Book: Activated: Age Of Expansion



Activated: Age Of Expansion

CONTENTS


Dedication

Legal

Prologue

Sphinx

Estarians

Oggs

Sark System

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

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


ACTIVATED

The Ascension Myth 02


JIT Beta Readers

Keith Verret

Paul Westman

Alex Wilson

Kelly ODonnell

Brent Bakken

Kimberly Boyer

James Caplan

Sherry Foster

John Raison

John Findlay

Joshua Ahles


If I missed anyone, please let me know!


Editors

Lynne Stiegler

Jen McDonnell

ACTIVATED (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


Those on the QBBS Meredith Reynolds fought for their Queen who became their Empress, 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.


To the human settlers in the Sark System, the Milky Way 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.


The Sark System has four planets around it. Two close to the star Sark, their ‘sun’, and two orbiting in the farthest reaches. In between there is an asteroid belt, with a particularly interesting asteroid known to a tiny population of inhabitants, as Gaitune-67.


The two inner planets are called Estaria and Ogg. The two outer planets are called Secoria and Teshovia.


By the time the third generation of human settlers was born in the Sark system, 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.

Activated: Age Of Expansion

Activated: Age Of Expansion

Activated: Age Of Expansion

Activated: Age Of Expansion












CHAPTER ONE


Gaitune-67, Safe house, basement workshop




Brock and Molly stared at the reinforced metal door.


Molly took a deep breath. “Brock, it’s a door.”


Brock tapped the door with his wrench. “With demons, or hellz knows what else, behind it!” His voice rose half an octave over the course of just one sentence. Brock had piled boxes up against it after his minor freak out, and they showed telltale signs of having been disturbed: his handprints in the dust, and a slight haphazardness to the stacking.


“Well, I don’t know what’s behind it, but there are a fuck-ton of boxes in front of it.” She looked over at him. “That’s a lot of boxes for a boogie man to get through.” She thought about it a moment more. “He’d likely get a hernia, I’m thinking.”


Brock detected a hint of irony in her voice.


He looked sideways at her. “You… you. Don’t be shittin’ me, girl. This demon, this is for realz, and I don’t want no ancestors up in my face when I’m working down here.”


His face had paled, and Molly had to stifle a rising laugh.


Molly couldn’t help but feel that this was akin to a youngster being afraid of what was under its bed.


A grown man, trained in the arts of science and engineering; one motherfucking badass with a spanner or a soldering iron - but with one big-ass fear of what might be behind an average creepy-looking door that he couldn’t open.


At some point over the last week, he had also set up an array of temporary lights that had helped him feel more comfortable when he had had to be down there alone.


Molly studied the dusty boxes as if they were a three-dimensional logic puzzle. Her brain ticked away as Brock waited in anticipation of her verdict.


She had arrived back at the base hours ago, but having declared that she needed rack time before dealing with whatever “mother-fucking drama is going on in the basement,” he had let her sleep, caffeinate, and then inquire as to what the problem was.


Joel had agreed: he had made the right call in waiting.


Now, effectively the next day, she had agreed to haul her “lady-boss ass” - as he called it - down to the basement to assess said drama.


Molly exhaled again. There was no easy way to do this.


“Okay, help me…” she told him, stepping up and tugging at one of the middle boxes.


“Girlfriend, you are signing our death warrant, if my Grindle-senses are right.” Brock attempted to sound playful, but anxiety still laced his voice.


“The hell is a grindle?” she asked, hands still on the first box.


Brock stopped a moment, scratching his head with his wrench. “They are kinda small, and have ten legs around a central body. I read about them one time. They sit inside of a small hole they build, and then when they sense something above them, they come out and attack. Wrap them up and eat them.”


“Sounds like an old spider from my holo-documentaries,” she mumbled.


Molly shifted one of the middle boxes slightly, but found that they were too damned heavy to move as one stack.


Brock moved in to lift the top one down.


“If we have ancestors and demon-shit coming after us, it’s on you.” He eyed her knowingly, like a witch doctor who had seen the future.


He carried the first box over to a space in the center of the workshop, as he had done only a matter of days ago.


Paige and Joel emerged from the stairwell, catching some of the conversation. Paige remained motionless, an observer of the unfolding events.


Joel pitched in with lifting the boxes. “Whatcha mean demons?” he asked, curious as to what he’d missed. “I didn’t think Ms. Molly believed in ghosts, and ghouls, and all that kind of thing…”


He caught her eye and made a face at her, as he turned with a box.


She returned to the stack to pick up another one, and catching the look he gave her, rolled her eyes back at him.


Brock dropped a box out of the way. “No, I’m talking about those dimensional-traveling bastards. I get a feeling like I’m being watched around that door, and I just know there is something up with that shit.”


Brock stopped and leaned to the left. He balanced on one leg and shook the other, then resumed walking.


Joel opened his mouth to give Brock shit, but Paige piped up, interrupting him. “Yeah, that could be true,” she agreed.


Everyone stopped what they were doing and all turned to look at her.


Molly looked like she wanted to beat a hole in the wall if Paige was about to add to Brock’s delusion. “What are you talking about?” she asked in her most practical, even keeled voice.


“Demons,” Paige answered, just as seriously. ”Dimensional Etheric Mediums Of the Next Sector,” she answered as she pointed towards the door.


Molly replied, “You mean, evil things like ghosts and spirits and -”


Paige shook her head, “No. You’re thinking of the ancient human myths, I think,” she explained. “Although those stories were thought to have stemmed from the same phenomenon as Estarian Dimensional Walkers.”


Joel looked confused. He carefully placed a box down next to the new pile of boxes they’d been making. He stopped to listen to Paige until he felt the sudden and sharp pain of Molly’s elbow in his ribs. He swiped at her head, which she ducked easily, and he went back to the boxes.


Brock noticed that the disarray was making his otherwise tidy workshop look like a dumping ground again.


Molly wasn’t done debunking. “Are you fucking with me?” she asked, now looking at Paige, eyes narrowed.


Paige shook her head playfully, smiling slightly at the reaction of the three humans around her.


Joel jumped in before Molly could quiz Paige. “So what are these dimensional traveling things?” He casually wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm. That last box had been a challenge.


“They’re called dimensional travelers, locally; or DEMONS officially. They’re ascended persons who can travel in and out of neighboring dimensions,” Paige explained.


“I didn’t think you were into all that?” Molly probed, thinking back to their conversation back when they were on Estaria.


Paige had made it very clear that even though she was descended from a very spiritually powerful line, she was in no way interested in continuing with the family traditions.


Of course, this heart-to-heart had taken place over a few too many beers, so it was entirely possible Molly had misunderstood.


“I’m not,” she agreed, “but this part is well-known and scientifically documented. It’s the bit about what you need to do to ascend that I’m just not into…”


Brock, absently wiping the dust off his hands with a rag he’d pulled out of his overalls pocket, took a step closer to the circle of intrigued crew that had formed around Paige. “You mean… you… you know how to ascend?”


Paige pursed her lips, “Yeah. I mean, my grandmother taught me some stuff. But I think it’s mostly a load of quack-a-doodle. Plus, I’m not interested in spending my life meditating, waiting for death. That’s why I dropped it as soon as I was allowed to. But it’s totally doable.”


Unknown Location


A man smoking a cigar, wearing civilian clothing in a room full of military personnel, leaned in on his holo screen, carefully watching the unfolding of something that may just tip the scales in world events a few systems away… or a lot. He always was annoyed to have to place these damned locations. A perfect ring of smoke wafted up past his head from his most recent drag of the coveted Earth-product.


An audio-feed hailed him. “Sir, the generals are ready for your input, if you’d care to join them.”


The room hummed with quiet activity, holo feeds pulling intel from all over the galaxy. The outside world thought there was peace, but one man knew otherwise. He was waiting. Preparing. Playing the political cards, as he knew he had to, but all the while biding his time until the human race needed defending again.


The man took another draw on his cigar. “In a minute, ADAM. This is getting damn funny.” He chuckled away gently to himself, nodding politely to an ensign who recognized him while he hurried passed the console he was occupying.


“Very well, Sir,” ADAM replied. “I’ll let them know you’ll be a little while longer.”


“Thank you, ADAM.” The man watched the holo feed in anticipation. “I’m just waiting to see how long it’s going to take Ms. Bates to try the door handle.”


There was a slight pause in the audio feed.


A moment later the audio feed came back online and ADAM spoke. “I calculate, based on her behavior observed thus far, using a decision heuristic designed for human cognitive abilities, she is 4 seconds away, within a tolerance of zero point three seconds.”


The cigar-smoking man took another drag and started to smile, as if challenged by a young buck. “Care to put a wager on that?” he asked, seeing if he could needle the AI into putting his money where his heuristic was.


ADAM didn’t hesitate. “100 credits.”


“Done,” the man said. “I think longer. And if I win, it’s coming out of your allowance. You’re not to just adjust the figures in my account. You hear me?”


“I hear, General,” ADAM agreed in an even tone. “I understand the psychology of betting. There has to be a downside disincentive for me for this to be a true game.”


The man grunted and waved his cigar.


Gaitune-67, Safe house, basement workshop




Molly glanced over at Brock who was taking the information Paige gave him seriously.


Brock looked impressed. “Wow. I would have loved to have been brought up with that kind of training.”


He turned to Molly feeling the weight of her questioning stare between his shoulder blades. “It’s the thought that through a series of training exercises, one can attune themselves to slipping through to different dimensions, or being present everywhere, or acquiring knowledge to move information through the realms. It’s all proven and documented, as Paige says, but the number of people who are capable of doing it these days… well.” He looked down, and sighed. “There aren’t many.”


Joel stood frozen to the spot, watching the interaction, his mouth slightly open. “I feel like someone has just told me that vampires and werewolves are real.”


Molly started to say something, and then caught herself.


Best not open that can of fuck-worms now. 


I concur. Let the demons and ascended masters sink in first. Maybe in a day or two.


Or perhaps more. Like one or two decades.


“Well, at any rate,” Brock brought the conversation back to the present moment, “I ain’t wanting to be around here if that is some doorway to another realm or whatever. It just gives me the heebeejeebies. And if you wanna open -”


His sentence was cut short by Molly marching over to the door that was now cleared.


“NO!” Brock yelled, but it was too late. Molly started yanking on the handle.


Brock lunged at her trying to stop her.


It didn’t open.


Brock composed himself, coughing, and scratching the back of his head, spanner still in hand.


She pulled down on the handle again. And yanked hard.


Nothing.


She bit back a curse, annoyed that she couldn’t investigate the next stage in her hypothesis. “It must have another security lock on a panel we haven’t found yet,” she concluded.


Paige and Joel laughed, doubled over in stitches, looking at Brock, whose face was still frozen in horror that Molly would be so cavalier.


“No ancestors are coming to get you, Brock!” Paige said gently, patting him on the back. “That’s just not their style. They’re way more sophisticated and sagely than to go all out for a haunting.”


Brock seemed to relax a little, still staring at Molly trying the door.


“Unless you count my great, great uncle Jackson…” Paige added casually. Brock spun around to glare at her.


“Why? What was uncle Jackson like?” he asked, eyes open wide.


“He was a joker. He might fuck with you just for the shits and giggles.” Paige tried to suppress her smile.


“A trait which must run in the family,” added Joel, openly smiling at Paige’s successful attempts to fuck with Brock.


Molly stepped away from the door, and looked around. “There must be some kind of access panel here. Or a switch, or… something.”


Brock clapped his hands once. “Oh, well, that’s a shame. Never mind. I’ll go start unloading the ship supplies in case y’all brought anything back that might be useful…” He started to leave.


“Sure,” Molly called after him, still scanning for an access trigger. “And then since this is your workshop, when you’re done, have a look around and see if you can locate some kind of keypad or security panel. You may want to grab Crash to help you get some more lights down here too.”


Brock paused in his tracks, without turning round. His face dropped as he heard the instructions. “Right you are, boss!” he called back, then continued on his way out to the stairwell.


“Grindle senses?” asked Paige, when he was out of earshot.


Molly heard, and turned to look at Paige and Joel. “Yeah, he’s kinda sensitive. You know. Intuitive. He calls it his Grindle-senses.” She turned back to her investigation, now also looking to see if there was anything else that could be making him feel edgy down here. “It is a little dark. It could just be his imagination…”


Joel seemed to have recovered himself from the revelation about demons and dimensions. “Okay, so if we’re done down here, I could do with you and I having a powwow about our next case…” He watched Molly, waiting for her to respond.


“Uh, yeah.” She peeled herself away from the hunt, reining in her wanton curiosity. “Right you are, boss!” she said with a mock salute, and headed to the door herself.


Joel followed her.


Paige remained behind, her eye glazed over as she looked at the door. There was something wiggy going on here.


She just couldn’t put her finger on it.


“You coming?” called Molly from the top of the stairwell. “Or do you want to turn the lights off?”


“I’m coming,” she called. Then she heard a giggle and the main lights went off, leaving only Brock’s little array remaining to illuminate her way across the floor to the stairs.


“You bitch!” she called up to Molly as she hurried to catch up, now feeling more than a bit creeped out about being in the dark basement by herself.












CHAPTER TWO


Senate Office, Djúpivogur District




“So you do understand what this bill will do?”


Senator Garet Beaufort peered over his desk at one of the Senate officials who also represented his district.


“Yes, yes I think I get the idea,” he responded.


Senator Beaufort leaned forward with his forearms now on the desk, his hands clasped out in front of him. “Did you read all the way to the end?”


The dull Senate officer shifted awkwardly in the guest seat across from the senator’s desk. “No. I just read the memo issued by the Senate. That normally contains enough information.”


Beaufort sat back in his chair. He knew that by sitting back, he’d relieve some of the tension the career government employee was experiencing. “You know, I really get how little time you have to go through the details on this, but…” he paused for effect. “I’ve been watching your career, even before I got appointed to this office. You’re one of the good guys.”


The middle aged man across from him looked down at the file he was holding in an attempt to hide his blush.


“And you know what else?” Garet Beaufort continued, “I’ve read this whole thing, and I think there are some sections that you might be interested in... given your interest in making sure that this is fair for the whole population.”


He hadn’t imagined that he’d ever have to use his skills in advanced communication to convince people of action that was in their best interest, but here he was.


He kept talking. “I know a lot of folks in your district will be influenced by whether this bill goes through or not, and I’d hate for you to find out after the fact that you voted for something that only on the surface looked to be in their favor.”


The senator paused again, waiting for the penny to drop, for the official to react. He had to be careful what he said. When he took the job with Andus, he pretty much assumed his home, office, and, well, everywhere else, was going to be bugged. What he’d said so far could always be explained away as relationship building, in lieu of a bigger play.


But then, he might have been kidding himself.


The official looked up. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked, his slightly ashen face almost regaining a little glimmer of the blue Estarian effervescence as he spoke.


Garet smiled his politician smile, and then looked serious as he leaned in, his arm on his desk. “Well, I hope that we can be friends. And friends help friends out.” He dropped his voice, as if telling a secret. “But when you share this with the other officials, do me a favor and leave my name out of it, yeah?”


The official nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes of course. I understand completely.” He gave Garet a knowing, exaggerated wink.


“Great!” Garet brightened again, and stood up from his desk. Walking around it, he held his hand out to shake his co-conspirator’s hand.


The official got to his feet and gathered his file, picked up his coat off the back of the chair, then took Garet’s hand, shaking it enthusiastically.


“Thank you, Senator Beaufort. I appreciate your guidance on this. Thank you!”


Garet walked him to the heavy wooden double doors and showed him out. The official scuttled away, mentally listing off the calls and meetings he now needed to set up… after he had read the rest of the document that they had discussed.


Garet watched him leave from the reception area, and looked down to take the messages that his assistant was handing him.


“Thank you, Darla.”


“You’re welcome, Senator Beaufort,” she said, blinking her enhanced eyelashes at him.


“Mr. Andus also called for you. I told him you were in with someone, but he would appreciate a call back as soon as you can. That’s the top message…” she pointed with a beautifully manicured finger at the notes she’d just handed him.


Garet noticed the little heart doodle she had scribbled on the top note.


He looked at it for a moment.


“You have a thing for Mr. Andus, eh?” he didn’t take his eyes from the notes, and continued flicking through the others. “Hmm, none of the others have quite the same penmanship…”


He waited for her reaction.


She giggled coyly.


“No. Not Mr. Andus.”


Satisfied he’d encouraged her just enough to keep her on the hook, he returned to his office, where he sat down at his desk. Pulling the holo up, he dialed the new number on the note.


The call connected.


“Good afternoon.” It was a female’s voice; she sounded bright and bouncy. “Equipt Real Estate Services, this is Mandy speaking.”


“Good afternoon, Mandy. I wonder if I might speak with Mr. Andus, please?”


“Of course, Mr. Beaufort. Just hold the line.”




Gaiman-67, Safe house, Conference Room




“Okay, so what’s up?” Molly stepped into the conference room.


“What did you do to Paige?” Joel asked, already half laughing.


 Molly closed the door behind her, muffling the shouts of abuse from Paige making her way up from the basement. “I’m making her a more compassionate team member.”


He smirked. “You turned the lights off on her, didn’t you?”


“Boogie man training 101.” She smiled. “You can’t have all the fun initiating them.”


Joel shook his head, smiling. He opened up his holo and selected a couple of screens to enlarge.


“Okay, so, cadet-training aside, check this out.” He showed her what looked like potential cases on the conference room holo.


Molly looked a little wary of Joel’s enthusiasm as she pulled out a chair. “What am I looking at?” she asked.


Joel swiped through a few screens that were similar. “This is called CaseHUB. It’s basically a place where our potential clients can post their jobs, anything from security to science and tech. All project-based. Their aim is to find people who can solve their problems. In other words: Us!”


He paused, letting her read for a moment.


“You see, these ones here,” he pointed at the screen, “want someone to provide security for their new site. Something they’re building in the outer system.”


He waited a moment, and then moved to the next screen. “This one,” he pointed enthusiastically, “this one wants tests designed to prove the efficacy of their weapons systems.”


Molly’s expression was blank.


Joel changed tact. “And this one is a research project. They need someone to help them reverse engineer a chemical compound that could be used in a more efficient fuel cell.”


Molly’s eyes brightened, and she sat up in her chair.


Nice maneuver on Joel’s part there! Pulling out the research card. We all know what that does to your biology. 


Oz. Please. I can make a business decision without getting lured in by the promise of hot and dirty research.


I’m starting to understand that the use of the words “hot” and “research” in the same breath is something unique to you. Nowhere in the yotta byte of data I have processed from the outside world, have I ever seen this reference. Excluding the use of the word when it refers to temperature, of course. 


Oz, are you interrupting this conversation to tell me I’m odd?


Yes, Molly. I suppose I’m pointing out your idiosyncrasies. 


Acknowledged. But I think this CaseHUB could also be a good source of business for us. 


I actually agree. 


Well thank fuck for that!


That was sarcasm, wasn’t it? 


Yes, Oz. 


She looked over at Joel. “How did you come across this, then?”


Joel swung a couple of screens closed and turned to talk to her. “Well, it was something I knew about when I was working freelance. I flirted with the idea of registering with it a few times, and you know how persistent those reps can be. But when it was just me, myself, and I, I couldn’t justify the cost. Plus, the cases needed more manpower than I could give them.”


Molly narrowed one eye. “Ah. I see. And now cuz I’m paying for it…”


Joel didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, I thought with all this income you were shamelessly scalping off the markets, we could give it a try.”


He grinned cheekily.


“Seriously though,” he continued, “I think it would help us to find those clients that have the resources to pay us, and it would give us a chance at scaling up the kinds of operations we tackle.”


Molly scooted her chair closer to the table and leaned in to the holo screen that had initially captured her interest.


Joel saw his moment.


He pulled up another screen. “Look, they have a whole section on the research-based cases…”


She raised an eyebrow. “Imagine that…” she murmured. She reached out and resized the screen to read it more easily.


Her eyes scanned the information. “I think there are a bunch of these we could tackle.”


Joel bobbed his head in agreement. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Want me to pull up a few for us to pitch for?”


Molly sat back and continued staring at the screen. “Sure.”


Joel swiped at one of the screens, and then stopped. “Actually,” he turned back to her. “There’s something else we should probably discuss in conjunction with this.”


Molly looked mildly intrigued, given it was a vanilla, non-research discussion. “Oh?”


Joel slid a few screens closed, and pushed the other holographic images away, so they could give their full attention to the conversation. “I think we need to look at how we scale. As in, we’re going to need more people to tackle some of these projects. And definitely more kit.”


He waited.


Molly’s eyes narrowed again. Joel could have sworn he saw a flicker of humor, but then her face was deadpan.


She waited a moment, watching his reaction.


Finally, she spoke. “You’re asking how much money am I actually making with my shit hot algorithms, aren’t you?!”


He started to reply. “No.” Then reconsidered his answer. “Well, kinda. It’s more that who we have on board will dictate which cases we can pitch for. And obviously we can bring more folks on, but we need to start somewhere; put a stake in the ground, as it were.”


Molly nodded, still with a half smile on her lips. “Well, I think we start with the kinds of cases we want to go after, and then skill up the team based on that. Then that will dictate the kit we need.”


She crossed her legs at the thighs, and then swiveled a little in her chair, as she contemplated their next move. Then she thought of something else. “Ha!” she chuckled, “The alternative would be we start with giving Crash and Brock a free rein on kit-buying. Doing that, we’d end up being able to do faster-than-light travel, antigrav camping, and not much else!”


Joel laughed. “You’re probably not wrong there… Yes. I agree on all counts. So how do we define the kinds of cases?”


“I think they have to have certain things in common, like they are all focused on helping make life better for people, and defending the little guy. And if we can take out groups like The Syndicate, or at least cripple the fuck out of them as we go, then so much the better.”


Joel smiled at her bug bear - her unrelenting drive to defend the underdog. He knew where it came from, and how deep that wound went. He respected the hell out of the way she had come to treat it more as a driving force that spurred her on, and less of the vengeance kick that he thought it might turn into.


He approved of her criteria. “Yes. I think everyone will be down with that, too.”


“Great,” said Molly, swinging herself in her chair again with one foot still on the ground.  “And we can start in the area of the pharma, since that’s where we have a lot of relevant intel right now, what with Garet and the last case. And then down the line we can always pivot into other areas, like security or transport or whatever.”




“Faster-than-light-travel!” yelled Brock through the open door, as he wafted past, his outdoor boots squeaking against the laminate flooring.


Molly and Joel exchanged surprised glances. “How the fuck does he do that?”


“Hell if I know,” exclaimed Joel. “Probably heard us on his way past a moment ago.”


Her eyes were skeptical again. “Did he go past before, though?”


Joel shook his head. “Dunno.” He turned his attention back to his screen. Neither the mystical, nor the mythical, was something he knew how to manage, mentally or otherwise.


Molly followed his lead and looked back up to the screen, shaking her head in amusement at Brock. “So, dare I ask how much this is costing?” she nodded at the new software toy he’d obviously already signed up for.


“Best not.”


“Okay.” She got up and walked out of the conference room, leaving him to his new toy.












CHAPTER THREE


Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




The two colleagues hurried down the spartan corridor.


“Okay, let’s leave in both cars,” Ana Grossman, the lead scientist at Ventus Research, suggested to her colleague, David Rek. “Avoid suspicion,” she added.


Though she was trying her best to keep it together, the anxiety of the fraught situation played across her face.


David nodded his agreement, as he held one of the double doors open for her. They stepped out into the dimly lit car park, greeted by the familiar smell of fuel cells and engines.


David’s eyes darted around, making sure there was no one to see them. “Sure. Let’s rendezvous back at my place, though, and then we can call them on the secure line…”


Ana started moving away. “And get our fokking lives back,” she added grimly. The stress of the last several hours had taken its toll on both of them. Being leveraged to break company protocol and out and out steal lethal toxins was not something they thought they would be doing when they woke up that morning.


Ana, still in her lab coat, scrambled in her purse for her keys.


David watched her carefully. “I’m over that way,” he said, pointing off to the left, but still standing behind her.


Ignoring David, she looked up, orienting herself and trying to remember where she put the car when she got in. She’d been distracted. She scanned the parking lot; there was still quite a few cars there.


“I think I’m-”


She didn’t get to finish her sentence. A knife had come from behind and slit open her throat. David, carefully avoiding the arterial spray, allowed her to slump to the ground in front of him.


He dropped his gaze to his former supervisor and her shocked expression, as she tried to compute what he’d just done. She wasn’t able to breathe, and within seconds he saw the life slip away from behind her eyes.


He took a step backwards, avoiding the pooling blood. He seemed non-plussed by what he had done. A moment later, reality set in, and he found himself fighting the urge to vomit.


He looked around, checking that no one had seen him. Part of him was screaming inside; that same part was also hoping someone had seen. Hoping someone would come and make this go away.


Strange how he would want help, he thought. But he wasn’t doing this because he wanted to; he was as much a victim in all this as she.


Only he had to live with what he had done.


There was movement behind him.


A voice brought him back to the present. It was deep and commanding. “Good work. Now go back to your house, pack a bag, and wait for contact there.” There was no discernible accent, not that David could detect. It was the same voice that had given him instructions that morning, after he had left his wife and children at the house.


David took another step backwards from the blood, the image of the carnage branded onto his retinas. He dropped the knife, and was vaguely aware of the figure of a man behind him, in the direction of the voice.


He knew the drill. He was told someone would meet him here to take care of the body. He just had to keep it together and follow the rest of the instructions.


Stepping around the body, he headed off toward his car, looking for his keys in his jacket pocket, and then his pants.


“Aren’t you forgetting something?” the voice called after him.


Without turning around, David stopped and tried to think. Then he started patting down his pockets for something else. Locating the vial in his pants pocket, he pulled it out, took a few paces backwards to the figure, carefully avoiding eye contact he reached back, and placed it into the man’s outstretched hand.


With the package relinquished, he scurried away to fulfill his next lot of instructions.


The man started cleaning up the mess, quickly and adeptly lifting the body into a body bag for transport. Less than ten seconds later, he heard a car speed away from the garage, as if someone’s life were in danger. He looked up, pausing in his zipping up of the bag, recognizing it was David getting the hell out of Dodge.


This is going to haunt him, thought the man. If he survives a long and healthy life after the next few days, that is. That was beyond his control. They were all just following orders.




Gaiman-67, Common area




It had been a long day. Joel was vegetating in the common area, watching the downloaded news on the shared holo. Neechie, the pet sphinx (or Feline Overlord, depending on who you asked), was stretched across his lap, basking in a tummy rub.


It was a rare occurrence for the cat-like creature to actually spend time with anyone other than Molly when she was still in the building. Joel just assumed that the sphinx needed some attention and Molly was engrossed in something that not even the cutest creature on the asteroid could distract her from. Sometimes he wondered if the girl was made of stone.


Brock had also come to join him, hoping for news of what was going on in the world.


“I like to keep my finger on the Estarian pulse,” he told Paige when she’d walked through, vocally wondering why they were wasting their evening watching old news.


“Oh, I thought you were lining up for a tummy rub,” retorted Paige playfully; noticing how the boys had commandeered the couch, and the sphinx had commandeered the boys’ laps.


Crash was downstairs working out in their new gym, just next to the main basement area that had become Brock’s workshop for the glorious things that he was waiting to both invent and assemble… if only the supplies would arrive already.


All was peaceful in the safe house. That was until there were shrieks of panic, which seemed to originate in the common area.


It was Brock’s voice. “Molly! Molly! You’re on the news!” He called through to Molly, who was working in the conference room just down the corridor from the main area.


Joel leapt up and swiped at the screen to pause it. It had just gone full screen on the video footage from Dewitt’s residence cameras, from their rescue mission several weeks ago.


Paige came hurrying back first, her heels clipping on the concrete painted floor.


“Where’s Molly?” Joel asked her, as she came around to see the screen.


Paige answered, “In the conference room. She heard you.”


Molly’s footsteps could be heard next. She emerged a moment later. “What do you mean I’m on the news?” Her frown made her eyes look darker. She’d been working for hours without a break, and she had what Joel jokingly called “book-face”, after the old way that the ancients had used paper stacked and bound into ‘books’ to review information.


Brock read out the headlines on the bottom of the screen. “’Seen entering the Dewitt residence less than an hour before William Dewitt was found dead’.”


“But we spoke to the police?” protested Molly, looking at Joel.


“Yeah. And they said they told us about this footage then. They can’t be after you now.”


“Us,” she corrected, pointing out that they were both on the footage.


“Yeah, strange they don’t seem to mention me,” he admitted.


“Let it run, and let’s hear the whole report,” she suggested.


Joel backed up the player, and set it to run again. Molly sat down on the arm of the sofa where Joel had been sitting. Joel sat down again, the location of the sphinx now forgotten. The bald, purple creature narrowly escaped being crushed under Joel’s mass of muscle. Paige perched on a footstool off to the side in front of the screen, confusion now written over her delicate features.


She went to say something, reconsidered, and then spoke. “This was from when you rescued me.” Her face was now that of a vulnerable little girl.


Molly looked over to her.


“Yeah,” she confirmed. “You okay? You don't need to watch this.”


“I’m okay.” Paige had already turned her attention back to the screen, listening to the voiceover of the reporter.


“… police are now looking for the woman in this video footage in conjunction with Senate Official Dewitt’s murder. She is considered armed and dangerous. If you see this woman, police are urging, not to approach her, but to get in touch…”


Molly sighed, and shrugged, almost comically. “Well, this would have been more concerning if we were actually based on the planet.”


Her manner was somewhat more flippant than Joel would have expected. “True. But it begs the question - why are police suddenly looking for you?”


“Unless they’re not.” She paused, looking upward, processing. “They’ve already ruled us out as a threat. I wonder if the media have just gotten a hold of that clip and are trying to drum up a story.”


She stood up, and wandered over to the screen. “For instance, there’s no mention of the starship troopers that came blasting in after us. They would make much more plausible suspects.”


Joel agreed. “Yep. Something definitely fishy going down. Maybe we should get Oz to send them an untraceable message?”


“Maybe,” considered Molly. “But not yet. Let me mull it over, and let’s see what happens. When is this download from?”


Brock pulled up the meta data. “Two days ago.”


“Well one thing is certain,” interjected Paige, now looking recovered from the shock reminder of her kidnapping.


“What’s that?” asked Molly, turning to look at her.


“Those flat boots aren’t doing anything for your shape. You need a heel; maybe even a platform with a heel.”


Joel started laughing so hard he nearly fell of the sofa. Brock joined in, but Paige remained earnest.


Molly tried to resist a smile. “Thank you. Thank you very much, Paige.” She nodded at Paige in mock indignation, and then turned to the boys, ignoring the fact that they had collapsed into two shuddering heaps of hysterical laughter.


She eyed the two guys. “Okay, lemme know if you see anything about me pop up in the more recent stuff, too. I think there is something more to this, but we need more data points to assess it.”


The laughter started to subside a little as she made her way back to the double doors of the conference room corridor. Even Paige was giggling, realizing why her attempt at a fashion intervention was so misplaced, and badly received.


The seriousness of the news report hadn’t escaped them, though. There was a certain comfort in being on a secret asteroid in the middle of nowhere, but that was only going to act as a buffer for so long.




Gaiman-67, Conference Room




The next morning, the team piled into the conference room for their team briefing, laughing and chattering. Joel took a seat on the far side of the table, and Molly placed herself at the head so she could clearly see everyone in the room. Everyone grabbed their seats, holos ready to take notes or look up intel that they needed to make good decisions about kit and upgrades.


Brock was the last one in, dancing. In one hand was his new antigrav coffee mug that had arrived the previous day with their last shipment.


“Wooot woot! Good morning, you sexy people!” he exclaimed as he side shuffled and sashayed through the door to close it behind him with his hip.


He placed his cup down and the others watched as it levitated above the table. He nonchalantly pretended not to notice their amazement.


“Okay, okay, folks. Let’s get to it,” announced Molly, drawing the meeting to a start. “I called this meeting just to get us into some semblance of routine and order… and to keep each of us abreast of the different things we’re all working on.”


The room settled down, giving their leader their full attention.


“I think the first thing that is worth us getting clear on is why we’re here and what kind of cases we’re going to be working on together. Then, I’d like us all to give an update on what we’ve been working on, since someone who isn’t myself or Joel wouldn’t necessarily know about that.”


She looked around the table, making sure to connect with her team. She’d never admit it to Joel, but she’d had Oz download some leadership instructional material about how to make everyone on the team feel included. This meeting was an opportunity to test out some of those tactics.


She continued her overview. “And then I’d like Joel to say a few words about operations training, and the kinds of cases we’ve pitched for, so we know what might be coming up on the horizon.”


She paused looking around the table, and giving everyone a chance to take in what she was suggesting. Everyone nodded, and seemed happy.


So far, so good. 


Told you a bit of instruction would help. 


Not now, smart arse. Concentrating. 


“Okay, great. So, as you know, we’re here to fight the good fight. We all have had experiences in the past that have brought us here, to this point where we don’t want to just sit back and let the bad guys get away with using and exploiting the people who haven’t got a voice, and can’t defend themselves. We’re here to fix that, case by case, knocking out as many of their motherfucking proverbial kneecaps as we can.”


The group let out a collective chuckle.


“So, in order to do that, we need to build out the team and infrastructure to take on the more sophisticated jobs. Joel and I have been looking into the kind of cases that we can pitch for, and honestly, right now, it’s slim pickings because of our small size. However, if we scale up our operation, we will be better positioned to take on the jobs, and deliver the standards I know we all aspire to.”


Brock agreed, bouncing his antigrav mug on the table. “Hear, hear!”


“So what does this mean for us right now?” Molly continued. “Well,” she turned to Crash and then to Brock. “We’re going to need faster transportation. A lot of these jobs are between the inner and outer systems… and beyond. If we want to compete and prove our competence, we need to be developing the tech to do this faster and more efficiently than anyone else. I want you guys to put together some ideas of how we could do that, if you had a budget that, effectively, was limitless.


Brock’s eyes lit up.


Crash remained characteristically cool. “You got it, boss.”


“I’d like to review your initial ideas later on today, please.”


The pair looked at each other. Crash shrugged. Brock nodded. “Sure thing.”


“We also need to be able to defend ourselves, so that means the bird needs fitting with weapons. So if we can have a list of recommendations and rough costs, that would be good, as well.”


Crash made a note on his holo.


“Paige,” Molly announced, reeling through the list of items she was holding in her mind. “Paige has been doing a brilliant job of getting kit ordered, and making this place more like a home and an operations base. Paige is our go-to liaison for everything. Whether it’s kit, communications, or any miscellaneous problem, Paige is your contact. And she operates with my authority, so if she comes to you with instructions, it’s because I’ve asked her to, or she’s run something by me. Clear?”


Everyone nodded.


Paige was swinging in her swivel chair, grinning from ear to ear, as if she was the little sister of the family and had just been given absolute power.


To remind her who they were, Crash lobbed a screwed up piece of paper he’d been fiddling with, and it caught in her hair. The boys chuckled as she flapped about, trying to find where it had gone.


Joel also added his reaction to qualify Molly’s statement. “But only I have authority to issue press ups as training correction, though.”


The group groaned.


Molly waited for them to settle and turn their attention back to her before continuing.


“Joel is our ops leader. He’s in charge out in the field, and is responsible for your safety out there. You don’t sneeze unless he says so when you’re on an op. And to that end, everyone needs to go through some basic training.”


She looked at Brock and Paige. “Now, while you guys aren’t here in a field op capacity, the reality is, even on this base, you’re going to be in situations where you’re under pressure to perform. This may mean needing to know how to fire a weapon, or keep yourself safe, but it may even mean simply being able to communicate efficiently while your teammates are under pressure. Joel has immense experience in training people to do this, to ensure that lives aren’t lost. Over the next few weeks, he’ll be putting together a training program for all personnel. Including those who will join us in the future, she added.


And to that end, she turned to Joel. “We’ll need a list of personnel we need to recruit and get on board in order to take on the kinds of jobs we’re currently pitching for, so if we could look at your suggestions by the end of the day, that would be super, too.”


Joel nodded, making a note on his holo device, as if he couldn’t remember that task.


“Okay, that’s pretty much it. Any questions?”


No one raised anything else, so Molly moved on.


“Okay, Joel - you want to give us an idea of the kinds of cases we’re shooting for?”


“Sure.” Joel sat up straighter, and started addressing the group. Thirty seconds hadn’t passed before he had a screenshot of the new case system on the conference room holo, flicking through and showing the team all the possible jobs they could take. The boys were certainly more excited about the database than either Molly or Paige, but then, that showed they were engaged with that element of the job, too.


Molly watched them, pleased at how they were not just bonding with each other, but bonding with the mission.


After Joel had finished, they took a few questions, then sent the team off to get cracking.


Joel closed down his holo. “That went well,” he remarked.


“Yeah. It’s great how they’re all on board.” Molly paused, wondering whether she should broach the subject right now. She decided to just say it.


“I think in the new wave of recruits we need another computer person.”


Joel looked at her, curiously. “I thought between you and Oz you had that angle covered?”


She scratched her cheek. “Well, yes and no. If it were just a matter of skill, of course; but it’s not. For a start, if I’m going to lead this team as we’ve talked about, I haven’t got the physical time and head space to be coding, and hacking and whatever other fuckery we need to get embroiled in.” She paused, and Joel nodded his understanding.


“That’s first. Secondly, we need someone who isn’t crippled.”


“What do you mean ‘crippled’?” he asked, turning his head slightly as if he didn’t hear her properly.


“You know. Crippled. Like, Oz can’t do certain things because of his ‘rules’.” She waved her two fingers in each hand to emphasize the quotation marks she was putting around the word “rules”.


I’m not fucking crippled! 


