The Juliet Gambit

 

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Chapter 1

Brand New Client

“So, the new client wanted to come here? That’s … unusual,” Vic commented as he poured a splash of scotch into his glass.

Oui,” Cosette replied in her perpetual French accent. “But it was what dey insisted upon. I made it clear, given who dey were, dat we would happily go to dem. Dat is usuallymore discreet.”

“Yeah,” Vic answered, glancing back at the leggy woman sitting to one side of their office. “Glass of wine, lover?”

“Silly man. Hue never need to ask moiabout wine. Just pour and deliver, mon amour,” she grinned at him.

They were both “at the office” late for the day. Officially, “Saturn Alley Investigations” turned off it’s holographic neon tricolour sign almost two hours ago. The unusual request from the potential customer had meant they’d ordered Sicilian-Saturnian fusion as delivery for supper, and had the office sound system playing some good top-40 pop loaded with synth, sax and drums.

Vic poured from a previously opened bottle of red wine, from some Venusian-French vineyard or another that Cosette adored. She ordered the stuff in by the case. Vic didn’t care; it made her happy, and anything that made Cosette happy was fine by him.

Vic was tall and slim of build. His complexion was a mishmash of NAFTA-block influences; most visible was the blend of Germanic and Amerindian. His hair was long and dark, usually back in a more-than-shoulder-length ponytail when he was at the office. He’d let it grow out substantially since he’d left his days as a freighter pilot behind. Like many young men living in the fashion-conscious eighties of this century, he wore makeup and jewelry; ‘guy liner’, plus hoops in his left ear and left eyebrow.

He brought the glass of wine over to where his business and life-partner, Cosette, was sitting on the love seat. He passed the glass to her and took a seat beside her. Standing side by side, her chin easily cleared his shoulder. She had the kind of figure that most guys never expect to see stepping out of their shower in the morning, and she was a natural that way. Her looks hadn’t been crafted in body sculpting salon from a collection of magazine concepts. Her complexion and style was straight out of the southern French sectors of the EuroZone on Earth, where she had grown up and lived most of her life, before a twist of Fate had taken her off-world.

She did have two vanity changes, both of which had been adopted since she’d gotten out in the Big Dark. Firstly, she kept her naturally wheat-blonde mane dyed to what she laughingly referred to as a ‘Dead Soul Black’. When she’d gotten her organic eyes replaced with hardware, she opted to go with a vivid ‘Neptune-Sunrise’ blue instead of her natural pale grey. Both of those decisions had been made long before he had ever met her on Venus, more than a year ago now.

They were relatively opposite in their choices of clothing style. Vic did everything he could to minimize his height, and maximize his apparent build. In the line of business that life had led him to, where ‘Personal Security Professionals’ were often referred to as ‘Gorillas’, a tall thin guy wasn’t getting a lot of respect. He therefore tended towards dark pants, light jackets with padded shoulders over bright-coloured shirts, and leather neck ties that were left a bit loose for comfort. Dark ankle boots, with steel-toes under the fauxleather, were a must. The colour palette was obviously influenced by the multi-cultural Spacer influences of Venus, as well as the fashion houses catering to the exotic tastes of the ruling classes of the Saturnian and Jovian planetary systems.

Cosette’s choices in fashion, on the other hand, could be best described as the ‘optimal weaponization’ of her figure in the “Roaring Twenties” look that was becoming all the rage on Earth, Luna and Mars. Clingy fabrics, mute colours against metals, scoop or keyhole necks, wide hats, long jewellery, knee-hems, and heels were all part of the arsenal. Her makeup was equally dramatic with rich primary colours for her lipstick and eye-shadow. There were an awful lot of men who, having met Cosette in her prior career as a Confidence Girl and smuggler, had made the mistake of writing off her brains on the basis of her measurements and choice of clothing. They’d all regretted that piece of misogyny at one point or another before she’d left them behind.

Admittedly, Vic had nearly been one of the dumb guys who had gotten left behind. She played a helluva game. Fortunately for both of them, he had figured out that there was an awful lot more to the woman than the eyes were distracted by.

Their office was spacious, as places like this went; two substantial desks with smart terminals at each of them, a six person conference table, a rack full of computer equipment off to a side, a couple of sizeable projection screens dominating the wall near the table, a ‘refreshments’ bar with coffee and tea in perks, plus wine and hard stock. The floors were hardwood with area rugs under anything important.

About a third of the roof and the east wall was hardened glass, showing the view out over this dome of Behram City, beyond the other domes, to the edge of the same-named crater, and then the moon-world of Enceladus. The daytime high temperature, on the other side of the protective domes, was an instantly lethal two-hundred degrees Celsius below freezing. Methane either ran in rivers, or was frozen solid.

Of course, dominating the view beyond that already spectacular vista was the golden gas giant of Saturn, in all it’s glitter-ringed glory. In front of that section of the eastern wall was the posh love seat that they were both sitting on.

The office air smelled of warm electronics, vape-sticks, artificial woods, burnt coffee and synthetic vanilla air fresheners. Vic and Cosette had both been trying to ease back substantially on their vape-stick habit. They were down to two or three each, per day. However, as Vic had joked once, they were both always just a gunfight from being back to a pack a day.

“So, why would they want to meet here? What’s the obvious dodge?” Vic asked Cosette.

She had a sip of her wine, staring out the glass at the skyline. “Zee only ting I can guess, cherie, is dat it’s such an off-beat ting for one of zee prime families to do dat non one would be watching for it,” she replied after a moment of consideration.

“And it’s a missing person’s case, or that’s what they hinted at, yeah?”

Oui. Sans-details, of course, over an unsecured line,” she answered. “The entire conversation was … odd. It has my interest piqued. It must be something fairly awkward dat dey are simply not going to send internal security or zee equivalent. Calling us, here in zee non-man’s land of Behram City, and being willing to come here, even in proxy, says dat dey are in quite a bind.”

“In other news, I noticed that you have us booked for the gun range tomorrow morning, after breakfast?” he commented.

Oui,” she nodded. “The Nexter-Spazzeri has arrived, and I am going to need a couple of hours on zee range with it to get it talking to my implants, and den calibrated. I figured zee sooner, zee better. And hue haven’t been doing much shooting lately, either. Skills atrophy, mon amour, and I am disinterested in hue taking a bullet dat an hour or two on zee range once a month might avoid. You whine constantly when injured,” she commented blandly. “I have no idea how Jacki put up with you for a month or more on Mars.”

A heavy knock at the office door interrupted whatever retort Vic had for her teasing. “That would be our customer, I would guess.”

Cosette undid a couple of buttons at the bottom of her skirt, and then at the top of her blouse. She then artfully rearranged how she was sitting to show a fair amount of leg, and reached for the pack of vape-sticks on the table beside her.

Vic wolf-whistled at her as he used a remote control to change the music to a subdued classical channel. He then got up and headed to the door. She blew a kiss to him and then lit up. He opened the door to a pair of Gorillas, with a slightly shorter and noticeably older gentleman standing between them.

Signore Francesco Fosari, it is a pleasure and an honour to have you come all the way here to meet with me. Please, come in,” Vic offered, gesturing.

Grazie,” the gentleman replied. One of the two bodyguards remained outside, while the other came in and remained by the door. Vic gestured to the conference table.

“Is there anything I can get you, Signore?” he asked.

“Cold water would be fine,” he replied as he sat down. His eyes immediately came to rest on Cosette, watching from her spot at the love-seat in front of the window, wreathed in smoke and with a lazy and sexy-for-show demeanour about her. There was a moment of appreciation, and then his eyes moved to Vic, with the boy-toy on the couch summarily forgotten.

