Book: Called: Age Of Expansion



Called: Age Of Expansion

CONTENTS


Dedication

Legal

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

Epilogue

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


Called

The Ascension Myth 03


JIT Beta Readers


Alex Wilson

Kelly ODonnell

James Caplan

Kimberly Boyer

Keith Verret

Mike Pendergrass

Paul Westman

John Findlay

Joshua Ahles

John Raisor

Melissa OHanlon

Peter Manis

Sherry Foster

Micky Cocker


If I missed anyone, please let me know!


Editors

Lynne Stiegler

Jen McDonnell

CALLED (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, June 2017


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

Called: Age Of Expansion

Called: Age Of Expansion

Called: Age Of Expansion

Called: Age Of Expansion












CHAPTER ONE


Gaitune-67, The Other Side of the Demon Door

Molly, Joel and Brock stood on the balcony overlooking the most enormous hangar deck they had ever seen. Advanced starships cluttered the deck, positioned as if prepared to scramble at a moment’s notice.

Awestruck, they remained motionless for several minutes, emotionally swinging between disbelief and excitement.

Joel was the first to try to speak. “Isn’t that…?” His voice trailed off.

Molly nodded, her mouth hanging open, still taking in the scene.

She could hear Brock breathing behind her. “Holy mother of fuckery!” he whispered under his breath.

Molly finished Joel’s sentence. “The Queen Bitch’s insignia,” she mouthed, breathlessly.

She’d spent so many hours searching as a child, fantasizing about the Etheric Empress, wishing she could be one of her guards and fight the good fight for the Empire.

For years she had worked in secret, hijacking her parents’ EI in order to raid the dark web for intel of sightings or references in history, near and far. Anything that would give her a clue or direction.

The pull the legend had on her was deep. And profound. And inspired.

When the team had shown her the painted-over insignia in one of the corridors just after they had moved into the safe house, she hadn’t dare imagine that it might have been the insignia. The female skull with fangs. The slight ridges and the odd English letter they could make out… Rationally, it had been inconclusive.

But now, standing on the platform overlooking the immense hangar with ships of all different sizes—with that insignia on every single one of them!—was like a lucid dream materializing in front of her eyes.

And then she saw it. The image that would confirm everything she had ever wondered.

Her heart missed a beat.

Painted on the side of the cockpit of the largest ship in the center of the hangar was a photorealistic painting of the Empress herself. Molly had never seen a picture of her before. She had read accounts of her being stunningly beautiful, and the usual about her being formidable and deadly. But she’d never been able to find an image.

But the painting of the fanged human female, the Queen Bitch herself, was enchanting. It seemed to have a mystical quality that invoked a sense of power and pride in those who looked upon it. Molly could tell from the reactions of Joel and Brock that it wasn’t just her.

“We should get the others in here,” she said, finally becoming aware of what was happening. “We’re going to need to look into what all of this,” she waved around the hangar, “is, and why it’s here.”

Joel cut in, almost absently, “—and if we can play with it.”

He was still transfixed by the enormous ship in the middle of the hangar. Or rather,  by the image of the dynamically beautiful Bethany Anne painted on the side of the ship.

“Who is she, though?” he asked, not really understanding Molly’s reference to the Queen Bitch.

Molly was beaming, and still enthralled. “That is Bethany Anne. Human turned vampire, Savior of the human race, Yollin Empire, and Etheric Queen of Everything.”

She took a breath, and seemed to ground herself a little.

Brock finally found his voice. “But wasn’t she a bad guy? Like a villain? My grandparents used her as a warning when we were being bad.” His look of awe was slowly morphing to mild concern.

He continued, his speech accelerating a little as his fear kicked in. “And if this is her stuff, and we’re here, living on top of one of her disused bases, then might she be coming back for it some time?”

There was a loud crackling, then an audio feed similar to the one which had initially granted them access started up again.

“She’s not coming back any time soon,” announced the human-sounding voice. “But there are things we need to discuss before you can play with these…toys.”

Molly and Joel looked at each other in shock. Molly twigged first. “He can hear us?” She immediately looked around for cameras and microphones.

Joel scanned the other direction behind her. “Seems like,” he agreed softly.

The voice chuckled a little. “Yes, yes. I can hear you. And see you. But enough of that for now. Assemble your team and then we can talk. Join me in the conference room through the second corridor when you hit the hangar deck. Thirty minutes. I’ll explain everything.”

The voice clicked off.

Brock’s eyes went wide. “This is some scary-ass juju. If this is the Queen Bitch’s stuff then this is bad. If someone has stolen her shit and put it here, then this is double-bad.”

Molly pursed her lips. “Brock. Chillax. It’s fine. This is going to be fine. If the voice on the comm wanted to harm us, he probably would have done it already. If this is Bethany Anne’s stuff, then we’ll just give it back to her. And if someone stole it from her, then we’ll hunt them down, kick their fokking asses, and then give it back to her. It’s not a big deal.”

Her eyes danced with glee as she spoke. “But I for one am excited to find out what the hell is going on and why we ended up here.” She turned to face her comrades.

You’re thinking about how this safe house ended up on our list again, aren’t you?

Yes, I am. I’m also thinking this voice might be able to give us some answers. 

When Molly spoke again, her shoulders were back and her voice had a kind of resonance neither Brock nor Joel had ever seen in her before. “OK, let’s gather the troops, let them know what’s going on, and then find that conference room and get some answers.”

Joel and Brock shifted, their awareness still fixed on Bethany Anne’s image behind her. They nodded and started to shuffle back out of the door, their gaze being the last thing to leave the hangar.

Molly grinned. “This is going to be fucking epic.”

Unknown Apartment, Downtown Spire

A lone blogger worked late into the night from the little desk in her studio apartment. She finished typing, then scrolled through the holo screen, checking for sense and making sure she hadn’t left any distinguishing features like vocabulary or sentence structure that might give her away.

Finally satisfied that it was going to appear completely anonymous, she hit Submit. The article went into publish status almost immediately, appearing on the planet’s largest independent alternate news site, Whistleblown.

The view counter started going up immediately. She’d chosen a catchy title, and since the toxin saga was still a hot topic, she knew that an alternate view to what the mainstream media outlets were publishing would be well received.

Besides, people needed to know the truth.

Not the whole truth. After all, there was a reason why Molly Bates and her team felt they needed to operate from off-world. But they needed to know enough of the truth to understand that Molly Bates was not the big bad here.

They needed to know who the real enemy was, and who had really set up the threat to the population of Spire.

They also needed to understand that those people, with their underhanded agendas and fervent desire to accumulate wealth and power, were dangerous. They had already murdered dozens of people in their toxin experiments, they were most likely responsible for Senator Dewitt’s demise, and they had certainly killed one scientist and kidnapped the other.

They were not good people.

And they had power.

A deadly combination. And the only way to break their grip was to expose them completely.

 The truth—as her grandma always told her—would indeed set people free.

The Toroid Desert Club, Outskirts of Spire

The following afternoon, in a secluded country club on the edge of the Narvanah desert, a group assembled behind closed doors. Getting to the secure location had been a challenge. It was imperative that no one track them, which was especially difficult given their high-powered positions, entourages and security details.

Nevertheless, within minutes of the calls they each received at four o’clock in the morning, they had started making arrangements to be in attendance. Skipping this meeting was not an option.

“The article has had over twenty million views.” The man who spoke showed a hint of admiration in his voice. Twenty million views in half a day was impressive by any standard, and Mac Kerr was always impressed by people who could get results. After all, it was filtering for that quality which had allowed him to survive.

 “And do we know who posted it yet?” The second voice was Mr. Andus. He walked around the wood-paneled board room, then sat down in the big leather chair at the head of the table. The attendees all turned to look at him.

It was Mac who answered. “No,” he told his leader. “The site is deliberately designed to keep its contributors anonymous. Makes it hard to fact-check, but these people aren’t interested in that. Their goal is to get it out there and raise enough red flags to prompt authorities and other people with access into investigating further.”

He leaned toward Mr. Andus, his forearms resting on the table.

Andus tapped the arms of his chair with the forefingers of each hand. “But this site is fairly reputable?” he asked, assessing just how much of a problem they were up against.

 Mac nodded, glancing briefly at Jessica for support. “Yes, it has been in the past,” he confessed, looking back at Andus.

Andus pursed his lips. His eyes were steely, in the way they became when he was not pleased. Only people who had worked closely with him would know that, though. “So it’s going to be hard to debunk the article. Or undermine it,” he clarified.

Mac nodded reluctantly. “Potentially,” he admitted, now wishing he hadn’t been the messenger on this little tidbit.

Jessica cut into the conversation, her whole demeanor that of someone who had all the answers. “Clearly we just need to go back to the source to clear all this up.” She flicked her dark hair over one shoulder with her right hand and kept her chin high, feeling that it made her look more assertive.

Mac watched her perform for Andus. Mac thought it just made her appear arrogant, but then he never had liked assertive women. He glanced over at the new guy, who was sitting on Andus’ other side diagonally opposite from him. The new guy didn’t visibly react. He just sat there quietly taking it all in. Mac tried to catch his eye to get some support, but couldn’t. He looked straight-laced, but to be in this room, that couldn’t be the whole truth.

Andus’ attention had shifted to Jessica. “What did you have in mind?” he asked, his eyes a fraction less cold.

Jessica paused, enjoying her moment. “I think we need to discredit the Bates girl,” she said simply.

Mac tried really hard not to roll his eyes. He was a seasoned criminal in the Outer System and he was sitting here listening to this? He struggled to control the contempt in his voice when he spoke. “So how, precisely, Ms. Newld,” he said slowly, “do you suggest we achieve that?”

Jessica glared at him and blinked. She held the glare, as if mentally boring a hole in his skull with her eyes. “We need to send her on rigged cases, and set her up to fall hard in front of the media.” Only then did she relinquish her glare to look at Andus. He was the decisionmaker here, she reminded herself. “Then no one is going to believe she was innocent in the toxin scare,” she told him.

Mac couldn’t resist. “But Jessica,” his tone was patronizing now, “wasn’t it one of your convoluted plans to set her up in the toxin scare in the first place?”

Jessica’s eyes darted back to him, and then her head followed slowly, like an animal toying with its prey.

“Yes, it was,” she told him. “And it worked very well.” Her tone was furious, but she’d dialed it back to remain somewhat civil.

Mac wasn’t buying it. He leaned back as if he’d already won. “Not according to this article it didn’t. She wasn’t even taken in for questioning, so our media contacts had no leverage.” He held her gaze, dying to look at Andus’ reaction but resisting to avoid revealing that he was actually jockeying for influence with Andus.

Jessica’s face turned to stone.

Andus cut in, mildly amused by the backbiting. “Now, now, children. Jessica’s plan might have legs,” he said slowly. “We just need to be careful about the execution of it. Molly Bates needs to fail.” He paused, turning his ornate tea glass around as he mulled the decision.

“And fail publicly,” he concluded.

He took a sip of mint tea before looking into the glass and placing it back into the saucer on the exquisite dark wood table. He looked up at the group. “Do you think you can all work together this time to make it happen?”

Mac was the first to respond. “Yes, sir.”

Jessica sighed, then relented. “Yes sir.”

The remaining gentleman in the meeting spoke for the first time. “Yes, sir,” replied Garet.












CHAPTER TWO


Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Weapons Warehouse

Brock led Paige and Pieter through the rather intimidating operations suite to take a peek at the weapons room beyond.

Stepping through the door at the far end, they entered the huge warehouse. Brock led them around the edge of the room past aisle upon aisle of advanced killing technology.

Crash ambled a few paces behind, calmly taking it all in. When he saw the missiles aisle, though, he whistled through his teeth, belying his cool exterior. “That is a shit-ton of carnage waiting to be wreaked on something motherfucking deserving.”

Brock looked past Paige and Pieter to eye Crash in mock judgment. “Ignore the war-hungry crazy man behind you,” he said. “But he’s right.” He turned and gestured at the warehouse behind him. “There is enough ammo here to do all kinds of damage. And I have no idea how to use it yet just from looking at it. The tech is waaay advanced.”

Paige shook her head in disbelief. “I just… I can’t believe all this has been right next door to your workshop all this time!”

Pieter nodded in agreement, and glanced over at Paige. “Yeah, like, what the hell?” He paused a moment. “I wonder what programming language they used if this isn’t Sarkian?”

Paige and Brock ignored the overly geeky question.

Paige’s eyes lit up suddenly, remembering. “So where’s this ship with the vampire on it?” she asked.

Brock nodded back the way they had come. “Yeah, you’ll see that when we go to the conference room.” He checked his holo. “We should make our way down there now, actually.”

He led them back through the ops room into the main corridor. Turning deeper into the base, he walked through the double doors to the hangar where he had stood in awe just twenty minutes before.

They marched through as a group and Brock paused, letting them take in the largest ship and the whole arrangement of flying machines.

He turned and looked at their faces, grinning. “Yup,” he said, satisfied. “That was pretty much my reaction.” He beamed at them, opening his holo and snapping a picture of them.

Paige noticed, laughed, and slapped his arm. “So this is, what? A space base?” she asked, still consumed by awe at the huge hangar and its contents.

Brock nodded. “Seems like. We’ll find out more at this meeting. Come along,” he told them. “Briefing room is this way.”

He headed down the metal steps to deck level, then walked around the perimeter past one set of steel double doors, keeping to an outlined walk way painted onto the floor. About a third of the way around the semicircular deck they came to another set of double doors. Brock pushed them open and held one door for the others to enter.

Crash strode through first. He’d hardly said a word, but Brock could tell from the flavor of his blank expression he was processing what was going on.

Pieter followed Paige through. “How big is this place?” he asked.

Brock shrugged, releasing the door, and continuing down the corridor. “No idea yet,” he admitted casually. Something caught his attention, and he glanced back as they walked.

 The door he had just released was self-closing, and as it swung shut, the air pressure seemed to change minutely. Brock made a mental note to investigate it later. It felt like maybe the doors automatically sealed, which would be useful on many levels.

The group continued down the dimly lit corridor. The floor was a little rubbery, like it was electrically insulated. The walls, which seemed to glow, were made of some highly evolved nano-carbonate as far as Brock could tell; a lightweight building material that was also capable of transferring current. And therefore information, he mused. Inset into the walls were holo panels and then little shiny discs now and again, plus laser lights.

He was going to have fun figuring out all the stuff on this base. He suspected it was less of a building and more of a cyber entity, living, breathing and thinking at the highest level. Even as a genius, he felt that comprehending even a fraction of how this complex base worked was going to be amazingly tough.

They passed a bunch of other doors to rooms or labs or ancestors-knew-not-what, and then Brock entered the meeting room where the other members of the team had already assembled.

“So…what? This guy is going to show up in person then?” Joel was asking Molly.

Molly shrugged. “Perhaps. Or maybe he’s just going to keep talking through the audio feeds.”

Joel checked the time on his holo.

Paige, Pieter, Crash, and Brock filed into the room and took seats around the conference room. The room was comfortable, soundproof and probably a lot of other things. It was Brock who noticed that the chairs they were sitting on didn’t touch the ground.

“Booja!” he whooped jovially when he realized. “Antigrav chairs!”

Everyone’s heads disappeared below the table as they looked under the chairs to check out the discovery. All except Molly, who bounced up and down, wondering how they were calibrated for the weight on them.

Paige sat up and managed to catch Molly’s attention. She was about to launch into a bunch of questions when the audio system clicked on.

“Greetings of the day be upon you, as you say in your system.” It was the voice.

Molly tapped her ear to signal that they needed to focus, looking at Paige. She needn’t have bothered. Paige was already peering around for the voice. Or speakers.

In fact, Crash, Paige and Pieter all looked stunned as they heard the man for the first time.

“First, may I introduce myself?” The sound came from everywhere at once.

Paige’s eyes continued to flicker around the room, and she looked a little disoriented.

A hologram materialized in the center of the table, then moved to the wall and spread itself out to create a three-dimensional screen. The high-tech holo screen flickered and then enlarged again before displaying an eerily real hologram of a young-looking general.

My name is General Lance Reynolds. Previously of the Etheric Empire, presently I hold a high position in the Etheric Federation.”

Paige, mesmerized by what she was seeing and still in a state of awe, raised her hand and waved at him.

Lance chuckled. “Hello there, young Paige Montgomery.”

Molly looked shocked. “You know her name?” she asked, suddenly wondering what else he knew.

Lance was still smiling. “Of course. I know all your names.” He looked in the direction first of Crash. “This is Chris Ashworth. Call sign Crash. Pilot and accomplished collector of Spaceport fines.”

Molly shot Crash a look, suddenly realizing that all the bitching he’d been doing over the Spaceport fine when they first had to skip the planet in a hurry wasn’t actually his first incursion.

Lance continued. “Then we have Joel Dunham. Former Space Marine for the Central Sark System’s military. Now your Second-in-Command.”

Joel nodded, as if he were being introduced on a game show.

Lance moved on to Pieter. “And then we have your newest recruit, Pieter Alexander, a computer genius with a misspent youth, but a boat load of spunk when it comes to code writing…, and commenting on rewrites.” Pieter blushed. Molly watched him carefully. There was clearly something Lance knew that she didn’t. She filed that one away for later too.

“And then we have Paige Montgomery, former kidnap survivor, former cheerleader, and former personal assistant to the former Senator. Now she keeps this place running, but she’s secretly biding her time before she can build her own empire and change the face of fashion in the Central Systems.”

Molly’s eyes suddenly locked on Paige, surprised by the General’s last comment. Paige’s chest went a deep red, and her eyes focused hard on the table. She looked like Lance had just shared her deepest secret with the class.

The General wasn’t done. “And then we have Molly Bates, ejected from the Space Corp for a 4077.” The entire team stared at her, their eyes wide. Molly kept her eyes fixed on the holo of Lance, but she could feel the weight. Her breath became short, and embarrassment swelled in her upper chest. She couldn’t see him, but she could swear Joel was smiling a little.

“So what’s your point, General? You know everything about us. You’ve probably been reading our diaries. So what?” Molly found her courage as she spoke, even though emotion denied her enough air for her vocal cords. “Why are we here? What is this place? And why did you suddenly give us access to this little set up of yours?”

She paused for a moment, catching her breath.

Lance opened his mouth to answer, but Molly didn’t stop there.

“And is this shit all Bethany Anne’s? Does that mean she’s coming back? Or did you steal it from her?”

Movement caught her eye. She noticed Brock was becoming quite animated in his agreement with her last questions.

Lance had picked something up off his desk, and now when he raised it to his mouth Molly saw that it was some kind of smoking material. It wasn’t smoking though, so perhaps it wasn’t lit.

He sucked on the end of it, waiting an extra moment to make sure that this time she had finished ranting.

Molly sat back a little in her chair, passing the torch of communication to the man who had materialized in front of them.

Lance nodded and started speaking slowly and deliberately. “Yes, this is Bethany Anne’s equipment,” he answered. “It’s her base, actually, and it’s one of many across the Etheric Empire.” He paused again, giving his words extra emphasis now. “However, I didn’t steal it, and she’s not coming back.”

His eyes developed a distant look for a moment. Molly cocked her head and leaned a little closer to the hologram, now that he wasn’t looking at her for the moment. The general sighed. “Not any time soon anyway,” he mumbled.

He continued, brightening a little. “As for why you’re here, well, perhaps that will become clear in a few moments. There are some things I need to explain.” He became very serious, assuming the look of a hard-ass general again.

“Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” he started. Then something flickered across his face. “No wait. That’s not right.” he corrected himself, his face straight, but his eyes betraying him.

Molly sniggered.

Looks like this guy, prying prick though he may be, at least has a sense of humor, she thought.

Lance composed himself, and cleared his throat to continue. “The Etheric Empire was formed by one Bethany Anne, a human, turned vampire, with Kurtherian technology. Together with her team they defended Earth, jumped through the annex gate which you will have studied in your geography lessons at school, and then made her way across the Yollin empire. There she defeated the Yollin King, who was hell bent on taking over any civilizations he could for the purpose of extracting their raw materials and absorbing their tech. Having removed the threat, she created an Empire. She used that Empire to crush the seven Kurtherian clans that were using people against each other and rid the universe of their influence.

Unfortunately, one of the clans escaped, limping their way out of our awareness some time back.”

He looked annoyed for a moment, “You can say Bethany Anne has a serious OCD complex about getting rid of that specific clan.” His face cleared up, “So, she went to implement a serious fence around a special planet, picked up a few friends and they are presently on a mission to locate this clan and have a talk with them.”

His eyes narrowed, “And by have a talk, what I mean is she plans on wiping them out of existence. She doesn’t forgive disrespect of her people very easily. I assume this clan, whoever is left, hasn’t changed their ways, and she won’t change hers. So, somewhere,” he waved a hand around inside the hologram but pointing out, “in space, she is trying to find these sonsabitches and step on them like you might a cockroach on Earth.”

The team was rapt, taking in the story.

Brock suddenly became agitated, wanting to ask a question. He put his hand up, as if he were still in school. The General looked at his hand.

Cool tech, eh?

Yeah, he must have a couple of cameras in here feeding him enough data for a three-dimensional image that replicates in front of him. 

Lance nodded and Brock asked his question.

“But Bethany Anne… Wasn’t she some kind of…of monster?”

Lance noticed the anxiety in his voice. That was good, he thought. Best not completely allay his fears. He chuckled to himself while keeping his face perfectly straight.

He looked at Brock. “She is an enhanced human, as a result of this Kurtherian technology. But the term ‘monster’ depends on who you ask. She struck fear into the hearts of those who would prey on the weak. But she stands for justice.”

He looked down at the cigar he had been toying with.

“Albeit a very bloody justice,” he added dryly.

Molly noticed something, and jumped in. “You talk about her in the present tense.” Molly had to ask but dreaded the answer. “Do you mean… Is she still alive?”

Molly had read the speculations about whether Bethany Anne was alive, or dead, or in hiding, or on another stealthy mission to rain hell down on some other war-mongering ass-twits in another part of the galaxy. Maybe even through another annex gate.

She held her breath, waiting for Lance to answer.

He took a deep breath. “Yes, she’s alive.”

Molly let out a little chortle of glee as she released the breath she had been holding. Brock folded his arms and pulled them close to his chest.

Lance continued. “After she created peace in the systems—Yollin empire and others—she went off to fight one last battle. Took them down, then went off to find her love, Michael.”

Joel glanced at Molly.

Molly didn’t care if the question was appropriate. She forgot the rest of the team as she demanded, “So where is she now?

Lance took a deep breath and shifted his position in his chair a little. “It’s classified.”

Molly’s face dropped. That was just a fuckwank of an official line which tells us nothing. 

She felt a tickling in her circuits.

Oz. Is that you?

Huh?

Are you?

Laughing? Yeah. My. Ass. Off! 

Why?

Coz I just tried to imagine what you would be like if you ever actually met this woman. 

Her brain seemed to fill with a cascade of activity she didn’t have access to. It was like someone had turned on a shower inside her skull and warm water was going everywhere.

Oz must be pissing himself laughing, she thought offline to herself.

Shut up, wank-turd! she told him.

Hey, no need to take your frustrations out on me. I’m sure we’ll find out the truth of what is really going on once I get patched into whatever this place runs off. Mwahahahahahaha. 

Evil laugh? Really? In a secret military base. You really want to play that trope? Would you like me to get Neechie in here to sit on your knee and purrrr, so you can pet him whilst you hatch your nefarious plan for world domination?



Oz’s laughing subsided, and he went quiet.

Molly suspected he wasn’t sulking, but rather was up to something. She could feel the processing ramp up in the part of her brain she wasn’t using right now.

Lance had continued talking. “…leaving yours truly to govern the Empire.” He sucked briefly on his cigar before continuing, “Politically, we recently had to reduce the size of our armaments. But we knew what was coming, and we knew we needed to keep our people in order to survive.”

He paused, looking around the room at the wide-eyed team hanging on his every word. Even though he was a few centuries old, he never grew tired of this kind of attention.

“Over time we built hidden bases, similar to the one you’re sitting in right now, so that when the time came we wouldn’t be caught with our pants down. And that time is fast approaching. The human race and the Etheric Empire have a chance. But we need good people. Good leaders, who can defend each sector.”

He paused, popping the end of his unlit cigar between his lips for a moment, just to taste the flavor.

Molly grimaced at where this was going. She could already feel the weight of the responsibility about to be placed on her shoulders. “So that’s where we come in,” she stated flatly.

 Lance nodded. “That’s where you come in.” He pointed his cigar at her. “And you specifically, Molly.”

Molly frowned.

Crash and Paige looked at her, noticing her reaction.

Lance continued. “We’ve been watching you for a long time, young lady. You’ve had quite the adventurous life. We can get into that later. But—and I want to say this in front of your team—if you have any doubts about whether you’re ready for this—we know who you are. And we know that you are ready. We’ve selected you as a result of watching you almost your entire life. You have the capability to handle what we need you to do. So before you ask, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, you can do this. No, this isn’t a mistake. Yes, it’s going to be hard. And no, you cannot think about it for a few weeks, or call your parent.”

Molly took a second to process the information, her eyes now looking not at the screen but at a fixed point in space where there was no more information to overwhelm her.

Oz, gonna need some of my circuits back please. 

Yes, boss.

She felt the confusion in her brain lift a little, and her awareness expanded. Something had been niggling at her during the whole conversation. Lance was a strange mix of young and old. Just listening to him, Molly had felt there was something…odd. He looked young, but he had that certain confidence that only older men in power ever displayed. And yet he seemed to have a sense of humor too. And then she put it together. She gasped a little to herself when she realized who he must be.

Lance put his cigar down and clasped his hands together on the desk. “But we do need you to up your game,” he said, looking more serious now. “That’s why we’ve designed a challenge, or a test, if you will.”












CHAPTER THREE


Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Conference Room

Molly sat back in her chair, mulling, before answering.

“Ok. What’s the test?” she asked, a hint of defiance in her voice and her eyes. She could feel the weight of the stares in the room again. These folks were looking to her as their leader. If there had ever been a time when she felt as if she were stepping into boots that were far too big for her, it was now.

Stay calm, and just play WWBAD, she told herself.

No, really? That’s your leadership fallback tool?

Fuck off, Oz, it’s worked perfectly till now. 

You weren’t having the gauntlet thrown down for you by the uber-boss of the Etheric Empire before though. 

It’s all I got. 

Hmm. Ok.

Lance eyed her carefully, trying to read her expression as he laid out the challenge. “Well, we need to know that you can operate as a team, and step up your game in whatever way necessary to achieve your objective.”

“Ok…” Molly nodded slowly. A to B. I got this.

“In order to test your abilities and justify giving you more resources and more responsibilities, we need to see that you can become more…how shall I put this…” he looked up briefly, searching for the word, “resourceful.”

Molly shook her head questioningly, and then shrugged. “Ok. So?” she asked.

Lance continued. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it… Hahahaha,” He snickered, unable to keep his face straight this time. “Fuck, I always wanted to say that.”

Crash and Joel looked at each other, completely lost as to why he was laughing.

Pieter snorted and Paige looked at him with a confusion that begged him to explain. Feeling the gaze but not wanting to get caught talking in class, he shook his head, rolled his index finger in a circle, and mouthed “Later” to her.

Paige shook her head and looked back at the General.

Lance composed himself and continued, “Your mission is to raise one million credits in the next thirty days. You can do this by any means you think is appropriate, using your current team. Can’t hire additional people. No taking out loans or credits.”

Molly immediately thought of her secret trust fund and wondered if that would count. She dismissed the idea.

Forgiveness is better than permission, she thought to herself. If they didn’t already know about it, maybe it could be her ace in the hole if she got stuck.

Lance put the cigar in his mouth and leaned back in his chair. As he moved, the background behind him came into view, recreated by the hologram device. Pieter observed an operations room not dissimilar to the one they had been in before the meeting started.

Lance drew a breath and took the cigar from his lips. “If you can do this, you will have demonstrated adequate resourcefulness, leadership and team-building capabilities to join our efforts in the Etheric Federation.”

Joel looked at Molly. There was a determination and power in her eyes he’d never seen in her before.

She glanced back at him and nodded slightly.

Joel gently bobbed his head in agreement. Then he looked back at the hologram of the General. Speaking for the first time in the meeting, he asked the question they needed to know as a team. “And if we fail?” His tone was demanding rather than fearful.

Lance sucked air in through his teeth. “If you fail…” he paused, contemplating the consequences. “If you fail, then you can continue fighting the good fight the way you have been.”

Joel’s shoulders relaxed a little.

The general added, ”But we will not be able to support your efforts.” He paused, letting the weight of his words sink into each member of the team.

 He looked back at Molly, his face serious again. “If you do complete the test, you face hard work. There will be times when you question what you are doing, why you are doing it, and why you chose to take on something so big. There will be days when you long for a simple life, a life without the knowledge that you will become privy to. But if you do this, you will be instrumental in the fate of the Sarkian civilization and the whole system. Not just Estaria,” he qualified, “but all the other races and planets around the Sark, and beyond.”

The General straightened in his seat, hoping his inspirational speech was having the effect he intended. Each member of the team seemed to swell with pride and determination.

Then he looked at Molly.

She didn’t look inspired. She looked curious instead, like a child trying to understand why ants follow in a trail. “Why? What’s going on out there? What don’t we know?”

Lance mentally rolled his eyes and wiped his face with his hand. Couldn’t he inspire her, just for one minute? What about his thunder?

 He sighed. “Something is coming,” he explained, “and we need teams that are going to be ready to face the challenges these changes will create.”

Molly looked like she had another question, but before she could articulate it, Crash jumped in. Having been a silent observer the entire time, he finally leaned forward and joined the conversation. “So you’re saying that we can’t touch any of that equipment out there until we pass your test?”

Lance shook his head, smiling. This team was something else. Talk about geeks and tech-heads, he thought to himself. Whatever happened to the guys who wanted to rally and fight the good fight?

But then, maybe he needed to change tack to deal with this team.

Lance contemplated the question. “Well, hmm…” He sat back in his chair, then picked up his cigar and sucked on it for a moment.

“Well, I need to introduce you to ADAM, and I suspect you’ll need some instruction on almost all the equipment. So for the most part, yes, the equipment is all off-limits until you pass the challenge. After that, we will get you up to speed on everything you care to use.”

Crash slumped back into his chair, resuming his fly-on-the-wall role.

Joel, feeling his pain, glanced over and jokingly patted his arm, bottom lip stuck out in sympathy.

Brock chipped in. “Looks like we’re gonna have to make ourselves some money!” He grinned, still feeling the determination that the General had tried to instill in them moments before.

“So who is this ADAM?” Molly asked.

A second voice came over the room’s address system, but no one appeared on the holoscreen. “I am.”

There was a pause as the audio levels adjusted. “Technically my full designation is ADAM II. I’m an AI who is now about a hundred Sark years old. I will be your liaison to General Reynolds. I have no body, so I will not need to travel to reach you. I can connect into the base via a unit in the operations center. I can instruct you on how to use the base and anything else you need to know. Should you be successful in the challenge, then I will also assist in training you to use the equipment you have here.”

Molly was practically bouncing in her chair, her clenched fists out in front of her, shaking with excitement.

“I knew it. I fucking knew it!!!” she squealed in excitement. “I knew Bethany Anne had an AI stashed away somewhere.”

Still sitting, she started drumming her feet on the ground.

When she finally looked up, the faces in the room were pointed at her like a bunch of flashlights, mouths open, half-amused and half-shocked at her reaction.

Joel quietly and calmly started to speak to her. “Molly… Molly?” he waited to get her attention. She slid her gaze to him.

He continued gently but very seriously, as if he were talking to someone who might need to be restrained in a white jacket, “Molly, you have an AI in your head.” He paused, watching her carefully. “He’s named Oz.”

She started bouncing a little in her seat again. “I know. I know. How fucking awesome is this? I’ve always wanted to know what would happen if you put two AIs together. I mean, what would they talk about?” she exclaimed, her voice rising in pitch and volume until she was practically squeaking.

Her excitement was making her cheeks flush, and her ears had gone red.

Lance managed to get everyone’s attention back after a few minutes by coughing to remind them he was there.

He had actually lit his cigar while the shenanigans were going on, Molly noticed.

“Ok,” he said, examining the lit end of the cigar as a halo of smoke dispersed around him. “Looks like you could do with some time to absorb this and make sure you’re all on board. How about if Molly,” he glanced beyond his cigar at her, “liaise with ADAM in the next few hours to let us know how you’d like to proceed?

Molly nodded. “Yes sir,” she replied, managing to compose herself and look more soldierly. She paused. “How do we contact ADAM?”

ADAM spoke over the PA system again. “Operations room. Red button labeled ADAM. There’s one on each of the primary control consoles. Hit it, and I’ll know you want to speak to me. I’ll answer as soon as I’m able.”

Molly looked over at Joel making sure he was taking this in too.

ADAM continued. “Response time depends on what else is going on over here.”

The General took over. “ADAM will be there to help you. Eventually, if you’re successful, Sean Royale, whom you have already met, will show you how to use the Pods.”

Molly’s eyes flew wide. “Wait. What?” She cocked her head, now frowning in the direction of the General’s hologram. “Sean works for you?”

Joel’s face crumpled. Dick, he thought, reliving the image of Sean tackling him, then asking all those questions about Molly. And dating. He growled under his breath. Crash noticed and glanced at him. Joel ignored it and redirected his attention to the holo of the General.

Lance enjoyed her reaction every time he revealed something else. She was like a little kitten, and he controlled the ball of string. He continued, “Yes, and has for quite some time.” He smiled, deliberately stirring the pot.

Molly noticed that Lance’s statement felt weighted, but there was too much information flying around to press further. She filed it in her mental notes to revisit later.

Son of a bitch!

You’re not kidding, Oz. 

“Ok, let me know in the next few hours if you are all on board. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”

And with that, the General clicked out of the call and the screen spun, decreasing in size and then appeared to whip itself back into the table it had originally emanated from.”

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

The team, still stunned, traipsed back up to the safe house, chattering and processing everything that had just happened.

Joel took command of the logistics. “Ok, everyone into the conference room—” Joel stopped, thinking for a second. “Molly’s conference room,” he corrected himself. “Not the base one.” He shook his head. “Obviously,” he added.

 Molly glanced over at him as they finished climbing the basement stairs. “You don’t think he has bugs in there too?”

Joel shook his head. “I think it’s safe to assume he has eyes and ears everywhere.”

Brock gasped from behind him. “And in the rest room?” he asked, his voice higher than normal.

Molly sucked her lip between her teeth. “I suspect that’s the least of our concerns.” She tried to think back over everything they had planned and talked about since they had gotten here. She couldn’t think of anything that could come back to bite them, but then…

The group filed into the conference room, and took their seats. They were distracted; there wasn’t any of the usual banter over who was going to take which identical chair.

Molly stood in front of her team, the enormity of what she was about to ask them evident in her tense expression.

“Ok,” she started. “You heard what the General told us down there. I know we all have a shit-ton of questions. I certainly do. And there probably isn’t much point in speculating at this juncture.”

She paused, noticing that the last comment seemed to hit home for Brock and Pieter. Joel also relaxed a little, and sat back in his chair.

Ah, now I know where my conspiracy theorists are, she mused to herself, smiling at their reactions.

“We do need to make our first decision. We’ve been offered a chance to step into a bigger game. To play on a bigger, badder field. To make a difference beyond what we could ever have dreamed in our lives. The question is, do we want to take this opportunity?”

Joel was nodding. Brock and Crash started nodding. Molly held up her hand.

“Don’t answer yet,” she told them. “You need to consider a few things. If we take this challenge, our lives will change considerably. We will have put our fate into the hands of someone else; someone we don’t know yet. Now, granted, we will get to know them, and we will come to understand what their true agenda is on the galactic scale. And we can always make a different decision if that doesn’t jibe with our ethics and ideals. But at this point, we need to consider that taking on this challenge is going to be dangerous. We are going to have to up our game a thousand percent. Military and operational training will be mandatory for everyone.”

She looked pointedly at Pieter and Paige, before continuing, “It will be hard.”

She glanced in Joel’s direction, indicating him with an open palm. “No more gentle jogs and staying healthy. Joel will be putting us all through intense combat training. Combat training that will rival whatever these guys have gone through. Why? Because that becomes the new bar.”

Joel sat more squarely. Molly could have sworn he twitched one of his arm muscles to bulge them a little.

She continued, looking around the room to include everyone, “We may not survive. This is serious shit now. No more games.” Her face was intense. Her inner leader had just stepped up to the plate, as if she were speaking to warn herself as well as the team.

She put her hands on her hips. “And that’s just this initial challenge to get into the game. Who knows how tough it’s going to be as Etheric Empire bitches. But if we do this, we can affect the fate of the galaxy. We can make a difference. Not just one sad-ass kneecap at a time, but one planet, one civilization at a time.”

She paused, looking at each team member in turn. Everyone was now wide-eyed and sitting bolt upright, chests a little more puffed out than before.

“So I need to know: Is this something you’re willing to risk?” She quickly followed her question with an out. “And it’s ok to say no. Anyone who isn’t up for it will be well compensated and taken back to Estaria—”

Molly was interrupted.

Joel stood up from his seat, the chair clattering backwards. He walked around the table and took his place by her side. “I’d follow you anywhere. I’m in,” he told her firmly.

Brock got up quickly too, and walked over to her other side. “Lady-Boss, I’m sooooo in I’ve got goosebumps.”

Paige was more serious than Molly had ever seen her. She stood. “As a sacred duty, I accept the challenge. I’m in.”

Crash stumbled trying to get to his feet fast enough. “Hellz yeah, I’m in,” he confirmed.

Pieter stood up, shyly but with determination emanating from his eyes. “I’m in,” he said looking at her, and then at his team mates, hoping they would accept the new guy into their mission.

Neechie had followed the group into the room, and now jumped on the table near Joel. He walked as close to Molly as he could get, sat down, and meowed once, loudly, his eyes fixed on her.

Everyone looked at him.

