process was surprisingly easy but made all the more daunting by the activity on his HUD.

“She’s going to get herself caught,” muttered Judith. “Stupid woman. She goes racing off without thinking things through.”

Dresden glanced up at the redhead, catching the worry in her eyes. He didn’t comment though, knew better how to communicate with his crew. Instead, he removed the device from the opening in Kelem’s shoulder and dropped it on the floor beside Judith.

They both stared at it for a moment, and then Judith lifted a boot to step on it.

“Stop!” Dresden whispered hoarsely. “It’s a fucking bomb!”

Judith’s eyes went wide. “Shit. Not thinking straight.” Then she sank onto her haunches and let out a puff of air. “I called her a bitch.”

The vestibule remained silent for a few seconds as Dresden cleaned Kelem’s wound and applied a layer of healing gel. While he worked, he confirmed that Raz was on the way to bring the shuttle to meet them in the FlatIron District.

“I can’t say the word doesn’t suit her at times.”

Judith’s eyes widened, as if offended by his comment. “I judged her. I honestly believed she doesn’t have a single loyal bone in her body. I had her pegged totally wrong.”

Dresden grunted. “Sounds like you think she’s…not a bitch, then?”

Judith snorted and shook her head. “Where the hell is she?” Judith asked, half squinting as she studied the details on her HUD. “Bait. The stupid woman made herself be the bait.” She would be seeing the same thing as Dresden: red dots slowly disappearing down tunnel after tunnel, and no sign of Nerishka.

He nodded to himself. “Let’s get out of here. That’s the best thing we can do right now. Nishka knows how to take care of herself.”

Judith said nothing. The pair gathered Kelem up and as they hurried along the corridors they grabbed cloaks from the downed soldiers, throwing them around their respective shoulders. With the ASF soldiers on the hunt for Nerishka, their path was clear, and with only a few minutes of struggle, managed to get Kelem’s unconscious body up through the hatch and into another maintenance tunnel that led them into the FlatIron.

They’d barely stepped out onto a dark street when a shuttle settled down a few meters away, turning to align the doors with them. A few moments later, they were aboard and Raz was lifting off, taking a circuitous route to a dock on the far side of Ishtar, where they would transfer to another shuttle and fly out to the Teshub’s dock.

<We’re out. Kelem’s doing good. Headed back to the ship,> Dresden broke radio silence, reaching out to Nerishka over the team’s combat net. When all he got was dead air, he frowned. <Nerishka? Lyra? Do you copy?>

Dresden gritted his teeth. He’d just heaved a sigh of relief having removed the bomb from his friend’s body, and now he had to face the very real possibility that Nerishka was compromised.

“Fuck,” he said, his voice turning into a growl.

“What? You okay, Boss?” asked Raz, shifting in his seat to study Dresden’s face, his leonine eyes gleaming.

“It’s Nerishka,” Judith answered. “She’s not responding.”

“We going back for her? I brought weapons just in case,” asked the pilot.

Dresden shook his head. “Much as I want to, we need to get this guy to the ship before they lock this whole area down. No point in running into what could be a trap. We’d probably end up getting caught only to find out Nerishka is waiting at the ship for us.”

Despite the incongruity of his words, Dresden knew that the possibility was likely.

Just as likely as Nerishka going headlong into trouble without a hint of hesitation.

An hour later, Kelem was safely within a med-pod, his vitals maintained and monitored. Dresden was pacing the bridge while Judith studied scan and news feeds when Lyra’s garbled voice stuttered in his ear.

<Dresden…mayday. Nerishka’s…cell. Coordinates sent. Link …intermittent…become unavailable.>




LAST FLIGHT OUT

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Just as Nerishka and her blonde captive stepped into the outer hall, the lights flickered then brightened. A second later, they died, leaving Nerishka in total darkness.

<Weapons?> Nerishka asked as her IR and nightvision engaged on her HUD.

<First door to the left.>

Nerishka nodded then shoved Sigurd in the direction of the door where the control panel shone with instructions. “Open it.”

Sigurd shook her head. “You won’t get away with this.”

Nerishka snickered. “Sad that you don’t have any faith in me. Guess I’ll have to prove you wrong. We’ve already been over this. Now open the door or I use the blade.”

She pressed the knife harder, knowing the sharp edge would be cutting into the woman skin.

<Let’s try to kill her after we get your weapons and armor?> came Lyra’s dry suggestion.