You are. And it is getting in our way. 


Joel leaned back in his chair. Molly watched as a smile spread over his face.


“You want a computer person who will operate more like you, and less like Oz?” His smile was a mile wide at this point.


“Not exactly. I want someone who can make those judgment calls like a person would. And will do what is necessary when lives are in danger. I need someone with that kind of humanity.”


Well, fuck you. 


Shut up, Oz, this isn’t about being the best. It’s about forming a team. 


“And what does Oz think about all this?” Joel asked, almost smirking now.


“The little bitch doesn’t like it. But it’s the way forward.”


“I’d be inclined to agree. On both counts.” Joel sat up in his chair. “Okay, lemme see what I can do. There’s no doubt that the tech element is a huge part of any operation, no matter which cases we take. Plus, if we’re going to scale, this area is only going to need more manpower, not less.”


“Thanks,” smiled Molly, even though she was feeling like she’d kind of just replaced everything that was special about her.


It’s just a feeling. And it’s necessary. It will pass. She told herself.


Yeah, and what about how I feel?


You remember you gave me that 4077?


Of course. It was necessary. Why do you bring that up?




Payback is a bitch. 


Oz went quiet. Molly got up and left the room.












CHAPTER FOUR


Gaiman-67, Safe house, Common Area




Later that day, Paige and Molly were in the common area. The downloaded news reports were playing in the background.


Paige had found Neechie wandering around, and decided she wanted to pet him - regardless of what he wanted. She wrestled with him to keep him on her lap as she sat on the sofa next to Molly. “Why won’t you sit still and let me huggle you?” she scolded.


“He looks like he wants to get down,” Molly said flatly, barely taking her eyes off the holo screen.


“I know, but he’s just too cute.” She ruffled his bare skin gently with her fingers, as he recoiled a little, trying to get down off her knee. “I just want to cuddle him, and fuss over him…”


Molly chatted almost absently, “And he wants to be out catching mice, or space cadets, or whatever the heck those creatures do.”


Neechie had made one effective wriggle and escaped momentarily to the floor before Paige lunged and picked him up again. She was now rubbing her nose on his.


Neechie, in his infinite wisdom, submitted and let her, almost as if he knew that playing along was the only way he was going to be released from the incessant smothering.


“Maybe,” Paige agreed. “But it’s safer for him in here.”


Molly was still watching the news. “I’m sure he’s out most of the time anyway,” she remarked distractedly, barely paying attention to the snuggling, or her own thought process.


“Yeah. I’ve noticed that,” Paige paused, her hands still on his furless body for a moment. She frowned. “And I haven’t figured out how he gets in and out. I mean, aren’t these buildings meant to be sealed?”


Molly’s attention on the screen broke. She glanced over at the sphinx. “Yeah, on account of the atmosphere being abrasive. Apart from anything it keeps the dust out. And we’re covered for any kind of passing meteor shower or whatever.”


Paige look thoughtful for a moment. “So, then, how does he get out? And back in again?”


Molly shrugged and looked back at the screen, reading the subtitles she had missed.


Paige piped up again. “You know, it could be that he’s tapped into that dimensional transit stuff we were talking about the other week.”


Molly looked back at her, ready to give her shit over stuff she’d already confessed to not being into. “You mean, the demons?”


Paige nodded, ignoring the mocking look that Molly was starting with. “Exactly. He may be able to shift and move through these other dimensions to different points in space in this one.”


Molly stood up a little and tucked one leg under her, shifting her body away from Paige and the demon sphinx.


Paige recognized the movement as a thinly veiled attempt to move away from them. “It’s okay,” she told Molly. “It’s not as creepy as it sounds.  It’s just a skill set… like you can hack through a firewall. Neetch can just pass through a concrete one.”


Molly wasn’t convinced, but her curiosity outweighed the creep-factor she was experiencing. “Okay,” she said slowly. “Tell me more…”


Paige and Molly talked a while about some of the exercises her grandmother used to have her do. They even had a little practice, until Molly’s eye was caught by a news report.


She swiped at the large screen to turn up the sound. “Hang on,” she told Paige. “Look!” she indicated to the screen.


“Outbreaks of violence?” Paige read across the bottom of the screen. “It looks like footage from a holo device, like someone was just in a mocha shop and happened to catch it.”


Molly grunted her agreement, as she watched it unfold. “Wonder why that’s on the news,” she mused.


Paige started to shrug, before realizing. “Ah, looks like there have been a few similar ones across the city.” She looked across at Molly. “Why, your Grindle-senses tingling?”


She grinned.


Molly smiled. “Not sure,” she said. “It might be nothing.” A few moments passed and then she peeled her eyes away from the holo.


“So, these practices… you think that if I start just meditating and becoming aware of the field, I’ll be on my way to mastering this realm thing.”


Paige giggled at her practical assessment of everything she’d been describing to her about the rituals and practices. “Yeah; it’s the first step, so sure.”


“Ace!” exclaimed Molly brightly. “I can’t believe there was this whole other world of physics that I’d somehow missed.”


Molly, I’ve been researching some of these practices Paige has been referring to.  


Oh, good. Do we have another manual to study, then? 


Ugh, no. 


Flashcards maybe?


No. I was about to point out that this is unlikely to be something you can just master in a few sessions. These people take a whole lifetime to learn and practice, in order to finally ascend once. That isn’t even stepping into and out of the etheric like you’re trying to do.  


Molly paused for a moment. Oz could feel her pushing him out of her circuits a little.


Molly?


Yeah. I just don’t think they’ve optimized this shit. 




Safe house, Gaiman-67, Conference room




Molly breezed past Joel as he came into the kitchen. “Morning!” she said, uncharacteristically brightly for pre-caffeination.


“Bloody hell, you’re up early!” Joel called after her, noticing she had only her first mocha in her hand.


Molly called back, “Done sleeping.” Then she was gone.


Crash commented from the kitchen, “Joel, it’s past 11:00.”


Joel ambled in to talk to him. “Yeah, hence the early comment. She’s never up and showered and working before midday, unless we’re on a mission.”


Molly had disappeared through the common area and off into the conference room down the hall.


She pushed her way through the conference room door, carefully so as not to slop the mocha.


Molly, the download of news and messages from our private server is here.


Great, let’s take a look at it on the main holo. 


She picked her spot while Oz fired up the holo screens.  Carefully, she placed the mocha mug onto the table, then surveyed the nearby swivel chairs to identify her favorite - despite the fact they were all identical.


There’s a message from Garet. 


Okay, let’s watch that first. 


Molly walked back over to the door, making sure that there was no one loitering in the corridor, and closed it gently. Then she went back to the chair now designated her favorite and sat down.


She looked up at the image of Garet that filled the screen. He looked pretty much the same as when they had left him back on Estaria, though he was now wearing distinctly more hair gel.


Okay, play.


“Molly, hi. Greetings of the day upon you.” Garet glanced furtively around his office, off camera, like he was checking he wasn’t being watched.


He continued. “Look, I can’t really talk, but I wanted to let you know that the police have closed the case on Paige. She’s free to return whenever she wants.”


Molly smiled. That was good news. She wondered briefly if Paige would want to go back, though. She felt a pang in her chest, but the message kept playing, like she was watching a movie.


“In other news…” Garet continued, “I made Senator!” He grinned. Despite the fact he was proud, there was genuineness behind his pride. “It’s a great opportunity to serve the people. When they’ll let me. But we knew this would be the gig when I came back. So, you’ll probably hear it all over the news when you get your downloads, but I wanted you to hear it from me first.”


He looked down and seemed to play with something on his desk, thinking. Molly wondered if he was going to share something else, or if there was something wrong. She couldn’t tell.


“Okay. That’s all I’ve got. Looking forward to seeing you all soon. Tell Paige I say hi. And stay safe.”


The image clicked out and the holo frame, now blank, faded.


Looks like he got everything he wanted. 


Seems so. 


Keep an eye on what you can, Oz. I know he’s still in danger, and anything we can see coming - shifts in political landscape, news on the wire, chatter, whatever - might give us an edge to help him stay safe. And let’s get that message over to Joel. He has a sixth sense about people’s emotions. 


Roger that, boss. 


Okay, let’s look at a couple of the headlines then.




Gaiman-67, Safe house, Common Area




Two news bulletins later, Joel wandered into the conference room. Closing the door behind him, he watched the tail end of the last report.


“All okay down in the Central Systems?” he asked.


Molly leaned back in her chair and turned to look at him. “Violence, corruption, and general fuckery. Yep, all seems to be business as usual.”




Joel rolled his eyes. “Oh, I got your Garet message, by the way, through Oz.” He looked around the conference room but kept talking. “I agree. Something’s going down, but it looks like he can’t discuss it.”


Molly nodded. “Yeah, I thought as much. Oz is keeping an eye out for anything we should be aware of. Patterns. Related incidents. Yadda yadda.”


Joel pulled up a seat. He was about to sit, when he took a look around Molly, checking behind her… on her back for something.


“Oi! What you doing, fuck wit?” she asked playfully, swinging round in her chair to try and see what he was looking for.


Joel’s face was straight. “Just checking your chair.” He paused, and sat on the one he’d pulled up. “I think you’ve got my favorite one.”


Molly frowned with one eye. “Dude, they’re all the same.”


“Yeah, I know,” he said.


Molly waited for an explanation. Joel crossed an ankle over his leg and leaned back into the chair, his expression still neutral.


No explanation came.


“So what’s up?” she asked, trying to get back to business.


Joel did a tiny shake of his head, as if remembering why he was here. “Well,” he started, “I was just talking with Crash and Brock. They think we need to name the ship.”


Molly blinked, then blinked again. “Okay.”


Joel continued. “They want you to choose something so they don’t have to keep calling it XC-whatever whatever.”


Molly shrugged. “So name it.”


Joel looked at her, a little frustrated that she wasn’t understanding the enormity of naming a vehicle. “You should be the one to name it,” he explained to her.


Molly blinked again, completely confused by her involvement in the conversation. “Okay,” she said slowly. “I hereby name it ‘XC-094B’.”


Joel exhaled with a chuckle. “You… you really don’t get it do you? This should be something with some meaning. Where’s your sense of… Ugh.”


Molly looked confused for a second. “Hang on. Is this a dick thing?”


“A what what?” Joel’s eyes flew wide open and his head recoiled back in shock.


“You know. How boys treat their ships like penis extensions and give them pet names like…” she started to ask, oblivious to Joel making a face.


Joel waved both hands out in front of him. “No. No. Ancestors, no.” He tried desperately to compose himself. “Why would you think such a thing?” he asked in horror.


“Boys. Toys… Not a massive leap.” Molly said flatly. Then she smiled, and her eyes showed signs of recognition. “Ah, is this one of those human things you want me to emotionally engage with?”


Joel nodded, pointing to her. “Yes! Correct!” He breathed a sigh of relief, off the hook for the cock naming.


Molly giggled, her inner teenager coming out to play. “Ahhhh, well why didn’t you say so?” She slapped at her leg. “Okay, let’s call it the Tardis.”


“The what now?” he asked, confused.


“The T.A.R.D.I.S. Time And Relative Dimension In Space,” she explained, as it was clearly something any self-respecting space cadet should know.


Joel’s brow wrinkled a little in confusion. “You’re referencing one of those TV shows from the old world, aren’t you?”


“Technically, the Pan Galaxy is waaay newer than the loop, but the chronology of the relative civilizations would suggest ‘old’ is an appropriate adjective here.” Molly paused. “You’re not into sci-fi are you?”


Joel’s eyes fixed on her in disbelief. He shook his head. “Try something else. This isn’t a time machine.”


“Oo,” her eyes lit up. “If it were, we could name it the H.G. Wells!”


Joel lowered his head into one hand, one elbow on the desk.  As he looked up again, he wiped his face with his palm. When his face reappeared, he looked a little… broken.


“Something else?” he prompted her.


“Firefly?” she suggested.


Joel shook his head. “They’ve already been through that.”


“Millennium Falcon?” she tried again.


“Nope. Just nope,” he said.


“You know… from that Star Wars stuff. You know… the long episodes, set in space.”


“Cuz that narrows it down,” he said with barely the will left to raise his eyes to the heavens.


Molly sat like stone for a moment.


Joel slowly shook his head. “Has anyone ever suggested to you the words ‘misspent youth’?”


She smiled a broad smile. “Often. You know, if Brock has time on his hands, maybe we should get him to see if he can reverse engineer that antigrav mug of his, and create conference room chairs that don’t need contact with the floor.”


She swiveled her chair back to her screen.


Joel tried not to smile at her dismissal of the naming task. “How about I bounce this naming thing back to the boys and let them decide? Then you can okay it.”


Molly was already swiping through other reports in the data package. “Sure.” She smiled mischievously, without looking away from her screens. “Or we could just go with the Tardis.”


Joel realized the conversation had reached its climax. With the look of a defeated man, he rose from his non-favorite chair, and ambled back out of the room again.


Thank to fokk my ancestors she’s not my girlfriend, he thought, as he released himself to go deal with more pressing matters.












CHAPTER FIVE


Gaiman-67, Safe house, Workshop




Brock and Crash were sitting at the bench, holos active and mochas in hand. In front of them, they had synched their holos to play a game of psychic chess in three dimensions.


“Well, chap, quantum teleportation is theoretically one way forward.” Crash peered over his antigrav mug as he took a swig of life-sustaining mocha. He changed a thought and moved a pawn down a level.


“But…” Brock pressed.


“Well, there have been strides in the lab, but there is something about destroying the original only to replicate it elsewhere, which just gives me the willies.” He shuddered for effect.


It was Brock’s move, and he was fixated on a cluster of mid-value pieces that Crash had surrounded. He paused, thinking through a couple of scenarios as Crash lilted on about teleportation.


Crash had placed his antigrav mug on the table, but it was oscillating around its center of mass and slowly ebbing towards the edge of the table. Crash let it, curious to see what it would do. “Yeah, plus the science is barely there. I don’t think it’s at engineering stage yet. Certainly not for us to just dip in and build it.”


Brock sighed as a distant look appeared in his eye. “True, but a brother can dream…”


Crash wrinkled his nose a little. “You know, we should probably be looking at the fastest transportation in the system. Right now, that’s fusion powered hyper drive.”


Alertness returned to Brock’s eyes. “Yeah. That’s probably the most sensible idea.” He seemed to have made up his mind for his move and was trying to hit the right thought to move the correct piece. “Might take a bit of research, though.”


“Yes, and it can be something we work on in the background.” Crash looked back down at the holo list he had made from the meeting earlier that day before continuing. “Okay, let’s look at that later. I think we need to put together a realistic list of the weaponry we can fit this bird with. That’ll be what Molly will be checking up on first.”


Brock’s knight hopped two spaces forward and up one level. A look of mild relief spread across his face. “Well, it would have had blasters on the sides originally, but they’ve been removed.”




Crash nodded. “Right. I think that was something to do with Central System regs about 20 years ago. The military didn’t want private ships to have weaponry in case they were somehow used against them.” He moved his queen from the top tier all the way down to the bottom on the other side of the board.


Brock cringed.


Returning his attention to the conversation, “How do you know all this shit?”


Crash blushed a little. “Ah, you know… It’s… it’s my job to know…”


“Nah uh,” Brock told him, wagging his finger from side to side. “Not many pilots I know keep tabs on all this kinda thing. And the history stuff. Like with the insignia Paige found. No one else had any idea about that… but you did.” He moved another piece.


Crash pretended to be suddenly absorbed in his next move. “Well, you know. Military history and stuff runs in the family. It was just something my grandfather would use to keep me from spending too much time on the holo.”


He got up from his seat, as if needing to change position. “So, getting hold of the original weapons might be a bitch. Especially if those regs are still active.”


Brock allowed him to change the subject. “Yeah. I wonder what might be happening in other systems. You know, if they don’t have the same regs, I’m sure we could adapt something.”


Crash’s voice became more excited, as his eyes lit up and he found a page in his holo that had specs. “Yeah, those Yollins are pretty together when it comes to space tech. I wonder if there is a way we can get Oz to patch in and help us locate something useful.”


Brock lit up too, the chess game forgotten. “You mean just order them up on the Zon?”


The two looked at each other. “Time to talk to Molly,” they said in unison.


“What about Molly?” Joel asked, stomping down the last step.


As he stepped into the workshop the chess set collapsed in a cascade of pixels and disappeared, leaving Crash and Brock looking exactly like they’d been caught red-handed playing games on the job.


“We need her to ask Oz to run some research for us,” Crash replied, cool as anything, turning to look at Joel as he approached the workbench.


Joel nodded. “Ah, yes. That’ll be no problem. But regarding the naming… I have bad news.” He stopped in the middle of the floor, as if he wasn’t staying.


Brock braced himself. Crash didn’t flinch.


Joel paused for effect, before telling them, “You’re on your own. She was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.”


Brock sniggered.


Crash smiled, mostly at Brock’s snigger. “So what does this mean?” he asked. “We just pick something?”


Joel nodded again. “Yup. Pick something appropriate, and then run it by her.”


“Well, okay, then.” Crash nodded in acceptance of the mission.


Joel nodded abruptly once, as he might have done to an officer in the space marines, and then turned on his heels and left.


Brock was still chuckling to himself. “Looks like we’re on our own on that one, then!”


“Looks like,” Crash agreed.


Brock picked up his antigrav mug to take another swig of mocha. “I still think there’s something going on with those two…” He pointed his forefinger in the direction of the door as he drank from the mug, his eyes dancing with glee at the prospect of people falling in love and getting bow-chica-wow-wow on base.


Crash smiled, but his voice was firm. “Don’t you go stirring anything up. There’s a reason the military forbids that kinda thing between teammates.”


“Yeah, but we ain’t in the military now…” Brock’s eyes were still smiling, as he returned to his holo to work.


“I’m just sayin’,” Crash told him. “There’s a reason for it.”


Joel had stopped on the stairs, listening to the banter between the pair in the workshop. Damn, he thought. He was going to have to be more careful. Brock must have picked up on something. 


Quietly, he continued his way up the stairs so as not to draw their attention.




Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




“We’re going to have to call her.”


Managing Director Dr. Carl Knotts swiped holo screens across the table to his colleague: some detailed reports their street team had gathered. The situation had worsened in the last few hours.


He rubbed his eyes, and pushed back his chair from the conference table.


His colleague was unmoved. “Not yet,” Piles insisted. “Simons says he’s probably just 16 hours away from an antidote.”


“He’s been saying that and similar for months. Before this was even a… situation.” Knotts chose his words carefully, even though his body language was weighted with guilt. He stood up and stretched his back out. His Estarian skin was graying from the stress, and from being cooped up for hours at a stretch trying to solve the growing crisis.


He looked over at his partner who, though tired, was maintaining his posture, eyes staring into the table.


“It was a side project then,” Piles reasoned. “Now he’s got the whole team on it - and nothing else.”


They were the only ones in the meeting area. Everyone else had either gone home, or was working overtime in the labs.


Dr. Knotts shook his head again. “I don’t know. I think we need to consider bringing the Bates girl in now.”


Piles banged his hand on the table, causing Knotts to jump out of his skin. “We’ve talked about this,” Piles reiterated, the frustration seeping into his voice. “That in itself has a downside. We’ll all be leaving ourselves vulnerable for prosecution.”


Dr. Knotts protested, emotion welling in his voice. “Yes, but if that is the cost of getting this under control and saving hundreds of thousands of lives, then-”


His voice trailed off as his eye caught the holo screen with the live news reports. The media was now noting the escalated levels of violence in areas that were affected.


He sighed the sigh of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. After a moment he turned back to his partner.


Knotts had to do something now. Managing Director or no, he was an Estarian and a scientist. “Okay. Make the call,” he told Piles. His shoulders slumped a little as he relented.  “But if we can keep some of the details from her, then we should. Just bring her in for the antidote, and tell her as little as possible about everything else.”


Knotts nodded. “Right. Fungus-amongus technique.”


Piles looked at him questioningly.


Knotts got up and walked to the door. “Keep ‘em in the dark, and feed them shit.”


Piles shook his head, closing his eyes briefly.


“Oh, and Carl,” Knotts turned back to look at Piles, waiting for the question. “You’ll be handling this yourself, of course?”


“Yes, of course,” he confirmed. “You stay out of it, though. We don’t want her to be able to nail all our balls to this.”


Piles nodded appreciatively.


Knotts stepped out into the corridor. Considering Piles often came across similar to his namesake, an infliction on the lining of an asshole, he was still his friend.


“Plus,” he called back. “It would be prudent that one of us stays out of this mess to pick up the pieces… after it all blows to shit.”


The sliding doors closed, leaving the conference room quiet.


Piles sat back in his ergonomically designed chair, feeling like he was going to dodge a bullet after all.




Gaiman-67, Safe house, Conference Room




Molly was sitting on the table in the conference room, legs crossed in a yogi position. Though her eyes were closed and her back was to the door to avoid distractions, the frown across her forehead and her slightly squinted eyes said it all to anyone watching.


This lady was not enjoying the transcendental experience of becoming one with the veil.


Joel walked past the conference room door and saw a figure on the table out of the corner of his eye. Having already passed the door, he took a step backwards.


And then another.


And another, to peer inside.


He saw it was Molly.


Nope, he thought to himself, and willed himself away from the door handle. I’m not going to ask. 


He took a couple of paces forward.


No, I’m not going to ask, he told himself again


He took a step forward.


He stopped. And then backed up again.


He paused.


Oh, fuck it.


He turned back and opened the door into the conference room. The sound of the opening door caused Molly to spin around suddenly. Her scowl accused him of a thousand sins.


Joel couldn’t help but smile. “So you’re, erm… meditating now?” One mocking eyebrow rose as he looked at her.


“Yes. And you’re disturbing my zi,” she snapped.


“Now, now, we both know your zi was zipped long before I disturbed it,” he grinned. “So why, pray tell, are you suddenly meditating? I didn’t think you were into all that realm stuff?”


“I’m trying something new,” she said, eyeing him up and down.


Damn, she has a way of making a guy feel self-conscious, he realized. Did she mean that he didn’t try anything new? He wondered. Shit. How, in one sentence, did this become about himself and his lack of aspirations? Joel, get a grip! he instructed himself.


Joel paused, then his face lit up. “Oh, my ancestors! You’re trying to dimension walk!” It made sense now. For a second he thought she was going after inner peace. “Like those creepy things in the basement!”


“I’m not,” she protested, looking a little awkward in her skin. “I’m just trying to understand what all this realm stuff is about.”


“You’re not!” Joel wagged his finger. “I’m onto you, Bates. You never do anything without a direct reason for it.” He was grinning like a Cheshire cat now, on the offensive in the teasing. “You’re trying to figure it out so you can reverse engineer it… aren’t you?”


She blushed, and knocked a strand of hair out of her face.


Molly had nowhere to go. Joel was onto her. And she was floored by how easily he could get a read on her.


“So what if I am?” she admitted reluctantly.


“Interesting,” he cooed.


And with that, he turned on his heels, and left the room, closing the door behind him.


Molly watched him go, frustrated by her own mental unquiet, as well as by the way he understood her better than she did herself.


The stray hair fell down in her face again, and she blew upwards to move it, with very little lasting result.












CHAPTER SIX


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Gym




Molly released the weights she was bench-pressing, and they crashed back onto the rack. Paige jumped back, barely suppressing a girly squeal.


Crash looked over in amusement, which quickly turned to respect when he noticed the weight she’d just dropped.


“Looks like you’re making progress on that thing!” he called over.


“Thanks!” she breathed. His beating of the punching bag had kept her psychologically motivated, but now that he had finished his cardio and was about to leave, she suddenly felt more fatigued.


“You done?” she asked him, a hint of disappointment creeping into her voice.


“Yeah. Gonna hit the showers.” He waved to the two girls as he headed out of their basement gym.


Paige smiled at Molly. “You have been increasing the weight you’re pressing quite a lot each time. He’s right. You got this.”


“You make a great cheerleader,” Molly told her affectionately.


Paige clutched both her hands together awkwardly and to her chest. “Aww…” she cooed, her manner almost matching the pink cardigan she was sporting.


Molly got up from the bench. “Want me to spot you?” she asked, taking a drink of water.


Paige’s face turned from one of a beaming angel to that of a panicked damsel. “Oh. No. No thanks. I’ll break a nail or something.”


Molly chuckled. “You know you don’t need to be afraid of the weights. It’s just good for resistance training.”


“No. I’m good. Thank you. I’ll stick with those other machines for resistance and cardio in one.” Paige waved her hand over to the array of other machines that Crash and Brock had ordered up and then installed over the last few weeks.


The ones she had not even attempted to mount, nor seriously had any intention of using.


“Okay,” shrugged Molly brightly. She knew Paige was taking her training seriously in other ways, and as long as she stayed in shape for the missions, how she did it was entirely up to her.


“Yo!” Joel popped his head around the corner. “Not to interrupt your gossiping,” he paused, contemplating teasing them about how they always seemed to be talking rather than working out in the gym, “but we have a case.”


Paige and Molly exchanged glances.


“Someone has asked for you specifically,” he told her.


Molly looked behind her and then pointed at herself. “Huh? Me?”


“Yep. By name.” Joel looked just as surprised as Molly as he explained to her. “Something about you being the ‘foremost expert’ on some gene shit. I have the details upstairs when you’re ready.”


Molly looked at Paige and shrugged. She went to sit down on the bench again.


Paige grinned at how unaffected she was by the accolade. I wonder if she’s on the spectrum, she thought to herself idly.


“Looks like there is big money in it,” Joel coaxed.


“Uh huh.” Molly had lain down to do another set. Paige stood in position again to spot her.


He tried again. “It’s dangerous.”


Molly had her hands on the bar and was about to lift, but she stopped in her tracks.


“And without you, thousands of people are probably going to die,” he finished.


He’s got you. 


Shut up, Oz. 


Girl, he can play you like a - 


Shut UP. 


Seriously. It’s like he OWNS you.


OZ!!!!! SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I’M FORMATTING YOU. 


Her head went quiet.


She paused, her eyes locked onto the bar, as if her mind were processing something else. Then after a moment, she released her hands, and sat up.


“Okay. Lemme hit the showers and eat, and I’ll be right up.”


“I think it’s really urgent,” Joel was in ops mode, now he had confirmation they were taking the case.


Paige jumped in to help. “You shower and get up to the conference room, and I’ll have a protein shake and Stim drink waiting for you.”


“Wow!” Molly was impressed. “Okay, sweet. I could totally get used to this.”


She swung her towel over her shoulder and, downing her water, paced out of the gym to go and get herself ops-ready.


Joel gave Paige a thumbs-up and headed back up to the conference room.


Paige smiled to herself.


She didn’t care that it was just a protein shake… She was part of something bigger and way more meaningful than her job on Estaria. And besides, if she could keep training and prove herself as a core member of this team, maybe they’d trust her with more than just the purchasing and the sports drinks. She smiled to herself as she tidied a few pieces of equipment away, and then made her way up to the kitchen.


Life on Gaitune-67 was so very, very goooooood!




Gaitune-67, Safe house, Conference room




“Yo! I. Is. Here!” Brock announced his arrival, his beloved antigrav flask in hand as he closed the door and took a seat at the table where the rest of the team was assembled.


“Okay, great. Let’s get started.” Molly clasped her hands together over the quieting chatter, her arms resting on the desk. “We’ve got a case.” She paused, and looked over at Joel. “On the surface, it seems like an R&D job for myself; but what we’ve already realized in our communications with the client is that actually it’s high stakes.”


There was a hush; she had their rapt attention.


“The client has had a vial of toxin stolen. A toxin that would render the entire city of Spire sick, and then very dead. The death rate will be 88% if we don’t intervene with an antidote.”


She looked over at Brock and Crash. “We’re going to have to get our arses down to the client’s lab to pick up samples and confer with their team of scientists to figure out exactly what we’re dealing with.” She turned to look at the rest of them. “But the reality is they’ve violated the Billingham Convention by developing this in the first place. So this could bring all kinds of heat down on them - and us - if anyone outside this team were to get wind of what is happening. This means discretion is of the utmost importance.”


“Yeah, Crash,” started Brock, leaning over and nudging the arm of his teammate. “So that means no telling your mom in your vlogs!”


Crash smiled without humor. “Yeah, and no announcing it on your geek-boards, dickwad.”


Molly looked at them sternly. “I’m serious, fellas. Unless you want me to rain violence down on you.”


Paige chipped in. “Yeah, and she’s bench pressing more than Brock right now!” She all but stuck her tongue out at the boys as she spoke.


Brock dropped his eyes. ”Yes, ma’am.”


“Honestly,” said Crash in his usual unemotional manner, “we have very little contact with the outside would. I don’t know who any of us could tell.”


Crash is forgetting his late night chats with Chantelle.


Hmm, chats? So a local? 


Yes. 


Anything else I need to know?


Not at this time. 


Thanks, Oz. 


“Who’s Chantelle?” Molly asked Crash.


He blushed, taking her point, and dropping his eyes.


“Well, okay then,” she said, eyes slightly wider than normal, backing away from the subject. She shook her head clear of the thoughts that had materialized in her brain. “Time is of the essence,” she continued, “and we’ve not done an op together before… so we’re going to be figuring it out as we go along.”


She nodded to Joel, who took over.


“The client, Ventus Research, have had two scientist go missing. Finding them is not our mandate. But we need to be aware that there may be law enforcement poking around. Our job is to get down there, get the intel we need, get samples of the toxin, get back, and develop the antidote.”


 Molly said, “Joel will be staying on the surface to help with deploying the antidote once we’ve got it sequenced…”


Joel interjected “… yeah, and I’ll also be interviewing a new team member. Just FYI. It’s not important to the mission, so if we need to drop that meeting, that’s okay.”


Molly scanned around the table observing her very quiet team. “Any questions so far?” she asked.


There was a pause, and then Crash spoke, looking more or less recovered from being outed for having a “friend”.


“When do you want to leave?” he asked, the glint in his eye revealing that he was ready to be flying again.


“As soon as we can,” she responded. “When can you have us lifting off?”


“Couple of hours. Max.”


“Okay, make it so,” she said, nodding to him. “Two hours, people,” she announced to the group.


“Hang on,” Joel raised his hand at shoulder height to signal to the troops not to move. “I think it’s worth looping them in on why we have this case. It may become important.”


Molly paused, reluctant to share. Sensing her hesitation, Joel continued.


“Okay. So, Molly was requested specifically because she is the person in the Central System who is uniquely qualified to handle this task. Molly wrote her thesis on exactly the toxin that we’re going to be tackling, so she is the one best equipped to develop the antidote.”


Molly’s head was bowed and Paige could see a little section where her chest was exposed turn a deep red.


The team gave a mini round of applause.


Joel kept talking. “I, for one, wanted you to know who your boss is.” He paused and looked at Molly again, before turning back to the team. “But also - stay alert. This may be relevant. I don’t want to be paranoid, but better paranoid and safe. This toxin may be a way to pull us out of hiding. Do I think we’ve caused certain powers enough of a problem for them to go to such lengths? No. Not yet. And there would be easier ways to draw us out. But there is no such thing as a coincidence; not in this game, and not with these stakes. So keep your eyes peeled, and pay attention to everything that might be remotely connected. Do we understand?”


The team made a series of yeses and yes sirs.


“Okay, great. Molly, want to tell us who is doing what?”


Molly had managed to compose herself, though her chest was still a little flushed. She cleared her throat gently before she started speaking again.


“Sure.”


She took a breath, collecting herself.


“Once we’ve got the bird prepped, I’d like Brock to man the base here. If we have any anti-toxin precautions, suits or equipment, let’s get it loaded up ASAP. The toxin is not airborne; it dissolves in water, and needs to be inhaled or ingested to be fatal, so bear that in mind. Paige, you’re with me. Joel will be coming with us to the surface, and then staying there.  Crash will be flying us there, and bringing Paige and I back in quick turnaround. Stay alert, people. And stay safe.”


With that, the team was dismissed, and on their first case together. The conference room emptied out, and the base was a hive of activity for the next couple of hours.


Dead on time, Crash lifted off with the team on board. Only Brock remained in the safe house, with Neechie on hand for emotional support, should a demon actually venture forth from the creepy door in his workshop.




Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung



“Okay, folks, that’s all.” Crash announced their arrival over the PA system.


Paige let out a sigh of relief. “Finally! Back on solid earth.”


Joel leaned over, and lightly punched her arm. “You realize the asteroid is solid, right?”


Paige looked indignant. “No, it’s not. Brock told me it was empty inside. That’s why we need the gravity generator.”


Molly looked back at the rows where Joel and Paige had been sitting for the landing. “I think Brock has been pulling your leg,” she said plainly.


Joel slapped his thigh. “Seriously, that dude. Honestly!” he laughed.


Paige frowned, trying not to smile. “You mean this whole time, he’s been spinning me a yarn?”


Joel shook his head. “Not entirely. There is a grav generator on there, but the asteroid is solid all the way through.”


Paige humphed and started gathering her things. Molly was already standing up at her seat, packing stuff into her backpack.


Paige paused. “Do you think maybe he made up the bit about having to collect antigrav matter from the generator for his mug when it runs out?”


Joel exploded in laughter.


Molly sniggered.


“Shit,” Paige said.


Once packed up, all four of them made their way off the ship.


Molly turned to Crash as they reached the hangar door. “Okay, so are you good for a few hours?”


Crash stepped out into the open air and stretched him arms backwards. “Golden,” he told her. “I’m just going to take a nap, and then maybe wander over to air traffic control to see if we’re all still legal and everything. They have nowhere to send any fines, so if we did get blacklisted on our last exit, it’ll need some finagling to get us cleared.”


Molly nodded slowly. “Ah, our speedy exit when we were being pursued by men in black who wanted to kill us. Yes…”


Crash smiled and nodded.


“Yeah. We might need some supplies and stuff, too. I’ll check and make sure we can get things ordered up.”


Molly looked out towards the airfield, watching another ship take off silently in the distance. “Cool. Keep me posted if you need authorization for funds or anything. Or if anything is going to interfere with getting off-world… like a long delivery time.”


“Roger that, lady-boss,” Crash smiled, imitating Brock’s language.


“’Lady-boss,’” Molly said, shaking her head. “That guy…”


Paige scowled at the reference to him. Even Crash couldn’t help but crack a grin.


Joel had wandered off a few paces, stretching his legs and swinging his arms to loosen his back. He wandered back over, talking to Molly. “So, you sure you’re good to deal with the client, if I run off and meet the little dude?”


Paige looked confused. “’Little dude’? Why d’ya call him that?”


Molly shook her head again. “He’s like twenty-five or something,” she told her.


“Yeah, but he’s not little little?” Paige asked.


Molly didn’t know if she was asking about his height, or something else.


Joel was swinging his arms again. “I dunno. He could be…”


Paige suspected they might be just teasing her. She shifted her bag on her shoulder, pushed her nose in the air, and wandered absently in the direction of the main gates, as if ready to head out.


Molly watched her. “Erm. You gonna walk to the client in Spire?”


Paige clamped her hands over her mouth. “Oh! Shit. No.” She giggled, turned back, and noticed that Crash had disappeared inside again to pull the car out. “It’s another couple of hours from here, right?”


Molly nodded. ”Right. More traveling. But we should pick up food on the way.”


Joel’s eyes lit up.


“Something without dead animal on it,” she qualified.


His face fell, conveying his disappointment.












CHAPTER SEVEN


Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




The meeting room hummed with artificial lights, and artificial air. Molly and Paige sat patiently, waiting for the client to arrive.


Ventus Research Facility was a little intimidating, Molly realized now she was here. The blue lighting, the polished floors and glass meeting rooms, the perfectly manicured receptionists, and indoor plants; she half expected the scientists to show up in tailored suits or something. As yet, though, they were a no-show.


“Wish I’d managed to get some more sleep on that trip,” Paige grumbled, fidgeting in her seat. “How many hours were we traveling for?”


Molly was slumped back in her chair, and shuffled to sit up a little more. “I think the total flight time is twenty-something hours.” She tapped a finger on the armrest. “It’s Crash I feel sorry for. He did most of the flight monitoring.”


Paige pulled one leg up, resting her heel on the edge of the seat. “Yeah. He seems happy, though.” She looked towards the door. “Do you ever get the feeling he’s more antsy when he’s on base?” She started whispering, like someone might overhear her talking about her teammate.


“Honestly, I hadn’t noticed.” Molly’s eyes drifted off, as she thought back to her experience of him. “He always seems so cool and collected.”


Paige grinned. “Ah!” she said, her eyes now lit up. “So you haven’t been watching him when he works out…”


“But you have, by the sounds of it?” Molly looked at her sideways, a slight smile at the corner of her lips.


“Can’t blame a girl,” Paige said laughing. “But yeah, he’s been getting more and more intense in his workouts. I think his flying is his outlet. You know, his happy place. Or safety valve.”


Molly made a mental note to be aware of that. “That would make sense,” she mused. She might even mention it to Joel, to see what they could do about making sure he didn’t go stir crazy on the asteroid.


It’s a good point.


What is?


Well not everyone seems to be as… self-contained as you are.


What do you mean?


Well, give you a project and a holo and you don’t move for hours at a stretch. But the others, they sit for maybe an hour and then have a conversation with someone, or change what they do. 


Of course, you’re monitoring them.


Yes, and a good job too, or else I’d think that all sentient beings behave like you. You’re definitely proving to be on the extremes of the bell-curve in many ways. 


Molly decided it was best not to respond to Oz’s last comment. The last thing she needed now was the distraction.


Paige started swinging her foot. Molly checked her holo to see how long they had been waiting.


Just then, there was movement in the reception area, and two figures started wending their way through the corridors to the meeting room to join them. As they approached, Molly could make out that they were both male. Both Estarian.


And both looked very fatigued and stressed.


