Marian checked the chrono app of her MobiGlas and sighed. She had been waiting two hours for word from the recon team, sitting on the rooftop of a dive bar on the lower levels of the ArcCorp corporate towers. This far down from the sky, it was like standing amongst the legs of iron monsters, no natural light but what the neon and the video screens provided. Marian sat bathed in a pool of livid colors, a woman in spacer’s leathers in the corner of the patio, frowning at the unit on her wrist. To the observer, she looked like someone two shades from being stood up by some careless date. That would explain the expressions of the grimy fellows eyeing her up from the bar, at least; the six-inch seam running down her cheek blunted her looks only a little, and the variantof the male of the human species you got in the lower levels seemed to always think that opportunities abounded.
Well, she didn’t mind getting stared at today, so long as nobody came over to try and make themselves comfortable. Even then she’d probably not break anybody’s arm. Sour as she might look from the outside, she surged with a mixture of excitement and a kind of bloody hope. For a year, the former survivors of the Eridani Shields had reformed themselves into the far more innocuous Fortress Security Services, taken small jobs, worked very dirty. Sometimes dirtier than she ever thought she would be capable of agreeing to. It ate at her…but as much as it did, the flame of vengeance that burned in her heart, as brightly as the flames that took her old mercenary fleet and all the friends that she and her comrades had lost, and it numbed her to that background decay. All the family members that they had lost in the ensuing purges, the Advocacy – or at least selected members of it – straying back to the old ways. She didn’t have a family, but she was no stranger to the pain. So many people dead. So many horrors heaped upon the innocent, just for the sin of being connected to them all. The burdens they carried were staggering.
It all came down to the Coriolis. Just a name, a ship that vanished thirty years ago. A word they pulled out of the scraps of the Al-Yasmeen’s ruined computers, and data that seemed to direct them to the Senator that went with it, Carmine Rosenthal. One name connected to another, and then another, all of them belonging to corpses – until the trail ended at the feet of a now very prominent aide to yet another Senator, this one fresh on a hospital ship after a very unfortunate sporting accident while on holiday. A whole long trail of corpses stretching on into the past, and for what? They didn’t yet know. But they would.
The mail app’s chime pulled her from her thoughts. She called it up on her MobiGlas; floating a few inches from her face, suspended in the blue panel of the holographic display, the words she’d been waiting for stood out in bright white light: ‘FOUND HIM. PROCEED TO STAGING POINT.’ Six words – rather short for a death sentence, but it would do.
Marian got up from her table and left the color bath for the darkness of the bar, the hall beyond it, and the shadows of the lower towers. Soon she’d see the sky again, but not yet.
A few weeks ago, one of her wolfpack leaders, Malcom Gladwell, came back after a mission to take out some senatorial aide. She had expected him to come back with an accomplished mission, but he came back with the name of the man that had been responsible for the murder of their families. It wasn’t the kind of talk that she’d had expected Gladwell to get out the target, or that he’d even know to ask in the first place. One look into his eyes made her decide that she didn’t want to know how, either way.
But that was all something for later. Right now, they knew who was responsible. His name was Anders Lawson. He had been, at various parts of his life, a decorated UEE officer, a planetary politician, then a very important player at the system level – and then, turned his ambitions toward the Senate. Now he was going to die.
He’d talk first, certainly, but he was going to die.
She proceeded to the nearest lift, quickly but not overly hurried. A man’s voice called out to her from behind, one of the bar crowd, but she ignored him and stepped into the cab. The doors shut just a few inches from his face; he spat into the lift in anger, but Marian did not feel the gobbet of saliva that landed on her cheek, nor did his angry words touch her. All the emotion flooded out of her, and she was mechanical. She had to be. Otherwise, she would become what she suspected Gladwell had become – or perhaps she already had, and was only fooling herself. Or perhaps she was already burned away and didn’t know. Revenge was a fire, after all, and fire was like that. She imagined herself suddenly aflame within the confines of the lift cab, flesh bubbling, blackening, peeling away, muscle and tendons snapping, her body an anatomical model melting black and charred with until only its bones remained. In her imagination, her skull had horns.
