Misha could barely think over the noise of the comscreen, the storm outside, and her grandmother's labored breathing. She typed frantically at her compad screen, trying to confirm that their bills had been paid on time and that there was enough money in their accounts to survive another week.
They would need it now more than ever. The newscasters on their beat-up, old-fashioned comscreen were only talking about one thing: the failed peace talks in Milan. After nearly five years of fighting, the Faction War was going to continue for weeks, months, or even years.
Misha's grandmother yelled at the comscreen in Pashto, her native language, before adding in English: "Misha, I don't know what we'll do if we don't go in there and fix it."
Misha sighed and tried to smile. "I know, anaa," she murmured.
Her grandmother coughed, and the harsh, rasping sound made Misha wince. "You could be a politician!" she said, pointing at Misha. "I told you!"
"You've told me a thousand times. I know." Misha tapped a few more buttons on her compad screen and sat back with another sigh.
There was little point in thinking about politics. She had gone to the rallies, called her representatives, her prime minister, even wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the American States. The streets of Philadelphia and every other East Coast city had been flooded with angry yet hopeful faces, malnourished and desperate for change. Many were unemployed, like Misha, and most were even worse off than herself. They had clung to each other as they pushed back on the failures of their leaders. The pressure had seemed to be working; the peace talks had been convened, and a ceasefire had been called.
Now, three days and a handful of hours later, news had reached the world: the talks had fallen apart, and the will of the people had become meaningless again. The excuses from the government were piling up, but they wouldn't put food on the table to stop the bloodshed.
She was too exhausted to think about it any longer. She had no energy for anything other than to buckle down, care for her grandmother, and stay alive.
A single, frustrated tear dripped onto her compad, making the screen dance with magnified dots of color. She wiped her face, hoping her grandmother hadn't seen.
There was a series of wheezing coughs, and Misha looked up to see her grandmother doubled over at her seat on the couch. Faded Lung disease was going to destroy her elderly body sooner rather than later.
And if - no, when - her grandmother passed, Misha would be out of a place to live within six weeks. That was a far less important concern, but it still made Misha's head swim.
She hurried to her grandmother's side and poured another dose of cough medicine. "Anaa, let me turn the screen off; it's stressing you out," she said as she raised the tiny cup to her grandmother's lips.
"No, Misha," was the whispered response. "I'm going to yell at this world until the end."
Two months later
The bustle and chatter of the armed men around Misha was terrifying. If she wasn't being escorted by two armed guards, she would have slunk away a long time ago, slipping back down the narrow hallways without even a whispered 'no thanks.'
She had been invited to an interview with Gerald Dalton, one of the most powerful businessmen left in Philadelphia, but she had only accepted out of desperation. She was five days away from being evicted from her late grandmother's flat. If she had a choice, she would have stayed as far away as possible from the corrupt, low-wage defense contractors that had already done so much damage to her city.
But here she was, and it was too late to back out now. She had already signed a non-disclosure agreement for everything she was about to see and hear. Dalton Industries had a reputation for being tied to the mafia, and if the number of automatic weapons around her was any indication, that reputation was well-earned. What the hell kind of job was she getting herself into?
The guards on each side of her stopped by a pair of metal doors, and a few seconds later, one of them opened. Misha recognized Gerald Dalton immediately. He was in his mid-thirties, at least ten years older than herself, and it showed in the ghosts of wrinkles beneath his blue eyes. "Miss Misha," he said, extending a hand. "I apologize that we had to meet here, instead of more comfortable quarters, but the renovations have made that difficult. I hope you understand."
Misha shook his frigid hand. "Not a problem at all," she said, faking a smile.
"This is much more interesting than the main complex, anyway," he continued. "Come inside; let me show you one of my favorite parts. The garage is full of really interesting technology."
She nodded, unsure of how to respond. Was this really an interview?
The guards beside her turned to leave, and he waved her inside a large, gray-walled garage. Though most of the area was full of box trucks, several white, glossy floaters sat in a line along the far wall.
As Misha glanced down to sidestep a toolbox, she noticed a silver laser pistol strapped into a holster on his hip. That probably wasn't normal for a CEO, she thought as her heart sank.