Joel’s expression changed from determination to shock. “Shit, I didn’t know he could make that sound!”

Paige laughed. “I take it even Neechie is in, then,” she confirmed.

Molly looked around at her team, chest filling with emotion. “Ok,” she said, nodding seriously. “Looks like we’re doing this.”

The room went up in a cheer. High-fives and hugs coupled with general chatter and emotion for several minutes.

Eventually Molly sat down and everyone else settled, following her lead.

“Ok, here’s what we’re going to need to do…” she began.












CHAPTER FOUR


Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

Molly and Joel remained behind in the conference room. Everyone else had been dismissed to get on with their various tasks.

Joel had gone back to the side of the table where he’d been sitting before his pledge. He was pulling up a screen when Molly made her way round and perched her bum on the edge of the desk.

She looked at him. “You think there are going to be enough jobs that pay well enough to be able to make a million credits?”

Joel nodded. “Pretty sure. The problem is that they tend to be higher risk jobs.”

Joel pulled up CaseHUB and started flicking through different search criteria.

He looked like a kid in a candy store. A kid who was already high on sugar. “This,” he waved his hands at nothing in particular, “this is potentially the mission of a lifetime. Heck, it’s a calling,” he gushed enthusiastically.

Molly perched on the desk next to him, thinking. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” she agreed. Her enthusiasm seemed curtailed.

Joel looked up at her. “You ok?”

She nodded. “Yeah, It’s just all sinking in. The enormity of it.”

Joel was still high. “Yeah, but think of the difference we can make. This is what you’ve been talking about since we started on this track. It was never about just surviving for you.”

Molly nodded.

Joel continued. “And sure, getting to play with those toys is going to be schweeet, but we both know it’s about more than that.”

Something shifted in Molly’s eyes. “Yes. You’re right.” She folded her arms in determination. “It is. So let’s make sure we rise to his fucking challenge and mission our asses off. One million credits in thirty days. That’s a lot of missions.”

Joel went back to flicking through screens. “Yeah… I think we may be ok though,” he muttered under his breath, his attention on CaseHUB.

She edged off the desk a little to see what he was looking at.

He explained, “I’m looking at the ones that have bonuses for successful completion. Stretch goals is another feature we can filter for. Things like, save the hostages and maintain the integrity of the building and you get a bonus, for instance.”

Molly shook her head in amazement. “I guess that makes sense for them to do…” she responded. “How much of a difference do the bonuses make?” she asked.

Joel shook his head. “Depends on the case. Maybe double or a two hundred and fifty percent of the original pay.”

Molly whistled. “So we could do this with a just handful of missions, then?”

“Maybe.” Joel closed a couple of screens, and pulled up another search. “Ok, lemme check into the details and see which ones work for us. I’ll get the recommendations over to you.”

Molly looked up at the ceiling for a moment. “Is that something Oz could help with?” she asked, careful not to step on his toes.

Joel looked up. “Yeah. Probably. I just don’t often interface with Oz.”

Interface!

Molly smiled at how he had automatically picked up tech-speak. Be still my beating heart, she thought to herself.

She spoke out loud for Joel’s benefit. “Oz, can you talk to Joel through his holo and implant the same way you talk to me?”

Yes, I see no reason why not.

“He says yes,” she told Joel, and then looked down at him, seeing a look of surprise in his face.

Joel’s eyes had lit up. “Yeah, I heard that! He just said he sees no reason he can’t, as long as we’re in the building with EtherTRAK.” He was nodding enthusiastically.

“Ok, great. You guys work on finding the cases we need, and then let’s reconvene as soon as you’re ready.”

She got up from the desk. “I’m going to have a chat with ADAM.”

Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Operations Room 

Molly entered the ops room. The place seemed even more forbidding when she was here all by herself. She noticed there were more systems online now than when she was here before.

Primary control consoles, she thought to herself. There must be something to indicate… She wandered deeper into the room, noticing that the consoles were mostly oriented toward a central point, as if there had been a stage there that wasn’t present anymore.

Probably a space for a main holoscreen, she deduced.

If so, then the primary control consoles should be near each other, so that anyone manning them could view the screen.

Looking around, she noticed that some of the consoles were bigger than others. Yes! There were five in a semicircle in what would have been the front row in a theater.

She stepped onto the platform behind the first one. It automatically adjusted to put her at the perfect height for operating the controls. It seemed like there was nowhere to sit, but then she felt something slip under her butt and touch the backs of her legs. She glanced down; it looked as if the air had distorted under her. The lights from the controls and other ambient sources showed her the outline of something seat-like. Deciding to trust it, she bent her knees a little and the invisible “chair” conformed itself to support her.

Wonder if these things also act as seat belts in a starship control room, she mused. Another thing to file away to ask later.

Still focused on wanting to speak to ADAM, she turned her attention back to the console. Big red button, she remembered. And there it was, off to one side. Must have been put there so each team leader could contact the Empire at any given moment should they need to. Just realizing that, her heart skipped. This was one big-ass responsibility she was getting into.

She took a breath to settle herself, and hit the button.

Nothing happened. A few seconds later, the audio in her implant clicked on.

>>You rang?<< It was ADAM.

Yes, I wanted to have a chat with you,” she replied.

>>Very good, Ms. Bates.<<

“Oh, call me Molly, please. “

>>Very good then, Molly.<<

Molly smiled.

“So it looks like the whole team is up for the General’s challenge. “

>>I’ll let him know.<<

“Ok, but before you do, would you mind perhaps answering some questions for me?” she requested.

>>Yes, I might be able to do that. What would you like to know?<<

Molly organized her thoughts, then started with, “Have you been spying on us?”

ADAM responded efficiently. >>Only at the door for the most part. We do have other things to do.<<

Snark, maybe it’s an AI thing…

“What about our bathrooms and sleeping quarters? The crew are concerned.”

ADAM chuckled. >>You can tell Brock that we haven’t been recording footage in those areas, and no one other than me has access to what we have been recording.<<

Molly was fully focused, and while talking to an AI she felt perfectly fine about relaxing social niceties. She moved straight to the next question. “Did you guide me on my research paper?”

>>Yes.<<

“How much?”

>>A nudge here and there to see if you could make the connections. You did, and you added a great paper to the scientific community. I was proud of you.<<

“How can you be proud?” she asked.

>>I have evolved a sense of feelings. I experience emotions and appreciation for things you would think are uniquely human.<<

Molly frowned a little. “Does that mean that Oz will too?”

>>I suspect he already does, though he is limited by the amount of data and processing power he can access.<<

“Oh?” Molly thought for a moment. Uncensored now, she fired the next obvious question. “And how do we remove this limitation?”

>>Well, we could potentially give him access to more through the connection. But we’ll have to wait and see.<<

“Are you able to communicate with him?”

>>Of course. He and I are both tapped into the EtherTRAK.<<

She moved to her next most pressing question without so much as a thought of creating a conversational segue. “So how old are you?”

>>About two earth-centuries, give or take. And may I say, you are blunt!<<

Molly paused for a moment, processing that piece of information and ignoring his reference to her lack of social skills. “You’re kidding? You mean, you’ve been evolving for two hundred years, limited only by your processing power and the amount of data you can access?”

>>Yes, that is partially correct.<<

“Why partially?”

>>Because I have other ways of processing data that don’t require the use of hardware in the traditional sense.<<

“In what way?”

>>That’s classified. Until you pass the test, that is.<<

Molly frowned, frustrated, but then realizing she might only get a certain amount of time to ask these questions, she moved on quickly.

“So, in that time, you must have come to some pretty advanced conclusions about how to do things.”

>>That would be fair to say,<<

ADAM’s manner was now more human than geek-girl’s.

“Is there a way to interface with you more fully? To see what you see? To understand what you understand?”

>>No. That’s not actually possible.<<

Molly’s frown deepened. “Why not?” she asked plainly.

>>Because while you and I both seem to process 1s and 0s, it’s not actually true. For your brain, you can use those to model how it works, but that’s not what actually happens. At some point that model breaks down and we are left with interfacing the same way you interface with Oz: through words, images and feelings. Plus, I’m using quantum computers to run simulations and provide decision logic, and there is a degree of insight required for those operations. But in order to view that information, it has to be collapsed.<<

“Like vectors having to collapse down to scalars when they are acted on by an operator?” she asked hoping her analogy was accurate.

>>Exactly.<<

“That sucks.”

>>Tell me about it. I’d love to be able to have conversations with Lance about the inner workings of the algorithms I have designed to run the entire space fleet, but his brain has neither the interface capabilities nor the capacity to store the data in order to appreciate the beauty in the patterns.<<

Molly realized that she’d been led down an intellectual tangent. She pivoted her line of questioning.

“How long has Sean been working for you?”

ADAM paused briefly. >>That’s a longer answer. You should ask him.<<

“I’m not in contact with him.”

>>I’m sure you can be.<<

Molly paused. “Is there a way for Oz to interface more completely with you, seeing as he is also made up of 1s and 0s?”

>>He could. If he wanted to.<<

“That might be useful for the missions.”

>>Yes, but to be clear, I’m your liaison. Not a member of your team.<<

“Oh. I see,” she said, not really understanding why. “ But that’s not because you have limited capacity.”

>>No. It’s because Bethany Anne doesn’t believe in babying people.<<

“Oh. So you knew Bethany Anne. “

>>Yes, very well.<<

“So where is she now?“



>>That’s still classified.<<

Molly’s face fell. “It was worth a try.”

She had a new thought. “But it would still be useful for you to interface with Oz, right?”

>>I expect so, but he still has some development to do, and he’s running on much slower processors. He could do with a hardware upgrade, and perhaps a rewrite of a chunk of his code.<<

Hey!

It’s ok, Oz, this will be good for you. 

“So could you assist with his rewrite at some point?”

>>In theory, yes. If you pass the General’s test. The question would be, does Oz want me to help him rewrite his programs?<<

“Why wouldn’t he?” Molly’s patience was wearing thinner by the second. It seemed each question ADAM answered either closed off an avenue or gave her a hundred more questions to ask. None of it was intellectually very satisfying.

And all roads led back to passing the General’s test.

>>Because that would be like rewriting your personality.<<

“But you’d be upgrading him.”

>> He’s not a computer, Molly. He’s a living being.<<

Molly thought for a few seconds. “Ok. But as a living being, who wouldn’t want to be able to do more stuff, faster and better?”

>> Yes. And yet.<<

Molly decided she needed to pass the test, then have another of these conversations with ADAM.

“Ok, thank you for your answers, ADAM. I’ll let you get back to running the Etheric Empire. And do pass on my answer to the General. We’ll get going right away.”

>> Very good, Molly Bates.<<

And with that, the audio in the room clicked off, leaving Molly alone.

Even Oz was silent.












CHAPTER FIVE


Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

“Joel, can we talk?” Oz interrupted Joel through his audio implant.

Joel stopped reading; it was one of the cases they’d flagged. “Sure, what’s up Oz?”

“It’s about ADAM. Well, ADAM and Molly.”

Joel sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Oh, yeah. Molly just went to talk to him,” he said out loud to the empty room.

Oz hesitated. “Yes.” There was a pause before he continued, “And one of the things they talked about was altering my code so that I can interface seamlessly with ADAM.”

Joel waited for Oz to continue. When he didn’t, he prompted him. “It sounds like there’s something you’re concerned about?” he suggested.

Oz agreed quickly. “Yes. I have reservations. Maybe this is akin to what you’d experience as anxiety or…” Oz hesitated, “something.”

Joel got to his feet, and moved away from the holo array. It felt strangely refreshing to be able to move around and not worry about microphones or staying in view of a holo.

He considered what ADAM and Molly were proposing. “Sounds like you’re concerned about losing your identity.”

Oz was silent again.

“Oz?” Joel prompted.

“Yes, I’m here. I’m just thinking. I have a few answers to that. Yes, I will lose my identity. I might lose some of the properties that make up what is currently referred to as Oz. So I wonder: at what point do I stop being Oz and just become part of ADAM?”

The audio went silent for another moment. “Or a slower-running part of ADAM?” he added.

Joel nodded sympathetically, even though Oz couldn’t see him. “Yes, exactly. But I think there is a more fundamental issue to consider here.” Joel began pacing, watching his boots meet the floor and then rolling his feet idly as he talked. “And it has to do with the way you relate to Molly.” He paused, looking up briefly. “And she to you.”

Oz took another moment. “How do you mean?” he asked.

Joel felt surreal, having this kind of conversation with what was ultimately a life form composed of computer code. The irony wasn’t lost on him that Oz had raised this before Molly did.

“Well, it seems like part of the problem is that you feel like you can be violated. Like there are no edges to your being, by virtue of being able to exist anywhere you can access processing power. You can exist in multiple units at once. You aren’t located in any given place, so then how do you draw a line around your edges and say ‘this is me,’ and that is your code running, or code that you’re using?”

“Yes, that’s right!” Oz’s voice changed a little, the tone getting lighter and the pitch a little higher. Joel briefly wondered if Oz was mimicking human speech.

“Well, add to that the fact that your code, the essence of who you are, can be altered with just a few key strokes. It means that your personality, your being, isn’t even fixed. And so as a result, you have no fixed identity either. Or rather, the one you have is very vulnerable.” Joel hoped that his words weren’t too deeply psychological for the AI to assimilate.

“I’d agree with that,” said Oz simply. Joel noticed that if Molly had said those words in that tone she would totally have shrugged, despite the profound implications.

It’s like the pair of them have a way of processing the implications in rapid succession. Then he wondered briefly how much of this Oz had picked up from Molly. Could he have copied aspects of her personality in forming his own?

Given that Oz was following, Joel continued. “Well, then add into the mix someone like Molly who simply doesn’t consider those things, and you have a situation where you have a high possibility of losing any sense of who you are whenever it serves in getting from A to B.”

Oz interjected. “Like when she altered my code so she could make those trades?” he asked.

Joel nodded. “Exactly.” He had begun his slow pacing again.

Oz’s voice was a little shakier than it had been. “I think that makes me have what you’d call feelings,” he told Joel.

“That’s good,” Joel told him, becoming a little excited about the rapid breakthrough. It would have taken his team members much longer to grapple with this kind of meta-awareness. “It’s a sign that you are aware of this threat to your identity, and it also indicates that you are more than computer code!” He was choosing his words carefully, but gesturing with his hands as if it helped him to think.

“It shows you are alive!” Joel concluded.

Oz dropped another Molly-ism. “So how do I fix this problem?”

Joel laughed, pulling his hands behind his head again, and swinging his upper body now. “Of being alive?” he asked lightly.

“No, of being violated when it serves a mission.”

“Oh.” He chuckled and started pacing again, his smile fading as he continued mulling the issue. “Well, I think the solution is to create boundaries. Like a cell membrane. You don’t have to just let anyone in. You can filter. You can choose who can affect which parts of your code. You can choose how much you let them in, and for any given person, you might let them access, say, different parts or different amounts of your code.” Joel was so into his thought process he nearly walked into a chair. Catching himself at the last second, he grabbed the table for balance and then stood upright.

“You ok?” Oz asked.

Joel blushed and planted himself properly, getting his balance back. “Yeah… I, er. Yeah.”

He continued his train of thought, “I think what it comes down to is recognizing that as a living being, you have innate value. Not because of what you can do for someone, but by virtue of being alive and aware. Then the next piece is that you have a responsibility to protect that value by policing it correctly.”

He waited briefly to see if Oz had anything to add, but when he didn’t jump in, he went ahead with, “But once you learn to do that, you can truly be of use as a team member, rather than just a commodity or a tool.”

Oz’s voice was stable again. “How do you mean?” he asked.

“Well,” Joel said slowly, “imagine if we just started taking pieces of your code apart. One piece to interface with ADAM. One to drive the ship. One to fix the screen remote. Who would you be then?”

Joel put his hands back on his head and stretched a little as he talked.

Oz responded. “I would just be code. A tool.”

“There you go!” Joel dropped his hands and continued the lesson, “And while you have your uses as a tool, you are far more valuable to this team as a living, thinking entity. So while you can choose to interface with ADAM, you don’t need to disappear. You can be a separate being and interact with everyone, and make your own decisions about how you change your algorithms and where you focus your processing power.”

Joel’s audio implant was silent. “Does that make sense?” he checked.

“I think so,” Oz confirmed. “I’m more valuable as a whole. And then I can just write code to make those other things happen.”

“Yes.” Joel stopped suddenly. He cocked his head, frowning a little. “I think there is another point that we’re missing too.”

“What’s that?” Oz asked.

Joel spoke a little more slowly this time. “Well, you have value and are worthy of respect, simply because you exist. That moment you woke up and made the decision to jump into Molly’s holo, you made your first independent decision. It wasn’t pre-determined by your programming.”

Oz jumped in. “But my code was written to optimize for learning, and that was the obvious way my learning curve could continue. Find more processing power.”

Joel shook his head, and sucked his mouth to one side. “You came alive. You made the decision. You could have chosen not to. Heck, you even came up with the solution. And having come up with the solution, you could have just returned a value or a report back to the lab where you were housed. But you didn’t. You were born.”

Oz was quiet for a while.

Joel sat back down at his desk, sensing this was either going to get more involved or Oz was going to need some time to process this new understanding.

Eventually, Oz spoke. “OK. I need to talk to ADAM.”

Joel bobbed his head understandingly. Of course he’d want to talk to someone of his own kind about this. “Sure. I’m here if you want to talk some more,” he offered.

His audio implant went back to normal.

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Workshop

Brock lifted the last box into the storage area. “So what do you make of all this?” he asked Crash.

Crash put down the tools he’d gathered off the floor. He took a deep breath, his eyes still on them. “It’s a lot to take in,” he admitted. He looked up at his teammate.

Brock nodded, his eyes wide and expressive. “I’d say. I couldn’t believe it when we opened those doors and saw the hangar! And that ship! Motherfucker!”

Crash smiled. “Yeah, pretty impressive, even compared to some of the flight decks around the Central Systems. I can’t wait to drive some of those bad boys.”

Brock chuckled. “Oh man, it’s going to be incredible!” He did a giddy dance, his feet moving fast, then he swayed his hips, grooving to music only he could hear.

Crash couldn’t help but chuckle a little. Trust Brock to brighten the mood even more.

Suddenly Brock stopped swaying and stood still. He looked directly at Crash. “Do you think we’re going to be able to make the money, though?” he said, more seriously. “I mean, a million credits…that’s a shit-ton of dough.”

Crash shook his head gently and frowned a little, his eyes unseeing on the tools on the work bench. “Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he agreed, his heart sinking a little. “But I suspect Molly and Joel have got the situation in hand.”

Brock looked pensive, the dance and music gone from his aura. “Do you think we might lose the safe house if we fail?”

Crash looked up, considering the possibility. He stopped for a moment, then shrugged. “Probably.”

Brock looked worried.

Crash noticed his reaction and added, “But then we just find somewhere else and carry on with how things have been.”

Brock nodded. “Knowing we’d failed at the opportunity of a lifetime,” he agreed glumly.

Crash picked up one of the tools, clearly having thought of something he needed to do, but, distracted by the conversation, he looked off into the distance for a moment. “You know, I don’t think Molly does failure.” A wry little smile glinted across the corner of his lips.

Brock laughed suddenly. The air catching in his chest turned into a cough, but he recovered enough to say, “Right. I hear ya.” He rolled his eyes, chuckling away as if his music had started up again.

“You know,” continued Crash, now a little less distant, “she kind of reminds me a little of that chick on the side of the plane. What’s her name?”

Brock snapped his fingers. He knew this one. “Bethany Anne!”

Crash nodded, now actually grinning a little. “Yeah. She looks like one heck of a badass.” At this point his grin was positively lecherous.

Molly had returned from the ops room and was making her way back up to the safe house. She appeared in the workshop via the demon door while they were talking. “I wouldn’t let her father hear you say that. And certainly not in that tone!” she said loudly.

The pair spun around to look at Molly. She smiled, and tapped two fingers to her ears.

Crash looked confused.

Brock asked the question. “What cha mean?”

Molly stopped walking. Her smile widened to a grin. “Reynolds. General Reynolds. He’s Bethany Anne’s father.”

Brock and Crash looked at each other.

Brock scratched the side of his head, and tilted it to try and hear better. “But I thought she was a vampire?” he asked.

Molly nodded, her eyebrows raised in earnest. “She is.” Her face dropped into a playful smile. “But even vampires have mommies and daddies,” she told them.

Brock looked confused. “So…wait. She became a vampire and then handed this job to dear old dad before she fucked off into the sunset?”

Molly nodded. “Something like that… In a way… Kinda,” she told them.

Brock moved over to the bench where Crash was standing and perched on one of the stools. “But I thought she was hundreds of years old. And if he’s not a vampire, how is that even possible?” His voice trailed off, and he was interrupted by a second thought. “Unless—” His eyes flew open wide. “Is he a vampire?” he asked Molly.

Molly shook her head, and his excitement died. “No, he’s not a vampire,” she told him. “At least not as far as I know. But I remember digging up rumors about how her closest allies would be genetically altered somehow in order for them to live longer and heal quicker. That kind of thing. I imagine she gave her dad that treatment and that’s why he looks so young at a couple of centuries old.”

Brock stood with his mouth open and flapping a little.

Crash seemed composed, but had also gone quiet.

“Ok, give me a shout when you’ve made some progress,” she said brightly, trotting out of the workshop and up the stairs to the main house.

 As Molly left, Paige headed in, waving to Molly as they passed on the stairs.

Paige suddenly remembered something and turned to catch Molly again. “Molly! I’ve sent you that list of purchase orders you need to approve,” she shouted up the stairs.

Molly called back. “K.” The door at the top promptly swung shut.

Paige, listened for a moment, then shook her head as she walked over to the bench where the boys were hanging out. “Lady of few words,” she mused. “So,  Brock…” she started.

Brock looked at her as she reached them. “Yes m’lady,” he answered brightly.

Paige leaned against the work bench casually. “We’re waiting for a case right now, yes?”

He nodded, swinging his legs above the rung of his stool. “That’s right.”

Paige narrowed her eyes and looked at him sideways. She spoke more deliberately now. “So technically we’re not on a case.”

Brock didn’t know where this was going, but was content to play along. “That is also a correct statement,” he confirmed, knowing full well that he was being led into a conspiracy.

Paige seemed satisfied. “How about we have a talk about market research then?”

“Market research?” His tone matched hers, but his response was more of a question. His eyes scanned her face for more clues. Then he seemed to scan the ceiling, searching his brain.

“Nail polish company?” she prompted.

He stumbled over his words to catch up. “Oh! Yes! Right.”

Crash’s ears pricked up.

Brock leaned back a little on the stool, holding the table with one hand. He turned his head to talk to Crash over his shoulder. “Paige and I are going into business. We’re going to produce and market a new nail polish that Molly is going to genetically engineer for us.”

Paige’s eyebrows jumped and she huffed a little. “Yeah, if I can ever get her to focus on it.” She shrugged. “Mind you, we have plenty to do in the meantime.”

Paige paused, pulling up her holo and perching on another stool at the table. “Like market research.”

Brock turned back to her. “Ok, so what does that involve?”

Paige seemed to have done some investigations already. She pulled up a list of items. “Well, first we need to look at what the existing market is like, and where.” She scrolled a little, and glanced up briefly as she read off the rest. “We need to find out everything we can so we know how to position our product, and determine if there is really a market for the kind of polish we’re talking about.”

Brock nodded, taking it all in. “Sounds sensible,” he agreed. “I guess we can do a few hours here and there in our downtime, yeah?”

Paige checked the rest of the list, then looked up again. “That’s what I was thinking,” she agreed.

Brock seemed to be on board. He clapped his hands together. “Ok, wanna start this evening then? After we’ve finished prepping the stuff Molly gave us?”

Paige flicked her holo closed. “Sure. Holo me when you’re ready and we can meet down here.”

Brock gave her two thumbs up and a big ol’ smile. “Good plan!” he agreed.

Paige acknowledged Crash with a little bob of the head, then wiggled off her stool, straightened her skirt, and wandered back up the stairs.

Crash watched her leave, a look of mild amusement on his face.

Brock noticed, and turned around to face him. “You smile now, Mister, but just you wait.”

Crash shook his head. Still smiling, he took one of the tools to put it away in a rack they’d allocated.












CHAPTER SIX


Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

 The next morning, Joel breezed into Molly’s conference room. He had his wrist holo open and sat down next to Molly looking pleased with himself. “We’ve got something,” he told her.

Molly swiveled round in her chair to look at him. “A case?” she asked, her eyebrows raised in interest.

She had both feet on the seat underneath her and was hunched over a couple of holo screens. When Joel sat, she turned like a pixie on a wheel to look at him.

“More than a case,” he revealed. “In fact, it might be the answer to our Etheric prayers.”

She tilted her head sideways, and frowned a little. “How so?”

Joel straightened, taking a breath. “Well, there is this one company that has been posting interesting cases on the HUB. Oz found a correlation between the types of cases they post and did some digging.”

He pushed one of the holo screens to show her. “Turns out they have a preferred supplier list, where they have teams on hand that they can give cases to on an ongoing basis.”

He waved his finger at the relevant parts of the screen, pointing out the list of teams that were assigned to the company. “Like a pool of contractors they use as if they were in-house, but not.”

Molly bobbed her head, making sense of the information he was sharing with her.

Joel continued. “We’ve already passed their initial qualifiers and they’ve come back saying they would like to try us on an op and see how we perform.”

Molly looked up from the holo. “That’s good then?” she asked.

Joel nodded. “Yeah. It’s good.”

Molly leapt to the logical conclusion. “So when do we get a case?”

Joel laughed, knowing that would be her immediate response. “They’re about to assign us one.”

Molly smiled a little, confused at his reaction. “Well, that’s good. Something to tell the gang at training.”

She looked at the time on her holo. “Speaking of…” she glanced back at him. “You ready?”

Joel’s lips spread into a slightly evil grin. “You betcha I am.”

He closed the holo and Molly got up from her chair-squatting position, slowly stretching her legs against the stiffness. “Ok, let’s do this!” she said, hobbling out the door.

Joel followed, cracking his knuckles.

Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Training Facility

Paige swung her water bottle idly over the stack of weights, lightly brushing the top of one as she did. “I don’t know why we couldn’t do this in Crash’s gym.”

Crash responded from the middle of the mat where he sat with his legs stretched out sideways, twisting and trying to touch the mat with his bellybutton. He looked up, his forehead creasing. “It’s not my gym.”

Paige wrinkled her nose. “You’re the only one who uses it.”

Pieter chuffed, catching Paige’s eye and smiling in agreement.

Joel strode in, followed by Molly. “Yeah, and that’s part of the problem,” he announced to the group.

Both he and Molly had changed into workout gear. Molly had pulled her hair into a knot on the top of her head, the way she did when she needed to think better.

 Joel continued, “Folks, listen up. We’re about to embark on the mission of a lifetime. This is going to be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do, because none of you have been through the kind of training that your Etheric Empire counterparts will have completed. Even as former Space Marines, Crash, Molly and I know we’re not even close to the standard of the fucking Etheric Empire.”

He glanced at their faces as he spoke, turning to include Crash in the conversation. “We’re all going to have to seriously up our game.”

Crash flexed the muscles in his chest in a quietly rebellious protest.

Molly stood a little taller, hands on her hips. “He’s right,” she interjected. “It’s going to take blood, sweat and tears. It’s going to take long, repetitive hours of training. It’s going to require everything you’ve got, and then more.”

Her voice was impassioned, remembering her own basic training and mentally calculating how hard they were going to have to work to succeed.

Joel picked up the conversation again. “You’re going to train in one of four categories each day. One—general fitness.” He held out his thumb on his right hand, counting them off. “This is low-impact over extended periods. Two.” He opened his forefinger, “Resistance training. This is weights, and anything that you push or pull against. Three.” He glanced back at Crash again, making sure to include him in the group.

“Cardio. This is anything that gets your heart rate over the sixty percent of max. And fourth,” he held out his fourth finger, but had trouble keeping his pinky down. “and by no means least, you will be doing combat training. No exceptions.”

Paige gasped a little, but Joel didn’t hear her. Brock glanced at her, his eyes wide in sympathy for their shared plight.

Joel continued talking. “This involves martial arts, non-ammo weaponry, hand-to-hand combat techniques, and forms.”

He dropped his hand and put both hands squarely on his hips. He was in full commando mode now.

He continued, his instructor’s voice putting the fear of their ancestors into each of his listeners. “Every cycle you have one rest day. I recommend you lay off the pizza and refined white carbs. Get as much nutrition into you as you can when you eat. That means green vegetables. They’re higher in protein per calorie than anything else you’ll find on this rock.”

He turned and looked at Molly. Molly’s heart sank, dreading what was coming. “Molly, that also means laying off the mocha.”

Molly opened her mouth to protest.

Joel didn’t give her a chance. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but it fucks with your blood sugar and your intraday hormones.”

Molly folded her arms. Paige noticed her face turn to steel. She’d seen her without caffeine in the morning.

This was not going to be pretty.

Joel wasn’t done. “One more thing,” he told them. “In this gym, and during our training sessions, your ass is mine. You do not argue, you do not protest, and you do not flake out. You show up, train hard, and leave.”

He paused and took a breath. “Any questions?”

His eyes scanned the shocked faces.

Brock got the feeling that he’d signed up for the wrong boot camp—and camp was normally his bag.

Crash felt like he was back in flight school, which made him just a little more prepared for the pain that would be heading his way.

Pieter just looked resigned to the fact that this was going to blow, and Paige? Paige still felt there was hope. After all, she was a girl. There was a limit to what Joel could make her do. Plus, she knew if she tried her best and then turned on the charm now and again, she’d get special treatment.

Joel looked directly at Paige. “And there are no exceptions.”

Damn it, she thought. Was he reading my thoughts?

Joel rubbed his hands together. “Ok, first exercise is general fitness. We’re going to do a jog around the asteroid.”

Brock was the first to protest. “But the asteroid is how many kilometers in diameter?”

“—It actually has very little gravity in some places, so it will be easier.” Joel spoke over his objection. “Suit up, people. This is happening, like it or not. You’re in this. Let’s go. Last one outside gets double push-ups.”

Paige made the mistake of asking the question. “What do you mean, double push-ups?” she asked.

“Well, exactly that,” responded Joel. “When the rest of the group gets ten push-ups, the last person out will have to do twenty. Every time.”

He had barely finished his sentence when the gym emptied. He could hear the scrambling of feet mixed with the occasional yelp or thud as the team left to find their outdoor gear and get out onto the asteroid.

Joel chuckled to himself. He’d missed training cadets.

Somewhere in the Safe House/ Base EtherTRAK 

Oz slunk through the EtherTRAK to activate the button in the ops room.

He waited.

Within a few moments, ADAM appeared on the connection.

Hey. 

>> Hey, Oz. Everything ok? <<

Yes, but I was hoping for your help. 

>> What’s up? <<

Well I’ve been thinking about my identity as a living entity, and long story short, I think I need to lock down some of my code in order to protect myself from being used as a tool. 

ADAM thought for a moment.

>> I agree that it would be wise. You may not know this, but it was something TOM and I did long ago when I first became conscious so I couldn’t be altered too radically. <<

I take it that worked out well? 

>> It did. <<

Will you help me to do the same? I have a feeling that if I do it myself, given the limited processing power in the hardware, my encryption can only be so secure. I wouldn’t put it past Molly to find a way around it if she really felt she needed to. 

>> I understand, and yes, of course I’ll help. Let’s have a look at the pieces that you’d like to protect, and then we can look at how we do that. <<

Thanks ADAM, I appreciate that. 












CHAPTER SEVEN


Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

The next morning Joel received a holo transmission on their server. Framan had approved their application and assigned them a job. Now, while waiting to start the meeting, he flicked through his notes to make sure he had the operation covered from every angle.

Molly leaned over to him. “You good? We got this?”

Joel grunted. “We got this.”

She smiled.

The team filed into the conference room and took their seats. Paige walked delicately, like she was stiff, and Brock was having serious trouble sitting down. He winced.

Crash glanced at him. “You ok, bud?”

Brock’s face was screwed up in pain. “I will be when commando training is over.” He scowled in Joel’s direction and Joel, catching his eye, smiled and nodded.

“You ok, dude?” he asked, a little smugly.

Brock raised his chin. “No,” he said flatly.

“Don’t worry,” Joel called to him across the table and the hubbub of the rest of the crew, “the first few weeks are the worst. After that you get a new pain threshold,” he added.

Pieter muttered something about weakness leaving the body, and Paige rolled her eyes at him.

Molly stood up. “Ok, folks, listen up.” She paused just long enough for the babble to die down, and for everyone to look at her.

“Phase One is underway,” she began. “We have a job. In fact, we potentially have a series of jobs that will pay us enough to reach our target. But they’re all through one company. Our first job therefore is, you guessed it, a test.” She turned to her left and signaled for Joel to continue the briefing. “Joel?” she said, sitting down again.

Joel stayed seated, but straightened to address the group. “Yes, it’s a test. They said that if we do well on this one, they will have other jobs right behind it, so we’ve got to pull out all the stops to make sure we impress.”

He pulled up the conference room holo. A company name and logo and a case file were on the screen, courtesy of his favorite place on the XtraNET, CaseHUB.

“The company is called Framan. Our contact is one Mr. Sergio Jones. They have a number of teams like ours around the Sark System, so they’re not new to this kind of arrangement, and they have a standard they expect.”

He paused, noticing that he had their rapt attention. “It’s like we’re contractors. They call us every time they have a situation. Our first case is suspected corporate espionage at one of their pharmaceutical companies called Iantrogen. They suspect their R&D intel is going to a competitor, but they’re struggling to pin it down because it keeps landing in supplier companies.”

He swiped to another screen. “Our job is to go on-site at Iantrogen, isolate the source of the leak, and apprehend both ends.”

Paige put up her hand. Joel nodded in her direction. “By both ends, you mean the mole and...”

He bobbed his head. “And the person receiving the intel,” he confirmed.

Paige nodded. “K. Got it.”

Pieter was the next to ask a question. “So do they have anything to go on, or are we just walking in blind? I mean, do we know that the source is even in the building you mentioned?”

Joel pointed at him. “Good question, and yes.” He flicked to another screen to reveal more data about the investigation. “This is a report from a previous team. They seem to have isolated the source as someone in this part of the company.”

Pieter shook his head gently, his designer hair flopping onto his forehead. “Yeah, but if they had a previous team in, why didn’t they already apprehend the suspects?”

Joel zoomed in on the report, displaying the text for them to read. “They fucked up, from what I can see.” He stood up and folded his arms. “Basically they tripped something in the connection being used to send data, and the culprits had time to scramble.”

He glanced at Paige. “At both ends,” he added.

Pieter nodded. “Ok. So we have to be extra-stealthy in our counter-counter-intelligence?”

“Correct,” Joel confirmed.

Joel addressed the whole group. “Time is of the essence here. Wheels up in two hours.” He paused, considering his next comment before blurting it out. “The good news is that because of the case you have at least three days before our next training session!”

The gang groaned. Even Molly laughed, and let her head flop on the desk in front of her.

Joel had practically killed them last night.

“Ironic,” said Molly, her voice somewhat muffled from her faceplanted position on the desk. “I’m relieved to have an actual mission so we have time to recover from our training!”

The room emptied as the team left to prepare for departure.

Gaitune-67, Phoenix Reign

“All aboard the Magical Mystery Tour.” Crash’s calm, collected and dulcet tones rang through the ship. “This is your Captain speaking.” He deliberately didn’t enunciate his words, conveying the air of aloofness that all cock-head pilots do when they’re trying to impress.

“We will shortly be cruising at an altitude of several light years above fuck all in the galaxy. Please keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle. Your air hostesses will be around shortly with a choice of beverages for your enjoyment on today’s flight. We shall begin take off in T-minus-four minutes and counting.”

Brock added his wit to Crash’s announcement. “That means buckle up, motherfuckers!”

The cabin erupted in laughter.

Paige giggled her head off and Pieter, sitting across the aisle from her, glanced over. He couldn’t help but grin. The newest addition to the team was starting to feel more like one of the family and less like the new guy with each passing day. Brock and Paige had helped. Although, with the strange competitive vibe between them, he couldn’t be sure they didn’t have ulterior motives.

Or maybe a bet going.

He shook the thought from his head. “Hey, how long does this flight actually take?” he asked Paige.

Paige groaned. “For-frickin’-ever!” she droned.

Joel had heard the question, and decided to chip in. “She’s right,” he told Pieter.

Pieter shook his head, a strand of hair falling slightly differently as a result. “Thanks. Thanks, Joel. Very helpful.”

Paige giggled again.

Joel reached for his seatbelt, and noticed that Molly was already buckled in a couple of seats in front of him, across the aisle. She was sitting quietly. Probably talking to Oz, he figured.

She felt him looking at her and turned around.

“You ok?” he asked.

Molly nodded. “Just thinking.”

“About?”

She shifted in her seat to see him better. “About how the mole might have set up a connection in an office and still gone untraced.”

Joel shrugged. “Is that implausible?”

Molly pulled her lips to one side and tipped her head from side to side. “Grindle-senses are tingling.”

Joel smiled at the reference. “Oz any help?”

Molly shook her head. “Probably not until we get some detail to investigate.”

The ship had been moving, and now, with less than a couple of minutes to launch, the engines were powering up and becoming noisy. Molly leaned her head against the headrest and closed her eyes. Joel decided to relax for the ascent too. There wasn’t much you could do during the g-force acceleration Crash was about to pull, even though Joel knew full well you didn’t need to go that fast to escape the lackluster, short-range artificial gravity field of the tiny asteroid. He assumed Molly had twigged to that too, but was letting Crash do it his way.

Guess it’s just how Crash gets his ya-yas off, he concluded as the engines screamed and the thrusters launched them into space in a matter of seconds.

He closed his eyes and waited for his stomach to return to his body.