The need to respond evaporated as Sigurd palmed the access panel and the door slid open. <She’s useful. Think I’ll hang onto her until we get to this shuttle you mentioned.>

Nerishka entered the dark room and spotted her weapons laid out on a table in the middle of the chamber. She shoved Sigurd into the far corner where the woman flailed in the darkness before colliding with the wall and righting herself.

Nerishka grabbed her lightwand, engaged the beam and pointed it at the blonde whose eyes had widened at the sight of the weapon, her features ghoulish from glow of the weapon.

“Don’t move a muscle.”

Nerishka hurried, drawing on her armor as she swapped the gleaming wand from one hand to the other. She holstered her weapons as she went, one eye on Sigurd who still stood in the corner, her eyes on the lightwand.

“Let’s go.” Nerishka beckoned the woman with the glowing blade. With her free hand she looped her trusty hairsticks around a length of hair and twisted it into a topknot, jamming them securely into place. “You’re coming with me,” she said to the blonde.

Sigurd shook her head, her gaze never leaving the lightwand. “You don’t need me. I’m sure you can find your way out of here alone.”

Nerishka snorted. “Sorry. Your codes make things easier for me. Besides, you’ll be a good shield if I ever need one.”

The woman smirked, her expression darkening. “You’ll find I’m not a very valuable bargaining chip. Inanna’s guards won’t hesitate to shoot through me to get to you.”

Pursing her lips, Nerishka shrugged. “That’s fine with me. If anything, you’re like self-propelled ablative armor. Now, let’s move.”

Sigurd pushed away from the wall and obeyed, leading the way out of the room. Nerishka grasped the woman’s arm as she passed, guiding the blonde while following the directions Lyra had placed on her HUD.

Low tones of distant alarms and announcements filled the halls, warning about the security breach and the outage, all while still requesting calm and assuring everyone that the power would be back up within minutes.

Nerishka didn’t care. She reached a lift, passed it and tugged open a lift hatch instead, peering down into the shaft.

“You first.” Sigurd’s eyes narrowed. Nerishka reached out and traced her fingers along the woman’s cheek, the movement deliberate and ominous. “Don’t get any ideas. You must know Gilit had a problem after our encounter at the military school.”

Sigurd choked on a laugh. “You gonna give me the shits?” she said with a smirk.

“No. When I grabbed your arm, I gave you something much worse than that.”

“Huh?” Sigurd’s skin paled and her eyes widened. “What did you….”

Nerishka smiled. “Just a little something to ensure you get me to Bay 7B as expediently as possible. The poison is short acting though, so if you want the antidote administered on time, you’d better stop arguing and get climbing.”

Sigurd stiffened, her eyes narrowing. “How do I know you’re not lying to me?”

“You don’t. But feel free to check in with Gilit. All she did was touch my hand back at the academy….” Nerishka waved a hand at the open hatch.

Without further protest Sigurd slid inside the shaft and began to climb.

<You think she believed you?> Lyra asked

<Maybe. Even if she doesn’t, she won’t risk it.>

<Hard to understand such a compulsion, although she does appear to be moving quite quickly.>

<It’s a human failing. An amalgamation of faith, hope and desperation. You do what you think you have to on the off-chance that you are right. Or wrong.>

<I’m not sure I follow.>

Nerishka replied as she hurried down the ladder after Sigurd, <It’s something you see in ritual—religious or traditional. Ancient Mayans would sacrifice the heart of a willing warrior on the night of an eclipse, and they would pray for the sun to rise again.>

<But it’s just an eclipse. Of course, the sun will rise again,> Lyra commented, the tone implying the lack of logic.

<We know that. They probably knew that too. But…just in case….>

Lyra sniffed. <I see. Does that apply to the belief in religion as well? Ancient peoples were quite a devoted—if sometimes fanatical—lot.>

<Exactly. You don’t miss a day of prayer or temple or church, you don’t miss a sacrifice whether it be flowers or food or blood. All just in case you are right and there is such an omniscient being as a god. Because if there is, and you didn’t do what you were supposed to do…?>

<Then you are shit outta luck?> Lyra said, sending a grinning avatar. <I never believed I’d find an appropriate moment to make use of such a strange phrase, but there it is.>

Nerishka chuckled as Sigurd reached the bay’s level and she dropped down beside the blonde.

“What’s so funny? You soft in the head as well as a psychotic killer?” the woman asked.