"My team was intrigued by your resume," he said as he led her through the garage. "You seem very bright. You'd be an excellent addition to our team."
She smiled, though she was fighting the urge to wipe her sweaty palms on her dress. "Thank you," she said. "I look forward to learning everything I can. I'll take night classes, too, if you think that will help."
"That won't be necessary." He slowed and waved her to the right, where an old-fashioned black limousine sat to one side. "Isn't this beautiful? They don't make many like it anymore. I prefer it to the floaters, when possible, because it just looks so sleek. With the streets as beat-up as they are, though, it doesn't always make for a smooth ride."
"It looks nice," she replied, unsure of what else to say.
He turned to face her more fully, and she did likewise, hoping the conversation would start to become more serious. "What sort of role do you see me playing here?" she said.
He glanced down, looking thoughtful for a moment. She folded her fingers together in a nervous knot. There were only so many positions she would be qualified for at a defense contractor, especially since she only had a high school degree. What was taking him so long to get to the point?
"You'll be a companion," he said quietly. "You can make a good living and spend much of your time as you please, but you will be ours - mine, really - and no one else's."
Misha's breath caught in her throat. She took several seconds to process his words as she flushed deep red. Her heart began to bang against her ribcage, and she desperately wanted to run away.
"It's nothing to be worried about. You'll answer to me, and you'll fill whatever role I tell you to, but it's nothing." His words were dry and empty of flattery. She glanced away as he looked her up and down. "You will never have to worry about money again, Misha."
She opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again. This was eerily similar to the human trafficking urban legends that had swirled around Philadelphia for years. Her friends had sometimes returned from job searches with tales of creepy buildings and suspicious men that had prompted them to turn and run, but this was something else. This was Dalton Industries - a legitimate business. Maybe she was overreacting.
She would be fine, she told herself. She was smart and brave enough to get out of this mess. She just had to play it cool and not piss him off. She forced a nod, and he offered her a grim smile, seeming to notice her hesitation. "Are you surprised?" he asked.
"Yes," she whispered. "I wasn't... I was only applying for..."
"You thought I really needed another clerk or factory hand, in this economy? Why did you think I had you attach a photo to your resume?"
She stiffened. How was she supposed to have picked up on that? Did he often engage in these shady recruiting tactics?
He could have been running some kind of prostitution or human trafficking gig on the side for a long time, she thought with a shudder. She had heard horror stories of rich men turning the East Coast into their playground, but she had assumed that the stories were overblown. There was no way any man could sleep at night taking advantage of vulnerable women in the middle of a war - and certainly not with such harsh, blatant tactics.
"That's the only job we have for you here, so either take it, or leave. I think it will grow on you," he said softly.
He wasn't even trying to be nice anymore, she realized. She glanced down at his gun and wondered if he would actually left her leave. The best - no, the only option she had right now was to play along.
"Sorry for seeming alarmed. I'm just a little surprised, is all." The words came out of her mouth, but she didn't even feel her lips move. She kept her face lowered, knowing that acting bashful would be easier than feigning happiness. "You're right, your offer is growing on me."
His shoulders relaxed, and he stepped closer to the limousine to open the door. "I can have someone take you to my penthouse," he said. "It will be much more comfortable than here. You can relax and get adjusted to things there."
There was a muffled shout behind the door they had come through. Dalton whirled around and glared toward it for several seconds. He slowly relaxed and turned back to Misha, smiling. "Idiots are probably fighting among themselves. At any rate, once I'm done for the day, we could go someplace nice and--"
"Knock it off, Dalton," said a low, raspy voice behind Misha.
He froze, and Misha turned around to see a tall, shadowy figure emerging from behind a box truck ten meters away. A shotgun, barely visible against the figure behind it, was aimed squarely at Dalton's chest.
His face went from beige to white in an instant. "Cannon," he said, raising his hands. "What the fuck are you doing?"
"What does it look like, asshole?" The figure left the shadows of the truck. Short, amber-brown hair swept over her forehead, almost low enough to get in her eyes. A black bandanna was tied loosely around her neck. Her body armor and pants matched the dark gray of her shotgun, the double barrels of which never left Dalton's chest. "You've done enough damage in this town. We're taking your shit. And you can't do anything about it, because if the cops investigate this robbery, they'll find out what you've been doing," she said, her smile growing and glistening in the light.
Misha didn't want to tear her eyes away from the figure - Cannon, or whatever her name was - but she glanced back at Dalton, whose face had turned scarlet. "Your team is as good as dead," he snapped. "I'll fucking have you blown to bits--"
"And I should just shoot you now for trying to exploit this poor woman over here," Cannon said. "If I didn't have other orders from my boss, I'd blow your balls off."
Misha would've bristled at being referred to as "this poor woman" if the situation wasn't so dire. If Cannon made off with all of Dalton's cash or business assets, that would leave Misha in a worse place than ever. If a firefight erupted, though, Misha was as good as dead.
Instead of reaching for the pistol strapped to his hip, though, Dalton kept his hands up. His fury seemed to dissipate as the seconds quietly ticked by. "I'm not hearing any more sounds of fighting, so I'm assuming your team got a solid jump on mine," he murmured. "Take what you want and fucking run. If we see you in Philadelphia again, you're dead, you hear me?"
"Sure, whatever," Cannon said, stepping toward him. "I'm taking your weapon. And don't try anything funny. I got a bat in the belfry now with a clear shot at the side of your head."
Dalton's eyes widened, and Cannon laughed hysterically, the bellowing sound echoing across the garage. "See, when I first had my gun on ya, you had a chance to beat me, since I was alone," she said, her voice high and piercing. "Coulda taken her hostage with a gun to her head if you were quick enough. But you were too busy being a sniveling coward--"
"Shut up!" he roared.
She adjusted her grip on her shotgun. "Turn around and lie on the ground," she said.
Misha watched in awe as he obeyed, and Cannon knelt and slid his small laser pistol from its holster. "Stay there," Cannon said. "Cool off a little, huh?"
There was a hollow banging noise to their left, at the far end of the garage, and Cannon aimed the laser pistol that way. "Hey," she said, nodding to Misha, "you want this? I can't hold it and the shotgun at the same time. And I hate these tiny things."
The pistol looked menacing in the dim fluorescent lighting, and Misha hesitated for a moment before holding out a hand. Cannon handed it to her before turning her own gun toward the noise.
A long, low whistle came from behind the truck Cannon had been behind. She smiled and lowered her shotgun. "C'mon, let's go," she said to Misha, before casting one last glance at Dalton.
Misha took a step to follow her, but stopped to look at him again. "Who are you?" she whispered, glancing over her shoulder at Cannon.
"Name's Cannon," the other woman said.
"No, but who - what are you doing?"
"Staying alive and keeping my team alive. You wanna get out of here or not? Hurry up."
With that, she jogged back toward the truck. As Dalton propped himself up on his elbows, Misha forced her shaking legs to turn and follow Cannon.
Ezra Cannon broke into a sprint before she even made it around the truck. The whistle was her signal to make a break for it - and now, she needed the new girl to keep up.
Her compad buzzed, and she yanked it out to check it. The one-line message on the screen read: We're outside. Hurry up.
She swore under her breath and looked over her shoulder. The new girl was doing an impressive job keeping up, but she was still lagging, and her brown skin shone with sweat.
"Where are we going?" the girl whispered.
"Shhh," Cannon hissed. "Come on."
Cannon hovered at the side door of the garage for a moment before bursting into the hallway, gun aimed into the surrounding space. She was relieved to see it was abandoned, just as planned. She waved at the girl behind her and darted to the outside door, where the getaway car was about to be waiting.
She saw the glow of floater brakelights through the window and slowed only slightly before running outside. A silver floater sat by a loading dock with its engines running, its thin wings seeming to vibrate in the reflections from the heavy rain. Its side door flew upward with a loud squeak, and she sighed as she climbed inside. It was a clunker, alright - but it was safe, and it would get them the hell out of town.
Behind her, the girl hesitated before climbing into the cabin of the floater. "Go," Cannon said to the driver.
"Shit, why'd you bring her along?" a voice behind her said as the hatch hissed closed.
"Dalton was trying to make her part of his harem," Cannon said, and the girl seemed to cringe.
Behind her, a dark-haired man pulled a black bandana up over his nose and mouth. He grimaced as he ran a hand through his ponytail, as if disgusted by the rain soaking it. "Your name?" he said to the girl.
"Hey, introduce yourself, first," Cannon retorted.
The driver pulled the floater into the air, and the girl fell back hard against one of the seats. "Sit down," Cannon said, sighing. "We're good guys. This guy goes by Ren. We won't tell you our full names."
"Doesn't really matter, if she's already seen our faces," Ren said as he undid his ponytail. "Where's your mask?"
"Took it off earlier. I wanted Dalton to know I was involved. It's fine, since he has no idea who you guys are, right?"
He groaned in response, and the driver turned around, her curly hair whipping around with the force of her movement. "Yeah, we need to talk about that! You and your revenge trips are going to be the death of you!" the driver hissed, furrows forming on her young face.
Cannon laughed as she tilted her head back. "And what's he gonna do about it?" she said, smiling. "We're well-protected in our part of the state, right? No one knows details about who we are or where to find us!"
"But that could change, and you know Dalton won't forget this shit anytime soon! He'll turn Philly into a war zone next time he knows you're around!"
The girl in the seat next to her cleared her throat. "Will you tell me where you're taking me now?" she snapped, leaning forward. "I'd like to get out, to be honest, but I'm guessing that's not an option right now!"
The floater fell silent. "Hey, we're meeting Senri's floater back at the base, right?" Cannon asked the driver.
"Yes. Sorry, but we'll be in here a while. Hope you're okay with going up north," the driver said.
The girl slumped back in her seat and took a shaky breath. "Fine," she said slowly. "Thanks for getting me out of there. I wasn't entirely comfortable trying to weasel my way out of there."
"So what's your name?" Ren repeated, his eyes narrowing.
"Misha Tehrani," she replied. "I promise I won't tell anyone about you all."
"They give you anything while you were in there, Misha? Anything that could be bugged?"
Cannon watched Misha's expression. "No, they didn't. They took all the paperwork I signed, so I don't even have that," Misha said, her eyes dropping to her lap.
"Well, we can try to get you safely home a little later," the driver said. "I'm Giselle. It's nice to meet you. Sorry you got caught up in this."
Misha's face grew sullen, and she stared out the front window for a long moment. "No point," she said, barely audible over the soft hum of the floater. "I was set to get evicted in a few days. Without this job and the advance it was supposed to come with, I'm..."
She trailed off, and Cannon sighed, her heart sinking. "We can drop you off at any humanitarian organization you want, if that helps," Cannon said.
"I'll think on it. Thank you."
With that, Misha stared out the window again, and Cannon and the others lapsed into their usual post-mission routine: checking in on the others on their team, monitoring police communications to make sure they had gotten out cleanly, and planning for next steps when they got back to their base.
Cannon, though, kept glancing over at Misha, who had tears in her eyes. Crying girls were the worst, Cannon thought as she stared down at her compad.
Then she was struck with a sudden thought: "Wait, how old are you? If you're a minor, we should try to get you connected with family right away, right?"
Misha looked up, seeming shocked at the sudden question. "Pardon? I'm 20!" she replied, her face turning red. "Do I really look that young? I don't normally wear makeup, but still!"
Cannon cringed. She had genuinely thought Misha was around 18. It was only partly the makeup; she was also just bad at guessing ages. "Hey, I had to be sure! I don't wanna be accused of kidnapping a minor!" she replied as Giselle cackled in the front seat.
Misha smiled for the first time since they had met, and Cannon felt her unease fade slightly. "We can worry about where I'm going later," Misha murmured. "I'm happy to be out of there. That's all."
Forty minutes later, the floater came around a bend in the dirt road they were above and slowed. The single-story warehouse before them was rusted and ugly, but it had been their home since before Cannon had joined the team some three years before. The warehouse was far from the main part of Philadelphia and even from the nearest suburb of Allentown, so the team rarely had to worry about unwanted guests. Still, they had kept the exterior of the building as old and abandoned-looking as possible to deter potential visitors, and Cannon had to wonder what Misha's first impression of their home was.
She smiled when she saw a second floater descend and hover right behind them. Giselle tapped several buttons on the dashboard before announcing: "We're safe to move inside. And there's still no indication that Dalton called the cops. Good riddance!"
Cannon cheered as she threw the floater hatch open and jumped onto the dirt driveway. She ran to the side door of the warehouse, fumbled around for the cover of the keypad, and punched in their passcode. Having her jump out and manually authorize the door to open wasn't the most efficient system, but their remote-open controls had broken, and they didn't have the money to bring out a mechanic to fix it. The fifteen-foot-high garage door began to roll open, and several seconds later, the two floaters pulled in and landed.
Cannon strode inside, wrinkling her nose at the smell of hot oil somewhere in the garage. Normally she would've been happier to be done with the assignment, but she knew the complication with Misha would cause some discomfort among the team.
Ren climbed out of the floater and jogged over to Cannon. "Do we really trust her?" Ren whispered. "She easily could be a plant. You better have some good reason to believe otherwise."
"Nah. She's too scared to be a plant."
"You think Senri will agree with that assessment?"
"Yeah, I do, actually," Cannon replied. "You wanna go ask him yourself? I'm sure Giselle already gave him the heads-up that we had an extra passenger, and we got no heat for it over radio, so..."
She smirked as Ren's eyes narrowed. "Senri knows I may be batshit crazy sometimes, but he trusts my assessment of people," she continued. "If you have a problem with that--"
"You two," said a voice near the second floater, "let's get inside. We got something urgent to figure out."
Cannon and Ren turned to see a tall man walking toward them with a riot helmet propped against his hip. The man rubbed the back of a gloved hand against his dark brown forehead as he raised an eyebrow at them. "Emphasis on 'urgent,'" he said.
"Sure thing," Cannon said, turning to head inside.
Misha climbed out of the floater and followed, her eyes wide as she surveyed the warehouse garage. Cannon jabbed a finger at the man with the riot helmet. "This is Senri," she said. "Senri, this is Misha. I dunno what we're gonna do with her, but for right now--"
"Sorry, Misha, but you can't be in on these next conversations," Ren said. "Nothing personal."
Cannon shot him a glare, but Misha nodded. "Of course. Let me know if I can help, though," she said. "Are you the group that helps refugees?"
Cannon and Senri stared at each other for a long moment, and Senri's dark eyes widened for a moment before closing. "Do we look like we help refugees?" he asked.
Misha nodded, but there was no smile in her eyes. "Yes, actually."
"What? We're just your run-of-the-mill criminals. Nothing you wanna be involved with," Cannon said. "I mean, if the price was right, then maybe we'd help some folks out, but..."
Cannon's unease grew as Misha's eyes narrowed. Beside her, Ren was poker-faced, but she knew he was wondering what their guest had picked up on.
"My grandparents on my mom's side were refugees, and before my grandmother passed, she had been trying to help folks affected by the Faction War. She had been displaced by the drought in Pakistan some forty-five years ago," Misha said.
Cannon sighed. The Faction War had been going on for nearly five years, and the number of devastated countries had been growing by the month. Certain countries under the protection of the Eurasian Union or the American States had been low-priority for protection by their respective faction's armies, which caused the refugee crisis to grow rapidly. She had always thought the economy on the East Coast was terrible relative to how it had been growing up, but she knew that paled in comparison to what non-industrialized areas were facing.
But while the refugee crisis had played out in the public eye, the work of Cannon and the rest of the team was supposed to be secret. How the hell had this random girl caught onto them so quickly? Cannon glanced at Senri, unsure of how he would respond.
"It's true, but we're probably not the noble do-gooders of your grandma's stories, to be honest," Senri said with a sigh. "We will generally transport refugees for the lowest price possible, but the ugly side of that is that we do a lot of other work to pay our bills. And that other work is ugly."
"I see." Misha stared down at the ground, her eyes seeming to search the concrete floor of the hangar for answers.
"At any rate, let's go figure out our next steps," Ren said, taking a step toward the main part of the building. "Someone should introduce her to Lily Rae for the time being."
Cannon nodded and followed him. "Good idea. Misha, come with me."