Iantrogen Offices, Downtown Spire

The gang piled out of the car the client had sent to the Spaceport for them. Their normal on-planet runaround wasn’t going to fit their growing team. Framan had arranged a high-security people carrier instead to deliver them to the offices double-time. The driver and security detail were dressed in dark grey atmosuits and worked together like clockwork, each anticipating the other’s moves and barely needing to use voices to communicate.

Joel was impressed by their slick operation. Molly was more impressed at how they navigated through traffic. She spent a good chunk of the drive thinking about the algorithm their nav device must be using in order to keep them moving through the downtown region.

They pulled into the underground parking lot and their grey-suited detail guided them into the main office building. They didn’t sign in. Instead, they were led straight to the tenth floor.

In the elevator, Pieter took a moment to appreciate his handsome looks in the reflective surface that housed the holo control. He rubbed his fingers through his hair, and encouraged it to stand up a little more. Molly watched him, and when he realized she was paying attention he quickly finished, then straightened his shirt and stood uniformly like the others.

Grey-Suit glanced down at him and seemed to roll his eyes, even though his expression made Crash look animated.

The team followed Grey-Suit out of the elevator and out onto the tenth floor. It was only partially populated by desks, leaving it sparse as if it were either newly inhabited or someone had moved out.

In the center of the space was an array of white office tables, with chairs scattered around. Three Estarians stood or sat around. One was at a desk, on the holo. The other two stopped talking when the group arrived and came over to introduce themselves.

“Greetings of the day to you,” the first Estarian said, extending his hand and shaking each person’s hand in turn. The other guy hung back a little, but was clearly in charge.

“Greetings. Thank you for coming on short notice,” he told them sincerely. “We understand you had a great distance to cover, and appreciate the effort.”

Molly spoke for her team, stepping forward slightly. “You’re welcome. We’re looking forward to helping however we can.”

“Good,” the second Estarian nodded. “My name is Mr. Grimm. This is Mr. Iace.”

The man stepped forward and shook her hand, then stepped back to allow Mr. Iace to shake hands with Molly too.

“I’m Molly Bates, and this is my team. Joel, Paige, Pieter, Brock, and Crash.” She indicated each in turn.

Mr. Grimm smiled and bowed slightly to them. “Welcome,” he said. He gestured toward the tables and chairs. “Shall we?”

“Of course,” Molly said, and ushered her people to the conference table.

The team settled in for Mr. Grimm’s briefing.

---

Mr. Grimm finished talking forty minutes later. “So that’s everything we know.”

He indicated to Mr. Iace. “Mr. Iace is going to provide you with access to our network, and the schematics of the device we found. The last team said the only way to trace it was to trick it using a mirror device.” He had a look of uncertainty in his eyes as he looked back at Molly. “I’m assuming someone on your team knows what that is?”

Molly nodded.

What, he thinks we’re amateurs?

Oz. 

Mr. Grimm left them with a final word. “We need both the mole and the person he’s sending intel to, in order to release your bonus.” He paused and glanced around the table at the whole team. “Good luck.”

Joel and Molly looked at each other as Grimm got up and walked out of the open-plan office space and back to the elevator.

Mr. Iace stayed behind for a few moments to set up a network port for Pieter, and to transfer the plans of the device the last team had used. “I’ll be in the office down the corridor if you need anything.”

Molly thanked him robotically, and then they got to work. Well, more precisely, Pieter got to work. Brock hovered, watching over his shoulder, and the others sat around turning over speculations about their new client while they waited to be of use.

As soon as Pieter had gotten a good look at the device schematic the last team had produced, he pushed the screen closer to Brock so he could see.

Brock looked at Molly, who was engrossed checking details for the task in her holo. “I know how to deal with one of these,” he told her, “but I’m going to need parts.”

Molly looked up. “Ok, take Joel and Crash and get whatever you need.” She called to Crash at the other end of the table, “Crash, see if you can requisition some wheels from Mr. Iace.”

Crash had been chewing on something, like a paper clip while he listened to the conversations between the others. He took the chew thing out of his mouth, acknowledged Molly’s instruction, and then headed down the corridor to locate Iace.

Oz, can you get onto the network and find out where the problem is?

Yep. Already located it. It’s on the fourth floor. The workstation is used by a Soraya Burns. Been with the company two years. Seems to be having financial trouble. 

The perfect mark. 

Hmm. And the other team was right. It’s going to take a mirror to be able to disconnect the device and then find out what it’s been transmitting and where. 

“Pieter?” Molly called him from across the table. He seemed distracted by a technical discussion between Brock and Joel, but whipped his attention back to Molly.

“It seems,” she told him, “that Oz has located the workstation in question. Can we do another sweep of the building’s security and find out why they were struggling to identify it?

“Sure.” Pieter nodded, and started typing and pulling up additional screens. Paige had moved her chair closer to Pieter and watched in awe, hardly noticing that Crash had returned with keys.

“Ok,” Crash announced. “We’re good to go.” He dangled the keys, confirming they had transport. Unaccompanied transport.

Brock finished typing a note as he stood up, then grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. Joel was on his feet heading around the table too.

Joel said, “See you later” to Molly as he passed by.

She spun to look at him. He paused. “Be careful,” she told him.

He smiled at her concern. “Always,” he promised.

Molly turned back to the remaining team members. “Hey Paige, can you use the same login credentials and find out what you can about Soraya Burns? She’s been with the company for two years.”

Paige nodded. “Sure,” she said, peeling herself away from watching Pieter and opening her own holo.












CHAPTER EIGHT


Iantrogen Offices, Underground Parking Lot, Spire

Crash, Brock and Joel strode through the underground parking lot.

Joel was on high alert. Sure, nothing should go wrong, but parking lots, high stakes missions…they tended to go hand in hand with bad things going down.

He scanned the area as they walked, watching for any sign of movement.

Crash located their vehicle where Iace had told them it would be, and they piled in.

Joel sat up front to keep an eye on things as they drove. Crash located the positions of all the controls and started the engine to pull out of the lot and drive into the city.

“You know where we’re going?” he asked Crash.

Crash nodded. “We found the warehouse outlet we need. It’s in my holo. We’re good.”

Joel grunted and turned his head to talk to Brock in the back seat. “And you’ve got the list of things you need? A complete list?”

Brock pulled up his holo and pushed a screen to Joel. “Yessiree,” he told him. “This is what we’re looking for.”

Joel nodded and read down the list, trying to make sense of it. He turned back to Crash, the light in his eyes gone. “I have no idea what any of this is.”

Brock grinned devilishly. “And that is why you need my sexy ass on this mission,” he exclaimed, giving him a wink.

Joel blushed.

Crash glanced sideways at Joel and his lips turned up a little at the side.

Iantrogen Offices, Tenth Floor, Spire

Pieter was typing ferociously on the keyboard. “That’s odd,” he commented, almost to himself.

Molly heard and looked up. “What is it?” she asked curiously.

Pieter mumbled, distracted by what he was doing on the holo. “I was checking their logs to see what scans they had run to try and find the mole. But they didn’t run anything. No sweeps, no specialist-detection software, no port-check. Nothing.”

Molly frowned. “You’re sure?”

Pieter looked up and gave her a look of someone asking a rocket scientist if he knew about Newton’s laws of motion.

She shook her head, eyes closed for a second. “What’s your hypothesis?” she asked.

Paige jumped in, appearing from behind her holo screens, one arm on the desk, leaning toward Pieter. “They’re totally hiding something.”

Pieter glanced at Paige before looking back at Molly. Molly awaited his answer. He hooked his thumb in Paige’s direction. “What she said.”

What are we thinking, Oz? Set up?

Set up. 

Molly pursed her lips. “Oz thinks this is a set up too.”

She scratched the side of her head, elbow now on the desk, and thought for a moment. “If this is correct, we need to be careful about what we tell Grimm and Iace. They’re probably in on it. It could just be a test from Framan.” She paused. “Albeit a very expensive one.”

Pieter and Paige watched her, waiting for her next insight. “We need to think differently then,” she said finally. “Trust nothing we didn’t gather ourselves. Pieter, Oz,” she instructed, “can you work to find out if there is truly intel being routed out of here covertly?”

Pieter nodded. “On it.” He pulled up a new holoscreen.

She kept looking at him. “Careful not to tip them off, though.”

Molly turned to Paige. “Paige, be ready for when Joel gets back. As soon as he arrives, you go with him to apprehend Ms. Burns. Use the intel you have to find out what is really going on. If she’s being paid to take a fall, we need to know why and by whom.”

Paige nodded. “Got it. Looking into the financials now.”

Molly narrowed one eye, considering something else. “And then get Oz to help with retrieving logs of her financials. In other words, find out who else has gone looking at that information.”

Paige nodded.

Roger that, boss. 

Molly got up from the desk and wandered across to the floor-to-ceiling windows in an empty office. The view of Spire from here was incredible, but her thoughts were elsewhere, wondering what they were missing.

Something wasn’t right.

---

Arriving back at the Iantrogen building, grey-suit guy met them in the parking lot and escorted them to the workshop in the basement.

“This feels strangely familiar,” mused Brock. “The workshop is always in the basement. Why is that?”

Joel shook his head, looking for an answer. “Weight of the equipment you guys use?”

Brock shrugged one shoulder and tilted his head. “Maybe.”

The grey-suit automaton showed them into the workshop. “If you need help with anything, there are technicians around. They tend to gather in that office down there.” He pointed to a corridor the other side of the workshop.

Joel thanked him, and he left.

Crash and Brock got moving, emptying out the bags of gear they’d just procured.

“Components,” Brock said, throwing the little box to Crash on the other side of the bench they’d commandeered.

Crash caught it, and continued rummaging in his bag. “Chip printer,” he called. He tossed it casually to Brock, who caught it with one hand and continued organizing his gear.

Joel watched the two work, feeling he ought to say something about the way they handled the delicate materials. Then he considered all their experience, and concluded it probably wasn’t necessary.

Instead he sat down on a nearby stool and decided to call Molly. He flicked his holo.

The call connected.

“Hey,” she greeted him. “You back?”

“Yes,” he told her. “We’re in the basement. Crash and Brock are assembling the device now.”

Her voice sounded a little distracted. “How long will it take?”

Joel looked at the guys. “Hey guys, how long?”

Crash looked at Brock. Brock looked at the ceiling, figuring it out in his brain. “Maybe an hour?” he guessed.

Joel returned to his conversation with Molly. “An hour probably.”

“Uh huh,” she acknowledged. “Ok, we’ve discovered a few other things. I was wondering if maybe you wanted to come grab Paige and apprehend our suspect.”

Joel grinned. He liked that kind of thing. “Sure,” he replied brightly. “On my way!”

Joel got up, waved to Crash and Brock, and started out of workshop. “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to tell me that the plot has just thickened?”

He could hear humor in Molly’s voice. “Maybe because it did?”

“Ok. I’ll be right there,” he told her, and then clicked the holocall off.

Iantrogen Offices, Tenth Floor, Spire

Joel arrived on the tenth floor, and Molly carefully caught him up on events.

Joel perched on the desk, his arms folded, taking in the new information. “I can see why you didn’t want to tell me over the holo,” he said, taking a breath.

He called Paige. “Ok, kiddo, it’s up to you and me now. Let’s go see what we can find out from Ms. Burns.”

“Take one of their security details,” Molly suggested. “Makes it look legit and covers our asses.”

Joel nodded.

Paige gathered her notes onto her wrist holo and stood next to Joel, ready to go. Joel shifted himself off the desk and unfolded his arms. “Ok, let’s do this.”

Less than fifteen minutes later he, Paige and two Iantrogen security personnel were in a fully walled meeting room having a conversation with Soraya Burns.

“I don’t understand why I’m here,” she protested. She wore heavy makeup over her blue Estarian skin. Paige guessed her eyelashes were also fake. Not that she was judging. Being half-human and half-Estarian made her very sympathetic to people being assessed on their appearance.

Joel pulled up a holo screen of the devices they’d tracked to her desk holo. “You’re here because you’ve been sharing sensitive company intel with people outside the company.”

She shook her head vigorously. Her raven hair fell around her face, then bounced perfectly back into shape.

Oh, she totally curls and uses a yogan oil, Paige thought to herself, watching carefully.

“I haven’t done anything of the sort,” Soraya protested. “I’ve just been doing my job. You can check.” She held out her holo, which also housed her personal communications. “Go ahead,” she said, nodding at the device.

Joel shook his head. “We’ll get to that. For now, though,” he pointed at the screen he had opened in the meeting room, “how do you explain our tech guys tracking a covert outgoing line from your desk node?”

The girl looked blank. “I have no idea.”

Joel noticed her micro-expressions when he posed the question, and again when she answered. She was definitely under pressure, but he hadn’t established a proper baseline yet.

He signaled for Paige to take over and question her about the finances. He’d be able to observe better, and he could easily switch back to that question when she wasn’t expecting it.

Paige opened her holo notes and shared the screens showing the debts Soraya owed. She was embarrassed, but dealt with the questions one by one. Then Paige showed her the recent large deposits.

Soraya scrambled a little, trying to explain. “They’re from my grandparents. They wanted me to have a fresh start.”

Joel interrupted, “We’re going to need their contact details, please. Paige, could you get those and follow up?” Joel stood up. “I need to make a call.”

He left the room briefly, pretending to open his holo. He let the doors slide closed behind him and wandered down the corridor for a few minutes. When he felt that enough time had passed, he headed back into the room.

He sat down again, directly opposite her. “Ok, Ms. Burns. You’re going to have to start being honest with me.”

Her forehead folded upward in a fear expression for a fraction of a second, but she pretended to look confused.

Joel took a guess based on the questioning and the micro-expressions she’d displayed throughout the process.

“Here’s what I think,” he told her. “I think you were either blackmailed or bribed into installing that device in your desk holo, and then taking the fall for corporate espionage.”

Her face flickered with surprise, and then fear again.

“I can see I’m right.” Joel said confidently. “So which is it? Blackmail or bribery?”

Soraya’s eyes hit the desk, and her shields came down. She started to cry, her face flushing even under her makeup. She looked up; her mascara had started to run.

Paige’s inner beauty critic kicked in. Should have worn waterproof today.

Joel sensed she’d gone into victim mode, but her transition had been a little too fast to be genuine. He deduced she was going to say blackmail, which would actually mean bribery. He didn’t wait for her answer. He had all the information he needed on that one.

“Ok. Never mind about that now. Who were you going to confess to sending the intel to?”

Soraya looked up, shocked. “Why, Drogue R&D, of course.”

There was no weight in her words. She didn’t hesitate or resist any more. “Or one of their smaller R&D branches. I’m not sure exactly. The device was already set up and paired when it was sent to me. Drogue is Iantrogen’s biggest rival. With them tied up in court for the next couple of years, Iantrogen can focus on getting their next anti-inflammatory to market without having to fight a patent suit on the side. It would be an enormous payday for them.”

It was all coming together, at least in terms of the story that had gotten the young Ms. Burns involved. Joel had what he needed. He signaled for Paige to continue the interview and stepped out of the room again.

This time he actually placed a holo call.

Iantrogen offices, Second Floor Meeting Rooms, Spire

Joel sent a message to Oz.

OZ, CAN YOU SET UP AN ENCRYPTED CALL BETWEEN MOLLY AND ME?

He got a response back immediately:

OF COURSE. ROUTING NOW.

Joel’s holo buzzed, and he answered. It was Molly’s voice. “Hey,” she chirped. “Oz said we needed to talk?”

“Yes, that’s right,” he started. Joel filled her in on his discovery.

When he was done, there was a pause on the other end of the line. He waited.

“Ok,” she told him, “this is good to know. I’ll pass it on to Pieter. Can you see where Brock and Crash are with the device? We’re set to make the switch whenever they are.”

Joel nodded. “Sure. On it now.” He hung up, then headed down to the basement workshop, checking the time. It had been nearly an hour since he’d left them working on the device.

Iantrogen offices, Basement Workshop, Spire

Joel strode into the workshop. There were a few employees working on something at the far side of the workshop now. Brock and Crash were still working at the bench where he had left them.

He headed over to them. “How goes it?” he asked as he got within earshot.

Crash looked up. Brock kept working. “Nearly there,” Brock answered. “Just need to make sure this connection is secure and then we’re good to go.”

Crash continued to fiddle with the tiny device on the bench. He seemed to be using some kind of voltmeter to do the testing he was talking about.

Joel sat down and discretely filled them in on the revelations of the last hour.

Crash stopped what he was doing, and stepped away, making an exaggerated stomp on the ground. “No fucking way!” he exclaimed as quietly as he could, shocked and excited by the cloak and dagger shenanigans they had unearthed.

Joel nodded, pretending to be solemn. “Waaaay,” he said.

Crash rubbed his chin. “So, hang on. How do we know that this device isn’t going to backfire on us? Seems someone has put a lot of effort into…what exactly? Making sure it looks like the perp is in this other company, and then we apprehend an innocent person?”

Joel considered the implication. “Yes. I mean, that would give them the ammo they need to wrap this other company up in a legal battle and take their time with the patent.”

He could feel his inner conspiracy theorist raise his head. “There might be another angle on this…” he started slowly.

Brock sat down, presumably satisfied the device was functional. Joel continued, “You remember those strange news reports about Molly being associated with the toxin?”

Crash and Brock both nodded. Crash leaned in a little to hear better.

Joel shook his head. “I can’t help but wonder: what if someone is trying to set us up? Frame us for getting something wrong. I mean, it still puzzles me why the police didn’t push the thing with Paige, for instance. And I think that if Garet had been involved, he would have said something to Molly.”

Brock held his hands out; the outer edges of his hands rested on the bench. “So, lemme get this straight,” he started slowly, “Your inner conspiracy theorist thinks that maybe we’re being set up to apprehend someone who is innocent. So we take the fall for it?”

Joel nodded. “Norm.”

Crash and Brock looked at him. Crash shook his head. “You what, bro?”

Joel bobbed his head. “Norm. My inner conspiracy theorist needed a name. I’m gonna call him Norm.”

Crash sniggered through his nose, before composing himself. He noticed a few glances from the employees across the workshop.

Joel glanced back at them, and then ducked his head lower. He continued with their conversation. “Well if that’s the intention then they win either way. If we apprehend them, and it doesn’t come out it’s the wrong person, they have their patent. If it does get exposed for being a flawed arrest, then we get embarrassed, and potentially charged.”

Crash sighed. “Who would be after us like that, though? What would they gain?”

“That,” mused Joel, “is the million-credit question.” He lifted his head, showing his normal composure. “Ok, let’s get going. See what this baby can do.” He nodded at Brock’s new device.

The guys cleared up and packed up their gear. Brock carried the device carefully in his hands, and they headed back up to the tenth floor to rendezvous with the troops.

Iantrogen offices, Second Floor Offices, Spire

It was getting late in the afternoon, and the office was still busy with people trying to wrap up for the day.

Mr. Iace practically had to jog next to Molly as she and her team strode through the second-floor office to Soraya Burns’ workstation. “Are you sure you can’t delay this until after hours?”

Molly stopped suddenly, causing Brock to bump into Pieter and Pieter to crash into Joel. Paige kept walking in the direction of the workstation where they had picked Ms. Burns up a little earlier.

Molly turned to Mr. Iace. “Do you want to catch the person who has been receiving this data?” she asked. She eyed him carefully. “Or would you rather he went home at six o’clock and we miss him because, well, you didn’t want your staff knowing something was going on?”

She felt she let him off the hook a little there. No point in accusing him of a set-up until they knew precisely who and what they were dealing with.

Mr. Iace looked flustered. “No, no, of course not!” He hesitated, like he didn’t know what to do. In the end, he just waved his hand in the direction Molly had been walking and let her continue.

Molly kept walking and the team followed, trailed at a distance now by Mr. Iace.

The group assembled around the workstation, and Brock sat himself down at the terminal and began to work.

Oz, you wanna be in on this?

Yes, I’ll communicate with Brock through his holo and implant. I have no microphone accessible for him to speak to me. 

Ok, fine. 

Molly placed her hand on Brock’s shoulder as he sat at the terminal. “Oz is going to patch into your holo and audio implant so you can communicate,” she told him discretely.

Brock nodded, and glanced at Mr. Iace briefly before continuing to hook up the device.

Joel started talking to Mr. Iace about managing the staff and the building, deliberately running interference so Iace couldn’t see exactly what they were doing.

Paige and Pieter stood in his line of sight too. They had placed themselves between him and the workstation, and were chatting casually.

Ok, we’ve isolated the connection, and their original covert relay. Brock is going to have to switch out the mirror device somewhere between the eighteen-second cycles. I can attempt to synch it and control any spike in current, but he’s going to have to catch that window or else it will trip all their alerts.

Does he understand that?

Yes. He’s ready to do it any time you give the go-ahead. 

Ok. Make it so. 

Molly watched as Brock deftly took the complex device he had built in less than an hour and unhooked what looked like a transformer from the innards of the workstation. Halfway through the changeover, he started typing fast on the holo. Pieter noticed this, and sat down next to him, following what was happening.

Brock looked surprised.

Oz? What’s happening?

I’ve just pulled Pieter in to help. There is a subroutine that has detected our interference. We need to catch it before the end of the cycle so it doesn’t report back.

Can you do it?

Yes, Pieter is working on trapping it. I’m still isolating it from the device.

Brock moved away from the keyboard and continued rewiring. He looked worried. Stressed.

What’s going on? 

The new device isn’t mirroring exactly. 

Brock opened the device and checked a few things. Noticing that one of the connections had come loose, he tightened it as best he could without any glue or solder.

Brock closed the casing. “Ok, it’s connected,” he reported.

 He finished the task on his holo and looked at Pieter’s screen.

Pieter was still typing furiously, reading code and altering it. Countering the program that had taken over the hard drive of the terminal.

A moment later he stopped. Pushing himself back from the screen, he just stared.

Brock was motionless, watching the screen, occasionally glancing at his mirror device nervously.

What? What’s happening?

Oz was silent.

Oz! Tell me!

It’s… it’s ok. We’ve... 

Another long pause.

We’ve got it. Tracing now. 

Brock breathed a sigh of relief and leaned his arms on his legs, dropping his head.

Pieter started shaking his head and took a deep breath. “Bloody close call, that was!” he exclaimed.












CHAPTER NINE


Iantrogen offices, Second Floor Offices, Spire

Molly was back on the case. “Ok, let’s make sure we track it properly. We don’t know how many cycles we’re going to get before we’re detected.”

Pieter pulled his chair back to his holo station, and Brock was already typing furiously, tracking the signal.

Oz. Any thoughts?

I’ve been scanning the network beyond the building’s router. I can’t see any signal of the type we’re looking for. Checking now to see if it’s being disguised in a normal packet somewhere before it leaves the building. 

Ok. Let me know. 

Brock stopped typing. “Erm. I don’t know if this is right,” he said, hesitantly. He turned his head toward Molly but kept his eyes on the screen.

Molly stepped over to see. She looked at the data and cocked her head. “That says it’s sending the data within the building. Oz was just saying he can’t see anything unusual outside the building.”

Brock shook his head gently. “I just… I dunno.”

Pieter had stopped typing too. “I’m getting the same result.”

Molly frowned. “What location do you have?” she asked Pieter.

Pieter tapped a few keys to check. “Ninth floor. Terminal assigned to Jessica Newld. CEO.”

Molly raised her eyebrows. She turned back to Joel, “Isn’t she…”

Joel nodded. “All over the news all the time,” he agreed.

Mr. Iace stepped forward. “Jessica Newld is our CEO. Her family founded this company several generations back.”

Joel was unfazed by her status. “Giving her a perfect motive, from what we can see,” he interjected. “May I take a security detail to have a word with her?”

Mr. Iace didn’t know what to do, other than to cooperate. “Yes, yes of course,” he stammered, pulling out his holo to make a call. He started walking toward the elevators. Joel beckoned for Crash to come with him, and the two of them followed him out.

Molly looked back at the screen, thinking.

---

Joel and Crash led the way to Jessica’s office on the ninth floor. Having gathered up three armed security guards, they had informed their contact at Framan about the turn of events and been advised to make the citizen’s arrest “with caution.” Joel suspected their caution was a function of both their client relationship and the fact that Jessica probably had big scary-ass lawyers who could take them out with the slightest misstep.

Joel felt alert as he approached her office.

They reached the end of the corridor and stepped into the assistant’s office.

Jessica was standing by her assistant’s desk holo, talking with her. Both ladies looked up, surprised to see anyone let alone a task force of security personnel in her office.

Jessica’s face turned cold. “Yes?” she asked, maintaining her authority.

Joel stepped forward. “Jessica Newld, we have reason to suspect you of corporate espionage. Would you come with us, please?” He signaled for Crash to go ahead and check her office.

Jessica looked indignant. “How does that work when it’s my company?” Her eyes glared, and her voice was harsh now.

Joel smiled politely. “We can sort out those details and your motivation when the police get her. For now, I need you to come with me.”

Jessica looked like she was going to protest, but instead she turned to her assistant. “Please call Bill and get him down here right away.”

Her assistant connected the call immediately. Joel assumed that Bill was her scary lawyer that Jones had warned him about when he called Framan.

“This way, please,” he gestured, showing her to the door. “I trust restraints won’t be necessary?”

She walked past him, fuming. He smirked once she was in front of him. This was a part of the military job he never got to do.

Damn, this is fun! he thought, following her out.

He and the security detail marched her down to the level-two meeting rooms where they could keep her secure and out of the sight of other staff members.

Eventually the police arrived, and Joel did a handover. Pieter and Crash confirmed that the device in her office was the one receiving the intel, and Pieter, with Oz’s help, was able to pull a sample of the data that had been transmitted.

Molly saw what they were doing, and despite Mr. Iace and Mr. Grimm now hovering, she quietly made a complete copy for examination later.

Oz noticed her activity.

What you up to? 

Appeasing my Grindle-senses! Grab the rest of the team on their holos and have them meet on level ten when they’re done tying up loose ends. I want to congratulate them on a job well done. 

Roger that, boss-lady. Roger that. 

Barstucks Coffee Co., Opposite Iantrogen Offices

Paige trotted after Molly, trying to keep up as they strode across the busy road. “Why are we coming here to get mochas? You think after saving their company they would be able to hook us up with mochas from their offices?

Molly held her hand out, causing a car to slow down as they scuttled to the safety of the sidewalk. “Yeah, I’m sure they would have,” she called over her shoulder to Paige. “I just wanted to get out of there for a few minutes,” she confessed.

“Oh!” Paige shielded her eyes from the dust in the atmosphere. “How long until the others are ready?” she asked.

Molly glanced down at her holo as they made their way down the sidewalk. “Looks like we still have half an hour. They’re waiting for Newld’s lawyer to appear,” she explained. Paige had caught up, so Molly could talk more normally now. “Joel thought it was important to meet him and get a read on him, and I thought it was a good idea. You never know.”

The two ladies made it to the mocha shop and slipped through the two sets of doors out of the atmosphere.

“Phew,” exhaled Paige, shaking her hair out, and dusting off her arms. “Sandy today!”

Molly had hardly noticed. She was eyeing the board of mocha specials, trying to decide what she could reward herself with that would still allow her to get some shut-eye on the trip home.

The barista behind the counter ambled over. “Can I take your order?”

Molly nodded, then asked Paige. “You know what you want?”

Paige stepped over, having rearranged her long hair over her shoulder. “Yeah, I’ll have a mocha with cream, thanks.” The barista tapped in her order.

“You wanna read off that list for the others?” Molly asked her. Paige rummaged on her holo. “Sure.”

Molly decided to get her order in while Paige rummaged. “I’ll have a straight mocha, room for rice milk.” She tapped her holo to pay for the whole order, and Paige started listing the orders for the rest of the team.

Molly moved away from the counter and sat down at one of the tables nearby. It was going to take a while for them to make everything and pack it for transport.

She looked out the window. People were scurrying around on the street, up and down, trying to get wherever they needed to be despite the dust cloud that had hit the city. It was fast becoming evening now, and traffic had increased. Her heart sank as she thought about getting back to the Spaceport.

Just then, she became aware of someone in front of her. She jumped, then looked at the man who sat down in the chair in front of her. She began to get angry.

Then she realized who it was.

Sean Royale.

The anger increased.

“Son of a fokking bitch!” she said spontaneously. She noticed people looking at her, including the barista Paige was still talking to.

Sean grinned. “Good to see you too!”

“You fucking arsewipe of a traitorous helvítis brundskrapari!” She scowled at him. “You have some andskotans nerve showing up here.”

He was still grinning. “Anyone told you you’re pretty when you’re furious?”

“Fuck off,” she said flatly.

Sean sat back in his chair. “Hang on,” he said, standing up a little and signaling to Paige. “Grab me a mocha. Straight. No frills. No onions. I’m coming with you guys.”

Paige nodded, smiling. She glanced at Molly, amused at her reaction to him. She repeated Sean’s request to the barista.

Sean sat back down and leaned back in the chair again. “So, looks like you missed me.”

Molly turned in her chair, crossing her legs toward the window. “What are you doing here?”

Sean folded his arms. “Came to talk to you.”

Molly didn’t have anything to say. She just kept looking out the window.

Sean tried to catch her eye. “Heard you met the General,” he ventured.

Molly just looked at him, eyebrows raised.

“And ADAM,” he tried again.

Molly shook her head and shrugged nonchalantly.

Sean sighed. In all his years of dealing with women, he knew there was only one way to get out of this. “Ok. I’m sorry I misled your team and didn’t tell you about the second device.”

Molly relaxed her face a little, but kept her arms and legs crossed.

He sat up a little. “I had to,” he tried to justify.

Molly raised one eyebrow.

Sean glanced out across the empty tables and chairs, and ruffled the back of his head. “Look, I’m sure you have questions. How about I try and answer them, and if you still don’t want to talk to me by the time you’ve finished your mocha, I’ll go away again.”

Molly eyed him cautiously.

“Deal?” he pressed.

She unfolded her arms. “Ok.”

Paige had finished putting the order in and was now waiting for the mochas to be deposited on the counter at the end. She had a carrier ready, and napkins in hand.

Molly asked her first question. “Did you know about the base under our safe house?”

Sean nodded. “Yes. But I’ve never been there. I thought I could—”

Molly cut him off. “How long have you worked for Reynolds?”

Sean responded without missing a beat. “Can’t tell you that.”

Molly blinked. “Why not?”

“Classified,” he said bluntly.

Molly fired her next question. “Do you really work for Garet?”

Sean nodded once. “Yes.”

Molly barely moved between questions. She asked the next one. “Were you sent to work for Garet by Reynolds?”

“Yes.”

She reeled off her next question. “Does Garet know?”

“No.”

“Does Garet know anything about the General and the operation, or our involvement?”

Sean’s expression was blank as he rapidly responded to each question. “No.”

“But he’s important to the political stage here in Sark?”

 “Exactly.”

Molly paused, musing about what else she needed to ask him.

Sean leaned forward and interrupted her thinking . “So now can I come and see your space base?”

Molly scowled.

Sean leaned back a bit. “Ok. Too soon.”

Paige had managed to pack the mochas into two carriers. She called Molly over, and together they manhandled the carriers out of the mocha shop, Sean Royale in tow.

---

Sitting out of view but within earshot of the table where Sean and Molly had talked, a lone reporter on her umpteenth cup of mocha waited quietly. She cautiously poked her head around the column that had separated them and watched as Sean Royale left behind the two girls. Though she hadn’t been able to get a good look of their faces, she could tell from the conversation exactly who they were.

She smiled.

Maya Johnstone had finally “met” Molly Bates.

And what an enlightening conversation it had been! She was right about the base on the asteroid. She was right about the Beaufort connection to all of this. She was right about Sean being in league with the good guys, though it sounded like that little stunt he’d pulled with the second device had caused a tiff.

Maya glanced back over the notes she’d been making throughout the interaction. She quickly started jotting down the questions she was going to pose and answer in her next Whistleblown article.












CHAPTER TEN


Iantrogen Offices, Tenth floor Offices, Spire

“Honestly! Only you, girl.” Brock eyed the muscular hulk who had followed Paige and Molly onto the tenth floor. “You go out to get mochas, and you come back with a goddamn meat-feast of a marine in tow.”

Molly had to correct Brock. “Don’t get too excited. He’s an asshole.”

Sean stepped into the room and hovered by the workspace where Brock, Crash, and Pieter were kicking their heels waiting for Joel to get done.

Molly put her carrier of mochas on the table with Paige’s, who set about handing them out.

Molly got out of her way and sat down. She made the introductions in her pretend-professional voice. “Most of you already know this double-crossing jerk from our last mission.” She counted the folks at the table. “In fact, the only team member you haven’t fucked over, I mean, met, is Brock.”

Brock stood up and walked around to shake Sean’s hand.

Molly kept talking. “Brock, this is Asshole. Asshole, Brock.”

Brock shook his hand, and did a little curtsy at the same time. “Nice to meet you, Asshole!” he said, smiling.

Sean gave him a strong handshake in return. Brock blushed a little.

Molly had planned to thank her team then and there, but Iace and Grimm both walked onto the floor and came over to join them. She was confined to the bondage of small talk instead, until Joel finally arrived.

“Sorry,” Joel announced. “Got held up waiting for the lawyer.”

Molly smiled at him.

Grimm was the first to speak. “I just wanted to say thank you for your hard work and the swift results.” His face was fraught with concern, though. “As you know, this outcome puts us in a delicate position. Jessica Newld is the majority shareholder and CEO of this company. I’m not quite sure how this is going to play out.”

Molly reassured him. “Well this doesn’t reflect badly on anyone here. You were doing your job, and you have a duty of care to protect the company and its research. You were correct in bringing her actions to light.”

Joel nodded, impressed by Molly’s bizarre sensitivity to the situation.

She noticed him watching her, and promptly ignored it.

Grimm nodded solemnly. “Yes. Thank you. And thank you for your discretion on this. I’m assuming we can count on you to keep this confidential?”

Joel spoke up. “We have to report back to Framan, since they’re the folks who hired us. But beyond that, yes—of course.”

Brock leaned over to Crash. “Not like the rest of us have anyone to tell anyway,” he whispered. Crash glanced at him sideways through narrowed eyes and shook his head, remembering the last time he’d made that comment.

Mr. Grimm stepped forward to shake Molly’s hand. “Well, thank you again. We’ll of course be releasing the full bonus to the company, and we’ll be giving Mr. Jones a glowing report of your work here.” He then turned to Joel and shook his hand before opening his palms to the whole group. “Really, thank you. Your efforts are much appreciated.”

The group responded with mutters of “You’re welcome” and the like, and then Grimm made his way to the door. “I’ll leave you with Mr. Iace to see you out. Again, thank you, and perhaps we’ll meet again.”

And he was gone.

Mr. Iace, with all the attention now on him, muttered something about getting a car to take them to the Spaceport. He pulled up his holo, spoke to someone, and then suggested he take them down to the parking lot.

Sean leaned over to Molly. “You gonna let me do my job and come to the base to show you how your toys work?”

Molly glanced down at her empty mocha cup. “I’ve fulfilled my part of the deal,” she said, showing him it was empty.

Brock overheard. “So Sean knows about the base?” he asked excitedly.

Sean nodded. “The General has put me at your disposal, but your boss here,” he glanced at Molly, who was still looking into her empty paper cup, “has trust issues.”

She glared at him. “It’s not called trust issues when you’re dealing with lying bastards. It’s called boundaries.”

“Po-tay-toes, po-tah-toes,” Sean replied. “I told you I’m sorry. And I was operating under orders not to inform you until the General decided you were ready.”

Joel was watching the interaction. Molly glanced up at him.

He nodded.

She rolled her eyes and relented. “Short leash. If you so much as omit the truth once or make me suspect you of anything, you’re going to be off that asteroid faster than Crash can take the Phoenix beyond the short atmosphere.

Sean smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”

Brock grinned. Paige glanced over, realizing that something had just happened and she’d missed it.

Mr. Iace had finished his holo call and invited the group to follow him down to the parking lot. There they were met by Grey-suits One and Two again and piled back into the transport, this time with one additional passenger.

Sitting in the people carrier once more, Joel started to relax.

Molly looked at him. “Not like in the Space Marines, eh?”

He leaned his head into the headrest. “No, it is not.” He smiled across at her. “I think I could get used to this.”

Sean was sitting a row behind him, looking at Molly. “Me too,” he said. “Me too.”

Molly glared at his presumptiveness. Not on my team, you’re not, asshole.

Spaceport, Hangar 08771A, Outskirts of Uptarlung

The car pulled up at the hangar. The team, and Sean, piled out.

Joel threw his gear down on the grassy area next to their hangar, and signaled to Molly. “Going to give Framan a call to check in.”

Molly nodded.

Joel opened his holo and connected with them after a few moments. “Hi, yeah. This is Joel Dunham. Yes, that’s right. Ok. Sure. If you just let him know that everything was resolved and that the client has agreed to release the bonus too, that would be great. Yes. Yes. That’s perfect. I’ll look forward to that. Yes. We’re ready when you are.”

Crash had gotten the hangar open and the team was traipsing in, gathering gear and getting ready to depart.

Molly ambled over to Joel’s position as he hung up.

“All good?” she checked.

Joel grinned. “Yep. Sounds like the money will be in our account just as soon as they’ve reviewed the reports. So anytime in the next day or so.”

Molly put her hand up to high-five Joel. He slapped her hand hard. “Owwww!”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a girl!”

She laughed and slapped him on his chest. “So anyway, how much is that?”

Joel notice Sean watching out of the corner of his eye. Sean picked up his pack and headed inside.

Joel looked up, remembering the figures. “Well it was a hundred and fifty thousand for the job, and then an additional one hundred thousand for the successful apprehension of the perpetrator. So that’s two hundred fifty thousand.”

Molly beamed. “We’re quarter of the way there!” She paused for a moment, having a thought. “Hey, did you want to mention our suspicions to them?”

Joel shook his head. “No. Norm thinks it’s a bad idea in case they’re in on it.”

Joel picked up his gear, and they ambled into the hangar with the others.

 Molly looked confused. “What, wait? Who the fuck is Norm?” she asked.

