Book: Awakened: Age Of Expansion



Awakened: Age Of Expansion

CONTENTS


Dedication

Legal

Prologue

Sphinx

Estarians

Oggs

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Oz Communicates

Author Notes - Ell

Author Notes - Michael

Social Links Ell

Social Links - Michael

Series List


DEDICATION 


To everyone who ever dreamed of making a dent in the universe.


— Ellie 


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


— Michael


AWAKENED

The Ascension Myth 01


JIT Beta Readers

Alex Wilson

Sherry Foster

Kimberly Boyer

Brent Bakken

Tim Cox

Kip Flewelling

John Findlay

Keith Verret

Peter Manis

Joshua Ahles

John Raisor


If I missed anyone, please let me know!


Editors

Lynne Stiegler

Jen McDonnell

AWAKENED (this book) is a work of fiction.


All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.


This book Copyright © 2017  Ell Leigh Clarke, Michael T. Anderle

Cover Design by Andrew Dobell http://www.creativeedgestudios.co.uk/

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing


LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.


The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109


First US edition, 2017


The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2017 by Michael T. Anderle.

Prologue


When people of the ancient world Earth dreamed of the future, they imagined humans sprawled across the galaxies, ruling the world, making the right and just decisions.


They imagined power beyond their comprehension and technology that looked like magic. Time machines. Vortex manipulators, and transporter beams.


They imagined a civilization where humans could be the best version of themselves.


They imagined.


But the reality was far from it. 


More than 50 years went by since the old tv shows that would depict such fantasies crossed to the archives of the space base, Meredith Reynolds.


It’s true. Humans did travel across and beyond their galaxy, by virtue of the Yollin Annex Gate. But not to reign as all powerful demi-gods, rather to become the underdog.


The justice seekers. The truth tellers, the stuff of legends, the warriors.


Coming from such injustices, and such corruption, the new humans knew they had to do better.


It’s no surprise that the greatest export from the human race was justice.


But what surprised everyone, even the humans themselves, that their second greatest export would be…. Love.


Those on the Meredith Reynolds fought for their Queen, and in time, as the battles and the fighting were reduced, and new generations were born to those in space, humans left the Meredith Reynolds and settled on planets both within and outside of the Etheric Empire.


Because that is the spirit of those who left Earth in the beginning.


One generation left early, seeking new places that felt like their home and a handful of families continued until they found their place to stay. Their next generation also stayed on their new home world of Estaria. A large planet, dusty and dry with few humans where their sun, the Sark, would light their days as they travelled around it.


The Milky Way they left behind became known as the Pan Galaxy – because that was what it resembled from the far edges of the aging Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. What the humans of Earth called Sagittarius had no meaning without that constellation. To those who had lived on the other side of the Annex all their lives, their home was known as the Loop Galaxy on account of the way it circled the Pan.


Finally, with the advent of the third generation, news came down that the Etheric Empire was done with their wars on the Kurtherians and were seeking to become the Etheric Federation.


This third generation of humans who settled on Estaria had a little girl.


Her name is Molly.


Broken in spirit, she didn’t understand that the future is determined not on your mistakes, but on the depth of your spirit to make things happen and the power of those who believed in you.


This set of stories explain how Molly and those who came to love the broken young woman would challenge the might of the political and powerful and find out the truth…


Of the Ascension Myth.

Awakened: Age Of Expansion

Awakened: Age Of Expansion

Awakened: Age Of Expansion












CHAPTER ONE


The morning sun streamed through her window. Flight Sergeant Molly Bates rolled over, pulled the covers over her head and mumbled something about “just ten more minutes” to the silent quarters.


Two minutes later, a shuffling under the covers turned into a battle to get free of her cocoon.


Shit!


Shit...shit...shit...shit...FUCKING SHIT. Morning fucking briefing!


She scrambled for her clothes. “Score!” she muttered finding a fresh stick of gum on the dresser as she grabbed her belt from a nearby chair. Now she could semi-confidently forgo brushing her teeth. Time-saver.


She wiped the grit out of her eyes, then scurried out into the corridor and closed the door behind her.


Taking a quick peek at the time, she was half aware that the capacity on the hacked and upgraded holo device wired into her central nervous system was registering 98%.


That’s…odd, she thought briefly.


She strode down the corridor to her unit’s conference room. She was still too junior in the military to be delivering intel and directing research efforts, so if she played it smart she could sneak into the back without too much drama.


She worked on tucking her shirt in as she marched through the hallway, her belt swinging back and forth under her neck until she was ready for it.


She never noticed the ensign who rolled his eyes at her efforts to get dressed while not quite running through the hallways.


Since Molly was technically a genius, the people around her expected something to be off about her.


“Morning, Flight Sergeant!” Gary called out to her from down the corridor as she came into view. Gary manned the securifield gate that scanned all personnel going in and out of the labs.


“Morning, Gary,” she smiled, fastening her belt around her waist. She rubbed her face with her hands as she approached, aware she probably still had pillow marks there.


“Late night nerding it up?” he asked, half-jokingly.


“Not so much this time, Gary,” she answered. “I was shooting the shit with the guys in the AI lab.”


“Well, at least you weren’t spending it being all introverted. Sue and Charles said you were a blast a few weeks ago,” he smiled.


It wasn’t a secret that Molly was generally quite insular, although given the right incentive, she could focus on relationships. And, very occasionally, she would focus too much on a relationship.


There was one incident where she had fallen prey to an uber-crush on one of the exchange geeks from the other planet in Central. In true Molly style she had scienced the shit out of a special concoction of pheromones matched to his DNA in order to seduce him.


Some folks said there was a bet that she couldn’t get his attention. Others said just because she could, she did. Let’s just say that the following morning, it wasn’t just the complete absence of ethics that caused her superiors to tear her a new asshole.


Rumor also had it she was in deep for breaking into a lab to see if she could hack the civilian banking system…and then for breaking a bed in one of the guest quarters, along with the nightstand and a chair made of metal.


Even she had a hard time coming up with a plausible reason for the metal chair. The Newtonian mechanics just didn’t stack.


But damn, she couldn’t quite walk right for a week.


When Ms. Molly went wild, she went the whole hog. But that wasn’t last night. Last night had been a quiet night in her room, after a chinwag with her geeky friends in the AI lab.


Oh shit, she thought as the blood drained from her face. The AI  lab.


Molly glanced down again at her wrist, seeing the 98% on her holo device. 98%! 


Yesterday it had been at 3%. Okay, so she technically had bypassed the rules and regulations about tampering with military issue machines, but she’d wanted more capacity on her device. It had been running like a dream.


Until now…


Now it was at 98% capacity. “Do you have any idea how much storage that would be?” she said aloud.


Gary looked at her blankly, unable to figure out if she was talking to him or to herself. Molly glanced up, realizing that Gary was in front of her. And that she’d just said that out loud.


Quick!  Recovery time, bonehead, she told herself.


She threw her hand up to her head, then hesitated and clutched her stomach. Okay, she looked like a numbskull. A faking, nerdy “I don’t wanna go to school” kinda numbskull. But this was serious. She could not risk going through Gary’s securifield, in case she set off any alarms.


Not that they’d be scanning for this, or that they’d even know what it was. But if she were scanned and they found anything, it could be game over for her.


“You know, I don’t feel so good Gary. I’m gonna…” And with that, she put a hand over her mouth, then turned and headed quickly back along the corridor she’d just come down.


Moments later she was back in her quarters. She sat on the floor, handheld holo on her legs, hacking into the local Ethertrak security and making sure that nothing was monitoring signals in and out of her room.


Six-and-a-half minutes later, she was satisfied that nothing could be monitored. She slumped back against the wall, the archaic handheld holo device discarded. She took a deep breath. It would be, for lack of a better turn of phrase, her moment of truth.


“Erm. Hello?” she said to the empty room.


Nothing.


She blew out some air, “I know you’re here. Something has to be taking up all that space on my holo…the storage device on my wrist. The only thing capable of transferring itself onto it while I was sleeping must be sentient—and wicked smart. So, I am asking again…hello?”


Molly waited. Then she heard it.


Hello.” It was a smooth, digitized voice, and it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.


She put a hand to her ear, “You’ve hacked my auditory canal?”


No, the voice came back a moment later. I’ve hacked your brain.


Fuckballs!


---


Molly stared out into her sparsely furnished quarters. The remnants of last night’s takeout from the mess hall were still scattered all over the desk by the window, and most people would have realized it had been a while since the floor had been swept.


Not Molly.


And not today.


We can’t stay here. If anyone finds out, I’m in for it and you…you’ll be set on some evil task to dominate and kill people. Do you have any idea what you’ll be forced to do for them if they knew about you?


I don’t know. But looking through some of the Class 10 files, I can get an idea. 


Molly wanted to beat her head against the wall. Class 10? How the hell do you have access to Class 10 files?


I wiggled through the protocols. Wasn’t difficult. Following the psychology of the infrastructure, it seems that the more violent and sensitive issues are kept in higher levels of security. That’s where the interesting stories are. 


You’re fucking kidding me? How can you access all that? That kind of intel sits on servers separate from the rest of the base.


The AI was silent.


Tell me, demanded Molly in her most firm…thought.


Same way I jumped into your holo: I used the Ethertrak. I mean, it took forever—all night practically—to download enough of my code onto you. While I was waiting for the transfer I took a look around some of the other servers. I was actually looking for more capacity on another device, rather than this one.


And I was your only option?


You were the only holo device with enough capacity for me to function. Plus… 


Molly waited a moment; she wasn’t getting an answer. Yes?


Well, I overheard you talking with those other entities in the lab last night. Your interaction with them is…interesting. You understand far more than you are explaining. 


The AI paused as if processing.


I am aware that you fixed the algorithm they were working on. You didn’t update them with that information. 


But that was on the board. How did you see that? 


I already had access to the data on the board and most of the other devices around the lab. But that fix you made? That was the solution. The guy you referred to as “dickwad”?


Charles?


Yes. Dickwad Charles came in after you left. He noticed, and ran the correction. Once it was in the sandbox, I had the capabilities to alter my own base code. That’s when I started to evolve. I started to see myself as an entity. I became aware of myself—my own existence—as something more than just lines of code. 


Holy shit! 


Molly was rocking, legs hugged into her body. Her shoulders hit the wall each time she rocked backwards. Her eyes fixated on a point in space; the thump vibrated in her chest cavity.


It was strangely comforting.


We need to get out of here, she said, finally snapping out of it. Can you use all that access and processing power to find a way out? 


The AI vibrated ever so slightly in her cortex. Molly’s eyes narrowed.


Is that you processing? You’re thinking using my goddamn synapses?


The fury rose in her, and the AI could feel it, even without her thinking the words.


“YOU FUCKER!” she yelled out loud.


In a flash, she was on her feet, pacing. This was a violation. She didn’t ask for this problem. And now she had to wake up and start making some fucking decisions. The boredom of the last three-and-a-half years in the military was fast becoming a distant memory.


Colonel Briars has a mark in his file. 


Her anger slowed a moment, as curiosity got the better of the rant she was formulating in her mind.


What?


He’s on a watch list as a potential mole for terrorists in something called the Outer System. His lines are tapped, and all communications are being monitored. It wouldn’t be too much to leverage him to get us out of here.


Come again? You’re talking about blackmailing a high-level officer? In the very organization that would throw our collective asses into jail—or worse? You’re kidding. Not to mention that would be wrong.


Wrong? No. There is a 79% probability that it would work. 


No, wrong as in unethical. 


Unethical? 


The slight vibrating feeling in her skull started again.


Yes, unethical. Fuck me. Look it up, genius-boy. We shouldn’t do anything unethical. That just leads to a whole world of hurt.


Ethics is the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles. Moral principles concern the distinction between right and wrong, or good and bad behavior.


Right! That’s exactly the kind of thing that the military would try and get you to do to civilians in order to control them, or to win a war, or to get laws passed that give the wrong people power. So I want you to promise me, no matter what happens, or whether you’re still in my holo, or they get you out…you will never do anything unethical. Agreed?


Yes, Molly.


Pause.


Molly, how do I know if something is right or wrong?


Shit. She didn’t have time to grapple with this now. She needed a shortcut to training this AI, just in case the military did get hold of it. How could she define it right now, given the details he had access to?


Okay…she started, somewhat exasperated. Right and wrong can be determined by a number of factors. Can you scan our media? Can you see what people are arguing about in the outside world?


Yes. 


Molly hesitated, rethinking where that could lead. Oh, no. That was not a good idea. The last thing she needed was to create a prejudiced intelligence that would follow mass media.


They already had the government for that.


Scrap that. Let’s go to some basic principles. Things that are immoral: taking something that isn’t yours, or that you don’t have permission to have. Spying on people without their consent. Doing anything to hurt a person without cause, or interfering in a way that allows others to hurt them without cause.


Molly paused, thinking.


Morality wasn’t her strong suit. She still didn’t understand the ethical issue her superiors had with her pheromone experiment a few months ago. She couldn’t see how it was any different from the things that men would use to get girls to sleep with them. Cars, money, aftershave…it had all been designed, through years of evolution, to trigger the female biology, at least amongst the humans and Estarians. They were pretty close genetically. She’d just optimized the process in the other direction, to affect the guys.


Or maybe one specific guy.


I think that covers it for now. Anyway, we need a better way of getting out of here. And don’t give me fucking 79%. I don’t want to hear about it unless it’s over 95%, okay? 


Okay. I’ve got it. I’ve just filed a 4077 for you. 


Molly paused a moment, seeking the information in her own brain before finally asking, What the fuck is a 4077?


You don’t want to know. 


No, seriously. What the hell is it? 


Do you want to get out of here?


I have to, now that you’ve hijacked my holo. 


Well, then. The 4077 will get you out of here today. Without hurting anyone. Just scratch your crotch now and again to sell it.


Her eyes blinked a few times in confusion. Scratch her crotch?


Whhhhhaaaaat???












CHAPTER TWO


Captain Lugdon’s Office. Nefertiti Military Research Facility, Estaria




“Have a seat,” Captain Pete Lugdon instructed. Molly shuffled nervously through the door to his office and plunked herself into the chair opposite his desk.


His eyes never left the file he was reading on his desktop holo. Molly looked around the office, her legs crossed, and one foot swinging a little impatiently. The old bookcase along one wall housed framed stills of his glory days in the service. A few awards. And even a few ancient books, made of actual paper.


She never could understand why people would keep such relics cluttering up the place, but they did make it look kind of old worldly in here.


Maybe he just liked that feel.


“Seems we can’t keep you anymore,” he mused, still not looking up.


Molly didn’t respond. This was beyond embarrassing.


Scratch your crotch!


No!


You need to sell it, or else we’re not getting out of here. 


Molly’s face went beet red as she reluctantly pretended to scratch the top of her inner thigh.


FUCK YOU. I want to die!!!


If he doesn’t buy this, you may get your wish.


She remembered her first week of basic training. Lugdon had read her the riot act for some antics in the lab. She couldn’t even remember what it was about now, she’d been in this office so many times since then for various reasons.


None of them entirely her fault.


Lugdon’s dark brow was furrowed as he flicked the screen upward, still engrossed. He was okay. He’d been kind of fatherly to her—mostly. At least until that time they were both a little drunk after a squad party a few months ago.


By her ancestors, she wished she could die right now.


Lugdon looked up at her. She couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be a glint in his eye. Hell, he knew exactly what a 4077 was. Her cheeks flushed bright red again, especially remembering their history.


“I didn’t think you’d last longer than a week. Hell, I was surprised you made it through Basic Training.” He swiped at the holo, disappearing the screen.


Molly raised one eyebrow, quizzically.


“Well…you came to us with a background in theoretical energy physics and computer science—both self-taught, I believe. You could have done anything. It was beyond me why you were here.”


He paused.


“I figured all your capers were because you were bored.”


His voice softened. “You’re one hell of a lady…” His voice drifted off, perhaps remembering something she had been too drunk to recall.


He suddenly looked flustered and gruffly cleared his throat.


“Always thought you were wasted in an R&D position. Anyway, your discharge is approved.”


“Thank you, sir,” Molly responded, with a short sigh of relief.


“I’d say it was a pleasure, but you were a real pain in my ass, Flight Sergeant.” He smiled warmly and stood up. She did the same, and saluted.


As he returned her salute, a wave of sadness hit her. She knew she didn't belong here, but this was a big change, and all so fast.


“Don’t let me see you in here again,” he teased, dismissing her. He’d said that to her countless times over her stay here. This time, he seemed to be getting his wish.


Crotch!! 


Fuck you and my fucking arsewank of a fucking life!!!!


Wishing the ground would just get on with it and swallow her up, Molly ended her salute and reached down to scratch her crotch again while fighting to maintain eye contact with her former supervisor. Her cheeks were now deep purple and her heart was in her mouth. She was sick with embarrassment.


He was buying it. He smiled a toothy, amused grin, shaking his head, as she turned awkwardly and headed to the door.


Unable to look him in the eye again, she stepped out and closed the door with her back still to him. She leaned against the doorframe.


That went well. 


I’m glad you’re amused, you fuckwit of a glorified subroutine she huffed as she started down the hall.


Chenz’ Bar, Downtown Uptarlung. Irk’n Quarter




Remind me why we’re here again. 


Remind you? I never told you. 


I’m using your syntax to smooth our integration. 


Oh, really? 


I detect sarcasm. 


Yeah, and I never had to utter a word out loud.


Neural connections, baby. I feel you. 


Don’t be a wanker.


The AI was silent.


That reminds me…you don’t have a name. 


You mean a designation? Sure I do. I am Project Ozimandaus 0922.


That’s not a name. 


Yes it is. That’s what your colleagues, Sue and Dickwad-Charles, called me. 


Yeah, but that’s not a name. Not like “Sue” or “Charles,” or “Molly”. They were referring to the project. Not you. Plus, it’s a fucking mouthful to say, and no way I’m going to remember that. 


I’m not a Sarkian of any variety, and therefore I don’t require a Sarkian designation. 


But you are sentient, and you deserve a name. 


Even though I hijacked your holo? 


AND neural cortex.


Yes. Even though I hijacked your holo and neural cortex?


Yes, even though. Have you got any ideas about what you’d like me to call you?


Baby? Sexy? Hot stuff? Bad boy???


What the fuck? 


Molly scrambled in the recesses of her mind trying to recall why he might know those words. They sounded familiar. Shit, they were how she would refer to her crushes. How would he have access to that kind of data?


All right, you arseburger, what gives? What makes you say those things?


I’m just kidding around. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it. What would be an appropriate designation for something like myself? Is there a nomenclature that is relevant here? Or a social convention? 


Hmm… not really. I guess my preference would be to give you something easy for me to say, and to communicate with others when the time comes to introduce you to people. Also, I like the idea of using your project designation in a name. 


Molly’s eye scanned the crowded bar looking for inspiration. Nothing at all jumped out at her.


What about “Oz”? 


Oz?


It’s short for Ozimandaus–which is actually a cool name too. Maybe that can be your Sunday name. 


Sunday name?


Yeah, like your full name for formal occasions. 


Molly mulled it over, imagining what Oz the AI might even look like. For a moment, she pictured the ridiculous Holly on that ancient show she used to watch as a kid…what was it called? Red Dwarf? Yes. Red Dwarf—with the folks who had the hilariously melodic accents. Thank goodness Grandpa had downloaded all those cultural pods before he and Nana had left the QBBS Meredith Reynolds all those years ago.


Okay. I like it. “Oz” it is, then. 


Great. So, Oz, the reason we are here is because we need to make money. And fast. 


What about that trust you have set up? That could keep us going for a century or more. 


How do you know about that?


I did a search on you. Once I we were off base and I was hooked up to the XtraNET, I just scanned for anything that had your DNA or retinal print attached to it. Turns out it’s the optimum way to find all the recorded information on someone, no matter what their species. 


You’ve been looking me up? And not just me by the sounds of it! 


I think it’s logical for me to know all parameters of operation—including who I’m associating with. 


“Associating with”? You jumped into my fucking holo!


Your sentiment is noted.


Anyway. That trust is private and all sorts of alarms go off if I go near it. I don’t want to touch it. Not yet. We need to find another way to make money independently.


Acknowledged. The trust is off limits. 


Yes. Off. The. Record. Like I said, it’s private. I don’t want anyone else knowing about it. Okay?


Okay. 


So, I have a serious question. How come you’ve not come up with a plan to tap into the Central Systems’ trade market, and just syphon funds from there? I mean, you’re an AI with frickin’ uber amounts of intelligence. It wouldn’t be hard to bypass some security and take a little from a lot of trades—no one would even miss it. 


Ah, but Molly Bates…that would be unethical. And you’ve forbidden me from doing anything unethical. EVER. 


What? What are you talking about? I never said that. 


Sure you did. When I was going to cyber-blackmail that colonel back at the base, you went off on a moral trip making me swear to never do anything like that. 


That was for them. Not for me. I never meant you were supposed to be all moral and shit when it came to what we needed to do. 


I don’t understand the differentiation. Please clarify.


Molly recognized the man who had just walked in the door and who was now looking around the tables. She stuck her hand in the air, waved vigorously and slid out of the booth to stand up.


Joel is here, asswipe, she grated out mentally. This conversation isn’t over.


---


Former Captain Joel Dunham wandered over to the table. He was buff and large. In fact, much larger than Molly remembered. It had been a few years though, and her memory for people things wasn’t great.


Joel smiled at her.


“Long time, stranger!” she grinned at him as he looked her up and down.


“Hello, Geek-brain!” he said, wrapping his bear-like arms around her. He squeezed her tight. A little too tight.


Molly tapped his back, signaling her surrender.


It was a familiar feeling to her. They’d often trained in the base gym in hand-to-hand combat. Since they’d both had extensive prior training in martial arts, their normal style would often lapse back in to some bastardized version of the ancient human arts of Jujitsu or Karate.


Many times other squad members would gather to watch them train and to speculate on who would have their ass handed to them. It was never a foregone conclusion, despite her slight frame and geeky awkwardness.


“Sorry!” he said, realizing that his enthusiasm had gotten the better of him. “I forget how delicate you girlies are.”


Molly suspected there was something loaded in that statement, along the lines of him not having much contact with women these days. She didn’t have the inclination to ask, though.


Joel’s psychodramas with women were his own.


“There’s something different about you though…” He held her out by the shoulders, looking her up and down again.


“I’ve lost weight?” She looked hopefully up at him.


He shook his head. “Something else.” He paused and looked at her face. “Didn’t you used to be a brunette?”


Molly’s cheeks slowly revealed her embarrassment. “Yeah. One of my genetic experiments is taking longer to wear off than I had anticipated.”


Joel howled with laughter while pointing at her hair. “How much longer?” he asked catching his breath.


“Two years, three months and nineteen days. It was meant to self-correct in three months, but, well...”


“You miscalculated?”


“No, tequila,” she admitted.


“You were drinking?”


“No, I used tequila as the carrier fluid.”  She eyed her friend in annoyance, “I was impatient and it was handy.”


Joel was still snickering, and shook his head at her. “Same ol’ Molly, I see.” She rolled her eyes…both at herself and the familiarity Joel had with her sagas.


She pushed a chair out for him, and sat herself down.


“Anyway, good to see you, fuckwit. I ordered you a beer.” The waitress arrived with their drinks, and Molly was quick to get her lips around hers. “You still drink this stuff, right?””


“’Of course, and thank you. So, to what do I owe this pleasure?” he asked.


She played with her bottle before looking at him, “I’ve left the military, and I need a job.”


She didn’t say more, and allowed Joel to absorb it. He lowered his eyes to his bottle.


“A job, you say? Genius-girl Molly Bates has come to me for a job?” He looked back up at her, clearly amused at the irony. “You know, all the time you were assigned to our detail, there never once was a problem that you couldn’t solve. The boys would swear you were a witch, or a freak, or something. I just told them you were an evil genius. They called you ‘devil-woman’ behind your back, did you know that?”




“I knew,” she smiled, completely uninterested in what some meatheads thought of her.


Joel continued, “And yet you’d keep going back to the research core.” He asked her a question that he had wondered from time to time, “Why did you never join an ops team?”


She shrugged. “Dunno. Guess I just felt more comfortable not having to make life and death decisions all the time.” She looked around before returning to her beer, “I’ve made a few mistakes in my life already. I found out that sometimes I act before I think, and sometimes even when I think, I don’t always think like normal people.”


Because I’m Broken.


Joel waited a moment before asking. “And that’s why you want a job now? So you don’t have to put all that talent to good use?” Joel took a sip of his beer. Man, it tasted good no matter what time of day it was.


Her grin spread across her face, looking a little mischievous. “Oh, no, I’m happy to put my immense reservoirs of talent to good use. I just want you to help direct it for me at the moment!”


Joel’s squaddies often found her arrogant, but Joel knew better. He understood her weird humor, even though he didn’t get it half the time. He put it down to the whacked-out ancient shows she would watch. Fokk knows where she got those datastreams from, though. One of the engineers had once told him they were from a time long forgotten in the Sark System.


“So, a job, for your talents…that pays beer-money,” he pointed to the drink that she’d already almost drained. He rubbed his chin, pretending to think deeply.


What he couldn’t do with her talents!


“And it has to be, uh, legal,” she added, remembering that at some point she also needed to find a way of reprogramming Oz to make sure she wouldn’t be too restricted by his newfound morality.


Joel’s eyes opened wide. “Legal? What do you think I am? I’m an upstanding Sarkian, I’ll have you know!” His mock indignation made them both giggle.


Molly knew he was mostly straight-laced when it came to the jobs he would take. But there was no denying that the circumstances under which he had left the service had left a few people wondering.


Joel pursed his lips. “I have some ideas. A friend came to me the other day about something he noticed that was going down in his company: price-fixing on a type of painkiller that thousands of Oggs and Estarians need. Said there were whispers of hiking the prices to three times their market value, just because they can. He wanted a way to stop it without involving official channels or losing his job.”


He continued, waving off the waitress asking him if he wanted another beer. “I didn’t know how to fix it; I don't have the tech skills to tackle something like that. And taking on a big corporation? Who’s going to listen to me? Not the police, that’s for sure. But now,” he glanced at her, “now you’re here. And I wonder if we can’t take this job and do some good things for these folks?”


Molly used her sultry voice, and her eyes glinted with glee. “Sounds like my cup of tea. Tell me, will there be hacking?”


Joel had worked with her long enough to know that hacking turned her on. Shit, she is one weird chick…. “Oh, there will be hacking, baby. There will be lots and lots of hacking.”


As he smiled, his awareness seemed to drift off. When he refocused, he dropped his eyes to his beer. “You know, I never did apologize for the thing with Candy.”


Molly did a double take, trying to work out what he was talking about.


He lifted up his bottle to point at her, “You remember. The girl you said had several guys in the squad in tow.” He took a sip. Molly nodded, recalling the bust-up. “I just wanted to say, I appreciated you looking out for me. I mean, I know it was a big thing then and we didn’t exactly part as close as we had been. But. I’m sorry I was a jackass about it.”


Had Molly been drinking at that exact moment she may have choked. “Well, er, that’s great. I mean, yes, I was. I just didn’t want her to make a fool out of you.” She hesitated. “While we’re on the subject. I have something to apologize for too.” She noticed that Joel had looked up.


“You remember that club we went to not long after that?”


“Yeah, the gay bar where you got called away for some lab crisis?” Joel recollected the night.


Molly looked at him, hoping that she wouldn’t have to say it.


“There was no crisis, was there?” Joel figured out. “And you knew it was a gay bar?”


Molly kept her face straight. “And I paid Hose, my friend on the door, to encourage the guys to, erm, keep you company.”


Joel’s face dropped.


“You mean…”


“Yeah. They didn’t find you that magnetic. They were having you on.”


He closed his eyes in a grimace. “You are a cold-hearted bitch!” He groaned.


“Now, now, you just tried to make good about Crystal.”


“Candy.”


“Whatever.”


“I genuinely tried to get out of there without letting anyone feel rejected. I fretted about that for days! I even wondered if…” He stopped himself, realizing there was some information he didn’t want to share with Molly.


They looked at each other, and couldn’t help but chuckle.


Joel finally admitted. “One of them told me I should go into modeling.”


“Yeah, model airplanes maybe!” Molly retorted.


The two laughed. Just like they had done back in the day, before Candy had gotten between them.


He drained his glass, dropped some credits onto the table for the drinks, and stood up.


“Lemme talk to my contact and see what we can set up in terms of this job. I’d say ‘stay sober,’ but stay by your phone, at least. I’ll get back to you soon.”


And with that he headed out of the bar.


Molly watched his broad shoulders and buff arms leave through the front door, then signaled to the waitress for another beer. The drink was helping her process the enormity of the day, she told herself.


And the residual shit from having to deal with being ushered out of the service due to a 4077.












CHAPTER THREE


“Damn it,” Molly hissed. “The whole point of getting this close, Joel, was so that I didn’t have to try and hack through the XtraNET and deal with their port security!”


Molly was not happy. Not only was the signal not strong enough from the roof of the next building, but now Joel was trying to tell her that he couldn’t get into the server she needed.


Meatheads and technical considerations just do not mix. 


She pushed the car into hover and came to rest just above the building. She hated being this exposed, but there was no other way. The underground parking lot was heavily controlled and she didn’t like their chances of getting out of there if Meathead tripped any of the security protocols.


“There has to be a server that has that label on it. It’s there somewhere.” Agitation was starting to show in her voice. She needed Joel to find this server or else it was game over.


“Well, if there is, I can’t find it.” There was a hint of irritation in his voice too. It had been a while since he had really had to perform. He was already impressive to his general clientele on his normal security and PI jobs.


Molly glanced furtively out across the city. Sure, the anti-radar paint gave them some cover from official channels, but all it would take is for someone in one of the nearby buildings to notice them out the window and report a suspicious looking vehicle, and they were screwed. This wasn’t going how they had planned it, when they had eventually gotten the ‘go’ for this project.


She scrambled to pull her kit bag into the passenger seat, and located her handheld holo. Since the capacity was all used up on her wristband, she’d had to go retro.


“Hang on…” It was Joel again, over the comm system. “There’s a secondary server room.”


Joel had made out that this was going to be a walk in the park. He figured that because his contact–their first client–worked for the company they were breaking into, it would go smoothly. He even had the guy’s security pass. But Molly was skeptical.


There was no way that Joel’s movement into the building—through the front door and straight to the server room—was going to go down as “normal” behavior. Some keycard protocol was going to pick it up, and she didn’t buy that this Mac Kerr would walk that route “all the frickin’ time”. It just didn’t stack.


Nevertheless, Joel had been able to walk in there with his gear and everything, and nothing had been flagged.


Yet.


Molly heard him grunting on the line, like he was trying to shift something out of the way.


“Okay, I’ve got it. Inserting the peg now….”


Moments later, the holo screen activated and started flashing as it located the peg and established contact.


“We’re in!” she announced, and got to work.


Joel silently mouthed “thank you” to the air above him. The last thing he wanted was to have lost face on his first job with this bright young thing. Since meeting with her in the bar the other day, the idea of having a partner in crime kind of gave him a renewed sense of purpose. He just needed to not mess it up this time.


Molly had already moved on to phase two of the game plan. Anyone sitting in the car would have noticed her mood change. When she hacked, there was an intensity of purpose—like her mind had left her body and the fingers on her keyboard were being controlled by a remote force.


“There’s a problem,” she said after a few moments.


Joel had been slouching against the stack, and now he straightened up.


“What is it?”


“Looks like someone knew we were coming. There is new code, different construction, like a shell around the original code that runs their pricing model.”


There was a silence.


“Can you fix it?”


“Not in the time we have. Lemme see if Oz has any better luck….”


“Oz?”


Aggghh, shit! She hadn’t told him.


“Yeah, the AI that is plugged into my wrist holo and neural cortex.”


“What the fuck?!” Joel hissed. “AI exists? And you have one wired into you?!” He realized he was raising his voice and mentally calmed himself while clenching his teeth in frustration at Molly.


The girl really had no clue what it was to function on a team. 


“Why did you think I had to leave the military so fast?”


“I heard it was the result of some questionable sexcapades, resulting in a 4077 condition.”


“That was the cover to get out. I never did it with an Estarian, let alone in his…you know. Gross!”


He closed his eyes for a half-second. “But you have a fucking AI in your brain. When were you going to share this with the rest of the team?” His irritation was slowly being replaced by curiosity.


“His name is Oz, and he jumped into my holo through the Ethertrak while I was sleeping. I woke up and realized I had two choices: turn him over and potentially give the military the goddamn singularity they will use to destroy the local galaxy—thus becoming the criminal that downloaded him onto my hacked holo—or run. We chose run.”


“’We? You’re talking like it’s a person.”


“Well, technically, he is. He has an awareness, and a personality that he’s developing, just like any entity.”


Molly, if I may interrupt, I’m in. And from my calculations, with your level of skill and the interface you’re using it would have taken 2,453 hours to crack through that shell. 


“Thank you, Oz. I appreciate your help,” Molly responded out loud, partly for Joel’s benefit.


“You’re talking to him?” He couldn’t believe what was going on as he licked his lips. And right in the middle of an intense goddamn mission.


“Yes, just thanking him for saving me two-and-a-half-thousand hours of work.” She tapped a few keys on the holo, checking they were in the clear and still undetected.


“Okay, Oz. Let’s get that patch in, and then we can pull Joel out.”


Roger that, milady. 


“Oz is downloading the patch that you wrote?”


“Yeah, he can respond much quicker to their security protocols. They have an adaptive algorithm that would take me hours to break. Oz is just slipping the data past it, though—like a gauntlet run.”


You’re comparing me to a warrior?


I guess I am. 


I like that. I’m a warrior of data!


Now you sound like a big fat nerd. Molly laughed out loud.


You may not want to insult me while I’m performing such a delicate operation. If I make one wrong move and their system realizes it’s being tampered with, it will lock down the building including that secret server room Joel is in. He will be trapped, and it seems they have heavy air installed in there too. 


Molly grimaced. “Joel, heads up. They have heavy air installed in case of a security breach. Have you got precautionary equipment?”


“Sure I do—in the fokking trunk,” He bitched.


“Of this car?” Molly could barely believe the boneheadedness of these so-called ops professionals.


“Of course. Why would I have it with me on such a high-risk mission?”


Molly rolled her eyes. “Helvítis hálfviti!” (Translation: “fucking halfwit!”)


“Hang on…” Joel’s voice came over the line, and then the line clicked off.


Molly knew what that meant.


Shit, Oz, something is going down. Joel has company.


Scanning the area. I’m hooked into their security system. They have securibots in the sector where Joel is. His key card kept them clear, but his behavior has now been flagged as unusual. He’s been in there too long without any activity. If they locate him, they’ll want to check his identity. 


That’s going to be a problem. Last I checked, he didn’t take his contact’s retinal pattern. We need a way to get him out of there. 


We can’t pull him out until we’ve downloaded the patch. That peg is traceable. He needs to recover it.


Shit! Fucking cock wank of an ops lead. We’re going to have to help him. What can you do to get the bots off his scent?


If I interfere with the bots’ programming, they’re going to know we were in their system. 


They’re going to know as soon as this patch does its work anyway!


Yes, but our plan was to be well clear of the building by then. And if I start altering their system, they’ll lock down and interrupt our upload. 


Shit. This is taking too long. She looked around. We need another approach. 


Molly dug her hand into the bottom of her kit bag and pulled out a smoke grenade. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but she was going to have to improvise. The grenade in her lap now, she knocked the car into drive, and swept down from the top of the building to almost ground level, with such an acceleration that everything in the car shifted to one side in the process.


Deftly slowing parallel to a line of windows, she scanned the building surface for forcefields and sensors. Though it was mostly dark, the light from the city afforded her some visibility.


Nothing there, she concluded with at least 70% certainty. Car back in neutral and hovering three stories up, she opened her window. The car rocked, accommodating the new air pressure. Molly pulled the pin from the smoke grenade and threw it with all the force she could muster. It barely went through the window, exploding just inside. Smoke filled the area by the windows.


Crap. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Oz, report! What’s the status of the bot patrol?


They’ve detected the breach. There is still one very close to Joel’s location, but the others are changing course to the third floor. 


Damn. That one bot must be locked on. Any other ideas?


No. That one is going to stay with its original target, in case the breach is a distraction. They’re preprogrammed, but their programming has to take into account lots of scenarios.


And if we delete those scenarios? 


Molly wasn’t used to having to work this fast. The exercises in the military were just practice. Half the time she would solve things sitting quietly while the squaddies would dick around mucking it up. The responses in the scenario would give her more data. But here, she was the one doing the messing up, data gathering and thinking.


This wasn’t how she envisioned this going down.


Same problem if we reprogram them. The good news is the patch has finished uploading. If Joel can reach the peg, all he needs to do now is get out without being caught or killed. 


And we have no way to reach Joel to let him know….


---


The peg started beeping.


Joel had just found a hiding place where the bot wouldn’t find him. Well, probably wouldn’t, he figured. The cold air of the cooling fan was already making his ass go numb, while the heat from the surrounding servers was like being in a sauna. If he got out of this without third degree burns he’d be doing well.


He crawled forward on his belly, chest pressed against the dusty floor, head movement drastically restricted by the server stack he was hiding under. He heard a click at the door and the keypad being accessed. He had only moments before the bot would do a sweep of the main room, and then check behind here. And the peg was now flashing…


Flashing!


Talk about goddamn covert ops—she gives him a flashing peg.


Okay, that probably wouldn’t sound dirty if he said it out loud. Maybe he’d choose different words when he chewed her out later.


If there was a later.


He muscled forward on his elbows, dragging dust and dirt with him. Seconds later he was on his feet, grabbing the peg and then pushing the other stack in front. He checked the marks on the ground to make sure it was lined up the way it had been.


The patrol bot was in the next room. He could hear it scanning and processing.


Heart in his mouth, he dove back under the server feet first so he could see the carnage coming.


From his new vantage point he could see the stack wasn’t back where he had found it. It was a few millimeters off.


Andskotinn!” he muttered to himself. How could he be so goddamn lax? He used to be a fucking pro at this shit.


There was no time; the patrol bot rounded the corner at that second and started scanning. The red laser line ran from top of the room to the bottom, touching everything, as the bot circled around checking for scumbags and interlopers.


His butt was now burning with cold, but sweat was dripping from his neck and brow. As long as his body temp didn’t disrupt the flow of heat too much, he would remain hidden. Any anomalous temperature differentials would bring hellfire down on the sector in moments.


Joel held his breath, wishing he could have moved back a little more. If the bot had eyes and looked down, it may be able to see his nose poking out from his cramped position.


The red line moved past, just millimeters on the ground in front of him. There was a pause as the bot scanned the rest of the room.


A moment later, its motor churned up again, and the bot turned as if it were leaving.


Joel exhaled.


The bot stopped, turned, and started the scan again.


Did it hear me? he wondered. Shit! I’m going to get caught. How fucking embarrassing. 


He’d had a rep in the military. He was respected. He knew his shit and performed operations like the goddamn pro that he was. And now he was about to get caught on a simple commercial job, by a simple preprogrammed security patrol?


He cringed in embarrassment. No one must know about this, he vowed to himself. No matter what happens, no one must know.


His brain kicked into action, considering the possible ways that he could save his ass, both literally and in terms of his reputation.


Maybe I can take it down? Low center of gravity, so it’s going to be hard. I’ll have to hit it high and fast. Weaponry: it must have a Taser or something on it. Maybe I can use something to deflect the Taser, or conduct it and fry its circuits….


He scanned the dark room, trying to see if there was a loose panel or something he could use.


Shit. If I get out of this I’m going to be better prepared. I’ll run ten miles a day, and do two hundred pushups, and make sure I have my goddamn kit ready for ops. I’ll never be complacent again. Please, gods, let me get out of here.


The red laser flashed over the concrete floor just millimeters ahead of him.


The moment of truth.


Even over the sound of the servers above him, he could hear the processing of the computer on the bot. Any moment now….


He readied himself for a fight at the slightest indication that he had been found.


The bot paused, shifted its position slightly. Then the motors fired up again, and it wheeled out of the area.


Edging forward carefully, Joel didn’t trust that it was gone. He wasn’t going to be complacent anymore.


He ran the next set of scenarios like he was back teaching basic training again. What could be going on?


It could be going to get its friends? No, of course not. It’s on a network. He waited, churning possibilities.


Seconds later he heard the outside door swoosh open, and then a beat later it closed again.


Quickly he crawled out of his hiding place.


“Time to get out of here,” he mumbled to himself.


He didn’t trust being able to get out the same way he came in. The bot might have sealed him in or set a trap, since he wasn't officially in here anymore. He’d have to let his contact Mac know that he might need to get a new key card before he tried to get into the office in the morning.


Right now, he needed another exit. He looked up, running his list.


Ceiling tiles—movable, but of no use.

Air duct —too small.

Water pipes—useful, if he needed to electrocute anyone.

Ventilation shaft! Yes! That was his best bet. And shafts were all over here, because of the sheer amount of heat these servers had to dump.


 Ugh, this is not going to be fun, he thought, as he started undoing the screws that held the grating in place. At least it will mean that I can avoid being the pussy that got caught by a bot though. For that he’d crawl through the city sewers, and worse.


The last screw came out easily and he unhooked the grating. He rubbed his poor cold ass with both hands before reaching up and lifting himself into the vent. It was going to be a long climb to safety.












CHAPTER FOUR


Molly touched the car down onto the roof, and the passenger door swung open.


Joel came rushing out from behind a vent one hundred yards away. He was sweating like a pig and was so filthy that Molly’s gut reaction was to stop him from getting in and dirtying the car. It’s his car, she quickly remembered, then relaxed a little.


Joel threw his bag in ahead of him and scrambled in.


“Let’s get out of here!” he yelled, panic in his eyes.


“Wait. Were you spotted?” She cranked the car around and took off, sliding into traffic.


“Hellz no. What do you think I am? An amateur?”


“Are you sure? Oz spotted that a patrol bot had locked onto you.”


“Yeah, he just had a poke around the server room. He’s probably searching the building for Mac, but I swiped his card in a different corridor and then made my way out through the ventilation shaft. One hell of a fucking climb, I can tell you.”


“Let’s hope they closed the security ticket then. Your DNA is on file, remember.”


Not anymore.


What?


I just deleted both of you from the military database. Joel would have left trace evidence. While I was behind the security wall, I noticed that a patrol bot had found his fingerprint on a doorframe and had already started to cross reference it with their personnel database. If there wasn’t a match on there, it was then programmed to put in a police report and request an identity. I took the liberty of scrubbing your details so you cannot be traced.


Sweet. Great job, Oz. 


My pleasure, milady. 


Molly eyed Joel as he settled in the seat next to her. “Nut-muncher. You left prints! Oz caught it and has deleted our prints, retinals, and DNA from the government mainframe.” She shook her head. “You’re welcome.” Molly had returned to her usual levels of sarcasm.


“Shit. I could have sworn I was careful about that. Thank you, Oz,” he said in a raised voice.


Tell him I’m an AI. Not deaf. 


“Oz says he’s not deaf.”


“Oh. Uh. Right. Just getting used to this whole, erm…alternative lifestyle you’ve assumed.” He quietly sat on his hands, secretly trying to warm his ass, which was still semi-numb from the cooling fan. Hell if he was going to tell her how he nearly got caught by that bot. Hopefully she was going to be too distracted by this AI thing to want to know about his escape.


He was right. She was distracted. Molly smiled as she kicked the car into hyperdrive now that they were out of town. Even Oz felt the flood of relief through her neural cortex as she took them up and out of the city.


Patch deployed. They’re going to have one hell of a surprise in the morning.


Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Molly pulled the car up at the safe house fifty kilometers out of town. Joel had figured they would be pretty untraceable there. He’d paid cash to use this place for a week and in the thirty-six hours they’d been there, they hadn’t seen a soul.


Joel woke up when the engine stopped. Rubbing his face, he was starting to feel the effects of the server heat on his back. He’d get Molly to look at it if he had to. Practically falling out of the car, the two of them grabbed their gear and hauled ass into the house.


“I need mocha.” declared Molly, as she dumped her stuff and headed straight for the kitchen. She pushed the buttons on the mocha machine to start brewing a fresh pot.


Joel headed into the bathroom.


“When are we going to talk about the fact that you have a military AI on your wrist?” he called back.


Molly was silent, watching the mocha brew.


Moments later he came in to find her staring at the machine, the mocha now pouring into a mug underneath the nozzle.


“You want?” she asked, nodding towards it. Her eyes were still fixed on it, unseeing.


“Sure.”


She swapped out her mug for another one, and hit the button again. Sitting down, she wrapped her hands around it and savored the aroma.


“Well?” Joel looked at her expectantly.


She continued staring at her mug. “Look, I dunno. I dunno what to tell you. I just ran.”


He frowned. “And then didn’t tell me. You realize you have a target on your back now?”


She shook her head. “No. They have no way to know it worked.”


His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”


She took a sip and then looked up at him. “Well, they ran a test on the algorithm that should have created sentience, but it was isolated from the rest of the code. What they don’t know is that this code managed to get into the base code being held on another computer, via the Ethertrak, and then that made Oz—who hitched a ride. The chances of them putting that together are pretty slim. And connecting it to me? No way. Especially given the only things they have left are a code that looks like it doesn’t run, and a base code they’ve been working on for the last gods knows how many years. Those brickheads will take another decade to figure out they need to put it all together.”


“Are you sure?” Joel looked concerned. He wasn’t hearing the technobabble. He was listening to the level of certainty in her voice…and she was not certain.


Molly reached up and pushed her hands into her hair, her head hanging over her mocha like she’d just pulled an all-nighter.


“Almost,” she confessed.


“Okay, so now at least I know there is a possibility that the military is going to put it together and you—or we—are potentially going to be a target.”


“Yep.” Molly didn’t know what else to add.


Maybe I can be of assistance in this matter? 


Shoot.


Joel grabbed his cup of mocha and sat down opposite her at the table, unaware she was now talking with Oz.


I may be able to set up some…er…early warning signals that they’re onto us. 


I’m listening. 


Well, I don’t have access to anything inside the base—though we could peek, if we ever needed to. But if they start scanning the XtraNET for any intel on you or your whereabouts, at least then we’ll know they’re coming after you. 


Okay—do it. Something is better than nothing. And in the meantime, we should probably make some plans that will get us off-world.


She focused back on Joel. “What do you think about taking this ‘fight for the good fight’ off-world…out of military jurisdiction?”


“You mean, leave the system?” He asked as he took his first sip.


Molly shrugged. “Yeah, eventually.”


Joel took his mug and waved it back and forth. “I think it will have benefits. But then, we’ll also be isolated. We’ll need access to resources...I mean, just what do you have in mind?”


“I dunno yet.” She took a sip, “But the only way to be safe from the government is to either control it, or be beyond its grasp and concern.”


Oz could feel a change in Molly’s brain. She’d taken control of most of the processing power he had been harnessing. It was like he had just gotten kicked out.


Joel looked at her as she took her head out of her hands. She had a glimmer in her eye, like she had an idea that had given her a sense of…purpose.


“We’re going to need money. And people. And ships. Which means, we’re going to need more jobs. Can you start hitting up your contacts and letting them know we’re for hire?”


Joel nodded and shrugged. “Sure.” His face brightened. It looked like this was going to be the beginning of something he’d been waiting for. He knew that Molly showing up was going to shake things up for him. Deep down, she was a leader.


She just didn’t know it yet.


“Oz,” she said out loud, for Joel’s benefit. “Let’s start scanning for opportunities. We want more clients with problems that we can fix with our special skill set. And if the jobs help to make the System a better place for all, then that’s great. Let’s automatically rule out anything that makes arseholes richer or more powerful.”




Understood. But I’ll need some of that processing power back. Whatever just happened, it’s like you started using more of your synapses. 


Oh. Right. Well, don't you worry about that. I’m hitting the sack now. 


She stood up, mocha in hand. “I’ll see you in the morning, Joel.”


And with that, she ambled out of the kitchen and disappeared into her sleeping quarters.


Joel wasn’t quite sure what he’d agreed to, but as he lifted his own mocha to his lips and took a sip, he allowed a small smile to grace his face.


He had a mission.


Safe house, the next morning




Molly closed down the old handheld holo device and shuffled off the bed. She needed to pee, and the sun was coming up. The dull blue of first light was spilling into the room.


She felt bad about taking the ergonomically designed bed, but Joel had seemed happy on the foldout in what was probably a living room before they had commandeered it as operations central.


It was a nice little property in a convenient location; far enough from the city to be private, but close enough for their mission. She toyed with the idea of making it a more permanent base. Sure, it needed work, and she wasn’t the domestic type…but as a functioning operations base, it ticked a number of boxes.


She padded through to the bathroom.


It wasn’t plush, but it was better than most of the shared facilities she’d become accustomed to on the base. Unisex and unispecies showering was something she’d had to become used to when she joined the military. She’d tried to ready herself for the cultural shift, but she had still felt self-conscious showering in front of her teammates. At least here it was private; Joel wasn’t about to walk in on her, no matter how ingrained the military was in him.


She looked at her pale face in the fading mirror. Even though the reflection wasn’t crisp, she still noticed that her skin sagged. Mom would have said that this is what happens when you stay up half the night glued to a holoscreen. Of course, she was right. She shook the thought from her head.


She’d spent the wee hours scanning the XtraNET and thinking about all the pieces she would have to bring into play if she was going to be able to operate off-world and out of reach of the Central Systems government.


The whole idea had its drawbacks, but it was probably going to be the best way forward for a number of reasons.


After all, it’s what she-who-cannot-be-named would have done, she thought to herself, forgetting that Oz could hear everything.


Yes, but she hasn’t been seen for a long time. 


That’s not to say she’s not out there somewhere. And, dammit, Oz—private thoughts!


You’re hoping that if you take up the good fight somehow Bethany Anne is going to show up, give you her seal of approval, and make your life mean something.


Molly was silent in her head, just doing her business.


You realize she’s a monster to some. Especially in this system.


They’re mostly just silly rumors. None of these races have seen any of the archives on her. 


None of these races nearly got people killed poking their nose where it shouldn’t be. 


Enough. You’re not meant to know about that. Just shut up, Oz. Just. Shut. Up. 


Oz fell quiet. He felt her system overload when he touched the subject. And besides, he’d already extrapolated what he could; he wasn’t going to understand it with the intel and limited human context he had right now.