Francesco Fosari was essentially what Vic had expected. Shorter than Cosette, likely twice Vic’s weight, jowled, balding, and lasers for eyes. The suit he wore was classic, and yet still at the height of aristocratic fashion. An old-fashioned wedding ring was on one hand and a signet ring was on the other. He wasn’t wearing a WristSmart the way Vic was; Francesco was powerful enough he had people paid for those functions.

Vic got a pitcher of ice and water and a trio of glasses, and set them on the table.

“So tell me a story about how I can help you, Signore Fosari,” Vic said as he sat down at the table.

“Please, Francesco is fine. You are Victor, yes?”

“That’s right,” Vic nodded.

“And thus the lovely lady would be your secretary?” Francesco said, gesturing towards Cosette. Apparently she had not been as ‘summarily forgotten’ as his body language had suggested.

“Again, correct, Francesco. That is is Miss LaChance. Completely trustworthy.”

“Very good. This is Angiolo; you can say anything in front of him you wish to say to me. The fellow outside your door is Natale; he’s new to my family and people, if you understand?”

“Completely, Francesco.”

The portly older gentleman had a sip of water from the glass. “I have a problem that I am hoping you can resolve for me, Victor. You’re a young man. You still remember what it’s like to be a teenager in love, yes?”

Vic chuckled. “Ah, yes. A very confusing and exciting sort of time. Convinced of my own immortality and the unwavering flame of love.”

“My son is in much the same sort of place. He’s fallen ‘in love’ with a young lady he met at a social. She’s a Sforza girl. I am sure you can see the, ah, complication,” Francesco said, leaning back in his chair, studying Victor.

Vic resisted the urge to glance over at Cosette to see what she thought about this. No wonder the Fosari family didn’t want their own internal assets publicly involved.

*****

There's Always A Girl

Vic rubbed at his forehead, and then looked at Francesco. “A ‘Sforza girl’, you say? As in the Sforza family that the Fosari family had a shooting war with over the Persephone-III mining station? A shooting war that scrapped a dozen ships between both sides, wrecked the war chests of a couple of substantial Soldier-of-Fortune LLCs, and left the newsreels and chat channels buzzing for months over? ThatSforza family?”

“I was told you had a flair for the dramatic, Victor,” Francesco chuckled. “I see I was not misled. Yes, that Sforza family. Now, neither tide nor history remain still, Victor,” he chided. “Things are different than they were five years ago. The Fosari and the Sforza are now the best of frenemies,” he said with an amused tone. “We conduct trade and financial deals, out of the public eye admittedly, all the time these days. However, the issue is that like his father, my son never aims low in his aspirations or achievements. The ‘Sforza girl’ in question is the daughter of il-Patrone Sforza.”

Vic set his glass down. “And here I thought I was good at getting myself into trouble with women,” he said shaking his head. “So he fell for the daughter of the head of the Sforza family, and he’s the son of the head of the Fosari family. Let me guess; the young man and young miss have skipped town.”

“They have. Now, I want you to understand something, Victor. My son is everything to me. I feel like my very heart is missing from my chest. I want him to come home. If the girl makes him happy, then I’ll personally speak to the head of the Sforza family myself about ending our rivalry and making a Saturn that he and the young lady can live in. I don’t want him or the young lady hurt. I don’t want him or the young lady punished. I want him to come home,” Francesco said quietly, emotion tightly controlled in his voice. “If that means I have a Sforza living in my home, so be it.”

Francesco Fosari controlled an industrial, trade and crime family whose economic output rivalled some small Earth nations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His opposite number and peer, Luciano Sforza was equally powerful, influential, and ruthless. While the open war of half a decade ago chewed up substantial resources of both families, it was still well accepted that among the “Thirteen Families” that ran the Saturnian economy and socio-political spheres, these two were still in the top five.

“So, with all due respect, Francesco, why are you here? You have the ships, the people, the influence to reach from Saturn to Venus. If the Sforza love their children, too, they shouldn’t oppose you.”

“I have taught my son everything I know about our business and our family. He is a smart young man, even if I say so with the tint of fatherly pride. He has learned his lessons well. He knows the limits to what we are capable of, within sane constraints. He and the young lady have managed to go the one place that I cannot reach,” Francesco said, his tone both amused and sour. “They have gone to Four-Vesta.”

Vic sat back in his chair, looked at the ceiling and exhaled. “Motherfucker.”

The Gorilla at the door chuckled in amusement, and Francesco glanced towards him.

Across the top of his vision, an LED-ticker tape in cyan scrolled by; a text message from Cosette, transmitted via a private channel to cybernetics tied to his optical nerves. “>> This is going to be hell, my love,” it said.

“I presume, based on the expletive, that you understand the depth of my predicament, yes?” Francesco asked quietly, then had a sip of water.

*****

A Forsaken Ball Of Rock

Vic had a substantial mouthful of his drink while his mental machinery ground through the chains of cause, effect, and implication. “I think so,” he said with a slow nod after a moment. He sat his glass down on the table.

“So, your first problem is that if you send anyone that’s a known company man, the ne’er-do-wells will just fillet them and dump the bodies into the bio-recyclers. Your second problem,” he began as he ticked another finger, “is that if they recognize your son and it’s someone that doesn’t hate you, the nicest thing that will happen is he and the girl will get held for ransom. Your third problem is if they recognize your son and it’s someone that does hate you, the nicest thing that will happen is he and the girl will be executed and dumped into the bio-recyclers. Your fourth problem is that Four-Vesta is a rough enough place that the longer he’s there, the more likely it is one of those outcomes will happen just at random, because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the fifth problem I can see is that if any of the other Prime Families find out about this, then it turns into a very expensive and very bloody race to try and storm, sweep and secure Four-Vesta … something no one has ever done.”

Francesco gave a grim nod. “That about covers it. And so that is why I am here. I am trusting the lives of my son and his love to you. Get them off that forsaken ball of rock, bring them home — if you have to stun-gun them and explain later, so be it — and once they are out of danger, then I can talk to my son man-to-man about what needs to be done so he and his young miss can be both happy and safe.”

Another LED-ticker tape text message from Cosette scrolled by at the top of his vision. “>> Are the Sforza informed?

“The Sforza’s; do they know where the young couple are, and that you are undertaking a recovery operation? I have little interest in getting into shooting wars with Signore Luciano’s hitmen,” Vic commented dryly.

“Understandable. I share your feelings on the matter, trust me, Victor,” Francesco chuckled blackly. “I have told them I have located the couple, and that I am going to bring them home if it is within my power to do so, and I’ve given my word that the girl will be returned safe to her father. I have given no details, since I had no commitment from you.”

>> I think we can do it.

Vic offered his hand to Francesco Fosari. “You have a commitment from me, Signore Fosari. If its within the realm of the possible, your son and the girl will be brought to your L5.”

Francesco shook his hand with a solid grip; not challenging or impolite, but a statement of faith. “So we are understood, Victor, I do not care what this costs. I will empty my bank into the oceans of Titan, if that is what it takes. I just want my son home safe, and discretion is appreciated.”

“Of course, Francesco. I do not want a lot of attention to myself in this, either. I fly a freighter, not a Terran Navy Gunship.”

*****

Pillow Talk

Cosette stretched beside him, and sighed. “I have a bad feeling about dis one,” she said.

“Yeah. Me too. Something doesn’t add up,” he answered thoughtfully.

They were home, in their high-rise condo, with the only light in their bedroom coming through the windows. Sunlight, reflected in golden tones and then shone through a hundred million prisms of ice, diffusely lit the room with a pale, sandy glow.