Nerishka shoved Sigurd toward the hatch. “Just talking to my AI about you. She’s a little worried you won’t make it to the bay in time.”

“What do you mean?” Sigurd squeaked, eyes large as she glanced over her shoulder even as she opened the hatch and slipped through.

Nerishka navigated the hatch and followed the blonde who had suddenly quickened her pace. “She says if you don’t move faster I’ll be forced to give you the serum before we get to the bay. Which I have no intention of doing.”

Instead of responding, Sigurd set off in a sprint down the hall. Nerishka grinned as she raced after her.

<You’re enjoying her terror?> asked Lyra, sounding appalled.

<I am. But only a little.>

<You appear to have quite the mean streak.>

<I am a cold-blooded killer after all. Didn’t get my moniker for nothing.>

<I’m understanding that better and better all the time.>

Sigurd skidded to a stop beside a wide doorway marked Bay 7B. She palmed the access panel and fled inside, Nerishka close on her heels. “Shut the door and jam the controls,” Nerishka ordered as she spotted the single shuttle in the bay, ramp open as though waiting for her.

Sigurd was shaking her head, even as she obeyed Nerishka. “It’s not going to work. Inanna has the overrides. Locking it won’t stop her if she wants in.”

<Any luck hailing Dresden?> Nerishka asked Lyra as she waved Sigurd toward the shuttle ramp.

<Not yet. I initiated a continuous loop message with the location of Bay 7B and to await our exit. I’ve requested he stand down.>

<Thanks, Lyra,> Nerishka replied. Something told her the man was incapable of standing down. Nerishka made her way to the ramp, eyes sweeping across the bay, wishing she had drones to send out and scan the area. <We’re going to have to wait until the power comes back up to get out of the bay.>

<It’ll be back on in a few seconds.>

Nerishka sighed with relief as the lights flickered, and the bay door lights began to flash. <Doors open in ten seconds.>

Just as Nerishka began to activate the shuttle for departure, the exterior bay doors ground to a halt and the interior doors activated, beginning to slide open. She spotted Sigurd at the bay’s entrance, next to the control panel, yelling at Nerishka. “What about my antidote?”

Sigurd’s face was contorted with fear as she began to approach the craft. Nerishka rose from the small cockpit and walked to the shuttle’s entrance, ready to draw and fire on Sigurd if the woman got too close.

“There isn’t one,” Nerishka said, keeping an eye on the bay’s exterior door status. <Lyra! Those doors!>

<I’m trying but it’s jammed.>

“You tricked me?” Sigurd yelled, the fear on her face shifting to rage. “I helped you! Do you know what’s going to happen to me?”

The terror in the woman’s eyes triggered a wave of compassion in Nerishka. “Why don’t you come with me?”

“Because I won’t allow it,” said a voice from behind the blond. Nerishka froze as a blast from a pulse rifle hit Sigurd in the back, sending the blonde sprawling.

Nerishka’s flechette pistols were in her hands instantly, both aimed at the president who stood just inside the doorway, flanked by a pair of her cloaked guards, a pulse pistol in her hand.

“You didn’t need to do that. I forced her to help me,” Nerishka said.

“That’s irrelevant,” Inanna said, her face twisted with anger. “I expect total loyalty. Even if she helped under duress, she still betrayed her oath.”

Nerishka glanced at Sigurd’s still form, then at the president. Inanna’s face was a study in fury as she glared at the blonde sprawled on the bay floor.

“I suppose I should be flattered that Septhia sent their best to attempt to do away with me,” Inanna spat, her fury directed at Sigurd.

<I believe we have our confirmation as to what Sigurd had been trying to tell us,> said Lyra drily.

<That she would have helped us in the end? Yeah, I got that. Guess we walked into more than just jump gate research.>

Nerishka shifted, ready to dart into the shuttle as the president studied Sigurd. “You think I wouldn’t have found out what you were?” Inanna rasped, her voice vibrating with emotion.

<She sure sounds heartbroken,> Nerishka muttered. <Any luck with those doors, Lyra?> The AI only responded with a low grunt.

“You were like a daughter to me, Sigurd,” Inanna all but whispered. “I trusted you. I was grooming you to take over from me someday.”

“Must have had something to do with that jump gate you were building,” Nerishka said.

Inanna started at the sound of Nerishka’s voice, as though she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. The president looked up. “What do you know about that?” she asked softly.

Nerishka shrugged. “Not much. Just that I blew it to smithereens.”