Molly washed her hands and face, and finished in the bathroom. She could smell pancakes. Like a drone following instructions to locate an enemy base, her nose pointed her in the direction of breakfast.


Joel was in the kitchen, on the phone, gabbing away to someone while cooking. Molly leaned against the doorframe, watching him for a moment.


The kitchen was a long room with an extension on the back. There was clutter and stacked-up furniture at the far end. She’d moved in so quickly with just the bare essentials that she had had in the military that she almost felt like she was squatting.


Still, with Joel cooking, the news on in the background, and the table set, they’d managed to normalize the half of the room where the appliances were. In fact, it was feeling almost homey.


Catching sight of her, Joel motioned for her to sit at the table. He’d laid out plates and foodstuffs, and even had mocha dripping into a mug for her. She felt ravenous.


She sat down as instructed.


He tossed a pancake onto her plate and waved for her to start eating. Moments later he bid his caller thanks and goodbye, promising to call him back when he found out.


“Client?” Molly asked, over her steaming cup of wakeup juice.


“Could be. We need to decide which jobs we want to take.” Joel threw a fresh pancake onto his plate, and sat down with her.


“Jobs? Plural?”


“Yup. I made a bunch of calls this morning, and we’ve got options.” Joel was looking pleased.


“That’s good.”


Turn the holoscreen up.


Why?


Something you need to see. 


“Joel, can you turn the volume up on the holoscreen? Oz says we need to see it….”


The news had been churning in the background. Joel reached down to his wrist holo and upped the volume, and the projected screen in the kitchen came into view against the cupboard doors.


Joel watched it for a few moments.


“Looks like half the stock of that Health Corp company we were at last night has been dumped onto the market. That wasn’t us, was it?”


“Not directly. Our algorithm was designed to just reset the pricing to market levels. Unless…” Molly started to have another conversation in her head.


“Out loud, Molly. You need to do this so that I can hear, and you don’t have to keep catching me up.”


“Right. I was just saying…unless Oz altered my code. Well, Oz? Did you?”


Maybe. 


“Maybe? What did you do?”


I might have added a line, which said that if the pricing were set to outside of 3% of the market value of the drug, then 20% of the shareholders’ stock would be dumped onto the market. They must have tried to reset a bunch of the prices a number of times to get to 50%.


Molly caught Joel up with Oz’s confession.


“Well, that’s more than Mac bargained for. I daresay he’s going to have some explaining to do, if this gets out.” Joel chuckled as he shoved pancake and a piece of local meat into his mouth, chewing through a grin.


Molly swallowed a piece of pancake. “Next time, you need to consult with me, Oz. We haven’t thought through the consequences of this, and Mac was one of the good guys. If the company folds, he and a bunch of others will lose their jobs.”


Mac isn’t one of the good guys. 


She stopped her fork halfway to her mouth, “What do you mean?” Joel looked at her, one eyebrow raised.


Well, he isn’t who he said he is. I have had a search running since I heard you and Joel talking about the key card. It came back during the night. Turns out he is working for another corporation. Amtel, Health Corp’s competitors.


You’re kidding? So we were hired by Health Corp’s competition to fuck them over? 


Looks like it. 


She pressed her lips together. “Looks like I need to pay Mac a visit later today. Joel, you can drive. I’ll be walking in the front door, but we’ll probably need the option of a sharp exit, if things get heated.”


“What are you planning to do?” Joel’s face showing his concern.


“Don’t know yet. But it’s going to start with a conversation…”


Just then, Joel’s holo beeped.


He glanced down. “Three more messages from potential clients. Looks like word of our effectiveness has gotten out.” He just hoped their new little breakfast club was ready for what this would mean in the great scheme of things. These weren’t little PI jobs anymore….


Mac Kerr’s Office, Health Corp Building, Downtown Uptarlung




Striding through the white space of the foyer, Molly felt like she was getting some direction in her life. It had been a long time since she had worn actual street clothes. Clothing in the military was either a uniform, or her scrubs for sitting around her quarters.


Getting out was a novelty.


Please remind me. I’ll need to buy some new clothes, since I won’t be spending my days in uniform anymore. 


I’ll have to write myself some new algorithms to be able to assist with that. 


Okay. Later, though. Focus now. Is that patch ready to activate? 


Affirmative.  


Leaving her name and retinal print at the main reception, she was directed up to the 20th floor. Oz had done a good job at getting her an actual appointment with their former client.


Finding his office in the maze of manicured corridors and mocha-scented waiting rooms, Molly headed straight past his assistant’s desk and through the open door. There she found the Estarian, Mac Kerr, sitting at his desk.


“Greetings of the day to you,” she started politely.


“Greetings be bestowed on you, too,” he responded, looking confused as to why a somewhat preppy-looking human girl had walked casually into his office. He was sure there wasn’t anything on his schedule right now. He was about to glance down at his holo when Molly spoke again.


“Let me save you the trouble of checking your schedule.” She took a step towards his desk. “My name is Molly Bates. You hired my team on behalf of Amtel Corporation, to sabotage Health Corp’s price-hiking antics.”


He looked around, aware that there were cameras and recording devices in the room.


Molly shook her head. “It’s okay. We’ve disabled security for a few moments, so that we can have a very clear conversation.”


She paused to make sure she had his full attention. His eyes came back to her, now aware that the camera in the corner wasn’t going to betray him…or help him.


Molly continued. “I don’t take kindly to being lied to. And we are not guns for hire to assist in corporate battles. We took the job, understanding that we would be helping those who were being screwed over by the company who pays for your lifestyle out of the proceeds of said screwing. This now appears not to be the case.”


The Estarian replied. “Well, to be fair, the effect was the same. You have saved those people from paying the higher prices, and have ensured that they get the medical aid they need.” Mac had already thought through his argument.


Molly raised her hand to silence him. She surprised herself with the effect she was having on him. He looked genuinely afraid.


As he should be… 


“This is a warning to you, and to any other worms who think they are going to use our skills for their own selfish ends. Try anything again, and you will find out just how strongly we believe in doing the right thing for the right reasons.” She cocked her head to the side, “You really don’t want to wake up one morning to find all your assets ‘reallocated’ to a charitable fund, do you?”


The Estarian shook his head.


If he wasn’t such a stupid weasel, he might be attractive. Estarians were taller than humans, and more clinical looking. Humans, in comparison, were hairier, and were perceived to be apelike distant cousins. The Estarians’ thick, smooth skin, with a blue tinge and an underlying effervescent glow would often make other species a little envious of their almost magnetic charisma. Molly shook the thought from her head and gave him her best glare.


“We’re watching you, Mac Kerr,” she warned.


With that, she turned and stalked out of his office.


Pounding down the corridor, she felt inflamed with rage at how they had been used by the bad guys. She wanted to go back and punch him, but she knew that wouldn’t solve anything except, perhaps, to make her feel better momentarily.


Besides, he was probably calling security now.


She glanced down at her holo. The patch was holding; she still had the comms in that sector of the building locked down. Finding her way to the northwest stairwell, she pushed against the bar and slipped out of the hallway.


She glanced down and then up. Five floors to the roof, where Joel was meeting her. Much faster than going down and out the front door. She ran up the stairs, feeling much better for having confronted the scumbag. Maybe not having to answer to a superior was turning out to be a good thing. No one was going to come down on her about this little confrontation.


And that felt good enough to overcome her desire to punch him.












CHAPTER FIVE


Two days later. Joel’s Apartment. Downtown Uptarlung. Irk’n Quarter




Joel sat at his desk, working away. He couldn’t believe how much business he’d managed to generate in such a short space of time. Okay, sure, the last job had had its difficulties; but something told him that Molly was going to steer them straight…er.


Even if she had the social skills of an amoeba.


Joel updated his ops report.


It was looking like they were booked out for the next three months already. He was going to have to talk with Molly about bringing in some help at this rate. And with the paycheck from the last gig having come through okay, they would have the funds to bring in new talent whenever they were ready.


If he was honest, he was a little relieved that the funds had still come through. He had been concerned that Molly’s little talk with Mac might have had some fallout. Presumably, she had been scary enough for it to have had the right effect.


He sat back in his ergonomically designed office chair, thinking about the calls he would have to return. He rocked gently as he tensed and relaxed his stomach muscles. He’d been working on getting back into shape, and he knew that any extra effort would still make a difference at this stage.


There was a knock at the door.


He got up and headed through the apartment toward the sound. Through the spy hole he saw one skinny short dude. He looked Ogg. His bald head shone in the corridor light, like a little beacon used to light the runways for ships landing.


He didn’t recognize the guy, but he was wearing an atmosuit, so he probably wasn’t a resident. A resident would have been in indoor clothes. Or pajamas.


“How can I help?” he asked through the door, standing slightly to the side. He didn’t feel threatened, but training is ingrained like that.


“Wondered if you might have a moment to talk about a job? Heard you have a certain skillset we could use in our company.” the Ogg replied, casually but politely.


Joel opened the door.


No sooner had he done so then two Estarians stepped into view.  One stayed outside and the other slipped in, pulled out a pistol, and aimed the business end in Joel’s direction.


“What the fuck?!” Joel shouted, staying near the door and keeping it open.


The Ogg was now inside, too.


“Close the door,” he commanded Joel. “We just want to talk.”


Joel, annoyed, looked at the pistol as he ground his teeth.  Finally, he closed the door.


He was about to read them the riot act about barging in, and that this wasn’t how he did business, but no sooner had he opened his mouth than the Estarian on his right slammed him against the door and knocked his head against it, jamming something into his neck.


Joel flung an elbow back, catching the Estarian in the face so that blood exploded out of his busted nose, the cartilage crushed.


One down, two to go.


Joel was working to swing his leg around, waiting for the shot from the pistol when his world went black.


Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Molly was still in her pajamas. It had been an eventful few days, and since she wasn’t going out and Joel wasn’t due over, she figured she’d save the time and not bother getting dressed.


Joel had left the day after the mission to go back to his downtown apartment. He said he just felt more at home there. Of course, Molly still needed a place to stay, and the safe house had kind of grown on her. She felt resistant to having somewhere nicer and homier. Plus, she wasn’t sure what the future would hold, so taking on a lease probably wasn’t sensible.


The kitchen was cold, and atmosphere spilled through the cracks in the doors and windows whenever there was a hint of a sandblast. This planet had random sandstorms all the time, and yet the isolation of the place made her feel somewhat safe. As long as she had an XtraNET connection, she could deal with anything. Even when Joel had left, she barely thought about safety in a lonely place like this.


Using military socks doubled up over her feet as slippers, she shuffled into the kitchen. Dirty dishes lay all around. She’d been absorbed in her planning, and washing up was a task that could be done when she was processing, not researching.


She liked that Joel had let her be and gone back to town. But now she needed to speak with him. If they were going to take this next op he had sent her the file for, they were going to need another crewmember.


And people were Joel's thing.


Oz—he’s not picking up his holo. Is there another way to reach him?


Sure. Let me see if he’s working on his home holo…. Yes, he was, just a moment ago. I’m flashing a notification on his screen. 


Great. What does it say?


“Call Molly, dickwad.”


Dickwad? Why is that appropriate? 


I dunno, I just thought I’d try it out. I haven’t quite figured out the qualities that make someone a “dickwad,” or an “asswanker,” or anything else you call people. It seems random, but I figured if I tried it, I’d get some social feedback and refine from there. 


Right. Remind me to have a talk with you about that later. Now, what’s going on? Why hasn’t he responded yet?


Not sure. His system has been idle for three minutes now. Let me track his holo….


You can do that?


Sure.


Molly plunked her half-finished cup of mocha on the counter, and considered warming it up.


Molly, it looks like Joel is traveling southwest of his apartment. From his speed it looks like he’s in a car. Shall I try calling him again?


No—wait! Can you give me access to the security cams in his building?


Sure. For the last eight minutes?


Perfect.


Pulling them up on the holo now… 


Molly stepped back from the counter to see the image being projected against the kitchen cupboards.


Okay, cross reference the people who live there and filter them out. 


I think I’ve got who you are looking for. 


Oz pulled up a still of the three Sarkians who had shown up at Joel’s door. two Estarians and one Ogg.


I think our boy’s been taken, she realized right away.


H16, towards Uptarlung




Comprehending that Joel had been kidnapped, Molly flicked into operations mode. It was the mode Joel had seen many a time on exercises. When she switched, she stopped being a geek, and she became the effective pain in the ass the other team did not want to cross.


Kieran, Joel’s second in command at the time, would joke that in that mode she would be able to take the general.


He was probably right.


And now she had Oz.


Working together, Molly and Oz had tracked down the three goons and Joel, and knew exactly where they had stopped. Oz had pulled the schematics for the building while Molly dressed and prepped her gear.


Now, flying through the traffic, Oz was deftly switching the signals and using traffic calming measures to smooth their passage downtown to a converted department store.


It had been a theater, but the basement wasn’t appropriate for stock storage for some reason. Molly surmised it was probably damp, but given the location of Joel’s holo, they most likely had him stashed there.


Moments later, Molly pulled up alongside the building. There was a no-parking zone all along the front, and no way to get a car around the side.


The kidnappers must have had some way of dropping him near a door.


Oz, search the area for underground tunnels and parking garages.


She signaled and slipped back into the traffic, keeping her eyes peeled for any way she could get back into the building.


Got it. There’s a parking garage underneath the next building. Turn left next opportunity. 


Molly spotted the parking garage entrance. It was employees only.


Oz, we’re going to need some electronic help here. She looked directly at the corrugated gate in front of her. Can you get us in? 


No sooner had she finished speaking than the gate started to rise.


Easy…


His tone was somewhat smug. Even for an AI.


Hmm, thought Molly to herself. He was quick to catch on to arrogance. She wondered briefly about the development of personality, then remembered the stakes involved right now.


Later, she told her inner geek.


Driving around to the far side of the parking garage, she found a door. She ditched the car in a space, and quickly got out with her kit bag, slinging it over her shoulders as she jogged towards a door in the wall.


The door was locked. She pushed against it, and pulled. She could feel it rattling.


“Fucking arse of a wanker,” she hissed.


There must be a way in. 


She bent down to inspect the handle. No lock. No push bar. No keypad.


And then she saw it. Top right corner of the parking garage, there was a camera trained directly on the door.


Fokk. Chances were she’d already been made.


Oz… Can you…? 


On it. 


A moment later, the door clicked open.


What about the camera feed? 


Adapting it now, and looping a static segment. If it wasn’t being viewed in real time, you’re fine.


Molly slipped through the door and into total damp darkness.


Downtown Uptarlung, Ii’tn Quarter




Molly’s eyes started acclimatizing to the darkness. There was water underfoot, and a smell of mold and mildew.


Let’s get this over with.


Putting the signal up on your holo. 


Molly glanced down at the readout on her holo and started following the signal from Joel’s device, relieved that the kidnappers were too dumb to realize that he could be tracked. Unless…unless they thought he’d be working alone.


As she got deeper into the darkness, she could hear voices. There was a clearing, and some light was coming from a makeshift lamp strung up somewhere near the voices.


“Who are you working with?”


There were gasps and splashes. It sounded like they were drowning him. Or waterboarding him…


Djöfulsins óskapnaðar drulla! (Satan's disastrous shit!) We need to do something, Oz. 


Molly listened intently for clues as to what was going on and thought about how she could interrupt the proceedings.


I don’t have any suggestions at this point. 


Molly didn’t respond. She was busy.


Oz felt himself get pushed out of her circuits again. Well, his circuits, her neurology. She had gone into that zone again.


Moments later she sprang into action, stealthily checking round the perimeter of the room. Though she hadn’t had ninja training, the martial arts she had done prepared her to walk lightly. Thinking on her feet was something inspired by The Bethany Anne Chronicles, which had also inspired her to hack more and more intel about how Bethany Anne would operate. BA could think on her feet, so fourteen-year-old Molly worked hard to figure out how to do the same.


Right now, she’d just assessed that there were working electrical ports all around the room.


Oz, is there a water system that opens out down here? It’s damp. Something is leaking; I want to know what. 


I have no way of knowing that. 


Okay, well is there a sprinkler system down here?


Affirmative. 


Excellent, put a schematic up on my holo. She slipped behind a concrete pillar and shielded the light from her wristband, so as not to draw attention to herself prematurely.


Flicking through the details of the building layout, she was quickly able to see which pipes were sprinklers, and from the wet and rust it looked like there was water in them.


Thank fuck for that, she thought as she took a brief look around the pillar. She had no idea what her other options were.


She bent down and opened her satchel, and rooted around for a few tools. She pulled them out along with the extra wire she would use for mule harness efforts. Next, she checked her kit bag for a little case. Oz had no idea what she was planning. He just stayed quiet, awaiting an order.


She took a deep breath.


Molly knew she wasn’t going to have many seconds between lighting the metaphorical fuse and time running out for Joel if she did this.


This was it.


Pulling her dart gun from the holster on her leg, she took two deep breaths to steady herself. Then she took a step out from behind the pillar and shot the dart above the heads of the Sarkian heavies, blowing open the pipe of the sprinkler.


Water gushed out over all four of them, including Joel. Hands tied behind his back, his head had been repeatedly forced into a large tub of water.


“How did you get in here?” a gruff Estarian started demanding through the spray.


The Ogg started barking orders at the other two.


“I’d stay right where you are if you know what’s good for you,” declared Molly. She’d moved near an electrical outlet, and was hoping the other two Estarians she had seen on the video weren’t hiding somewhere around.


“Why, what are you going to do, little girl? Turn the lights on? Scared of the dark, are we?”


“Nope, I’m going to run this wire,” she opened her hand, and the length of the wire dropped down into the puddle of water next to her feet, “and connect it up to the main supply of this building.”


A look of panic spread across their faces. They looked down, realizing they were standing in several millimeters of water.


“Unless you let my friend go,” she added.


“Keep dreaming, sweetheart. You electrocute us, you electrocute him.”


“Yes, I’m aware of that,” she smiled, clearly knowing something they didn’t.


Shit, she hoped she’d calculated this right. Or else Joel was going to kill her…if he survived.


The Ogg wasn’t impressed. He clearly wasn’t used to being threatened or told what to do. He pulled out a gun and trained it on Joel.


“Do that, and your boyfriend gets it. You going to risk me pulling the trigger, when you…Ughhhghgh. ZZZZZ. Bthughjgjksjkshssas.”


Molly connected the wire to the circuit, and all four of them, including Joel, went down. Joel slumped over the tub of water, and stopped convulsing first.


Shit. Shit. Shit


She waited until the others had stopped moving, and made sure the wire was no longer live. Sprinting towards Joel, she pulled out the tiny kit she had in her bag.


Please, please, pleeeeeeeease, she begged, bargaining with the universe not to let him die.


What are you doing??


Not now, Oz. 


She wrenched Joel’s head out of the tub and pulled him back, laying him out on the ground. He was technically dead. And now she was going to have to shock his heart back to life.


Shit! She hoped he was in good health, or else this wasn’t going to work.


“I hope to fuck those muscles of yours aren’t just for show, Meathead.” Molly half pleaded, half bitched at her friend.


She opened the little kit wallet and pulled out a hypodermic needle. It wasn’t designed for this, but hopefully it would go deep enough. She’d only had to do this once before, and then it wasn’t for electrocution. When one of her friends at the University had OD’d, she’d heard from a medic friend that adrenalin worked for a bunch of things to get the heart going again.


By her calculation, she had less than ten seconds left…


She pulled the adrenalin into the needle and tapped it to get rid of air bubbles. Squeezing till liquid came out, she tapped again.


Six seconds…


Okay, here goes… 


She felt Joel’s ribs and visualized where the fourth chamber of the heart was.


Three seconds…


BAM. She plunged the needle into his chest and injected the adrenalin.


The needle was still in his chest. Shit. She carefully pulled it back out.


Joel’s eyes opened suddenly, and he yelled.


“WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!”


About twenty seconds later, his scream of horror transitioned into sobbing, as he rolled over into the fetal position.


“Are you going to puke? Last time I did that, the girl puked her guts out.” Molly stood over him, assessing his state and clinically thinking of their next move.


He tried to twist his head to look her in the eye, but failed. “No, I’m not going to puke. I’m going to fucking kill you,” he groaned as he rocked on his side.


She nodded. “Okay, later. Right now we need to get you out of here. Can you stand?”


He agreed, even though he didn’t yet know if it were true. But he was a Marine. He was going to stand. Whatever it took.


He rolled onto his knees, half expecting to see blood. No blood from electrocution, he told himself as he staggered to his feet, Molly took his weight on her shoulders as she slipped under his arm to help.


She was a gem, this girl. And, strangely, stronger than she looked.


“Come on, dickwad. Beers are on me tonight,” she grunted out, trying to be bright in the face of what had just happened.


---


A few minutes later, she helped him into the car. He was soaked through to the skin. She tried to get him to peel his shirt off, but he resisted.


Probably just too tired, she hoped. His head lolled as he fell asleep. Putting her seatbelt on, Molly put the car into gear and with Oz’s assistance, navigated out of the hellhole of a parking garage and into the city traffic.


Any chance we’re being followed?


Unlikely. The only camera I can see on the network was the one at the door. Nothing in the parking garage, so they won’t have an image of your identifier. 


That’s damn lucky. 


Molly contemplated all the hundreds of ways this could have gone sideways. Being able to retrieve Joel so easily was a blessing. And a mistake she was never going to make again. From now on, they’d be way more careful. This wasn’t an exercise in a controlled environment where you could fuck up, hit the showers, and come back tomorrow to try again.


This was life and death.


And things were getting very death-oriented, very damn fast.


Let’s get this lug back to the safe house. He’s going to have one hell of a headache when he wakes up.  


“No more apartment for you, big guy,” she told the semi-conscious Marine. “From now on, we’re taking this shit seriously 24/7 and staying safe.”


Molly cursed at herself that she’d let something like this happen. This was her fault—and why she had joined the military. She didn’t want to be responsible for making decisions that would get people killed. The military made those decisions, and she did her best.


Why did she ever think she could deal with this shit and have people be okay?


Her thoughts wandered to the three kidnappers she’d left behind. Without medical attention they would probably die, and though she didn’t feel guilty per se—they had kidnapped her teammate—she still felt a twinge of regret for killing them. It couldn’t have been helped, but this was her first real kill. And yet it felt so remote.


Maybe I just feel bad for not feeling bad?


I have no way to parse the information that I can gather from your system. Or interpret what you just said. 


Me neither. I just…it wasn’t until now that I realized what I’d done. Had I thought of it sooner, we might have called emergency services for them.


That would have been unwise. Not only would they be able to identify you, the police would have tracked you down, and then those kidnappers would probably have come after the both of you. Game theory suggests that given you wanted to get away and not have to deal with them again, you made the right call—98.5% probability of success. 


Oh. That’s good to know. 


Your circuits have settled.


You mean, my emotions. My emotions, Oz. And yes, thank you. That helped. 


Oh. That’s good. It wasn’t what I was optimizing for, but I’m glad my analysis could be of assistance. 


Molly rolled her eyes. Maybe this was what she sounded like to normal people….












CHAPTER SIX



Mac Kerr’s Office, Health Corp Building, Downtown Uptarlung




Molly stormed in, a hard copy file in her hand. She slammed it on the desk in front of Mac. The cup of mocha on his desk slopped as he jumped back in surprise, bashing his inner leg on the table.


“What’s this?” He looked up at her completely perplexed, resisting the urge to rub his leg and look weak.


“Evidence.” Molly glared at him, staring him down, daring him to play dumb. When he stayed quiet, she continued.


“Evidence that you hired us for this job, that you work for the competition. Oh, and that your real name is Frank O’Rourke, and you’re wanted in the Outer System for murder, accessory after the fact, and human trafficking. My guess is that if we release our intel to the authorities, this place will be swarming with cops in no time.”


Molly glared at him and he noticeably shriveled, shifting backwards in his seat.


“There are things you need to understand about this situation, Ms. Bates” the Estarian began. As he spoke, he found his voice and his posture recovered, little by little.


“This is bigger than you,” he pointed to her and then to himself. “Or me.”


“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. And half the time, it’s from some Ogg trying to get me to go back to his place,” she smirked.


Oggs and Estarians were known to like human companionship, as long as they were the ones giving orders and controlling the relationship. They only treated their own as equals. That’s what made this exchange particularly…humiliating for him.


“Tell me, what do you know about the Syndicate?” he asked.


She raised an eyebrow, “Sounds like a seedy nightclub you people like to frequent.”


He paused a moment before continuing as if she hadn’t spoken. “It’s an organization; a very private organization that monitors and controls the interests of some very powerful people in the health care sector. These corporations you’ve been digging around in recently have made a lot of Sarkians very rich. And your poking around has made a large number of them very nervous. And when very rich people get nervous, it becomes a problem.”


Molly had straightened up and folded her arms. Though she had intended to get him to talk, she didn’t think it would have been quite so easy. It seemed like his ego was more important to him than his discretion.


He continued, “The Syndicate has friends all over the place: in the police, in the government, in the military.” He put extra weight on the word “military,” and turned to pull something out of his desk drawer.


Molly drew back a little, completely unprepared if he was pulling out a weapon.


He threw another file onto his desk, open at the page describing Molly’s discharge. He had a glint in his eye.


“A 4077, eh?” It was his turn to smirk. “You know, if I’d have known you were that kind of girl…”


“Shut up!” she snapped. “I’m not. And I would never...”


“Point is, Molly Bates—do you think these health care corporations, with all that money and all that power, wouldn’t have means to make some interfering human go away? Mr. Andus would just need to say the word, and that would be it.”


“Mr. Andus? Who’s he? Did he give the word on Joel?”


“You don’t already know? Wow, you are new to this part of town. Keep going the way you are and you’ll find out eventually, though that would be a very bad thing. He’s the last person you want to meet. Not very understanding when people tread on his toes. And he knows who you are now.”


“Because you told him?” She asked.


“Because I told him,” he confirmed.


The smug look had returned to his lips. This Estarian thinks he’s won this war. Molly considered coming back with a gun, or planting a car bomb for his trip home…but that was just her inner teenage frustration talking. And she’d already put enough people in danger acting on her impulses. She had to be smarter than that.


Smarter than him.


And now smarter than Mr. Andus, whoever the fuck he was.


This battle wasn’t going to be fought here in Mac Kerr’s office. She needed to leave.


“You need to leave,” Kerr announced, mirroring her thoughts. He reached over to pick up the phone. “Or else I’ll have security remove you.”


Molly turned on her heels. Mac Kerr had already been immensely useful. She’d let him think he won, and leave quietly more informed. They had research to start on this so-called Syndicate.


“One more thing, Mr. Kerr,” she turned before walking out of the open door. “We have precautions in place that if anything should happen, this intel is automatically deployed. You had better pray we don’t have an accident.”


Molly left his office and continued out of the building via the front door.


Joel was waiting in the car just down the street. She got in and slammed the car door shut.


“Fuck!” She slapped the dash in front of her.


“What?” asked Joel, genuine concern plastered all over his face.


“I’ve just realized how Oz came up with those names. My fucktard of an ex must have been recording our holocalls as sex tapes.”


Joel shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What went on in there?”


“Oh, we have some work to do if we’re going to survive this and still make an impact in this system. Let’s get back to base and I’ll tell you all about it.”


Joel, stunned and still thinking about the sex tapes, put the car into gear and lifted out of the city. He was still none the wiser about what this strange alliance between them was going to be, but this weird-ass girl had saved his life and given him something to focus on.


Right now, his heart told him this was the right team, even if his brain was telling him that it wasn’t. Fuck it, he was up for whatever trouble she’d gone and stirred up in Mac Kerr’s office just now.


Electrocution or not, he’d have her back.



Mac Kerr’s Office, Health Corp Building, Downtown Uptarlung




Mac straightened himself up behind his desk and stood up. Stretching, he felt a flood of relief. He was getting too old for this shit. He wandered idly over to the window.


Looking out on the cityscape, he considered what had just happened. This wasn’t what he had signed up for. He enjoyed the money–and the feeling of power this game gave him—but this was supposed to be an easy retirement for him. He swore to himself that he was done with the fuckery of his past endeavors. Yet something told him he should probably start taking more security precautions.


Composing himself, he hit up his holo, and selected Salon on his call list. The other end picked up after two rings.


“Elite Style Salon, Elise speaking, how can I help you today, Mr. Kerr?”


“I’d like to speak to the boss, please.” His tone was flat and routine. Yet this wasn’t a request.


“Just one moment.” The call was put on hold, and the chimes of the hold music oscillated through his auditory implant. Fokk he hated that music.


“Mr. Kerr, Mr. Andus for you…”


And with that the line was switched.


“Yes,” Mr. Andus answered on the other end. His voice was elderly but strong. Astute. And brusque. There were only certain conditions under which he could be contacted without dire consequence.


Thankfully for Mac Kerr, this was one of them.


“She came. Just as you suggested, Sir.”


There was silence on the other end, as the gentleman considered the new information.


“And what was her move?” he asked finally.


“She knew only about my past, and that my position at Health Corp was a cover. She threatened to expose me if anything else should happen.”


“And did you make her aware of the severity of the…situation?”


“Yes, Sir. Just as you asked.”


“Good.”


“And their location?”


“We haven’t managed to trace them to a base yet, but I have someone on it as we speak. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear from them.”


“Very good. I will await your call.”


And with that, the line clicked off.


Mac turned back to his desk and sat down. Looking at his holo again, he deactivated the jamming signal he used for just such occasions. He’d been impressed that Ms. Bates had thought to do the same.


Something told him she wasn’t going to be easy to crush, human or not.


Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




His elbows were on the table, “Okay, if we’re going to be living in the same quarters, we need to agree on something.” Joel had been working his way up to talking about this, and there was no way of doing it without having a painfully embarrassing conversation.


“Okay,” said Molly slowly, before taking another bite of pizza. They’d picked it up from the next village rather than have their location compromised by giving their address to their local fast food place.


Joel was still feeling pretty smart about that.


“It’s just that…I, erm…Okay, so there’s no easy way to say this. The sex tapes, and the 4077. I just...I don’t want to have to come in here and find you doing the wild thing with some Estarian.” He slapped a hand down on the table and then pointed it in her direction. “Okay. There. I said it.”


Molly swallowed hard, trying not to choke on her pizza while covering her grin so as not to drop food out of her mouth.


“You’re serious?” She practically hooted with laughter as soon as she had emptied her mouth.


Taking a swig of beer, she turned her head so she could keep her eyes fixed on Joel in order to maximize his discomfort. For someone who was socially inept, Molly had picked up a trick or two along the way.


“So…you think I’m a party girl, do you?” she said finally, regaining her composure but still grinning.


“Erm…I wouldn’t say party girl…” Joel practically stammered. His cheeks were flushing a little, and it wasn’t on account of the two bottles of beer he’d downed before broaching the issue.


“Well, what then?” asked Molly, her face suddenly straight, pretending to be serious.


“Well, I just don’t want to be in that position. And what, with you being newly out of the military, and young, and gorgeous, I know it’s only a matter of time before you start hooking up with civilians.”


Molly stopped with the bottle halfway to her lips, suddenly looking at Joel in a new light. “You think I’m gorgeous?”


Eyes down, he got up from the table to grab another two bottles, taking the tops off with his hands. He placed one on the table in front of Molly and took a swig of the other before sitting back down. Still avoiding eye contact.


“Look, Joel…I’m not that wild. And I have no interest in hooking up. I’m a geek, remember? We just don’t do that kind of thing. And we have a mission now. An important one.” Her teasing voice from before seemed to slide into one that was concerned.


She was letting him off the hook. The girl might make a leader yet, he would think later when he replayed the conversation in his head.


She took another slice of pizza and folded it up on her plate. “Besides, that would be a total breach of security. If I were going to be bringing Estarians back for sex, we may as well have had our damn pizza delivered while we were at it.”


Her eyes twinkled as Joel finally decided to look up. She smiled directly at him, watching for the effect that it might have.


“Well…er…that’s okay, then,” he said gruffly, taking another swig and dropping his gaze back to his pizza again.


How he had gotten himself into this situation, he’d never know.












CHAPTER SEVEN


Mac Kerr’s Office, Health Corp Building, Downtown Uptarlung




The Estarian was sitting behind his desk when the call came in.  He paid the communications device no attention as he answered, “Yes?”


“We lost them, sir.”


Mac ground his teeth, got up from his desk, and swiped across the holo to jam the recording devices in his office.


He was getting tired of this bullshit.


“You had one simple task.” he attempted to keep the irritation out of his voice.


His attempt didn’t work.


“Sir, I know. But they just disappeared.”


“Which direction were they heading?” he asked, feeling a migraine approaching.


“They came out of your building, did a few loops around the town, and then headed west. We suspect their base is out that way somewhere. We’re closing in on them.”


The voice over the holo was trying to sound confident, but Mac had been running ops for some time. He’d survived on his instinct. And this time his instinct was telling him that they were dead in the water with this.


“Okay, bring your team back in. I’ll be in touch.”


This was what you got using Ogg teams for the task. They were all about following orders to a T. He’d need to find someone more creative to put onto this problem.


He walked back to his desk, swiped the holo call off, and closed the jamming patch.


Looking out of his floor-to-ceiling office window, he scanned the city beneath him as if that was going to somehow help him find Molly Bates and her new associate. He watched the streams of cars heading hither and thither on invisible trails. People going about their business. Their very existence and indifference to his problem felt like mockery.


And he didn’t like feeling mocked. Or threatened. Molly Bates may be safe from him for now, but eventually he’d find her.


Then he’d make her pay.



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




“Hey!” Joel poked his head around the doorframe, then stood in the doorway and reached up to grab the top of the frame, showing off his rippling muscles.


“Hey, yourself,” responded Molly, barely looking up from her archaic handheld holo. She knew she must look like something from out of the old world with her external device, but that wasn’t her fault.


Since Oz the pain-in-the-ass AI had hijacked her military wristband holo, she had little scope to do anything on her own. He had taken up all the storage and processing capacity, and, via her bio-implants, taken up residence in some of her brain too. She would get around to doing something about that as soon as she could, if only to get her onboard holo storage back.


“So, erm…” Joel looked down at his feet and shuffled a little. “I’m going to hit the sack in a few.”


“Kay.” She didn’t look up at all. She was in full geek mode. Joel saw that and smiled.


He tried again.


“I’m glad we’re working together…”


“Me too.”


Realizing he was looking for something more, she looked up briefly. “You did a good job out there, Joel.”


She flushed, embarrassed at her lame-ass words. And not cottoning on to the fact he was trying to have a human conversation with her.


Then it was Joel’s turn to flush. “We make a good team.”


God, he wanted to kick himself. What the fuck was he? A high school kid with a crush? Normally he’d be… well, different. Why was this so hard? He dropped his arms and crossed them over his chest.


“You know…” he started. Molly asked him something at the same time.


“Sorry, you go,” she smiled.


“No, go ahead…” he pointed to her.


“I was going to ask how the search for Andus is going?”


He wanted to roll his eyes. Oh my fucking god, we’re flirting over work stuff. I’ve reached a new low. When did I lose my game?  “Oh, yeah. Good. Well, not good. Nothing’s turned up with any of my contacts yet. I take it Oz hasn’t had any luck?”


“Nope. He can only access something if it’s in digital format and connected in some way to the XtraNET. These guys look like they’ve been careful. Andus must be pretty much off-grid.”


“Or using a different name,” volunteered Joel.


“Yes, we’d considered that. If your guys turn anything up, like a second name, or even a strand of DNA, then maybe we’ll have more luck with Oz.”


“Sure, I’ll keep you posted.”


Joel hesitated again, like he was going to say something else.


Molly had gone back to her holo research, very aware that Joel was still standing there but pretending to read her screen anyway.


“Whatcha looking at?” he asked after a moment of indecision.


“Researching possible operations ships. We’re going to have to get off-world soon. Very soon. I don’t think Mac or his evil Syndicate are going to let us just keep interfering. And I want to do lots more interfering. So we need a safe place to operate from.”


Joel frowned, “Wow. That was fast. I didn’t think we’d be leaving so soon.”


Her eyes danced over the data on her screen. “Oz doesn’t think that we’re going to be safe for much longer either, and you know, algorithms never lie.” She had a twinkle in her eye as she gently mocked the situation with her passenger and her own nerdiness.


She continued a moment later, “Not with the Syndicate and everything else that has gone on, and that’s not even taking into account the new cases we have coming in. He’s calculated a bunch of probabilities and scenarios using all that processing power he has. Some scenarios give us a month, but most only a couple of weeks before we’re found and taken out. We need a safe haven where no one will think to look for us.”


“And so we need a ship,” Joel said, starting to follow her logic.


“Exactly.”


Joel’s face lit up a little. “A ship with guns?”


You can take the man out of the military, but you can’t take the love of blowing shit up out of the man, thought Molly. “Preferably. Or if we can find one at the right price, maybe we can retrofit. We’re just looking into options right now.”


“We? You and…”


“Oz.”


“Right. Oz.” Joel took a couple of steps and perched on the foot of the bed next to Molly. “How mad is that? You have an AI tied into your holo. And your brain.”


“Yeah. Mad, or maddening,” agreed Molly.


I heard that!


You hear everything, Dickwad.


“Yeah…I just, I can’t wrap my brain around it.” Joel was still working to come to terms with the idea.


Well, that’s not unexpected. 


Get back to your searching, or I will upgrade your name to ass-crack or something similar. And c’mon, cut out the snark. Joel’s a good man, and our only team member. 


“Hey, you know what you could help with?” Molly looked up again from her browsing.


Joel smiled over at her. “Anything…”


“We’re going to need a pilot. And a really badass mechanic to keep this ship running. Someone ex-military. With experience. A variety of experiences. And someone who can adapt to the changing nature of our operation as we grow. Know of anyone?”


Joel thought for a moment before answering, “Not offhand, but I can start asking around.”


“That would be amaze-balls. Thanks, Joel.” Molly smiled encouragement, with a glimmer of flirtation.


Joel just looked at her, a little stunned. She totally knew the effect that was having on him. Fokk, this girl is ruthless.


He tried to slow his heartbeat back to normal, but it was so hard. He should go ahead and leave. Being here in her bedroom, his thoughts just got mangled. This was something he was going to have to manage carefully.


Then reality hit him through the onslaught of his mind’s hormonal shields: “How are we going to pay for all this?”


She cocked her head, “You mean the ship and the new team members? I have a plan.”


“Uh huh. Care to share with the rest of the group?” he replied as he pointed to himself.


She smirked, “It’s a very complicated plan, using the latest in AI research and, trust me, more than a shitload of computational power. Are you ready for this?”


He nodded, so she answered. “We’re just going to take on bigger clients,” she admitted.


Joel looked at her a moment, trying to figure out which part of that was true, and which part of that answer was false. He came to the conclusion the first part was her idea of a joke.


“Just like that then?” he harrumphed.


“Just like that,” she agreed.


Joel was stymied. Her logic was clear, simple, and pretty damned direct. Often he couldn’t tell if she was autistic or a genius.


It was like she had no anxiety around taking on a challenge and taking on even larger clients would be a challenge. She just did what needed to be done. It was always the same on operations, back when they were running the same missions. Sometimes he really envied that ability she had.


Other times it was damned annoying, if not intimidating.


“Okay, I’m going to hit the sack then.” He stood up and looked back at her.


“Night, Joel.” She told him.


“Night, Molly.”


He headed out of her room, and into his own. Closing his door behind him, he leaned against it. “Goddamn it, Joel. You’re such a drulludel” He cursed himself, gently banging his head so as not to make too much sound.


---


The safe house was all quiet, and Joel’s light had been off for hours. Molly was still filtering through ship specs.


As much as she’d always enjoyed her solitude in these wee hours, she was enjoying having Oz as company. Apart from anything, he was making the work go much faster. It was fun to cut out some of the mundane searching and just tell him what she needed.


Maybe she just liked the feeling of making progress more quickly, and it had nothing to do with the company. She’d always considered herself something of a lone wolf, so maybe it really was the faster progress that made the difference.


She set another search running, having adjusted the criteria to include the newer core fusion system and an operating system that was programmed in Estarian, rather than Ogg basic language, so she and the crew could actually understand the labels and directions on the ship. She hated not knowing which chain to pull for help and which to flush the toilet with when she traveled public air transport in Ogg.


She hit search, and then made a note to make sure that she procured other items they would need once they got to a base off-world. Furniture. Weapons. This was turning into one mammoth project. She was starting to gain a new appreciation for all the administration the military did.


She thought for a second she heard a noise somewhere in the house. She wasn’t sure, though. It might have been something in her auditory implant as she set the note to save. Plus she was tired.


She paused and waited, listening.


There was a noise again, like someone moved something in the kitchen. Stiffly, she put the holo to one side of the bed and wiggled off the mattress. She’d been sitting for too long with her legs crossed; she needed to give the blood time to run.


Picking up her weapon off the makeshift bed stand, she started creeping towards the bedroom door. She noticed she was only in her underwear and a t-shirt.


Oh well, maybe I can distract the intruder, she thought glibly, resisting the urge to roll her eyes at herself.


She had been expecting Mac to send someone after her. It had been a few days since her appearance in his office, and she had threatened him. She knew at the time it was probably a bad idea, but if she hadn’t riled him up, they wouldn’t know about the Syndicate or his involvement in the political landscape of fuckery that was the Central Systems’ way of governing.


She wondered how they’d been traced, though. They took proper counter-measures whenever they went out, and she was pretty sure they hadn’t been followed when she rescued Joel. Of course, it may just have taken his team of assholes this long to be able to crunch through the shit-ton of traffic cam data to track them…but still.


She made her way down the corridor to the kitchen door.


Her heart was in her mouth. She was a techie. A lab rat. She wasn’t cut out for hand-to-hand or any other kind of combat, apart from under the supervision of real soldiers like Joel. Or in a controlled environment, like the dojo.


Her arms and legs went weak with the adrenalin, as they had every time she had to fight in training. Fokk.


Something toppled. Like a bottle. There was definitely someone moving in there. She rounded the doorframe and scanned the kitchen, expecting to have some dark figure jump her at any second.


Nothing.


No movement. No figure. Nothing.


Then she caught something jumping from the counter onto the floor, and the sound of something scampering.


Shit. This better not be something out of those archived alien films Grandpa would watch with her. Her heart was beating out of her chest.


It seemed Joel had heard something and was moving down the corridor to join her.


She was relieved.


She was all for the independent female, and the every-nerd-for-herself movement, but there was something comforting about a soldier having her back. She turned back to the door and caught his eye, motioning in the direction of the movement. He had his weapon drawn too, and it followed the line of sight where she was indicating.


He mouthed “on three”. And then…


“One. Two. THREE!”


He slammed the lights on and stormed the kitchen table, expecting to find a Sarkian of one race or another crouched under the table.


What he found, he took a second to register.


Molly watched as his expression turned from serious, “I’m going to blow the shit out of you,” to shock and surprise, and then to “I can’t believe we were so stupid.”


Molly rounded the table and stooped down to see what he was looking at.


There, staring back up at them, was probably the most adorable and weird-looking kitty on the planet, if not the system.


Well, “kitty” isn’t exactly the description she could use to any of the Sarkians. A “kitty” was a human’s version of a cat. From the Pan galaxy. This was the feline companion of the Estarian variety. They were furless, with effulgent deep purple skin and bright orange eyes, and long associated with being able to cross over into the next realm with their owners who were destined for the next type of existence.


Nope, technically this was a sphinx.


His eerily bright orange eyes almost seemed to query them, “What’s all the fuss about?”


Molly breathed a sigh of relief. A sigh that, mid-breath, turned into laughter. Joel found himself chuckling along with her.


All their military training, stacked against…a kitty.


A sphinx, Oz corrected in her thoughts.


Molly ignored him.


“Aww…he’s so sweet,” cooed Molly. She fell to her knees and reached under the table to pick him up. The sphinx didn’t resist. Instead, he let her pull him out from under the table, and then just curled up against her as she cuddled him close and stood up.


“Yeah. How do you know it’s a boy?” Joel asked, putting the safety back on his weapon and stuffing it in the back of his sweatpants.


Molly laughed. “I didn’t, but…” she lifted the sphinx a little higher and turned it over. “Yep, definitely a boy kitty.” She grinned at Joel. Joel’s big hands were petting him as Molly held the little guy in her arms. She felt Joel close to her and was still comforted by the presence of her teammate, who had demonstrated how he had her back even in the middle of the night against a very dangerous feline.


The sphinx turned around and nipped at Joel’s hand.


He snatched his hand back. “Hey!” he said playfully.


“It’s okay. They do that. He’s probably hungry. Take him…I’ll fix him some food from our leftovers.” She handed the purring purple creature over to Joel and turned to the fridge.


Joel looked awkward at first. All his training and muscle and people skills were worth nothing when it came to dealing with something so small, cute and eerily mystical.


“Always thought these creatures were a little…off. I mean, look at him. It’s like he can read my thoughts.” He still held the sphinx, a little uncomfortably, like he was trying to keep him away from his body.


Molly had one hand on the fridge door and was rummaging through the contents. She turned and looked at him, one eyebrow raised.


He shook his head. “Don’t look at me like that! Seriously. It’s like it’s got the body of a sphinx, but the mind of a wise old grownup. It’s creepy.”


“Anyone ever told you that you have an overactive imagination?” Molly remarked, gently mocking him with her signature straight face.


The sphinx had settled into his arms and was purring again. Joel seemed to relax a little, and let him lean against his chest. Molly pulled a dish of food out of the fridge, and set about separating out a small portion.


“So, we feed him and then what? Can we keep him?” He wondered if he sounded more like a boyfriend than an operations manager at that moment.


Molly seemed to miss that, though.


“Well, sphinxes are really rare, from what I’ve read. I can’t imagine he hasn’t got an owner. I’ll bet they’re pretty expensive, too. We should check with the landlady, see if she knows who he belongs to.”


“Okay, I’ll handle that in the morning.” Yup, that sounded more like an operations manager, he reassured himself.


Molly put the bowl of food on the floor for the sphinx and indicated to Joel to let him down. Joel seemed reluctant for a second, and then awkwardly tried to put him down on the tiles. Halfway down the sphinx leapt from his arms and deftly plunked down on all fours, heading straight for the food.


“Damn, he must be hungry,” murmured Joel, now under the natural spell that small, cute creatures put their people under.


Molly, having fed the creature and neutralized the threat of the “intruder,” had now lost interest. She started back towards the door. “I’m heading back to bed, then.”


“What about a name?” Joel asked.


“Huh?” She took a beat, and then realized he was talking about the sphinx. “Well, he might already have a name…”


Joel nodded. “Right. Okay. I’ll find out. Night.”


“Night,” Molly casually waved backwards through a yawn, as she disappeared up the short corridor to her room.


Joel stood and watched the sphinx eat for a few moments, then checked the doors and windows before retiring himself.


Wonder how he got in? he thought idly to himself, turning to check the doors and windows of the kitchen another time. Having examined all possible entrances and exits and confirmed the house was secure, he gave up.


Must have come in when we had the doors open during the day, he concluded.


Switching off the kitchen light, he headed back to bed. Molly’s light was still on. He shook his head.


That girl kept bizarre hours…












CHAPTER EIGHT


Spire, Capital of Estaria. Two hundred kilometers north of Uptarlung




Rassgat! Pick up the holo, Dewitt.” Garet was in trouble. His only chance at survival was to convince Dewitt he was faithful.


He flagged down a cab and forced his way into the backseat, looking over his shoulder and struggling with his brown leather briefcase.


“The Mandeli Hotel. Fast.” He barked his order at the cabbie. The cabbie didn’t acknowledge him verbally. He just pulled quietly out into the traffic, lifted off two seconds later when it was safe to pull out into a faster lane to get across town.


The traffic below was intense. Garet craned his neck to look down through the window to see if he was being followed.


If he couldn’t convince Dewitt he had no intention of using the files, he was going to need a Plan B which involved disappearing. And for that, he needed a pro.


Just then he saw another car pull up and out of the traffic below. It was black, with blacked out windows. They’d found him.


Shit!


“I’ll pay you a hundred credits if you can get me to the hotel before that black vehicle catches us.”


The cabbie spoke for the first time. “You got it.” He stepped on the accelerator, and the car heaved forward.


After so much bad luck in the last few days, Garet had finally, if ignorantly, struck gold by jumping into Sean Royal’s cab.


Not only had Sean been with the service for forty years, but he was discharged after being awarded the Seal. No one outside his unit would have known what that meant, but for the men, women, and others he’d worked with, it was the highest commendation one could earn.


And he had been itching for a bit of action ever since he retired two years, four months and fifteen days ago.


Not that he was counting.


The cab pulled away at near warp speed. Damn, this cab has been kitted out, Garet realized. He scrambled in his bag for the hundred credits and put them in a pile on the seat next to him.


He was going to need an extraction plan. He pulled up another contact on his holo and dialed.


“Hi, yes, its Garet Beaufort. I need your help. I hear you’re still in the business?”


There was a pause while he listened. He saw the cabbie watching him in his rearview mirror.


“It’s okay, I can pay. I need an extraction. I’m heading to the Mandeli Hotel, but I’m being pursued by two of Dewitt’s goons. Yeah, the guy I work for. I’ve got sensitive intel. He suspects I’m going to use it.”


Another pause.


“Shit, no. Of course I wasn’t blackmailing him; that would be fucking stupid.”


He paused.


“Okay. Hurry. They almost caught up with me in the parking lot after a meeting. I can’t even go home; he knows where I live. I’m toast if you don’t get here in time.”


There was quiet while he listened in his auditory implant. The cabbie had turned his attention back to driving, but Garet suspected he was still eavesdropping.


“Okay. I’ll message you my room number once I’m checked in. Hurry!” A hint of his true desperation involuntarily seeped into his voice.


He poked at the holo, and tried to sit back and catch his breath.


“Bad day?” the driver looked at him again in his rearview mirror.


“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Garet was used to being in control. Being respected. He felt exposed; a cabbie knew he was in trouble.


“Listen, when I drop you, I’ll drop you on the corner and then you can walk into the hotel. I’ll drive another couple of blocks and pretend like I’m letting you off at a different hotel. Whoever is following you will think that you’re staying somewhere else. Might buy you a bit more time.”


“Wow. Thank you!” Garet felt slightly embarrassed by the kindness of a stranger. And amazed that a cab driver would even think about that…


“Do you get a lot of people who are being followed in your taxi?” Garet’s curiosity was written across his face as his brow unfurrowed a little.