“Young men in love are prone to irrational behaviour,” she teased, poking him in the ribs under the sheets.

“I’d argue with you, but the fact that there is a ‘Great Green Spot’ on Mars and that I’m here in bed with you is proof that you’re right,” he chuckled.

After the meeting they had come home and gone straight to their bedroom. The nearly-discreet and desirous looks that ‘Angiolo’ had been giving Cosette during the meeting, behind Franceso and Victor’s backs, had left her in a mood she very much wanted Vic to benefit from.

They’d showered, poured drinks and then curled up together after remaking the sheets. Talk had, naturally, gone back to the meeting. The air still had a fair aura of musk, shower steam, expensive perfume, whiskey and wine hanging in it, in spite of the expensive filter and ionizer running over in a corner with a low hum.

“You know he is going to try and shoot you, oui, mon amour?”

“That’s a given. Any son, or daughter for that matter, of people like Francesco Fosari or Luciano Sforza are going to know how to handle a Snub Six, a switch-blade and a set of brass knuckles. If the two of them don’ttry and shoot one of us, I think I’ll be insulted,” he chuckled.

She giggled and kissed him. “Ah, mais oui, all must properly fear zee ‘Saturn Alley Kid’,” she teased.

He groaned and summarily tried to smother her with her pillow. A few minutes of playful, if intense wrestling, followed by an equal amount and kind of kissing, passed. “You know how much I hated that nom-de-guerre,” he sighed.

“And yet, you used it to name your company,” she laughed. “Further examples that young men in love are prone to irrational behaviour.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “We both know I was leaving a lighthouse on for you.”

“So, how do we avoid having either us or either of dem stop a bullet in ‘self-defence’?” she asked.

“Rule one is don’t scare them, I suppose,” Vic thought out loud. “We tell ‘em straight up what Francesco told us, what kind of danger they are in, and then see what we get. If we have to, we just use the stun-guns, and apologize when they wake up in the lounge aboard the Spanish Train,” he said with a shrug.

Ah,oui. ‘It is always easier to get forgiveness den permission,’ hue say?” she grinned.

“Something like that, yeah. The priority is getting us and them out of Four-Vesta alive. Everything after that can be apologized for,” he said, stretching. “My number one worry is that if either of those two stops a clip, then we’ve got the likes of Francesco or Luciano mad at us.”

“I will order body armour vests after breakfast,” Cosette sighed. “And some thunder-stars, too. Hmmm. I teenk we are out of trance-gas canisters, aussi. It is a good ting our armourer does delivery.”

“With the money she makes off of us, she damn well better deliver.”

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BAD Agar

I'm quite enjoying this. Your dialogue is quite well written and some of your descriptions are well done, especially the first paragraph of the third part (sorry forgot the name of it) and the chemistry between the main character and his girlfriend is great. One part made me chuckle. My one big complaint is I really must suggest that you tone down the French accent of the girlfriend, it's kinda hard to read and sorta cringy to read. Having accents is all well and good, but even if it's accurate it can seem overboard when being read.

Otherwise, nice work!

Thumb 9586fdda 1486 4436 9c11 e1d52ef335bc
Thanks for the feedback! Yeah, I have French relatives, so the accent "sounds right" to me, but I do understand your comments. I'm trying to get the right "feeling" to it without it being over-powering. This will no doubt see a substantial edit to it, and Cosette's "accent" is something I'm perpetually tweaking. Glad you're enjoying the story so far!

Chapter 2

Playing Catch-Up

“You know, mon amour, I almost miss zee shiver-and-shake zee Train used to make shifting down and shifting up with zee breaker drive,” Cosette said from her position in the VScreen window floating off to the upper right corner of Vic’s vision.

“You’re the one that insisted on spending the money on getting the drive alignments corrected. I told you I thought it added character to the old girl,” Vic answered as he looked around.

“Hue were a nearly-broke freighter captain skimping on non-critical maintenance when I met hue, cherie,” she reminded him. “‘Character’ or not, it was no wonder I was zee only passenger hue had booked in eight months. It routinely felt like zee living spaces were having trouble staying ahead of zee engine room. Dat can be somewhat disconcerting, even at speeds merely eight times a rifle bullet.,” she chuckled.

The Spanish Train, Vic and Cosette’s semi-antique freighter which had been converted to a mobile command post and personal yacht, had spooled down it’s Breaker Drive after a bit more than six weeks at maximum power. They were not much more than fifty-two megametres away from the notorious ball of nickel and iron, and still coasting down from almost two-hundred kilometres per second towards sound fourteen kilometres per second. There were two other ships in the vicinity, each more than three thousand kilometres away. Both of them were known pirates, with a litany of bounties associated with them.

Back in his freighter days, Vic would have been trying to swallow back panic at this point. However, Four-Vesta was surrounded by a very strictly enforced ‘no fire zone’. Anyone breaking the ‘Armistice Bubble’ that was 700 megametres in radius around the modern-day ‘Tortuga of Space’ was simply put on a kill-list for every bounty-hunter and other pirate in the system. The system was simple, ruthless and efficient.

Vic was snapped in, using cybernetic control interfaces to the Spanish Train, to fly her as though she was an equipment suit he was wearing. Anything he did, she did. Her sensors were his eyes and ears, her weapons were his fists, and so on. The VScreen was how he and Cosette communicated when he was snapped in, which could be in excess of eighteen hours for some areas.

She was sitting in a ‘Command Pod’, with a bevy of screens displaying crucial ship and sensor data, as well as ‘eavesdropped’ communications and public information channels. The SnapComm Link was a type of video-conference system that kept them in touch, and allowed her to tag-and-flag data for him to consider. The Command Pod also allowed Cosette to work directly with ‘Jeanie’, the ship’s semi-AI computer system. This meant Cosette could plow through information gathering tasks, database queries or whatever else that was valuable to their current assignment, without having to bother Vic constantly.

“Marilyn used to hate dis place,” Cosette sighed as she watched a screen scrolling with information. “Coming out here was always bad for business, she said.”

“Even for someone like the infamous ‘Rosina Leckermaul’?” Vic asked, adjusting his course towards the asteroid station-world.

Oui. Dere are very few people who come here because dey like it here mon amour,” she replied absently as she tapped at a keyboard. “Dey come here because dey have run out of safe places in zee solar system. Keep in mind dat zee ‘Armistice Bubble’ only applies to zee space around Four-Vesta, and around a few key public areas inside. Other dan dat, from what Marilyn told moi, it is as much of a ‘Wild West’ as Mars used to be, before EMC took over.”

“I suppose; if a place where you can be shot in your bed with out comment or investigation is an improvement in security, your personal circumstances have to be pretty dire,” he chuckled.

Exactement, cherie. People like dat are irrationally stressed out and prone to stupidity. And Marilyn spent an awful lot of her time in zee planning process of any job reducing zee ‘stupidity quotient’ of any circumstance she had to deal with.”

‘Rosina Leckermaul’ was the nom-de-guerre of Marilyn Lamarr, the fascinating monster that Cosette had been working for when Vic had met her on Venus. Marilyn Lamarr was self-described as a professional operational troubleshooter, dubious goods transporter, securities thief and all-around damn dangerous gal whose game-name was known to most major security organizations in the Solar System. She was also a Lich.

In the speak of the modern world, a Lich was someone who had managed to use an advanced and dubiously legal combination of cybernetics, artificial intelligence systems and other people’s bodies to achieve functional, if limited, immortality. When Vic had met her, she was more than 125 years old. She’d replaced her body four times thus far, as combinations of age, injury and infamy had required.

