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Ure Infectus: The Chimera Adjustment: Book One (Imperium Cicernus 1)

Ure Infectus – Book One of Imperium Cicernus: The Chimera Adjustment

by

Caleb Wachter

Copyright © 2014 by Caleb Wachter

All rights reserved.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. Thanks for downloading this ebook. You’re welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover my other books. Thanks for your support!

More Books by Caleb Wachter

As of 8-30-2017

IMPERIUM CICERNUS: THE CHIMERA ADJUSTMENT

Ure Infectus

Sic Semper Tyrannis

SPINEWARD SECTORS: MIDDLETON’S PRIDE

No Middle Ground

Up The Middle

Against The Middle

McKnight’s Mission

Middleton’s Prejudice

Lynch’s Legacy (A House Divided, 2)

The Middle Road

A House United

SPINEWARD SECTORS: A TRACTO TALE

The Forge of Men

SPHEREWORLD NOVEL SERIES

Joined at the Hilt: Union

Joined at the Hilt: Dross

SPHEREWORLD NOVELLAS

Between White and Grey

SEEDS OF HUMANITY: THE COBALT HERESY SERIES

Revelation

Reunion

Stop by at the Imperium Cicernus Facebook Group to interact with the authors and fans of this series!

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Table of Contents

Chapter I: Fear the Voters

Chapter II: Protocol vs. Politics

Chapter III: The Working Man

Chapter IV: The Glass Ceiling

Chapter V: One more makes Two-for-Two

Chapter VI: The Guardian Angel

Chapter VII: Haven

Chapter VIII: A Pit Stop—and Don’t Forget the Pasta!

Chapter IX: Three-for-Three…and Takeout

Chapter X: Cast Off!

Chapter XI: One Solution Deserves Another

Chapter XII: A Summons

Chapter XIII: An Assignment

Chapter XIV: A Side Mission

Chapter XV: Plan ‘B’…as in ‘Brutal’

Chapter XVI: The Next Phase

Chapter XVII: The Host with The Most

Chapter XVIII: A Blast from The Past

Chapter XIX: Time and Pressure

Chapter XX: The Sleeping Dragon’s First Breath

Chapter XXI: Final Approach

Chapter XXII: Justification

Chapter XXIII: A Confrontation

Chapter XXIV: Taking Stock and Committing

Chapter XXV: Disappointment vs. Endurance

Chapter XXVI: Stick it in and Twist it

Chapter XXVII: Operation: You Lose

Chapter XXVIII: The Blurred Line between Victory and Defeat

Chapter XXIX: Bathed in Fire

Chapter XXX: A Wet Paper Sack

Chapter XXXI: Promotion

Epilogue: A Real Choice

Sneak Peek of Guarding an Angel, a novella in the Chimera Adjustment story

Preview Chapter I: On Feathered Wings

Preview Chapter II: The Heart of an Angel

[]Chapter I: Fear the Voters

“I fear I’ll be working late, darling,” Mayor Cantwell said in a conciliatory tone through his earpiece’s attached microphone. He had never actually intended to make it home for dinner that night, but a rather surprising visit had interrupted his other plans for the evening and had therefore provided the perfect cover story for his pre-planned extracurricular activities. “Give my love to the children…I love you too. Bye-bye,” he tapped the earpiece to sever the communication with his wife, before turning his attention back to the Professional Hammerball League representative sitting across from him.

“I trust you find everything in order, Mr. Mayor?” the representative pressed. He was a tall, muscular man around fifty years of age. Judging from his apparently unmodified physique, Mayor Cantwell deduced that he was a former professional athlete—probably a hammerball player from the same league which he now represented.

The Mayor looked over the short, plain document and he suppressed the urge to nod. The Professional Hammerball League Commissioner had struck a behind-closed-doors deal with Mayor Cantwell some years earlier, and that deal had seen New Lincoln—Mayor Cantwell’s city—play host to the Anvil. The Anvil was the largest sporting event on their entire world, and though hammerball had surprisingly failed to catch on with the nearby systems, it was ludicrously popular with the locals on Virgin Prime—a planet collectively referred to as ‘Virgin’ by most of its inhabitants.

When New Lincoln had served as host city to the Anvil and all of its attendant fanfare, the city had been promised massive economic benefits in exchange for major renovations and public works projects which were to be undertaken at taxpayer expense. Of course, there had been certain setbacks and the event had become a PR black eye for the Mayor’s administration.

“Forgive me, Mr…” Mayor Cantwell pressed for the third time since the meeting’s unscheduled outset.

“Bennett,” the man replied in his crude, low-born accent.

“Of course…Mr. Bennett,” Mayor Cantwell nodded knowingly as he surreptitiously activated a data retrieval program to search for information about the man sitting before him. “And you fill an…” his lips twitched sardonically, “advisory role for Commissioner Heinlein?”

“That’s right,” the man with the square, chiseled jaw replied as his grey-blue eyes bored into the Mayor’s own. “I’ve served in my current capacity for thirty years, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

The data retrieval program activated a retinal display device, and Mayor Cantwell began to flick through the several gigabytes of data the program had retrieved on the man sitting before him. It seemed that he had, indeed, been a standout player for the Hampton Hoarkers prior to suffering an early, career-ending spinal injury.

According to the laws of Virgin, such an injury—while easily treatable with modern medicine—precluded a player from continuing to professionally compete in athletics since such an injury’s repair would involve measures that had been deemed to be performance-enhancing.

The Mayor scrolled through the first few pages of relevant data, with extra scrutiny placed on Mr. Bennett’s affiliation with the League Commissioner. Apparently he had served in an ‘advisory capacity’—which, in political terms, generally indicated that he acted as a ‘bag man’—for nearly two continuous decades. His other records were more or less nonexistent, including no traffic violations, domestic disturbances, or anything else aside from a handful of off-world visits to the nearby colonies which coincided with the Commissioner’s own travel schedule. In short, he presented a completely typical profile for the very person he claimed to be—which put the Mayor on his guard.

“Mr. Bennett,” Mayor Cantwell leaned forward and laced his fingers together as he deactivated the retinal display with little more than a twitch of his cheek, “I must admit that I was surprised—and more than a little disquieted—by this unscheduled meeting.”

Bennett fixed his gaze on the Mayor, and Mayor Cantwell—a lifelong politician who had debated some of the most powerful people in the entire system—actually felt the urge to recoil from the weight of the man’s gaze. Instead, he did as he always did in such circumstances and affixed a patently false, well-practiced smile on his lips. “Mayor Cantwell, the Commissioner has expressed…concern regarding recent allegations directed your way relating to the New Lincoln Anvil which took place two years ago. The League can’t exactly afford another Watercress incident—especially not so soon.”

Cantwell’s smile tightened, knowing a veiled threat when he heard it. “I can assure the Commissioner that these concerns stem from little more than off-cycle news fodder; I’m currently running a seventy three percent approval rating with over two thirds of my constituents having expressed a desire for my re-election to a fourth term. Tell Commissioner Heinlein that this will all blow over in a matter of days.” Cantwell’s smile broadened as he decided to make a play of his own, “But I’m afraid these numbers are inaccurate.”

Bennett cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked, his expression somewhere between surprise and wariness.

Cantwell nodded solemnly as he highlighted one passage of the coded letter—a passage which, using predetermined verbiage, confirmed the amount of bribe money he had accepted in order to secure the public works committee’s support. That committee had been the most instrumental component of bringing the Anvil to New Lincoln, and Mayor Cantwell had distributed the Commissioner’s bribe monies to several key members of that department…well, Mayor Cantwell hadn’t given all of the bribe monies to the committee.

“Indeed; I fear we miscalculated the secondary impact on our fair city’s waste disposal systems,” he explained as he tapped out a new set of numbers in an addendum to the document. “I have discussed it with the committee at some length and they assure me that this figure must be increased accordingly.”

He slid the data pad across the desk to Mr. Bennett, who accepted the pad as his jaw clenched tightly. His eyes flicked down to the figures Mayor Cantwell had added and Mr. Bennett’s eyebrows rose briefly before grudgingly nodding his head, “Commissioner Heinlein has authorized me to accept these figures on his behalf.”

Cantwell’s eyebrow cocked in a mixture of amusement and incredulity. “It would seem the Commissioner trusts you a great deal…I find it strange that we have not met until just now.”

Bennett seemed to ignore the prodding comment as he produced a small, familiar data link from his pocket and activated it. The former player input a series of commands to the uplink before speaking a series of coded phrases into it. It was all quite regular procedure and this set the Mayor at ease, since Mr. Bennett was using the exact same uplink his predecessors had used to initiate clandestine payments to a series of dummy accounts Mayor Cantwell had established throughout the sector.

Cantwell re-activated his retinal display and, with little more than a few twitches of his cheek and the rhythmic clacking of his teeth, logged into his secret banking portfolio and verified that the agreed-upon sum of money had indeed been transferred to his handful of secret accounts, and that the money had originated from the same accounts the Commissioner had used in the past.

The Mayor’s smile broadened as he reached for a DNA-locked compartment of his desk, and after opening the compartment he produced a pair of glasses and some of the rarest liquor known to the entire Sector. “I believe the conclusion of such a productive business relationship calls for celebration,” he declared as he used his implanted uplink to cycle down the auto-turrets which had been on a hair trigger activation sequence since Mr. Bennett had entered the office.

The thought had occurred to him to simply execute the man using those defensive systems, but had he done so he would have certainly been detained by public security forces. Such a detainment would have caused him to miss his appointment with a set of sisters—quadruplets, at that—who were waiting to…indulge his appetites on the other side of town.

“I’m not much for the sauce,” Mr. Bennett said with a disapproving look, and Mayor Cantwell shrugged as he slid one of the glasses back into its compartment. The League representative reached into his jacket’s pocket and withdrew what looked to be a cheap—possibly hand-made—cigar and gestured as though requesting permission.

Mayor Cantwell nodded as he suppressed a sigh, knowing that inhaling smoke was perhaps the least efficient method of delivering the desired chemicals into the body. “To each his own,” he said as he put three fingers of the expensive liquor into the tumbler before replacing the stopper on the bottle.

Mr. Bennett produced a small, petroleum-fueled lighter from another pocket and lit the cigar before taking a long, deep draw from it as the Mayor took the first sip of his drink. It burned his throat almost badly enough that he wanted to gasp, but he knew that like all things of great value in life, he needed to savor that measure of pain just as much as the pleasure which would soon follow.

“I’m afraid I’ve got a confession to make, Mayor Cantwell,” Mr. Bennett said after a polite silence had hung between them for several seconds.

Cantwell leaned back in his leather chair and swirled his drink absently, wanting nothing more than for the man to leave his office as quickly as humanly possible so he could skip over to the quadruplets’ flat and engage in his latest, sordid indulgences. “And what confession might that be, Mr. Bennett?”

Bennett took a second, long draw from the cigar before deliberately stamping it out against the arm of the posh, leather chair in which he sat. The smell of aerosolized leather preservative wafted into Mayor Cantwell’s nostrils, and his eyes narrowed at such a blatant sign of disrespect. Commissioner Heinlein will be hearing of this, he promised himself silently.

When he had ground the last of the cigar’s embers into the leather cushion, Bennett stood to his full, imposing height. Without breaking eye contact he cracked his neck first to the left, then to the right, before saying in a calm, conversational tone, “I’ve never cared for politicians.”

In a blur of motion almost too fast to see, the man who had defiled the antique, leather chair with his cigar produced a cleverly-concealed pistol—

—and blew the top half of the sitting Mayor’s head off just as the lights went out. 

The Mayor’s body began to twitch spasmodically in the faint light, and the gunman’s arm ached from the vicious kick his crude weapon had produced. “Wlad,” the gunman posing as a PHL rep said after inserting his earpiece and opening a channel to his equivalent of tech support, “glad to see you got those sentry cannons under control. I need an update.” He let his eyes adjust to the darkness as he checked a small, concealed, carbon-fiber clasp which was attached to a harness hidden beneath his overcoat.

“You got it, ‘Mr. Bennett’,” the other man said sarcastically in his ridiculous, long-practiced accent. “You got six—no, eight private security dudes outside the door. I done sealed it tight, but that’ll only buy you forty seconds if these guys be packin’ what they supposed to be packin’.”

“Cut the shit, Benton,” he snapped. The Mayor’s office had been rigged with all manner of scanning hardware, so there had been no way to get his standard gear for a job of this type into the room with him. Exiting the room was therefore going to be tricky—and hearing his operator’s archeo-slang wasn’t helping him focus.

“Thirty seconds, Jericho,” Benton said through the earpiece, his voice taking on a slightly more serious tone as he briefly abandoned his adopted vernacular, “looks like the window’s your way out.”

“Thanks for that update, operator,” Jericho quipped dryly as he flipped the emblem of his office onto the Mayor’s desk. The hexagonal insignia landed in the middle of the desk near the Mayor’s body, adding an intentionally dramatic flair to the macabre scene.

Jericho took a second cigar out of his pocket and carefully unwound the wrapper. Inside was the standard assortment of dried leaves and seeds which made up the low-cost alternative to chemstix and other, less destructive, methods of stimulant introduction. But buried within the cigar was a pair of small, brownish, metallic beads. He plucked these out of the mass of dried leaves with his surgeon-steady hands and made his way to the window.

“Twenty seconds, Jericho,” Benton reported altogether unnecessarily. Jericho suspected the big guy just liked to hear his own voice, and since the two of them had a history—not to mention that Benton was easily the best operator he had ever worked with—Jericho had grudgingly learned to deal with the other man’s peculiar idiom.

Jericho carefully placed the two beads a precise distance apart on the glass at about chest height before producing a carbon-fiber clasp from beneath his trench coat and attaching it to a nearby vertical support beam. He then took four measured steps back and turned to face the window. Jericho knew that for the beads to work their technological magic, the shot needed to be taken from a precise location. His concealed weapon only had two rounds, and he had used one of those to execute his Adjustment of the Mayor—whose body had only then stopped twitching.

He took careful aim between the two beads, knowing that if he even missed his shot by a few inches that the bullet would be deflected by the super-strong, floor-to-ceiling window of the Mayor’s lavish office. Closing one eye—to improve his focus as much as his vision—he took a slow, cleansing breath and squeezed the trigger of his relatively primitive slug-thrower.

The pistol bucked hard in his hand as the window shattered into a shower of countless pieces, and the wind began to whip violently through the office carrying the heavy, greasy smells of industry into the previously sterile chamber. Jericho dropped the spent weapon to the floor and took a steadying breath.

“Ten seconds, Jericho,” Benton reported as the sealed door began to glow near the locking mechanism as they began to burn their way through the portal. The security guards outside were apparently just ahead of schedule, and would breach the room in no more than five seconds.

Jericho hesitated for one of the few times in his life. The principles at play in his ‘safe’ egress from the office had been explained and tested—then re-tested—so many times he felt confident he could do what he was about to attempt in his sleep. But, contrary to the opinions of some, he was human—and that meant that in spite of his meticulous preparations, he still harbored a sliver of doubt.

“Man’s sake, Jericho,” Benton chided through a static-laden, crunching noise which Jericho took to be the chewing of junk food by his rotund operator, “the science is solid—solid, know what I’m sayin’!? Take yo’ leap, boy!”

The sound of the locking bolts retracting from the vault-like door was enough to spur Jericho into motion. Running as fast as he could, he cleared the window and began to fall to the street below just as a volley of energy beams erupted into the space above his head as the security force narrowly missed their mark after breaching the Mayor’s heavy door.

The rain-filled, night air whipped around his body as he fought to keep his feet pointed to the ground and his body reacted to the sensation of falling just as it had during his several test runs back at headquarters. No more than a quarter of the way to the ground, a series of sharp, repeating impacts could be felt as a the tiny cord he had attached to the beam at the window began to unwind through a series of meticulously, painstakingly designed loops which provided just under four gees of resistance at their peak.

This was the only part of the operation Jericho had taken issue with. Killing the Mayor had almost been too easy; infiltrating his office had been marginally more difficult, but still eminently do-able. It was the leaping-out-the-window-and-ensuing-insanity which had bothered him.

But his body hurtled toward the ground below in an ever-slowing descent, and before he knew it his feet met the pavement and despite his instinct to do otherwise—and due to literally thousands of practice sessions—he kept his legs straight and his feet slammed flat against the ground just as the cord attached to his harness finally broke near the fastener a hundred and thirty six feet above him.

The sensation of landing on the slick, dark pavement was far from unpleasant—in fact, it was anything but remarkable save for the fact that it was utterly anticlimactic. The impact felt like nothing worse than jumping down from a height of three meters, and Jericho could not help but marvel at the simplicity of his escape mechanism as bits of the very cord which had safely lowered him to the ground fell to the pavement all around him.

That cord—and the soles of his boots—had been meticulously crafted with a lattice-work of ablative, carbon nano-fibers which had absorbed the entire energy transfer of his fall. The devices had been relatively cheap to produce and, more importantly, had passed through the Mayor’s security scanners undetected. The boots, like the cord, were now worth little more than their weight in pencil shavings, but they had served their purpose beautifully.

“Y’all still with me…or do we need a clean-up on aisle nine?” Benton asked into the silence as Jericho took a glance up the massive, towering building from which he had just leapt and marveled at the fact that he had actually survived.

He exhaled a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. “I read you, operator,” he replied after shaking the imagery of the potentially lethal fall from his mind as he reached up to remove the earpiece, “I’m going dark. You’ll get your payment within the hour; nice working with you again.”

“Any time, boss-man—any time,” Benton replied with a boisterous chuckle. “Bro, I’m so psyched…I can’t believe that shit actually worked!”

Despite his operator’s pre-jump confidence, Jericho had known he had been far from alone in his trepidation regarding the use of such primitive, crude technology. “Timent Electorum,” Jericho said wryly, invoking the name of his own branch of the government—a name which also served as a warning to corrupt officials everywhere in the Chimera Sector, where Virgin Prime was located.

“True dat, bro; gotta fear them voters,” Benton agreed seriously before Jericho removed the earpiece and tossed it into a nearby drainage grate.

His latest voter-endorsed Adjustment executed, Jericho made his way to a nearby hover conveyance—which he had contracted specifically for the occasion—and the vehicle disappeared into the sprawling cityscape while law enforcement vehicles sped toward New Lincoln’s seat of government in response to their city leader’s Adjustment—an act which some would think of as little more than an assassination, but which any true son or daughter of Virgin Prime would recognize for what it was:

Justice.

[]Chapter II: Protocol vs. Politics

“Here are the building’s security logs, Investigator,” a subordinate officer named Riley said, proffering a data slate.

“Thank you, Riley,” Investigator Masozi replied as she accepted the slate. The scene had been secured some twenty minutes earlier and the forensic analysts had only just arrived, but they had surprisingly not yet begun to examine the evidence in depth. Masozi had been first on the scene and had directed her people to gather the security logs, audio and video records of the building, and locked down the entire building. The assassination of a Mayor—especially of the third most populous city on the planet—was a rare occurrence, and she knew there would be hell to pay in the coming days.

Mayor Cantwell had been extremely popular with the New Lincoln electorate, but recent allegations had arisen regarding possible corruption within the administration itself. Normally such allegations made during an election campaign would have been dismissed as routine mudslinging on the part of the challenger.

And had it not been for the triangular insignia set before the Mayor’s lifeless body, Masozi would have been inclined to dismiss those rumblings just as she had done for every other political election her planet had endured since the wormhole collapse of two centuries earlier. But the presence of that insignia, and its prominent—some might say arrogant—display at the crime scene pointed to the Mayor’s death as being, essentially, a legally-sanctioned affair.

“What about the video records?” Masozi asked as she flipped through the entry and exit records for the past three days. The data pad had built-in programs for cross-referencing all of the logged names with those of known, or even suspected, malcontents or disruptive elements. But the program concluded its background search without having turned up anything promising.

Riley shook his head bitterly. “The whole building’s primary, secondary and tertiary storage systems were hit with a powerful, incredibly focused e-mag pulse; there’s barely an aberrant one scattered in all the remaining zeroes. The data retrieval team says there’s not much they can get; this was a professional job.”

Masozi nodded solemnly as she considered the triangular insignia and shot an irritated look at the forensic analysts standing in the hall outside the office. “Are you going to get started sometime this millennia?” she snapped with a pointed look at the nearest forensics team member.

The forensic examiner pointedly ignored her, which made her set her jaw. This was her investigation, and they were there under her direction; when she gave them an order they were supposed to hop to it!

But before she could vent her spleen at them, the New Lincoln Chief Investigator—a man named Afolabi—appeared at the far end of the hallway and quickly locked his eyes with hers. He was a tall, imposing figure with skin nearly as dark as Masozi’s own, but his physical prime was far behind him and he sported at least an extra twenty useless kilos around the midsection.

“Investigator,” he said as he approached, giving a curt nod to the forensics team leader. The head forensics examiner gave Masozi a brief look before turning his back and making small talk with his team members. “Can we have a word?”

“Of course, sir,” she replied warily as he made his way into the Mayor’s office. It was highly irregular for the Chief Investigator to appear prior to the scene having been examined by the forensics team, and judging by that team’s reaction to the Afolabi’s arrival they had almost certainly been under orders to delay their investigation until he had arrived.

The two entered the Mayor’s office, and after giving an obligatory look at the Mayor’s corpse—and the wall behind it, which was covered in a gruesome layer of skull and brain fragments—Chief Afolabi turned to Masozi and said, “What have you determined thus far?”

Masozi cocked her head slightly in confusion, since she had been unable to make any determinations due to the forensics team having failed to begin their own work to that point. “Well…aside from the obvious,” she said, gesturing to the Mayor’s head—which ended just above the lower jaw—before pointing to the discarded weapon on the floor just beside the desk, “we have something of a rarity.”

“Oh?” he asked neutrally, and Masozi was reminded just how good this man was at politics. He had served at the highest levels of the New Lincoln peacekeeping forces for thirty years, working under three separate administrations after serving on the street for over a decade.  He was not a man to be taken lightly or, if one found herself on his bad side, to be trusted.

“Yes, sir,” she replied as she turned deliberately and pointed at the triangular insignia on the desk before the Mayor. “This looks to be the work of Timent Electorum.”

Afolabi’s eyes never left her own, and she furrowed her brow in confusion when he apparently refused to look at the desktop. “An interesting theory, Investigator,” he said evenly, “however, perhaps we should wait until the forensics team has had a chance to go over the scene before jumping to wild conclusions?”

“Sir?” she asked incredulously. “I tried to have the forensics team get started but they were being rather less than cooperative. Besides, if this was a T.E. contract then it was legally sanctioned.”

Afolabi fixed her with a cold, piercing look before sighing irritably. “Whatever gave you the notion that this cold-blooded murder was carried out by the Timent Electorum agency?”

“Chief Investigator,” Masozi scoffed as she pointed to the insignia desk and raised her voice, “everyone learns to recognize a T.E. insignia in primary school!”

Afolabi visibly flustered as he took a deliberate, ominous step toward her and lowered his voice, “I see no such insignia, Investigator Masozi. Perhaps you’re mistaken?”

She opened her mouth to retort before realizing that the Chief Inspector’s presence wasn’t meant to facilitate her investigation—he meant to obstruct it! Masozi took a deep, cleansing breath before lowering her voice and saying, “Chief…I have a job to do here—“

“I suggest you head back to the barn, Masozi,” Afolabi interrupted in a slightly raised voice as his features hardened. “You’ve done a great job here but I think this particular situation might require a slightly more…experienced hand.”

“Chief!” she blurted unthinkingly. This was to be her career-defining moment, and while it was far from unprecedented for a Chief Investigator to usurp an assigned Investigator, such a transfer of responsibility required recusal on the part of the assigned Investigator—in this case that was her! “I am the lead Investigator assigned to this case, and I will not recuse myself unless I am physically unable to carry out my duties.”

Chief Afolabi narrowed his eyes. “Think carefully about this, Investigator,” he warned. “Your family connections might not carry as much weight as you believe, should you follow through on this course of action.”

Masozi clamped her teeth together at the mention of her familial ties. She had worked hard to distance herself from those members of her family who had ascended to System-wide political prominence, for reasons too numerous to recount. But her colleagues never let her forget her relatively distant connection to those people. It was, perhaps, the single greatest insult which could be leveled her way to suggest that she had not in fact earned each and every stripe she wore proudly over her breast.

“I’ll help you out, Investigator,” Chief Afolabi continued after a few seconds of silence, “Internal Affairs has a few questions regarding your case-load these last few weeks. I’m ordering you to report to them so you can put that bit of nastiness behind you—in the interests of getting you back to work as quickly as possible, of course.”

Masozi clenched her fist so tightly that she felt one of her stick-on nails pop off more than a little painfully. But she ignored the sensation as she realized that he had come prepared to force her off the crime scene. “This isn’t over, Chief,” she growled under her breath as she pushed past him toward the door.

“Forgetting something, Investigator?” Afolabi asked with a pointed look down at her off-hand.

She stopped and looked down to see she was still holding the data pad with the building’s security logs. She turned and held it out, her hand nearly trembling with anger. The Chief deliberately held her with his gaze for several seconds before reaching out and accepting the pad. “Escort the Investigator from the building,” he said with a glance at one of the uniformed officers in the hallway.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, and Masozi stormed out of the room and down the corridor, followed at a close remove by the uniformed man.

She silently fumed for the entire ride down the elevator. The Mayor’s assassination had been assigned to her and it was beyond irregular for a superior to so crudely force an Investigator off the case. Her thoughts swirled into a maelstrom that nearly saw her scream in frustration before the elevator doors opened.

Her ‘escort’ saw to it that she exited the building, and when that was done he went back to the building and left her alone. There was a pair of forensic examiners already at work on the pavement, picking up fragments of glass which had scattered from the base of the towering sky rise to the far side of the street.

Deciding to take a risk, Masozi crossed the line of artificial light marking the boundary of the forensic team’s authority. “What have you found?” she asked, acting as though she had come down to check on their progress.

The nearest examiner, a woman Masozi recognized whose name was Angelica, looked up briefly with her scanning monocle’s blue light flickering off as she did so. “We’ve got micro-fractures in the armored glass,” the examiner explained. “Not many people still use reinforced silicates; even in this building nearly all of the windows have been replaced with transparent alloys, but we’re seeing evidence of kinetic resonance in this material consistent with a shaped charge.”

Masozi nodded slowly, “So the hitman knew the room.” It wasn’t exactly news to her given the rest of the evidence she had managed to observe in her little time with the scene. “Did any witnesses see where the assassin landed?”

Angelica nodded. “Right there,” she replied, pointing to a fairly nondescript patch of sidewalk near the center of the glass fragments. The area where she pointed looked completely unremarkable even to her highly-trained eye, except for the marked presence of a few, hair-like pieces of material.

Masozi cocked an eyebrow. “Are you saying he just…landed?”

The examiner shrugged, “It looks that way, ma’am, with a little help from above. These cord fragments look like carbon nanotubes,” she explained, holding up an evidence bag with a pair of the small, hair-fine fibers, “but they’re barely better than industrial grade. He could have had these made at over a hundred different facilities in this System alone.”

Masozi approached the patch of sidewalk and knelt down to look at it more closely. “Did you find anything unusual where he touched down?”

Angelica bit her lip for a moment before taking a few steps closer and gesturing, “The spectro-scope picked up a high concentration of carbon tubules there. I’ve taken a sample but won’t be able to produce a more detailed analysis until I’ve run it through the lab—my guess is it’s the same material which made the cord, and that he used them as a shock absorber.”

“Can I see it?” Masozi asked, glad to have finally found a thread to follow.

The examiner nodded, removing the monocle with a series of taps to its fastening surface before handing it to the Investigator. Masozi attached the small scope over her right eye and activated it, allowing the device to cycle through the various bands of non-visible light before stopping it at the spectrometric analysis setting and leaning close to the concrete surface to get a clearer image.

Even though the rain had washed much of the microscopic evidence away, there was a distinct pair of boot-shaped silhouettes surrounded by a fine, roughly-circular cloud of carbon particles. The only truly remarkable aspect of the carbon was that it was pure carbon; there was essentially no other element present in that particular layer of nearly-invisible debris.

“Thank you,” Masozi said, knowing she had risked too much already. She removed the monocle and returned it to Angelica, who accepted it and resumed her duties.

The Investigators’ offices were not far from the main government building where the assassination had taken place, so she had simply ridden with a uniformed patrolman en route to what was supposed to be her biggest assignment yet. She decided it best to walk back to the office, since it might let her compose her thoughts as she considered the disturbing events of the evening.

[]Chapter III: The Working Man

Jericho had already switched conveyances six times over the course of nearly half an hour when his handheld link vibrated within his pocket. He had not expected any inbound communications, so he was more than slightly apprehensive as he entered his password to the data pad. The device also doubled as his sole connection to the vast information grid which pervaded every aspect of life in a city like New Lincoln—a grid which Jericho believed humanity could very well do without.

The author of the message was familiar to him; it had been sent by his most recent operator, Wladimir Benton. Jericho had not yet transferred the agreed-upon sum of money to Benton’s account, but he still had half an hour remaining in their agreed upon window before Benton would come looking for him.  So he cautiously opened the message.

The screen was filled with a series of images taken by what looked to be the government building’s security cameras, and each of the images was centered on a tall, athletic, almost black-skinned woman likely in her early thirties. She was wearing a skin-tight bodyglove with the badge of an Investigator situated over her left breast.

There was an attached video file, and he opened it to see that same woman moving between a pair of forensic examiners who were collecting bits of shattered glass from the pavement where he had landed after executing his contract. His lip quirked in amusement as she took a forensics monocle from one of the examiners and knelt beside the very spot where he had landed after taking his very own leap of faith from the Mayor’s high-rise office. She looked intently at the patch of concrete before standing and returning the monocle to the examiner, and the video froze on a close-up image of the Investigator’s strong—yet surprisingly feminine—features.

The image minimized and a flood of text began to stream across the pad’s screen, including her name, birthdate, period of employment, civil record, legal record, and anything else a person might wish to know about another. Most of it was utterly uninteresting—until it came to the section regarding familial ties, where a particular name was highlighted which caught Jericho’s attention.

He considered the implications of that connection as the woman’s record disappeared and was replaced with a line of text, which read:

The info’s free, my main man. But if you be wantin’ a Guardian Angel package it’s gonna cost you standard. You want I should pop a halo up on her, just tack the cheddar onto my other order and she’ll be under my Papa Benton’s wing before dinner—AJ

It really wasn’t a question in his mind of whether or not he should do as Benton suggested. Thankfully for Jericho, he had just enough money left in the contingency fund he had established for that night’s contract that he could cover a Guardian Angel package. That package included, among other things, full-time surveillance of her person, as well as a comprehensive analysis of each person within six degrees of separation from her. It was a resource-intensive and technically difficult thing to do without access to a whole team of operatives, but Wladimir ‘AJ’ Benton had never failed to deliver in the past, so Jericho knew it would be money well-spent.

Jericho called up the financial account containing the last of the operation’s budget and arranged to have it attached to the significantly larger sum of money he had already earmarked for the operator’s assistance to that point in the Cantwell Contract. After verifying the amounts and the destination account, he executed the transaction. When that was completed, he sighed as he deactivated the handheld link.

“I hate these things,” he grumbled as he removed the battery and found a small wad of soft, rubbery material inside the link’s slender housing. He pressed his finger against the wad of chewing gum-like material until an acrid smell wafted up into his nostrils. He replaced the battery into the device, reassembled the two halves of the link, and tossed it out the window of the vehicle before settling back into his seat for a few moments of quiet contemplation.

It seemed that the universe had just presented him with a unique opportunity…and he would likely need to move quickly in order to prevent that opportunity from being eliminated.

[]Chapter IV: The Glass Ceiling

Several hours after finishing with what turned out to be an utterly routine, maddeningly frustrating examination of her recent caseload, Investigator Masozi sat down at her desk and activated her access terminal. She knew that with so much elapsed time there was no point in returning to the Mayor’s office to collect evidence. Anything of interest had either already been catalogued, or—in what was a more than slightly disturbing possibility she would have never considered possible prior to that night—removed from the scene in some unthinkable attempt at a cover-up.

Masozi flipped through the programs on her terminal and came to the local news feeds. She stopped at one when she recognized the government building housing the Mayor’s offices, where a short, entirely-too-pale-skinned man was reporting with the caption ‘Mayor, Father of Three, Murdered’ beneath him. After attuning her earpiece to the audio feed, she listened intently to the reporter.

“Precisely three hours and twenty six minutes ago,” the effeminate-looking man said in a shrill, accented voice as he fought desperately to speak through only one side of his mouth, “Mayor Thomas Cantwell was brutally murdered within his own office by an as-yet unidentified gunman. Details are still coming in, but authorities have ruled out nothing at this point. Chief Investigator Adewali Afolabi spoke with me just moments ago.”

The feed switched to a shot of Chief Afolabi standing outside the elevator, where the reporter asked, “Chief Investigator, there have been suggestions that this could have been an inside job; that perhaps there were elements within the administration with whom Mayor Cantwell had made unseen enemies. Can you give us an official comment at this time?”

Afolabi drew himself up slightly and Masozi felt her stomach churn at seeing the man giving what was, by all rights, her interview. “It’s still very early in the process, but we have received no indications to this point that what you describe may be the case,” the Chief Investigator replied promptly and professionally.

“We are nearing the end of this election campaign,” the reporter continued, switching gears easily, “and Mayor Cantwell looked to be a virtual lock for re-election in two weeks’ time. Does the New Lincoln Investigative Unit allow for the possibility that this brutal, cold-blooded act might have been authored by the Mayor’s chief opponent and Mayoral candidate in her own right, District Attorney Jennifer Zellweger?”

There was the barest hint of a pause, during which the Chief’s expression flinched almost imperceptibly before he replied, “I think it would be irresponsible to rule anything out at this point in the investigation.”

The feed switched back to the reporter standing on the sidewalk, and the caption switched to read, ‘Mayor Murdered by Rival?’

“There you have it; Chief Afolabi’s investigation thus far has clearly revealed some disturbing evidence. While this reporter cannot in good conscience make wild suppositions, what is clear is that the NLIU will be looking into all possibilities as this investigation extends into the night and, in all probability, far beyond. Bridget, back to you.”

Masozi cut the feed in stunned disbelief. Initially she had believed that Afolabi’s usurpation of her authority had been a simple attempt to steal the limelight—which she probably could have understood, at least on some level.

But after listening to the interview with her own ears, and not once hearing the Chief Investigator mentioned the presence of the Timent Electorum insignia which had been placed—with obvious deliberation on the killer’s part—in front of the Mayor’s body, her mind began to wander down a dangerous path.

She opened a new interface in her terminal and began to call up information on the Timent Electorum itself, since all she really remembered about it was what she had learned as a child. The ultra-secretive Timent Electorum agency only rarely made its actions public knowledge, and when it did so it was for a specific reason and done in accordance with the agency’s mandate.

Before her search could yield any fruit, a familiar window overrode her current one and required her to complete a questionnaire comprised of fifty questions. They were all multiple choice and they were simply a part of everyday life on Virgin; the government had decentralized all voting activity when the Chimera Sector had been cut off from the rest of the Imperium two hundred years earlier. That decentralization had been made in order to streamline the elective process, as well as remove the potential for harassment or intimidation during such activities.

She knew that most of the questions she was being asked were dummies, or blanks, since some of them required her to compare a handful of grocery products to each other and others asked her to comment on the supposed sexual preferences of various public figures. Some others required her to rank various media personalities according to certain criteria. But there were a few which were quite possibly very real initiatives and statutes for which she was now presented the opportunity to cast her vote.

Working through the window’s fifty questions took only a few minutes, after which her previous program returned to the fore of her terminal. Her search brought her to the foundational passage upon which the Timent Electorum had been formed, which every child of her world learned but most—by her age, at least—had forgotten:

The First Right of the Body Politic: Timent Electorum

The body politic may initiate inquest into, and punish by summary capital punishment without the privilege of a civilian trial: corruption, tyranny, and betrayal of the highest order by those officials who have been elected to public office, appointed by an elected official to public office, or have received a position of public office via heredity. Furthermore, all offices must be assigned locally, with direct responsibility assigned according to each Star System’s will. Official positions may only exist when the actions of the officials holding them can be directly measured by the impact those actions have on the citizens for whom the official was selected to represent.

Each sovereign Star System of the Chimera Sector may, during these foundational years of the Chimera Sector’s birth, determine for itself the thresholds to be met before an inquest is initiated, but once that inquest has begun the agent empowered by the community must carry it out without fail. This agent must never be funded by taxation, nor should the agent answer to any higher power once commissioned by the body politic, including the body politic itself.

A productive balance of power in a democracy, and the requisite degree of efficiency for sustainability, is only possible when the leaders fear the voters at least as much as the voters fear the leaders. This is the foundational principle which will guide our Sector to achieve a measure of harmony unseen in human history.