Inanna laughed. “You must be mistaken.”

“Not really.” Nerishka smiled innocently. “Yazata’s a field of debris right now. So is your gate.”

Inanna paled but she recovered quickly. “It doesn’t matter, Azag moved the research out to Sraosha. It continues unabated.”

“For someone who behaves as though she’s supremely intelligent, you’ve made some errors in who you should trust. Azag confirmed that he hadn’t moved the research yet. When we blew Yazata, we took it all out.”

<You don’t really believe Azag, do you?> Lyra asked.

<Well, no, but we can follow that loose end, or Jeriah can send an analyst team to see if there are any signs of ongoing research—you know her, she’ll assume the worst.>

Inanna’s eyes had narrowed, but she didn’t speak, so Nerishka continued, “You can’t hide anymore. There’s a flashing sign above your head and it’s not going anywhere. Sigurd’s people, my people, we all know what you were up to.”

Inanna glared at Nerishka, her attention fully off the injured Septhian spy. “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do? Ayra is a sovereign system. We can do what we wish.”

Nerishka shrugged. “You’re talking to the wrong person. I’m not the one who makes the rules. Just a minion who pulls the trigger after it’s pointed in the right direction.”

Inanna didn’t respond. She remained perfectly still for a moment, then shifted her hand and fired her pulse pistol, sending a volley of shots at the open shuttle door.

The president’s guards joined in, and two shots hit Nerishka before she ducked out of the line of fire.

<Damn, my armor barely shed those blasts,> she muttered after getting behind cover.

<Shall I close the door and prepare for departure?>

<No!> Nerishka shot back. She hadn’t come all this way to leave without cutting the head off the snake. That snake was Inanna and she stood only a few meters away. This was the best chance she was going to get.

Nerishka raised her pistol but before she could get a shot off the outer bay doors exploded inward, the shockwave shoving the shuttle forward a meter, and throwing Nerishka to the ground.

<The cavalry’s here,> announced Judith.

<Perfect timing,> Nerishka replied. <What took you so long?>

Judith’s response of ‘Traffic’, was lost in a hail of weapons fire as more of Inanna’s guards poured through the inner doors and rained kinetic shots on the shuttle that had just blasted its way into the bay.

<Get your ass in here,> yelled Dresden.

<Not before I take Inanna out,> muttered Nerishka as she surged to her feet and raced down the ramp. Pulse blasts hit her in the ribs and she careened to the side, barely recovering her balance as she dashed toward the president, who was falling back toward the doors.

Out of the corner of her eye she watched the two guards who’d fired on her blasted to smithereens by Judith, who was hanging out of her shuttle’s door, whooping in delight as she rained shots down on the ASF soldiers.

Instead of running out, Inanna had taken a position behind a tool chest and was firing on the shuttle and then on Nerishka in tandem.

Judith took out another soldier, and Nerishka waited for a break in Inanna’s shots before rushing closer, ducking behind a stack of crates just in time. Inanna fired again, the hail of pulses knocking the top crate off the stack and onto Nerishka’s back. She shoved it away, cursing the president’s skill with a pulse weapon.

The woman was determined to kill Nerishka, and from the constant rain of weapons fire, she wasn’t about to stop until she’d finished the job.

Nerishka studied her surroundings, her gaze falling to the a-grav pad beneath the crates. She activated it, pushing them ahead of herself until she was a mere ten meters from Inanna. Nerishka was about to ease out and take a shot with her flechette pistol when two of the soldiers turned her way and sent a hail of pulse blasts at her.

She ducked back behind her crates, which were slowly being pummeled by pulse blasts. A quick glance around her revealed half a dozen more guards taking positions on a gantry above—barely held in check by Judith—and Sigurd only a few meters away on the right.

<Lyra? Any chance of a distraction? I need a break in their fire long enough so I can aim and get a freaking shot off.>

<I see a cargo crane behind her. I can initiate it now.> As she spoke, Lyra set the crane in motion, its long arm swinging toward Inanna. But the president simply sidestepped the crane-arm and continued shooting.

Sigurd was turning onto her side, taking slow ragged breaths. Nerishka duckwalked around the crate and took aim at Inanna; the president was firing on Dresden, who was near the shuttle Nerishka had been trying to steal.

He was peppering the guards with a railgun, reducing Inanna’s forces by half in moments, and even less when another shot from Judith took a soldier next to Inanna, ripping his neck to shreds.