The door swung open, and they bundled in one after another.


“Greetings of the day upon you,” said the slightly older man. “I’m Dr. Carl Knotts. We’ve been in communication. This is Dr. Eugene Philips, who has been working on the project since before the vials were stolen.” The two shook hands with both the ladies and invited them to come into a meeting room next door to sit down.


“May I offer you some mocha?” Dr. Knotts looked at each of them in turn as they entered the room.


“No, no thank you. We had plenty on the trip over here.” Molly said, noticing that Paige had also waved ‘no thank you’.


“Oh, you flew, then?” he asked.


“Yes.” Molly left it at that. She didn’t want them knowing too much about their situation needlessly.


“Okay. Right then,” Knotts started gathering his thoughts as the two men sat. “As you can imagine, the situation here is pretty fraught. We’ve had teams working on this around the clock. I’ve just sent a number of them home, since they were operating on no sleep for a day and a half now, and mistakes were being made.” He breathed in through his teeth. “We’re hoping that you are able to help.”


Molly nodded. “I understand that the toxin was developed using the same sequencing method I used when I proved that the Yultok plant could be genetically modified to make the nectar into a toxin. Is that correct?”


Eugene, despite his fatigue and the immediate danger, perked up when she mentioned the research. “Yes! Yes. And I must say, your paper is quite famous around here. We’re thrilled that you could work on this with us…” He caught himself, and noticed the concerned look on his boss’s face. “Of… of course,” he stammered, correcting himself, “we wish it were under better circumstances.”


Molly nodded politely. “So you followed the exact method?”


“Yes,” Eugene continued. “For the most part, anyway. Equipment has moved on somewhat since you published that paper, and we took advantage of newer technology. But more importantly, once we saw that it worked for one sequence, we experimented with switching pieces of the code around… just to see what happened.”


Molly’s face dropped, but she remained quiet.


Both Knotts and Philips noticed, and looked at each other.


“What?” Knotts asked eventually. “There’s something wrong?”


Molly took a breath, and leaned forward on the table. “You could say that.”


Paige felt a knot in her stomach. She sensed that this was more serious.


“Do you know which sequence could be out there?” Molly asked.


“Erm.” Knotts and Eugene exchanged glances again.


Molly waited. If they wanted her to fix it, they were going to have to tell her.


There were mutterings, and “um”s and “ah”s. And then a bunch of non-committal statements.


Finally Molly broke. “Look. I’m here to help. But in order for me to save your collective asses, and potentially the population of Spire that you’ve put in grave danger, I need to know what the FUCK is going on!”


The meeting room fell silent.


Eugene shifted awkwardly in his chair and avoided eye contact with anyone.


Finally, Knotts spoke.


“The strain that got out isn’t out as a result of user error. A number of strains of the toxin were put into one vial, extracted from the secure unit in the lab, and likely stolen. As in, walked out of the doors by one of our scientists. So we have two researchers who have disappeared, and an unknown number of strains of this toxin that could be being used to cause any number of problems.”


Molly considered what she had heard for a moment. She was in ops mode, though, just as she’d learned from Joel. There was no time for disbelief or judgement. She needed the facts.


“Multiple strains in one vial?” she confirmed.


The two scientists nodded.


“Do we know why?” she asked.


Both shook their heads.


“Any ransom demands?”


Knotts shook his head.


“You sure?” Her eyes burrowed into him.


“Yes.”


“How do you know?” she pressed.


“I’m the managing director of the facility. I’d be notified.”


“Not necessarily. Not if someone’s family is in danger. I need you to start digging, and ask around. We need to know if this is the case. It could affect everything. I’ll also get our team onto checking all communications with your staff and decision-makers. If this was walked out of the building, there has to be motive; we find that, we find who has the vial.”


Already on it. 


Thanks, Oz. 


“Any political considerations? Contracts you’re up for?”


Knotts shook his head. “We’re just a research facility…”


Molly raised her eyebrows. “And your funding comes from?”


He looked flummoxed. “I… I… There are multiple sources,” he stammered.


Oz.


On it. 


Paige had started taking notes.


Molly could feel Oz pressing on the capacity in her cortex right now.


Oz, I’m going to need those neurons. 


Out loud she told Knotts, “I’ll also need the names of the two missing scientists. They’re our best lead.”


Eugene answered that question. “Dr. Ana Grossman and Dr. David Rek.”


“Thank you,” said Molly, making a mental note.


“Ana was David’s supervisor. She was the one with access to the samples,” Eugene offered.


Molly turned to look directly at him. “Okay, and have you documented everything that might be in the vial?” she asked.


“Yes, and no. I can take you to the lab and show you the lab reports from the last 18 months while this project has been running. But we haven’t figured out what is missing from that, yet.”


“Okay. Let’s go take a look. We might be able to shortcut that…”


The four sarkians stood up from the meeting room table and filed out into the labyrinth of corridors to make their way to the lab. Along the way, Dr. Knotts took his leave to try and find out what he could in terms of ransoms.


He knows more than he’s telling us.


I don’t doubt it. When I get some operating capacity, I will endeavor to find out what.


Okay, let’s go look at these lab reports first so we can figure out what we’re dealing with. 


Molly and Paige followed Eugene.




Ancient Moon Bar, downtown Spire




Pieter Alexander was excellent on paper. His skills were outstanding, and his experience was wide and varied. But standing in front of Joel wasn’t the person that he had expected to be meeting.


Pieter didn’t appear to be your average nerd. In fact, if you saw him sitting on a train or in a fancy restaurant in town, you might mistake him for an artistic type. With a large trust fund.


Though his pseudo-geeky converse pumps were dusty and fashionably “worn,” his immaculate pinstripe suit and crisp white shirt looked like something out of a catalog for the nouveaux riche.


“How was your trip in?” asked Joel, as he invited the Estarian to sit down at the small table in the bar.


The place was peaceful, but there were enough people around talking, drinking, and eating for them to remain relatively anonymous.


“Yeah, good. Really good, thanks. How was yours?” Pieter leaned forward, one arm at an angle on the table, and used the other hand to sweep through his shaggy hairstyle.


Joel sat more squarely, and pulled up his holo notes. “Good also. Thanks.”


The waitress appeared at his elbow within seconds, and they ordered some mochas and got straight down to business.


“Your resume is impressive. With your abilities, you could choose to do anything; how come you’re not working in the city, reeling in the big bucks?” Joel asked him.


Pieter was unfazed. He barely paused to consider his response. “It’s just not the type of environment I’d be happy in. I’d find it rather dull.” Pieter’s accent was slightly melodic, and light, and he didn’t seem to put much effort into enunciating his words. Joel was trying to place which area it might be from.


“So tell me a little about what you’ve been doing for work then…” he asked.


The interview continued for a good hour and a half.


By the end of it Joel was pretty certain they had a good candidate and that he would fit with the team. There was just one more question Molly had asked him to cover.


Joel asked the question, just as he had all the others. “Tell me about your gambling problem.”


Pieter froze. He took a moment to formulate the words. “It’s in the past. But how do you know about that?”


Joel smiled, a relaxed smile. “It’s okay. It doesn’t preclude you from the job. We know because our hacking kung fu is better than yours. But then, we have a few unfair advantages. One of them being your future boss.” Joel closed his holo notes and put all his attention on Pieter. “What we need to know is how ‘in the past’ the problem is.”


Pieter swallowed.


Joel remained casual, but held his gaze. He wasn’t backing down on this one. He needed the truth. The integrity of the team needed the truth.


Pieter’s eyes had gone from being cool and casual to much more earnest. “Very. I mean. I still owe money. That’s why it would be good to get off-world for a while. But I haven’t placed a bet in years. I’ve just been working to keep making payments. But there’s always pressure… from the wrong kind of people, if you know what I mean.”


He ran his fingers through his full head of hair again.


Joel nodded. “Yes, I know exactly the kind of people you mean. I’ve come across those kinds of folks in a few cases I’ve worked.”


Pieter’s eyes dropped to the table, having spilled everything he had been hoping to not mention.


“Okay, so cards on the table time…” Joel continued. “We want you because you are talented, and you’re able to work outside the box. We’ve looked into some of the jobs you’ve done, and you’re a creative thinker.”


He paused, trying to word the next bit right so as not to be misunderstood.


“The other reason we want you on the team is because you can make a judgment call. You don’t play strictly by the book. And, quite frankly, there are going to be times when we need that.”


He paused again, making sure that Pieter was taking it all in.


“Now, when it comes to the team, though, you need to have their backs. If there is even a hint or suggestion that you’ve been creative with the truth, or done anything to harm or take advantage of them, then I personally will come down on you so hard you will wish you were back here on Estaria at the mercy of the gambling sharks.”


Joel sat back in his chair, his casual air returning. “Do you understand our position?”


Pieter swallowed again, and nodded. His eyes were suddenly tired, as the anxiety caught up to him and fatigued him.


“Okay. Great,” said Joel, taking a last swig of his mocha before placing the mug down on the table. He looked up at Pieter. “If you want it, the job is yours.”


Pieter’s eyes had a distant look behind them. He had looked like he had been listening to Joel, but then when Joel finished speaking, Pieter just kept bobbing his head, processing.


Joel waited for his response. “Well?”


Pieter managed to nod more firmly. Then he smiled and nodded again. “Yes, I understand. And I’m in. Please.”


He sat up a little straighter.


Joel leaned forward with his arms on the table. “Well, good then,” he said. “We need to leave in a few days. We’re in the middle of a case right now, so we need to remain flexible. How soon can you leave town with us?”


Pieter’s eyes looked upward as he considered his answer. “Erm,” he paused, his eyes flicking left then right. “Probably about two days. I need to pack some things, and make arrangements at my apartment.”


Joel tapped the table with his forefingers, in conclusion. “Okay, fine. Go ahead and put those things in place, and let’s stay in close holo contact.” He grinned again. “…So we don’t leave without you!”


Pieter tried to grin back, uncertain if Joel was pulling his leg or not.












CHAPTER EIGHT


Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




Eugene led Paige and Molly through the automatic double doors and a securi-field, which looked like it had some bio-hazard detection layer to it. “Okay – so, here we are,” he said, walking into the largest open-plan lab Molly had ever seen.


Paige looked around in awe, as if she’d just arrived on another planet.


Molly got straight down to what she needed to see. “Okay, so if you can show us the lab reports first…” she suggested, by-passing the usual small talk that Eugene was used to when he gave visitors tours.


Eugene bowed his head slightly and then signaled for them to follow him. “Of course. Time is of the essence.”


They passed rows of white benches and equipment, and batches of tests being run in various machines. About halfway through the immense lab, Eugene took them over to a holo portal and stopped. Flicking through the screens, he started pulling up pages and navigating to the intel they needed.


“It’s all here,” he said, stepping back, opening his palm to the holo and allowing Molly in to navigate the lab reports.


Molly stepped forward, and started looking at the material. “Thank you,” she acknowledged briefly. “We’re going to need some supplies, and then we’re going to work from a secure location. Can you get me everything we’d need in the way of samples and disposables for the experiments?”


Eugene looked slightly disappointed. “You mean, you won’t be working from here?” he asked.


Molly didn’t take her eyes from the data. “No, we need to be elsewhere to do this.”


Eugene stayed still. “I… I just wanted to ask…”


Molly glanced over at him briefly. “Uh hm?” she said, waiting for him to spit it out.

Eugene was wringing his fingers nervously. He glanced around furtively. “Erm, well. It’s Ana and David. Do you think they’re ok?”


Molly shook her head. “I have no idea. Why do you ask?”


Eugene leant in a little, and spoke in a low whisper. “Well, I know them. They’re my friends. I’m… I just worry that something awful has happened to them… and I can’t understand why the police aren’t investigating their disappearance. I mean… everyone knows they’re not around. Surely someone must have reported them missing. They have… families.”


 Molly frowned, taking the intel on board. “You make a good point. I don’t have answers right now, but… I’d say, keep your head down and let us do our job. If they’re alive, we’ll get them back.”


Eugene looked part way satisfied. “Ok. Ok…” He nodded, as if talking himself into believing her. “Let me go and get what you’ll need.”


He scuttled off.


Paige started chattering about the lab, but Molly was engrossed.


Oz, I think we’ve got the detail we need in this set of experiments I’m highlighting. Are you able to download what we need?


Already on it. Patching through to their Ethertrak now.


Good. And then we just need to look at what they ended up producing, and somehow figure out what combinations could have been mixed. 


Molly spun around looking round the lab for something


“What? What is it?” Paige asked, her last sentence abandoned.


Molly’s eyes scanned the far reaches of the lab. “I’m looking for where they might actually store these toxins once they’ve produced them.” She noticed a door with another securi-field and a keypad. “There…” she nodded with her head, subtly so that only Paige was aware.


Paige turned to look where Molly had indicated. “What do we need to do? They’ll give us access, right?” she asked.


“I would have thought so.” Molly looked around for where their escort had gone. He was nowhere, but there were plenty of other employees walking around in white suits.


She stopped a passerby with a rack of samples in his hands.


“Excuse me,” she said.


He looked at her, and nodded, without bothering to speak.


Her hackles went up a little, and her face firmed, noticing his attitude.


She continued, “I’m here investigating the situation for Dr. Knotts. I need to see the storage area, please.”


“You’re the one who wrote the paper?” The lab-coated passerby spoke, his voice more cold than impressed. The guy was young, and he stood tall and proud; his Estarian blue glow not completely diminished like most of his colleagues. Molly guessed that he had only arrived that morning, whereas the others had probably been working most of the night.


Molly pursed her lips. “If you’re talking about the paper on splicing and dicing the Yultok plant to prove that fucking around with genes is a bad idea…”


The young scientist looked taken aback. Paige assumed it was Molly’s language.


“You look surprised,” Molly commented flatly.


She watched the irritation swell in the guy’s chest and face. “Yeah. Well…” he started, “it was a fucking stupid paper to write.” Then his voice suddenly softened, and his chest relaxed a little as if he were changing his mind. “But I hadn’t realized your reason for writing it - until you said that.”


“Oh,” Molly raised her chin slowly, and paused. “Yeah, that was the main premise. I got graded down because it read more like ‘a manifesto of what science shouldn’t do’,” she shared. “What did you think the paper was for?”


The scientist looked a little embarrassed. “To wreak death and destruction. Probably set you up for your nice cushy job with the military.”


Paige’s eyes widened, watching for Molly’s reaction.


Molly’s mouth flew open in outrage. “You’re serious?” her voice louder and two octaves higher. “I worked with computers in the military. I would never develop this kind of toxin - or any toxin - for military use! It would be a crime against life!” She ran out of breath, and had to stop speaking to breathe.


Paige wasn’t certain, but she thought she saw tears of anger forming in Molly’s eyes.


The young scientist relaxed his frame, and nodded sympathetically, now looking ashamed of how he had jumped to a conclusion that was so far off the mark.


He looked down at the floor, and scuffed a toe against the surface, flicking his hair out of his eyes before looking back at her. “So,” he said more quietly now. “You’re here to help us find an antidote?”


“Yes,” she told him, cautiously holding her hand out to shake his. “I’m Molly, and this is Paige,” she tilted her head in Paige’s direction. “And we need to move fast.”


“Guss,” he answered. He shifted the rack of test tubes into his left arm, and offered them each in turn a fist to bump. “Geek hand-shake,” he explained. “Product of working in a lab with all kinds of things you don’t want to transfer.”


They fist bumped. He smiled at them, as he turned around. Paige shook her head to herself.


This really was another world.


He quickly popped the samples down in a nearby gas cupboard and locked it with a fingerprint device. “Okay, follow me,” he instructed, leading them off to the door across the lab. Clearing the securi-field, he gave them the rundown of how things were stored.


“By category and date?” Molly confirmed.


Guss nodded.


She looked out at the shelves of temperature-controlled samples. “This means that we can take a guess at the products that were disturbed in a given area, and then cross reference them with the lab reports.”


Guss looked at Molly, and blinked. “Yeah. And that would tell us what was missing,” he said, finishing the thought. “I guess we hadn’t thought of that.” He scratched his mop of brown hair, looking a little sheepish.


Molly wasn’t paying attention to him, though. They’d found the shelves that had been disturbed. Some of it had already been cleaned up for obvious reasons. But Molly looked carefully at what had been disturbed. “It looks random. And rushed. She walked up and down the other shelves in the area to check that nothing else had been broken, or looked obviously missing. “This doesn’t look like a special concoction was being produced,” she commented.


Guss had one hand on his hip, and one gripping his hair. “Yeah, uh. I guess you’re right,” he admitted, looking around to see what else he’d missed.


Molly and Paige took images of everything that they would need to narrow their task down, and Guss led them back out to the main lab where they met Eugene. He’d accumulated several boxes worth of samples and materials they would need.


“You guys have transport?” he asked, his hand on a stack of three of the crates.


“We do,” Molly told him. “Out in your visitor parking lot.”


Molly was suddenly glad that Brock had changed the plates before they left, just in case they were being tracked. The car itself worked for their low-key op, as it was inconspicuous and not too new. No one would look at it twice in the downtown environment.


“Okay, let me give you a hand then,” Eugene said, lifting the first set onto an antigrav hover device he’d located while he was fetching the supplies. Guss scurried off to get another couple, and before they knew it, they had “hovered” everything out and loaded up the car.


Guss closed the trunk, and patted it with the flat of his hand. “That’s the last of it.” he told her.


“Thanks for all your help,” Molly said, fist bumping the two nerds. “I’ll be in touch as soon as we need more intel, or when we have something to report.”


Paige hopped into the passenger seat.


Guss and Eugene smiled back at Molly, then Paige. Then Eugene had a thought. “You don’t want to see Dr. Knotts before you head out?”


Molly was already opening the car door on the driver’s side. She shook her head. “He has my holo. He knows where to reach me. Something tells me he’s otherwise disposed right now.” She gave them a knowing glance.


Eugene assumed that she was talking about him trying to run down all the intel she had asked for. It was going to be politically tricky that’s for sure.


Guss stepped back onto the pavement and waved. “I’m glad to have bumped into you, Molly Bates,” Guss gushed. “It’s a comfort knowing someone as qualified as you is on the case.”


Paige glanced at Molly through the open car door window, as if to comment on the attitude turnaround in Guss.


Molly, feeling the weight of Paige’s stare, and guessing why, chose to ignore it out of politeness. It was something they might giggle about later, once they were safely out of earshot.


They made their goodbyes once more and Molly finally got into the car to head back to the hangar. Any moment away from the safety of the ship, Molly was exposed. And now was the not the time to get embroiled in a media showdown, or an old murder investigation.


Especially since on this occasion, she was innocent. Mostly.




Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




Molly was moving fast, and Paige fell in to helping her load the equipment into the ship. “Let’s just get these loaded and then close the main doors. The fewer people see we’re here, the better.”


Paige picked up a box, and heaved it onto their KrateMaster. She frowned a little. “Why don’t we just leave it in the car?”


Molly didn’t pause to think. “I might be able to make a start on organizing at least some of it when we’re en route.” She checked to make sure the five boxes they’d stacked were adequately balanced before starting to move the whole stack. “If it’s in the car, and in that other compartment, we can’t get access to it until we reach Gaitune.”


“Oh, I see,” Paige nodded. She trotted after Molly, who wheeled the stack towards the hangar. When they came to the ridge into the hangar, Paige helped lift one end of the archaic crate mover onto the ridge as Molly pushed from behind.


Their stack of crates accelerated once they were on the level ground of the hanger floor. Molly grinned dryly. “Shame they didn’t offer us their antigrav boards, eh?”


Paige laughed. “Yeah, I think Brock would have loved to have seen that!”


“Yo!” Crash came jogging down the length of the hangar. “Lemme help you with that.”


“Ah, thanks,” Molly stood up straighter. “If you guys can handle that, I’ll organize some of those other boxes. Maybe we don’t need to bring all of them in.”


“Sure,” Paige said.


Crash made a nod in Molly’s direction, as Paige watched her disappear out to the car again. “You guys are back sooner than I thought you would be…” Crash said to Paige. “Given you were at a lab, that is.”


Paige smiled, understanding exactly what he meant. “Yeah, she was all business. I was more intrigued by the place than she was. We basically just grabbed the intel and supplies, and came straight back.”


Crash looked mildly surprised. “What? No tour? No nostalgia?”


Paige shook her head. “Nada.”


“Wow,” he bobbed his head. “Probably smart, though. She was on another news report this morning. We need to keep her out of sight, if we can.”


The two continued wheeling the stack of crates along the side of the ship to the tailgate.




***




Molly had stepped outside. The air was fresh and comfortable, even without her atmosuit jacket on. The breeze whipped gently across her face, catching her hair. She dragged the stray strands from out of her eyes and looped them behind her ear.


As she moved her hand, something caught her eye over on the far side of the hangar from where she stood. She did a double take. There was nothing out of the ordinary, but she could have sworn she felt a person there, just for a second.


She shook her head.


Seeing things, she thought to herself.


It’s all that inter-realm meditating. 


She ignored Oz’s dig.


She continued on to the car, her back now to that side of the hangar. She was just about to open a few of the boxes to figure out how to stack them, when she was distracted.


Someone was watching her.


She could feel it.


The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She reached down to her holo to see if she could send a message to someone, but then remembered she had Oz.


Oz. I think someone is here. If anything happens, be ready to send an SOS to Paige, Crash, and Joel. 


Okay. I’ve got messages drafted. 


With that confirmation, Molly turned around carefully. There was no one nearby. She started to walk down towards the far side of the hangar.


Movement again. This time a man appeared from behind the hangar wall. He didn’t seem threatening. He just stood to show himself and looked around, as if he were staying out of sight of everyone but her.


Molly watched him, taking in the details she could see. Big, muscular arms. Tall. Brick shit-house like. Tattoos. Probably ex-military. She’s seen enough of those types in her time. If she had to guess friend or foe, she’d probably go with neither right now. There was no way she could take him. Not even with her martial arts expertise. Her mind raced, flitting through her options.


Without reaching with her hand, she tried to feel by pressing her arm against her side if she had her gun on her belt.


Shit. Nope.


She wouldn’t have been able to take it into the lab, so it was still on the ship.


Going to have to try this the old-fashioned way. 


What’s the old-fashioned way? 


“Hi,” she called out gently; not loud enough to draw any attention to them, in case people were around the other hangars.


The guy motioned with his head, beckoning her to come over.


She stepped away from the car and started to move in his direction. She moved slowly, hesitant to move out of plain sight; she didn’t want to make it too easy for him to jump her.


She stopped a few paces back so she would still be visible to anyone who might be around. She could always scream.


“Molly Bates?” he asked.


“Yes.”


“I’m Sean Royale. I work with your friend Garet Beaufort.”


He noticed her shoulders drop, and her face become less stoney.


“Garet sent me to touch base with you, to loop you in on some details. I work for him privately. Outside The Syndicate.”


He glanced around before continuing. ”He has information about this outbreak, and you’re going to need some help.”


Molly was still wary. She hung back. “What kind of help?” she asked. “What do you know?”


He looked around furtively again. “Can we do this inside?”


She hesitated, then looked inside the hangar. The others were up there. Crash might be helpful, if they needed to take this guy down. But it would be putting both of them in danger.


She paused.


“Sure,” she said.


Heck, inside or outside didn’t matter. It wasn’t like he was a vampire, and inviting him in was going to put anyone in any more danger than they were already in. Vampire. She rolled her eyes internally, remembering she would still have to have a conversation with Joel about that.


She signaled to him to lead the way. “Down to the bottom,” she instructed, and then followed. She waited until they were well inside before she started talking.


“My team is just loading some things onto the ship. Want to head up there and grab a mocha with us, and tell us what’s going on?”


“Sure. I’ve got some time. Andus’s people think I’m on the other side of Spire right now.


Molly looked at him quizzically.


“Long story,” he said flatly.


The two strode down to the tailgate and up the ramp onto the ship. Molly noticed as she made the introductions to Crash and Paige that all her concerns about him being a threat had evaporated.


“So, you’re ex-military?” she asked, as they sat in the makeshift kitchen, the mocha machine churning out one cup of nectar at a time.


“Yeah,” he said, sitting squarely at the table, hands perhaps deliberately visible to put them at ease. “Was my whole life,” he continued, “until I was retired by a downsizing initiative out in another system. Recently recalled, though.”


Paige looked confused. “I thought Molly said that you’re working with Garet?”


He nodded. “Yes. That’s right. But he doesn’t know the whole story. We need to keep it like that.”


Paige’s frown got a little deeper. Sean explained, “For his own safety, more than anything. He’s in a very delicate position, and can easily be leveraged. We can’t risk putting the rest of the operation in jeopardy. But yes, I also work for him, to help him fight the good fight where he can. And keep him as safe as I can… given the situation.”


Molly’s mind was racing trying to guess all the different moving pieces to what was going on. Sean seemed to pick up on that.


“Look,” he said, turning to Molly now, “I’m not able to bring you in on everything. At least, not yet. But what I can tell you is that there is a media initiative to make it unsafe for you to be here, Molly. On Estaria.”


It was Molly’s turn to frown. “Why?” she asked, wanting the specifics.


“Because you are the only person who can possibly figure out this toxin thing. And because it is in certain peoples’ interests to have this toxin become a problem.”


Paige gasped, horrified that people would deliberately have thousands of people killed for political ends. “Oh, my ancestors!”


Sean agreed. “Yeah, its pretty horrific. But our best course of action to save those lives is to have Molly create the antidote, and also stop whoever has the toxin blend now from deploying it en masse.”


Molly noticed he used the word blend.


Someone else who knows more than he’s letting on?


Abso-fucking-lutely.


Sean kept talking, his eyes trying to convey his sincerity, and his hand-waving seeming to punctuate his honesty. “Have you put together that these outbreaks of violence in different areas in the city are related to the toxin?”


Molly and Paige looked at each other.


“You said there was something wiggy about that!” Paige exclaimed.


“No, we hadn’t. Not exactly,” admitted Molly slowly, trying to understand what he was telling them. “So you’re saying that this toxin induces aggressive outbursts?”


Crash placed a mug of mocha in front of Sean, and Sean nodded his thanks while he kept talking.


“Yes. About twenty hours before death. It’s just a matter of time before the media starts putting it together. Because of the longish lag time between the outburst and death, it’s going to take a few more days for the pattern to become clear to the authorities. We thought that if you had a heads up on the symptoms though, it might help you isolate the toxin components and come up with a fix.”


Molly had pulled up her holo and was taking notes. “Uh huh. Yes,” she agreed. “That’s helpful, actually. Are there any other symptoms? And any differences between oggs, Estarians and humans?”


“Not that we’re aware of,” he shared, taking a sip of his mocha. “We understand that it affects all races equally, and without discrimination.”


Paige made the appropriate faces and noises of sympathy for the victims. Crash meanwhile had placed mugs of mocha in front of both Molly and Paige and was standing at the machine making his. “Damn awful stuff,” he chimed in.


Molly was still looking at Sean quizzically. “You keep saying ‘we’. You mean… you and Garet?”


Sean shook his head, grinning now. “No, I mean me and some other good guys.” Molly wondered if he were enjoying the opportunity to create some enigma. It can’t have been something he would have experienced much in his line of work, Molly guessed.


Sean filled them in on some of the work that Garet was trying to do, and said that he sends his best wishes.


“Sounds like he’s walking a very tight and dangerous line,” commented Paige. Molly wasn’t sure, but there seemed to be a tinge of ‘I told you so’ in her voice.


Sean picked up on this, and encouraged it. “It is. But he won’t be dissuaded.”


Damn it. He’s building rapport with Paige. He’s a slick operator, this one. 


I’m guessing advanced trainings in all manner of things. 


I’m thinking you’re right. Heck, he’d give Joel a run for his money. 


Sean was still talking, looking intently at Paige. “I just do what I can from the shadows to make sure that he’s more useful to them alive than dead. It’s a full time job, the political babysitting!”


“Ha! We should get Joel in on this gig,” Molly chuckled, tickled by the image. She put on her movie announcer voice, “GI Joel - babysitter. The most deadly game in town.” The group roared with laughter.


Crash even had to wipe a tear from his eye. “What a hoot!” he exclaimed.


Sean was laughing with them. “Yeah, it’s pretty accurate. It’s like any of these things, though: it’s all plain sailing until something shifts and the shit hits the fan.”


“Plus,” he added. “Garet is constantly throwing wrenches in the works in our attempts at keeping him safe. He just won’t be told.”


Paige nodded knowingly. “Sounds like he’s gotten a little more reckless, since getting this second chance at life.” She got up and placed her now empty mocha cup in the plastic crate especially for carrying them down to the basement and washing them out.


“Yeah,” Sean mused. “Oh, but one thing I could use your help with at some point, is setting up a secure drop point so that you can pick up packets of intel as he collects it. If you can come up with a sweet system that lets him pass it to you for either safe keeping or using, he might be able to make an even bigger impact.”


He paused, not knowing who to direct this request to. “It’d need to be 100% secure, and under the radar of Andus. Or anyone else who might be watching.”


Molly was taking a sip of mocha, and swallowed before answering. “Hmm, leave it with me. I’ll need to think of the best way to do that. I’m assuming every device and access point he has is bugged?”


Sean nodded.


Molly spun around awkwardly on her crate, and ditched her mug in the washing bin too. “Might need to look at something that connects through a public network, then. I’ll get back to you on that.”


“Okay, great. Anyway, I should make tracks.” He finished his mocha and stood up to place his cup in the same crate. “But I’m glad we got the chance to connect.”


Paige took his mug and placed it in the crate for him.


Molly stood up and offered her hand out to shake. “Thanks for the intel,” she told him. “It’s going to help in solving this.” He took her hand and shook it, his grip a little tighter than she was used to.


“Sure thing,” he replied. “And if you need anything, just leave a message on this server.” He typed something into his holo and then bounced his wristband against hers. “Don’t try and contact me directly; there’re no guarantees your thread wont be traced. But this server is secure.” He nodded at her holo before continuing. “I’ll be around, working on this to avert as much as we can, so no doubt we’ll confer down the line. Do let me know when you have the antidote figured out, yeah?”


“Will do!” said Molly. She thought about giving him a mock salute, but since they were both military it would have been a little lame. Instead she just waved as he turned and headed down the ramp.


Paige came and stood beside her, also watching him leave. “Did you see his muscles?” she exclaimed, as soon as he was halfway down.


“Shhh…” Molly hushed her quickly.


She could have sworn his profile was smiling as he turned and walked down the side of the ship.




Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




A few hours later, Joel had returned. In light of the investigation, he decided they needed boots on-planet for when they had an antidote. And if they could isolate the toxin itself before it was released, then so much the better.


Molly and Joel agreed that she should go back to Gaitune, and leave him and Pieter to implement. This meant that the car needed to be completely unloaded of her supplies… something that Paige wasn’t entirely happy about, but it did make her grateful for not having worn high heels.


“Okay, you sure you’re going to be okay here on your own?” Molly asked Joel, wondering if she was asking more because she felt anxious about him not being by her side.


“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Joel told her. “Are you sure you guys will be okay without the car on Gaitune?”


Molly waved her hand. “Yeah, totally. We’ll get another one, in fact. We just didn’t think when we were packing things up.”


Joel chuckled. “It’s okay. I watched my life pass in front of my eyes when I thought of being stranded here, destined only to take taxis in the big city!” he joked with her.


Molly stepped half a step closer. “So how long until Pieter will be ready to leave?” she asked.


“Couple of days,” Joel said, looking out at another ship taking off from the launch pad. He scratched the back of his head, and stepped a little further away from Molly. She noticed, and cocked her head.


He sighed. “You sure you want to have him designing something so specific for the data drops?”


“Yeah,” she said. “He should be able to handle it. If he fucks up building this new system, we’ll just have to circle back to it later and take another stab at it. In the meantime, Oz and I will have to focus on getting this toxin contained and an antidote developed.”


Joel swung his arms around a little and then stretched them back behind him, loosening his chest. “How much do you want me to tell him about Garet and The Syndicate?”


Molly sucked on her lip for a moment, considering. “Well, he’s part of the team, right? He should know it all…”


“Okay,” Joel tilted his head. “It will also be good for him to see how we work. And you never know. He might even be helpful on this outing.”


“Outing?” She glared at him. “You’re a fucking moron sometimes.” Molly slapped at the top of his arm. “Just stay safe, you hear?” Her voice weakened a little. For a second it looked like she was going to hug him, before she shut down and took a step back again.


“Yeah, you too,” he said, scratching the back of his head, the other hand awkwardly on his hip again.


She turned and jogged up the ramp of the waiting ship.


Joel stepped well clear of the hangar doors as Crash fired up the engines. Slowly the ship lurched out of the hangar, and onto the airfield road. Once they were well clear of the hangar, Joel headed back in to close up.


 Just as they reached the take off pad, Joel came out, pausing before getting into the car. He waited, watching them lift off.


He waved, knowing they couldn’t see him. But he wanted to wave them off anyway.


For nearly a minute he stood watching their ascent.


“See you soon, ass munchers!” he mumbled under his breath, as the ship disappeared above the clouds. He couldn’t help but feel a twinge of separation. These were his people, he thought. But he had a job to do.


He got in the car, and pulled up his holo to find some digs for the next few days he was going to be in town.












CHAPTER NINE


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Molly’s lab




After the day-long trip, the remainder of the team arrived back on Gaitune-67. After just a few hours in the rack, Molly was back at work. By the time Paige had joined her, her research was in full swing.


“What does this do?” Paige asked, idly turning the wheel that would hold the test tubes of samples for processing.


“Don’t touch it,” said Molly quietly, barely moving her lips, and without even lifting her eyes from her microscope.


Paige humphed and sat back down at the bench she had just gotten up from.


“I could help you, if you told me what you were doing,” she protested.


“How’s your advanced organic chemistry, then?”


“Er…”


“Any experience in new genetics?”


“No.”


“What about handling toxins that could kill you in a matter of hours, in a horrendously painful death?”


Paige shook her head, feeling a bit stupid.


Molly realized that her attempt at snark was probably hurtful. She looked up.


“Sorry.” She said gently with a little apologetic smile. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just… there’s a lot of pressure on this, and if there was something you could do, I would gladly give it to you… You might be able to help with something later, though.”


“Kay.” Paige seemed consoled. She leaned on the bench and carried on watching Molly. “Maybe I should start reading up, to understand more of what’s going on.”


Molly had returned to her samples. “Or even going through some of the information about this case. ‘Go for the immediately practical’ is my motto.” She looked up, just to give Paige the interaction she was probably needing.


Molly continued talking while preparing another slide. “Sean had said there was a connection between the outbreaks in violent incidents, and this toxin we’re replicating. Maybe you could gather everything there is about that and see if we can work out how they’re getting this toxin out to people.”


Paige looked brighter. “That, I can do!” she said, pulling up her holo.


Silence fell on the lab again.


Molly had commandeered one of the basement areas next to Brock’s workshop as her own lab. The smaller room between the lab and the workshop was the gym. Molly was quietly pleased that she had some of the normal activity around her work area - it would help her fight the isolation that she tended towards.


Right now, though, Paige was making damn sure that wasn’t an issue.


Paige looked up again, and Molly, eyes still on the same microscope slide, sighed to herself. She wasn’t used to this much company while she worked.


“Replicating?”


“Yheees…” she said slowly.


“I thought you were developing an antidote?”


“I will. But the toxin is made up of a blend of strains of the toxin, as it were. So I need to have the right combo to be able to develop an antidote.”


“Oh.” Paige blinked, not really registering what Molly was explaining.


“I’m doing it old school. Once we’ve got the right blend, we can run it through a chemical simulator to make sure it matches the specific symptoms and the incubation period of the symptoms in our victims. Then I’ll find the match by tweaking an existing program. Kind of like cooking.” She paused a moment, looking up at the ceiling. “Or quantum loop gravity calculations.”


Paige nodded slowly.


She started to say something to Molly, then stopped herself. Quietly, she went back to her research, now understanding that for some reason the information she was searching for was going to be needed in the next phase. For a few moments she had assumed that Molly might have just given her a job to keep her occupied.


Some time passed, and Molly had been through a series of slides and samples. Paige couldn’t follow exactly what she was doing, but when she finally stood back from the bench and stretched, Paige figured it was probably okay to speak to her again.


“So, how does this all tie in with your thesis?”


“Oh, I wrote a paper about gene sequencing, and how it could be used to give almost any property to any plant. These samples I’m analyzing are the nectar from the Trachycarpus fortunei plant, commonly known as the Yultok, which we grow all over the place. That was the point of the thesis - to show that anything could be made dangerous when you messed with its genetic makeup. Anyway, the nectars have each been given different properties by the scientists, using the part of the gene responsible for the nectar properties.”


Paige frowned a little, closing one of the screens she’d been working on. “So you mean you can create any property by re-sequencing the genes?”


Molly spoke easily while she organized the next stage of tests. “Well, not anything. But we can take certain things and give them different properties. Like one time, I took some tree cells and made them smell of bacon.”


Paige laughed, her eyes wide. “You’re kidding?”


Molly smiled, realizing how silly it sounded in the big scheme of things. “No. Crazy, eh? But the standard thing grads liked to do to show off was to make furry creatures glow like sea creatures. Or sea creatures grow fur or feathers. Most of it is pretty nasty stuff, though. I stuck to plants.”


Paige went quiet, and started searching for something on her holo.


A few minutes later she spoke again.


“Did you know that 80% of Estarian nail colors are made from plant based colors?”


Molly was putting one toxin on ten slides. She stopped midway through without looking up. She knew right away where this was going.


“No shit?” She kept her head down so Paige couldn’t see she was trying not to smile.


“Yeah, it’s true,” Paige continued in earnest. “So, potentially, if you weren't in the middle of saving the world, you could mess about with the properties of the plant to give us different types of nail color.”


