999 ATA - Hel’s Market, Hel, Asgard System, Neutral Space
I hate this place.
The coffee’s terrible.
And the smell’s worse.
Jennifer Bronwen, freelance entrepreneur, sometime mercenary, occasional criminal, and skipper of the independent merchant freighter Bronwen’s Fortune wrapped her hands around her stained polymould mug of alleged coffee and tried not to breathe too deeply as she watched the other patrons of the all-day diner going about their daily lives.
It wasn’t one of Jen’s usual haunts; in fact, it was a long way out of her usual sphere of social and commercial interaction. Most of the people who frequented the grubby little back-alley dive were employed in desperately low-wage jobs in the Market. Cargo handlers, refuse collectors, cleaning and maintenance techs and the like, all of whom were too used to the squalor to pay it much mind. Normally, Jen would not have been caught dead within a quarter-click of the place, making an exception only on the rare occasions when a specific business associate called.
He had called this morning (rousing her with some reluctance from the sinfully soft bed of her local squeeze) and issued a summons, naming the location then ringing off without waiting for her agreement. The choice was hers: if she showed up, there would be work on offer, if not, he would call her another time. With no current contracts, a rapidly diminishing credit account, and a ship in increasingly desperate need of a number of repairs, she’d decided that hearing what he had to offer would cost her nothing more than a little time and a bit of a sulk from the pretty boy she’d have to leave in bed. And so it was that she found herself sitting with her crap coffee in an establishment that was a dive even by the Outskirts’ barrel-scraping standards, waiting for her contact to make an appearance. As per fucking usual, he was late.
She drained the mug, grimacing at the mouthful of grit at the bottom, but was nonetheless contemplating ordering a second—bad as it was, it was still parsecs better than anything on the food menu—when a shadow fell across the stained, grease-smeared surface of the table. She looked up, nodded a curt greeting. “Took your own sweet time, didn’t you?”
“Worth waiting for, Captain Jennifer, worth waiting for.” Orden Snake-Eyes smiled winningly as he slid into the cheap polymould seat opposite hers. “How’ve you been?”
“Earning an honest, if modest, profit,” Jennifer shrugged, keeping her tone noncommittal. None of your damn business.
“Oh, I doubt it was all honest, was it?” Orden grinned. “As a regular retainer of your services, I’m well aware of the truly, ah, eclectic range of your commercial interests.”
Jennifer glowered at him: he was entirely too chipper for this god-forsaken hour of the morning. “Whatever. Listen, Orden, you called me. It’s too early to be out of bed, this coffee tastes like shit, and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna catch something terminal just from breathing the air in here.” The scrubbers bordering the ceiling were crusted with garishly coloured scabs of mould that was growing into a network and colonizing the condensation-streaked walls, and she didn’t think the tickle at the back of her throat was her imagination. “Your bizarre affection for this cesspit is as irritating as it is incomprehensible, so do me and my life expectancy a favour and get to the point. What do you want?”
“All in good time, my dear Captain Jennifer. You may be a woman of discerning tastes, but I’m a simple, down-to-earth fellow and I’m starving.”
“You’re going to eat here? Seriously?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Jennifer wrinkled her nose. “Well, leaving aside the fact I’ve seen cleaner field latrines, you should never eat anywhere where they show you 3D holos of the food.” She leaned back in her chair with an expansive grin. “Bronwen’s first law of survival.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Orden decided. He banged a fist off the wobbly polymould table top, spattering the dregs of Jen’s coffee over the surface as the mug toppled over with a dull clunk. “Hey, could I get some service over here, please?”
Jennifer studied her prospective employer as he entered into an extended barter with the apathetic waitress about changes to nearly every ingredient of one of the special orders. Orden was one of the numerous hybrids that seemed unique to Hel’s Market, the unwanted offspring of whores and destitutes too poor to be able to afford contraceptive medication or forced by their owners and pimps to carry their unanticipated children to term to provide the seedier side of the Market with a cheap source of labour. Hybrids were often exotic in look, some commanding a fortune in the slave markets. Orden was one of the luckier ones—he’d been born ugly, a half-human, half-neomorph with fast wits and a faster tongue. His shock of golden-blonde hair was trained neatly between the scaled crests that swept back from his forehead, and tied into a short club at the base of his neck. His pale-green, over-large, lidless eyes were bright with inquisitive interest in everything going on around him; the vertical slits of his pupils lent his gaze a sinister quality even when he was smiling. His scales bore a faint, irregular pattern of golds and pale browns, thickening and darkening over his nose and forehead to give him a noticeably reptilian cast. Taller than most humans, he seemed to be built entirely of gangling limbs of ropey muscles. He was relatively young as humans went, but his neomorph father meant he had developed quickly, rendering him dangerously intelligent at a comparatively young age. He had already charmed the waitress into acquiescing to his numerous requests, and his attention had now returned to Jen. “I have a client who is a collector of… let’s call them historical artefacts. He has a particular interest in items dating from the fall of the Psyonic Empire and the Hundred Years’ War.” Orden leaned back in his seat, crossing his legs at the ankles and lacing his fingers across his stomach. “Around eleven hundred years ago, in case you weren’t up on your history.”
“That much I knew,” Jen returned dryly. “When the races of the galaxy rose up in righteous rebellion, threw off their persecutors, took back that which had been denied them by centuries of oppression and greed, and formed a new brotherhood of peoples in the Galactic Assembly of Sovereign Civilisations. New era of peace, liberty, fraternity, yada, yada, yada.”
Orden chuckled, amusement mottling his skin more strongly with shades of gold and brown. “A textbook quotation, Captain Jennifer. Exactly so. My client has a specific interest in weapons from that period, and as you can imagine, such items are somewhat scarce.”
“And well guarded, I would guess,” Jennifer observed. Collectible artefacts and weaponry from the fallen Templar empire were worth an absolute fortune. They were seldom to be found on the black market, and private collectors had been known to stoop to murdering their rivals to obtain particularly rare or significant pieces. It was an incredibly lucrative and lethal trade, one that Jennifer hadn’t been aware Orden dabbled in. One she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to get tangled up in herself. For sure it was well-paid, but the life expectancy of artefact dealers wasn’t considered to be a perk of the job.