This, the First Right of our newly-established representative government, may not be removed or altered in any way, shape, or form; nor may it be amended, superseded, made dependent upon a subsequent Right or other measure, or overridden by any bill, law, or other form of mandate, either official or unofficial. Any attempt to impede the body politic’s ability to impose its will upon the officials chosen to represent their interests may be viewed as actionable under this First Right.

No other tenets regarding the upholding of this Right may be made public knowledge including, but not limited to, the mechanisms by which the body politic identifies corruption, tyranny, or betrayal.

The passage went on even further, but before Masozi could read any more she received an intra-office alert which directed her to report to the Chief Investigator’s office.

She was surprised that he had returned to the NLIU offices so quickly, but she was more than willing to report to her superior Investigator and get some answers.

The door to his office was already open when she arrived, and she stepped inside to see Chief Investigator Afolabi sitting behind his desk with a short stack of data pads in front of him. “Investigator, close the door,” he said in an unyielding voice, and she did as instructed. Afolabi gestured to the chair opposite his own, and she sat down while a dozen questions raced through her mind. But before the first one could escape her lips, the Chief picked up one of the data pads and said, “I have a new case for you.”

Masozi leaned forward and accepted the pad, quickly perused its contents and found it to be an altogether typical murder-suicide which had taken place an hour earlier on the other side of town. Even going by just what the uniforms had reported, it was an open-and-shut case that would require little more than the NLIU’s seal of approval before it was filed away. “Chief,” she said after looking up from the data pad, “any Junior Investigator could handle the case on this pad. What is going on?”

Afolabi’s eyes narrowed in silent calculation and he began to nod slowly, as though arriving at some important conclusion. “I’ve spoken with the Interplanetary Unit recently and, though I wanted to wait a little longer before telling you, they’ve got a position opening in at the end of the month and your name was at the top of their list for possible IIU candidates.”

Masozi’s eyes widened in surprise. She liked to think of herself as a dedicated public servant and better-than-average Investigator—one who might even make Chief in another decade or so—but the Interplanetary Unit generally required at least a half decade of additional service than what she had logged before an applicant would even be considered. And Chief Afolabi had just said that they requested her by name?!

It took her a moment before she realized that it was too good to be real, which meant it was almost certainly a bribe. When she understood the gesture for what it really was, her eyes narrowed. “Chief,” she said tightly, “I am a loyal servant of NLIU; I would never betray the people who have placed their faith in me. Frankly,” she continued through clenched teeth, “I’m surprised to hear such an offer come from you, of all people, sir.”

Afolabi’s eyes flared briefly before a smile broadened across his face and he began to clap deliberately. “Well done, Investigator; you’ve passed the test,” he said warmly before tilting his head toward the door.

Her entire body tensed up as she turned and saw a man wearing the all-black bodyglove of the Interplanetary Investigations Unit of the Chimera Sector. He was shorter than average, but judging by his movements and musculature he was a supreme physical specimen the likes of which generally found fame and fortune in high-profile athletics.

“Meet Special Agent Hugo Stiglitz, assigned to the IIU,” Afolabi explained as he stood from his chair, prompting Masozi to do likewise. “His direct jurisdiction includes New Lincoln and the nearest dozen spaceports, and he’s here in an…unofficial capacity.”

Masozi looked back and forth between the two men as Agent Stiglitz approached with a black-gloved hand extended. “Investigator Masozi,” he said in a perfectly pitched, tenor’s voice with an accent she could not quite place, “it’s a pleasure.”

“Agent Stiglitz,” she said guardedly after shaking his hand. The strength she felt in his fingers was incredible, and she was all-too-aware that he was letting her feel just how strong he was without going so far as to cause pain. “Would somebody mind explaining to me what is going on here?”

Stiglitz gave a quick look to Chief Afolabi, who gestured for the shorter man to commence. “My unit has been tracking a terrorist for several months now,” Agent Stiglitz explained. “He has eluded capture at several carefully-engineered traps—traps which only the members of my team were aware of prior to being sprung. Each time we have failed to capture him he has gone on to execute at least one high-value target within two days’ time.”

“A terrorist?” Masozi asked, intrigued despite the immense tension she felt in light of the night’s events.

“Yes,” Stiglitz replied as he clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace stiffly, “we do not know his true affiliations, but he has left a signature behind at each of the murder scenes. I believe you are familiar with it?”

She furrowed her brow momentarily before realizing what he meant. “Are you saying that the Mayor’s Adjustment isn’t a sanctioned reprisal?” she asked after rolling the thought around for a few moments and realizing what he meant. “He’s using the Timent Electorum as cover?”

“Precisely,” Chief Afolabi said with a curt nod, “which presents a few unique problems…”

“Indeed,” Agent Stiglitz agreed, “since the Timent Electorum is a decentralized organization, it is impossible to verify whether or not these murders are, in fact, community-sanctioned reprisals. They may be merely the wanton acts of terrorists who are bent on unbalancing our political system for some as-yet unknown purpose.”

“But the insignia,” she argued with a sharp look to Chief Afolabi, “isn’t that supposed to contain the evidence the T.E. agent was required to collect prior to executing the commission?”

“It is,” Stiglitz said with a curt nod.  “However, we have reason to believe that the insignia which was left at Mayor Cantwell’s murder scenes is not, in fact, authentic.”

“Which is why we couldn’t have it entered into the official evidence log,” Afolabi explained before producing the very insignia Masozi had seen on the Mayor’s desk. The three inch-wide, hexagonal piece of metal featured an open eye depicted at the center which was bordered by the Timent Electorum agency’s three mottos: Ure Infectus, Sic Semper Tyrannis, and Mors Prodetores. “For all we know, this terrorist’s primary goal is to blame these murders on the Timent Electorum in an effort to undermine our society’s most fundamental principle in the eyes of the public.”

“Why?” she asked after a brief pause to consider her superior’s words. “I mean if these aren’t sanctioned hits, wouldn’t the Timent Electorum condemn them as the murders they really are?”

The two men shared a brief look before Agent Stiglitz replied, “There is a very real possibility that the Timent Electorum itself has been infiltrated. But since we do not know the mechanisms which drive its continued operation, we cannot investigate to determine their responsibility.”

“You mean…no one has ever caught one of the agents before?” she asked disbelievingly.

“Caught?” Stiglitz repeated with a hard edge to his voice that gave her more than a hint of trepidation. The short, muscular man took a step forward and, in his perfectly pitched, razor-sharp voice said, “Yes, we have caught several of them…we’ve even interrogated them on occasion to verify they were who they claimed. But the Timent Electorum is unlike any other government agency, so we cannot audit it—nor can we interview its ‘leadership’ since it presumably has no formal hierarchy.” He turned his back and moved to the window, his hands still firmly clasped behind him as he added, “There is an increasingly popular opinion among modern social scholars that they are little better than state-funded terrorists born of an irrational fear aimed at the old, Imperial Aristocracy.”

“They aren’t state-funded,” Masozi said pointedly, and again Stiglitz and Afolabi shared a brief look that she didn’t quite understand. “They have to operate purely on donations made by volunteers.”

“That is the official line, yes,” Agent Stiglitz said tersely before making a short, chopping gesture, “but whatever role the T.E. was originally meant to serve, it has likely ceased to do so.”

Masozi considered the implications if the First Right, which served as the most fundamental component of their society’s two hundred year long history, had indeed been coopted for nefarious purposes. All across the system—and likely beyond—there had been rumblings that such may have taken place, but such murmurs had generally been dismissed as conspiracy theories bandied about by the nutters of society.

“This is a lot for you to process, Investigator Masozi,” Afolabi said levelly, interrupting her silent ruminations. “I suggest you take the rest of the night off; take in a meal, rent a VR booth, or spend a few hours at the gym before heading home so you can clear your head. Report to my office at the start of your shift tomorrow and we can discuss your potential involvement in this matter. Much may depend on your role in the next few days’ investigation.”

“Indeed,” Agent Stiglitz said, once again offering his hand, “I look forward to working with you, Investigator.”

She was well and truly at a loss for words, so Masozi did the only thing she could think of and accepted his hand. She then shook Chief Afolabi’s hand and exited the Chief Investigator’s office, closing the door behind her.

Her boss had been right: this would take a few hours to wrap her head around.

[]Chapter V: One more makes Two-for-Two

Jericho finished fastening the full-body harness and then proceeded to triple-check each of the clasps. When it was clear that everything was in order, he attached the deceptively thin, metal wire which his life would depend on for the next few minutes. He could have had the wire made of the same carbon tubules as he had used at Cantwell’s Adjustment, but doing so would have unnecessarily increased the cost of this particular phase of his plan: the Angelo Adjustment.

The wind whipped violently across his face as he lowered the goggles over his eyes and tightened their strap behind his head until they were snug. There were a hundred better, safer, or cleverer ways of doing what he was about to do, but each of them cost several times more money to set up—and, as always, Jericho prided himself for staying on budget.

He walked over to the edge of the building and looked down to the street below. It was fully eight hundred feet down from where he stood on the residential building’s flat rooftop, but he knew that altitude would be the least of his problems on the relatively short, yet thoroughly perilous descent.

Jericho activated the goggles’ infrared light filter and immediately caught sight of the building’s security camera infrared beams as they danced across the face of the building in a seemingly random pattern. The night air was so thick with smog in New Lincoln that depending on the visible spectrum of light was foolish, especially in matters of security, so all mid-tier systems used infrared or better tech.

Since the wormhole had collapsed two centuries earlier, the technology of the Chimera Sector had undergone a radical metamorphosis which saw the blending of millennia-old technology with more modern examples of humanity’s scientific achievements. As such, only the ultra-wealthy members of a planet’s populace could surround themselves with exclusively high-end devices—and Mr. Angelo, Jericho’s next Adjustment, was ostensibly not one of the ultra-wealthy of Virgin Prime.

The overlap of the low-tech, omni-directionally sweeping night-vision security cameras created a nearly impenetrable grid which would almost certainly catch anyone attempting what he was about to attempt.

But Jericho had spent nearly two decades finding ways around such security measures, and this particular security net could be defeated with a mere flick of a switch.

He felt inside his pocket for the Timent Electorum insignia: the symbol, if not badge, of his office. Once he had confirmed it was where it should be, he activated the tension brake on the wire and stepped out over the edge, moving very carefully as he let out incrementally more line until he was perpendicular to the building’s vertical surface.

He tapped the new earpiece with his free hand and said, “I’m in position, Baxter.”

“Copy that,” came the older man’s disinterested-sounding voice through the earpiece. “Initiating power spike in ten…nine…eight…seven—”

When the countdown reached seven, Jericho gradually let out the line as he began to run along the wall of the building. The tiny suction cups built into his bodyglove’s footpads ensured that he never pushed too far off from the building to maintain control of his descent.

“Six…five…four…” Baxter, his second-best operator, reported in his droll, monotonous voice.

He was running as fast as he could keep his legs churning, which meant that he had let out all of the tension he possibly could from the braking mechanism on the miniature spool of wire.

“Three…two…one…”Baxter continued as though he was reciting some particularly uninteresting bit of trivia.

Jericho had ‘run’ nearly twenty five stories down the side of the building, and the fast-moving IR camera’s beam of invisible light came sweeping toward his path. If the light touched his body, he would be unable to complete his mission—and would miss the opportunity of a lifetime in the process.

“Zero: spike’s away,” his elderly operator reported dryly. Just before Jericho’s body entered the beam of infrared light, the beam winked out of existence for just a fraction of second.

But by the time that light had returned, Jericho’s body had passed beyond its path and he knew he had just seven seconds before the next beam would come into contact with him.

It was more than enough time.

He reengaged the tension brake gradually over the next four seconds. A half-second before the brake locked down, he pushed off from the building with every scrap of power his aging legs could generate. His body reached the apex of his short-lived flight just as the tension brake clamped down, snapping his body back with such violence that if he had not been properly prepared, he was quite certain he would have broken a handful of ribs and likely lost a few teeth.

But he tightened his body at the same moment the line snagged, and the combination of forces caused him to swing back toward the building with dangerous speed as he tucked his knees against his chest and turned his body into a tight ball.

If he missed by even a foot, not only would he break more than just a few ribs, but the security cameras would lock onto him. Some forty seven seconds after that, the building’s security force would apprehend him at gunpoint.

He risked a glance toward his entry zone and winced as he saw that he had slightly miscalculated his trajectory. As his rump entered the open window, he tried desperately to twist his torso enough to avoid striking his left arm against the window jamb, and thankfully he succeeded—rather, he partially succeeded.

Having drilled this precise entry hundreds of times using physical, scaled models, Jericho had even practiced for the eventuality of a less-than-perfect entry and was able to bring himself to a stop against the flat’s kitchen door without breaking through it.

He knew he had two seconds to remove the wire from its perch, so in a fluid series of motions he unhooked the shackle from his harness with one hand and, with the hand of his now-injured left arm, clicked the remote spooling mechanism for the winch located on the roof of the building. The shackle was whisked away too quickly for a human eye to see out as it sped back out the kitchen window.  Even though he knew the math bore out that he had acted in time, he held his breath for several seconds until he was convinced that no alarms had sounded outside.

Exhaling evenly and quietly, he switched his goggles from base infrared to thermal imaging and looked around the kitchen. Everything was cold save for the small, faint glow of heat coming from the food refrigerator’s compressor.

But Jericho had learned many years before to be cautious at all times, so he pressed his ear against the kitchen door to listen for any sounds on the other side. When he heard nothing, he opened the door and made his way into the short hallway connecting the four rooms of the flat: kitchen, main parlor, bedroom with adjoining toilet, and second bedroom which had been converted into a small office.

All thermal readings showed that no one had been inside the flat for at least ten hours, which was consistent with his next contracted target’s routine, and Jericho performed a routine weapons sweep of the bedroom—a room with a robust security door made to appear as a regular door—and found no such weapons.

“I’m in,” he said sub-vocally, allowing the small, crude patch he had stuck to his neck to transmit the sounds to his earpiece and, in turn, to Baxter. He didn’t want to take the risk of the flat having been bugged—either by Mr. Angelo or someone else—so he used the sub-vocal technique to decrease the chance of detection.

“Very good, sir,” Baxter replied blandly. “I am showing the target has just reached the lobby.”

“Good,” Jericho said as he moved to the main door of the flat. The target would enter the room and be unable to see him until the door had been closed, at which time it would be a small matter to execute him and egress the premises.

“He would appear to have company, sir,” Baxter added, as though it was barely worth mentioning.

“How many?” Jericho asked as he paused mid-stride.

“Two, sir: a man and a woman,” his operator replied in his usual, drawl tone.

“Profiles?” he asked impatiently as he felt his pulse quicken slightly.

“Accessing now,” Baxter said with a hint of irritation. Several seconds passed, and Jericho ran through the possible scenarios in his mind as he awaited the much-needed status update. “Here we are, sir,” his operator continued almost lazily, “oh my…it would seem our good friend, Mr. Angelo, has found some measure of affiliation with the Southern Bloc. The man’s name is Ichiro Matsumoto—a former chess enthusiast of some interstellar repute—and the woman is Noriko Sasaki, who formerly served on the personal security detail of the late President Mido.”

Jericho’s throat tightened at hearing of the woman’s paramilitary background. “Is Sasaki augmented?” he asked unwaveringly.

“I’m checking on that, sir,” Baxter replied irritably, and Jericho couldn’t help but smirk. If anyone should have been irritated given the circumstances it was him, not his operator. But Jericho knew that everyone coped with stress in their own manner, and despite the fact that he was inside the room and Baxter was on the other side of the city, they were equally at risk while running an operation such as this one. So he did his best to remain patient with his second-tier operator while Baxter continued, “It would appear not, sir…but there is evidence which suggests a high probability of extensive genetic modifications.”

“Any clues or do I just have to start guessing?” Jericho asked dryly after the pause had grown to several seconds in length.

“Wait, sir,” Baxter said shortly, and the audio feed went dead.

Jericho looked around the room as he ran through several possible scenarios and saw a handful of interesting objects scattered throughout the room: a four foot tall, antique, high-wattage lamp; a glass, not plastic, aquarium with around five hundred liters of water housing an assortment of uninteresting marine life forms; and a single, wood-framed chair set near a glass-topped table which was surrounded by metal-framed seats of various design. He considered the layout of the room before nodding to himself in satisfaction and making his way to the kitchen.

The earpiece crackled back to life as Jericho retrieved a pair of utensils from the kitchen and re-entered the parlor. “Apologies, sir; I fear we were being monitored. Ms. Sasaki is a more than capable martial artist, and what limited video I could find on her suggests an unusual tolerance for pain in addition to a power-to-weight ratio of roughly two hundred percent her frame’s suggested maximums.”

“Nothing else?” Jericho asked as he crouched down into position on the side of the aquarium opposite the door. The lamp was nearby, so he positioned himself so he could reach both the aquarium and the lamp when things inevitably went pear-shaped.

“Nothing, sir,” Baxter replied confidently, and Jericho was more than slightly put off that his operator was so stressed he had abandoned his carefully-crafted veneer of maddening serenity.

“Ok,” Jericho said, “we’ve got too much heat; clear my path out of here and then bug out. I’ll contact you in two hours.”

“Very good, sir,” Baxter replied tensely, “their elevator has reached your floor. I have just re-verified that your route is clear—signing off now.”

“Good work, operator,” Jericho said evenly. He turned off his earpiece and tested his left arm for a few seconds. He shook his head bitterly when he reached the painfully obvious conclusion that the thumb-side bone—the radius—was broken. That particular development was bound to make things a bit more interesting than they might have otherwise been, but the matter was likely to be settled in no more than ninety seconds so there was little use worrying about it.

The door’s locking bolts slid back and it swung open. Jericho remained perfectly still as the three of them entered the flat. Had the party included only the two unmodified men, he would have hidden in a closet and waited for their business to conclude. But the presence of a gene-mod of Ms. Sasaki’s apparent abilities made the likelihood of remaining undetected rather less than likely.

The door shut, and thankfully none of them noticed him before it had reengaged its locking mechanisms. They had apparently been enjoying some sort of stimulant, likely alcohol, which moved the needle of probability back in Jericho’s favor. Judging by their proximity and wandering hands, it appeared they were intent on heading directly for the bedroom—or wherever Angelo preferred to enjoy his carnal pleasures. Jericho hesitated for a moment before committing and stepping out from behind the aquarium.

“I’m only here for Janus Angelo,” Jericho said in a clear voice, causing the three of them to turn at once in alarm, “if the two of you leave now then three of us will walk out of here. If not…it’ll be just one.”

Sasaki’s eyes narrowed and Jericho suspected that her body was being flooded with a powerful wave of natural stimulants which would counteract the effects of alcohol on her nervous system in a matter of seconds. It had been a concession to warn them of his presence but Jericho was far from a butcher; he never killed without cause—and preferably not without a public mandate.

“I-I-I don’t understand,” Angelo stammered, his glassy eyes looking stupidly at Jericho as the other two took up interdictory positions. “Who…who are you?”

Jericho cracked a half-grin. “I’m just a voice, here to deliver the edict of the people you’ve wronged, Angelo,” he said almost pleasantly as his eyes flicked between Sasaki and Matsumoto.

Angelo went white as a sheet, but Sasaki took a bold step forward while Matsumoto—who was tall and broad, but obviously not an accomplished fighter judging by his posture and lack of confident poise—held back.

“Body temperature within point six degrees of normal,” Sasaki purred as she looked up and down Jericho’s body, and he realized she must have had some sort of ocular implant—yet another variable that would make things interesting. “A thermal suit but no accompanying electromagnetic field…and your weapons are a kitchen knife and frying pan?” She shook her head as an emphatic look of disappointment came over her face, “So repulsively normal…I had expected something more of the T.E., old man.”

“Last chance,” Jericho warned calmly as he tightened his grip on the makeshift weapons, “you can leave on your own two feet…or in a body bag.”

Angelo was frozen in place, but Matsumoto had moved to flank Sasaki and appeared to have strengthened his own resolve. “I’ve never killed one of you,” the woman said as she cracked her neck, “I’m going to enj—“

Jericho didn’t wait for her to finish her bloated speech. He swung the frying pan in his left hand into the glass aquarium and the glass shattered on contact, its contents spilling out onto the concrete floor of the flat. But before the first drop hit the floor, Sasaki had leapt the ten feet between them and drew a short, straight blade from concealment.

Jericho realized almost too late that he didn’t have time to execute his second planned move, so he brought his good arm up with the kitchen knife aimed at her incoming wrist. She reacted more quickly than he had expected and lashed out with her left leg, connecting with his upper chest and driving him into the wall with the surprising force of her flying kick.

But he managed to score a hit of his own along her forearm, and was sorely disappointed with the kitchen knife skittered off her seemingly ordinary, skintight, fake leather jacket.

A gleam entered her eye as she adjusted her grip on the knife and spun to drive it into his side. But Jericho had anticipated the rather mundane attack, and managed to dive just inside the arc of her weapon as he delivered a low kick to her nearest knee.

When his shin impacted against her leather-clad joint, he was relieved to see her leg almost buckle from the force of the attack. No augments, he silently celebrated as he brought the frying pan up into her torso. But his arm failed to comply properly and rather than delivering a crushing blow to her midriff, he barely managed to hang onto the makeshift weapon and use his forward momentum to shove her across the room.

Thankfully, she weighed no more than she appeared she should, so she slammed into the wall near the door just as her companion waded into the fray. Matsumoto assumed a traditional, Southern Bloc martial arts posture, and Jericho blocked his rapid—albeit formulaic and entirely predictable—series of half-strength punches and kicks.

But Jericho could not commit to taking the man down since he still had the gene-modified woman to contend with, so he backpedaled slightly toward the lamp as the powerful Sasaki sprang back into action and leapt toward him with her knife poised to deliver a killing blow.

Having less time than was required to sight in on his target, Jericho swing the frying pan blindly behind himself and felt a satisfying clang as it struck the antique, iron—high voltage—lamp which he had carefully placed in its new position prior to Angelo’s entry into the flat.

Sasaki’s eyes shifted to focus on the falling lamp and she twisted in mid-air as she pushed off the aquarium’s base and drove her body toward the antique, wood-framed chair as she abandoned her previous attack on Jericho.

But her companion apparently failed to recognize the danger in time as he charged toward Jericho with murder in his eyes. The instant the iron lamp’s bulb struck the concrete floor—a floor which was now covered in aquarium water—there was an audible buzz and accompanying flash of light which saw Matsumoto’s body seize as electricity coursed through his nerve endings. A fraction of a second after that crippling jolt of electricity robbed him of his senses, the safety breakers cut power to the entire flat and the room went dark.

But the brief interruption was enough to send the hulking man crashing face-first to the floor. Before Matsumoto could recompose himself, Jericho reversed his grip on the kitchen knife and unceremoniously plunged it into the base of his skull while re-acquiring a line of sight on Sasaki, using his infrared goggles in the now-darkened apartment.

By the time he sighted in on the chair she had used as insulation against the electrical surge, the hard-bodied woman was nowhere to be seen. But Mr. Angelo had fled to his bedroom and apparently locked the door, evidenced by the telltale clicks of several mag-locks engaging in sequence.

A flash of movement was all he registered before reflexively leaning out of the way of a tiny missile. Having trained continuously for two decades in preparation for similar situations, he reacted by seeking the missile’s point of origin rather than following the path of the tiny object. It was only by following this conditioning that he managed to react in time to the second missile by moving the frying pan—and his body—in such a way as to deflect it harmlessly away with the flat, iron piece of cookware. The pain he felt in his broken forearm was extraordinary, but it thankfully did not prevent him from defending himself against the poisonous darts.

When the missile whizzed past his head he caught a glimpse of the tiny, dart-like device and knew that he would be receiving no further fire of that type. He finally sighted in on Sasaki when moved out of the kitchen and back into the parlor.

“You should have stayed in there; I might have left you alive,” he said through briefly gritted teeth. “But those darts are delivered via forearm implants which are limited to one per limb. So you’re out of ammo and I outweigh you by forty kilos of muscle and bone…it’s only a matter of time.”

She smirked as she looked pointedly at his left arm and spun the straight-bladed knife over in his hands as though it was light as a feather. “We shall see,” she said in a deceptively mild tone before launching herself at him, her tanto-style knife lashing out in a series of almost impossibly quick attacks. He parried each one, even while favoring his wounded arm, but after a dozen such thrusts and parries he knew that she was better with a blade than he was—a lot better.

He dropped the frying pan so as to increase his own agility, and saw a contemptuous sneer spread across her features. She increased the speed and variation of her attacks in an attempt to draw him out of position, and he found himself constantly giving ground as he sought to minimize her angles to his lesser-protected left side.

Her blade sliced cleanly across his left triceps as he failed to move the extra half inch necessary to avoid the attack altogether, and a short exchange later she also managed to open a gash on his right thigh.

“Too slow, old man,” she hissed as she never broke the tempo of her deadly ballet. He knew that she would win a war of attrition, so he decided to take a risk.

He drew his own knife back as he put every bit of power he had into a long, sweeping slash aimed at her neck. His kitchen knife arced through the air as he extended his body as far as he could in an attempt to reach his nimble adversary.

She saw the attack too early for his blow to land on the exposed flesh of her neck, and she gently swayed backward as his blade whistled through the air where her throat had been an instant before—actually severing a handful of her hairs before they, too, could evade the attack.

Seizing on the opening, the athletic woman pirouetted so fast he almost didn’t see it and plunged her tanto into where every human anatomy textbook ever written on the subject said the human heart was located.

He looked down at the blade protruding from his chest and actually felt a wave of relief as a bright, red bloom began to ooze out of the perfectly-placed wound. Sasaki had taken several steps back and was admiring her handiwork, while Jericho slumped to his knees. All he could think about was how fast she was, and that he had sorely underestimated her from the outset of the engagement.

“Tsk tsk tsk…poor, old man,” she said with a self-satisfied snicker as more bright, red fluid poured out of his chest onto the floor in what would have been an ever-widening red blossom in the water-covered floor of the apartment. “Thankfully for you, you will lose consciousness in less than a minute and death will follow shortly thereafter.”

He took a deep, ragged-sounding breath, “Do you have…a smoke?”

She cocked an eyebrow before throwing her head back and laughing. “No smokes here, fogey,” she said with a shake of her head, “but I’ve got a few chemstix if that’s how you’d like to go out.”

He drew another deep, laborious breath before spitting a wad of bloody phlegm onto the floor, where it landed with a wet splat. “Please…” he wheezed.

She reached into her faux leather jacket and flicked a tiny, plastic case through the air in a swift, fluid gesture, and it landed in front of his knees. “Knock yourself out,” she quipped.

His head lolled around for a moment as he attempted to grab the sachet of chemicals, but he missed with his first attempt to do so and shook his head as he looked down at the knife protruding from his chest. He reached up deliberately to grab the blade, and saw the woman tense.

“Wouldn’t do that, fogey,” she warned in a playful tone, “you pull that out and you lose whatever time you might have left.”

He snorted derisively. “Taken down by a woman,” he muttered as he gripped the tanto’s hilt and pulled it from his chest, letting it slip from his fingers and fall to the floor with a clatter as a small spray of thick, red fluid burst from his chest.  The pain was thoroughly unpleasant, but it was nothing he had not felt before.

“Stupid,” Sasaki shook her head with mock disappointment without taking her eyes from him.

Jericho looked up at her through his goggles and chuckled for a moment.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded, as though his laughter was an affront of some kind.

He laughed for a few seconds more. “You gave up your edge,” he said with a piteous shake of his head as the last of the fluid dripped out of the admittedly painful wound in his chest. He stood slowly to his feet and felt a kind of brutal, savage, animalistic satisfaction as her eyes widened in fear. “With the knife you could have taken me…but you let me have it.”

Before Sasaki could even locate a new weapon, Jericho launched himself at her and attempted to wrap his long, powerful arms around her small, hard body. She danced to the side as she made a play to slip past him and recollect the knife, but he dissuaded her attempt by reaching out with his left arm.

Had she been neurologically augmented, she probably would have remembered that his left arm was broken and therefore less likely to stop her. But for all her genetic modifications, she still had a completely average brain.

Before she could realize her gaffe, he had closed off the path to the parlor and left her only one path of escape: the kitchen and its still-open window.

She turned and ran as fast as she could toward that exit, and Jericho followed. With just a half dozen steps they were in the kitchen and she leapt for the window in a desperate attempt to escape, probably in the hope of clinging to a ledge before plummeting to her death.

But Jericho also left his feet, with his right hand outstretched as it reached for her slick, black boot. His fingers barely managed to touch her ankle, but that was all he needed to do. He swatted her leg to the side as hard as he could while she was in mid-air, and managed to redirect enough of her body’s momentum into the window’s jamb where her hip slammed into the molded concrete and nearly stopped her forward momentum.

Before she could recover and pull herself through the window, Jericho lunged again and grabbed her other ankle with his good hand. She lashed out with her stiletto-heeled free foot and nearly drove the sharp point of the impractical footwear toward his eye.

Jericho had expected an attack of that kind, and managed to move his head out of the way. The sharp heel dug into his shoulder but he managed to maintain his grip on her foot as he brought his wounded, left arm to bear by grabbing her free foot before she could line up another potentially deadly attack.

His left arm failed him after he had gripped her ankle with his left hand, and she managed to wrench her leg free and stomp toward his face with her free foot once again.

Jericho didn’t have time to block or dodge the incoming attack, so he did the next best thing: he pulled her trapped leg with everything he could muster from his right arm and managed to break her grip on the window sill.

Her deadly footwear slid past his head after he had managed to pull her groin against his upper chest. But the little bitch was crafty; even before he had managed to attempt controlling her posture, she freed her trapped leg, snaked her legs around his head and right shoulder, and locked them behind his back with a figure four triangle choke.

She reached down to the back of his head with both hands and she drove her crotch into his face while forcing his chin toward his own chest.  He knew that he only had a few seconds before her enhanced strength cut off the blood flow to his head and rendered him unconscious.

Using his longer-than-average arms, he grabbed her by the hair, stood up as tall as he could and suplexed her—head-first—into the nearby stove-top.

The powerful attack somehow failed to render her unconscious, but it did break her posture enough that he was able to reposition his shoulder and create the requisite space for continued blood flow to his brain. Like the trained professional she clearly was, Sasaki released the choke-hold and attempted to isolate Jericho’s right arm between her iron-hard thighs while grasping his right palms in her hands and pulling it straight between her small, firm breasts.

To say he was surprised by her raw strength would have been an understatement, but he still managed to react quickly enough to grasp his right wrist with his free hand. Pain rioted up his broken arm, but he managed to ignore it as he effectively neutralized her unnatural strength by maintaining a grip on his right wrist. He lifted her into the air and prepared her for another head-first slam—this one intended to introduce her black-haired head to the nearby, concrete countertop.

She released her arm-lock just before he had brought her to the apex of his posture and she stomped down on his chest with her right foot, driving her stiletto heel into his thick, hard pectoralis major muscle. But the footwear, dangerous enough as an improvised weapon, was unable to break through his ribcage to pierce his vital organs.

And when her heel dug into his chest, Jericho knew the fight was finished.

She was too light, and the quarters were too close for her to use her superior speed and power-to-weight ratio against him. In one, smooth motion, Jericho wrenched her foot free from his chest and drove her body toward the floor. As she struck the tiled floor, he kneed her in the midsection with his left leg hard enough to audibly break several ribs.

A gasp escaped her lips, but Jericho knew this particular foe was more dangerous than she appeared. So he drove a hellacious, overhand right down across her jaw, snapping her head to the side with enough force to kill a normal person of her physique outright. Sasaki’s eyes rolled around as she staggered into the concrete counter. Her hands flailed about for an improvised weapon—an eventuality Jericho had already taken into consideration, having previously placed all such utensils in the cupboards prior to his target’s entry to the flat.

Jericho reached out with his good hand, grabbed her by the hair, and slammed her face-first into the concrete countertop once—twice—three times before her body finally went limp.

He added another pair of bone-shattering introductions of her previously exquisite features to the kitchen’s prep area before letting her limp body crumple to the water-soaked floor.

She coughed spasmodically and blood poured from her mouth as Jericho knelt beside her. Using a well-practiced combat maneuver, he snaked his arms through her own, grasped his hands behind her torso, and broke her back midway up her chest to permanently immobilize her before propping her up against the lower tier of cabinets.

“Who sent you?” he growled between ragged, panting breaths. Deep down, Jericho knew the universe was telling him that he was getting too old for this shit, but he was too stubborn to listen.

The woman attempted to respond, but all that came out of her mouth was a muffled croak accompanied by a gurgling stream of blood.

“I need a name, soldier,” he said sharply as he gently lifted her chin with his left hand and saw the rank tattoo of a Southern Bloc’s Rikugun Taii—roughly translated to ‘Captain.’ “You’re already dead, Captain Sasaki, but I’ll spare you an unnecessary hour of suffering if you tell me who sent you.”

She fixed her eyes on him and for a moment he thought she would make her final act one of defiance—a gesture he would not have found altogether less than admirable—but she nodded stiffly as she worked to swallow a mouthful of blood before spitting a pair of teeth onto the floor.

“You fight well,” she grudged slowly, and her words were forced and deliberate as she struggled to enunciate with a horribly broken jaw, “especially for a…normal.”

“The name, Captain?” Jericho said evenly. If she had any more tricks up her sleeve than what he had seen, she would have used them already. The conflict was already over; all that remained was to get whatever he could from her before leaving her broken corpse on the kitchen floor.

“How?” she challenged as she looked at the wound in his chest. “How…did you not…die?”

He looked down at the still-painful, but far from life-threatening hole in his chest, and smirked. “It’s a congenital condition called situs inversus viscerum,” he explained. “It flipped all of my organs around, and put my heart on the other side of my chest. I discovered I had this rare inversion of internal anatomical structure twenty years ago…then I had a few minor alterations made for situations precisely like this one. The name, Captain,” he pressed again after answering her question.

She seemed to consider refusing, but finally relented, “Boris Kardashev, Interior advisor to…Philippa’s Governor Keno.” She winced in obvious pain as she worked her way through the words.

Though it was difficult to be certain due to the tremendous trauma she had suffered, Jericho saw none of the telltale behavioral or physiological signs that she was lying. “Thank you, Captain Sasaki,” he said levelly as he opened a nearby cupboard containing a set of steak knives.

“Let me do it…our way,” she said after fixing him with a hard look.

He considered the request and nodded, since he had nothing to lose by doing so. Baxter had already cut off Angelo’s flat from the building’s security systems, along with all access to outside communications. In effect, Jericho’s target had locked himself in the perfect cage—a cage which Jericho had already checked for weapons and found devoid of them.

Jericho placed her hands on her lap and reached up to the zipper on her neck, and unzipped her skin-tight, armored bodyglove down past her belly button to expose her milky-white skin. He noted that her rib cage was horribly deformed from his earlier knee strike as he laid her belly bare, before reaching up and taking one of the steak knives in his hand.

He had never actually killed a person using this particular technique and, while he couldn’t trust her not to turn the weapon against him, he allowed her to grip the weapon in her own hands while he kept a firm grip on her wrists. She drove the knife into her belly on the left side of her abdomen, and to her credit she winced but did not cry out. In a single, quick motion she drew the blade through her belly and Jericho saw a spray of blood gurgle out of her abdomen when she successfully severed the abdominal aorta.

The light in Captain Sasaki’s eyes faded after just a few seconds, and then they closed forever as her body slumped in a scene with which Jericho had become far too familiar. After he was satisfied she was truly dead, Jericho deliberately placed her hands on the hilt of the knife to give her remains some measure of repose befitting a warrior of her abilities. He then stood and made his way to the parlor to retrieve Captain Sasaki’s tanto before proceeding his target’s bedroom door, knowing that the heavy lifting of this particular Adjustment was already done.

He tapped out the security override sequence Baxter had relayed to him into the door’s access console and the mag-locks disengaged, causing the door to swing open into the bedroom.

Mr. Janus Angelo, the head of the New Lincoln branch of the Environmental Protection Bureau, was cowering in the corner of his room in a puddle of his own fluids when Jericho stepped through.

“Mr. Angelo,” Jericho said in a measured tone as he entered the windowless room with Captain Sasaki’s blade in hand, “I’m here to enact the will of the people you’ve betrayed.”

Angelo’s eyes were wide as saucers, and he shook his head so rapidly that his jowls jiggled comically. “B-b-betrayed?!” he blurted, his voice half-indignant and half-terrified. “I am no t-t-traitor,” he protested quickly, “you have the wrong man!”

Jericho produced the Timent Electorum Mark, the insignia of his ‘office,’ such as it was, and placed it on the bed before tapping the iconic, all-seeing eye depicted at its center. This caused a meter-tall holographic image to appear, which was populated with images and statistics which Jericho and Baxter had gathered over the previous months. “Your signature is affixed to each of these orders,” Jericho explained, as he had done every other time the situation had allowed, “is it not?”

Angelo’s fearful, rodent-like eyes flipped back and forth between Jericho and the holographic image before nodding.

Jericho tapped the concealed button on the edge of the insignia, and the previous images were replaced with those of an industrial complex, and recognition dawned on Mr. Janus Angelo’s face. “This is the Five Peaks wind farm, correct?”