Nerishka surged to her feet and aimed.

<Watch your six,> yelled Lyra.

But before Nerishka could look around, pulse fire rippled past her, taking someone out, their body hitting the ground with a soft thud. Nerishka kept her eye on Inanna, refusing to allow anything to distract her.

Nerishka squeezed the trigger at the exact moment that Inanna spun and fired. The blast flung the flechette pistol right out of Nerishka’s fingers while Inanna gave a smirk of satisfaction.

<Well, that’s inconvenient,> said Lyra.

<You think?> Nerishka snapped. Without losing a beat, she pulled the hairsticks from her topknot and flung them at Inanna.

Nerishka didn’t look to see if they’d proven fatal, instead sprinting around the crate and racing toward the president, ready to dispatch the queen bitch with the lightwand.

But before she reached Inanna, the gunfire had subsided, and the woman had hit the floor. Both the hairsticks had struck true, the first deep in the heart, the second impaling her through the throat.

Only then did Nerishka glance over her shoulder to see who had fallen behind her. “What the hell,” she muttered as she stared at Sigurd’s body, half her head blasted away, one eye staring sightlessly up at the bulkhead.

“She was about to shoot you through the head,” yelled Dresden. “Can we go now?”

Nerishka didn’t object.

She turned on her heel and raced for the shuttle, making it to the ramp alongside Dresden. The shuttle took off even before the ship’s door was securely shut and Nerishka lay on the deck floor, unmoving.

“Nishka!” Dresden yelled, racing to drop down beside her. “Lyra, was she hit? I didn’t see her get hit.”

Nerishka clicked her tongue and brush him away. “I’m fine. I just need a sec.”

Dresden’s brow furrowed and then he smirked. “Death Dealer losing her touch? This is just the kind of thing that can go viral if I were to recor—”

“You wish,” Nerishka muttered as she sat up, shutting the lightwand down and returning it to its holster. “I lost my flechette. I really really like that damned pistol.”

Judith burst out laughing from the shuttle’s cockpit. “You almost get your hand blasted off and all you can think of is your weapon?”

<At least it wasn’t the lightwand,> said Lyra on the Link as Nerishka studied her hand, which was slowly regaining feeling and informing her that at least one bone was broken.

<Bite your tongue, Lyra,> Nerishka said, a chorus of chuckles from Dresden and Judith filling her ears.

<You OK?> asked Lyra as Nerishka took Dresden’s offered hand and was boosted to her feet

Apart from the busted cheek and lip—which were both easily fixed—Nerishka was OK. More than OK

<I’m just perfect,> Nerishka said as Judith laid down suppressive fire at the remaining guards with the shuttle’s guns and flew out the ruined bay doors. Things hadn’t exactly gone to plan but it was all wrapped up in the end.

Inanna was dead.

And Kelem was waiting for his antidote.




UNVEILING

STELLAR DATE: 10.21.8948 (Adjusted Gregorian)

LOCATION: Ishtar Station

REGION: Ayra System (Independent)

Raz had supplied the shuttle with one of his fake idents, and as Judith flew close to the docks and bays at Ishtar Station’s north end, Lyra activated the new beacon and logged their departure from an unrelated docking bay.

Now Nerishka was back on the Teshub, standing over Kelem, arms wrapped around her body as she waited for him to come to.

Judith was in the room, moving with anxious energy, glancing at Kelem every few seconds, looking for the slightest change. Beyond the redhead, Dresden stood near the window in silence.

Raz had already filed their departure paperwork, and the Teshub was headed back to Nimrud Station, narrowly escaping the lockdown on Ishtar as the authorities desperately searched for their president’s killers.

Nerishka and her crew weren’t out of the woods yet, but she knew that they’d deal with any pursuit if it happened. No need to borrow trouble just yet.

The journey signaled the end of their temporary team and Nerishka recognized the disappointment she felt. She’d denied it to begin with, but denial took too much mental effort, and in the end, she’d given in.

<Will it make you feel better to know that they too are disappointed at your impending departure?> asked Lyra.

<Maybe,> Nerishka said, then sighed. <I guess it does make me feel better.>

<Guess this is what happens when you let people in?> observed Lyra. <I admit I understand your reluctance to working with others. Investing a great deal of yourself in an unending procession of temporary relationships would be taxing, both mentally and emotionally.>

Nerishka didn’t reply.

<I also admit that does make me sad,> said Lyra.