“Potentially. If I weren’t in the middle of saving the world.” Molly remained deadpan. “Or, if I had nothing better to do with my life, like repeatedly beating my head against the door that won’t open, just in case the thousandth time, it worked.”


Paige’s face fell a little. She paused, weighing her options. Molly was applying the second toxin to half of her new samples.


Paige suddenly looked determined. “Okay, so, what if I did some digging to help you do this ‘realm exploration thing’ you’re so interested in, and, in return, you develop some new nail colors for me?”


Molly was searching through her test tubes of remaining toxins. She kept scanning as she spoke. “How about you do some digging,” she said, finding what she was looking for, and opening it up. “And I’ll get Oz to find a way of getting you some nail color shipped here?”


She applied the third sample to two of the first combined toxins and then two of those that had only the first strain on the slide.


“Nooo!!!! That defeats the purpose!” Paige whined. “I want you to explore making nail stuff that doesn’t exist. Like super hard, unchippable color. Or colors that are neon, or iridescent, or whatever!” She spoke faster and the pitch of her voice increased as her excitement at the possibilities swelled.


Molly had sealed her first slide and had her eyes looking back down the microscope again. Paige couldn’t even tell if she was listening.


“Molly…”


“Yeah?”


“What do you think?”


Silence. And then finally…


“Ugh. Lemme think about it.”


“OMG! That’s what my mom would say when she really meant no.”


Molly looked up, now smiling.


“And that tone is the voice I used to use when I was frustrated with my mom!”


Paige laughed. “Come on - it will be fun!” she promised.


“Okay. If we get out of this alive, then yes. Maybe.”


“No, you can’t say ‘yes, maybe’.”


“Okay, probably.”


Paige made a stern face. Molly sighed.


“Okay, okay. Definitely. When this is over, though.”


Paige jumped up and down and squealed. “Oh my ancestors… I have to go tell Brock.”


Molly watched her leave, relieved she hadn’t run over to hug her while she was elbow deep in, probably, some of the deadliest materials in the system.


She could here the sound of Paige’s high heels clicking down the corridors for a good twenty seconds after she left the room.


Eyes back to her microscope, she smiled as she saw the exact reaction she’d been looking for.


Halfway there, she said to herself. Halfway there.


Erm, Molly.


Yeah?


Just something I noticed when I was reviewing your thesis just now… 


Yeah? 


Well, it seems you made two leaps in order to make that process work. I can’t find any reference to these methods before, and applying the principle of the Adjacent Possible, it appears that for you to have written that thesis at that time is impossible. 


Are you saying I didn’t write it? 


No. I’m saying that there is something else going on that even you may not have been aware of. 


Go on. 


Well, I’ve tested your cognitive ability. And it’s high. Off the charts, in fact, when normalized for the general population. 


But… she prompted


But to have been able to make the skips you made… Have you heard of the concept of the Adjacent Possible?


Er, nope.


Well it’s basically the idea that certain things have to happen in order for the next step in the evolution of an organism, a system, an idea, a technology. For instance, life couldn’t have occurred before the cell existed. The cell couldn’t have existed until fatty acids had developed out of the primordial soup and then self-organized into spheres lined with a dual layer of molecules. Once the fatty acids combined to form those bounded spheres a new wing of the Adjacent Possible opens up… because then you have smaller molecules which can flow in, combine and react and then the larger molecules can’t get out. You have an inside and an outside. Cells are one example of the next Adjacent Possible to the existence of the fatty acids.  


Meaning… 


Some of the leaps you made in your paper were outside the bounds of the Adjacent Possible you started from given the technology and awareness available to you at the time. The techniques you developed are like having created cells before the evolution of fatty acids or bounded membranes. 


What are you saying Oz? 


Well, you clearly wrote that paper. It’s your style, your finger prints are all over it. You have memory of it. I can only postulate that you were exposed to information that led you through these leaps, leading you to conclusions that made these methodologies possible well ahead of their time.


Molly thought back to the comment Eugene had made about how the tech had evolved. She’d had to reengineer equipment to do the minute work that she wanted to do, but now they had photo optic lasers that could be controlled way better for splicing the molecules.


You may have a point, Oz. 


I suspected so. 


So is there any way to trace this?


I can poke around. But your memory of any significant papers which helped you make these leaps would be highly useful. 


You can access those? 


Yes. When you sleep. 


Okay. Make it so, then. 


Okay. When you sleep. I won’t make you sleep now, while you’re holding that slide. 


You can make me go to fucking sleep? 


Of course. I have control of most of your neural cortex. 


Son of a Bitch! You could have told me that when I was trying to get some sleep on the flight! Dickwad. 


That’d be Charles. 


No. It’s Dickwad Oz, now. 




Hotel Erwin, downtown Spire




Pieter arrived at the hotel room to find Joel sitting at the table in the suite, holoscreens out, immersed in the “leg work” of the case. Joel had one leg up on a chair and seemed to be stretching his hamstring while he worked.


Pieter closed the door behind him, and dumped a number of bags on the bed. “Okay, I got the tech pieces I needed, and I think I can start building something that will do the job.”


Joel looked up, unimpressed with the tech. “What about the important stuff?” he asked, hunger in his eyes.


Pieter grinned. “Oh, yeah, I got that alright.” He rummaged through the bags, locating the one with the hot, steamy containers in it. “Calzone with bacon and extra hot sauce, extra beef… No garlic.” He handed the steaming packet over to Joel, the “Hot Pocket” text written in repeat all over the wrapper.


Joel took the package and started unwrapping it immediately. “Knew there was a reason I hired you!” he said, grateful to finally have food. He hadn’t bothered to calculate how long since he had eaten, but however long it was, his stomach was telling him food time was well over due.


“What did you get?” he asked as Pieter located his own Hot Pocket, and abandoned the other bags on the bed to join Joel at the table. He dumped a stack of napkins on the table before sitting down.


“Ground beef, bacon, and pulled pork, with extra hot sauce!” Pieter was fully distracted by the food as he answered, carefully unwrapping the package.


The pair looked like they hadn’t eaten in a week as they tucked in.


Joel started talking through a bite of pastry. “You know, it’s great to be able to chow down on something meaty with a fellow carnivore!” He realized he came across as a little more excited than he wanted to sound.


Pieter looked up at him, missing the point. “Yeah. It’s good.”


Joel explained further. “Without judgment, I mean. Molly… she’s great and all, and she doesn’t judge, but I feel bad eating half a cow in front of her.”


“Veggie?” Pieter asked.


Joel swallowed the mouthful he’d been chewing. “Yeah. To the extreme. Anything that ‘had a face,’ or came from something with a face… she won’t touch it. Makes ordering pizza a bitch.”


Pieter laughed. “So you haven’t had, say, pepperoni pizza since you signed up with her?”


Joel waved his hands around enthusiastically to emphasize his hardship. “Practically. I mean, I have to eat that stuff. We just do half and half where possible. But ancestors forbid that she ends up with any kind of meat on her piece!”


The pair laughed, and continued eating - more carefully now, because as they got to the filling, the Hot Pockets were so damn hot.


Eventually they started to slow down, and started to talk more.


Pieter indicated to the screens Joel was looking at while chewing. “Find out anything new?”


Joel nodded, chewing and trying to clear his pallet. “Yeah, it seems that these two scientists that went missing were model employees.” He shook his head, and pulled up their images to show Pieter. “I’m starting to think that maybe they were being threatened to steal that toxin.”


He absently tried to bite into the next bite of filling but it was just too hot. Having eaten some crust, convincing his stomach that food was on the way, he carefully placed it down on the wrapping to let it cool.


“We need a way to get into their holos, bank statements, and everything else to see what’s going on. I’ve only been able to get so far. I think if anything were there, it’s probably been removed to avoid suspicion.” He was musing, but then seemed to remember that he’d just hired Pieter as his tech guy. “Hey, think you can have a crack at it?”


“Sure!” Pieter looked both excited to have something real to work on, and a little anxious that he was being thrown straight in.


Joel transferred the files over to Pieter's holo, for when he was finished eating. “So how did you get on with the parts for the system?” Joel asked, changing the subject.


Pieter had just taken another bite, and was chewing fast to be able to answer.


Kid must have a mouth made of asbestos, Joel thought to himself.


“Yeah, I got everything I needed,” Pieter responded. “I just need to get to building it and then make sure that it works. I think I’m going to have to write a specific firewall for it, too, so that the data can only be placed on the server, but not retrieved, in case it is ever discovered. The idea would be if Garet was ever caught with it, it should just look like something mundane, like a normal data plug or something.”


Joel was impressed. He saw Pieter was thinking through the user application rather than just the code. Guys like this were hard to find.  “Got it,” he said. “And then when he wants to upload, he goes somewhere public and uploads it to the server…”


Pieter picked up the trail of thought “… which looks exactly like a Webflix server if anyone were to isolate the packets…”


“… and then we will be able to download it to our servers any time after that,” finished Joel.


Pieter looked pleased with himself. “Yep. That’s the plan!”


“Okay,” Joel said, laying out the plan. “I’d like to field test it before we give it to Garet. He’s one of us. We need to make sure he’s not going to compromise himself any more than he is already doing.”


Pieter put down his Hot Pocket briefly and made some holo notes. “Yeah, I get that,” he agreed. “Man, he’s got balls to be doing what he’s doing.”


Joel nodded, carefully picking up his food again. “Yeah, like you wouldn’t believe. Honestly, when I first met him he seemed a bit of a pussy. You know, average guy in a life or death situation.”


Joel’s eyes fixed on a spot on the wall as he remembered the day in the hotel room not dissimilar from the one they were in now.


“But since he was nearly kidnapped, and everything else went down, he seems to have embraced the danger. Like he found out what was really important to him, and just decided to go for it, no matter what.”


Joel paused, the Hot Pocket half way to his mouth. “You know, I think I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy.”


Pieter was listening intently. He stopped chewing, and swallowed. “Sounds like a hero.”


Joel looked thoughtful. “I’ve been on the fence about him a lot of the time, but recently, I’m thinking, yes. He is.” He took a bite of the Hot Pocket, careful to just eat the bits that had had time to cool.


He indicated to his holo screens. “I was watching some of his speeches. He’s really making a difference. And I know he’s having to do some dodgy shit behind the scenes; he’s in the pocket of a really dark group, but he’s also managing to make some good strides with what he does.”


Pieter was curious. “Didn’t he come out of nowhere, though? I mean, he was just a government employee, right? Then a whistle blower, and all of a sudden he’s what, a senator?” Pieter took another bite of food. Joel was sure he saw him flinch a little at the heat.


Ha! Not so tough, teflon boy… he mused to himself.


“Yeah, that’s right,” Joel nodded, interested to hear how the guy he’d hauled into a getaway car, under a hail of gunfire, was now being perceived.


He continued. “The Syndicate made him a senator. When Dewitt, his boss, was killed - probably also by The Syndicate - it left an opening. An opening that The Syndicate wanted filled with someone they can control. Garet took the position to try and do some good, knowing he’d have to do some stuff for them along the way.”


Pieter had just swallowed his mouthful. “Sounds like a difficult balancing act.”


“Yeah. A very dangerous one,” Joel agreed. “And if we can help him leverage some of the things he is managing to do, then so much the better.” Finally realizing he was able to eat the Hot Pocket that wasn’t so hot any more, Joel dug into the meaty awesomeness, and didn’t speak again until he was done.












CHAPTER TEN


Newstainment Offices, downtown Spire




Evenings at the office were the best time for getting work done, and for accessing footage that she shouldn’t be. With most people having already left, there was a quietness which still remembered the activity of the day. Almost like the determination and energy of the place lingered.


Maya was the only person left in her section of cubicles. She’d seen Scott, or Stanley, or whatever his name was, from the entertainment group, scuttling around earlier… but even he might have left.


Maya scrolled through the footage again.


There was something not right with it; something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She found it hard to believe that the girl and the guy on the screen were really involved in Dewitt’s death. There had to be something more to this story.


She scrubbed backwards and ran the clip again.


“Any progress?” Bob August popped his head over her work cubicle wall.


Maya screwed up her mouth to one side. “Not yet,” she said, still looking at the screen. “Something isn’t adding up.”


“Well, you could do with figuring it out before tomorrow morning. I want something juicy to run the next cycle with.”


As Editor-in-Chief of Newstainment, and a veteran investigative journalist, he was a hard ass; hard-boiled in the news, and, though he demanded high standards and commitment to the story, he ran a fair ship.


Maya nodded, a strand of hair falling in front of her face. “You got it, boss,” she said, peering at her screen and ignoring the strand of hair.


Bob turned to go. It was getting late in the evening, and it had been a long, caffeinated day of meetings and activity out on the streets. All he really wanted was to unwind with a glass of wine.


Something stopped him leaving, though.


He turned back to Maya, poking his nose over her cubicle again.


“What are you watching?” he asked, with the curiosity of his gut that had led him to finding many a successful story. She started to describe it to him. He knew the clip already, and came round to look at it properly over her shoulder.


“You know, that girl… she’s not shown up in the police facial recognition. Which in itself is odd. But you know what else…” he trailed off.


He waved his index finger absently in the air, and walked off towards his office. Maya figured it meant wait a minute. She sat, scanning other screens she had up, awaiting his return.


“Maya!” he called from his office ten feet away. Had the office not been deserted, she might have been embarrassed. Instead, now having the run of the place, she left her desk and obediently trotted through to him.


She hovered at the door, and he beckoned for her to come in. He pushed a holoscreen out to the wall, enlarging it. In that moment he looked transformed, now seeming more like a journalist who had caught a case, than an aging, disgruntled editor.


He stepped over to the screen, poking his finger into the hologram of Molly’s face. “Knew I’d seen that face before. Check it out.”


Maya stepped closer to the image to get a better look. Her hand reached up unconsciously, as it occurred to her.


“Same girl!” she breathed.


“Same girl,” he confirmed.


Maya, face up to the holo, turned to glance at him. “Where is this?” she asked.


Bob ambled away from the screen to sit confidently behind his desk. “Coming out of a research facility. Ventus Research.”


The video clip showed Molly and Paige outside of the Ventus Research, with two of the scientists helping them load things into their car.


Maya had turned her head back to the hologram, nose practically interfering with some of the light rays. “Wonder what’s going on,” she mused out loud. “Who is the girl? Why is she here? What is she taking out of that facility? And what was she doing at the Dewitt residence when he died?”


Bob was watching Maya with the look of a proud parent. “Answer those questions,” he told her, “and you’ll have one hell of a story.”


Maya nodded. “You got anything else?”


Bob shook his head. “The video was sent in anonymously. To my personal holo account.”


Maya barely needed time to consider the information.


“Means it’s from someone who is smart enough to figure out who you are, and how to get your attention.”


Bob had taught her well. He bobbed his head, crossing one leg over the other knee. “Rules out the run of the mill kind of tips and whistle-blowers,” he admitted.


Maya looked up again at the footage. “You tried seeing if Tech can trace it?”


Bob scoffed. “Those buffoons?”


“Quiet,” agreed Maya softly. “Mind if I try?”


Bob waved his hands, “Be my guest!”


She nodded in acknowledgment.


Bob checked the time on his holo, then rubbed his face with his hands. “Okay, all yours,” he sat up again suddenly, uncrossing his legs and poking at his holo. “Sending it to you now. Let me know what you find out.”


Maya felt she had been dismissed, so she headed straight back to her desk. So much for heading home for an early night tonight, she thought. How could she possibly sleep with such a lead on this thing?


She settled in to watch the video and start the research process. She may have to call in a few favors in the morning.




District Morgue, downtown Spire




Maya arrived at the district morgue just as the morning shift was coming in.


“Dr. Jones? I’m Maya Johnstone,” she called down the corridor. The slow gait, and hunched shoulders told her that this man was just finishing his shift.


He turned around, and instantly remembered. “Ah, the girl who phoned during the graveyard shift.”


She had two mochas in her hands, and as she approached him, she held one out for him. He chuckled. “You’re too kind.”


The guy sighed, and indicated to the chairs in the corridor. “Shall we sit a moment?”


They sat down, and he began right away. “You wanted to know about the Jane Doe?”


Maya nodded expectantly.


Jones mirrored her nodded and continued, “Her throat was slit and she bled out. We’ve tried running matches for blood type, DNA, fingerprints, and dental records… Nothing. It’s like she’s been erased from the system.”


Maya looked down at her mocha, thinking out loud. “Or she was never in the system?”


Jones looked confused.


Maya noticed, and shifted her focus. “And if she’s not in the system, then it doesn’t matter who her DNA says she is, we can’t identify her.”


He dipped his head, and moved his mocha for emphasis. “Correct. But you said you might have something,” he said, pointing one finger at her with the paper mug in his hand.


“Yes,” she started. Maya scrambled to get to her bag and then swiveled in her seat, looking for somewhere to put her mocha down. He held out his other hand to hold it for her, and she gratefully handed it over.


She continued talking while she pulled a printed photograph from her bag. “A picture of a person who went missing around the same time. The trouble is, and I think we should warn your colleagues… this missing person was a scientist at a facility that was dealing with lethal toxins. Not germs. But toxins.”


The elderly man exhaled and shook his head, but his hand movements were now restrained by the mocha cups. He’d spent the last several weeks in the lab with that body.


His eyes went up to the ceiling. “Okay. Let’s think this through. Those research grade things… they tend to work fast. It’s been two weeks, and the body is sealed in an evacuated tube, effectively frozen, to preserve any evidence.”


He stood up, and handed Maya her mocha back, then started walking back towards the double doors of the morgue, away from what Maya guessed was the locker room.


Maya started hurrying after him, battling to get her bag on her shoulder while carrying the mocha. “You don’t think there is a risk, then?” she called after him.


“I didn’t say that,” he called back. ”But let’s go check it out. And if you have a picture, then maybe we can ID her and get some progress on this case.”


They entered the morgue, and two “fresh” staff members turned in unison to look at them. They were just getting set up and reviewing case files on the morgue’s holo screen.


“Sorry for the intrusion,” Dr Jones announced. “It seems we may have a hazardous material in our midst.”


Jones briefly explained the situation to his two colleagues, who looked increasingly worried. Maya stood a few paces back, near the door, sipping her mocha casually, noticing their confused, furtive glances in her direction.


She was fascinated when the two professionals suddenly found urgent matters they needed to attend to elsewhere in the building.


“You’re not going to stop them?” Maya asked, after they’d left the lab.


“Nah,” Doctor Jones walked tiredly through the lab over to another set of doors. “If we’re infected with anything, then we’ve already spread it wherever it’s going to go. And, honestly, I think we would have shown symptoms by now. However…” He took out some protective gear from a box on a table just before the doors.


Maya plunked her mocha down on the desk next to the box as she stood next to the doctor.


“Gloves and facial mask,” he said, handing a set first to Maya and then taking a set himself.


They put them on, and he led her through to the storage area where they kept the bodies. He entered a code on a keypad on one of the lockers, and the airtight seal released with a pssssst, and then the drawer released outwards.


Maya took the picture out of her bag.


Jones pulled the drawer out a little, and then beckoned her over. He pulled back the cloth from over the woman’s face. Maya and Jones looked first at the woman, then at the picture and then at each other.


“Looks like you’ve found your girl,” he said grimly, respectfully replacing the cloth and closing up the locker again.


Maya nodded solemnly. “That’s her, alright.” She paused a moment. “So she bled out? Then what?”


Jones had a sad look in his eye. “Police report said she was found in a garbage truck when it was emptied out at the dump.”


Maya noticed his demeanor had shifted a little. This wasn’t just a job to him - he genuinely cared about these people and how they died. She caught herself wondering about him, and then pulled herself back to what she needed to get done.


“Okay. Looks like I need to trace that location,” she said, making a note on her holo.


Jones shifted back from the hint of melancholy she had noticed just a second ago. He closed and sealed the drawer again.  “I’ll get the name of the detective on the case. He’ll probably be able to help you.”


“Thanks,” she said.


He left the room, peeling off his gloves and mask.


Maya closed up her holo and followed him back through to the main morgue, picking up her mocha cup on the way. There was no way she was finishing what was left, toxins or no toxins. She found a trash bin, deposited the remains of her mocha, and popped the photo back into her bag.


“Here you are…” Jones called over from the lab holo. “It’s  Detective Antonio Rogers, in homicide. You can probably just reach him through the precinct switch board.”


He walked over to her and she held out her holo for him to bump the details over. “I’ll let him know you’re going to be in touch. I need to pass on this information to him next… just as soon as we run some tox-screens on the body.”


Maya checked the details and closed her holo again. “Excellent. I’ll call him this morning.” She looked up. “And thank you,” she said.


He nodded, the sad compassionate look in his eyes again.


“We’ll solve this,” she added, wishing there was more she could do for this dear man who had made justice for the dead his life’s work.


She turned to leave, but then stopped. “What will happen to her?” she asked.


Jones took a deep breath. “Well, now we have an ID, the investigation will continue. Her next of kin will be notified, and then, as long as she’s not toxic, she’ll be given back to her family for a service.”


Maya nodded slowly. After a moment she mumbled her thanks again and left.



Hotel Remona, New Versaille, 37 km East of Spire




David Rek, scientist and murderer, was pacing the little hotel suite in frustration. His fists kept clenching and unclenching, like he was trying to find something to punch and then trying to talk himself out of it.


“You said I could speak to my family. I’ve cooperated. I’ve done what you asked. Now let me speak to my wife,” he demanded.


Erik, the Ogg, was firm. “Not until the boss gets here.” His jaw was set.


Rek stopped and glared at him. Erik held his gaze.


The pair became aware of thumping on the floorboards outside.


Thump, thump-i-ty-thump. 


A slight hint of humming came through the door.


They returned their attention to their standoff.


As an Estarian, Rek stood a good few feet taller, but Erik had the black atmos jacket and the “bad guy look” about him. Plus he was built with a solid, low center of gravity, and probably fewer brain cells.


Rek wondered about his chances against Erik, and then remembered his opponent’s weapon, tucked into his belt.


Thump, thump-i-ty-thump. Thump, thump-i-ty-thump. 


More humming.


Still playing the stare down, Erik started to falter.


He turned his head without moving his eyes, and called out to the door, “Henry, it’s your turn to watch the prisoner.”


There was a little gasp of excitement from outside the door, and a scuffling, as if someone were getting up.


A moment later Henry fell into the room, brimming with excitement. “Yay! My turn. My turn!”


Erik had broken the stare, and now glared at Henry like it was his fault. “What were you doing out there?”


Henry blinked, cocking one hip. “Nothing.”


Erik narrowed his eyes. “You were dancing, weren’t you?”


“No.” Henry replied flatly and looked off into the top corner of the room.


Erik insisted. “We could hear you prancing around.”


Henry’s eyes went down to the floor. “So?”


“Here,” Erik said gruffly. He handed Henry the gun from his waistband. “Watch him. I’m going down to the lobby to watch for Miss Jessica,” he told Henry.


Then he turned to David. “It’s set to full power, so don’t try anything stupid.” He paused for effect, and gave his most menacing glare up at the strapping Estarian. “Henry is trigger-happy, and not all there.” His expression changed, as if now confiding in him. He stepped in a little closer to Rek. “He thinks he’s in a computer game,” he whispered.


The two adversaries turned their heads to look at Henry who was now casually swinging the gun on one finger, a dopey grin over is face.


“So… what did you have for lunch?” Henry asked David, trying to make conversation.


David looked at him, horrified that his captor would ask such a thing.


Erik gave a knowing look. “See… not all there.” And with that he strode out of the room, closing the door behind him, leaving Rek and Henry alone.


Aghast at both the situation and the imbeciles who were holding him, Rek strode over to the window, looking out for this Jessica woman who had been calling all the shots. If he could get a glimpse of her car or something, it might be a clue that he could use.


If he ever got out of here alive.


He spun around, his hands on the windowsill. Henry had taken a seat in a chair by the door, gun in hand and trained on him.


Henry was an idiot. If he wasn’t holding a gun, Rek could have overpowered him any time.


But, then. They still had people watching his family. One wrong move, and all it would take would be a call to their colleagues, and that would be game over.


He turned back to the window, and churned the possibilities a number of times in his mind.


A few moments passed, and Henry piped up again. “You know, tomorrow I could bring some clothes in, and we could play dress up.”


Rek straightened up and turned around. Maybe this was an opportunity. “How about you do that?” he said, playing along.


Henry’s face brightened with sudden enthusiasm. “I can bring some makeup, too!”


Rek forced himself to smile. “Yes!” he said, with all the faux-enthusiasm he could muster.


Henry bounced his hands together, the gun waving in all directions.


Rek saw his chance. “Hey, you know… Oh,” he paused.


Henry stopped, intrigued. “What?” he asked, suspending his excitement.


Rek continued slowly, and as casually as he could. “Well, if I had my holo I could…”


Henry shut down, and trained the gun back on him. “No. No holo. You’re trying to be clever with me.”


Rek gave up instantly, and turned back to the window.


After two weeks in this living hell, having murdered his colleague and stolen a vial of enough toxin to wipe out the city, he was exhausted. He wasn’t going to pretend. Fuck trying to regain Henry’s trust. There was going to have to be another way.


Just then he noticed a black car pull up outside the hotel. The tall, glamorous woman they called Miss Jessica had arrived. He looked back around the room, searching for a weapon, or something he could use to get himself out of there. He even briefly considered taking her hostage.


There was nothing.


His shoulders slumped, and Henry continued humming away to himself.


All Rek wanted was to keep his family safe and go home to them…


He sat in the upright armchair by the window, opposite the door. He tried to look relaxed but noncompliant. Inside, he could feel the tension rising in his chest. He shifted awkwardly in his seat, trying to level out his breathing and calm his mind.


A few minutes later, Miss Jessica finally entered the room.


She was glamorous, but also commanding. It was no wonder these goons were in awe of her.


Her long red hair dulled some of the glow from her blue skin, and waved around her face like something out of a mystical book of sorcerers.


Erik physically pulled at Henry, dragging him out of the room by his sleeve.


Rek started making his case immediately. “I did what you asked,” he began, firm and demanding. “A deal is a deal.”


Miss Jessica shook her head, her hair bouncing gently as she did so. “Our deal isn’t quite done yet,” she told him. “You’ve still got one more task to perform.”


She wafted gracefully over to the bed and dropped her purse. Taking off her coat, she turned to look at him, holding his gaze.


If he hadn’t known the horror of what she actually wanted him to do, he might have assumed she was trying to seduce him.


He swallowed hard.


She perched on the bed. “The device. The one you designed for us. We’ve had two made, and they’re being filled tonight.”


He didn’t move. He just stayed in the chair, watching her. He may as well have been tied up.


She continued issuing the order. “Your task is to go with Henrik to the lab and collect the loaded devices. Then you will be taken to where they are to be deployed; your job is to arm the device and deploy it into the water supply, as per the design.”


She casually held his gaze knowing he had no choice but to agree.


Rek shifted in his seat again, now looking anywhere he could but at her.


Finally he spoke. “And if I do this, you will take me to my family, and let me get them out of town before this toxin gets through the system?”


She nodded her head once. “I will,” she promised.


His mind was already made up. “Okay. I’ll do it,” he told her.


She reached over for her coat. “Good,” she said, sealing the deal with the word.


She paused, a slight smirk on one corner of her lips. “Obviously I don’t need to remind you what is at stake.” Picking up her bag and coat, she turned to the door. “You’ll leave for the lab in an hour.”


With that, she opened the door to step out.


The two Oggs had been leaning against it with their ears against the wood trying to hear. With the door now gone, they lost their balance and landed in a heap at her feet.


Ansans Ari,” one said.


“Get your elbow out of my –“


“You fucking half-wit!”


Farðu til helvítis-”


Jessica raised her eyes to the ceiling as she stepped over them, and made her way down the hall.


Rek thought about just following her, but they still had his family.


If he was going to get through this, it would be because they either decided to let him go, or someone in the authorities realized that he was missing, and thwarted their plan.


Given that his family was being forced to go about their business, it looked like they had all their bases covered, though.


Eventually Henrik got their act together. Erik nodded to Henry to go back in, and he closed the door behind him, presumably to escort his mistress back downstairs. Rek could hear the Ogg padding heavily down the corridor after her.


Henry sat back up on the chair, swinging the gun idly and watching it pivot on one finger, as if nothing had happened.












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Ancestor Memorial Hospital Morgue, Spire




Maya clicked open a holo call to give Bob an update. It went to voicemail.


Maya waited for the beep and started talking. “Boss, I’ve found a link between Ventus Research Facilities and the toxin leak. Just need to check out another lead, the second scientist - then I’ll know more.”


She clicked off.


There. That should keep him satisfied for now. If she played her cards right, this story could cover a few new cycles in the primary positions.


Maya got out of her car in the visitor’s lot and headed up to the hospital morgue, the second place she was visiting that morning. With only a three-hour turnaround at her apartment, she’d had about two hours’ sleep and was still exhausted.


Following the signage to the morgue reception area, she waited patiently by the desk for someone to appear. Eventually a slim, timid girl emerged from a set of double doors into a corridor.


“Greetings. Can I help?” she asked politely.


“I hope so. I’m here about a John Doe. I called earlier and spoke to Carla.”


The female Estarian had a look of recognition at the information. “Ah yes,” she said, her voice turning from polite to warm. “Carla is off shift now, but she told me you’d be coming by. Maya, is it?”


Maya nodded, extending her hand. “Yes, that’s right.”


“Casey,” she replied, taking her hand and shaking it gently. Her hands were warm and soft, which surprised Maya for someone working in such a contrasting environment. “Would you like to follow me?”

Casey led the way through to the corridor and then in through a set of doors off to the left.


The two women walked side by side down the second corridor. Maya talked as they went. “Hey, Casey. Thanks for helping out like this.”


Casey glanced over. “Sure,” she said with a delicate smile. “So, our victim seems to have drowned,” she continued professionally, “but we’re having trouble identifying him because of the water damage to his prints.”


Maya braced herself for disappointment. “You’ve tried DNA?” she asked.


“No. It’s a long, resource-heavy process. We’d only do that if we suspected foul play. Right now, there isn’t enough evidence to make us think that. Though an ID would be nice.”


Maya’s face looked tense, but Casey didn’t notice. She led her through into the storage area, which was not dissimilar from the one she had been in less than an hour previously. She unsealed a locker, pulling out the tray.


Maya thought to pull out the photograph, but hesitated, instead choosing to mentally prepare herself for looking at another dead body.


Casey was about to pull the sheet back. She paused, looking back at Maya. “Ready?” she asked, her eyes showing a real compassion for those who would have had to identify loved ones.


Maya nodded.


Casey pulled back the sheet. This man was Estarian, alright, but had dark hair; and despite water bloating, was much older than her scientist.


Maya exhaled, and then noticed that she had been holding her breath. “It’s not him,” she said.


Casey replaced the sheet and then pushed the tray away and sealed it in.


Maya just stood there for a moment.


Casey gave her the space. “Always a relief,” she commented, her voice soft and comforting.


Maya wondered if she was actually a doctor, or whether she was an assistant that handled the identifications. This was the second person who had offered only her first name in the department.


Funny, the details you notice at times of emotional stress, she thought.


Maya nodded. “Yes, it is a relief. Thank you.” She sighed. “But it means the gentleman I’m looking for is still missing.”


They took their time wandering back out to reception area.


“Thank you so much for your help, Casey,” Maya said as she shook the woman’s hand again.


“Any time,” Casey smiled back.


Maya left, deep in thought.


If the second scientist is still alive, she considered, then maybe they’re keeping him alive for a reason. She headed out into the parking garage to find her car.


And what would an evil person want with a toxin, and one of the scientists who developed it? 


She slammed her palm against her forehead. Of course! They’re keeping him alive to run the experiments, and work out how best to deploy it large scale. 


She hurriedly located her car and got in.


This reeked of terrorism of some kind. And there would probably be a handful of people who would benefit from such an attack. She shifted the car into gear and started up the engine. She needed to get back to the office, and fast. This was way too big for her to handle on her own. She needed Bob in on the conversation for direction… and protection. He’d know what to do.


She sped away from the parking lot, ordering her nav system to find the fastest way back to the office.




Newstainment Offices, downtown Spire




Maya sat at her desk with Bob the Boss hovering over her. It was the middle of the day, and the newsroom was a hive of activity. She would probably have Bob’s attention for 120 seconds until someone else pulled it away for something urgent.


“Okay, so here is what I have,” she started, getting straight to it. “These two scientists have gone missing.”


She pulled up the images of David Rek and Ana Grossman on her holo. Bob peered over his glasses to look at them. “Uh huh,” he said.


Maya continued. “Except no one has reported them missing…”


Bob glanced down at her briefly. “So how do you know they’re missing, then?”


Maya didn’t miss a beat. “Because they were on the work schedule at the lab where they both work: Ventus Research.” She looked up over her shoulder to check her boss was following her explanation.


“Everyone had been drafted in,” she continued. “Everyone is swiping in. In fact, attendance at the lab has increased by 80% in the last 10 days. People are staying all hours of the day and night and working to exhaustion. Except these two. They’re not on leave, and they’re not there. They’re just not swiping in.”


Bob straightened up a little, and drew in breath. “And you got all this, how?” he asked. He was no longer looking at her screen, but now glancing down at her, sitting at her desk.


She turned awkwardly to look up at him, feeling like a little girl. “HR records,” she said flatly.


He looked back at the screen. “Clever girl.”


He went straight on, almost as if he were embarrassed to dwell on the praise. “So what’s the crisis they’re managing?” The excitement of a hunt for the story was evident again in his voice.


“Well,” she told him, “two weeks ago, they issued a release reporting that there had been a breech in protocol, and a toxin had been released into the population. It wasn’t germ warfare, or a virus that can spread, so it doesn’t have that sensationalism. The media, including us, have practically ignored it.”


She pulled up a different screen to show him one of their own reports, with low placement and a couple of hundred hits.


But,” she went on, “in this same time period… there have been outbreaks of violence. Isolated cases.”


Bob looked at her, twiddling his glasses in his hands. “You think there is a connection?”


Maya nodded, speaking more quickly now. “Yes, and the incidents are escalating in the amount of violence, and the number of people affected. I think someone is testing the potency of the toxin that was taken, and monitoring the effects for something bigger. That’s why they need this other scientist alive. I think he’s helping them.”


Bob stood upright again, one hand on his hip this time.


He considered the information for a moment and then laid out the action plan. “Okay, get Johnny to carefully look into the background of this second scientist.”


Maya started making notes.


“Get him to check on his family,” Bob continued. “If he’s being leveraged, they could be in danger. Anything we find, get it to the police. There’s no room for fokking around on this. The city could be in danger.”


Maya nodded diligently, knowing she needed to call the homicide detective anyway.


Bob started to leave her cubicle, aware that other people were already queuing up to speak with him.  He stopped and turned back to her.


“How did you find the girl in the morgue?” he asked.


Maya looked sheepish. “Ran a search for height and time of disappearance for both scientists who had disappeared. Only pulled up two possible matches, so I went down to ID them in person from their pictures.”


He frowned a little as he asked the obvious. “You couldn’t have used facial rec?”


She shook her head. “Something odd going on there. Why didn’t the authorities do that with the body? I figured that any trace of her on their records must have been wiped. I got Ana Grossman’s image off her social media profile. It would have been too suspicious for that to be removed, right? Got lucky, I guess.”


Maya was already pulling up the number for Detective Antonio Rogers.


Bob was shaking his head as he headed back to his office. “Good work, Maya,” he called back to her loudly, so that the whole department could hear him. “That kind of shit just can’t be taught.”


People who were standing around turned and looked at him, and then in the direction of her cubicle.


Maya smiled. She felt the stir it created, a dozen eyeballs drilling through her cubicle partitions to see why she was so special.


She shook the attention from her mind, and focused down on her work again. She wasn’t home free yet.












CHAPTER TWELVE


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Molly’s lab




Paige clip-clopped back into the lab.


Molly didn’t even look up, but acknowledged her entrance. “What’ve you been up to?” she asked.


It had been a good few hours, and Molly had actually noticed her absence.


Paige slumped back down onto a lab stool. “I was talking with the guys in the workshop,” replied Paige, somewhat cagily.


Molly smiled to herself. “Brock, you mean?” she asked, eyes still in the microscope.


Paige flushed a little.


“What did he think of your nail varnish idea?” Molly asked. “I take it you guys have plans for selling this shit commercially…”


Paige’s mouth hung open. “How could you possibly know that?”


Molly removed the slide and replaced it with the next one. “I didn’t, for sure. You just told me…”


Paige stared at her, waiting for more of an explanation.


Molly sighed, and started to explain. “Well, if he were interested for his own purposes, you would have told him and then come back to pester me about it some more.”


She flipped off another slide and swapped it out for the next one.


“But since you were gone for so long, I figured you must be talking about something.” Molly looked up. “I didn’t know for sure until I asked you, though.”


Paige, chuckling to herself, amazed at Molly’s abilities, rested her arms on the lab bench and then put her head on her arms.


Molly started tidying the set of samples away. “So, what are you? Equal partners?”


Paige shook her head. “No. He’s going to help with the modeling and brand image, but we won’t be able to nail that stuff down until we know everything the whole venture will entail. After we’re done with the mission, we’ll think about it some more.”


Molly dumped the bunch of samples she’d been working through into a bag for incineration.


Paige raised her head. “So how’s it coming along?” she asked, nodding towards the clutter of equipment and samples on the bench that Molly was now clearing away.


“I’ve replicated the toxin, and I know with 89.9% certainty which one they’re using.”


Paige’s normally smooth face looked wrinkled with concern. “Is that certain enough?”


Molly nodded. “It’s going to have to be. The next possibilities are 11.3% and 4.8%.”