The hybrid tapped the scaled skin between his slitted nostrils with a sly smile. “In certain cases it’s not so much that they’re well guarded, rather that they’re simply… inaccessible to honest entrepreneurs such as myself.”
“Isn’t that pretty much the same thing?”
“Not exactly, hence my interest in subcontracting the work to you.”
Interest piqued, Jennifer raised one eyebrow. “Well, it certainly sounds pretty profitable. Must be, if you’re willing to cut me in on the deal. So where exactly is this rare, historically relevant, poorly guarded yet curiously inaccessible trove of treasure, Orden?”
Orden shrugged nonchalantly. “In the Modeus system, of course. Thanks so much,” he smiled at the waitress as she brought his meal. “Sure you don’t want to order something?”
“No,” Jen declined. “Thanks, but I prefer not to have to worry about someone having eaten my food before me.” As the waitress retreated, she leaned forward, lowering her voice. “Modeus? You want me to go to Modeus to acquire a cache of archaic Templar weapons? Are you out of your half-lizard mind?”
“Not at all. Of all of my contacts, you’re the one who’s uniquely suited to this job.” Orden paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “Unless there’s some ridiculous and nauseating residual loyalty to the old Terran culture lurking around in your psyche? Some genetically encoded morality check that your Marauder upbringing can’t entirely erase, perhaps?”
“Hardly,” Jen snorted. “It’s more that I’ve got absolutely no desire to go to Modeus if I can avoid it. Frankly, it’s fucking miserable as systems go, and I don’t care for the company of all the po-faced, self-righteous, stiff-assed bastards that live there.”
“Oh come on. You don’t like the people? You’re going to throw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that? Don’t be such a child.”
“Hey!” Jen protested, stung by the barb. “I’m not being childish, it’s…” Orden cocked an expectant eyebrow as he watched her flounder, “experience. It’s an opinion born from experience. And every time I go there, that opinion is reinforced.”
“Your cut will be sixty percent,” Orden announced with a thread of impatience weaving into his tone.
“Sixty?” Jen echoed in disbelief. For Orden to be happy with a minority take, that had to mean the total value added up to some serious credit. “What am I looking for, Ex-fucking-calibur?”
“Not quite, but surely that’s enough of an incentive to make you suck it up and park your prejudices in holding for a few weeks? Besides, you can look upon it as your chance to shine. You do pride yourself on your professional skills, don’t you?”
“Almost as much as on my tact and my manners,” Jen drawled insouciantly.
Orden laughed. “Then what better stage on which to prove yourself? This job, done right, will live in infamy.” He slid a piece of polyfilm across the table. “That’s the market value, the location of the package, and the drop point. If you want the job, let me know by zero-hundred. Otherwise, I’ll have to find an associate with a little more… oh, what’s the word...”
Orden smirked. “Chutzpah,” he corrected. He put his fork in his mouth, chewed, then swallowed the mouthful with a grimace of utter disgust. “Christ and all the Universe, that’s revolting.”
“I warned you.”
“Yes, you did. You’re clearly smarter than you look.” Dabbing at his mouth delicately with the paper napkin provided, he pushed his chair back and looked down at Jennifer. “Opportunity of a lifetime, Captain Jennifer. Don’t pass it up.” He pointed two fingers at her, pistol style, winked, and sauntered off.
Jennifer watched him go, waiting until the rest of the clientele had forgotten his passing before looking at the note. The pay was the best she’d ever seen for a job, and the location… She read it, shook her head, then read it again to be sure she hadn’t imagined it. “Oh wow,” she breathed. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” She folded the film up, tucked it into a pocket, and rose to leave.
It was only then that she realized that Orden had left his bill for her to pick up.
Shit. I hate this place.
Having paid her bill and received an earful of angry chittering from the shrill Insectoid who ran the joint, presumably for not tipping, Jennifer made her way out into the Outskirts, the dank, grimy labyrinth of polymould stalls and cargo-crate workshops that ringed the central business district of Hel’s Market. The diner was one of the few actual buildings in the area still sound enough to occupy—most of the premises in the Outskirts were cobbled together from whatever an enterprising soul could lay their hands or claws on. Even this early in the day, the shanty town that comprised about half of Hel’s major mercantile metropolis was buzzing with activity. The smells from dozens of street-food stalls drifted tantalisingly in the smog-choked air, far more palatable than the sweaty, greasy, processed protein reek that had permeated everything in the diner. Jen stopped by a stall run by a twitchy Changeling to pick up a kebab that was at least identifiable as consisting of fresh meat and vegetables, and nibbled on the snack as she walked back toward the comparative grandeur of Lowmarket’s squat metalloconcrete prefabs. She kept her eyes peeled for trouble and one hand free for her blaster, reminding herself that Hel’s Market was no place to take your safety for granted as she cleared a path through the throngs by adopting a sullen scowl that was only half-faked.
The original city upon which the Market now stood, an ancient Templar settlement in the now-neutral Asgard system, had long since been forgotten by history. Little more than an archaeological carcass, long since picked over for anything of worth, the resplendent shell of the city centre had been resurrected to provide a home for a black-market trading and entertainment hub, the scale of which the galaxy had never before witnessed. Brothels had arisen in ancient government buildings, drug dens had flourished behind the sober façade of the law courts, casinos and gambling syndicates had come to inhabit libraries and institutes of learning. Architectural marvels commemorating long-lost glory and prosperity were given a new lease of life, decked out in the garish neon and chrome couture of a spaceport strip.
If Hel’s Market could be said to have a motto, it was simply this: anything goes. You could source virtually any commercial product you could think of somewhere in the warrens of the Outskirts and Lowmarket, cheap at the price and no questions asked. You could rent a cargo-crate shop-front for an afternoon and fence even the hottest property in complete security. You could sell your own mother, quite literally—the slave trade was rife, and the demand for flesh of any provenance was nowhere higher than in Highmarket’s elite clubs and brothels. Every taste, every fetish, every perversion imaginable could be catered to as the rich and shameless of every known civilization indulged in their favourite debaucheries, safe from risk of prosecution, their anonymity guaranteed by a complex web of mutually assured destruction. And not just the rich: the spectrum of activity in Hel’s Market ranged all the way down to low-rent streetwalker whores, moonshine-fuelled whisky dens, and pit fighting. Whatever your budget, the cartel lords who ran the city declaimed, we have your pleasure.