“Now…wait just a minute,” Mr. Angelo began, but Jericho continued with his presentation despite the man’s protestations.

“Four years ago, this facility was deemed hazardous to a strain of local wildlife,” Jericho pushed on, desiring nothing more than to be finished with his latest task. “That wildlife—a form of avian best known for circular patterns of pigmentation displayed on its feathers—was later proven to have been introduced to the area by acquaintances of yours no more than eighteen months prior to your office’s order to cease construction on this vital source of sustainable electricity. Is that correct?”

Angelo began to protest as Jericho flipped to the next pair of images. The first was a low-tech, solar energy harvesting array while the second was a picture of Janus Angelo shaking the hand of a well-dressed executive, “I had no way of knowing—“

“The Five Peaks wind farm failed to deliver its quotient of power on schedule as a result of your office’s corruption,” Jericho continued as though the other man had not even spoken. “This required a significant investment on the part of its backers, in order to complete the project without access to its original source funding. That investment,” he pressed on as a flood of statistics populated the screen, “forced the backers to consolidate their other holdings to raise the necessary capital, resulting in the closure of nearly a dozen of New Lincoln’s industrial entities. This has cost the city of New Lincoln nearly two billion credits worth of revenue—revenue which now flows into the coffers of this man, Hisashi Iwakuma, and his Tsushima-based industrial conglomerate.”

Janus Angelo seemed to have found some much-needed steel for his spine, as he stood to his feet and leveled an accusing finger at the holographic image. “I cannot be held responsible for the economic repercussions of carrying out the charge of my office!” he cried indignantly.

“Indeed…you cannot,” Jericho agreed before flipping to the last set of images, which were bank records showing literally hundreds of separate transactions. The transactions were highlighted one by one—each of them affixed with three, distinct Judicial Seals of Authenticity—and their totals were tallied in the lower corner of the screen while a new graphic showed a three dimensional version of the planet Virgin, which was quickly criss-crossed by an increasingly convoluted web of money transfers.

The dazzling display went on for nearly twenty seconds, and with each new line that sprang up to indicate the origin of the monies which had been transferred to the accounts—accounts which were then shown to have been opened by acquaintances of Angelo’s—Janus Angelo wilted. Nearly thirty seconds after the graphic had begun its impressive, complex display, the source of the money was shown to have originated from Hisashi Iwakuma’s various Tsushima-based holdings.

But even that would not have been enough to execute Mr. Angelo for his crimes against the body politic. The final nail in Angelo’s coffin was the fact that he had physically accepted a collection of rare earth minerals—minerals which were the real reason Jericho had accepted this particular Adjustment in the first place. The final image of the montage was of Angelo accepting the small pouch of minerals from Mr. Matsumoto—the same man Jericho had killed with the kitchen knife in the parlor.

The projector then went dark, and Jericho allowed the silence to linger for several moments before taking a step forward. “You have grandchildren…yes?”

Angelo, whose eyes were now misty as his hands moved to cover his mouth, nodded in resigned affirmation.

“If you give me a name I can use, I’ll let you say goodbye to them before they learn the truth about their grandfather’s betrayal from the news feeds,” Jericho promised. He neither relished nor recoiled from this part of the job; it simply was what it was. Angelo had evidence which Jericho desperately needed, and he had little doubt Captain Sasaki and her chess-playing cohort had, in fact, been sent to kill Angelo before someone of Jericho’s ilk could reclaim said evidence. Like everything else in life, Jericho had been in a race against those who would deny him what he needed—and like every other race of his adult life, Jericho had won.

“I…I…” he began as his lip began to quiver uncontrollably, and he nearly fell over when his legs threatened to give out but managed to lower himself onto the edge of the bed. He then began to sob uncontrollably.

“One luxury I cannot provide you is time, Director Angelo,” Jericho said impatiently as he took another step forward. “Make your choice, and do so now.”

Angelo looked up, and Jericho knew the man before him was already broken. So he relaxed his stance fractionally as he waited for the other man to give him what he had come for. “I…I only dealt with one man,” he explained tremulously.

“That may not be good enough,” Jericho warned.

Angelo nodded quickly and stood a bit too abruptly for Jericho, who closed the distance between them with a single, long, stride and pressed the flat of the blade against the man’s throat. Angelo looked absolutely terrified as he audibly soiled himself, before pointing to the far wall—a wall which Baxter’s investigations had proven housed a cleverly-designed safe.

Jericho withdrew the blade from the man’s neck and took a half step back, ready to act at the first sign of betrayal. The truth was that Jericho had come to Angelo’s flat with two purposes in mind. The first was to make the Adjustment for the RL—Redeemed Lives, the metric by which an Adjuster’s career was gauged—which doing so would add to his record, and the second was to retrieve the contents within Angelo’s safe. Without the information Angelo had it may have been impossible to proceed with his future plans—and those plans were absolutely vital to the security of the planet, the System, and possibly even the entire Sector.

Angelo slowly made his way to the wall before pressing his hands against seemingly random points on the wall. A soft, blue glow emanated from eye level before him, and he placed his face near the mundane-looking surface for several seconds before the panel in front of his face slid to the side and revealed a long, shallow recess which ran parallel to the surface of the wall.

Jericho, careful to keep himself in position to react to the man’s potential treachery, stood at his shoulder and watched Angelo withdraw a slender data crystal. It was a rare form of data storage, and had fallen out of favor due to its incompatibility with recent quick-scanning technology.  But it was durable and, once written, could not be overwritten or modified in any way short of physical destruction.

Angelo turned and, in a somewhat surprising display of resolve, said, “I will give you the passcode if you don’t make my crimes public.”

Jericho hesitated. He suspected that Wladimir could crack the encoding given enough time, but that would likely take weeks. There was, however, nothing explicitly stating that an Adjuster was required to publicly produce the evidence which condemned one of the Timent Electorum’s Adjustments…

Jericho nodded and held out his hand, “I can do that.”

Angelo nodded, pointing to the now-opened safe. “The mineral bars are there; take them and do as you would with them.”

Jericho narrowed his eyes. It was explicitly forbidden for an Adjuster to accept a material bribe in any form, and Angelo’s offer was clearly such a bribe.

“You may dispose of them as you see fit,” the soon-to-be-former Director said hastily, “but they will provide a motive for my murder.”

Jericho considered it and—though doing so was solidly in the dark grey zone of what was or wasn’t permissible—he nodded in agreement and gestured for him to withdraw the small pouch of material.

When Angelo gave him the pouch, Jericho looked inside to see a small series of tiny, geometrically perfect, hexagonal rods in a clear, plastic case. Rare minerals were valuable, but these were likely untraceable and had already been meticulously crafted so as to be incorporated quickly into high-end electronic devices.

He neither knew, nor cared to know, what purpose Angelo may have had for them. So he took them out of their plastic case and crushed them one by one, destroying their value in the process. When he was finished, the pouch was worth little more than its weight in industrial grade diamond, which was almost nothing—except in the hands of an examiner with equipment which could verify precisely where those minerals had come from.

Jericho placed the pouch in the same pocket which had held his T.E. insignia and withdrew a small recording device, which he gave to Angelo. “Make it quick,” he urged, and the other man nodded as he wiped the tears from his face.

A few minutes later, after composing himself, Angelo recorded a farewell letter to his grandchildren—whose names were Victoria and Michael—before finishing and handing the device back to Jericho, who watched the affair with more than casual interest. Jericho had never fathered children and, though his duty required him to rob those children of their grandfather’s presence, he knew that if he failed to carry out his charge he would be robbing thousands of others of the lives they might have otherwise made for themselves due to the corruption for which people like Angelo were responsible.

“Thank you…” he said, and Jericho knew the man’s resolve would not hold for much longer, “the passcode is a simple alphanumeric composed of my birthdate followed by my grandmother’s maiden name, scrambled by the seventeen standard Virgin chronometers’ individual variances, measured to the twentieth decimal, prior to their collective weekly reset.”

Jericho had no idea what any of that meant, but he had recorded the entire scene via his goggles’ video pickup and had confidence that Benton would know how to decipher it. “Are you ready?” he asked evenly.

Angelo took a deep, measured breath and nodded as he closed his eyes. Jericho ended his life with a quick, precise, stab through the brainstem that his mark never even heard coming.

Captain Sasaki’s knife, while not a monomolecular blade, did the job better than any other implement Jericho had used in recent months and Director Angelo’s body fell to the ground in a silent heap. In the moment that he fell, Angelo looked for all the world like a puppet whose strings had been cut—and it was an all-too familiar sight to the experienced assassin.

With his grizzly task complete, Jericho wiped the blade clean and produced a neatly-folded collar-to-toes overcoat which, when compressed, was no larger than his fist. He removed his goggles and hood before tucking them into his coat’s large pockets.

After donning his new outfit, he exited the flat, made his way to the emergency escape which Baxter had indeed unlocked for him, and used it to disappear into the crowded streets of New Lincoln.

[]Chapter VI: The Guardian Angel

Not ten minutes after Jericho had left Angelo’s flat, an Okavango DOT (which initials stood for ‘Delivered On Time,’ the company’s infamous and much-lampooned slogun) Net delivery hover-drone appeared before him.

“Hi, handsome! You have a delivery from,” the drone purred in an overly sexual voice as the image of a ridiculously sexualized schoolgirl ‘uniform’-wearing woman appeared on the two-dimensional display built into the meter-wide drone’s front. The screen flickered and the woman’s voice changed to that of Wladimir Benton, who snapped, “Bitch, you gotta learn to check yo’ damned mail!

Despite the crass language, Jericho was well-pleased to have received the package so promptly. He would normally have ignored the drone until it went away, but he had been expecting such a package and even without the overt greeting message he would have recognized this particular drone as a very cleverly-designed fake of the global retail giant’s own delivery devices.

This particular drone was one of Wladimir ‘AJ’ Benton’s…one might say ‘pets,’ and Jericho complied by providing the requested signature by placing his hand into the cavity and gripping the contoured handle. Doing so provided a physical impression of his handprint while also providing other data, like body temperature, heart rate, oxygenation level in the blood, and God only knew what else.

There was a loud, moaning sound from the drone’s speakers and the woman’s image flickered briefly before she bent over, exposing far more cleavage than Jericho believed to be biologically possible for a human woman to possess. “Thanks for the squeeze, handsome,” she said with a wink after licking her lips suggestively, “please…take anything you like.”

Rolling his eyes in irritation, Jericho waited for the storage compartment to open and, when it did, he took a small briefcase from the drone. There was one other item inside, but he knew it had not yet reached its intended destination so he turned to continue down the sidewalk with the briefcase in hand.

“Aww,” the drone pouted as the image of the woman folded her arms theatrically, “just like a man: gets what he wants and leaves without so much as a kind word.”

Jericho couldn’t help himself from chuckling as he turned around and nodded. “Thank you, Eve,” he said with a tip of an imaginary cap. “Say ‘hello’ to the big guy for me.”

Eve’s image seemed ready to burst with joy as the pupils of her eyes turned into little, pink Cupid hearts before the screen was filled with similar images. “Will do, babe. But seriously…we have got to stop meeting like this; people are going to talk. I have a reputation to consider!”

Jericho shook his head in muted exasperation and made a ‘shoo’ gesture. “Get out of here before I report being sexually harassed by a delivery drone,” he urged with a hollow grin.

“Mmm…baby,” she purred, her image leaning forward to expose her beyond-ample cleavage, “if I was sexually harassing you—“

He held up a hand haltingly. “Another time, Eve,” he cut her off before tapping the briefcase and wincing when he moved his still-broken left arm in an inadvisable manner. “Work to do.”

She pouted again briefly before sighing as the drone began to drift up into the designated altitude for such devices to operate above when not making deliveries. “All work and no play…” she chided before turning around and flipping up her skirt, exposing even more pink hearts on—and around—what appeared to be Benton’s idea of a woman’s underwear. She winked, blew a kiss, and then disappeared from the screen as the drone sped off until it was once again out of sight.

Jericho made his way down the street until finding a small café which was less than likely to have round-the-clock recorded surveillance. He sat down, took out a few chits and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich before opening the case and examining its contents.

Inside was the usual assortment of material necessary for a Guardian Angel operation, including new identification, untraceable credit chits of sufficient value to book passage off-world, and a link pad similar to the one he had destroyed after executing the Cantwell Adjustment. He activated the link and input his usual passkey, which was accepted, and found himself looking at multiple video feeds of a low-rent apartment complex which made Mr. Angelo’s residential building look like a getaway resort built for the Old Nobility.

The individual unit floor plans were no more than six feet by twelve feet with ceilings of varying heights. The extra headroom required to go from a four foot ceiling to a six foot one—which would have still been too short for Jericho to stand to his full height—increased the cost of the unit by fifty percent since the rental price was based almost entirely on displaced volume of the unit itself.

It was one of the things Jericho had come to despise about the Imperium’s obsession with cramming as many people as possible into as small of an area as possible, but he had made his peace with such incomprehensible realities many years earlier.  If that was how people wished to live, he would no longer argue with them.

He scanned his way through the various feeds, most of which appeared to have been hijacked directly from the building’s own internal security system. But three of the feeds were marked with icons indicating they were being delivered via off-grid, wireless bugs. The interesting thing was that those three feeds had not been placed by Wladimir, as would have been normal for a Guardian Angel operation—he had apparently discovered that their next ‘target’ was already under covert surveillance.

AJ had apparently intercepted those feeds without making anyone the wiser. He was, in all likelihood, the foremost hacker in the Virgin System with only Jericho’s immediate superior in the T.E. serving as a competitor for the title. Benton had evaded capture for nearly two decades of wreaking continuous mayhem, so at this point in his life Jericho put nothing past the man. The mayhem Benton wrought was something which Jericho had come to depend upon during his mid-life career choice as a T.E. Adjuster, and though he had absolutely no idea how his top operator did what he did, he was grateful they were on the same side—despite the other man’s unusual, and often insulting, verbiage.

A flashing red circle appeared on one of the external video feeds and Jericho expanded that particular window while setting the targeted individual to track mode in the pad’s software. As she moved from one camera’s zone of sight to another, the feed morphed using a digitally-rendered, three-dimensional ‘panning’ effect which made it seem as though there was actually just one camera and it was following her.

The hair on her head had been cropped so closely to her skull that Investigator Masozi would have appeared bald, were it not for the fact that her face and neck were covered with a sheen of sweat while her head glistened the way that only short, wet hair did. She was wearing exercise clothing, so it did not require much deductive reasoning to determine she had just completed a workout—a fairly intense one, judging by her stiff gait—and was heading home for some sleep. The sun would be up in less than an hour, so Jericho knew he needed to act quickly.

But, as was so often the case, he also knew what would come next was not entirely within his control.

Masozi took the seven flights of stairs up to her tiny, one room studio flat rather than ride the elevator. This was atypical for her, but she still felt she needed time to process the night’s events. Besides, if there was one thing Masozi hated, it was the idea that she was predictable.

Thoughts of joining the Interplanetary Investigative Unit danced in her head, and if she was honest with herself it was like a dream come true. She had never heard of anyone ascending to the IIU so quickly in their careers, and while Masozi knew there were precious few Investigators of her ability, she also knew she was no scion of the field. It was that fact—and only that fact—which had nurtured the seed of doubt which had taken root in her mind after seeing her Chief tamper with a crime scene and later attempt to explain the action.

His stated reasoning had been reasonably sound, and Agent Stiglitz quite clearly was with the IIU—or, at the very least, some other high-level agency with similar, System-wide jurisdiction.

But Masozi just couldn’t shake the notion as she arrived at her flat’s door that there was something wrong with all of it. She decided she would sleep on it, since four hours of continuous exercise at the gym had done little to ease her troubled mind.

She was, thankfully, one of the few people whose unit’s ceiling was high enough for her to stand within. At five feet, ten inches tall, she could even wear her general purpose shoes in the six vertical feet of space her unit afforded without bumping her head into the ceiling. It was a significant upgrade over her first ten years in the NLIU, which had seen her living in a studio with barely four feet of ‘headroom,’ if such a term could actually be applied to the tiny dimension.

She closed the door behind herself and touched a nearby pad on the wall, causing the lights to turn on, some of her favorite music to play, and the standing shower unit to run through its pre-activation routines.

Masozi stripped out of her gym suit and tossed her sweat-soaked clothing into the hamper before making her way to the shower. Running water was expensive, so a hot, relaxing shower was a luxury she could only truly afford twice a week without eating into her food budget.

She let the water cascade over her body as she tried to imagine the warm droplets of water washing away the troubles of the previous night. But no matter how long she stood there, or how hard she scrubbed, she couldn’t escape the feeling that she had somehow already become party to something reprehensible.

There was a chime from the window of her apartment, indicating she had a delivery waiting outside. Masozi stopped and tried to recall whether she had ordered anything, but then she remembered that some of her cousins had taken a trip off-world recently. It was the only reason she could imagine for receiving a delivery, so she turned off the water and wrapped a towel around her body as she passed her hand over the window—which was actually a part of the shower stall—and caused it to turn transparent.

Outside was an Okavango delivery drone, which was itself a common sight on her world. Okavango had revolutionized several aspects of urban retail several years after the wormhole had collapsed, when Virgin had been violently cut off from the rest of the Imperium—an historic event which many believed was nothing short of a divine blessing.

There had been a short, gruesome series of local conflicts which were now, two centuries later, known as the Forge Wars, and out of those wars had sprung the Sector Government of Chimera. While there were nowhere near enough worlds in the Chimera Cluster—as it was properly known in the Imperial records—to classify the group as a Sector in its own right, its surviving inhabitants had realized they did not possess sufficient wealth to mount a meaningful expedition to return to Imperial space. The realization that they were utterly cut off, unless and until the Imperium decided to re-establish a wormhole somewhere within the Cluster, had caused some to despair in the years and decades that followed the collapse of the wormhole. But most of Chimera’s citizens had embraced their newfound freedom from the yoke of Imperial taxes, the all-seeing eyes of the Imperial Aristocracy, and the uncontested might of the Imperial Navy.

Masozi did not believe in any gods above science and intelligence, but even she had to admit that the Virgin planet and its newly-founded Sector had almost certainly benefited from the wormhole’s collapse two centuries earlier.

She opened the window and the drone moved fractionally closer before its screen activated, revealing an incredibly odd sight: a red-haired, hyper-voluptuous woman wearing little more than a pair of strategically placed strings—which thankfully covered her digital nipples—and a ridiculously short, red skirt with white polka dots.

“Hi, beautiful,” the image said with a wink, and Masozi furrowed her brow in confusion. She wondered if this was some sort of a gag…or maybe she was on one of those hidden camera shows? “It looks like you’ve got a secret admirer,” the overtly sexualized image said with a giggle, “and I can see why, with such beautiful skin…and that incredible definition…I’m so jealous,” the drone said with a perfectly practiced pout pursing her bright red lips.

“I’m sorry…can I help you?” Masozi asked, becoming increasingly annoyed with not only the ridiculous scene but also her reaction to it. I must look like such a fool, she thought bitterly.

“Of course, sweetie,” the drone said as she gave a thumbs-up sign, causing parts of her body to jiggle in ways that likely defied gravity, “you give me a palm scan and I’ll give you a surprise!”

Masozi considered the matter, then reluctantly did as the drone suggested by grasping the scanning aperture and squeezing it like she had done hundreds of times before.

The image on the screen shuddered and the speakers let out a loud—unmistakably erotic—moan, causing Masozi to withdraw her hand in surprise. The woman’s image returned, except her virtual hair was a mess and her virtual makeup had been smeared all over her virtual face. “Mmmm,” she—no, it — purred, “was that as good for you as it was for me?”

Masozi rolled her eyes, becoming increasingly certain that she was on a gag show of some kind and she let out and obligatory laugh as the delivery drone’s cargo compartment slid open, revealing a box measuring approximately one inch by three inches by six inches. She took the box from the compartment and her mood turned slightly more serious as she turned it over and found no markings of any kind.

But that’s illegal, she thought to herself. She, and every other citizen of Virgin, knew that all parcels in transit were required to bear physical tags demonstrating their points of origin, intended routes, and other itinerant information for legal and security purposes.

“See you around, sugar,” the image on the drone’s screen said before blowing a virtual kiss and disappearing as the drone gently drifted down and out of sight.

Masozi closed the window and examined the box more closely. It was completely unremarkable and, after a long moment of contemplation, she opened it to peruse its contents.

What she saw took the breath from her lungs: it was an insignia of the Timent Electorum! Rather, it was a decal which was made in the image of the insignia, and she picked it up to examine it more closely. The reverse side was like any cheap decal, with a peel-away adhesive pad which had two words written on it:

Pick up.

She nearly dropped the box when it began to vibrate in her hands. After a moment she realized it had not been the box which had vibrated, but something that was inside the box.

Beneath where the decal had been was a pair of objects: one was a cheap, civilian-class earpiece communication device, and the other was a similarly cheap link pad. The earpiece had been vibrating, and there was an icon on the screen of the link pad which showed an unread message had been received by it.

Masozi thought very hard about her next actions and decided that regardless of what she meant to do in the future, her best option was to do answer the call.

She placed the earpiece in her left ear and activated it after taking a deep breath. “Hello?” she said.

Silence was her only reply for several seconds, and just when she was about to deactivate the device a man’s deep, tense voice spoke, “Investigator, I’m glad you took my advice. Activate the pad and open the message’s attached file—do so quickly since we don’t have much time.”

“Who is this?” she asked warily, knowing she needed to get as much information as possible while she had this person on the line.

“You have forty six seconds before I will have taken a very real risk and accomplished nothing but a short conversation with a very fresh—very stupid—corpse, Investigator,” the voice replied harshly. “If I wanted you dead, you would already be so—thirty eight, thirty seven, thirty six—”

She had to admit that he had a point, so she reluctantly opened the file contained in the link’s lone message and the screen showed dozens of security camera feeds. The feeds cycled quickly through until stopped on what appeared to be a maintenance room in her own residential building.

“Good,” the man’s voice said as he ceased his countdown, “what do you see?”

Masozi looked intently at the image and, at first, saw nothing. Then she saw that one of the panels appeared to have been tampered with, and her throat tightened when she realized it was the control panel for her quadrant of the building.

The image shifted around quickly in a strange, pseudo-realistic panning shot until it came to rest on a man’s motionless body which was propped up against the wall. She gasped when she recognized the man as one of her building’s maintenance staff—she had even taken a somewhat regrettable tumble between the sheets with him a year earlier when she’d had too much to drink after a high-profile case’s successful conclusion.

“Tom,” she breathed, trying to fathom why someone would kill a superintendent of a relatively poor building like hers.

“I have reason to believe that your quadrant of the building is about to be destroyed,” the man said, as though he was speaking about the evening’s weather forecast. “You have only one hope if you want to survive.”

“Who are you?” she demanded as suspicions swirled in her head.

“You know who I am, Investigator,” the man said gravely, and her eyes widened as she concluded she was speaking with Mayor Cantwell’s assassin, “now jump.”

“Jump?!” she blurted.

“Yes, Investigator,” he said far-too-calmly. “If you don’t want to die in twelve seconds, I suggest you jump out the window—the sooner you jump, the higher your chance of survival. Eight seconds; you should be able to smell the gases by now.”

Now that he mentioned it, she did smell something that seemed like methane. Her building used it for quick heating of water, like for her shower, and apparently it had somehow been plumbed into the air cycling system!

Having only a few seconds, she performed some quick math and felt her heart stop. The evidence did, in fact, seem to suggest that there was enough gas flooding her room—and possibly adjacent rooms as well—to kill her and everyone in her part of the building.

She swung open the window and, after hesitating for a moment, leapt from the window and braced herself. As she fell she became absolutely certain that her lapse in judgment would amount to little more than a footnote in the next shift’s incident log at the NLIU unit assigned to her zone of New Lincoln.

But then two things happened. There was a massive ‘whump’ of hot air behind her which actually deafened her and splayed her arms and legs out to either side violently as she fell, face-down, toward the ground. The wind whipped around her naked body as the ground approached far-too-rapidly, and she closed her eyes in preparation for the end of her life.

Then she landed and felt the wind knocked from her lungs, causing her to gasp in agony as she struggled to regain her breath. But Masozi realized after a second that only her torso had ‘landed,’ and when she opened her eyes she looked down to see that she had been ‘caught’ by an Okavango DOT Net delivery drone—the same drone which had delivered the package to her room!

“Sweetie…we have got to talk about your diet,” the drone’s ultra-feminine voice said as the drone struggled to adjust its overloaded trajectory, but it somehow managed to keep them from crashing into the street below as it swooped low and then began to gently gain altitude.

The fact that she was naked could not have been further from her mind as Masozi looked back up to see a thick, black cloud of smoke belching out of her apartment unit—as well as the adjacent six windows on her floor. The walls separating their units had been made of a cheap, lightweight, soundproof material which would have been instantly shredded by the explosion. Thankfully, the other quadrants of the building should have been unaffected by the event, since even cheap concrete would have likely contained the blast.

She would have mourned her neighbors, but she had more important things on her mind. “Where are you taking me?” she demanded.

“Keep your clothes on, honey,” the drone quipped before giggling uncontrollably. “Get it? ‘Keep your clothes on’?! I crack myself up—”

“I’m not amused,” Masozi shouted as they slewed across the intersection at Seventeenth and King.

“Trust me, babe; this has nothing to do with your amusement,” the drone said in a surprisingly serious tone. “Just hang on and we’ll put you down someplace safe.”

Masozi only then noticed that two of the drone’s four lift units appeared to be off-line, and she quickly concluded that it shouldn’t have been able to stay airborne with her as a payload—much less perform a climb, however gradual that climb might be. The only thing she knew with absolute certainty was that this was not an ordinary delivery drone.

A few minutes later, Masozi was struck by just how few people looked up and saw her astride the errant Okavango delivery device. She only saw two people do so during her relatively quick trip across the district: one had been drunk, and gave the sight rather less thought than it deserved, while the other had been a child who had innocently waved at her after realizing that a person was riding one of the innumerable, unmanned drones flying forty feet above the street.

She even soared over three sets of patrolling peace officers, none of which noticed her or the malfunctioning delivery drone with only two functioning lift units.

“Here we go, sweet cheeks,” the drone purred as they slewed into a blind alley in a particularly seedy part of the district. “As always, be sure to leave your feedback if you enjoyed our service,” the drone said as ‘she’ set Masozi down low enough that she could jump off the makeshift platform of the drone’s back, “and if you didn’t, we’d suggest you keep that opinion to yourself! Gratuities are greatly appreciated, of course,” the drone continued as Masozi got to her feet, and it turned to display its utterly ridiculous, mostly-naked, avatar displayed on the screen. The figure was now sucking suggestively on a digital lollipop between utterances, further reinforcing Masozi’s belief that it was nothing but a frustrated person’s digitized wet dream, “So if you’ve got any spare indium or tantalum wedged between the cushions, dig it out and drop it in the tip jar!”

“What are you talking about?” Masozi asked in utter bewilderment, feeling more than a little vulnerable in such a dangerous part of town without a weapon—let alone without any clothes.

“Forget it, hun,” the drone said with an exaggerated eye-roll as she made a whoosh gesture over her virtual pigtails with her free hand, “inside joke. See ya; wouldn’t wanna be ya!”

The drone then rose into the air, causing Masozi to yell, “Where are you going?” She quickly realized how stupid she must have sounded, but she was not in the habit of wandering into the seedy corners of New Lincoln in her birthday suit so she forgave herself the ill-considered query.

“People to see, things to do,” the drone’s avatar replied with a wink before adopting a thoughtful look as it continued to rise and adding, “strike that…reverse it. Toodles!”

The drone then made good on its word and sped off in an atypical direction for a delivery drone, which Masozi realized was probably to be expected considering the strange machine’s obviously unique programming.

Then she heard a low-pitched whirring from the blind end of the alley, and she turned to see a two person hover-bike’s illuminators activate. The conveyance slowly moved toward her, and she held her hand up to shade her eyes as she moved to the side in case the vehicles operator decided to gun it and try to run her down.

But the operator did no such thing, and slowly pulled up beside her until she could see that he was wearing a helmet which concealed his facial features. He was obviously a man, given his physique and posture, and his visor flipped up to reveal a pair of grey-blue eyes beneath short, flat-topped salt-and-pepper hair. He had a strong, square jaw and looked to be in his late forties or early fifties.

The man tilted his head toward the back of the bike, “Put it on.”

She looked and saw a helmet identical to the one the rider was wearing, and stuffed inside the helmet was what looked to be a form-fitting bodyglove. It wasn’t as good as real clothing, but it was comparable to a far-too-revealing workout suit. So she did as he suggested and climbed into the garment as the mysterious man’s eyes were fixed on the mouth of the alley.

“Who are you?” Masozi asked after donning the singlet. Her confidence was measurably improved now that her every inch wasn’t exposed to the night air—or whatever else might be lurking in the shadows.

“I’ll answer that, and as many of your other questions as I can, but right now you need to get on the bike and wear the helmet,” he said shortly. “They were tracking Eve visually and if we linger too long they’ll lock onto us with one of their stealth drones. A friend has a safe house in town but we have to leave—now!”

If not for the events of the previous twelve hours, she would have never accepted his offer. But Masozi was smart enough to know that she had gotten caught up in something much bigger than a simple murder investigation, and it seemed this man knew more about it than anyone else she had spoken to—except perhaps Agent Stiglitz and Chief Afolabi.

But for some reason, she trusted this man more than she trusted them…and that realization shook her to the very core. “How can I trust you?” she asked after the silence had grown intolerable and she failed to arrive at a conclusion.

“You’re going to get on the bike, so let’s just get it over with,” he snapped.

“I am?” she challenged stiffly. Who is this man to think he can predict what I will do? she thought, clenching her jaw tightly.

The man nodded. “Human psychology is about as mysterious to me as a grilled cheese sandwich, Investigator; your curiosity has gotten the better of you and you’re smart enough to know you’ve got no choice but to get on if you want to live,” he said before his helmet’s visor slid back down into place and concealed his features. He then added, speaking through the helmet’s built-in speakers, “So do us both a favor?”

She very much disliked his insinuation that he had somehow ‘solved’ her in just a few seconds, but Masozi knew he was right. Her curiosity—which had formed the foundation of Masozi’s entire life’s path—demanded that she follow the deadly mystery she had inadvertently stumbled into, so she put the helmet on and swung her leg over the seat of the bike before gripping the bars to either side of her butt for stability.

“Who are you?” she asked via their helmet-to-helmet com-link as the bike’s motivators whirred to full power.

“My name’s Jericho,” he replied, “and in a few hours I’ll be the only person in this city who doesn’t want you dead.”

He gunned the throttle and the whiplash nearly knocked her from the bike, but she recovered in time to clamp her thighs down on the seat as she leaned forward to counteract their acceleration.

The hover-bike carried them out onto the road, and they sped off at the maximum speed limit toward the city center as the first rays of the sun began to creep over the horizon.

[]Chapter VII: Haven

They cruised through the streets of New Lincoln for half an hour until they had crossed town and found themselves at the city’s seaport. Masozi took that time to compose herself, and she had managed to get her mind wrapped around the sequence of events which had led her to her current situation.

The bike came to a near one of the city’s many piers and her helmet’s built-in com-link activated with a short burst of static, “Inside your left hip pocket is an ident chip and a handful of credit chits.”

She had already discovered those items in her bodyglove’s pocket on the trip across town, so she replied, “Whose are they?”

“Yours,” he replied tersely as he gestured to a massive, ocean-going cargo ship at the end of the nearest pier, prompting her to dismount the bike. “Your name is Helena Pendergast; you’re a harbormaster’s agent who’s about to conduct a series of spot inspections on a handful of random cargo containers,” he explained. “Once aboard you should make your way to container EIV-1138 down in the hold. Wait for me inside.”

She removed her helmet and took another look at the ship. Its name was the Esmerelda Empática, and while it was nearly half a kilometer long, it had clearly seen better days. Its gunwales were marked by long, meter-wide streaks of rust which ran from the deck to the waterline, and its freeboard plates had clearly been patched dozens of times with no apparent consideration given to the vessel’s aesthetics.

“Won’t they assign someone to keep tabs on me?” she asked guardedly. What he was suggesting violated at least a dozen felony-class statutes and, if a capricious judge decided to throw the book at her, she could be facing up to forty years in a penal colony if caught.

The rider shook his head. “The captain is expecting you. He’ll have you present your papers before likely making a few…choice observations. But afterward he’ll give you the time, and latitude, you need to get where you’re going without being followed.”

Masozi took another glance at the ship and knew that whatever lines she might cross in the future, these next few would likely be only the beginning. “I could turn you in,” she said boldly, wishing to avoid unnecessary wordplay.

The man’s visor flipped up and she saw a bemused look on his face. “You could,” he agreed evenly, “and the truth is that I’ve already made my most valuable resources—among them my own life—vulnerable to such a gesture on your part. In fact,” he said almost playfully as he leaned across the antique-style handlebars, “after what I’ve just told you, I suspect that my apprehension would be of secondary value to your superiors compared to the apprehension of the man waiting for you on that ship.”

She shook her head and felt her jaw tighten, “Why would you tell me that?”

He fixed her with a piercing gaze, and for a moment his blue-grey eyes almost distracted her from the matter at hand. There was something penetrating about his eyes, and whatever it was sent shivers down her spine. “Because, as I already told you,” he said after the silence had grown deafening, “we both know you need to follow this thing at least a little while longer before making a decision. Oh, and one more thing,” he added as he flipped a small box from his pocket, which she easily caught, “tell Benton to take a look at that—and that I’ll bring dinner if he can give me a breakdown by sunset.”

With that, he re-powered the bike’s motivators and lowered his visor before speeding down the dockside street. He disappeared from sight just a few seconds later as he turned back toward the city’s center, and Masozi was left with a choice that she was forced to admit was no choice at all.

During the course of the ride across town, she had run several possible scenarios through her head—and each of them had left her with nothing but more doubts than she had held just a few hours earlier.

Much as it pained her to believe it, there were two logical conclusions given the available data. The first was that ‘Jericho,’ if that was even his true name, had engineered each and every event of the previous night—including the Mayor’s assassination and subsequent explosion in the apartment complex—in order to gain her complicity, if not her outright trust. But to her analytical mind, that possibility seemed too elaborate. The cold truth was that while such a scenario would serve her ego and vanity, by suggesting there was something special about her, she knew that was far from likely.

That left the second possibility: that either one, or both, of Chief Afolabi and Agent Stiglitz had arranged for the explosion in her apartment building. That scenario left her feeling the most vulnerable by far…and the most betrayed, but by whom she still could not determine with any confidence.

Masozi had dedicated her entire life to the service of her fellow citizens, and believed with every fiber of her being that the Great Collapse—the negative term given to the wormhole’s sudden and inexplicable failure by those inhabitants of the Sector who regarded the event as a harbinger of the end times—had been the greatest thing to ever happen to her world. Her sentiment was the norm for a citizen of the Chimera Sector, and the populace had collectively adopted the term ‘Great Collapse’ in order to embrace the idea of change within their newfound society.

In fact, not only had her planet—one of three so-called ‘Core Worlds’ in the Chimera Sector’s Union of Worlds government—been re-named ‘Virgin’ shortly after the wormhole had collapsed, but it had also established a new calendar beginning with the failure of that conduit, which had once been considered of the utmost importance to their way of life.

The name ‘Virgin’ had celebrated their independence from what many believed to be a tyranny of unfathomable proportions which had been perpetuated by the aristocratic nobility which maintained absolute control over every level of the Imperium.

In the immediate aftermath of the Great Collapse, a revolution unlike any in recent history had taken place which saw the vast majority of the Imperial Nobility overthrown. Those nepotistic bodies had been replaced with free elections, along with a newly-crafted Bill of Rights, which would ensure that the errors of the past did not repeat themselves on Virgin or the other worlds of the Chimera Sector.

That Bill of Rights—in which the Timent Electorum was given absolute, immutable primacy—was meant to act as a guardian of civil liberties against corrupt, tyrannical, or treasonous officials no matter how they came to power. The cold, harsh reality was that every death which had been attributed to the T.E.’s actions had boosted community confidence in the government to truly unprecedented levels, and that faith in their unified cause had led the citizens of Chimera Sector to not only survive, but to thrive, despite their technological and material shortcomings.

And now, in the face of what appeared to be an interplanetary conspiracy aimed to obfuscate the truth of the T.E.’s actions—to say nothing of the fact that those same conspirators may have attempted to murder Masozi simply for trying to do her job—she was unable to ratify any course of action that did not involve doing as Jericho had suggested and boarding the oceanic freighter.

“I am not predictable,” she growled as she made her way to one of the personnel boarding ramps, where an armored guard stood vigil on the other side. Masozi took a deep breath as she flashed her false documents after setting foot on the gangway, “Agent Helena Pendergast; I’m here to conduct an inspection of this vessel by order of the harbormaster.”

The guard narrowed his eyes as he appraised her documents. “There’s nothing in the book,” he said stiffly after he had given her identification a lengthy appraisal, “request denied.”