Paige, despite her lack of scientific background, wasn’t convinced. “Is there any way to test it? To check it?”


“Yeah, if we had a sample to check it against we could be 100% certain. But unless we get a sample from someone who is infected…” her voice trailed off.


Paige looked more serious now. “Joel is still on the surface.”


Molly’s voice was firm. “And to ask him to track down someone who is infected would likely get him exposed and killed. Not an option.”


Paige nodded, racking her brain for a way to keep Joel safe, and still get them the sample.


Molly took a deep breath and exhaled conclusively. “Anyway, now that I have the most likely sample, I’ve already got an antidote sequencing.”


Excuse me? Who has it sequencing?


“Okay, so Oz is doing some super high-level processing shit to sequence an antidote.” Molly nodded over at a bench top machine that seemed to be whirring around. To Paige, it looked like a huge microwave oven.


“Great. So then what?” Paige asked. “Once you have an antidote here… how do we get enough of it to the surface?”


Molly waved her hand dismissively. “Once we know what it is, our friend Eugene should be able to replicate it there. Then we just have to think about how to deploy it once he’s created it.”


Paige looked at Molly blankly. Molly sat down poking at screens on her holo.


Molly hadn’t noticed Paige looking at her, and continued with the trail of thought. “You know, I noticed that the toxin is water soluble.”


She poked at a few more screens.


“If memory serves, the antidote for this plant toxin is also going to be water soluble…”


Paige shook her head, confused. “Which means?”


“Which means,” Molly looked up at her, “it’s likely that if they want to mobilize the toxin citywide, they’ll be hitting the water supply. The good news is, if the antidote is water soluble, we can put the antidote in there, too.”


Paige’s eyes were wide. “You think they might try and infect everyone?”


Molly nodded grimly. “Certainly seems likely,” she said.  “So that means we need to find the most likely access points that would cause the most effective distribution - whether that means for deploying our antidote… or to guard those points, and stop them deploying the toxin.”


Oz, can you pull the plans for the waterways in Spire? 


Already done, as you were interfacing with words.


As opposed to the more superior way of using 1s and 0s? 


Exactly. 


Molly cocked her head. Paige looked at her, amused, assuming she was talking with Oz. Head now in her hand, as she leaned onto the bench, she watched Molly’s reactions, waiting for the solution to magically appear in the conversation.


Okay, so there are three locations that are most likely to be toxin drop points. All are at distribution and filtration centers. If they understand what they are doing, they will hit the water post-filtration, before it is redirected back into the supply for a given area. 


Right. Any cameras on those access points? 


No. Only the building cameras for the staff. Not the specific vulnerable locations. 


So our next best bet is to get Joel to give us some eyes on these points, then? 


She opened her holo.


Can you get a voice message to him in the next download, and attach the location of these points? 


Affirmative. 


Molly started talking into her holo. “Joel. Update. We have the toxin combo isolated, and Oz is working on the antidote. Both are water soluble, which means they’re going to deploy the toxin through the water system. We think. Oz has isolated the most likely targets and is attaching their locations here. We haven’t got visual access on any of the locations, so, short of guarding the locations, can you get Pieter to fit some cameras there so you can monitor them? In the meantime, we’ll get the antidote composition to Eugene at the lab, and he can fabricate the amount you’ll need, should the toxin be released.”


She paused for a second, as if thinking of something else.


 “Please be careful.” She paused, as if wanting to add something else, but then decided not to.


She clicked off the recording, and swiped to upload it to the system so that Oz could do his thing.


She looked into empty space for a moment.


Paige sat still, not wanting to interrupt her.


Finally, Molly spoke. “We need to talk with Brock.”




Hotel Erwin, downtown Spire




Joel’s holo beeped.


He swiped to see the message. It was an incoming download from Gaitune-67. “We’ve got communication from Molly,” he told Pieter, as he watched the download bar intently.


“Think she’s found the antidote?” Pieter asked, the concern showing across his young face.


“Knowing her,” replied Joel, a modicum of tension releasing from his chest and shoulders as he considered how competent she was with all this.


The bar disappeared as the download opened. He played the voice message, and put it on speaker so that Pieter could hear too. He wanted to show that there were no secrets in their team. Even from a leadership perspective.


As the message played, Joel pulled up the maps and then shared the frame so they could both be looking at it spread across the table.


“These are all at different points in the city,” he said, once the message had ended. “It’s going to take several hours to get around to them all.” He looked up at Pieter. “What do you think about the cameras? Do we need to acquire some more gear?”


Pieter nodded. “Definitely. But I can route them all through this holo easily, and set up an alert every time any motion is sensed-”


Pieter stopped mid-thought.


Joel noticed. “Whatcha thinking?” he asked.


Pieter started speaking slowly. “Well, if someone is going to deploy the toxin, we’ll see where they do it. But after they’ve already done it. By that time, the water is contaminated…”


“And then we get our asses down there to deploy the antidote from the same place.” Joel finished his thought.


“Right,” agreed Pieter quickly. “But that’s less than ideal. What we really want is to be able to stop it from happening.”


Joel straightened up and scratched the back of his head. “Well, short of having someone to guard each point, that’s not going to be possible.”


Pieter became more animated. “What if it were? I mean, you and I could take one point each.” Pieter had a determined look in his eye.


Joel found himself somewhat surprised to see it, but then he had to be responsible. “How much combat training have you had?”


Pieter shrugged. “None. But you can teach me to shoot a gun.”


Joel eyed him carefully. “And if a whole squad shows up?”


Pieter looked unaffected. “Leave me with lots of bullets.”


Pieter’s fearlessness, bordering on the cavalier, reminded Joel of himself when he first signed up to the space marines. Of course, Joel probably had another couple pounds of muscle on him, and, yes, less geekiness, too.


Joel made the only decision he could as a leader.


“I don’t think so,” he told Pieter firmly. “But maybe Ventus has a security detail we can use.”


He pointed again at the map. “Let’s find a place to purchase those cameras fast, and then at least get them deployed. I’ll make a call to Molly’s contact at the research facility, and get things moving there.”


Joel sent the maps over to Pieter to figure out the road trip they were going to have to make. Then he pulled up a holo connection.


“Hi. Is this Eugene? … Great… This is Joel Dunham. I work with Molly Bates. Yes. Yes. I’m here on-planet…”












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Newstainment Offices, downtown Spire




“Maya Johnstone?”


The Ogg approaching her was obviously a cop. His brown atmosjacket was civilian, but there was an air about him that screamed law and order.


Maya turned from her desk in her cubicle, a look of recognition in her eyes. “Greeting of the day. Yes. Detective Rogers?” She stood up, and stepped to meet him.


Antonio Rogers held out his hand and they shook hands. Maya thought he was a sturdy character from the firmness of his handshake.


“I have a meeting room booked,” she told him. “Would you like to come in?”


He looked surprised to be treated so efficiently. “Sure,” he smiled.


Maya led the way out of the open-plan office and past the elevators, through to the series of glass-fronted meeting rooms. Ducking in the second door, she welcomed him in and held the door for him.


“Mocha?” she offered.


The detective waved a hand politely and then put it on his middle. “No, no thank you. I’m a bit mocha-ed out today,” he told her.


She smiled. “Yeah, I know that feeling.”


They sat, and the detective pulled up his holo. “So you got my name from…?”


“Doctor Jones, at the district mortuary,” she answered.


He didn’t speak, but gave her space to tell the story. Two sentences in, she was pulling up screens and details, as well as the Ventus employees’ profile pictures, explaining to him everything she knew.


He carefully took notes. “So you think that the guy, David-” he looked down at his notes, but she jumped in.


“David Rek.”


“Rek…” he repeated. “You think he is being held by them, and developing the toxin to be deployed en masse?”


“Yes.” Confidence radiated from her, despite the telltale signs of exhaustion under her eyes.


Rogers shifted in his chair and put his arm on the table next to him. He looked at her, trying to read how she had gotten so far in an investigation where he had come up with nothing.


She suddenly remembered something. “I have something else to tell you…” she added.


Rogers signaled for her to continue.


She pulled up a file on her holo that Johnny had bumped her just before Rogers had arrived.


“It’s the family. Everything seems to be happening as it should: kid going to school, wife going to work.” She opened up pictures of David Rek’s family, head shots and surveillance footage.


She continued. “But Johnny, one of our investigators, says that they seem… anxious. The mother picks the child up from school and hurries home. Other mothers have tried to stop her to talk, but it was like she was in a rush and distracted. Their reactions made it look like it was unexpected. Unusual.”


Rogers looked from the pictures back at Maya. “How do you think this means something?” Rogers was playing devil’s advocate.


Maya picked up on that. It was how Bob had trained her to think critically.


“Well,” she explained, “when someone behaves in a certain way, over time, people get used to it. Johnny told me that these women were reacting. This means that there is a change in behavior somewhere.”


She paused, watching his reaction. “I think Mrs. Rek would normally stand around and talk… but all of a sudden, this isn’t happening.”


Rogers nodded his head a few times, and almost started to smile. This girl was good. He wondered idly if she had an inclination for law enforcement.


“This is very useful intel. Thank you very much, Ms. Johnstone. Would you mind sending those pictures and anything else over to my holo?”


Maya nodded, obligingly. “Not at all,” she told him. “And if there is anything else I can do to help in the investigation, I’m here.” She hesitated, not wanting to sound melodramatic. “If I’m right, we’re all in danger.”


Rogers let the last several minutes of the interview sink in.


“Actually,” he said. “I do have one more thing.”


Maya tilted her head, indicating she was listening, without interrupting him.


“How does your girl in the Dewitt video tie into all this?” he asked. “Other than appearing on that other video. Someone wanted your editor to see the connection. What’s her role in all this? And who would want to expose her?”


Maya smiled to herself. That was such a Bob set of questions. It was moments like this when she deeply appreciated the long hours of mentoring and researching to find the right questions - and answers - that make a story.


She sighed. “Well, all I was able to find was that her name is Molly Bates…”


Rogers didn’t react.


What Maya didn’t notice was that he had checked himself, making sure he didn’t show any signs of recognizing the name.


He knew exactly who Molly Bates was. But he wasn’t ready to let the press know that.


Or that the police department hadn’t made the connection.


Maya was still talking. “… and she authored a paper on exactly how to create a toxin by genetically manipulating the Yultok plant’s DNA. It’s one of the projects that Ventus could be working on. It’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re studying - their research departments and grants are pretty vague-sounding.”


Rogers wondered briefly if she was single.


Maya continued her discourse. “But, anyway, I think she, and potentially these others on the video, are working for the terrorists, in some capacity. How she was able to walk out of there with all that equipment, though… it makes it look like there is even potentially something going on within the ranks of Ventus. Otherwise, why would those scientists in the video be helping her?”


Her eyes seemed pained at the possibility of a conspiracy to hurt so many people. Rogers felt the compassion in her voice.


He nodded sympathetically. “Yes, it certainly looks like this from the footage. But you’re right. It’s interesting that they would leave through the front door in daylight. Something is certainly going on, and we will investigate.”


Maya looked like she was going to ask a question, but she stopped herself.


Rogers thought he could probably guess what she was thinking. “Look, I know this is hard… you’re onto a potentially explosive story. But this, what you’ve been digging into, it’s dangerous. And I’m not just talking about the toxin, but that is another reason to stay well away from this.”


Maya nodded her understanding.


He spoke gently. “You have to leave this with us, now. I really appreciate you sharing all your hard work and discoveries with me, but you need to let us take it from here. Do you understand?”


He found himself wishing he could explain to her everything he and Chaakwa had discovered before he was reassigned. Intel not just about Molly Bates, but also about the people she was going up against. But that, he feared, would only put her in more danger.


He waited for her to confirm she would leave the rest of the investigation to the police, and then stood up and shook her hand. Maya walked him down to the elevators and waved him off.


He knows more than he is letting on, she thought to herself as the doors of the elevator closed on their conversation. And damn if she was going to sit back and wait for someone else to get to the bottom of this. Her life, and the lives of all her friends and relatives in this town, were on the line.


She wandered back to her desk, deep in thought about what her next move should be.




Spire Central Water Facility, Hlidargata 




Joel sighed as he and Pieter hopped out of the car with their gear.


“Last one!” he announced.


Pieter repeated his statement of the obvious. “Last one.” Pieter was tired. They’d been running around for the last eight hours, sourcing cameras and fitting them to monitor the vulnerable locations. He wasn’t used to this much activity, and part of him felt a little foolish for suggesting he might have been able to defend one of these sites from an attack.


Joel received a call on his holo.


They kept walking to the area just off the main site as he answered it. This last location was an exposed pipe outside of the perimeter. Infiltrating these facilities had required all the tech kung fu Pieter could muster.


Joel started talking on his holo. “Hi. Eugene?”


“Hi, Joel. Yes, it’s me. I’ve got good news and bad news. Good news is, we’re all set to start producing the antidote just as soon as we receive the formula from Molly.”


Joel waited half a second before asking, “…and the bad news?”


Eugene’s voice wasn’t as confident this time. “The bad news is, the ‘powers that be’ in the company won’t authorize our use of security personnel.”


Joel reacted, but Eugene couldn’t see his face on a voice call.


He continued quickly. “I think their reasons are partly genuine. You see, those two people that took the toxins in the first place… they were compromised in some way. And the thinking is, if they can get to our scientists, they can damn well get to our security personnel. So, by extension, putting security on anything will only potentially let the terrorist know what we know, and would actually not help us protect the site, either.”


Joel nodded. “Yes, I see their point.” He looked over at Pieter, shaking his head. “Okay, so we’ll be done over here in a few minutes. We’ll come straight to the lab, and see if we can’t figure out our next move. Expect us in about forty minutes.”


“Okay,” said Eugene. “Stay safe.” The line clicked off.


Pieter handed Joel the first miniature camera to place as they approached their site. “No joy?” Pieter asked.


Joel turned the camera and fixture in his hands, examining the mechanism. “Not on the security front. They’re good to go on replicating the antidote, though. That’s something, at least.”


Pieter nodded. “So we’re back to you and I guarding the most likely sites, then?”


Joel drew a deep breath. “Yeah, it’s looking like that.” He stopped in his tracks and looked around. “Although… you know what?”


Pieter looked around, trying to see what Joel was seeing.


Joel continued. “Of the three places we’ve been, which is the easiest to access?”


Pieter blinked. “Well. This one, I guess.”


Joel raised a finger in the air, the camera grasped in his hand. “Exactly!”


Pieter spun around, looking for signs of the facility monitoring the area. He looked down at his holo to search for any signals that might be being broadcasting. A moment later, he said, “Looks clean. I think we’ve found our target.”


Joel found a floodlight post that was pointing back towards the facility. Taking the mini camera, he reached up to fix it to the post.


Before his hand could touch the post though, something moved behind the structure and knocked him backwards. Unable to move with a dead weight on top of him, and the wind knocked out of his lungs, Joel kicked into attack mode.


Camera now forgotten, rolling off the dust and hard grass, he clenched his fists and forced the weight off him. Realizing it was a man - a very heavy, muscular man - he felt he had lucked out. Pulling his right arm back to swing a punch, he pushed the man off his chest just enough to be able to swing at him.


His fist connected with his attacker’s jaw so hard, he felt like he had punched a metal bar. The man’s head turned, but his weight still pinned Joel.


For a moment, Joel was vaguely aware of Pieter shouting his name in the background. He pulled his left leg over the right leg of the man on top of him, and pulled it inwards while pushing off with his right hip. A second later, he had flipped the dense mass onto his side, and was able to scramble out from under him.


Joel was in full attack mode now. “Who the fuck are you? Who do you work for?” he demanded. He clamped his left hand around the man’s throat, half his body weight behind him.


The man was tattooed. Military. Joel subconsciously recognized one of the tattoos. He pulled his right hand back to punch him again, and thwacked down on the guy.


The man, though built like a tank, took the punch, and his head lolled. Joel reached back into his utility belt and pulled out his weapon.


“Wait!” the man shouted, as loudly as he could from his half concussed state. His pupils weren’t even. “Wait…” he said again, but with less force and more surrender.


Joel stopped.


“What?” he shouted down at him.


“Joel? You’re Joel, right?” the man choked. “Molly’s Joel?”


“What about it?” Joel scowled.


“I’m Sean.”


Joel slowed, and released his hand from his throat a little. “Is that supposed to mean something?” he asked, still not understanding how this man knew him.


Sean gasped. “Molly didn’t tell you?”


Joel felt a pang of pain in his heart. His brain was confused. What was happening?


“Sean,” the guy said. “I came to see Molly the other day. I was on your ship. I gave her intel; we’re working together.”


“Son of a fucking bitch.” Joel shook his head, his heart feeling like it’d been crushed inside his chest.


“Sorry, man,” Sean said, realizing that Joel didn’t know about him. “She didn’t tell you? I’m working undercover for Garet’s office.”


Joel started to climb off the guy. “No. She must have forgotten to mention it.” Though he was mad about not being in on the loop, in the same moment, he felt his depth of feeling for her. This was a work thing. It had boundaries. But, he wondered, what about when it’s a personal thing? He couldn’t think straight. Focus on the task at hand, he told himself.


Pieter helped Sean to his feet as Joel straightened himself out after the mini-brawl. “Okay, so you’re also trying to stop this toxin from being deployed,” Joel asked him, still eyeing him a little suspiciously.


Sean dusted himself off. “Yes. I couldn’t figure out what you were doing, but since you were pointing that device at the pipe that would be the sensible target, I assumed you were up to no good.” He rearranged his atmosjacket, looking sheepish. “Sorry for tackling you like that.”


Sean offered out his hand. “No hard feelings?”


Joel took the hand, making an effort to hide his suspicion. “Yeah… Yeah. No hard feelings.”


Pieter recovered the camera from the ground, and held it in his open palm to show Sean. “Camera,” he said simply, and shrugged, before moving back towards the post where Joel was going to fit it.


Sean shook his head, with a small smile. “Guess I was just hyper sensitive.” He straightened his atmosuit jacket again, and dusted off the lower half of his legs. The ground was sandy and grassy, just like most of the wild parts of the planet. “I’m Sean Royale, by the way.”


“Joel Dunham,” Joel said, a little more grudgingly than he would have hoped to sound. He tried to brighten his voice a little. “This is Pieter Alexander, our new computer specialist. He was going to link up these cameras to give us an alert if anyone showed up here.”


Pieter and Sean shook hands.


“Tech. Good thinking!” said Sean. “I was going the old-fashioned route, and guarding the most likely target,” he confessed.


Pieter and Joel looked at each other. “Great minds!” said Pieter, smiling.


Joel decided to move proceedings on. “Okay, let’s get this camera up, and then we need to get to the lab. Might have an antidote ready soon.”


Pieter turned back and continued fitting it to the post.


Joel opened his holo and nodded to Sean. “Gimme a sec. Just need to check in with the boss.”


Joel wandered away off back in the direction of the car. He started recording a message. “Molly, Joel. I’m at the Hlidargata site, and a Sean Royale has just shown up, claiming to know you. Can you just give me a quick message to let me know that this is one of your contacts? It looks like he’s going to be guarding the post, but I’m wary about leaving him alone unless you have intel that would suggest otherwise.”


He clicked off, marking the message urgent, and sent it to their server.


Hopefully she’ll pick it up right away and respond. 


He wandered back over to Sean and Pieter. Sean was chatting with Pieter, as he watched him fit the camera.


Sean looked impressed. “Antidote. That’s fantastic.”


He thought for a second. “So Molly is creating it?” he asked.


“Yeah,” confirmed Joel, joining the conversation. “She doesn’t mess around.” He smiled, proud of his teammate. “Hey, is there a way we can reach you, as we’re working on this?”


Sean explained about his secure server and shared the coordinates. Meanwhile, Pieter finished installing the camera and powered up the interface with the camera.


“All working,” he announced.


Joel nodded at a job well done. “Right. That’s us then,” he said, and shook Sean’s hand again. “Good luck with the guarding. We’ll be in touch when we have the antidote and kit for deploying, in case the toxin is released.”


Sean, shaking Joel’s hand with genuine respect, bid them both farewell, and disappeared off out of sight again. Joel and Pieter turned and headed back across the grassy plain to the car.


“Nice guy,” said Pieter. “You really didn’t know anything about him?”


Joel shook his head. “Nope. But you’ll learn this about Molly: A to B. And Sean wasn’t in the A to B we talked about, so she probably didn’t even think to mention it.”


Pieter wasn’t sure, but even though Joel was matter-of-fact about how things were with Molly, Pieter sensed a hint of hurt in his voice.


They got back in the car and drove off. Just around the corner, though, Joel pulled over.


Pieter looked over at him. “We’re stopping?”


Joel made a face. “Of course. You think I’m going to leave some random commando guarding our target without checking it out?”


Pieter shook his head, realizing what had just happened. “Ah, right. You put in a call to the boss?”


Joel smiled. “Hellz yeah.”


Just then, a message came through on his holo.


“Speak of the devil,” he said, winking at Pieter. Joel opened the message. It was text only.


SEAN OK. LET HIM HELP.


Pieter peered over at Joel’s screen. “Lady of few words,” he commented.


“I’ll say,” agreed Joel. “Okay, we’re good. Let’s leave him to it, but be aware.”


Joel started the car again, and headed off to the main road out of the area.




Newstainment Offices, downtown Spire




Maya sat at her desk, isolated by her cubicle walls. Her workstation was dimly lit as she wracked her brain, trying to figure out the missing pieces.


Since Detective Rogers’ visit, there was something bugging her.


Even apart from realizing that he knew more than he was sharing, there was something else. He didn’t seem to have jumped on the conspiracy thing about Ventus… which meant one of several things: he didn’t think it was a possibility; he was working for Ventus himself, and wanted to keep the heat off them; or he knew something about why Bates would have been there.


There was no doubt he thought that she was getting into something dangerous. Beyond the toxin, he said. That pointed to conspiracy. And him knowing more than he was letting on.


Maybe this Bates girl was the dangerous person; but she didn’t look it. Not walking around in broad daylight, being helped by two scientists, with another, younger girl in tow.


Then there was the Dewitt footage. She had knocked on the door. Assassins don't normally knock.


Maya turned her attention back to the download of the thesis Johnny had managed to track down for her. Maybe there was something in the science she was missing.


As she flipped open the 300-page report, she briefly recognized that most of her colleagues would have been put off even by the front page. Science was so core to their life here at Newstainment, and yet it always surprised her how reluctant folks were to get into the details that would often yield so much truth.


She started reading, skimming over the abstract. Then she flipped to the graphs in the main method section. After about twenty minutes of reading, she felt she had an idea of the process Bates used. Not that she was a scientist. Heck, she could barely wire a circuit. But conceptually, she got it.


Now to consider the motivation for such a piece. She flipped back to the introduction and scanned for narrative. Was it for industry, and therefore financially motivated? Was it a prestigious area to be researching? She didn’t think so. New genetics wasn’t cutting edge, and hadn’t been for over a hundred years… But there was something she was missing.


She flipped back to Molly’s resume. It seemed she was only sixteen when she wrote this. Which meant she was gifted and talented. And doing bio chem. That stank of social isolation and over-achievement. But what would motivate a 16-year-old to create dangerous toxins? Her parents were still alive, so it was unlikely she had been trying to find a way to kill them…


She flicked back a few pages, feeling she’d missed something. Her eyes fell on a passage that changed everything.


“Complacency in the field of new genetics is rife. There is very little regulation or ethical consideration when it comes to genetic manipulation of living creatures. The purpose of this paper is to show that this process, with the wrong intentions, could bring great harm to humanity. This is a demonstration that greater care and consideration should be exercised in performing such manipulations. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should. To this end I will use the garden variety Yultok plant, and show that within two manipulations, the nectar can be rendered more toxic to life than any artificial poison on the commercial market.”


Maya highlighted the passage on her screen, and sat back in her chair, considering the psychology behind the child who had written that.


She was a fighter, Maya could see that much. Bates was trying to demonstrate, even as a child, that there is some science that needs to be operated with more conscience. In a field where pushing boundaries was the measure of a scientist, a measure that would bring fame and recognition, she was delivering a very clear warning.


Maya was impressed.


She reached for her mocha cup, only to find it lighter than she expected. She peered over the edge. Empty. Saving her notes on her holo, she got up and took her mug to the kitchenette for a fresh mug.


Mulling what she had just read, this new information made it incredibly unlikely that Bates was a terrorist, or even being paid by one.


Unless she’s taking the warning in her thesis one step further… To make a demonstration. But then, why all the experiments? And why hasn’t something been done on a larger scale yet? Or all those years ago… Unless there’s been a recent stressor. 


Maya shook her head. She didn’t get the sense that Molly was one of the bad guys. She took a sip of the fresh mocha, and wandered back to her desk, talking into her holo, sharing her suspicions and new findings.


When she was done, she hit send.


VOICE MSG SENT TO DETECTIVE ROGERS, the holo confirmed.


He needed to know what she knew; even if he wasn’t being fully open with her. And if he was in on it, then at least he would know that the press was onto him…


She sent the same message to Bob, and archived it in her notes, invoking the standard practices the company enforced to keep their investigators safe and silencers deterred.


She sat back down at her desk to continue her investigation. This was all getting rather interesting.












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Basement workshop




Molly strode into the workshop, closely followed by Paige. Brock and Crash were battling with boxes of equipment, sorting and organizing.


Brock signaled to the boxes nearest Crash. “I think if we put those in storage, and just keep the storage accessible, we’ll be fine,” he said. “But these… I think these need organizing straight away. There are a bunch of photon cells I’ve been waiting for, and the tracking is saying they’ve been delivered.”


He looked up at the door as Molly and Paige entered.


Crash started hauling another box out of the way.


“Hey!” Brock called. His smiled brightened upon seeing his teammates, until he saw their serious looks.


His first thought was that Molly didn’t like his and Paige’s little nail varnish plan. “Everything okay?” he asked, wiping his hands on his overall legs nervously.


Molly answered, “Yes. We have the antidote being made right now, but we need to figure out a mechanism to deploy it.” She walked over to the array of boxes and unassembled equipment. “Are you able to drop everything to jump on this?” she asked.


Brock showed signs of relief. “Sure!”


He waved to Crash, who shook his head smiling. “Knew you’d end up leaving all this shit with me,” he said, shuffling a box towards a storage room with his foot.


“Baby boy, you know I’ll make it up to you!” Brock did his fairy dust wave and wiggled his fingers. Crash couldn’t help but grin, even if he did blush a little bit at his comrade’s unconventional mannerisms.


Brock turned and walked over to the second new set of benches they’d managed to erect in the last few days. Molly and Paige followed. “So what’s the design brief?” he asked, opening his holo to take notes.


Molly reeled off the spec. “It needs to deploy at least two kilograms of the water-soluble fluid that we create. It will need to fit into post-filtrated water channels… but I don’t know enough about the inner-construction of the waterways there.”


Brock looked up from his notes. “You’re thinking it’s going to need to be a custom job?”


Molly shook her head. “No. I think that is too risky. If they’ve replaced any parts from the original design specs, we’re completely screwed.”


She pulled up a stool and sat at the bench. “I think our best bet is to get an idea of the dimensions we have to play with, or find out what the material is around that area, and see if we can breach it safely.”


She thought for a moment. “Then create something that has a time release, semi-permeable membrane.”


Brock stepped back half a step and bent his knees to emphasize his shock. “Shit, boss. You don’t ask for much!”


 Still, his heart was beating harder, and excitement was welling in his chest. Molly could tell he was secretly relishing the challenge.


She smiled. “Good that I’ve got the best guy on the asteroid for the job!”


Brock smiled and nodded in acknowledgement, and then realized that he was probably the only rocket scientist on the asteroid. “Hey!”


Paige laughed at his delayed reaction.


Brock scrambled to find something witty to say back, his mouth half-open. “Well…” he searched his brain some more. “Well…“ then finally, “Okay. I got nothing.”


Paige sniggered playfully. He glared across at her in mock anger. “Girlfriend, you’re meant to be on my side!”


She corrected him, shaking her head, her hair bouncing around her face. “Oh no, boy-o. I’m always on the boss’s side!” She laughed, “and she got you good there.”


Molly was enjoying the conversation, but had to move things along. “So how long?” she asked.


Brock composed himself. “To design and build?”


“No. Just design. If we send the schematics to our new guy on the surface, then he can have it built there. We haven’t got time to physically transport something. It’s bad enough we can only send downloadable data pockets.”


“New guy?” he asked.


Molly nodded. “Yeah, Joel just hired a computer guy.” She got up from the stool.


Brock had a rare look of confusion on his face. “Why do we need another computer guy? I thought you and Oz were da business?”


She smiled. “We are! Well, kinda. But there are limitations. Plus, as you can see, there are instances where having computing ability in another body is a useful thing. Like when we need boots on another planet.” She winked, content that their hiring decision was already panning out nicely.


“Ahh, yes,” Brock agreed. “That makes sense.” He paused a moment, contemplating the task at hand. Flicking through his holo he arrived at a conclusion. “I think if I can get the schematics of the water plant fairly fast, I can have something for you in a few hours.”


Paige raised her eyebrows. She would have expected it to take much longer. Molly looked happy, too. “Excellent, thank you,” she said, and started walking away. “Oz has already downloaded the schematics for the three plants onto your holo. Should save you an hour.”


Brock looked like the carpet had just been pulled from under him. “Does that mean I have one hour less to complete this task?” he called anxiously after her.


He looked down at the download hitting his holo.


Molly didn’t answer, just kept walking.


“Okay. Got the download. On it, boss!” he called after her.


She turned, gave him a thumbs up and a wink, taking a couple of steps backwards, and then turned around again, and disappeared out of the door.


Paige walked after her, her high heels clicking away.




Unknown Laboratory, Undisclosed location, somewhere around Spire




The clinical, dimly-lit lab buzzed with artificial light and gently humming machines. A small team of three scientists in lab coats and protective masks worked steadily and methodically, despite the late hour.


The two round devices were on one of the side benches, just waiting to be charged with their deadly fluid. The scientist nearest the humming machine checked the settings and signaled to the other two that it was nearly ready.


The other two started clearing up the numerous samples and materials they had been using that night. The shorter one pulled up his holo and sent a message, then nodded to the one watching him.


Without any words necessary for communication, they worked like a hive mind. A couple of minutes went past, and the humming machine stopped. The scientists gathered around the oven-like device, as the one who had been monitoring it opened the door.


Inside was a circular rack of test tubes on a carousel, each one filled with a deep green liquid. The first scientist carefully pulled out the array, backed up slowly and then placed it on the bench. Then one of the others took one side of it, and helped the first scientist carry it over to the bench with the two devices on it.


They placed the rack down gently, then the three scientists started delicately and slowly taking the test tubes, one-by-one, and pouring the liquid into the first device.


When they had gone through a requisite number, they switched, and filled the second device before cleaning up.


It wasn’t long before they heard footsteps down the corridor.


Heavy footsteps.


From feet wearing combat boots.


The footsteps grew louder. The scientists had stopped what they were doing to watch the double doors to their lab.


A figure emerged. He was wearing a black atmos suit with reinforced armor plating, and a helmet used in biking or pod racing. From his height and build, he must have been Estarian.


The lead scientist stepped over to the devices and waved his hand at the stranger. The helmeted figure stepped over to them, swinging a bag from his back, and picked up each device in turn and placed it in the carrier. The scientist couldn’t help but notice that the bag was a hazardous materials container, with a foam interior that would hold and protect the two devices.


Once the figure had sealed up the bag, he turned and left.


The scientists continued their clean up, now with more gusto and less caution.












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Molly’s lab




The machine in Molly’s lab stopped humming. Paige looked up from her holo. She had been waiting in the lab while Molly took a rest. Amusing herself with the last three months’ of Vanity Magazine, she couldn’t help but daydream about a full-page spread of beautiful photography for her new line of nail varnish.


Now, alone in the lab, with the machine that was humming having stopped, she looked at the door. She wanted to yell for Molly, but she could be anywhere.


She started to get down from her stool, when Molly practically ran into the lab.


“I think your -” Paige started.


“I know. Oz told me.” Molly walked past the device to a drawer. Pulling out two masks, she threw one to Paige and took one herself. Then she pulled out a pair of lab gloves and put them on, too.


Paige quickly put the mask on herself. She really wasn’t keen to be exposed to anything, but her curiosity stopped her from leaving.


Molly walked over to the oven-like device, flicked a couple of switches, and then opened it up to haul out her test tubes.


“What is it?” Paige asked, watching as Molly carefully moved the rack over to the bench where her microscope was.


“One of these is the antidote,” Molly reported. “Now I need to discover which one.”


Paige continued watching, her holo now forgotten. “How will you know?” she asked.


“By combining each one with the toxin in turn, and seeing which one reacts. Then I’ll have Oz analyze the chemical make-up, and send the result to Eugene.”


“Sounds like we’re almost there, then.” Paige looked genuinely relieved.


“Yeah. There’s a little work still to do, but barring any disasters, we should be okay.” Molly hadn’t looked up. She was busy making up the first combination to look at.


Paige remembered her holo and was about to close it down when something caught her eye.


It was Molly’s name. On a downloaded news report. Paige clicked into it. She read a few lines and then called over to Molly. “Hey, I know you’re busy and all… saving the world.”


She hesitated, trying to read what the report was saying about Molly. “But you’re in the news again. Something about being associated with the two scientists that have gone AWOL with a toxin…”


Molly looked up. “Let me finish this,” she said, using all her willpower to stay focused, and not march over to the holo and find out what was being said about her.


Molly got to a stopping place, and then ripped off her rubber gloves as she marched across the lab to where Paige was sitting, reading. “Show me,” she demanded.


Paige turned the holo screen to her. “Says you’ve been consorting with a faction within Ventus. They’re saying you’re the cause of the toxin, and they’ve related the violent incidents to the use of the toxin. They’re calling them ‘acts of terrorism’.”


Molly’s eyes flicked back and forth as she read the details. Eventually, she looked up. “At least they’ve made the connection between the toxin and the violent outbreaks. Seems they haven’t linked the deaths to the violence yet. But that won’t take much time.”


Molly turned and went back to the other side of the room to continue her work.


Paige watched her, mouth open. “Aren’t you concerned that they’re saying you’re involved?”


Molly answered flatly, “I am involved.”


Paige protested, “Yeah, but you’re trying to save their sorry asses. You’re not a terrorist.”


Molly didn’t even look up. “Yeah, they’ll figure that out, or they won’t.”


Paige’s chest was flushing deep red. “But… aren’t you worried? Or pissed?”


Molly looked up, confused. “Why would I be?”


Paige’s eyes were wide with outrage. “But they’re getting it all wrong. They think you’re the bad guy.”


Molly sighed. “Maybe I am,” she said flippantly without any emotion. Then as if needing to indulge her friend, she explained. “Paige. It’s the media. No one expects them to get it right. And anyway, we’re here on Gaitune. What are they going to do?”


Paige’s face seemed to process one hundred emotions as she tried to churn through the reasoning. Unable to come up with an answer, she sighed. “It’s just… so unfair.” Her voice was a little weak.


Molly looked up. “You okay, pet?” she asked, humorously.


Paige laughed a little as she exhaled, through her frustration and mixed emotions. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine.” She paused, closing down the holo report. “Need me to do anything?” she asked.


“Ah, yes. Can you go find out how Brock is getting on with the device? If he’s ready, we can send both items in the same data package.”


Paige nodded. “Right you are, boss.” She clip-clopped out of the room, leaving Molly to work through the twenty something combinations as fast as she safely could.




Anther Patron Club, downtown Spire




Jessica was already installed in their booth in the Anther Patron Club. Since it was the middle of the day, she was the only customer in the joint. Two members of the bar staff flitted around, restocking. Cleaning. Organizing. Then there was the lady on the reception desk upstairs to redirect non-members to the official bar.


As she sat nursing her martini, Jessica churned through holoscreens of documents needing her authorization. This was the part of the job she had never liked. Her normally pretty eyebrows furrowed crossly at the documents as she turned through each, approving or denying as she saw fit. Every now and again, she would humph, or sigh, or take a medicinal taste of the motivating martini.


Eventually, after goodness knows how many damn approvals, footsteps in the corridor enticed her to look up. They were sharp and decisive, traveling somewhere rather than flitting.


Andus. Finally.


She closed her holo as he appeared and approached their booth.


“Not like you to keep a lady waiting,” she said, getting up to greet him with an exchange of air kisses on each side of a distant embrace. “I thought I was going to be subjected to death by paperwork,” she complained.


He nodded with a degree of deference, even though they both knew he was the one with the power. “Apologies. I was detained unexpectedly,” he explained as he slid into the booth.


Jessica visually scanned him for signs of blood or violence. She knew the kind of business that would detain him, and paperwork wasn’t one of them.


The waiter arrived promptly to take his drink order.


“Scotch, on the rocks,” he told the waiter, an Ogg, who nodded and disappeared.


Jessica eyed him, still curious about what he’d been up to, but Andus was straight down to business.


“Everything is in order,” he told her. “You should have the support you need to get the contract. Between the erm… crisis, and the support in the Senate, it should be enough to get you a majority.”


Jessica gave him a half smile. “Thank you. This is good to hear.”


He continued, glancing quickly over his shoulder just to make sure they were alone. “I’m concerned about your plans for affecting the crisis, though. You’re leaving yourself a little… exposed… by handling it directly.”


She tilted her chin upwards. “I know I can trust myself to get it done.” Her voice was proud. “And I’ll make sure there are no loose ends left over.”


Andus nodded, “I have every confidence you will”. His drink arrived, and he raised a glass to her. “To getting the job done,” he toasted before taking a sip.


Jessica did the same with what remained of her martini.


The bar was quiet.