In short, Hel’s Market was a den of iniquity populated almost entirely by criminals, traders, bounty hunters, and mercenaries. The heavy, carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere was spiced with heady doses of pheromones, stimulants, and hallucinogens, and deeper down, the darker intoxications of profit, dominance, lust, and jealousy; lies, betrayal, and murder. And Jennifer absolutely loved it. There was a freedom to Hel’s Market that no other city could quite match. Besides having plenty of legitimate work for an independent if you knew where to look, there were no regulations or statutes beyond the most basic enforcement of the cartels’ will, none of the legal or financial straitjacketing that hobbled small-scale businesses in Assembly-controlled space. Sure, it was a dangerous place, but in the Outskirts and Lowmarket a good blaster worked wonders as a deterrent, no different to the ghettos and slums of cities all across the cosmos. In the higher-end areas of town, pissing off the wrong people meant you’d disappear into the bowels of some torture-fetish whorehouse, or—if you were very lucky—you’d simply wake up dead from a massive overdose, but for the average citizen or visitor, there was very little risk of actual physical harm. Those who’d built their fortunes on the pulsing bass rhythm of Hel’s Market’s entertainment industry had zero tolerance for anything that cut into their investments, and freelance thuggery of any kind was harshly discouraged.
Jennifer mulled over Orden’s offer as she headed uptown, taking a roundabout route to check that she wasn’t being followed. It was probably unnecessary—Snake-Eyes wasn’t the type to have hired muscle waste their time or his credit—but it was a good habit to be in.
She needed the money. That was pretty much the whole of the argument. The jobs she’d managed to secure lately had been low margin, barely covering the Fortune’s running costs. Her emergency repair layout in the last year had put a massive dent in her savings after she’d come under fire from raiders while running a supply convoy into Fenkart. As a result, she’d had to put off the maintenance servicing she couldn’t afford, and that, in turn, had meant ever worsening wear and tear on the ship. In short, she was about one unlucky micrometeorite strike from financial disaster. If she had to sell her ship, she could kiss her livelihood and her freedom goodbye. So, that’s a no-brainer, right Jen?
She pulled the polyfilm back out of her pocket, studied the details one more time, then dropped the note into a nearby trash incinerator. The location of the target meant there was no way she’d be able to do the job alone; she had most of the requisite skills, but it would be a delicate operation. At the very least she’d need a good datarat and some dependable back up.
As she crossed the boundary from the Outskirts to Lowmarket, she let her guard down fractionally and pulled her combat holo-visor from its resting place in her inner coat pocket. Activating the communications protocols only, she hooked the unit over her left ear and placed a call to another of her frequent associates.
“Good morning,” a pleasant baritone voice greeted her. “Captain Bronwen, how perfectly delightful to hear from you. How may I assist you?” There was humour in the speaker’s voice. “Are you buying or selling?”
“Hi, Shan’Chael. Buying. I’m in the market to recruit a couple of specialists for a contract. Is there any chance you have some time to see me today?”
“For you, my dear Captain, I’ll make the time. Clients as charming as yourself are never a burden. Let me just check… ah, yes, good. Shall we say fifteen hundred hours, galactic standard?”
“That’d be great, thanks. I’ll see you then.”
“Looking forward to it, my dear. Do have a wonderful morning.”
Jennifer disconnected the call with a wry smile. The recruitment broker was fussy, pedantic, effete, and a terrible snob, but he was undoubtedly the best in his field, and, more importantly, he would certainly have some decent coffee to offer when she arrived at his office. Smiling, she checked her chronometer. She had about six hours to kill. More than long enough to make some more use of that sinful bed, and its equally sinful occupant.
New Lagos, Geonova, Sol Deuterion System, Assembly Space
Keera Naraymis leaned forward in her chair, planting her elbows on the conference table and meeting the gaze of the Changeling dignitary opposite her with a firm stare. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Minister. But as I’m sure you are aware, our administration is not prepared to concede any ground on this point. Your security forces’ woeful inability to police your own people’s dissident factions inspires precisely zero confidence in any guarantee that your government could make.” Keera allowed a note of disdain to creep into her voice. “Surely you must admit that when your people can disguise themselves as almost anybody, these ‘Sentinels’ represent a clear and present danger, not just to our citizens, but to people all across the galaxy?”
“Secretary Naraymis, forgive me, but I can’t help but feel that you are exaggerating the risk for your administration’s political gain, rather than out of any concern for the welfare of your citizens,” Minister Solta, the Changeling envoy, retorted. “You have an election coming up, if I recall, and the threat of monsters in the dark has always been one of the most effective political scare tactics one can employ.”
“It’s not the monsters in the dark that worry me, Minister, Solta, it’s the ones walking around in broad daylight that look just like me,” Keera countered smoothly, running her a hand through her short, curly black hair. “And I resent the implication that this is some sort of campaign stunt.” She waved one hand theatrically at the rest of her delegation. “The threat is very real. Any one of my colleagues here could be one of these terrorists, a sleeper agent just waiting for the right opportunity. How can I know for sure that they are who they say they are? Unless I take a knife to each and every one of them to see what colour they bleed, which is hardly a practical solution.”
The changeling scoffed, the fringe of fine feathers around his jaw flaring in offence. “Oh, please. Don't be so melodramatic. It’s as insulting as it is juvenile, and it does you no credit.”
Keera tapped at the holographic interface on the desk before her, and a series of case file windows popped into view, forming a wall of information between her and her opponent. “These five cases have arisen in the last six months, Minister. That represents a serious escalation of activity on the part of these dissidents, and that’s not melodrama, it’s cold, hard fact.” She leaned forward, dismissing the display with an aggressive swipe with the blade of her hand. “I’ll say it once more, just so we're absolutely clear. We are not prepared to permit our sovereign right to safeguard our citizens to be infringed, and your proposed amendments to our open border treaty don’t meet with our expectations in that regard.”
Minister Solta clicked his beak in irritation. “And what exactly is the nature of your expectations with respect to the amendments?”