“I have seven other vessels to check before lunch,” she snapped irritably, sliding easily into the role of an irritated bureaucrat—mostly because it was one with which she was intimately familiar, after spending so many years as a Junior Investigator. She gave a pointed look at his name badge, “Merchantman T.J. Jackson; should I remember your name when I write up my report, or are you going to let me on so I can conduct my inspection sometime before the primary burns out?”

He gave her an impassive look as his hands lowered to his hips—on which a pair of high-powered pistols rested. “You can remember whatever you want, ma’am,” he said in a tone just above a growl, “but if you cross this threshold without authorization, I’ll turn you into scraper chum.”

The Merchantman’s response had not been altogether unexpected, but Masozi knew that if she was to gain access to the vessel on guile alone she couldn’t be seen to back down from the rough display. She held his gaze as she leaned over the edge of the ramp to look at the water below.

‘Scrapers,’ as he had called them, were a whole family of marine wildlife which lived near busy maritime ports such as this one. They were more or less a kind of stingray, except somewhere on their evolutionary path they had incorporated iron alloys into the teeth and bones of their immensely powerful jaws. As such they were capable of tearing anything short of industrial grade materials apart, given enough time and determination.

“Was that your best threat, Merchantman?” she asked irritably with an emphatic roll of her eyes.

“Not a threat, ma’am,” he replied with a fractional shake of his large, square head, “a guarantee.”

“You should probably get your captain on the line,” she suggested with narrowed eyes, “if you have any desire to retain your job—let alone your freedom.”

Jackson tensed and, for a moment, Masozi thought he would make a preemptive move of some kind but a hatch behind him swung open with a clang as it struck the nearby bulkhead. Through the hatch stepped a tall, thin man who was at least seventy years old. He had a full, white beard and a pair of cumbersome, external hearing devices mounted where his ears should have been.

“What’s all this fuss about?” he demanded sharply as he moved toward the gangway.

“Sorry, Captain,” Merchantman Jackson said without taking his eyes from Masozi, “but the inspector here doesn’t have an appointment.”

“Oh?” the captain asked gruffly as he snatched the data pad Jackson had checked earlier from the Merchantman’s belt. He scanned it for several seconds before giving Masozi a hard look and demanding, “What’s your name?”

“Hel—“ she began, but was spoken over by the guard.

“ID says ‘Helena Pendergast’,” Jackson said smartly. “But I’ve been to every port this side of the Leviathan Sea, and I’ve never heard of her,” he said as his right hand went to the grip of his pistol.

The captain narrowed his eyes, and Masozi had the sudden fear that she had fallen into some kind of elaborate trap which would see her body consumed by the scrapers lingering a few feet beneath the surface of the frigid water below.

“Ah, yes,” the captain exclaimed, causing both Jackson and Masozi to jump enough to bring a look of irritation to both of their faces. “Perkins—that would be, Harbormaster Westerbeke,” he added knowingly, “just sent over a missive saying we could move the inspection up from this evening if we were prepared. I approved the change in schedule but failed to update the ship-wides.”

Jackson’s look of irritation intensified, but he relaxed as he turned to the captain pointedly. “If I’m supposed to be in charge of security here, sir, I need to be apprised of any such changes in a timely manner,” he bit out.

“Quite so, quite so,” the captain agreed before gesturing for Masozi to board. “Welcome to the Esmerelda Empática, Inspector,” he said in an overt display of cordiality. “Sooner begun, sooner done.”

Masozi eyed Jackson, who had apparently already deemed her beneath his notice as his eyes scanned the nearby docks methodically, and took her first step onto the Esmerelda Empática.

“I must apologize for my Chief of Security,” the captain said after they were out of earshot and had begun to descend a series of stairwells, “but I fear we can never be too careful when it comes to matters of privacy. I pay him well to give would-be harassers a good stonewalling, and he’s yet to fail me in that capacity.”

“He certainly makes an impression,” Masozi agreed, more than slightly surprised at how the ship’s captain navigated the series of twists, turns, stairs, and low-lying obstructions like they were not even there as they moved toward the stern of the ship. He moved like a man half his age and, given his obviously questionable connections, she doubted the source of his spryness was a natural one.

“Indeed,” the captain agreed as they came to a large, reinforced set of hydraulically-powered doors. “You could have gotten down here via the ladders, but then you might fall and break something—and I’d hate to try explaining that to our mutual friend,” he said with a wink. He slapped the activator button beside the doors and they began to slide slowly open as the large, metal shafts retracted into their respective cylinders. “Third port stack, second from the top,” he gestured to the right side of the cargo hold.

She nodded by way of acknowledgment and made her way into the cargo bay, but after just a few steps she got the distinct feeling something was wrong. Masozi turned to see the captain’s eyes firmly locked onto her butt, and she felt a pang of relieved irritation at discovering the source of her unease.

He clucked his tongue wistfully as he tore his gaze from her far-too exposed physique—which was essentially shrink-wrapped in the blue-black bodyglove. “No matter how many years I live…it never gets old,” he sighed before turning and making his way back to the stairwells. His chuckles echoed through the hold until they grew so weak that the thrum of the various pieces of machinery aboard the ship drowned them out.

“Act like you’ve gotten some,” Masozi sniped under her breath as she turned back to the cargo hold and made her way to the indicated stack of containers. They were mostly cubical, and measured anywhere from three meters on a side to ten meters, and the one she was to enter was of the latter variety. Every container in the hold seemed to be covered in graffiti, but she was certain she had identified the correct one.

She got to the base of the stack and circled it completely, until concluding there was no apparent way to reach the perilously narrow ledge formed by the protruding edge of the container below the one she meant to enter.

But that was no real obstacle, as Masozi had long trained in gymnastics, kickboxing, and even some urban obstacle coursework which had earned her a handful of medals in her teens. Since reaching adulthood, she had maintained her body with at least thirty hours of exercise each week, and it was essentially the only thing she did when not working a case. The physical activity always helped her clear her mind and focus on particularly troublesome problems, so she knew she could scale the forty feet of irregular, metal surfaces without too much difficulty.

She wrapped her fingers around a half-inch diameter pipe running vertically along on the side of the lowest container, and tested the grip her bodyglove’s attached ‘footwear’ provided. She was surprised to find it behaved essentially as her own amateur rock-climbing gear had done when she had competed locally in her youth, so she gave a few test steps before scampering up the six meters of pipe on her way to the ledge some ten meters above where the pipe made a ninety degree turn.

Masozi shimmied across the pipe for a few feet before setting her feet beneath her and looking for a handhold above. There was a pair of box-shaped, metal slots which apparently acted as guides for the locking mechanisms some of the shipyards employed for transferring the heavy, cumbersome containers. Without so much as a second thought, she launched herself upward and reached out for the boxes, grabbing one neatly in each hand and hauling herself up to a resting position with her feet perched on a series of regular corrugations not far below the boxes.

She stopped and stretched her legs for a few seconds, feeling a cramp threaten to seize control of her calf. After a brief rest, the cramp dissipated and she sighted her next potential anchor point: another pipe, this one slightly smaller in diameter than the first one, and she gave a critical look to the brackets holding it to the surface of the container. From the size of them, the brackets should have been able to hold her weight easily but there was significant corrosion present on several of them. Still, she decided to trust they would hold, and she leapt up to grab the pipe at the furthest edge of her leap’s grip range.

The pipe held at first, but as she was adjusting her grip to shimmy to a nearby half-ladder welded to the surface below her target ledge, the brackets to her left gave out and the pipe snapped on the far end.

She risked a look at the ground as she tried to find something to grab in order to break the potentially lethal fall, but thankfully the broken end of pipe did not fall more than a few inches. Masozi looked over to the damaged end and saw that the pipe was actually a conduit, and several thick electrical wires ran inside it. Those wires, judging by the size of them, would easily hold her weight.

Taking several deep, calming breaths, she carefully shimmied over to the ladder and hauled herself up to the second rung. It was a small matter to scale the ladder to the narrow ledge above, and when she had done so she took another series of deep, cleansing breaths as she peered over the edge and realized that there was little doubt she would have been crippled or killed had she fallen when the pipe broke.

She placed her hand against the door, which still had a government-mandated clamp locking the door in place. That clamp showed the date it had been applied, as well as the itinerary of the container in question.

“Finally, some answers,” she muttered as she leaned in to get a better look at the surprisingly grimy-looking clamp in order to read the container’s destination. The clamp quite clearly read that the container was bound for Aegis Port City which, for all intents and purposes, was Virgin’s beating heart. It appeared that the container was scheduled to be offloaded in Aegis in three weeks’ time, which meant that the Esmerelda Empática would need to leave sometime in the next few days in order to meet that appointment. Aegis was on the other side of the Leviathan Sea, and the journey took no less than seventeen days for a liner of the Esmerelda’s design. But the weather had already turned for the season, and a few extra days would be required to ensure a punctual arrival.

Masozi, feeling rather less vulnerable for the first time in twelve hours since she was finally armed with some measure of useful information, made a fist and rapped her knuckles against the door panel. Silence was her only reply for several minutes, so she knocked again. But again, she received no indication that there was anyone—or anything—inside the container.

Then there was the whirr of what sounded like an auto-cannon spinning up, and she turned in more than a little bit of alarm to see a military-grade weapon pop out of concealment on the side of the container and train itself on her.

“Whatever it is, we don’t want any,” a woman’s voice said sharply, her voice seeming to originate from the weapon itself. “Go sell it somewhere else, bake shop.”

“Bake shop?” Masozi repeated, uncertain if she should feel insulted.

The ‘gun’ sighed, and Masozi thought she recognized the voice when it said, “You know the list, babe: sweet cheeks, sugar buns, honey pie, baby cakes, butter face, etc. ad nauseam. Let’s just cut to the chase and throw the whole bake shop at you in one go,” the woman said cheerfully. “Saves everyone time, no?”

The autocannon suddenly spun up, and a red light began to flash on its side—a light which indicated the weapon’s safeties had been disengaged.

“Now, like I said, wannabe-pastry-chef,” the woman said, her voice turning serious, “make like a bad sector and frag!”

Just as Masozi was contemplating a leap to the nearby stack of containers in the hope of escaping the autocannon’s firing arc, the weapon’s safety light returned to yellow and the weapon cycled down.

“Eve, will you please stop harassin’ the woman?” a man’s strangely accented voice came over the same speaker the ‘gun’ had spoken through. “My apologies,” he said after what sounded like a huff from the woman, “but I expected you to knock, Investigator.”

“I did knock,” Masozi said irritably. A second later there was a soft, clanging sound from the floor below, and she looked to see the very ladder she had climbed the final leg of her ascent with had extended and now reached the floor. She suppressed a growl at having made such a dangerous, unnecessary ascent.

“It’s all good, girl,” the man chuckled in a rich, baritone voice. “Please, step into my parlor—I’d ask you to take off yo’ shoes but it doesn’t look like that’ll be a problem.”

The panel before her deformed slightly, and a narrow section of metal recessed and slid to the side. It was almost large enough for her to enter without turning sideways, but she did so anyway and saw the interior of the cuboidal container was poorly illuminated.

“Sorry about that,” the man’s voice came over a nearby speaker as the hidden door closed behind her, “I’ll get the lights.”

A string of soft, bluish panels on the floor and ceiling began to glow until the interior was lit well enough that Masozi could see her way. The lighted panels each formed a large arrow, and without needing to be urged she followed the arrows deeper within the container.

After climbing a set of staircases, she came to a closed door. It was difficult to tell with such poor visibility, but it seemed the interior of the container was as sparsely-appointed as one might expect. There were several crates of differing sizes stacked neatly inside the container, and she thought she felt a not-insignificant amount of heat being generated on what she came to think of as the ‘second floor’ of the container as she passed the locked door to that level.

“Mind your step,” the man’s voice came from a speaker near the third, final floor’s door before it slid slowly open, “I didn’t have time to tidy up.”

She took a careful step into the room and an odd odor wafted into her nostrils. It wasn’t unpleasant as such, but it was unfamiliar and it put her even more on her guard.

“My apologies, girl,” the man’s baritone voice said, but this time it was coming from inside the room and not through a speaker, “I forget myself. Let me get the normal lights.”

The room was filled with a fluorescent, white light which grew in its intensity until Masozi had to shield her eyes so they could adjust. When they had done so, she lowered her hand and took a look at the chamber

It was something like twenty feet on a side, and had only a few pieces which might be considered ‘furniture’ by any reasonable person. There was a pair of cots against the far wall, as well as what looked like a work bench on the right wall.

The left wall was covered from floor to ceiling with dormant display screens. Masozi counted one hundred thirty six individual displays, but they were far from the most remarkable thing in the room.

At the chamber’s center was a large, contoured, bed-like piece of furniture. It had several medium-sized storage tanks attached to the ‘headboard,’ as well as numerous wires and tubes piping their way up and into a hemispherical array of displays suspended directly above the bed.

And lying on that bed was what had to be the largest human being Masozi had ever laid eyes on.

His skin was sickly pale, and every inch of it was fully exposed for all the world to see. He had to weigh well over half a ton, although he was likely no taller than Masozi. His body was swollen so badly he barely resembled a human being, with rolls upon rolls of blubbery tissue spreading across the contoured bed.

“Come on in, girl,” he beckoned with an inviting gesture as his pink-irised eyes never left the array of screens above him. “I’d get up, but…you know,” he said with a chuckle that saw the mass of flesh that was his body jiggle, as though endowed with a life of its own.

“Who are you?” Masozi asked as she took a few steps forward. It became increasingly clear to her that much of the bed’s clearly complicated technology was designed to prolong the man’s life, as each of his limbs had a handful of tubes—and even some wires—running into access ports built into his skin. “Oh,” she said when she remembered the item Jericho had given her, “Je…that is, our friend, wanted me to give this to you.”

“It’s a’ight; he actually is named Jericho, and I be Wladimir,” he said, his voice taking on the former, odd accent with which Masozi was completely unfamiliar. He accepted the small parcel from her in his thick, surprisingly smooth-skinned fingers, and began to open it before tilting his many-chinned head toward the wall. “’Fraid I got somethin’ to show you, babe.”

The wall comprised of a hundred thirty six individual display screens lit up in unison, and a series of images began to populate the screens individually. She moved closer so she could examine them and felt her stomach tighten at what she saw.

Agent Hugo Stiglitz, wearing his agency’s all-black, armored bodyglove, entered her apartment building through a service entrance after he appeared to successfully override the building’s security protocols. That was less than surprising, given the fact that he was an independent agent of the Interplanetary Investigative Unit.

He’s supposedly an IIU Agent, she reminded herself, for all I know, he’s the terrorist.

The video replayed itself in a continuous loop, so she looked at another one and saw Agent Stiglitz kill Tom—the maintenance man who had been pathetically bad in bed—with a sequence of far-too-quick maneuvers that apparently saw the man’s neck broken while the Agent seemed to hardly break his stride.

Yet another monitor showed Stiglitz tampering with the building’s gas feeds, redirecting some of the gas into the air cycling system.

Still another monitor showed a newsfeed with a video clip showing the explosion at her apartment building. The clip had apparently been recorded via the neighboring building’s continuously operating security cameras.

All of the timestamps looked correct to her, and with each new screen that sprang to life she felt her choler rise.

Then the images disappeared, only to be replaced by a live news feed which spread across the entire bank of monitors, turning them into a single massive display like the marquees on Main Street.

She failed to suppress a gasp as she saw her latest photo—taken just a few weeks earlier at her annual after-dark-ambulation permit’s renewal—with the caption: Disgruntled NLIU Investigator wanted for questioning in connection to recent string of murders, as well as morning bombing of residential complex with 39 confirmed fatalities. Considered Armed and Dangerous.

Before she could wrap her brain around what she was seeing—or even begin to doubt the veracity of the images she was being shown—the screen morphed to show Chief Investigator Afolabi standing at the NLIU official press podium.

“Let me assure the residents of our fair city,” Afolabi said as he gesticulated emphatically, “that we are doing everything in our power to apprehend this dangerous fugitive. Investigator Masozi had a troubled record at the NLIU, and had recently been suspended pending an inquest for professional misconduct. It is my deepest regret that she was able to take out her frustrations on the very people who depended on her for protection. She has betrayed our trust,” he said darkly, “and I intend to bring her to justice for that betrayal by any means necessary.”

Before Masozi could protest, the video feed shifted again. It began showing the same footage as before when Agent Stiglitz murdered Tom, the maintenance man, with little apparent effort.

But, to Masozi’s horror, Stiglitz’s image in the video had been replaced with her own and she watched as ‘she’ murdered the maintenance worker. The camera got a close-up of her face and even Masozi felt a chill run down her spine at the cold, merciless look she saw in the false image’s eyes.

The feed flipped back to Afolabi at the podium, trying to silence the cacophony of the press corps as they fought to get their questions heard. “Let me make this as simple as possible,” the Chief of the NLIU said with iron threaded through his voice. He gripped the edges of the podium and swept the press with his steely gaze, “Investigator Masozi has shown to be capable of anything—including sexual coercion, which is how we believe she was able to gain access to the apartment building’s maintenance locker. She is to be considered New Lincoln’s Public Enemy Number One: all armed units are authorized to use deadly force when apprehending this fugitive. I’m going to personally oversee this manhunt, so I’m afraid there will be no more time for questions.”

With that, the feed went dark and Masozi felt her knees begin to buckle. She steadied herself by leaning against the wall as a wave of anxiety washed over her. A loud, crackling noise came from the middle of the room and she looked dully toward the morbidly obese man lying on the bed.

“Looks to me like you’d best be settlin’ in for a little cruise, Investigator,” he said in his maddeningly inconsistent accent and dialect as he chewed loudly on something crunchy. He held up a plastic bag filled with cheap, salted grain wafers called ‘Snap-itz,’ which she recognized only from the perpetual adverts lining the city’s streets. “Snap-it?” he offered cheerfully.

[]Chapter VIII: A Pit Stop—and Don’t Forget the Pasta!

The pain in Jericho’s broken, left arm had become nearly unbearable. It was not that it would have physically prevented him from going about his daily activities, but he knew that in order to execute his last New Lincoln contract he would require a degree of composure that would be problematic to attain with a broken arm.

But he had nearly run out of money after diverting the last of the Cantwell fund to saving Investigator Masozi’s life—an investment which Jericho dearly hoped would pay dividends, both in the near and not-so-near futures.

A quick-knitting bone repair kit would have been easy to purchase, and would only cost a fraction of the money he had saved from the Cantwell contract. Spending that money to repair a wound—even a wound sustained during the execution of a wholly separate contract—would have even been a defensible expenditure if the issue was ever brought into the light.

But that was one of the many reasons Jericho kept his contract funding far, far below the average T.E. estimate. It gave him greater latitude for dispersing those funds, and on average his contracts cost only thirty percent that of his fellow Adjusters. Too many Adjusters had fallen victim to the trap of gathering more financial resources than a job required and subsequently pocketing the funds. While not exactly illegal, if deemed guilty of this by his or her fellow Adjusters it would make it essentially impossible to receive the opportunity for future Adjustments.

“Hey there, handsome,” he heard a woman’s voice interrupt his thoughts through the com-link built into his helmet. A small, familiar image appeared at the edge of his helmet’s internal displays—displays which monitored his hover-bike’s engine status, showed a three-dimensional overlay of the cityscape and his location within it, and basically whatever else he desired to call up. “I heard you have a booboo,” the image said as she laced her fingers beneath her virtual chin and batted her eyes suggestively, “want me to make it better?”

“I could use a bone-knitter, Eve,” he said shortly. He was always discomforted by interacting with Benton’s carefully-constructed ‘companion,’ even though he knew he should view ‘her’ like he viewed any other tool or device which could benefit him in the course of his duties.

“I might have something better…” she purred.

“Not now, Eve,” he snapped before taking a deep breath, “I just need the knitter but I’m short on funds.”

“I could always find one for you,” she said with a wink. “It’d be our little secret.”

“No, Eve,” he replied through gritted teeth. He had, on occasion, ‘acquired’ materials vital to his completion of a mission but he had never forgiven himself for it. Once, he had been bleeding so profusely that he had been forced to hold a pharmacist at gun-point to acquire the necessary auto-suture kit and coagulants. He had never forgotten the look in the man’s eyes as he’d pleaded on behalf of his three daughters’ futures, and Jericho had promised himself that he would never do that again.

“You’re no fun,” she pouted before sighing loudly, “I suppose I could point you to a clinic I know of…”

“No,” he said sharply as he pulled the bike over to the side of the road. He was finding it difficult to concentrate, and suspected that diminished blood volume was playing a part in his mental status in addition to the pain from his broken arm. “I can’t be logged into the system.”

Even covered her mouth with her dainty fingers and giggled briefly. “No, no, silly,” she said playfully, “no that kind of clinic. They don’t keep records where I’m sending you—at least, not for humans.”

He considered her offer and, in spite of his reservations, nodded grudgingly. “Give me the coordinates.”

Eve’s image blew a kiss, causing a lip-shaped icon to leave her fingers and move seamlessly over to his primary display. The disembodied lips merged with the cityscape on a secondary display, and a path was then clearly indicated on the virtual grid. While detouring to the indicated destination would take him nearly an hour out of his way, he knew that he was out of options. He still had time for his final contract even with the delay, so he logged the path in his helmet’s data link.

“Thank you, Eve,” he said perfunctorily.

“Welcome, handsome,” she said with a wave. “Oh! I almost forgot,” she said as she smacked her virtual forehead with her palm. “Big Daddy Wladdy says…” she paused and took a cartoonishly deep breath. While she did so, her face distorted grotesquely until it was a large, flat-topped, military-looking man’s head which said, in Benton’s voice, “Don’t forget the pasta, brah!”

“Got it,” he said dryly as he gunned the bike’s motivators and merged into the growing morning traffic.

Eve’s image shook its head vigorously, and the military-looking man’s features quickly reformed into her usual face. “Good hunting, gorgeous; just tell them I sent you!” she said in her usual, bubbly manner before disappearing from the helmet’s display.

Much as the pixie-like program annoyed him, Jericho knew that Benton was the best hacker in the system—and very probably beyond—and he had apparently deemed Eve necessary to his continued operation. That meant Jericho had learned to tolerate her…despite her programmed obnoxiousness.

Jericho stood before a rundown building on the far edge of town—an area very near to the city limits, and one which had all the telltale warning signs which most sane people obeyed by steering clear.

While he despised the notion of entering the premises—even for the purpose of completing a mission—Jericho knew he had no choice in the matter. His arm had swollen to half again its original size, and he feared that he might be bleeding internally. If he didn’t get it looked at, and quickly, there was the very real danger of long-term damage to his arm’s nerves and musculature.

So he knocked twice on the solid, sheet-metal door. A low-cost security camera swung over to look at him as its telescopic lens adjusted for a few seconds before apparently locking onto his image.

“Who you?” a garbled voice asked through an intercom built into the doorjamb. “We no trouble; license good.”

“I’m not an inspector,” Jericho said evenly as sweat began to roll down his cheeks. The pain in his arm was getting difficult to ignore, and he clenched his teeth as he fought to keep his voice steady as he said, “Eve sent me.” It wasn’t as though he actually believed that ‘Eve’ was anything more than a cleverly designed program which Benton used as a proxy to decrease his odds of capture, but ‘she’ had told him to inform the building’s denizens that she had directed him there.

There was silence for several seconds until the door’s crude latch sprung open and the door swung slowly open.

Needing no further encouragement, Jericho stepped inside and closed the door after he was within, manually locking the latch as he did so. It was bright inside, almost painfully so, but he had expected such given the nature of the place.

A foul stench wafted into his nostrils and he moved further into the building, knowing he had come to the right place after smelling the putrid odor. The bright light was generated by synthetic indoor lights which approximated a different band of light than Virgin’s primary put out, and that light was feeding the seemingly endless, slick film of dark, grey, fungus which covered every square millimeter of the building’s interior.

A short, fat creature waddled into view and Jericho nodded his acknowledgment toward it, having expected to find precisely such a being. The alien was not even vaguely humanoid, possessing six, half-meter long, arachnid legs supporting a soft, meter long, egg-shaped, rubbery body which seemed wildly at odds with the chitinous legs beneath.

Its species had no natural name of its own since they did not communicate via sound. Instead, its kind bore an alphanumeric of 154-HR-658-T, which served to catalog its system of origin with which Jericho—and likely the vast majority of humanity—was unfamiliar. Its species was among the more recognizable nonhuman aliens in the Chimera Sector, since their specialized biology was responsible for several organic alternatives to materials which were traditionally produced mechanically.

In a uniquely human show of poor form coupled with dark humor, people had taken to calling them ‘Poppers’ since, when exposed to sources of heat which would generally be harmless to humans over short periods, they would loudly explode. They were subterranean and therefore did not have a set of traditional eyes, which was odd since even on their home world they had foraged out of their subterranean dens to eat. Their source of food on that distant world was the same fungus which now grew on the walls of the large, apparently abandoned building.

The creature’s front pair of legs turned upward as it reared up slightly, exposing a crude vocalizing unit which allowed the creature to ‘speak’—albeit crudely. “Permits good; we have receipt for food,” it began in protest, apparently still nervous of the possibility that Jericho was an inspector of some kind. Poppers were notorious—some would say undeservedly so—for digging up corpses and using them to feed their farmed fungus.

Like most aliens in the Imperium, the Poppers were significantly less intelligent than humans—at least when using human-centric measures—but, unlike the supposed majority of their fellow aliens, the Poppers were at least intelligent enough to communicate meaningfully while generally abiding by human laws.

“Eve sent me,” Jericho repeated. He had nothing against the Poppers—and did his best to never repeat their unfortunately widespread ‘name’ outside the confines of his mind—but he was on a schedule. He held out his left arm and peeled back the sleeve to reveal the swollen limb beneath.

The Popper moved forward and the trio of mandibles ringing its triangular, toothless mouth clacked in anticipation. It moved to nearly within reach and then recoiled a step or two before reactivating its vocalizer, “Cracked endoskeleton…needs silk…Eve…we like Eve…we trust Eve…smells like Hadden…Hadden good to us…”

To Jericho it sounded as though the creature was logically working its way through his story, probably trying to justify the risk of stepping closer to a human—even a wounded one. He did not begrudge the creature its hesitance, and did his best to stand quietly while the alien came to a conclusion.

The Popper’s mandibles peeled back and it ‘said,’ “You break?”

Jericho’s brow furrowed. “Yes…it’s broken,” he said slowly, hoping he had not wasted his time in coming to the creature’s putrid home.

“No,” the Popper said as it deliberately lifted a leg and drew it through the film of fungus on the nearby wall, making a horrid, screeching sound as it did so, “you break—or we break?”

Jericho finally understood what it meant. “I’ll do it,” he said as he took out the late Captain Sasaki’s tanto—a weapon which he had risked bringing with him through town, even though he had no license for it—and sat down cross-legged on the cleanest patch of floor he could find.

The Popper moved forward and, as it did so, Jericho took a breath and made a small incision with the razor-sharp tip of the blade. He knew from experience that it would not hurt much initially, but it still surprised him to see blood well up from the fresh cut without a commensurate degree of pain. He cut a little deeper, and wider, for several seconds until the Popper clacked its mandibles.

“Enough,” it said, and he set the tanto down on the floor before using his free hand to clamp his brachial artery and slow the blood flow to his now-opened arm.

The Popper moved forward and delicately inserted the needle-sharp tips of its impressively steady, front legs into the ad hoc surgical wound. It then gently prized the margins apart, and as it did so the itching sensation Jericho felt on the wound itself was accompanied by a lance of dull, aching pain as the broken bone moved beneath the knot of swollen tissue surrounding it.

“Pain,” the Popper said simply as it continued to open the wound, and Jericho took that to be the creature’s best attempt to provide some semblance of bedside manner. Thankfully, it was finished with exposing the ends of the bone fairly quickly, and Jericho watched with more than a small measure of interest as the Popper’s mouth began to work furiously.

Its mandibles moved far more quickly than an ordinary human could manage with any part of its body, and after a few seconds a thick, slimy wad of bubbly material appeared in the Popper’s mouth.

 It spat the wad into the wound, and the burning that accompanied it was enough to make Jericho wince in pain.

“Pain,” the Popper said again, and Jericho couldn’t help himself but snicker softly in spite of the growing discomfort. Thankfully, just a few seconds later the pain in his arm had decreased significantly.

The Popper drew the margins of the wound further apart, and Jericho concluded that the first wad of phlegmy substance had been an anesthetic—and a surprisingly powerful one, at that—in addition to, hopefully, having some powerful antibacterial properties.

The broken bone of his forearm was clearly visible when the Popper had finished opening the wound, and it nimbly maneuvered the two pieces of cleanly broken bone together using its legs while pinning the arm against Jericho’s leg.

“Pain,” the Popper said, and Jericho braced himself just in time to see the creature leaned forward and plunge its barbed mandibles into the wound. Amazingly, he never once saw the mandibles touch the edges of his wound as they deftly worked their way back and forth across the broken edges of bone.

Not long after it had begun, the Popper pulled back and Jericho leaned down to see that the bone had indeed been knitted back together. A small, thin layer of silvery threads—thousands of them—had been woven around the broken bone, and Jericho knew that even that thin layer of material was far stronger than the bones which it secured.

“Satisfactory?” the Popper asked neutrally as it hovered over the wound.

Jericho nodded. He hadn’t needed a professional reconnect job—he could get that done later if need be—but he actually thought it was possible he wouldn’t need such a follow-up procedure after appraising the alien’s work. The Popper knew its craft better than he had suspected, so he shook his head. “Better than satisfactory,” he said, more than a little surprised to hear himself say it.

“Pain,” the Popper said as it leaned forward and began to knit the edges of the surgical wound together using the same, fibrous, silvery material it excreted from the multi-purpose glands in its mouth.

But that part of the procedure was easily the least painful, and after just a few minutes Jericho’s arm had been more or less repaired and sewn back together. There was a small, triangular patch over the wound made of the same silvery stuff the Popper had used to knit his bones together, but other than that it was impossible for Jericho to discern that he had just undergone surgery.

“Go,” the Popper said before turning toward the wall it had scraped with its leg earlier and began to consume the material. Jericho tested his arm and found everything to be in satisfactory condition. While he knew it would take days for the swelling to go away entirely, at least it would no longer distract him.

Jericho watched as the Popper scraped the fungus from the wall—a fungus which was based on something entirely different from DNA and would have died in the unwashed light of the Virgin primary, which was very different than that of its home world. He had a rare moment of contemplation as he wondered where the creature would have been at that moment had the Imperium not torn its ancestors from the world which should, of a right, have still been theirs.

But he pushed the thought from his mind as he turned and left the building, knowing he had a job to do.

“Leave philosophy to the philosophers,” he muttered after closing the door behind himself and making his way to the hover bike.

[]Chapter IX: Three-for-Three…and Takeout

Jericho set up in the apartment which his third New Lincoln operator had secured for him some months earlier. He made a manual inspection of all the gear and found everything to be in order, and after doing so he anticipated being finished with his third Adjustment of the day in less than an hour.

He had attempted to contact Baxter at the designated time following the Angelo Adjustment, but his number two operator had failed to reply to the missive. This set Jericho ill at ease; he knew that he was being pursued by agents who wished to prevent him from carrying out his duty but he had been careful—careful even for him, which spoke volumes of the importance of the trio of Adjustments—in planning his New Lincoln trip.

Jericho set up the large bore, single-shot, slug-thrower on its tripod and checked his lines of sight with the structure two buildings down and on the opposite side of the street. Using a weapon like the one he had selected for this particular Adjustment carried risks, but he preferred those risks to the alternatives.

He checked the chronometer on his data link and saw that he still had twelve minutes before his target would enter the zone of engagement, so he decided to try contacting Baxter again. He initiated the connection and waited for the operator to accept the call.

But the seconds ticked by and Baxter never replied, so Jericho closed the connection and considered his options. No operator which Jericho had worked with in the past decade had failed to follow the preset schedule—predictability was key in an Adjuster’s line of work—and Jericho was forced to conclude that someone had gotten to Baxter.

The Timent Electorum Adjusters were limited in several ways, not the least of which being that the law afforded them no actual protection for their actions unless they managed to successfully execute an Adjustment and prove its legitimacy. But those whose actions supported an Adjuster—like Benton, Baxter, or his current mission’s operator, Shu—were afforded even less protection.

Their contributions were made in spite of the risk in the pursuit of profit or, more usually, for less quantifiable reasons. Some—like Benton—seemed to enjoy ‘beating the man’ at his own game and others, like Baxter, had felt wronged by their government in the past and wanted to take some measure of revenge.

But Shu—the operator he had selected for this last Adjustment—was a mercenary, through and through, and Jericho would have used her more often if he hadn’t already had two incredibly capable operators in Benton and Baxter.

Jericho activated his earpiece as he continued to consider whether he should attempt contacting Baxter directly. He needed to check in with Shu and see if there had been any new wrinkles.

“Shu here,” the woman’s crisp voice replied as soon as the connection had been made. “Target is on the seventeen twenty high-rail; ETA seventeen minutes.”

“Is he alone?” Jericho asked. This last Adjustment was of a significantly lower RL value than either of Cantwell or Angelo, which meant that collateral damage was expressly forbidden according to T.E. protocols. Some Adjusters were little better than marauders, kicking in the doors and laying waste to everyone inside whenever the mission permitted. Jericho preferred a cleaner, more concise approach.

“Negative,” she replied, “he has a tail.”

“A tail?” Jericho repeated in surprise as he opened his data link. “Send me the file.”

Almost before he had finished asking for it, the file appeared in his messages and he quickly opened it to peruse the contents.

There was a medium-short, square-jawed, clearly professionally-trained agent featured in seventeen still images. He always appeared in near proximity to Jericho’s last New Lincoln target in the stream of still images, and the Adjustment target was likely unaware of his dangerous shadow.

“What have you got on him?” Jericho asked as he re-checked the sights on his stupendously overpowered rifle by flashing an infrared light briefly onto the window through which he would take his shot in fifteen minutes.

“Nothing on file; facial recognition and partial retinal scans are coming back blank,” Shu replied promptly, confirmed one of his many suspicions. “He’s augmented—heavily, if the extra EM coming off him is any indication.”

Jericho had suspected as much and was actually glad to hear her say it. Jericho had just engaged a knock-down, drag-out fight with a gene-hanced Southern Bloc captain—a relatively small woman, at that—and it had been a much closer affair than he would have liked.

In his youth he might have thought it possible to take on an augmented agent like the one in Shu’s pictures, but age had given him more than just aches and pains. He was now wise enough to accept that there wasn’t a single chance in a thousand that he could take the agent in a straight-up fight.

“Is the Adjustment still a ‘go’?” Shu asked with an unusual degree of tension in her voice.

“Yes,” he replied as he came to grips with what fate had befallen Baxter—a fate that had almost certainly been decreed and imposed by the Agent following Jericho’s third target. “But we’ll need to go to tertiary escape routes; assume the others are compromised.”

“Copy that,” Shu replied, and a brief pause ensued. “Tertiary route confirmed—repeat, tertiary escape route is open.”

“Good,” he said, grateful for small favors. “I need you to place a trace on my link and do your best to find out whoever’s tapped the other end of the call I’m about to make. I don’t need you taking unnecessary risks, but if there is a trace then whoever placed it has already gotten to another of my operators today—and he was higher on my list than you are.”

There was a tense silence before the operator said, “Understood; ready to run the trace as soon as you make the call.”

“Get me a nearby video feed covering the Agent,” Jericho instructed as he tapped out a series of seemingly random numbers on his link, which he then called in a predetermined sequence. The process took nearly thirty seconds and, when he was finished, a video feed opened up on his link’s screen.

It was from a public transport carriage’s internal security cam, and it showed Jericho’s last target as well as the Agent who was shadowing him. Just a few seconds after the feed went live on his screen, the link showed an incoming call.

Taking a short breath, Jericho connected the call and piped it through his earpiece.

“It’s good to finally speak with you,” a man’s perfectly-pitched voice said, and the Agent’s lips moved in perfect unison with the words coming over the earpiece. “I don’t suppose I could persuade you to call this off?”

“Nope,” Jericho replied simply.

“I thought not,” the Agent said smoothly, not letting even a moment’s silence linger between them as he spoke conversationally. “It truly is a pity; society could use men like you working for them.”

“Nice try; I’m not playing the word games,” Jericho snorted. As far as he was concerned, making Adjustments for the Timent Electorum was the highest form of public service of which a person was capable.

“A pity,” the Agent chuckled, “I do so enjoy a bit of foreplay.”

“Can I assume you’re less than interested in stopping the Adjustment?” Jericho asked evenly.

“You may indeed,” the Agent replied warmly. “Truth be told…after reading the man’s file I find myself ambivalent regarding the necessity of your discharging the duty of your ‘office,’ such as it is.”

The railway carriage the two men were riding came to a stop and the doors opened. The occupants moved out of the conveyance and the video feed switched stiffly between the previous video feed to one at the small boarding station.