Marian spent a half an hour going through towers – she had marveled at how many lifts and factory zones you had to go through on that planet just to get a damned sandwich – until she appeared at the industrial level that they had marked as the staging area. It had been shut down for some time thanks to a wildly fluctuating aspect of this tower’s power distribution network; lit only by the feeble glow of maintenance lights, she tracked through the dormant factory clusters, past towering stacks of empty storage containers, until she found the first laser tripwire that marked the perimeter of their operating zone. She considered stepping through it to give them all a startle, and perhaps a year before that she would have, but there was no humor left in any of them. She would more likely take a bullet for her trouble.
“I’m here,” she called out into the darkness. Though the lights were low, she could see a plain enough path into the back rooms housing their operation through the augmented-reality contacts that she wore; she waited for the appearance of the markers that belonged to her. Two figures emerged – she could see their garbled labels as they emerged, knew them by the encrypted garbage. Alain and Dawson, both of them hardasses of the first order, and great recon operatives.
“We’re here as well.” Alain, dark-haired and with an easy smile, emerged first, waving at the two of them. They wore long coats over light armored suits, the kind of security that was in fashion for trade crews coming out of the fringe. “I take it you got here unmolested.”
A smirk lined Dawson’s usually dour face at that. “She’s not covered in blood, so we have to assume so.” He wore cheap captain’s bars on the lapels of his jacket, like some kind of ridiculous tramp freighter skipper. That was part of the cover they’d used: a group of haulers out of Bremen transporting parts for racer-pattern Mustangs under contract for Consolidated Outland.
Marian grunted at that. “Blood I can handle. Let’s just hope that we make it out of here without having to shake off a tail.” She hated coming in a Constellation, even if it did fit the story; the Taurus was woefully underpowered, and the soldier’s instinct in her itched for more firepower. She looked to Alain. “You took care of that, right?”
“Transponder isn’t going to be traced, no,” he said with a shake of his head. “The drives are boosted to the point that they’d have to throw fighters at us, and I doubt ArcCorp is going to bother with that.”
“It’s not ArcCorp that I’m worried about,” she said. “It’s the Senator’s security.”
“He’s not a Senator yet,” Dawson pointed out.
“He came with the same kind of security.” Marian shook her head.
At that Dawson snorted; he leaned against a pile of crates by the mouth of the shopworks, at ease. “Despite their appearances,” he said, “I don’t guage them as any great threat. I think we’ll be able to go through ‘em pretty quickly. It’s the building that I worry about.”
“Well, that is what we’re going to find out,” Marian said. “We have the plan in place?”
“Plan in place, target located.” Dawson smiled, a suddenly very dangerous, awful thing. She hated it when he did. “Or at least, the key to the target.”
She arched a brow. “The secretary?”
Alain nodded. “The secretary.”
“Well, then,” Marian said. “Let’s go collect her.”
Lawson was registered in a hotel in a tower elsewhere on the planet – you could get where you needed to by transit shuttle or by public transportation, but nobody of Lawson’s caliber would stoop to that level. Lawson’s secretary, on the other hand, was either fond of slumming or was severely underpaid.
Alain had tracked her to a platform not far from where they had set up the staging area, or at least on another level in the same tower – that was somewhat of a surprise, until they found her sitting at a spacer’s bar called the Redout Lounge near a cluster of landing pads. Slumming, then. Hardly unusual in Marian’s experience; it wouldn’t be the first time that she’d met someone who wanted to dump their current profession to run off into the void. Still, she didn’t come alone. A pair of lesser suits that appeared to be friends took up the space at the bar on either side of her, and it very much looked as if they were going to need to extricate her from the two grayfaces before they could get what they wanted out of her.