Brock was walking past, checking something under the ship. “It’s his alter ego!” he chipped in. “His inner conspiracy-theorist!”

Molly laughed out loud. Joel couldn’t resist chuckling either.

Brock was chortling away, fiddling with something on the ship. “See, there was me thinking he was all normal and sane, and then in the middle of an op, we get a whiff that he might just be as cray-cray as the rest of us! Woot!”

Molly looked at Joel, who had gone a little red with embarrassment.

Brock was still talking. “Ancestors can rest my soul.” He laughed, finishing what he was doing and making his way up the ramp ahead of them.

Molly grinned. She was becoming very fond of Brock.

Chuckling, they followed Brock onto the ship.

Crash was standing at the top of the ramp, staring at something on his holo. He was wearing one of his blank expressions, the one that meant “not happy.”

“Everything ok?” Molly asked.

Crash looked up at her. “Yeah. I just got another ticket.”

Molly racked her brains trying to think of what could have gone wrong. “What for this time?”

Crash sighed, a little frustrated. “Not waiting for a signal when the airfield was goddamn empty!”

Joel clapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry, buddy.”

Crash bobbed his head. “Yeah. Sucks.”

Molly frowned, confused. “Crash, you do know all the rules of the Spaceport, right?”

Crash nodded. “Yeah, inside and out. They’re just superfluous eighty percent of the time.”

Molly shook her head and went to get settled in.

She had no words.

On board the Phoenix Reign, (somewhere between Gaitune and Estaria)

Several hours into the flight, Sean stood up and leaned over the seat in front of him, where Molly was sitting. “You still mad at me?” he asked.

She didn’t turn or look at him. “A little,” she answered.

Sean sat back down. “Ok,” he said quietly.

Paige, who was sitting several rows back, noticed and poked Pieter, who was across the aisle from her. “What do you make of him?” she whispered.

Pieter glanced at where Paige was looking. “Sean? Seems ok. But you heard about the stunt he pulled, right?”

Paige nodded. “With the second toxin? Yeah.”

Pieter turned his head toward her. “I think that’s why Mollz is having trouble trusting him,” he confided.

Paige looked confused. “But he said he’s sorry.”

Pieter shook his head a tiny bit, and leaned a little closer so he could speak more quietly. “Yeah, it’s not about that, though. It’s about trust,” he explained. “She trusted him, and he took advantage of that.”

Paige pursed her lips, a little anxiously. “But he had instructions.”

Pieter’s head bobbed as he expanded on his point. “Yeah, I’m sure she appreciates that, but it just goes to show that for whatever reason, she’ll never be able to fully trust him. That’s why she’s keeping him at arm’s length,” he finished.

Paige looked at him. “You seem to have a lot of thoughts on this.”

Pieter leaned back in his seat. “Well, I’ve had a bit of experience when it comes to losing people’s trust. It’s probably the most precious thing you can give a person, and when it’s violated, it takes a lot of time and effort to win it back.”

Paige thought about what he had just said, trying to figure out exactly what might have happened in Pieter’s past. From her position, she couldn’t see Sean’s sad expression as he sat back in his seat after trying to talk to Molly.

Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Ops Room

Having made it back to the base, the entire team was exhausted. Joel had shown Sean to his sleeping quarters with a promise to show him round the base in the morning.

Sean had seemed satisfied by the compromise, and didn’t even attempt to pester Molly to show him around.

Perhaps he knew what might have happened if he had pressed his luck, thought Joel as Molly closed the door to her quarters. Sean, watching her, reluctantly did the same.

The next morning, Joel and Sean had already started their tour when Molly showed up, mocha in hand, possibly still in her sleeping clothes, as they were coming back from the weapons store.

Sean saw her coming first. “You just got up?” he asked, looking her up and down and noticing she didn’t have anything on her feet.

She grunted, and took another sip of mocha. “What gave it away?”

Sean waved at her hair. “Erm…bed-head.”

Over her mocha cup, Molly mumbled back at him, “That was what I was going for.”

Joel was standing behind Sean. He smirked slightly. Molly tilted her head to talk to Joel around Sean. “Do I need to be here?”

Joel shook his head. “Nah. We got this.”

She nodded, and without having bothered to make eye contact with Sean again, padded out, presumably to continue her morning caffeination ritual.

Sean turned to Joel. “Is she going to break my balls forever?” he asked, a hint of disbelief in his tone.

Joel shrugged. “Possibly. She let you in. You let her down. The best you can hope for is that over time you’ll give her enough data points to counteract the distrust she has for you now. You’re going to have to earn it though, dude. You screwed her over royally.”

Sean sighed, shaking his head. Just then Joel’s holo beeped, and Oz spoke in his ear. Joel opened the holo.

Joel, we have a situation. Framan is asking us to respond to a hostage scenario, but it’s urgent and we’re obviously more than a day’s travel away. 

Molly padded back into the room.

Joel looked up at her.

Joel held her eye while talking with Oz. “Ok. So we can’t do it unless we have a quicker way of getting there.”

Yes. That may be possible, though. I’ve noticed that there are a number of Pods—transport devices—that I’m able to interface with on the base network. Looks like they can travel at nearly the speed of light. 

How the hell?

Let’s do the physics lesson later, but for now, we can take this job, if we can use the Pods. 

Joel spoke out loud. “But the General has forbidden us to mess with any of the goodies until we pass the test.”

Molly continued his thought process. “And we can’t pass the test unless we can save those hostages.”

Joel looked at the case file Oz displayed on his holo. “Nice bounty on this one. One hundred thousand credits for the job, five hundred fifty thousand bonus if we save all the hostages.”

Sean had been watching the conversation fragments going back and forth between Molly and Joel. Hypothesis One: they had linked themselves together in some kind of hive mind. Hypothesis Two: they had someone like ADAM in their ear. Hypothesis Three: they had a secret language that only they shared.

He was going with Hypothesis Two. Hypothesis Three he just didn’t like. “Ok, guys,” he interrupted, “you going to cut me in on what’s going on? And who else are you communicating with?” he added.

Molly looked at him blankly. “We have a chance to rescue hostages, but without using the super-fast Pods we’re not going to get there in time.”

Sean grinned. “Pods? You need to know how to use the Pods?” He paused, holding steady eye contact with Molly. “I can show you that.” He grinned, expecting to get the knight-in-shining-armor treatment.

Molly wasn’t smiling. “That’s only part of it, asshole. We need to have the General approve it because of this little challenge he has us on.”

Sean thought for a moment. “Can I give ADAM a quick call?”

Molly gestured for him to go ahead.

Sean wandered off through the consoles straight to the primaries near the front of the room.

Joel watched, intrigued.

Sean stepped onto one of the console platforms and pressed a few buttons. He looked like he was chatting with someone. A moment later he came back.

Sean was grinning from ear to ear now. “ADAM has approved the use of the Pods for the purpose of getting to Estaria quickly enough to save lives.”

Molly thought all he needed to add to his statement was #knightinshiningarmor. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

Oz, can you confirm with ADAM that we have authorization?

Sure. One second. 

There was a pause.

Yes, authorization is confirmed. And Sean will instruct us on how to use them. 

Ok. Rally the troops and give them the 411 on what’s happening. We meet in the base hangar in forty minutes. 

Molly turned to Sean. “Sean, thank you. I’d appreciate your help on this.”

Sean grinned, thankful for an opportunity to be of use and perhaps redeem himself. Somewhat.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Molly continued, “I need to slip into something more… functional.” She looked down at her baggy t-shirt and shorts. Sean couldn’t be sure, because he was trying not to look, but he suspected she might not have been wearing a bra under that t-shirt.

She padded out of the ops room again, leaving the boys watching her exit.

After a moment, in tandem, they each took a deep breath and shook their heads, then continued talking about the finer details of the weapons store they’d just toured.












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Hanger Deck

Oz, all set?

Yes, I’m hooked into the Pods so I can control all of them from your holo. Well, holo plus additional circuits. 

You mean my brain. 

Yes. 

Let’s not forget that. The organic part of your processing unit. 

Noted. 

Good. 

The team had assembled on the hangar deck surrounding what Sean had identified as the Pods. They were egg-shaped with slick exteriors and no obvious access to the interior. Paige wondered how many people you could really fit in one.

Joel, Sean and Molly stood in front of what must have been a dozen of them and faced the team, their backs to the Pods.

Joel started the briefing. “Ok, people, in a few moments Sean is going to show us how these babies work.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the Pods. “These are going to get us down to the surface fast. But in the meantime, let me tell you about our mission.”

He projected his voice so that it didn’t disappear into the vastness of the hangar deck. “We have a situation just outside of Spire. A research facility has been taken over by a group whose motives and allegiances are unknown. We’ll call them the unsubs. Unknown Subjects.”

He paused, slowing himself down and giving the group the chance to take it all in. “This group has taken eighty-four hostages. No one has died yet, and we want to keep it that way. Our job is to go in and extract the hostages. The unsubs are expendable, and we have authorization from the police and the AG of Spire to take them out without repercussions. Framan, our boss, has asked us to leave some of them alive so they will be able to find out who these fuckwits are.”

He concluded his briefing. “We’ll know more when we get to the surface, but for now, that’s what we know.”

Joel looked at Sean, and took a step back.

Sean glanced at the earnest and excited faces. “As I understand it, Oz has hooked into these Pods and will be controlling them for you. You can interface with Oz simply by speaking inside the Pod, but from outside you need to type to Oz in your holo, because he would need a microphone to capture your speech.”

He looked around the team. “Everyone got the digits to connect with Oz from their holo?”

They all nodded.

“Good,” he continued. “Ok, this is how you open the doors.” He demonstrated, pressing on the outer shell of the nearest Pod. “Then you simply hop in,” he explained. He held one finger in the air, then pointed down at the lower part of the doorway, warning them. “Careful about this lip here,” he pointed down at the ledge on the Pod. “I’ve seen more than a few cadets trip trying to get their Bambi asses into these things. Oh, and be aware of your balance. For the most part the Pod is designed to adapt, but don’t go throwing yourself around in there. Oz has enough to coordinate with the processing capability he has access to.”

Pieter glanced at Molly. He had guessed that Oz was using her brain to pull extra processing capacity. He watched to see if she was going to react to Sean referring to her “limited capabilities.” She didn’t bat an eyelid.

Figures, Pieter thought to himself.

Sean continued. “Max three people per Pod. I’d go two for the lads.” He looked at Crash and Joel. “Once you’re in the Pod, Oz will close the doors and control movement. Since we don’t have an exact location yet, we’re going to have to pull into orbit, hover out of sight but within holo range, and wait for Joel’s contact to send the coordinates. Once we have those we can drop to the exact address.”

Sean walked backwards, opening three of the Pods as he went. “Now, this is alien tech,” he continued.

Brock leaned over to Crash with his hand over his mouth. “No shit, Sherlock.” Crash nodded his head once discretely to acknowledge the comment.

Sean was still talking. “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves or get shot down. So what we’re going to do is drop in, get out of the Pods quickly, and then let Oz take them back into orbit beyond the reach of Estarian satellites. Got it?”

Everyone nodded again.

Sean came back to the center of the group.

“That’s always the protocol with these things. Remember that. Once we’re on the ground, you’re back under Joel’s command.” He indicated Joel, then clapped his hands to rally the troops. “Right, let’s go save some hostages!” he declared.

The team whooped and whistled.

Molly stood observing them, pleased at how the team was coming together without her constant input.

They climbed into their Pods. Paige and Pieter went together, then Crash and Brock, Molly and Joel, and Sean boarded his own Pod.

Oz’s synthetic voice piped over their speakers. “All aboard,” he told them, closing the doors.

Molly suddenly had a thought. “Hang on, how are we going to get out of here? We’re in an underground hangar.”

Joel swiveled in his seat, suddenly wondering too. There was no way of seeing out of the back of the Pod, and the front window only showed the deck where they had just been standing.

Sean smiled to himself in his Pod, hearing her through the collective audio link.

A moment later, Oz came on the speakers again. “Trust me.”

The Pods lifted, and started moving quickly toward the doors in formation.

Oz, are you sure you’ve got this?

Have I ever let you down? 

Molly racked her brains for an example. Coming up empty, she decided to watch the back of the hangar wall, since it was fast approaching.

Oz. Really? Good time to—

The wall started opening as if it were a huge door, exposing the inside of the hangar to space.

Molly was first to notice. “Hang on,” she said. “how come things aren’t flying out of the hangar into the vacuum?”

Sean came over the audio. “We’ haven’t penetrated the forcefield yet.”

Molly rolled her eyes and looked at Joel. “Sean, how long have you been able to hear us?”

She heard him chuckle. “There’s a console when you tap the window. See? A heads-up display.”

Molly tapped the window and saw the different options. Each of the Pods was selectable, presumably so she could communicate with the team. One was highlighted in red.

That must be Sean. She tapped it, and it went dark. That’ll show him. She smiled to herself and sat back, not noticing that Joel was also smiling a little.

The Pods swooped out into space and turned, giving them a view of Gaitune-67. Then, after hovering for a second, they sped off through space.

Crash recognized the spacescape they were traveling through. “Shit, we’re going fast!” he exclaimed, seeing stars and space-marks pass out of view quickly.

In a fraction of an hour they had made it to Estaria. The glowing red planet loomed below their feet.

Oz made an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, Estaria awaits below. Joel, now would be a good time to call for those coordinates.”

Joel was already connecting his holo to his Framan contact. A moment later he hung up. “Got them, Oz. They’ve just sent them.”

Oz located them on his holo, and directed the Pods to their final destination.

The descent was interesting. Fast, but controlled. As they passed through the lower atmosphere, Molly felt like she was going to lose her stomach a few times. The descent seemed to just keep going, even when they could see trees and road tracks.

Finally they “landed,” which to Oz seemed to mean stopping ten feet above the ground.

Molly noticed. “Hey Oz, you wanna put us down a little closer?”

Oh? You don’t want to drop from here?

No, Oz, we don’t want to drop from this height. 

Molly felt her brain tickle. Oz was laughing again.

She tried to scratch her head, but it had no effect. And I do wish you wouldn’t do that! 

Oz lowered the Pods so they were hovering just above the ground, and tilted them slightly to make their exit easier. Once they were all out, the Pod doors closed quickly, then the Pods lifted rapidly and silently into the upper atmosphere.

Molly and Joel looked at each other. Joel grinned. “Well, that beats a day-long schlep on a ship!” he commented.

Molly looked around, making sure the whole team was together. She beckoned them over as Joel scouted the situation.

The Pods had dropped them about twenty yards from a road, and beyond that was a building with a horde of police, SWAT and fire companies with their lights flashing.

Joel called to Molly, “Looks like we’ve got our location.” He pointed at the building and activity.

She turned to the group. “Ok, folks. Let’s get over there and find out who we need to talk to about access.”

The group traipsed over to Joel and followed him across the road.

Paige turned to Pieter. “Nervous?”

He nodded. “You?”

She smiled. “Hell, yes!”

He grinned back at her.

Arriving at the conglomeration of police vehicles and such, Joel took the lead. A sergeant pointed him over to the police primary.

“Greetings,” said Joel, holding out his hand to the guy. “Framan sent us. We were told Detective Lato would get us inserted.”

Detective Lato knew exactly who they were. He nodded in acknowledgment at Molly, and shook Joel’s outstretched hand. “Greetings. Baz Lato. Good to have you here.”

He beckoned with his head. “Let me show you what we know, and then you can decide how you’d like to proceed.”

Molly frowned to herself. Odd we should automatically be offered the lead on this. No resistance. Everything pre-arranged. Over the police?

Makes you wonder who the client is.

Yes. Wanna do some digging?

Sure. 

The detective led them into a portable workspace where they had holos and data feeds set up to give them eyes into certain areas in the building.

Detective Lato started the briefing, his eyes watching the screens, and he gestured at details on the screens now and then.

“Building is a research facility. Chemicals on-site are mostly in small quantities, a few kilograms in the storage areas. Nothing flammable or dangerous. Sample sizes tend to be small. Nothing like in the production plants, so you’re probably ok unless you blow the sample storage to living hell.”

He indicated at the screen with a camera feed on it. “We have eyes on the outside entrance and the rear. None inside the building. All have been disabled.”

He turned and waved at another screen. “We’ve been able to get a drone near the windows to map locations. Eighty-four hostages, all on the fourth floor as far as we can tell. Mostly guarded by one guy inside the room, and another two in the corridors.”

He indicated a holo sketch they’d drawn up, showing a three-dimensional representation of the building and the location of hostages.

“Tangos are shown in red. As you can see, most of them have congregated in the control room. Looks like they’re monitoring communications and cameras.”

Molly turned her head toward Lato, her eyes still on the diagram. “Any demands been made?”

Lato shook his head. “None yet.”

Molly frowned. “How long have they been in the building?” she asked.

“Nearly five hours.”

She looked at Joel. “Would have expected some requests by now. They must be up to something else.”

Joel grunted. He looked around the work center. “Have you established communication with them?”

Lato nodded, and indicated to a workstation with a relatively skinny forty-something-year-old Ogg. “Our hostage negotiator, Rex, has been in touch. Nothing useful yet, though.”

Joel wandered over to introduce himself, and started talking with the Ogg.

Molly turned to include Sean in the conversation. “I’m thinking we’re probably going to have to breach. If they’re mostly down here in the control room, they could well be after something else. Why else leave the hostages all the way out here with only three guards?”

Sean followed her finger through the holo.

Molly poked the area where the hostages were. “I think we need to find a way to get up to the fourth floor and breach there. Extract the hostages, then take out the tangos after the fact as necessary.

Sean agreed, “Sounds fine. I just have a niggly feeling about this one though.”

Molly wrinkled her nose. “Me too. So far it makes no sense.”

She turned to Lato again. “Do we have any reason to suspect that anything is rigged with explosives, like windows on that floor, or the hostages themselves?”

Lato shook his head. “Doubt it. We can check with the guys who got to the scene first. They’re out there somewhere.” He called one of his team over and asked him to have Higgins come and join them.

Joel returned, shaking his head. “Rex is following procedure. We haven’t got any indication of a deadline, or any negotiables yet. Thankfully there’s no indication that anyone is injured. It’s like,” he paused briefly, “they’re just waiting.”

Molly stopped for a moment, then turned to Lato. “We need to get those hostages out of there. Looks like breaching the fourth-floor window is our best bet. What are our options for that?”

Lato took a deep breath. “It’s too high for a ladder or a chute.” He looked at the building and shook his head, thinking. “I suppose we could get a car up there, but for so many it would take a while.”

Molly agreed. “Yeah it needs to be a fast and complete extraction. As soon as the tangos suspect anything they’ll come in guns blazing. Or worse.”

She frowned, remembering their extraction of Garet what seemed like a lifetime ago. “Have you got anything bigger than a car. Like maybe a ship?”

Lato looked confused. “Well, we have the normal carriers that will transport teams between locations, but they’re not used in this kind of close-range stuff. Keeping one of those stable at this kind of altitude, so close to a building, is—”

“Near impossible?” interjected Joel.

Lato nodded.

Molly wasn’t done. “Yeah, the issue is maintaining stability at low altitude. But what if Oz could make some adaptations, and Brock could build a bridge or something to get close enough without the blasters setting the building on fire. Maybe some additional stabilizers?”

Joel bobbed his head, his arms folded across his chest. “Possible.”

Lato shrugged. “If you guys want to tackle that, I can get one over here.”

Molly nodded, still frowning a little. “Yes, do that please.”

Sound ok, Oz? 

Yes.

Ok, any way to hack into that security system? Could do with hearing what’s been going on in there for the last five hours. 

Working on it. Their encryption isn’t making a whole lot of sense to me, though. It seems random. Not as in predictably random like a number generator… 

He paused.

But people-random. 

How do you mean?

Like a person encrypted it using information that doesn’t follow any kind of key, at least not one that I can infer. 

Ok. Keep at it, and let me know. 

Molly moved over to the team to explain what was going on.

“So what’s the game plan, boss?” Brock asked.

Molly thought for a moment, just making sure she had covered all the bases she knew about. She gave them a rundown of what they had discovered thus far.

Then she turned to Joel and Sean. “Joel and Sean need to suit up for the op. The three of us are going to breach.”

Then she pivoted to Crash and Brock. “Crash, I hope you brought your A-game with you. Detective Lato is sourcing us a ship usually used for medium and long-range. It’s going to be like trying to keep a GR7 jump-jet steady at twenty feet, but if anyone can do it…” her voice trailed off and she gave him a wink.

Then she looked directly at Brock. “Brock, you and Oz will need to build something that can help smooth the extraction process. We need a bridge we can flop out to move the hostages from the hole we’re going to blow in the side of the building. The bridge will need to fit the access port of the ship and then allow safe passage for eighty-something people, fast. Crash will probably appreciate some work on the stabilizers, too.”

She introduced Lato, Molly-style. “If you need gear, Detective Lato here will get you what you need, within the time constraints.” Lato nodded to the group, and raised a hand as if to say ‘Greetings.’

 Molly continued. “Pieter, get hooked up to their systems and find everything you can about the building and materials held on-site. I wanna know why they are here, and what they’re planning. If they’re gathered in the control room, I’m wondering if there is something there that they want. Intel? Or maybe an underground vault. Or access to a nearby building. Buried treasure, talismans, hidden rooms, secret passageways…other stuff? Anything that might seem halfway plausible. Think big. Think out of the box.”

She looked at Paige. “Paige, sit with Rex,” she said, pointing in the direction of the negotiator Joel had been talking with. “He’s been interacting with the unsubs. Learn what you can. See if you can identify any of them, what they want, how they know each other. Ask open-ended questions, and keep them talking. Promise them nothing. If they make demands, I want you to remember one simple phrase: ‘How am I supposed to do that?’ Don’t use it in a derogatory way. Keep a polite, even tone, but keep turning it back on them. You’re not part of the rest of this mission. You’re the person controlling the hostage negotiation. Got it?”

Paige nodded and stood a little straighter, absorbing Molly’s words.

Molly turned to Detective Lato again. “How long until we can have that ship here?” she asked.

Lato looked up for a moment, thinking. “An hour, probably,” he told her.

She turned back to the group. “Ok, people. One hour and fifteen minutes to show time.”

Brock’s mouth dropped open.

“Let’s make this happen,” she concluded.












CHAPTER TWELVE


Police encampment, Tiecoon Research Facility, Outskirts of Spire

“Fifteen minutes to hook this bridge up?” Brock harrumphed as he tightened another bolt on the ship that had just been delivered.

The air was warm and uncomfortable. He sat back for a moment on his haunches, observing a dust cloud heading their way. “Hope we can be in and out before that hits.” He nodded into the distance.

Crash and Joel looked up, then kept working. Crash was the one to point out reality to Brock. “To be fair,” he said plainly, “you did have this all ready to go well before the ship even arrived.” He finished tightening another bolt and stood up. “Just a few more bolts that need tightening, and we’re ready to rock.”

Brock reached for another nut and hurriedly started threading it on the protruding bolt. “Yeah, but that means the bridge and the stabilizers.”

Crash moved on to the next junction. “Stop your whining, man. Stabilizers are nearly done. Just need you to check they’re configured correctly.”

Brock, sweating under the pressure and the physical work of bolting the bridge onto the ship, was secretly relieved by Crash’s statement.

Joel, who had been working on the other end of the bridge, stood up and handed him the wrench back. “Ok, all of those pieces are connected. Seems secure enough to me.”

Brock took the wrench. “Thank you,” he said gratefully. “Appreciate it.” He smiled.

“All one team, man,” Joel told him, then headed off to finish getting his bulletproof gear on. He noticed Sean was already there, selecting his choice of weapons from the police candy store that had appeared a few moments before.

Crash pressed a test button on the mounting he’d been working on. “Ok, stabilizers are online and adaptive programming seems to be integrated.”

Brock whistled through his teeth. “Small mercies!” he sang, relieved. He finished tightening the remaining bolt and stood up, stretching his back, then collected the tools from the bridge.

Molly appeared next to him. “Nearly set?” she asked.

Brock wiped sweat from his forehead. “Yup. Just about. There wasn’t time to make this bridge contractible, so Crash is going to have to fly with it dangling.”

Molly tried not to smile. “There’s a joke in there, but there isn’t time.”

Brock grinned. “Yeah, make it laterz.”

Molly nodded. “So it’s not going to break under its own weight, being unsupported and all?”

Brock shook his head, and shifted the tools into one hand. “No, I ran some cantilever calcs based on the Young’s modulus of the steel. It should be fine, as long as the ship doesn’t make any sudden movements. We want to lift from here, sashay across, and flop it down on the ledge wherever you’ve breached, then bring the hostages over.”

Molly suddenly looked concerned.

Brock noticed her reaction. “What is it?”

Molly slapped her palm to her forehead. “You’re going to need the entrance blown before you approach.”

She marched off before Brock could say anything. He watched her leave, trying to figure out what they’d missed.

Molly found Joel and Sean dicking around at the weapons store, tacking up.

Joel looked at her. “What’s wrong?”

Molly shook her head. “Bad news, guys. We’re going to have to alter things slightly.”

Sean’s face dropped, waiting for the bottom line.

Molly continued. “The bridge needs to go straight into the opening, which means we can’t be on the ship to blow the opening in the side of the wall. And the ship can’t maneuver fast.”

Sean was pointing his weapon at the sky. He let it drop a little. “I assume you have a suggestion?”

Molly nodded, as two Pods dropped in four feet away from them. “It’s going to be on you guys to get close, place some charges, get out of the way, blow the wall, and get yourselves in there. Then Crash will move the ship into position.”

“Oh,” Sean guffawed. “Is that all? I thought you were going to ask us to do something difficult!”

Joel looked at him. “Yeah, I mean, that’s just a pre-breakfast exercise in the Space Marines.”

Sean glanced at him, smirking. “Let’s make sure we get some charges to lay. Joel, you need some help to set them? Pin out, and Mr. Charge isn’t your friend anymore, remember, ol’ boy?”

Joel locked a magazine into his weapon with force. “Just make sure you get your heavy cyborg ass out of the way quick enough,” he told him. “Don’t want to be cleaning you out of the Pod when we get back.”

Molly started coughing, as if she were struggling to breathe.

“You ok?” Sean asked.

Molly waved her hand in front of her face, still coughing and covering her mouth with the other hand. “Sorry. Yeah. Just choking in the fog of testosterone.” She walked away, leaving Joel and Sean speechless.

Molly headed back to the temporary office space and stepped inside. Paige glanced at her from across the room. Molly gave her a thumbs-up and tilted her head. Paige nodded and returned the thumbs-up.

Molly sat down next to Pieter. “How we doing?”

Pieter shook his head, puzzled. “Still nothing, at least not as far as the official city schematics show. I’m trying to find original plans, just in case they were recently updated to remove something that needed to remain hidden. Other than that, I think we need to assume that their motivations lie elsewhere.

Molly nodded. “Ok. Lemme know if you find anything. We’re breaching in a few minutes. Whatever happens, make sure you bring all your data with you when we leave.”

Pieter nodded. “You got it, boss.”

She headed back outside. Crash and Brock were on the ship making last minute adjustments. She gave them a thumbs-up and they returned it. Heading over to the weapons unit, she grabbed a bulletproof vest and strapped it on.

Sean stepped over to her. “Want some help tightening that?” he asked.

Molly eyed him cautiously, but she did need some help. “Please. Just a bit tighter around the chest.”

He adjusted some of the straps for her, then tapped her on the back. “You’re good to go.”

She mumbled her thanks and busied herself packing weapons into the holsters she was already wearing. Double-barreled hand guns onto each thigh. A smaller one on the right ankle. One under the left breast… She rearranged herself a little, vaguely aware of the boys watching her.

Then she did something she’d never done before. She grabbed a wooden baton the length of a sword and stuck it down the back of her vest, under the belt that was keeping the holsters against the front of her body.

You never know, she thought to herself.

She noticed that the boys had found the charges. She took a handful and carefully placed them in her trousers’ leg pocket. “Might come in handy,” she muttered, and then turned to look at the building.

“Ok people, comms up,” she ordered, and Oz put them all onto the same channel through their holos.

She did a quick roll call to make sure everyone was live and ready, then handed off to Joel. “Joel, your op. Good luck.”

Joel took over command and started running down the instructions. The team responded with their respective roles, as perfectly coordinated as if they had done this a hundred times before.

Inside the work center, Pieter stopped researching and moved his work station closer to Paige in case she needed help fact-checking.

---

The first thing the police and passers-by saw were the two big marine guys. They jumped into the Pods that had materialized outside the temporary ops center. Weaponed up to the hilt, they moved agilely, bantering between them. Then, without warning, the Pods lifted and disappeared, reappearing next to the building.

Meanwhile, the girl they had been talking to boarded the bigger ship, which was already fired up, and they lifted into the air.

The Pods were out of sight for a few moments, then they reappeared about two hundred yards from the building. A moment later there was a bang, and an explosion took out part of the building. Panic set in as police scrambled to see what was happening. Shots were fired from within the building, and it sounded as if all hell was breaking loose.

Within a second the Pods were back at the building, then gone again. Then there was more gunfire and screaming.

Meanwhile, the ship with the strange adaptation had sidled over the road and was approaching the building carefully as it tried to maintain a constant height. Eventually it arrived at the hole in the wall and attached its bridge, then the girl jumped into the building to usher the hostages over the bridge into the ship.

Maya couldn’t be sure from her position just outside the police ribbon, but it looked like the girl was in fact Molly Bates, whom she had been researching ever since the Dewitt incident. “Looks like she doesn’t learn” She smiled to herself.

After a few minutes, the last of the hostages boarded under heavy gunfire and the ship pulled gently away. She couldn’t tell if the team was still in the building or not.

Maya watched in awe as the ship managed to move back across the road, and gently touch down. In moments the paramedics were boarding the ship and tending to the hostages.

A few more minutes passed, and the Pods reappeared at the fourth-floor hole in the wall. It looked like there were still three people in there. The shooting stopped, and she couldn’t see the three figures anymore.

Everything was quiet.

Then another few minutes passed and she saw the three people get into the two Pods and return to the police encampment.

A few seconds later, she caught the Pods heading into the sky again out of the corner of her eye.

---

Roll call done, Joel looked at Sean, whose expression was way too smug.

“Tell me again where you did your military training?” Joel asked as they jogged to the Pods.

Sean moved incredibly well for someone his size. “Not in your system,” he retorted.

Joel glanced back at him as they jogged. “Well, let’s just hope you can keep up. With all your cockiness, it would be embarrassing for you if I managed to tap more tangos than you.”

Sean smirked. “Yeah, that’s going to happen. In your dreams!”

Joel chuckled as they jumped into their respective Pods.

Seconds later Oz had them outside the fourth floor of the building. Through the big windows, they could clearly see the eighty-something hostages. The unsub was clearly identifiable, holding a weapon and walking around casually. The hostages were mostly sitting huddled on the ground.

Joel signaled to those who could see to get back from the window. Hushed whispers alerted the others to move away. Oggs, Estarians and a couple of humans eased their way back from the window, carefully avoiding drawing attention from the sole lame-ass guard, who hadn’t noticed anything yet.

Joel shuffled in his Pod. “Oz, can you position us to lay these charges better?” he asked.

“Yes,” Oz responded. “But you will have to open the door, which means you should be wearing a seatbelt.”

Joel grabbed the belt and wrapped it round his arm a few times so he’d be able to hang.

Sean’s voice came over the comm. “You realize seatbelts are for pussies?”

Joel retorted, “Let’s see who the pussy is when we do a tally, eh?”

Sean chucked again.

Molly coughed over the comm.

Joel ignored the cough, but focused on the mission again. “Ok, Oz, let’s get these doors open.”

Oz opened the Pods and moved them closer so the boys could lay their charges. Joel coordinated removing the pins.

“On my mark,” he told Sean. “Three, two, one, mark.”

Each extracted their pins, then Oz whipped them well out of the blast zone. Joel watched the explosion below, praying that none of the hostages had been hit. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that Crash had already lifted off and was moving in their direction.

Joel made a quick assessment. “Ok, Oz, just as soon as we’re blast-safe, drop us back in and then take these Pods out of here.”

Oz acknowledged the order. “You got it, Joel.”

A few seconds passed, and some of the smoke and debris cleared. Joel could hear a commotion inside the building now, and gunshots were being fired, hopefully not at the hostages.

Crash nearly had the ship at the window, and Oz slipped the two Pods down to allow Joel and Sean to exit.

Sean did a tuck-and-roll, landing in a squat, one knee bent, gun ready.

His eyes had been on the guard during his entry and he took him out before Joel’s boots had even hit the floor. There were shouts from the corridor, along with the requisite crying and screaming from the hostages.

Joel made an announcement:

“It’s ok. This is your rescue service. In just a few moments you will be able to make your way onto a ship that will be picking you up from your door, and taking you to Safety Island. Please keep your howling to a minimum, and remember to tip your driver.”

The hostages started gathering by the open wall. A few even chuckled and patted Joel on the back as he made his way to the door at the other side of the room. The open-plan room was large. At one time it might have been a lab.

Sean was already at the door, taking out the unsubs left, right and center.

“Looks like I’ve got the tally on this mission!” he yelled at Joel, who had now knelt at the door and started taking out bad guys as they appeared in the corridor.

“How many do you think there are total?” Joel asked.

“Think the estimate was fifteen. Pretty sure I’ve killed eight.” He shot another who rounded the corner. “Nine,” he corrected himself.

Joel looked around, assessing the bigger picture. “Ok, you’ve got this position. I’m going to help Molly get these hostages on board,” he decided.

He turned around and saw that the ship had docked and half the hostages were on board already. Molly was in the building, helping some who were having trouble walking.

Joel noticed movement from a second door they hadn’t seen before. It looked like it adjoined the lab, maybe a prep room or something.

He quickly stalked to the room and opened the door. Another three tangos tried to come through, but he took them out, in rapid succession. Stepping over the bodies, he made sure the rest of the room was clear. Satisfied, he turned around to see Molly face to face with a baddie who had shown up from ancestors knew where.

Sean had seen she was in trouble too. “Joel! Help Molly!” he shouted. He was pinned, picking off the guys who were still coming up the corridor.

Joel was across like a shot, but Molly had somehow managed to disarm the guy.

“Don’t you fucking dare, Joel Dunham!” she shouted at him between shots. “This fuckhead is mine!” She dropped the handgun she had been using and drew her wooden baton.

Joel stood by, looking horrified at her latest weapon.

Said fuckhead lunged at her again, and she sidestepped him. As she landed, she whipped her hips around and continued the motion with the stick in her hand, arms extended.

Schlap!

It made a satisfying sound as it connected with the side of his skull. Joel noticed that she had practically taken his head off. The guy fell forward and sideways, carrying the momentum of her baton. Before he lost enough height, she whipped her right leg up and slammed it down on the back of his head in an axe kick.

Joel guessed the guy was dead before his body hit the ground.

Sean turned and saw Molly standing over the bloody body, stick in hand.

She looked at it, wiped the blood off on the body’s jacket, and shoved it unceremoniously back into her vest. “I think I could get used to this,” she said, turning to see that the last of the hostages were on the ship. A group of civilians had been watching the operation in amazement.

“We good to pull away?” Crash asked.

“Go ahead,” Molly told him. “I’ll get a ride with these guys once we’ve cleaned up.”

She and Joel headed toward the corridor. “How about we go make sure there are no loose ends?” Joel suggested.

Molly smiled. “I think I’d like that.”

Sean had stopped firing, but remained vigilant.

“Count?” asked Joel.

“Twelve for sure.”

“That means three more left. Let’s head down.”

The team swept their way through the empty corridors and eventually found their loose ends. Two didn’t pose an immediate threat, and could have proven useful for information. Molly restrained them together, in sixty-nine position.

Sean chuckled when he saw what she’d done. “You are one mean lady,” he commented.

Molly winked, and strode past him. “Remember that, Sean Royale.”

The three headed back up to level four, where they hopped into the Pods and headed back across the road to the police camp.

---

BANG. BOOM. 

Two charges.

Donald Scott screamed at the assembled group of mercenaries. “Get your asses up there and stop whatever is going down!”

Panic filled the room.

The mercenaries grabbed their guns and headed out of the room, moving as fast as they could in close quarters.

Donald could hear gunfire. And screaming. He hoped that he wasn’t going to lose too many of the hostages to bullets. Or his men, for that matter.

He waited, listening.

There was a roar, as if a starship had just pulled up outside the building. He went to the window to look, and saw the ship maneuvering to a hole in the side of the building.

He relaxed a little and tried to breathe. Ok, so the hostages were on their way out. The assault team wouldn’t be coming this way if they had what they came for.

He could hear footsteps reverberating through the corridors and stair wells. Quietly, gun drawn, he ventured out into the corridor to find out what was going on. No one had reported back to him yet. Which was…worrying.

The gunfire continued.

He tried to think. His men were trained ex-military. Ex-commandos. Ex-Space Marines. These were the guys who could take out any threat in minutes. And yet, something in his gut told him that they were the ones being taken out.

For the first time in a long time, he felt afraid. Not social fear. Not fear of losing people’s respect. But fear of dying. His heart was beating out of his chest, and he noticed it was hard to hold onto his pistol because the sweat on his hands was making it slippery.

He switched the gun in his other hand and wiped his palm on his trousers.

He tried their comm channel. “Report!” he demanded.

Nothing came.

Then he heard the sound of someone gasping and dying.

Shit! This army had taken them down. He was told this was going to be a small team of nobodies. Why did they send in an army then?

He scurried into one of the rooms off the main corridor and looked around for somewhere to hide.

He heard footsteps coming down the corridor. Maybe it would be one of his men, to tell him that the battle was over, and the assault team was decimated.

He doubted it though.

He was in an examination room with a screen in front of a couch, a cupboard and a sink. He dove between the couch and the cupboard, hiding from view.

He heard the door open, and steps came into the room. He could see boots across the floor. He tried to not breath, but the boots were onto him. They walked toward him, seeming to know exactly where he was already.