They could hear the hum of traffic outside, but inside, all was still. Calm. It reminded Jessica of her childhood - inside a quiet house, when everything noteworthy was happening outside.


Andus paused for a moment, allowing the flavor of his Scotch to spread through his mouth, and the aroma to travel up into the back of his nose. He breathed deep, relaxing into the calm atmosphere. “You should probably use that second device,” he told her. “Use the scientist first, as the decoy. Put a second man on the job. Otherwise, it’s just all too… obvious.”


Jessica glanced back in his direction, a look of admiration in her eyes. She considered his words. “You may have a good point.” She watched him over her glass as she took another sip of her martini. ”I love how it is art to you. Or a game.”


“Or both,” he smiled wryly. He raised his glass again before taking another sip.


Andus suddenly turned in his seat and looked around the bar.


He had been noticing that one of the staff kept coming within earshot. He started talking about an event they had been at the other week, and for the next five minutes they sat and mused about nothing in particular. When the employee came close again, Andus surreptitiously took his picture with his retinal imaging implant, and sent the image to his holo.


Jessica knew something was off as soon as he had changed the subject, and just sat quietly, playing along.


Running a facial rec, Andus decided it was nothing to be concerned about. Just an attentive barman wanting an opportunity for a tip, he decided.


He changed the subject back to the matter at hand. “So how does any of this solve my Molly Bates problem?”


Jessica smiled. She liked it when she got to be clever.


“Well,” she began, a little like a child about to tell her father about something that happened at school. “Our newly acquired scientist has managed to fabricate a particularly tricky version of a specific type of toxin that no one in this field has ever done before. There are no other companies investing in this type of R&D, so not only does that mean there is no real competition for that grant, but we can turn that R&D cost we’ve already sunk into this department into a major profit center…”


She waited, making sure she had Mr. Andus’s full attention. “But the toxin we’re using points straight back to your girl, Ms. Bates.”


Jessica noticed he leaned in just a fraction. “How so?” he asked.


She could barely contain her excitement beneath her well-controlled and well-contrived exterior. “Turns out, she wrote her thesis using the exact methodology that created these toxins in the first place. Aaaand” she paused, relishing how perfect the set up was, “no one is going to go on record to claim responsibility for the toxins, because they violated all kinds of conventions by creating them. She’s the only person on record with the know-how to cause this kind of crisis.”


A smirk floated across Andus’s lips. “Amazing, how it turns out that she wrote her thesis in this area.”


He paused, considering it from all angles. “Coincidence?” he asked.


Jessica was pleased that he was impressed. “The media is going to say not. And then of course, that’s what everyone is going to believe.”


Andus couldn’t help himself. He found power in the details, and now this was a detail he wanted to know - like a fellow magician wanting to know how the trick was done. “But is it? Really?”


Jessica dared not toy with him longer. She’d had her fun. “Well, slightly. It’s more that the drugs we were developing also work against the kind of toxin she was dabbling with. There were a number of applications we pursued, but the one with the most potential just didn’t have the profit margins we were hoping for. As an antidote to this type of toxin, it suddenly became a worthwhile project again.”


He nodded, before picking up his drink. “That’s very enterprising of you, Miss Jessica. Very enterprising, indeed.”


Jessica couldn’t help but smile. “Why, thank you, Mr. Andus.”




Gaitune-67, Safe house, Basement workshop




Paige traipsed into the workshop.


Crash was still sorting through materials and boxes of deliveries. He looked up and waved and Paige waved back at him, en route to the benches where Brock was working, hunched over his holo.


“Hey, girlie!” he greeted her, his attention still on the holoscreen, voice only half-present.


Paige pulled up a stool and peered over at the complex array of lines and symbols on his holo screens. “How’s it going?” she asked.


“It goes good,” he said, leaning back a little but still not taking his eyes from the screen.


“Nearly done?” she asked.


Brock lifted his eyes and sighed. “Yeah. I think it’s as ready as it’s going to be. I’ve checked and double-checked it… If I had more time, and the materials, I’d build it myself before sending it on for someone else to build.”


Paige looked at him, and put her hand flat on the bench for emphasis. “I’m sure it’s going to be just fine.”


Brock smiled. “Molly ready for it, then?”


She nodded. “Want to send it up to her?”


Brock shook his head, said “Yeah,” and then quickly mouthed “no!” still shaking his head.


Paige laughed.


Brock flicked to a different screen. “Okay. Lemme just add in a few notes to whoever is going to be building it. I’m sure there are probably some pieces that can be streamlined as they go.” He scratched the back of his head in a fast movement looking at the screen. “And I’m sure I’ve probably over-engineered it.” He shook his head. “I’ll get it up to her in two ticks of a whisker’s tail.”


Paige raised one eyebrow at his bizarre expression.


He felt her looking at him, looked up, grinned, and then went back to work.


Paige got up. “Okay. I’ll let her know. Two ticks of a whisker’s tail.”


Brock was immersed in the screen again. “Thanks,” he mumbled as she left to report back to the lab.












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Newstainment offices, downtown Spire




It was late.


Much later than she expected Bob to be around. Yet something told her to head in, anyway.


Walking through the dimly lit corridors her motion activated the lights to come on, one section at a time, all the way to the open-plan office.


She strode past her desk, throwing her atmos jacket on the back of the chair, barely breaking her step on her way up to Bob’s office.


His light was still on, and yes, he was at his desk. As she approached, she realized he was looking up, into the corner. Through the windowed glass, she got a little closer and saw a figure of a woman. She wasn’t dressed in normal clothing. No atmos protective gear. Almost like she didn’t go outside ever. Her coat was big and cloth-like… not the dust resistant suits everyone else wore.


Maybe she was rich, thought Maya. And important. The way she held herself, certainly said something. Plus she was native Estarian, so it was entirely plausible. Her back was to the window, so she couldn’t see her face.


Maya ducked back a little, hoping that her arrival didn’t draw their attention. She couldn’t hear anything from where she was on the newsroom floor, amidst the empty desks and cubicles.


She hesitated, trying to decide what to do.


Maybe she should just go in? But then, she wasn’t really meant to be here. And it was obvious they were in a meeting. And perhaps meeting this late at night meant they didn’t want anyone else to know.


She took a few, careful steps backwards, and then paced quietly back to her desk. Head down, so as not to be seen over her cubicle partition, she opened her holo so that it looked like she was working.


She flicked a daylight lamp on and then carefully adjusted the luminosity and temperature right down… just in case she had to explain her presence. Sitting in the dark looked more suspicious than sitting in the half light working.


Who is that woman? she asked herself. And why does she look familiar?


Maya, ever the investigative journalist, couldn’t resist it. It was none of her business.


Heck, Bob might have a girlfriend. 


Or something. 


She shook the trailing notion from her head before it had a chance to form fully, and to lead her to images she did not want to be imagining.


Some things you just can’t unthink, she warned herself.


But


She pulled up the security cameras on her holo. She didn’t have privileges, but she’d learned Bob’s passwords long ago. Typing in his ID, she clicked through to get a better look.


No audio. 


Just video feed. 


Drulludeli, she cursed to herself.


But maybe she could find out who this woman was from her image. She spun the view round to capture an image of her face, then took the screen shot on her holo.


Engrossed in the hunt now, she pulled up the facial rec software, and ran the face as an analysis sample. It would be quicker working with just ten points, rather than the full twenty-two.


She just needed a clue…


She waited.


The holo pinged softly.


Five results.


She opened each profile.


Two were too old.


And one was a criminal, and probably in prison still. She swiped them away.


She zoomed in on the other two options and compared them by eye. Yep, that was the one she was looking for, and this definitely made sense for her to be in Bob’s office.


Jessica Newld, head of Iantrogen. She also sits on the Medical Association Board. If she knew what was going on with these outbreaks that probably linked with the toxins, then the odds were her company was behind it.


So why would she be here? In person? And risking exposure?


Maya stealthily peeked up over her cubicle partition. The woman was looking like she was about to leave. Maya sat down again, and looked at her holo screens.


Jessica, Jessica, Jessica, she thought. What are you up to?


She heard the office door open. Swiping her holo screens closed, she pulled up some insignificant random files in case anyone came past this way. She could hear the sound of Jessica’s high heels tapping along on the floor between the two departments in the sea of cubicles.


Maya kept her head down.


She smelled Jessica’s perfume waft past.


Maya noticed it smelled expensive.


And bitchy.


Carefully she started to stand up to peek over the partition, to see if Bob was still there.


“Working late?”


Maya jumped out of her skin.


It was a woman’s voice.


And there was Jessica Newld right in front of her. Maya, frozen, her eyes breast level, peeled her eyes upwards to confront Jessica’s commanding stare.


Maya’s mouth dried instantly. “Hi,” her voice cracked. Her holo was still live and, though she was doing nothing wrong, she felt guilty as all fuck.


Chill the heck out, she told herself.


She swallowed.


“I said, are you working late?” Jessica asked her question again.


Maya stuttered, still taken aback by the sudden appearance of Bitch-Perfume at her cubicle. “Er… Y-y-yes.” She forced herself to breathe. “No rest for the wicked!”


Of course, she thought, Jessica the evil queen of Iantrogen would know about that, though.


Jessica raised one eyebrow and looked down her nose at the young thing in front of her. “So I see. I admire your tenacity. Careful it doesn’t wear you into the ground, though.”


Her casual comment somehow sounded completely like a threat.


Maya nodded, completely flummoxed.


The ice queen tilted her head slightly upwards in disregard. After a brief pause she then turned and walked away, the sounds of her heels clip-clopping in the wake of her presence.


Maya breathed out.


Fuck me. Bitch perfume, bitch face, and bitch threats, she thought to herself. This motherfucker is definitely up to something.


Gathering her wits with the herald of Jessica’s shoes confirming she was now out of the office and onto the carpeted corridor, Maya closed off her holo and marched up to Bob’s office for some answers.


She knocked on the door.


Bob had disappeared behind his desk drawer, pouring a drink. “Come in…” he called wearily, as if he assumed it was her. He sat up at his desk, tumbler in hand, and placed it on top of an old paper leaflet he kept just for that purpose.


Maya looked at the glass. “You know you can get antigrav tumblers now. Means you don’t need to keep old fashioned relics around to protect your desk surface.” She smiled, trying to lighten his mood.


He looked exhausted. His eyes were dark, and baggier than usual. His normally deep blue skin was now gray from fatigue.


She checked her holo. It was 02:07.


“So what does the head of Evil Corp want with you - the editor-in-chief of our capital’s most influential media outlet - at two in the morning?”


Bob sighed. “I don’t suppose there is any point in lying to you?” he asked her, already knowing the answer.


“You know me, boss,” Maya grinned despite her own tiredness. “Trained by the best.”


He nodded, knowing full well she would dig until she found the truth - whether he told her or not.


He took a deep breath before looking down at his whiskey glass, eyeing it like foul medicine. “She had information about why this toxin is out.”


Maya moved over to the guest chair, sitting down quietly to let him tell the story.


He nodded. “And yes, you were right. It is a toxin. That’s what’s been causing the violent outbreaks.” He waved his hand. “Though some fuck-head over in entertainment had already taken that theory on a rumor and released it to the mainstream as some random piece.”


Maya frowned. “Did you ask them to pull it?” she asked.


He shook his head, and took a slurp of his whiskey. “It’s not worth the battle. Those guys already think they single-handedly provide the material for the whole company. But it went onto a channel where hardly anyone will see it… so…” he waved his glass a little, one finger gesturing, “like I said. Not worth the air time.” He took another sip.


Maya sat quietly, letting him catch her up on whatever he needed to get off his chest.


“Apparently this toxin though, is a strain that is known in the research world. It’s based on a paper written by some girl that was kicked out of the military recently. Miss Newld,” he paused, saying her name with a degree of contempt, “has explained that this person has it in for the government. But Miss Newld’s company has an antidote!”


His tone indicated his mock surprise at the prospect of them coincidentally having an antidote ready.


Maya nodded. She understood exactly what he was telling her, without him having to spell it out.


 He continued. “They just don't have the funding to get it made before it becomes an issue. She was hoping that a little help from the media might help inform the decision makers and get her company the funding they need to head this off at the pass.”


Maya’s eyes flared, but her voice was controlled when she spoke. “And you’re going to support her?”


Bob took a swig of whiskey. “I don’t see any other option. If she’s right about the toxin, we have a duty to protect our citizens, regardless of what company is going to benefit.”


“By telling a lie?” Maya’s voice was terse now. She reined herself in. “I don’t think this girl who wrote the paper is one of the bad guys. I think she is a scapegoat, or a plant, or whatever. The only person who benefits from this toxin getting out is Ms. Newld. I would have thought that was obvious.”


Bob looked extra anxious as he took another deep swig of whiskey. His head was down slightly, like he was trying to hide his expression, but his eyes scanned sideways.


Maya narrowed her eyes, watching him. “There’s something else you’re not telling me.” He was more anxious than if this was just a high-profile story.


He’d be excited at an actual story, she realized.


Bob drank again, and discreetly tapped his ear with two fingers, making it look like a scratch.


Maya got it. They were being monitored.


She resisted the overwhelming urge to look at the cameras. Who knew what other devices were in the offices?


The systems.


Asshole. 


If they had access to the Newstainment systems, they would also know she was onto them, if they were monitoring her usage. She must have flagged sensitive documents.


She gasped, suddenly realizing why Jessica Newld had been so weird with her. She wasn’t just some unknown journalist to her.


Maya hurriedly said goodnight. Trying to explain more about what she’d discovered to Bob would only put them both in more danger. Besides, it looked like he already had an idea. And while he was running the stories that Newld wanted him to, he was useful. Maya, as idealistic as she was, couldn’t deny him that right now.


She flew back to her desk to collect her jacket and quickly left the building. She needed headspace… and to be somewhere where her connection wasn’t going to be monitored.




Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




“Yo!” Pieter called out to Eugene. “You’ve got incoming.” He swiveled his chair out of the way so that Eugene could get back to his desk holo. “It’s a data packet from Molly,” he announced.


Joel wandered over and Pieter stayed close, looking over Eugene’s arm as it finished downloading.


Joel was the one to ask the question. “What’s it say?”


Eugene examined the contents of the file. “Looks like a schematic for a device that we need to build. And - yes! She’s got the sequence for the antidote.”


Pieter pumped his fist in the air. “Boo-ja!” he cheered.


Joel and Eugene looked at him.


Pieter removed his fist from the air, and blushed a little.


Joel and Eugene looked back at the holo screen.


Eugene swiped through some of the pages in the download, opening up different screens to assess the situation.


He stopped on a schematic. “Ah.” His tone was one of trouble.


Joel looked down at him. “’Ah’?”


Eugene looked across at Pieter and then pushed one of the frames his way for him to take a look.


Pieter scanned it with his eyes and then looked back at him. “You know how to build this?”


Eugene shook his head. Turning to Joel, “This is way more complicated than what we are set up to build here. The sequencing, no problem. But that engineering stuff… waaaay out of my league.”


Joel looked back to Pieter to confirm with him too. “You too?”


Pieter nodded. “Yeah. It would take me forever to figure it out. I mean, I’m more than willing to try, but-”


“Maybe I can help.” Sean’s voice traveled through the lab. The group looked up to see him push himself off the door frame where he had been leaning, and walk into the room as casually as if he were showing up for late night poker with the boys.


“May I?” he asked, looking at Eugene. Eugene looked up, nodded and without taking his eyes off the space marine, pushed the holoscreen up to Sean so he could see.


Joel’s jaw had set. “So you’re an engineer as well, eh?”


He immediately caught himself.


Dick!


This team needed to work; and if Sean could help them avert a crisis, he wasn’t going to let his personal feelings get in the way.


Sean scanned over the design, nodding his head. “Impressive work,” he said. “Yes, kind of. And I know someone who can build this quickly.” He looked up at Joel who tried to straighten his face, and look pleased at the offer of help.


“Great!” Joel exclaimed.


Sean returned the holo frame to Eugene. “I’ll need a couple of hours.” Then he looked back to Joel. “You good to upload it to that server?”


“Of course!” he replied.


Fuck. Can anyone say overcompensation?? he scolded himself.


Sean turned on his heels and disappeared. “I’ll be in touch very soon.” And with that he disappeared out of the door again.


“Okay, let’s get you cracking on that antidote,” Joel said, rallying the troops and clapping his hands together like he would training his squad. “Oh, and Pieter - you want to send Molly a message back to let her know what’s going on with both items and the three locations.”


Pieter swung back to his own workstation without getting up from his wheelie chair. “On it, boss!”


Joel looked across at the door where Sean had just left, and shook his head, putting his hands on his hips.




McKenzie Drive-Thru, Spire




Maya pulled the car into an all night drive-thru.


Shit, shit shit shit shit


She’d gone in to that office guns blazing, and now they - whoever they were - knew that she and Bob were onto them.


Fucking dammit!


She rested her forehead on the steering wheel, like a puppet doll.


Think, Maya. Think. 


Okay, so if this toxin is out there, then these experiments weren’t incidents in their own right. Even with Newstainment in their pocket, the Jessica Bitch-Club would still need more leverage to have government funding released at a level that would rival the kinds of revenue their drugs would generate. 


They wouldn’t be doing all this for pocket-change. 


Maya pulled up her holo.


First she disconnected it from the XtraNET, and turned off all network ports. Then she opened up port 212 in isolation. Using that, she quickly located the XtraNET connection associated with the drive-thru. If anyone were searching for her, they wouldn’t be able to track her activity now.


She smiled to herself. Then refocused.


So which funds are they going after? she wondered. It needs to be big enough to make it worth their while…


It didn’t take much searching before she found exactly what she was looking for: Garet Beaufort had just given a press conference on why he was backing the Iantrogen bid for the Pandemic Prevention Fund.


She swiped through a few more search results.


120 billion credits worth of funding for the entire Central Systems. Okay, this looked like what they were after.


She talked herself through the logic. Now, for that kind of money, there needs to be a real and present danger. That means a real threat - personified by Molly Bates - and an actual incident to point to. That means people have to die. Lots of people. 


She closed down the screens she had been accessing. Closing her eyes sometimes helped her imagine. So if she were an evil ice queen, and she wanted to show that this toxin was a real threat to lots of people in the central systems, she would need to…


Show them how deadly it can be. And how wide-ranged. What better place to do it than the capital city?


So how is she going to infect a large number of people? Touch? Nope. It’s not a germ, so it won’t transfer to host. 


By air? Possibly.


Water? 


She pulled up the holo again. Finding the thesis on her device, she flicked through. The toxin was in liquid form - meaning it needed a fluid as a carrier.


Yes. Water. They’re going after the water supply!


She started searching for water processing plants. There was one nearby, just over an hour’s drive from here. She downloaded a map and checked the route before disconnecting her holo, leaving all the ports disconnected.


Wiping her face with her hands, she took a breath and started the car.












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


Hotel Remona, New Versaille, 37 km East of Spire.




There was a restrained knock at the door, dulled. It wasn’t bare-knuckled.


David Rek lay on the bed in the fetal position, gently rocking himself.


Henry got up from the chair still holding the gun. He opened the door. Rek heard voices.


Henry stepped aside.


Rek turned his head to see who was there. An average build, average height figure stepped into the room. The stranger had no distinguishing features, and kept his face hidden behind a helmet.


Rek tried to appeal to the faceless man regardless. “Listen, I can give you anything you want. Just let me go free. I’ll take my family and we’ll disappear. You have the toxin. You don’t need to do this.”


Erik was watching from the outside. He reached over to the door and pulled it closed.


The figure in the black atmos suit seemed unresponsive. He pulled the bag from around his back, and reached in to get something out.


Probably a gun. 


Please. Fucking hell. Please. You don’t need to…”


The figure produced a round device, about the size of his palm. He held it out to David, who instinctively started to reach out.


“Wait.” He pulled his hand back. “What… what is this?”


The figure spoke, but his voice was synthesized, or scrambled. Or both.


“Take it. You will be taken to a location to deploy it into the water supply. Hit the depressible section here before you drop it in…” The faceless figure turned his wrist to reveal a section of the device that looked like it could be pressed in, “… and then make sure you evacuate the area as fast as you can. You will then be taken to your family, and given transport to any city of your choosing.


David took the device.


“And if I refuse?” he asked.


The figure pulled a gun out from behind his back. “Then we have a problem.” The figure pointed the gun straight at Rek’s forehead. “And we then also have a problem with your family.”


David, hyperventilating and sweating now, nodded vigorously. “Okay. Okay… I … I understand.”


Henry watched the exchange, immersed in the action. If he had popcorn, he could be mindlessly throwing it up to his mouth only to have it bounce off his face back into the bucket.


The figure pulled the gun back and put it away. Zipping up the bag he had brought the device in, he turned and waited to be let out of the door.


Henry, suddenly aware of his role, jumped a little, and scuffled over to the door. Opening it up, he watched, still mesmerized, as the man in black left the room.


Erik let him pass, watching him as he left, too. Rek noticed the sense of awe that even the more grounded Ogg had for the unknown person.


Once the footsteps had disappeared down the corridor, Erik stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. “We leave in five minutes,” he said. “Get your shit together. You’re not coming back here.”


Relief and fresh anxiety flooded David’s adrenals at the same time. Heart in his mouth, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as he fumbled about trying to gather his belongings. Shirt. Atmos jacket. Wallet. Device that could only contain the toxin he had developed for the evil Jessica and her henchmen. Check.


Within ten minutes, the three of them were out in the car, speeding towards the strato highway.




Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




The lab was quiet in intense concentration. Joel paced back and forth at the far end thinking through anything they might have missed.


Eugene sat monitoring the replication device from which he was effectively “growing” the new antidote, having sequenced the DNA and stimulated it to replicate in yeast, engineered just for this purpose.


Pieter monitored the cameras, despite the futility of the action. It gave him something to focus on so he didn’t have to think about the millions of people who would die painful deaths if this toxin was released into the water supply.


Joel mumbled for the fourth time in the last ten minutes. “There must be a way to head them off at the pass.”


Pieter tried to help this time. “The only other thing we can do is guard each access point - which we will do as soon as we have the antidote. We can’t physically get there and back in time. This is the optimal strategy, given the number of bodies we can trust. Everything else results in high probabilities of casualties.”


Joel looked over at him. “You sound like Molly.”


Pieter looked up from his holoscreens of camera feeds. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”


Joel smiled. “Yeah. You should, actually.”


Just then there was a clatter at the entrance to the lab. Sean appeared, bustling, as much as a space marine could bustle. He strode across the floor, clutching a small device in his hand.


“Got it. This is what we managed to produce… with a few design improvements.”


Eugene was up and out of his chair in a flash, hands out to take the device. “Great! We’ll be ready in about five minutes with the antidote, and then it will take a few minutes to transfer into the device. After that, you can take it.”


Sean looked over at Joel who had stopped pacing and was now square on to the action, albeit it several yards away from everyone else. “I guess you and I should be the ones to take it to the main target?” he suggested. “Then if there is any activity on the cameras, we can just switch course or location and apply the antidote as needed.”


Joel nodded. “I concur.” It was a military strategy he was familiar with; it wouldn’t prevent the attack, but was the most efficient, in terms of neutralizing the effect when they knew the intended target.


Joel thought a moment. “But who are ‘we’ exactly?” he asked.


Sean had moved over to Eugene’s workstation and was watching the count down on his screen. “Huh?” he grunted, looking over at him again.


Joel started to walk over to join the others around the workstations. “You said ‘we’. As in you and other people,” Joel clarified. “Who is ‘we’?”


Joel noticed Sean take a slightly deeper breath before responding. “I don’t mean to be all mysterious and shit, but that’s a ‘need to know’.”


Dick, thought Joel for the second time that day.


Joel resisted the urge to bait him and kept his tone neutral. “You’d have to kill me?” he asked, shooting for humor more than sarcasm.


“Something like that.” Sean dropped his eyes back to the screen, and Joel continued to watch his microexpressions. Something about this guy wasn’t adding up. If he really was working for Garet, then how come The Syndicate wasn’t all over his ass?




Spire Central Water Facility, Hlidargata




“Okay, this is it.” Joel pulled the car up in the same spot where he had parked only hours before.


Sean reached for the door release to get out, but then stopped, hand still on the handle. He hesitated a moment. “How long have you known Molly?”


Joel looked at him. He took a second to process the question.


“A while,” he replied. He paused. “Why?”


Sean pulled the release and opened the door. “Just wondering.”


He got out.


Joel followed suit, turning quickly to continue the conversation outside. Sean had exited, but then reached back in to pick up the device he’d wedged in the door pocket.


Joel wanted to push the issue, but instead closed the car door and started walking in the direction of the piping intersection they were guarding. Glancing around, his instincts kept him alert and focused on the job… despite the obvious distraction.


Sean jogged to catch up, his muscular weight pounding into the semi-firm sandy grit. “So you and she… you’re not a thing?”


Joel kept his eyes straight ahead. “No, sir. We’re not a thing.” His jaw was stiff again.


Sean strode along a little more relaxed now, scanning the area for signs of movement. He carefully folded the antidote device into a pouch in his trouser leg.


He wasn’t done with the Molly subject. “So, does she have anyone… special?”


I’m special to her, you dick! Joel thought - along with a vision of punching the guy into the next ‘realm.


“Nope. Not really,” he replied, as casually as he could manage.


“No one in orbit?” Sean asked, either digging, or making sure.


Joel shook his head again. “She doesn’t tend to get into relationships.”


Sean raised one eyebrow, and looked over at him. “Why’s that?”


Joel shrugged, really not wanting to have this conversation with Sean Royale, the super soldier. “She just doesn’t. People make her uncomfort-”


Movement caught Joel’s eye over to the right, around behind the structure where Sean had jumped him earlier that day. He put his hand up to signal to Sean, who stopped dead in his tracks. Sean quietly reached for his weapon.


Joel did the same half a heartbeat later.


Stalking forward, knees bent, guns trained on the ground ahead of them, both were on high alert, being careful not to make any sudden movements that would alert anyone to their presence.


Sean signaled he was going to go around the back of the main structure where they had fitted the camera. Joel nodded, and continued around the front.


Step after step, they drew closer.


Sean could hear a heartbeat, projected through his auditory implant. It was Estarian. Male. His tension levers were elevated. He was hiding. Sean realized he had no way to communicate this intel to Joel, but it was okay. He had it handled. This was probably their guy.


Deftly, barely moving a muscle, he flicked his gun to stun. He wanted him alive.


Simultaneously, Joel moved around the corner, gun outstretched in front of him.


There, sweating, hands already in the air, was the missing scientist.


Joel reacted first. “Stay right where you are!” he ordered.


Sean’s eyes widened. “Don’t kill him. Stun only!” he blurted.


The Estarian, gray, fatigued, and in poor physical condition, stood there shaking. Joel looked up and spotted the device in his hand.


A screech of tires tore through the air, pulling his attention away for a second. He quickly fixed his eyes back on the toxin-wielding Estarian.


Sean yelled out “Hold him! It’s the missing scientist. I’m going after the car.”


He shot off, pounding on the rough terrain far faster than Joel could have done, even on a good day, following the sound of the vehicle’s engine.


Joel, with the scientist in his sights, removed the toxin deployment device from his hand, and secured his wrists in restraints. The Estarian didn’t resist.


Then he asked the question they had all been mulling since the crisis began. “Who sent you?”


The scientist, already petrified, started blubbering. “Please… please, they have my family.”


Joel looked around, making sure there weren’t any other hostiles lurking. “What’s your name?” he asked.


“David Rek. I’m a scientist at Venture Research. They made me mix the toxin. They were making me put it into the water. They still have my family… My wife and little girl. Please… please help them.”


Joel saw Sean jogging back, empty-handed. Sean shook his head.


Joel pulled Rek around, holding one of his upper arms. “Okay, let’s get you out of here. We need some answers.” He turned and started steering the prisoner off the car.


“You wanna stay here and keep an eye out, in case this isn’t the only attack?” he called across to Sean as they started moving out.


Sean stood still when he reached the point where Joel had arrested David. “Sure thing. Again, only use the server to contact me, though. Keep me posted.”


“Roger that,” Joel called back to him, without even turning around. Rek stumbled, and Joel, distracted, had to catch him to take his weight, and keep him on his feet.


He took the scientist back to the car, carefully making sure the toxin was secured in a pocket in the back, out of the reach of any suicidal crazies.


He didn’t notice the figure hidden by the undergrowth, peeking from behind the floodlight structure. The figure pulled back quietly, just as Joel straightened up to get into the drivers’ seat.


She watched him pull away.












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


Spire Central Water Facility, Hlidargata




As the sun went down, Maya realized that hanging around the location was probably a waste of time. She’d seen the two ex-military-looking guys take the kidnapped scientist away - along with what she could only assume was the toxin. She’d heard his protests, that they were holding his family, and forcing him to poison the city… They had it in-hand.


Hanging around, watching super-soldier number two guard the location, wasn’t going to give her any more answers.


And heck knows how he isn’t exhausted, she wondered. She’d been staking out the place for a good eight hours before anyone even showed up. And she’d been sitting in her car. He’d been standing out in the dust and radiation for hours.


Nope, it was time to call it a day. She had pictures of the two guys and the scientist on her holo. She just needed to connect back up to the XtraNET, and she could find out who these people were.


She started the car and pulled away.


She didn’t notice the space marine turn his head and clock her car registration number as she drove off.


It didn’t take much driving to find a mocha shop that had XtraNET she could tap into. Reopening the port on her holo, she hijacked the signal to continue her investigation.


First the marines: who were they? she asked herself, clipping their faces and running the images through facial rec. She left it running; she needed to be sure. Full scan. And time for a mocha and some food.


She got out of the car and stretched her legs, then arched her back. Locking up the car, she ambled towards the mocha shop. Suddenly, she had a funny feeling she was being watched. She looked around her. There was no one there.


Keep your eyes peeled, Maya, she told herself. You’re onto something here. Can’t be too careful. 


Her father had taught her how to recognize if someone was tailing her. Even as a child, she knew to take note of all the cars in a parking lot, and things like the number of people around a building like this.


She made her way into the mocha shop through the sliding atmos door. At the counter, she placed her order. Ten minutes later, she was sitting in the window, watching out for anything unusual while searching what she could access from a normal XtraNET connection.


At least I know who the good guys are, now, she mused to herself. They didn’t kill the scientist, but they stopped him from hurting anyone. She pulled up the pictures of the two men again. Something caused her to stop and look at them more closely.


One of them looked familiar. She couldn’t make the connection at first but then… Yes! She scrambled for her company’s newsfeed, and searched the video clips.


Yes! That was where she’d seen him.


It was way too grainy to do a facial rec match, but that was very likely the guy with Molly Bates on the Dewitt footage.


Great! she thought. Now we’re getting somewhere, baby. 


Just as soon as the facial rec came back, she’d have an ID, and a break in the case.


It took another two mochas for the facial software to return a result.


Joel Dunham. Honorably discharged, but his file was sealed. Something fishy went down there. But that was several years ago.


She kept searching in the usual databases. Transport, housing, financial, and holo records. Nothing gave her any insight. But then… flight plans. He’d spent the last few months off-world. No fixed address.


Interesting.


She tried digging. All that would come up was his association with Molly Bates in the police records to do with Dewitt. Nothing about in what capacity.


Shit. If only I could get into those files. 


She flicked up the facial rec software that was returning a result.


**NO MATCH**


That was for the guy with Dunham.


She went back to the original pictures of them. The second guy looked more heavily-built, especially for a human. She wondered… Maybe he’s off-grid. Working for the military. Which would explain the abilities I’ve seen; he moved faster than a human could. 


She pulled up the footage and ran the high res image, taking the spectrum down to the infrared. Zooming in, she selected the images and then blew them up.


Was that-?


Just behind his ear, she could see an implant; but bigger than a normal auditory one.


She zoomed to another part of his body. There were low temperature lines, like cables, or implants, or something, running the length of his legs. She tried to get a better angle, but it was too fiddly on her device.


But it got her thinking. A few years ago there were rumors of cyborgs - half men, half machine, being created for a secret war. She’d dismissed it as conspiracy theory. Speculative fiction. But now, seeing this untraceable man, knee-deep in a conspiracy to wipe out half the city, she had to wonder.


She lifted her mocha cup, to take another comforting sip, only to find it empty. Feeling hollow and exhausted, her mind somewhat foggy now, she tried to refocus on Joel. He was traceable. And if he was living off-world, sooner or later she knew exactly where he’d show up.


She plunked the empty mug down on the table and gathered up her belongings. She looked at the counter, contemplating taking another mocha with her, but then decided against it.


She really needed sleep at some point.


She just had one more stop to make…




Ventus Research Facility, downtown Spire




Joel was on high alert.


Transporting a prisoner solo was one of the highest-risk operations a person could take on. And that was despite the low level threat the scientist physically posed.


He whipped through all the strategies he would teach his cadets.


Know your route.

Check your route.

Be aware of your enemies and know who might ambush you.


Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. 


He felt like he had held his breath the entire journey.


Every car was suspicious.


Every holo device active on the street from passersby was a potential weapon.


Not to mention the fact that he was carrying the deadly toxin.


He had no idea if it might explode right there in the car. Maybe it was on a timer. He couldn’t totally trust everything the scientist had been telling him as he drove, quizzing him incessantly.


After all, he was under duress from the kidnappers, and now from Joel himself.


Fuck!


At least when he got there, he’d be able to hand the scientist over to the police. Detective Indius had been most accommodating and grateful on the holo call, as he’d set off from the Hlidargata site.


Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime since leaving Sean at the drop point, he pulled up at Ventus. He got out of the car and went around to the other side. Carefully, he opened the door and helped the prisoner out.


He glanced towards the back pocket where the toxin was. Safer to leave it there and get the scientist inside and handed over, he decided. Even if it did mean that he was leaving it unattended.


Can’t be helped. He locked the car and frog-marched Rek into the facility.


Everything was quiet.


Since bringing Molly on board, the directors had concluded that she could do far more than all their scientists combined. Something about her attitude had persuaded them. That’s what he’d heard from Eugene, anyway.


Their footsteps resounded through the dark, empty corridors. Emergency, low-level lighting guided their way through the building, as if low light was a mark of shame. Joel’s boots were heavy on the ground. Ordered in a solid, regular beat. David’s were scattered. He stumbled every now and again, off-balance, despite Joel only lightly holding his arm now.


Eventually they arrived in the lab. Without acknowledging any of the many bodies standing around the main workstations, Joel grabbed a swivel chair and sat David into it. Then he tied his middle and legs to the chair, immobilizing him.


Finally he looked up and acknowledged the people in the room.


“Mr. Dunham. Thank you for your call.” Detective Indius stepped away from the group, moving towards Joel, her hand outstretched. He shook her hand and then glanced over at the others. Eugene was at his station, and Pieter had been working away at something… the camera screens monitoring the three original sites still.


Joel nodded to the others before turning back to Indius. “You’re welcome. I’m glad to have him off my hands, if anything.”


He hesitated, not really knowing if he should hand over the toxin.


“We retrieved the toxin,” he told her. “Except, I don’t think that taking it to the precinct is a good idea.”


Eugene practically jumped out of his chair. “You’re kidding! It’s totally NOT a good idea! Do you have any idea-”


Pieter had stood up and was about to chime in too.


Detective Indius raised her hand. “It’s okay. Chillax, Dr. Eugene. You can keep the toxin here. As long as I get a full spec report on it for submitting to the DA.”


Eugene looked embarrassed about his outburst. He nodded, grunting something in agreement, and sat back down. Pieter backed off a little, too.


Joel turned to leave the lab. “Okay, let me go get it. Then you’ll probably want to know what we know.”


Indius smiled. “That sounds like an excellent idea, Mr. Dunham.”




***




It took a few hours of chatting and debriefing before all parties were satisfied they had the intel they needed. Joel strategically left out all the details about Sean. If he was using servers for them to communicate, and potentially double-crossing his employer - The Syndicate, and his ancestors knew whom else - he wouldn’t take kindly to being revealed to the police.


Fortunately, Pieter and Eugene had also been discreet, so it was easy to omit his part in it… although there had been a tense moment when Sean appeared on Pieter’s cameras just outside of Indius’s eyeline. He was still at the scene, but was signaling to them he was taking off. Joel had managed to keep Detective Indius’s attention on him by telling her the tale of how they had originally gotten off-world… semi-legally.


Thankfully, she wasn’t too caught up by the Air Traffic Control violation, mostly because that wasn’t her department, and there was nothing she could do. She did, however, urge him to get the penalty paid.


“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s in-hand with the pilot in order for him to come through the port again,” Joel waved, agreeing that they would ‘fess up either way.


Finally she got up to leave.


“Thank you all,” she said, casting her eyes around the little team in the lab. “And please pass my thanks on to Ms. Bates, as well.”


Joel nodded. “Of course.”


He got up and walked her out of the building and into a waiting police car, with her new prisoner.


When he returned to the lab, the boys were chattering and laughing, relieved that their hard work had paid off.


“We saved the fucking world!!” Pieter hollered at the top of his voice.


Eugene laughed and high-fived him. “Yeah. Who’d have thought that a couple of geeks-”


He stopped mid-sentence, seeing Joel, the muscle of the op, walk back in, and take a seat next to him. Joel folded his arms, revealing his rippling muscles, and looked pointedly at Eugene’s biceps.


Eugene went quiet and put his attention back on his holo, pretending to work.


Pieter regained his decorum too. “Want me to message Sean and let him know we wrapped up?”


“Sure,” Joel responded. “Then contact Gaitune, and let them know we’re ready for extraction. It will take them a day or two to get here.


Pieter swiveled back to his temporary workstation. “You got it, boss!” he chirped.


Joel leaned back in his chair, and moved over to give Eugene some more space. “Then we go eat,” he said, finally allowing himself to relax.