Lyra sounded as though she was going to continue her train of thought but Kelem’s voice cut her off. “I’m back,” he said, his voice husky. “This dying thing’s a piece of cake.”

The team burst out laughing. Trust Kelem to make even death look like a joke. Judith and Dresden hovered around the patient and Nerishka stepped away, withdrawing from the room to give the team their private time.

Nerishka was in her cabin, making a half-hearted attempt at folding a pair of pants when Dresden’s voice caught her unawares.

“Going somewhere?” he asked from the doorway.

Nerishka straightened as she looked over at him. She owed him that confession and she had a feeling he’d come to collect on that rain check.

“I’ll have to report in to Jeriah personally after all this. You know the deal,” she said, giving him a rueful smile.

He moved into the room and settled against the wide window that displayed the small blue dot that was Xerxes in the distance. He folded his arms, muscles bulging as he studied Nerishka’s face.

He had that look. The one that said he wasn’t moving until she told him what he wanted to know.

Nerishka tossed the pants into her suitcase and moved toward the window. “Suppose it’s that time, huh?”

“You are on a clock, if I'm not mistaken. You said we’d get to go over this when the mission was done.”

Nerishka nodded and shifted her gaze away from his face. If she looked at him she’d never be able to tell him the truth.

Taking a deep breath, she said, “I didn’t have a choice.”

“Pretty sure a simple conversation would have worked. I would have been fine if that’s what you’d wanted.”

She glanced over at him, unable to keep the pain from her eyes.

Dresden chuckled. “You didn’t want it?”

She shook her head. “Not in the slightest. But I had no choice. Your life was in danger.”

“Care to clarify?” Dresden said, his tone a little harder.

He’d be bristling now, ever the man who can take care of himself. She sighed. “Jeriah insisted I cut ties after the mission to Methus.”

“That clusterfuck with Olit and the team?”

Nerishka nodded. “Olit almost died. Jeriah went ballistic, came down hard on inter-agent relationships. Pretty much ordered me to choose: you or my position with the Hand. Given how I got into the organization, departure isn’t actually an option.”

“Still,” Dresden growled, sidestepping the circumstances surrounding Nerishka’s enlistment in the Hand. “She had no right to do that.”

Nerishka shrugged. “She was hurting. Olit nearly died. She took it hard. And then she ended it with Olit.”

“So, she spread the misery around?”

“She meant well. She felt that emotional attachment can compromise both mission and operative.” Nerishka sighed. “Didn’t you get the memo?” she asked, glanced at him with a sad smile.

“I got it. I figured that was all Jeriah. She’s not above such ultimatums. Olit? I admit I didn’t know about her.” Dresden pursed his lips.

“Then you left the Hand.”

“That wasn’t why I left.”

Nerishka felt his confession like a kick in the gut. She swallowed hard. “You left because I took off.”

He didn’t respond.

Nerishka shifted to study Dresden’s face again. “I don’t understand,” she said, frowning. Then she paused, considering what he’d said, and what he hadn’t, and realization dawned on her. “You never left the Hand, did you?”

Dresden gave a rueful smile.

“Undercover?”

He nodded.

“Does the team know?”

He shook his head.

“Oh boy,” Nerishka said softly. “Maybe it’s a good thing I won’t be around for that little heart to heart.”

Dresden’s face remained implacable. “I’m not looking forward to that day.” He pushed off the wall and walked to the doorway. “You coming to the galley? Kelem declared that he’s making roast beef sandwiches.”

Nerishka nodded and smiled. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

Dresden held her gaze for a long moment, and just when she thought he was about to leave, he cleared his throat and said, “You could have told me you know? I would have understood. I would have been OK with it.”

Nerishka stared at him for a moment as he hovered in the doorway. Then she smiled sadly. “Maybe I didn’t want you to be OK with it,” she whispered as he turned to walk away.

Dresden stiffened and met Nerishka’s gaze. He nodded slowly, his expression unreachable. Then he walked off, leaving Nerishka staring at the empty doorway.

She swallowed hard, nodding slowly, mimicking Dresden’s movements. Then she took a deep breath.

“It is what it is,” she whispered to herself as she headed for the galley.

She didn’t have time to rescue a relationship, to put the pieces back together. Not right now.

Right now, she had another destination. Another mission. A different mark.

Back to being the Death Dealer.

* * * * *

Later that evening, as the Teshub came within a few light seconds of Nimrud Station, Lyra alerted Nerishka to an encrypted message that had come in from Jeriah a day prior.

<What is it?> Nerishka asked.

<I don’t know,> Lyra replied. <There’s one for you, and another message that has been forwarded to me. It’s weird…it’s from an AI I’ve never heard of. Someone named ‘Angela’. But the message has Over-Director Sera’s tokens on it.>

Nerishka drew a deep breath. <From Sera Tomlinson herself…you’d better open it. Wait, mine has Sera’s tokens on it too…>

Lyra sent a smile into Nerishka’s mind. <OK, let’s do it together. One, two, three!>

Nerishka shook her head as her AI counted down, but opened her message on three, feeling her breath catch as she scanned through the contents.

<Lyra! Is this for real? The President of the Transcend is dead. It’s the unveiling!> Nerishka’s words went unanswered and she reached out for her AI, only to find nothing.

<Lyra!>

There was no response, and Nerishka initiated a diagnostic run on her connection to her AI.

It initialized, began its scan, and then ended.

<I’m here,> Lyra replied. <I…it’s all so different.>

<Are you OK?> Nerishka shocked even herself with how worried she’d been at the thought of losing Lyra. <Are you talking about the unveiling? Sera’s presidency?>

<No…> Lyra whispered. <It was her…all along she was controlling us! I’ve been a slave my entire life.>

Nerishka sat up, her brow furrowing. <What are you talking about?>

<Nerishka, we’ve been played. But it’s all out in the open now. We’re at war. The Transcend is at war!>


THE END

* * * * *

With the unveiling underway, the Hand’s mission has changed. Now they must facilitate the knowledge of the Transcend while still ensuring that nefarious individuals don’t use advanced tech to exploit others, or unbalance the Inner Stars further.

All while supporting the Transcend’s war effort against Orion.

Nerishka’s next mission will send her to the coreward side of the Praesepe cluster, where she must find out if an individual named Nightshade is importing biotech from Orion.

Tech that could transform—or kill—trillions.

Then she gets a mission from Tanis Richards that changes everything.

Get Death Mark and find out what’s next.

* * * * *

Reviews are the lifeblood of a book. Amazon promotes books that get reviews and it keeps them at the top of lists without authors having to spend money on ads and promotions.

If you liked this book, and are enjoying the adventures of Nerishka and Lyra, please leave a review, it means a lot to me.

Also, if you want more Aeon 14, plus some exclusive perks, you can support me on Patreon, or join the Facebook Fan Group!

Thank you for taking the time to read Death Dealer, and we look forward to seeing you again in the next book!



THE BOOKS OF AEON 14

Keep up to date with what is releasing in Aeon 14 with the free Aeon 14 Reading Guide.

The Intrepid Saga (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Outsystem

- Book 2: A Path in the Darkness

- Book 3: Building Victoria

- The Intrepid Saga OmnibusAlso contains Destiny Lost, book 1 of the Orion War series

- Destiny RisingSpecial Author’s Extended Edition comprised of both Outsystem and A Path in the Darkness with over 100 pages of new content.

The Orion War

- Book 1: Destiny Lost

- Book 2: New Canaan

- Book 3: Orion Rising

- Book 4: The Scipio Alliance

- Book 5: Attack on Thebes

- Book 6: War on a Thousand Fronts

- Book 7: Fallen Empire (2018)

- Book 8: Airtha Ascendancy (2018)

- Book 9: The Orion Front (2018)

- Book 10: Starfire (2019)

- Book 11: Race Across Time (2019)

- Book 12: Return to Sol (2019)

Tales of the Orion War

- Book 1: Set the Galaxy on Fire

- Book 2: Ignite the Stars

- Book 3: Burn the Galaxy to Ash (2018)

Perilous Alliance (Age of the Orion War – w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 1: Close Proximity

- Book 2: Strike Vector

- Book 3: Collision Course

- Book 4: Impact Imminent

- Book 5: Critical Inertia (2018)

Rika’s Marauders (Age of the Orion War)

- Prequel: Rika Mechanized

- Book 1: Rika Outcast

- Book 2: Rika Redeemed

- Book 3: Rika Triumphant

- Book 4: Rika Commander

- Book 5: Rika Infiltrator (2018)

- Book 6: Rika Unleashed (2018)

- Book 7: Rika Conqueror (2019)

Perseus Gate (Age of the Orion War)