“Most of what you've proposed is fair and reasonable; my colleagues in the Trade and Industry department have given me the green light. You’re talking to us because there’s one issue that still needs to be resolved, and I'm afraid that it’s a red line for the Exterior department. We are not prepared to soften our position regarding the detention of changelings suspected of impersonation of our citizens.”
Solta frowned hawkishly at her. “You want to lock our people up without charge,” he accused.
“That’s rather a crude generalisation, Minister.”
“Forgive me, Secretary, but I thought you wanted to be absolutely clear?”
Keera bit back the sudden burst of admiration that threatened to crack her professional demeanour. The Minister certainly knew how to play. “We reserve the right to remand into custody without charge any citizen of the Consortium found to have assumed a false identity, pending a full investigation into any potential criminal activity.” Keera met the changeling’s gaze, deploying her coldest stare in the silence that followed her words, waiting patiently until he twitched, nerves betraying him. “It’s either that,” she continued, “or we revoke the open border treaty completely, and require all of your citizens travelling in Marauder space to be genetically tagged at point of entry so that they can be tracked. Failure to comply would incur criminal charges levelled against the individuals and financial sanctions, scaling with the number of arrested individuals, on your government.”
“That’s preposterous!” the Minister exploded. “You want to build a DNA database of our people, and extort money from us for the privilege?”
“If your people have nothing to hide, why should they object to being unambiguously identified?” Keera challenged. “Innocent citizens have nothing to fear from such a policy.”
“Be that as it may, our people have a right to privacy. And levying fines in addition to criminal charges is tantamount to piracy!”
“We have to bear the costs of taking extra precautions, Minister, and crystals don’t grow on trees.” Keera spread her hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Be reasonable, sir. We don't want to inflict that kind of blanket enforcement on anyone, it’s not in your best interests or ours, economically or diplomatically. But we must be able to reassure our citizens that they are safe from terrorism. Any of your people we catch masquerading as humans are going to be doing so for reasons that will almost certainly be illegal. Why bother wasting your resources, and inconveniencing your innocent citizens, who are, I’m sure, the bulk of our visitors, to protect a few criminals?”
“It’s a matter of principle, and respecting our people’s civil liberty,” Solta retorted. “There’s no law against shape-shifting on the Assembly’s charter, Miss Naraymis. In fact the right to freedom of self-expression is enshrined. I understand your desire to reassure your citizens that your government can protect them, but we have an equal responsibility, and an equal right, to defend our citizens from unjust accusations of wrongdoing and harassment simply for being born as who they are.” Solta leaned in aggressively, neck ruff bristling with indignation. “Your threats tread perilously close to violating our people’s sentient rights.”
“I'm not going to apologise for that, Minister,” Keera shot back, refusing to give ground. “You can wave the Assembly’s charter around as much as you like. It doesn’t cover its signatories’ legal frameworks. And the issue here, as we both know, is one of practicality.” Keera jabbed her index finger down on the table to reinforce her point. “Unless suspects can be remanded while we carry out background checks, they shift to a new identity, and we lose them. Your people have a unique ability, Minister, and unfortunately that ability is perfectly suited to concealing criminal activity and evading justice. Some minimal restrictions put in place to vet potential troublemakers is not an unreasonable price to pay for the security and freedom of the larger population. Yours as well as ours, since these psychopaths are as hell bent on causing you as much trouble as anyone else.”
The changeling official sighed heavily. “Please don’t pretend that any of this is for my people’s benefit, Secretary Naraymis. I find your paranoia as unattractive as it is misguided, but… you have your blade to my throat. Very well, on behalf of the Consortium, I agree to retain the clause stipulating that our citizens may be detained without charge, if you will agree that the clause will state explicitly that they must be informed of the reason for their detention and given immediate access to legal counsel.”
Keera nodded. “Absolutely. I’ll go on record here and now—that’s not a problem.”
Solta gave her a baleful stare. “The other amendments to the treaty shall be drawn up in line with the recommendations from your Trade department.” He raised his tiny inner arms to smooth the feathers round his neck back down, visibly collecting himself. “Was there anything else?”
Keera shook her head. “I believe we’ve covered everything, Minister. I will have our legal attaché draw up the final draft of the treaty and have it sent over for your approval at your earliest convenience.” She rose to her feet and offered her hand.
The Minister declined to accept the handshake, though there was a hint of grudging respect in his expression. “I shall make sure the documents are dealt with as soon as they arrive,” he declared, gesturing to his entourage to leave the room ahead of him. “You’ll forgive my abrupt departure, I trust, but I’m exceptionally busy, and this extended discussion of civil liberty has made me late for my next appointment. Good afternoon, Assistant Secretary Naraymis.”
“Good afternoon, Minister, Solta.”
Once the door had closed behind the Changeling delegation, Keera blew out a long, relieved sigh. “That went well,” she observed to her staff at large.
“Well played, Keera,” her junior aide, Bremerton, congratulated her enthusiastically. “God, I thought he was never going to crack, but you got him.”
“Solta’s a stubborn old bird,” Keera said. “I was worried he was going to call my bluff. He’s just about obstinate enough to have tried it.” She huffed a second relieved breath. “Can you imagine the amount of effort it would take to actually follow through on that threat? The cost of tagging and monitoring every single changeling passing through our space? It’d bankrupt us in less than a year.”
“But Solta has to have known that,” Bremerton pointed out, “so why not argue the point?”
“Because we’re not the only ones with an upcoming election to win.” Keera allowed herself a satisfied smile. “Solta was so busy weighing up the political cost of losing the open border, both in terms of economic loss and public outrage at the threat to their civil rights, that he didn’t think it all the way through. Which I was banking on: someone with less to lose might have turned it back on me.”
Keera looked around the room. “Anyone else know the answer?”
“The Assembly’s articles of anti-discrimination,” Mahmoud, her deputy, piped up.
“Exactly. Requiring only Changelings to be tagged would be discriminatory, which is prohibited by the Assembly’s Charter of Rights. Demanding that we tag every visitor, regardless of species, would have shot our bargaining position in the foot—there's simply no way we could achieve that.”
“Because it would cost too much.” Bremerton nodded understanding.