“Something with a fuck ton of dead animal on it,” he added.




Hotel Erwin, downtown Spire




Joel woke up in the hotel room. Pieter was already up, working at the table in the main room. Natural sarklight spilled through the windows and cast patterns on the floor.


Rolling off the bed and putting his feet on the floor, Joel stretched out his calves, bringing himself around slowly.


He turned, looking for his water bottle. It was on the nightstand, empty. He picked it up and padded through to the living area, and over to the sink in the very basic kitchenette.


“Ummm,” he grunted to Pieter.


Pieter glanced up from his work. “Greetings of the morning,” he said, trying not to let his focus be broken.


Joel sat down at the table and drank from his bottle.


Eventually Pieter looked up again. “Sleep okay?” he asked.


Joel nodded, still trying to come to. Speaking was an effort he wasn’t prepared to make at this point.


Pieter started updating Joel anyway. “Okay, so I think I’ve got this device working as we need it to. I’ve tested it a few times, and I can’t break it…” he picked up the little pod device off the table, and waved it in the air in front of Joel’s eyes.


Joel reached out and took it from him, like a bear would swipe at a honeybee. He blinked his eyes again and gave up. Holding the device, he closed his eyes and put his head on his arms on the table.


He stayed like that for a few minutes.


Pieter continued working.


Eventually Joel revived and peeled his head up, eyes still closed. Then one eye opened. Followed a moment later by the other.


Joel tried again, holding the device up in front of his now-functioning eyes.


“Looks like a normal storage device,” he commented, forcing his mouth to work. His whole face was still crumpled up.


Pieter looked at him. “Yeah, that’s what it’s meant to look like.”


Joel’s eyes widened a little, as he mouthed an “Ohhh,” expression. “And it’s fully tested.”


Pieter nodded. “Yes, sir.”


Joel looked over at him, serious and awake now. “You’d stake your life on it?” He still held the device up at eye level between them.


Pieter swallowed. His eyes focused on the device for a moment, and then back on Joel. He paused. Then nodded. “I would.”


“Good enough for me,” smiled Joel. He put it back down on the table. “Leave a message for Sean. If he wants to avoid contact, we can leave it at a drop-off for him.”


That way I don’t have to see him. 


Shit, stop Joel. He’s just a dude.


Yeah, that happens to be into Molly. 


Pieter was back on his holo. “On it.”


Joel heaved himself out of the chair and walked over to the mocha machine. He shook his head, trying to shake the feelings he had about Sean.


Hitting the “on” switch, he remembered to ask about their pick up. “Hey, any word from Crash yet?”


Pieter looked up. “Yeah, about half hour ago he sent a download estimating an ETA of about 6 hours. That gives us five and a half to get packed up and over there.


Joel grunted again, and traipsed back through to the bedroom to hit the shower.












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




Exhausted, her blue skin now dull from fatigue, Maya rolled up to the security checkpoint with her badge. It had been a long drive between Spire and Uptarlung, and sleep dep was already kicking in.


“Maya Johnstone, Newstainment, Investigative Division,” she told the young Estarian at the security post. He leaned out of his window to see the ID projection more closely on her holo.


He looked at the ID, then at her, and then back at the ID.


He pulled his mouth to one side, thinking. Or confused. “What does a journalist want with a spaceport?” he asked.


Maya sensed that this was an opportunity. After all, once she was in, she didn’t know where to start looking. She held up a finger telling him to hang on a second, and then turned off the engine and hopped out of the car. As she approached the window, he stepped out of the door on the other side of his little office, and came around to meet her.


“Don’t get many people interested in this place,” he said. His accent was slow and drawn. He was likely from one of the more southern towns on the planet.


Maya smiled at him. “Well, there’s someone I’m trying to trace. He’s been helping my friend, and I think he’s in trouble.” She bit her lip and looked away for a moment. “I know he’ll be leaving to go off-world soon, and I just wanted to speak to him before he goes.”


She looked down and fiddled with her holo. Pulling up his picture from before he had pulled his weapon, and before he had the scientist in shot; she showed him a zoomed in image of Joel.


“You seen him?” she asked.


The Estarian shook his head. “We get a lot of guys like him through this way: ex-military types, with commercial gigs, importing and exporting on these birds. Hard to tell them apart.”


Maya smiled. “Yeah, bet they all look the same.” She paused. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a sign-in would you… for people when they come on-site? The guy’s name is Joel Dunham. At least, that’s his real name.”


The security guard looked upward for a second, thinking. “Yeah… hang on.” He stepped out behind the security hut again. She followed him around to the doorway. He had pulled up the lodge holo device and was scrolling through sign-ins.


“No sign of your boy today,” he told her.


Maya frowned a little, and thought for a moment. “What about any other day?”


The security guard pulled up the search function and keyed in Joel’s name. “Yeah, he checked in one landing a few days ago.”


Maya put her finger to her bottom lip, thinking. “Okay. So if that was the last entry… if he’s still using his real name, he’s still here.”


The guard straightened up, suddenly looking more competent and confident. “Tell you what,” he said, “bump me that image and his name, and if anyone comes in looking like that, I’ll drop you a message.”


Maya beamed. Some of the effervescence came back to the skin around her cheeks as she pulled the picture again to bump it to his holo.


“Thank you!” she gushed. “I’m Maya, by the way.” She held out her hand to shake his. He took it straight away. “Ned,” he told her.


“Ned, thank you. You don't know how much this means to me.”


Ned smiled goofily, blushing a little. When she released his hand, he used it to ruffle his dark Estarian hair. “Don’t mention it.” His voice caught for a second in his throat. “Happy to help.”


She turned to the door, and then turned back. “Hey, I don’t suppose…” she hesitated, not wanting to push her luck.


Ned looked at her, expectantly.


She continued. “I don’t suppose that maybe you know which ship he came in on? And if that ship is still here?”


Ned flicked back to his screen, and swiped a few times.


“Yeah, I’ve got the tail number here. XC-094B.” He glanced up at her again. “It’s not here, though. Want me to let you know when it lands?”


Maya beamed again. “Would you?”


“Of course! For a smile like that…” He suddenly blushed deep red under his blue skin, embarrassed by his own cheesy boldness.


Maya grinned at him and waved. “Thank you Ned, so much!” She trotted off away from the security lodge and back around to her car, blushing somewhat herself.


Maya got back into her car and started the engine. Window still down, she waved at him before reversing back out of the driveway to a point where she could turn around.


As she drove off to the strato highway, she glanced in her rearview mirror. Ned was still standing outside his hut, watching her leave.



Press conference outside Memorial Hall, Spire




Garet Beaufort stepped away from the podium, allowing the mayor to take over the press conference taking place in front of the memorial building, where the Ministry of Health Care met for their annual meeting.


He looked out at the assembled reporters, brandishing holo recorders, monitoring and capturing his every word and movement. He had toed the line in his statement, and yet, something made him feel on edge. He tried to shake the feeling from his body, pretending to just be warming up against the cold morning air.


Scanning the crowd, something made him look for familiar faces. Maybe it was the loneliness. Every now and again, he thought he might see Paige. But he knew that wasn’t right; she wouldn’t come back here. Not after everything that happened.


Not after he didn’t choose her.


“…and that is why the mayor’s office is also proud to support the motion.” Mayor Gains finished his statement, and the press erupted into a clamor of questions.


Garet glazed over.


It had quickly all become quite routine. He took a breath, looking for an escape route away from the onslaught of questions and brashness, but his eyes fell to a figure at the back of the crowd.


He looked more closely, recognizing the body shape before the face.


It was Sean Royale.


As soon as it was appropriate to leave the platform, he shook hands with the mayor, and made his way down to the street. His team fussed around him and he waved them off.


“Gimme ten minutes,” he told Nancy, the newest blonde addition to his entourage. She nodded obediently, and watched as he moved off around the crowd, striding purposefully across the road into the memorial park on the other side.


She didn’t notice the heavy-set super soldier follow him shortly after.


Sean casually caught up to Garet. Hands in pockets, each just looked like a guy taking a walk.


Hidden by hedging and greenery from the road, Garet didn’t look at Sean as they walked more slowly now. “How did it go?” he asked.


Sean spoke in a low, but very clear voice. “Well. There are still some loose ends - which I will handle - but they built a device. I checked it. It will do the job.”


Garet stopped walking.


Sean pulled the little storage pod out of his pocket. “You can put data on it, and then upload it using any public XtraNET port. Just don’t use it at home or in the office. Or anywhere they can trace you.”


Garet nodded.


He looked at the device, and then slipped it quickly into his pants pocket. Then he looked up, knowing he shouldn’t be asking. “How are they all?”


Sean reported as professionally as he could on the question. “They all seem in good health. Good spirits. They’re building a new team together. They’ve just taken on a new tech guy.


Garet’s eyes narrowed. “Did he check out okay?”


Sean nodded briefly once. “Affirmative. Although one thing is suspicious.”


Garet looked concerned.


Sean continued, his eyes dancing a little. “His dress sense is way too good for a nerd.”


Garet laughed out loud. He turned and continued walking, ambling along with Sean now in tow.


“And Paige?”


Sean bobbed his head slightly. “The hybrid?”


Garet looked up at him. “Yes,” he smiled at the term. “The hybrid.”


Sean smiled a little again, and looked back at Garet. “She looked in excellent health and humor.”


Garet bobbed his head, wondering if he should ask more. He decided against it. He looked straight ahead and continued walking.


He was silent for a moment.


“And did you meet Joel?” he asked.


“I did.”


Garet was now watching Sean’s reaction, even as they walked. “Impressive guy, no?” he prodded.


Sean wasn’t giving much away. “Seems to be.”


“But you could take him?” Garet smiled, genuinely curious.


“Probably,” Sean admitted, stiffly.


The pair was approaching a gate to the park. If Garet stepped out here, he could walk casually back up the street to rejoin his people.


He nodded at the exit, signaling his intent. “Okay. Great job. I’ll wait to hear from you about everything else.”


Sean nodded, and then casually continued on a route deeper into the park, avoiding the possibility of anyone snapping images that might place them together for their conversation.




Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




“Permission granted. Welcome back, XC-094B. Just remember to swing by control to get that fine paid, or else you’ll come back to an impounded ship.”


Crash rolled his eyes, but his voice was as cool and professional as a fighter pilot on group comms. “Roger that, control. Will attend as soon as we touch down.”


Fucking jumped up half-wits, he thought to himself.


Molly had given him access to funds to square it away, and hoped his license record didn’t suffer as a result of her command decision. But still, a little piece of him wanted to just shove it to the man.


He touched down gently, and received the green light to taxi straight away. Switching to wheels mode, he dropped the hyperdrive engines to zero, and allowed them to naturally power down against the friction of the air. It would save excessive wear and tear doing it that way, even though traditional safety regs dictated otherwise.


His inner rebel was flying the ship today.


Gently, he eased the ship forward and off toward the hangars. It took a few moments to normalize to the natural gravity and to gather his thoughts, but as he taxied, he thought to switch his personal holo and comms back on.


“Call Joel,” he told his holo in hands-free mode.


A moment later, the call connected. “Joel, how the fuck are you, my man?”


“All the better for hearing you, you asshole. How the andskotinn are you?”


Crash smiled to himself. “Ready for a fokking pizza before we leave for the rock.”


Joel looked over at Pieter who had brightened up at the prospect of getting off-world, finally. “Roger that. We’re packed up and ready to leave. See you in twenty minutes plus however long the pizza pick-up takes.”


Crash grinned, having a sneaky thought. “Hey, don’t suppose we could go with an all-out meat feast, since the boss isn’t around?”


Joel nearly hooted with laughter. “I’ll see what we can arrange!” He clicked off the comms.


“That’s us,” he said to Pieter. “Let’s get out of here.”


Pieter gathered up his two packs and headed out of the hotel door. Joel did a quick visual sweep to make sure they had everything, and then followed him out, closing the door behind him.


Pieter looked brightly over at Joel. “So, pizza?”


Joel grinned. “Hellz yeah. Pizza with meat – pepperoni, and all kinds of carnivorous fancies. There’s a place just around the corner that will see us right.”


The two headed down the corridor and out of the building, a decisive spring in their steps, despite their numerous packs and pieces of equipment.












CHAPTER TWENTY


Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




“You know, there’s something that bothers me still…” Joel started.


Pieter looked over to him, a mouthful of cheese and meat barely making it all the way into his mouth. He chewed a bit and made some room. “About the mission?”


Joel crinkled his nose. “Yeah. It’s just something about the toxin, and the scientist.” He paused, and plopped the half-eaten slice of pizza down in the box in front of him. “I mean, why go to all the trouble of developing the toxin, only to send it with the one man who can be identified as associated with all this? Surely you’d send someone a) trained, and b) anonymous?”


Pieter nodded. “You have a point. It doesn’t quite stack.” He kept chewing.


Crash continued to eat, watching the conversation back and forth, like a game of ping-pong.


Joel was unsettled. “Have you still got those cameras hooked up?” he asked Pieter.


Pieter nodded, reluctantly surrendering his pizza back to the box so he could open his holo to find the feed.


Joel continued, “You know, they could have sent almost anyone else, and got away with it. Something about this was all just… too easy.”


Crash piped up. “Don’t let Molly hear you say that. She worked like a bitch to get that antidote developed.”


Joel waved his hand. “Yeah, I don’t doubt that. But the logic, at this end… it just doesn’t stack.”


Pieter had the feed up. “All locations are quiet. Want me to scan for movement in the time you left Sean there?”


Joel nodded, “Please.” The pizza now forgotten, he stood up just to feel like he was in action again.


Crash, finishing his current slice of meaty heaven, reached over for another piece. Joel paced. While Crash chewed, his eyes were fixed on Joel like something out of a cartoon, following him backwards and forwards.


Finally something chirped on Pieter’s holo. He pulled up the footage. “Here we go.” He paused, reviewing the footage. “Holy shit, Joel. You were right!”


Joel paced back to the makeshift table and looked over Pieter’s shoulder as he enlarged the frame.


Pieter explained what he was looking at. “That’s Sean,” he pointed to a figure with his back to the camera. “And this is from about twenty minutes ago…”


Pieter hit play, and the footage ticked forward second by second.


Joel’s mouth hung open.


Pieter just looked confused.


Seeing their reactions, Crash stopped eating, stood up, pizza in hand, and walked around to view the footage from behind Pieter.


The three of them watched, dumbfounded.


“Fuck me!” whispered Joel in disbelief.




Spire Central Water Facility, Hlidargata




Sean checked in to the server dump: two new messages.


Message #1: “same location. Bogie ETA 17:20. Carrying the second device.”


There was an image attached. Sean checked the Estarian’s mug shot. He was known to the Sanguine. This was going to be straight-forward.


Getting out of his vehicle he marched up to the structure where he’d jumped Joel. It was a good spot not to be seen. He took cover, squatting down, out of sight. The natural daylight from Sark was low, meaning long shadows, making it easier to hide.


He waited. 17:15.


Eventually, he heard movement. A civilian-looking guy, spindly and low-key, appeared. He had a backpack, and walked idly. Anyone not looking for him would have disregarded him as a threat.


Sean knew better.


He waited, allowing the man to approach the grating where the toxin device would need to be dropped. Sean quietly crept out of his hiding place, and stepped forward.


Before the man could reach into his bag, Sean had stunned him, and slung him over his shoulder, lifting him up as if he were just a sack of potatoes. In one swift movement, he also grabbed hold of the bag the man was carrying. He opened it and rummaged inside, making sure it contained the second device, then closed it up again, and stalked off with the terrorist over his shoulder.


After just a few paces, he remembered something. He stopped, turned, and then looked up at the camera that Pieter had fitted. He smiled a half smile, and gave it a casual two-finger salute before carrying on, out of the frame.


That would get them, he chuckled to himself. If they’re half as good as the General thinks they are, they’ll check the footage eventually. 


His chuckle turned into a satisfied grin as he stomped away back to the car.




Newstainment Offices, downtown Spire




“Hey, did you hear about the conspiracy to poison the city’s water supply?”


Maya overheard a snippet of a conversation as she walked from the elevators past a couple of ladies standing in the hallway.


“Yeah. Couldn’t believe it was the scientist…”


Maya made her way through the bustling corridors.  Almost half past five in the afternoon, and the place was still in full-swing. She needed to get to her desk and find out what was actually being reported. Just because she knew the truth, it didn’t necessarily mean that the truth was what Newstainment were reporting.


She swung past her desk, ditching her jacket, and made her way closer to Bob’s office. He was there, shouting at a journalist.


Okay, he’s fine, she calmed herself. And as long as he’s running the story he was told to, he’ll stay fine. 


She hoped she was right.


She pulled up her holo and connected it to the work network. Quickly, she searched for the official story.


She read it, then clicked on a video report. It all looked pretty vague. At least Molly Bates wasn’t featuring yet; although, that might just be a matter of time. Though, without video evidence… She wondered if Molly was even on Estaria. After all, if Joel Dunham had been off-world, likelihood was that she would be too.


She scanned through her messages, deleting and clearing, trying to get her head clear, while standing up now and again to see if Bob was still in his meeting.


Ugh, the other journalist just sat down. Looks like he’ll be a while. Fucker. 


She sat down again for maybe the fifth time since she got there. She pulled her attention back to the job at hand.


If these guys were going off-world, then there would be a limited number of places they could go in the XC-094B they were using.


She pulled up a chart of the system and started scribbling on distances.


Next, she pulled up the range of the ship, given a full fuel cell and minimal crew. Drawing a sphere around Estaria, she then zoomed in to see what might be within range.


Ogg was out. Just at this time of year; it was almost on the exact opposite side of Sark right now.


She turned her visual model so she could see what else was around. There were a few minor planets, but none of those were habitable. Either too hot, or even molten.


She spun the visual representation again. The sphere intersected with the asteroid belt. She zoomed in, watching the asteroid labels flick by as she did.


What if they were hiding in the asteroid belt? 


Her father had told her stories when she was very young; stories about how people would have secret bases in asteroid belts around systems. Bases that got closed down and decommissioned. She wished she could remember more about what he’d said.


She flicked her holo in to code mode so she could see where her representation was pulling data from.


One of the university servers. Government owned, therefore probably fit for public consumption, and completely fictitious. 


She needed better data.


Fokk, dammit, she thought to herself, realizing that to get it was possible, but that it was going to take a lot more work.


There must be an easier way. Her hatred for hacking through the dark web was unmatched by anything.


Well almost anything.


Just then, a message hit her holo. She turned her wrist, and it flicked open. It was from Ned.


Her eyes scanned the short text, and almost without thinking, she closed her screens and stood up. She picked up her jacket that had slipped onto the floor behind her chair, and walked out the way she had come just a few minutes previously.


“Yo! Maya, where you off to in such a hurry?” It was Drew, one of her few work “buddies”.


“Chasing a story. Catch up later!” she called, waving, walking as fast as she could out to the elevators again.


Drew stood peering over his cubicle partition shaking his head at her. “Fokk, I wish I could catch stories the way she can…”


He slumped back down in his chair, frustrated, and flicked at his antigrav mug.












CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




Maya pulled up at the security lodge at the main gate. As she arrived, Ned stepped out looking concerned.


She got out of the car, and Ned headed over. “I came on duty, and they had already logged in. I’m sorry.”


Maya smiled at him. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m grateful you let me know. Which hangar are they in?”


Ned beckoned for her to follow him back to the lodge. “Looks like they’re all up there right now. They’ll probably be leaving soon, depending on when they can get a window.” He led her into the office and pulled up a holo screen. “The ship is in Hangar 08771A.”


Maya touched his arm gently in passing. “Thank you, Ned,” she said sincerely.


He looked over at her. “Let me give you directions…”


She smiled. “That would be perfect!”


He motioned towards the door and she stepped back out. He started pointing off in the direction of the airfield and gave her detailed directions on how to find the hangar before walking her to her car.


“Just follow this road around to begin with, and you’ll pick up the service road,” he told her as she got in. He closed the car door for her and waved her off.


She opened her window as she pulled slowly away. “You’re the best, Ned! Thank you!”


The big double gates opened, allowing her to pass through, and she drove around, finding the route he’d described easily.


As she approached the hangar she slowed down. No signs of life around, and the door was closed… but then, that wasn’t to say someone wasn’t on the ship already. She pulled forward, and parked the car along side the next hangar over, so it wouldn’t be spotted if anyone came out.


Hopping out as fast as she could without looking suspect, she powered up her holo and disconnected herself from her own XtraNET connection.


This time she was tapping into something completely different.


She put her holo into admin mode, and walked slowly towards Hangar 08771A, watching for any other signals. She picked up two machines with comms enabled in the hangar she had parked next to. Plus a couple of personal holo connections. She quietly kept walking.


Five paces later, she saw a new signal on her device: codeForceX_XC_094B_TWINC


That must be it, she thought to herself, recognizing the ship’s model in the name.


She looked around for somewhere to plant herself for a few moments. Somewhere she wouldn’t be spotted, or look suspicious if she were spotted. There was nothing nearby, and although she was on the right side of the hangars to be hidden from the road, anyone walking around behind the hangars would see her.


Deciding she would just have to talk fast if she were rumbled, she slumped down quietly on the hard, sandy ground against the back of the hangar. The signal jumped even higher. It was stronger here.


Small mercies, she noted to herself with a wry smile.


She got to work.


The thing she most needed to figure out was where they were going when they disappeared off-world. She already suspected the asteroid belt, but she couldn’t be sure. If she could figure out their flight time from the black box, she could use the average speed to pinpoint a distance, and narrow it that way.


Unless… 


She swiped a few screens, diving deeper into the hard drive of the nav system. If she could access the last few flights this bird had taken… well then it would have coordinates and everything there.


ACCESS DENIED.


Ass burgers. 


She tried something else.


ACCESS DENIED.


Fucking crapolo with an ass on top!


She looked up for a moment, letting her mind process the frustration. She was still exhausted, and time was running out. They could leave at any moment.


Her mind went blank.


Her eyes fixated on a point in space, and she allowed her brain the space to reset itself.


After a few moments, she had a thought. If she could find out what kind of encryption these systems used, then maybe she could find a crypto program to decipher it.


But that meant she needed access to the XtraNET.


Andskotinn! 


She looked up into empty space again. She couldn’t use her connection. The big bad would trace her.


She breathed. Think, Maya. Think. 


The personal holos next door! 


She could piggy back off their XtraNet connection, get the crypto-program, and access everything she needed. They would never know. She excitedly flicked back to the network screen, and connected in with one of the personal devices in the next hangar. There seemed to be very little traffic going through it.


Perfect.


Getting to work again, she settled down with her butt on the ground, and her back against the hangar wall, legs straight out in front of her.


This may take a while, she told herself. If anyone shows up and asks what I’m doing, I’ll just have to turn on the water works and pretend I’m upset… People can’t bear to see a stranger cry. 


Hope this works.




ArchAngel3, Yollin Space




General Lance Reynolds wandered into his private office. It had been a day of tedious meetings and balancing egos… but now it was time for the real work.


The door slid quietly closed behind him as the lighting adjusted for his arrival.


“Good evening, Lance,” the voice piped out to him.


“Good evening, ADAM.” Lance hung up his jacket and stepped around to his control console, with an antigrav chair and all the mod cons. “Want to update me on the Sark situation?” he asked.


“With pleasure,” ADAM replied, materializing a collection of holoscreens in front of the colonel. One frame maneuvered in front of all of the others; it was a video feed showing Joel and Sean taking down the scientist.


“As you can see, Molly’s team did a great job of intercepting the toxin.”


He swung a second holo frame out in front, dematerializing the first. “Then our guy, Sean Royale, neutralized the second threat.”


Lance leaned in a little to see the footage better. Keeping his eyes on the screen he asked: “So they didn’t figure out there were two devices?”


“Negative,” replied ADAM. “Although Joel Dunham did have the thought about 18 minutes after Sean neutralized the second device.”


“How do we know this?” Lance’s voice was analytical.


“He checked the cameras they had set up. I’m assuming that he made some cognitive association whereby something was niggling at him.”


The General made a mental note. “And Molly? Where was she in all this?”


“She developed the antidote off-world. I suspect the reasoning for this was the increased media pressure.”


The General stroked his chin, considering the situation as a whole. “Yes. I can imagine that would be difficult for her, given her background. It will be interesting how she handles that going forward. Keep me updated on that.”


“Sir?”


“Yes, ADAM.”


“There’s something else.”


Lance waited.


ADAM pulled forward another holoscreen. “It looks like Molly may have inadvertently attracted some more potential.”


Images of Maya flashed up on the screen, complete with footage from the security gate at the hangar.


Lance raised one eyebrow. “She’s been sniffing around?”


“More than that. She managed to hack into Molly’s ship and find the coordinates of the base.”


Lance smiled. “Well this is getting interesting.” He zoomed in on Maya’s image, committing her face to memory. “Anything else?”


“Yes, sir. Your hundred credits are in your account, from my account. Your betting wins.”


Lance laughed out. “Pha! Excellent. Thank you, ADAM.”


He smiled, leaning back in his chair.


Finally, he sat up. “Okay. Keep me apprised of the Sark situation. What’s the latest from the Yollins?”




Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung




Still reeling from the curveball Sean had lobbed them, the team sat around on the ship, wondering about their next move.


Crash quietly continued to eat his pizza.


Joel stopped pacing, and put his hands on his head, turning back to Pieter and Crash who were still at the table.


“Okay. How soon can we get out of here?” he asked Crash.


Crash checked the time on his wrist holo. “Still a few hours away from our window.”


Joel hardly showed any emotion. “Any way we can get bumped up?” he asked.


Crash finished chewing what was in his mouth and placed the rest of the slice down. “Yeah. The skies have been clear when I’ve been checking in. If it’s a quiet day, then they’ll probably be able to move us up.”


Joel pursed his lips tightly. “Okay. Let’s try it.”


Pieter hadn’t taken his eyes off Joel since he started speaking. He sat, looking up at him, and only now spoke. “You don’t want to contact Sean again?”


Joel shook his head. “No - he knew what he was doing. I dunno what game he’s playing, or who he’s really working for, but the city seems safe from the threat now.”


He paused, dropping his hands from his head, and wandered back to the table to sit. “Plus, I don’t expect Sean will be forthcoming, even if we were able to track him down.”


Pieter looked a tad disappointed and a little confused. “You don’t want to investigate? I thought that was what we did?”


Joel shook his head. “I don’t want us to get drawn into a game before we know what we’re playing. This is one to get Molly in on. She can see if Oz can dig anything up.”


He sighed, understanding the operational elements of this only too well. “We’re playing at a disadvantage right now.”


Pieter nodded. “Ah, I see,” he said. “I guess we should get packed up then.” He started to clear the pizza boxes away.


“Yeah! Remove any trace of meat products from the ship!” Joel joked.


Crash, who had started a holo call with ATC, slapped the box down out of Pieter’s hand, opened the lid with the free hand without his holoscreen attached to it, took out another piece of pizza, and put it into his mouth.


Pieter looked on surprised and amused.


Then Crash, holding the slice temporarily in his teeth, closed the lid, and handed the box gentlemanly back to Pieter with a grin.


They all laughed, and Crash moved away from the group, taking the pizza now into his hand, and starting to talk to whomever his option selections had put him through to.


Within the hour, they were taxying out of the hangar; fine payment accepted, and with full clearance to take off this time.


They all sat up front in the cockpit.


Joel saw his opportunity to send Molly a quick message before takeoff. He opened his holo and started recording.


“Hi, Molly, it’s Joel. Just wanted to let you know that the threat is neutralized, and we’re on the ship with Crash heading off-world now. Hope all is good there. Looking forward to seeing you all soon!”


Joel clicked off his holo recorder, and sent the data packet to the secured server that would get the message to Molly.


He took a moment to collect his thoughts, and then turned to the others in the cockpit. He smiled, watching Crash finish his checks with Pieter watching intently, agog at the tech in front of him.


Joel raised a bottle of water to his comrades. “Well, congratulations on a successful mission, boys!”


Crash raised his fist in the air and Pieter scrambled for the open water bottle he’d wedged between his legs, raising it up in the spirit of the toast.


Joel couldn’t help but grin. “And thank you, Crash, for coming back to get us!”


Crash, his normal, collected self, cracked just a small smile. “Any time, boss. It was worth the kilometers just to have meat on my pizza.”


They erupted in laughter as the hangar doors closed behind them. The ship pulled out onto the road, and started its short trek over to the launch pad, under the guidance of Air Traffic Control.


Air Traffic Control came on over the radio. “Novelty to have you following our instructions, XC-094B,” came the quip.


Crash responded in his even pilot’s voice. “Always happy to comply with the folks keeping our asses from colliding.”


There was static on the line and a hint of laughter, and the radio channel closed out.


Crash flicked the channel to mute. “Assholes,” he said, humorously.



***




A few minutes later, unbeknown to anyone on the site, a quiet Estarian journalist poked her head out from behind the hangar. Checking that there wasn’t anyone left around, she stalked stealthily over to her car.


Getting in, she breathed a sigh of relief. Now that she knew exactly where they were going, her investigation into this strange off-world team could really begin.




Gaitune-67, Safe house, Common area




“Hey!” Paige walked into the common area, and plunked herself down on the sofa next to Molly. “Whatcha watching?”


Molly flicked the sound down on the main holoscreen. “I don’t even know. It started off as some history program, and now I don’t know what it is. Something about a special crystalline set of skulls…”


Paige had glazed over already.


Molly knocked the sound down even more, and turned to face Paige a little. “What you been up to all day? I haven't seen you since breakfast.”


“Oh, you know,” Paige waved her hands, casually. “Setting up the company structure for that nail polish project you’re going to help me with.” She tilted her head and tried to look innocent, like a little girl saying “Pleeeeeeaaaase?”


Molly hung her face in one hand, her arm now half folded defensively. She looked up, a tired look on her face. “That’s still happening, huh?”


Paige nodded. “You betcha, it is!” She narrowed her eyes. “Wait. Did you think I was just going to forget about it?”


Molly said nothing.


Paige had a look of mock indignation. “Is that why you agreed to it?”


Molly dropped her head back into her hands, hiding her eyes. “Maybe,” came her muffled response.


Paige grabbed a cushion from behind her and threw it against Molly.


Molly squealed. “Wait! Wait. It’s not fair. Hey…”


Paige hadn’t let go of the cushion and continued to beat her with it.


Molly surrendered. “I give up. I give up. I’ll do it.”


Paige stopped hitting her, allowing Molly to take the cushion off her. “Good,” she said, in a very final tone. “I need you to get going on the goddamn sciencing, though, now that the crisis is over.”


Molly sighed. “Okay. I’ll start tomorrow.”


Paige eyed her.


Molly confirmed. “Tomorrow. Promise.”


Paige lifted one eyebrow, as if she didn’t believe her.


Molly relented. “Okay, cross my heart, tomorrow I’ll get going on it.”


Paige looked satisfied. She glanced back at the holoscreen, watching it for a few moments. “So when are the boys back?”


Molly had gone back to watching the moving images too. “Tomorrow afternoon.”


Something occurred to her. She turned and looked back at Paige. “Hey, you know they’re bringing a new team member back with them, right?”


Paige didn’t miss a beat. “Is he hot?”


Molly looked back at the screen. “I didn’t say ‘he’ is a ‘he’.” She tried not to let Paige see her smiling a little.


Paige noticed Molly’s expression. “’He’ is a ‘he’! I can tell. So… is he hot?” she asked again.


Molly teased her. “I dunno, I haven’t met him.”


Paige humphed. “Would you know, even if you had?”


Molly laughed, and chucked the cushion back at her. “Yes. Of course! I have needs - just like anyone else.”


Paige bobbed her head. “Yeah, speaking of. We’re on this ancestor-forsaken rock. How are we even going to manage long-term?”


Molly laughed, but then started marinating on the question seriously. She paused, her eyes revealing she had gone somewhere else. “You do have a point,” she agreed.


Paige picked up another cushion and was hugging it close to her. “I suppose we could go into town. You know. Find the clubs and restaurants in the brochure.”


Molly looked confused. “What brochure?”


Paige rolled her eyes. “Really?


Molly caught on. “Oh, you were kidding!”


Paige nodded.


Molly paused again. “I dunno the answer to that. We’ll have to think of something.”


Paige grinned her most evil smile. “Unless this guy is tasty, in which case, I call dibs.”


Molly laughed. “You can have dibs, as long as he agrees to it, too. Apparently, using feminine wiles isn’t ‘playing fair’. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”


Paige went back to watching the holoscreen, which was now showing sweeping images through some area of space she didn’t recognize. “Sounds completely logical.”


Molly smiled. “Honestly, folks that say this kinda shit have no concept of logic.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Common area




“They’re back!” Paige’s shoes clipped excitedly across the open-plan common area and out to the foyer of the safe house.


“Molly! They’re here!” she called excitedly.


Molly emerged from the kitchen, cup of mocha in hand. She placed it down on the table in the living space, and ambled towards the door.


Brock emerged from downstairs, too. “Guess they’re here!” he laughed. “You know, that girl would make a great early warning system!”


Molly grinned.


Paige ran back in, in full Labrador mode. She hadn’t opened the outside door yet. “They’re just coming out now. Oh my ancestors… it’s been so quiet around here without the full pack.” She was beaming.


Molly tried to calm her a little. “It’s okay, Paige. They’re back now. Give them a chance. And leave the door closed until they’re here. We don’t want to be clearing out asteroid for the next month.”


Paige waved a hand, indicating what Molly was saying wasn’t important, and clip-clopped back out to the foyer to greet the rest of the team.


“Oh, my stars!” she exclaimed. Brock had gone out to join her. Molly, now marginally intrigued wandered over to stand in the doorway to the foyer. There she saw both Brock and Paige with their noses pressed against the outside glass, watching the boys lug their packs in.


“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Paige was asking Brock.


Brock, in a somewhat distant tone, responded. “Girlfriend, I am most definitely seeing what you’re seeing…”


“I saw him first!” Paige asserted.


Brock looked at her out of the corner of his eye, one eyebrow now arched flirtatiously. “But if the boy prefers something else… who am I to deny him?”


Paige giggled and smacked him playfully on his arm with the back of her hand.


Molly rolled her eyes and wandered back into the common room to retrieve her mocha.


At least the troops are amused, she thought to herself.


Finally, they must have reached the door, because Molly felt the pressure drop; even despite the second door being sealed. Eventually the hub of activity spilled into the main building, with shouting and laughing and squeals of delight (mostly from Paige).


Joel was the last one through the door, but as he shuffled in, as fast at the crowd of team members would let him, he looked for Molly. Seeing her sitting on the main sofa in the communal living room, he raised his big hand in the air high above the heads of the others and waved to her with a big smile.


She waved back and mouthed, “Welcome home.” She didn’t move though. That kind of excitement and activity was just a little… overwhelming for her. She continued instead to nurse her mocha and wait for the hubbub to subside.


Neechie had sensed a disturbance in the force, and emerged from goodness knows where. He wandered over to Molly, hopped up on the sofa next to her, and settled with his chin on her thigh.


“Hey, boy,” she said, looking down at him. “It’s okay, we’ll just hang here for a bit. It’s going to be okay.” She stroked him gently from his head down his spine.


Paige’s voice cut through the general chatter. “Oh my ancestors… And we found the best curry place while you were away!”


Joel laughed. “Well anything that isn’t pizza sounds good right now.”


Pieter and Crash imploded in a chuckle and an exchange of knowing glances. Molly couldn’t help but wonder if they had an inside joke going. She made a mental note to ask about that at some point.


“How about we get take out?” Paige was saying. “Brock and I can go fetch it while you guys get washed up and unpacked.”


Pieter’s eyes lit up suddenly. “I’d quite like to see the asteroid, actually. Can I come with?”


Paige looked at Brock as if asking permission. Brock nodded. “Of course, my friend. I’m Brock by the way…” He held out his hand to shake it, and Paige made her own introduction.


It seemed decided. Pieter’s gear was abandoned against the nearest wall, and the three of them left together, Paige leading the way. “So this is your first time on an asteroid, then?” she started. Brock followed them out of the front door again, shaking his head smiling.


The crowd somewhat thinned, Crash waved to Molly and mumbled something about going to shower the space out of his pores.


Joel chuckled as he watched him head out down the corridor to the quarters. He placed his pack down next to Pieter’s abandoned gear, and then ambled over to where Molly was sitting. Exhausted but smiling, he plunked himself down on the sofa next to her.


“So, what’ve I missed?” he asked, starting the conversation.


Molly shook her head, and looked into her mocha. “Not much. Heard you saved the planet?”


Joel chuckled. “Well, slight exaggeration. It was more just the city.” He paused, remembering something. “And even then, I didn’t really. I stopped the decoy. It was your friend Sean who stopped the actual attack, much later; once we thought we were done, and ready to come home!”


Joel was shaking his head.


Molly’s mouth dropped open. “Why, what happened?”


“We kinda fucked up.” Joel confessed, explaining what had gone on.


When he was done, Molly shook her head in disbelief. “You mean Sean knew more than he was sharing with us?”


Joel nodded solemnly. He paused a moment, then decided he needed to raise it. “So, when were you going to tell me about Sean?”


Molly looked confused for a second, and then gasped, slapping a hand over her mouth.


“Fuck!” she said loudly, through her hand. Her eyes were wide with horror. “Joel, I didn’t. Fucking arse! I didn’t mean to- I completely forgot to tell you about him. I just got so distr-”


Joel waved his hands, trying to calm her. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I get it.” He paused, waiting for her to settle. “I kinda know what you’re like…” he said, smiling gently at her.


Molly was shaking her head at herself. “I’m sooooo sorry. How did you find out?”


Joel scratched the back of his head, a sheepish look in his eyes. “Well, erm. I…I nearly took him out.”