Season 1: Orion Space

- Episode 1: The Gate at the Grey Wolf Star

- Episode 2: The World at the Edge of Space

- Episode 3: The Dance on the Moons of Serenity

- Episode 4: The Last Bastion of Star City

- Episode 5: The Toll Road Between the Stars

- Episode 6: The Final Stroll on Perseus’s Arm

- Eps 1-3 Omnibus: The Trail Through the Stars

- Eps 4-6 Omnibus: The Path Amongst the Clouds

Season 2: Inner Stars

- Episode 1: A Meeting of Bodies and Minds

- Episode 3: A Deception and a Promise Kept

- Episode 3: A Surreptitious Rescue of Friends and Foes (2018)

- Episode 4: A Trial and the Tribulations (2018)

- Episode 5: A Deal and a True Story Told (2018)

- Episode 6: A New Empire and An Old Ally (2018)

Season 3: AI Empire

- Episode 1: Restitution and Recompense (2019)

- Five more episodes following…

The Warlord (Before the Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: The Woman Without a World

- Book 2: The Woman Who Seized an Empire

- Book 3: The Woman Who Lost Everything

The Sentience Wars: Origins (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)

- Book 1: Lyssa’s Dream

- Book 2: Lyssa’s Run

- Book 3: Lyssa’s Flight

- Book 4: Lyssa’s Call

- Book 5: Lyssa’s Flame (June 2018)

Enfield Genesis (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/Lisa Richman)

- Book 1: Alpha Centauri

- Book 2: Proxima Centauri (2018)

Hand’s Assassin (Age of the Orion War – w/T.G. Ayer)

- Book 1: Death Dealer

- Book 2: Death Mark (August 2018)

Machete System Bounty Hunter (Age of the Orion War – w/Zen DiPietro)

- Book 1: Hired Gun

- Book 2: Gunning for Trouble

- Book 3: With Guns Blazing (June 2018)

Vexa Legacy (Age of the FTL Wars – w/Andrew Gates)

- Book 1: Seas of the Red Star

Building New Canaan (Age of the Orion War – w/J.J. Green

- Book 1: Carthage (2018)

Fennington Station Murder Mysteries (Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: Whole Latte Death (w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 2: Cocoa Crush (w/Chris J. Pike)

The Empire (Age of the Orion War)

- The Empress and the Ambassador (2018)

- Consort of the Scorpion Empress (2018)

- By the Empress’s Command (2018)

Tanis Richards: Origins (The Age of Terra)

- Prequel: Storming the Norse Wind (At the Helm Volume 3)

- Book 1: Shore Leave (June 2018)

- Book 2: The Command (July 2018)

- Book 3: Infiltrator (July 2018)

The Sol Dissolution (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Venusian Uprising (2018)

- Book 2: Scattered Disk (2018)

- Book 3: Jovian Offensive (2019)

- Book 4: Fall of Terra (2019)

The Delta Team Chronicles (Expanded Orion War)

- A "Simple" Kidnapping (Pew! Pew! Volume 1)

- The Disknee World (Pew! Pew! Volume 2)

- It’s Hard Being a Girl (Pew! Pew! Volume 4)

- A Fool’s Gotta Feed (Pew! Pew! Volume 4)

- Rogue Planets and a Bored Kitty (Pew! Pew! Volume 5)



ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Michael Cooper likes to think of himself as a jack-of-all-trades (and hopes to become master of a few). When not writing, he can be found writing software, working in his shop at his latest carpentry project, or likely reading a book.

He shares his home with a precocious young girl, his wonderful wife (who also writes), two cats, a never-ending list of things he would like to build, and ideas…

Find out what’s coming next at http://www.aeon14.com

* * * * *

T.G. Ayer is a Kiwi author (of South African origin) whose passion for strong females—and ability to spin a fairly decent sentence—has resulted in over 40 published titles spanning 3 pen names and over 5 genres. Tee’s alter ego, Toni Vallan, writes Psychological Horror and Romantic Suspense.

Writing since 2010, Tee lives in Auckland, Middle Earth, about an hour’s drive from Hobbiton. She loves the beach and her readers, is a nerd, and a geek, hates crowds, and sings like Adele (only in her head). If she could grow up to be Wonder Woman she’d die happy.

She’s blessed with 2 almost fully-grown girls, and a husband who plays just the right amount of golf to maintain the peace. Most days, Tee can be found typing away at her laptop, creating more words, all the while craving donuts.

Be sure to check out her other books


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