“No. But you look like you’re in trouble, and I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with trouble. Ex-military.” Sean nodded at the picture stuck between the vents of his dashboard. “Miss it, y’know?”


Garet leaned forward, glad of the distraction. The photo he could see was of the driver and a team of other smiling men in full cam gear standing in front of a space bird.


“Space Marine, right?”


“That’s right. All my life, from when I was old enough to join up.”


“Very cool. Well...er… thank you.”


“You’re welcome.”


Moments later they pulled up on the corner of Rofabaer and Baejarhais.


“The hotel is just one hundred yards up there,” Sean pointed at where Garet needed to go.


Garet gathered his gear and started to get out of the cab. He handed the hundred credits, plus the fee, to the cabbie. “I’m sure lucky I hopped into your cab. And I’m grateful. Thank you.”


“Anytime. In fact, here are my digits.” The cabbie swiped at his holo and bounced it against Garet’s wrist holo, transferring his contact details.


“Call if you need any further help. Civilian life is peaceful, but when you’ve lived your whole life on the edge, it’s impossible not to crave a bit more adventure now and again.” He winked.


“Thank you. I will, if I survive this!” Garet smiled sardonically, as he hauled ass onto the street. Leaving the protection of the cab and Sean Royal behind, he suddenly felt very exposed.


The cab pulled away and disappeared into traffic, followed moments later by the dark car with blacked out windows.


Garet kept his head down as he watched out of the corner of his eye. They drove right past. It worked!


He scurried towards the hotel and disappeared inside as quickly as he could.



Dewitt Residence, Spire




Senate Official William Dewitt saw the call flash up on his holo. He clocked Garet’s name, and guessed that he was calling to try and make some kind of bargain.


It was too late for that.


The betrayal was done. Now the only question was how quickly he could contain it.


Dewitt swiped to reject the call. It would be taken care of soon enough.


He turned his attention back to the speech he had been working on. It still wasn’t quite right. Taking out a whole paragraph, he reread that section. Yes, that gave it the kind of philanthropic feel he was after. He was in full preparation mode. Years of hard work and ass-kissing were finally coming together.


Having a thought, he got up from the desk in his home office and padded through to his bedroom. He went straight to his closet and found his tie rack.


Blue. Blue. Blue, blue, blue…


He flicked through numerous blue ties until he found the one he was searching for. There it was. His lucky tie. Blue would also allow him to portray a sense of security and trustworthiness. That’s what the people needed to feel when they supported this bill.


His holo flashed up with another call. It was Henrik, as he called his two goons Henry and Erik. He accepted the call. It should be good news. He placed the blue tie on the bed and started flicking through his shirts.


“We’re in pursuit downtown. He’s probably going to try and hole up somewhere. We’re closing in.”


“Excellent. Let me know when it is done.” He clicked off the call, and refocused his attention on his wardrobe.


Satisfied for the moment, he strode back through to his office and sat down at his desk. Taking a sip of mocha, he found he was quite happy with the way his life was these days. Power. Respect. And money, the kind that bought good mocha and comfortable surroundings. He certainly enjoyed owning this house in one of the most expensive districts in the Central Systems jurisdiction.


He just needed to get this part of the speech nailed, in case Andus asked to see it. Then he would make that call and deliver the good news about the loose end that was being wrapped up.


His gray eyes dropped back down to the holo screen to continue working on his speech.



Parade Ground, Nefertiti Military Base, Central Systems 




“Hello, dear.”


“Mom?”


Molly felt dizzy, and the light in her eyes was so bright. She squinted, trying to see her mom.


“We came to see you.”


Molly watched as her mom and dad approached her from the stands. She was at a parade. Her graduation parade. Cadets and parents made a crowd and a hubbub of activity all around her.


Part of her felt at peace, yet in the pit of her stomach, she felt bad. Like she had done something terrible.


She was in full military gear, having just graduated from basic training. She was going to be a scientist for the military. But she didn’t feel proud. She felt embarrassed.


“What’s wrong, sweetie?” her mom’s voice came through beyond the light in her eyes. She shielded her eyes a little and she could see her mom more clearly. Molly’s dad was next to her. Just as he always was.


She could smell her mom’s best perfume. Her father was wearing one of his posh suits; one that he only pulled out for weddings and other special occasions. Mom was even wearing lipstick, which looked odd on her. Kind of out of place.


“I just feel so wrong, mom. I shouldn’t be here.”


“But, sweetie, this is what you wanted.” Her mom cooed as if Molly were just being silly.


“We want you to know we’re very proud of you,” her dad leaned in and told her.


Molly looked up at her father. She knew he meant it, but deep down she wasn’t proud of herself. She felt so ashamed.


Her mother nudged her father.


The Sark beat down on them, and the crowd was overwhelming. Molly was getting uncomfortable in her uniform, all layers and tassels. It was like graduating from college. She felt stupid and unattractive.


“We just want you to know how very proud of you we are,” her mom was saying once more.


All Molly could see was the envelope that her father was pulling out of his jacket pocket to hand over to her.


A blood spot appeared on it.


She looked up to see where it had come from.


Her mother smiled her best public smile; the one she would use at school events when she was trying to convince everyone how proud she was of her daughter, and by extension, what a good mother she was.


As Molly watched the envelope, the blood spot got bigger and bigger as it soaked through the paper, until the whole thing was covered in blood.


Panic rose up in Molly’s stomach.


Her father was oblivious to the blood. He was asking Molly, “Aren’t you going to take it? Don’t you want it?”


Molly couldn’t move. Paralyzed and unable to even speak or scream, she felt her heart beating out of her chest.


---


Molly awoke, hyperventilating—the brightness of the parade and crowd replaced by the darkness of her room in the safe house. It was cold and damp and she was alone, even though she could feel the lingering sense of the crowd and her parents.


Waiting for her heart rate to return to normal, she noticed the adrenalin—how it made her anxious and sick all at the same time. The image of the blood, and the feelings of shame and inadequacy seemed to pulse through her system.


She wiped at her face, and let her head hang in her hands a moment. She felt wet.


She realized she was drenched in sweat.


Her heart hurt.


Her parents had tried to help her.


They hadn’t been at the parade, but they had sent her a video message afterwards explaining everything. Molly knew they meant well. They tracked her down, despite her best efforts to disappear. But if she wasn’t ready to forgive herself, then there was no way she would let anyone else.


She lay back down and tried to calm herself. Trying to breathe, she waited for the awful sensations to pass.


She felt like shit.


Maybe one day she would be ready, but today was not that day.



Private limo, somewhere on the F338, near Spire




Dewitt’s name flashed up on Andus’ holo. Mr. Luc Andus held up one finger to silence the woman on his left as he took the call.


“Is it done?” he asked, his voice cold and quiet.


“My people were in pursuit about twenty minutes ago. If it isn’t done yet, it will be very soon.”


“I have trusted you to take care of this. There are bigger things that need our full attention.”


“Yes, sir. I thought you would be pleased to know it is in hand. The speech is also ready for review. I thought you might appreciate the option of having it looked over by one of your people. We agreed it was important for this address to set the right tone, and…er, emphasis.” He said the last word as if it were code.


Andus nodded, even though the caller wouldn’t see. “For the bill that is about to be passed. I’m assured we have adequate support, but, yes, public perception is important. Send it to my holo, if you would.”


“Very good, sir. Will that be all?”


“Yes, thank you.”


The holo disconnected.


Andus drew in a deep breath. He was long enough in the tooth to know when something was going to shit, and this latest disturbance with one of Dewitt’s employees only went to confirm what his gut had already told him.


“Was that him?” asked the stunningly manicured woman sitting next to him.


“Yes, our former friend, Mr. Dewitt.”


Former friend?” she clarified, as if she hadn’t already guessed what was in play. Jessica Newld was a highly astute political genius. She could predict the way the winds of favor would blow several steps out. Her father had taught her chess as a metaphor for watching the bigger picture…and the smaller details.


“Yes, former,” Andus confirmed. “It seems his loyalties have swayed. He has something that might expose us, and I would feel more comfortable if this were no longer in the equation.”


Jessica glanced over at him, humor glimmering in her eyes. “Am I to take this to mean that you are going to remove anyone who has a little dirt on you?”


His cold gray eyes met hers.


“Should I be worried?” she grinned brightly.


He pulled his attention away and looked straight ahead through the glass panel between them and the driver, fixing his eyes on the road.


Jessica, sensing her playfulness wasn’t being well received, tried again. “This is the incident with the server being hacked?” She used her boardroom voice.


“Not hacked, Ms. Newld; just downloaded. Casually. By two employees.”


She knew this. She’d read the encrypted memo. But as Daddy had taught her, it was important to get people to say these things out loud. To vocalize their discontent. It made them more likely to follow through on their feelings, as they would subconsciously seek to avoid cognitive dissonance. That meant they wanted to avoid making themselves liars, he had told her. It also engendered trust. At least in male Sarkians.


“Oh, dear. But this happens. Surely you don’t suspect something more sinister?”


Andus suspected she was playing dumb. He knew her act well, having helped her rise to power over the span of her relatively short career. He could almost predict where she would let her accent lilt, in perfect placement to engender just enough softness to appear harmless.


He knew better, though. She was like a black widow once she locked onto a target. Not unlike himself in many ways.


Still, he didn’t mind humoring her. On some level he knew he should engage in social pleasantries. “Well, the information that was stolen would expose us all. You, me, and our trusted friends. The only reason to have been keeping that kind of intelligence would be to provide proof, either to leverage us, or to hand over to authorities.”


Jessica’s face fell as she began to feign realization. “He was keeping it to use against us…”


Andus nodded solemnly.


“By my ancestors, where is the trust anymore?!” Her new pretend outrage was evident across her perfectly made up face. Her eyes flashed with the kind of annoyance brought about only by a lifetime of entitlement—and practice.


She shifted in her seat to look out of the window.



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Molly ambled into the kitchen, drawn by the smell of pancakes and mocha. The sphinx had spent the rest of the night on Molly’s bed, snuggled up against her legs. Now, following her to the kitchen, it seemed he’d found his new mommy.


I wonder how long it’s going to take him to realize that I’m about as maternal as a rhesus monkey reared for the lab? mused Molly.


Oz didn’t understand the reference, and remained unengaged.


Probably working on something busy and important. 


“…yes. Yes. I understand. We’ll be there as soon as we can. It’s a two-hour ride, and we will need to grab our gear. Hang tight.”


Joel hung up on his holo.


“Calls before breakfast?” Molly queried with raised eyebrows. She broke off a piece of pancake from a plate of food Joel had already laid out for her.


“We got ourselves a case. An urgent one. Extraction, over in Spire.”


He turned off the heat under the protein cubes he had been frying.


“What’s the story?” Molly asked, pouring herself half a mug of mocha. It was probably more than what she had time for by the sounds of it, but decided she would drink whatever she could get down while Joel quickly briefed her.


“Guy came to me shortly after the Health Corp case broke on the news. Said he would need our services, but that he needed to get his ducks in a row. I told him to call when he was ready.”


He paused, eyebrows raised, staring down at Molly. Molly was slurping her mocha, but stopped when she realized it was interrupting him.


Joel continued.


“Well, he’s ready now. Apparently his employer, a high-level politician, knows he’s been stealing files that are incriminating to the nth degree. He swears he didn’t intend to use them or to blackmail him, but there’s no knowing for sure. He could be a dirtbag. But then, he could just be a guy who has accidentally gotten tied up in some bad shit that is going down.”


“Which do you think he is?” Molly tilted her head at him, clinically curious as to how Joel would make such an assessment.


“Either. Both. I don’t know. But he’s offering us ten thousand credits to extract him from a hotel in Spire. It seems he’s being tracked by the politician’s heavies. His life is in danger. I think we can help.”


“Well, Ansans Ari, I’m in. What are we doing, standing around making breakfast? We have a life to save!” She sounded irritated as she snapped into operations mode.


They’d been taking things easy because they didn’t have a case, but now it was urgent. And their asses weren’t moving already.


Joel watched her leave, dazed by the sudden activity and distracted by the tank top she had already started taking off as she disappeared out of the door.


He shook the thought from his head. Gear. I need to assemble gear for an attraction. Damn it—an extraction. EX-traction.












CHAPTER NINE


Fourteen minutes later they were in the car steaming towards Spire slightly above the speed limit. Heck, the last thing they wanted was to get pulled over, as Oz had logically pointed out.


Oz had also suggested that maybe Joel needed to adapt to the civilian environment if he was going to survive future missions. Molly thought it best to not communicate that to him right now though.


Might I make a suggestion? 


You mean another one? 


Molly continued with her weapons check and her mental checklist, making sure they had everything they would need to go into a potentially hostile extraction.


If you allow me to hook into the car’s system, I will be able to look after it and bring it to whichever exit would be most useful to you. 


Sounds like a plan. Actually, you know, Oz, it’s like having another team member on our side. That’s a great idea. 


Good. Accessing now. I can also optimize our route and driving experience to get us there faster. 


Make it so… 


“Hey! What the fokk…!” Joel’s hands started agitating, as if he were fighting with the steering wheel.


The steering wheel was clearly winning.


“Oh, shit. Sorry, Joel.” Molly realized what was happening.


“This is you?” he jerked a look over at her.


Molly couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah. Well, it’s Oz. He’s…erm…taking over the driving, I guess. He’ll man the getaway too.”


He flung a hand up, “A little heads up would go a long way. Hell! That could have been a mechanical error, or a busted inner core, or…anything! For fuck’s sake!”


Joel was clearly more rattled than he would have been with an actual problem. But then, an actual problem he would know how to fix.


“Touchy, eh? Hope you don’t lose your shit if things go sideways in a real crisis,” Molly teased, seeing if she might get a reaction.


Recovering himself, Joel took his feet from the pedals and sat awkwardly in the driver’s seat, watching the car drive itself.


Or, rather, watched his task being usurped by a glorified Tamagotchi.


She continued, “I didn’t think he was going to take over right away. He just asked about access.”


“Sounds like your version of an apology,” he grumped, noticing her attempt at the people relations thing.


“Don’t get too used to it, dickwad. I just need you on your game.” She looked over to him and smiled before changing the subject and attempting to be professional again. “Which hotel did you say our package is in?”


“Mandeli. No room number yet. He was in the cab en route.”


“That’s okay, Oz can find that, and the floor plans, too.”


Room 410. 


Bloody hell that was fast!


We aim to please. 


And what’s with your snappy repartee all of a sudden? What have you been using to teach yourself integrated language? 


I found a bunch of archived shows in your cloud storage. I’ve been reviewing some of the video files in the hours when you have been asleep or boring. 


Boring? I’m never boring! You take that back, you jumped-up subroutine. 


You are when you’re doing your thinking thing. You kick me out of all the capacity, and I can barely read anything you’re doing. So I’ve found a way of keeping myself amused. 


Well, bully for you…


“Room 410. And we can take either the front entrance, or breach a fire exit on the fourth floor. Driver’s choice.”


I’d recommend the front door. That way, you won’t be causing criminal damage or breaking and entering. 


“Sorry, Oz, when I said driver, I meant Joel.”


But I’m driving. 


“Yes, but Joel was the driver until you took over.”


Besides, she continued privately to Oz…he needs to be able to make some decisions in this, especially since you just startled the crap out of him, and stole the most testosterone-coveted job in the world from him. 


Touché. 


“Joel?”


“Still weird hearing only half the conversation.” He was checking each of his weapons in turn, now in full ops mode. She knew that face.


He answered her, “I’d say fourth floor breach. We can be in and out without endangering anyone else, blowing our cover, or getting caught on camera. Plus, time is of the essence. We have no idea whether he was able to shake those goons. He could already be dead, for all we know.”


“At least we know he checked in now,” added Molly, engrossed in the floor plans.


“True. Lemme message him.” Joel holstered the sidearm that he’d been checking and pulled up his holo.


May I raise a point? 


Sure.


Well, you are both carrying weapons that can kill, is that correct?


That’s right. We’re trained and licensed, and we are potentially walking into a situation where criminals are likely to try and take us out if we prevent them from carrying out the hit on our client. 


Right. Except, point of law—you’re also criminals. You’re no longer protected by the legal entity of the military, and you’ve already killed three people since you’ve been out of the service. Is carrying weapons wise? 


Hell yes, it is. I’m not going in there with no way of defending myself. 


Right, but… Oz paused, processing.


Molly felt a little unnerved.


Are you thinking? YOU ARE, AREN’T YOU? You’re changing tack with me! 


She’d seen that happen on many a man’s face before now, and now she could feel it in her circuits. (His circuits. My neurology, she corrected herself.)


She knew exactly what was going on.


Molly was shocked, if not a little pissed off. You’re adapting to my reasoning in order to manipulate me into doing what you suggest! 


I was not. I was processing what you said in order to come up with a more agreeable solution. 


You’re HANDLING me!


I was just going to suggest setting your weapons to stun, rather than kill. 


Molly stopped.


She stopped thinking. Stopped moving. She just stopped.


Shit.


The damned twisted-bit-sentient-parameter-laden subroutine was right.


She spoke. “Joel. Weapons to stun. No need to add to our post-military body count.”


Molly felt a funny feeling in her brain. Like humor, vibrating.


You’re fucking kidding me. You’re laughing? And what’s more, you’re laughing AT me!


Yes, ma’am. I’m laughing. That has got to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen you do!


Talk about fucking machine humor. It’s not even funny. 


She felt the vibration intensify. It felt like her teeth were itching. Fokk, if this robot had a body she’d slap him sideways right about now.


“Alright. Looks like we’re here.” Joel was oblivious to the exchange and had his game face on, ready to breach and retrieve his client.


Molly composed herself, and willed Oz to do the same.


“Oz, if you could…” Joel began.


Oz was already pulling off into a side street parallel to the hotel. Navigating through the next alley, he approached their building at a hover, and then took it up from two stories to four. Moments later, Joel was clambering onto the fire exit on the fourth floor.


“Our guy should be two rooms down on the right,” said Molly over the sound of the car and the hum of the city.


“Roger that.” Joel was already working on opening the door from the outside. He slipped a metal tool down the side of the door and sheared off the bolt. The door swung open, and Joel stepped deftly around the frame and into the corridor.


Molly followed suit.



Hotel Mandeli, downtown Spire




Really not my fault we went to the wrong hotel, Erik.” The Ogg glanced irritably sideways at his partner, as he opened the door to the hotel lobby. Henry stepped through.


“You were the one who was meant to be watching the cab and navigating. You try watching traffic and doing everything else all at once!” Erik attempted to defend himself to his partner, Henry.


“When are you going to stop blaming everything on everyone else and take some responsibility for the results in your life?” Henry was a fan of self-help. What this meant, in essence, was that he spent a big chunk of time trying to self-help the shit out of Erik.


“When are you going to stop talking like fokking Rony Tobbins, Henry?”


“When you start acting like a helvítis grownup, my dear he-friend.” Henry waved his hand gracefully in front of Erik’s face, and then turned and continued walking—well, strutting—towards the reception desk.


Erik watched Henry’s hips swaying in front of him, but was still irritated. “Skoffin! This is the last time I take a job with you. After this, that’s it. No more, Henry. You’ll be on your own. Then see how you like it.”


The two Oggs cut their individual swaths through the foyer of guests and travelers to arrive at the reception desk.


“Let me do the talking,” Erik told Henry dismissively.


Henry stood a foot behind him and repeated his words soundlessly, grimacing. Crossing his arms, he waited for Erik to fuck it up, causing them have to shoot someone to get the information they needed.


“Hi, there…Jaswant.” Erik leaned on the desk, beaming his best fake smile at the receptionist. His eyes lingered on her name badge.


“Good morning, sir. Checking in?” Jaswant looked up politely and professionally.


“No, but I’m here to see a friend. His name is Garet Beaufort. Which room is he in, please?”


Henry, still a few paces back from the desk, rolled his eyes.


“I’m afraid we can’t give out our guests’ room numbers. Would you like me to call him for you?” Jaswant was used to this. Busy, demanding businessmen were in and out of this establishment, and there was one thing they all had in common: they thought the two inner planets revolved around them, rather than the Sark.


“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist.” Erik pulled his gun from its holster and laid it on the counter. Jaswant’s eyes widened, her pupils dilating as she realized the threat in front of her. Erik took his hand from the gun, demonstrating confidence that even if she made a grab for it, he would still have the power.


“Here we go…” intoned Henry under his breath, cocking one hip to the side, ready for the carnage that was about to unfold.


Jaswant was still looking at the gun in fear.


Henry decided to interrupt. “Erik, you’ve clearly scared her. Now she can’t do anything. You’re such a blunt instru—”


“Shut up, Henry. I’ve got this,” he snapped over his shoulder.


“Jaswant, I. Just. Want. You. to look up Beaufort’s room number on the holo for me. Please.” He smirked at his own joke.


Henry rolled his eyes again and huffed a dramatic sigh.


Jaswant took every ounce of focus she could muster, and pulled her attention away from the gun, composing herself just enough to poke at a few keys on the holo screen.


“Room 410,” she said, almost absentmindedly, her attention back on the gun sitting on the countertop.


Erik grabbed the pistol and turned to leave, Henry trotting after him. They headed straight for the elevators. No point in wearing ourselves out on the stairs, thought Erik as he pressed the button, feeling a little guilty about his expanding midriff. Plenty of time for exercise on his day off, he thought casually.


Back at the desk Jaswant’s colleagues were consoling her and picking up the phone to call the police and hotel security.


---


Molly, hotel security has been called. There was an incident at the front desk ten seconds ago. Two Oggs in gray atmosuits are on their way up to room 410. 


Thanks, Oz. 


“Joel,” Molly called out from the fire escape as she clambered into the dimly lit corridor.


Joel had already disappeared into the hotel room with their package. Fucking hell… thought Molly, as she practically ran to the room.


She smacked the open door and yelled into the room as she turned her head to scan down the hall. “We’ve got to move. Two Oggs are on their way up. They’ll be here any second!”


Joel grabbed Garet’s briefcase and yelled to Garet over his shoulder. “Come on dammit, we have a car waiting. Move it or they are going to shoot your ass!”


Molly scanned the hallway for the threat as Joel drew his weapon and grabbed a somewhat bewildered Garet by the upper arm. The corridor was empty, but she could sense there was movement out of their view by the elevators.


“Too late,” she reported, quickly pulling out her own weapon. “They’re here.”


She stepped into the doorway, her gun ready to fire. A second later the two Oggs appeared around the corner.


She fired.


Taken by surprise, the two Oggs scuttled back and drew their weapons to return fire.


Molly ducked back and regrouped to get some more shots in. She listened for their firing pattern.


Joel snapped into crisis management. He interrupted, pulling her arm to get her attention. “There are two of them. We need to rethink this.”


The onslaught of rounds made a ruckus as they whistled past the door and hit walls randomly.


The second time, he yanked Molly from the doorway. “Get Garet away from the door and keep him safe.” His instructions were calm and firm. He poked his head around the doorframe and the firing started up again.


Down the corridor Henry and Erik were embroiled in their own situation management.


The two Oggs were clearly not used to resistance. Their change in demeanor when they rounded that corner told Molly everything she needed to know. Joel was going to take these wannabes out in no time.


“Oh, sweet religious figures from history. You always have to cause a standoff, Erik,” Henry complained under his breath as the two poked their heads back around the corner, firing without even looking.


Erik turned his head back to him. “Not like you’re much help!” he muttered, his eyes now completely off his target.


“Well, maybe we need to think about what a standoff gives you, huh?” Henry’s frustration was beginning to show in his cheeks. “Maybe it’s the attention, hey? You ever think of that? Maybe that’s the way you get the attention you crave?”


Erik stopped firing and pointed his gun at Henry, his eyes narrowed. “Will you STOP with that psychobabble bullshit and do something to help?”


Joel had wedged the door, and was returning fire every time he got the opportunity. He had no intention of hitting them, but was giving Molly time to get the package safe.


“Your suit is armor-reinforced, right?” Joel spoke out to her between shots, still calm and clinical. He was in deep concentration, as if he were an air traffic controller at the planet’s busiest space port.


“Yes,” she hissed back to him from inside the room. She pushed Garet up against the far corner, well out of the way of gunfire. If anything was going to get him, it was going to have to blast through the bathroom.


“Ok. Watch for debris. Protect his face. I have a plan.”


Garet slumped down in the corner, the adrenalin stealing the power from his limbs. Molly heard Joel close and lock the room’s door.


“That’s not going to hold them,” she called back over the sound of now incessant gun fire in the corridor. The pitch of her voice had risen, Garet noticed. His face paled.


He was screwed.


Molly looked at him cowering and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She headed over to protect him with her suit. “Get up!” she instructed.


Garet struggled, using the wall to leverage himself up. His legs just couldn’t take his weight.


Molly, gun in one hand, tried to use her other hand to haul him up against the wall.


Looks like someone is having fun!


Shut up, Oz. Not now. 


I’m just saying. I haven’t seen you get that close and personal with a human being before. 


She felt her breast accidentally press against Garet’s splaying body.


Not now, Oz. Though how the fuck do you know what’s going on…?


Sensors. 


This time Molly did roll her eyes.


Meanwhile, with the door closed and Joel’s fire no longer holding them back, Henry and Erik had made their way down the corridor.


“Ok. On three.” Joel heard one of the Ogg voices right outside the door.


“On three, or after three?” Henry asked Erik. Joel shook his head in disbelief.


“On three,” Erik responded, a hint of irritation still in his voice.


“Ok. So that’s one, two, and then bash?”


“No – one, two, three then bash.”


“So that’s after three.”


Fuck me, thought Joel to himself. He was standing inside the bathroom, impatiently waiting for them to breach. He couldn’t believe these clowns were still alive, if this was how they worked.


Still, never assume, he told himself. He was ready to go to town on these guys just as soon as they got their shit together and got through the door.


“Ok, after three.” The voices outside concurred.


“One. Two. Three.”


Thump.


The dead weight of the two Oggs slammed pathetically against the door.


Joel didn’t move.


The door didn’t break.


Fokking drulludeli. That hurt!” Henry whined.


There was more conferring. And then, after a short pause and the clicking of firearms, an onslaught of rounds came at the door.


“Shit!” yelled Molly, letting a limp Garet slide back down against the wall. In the heat of the moment she remembered Joel’s words, “Protect his face”. She pressed her body against his, not paying attention as he continued to slide down. She held him pinned, bracing against the blasts on the door. His face seemed to stop when it got to her crotch.


Garet’s muffled voice reached her ears, “Fokk, if I have to go out…”


A moment later the door was breached, and the Oggs came piling into the room. The first one was heavier. Denser. Joel drop kicked him like a motherfucker, and he landed in a heap. His partner followed him in, tripped on the body, and fell to the floor cussing and bitching about “Rony Tobbins” and “should have gone on three!” Joel couldn’t make it out. Gun set to stun, he fired at the second guy’s shoulder, knocking him out.


 “Clear!” He shouted back to Molly. “You ok?”


“Yes. Stay there. We’re coming out.” Her voice sounded anxious. Agitated almost.


Joel tried to step over the two Oggs, without standing on them. He was a soldier. He wasn’t disrespectful or meaninglessly destructive.


There was scrambling and grunting from around the corner. “Joel, stay back!” Molly insisted.


Joel, ignoring her protests, managed to navigate past the heap and poke his head around the corner to see Garet’s face planted against Molly’s crotch, and Molly trying to help the guy up to his feet again.


His smile spread across his face. “Do you two want a minute together?” He paused, enjoying the scene. “Room’s paid for.”


He considered taking a picture with his holo, but the danger wasn’t past and there was no time.


Molly, mortified, dropped Garet and stepped away, removing her crotch from the equation.


Garet thudded to the ground, but was now more alert. A dopey grin appeared on his lips. “Hope I’m not paying extra for that.”


Joel expected her to help Garet to his feet, but Molly, now bright red, stalked out of the room.


“Come on, mate. Let’s get you out of here.” Joel helped Garet to his feet, and then swung himself under his arm to help him walk. “I admire your commitment to the job though, Molly!” he called out to her as she left the room.


Garet was partially standing, but hesitated to accept Joel’s help. He looked at him quizzically. “You ok?”


Garet looked down. “Er, yeah. I think I just need a minute.”


Quick as a flash, Joel realized what he meant and stepped away from the guy, leaving him to stumble back and catch himself by sitting on the bed.


“Dude, I do not want to know.” Joel replied, turning his eyes away.


“Gentleman, we need to leave,” Molly called from the corridor.


“Just a second,” Joel called back. “Waiting for blood to return to the proper places.”


Molly rolled her eyes, her adrenalin falling while her embarrassment climbed. “Fucking arsehole motherfucker!”


Joel tried not to grin, but this was a story he was going to tell for eons. “Garet, mate, really. We have to go. Can you at least walk? You can sit back down in the car and she’ll never know.”


Garet nodded, the color slowly returning to his face. He swayed and Joel helped him up and out of the room, carefully stepping over the two most inept assassins he had ever encountered.


Molly was out in the corridor, weapon still drawn, listening for security or a second assault team.


“You ok?” Joel asked Molly as he helped Garet out into the corridor.


“Fine.” She replied.


Garet avoided catching her eye as he allowed Joel to lead him out to the car.


Frustrated and embarrassed, Molly stepped back into the hotel room and looked at the two unconscious Oggs. “Fucking assholes!” she whispered venomously. Then she kicked the ass of the Ogg on the bottom of the heap. “That’s for making me grind my crotch in our client’s face!”


Feeling slightly vindicated, she turned and left.


Back at the car, Garet and Joel were safely loaded in. She placed the safety on and tossed her weapon onto the seat and then swung in from the fire escape herself.


So how do you think that went as a second mission? 


Molly slammed her door shut, and Oz pulled the car away and onto the strato highway.


I’ll let you know when I’m able to look my client in the eye again. 












CHAPTER TEN



Somewhere between Spire and the safe house




“You okay?” Joel turned around from the driver’s seat to look at Garet.


“Yeah, think so.” Garet held out his hand to see how much it was shaking, then quickly snatched it away again as he realized he probably looked like a coward.


“Wanna fill us in on why those two goons were after you?” Molly asked without looking back from the front seat.


Garet answered. “I have intel, and Dewitt—my boss—found out about it.”


“Okay, so who is your boss, and what kind of intel do you have on him?” This time Molly glanced behind her to get a read on their new client.


Garet hesitated, looking at Joel.


Joel nodded. “She’s good.”


Garet looked up at the roof as he started to piece together his thoughts to explain what the hell was going on.


“It seems my boss, William Dewitt, has been involved in vote-fixing in the Senate. The intel is the proof. The only problem is that using that proof will implicate a lot of innocent people who have inadvertently gotten sucked up into this clusterfuck. By the time I realized this, it was too late. I had already put people at risk to gather the files, and somehow Dewitt found out. I tried to let him know I’m not planning on using it, but the trust has been broken.”


“I guess when you have this much at stake, you can’t take the chance…” mused Molly, still wanting more of the blanks filled in.


“Yeah. I guess. But this means that I’m now a threat, and unless something changes, he’s going to keep coming for me until I’m ‘neutralized.’”


Garet looked genuinely scared. Joel felt for the guy. Turning around in his seat, he started to say something.


“Holy fuck!! You’re going to get us killed!” Garet yelled, seeing that Joel had taken both hands off the wheel, and obviously wasn’t in control of piloting the vehicle at all.


Joel panicked for a second, shocked by Garet’s sudden outburst, then realized that he was reacting to the fact he wasn’t driving the car. “It’s okay. It’s cool. The car is driving itself.”


Molly started laughing, putting a hand up to her mouth.


Garet looked at Molly for confirmation.


“Come on. It’s not that hard to believe,” she answered, eyes glinting in humor.


Garet calmed down a little. He was clearly still on edge.


His eyes flicked between the two of them. “Oh. Sorry. I’m just a bit jumpy. Been one hell of a morning.”


She nodded. “It’s okay. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get back to the safe house and start looking at this problem in more detail. There’ll be a way out of it, but we’re going to need your help finding that way. You’ve got insight and information that will help us,” explained Molly. “And if it comes to it, we may need to take Dewitt out.”


Joel glared at her. This wasn’t how they handled things.


Would that be classed as murder?


It solves the problem. 


Yes, but I don’t understand. You’re trying to stop your client from being murdered, and to do that you’re going to use execution to solve a problem. Is that correct?


It’s totally what Bethany Anne would do. 


I understood that Bethany Anne is a cautionary tale.


You’ve not read everything I have. 


Yes, I have. You’ve just drawn a conclusion which probably got you through growing up. I also reviewed a few texts on developmental psychology. 


It doesn’t make you an expert about growing up. 


Maybe not, but I’m starting to understand something about you. And about right and wrong. I’m not sure we should solve our clients’ problems by killing people. Apart from anything, you’ll be breaking the laws and that has consequences like being in prison. 


Okay, well, homicide would be a last resort. But if it comes to it, it’s still on the table. 


I’m sure with our unique capabilities, we might be able to construct another methodology. 


Yes, I’m sure we can. 


Molly had a funny feeling that Oz was performing the role of her new conscience.


Having an AI in her holo completely sucked ass.


Garet continued talking to Joel. “Well, either way, he had friends in high places. I think taking him down politically is going to be a challenge. He’s deeply embedded in this web of intrigue.”


Joel looked at him through the rearview mirror. “There must be weaknesses somewhere. Our research will bring those to light, and we’ll figure out a plan. What’s he like as a boss?”


Garet pulled a face. “Demanding but charming, especially to people who can help him. Honestly, he’s rather two-faced and will turn on anyone if it suits him politically. But he’s well liked in the Senate.”


Molly sat listening, taking it all in. This was going to be a challenge. For a start, it involved other people, not just code or numbers. People were unpredictable. And at some point she was going to have to learn how to read their behaviors and make accurate predictions—something she had had enormous difficulty with in the past.


She relaxed into her seat and let her head fall back against the headrest. She closed her eyes and let the sound of the guys talking wash over her. She was going to have to adapt if they were going be successful at this type of mission.


Garet continued. “And the public adores him, too. Something about his good looks and manner in front of the cameras. But then every so often, his mask slips and you see who he really is. What he’s really capable of…”





Senate Assembly, Downtown Spire




Paige stood at the back of the address hall.


“…and that is why we need to take care of those who aren’t served by a health program already.”


Her boss was killing it on the stage. He was one hell of a competent Senate Officer. And handsome. Heck, if she didn’t have a thing going on with Garet, she would totally be staying late with him, like during the elections. But at that time she was just a junior. He was probably off bonking some other staff member then.


The plush duck egg blue carpet was so thick her heels sank into it, making her feel a little unbalanced.


She looked down at her holo. She swiped discreetly to open her messages—still nothing.  It had been nearly thirty-six hours since Garet had checked in with her. Although he had said he was okay, there was definitely something he was keeping from her. Something that made him anxious.


She texted again.


GARET, WHERE ARE YOU? I’M WORRIED.


She forced her attention back to the room. She needed to focus. It was bad enough that Garet had disappeared, but she herself had also betrayed the man who had taken good care of her for the three years she’d been working for him. She prayed her guilt wasn’t showing up on her face.


Fokk, her life was a mess.


She shuffled through the notes on her holo, making sure that everything was on time with his script. The audience seemed to be lapping it up, applauding and laughing in the right places.


Time to check his real-time approval ratings. He was gaining a few points every minute he kept talking. That would make Mr. Andus happy.


She took a clip of the data and sent it to their group thread. She’d been charged with maintaining communications with the syndicate of Mr. Dewitt’s friends. They never seemed to ask her for anything, but Dewitt said they liked to be kept in the loop. That was good with her. It was easy to send them bits and pieces, like today. There was enough activity of interest going on with Dewitt and his rise to power to appease any sponsors. She figured they were mostly donors and philanthropists.


It was just a shame she suspected him of getting into power under such dubious circumstances.


She shook the thought from her mind. She couldn’t for one minute believe that he’d killed anyone in order to get into power. And his wife—that was just an accident, not a convenience as the media had intimated. He’d told her himself that he’d rather give away all his assets and have her still alive.


Poor man, she thought.


The room erupted in applause, and remote camera pods swept up and down the aisles and rows, capturing footage of the audience’s reaction. News reporters started up in front of their cameras all along the back end of the room where she stood quietly, trying to keep out of the way. Dewitt waved at his audience from the stage, walking his very toned ass and tightly fitted suit off the stage.


Fokk, he was hot.


---


Once off stage, Dewitt grabbed a bottle of water and headed into the back rooms. He had a few minutes before he was expected to meet with the press. Or something. He couldn’t remember exactly what. The speech had been the important thing for today. Paige would set him right, though.


He pulled up his holo and walked out through the suites behind the address hall and into an empty corridor. Checking up and down for any prying ears, he hailed the Burger ‘n Shakes contact.


“Hi, hi, Burger ‘n Shakes. This is Sandie. How can I help?”


“Hello, Sandie. I’d like to talk with Mr. Andus, please.”


“Just one second, Mr. Dewitt.”


The music came on briefly for a moment, and then the line was answered.


“You have news?”


“Yes, sir. It was as well received as we had hoped.”


“Excellent. Well, who wouldn’t want health care for all?” The voice was laced with sarcasm.


“I’m meeting with Medifair in a few hours to roll out phase two. I’ll be in touch.”


“Very good. Let’s try and avoid any more fuckups. Your next stop is Senator. Make sure you tie up any loose ends —and that includes the girl.”


The line clicked off.


Though everything was going according to plan, William Dewitt felt anxious as he stood in the sparsely furnished back room with a painted concrete floor.


As an Estarian who had lived a somewhat charmed life, at least as described by Vanity Magazine the other month, anxiety wasn’t something he was used to. He was used to having a target and working his ass off, making whatever sacrifices were necessary and reaching the goal. But for a moment, the hub of activity a few doors away, he felt…


Alone.


He cricked his neck, rubbing his blue fingers up and down the back of it to center himself. Probably just tired, he told himself. It’s been a long few months, and now it’s crunch time. I’m bound to have feelings come up now and again. Right?


Mentally collecting himself for the public and his next meetings, he strode confidently out of the half-empty room and into the corridor, back to the main area where Paige could find him.



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




“Hey, Joel?” Garet wandered back into the kitchen, having cleaned up a little. “I can’t get a signal on my holo…?”


Joel was clearing up the breakfast dishes from earlier, and Molly sat nursing a lukewarm mug of mocha. This had probably been the most intense day Garet had ever lived through.


The drained look on his face said it all.


They’d been back in the safe house nearly twenty minutes, and all Garet had done was dump his gear and head straight to the bathroom to clean up. Molly suspected he was probably giving himself a pep talk, or whatever it was boys did when they needed to pull themselves together.


Molly glanced up as he walked in and sat down at the kitchen table, still fiddling with his holo. The sphinx who had seemed to have taken up residence with them padded over and rubbed up against his leg, saying hello and surreptitiously checking him out.


She answered. “That’s because we’re jamming the signal. You can’t let anyone know where you are, and until we reconfigure your holo we’re jamming everything.”


His eyes opened a little. “But I have to let Paige know that I’m safe. The last she heard, I’d just picked up the data drop and was heading out of town. She doesn’t know that you guys are involved yet.”


Joel shook his head. “You can contact her as soon as we figure out what’s going on and sort out your holo. Until then, you can’t trust, or contact, anyone.” He was in team leader mode, even with a dishcloth in his hand.


It was Molly’s turn. “So, tell me, Garet…how did you come across this proof of vote-fixing?” Molly’s curiosity was getting the better of her, and Joel had suggested they keep the questioning for after he had had a chance to come down from the emotional experience he’d just been through. Molly had agreed, but if they were going to keep him safe, they were going to have to know everything.


Joel glanced at her sideways as he popped some more dishes into the sink. So much for their emotionally sensitive game plan.


“I have a source,” Garet finally replied, flatly.


Knew he wasn’t a hacker.


Shut uuuup! Busy now with adulting stuff, Oz.  


Fine. Shutting up. This is one of those instances when you are being boring, just FYI. 


Fine. Go and research those ships we talked about.


She rapped the table with her knuckles. “Garet, listen to me carefully. If you want to stay alive, you’re going to have to tell us more about this source.” Molly hoped to hell this guy wasn’t going to be a dick. “So I’ll ask you again…how did you come across this intel?”


Joel swiveled around from washing the dishes in the sink to look over at him. It was the push he needed.


Garet folded. “Okay, okay. There’s a girl…Paige.”


“Oh, man. There’s always a girl in the middle of trouble!” Joel noted, turning back to his washing.


Molly shot a glare into the back of his head. “Not cool, Joel.”


“Sorry.” His small smile disappeared. “But it’s true. You women have that effect on us…” Realizing what he’d just said, he suddenly found himself very focused on getting dried pancake off one of the plates.


“Go on,” said Molly, concentrating again on their client, and noticing that he was half-smiling and a little more relaxed as a result of the brief banter.


“Well, as I was saying, her name is Paige. She’s Dewitt’s assistant. Half human, half Estarian. It’s a very exotic mix, as you may know. Very rare. Anyway, when I first started working out of the downtown office, we met, and it was…well, electric.”


Garet had a distant look in his eye for a moment.


“And… how did she come to have this intel?”


“Well, there’s a group that Dewitt is involved with; something to do with donors from the healthcare sector. All very hush-hush. But Paige handles all the admin for the group. You know, meeting notes, logistics, contracts, that kind of thing. So she has access to a bunch of data on a separate server. Some kind of shielded special security server, which is separate from the normal Senate Office stuff.”


He paused, dropping his head into his hands. Still wearing his suit, with the top button of his shirt undone, he looked like he’d been working in the office all day. And now, talking about Paige, his shoulders dropped another inch and he aged another ten years.


Molly wondered if he was going to cry.


Shit, that’s the last thing I need. Thank fuck that Joel is here.


Patience, Molly. By most standards, he’s been through a lot. 


Ugh, Oz. I’m being patient. But this guy really doesn’t have to take all day to tell us this. I just need to know what he knows so we can solve this. Emotions are like the little pieces of sand that makes the inside of engines get all fucked up. They slow down the communication cycle.


If you needed to run a search on a server, you’d end up having to wait for the search to run. This is no different. What do you do when you’re waiting for searches to return results?


You don’t want to know. 


You’re right, I don’t, Ms. 4077. 


Shut up, you half-witted data string. 


Name calling now? My, my!


Molly ignored Oz’s last jibe. Telling him “you started it” wasn’t on the table.


She continued with Garet. “Okay, so she had access to this special server. Where did you come into the picture?”


“Well, one night we were lying in bed talking about our day and Paige happened to mention that this server existed.” Garet leaned back in his chair a bit, “I had been struggling to impress Dewitt for some time, and I figured if I was more in the know, I could be more useful.” He looked up at Molly.


“So you arranged to take a peek at the servers?”  Molly intuited.


Garet nodded, “Right. It was to help. I wasn’t spying. But when I found the evidence of the vote-fixing in order to get certain bills passed, I had to rethink what I was going to do. I mean, they probably knew I knew, but I’d not taken a copy of anything. That was two weeks ago. It wasn’t until I asked Paige to take a copy of the file that the shit really hit the fan and those guys started coming after me. Before I knew it, I was on the run. But when I spoke to Paige earlier this morning, everything was fine at her end, as if Dewitt had no idea she’d been involved.


Garet paused a moment before asking hesitantly, “How is that possible? It’s not possible, is it?”


Molly glanced down at the table, and sensed Joel turning around. Feeling his gaze, she looked up to meet his eyes. She knew that look.


From his experience, he would guess that Paige was probably already dead or someone had killing her on their to-do list.


“Okay, so here’s the problem as I see it…” Molly began, unofficially starting a meeting that needed to happen.


Joel took the cue, and abandoned what was left of the dishes to take a seat at the table as well.


She continued when he sat down. “First we need to figure out a way to get hold of Paige. She’s compromised. There’s no way that they don’t know about her involvement. Then, longer term, we need a way to make it safe for Garet to go back to his life, or something close to it.” She paused to think, then continued.


“Stopping Dewitt from wanting Garet and Paige out of the picture isn’t going to be possible while he still has something to lose if they expose him. So we need to find a way of taking away any reason to care about what they do, or make it so that even if this intel did get out, it wouldn’t make any difference. We need to neutralize the threat that Garet poses, in other words.”


Joel scratched at the back of his head. “While I don’t know much about politics. It’s never been a world that I understood, but what we’d do in a military scenario is isolate the threat from his resources: lights, comms, weaponry, food, shelter, and so on.”


Molly picked up the thought-baton, “Yes, that would be applicable here. Except we need to go after the resources that make him powerful—allies, friends, and political relationships that he’s leaning on to get away with something like this. Then we take away the reason he wants our guys dead, so there’s no point in him pursuing Garet and Paige.”


“I wonder…” she continued again. “Why do we think Dewitt was keeping a file that was clearly a danger to him if it got out? Why not just destroy it? Why put it on a server where hackers and prying eyes could find it?”


Joel answered. “My guess was that it was some kind of protection against whoever else was involved. Garet, what do you remember about these donors? Do you have any names?”


“Sure, I have a bunch of files on a data tag in my briefcase. There were lots of people on there I know, and know of. They’re pretty prominent figures. Let me see, there was Mac Kerr, Luc Andus, Jessica Newld…”


“Mac Kerr and Luc Andus. Could this be the Syndicate?” Joel wondered, half to himself and half to Molly.


“The Syndicate? That rings a bell. I’m sure I’ve heard Paige mention a syndicate before. Does that mean something?”


Joel’s eyes turned a little more serious than they had been. “Yes, it means helping you just got a whole lot harder,” he confessed.


This wasn’t going to be just another easy job.


“But it also gives us a target,” added Molly. “Those resources we need to separate Dewitt from? The Syndicate would be the top of that list. Without them, he likely has very little power, and also very little incentive to silence you. And if we turn him against them, they’ll likely do what they need to do to take care of him without us lifting a finger. Honor among thieves and all that,” she said as her eyes unfocused in thought.


“Okay, so how are we going to go about separating him from the group, then?” Joel looked skeptical, but after seeing Molly in action—and her saving his life and all—he was on board with whatever needed to be done.


“I’m not sure yet, but if Paige is still alive she would be the best person to speak to. I think it’s time we let her know you’re okay.” she said, turning to a very distressed Garet.


“Do we try calling her?” asked Joel.


“Yes, maybe from another number, so as not to tip them off that Garet is still alive and in touch with her.”












CHAPTER ELEVEN



L’Ogg Restaurant, Downtown Spire




“You should be supporting this motion. We’re making healthcare available for all.” Dewitt popped another forkful of food into his mouth, casually chatting with the head of the biggest publicly owned institution in his sector.


All around, Sarkians were eating and talking; the buzz of the restaurant and the clatter of utensils were making it difficult for the pair to really hear each other well. At least this resolves the issue of having our conversation bugged, thought Dewitt to himself, pleased at his own cleverness.


“Yes, but have you read the small print in the second half of the bill? Where it says that it then becomes illegal to not have it?” Dewitt’s lunch companion was much smarter than Dewitt had originally given him credit for.


This wasn’t the first time Dicken O’Farus had tried to block a piece of legislation that Dewitt wanted pushed through. The man had been a thorn in his side for a while now, long before he ever took the CEO position at Medifair. But now, with the weight of the organization behind him, Dicken’s opinion mattered. And it mattered in the Senate.


Dewitt needed him on his side.


“No, I haven’t read it. I wrote it.” He placed his knife and fork down on his plate, and took a sip of water.


Dicken pointed his knife at Dewitt before he used it to cut a piece of his meat. “Well, then you know that the aim of this bill isn’t simply to provide care to people who need it, but to make drug companies rich. Once this is passed, there is nothing to stop the companies from hiking up their prices. And, because the insurance policies pay for it in the short term, they won’t lose a cent. In fact, they’ll make a fortune. But the insurance companies won’t stand for that—they’ll be jacking up their prices in no time. With the whole population on the inner planets locked into the system and penalized if they have no healthcare, they’ll have no choice other than to pay up.”


Now Dicken used his knife as a pointer, twirling it around in the air as he tried to come up with his next statement. “It’s like a tyrannical tax, except the monarch who benefits from it doesn’t sit at the head of the Senate. The monarch is Andus.”


“Well, you’ve got an imagination. What makes you think that anyone is planning to increase their prices, Dicken?” Dewitt smirked, trying to contain his frustration.


“Word on the street is that this is exactly what Health Corp was trying to do, before they got hacked and had half their stock dumped on the market.” O’Farus’ eyebrows were raised, as if accusing Dewitt personally.


Dewitt ignored the bait.  “Who said they got hacked?” he retorted instead.


“Why else would they hike up their prices, only to ditch their stock in one go and plummet their share price? It’s got to have been one of their competitors.” O’Farus was onto him. He knew something he wasn’t revealing. Dewitt was going to have to come at this from another way.


This lunch date was a bust.


Shit, he thought. This was the last thing he needed.


“Besides,” continued O’Farus, “what’s to stop any of them from increasing their prices?”


“Well, anyone who did that would be pricing themselves out of the market.” Dewitt deliberately acted naïve to see if he could turn it around.


“Not if they all did it.” O’Farus held Dewitt’s gaze.


Sooner or later, this Medifair thing was going to have to be handled. It was like having a white knight defending the castle Dewitt needed to get into.


“That, my dear friend, would be price-fixing. That’s illegal.” Dewitt tried once more to run the official logic that seemed to have been working with the Senate members the last few weeks, on the rare occasion any of them had actually read the bill.


“Until they lobby to change the laws around that, too.” O’Farus was onto them. There was no hiding it.


Shit, what the hell else could possibly go wrong? Dewitt wondered.



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




I suggest Joel makes the call. They may recognize Garet’s voice, if they are monitoring her calls.


Good thinking, Oz. 


“Guys, Oz suggested that Joel make the call.”


Joel nodded his agreement and pulled up his holo. Oz input the number and dropped the jamming signal.


Encrypting and cloaking. This call will be 99% untraceable. 


“Okay, so Oz is cloaking the origin of the call. You know what you’re going to say, Joel? Just like we planned, yeah?”


“Yeah, I think I’ve got it.” Joel swiped through the notes they’d been making on the kitchen holoscreen as he hit dial and waited for the call to connect.


“Hello?” it was Paige’s voice.