The notion that someone like Marilyn Lamarr had reservations about a place like Four-Vesta did not sit well with Vic. He glanced uneasily towards the station-world of Four-Vesta, framed in a blinking cyan neon box, with a pair of dwindling counters for megameters and for minutes. They would arrive in about an hour.

“Well, good news so far,” Cosette said, chewing at a ruby-glossed lip.

“Oh?”

Oui. I am intercepting, scanning and monitoring about a hundred and tirty open voice and text channels. So far, no one is talking about either zee Fosari or zee Sforza. Which means our VIP duo are probably still anonymous,” she said, frowning.

“Well, from what Francesco told us, and then the extra information his security apparat provided, they will have only been here about eight days at this point. As soon as Signore Fosari figured out where they were going, he called us,” Vic reminded her.

“True. And we left the next afternoon,” she said with an absent nod as she typed a query into a one of the displays in front of her.

“If the young Nereo Fosari is as smart and talented as his father describes him, then he will have had a briefcase full of coin, a Fixer to meet when he got here, and the smarts to quietly hire by proxy a couple of the locals as guards for he and Gelsomina Sforza,” Vic said thoughtfully.

“So how do we find him, mon amour?”

“A brief case full of money only lasts so long. A fella that smart will want to get self-sufficient fast. He’ll have to set up a business, legitimate or otherwise.”

“I will start scanning zee station records and directories for new businesses opened within zee past forty five days, cherie. Dat should be enough time to account for pre-planning zee arrival as a turn-key,” Cosette said. She undid a couple of buttons on her blouse to show a bit more cleavage to the camera, redid her rich red lipstick, blew him a pouty kiss and got to work.

*****

History Lesson

“The pad fees aren’t as bad as I expected,” Vic commented as he and Cosette walked along.

“Well, keep in mind, mon amour… Everything dis place runs on is probably stolen goods. When zee cost of acquisition is below market, zee sale prices tend to be good,” she commented dryly.

They had landed on Four-Vesta a bit more than two hours ago. It took Vic almost half that to go through ‘decompression’, the process of slowing himself down from cybernetic speeds to those of the real world. Skimping on decompression resulted in awkward and inconvenient side-effect like Grand Malseizures and heart attacks. Then, they had gotten changed into their planned attire for the visit to the self-styled ‘Tortuga of Space’.

Four-Vesta, when humanity had first reached the forsaken ball of rock, had been slightly flattened, ball-shaped sub-planetary mass, about 560 kilometres wide and 450 kilometres thick. The Breaker Drive had not yet been invented, and humanity was only barely established at the million-settler mark on the Moon. The intention had been to use the asteroid as a forward base to allow exploration and exploitation of the asteroid belt and perhaps the Jovian moons. The plan called for the olivine and nickel-iron asteroid to be converted into a massive space station and deep-space city.

The initial outpost was built on the surface, and a mass driver constructed. Over the next eighth of a century, they had cored the asteroid out and filled it full of cometary ice and other volatiles. The mass driver altered the direction and speed of rotation, so that the axis of rotation coincided with the peak in the centre of the Rheasilvia south-polar crater.

Then eight square kilometres of a mirror foil had focused the energy of the sun on the surface of the spinning rock. Over the next decade, the asteroid literally expanded like a balloon by about thirty percent under the constant bath of concentrated sunlight melting the ice and volatiles buried within it.

The drones kept digging and shaping, the mass drivers kept firing, and humanity’s greatest engineering achievement approached completion. The spin of the asteroid was normalized to approximately three rotations per hour, giving an internal gravity by centripetal acceleration of around five percent more than Earth-normal. The water formed lakes, and the volatiles and crushed regolith was used to make top soils. Trees were planted. The first rains fell. The first crops were sown. An eco-system of creatures was introduced.

It was a miniature world, inside out, with a livable surface area comparable to the region of Libya, in the African Union of Earth. You could stand on one side and look across the 750 kilometre expanse of sky to the other side of the world, if clouds didn’t block your view. The first thousand or so permanent inhabitants arrived, ready to forge a future of being human-kind’s gateway to the outer Solar System, and perhaps one day, beyond.

Then the Breaker Drive was invented. Even in it’s earliest incarnations, the Breaker Drive re-wrote everything that everyone understood about travel within the Solar System. The 800-day journey to the Jovian system was now just 100 days. Four-Vesta was now less than a two-week jaunt from Earth instead of a sixteen week voyage, and suddenly was effectively only nominally closer to the Jovian system than Mars was.

Supply ships and explorers began to bypass Four-Vesta; either departing directly from Earth-Luna or instead being based from the suddenly flourishing colonies on Mars. In less than a quarter century, the last formal supply mission to the ‘Shining Gateway to Jupiter’ made it’s run, and that was that. The artificial colony world of seven thousand was administratively abandoned by the planners and bureaucrats on Earth.

These days, the informal guess was that about a quarter-million people lived in Four-Vesta, which was less than an tenth what the place had been designed to support. They were from all walks of life, races, creeds and hopes. There were nine major towns of between twenty-five and thirty thousand people, spread randomly over the interior.

As far as pop-culture knowledge had it, the only commonality any of Four-Vesta’s inhabitants had was that they weren’t welcome anywhere else. From everything Vic had ever read about the place, being willing to stab someone over a slice of bread was about the only prerequisite for living here.

The space port was on the inside surface, near the South Pole. Essentially, ships coming and going flew carefully down an eight-kilometre long tunnel, via a series of five armoured locks, to emerge inside. Anything much bigger than the Dublin-class of ships that the Spanish Trainwas based on would likely find the trip a tight squeeze. Vic figured that explained why the aging Valentia-class patrol cruisers were still so popular with so many mercenary outfits and pirate crews. That would be about the biggest combat-worthy ship able to come and go.

Internal travel was by vectored fan vehicles between towns, or grounders in and around them. Vic and Cosette had chartered a vectored fan vehicle with pilot, and had flown from “Star Town”, as the port was known as, to “Moody Bay”. Based on the intelligence gathering Cosette had done on the way in, this was the best place to start their search.

Concentrated sunlight was beamed in via ceramic-crystal conduits from the north pole, where reflectors gathered in and directed it. The day-night cycle was achieved by de-focusing the concentrators. The effect, right now in there mid-afternoon, was like being north of 45 latitude in late Spring on Earth. Plenty of light, not too bright on the eyes, and not too hot.

The harbour town of Moody Bay was a busy place, mid-week and mid-afternoon. Most of the buildings were either two or three-story affairs, with a couple of four-story office-looking places towards the town centre. That alone interested Vic; offices spaces and neo-libertarian ‘extreme freedom’ environments did not tend to coexist well. That said, anything important had a wary-eyed Gorilla standing near it. It looked like public security was generally provided by private security, on a case-by-case basis.

The sound of vectored fan vehicles arriving or departing from down by the water, where they themselves had flown in, was a regular occurrence. Several small passenger hydrofoils were tied at a marina, as were a few obvious party craft. The streets had no shortage of pedestrian traffic, in a feeling that was very similar to Luna City. It was obvious that the locals had the same love that Venusians did of neon, holograms and pastel colours. Every building and place had its own unique combination of colour and light announcing it’s purpose and quality.

>> Do you think we will find the young lovers here?” Cosette asked him via text message as they walked along silently.

>> No. I think we’ll find out where they went from here,” he replied.

*****

The Monarch Club

>> I still say we look like we should be extras in one of those black-humour vampire dramas,” he messaged her.