“And besides, how the hell would you tag a Guardian?” Mahmoud chuckled. “Spray paint their armour?”
Keera smiled tolerantly. “Right. But as I said, happily, he was too busy calculating the political fallout for him and his party from the worst-case scenario, and that let me away with the bluff.” She nodded to Bremerton. “Even when what you’re asking for is unpalatable, if you can make the alternative seem far worse, chances are people will agree with your initial suggestion. And that, ladies and gents, is today's lesson in the dirty art of diplomacy.” She eyed her team appreciatively. “Good work today, guys. We're on the brink of making sure Marauder space is that little bit safer. We’ll reconvene first thing tomorrow to finalise the recommendations for the draft, then we can safely say this one’s inside the bag.”
“In the bag,” Mahmoud corrected with a grin.
Keera arched an offended eyebrow. “That's what I meant. Slip of the tongue—it's been a long day. OK, thanks, everyone, see you tomorrow.”
The team dispersed with a few good-natured jokes, and Keera headed directly back to her office, five floors down from the conference centre. After checking her messages, firing off a few rapid responses and submitting a brief memo on the meeting to her boss, she settled down with her annotated copy of the treaty to read through it carefully one more time, adding her final comments and a few extra references to precedents that she thought would be helpful.
By the time she got done, the sun had set, and the city had donned its sparkling night attire, a riot of light and colour that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. New Lagos, capital of the Free Terrans and the heart of Marauder space, presented a far prettier face to the universe by night than it did by day. In the two years she'd been living here, she'd come to appreciate the city’s amenities and the high-end lifestyle they afforded, but never quite shaken her initial distaste for the extensive level of urbanization on Geonova and throughout the Sol Deuterion system. She wasn't homesick, exactly, but she was sure she would never really come to feel at home here.
Packing up, she was about to leave for the evening when her comms rang. She flicked a glance at the ID and muttered a curse as she saw it was her boss. No choice but to pick it up. “Naraymis.”
“Keera, I read your memo. Good job today.” Associate Secretary Mendieta’s bullish, confident voice boomed around the office. “You really got that scrawny old bird by his tail feathers.”
“I'm not sure he has tail feathers, sir.”
“You know what I mean, don't be so damn literal.” Mendieta paused for a moment, and Keera braced herself. She knew such pauses well; nothing good ever came of them. “I was thinking, now you've been so successful in getting this legislation passed, it's high time you started work on your next project.”
“This one's not quite signed, sealed, and delivered yet, sir,” Keera protested, unable to keep the edge from her voice. “I’d like not to assume it's done till I see the final copy imprinted by the Changelings.”
“Mahmoud can handle all the final paperwork for you, you don't need to babysit that. It'll be good practice for him. And you’ll be there for the formal signing to get the credit you crave, don't worry.” There was a slight sneer in Mendieta’s voice; no doubt he’d been hoping she wouldn't make an issue of it, so that he could take the stage himself.
“It's not that, sir,” Keera objected for the sake of form. “I’m not looking for any credit, I’d just like to make sure that everything’s done properly and nothing’s overlooked. Call me a perfectionist.”
“Well, that's commendable, but I think Mahmoud can be trusted to remember that the shapeshifters actually need to sign the agreement,” Mendieta retorted, sarcasm dripping from his tone. “And I need you getting started on the advance work for the upcoming summit with the Terrans on these Reaver incursions. You'll be leaving in two days for Earth, and I'll expect daily updates for the Secretary. Get in touch with our office in the Hong Kong enclave and set it up.”
Keera rolled her eyes in exasperation, but there wasn't much she could say. “Yes, sir. I’ll make the arrangements.”
“Good. And send me the draft treaty before you send it to legal. I’ll want to eyeball it before it goes any further.”
“Yes, sir.” You mean you want to edit a few lines, then you'll feel like you did some work you can put your name to.
“That’s it for now, Keera. Have a good evening.” Mendieta hung up without waiting for a response, which was probably just as well, Keera thought darkly as she pulled on her coat. The old fraud’s blatant appropriation of her work was getting increasingly hard to stomach.
She reflected on her feelings as she began her short walk home. (Being a high-flying government official had its perks, one of which was a stipend toward accommodation that was incredibly generous, and when supplemented with a bit of her income made a downtown address eminently affordable.) If she was honest, she was surprised by how much Mendieta’s ambition and persistent credit-stealing bothered her. After all, it wasn't as if she was here for the career. This was strictly a short-term employment, something she'd be leaving behind as soon as she could. Realistically, the less she was in the limelight, the better, and she'd never been predisposed to being the centre of attention at the best of times. And yet, and yet, some part of her wondered how it would feel to actually be acknowledged for once for the work she did.
This job is getting to you, she told herself sternly as she reached her building, nodding a perfunctory greeting to the concierge. I need to get these last few pieces sorted out, and then I'll be ready for something new. Catching her private elevator up forty floors, she stepped off into her apartment’s personal lobby, unlocked the door, and headed gratefully into the secure tranquillity of her living space.
Kicking off her shoes, she stashed them in the rack by the door, hung up her coat, and padded into her pristine, barely used kitchen to boil the kettle; a cup of tea would soothe her nerves. Leaving the water to heat, she headed up the freestanding staircase to the recessed upper level, looking out over the cityscape presented by the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows that commanded the entire outside wall. It was a beautiful vista, probably the thing she would miss most about this place come time to leave.
She crossed the bedroom to her wardrobe and opened it, peeling off her formal suit and shirt and pulling out some more casual clothes; she had no plans for the evening, as usual. But as she was closing the mirrored door, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. Stopping, she looked more closely, and was assaulted suddenly by a disorienting sense of displacement, as though she was looking out through a mask. Raising her hand to her cheek, she massaged the rich brown skin softly, trying to convince herself through tactile contact that yes, she did look like that, and yes, it was her face. Most of the time, such uncertainty didn't cross her mind, but lately, it had been happening more often. She kept looking, studying the mop of curly black hair, the dark, raven-wing eyebrows, the determined beak of a nose set between bright blue eyes, but none of it looked real, none of it felt right, and her heart began to race as panic swelled in her chest, began to override her self-control.