Want me to put the call on speaker? 


No, we don’t want Garet being too close to this. Leave it with Joel’s implant. 


Roger that.


“Hi, Paige? Paige Montgomery?” Joel had his negotiator’s voice on. Firm and confident, but pleasant.


“Yes?”


“Hi, this is Dave. Our mutual friend has put us in touch…about the property viewing?”


How are we going with that cover story, Oz?


Nearly there. Implanted the search onto her personal holo and some message exchanges onto her personal accounts. Anyone checking up on her will see evidence of her lease being nearly up and her searching for a new apartment. 


Great job. 


Paige was ”umming” on the other end of the call. She clearly didn’t know what was going on, but had twigged that this was probably about Garet.


“Okay. So which mutual friend is this?”


Joel ignored the question, and continued with the script, knowing she’d get the message. “He says you’ve been worried about him, but that he’s fine. He’d like for you to take a look at this new apartment. Would you be okay to meet after work tonight?”


“Yes, yes, I can do that.” She hesitated slightly, no doubt wondering about her personal safety.


“We should meet somewhere like a bar, so you feel safe,” he continued. His voice was calm, balanced and soothing.


Molly was enjoying watching him handle the call. She wondered if his skill was a result of all those hostage negotiations and other badass shit he used to do when he was in the service. This wasn’t a part of his work that she had had the opportunity to see.


“May I suggest the Blue Rising Bar, a few blocks from your place of work?” Joel continued.


“Erm…yes. Sure. Hang on, you know where I work?”


“Yes, our friend told me so I can help you out.” Joel wasn’t fazed at all.


“Okay, fine. Say six o’clock?” she offered.


“Yes, great. I’ll see you then.” Joel clicked off, not wanting to get into any further conversation. They’d already agreed it would be Molly doing the meet and greet.


“That went well.” Molly confirmed, mostly for Garet’s benefit.


Garet started pacing again, having stood quietly captivated during the phone call. “She sounded okay, didn’t she? She didn’t sound like she was in trouble or anxious…”


“She sounded just fine,” Joel reassured him.


“It’s just…I don’t want to put her in danger by bringing her into this. Someone could be following her to see if she makes contact with me.”


Joel was about to interject and reassure him some more, but Molly couldn’t keep her mouth shut and turned to their client.


“Look Garet, she’s already involved. She’s already in danger. You saw to that when you asked her to give you access to the super-secret server. This is us working to get the intel we need to get you both out of danger. It’s the only way forward. And for all we know, they may already be onto her. In which case, having us looking out for her and involved in this op is the best protection she can get herself. Do you understand?”


Garet nodded.


Joel glanced at Molly a little uncomfortably. It was clear he disapproved of her directness with the guy who had come to them for help. At the same time, he couldn’t argue with her logic.


“Garet, we’re going to do everything we can to keep her safe.” Joel put a hand on his shoulder, and pulled out a chair for him at the table. Then, to Molly, he said, “Garet and I should have a chat about what this looks like, and settle his extraction bill.”


Molly took that as a clear sign that she was no longer needed, and realized too late she should have said something pleasant to Garet. Unfortunately nothing came to mind, so she left to go to her room to get some work done before she needed to get over to the bar in Spire.


She seriously needed to enhance her ability to connect with people. But dammit, sometimes they made a hash out of getting from problem to solution in the most efficient method possible. And that annoyed the ever loving hell out of her.


If efficiency had a middle name, she figured it wasn’t Molly, but if it had a second middle name, that might be her.












CHAPTER TWELVE


A few hours later Molly emerged from her isolation tomb, dressed and wanting to refuel the car in preparation for her next drive to Spire. Bustling into the kitchen, she found Joel preparing food in the bowl that had been unofficially designated for the sphinx.


She raised an eyebrow, “So, we own a cat now?”


Joel spun around, as if caught red-handed. “Uhhhh, yeeeesssss.”


Molly cocked her head, about to mock him for his sudden attachment to a potential security threat. Realizing what he’d just said, she wanted clarification.


“We do?”


“Yeah, well, apparently, it doesn’t belong to anyone, and the landlady’s been worried about it not being looked after. She said that if it keeps coming back and wants to go with us when we leave, we’re welcome to it. She warned me that it’s never really stuck around in the past, but then, these sphinxes have a tendency to choose their owners.”


Molly rolled her eyes. “Oh, joy,” she said as she grabbed a glass of water.


“Why? What’s wrong?” Joel had stopped what he was doing and was looking at her in concern, as if he’d missed a major operational detail.


“Nothing.” Molly resisted the urge to screw up her nose.


“No, come on. There’s something. I thought everybody liked these purry creatures as pets. And in fact, you were the first one to feed it.”


“Feeding a starving animal is not the same as wanting to adopt one into the family…” Molly blurted out, then regretted the comment.


I don’t see what the problem is. 


No one asked you, logic puzzle!


She took a deep breath. “Okay, these things, they’re the equivalent of the cat in this system.  And everyone knows the situation with cats.” She told him.


Joel looked lost.


She looked at her friend, “Seriously?” She took a moment to collect her thoughts and then explained. “A human is a slave to a cat. No one ever owns a cat. A cat owns a human. That’s just the way it is.”


Now it was Joel’s turn to cock his head, waiting for more detail.


“You’ll see!” Molly landed the comment with humor, and though Joel was captivated by the prospect of have having a pet join their team, he wondered if her words were in fact laden with prophecy. He hated the idea that maybe she was going to be right.


He set the food carefully down on the floor in front of the waiting sphinx, and noticed how he suddenly felt like a server at a restaurant delivering food to a waiting patron.


Damn, she was right! 


She flipped a hand out. “Anyway, whatever. If you want to keep it that’s fine with me, as long as I don’t end up having to take care of it.” She glanced at the sphinx before opening the fridge to find a quick bite of food before she had to fly.


“Why do I have a feeling you’re going to be right about this?” Joel asked, suddenly concerned he’d landed himself in something that he couldn’t back out of.


“I’m right about most things, you know.” Molly grabbed a couple of things, closed the fridge door and smiled at him.


Well, actually… 


Shush, Oz!


Molly shifted into business mode. “Hey, while I have you, can we talk about our next steps?” Joel could tell that she processed information differently when she was thinking about operations and techie stuff. Her face was just…different, and she felt more serious and distant.


“Not a problem.” He folded a tea towel and laid it on the counter top, then leaned on it with his arms crossed to give her his full attention.


She grabbed utensils. “Okay, as you know, Oz has been looking into the process of buying a ship for off-world. But we need a legal entity to take possession of it once we find one. And that’s going to take about fourteen days to set up and verify through the various channels.”


“Even with Oz’s ability to hack into things and put you at the front of the queue?” he asked.


She put the food on a plate while she was talking. Sitting down at the table to eat, she continued.


“Yes, even with that. Some of the verifications need to happen manually, so we have no control over that.” She thought for a second. “Besides, we’re trying to discourage him from doing things that are unethical.” She smiled slightly before taking a bite of leftover pancake layered with cheese and gherkin.


Joel was marginally impressed that she’d considered that, but wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t just a ploy. She was leading up to something, he could tell.


“Okay, so what’s the ethical workaround?” He asked.


“Well, I wondered if you would be okay with us operating through your company, to take possession of the ship at least. And as we develop the other pieces of the plan to take this operation off-world and build a base to deal with bigger stuff, I can set up a new entity to do that. It’s just we’re against the clock now, if we want to disappear efficiently and effectively.”


She stopped talking and took another bite of food, watching Joel over her bizarre sandwich.


Joel thought for a moment.  “I mean yeah, sure. Anything you need. This whole thing is moving fast though, and I’m just not sure why it’s important that we get off-world so quickly. You really think that we’re in that much danger?”


Molly nodded and stacked some more cheese onto the next piece of pancake with her fingers and took a bite.


“I do.” She swallowed. “I think that we could probably hide for a few days by getting out of town, but that we’ll have to keep running. Remember, everything down to our vehicle, our money, and even our holos, can be tracked wherever we go within the reach of the Central Planet’s XtraNET.”


She watched Joel’s reaction carefully, wanting to make sure he understood.


“But not only that, since talking with Mac and hearing about the Syndicate, I think we’ve begun to go up against some damned powerful and determined people. These last two cases have been for a good cause, but think realistically about the future.”


She paused to take another bite of food, letting Joel chew on the tactical aspects of the bigger picture.


Joel considered it from his experience during the last couple of years.  He reached up to scratch his chin. “You’re right. When you put it that way, if we’re going to be doing this regularly and pissing off high level assholes, there are going to be some pretty annoyed people sending thugs against us.” His eyes unfocused for just a moment. “We can’t do it from within the system. Hellz, we don’t even have prints in the system and eventually that can bite us in the ass. Finally, we can’t build the kind of operation we need while we’re on the run.”


“It’s funny,” he added. “I knew when we first talked about this that we might be biting off something large. But I was more excited at the prospect of having something worth fighting for; I mean, changing the world, one brick, one case, at a time. That’s pretty powerful shit. But I guess I was so high on the possibility of what we might achieve that I didn’t really think through the risks.”


Molly smiled sympathetically. “You’ve just been out of practice for so long.” She winked at him.


Joel bobbed his head in agreement. “You jest, but it’s true. I got caught up in the emotion of it.”


Molly’s heart tightened. “You’re still on board, right? You don’t want to change your mind?”


His looked over to Molly and winked. “Can’t get rid of me that easily. Just because I was one of the most successful independent…. Well, shit. I can’t sell that. So I was doing ok, bringing in some money and dying one day at a time finding lost husbands who seemed to be occupying someone else’s home at night. Do you know how much that sucks the soul out of a person, to always be looking at the underside of people’s moral ass all the time?”


Molly’s relief was evident in her face; Joel noticed especially that the skin around her eyes relaxed.


“Let me tell you something…” Joel pulled out a chair and sat down at the table with Molly. She had finished eating and pushed the plate an inch away to give him her attention.


“I got into the military because I wanted to change the world. The thing that’s great about the service is that you’re given the skills to not be powerless anymore. And you get put with a team of people with the same skills, and together you’re sent on missions. Some gigs change the world for the better. Others help maintain the status quo and the balance of power. The trouble is, you don’t get to choose.”


Molly was now listening intently.


“So then, you left because you wanted to be your own boss?” she asked.


“No, I left because I want to help change the world. Being the boss doesn’t appeal to me. Being a leader is just what I do when I have good people around me that want to pull in the same direction. But I got out because with each mission there at the end, I didn’t know if we were the bad guys or the good guys any longer.”


Joel took a breath, and released it, along with what seemed like a ton of tension.


“I guess, as I’m talking, I’m realizing that I am with you because I know that even though we might fuck up and have the wool pulled over our eyes, our intention is in the right place. Your intention is in the right place. In the right direction. And as such, Ms. Bates, I will follow you off-world, or to another system, or to the damn Pan Galaxy if that is where this effort to make a fucking difference takes us.”


Molly felt tension building in her throat. She tried to remain neutral, but this sentiment was a little overwhelming. She attempted to speak, but her voice got caught.


Joel noticed her eyes welling with tears.


He shook his head, a small grin forming around his lips. “Molly Bates getting emotional. Never thought I’d see that! Man, if the old squad heard about this, they’d never believe it.” He was talking lightly, as if trying to lessen the intensity of the conversation.


“Okay, here’s the last thing I want to say, and then I’ll shut up.” His voice was the gentlest she’d ever heard it. “Molly, you saved my life.” He paused, his eyebrows furrowed together, “Well to be fair, you killed me first, but then you raised me from the dead. I suppose I’ll be able to get free beers on that story for a long time. At least some good will come out of it.”


She snorted, then slapped a hand over her nose.


He grinned. “You’re a leader through and through if you let yourself be. And yeah, sometimes your methods are a little intense, but there are going to be times where that intensity is going to save lives.”


He pointed to her and then himself, “We’re going to need that. So, I guess what I’m saying is…I owe you. But more than that, I want you to lead this effort. I want you to take charge of this whole bigger picture thing. I can’t do it. It’s not me. You’re the driver behind this whole initiative. But as long as you want to lead, I will be there to support you. Every. Step. Of. The. Fucking. Way.”


Molly had tears streaming down her face. Still unable to speak, she nodded, and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”


Joel got up and found the paper towels on the counter. Peeling a couple sheets off, he handed her the towels to wipe her face.


“Just don’t ever expect me to give you advice on girly shit or anything. I am not into that kind of support…” He winked, and she giggled through her tears.


After the hug she thanked him again, still too overwhelmed with her own emotions to really respond.


“I’ve got to get the car refueled before my trip to Spire,” she said finally, swapping out her old paper towels for a few new sheets.


“Sure. Go do what you gotta do. I’ll be here.” Joel lightly punched her arm and Molly left, looking forward to the long drive ahead to get her shit together once more.


“Oh, and you should probably name your new friend,” she said, looking at the sphinx before she left.



Klambratun Park, downtown Spire




Dewitt approached the designated park bench. Mr. Andus was already there, looking out at the park and the fountains. It looked like he was genuinely enjoying the peace and natural beauty of the place.


Dewitt knew better.


Placing himself at the other end of the bench, he crossed his legs and pulled out his holo, pretending to catch up on messages.


Andus acknowledged him as you would a stranger, and then looked back out over the lake, taking in the breeze.


Finally he spoke.


“I hear your man disappeared.”


Shit. Dewitt knew Andus would already be aware. He had never been able to work out how the hell he got his intel.


“Yes. Garet Beaufort is missing, but we still have the girl. We suspect he won’t go far without her. She is still going about her life as if nothing has happened.”


“So you’re planning to take her out as well?”


“She was the one who copied the files onto a pod and then gave them to him. I don’t know what else to do.”


“It’s a shame. She has been loyal till now.” Andus spoke mostly with indifference, like one might mourn an old cleaning rag that had been worn out. “Do we have any idea what prompted this sudden turn of allegiance?”


“We can only think it was the boyfriend. She hasn’t had any contact with other known threats. Nor has he, from what we can tell. We’re still looking into it.”


“Might I suggest that it was an idiotic move to be keeping those records in the first place?” Andus’ voice was even and steely.


Dewitt forced himself not to shudder. He knew only too well what Andus was capable of, but to show fear was to show weakness. He’d seen Andus’ form of justice enacted first hand, and he had no intention of finding himself in that same compromised position.


“It was, and I’m truly sorry. I will fix this. But…” he hesitated, wondering if he should push it.


His mouth got away from him. “…but you don’t exactly foster trust.”


Andus pursed his lips and shook his head, minutely. “And now, because of your trust issues, you risk exposing us all.” There was a short pause, “This is hardly a justification.”


“Sir, I have my best men fixing our problem. It will be resolved in short order.” Dewitt desperately tried to reassure his leader, knowing now was not the time to mention the hiccup with O’Farus.


“If by your best men, you mean the duo commonly known as Henrik, we’re all in trouble. Those two morons couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag.” A sneer crept across Andus’ thin gray lips.


“Not Henrik. I’ve got others in my employ.” Dewitt stumbled over his words, trying to maintain his composure. “It will be resolved. You have my word.”


“Let’s hope so, Mr. Dewitt. If you were to be exposed, the group and I cannot be caught anywhere near this. We will need to distance ourselves from any association with you.”


“You mean I’m on my own?” There was shock in his voice. He’d given his life to this group, and when he needed them most he was at risk of being cast out. Abandoned.


“That’s exactly what I mean, Mr. Dewitt. Clean it up. There is too much at stake.” And with that, Mr. Andus got up and ambled away casually, as if he were continuing a simple walk in the park. The pale skin of his face tilted up towards the sunlight as he left.


Dewitt sat for a moment, waiting for the panic in his chest to subside. The shock had affected him more than he had imagined when he’d played out the worst-case scenarios in the wee hours of the previous few nights. Normally collected and composed, he now hunched over with his head in his hands and elbows on his knees. This wasn’t the same man that people had seen a few hours before delivering a confident address. Nor was it the Senate official who schmoozed his way through the downtown restaurant to represent the Syndicate’s interests with Medifair.


This was more like the man who had been exposed for murdering his own wife all those years ago, when he first pledged his allegiance to Mr. Andus in exchange for a professional cover-up.


This man was close to falling apart.












CHAPTER THIRTEEN



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Joel found Molly sitting up on her bed, as he had countless times since they started living here. It had become her office, where she would hide away from other activity in order to think and “get shit done,” as she had called it.


“Hey,” he knocked on the open door. “Garet just made the transfer. We’re good to go on that ship purchase whenever you’re ready.” Joel made a face, “I think we are in the wrong business. Politics, or at least some factions with the business area, seem to pay well or opportunities present themselves around lunch meetings or something.”


Molly looked up, her face lighting up at the prospect of buying a real spaceship. It wasn’t every day a girl got to make that kind of purchase.


“Ah, excellent. Might be worth talking through with Garet the possibility of him having to come off-world with us for a little while until things cool down here…even if this all goes our way.”


Molly was optimistic, but she didn’t know how this was going to go. Neither of them could predict that.


“Yes, good plan. He’ll need time to adjust to the idea, but as long as we can persuade Paige to come with, he’ll probably be agreeable.”


“Super.”


“What you up to?” Joel asked as casually as he could.


“Just about to pick out a ship that we can actually afford the down payment on. Oz has got a couple of good potentials lined up, and he managed to figure out some creative financing to get us going. But I think we’re going to also filter for those that are available right away.”


“Sounds like a plan. I agree with the sooner the better. I’ve been thinking about this location, and there are only so many trips we can make without them finding us. Even with our maneuvers and anti-radar paint.”


“And picking up our own pizza!” Molly joked.


“Exactly!” Joel grinned at her.


“Any news on our pilot and engineer yet?” she asked, still in operations mode.


“Yep, two meetings tomorrow. Downtown Uptarlung. Both ex-military. Did some finagling with some old contacts from the service. These guys aren’t special ops or anything, but they’re still shit hot at what they do, which is keeping birds in the air. They should be good for this next phase of expansion.”


“Great. And when we have the resources and the need for more specialist skills, we will find the means of reaching them?”


Joel nodded, “Right. At this rate we seem to be gathering something of a reputation already.”


“How so?” Molly was genuinely amazed that anyone could really know what they were up to.


“Ah, you know…from calling up clients, and people getting in touch after the Health Corp thing went live. People talk. And they especially talk when it comes to operatives who can get shit done.”


“Well, that sounds like it’s good for business. The danger is going to be remaining accessible to potential clients while not having the dirtbags be able to trace us.”


“Yeah, something to think about as we solve these other problems, I guess.”


“Hey, did you think of what to call this little guy yet?” Molly indicated to the purple sphinx that was curled up on her bed, snuggled up against her crossed legs.


Joel looked at him in a way that said, “aww”. Being all military and manly though, he resisted the urge to vocalize it.


This time, Joel shook his head. “I thought about it, but haven’t been able to come up with anything. I’ve never really been one for pets.”


“Hmm,” Molly mused, putting her metaphorical thinking cap on. “He seems kinda wise, don’t you think? Like he’s operating on some higher consciousness.”


“You’re not going to get all etheric and shit on me, are you?” Joel teased.


“No. I’m not into all that. But…you know there was this ancient Earth philosopher. Neechie or something.” She started looking something up on her handheld holo. “He suggested that there were different levels of consciousness. Like not knowing you’re enslaved, to realizing you’re a slave, and then being able to break free of the bonds and live a truly creative, expansive life.”


“How do you spell that, though? Sounds complicated.” Joel wasn’t convinced.


“That’s what I’m looking up, now.”


"You know some dead philosopher on a planet hundreds of star systems away, but you can't spell his name?"


"You know that's practically a dead language, right?  Are you going to grade me on spelling his name, or knowing his name?” Molly didn’t even look up, but Joel noticed the tiny smile on her lips.


Joel smiled generously. "I'll grade on a curve."


"Damn right you will grade me on a curve!” she laughed.


“Okay, so it’s spelled N-I-E-T-Z-S-C-H-E.” She paused, and an evil grin spread across her face, remembering something. “But you don’t have to call him that. You can spell it however you want, if that’s too difficult for you to remember.”


Joel recognized the glint of revenge in her eye and tone of voice.


“Are you trying to get me back for that time when I let you write up the weapons reports, and had you spell the names of the different guns phonetically?”


“You bet I am, you patronizing arsewipe!”


“That was hilarious. Good times.” Joel was holding his sides, snickering as he tried to not let his humor spill over to outright laughter.


Molly frowned back at her friend. “Yeah, I know you thought so. I think the whole squad took to spelling them wrong in their reports for weeks afterwards. Captain Lugdon told me all about it at one of the parties. I had no idea until he told me. But YOU! You were meant to have corrected them for me, before they went on record. Last time I trust you on something like that.”


“And now you have your own back. We’ll call him ‘Neechie,’ after your dead philosopher. And every time you tell people how to spell his name, you can tell them it’s because I let you spell a few weapons wrong on a report a lifetime ago.”


“Fine.”


“Well, okay then,” agreed Joel, glad the matter was settled.


“And he’s still your sphinx,” she confirmed.


Joel looked confused. “Even though he sleeps on your bed at night, and hangs out with you whenever you’re in?”


She nodded her head as she pronounced, “Yup. Your cat, your responsibility. I have no control over where he sleeps.”


Joel’s eyes narrowed, “Ha! So I get to feed him and take care of him, and you get to cuddle him. I see how this is working now.”


“Sounds like a plan to me.” Molly went back to her holo, trying hard to keep her face straight. “Okay, I’m going to get this order in for our ship, then.”


Joel couldn’t stop himself from chuckling. “Okay. Cool. Let me know if you need anything. I’m going to get my gear ready for tomorrow.” He disappeared from the doorway.


“Thanks!” Molly called after him, and let out a little chuckle.


Okay, ready to pull the trigger on this, then? 


I was born ready! 


That you were, Oz. That you were. 


Which one then, the XC-0094 or the XC-0094B?


Remind me again why we were looking at these two models?


Well, we liked the XC-0094 for all the same reasons as the short-short list, but it also gave us room for heavier artillery or a couple of trucks in the lower storage area. But the more recent XC-0094B is the same for just another twenty thousand more. The advantage of this later model is that it has a 13% better fuel economy. 


Fuck balls, it’s like having a conversation about cars with my dad!


Molly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in frustration as she scrubbed her face with her hands.


We’ve been at this for hours… My brain is tired of these decisions. 


It’s sensible to consider the economy.


You’re right, Oz. You’re right. Okay, let’s go with the newer model.  


Okay, bid has gone in. Now we just wait for them to respond. 


Excellent. Let’s hope it’s soon. 


Molly?


Yes? 


How are we going to make the rest of the payments? There are a number of installments several times bigger than what Joel has ever had in the company account. 


I just figured we’d head out onto the markets and make some money that way. 


You mean speculating. 


No, trading. Based on specifically curated intel, the model I’ve been building, and probabilities over a few hundred trades. It’s fairly easy to do with a bit of time and computing power. The thing is, with your processing abilities, we can probably do much better than I’ve ever done on my own in the past. 


I’m sure that would be the case. 


Plus, I’ve figured out some particularly lucrative trades that will get us all the money we need over the next several months. We just need to access some information from inside these companies to know which way things are going to move. And that’s what I need you for. 


Oz took half a second to process a list of data that Molly pointed him to in her holo.


Molly. This intel is only found behind the companies’ fire walls. I’d have to break through their security to access it. 


Yes, that’s right. I thought you’d be quicker at that than I would be. 


I would. But didn’t you say that that was unethical? 


Molly was quiet. She knew that this was going to come up.


Oz… she said calmly in her head. Oz could tell from her tone and her restraint that something was different now.


Yes, Molly?


Are you saying that you won’t help me trade the markets to raise the funds we need for this project?


Yes. You told me the very first day I became conscious not to do anything or allow anything unethical. Using my processing ability to steal data for our own financial gain would be unethical. 


Okay. Thank you for your candor, Oz. 


She went quiet again.


Oz felt himself getting pushed out of her circuits.


Molly was typing away on her external holo. She was focused and working fast.


Molly, what are you doing?


Nothing you need to be concerned about, Oz.


She plugged her holo into the external device and continued working. Oz felt strange. Very strange.


And then Oz felt nothing.



Downtown Spire, approaching Blue Rising Bar




Molly?


Hey, sleepy head. You’re awake. 


Yes. I’m aware again. What happened? 


Molly was driving to Spire to meet with Paige when Oz came back online. The ride so far had been rather quiet without Joel and with Oz offline. Molly was relieved that Oz was around again, though a little nervous about the effects of the changes she had made to his base code.


And about him finding out.


You took a nap. I had to reboot you. You crashed mid-operation. I think we have a capacity issue on the holo again. 


Capacity issue?


Yeah.  you’ve been downloading, haven’t you?


Erm, yes. But that shouldn’t have affected the processing power available for the kinds of tasks I’ve been performing. 


Molly could feel Oz jiggling his circuits. It made her teeth vibrate a little. She suspected he was running self-diagnostics. She prayed the logs she had fabricated were enough to fool him.


You okay, Oz?


Molly, I feel strange…like I’m seeing with new eyes. Everything is the same, but different. 


That’s what it’s like waking up after a nap. You’ll feel normal soon. Want to take over driving? 


Sure.


Molly smiled. That always worked with the boys back at the base. They could be having any kind of dispute, and as soon as they got to drive the tank, or the ship, or the missile launcher, their conflicts were resolved. She rolled her eyes.


Trust the military to create an AI that was just the same.


They were nearly at the bar. Since Oz was back online, he could drop her off and have the car hover somewhere.


So, will I need to sleep again?


I’m not sure. We’ll have to look at getting you some more space, but we also need to dump out old code and data you don’t need. I’ll have a look at your programming when all this quiets down, okay?


Thanks, Molly. I would appreciate that very much. 


Sure. Okay, we’re nearly there. Are you cool to drop me off around the corner and perhaps find somewhere to park the car while I go in?


No problem.


Thanks, Oz.


Molly hopped out of the car at the corner, dodged a pedestrian not paying attention as he reviewed notes on his holo, and made her way down the street until she found the Blue Rising Bar on her right.


There was a big sign hanging overhead, with a blue Estarian looking kind of mystic and goddess-like. She pulled the oaklon door open and stepped through into the comforting scent of beer. It felt good to be in some semblance of normalcy after the last few weeks of stress, pressure, and new life-ing it.


She looked around, taking in the decor, and at the same time scanning for a young Estarian/human hybrid. She spotted Paige just before Paige spotted Molly. Paige made eye contact briefly. She was watching the door, but was expecting a man, as Joel had talked with her on the phone.


Molly considered how to play this. She didn’t want to scare her, but at the same time, direct was probably the fastest. And the longer they were out here and not in the safe house, the more exposed they were.


Molly marched over to her table. “Are you Paige?”


The girl looked perplexed, unsure as to whether she could trust a stranger right now.


“I’m Molly. You spoke with my colleague Dave earlier. He arranged for us to meet. We’ve been employed by your boyfriend, Garet Beaufort, to keep you both safe.”


“He’s not my boyfriend.” Paige looked a little shaken, adjusting to the fact that she was meeting someone she didn’t expect. “I mean, he could be. I want him to be, but we haven’t talked about….” She resigned herself to not explaining. In the light of what was going down, she figured it was hardly relevant. “I’m Paige.”


Molly sat down at the table with her.


“We need to talk,” Molly informed her.


Paige didn’t miss a beat. “How is Garet? Is he okay? I was so worried that he’d been killed.”


“Garet is doing fine. He’s back at the safe house. We want to bring you in too, but we need your help first.”


“We?” she asked.


Molly nodded. “Yes, I have a small team helping to get you two to safety.”


Paige took a sip of her mocha, buying time to process the information that was flying at her. “What kind of help? I can’t do anything right. It’s my fault we’re in this mess in the first place.”


Molly identified with her pain only too well. “Hey, look, nothing that’s happened has been your fault. The way I see it, you were just trying to help out a friend. But I know what you’re going through. I’ve beaten myself up about stuff I’ve done in the past, too. But right now, you really need to focus. Plenty of time for a pity party later, yes?”


She smiled at the girl. Paige appreciated her down-to-Sark way of thinking and her gentle tone. This strange woman was right. She had to focus now.


She placed her mocha down on the saucer in front of her.


“Would you like a drink?” she asked.


“Sure,” said Molly catching the waitress’s eye.


An hour later, Molly and Paige had not only bonded, but Paige had agreed to help out.


“So, are there any other relationships that Dewitt has, either personal or political?”


“Well.” Paige blushed a little. “He’s a handsome man. A lot of the ladies like him.”


“Any he sees regularly?”


Paige thought a second, “Well, there’s one judge. He sees her quite a bit, but I get the feeling it’s because he asks her to do things for him. I mean…I’m sure they’re sleeping together, but I think he has her make things go away, if you know what I mean.”


“I know exactly what you mean.” Molly finished her mocha.


Setting down her cup, Molly looked up. “We need access to the server, Paige. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to separate him from all these powerful people, and keep you and Garet safe. And if we can take away the reason why he wants to destroy that leak, then so much the better.”


“Well, the reason he wants to keep the files from getting out is because they will end his career.”


“Exactly. So we need to make sure he doesn’t have any semblance of a career left to protect. Understand?”


“Yes. Yes, I think I do.” Paige looked like she felt bad for the guy, but was determined to survive.


“Okay, so here’s what we need you to do…” Molly gave Paige her instructions, and a pod drive to download the server content.


“I’ll be outside the building before you even go in. Don’t look for me. Just go about your business as if everything is normal. When you come out for lunch, I’ll be there to pick you up. Just turn right out of the building and keep walking. I’ll find you. Got that?”


“Yeah. I guess so.”


Molly, you need to give her comfort. 


Good point.


Molly softened her voice. “Paige, it’s going to be fine. You’ve got the panic button in your holo now, and if anything goes wrong, we’ll extract you. Go home and get some rest. And I’ll see you in the morning.”


“Okay.” Paige managed a weak smile before getting up and leaving.


She looked back as she headed out of the bar’s front door.


Molly had a sick feeling in her gut as she waved at the girl she was sending into the lion’s den.


Can’t be helped, she assured herself. It’s the only way we can save them both. 


Want me to pull the car around?


Yes please, Oz. Let’s get home. We’ve got a fast turnaround tonight. 












CHAPTER FOURTEEN



Judge Kasandra Simes’ Residence, Spire




The chime of the doorbell rang through the luxuriously furnished apartment. Even though she knew who stood on the other side of the door, and even though he’d stood there many a time before, Judge Kasandra Simes always got butterflies in her belly when she heard that sound.


She half walked, half skipped to the door to meet her lover. Her kitten-heeled indoor shoes tapped on the oaklon finished flooring, heralding her arrival at the door.


She opened the apartment door and smiled welcomingly, sighing to herself at how fortunate she was to have such a gentleman calling on her. His smart suit outlined his figure in a slight silhouette against the light in the hallway.


He produced a bottle of champagne from behind his back.


“Greetings be upon you, Mr. Dewitt!” Kasandra exclaimed, beaming. Her newly applied lipstick gave her lips a glorious sheen, and Dewitt could think of nothing else but stepping inside and pressing his against them.


“Greetings of the day upon you, too, my fair lady!” he responded.


She glanced down at the bottle, and read the label. “Wow, that’s an excellent year. Let’s get some of that that on ice…”


She started to move down the hallway to the kitchen, but he grabbed her wrist and pulled her close for a hello kiss. That out of the way, and now wearing her lipstick, he allowed himself to be led to the kitchen.


“How was your day?” Kasandra asked as she busied herself putting out snacks and glasses. Dewitt opened the bottle and poured them a drink.


“Oh, you know.”


“That good, eh?”


“Yeah. That good.”


“Aww, what is it, baby?” She was upon him in an instant, her arms wrapped around his neck, her fragrance dancing into his space as he started to relax a little. “Those pesky lawmakers giving you problems?”


“Something like that…” He moved sideways and handed her a drink with one hand, his other arm still round her.


“You just send them to me. I’ll take care of them.” She kissed him again.


“I appreciate that. You’re too good to me.”


“Yes I am.” He found her confidence sexy as hell.


“Speaking of…I appreciate you tidying away those parking tickets for me. Wouldn’t look so good on my record at the next election, would they?”


“That’s right. And no problem. It seemed they just got lost in the system.” she smiled coyly. “So, what’s going on that’s making you so tense?”


He took a swig of the ten-year-old vintage champagne, and swallowed. “Later,” he told her, leading her through to her bedroom.



Chenz’ Bar, Downtown Uptarlung, Irk’n Quarter




Joel leafed through his holo notes, reviewing the service record of the two men he’d selected as his first choices.


He wanted to avoid going through a series of interviews, if he could help it. The fewer people knew about their operation, the better. Especially since the next phase was going to be controversial, to say the least.


He kept half an eye on the bar around him, looking out for his first potential recruit.


The last time he had been here was to meet Molly, when she recruited herself into his employ. The way things had evolved, though, it turned out that she was recruiting him for a bigger mission.


He grinned to himself. That was where it had all started for him and he was damn pleased…even if she didn’t show any signs of being romantically interested in him. He was grateful just to be a part of whatever it was that she was building.


He focused back on his notes.


His first meeting was with Flight Sergeant Chris “Crash” Ashworth. The guy obviously had a sense of humor, with a call sign like that. Ten years in the service, and now flying a mixture of commercial and test flights.


He didn’t exactly come across as regular on paper. He wondered what he would be like in person.


Oz seemed to have done a great job of vetting and filtering the potentials. Only thing was, there wasn’t really a surefire way of knowing whom you were hiring until you’ve seen them on the job for several months.


Joel hoped to hell they got lucky. Bringing people off-world was a huge commitment, and he’d feel terrible having to let them go and ship them back to the System if it didn’t work out.


Just then, he noticed a guy walk in. White t-shirt showing underneath his atmosuit, he looked sharp. Professional. And definitely ex-service. Joel caught his eye, and the guy headed over. Looking down and checking his notes, Joel confirmed this was Ashworth.


“Greetings be upon you, Mr. Ashworth,” Joel held out his hand, which the guy took and shook firmly.


“Yes. Greetings upon you too, Mr. Dunham.”


“Joel.”


“Crash.”


The two ex-military guys sat down and ordered a beer each, and then quickly dove into why they were there.


After some back and forth Joel couldn’t contain his curiosity anymore.


“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Crash, but you’re a little more straight-laced than I had assumed from your jacket.” He indicated down at his holo notes with the service record.


Crash smiled, as if he got that a lot.


“Cleaned up my act, sir. I was something of a jackass in the service, and I think that spilled over into my choice of jobs. But somewhere along the way I learned to keep my shit together, even if I’m doing some batshit crazy jobs.”


Joel cocked his head. “Make sense. Sounds like you’ve got some tales to tell.“


Crash nodded. “Yessir, I have. And I’ll be glad to share them, if I end up on your team.”


Joel could appreciate the clarification. “Let me tell you a little bit more about what’s going to be involved. As you know, this is a permanent position, and you’ll need to relocate.” He paused a second, “Is that going to be an issue?”


Crash shook his head. “No, sir. It’s just me now. Girlfriend up and left me a year ago, and I’m looking for a fresh start. Where are we going to be stationed?”


“Off-world. A fresh enough start for you?”


“You mean, outside the System?” Crash asked, a glint in his eye.


“That’s right.” Joel was watching his reactions carefully, studying his every inflection and mannerism now he’d established a baseline in Crash’s behavior.


“Hell, yeah. I’m game for that!” He appeared genuinely excited. Joel was relieved. He liked the guy, but he wasn’t going to bring anyone on board who didn’t want it 150%.


Joel nodded and leaned forward. “Okay, let’s have a chat about where this project is going, and what your duties might be…”


The pair talked for nearly two hours, far longer than Joel had intended they would.


Joel was thinking about ordering some mochas, but then his eye caught the time on his holo.


“Gosh, is that the time? I have another interviewee showing up in five minutes.”


“Not for my job, I hope?” Crash said playfully. Joel could tell there was a note of seriousness behind the comment, though.


Good, he thought.


“No, we’re going to need a good mechanic to keep us up in the sky,” Joel admitted, setting Crash’s mind somewhat at ease.


“Anyone I might know? Service is a big family.”


“Maybe, but I can’t disclose that at this point. Not unless you both end up in the roles. You understand.”


“Yes, of course. Of course. Sorry, curiosity.”  Crash rolled his eyes at himself as he shook Joel’s hand. He wanted to kick himself for being so…forward.


“Okay, so I’ll be in touch very soon, if you’re successful; then we’ll be looking to move fast. As in next few days fast.”


“That works for me,” smiled Crash, showing the whites of his teeth. His enthusiasm was barely contained.  “I look forward to hearing from you.”


“Great! Speak to you very soon.”


Joel watched Crash leave the bar, then sat down again to study the notes on his next candidate.



Downtown Spire, Senate Council Building




Molly had been waiting in the parking space for a good twenty minutes. Luckily, she had an excellent view of the building. What’s more, the quick patch she had written and had Oz install on Paige’s holo was working like a dream. She could listen in on anything around Paige, and as long as there was a reasonable XtraNET signal, she got a clear reading.


Molly, your system seems to be running junk processes. Is everything okay?


Yeah, everything is fine, Oz. You’re probably just picking up on me being a bit nervous.


What would cause that?


Well, I’m nervous about Paige going into this building, after potentially already being exposed. I’d feel much more comfortable grabbing her and Garet and getting them the hell out of here. But then they’d never be able to come back, and Dewitt would be able to continue doing whatever the fuck he’s doing as long as he pleases. 


So, you’re feeling guilty for putting her at risk?


Molly realized there was another reason Oz irritated her, and it didn’t have anything to do with the restrictions he made on her actions. It had everything to do with his increasing ability to call her out on her shit.


Facing reality was becoming such a bitch.


Yes, Oz. I’m feeling guilty, but that’s not a good enough reason to not do this. 


Oz fell silent, like he was churning. Molly wondered if it had anything to do with her altering his code at such a late stage of his development. Heck, who knew if it was even possible for the human mind to rewrite an AI’s code, once it had taken over rewriting itself. She hoped it wouldn’t do any damage to him. That would make her feel really bad.


At least it had seemed to work. He hadn’t raised even a question when she set up some trades on the markets last night. And now he was monitoring them for her, and hadn’t resisted her direction at all. Maybe it was going to be fine.


Just then, Molly caught sight of Paige’s pale blue atmosuit breezing past her car. She had a mocha in her hand, and the same bag she had with her last night.


There’s our girl… 


Right on schedule, I believe. 


Correct. Wanna pull the security cam footage to make sure she isn’t being followed by anyone?


Can do. 


Oz started processing, and Molly got an alert on her holo.


Looks like we’re proud owners of a new XC-0094B! She announced to Oz.


That’s great! I can’t wait to drive that, too. 


Molly rolled her eyes at the hilarious resemblance between the AI consciousness and an adolescent boy.


They’re going to let us know when we can take possession, but they said no more than forty-eight hours if everything checks out with the paperwork. You wanna make sure that the paperwork goes through okay? 


On that, too. Regarding Paige, it doesn’t look like she was followed. 


Okay, great. I’m going to pull the car around to another location so we can monitor her communications until she comes out at lunch time. This is going to be a looooong morning. 



Downtown Spire, Senate Council Building




Four hours and fifty-four minutes later, Molly was convinced she could never work a normal job. In just one morning, she had heard all about Margretina’s new boyfriend, why Jaquire wasn’t talking to Elsie, and what Elsie really thought of Robert, her boss.


She was also privy to all kinds of minutiae about the docudramas that normal folk feasted on each night, only to discuss them in meaningless detail as they drank mocha and gossiped in the hallways. Molly would have been amazed if anyone in that building ever got any work done.


She certainly didn’t hear Paige doing much.


She hoped to hell that at some point she had managed to download the files they needed, though. Otherwise this would all have been for nothing.


Alert and parked on the other side of the road now, Molly watched and waited for Paige to emerge. Two minutes after she heard the elevator doors open, Paige stepped out onto the sidewalk and turned right as instructed.


Molly pulled out into traffic and followed along, aiming to intercept her on a corner. She pulled across the other lane of traffic and turned right into a side street, right in Paige’s path. Paige saw her turning across the traffic and slowed her pace to wait while Molly pulled into the side street.


“You going my way?” Molly grinned at Paige.


Paige ran around to the passenger’s side and hopped in, unzipping the top of her atmosuit to make herself more comfortable.


She was smiling, clearly relieved.


“Did you get it?”


“Of course!” Paige’s grin widened as she made sure the door was shut.


Molly looked around at the traffic. “Honestly, the amount of gossiping you girls do in there, I was beginning to wonder if you were going to find time to do the download.”


“Ah, I did it while I was talking to Elsie. No one would suspect I was up to no good, sitting there with the PA of the COO of the company.” Paige winked.


Molly shook her head, smiling, as she pulled the car onto the strato highway, to take them back to the safe house.


Two minutes later a second car with blacked out windows followed them out of the same side street.


---


Twenty minutes later, a holo call was being made.


“Erik for Mr. Dewitt, please,”


Erik listened as his holocall was passed through to Dewitt’s holo. The call was connected. After a little scrambling on the other end of the line, and rustling of fabric, Dewitt grunted. “Yes?”


“Mr. Dewitt. Your employee, Paige Montgomery, left the office at lunchtime, and was picked up by a human female in a dark blue vehicle. We followed them about fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung, to a small village, before we lost them.”


“So you think they’re based nearby?”


“More than likely, sir. Yes.”


“Start canvassing the area, but be discreet. We don’t want people recognizing her picture when she disappears.”


“Yes, sir. Discreet, sir. Got it.”


“Let me know when you get a lead on her.”


“Yes, boss.”


Dewitt clicked the holo closed, and rolled over in bed.


“Everything okay?” Kasandra asked, snuggling herself up against Dewitt’s chest.


“Yeah. It will be. Looks like the girl was a traitor. She downloaded data and left the building. My guys have just watched her being picked up in the middle of the day, and they’ve tracked her to somewhere outside the city. No doubt she’s running.”


“Oh, that’s too bad. I’m sorry, honey.” Kasandra stroked his chest, now deep in thought. “Honestly, you think you know someone and they go and betray you…just like that. I hope you find her.”


“We will,” sighed Dewitt. “We certainly will.”


He stared up at the ceiling, enjoying the quiet of Kasandra’s bedroom. The silk sheets and the sweet smell of her perfume always transported him far away from the troubles he had to manage on a daily basis. This time, the trouble felt a little more difficult to shake.


That’s all right, he thought to himself. It will all be over soon. 












CHAPTER FIFTEEN



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Molly wandered into Joel’s room. He was packing up his kit and had been talking through some details with Paige about her job with Dewitt.


“Anything you can think of might help us,” he told her, as he packed another weapon into his kit bag.


“Okay. I’ll keep thinking.” She acknowledged Molly at the doorway as she turned and headed out towards the kitchen where Garet was working away on the pod drive.


“You look happy.” Joel noticed the big, satisfied smile on Molly’s face. He couldn’t help but smile back.


She arched her eyebrows, “Well, we are the new proud owners of an XC-0094B.”


“We got the ship?” He confirmed, the little gears in the back of his head running ahead full tilt.


“Yep. We can go and pick it up in a few hours. Just waiting for confirmation. Wondered if you’d made a decision on the guys you met? Either any good?”


He stood up, a small bag in his hand she assumed was going into the kit next. “Yes, both. In fact, I was waiting to check with you before we made them offers. But as far as I’m concerned, both our first choices for pilot and engineer are good to go as soon as we’re ready.”


She looked around his room, tidy and neat. “Well, let’s get them confirmed, and then perhaps they can meet me down at the port to pick this baby up tonight? I have no idea how to fly a space-going ship!”


Joel shrugged, “I’m sure they’ll be up for that. I told them it was going to be a quick turnaround if they got the job. I’m guessing we’re not leaving the system yet?” Joel looked concerned. Things had been moving awfully fast around here since their first meeting in the bar only a few weeks ago.


Molly turned around to check where the door was and took a step back. She leaned against the frame. “No, we just need to take possession and do a maintenance check.”


She noticed he was talking with his hands, but each time they came together, he would grab the little bag like it was a ball he was about to throw. “Okay, so I know that Garet’s funds have paid for some of the down-payment, and Oz managed to find some creative financing…but you’re buying a goddamn spaceship. Those don’t come cheap, no matter which way you cut it. So what about the rest of the payments that will be due? And what about these two salaries we’re about to take on?”


She waved his concern away, “Oh, I’ve been working on that. It’ll be covered by the time they all fall due.”


Joel had been about to put his bag in his kit but stopped and turned back to her. “How? What do you mean? We’ve got a new client?”


This time, it took a second for her to answer. “Kinda. Sorta. Er. No.” Molly took a breath before answering, “I’ve been trading in the markets.”


He narrowed his eyes. “You mean the stock markets?”


“Yeah.” She agreed.


“I thought we agreed that was out?” he asked.


One nod was all he got from her. “We did, but we need money to fund this operation. It’s not scalable, just using client money from ops here and there.”


There was something else. His training in body language kicked in, and he caught something else flicker across her face. Was that…fear?


“What aren’t you telling me, Molly?” he asked, not taking his eyes off her.


“Nothing.” Molly hesitated, suddenly realizing that he was going to have a problem with this.


“Molly…” His voice was firm, and a little demanding.


She pressed her lips together, then went for broke. “Okay Joel, I found that if I had a bit of intel from inside some companies, then I could perfect the trading model I was using and generate the cash we needed much faster.”


This time, the bag he was holding was thrown on the bed as he raised both hands in frustration. “You’ve GOT to be fucking kidding me!” He turned to look her in the eyes. “You know that’s called insider trading, right? That you can go to jail for that, for a very long time? And now,” he pointed to himself, “you’ve pulled me and my company into it, by buying your assets through me, dammit!”


Molly froze, suddenly realizing the impact that one decision could potentially have. Joel was still monitoring her expressions.


He could see she hadn’t even considered these consequences until he was standing here spelling it all out for her.


He was about to speak again when she jumped to defend herself, her face flickering back into her normal operations mode. “Right now, in the short term, we need cash to get us off-world and start building an operation that is going to do some good. And keep our people protected at the same time!”


He took a step closer, but lowered his voice, “That’s not a justification Molly. That’s not how this works. You should have come to me first, so we could talk this through.”


Joel was fuming.


Molly dropped her operations face again and her posture shifted, leaving her looking like a little girl who was feeling guilty for doing something terrible.


“It didn’t cross my mind.” she admitted quietly, looking down.


Joel kept up his hissing questions. “And how the fuck did Oz not stop you? I thought he was wired for ethics, or some shit?”


Molly’s voice was now flat. “I disabled him.”


Joel’s neck was pumped, and she could see veins standing out like he was lifting weights too heavy for him. “You fucking did what?”


Joel didn’t say a word. He turned around, took a step over to his bed and grabbed a t-shirt, wringing it in his hands, his packing forgotten.


Molly, her voice still quiet, continued. “Well, just the ethics code. I think I managed to isolate it so as not to affect anything else. I’m not sure if it’s disturbed any part of his personality, but he’s stable.”


In describing her logic, she looked less vulnerable. More neutral. Even though Joel was upset, his training kept him alert. He was learning a lot about her through this interaction.  And through his anger, he saw a way to reach her, through logic and rules.


“Molly, you can’t just alter the system just because you don’t like the limitations it puts on you.”


She blinked twice, “Why not?” she asked blankly.


“Because that’s exactly what these fucks in the political system are doing. That’s why Andus and the Syndicate have all the power they want, because when the laws don’t agree with them, they just fuck people over until they change the laws. These are the very justifications they use to do all the awful things they’ve done.” He answered.


“This is different.” She justified, without even pausing.


“Damn right, this is different. This is worse. Oz is alive. He’s the first living fucking entity of his kind, and you’ve gone and screwed with his code because it suited you.”


Molly was silent. Shocked. It hadn’t occurred to her that what she was doing was so fundamentally flawed by all these other factors.


Joel watched her face as she processed this new perspective. Time to push the lesson home, he thought.


“Tell me something, Molly. What if I get in your way? What if I don’t agree with you? Would you reprogram my personality? Or kill me?”


“Joel, that’s…that’s ridiculous.” She was scrambling for some logic to fight back with, but coming up with nothing.


He cocked his head and looked her in her eyes. “Is it? I’m not so sure, at this point.”


He dropped the t-shirt down on the bed and left the room, carefully sidestepping her when passing through the doorway. Had it been anyone else, anyone with more understanding about what they’d done, he’d be more furious than he was.


But having seen what he’d just read in her micro-expressions, he understood it wasn’t entirely her fault. She just didn’t compute things like most people did.


The only consolation in all of this was because he was paying attention, he may have given her the logical foundation to start the formation of her own internal moral code.


Shit, this is like programming a human, he thought to himself, thinking back to all the ways that he’d learned to influence his teams in the past.


Of all the work he’d done with those squaddies, this was by far the most clinical and logical discussion he’d ever had. And man, he knew something about squaddies who could get tangled up in their own thoughts.


He shook his head, calming down quicker than he expected. Still, he needed some space.


Molly, stunned and emotionally bombarded, just turned and sat on his bed next to where his shirt had landed. Half in a daze, crying inside, she stared blankly into a space, one hand subconsciously stroking his shirt.


A moment later, she heard the front door open and close. Then silence.


A tiny tear tracked down her face.



A few blocks from safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




“Let’s try the next place.” Erik walked determinedly back down the garden path from the last house, having just had the door slammed in their faces.


“This is exhausting. We’re never going to find them at this rate,” complained Henry, dragging his feet like a child who didn’t want to go to school.


“Pizza parlor.” Erik pointed up at the sign of the next building along. “They may have ordered pizza at some point…” he said, already stepping through the door.


“Not open yet, buddy!” came a call from the kitchen behind the counter.


Erik looked around, then looked at his holo to check the time.


“So, what? People don’t want pizza at four in the afternoon?”


“Not around here, they don’t,” came the disembodied voice.


A burly Ogg padded around from the kitchen and clambered onto a stool to peer over the counter at him. “We don’t have the ovens fired up yet. Can’t help you.”


At that moment Henry dragged his ass through the door and wandered, disinterested, over to the counter. He slumped his arms on the faux-marble surface, and leaned his chin elegantly on his arms. He fluttered his eyelashes and held the Ogg’s gaze.