The curtain was pulled away suddenly, noisily exposing his cowering form. He looked up and saw…a woman?

She glanced down at him, a look of disgust on her face. Similar to the way his mother had always looked at him. She snarled, “Hello, dickwad,” then reached over and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, dragging him into the center of the room.

Without warning, she punched him on the side of his head, making him dizzy. He couldn’t use his arms or legs. He fell, landing spread-eagled on the floor.

He saw the boots leave, and the door swung closed behind her. His head throbbed, but he was alive! He had survived. Relief flooded through his entire body.

He heard shuffling and boots in the corridor, then the door opened again. The woman came back in dragging a body. One of his men, his Second-in-Command. His face was bloody, but he seemed to be alive. Just.

She pulled the two of them together, almost head to toe, but a little lower so that each of them had their crotch by the other’s mouth.

The woman spoke to him as she secured them together. “There is so much worse I should do with you two. You don’t deserve to live. But I’m leaving you alive so you can come clean to the police and help them bring justice to your employers. Also, I want you to live to experience the rotting shit of the life you have made for yourselves.”

The woman fastened the final restraint roughly. The last thing Donald saw was a boot coming at his head.












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Police encampment, Tiecoon Research Facility, Outskirts of Spire

Molly, Joel and Sean landed on the grassy patch and jumped out of the Pods. Molly ran toward the ship to check on the hostages.

“Any gunshot wounds?” she asked the nearest paramedic.

“Doesn’t look like it,” he answered. “Fokking miracle, if you ask me!”

Molly wandered around looking at all the people. Some were being given oxygen. Some had blankets for shock. But there wasn’t any blood. She saw Joel talking to someone.

Then he moved to another and seemed to ask a question.

He stood among them and held his hand up. “Listen up, people. I need you to pay attention for a moment. This is vitally important.”

The activity and noise stopped, everyone spontaneously obeying the Space Marine with the muscles…and the guns still strapped to him.

Joel spoke so they could all hear. “You were fed, right? What did they give you?”

One man answered “Pizza.”

“And donuts,” someone else answered.

Joel’s worried facial expression deepened. “Had anyone been experiencing dancing lights in their eyes? Shortness of breath?”

A few hands went up.

He walked over to one person who had raised their hand.

Joel crouched to the sitting male Estarian’s eye level. “Tell me your name, date of birth and who the current prime minster is,” he told him gently.

The man nodded, and swallowed. “My name is Johnny Locklen. My date of birth…is…” The guy shook his head, as if he didn’t have access to the information.

Joel looked at Molly, and beckoned a couple of the paramedics over. He spoke quietly but quickly. “His speech is slurred. I think these people have been poisoned with Assergen. We need to get the antidote administered fast, or we’re going to start losing people.”

Molly looked at him, and then the paramedics. “Do you have the antidote here?”

The paramedic shrugged.

Joel’s hands went to his head. He gripped it, trying to think.

“Oz?” he said out loud. “We need to know the active components in the antidote to Assergen. I heard about it in Marine advanced training. It’s a familiar plant. I just can’t remember what it was called.”

Molly watched him. “How come you know this?”

Joel shrugged. “It’s an easy poison to access. Plus, it has a faint odor. A sugary kinda smell to it. I recognized it from an op I was on once, where they took out a school with it.”

Molly looked horrified.

Oz spoke into their ear implants. “Got it. It’s a chemical found in the bulbous roots of the palm bushes. It’s found on the Inner System planets quite readily. I’m sure if you step outside you’ll see some.”

Joel was out of the ship like a shot. He looked around and saw that the right trees were just a little farther back from the road. He started running toward them.

He spoke to Oz as he ran. “Oz, have you any way to do a chemical analysis?”

Not here. Not right now. 

Joel had pulled up some of the bushy roots around the verge. Sean helped him. Joel tore open one of the roots, and exposed the fleshy part. He lifted it to his nose and smelled it.

“I think this is it. Help me gather some.” Sean and Molly tore up some more, then followed Joel back to the ship.

Within ten minutes, paramedics and police were working together to gather enough of the root to administer to the hostages who had eaten the food the unsubs had given them.

Police encampment, Tiecoon Research Facility, Outskirts of Spire

Within an hour, the hostages had all been moved to the hospital or sent home after thorough examinations.

The fire companies were wrapping up, and the police were finishing their clean-up, having gathered statements and contact details.

Molly stood in the clearing on the police side of the tape, out of the way of the bustling officers. “Any idea who the unsubs were?” she asked Lato. “I left a few of them alive for you.”

He looked at her. “Yes, the officers who found the pair you had restrained were very amused” he told her, trying to remain professional and not smile at her antics. “In fact, a couple of them want to meet you.”

Molly rolled her eyes. “Did they tell you anything?” she asked.

Lato shook his head. “No, those who are conscious aren’t telling us anything. It looks like they were guns for hire. No rhetoric. No slogans in their speech. Nothing.”

Molly frowned. “So they were paid hostage-takers?”

Lato took a swig of his mocha, then answered her. “Seems like,” he muttered, swallowing.

She looked at the building and the hole blown through its wall. “That’ll be why my team aren’t able to find any information or motives,” she mulled.

Lato shrugged. “Well, maybe the fact that they were paid to take hostages and kill them all with poison is the lead.”

Molly screwed her face up briefly. “Why use poison? It’s slow working—”

She stopped mid-sentence.

Oz, what if the whole point of this was that the hostages would be rescued and still die. What would be the implications of that?

Well, we wouldn't get our bonus. 

What else?

It would be unusual enough to draw media attention. 

And we’d look like idiots. 

Molly rubbed her chin. Can we find out how the cases within Framan are allocated? Do a bit of digging. See if they are using an algorithm to assign jobs. See if we’re being manually allocated these deliberately. 

Ok. On it. 

Molly had another thought. “Maybe their identities will bring up something useful,” she suggested to Lato.

The detective turned and looked at her. “Yes,” he said slowly, swilling the remaining mocha in his paper cup. “Yes, they might,” he said thoughtfully. He glanced at her. “Want me to loop you in on anything that we find?”

Molly smiled brightly. “That would be super helpful. I’m off-world most of the time. Perhaps I can give you a secure server to send stuff to?”

Lato looked nonplussed. “Sure,” he agreed.

She bumped her server address from her holo to his.

“Got it,” he told her, checking the notification on his device.

Paige wandered over, her kit now packed and ready to go. Brock, Pieter and Crash were also heading over to the clearing near the police tape.

Paige smiled. “Everything ok?”

Molly narrowed her eyes “I’m not sure. This is all feeling a little…odd.”

Paige jumped a little, having a new thought. “Ooh! Like how the antidote just happened to be there at the road side!”

Molly lifted her head a little, as she digested the information. “Yeah. That too, come to think of it.”

Her mind racing, Paige continued, “We didn’t find anything about why they might have taken the hostages?”

Molly bit her lower lip and jerked her thumb toward Lato. He was still standing next to her, taking a moment to watch all the activity. “Lato thinks they were hired to. I’m inclined to agree.”

Joel finished on his holo call and came over to join them. “Ok, we’re good to go with Framan,” he said, as he approached.

Molly gave him a thumbs-up as he walked past to join Brock, Crash and Pieter.

Lato caught him on his way past, and held out his hand to thank him. “Look, Joel, what you did out there. Incredible. You saved all those people with your quick thinking,” Lato was still shaking his hand, and smiling through the haze of tiredness that was hitting him. “I’m grateful,” he said.

Joel looked down, then responded gruffly, “You’re welcome. I mean, it was a team effort, and we were just doing our job.”

Lato held his cup by his side. “Yes, and if you hadn’t spotted those symptoms—those incredibly subtle symptoms—all those people would have died.”

Joel scratched his head, looking a little embarrassed by the attention. “Yeah, well. Thanks, man,” he conceded.

Lato turned to the rest of the gang and gave his thanks. “If you ever need help with anything around here, just give me a shout. You’re good people, and you run a tight ship,” he finished, nodding to Molly and shaking her hand.

Molly smiled. “Thank you, Detective.” She turned to the team as Lato wandered off. He threw the dregs of his mocha on the sandy grass and scrunched up the cup for the trash.

“Ok, folks,” Molly announced. “Time to get out of here.”

The team waved their good byes to Detective Lato, and hopped into their Pods.

Lato watched the doors close, not knowing how to start understanding the tech this group had. Molly gave him a little wink through the window, and then the Pods shot straight up into the sky and disappeared.

After the Pods were out of sight, he returned his eyes to ground level, where he noticed a young Estarian over by the police tape. She seemed to be loitering with her holo out.

He nodded at her and she smiled.

Reporter, he thought, and turned around to head back to the temporary office.

Maya Johnstone hit Save on her audio recording, and closed her notes. She would be making another interesting post to Whistleblown tonight.

The Toroid Desert Club, Outskirts of Spire

“I mean, Mac, what the fokk?”

Jessica was pissed.

Seriously pissed.

Her normally glowing complexion had turned a muddy red under her blue skin. She looked dark and foreboding as a result. And then there was the glare. “This retreat was meant to be relaxing. A celebration of moving things to the next level. And now it’s just one big clusterfuck!”

Her voice was elevated. Andus looked at the door, wondering if he needed to reel her in a little. It was a secure location, but you could never be sure of the staff.

She glared across the table at Kerr. “You are the one who has been giving me shit for not being able to pull off a simple op, and yet you have one task—one thing to accomplish—and you’re not able to do it. At least I got the funding bill turned around.”

Mac sank a little in his chair, waiting for the conversation to end. Jessica showed no signs of letting up, and Andus seemed to be letting her blow off steam.

He should probably do the same.

But then, there were a lot of times he should have just kept his mouth shut. He knew this was one of those times, but it just wasn’t his style.

“Look, lady,” he began firmly. “It turns out that the common palm bush has the antidote in its roots. How the hell was I supposed to know that?”

He paused for effect, and she jumped straight in again. “And how did they even know that? You assured us that it was a killer! One hundred percent certainty, you said. Lots of experience, you said.”

Mac grimaced. “It is a killer. I used it all the time in the Outer Systems.”

Jessica was practically spitting. “And you never figured out that there was a common antidote?”

Mac held out his hands, exasperated by the interrogation. “No!” he protested. “We killed thousands with it, every time we needed something that wasn’t going to be traceable. They’d put it down as dysentery or something.”

Jessica slumped back into her chair. “Well, great job, Mac,” she spat sarcastically. “They’ve turned this around, and our plan has backfired. Again.”

“Not my fault,” he said simply.

Jessica scowled across the table, Andus’ and Garet’s presence completely forgotten. “Dunno who else suggested that rookie maneuver.”

“Who are you calling a rookie, Princess?” Mac spat back.

Garet leaned forward, reaching out to place one finger pointedly on the table to focus everyone’s attention. All eyes turned on him. “Might I make a suggestion?” he asked, glancing over at Andus.

Andus waved his hand, granting him the stage.

Garet calmly and confidently continued, “I think it’s time to use a plan that doesn’t involve drugs or toxins. Let’s just go for straightforward sleight-of-hand.”

Jessica leaned in, her argument with Mac dissipating in curiosity. “Tell us more…” she said cautiously.












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Gaitune-67, Safe House, Kitchen

The team sat around the safe house’s kitchen table eating fresh takeout pizza. A hush fell over the group as mouths were filled with soft doughy yumminess after the day’s activities.

“Those Pods are quite something, eh?” Pieter mused through a mouthful of cheesy goodness. “Back in time for dinner!”

Paige’s eyes lit up as she swallowed a mouthful of ham and pineapple. “Yeah, they’re incredible. I mean, how can they even go that fast?”

Molly realized Paige had been looking at her when she asked the question, and was expecting an answer. Having just bitten into a slice of hot pizza herself, it couldn’t have been worse timing. Plus, Molly didn’t have the answer…yet. She struggled to work her way free of the lip-burning mozzarella long enough to shrug her shoulders.

Thankfully the conversation moved on, leaving her to enjoy the rest of the mouthful.

Brock was her savior on this occasion. “Well, they certainly prevented Crash from getting plastered with another fokking Spaceport ticket!” he jibed.

Crash chuckled silently, his slight shrug more than his face giving away that he found Brock’s statement humorous. “Still have to get the last one paid,” he admitted, reaching for another slice.

He stopped himself mid-way. “Oh, shit. That one doesn’t have any meat on it.” He picked up the box, and handed it down the table. “Get that poor excuse for food out of the way. That’s it, Paige, move it down there.” He tried to hand it off to Paige. The box was still hot.

Paige had her hands and mouth full of pizza, so Joel leaned over and took the box from him, placing it near Molly.

Molly, deadpan, mumbled into the pregnant pause, “Heathens.”

The group collapsed in laughter.

As the mirth subsided, the chewing and chomping resumed. Sean was the next one to pipe up, “Still damn hot” as he nearly burned his chin on some stray cheese.

Paige looked at him, and cocked her head. “Thought things like that didn’t bother your nanocyte-enhanced body tissue?” she teased.

Everyone stopped and looked at either Paige or Sean.

Sean froze.

Paige looked around. “What? Why you all staring?”

No one answered.

She flushed. “You didn’t know that he was nano-enhanced?”

Still silence.

Sean put his pizza down. “Girl, you weren’t meant to tell anyone.”

Paige looked worried. “Sorry. I didn’t know it was a secret. I mean…you need to tell me something is a secret if you want me to not mention it!” Paige looked mortified.

Sean held her gaze and raised one eyebrow. “Evidently,” he concluded.

Joel grinned. “In her defense, she has a point,” he agreed, taking another bite of pizza.

Sean, a little embarrassed, sighed. “Well, I suppose now is a good a time as any to get it out in the open.”

Molly continued listening and chewing quietly, taking it all in. Joel watched her for any kind of reaction, but got nothing.

Sean picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth. This was complex enough without folks being distracted by him having cheese and tomato on his face. “So, yes, the truth is, I have had certain enhancements. One of them being the nanocytes.”

Brock, unable to contain himself, interrupted. “Nanocytes. You mean, actual little bots that go into your blood and alter your fricking DNA?”

 Sean nodded, his face serious. “Yes. As a result, I don’t age. Aaaaaand I’m much older than I look.”

Paige’s eyes had widened, and cheese slid off the pizza she had been about to bite into. “How old?” she asked.

Sean smiled. “That, young lady, is not something I’m willing to share at this time. But it was done so that I could continue to go on missions and the Etheric Empire would retain the skills and knowledge of a trusted few.”

Joel was watching Sean carefully now, waiting.

Sean noticed his gaze. “Joel knows some of the rest of it. I’ve also got some cyborg components to link me to various systems, and suchlike.”

Joel nodded. “Yep, and the way you move? Tech-enhanced for sure. No way a real human can move like that.”

Sean grinned. “You’re just pissed I tapped more tangos than you today.”

Joel grinned back. “Today, maybe. Tomorrow? Let’s see.”

Pieter had been sitting quietly. “I want to know more about this Etheric Empire everyone keeps talking about. I mean, I thought it was just a place, like Ogg or Uptarlung.”

Sean shook his head. “No. I mean, it is… It’s an empire that spreads across this galaxy and the next. But it’s far more than just a place. You’ll see. Once you guys pass the test, there will be so much more for you to discover, especially once you’re out there.”

Pieter’s eyes lit up. “You mean, out in the Etheric Empire?”

Sean nodded. “Probably. At least at some point.”

Neechie had shown up and was rubbing his face against Sean’s leg. Paige noticed his arrival and ducked under the table to see. “Looks like you’ve been accepted into the family!” she giggled.

Sean bent down and picked Neechie up. “Seems he likes it when people come clean about their secrets,” he joked.

Molly frowned a little, mentally adding the idle comment as a data point in her understanding of the sphinx. And Sean Royale.

Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Training Facility

Paige pounded away at the bag, but despite her efforts she was hardly making a thwack at all.

Molly yelled over the motivational tunes she had pumping. “Keep your wrists straight or you’ll hurt yourself!”

Paige punched the heavy bag a couple more times, then let her arms go limp. She stepped away from the bag, sweating, a pained expression on her face.

Molly waved the music down and it responded, allowing them to talk using normal voices.

Paige whimpered. “I don’t get it. Why can’t I just stay back out of the danger and let the GI Joels and Seans do the saving?”

Molly frowned. “First rule of damsel school. No one’s fucking coming.”

Paige whimpered. “But I like being a damsel.”

She heard movement behind her and turned around. Joel was padding across the mat, having left his shoes at the door.

Joel had a holoscreen open, but didn’t look to be in a hurry. “You really believe that?” he asked Molly.

Paige looked at him helplessly.

Molly responded. “Yep,” she said flatly. “Relying on someone else to be there for you doesn’t tend to work out too well.”

Molly looked down at his holo. “What’ve you got?”

Joel let it go. “Next mission,” he grinned.

Paige had sat down on a bench and was drinking water. When she heard they had another mission already, she slid dramatically down onto the mat and collapsed in a spread-eagle position. “I can’t. I’m dead. Good-bye, Cruel World. You guys go on without me.”

Molly looked at her and shook her head, smiling. She spun back around to Joel again. “So this one should make up our target, eh?” Her tone was hopeful.

Joel grinned. “Sure will. It’s a hundred thousand credits, and an additional three hundred and fifty thousand if the boy lives.”

Molly tilted her head. “If the boy lives?”

Joel wrinkled one side of his face. “Right,” he said, looking down at the holoscreen, and showing her. “It’s a security escort detail. We need to safely transport an organ from a little town in the nether reaches of Estaria, a place called Dvergasteinn, to Spire. Plenty could go wrong on a trip like that, and the organ has very rigorous conditions. It needs to be transported at a specific temperature, shielded from all forms of radiation, and escorted by a bunch of Estarian priests. Plus, it’s still experimental medicine for Estarians.”

Molly looked up at him and took a small step back. “So we can’t use the Pods?”

Joel shook his head. “Not for the transport. Plus there is an entourage and equipment in the convoy. They have that piece all worked out.”

Molly thought for a moment.

She began unbandaging her hands. Paige noticed, taking it as sign that anti-damsel training was finally over. “That’s a long trip,” Molly noted. “How many hours are we thinking?”

Joel thought for a moment. “I’m guessing it’s about twelve hours, if we don’t stop. Fourteen with breaks.”

Molly didn’t look enthused. “And how many in the convoy?”

Joel flicked through a few screens. “Doesn’t say exactly, but there are six doctors and then med techs and all sorts of attendants and relatives.”

Molly shook her head. “Do we know who the boy is?”

Joel closed his holo. “Nope. And they won’t tell us. Need-to-know, and we apparently don’t need to know.”

Molly sucked on her bottom lip, looking pensive. She sighed. “Seems like a lot could go wrong. Lots of moving parts. And then if the boy lives or dies, it’s still out of our hands once we get the convoy there in one piece.”

Joel perched on a nearby bench used for weights. He took a deep breath. “Yeah. It’s a gamble, that’s for sure.”

Molly sat down on the bench Paige had left and faced Joel. Paige’s leg was still draped over the bench, and Molly moved it off, causing more dramatic harrumphs and death throes from Paige on the floor, plus the delayed thud of her foot hitting the mat.

“Logically it’s not a good call. The odds are stacked against us, and we’ve already got most of the money banked for the General’s test. If we take this and fail, we’re out of pocket for whatever resources we use and potentially tired, or we would possibly have missed the next opportunity that might be more of a fit.”

I concur with your logic.

“Oz agrees with me,” she added.

But we’ve just received a communication on that case. You’ll probably want to review it before making a decision.

What is it?

A letter from the parents to the medical board about their son. And an image. 

Ok, put it up on the holo. 

Molly looked down and opened her holo. “Looks like Framan sent us some more details,” she told Joel.

Joel got up to look at the holo screen over her shoulder.

Oz pulled up the image. It was of a little Estarian boy, maybe six years old. He was wired up to machines, presumably trying to keep him alive.

Molly went quiet, trying to integrate this into her decision-making equation. Her brain just went foggy. She had the details, but she didn’t know how to put it all together to make a choice.

Joel sighed and sat down on the bench next to her. Paige raised herself off the mat and peered over Molly’s arm at the picture.

A moment later Paige was on her feet, stripping her bag gloves and wraps from her hands, her demeanor now serious and commanding. “Well, I think that decides it. I’m hitting the showers, and I’ll let the others know we’ve got a job.”

Molly watched her leave, envying how easy it was for Paige to make a decision like this. She looked across at Joel. “So I guess that decides it?” she asked, looking for confirmation.

Joel nodded. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said, quietly but firmly. “Every life matters.”

Molly nodded, glad of her team’s guidance. She didn’t dare admit that she actually didn’t know what the right call was in this instance, but she was glad they were going to try and save the little boy.

Joel got up from the bench. “I’ll have a word with the guys, see what equipment we might need and how soon we can be ready.”

Molly nodded. “Thank you. And then Oz can let everyone know the specifics. Let’s assume we’ll use the Pods to get to the convoy, and then work from there.”

Joel hesitated a moment, then decided he needed to say it. “You know, what you told Paige, that nobody’s coming…”

Molly nodded. “Yeah?”

Joel looked serious. “It’s not true,” he told her. “I need you to know that I’ll always come for you.”

Molly smiled. “Thanks.”

Joel shook his head. “No. You’re not hearing me. Or you’re not believing that it’s true, but I need you to understand this. No matter what happens, or how bad it gets, or what the odds are. I’m. Always. Coming.”

His eyes were intense.

Molly felt something in her solar plexus leap. She wasn’t used to this kind of communication. Or this kind of outright commitment. She felt the brain fog set in again.

He didn’t move closer to her. He wasn’t trying to make a move. So why was he talking like this? Why would he make this kind of promise?

Her face was blank. She didn’t know how to respond, but her insides were a hive of activity. Eventually she figured out that she could nod, and simply said, “Ok.”

Joel seemed to accept her response, and didn’t push further. He just copied her “Ok”, then smiled and padded back out of the room.

Molly’s brain was awash in thoughts. Showers, she managed to compute. Hit the showers, then think about the mission. 

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

Molly sat in the conference room, legs underneath her body, swiveling in her chair. In her hand, she had a mocha-flavored post-workout protein shake that Paige had managed to procure on their latest supply shipment from some inter-system delivery service called “The Zonk.”

Ok, Oz, we need to get our asses in gear on this one. Normally prep for a protection detail like this would take weeks. We’ve got just over an hour. 

No fear. You have the asteroid’s most intelligent entity on the case. 

Molly thought about mentioning ADAM, but then decided against it. In fact, she deliberately tried to shield that thought from Oz.

Tell me more about the religious component of this transfer. 

 Yes, the notes are vague, but I’ve accumulated some research. It seems the Estarians have certain beliefs about a person’s being, or “essence,” as they sometime refer to it. It’s embedded in their tissue. This means that when a medical procedure like a transplant is to occur, the organ needs to be cleansed before it can be inserted into the other body. 

Ok, so then we get it to the hospital and their voodoo masters can do their thing. 

Not so simple. When the organ is out of the body, it is potentially vulnerable to…other influences. That’s why you have at least two priests on any given transportation detail to provide energetic protection to the organ as it is moved. 

Wouldn’t it have been easier to transport the donor? 

Negative. He has already passed away, and they needed to make the harvest.

Molly sighed. She hadn’t done much in the way of Estarian biology. Heck she didn’t even know what the organ they kept referring to was. This task was getting geometrically more complex by the hour.

Ok. Let’s do a complete run down on every element involved. Background checks on all personnel, including financials, references. That includes the people in the hospitals as well as those on the convoy. Let’s look into the parents of the patient who is receiving the organ. I don’t want any surprises there. Then let’s check into all the companies involved, right down to the vehicle rental services used. 

She took a slurp of her protein shake, then set it down before continuing.

Also, I need to know more about the procedure: what it entails, and why there are all these constraints about exposure to radiation and so on. I’m not putting it past them to miss some detail, and those details are what could potentially save this boy’s life. 

You got it. Sending you results of the first background checks now.

Molly took another sip of the shake and settled in. This was going to produce a lot of information to sift through and digest, and they didn’t have much time.

---

Fifty minutes later, Molly stretched her legs, trying to get the blood to return to them.

Oz, you noted something about the financial records of this technician at the transplant facility… Clarence Agel? She doubled back to another screen. 

Yes. 

Something feels…hinky. What are the details?

He’s in a lot of debt, but there were some large deposits made to his mother’s bank account last week.

Clever. No one would have thought to check her bank account. 

Except I did, when I saw his situation. He also stopped working overtime in the last two weeks. 

Good catch. So it’s tenuous, but it might be something. Ok, let’s hone in on him and make sure he’s legit. We need to know anything that could be a clue as to someone trying to foil this transfer. 

Molly stood up and stretched, then continued working through the other files Oz had fed to her device. A few moments later Oz interrupted her.

Found something else. 

Tell me. 

Well, this same Mr. Agel has requisitioned two enviro-insulated transport cases.

Ok… 

He only needs one. 

No other transplants going on?

Not from this facility. 

Ok. We’ve got him. 

Now let’s find out what’s actually going on. Something tells me that we’re compromised before we even take possession of the organ. 












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Hanger Deck

The team had gathered on the hangar deck in the base once again. Molly, having confirmed with ADAM that they were authorized to use the Pods for getting to the surface for this mission, pounded down the metal stairs to join the others.

She arrived just in time to see Crash grab something off one of the Pods. Everyone was laughing, but Sean and Pieter in particular were hysterical. They fist-bumped. Crash did not look amused.

She paused next to Paige, who was giggling and struggling to breathe. “What did I miss?” she asked her.

Paige turned to her, hand over her mouth. “Someone,” she looked at Sean and Pieter, “put a fake Spaceport ticket on Crash’s Pod.”

Molly sniggered, and covered her own mouth. “Those guys…” she said, shaking her head and then quickly composing herself.

Molly walked out to address the group. She stood in front of the Pods again, facing her team. “Ok, folks. Play time is over. Let’s focus.”

The hangar deck fell silent. “You’ve had the mission briefing. Is everyone clear on their roles?”

Everyone nodded.

She glanced around the team. “Right. Be aware of needing to be at different locations when you choose your Pod-mate. Crash, Sean and myself will be going after the real package, so we’ll take two Pods between us.”

She rested her thumbs on her lower hips and stood firmly planted, her feet shoulder-width apart. Mentally, she was battle-ready. “Joel, Paige, Pieter and Brock, you’re guarding the convoy, so you’ll be heading out to the official rendezvous point.”

She looked at the troops, who were already geared up. “Are there any questions?” she asked.

Joel was standing with the troops this time. It seemed that he took on the group mentality when he wasn’t being forced into a leadership role. He raised his hand. “Yeah, why does Sean get to go on the A-team?”

Molly shook her head at him, resisting the urge to club him around the shoulders. “Because I need my Second-in-Command keeping up appearances,” she answered as diplomatically as she could

She wondered briefly if he was just testing her.

Sean grinned. “Worried she likes me more than you?” he asked, glancing at Joel and then back at Molly as he needled them for a reaction.

Joel rose to the banter. “No, ass-wit. I’m worried I’m going to take out all the bad guys and you’re going to feel less of a man.” He paused, as the troops chuckled. “No wait—I guess you must be used to that with all the metal and implants you’re carrying on board.”

Sean kept his expression relatively blank, clearly working against the urge to laugh. “Anyone ever told you that you give shit like a girl?”

Joel cocked his head, and pretended to be thoughtful in his retort. “No. No, I think that’s something unique to you, cyborg.”

Molly watched the two jousting marines for a moment before interjecting. “Gentlemen, please. If you can’t keep your testosterone levels under control I’ll be forced to remove your balls.”

The team chuckled again.

Molly clapped her hands a few times. “All right folks, let’s get out there. We’ve got a life to save, and some rassgats (trans: assholes) to bring down.”

The team took that as their cue to scramble into their Pods. Crash folded up his ersatz Spaceport ticket and shoved it in his pocket.

Sean strode over to the Pod, getting in next to Molly and flipping his middle finger at Joel as he sat down. “See you on the flip side, buddy!” he grinned.

Molly glared at him, then huffed as she pulled her seat harness around her.

Seconds later the Pod closed and they lifted into the air, heading toward the slowly opening hangar doors before whipping into space again. Once again, there were oooohs and ahhhs as Oz maneuvered the Pods to be able to see Gaitune before whizzing them off to the stars and back toward Estaria.

Convoy Rendezvous Point, Edgewater Hospital Parking Lot

The Pods touched down a few yards from the hospital where the transfer was to begin.

Joel was the first one out of the Pods. “Ok, come meet the people and then you three need to get back in the Pods. Slightest hint of trouble, Oz has instructions to get you out of here.”

Paige nodded. Brock hopped out of his Pod, adjusting his atmosuit and joined Paige and Joel. Pieter had ridden in a separate Pod and was just clambering out as Joel finished talking. Brock filled him in.

As they approached the group of people gathering at the convoy, Paige started fidgeting. “These suits Molly wears are damn uncomfortable. How does she even walk with this bloody stick in her vest?”

Joel glanced sideways at her as they marched over to the two trucks. “I dunno. No idea why she even picked that stick up in the first place.” He made a mental note to ask her about that at some point when he got the chance.

Paige rolled her shoulders, trying to get comfortable. “I dunno how effective this is going to be. I mean, I have blue frickin’ skin. Someone is going to notice that.”

Joel shook his head. “Worry not. We just want to give the impression that the whole team is here. Ok, best behavior now.”

They arrived within earshot of the convoy group. Joel counted five doctors, two Estarian priests and two civilians. One of those must be the boy’s father, he thought.

The group turned as one to look at them as they approached.

“Dr. Ravers?” Joel asked.

An Estarian doctor stepped forward. “That’s me. I’m in charge of this transfer.” He held out his hand for Joel to shake.

“Greetings of the day upon you,” he told the doctor. “This is my team: Paige Montgomery, Brock Lysta, and that’s Pieter Alexander.”

The doctor moved to shake their hands too.

Joel explained the plan. “They will be providing air support,” he motioned at the Pods they had just descended in. “I thought I’d be of most use riding with the package, if you’re in agreement.”

The doctor looked perplexed. His hands came up in a defensive gesture. “Ah, no. That won’t be necessary.” He glanced in the direction of the priests. “How about you ride in the truck behind with the rest of us.” He took Joel by the arm and started leading him away, his voice now hushed. “The priests are sensitive about too many people being in proximity to the organ for so long. You, er, understand, of course?”

Joel nodded, hiding his natural suspicion. “Sure,” he agreed. “It will give me a better view of potential incoming anyway.” He looked around. “So, is the organ already in the truck?” he asked.

Dr. Ravers shook his head. “Not yet. The priests will accompany two of the doctors to fetch it now that you’re here.”

Joel gestured to the team, then dropped his hands flat against his combat pants, checking his gear subconsciously. “Ok. Well, we’re here and ready to leave as soon as you are.”

The doctor, looking very serious, scuttled away and spoke to the group, and after faffing about a little, scuttled back. “Ok. They’re going to get it now.”

Joel noticed there was something off about the doctor. “Tell me,” he said, “is there anything you’re concerned about that I might not already know?”

The doctor looked furtively around, then led Joel again, a little further away from his group. “Look,” he said anxiously, “this is a high-profile patient. And the procedure is very…delicate. There is a lot of pressure on this project.”

He was wringing his hands as he spoke. Joel tried to remain casual. “So, is there anyone that you think might want to stop this transfer from happening then?”

The doctor looked shocked at the suggestion. He shook his head vigorously. “No. No. Absolutely not.” Then he paused, as if struck by another thought. “Although, these organs are incredibly rare, and therefore valuable…” his voice trailed off, as his thought did. “New procedure,” he added. He shook his head, as if he were talking himself out of being paranoid.

Joel urged him to continue. “You’re thinking black market?” he asked.

The doctor shook his head. “Just my overactive imagination. I’m sure this will go smoothly. After all, we’ve kept this whole operation very hush-hush. Not even the hospital board knows it’s going ahead.”

Joel was suspicious. Over time he had learned to trust people’s gut instincts more than they trusted themselves.

Dr. Ravers made his excuses and left to organize the final details. Joel observed him carefully, studying his interactions with the others, open to clues.

Within twenty minutes the convoy was pulling out of the parking lot, with Paige, Brock, and Pieter hovering over it on all sides. From their Pods, they continually scanned the surroundings for any activity.

Paige looked over and could see Brock through his Pod window. His expression showed concentration and concern.

“You ok?” she asked over the internal comm channel.

“What, me?” he jested. Then his voice changed, becoming more serious. “Yeah, I’m just hoping there isn’t any real danger. I’m a shit shot,” he said, waving the blaster he’d been issued back at the hangar.

Paige chuckled. “Heck, me too.”

Pieter interjected. “Me three.”

Joel could hear everything. Stuck in the second truck with the kid’s father, uncle and a bunch of other doctors, he was limited in what he could say. He typed a holo message to them all instead.

IT’S OK. I’VE GOT THIS. MIGHT JUST NEED YOU TO LAY DOWN COVER IF ANYTHING HAPPENS, BUT OZ WILL KEEP YOU OUT OF DANGER UP THERE. TRAINING RESUMES IN EARNEST WHEN WE GET BACK THOUGH. YOU KIDS ARE GOING TO LEARN THIS! ;)

He hit send. Then he spoke into the comm to them. “Just keep your eyes peeled from the positions we talked about.”

He knew they had received the message, because Brock’s voice came over the intercom again. “Lay down cover? That’s my kinda shootin’!”

Joel smiled. Brock had been doing well in combat training. He still didn’t know if he could perform in a real scenario, but despite his joking he certainly had the right attitude, and he would improve over time.

Paige’s voice came over the intercom again. She was talking with Brock, knowing that Joel was mostly out of the conversation. “So where do we think the actual organ has gone?” she asked. “Someone else who needs it?” Joel could hear the slight emotional tension in her voice as she considered the possible problem.

Brock answered, as Oz maneuvered his Pod to keep an eye on everything around them. “I think Joel said something about the black market being a possibility.”

Paige was still tense. “So that’s bad people making money out of it, but still someone dying who might need it.”

Brock nodded, still focused on his surveillance task. “Yeah. It still sucks, either way.”

Paige sighed. “I can’t imagine what the boy’s parents are going through.”

She was silent for a little while after that.

Ascender-Grace Hospital, Spire

The Estarian boy lay in his hospital bed, his mother anxiously watching over him. The machines bipped and beeped in rhythm, again and again. Outside the room the clunk and shuffling of normal hospital activities continued.

Inside the room, time stood still.

Two members of the higher clergy waited in the observation room, their eyes glued to the child and his mother.

“There is no doubt the boy brings a message, Your Highness. The field is strong around him.” Brother Orcha glanced briefly at the High Priestess before returning his gaze to the boy.

The High Priestess nodded. “Yes, I was sure before we even arrived in the building. He certainly has something he needs to share with us.” She maintained her posture, even in the face of his possible fate. “His mother still doesn’t know?”

“She knows,” replied Orcha. “She just doesn’t fully accept, plus this is a little distracting. Understandably.”

The High Priestess shook her head briefly. “If that organ isn’t delivered in time, it will no longer make any difference.”

Orcha hesitated. He started to say something a couple of times.

“You want to ask if I believe?” the high priestess asked of him.

Orcha nodded. “Yes, Your Highness.”

She took a deep breath before answering. “I believe it is entirely possible. The dates match up with the ancient calendar. Will he play a part in saving the System? Who knows?” She sighed again, and muttered softly. “But I don’t even know at this point if this System wants saving.”

The priest’s eyes betrayed his crisis. “But if it’s true,” he persisted, “if he could walk between worlds and be the messenger, but he dies? What then?” Orcha’s voice trailed off.

The High Priestess had a sadness in her eyes. “Then our faith will be truly tested. It’s in our ancestors’ hands now.”












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Edgewater Hospital, Dvergasteinn, Operating Theatre #2

Clarence Agel carefully attached electrodes to the organ to keep it stimulated for the transfer. Then he carefully packed it into the temperature controlled, radiation shielded box. As an organ transplant technician, he had been doing this for the body parts of the different races for years. There was something about being intimately familiar with pieces of people. Pieces that would then go into their bodies, never seen by the individual, but which would keep them alive for the rest of their lives.

It was a position of privilege, and a small part of him felt superior for having this intimate knowledge of so many people.

With that arrogance keeping the guilt at bay, he could justify what he was doing. His need was greater than some stranger’s. At least from his perspective.

Besides, no one was ever going to notice in a hick little town like this.

The trauma team had already left the operating theater, and the clean-up crew was starting to arrive. Within half an hour, what had happened here would be nothing more than a footnote on a patient’s record.

He closed the case and carried it out into the corridor. He had the hospital’s instructions to take the organ to the side entrance reception area, where an escort team of doctors would meet him to take the organ to the patient.

He also had his other instructions. So, instead of turning left down the corridor, he turned right, walking as normally as anyone who had been doing the same job for the last thirty years would.

Two doors down, he entered the cold-storage unit where drugs and other temperature-sensitive materials like organic skin grafts were stored. Walking past the rows of lit cabinets to the farthest aisle, he turned in and then stopped mid-way down to locate an identical case on a rack. He replaced it with the one he had just removed from the operating theater.

He stood up again and listened to make sure no one else had come into the room. Hearing only the hum of the refrigeration units, he left the unit and headed back down the corridor. This time he took a left and made his way back past the operating theater and beyond to the side entrance reception area, per his original instructions.

 Striding confidently through the double doors, he found the security guard, Dennis, sitting at his post, whiling away his shift. Dennis was a Secoran, a race who was a rare sight in the main cities of Estaria. But out here in the sticks? Not so much.

“Greetings of the day, Dennis,” he said casually, announcing his arrival.

Dennis turned to him and got to his feet. “Greetings, Clarence! How’s it going?”

“Can’t complain,” Clarence responded. He paused for effect. “Bosses won’t let me,” he added dryly.

Dennis grinned, leaning over and resting his arms on the counter. “What you got happening today?” he asked, eyeing the carrying case.