Marian and Alain entered first, with Dawes hanging around out front in front of the pair of Greycats they’d taken over from the traffic hub. They decided to keep up their act as a spacing crew, and shouldered up to the bar with the kind of don’t-give-a-shit attitude that was natural to them anyway at this point. After all, these people weren’t their people. Nothing really mattered but the goal. Marian looked at the three of them from over the rim of a longneck, sizing them up. Two men on either side, utterly forgettable. Fake smiles, though, functionaries or maybe covert security. The secretary herself, however – a plain woman with dark hair pulled up into a bun, clothes that smelled of ambition that probably outstripped her capabilities – was having a great time drinking in the local color as much as the imported beer.
Marian broke the ice by leaning past the nearest suit and picking up the secretary’s bottle, something that made the woman blink. “You don’t want to drink that stuff,” she said in her best blue-collar frontier drawl. “You want this.” She swapped the bottles, giving the Secretary a grin. “Trust me. Better flavor.”
“Yeah?” Marian watched as the secretary picked up the bottle, ran her tongue around the inside of its mouth, and smacked her lips approvingly. “I think that I agree,” she said with hooded eyes. “You got a name, spacer?”
For all of her preparations, Marian certainly wasn’t expecting that. She grinned anyway. “I’m Talia,” she said. “You can call me T.”
“I’m Corinne.” The woman’s eyes hooded and she took another sip from Marian’s bottle. “But call me C and I’ll be very sad with you.”
Was it going to be that easy? Marian grinned again and took another draw from Corinne’s bottle. “No worries,” she said. “I’m never one to disappoint.” The two of them took off down a traffic loop in one of the Greycats, Marian driving and Corinne cooing in her ear. Marian wasn’t exactly wired for ladies, but the attention was something she hadn’t had in a very long time – it was almost nice, for everything that she was going to have to put the other woman through.
“I want you to show me your ship, Talia,” Corinne said over the sound of the engine and the roaring of the wind in her ears.
“I thought I told you to call me T,” Marian replied with a chuckle. “What’s the matter, don’t you hear so good?”
“I want you to show me your ship, T.” Her breath was hot on Marian’s cheek as she slid her hand over right hand, sharing a grip on the wheel. “I love ships. I just want to go…fast, you know?”
Marian laughed. “No kidding? I thought you’d at least want two dates and a dinner with your mother.”
“My mother’s on Terra Prime.” Now Corinne’s lips neared Marian’s ear, her voice strangely deep despite speaking over the noise. “So I guess that makes me lucky.”
A bright laugh from Marian at that, loud and honest despite herself, echoed off the windscreen of the little car. “Makes us both lucky,” she chortled. “Isn’t that how you say it?”
Now somewhere in the book of her life, Marian would look back and discover two things about herself that day. Number one, that she wasn’t nearly as straight as she thought she was. Number two was how much that threw her off. Which was to her disadvantage, as Corinne dove in to clamp her teeth down on Marian’s earlobe.
Marian let out a shriek as the other woman bit down hard and twisted the wheel as best she could; through a sudden bloom of pain in her skull, fire and blood cascading down the side of her head, and she wasn’t able to jerk the wheel back in time. The Greycat skidded across the two-lane track, spinning into another car as it did so. Marian’s world was suddenly rendered in slow motion: she watched as if a spectator as the other car slammed into the Greycat’s right front quarter, lifting the little vehicle into the air, even as her wounded ear burned and flared with Corinne’s savaging. Up they went into the air, women and vehicle, a small boulder of plastic and steel – and down again, slamming down hard onto the road as if dropped from one of the towers overhead. The last thing Marian saw before impact drove the world from her eyes was the other woman diving out of the Greycat, nimble as a deer, her plain face streaked with Marian’s blood and a gobbet of flesh between her bared teeth.
So much for wearing earrings, she thought as she came down, and her head swung backward and down toward the rollbars. Shame. I always liked hoops.
Then the world exploded, and her consciousness went with it. She wondered in that last millisecond if it might return.