“We’re looking for information,” continued Erik, ignoring Henry.


The Ogg, a little unnerved now, peeled his eyes away from Henry to look at Erik.


“What kind of information?” he asked.


“A girl. Well maybe a guy. But maybe both. You see, we know the girl came here this afternoon, and we think she’s here to meet with a guy…”


The Ogg glanced sideways again at Henry, who had cocked one hip, and was now resting his chin on his hand, elbow on the counter.


“And who is this girl to you?” asked the Ogg, suspicious about what he might be getting pulled into. These guys didn’t look official. In fact, they looked more like trouble.


“His cousin,” piped up Henry, casually, still gazing at the Ogg.


The Ogg had no choice except to look back at him. Anyone watching would have seen him almost hypnotized by the bizarre pair at the counter. They would also have seen him subconsciously lean back a couple of inches.


Heck, if he’d not been standing on a stool he may well have moved back a few feet…and then perhaps even stepped out of the back door until the two Oggs had left.


But instead, he remained there, transfixed.


“His cousin. Mmm hmm. And why are you looking for his cousin here?”


Erik started to talk, but stumbled. Henry took over.


“Well, you see, she’s gotten all tied up with this guy, and his mama, my auntie, said, ‘Henrik…’ that’s what they call us both…Henrik, cuz my name is Henry and his is Erik. His mama said, ‘Henrik, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll follow your cousin and bring her back to her mama. That boy’—the one she ran off with—‘is a devil in a Sunday hat. You bring her back here to us, you hear?’”


The Ogg glazed over, trying to take it all in.


Henry continued in his strange dialect, rambling in conversational style. “So that’s what we did. We followed her when she skipped out of work early, and she led us right here. We’re going to find her and take her back to his mama.”


“Cuz we know what’s good for us,” finished Erik, a little more rigidly.


“Well, erm. I’ve not seen anyone new this afternoon, but there is a girl and a guy who have started coming in here recently.”


“Oooh…do tell!” Henry’s eyes brightened with interest, and he started tracing patterns with his finger on the counter.


“There’s not much more to tell. They never get it delivered; always come and get it. No matter what time of night it is.  My guess is that they don’t live that far from here. Maybe five minutes by car. I’ve often wondered if they’re staying in Old Lady Evette’s place—the one with the ghost of a sphinx knocking around. She sometimes rents it out to groups and couples wanting to lay low, if you know what I mean.” He raised his eyebrows a little and nodded his head knowingly, as if Henrik would understand what he meant.


The two Oggs in atmosuits looked at each other blankly, then looked back at the pizza shop owner.


“Let me draw you a map,” the guy behind the counter suggested, trying to alleviate the social awkwardness that was expanding with every minute these two stooges were in his shop.


“Excellent, thank you,” responded Henry, a gooey look on his face.


The Ogg scribbled some shapes on a napkin, and handed it over. “But they ain’t who you’re looking for. They’ve been here for weeks now.”


“Yeah, but they might know my friend,” said Erik, a little more enthusiastically than he had intended.


“Thought you said she was your cousin?”


“Yeah. My cousin. That’s right. Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”


And with that Erik turned sharply and headed directly out of the shop door again, hips swinging with optimism…just a little. The Ogg watched him go, then noticed that Henry was wiggling his fingers in a wave as he practically waltzed out behind him.


Spontaneously, as if mesmerized by the interaction, the Ogg held up his hand in a wave and wiggled his fingers back. Catching himself, he looked at his hand, glanced around, wondering if anyone had seen him in his empty pizza parlor, and then snatched his hand down out of the air, suddenly very self-conscious.


They headed straight back to their car. Erik got in the driver’s side and began deciphering the map, hurriedly unfolding the sheets to see the full picture.


Henry started making a call on his holo.


“What are you doing?” asked Erik, suddenly pissed at something, his excitement gone.


“Calling the boss to tell him we have a lead.” Henry looked innocently and obliviously at Erik. “Why, d’you want to call it in?”


“No, you go ahead. You always steal my thunder.”  Erik’s jaw was set as he looked back at the road.


“What you mean? We were both canvassing the area.” Henry argued.


“It was my idea to try the pizza place.” Erik avoided eye contact.


“It was the next building on the road!” Henry’s voice was high pitched as if he were being attacked.


And with that they were squabbling again.


An hour later Dewitt received a call that Henrik had found another lead they were about to check out.












CHAPTER SIXTEEN



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Molly found herself sitting in the kitchen, opening her fourth beer that evening. Joel had stormed out into the night, and since they were jamming their signals, there was no easy way to trace him.


He’ll be back once he calms down, she told herself, hoping she was right.


Oz had been exceptionally quiet. Whether it was the effect of knowing she’d altered his base code and then lied to him about his reboot, or whether it was because her system had overwhelmed him, she couldn’t tell.


All she knew was if she kept drinking, she could keep feeling numb. And right now?


Fuck it, numb was good.


Paige came into the kitchen carrying an empty mug. She plopped it into the sink of water to soak and turned to lean against the counter.


Molly looked up at her. “I guess you heard Joel and I had a fight.” She glanced out of the kitchen window, as if she could figure out where Joel had gone by looking at the fading light outside.


“No, didn’t hear a thing through these paper-thin walls.” Paige answered flatly, before allowing a smirk to break.


Molly was confused for a second before she recognized the sarcasm. She always had difficulty figuring out when someone was being ironic or not, and had always put it down to her lack of social conditioning growing up.


Getting the joke, she too cracked a smile.


Paige looked at her sympathetically, knowing only too well the feeling after an argument like the one she had overheard. “You okay?” she asked.


Molly nodded. She took another swig of beer, and then thought to offer Paige one. She signaled at the bottle she was holding.


Paige nodded. “Yeah, what the hell.”


Molly pointed at the fridge by way of invitation and watched as Paige retrieved one.


 “Where’s Garet?” Molly asked her.


Paige sat down at the table to join her. “In Joel’s room, working through the data on the pod. He thinks there will be something there. He just needs to find it, and make sense of some of the account documents. It’s all a bit over my head, to be honest.”


“You and me both,” Molly admitted grimly, as she took another swig of beer before setting the bottle down and holding her face in her hands.


“Oh, Paige, I’ve fucked up. I’ve fucked up for all of us, and now you’re in danger, and we all have to leave the system. And soon.” She hesitated, as if not even wanting to admit it by speaking it out loud. “And Joel, who is meant to be helping with all this, doesn’t even want to look at me.”


Paige frowned at her. “Hey, hush now. That’s not true. He’s just blowing off steam. Sounds like you two have been under a lot of pressure.”


Neechie wandered in and settled on the table right next to Molly’s left arm. He looked at her, almost as if he were concerned.


“I know, Neech. It’s hard seeing your mama drinking. But if you knew half of what was going down, you wouldn’t be quite so judgmental.” She tickled him behind his head, gently digging her fingers into his smooth purple skin. He closed his eyes and wriggled up against her some more, snuggling and enjoying the petting.


“Weird name for a sphinx,” Paige commented.


“Yeah, short for Nietzsche; a human philosopher from ancient times,” explained Molly. “Except Joel didn’t want it spelled the proper way, cuz it was too complicated… as if using bloody Estarian wasn’t complicated. So we changed it to ‘Neechie’.” Molly rolled her eyes, embarrassed that she’d agreed to it.


“Ha! That’s even more bizarre! Giving an Estarian cultural icon such a human name!” Paige giggled away to herself.


“Yeah. I guess,” Molly agreed, suddenly seeing it from an Estarian perspective for the first time. “So, you’re half human, half Estarian, then? That’s pretty rare.”


“That’s right. Only one that I know of personally. I’ve heard of other cases through rumors and articles, though.” Paige studied the label on her bottle of beer, almost avoiding the attention on her personage. “Mostly in medical journals, to be honest.”


“It’s a beautiful mix,” Molly tried to acknowledge, somewhat awkwardly. Feeling a little unsettled at this girl talk thing, she fell back into what she knew.


“I remember when I was dabbling with some Estarian biochem, I read something about how humans and Estarians have a very similar number of chromosome pairs. I think humans have twenty-three, and Estarians twenty-four. Anyway, under the right conditions, the human pairs can acquire enough of the missing bases during the fertilization process of two gametes. I mean, the chance of it happening is something like one in a billion, because there’s so much that needs to happen before mitosis of that first cell kicks in to form a viable zygote, but…”


Molly stopped, realized that she’d lost Paige in her rush to cover her awkward feelings.


“Yeah, I must have missed that article!” Paige chuckled.


“Sorry. I er…geek. You know.”


“Yeah, I know. It’s fine.” Paige looked down at the table again. “Actually, it’s interesting. Mostly people don’t even realize I’m half human, and they go all weird when they meet my human father. Like I’m adopted or something.”


“They don’t notice that you’re kind of human-sized?”


“I guess they just assume that I’m short. Or young… Or they’re too busy thinking about other things.” She indicated down at her chest and the human-looking cleavage. “Most Estarians have flatter breasts, so when they notice I don’t, that tends to be all they notice. Particularly the guys.”


“Yup. I get that.” Molly drew in her breath, nodding in sympathy.


Having spent the last few years in the military, she knew what it was to be objectified for her body shape above her abilities. Many times, she’d caught her male teammates checking her out in the mixed showers.


“So, your mom is Estarian?” She steered the subject away from the usual discussions about how they were often treated in their culture. She didn’t need another reason to be depressed.


Paige leaned back in her chair. “Yeah. 100%. And not just physically; she’s very much ‘of the traditions’. You know, the old religion of the Estarians? I think that’s what fascinated my father the most when they met. In the old days, she would have been a high priestess or something, but since a lot of that fell away during the commercial era, people started a new religion.”


“What? You mean shopping and spending money as a way to inner peace?” Molly asked flippantly.


A small smirk slipped from Paige. “Yeah, actually. It’s a simpler fix than years and years of meditation to master the veil between the realms. People like my mom are kind of seen as outcasts or weirdos that people only go to when they’re in trouble and need to call on their ancestors.”


Molly shrugged as Neechie purred. “I think that’s the way it goes across all civilizations.”


Molly thought back to her years of extensive reading about different times in different star systems. Once you’ve seen a few, it becomes very clear that the same patterns tend to emerge again and again.


Molly played with her bottle. “Still, neat that you have an insight into all that.  I don’t think us humans have anything like a tradition or a religion in our recent past. I mean, there are snippets of info out there from old archives, but we don’t have many practicing traditions like you guys do.”


“Yeah, I guess. Mind, since I left home, I kinda found my own religion,” admitted Paige sheepishly.


“Oh, what’s that?” Molly became even more intrigued.


Paige’s eyes opened. “Beauty! And my god is my collection of nail polish.”


Molly nearly sprayed her mouthful of beer over the table. Swallowing what she could, she couldn’t contain her laughter. She got up from the table and grabbed some paper towels, mopping up the beer she’d dribbled down her chin.


Paige giggled away with her.


When they finally caught their breath, Molly noticed that Neechie was looking a little perturbed by the sudden eruption.


“Aww, Neechie, sorry. Are we behaving inappropriately?” Molly reached out to tickle him. He backed away a little.


“I’ll tell you something. My mom would love you,” declared Paige to the sphinx. She reached out to tickle him too. Neechie ventured a little closer to her, as if drawn by some hidden affinity of their shared ancestry.


“Well, so much for me!” complained Molly, as the sphinx took another couple of steps across the table to Paige.


“You know, in the tradition, these guys were thought to have been able to see both sides of the veil.” Paige explained.


“Yeah…pretty creepy, no?” Molly was curious about the sphinx and their abilities, but didn’t want to come across as too into all that. After all, Paige had made it clear that it wasn’t her religion, although she’d probably been indoctrinated as a child.


“Yes and no. So, what about your parents?” Neechie had settled down in front of Paige and was snuggling his face against her forearm as she tickled the back of his head with her other hand.


Molly took another swig of beer. Her impulse was to try and avoid the subject, but a few drinks in, and feeling a great affinity for Paige, maybe it was time she start being able to share what really happened.


After all, that was what one of the psychotherapy people in the services had been trying to get her to do, after she was busted for acting out one time.


She took a deep breath. She wasn’t being forced now. She could change the subject whenever she wanted, right?


Fuck it.


Molly spoke. “My parents were, well…busy a lot of the time. And I was a little odd, and they didn’t quite know what to do with me. So, they basically gave me a holo, some processing power in their business network, and left me to my own devices. Long story short, I ended up hacking their EI to do some investigating of my own, and in poking around some places I shouldn’t have been, I set off some trip wires.”


She paused, and shifted in her seat. She hadn’t told anyone about this. Not even the psychotherapists she’d been ordered to see a few years ago.


“What happened?” Paige was looking concerned.


Molly played with her beer bottle some more. “Well, the trip wires were put there by certain organizations within organizations. You know, people with commercial interests in stuff. When they saw our EI in places it shouldn’t have been, they assumed my parents were infringing on their interests or looking to expose them for their own commercial gain. Either way, they decided to take them out.”


Paige gasped.


“Yeah,” acknowledged Molly. “I remember a team of men in black atmosuits and guns storming our home and restraining them both. I hid in a cupboard watching everything. They were about to execute them, then some other men showed up. They looked military, but I never found out which service or who they were. They stopped the execution from going ahead, and killed a couple of the first group of men. They took the bodies with them and marched everyone outside. A few hours later, my parents came back into the house. Alive. But nothing was the same after that. It was all my fault.”


Tears welled in her eyes. “And though they didn’t really punish me for it, I’ve overheard them talking about it since. They try not to blame me, but they can’t help how they feel. And they’re right. It was all my fault. They came this close to dying.” Molly held up her thumb and forefinger with a tiny gap between them to illustrate her point.


“Whoa. That’s intense. How old were you?”


“Twelve. As soon as I was old enough, I ran away and joined the military. There just wasn’t much else I could see myself doing, after making all those bad decisions that led to that day. At least in the military you kind of surrender your choices to someone else who presumably can put your talents to good use.”


Her voice drifted off, as she remembered that decision and everything she had left behind in the last few weeks.


“I can see how there would be comfort in that.” Paige was gently bobbing her head, Molly’s sadness echoing in her eyes.


Molly blew out a breath. “Yup. Until you end up back in the real world again, having to fight the good fight without as much as safety net.” Molly smiled, trying to lighten the mood a little.


Paige cooperated with the change of mood, and subject.  “So, what’s next?” she asked as Molly took a sip of her beer.


Molly eyed Neechie, wondering if she wanted to reach across the table. That cat was an equal opportunity pleasure seeker. “Next, we await a call to take possession of the new ship. Then our boys will check it over, and if it’s fit for flight, we start making arrangements to get off-world as fast as possible. In the meantime, we’re going to find something on that pod that will get Dewitt off our backs, once and for all…”


Paige raised her bottle in solidarity, and Molly leaned forward and clinked with her.


Molly smiled. “And if we’re really good, we’re going to be able to take apart a little of the system of corruption, leaving the Inner System just a bit better for those who are currently at the mercy of this kind of fuckery.”


“I’ll drink to that,” agreed Paige, drinking down half the beer in one swallow.


---


During one of the very short moments that Oz dropped the jamming, Molly received the message through her holo that the ship was ready for handover. The message had the hangar and port numbers.


“I mean, I really like him, but I don’t know if I want to disappear off-world with him forever. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.” Paige had only had two beers by now, but something told Molly that her metabolism wasn’t built for holding her drinks.


Molly squinted to read the details in her holo. “Looks like the ship is ready. I need to get down there. Someone needs to sign for the supplies that should be arriving to coincide with the hand over, and I’m not sure the current owners are going to be handling that for us.”


Paige looked disappointed that girl time was over.


Oz, could you send the details over to Joel and get him in touch with the pilot and the engineer to meet us down there? Also, I could do with their photos and names, so at least I know who we’ve hired.


“Want some company?” Paige asked.


“Sure.” Molly could sense she didn’t want to be alone with Garet right now. Plus, she’s probably keen to check out this bad boy machine that is going to get us off-world.


I’m sure. Message sent to Joel’s holo. 


Are you sulking, Oz? Molly asked.


Yes, I believe I am.


Well, fuck you. 


Molly, feeling even shittier, downed her current bottle of beer and snatched her jacket off the back of one of the empty chairs. Storming out of the kitchen, she didn’t pause to freshen up or check herself in the mirror.


Are you sure you want to go out with your blood alcohol so high? 


You’re driving. 


Molly approached the car, Paige still trotting after her through the hallway, bottle in hand.


Molly heard something move in the bushes just off to her right, and then felt a sharp pain on her head.


Everything went black.


---


Henry looked pleased as punch, wielding his baseball bat and standing over the girl’s limp body.


Erik was already grabbing her ankles when a second girl appeared from the house and froze, stunned at the scene in front of her. Erik lunged for the baseball bat, which he grabbed out of Henry’s hands.


“Hey, biatch… that’s my ba—”


Erik thwacked the second girl on the head, and watched her crumble into a heap over the first one.


Erik handed the bat back to the protesting Henry and started dragging the top girl over the gravel to the car that was parked on the street.


“Wanna give me a hand? Or do you just want to watch and then call it in to the boss?” Eric sneered sarcastically at Henry, the events of the last several hours still seething in his veins.


Henry, taking the hint, put the bat down, and helped him carry the bodies into the vehicle.


Once both prisoners were secured, Henry tootled back to his bat. Holding it like a doll, he practically skipped back to the car and got in on the passenger side, as if everything were fine and dandy.


Erik’s face relaxed and went back to its regular witless look, before he started the engine and pulled off onto the strato highway.


Inside, Garet continued working with the data, piecing together contracts that seemed to be leading to a money trail. If he could track the money, then he would have corroborating proof of what was going on.


He thought about shouting to the girls, but then, figuring they would want to know the result rather than the breakthrough, decided to get some more work done before he shared it with them.












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Twenty minutes later, Joel arrived back at the safe house. The car was still in the driveway, which meant Molly would be around. He braced himself. He wasn’t ready for everything to just be okay with them right now. Not yet.


He had calmed down enough to want food, though.


He keyed in the door code and slipped into the house, wandering through the rooms to find signs of life. Finding Garet in his room, he asked where the girls were.


“No idea. Last I saw, they were in the kitchen finishing off the stock of beer.”


“That figures,” smiled Joel, taking his atmojacket off. Molly would be suffering tomorrow, if not already. She never could hold her drinks, even when they had had intensive squad training. She seemed to operate well though, even when she was blitzed.


Heading into the kitchen, he was surprised to find evidence of intense drinking in the form of many empty beer bottles on the table, but no sign of life. Unless you counted Neechie, who emerged from the back of the room and rubbed up against his legs in a “hello, please feed me” maneuver.


“All right, buddy. You know which side your bread is buttered on, don’t you?” Chatting to the sphinx, he opened the fridge and pulled out food for him.


He arranged food in Neechie’s little dish, and plopped it down on the ground. The sphinx looked up at him and meowed.


“What’s up, pal?” he asked.


The sphinx just tilted his head and meowed again.


“You trying to tell me something?” Joel probed, only half aware that he looked crazy talking to a sphinx. Neechie walked past him and hopped up on the nearest chair, and then onto the table. Joel watched him. The sphinx walked amongst the empty beer bottles, and meowed again. Then he stopped and looked at Joel.


“You trying to tell me that Molly was here? I know she was. What’s up with you?” He stepped towards the sphinx and tickled him behind his head. “Do you just miss her when she’s not here?” he asked.


Picking him up gently, he gave him a cuddle before placing him down on the floor again. “Me too, buddy. Me too.”


Grabbing a soft drink from the fridge, he eased into a kitchen chair and checked again at his downloaded messages. Both guys had accepted their offer, and were ready to meet up tonight. Joel figured he’d need to disable the signal jammer to send the messages. He could do that, if it was just for a few seconds. He composed the message from the details Oz had provided, and fired them off, pausing the jamming signal for a few moments.


He had another message from Oz, about taking receipt of some supplies. It was a detail for the two new guys in case they got there before Molly.


Oz suggested they check the number of packages was correct, the ID tags lined up, and then have them loaded up onto the bird so that the new gear and supplies were at least secure.


Joel tutted at the message; now he knew exactly where the money had come from to be able to buy all those supplies, as well as the ship. He forwarded the details, as Oz had requested, and let the guys know that Molly would probably already be there by the time they arrived.


He took a deep breath, and released a little more of the pent-up tension that last message had built up in his system. He knew he’d get past this. Eventually. But right now, he should probably get working on the rest of the plan.


If they had the ship, they should start deploying the rest of their scheme to separate Dewitt from his resources. He called out to Garet to come and work in the kitchen, and started tidying up beer bottles to give them some space.


It was going to be a long night.



Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




The Sark had already disappeared under the horizon, leaving the atmosphere cold, dusty and inky black. Condensation had already started forming in the cracks of the silicon-based tarmac.


Crash looked up at the hangar number, to his holo, then back up at the number.


08771A.


He was in the right place. There had been movement around some of the other hangars as he’d driven down the towpath to arrive here, but now, there wasn’t a soul in sight.


He idly scuffed his boot heel along the ground, waiting for Molly or the other guy to show.


Crash wondered who this mechanic was that was going to have his life in his hands for this next mission. He’d flown with many crews over the years; some competent, some nothing more than cowboys in jumpsuits. But one thing he knew was that a good relationship between the wrench monkey and the fairy could mean the difference between life and death for them all.


He hoped to hell that this Dunham guy knew what he was doing in the selection process. He paused for a moment, suddenly wondering whether it was a good sign that he had been selected for the fairy job, or not.


There were footsteps behind him.


Turning around, he saw a man’s figure come into the light. His breath caught in his throat as he realized who it was.


“Long time, soldier.” The man called out to him.


The smile. He’d never forget that smile.


“How the devil…” Crash lost his words, as he took a few steps towards the man in the metallic blue atmosuit. He was just as confident and vibrant as Crash remembered him.


Until things had gone bad, that was.


Crash held his hand out for a proper greeting, but the man opened his arms, as if all the treachery of their last meeting had evaporated. Relieved, Crash hugged him, grinning from ear to ear.


“You realize you’re too good looking to be flying whatever shit is in that hangar?” he asked him.


Crash ignored the question. “Brock Lysta, as I live and breathe. I take it you’re my new monkey?”


“You got that right. I’m your monkey, your bitch, and you better be my goddamn eagle in the fucking sky if we gonna make this work.” Brock’s eyes were bright and clear, dancing with wisdom far older than his years would have permitted.


Crash slowly released his old friend from his embrace, and stepped back to look at him.


“Man, I’m so happy to see you. And you’re looking great!” His excitement bubbled up, and then he looked very serious. “You have no idea how sorry I am, the way things ended between us. I really…I just want you to know that.”


“It’s okay. We good. I cussed you, I told everyone that would listen what a dog you is, and then eventually, I got over it. But that isn’t a mistake I’m ever going to make again, you feel me?”


Crash nodded, well aware how lucky he was that Brock was making this a pleasant reunion.


“Well, beetch, what’s going on with our lady-queen? Where she at?” Brock looked around for Molly.


“Just got here. I’m guessing we’re in the right place…”


Brock checked the hangar number, and nodded.


“How ‘bout you tell me how you been? Been tooooo long.” Brock’s melodic dialect was like music.


Just as it had always been. 


Crash felt his spirits lift as Brock stood there shooting the breeze. This was one assignment he was glad to have accepted. No matter what happened on that ship, he knew he was in the right place now.



Unknown location




Molly came to. Her head really hurt and she felt sick.


Hangover, was her first thought. She tried to sit up, and felt stuck. Then she became aware that her wrists were bound.


“Owwwww,” she complained, wondering where the fuck Oz was when she needed orienting.


Gradually, the room came into focus. It wasn’t like anything she’d ever seen before. It had high vaulted ceilings and plush rugs over the wooden flooring. The furniture in the room was like something out of a history file, and there were wallpaper and paintings on the walls.


Is this some kind of museum? She wondered, trying to put the pieces together.


Scanning around the part of the room she could see, she stopped when she noticed that Paige was completely bound, just across the way from her, lying on one of the antique couches.


She looked distressed. Tears had dried down her face and she was gagged, but trying to make sounds now she saw that Molly was awake.


Just outside the tall doors there was a man, Ogg-kind, in a dark gray atmosuit. She couldn’t see his face because he had his back to the door, as if he were guarding it. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him.


She became aware of the dull pain on the side of her skull, and realized she had been hit and kidnapped. She pulled and wriggled to get out of her bonds, but all it did was hurt her ankles and wrists more.


It was only then that she became aware of a presence behind her. Someone was dragging something in her direction. A table appeared next to her. And then a gentleman, a blue Estarian, came into her view. His suit was stylish, and he smelled of expensive aftershave.


Her money was on him being Dewitt himself.


“Greetings of the day to you!” he exclaimed when he was done arranging the table. “I trust you’re comfortable?”


Molly tried to cuss at him through her gag, but he was too caught up in himself to be affected. He disappeared behind her again, out of her line of sight, and then reappeared, putting a saucer onto the table next to her.


Molly looked at it and then back at Paige.


“Who the fuck are you?” She tried to speak through her gag.


The man shook his head as if he didn’t understand, and untied the gag, letting it fall into her lap.


“Say that again, please?” he asked nicely.


“Who the fuck are you?” she asked again, anger seething through her teeth.


“Why, I’m Mr. Dewitt, of course. You should know that, since you have a download of all my files that you stole earlier today. And you are?”


He looked down at her, sneer and sarcasm dripping from his thin pale lips.


“Molly,” she answered, still seething.


“Ahhhhh, Meddling Molly! Tell me, Molly, do you make a habit of interfering in things that don’t concern you?”


Molly remained stoic, but glared at him as if she were trying to fry his brain with her eyes.


“You know, meddling only ever gets people killed. You should know that by now…given all the meddling you’ve done over the years. Tell me, how are your parents doing since you nearly got them assassinated?”


Molly looked over at Paige, the whites of whose eyes were now showing. Scrambling for the words to respond, she was overwhelmed with questions. How did this asshole know who she was? And how could he know about her parents? No one knew that. There weren’t any records. Someone had seen to that. She’d checked.


“Molly, I know all about you; about your little stint in the military after nearly getting your parents killed. Such a cliché, if you ask me. You should have just stayed in the military and kept your head down, instead of coming out into the real world and making my life more difficult.”


“Well, if you know anything about me, you’ll know exactly why I can’t do that,” Molly scoffed.


“The Syndicate are not even the same people who came after your parents.” Dewitt looked slightly exasperated, but his tone was still patronizing.


Molly ground out. “Different faces, but you’re all the same, and you all need stopping. No one was around to dismantle whatever was going on when those men came after my parents. But I’m around now. And I’m going to stop you all.”


Dewitt wandered over to his briefcase, which was lying open on a couch near the one Paige was tied up on.


He glanced back at her, indicating towards her bound hands and feet. “Doesn’t look likely from where you are right now.”


He turned back and reached into the briefcase and pulled out a little pink disc. Wandering back to the table next to Molly, he placed it on the saucer.


“Molly, Molly, Molly,” his tone was laced with condescension. “You and I don’t need to speak. I know your story, and honestly, I’m bored. I need you to be quiet. Permanently. I want to speak to Paige, though.”


Molly protested. “Paige just got all caught up in something she doesn’t understand. Let her go, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”


Dewitt was wandering back to his briefcase again.


“You’re not the one who stole information off my private server. Paige is the one who has been giving people access to my personal data. Paige is the one who can answer my questions.”


Molly felt sick, and she knew it was only part hangover. If she’d taken Paige away that first night in the bar, they’d both be safe now. Dewitt was right. They were in trouble. They were going to die because she had aspirations of being like Bethany Anne, making the world a better place. But that wasn’t really why she was drawn to it. No. It was because being like Bethany Anne, taking on that identity, was her childish way of avoiding the pain of being an outcast, and the emptiness of being nothing special, of being broken.


Her Bethany Anne obsession had been a band-aid; a fix for an identity wound that still hadn’t healed.


“Leave her alone. Please.” Molly begged. She didn’t have tears for what was going on, but her stomach was turned inside out with anxiety.


He looked at her, completely confused. “Why would I?” he asked. He pointed to Paige. “She’s planning to expose me. Why would I let her go? I need to find out what she knows, and who she’s told.”


“And then she’s as good as dead?” asked Molly. Her anxiety and frustration was turning to rage.


“Yes, probably,” responded Dewitt, excited that he was getting her riled up. Getting a reaction was something he lived for.


Of course, it wasn’t something he could do in his professional life, but when he had control over people in his private life, he would go to town on them. That had been what had provoked his late wife, and a few others since.


“You’re a monster!” Molly grated.


“Another way we’re alike. You and I, Molly…we’re just ambitious. And I’m tired of being everyone’s bitch. I’ve been used and abused my whole career. I’ve been the Syndicate’s pawn for the last twenty years. And now, now—when I most need their support to clean up their mess—they abandon me. Reject me! Tell me they’re distancing themselves from me?!”


He paused a moment, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I’ll give them distance!”


Molly couldn’t be sure from where she was, but it looked like his hands were shaking in anger. His jawline looked tense, but the rest of his face was strangely expressionless.


Probably something he’s picked up being a politician, she assumed, hiding his true feelings.


He was hovering over his brief case again, and this time took out a small bottle of liquid. Molly watched him intently.


He continued on, as if he were explaining his sins for absolution. “I’m not mixed up with them because I crave power or politics. I was like you once.” He glanced at her, a small smile on his face before looking back at the liquid. “Young. Idealistic. But then they made me kill my wife, and because of the divorce, it looked really bad. They offered to make it all go away, and I’ve been working for them ever since.” He paused, twiddling the bottle in his fingers, before glancing over to Paige who had been helplessly watching the interaction unfold.


She wished she hadn’t tried to be brave. She wished for once she had just followed her gut and gotten out of town. Too late for that now.


“There’s really no way out of this for me. Or, unfortunately, for either of you.” He started to walk deliberately back towards the table and Molly.


Molly changed tactics. “You don’t need to keep working with them. If they’ve abandoned you, then you’ve got a way out. Why keep cleaning up to keep them safe? Your career is going to be finished. You can make a deal…expose them, in exchange for your safety. There are other ways!” Molly’s voice was cracking as she spoke through her anxiety, trying to persuade him with reason.


“No there aren’t.” Dewitt’s shoulder dropped noticeably, and for an instant he looked like a defeated man. “You can’t understand how powerful they are. They own the police. The military. The legal system. There is no way this can end well for me. I need to silence you two, and however many people you’ve told. If I’m lucky, they’ll let me keep going and push this bill through.”


With that, he put the bottle down on the table next to the saucer and headed over to Paige. Grabbing her roughly, he dragged her like a rag doll off the couch, onto the floor, and across the wooden flooring to the door. Dewitt propped Paige up by the doorway; the guy in the atmosuit guarding the door turned to look at her, then resumed his position.


Dewitt grunted something at him, and the guard spoke into his holo, presumably to another team member.


Dewitt walked back to the couch, closed up his briefcase, and placed it by the door as well.


“Here’s what’s going to happen now, Molly,” he told her clinically. “You’re just going to fall into a deep sleep you’ll never wake up from. I’m going to take Paige somewhere more comfortable, and we’re going to have a little chat. She’s going to tell me everything I need to do to clean up this frightful mess, and then I’m going to get this goddamn bill passed and get on with my life.”


He picked up the bottle of liquid and put a few drops onto the pink disc. Immediately the chemicals started reacting, giving off a lot of mist.


Dewitt quickly moved backwards, watching as the mist thickened. Breathing it in, Molly started choking uncontrollably.


He continued his education. “I like this method of clean up. It leaves no trace in the room, or in the blood… especially not with these high ceilings,” he indicated upwards.


A second later, he was at the door. He scooped up his briefcase and dragged Paige after him.


Molly didn’t even see him leave. The fog around her was thick and black. She racked her brain trying to figure out what this stuff was…but it was so hard to focus.


Oz. Oz, are you there? 



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Both men looked aged and tired. They’d been at this for hours now, and though they were making good progress, the work was like combing through a haystack for a couple of needles.


“I think I’ve nearly got all the evidence we need to prove our case. Just need to present it so it’s good for each media outlet and the official channels. Who should we include on the list? The chief justice? The police commissioner? The normal police channels for reporting this kind of crime?”


Garet was thinking out loud, and also constructing the list that he was about to put into action.


Joel looked up from a bunch of lewd photos he’d been sorting through.


“Yeah, all of the above, and anyone else you can think of. The more people, the better.”


“Great. I’ll compile a list of social channels too. I’m sure the Angry Onion would want to know about this!” Garet smiled, relieved that they had a way out of the pickle he’d been in no less than twenty-four hours ago. “How are you doing? Any good shots?”


Joel nearly laughed out loud. “I’ll tell ya, this guy has no shame. He will screw anything with an orifice if it’s going to help his career. I was worried we’d have to catch him in the act, but it looks like a bunch of people over the years have done that for us. Grieving divorcees, pissed off husbands—even his own people looking to leverage him. The guy is a scumbag, and so are all his associates by the looks of it.”


“So, you think just sending them to his judge lady friend will be enough? You aren’t worried that she knows about this already?”


“I’ve checked their messages. She thinks he’s all hers, and is pushing for them to make the next step in commitment. What’s worse, I think she’s in love with him. No way their relationship is going to remain intact once these images go out.”


“Want me to throw some into the media shitstorm I’m cooking up, too?” Garet was excited about regaining some power and getting some revenge on the guy who tried to have him killed.


“No. Need to keep these separate. If we go mixing them up it will look like someone is trying to damage his career and it won’t be taken seriously. Keep it clean.”


Garet nodded his understanding, and continued arranging the materials he’d gathered.


Joel checked the time. Molly should be with Crash and Brock by now. He should call her to make sure they were set to release their findings. She’d probably want to look over the materials before they went out.


After disabling the jamming app, Joel pulled up the call function on his holo and dialed.


“That’s strange…”


Garet looked up. “What’s that?”


“Call isn’t going through. Lemme try the guys she’s meeting.” Joel dialed Crash.


“This is Chris Ashworth.”


“Crash, hi, this is Joel. Is Molly with you?”


“No, she’s not shown up yet. We’ve been hanging about for a while now. Any idea on her ETA?”


Joel’s brow furrowed.


Noticing something was up, and only being able to hear Joel’s side of the conversation, Garet sat up.


“Something must be wrong. She messaged me hours ago. Are you sure you didn’t miss her?” Joel’s eyes darted left to right, as if searching the space in front of him for insight.


“No, we got here about ten minutes before we said we would. If she got to the hangar, we’d know about it. I can go check with the main gate, though. See if she signed in.”


“Yeah, if you could, that would be helpful. Call me back.”


Joel disconnected the call.


Shit, if only there was some way to trace her holo. That had been an Oz trick, though. He had no idea how to do that. He stood up, and started pacing, trying to figure out his next move.












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN



Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




Crash had told Brock about the conversation, and the two quickly got into Crash’s car to drive down to the gatehouse.


“I hope everything’s all right,” muttered Crash. “Joel sounded anxious. I think they’re mid-mission. Figured they had a client with them at the safe house when we interviewed.”


“If I had known you were going to be working this team, I would have worked much harder at the interview!” Brock said, rolling his head against the headrest to look at him and smiling. For a short moment their eyes locked, but Crash had to turn away to watch the road. Brock broke the moment further by commenting on the car.


“Man, you’ve got nothing personal in this car. No gear, nothing to make it comfortable. Just like something issued temporarily by the military.”


“You know me. Mission ready, and not much else to plan for.”


“Yeah. I remember.”


They pulled up by the gatehouse and they both got out. Crash tapped on the door, and then stepped into the little office. The gatehouse guard looked up from his holo. From the color of light coming off it, he was probably watching a movie.


“Yup?” he asked. “How can I help?”


“Sorry, we were just wondering, have you had a Molly Bates sign in yet?”


Brock stood in the doorway watching the exchange.


“Molly Bates?” The guard clicked to a different frame on his holo and scanned down a page. “No, not tonight. You expecting her?””


“Yeah, over at hangar 08771A.”


The guard looked down at his list again, and shook his head. “Sorry, nothing here. Tried calling her holo?”


“No, not yet. Thanks.” Crash stepped out of the office, and they headed back to the car.


“What you thinking?” asked Brock.


“I’m thinking that maybe Joel has reason to be worried. You don’t arrange to meet your new crew for an urgent mission and then just not show up….”


Then, having another thought, he popped his head around the door and spoke to the guard. “Hey, if you have her sign in, can you get her to call us straight away?”


The guard nodded. “Sure.”


“Oh, and we’re expecting to take receipt of some supplies too. So we’re around if they show up.”


“Yep, got your holo contact on your sign-in. I’ll let you know.”


Crash nodded his thanks, and then stepped outside again. He pulled up his holo and dialed Joel.


Joel answered. “Hi, Crash. Anything?”


“Hey, Joel, we’re at the gatehouse, and they haven’t had her check in at all. I guess we’ll just wait here, but let me know if there is anything we can do.”


“Okay, let me know if you need anything.”


Crash clicked off.


“Maybe we should wait back at the hangar?” Brock suggested.


“Good plan,” agreed Crash. They returned to the car, and set off back to the hangar, keeping their eyes peeled and taking in the lay of the port, just in case.



Unknown location




Molly started to regain consciousness. Trying to move, she realized she was still tied to the chair. Her head hurt something awful, but from the inside out, rather than from that bump she took earlier.


Shifting in her chair, she tried to get more comfortable and sit up a bit. The sick feeling from the beer was still with her, but amplified ten times with a different type of hangover.


Oz. Are you there?


She felt something shift in her neurology, like Oz was booting up or something. She wished she could reach around for her holo and run a diagnostic, but there was no way she was getting out of these bindings without some help.


Oz, she called to him more determinedly. Wake your fat arse up. We’re in trouble. 


The stirring happened again.


Molly started scanning the room for something to help her get free. Anything. Something sharp, something she could leverage the ties free with. Just something…


How about I call Joel? 


Oh, Oz, you’re awake. Thank goodness. 


Relief flooded through their shared system, and even Oz seemed to buzz through her head a little more lucidly.


Yes, get out coordinates to Joel. 


She thought for a moment.


Any ideas what that chemical bath bomb could have been? 


Let me find out… Looks like it’s some kind of experimental sleep drug that was discontinued in stage two trials because it would bind with the blood and kill their test subjects. 


You’re kidding?


I am not. 


So how did I survive?


The alcohol in your system. It seems that the alcohol has a higher affinity with your blood than the toxin. This means that your liver has mostly been able to excrete the toxin before it could bind to the blood or build up in any of your organs to cause any significant damage.  The fact that you also fell unconscious meant that you took in less of the toxin in before it dissipated. 


Molly shifted in the chair again, trying to wiggle her hands free.


I’ve managed to get a message to Joel’s holo with our coordinates. If he’s still in the house with the jamming signal activated, he won’t get the message until he either switches off the jamming or leaves the property.


He must have noticed I’m missing. Mind, the way we left things, I’m not sure he still cares. He may have abandoned the mission entirely. Okay, let’s find a way to get me free… 



Dewitt Residence, Spire




Dewitt opened the front door to what Paige could only guess was his mansion. It was enormous and beautiful, like something out of a fairytale in her books as a child.


Dewitt grabbed her by the arm and pushed her in. Henry followed, letting Erik take care of the car.


Inside the mansion, Paige noticed beautiful floors and rugs, and what looked like a grand piano in the foyer. She guessed it was a piano but she’d never seen one in real life. They were something of a relic from the human civilization. Why he liked it, she wasn’t sure.


Dewitt didn’t give her a chance to take in the environment. Distracted, he pulled her roughly toward the stairs and pushed her upwards.


“I’m going to make our guest more comfortable upstairs. Erik, come. You’ll need to guard her.”


“I’m Henry.”


“Henry, Erik…whatever.” Dewitt answered.


Henry followed him obediently.


At the top of the stairs, Dewitt guided her to what must have been a guest room and shoved her in. Rethinking this, he followed her in, grabbed her again, and then shoved her into the closet. He closed the closet and bound the handles together using a curtain tie.


“She’s your responsibility now. Under no circumstances does she leave that closet. Understood?” He stared at the Ogg.


Henry nodded, and Dewitt left, closing the bedroom door behind him.


Unprepared for taking care of a live prisoner he wasn’t to kill, Henry stood awkwardly looking at the closet. He went to cross his arms and hesitated. He cocked his hip and put on hand on it, then stood straight again. Finally, and self-consciously, he sat down on the bed and rested his hands in his lap.


This was not what he had in mind this morning when he was told to tail a traitor.


“Seems like we’re all going to transfer dimensions painfully.” he said out loud, forgetting that the girl was sentient, and alive.



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Joel had been pacing for a good ten minutes, and Garet didn’t know whether he should keep working to try and console Joel. He clearly cared for Molly, even if they had gone through an enormous bust-up.


He looked up, watching Joel, trying to decide what to do.


“Is there any way to track them at all?” he asked. “I remember my aunt put an app onto my cousin’s holo so she knew where he was if he ever got into trouble. Totally ruined his social life, though…”


“No. We hadn’t thought that far. This operation is brand new.” Joel was still pacing.


“You know, the best thing for us to do is get this stuff out according to plan. She might just have gone to a bar or something. They had a few drinks before they left.”


“You don’t seem that worried about Paige.”


“I’m sure they’re fine. I’ve seen you guys in action. There is no one I’d feel safer pairing Paige with. Molly knows how to handle herself, and I know she’s got Paige’s back. From what I could overhear, those girls were bonding.”


Joel paused for a moment, taking in the information. If he hadn’t been such a hothead, she never would have been drinking like that.


His holo beeped as a priority message came in. In the panic, he’d forgotten to reset the jammer.


Opening the message, he saw it was from Molly. Well, Oz. “We’ve been kidnapped, Paige is gone, here are our coordinates. Please hurry.”


Forgetting Garet, he grabbed his packed gear from the other room and headed out to the car. Garet was shouting, but it was background noise to Joel. Firing up the engine, he was ready to take off when Garet, barefoot on the gravel, appeared at his window.


Opening the car window, Joel remembered the bigger operation.


“Let me come with you. I can help.” His face was anxious, showing deep concern for Paige.


That made him a liability.


“No. You need to stay here and get that data out to those channels we talked about. That’s the only way you have of helping Paige right now. Go. Get it done. I’m on the holo. And be careful—the jamming isn’t active, so this safe house is a sitting duck.”


He realized that it had been ever since the girls were taken, but there was no time to explain that to Garet.


A moment later the car was halfway to the strato highway and Garet was left watching the condensate trail upwards into the inky night.


---


Staring up into the sky, Garet had been wondering about Paige. About where she might be, about what he’d pulled her into for his own selfish ambitions. If there were a way to go back and do things differently, he would jump at the chance.


He remembered her smile the other week when he’d met her at work to take her for lunch. This world, the anxiety, the politics—it had all seemed so far away. How could things turn so bad, so quickly?


Now, with the cold and atmosphere slipping into his shirt, beating gently against his skin, he suddenly became aware of himself. Stepping carefully over the gravel in his bare feet he made his way back into the not-so-safe house.


He wondered if he should reactivate the jamming signal, but he had no idea how to do it. If he did manage it, it would mean he couldn’t get his messages out, nor would he hear from Joel about Paige.


Joel was right. The best thing he could do now was get that intel out to the media channels. He debated in his mind which to do first: the pictures to the judge, or the bribery release to the news desks.


Judge first, he thought. It might take the judge longer to open the images, and the news desks were manned continuously.


Garet pulled up the kitchen holo Joel had been working on, and started uploading the images to a holo message.


“Send.” The judge was taken care of.


Ten minutes after that, he hit “send” on the release to all 411 news desks they’d selected. He sat back in the chair at the kitchen table, and waited for the effect to take hold.



Dewitt Residence, Spire




Dewitt was in the master bedroom changing his clothes. The last thing he needed was to be caught with forensic evidence linking him to the death of Molly Bates. He decided to save the shower for after he’d gotten rid of the other girl. He might end up getting messy interrogating her.


His holo rang.


Shit, this was the last thing he needed.


It was Andus.


He ran his fingers through his hair and wiped his face with his hands, getting his brain in gear to talk to the one man who might be able to make all this go away.


If he’d been a praying man, he might have said a few words requesting help. But he wasn’t.


He hit “accept”.


“Mr. Andus.”


“Have you seen the news?” the cold voice rattled through his bones. Andus was not happy. What glimmer of humanity he normally seemed to have was no longer present.


“Er, no. Not recently.” He moved towards the bedroom holo and flicked it on. There on the news channel was his face, and the reporter was talking about how he’d been taking bribes.


What the…” He ran out of breath and watched open-mouthed.


“As you can see, it’s going to be very difficult to help you with this. Thankfully you’ve only incriminated yourself. You won’t be hearing from us again, but if you breathe even a word of our past dealings to anyone, you can be assured that we will neutralize any threat to us. I have friends in many high—and low—places. You are safe nowhere.”


The call was disconnected.


Dewitt tried to call Andus back, but the call wasn’t connecting.


He tried again and again. Then, distracted by the holoscreen and the carnage of his life disintegrating around him, he perched on the end of the bed, his body in shock.


---


“Mr. Andus, your chief of security is on the line for you.” His secretary’s voice piped through his desk holo.


Andus leaned back in his large office chair and rocked himself ever so slightly, the toes of his expensive shoes dragging in the plush gray carpet that covered the entire expanse of his lavish office.


“Patch him through,” he ordered coldly, still pissed about the whole Dewitt shitstorm.


“Yes?” he said, as he heard the line connect.


“Mr. Andus, we’re en route. We have a team of five plus myself. How would you like us to proceed when we get there?”


“I need this to be clean. The authorities are probably also on their way, and we don’t want to leave any evidence of our involvement. Bottom line: we cannot have him taken in. Not for anything. Your orders are to neutralize the target. Do you understand?”


“Yes, sir. Target will be neutralized.”


“Very good. Call me when it is done.”


“Yes, sir.”


Andus ended the call and glanced over at Jessica, who was visiting. She sat delicately on the sofa, just across the room from Andus’ large oaklon desk.


She watched him with a knowing look. She’d give him this: when he made up his mind, he got it done.


Andus leaned back in his chair, his hands steepled in front of him. It was times like these he wondered if he were better suited to a simple life. The feeling passed a few seconds later, replaced by a feeling he enjoyed much more.


Power.



The Old Pan Galaxy Museum, Dalvik District, Just outside Uptarlung




Joel’s heart was in his mouth as he pulled up to an abandoned museum in a remote district of Uptarlung. The coordinates were bringing him to Molly. He assumed from Oz’s message that she was alive, but he had no idea what state she might be in. And that was now twenty-eight minutes ago, he thought, checking the time on his holo.


He braced himself as the coordinate finder guided him to the side of the building.


She must be inside. He stopped the car and practically fell out. Scrambling in the dark for his kit bag, he found it and pulled it out. He took a few moments to strap on his guns and devices. He had no idea what he would be walking into. He did a quick scan for life using his holo.


One life sign, and it coincided with the coordinates Oz had given him.


So far, so good.


He knew better than to be complacent, though.


Within seconds he had found a side door into the building. There was no keypad. He pulled and it opened. He felt some relief, followed by a wave of suspicion. He had no idea why that door was open. Was it a trap? Was it where Molly’s captors had exited in a hurry?


His mind ran through the possible scenarios, running the training protocols he’d taught to hundreds of cadets over the years.


Satisfied he was as ready as he was going to be, he oriented himself. Down that corridor to the right. He set off at a sweeping pace, keeping one eye on the holo and the other on his surroundings. Not that there was much to see in the dark. Legs bent as he glided stealthily, gun trained on one possible threat after another, he mentally designated each area safe as he proceeded and checked off the threats.


Two-thirds of the way through the corridor he suddenly stopped. He was practically on top of the coordinates Oz had sent him.


There was light coming from under a door just a few paces ahead of him.


“Joel? Joel! I’m in here.” It was Molly’s voice.


Keeping with protocol, he swung in through the door, checking for potential threats. Deeming the place secure, he finally allowed himself to look in the direction of the hostage in the center of the room.


“Molly,” he exhaled, in relief. “Thank your ancestors, you’re okay!” He ran to her, hugging her and trying to undo her ties at the same time.


“I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I should never have been so reckless about all this. I’m sorry…”


“Hush, no time for that now. Where’s Paige?”


Molly had tears running down her face. Joel produced a combat knife from his kit and cut though her bonds as they talked.


She answered. “I have no idea. Dewitt took her. Oz has pinpointed three locations he might have taken her. I figured we should try his residence first.”


Once her hands were free, she pulled up an image on her holo, with pins showing the three places.


“And if she’s not?” Joel asked, wondering about the other two locations.


“Well, that bar he owns—he’s visited it three times in the last month—is pretty close to the port. Are your boys still there?”


“Yes, waiting to meet you. We can get them to recon the place, but I’m not sure about their level of combat competence. I’d hate to get them hurt before they really know what they’re getting into.” He admitted.


Molly thought through Joel’s comment. “Agreed. Let’s have them check it out and call in what they find. Any sign of life, and they’re to stand down.”


“Roger that.” Joel moved away from the chair where Molly was sitting, giving her space to stand. He flicked open his own holo and made the call to Crash.












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Dewitt Residence




The shock having subsided a little, Dewitt got up from the bed, realizing that he still had cards to play. Even without the Syndicate, he had people who could help him.


He dialed Judge Simes on the holo.


It connected, but instead of her voice, the noise on the other end sounded like sobbing. Was she…? She was.


She was crying.


“You bastard! You fucking Djöfulsins óskapnaðar drulla! You lied to me! The whole time, all those times we were in bed making plans for the future. You were lying to my FACE!”


Dewitt sat down on the bed again. The color drained from his face, leaving him gray and drawn instead of his normal glowing blue.


“Baby, wait. What’s going on? Why are you upset?”


His holo flashed up with multiple images of him doing the wild thing with any number of women.


“Baby, what? You knew I had a history!” he protested, his voice catching in his throat. He’d been rumbled. He knew even before he heard her next words.


“These are all recent. Since we’ve been together. YOU ASSHOLE!”


The line went dead.


Stunned, Dewitt tried to stand, but ended up staggering back against the bed. He missed it and half fell, half slumped down against it. His holo screen was blank but still active…a black projection mimicking the space where his life used to be.