>> I am perfectly fine with that,” she responded.

As Cosette herself had put it, when you go skinny-dipping with sharks, the most important job is to not look like minnows. They were both wearing heavy leather jackets with the de-riguer padded shoulders that were in fashion. His jacket closed with a trio of heavy buckles and zipper, and went down past mid-thigh. Hers closed via a set of eight small buckles, and stopped at the top of her waist.

Vic’s shirt was a simple grey-toned tee. Cosette was wearing a venom-red ribbed tube top that started above her navel and stopped below her arms, and left a nearly immodest amount of cleavage visible; across the tummy of the shirt were the words ’Free But Not Cheap’ in silver sparkles and sequins.

They were both wearing black leather pants; his were a boot-cut, no-nonsense in style that added to his apparent bulk. Cosette’s looked like they were sprayed on, and didn’t even bother with the conceit of pockets.

They were both wearing black leather boots; his looked like he could kick the side of a 4-wheel grounder in with them, and had recently done so. Hers, by comparison were high-heeled and glossed, and clicked as she walked.

She was carrying a venom red leather mini-purse slung over her shoulder on long spaghetti straps, swaying slightly across her lower back. Both of them had their hair spray-dyed tar-black and grainy, and spray-gelled teased and high. Their makeup, both eyes and lips, was suitably dark and brooding. Neither of them looked like they were carrying any weapons, at least visibly.

Cosette had done the fashion design. The objective was relatively straightforward; confuse the line about who was what in the duo. Cosette looked like she was either a hit-bitch, or a sex worker, or a rockstar on vacation. Vic was either her boss, or her bodyguard, or her girl-toy. They both looked like either one could be the professional predator of the pair, but neither was visibly easy prey.

>>You know, for a place that has problems with food supply and civilized living, I am seeing a lot of green fields and what looks like forestry management,” Vic messaged, looking up for a moment at the vista of the horizon curving up and around to fill the sky.

>> Not a lot of gaunt faces, either. This might not be as bad as reputation has it,” she answered.

>> Another ‘Blue Mars’-type corporate PR job, I am beginning to suspect,” he concluded. On the other hand, his and her clothing styles were hardly out of current fashion here, he noted.

“This is the place we were told about,” she said aloud, pointing at the flickering holosign over the door, naming the place as “The Monarch Club”.

“In we go, then,” he replied with a grin, pulling the door open.

The club was a pretty modern looking place, having clearly lifted the cues from it’s decor from the popular hotspots on Luna and Venus. It was a three-story affair, square in foot-print at about fifteen meters per side. The main floor had a a bar and grill, with seats and dance floor for more than two hundred, he guessed. The second floor was essentially just a wide balcony that went the entire way around, leaving an opening about a third of the width of the place, right over the first level’s dance floor. It was probably the VIP area; it was closed right now due to the mid-afternoon hour, but Vic was pretty sure he had glimpsed a bar up there, too.

Stairs led up from the first to the second, and then from the second to the third. What the function of the third floor was, Vic couldn’t tell. It was just a double-door at the top of some stairs with no hint more than that.

Racks and rows of speakers and lights hung from the high ceiling of the first level, aimed towards the dance floor. A raised DJ booth, currently unoccupied and dark, was off to a side of it. Neon lighting in a rainbow of colours was along the top of the wall, underneath the steps of each of the two wide staircases leading upward, and anywhere else that the designer had not wanted to paint another colour than white.

The smells of food, booze, vape-sticks and people reached Vic’s nose as they entered. An air conditioner whirled a mild protest in the background of some synth-pop song he didn’t recognize, that was playing over the sound system. The place wasn’t even a quarter full, and more than a few faces turned towards them as they entered.

>> Give me room to work, my love,” she messaged him.

>> Of course,” he answered as they made their way to the bar. Vic dropped a couple of coins on the bar top and called for a scotch on ice for himself and ‘Zombie Hunter’ for her. If she wasn’t drinking wine, Cosette wanted her complicated, fizzy, mixed drinks.

Vic leaned his elbows on the bar, and glanced at the mirror over the bar while the Drink Jockey did her thing. A few curious looks were being directed their way, but nothing that looked out of place to him.

Cosette strutted like hot molasses over towards the jukebox and leaned over to look at the musical options. The performance was entirely for the benefit of the rest of the room, but Vic never tired of watching her.

A brick-wall of a man, with a trio of empty beer bottles in front of him, a couple spots down the bar looked over at Vic. “She with you?” he growled.

“Yeah, she is.”

“Not any more, Runt,” the bigger man said turning towards Vic. Vic wasn’t a short guy, but this chap would have been two of him in mass, he figured.

“Look, Champ, I’m not real sure …” Vic began, slowly, turning towards him.

“I’m real sure you need to shut up and get lost, Runt, before I teach you the meaning of pain.”

>> Mata Hari and the Cardinal,” scrolled across the top of his vision.

>> You’re on stage,” he replied mentally.

Vic put his hands up and shrugged. “You win. You’ve got fists the size of my face. I don’t want any of that. She’s all yours.” Vic snagged his drink, and made a show of moving a few spots further down the bar from him. The Drink Jockey looked between Vic and his tormentor, and then she glanced towards a phone. A glance towards the mirror told Vic that more than a few people were now watching the events in front of the bar with interest. Vic shook his head at the Drink Jockey.

Cosette strolled over to the big man and sidled up to him. “Oh, my, hue are such a big boy,” she cooed at him, dialling up her French accent and vocal tone into the range of a sex-call service. “Tell me your name.”

“Yarik Aart,” he said proudly, and immediately set a possessive paw on her hip. Vic had not been joking about the size of the other man’s hand’s; he was likely a belter or pipe-worker by trade.

“Oooh, dat is such a manly sort of name, Yarik,” Cosette said turning sideways and lightly grinding her hip against Yarik’s thigh. “Got a smoke for me?” she asked with a pout.

A few moments later she had a freshly lit vape-stick in one hand, and was idly toying with the buckle on Yarik’s belt. The Drink Jockey caught Vic’s eye, apparently trying to signal a warning. Vic shook his head at her and raised a finger to his lips. She gave him a puzzled look, and Vic had a sip of his drink as he watched the mirror over the bar.

“So, dits-moi, tell me, Yarik,” Cosette purred, curling against him, which would have left the taller man an excellent view of her cleavage. “Hue seem like a ‘real man’. Are hue one of dose ‘real men’ dat knows how to make sure a woman knows her place? Maybe a bit rough with his girls?” she asked coyly.

“You better believe it, honey,” Yarik said, shifting his hand from her hip to pat her forcefully on the ass.

Bon, c’est bien, ca,” Cosette purred at him. “‘real men’ like hue know dat is what every girl wants, deep down, right? Hue know best for us. Now, I am a nasty little bitch sometimes,” she continued on in her sex-line voice, ”and I really hate guys dat treat moi like property, and so I really did not want to feelbadaboutthis.”

The last three words of her sentence ran together as she triggered her cybernetic physical accelerator, called a ‘speed wire’. The hand holding the vape-stick blurred and she drove the lit smoke up Yarik’s left nostril. Before the nerve endings in his sinus cavity had fully informed him of the unfolding horror, her other hand pulled a Snub Six revolver out of her jacket pocket. She shoved it down the front of the big man’s loosened pants and fired twice.

The bullets came out the front of each pant leg, barely missing the kneecaps. One hit the floor beside his left foot, the other went through the top of his right foot. Yarik screamed and she shoved the muzzle into his mouth.