Swearing softly, she ordered the windows polarised to opaque, retreated into the bathroom and locked the door. Paranoid, certainly, but she wasn’t about to break tradecraft when she was so close to achieving her goal. Grimacing at herself in the mirror—idiot—she braced herself against the sink, took a deep breath, cleared her mind, and…
The blue of her eyes was the only thing that stayed the same as the human form sank beneath the surface of her true appearance, her skin darkening to obsidian black, fingers fusing into the prehensile muscle of her soft pincers, her inner arms unfolding and stretching from her chest. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to have them. She felt her body stretch as she resumed her natural, lanky height, and her face shift, jaws and nose elongating until the ridged keratin prow of her beak once more occluded some of her line of sight.
While Keera Naraymis, Assistant Secretary to the Department of the Exterior, Commonwealth of Free Terran Republics had been standing staring into the mirror a moment ago, a different person was standing there now. Someone she recognised far better: Keera Naraymis, field agent for the Federal Consortium Diplomatic Service, on an assignment to broker more stable border treaties with the Terran Marauders.
She was in the final stages of her mission; securing Marauder territory as a no-go zone for the Sentinels had always been her primary objective, and with this afternoon’s negotiations successfully guaranteeing that Marauder security forces retained the right to detain suspects while investigating them, preventing them from slipping away and changing form, that goal was almost within reach.
She chuckled softly to herself as she considered the irony of her position. She could so easily be caught in this trap she'd worked so hard to build, but she was confident it wouldn't come to that. Going up against her own people in drafting legislation that appeared to violate their rights had felt very strange, but it was important that the Marauders believed it was their own idea, their own achievement. And the simplest way to do that, she'd been taught—by no less a luminary of Changeling political doctrine than Minister Solta—was to control both sides of the argument. She'd been almost positive she'd seen approval in his eyes this afternoon, the pride of a teacher who’d just watched one of his students succeed.
That was a comforting thought, that Solta might appreciate her work even if Mendieta didn’t. She looked at herself for a long moment more, running the tip of her left pincer gently down one of the two slender aquamarine tentacles that grew out from the back of her scalp. The sensation was pleasant, soothing, and as she repeated the touch her heart rate started to slow to a more normal pace and the clawing, heated sense of panic subsided.
She was ready to be done with this. Just a few more weeks, and her assignment would be over. She’d be extracted from Marauder space, and free to take a well-earned vacation. Just a few more weeks, Keera.
Calmed, she focused her concentration and changed back, the familiar human form feeling like her own again as it re-emerged. As she relaxed, a wave of fatigue washed over her. Changing was an energy-intensive process; doing it twice in quick succession much more so. Her body seemed suddenly to be three times as heavy as normal, and she stumbled twice as she made the short walk from her bathroom to her bed. She needed to sleep it off. She'd be starving when she woke, but she'd worry about that when she woke. Crashing full length into the soft, welcoming embrace of the duvet, Keera was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Hel’s Market, Hel, Asgard System, Neutral Space
Shan’Chael ran his recruitment brokerage from a rather classy residential district of Hel’s Market, not quite over the line into Highmarket, but close enough to it to give a façade of respectability. Jennifer, relaxed and recharged after her delayed lazy morning in bed, arrived promptly (Shan hated people to be late, and staying on his good side when you needed something from him was simply common sense).
The reception attendant showed her into the office, and Shan’Chael beamed at her as he gestured to the seat opposite his. The broker was an odd-looking fellow; though he was mostly human in appearance, his bald head was ornamented with stubby, thick little spikes of bone, almost like little devil horns, and his eyes were so dark as to be almost black. Jennifer had always suspected that it was simply some custom body modification, not too different from the tattoos that decorated her own skin here and there, but she’d never quite worked up the nerve to pry. He was wearing a pale green hooded tunic and a neural network interface, a thin strip of flextronics bonded to his skin that ran across most of his forehead and round to his right ear. “Delighted to see you again, my dear Captain Bronwen,” he greeted her, his voice lilting with the local Market accent. “Please make yourself comfortable. May I offer you some coffee? Just black, correct?”
“Absolutely. That would be lovely, Shan, thank you,” Jennifer accepted gratefully as she took the seat and looked around the clean, crisp office. “Have you redecorated since I was here last?”
“Mmm. An unexpected outgoing, I have to say – there was a… regrettable incident involving a client who had double-crossed me. I did try to reason with him, but once the dust settled from the disagreement, well,” Shan waved airily at the walls, “leviathan blood does leave an indelible impression on the décor.”
“I can imagine,” Jennifer agreed wryly, fighting the temptation to fidget at the not-so-subtle reminder than Shan was not someone to be taken lightly. Killing a leviathan was no easy feat. “So, thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”
“As I said, I can make time for my good customers and my reliable agents, my dear, and you have the happy distinction of being both of those things. How may I assist you with your endeavours?”
Shan’s attendant set a mug of coffee down in front of Jennifer then withdrew, giving them privacy. “I’ve been contracted to obtain a package from a secure location,” she began obliquely, “and I need some people with some fairly specific skill sets to fulfil the contract.”
“I see.” Shan’Chael activated his terminal display and opened a search interface simply by looking at the emitter. “Do you need the personnel in question to rendezvous in-system, or are you able to offer transportation?”
“I can go get them, and I’ll drop them in a neutral system on completion of the job, probably Ice Serpent.”
“Very good. All right, what skill sets do you need?”
“I need a datarat, a high-end one with expertise in cracking security systems at a government or military level.”
Shan sucked his breath in through his teeth. “That’ll cost you.”
“Understood,” Jen agreed. “I’ll also need a couple of all-rounders who can think on their feet, a confidence man, and, if you can find me one, a thief. Jewellery or artwork experience if that’s possible.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think that will be a big problem.”
“Well, I’ve got one last requirement to make it more of a challenge for you,” Jen grinned as she took a sip from her coffee, closing her eyes to savour the moment as the rich, bitter beverage spread across her tongue. “Oh, man, where do you get coffee this good around here?”
“You don’t,” Shan smirked. “That’s imported from Earth.” The requirement parameters scrolled into the interface as he spoke. “What’s your challenge, then, Captain?”