“So if you’re not interested in stopping me,” Jericho said, more than slightly surprised to hear the man admit such so readily, “then why follow him?”

The target stopped and began to peruse a nearby window display, causing the Agent to do likewise at another window. “My father was a big game hunter,” the Agent explained after the two had resumed their trek toward the target’s residence, “and he taught me when I was very young to learn as much about an animal as possible before putting it down. He said it was an opportunity to learn not only of the animal, but also of myself.  I have come to believe during the course of my life that he was right.”

“It’s a good piece of advice,” Jericho admitted, knowing that his work as an Adjuster had taught him a very similar set of lessons. He relaxed his body and leaned his shoulder against the butt of the rifle in a long-practiced, pre-shot routine which had served him well for decades.

“I certainly think so,” the Agent agreed. “I must admit that you are considerably more interesting than most of my assignments…and, between you and me, I’m genuinely curious whether you’re going to electrocute him by overloading the magnetic coils in the lift, blow the apartment with a gas overload, use nerve gas—likely concealed beneath the kitchen sink—or pull the trigger of the rifle you’re pressing against your shoulder.”

Jericho felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. But he knew that if the Agent had a bead on him, either directly or indirectly, he would have already made it known. That Jericho had initiated the call meant that he still had an intelligence edge over the mysterious Agent—an edge that would seem to be eroding more quickly than he had anticipated.

“Make no mistake,” the Agent continued into the brief silence, “I cannot officially condone any of the aforementioned acts of barbarism, but your choice will illuminate several factors which may be useful to me later.”

“So…what you’re saying is that you like to watch?” Jericho deadpanned as the two men neared the target’s apartment building and the camera feed switched to one of that building’s external security units.

The Agent burst into laughter and actually drew some attention from passersby as he did so. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” the Agent assured him after quickly suppressing his laughter. “But I am glad to see that you have a sense of humor. Our line of work is usually so tedious, is it not?”

“Are you suggesting we do the same thing?” Jericho asked neutrally. He knew it was important not to divulge too much about himself, but he also knew that he could gain valuable information about his pursuer if he played things right.

“Of course,” the Agent replied with a hint of surprise in his voice. “We each locate, verify, and eliminate threats to our society’s well-being.”

“Sounds like we should have drinks later,” Jericho said dryly as the video feed showed the target entering the lift—a lift which Jericho had actually considered overloading, just as the Agent suggested, but had decided against because of the cost to repair the damage.

“If you like,” the Agent allowed as he went to a fire escape stairwell and, with little more than a quick series of taps and the swipe of his palm, overrode the security measures which restricted public access to it except during an emergency. “But forgive my selfishness when I say I would prefer our little game went a little longer than that.”

“You’re forgiven,” Jericho said as the Agent slipped off the camera feeds. His operator had apparently been unable to override the fire escape’s internal cameras, so although the Agent was inside a building over a hundred meters away, Jericho’s senses sharpened as he knew that he needed to be ready for anything.

“So…no elevator,” the Agent said smoothly in his perfectly-composed voice, “which indicates that you’ve got something of a conscience. I suppose that was to be expected, considering the agency you work for.”

“It’s not an agency,” Jericho said irritably.

“Forgive me,” the Agent gushed as the lift bearing the mark stopped at seemingly each floor on its way to his destination: the sixteenth floor. “But we know so little about the actual operation of your people that some clarity on the matter would be greatly appreciated.”

“It’s all in the First Right,” Jericho quipped as he settled against the butt of the rifle again while scanning the roof of the building for signs of movement. He was unwilling to risk the possibility that the Agent decided to line up a counter-shot after the Adjustment had been made. “Maybe you should read it?”

“I prefer actual history to studying the philosophical wet dreams of our ancestors,” the Agent retorted casually.

“You want history?” Jericho said measuredly. “Ok…how’s this? The man you followed, for whom society requested I target for Adjustment, is a Public Works and Highways overseer in Tsushima. Two years ago he shut down a major intersection and has, since then, re-routed traffic some three kilometers around it. This put unnecessary pressure on the adjoining streets and has already cost society roughly three million credits per month in lost productivity—due to trapping several thousand people per day in a needless diversion which lasted an estimated average of three minutes forty three seconds—in addition to unnecessary vehicle maintenance totaling nearly half that amount.”

“Oh, I understand that part,” the Agent replied as the Adjustee exited the elevator.

“Good,” Jericho said tighty as his link shifted from a camera feed to one showing a three-dimensional grid of the building across the street. A small, red, flashing dot appeared and was marked ‘Agent,’ and it did appear that he was still in the fire escape.

A brief text message flashed across the screen which read, Getting hot here. Can’t crack their encryption before they break into my own system.

He quickly tapped out a reply which read, Bug out ASAP. I’ll contact you in two hours.

He received a prompt reply, Copy that. I’ll make it up to you.

“Something happen?” the Agent asked smoothly.

“Just making sure everything’s where it should be,” Jericho replied as the target approached his front door. “Where was I?” he asked dryly.

“Something about side streets,” the Agent replied, his voice filled with a warm, encouraging tone.

“Right,” Jericho said, “anyway, this guy has a cousin who owns a contracting company that won several bids for city street maintenance contracts in Tsushima. Long story short, the diversion of traffic increased the wear on an intersection this guy’s cousin maintains.”

“Come now,” the Agent quipped irritably as the target entered the flat. At the same moment, the Agent’s icon on the three dimensional display moved down the corridor toward the same unit. “I know you would not risk capture at this stage in the game over a little wasted concrete.”

Jericho switched off the safety on his rifle and leaned in tight to the butt of the rifle. “You know that, do you?”

“Of course,” the Agent replied with a long-suffering sigh, “even the admittedly limited psych profile I’ve constructed on you suggests that while you do care about the financial burden corruption places on society, it’s not what motivates you.”

Jericho was surprised to hear the man suggest he had a psych profile on him, but he supposed it was possible—and equally possible that it was all a ruse. “Ok…let’s say a little girl was boarding her school shuttle the morning after the traffic was diverted,” Jericho said, feeling a slight surge of anger as he did so. “And let’s also say that the human driver of that shuttle wasn’t aware of the redirected traffic, and an overloaded cargo hauler ran sidelong into the shuttle, killing both of its occupants while the hauler’s driver walked away without a scratch.”

“Even if I accepted the premise that this was your real motivation for accepting this assignment, it sounds like you’ve got a few places you could assign the blame,” the Agent said casually as the target moved into the kitchen and washed his hands. When he finished doing so, the Agent sighed, “No nerve gas…interesting.”

Jericho had considered the nerve gas also, but had decided against it for several reasons. He had used poison in the past, but there was something about it that had never sat right with him. He was an instrument of the people’s retribution, and was decidedly against a painless death like that afforded by most of the available nerve gases.

“I suppose you could place the blame on the driver of the cargo hauler,” Jericho said as he relaxed his body. According to surveillance records, three days out of four the Adjustee would sit in a chair set beside the window on which his rifle was trained. “You could even lay the blame at the feet of the shuttle’s driver…or, if you really want to stretch things, one could fault the local traffic directors for failing to put up the requisite warning signage. There’s probably even an argument for the people who allowed the overloaded vehicle to operate on a public road without at least issuing a citation.”

“Precisely; there are several people who deserve punishment in that particular chain,” the Agent said, as though it explained everything. “So what gives you the right to choose who gets punished?”

Jericho smirked as the Adjustee settled into the chair for what would be the final time of his life

“The voters,” he replied as he squeezed the trigger, sending a round of depleted uranium-wrapped lead powder through the window. As it broke through the glass, the shell of depleted uranium broke apart and unleashed its contents, turning the Adjustee’s body into a shower of gore which covered the far wall in a shower of red.

The bullet had been specifically designed to break apart after penetrating the transparent alloy of the window, and had delivered every Newton of its energy into the target’s torso, essentially vaporizing his upper body in the process.

The icon representing the Agent entered the flat as soon as the round impacted, but then the icon went dark. Jericho understood that the Agent had deliberately cut off the signal…and that suggested the Agent had been toying with him the entire time.

“No explosion, either,” the Agent said disappointedly as he appeared at the window, through which a perfectly round hole a half inch across marked the bullet’s entry path. He looked through the newly-made hole and, seeming to make eye contact even at such a distance, smirked as he waved invitingly with an energy pistol gripped in his hand. “A traditionalist, then…interesting.”

Jericho pulled back from the window, switched off the link, and initiated the countdown for a time-delayed acid shower to spray over the room and its contents after he had left. It would not destroy the equipment completely, but it would remove any organic trace evidence in the unlikely event the Agent decided to investigate the scene for clues.

Jericho picked up the grocery bag which contained Benton’s requested pasta—which was a small price to pay for interrupting the man’s legendary privacy, especially for the length of the voyage to Aegis Port City—and left the apartment, grateful for having successfully completed the first leg of what he was certain would be an increasingly dangerous journey.

[]Chapter X: Cast Off!

Masozi had examined the local news feeds at length after coming to terms with the fact that she had been framed by Chief Afolabi and an off-world Agent whose identity was still very much a mystery. She still had little in the way of concrete information, but she had corroborated most of the images Benton had shown her inside his secretive hideout.

“Ain’t nuthin’ to be worked up over, girlfriend,” Benton said after several hours. He had gone for nearly an hour without speaking after helping her access several public news sources—as well as a few private ones, including the Investigators’ encrypted update channel. “Just think on it like you be gettin’ a fresh start; not many people be so lucky, you feel me?”

She refrained from a biting remark, which required a not-insignificant amount of willpower on her part since her entire life had just been turned upside down in less than a day.

“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” she said evenly as she flipped through a recent wave of reports that had just hit the feeds. Her heart sank when she saw that three more people had died as a result of the explosion at her apartment building, bringing the new total to forty two.

“It ain’t your fault,” Benton said, and she turned sharply toward him and saw his eyes—eyes with pale, pink irises—snap back and forth across the myriad displays arrayed above his bed. “They took advantage of your trust and set you up, yo. Only way you can get back at ‘em be by keepin’ your head down and servin’ up an ice-cold plate of good, ol’ fashioned, revenge.” Before she could reply with something scathing, there was a soft, clanging sound from below and Benton slapped his hands together before rubbing them in anticipation. “A-ha, dinner; I hope you like pasta, shorty.”

She liked pasta very much, but she doubted she could work up an appetite. Still, the smell of veal and fresh, genuine, mozzarella cheese poured into the chamber as Jericho appeared at the door to the room with the medium-large parcel under his arm. The parcel was marked with the logo for the world-famous Casa Mia restaurant, which was far more expensive than Masozi had ever been able to afford—even for a major occasion. A single meal with drinks would likely cost as much as her entire month’s salary.

“My favorite,” Benton said eagerly as Jericho brought the parcel to the obscenely large man’s bed. As he approached, a small table folded up from the bed’s side and Jericho placed the parcel on it. The horrifically obese, unusually jolly man opened the parcel as Jericho pulled up a nearby chair—of which there were only two in the entire room, as Masozi had previously noted to herself. Benton produced a trio of disposable thermal containers and said, “Dig in, y’all; this be the last real cookin’ we get ‘til Aegis.”

Jericho waved off the proffered food and Masozi did likewise. Although…despite the turmoil going on between her ears over the day’s events, the food really did smell delicious.

“Suit yourselves,” Benton said as he opened the first thermal container and delicately skewered its contents with a provided utensil. He drew a large forkful of crisp, green lettuce with tiny, pink shrimps speared on the tips of the fork and placed the bite of salad carefully into his many-chinned mouth. He chewed loudly, and Masozi was quite certain that her resolve to avoid eating would soon disintegrate in the presence of such gourmet food.

“You have questions, Investigator,” Jericho said into the brief silence. “I promised I would answer however many of them I am able.”

She focused on the man sitting on the other side of Benton’s bed, and studied his features. His eyes were the same, grey-blue color that she remembered, his skin was barely a shade darker than eggshell white, and his jaw was squarely-shaped with a pronounced dimple at the point of his chin—none of which traits were common to Virgin’s native populace. His hair was significantly more salt than pepper, and was cut in a flat-top, vertical-standing military style. It was obvious from the way he moved and held himself that he was a powerful, agile specimen.

She took a short breath and made her first query, “Why?”

Benton, who had been chewing loudly on the delectably crisp lettuce—the last bit of which had been joined by tiny slivers of mozzarella cheese—stopped and cast a curious look her way while Jericho merely held her with his steely eyes.

“Too vague,” Jericho said after a few, tense moments, during which time Benton’s eyes went back and forth between the two of them with open amusement.

Masozi took an unconscious step forward. “Why would you save me? While profoundly shocking to me—in a manner which someone of your ilk is likely incapable of comprehending—I can at least understand several possible motives behind framing me for the various crimes of which I am now publicly accused.  But I can’t figure out why someone would want to save me.” She took another step forward, and stopped herself after realizing she had been unconsciously seeking the food which Benton had proffered. Masozi had the brief thought that she may never get another opportunity for such a fine meal, but she kept her focus on the mysterious man whose intervention had inexplicably spared her life.

“Someone of ‘my ilk’?” Jericho repeated as a twinkle of amusement flashed across his eyes. He shook his head before sighing, “I suppose I can’t blame you that. There was a time I felt the same as you…but I’ve since opened my eyes to the realities of human existence. Still, to answer your question,” he said as he reached out to take one of the salad dishes Benton had offered, “I saved you because, simply put, it would be a waste of everything you are to let a man like Afolabi frame you…especially since several of the ‘crimes’ you are accused of were actually committed by me—”

“And me!” Benton cut in, as though in comic protest and Jericho nodded shortly in acknowledgment.

“None of what I do would be possible without the assistance of like-minded people,” Jericho said with a note of gratitude, which Benton seemingly ignored as he continued to devour the exquisite salad.

“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Masozi said evenly, forcing her eyes to stay locked with his and not stray to the increasingly tempting food on the opposite side of the bed.

“I imagine it doesn’t,” Jericho allowed with a shrug as he held the salad easily in one hand. “But I can say that someone of your qualities would be of great benefit to me in what I aim to do next. Beyond that, you’ll have to prove that you’re worthy of more clarification on the subject.”

“Not good enough,” Masozi retorted sharply, turning his own words against him.

Benton chuckled and Jericho sighed softly after casting a reprimanding look at the chaotically jiggling mass of humanity lying in the bed. “Due to your current bargaining position, that’s simply not the case,” the square-jawed man said, as he popped open the salad dish and leaned his face down toward it before deeply inhaling its aroma. “You’re a wanted fugitive, and I’d imagine that by now your case file has been uploaded to the Planetary Investigators.”

“Why?” Masozi asked, her curiosity overriding her desire to present a strong appearance. Chief Afolabi’s press conference had made no mention of a planet-wide fugitive alert, and she pointed at one of screens over Benton’s bed—a screen which had a real-time readout of classified law enforcement updates for New Lincoln on one side, and the entire planet on the other. “There’s nothing on the official wires to indicate a planetary effort is underway.”

Benton chuckled again and this time Jericho smirked almost piteously. “Don’t tell me you believe everything you see on the newsfeeds…or that everything actually gets put on the newsfeeds?” he chided. “A certain degree of naiveté can actually be healthy, but you can’t actually believe in Universal Transparency, can you?”

Universal Transparency had been the Second Right afforded the people of her world and, indeed, the entire Sector. “If I don’t believe in Universal Transparency, why should I believe in the Timent Electorum?” she challenged.

Jericho chuckled softly. “Because you’ve got supporting evidence for one, and a lack thereof for another, all within a few meters of each other and yourself,” he said with a pointed look before taking a fork and spearing it through the center of the salad.

She noticed the smell of her favorite salad dressing as he lifted the first bite to his lips, so she finally relented and reached across Benton’s bed to snatch the third salad for herself.

“My girl,” Benton said with a warm laugh as he reached into the parcel. He had finished his own portion of salad and dropped the empty box on the floor beside his bed before producing another trio of containers.

It had been nearly fourteen hours since she had eaten and Masozi was absolutely famished, so she ate in silence for several minutes while doing her best to savor what would very likely be the finest meal of her entire life. She only wished it could have come under different circumstances. The ingredients were all of the highest quality, and for a moment she understood how such a ridiculously expensive restaurant could remain in business through the high, and the low, economic times New Lincoln had endured. In truth, that salad had been a more pleasurable experience than at least half of her life’s various sexual encounters.

“Fine, so there’s some evidence—most of which I can’t verify independently of you two,” she said after devouring the salad and washing it down with a carbonated drink which she would have normally never considered touching.

“A fair point,” Jericho conceded after downing his own bottle of the bitter, carbonated beverage. “But the truth is you’re beating around the box; you’ve seen first-hand the nature of what you’ve stumbled across. You don’t need either of us to tell you what that is.”

Benton, who had taken a break from the meal after producing the second trio of food containers in order to peruse a few dozen data feeds, adjusted slightly in his bed before saying under his breath, “She’s back, everyone.”

Just then, the same hover drone which had ‘rescued’ Masozi from her leap of faith swung into the room and declared, “Hey all, it’s me: Eve!”

“Hey, baby!” Benton said buoyantly, but Masozi suspected it was something of an act—the same act she had seen countless ‘couples’ go through when reuniting, which was an unnerving display of emotional engagement by a human toward a glorified sexbot program.

That particular connection made her shake her head in a mixture of awe and barely-concealed disgust. How low can a human being get? she thought in bewilderment. I can understand owning a pet, but a sexbot—without the body, no less?!

“You’ve got visitors,” Eve said as though in surprise as she hovered over beside Benton’s bed, but Masozi recognized her voice as the same one which had come from the autocannon outside the container. So she very much doubted that Eve had been unaware of Benton’s ‘visitors’—especially since it had been Eve’s voice which had not-so-politely told Masozi to ‘make like a bad sector and frag’ at gunpoint.

Seemingly from nowhere, a small, claw-like appendage attached to an articulate, metal tube lowered itself from the bottom of the hover drone’s bulbous, circular body and snatched up the empty salad box. Eve’s avatar on the front-mounted screen wagged a finger reproachfully at the huge man, “You are such a slob, Johnny Wladimir Benton!”

“Eve,” Benton interrupted with a wild gesticulation of his hands as his speech patterns changed to something approaching normalcy, “I don’t have time for this right now. I’ve got seventeen simultaneous data dumps I’m managing; I’ve got to wipe every trace of these two cowboy’s—and girl’s,” he added belatedly, “rampage through the city, and I’ve got to do it all before I lose my hard lines at castoff in twenty minutes.”

Eve’s virtual image put her hands on her hips and Masozi saw Jericho roll his eyes slightly. “Ohhhh, so not only do I have to pick up after you,” she said hotly, “but now I have to go back outside and disconnect the lines four hours earlier than scheduled?!”

“That would be great, Eve,” Benton said agreeably as he deliberately returned his focus to the screens above him. “Shouldn’t take you longer than an hour to put all of it away—and don’t forget to depolarize the linkage this time. We were down for almost six hours last time,” he said chidingly before adding, “besides…you still owe me.”

“Well…I never,” she fumed before spinning around and whirring out of the room amid a stream of decidedly angry-sounding bleeps and data static which emanated from her hover-drone’s speakers.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Benton apologized as his accent returned with a vengeance, “but she be a little…high-maintenance. She would’ve crashed and burned a long time ago without me, and I gotta…you know, gently remind her of that every now and then or she’s liable to get uppity—and that would be good for nobody, feel me?”

Masozi boggled at the notion of Benton carrying on a ‘relationship’ with what amounted to little more than a sex toy program which he had transplanted into the hover drone. The sheer ludicrousness of it strained her imagination but, as she looked around the decidedly abnormal environment which Benton had built for himself, she realized that Eve was likely the least disturbing manifestation of the man’s unusual nature.

“Look,” she said as Benton began to open up the next take-out box, and the overpowering smell of creamy, buttery pasta wafted into her nostrils as he did so, “I’m not convinced that going with the two of you is any safer of an option than marching back down to the precinct and pleading my case.”

“That might actually work,” Jericho mused with a thoughtful nod.

“Yeah,” Benton said agreeably, “’cept for this.” The massive bank of screens lining the far wall flared to life, and Masozi turned to see Agent Stiglitz’s image appear in several different perspectives, taken by what appeared to be public surveillance equipment. “I done tried to dig up some dirt on him, Jericho,” Benton said as though in apology, “but this bitch is tight, know what I’m sayin’? I didn’t even get no God-damned name after cross-checkin’ every, single database on Virgin—and then some more besides! This mo-fo be a gen-u-ine ghost, dog.”

“Please, Benton,” Jericho said with a hand raised in tempered irriration, “enough with the archeo-slang.”

Benton rolled his pink eyes and sighed. “Judging by the EM field pouring off him, he’s augmented—a lot,” he said deliberately, his unique ‘accent’ disappearing to be replaced with an altogether unidentifiable, yet thoroughly bland, one. “I don’t know exactly how much we’re talking about, but this level is way beyond a local thug-for-hire’s means.”

“More machine than man?” Jericho pressed as he gave hardly a glance at the screens before opening up his own pasta and devouring it.

“It’s possible,” Benton admitted, and Masozi examined the images carefully as she recalled meeting the man in Chief Afolabi’s office. “But regardless of how much gear he’s packing beneath the surface, the fact that there’s no record of him ever existing suggests…”

The two shared a meaningful look and Jericho nodded before devouring another bite of the ridiculously tempting pasta. Masozi had been limiting her protein intake—the shrimp was actually more pure protein than she had allowed herself in a week—but she simply could not resist the certain-to-be delicious pasta.

She hesitated briefly before turning and saying, “I have ‘a’ name for him.”

The two men looked at her in surprise. “Really?” Benton asked with narrowed eyes in his previous, over-the-top accent. “And just how you be comin’ by this information, shorty?”

“He was working with my Chief—Chief Investigator Afolabi,” she amended quickly. “I didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight it seems so obvious…they were checking to see if I would pose a threat to their plans.”

“Details,” Jericho said, putting his box of pasta down as his interest was clearly piqued, “what exactly did they say—the precise words?”

She closed her eyes and tried to recall the conversation. When it came to remembering visual events, or even cataloguing information in her mind—information like account numbers, names, locations, and timelines—her brain was a finely-tuned machine. But recalling spoken conversations had always been a particular weakness of hers. “He said his name was Stiglitz, and he claimed to be from the IIU—the Interplan—“

“Interplanetary Investigations Unit,” Jericho interrupted, “don’t clarify; just stay with the conversation.”

“Right,” she said somewhat embarrassedly, having recalled only after he interrupted her that she had impatiently requested several witnesses do the same during her career’s many investigations. “Ok…he said he was with IIU, his name was Stiglitz, and that they were interested in offering me a post in the IIU if I would assist in their investigation.”

“Go on,” Jericho pressed after a few seconds’ pause.

The details were difficult for her to recall, so she closed her eyes again and began saying whatever came to mind. “They didn’t trust me, but I thought it was because they were holding something back and weren’t certain I would keep the information secure.” She bit her lip as the overpowering smell of Casa Mia pasta flowed through her nostrils and broke her concentration, then she remembered a look which Afolabi and Stiglitz had shared and her eyes popped open. “They were surprised…or maybe not surprised…” she shook her head, as the word escaped her. “They were disappointed,” she finally managed to bite out, “when I objected to their characterizations of the Timent Electorum and its role in our society.”

Jericho nodded slowly as the hint of a smirk danced around his lips. “Can you remember anything else?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

In fact, Masozi had remembered something important. “They said they doubted the insignia you…” the word caught in her throat as she stole a glance at Jericho, who merely looked at her impassively—which did nothing to assuage her mounting trepidation. “They suggested that the T.E. insignia you left at the mayor’s office was not genuine.”

Jericho’s brow rose briefly before he snorted under his breath. “It’s called a Mark of Adjustment,” he said offhandedly, “not an ‘insignia’.” He turned to Benton, who appeared to be paying their conversation little mind, “Are you certain it was authentic?”

Benton nodded dismissively, “No chance it was a fake, boss man. That Mark was legit as can be.”

Masozi’s brow scrunched up as she took the last box of pasta from the table and began to dig into its contents, which were a kind of ravioli half-covered in a butter-cream sauce she had only ever seen on gourmet cooking vids and half-covered in a more conventional tomato-based sauce. “What are you talking about? How could a ‘Mark’ be faked?”

Jericho and Benton shared a look—a look that was disturbingly similar to the one which Afolabi and Stiglitz had shared the night before, and she felt herself chilled to the bone at the apparent similarity. “About three years ago,” Jericho began with a short sigh, “an Adjustment was made on a magister named Dukane out on the Skylark colony. Everything was done within established protocols, and the Adjustment was verified according to the two century old system we’ve used since the first Adjustment.”

Masozi recalled the case, since it had been caused a media frenzy surrounding on the discovery of disturbing evidence at the crime scene. The case itself had involved Magister Dukane secretly holding a significant share of stock in a corporation which had been losing market share to a competitor’s firm, a firm which had been founded by a pair of men named Seeton and Crain. Dukane had manipulated the timing and sequence of events by having Seeton sequestered during the unveiling of their latest model drive units. Crain had failed spectacularly in the ensuing press conference, and public confidence in his and Seeton’s company vanished overnight.

Obviously Dukane’s company had profited massively from their competitor’s downfall, so it had come as no surprise when the T.E. revealed they had been behind the death of the corrupt magister. None of the material facts of the case had been disputed in the aftermath.

“The problem wasn’t with the Adjustment itself, but with the Mark,” Jericho explained as the bank of screens lining the wall switched over to show data pertinent to that case. Masozi doubted she could have called that much information up with a day’s time at her terminal back at the NLIU, and Benton appeared to have done so in a matter of minutes. She could finally comprehend just why individuals like him were so dangerous to society: with supposedly secure information at his fingertips, he would be ahead of even the people who were sent to pursue him.

“It was a forgery,” Benton agreed as he expanded the view of the item itself—an apparently exact copy of the one Masozi had seen on Cantwell’s desk. “But not just any forgery,” he added with a hint of appreciation in his voice, “this one was made using the exact blueprints and specs of the real thing, right down to sourcing materials from the same supplier as the originals.”

“But I thought,” Masozi said with a furrowed brow, “that the Marks were merely a way to present the evidence justifying an…Adjustment?” she said, lingering on the last word after she said it. It was such a cold, calculating term for what amounted to little more than a publicly sanctioned assassination.

Jericho nodded. “That is one of their purposes,” he allowed, “but they’re also the way an Adjuster officially receives the contract in the first place.”

Before Masozi could question any further, a blue light began to strobe beneath the hemisphere of monitors hanging above Benton’s bed.

“Casting off in two minutes,” Benton reported between bites of his pasta, and Masozi decided to finally indulge her curiosity and take a bite of the meal.

If the salad had been better than sex, then the pasta might have been better than solving a case. She tried to pace herself, but before too many minutes had passed she had finished the entire box—and immediately regretted her gluttony as she felt her stomach protest at its overfilled state.

Jericho stood from his chair and moved to the side of Benton’s bed opposite Masozi. “You’ve got more questions, but you have to prove something before I can give you the answers,” he said as he held out a data pad.

She accepted the pad warily, acutely aware that she was becoming swept up in the events but finding herself nearly overwhelmed by the fantastic situation. She glanced at the pad and saw a series of opinion articles, homemade video clips, and dozens of other amateur media pieces. She could see no rhyme or reason behind any of it, but she was intrigued all the same.

“You find the message buried in that content,” he said with a tilt of his head toward the pad, “and I can answer your next round of questions. But you’d better get started since you’ve only got nineteen days.” Jericho then turned and made his way to the door which led down to the lower two ‘floors’ of the cubical container.

“Why should I do any of this?” she demanded tersely as she waved the pad to indicate the entire room. She truly despised people thinking they understood her—especially people who had literally known her for less than a day!—and she found her temper flaring at his continued dismissal of her choice in the matter. “Even if you are who you say you are, you’ve all but admitted to committing multiple murders—and, regardless of what my superiors might have said today, I am an Investigator whose primary caseload consists of murder investigations.” She took a step toward Jericho as he stopped at the threshold of the door and looked at her over his shoulder. “When I work a case, I never fail to make the collar,” she said icily.

Jericho snickered softly. “Investigator,” he said evenly as he turned away and took a step through the door, “I promise you that if, after breaking the code on that pad, you still want to march me down to the nearest station and book me…I’ll give you the chance to do just that. But until then, I suggest you get to work.”

With that, he disappeared through the door and left Masozi standing there with impotent fury coursing through every fiber of her being.

She heard Benton chuckling and she whirled to face him. “What is so funny?” she demanded hotly.

The mound of blubber and skin which comprised his torso was wracked with a series of rippling perturbations which somehow managed to make him appear even more disgusting. “He used the ‘grilled cheese sandwich’ line on you, didn’t he?” he said with more than a hint of sympathy before sighing.

Masozi was taken aback by his inference and it must have showed on her face, because Benton nodded shortly before returning his attention to the array of screens above his bed.

“Settle in, girlfriend,” he said with a gesture to one of the cots, “it’s gonna be a long trip. But one thing you’ll learn about Jericho is that he’s a man of his word; you crack that code and he’ll do as he says.”

There was the distant sound of a massive horn blowing, and Masozi realized it must have been the seafaring vessel’s cast-off alert. She looked down at the pad in her hands and took a short breath before making her way to the cot and examining the seemingly endless stream of data on the pad.

[]Chapter XI: One Solution Deserves Another

It turned out that the stream of data was, effectively, endless. She had examined it for nearly a week—during which time Benton and Jericho barely said a word to each other, and neither said even a single word to Masozi—before finally catching on to what it was she was looking at.

Eve had made several attempts to interact with her, but Masozi had politely declined each such advance. The re-programmed hover drone’s overt sexuality was more offensive to Masozi than she had expected it to be. That irritation may have been more related to her being locked inside the cargo container without leaving for even the occasional breath of fresh air, but Masozi well-and-truly did find Eve’s personality more pathetic than she could tolerate for more than a few minutes at a time.

Eve had, however, brought a set of real clothing for Masozi to wear. It was not a precise fit, but she gladly changed into it at the first opportunity. Without that wretched bodyglove clinging to her in all the wrong places, she felt more like herself—and considerably less exposed.

On the eighth day of researching the seemingly random files, Masozi finally thought she found what she had been meant to uncover.

Buried in the thousands upon thousands of items on the data pad, she found a correlation between the dates of each entry and several nouns which were placed prominently—which were often suspiciously mis-capitalized—and they began to form a kind of vocabulary.

Another three days of research—during which time they drank plain water and ate nutrient bars, which was fine with Masozi in general but the lack of variety was beginning to wear on her—produced a rudimentary message which she triple-checked to verify its contents. Once she was certain she had done so, she went to Jericho and handed him the pad. She was interrupting his usual routine of calisthenics—a routine which Masozi had observed with more than a passing interest and approval.

He stopped in the middle of a set of push-ups and took the pad from her wordlessly before examining its contents and handing it back to her. “That’s a start,” he said evenly as he rolled his neck around, eliciting several audible cracks, “now tell me what it means.”

“They’re the names of various magistrates, barristers, and even a few non-professionals with what seem to be notarial privileges,” she said shortly. “Each name has a date and an alphanumeric—which I can’t decipher—attached to it. So far I’ve found seventeen of them.”

Jericho nodded approvingly as he keyed in a sequence of commands to the pad before handing it back to her. “You’ve got questions,” he said, rather than asked, “and I promised to answer some more of them.”

“How is any of this related to where we’re going?” she asked measuredly, having considered the question carefully.

Jericho rolled his shoulders and removed his exercise shirt, and for the first time Masozi saw a cluster of scars over the left side of his chest—one of which appeared to have been made quite recently. “Those are over a year old, so the only value they hold is as a primer to one of our many methods of communication. Essentially,” he said as he stretched his calves against a nearby wall, “whenever an Adjuster receives an Adjustment to carry out, that Adjuster has to find a minimum quantity of evidence supporting the popular request’s validity. The vast majority of requested Infectus Adjustments never take place,” he explained as he winced after moving his leg awkwardly. He gritted his teeth and continued, “Since most officials who actually are corrupt are too good at covering their tracks.”

“I’m sorry, ‘Infectus Adjustments’?” she repeated.

Jericho nodded shortly. “You’ve seen the three phrases on the Mark of Adjustment,” he said, as though it explained everything.

And after a moment, she realized that it probably did. “Ure Infectus,” she repeated after recalling the image of the Mark on Mayor Cantwell’s desk.

“Burn the Corrupt,” he said by way of translation as he began to stretch his arms over his head. “Ultimately, Infectus Adjustments are what the Timent Electorum does more than anything else. But it’s not enough to prove that a public official is corrupt; there are several criteria which need to be met before an Adjustment can take place.”

“You keep calling them that,” Masozi interrupted, “you say ‘Adjustments’ when you’re really talking about simple assassinations.”

“There’s nothing simple about an Adjustment,” he retorted in a tone that was both unyielding and somehow sympathetic. “And while some T.E. Adjusters are often little better than shackled assassins—including some of the ‘best’ of us, if I’m being totally honest,” he added darkly, “most of us don’t do this for the license to kill.” He snorted derisively, “There’s too much paperwork, for one thing, and for another our finances are strictly regulated once we take up the cause.”

Hearing him speak of what he did as though it was little more than another form of law enforcement was both fascinating and disturbing. Masozi had, like everyone else on Virgin, learned the importance of keeping powerful officials in check. And the truth was, the record of human history showed that something like the Timent Electorum passage in their Bill of Rights had been the only proven method to prevent wholesale oppression of a society.

“We’re just tools, Investigator,” Jericho said as he began to wipe the sweat from his body. When he had matted his torso off, he picked up the data pad and handed it back to her, “And you’re not quite finished yet.”

She cocked an eyebrow incredulously before looking down at the pad and seeing a whole slew of official documents, including tax filings, purchase receipts, bank records, and a whole host of other documents. She nearly gasped when she saw the name at the top of the file before breathing, “Mayor Cantwell.”

“That’s his Adjustment record,” Jericho nodded gravely. “And by showing it to you I’m committing an epic breach of protocol but I thought a gesture of good faith on my part was called for. Given the circumstances,” he added dryly, “you’ve been pretty sporting about all of this.”

She scanned through the documents and found several alarming connections in just a few minutes’ time. Apparently, Mayor Cantwell had received a truly massive bribe from the PHL—the Professional Hammerball League—which amounted to nearly one hundred million credits. It was a staggering sum and the more she read, the more she realized just how corrupt he had actually been.

“You begin to get a true picture of the man who you, yourself, voted for three times,” Jericho said offhandedly.

“How do you know…” she began, only to realize that with people like Benton working with—or, perhaps, for—him, there was very little information that Jericho would be unable to access.

“All it would take is one look at your file to know everything there is to know about you, Investigator,” he said a bit more coldly than she would have liked. “Do you think those surveys you’ve been forced to fill out every day of your adult life aren’t logged somewhere? And do you think,” he added with a lopsided grin, “that there’s any way to keep a man like Benton from breaking into that log if the price is right? A person with that information would know more about you than anyone—including you.”

Masozi stiffened, feeling as though she had been somehow violated but, oddly, also feeling less than surprised about it. There were comedians who made very good livings criticizing the nature of life on Virgin, specifically regarding the role of government in its citizen’s daily lives, so she supposed the idea had already taken root somewhere in her subconscious. “And you’ve read my file,” she concluded bitterly.

Jericho shook his head and chuckled softly. “I didn’t need to; I just guessed your voting pattern based on your line of work and departmental affiliation—he ran ninety four percent approval with New Lincoln law enforcement,” he explained with an indifferent shrug. “But to answer your question specifically, no,” he said seriously, “I didn’t read your file—and neither did Benton—which is why my revealing any of this to you is a sizeable risk on our parts. Five minutes with your file would have removed any trace of doubt from my mind as to how you would respond to all of this,” he gestured to the chamber with a wave of his arm, “but you’re not in need of Adjustment, so it would have been wrong of me to violate your privacy like that.”

Masozi was actually more surprised by his admission—and the apparent veracity of it—than she was about anything else he had revealed in this, their longest, conversation.

“That file,” Jericho said, pointed to the data pad emphatically, “shows that eighty five million credits were confirmed to have been transferred into off-world accounts which were verified by five, wholly independent, officers of the court. The evidence provided therein satisfied, to their impartial and unbiased judgment, a degree of reasonable certainty which in turn satisfied the criteria for Adjustment. Hence,” he said as he pulled a new shirt over his head, and Masozi stole a glance at his truly remarkable physique—especially for a mundane, well-past-his-physical-prime, man of his age, “the scene in Cantwell’s office—a scene which your former boss is now attempting to blame on you.”

The reminder that her boss had betrayed her still stung her deeply, but she forced the rising tide of emotion which accompanied that particular memory. “Even if Cantwell accepted the bribe,” she said hesitantly, hoping to change the subject, “who decides the threshold for ‘Adjustment’?”