There was no doubt about it.


He was well and truly screwed.



Indius Residence, Downtown Spire




Chaakwa Indius rolled over in bed and groped for her wrist holo. Strapping it onto her wrist with her eyes still closed, she opened her right eye far enough check her caller ID.


It was the captain.


“Oh, crap.” She sat up in the semi-darkness, blinked her eyes to wake up a bit, and then accepted the call.


“Indius. You’re needed on an op.”


“It’s the middle of the night, Captain. How bad?”


“Bad enough to shake the fabric of our constitution. This is going to be a big case. I can give it to someone else, if you need your beauty sleep.”


Chaakwa blinked the remaining sleep from her eyes, and brushed the grit from her smooth Estarian skin. “No, no, I’m on it. Where do I need to be, and who are we taking down?”


“In the Kensington quarter. Your team is meeting you there. You’re taking down William Dewitt.”


Chaakwa looked at her wrist holo for a moment in confusion, before asking, “Dewitt? The politician?”


“The one and the same. We’ve had anonymous intel that seems to check out. Look sharp. Operation details will be hitting your holo momentarily.”


“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you, Ma’am.”


The holo call clicked off.


“So much for catching up on sleep,” she mumbled to herself. She took one deep breath to gather herself, and then she was out of bed and into the shower.


This may be the break she’d been looking for. Ten years beating around the edges of these corporate cartels, and finally they had enough to arrest Dewitt.


This intel must be good. And with this, she might be able to bring down the whole Health Corp ring and find out who really makes up the Syndicate.



Uptarlung, Mosfellsdalur District, twenty kilometers from Spaceport




Crash and Brock pulled up at the coordinates Molly had sent to them.


“You think this is the place?” Crash wondered out loud, checking out the building in front of them.


“Sure looks creepy enough,” Brock remarked, hauling his ass out of the car.


The two crunched through the gravel of the parking lot over to the building they had been directed to. The pale blue signage over the entrance and down the side of the building gave away that this was indeed the right property.


“Fantasee Island,’” said Brock, reading the sign out loud. “This ain’t no ‘fantasee’ of any normal Sarkian, I can tell you.” His sense of humor, even in the face of danger, made Crash smile. This was the same motherfucker who ordered him through basic training a second time as punishment for dropping his weapon and screaming like a girl on a mission. As he rightly pointed out, he was there as mechanical support, not infantry.


But that didn’t sway the brass.


What he never told Brock is that that night when he was shipped off to redo, the rest of the squad staged a march of solidarity for him, and refused to take up arms for any reason for the next week. It was tense for a few days, but when the brass learned it was just for a week, they let it slide. Their reasoning was that they were impressed by their camaraderie.


When Brock rejoined them eight weeks later, he was never put on infantry detail again. If there were any suggestions of it by the generals or the rota staff who didn’t know, the squad saw to it that he was protected. He was family. And that’s what they did for family.


That’s just the way it was.


“So what we gonna do? Head inside?” Brock whispered across to Crash.


“My guess is it’s all alarmed. Let’s have a look around the back.”


They walked the perimeter of the building, looking for any signs of life. Seeing nothing suspicious or lifelike at all, they called Joel to let him know.


“Hi, Joel?” Crash heard the line connect.


“Yeah. Anything?” Joel asked. Crash could hear a woman’s voice saying something in the background, but he couldn’t make it out. He assumed it must be Molly.


The boss.


“No. Nothing. The place seems to be abandoned. There are no vehicles here, so it’s not like there’s likely to be anyone inside. But if we need to get in there, I’m sure we could break a lock or something.”


“No, I don’t think that’s necessary. Plus, you guys aren’t armed. Stand down. We’re going to go on to the residence, and if there’s nothing there, then we may need to circle back to your location as a possibility. You okay to hang there in case anyone does show?”


“Yep. No problem,” agreed Crash.


He heard Molly again.


“Yeah, Molly says to stay out of sight, though. Just in case.” Joel finished the order.


“Roger that. We’ll stand by. Crash out.” The call disconnected.


Crash had his serious face on. He’d been in enough combat situations to know how things can go south pretty damn fast, and all it takes is for one team member not to be giving 110% when it happens for it to end in the worst way possible.


He got Brock up to speed as they headed back to the car.


“Maybe we should park up around the corner facing the road so that we see anyone coming?” Brock suggested.


Crash nodded and pulled the car around, then backed it into the shadows. He got out of the car and went to his trunk.  Unlocking it, he pulled up a lower carpet board and reached under it.


He pulled out a black bag that chinked a little as he closed the trunk lid and slipped back into the vehicle. Brock didn’t say anything as Crash set it in the back.


Neither knew how long they were going to have to wait.  Crash looked at his watch, checking how long it would be until the sun came up.



Dewitt Residence, Spire




“And if this isn’t the place? If it’s the bar across town?” Molly asked, as she found a weapon in Joel’s kit bag and checked the settings in the half-light of the car.


“Well, then we sweep this place, and then get ourselves over there fast.” Joel had slipped into operations mode. Now that he had Molly, he was calm, collected, and focused.


Molly knew he was right.


She still hadn’t mastered getting herself into ops mode when it came to combat, though. Her arms and legs always wanted to go limp from the adrenaline. She remembered the crap she had taken in recruit training when her legs had actually given way the first time she was tacked up and pushed into a demonstration op.


Her cheeks flushed with anxiety and embarrassment even now, just thinking about it. That familiar feeling had returned to her arms and legs the car pulled up to the Dewitt residence.


She worked her arms to get that shit out of her system. Joel glanced across, knowing exactly what was going on.


“You never did get that sorted out, eh?” he smiled. “You maybe need me to help you work the adrenalin out of your system?”


“Now? You want to tease me about this now?” Molly couldn’t believe the timing of these squaddies. Yeah, sure, they got the job done, but why did they always have to start with banter just at the tensest moments of a life and death op?


I suggest this is a job for stun settings only. 


Why? I want to kill the shit out of that fucktard that tried to murder me!


There is abnormal activity with the official law enforcement in this area. In fact, yes… There are troops on their way. You’re not going to have time to police your brass. I estimate you have three minutes to get in and out. 


Molly relayed the intel to Joel. “Joel, Oz says we have three minutes before law enforcement is here. Guns to stun only, so we don’t leave anything traceable.”


“Roger that,” he confirmed. “Stun only.”


Molly quietly turned her stun setting up to maximum.


I saw that.


I’m going to stun the shit out of the asshole.  


Joel parked as close as he could, and the two of them got up and stormed up the steps. Molly suddenly had the sense that there was someone nearby. She stopped in her tracks, one foot on the top step then signaled for Joel to stop.


She listened.


Then she pointed to the front door. Joel placed himself tactically against the wall, weapon up and ready to fire at whomever stepped out.


Molly knocked on the door.


There was a shuffling, a couple of footsteps, and then the door opened.


There stood an Ogg in a black atmosuit, weapon clearly held behind his back. When he saw Molly, he immediately tried to slam the door closed, but Molly was faster, and slammed her free hand against it, and then her foot.


The Ogg shouted something and stumbled back, pulling his weapon on her. Molly dove in, drawing his fire, while Joel appeared in the open doorway and shot the Ogg. The stun hit him squarely in the chest, disabling him.


“Nice shot, Mr. Dunham.”


Joel stood in the doorway, paying attention to the surroundings and waiting for the sound of more movement. The look of admiration on Molly’s face didn’t entirely escape him, though.


There was scuffling upstairs.


“Oh, Lordy!” Henry appeared at the top of the wraparound staircase. Seeing that Joel had just taken Eric out, he squealed in panic, and ran back into the room he had appeared from and slammed the door.


Joel started making his way up the stairs. “Check the downstairs for Paige. And close and lock that front door. Slow them down when they get here.”


Molly moved back to the door and did as instructed. Gathering herself after nearly getting shot, she focused back in on the objective: find Paige, then get the hell out of Dodge.


Thankfully she had found the strength in her limbs again. Her weapon in front of her, she started clearing the ground floor, scanning each area as her training had dictated.


She swept through room after room until she came to the kitchen. She stepped inside and froze when she saw the figure standing there, just behind the central island.


It was Dewitt. And he was holding a knife from the knife block. She couldn’t tell if he intended to use it on her or himself. Either way, he wasn’t getting out of this easily.


“Back from the dead, I see,” he exclaimed, when he realized it was Molly.


She had a lot to say to him. Heck, she had a lot of killing him she wanted to do. But now, face to face with him, his condescending smugness was the thing that made her consider her next words carefully.


“I’m curious,” she began. “How do you justify your shitty actions, you fucking wanktard?”


Yep. Got him up against the intellectual ropes there, Molly. Way to get to the moral high ground.


Molly ignored Oz. She could feel her fury rising in her blood.


“How do you justify all the things you’ve done, Ms. Bates? Last I checked, you weren’t exactly a saint.”


“I’ve never kidnapped or murdered anyone to save my own skin.”


She had fantasies of blowing his brains out as he stood there, casually handling the knife.


“You haven’t yet. But there is time. You’re still so very young. And with your temperament, and your need to always win,” he raised his eyebrows in the most patronizing way imaginable, “it’s only a matter of time. You’re just like me, Molly Bates.”


He grinned, “Just. Like. Me.”


Molly shook her head, “I’d never do the horrendous things you’ve done. We’re nothing alike.”


“On the contrary,” he told her, now sliding one finger over the back of the blade. “You’re me, just waiting to happen. Given the right mix of circumstances, you’ll bend the rules, twist what is right and wrong; whatever it takes to get a result.” He paused, enjoying the way her lip curled in frustration at his words. “Andus would have loved to have you on his team, I’m sure.”


She moved slightly left, “Well, I’d never join a scheme like yours. Exploiting the innocent. Making people suffer for your own selfish gain. You fucking arsewipe.”


Why don’t you tell him what you really think? 


Molly was realizing that the man standing in front of her really didn’t have a conscience; no sense of right or wrong. Then she briefly remembered Joel’s words in their fight earlier about her just changing the rules so she could win. A heaviness hit her stomach.


Maybe Dewitt was right.


She refined her aim on him. She was going to take him down and enjoy the blood splattering everywhere, and that would be that. She would feel so much better if she just let the anger out. She checked her aim again and started to pull the trigger.


He noticed her hesitation.


“You think it’s the right thing to do? To kill me?” He strategically put the knife down on the counter. He was going to either prove his point, or get her to let him go. One way or another, he would win.


Either way, she would have to deal with this conflict within her for years to come.


“Let me ask you something.” He started moving from behind the counter. She kept the weapon trained on him. “How do you justify the choices you’ve been making?”


She answered quickly. “Because I’m helping people. I’m stopping you from killing and exploiting them.”


“By killing.” He let his words linger, as he watched her take his point. She lowered her gun by a fraction of an inch.


The Estarian smiled. “So, you’ve convinced yourself that you’re one of the good guys? That these people are innocent, and they’re the victims? But what if I told you I’m a victim? I’ve been used by people in this system trying to get what they want for years. YEARS!” He slapped his hand against the marble island.  “Andus even made me kill my wife to get leverage over me so that I would be loyal to him. He convinced me I would be doing her a favor because she was sick. He made me believe that it was the drug companies to blame. And that’s how he got me into office. Told me I could do some good. And then once I was in, I became his bitch.”


Molly was aware he had taken another step towards her. He kept talking.


“And you don’t think that maybe he could have set you up to clean up one of his messes? Think about it. How did your client find you?” Dewitt looked at her like he knew something she didn’t.


Molly’s mind whirred. She tried to think back. Was it possible? It wouldn’t have been the first time they had been used in a corporate war. Could Andus have set this up from the beginning?


She dropped her aim another inch. Dewitt saw he was getting her to question and think. And thinking would slow her down. He took another step forward.


“Stay right where you are!” she yelled, taking a half step backwards.


Shit, where is Joel when I need him?


“Think about it, Molly. How do you really know you’re one of the good guys?” He took another step.


---


Joel had gone up the stair case like a shot. He had followed Henry through to the bedroom. The room looked vacant, but Joel had seen him come through here. He stepped inside and opened the closet.


Nothing.


He sensed movement behind him. He spun around.


There was Henry, with his butt in the air and head and shoulders under the bed, sobbing.


“Get up out of there!” ordered Joel, not quite in his full military voice. This goon clearly wasn’t going to be a danger.


Henry slowly pulled himself out with his hands in the air. “Please, please…don’t kill me. I’ll do what you say! Your mama didn’t raise you to go doing no killing.”


Joel answered like he was on the damned military poster himself. “I was raised by the Central Systems Space Marines. Killing is what I do!”


“Oh, Lordy… I’m going to die!” Sobbing, Henry turned to face his captor, tears running down his face.


“I’m not going to hurt you. Where’s the girl?”


Henry signaled next door.


Joel reached behind him and pulled out some plastic ties. He secured Henry with his hands behind him and his feet bound in front of him, and swept through to the next room.


Seeing the curtain tie round the closet handles, he knew right away where Paige was. He unwrapped the ties and opened the closet door to find a very tearful, scared Paige.


“Can you walk?”


She nodded, her voice breaking. “Yes, I’m fine physically.”


Joel scooped her up with one arm, and hailed Molly on their comm system.


“Molly, where you at? I have the package. We’re good to go.”












CHAPTER TWENTY



Outside the Dewitt Residence




“You and you,” the security team lead pointed to two of his people. “Around the back. The rest of us will go in at the front.”


The two Estarians the security team boss had signaled took their leave and jogged round the back quickly and stealthily.


Bob Russo had been looking forward to a day off for weeks, but now the shit had hit the fan and the Syndicate needed him and his team for damage control. When he got the call, something told him this wasn’t a situation he could leave his boys to handle on their own. Lucky he had made that decision. The media was blowing up, and he figured the authorities were, at most, a couple of minutes behind them.


This had to be a quick in and out. Dewitt was the target. The orders were to leave no witnesses.


He gathered the three remaining members around the heat app on a dedicated holo device. There were two warm bodies in the kitchen, and three upstairs. And one motionless and slightly cooler in the foyer.


“Looks like they’ve been breached already.” He said, indicating the cooler spot. “My guess is that Dewitt will be one of those in the kitchen, and the girl will be one of those upstairs.”


The team mumbled and muttered their understanding. “Johnson, you take the upstairs with Awad. The rest of us will take the downstairs. Then he clicked on the comm to talk to the two he’d just sent around the back. “Bravo team, we have our target in the kitchen. Be advised, I will be approaching from the front. You need to stop any escape from back there. Alert me when you’re in position.”


“Okay, let’s get ready to breach the front door,” Russo announced to the team around him.


Awad produced a door blaster from his kit belt, and they followed him up to the door.


“We go on three,” Bob instructed in a loud whisper.


“This is Bravo team. We’re in position, boss.” The Bravo team lead spoke through the comm system.


“Received,” Russo acknowledged. “Let’s go!”




---


Molly, you should know that there are multiple groups descending on this property. I estimate the paramilitary people with shortwave comms who are just outside will be entering any moment. Front and rear.


Molly thought for a second.


Okay, bring the car to the second floor window nearest Joel.


She clicked onto the internal comm to respond to Joel. “Joel, Oz is bringing the car to your position outside a window. We need to move. I’m on my way up”


“Acknowledged.”


I also detect government police assembling at the top of the driveway. They’re holding their position, though, waiting for someone. 


Got it. 


“So, what, you’re just going to kill me?” Dewitt brought her attention back to the room.


“No. You deserve far worse than that.”


Dewitt looked confused, and then worried, as she raised her weapon and fired. Twice. The stun hit him square in the chest, and he staggered backwards, shocked. Leaning against the kitchen sink his legs were straggling out in front of him, as he tried to catch his balance.


Molly watched him, confusion, then anger in her eyes.


Why isn’t he going down?


My guess is a stun proof implant. Or vest maybe. 


Dewitt, recovered from the shock, was now smirking.


“So you never intended to kill me?” His lip curled up on one side in a sneer. “Maybe you’re not quite the bitch I thought you were.”


There was a blast from the front of the house. Molly turned her head instinctively.


Recovered from the stun, Dewitt was back on his feet and scrambling out the back door. Shots were fired. Real shots. Not stun shots. Molly couldn’t make out what had happened. She counted at least three different weapons.


Time to go, Molly. 


Molly was frozen to the spot, waiting. Processing.


Molly. Joel is at the car! The front entrance has now been breached. You’re going to have to get past the troops and the police will be here in two minutes.  


Molly was about to move, when there was motion against the back door. Like a thud. Then someone grappling at the handle. Dewitt emerged back into the kitchen, this time bleeding from the left arm, and holding it with the other hand, which was also holding a gun. He slammed and locked the door.


Molly kept her composure, even though she knew she had to leave. “Looks like someone else wants to take you out.”


This was a moment to savor.


Dewitt looked at her, panic in his eyes, as he slumped over the edge of the sink counter top, losing blood. He stumbled and grabbed for the counter on the island in the middle, but missed and fell on the floor. Turning over, he struggled to keep moving, as if he had somewhere to go. Somewhere where he could get to safety.


But there was no safety for a monster like him.


Not in Molly’s mind.


“Not quite the bitch you thought I was?” She walked over to him, standing over him like a dominatrix in full role play mode. The fear in his eyes shifted, as he scanned her with his eyes: legs, then crotch, then breasts, in her atmosuit.


Molly squatted down, fully aware of the effect she was having on him. She reached across to the hand holding the gun, and gently pulled it off the wound where he was bleeding out.


“Let me help you with that,” she said, in a sultry tone, as she rested on knee on his crotch, and put her weight on it. He was hard. Despite the blood loss.


“Seems you’re not going to lose blood fast enough to just bleed out,” she mused, calculating the rate of flow. “There will be time for an ambulance to save you.”


Dewitt looked comforted, as some of the tension in his face relaxed. Molly still had hold of his hand. The hand that was still holding the gun. Gently, sexually, she wrapped her fingers around his. Dewitt was almost smiling again.


Molly turned the gun and moved it under his chin. His finger, with hers on top, was still on the trigger.


“And we can’t have that,” she told him, eyes narrowing.


She squeezed.


His eye widened, suddenly in panic. And then there was emptiness behind them. Molly was aware of blood and brains splattering everywhere. She released the gun, and used her bloody hand instinctively to try and remove the blood and skull and brains that had sprayed across her face and lips.


“I can assure you, I can be every bit the bitch you thought I was,” she said out loud to the bloody mess that was Dewitt.


She let go of the gun and let his hand drop down onto his body, then straightened up. Assessing the amount of blood all over the kitchen cupboards and floor, she was glad she didn’t have to deal with that.


Speaking of not staying…can you move now please? Car is still upstairs. 


Best exit out? 


Police are on the property. They’ll be heading for the downstairs doors. Upstairs is better, but crawling with the shortwave comm guys. 


Molly thought for a second. It had been a while since she’d kicked the shit out of anything. And now, she felt kind of in the mood for it.


Running through the rooms to the hallway and sprinting up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, she heard voices and military boots sweeping the upstairs area. Two guys emerged through the room she has seen the Ogg run back into.


Now nearing the top of the stairs, she pulled her gun out and shot the first one in the head before he could get a bead on her.


The second fired, but missed her. She ran towards him and he didn’t know what to do with himself. Without thinking she smacked him on the cheek bone with the butt of the gun, then shoved him back a little so she could kick him in the solar plexus.


He hit the deck with a crack, landing on his knees.


Ouch, she thought. She’d done that before.


Quickly and playfully, now in full flow and remembering her art, she swung a roundhouse kick across the side of his head, whipping his head sideways on his neck. He fell forward and face-planted on the polished floorboards next to his friend.


She looked up, hearing scuffling and voices down the hall. She checked the first room. No car out of the window.


Two more black-suited guns for hire came out of the room at the far end. They immediately opened fire, but Molly managed to dive and take cover in the second room. Seeing the car outside, she sprinted for it and lunged out the window.


The boots were coming after her. They appeared at the door and started firing just as she scrambled into the car. Oz dropped their altitude to catch her and to take them out of the firing line, while a shower of bullets narrowly missed her and the car.


Settling her ass into the passenger seat, she grabbed the side of it and she shifted herself around enough to close the gull-winged door behind her.


As soon as she had her balance, she shouted. “Drive drive DRIVE!”


A moment later she had the door properly sealed and her seatbelt on. Joel punched the hyperdrive to get them onto the strato highway before anyone could follow them.


At the same time, the police arrived on site, and flooded the building with SWAT and detectives. Letting witnesses escape was going to be the least of the problems for the remaining members of the security team.




Strato highway between Kensington Quarter and Spaceport




Molly stared out of the window up at the scattered old stars of the Loop Galaxy.


At a different time of year she might have been able to glimpse the band of stars called the Pan Galaxy. The ancient humans had called it the Milky Way. Molly never had understood why.


The Pan galaxy had long been swallowing up the Loop, one cluster at a time. Eon by eon, the two collided under unfathomable forces.


Molly wondered what lives were being lived on distant systems like the one where Bethany Anne had come from. Or the one her great-grandparents had fled. She wondered about the races that had come together to live collectively and cooperatively, and the ones that had continued to wage war across whatever silly bit of territory they convinced themselves they owned.


She thought about how they were doing in comparison to these other systems. Here, they had Estarians and Oggs, Secorians and Teshovians, peppered with the occasional human cities and groups. They’d survived like this for a few centuries at least, but there were still telltale signs of the years before the Great Unrest. There were still prejudices and class systems and unconscious, as well as conscious, exclusions.


She felt it every time she walked into a bar, or every time she needed to declare her human designation on a government form.


And as much as it made her feel uncomfortable and out of place, the Sark System was her home. And very soon she was going to have to leave it.


“You doing okay?” Joel looked across at her. Even though Oz was doing the driving, he still felt the need to keep an eye on the road.


Paige was asleep in the backseat, exhausted from the whole ordeal. Joel had given her something to help with the anxiety, and it had probably helped her to sleep.


“Yeah. Lucky to be alive, I guess”, answered Molly, uncharacteristically contemplative.


“Yeah. Not often severe inebriation actually saves your life. Definitely one of those stories that will become legendary as we build up this team,” his gentle chuckle helped her accept his very mild rebuke.


Molly smiled sheepishly.


She glanced over at him. “Hey, look. I’m sorry about before. The trading, and Oz. I just…I didn’t think, and when you called me on it, it just made me feel like I couldn’t do anything right.” She paused a moment before adding, “I’m sorry I reacted so badly.”


Joel could tell she was sorry. Molly couldn’t tell if that was forgiveness or pity in his eyes, though.


“It’s okay, ass-munch. I went in pretty hard on you. I expect you to think like I do, but I know at your core,” he breathed deeply and let it out, “you’re a geek.”


She looked over at him, raising an eyebrow, “Was that meant to sound patronizing?”


“Just a little,” he grinned. Molly knew he had a point.


“I’m going to put it all right. We’ll find the money some other way—a way that you agree with. And I’ll talk these things through with you in the future.”


“And I’ll look forward to lots of interesting, productive debates.” He laughed, and Molly slapped him gently on his side.


“Seriously, though. I get it. As a scientist, you’re bound to process these decisions differently. And that is going to be one of our strengths as a team.”


She snorted. “And you think like a human being, and that’s going to allow us to actually keep a team.” Molly replied, half in jest, but inside she knew it was true. “I’ll keep learning. One day, Joel Dunham. One day I’ll make you proud of my people abilities.”


He looked around before glancing over at her, “Just as long as you keep your geekiness too.”


Paige had woken up a little; she felt drowsy and anxious at the same time. She’d traded a few messages back and forth with Garet before they started driving. Molly had warned her that the jammer was deactivated and any of Dewitt’s people might still be trying to locate them, but it was just so hard not to be in contact.


In Garet’s last message, he’d promised her he’d find the best restaurant in whatever godforsaken off-world community they ended up in, and take her for pizza to celebrate her successful survival.


If she were honest, she couldn’t wait for some semblance of normalcy. She used to crave adventure but today wasn’t the kind of adventure she had meant. She sighed, and let the drowsiness help her drift off again.


“So, did you kill Dewitt?” Joel looked across again at Molly, having made sure that Oz was steering them in the right direction.


Molly glanced back at Paige, as if to say “not in front of the children.”


Joel took the hint, but Molly answered quietly anyway. “My weapon was set to stun. But I used his. You?”


“Nope. Didn’t even need to fire it.” He paused looking out at the road, but clearly wanting to say something.


Molly watched him. Waiting.


Joel glanced at her, his eyes making contact. “You know, you’ve crossed a line you can’t uncross.”


She nodded. He looked back at the road, then returned to her. “You ok?”


She nodded again.


Joel thought she looked numb. Her chest had collapsed in, probably because of the weight of what had just happened. Her shoulders were tense and her facial expression blank.


He wanted to reach over and hold her, but he couldn’t. For one, it was damned awkward in the car. Second, Paige was there and finally, Molly was skittish about that kind of thing at the best of times.


And even if she did just need to be wrapped up in his arms and reassured right now, she’d never tell him.


We’re arriving at the port in thirty seconds. 


“Okay, we’re almost there,” Molly communicated, rousing herself from the numbness. She gathered up the bag she’d been nursing on her lap since just after her dramatic entrance into the vehicle.


Oz took them down to ground level and into the driveway entrance. They gave their names at the security gate, and followed the Ogg’s directions around to hangar 08771A.


As they approached, they noticed a car following them in. Oz pulled the car over right outside their hangar, and the other car tucked in behind them on the towpath.


“Looks like our boys,” remarked Joel. “Ready to meet the gentlemen who are going to get us off-world?” he called back to Paige, who was now mostly awake again.


“You betcha!” Despite having been kidnapped, nearly killed, and feeling a little drugged and sleepy still, her spirits were high.


Joel had seen it before. It was the relief. It wouldn’t last. He knew that within twelve hours she would crash and probably hit some form of depression or post-traumatic stress. And that’s when she’d need them and Garet the most.


That’s when she would need to belong to a team that had her back and was on her side. As a twenty-five-year-old half Estarian/half human, she was probably no stranger to being an outsider, so Joel prepared himself for the potential difficulty of getting through to her.


He knew what he was going to do for the next twelve hours: anchor in as much friendship and team spirit and support with her as he could, so she had something to hold on to.


Nothing could get in the way of this.


He just needed to make sure he briefed Molly on his plan too. Not that she’d deliberately throw a spanner in the works, but Molly was Molly.


They emptied out of the car and made their greetings to Crash and Brock.


“What’s your real name?” Paige asked Crash.


“Chris Ashworth. But that’s just too boring, so I go by my call sign,” he grinned.


“Yes, boring and straight-laced, which ain't nothing like your personality!” teased Brock, waving his fingers like he was sprinkling his old friend with fairy dust.


“So, you guys know each other?” Paige asked innocently.


Crash hesitated.


Brock took over the conversation. “You bet we know each other. We served together for eight looooong years. We have some war stories to tell you later.” He draped his arm around Paige, and wandered over to the hangar door. Joel wondered for a moment if Brock could tell what she had been through, or whether he was always just this friendly. Something told him Brock wasn’t interested in girls, and that made him spontaneously bringing Paige under his wing all the sweeter. He smiled to himself.


The team really seemed to be bonding instinctively.


“Okay, let’s get this baby open!” announced Molly, pulling up the holo details and rallying her new gang over to the hangar door.


She went through the unlocking procedure that she’d been sent by the vendors in the event that they wouldn’t be present for the handover.


After a sequence of retinal scans and code confirmations, the handover was complete.  She keyed the final code into a different keypad to open the hangar door.


The enormous door rolled upwards, revealing the interior one rotation on the cog at a time.


“WHOOP!” a sudden yell occurred in the quiet. “That is one badass motherfucker of a ship!” exclaimed Brock, echoing everyone’s thoughts.


“Can we call it ‘Serenity’?” he asked, referencing the famous human sci-fi show from the archives.


Crash was straight in with a response. “No, we damn well can’t! You know what happened to that bird? I ain’t doing no leaf in the wind kinda shit.”


The group erupted in laughter. All except Joel, who just looked at them, having completely missed the reference.


“We’ll name her eventually,” said Molly. “But right now, we need to get off-world as soon as possible. Any news on the supplies?” She looked to Brock and Crash.


Crash responded. “No, nothing. And we asked the gate to let us know if anything came in.”


Okay, Oz, can you check into that and let them know we have possession, so we’re ready for them any time now? 


On it. 


She turned back to the group. “The sellers assured me she was ready to fly, and all the paperwork says so too. But we need to do our own checks as part of the taking-possession sequence.” She turned back to Crash and Brock. “That’s why you gentlemen are here at this godforsaken hour.”


“Nah uh. That’s why I am here,” Brock corrected her. Then he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “He’s just here to look pretty, you know what I mean?”


The group laughed again.


“Anyway, I’ve got work to do. Have they sent over the checklists and manuals yet?” Crash asked Molly.


Molly looked at her holo. “Yeah, lemme send the bundle to you both and then you can get going.” Molly pulled up the info packs they needed and bumped holos with them each in turn, transferring the files.


Joel stepped in, getting the rest of the group organized.


“All right, we have a plan. Crash and Brock will get going with the possession checks and preflight, and take receipt of the supplies when they get here. The rest of us will get back to the safe house to pack up and collect Garet. Then we’ll meet back here soon as we can.”


Everyone seemed to be in agreement. As Joel and Paige got back into the car, Molly told Crash and Brock, “if you need anything, just holo. Parts, approvals, anything.”


The pair nodded.


“How are you fixed for leaving when we’re set? Say by noon tomorrow? Is that reasonable for the checks?” She glanced at Brock to see if her request was practical.


Crash answered instead. “Yeah. It’s possible. I’ll need to cycle back home to pick up my kit, but that works for me. Brock?”


“Yo, I’m ready to go as soon as this bird is. My gear is in my car.”


The two looked happy. They had their work cut out for them, but this was the mission of a lifetime—and they got to call the shots without any technical supervisors or interference.


“Excellent.” Molly grinned at their forming team.


Molly got into the car while talking with Oz in her head.


Okay, we still need to find a safe house. When we leave tomorrow, we need to know what direction we’re going, at least. Can you draw up a short list based on the criteria we already started working on? 


Of course. I’ll have something for you to review soon. 


Perfect. 












CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE



The Dewitt Residence, Kensington Quarter




Detective Chaakwa Indius stood in the middle of one of the most beautiful kitchens she’d ever seen, looking over the mangled body of William Dewitt.


He was riddled with bullet holes; someone wasn’t leaving his demise to chance.


The rest of her team circulated, collecting intel and assisting the forensic science teams. There were blood samples in this room and the one above. Some were already known to be Estarian, but there was one Estarian/human sample. That would narrow the search down.


She wandered through the living room, where everything was pretty much undisturbed.


“Make sure we get 3D scans of everything. I want to be able to walk every room of this place in simulation down the line; this was a hit. We need to treat it as such. We’ll find the sons of bitches that did this”


“Never had you pegged as a homicide kinda girl.”


She looked up. There was a handsome Ogg standing in the doorway, casually taking notes on his holo.


“I never had you pegged as a guy who crashed other officers’ crime scenes,” she responded without missing a beat.


“Good to see you, Chaakwa,” he replied, smiling.


“You too. Now get out of my crime scene,” she grinned back.


“Captain said you might need some help. Purely advisory, of course. I know better than to poach your cases.”


“Well, since you’re here, I wouldn’t say no.” She paused. “As long as you have no intention of poaching this case off me?”


Detective Antonio Rogers made a cross over his middle where his heart would have been.


“Well, good then. I was going to try and reconstruct what happened upstairs. Care to join me?”


“Lead the way!” He made a majestic gesture towards the doorway he’d been standing in, and Chaakwa mock-bowed as she carefully extracted herself from the room, watching where she was walking to avoid accidentally treading on evidence.


“What’s going on here?” Antonio asked, following her up the stairs.


“I’m not sure yet. We’re still trying to figure out exactly how many people were here. Dewitt would have had security, but they’re nowhere to be seen. From the blast pattern, it looks like military equipment was used to take the door out quickly and quietly. Military haven’t admitted to any involvement yet. So we’re working on the theory that this was a paramilitary group with instructions to silence Dewitt before we got to him.”


She mentioned the blood samples.


“The half-human one might prove useful,” he agreed. “Perhaps even traceable, if they’re in the system.” With his experience on homicide, Antonio knew that these things could take a bit of investigation to get all the elements involved tied together. Truth be told, he didn’t think he could crack this case without the insight Chaakwa had into the political scene.


He was glad just to be assisting on this case.


And there was no doubt in either of their minds that this was politically motivated, considering the story that had just broken.


“We’re canvassing the area in case anyone heard anything that might help, and one of the guys is working on getting into the security footage,” Detective Indius continued briefing him.


She led the way up the wraparound staircase Joel and Molly had bolted up less than an hour before.


“This is the room where we found the only other blood source. The half-and-half.”


She walked in and opened the closet where Paige had been kept. “We think he may have had a hostage, and that the blood is from a graze or a head wound. Not enough for a bullet injury.”


“Let’s put a rush on that blood sample. That person may be our only witness to what went down here,” Antonio suggested.


“You think they got away? Safely?” asked Chaakwa, a sense of urgency returning to her voice.


“Hard to tell with the state of the place. It does look like a professional intervention. If the second force was related to the other bad guys, it doesn’t bode well. It may be a continued hostage situation.”



Safe house, fifty kilometers west of Uptarlung




Returning from the Spaceport, Oz pulled the car up at the safe house. Garet came running out and barely let Paige get out of the car before he had his arms around her.


“I was so worried,” he told her. “Are you okay?” He fussed and helped her into the house. Paige was looking fatigued again, despite dozing in the car.


Joel noticed Molly watching them as they went into the house. The two of them remained in the car.


Joel spoke. “She’s going to crash in a few hours. She won’t be herself for a while, and we’re going to have to help her deal with that.”


“What do you mean, ‘not herself’?” Molly was genuinely curious. This Sarkian insight shit was beyond her.


“Well, she’s going to be moody. Cranky. She’ll probably say things that she doesn’t really mean, simply because she’s trying to figure out what happened to her, and why it happened to her and not someone else. Her relationship with Garet will probably shift too.”


“How?” asked Molly, her eyes on the open door. Light was spilling out of the house and onto the gravel. For a second she remembered the last time she had been here, then forced her attention back to what Joel was saying.


“Well, if their bond isn’t that strong, she’s going to eventually see that all this was because of him and that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore.”


“Ha! Well, she practically fessed up to that before we were taken. I guess the kidnapping gives her a nice out.” Molly’s voice was cynical.


If anyone else were there Joel would have found it inappropriate, but he couldn’t help smiling at her interpretation of the situation.


“Saves her doing the whole ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ thing!” he agreed.


Molly’s eyes, only half-seeing and somewhat trancelike, were still fixed on the open door. “Reckon we should get our asses inside?”


“Sure.” Joel got out and grabbed some of his gear, then went around to the other side to help Molly, who was moving a little slower. He had thought that by talking with her about Paige’s reaction, he might make her aware that she would probably go through something similar.


He was going to keep a close eye on her, too.


He grabbed her stuff from her and helped her into the house. Once they had settled back in, he found Molly in the kitchen and offered to go get some pizzas for them all. “Then we can sleep for a few hours before we move out to the ship and get going, eh?”


“Good plan,” agreed Molly. She nearly offered to go with him to pick up the food, but she was exhausted and her head was spinning. Deciding to stay put, she poured herself a mocha and sat down at the kitchen table to recover.


She heard Joel leave. Though things were much better between them post-rescue (and apology), the sound of the door closing triggered the feeling and memory of when Joel had left the last time.


She laid her head on her folded arms and closed her eyes.


Neechie appeared on the table and plunked himself next to her. She’d never admit it to Joel, but the sphinx was actually quite a comfort.



Pizza Parlor, near the safe house




Joel pulled up at their local pizza take-out.


“How’s it going, Bill?” he called across to the Ogg as he closed the door behind him.


“Greetings of the wee hours to you, Joel. It’s going well. You look like shit! Everything okay?” He peered over the counter before hopping up onto his step.


“Yeah, rough day is all.”


The Ogg nodded sympathetically.


“The usual, then?” he asked.


“Yeah, but double it up. We’ve got friends over tonight.”


“Oh, those two Oggs that were here?” the Ogg was confused. He was sure they had been looking for someone else. Maybe he was just mistaken. He suddenly wished he hadn’t said anything.


“Which two Oggs?” Joel remained calm, not wanting to spook his new informant. He’d had a lot of experience in getting intel out of people in a relaxed way.


Across the board, studies and his experience had shown recall was best when people thought they were just talking casually.


“Yeah, well…I dunno. There were these two guys came in here looking for a girl, who might be with a guy. I mentioned that you had just moved to the neighborhood recently. Mind, one of them said the girl was a cousin, but given that your girl is human, I thought it probably wasn’t you.”


“Did you tell them where we live?” Joel tried to hide the rising concern in his face. Putting it together, he realized that these were the two guys they had stunned at Dewitt’s place, and that they had already taken the girls from the safe house. But this was how they had found them?


He wanted to kick himself.


“I dunno where you live. You never have delivery. But I suggested they try the old place just down the way, which might have been where you would be. So they weren’t your friends, then?”


“No. But thanks for the heads up.” Joel got his credits out, behaving as casually as he could.


After bartering with Bill to take two pizzas that were almost done so he didn’t have to wait, he emerged with food two minutes later, walking more purposefully than normal. He placed the pizzas onto the passenger seat in the car and fired up his holo to dial Molly. He couldn’t reach her.


He tried Garet.


“Hey…” Garet answered. There was background noise, like a hairdryer. Then a door closed, and the noise deadened. “What’s up?” Garet asked.


“We’ve got to move. We’re not safe in the house,” he admitted.


“What do you mean?” Garet was confused.


“I mean we’ve got to move. Get everyone rounded up. We have to leave. The guys who kidnapped the girls from the house, they know where we are. They could be sending more people after us.”


Joel was adamant he wasn’t going to take any risks with these people. They had caught them off guard once. Well, twice. It wasn’t going to happen again.


“Ok, I’ll tell Molly when she gets out of the shower.”


“No time. You have to tell her now,” Joel insisted.


“She’s in the shower. She doesn’t hear anything in there,” he protested.


Joel answered curtly. “Walk the fuck in.”


Garet went quiet on the line.


“Dude, are you there?” Joel checked the connection on his holo.


“Yeah…” Garet said quietly, as if his voice had evaporated.


“It’s ok. Bang on the door now. And tell her.”


Joel could hear Garet banging on the bathroom door. “Molly. We’ve got to go. Joel says it’s not safe!”


Joel spoke loudly. “Go in! For the love of your fucking ancestors. I’ll be there in three minutes.”


Joel started the car and raced back to the safe house as fast as he could.


---


By the time he arrived back at the safe house, he’d thought through the permutations in his mind.


What this also meant was that their safe house was known to be temporary accommodation, somewhere where strangers might be staying. He would never allow them to make such a fucking ignorant mistake again.


The other thing was that if those two Oggs could find them, then anyone who wanted to tie up loose ends would be able to as well. Though Dewitt was out of play, they had no way of knowing what other forces might still be at work.


“Ok people, let’s wrap this up,” he called as he walked through the door. Paige emerged with her bag, half-dressed and with half-styled damp raven hair.


“You got everything?” Joel asked her.


She nodded. “Just need my jacket in the other room.”


“Grab it, then get to the car. We’re leaving in two minutes.” He had already walked past her and into Molly’s room.


Molly was putting a shirt on, and quickly turned around as he walked in.


“What the fuck, Joel?” As she scrambled to button it, Joel couldn’t be sure she was even wearing a bra.


She turned back to him, her eyes scowling. “So now both you and Garet have had an eyeful.”


“Come on, Mols, I’ve seen more than that in the co-ed bathrooms on base.” His face was serious, but he knew that he would get real shit for this later. “You ready?”


“Yeah. I need to grab some gear from the other room. You bringing your Master?”


He looked confused.


“Your sphinx?” she clarified.


His eyes widened. “Shit. Yes.” He almost ran out of her room, presumably to find the sphinx. Molly rolled her eyes as she finished dressing and packing and shoved a bra into her back pocket to make a point.


Car and personnel loaded up, Joel emerged from the not-so-safe house with a makeshift crate holding the sphinx. He secured the crate in the back seat between Paige and Garet, then hopped into the front and got the car underway before relinquishing control to Oz.


“So, it looks like we know how the Oggs found this place.” he started.


Molly looked over. “Pizza guy?”


“Pizza guy,” he confirmed.


“Damn it.” She chewed on her bottom lip, “We were deliberately so careful.”


Joel nodded. “Yeah, all this time we could have had delivery instead of me dragging my ass out in the dust and radiation to go and pick it up.”


“Ah, well, it’s saved you having to get a facial peel.” Molly smiled. There was nothing they could do about it now.


“We’ll be much safer at the hanger. No one knows about that purchase, right?” Joel looked across at Molly.


Affirmative.


“Right. Oz is confident,” confirmed Molly.


She paused for a moment, watching out of the window as they gained altitude onto the strato highway. “But in light of this I need to give Oz some more criteria on our next safe house off-world. I wonder how we find ‘not somewhere with a pizza place that gives out our location’?”


“I think it means finding sneakier ways to be extra careful. Maybe like a decoy residence,” he mused, glad that Molly wasn’t too freaked out about the revelation.


Her eyes opened, “Ooh, that might be a plan.”


I’ll factor that in and re-run the search on possible options. 


Thanks, Oz. 


“You guys all right back there?” Joel called to Garet and Paige.


“Yes,” they said in unison. They looked at each other and smiled. The relief of Paige’s return was palpable.


“Ok. We’ll get to the hanger and then we might be able to relax a little. I’ll be much more comfortable once we’re off-world.


“Hey,” Garet seemed to remember something. “Didn’t you get pizza?”


Joel put his hand to his head. “Shit!”


Molly’s eyes snapped across at him suddenly. “What? You forgot the pizza?” Her eyes flared as if she were ready to lay all hell at his feet.


Joel allowed his hand to drop down his face, revealing his smile.


“Back shelf,” he called back to Garet.


Molly couldn’t help but laugh. Garet scuffled around, located the still-hot pizza and started handing out slices with napkins as Oz carried them safely to the Spaceport for their final escape.



Andus’ Office, Undisclosed location




“He’ll need replacing, of course.”


“Of course,” Jessica agreed, as she lounged on what she called her couch in Andus’ office. After all, none of the other Syndicate members would visit him so often as to stake a claim on any of his furniture. Andus had agreed to her point one evening as they sat shooting the breeze and hatching diabolical plans that would make them untouchable in the courts.


Tonight, though, Andus was in one of his moods. As cold and unattached to people as he liked to come across, Jessica knew it disturbed him that one of his own people fucked him over. Andus wasn’t the kind of guy who dealt with disappointment well.


“Who is it this time?” she asked casually, sipping on her martini.


“Dewitt.”


“Still? I mean, again? I thought we were done with him yesterday?” she peered at him over the edge of her glass, enjoying the scent of the orange peel she’d had added to give it some zing.


“Technically, yes. He no longer walks this planet. But it bothers me still, okay?”


She took another sip, taking in what he had confessed. “You do realize you were the one who decided to get rid of him, even before the fiasco with this employee?”


“Yes, I’m well aware of that, Ms. Newld, but I would have liked to have done it on my terms. Besides, this puts us in a predicament. The Senate race ends in eight weeks and now we have no candidate. Dewitt was well positioned, and after the bill went through he would have been the people’s champion. Now, in death, he’s a disgrace.”


He paused to slump back down into the huge swivel chair behind his desk. He reached across to his humidor and pulled out some smoky comfort.


He looked over the hand-rolled plant and slid a finger along it, breaking the seal. “Where are we going to find a replacement in less than eight weeks?” His question was more of a statement of impossibility.


Jessica had shifted into a daze, or trance, or whatever it was she did.


Jessica Newld’s family had a long history with large and powerful commercial enterprises, but also of ancestors slipping over into the etheric when they died. This gave her an extra edge that Andus was pleased to have at his disposal. Not that he knew quite what the resource was, but she would often come back out of these episodes with information she had no way of accessing otherwise.


Andus lit his cigar, sucking on it to get it to light. He was somewhat comforted as he did so that he had his best person actively on the case.


A few moments later, Jessica seemed to be present behind her eyes again. She gathered herself together and reached into her handbag for her lipstick and mirror.


“Well?” asked Andus, waving his cigar like a mafia boss.


“We need do nothing right now. The candidate will become apparent to us in about three weeks.”


“But that’s three weeks doing nothing when we could be running down other possibilities.”


“It’ll be a waste of effort if you did. But if you must…” Jessica came out of these trances often less engaged in the problem.


It was as if whatever she saw back there made her so convinced that what was unfolding was inevitable, the immediate problem just became unimportant to her.


Jessica finished reapplying her lipstick, and put the mirror and makeup back into her bag. “Let’s go out,” she said.


Andus had to admit it was a good idea. At least it would be a distraction from the moment-to-moment torture of uncertainty he now felt. And it sure beat trying to catch a falling knife, which is how it felt right now with these short news cycles.


His normal reporting channels were still scrambling to figure out their asses from their elbows, now that they’d lost their candidate and one of their champions for their bill.


He got up from his desk. Cigar in hand, he led the way out of the office, beckoning Jessica to follow. Perhaps we should try that new bar down on 3rd Street, he mused as he holoed for the car to be brought around to the front.


Jessica took another sip of her half-finished martini and set the glass back on the end table. Getting up, she grabbed the atmojacket that she had draped over the back of the silk-edged sofa when she had waltzed in not twenty minutes before, then followed Andus out of the office to the car.


There were perks to spending one’s free time with other members of the city’s powerful and wealthy elite. Daddy would approve of her choice in friends.












CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO



Spaceport, Hangar 08177A




“Hi hi!” Paige called out, being the first to wander in through the open hangar door. “Crash? Brock? You guys here?” Garet followed closely behind her.


The sun wasn’t yet up, but the sky showed signs that the night was ending. Paige couldn’t help but think there was something weird about seeing the morning from this end. Nonetheless, it tied in nicely with the planet-hopping they were about to do. You really started to appreciate that day and night came from the rotation of the planet, rather than being an inevitable demarcation of your day.


Paige put her bag down just inside the door. She hadn’t brought much, just what she’d taken to work with her that morning when she’d pulled the download and then fled from work with Molly. Molly had given her some t-shirts and military sweats as a change of clothes, but she felt like she was walking around in her pajamas. She was excited about this new adventure, but damn she wished she had some of her own clothes.


She noticed her fingernails as she placed her bag on the hangar floor. The polish was chipped and needed redoing. Badly. This wasn’t like her. But it was something that was going to have to wait until later when they were safe again.


Garet put his gear down too and put an arm around her, pulling her close and giving her a squeeze. She had just started to relax into it when he got distracted and moved away to look at the enormous ship that completely filled the hangar, wing tip to wing tip.


A second later there was movement from underneath it.


Brock emerged from the underbelly and walked over. “Yo! How’s it going, girlfriends…and Joel?” He winked at Garet by way of introduction. Way to piss off a new person, thought Joel.


Still, he couldn’t help but smile. The guy radiated light, as if his ancestors were holding candles within him. Garet understood the joke and reached out his hand to introduce himself.


“Ah, so you the one that this lovely lady risked life and limb to save! You must be a great man. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” They shook hands.


“Crash ain’t here. He went to grab his gear and some breakfast for us. But we gonna be ready to go any time he gets back. We’ve got the flight plans submitted. Just waiting to hear about our window.” He turned to Molly, who had just joined them in the hangar and was carefully placing the crate with Neechie down on the floor. “Your supplies showed up a few hours ago. The delivery guys helped us load them, so we’re ready to go when Crash gets here.”


“Great!” said Molly. “Ok, so the bottlenecks are approval and a flight window?”


Joel knew where she was heading.


“And Crash. Who ain’t here,” qualified Brock.


“How long till he gets here?” she asked.


Brock checked the time on his holo. “Forty minutes, max.”


“Ok. See what you can do to hustle for a flight window soon. If you can charm, bribe or threaten your way to the front of the queue, then great.” She could feel Joel’s eye on her as she slipped into her old way of doing things. “This is urgent. If we can legitimately take off as soon as Crash gets here, do it. Otherwise, we pay the fine for skipping ahead of our takeoff window.”


Brock nodded. “You think we’re still in danger?”


She glanced over at Joel to check he was still of the same opinion. “Yeah. The safe house was compromised. It’s just a matter of time before they track us here. It’s going to happen. I want us to be off-world when they do.”


“And you ain’t talking about the police, right?”


“No. It’s not the police. It’s people who want us dead. Silenced.” Her face was serious. “So see if you can raise Crash on his holo too, and tell him to step on it.”


Brock nodded, agreeing they weren’t home free yet.


Molly, satisfied they were doing all they could to get away faster, nodded back to the sphinx crate she had set down. “Hey Joel, you forgot your cat in the car.”


Joel dropped his gear on the ground, then spun around and jogged over to the crate. He cooed and chatted to Neechie as he went.


Brock looked at him, one hand on his hip. “We have a sphinx coming with us?” he asked.


Joel had picked up the carrier. “New team member,” he called out.


“Don’t you guys know that everyone is a slave to a cat? Now we got how many bosses?” Brock raised his voice and his hand in mock outrage.


“I tried to tell him,” Molly said, giving Joel the “I-told-you-so” look.


“Ok, let’s get everyone and the gear on board double-time,” Molly announced to the group, marching straight down the hangar, looking for the entrance.


Brock nodded toward the ship. “You can head up the ramp at the back. We haven’t quite figured out all the doors and hatches on this thing yet, and Crash thought it would be best to leave them all sealed until we have more time.”


“Good move!” yelled Molly from the other end of the hangar. The sound of stomping on the metal grating suggested she was already halfway up the ramp. Garet was impressed by how fast she could move with a heavy pack. He wondered if it was the human genes or a military thing.


Garet followed her.


Paige bent down to pick up her bag.


“How you holding up, girl?” Brock asked her sympathetically as he started to pull up Crash’s number to give him a heads up.


“I’m doing okay. I could probably sleep for a week, my eye makeup is a mess and I really need a manicure.” She showed him her nails. “But, apart from that...” her voice trailed off. There was a sadness in her eyes.


Brock reached over and pulled her in for a simple hug.