“They all need to be human, or at least able to pass as human,” Jennifer replied. “The job’s in the Modeus system and I’d like to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
“Oh, well, now you’ve piqued my curiosity. What in the universe could you be up to?” Shan’Chael chuckled as Jennifer tensed. “Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Though I must say the whole set-up reeks of being one of Snake-Eyes’ sordid little schemes.”
“You know me so well,” Jen admitted with a smirk.
“Mmm. And as a friend of sorts, if I may make so free with your affections, I’d counsel you against getting too embroiled in that odious little snake’s affairs. He’s wholly lacking in moral fibre.”
“Aw, are you worried about me, Shan?”
The recruiter shrugged, a precise, fussy twitch of his shoulders. “You’re an asset to my business, Jennifer, my dear, and rather a valuable one at that. I can always rely on you to complete any job you take, and that’s solid credit in our line of work. I’d hate for you to end up in one of those gargantuan freezers in Lord’s Assembly on behalf of that little pit-viper.”
Jennifer wanted to shiver at the mention of the cryoprisons, but pushed the impulse down as she met Shan’Chael’s dark, thoughtful gaze. “I need the credits, Shan,” she said quietly. “The Fortune’s starting to need some serious overhauls, and I can’t finance them doing the kind of jobs I’ve been doing lately. If I keep on like this I’ll lose my ship within a year, and then I’ll only be good to sign on as cannon fodder for some pissant little crime boss like Orden.” She forced a confident smile. “But if this works out, I can get a complete refit, and I’ll be good for another decade’s sailing at the least. Maybe even have some money left over for a night on the town. It’s worth the risk.” She picked up her mug and took a slow, deliberate swallow.
Shan took the cue and dropped the line of conversation, turning his attention to his display. “Then let’s see who we can find for you.” He set the search running, and after about thirty seconds ten data windows opened up before him. Deftly, he swiped five of them to one side with a slight jerk of his head, then enlarged the remaining five windows. “All right, in no particular order… Timo Honold, human enforcer, ex-Terran forces. He’s dependable, good for basic systems hacking, most standard military tasks including ground vehicle piloting. Not too imaginative, but on the upside that means he doesn’t get creative in interpreting instructions. I’ve never had a bad report about him.”
“OK,” Jen agreed. She’d heard of Honold, though she’d never worked with him, but the vine said mostly good things, and muscle was always handy.
“Good. Second, your hacker. Based out of Korxonthos, a Cyborg who goes by the handle Dolos. She was assembled as an infiltration unit, all of her cybernetics are internalized. She’ll set off security scanners the length and breadth of Modeus, but she looks human enough.”
“Well, I don’t expect her to be up close and personal with the package. If she can blend in with the crowd in a public space, that’s perfect.”
Shan’Chael nodded. “That’s what I thought. She’s not cheap, but worth every credit, in my experience.”
“That’s two, then. Who else do you have?”
“Calum Pedersen. He’s…”
“No,” Jen cut Shan off abruptly. “I don’t want Pedersen.”
“May I ask why?” the broker enquired, cocking a curious eyebrow. “I mean, it’s clear that you know him, so what exactly is it that you dislike?”
“I don’t trust him. He sold a friend of mine out on a job, and that friend is now in the freezer. He’s a coward, a liar, and a liability.”
Shan’Chael pursed his lips, his steel-grey eyes darkening as he studied the data file, then added a quick update. “I didn’t know about that. My clients have all expressed satisfaction with his work thus far, but I’ll take that warning under advisement.” He drew his finger down across the file, dismissing the display, and moved on. “I don’t, unfortunately, have a jewel or art thief for you. I do know one, but he’s on retainer with another client. I have a number of run-of-the mill general thieves, but I’m guessing you need someone with artefact experience or similar. I believe Wai-Mei Xox might fit the bill. She’s a bounty hunter, but she specialises in antimatter-related acquisitions.”
Jennifer scrolled through the dossier. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but the skill set was close enough, and the list of completed contracts was extensive. Bad antimatter handlers didn’t live long enough to develop good resumes. “OK, she looks good to me. What about the confidence man?”
“Darya Solinas. Changeling, so he can custom fit his appearance. You’re in luck, he’s here in the Market at the moment, and he’s the best I have in that line of work. He’s not available often.” Shan grinned. “He can be hard to find. Snap him up while you can.”
“All right.” Jen looked at the set of files the broker had discarded. “What about those ones?”
“Contingencies. Do you want another general enforcer?”
“It couldn’t hurt.”
“Right. Shan’Chael drew one of the files across to the original four. “Let’s try…. hmm, how about Thaddeus Jones?”
Jen grinned; another name she recognised, but this one was all good news. “Since when has Thud Jones been in your database, Shan?”
“About a year now. He signed on just after he was discharged from the Marauder Marine Corps. You served with him, I take it?”
“Yeah. We went through boot camp together.” Jen frowned slightly. “I’m surprised he’s out in the galaxy, actually. He always had that useless lifer look about him.”
“Yes, well, he may have wanted that, but the officer whose jaw he broke in a bar brawl had a different view of his career prospects, sad to say.”
“Ah.” Jen quirked an amused eyebrow. “Yeah, that’ll do it, every time.”
“You never did tell me how you came to turn your back on the iron fist of the Marauder military,” Shan’Chael observed.
“That’s because it’s not a very interesting story,” Jen replied. “Having spent two years of my life polishing my salute I decided that my energy would be better spent in the wonderful world of freelance employment, so I resigned.”
“I understood the Marauder military was fixed-term. Five years at a time.”
“It is. I got creative. They’re pretty quick to weed out undesirables, and I was always borderline. My mouth used to get me into trouble.”
“That’s almost hard to imagine,” Shan chuckled. “So, how did you secure your dismissal?”
“I got my platoon officer drunk and seduced her.” Jen grinned at the memory. “She really liked me, and she was helluva cute. We started out just having a bit of fun, and then she got careless like I knew she would, and we got caught by our company commander.”
“Purely by accident, I’m sure.”
“Oh purely. I didn’t tip him off anonymously at all. Anyway, since they’d spent far more time and credit on her than they had on me, I was the more expendable, so out on my ass I was kicked. A practical application of the phrase make love not war.”
Shan’Chael laughed, his merry baritone rolling around the room. “You’re a delight, Captain,” he remarked when he’d recovered his breath. “And far too smart to have wasted away as a ground-pounder.”
“Yeah, well, I learned a lot of useful stuff, but once I’d learned it, I didn’t see the point in sticking around.” She chuckled. “I made captain a lot quicker this way, too.”
“So, lay it on me. How much is this session going to cost me?”
Shan’Chael waved a dismissive hand. “This one’s on the house. Call it a loyalty bonus.”
Jennifer blinked, astonished. She’d never heard of Shan giving anything away for nothing. “I don’t… Wow. Are you sure?”
“Positive. It’s a one-time offer, don’t squander it.”
“Then thank you very much. It’s deeply appreciated.”
“My pleasure.” Shan tapped a few buttons on his console. “I’ve notified all five agents to expect your calls in the next standard day. Good luck with your little endeavour, Captain Bronwen.”
“Thanks.” Jen got to her feet and offered her hand, and the broker pressed a gallant kiss to her knuckles. “It’s been a pleasure, Shan, as always. See you next time.”
“Looking forward to it already.”
Jen made her way back to the room she’d rented at one of the better spacer hostels along the Strip, the wide boulevard of flophouses, clubs, and bar-and-brothel businesses that delineated the border between Lowmarket and Midmarket on the north side of the city. The Busted Flush was clean, moderately priced, and far enough from the centre of the Strip to avoid most of the rowdy brawls that tended to spread down the street like wildfire from the more boisterous joints. It wasn’t that she was averse to boisterous—by her count she’d been thrown out of most of the bars on the Strip at least once, and had been banned from at least three—but partying got done when the job was finished, not when it was getting started. If she wanted to pick up Shan’s contacts, she needed to move fast.
Sliding her long, black leather duster from her shoulders, she threw the coat across the bed and unclipped the webbing harness that held her weapons and her tech, wriggling out of the straps with a sigh of relief. The coat was a cliché, that much she knew, but for places like Hel’s Market it provided both a degree of anonymity (since such attire was practically a uniform in Lowmarket) and a practical method of concealment for the equipment she wouldn’t countenance stepping outdoors without. And besides, it looked good on her, or so she’d been told.
Grinning to herself, she retrieved her holo-emitter and planted the palm-sized metal hemisphere on the wood-effect laminate of the small desk by the wall. Powering the device up, she logged into the Fortune’s tight-beam comm network and settled in to do some work.
Three hours later, she’d finished setting up meetings with four of her five prospective crew members and amassed a substantial quantity of public domain data on her target and the location, a museum complex in the heart of one of the most famous cities on Earth: Berlin, capital of the United Terran Republics.
Despite having travelled to Modeus a few times, she’d only ever been to Earth once. She’d never really had much reason to visit. She’d been born deep in Marauder space (and no self-respecting Marauder referred to their home turf as the Commonwealth of Free Terran States) on a terraforming colony at the ass end of the Bronwen system, to a couple of career engineers who’d never really given a shit about her. Her parents had never hesitated to remind her that she was an accident, an oversight, someone who should never have been around to bother them as they gave all of their time and attention to their great undertaking, bending the ecology of a planet to their will. The day Jen had turned eighteen she’d walked out, jumping (as she’d put it to her somewhat shocked mother) before she was pushed. She’d gone to the civic records bureau, changed her name to something that wouldn’t remind her every day of the assholes who’d barely tolerated her existence, then signed on with the marines to get out and see the galaxy.
So it followed that trips to Earth had been unattainable as a kid. As a serving soldier in the marines, she’d gotten her one visit, making planetfall on the storied human homeworld for a truly unforgettable forty-eight hour liberty in the Marauder diplomatic enclave of Hong Kong. In the six years since she’d been discharged, however, her work had generally kept her away from Earth; the mining outpost on Callisto was as close as she’d gotten, and that had been close enough. The people she’d met, on Callisto, on Europa, on Io, and on Earth, had generally been stiff-assed, condescending and unpleasant, and it was an impression she’d never really cared to try and refute. “Well, Earth, now’s your opportunity to really impress me,” she muttered at the slowly revolving image on her display. As the planet spun to reveal the marker for Hong Kong on the map, she huffed a fond laugh, recalling just how smashed she and her fire team had been; she’d barely been able to walk, and consequently had nearly taken a headlong dive into the bay while gawping at the evening light show from the Kowloon waterfront. Thud’s massive bulk had been the only thing that had anchored her, saved her from a soaking. She was looking forward to seeing the big fella again, she decided as she shut the display window down and set up the audio call.
“Jones.” Thaddeus Jones’ deep baritone voice was unmistakable, provoking an instant smile even though Jen hadn’t heard it for over five years.
“Hey, is that you, Thud?”
“Who wants to know?” he demanded suspiciously.
“Jen Bronwen. Been a long time, huh?”
“Holy shit!” Jones exclaimed. “Little Jenny? Is that really you?”
“Don’t call me Jenny, asshole.”
Jones roared with laughter. “Ha, that’s definitely the little spitfire I remember. How you doing, kiddo?”
“I’m good, Thud, real good. Listen, this is costing me a packet so I’ll keep it short. I hear you’re looking for work?”
“Sure am—oh, wait, you’re the client I was told to expect a call from, huh?”
“Yeah. Looking to do a little bait and switch job on Earth. I need a solid crew, and they don’t come more solid than you, do they, big fella?”
“Ah, go fuck yourself, Jen,” Thud replied amiably. “You want my help or not?”
“I do, God help me.” Jen grinned. “Man, it’ll be like old times. Except with fewer salutes and more crime. But you’re OK with that, right?”
“Sure. Count me in.”
“Awesome. Where’s your ass at?”
“Ganymede. Doing a little property minding, so I’m right on your flight path.”
“Great. I’ll be in touch with an ETA.”
“Sounds good, Bronwen. Be good to see you again. It’s been too long.”
“It has that, Thud. It has that. All right, talk to you soon.”
“See ya, kiddo.”
Jen hung up the call, checked the time, and smiled. Fishing a beer from the refrigerator, she popped the top as she placed her final call of the evening. “Orden?”
“Ah, Captain Jennifer. You’ve made up your mind?”
She took a deep breath. “I’m in.”