Jericho nodded approvingly. “That’s the right question. I’ll assume you’re more or less familiar with our Sector’s financial system, wherein each year a thorough census is taken and factors like life expectancy, overall economic output, and thousands of other variables are computed to provide that year’s credit value?”

Masozi nodded. It had been one of the founding principles which all of the worlds in the Sector had agreed to following the wormhole collapse. “The Sector-wide average life must be valued at one million credits’ worth of productivity, and the formula keeps the numbers more-or-less in line,” she said when it was clear he expected her to do so. “This minimizes the possibility for economic manipulation by exchanging currencies unscrupulously, and exerts free market forces on the various industries of the Sector.”

“Right, it does do that,” he agreed almost reluctantly, “but it also defines the value of a human life.”

Masozi had held several debates in school regarding this very issue and, while she had never been wholly convinced that the moral implications were as he was suggesting, even she had to admit that it was a reasonably valid way to interpret the data.

“Once we have that number,” he explained, “we can determine the damage a person’s actions cause society. As you are no doubt aware, we use this number in sentencing guidelines for convicted criminals, among other things.”

“Yes,” Masozi allowed slowly, “it’s one of our founding principles: the punishment should always be determined based on the severity of the crime. This ensures impartiality.”

Jericho snorted at her last, but made no comment. “To make a long story short, we use the same basic criteria for determining whether an Adjustment should be instigated.” He pointed to the data slate, “Mayor Cantwell’s corruption cost his constituents roughly two billion credits in economic and industrial damages when the Anvil came to New Lincoln. He allowed the PHL to disrupt the city’s industry, economy, and—potentially the worst of all—its morale without securing fair recompense for the citizens who elected him.” Jericho shook his head piteously, “And he did it all for an eighty five million credit payoff, of which he could only hope to see half after laundering and securing the funds. His actions created enough suspicion on the part of his constituents—the only group’s opinion that matters in an Adjustment—that an Adjustment was instigated and, ultimately, executed.”

“But that money wasn’t truly ‘lost’,” Masozi argued in spite of her general inclination to agree with Jericho’s stated reasoning behind Cantwell’s assassination. “If what you’re showing me is factual then the PHL simply profited at New Lincoln’s expense, but ultimately the money didn’t disappear—it just changed hands.”

Jericho shook his head slowly, as though he had participated in this precise conversation a hundred times. “The PHL didn’t elect Cantwell, though—neither did the many thousands of entities who benefited from his corruption,” he said pointedly. “The people who suffered were his voters—the very people whose interests he swore to protect and, if possible, advance. His actions cost those voters literally two thousand human lifetimes of productivity—that’s two thousand people who are now functionally enslaved to interests over which they have little or no control.” He folded his arms over his broad, muscular chest and asked, “Can you think of a better reason to execute a man than him enslaving the very people who depended on him to protect their collective livelihood?”

Masozi had already concluded much of what he had just said, and found that she fundamentally agreed with his assessment. But that had not been the point of pushing him to explain the situation—hearing him compose the defense, and watching him for nonverbal cues while he did so, had been the object of the conversation.

“So what about the PHL?” she asked after a moment, and Jericho nodded approvingly. “What does the T.E. do to them?”

We do nothing to them,” he said pointedly. “They were merely attempting to advance their private agenda; if we Adjusted each enterprising entity which sought to exploit every possible advantage—including bribing public officials to gain preferential treatment—our economy would stall and everything that depends on it would crumble in little more than a generation. Let the bureaucrats fight the corporations in the courts—I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“So you won’t condemn the people who pay the bribe,” she said in wonderment, genuinely surprised at his dismissive rationale. “But you will ‘Adjust’ the person who accepts it?” she asked with an open challenge in her voice.

“Exactly,” he said in what she took to be mock approval, which made her clench her jaw tight to forestall a sharp objection. “When the contents of Cantwell’s Mark of Adjustment are made public, the body politic will have an opportunity to choose whether or not to provide the PHL with continued financial support.” He smirked and shook his head as though in bewilderment, “A sharp decline in revenue hurts a corporation far more than a bullet to the skull of its director ever could.”

He turned and made his way to the cot he had used for the previous week and a half, and Masozi called after him in irritation, “I’m not finished with my questions.”

“Open the file stored on that pad named ‘Goat’ and examine the evidence it contains,” he said without turning to face her. “Whether you like it or not, you’ve become a part of this so you might as well make yourself useful.” He turned and gave her a dry look before adding, “Until you decide to do your civic duty and turn me in, of course.”

[]Chapter XII: A Summons

“Message for you, boss man,” Benton called out, and Jericho awoke from his nap at once. He threw his legs over the edge of the cot—which was surprisingly comfortable for a device of its nature—and made his way to Benton’s bedside.

He didn’t even need to look to know that Masozi was asleep. It had been four days since he’d given her the Goat assignment, and she had been remarkably focused in her efforts to unravel the latest mystery thrown her way. Jericho could understand how she ended up working as an Investigator in one of Virgin’s most populous cities.

“Have you verified it?” Jericho asked as he reached Benton’s large bio-bed. The cost of the aperture must have been tremendous, and the continuous supply of drugs and synthetic biological components must have cost literally millions of credits per year, but he knew that money was the least of Benton’s worries.

“Sure thing,” Benton replied in his increasingly aggravating archeo-slang. “You’s been waitin’ for it, and now you’s got it.”

A sharp look from Jericho made Benton roll his eyes in deference as he nodded. Jericho looked up to the bank of monitors on the far wall as it sprang to life with several hundred distinct images, and as he had seen Benton do countless times before, the master hacker extracted the required data from each of the displayed sources and migrated those scraps of information onto a single screen.

The entire process took no more than a minute and when Benton had finished compiling the data Jericho saw a long, completely unintelligible message spelled out. That message was then run through a decryption filter and a new message appeared which read:

Well done in New Lincoln. Meet me at the unusual place in Aegis and we’ll discuss your next assignment(s)—O

“You’ve verified every bit of verbiage?” Jericho repeated deliberately. He needed to know for certain that he was to meet in the ‘unusual’ place, rather than the ‘usual,’ or ‘abnormal,’ or ‘normal’ place. He had only been summoned in this fashion once before…and it had been under very different circumstances.

“Yes,” Benton replied shortly, clearly upset with Jericho’s insistence that he stick to a vocabulary that at the very least resembled modern parlance.

“Ok,” Jericho said as he considered the implications. He had expected such a summons—in fact, he had quite literally done everything in his power to achieve such a meeting with what could be roughly termed his ‘superior’ within the Timent Electorum’s hierarchy—if the T.E. could be said to have such a thing. “Good work, Benton,” he said with genuine feeling, “and thank you for allowing us to hitch a ride to Aegis. I know how much you value your privacy.”

Benton shot him an angry look before a grin spread across his borderline grotesque features. “Ain’t nuthin’ but a thang, brah,” he said with infectious positivity, and for once Jericho let his top operator’s penchant for odd speech pass. It would have been more than a little difficult to secure passage for Masozi out of New Lincoln without Benton’s help—and even if it had been possible, it would have been incredibly expensive.

But, again, money wasn’t something Benton lost sleep over. If, for some unforeseen reason, his current revenue stream was to dry up there was little doubt in Jericho’s mind that his top operator would go on with literally no interruption. There were probably only a few dozen people in the Sector who could match Benton’s skill with acquiring, storing, manipulating, and then transmitting data without being detected in the process. He was truly the apex predator of the information world, and Jericho was acutely aware of just how fortunate he had been to not only call on him as an ally, but to consider him a genuine friend.

“How’s Eve doing?” Jericho asked somewhat awkwardly. He had not seen the re-programmed hover drone in quite a few days and had actually begun to wonder if something had gone amiss with ‘her.’

Benton rolled his eyes emphatically. “Women be women,” he said, as though he was confessing some great secret. “I understand they need lovin’ attention and all but lemme tell you something, dawg: Eve takes the term ‘high maintenance’ to an all-new level. Forget about the ‘stratosphere;’ we talkin’ straight-up ‘thermosphere,’ feel me?”

Jericho was quite certain that he could not ‘feel him,’ whatever that actually meant, so he sighed. He was fairly certain that Benton’s increasingly prominent delusions about Eve would one day be his undoing, but in truth he couldn’t fault the other man for crawling inside a fantasy and letting it become part of everything he did. Jericho knew all too well the temptation to do that very thing…

Apparently Benton took his sigh for one of sympathy because he, too, sighed. “Yeah, you be wise to it,” he said with a knowing look before squirming slightly in his bed. “Can you hand me that jar?” he asked, indicating a small, glassy-looking container with a bluish liquid inside. “Eve usually helps me with this sorta thing, but she be down for a little nap at the moment,” he explained as Jericho handed him the jar. “Thanks, dawg,” he said as he opened the jar and Jericho could not help but feel a measure of revulsion as Benton plucked a small, greyish, amorphous blob from the blue liquid and placed it on his chest.

As soon as the blob hit his skin, it flattened into a small disc. A few moments after that it lengthened and narrowed before slowly moving its way down his chest toward his many abdominal rolls. Benton plucked two more of the leech-like creatures from the jar before closing it and handing the container back to Jericho, who wordlessly placed the jar where it had been.

“I would have been dead ten years ago if not for these little suckers,” Benton said seriously, dropping his absurd speech pattern momentarily. “Even with the bio-bed, my family curse is rippin’ my neurons apart…it’s really only a matter of time before simple biology catches up to me and I stop bein’ entirely.”

Jericho nodded in understanding as the three leech-looking creatures disappeared into Benton’s skin folds. “How long do you think you have?” he asked.

“With a constant supply of these little guys,” Benton replied nonchalantly, “three, maybe four years. Without ‘em…maybe a month,” he shrugged.

“Why not go through gene therapy?” Jericho asked, having never ventured to question Benton’s failure to do so. “Don’t tell me you couldn’t afford it.”

Benton snickered. “Nah, ain’t nuthin’ like that; at some point we all gotta respect who, and what, we are and be at peace with it. I’m a God-damned genius the likes of which this Sector has never seen—and I be usin’ that gift for the betterment of my peoples every waking moment of my life,” he said, his voice taking on an almost religious tone. “Every star what don’t get sucked into a black hole eventually burns out, and the brightest ones go quickest of all…but everyone gets touched by their passin’ and they leave behind the greatest legacy of all: order from chaos, and complex structure from simplicity. That’s some cosmically poetic shit right there, feel me?”

While Jericho would have liked to dismiss Benton’s ramblings as those of a delusional man trying to come to grips with his own mortality, he suspected the truth was that Benton had life better figured than he did himself. “I think I take your meaning,” Jericho said after a moment’s consideration.

“Good,” Benton said almost defensively before asking, “what you want me to reply to ‘Mr. O’?”

Jericho shook his head. “Nothing,” he replied simply, “I know where to go.”

“What about sleeping beauty over there?” Benton jerked his head toward the still-sleeping Masozi. “You don’t actually trust her, do you?”

Jericho snorted softly before giving Benton a meaningful look, “I trusted you didn’t I?” The big man made as if to protest, but Jericho shook his head and continued, “What I said to each of you was true: human psychology isn’t that complicated to me. She may not have accepted the reality of the situation just yet, but she won’t do anything I haven’t already planned for…and I may need you to trust me on that particular point later on,” he added with a hint of iron in his voice.

Benton held his gaze for several seconds before relenting and giving a shrug. “I trust you, Jericho,” he said eventually. “But if you be goin’ where I think you be goin’…”

Jericho nodded in total understanding. “I’ll need you here anyway,” he assured Benton. The truth was he would have preferred to have his top operator with him where he was going but Benton’s talents would likely go underutilized in his next mission, which figured to be considerably more blunt-force-trauma than surgical incision. “Track the feeds for me and send regular packets via courier; if I need your help I won’t hesitate to call for support.”

“I can do you one better than off-site support,” Benton said with a knowing grin. Jericho quirked an eyebrow, but the bedridden man shook his head, “I’ll explain once everything’s ready…but it just be a loan and you gotta promise to take care of things should something happen to me, feel me?”

“No, I don’t ‘feel you’,” Jericho said with thinly-veiled exasperation at Benton’s insistence on using patterns of speech which had been dead—apparently with good reason—for several millennia. He sighed before adding, “But I do trust you.”

[]Chapter XIII: An Assignment

The Esmerelda Empática was scheduled to pull into port just ten hours after Masozi had completed her perusal of the ‘Goat’ file on the data pad which Jericho had given her…and what she had discovered cast serious shadows on her long-held confidence in the Sector’s system of government.

When she had completed reading the information and subsequently compiling notes, she knew it was time to confront Jericho.

“I’ve read the ‘Goat’ file,” she said after making the short walk from her cot to his. “Is even half of this true?”

Jericho shrugged. “That’s what you’re going to find out,” he replied seriously before smirking. “Assuming, of course, that I’m allowed to retain my freedom for the foreseeable future?”

She was more than slightly put off by his apparent lack of concern regarding their collective situation, but she had managed to find some measure of acceptance in her own plight during the previous weeks aboard the ocean-going vessel. Masozi held the data slate up and gestured to it seriously, “This information suggests that a colonial governor—“

“Has been acting in direct contravention to the betterment of his,” he interrupted before adding pointedly, “or, rather, her people, and has done so with what would seem to be reckless disregard for more than a few Sector Laws. I have actually read the file, Investigator,” he chided with a hint of sarcasm.

Masozi very much disliked being interrupted, but she held her tongue and continued, “These records even show what appears to be the T.E.’s system for identifying potential…Adjustments,” she reluctantly bit out the word.

“As I said,” Jericho said in a conversational tone, but his eyes bored into her own intently as he did so, “I’m taking a big risk by including you in all of this.”

“It doesn’t seem to be much of a risk,” she sniffed, hating the way the protestation sounded as it passed her lips. But despite her irritation with herself, she pressed on with what she had come to realize during her time in Benton’s container, “If I don’t at least appear to be playing along with you, you’ll just kill me and drop me into the water for the Scrapers to deal with. It doesn’t seem to me that you’re taking any risks here, so please stop insulting my intelligence by suggesting that anything you’ve done to this point has exposed either of you.”

Jericho’s eyes narrowed briefly before he chuckled. “There aren’t any out here,” he said simply.

Her brow furrowed before lowering thunderously. “Aren’t any what?” she demanded as his laughter grew.

He shook his head in mock bewilderment. “Scrapers,” he laughed, and Benton joined him briefly before Jericho added, “they only live along the coastlines. Out here, you’d be digested by what passes for jellyfish on this world…and I’m told that would be significantly more unpleasant than the quick death you’d get from a Scraper.” He schooled his features before continuing just before she could retort, “But your point is well-taken. That’s why I’m letting you off the ship first—if that’s what you’d like, of course.”

Masozi cocked her head before sneering. “You would have me test the port security. If I get caught, you won’t have to risk exposing yourselves, is that it? I’m not a moron,” she said acidly.

“I don’t think you’re a moron,” Jericho said lightly. “If you had given me cause to believe that you are one,” Jericho paused and his eyes twinkled briefly, “we wouldn’t be speaking right now.”

“Because what’s left of me would be coming out of a jellyfish’s ass?” Masozi retorted icily.

A grin slowly spread across Jericho’s face, “You prove my point even better than I could, Investigator…which is why I’ll be giving you an assignment before you disembark—one you may choose either to accept or not. I’m not going to force you to do anything…that’s not how this works. If you decide to part company with me at the earliest convenience, I’ll respect that choice and promise not to pursue you.” A look of something between resignation and frustration crossed his face as he added, “I’m getting too old to go chasing after people who want, and genuinely deserve, to be left alone.”

Masozi was uncertain if she should accept his words as genuine, or just an attempt to manipulate her. He had already admitted that he considered human psychology a simple matter to understand. In her mind, that was the same as confessing to proficiency in wielding it as a weapon.

But the truth was she simply could not turn her back on what he had shown her. If even a fraction of the information in the ‘Goat’ file had been accurate then the Governor in question not only deserved to die, then that Governor deserved to die as quickly as possible.

And while all of it—the bombing of her apartment building, the fateful meeting with Chief Afolabi, and even the torrent of information which had been thrown at her since arriving in Benton’s secret lair—may have been nothing more than an elaborate attempt to manipulate her, she knew that in the end she had no choice but to see how far the whole thing went.

“Fine,” she said tersely, “what did you have in mind?”

Jericho tilted his head toward the data pad. “Each of the documents in the Goat file is cloned. One copy is the original, and the other has had the figures, names, locations, and all other identifying information scrambled so as to be unrecognizable at a glance,” he explained. “Transfer the scrambled copies to individual slates and have their contents verified as authentic by independent sources. The only authority required for validation is a public notarial license, so a lawyer, accountant, magistrate, or any one of three dozen other professionals will be able to do it for you.”

“What will they be comparing the documents to?” she asked warily. “If all the data is scrambled then how can they be verifying anything?”

“Every piece of evidence you’re holding,” he gestured to the pad, “contains a series of markers. Those markers indicate the chain of custody that the evidence has passed through on its way to the assigned Adjuster,” he said with a short, meaningful look before continuing, “all they’re doing is verifying that the document has, in fact, passed through the indicated chain. The evidence itself has already been confirmed to the point of reasonable certainty.”

“You keep using that phrase,” she cut in, “you say ‘reasonable certainty,’ but that term isn’t a legally-recognized part of our public legal system. A person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

“Correction,” he said while holding up a finger, “a private citizen is innocent until proven guilty under our Sector’s laws. All public officials—including, in a limited capacity, one Investigator Masozi when she became a fully-fledged officer of the law—forgo that particular right when it comes to actions taken while in public office. Since a powerful bureaucrat might be able to manipulate the legal system for his or her own benefit, they must be held apart from it in these matters to minimize corruption.”

“But there are trials every year for corrupt officials,” she argued. “Sentencing is carried out via the same mechanisms which process all other types of criminal proceedings.”

“Adjusters can’t always arrive at reasonable certainty when an Adjustment is authorized,” he replied with a shrug. “In those cases, the courts are often made aware of the collected evidence and it becomes the bureaucracy’s problem.”

Masozi’s mouth fell open in momentary surprise, “Are you saying that the cases which go public are just the T.E.’s leftovers?”

“Of course,” he replied simply. “Although to be fair, there are times when the voters become so enamored with an official that they don’t trigger an Adjustment.” He laced his fingers and pointed at the data pad in her hands, “Which has been the case for our soon-to-be-late Governor friend until recently.”

Masozi could fully understand the public backlash against the Governor in question—a woman named Crissa Keno, who had been born Christopher Keno, second son of the firmly-entrenched Keno family which had ousted the previous regime of Governor Fernando Marquez amid a popular uprising some thirty years ago. That uprising ended when the T.E. performed an Adjustment after finding sufficient evidence of corruption within Marquez’ regime, and the Keno clan had functionally assumed control over the small mining colony.

Christopher Keno had undergone gender reassignment in ‘his’ twenties—which was not an altogether unheard of procedure for the wealthy to have—and the newly-corrected Crissa had promptly given birth to a pair of children. Some ten years later, after becoming the colony’s media darling—often dubbed the ‘Queen’ of all things media by her detractors, the majority of whom were not residents of the colony over which she resided—Crissa began to compete in the most violent forms of martial arts sanctioned throughout the Sector. Most of her athletic accomplishments had been roundly celebrated by her constituents as blazing a trail for gender-corrected individuals everywhere.

“I hope that the…unusual circumstances surrounding Ms. Keno,” Masozi said slowly, “aren’t the cause for this requested Adjustment?”

Jericho snorted derisively. “’Unusual circumstances’ are irrelevant to an Adjuster,” he said with a hard look which he held for several seconds before continuing, “the potential corruption indicated on that pad would easily outweigh my entire career’s accumulated Adjustment value. This particular contract has been highly sought-after by every T.E. Adjustor for that very purpose.”

Masozi suspected that she was supposed to ask what ‘accumulated Adjustment value’ meant, but she was sick of being spoon-fed information. When she failed to make that particular query, an odd look flashed over Jericho’s features before he stood abruptly from his cot.

“When we make dock, Benton and I will remain aboard the Esmerelda for three days,” he explained. “The ship will leave port on the fourth day, and I’ll disembark at that time to take care of other business while you follow up on the Keno paperwork. It should take you about a week if you stay on task, and Benton will supply you with travel documents and enough credits for food, lodging, and the notarial seals. So if you decide to turn us in, I’d advise you to do it before then.”

Masozi very much doubted the two of them would wait much longer than it took for her to leave eyesight before egressing from the cargo vessel, but it wasn’t a point she cared to consider. She had already decided to investigate Governor Keno and her unconventional rise to power before deciding on a future course of action.

“Fine,” she quipped, “but in case you’ve forgotten, I am a wanted fugitive. By now my image and record will have been disseminated to every public office from Presidential Security down to local Pest Controllers. How do you propose I go about this ‘assignment’ when doing so will require me to walk past half the facial-recognition and retinal-scanning systems in Aegis?!”

Jericho tilted his head toward Benton. “He’s got that part covered; by the time you get on the streets, the locals won’t be looking for you.”

Feeling anything but assured, she turned and made her way back to her own cot with an impotent glare on her face.

She knew that to argue would only invite danger, so she kept her mouth shut and took solace in the reality that if they had simply wished her dead, they would have never made contact with her.

But Masozi could trust literally nothing else she had learned about them to be true.

“Everything seems to be in order, Mrs. Washington,” the Customs Officer said before handing the ident card back to Masozi, “welcome to Aegis.”

“Thank you,” she replied perfunctorily, feeling a wave of relief wash over her at not being recognized by the automated facial recognition systems scattered throughout the port. As she walked past the border security checkpoint and emerged on the coastal frontage road, she felt a newfound respect for Benton and his information-manipulating skills.

He had supplied her with two thousand credits, which was nearly as much as her starting Investigator’s monthly salary had been in New Lincoln. She knew she would need to conserve those funds, though, since Aegis was the second-most expensive city on Virgin.

Only the System Capitol of Onding’s Watch was a more expensive place to live. It had been named after Commander Leonardo Onding in memory of his last stand when, with the support of his two thousand brave soldiers, he had held the then-central spaceport city of Black Harbor against wave after wave of criminal elements bent on securing the world’s only access point for themselves.

In the face of overwhelming odds and having run out of options, Commander Onding had overloaded a docked starship’s drive core and incinerated the entire spaceport, taking the criminals with it. His heroic act had given the populace of the planet sufficient time to gain some measure of control over their individual communities.

Aegis had been born shortly thereafter. Originally little more than the western oceanic transfer point between the two great continents of Virgin, it was quickly repurposed into a spaceport. Slowly but surely, the city had grown into a major hub of interstellar activity and it was in no small part due to Aegis’ development that the eventual System Capitol had been founded on Virgin—built directly over the rubble of the old Black Harbor spaceport.

Conveyances bustled this way and that on the busy frontage road, and Masozi knew that if she was to complete her assigned task she would need to secure passage in one of them. A few moments after hailing such a vehicle, one pulled to a stop before her and she stepped inside.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

She considered the query briefly. She knew that if she acted immediately, there was a chance that whatever authorities she alerted to Benton’s and Jericho’s presence at the harbor would be able to act in time to arrest them—or at least to make the attempt. But that would require that she proceed with all haste to the nearest Planetary law enforcement agency, and that meant the Virgin Port Authority located just a few kilometers away.

She let out a short, bitter sigh and said, “Across town: the financial district.”

“Thank you for your time,” Masozi said for the sixth time that day as she collected the data pad from the Public Accountant’s desk, which had been affixed with said Accountant’s notarial seal of approval.

“Of course,” the Accountant replied after Masozi had transferred the correct number of credits from the chit Benton had supplied. It was fairly unusual for a person to use a physical chit since most people’s accounts were directly linked to their idents. But she had explained it away as some sort of a glitch in the system—one she had supposedly been assured would be corrected before the day’s end—which necessitated the use of the old-style chit.

That falsehood had drawn more than one look of incredulity from the various public notaries. But with each telling of the lie, Masozi felt somehow more comfortable with it and, in the process, more proficient at its delivery. It had gotten to the point that this latest official had barely given her a second glance, and that thought disturbed her more than she had imagined it would.

After leaving the Accountant’s office, Masozi checked the list which Benton had generated for her and stored on a data pad prior to her disembarking the Esmerelda Empática. She knew from her own work as an Investigator that to constantly be accessing the same query—such as a repeated one for ‘notaries public’ or similar variations—would make tracking her far too easy for anyone inclined to do so.

She crossed off the most recent Accountant’s name from the list and moved on to a seventh name, checking her chronometer as she did so. It was nearing the end of business hours, so she selected a nearby paralegal whose offices were just a block away.

Masozi made her way down the sidewalk toward the corner, and when she arrived there waited patiently with the other pedestrians who wished to cross the intersection. When the signal changed to indicate they should proceed, she did so and was halfway across the intersection before stopping cold at an image which flashed up on a nearby advertisement panel.

It was a digitally-rendered image of her face! Below was a caption which read: Terrorist killed in explosion at Aegis abandoned warehouse—details to follow.

The image of her face—which had worn a decidedly unappealing expression somewhere between a snarl and a grimace—was replaced with a large fire burning out of control somewhere in an industrial center.

“It’s a good likeness but trust me, honey,” she heard an elderly woman’s sarcastic voice say, “I’m deader than you are.” Masozi looked down at the woman and blinked several times, her mind still reeling from the image for reasons she could not quite understand. “Though that could change if you don’t two-step off the road,” the elderly woman chided as she walked past her, and Masozi did as she suggested.

It took her several minutes of walking before she realized that the newsflash must have been Benton’s way of ‘clearing a path’ for her through the city’s scanners.

After all, there would be no reason to scan for a dead person.

[]Chapter XIV: A Side Mission

Jericho raised his arms as the security guard outside the establishment scanned him. The guard waved an expensive-looking device across his body, and Jericho knew that it would find every single one of the literally hundreds of weapons he had been tempted to bring with him to the meeting.

“You’re clean,” the guard said gruffly through its surgically-implanted vocalizer, and Jericho took a moment to examine the guard’s features more closely. It was an alien whose species was called ‘Klk’whrr’s—or, by those who wished to antagonize the six foot tall insectoid creatures, ‘Click Whores.’

Their external carapaces were capable of resisting all but the most powerful slug-throwers, and an un-augmented person could forget about trying to puncture it with anything less than a monomolecular blade. They had large, blue-green, multi-faceted eyes and a quartet of antennae protruding from the tops of their heads which served as both auditory and olfactory organs.

“You’re looking good, Jesse,” Jericho said blithely as he made his way past the guard.

“That’s ‘Mr. Holland’ to you,” the giant insect said amid a chorus of clicks and clacks from its multiple mandibles as they struck against each other in agitation. The Klk’whrr had been subjugated so many years before the wormhole had collapsed that they had functionally been rendered into little better than slaves.

The Sector government had been working to abolish slavery in every form, but unfortunately things did not change overnight. Jericho still held hope that, before he had breathed his last, aliens like the Klk’whrr—and even the Poppers—might achieve rights in accordance to their contributions to society.

Jericho opened the inner door leading into the establishment and his senses were immediately assaulted by a riotous cacophony of sound, light, smell, touch, and—improbably—taste.

It was one of several such locales, and while they were legal under Virgin’s law, that didn’t make them any less offensive to Jericho. Not far from the door was a trio of aliens—two of which looked vaguely like slugs, while the third was decidedly avian and half the size of an adult human—engaged in some sort of unspeakable act with a human couple. The writhing, moaning mass of flesh was obviously in unified ecstasy which made his stomach turn.

Jericho averted his eyes and moved into the throbbing, almost blindingly-bright room and saw hundreds of people crammed into the small club. He scanned the room until his eyes fell on the person who had summoned him to the seedy club. He made his way across the dance floor, which seemed to writhe and pulsate with the mixture of humans and aliens who were indulging their base instincts while being ‘bathed’ in the sensory-overloading environment.

In just the fifteen steps it took him to cross the dance floor, Jericho identified at least seven distinct flavors enter his mouth—only one of which had been even remotely pleasant—and at least twice as many overpowering smells which seemed to be confined to specific parts of the dance floor.

Just before he reached his destination, a club employee—a nearly naked young man who had every reason to be proud of his physical endowments—offered him a small, necklace-shaped device which Jericho refused. He knew that the device had plugs for his nose and ears, and small goggles for his eyes, and that it was meant to provide a means to focus on the particular senses one wished to indulge while in the club. But Jericho, even if he had enjoyed such indulgence—which he did not—was there on business.

The boyish-looking man shrugged and snaked his way through the crowd before Jericho sat at the lone, empty stool among dozens which were clustered around tiny, circular tables. The man seated opposite that stool was short, slight of stature, and almost completely bald. His name was Eugene Roderick Obunda—and he was the closest thing that Jericho had to a boss.

“Good of you to make it,” Obunda said dryly, looking over the tops of his horn-rimmed glasses. “After your ship docked at the harbor and you didn’t show, I was worried you’d hit a snag.”

Jericho suppressed a snicker, knowing he needed to stay professional throughout the meeting. Obunda may have appeared small, but he had undergone extensive genetic modifications and also possessed one of the sharpest minds in the Sector. Jericho could certainly handle him in a straight-up fight, but men like Jericho and Obunda tended to deny potential adversaries advantageous positions by using the most powerful lump of tissue in the human body: the brain. “I need three Adjustments verified,” Jericho said as he produced a trio of data crystals.

Obunda raised an eyebrow in surprise and, though he appraised the other man’s expression longer than he should have, Jericho was still unable to determine if that surprise was genuine. “I knew about the mayor,” Obunda said slowly, his voice barely loud enough to be heard over the violent, overpowering music. But Jericho had long since learned to read lips, so he missed nothing of what was said, “And that bit with Angelo was impressive, if perplexing.”

“Adjuster’s prerogative,” Jericho replied neutrally, knowing that there was no way for Obunda to actually know which Adjustments he had made. “The case was neck-deep in political hot buttons; I didn’t think the public would benefit from an immediate exposure of his crimes.”

“The truth always comes out, Jericho,” Obunda said with open censure. “Your charity will be your undoing.”

Jericho slid the data crystals across the table and Obunda accessed them via portable scanner one by one, stopping at the last entry with a look of confusion on his face as he shook his head as he showed Jericho that he had, indeed, verified the Adjustments as being authentic. When he had finished, he returned the crystals to Jericho and the two sat in silence for several minutes.

“You have something for me?” Jericho pressed after the silence had lingered a bit too long for his liking.

“When were you going to tell me about the woman?” Obunda asked mildly as his eyes swept the club like a hawk surveying a field for a juicy morsel.

Jericho had suspected that the subject of Masozi would come up, but he was unwilling to discuss her in any way with Obunda—even if he was, technically, Jericho’s superior. The T.E. had no dedicated hierarchy in the traditional sense, but after an Adjuster acquired enough RL—Redeemed Lives, a metric which showed how many lifetimes of productivity an Adjuster had ‘saved’ or ‘redeemed’ via his or her actions—he inherited several bureaucratic responsibilities. Those responsibilities included verifying that Adjustments had been properly carried out and, if they had not, the senior Adjuster was to dispose of the junior Adjuster—personally.

Of course, there were several perks that came with the territory as well—and Jericho was fast approaching the threshold which still separated himself and Obunda within the Timent Electorum’s ranks.

“What I do with my pants down is none of your business, Obunda,” Jericho said evenly, hoping to discourage further comment on the matter.

Obunda let loose a harsh, barking laughter which was somehow audible even over the din of the club’s absurd soundscape. “You don’t know what you’re missing, old man,” he said before taking a sip of his drink. “I’ve always got time to preach to a potential convert and would happily show you a thing or two if you’d like…who knows, you might even enjoy it?”

“Pass,” Jericho said dryly. “You have something for me, so let’s stop wasting each other’s time.”

“As you wish,” Obunda sighed before sliding a data crystal across the table. “This one’s time-sensitive, and the former Adjuster’s preparations look solid. All you have to do is show up, wait for an opening, and make the Adjustment. It’ll be the easiest fifteen hundred RL you’ve ever accrued.”

Jericho withdrew a data pad and slid the crystal into the reading slot. Data began to flood the screen and he scanned its contents before asking, “What happened to the former Adjuster?”

Obunda gently swirled his drink. “Her paperwork for a previous Adjustment came up…lacking,” he said casually. “The window for this one is closing and, as the senior Infectus-level Adjuster here on Virgin, the burden of executing the contract falls to you. You make this Adjustment,” he gestured to the data pad, “and you’ll pass the tribunal to get access to Tyrannis contracts before year’s end without breaking a sweat.”

Obunda’s description of the expected risk was conservative to the point of being ludicrous. The target was a recently-retired Planetary Defense Force officer holding the rank of Lieutenant General, and his name was Pemberton.

Apparently he had been the Virgin Automated Defense Commander assigned to deploy several orbital- and ground-based defensive assets in the unlikely event of an invasion.

The System’s President, Han-Ramil Blanco, had issued an executive order for a drone strike against a rural community comprised of nearly four thousand that had set up on the frontier of Virgin’s eastern continent. That community was later revealed to have harbored several dozen key members of a Sector-wide terrorist organization, and much of the funding for establishing the rural community had come from untraceable, off-world sources. In general, the public had accepted the attack as necessary—but the strike had not been pre-approved by the Planetary Senate.

On the day of the drone strike, Pemberton had been charged with defending the people of Virgin by deploying his automated defense assets in defense of the planet against unlawful attacks—which, having failed to gain Senatorial support prior to taking place, the drone strike was categorically unlawful—but he had failed to do so. The result was three thousand two hundred confirmed deaths when the assault drones vaporized the vast majority of the community’s infrastructure with repeated strafing attacks.

Some speculated that PDF General Pemberton had sympathized with the rationale for the drone strike, and had therefore essentially granted President Blanco permission to slaughter the very people who Pemberton had sworn to protect by accepting the post he had essentially abandoned.

But none of that explained how Pemberton’s Adjustment fell under the Infectus branch of the Timent Electorum’s mandate. Brutally suppressing civilians was an act of tyranny, and therefore Jericho should have never been permitted to see such an Adjustment—let alone carry one out.

“I don’t see it,” he said, removing the data crystal and sliding it across the table. “This doesn’t fall within the range of my authority.”

“Read the last entry,” Obunda said all-too-patiently.

Jericho eyed the other man for several moments before doing as he had suggested. After re-reading it and believing he understood the nature of the Adjustment, he opened the attached files and confirmed their apparent authenticity. “I can’t possibly verify all of this in two days,” Jericho said coldly, despising the way that Obunda had managed to gain the upper hand but working hard to keep that disappointment from his affect, “do you affirm that these are as they say?”

“I do so affirm that the findings there are genuine,” Obunda said laconically. “But General Pemberton’s admission of negligence is well-documented in the public record; all you’ll need to do is have one of your,” his lips twisted into a cruel smirk as he said, “talented operators confirm the financial transfer to make the Adjustment legal.”

Jericho knew that it was an intentional slight which his ‘superior’ Adjuster was making, since Jericho himself was absolutely terrible with data links and other technological devices. Even as a child they had made little sense to him, but over his life he had learned to incorporate them enough that his techno-aversion was far from debilitating.

So by employing ‘operators’ like Benton, Shu, and the late Baxter, he had managed to overcome that particular limitation. But Obunda required no such assistance during his own Adjustments—a fact which he often waved under Jericho’s nose in a belittling fashion.

Obunda had dabbled in tech crime since he was a youth, and had managed several Adjustments via remote from the comfort of whatever place it was he called ‘home’—including that of three Senators in one night, who had conspired to manipulate the Sector’s currency value by shifting massive amounts of labor from one pool to another over a period of five years. He had stopped them during the first year of their plan, and had therefore accrued near the theoretical maximum number of RL possible once the extent of their crime had been confirmed.

Naturally, the prevention of a crime against the body politic was worth more than simply punishing an official who managed to complete such a crime. So, the more ‘lives’ which would be proven to have been directly saved by an Adjuster’s actions, the higher the percentage of the affected population’s lifetime productivity quotient that Adjuster was awarded for acting in defense of the voters’ interests.

With that single Adjustment, Obunda had launched himself into a position of authority and oversight over all Adjustments made in Virgin’s assigned zone of control. Chief among the package of perks had been Obunda’s acquisition of Virgin-exclusive access to Tyrannis Adjustments, which were usually of far higher value than their Infectus counterparts—and required considerably less paperwork to execute.

“Fine,” Jericho said, swiping the data crystal from the tabletop. “I’ll need it verified remotely after I’ve finished.” He then stood from the table and opened his jaw wide in a vain effort to clear the horrific music from his ears.

“Taking a trip, are we?” Obunda asked playfully.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Jericho lied, before adding more truthfully, “I just can’t stand to set foot in this place again.”

With that, he turned and exited the den of indulgence as quickly as he could without making a scene.

[]Chapter XV: Plan ‘B’…as in ‘Brutal’

With a duffel bag in each hand, Jericho stepped off the hovercraft and onto the grassy field before nodding his thanks to the craft’s operator. Benton had arranged for the conveyance after thankfully accepting the job of operator for this unexpected Adjustment on such short notice.