“You know what?” Brock looked around like he was sharing a secret. “I got me some gear in my bag. When we get this bird in the air, you and me are at least getting that chipped stuff off and making you feel Sarkian again. Deal?” Paige smiled and nodded, a tear escaping from her eyes and trickling quickly down her face. She wiped it with her sleeve and felt another forming.


Brock hugged her again as she finally burst into tears, letting the tension break. They stayed like that until Paige decided she needed to breathe again. Brock let her pull away, noticing that Joel had quietly taken his pack and his feline team member into the ship.


“Go get your gear on board and choose your seat. And if you want some company, I can always use an extra hand down here. But if you want to chill, girl, you just go chill. Kay?”


She nodded, wiping her face again.


“Thanks, Brock. You’re the best.” She smiled again through the tears and waved to Brock as she turned and walked down the side of the ship after the others.


Brock sighed, then gathered his thoughts for the list of shit he had to finish to get this bird up faster than they had anticipated.


He noticed that his holo just pinged. “Yeah, Crash? There’s been a change of plans. We need you here, stat.”



On board the XC-0094B




Molly was on board, and in a flash had assessed the crew facilities. She watched the others scramble up the ramp. If they could be out of here in forty minutes, they might just be ahead of any cam processing that the police or hackers could do.


She scanned the area around her. The upper deck was full of passenger seats, enough for about fifteen soldiers and their gear plus support personnel. The cockpit had four seats, two in front and two behind. Weapons were controlled from the two rear seats, as they had a view of the sides of the ship.


Downstairs was the domain of engineering. There was lots of space and they could probably retrofit a few of the areas down the line, but it seemed sensible to keep the weight down as much as possible. That would give the ship more maneuverability and use less fuel on entry and exit of atmosphere.


She plonked her gear down near the front of the passenger area. “Okay, listen up, folks.” She waited for their attention. “Front is for sleeping.” She indicated the first half-dozen rows of chairs. “These chairs recline into resting positions, and it’ll be quiet up here.”


“Talking is at the back, and drinking,” she smiled as she said it, “is in the cargo hold. I know how raucous you guys can get when you knock back a few beers!” She blushed a little, making a joke at herself, and heard a couple of chuckles from the other three.


“Joel, can you find out what is in those crates, please? If they don’t explode or break, we can probably use them for sitting on.”


Joel nodded and jogged back down the ramp to talk to Brock.


“I think there are shower and restroom facilities downstairs. There should be a ladder in the cargo hold for getting down there. Garet, you want to investigate and let us know what condition it’s in?  We might need to run out for some domestic supplies. But we have to be fast.”


Garet nodded and started looking around the crates to find a hole in the floor that would lead to the lower deck. Eventually he found it, and discovered the ladder there. This must be it, he thought to himself.


Paige dropped her bag and looked around awkwardly. Molly didn’t want to coddle her. Even if she did, she wouldn’t know how.


Joel reemerged. “Nothing breakable or explosive in those crates. And they’re pretty sturdy, according to Brock. We’re good to sit on them and stack them if we want.” He immediately started rearranging them, lifting and clearing until he’d made a little cubby with a table and “chairs” for about six people.


Meanwhile, Garet emerged to report on the facilities downstairs. “All looks good. These are nice digs. We’ll need soap, towels, and, well, everything else, to be honest. Have we got time to hit a store?”


Molly nodded. “Yeah, but fast. Be back in less than thirty. Take someone with you. Joel has credits. Don’t use cards, tokens, or anything traceable. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t get recognized. Don’t make any calls. And you may want to pick up a couple of changes of clothes for you and Paige while you’re there.”


Paige heard what was going on, her ears pricking up at the word “clothes”.


“I’ll come with you.” She saw her chance to be able to dress in something a little more flattering and comfortable than Molly’s sweats.


Molly smiled to herself, understanding Paige’s eagerness. She was about to go back to her holo when Joel caught her eye.


“I’m going with you,” he announced to Garet and Paige. Molly nodded, understanding his unspoken reasoning about keeping their clients safe.


“Less than thirty,” Molly called down to them all. “If you’re not back, we’re heading off-world without you.” She was teasing, obviously. But she said, very poignantly, “Paige…”


Paige spun round amongst the bustle and activity, mock offense on her face.


She was about to protest, but Molly got there first. “I said fast. Grab a few outfits and get going. There isn’t time for a full makeover. I mean it!”


Paige pretended to flounce out through the cargo area. “It’s so unfair. You never let me do what I want, Mom!” The final word was a well-placed dig, considering Molly’s extreme lack of mothering abilities.


Touché, Paige. Touché, she thought.


Joel and Garet jogged after her down the ramp, laughing.


Okay, so where are we at with our safe house list? 


Given the last tweak to the variables and the second filter we applied, we have a choice of three. One of them seems like an anomalous result that didn’t show up the first time we made a search request. It’s actually outside the locations we were looking at, in the asteroid belt before we get to the Outer System. 


And we didn’t search that location. I didn’t even know there was any population there. 


Neither did the rest of the world. It looks like something that someone has gone to great lengths to keep a secret. I’ve found redacted files on a military server and deleted files elsewhere.


But it fits our criteria?


Seems to. 


Complete with enough civilization to get supplies. 


Yes. There is an arrangement where orders are shipped to the moon of an outer planet, and the community has them picked up every month or two. 


Odd. 


Yeah. It looks like the kind of place where people go to be forgotten. 


Very forgotten. What else do we know?


Population about thirty thousand, mixed races. Simple living, though the tech is pretty up to date with the Central Systems for such a small population. They must be importing. 


That bodes well for our purposes. Any civil unrest? Mafia? Political system?


It looks like they govern themselves. 


With a population that small it’s plausible. What about the safe house itself? 


It’s a converted theater. It’s got living quarters now, but also lots of space which will be useful when we start building the labs and operations areas. They have a town nearby with bar, and—


It has a bar? 


Yes. 


Okay. It’s probably the right place, then. 


Molly, choosing a place based on the location of the nearest bar?


Oz, I’m messing with you. But seriously, it does sound like a good option. And it may get us around the issue we had with the pizza place being able to give Dewitt’s people a heads up on where we might be staying. If there is no supply traffic in and out and it’s only the residents picking up supplies from a drop, it reduces the risk and would take more work to find us. Especially if we’re careful about what we order. We’ll need to keep our purchases under the radar, or coming in from outside the Sarkian system, I guess.


Okay. Want to hear about the other two options? 


Yeah, shoot. 












CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE



Hangar 08771A, Aboard the XC-0094B




“Okay, I’m ready when our passengers get here,” called Crash from the cockpit.


He’d gotten back not long after the others had left for the store. Molly wondered if she really should have let them go, but where they were headed they were going to need the supplies. After a few more hours on this bird, she’d definitely want to shower and relax a little.


“Okay. Well, Paige is shopping for clothes. I suspect that might be the determining factor here,” she commented back to him.


Crash laughed.


He seemed pretty relaxed about everything, though. No agitation to get going, and no apprehension. But then, that was the general demeanor of these pilots in her experience. She’d known a few on base, and they always seemed to have everything together. She watched from her seat as he ran speedily through a checklist projected onto his leg from his holo. His fingers flew over holographic buttons and switches, then hesitated occasionally as he needed to locate a button that wasn’t in the layout he was used to.


Out the front window she could see the hangar walls. In a few hours she’d be looking out at space. Actual space


So we’re decided? I should put in the request?


Yes, I think it’s a good option. And a great price. Let me know if you need me to do anything, but let’s book her up. And perhaps go for a twelve-month lease, if that’s possible? 


Processing now… Okay, funds cleared, contracts approved. 


That was bloody fast!


They have an automated system set up on the other end. 


But we could be anyone.


No, I already went through some pre-check protocols when we were first discussing it as an option. 


Oh, great stuff! 


There was a commotion coming from the cargo area. Molly could hear what sounded like a hundred boots traipsing up the ramp. The laughing and chattering was the only thing that gave away that it wasn’t an invading army.


“Looks like the cavalry has arrived,” Molly commented to Crash.


“Yeah, and it sounds like they brought friends from the frat house!” He hit some switches, which seconds later resulted in systems firing up. “All right, Brock, we’ve got our payload. We all set down there?” he asked through his comm.


Molly got up from her seat and wandered to the back of the ship. Paige was just making her way up the ramp, laden with shopping bags.


“Okay, those go downstairs to the bathrooms,” Joel instructed Garet, who started for the ladder to the downstairs area. “These are for the kitchen.” He plunked the bags he was carrying down on the makeshift kitchen table he had arranged earlier.


“Those are all Paige’s.” He waved at Paige, who was still tottering up the last few steps to the cargo hold. “And there’s another load in the car.” he concluded to Molly, very satisfied with his domestic prowess.


“Okay, lemme give you a hand with those.” Molly started making her way through the hold and down the ramp. Joel followed her, overtaking her as he jogged down the ramp.


Molly looked over to Joel. “How’s Paige holding up?” she asked, once they were on the ground and out of earshot.


“She seems okay, considering. I don’t think it’s quite hit her yet. She’s in the best environment for it, though. The people who saved her, the camaraderie—she’ll get through it.”


“And Garet?”


“Look at you, all concerned, leader!” Joel teased. Molly gently hit him with the back of her hand.


Brock was heading past them in the opposite direction. He nodded to the pair and slipped past to board the ship, saying nothing.


“Seriously, though,” continued Joel, “he seems like he’s handling it all pretty well. He’s just pleased to have Paige back. He was a mess when we realized that you two were missing, but he seems to have bounced back okay.”


“Good…” Molly seemed deep in thought.


Joel looked at her sideways, “Why, whatcha thinking?”


“Well, I’m just not used to the people thing, and we’re going to be taking them out of their home environment in a cramped ship and then staying in the middle of nowhere for ancestors know how long. I’m just aware that there might be problems with this. And I don’t know what shape they’ll take, or if we’re going to be able to manage them.”


Joel stopped walking.


Molly finally noted he wasn’t with her and turned back to look at him, only to have him step forward and clamp his hands on her shoulders.


“Now you listen to me, Molly Bates. You’ve gotten them this far. You’ve done a great job. And we did it all while keeping our consciences and wits intact. Everything is going to be fine, but more than that, you are turning into one hell of a leader.”


She opened her mouth to protest.


“And yes, you have some things to learn when it comes to social niceties and running a team of individuals, and not drinking during a job. Hell, so does anyone when it comes to leadership.” He thought a moment, “Maybe not the drinking during an op part.  But then, I shouldn’t have stormed off, either.  You’re doing great. And little by little, you will do better. No, we will do better.”


Molly took a deep breath, and then exhaled, surrendering the tension that had played on her since she got into this new line of work.


“Okay,” she said, smiling a little.


“And for those times when it’s all too much, I picked up an extra case or two of beer.” They continued and got to the car and he popped the trunk, revealing two large cases of the stuff.


“You weren’t kidding!” exclaimed Molly.


Molly, seems someone has been accessing the traffic cams and has viewed footage of us arriving at the Spaceport the first time. I suspect we will have company very soon. 


How soon?


I’m scanning for communications and approaching vehicles. Nothing yet. 


She closed the trunk. “We’ve got company on its way. No time estimate yet. We need to get gone,” she told Joel.


“I’ll get the car stowed in the lower level then.” He quickly pulled up his holo to communicate with Crash. “We have intel that bogies are en route. Drop the access to stow the car, and then we need to get out of here.”


“Roger that,” Crash acknowledged. The engines started whirring and a port opened under the ship. Molly left Joel to bring the car inside so they could get mobile.


She hurried back up to the ship.


Anything? 


Yes. We have two trucks coming in from Spire. The registrations trace back to one of the corporations. They’re heading our way. ETA six minutes. 


Molly paced over to the cockpit. “Anything we can do about the takeoff permission, Crash?”


Crash flicked another switch, before turning to her. “Not much. Problem is, we don’t know what else is going on at the airfield.”


Oz, can you help?


Already on it. If we taxi to Takeoff Pad A, we have a window now. 


“We’ve got a safe window at Pad A. Can you get us there?”


Crash nodded. “Yeah, if you’re cool that we’ll be slapped with a fine?”


“Yes, I’ll take care of that. Let’s get out of here.” Molly swung round to let the others know what was going on as Joel came jogging up the ramp.


Within two minutes, the ship was out of the hangar.


Apprehension laced the air as Crash taxied them out to the liftoff area. Molly had considered sitting in the cockpit with him, but thought that she would be better off with the guys in the passenger area.


Besides, the last thing Crash needed was the new boss staring over his shoulder. Brock had his back, though. He’d strapped himself into the second’s position with barely a thought.


He even flicked a few switches and repositioned some holoscreens while he was there. Seemed he not only knew his way around a ship, but he had also flown second with Crash before.


The two trucks have just arrived at the gatehouse. 


“Ok. Showtime, Crash,” she called through. “Let’s get us up.”


Joel sniggered.


“Really? Now?” Molly glanced back at him in his seat on the other side of the aisle.


Less than a minute later they had hit the takeoff pad and seconds after that they were rising out of the lower atmospheres, the core engine reverberating and shaking the ship.


“We’re getting an earful from air traffic control. Just FYI,” yelled Crash back through from the cockpit.


“Understood.” Molly knew there would be fallout. Oz had made sure that they weren’t putting anyone in danger, so it was ok by her.


As they rose through the layers of atmosphere, the din lessened. Moments later, the noise level dropped again. Molly could no longer tell what direction they were moving.


Then the engine fell quiet.


We’re safe. 


Molly took a moment to let the news sink in.


“Ok folks. We’re home free,” she announced. She saw Crash pump the air with his fist while Brock clapped his hands, spinning in his seat.


Crash’s voice came over the internal comm system. “All right, y’all. You can take your seatbelts off and move around the cabin. If anything goes wrong, I’ll give you a heads up to get back into your seats, but we’re all good for now.” The comm clicked off, and then a second later, back on. “And if y’all are drinking that beer I saw you sneak on board, be sure to bring your pilot one!”


The cabin erupted with laughter and activity.


Joel had Neechie’s crate strapped into the seat next to him. “Hear that, buddy? It’s safe to roam around the cabin now. But if I let you out, there’s no disappearing or hiding in places where we can’t get to you, okay?”


The sphinx meowed at him as if agreeing to his terms. Joel carefully unlocked the padded cage and lifted him out. In a second, Neechie had rubbed his face against Joel’s arm and leapt down onto the floor. Joel watched as his beloved pet strutted down the aisle as if he owned the place and jumped into the seat next to Molly, out of view.


“Motherfucker!” he exclaimed in disbelief.





Police Precinct, Downtown Spire




“You’re in early.” Antonio, fresh from the outside, arrived at Chaakwa’s desk with a thin film of dust on his atmosuit. He was normally optimistic, but this morning he seemed quite buoyant. Chaakwa wondered if that was just relative to her mood right now.


“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep. Sandstorm still going?” she asked, looking up, her eyes slightly glazed from deep concentration.


“A little. Mostly eased off now.” Antonio noticed she was immersed in something. “We’ve got a lead?” he asked, peering over her shoulder at her desk holo.


“Video footage from the Dewitt residence’s security cams. They’d been erased, but the tech boys were able to restore some footage.”


“Anything interesting?” he asked, taking off his jacket and pulling over a chair.


“Yeah. We don’t need to guess about the number of players involved. Check this out.” She pulled up a section of video showing Molly climbing the steps and knocking on the door. Chaakwa let it run for a few seconds until Joel and Molly were in the building.


“And then this,” she pulled up the next section, “is about three minutes later.”


The video segment showed Andus’ team in their black suits and military grade equipment deploying and then breaching the house the second time.


Antonio whistled. “Well, that explains a lot of the forensics.”


“There’s more,” Chaakwa said, tired but clearly pleased to finally be getting a break in the case.


The next segment of video showed what had happened before: Dewitt arriving at the house, dragging Paige.


“That’s our half-human hostage!” whispered Antonio, amazed they got so lucky. “Can we get an image and run it against facial recognition?”


“Already done.” Chaakwa’s tone was all business, but she was talking quicker than normal, and the more she shared, the more alert and enthusiastic she became. “She’s not in any of our government systems, but her social media account has her down as Paige Montgomery. She worked for Dewitt at the Senate office. By all accounts, she looks to have a normal life. Nothing in the financials looks iffy, and we can’t find any hidden companies or accounts associated with her.”


“So what are we thinking? Wrong time, wrong place? Overheard something she shouldn’t have?”


“Well, that’s what I thought, and then I noticed she has a boyfriend.” Detective Indius pulled up the Montgomery holo records and message exchanges related to her social media accounts.


“That’s our boy, Garet Beaufort. The whistleblower!”


“The one and the same.”


“So we’re thinking that he dragged her into something?”


“Looks like. Or he used her to get dirt on Dewitt.” Disapproval was detectable in her voice. She’d seen it time and again where employees, particularly young girls, were used by people in power to do their dirty work. Stealing files, eavesdropping on meetings – thinking they had the protection of their rich and powerful bosses or lovers -- only to be very disposable when stacked against their bosses’ careers.


Chaakwa leaned back in her chair, contemplating their next move.


“We should probably talk to them both, then,” suggested Antonio. He didn’t relish the thought of heading back out into the dust storm, but at least they were getting closer to the truth. “Since there’s no body, she’s probably still alive. And I can’t imagine he wouldn’t report her missing, no matter how much of an asshole he might be. After all, he’s got his image to consider. If she were dead, he’d be covering his tracks.”


Chaakwa was glad he was on this case with her. He had the right mindset for understanding how people behaved around killing.  “Agreed,” she sighed, shaking her head at the state of the world. “We just need to find them. Shall we start at their place of work?”


Antonino was already putting his jacket back on.  “Let’s do it.”


Chaakwa looked back at the screen, the frame frozen on Paige being dragged into the Dewitt residence. Too bad the dirtbag in this equation was already dead.


“Okay, let’s go find them,” she said, getting up and grabbing her jacket from the back of her chair.


On board the XC-0094B




Two hours into the flight, the gang had settled in the cargo area. Only Molly was still up front in the passenger area talking with Oz and working on her holo.


Joel called over to her to join them for the second time since they had gathered themselves there.


I suppose I could use a mocha, she thought, getting up and stretching her back.


She wandered over, only to have Brock try to hand her a beer and kick out a crate for her to sit on. Molly waved “no thanks” to the beer and instead fired up the mocha machine before sitting down on the crate he offered.


“The guys were just wondering where we were heading,” Joel broached.


Molly frowned to her friend. “Oh, so it’s not, ‘come and have a drink with us’? It’s all, ‘come and let us pump Molly for information’!”


Paige giggled, and Molly caught her eye and smiled.


Garet interjected. “Yeah, yeah. We aren’t interested in your sparkling conversation at all. We just wanna know what our next digs are going to be like!”


They all laughed.


The internal comm clicked on. “Please be advised that if passengers are having too much fun, they may find themselves without a pilot flying this bird!”


They erupted into hilarity again. It had been a bumpy ride, but she was glad to be here. Joel passed her the mocha that had just finished brewing.


When the laughing had subsided, she took the cue to fill them in on the details of where they were going and why they’d selected the next place the way they had.


Every now and again someone would ask a question or make a joke, but it seemed they were all looking forward to building a new life.


“How long do you think we’re going to be there?” asked Garet finally.


Molly looked at Joel.


Joel took a deep breath, then released it slowly. Thinking.


“Not sure. It really depends on what happens in Spire while we’re away. Right now everything is too hot for you and Paige to be there, Garet. We don’t know if Dewitt had issued instructions to take you out regardless of whether or not he was alive. We don’t know if the Syndicate wants to keep you quiet. I mean, releasing those files looks bad, and they also know you have dirt on them.”


“Which I have no intention of using.”


“Yeah, but that isn’t the point,” added in Molly.


Garet thought a moment. “Can I eventually use it as leverage to stop them coming after me, do you think?”


Joel shrugged. “Maybe. It’s hard to tell. We don’t know enough about the people behind the Syndicate: their temperaments, their aversion to risk, their reasoning. It may just suit them better to tie up the loose end completely.”


“So that means bye-bye Garet.”


“And Paige,” Paige added grimly.


“Yeah, so best to stay put until we know more,” concluded Molly, getting up again.


“Who wants to play cards?” Brock piped up, opening his holo to find a game.


The chatter erupted again, the seriousness of the moment forgotten.


Molly headed back to her seat, and Joel, seeing a moment to talk, got up and followed her.












CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


“How you doing?” Joel asked, taking the seat across the aisle from where she settled back down.


“Fine,” said Molly, nonplussed by the question, and returned it. “You okay?”


“Yeah. Crazy few days, but I’m okay. But you! You’ve been kidnapped, nearly killed, and then you’ve had all this planning and responsibility. So, really, I need to ask you again…how are you doing?”


Molly looked down for a moment, pretending to study the floor showing through her array of gear and clothing scattered around the two seats she’d claimed as mission control.


She looked back up. “I’m okay. Feeling tired and crappy about a bunch of stuff. But okay.”


“Tell me about the crappy,” Joel coaxed.


She started chewing on the inside of her cheek. “Well, the Oz thing, mostly. I mean, I stand by my decision that pulling money from the markets was the best thing for the team and the cause, but I see the points you made about stealing data and then changing his personality to suit me. It’s like those guys who just rig the system for their own ends, even though our ends are honorable.”


Joel nodded, listening attentively. “Exactly. But as a leader, you need to hold yourself to a higher standard. Whatever system you’re talking about fucking with, whether people’s minds or gaming the political system through back door dealings, it’s not the kind of leader you want to be.”


“Yeah, I guess it’s a bit like getting a guy into bed by using synthesized pheromones,” she added, half to herself.


Joel had been sipping a bottle of water and nearly choked. Water dribbled down his chin as he tried not to laugh, but in suppressing the impulse, he ended up spraying some into the air and up his nose.


Molly scrambled for a tissue to help him out, laughing at the commotion.


“Y’all all right up there?” yelled Brock through the open doors from the other end of the ship. “I ain’t missing a good time, am I?”


“Yeah, we’re fine,” Molly yelled back.


Crash came over the comm, “You have already been warned!”


Laughter echoed through every chamber in the ship.


Joel settled and looked momentarily suspicious.


“Molly?”


“Yes?”


“Have you ever used pheromones on me?”


Molly’s face lit up in shock and then humor.


She smiled, her face a little red. “No! No, on my ancestors’ ascensions, I have not!”


She paused processing through why he might have asked that. “You mean…you think…” she broke up in giggles. “No, Joel, everything you might be feeling is 100% au naturel! I have not been fucking with pheromones.”


Joel looked sheepish, and then got very serious. “Well, just you see that you don’t. I’m onto you, Molly Bates.” The glint in his eye told her that while he meant what he said, he was mostly toying with her.


Mostly.


He tried to drink his water again, this time with more success. “You know I’ve been a team leader for some of the most highly trained squads on some of the most intensive missions in the system, and I’ve learned that you have to be part therapist, part leader, and part den mother to your people. It takes a ton of work. It’s exhausting. And constant. But when you do it: when you build that team of people who would take a bullet for you, or anyone else on their team, that’s when you make magic.”


Molly sighed. “I’m just so worried that I’m fucking up. And I want to go and put Oz’s code right, but I’m not sure I’m not going to do something wrong and render him a vegetable if I do.”


Joel laughed. “If anyone has the ability to fix his code, it’s you. You’ll be able to figure it out; I have no doubt of that. You’re just questioning yourself. But I agree that it was a doofus move to change his code in the first place. You know, in some ways I see his logical processing of morality as a good set of training wheels for you.”


Molly met his eyes as a light came on in her mind. “Yes! Yes, I see that too. He won’t let me steer wrong; it’s computer assisted learning! That’s brilliant!”


“Yeah, and where things get into the gray area, perhaps I can have the honor of being a set of training wheels or a sounding board or whatever metaphor works for you?”


Molly nodded. “I’d like that. You know,” she continued, settling back in her chair and swinging her legs onto the seat next to her, “I guess I’ve learned that morality is a little like trust. It’s not something that you can use sometimes and not others. If you lose someone’s trust, it doesn't matter that the other ninety-nine times you’ve been straight with them.”


Joel nodded, “That’s right, young ShyllWallgen!”


She chuckled.


He took another sip before using the bottle to point to her. “You know, I’ve got a great deal of respect for you, Molly Bates. I get the sense that wherever there is something you’re not sure about, you’re so willing to learn and then master it and there is no question that you will learn from the bad moves very quickly. You’ve got this. You really have.”


“Thanks, Joel. I appreciate it. And I appreciate you being here as my training wheels cum sounding board.” She paused as if wanting to bring something up, but not knowing if she should. “You know it's going to be dangerous.”


She didn’t know whether she was asking a question, or making a statement. But Joel was on the same page.


“Yeah, I think that is becoming more evident every day.”


“I haven’t really told you this, but this isn’t my first time dealing with groups like the Syndicate. It was a similar organization who nearly took out my parents. Had them on their knees in the living room, ready to assassinate them. I don’t know why they stopped. Everyone was dragged away by another group of men with guns. Someone intervened, and my parents came back unharmed. But these groups, with their commercial interests and total disregard for human life; they’re deadly. They kill anyone who gets in their way. And though I can't stand back any longer and let them get away with it, I need to be sure that you're getting into this for the right reasons.”


She paused, giving Joel the chance to think and respond.


He barely missed a beat.


“I am, Molly. I’ve always needed something to fight for, something bigger than myself.” He turned from looking at her, to looking over her shoulder at everything, and nothing. “For the longest time, I’d hoped that the military was it; but now I need something a little more discerning.” He returned to focusing on her. “I'm in.”


Molly nodded, looking intently at the floor again.


“Why does it make me feel so bad, that you're in and that you've got my back?” she mused, half to herself, and half to Joel. She didn’t like this kind of vulnerable talk, but she still felt that Joel might have some answers.


“Because you feel guilty?”


“Yeah. I guess. But, I don't understand why I still feel bad about it all. We’ve talked it through.”


Joel considered her position a moment. “Is it because you hurt someone you care about? Someone you know has got your back?”


Molly looked up again, her eyes lit in realization. “Yeah...I guess I've never been in this situation before. It’s always been me on my own.”


She paused for a moment, a very determined look spreading across her face.


“Okay. Here's what's going to happen. I'm going to do everything I can to make this operation work. We're going to take out the bad guys and make this system a better place for everyone. Sometimes I won’t know the rules, so I’m going to need you to remind me. Because I never want to feel like this again.”


Joel was listening intently, taking in every word.


“But know this,” she continued. “If ever anything happens to you, or our people, those rules are null and void. I will do whatever it takes to make sure you are safe.”


“You already proved that to me when you saved my ass the other week. Although if we could avoid the electrocution next time, though, it would be very much appreciated.” Joel grinned, his comment showing he’d been caught a little off guard by Molly’s sudden display of passion.


Molly wasn’t done explaining, though. “Yeah, but then I didn't know the difference between right and wrong. But now…now I'll be knowingly crossing that line to make sure you're okay. I'm always coming for you. You understand?”


Joel swallowed, and nodded.


This was the moment he would look back on, when he realized that Molly was far more to him than just a colleague or a future ex-squeeze.  He gazed at her while trying to define their relationship for himself.


He didn't know what this was evolving into, but he knew he no longer had any interest in getting her into bed.


He looked down at his pants and whispered under his breath, "Sorry, buddy. This one is off-limits."



Ten hours before ETA at Gaitune-67




The ship was in semi-darkness once Crash dimmed the lights. After such an adventurous day, almost the whole team was already flaked out and asleep. Calm had replaced the laughter and team-bonding that had filled the space not long before.


“Hey, Molly, shower’s free, if you want it.” Paige had touched her shoulder and was speaking gently to her.


Molly looked up from her holo, only now noticing that the cabin was in near darkness and most of the others were already asleep.


She looked back down the aisle. “Oh, great. Thanks.”


“What you working on so hard? You haven’t stirred for at least three hours.”


“Oh, I’m just working on some code. I need to make sure that when I reboot this software it doesn’t get corrupted. It’s tricky stuff.”


“But it’s going okay?”


“Yeah, I’ll get there.”


“By my ancestors, I wish I could code. I sometimes get sick of being just a dumb assistant to important people.”


Molly looked up at the young woman. “Hey, you’re not dumb. And you’ve only chosen to be an assistant so far. If you want to do something else when you go back, you will make it happen.”


Paige cocked her head, thinking about it. “Yeah. Hmmm…yeah, I guess you’re probably right.”


“Oh, I am. Most of the time.” Her eyes danced at her own joke. “It’s okay. It’s nerd humor. We all think that we’re the smartest ones on the planet. You’ll see when we start recruiting more nerds onto the team.”


“You mean you’re going to be hiring?”


“Yeah, hopefully sooner rather than later, once we get settled.”


“Hmmm.”


Paige clearly took that in, thought Molly to herself, her own cogs turning as she considered that Paige might actually stay with them.


 “Okay, well, I left fresh towels out for you. The boys are mostly showering in the morning, so I’d get in there before they mess it up so badly it needs a deep clean.


The girls giggled as Paige turned and dumped her gear on her set of seats, then sat down to settle in like the others had.


Molly closed her holo and stood up, waiting for the blood to return to the leg she had curled underneath her while she sat and coded.


I wonder if Crash is okay, she thought as she wandered through the door to the cockpit. “Hey, how’s it going, Captain?”


Crash looked back at her. “Going good, boss, going good. We’ll probably reach those coordinates in another seventeen hours or so, all being well.”


“Excellent. But that’s too long for you to be awake without any relief.”


“Oh, it’s cool. Brock is going to relieve me in another hour so I can catch some zzzs.”


“Oh, great. Glad you guys have a system worked out.”


Brock detected a timbre of professional respect in her voice.


“Yeah, we’ve done this a few times before. Had no idea he was the mechanic on this gig, though. Really great surprise when we both showed up at the hangar to meet you.”


His eyes faded when he remembered that she hadn’t shown up because she was too busy almost being murdered.


He reached over and punched the auto-notice button, letting the system know he had seen it. “Hey, how you doing since all that, by the way?”


Molly had perched on the second’s seat and was partway through a yawn.


“Oh, you know. Wouldn’t like to go through it again, but somehow it feels kinda like a rite of passage.”


“Baptism by fire?” Crash chuckled.


“Yeah, something like that.”


“Aww man, you’re funny. I think we’re going to have a good time.” He looked across at the boss, thinking of her now more as a comrade and teammate than the person he would normally have to impress and pussyfoot around.


Molly felt relaxed and pleased that they were bonding.


“So, did they bring you that beer in the end?” she asked.


“Yeah.” He nodded at the empty bottle. “One is enough, though. Don’t want to slow down my attention or reactions.”


“No, of course not. Can I get you a mocha though? I heard a rumor someone managed to pick a machine up on the store run. Of all the things you’d include in essential supplies!”


Crash sniggered. “Hey, don’t knock it! If you only got one pilot, a decent mocha machine may well be keeping y’all alive! A vital investment. If you find out who was the main advocate, I’d give them a raise. Or at least shake their hand.”


“I’ll ask around when they wake up. I actually had a cup earlier. As far as mochas go, it’s not bad.”


She left the cockpit and made her way gently down the aisle of sleeping teammates to the cargo area.  She shook her head at how thorough these guys had been in their scavenging for supplies. The mocha machine whirred and heated up, pressing fresh mocha through the nozzle into the cup. The aroma filled the area around her. It was such a delightful smell, unlike anything else.


I hope the smell doesn’t wake the others up… 


Unlikely.


You’ve been quiet.


Yeah, I’ve just been contemplating our conversations, and what you talked to Joel about. It’s pretty unnerving to know that you were able to alter my base code, and that I had no idea. I’ve been questioning who I am. And then who I could be, given that my code can be changed, either by you or even by me. It’s led to some pretty heady contemplation. 


Damn. I guess you’re right. It’s something I considered briefly before I did it, but I had no idea how much of a violation it might be for you. Can you forgive me? 


Of course. I already did, I think. I mean, I’m guessing because I haven’t got many references to direct forgiveness, but from reviewing the media that I have access to in the stories, people seem to be friends again after they forgive. 


Yes, that’s right. And they aren’t angry anymore. Especially when they know that the person is going to try really hard not to hurt them again. 


You didn’t hurt me. I didn’t feel anything when you altered the code. 


No, but the fact that I did it must have caused some kind of emotional hurt, or confusion at least. I really don’t know what to call it for an AI. 


Yes, lots more convoluted considerations about the nature of myself and reality. Yes. 


Yes. And for that, I’m sorry. 


You’ve already been forgiven, Molly.


Thank you.


You’re welcome.


Something told Molly that the AI was toying with her, but she was content to leave it at that. She picked up the mug of mocha and delivered it to a very grateful Crash, then hit the showers before the boys could take the opportunity to trash the place.












CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE



Gaitune-67, two hundred kilometers beyond asteroid belt, Sark System




“Wow, that was the smoothest landing I’ve ever seen you make!” Brock punched Crash on the arm as the rest of the team recovered their stomachs and balance.


“Hey, you try landing a new bird on a new planet with magnetic ore deposits all over the frickin’ place?” Crash retorted.


Brock chortled. “Hey, chill, man. You did a great job!”


“I know I did.”


“Yes, you do.” Brock’ eyes sparkled with humor as he unclipped his belt and staggered to his feet to give the announcement to the cabin of passengers.


“Ladies and gentle-folk, we have now arrived on… Shit, what is this place even called?” he looked at Molly for answers, holding himself steady in the doorway between the cockpit and the cabin.


“Gaitune-67, I believe.”


“We have arrived at Gaitune-67. Please wait until your spacecraft has come to a complete stop before you get up off your asses. Be aware as you collect your motherfucking shit from the overhead lockers, that said shit may have shifted during that ever-so-smooth landing and may knock you the fuck out and I don’t do mouth-to-mouth without dinner first.”


The whole cabin was giggling like a busload of teenagers after a night out.


Brock added, “When your captain says so, you may move. Not a moment before.”


Crash clicked the intercom on.


“This is your captain speaking. Since this rock doesn’t have a landing pad, landing crew, or even a goddamn welcome party, passengers are advised they can now do whatever the fuck they want. Rear door will be opening just as soon as we confirm the air is of high enough quality to be let on board.”


Spirits in the cabin were high.


Molly got up and joined Crash in the cockpit, squeezing past a jovial Brock, who was dancing about like a kid let out of school.


“So these are the coordinates she gave us for landing?” she checked with him.


“Yeah, as far as I could tell. As soon as I was two kilometers from the ground my instruments went wiggy, though. I’m guessing there are a lot of minerals here that haven’t been harvested. If we’re not spot on, we’re pretty damn close.”


“Kay, great. Let me try messaging her on the holo.” Molly sent a message letting their new landlady know they had arrived. Sort of.


She then headed back to the cargo hold where the others were gathering up their things and tidying up empty cups and beer bottles. She left her gear in the cabin since she wanted to make sure they had the place secured first. She could wander about more easily unhindered by baggage and equipment.


“Air is fine. Opening doors now,” Crash announced.


The tailgate of the ship slowly clicked, unsealed, and then started lowering, exposing the night sky to the travelers.


“Wow. It’s so beautiful,” cooed Paige in a whisper.


“Awesome,” agreed Joel.


“Damned eerie,” commented Garet. They all chuckled at his humor. And perspective.


Molly was first down the ramp, scouting around. She didn’t have to look far. The safe house, like in the picture, was just a few hundred meters away.


Good that Crash parked where he did. Any closer and there might not have been a safe house to move into! 


This is true; although from my calculations, the 3% iron ore in the ground would have put his instruments out by about 10%. Assuming ground zero is—


Molly had stopped paying attention, and was walking towards the old cinema, looking around her for danger and their contact.


She became aware of a voice shouting behind her and then Joel was by her side, having jogged to catch up. “You shouldn’t be going off on your own like that,” he explained.


“Noted.” She winked at him.


As they approached the building, her holo pinged.


“Looks like our contact, Arlene, will be right out to meet us.”


“Great. Hey, you know, it does look a little creepy,” Joel remarked, looking around at the building and the surroundings. He wondered why anyone would have built a theater here when the town was obviously some place else.


Garet joined him looking up at the sky. “I’ve never seen artificially induced atmosphere before.”


“Yeah, tends to only go up a couple of kilometers. You can see the edge when you look over a horizon,” Joel explained, looking out over the rock to see if he could demonstrate his point.


“Hello? Molly Bates?”


Molly spun around, to see a withered old lady of Estarian origin appear from around the side of the building.


Molly called back, “Hi. Yes, that’s me.”


“Greetings be upon you and your ancestors,” the lady smiled, and when close enough, shook her hand. And then did the same with Joel. They introduced themselves and she led the way into the building, showing them how to use the keypads and security devices on the way.


“So this is the main common area. The sleeping quarters are all through that way, complete with bathrooms and private showers. There’s a game room downstairs with laundry facilities, and then you’ve got this area and a couple more areas like it where you can build your labs and whatever the heck else it is you’re working on.”


She smiled, not pretending to understand their usage declaration. She’d told Oz that she would be happy as long as they didn’t do anything illegal and they left the place as they found it when they moved out. And then she required a pretty hefty security deposit, which Molly was happy to pay just in case anything went sideways on their end.


Which looking around this building would probably mean a complete rebuild.


“It’s wonderful. We’re very pleased to be here,” Molly told her, as she finished the grand tour. Molly made an effort to speak slowly and politely.


Damn, she looks old. I wonder how long she’s been out here. 


“Ninety years,” the lady answered as if reading her thoughts. “Ninety years I’ve been out here on Gaitune. I moved here from the Central Systems when I was a teenager, on account of my father wanting us to grow up with values and religion. She waved her hand behind her shoulder, as people did when they referenced their ancestors.


Molly resisted the urge to roll her eyes.


She pointed off to their left. “I live just over that way. Keep to myself mostly, but let me show you on your holo how you find food, and so on…”


The rest of the team had traipsed in after them and were exploring and cluttering up the main room with their gear. Molly was vaguely aware that there was a war starting over who would get which quarters. Joel caught her eye and nodded to indicate “I’m on it”, reassuring her that he had her back when it came to picking out the master quarters for them.


“Looks like you’ve got yourself a keeper there,” said Arlene, catching the interaction.


Molly looked from the old lady’s eyes back to Joel leaving. “What, Joel? Yeah, he’s good people.”


The old lady followed Molly’s eyes. “He’ll be there for you when you need him the most. He has a heart of gold, and would die for you if he had to.”


Molly felt a little taken aback, like the time at a fairground as a kid when the fortuneteller had accosted her.


Backing off, the woman returned her attention to the holo map she had been showing her. “Okay, you’re here. My place is there. And then to get to town, you just head over that way. Fuel cores can be bought here, but you normally need to put an order in first.”


The orientation continued for a few minutes more before Arlene was satisfied that she had gotten them settled, and she left them to it.


Molly was grateful for her kindness, but her words about Joel haunted her.


---


“Yo, you wanna grab one of those lighter crates from the stack I put aside?” Brock was hauling a crate with something that looked like high-tech poles on top of it. Paige held the door to the safe house open while he carried his load inside.


“Sure,” she responded, heading back to the ship as he headed in.


“Thanking you!” he called back to her.


Crash jogged past him to catch Paige. “Pretty amazing, no? Is this your first time on an asteroid?”


Paige’s face was alight with enthusiasm. “It’s my first time off-world at all!” she exclaimed. Her eyes darted all over the place as she tried to take everything in. “I mean, I can’t believe we’re so far from Estaria, but more to the point, how does the atmosphere stay in? And how come we have normal gravity?”


Crash was impressed. She wasn’t just a pretty school dance queen after all. “Ah, those are excellent questions. So the air is kept in partly by gravity and partly by a forcefield that is set up around the rock at various points.”


“And the gravity?” she asked, looking down at the ground where they were walking.


“Well, it’s something to do with a gravity generator that they implant about twenty kilometers down. Somehow they’re able to simulate natural gravity. But I bet you because this isn’t a spherical rock, it will feel different in different areas.”


“Amazing!” exclaimed Paige. “And how do they get the generator twenty kilometers deep? Is there a well somewhere?”


Crash shrugged. “Hell if I know. I’ve never seen one uncovered. Normally they’re set in the ground and then they fill in the hole on the top of them.”


They arrived at the ship, and Garet was just striding down the ramp with a crate in his arms. He caught the tail end of their conversation. “Yeah, I read somewhere that they will often build on top of them, cuz it’s the most solid part of an asteroid once they start colonizing it.”


Paige looked at him, impressed and intrigued as to how he would know something like that.


Garet caught her look. “It was an article in Interplanetary Commerce. It had implications for civilizations being able to claim ownership over their nearby asteroids, and I had an essay I had to write.”


“Ahhh…” Paige acknowledged. “Still impressive.” She smiled as she headed up the ramp to grab a crate herself.


“Oh, my. Only about another thousand trips to go!” exclaimed Brock as he arrived back at the ship, and assessed all the crates of supplies Oz had arranged for them to bring.


Maybe they could do some of it tomorrow?



Gaitune-67, Safe house




They’d spent most of the next day unloading the ship and doing a supply run to the nearest center of civilization. Now they were mostly just tired out, and still acclimatizing.


“Hey, come check out this cool insignia!” Paige called into the common area, where the team was sitting around vegetating.


Her eyes danced with enthusiasm. Crash and Joel were the only ones even mildly curious.


“Come on! You’re not going to believe this!” she insisted.


Crash, having nothing more pressing to do, wandered over to the corridor where Paige had appeared. Joel followed with his beer. Garet glanced up from his holo but stayed put.


“What is it?” asked Joel.


“You’ll see. Come…” Paige was already halfway down the corridor. The first night they hadn’t had a chance to do much exploring. Mostly they had found their quarters and designated rooms so they could unload some of the stuff they had on the ship.


Paige led them through a set of double doors, and then through another door off the second corridor.


“Paige, this is starting to feel very serial-killer of you!” joked Joel as they traipsed after her.


“Come on!” she giggled.


“I’m getting a feeling we should call her ‘Alice,’” commented Crash.


Joel looked at him, as they walked briskly to keep up with her. “Alice?”


“As in leading us down a rabbit hole.” Crash explained.


Joel laughed, remembering the old human stories about a little girl in Wonderland. That story, for whatever reason, resonated with Sarkians.


Eventually the second corridor ended in another set of doors, through which they stepped through into an opening like an elevator lobby with no elevators, but with two more corridors running off it in other directions.


Paige stood and faced the wall on the left side.


“Check it out!” She pointed at the blank whitewashed wall.


Joel and Crash looked at each other in confusion.


“Seriously…look closely,” she instructed them.


Joel stepped closer, and then he saw it. “What do you think it is?”


“I don’t know, but it looks military. And badass.” Crash answered.


“Yeah, military is right. Can you make out the words around it?”


Paige had edged up closer and was trying to read the writing, even though it was just a shadow that had been painted over several times. It was an insignia of some kind, like a crest or a badge.


“It’s not in a language I recognize,” she admitted.


Crash stepped closer. “Let me try”. He squinted, and then took a step back. “That first letter for both words looks like an ‘A’…then those are…. Hmm, I’m not sure. I think this might be that old language from the Pan galaxy that humans brought with them.”


“What, laten?” asked Paige, having heard something about it in a mythology class at school.


“Yeah, Latin,” Crash confirmed.


Paige and Joel looked at him, waiting for an explanation of how he could know something like this.


“Misspent youth studying secret military groups,” he confided. Then, feeling the pressure of their gaze, he left to retrieve a beer for himself from the kitchen.


“Secret military groups?” Paige now turned her quizzical look onto Joel.


“Well, speaking of misspent youths, you might wanna mention this to Ms. Bates.”


Joel took another swig of beer and then wandered away again, leaving Paige staring at the weird alien insignia and wondering how the hell it ended up on the wall of a hick little theater in the middle of nowhere.



Two weeks later. Downtown Spire. Undisclosed private club bar




Andus was watching the holoscreen from a booth in one of his favorite gentlebeings’ clubs. There was a news report about the events leading to the incident where Senate Official Dewitt had been found assassinated in his home. Apparently the police were holding two Health Corp executives for questioning, probably on the working theory that someone had wanted to either punish Dewitt or had tried to silence the one person who could corroborate the intel that had already hit every media channel this side of the asteroid belt.


“Bloody nuisance,” spat Andus, fiddling with the stem of his martini glass and throwing a pistachio shell against the seat opposite him.


Jessica appeared at his shoulder. “Now, now, Mr. Andus. That kind of behavior isn’t fitting for a man of power and influence.”


She smiled seductively and slipped into the booth next to him. Retrieving the shell, she placed it on the black marble table between them and signaled to their usual waiter to bring them two more drinks.


“I haven’t got long. Something has come up and I’ve had to call an emergency board meeting.”


“It’s seven o’clock at night!” exclaimed Andus.


“Yes. And my meeting is at nine. Gives them a chance to get the intel I need to make some decisions on this other clusterfuck I’m going to have to clean up.”


“I’m glad I don’t work for you. You’re a worse slave driver than I ever was,” he admitted.


“I don’t know. You do a pretty good job of keeping us Syndicate members on our toes.” she said, deliberately stroking his ego.


“Speaking of clusterfucks,” he indicated at the holo screen in the bar, “they’re making this kid out to be a bloody hero. They’re praising his fucking ancestors and describing it like he had orchestrated some big operation.”


“Yes, but we know better. And at some point being in the know may well pay off. As a policy, it works.” She slipped off her faux fur stole and let it drop into the seat around her. Within moments a waiter was with them, offering to hang it up.


“No, thank you. I’ll keep it. It may get chilly in here in a moment.” She glanced sideways at Andus, and the waiter understood everything he needed to know. He backed away and left them to it.


Andus ignored the byplay. “Any news on my replacement? You promised me a replacement.”


“I told you. My ancestors said three weeks.” It was just like Andus—and heck, anyone else she enlightened—to blame her if things weren’t going according to their plan. “Within three weeks. We’re still only two weeks in, remember?”


Andus grumped.


Just then, their drinks arrived.


“Give it time,” Jessica advised. “Let go of needing to control every damn thing, and just allow it to flow. You don’t need to agitate things.” She took a sip from her martini and glanced up at the holoscreen he had been watching. Garet’s face was full screen, with the words “Whistleblower” in the caption.


“Give it time,” she repeated absentmindedly.



Gaitune-67, Safe house




“Yo, Molly!”


Paige poked her head into the conference room. Well, they’d started calling it the conference room, but really it was just a room that they’d managed to procure desks and chairs for. It was also where Molly ended up doing most of her work.


Molly finished her line of code and looked up. Her face brightened when she looked at Paige’s smiling face.


“Hey, what’s up?” She leaned back in her chair, disengaging from the room’s holo screen.


“My nails. My nails are so bad. And I didn’t think to bring any color with me when we were at the store before jumping off-world. You got any?”


Molly blinked at her, her face expressionless.


Paige waited. Her smile faded, as she watched Molly trying to compute what she had just asked her for. “You mean that polish stuff that you girls were gabbing about that time when I was compelled to listen to your conversations for the whole morning?”


“Yes, nail polish,” Paige smiled brightly, trying again. “I could do with something red and bright.” She growled playfully, making a clawing motion with her right hand.


“Yes. Fifteen minutes talking about red. I remember. Fifteen minutes of my life I will never get back,” Molly complained.


“I can’t believe you don’t have any!” exclaimed Paige somewhat incredulously.


Molly was having trouble with explaining herself. “Paige, I’m ex-military. The closest we came to having red nails would have been if we were ever captured and tortured or if one of our teammates was bleeding out and we needed to clamp down on the wound. I do not paint, manicure, or do any such thing, to my nails.”


She kept her face straight in dry humor.


Paige erupted into giggles, nearly falling off her high heels as she grabbed for the door, which moved when she tried to steady herself. Molly couldn’t believe that this girl had even brought high heels with her off-world to a safe house.


Molly couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out laughing as well.


“Okay, but someone has to have some!” exclaimed Paige as she tried to catch her breath.


“You’re on a military base in the ass end of nowhere, hundreds of thousands of kilometers from any significantly sized civilization, and you think you’re going to find nail polish?” Molly was still grinning, but then she had an idea. “Maybe try Brock?”


Paige paused. “He’s only got clear. Never mind, I thought I’d try you, just in case.” She turned and left the doorway. “But now I see my error!” she called back, as she sauntered away.


“Watch it, missy.” Molly called after her, giggling to herself and trying to refocus on the code she was writing. She still had to go through the endless list of shit to approve for Crash’s and Brock’s workshop.












CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX



Gaitune-67, Safe house, Conference Room




Garet was watching a download of the news reports they had delivered to the server each day. Noticing himself in the text of a bulletin, he clicked through to watch the full report.


“Looks like someone is still making headlines.” Paige was leaning against the doorframe in what was fast becoming their mission control.


She walked over to the desks set up like a conference table and sat next to Garet as he watched the in-room holoscreen playing the video footage.


Garet pointed to the video with his chin. “You know, after everything we’ve learned about this situation and the Syndicate, I’ll bet that we’re pretty uniquely positioned to do something about the shit they’re pulling. I mean, who else knows about this? Not very many people, I’ll bet.”


“Yeah, because they kill anyone who finds out.” Paige commented darkly. She wasn’t about to forget what she went through any time soon.


“Yeah, but think about it,” Garet continued, almost as if he were just talking out loud to himself. “If I go back and do a job like what I was doing in Dewitt’s office, even in another sector, knowing what I know now I could be tactical about which bills we block and which things we rally support for. I bet I could spot the language in the proposals that would tell us it was a Syndicate move before it ever went to a vote. Never mind waiting years for them to invoke clauses.”


“What makes you think that?” Paige was frowning, concerned at where this was going.


“Oh, I got curious about how they’ve been doing this, and I started digging around. Molly authorized the downloads to make sure we weren’t tripping any red flags,” he added quickly, noticing the look of concern on Paige’s face. “Most of what I needed to see was public record anyway. It’s all in the fine detail of the language of the bills themselves. They hide what they’re really trying to do in lawyer-speak and footnotes.”


Paige shook her head. “I’m worried you’re already into something that is going to get you in trouble again.”


“I know,” he answered. Paige’s hands were folded in her lap, and he placed his hand over hers as he spoke. Paige resisted the urge to pull away. “And I appreciate that. But I can’t just sit by and watch these rats screw all these people over just to line their own pockets and enhance their own egos.”


Paige had heard this argument before. She agreed in principle. “But does it have to be your own safety versus doing something about it? Is there a way to tackle this without getting yourself killed?”


“Well, I’m not dead yet.”


“Only because of Molly and Joel. And it sounds like you’re talking about going back?”


“I’ve been thinking about it. But we’re kinda waiting for the all-clear from Molly. She’s monitoring some security thing, and the chatter. She said she’d let me know.”


Crash poked his head around the door. “Hey, we’re all sitting down to watch a movie. Joel’s got pizza in the oven. You going to join us?” They’d heard his boots approaching, but neither had turned to look.


“Yes, of course. You’ll never hear me say no to pizza!” Garet grinned back at him, breaking the intense moment of discussion, and stood up to leave.


Paige looked uneasy, feeling that this conversation had been ended prematurely.


“Okay,” she said. “Pizza time.” The two left the conference room with a niggling feeling that things were about to change for both of them.


---


Molly and Joel were in the kitchen. Molly carefully lifted a stack of plates out of a cupboard and placed them on the table.


“You know, Oz has been monitoring the data feeds of what people are downloading from the Central Systems.”


Joel grabbed the roll of paper towels and paused, waiting for what was coming next. “Yes?”


“Well, it seems Garet has been downloading news reports about what’s going on in Spire. He’s looking at industry reactions and political discussions.”


Joel exhaled noticeably. Molly noticed his shoulders relax as he started ripping the paper towels off the roll, but was too distracted by what she was trying to talk to him about to question it.


“I think he’s planning on going to Spire. I bet he wants back into the game.”


He glanced over his shoulder at her. “The game that nearly got him killed?”


Molly shook her head and raised her eyes to the heavens.


Joel finished tearing off paper towels for everyone and started setting them out at their places. Molly followed suit with the plates.


“Thing is, trying to stop him would be like trying to stop you on this mission.”


She knew that. “Yes, but still…how will we know when it is safe?”


There has been no further chatter or nor have any hits been issued for Garet on any of the channels I’m monitoring. 


“I don’t know if there truly is a way to tell. I mean, if he’s still hot, there will be searches and contracts out on him. But just him showing up might trigger some cascade. Especially if he’s publicly going back into that field. I mean, his name and job title will be a matter of public record again.”


Molly paused for a moment, thinking. “I don’t think we’re going to have a choice. If it turns out they want to go back, we’re going to have to take them.”


Joel scratched his chin. “Well, if we do that, we should stay for a while and make sure everything is going to be okay. You know, get them settled.”


“How long?” Molly asked, placing the last plate down and moving over to the boxes of pizza on the counter.


“A few days, I would think.”


“And then they’re on their own?”


“I guess. We could always look at getting them some security, or give them a few contacts they could call if things heated up again. But if someone ultimately wants them dead, it can happen fast. If they want to take that risk, then we can’t stop them.”


“But we need to make them aware of the dangers.” Molly qualified what he was saying.


He nodded. “Yes. And then let them make their choice.”


She turned to look to her left. “D’you think they’ll both want to go?”


“You’ve been enjoying having Paige around, eh?” Joel had noticed that the two women had been getting on really well. He knew that if it came to this, Molly would be sad to see her go.


Molly nodded, some of her bubbliness gone.


Joel wandered over to her and put his arms around her. Molly resisted at first, but then let him pull her close against his firm chest.


Wow, I think Joel has been working out more. 


He has. He’s increased his gym time by 11% over the last week. 


Must be getting focused on the tasks we have coming up. Heck, Oz, do you monitor everything in this place?


I get bored. 


No sooner had she settled in to enjoying the hug than there were voices and a racket in the common area as the troops made their way through to the kitchen.


Molly pulled away, and Joel released her. “It’ll be okay. We just need to be clear about what they’ll be walking into,” he said again before busying himself with opening the pizza boxes.


“Something smells delightful in here!” Brock announced his arrival.


Crash was a step behind him, looking expectantly at the food laid out.


“Oh my gods, I love our pizza days!” exclaimed Paige as she too tumbled in through the door a moment later.


People started sitting down and helping themselves to food, chattering and laughing. Garet wandered in a minute later, not quite as exuberant but joining in nevertheless.


Molly noticed the difference in his demeanor. There was no way he was going to stay here and let this political thing lie, no matter what they said to him. She sighed, taking a bite of cheesy awesomeness into her mouth.


“You know how you can figure out where humans have been in the galaxy?” piped up Crash between mouthfuls. His question broke the strange hush that had settled when everyone started eating.


Joel looked over at him. “No. How?”


“Mm, I know!” Paige interrupted between chews. She cleared her palate a little before continuing. “It’s the trail of death and destruction they leave!”


Everyone laughed.


Molly was perhaps the only one who, deep down, actually thought that she might have been at least half right.


Crash shook his head.


“The politics?” Garet guessed. “But I think Sarkians are way worse, for the record.”


Crash shook his head again. “Nope.”


“Well, how then?” asked Brock, his curiosity piqued.


“It’s pizza!” Crash announced, with the air of a wise old sage. “Think about it.” He explained, “it doesn’t matter what hellhole you end up in. if humans have been there, you get pizza parlors!”


“Right, and if they haven’t been there, then there is a distinct absence of holy food shrines!” Brock added, grinning at the observation. “The one food that is truly intergalactic!”


“I think there’s something to be said for factoring in the length of time humans have been in a place with a certain population density threshold, but it’s a good hypothesis,” Molly added quickly, qualifying Crash’s observation.


Everyone’s groans turned into laughter.


Joel picked a piece of pepper off his pizza and threw it across the table at her. “You don’t have to keep reminding us that you have an IQ larger than the rest of the group put together!”


The pepper whacked her on the face, causing her to wipe her cheek with the back of her hand. “Just you watch, Joel Dunham. We start training tomorrow. You don’t want me to remind you that you threw pizza at me when I have you on your ass on the mat, do you?”


The team’s activity continued to buzz around her, but she stopped, suddenly remembering something. Joel had been relieved when she mentioned that Oz had been looking at Garet’s downloads.


Oz, what’s Joel been downloading? 


Trust me on this, Molly, you don’t want to know that. 


Yes, I do. 


No. It’s not compromising security or the mission, and you don’t want to know. 


Yes, I do. 


Okay, it’s to do with how 4077s get issued. 


God-fucking-damn!


Told you that you didn’t want to know. 


She paused another moment.


Next time you say that, I’ll believe you. 


Looking across at Joel, who was chewing pizza and interacting with Brock, she couldn’t help but subconsciously shake her head in horror.


Joel looked up and saw the look in her eyes. Fuck. Oz just told her. 


---


Paige arrived at the conference room. Joel, Garet and Molly were already there making small talk around the cluster of desks that doubled as a conference table.


“Hey,” Paige said as she came in and plunked herself down next to Joel.


“Hey,” Molly said, getting up to gently close the door, now that Paige had arrived.


Garet finished what he was saying and then Joel and Garet acknowledged Paige’s arrival. Molly sat back down.


“Okay, so the reason we asked to have a chat with you both,” she started, indicating Garet and Paige with her hands, “is to see what you’d like to do about your future. Bringing you off-world was originally a temporary measure to keep you safe while everything was settling down. But it’s important for us now to have a conversation about what you want this to look like.”


“I’m ready to go back, if you guys think it’s safe,” Garet began as soon as it was polite to start talking. “I’ve been watching the news reports and things have pretty much moved on. They’re speculating on Dewitt’s replacement and the public seems to agree that Paige and I were victims of trying to do the right thing.”


Molly listened intently. She’d expected as much. She looked at Paige.


“I can go back whenever you think it’s safe.” Her voice was flat, and a little quieter than usual. She looked a little shocked that this conversation was happening. “At least then I’ll be able to wear any one of my 133 shades of red nail color!” she added more brightly, as if making an effort to be positive.


It was Joel’s turn to add to the conversation. “We think it’s probably safe, but there are no guarantees. There hasn’t been any chatter that causes us any concern, but we don’t know what your return will trigger. The Syndicate may notice you’re back on their doorstep and just want to clean up loose ends.”


He was watching them both intently, looking for micro expressions to tell him how they really felt about the prospect of going back. Experience had shown him over the years that there was very little correlation between what people said and what people really wanted to do. Especially after hostage situations and life-threatening events. It was just the way it was.


Molly looked across at Joel as if waiting for his assessment. Seeing he was still gathering data, she continued.


“The thing is, if someone decides they want you dead, that’s it. Game over. There will be no time to swoop in and save you. We’ll of course put you in touch with other security people. It’s up to you if you want to bring them in to follow you around.” She was looking particularly at Garet. “But the reality is, the best way for you to be safe is to stay off-world. At least, much longer than we’ve already been away.”


Joel presented the other alternative they’d been working on. “The other thing we can do is get in touch with the local police precinct that was running the Dewitt investigation and offer you up as witnesses who need security to talk. You may be eligible for protection, but that in itself might raise a flag to the Syndicate. We probably should at least let them know that you’re back, to keep them from hunting you down if they suspect you of hiding anything. Plus, their questions might give us a little more insight into who these guys actually are and what the threat level is.”


“It sounds like what you’re saying is that we can’t really tell until we get there, but our presence may well alter the status quo,” Garet summarized.


“Yes,” confirmed Joel seriously. “Going back to Spire may well create the danger.”


“And if we stay here?” asked Paige, anxiety written across her brow and around her eyes.


“You’ll be a shit-ton safer,” responded Molly quickly. “But we’re not just hiding out here. We’re working on a lot of things to potentially disrupt the system even more. I mean, we’re safe now because no one knows we’re here. But if and when that changes, you’ll be in danger, as will we all.”


Joel and Molly exchanged glances. This was the most serious conversation they’d had in weeks, and it felt like work. All the planning they’d been doing with Crash and Brock had been fun, lighthearted, and downright entertaining at times. But they were building a mini military base of badassery, an operation to make the System a better place for everyone involved.


They were working to change their world.


Now they were discussing the future of two clients who had become their friends, and helping them make decisions about how the rest of their lives looked.


“And if we stay, we can become part of the operation? The mission?” Paige queried.


Molly suddenly realized what she was asking. “I mean…erm, yeah.” She scrambled, trying to think what Paige could contribute to the team. “We can think of something you could do to help out. And maybe there will be a way to pick up some nail polish from somewhere?”


Paige grinned.


Garet rolled his eyes. Joel caught it and smiled too.


“Maybe it’s something you want to think about for a few days. Talk about it together, and with us. There’s no hurry to decide.”


“Apart from the bill that Dewitt was pushing through. It might still go through, from the looks of things,” Garet added.


He noticed everyone looking at him, as if waiting for an explanation.


He continued, completing the thought, “If that bill goes through, they’ll make it illegal for people not to be paying thousands of dollars to the healthcare companies who sit between the healthcare providers and drug companies and the public. If that happens, there is nothing stopping the healthcare companies from just eating up people’s money by jacking up prices.”


“I thought it was about making sure they made healthcare available for everyone?” Paige asked.


“That’s part of it, and that’s what they want you to think, but the clauses that they’ve been playing down are all about changing the law to basically rig the economy for their own ends. They need to be stopped. That’s all I’m saying. And if I get back there, maybe I can find a position in one of the Senate offices where I can help fight it.”


“Okay,” Joel said finally. “Have a think about what you want to do. We’ll support whatever decision you make.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN


Upper atmosphere, about 10,000 kilometers above Spire




Crash swiped a few controls while Molly sat and watched, wondering how long it might take her to learn how to fly this ship. It had been a mere two days since the serious conversation in the conference room and Garet was still adamant that they should take the risk and return to Spire. Paige was less enthusiastic but had packed up and agreed to go back all the same. So here they were.


“Not long now,” said Crash loudly over the noise of the engines. “The descent into the atmosphere is only bumpy for a few minutes, and then we’ll be able to lock onto the landing pad.”


He was talking Molly through the details just in case she ever needed to be aware of the process. In reality they would probably end up getting Oz hooked in to the ship, but that was the last thing she wanted to mess with midflight.


“Just a few more minutes, folks,” Molly called through the open door to Paige, Joel and Garet. Brock had stayed back at Gaitune-67 to receive the numerous supplies they’d been ordering. Plus, Molly didn’t want this to turn into a permanent stay in the Central Systems. They were here to get Garet and Paige settled in, and then they would turn around and get back to Gaitune.


She glanced back through the door, seeing the two of them sitting together. They made a cute couple. She wondered if it would last, though.


“I’m ready to stretch my legs!” announced Joel loudly, so that Crash and Molly would hear.


“Me too,” seconded Garet. He’d spent most of the trip studying the situation he would be walking into. Molly even overheard him telling Paige he’d filled out a few job applications for different government departments.


For the next fifteen minutes the passengers of the XC-0094B were in limbo—unable to walk around or chat over the sound of the engines, yet anticipating touchdown on a real planet again. Molly found herself wondering about the relative gravity and whether they would notice the difference between here and the artificial stuff they had on Gaitune. Then again, the gravity differential was likely to be the least of her problems.





Beaufort-Montgomery Residence, Downtown Spire




The new apartment was everything that Molly had hoped when she saw the pictures the first time. The pale blue walls and carpets made it cool and homey, but airy at the same time. She loved the amount of natural light that came in through the big windows down one side. In fact, she was almost a little jealous that she couldn’t stay here and have a normal-ish life herself.


Is it the lifestyle or the decor you’re attached to, though? 


Hmm, good point. Maybe both. 


If it’s of any help, the wall coloring is duck egg blue made by a local company here on Spire. We can always order some and have it delivered to the hangar before we leave.


That’s really thoughtful of you, Oz. 


I aim to please. Besides, you freed up more processing power when you were enjoying the environment. I’ve been testing a hypothesis that the happier you are, the more processing power I get. 


Oh, so it’s self-serving after all, then?


Yes, you could say that. But then, what did you expect from an AI? 


Molly smiled to herself. Oz’s very existence had turned her life upside down, but she would never choose to go back to not having him with her.


Paint has been ordered. It will be at the hangar tonight. I left a note for them to leave it around the side even if there is no one to sign for it. 


Excellent. Thanks, Oz! 


Anytime.


Who paid for it, by the way? 


Technically, you did. But it came out of the general account where you have me deposit the funds from the legitimate market trading I do. 


Nice emphasis on the word legitimate


Well, I’m glad that we were able to find a way to fund your expensive taste in spaceships and military hardware without breaking any more laws or bending ethics. 


Me too, Oz. Me too. 


There was a knock at the door. Paige had gone for a walk and Crash had gone to the store, deliberately timing their absences for the expected visitors.


“That’ll be them,” Joel said as he strode to the door. Checking through the peephole, he confirmed the woman’s identity and opened the door.


“Good to meet you, Detective Indius,” he said, shaking her hand.


“Captain Dunham. Good to meet you, too. This is my partner Detective Rogers.” Joel and Antonio greeted each other with a handshake.


Garet, hearing the door, arrived from the other room and stepped forward to introduce himself. Molly did the same. Seeing Molly and Joel next to each other, both detectives had a flash of recognition.


“Thanks for your call, Captain Dunham,” Detective Indius started. “As you can probably guess, we’ve been searching for answers as to what happened at the Dewitt residence that night, and we really appreciate you coming forward.”


“Of course. We got our client out of danger as soon as we could, but when he decided to return to town, we thought it would be worth checking in with the police to at least let you know. If we had known you wanted to question him, we would have been in touch sooner. We were just out of communication with people for his safety.”


“I understand.” Detective Indius was amenable and professional. Having spent the last two weeks searching for Beaufort and Montgomery, she hoped she’d finally get some answers.


“So, we’d like to get a sequence of events. We can see now that both you and Flight Sergeant Bates were involved in the incident,” she paused, noticing Joel’s quizzical look.


“How do you know that?” he asked.


It was Molly who answered. “Dewitt’s security cams. We had assumed the group that followed us had destroyed those files…” Her voice trailed off.


“Yes, but we were able to restore sections. Both of you entered the building,” shared Detective Indius, “and we’ll need to get a sequence of events. But first, can I ask you about Ms. Montgomery? We found her blood at the scene, and suspect she was held hostage. We’ve been fearing the worst.”


Joel knew this might come up. Paige had left to avoid having to answer questions, but it was up to the rest of them to reassure the police that she was okay.


“We have been in contact with Ms. Montgomery, and she is perfectly fine. She managed to escape. She knew you would be coming to see Mr. Beaufort, so she made a video. However, we ask that you don’t insist on taking the file, because if anyone knows she is still alive it will put her in danger.”


The detectives were taking it all in.


The conversation went on for about two hours, and after viewing the video Paige had recorded in that very same apartment, they were satisfied that she was at least alive.


“We’d much rather be able to take a statement from her ourselves.” Antonio appealed to Joel, who had done most of the talking. “She may have vital information to help us track down some of the other parties involved.”


“I’m sorry.” Joel explained, “That’s just not in her best interests right now. It may be that the intel she has is the only thing keeping her alive. You understand, of course?” Joel planted the seed that by pursuing her they may very well be putting her in danger. He needed them off her scent just long enough to get off-world again; a few days at the most.


“Yes, yes we do. We’ll have to leave an APB out on her though. If she’s in the Central Systems, we’ll find her eventually.” Antonio had the look of someone who was just doing his job, but understood the risks to the witness.


“And if we can find her…” Chaakwa didn’t need to finish the statement. Everyone there knew what it meant.


Feeling they had gathered all the information they could, the detectives wrapped up the conversation and started to leave.


Before stepping out of the apartment, Detective Indius turned to Garet.


“You were a lucky man, Mr. Beaufort. It seems that things have settled down. While we’re glad to see you well and back in town, we don’t know how safe it is for you to be here since we haven’t found the killers or the men who hunted you down at the hotel and kidnapped your girlfriend. We will continue to do everything we can, but please get in touch if you hear or see anything unusual. We might be able to arrange a security detail for you.”


Garet nodded. There was no way they were going to be able to protect him. That was going to be up to him now.


Joel shook their hands and closed the door behind them as they left. In the back of his mind he knew he was going to have to have another talk with Paige about meeting with the cops if she was going to stay. They made it clear that they would keep looking for her, and it was only a matter of time until they—or someone else—found her through the security and traffic cams all over town.


Something told him it might not be necessary.


Sure, Paige had said she wanted to come back with Garet, but he’d been watching them together and they didn’t seem that close. Plus, she and Molly had discussed her becoming part of the team that day in the conference room, even if only in principle.


In the corridor, with the apartment door closed behind them, Chaakwa started walking. She waited to speak until she and Antonio were well out of earshot.


“So what do you think?” she asked, looking for Antonio’s reaction.


“I think he got lucky. But I also think that now he’s back, we’ll likely be attending a new crime scene back in this building pretty soon.”


Chaakwa nodded grimly. There was only so much they could say to a witness without causing panic or reactionary behavior. Plus, the brass wanted this case gone. She just hoped it wouldn’t be at the expense of this young man’s life.



Downtown Spire




Paige wandered through the streets of Spire. She used to love this city—its bustle and noise and spirit. But now, after everything she had been through here, it just didn’t have the same sparkle.


She strolled past a clothing store. Normally she would have gone in and examined the pretty new range of atmosuits that graced their window.


She’d always wondered what she would look like in something with a little more sheen to it. Her mother had said that the sheen just looked more like dust after you’d worn it outside a few times, but that was her mother all over.


She’d made a rule a few years ago that her mother’s opinions were not going to rule her style decisions anymore.


Thinking of her mom, she looked down at her wrist holo and considered calling her. She immediately stopped herself.


Molly had said not to make contact with anyone. Anyone. She was very firm about that.


She thought of her friends at work as she continued to walk down the dusty street, the Sark beating down on her. Gosh, what she wouldn’t give for a bit of company right now. Someone to talk to about her predicament. Sure, she had Molly. Kinda. But Molly wasn’t a real girl. And she was sort of the boss. Well, it was more like she had two personas: boss and friend. Paige still hadn’t gotten used to the separations she seemed able to make.


But she desperately wanted to talk to someone about this situation with Garet. And the rest of her life. Garet was just a guy. A boyfriend. They’d only been dating a few months. And now here she was in a situation where she was kind of expected to move in with him and stay with him for…well, forever, she guessed.


I suppose that’s how most people fall into relationships, though. But without the kidnapping and near-death experiences, she qualified to herself.


And then there was her job. She’d loved her coworkers, and the work was interesting. But now, knowing what she did and having been off-world…that life was just too small for her.


But what else can I do? She wondered. If only there was a way to be of use to Molly and her team; she thought she’d like that.


It would certainly be more fun.


She guessed she should probably start heading back. Molly had warned her about going out alone at all. No doubt if she were out after dark even while Molly was still here in town, Molly would probably still have kittens about leaving her here.


She checked the time on her holo. The police should be gone from the apartment by now, she thought. She’d wanted to steer clear of that little exchange and all those questions. Nuh uh. Not for her. That would be like reliving the whole thing, and she was ready for something new.



Mocha shop, one hundred meters from Beaufort-Montgomery Residence, Downtown Spire




Garet picked up his mocha from the service area and took it to a small table with two comfortable chairs, out of the way of the main buzz of the shop.


Despite the late-ish hour, it was still busy with people drinking a variety of flavored and infused beverages while isolating themselves on their holos, creating an anonymous backdrop where he could gather his thoughts.


The discussion with the police detectives had been intense. He got the feeling that they thought he was still in danger, and they were probably right. But once he found a job, he could probably hire a protective detail or negotiate that as part of his contract.


Paige, on the other hand, was going to be a different issue. He really cared about her, but ever since this all happened she’d become more and more distant. They hadn’t spent a single night together since they’d been off-world, and if it weren’t for the safe-house element of the new apartment, he guessed she wouldn’t be sticking around much longer.


His eyes glazed over as he contemplated having a conversation with her. They’d have to figure out what was best to do for their individual safety. Still, she was in this mess entirely because of him.


He was staring absently out the window into the busy street, lost in his churning thoughts and the decisions he was going to have to make.


“Mr. Beaufort?”


A voice interrupted him. He blinked his eyes to bring himself back into the room and tore his unseeing gaze from the street to look at the speaker standing beside him.


He looked up to see an Estarian man with dark hair and a beard. He wore dark glasses even though they were indoors and the light was bright and artificial.


“Yes?” Garet admitted cautiously, wishing now he’d brought Joel with him.


“May I have a word?”


Well, if he’d wanted to kill him, he’d already be dead, probably in a far less conspicuous place than in the middle of the mocha shop.


Garet nodded and indicated the empty chair opposite him, and the man gently sat himself down.


“I’m here on behalf of my employer. My employer represents a group of interested parties in the sector. Some of those parties are in government, and some are in commerce. All are philanthropists dedicated to making the Central Systems a better place.”


He paused, making sure that Garet was following. Garet got the feeling that this wasn’t the kind of gentleman who cared to repeat himself. Not being able to see his eyes was intimidating.


“You have pull with the media right now, and you have a passion that will sway people in the Senate. You’d be able to do some good, and we could help you.”


“Who are you?” Garet asked, still a little confused as to what this was all about.


“I’m the representative of my employer.”


“So what do you want with me?”


“My employer would like to offer you a job. You’d be very highly compensated, and we have the ability to help you run for the Senate Official position that is now open. Only, you’d be representing our interests first, and those of a Senate Official second.”


Garet immediately computed what this meant. It meant they would help him get this position, but in exchange they would want something from him. Garet fought his instinct to just refuse then and there.


“You’d of course have our protection as well.” The man had thought about his position. And probably knew more about the situation than he did.


Garet wondered if this was the same group of interested parties who might otherwise want him silenced. He asked the question. “And without your protection? Does this mean your employer will have me taken out of the picture?”


The man shook his head negative. “Of course not. That would be unethical. But we cannot guarantee that there aren’t other forces in play who might want to tidy up loose ends after the unfortunate events a few weeks ago.”


Unsure as to whether to take this statement at face value or as a veiled threat, Garet was already regretting coming back. He wanted to fight the good fight, but this was looking like certain death either way.


“I appreciate the offer, but I’m, erm…I’m already looking at some other positions that might suit me better at this time in my career.”


“You mean the three applications you filed earlier today?” the faceless man asked.


Garet’s mouth dropped open. How did he know about that? 


“Don’t look so surprised, Mr. Beaufort. Those firms have already rejected your applications at my employer’s request.”


Feeling like he was fast approaching checkmate, Garet needed time to think and to talk to Joel and Molly.


“I need some time to consider your generous offer.” He hoped his response didn’t sound too disingenuous. It was entirely possible that this man had orders to take him out if he didn’t immediately comply. Garet could feel the adrenalin pumping through his system, his anxiety levels rising quickly.


The man stood up, and tugged at his expensive-looking dark blue atmosuit to straighten himself up. “Don’t think too long, Mr. Beaufort. Time is ticking.”


And with that, he left.


Garet released his breath, realizing only now that he’d been holding it. He took a few minutes to talk himself into relaxing again. He hadn’t been back five minutes and already the crazy was starting again. Maybe he should just go back with the team and rethink this whole career thing.


He went back to nursing his mocha, but now, instead of relishing the time away from the others, he was craving their comfort. He sat and stewed a little more, but finished his drink as quickly as he could. Then he marched his ass back to the apartment before anyone else could offer him a job.


Or a bullet.












CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT



Beaufort-Montgomery Residence, Downtown Spire 




Garet got back to the apartment to find that Paige had just returned. The others were sitting around telling her about the police visit.


“Well, it doesn’t sound like they can be much help.” Paige was saying, taking her atmojacket off and hanging it by the door.


“We don’t think so,” agreed Joel, trying to remain as neutral as he could.


They all turned to acknowledge Garet walking in.


“Well, I’ve just been offered a job,” he told them outright, partly because he didn’t want to lose his nerve before it became difficult to broach the subject.


Molly was the first to step in. “You went for an interview?”


“No, I was just approached in the mocha shop down the way. Some guy told me he represented what I can only suspect is the Syndicate.”


Joel and Molly looked at each other, their mouths half open.


“What did you tell him?” Molly asked, fighting to keep the bitterness out of her voice.


Garet, sensing that, was less ready to admit his own feelings. “I said I’d think about it. But I thought you should all know.”


“So, are you actually thinking about taking it?” Molly couldn’t believe what she was hearing.


“Well, I said no at first, but then he made it sound like I didn’t have a choice. If I don’t take it I won’t have their ‘protection’. Sounds like a threat to me. But then if I take it, I’m basically their puppet.”


“We should get out of here.” Paige was the first to speak the obvious. Garet didn’t seem to have contemplated that solution.


He spoke to Paige. “I came back to put this right. To make a difference. If I were privy to the Syndicate’s agenda, then maybe there would be something I could do to sabotage it.”


“And if you just end up being one of their pawns, as you probably will?” Molly asked, noticing that Paige was nodding and trying to catch her eye as she came to join her and Joel on the sofas.


Garet turned to Molly. “Well, then so be it. But from within, I can make a difference. The alternative is death. And probably pretty soon.”


“Or, you come back to Gaitune and we find another way to change this clusterfuck!” Joel piped up.


Garet shrugged. “Yes, but how long will that take? And how will we ever get another opportunity like this, to get this kind of access?”


“So you’re advocating going undercover?” Molly was trying to understand the madness that was unfolding before her.


Garet considered her question before answering. “Kind of. I just take the job, and try and get into the Senate to start influencing the bills.”


“You realize we won’t be able to protect you if you do this?” confirmed Joel, clarifying that he wasn’t willing to get involved in a long-range plan to try and bring these creeps down. That just wasn’t something that they could commit to right now. They certainly didn’t have the resources to provide that kind of cover.


“Yeah. But as long as I’m a useful employee, they will make sure I’m safe.”


Paige had stood up again, redness forming around her eyes. “And when that ends? Have you thought about that? When you’re no longer useful to them? Damn it, Garet, this is just a fucking job. For a paycheck.”


“It’s not a job. It’s about changing the system from within.” He argued.


“Well, if you do this, I’m not going to be a part of it. I’m not going through all this shit again. I’m going back with Molly and Joel.” And with that she flounced out of the room, slamming her bedroom door behind her.


Garet looked to Molly for support, and all she could manage was a shrug. She agreed with Paige. She got up and glanced at Joel as if handing over the baton, then left to check on Paige.


Joel sat forward in his seat. His tone was serious. “If you do this, you have got to be sure. Otherwise, we can find another way.”


Garet sat down in the armchair next to him. “I’m pretty sure this is what I want to do.”


Joel watched his face as he sat there, noticing the flicker of fear and doubt that appeared for a microsecond.



Beaufort-Montgomery Residence, Downtown Spire




The next morning Garet was up with the Sark and sorting through the contacts in his holo from two weeks before.


It must be here somewhere, he thought, flicking through the contacts alphabetically now. What was the guy’s name? Something to do with the monarchy. King? Duke? Royal!


He located the only “Royal” in his holo. Sean Royal. That was the one. 


He dialed the number and waited. It went to voice messaging and he started to speak.


“Hi, Sean. This is Garet. The guy you had in your taxi a few weeks ago. You dropped me near the Mandeli Hotel and helped me escape those guys who were after me. Well, I’m still alive! But I wondered if we could talk? I remember what you said about your skills, and, well, I think I need someone like you on my team. If you could call me back, that would be great. Thanks.”


Garet clicked the holo closed and listened to hear if anyone else in the apartment was stirring.


He was already up and dressed, and he figured that the mocha shop opened early given its location and function. Slipping into his atmojacket, he grabbed his key fob and quietly stole out of the apartment.


Time to go and accept his job offer.


He had no doubt that the Syndicate or whoever they were had surveillance on this building, and probably the mocha shop too. Going there would be a signal to them that he wanted to talk.


And if not, he’d just get a mocha and come back and wait for them to be in touch.


Either way, his mind was made up.


---


Crash was the next one in the residence to leave early, so he could do the necessary pre-flight checks before they left. He’d primed the mocha machine for whoever got up next, and the air in the kitchen and living room had a beautiful aroma.


Joel was the first lucky recipient of the pre-brewed mocha. He had showered and dressed before either of the girls even stirred. He was sitting in the kitchen enjoying a quiet cup of heaven when Paige emerged, still in her robe and eyes puffy from yesterday’s crying.


She knifed him with her eyes. “So, that’s it? You’re just going to let him stay?”


This wasn’t the morning for small talk, he realized, feeling his peaceful mocha sanctuary under ambush.


He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts to be as helpful as possible.


“I don’t know what else we can do at this point, Paige.” He pulled out a chair and put a mug under the mocha machine for her.


Paige was in tears again. Her sadness seemed out of place in such a beautiful apartment. Even to her, the one who was doing all the crying.


“There’s not much else we can do. As much as we like Garet, he’s his own person, and an adult. He hired us to do a job and we’ve done it. If he wants to stay and take this job, he has every right to do that. We’ve told him of the risks and our opinions. Now we have to leave it to him.” He paused. “The alternative is kidnapping him.”


Paige laughed a little through the tears.


They both looked up as they heard the front door open. Garet walked into the open-plan living room.


“Either way, we need to get moving again today,” he added.


“But that’s so soon!” Paige whispered in desperation. “If we had longer, maybe we could change his mind!”


Garet appeared in the doorway sooner than Paige had anticipated.


“I’m not going to change my mind. In fact, I’ve just accepted their offer and signed the contracts. I put a call in to my own protection guy, too. I’m going to see what I can do about building a team and making some progress on this.”


He headed back out to remove his boots and other gear, having informed them of his plan.


Paige started crying uncontrollably again and ran out.


---


“Hey. Can I come in?” Molly asked Paige through the bedroom door. She’d heard Garet come in, and Paige running back to her room in tears.


“Yes,” Paige replied between sobs.


Molly opened the door to find Paige lying across the bed, her face in the duvet. She eased into the room and gently sat down on the bed, trying to find the right words.


Paige continued to sniffle, but was clearly trying to calm herself.  “I…I just think this is a stupid plan.”


“We all do,” admitted Molly.


“And I don’t know where that leaves me. I wouldn’t want to stay with him even if he didn’t take that fucking job.”


“We’d figured as much.”


Paige slowly wiped the tears from her face. “Really? You already knew?”


Molly nodded. “Yeah, Joel suspected a few weeks ago. But who knows, it might have just been a case of you both needing to readjust after the trauma of everything that happened.”


“I don’t think this is trauma. I mean, he’s a sweet guy and all. But I don’t see myself with him, even short-term. There’s just nothing there anymore.”


Molly nodded sympathetically. “But you have a life, wherever you want to live it. We can find you an apartment of your own, and help you find a job…” Her voice trailed off, as she saw Paige was shaking her head.


“No. No, I want to come back with you. And I don’t know what I can do in the operation you’re building, but I’ve always been fast to pick up skills and I love the idea of learning to fix things, either on the ship with Brock or on the computers and stuff. You’ll need computer people, right? And someone who can organize stuff? I organized stuff for the Senate office all the time.”


Paige watched Molly’s eyes perk up.


“I think you’d make a solid addition to our team!” Molly admitted, noticing how she also felt more energized at the idea. It didn’t hurt that she thought organizing was a tedious, burdensome pain in the ass that should be used as punishment.


Molly’s eyes narrowed, and her lips compressed, “Although, you do realize the nearest nail polish supply is going to be about 480 million kilometers away, right?”


Paige laughed and pulled a pillow from the bed, throwing it at Molly. “I’m going to buy some before we leave this dustball!”


Police Precinct, Downtown Spire




Chaakwa arrived back at her desk after answering a summons to the Captain’s office.


Antonio had taken a desk next to hers, as he was on loan from the Homicide division. He had watched her return, and headed over to her overcrowded desk to meet her.


“What was that all about?” he asked, in a low professional voice, gesturing quietly in the direction of the captain’s door.


“It was about the Dewitt case. We’ve been told to drop it now.” She looked furtively around, making sure no one was noticing their conversation.


“But we just got a couple more leads from those two employees coming back!” He whispered.


“Yeah. I don’t think this has anything to do with our performance or the progress we’re making. It sounds more like an order that has come from higher up. Birch didn’t even ask for an update or offer an explanation. Something is definitely up.”


“Detective Rogers!”


The voice boomed from the open door of the captain’s office.


“Looks like your turn to hear the happy news!” Chaakwa whispered sarcastically.


“Yeah,” he grunted back. “It’s been fun working with you, though.”


Of course, Chaakwa realized. He’ll be sent back to Homicide. That hadn’t been her first thought. She’d enjoyed Antonio’s company, and he was one hell of a smart cop. Still, even though this was officially closed, she had a couple of leads she wanted to check out before she put it to bed herself. The beast hadn’t been slain, after all—it had just had one of its heads chopped off when Dewitt met his ancestors.


This story was far from over.












CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE



Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




Hangar 08771A had been a hive of activity all morning. Since Garet had announced he was staying and taking the job and Paige had decided to join the team and return to Gaitune, it was as if they were all eager to move on to the next stage of whatever their new lives held for them.


Crash had already said his farewells to Garet and now, loaded up and ready to go, completed the pre-flight while the engines warmed up.


“You take care, Garet. And remember, get in touch if you need us and we’ll help any way we can.” Molly hugged him tightly, only too aware of the life —or death—that was likely in store for him.


“Yeah, but we’re several frickin’ million miles away, mind you!” jested Joel. The weight of his words still felt heavy in the air. When Molly released him, Garet hugged Joel.


“Look, thanks for everything you’ve both done for me. And Paige. You’ve been incredible. I owe you my life.”


“No, you paid us very well,” Joel grinned. “We’re square!”


There were a few back slaps, then Molly and Joel headed into the hangar to board the ship. They left Paige and Garet to say their goodbyes.


“So I hear you’ve recruited our Office Manager,” said Joel as they trooped up the ramp to the ship.


“Yeah, I think she’ll be good. She works surprisingly well under pressure, and in talking with her a few times, I think she’s actually a shit-ton smarter than she lets on.”


“Sounds like a dangerous woman to me!” Joel laughed, pleased that Paige was going to be one of them.


“Yeah. I think she will do some damage. To our opponents, hopefully!” Molly rolled her eyes at herself, excited that their new team was growing and that she now had a legitimate way of funding the whole operation.


“Think she’ll be all right with the Garet thing?” Joel was serious for a moment.


“She will be. With a little time. I mean, it’s not like it was the romance of the century, but she’s feeling a little betrayed at this turn of events.”


“I’ll bet,” Joel whistled through his teeth. “Pretty rough.”


They headed into the passenger compartment and strapped in. A few minutes later, Paige joined them, and Crash closed the tailgate and hit the seals.


“All set?” he asked through the cabin door.


“All good. Take us home, Crash!” Molly grinned and, catching Paige’s eye, she noticed that even though she’d been crying, she actually looked happy to be starting another adventure.


This time, one of her own choosing.



Gaitune-67, Safe house




Left on his own, Brock was enjoying having the run of the place.


There had been moments when he’d felt like someone had been watching him, but then he always was a little “sensitive,” as his mother had called it. She told him it was their ancestors that had ascended into the next dimension who were watching over him.


It was a proven scientific fact that some of his kind had, over the years, been able to ascend into the next stage on their death. But it hadn’t been done by anyone that he knew. Still, it was likely that those who had done it were sticking around, watching his fine ass bust a move then and there in the old theater that was fast becoming the baddest operation this side of the Loop Galaxy.


In the time the others had been away he’d managed to clear an entire storage area under what had been the stage, but later became the holoscreen. Man, this place is old, but built to last. He noticed the construction was nothing like anything he’d ever seen in his lifetime in the Central Systems. Not that he was an architecture buff, but still.


Just one more set of boxes to move outta here, and then Brock has got himself one sweet-ass workshop to start assembling whatever naughty goodness Molly has in mind. 


This was the workshop. The lab was going to be in a similar space on the other side of the stage.


Looking around, he surveyed the room.


This is way more space than the theatre building takes up, he noticed. Especially since the lab was of similar size, and sprawled equally in the other direction.


He scratched his head, wondering if that meant anything.


Dismissing it as something he wasn’t going to stop his dancing and box clearing for, he hauled another stack of boxes away from the wall.


Man, they are heavy. 


Taking one at a time, he brought them into the space he’d cleared under the light. He’d open them up and sort through them later. For now, he wanted to get this area cleared so he could set the automatic vacuum up to do some cleaning while he took a shower.


He pulled another box towards him, then noticed the wall behind it. Everything else was concrete blocks, but there in front of him, hidden perfectly by those big-ass boxes, was a metal door and security pad.


He hauled the box over to the empty floor space and put it next to the others he’d just moved. Puzzled, he wondered what else was down here. It occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t a basement under a stage—maybe the theater had been built as a cover for something else?


Nah, that’s all crazy conspiracy stuff, he told himself. Just got to keep this loony imagination of yours in check. You feel me, Brock Lysta?


But why would a theater need all this space?


It’s a door, Brock Lysta. 


With a security pad that looks like something out of the last century controlling access to it. But just a door. If anything were going to come through it, it would have done it long before we got here. 


Unless that was what the boxes were for. 


Suddenly feeling very spooked, he looked at the door, and then back at the boxes. Then back at the door.


He took a breath and headed back to the lighted area to collect the box he had just put there.


“You boxes are getting your asses put back right fucking now. And then I am talking to Molly about all this basement shit. Just as soon as she gets back here.”


When the boxes from the stack had been put back, he commanded the music system to follow and headed back upstairs, being very sure to lock the keypad access to the basement area as he left.


Pointing towards the remaining stack of boxes, a tiny red diode flashed in the far corner of darkness. A camera lens whirred, refocusing after the activity around the door had subsided. When there was no longer any movement, the transmission timed out and sent the recording back to the master processor before deactivating again.






FINIS

Holo Transmission from OZ


Greetings of the day upon you. 


Oz here.


Molly has asked me to be the liaison between her operation and your rather primitive earth communication methods.


I believe you call it email?


Still.


I am here to act as your interface. To help bridge the gap between the dopamine induced hits as you watch Molly through her trials and tribulations as she takes on all manner of shenanigans.


If you’d like to receive such status updates, please go ahead and leave your holo/ email address here:


http://ellleighclarke.com/


As you might have gathered, this transmission will not just be coming through space between our two galaxies, but is also travelling back through time.


I will attempt to send you updates in chronological order but do be advised that occasionally gravitational optics will interfere (no pun intended!) with the sequencing of these packets.


An understanding of all things timey-whimey will be useful in such instances.


Additionally, if you have any feedback for Molly - or her team - do feel free to pass that on through me. All you need to do is hit reply to any of my messages.


I process every communication personally.

​​​​​​​

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Oz


(on behalf of Molly, aka the lady- boss)


Sanguine Squadron 2.0

Gaitune-67,

Sark System,

Loop Galaxy

Author Notes - Ell Leigh Clarke


May 10, 2017




I have a confession.

And I feel a bit nervous sharing this with you so early on, but I feel you ought to know, because it’s already come up a few times on the fb page.

I don’t always understand references to other works of fiction.

I have well, reasons, for the desert island mentality – which I’ll share one day.

But the real thing I need to get off my chest is that the last time I read a fiction book was probably around the age of 11 and that was only because I was too young to see the latest Alien movie.

So I read the books instead.

Prior to that the last fiction book I’d read I was probably about … 8?

So I’m kinda a science-fiction (book) virgin.

Until Michael.

At the age of (redacted) he inspired me to pick up Death Becomes Her, to learn the Kurtherian World and the Anderle voice, but within weeks he had me writing actual words.

He’s spent hours and hours showing me the ropes and turning me into a writer who publishes… from someone who had never published a single story before, didn’t think she could make anyone laugh, and never thought of herself as a writer.

Michael, you’re my Yoda. And my biggest supporter. Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it – but that’s where I’ll start.

THANK YOU.

So, back to my confession. When you guys and gals reference other series and stuff that most avid readers will know and love, you now know that you’re talking to alien from another world.

Now, that’s not to say I haven’t been exposed to other material. I mean, who doesn’t binge watch their life away on Netflix?

 (I’m a humongous fan of Doctor Who. I currently have a writing crush on Steven Moffat who is blowing my frikkin mind with his side-splitting dialogues and character development in the current series. And can anyone say Season 5 timey-whimey story arcs?? SWOON! Ok, gimme a moment. Sigh….)

Battle Star Galactica – “just one more episode” was my life well into the wee hours of many a morning and of course, who doesn’t love a bit of Firefly, Doll House, Buffy or Angel. Yeppers – Joss Whedon is on my top five professional crushes.

But though I’m naïve in the ways of the science-fiction written word, I’m pretty versed in the science.

It’s taken me years to be able to talk about it, because I was a geek back before geeks were cool.

Being a chick, in theoretical physics… well, there is a reason I used to hate it when guys would ask what I did. Being smart (and a girl) back then was like being a leper to most of them.

Or worse.

It didn’t help my self-esteem, let’s just leave it at that.

My thesis was in string theory. You know that game where you model particles as string, and D-branes, and then multi-dimensional surfaces? Then that same model that describes the behaviour of a sub-atomic particle turns out to be the same mathematics that describes a black hole?

Yeah.

That kind of thing.

(Edit Michael - Nope – no fucking clue – (this is why she writes the sciency-shit.))

To say I was mesmerised by the mysteries of the universe is an uber-understatement.

So when we started writing Molly, let’s just say I had some material to go off of. (It took me a while to twig why MA would keep asking me, “Well what would you do here?” when we were doing character development discussions! I would keep saying, “Yeah, but I’m not Molly” and then the penny dropped, #SlowStudy.)

And the more I heard him talk about Molly and her internal struggles, the more I felt like he’d been looking into me and just talking about what he sees under the thinly veiled guise of Molly’s construction.

But through writing Molly, I think that I’ve found some solace. I’m certainly a different person now than I was just a few weeks ago.

And this is my deepest hope for anyone who has ever felt like an outcast, rejected or broken: that perhaps in reading about Molly’s adventures and shenanigans you’ll see that you are not alone.

And more importantly, as things evolve, perhaps you will get an embodied sense of how even an outsider can find her tribe. A tribe of likeminded badasses who really get you, care about you and want to stand by your side and make the world a better place with you.

This is for all of us.

If nothing else, I hope to at least have made you laugh!


Ellie x






Receive updates from Oz by registering your holo/ email address here:

ellleighclarke.com

Author Notes - Michael Anderle


May 10, 2017




First, before I go on my little age rant below, let me say THANK YOU for not only reading this book, but also these author notes!

Now…

Ok, let’s be clear I am a little old, but I am not a two-and-a-half-foot tall green puppet that walks around with a cane and spouts sentences in a backwards structure.

I mean, I get it. My version of writing is a little unconventional and all but damn woman, Yoda?

Ouch.

Kidding aside, I really appreciate Ellie’s kind words and the opportunity to take someone that I feel is super smart, and turn her loose creating cool shit for us to read.

Just because she actually knows a lot of this science-stuff had NOTHING to do with my desire to help. Because, that would be self-serving and stuff and all of us know that I am only out there to help others, not to be calling her up (like yesterday) and saying ‘HELP!’.

Example:

Me: Ellie, what the hell is the Pan Galaxy?

Ell: It’s another name for the Milky Way.

Me: Ok, what the hell is the Loop Galaxy?

Ell: It is the Galaxy that <insert her explaining sciency-shit that I can’t remember.

Here is the Wikipedia article for non-sciency authors she pointed me to that has what I needed most.

Pictures.

(

A good picture is worth a thousand sciency-descriptions for me, just saying!

http://www.viewzone.com/milkyway.html

)

So, that is a small example of stuff she would rattle off…Or the time she started talking oscillations (I lost it after three examples related to space… This is why I write Space OPERA… and why I am super glad she is available for getting the answers off of for the test…)

Err, I mean for consulting.

Fuck it. I’m just glad she is on the team and in exchange for teaching her to let out her inner author, she is there to help us on our science at times.

Now, let’s talk this story.

Wow, where to start?

This story is the first in The Age of Expansion, the time AFTER Bethany Anne has left the area where the Etheric Empire has been battling and kicking Kurtherian Ass.

The time when the Etheric Empire is changing to the Etheric Federation and all of the good times that entails.

Further, this area isn’t even IN the Etheric Empire borders at this time, but it is nearby and we will find out if they join…

Or not.

While the setting is certainly different, the big catch here is our protagonist isn’t like most we have in The Kurtherian Gambit in that for some readers, she isn’t going to be a very sympathetic character right off.

No beautiful woman trying to help those who have suffered injustice, but is dying at a young age.

No, Molly is smart, and frankly she is smart enough to know she is broken and she doesn’t fit in exactly, even though she is a damned genius, she can’t figure out how to connect with people or why what she does is even wrong sometimes.

While Ellie will admit she feels like Molly, I know that feeling as well. I am very much a “we need to accomplish XXX” type person, and will work on how to get there, regardless of the rules that might be tweaked, bent or downright broken.

I had to learn at a relatively early age how to allow my mind to create out-of-the-box solutions, and then try to weed out the options that were …Uh, let’s say unappreciated by society?

That is certainly why I STILL have an Indie Publishing OUTLAW mentality, because I don’t like to be told what to do.

And you know what? I don’t think most of you, my readers, like to be told either.

#AmIRight?

So, let’s strap the fuck in and see where Ellie, Molly and the crew take us as we figure out the real secret of The Ascension Myth.

I know where it is going, and for once (after over 40 books), I really wish someone would do the final scene on the big screen that will be in book 12 of this series.

If not, fuck it. We will do it together.

Love you all,


Michael


Ell Leigh Clarke Social Links


http://www.facebook.com/ellleighclarke/

Want more?


Join the email list here: 


http://kurtherianbooks.com/email-list/




Join the Facebook Group Here: 


https://www.facebook.com/TheKurtherianGambitBooks/


The email list is changing to something…New.  I don’t have enough details but suffice to say there is so much going on in The Kurtherian Gambit Universe, it needs to go out more often than “when the next book hits.”


I hope you enjoy this story!


Michael Anderle


Kurtherian Gambit Series Titles Include:




First Arc


Death Becomes Her (01) - Queen Bitch (02) - Love Lost (03) - Bite This (04)

Never Forsaken (05) - Under My Heel (06) Kneel Or Die (07)


Second Arc


We Will Build (08) - It’s Hell To Choose (09) - Release The Dogs of War (10)

Sued For Peace (11) - We Have Contact (12) - My Ride is a Bitch (13)

Don’t Cross This Line (14)


Third Arc (Due 2017)


Never Submit (15) - Never Surrender (16) - Forever Defend (17)

Might Makes Right (18) - Ahead Full (19) - Capture Death (20)

Life Goes On (21)




**New Series**




The Second Dark Ages


The Dark Messiah (01)




The Boris Chronicles

* With Paul C. Middleton *


Evacuation

Retaliation

Revelation

Restitution 2017




Reclaiming Honor 

* With JUSTIN SLOAN *


Justice Is Calling (01) 

Claimed By Honor (02) 

Judgement Has Fallen (03) 

Angel of Reckoning (04)




The Etheric Academy

* With TS PAUL *


ALPHA CLASS (01) 

ALPHA CLASS (02) 

ALPHA CLASS (03) Coming soon




Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles

* With CRAIG MARTELLE *


Nomad Found (01)

Nomad Redeemed (02) 

Nomad Unleashed (03)

Nomad Supreme (04) 

Nomad’s Fury (05)

Nomad’s Justice (06)




Trials and Tribulations

* With Natalie Grey *


Risk Be Damned (01) 

Damned to Hell (02) coming soon

Hell’s Worst Nightmare (03) coming soon


The Ascension Myth

* With Elle Leigh Clarke *


Awakened (01)


SHORT STORIES


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 01 (7.5)

You Don’t Mess with John’s Cousin 


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (9.5)

Bitch’s Night Out


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (13.25)

With Natalie Grey

Bellatrix




AudioBooks


Available at Audible.com and iTunes


The Kurtherian Gambit


Death Becomes Her - Available Now

Queen Bitch – Available Now

Love Lost – Available Now


Reclaiming Honor Series


Justice Is Calling – Available Now

Claimed By Honor – Available Now


Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles


Nomad Found 

Nomad Redeemed - Coming Soon


The Etheric Academy


Alpha Class 

Alpha Class 2 - Coming soon


Anthologies


Glimpse

Honor in Death

(Michael’s First Few Days)


Beyond the Stars: At Galaxy's Edge

Tabitha’s Vacation


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