“If hue so much as twitch,” she hissed sweetly, “I will blow your brains all over zee wall behind hue. Mon Boss over dere has enough money to make sure dat non one in dis room will have seen anything but hue committing suicide,” she concluded with a giggle, sounding ever so slightly unhinged. Yarik froze, his eyes wide, and visibly trying not to shake.

“Hue have to be one seriously stupid fuck to treaten zee man of a woman dat looks like I do,” she commented casually, grinding the still-warm gun barrel into the roof of his mouth. “Do hue really teenk hue’re zee first guy in zee whole solar system to notice what a fine piece of hazz he is walking around town with? Hue seem like zee kind of ‘real man’ dat probably gives a lot of girls problems.” She tilted her head speculatively and curled a lip.

“I wonder,” she continued louder, in a lethally cold voice, “what would happen if I was to ask zee room if any of zee girls here would like to see zee inside of your skull splattered on zee mirror. What about it les-filles?  Qu'est-ce que tu penses?Hands up for some judge, jury and execution!” she barked, not taking her eyes off of Yarik, who was giving a bulge-eyed and desperate look towards Vic.

A couple women, behind Cosette’s view, raised their hands. The Drink Jockey put her hand up.

“Dat is all zee excuse I need,” she said with a lethal smile, and visibly put her finger inside the trigger guard.

“That’s enough,” Vic barked. “Down, girl. Now.”

“But …” Cosette began to argue.

“That’s ENOUGH.”

“You are so damn lucky,” Cosette hissed at Yarik. She jerked the pistol out of his mouth and smiled like poison ivy at him. Her empty hand blurred as she triggered her speed wire again. She grabbed Yarik by a floating rib, twisted violently, and he choked in pain; in an eye blink later she had gut punched him twice.

Yarik coughed blood, dropped to his knees and vomited in agony.

“I said that was enough,” Vic said with a sigh of displeasure.

“But I did not kill him,” she whined with a pout and the stomp of a high-heeled boot.

“Wait. Out. Side,” he ordered in a voice that left no question of his mood.

Oui, Monsignor,” she answered meekly and left.

At this point, everyone in the room including the Drink Jockey, was staring at Vic, transfixed. He walked over beside Yarik, who was still doubled over on his knees. He was wreching slightly and clutching his dislocated rib with one hand. He was also was vainly trying to pull the vape-stick out of his nose with the other hand, in between heaves of pain.

“You’ve had a rough day, Champ,” Vic said, crouching beside him. “See, I wasn’t trying to protect her from you, I was trying to protect you from her,” Vic said in a sympathetic tone. “She’s one of those rabid lesbian feminist types; you know how they can get, yeah? Anyway, look … two free suggestions for you. She’s probably just going to kill you anyway when she thinks I’m not looking. So, first hint is that maybe you want to skip town for a while.”

“Secondly, since you’ve just had most of your pubic hairs singed off by a couple of muzzle flashes, you’ve been shot in the foot, you puked on the floor outta pain, you pissed yourself in terror, and you got the shit kicked out of you in public by a girl half your size, maybe, I dunno, maybe you want to stick to picking on people you already know? Makes sense, yeah? Now get out of here before I break your nova-damned neck; keep in mind that the little horror in high-heels works for me. Take the back door so she doesn’t tattoo your ass with that handgun.”

Vic watched as the badly abused big man stumbled and lurched for the back door, leaving a trail of bloody foot prints and bile. He looked over at the Drink Jockey. “So many assholes, so few bullets,” he sighed. “Sorry about the mess. My name is Victor LaChance.”

“I’m Fathi,” she said slowly. “Fathi Juriša.”

“Sorry to meet you like this, Fathi, but glad to meet you,” he said, sliding a black plastic card towards her. “Look, that’s a Stellar Express traveller’s cash card. It’s got a thousand on it. Why don’t you take that, and keep the drinks and food going for the good people in the room whose day I’ve interrupted? Skim a nice tip for yourself, of course.”

Fathi’s eyes went wide and then she nodded.

>> Xena and the Rocker Boy,” he sent to Cosette.

>> You are on stage,” came the affirmation.

“Can you recommend me a place to stay? I’ll need two rooms. One for me, and one for her. She’s going to want to find herself a petite, athletic blonde for the night, and I don’t want to crimp her style.”

Fathi’s eyes flicked from Vic to the door that Cosette had exited though, and then back to Vic with renewed interest. “Uh, yeah. My friend runs a Room-House. I can call him, and get you a couple of good pads. How long are you in town for?”

“A week.”

Fathi nodded at him, and then went to the phone. She was clearly a blend of Arabic and African Union ancestries, with an average build and a bit of a thin face. Her eyes were hazel, with good makeup choices adding depth. She was a bit short if compared to Cosette, and her hair was mid-length, wavy brown, pulled back and tied with a bright blue ribbon that matched the choker around her neck.

Quite while later, Fathi came back over to him. Word had gotten around that drinks and food were ‘on the house’ for a while, and the place had gotten busy. A bus-boy and a janitor drone had cleaned up the mess on the floor. Cosette had drifted back in and was holding up a piece of wall near the jukebox, watching the room, and chatting with some pretty girl. Vic had noted over the interval the few faces that seemed to be taking an interest in his affairs, based on their supposedly surreptitious glances in either his direction, or towards Cosette.

“Um, so here is the address. My shift is over in about an hour. If you want, I could, you know, walk you over so you find the place more quickly,” she suggested, with an implicit offer in the tone.

“That’s very kind of you. I’m sure I’ll be fine to find it by myself. But … look, there is something you could do that wouldmake me grateful. I’m looking to talk to folks who know the nightlife around here. I’m a music industry scout out of Luna. If you can point me towards some interesting sounds, I’d be happy to celebrate that with you.”

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Chapter 3

Morning Hawks

“So, what do we know?” Vic asked Cosette the next morning.

“Not much, cherie,” she responded after a sip of her mimosa.

They had stayed at the Monarch through supper, then gone to the “Room-House”, which was a cross between an informal sort of motel and a bed-and-breakfast. Once they had rooms, keys and money sorted out, they had gone down to the dock and pulled their travel bags out of the day lockers where they had been left. They dropped their things off, made a few minor clothing changes each, touched up their makeup, and gone back to the Monarch Club for the rest of the night. An impromptu “open mic” night had been set up, the music had been surprisingly good, and the place had been buzzing well into the morning.

Vic and Cosette passed most of the night spending money, being seen, and letting folks think they were getting away with something by trying to pump Cosette for information while Vic had been “distracted” by Fathi. This morning, they had gotten up with the birds to have breakfast together, compare notes and plan the day.

“So did zee enthusiastic lap-sitting by vos nouveau petit ami last evening teach hue anything?” Cosette poked at him.

“Other than she can’t dance, can’t kiss, and that she loves to talk about almost anything to anyone that vaguely strikes her as intelligent, you mean? Particularly after the third drink.”

Pauvre esclave,” she chuckled.

“No one compares to your talents, darling,” he purred at her, doing his best impression of wide-eyed star-struck.

She laughed at him and dabbed the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “Hue know I am teasing, of course, cherie. When we agreed to a committed relationship, it was about hearts and minds, not hands and lips. I do not care who hue smooch on a job; I will admit to jealousy if it is any more dan dat,” she said, sipping from her mimosa.

He nodded at her. “I feel the same way, lover. With the way almost every guy that sees you looks at you, being your man can be a bit rough on the list of insecurities at times, but … as Marilyn told me, trust is a choice. I trust you with everything that I am.”

“Hue keep talking like dat, and hue’re going to persuade moi to try and persuade hue to take zee day off, mon amour,” she said in a low voice and slight waggle of her eyebrows. “So, dits-moi what zee little girl told hue.”