“How far to the safe house?” Jericho asked, having placed a tiny, high-quality earpiece in his left ear just before stepping off the craft.

“We be lookin’ at…” Benton replied, “six clicks by crow’s flight, probably more like seven and a half if you stick to the flat. But you only need four point two clicks to make the top of that hill and set up for the shot.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” Jericho muttered as he set off toward the proposed blind atop the hill.

“That cannon can punch through Class II vehicle armor at three clicks, easy, my man,” Benton chided, referring to the long-range weapon Jericho had brought with him for the mission. “All you need is a line of sight and you be golden—hey!” he yelled unexpectedly, causing Jericho to duck instinctively as his adrenal glands began flooding his body with epinephrine. “Dammit, Eve, I done told you to stay outta my God-damned vids—them shits is private!”

Jericho set his jaw and took several deep, cleansing breaths before coming out of his crouch and resuming the journey to the setup point. “Problems?” he asked in a voice little more than a growl.

“Sorry, my man,” Benton apologized after several seconds of silence, “bitch just won’t stay outta my stuff, feel me?”

“No,” Jericho replied shortly. After a few more steps he stopped and looked at the hill before him. He had initially planned to set up on top of that hill and, using a high-end targeting scope, execute the Adjustment from long-range with a single shot. But the more he had thought about it, the more he became convinced that it was all a setup.

Jericho had learned things about Obunda in recent years which had cast doubt on more than just the other man’s trustworthiness, but he had never accumulated sufficient evidence to support any kind of meaningful action.

“We’re dropping Plan ‘A’,” Jericho said, literally dropping the duffel bag containing the disassembled cannon.

“Say what!?” Benton asked incredulously. “This be the simplest job you ever done, boss man: just walk up that hill, lay flat against a rock till nightfall, then blast that fool through the eye with the BFG and you be back in time for breakfast!”

Jericho considered it, and even though Benton had confirmed that the top of the hill was completely clean—no EM signatures, no heat blooms, not even a slight disturbance of the fauna had taken place in six months of accumulated satellite imagery—he shook his head in negation. “We’re going with Plan ‘B’,” he said as he broke into a jog that would skirt well around the hill—in fact, he meant to go around at least two hills to the left of his original setup point before making for the safe house.

“You the boss,” Benton sighed. “I thought you was just bitchin’ about bein’ too old for this shit, though…now you wanna take on a six man detail up-close-and-personal-style? You ain’t no borg, feel me? These be in-their-prime military types who get paid to do one thing: kill dudes like you who try to get up in their business.”

“Cut the chatter,” Jericho snapped. “Work up some high-res imagery for me; I’ll need an approach in about two hours.”

“You got it,” Benton agreed reluctantly, and Jericho quickened his pace for what he estimated would be an extra fifteen kilometers tacked onto his planned hike.

But at least he would be breathing clean, unpolluted air while he ran it.

“I’m in position,” Jericho said between deliberately deep breaths after he had completed his trek. It was nearly night, and according to the intel on the data pad—intel which Benton had largely corroborated—General Pemberton would be transferred off-world the following evening, which meant that they would be departing the safe house early in the morning. The time crunch was just one of several aspects which heightened Jericho’s wariness, and when he received Benton’s data packet with the information he had requested for the small fortress, that wariness proved more than justified.

“We be dealin’ with twelve, not six, professional killers,” Benton said through the earpiece. “I be readin’ a detection field like nothin’ I’ve ever seen—at least not outside of a full-blown military base or global bank vault—and these dudes each be packin’ some serious heat. I’m seein’ plasma pistols on each of them mo-fo’s, along with a pair of concealed autocannon turrets with near-total coverage of the zone, and even an HVM inside the southern house—which obviously ain’t no house, feel me?”

“Where’s the nearest autocannon?” Jericho asked as he worked through the situational breakdown in his mind.

“Ain’t gonna happen, dawg,” Benton replied promptly in negation of his short-lived plan. “Them shits is controlled from inside the compound—ain’t no manual control to be had.”

Jericho swore under his breath. If he tried to sneak into the safe house the detection grid would reveal him, and if he tried to shoot his way in the autocannons would cut him down before he got his third shot off.

He hated using one of his only remaining aces, but decided it was worth the potential reward. “As far as entry goes, she is one frigid bitch,” Jericho muttered before taking the plunge, “maybe we can slip her something to loosen her up?”

“Thought you’d never ask, dawg,” Benton replied enthusiastically, and Jericho could almost see the grin on the big guy’s face even though he was two thousand kilometers away. “Let me crunch this out for a second,” he said before severing the audio feed.

He sat there as the sun set over the horizon and considered the distances between each of the points marked on his tactical overlay of the surprisingly well-fortified installation.

Just as he had arrived at a timetable for each potential entry point, Benton’s voice crackled in his earpiece, “According to our readings, we be lookin’ at some stiff shielding on most of the central components so we can’t knock them off. But,” he added just as Jericho felt his stomach tighten at the news, “I do think we can give you a window to get into the house without tippin’ off the guards by spikin’ the relays between the central control system and the field or turrets. After that, you be on your own.”

“How long can you give me?” Jericho asked as he rolled his head around, cracking his neck as he did so in a long-practiced warm-up routine.

“We’ve got enough juice to drop the detection grid for twenty one seconds,” Benton replied promptly, before adding, “but the autocannon’s automatic reset cycle is only fourteen seconds, and without more info on their system’s setup that’s what we need to work with.”

Jericho glanced down at his data pad’s tactical overlay and considered his options. Of the nine reasonable approaches he had devised, six of them were out entirely because each would have taken more than twenty six seconds even if everything went perfectly. He considered the autocannons’ firing arcs, and eliminated yet another approach since he would still be within both of their fields for at least four seconds longer than the window would provide.

“You goin’ high or low?” Benton asked, apparently having deduced the options as Jericho had done.

“What do you suggest?” Jericho asked blandly, unable to decide between them. The first option would see him exit the overlapping fields of the autocannons and reach the house with one second to spare, while the other would only leave him in the field of one autocannon—but he would be in its field of coverage for at least three seconds.

“Hang on,” Benton said before once again severing the link. He returned after a few seconds and said, “We be thinkin’ you should take the low.”

Jericho nodded to himself slowly as he considered Benton’s advice to enter the single autocannon’s field for more time rather than entering the multiple autocannons’ fields for less. Then he caught something Benton had said and rolled his eyes, “’We’? Don’t tell me you’re asking the sexbot for tactical advice.”

“I heard that, Jericho,” Eve’s voice cut in over the line. “You take that back this very instant!”

“He didn’t mean nothin’ by it, baby,” Benton tried to assure her. “He just be under a lot of stress…you know how it is: humans be humans. We can’t be perfect angels like you.”

“Well…” Eve said as though considering the matter at great length, “all right. But you need to get me something nice when you come back or I’ll never forgive you!”

“Sure thing, Eve,” Jericho said as he rummaged through the duffel and considered which gear to bring, “but I think I’m going high. One autocannon’s more than enough to turn me into pudding if it locks on, so minimizing exposure time is key.”

He looked long and hard at the bullpup slug-thrower he had brought, which could be reconfigured for medium-range sniping, before deciding against bringing it. He had a smaller shotgun, which had been loaded with explosive rounds that would be absolutely devastating in closed quarters, and concluded that it would pay to have a short-range weapon once he made it into the house.

He also strapped a pair of gas-powered needle-launchers to his forearms, each of which had been loaded with a high-powered tranquilizer dart. The darts were fairly ingenious—and absolutely illegal—in that they not only administered the requisite chemical restraints into the target’s body but they also produced an electrical surge which would instantly stun the target and persist until the chemicals had taken effect. If any of the guards were augmented, or even extensively modified genetically, they would likely be capable of resisting the darts long enough to sound an alarm—but Jericho was betting his life that they were far from super soldiers.

In addition to the ranged weapons, he had brought along Captain Sasaki’s tanto since it had been superior to the other blades he might have acquired. The window Benton would provide him would make it impossible to neutralize all of the guards before an alarm went up, so he needed to sneak into the safe house rather than shoot his way in. He also brought a small satchel of pre-filled syringes, most of which had enough veterinary tranquilizers to knock an ordinary person out for twelve hours—or an athletic specimen like Jericho for three to four hours. He had a growing suspicion that parts of this Adjustment were not what they appeared, and he was therefore unwilling to cause unnecessary collateral damage.

“You just give the word and I’ll give you a sixty second count,” Benton said, and Jericho could hear uncharacteristic tension in the other man’s voice. “But we only be gettin’ one shot at this, feel me?”

Jericho donned a bandolier with two dozen explosive shotgun rounds, and attached the sheathed tanto to his belt as he ran through the scenario in his mind’s eye several times, trying to visualize his approach and subsequent entry to the house.

It appeared there was a vehicle inside the house’s attached garage. He suspected he would be able to use it to create a diversion once he was inside the house and, hopefully, that the diversion would allow him to slip away before he was cut down.

“How many inside the house?” he asked as he checked his gear. He had worn an energy weapon-resistant bodyglove underneath a thin, carbon fiber vest which would provide protection from at least a few rounds of small arms fire before failing. Jericho could have brought heavier protection, but he knew that this particular Adjustment was one he could not make without relying primarily on speed and stealth.

“Includin’ the target…” Benton hesitated, “four. You need to slip past the two guards shown as blue icons on your way to the house,” he explained in a more serious tone and Jericho glanced at the data link to confirm that they were on the same page tactically. “Then it be up to you, boss man.”

“Sounds good,” Jericho replied before closing his eyes and carefully stretching his legs. He needed to move a hundred sixty yards closer to the safe house before Benton made his move. “You’re sure they won’t realize you’ve pinched them?”

“Nah,” Benton replied confidently, “I got the tech specs on all that gear; this shot be tailor-made to knock out the field and the autocannons’ targeting computers. Even them plasma pistols will be affected,” he said before adding contemplatively, “but only for about five seconds.”

“I knew it couldn’t be that easy,” Jericho said sarcastically, but he had already assumed as much.

He carefully moved his way to the perimeter of the compound—which appeared to be nothing but a farm house in the middle of a vast sea of grassy, rolling hills—and when he was in position he stopped to collect his wits. He needed every step to be precisely made, and he had to put every ounce of power he had into each stride or he would be unable to close the distance in time.

When he had inspected his chosen path to the safe house, and concluded that there was no more preparation to be made—and the nearest guard had turned her back—he said, “Start the clock.”

“Clock is hot,” Benton replied, “in ten seconds we’ll be cut off until you can get a new link. Six…five…four…three…two…one…she’s hot—good luck!”

There was the barest blip of static in his earpiece and Jericho immediately took off at a sprint along his chosen route. He made visual contact with one of the guards and saw that the guard’s back was still turned as he cleared her primary field of view and sprinted past a small outbuilding. After four seconds of full-speed sprinting, he saw the second guard he would need to evade—but this guard was facing in his direction and situated on the top floor of a nearby barn-like structure.

Jericho reflexively raised his left arm and activated the needle-launcher, resulting in a hiss of gas bursting from the tubular device. The tiny missile sailed through the air, adjusting its course slightly to bend its arc mid-air and lodge itself into the exposed neck of the guardsman. The guard barely reacted to the attack before going rigid and collapsing to the floor of his viewing nest.

Jericho lost nearly half a stride while neutralizing the guardsman, which meant he would remain in the autocannons’ overlapping fields of fire for an extra quarter of a second—a potentially deadly increase in time.

His feet churned beneath his body as he silently counted down the seconds before coming around the corner of the barn and seeing a relatively exposed patch of ground between himself and the safe house. The autocannons—which were concealed within a pair of ancient, rusted farm vehicles—were still down, but Jericho knew that if they managed to acquire him before he left their fields of fire he would never even know they had killed him.

But he had left all doubt back with his high-powered cannon two hours before. His feet pumped up and down like the pistons of a finely-tuned machine, devouring the dry ground between himself and his quarry as he saw—with more than a twinge of relief—that the third guard he needed to pass by did not appear to be looking in his direction.

He was halfway across the open patch of ground when his silent countdown reach three seconds remaining before the autocannons came online. His legs were heavier than he had expected, and his lungs burned so badly they felt ready to burst in his chest, but he knew he could make the safe house before missing a step.

With two seconds left, he realized he would remain in the autocannons’ overlapping fields of fire for nearly two seconds. He briefly chastised himself for overthinking the approach, but Jericho had no place for guilt or remorse anywhere in his being.

With one second left he tripped over an unseen rock and concluded that there was an eighty percent likelihood that the chip of granite just cost him his life. He managed to keep his feet beneath him, but his stumbling gait cost him nearly another second.

But Jericho refused to die defeated, so he pressed on and actually heard the clicking of the nearest autocannon as it cycled through its restart sequence. Though he pressed on toward the safe house, he felt confident that those clicks would be the last sounds he ever heard.

Time seemed to slow as each painful, laborious step brought him closer to the tiny alcove built into the house which he had chosen as his insertion point. He knew that neither autocannon would see him if he made it to the alcove, but even if he managed to do so he had only a few seconds before the detection grid would come online—and the window appeared to be closed.

In what Jericho would later realize was the first moment of clarity he had ever truly experienced, he made the final handful of steps toward the alcove before rolling to a stop against the concrete foundation of the house.

He lay there for just a moment before springing to his feet and leaping as high in the air as he could while attempting to grab the narrow lip of the window’s sill. Thankfully, his fingertips gained purchase on the first try and he was able to haul himself up to the small portal.

Jericho risked a glance inside the window and saw that it led into an empty, unlit toilet. He reached down to his belt and drew the tanto, which he then used to pry the top-hinged window open. Though it was locked, he managed to break that lock with the tanto as his silent countdown continued. He had just three seconds before the detection field came online and sent up an automatic alarm when it detected him hanging from the outside of the house.

With the window swung open, he hauled himself up and felt his left arm give slightly as he did so. But he had to focus on the task at hand or he would fail to gain entry to the house, so he ignored the pain in his arm and used sheer, brute strength to haul himself into the lavatory as the window swung closed behind him.

Jericho collapsed to the floor and cradled his arm against his chest briefly before realizing that it had broken once again, likely aggravating the injury he originally sustained entering the window of Angelo’s flat in New Lincoln.

“I should have just knocked,” he muttered subvocally. That he had re-broken the arm was actually something of a surprise, since most long bones were more or less structurally sound after a couple weeks of healing time. But he knew he was far from a young man, and was actually grateful that his increasingly fragile body had withstood as much punishment as he had put it through recently.

After collecting himself, he removed the needle-launcher from his left arm and unslung the short, pistol-gripped shotgun from its holster across his back and attached it to the front of the bandolier so he could draw it more quickly. But he needed to remain undetected, or else he could kiss any chance of escape goodbye—and he had no intention of dying during this particular Adjustment—so he would need to depend largely on Sasaki’s tanto and the tranquilizers he had brought for the mission.

Jericho listened at the lavatory’s door and heard nothing, and then he tested the door’s handle to find it unlocked. He swung it open and it was thankfully quiet as it opened wide enough for him to pass through. He entered a short hallway which had a stairwell leading up to the second floor at the far end, and appeared to adjoin both a kitchen and a parlor.

He padded softly toward the parlor-side of the hall and kept his remaining needle-launcher aimed at the kitchen until verifying it was empty, after which he turned his focus toward the parlor. The first of the three guards was sitting in a chair beside a traditional fireplace, and he appeared to be reading some sort of e-zine on a data pad.

The light of the room would create no shadows, and the curtains on the windows would prevent anyone not intently looking inside from seeing him, so Jericho carefully moved behind the man before tapping him on the shoulder.

The guard looked up blankly before Jericho unleashed a crushing overhand right which easily broke the man’s nose, knocking him out cold. Jericho had only the one needle-launcher syringe remaining, and he wanted to keep it in reserve for one of the other two remaining guards inside the house. But he withdrew one of his tranquilizer syringes from the small satchel and injected the man in his left brachial vein, ensuring the drugs circulated throughout his system quickly enough to prevent him from regaining consciousness.

Jericho then proceeded to the staircase, knowing that although he was a highly-trained operative, all of it had been just a little too easy. The overlapping fields of the autocannons; the relatively open lanes of approach provided by the guards posted outside; and a less-than-alert guardsman inside the safe house itself were all major red flags which convinced him that not everything he saw was as it appeared.

But he also knew that it was only a matter of time before the tranquilized guard outside would be discovered, and when that happened the compound would become a closed death trap.

So he softly padded up the stairs, the pain in his left arm growing with each passing moment. He needed to secure the target and get some answers soon, or his only option would be killing General Pemberton before getting those answers.

He had suspected the only way to enter the safe house would be after a localized electro-magnetic pulse, and that had proven correct just a few minutes earlier. Jericho had therefore left his enhanced vision gear with the cannon, and was forced to rely on his own senses rather than high-tech gear—which was how he preferred to operate anyway.

Jericho made it to the landing and saw a glimpse of movement from a nearby open door. Ducking back down into the staircase, he saw a woman emerge from the room. She was wearing all-black, loose-fitting clothing and had medium-length, blond hair. Her physique was less a soldier’s and more akin to a ballet dancer’s, and she seemed unaware of his presence as she moved down the second floor’s hallway toward the door at the far end.

Jericho moved quickly up onto the second floor’s landing and followed her down the hallway for several steps before she turned abruptly and caught sight of him.

Her face twisted in alarm, but before she could scream he snapped a short, tight uppercut into her chin and her eyes rolled back into her head as she collapsed. Jericho deftly caught her slumping body before she fell to the floor and gently lowered her to the thinly-carpeted floor.

While scanning the hallway and its five adjoining doors, he produced another tranquilizer-filled syringe and injected her in the jugular vein. He gave her the full dose since all it would do was keep her incapacitated for another handful of hours, and then he carried her limp body to the room she had left a few seconds earlier.

If he was to get answers then Jericho would probably require some quiet time with Pemberton, so the less evidence he left of his presence the better his chances were to get that time.

Just as he set her down on the bed, Jericho heard a door open at the end of the second floor’s hallway. He quickly made his way back to the doorway and heard a man’s voice say, “Sasha? Are you coming?”

The man’s footfalls approached the room Jericho was in, and Jericho took up a position behind the door and cocked his needle-launcher in preparation.

“Sasha…don’t make me come in there after you,” the man said playfully, and Jericho’s jaw clenched in a mixture of anticipation and disappointment as the man neared the doorway. Any trained professional would have never made the mistake of continuing to give away his position…unless—

Jericho ducked down just as that thought occurred to him and was spared decapitation as a blade sliced cleanly through the wall behind which his head had been. The blade passed easily through the heavy, wooden door and Jericho rolled across the doorway to get a bead on his surprisingly adept adversary.

After seeing the man’s weapon slice so effortlessly through the wall and door, Jericho knew it had a monomolecular edge and that it would slice through his armor as though it wasn’t even there. Even blocking with Sasaki’s tanto would provide little more than a fractional chance of deflecting a single attack before it would be torn apart by the amazing, rare, expensive weapon. He had one shot to put a tranquilizer in the man’s body, and as his foe came into view he fired the needle-launcher at the man’s chest.

The drug-laden missile struck home on the right side of the man’s chest, and Jericho quickly saw that his adversary was huge—easily two meters tall and a hundred twenty kilos of knotted musculature.

The tranquilizer’s electric jolt hit the man with enough force to put a half-ton bovine down, but amazingly he managed to keep his feet beneath him as he staggered backward. Jericho launched himself at the powerfully-built man, knowing that if his adversary could endure the electrical surge then the tranquilizer that followed would likely prove to be even less effective.

Just as the electrical surge dissipated, Jericho slammed into the man’s body and managed to get inside the guard of his weapon as he did so. Jericho’s bulk drove the other man’s through the hip-high bannister which framed the staircase, and the two men’s combined bulk reduced the wooden bannister to splinters as they crashed together onto the stairs below.

The larger man actually managed to twist his body during the fall and force Jericho to absorb as much of the fall’s impact as he did. The wind was nearly knocked from Jericho’s lungs when he felt a pair of sharp, cracking pains in his flank. He had suffered broken ribs before, and he knew the sensation for what it was.

The brutally powerful man brought his meter-long blade around in a one-handed grip and drove its tip toward Jericho’s neck. It was all Jericho could do to keep the man’s single arm at bay using both of his, and he silently cursed his aging body’s fragility and swore to have a complete physical if he survived the Adjustment—an outcome which was proving to be increasingly questionable.

The larger man—whose movements seemed jerky and uncoordinated while still retaining incredible, raw power—drove his knee into Jericho’s hip and Jericho’s leg exploded in pain unlike anything he had ever felt. The powerful man followed up with a pair of crushing knees to Jericho’s abdomen, and whatever wind the fall had failed to take from him vanished after the second punishing knee to his gut.

Knowing that he was outmatched—and nearly out of time, as the monomolecular sword’s tip came perilously close to his throat—Jericho arched his body upward with everything he could muster and drove his hips into his foe’s torso. The tip of the sword wavered briefly, and Jericho adjusted his grip on the man’s arm before twisting and forcing the tip of the blade into the wooden staircase.

The weapon drove into the wood steps all the way to its box-shaped hilt, and a brief look of surprise came over the other man’s face as he moved to recover—but he was unable to do so before Jericho bared his teeth and savagely clamped them onto the man’s neck below his left ear. Jericho was rewarded with a powerful spray of blood which flooded around—and inside—his mouth.

Knowing he had just exposed himself to the same tranquilizer which had incapacitated three of the guards—and possessing no enhancements which would help his system fight that drug’s effects, unlike his current adversary—Jericho released the man’s wrist and reached to his belt for Sasaki’s tanto while spitting as much of the metallic-tasting connective tissue from his mouth as he could.

The larger man thrashed violently and managed to buck Jericho off, sending him tumbling down the stairs. Jericho recovered his posture just before landing at the base of the stairs, and even then he was barely able to avoid the deadly, sweeping arc of the man’s monomolecular blade. The weapon sliced silently through the space which Jericho had barely managed to evacuate as he backpedaled down the hallway, moving inexorably toward the same lavatory through which he had entered the house.

“You’re better than I expected,” the larger man growled as he put his left hand to his neck. Amazingly, the blood flow seemed to have almost ceased and Jericho concluded that the other man had an active repair system, likely based on nano-technology of some sort—yet another advantage the younger, stronger, better-equipped man held over him. As Jericho’s adversary charged forward, he plucked the needle-dart from his chest and dropped it to the floor before taking stiff, laborious steps toward the backpedaling Jericho.

Jericho could already feel the powerful tranquilizer’s first effects in his own body, and knew he had no choice but to attack if he was to have any chance at victory. Even the tiny quantity he had exposed himself to via the other man’s blood would be enough to slow his reflexes enough to make the affair utterly one-sided—and brief.

The hulking warrior stepped forward and expertly whipped the tip of his blade in a seemingly wild, but clearly well-practiced series of slashes, swipes, and stabs. Any one of them would be more than capable of crippling Jericho, but the only reason Jericho was still alive was because the tranquilizer in the other man’s system seemed to be affecting his legs more than his arms. His approach was therefore slowed just enough that Jericho could stay out of range of the weapon.

A monomolecular blade was especially dangerous since very little kinetic force was required to penetrate all but the most advanced personal armor. So a person wielding one would only need to make contact with a lightly-armored target to inflict a serious wound.

The blade came closer and closer to finding Jericho’s flesh with each swipe, and Jericho knew he had no more choice in the matter. He threw Sasaki’s tanto at his assailant, but the larger man reflexively batted it away using his monomolecular blade.

However, by doing so he created a brief opening—and Jericho used that opening to enter inside the other man’s guard and bring the pistol-gripped shotgun’s muzzle up into the other man’s gut. No sooner had the shotgun pressed against the hulking warrior’s abdomen than Jericho pulled the trigger.

There was a muffled ‘whump’ which was barely noticeable even to Jericho, and three separate pieces of the man’s body went flying in opposite directions. Those pieces—the head and attached arms, along with each individual leg—then fell to the floor in the middle of the hallway amid a spray of half-congealed blood and other tissues which had previously formed the man’s powerfully-built torso.

Wiping the man’s gore from his face—and careful not to allow any of it into his mouth in the process—Jericho reached down and picked up the monomolecular blade, along with its sheath, before returning to the staircase.

His left leg hurt terribly, but his range of motion was more or less unaffected for the time being. So he stiffly ascended to the landing and made his way to the far end of the short hall—after collecting Sasaki’s tanto and sticking it back in its own sheath.

The door where the brutally powerful assassin—since that is clearly what the now-dismembered bull of a man had been—had come from was ajar, and Jericho pushed it open to see precisely what he had expected to see.

General Pemberton was seated in the very chair which the intelligence packet had indicated he would be sitting in, and that chair provided a reasonable line of sight to the hilltop on which Jericho had intended to set up on with his anti-material cannon.

But the General was not sitting in that position of his own free will. He had clearly been restrained chemically, as well as physically via plastic bindings which wrapped around his wrists and secured them to the arms of the chair.

Jericho knew his time was limited and, seeing as he had actually expected to find some variation of the scene which was now before him, he wasted no time in retrieving a pair of syringes from the satchel he had brought. He winced in pain as he knelt beside the General, as a lance of white-hot fire ran down the leg the hulking assassin had injured on the staircase with a brutally effective knee.

He injected the first cocktail, which would nullify the majority of readily-available tranquilizers and pain killers within thirty seconds of administration, and then waited for the medicine to work through Pemberton’s system.

Precisely on schedule, General Pemberton’s head lolled around and a grimace of pain flashed across his face. His eyes wandered aimlessly for several seconds until finally settling on Jericho, and when that happened Jericho injected the second syringe into the Lieutenant General’s veins.

“Who…are…you?” Pemberton asked as he slowly came to from the drug-induced stupor.

“Your executioner,” Jericho replied evenly after withdrawing the second needle from the other man’s arm. “I’ve injected you with a truth serum you’re ill-equipped to resist. Tell me why you stood down the automated defense grid when Blanco’s drones came into range—why did you betray the people you swore to protect?”

Pemberton looked at him dully, and Jericho heard a commotion outside. They had apparently discovered the tranquilized guard posted at the barn. It was only a matter of seconds—perhaps a minute—before the entire compound encircled the safe house and cut him off from any chance of escape.

“It was inevitable,” Pemberton whimpered as his face contorted into a look of pure misery. He began to sob, but Jericho slapped him across the face as hard as he could—emotional lability was a common side effect of the particular truth serum he had employed, and physical pain was sometimes capable of cutting through it.

“Die with some dignity, General,” Jericho growled. While the slap seemed to only barely get the other man’s attention, Jericho’s words seemed to snap him out of his stupor completely. “Why didn’t you open fire on the drones? Answer quickly.”

Pemberton nodded as his eyes seemed to gain some measure of focus. “They…the SDF Admirals…they had my granddaughters,” he replied as his face twisted in shameful remorse. “They…they were going to destroy them…do you understand? They were going to hurt them, and only if they were lucky would they be allowed to die afterward!” Once again he began to sob, but Jericho had no time for the other man’s protestation.

The man’s dereliction of duty was at least explainable now, if not still wholly inexcusable. “You accepted the credit transfer to your off-world account so that you would take the fall—better you be Adjusted than your grandchildren be…harmed,” Jericho concluded, and the other man nodded rapidly. But Jericho shook his head adamantly as he stood and made as if to leave, “I can’t Adjust you.”

“No, please!” Pemberton blurted as an alarm went up outside. “You have to kill me now—it’s the only way my little girls will be spared!”

“I’m sorry,” Jericho said with a shake of his head. “You failed nearly four thousand people by tacitly approving President Blanco’s illegal order—you don’t deserve my sympathy.”

“You’re right,” Pemberton stammered quickly, “but I have information!”

Jericho stopped at the doorway, knowing he had only seconds to secure whatever information Pemberton was offering—information which would provide an unexpected bonus, since it likely had to do with President Blanco. “Speak,” he snapped angrily as searchlights began to stream through the windows.

“Your word first,” Pemberton retorted with a measure of resolve more befitting a thirty year veteran of the armed forces. “Promise you’ll file my Adjustment as properly done…and I’ll give you enough information to put that tyrant behind bars for good.”

“Not good enough,” Jericho quipped. Then the searchlights unexpectedly went dark and Jericho felt his hackles rise.

“They’re clearing out, which means you have forty seconds before the area is pulverized by the attack drones lifting off from Fort Sumter this very second,” the General said heavily. “You can’t escape without my help. Even if you get past the perimeter guards, the drones will cut you down in seconds.”

Jericho realized he was probably right. The guards outside had apparently not actually been posted to stop Pemberton from being assassinated…the entire thing had just been an elaborate trap—a trap intended to snare him. So when they had ascertained his location, the guards had naturally pulled back to a safe distance and were likely now awaiting the impending drone strike.

“Fine,” Jericho growled, stomping over to Pemberton’s chair, “I’ll do it—where’s your evidence?” He despised the idea of lodging a false report—an offense which carried with it potentially lethal consequences—but he had made up his mind. And once Jericho gave his word, he kept it.

“Thank you—thank you,” Pemberton stammered through tears.

“The evidence, General!” Jericho barked.

Pemberton nodded quickly. “On South Virginia there is a woman named Tera St. Murray—first name: T-E-R-A—tell her I sent you and repeat the phrase ‘The good of us all.’ She will give you what you need.” He tilted his head in the direction of the stairs, “Below the staircase is a trap door which leads to a tunnel. You still have time to use it for escape—go!”

Without word or fanfare, Jericho reached down and snapped Lieutenant General Pemberton’s neck, killing him instantly. He then did precisely as the late General had suggested as he made for the hidden escape route.

His silent countdown was already at twenty elapsed seconds when he found the trap door, and after opening it he saw that opened into a shaft which descended into the pure darkness below. There was a ladder, and Jericho quickly began to descend the ladder after closing the heavy, iron trap door behind him. They would certainly discover the door’s existence—assuming they did not already know of it—upon inspecting the soon-to-be pile of rubble above him, which is why speed was critical.

No sooner had he reached the bottom of the thirty foot deep shaft and set out down the short, narrow tunnel—which was barely tall enough to permit a stooped, shambling gait—than the ground above him was rocked with a series of violent explosions. The shaft through which he had descended collapsed loudly behind him, and he quickened his pace as dust and small bits of stony debris began to dislodge from the crude tunnel’s walls.

The cloud of dust which the collapsed shaft kicked up choked his breathing, though he did his best to filter his breaths through the hem of his sleeve. The dust eventually settled and, after what felt like several hours and miles of shuffling, shambling, and stooping, Jericho finally came to a stone door with heavy, iron fittings.

After several minutes of intense effort Jericho was able to force the door’s rusted hinges to unlock from their rust-locked position, and he managed to squeeze himself out of the cleverly concealed door—which looked like nothing but a section of rock in a small, rocky, outcropping from the outside.

He took a deep breath of clean, fresh air and looked up. For an uncharacteristic moment, Jericho took in the beauty of the stars scattered across the night sky before setting off in the opposite direction from the safe house—an area now illuminated by the dull, orange glow of the buildings’ burning bones.

[]Chapter XVI: The Next Phase

Masozi opened the door to the tiny, low-rent lodging—her fifth in as many days—and appraised the ‘amenities’ such as they were. The room itself stank of human filth, with just enough residual disinfectant smell to suggest someone had made something vaguely resembling an effort to remove the offensive odor, but had failed miserably in doing so.

She had decided against staying in one spot for too long, and over the course of those five days she had begun to see society differently than she had done just a month earlier in New Lincoln. As she made her way through the streets, it became a fairly simple matter to avoid undue scrutiny by employing the very methods she had once learned to identify in those she believed to be guilty of a crime.

The truth was that she had committed several crimes in the weeks since fleeing New Lincoln but, much as she was loathe to admit it, she had found them to be absolutely necessary to her continued survival so that she could learn who had been behind her framing…and why it had taken place.

Masozi had bought a small assortment of foodstuffs for dinner, as well as for the coming morning’s breakfast. She had less than a day’s work left to get all of the evidence notarized, and the thought had occurred to her that she had no way to get in touch with Jericho now that the Esmerelda Empática had offloaded, reloaded, and subsequently set sail for New Lincoln once again.

So she set down on the borderline filthy bed in the two meter by three meter, windowless room, and carefully attempted to construct a reasonably sanitary setting for her dinner—a dinner which would consist primarily of steamed vegetables and black rice.

Not long after she had finished her meal there was a knock at the door. Masozi—who had been unwilling to risk securing an illegal weapon thus far—looked around for an improvised weapon of some sort. She found very little, so instead she quietly moved to the door and looked out through the peephole.

What she saw outside made her jaw clench tightly as she opened the door, revealing Jericho standing in the hallway with tattered clothing which had been reduced to little better than rags.

“How did you find me?” she asked bitterly as she stepped back from the door. It really was surprising that he had managed to do so with such alacrity—she had only paid for the room an hour earlier!

“I’m good at my job,” he replied after stepping inside and closing the door behind himself. “And none of what I do would be possible if I couldn’t find who I was looking for—especially when they’re trying to hide.”

He held out a hand expectantly, and Masozi felt cold fury at his presumption. But she had played the scene out several times in her head already, and she knew that to do anything other than comply with his request would be counterproductive.

She reached into a satchel she had purchase several days earlier—a satchel which contained everything supporting her new identity—and withdrew the same data pad he had given her on the Esmerelda Empática. Jericho accepted the pad and began to peruse her collected efforts of the time she had spent in Aegis. Of the one hundred eight pieces of evidence, only seven of them still required authentication and most of those were third or fourth pieces of evidence corroborating already-notarized articles.

He studied the contents for twenty minutes before nodding in satisfaction. “I’m impressed,” he said with a modicum of respect in his voice as Masozi sat down on the tiny bed, “I couldn’t have gotten that much done in the same time. It’s more than enough to satisfy reasonable certainty,” he said confidently, “which means our time in Aegis is at an end.”

Jericho winced as he sat down on the arm of the room’s only chair, and Masozi saw his hand go to his hip reflexively. She had noticed his movements had been stiff when he had entered the room and Masozi quirked a cold grin as she said, “Don’t tell me…you broke your hip?”

He shot her a flat look before reluctantly nodding. “Not completely, but it’s going to need major surgery to repair,” he admitted. “I won’t be any good in a fight until I get it fixed but, if I’m right, we won’t have to worry about that in a few hours.”

Masozi cocked an eyebrow. “I’m not certain there is a ‘we,’ Jericho,” she said evenly. “You saved my life and I am grateful for that, but I can’t live like a fugitive. I did your busy work here while you were out doing,” she gestured to his tattered clothing, “whatever it was you were doing. But I think it’s time for me to go my own way.”

Jericho nodded agreeably. “If that’s your choice, I won’t try to stop you. But just because Benton threw the locals off your back by killing your old identity and giving you a new one doesn’t mean Stiglitz isn’t still looking for you. They want you,” he said with a piercing look, “and they’re not going to stop until they get you.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Why would I be important to them? I’m just an Investigator!”

“You know his face, for one thing—” Jericho began, but Masozi interrupted.

“Faces are easy enough to change,” she retorted hotly, her voice rising higher than she had wanted. “Give a surgeon enough money and you can have a whole new cranium in less than a day.”

Jericho smirked slightly and nodded. “True enough,” he allowed, “but you also know why Cantwell was killed—and apparently that’s information they don’t want to be made public.”

“Do I actually know why you…Adjusted Mayor Cantwell?” she pressed, having driven the entire conversation to that point. What she saw flash through Jericho’s eyes was something she hadn’t expected to see: relief.

“No, you don’t,” he admitted as he exhaled, and she actually recoiled in surprise at his frankness, “but if you want to know the truth then you have no choice but to come with me.”

“Why won’t you just tell me?” she demanded, springing to her feet and nearly hitting her head on the low ceiling as she did so. “Why the need for all this secrecy?”

Jericho fixed her with the cold, unyielding look that showed him for what he really was: an assassin who cared only about accomplishing his mission. For a moment she was afraid he had deemed her outburst too much to tolerate, but she didn’t care. Her life—everything she had dedicated herself to—had been destroyed back in New Lincoln. Even if, by some miracle, she managed to convince the authorities of her innocence that would make little difference to a man like Agent Stiglitz.

She needed a reason to keep going on the path she found herself treading. Because without it, the only options available to her ranged from unpalatable to outright unacceptable—and she was determined not to cast about aimlessly for the next handful of years eking out a living on the edges of society as a fugitive.

Jericho’s visage relaxed and he gestured almost apologetically toward the bed on which Masozi had just sat. She folded her arms across her chest defiantly, and Jericho sighed before hanging his head fractionally, “If I told you that then you would be in even greater danger than you are. All I can say is that my primary purpose in all of this,” he waved the data slate pointedly, “is to prevent abuses of power like the one which has already destroyed your life. I could give you the very details your investigative mind thirsts for,” he said with a hard look, “but I hold your well-being in a higher regard than that.”

