Tika won’t be pleased, the woman thought to herself as she weaved her way through the crowd. Conversations in a dozen different languages swirled around her but she didn’t have time to eavesdrop. Flickering lanterns swayed overhead in the hot, electric breeze. Somewhere in the artificial atmosphere, a storm was brewing. It’s not as if I meant for my hoverbike to malfunction, the woman mused bitterly. She can’t blame me for that, can she? But Yerna Combritine knew that her associate could and would. If Tika valued nothing else, she valued punctuality.
The scents of hot food and drink mingled as street vendors hawked their wares, the neon lights of a Bruise Salon flashing invitingly to passers-by. Yerna glanced at the run-down building in disgust. As she watched, a portly man with an intricate pattern of green and blue bruises was waved through the door by an even flabbier bouncer. The colorful lights may be enticing, but this particular Salon was well known for carrying illegal drugs that allowed the wealthy to receive their fashionable bruises without the pain the procedure usually involved. Yerna kept herself far away from such nonsense. The drugs made one bruise easier, and in her line of work, that could spell disaster.
Tugging her scarf up over her nose, the woman straightened her wide-brimmed hat and turned down a dark alleyway. Vermin scuttled deeper into the shadows as she passed, and Yerna picked up her pace as she neared the location of her rendezvous. Her long coat flapped as she rounded a corner, striding purposefully through the gateway that led into a courtyard. Yerna’s eyes darted around, quickly evaluating her surroundings.
The courtyard had once been used as a loading bay for an adjoining warehouse, but had clearly fallen out of use. A single decrepit light buzzed wearily overhead. The ground was strewn with rubble, graffiti sprawling its way across the walls. The only sign of life consisted of a woman sitting on the fender of a sleek hovercar. She was wearing a black leather jacket, large goggles, and a headscarf. The car was parked next to the abandoned loading bay, and the woman was staring up at a faded poster advertising brand-name Glacial Nitrogen.
Steeling herself, Yerna approached the hovercar.
“Yer…na,” the other woman drawled, not glancing away from the poster.
“Tika,” she replied stiffly.
“I know. Engine troubles.” Yerna gave the car an appreciative pat. “Nice ride!”
“It’s a rental.” Tika pushed off the fender and stood there, appraising Yerna with eyes that lay concealed behind her dark goggles. After a moment, she sighed. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Yerna replied, irritated.
Yerna frowned. “I’m sorry for being late and for keeping you waiting. It won’t happen again. At least, I’ll try to make sure that it won’t. Happy?”
Tika folded her arms. “Not that. My headscarf.”
“Oh. Is that a new one?”
Tika sighed again. “Never mind.” She handed Yerna a small plastic cube. “I have the new assignment. You’re running point.”
Yerna took the datapack from her and pocketed it. “How many targets?”
“Two,” Tika replied. “But the perimeter guards will have to be taken out, just to be safe. I’ll handle that.”
“I’m sure you will,” Yerna commented, snickering in spite of herself. Tika had made a name for herself through her use of complicated poisons. “Who are we targeting?”
“High Duke Campron Mactos of Radon-II, and Emperor Sidon III of the Elrotine system. Their war has dragged on for nearly twenty years at this point. They are meeting in secret to discuss a peace treaty.”
Yerna felt a twinge of uncertainty. “Peace sounds like a good thing.”
“Our employer disagrees.”
“Who purchased this job?” Yerna inquired, trying to keep her voice casual.
“You know Collective policy,” Tika snapped. “Strict anonymity.” Her voice darkened. “You’re not going soft on me, are you? I had to practically beg to get this job. We’ve been scraping by for too long. This could be our big break!”
Yerna nodded. A job that was this high-profile was difficult to come by. If they were successful, they would have no trouble finding future employment.
“How much are we being paid?” Yerna asked.
“Once the Collective takes their cut? Four thousand basic.”
“Four thousand total?”
“Four thousand each.”
Yerna nodded in appreciation. “That’ll do. What about travel?”
“The meeting is being held right here on Silex IV.”
“An old conference room just a few blocks away.”
“Should we…” Yerna began, but her associate cut her off.
“I already scouted it. It’s attached to a hostel. The security system is outdated. The roof of the hostel gives you a clean shot through a high window down into the conference room.”
“I’ll spike their food tomorrow. I have a new toxin I’ve been just dying to test out. It stays dormant until the subject is exposed to a particular gas.” Tika held up a cylindrical grenade. “This gas.”
Yerna grinned approvingly. “Very fancy. Two days, you said?”
“Two days. The meeting starts at twenty-one hundred hours.”
“We should wait until they’re well underway,” Yerna suggested. “Meet on the roof a quarter after?”
“Works for me,” Tika shrugged. “Don’t be late.”
Yerna turned, walking away from the abandoned loading bay. “Don’t worry,” she called over her shoulder. “I won’t be.”
“I hate the rain,” Tika complained, her voice crackling through the comm device in Yerna’s helmet.
“You and me both,” Yerna retorted, squinting through the water that beaded on her visor. Sheets of dirty water poured from dusty clouds, running in rivulets down her coat and seeping into her pants. Buildings sped by on either side, her rifle bumping up and down on her back as she hurried to reach the location of the peace talks on time. She had managed to get her hoverbike up and running just that morning, but it was already threatening to fall apart again. The bike gave a lurch as she shifted gears, and Yerna glared down at it by way of reprimand. “Keep running for just a little longer. Then I’ll be able to fix you up properly,” she muttered. “I just need to finish this job.”
“What?” Tika barked through the comm unit.
“Just talking to myself,” Yerna sighed, taking a corner quicker than was technically legal.
“You’re not going batty, are you?” Tika snapped. “Because if you are, I can just do this myself.”
“I’m fine,” Yerna said quickly. “My bike just doesn’t work well in the rain.”
“Neither do I,” Tika grumbled. “I hate the rain.”
Yerna pulled to a stop, parking her bike in front of a seedy bar. Raucous singing spilled out into the street, a collection of shady characters watching her from the front stoop as she dismounted.
“How much for the bike?” one of the patrons growled.
“Not for sale,” she shot back.
“How much for the helmet?” another man asked, gesturing with a nasty-looking electroblade.
“Definitely not for sale,” she snapped, pushing her way through the cluster of inebriated scoundrels and into the tavern. She wove through the patrons inside and quickly slipped out the back door and into an alley. Sighing, she readjusted her helmet. She had braided her hair and pulled it into a tight coil around her head, and now her helmet was forcing a hairpin to drive painfully into her skull. The helmet was an old model, the kind used by Rangers of the Federation. Men that roamed the galaxy for wanted criminals. Men like her father.
She pushed the thought away, but not before she imagined his frown. He would be disappointed if he could see her now. Yerna grimaced, shaking her head. Her mother had died of disease, and her father had passed not long after while on a mission. She was never told exactly how he died. His savings had kept her going for a while, though not as long as she would have liked. The Federation was supposed to pay her a stipend, but the money had never reached her, probably disappearing into the pockets of some corrupt bureaucrat. She was…what, eighteen now? Nineteen? It didn’t matter. She was on her own. She had to make money, and this was the way to do it.
Not the only way, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. Scowling, she unslung her rifle, brushing unwanted thoughts aside as she made her way further into the labyrinth of alleyways.
Her senses were on high alert. Getting caught on a job like this would mean the end of everything. Even if she wasn’t directly killed, she could never go back to working for the Collective. They would never give her another job. Not after bungling something as important as this. She rounded a corner, stumbling over the guards that were sprawled, unconscious on the ground. Gaining her footing once more, Yerna examined the fallen soldiers. They weren’t just unconscious. They were dead.
The corpses were bloated, their necks an unrecognizable mess of flesh and blood. Traces of yellow gas still lifted eerily from their clothes. Yerna gingerly stepped over a head that stared up at here with bulging eyes. Whatever Tika’s toxins had done here, it wasn’t pretty. Yerna mentally added poison to her list of Bad Ways to Go. It was a long list.
A slight sound echoed around the alley and Yerna turned, raised her gun, evaluated, and pulled the trigger without a moment’s hesitation. It was a young guard. Younger than she would have preferred to kill. Somehow, he had been unaffected by the toxin. He gaped at her for a second before collapsing to the ground, the blast from Yerna’s rifle quickly stopping his heart. The woman turned without another thought, clambering up the ladder that led to the roof of a run-down hostel.
Tika tapped her foot, outlined in a blurry silhouette against the scattered lights of the cityscape. “I’m not late, am I?” Yerna checked, her eye searching her helmet’s heads-up display for the time.
“No,” Tika sighed, her voice sounding almost disappointed as it came through Yerna’s comm unit. “No, you’re right on time.” Thunder crashed, lighting forking its way across the stormy sky.
“Nice headscarf,” Yerna commented.
Tika snorted, but she seemed pleased. “It’s just an old oilcloth. Keeps the rain off my earpiece.”
Yerna nodded in approval, turning her attention to a small window that was propped open to allow airflow in the conference room. “That’s the window you mentioned?” she checked.
“Yes,” Tika replied. “The meeting only just started. Give me a few minutes to fetch our ride, then it’s all up to you.”
“What’d you get?” Yerna asked, curious.
“An LAV,” Tika smirked. “I figured if we were going to do this, we should do this right.” Yerna smiled in agreement. A Low-Altitude Vehicle was expensive, but it presented an ideal way to disappear once the job had been completed. “Give me two minutes to fetch the vehicle and swing around for extraction,” Tika instructed.
Yerna nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” Without another word, her associate clambered down the ladder, leaving her alone on the rooftop. Readying her rifle, Yerna edged toward the open window.
The faces of her targets had been saved on the datapack, and she had quickly memorized them. The High Duke was a member of the Gurble species, an alien race with an armored exoskeleton and several pairs of antennae. He sat on one side of a rectangular table, his robes flowing over his corpulent form. I’ll have to take a head shot, she thought to herself. Anything else might not penetrate fully.
Emperor Sidon was human, his face creased by many stressful years. The little hair that remained on his head had been dyed a vain black. There were a handful of guards in the room, mostly human, though a few were of various alien species. Yerna readied her rifle, breathing deeply to calm her racing heart. It didn’t matter how many times she ran jobs for the Collective, she never quite got used to the adrenaline that this line of work provided. “Tika, are you ready?” she asked impatiently. A low throbbing sound filled the air, and Tika’s voice crackled through the comm unit.
“Above you.” Yerna glanced up to see the dim shape of the LAV hovering high overhead. If not for the small lights that illuminated each wingtip, she never would have known it was there. “Let’s finish this thing,” Tika said confidently.
Yerna turned back to the window to see a middle-aged man come running into the room. He held an urgent, whispered conference with the guards, then approached the two rulers. Even though her helmet could pick up sounds that she normally wouldn’t be able to hear, Yerna could only make out the words “guards,” “safety,” and “dead.” The two rulers immediately began eying each other with distrust. They both stood, their bodyguards gathering around protectively. Yerna raised her gun to her shoulder, squinting down at the tense scene that was unfolding below. Apparently, someone had discovered the deadly effect of Tika’s toxins. As if on cue, Tika’s voice screamed shrilly through the comm unit.
“Yerna!” The woman flinched, almost dropping her rifle. “Yerna, it’s…” Static drowned out the rest of her sentence.
“Tika?” She glanced up at LAV uncertainly. What was going on? “Tika, what’s happening?”
“Oh no you don’t…I…” More static cut her off before the connection improved. “Yerna, it’s him!” the woman screamed. The fear in Tika’s voice shook Yerna to the core.
“Who?” Yerna yelled just as the connection went dead with an electrical pop. She looked back and forth between her targets and her ride. For a moment, everything was still. Then, with a loud, repetitive beeping, the Low-Altitude Vehicle began descending.
Yerna shook her head, frustrated. This wasn’t part of the plan. She turned back to the window. Just as she leveled her rifle at the High Duke, she realized why the LAV was making such a loud noise, and why it was descending toward a narrow alleyway where it wouldn’t be able to land. “It’s landing automatically,” she whispered to herself. She turned from the window again just as the vehicle came level with the rooftop. The windshield had been shattered, and inside the cockpit, Tika’s head was slumped forward at an unnatural angle. Blood leaked from the side of her head. She wasn’t moving.
Thunder crashed, lighting reflecting eerily from the wet surface of the roof and the cold metal of the LAV. Heart in her throat and rifle at the ready, Yerna stepped cautiously in the direction of her unconscious associate. The wings of the LAV screamed in protest as they came into contact with the roofs on either side of the alley. She hesitated, remembering her assignment. If I don’t complete this…
Turning back toward the window, she was struck full in the face with the butt of a pistol. She sailed across the roof, crashing onto her side in a blaze of pain. Her helmet had taken the brunt of the blow, but her head was throbbing nonetheless. Shards of glass clung to her face, and she could feel blood trickling from her nose. Her visor had been cracked beyond repair, and her heads-up display was dark and unresponsive. Somehow, she had kept ahold of her rifle. Gritting her teeth, she struggled to her knees, yanking the helmet from her head as she went.
She squinted across the rooftop at the vague figure of her attacker. The rain poured down in sheets, effectively obscuring her vision. The wings of the LAV gave way with a shriek of metal, sending the body of the vehicle into the alley below in a shower of sparks. Leveling her gun at the man on the roof, Yerna paused to rub the oily rainwater from her eyes. When she lowered her hand, the man had disappeared. Swearing under her breath, Yerna glanced around angrily. Where had he gone?
A hiss of engines and a glare of light issued from behind her, and the man dropped from the sky. Knocking her backwards, he tossed her rifle into the street, raising his pistol with an ease born of training and experience. He was younger than she had expected, but still older than herself. Probably in his mid-to-late twenties. His shaggy hair was plastered to his skull by the rain, his grim eyes reflecting the lighting that crackled overhead. He hovered, his boots barely brushing the ground as his jetpack held him aloft.
In that moment, Yerna knew that if her life was been a test, she had failed. If her life was a song, the composer had gotten bored and left it unfinished. If her life was a story, it was a tragedy. She had let the love that had filled her childhood be choked off. Her father should be disappointed in her. Probably was disappointed, wherever he was. In striving to feed herself, she had starved her soul. She had lied, stolen, and murdered, and faceless patrons had paid her to do it. She deserved to be destroyed, and she knew it. He knows it too, she thought to herself, watching the cold eyes of her attacker. But as she thought it, his eyes strayed to the broken helmet that lay beside her.
The jetpack shut off and the man dropped to the roof, reaching the helmet in a few quick strides and seizing it with a barely restrained energy. He studied it, his pistol still trained on Yerna. “Where did you get this?” he demanded, his thumb tracing the faded insignia and callsign that were stamped onto the surface of the helmet.
“It’s mine,” the woman snapped angrily.
“No, it’s not,” he replied steadily. “Where did you buy it? A pawn shop? The black market?”
“How do you know it’s not mine?” she challenged, wiping rain from her face.
“Because I knew the man who wore this helmet,” he said darkly. “And I watched him die.”
Yerna froze, her breath catching in her chest. “You knew…my father?”
“If you’re Dax Combritine’s daughter…then yes,” the man stated, looking down at her with suspicion. “But I wouldn’t think that a man like that would have…”
“Have a daughter like me?” Yerna challenged bitterly. “I know. It’s hard to believe.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.” The man frowned. “Can you prove that you’re Combritine’s daughter?”
“No,” Yerna admitted. “I destroyed my records a long time ago. But can you prove that you knew my father?”
The man shrugged. “I don’t know. That was many years back. I was very young.”
The two were quiet for a moment, rain sweeping between them as thunder rolled overhead. The stranger had lowered his weapon.
“What…” the man began. “What song did Combritine hum when he was in a good mood?”
Yerna flinched, a memory dancing through her head. “Gather the Daisies, Darling,” she replied. “He would sing it to me when he came home on leave. But not after mom died.” She fell silent, lost in thought. “What was painted on my father’s left pauldron?” she finally asked.
The man furrowed his brow. “It was a flower, right? Roughly painted. A lily-of-the-valley?” he ventured uncertainly.
“I painted that,” Yerna breathed, head spinning. “You really did know him.”
“He was a kind man,” the stranger said gravely. “And a good one, which is worth more.” He holstered his pistol. “What is your name?” he asked.
“Yerna Combritine,” the woman replied, struggling to her feet. Angry shouts echoed up through the window as the two rulers argued with each other, but the man didn’t seem to be paying them any heed.
“You with the Collective?” he asked.
She shrugged. “As of this morning. But they wouldn’t hire me now. Not after the way I botched this job.”
The stranger nodded in what was almost sympathy. “There are other markets for your skills, you know. Not all hired guns are outlaws.”
“What, work for the Federation?” she snorted. “They’re just as corrupt as the Collective. But at least the Collective doesn’t try to hide it.”
The man grinned wryly. “You’re not wrong. But the Federation wasn’t who I had in mind.”
“Well, whoever you had in mind, I’m sure they’re not looking for…”
“Someone like you? That’s precisely the sort of person they’re looking for.”
Yerna suddenly shook her head, her expression contorting in disgust and confusion. “Wait, what is going on? Why are you doing this? Who are you, anyway?”
The man smiled. The rain was dying down to a faint, putrid mist. Below him, his employers were screaming at each other, but there was nothing he intended to do about it. There were more important things to attend to. “My name is Jack Falcon,” he explained, extending his hand. “And your father saved my life.”
Slowly, cautiously, Yerna shook his hand. “How did my father die?” she asked in a low voice.
Jack winced, glancing around at the shabby rooftops before letting his gaze drift back to the young woman that stood before him. He sighed. “How about a drink?”
Jack Falcon will return.