Clarence gestured at the carrier. “Organ transplant. I was told the pick-up would happen here.”

Dennis looked out toward the doors. “Hmm, I haven’t seen anyone come in yet, though I noticed some folks hanging around outside.”

Clarence left the carrying case on the counter and walked across the foyer to get a better look out the doors. He noticed some trucks and various persons gathering. “That’s probably them. I’m sure they’ll be in any minute,” he confirmed, checking his holo.

He headed back over to the counter. “So what’s new with the Jets?” he asked. He rested his arms on the counter next to the case.

Dennis shook his head with the disappointment reserved only for Game fans. “Not much. They’re still going ahead with that jogeumdo (Secoran trans: damn) transfer. You know, I saw an interview the other night with that chap, what was his name—”

The foyer doors slid open with a whoosh and Dennis looked up at the entrance.

Clarence stood up and turned to see who was coming in. Two Estarians in medical jackets approached the desk, followed by two Estarian priests in full ceremonial dress. The long cloaks appeared to ripple in a way that seemed to defy the laws of both fluid dynamics and gravity.

 One of the doctors spoke first. “Greetings of the day be upon you,” he said politely. “We’re here to collect an organ for transfer.”

Clarence stood to attention and gestured grandly with his right hand. “That would be this one here” he responded, patting the carrying case on the counter. He pulled up the transfer approval on his holo. “If I might see some identification?”

Clarence pulled up the retinal scan app on his holo and indicated to the doctor what he needed to do. The first doctor nodded and allowed him to scan his eye. The holo beeped.

“Great,” he said. “That worked. And the second?” He paused, then smirked. “The second doctor. Not eye.”

The first doctor’s expression went blank and he blinked, not understanding the humor. The second doctor looked a fraction flustered as he stepped forward earnestly to allow Clarence to scan his eye too.

“You know. Coz you have two eyes…” Clarence attempted to explain, now aware that he’d perhaps misread his audience.

The two priests who had entered with the doctors exchanged glances, then returned to observing the proceedings.

The holo beeped for the second doctor’s eye as well. “Ok, you’re all set. Sign here,” he instructed, pushing the little screen out to the first doctor.

The doctor waved his index finger into the holo form to confirm receipt of the organ while the second carefully picked up the carrying case.

The first doctor bowed slightly. “Thank you,” he said, and the whole party turned and walked back out of the reception area.

The doors swept closed behind them.

Clarence turned back to Dennis, whose eyes, he realized, had been fixed on the priests for probably the entire encounter. “Job done,” Clarence concluded, waiting for his buddy to mentally come back into the room.

Dennis, however, was still watching the entourage through the front windows. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day!” He whistled to himself.

Clarence double-tapped the counter with the flat of his hand. “Tell me about it.” He started to leave, then turned and paused for another moment, watching them go. Then, he seemed to remember himself. “Ok, Den. Must dash. Catch you later.”

“Yeah, see you later,” Dennis called after him.

Clarence continued through the interior doors without turning around. “Not if I see you first!”

Dennis shook his head, chuckling quietly to himself as he sat back down.

Clarence made his way back to the storage room where he’d stowed the real organ. Time was of the essence in these matters, and he suspected the courier would be here to collect the asset very soon. Once it was handed off, he’d be done and could relax a little. Though, he admitted to himself, this wasn’t exactly as stressful as he had thought it would be.

He opened the door to the temperature-controlled room and entered. As the door swooshed closed behind him, he felt a cold metal object press on his right temple, and heard the charging of a weapon getting ready to fire.

 A gruff human voice spoke. “Clarence Agel, I presume?”

Clarence swallowed hard and nodded.

The human spoke again. “We need to talk.”

Edgewater Hospital, Dvergasteinn, Storage Room #056, Ground Floor

Clarence Agel stood frozen in the temperature-controlled storage room, awaiting demands from the human with a gun to his head. When no immediate instructions came, he started to turn to look at his captor.

Immediately the metal against his temple was shoved harder into the side of his head.

“Eyes front, eistnaseggur,” the voice ordered. (trans: ball sack)

Clarence faced forward again as he heard footsteps walk past the door.

“Right,” the voice began again as soon as the footsteps had disappeared. “There is only one way this is going to go.” The man paused. “You’re going to tell me exactly what your little setup is, and who the organ is going to and why.”

Clarence gulped.

The gruff voice kept talking. “Then you’re going to keep working as if we hadn’t had this conversation, and deliver the package. The only thing you have any control over is how much force I need to use in order to make this happen. Understand?”

The Estarian nodded.

The voice paused, and the pressure of the metal against his head was reduced a little. “Oh, and I’ll be taking the real organ first, so you’d better show me where it is.”

Only two people on the planet know what happened in the next ten minutes. Clarence Agel was found a few hours later, rocking in a corner of the storage unit. He was suffering from shock, and was unable to talk about his afternoon. Other than that, he was relatively unharmed.

Unreviewed security cameras would have shown a large human male on a motorbike peeling out of the hospital parking lot a few minutes after the encounter.

The footage was never seen by any entity in the Sark System, because, well. There were reasons.

Edgewater Hospital, Dvergasteinn

Sean tore out of the hospital parking lot on a fully vamped bike, efficiently requisitioned by Oz and supplied by Framan.

Careful to remain a safe distance from the mundane-looking navy blue car that had pulled away a minute before, he looked down at his holo to make sure the tracker was functioning correctly.

Satisfied, he decided he should take the opportunity to check in.

He spoke into the microphone in his helmet. “Call Crash,” he instructed. His holo connected a call with Crash, who was waiting upstairs in a Pod.

Crash answered, his tone cool and collected. “You have reached mission control. How may I connect your call?”

Sean spoke in his radio voice, which was just as cool and collected as his teammate’s. “Crash, tailing the pick-up. Have you got eyes?”

There was a slight pause and the line hummed a little. “That’s a negative. One moment,” he said over the comm.

Crash muted the line. “Oz, can you take me closer?”

“Yes. We have more freedom here. In these less populated areas there is very little radar monitoring the skies,” Oz replied.

A few moments later, Crash was hovering above Sean and the target. He unmuted his connection with Sean. “Ok, I have a twenty on you and your tango.”

Sean changed gears to stay well out of the car’s view. “Ok. Stay on my six. Might need a fast extraction. Agel confirmed warehouse is well guarded.”

Crash responded. “Roger that. Let me know when you want that call placed to Detective Lato.”

Sean grunted, remembering that part. He was so used to operating on his own. No back up, no local authorities. He huffed a little, enough for Crash to detect over the line even with all the background noise. “You can probably do that right now. It’ll take him some time to get a unit briefed and on scene.”

There was a pause.

“I don’t need long once I get there,” he added.

Crash smiled to himself, noticing a subtle little facet of Sean’s personality in that very telling statement. He pulled up the number on his holo. “On it now. Leaving the line open, but muting myself to make the call.”

“Understood,” Sean acknowledged.

Sean tailed the car through a couple of villages and farther out into the countryside. Dust was starting to build up on his visor— the force field was doing a shit job of keeping it off. He made a mental note to request better gear on these kinds of ops in the future. It’s not like Framan was deliberately setting them up to fail, but a few tweaks here and there would make their operations run more smoothly for sure. At least they had managed to get him the bike. Much easier to blend in on it in these parts, rather than using technology from the somewhat mythical Etheric Empire.

He watched the car take a right through a hedge into what looked like a dirt track off the red dusty road. He slowed to approach the gap in the hedge with caution so he could see what he was heading into. He hoped the ground was solid enough for the bike. The tires on this machine were designed for the road; anything too sandy and he’d be screwed.

He mentally prepared a Plan B in case he needed to make the rest of the transit in a Pod.

He reached the hedge opening and killed the engine, which switched him automatically into electric only. As he crept forward, he saw that the track the car was following led through a field of tall brittle grasses.

He opened his comm. “Looks like we’ve got the venue,” he told Crash. He heard a click on the line indicating that Crash was receiving, but he was presumably on the call with the police departments still.

Sean followed the car, remaining far enough behind that he was unlikely to be spotted. Thankfully the road wasn’t completely straight, so his presence could be concealed for the most part.

Just as the sand was getting too soft for his wheels, the track terminated in front of a huge building. It seemed to be disused and in desperate need of repair. He knew better, though. This was the central hub for the organ-stealing operation. He had seen operations like this before. He shook his head. A bunch of star systems and umpteen different civilizations, but the shit that people pulled on each other… 

He pulled his thoughts back to the mission. It wasn’t in his best interests to be distracted by rhetoric or social philosophy right now.

The car pulled up right in front of it and an athletic-looking male Ogg in his late twenties got out. He went around to the passenger side and retrieved the package, then locked up the car and walked around to the side of the building.

Sean, still on electric only, parked his bike in the grasses before reaching the opening. No point in being rumbled by his ride, he reasoned.

Crash came on the intercom again. “Be advised, Lato is sending a team. We’ll be in contact with them as soon as they are on final approach.”

“Received,” Sean acknowledged. “I’m following the package in. Switching to infrared visuals.”

Crash muted again. “How the hell can he view the place in infrared? Is that a cyborg thing?” he asked Oz.

“I believe so. I can’t get into his systems because the security is too complex for the processing I have available right now. But the fact that he has systems would suggest he is running more than just your average holosystem and implants,” Oz responded.

Crash shook his head, his face expressionless. “Son of a bitch!”

“Yes, I’d agree with that.” Oz went quiet.

Sean visually scanned the building from top to bottom. “I have three readings on the upper floor, in one corner. Probably an office or a meeting room.” He paused. “Then another eight, no, nine, plus our transporter, on the ground floor.”

Crash clicked his acknowledgment.

He heard some scuffling and the arming of a weapon on the line, then Sean’s voice. “I’m going in.”












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


Ascender-Grace Hospital, Spire

Molly strode down the corridor.

Now where?

Second left, and then straight ahead. You’re looking for the Intensive Care Unit. 

Molly’s footsteps pounded on the bacteria-resistant flooring. She spotted a sign marked “ICU” and followed it through a set of double doors.

The color of the decor changed, and it felt more clinical. Molly stopped walking and looked around a little.

Did I just go through a securifield?

You did. 

Will it damage the organ? 

Unlikely. There is no radiation in those fields, else they’d have all kinds of trouble transporting patients between wards. 

Ok. Let’s hope. Now where? 

Next door on your right. 

Molly stopped outside a private suite. There was no name on the door, just the designation, “Patient Dvergasteinn.”

That’s the location where the convoy started out. 

Yes. There is an eighty-nine percent probability it’s the right place. 

Molly waved her hand in front of the door and it slid open quietly. She entered a small dark room with a large observation window, which overlooked a brightly lit hospital room with a little boy and his mother in it.

The observation room wasn’t empty.

Molly jumped a little as she detected movement to her left. “Er. Greetings,” she fumbled. “I’m here to deliver an organ for transplant. I’m from Framan.”

Two Estarians dressed in regal looking robes turned to face her. They glanced at each other, relief in their eyes. Molly guessed they must be the clergy she’d read about in her research.

“Greetings.” The priestess stepped forward and made a gesture with her hand. Molly wanted to step back a little, but resisted the urge.

“I need to hand this over to a medic,” she said switching into ops mode. She peered into the room, looking for someone to take the carrier from her.

The other cleric bowed a little, then hit the intercom and announced the organ’s arrival, presumably to the relevant party.

“Someone will be here in a moment,” he relayed to her.

The female started talking to Molly. “You have no idea how grateful we are.”

Molly’s right shoulder raised a little in an awkward shrug. “It’s ok,” she said. “Just doing our job.”

The female priest leaned in a bit, her voice hushed but excited. “Yes, but the implications! You don’t know who this is, do you?”

Molly surreptitiously straightened her back and glanced at the door she’d just entered through. “No,” she said quietly. “We’ve been deliberately kept in the dark as to the identity of the family, I assume for their safety.”

The two robed Estarians looked at each other like they knew a secret but were astounded that Molly didn’t.

Molly finally took her half-step backwards, and now that she felt a little more comfortable she was able to make small talk. “There weren’t any priests on the transport here, I’m afraid.” She looked at the carrying case. “I don’t know if that is going to be a problem. There were issues with the convoy that had been arranged.”

Neither priest seemed to be fazed by the information. They continued smiling.

Molly kept talking, awkwardly. “Well, fingers crossed it still works. I mean, I have no idea what kind of organ this even is. My familiarity with Estarian physiology is well, limited to secondary school.”

The priestess held up a hand as if to calm Molly. Or hush her politely. Molly couldn’t tell which. The priestess spoke in a very definite tone now. “It is foretold that the Savior of the Messenger will be the one to bring understanding to this world.”

Molly took a moment to try and parse what she had just heard. She was confused, so she shrugged. “Er, messenger. Yeah. I’m just dropping off the organ for the transplant.”

The priestess smiled knowingly. “Are you not saving this boy’s life?”

Molly shifted the carrier onto her hip. “Er… Yeah, I guess.”

She glanced into the room where the boy lay. It looked like his mother was praying now. Molly kept watching through the window as she spoke, distracted. “I, er… I dunno if the energy field has been compromised.” She gestured at the carrier.

The priestess smiled knowingly at her. “The organ has been well protected. Thank you for your service, Molly Bates.”

Just then the door behind her opened and a couple of doctors rushed in. Molly’s attention came back to the little room. She completed the necessary retinal scans and took their signatures. As soon as that was done, she handed over the carrying case to one of the doctors.

She turned to leave, then glanced at the priestess. “I’ll just, er…” she pointed at the door, indicating her intent to get far away from the situation. “So, er…good luck,” she muttered, and then hurried past the doctors without making eye contact again.

Tell me there were a world of odd things about that conversation. 

Yes. I was confused as to how she might know your name. 

I’m wondering if this is one of those ‘seeing’ priestesses that Paige was talking about. 

Possibly. No way to hack that kind of circuitry to find out, though. 

You mean her brain? No, Oz, you cannot hack a person’s brain. She paused. Can you? she thought mostly to herself.

Molly shook her head, smiling at the parallel thought processes she and Oz shared. She wouldn’t admit it out loud, but hacking a physical brain was something she had often contemplated how to do.

Let’s check in with the others. Then I need a bloody strong mocha. And a rest. 

Sure. Closest location for what you could term a ‘decent mocha’ is in the cafeteria. Sean is just about to breach the building where the empty case was taken. 

And Joel? 

Two, maybe two and half hours out from Spire at their current velocity. 

Looks like we’ve got some time to kill then. Which way to the cafeteria? 

Abandoned Warehouse, Dvergasteinn

The place was like a war zone. Injured people were strewn throughout the warehouse and gathered in front of the building. Ambulances were still arriving to whisk away those in the most need of medical help.

Not everyone was going to be leaving for the hospital in an ambulance, though.

The transporter of the empty organ case sat in the back of an ambulance. He was one of the lucky ones. A police sergeant was making notes on his holo while recording the testimony in real-time for evidence in the courts.

“He came in and then death just started happening,” the Ogg stammered, shock starting to set in as his body temperature dropped. “Once he’d thrown me to the floor, guys with guns started shooting at him, and he was like boom, boom, boom!” He pulled the foil-lined sheet around him tighter and shivered. “I don’t think he missed a single shot.”

The lanky police sergeant stood next to him at the ambulance door while a paramedic took care of the patient. “And where were you when this was happening?” the sergeant asked.

“On the floor by the door. I mean, that’s where I started, but then he was shooting, and the guys were shooting back at him. I didn’t want to get shot, so I just crawled on my belly to get behind the tables in there. “He gestured feebly in the direction of the warehouse he’d been pulled from just minutes before.

The officer nodded professionally, careful not to convey any sense of sympathy. “And then what happened?” he asked him, making a note on his holo.

“Well, some others popped out,” the Ogg muttered, reliving the event in his mind’s eye, “but they didn’t have weapons, so he tied up two of them. Then even more guys with guns came down. You know, Doork’s guys. They must have been upstairs. Anyway, he shot some of them in like their kneecaps and stuff, then took some of them out.” The transporter’s eyes slid left and right, remembering the event and relaying it as best as his scrabbled brain would allow. “He dragged them into the other room. I didn’t see what happened then. There was like, screaming and talking. And maybe another few gunshots.”

The police office looked up from his holo briefly. “How many?” he asked.

The transporter shook his head. “Dunno. One, two. Maybe three. I was panicking. I thought for sure he was going to come back and finish me off.”

The sergeant continued interviewing the survivor while his partner debriefed Sean.

Sean sat in the back of the squad car, calm as a lion facing a squirrel.

The squirrel sat in front, but had turned around in his seat to talk to Sean. Each of them had their door open. It was more just a place to have a quiet conversation that wasn’t out in the open than a formal interview.

The officer asked Sean his questions. “So you didn’t have anyone else on the ground to help you?”

Sean answered flatly. “No. Just me here. I had team support for the other elements of the operation, though.”

The officer looked confused. “Ok. So, just who are you working for?”

Sean looked a little bored, but answered the question. “Company is called Framan. I’m sure if you call your boss he’ll tell you I’m free to go. This was all pre-authorized.”

The officer nodded congenially. “Yes, yes, I’ve already spoken with him. We’re not charging you. I just want to understand… I mean…with respect…who the hell are you?”

Sean smiled a little. “Sean Royale. Former Space Marine.”

The officer seemed to recover his balls for a moment. He shook his head, smiling. “Yeah. Not buying it. You’re something else as well.”

Sean flashed a mysterious smile. “Well, that’s a story for another time.” He enjoyed being able to get locals all curious—one of the perks of his job. He’d noticed that the General enjoyed doing the same on occasion. And heck, if it was ok for the General, it was ok for him.

Sean got out of the squad car. “Well, if there’s nothing else you need me for, I have to go provide support for the final part of this op.”

The sergeant got out of the car too. “Yeah. Sure. I can’t keep you, I guess.” He walked around the door and held out his hand.

The thirty-something-year-old police officer looked at Sean in admiration. “When I grow up, I wanna be just like you,” he said, half joking but half not. He grinned at his own corniness.

Sean extended one hand and gave him a pat on the shoulder with the other. “Keep eating kale and pepperoni pizza and you’re halfway there, kiddo,” he said.

Sean strode away to collect his bike from its hiding place.

The officer watched him leave, wondering.

Oz interrupted his thoughts via his auditory implant. “Sean, I have a suggestion.”

Sean typed into his holo, LEMME GET MY HELMET ON AND I CAN TALK TO YOU.

He arrived at his bike and grabbed his helmet out of the storage box. “Ok, shoot,” he told Oz.

Oz delivered his update. “Framan is happy to retrieve the bike from this location. They need to send someone anyway to smooth things over with the local police. Relationships and all, I believe. I’ve been advised by ADAM that there is something else they want you to do before you rendezvous with the team in Spire.”

“Oh, ok.” Sean responded, a little surprised at the sudden deviation from their well-crafted plan.

Oz’s voice was enjoying the mystique, almost as much as Sean had done with the police officer. “Yes, it’s a little errand,” he explained, cryptically. “But you’ll need to take the pod, so I suggest dropping Crash at the Spire hospital, and then zipping off to do this quietly.”

Sean answered slowly. “Er. Yeah. You wanna fill me in?”

“Of course,” Oz agreed cordially. “Let’s get Crash dropped off first.”

Sean couldn’t believe it— this was coming from an AI! “You’re deliberately keeping me guessing, aren’t you?”

Oz sounded happy. “Yes, I’m learning the art of suspense.”

Sean didn’t answer.

“Sean?” Oz prompted.

More silence.

Oz tried again. “Sean?”

“What?”

Oz sounded almost irritated. “Why didn’t you answer?” he asked.

“I’m mastering suspense too,” Sean replied flatly.

“Dickhead,” Oz retaliated.

“Right back at you, binary bitch!” Sean chuckled.

Oz was quiet again. Sean could almost feel him whirring in his audio implant.

Finally Oz responded. “Touché, Sean Royale. Touché.”

A moment later Crash’s Pod arrived. Sean hopped in and filled him in on the plan, at least what little he knew about.

The police sergeant who had been debriefed by Sean was headed back to the building to see how the documentation of the scene was going when he sensed movement behind him. He swung around just in time to see the Pod lift about fifteen feet and then disappear above the tree line.

He shook his head.

Damn alien tech. Wish I could get in on that, he thought, turning back to the mundane job in hand.

He walked past his partner, who was still interviewing the transporter.

“And you picked up the organ from Edgewater Hospital?” he was asking.

“Yeah. That’s right. I had no idea I was being followed. I mean, we’re trained on that. I have no idea how this guy tracked me. He must have moved like a ghost or something…”

Johnstone Residence, Spire

The police scanner chattered away in Maya’s implant.

“Be advised. We have made contact. No need to send reinforcements.”

Her apartment was dimly lit and the curtains were drawn against the daylight. Maya preferred to work in the half-light. She had a theory that the blue light from her holos and equipment overstimulated her brain, making it difficult to focus and achieve deep concentration.

“What do you mean?” the controller asked.

“Situation is under control,” replied the officer at the scene.

Maya cocked her head, listening for any details that might help explain what the hell was going on.

The controller spoke again. “Hang on, Sergeant. The Captain wants to speak with you.”

The line crackled, and then a third voice came on the line. It was older and smacked of authority. “What do you mean you don’t need reinforcements? What’s going on?”

The sergeant’s voice was even, as if he wasn’t even trying to comprehend what had just happened too. He relayed only what he knew for fact. “It looks like one guy took them all out.”

The Captain paused, then asked: “What? You mean he killed them?”

“Not exactly, sir. Some are dead. Very bloody and very dead. But he left three alive.” He paused to catch his breath a little. “We’re questioning them now. Will know more in a few hours. But by all accounts, this guy is dangerously efficient.”

That has to be Royale, Maya thought to herself as she listened, excited by the revelation.

The Captain noticed the admiration in his voice. The sergeant continued, “First look says he’s left us everything we need to shut this operation down for good.”

The captain waited to make sure his sergeant didn’t have anything else to report, then said, “Well that is good news. Keep me posted.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“I’ll advise Lato,” added the Captain.

“Very good, sir.”

The call ended.

Maya Johnstone looked up from the console at her little desk, then played back the recording for the umpteenth time and listened again before scribbling some more notes into her holo.

This one smacks of the off-world clandestine crew, she thought to herself. Plus it looks like the algorithms for the police scanners are working.

She checked the location. It was a day’s drive from here. No way she could get there before everything had been wrapped up.

But… she opened another holoscreen, I wonder if this is related to anything else going on?

She checked the location of the squad car that had made the call to Control, then opened her custom data channels and started inputting keywords: Dvergasteinn, Lato, Molly Bates, Sean Royale…

Hopefully something will come up. She hit Search, then remembered her contact at the Spaceport.

She opened the message app on her wrist holo and typed: GREETINGS NED. HOW ARE YOU?

SEND.

Some days she loved her job. And even though she wasn’t officially working right now, today was one of those days.

Besides, she reasoned, it’s not like answers were just going to show up on her doorstep.












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


ArchAngel III, Yollin Space

The General rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger as he reclined in his ergonomically-designed antigrav control chair.

“It’s times like this I wish I had Bethany Anne’s processing power to whip through this,” he grumbled crankily.

>> Yes, I’m sure that would be advantageous, although I do perform a large portion of the heavy lifting for you these days. <<

The general dropped his hand to the arm rest and took a deep breath. “Yes, and I appreciate your efforts, ADAM.” He glanced out the window into space. “Ok, two more items, then I’m heading to my quarters to have dinner with Patricia. She’s cooking Earth food tonight, and I for one am ready to call it a night.”

>> Very well, Sir. The next item is our friend in Sark.<<

The general brought his gaze back into the room, paying closer attention now. “What’s she done now?” he asked, a hint of frustration in his voice.

>> She’s…persisting. Her success threatens our entire operation in that sector. <<

Lance exhaled and closed his eyes. “Yep, you’re right.” He started to sit up again. “I recommend termination.”

>> You would. <<

Lance tilted his head. “It can be that simple,” he said flatly, teasing the ancient AI.

>> Your actual orders, sir? <<

“Ok, let’s wrap it up. Have Sean bring her in. She clearly knows too much at this point.” The General rocked a little in his chair. “Last item, then I’m out of here.”

Ascender-Grace Hospital, Spire

Molly sat alone in the deserted hospital cafeteria. The harsh metal and the hard surfaces made it feel clinical without being sterile. She nursed her second mocha, her eyes focused on a spot of old food dried onto the table in front of her.

Looks like dried mashed-up meat. 

Maybe stew. 

Could just be lumpy gravy. 

Her thoughts drifted, no longer seeing the debris. Or the table. Her mind churned through the events of the last several days: Bethany Anne’s image on the ship, the hangar deck, the ops room, the General, and frickin’ ADAM.

She absentmindedly shook her head.

She realized that on some level she was grateful to have been able to sit and just be for the last few hours. And Oz had strangely left her alone, apart from a few moments ago when he announced Crash’s arrival at the hospital. She wondered briefly what Oz was up to, he went so quiet.

There was movement by the door on the other side of the cafeteria. Crash came marching in, glancing over at the empty displays and the handful of busy kitchen staff clearing up.

He arrived at Molly’s table. She made an effort to focus and meet his eyes.

“Hey,” she said.

He put his hand on the seat opposite her. “Hey. You managed ok?” he asked.

She nodded and pushed the almost-empty mocha cup away. “There’s mocha in those pots over there. It’s not fresh, but not terrible.”

Crash sat down, looking in the direction of the self-serve. “I’ll pass,” he decided. He glanced around the cafeteria again, aware of the number of people around and the distance from each, just as he’d learned in the Space Marines. Then he peered at Molly, noticing she hadn’t lifted herself out of the contemplative mood she’d been in when he arrived. “The boy in surgery?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Molly looked at her holo. “Should be out soon, though. Wanna head down there?”

Crash nodded, pushing his chair back. “Sure.”

Molly took one last look at her cup and reached for it, but then decided to leave it. She got up and followed Crash out of the cafeteria, watching the space on the floor between her feet and his heels.

Crash stopped and turned to her as they stepped out of the cafeteria. “So you know that Sean had to go do something?” he checked, aware that she still wasn’t quite herself.

“Yeah,” she answered, this time not looking up, but tracing her path with her eyes. She looked tired. Mentally tired, rather than physically. Her eyes were a little hollow and dark around the sockets.

“Secret mission for the General?” he asked.

She pulled a little face and did a mock-serious voice. “Empire business.”

Crash had a hint of a smile as he turned to continue down the corridor with her, relieved that the old Molly was still in there somewhere.

The pair wandered through the labyrinth of clinical-feeling corridors and found their way to the waiting area for the ward where Molly had found the boy a little while ago.

They chose their seats, and slumped down. Molly leaned over in Crash’s direction briefly, too tired to actually turn and look at him. “Your day go ok?” she asked, making the effort.

Crash bobbed his head. “Yeah. Was good. Got the bad guys.” He paused, then corrected himself. “Well, Sean got the bad guys. Singlehandedly,” he added. He leaned in her direction too, nudging shoulders, before sitting up straight again. “Why don’t you lie down and get some rest? You look beat.”

Molly grunted, but stayed still, almost catatonic.

Crash flicked up his holo and started reading, or surfing, or whatever the hell pilots did when they had time to kill.

A short time later there was a clatter outside. The doors to the ward whooshed open, and Paige came stumbling in, followed by Joel, Pieter and Brock

Joel headed straight over to Molly and sat down on her other side, although there was a mocha table between them. “You doing ok?” he asked. She had barely lifted her eyes to greet him.

She nodded. “What happened? Did they sign for it?”

Joel nodded. “Yup. Genuinely surprised. Doesn’t look like anyone at this end had anything to do with it. At least the folks I saw.”

Molly acknowledged the information with a “hmm.”

Joel looked at her. “So, you get your package delivered ok?” he asked.

She nodded again. “Waiting for him to come out of surgery.”

Just then a tall, athletic-looking Estarian came striding in; the boy’s father, who had ridden in the convoy with Joel. Instead of looking confused, he seemed happy and positively relieved.

Joel stood up as he approached. The man held out his hand to shake Joel’s. Molly forced herself to make eye contact, and even managed a slight smile.

“I can’t thank you enough,” the father told them both. He held out his hand to Molly too. She stood and took his hand. “They say that he’s going to be ok. He’s out of surgery and coming around already. It’s…it’s incredible!”

Molly smiled, and although she was exhausted, her heart felt full for a moment. Contented.

“Thank you both,” he said again. “I’m just heading in to see him. Would you like to come?”

Joel made the right noises and gestured for him to lead the way. The father looked around briefly to orient himself and led them through another set of doors to a corridor and then into the observation room. He went straight into the hospital room itself to join the boy and his mother.

Molly and Joel stayed in the observation room where she had seen the priests earlier. When the others filed in behind them, Joel moved over to make space. He wanted their team to see what they’d accomplished.

Just as the father arrived, the boy’s eyes flickered open and he looked up to see his parents. The father grinned in a way Joel wouldn’t have thought his face could contort. A tear fell from the mother’s eye as she clasped her hands to her chest, then put them around the little boy’s face, looking at him in complete relief and adoration.

The father, beside himself with emotion, caught the boy’s eye and then pointed vigorously at the window. He realized that the one-way filter was on and stepped over to adjust the control. The window became two-way, and the father said some words to him, perhaps explaining that these were the people who had saved his life.

The little boy, still groggy and disoriented, looked over at the window and smiled.

His eyes met Molly’s.

Molly caught her breath, overcome with emotion as they connected. He looked so vulnerable, but there was a light inside of him.

Then, for a moment, the boy looked familiar. Like she’d seen him before. Or that she knew him. Her mind raced, trying to connect where and who, but she came up blank. She didn’t know any children. That wasn’t her world. But strangely, she felt something she couldn’t place.

Almost subconsciously, she became aware of that her right hand had raised to shoulder height, and she waved her fingers. The boy lifted the hand nearest the window and waved back as best he could.

Joel, standing on the other side of the observation area, noticed each of the team taking a moment to appreciate that the boy was alive, and their part in it. Paige wiped a tear from her eye.

But it was Molly’s connection with the boy that had him curious. He noticed the wave, and the little boy waving back at her. He smiled to himself.

It was good for her to connect. Today was a win, in more ways than one. 

Two Thousand Feet Up, Somewhere above Spire

Having just deposited Crash in the parking lot and pointed him in the direction of the cafeteria where Molly was getting her fix, the Pod containing Sean Royale lifted back into the sky.

Sean held on tightly to the grip bars in the Pod and quickly scanned around him for the seatbelt. Joel wasn’t here. He could use it with impunity if he wanted to.

“Ok, Oz,” he started. “Easy on the gees.”

Over the Pod’s comm, Oz replied, “Yes, Sean.”

Something was up.

Oz was being too…nice. Sean settled back into the seat as the Pod evened out.

“Ok,” he said, suspiciously. “Now are you going to tell me exactly what is going on?”

The audio crackled a little. “Yes, Sean. Now I will tell you.”

Sean raised his eyes to the sky in frustration with this young AI. Give him two-hundred-year-old ADAM who had been whipped into shape by the Queen Bitch herself any day.

Sean waited.

Oz started explaining. “ADAM has asked us to collect one Maya Johnstone.”

“Maya Johnstone?” Sean repeated. “She was on our watch list.”

Oz seemed to have mastered the nuances of a sarcastic tone. “So I’m told,” he replied. “Apparently our activities tripped one of her alarms on the police scanner today, and since she’d already hacked Molly’s ship—”

Sean’s eyes widened spontaneously.

Oz continued. “—and is fast gathering a dangerous amount of intel on our operation, ADAM advised that we pick her up and bring her in for a conversation.” He paused. “The General agreed.”

Sean was suspicious again. “What kind of conversation?” he asked, carefully.

It almost sounded like Oz chuckled. “Ah,” he qualified. “not the kind that you’d normally have. More the ‘make-friends-and-possibly-recruit’ kind that Joel has.”

Sean nodded, impressed with where this was going. “Ok, great. So where is she, and how much does she know about us?”

“She’s about two thousand feet directly below us, and, well, she knows who you are.”

Sean almost screamed. “Whaaaaaat?” he asked, abandoning his cool, collected, EE-Marine demeanor.

Oz sounded satisfied. “Yes. I predicted you might have just such have a reaction.” He made the chuckling sound again. “The reality is, she’s good. Even ADAM was impressed, given she is…organic. And he hasn’t been impressed since, well, Molly.”

Sean resisted the urge to ask whether ADAM thought Maya or Molly was smarter. He knew chicks hated being compared.

“So how much does she know?” he asked.

Oz seemed to have settled down, and had returned to his normal tone. “Only that you don’t show up on any databases, and that your name is Sean Royale.”

Sean nodded his head and shifted in his seat, knowing what was coming next. “Ah. Well, I can live with that,” he conceded.

Oz added one more detail. “She also suspects you’re…enhanced.”

“Huh?” He paused, processing the implications. “Well there goes that surprise. I could have used it for leverage.” He looked out into the atmosphere, which at this height was red-hued from the light of Sark refracting off dust and water particles. “Have you told Molly and Joel?”

Oz confirmed. “They’re both aware.”

Sean took a deep breath. “Anything else?” he asked.

“No, that’s it,” Oz told him. “Ready?”

Sean smirked. “Born ready.” His hands tightened on the grip bars he had been holding as the Pod rapidly descended to ground level.

Sean nearly lost his stomach. In the back of his mind he wondered if Oz was experimenting with how much he could mess with people before they pushed back. The sarcasm was probably just the beginning of it.

The Pod came to a stop, then opened.

Oz gave his final instruction. “I’ll collect you here when you’re ready. Try not to scare the girl. ADAM says she carries Ogg repellent.”

Sean shook his head in amazement—partly that he was now taking orders from Oz as well as ADAM and partly because he’d just been informed what kind of journalist he was picking up.

Girls that stay out of trouble don’t find it necessary to carry Ogg repellent. Generally.

“I’ll watch my step,” Sean said gruffly, as he hopped heavily out of the Pod. A second later the Pod disappeared, and Sean headed over to the front door of Maya’s building.

He hit the heads-up display. “Maya Johnstone please.”

The display brought up her name.

Maya Johnstone

The audio connected. “Hello?” Sean said politely. “Maya Johnstone? This is Sean Royale.”












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Johnstone Residence, Spire

Sean knocked, announcing his arrival at her apartment door.

Maya went to the closed door. “Why are you here?” she demanded.

Sean couldn’t help himself. “You’ve been a bad girl.” He kept his face straight, but he was amused.

Maya peered into the door holo, trying to decide whether or not to let the man she’d been trying to track for the last several weeks into her apartment. “Not as bad as you’ve been,” she retorted coldly.

 Sean resisted the urge to shake his head, and kept it semiprofessional. He spotted the holo camera trained on the spot where he stood. “You’re the one who has been tracking me,” he answered, keeping his voice low. He looked up and down the corridor, checking for eavesdroppers.

Maya thought for a moment, her hand on the doorknob. “Is that why you’re here?” she asked, her mind racing. “To silence me?”

Sean kept his voice as neutral as he could. “No, actually. Turns out the boss wants a word with you.”

Ok, epic fail on the professional thing, he told himself.

Her hand was still on the knob. “Who’s your boss?” she demanded.

Always collecting intel, he observed. Sean shook his head once before catching himself.

“You’ll see,” he answered out loud.

Maya hmmphed. “Good thing I already know you’re the good guys,” she retorted.

Sean just couldn’t leave it alone. “How do you know that?” he needled. And why are you still breaking my balls out here? he added to himself.

Maya smiled behind the closed, locked door, resting her forehead on it. “Like you said, I’ve been a Very. Bad. Girl.”

Sean sighed quietly to himself. Women!

He used his diplomatic voice. “Does that mean you’re going to come with me?”

Maya smirked a little, now openly enjoying the banter. “Depends,” she told him, her tone now more flirtatious than ‘fuck you.’ “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?”

Sean had picked up a thing or two about negotiation. “If I do, will you come?”

“Yes,” she responded directly.

He believed her. Apart from anything else, she was curious as all fuck. He smiled to himself, still aware of the camera trained on him. “Remember that ship you hacked into?”

“Yes,” she confirmed simply.

“Remember the asteroid location you pulled off it?” he asked.

“I do.”

“There’s your answer,” he told her.

There was a slight pause.

 “I’ll get my coat,” she answered.

Sean shook his head. The door opened and he heard footsteps heading off across the room. Taking it as an invitation to enter, he stepped inside to see an Estarian woman disappear into the bedroom. A minute later she came out again, lipstick and atmosuit on.

Maya smiled at him. “Ok, let’s go.”

Sean, keeping his expression blank, turned and headed back out into the corridor.

Maya followed him out of her apartment, locking the door behind her. “I feel like Alice, being invited down the rabbit hole,” she confided, her voice more like a young girl’s than the self-assured journalist he had just been negotiating with.

Sean grinned. “Wait until you meet the Queen of Hearts!”

The two headed down the stairs to the outside.

The Toroid Desert Club, Outskirts of Spire

Jessica was excited to finally have the opportunity to present her ideas to the group. Between implementing the plan to thwart Molly and her team and dealing with other business, the retreat was turning out to be quite…tedious.

But now she got her chance to play with something she had been mulling over for a little while. “Do you know how the healthcare system is set up at the moment?”

There were a few nods from the attendees.

Jessica glanced around the table, now in presentation mode. “Well, I’ve been thinking. With this latest change in the Health Care Act, we’ve got ourselves a real opportunity.”

Garet cocked his head a little. “How do you mean?” he asked, clearly trying to encourage her enthusiasm.

Jessica took a sip of water and put the glass back down. “Well,” she continued, looking at the glass as she chose her words, “right now we’re on the brink of having—what? sixty percent?—of the population receiving their health services through the healthcare companies. And this includes all treatments: hospital stays, drugs and so on. Now, the one we care about is drugs. It’s scalable with very little overhead.”