Molly exploded with laughter and amazement. “Joel, he’s built like a brick shithouse! How the fuck could you take him down?!”


Joel shrugged, secretly pleased she was impressed. “I dunno. He jumped me, and, you know… training. It just kicks in. I was secretly relieved that he turned out to be human, and not some kind of beast.”


Molly was still laughing. “I would have loved to have seen that!” she confessed.


Joel chuckled. “Pieter did. He can give you the low-down.”


“Heck,” Molly stared back down at her mocha.


Joel leaned over and put his hand around the mug. She let him take it and have a sip before handing it back.


“Thanks,” he said, more softly than he would normally talk to her.


Molly changed the subject. “So, this curry place they’ve gone to is pretty good.”


Joel edged back to his section of the sofa. “So I hear,” he said, referring to Paige’s enthusiasm. “I would have offered to cook, if they weren’t so set on it. It’s something I use to ground out after an op… cooking.”


Molly looked up from her mocha. “Really? Isn’t that just more work?”


Joel shook his head. “Nah. It’s methodical, but creative. And then there are the smells and stuff. It’s really soothing… and normalizing after the intensity of battle and travel.”


He paused. “Didn’t they ever mention having a post-op ritual in basic training?


Molly took a sip of her mocha. “Nope. Although, I always find myself antsy after an op.” Her eyes were down, but Joel noticed they had widened.


His eyes narrowed a little. “So… erm. How do you deal with that?”


Molly didn’t respond, and took another sip of mocha.


“Molly?” he pushed again.


She kept her eyes fixed on the floor in front of her. “Sex, normally. When possible.”


Joel laughed silently, trying to restrain his disbelief.


“So, errr, what did you do last time? Or after this op?” he asked, his eyes dancing with humor and anticipation.


Molly put her mug down on the table, and stood up. “I’m going to get the plates out, for when they get back with food,” she announced, her voice professional and her eyes now distant.


Joel got up too. “Great. I’ll go get my gear out of here.” He started to walk past her, and she hesitated.




Her hand reached out to his forearm, and rested on it for a moment.


“Hey, Joel…”


He turned to look at her.


She looked down.


Then stepped closer.


“I…”


Joel waited, giving her time to process and say whatever she was trying to say. For a moment he could have sworn he saw something in the way she looked at him. Then in a heartbeat it was gone.


She smiled. “It’s good to have you back.”


She stepped away, dropping her hand from his arm.


Joel’s heart sank.


He smiled his teammate smile. “Good to be back,” he agreed.


 He waited for a moment, hoping to catch sight of whatever he had seen in her eyes a moment ago, and then, realizing the moment had flickered past, he strode across the room to collect his pack.


Plates forgotten, Molly sat down again on the sofa. She slumped backwards, watching him leave. When he was safely through the double doors, she allowed her head to drop back onto the back of the sofa.


“Fuck!” she whispered out loud to herself.


Neechie meowed sympathetically.


Oz started to say something. She could feel him coming online.


Oz, don’t you even… 


He fell quiet again.




Gaitune-67, Safe House




Two weeks later, Joel was walking down the corridor in his workout gear. He had his workout tunes pulsing through his auditory implant as he swiped through his holo, selecting his favorites for a new mix.


Distracted, he reached out for the door handle to head down to the lower levels when the door flew open, and an oncoming deluge of excitement and laughter bowled him over. He hit the deck with a slap, as other bodies tumbled out and fell on top of him.


Unable to see what had hit him, he scrambled for his holo device. Realizing his left arm was pinned by a rather muscular weight, he instead swiped at the implant, tapping it to silent.


It was Brock’s voice he heard first. “Man, I’m so sorry.”


“Yeah, sorry boss,” grunted Crash, pulling himself off the floor, one hand on the wall.


Brock, still laughing his head off and shouting competitive abuse at Crash, tried to compose himself to lift himself up off Joel’s chest. Every time Joel thought he had it together, Brock cracked up in giggles again, his limbs going like jelly.


Joel, slightly winded and shocked, couldn’t help but join in. The laughter was infectious.


He tried to catch his breath to speak. “Do you guys realize how dangerous that was?”


Crash had caught his breath. “Yes, sorry, boss. We’ll not run in the corridors again.”


He sniggered.


Joel breathed. “I’m not talking about that.” A grin spread across his face. “You do realize that I’m a highly trained, honed and toned mechanism of destruction, don’t you?”


Brock burst with another round of laughter, this time hissing through his teeth and curling up like a child being tickled. His body still pinned Joel, the machine of devastation, to the ground. Joel was immobilized, laughing again.


“Guys, guys…” he tried to compose himself. “Guys, what’s the hurry? What’s going on?”


Crash had managed to get to his feet and compose himself the fastest. “We’re on our way to pitch Molly the new name for the bird… I came up with it, but Brock wants to claim credit.”


Brock’s giggles had subsided and he’d managed to at least roll onto all fours, and steady himself for getting to his feet. “Yeah, except it was my idea.”


Crash grinned. “In your dreams, baby! We all know who the creative genius is around here.”


Joel, now released from Brock’s weight, sat up and started getting to his feet. “Sounds like you guys either need a tie-breaker…”


The pair looked at each other, eyes alert with what a good idea that was.


But Joel continued, “…or a den mother who will give you all the approval you’re seeking!”


Brock started giggling again, but Crash, not wasting a second, started jogging sideways. “I’m going to tell her first! Laterz, asshole!”


Joel, now on his feet, shook his head at the cavorting, and decided that this was going to be too good to miss. His workout forgotten, he followed Crash into the conference room where Molly was likely hiding out. Brock’s giggling indicated he was following behind them.


Joel arrived in the conference room, and was holding on to the doorframe, assessing the situation. Molly was sitting close to the door, with her back to it. Crash casually made his way around the table to sit opposite her.


She leaned back in her chair, allowing her holo screens to fade in order to see Crash. “So, tell me…” she was saying.


Joel went in and sat on Molly’s left. She looked over at him, half-expecting him to add something to the conversation. When he crossed his arms on the table and looked over at Crash, an amused look on his face, she realized he was here to observe. The shouting and laughing in the hallway was probably the prelude to whatever was about to unfold.


Crash started explaining. “Well, we were thinking that it needed to be catchy, but also majestic. And given that you’ve been doing all this mystical stuff with Paige-”


Molly glanced over to Joel, who looked at her, and then quickly back at Crash. She made a mental note to find out who had been gossiping about her failed meditation attempts.


Crash had paused, but continued when she looked back at him. “We wanted something that was, you know… of the ‘realm.”


Brock had managed to compose himself enough to walk to the conference room. Standing in the doorway, panting, he practically fell into the room. He spoke fast and loud, trying to spill the words out before Crash could.


“And that is why we want to call her, and fuck you, Chris Ashworth, the Phoenix Reign!”


Crash covered his mouth in an attempt to stifle a laugh.


Joel slammed the desk, now howling with laughter. “Fuck me! You guys are hilarious.”


Molly who had tried to keep it together, was unable to. Now, with Brock dramatically sliding down the wall towards the floor, and even the normally well-composed and buttoned-up Crash unable to contain himself, the whole thing made her burst out laughing.


“Phoenix Reign it is, then!” she concluded between bouts of hysterics.












CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


Gaitune-67, Safe house, Conference room




Molly was in the conference room, listening to the response to her debriefing download from Dr. Knotts, Eugene, and Ventus Facilities.


Knotts had given his thanks and was responding to the items she had laid out.


“… and so in response to your point about the Billingham Convention, it was an oversight on our part. We are in the process of decommissioning that part of the program, and have appointed an ethics committee to oversee the approval of other projects in the future.” He paused. “I hope that is satisfactory enough to avoid, erm… getting other authorities involved? So far we’ve managed to steer under their radar, thanks to you and your team’s expert discretion.” He hesitated, feeling awkward that he was talking to a camera, and didn’t have someone who was responding.


He scratched his head. “Feels like I’m sending a message in a bottle like this…”


He looked down at his holo notes and read the next item, his eyes scanning back and forth.


“Right. Yes. We did ‘rip off’ your paper.” He hadn’t looked up yet. A moment later he seemed to gather his courage and look up again to the camera. “I’m really incredibly sorry about this. I thought that because it was technically in the public domain, we would be free to use it… But, anyway. I’m sorry.”


Molly leaned forward and paused the video. She rewound it a few seconds and focused in on his facial expressions.


Just then, the door opened behind her and she could smell Joel’s cologne.


“Hey,” she said, playing the video at half time, checking what she thought she’d seen.


“Lack of credibility, there,” Joel said almost automatically. “Eyes off, fearful expression on his lower lip, oooh…” he waited for a couple more frames to pass. “Yep. That was contempt there; single side, lip raise.”


Molly paused the video. “Yeah. Thought that was what I’d seen.”


Joel sat down next to her. “So what’s the context? This is the Ventus guy?”


Molly nodded. “Yeah, the boss. Well, the one that met with me. Except, if my hypothesis is correct, he may not be the one calling the shots.”


Joel glanced at her. “Oh?”


Molly flicked back a few frames, leaving the screen on the contemptuous expression. “I suspect he’s just been forced to take responsibility for that fuck up, just there. Nothing about what he just said was congruent with the micro expressions.”


She sat back.


Joel indicated at the holo screen. “But did you get what you wanted?”


She smiled, and nodded brightly.


He smiled. “So, come on; what did they agree on?” he pressed impatiently.


She spilled, “I’m to be made into a partner! Plus, we still get our fee.”


Joel cocked his head. “Partner? Why would you want that? I thought you were just going to make sure they put in stuff so they had to play within the rules.”


She nodded excitedly. “Yeah, that too. But then, to make sure they keep those measures in place, they now have yours truly in the mix. Plus, I get to use their facilities to receive any materials we might need to have delivered elsewhere, so we can pick them up without being tracked.”


Joel raised his chin. “Ohhhhh,” he said. “So you’re more of a silent partner.”


Molly grinned. “Exactly that. I stay silent, and they let me have stuff delivered to their address. And they play by the conventions that are designed to keep life safe.”


She paused, looking up at the ceiling for a moment.


“Win. Win. Win,” she smiled.


Joel shook his head. “Silent partner. I’d like to see that.”


She playfully slapped his arm with the back of her hand. “Hey!” she said, understanding the dig.


Joel grinned. “Anyway, that’s good news. Operationally, as well as being able to keep that kind of research safe.”


He changed the subject. “I was wondering if we could have a look at the next few missions, then, and talk about how we’d like to expand the team next?”


Molly nodded. “Sure, what did you have in mind?”


He pulled up a new holo screen to view CaseHUB, and started talking through some options.












CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


EPILOGUE


Later that evening, after they had had a group supper, Molly returned to the conference room to do some investigating with Oz.


There’s something I think you’ll find interesting. 


Molly sat back down at the array of holoscreens Oz pulled up for her.


Oh, yeah? 


Well, remember you were testing the details versus the large-scale patterns I can hone in on, by analyzing the language structures of code in different areas of the XtraNET? 


Yeah?


Well, I’ve noticed something interesting. 


Do tell. 


You remember we got the safe house data from a search I’d set up? 


Hmm. 


And it returned the somewhat anomalous result that led us here…


Yeah.


Well that was one of my samples.


Of how many samples.


13 billion, 368 million, 140 thousand and 26. 


Okay. 


Then I happened to use some of the code on the server we were using to communicate with Sean. 


And?




Oz threw the results and the patterns he’d detected onto the holo in front of her.


That is some seriously elegant shit! Molly felt herself getting excited.


Are you getting…?


Leave it, Oz. 


Molly reread the code and then looked at Oz’s analysis again.


Does it show up anywhere else?


It does. 


Oz produced the videos on a second holo frame and Molly waved it into her view.


It was encrypted, but it looked familiar, so I pattern-matched the code from the previous two samples in order to decode it. 


The video clips started playing. It was the same video that Pieter had shown her of Sean capturing the second toxin device.


That means- 


 -that someone was tapped into Pieter’s cameras and was monitoring their every step?


Exactly. Have you found it anywhere else on the XtraNET? 


I can’t scan the whole NET, simply because we’re downloading only packets at a time - to both cope with the huge distance, and to remain anonymous. But I did find one more thing that you’ll find… interesting. 


A third holo frame started playing a video.


Oh, Oz, you’ve got the wrong one. This is of the workshop downstairs. 


Oh, no… it’s the right one. 


He paused, letting it play a little.


WE don’t have any cameras downstairs. And there is no signal or feed streaming anything in or out of this building. But-


Molly watched Brock hauling boxes from in front of the spooky door.


How come there is an encrypted video from there?


Yeah. How come?


I have no idea. 


Brock had started moving the boxes back to cover up the door again.


Is this the only video from there?


No. The camera, wherever it might be hidden, seems to be motion-activated. This was just the first time anyone went near the sensor to trigger it. At least, since we got here, and as far as these videos tell us. 


So where were these videos being stored?


All I can tell you is that they came up when I did a search. There is no data, no trail I can follow to tell us where the 1s and 0s are physically stored. 


Molly sat back in her chair, eyes wide, mouth half open, mind completely blown.




***




Molly, you there? Molly?


Joel arrived into the room and sat down in the seat next to her. “Hey, Molly. You okay?” he asked her.


Her eyes were glazed over, as if she weren’t even in her body.


Joel spoke a little more loudly. “Okay, Oz, I dunno if you can hear me through Molly’s auditory implants, but I got your holo message. I’m here. What’s going on?”


Joel’s holo flashed. TRY NUDGING HER. 


Joel reached out and pushed on her arm. Then her shoulder. “Molly…” he called out to her gently. “Oz, is this something to do with that meditation shit she’s been doing?”


Joel’s holo flashed again. I DON’T THINK SO. HER BRAIN WAVES HAVE BEEN SLIGHTLY ALTERED SINCE SHE’S BEEN DOING THAT BUT NOT ENOUGH TO PUT HER INTO A TRANCE. 


Joel was showing signs of real concern. “Okay, so what’s going on with her - in her brain?”


I CAN’T TELL. I’M PUSHED OUT OF HER CORTEX SO I’M OPERATING MOSTLY THROUGH THE HOLO AT THE MOMENT. 


The concern in Joel’s voice was mounting. “What was she doing before this happened?”


THINKING. 


Joel chuffed. “Like that’s anything to write home about…”


Suddenly Molly took a deep breath and seemed to return to the room. She looked confused, like she was surprised to be there.


Joel put his hand on her arm, and then on her head and stroked her hair. “Hey, are you okay? What happened?”


Molly’s eyes darted left to right, as if reading. She pulled one of the holo screens towards her. “We’re being monitored. By something way more powerful than Oz.”


She stood up.


Oz, monitor all frequencies; electromagnetic and otherwise.


She headed for the door.


Joel spun around in his chair, watching her. Registering she was leaving, he got to his feet too, and followed.


Soon Molly was jogging down the corridor and towards the basement door. Joel had to practically run to keep up with her. “Molly, what’s going on?” he called after her, his face transfixed with worry.


“I need to check something,” she told him, with just a hint of excitement in her timbre.


She quickly pounded down the stairs and then through the empty workshop over to the door. She looked as if she were aiming to grab the handle and walk through it. Instead she stopped suddenly, just in front of it, and then turned around.


She looked up.


Joel caught up with her and stopped beside her. He looked up at where she was looking, trying desperately to understand what was happening.


Are you monitoring everything, Oz?


Yes. Recording on all possible channels. 


Molly waved in the direction of the camera.


Anything?


Nothing. 


Not even a blip in a circuit somewhere?


Nothing. 


Molly paused, thinking. Joel just watched, knowing better than to try and get an answer at this stage.


Molly looked at the ground, wracking her brain for something else to try.


Just then, she became aware of a faint rumbling, as if something around the area was powering up. A red glow started flashing, filling this whole corner of the workshop.


Molly and Joel looked around, looking for the source of the light and the humming.


An audio feed cracked on, and static sound filled the room.


“Congratulations, Molly Bates. And Team.”


The voice was commanding, and older. “You have earned the right to pass.”


The pair looked at each other, eyes wide, and ears disbelieving.


Holy fuck!


Holy fuck is right.


The heavy, metal, reinforced door of mystery - with no keypad or access point - seemed to be unlocking. Mechanical parts sliding over each other made a sound that thrilled Molly to her core. A thrill ever-so-slightly different from the thrill she had looking at the elegant computer code not long ago.


Joel immediately stepped in front of Molly, and stood strong, adrenalin putting him in full battle mode. She rushed forward, though, intent on seeing whatever was happening up close and personal. She moved to the door, gathering intel through all of her senses; listening to the door, looking for the moving parts or any signs of an access point appearing.


Joel tried to pull her back, but she shrugged him off, enthralled by the unfolding of something she couldn’t understand.


The door opened a crack and a musty scent, carried on cold air, wafted out.


Without thinking, Molly reached out and pulled on the door, heaving it open. Joel grabbed her hand.


“What are you doing?”


Molly blinked at him. “Well, duh. I’m having a look.”


She pulled at the door. It was heeaaaavvy. As soon as it was open enough, she turned and pushed a little to create enough space to walk through easily. Somewhere in there, Joel started helping.


As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could see another small corridor. Short. There was a set of double doors at the end, and another to the left. A damp musty smell hung in the air. It was as if no being had been there for decades.


Molly felt excitement well in her chest. She started to move forward, but Joel pulled her back, stepping in front of her.


“Uh uh,” he told her definitely. “Geeks behind Gladiators. You don’t know what’s in there.”


Something in his tone said that even though he was trying to be “space marine honorable,” his actions were actually because he cared.


Molly appreciated the sentiment. Even in this moment of finally seeing what might lie behind this door, she noticed his hand slip from her arm as he stepped in front of her.


Joel moved forward, well aware that if he didn’t get on with it, Molly would get out in front of him, and walk into who knew what.


He moved towards the first door. “We sweep like in training, yeah?” he instructed Molly.


Molly couldn’t see anything but his big shoulders in front of her.


“Fine,” she said, a little frustrated.


Joel moved to the door. He had no weapon on him, but this couldn’t wait for him to fetch one. And besides, what was going to be alive - that he could shoot – anyway? The thought of the dimensional travelers whipped through his mind. He shuddered.


He pushed through the door. It was stiff and heavy, but there were no handles or visible locks. It swung open against his weight. He headed in, Molly in close proximity behind him and straining to see past him. He headed into the room and scanned it visually, his eyes now adjusted to the dark. He told Molly to hold by raising his arm vertically head height with his fist clenched.


She huffed, and stood, noisily stomping her boots together like an impatient child. He ignored her and moved through the room. Molly watched him disappear along the wall.


Something started humming, and lights started flashing here and there. A glow started up around the periphery, as if the room was waking up.


Joel’s voice came through the darkness. “What did you do?” he hissed.


Molly used her normal indoor voice. “Nothing. Jeez.” But now, with light revealing more of the detail of the room, Molly moved closer to an object in front of her. It seemed like a console. Or table.


Console… definitely a console.


There was another in front of it, and another to the side.


Molly looked over as far as she could see. The walls were becoming illuminated, and the size of the room was quickly becoming apparent.


Molly stood with her mouth open. She was standing in what could only be an operations room. Consoles hummed, and screens started flickering on. There were giant star maps plotted on a holo over on the far side of the enormous room. Maps she didn’t recognize. Space she’d never seen before.


She looked across at Joel, who was crouched a little, having been stealthily moving through the darkness. Now revealed in plain sight, he looked like a doofus.


“Ops room?” she asked him.


Joel stood up straight and looked around, hands now on his hips. “Yup. Ops room.”


Molly grinned, the excitement of childish adventure spilling out of her. She jumped up and down on the spot silently squealing and clapping her hands together.


Joel looked over at her, grinning at her enthusiasm. “You look like you’re gonna burst.”


“Eeeeeeeee!” she squealed audibly this time. “I think I might.”


Well that’s another way to kick me out of your circuits. 


Molly ignored Oz, noticing another door on the other side of the control room.


Joel looked over the equipment and wandered over to one of the consoles. “Looks like super advanced shit. Enough tech here to run a war…”


Molly was already heading towards the next door. She jogged past him, catching his attention. His eyes followed her as she approached the door that would lead them deeper into this place.


Joel realized what was happening. “Wait!” he called after her.


Without hesitation, Molly pushed her way through the second door. Again, she stepped into blackness, her night vision shot to bits from the lights coming through next door.


“Molly!” Joel was calling after her. “Are you sure you want…” and with that he was standing right beside her, also straining to see into the darkness.


She stepped inside, and generators started to hum. Lights started coming on at various points. The pair stood watching, trying to make out what was there. There was lots of space… but after the space, there were racks. Racks and racks of…


“Weapons!” Joel breathed.


Molly wandered over to the racks. These were some big ass guns and stunners. She ran her fingers over a couple of them. “Don’t recognize any of these from my time in the military. They look kinda hi-tech.”


Joel had moved over to one of the racks and was examining one without touching it. He peered closer, able to see more with each second, as the ambient light increased gently. “Yep. Definitely nothing here from the Sark System. This is alien.”


Molly giggled. “So FUCKING cool!” she exclaimed.


Joel stepped back out from the racking to see her emerge from another row, and walk briskly down the aisles.


“Shit!” she said now in her outdoor voice, calling back to him.


Joel started jogging to catch up to her. He had no idea how big this room was, but it was starting to feel like a warehouse. An underground frikkin’ warehouse behind a secret door, which someone had let them venture through.


His internal conspiracy theorist suddenly went nuts: Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe it’s a government organization that they’d happened upon, and now they were going to kill them. Maybe it was a recruitment center for terrorists. 


Shit - he should give his conspiracy theorist voice a fokking name, at this point. 


Molly interrupted his thoughts. “Big fuck-off artillery down this way…” she told him.


He caught up to where she was standing, looking down an aisle with different types of racks holding shells, bombs, and all kinds of badassery.


“Enough to run a war,” he repeated.


Molly nodded. “Looks about right,” she said. “You recognize any of this shit?”


Joel shook his head. “I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s all from outside our system. This tech is too advanced. We’d need to look at it more carefully to figure out some of this shit. All I can say at this point is that it doesn’t look like someone was just trying to put on a fireworks show for the local PTA meeting.”


Molly glanced over at him. She grinned the biggest grin he had ever seen. His heart stopped for a moment. And then she was gone.


“Hey, wait up…” he called after her. She was jogging back through to the ops room.


“Come on!” she called excitedly. “I wanna see what’s behind door number three!”




***




Meanwhile, back in the workshop, Brock had re-emerged with a fresh mocha from upstairs. He went back to his workbench and reactivated the holo frames he had left out.


He paused. Something felt… different. He looked around his workspace. Everything was as he had left it.


He started reading one of the holo screens, getting his head back into what he’d been doing. Absentmindedly, he reached for his mocha, and brought it to his lips. To sip it, he had to pull his eyes from the screen. He lifted his head up and tipped the cup back, allowing him to take in a mouthful of the beautiful, hot nectar.


And that’s when he saw it.


Across the workshop, the door. The door was opened. His eyes went wide. His heart went to his mouth.


His mouthful of mocha sprayed all over the workbench.


“HOLY FUCK WITH A DEVIL ON THE ICE CREAM!!!” he shouted without thinking.


“Molly!” he shouted. “Molly! Molly!”


He ran towards the stairs, then back to the workbench to see if he could call her on her holo. Then he changed his mind again and decided to try and find her.


Conference room, he thought.


He scrambled towards the stairs, nearly falling over himself. He had his foot on the first step when he heard voices.


Molly’s voice.


From THE OTHER SIDE of the open door.


He barely remembered getting there, but next thing he knew, he had covered the length of the workshop and was at the door, watching Molly and Joel come out of a room off to the left, down a very short corridor.


“It’s incredible!” Molly said to him excitedly. Her face beamed.


Brock stepped back away from the doorway.


Molly looked at him. “Brock, what’s wrong?”


Joel looked at him too. “He’s gone… pale.”


Brock looked down at his arm, and pinched it with his other hand.


Joel grinned. “Not dreaming, buddy. Come on, Molly wants to check out that door at the end of the corridor.”


He beckoned for Brock to follow. “I have the job of stopping her from setting off any booby traps, or starting up the Etheric Wars with the shit we’re finding in here,” he joked.


Brock couldn’t believe how relaxed they were. His eyes still wide and his heart now beating out of his chest, all he could do was nod. He took a few steps forward.


Molly skipped off to the double doors at the end of the corridor, followed closely by Joel.


Brock silently and cautiously traipsed after them.


Now more confident they weren’t going to step into a room holding a monster or a trap, Molly burst through the double doors to find herself standing on a platform, overlooking what could only be described as a hangar-deck.


As the lights slowly started coming on, it became apparent that this was where they kept the ships. Starships. Actual space-going starships! None of the interplanetary shit they’d been playing with.


No, these were the things of the legends. The things that they had assumed existed in other systems where civilizations would trade with and fight each other.


Dozens of ships were all around. And they had guns, and missiles, and all kinds of “toys” for blowing things to shit.


But there, in the center, was a ship to rival all ships. It looked like it could carry at least a hundred troops, and took up most of the deck. But that wasn’t what had instantly grabbed Molly’s attention. Painted on the side was something that made her squeal with sheer delight.


She couldn’t believe it.


Her head spun, and she felt dizzy.


After all these years, searching the far reaches of the dark web, tracking someone who was by all accounts untraceable, she had begun to believe the rumors that maybe she had never existed.


That perhaps she was just a legend to make children eat their vegetables, or keep empires in line to protect the humans.


But here was proof. Real, actual evidence. Her childhood hero was real.


And just as badass as she had imagined her to be.


Painted on the side of the ship was an image of a human female skull. With fangs.     






FINIS

Author Notes - Ell Leigh Clarke


May 17, 2017




Hey Ascenders!

First of all, thank you sooooo much for buying, downloading and reading Book 2. I’m guessing you’ll have also read Book 1 as well, and for that I am immensely grateful.

You’ve been changing my life through your words and actions. More on that in a moment.


Yoda

I’ve been deeply amused to see that the Yoda references have been catching on. MA was bitching the other day about how his page has been bombed with people pulling his leg about it. He also suggested that he might learn to do Yoda-speak.

I have yet to see this.

MA still has my unending gratitude for the continued mentorship in the ways of the Force: for the hours discussing story plot, book covers, stats, continuous and tireless encouragement, laughing at the scenes I send over, and more recently the finer points of AI development. (To be discussed in Book 3).

Michael, thank you. You’re still my Yoda.


Reviews

Wow - you folks are amazing. I was thrilled this morning to see that Awakened has got 52 reviews, giving us a 4.8 average, and 5 FULL pretty stars.

MA says this is very rare for a Book 1.

I blame the pixie-wielding HORDE of awesome though. Thank you for doing this: for reading, for reviewing, and for being so open with your praise.

Not only that, but I just wanted to say that on a personal note some of your comments both in the reviews and on the fb page have not only been deeply touching, but also emotionally validating and healing.

After reading some of the reviews about how you loved Molly and identified with her, and how you couldn't wait to hear more...and so many words of encouragement to me as a new author... it was just... overwhelming. In a good way.

I had no idea that Molly would be so welcomed into the Kurtherian universe.


And you guys have made *me* feel so welcome too, being allowed to write in your space. I feel like I have finally found my tribe.

This kind of support, this kind of tribe that I have found with you, the fans of all things Kurtherian Universe, is LIFE CHANGING. And I’m not just talking about having a book that hits obliterates the best sellers list.

I’m talking about the kind of comments that make it ok to be broken, or outside a few standard deviations of “the norm”. Hearing things like “Yeah. Me too. I can identify with Molly” have also been transformational for me.

Words cannot begin to express the depth of what this has meant to me.

Truly, thank you.


But about that **outright obliteration** of the charts…

Have you any idea what that was like to watch?

You guys smashed it.

You got AWAKENED to:

#1 in Metaphysical & Visionary

#1 in Metaphysical

#1 in Galactic Empire Science Fiction

#1 Colonization

# 1 in fokking Space Opera!!!!


Space Opera!!!!


(**Peel Ellie down from ceiling**)

I never imagined this might be possible. And certainly not for something I've written.

I was amazed when it hit the top 12 for *all* science fiction too.

**In-fucking-credible!**

Just goes to show the power of the KGU fans. EPIC!!

Needless to say, there were several hours when I needed peeling off the ceiling, and as I confessed on a few facebook posts, yes, I did have a little cry.

That was, until the pitch-fork touting fae started prodding and I was forced to get back to writing Book 2 – the product of which you now hold in your hands.


Reviewers

Massive gratitude bombs must go to you awesome folks for posting some incredible reviews on the ‘Zon. As you know, as indies we live or die by the reviews you post, so I’m incredibly grateful for those who took the time to say some lovely words. You’re the best!

Reviewers include:

Sharon, gjh, OldArcher, Lori, and KRGOS, Dragon Caver, flyingonempty, Rae, CEMattoxS, India51, Sherry, Kris, Rosemary, Ogidog, Amazon Customer, J Kling, Nancy, Terrence, Holly, Thavy, Lorraine, YoB, Travis, Frank, M. Brown, James, Gene, KLJ, C Necheles, Dave9969, and Nathan, Kelly, unfortunately, Adam, "Readalot", Kristin, and Dean.

"Amazon Customer" and “Kindle Customer” has made a few appearances too.

If I missed anyone, I’m so sorry. We went through the pages a few times to make sure we caught each name, but it’s possible a few have slipped through the gaps, or shown up as "Amazon Customer" and “Kindle Customer”.


Special thanks

Special thanks must also go to our team of amazing JIT-ers, (posted in the credits at the beginning of the book).

You’re my saviours, catching details that we missed when we made adjustments to plots, as well as typos and commas.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


Meat vs Veggie

Ok, so now is as good a time as any to confess that the meat on the pizza debacle has some root in real life. At some point on a phone call before MA and I started writing we ended up talking about pizza.

As you do.

It came up that I was vegetarian. MA was appropriately dismissive of the entire lifestyle choice and declared pizza has to have meat on it.

We agreed to disagree and moved on.

It wasn’t until we were hanging at a conference in Austin a few weeks ago and had to order pizza, that this became an issue. (Read: DRAMA). In the end we opted for the risky choice of half veggie, half meat, and then just hope that the boundary conditions held adequately.

But holy fuck… if you’re veggie and you ever do this, be warned! No matter what they tell you, or how much they cajole, it is NOT safe. I repeat. It is NOT SAFE.

I soooo nearly ended up biting into a stray piece of pepperoni. It wasn’t even funny.

Yet, something MA found immensely amusing.

On a related note, I also discovered that the man does not each vegetable.

Not ever.

Not even a sprig of lettuce.

How he is even still alive I will never know.

I’m blaming nanocytes. Or an unearthly connection to the etheric.


Ellie x




Receive updates from Oz by registering your holo/ email address here:

ellleighclarke.com




Join us in another adventure between multiple authors (read – at least two.)  Ellie started this for the snippets for this book, and this was an ‘extra’ we didn’t use on the website.  (I put the first two below this one for the 1,000 fans who didn’t read the snippets ;-) – They are too good not to share again! – Mike


Neechie vs Nietzsche

So back when we decided to have a cat, or more accurately a Sphinx, in the story, we discussed its name. Naturally naming the cat was an Ellie thing.

Ellie: Let’s call him Nietzsche.

MA: why?

Ellie: Because like Nietzsche talked about the ubermench and the way that the most aware humans can become these creative entities that can break free of the bondage of this world and operate truly creatively and at will, this is what the sphinx represents, and foreshadows redacted redacted redacted… [SPOILERS]

MA: It’s going to be a bitch to keep typing.

Ellie: So…

MA: what if we call him Neechie and just explain that.

Ellie: ok.

That was a Book 1 discussion.

Fast forward to reviewing the edits in Book 2 the other night.

MA: I keep changing Nietzsche to Neechie. Isn’t that what we agreed?

Elllie: yeah. But I didn’t think we would actually do it…

MA:

But it’s a bitch to type.

Ellie: ok. Change it.

MA: and how the fuck do you remember how to spell it?

Ellie: I google it each time.

Well, and I’ve been trying to memorize. I have… well I *had* a theory that by the time we’ve written a whole series on this I’ll have at least learnt how to spell Nietzsche. Guess that’s out now.

** MA facepalmed **


Tues (On website)

So MA and I are on Zoom, chewing the fat and chatting about ADAM. MA was musing what might happen if ADAM ever got his own body, and he randomly asked:

MA: Would Molly ever want Oz out?

Ellie: No.

MA: Why?

Ellie: Because she loves him.

MA: Why?

Ellie: Because he’s useful.

MA: That’s such a Molly comment.

**Ellie’s head hits desk**


Wed  (On website)

When the comments for a section of BOOK 2 got bounced back to me, MA had inserted some random stuff about the Central Systems, and how the planets were organised around Sark.

I tried to convince him to take it out.

Ellie: It’s superfluous, and it’s getting in the way of the story.

MA: Yeah, but even I’m still not clear on how these damn planets are organised. The fans aren’t going to know it either from what we’ve written.

Ellie: Ok, but it’s not important for this part of the story. They know there is Estaria and the asteroid. That’s the important stuff.

MA: Right but they need to know. Go ask them on fb what they think...

MA: And don’t do some clever shit to twist the question to get the answer you want!

**Ellie goes away to ask the question**

---

---

**Comes back to Slack a few hours later**

Ellie: FUCK.

MA: ????

Ellie: You were right.

MA: Sorry, what was that?

Ellie: You were right, dammit. They want maps, diagrams, prologues and the whole goddamn enchilada. And you were right.

MA: 😊

**Ellie gets to work again**

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

May 17th, 2017




First, as always, thank you for not only reading this book, but coming back here and reading these notes, as well!

THANK YOU for changing lives.  Specifically, in this case, a new author.  We didn’t know (and BOY did we try to guess) whether or not Molly was going to resonate with the Kurtherian Gambit group.  Yes, we took some serious chances with this character and this series.

It is the first one to release in the Age of Expansion area. It is by a first time author. It has a VERY broken main character who isn’t a bad ass Vampire who doesn’t take any shit from anyone.

It’s just Molly. A character that is so damned intelligent, she is off the scales, but emotionally and ethically, she is damaged in heart and soul.

Math? That shit is easy. How to truly connect with another human being?

It might as well be mythology as far as Molly is concerned.

We purposefully added (ok, let’s be candid “I” purposefully suggested and we both agreed) the bit about her using pheromones to try and seduce the guy. We received (and by ‘we’, Ellie) some pushback on that piece in the story and the reason is I wanted to introduce an example of how she would use natural science and chemistry to give herself an edge.

Mind you, this wasn’t ‘roofie’ type edge (no thank you, that shit is evil) but I didn’t personally think of it as much more than a really sexy perfume (and yes, some perfumes should be listed as aphrodisiacs at some level. For those of us who like them.)

Now, we have book two, where we see her acting and reacting with her team, and yet, she still isn’t all there. Some of the scenes where she just isn’t bothered about someone gettting to them because she is off planet helped ease my worry (because, as a reader, I was worried for her) but then I realized ‘this woman is so damned logical, she’s going to miss something relational.’

And she did, way to go not speaking to Joel about Sean.

Finally, let’s talk about that last scene. The scene that gave me goosebumps.  In the beginning, we of course knew that this was a base of stashed stuff from the Etheric Empire.  There is an ongoing effort by Lance to stay prepared. At this point, Bethany Anne isn’t in the Etheric Federation being the Empress, she is off with a group searching the stars for a missing group of Kurtherians who can’t be up to any good.

Molly, in her effort to belong as a young kid, started reading about the human Empress who seemed to get stuff done and damn the consequences. Unfortunately for the young girl, her efforts DID come with consequences.  Now, we find out that Molly was never truly sure about her idol.

Not until she see’s the ships with the absolute proof that her idol was just as bad-ass, if not more, than the stories she read when she was growing up.

That scene, that last paragraph, made me want to stand up and cheer.

Well done, Ms. Clarke.  Well done indeed.


** Author’s Note – Stardate - 10 minutes after I finished the last fucking Author Notes this shit happens **


Ellie reads JIT Team note: Sorry, the logo is a female skull with fangs.

Ellie: Is this right? Can we leave it as it is?

Mike: They are correct.  I read it as the skull.

Ellie: But no, it is a full human figure. You know, like they would paint on the front of airplanes in WWII.

Mike: Sorry, that isn’t possible

<< Ellie has a meltdown about this, that and the other and how this is due to placement of the craft in the hanger (I’m sure there is some 3-D space time bullshit and physics in her comments, but I digress) and how the team has to see it from the location above in the hanger.  Mind you, I’m thinking “It’s a hanger in our story, change the fucking hanger!” But  NOOOOOooooOOOoooo….  I have to continue hearing Ellie rant about something that I’m obviously not clueing in on.>>

Mike: Go to Amazon, search for My Ride is a Bitch and open the look inside… Have you got it?  No?  I’ll wait.

--

--

Got it? Good …What? Yes, the white mark under the guns (I’ve no clue how clear her screen is)… Yes, that’s the logo.  Young lady, you realize this is talked about in a shit-ton of places across one and a half MILLION words and sixteen fucking books, right?

Ellie: Oh, ok then.

Mike: (Now completely fucking confused) – Right what? You’re ok with it now?

Ellie: Yes.

Mike: (Asking because I’m a dumbass) – Why? (More dumbass to continue – I admit why I’m asking) – I would like to know so NEXT Time this comes up, I know how to deal with it.

Ellie: I just needed to know that it was already set in stone.

Mike just blinks two or three times, trying to assimilate this response.


… Mike goes off to find dinner and leave his confusion back with the laptop.


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 Ell Leigh Clarke *


Awakened (01)

Activated (02)


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


home | my bookshelf | | Activated: Age Of Expansion |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу