Selena stepped into Arwell’s climate-controlled house and slid the door shut behind her. All the party guests were outside, mingling and giggling as the first effects of the free-flowing alcohol took over their good judgement. Titan being here changed plans considerably. Titan knowing she was working with the Jhandarmi changed her long-term plans by more than she wanted to calculate at the moment.
Leaving the lights off she pulled the gauzy curtains shut with a twitch. She wouldn’t be invisible to anyone outside, but they wouldn’t be able to see her easily either. It was enough. Walking across the kitchen she found the electronic juicer Arwel had purchased on a whim years before and never locked against tech invasion. On one of her earliest forays into his house she’d programmed it to suit her purposes. Suspicious people would find her purse and check her phone, but they wouldn’t find anything compromising there.
She turned the juicer on and typed in the code.
Tyrling’s face appeared next to a logo with oranges circled by stars. “What’s going on? You were out of visual contact for a quarter hour.”
“Sciarra showed up.”
The Jhandarmi director rubbed his face as he swore. With a grumbling sigh he asked, “How much trouble are you in?”
“None, I think. Sciarra…” She wasn’t sure what to say exactly.
“He likes you,” Tyrling said. “Enough to be protective at any rate.”
Selena smiled. “Enough that you need to factor him in as a long term variable. We can read him in to the operations I handle later.”
Tyrling’s image split and broke for a second.
With a frown she checked the juicer’s energy supply. “Is something happening on your end?”
“Not a thing. The city’s quiet,” Tyrling said. He paused, and then his eyes narrowed. “When’s the last time nothing happened in Tarrin?”
“My implant says never.” She started to smile and then realized what the silence implied. “None of the corps or gangs are near war. Everything’s been quiet.”
Tyrling arched a shaggy eyebrow. “Except the theft.”
“Fleet has no plans for retaliation.”
“All the same…”
She nodded in understanding. “I’ll get the information from Kaftan tonight.”
“Are you sure you can without blowing your cover?”
“The Balaurs weren’t the only ones who learned torture techniques,” she said. “Trust me. I can make him talk. And I won’t leave a mark.” She turned off the juicer and looked down at her hands. Over the years she’d had a lot of blood on them, and it was rarely hers. But she’d worked hard to make sure the blood on her hands hadn’t been spilled by her either. With a little luck, and a lot of booze, she’d be able to resolve all this without anyone being the wiser.
Outside the music had been turned up, people were finally dipping their feet in the pool, and Arwel was drying the paint on a man who decided he had to try a free sample before the night was over.
Selena looked over the garden and her implant tallied the recording devices. Kaftan was standing conveniently close to one on the eastern edge of the yard. She put on her best smile, swung her hips, and sashayed over to the thief.
He looked up with hungry eyes. Not, she couldn’t help notice, filled with the adoration and love she saw in Titan’s eyes. Kaftan’s look was predatory. To him she was a victim. The poor fool.
“Hello,” he said, reaching for her as she walked up. “Have you been avoiding me all evening?”
“Of course not,” Selena lied. “I was waiting until I could catch you alone.” Her hand warmed as she sent a very specific code to her implant. Casually, she ran her hand across Kaftan’s back and watched him relax. The soporific effect of heat combined with slow sound waves below the range of human hearing.
Kaftan’s pupils dilated in pleasure as she pressed her body against his side. “Well.”
“You looked so busy earlier,” Selena murmured in a softly modulated tone meant to set him at ease. “You must be very important.” Her hand stretched down his side, reaching for his pocket.
He grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand to his torso with a laugh. “Important enough, but I’ll be more important later. Rich. So rich.” His eyes shut.
Too much stimuli. Selena cut the dosage in half, her hand cooling. She squeezed his shoulder and pulled away. “Too important to get a drink with a body paint model?”
His eyes stuttered open and he looked her over lazily. “What else do you do?”
“Advertising work. Modeling. Sometimes I work at a bar up by the High Street Market. It’s paying the bills for now.” With a flirty smile she took his hand, pulling him towards a table near the lights and the next recording device. “I love meeting new people, but there’s not really a degree for that at the university. I suppose I could try politics, but not here. I have too much of a reputation here.” She winked at her willing victim.
There was a static-y ping against her shields.
She sent a query to Titan and returned her focus to Kaftan. “What do you do?”
“This and that,” he evaded.
Selena turned the relaxant up. “Someone said you were in shipping. That sounds important. Getting this and that here and there.”
“I do that,” Kaftan agreed as she slid him into a chair. “I do a lot of that.”
“Anything recent?” She kept her hand on his arm as she reached across the table for a wine bottle.
The liquid sloshed into his glass with a hypnotic sound. “Rearranged some inventory on the docks. Brought in cash for a buy. The seller did the exchange. Then I moved the goods out.”
“You must know the docks so well,” Selena cooed. “Where did you-”
An explosion of light and sound knocked her from her chair. The soft grass cushioned her knees.
Kaftan jumped to his feet as he reached for a gun.
In the confusion, someone screamed.
Kaftan pushed away from the table and took off running.
She tried to teleport but her implant couldn’t find a path. :Titan?: There was nothing on the other end. It was possible to modulate energy waves to disrupt communication, like a white noise machine balancing out sound, but she’d never seen one on this scale.
“Selena?” Titan ran up to her, Arwel trailing behind him. “We need to get out.”
Arwel grabbed her arm. “What is happening?”
“I don’t know. I think Kaftan’s sale just went nova though.”
The sound of gun fire ripped through the air and turf exploded around them.
There were too many options. Keeping civilians safe took top priority, but she needed to finish the mission.
Titan squeezed her shoulder. “Go,” he said as if he could read her thoughts. “I’ve got the civilians.”
“Civilians?” Arwel echoed.
“Another time,” Selena said. “Go with Titan.” The words I Love You hung on her lips, not willing to fall. All she could manage was a tight smile. “Be safe.”
“Always.” His smile was enough.
Selena turned and ran into the debris cloud after Kaftan. Cycling her shields kept them up against the assault of the destabilizer but keeping it at full strength was impossible. A concussion grenade exploded near her feet and the shrapnel pummeled her bare legs.
Underfoot there was sharp joke and glass from a broken cup. All hidden by a smoky blue haze that burned her eyes and throat. Whoever had interrupted the party wasn’t worried about wasting resources. This was overkill.
“Minus ten points for style,” she muttered as she brought up a battle code. Let the grounders see her eyes glow, she was done pretending to be a civilian.
In the blink of an eye the battlefield changed from a field filled with chemical fog to a muted gray background where bodies appeared as bright red targets and the furniture became a soft green.
Kaftan was ahead of her, crawling on all fours towards the dubious safety of the house.
Rolling a clearing shield in front of her Selena brushed the debris away from her feet and ran after him.
Hot air turned to sticky condensation on her skin as Selena stalked forward. Her implant was filtering out sounds now, but she knew what she was missing… the screaming, the crying, the shouts of angry denial.
Ahead of her Kaftan managed to take down a guard with a quick stun shot. It wasn’t a bad idea, leave the soldier naked and unconscious and leave in his uniform. Kaftan was confident enough in his plan that he was stripping the guard down before the invaders opened fire.
Kaftan scrambled backward.
Selena blocked his path. “Oww!” Stupid yaldson was wearing boots.
The thief turned to her in surprise. “You again?”
“Sorry about this. Business gets messy sometimes,” he said as he raised his gun.
She pushed him so he was pointing at the attackers. “Did you bring them?”
“No!” He struggled to turn but she held him in place with telekyen and muscle.
“Who are they?”
“Someone who didn’t like the buy-in price for my auction, Arwel’s old clients, who knows. Let me go. What are you doing to me?”
She reached for his pocket where the datcube was. “Nothing personal. Just business. I know someone who will pay very well for the data you have.” Her fingers touched a hole in the lining of his jacket. Frantically she patted down the other side. “Where is it?”
Kaftan’s hand dropped, clenching and unclenching around the empty fabric. “I had it. It was… I fell.” He broke away from her, desperately searching the littered ground.
Everything looked the same to her. The datcube looked no different from a shard of glass and there was no way to do a search with her implant or by satellite. Panic closed her throat. She switched to normal vision and searched the grass for any sign of the datcube.
In the fog Kaftan squeaked joyfully.
She leaped, tackling him as another round of bullets ripped through the air.
“Trying to save me?” he panted.
“Not likely.” She punched him, but he rolled, pushing her away.
Kaftan kicked her bruised ribs.
The burst of pain made her see stars. Her muscles froze in agony. It was only for a few seconds, but it was enough.
Kaftan and the datcube were already out of reach.
But it was the little hairs on her arm standing on end that made her raise her full shield. A sense born of war and loss. When the blast hit she was thrown several meters, but she was alive.
She looked up, searching for Titan and saw his broad shield ripple and fall. He lay on the ground by a quivering Arwel.
Between her and safety the enemy was lining up another battery, like they were trying to herd everyone away from the exits.
No, not herd. Corral. Like forcing a squad of fighters into close formation so they could go down with one hit.
Without Titan’s shield everyone would die. She watched Kaftan bolt for the house, then turned and ran for Titan. Falling to her knees she checked his pulse. Alive, but bleeding and his eyes were glazed. “You were supposed to stay safe.”
Arwel grabbed her arm with a bruising grasp. “What is happening? Why? Who?” He shook his head in confusion. “Your eyes are glowing.”
“I don’t know, but we can’t escape.”
“Can’t get a signal out,” Titan said weakly. “No rescue imminent.” He sighed and his eyes fluttered shut.
She brushed her hands across his face, assessing the damage and trying to attract his attention. He needed a full medbay, but even a nanite gel pack would be better than this. There was a box left on the Persephone.
Time slowed as she looked up beyond the haze and shields. “I can signal for backup.”
Titan managed to move his head. “Can’t reach Carver or Silar. Can’t reach Sabiha.”
“I don’t need Sabiha.” I need Persephone. She opened the link to her ship.
:Prepare a ground strike for these coordinates.:
There was a pause punctuated by another round of bullets spraying in front of the partygoers.
:Captain,: Persephone said, :those coordinates are very close to your current location. This action is not advised.:
:Story of my life.:
:Would you like to belay your order?:
The battery was nearly charged.
:Fire, Persephone. Make it a very precise hit.:
There was a muted grumble of protest from the AI.
Selena pushed Arwel down. “Close your eyes.” She held a hand over Titan’s face and looked up, watching the spear of deadly light fall.
It only took a moment. A ring of energy hit the ground with enough force to drive the attackers to their knees, and the following breaths let them inhale the heavy gases and fall unconscious.
A heartbeat later the entire district was red with alarms. The disrupters that had silenced communication were gone, the shield over the district burned with warning, and police sirens screamed in the distance.
Selena slumped down. “The cavalry is coming.”
As the dust cleared she saw Kaftan walking in a white business suit walking toward a waiting car. Looked like he was going to get his sale after all.