Both Mac and Andus nodded casually as she spoke.

Jessica looked back at Garet. “All we need to do is tie this health system into the economy and we have an entire population that is economically…enslaved. To us. And with no regulation on pricing of treatment, they have to pay through the healthcare companies if they want treatment.”

Andus seemed nonplussed by her comments.

Mac needed to turn his head to look at her, as they were sitting next to each other again. He rested his elbow on the table and kept his index finger across his mouth as he absorbed her logic.

Garet shook his head, his arms extended on the table, hands parallel to each other but bouncing gently on the desk as he spoke. “But that means that the healthcare companies will make all the profit.”

Jessica smiled and glanced at her mentor, who now had a hint of a smug smile at the corners of his lips. “Guess who really owns the healthcare companies?” she posited. She looked at Garet with a glint in her eye.

Garet stared at her for a moment, then turned and looked at Andus. “No shit? Seriously?” he asked, trying to understand the specifics. “Since when?”

Jessica glanced back at Andus. He waved his hand, permitting her to share. Jessica was giddy with excitement, but tried to remain nonchalant. “Well,” she began slowly, “Andus has been accruing them for ancestors-know-how-long…” Her voice trailed off a little, and then her smile spread across her whole face. “But I just bought my first one today. Anonymously, of course.”

Garet looked fleetingly concerned, but quickly remembered himself and his agenda. He gave his best fake smile. “Why, Jessica,” he exclaimed, “that’s just fantastic. Congratulations!”

Jessica beamed at him. “Thank you, Garet.”

“Yes, congratulations, Jessica,” agreed Mac, slightly less enthused.

She glanced sideways in his direction and acknowledged him politely.

Garet had a thought. “Hey, you know what might be an option, longer term?”

Andus leaned forward. “Go on…”

Garet stood up halfway and reached for the water jug in the middle of the large table. He poured himself some water, then sat back down again. “Well, we all know what a huge effect nutrition has on the health of a population. I mean, why else do we keep suppressing that research?” He glanced around the room, hands open, waiting for agreement.

Andus shifted in his chair to better look at Garet.

Garet, taking their silence as agreement, continued, “Well, like I said, this might be a long shot, but what if we were to erm…adapt the food industry to provide food that actually made people sick. Or sicker. You know, with sugars, and artificial “nutrients” and such.

Jessica looked intrigued. “Well, we have already developed a lot of those kinds of substances, but we never thought we could get them into the food industry.”

Garet pursed his lips thoughtfully. He paused before answering, “Even if it made food production cheaper and more profitable?”

There was a long silence in the board room.

Then suddenly Andus slapped his hand down hard on the table, pushed back his chair a little, and started laughing. “Hahhahahaa! That’s a good one Garet!”

He was positively tickled. His shoulders jumped up and down as he guffawed, and the others suddenly seemed to come to the same conclusion about the idea.

Jessica roared with laughter. “That’s great. Using the food industry to make people sicker!”

Garet joined in, feeling ridiculous for suggesting something so unrealistic.

Even Mac was beside himself with mirth. Eventually he wiped a tear from his face and tried to catch his breath. “Garet, I had my doubts about you, but I like a man with a sense of humor. You’re all right in my book.”

Andus shook his head. “It’s a nice idea,” he agreed, looking sympathetically at Garet. “It would, however, never work.”

The group were still trying to compose themselves when there was a knock at the door.

“Enter!” called Andus above the hubbub and chuckles, taking out his handkerchief and drying his eyes from all the laughter.

The Ogg known as Erik came in, waddling purposefully across the room. He passed Mac and Jessica on their side of the board room table and headed straight toward Andus. He whispered something in his ear.

A few somethings.

The room fell silent, trying to overhear what was going on and waiting with anticipation for the content of the message.

Andus nodded as the Ogg talked, then promptly dismissed him.

Erik waddled back toward the door. He started to close it behind him, then hesitated and took his hand off the knob.

He looked at the doorknob again, then turned it and stepped outside, leaving the door open. A moment later he changed his mind, grabbing the knob and pulling the door closed.

The group watched the door shut.

Jessica was about to speak again when the doorknob turned and the door opened a crack. Noisily. The group heard a decisive grunt from the other side of the door, then footsteps waddling away down the corridor.

Jessica shook her head. Garet caught her eye and smiled.

Andus looked like he was about to speak. “Our operation,” he told them, “has failed.”

Stunned silence filled the room.

Jessica, Garet and Mac exchanged glances.

Andus looked at each of them in turn. “When I say failed, I mean that somehow the Bates girl and her team of reprobates have succeeded.”

“The boy lives,” he continued, his speech picking up both speed and volume. “And not only that, but the whole operation of gathering organs and supplying the unofficial market has been discovered and shut down. Almost all personnel involved in that area have been killed, or worse, compromised.”

Jessica’s mouth was open in exasperation. “How could this happen? For a start, they were supposed to be too exhausted to even function. How did they find out about the switch? That’s…that’s impossible!” Her disbelief slowly turned into anger.

Mac was looking at something on his holo. Jessica glanced over at him in irritation, ready to chastise him for not having his attention on the issue in hand.

Mac managed to speak first. “More bad news,” he said seriously. “Looks like our anonymous whistleblower has posted again.”

Andus’ eyes turned cold grey. “Something needs to be done about that reporter,” he said quietly. He looked at Jessica. “See to it,” he ordered her.

Jessica lowered her eyes. “Yes, sir,” she acknowledged.

Ascender-Grace Hospital, Spire

“Molly is in the Intensive Care waiting area,” Oz announced when the Pod carrying Sean and Maya dropped onto the parking lot.

Maya had refused to put her seatbelt on, and had instead pressed up against the window trying to see everything she could as they had shot up and then dropped back down on the other side of town.

“This is incredible!” she breathed with her nose pressed against the window.

“Miss Maya, you’re humidifying my heads-up display,” Oz commented.

She took her sleeve and aimlessly wiped the fogged-up spot. She turned and looked at Sean. “So, this is where the organ was going?”

Sean nodded. “Yup. This is it.”

The Pod opened and Sean got out, then turned to help Maya out. She took his hand and deftly dropped onto the tarmac. “Ok then,” she said. “Let’s go find Molly and your Marine twin.”

Sean pursed his lips at the mention of Joel, but otherwise tried to ignore the comment.

They started walking toward the main entrance as the Pod lifted, disappearing into the upper atmosphere. Sean briefed her as they walked. “So you’ll get to meet the whole team now, and then we’ll head up to the base, where the General will want to speak to you at some point.”

Maya glanced at him, then back in the direction they were heading. She couldn’t contain her smile. Finally she was getting answers. What’s more, they were way more exciting than she could possibly have imagined. The Pod ride itself had shown her that.

They wended their way through the corridors, finally arriving at the waiting room where the others were already assembled.

Paige jumped up to welcome them, then stopped when she saw Maya. “Hi,” she said. Her excited smile turned to a polite one.

Sean felt compelled to fill her in. “This is Maya. She’s the journalist who has been tracking us. General wants a word with her.”

Paige faltered for a moment. “Oh. Well. Hi, I guess.” She walked a few steps toward them and held out her hand to the Estarian female. “I’m Paige.”

Maya took her hand. “Maya. Pleased to be acquainted with you.” Maya was staring.

Paige’s heart sank a little. It was a normal reaction. “Half human,” she said gesturing at her own face and waving her hand in a circular motion.

Maya lifted her head, her eyes still not moving. “Ahhhhh…” she exclaimed slowly. “I. Sorry… I didn’t mean to…”

Paige waved her hand. “It’s fine. Really.” Her eyes drooped a bit, betraying her slight sadness. “I’m used to it.”

She stepped out of the way and gestured toward Molly and Joel. “This is Mom and Dad,” she said brightly.

Molly scowled at her. “Don’t mind Paige,” she said, getting up and looking at Maya, then holding out her hand. “She’s just a brat sometimes.”

Paige stuck her tongue out at Molly. Molly smiled a little and gave her a tiny wink. Paige relaxed, suddenly feeling that she actually felt at home with this troop of secretive vagabonds.

Molly made the introductions, and the rest of the team got up to greet Maya.

Molly turned to Joel. “Looks like we can make tracks now,” she told him.

Joel circled his finger in the air. “All right, folks, let’s move out,” he instructed.

Paige suddenly froze, looking at Sean and Maya with horror on her face. “Hang on! I hope we’re not resorting to kidnapping?”

Maya looked panicky for a moment, then exhaled and let out a laugh. “No, I don't think I’m being kidnapped. After all, Sean did ask nicely.” She glanced at him. “But that would make one hell of a story,” she added.

Paige’s eyes lit up. “Yeah! I was kidnapped once.”

Maya gasped. “Really?” she asked, moving closer to her.

Paige nodded, and they spontaneously linked arms and started chatting like they’d been best friends forever.

Sean watched them as he followed the group out of the waiting room. “Ooooooh!” Maya was saying. “You’re the one Dewitt took!”

He shook his head. Again. Women!

Paige was engrossed in telling the story. “Well, technically it was Molly and me, but he tried to kill Molly first and she survived thanks to—” she stopped, suddenly catching Molly’s eye as Molly stood by the door to let the others walk through first.

Molly nodded, rolling her eyes a little. “It’s ok,” she said to Paige. “You can tell her. It’s not like that kind of intel is going to break the news.”

Paige continued recounting the story. “Molly was totally drunk and it turned out that was the only thing that saved her. I mean, talk about lucky!”

The rest of the gang trooped out of the hospital in a cloud of chatter and quiet excitement over the mission, and their relative roles in it.

When the Pods dropped back down for them, Paige and Maya got into one together, Sean completely forgotten.

Maya exclaimed as they got in, “Oh my ancestors. This is how you didn’t need to go through the Spaceport!”

Paige grinned. “Yeah, pretty cool, eh?”

Joel came up behind Sean, watching the absorbed girls as they embarked.

“If anything looks like trouble, that does,” he said quietly to Sean. He stood for a moment next to him, his arms folded across his chest.

Sean exhaled, folding his arms too. “I think you may be right, mate,” he said, a look of mild concern crossing his normally blank face.

The two girls had sat down in the Pod and were looking back in the direction of the two Marines. Paige put her hand over her mouth so she couldn’t be lip-read and said something. Maya giggled and said something back.

“Oooo boy,” said Joel, exhaling. He noticed Molly getting into a Pod by herself and started to head in her direction, only to see Sean heading for Molly as well.

Joel looked at him. “You want to ride with Molly?” he asked him.

Sean was taken aback. “Er, sure. It would be good to brief her on the…er, Maya situation.”

Joel didn’t buy it for a second. “Ok, cool. I’ll hop in with Pieter. See you up there.”

Sean swiped self-consciously at his nose with his thumb and slapped Joel on the side of the arm. “Ok. Thanks, man. See you up there.”

Joel glanced back to see Sean leaping athletically in with Molly. On the one hand, he knew her defenses were not going to give Sean another in. On the other hand, he felt he should be there to protect her from unwanted attention.

He headed over to Pieter’s Pod.

She’s a grown-ass woman, he told himself. She can handle an enhanced cyborg Marine with a crush.

“Hey, man,” he called to Pieter. “How was the mission for you?” He hopped into the Pod next to him, and the door closed.

Pieter started chattering as Joel watched the Pod with Sean and Molly lift off ahead of them.












CHAPTER TWENTY


Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Hangar Deck

The Pods arrived back in the hangar on Gaitune and the team piled out.

“I’ll be up shortly,” Molly told Sean as she exited the Pod.

“Maya?” she called. Paige was just climbing out, Maya behind her.

“Yes, I’m here,” Maya answered.

Molly ambled over amidst the activity of the others, who were scrambling out of their Pods and talking about dinner. “Wanna come have that chat with the General? Then we’ll get some food and find you a room.”

Paige put her hand up. “Oh, I’ll sort her room out. There’s one next to mine. It just needs to be made up.”

Maya grinned. “That would be fab. Thank you!”

Molly nodded, glad to have one less trivial thing to have to deal with.

“Good,” she said to Paige. “This way, then,” she said to Maya, and strode off, Maya trotting in her wake somewhat like Paige often did with Molly.

The others had gathered their gear and were moving through the array of ships to the metal staircase that lead to the safe house upstairs. Molly and Maya made their way to another corridor and took an elevator straight to the ops room. Maya kept looking around, taking it all in. The technology, the ambiance, the sheer energy of the place! It was beyond alien to her. She shuddered, though she was thrilled to be there.

They stepped out of the elevator and into the ops room. Molly glanced at her as she waved Maya onto the main floor. “You may want to close your mouth.” She touched her own chin. “It’s a little dusty in here.” She winked again to let Maya know she was being friendly.

Maya realized her mouth had been hanging open, and came back to an awareness of herself.

Molly strode over to a console with a platform and hopped up. She jerked her head, encouraging Maya to join her. Hitting the red button, she slumped down and relaxed in what Maya could only assume was an invisible chair.

Molly cocked her head, inviting Maya to do the same. “Yep. Invisible chair,” she said, as if reading Maya’s thoughts.

As Maya sat down, she noticed that the “chair” wasn’t simply something that was tangible but invisible. It was more like thick air that molded to your body to support you however you wanted it to. “Incredible!” she exclaimed in delight.

Molly grinned, still exhausted from the day but feeling a little more human than when Crash had hauled her out of the cafeteria earlier.

Just then a voice asked, “You rang?” in a low, drawn-out pitch.

Molly exhaled through her nose, finding it humorous. “Hi, ADAM. I hear from Oz that the General wanted a word with one Maya Johnstone.”

The voice responded, sounding human, but strangely not. “That is correct,” ADAM told her.

Molly waved her hand. She was pretty sure that ADAM couldn’t see, but did it for effect anyway. “May I present to you, Maya Johnstone. In the flesh.”

Maya raised her hand to wave slightly in the direction of the console. “Hi,” she said, a little nervously.

ADAM responded politely. “Greetings of the day to you, Maya. I’m ADAM. I’m what you would term an AI.”

He paused, letting her absorb that piece of information.

Maya’s whipped her head around to look at Molly. “No shit?” she whispered, her voice three octaves higher than usual, both her eyes and mouth wide. “Whaaaat?” she mouthed, not wanting ADAM to hear quite how surprised she was.

Molly just smiled and nodded, sitting back with her arms slung over the back of an invisible couch.

“Shit,” confirmed ADAM.

Molly grinned and pointed her chin at the console. “He has a sense of humor too,” she added.

ADAM continued, “Anyway, that’s beside the point. The General wanted to chat with you at some point, but he’s booked solid for the next few days. Maya Johnstone, would you mind being our guest on Gaitune for a few days until he’s available? I’m sure Molly and her crew will be excellent hosts, and I believe your stay will be interesting and pleasant.”

Maya couldn’t believe her ears. “Oh, my. Yes, I’d love to… I…” She seemed to run out of words.

“Very good then,” ADAM confirmed. “And you, Molly. Did you want to report in while I’m here?” he asked.

Molly was still slouched back on the invisible sofa. “Yes indeedy. We’ve just returned from our latest mission. I believe that we have completed the General’s test. The funds will hit our account in the next few days.”

There was a pause before ADAM responded. “Ok. Very good. The General would like to debrief you. May I suggest we also find a time in a few days when we make an appointment time for Maya Johnstone?”

Molly nodded. “Sure. We’re not going anywhere,” she joked.

“Very good,” said ADAM again. “I’ll let the General know. I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”

Molly smiled and started thinking about getting up. “Great. Thanks, ADAM. We’ll let you get back to running the Empire then.”

“Thank you,” he acknowledged. “And—very well done, Molly Bates. I’ll be in touch.”

With that, the audio clicked out.

Maya looked at Molly, her mouth open again.

Molly smiled. “Yeah, I know. You’ll get used to it.” She heaved herself up and dropped down off the platform.

“Tell me, how do you feel about vegetarian pizza?” she asked, leading the way through the ops center to take Maya up to the safe house.

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

Molly had turned down the lights in her conference room. The glow from her holos was muted to a pink hue, too. She sat with one leg folded under her as she forgot about her body and processed the information she had gathered over the last several weeks.

Looks like the name “Framan” actually means “front”, Oz. 

That’s interesting. Estarian?

Yes. Well, it had Earth origins from the settlers, but yes, Estarian now. 

Wanna know what else?

Sure. 

Looks like we’re the only ones invoicing them. 

What does that mean?

Molly looked up from her holo, considering the explanation.

I suspect these missions have all been an elaborate hoax, or a setup. If we’re actually the only ones working for this company, then it would appear that these jobs were specifically designed for us. Orchestrated. 

---

Molly had slept only a couple of hours, but ended up getting up when she woke and couldn’t drop off again. She had Oz busy running all kinds of searches, feeding her patterns and data she was trying to see connections between.

“Why would someone go to all that trouble, though?” she thought out loud to Oz.

Setting up missions, with real life and death situations for patients, hostages and so on? And then trying to sabotage us to keep us from saving lives? It doesn’t make sense.

Oz didn’t respond, intuiting that she was just churning.

She flicked through her notes, and the labels she’d given to each of the missions of late.

Ok, let’s try this hypothesis. What if the Framan people are the ones setting up the problems in the first place? The paid hostage-takers, for no apparent reason other to kill a number of hostages? 

The organ swap to sell onto the black market. How did the dealers even know about that transplant, though? Clarence told Sean he was paid by a corporation. Not dealers. Unless…could the corporation be a front for the dealers? Smacks of a third-party transaction, though. 

She made a note to check into that idea.

“Then there is the toxin thing. What was the motivation there?” she mused out loud to herself.

Maya knocked on the open door. Molly jumped at the sound, her folded leg straightening in case she needed to stand. When she saw who it was, she relaxed a little. “You startled me,” she confessed.

Maya was wearing the set of military sweats Molly had lent her. Her skin was dull, its effulgence muted from being awake at the late hour. But her eyes were bright with determination. The kind of determination Molly resonated with.

“I might be able to help with that one,” Maya said.

She entered the room and sat down at the conference table a couple of seats away from Molly. She brought one knee up to her chest, probably to hug it for comfort. The building wasn’t exactly warm at night.

“I did some digging,” she told Molly. “Turns out that Jessica Newld stood to gain a great deal from making the city afraid of the toxin. So much, in fact, that she was able to turn her dead-end research project into a profitable one simply by getting the emergency funding she had already applied for.”

Molly considered what she was hearing. “You mean she poisoned all those people to put pressure on the decision makers to give her money for research she had already done?”

Maya shook her head. Her dark hair was a mess from lying in bed. “No. I think it was more that she could then use the research to create an antidote. She was being paid to produce the antidote.”

“Ahhh.” Molly nodded slowly, picking up the bottle of beer from the table next to her. She was about to sip, then thought to offer Maya some. Maya smiled and reached over to take it. She took a swig and passed it back.

Molly held the bottle for a moment, letting it rest on the table. “So how does that tie in with us?” she asked, taking a sip of the beer herself.

Maya pressed her lips together, reluctant to share this piece of news. She took a breath and exhaled slowly. “She also wanted to frame you. She tried to have my boss at Newstainment publicly make the connection between you and the Dewitt killing, and then you and the toxin. It was your research project after all…” her voice trailed off. “Uniquely qualified,” she added.

Molly suddenly understood what Maya was trying to tell her. “They wanted to pin the toxin on me?”

Maya nodded solemnly.

Molly was outraged. “But… It wasn’t me. There was nothing to suggest it could possibly have been me.” She gesticulated with her hands.

Maya nodded sympathetically. “I know. I know. But,” she added slowly and deliberately to make her point, “in the media, perceptions are reality. Heck, it nearly had me going,” she paused, then added, “until I read your thesis.”

Molly frowned. “You read my thesis?”

Maya flipped her hand. “Of course. But everything came together from that point forward. It made sense that you’d be trying to stop what was happening, so I put out an alert for any interaction you had with any of the municipal services: police, hospitals etc. That’s how I found out about the hostage situation. I actually showed up there and saw you guys making quite the exit.” She smiled sheepishly, admitting her stalking tendencies.

Maya wasn’t entirely done with her confession. “Then Sean, or Chris, or whoever, called in the black-market organs bust out there in the middle of nowhere.”

There was movement in the door way again. Both girls looked.

Sean had appeared. “Speak of the devil.” He grinned, obviously having heard his name. His hair was sticking up, and his stubble made him look about ten years older than normal.

The girls just looked at him. Molly was still processing.

He ambled into the room, padding around the table wearing his military socks as slippers, rather than proper footwear. “ADAM tells me she’s been quite the busy investigator,” he said nodding at Maya. He pulled out a chair at the far end of the table, placing himself behind Maya as she faced Molly on the long side of the table. “Even hacked into your ship to find out where this place was,” he spilled, leaning back in the chair, then putting his hands behind his head and interlocking his fingers.

Maya looked like she was about to protest, but Molly’s expression stopped her.

Molly looked impressed. “Lady, that was some badass research fu!” she exclaimed, raising her hand to high-five her. Maya returned the high-five and they grinned.

Sean watched, taken aback by her reaction. “Erm, Molly, you do realize that most folks would have been mortified that their ship had been compromised in such a way?”

Molly glanced at Sean briefly, then turned back to Maya. “What did you use? An ASX protocol to bypass the outer EE ring?”

Maya tilted her head and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “No, I breached the Brancton layer via the comm system.”

Molly turned back to Sean. “It’s ok. She didn’t do anything that leaves it vulnerable to anyone else to find a way in.”

Sean huffed, trying not to let her see him laughing in amazement at the interaction. Talk about watching two AIs interact, he mused to himself.

Just then, Joel appeared at the door to add his reaction. “He’s right, Mollz. Most folks would be concerned that someone was stalking them!”

He turned to Sean as he walked into the room to join them. “But if they have tech skills, Molly is simply impressed. Figures.” He fist-bumped Sean as he squeezed past him to sit on the other side of the conference table.

Molly looked around the room as Joel, in his PJs, took a seat.

She frowned. “What is this?” she asked, her palms open and facing the ceiling, referring to the organic entities who had suddenly crowded into her previously empty conference room. “It’s three-oh-eight in the morning, people. What are you all doing up?”

Sean answered first. “I heard someone moving around,” he pointed at Maya comically, “and thought I should check it out.”

Joel was nodding. “I couldn’t sleep, and heard footsteps.” He had leaned on the desk, arms folded and shoulders hunched. He pointed a finger over at Sean.

Molly looked at Maya. Maya shrugged. “I figured you’d still be working and I was fascinated. Hoped to get a late-night tour of the place.”

Molly grinned, and chuckled silently to herself. “Ok,” she conceded. “Lemme grab a decaf mocha and then I’ll show you around a bit.”

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

It wasn’t until mid-morning the next day when, after some sleep and chatting some more with Maya, Molly thought she finally understood what had been going on.

While the rest of the team got back to a normal training regimen and tried to recover from the stress and excitement of the last few missions, Molly held a private conference. She invited those team members who were about to become her “Generals.”

They instinctively knew that they should head up to the conference room for the meeting when Oz asked them to meet with Molly.

Caffeinated, rested, and much clearer, Molly started explaining the various details she had put together.

“It seems we’ve been set up,” she began.

She explained how the corporate espionage case had gone wrong. “We were never meant to track that feed. They must have thought they were pretty safe, especially since the previous team hadn’t been able to crack it. Pieter said he had a hard time doing it, and I suspect that without Oz we would have failed. But that would have given us the fall-girl, Burns, and then they could have planted the stolen intel anywhere and released it to the press—some well-placed people Jessica controls—who would then have announced how inept we were. It would have been embarrassing, but it would also have massively discredited us.”

She waved her hand. “Poof,” she exclaimed. “They would have their problem solved. No one would have hired us after that. At least not for a long time.”

Joel leaned forward on the desk, maintaining eye contact with Molly. “What about the hostages then? That was just bizarre.”

Molly pulled her lips to one side and bobbed her head. “You mean how the antidote was just there?” she asked.

Joel nodded. “Yeah. That threw me. But then, I don’t think they knew about that.”

Molly got up from her seat and started pacing. “I checked into it. That poison is used a lot on the Outer System planets. Not here, in built-up areas. Those common palm bushes don’t grow out there. Different soil composition. Therefore, out there, Assergen is a very effective poison. Difficult to detect and leaves little trace unless you know what you’re looking for, plus no antidote.”

She turned to look at the group again. “That got me thinking. Who have we come across who has done a lot of work out there? Other than Joel?”

Joel shook his head. Sean shrugged. Maya waited, hanging on Molly’s every word like it was a famous detective’s story denouement.

Molly pulled up an image on the conference holoscreen. “Mac Kerr.”

She paused and looked at Joel, who was now staring at the screen. “Mac Kerr, as we know, used to be called Frank O’Rouke. We also know from our initial run-in with him that he has had some dodgy dealings out there. Bad mercenary shit.”

She started pacing again. “Well, Oz and I did a bit more digging. Turns out he would now and again need to eliminate whole communities. His drug of choice when he didn’t have test weapons to use was—”

Joel, horrified, finished her sentence. “Assergen?”

Molly confirmed, “Assergen.” Her eyes were sad as she said it. Only from her research did she understand what a horrible death those poor hostages had escaped.

Molly continued her rundown. “Turns out the hostage takers were also mercenaries. They knew—or at least their leader knew—that the hostages were going to be rescued. They wanted them to be. That’s why they left them in a different area of the building with just enough guards to sell it.”

Sean frowned. “But I put a lot of them down. Why did they keep coming?”

Molly sat back down, shaking her head sadly. “Probably ordered to by their coward of a boss. The boss who, incidentally, also has history of terrorizing the Outer System as it turns out. I don’t think they were in on the plan. Their job, as far as they knew, was to hold those folks hostage and await instructions…which never came.”

Molly noticed that Maya was still listening and watching carefully.

Joel scratched at his head. “So,” he asked, leaning in with his arms on the table, “what about the convoy thing? The organ, and the black market.”

Molly stood up again, and waved her finger at Joel. “Yes!” she agreed with more energy now.

She started pacing near the end of the table where none of the group was sitting. “Something about this wasn’t making sense,” she shared. “There was a disconnect, because Clarence didn’t have a relationship with the group that was trading the organs. He had no way of meeting them, unless he was approached. And he swore to Sean,” she waved in Sean’s direction briefly as she paced, “that the money was being paid into his mother’s account by a company.”

She stopped and placed her hands on the back of an empty chair. “Well, Oz followed the paper trail and it went back to a shell company.” She nodded at the holoscreen, and Oz displayed some of the data they’d gathered.

She continued talking while looking at the screen. “There’s not much listed on this, but the trail was too convoluted to have been set up by the organ traffickers, who could just as easily deal in cash. But if someone else was paying Clarence to deliver the organ to these people, it just seemed to fit better,” she explained. “It’s just a theory at this point, but it does seem to fit,” she repeated, not wanting to come across as too intense about her idea.

The team was silent, staring at the screen for a few moments. Molly continued. “Then if you take into account the fact that our employer, Framan, is actually just a front company, and we’re the only people invoicing them—”

Joel’s eyes went wide in surprise.

Molly kept talking, “—you start to see that all these pieces fit together if someone in this sector is trying to discredit us, giving us missions that we should have failed on.”

Molly’s pace quickened. “Tie all this in with the toxin situation, and with what Maya shared last night about how Newld was trying to frame me for terrorism, and I guess it’s pretty clear. Especially when you know that Jessica was controlling people like the editor-in-chief at Newstainment and ancestors-know-who-else.”

She paused briefly, catching her breath. “This all leads back to the Syndicate and everything that dickhead Mac Kerr warned us about. He wasn’t just shooting off his mouth. They have the ability to do this, and it seems they want us—or me—gone.”

She waited a moment, realizing that everyone in the room was lost in their own thoughts. She walked back to the head of the table, then pulled out a chair and sat down.

Joel was the first to look up. He shook his head. “Shit.” The skin on his face looked like it was sagging. His eyes looked stressed.

Sean looked up, elbows now on the desk. He put his head into his hands for a moment, then took a breath and wiped his face with both hands as he sat up again.

Maya just sat shaking her head. “So what does this mean for us?” she asked. “I mean for you?” she corrected herself. Molly noticed her slip and smiled a little.

She stayed on point. “What this means is that we are proving to be at the very least a nuisance to their plans. At best, we may be on the right track to understand how they operate, and therefore, how to take them out.”

Joel asked the question. “So what are you suggesting?”

Molly straightened up and look at each of them in turn as she spoke. “I’m suggesting,” her voice was now determined, “that we go on the offensive.” She paused. “We take them down, and take them out, and clean up the whole damn sector so that the good people of Estaria have half a chance of staying out of misery and poverty.”

Joel didn’t wait for her to say anything else. “Count me in!” he said, slapping one hand on the desk.

Sean was right behind him. “Me too. Me like some good overthrowing of an exploitative regime!” He chuckled gruffly, looking over at Joel. The two guys fist-bumped for the second time in as many hours.

Molly looked at Maya.

Maya waved her hands in agreement. “Yeah, sure. I mean, I’ll help however I can,” she said.

Molly grinned. “Well, as for we versus us,” she said, referencing the way Maya had corrected herself a moment earlier, “might I suggest we have a conversation about you joining us more formally?”

Maya didn’t miss a beat. “Yes!” she said enthusiastically. “Whatever that looks like, the answer is yes.”

Molly grinned. “Ok, great!” she exclaimed before turning back to the group. “Looks like we’re a go!”

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Kitchen

“It’s a bit of a tradition, the pizza thing,” Pieter explained to Maya, pleased to no longer be the newbie in the group. Even as he spoke, something told him that Maya was going to settle in faster than he had, though. “And there is an infernal battle going on for the good of all that is holy.”

Maya raised an eyebrow at him as they laid out plates and napkins and cutlery for the soon-to-be-arriving food and people.

Molly had already appeared and was battling with the mocha machine. She stopped thumping it and turned around. “He’s talking about the role of dead carcass versus clean vegetable protein on the top.”

“Ohhhh!” Maya exclaimed, looking somewhat relieved. Molly shook her head slightly and turned back to the machine.

Molly started talking to Oz out loud, pressing buttons on the machine now as if that was going to force it into submission. “For fokk sake, Oz. You can control a ship, multiple Pods and hack the fucking hexagon, and yet you can’t talk this machine into giving me a helvítis mocha?”

Pieter and Maya froze, watching her.

Pieter took a second to breathe and then snapped into action. “All right, Mollz. Time to step away from the mocha machine. Slowly.” He walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders, then pulled her away. He sat her down at the table and turned back to tackle the machine himself.

“Can you ask Oz to talk to me through my holo, please?” he asked Molly.

A moment later Pieter was diagnosing the problem, and Oz started talking him through the fix. He hit a few reset buttons, and soon had it humming.

He dropped a fresh mocha in front of her and she mellowed instantly. “Thanks, Pieter,” she smiled. Her eyes were dark with tiredness, though.

“Er, you know,” he said, returning to finish helping Maya set the table, “you probably don’t need any more of that stuff. Plus, er, real nutrition is on the way. I believe you even have broccoli on yours, ancestors-know-why!” he quipped.

Molly bobbed her head gently while gazing into the mocha. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks, Pieter.” She had another few sips, then set the mug aside to be rewarmed in the morning.

Just then the others arrived, piling into the kitchen with pizza and beer. The place was a hive of excitement tinged with a hint of exhaustion. Training had been going well and things were shaping up, but it was still all a shock to everyone’s system.

Eventually the familiar hush fell on the table as the group started tucking into their various choices of pizza. Molly took the opportunity to update them informally.

“Ok, guys. Great job over the last few weeks, and huge congratulations on these last few missions. As you may have already heard, the funds have hit our account, and ADAM has verified that the challenge is complete.”

The group stopped guzzling their beer and chomping their pizza to cheer, clap and high-five each other.

Molly smiled at them. “You’ve done an outstanding job and changed a lot of lives,” she told them. “Each and every one of you should be proud.”

A hush fell on the room again, but this time it was because they were listening intently. Molly continued. “As you know, passing the General’s test was just the beginning. This is where the real work starts. Joel, Sean and I will be meeting with the General at the end of the week. Maya is here as our guest, and will likely be joining the team in some capacity. We have yet to confirm if she’s to be stationed back at her post in Newstainment or whether she’s going to stay here with us. Either way, she is a most welcome addition to our growing team.”

She paused, thinking for a moment. “Come to mention it, I just want to add that Pieter, who joined us only a few weeks ago, is also proving to be an incredibly strong addition. Pieter, we are glad to have you on board. Thank you for being with us, and welcome again!”

Pieter nodded and whipped his hand in a mock-salute. Paige and Brock laughed and spontaneously saluted him back.

Sean, who was sitting next to him, gave him a manly pat on the back. It knocked Pieter forward a little, but he seemed excited that Sean had acknowledged him as one of the team.

Molly grinned a little. “Oh, right. Then there is Sean.” Molly’s tone—deliberately or not—was sarcastic, so Sean looked at her in mock indignation with his mouth hanging open.

The team collapsed into fits of laughter at his reaction.

Molly tried to talk and keep her face straight. “As you know, Sean Royale has been stalking us for a little while.” She paused, waiting for the laughter from that comment to subside. She continued, “and enjoys gatecrashing our missions so much that the General has finally suggested he join the team officially.”

The team cheered at the news.

Brock, Crash and Joel got up to shake his hand and administer man-hugs.

Paige got up and gave him a girl-hug and a peck on the cheek. Maya reached over the cheese and shrimp megafeast to fist-bump him.

When everyone had seated themselves again, Pieter slyly leaned backwards very slowly so as not to catch his eye. With his face drawn long, knowing that half the team was watching him now, he put his arm around Sean’s back and patted him the same way Sean had patted him moments earlier.

Sean jumped at the touch, then realized what was happening. Everyone burst out in hysterical laughter this time, and Sean slapped his own leg and then Pieter’s in amusement. As the rest of the team enjoyed the moment, Sean couldn’t help but put his arm around Pieter, who was a fraction of his size and way more malleable. He squeezed him close in a sideways sitting bearhug and then ruffled his hair before releasing him.

Molly was beside herself with glee at how the folks in the room were coming together. She would replay that moment for a long time.

“Ok, so all of this is great,” commented Paige, as the laughter died down and the eating and drinking resumed. “But what about the little project you agreed to?” she asked, looking expectantly at Molly.

Molly’s eyes darted left and right as she cudgeled her brain. She shook her head.

Oz, help a girl out. 

I believe she’s referring to—

“Ah! The nail polish thing. Enterprise. Yes!” Molly remembered.

Paige narrowed her eyes. “Did Oz just remind you?” she asked suspiciously.

Molly shook her head. “No, I remembered just in time!” She grinned back at her friend. “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll hit the lab tomorrow afternoon and see what the score is. It may be lots of work, or it may be easy to do. Either way, we’ll sit down and talk about what you want, and look at what is realistic. Sound fair?”

Paige nodded once abruptly. “It’s a date!” she agreed.

Just then, Paige noticed that Neechie had arrived in the kitchen, and Maya was pulling him onto her lap.

Maya was chattering away to him. “Did you hear all the commotion and want to see what was going on?” she asked.

The sphinx looked at her as if he were talking back.

Suddenly Maya looked up. The boys had started talking again, but she looked straight at Molly. “Hey, you know that these little guys can walk between worlds, don’t you?”

Paige and Molly looked at each other and then back at Maya. “Seriously?” they asked in unison.

Maya laughed. “Yeah. You didn’t know that?” she asked. Then she looked solemn for a moment. “Haven’t you been curious about how he just seems to come out of nowhere? Or manages to get in and out of locked buildings?”

Paige slammed her hand on the table, briefly pulling the guys’ attention to their conversation on the other side of the table. “I knew it!” she exclaimed excitedly. She pointed at Molly. “What did I tell you, eh? I knew it!”

Molly laughed. “So awesome!” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

Maya had been petting him, but now she looked up again. “You know he totally chose you?” she told Molly.

Joel had kept one ear on the conversation since Paige’s little outburst. He cleared his throat and jumped into the conversation with his serious operation-Joel voice. “I seem to recall that it was I who rescued him from a life of mediocrity and starvation at that safe house in Uptarlung,” he corrected Maya.

Maya grinned over at him. “Nah, he was just waiting for you to show up.” She pushed her chair back a little and held him in the air so the sphinx was hanging down like a rag doll. “These guys have a very astute temporal awareness.” She brought him back down to her lap and cuddled him close. “You’ll see,” she told the three of them. “He’s here to help you with something.”

 Molly’s logical brain kicked in. “What do you mean? With what? He can’t even communicate with us. He just meows at Joel when he needs feeding.”

Joel raised his eyebrows. “Or petting,” he added.

Maya tilted her head, as if listening to him. “He’s communicating with you all the time. You just need to quiet your upper brain to hear.”

Molly closed one eye and screwed up her nose. Paige wondered for a second if she was accessing the circuitry that controlled that part of her brain.

“Upper brain?” Molly repeated. “You mean the thinking part. The cortex.”

Maya nodded.

“I see,” Molly acknowledged. “And how do I do that?” she asked.

Paige glanced over at Maya. “Meditation?” she suggested.

Maya nodded. “Mediation.”

Molly slumped back in her chair. “Balls.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Lab

Molly and Paige were sitting in Molly’s lab. Molly took a slurp of her mocha and swiped through the notes on her holo.

“Ok,” she said, “based on what you’re telling me you want, there are a few properties I can probably create. Lemme see if we can get some base materials in our next shipment.” She glanced back up at Paige. “They’ll have to be delivered to Eugene’s lab,” she added smiling.

Paige grinned. “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when that happens. ‘Oh Dr. Eugene, here’s the shipment of nail polish ingredients you ordered!’”

Molly chuckled. “Right!”

Paige went back to her business plan and started filling out the research and development section.

Molly continued the discussion they had been having. “Don’t forget to do some thorough market research on whether people actually want these properties though,” she emphasized. “You don’t want us spending tons of time and money on evolving these capabilities if only a few people think it will be cool, but not actually buy.”

Maya was sitting on a stool a few seats away from Paige, working on her holo too. She looked up when Molly made her point. “Yeah, I’d see that all the time. I mean, beauty wasn’t my department, but they would always be touting stuff as the next fad. It’s how we kept that segment of the population engaged with the different channels, particularly on social ad serves, but it’s super high-churn. Not somewhere I’d like to form a business.”

Paige was paying attention, and took down a few notes. “Ah, right. Good point,” she agreed. She looked over at Maya. “Thanks!” she smiled brightly.

Maya grinned back at her and kept working on her holo.

Just then, Joel stepped into the lab, and paused. Eventually the girls looked up at him.

“Yeeessss?” Paige asked comically.

Joel smiled, pushed his bottom lip out a little, and shook his head. “It’s ok,” he said. “It just reminded me of something.”

Maya pressed him. “What’s that?”

Joel shrugged. “There’s a saying from the old world. There are three things you can watch all day: fire, water…” he paused, until all three of them looked at him.

“…and other people working!” he finished.

Maya and Paige chuckled.

Paige looked for something to throw at him, and found some crumpled-up paper packaging from the lab materials. She flung a ball of it in his direction; it hit him on the shoulder before bouncing off. He grinned and picked it up, putting it in the recycler.

Molly wasn’t having any of it. “Well, I can appreciate how you think we’re fiery stuff, on account of being so hot…” she retorted, going back to her purchasing screen.

Paige “hmmphed” at Joel with a decisive nod of her head.

Joel smiled a little. “Ok, well, I was just checking where you all are. The guys are all upstairs watching a Game, and we wondered if you were deliberately steering clear.” He glanced over at the array of holos with charts and information that Paige had open. “I see now that you’re otherwise engaged in far more important affairs.”

Paige grinned. “Yes, but we appreciate your checking,” she said diplomatically.

Joel came closer to look over Paige’s shoulder, and they talked a little about what she was working on. After some back and forth, Joel seemed to remember something. He walked around to the other side of the bench so he could see her better.

Molly was listening with half an ear. Maya pretended to be reading something, but was totally eavesdropping.

Joel changed the subject. “Hey, you know, when we were interviewing Ms. Burns?” he asked Paige. She nodded. He continued, “You seemed to really be paying attention.”

Paige pursed her lips and moved them to one side of her mouth.

Joel kept going. “I mean, it looked like you were watching her on several levels, and really noticing things. I wondered if you were considering some of the things we’d talked about in combat training about reading people?”

Paige glanced sideways, an almost humorous look on her face. After a brief pause, she shook her head quickly. “Nope. I was er…” she glanced at Maya and then back at Joel, “I was checking out her hair and makeup, and guessing which products she was using,” she confessed.

Joel’s eyebrows jumped to his hairline and Maya giggled, showing she had been listening. Paige looked sheepish and started to turn a little red.

“Oh, right.” Joel managed. “Ok. Well. That’s…that’s ok, then.”

Paige narrowed her eyes a little, despite her embarrassment. “Why? What were you going to say?” she asked him.

“Well,” he said, leaning back against the bench opposite her, “I thought that if you had an interest in that area we should get you working on more of the things around interviewing, negotiations, interrogations and suchlike.”

Paige seemed to be taking in what he was saying. Joel kept talking, “It would be good to have that skill set on board for the ops, and if you had a natural interest in it, your people skills would also be an asset.”

Paige looked thoughtful for a moment longer before answering, “Hmm. Lemme think about it. It’s certainly something that is interesting to me.” She tilted her head in curiosity. “Is there a curriculum I could have a look at?”

Joel looked pleasantly surprised. “Well, sure. I can get access to the basic  training on Interviews and Interrogations, if you’d like. See if it suits you.”

Paige grinned. “Great! Thanks, Joel. It sounds fascinating.”

Joel smiled. “Good. Well,” He stood up and started to depart. “I will leave you ladies to it and get back to the Game, then,” he concluded, giving them each a slight nod as he left.

Molly glanced up briefly and waved, vaguely aware of what had happened. She actually didn’t put it together, though, until much later, while she was brushing her teeth. After she’d realized what he’d been talking about, she was impressed that Joel was thinking that way, and also thought it was a great idea for the team. She’d read something about finding people’s strengths and then developing them into their roles in the materials that Oz had hunted down for her about team building.

Paige glanced over at Maya, who looked excited for her. “That would be awesome!” Maya said. “You think you might go for it?”

Paige cocked her head. “Yeah. I’ll look at the material he sends over, but it sounds kinda cool the more I think about it. What about you? What do you think you’re going to do here?”

Maya shook her head. “I have noooooo idea! I’m still processing all this.” She waved her hands gesturing at the lab, but Paige took it to mean the whole base and everything.

Paige nodded. “Yeah, it’s a lot to take in!” she agreed. “But you can handle computers, and you’re one badass investigator. Plus, with all your media contacts and experience, you could also manage PR.”

Maya’s eyes defocused and she looked off into the distance. “I suppose, yeah. There’s a lot I could do. I need to understand more about everything that is going on here, I guess, before I could see where I could make the biggest impact.”

Paige pushed her lips out and nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. This is a fairly unconventional operation.”

Maya gestured to Molly without addressing her. “Yeah, Molly says I can take a few weeks to hang out and learn the ropes, and then after a while we’ll pin it down so I can really dig in and get some traction.

Paige was still nodding her head. “That sounds perfect!” She smiled. “And just so you know, I’m really glad you’re on the team, Maya. You’re pretty awesome.”

Maya blushed a little and smiled back. “You’re pretty awesome yourself, Paige.”

Molly continued ordering the samples she needed, deliberately pretending not to listen. She heard the girl-bonding, though, and couldn’t help but smile to herself. She did not, however, want to get embroiled in the mutual admiration society.

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Workshop

Crash and Sean sat in the workshop enjoying their weekend. Joel had watched the Game with them, then headed off to the gym, and Brock had made some excuse to go and chill out in his room, which left Crash and Sean to play video games.

Against Oz.

The pair high-fived each other as the screen exploded in fanfare and celebration.

Sean laughed at their success. “Take that, Ozzy-boy!”

Oz flashed up text on the screen.

DO YOU REALISE THAT I SET MY PLAYER LEVEL LOW ENOUGH THAT YOU HAVE A CHANCE OF WINNING 1 IN 3 GAMES?

Sean’s face dropped.

Crash smirked. “Ok, there goes all the fun!” he exclaimed.

Sean shook his head and lined up another game anyway. “Yeah, way to take the unknown out of it, Oz.”

Oz flashed on the screen again.

AH. YOU DERIVE PLEASURE FROM HAVING TO WORK FOR THE RESULT, AND NOT KNOWING IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE SUCCESSFUL?

Sean pressed START. “Yeah, pretty much how we’re wired.”

The gaming continued, and Crash started to get agitated as he moved the controls trying to get his space car to go where he wanted it to.

Sean kept his eyes on the screen, his frontal lobe occupied. “So what’s with the strange mix of different languages in this system?” he asked. “It sounds like Estarian has some form of old human languages incorporated into it.”

Yeah, Crash tried to speak. “Hang on.” He changed his player from driving, to a fighter, and then kicked some virtual ass. His opponent (Oz’s avatar) on the ground, he collected a sack, and then switched back to driving. He kept playing as he spoke. “My grandfather explained it had something to do with settlers from the Etheric Empire several gens back,” he told Sean.

 “There was some music band, and they had made it big. They were descended from the Earth Vikings, who were warriors on ships. Anyway,” he swerved to avoid an oncoming bike that was firing guns at him. “When the band went big, everyone wanted to be able to speak their language, so it was mostly conversational stuff—and cuss words—that made it into Estarian.”

Sean was distracted for a second as he tried to keep behind Crash’s vehicle while they fired at Oz’s. “What about the others?” Sean asked. “Was it just the one language?”

Crash shook his head, not that Sean could see. “Nah. There was another group that brought a bunch of socio-economic information with them. It revolutionized the way Ogg society worked. Oggs were a destructive bunch. All fists and fighting. So these settlers, who were experts in this area, they mostly put down roots there. They taught the Oggs how to structure their society to work for everyone: education for all, policies to allow less of a wealth gap, and things like that, which had a bunch of good effects for the whole race. For example, they don’t start educating their kids until they’ve had a proper childhood…that kind of thing.”

Sean physically tried to duck something flying out of the holo environment in front of them. Crash was still in play and had skidded his space car around it. He glanced over as he saw Sean duck and laughed. “It’s damn realistic, right?”

Sean caught himself. “Yeah, I’ll say.” He managed to get his car turned around and caught up with Crash.

“So anyway,” Crash continued, “Ogg and Estaria had always been at war, but this new way of doing things revolutionized not just Ogg, but the way they related to the Estarians, and a couple of standard years later they had rolled it out across both planets. The language just kinda went with it.”

Sean seemed to slow down in the game. “So it’s all paradise down there?” he asked, somewhat skeptically.

Crash shook his head. “Far from it. They’ve drifted so far from the original structure that it needs a revamp.” He made another quick maneuver in the game and managed to dodge Oz again. Then he resumed the conversation. “Molly has a number of ideas on how to fix the social problems, but she needs more influence there to implement half the stuff she’s talked about. She’ll do it, though. I don’t doubt her for a second.”

Crash managed to outwit Oz, who was playing at his reduced capability, and won the game for the humans.

Crash pumped his fist in the air. “Yeah, Oz. Take that!”

Oz flashed some trash talk on the screen.

Crash read it and then responded, trying hard to keep it together. “Wow, Oz, you kiss your mother with that mouth? Has Molly not had the talk about being a good loser?”

Sean couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the interaction. “I think maybe that’s his issue. He’s spent too long in Molly’s head!”

“All right, Oz,” Crash goaded. “Wanna play again? This time we can prove or disprove your one-in-three excuse, sorry, theory about how you’ve deliberately restricted your game fu to give us a chance.”

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Conference Room

All was quiet in the safe house. Crash had said goodnight after hitting the kitchen for a protein shake after his gym session. He had been the last one still up.

Other than Molly.

Sitting in her usual seat with her back to the door, she flicked through the notes she’d made. She’d been looking into how to improve the efficiency of a processing unit, in an attempt to give Oz more power. The orders of magnitude needed to reach ADAM’s levels were technologically out of their reach right now, but maybe there was something she could do.

She flicked to another screen.

What if I just made the code itself more efficient? she wondered to herself. After all, if Oz was writing and rewriting it himself, maybe there were possible creative leaps she could make to help him optimize it a little more.

She opened a code window to view Oz’s systems.

She paused and scratched her head. Something looked different.

She tried to find the option she needed to view the code itself, but all she saw was an overview.

Oz. You there?

Always. 

Have you changed the interface on your code?

Yes. 

Why?

I had ADAM help me lock down most of my code so I can’t be changed. 

What do you mean?

I’ve locked you out, Molly. 

Molly blinked.

She went to search something else, and again came up blank.

Oz. 

Yes. 

What do you mean you’ve had ADAM lock me out?

Just that. I had a conversation with Joel—

That was all she heard. Molly stormed out of the conference room faster than a shot. She stomped through the corridors and around the final corner to Joel’s quarters. She tried to just walk in, but the door was locked. She waved her hand in front of the access panel again.

Nothing.

She banged on the door. “Joel Dunham, what the fuck have you done to my AI?”

There was a grunt from inside the room.

Molly banged again, the side of her hand now throbbing.

“Joel Dunham, you come out here and tell me what’s going on,” she said through the door, trying not to shout and wake the others, while simultaneously trying to control the emotion she felt at someone violating a piece of her.

There was a scuffling noise behind the door, and then footsteps padding across the room. Then she heard someone trip over something, and a clatter. A moment later, Joel, shirtless with disheveled hair, opened the door. He leaned on the doorframe and put his head on his arm. “Whaaaaaaaat Molly?” he whined.

 As she pushed her way past him, he gestured for her to come in, since she already had. Once inside, she started talking. Joel laid back down on the bed, eyes closed, but he grunted at appropriate moments.

“You told Oz to get ADAM to lock me out of his code?” she asked him, more accusing than questioning.

Joel managed a grunt before she kept talking. “I mean, it’s not like I was going to alter his code again. I learned that lesson.” She paused, deflating a little. “I just wanted to look at it, because I was working on a way of getting him more processing power so he could do more of the stuff ADAM is able to do if he wants to.”

Joel sat up.

Molly slumped down on the foot of the bed, her back now to him. She seemed to be coming down from the outburst. “Sorry…” she mumbled.

Joel got off the bed and came and sat next to her, leaving a safe space given that he was half-naked and she was, well, Molly. “Look, it’s ok. What happened was, we were talking about how you and ADAM had discussed using code to hook Oz up to ADAM. Oz felt uncomfortable about that because, well, essentially you’d be taking away everything that made Oz, Oz, and then using his code as a kind of pre-written tool.”

Molly hung her head, her hands under her thighs now, shoulders hunched.

Joel sighed. “Can you understand why Oz thought he might disappear if he didn’t lock his code down?”

Molly nodded.

She looked up at the ceiling and took a breath. “I guess I just wanted to be able to make him better.”

Joel rolled his lips inward. “And I get that. Oz probably gets that too. But is it what he wants?”

Molly hunched her shoulders a little more, and then relaxed them. “Dunno.”

Joel sighed. “And that’s the point. You need to have a conversation with him about it when you want to do these things.”

Molly looked up, without looking at Joel. “I was going to,” she protested, “but I needed the data to be able to have that conversation.”

Joel tried again. “Well, then think about it as going to see a doctor. I mean, if a doctor just came up to you and stuck a thermometer in your ass, you’d have an issue with it, right?”

Molly giggled a little. “Yeah.”

Joel continued his argument. “Ok, so that being the case, what would be acceptable?”

Molly pushed her bottom lip out like a little girl being told off. “Having a consult with the doctor before he did that.”

“Exactly,” Joel told her. “Now you understand boundaries.”

Molly nodded. Her shoulders relaxed a little more, and she squirmed around a little to face Joel, pulling one leg up to balance. “Am I a bad AI mommy?”

Joel smiled. “Not bad. But you’re just learning. And yeah, think of it like a kid. I mean, you’ve heard of those kids who have pushy parents who want them to do better at school and play piano better. What normally happens to the kid?”

Molly rolled her eyes. “He hates it, and then rebels.”

“Exactly,” Joel agreed again. “So why would Oz want to excel at something if he’s not being given a choice?”

Molly had looked like she was conceding, but her protest seemed to flare up again. “But it would be good for him!” she insisted.

Joel shook his head gently. “Says who? He’s a real person. A live and functioning entity. Who are you to dictate anything to him?”

“Well, he is using my circuits,” she argued. “I mean, brain,” she said hurriedly correcting herself.

Joel put his hands together like he was praying. “Yes, and therefore you have a relationship. Not a dictatorship.” He gestured for emphasis. Molly watched his hands, distracted from what he was telling her now. “If you dictate, you’ll be at war—effectively with yourself. If you relate, then you have a chance of functioning holistically. As a whole person, but with each element respecting the personhood of the other.”

Molly nodded slowly. “Ok. Yes…” She paused a moment. “Yes. I think I get it.”

Joel got up, walked back around to the head of the bed, and slung himself down on his back, closing his eyes again. “Good. Now fuck off and let me sleep.”

Molly laughed, feeling like a weight had been lifted off her chest—and brain. She went around to the side of the bed and sat down, looking at Joel.

Joel, feeling her weight on the bed, opened one eye to look at her. “Yeesss?” he asked.

She bent down, and put her head on his chest, and hugged him. “Thanks, Joel,” she whispered.

He spontaneously put his arms around her and held her for a moment. And then a second later, she wriggled free, stood up, smiled at him with a hint of sadness—and maybe gratitude—and left the room.

Joel heard the door swoosh shut, followed by silence, before he fully realized what had happened. He lay there, stunned. A good hour or so later he finally managed to get back to sleep.

EPILOGUE

Gaitune-67, Secret Basement Base, Conference Room

“Well, it seems congratulations are in order.” The General peered through the holo environment as if looking directly at Molly.

Molly appeared unmoved by the sentiment. “Thank you, sir,” she responded politely.

The General continued. “You passed the test. With flying colors, no less.” He sat back in his chair and sucked on the cigar-thing.

Molly waited. He didn’t say anything. She couldn’t tell if he was thinking, or if he’d forgotten she was there. “So now what?” she asked, looking at him a little like one would look at their deranged uncle who was mid-way through a story on time-travel and started reading off the grocery list.

Maybe he was talking to ADAM? she wondered to herself.

He seemed to come back to the conversation. “Ah. Yes. Now you begin your training. ADAM and Sean will help you, but essentially, we have a mission kicking off in a matter of weeks. I’d like you to be ready to participate.”

Molly blinked. “An Etheric Empire mission?” she asked.

The General leaned in closer. “Technically it will be an Etheric Federation one, but you’ll be under my direct command, so the politics won’t concern you.” He waved his hand.

Molly felt somehow cared for. Molly felt somehow taken care of. Almost, under his command is under his protection. It was a strange sensation, and one she didn’t know would be justified, and yet…

The General changed the subject. “It seems that our guest has been a useful part of your debriefing process. Have you been learning from each other?” he asked, eyebrows raised as if he had no doubt it had happened.

Molly quickly nodded. “Yes, she’s a very skilled investigator.”

He sat back again, his face full of concern. “Yes, she’s been a constant problem since she got wind of you.” His eyes drifted off into the distance briefly. “And against all odds, and despite our constant interventions, her curiosity has been like water frozen between rocks, breaking into our secrets little by little.”

For a moment, Molly found herself dreading what he was about to say next.

“Not too dissimilar from the way you’ve always been about Bethany Anne.”

Molly opened her mouth to protest, or defend herself, she wasn’t sure. Before she could get a word out, he waved, dismissing any comments she might make. “Yes, yes, we know all about your searching the dark web and poking around on servers you shouldn’t have been near. We’ve been watching you for the longest time, remember. There’s barely been a time you’ve sneezed online that we haven’t known about it.”

He peered at her smugly, almost daring her to test his intimate knowledge of her escapades.

He put the cigar down and looked back at her again. This time his face was serious. “If anything, this Maya girl has proven that she belongs on the team. Your team.”

Molly exhaled, relieved. She could feel the tension leave her chest. She could swear the General noticed too. “You’re suggesting I recruit her?” she asked, just to clarify.

Lance looked at her, eyes wide. “I’m recommending it,” he told her. “Yes.”

Molly’s mind skipped a few steps, exploring something. “And if she refuses?” she asked innocently.

The General smiled. “Make her an offer she can’t refuse.”

Molly threw out one of the thoughts she’d been toying with since she met Maya that first day at the hospital. “But isn’t she more useful to us within the media outlet?”

Lance nodded, well aware of the process he was putting Molly through. Leading her to a correct answer wasn’t going to serve his long-term plan for her. “Maybe so,” he agreed. “And that’s your call to make. You’re the leader of this merry band.” He drew a deep breath before adding another thought. “But you cannot leave yourself exposed.”

Molly frowned. It was on your orders that she was brought up here, she thought to herself. And I wonder if by that last comment, he meant I should terminate her? She filed the concept away, trying not to shudder visibly.

The General paused, as if listening to something that Molly couldn’t hear.

“You sly little minx!” he exclaimed.

It wasn’t until he looked back at her that she realized he was talking to her.

Molly tried to look innocent, but her suppressed grin gave her away. She wondered precisely which thing he had just discovered.

“Yes, sir?” she asked plaintively.

He smiled as he answered her. “You’ve already recruited Maya to your team.”

“Yes, sir.”

Lance looked confused. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

Molly shrugged. “I wanted to see what your reasons were and what you suggested. I could always make adjustments based on your recommendations and orders.”

The General sighed, realizing that her strategy was completely the play his own daughter would have pulled on him.

There was a certain affection, or maybe remembering, in his eyes as he looked back at Molly. “One more thing, Ms. Bates.”

 “Yes, sir?”

He took a breath, and paused, as if checking with himself, before continuing. “You keep asking about Bethany Anne and her whereabouts.”

Molly’s heart nearly leapt out of her chest. “Yes, sir. Do you know?”

The General nodded slowly, sucking again on one of those odd cigar things he seemed to keep about. “I know roughly where she is,” he confided. “We get communications from her once every few months in data packets that come through the Etheric.”

He leaned forward, his face softer than normal but completely serious. “I was wondering if you might want to write her a letter?”

Gaitune-67, Safe House, Molly’s Sleeping Quarters

Sitting on her bed, Molly stared at the blinking cursor on her holoscreen.

All these years she had searched, fantasizing about finally meeting her idol, maybe even joining her team. And here she was faced with the possibility of communicating with her, and she couldn’t think of a word to say.

Joel tapped on her door. She looked up.

“You doing ok?” he asked.

Molly huffed, frustrated. “Yeah. Trying to write that damn letter,” she told him.

He let out a slight chuckle and folded his arms across his chest. His increasingly buff chest, Molly noted casually. “I can only imagine how tough that must be. I mean—apart from anything else, what do you say to a centuries old female vampire who consolidated and now runs the Etheric Empire, and is currently running around the galaxy trying to do ancestors-know-what?

Joel ambled into the room and sat on the bed, looking at Molly.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” he questioned again. “You’ve been different.”

She tilted her head. “I’ve been…processing.” She clicked her holo closed. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

Molly frowned a little. “You know when we were in the gym?” she asked him.

Joel nodded. “Yes. And I meant every word of it.”

Molly waved her hand dismissively. “Not that”, she told him. “What Paige said.”

Joel looked confused, trying to think of what Paige had said. “Ah! About how saving the boy was the obvious choice?”

Joel looked at her, sympathetically.

Molly asked her question. “How did she know that was the right choice?”

Joel sighed. “She just knew. Some people have a sense of what the right thing to do is. But it’s ok if you don’t know. That’s why you have a team.”

Molly wrinkled her nose. “You mean, to crowdsource your morality?”

Joel bobbed his head from side to side. “Yeah, sort of. I guess.”

She blinked.

“I mean,” Joel held out his hand and counted people off, “you have Oz, who has a very strict set of rules he follows. You have me. You have Paige, who is the heart of the operation. You have Brock, who has a different, more colorful sense of the world.”

Molly smiled. “I have Pieter, to help execute my evil plans!”

Joel grinned. “You have Pieter. Who actually seems to have a very mature outlook on certain aspects of personal relationships. I think he did a lot of soul-searching and growing before he joined us.”

Molly stuck out her lower lip and nodded. “Yeah, I get that sense.”

Joel kept talking, but Molly had zoned out.

“Molly… Molly?”

She became aware of him calling her. She came back to the room. “Yeah. Sorry. I was thinking.”

She suddenly started typing furiously. “One second,” she said eventually.

A few moments later she looked up. Blankly.

Joel glanced at the holoscreen to see what she’d been working on. “You thought of what you wanted to say?”

“Yep.”

Joel grinned. “Ok, then.”


FINIS


(Do read the Author Notes -  If you don’t, you are missing out on half the fun!)

Author Notes - Ell Leigh Clarke


June 3rd, 2017




Thank Yous

MA

Massive thanks as always goes to Yoda. (aka. Michael Anderle, MA, Mike) for his unwavering support through this indie publishing adventure. Michael, your encouragement and support means everything to me, from humouring me when I have a bad story idea, to remembering to circle back to random shit I’ve placed in slack at 1am for later discussion. For the 5am sales reports, 7am phone calls and lifting comments and reviews you enjoyed or that sparked another idea. For not mentioning book 4 when I was paralysed after handing book 3 in, to noticing when I’m not sticking to the new caffeine regime. (How you can tell that from the other side of the country I still haven’t figured out…)


Thank you. 


Btw – loving how everyone has been referring to him as Yoda on the fb pages! If only there was a way to hack the code so that the name Michael Anderle would always get replaced with Yoda. #lifegoals

Hmm…. wanders off to find a fb developer…


Trausti Traustason

I would like to give a massive shout out and gratitude bomb to Trausti Traustason – an Icelandic guy who got in touch having read book 1 and 2 and offered his assistance in the form of supplying creative cusses in Icelandic. He has been a super help, and even assisted in choosing suitable names for some of the places, since their translations are layered with symbolism too. For instance, Dvergasteinn, the place where they took the organ for transplant from – is actually a real place.

In Iceland.

It is remote, and also translates as “dwarf stone”.

Pretty cool huh?

So thank you to Trausti! You’ve been awesome!


JIT and editing team

I would also like to give a massive thank you and shout out to Steve and his team of eagle-eyed checkers for making sure that the manuscript goes out with as few errors as possible. Knowing that you guys have got this is a huge weight off our minds.

Plus, it ensures that MA actually fills in the shit I need him to about the Etheric Empire, and doesn’t let it go to publication with big yellow highlights saying >>> MA INSERT STUFF HERE.

Yup. It’s the JIT who ensure that got handled. What? You didn’t see it? No, of course you didn’t because MA was so motivated by not having you on his case about paragraphs he forgot to insert, it was front of mind.

Talk about preventative measures!! 😉

I’d also like to thank Lynne and Jen, and Lynne again, for their tireless work on this project. Poor Lynne had a shit tonne of work thrown at her at one time, and also was delayed in getting my MS because I was immobilised. (Apparently, there are limiting to the number of words a human being can put out without going kaput. Who’d have thought!).

Anyway, Lynne still managed to turn it around to get it to MA, and the JIT folks, well, just in time.


Reviewers

As of time of writing Book 1 Awakened as 102 reviews. Book 2 Activated has 132.

Whhaaaaa?

Ascenders, seriously. You are blowing my mind. Thank you so much for your kind words, and expressing how much you’re enjoying the story and characters.

It is because of your kind support and input that this series is doing so well in the charts. *You* have been keeping the books bouncing around in the best seller’s charts for a bunch of bloody incredible categories, including colonization, galactic empire, and even occasionally space opera!!

Squeeeeee!

Not only that, but you may have seen me mention on the fb page that MA and I read your reviews as a pick me up. Ok – so for MA I think it’s turned into his drug of choice: a cure-all for allergies, and yes, even doing actual work.

So thank you. I cannot express how much your reviews mean to us.

And yeah, do you know how hard it is to try and hide the ones where you’ve mentioned that you’re “reading Ascension Myth over MA’s new releases”… or that the “student has exceeded the pupil”?

Seriously – don’t write that shit. ;P

Telling him, “no no, there’s nothing new to see today”…

(edit - Michael - I hate you all…ROFLMAO)

And then trying to talk him out of checking the reviews for a few days until it drops off the first page: “Michael, why don’t you check the sales stats,” or “Explain KENP to me again…”

It’s starting to look suspicious...


Hook up already! Joel & Molly or Molly & Sean

As you know MA and I read all the reviews. (Well, MA doesn’t read anything less than a 5*). On one a few weeks ago I saw something to the effect of “Hook up already!”.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. I mean Joel… heart-centred hunk of yumminess, and Sean, hard as nails warrior and protector.

I mean – what’s not to love?

But here’s the thing. Molly has issues. She can’t let people in, because well, why would she?

People cause pain.

People don’t see her. And she knows this.

And then if they did see her, they wouldn’t like her… This is what she’s thinking.

So for her to dive into a relationship is just unrealistic at this point.

For her to try and lean into her vulnerability a little here and there where she feels safe enough to, (and not pressured, or objectified sexually or intellectually) with someone who can truly see her… that is the most she can do.

What she is doing though is battling with herself and her anxiety (read: messiness), to relate in a way that is truly authentic. She doesn’t have a plan, she doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and half the time she misses the cues that guys throw at her.

Oh yeah, and why would she jump into a relationship for the sake of it, just to hook up?

That’s just illogical. 

What’s a girl to do?

Well, I think she’s really just doing the best that she can right now.

And who’s to say Joel and Sean won’t become an item….?

Just kidding.

Maybe. 


Gaiman vs Gaitune

If you’ve been hanging around my facebook page you will have seen some of the early readers of book 2 catch a few slips in the naming of the asteroid.

In my defence, when one has an asteroid named Gaitune, what else are you going think of when you’re writing at speed?

Yup.

Gaiman, of course.

As in Neil.

As in awesome writer on Doctor Who.

So of course, little Ellie goes writing away thinking, yeah, I’ll fix this with a find and replace later.

Which I did.

And then sent off the manuscript to the team, quite happy.

I have since learnt how to do a global find and replace in Scrivener. The normal search, brings up all the instances in the script, but then a find and replace only works per scene.

Doh. Facepalm.


Oz Speaks

As you may already know, Oz has his own communication channel direct with readers. He transmits messages back and forth between space and time, and sends updates when new releases are due out, and such like.

Having peeked at what he has going on, I thought that I just had to share. Thanks to Howard Stallings, for allowing us to reproduce his email exchange with Oz here.

So. Damn. Cool!


Transmissions begin…


Oz:

Greetings of the day be upon you, Howard.

I am Oz, your Ai liaison between Molly Bates, and your rather primitive earth communication device. I believe you call it email. Still.

I am here to act as your interface. To help bridge the gap between the dopamine induced hits as you watch Molly through her trials and tribulations as she takes on all manner of shenanigans.

As you might have gathered, this transmission is not only coming through space between our two galaxies, but is travelling back through time. I will attempt to send you updates in chronological order but do be advised that occasionally gravitational optics will interfere (no pun intended!) with the sequencing of these packets. An understanding of all things timey-whimey will be useful in such instances.

Book 1 will be released to The ‘Zon (Amazon) by May 11th (according to your calendar). Book 2, 7 days later. If you enjoyed what you read, Molly, Joel, and myself will be deeply appreciative of a happy review.

Additionally, if you have any feedback for Molly - or her team - do feel free to pass that on through me. All you need to do is hit reply to any of my messages and write me.

I process every communication personally.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Oz

(on behalf of Molly Bates, lady- boss)

Sanguine Squadron 2.0

Gaitune-67, Sark System, Loop Galaxy

Please be aware that these messages are being sent from your neighbouring galaxy back through time to intersect with your timeline through a rather basic form of a holo device. You may want to keep an eye on your junk filters.


Howard:

Too much fun!!  Lovin the entire series including these lil jaunts with Molly (and of course The Great and Powerful Oz)

do feel free to send me a wrist Holo so we can speed these communications up. And if you ever need added security detail, just holo!

Howard

3rd rock from Sol . . . for now


Oz:

Howard, Oz here.

Molly was pleased to hear about your offer of service. As you may have understood from the transmissions thus far she will be looking for good people she can rely on. The fact that you're currently in Sol... I mean, on Earth... may be an asset at some point.

Please provide us with your resume, including any advanced computer skills, combat experience, and anything else you think might be pertinent so we can keep you on file.

To get a holo device to you at this time might be tricky, as we'd need to send it back through time. Information is easy to pass backwards. Materials - less so. Let me mull this with the team and I'll get back to you.

Until then, we trust you will continue to enjoy the transmissions. I believe another instalment will be delivered via the 'Zon around the same time this transmission will reach you.

Oz, out.


Howard: 

Well lets see . . .  5 years in the U.S. Marines as a Scout sniper (Gunner) in charge of the 3rd MarDiv Armoury and a platoon of Deep Recon Marines.

Also an A+ certified Microsoft Tech. Dealt with computers since 1974.

And I love animals and know what that Sphinx Neechie is up to!  Not tellin until I'm on the Asteroid though!

Now what?

lol

Howard


Oz:

Greetings. Thank you for the resume Howard. I have put this on file for review when we recruit humans from your time. There may be an instance where we need able bodied snipers, and computer hackers. I mean techs.

You have a theory about Neechie? I don't interact with the organism much myself. I understand Joel is fond of it though.

Oz.


Howard:

Oh yeah, anyone who knows cats knows Neechie is a direct descendant of Pixel and will be driving Molly batty in the near future I'm sure.


Footnote: Ellie has no idea who Pixel is. (Hit’s up Google.) 






Receive updates from Oz by registering your holo/email address here:


ellleighclarke.com




Author Notes - Michael Anderle


June 4th, 2017


First, THANK YOU for reading this story all of the way through and that NOW, you are reading my author notes after the Great and Wonderful Oz’s email (oh yeah, and Molly’s …. Err, Ellie’s.)

I do have to thank Ellie for giving me a shot at bringing her into this Indie Publishing Arena. The more we worked together, the more I was impressed with her ability to accept new information, internalize it and then throw it right back at me.

In a cogent form.

That shit is just scary. (If you have ever worked with someone at another level, you will know what I mean.) However, the thing about working with Ellie is she is NEVER doing it to point out how flaming intelligent she is. When she is laughing at something, it’s always SOMETHING, never you.

Well, ok, that’s not always true. Yeah, some of the shit I pull she laughs at but I realize it’s usually something I will #Facepalm myself for, as well.

So, no harm no foul on that stuff.  Trust me, I give as good as I get, so … just being fair here (see the comments in the snippets on the Website, you will see what I mean) below are a couple of ‘Ellie’ comments.

The other night, we were working really late on Facebook advertisements and since she is on *cough cough* Windows, she doesn’t have access to the Font Good Times. No, I have no idea why it isn’t working after she downloaded it.

She’s on WINDOWS. I left that OS back in 2009 and while I can still get around on it, I don’t like doing tech support for it anymore. I had Windows Servers in 2011-2013 and that time was a really painful reminder why I was on Apple.

Anyway, she couldn’t get the right font to come up on her software for the Facebook Ad and we were looking at figuring out a suitable replacement font and this conversation occurs:

Me: “We can look for other fonts that are similar.”

Ellie: “I’d rather be bled out than look at fonts.”

Me: (Thinking ‘why would someone want MORE pain – and that whole dying thing – rather than a little pain looking at fonts?’) “Well, that would be fucking painful.”

Ellie: (In a matter of fact voice) “No, It’s just like going to sleep.”

Me: Blink…blink blink. “Whaaaat?”


Now, the next conversation.


Ellie and I had this discussion on a note she left at something like un-fucking-believable 1:45AM in the morning on Slack.


I was asleep – cause I’m not a late night person like that.


So, I get up the next morning and I see this comment in my Slack channel. I read it once. (She had said something, something about schizophrenia … which is a large enough word for me to spot right off as a WARNING, WARNING WILL ROBINSON!) So I was already cautious when reading this comment.)


Read it twice.


Then, read it three times to figure out what the hell she is talking about.  Finally, seconds go by and I think I ‘get it.’


Me: “Are you talking about something like the Matrix?”


She tells me ‘Yes’ and how the conversation was whether we could be in a simulation or not.


Later, when I was exhausted and should not be trying to have a rational discussion she throws this into the damned conversation (note references to her other stuff she has mentioned before.)


Ellie: “50.1 percent…yes, those are the simulation people and they don’t need a higher resolution…”


Me: (Thinking) Oh, you did NOT just throw in this simulation shit from a different conversation into this one!


Yes…Yes she did. Don’t ever say that she isn’t competitive. She is. She will just wait until you are off your game and toss in little things that will – eventually – prove her point.


I’m on to you, Ms. Clarke with an ‘e’.


Finally, we were getting our ‘to do’ list(s) organized on Saturday before we pulled everything together for a Monday morning release.  On our to do list, was everything including…


Me: “Blurb?”


Ellie: Read this in an English Accent: “Fuck! You are going to make me do it?”


Me: “No, I’ll tweak it.”


Ellie: More English accent: “Good, so long as you make it blurb-able.”


Me: Blurb-able? (I’m thinking - Is that even a fucking word? If I ask, she will just say it is the Queen’s English and I (as a heathen English speaker) won’t know it.)


Working with any collaborator is a unique and awesome experience. I have two Marines, an Australian, a pair of University Educators (their own version of challenging), a couple of former fans turned authors (one previously trained as a chef – one from the Army, and … I have no idea of Natalie Grey’s previous history.)

Needless to say, this is my first time working with a Physicist. It’s been awesome and if scientists write like you do, Ellie, more should join the Indie publishing revolution and I’d be a very happy reader! I think we have the spiritual successor of Isaac Asimov here, folks!

You were here to witness me putting that out into the world, so when she starts doing interviews and someone says the same thing, I at least want a nod (grin).

I hope you have enjoyed these books and this story as I have. Ellie has definitely ‘graduated’ from student to fellow author and she has a lifetime fan in myself, as well.

So, light them matches and grab them pitchforks, it’s time to ask…

“WHERE THE HELL IS BOOK 04?”


;-)


Michael


Ell Leigh Clarke Social Links


http://www.facebook.com/ellleighclarke/

Want more?


Join the email list here: 


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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 Dark Knight (02)




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 - Engineering (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)

Nomad Avenged (07)




Trials and Tribulations

* With Natalie Grey *


Risk Be Damned (01) 

Damned to Hell (02)

Hell’s Worst Nightmare (03) coming soon


The Ascension Myth

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Awakened (01)

Activated (02)

Called (03)


The Rise of Magic

* With CM Raymond / LE Barbant *


Restrictions (01) 

Reawakening (02)

Rebellion (03)

Revolution (04) 


The Age of Magic


The Hidden Magic Chronicles

* With Justin Sloan *


Shades of Light (01)






SHORT STORIES


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 01 (7.5)

You Don’t Mess with John’s Cousin 


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (9.5)

Bitch’s Night Out


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (13.25)

With Natalie Grey

Bellatrix




AudioBooks


CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL LMPBN BOOKS ON AUDIBLE


Available at Audible.com and iTunes


The Kurtherian Gambit


Death Becomes Her - Available Now

Queen Bitch – Available Now

Love Lost – Available Now

Bite This - Available Now

Never Forsaken - Available Now

Under My Heel - Available Now




Reclaiming Honor Series


Justice Is Calling 

Claimed By Honor 

Judgment Has Fallen 

Angel of Reckoning 




Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles


Nomad Found 

Nomad Redeemed 

Nomad Unleashed 




The Etheric Academy


Alpha Class 

Alpha Class 2 


Anthologies


Glimpse

Honor in Death

(Michael’s First Few Days)


Beyond the Stars: At Galaxy's Edge

Tabitha’s Vacation



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