“The most important part of anything she said last night is that we can both relax. An awful lot of what we ‘know’ about Four-Vesta is wrong,” he replied and then took a mouthful of coffee.

Cosette nodded, chewing thoughtfully on some herb-and-butter slathered bread. “I am not surprised.”

“It used to be the kind of hell-hole that we were expecting,” he began. “Up until about forty years ago, from what Fathi told me. As we saw during yesterday afternoon, yeah, some of the locals like the smell of fresh meat. But, let’s honest, there are people like that everywhere; Earth, Luna, wherever. Sort of the same way that Saturn and Jupiter can been rough neighbourhoods to outsiders. Normally around here, most of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Each of the towns has one or two Triad-style families running things, and as long as everyone toes the line, its no worse a place than an EMC company town. Every once in a while, there is a spate of problems, usually associated with one faction or an other pushing at borders, but most of the time it doesn’t affect the average guy or girl on the street. The biggest difference in public life between here and Saturn is that the affluent crime families around Saturn pretence to be respectable businesses. Here, being an affluent crime family is a respectable business.”

“Dat is both good and bad news, mon amour,” Cosette suggested.

“Oh?”

Mais, oui. So, zee odds of Nereo and Gelsomina being randomly savaged simply for being in zee wrong place at zee wrong time are much lower dan we expected. On zee other hand, our quarries are zee children and heirs of powerful families. Exactly zee sort of people who might be much more recognizable by zee de-factoowners of dese towns. Particularly if word from outside somehow arrives dat dey may be here. Triad-style families will have zee resources and organization to be able to actively search for zee pair.”

“Good points. So while we can relax a bit, we can’t really afford to slow down much.”

Oui, c’est ca. So who was poor Yarrik?” she asked, spreading a bit of brown sugar on her steaming oatmeal.

“A local thug-for-hire and bully. He regularly pawed up Fathi and a few of the other girls around the Monarch, regardless of what they told him. He is just physically big enough and mean enough that most of the guys didn’t want to get into it with him, particularly over someone else’s girl. Local ‘law enforcement’ doesn’t concern themselves with what goes on in a bar beyond outright homicide.”

OK, c'est bon. We do not need to worry about repercussions from our little performance yesterday afternoon,” she said with a nod.

“None expected, beyond gratitude from several of the locals, particularly the ladies,” he replied.

“What are hue going to do with zee collection of music cards hue amassed last night?”

“Listen to them all again on the trip home a couple of times, and send the really good stuff off to Sonya on Venus with the tip that any of them would jump at a chance to spend a month touring the clubs there.”

Bonne idee, cherie. She will be happy to know hue are still alive, and happy for zee possible new business.”

“That was my thoughts, yes. How did your evening’s adventures go?” he asked.

Pas mal. As hue say, some of zee locals do like zee smell of fresh meat. If I had actually been single, I would have had a dozen options about where to wake up and with whichever gender I pleased. It never ceases to amaze moi how many men seem to teenk dat dey can change what a woman calling herself queer wants.”

Vic chuckled. Cosette had been a Con-Girl and smuggler longer than he had been alive; he was twenty-six. Pick-up artistry was one of her key skills in that life, and she had it down cold. Part of that was playing a role or feeding a fantasy. As a result, her periodic cynicism and commentary about CISHET men and their ignorance of women was invariably amusing. It also reminded him of how much of a Dumb Guy that he, himself, had been before he had met her.

“Anyway, in all of dat flirting and talking,” she continued with a wave of a hand, “I found out dat a young woman answering Gelsomina’s description, in zee company of another young lady, were at a pricey tailor boutiqueon zee hillside area of zee town.”

Vic frowned. “That seems … weird. Why would that have been noteworthy to someone?”

“Because,cherie, everyone in dis town with zee kind of money to shop in dat store is generally well known to zee staff. One of zee staff is a charming and talkative woman who really did want to wind up where ever I was sleeping last night. She mentioned dat I was not zee first attractive stranger she had seen in town lately. Naturally, dat piqued my interest, and so I played along enough to get zee story. She did not recognize either of zee two young women.”

“Well, well. That isinteresting. It makes sense, too. Nereo and Gelsomina are going to be used to a certain standard of living and quality of goods. At their age, it might not immediately occur to them to step down a couple of social ranks in the name of anonymity.”

Exactement, mon amour,” Cosette answered, picking up a forkful of scrambled eggs. “My tought was to perhaps head up to zee boutique, juste par moi-même, flirt a bit with zee staffer-girl, maybe pick out a new little red dress, and get a list of places a well-moneyed mob princess might shop. Den we can check dose places to see if anyone recognizes dem. With dat knowledge we can figure out zee rough area dey are living in, by virtue of walking distances.”

Vic nodded and smiled. “Then we case the neighbourhood until we get eyes on them and follow them home.”

Oui.”

“You’re brilliant, lover,” Vic said appreciatively.

Oui,” she answered smugly.

*****

Two Days Later

>>Here he comes, darling,” Cosette’s message ticker-taped across the top of his vision.

>> Yep. I see him. Fire when you get a clear shot,” he replied.

From her position on a business roof two blocks away, Cosette calmly centred the holographic crosshairs floating in her augmented cybernetic vision on the middle-aged man walking down the sidewalk in the late evening dusk. The rifle coughed, and a long moment later, the subsonic non-lethal impactor slammed into his forehead, dropping him.

>> Hit,” she messaged.

“>>Confirmed. Moving. Meet you at the door,” he answered

It had been two full days of work since the first night at the Monarch. Following Cosette’s search plan had rewarded the duo with enough information to figure out where their quarry were likely staying. It was, as Vic had surmised, an upscale neighbourhood. The homes were all single family, had polite privacy fences around them and the lane had trees. Eventually, Vic had spotted Nereo walking with a couple bags of groceries. Tailing him had revealed the exact address that he, and presumably therefore Gelsomina, were living. Cosette had then kept an eye on the area around the home long enough to identify that the place was being patrolled by a plain-clothed operative.

It had rained late in the early evening. Once that had let up, Vic and Cosette had returned to the neighbourhood, prepared to knock on the door of their quarry. From her spot on the roof of the local commerce and convenience building, Cosette had re-identified the plain-clothed operative based on prior pictures she had taken. His clothes were different, his gait was a bit different, but his face was the same.

With the operative now down, Vic swiftly moved from the bushes and gloom he had been waiting in. He dragged the unconscious man out of sight, and then bound and gagged him. For good measure, he tossed the victim’s WristSmart, earpiece and handgun into a storm drain. From there, Vic quickly and quietly crept around to the back of the home, and took a hand-sized device out of his carry bag. He turned the unit on and dropped it on the ground. It was a signal jammer. Every WristSmart, personal computer, entertainment system, or whatever else that was connected to the InfoNet within a hundred metres suddenly could not connect. The unit would run for fifteen minutes before the power source died.

He then went to the back door and quietly used a jimmy-tool to unlock it. He reached up and disabled the light over the door, and waited. A few minutes later the sound of muffled commotion inside reached his ears. He pulled his stun-gun out from under his jacket, opened the door, and went in.

He had come into the kitchen area, and could clearly hear someone loosing a fight in the front room. Around the corner, running for their lives, came two young women. One was Gelsomina; the other he did not recognize. Vic levelled the long-barrelled pistol at them and they stopped short, eyes wide.

Given that both Cosette and Vic were dressed head to toe in black, wearing tactical harnesses and jackets, and both waving stun-guns around, the fight in the front room and the fleeing girls heading for the back door were pretty much what Vic had expected. Who the second young woman was, however, was a question mark.

“Hands up, stay quiet, and nobody gets hurt,” he said sternly.

Surprisingly, Gelsomina grabbed the other girl, and stepped in front of her. “Don’t shoot her, please,” Gelsomina pleaded. “She’s pregnant.”

*****

Girls Night In

Vic rubbed at his forehead. “So, you three are all lovers, and the Beneto girl is pregnant by Nereo?” he questioned.

They were all in the living room, the curtains pulled, the lights mostly down, the furniture mostly restored to the condition before Nereo had taken a swing at Cosette. She had swiftly taken the young man down and put wrist-restraints on him. The girls, of course, while trying to flee had all but run into Vic’s arms at the back door.

The trio were sitting, with their hands tied, on the couch. Vic was leaning against one doorway, and Cosette was sitting in an armchair.

“Her name is Sebastiana, asshole. She’s a person, not a family legacy marker,” Nereo snarled at Vic.

“Easy does it, Romeo,” Vic replied.

Nereo started to stand, even with his hands bound .

“Reo, please, no. They will just hurt you more,” Gelsomina urged. Nereo had a sizeable goose-egg over his right eye, and a bit of dried blood under his nose.

“Look, let me repeat myself. We aren’t here to hurt you two … or three. So calm down.”

“Do you know who we are? Who I am?” Nereo challenged.

“Yeah, I do. Your father paid for our visit,” Vic sighed. “And your hired guard is having a nap under the bushes out front, so stop glancing at the door waiting for the rescue team.”

The trio on the couch fell silent and looked at each other in alarm. Nereo was sitting between the two girls, with Gelsomina on his right. Vic was idly curious about the supposed trio of young lovers. They ranged the gamut of appearance and social standing.

Unsurprisingly, all three were visibly a blend of EuroZone-Italian and Saturnian ethnicity. Gelsomina, nicknamed ‘Mina’, had a bit of nordic influence in her looks. She was little short, easily the shortest of group in the room in fact, with a somewhat thin, narrow build. She had large brown eyes, with the bangs from her medium length curly brown hair partially obscuring them. A trio of ice-white slashes were dyed into the fall of her hair on her left side.

Nereo, or just ‘Reo’ as the two girls called him, was easily the tallest in the room, even compared to Vic. He was quite muscular and somewhat broadly built, with deep green and small-ish looking eyes. He wore his long, dark hair in a carefully kept wavy style, with iced-white tips. His short-sleeved shirt showed a scroll-work tattoo on his left upper arm, proclaiming "Three Forever".

Sebastiana, referred to as “Tiana” by the other two, was in the middle for height, but still tall for a girl. Her jaw and cheeks showed strong Germanic influences mixed in her past. She was athletic and muscular in build with only a hint of her pregnancy affecting her shape. She kept her vivid blonde hair in a medium length curl. An “Eye of Thoth” tattoo under the left of her warm blue eyes was in a striking turquoise, and reached to her cheekbone.

Each of the trio had an identical diamond and gold hoop piercing their eft ear. That was easily guessed as the trio’s promise or commitment rings, or the the like.

Beyond their ethnicity, and jewelry, Vic couldn’t see any common denominator that spanned the three supposed lovers. Reo and Mina were from two of the six Prime Families. Tiana was from one of the seven Minor Houses.

“In a moment, we are leaving,” Cosette announced. “All of us. Our ship is at Star Town. Tell us what half-a-dozen things you each want, and where to find them, and we will pack a bag for each of you. Then will be on our way back to Saturn.”

“The moment you open that door,” Sebastiana said quietly, “I will start screaming rape at the top of my lungs. They will hear me all over the neighbourhood. You won’t make it to the Marina.”

“Just come quietly, okay?” Vic said with a sigh. “I have permission from your parents to just stun-gun the bunch of you. That will hurt like hell, trust me on this. You’re going back to your parents.”

“If you do that hundreds, if not thousands, will die,” Gelsomina blurted.

“Mina!” Nereo hissed, clearly wanting her to say no more.

Vic and Cosette looked at each other. Vic was beginning to regret the jammer on the lawn out back; he couldn’t private-message Cosette.

Cosette leaned forward, an intent look on her face. “Toi, jeune-homme, please, be silent. Hue are very much like my husband here; very fierce, very protective of his women, and sometimes not understanding when it is time for girl talk. Hue two boys can fight later, all night, if hue wish. We girls have business to discuss,” she said cooly.

There was a moment of silence and then Cosette looked squarely at Gelsomina. “Hue played zee card on the table, dear-heart. Dites-moi, Mina, what hue mean by it.”

“We ran away because Luciano and Francesco are planning a massacre,” Gelsomina began.

“Mina, you can’t trust them! They work for our parents,” Nereo said. “Or so they claim. They’d know all this already if that was true,” he argued.

Cosette shot Vic a warning look, and anything he was going to say ended on his lips. “Keep talking, Mina, mon brave. Dis is important to both hue and I.”

Gelsomina glanced at very grumpy looking Nereo and then towards Sebastiana. The two girls looked at each other for a moment, and then Sebastiana nodded.

Gelsomina took a deep breath before she began. “They’ve made a deal with RevelatioNET Enterprises to finance a military strike and take-over of the entire Saturn system. Tiana here figured it out first, and then she told Reo and I. We both snooped, and we’ve got a pile of evidence. When we ran, we left them messages that said we’d plaster it all over the system-wide chat and news channels if they did it.”

Vic opened his mouth to ask a question and without looking, Cosette raised a finger towards him. He closed his mouth.

“How do your fathers get away with dis?” Cosette asked.

Sebastiana spoke up. “RevelatioNET Enterprises hits everyone at the Grand Ball just before New Years. That’s only a few months away. It just ‘works out’ that the Sforza and Fosari forces don’t take nearly as many casualties. Once everyone is hurting, then Sforza and Fosari start getting everyone under a common banner to beat back RevelatioNET; everyone else gets butchered, Sforza and Fosari are left standing tall, and behind the scenes, they are now partnered up and working with RevelatioNET.”

“So,” Gelsomina concluded quietly, “if you take us back, then there is nothing holding them back.”

Cosette looked over at Vic after a moment of dead silence. “Take a chance on me, one more time, cherie?” she asked, ignoring the confused looks of the trio on the couch.

“Of course. With my life,” he answered with a smile and nod.

Cosette looked at Gelsomina. “As one woman en amour, in love, to another …dites-moi, what would you do to protect these two?”

Mina bit her lip for a moment. “Anything,” she answered firmly.

C’est bien, Because now I need hue to trust moi, in spite of how we met,” Cosette said quietly. “We knew nothing of your story. We were given a much different account of events. Your fathers are not so careless in dere craft. Dey must have known we would speak to hue. So, I am guessing, by finding hue, we have quite likely put hue in danger. And, I would not be surprised, us as well. Zee safest place for all of us, is our ship at Star Town. Dere, we can all talk freely about how we resolve dis mire we are all now in. I promise hue, as one woman in love to another, dat if hue ask to leave our ship, we will let hue leave.”

“You want us to voluntarily go to your ship?” Reo blinked, incredulously. “Are you stupid?”

“He is not very good allowing zee ladies in his life to lead, is he?” Cosette asked sympathetically, glancing between the two girls.

“No,” Mina said, shooting Reo a side-eyed black look, “he isn’t. He needs to work on that.”

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Heider Broisler

Wow! Great writing. Your plot and technique are very good.

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Thank-you!

Credits & Thanks

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