She had not expected that particular response, so Masozi simply met Jericho’s gaze for a long, silent, while before shaking her head in frustration. “You’ve got me over a barrel here,” she said, hearing the vulnerability she tried so hard to conceal clearly expressed in her voice, “so I guess I have no choice but to go along with you.”

“I assure you, Investigator,” Jericho said as he stood to his nearly full height, stooping to avoid bumping his head into the ceiling, “nothing could be further from the truth…but I’ll admit that I’m more than casually interested in your coming choices.”

“You mean to suggest you didn’t already know I would acquiesce?” she snapped harshly.

Jericho chuckled as he opened the door. “Maybe I did at that, but soon enough you’ll be exposed to things that will make you rather less…predictable.” She felt a flare of raw anger at his actual suggestion that she was predictable, but the truth was he had played her perfectly to that point so she held back a scathing retort as Jericho gestured to the empty hallway, “In any event, our…escort isn’t known for his patience so I suggest we hurry to meet his people—while we still have the chance.”

Masozi wordlessly collected her things and followed Jericho out onto the street, where he hailed a conveyance and they set off toward the spaceport.

“Are you certain this is going to work?” Masozi pressed as they filed into the security queue which led into the spaceport. The Aegis spaceport was—aside from the Virgin Halls of Governance compound—the most heavily-secured facility on the entire planet.

“Benton said it would,” Jericho replied dismissively. “That’s good enough for me.”

“I’m not so certain,” she muttered as they approached the species and gender segregation lanes. Very few aliens actually traveled independently, but Virgin was considered progressive in its egalitarianism toward its varied inhabitants, so several dedicated lanes had been provided for those aliens with decidedly different biology than humans. “This is like walking into a furnace on a cold day and hoping it doesn’t activate.”

“Nonsense,” Jericho said with a light laugh that did little to soothe her fraying nerves. “All ports—whether they’re land, sea, air, or space—are more heavily invested in screening incoming articles or people than they are in screening outgoing ones. For intra-system travel they’ll perform a cursory background check on our idents, verify our travel documents are in order, and so long as we aren’t physically carrying anything hazardous or illegal then they’ll be all-too-happy to take our money and let us indulge our wanderlust by financially supporting the institutions which write their paychecks.”

“So we aren’t leaving the Virgin system,” Masozi breathed a sigh of relief.

“Of course not,” Jericho replied as their lanes diverged into male and female segments, and he unexpectedly reached over and touched her neck with his surprisingly cool, dry hand. She shot him a look of offended surprise, but he ignored it and continued conversationally, “My business license currently only allows me to conduct transactions in the Virgin system—but I am looking into aggressive expansion. Besides, intersystem travel is more expensive than I could afford.”

With that, the two lanes separated and Masozi entered a long, dark tunnel with a glassy-looking interior. She knew it was a bio-scanner, and that as she walked through the tunnel it would check her biorhythms, physical dimensions, the chemical composition of her clothing, and even run a base chemical analysis of her entire body using spectrometry and other methods. This would ensure that she wasn’t smuggling anything inside her body—even something which had been dissolved into her various organs or tissues for later extraction.

She passed through the tunnel and saw a green light flash as she walked through the exiting archway, and from her time studying to become an Investigator she knew that the green light made the occupants of the tunnel feel more secure and thereby decreased their anxiety levels.

But she knew that it also meant quite literally nothing, since as soon as a person entered a major port their movements were tracked automatically and logged in the port’s security records for rapid analysis. Masozi had, herself, apprehended more than a few criminals who had been intent on escaping the long arm of Virgin’s justice using the very system which now threatened to identify her.

Still, she had to fight the anxiety from surging to the fore of her mind. And just as thought solidified itself, a wave of vertigo hit her and she had to brace herself against a nearby rail to keep from falling down.

“Ma’am?” a nearby female Port Security Official said neutrally as she took a step toward Masozi. “Are you feeling ill?”

Masozi shook her head and made to reply, but before she could do so she felt the sudden urge to vomit. She placed her hand over her mouth as she doubled over and managed to fight the urge down. Thankfully it passed and she was able to regain her bearings and stature before shaking her head again and saying, “I’m fine; I’m just nervous, that’s all.”

“Come with me, ma’am,” the woman instructed from the other side of the rail, and Masozi felt a wave of trepidation come over her. Will I be apprehended because of nothing more than a wave of pre-flight jitters?! she wondered bitterly.

Masozi reluctantly followed the woman, knowing that to protest was simply to invite even more scrutiny and the official opened a small gate set in the rail. She indicated Masozi should exit the queue and follow her, so she did as instructed and the two women proceeded to a nearby booth.

“Have a seat, ma’am,” the official instructed curtly.

“I really think I’m fine,” Masozi protested weakly. She had no idea what had come over her, and her heart rate was at least twenty beats per minute faster than it was at rest. She also knew that if she didn’t protest at least a little, that it might be read as an admission of guilt and investigated.

“Sit down, ma’am,” the woman instructed more forcefully, actually placing a hand on Masozi’s shoulder and giving her a not-so-gentle push toward the nearby bench. So Masozi did as she was instructed, and after she had sat down the official drew the curtain across the entry to the two meter square booth.

Masozi sat there in silence for several minutes, and was surprisingly unable to get her heart rate under control. She had even begun to sweat profusely and her lungs were filled with a vague, prickly sensation with each breath she drew.

Then a woman wearing a white lab coat drew back the curtain and entered the booth. Her skin was nearly as dark as Masozi’s own and, though she had to be nearly fifty years old, she was incredibly attractive.

“Mrs. Jefferson,” the woman said in a beautifully staccato, south-eastern accent, “my name is Afia, and I am a doctor here at the Aegis Spaceport. When did you first notice your symptoms?”

“I…” Masozi began, wondering if she should lie. But she quickly concluded that doing so would prove pointless, so she took a short breath and continued, “I was exiting the bio-scanners when a wave of vertigo came over me.”

Doctor Afia took out a small scanning device and flashed it briefly in either of Masozi’s eyes before swiping it along the palms of Masozi’s hands and checking the readings on a readout built into the bracer covering her left forearm. “It would appear that you have contracted a case of Timmaylian Flu,” she said after tapping on the screen for several seconds, and Masozi was almost smitten with how beautifully the woman spoke. She had rarely met anyone who so perfectly retained the accent of their birthplace after moving to New Lincoln—and until her trip aboard theEsmerelda Empática, she had never gone further than a hundred kilometers from that city. “Normally I would advise a course of antiviral therapy to combat the potential long-term neurological damage this disease might cause, but that would preclude you from continuing on to your destination.”

Masozi felt her stomach churn at the doctor’s prognosis. Then she remembered that Jericho had unexpectedly touched her on the skin of her neck, and she almost reached up to touch where his cool, dry hands had brushed against her skin before catching herself as she wondered if this had been part of his plan all along.

She folded her hands in her lap and took a few calming breaths before asking, “What should I do, Doctor?”

“You will accompany me,” Doctor Afia replied in her melodious voice as she stood. “We have a quarantine area where we can observe you for the next four hours, after which time you will no longer be infectious. If your symptoms have not worsened dangerously during that interval, you will be permitted to continue on to your destination with a supply of medication to manage your symptoms while your body clears the infection naturally.”

The doctor opened the curtain and Masozi stood on her surprisingly shaky legs before following the other woman. Doctor Afia led her through several doorways and dimly-lit, soundproof corridors until they came to the end of one such corridor and she opened the door—a door which had a sign reading ‘Medical Quarantine’ above, and on, it.

“Please make yourself comfortable,” the doctor instructed, and Masozi entered the room. After she had done so, the doctor closed the door and Masozi heard the unmistakable buzz of mag-locks engaging.

“Feeling under the weather?” she heard Jericho ask from the far side of the room, and she turned in surprise to see that he was lying on one of the cots.

“You…” she fumed as her tightly-wound emotions came crashing down in a flood. Her fingernails bit deeply into her palms before she forced her hands open and pointed an accusing finger at him, “You should have warned me!”

Jericho made a ‘calm down’ gesture with his hands and gave a meaningful look toward the corner of the room. “I’m sorry, darling; I can explain everything.”

“Explain!?” she blurted, unable to control herself. “You gave me this…this…disease on purpose—and don’t call me ‘darling’!”

Jericho stood and made his way to her, all the while keeping his steely, blue-grey eyes fixed on hers. “Darling, I had a meeting in the Financial District this morning to go over some last-minute transaction details with my new clients. One of them looked unwell, but I didn’t think to check if I had contracted any kind of flu from him,” he said with a meaningful look as he placed his hands firmly on her upper arms and squeezed. “This was the only way I could get the contract…do you understand?”

Masozi actually did think she understood, but it didn’t make her any less upset with him. “You could have told me about your…meeting,” she said coldly. “I might have been prepared for the possibility if you had done so.”

“Duly noted,” Jericho said as his eyes softened and he gave her a nod. “Now, why don’t you lie down—“

Just then the lights flickered off before returning at a slightly decreased luminosity and Jericho quickly made his way to the door. “What do you think that was?” Masozi asked, feeling a sense of mounting dread.

“That was our signal,” he replied as he opened the door, which swung freely on its hinges despite previously having been mag-locked in place. “Come on,” he gestured after setting one foot out of the room.

Masozi then realized that the whole sequence of events had been carefully engineered to get them past the most stringent security checkpoints. She felt like a fool for not having understood it and while she would have liked to blame her physical and psychological stress for her failure to grasp Jericho’s plan, she knew she needed to recognize the cues more quickly.

She followed Jericho out into the hallway, where he proceeded for several paces until ducking off into an adjoining corridor. There were doors every few meters in the short hallway, and he stopped at the fourth one on the left. They waited there for several seconds until the door’s locking bolts clicked open, after which Jericho opened the door and proceeded through it with Masozi close on his heels.

They made their way down a set of metal stairs, and emerged in a maintenance corridor of some kind with electrical relays every few meters, dozens of high-pressure pipes of varying diameters running alongside each other, and even the occasional storage room door.

“We won’t have long,” Jericho said tensely, “Benton wouldn’t have opened the quarantine door unless we’d been compromised. Someone was waiting for us here in the Spaceport and we’ve got to slip through whatever net they’ve got in place quickly.”

“Understood,” she wheezed, her breaths now causing significant pain as her bronchi felt like they were on fire.

“I am sorry about the Timmaylian Flu,” Jericho said as he reached down and took hold of her wrist. While his hand had felt cool and dry before, it was now hot and moist, and only then did she notice that he was sweating profusely. “But I couldn’t risk you giving away the game.”

“You’re going…to need…to trust me…sooner or later,” she growled as she fought to keep her breaths shallow so as not to aggravate the burning in her lungs. Her legs were increasingly unsteady, and she found herself grateful for his steading hand on her wrist—which was soon joined by his other hand as it gripped her elbow.

“There’s more truth in that than you know,” he agreed grimly as he helped her along, their combined pace significantly slowed compared to the when they had left the Medical Quarantine room. “The Flu shouldn’t have hit you this hard, though…I should have chosen a less virulent pathogen. Again, you have my apology.”

Before she could compose a reply, they reached the end of the maintenance tunnel and Jericho looked up at the security camera which was fixed on the door.

“What is it?” she asked after they had waited for nearly a minute.

“We can’t just barge out onto the tarmac,” he replied hoarsely and she noticed that he, too, appeared to have been affected by the Timmaylian Flu to the point where his breathing had become labored. “We need to wait for an opening, but when that opening comes you have to do everything you can to get to the nearest vehicle—it doesn’t matter if it’s a personal conveyance, a luggage carrier, or even a refueling truck—do you understand?”

Masozi nodded, feeling her vision narrow as she did so.

“Come on, Benton,” Jericho growled under his breath as he cast an impatient look up at the camera, which remained fixed in its same position.

“Maybe we…should…head back,” Masozi wheezed as her ears began to pound in time with the beating of her heart.

“There’s no going back,” he said shortly. Then his eye seemed to catch something to do with the camera, and she looked up to see the small, red light indicating it was active had begun to blink. That blinking was rapid, but clearly deliberate, and after a few seconds Jericho held up two fingers to his brow in acknowledgment. “Actually…maybe there is,” he corrected as he placed an arm around Masozi’s waist and slung her near arm over his neck. “It’s not very far to the secondary route; you just need to keep conscious. Can you do that?”

Masozi’s eyes had become heavy, but she shook her head vigorously as she fought off the urge to close them. “I…think so,” she replied weakly as she fought to keep her feet moving in the direction Jericho was carrying her.

“Good,” he replied as the came to a doorway, which was already ajar but had not been so when they had previously passed it, “just keep your feet moving and we’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

Her senses seemed to sharpen after a few minutes of walking down the metal stairway beyond the doorway when the ambient temperature dropped well below the freezing point of water. She looked around and saw that they had emerging into a chamber with a vast, interconnected set of catwalks suspended above a series of storage tanks. They were apparently within the storage facility for the Spaceport’s fuel supply—a high-security area if there ever was one.

If the wrong interests were allowed access to that chamber—where she and Jericho were apparently the only people present—the destruction they could wreak would be nearly unprecedented in Virgin’s history.

“Just a little further, Investigator,” Jericho said harshly, and she realized that her physical effort had begun to diminish as her focus had drifted.

She did as he suggested, but then he stopped cold in his tracks and she looked up in alarm to see a handful of blue-clad men wearing identical visors—visors which highly-trained paramilitary outfits employed during tactical deployments—and one of the men stepped forward while the others kept their weapons trained on Jericho and Masozi.

“Looks like I finally caught you, Jericho,” the man said with deep satisfaction evident in his voice and a triumphant smirk on his lips.

Jericho tightened his grip around Masozi’s waist, and she did her best to focus on the new man’s features but she was unable to do so, as her vision had become so blurry she could barely make out the blue outline of the man’s uniform. She was so sleepy she could just…

[]Chapter XVII: The Host with The Most

Masozi sat bolt upright and looked around for the blue-clad men with the tactical visors. She saw nothing but a small, scarcely-illuminated room and quickly realized she was sitting up in a soft, remarkably comfortable bed.

She looked down and felt her torso, realizing that her clothing had been replaced with a soft, plush robe which seemed to caress her fingers as she ran them across its luxurious fibers. She then realized she was naked beneath that robe—which meant someone had disrobed her without gaining consent to do so.

Oddly enough, that was the least of her worries. As she took stock of her situation, she saw that there were several intravenous tubes running into her arm. Those tubes were connected to a wrist-mounted medical device of some kind—a device which she quickly realized was rumored to no longer exist on this side of the wormhole.

When the wormhole had collapsed, the entire standing infrastructure of the Sector had collapsed with it. Industry and interstellar commerce had ground to a halt due to the inability to import or export material wealth through the wormhole, and that included precious components and maintenance equipment for the Phase Drives which allowed for faster-than-light travel between nearby stars.

Not surprisingly, several other types of highly-valuable technological assets had been snapped up by those with the means to acquire them, including Automated Uniform Treatment of Organic Diseases Operated by Computer—or AUTODOC’s—which became worth a measurable portion of their weight in antimatter overnight when the wealthiest members of the Sector sought to acquire such technology exclusively for themselves.

The device on her wrist, while not a complete Auto-Doc apparatus itself, was most definitely a component of an Auto-Doc system…which meant that whoever now held her captive was not only wealthy in the extreme, but had also deemed her life to be valuable enough that doing so warranted expending some fraction of the Auto-Doc’s irreplaceable resources.

Careful not to damage the incalculably valuable device attached to her wrist, Masozi swung her legs slowly over the edge of the incredibly soft bed and her feet touched a soft patch of rug beside the bed. That rug’s many threads seemed to tickle the soles of her feet, and find their ways in between her toes with such a tactilely stimulating effect that she simply flexed and extended her toes for several moments while taking in the experience.

She indulged herself until the pleasurable shivers which the action sent running up and down her spine had subsided, and slowly stood to her feet. Looking around the room she saw no windows, nor did she see any apparent com-links or access panels of any kind.

“A gilded cage,” she muttered, remembering the phrase from a piece of ancient literature she had read as a child. Masozi then made her way to the door and, just before she had reached it, the door slid open automatically and revealed a well-lit corridor which extended to the left and right.

She stepped out into the corridor and, since the corridor appeared identical in either direction, she decided to go left—then she remembered she was wearing nothing but the robe and decided to see if there was any clothing available in the room.

Masozi found a well-appointed closet which was filled with clothing that appeared to be better-fitted to her body than most of the clothing she had worn in New Lincoln. The wide range of styles present in that closet—ranging from simple bodygloves of varyingly revealing designs, to complicated, frilly, exotic silk dresses which she had thought went out of style when the wormhole had collapsed.  Each of the articles most certainly cost more than an entire year of her Investigator’s salary, and she allowed the small girl who still lived within her to run her fingertips over the most gaudy-looking gowns for a few moments.

She ended up settling on a padded bodyglove which didn’t leave her feeling overly exposed, accompanied by a short vest and knee-high boots which laced up all the way from the toes to the cuff, and were surprisingly comfortable.

The bodyglove, surprisingly, slid over the wrist-mounted Auto-Doc device quite easily and after checking herself in a full-length mirror—noting as she did so how the blue-tinged bodyglove seemed to smooth out the thick, muscular appearance of her physique in a surprisingly flattering manner—she made her way to the corridor.

The corridor was lined with several doors which appeared identical to the one she had passed through upon entering the corridor, but she did not open any of them to confirm that they contained a similar arrangement of furniture.

The walls were painted in a soft, white tone while every piece of trim was a light blue color. Also made of a distinct shade of blue was an emblem she recognized almost immediately after seeing it emblazoned on the floor of the corridor.

It was a blue planet, modeled after the image of what many believed to be Ancient Earth, and there were dozens of human hands clasped with each other beneath that blue-white orb. The image suggested that the joined hands were holding the entire world up, and it was one of the recognizable images in the entire Sector.

“Hadden Enterprises,” she breathed, as everything she had witnessed after awakening came snapping into focus. Hadden Enterprises was one of the most powerful non-regulated entities in the Sector, having built the majority of its wealth by providing reasonably cost-efficient Phase Drive repairs, or outright replacements for failed modules.

The various governments of the Sector had attempted to, one might say, ‘persuade’ Hadden Enterprises to share their knowledge of Phase Drive technology for the public good. But H.E. had never once acquiesced to such strong-arm tactics.

In fact, one such system, named ‘Rationem,’ once attempted to seize all of Hadden Enterprise’s assets in order to coerce the corporation’s compliance in the matter. Hadden had, quite famously, paid a series of exorbitant bribes to the government officials in positions of authority over the employees of Hadden Enterprises which had been imprisoned, and those bribes had seen the vast majority of those prisoners released.

After securing the release of over ninety percent of those employees—with the other ten percent remaining in government custody until their natural deaths several decades later—Hadden Enterprises had sent out an official statement which had since become legendary. It had said in no uncertain terms that Hadden Enterprises would no longer supply the Rationem system with any of its goods or services. Additionally, any entity which was suspected—not proven, but merely suspected—of re-selling H.E.’s property or services on to Rationem without H.E.’s expressed consent would find themselves similarly cut off from Hadden’s services.

Unsurprisingly, the Rationem system was dealt a major economic blow by H.E.’s decision but even a century later Hadden Enterprises had refused every overture on Rationem’s behalf to repeal that decision. As a result, Rationem had plummeted from its position as one of the strongest Systems in the Sector to one of the weakest. Every major corporation that conducted business with Hadden Enterprises—which was, essentially, every corporation—had to request permission from H.E. to do business with Rationem or risk losing their own working relationship with the monolithic corporation, and generally those requests were denied.

Rationem had therefore become something of a cautionary tale for the Sector’s citizenry, as well as something of a talking point for those who believed that government should expand its role to include direct oversight of the megacorporation’s activities. One such proponent of this notion was Governor Crissa Keno, and she was only one among dozens—even the Virgin System’s President, Han-Ramil Blanco, offered frequent vocal support to the growing sentiment that entities like Hadden needed to be controlled in spite of several Primary Rights which, according to the corporate lawyers employed by Hadden Enterprises, guaranteed them their autonomy much like the First Right guaranteed the Timent Electorum’s actions’ legality.

Frankly, Masozi tended to agree with the notion that entities like Hadden Enterprises were essentially unaccounted for in the Sector’s two centuries old codex of laws. It had been convincingly argued that H.E., and similar entities, had taken advantage of loopholes in the system in order to vastly increase their own individual power—power which was essentially unchecked. It appeared that this would continue to be the case for as long as the corporations’ lawyers were able to fend off the unending lawsuits brought against them which invoked anti-trust, equal access, and myriad other fundamental laws on which the Sector had been built.

Masozi tore her eyes from the emblem of the blue planet and looked down the corridor to see what looked to be a lift tube at the end. She made her way to it and the door opened just before she was able to press the activation panel.

Inside was a man who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing a two-piece uniform with the same color scheme as the corridor. “Investigator Masozi,” he said crisply with a professional nod, “your presence is requested in the Observation Lounge. Please,” he invited, stepping aside and gesturing for her to enter the tube.

She did as he suggested, noting with surprise that the man’s features were sharp, angular, and wholly unlike those of anyone she had ever met of Virgin origin. He gave her outfit a brief, appraising look before closing the door with a swipe of his hand across the activation panel. “The Director will approve,” he said neutrally, and Masozi was genuinely uncertain if the remark had been of a sexual nature or something altogether less unprofessional.

Judging by the man’s stoic and composed demeanor as the lift accelerated upward, she concluded it was more likely to be the latter.

When the door opened, Masozi’s breath was taken away at the sight before her. She was inside a massive, flattened-dome-shaped chamber that had to measure at least a hundred meters across and stretched thirty meters high at the peak. The entire dome was transparent, and she looked out to see the familiar rings of Chambliss—the Virgin System’s largest gas giant—framing the incredible sight of Chambliss itself.

The gas giant was mostly brown in coloration, but several bright, red storms violently churned the planet’s surface gases with wind-speeds that would destroy any unprotected, man-made objects in just a few seconds. As if the wind-speed wasn’t bad enough, the electrical discharges taking place within the three dozen documented storms would overpower even the most advanced shielding in seconds.

As she stepped out onto the observation deck, she realized that the entire facility in which she was housed had been built into one of the smaller moons which orbited Chambliss. A few of those moons—whose names she could not recall—orbited at a slightly different angle from Chambliss’ rings, and this appeared to be one of them.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the man who had invited her into the lift said after nearly a minute of Masozi’s silent gaping at the awe-inspiring sight. “The station is currently at its northern zenith relative to the ring-plane—this is the best view we’ll get for the next two months until we pass to the southern zenith. Please, the Director is waiting,” he gestured toward a nearby staircase, which led up to a platform in the center of the chamber, before proceeding to climb those stairs himself.

As Masozi followed him up the stairs, she saw that there were literally hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people in the Observation Deck. They wore variations on the same uniform her escort was wearing, and they appeared to be working out problems on data pads, socializing, eating, or just relaxing.

But the most surprising aspect of the Observation Deck’s denizens was that only half of them appeared to be human! There were aliens of every kind with which Masozi was familiar present and several species she had never even glimpsed in a xenobiology text, let alone seen up close. Those aliens appeared to be working hand-in-hand with their human counterparts, and Masozi was utterly speechless at the sight of it. It all seemed so natural, and yet she had heard nothing but propaganda about how only a select few aliens could be ‘incorporated’ into society to live alongside humans.

She also marveled at the sheer scope and complexity of the engineering required to hollow out the small moon—which was clearly what had been done. Several rocky outcroppings—artifacts of the moon’s original composition, which quite possibly were still directly connected to the moon’s rocky body—jutted out artistically between the perfectly machined plates of metal and ceramic which made up the rest of the massive chamber’s man-made features.

The shape of the Observation Deck’s ‘floor’ was actually more like a short, broad, pyramid than a flat surface. And as she ascended the stairs behind her escort, she quickly deduced that the ‘Director’ was awaiting her at the top.

When they reached the topmost platform of the pyramidal structure, there was a red velvet rope-line which her escort unfastened at one end and gestured for her to pass through. “The Director will see you,” he said with a professional nod, and she passed through the rope line as she took stock of the platform beyond.

She immediately caught sight of Jericho atop the platform, who was seated in a padded, red-upholstered chair opposite a much larger chair—and that chair contained a strange, yet oddly familiar sight.

The ‘man’ seated in the massive, ornate, complicated, throne-shaped mechanism had unnaturally pale skin, vaguely pink-colored irises, and facial features which she actually recognized—even though this person was nowhere near as obese as what Masozi now took to be his offspring. Quite the opposite, in fact, as this man appeared to be emaciated almost to an impossible degree. His arms and legs were locked into contractures and his head was leaned slightly to one side as his body had apparently become a crooked mockery of the human form.

“Welcome to my home, my dear,” a synthesized, but mostly human-sounding voice came from the chair as it turned. She saw that the man seated within had not moved even one inch when he—or, the chair—had spoken. “I am delighted you were able to join us. Please, have a seat.” A chair was brought forward by another uniformed man, who looked remarkably similar to the one who had brought her to the Observation Deck, and it was placed beside Jericho’s seat.

Masozi approached the center of the platform, knowing she was well out of her depth if the man in the bio-chair was who she suspected, and sat down in the proffered seat.

“Would you like refreshment, Investigator?” the chair’s synthesized, distinctly male, voice asked. Another uniformed person—this one a woman, whose sharp nose and platinum blonde hair would have been the envy of every woman in New Lincoln—brought an actual, paper menu for Masozi to peruse. Masozi accepted the menu with a nod of thanks but was unable to tear her eyes from the incredible chair housing the shriveled, desiccated man who was apparently her host.

“Thank you…” she said uncertainly before adding, “Director.”

“Please,” the man replied, as the barest hint of a smile tugged at his thin, violet lips, “only my employees use that title. I would appreciate if you called me ‘Stephen,’ ‘S.R.’ or, if you insist on formality, ‘Mr. Hadden’.”

“Very well…Mr. Hadden,” she said tensely. She realized her fingers had begun to tremble and she quickly clamped her hand into a fist to stop the sensation.

“You have been asleep for several days, Investigator,” Director Hadden said, and Masozi thought she detected an amused note in his voice, “please…indulge your appetite.”

Masozi looked at the menu and hardly knew where to begin. It was filled with delicacies which made the Casa Mia pasta she had shared with Jericho and Benton seem like street-side takeout by comparison. She actually had to double-take at several of the listed items before shaking her head. “I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she admitted before handing the menu back to the woman.

Hadden’s body was wracked with a soft series of convulsions which alarmed Masozi at first, but then she realized he was laughing as his lips had peeled back into a broad grin.

“Clever girl,” his digital voice said approvingly while his lips remained bowed in a silent grin, “it is my considered opinion that menus have no place in civilized society. Bring her a sampler of the kitchen’s latest creations,” he said casually, and the platinum blonde woman nodded curtly before heading off down the stairs toward the far base of the Observation Deck’s pyramidal floor.

“Thank you,” Masozi belatedly called after the woman, and then realized she had given Director Hadden another cause for laughter.

“Forgive me, Investigator,” he said warmly as his body continued to twitch with laughter, “I so rarely receive guests in my home, and admit that I find myself quite taken with you. It is a pity we could not meet under less turbulent circumstances.” His chair turned slightly and Hadden’s pinkish eyes looked up to the transparent dome above, through which Masozi could see the awe-inspiring rings of Chambliss as her gaze followed his and she marveled in the beauty of the place. “I have dedicated my life to mastering the stars by bringing them within our collective grasp,” Hadden explained. “But as I approach the end of that life, I find my thoughts have turned from extending our reach to mastering that which is already within it. This view reminds me of our place in the cosmos and I only hope it has the same, profound effect on my guests.”

Masozi was acutely aware that Jericho had said nothing to that point in the conversation, and she stole a glance at him. He was studying her intently and she instantly came to the conclusion that all of this was some sort of test.

“A month ago,” she began after considering her reply, “I would have considered myself lucky to eventually afford just one cruise to the Rings of Chambliss during my entire life.” She shook her head in wonderment as the reality of her next words sank in while she said them, “I’m honestly not sure if I should be grateful for this…this majesty you’ve decided to share with me.”

“Well said, Investigator,” Hadden said seriously, “well said. Without meaningful pursuits, what is life but a sequence of increasingly predictable stimuli? And what then becomes of us when we exhaust the horizon of imagination?”

“Stephen,” Jericho interrupted dryly, “you know I could listen to you philosophize until the stars wink out, but we’re on a schedule.”

Hadden rolled his eyes as he turned his massive chair to face Jericho. “You must forgive him, Investigator,” the chair-bound Director quipped, “whatever imagination he may have once possessed has long-since been exhausted. I suppose, then, one could say we have the answer to my posited question sitting right here before us.”

Masozi snickered, “Now there’s a depressing thought.”

Hadden’s body was wracked with another series of laughter spasms, and even Jericho couldn’t keep half of a short-lived grin from his face. “You are absolutely delicious, my dear,” Director Hadden said as the platinum blonde woman appeared at the far rope-line bearing a large platter with a transparent cloche. “Please indulge yourself; being unable to enjoy the creations myself, I can only ever experience them vicariously.”

The blonde woman set the tray down on a nearby table, and Masozi stood to examine its contents. The array of food was absolutely stunning, ranging from the exquisite, to the wondrous, to the truly bizarre. Being an inquisitive soul, she selected a handful of inexplicable pieces—in addition to a few of the safer options—and resumed her seat as the blonde woman brought a container with some sort of fruit juice cocktail in it.

As Masozi ate, she felt the weight of Director Hadden’s gaze on her and she was more than a little self-conscious as a result.

“How fares my son, Jericho?” Hadden asked suddenly, and Masozi almost choked on a bite of sushi—which she had assumed to be octopus, but was both disturbed and surprised by the wholly foreign flavors which greeted her mouth after biting into it.

Jericho hesitated and Masozi shot him a wary look. She had come to expect him to reply directly and promptly, and hearing him fail to reply quickly was surprising…and intriguing.

“He’s doing what he loves,” Jericho replied carefully with a shrug of his shoulders. “If only we could all be so fortunate.”

Hadden’s synthesized voice sighed. “Even though he refuses to take my place in the corporation, as his father I believe that I should provide for his lifestyle for as long as I am capable—the stars only know that I am more than capable of doing so.”

Jericho ground his teeth silently, and Masozi could tell there was something else he had wanted to say but was uncertain. Eventually he leaned forward and said, “He’s not taking the gene therapy you suggested, if that’s what you’re really asking, Stephen.”

There was a tense silence for several seconds. “That was indeed among the queries I would have answered, Jericho,” Hadden replied as Masozi bit into an egg which contained some sort of half-developed, reptilian embryo within. It was surprisingly good, although the crunching of the bones was a little off-putting at first. “I have long given up hope that he would carry my family name forward, but I cannot say I disagree with his decision entirely since I, myself, have been less than well-pleased with the experience of this chair.” Silence lingered for several, unexpectedly tense moments before Hadden added, “I appreciate your honesty, Jericho—of all the men I have known, I have never been given cause to doubt your integrity. I would not take advantage of that…peculiar attribute.”

Jericho nodded, seemingly satisfied that the subject had been navigated correctly but the truth was Masozi had little idea what the other two were talking about. She had deduced that Wladimir Benton had been Hadden’s son the moment she had laid eyes on the elder, but the subtext of the interplay between Director Hadden and Jericho was utterly lost on her.

“I have made a decision,” Hadden said unexpectedly, “as soon as you are finished with your meal, you should both make your way to my Medical Sciences division. Jericho can complete his orthopedic repairs there, and my doctors can give the Investigator a thorough going-over to ensure that her system is fully recovered from its recent tribulations. When you have finished there, I will arrange transport for the two of you to your next destination.”

Jericho stood from his chair and nodded in thanks. “You know that in my current capacity, I—we,” he corrected with a look toward Masozi, “can’t accept anything from you beyond room, board, and transport.” He said it as though such was a well-known fact—which, to Masozi, it was not.

“Of course,” Hadden replied warmly, “but as guests in my sovereign territory, you must comply with my medical protocols. Failure to do so will result in immediate ejection via the nearest airlock.”

Masozi’s food—a portion of what looked like pasta but was, in fact, a smattering of cleverly-separated and blanched meat fibers which tasted distinctly like pork—caught in her throat at Hadden’s off-handed mention of possible summary execution.

But Jericho bowed at the waist, appearing utterly unfazed. “We will happily comply with your facility’s medical protocols, Director.”

“Good boy,” Hadden said, and Masozi saw a flash of annoyance cross Jericho’s face. “Until later, my dear,” the chair-bound man said before turning and making his way down the far stairs, his chair’s hover-field generators allowing him to glide down the gently decline.

When he had gone, Jericho turned to Masozi and smirked. “I think he likes you.”

[]Chapter XVIII: A Blast from The Past

After nearly ten hours of being poked, prodded, measured, stripped, clothed, stripped again, and clothed again in increasingly bizarre outfits, Masozi stepped out of the Medical Sciences laboratory with more aches and pains than she had thought possible.

The ‘doctors’ inside that particular department had made her undergo rigorous physical exercises, pushing her body to the literal breaking point before conducting strange neurological examinations the purpose of which Masozi could not hope to guess.

“Turn your head and cough,” she heard Jericho say from down the hall, and she turned to see him seated on a bench a dozen meters or so away. He was smirking, but judging from his sweat-stained shirt they had subjected him to a similar battery of tests—which seemed odd since he was supposed to have just undergone hip surgery.

“If I never see another doctor…” she muttered as she rubbed her wrist, grateful to have the Auto-Doc attachment finally removed from it.

“They’re a necessary evil,” Jericho quipped as he got to his feet, “probably the most necessary evil.”

“If I’d wanted to get disrobed, poked, prodded, groped, photographed in the act of doing so, and then made to feel ashamed about it all afterward,” she grumbled, “I would have gotten drunk, stripped my clothes off and wandered down to the nearest frat-house. At least then I might not have been conscious for the experience.”

Jericho, surprisingly, didn’t laugh at her dark humor but instead nodded grimly. “At least that’s behind us. Let’s go see what our benefactor has in store for us—if we’re going to get ahead of the people who keep trying to have us killed then we need to stay moving.”

They entered the lift at the end of the corridor, and after it had begun its ascent Masozi ventured to ask a question which had made her brain itch throughout the ‘medical examination.’ “How do you know Hadden?”

Jericho nodded, as though he had expected the question—a mannerism which was beginning to wear rather thin on Masozi’s already frayed patience. “An Adjuster isn’t granted access to public funding,” he explained. “All Adjustment-necessary assets have to be acquired by using privately-donated funds which are provided by willing members of the body politic. I suppose it goes without saying that Stephen Hadden is my top financier.”

“But he’s one of the wealthiest men in the Sector,” she argued. “He could back anything he wants and, essentially, you’d be nothing more than his own private assassin.”

Jericho gave her an assessing look before replying, “Thankfully there are protocols—too many to go into right now—which prevent such an arrangement. One of the restrictions is that a financier has to prove a direct connection to the targeted official’s offense; for example, an out-of-system businessman would have a hard time justifying the funding she provided for a local magistrate’s Adjustment. At the end of the day, the burden lies largely with the Adjuster accepting the funds—if the Adjuster accepts funding which was either unjustified or exceeded the Adjustment’s actual cost then that Adjuster is, himself, Adjusted.”

“Who decides what an Adjustment will cost?” she asked, more than a little relieved to be discussing anything other than her bodily functions.

“There’s a formula,” he replied, “it’s not airtight, but it does a good job of providing a guideline based on the target’s position on the bureaucratic ladder, severity of their crimes, whether they’re currently in office, et cetera. Generally there isn’t much cause for concern, though; if a financier isn’t coerced into providing exorbitant sums of money, we don’t look too deeply into it. Not many Adjusters consider themselves public servants, after all—there are as many mercenaries in the T.E. as there are those who actually believe what they’re doing is for the good of society.”

Masozi was surprised—or maybe the proper word was ‘pleased’—to hear him speak so frankly about a nagging issue which had arisen in her thoughts about the T.E.

“But to answer your question more directly,” Jericho said as the lift’s doors opened and they emerged into a giant cavern of some kind. It was hundreds of meters across, roughly spherical, and filled with all manner of buildings, vehicles, and other equipment the purposes of which Masozi could guess. “I’m actually an employee of Hadden Enterprises,” he said as he took several steps into the cavern before stopping and turning to her as she exited the lift herself.

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” she asked guardedly as she looked around the cavern, which was illuminated by hundreds of separate lights scattered throughout the chamber.

“Not really,” Jericho replied, “everyone has to have a day job. Mine gives me access to these facilities,” he swept the cavern with his hand, “which serve as Hadden Enterprise’s testing grounds for many of their products—a process in which my official position requires I participate.”

“Wait,” she stopped, unable to resist the opportunity, “you’re a product tester?”

He shrugged noncommittally, “As I said: everyone has to have a day job. I just happen to be doing what I love.”

She looked up at a nearby building which stood nearly two hundred feet tall, and saw several ropes dangling from its windows at varying heights. She understood after looking at that window how Jericho had planned his exit from Mayor Cantwell’s office. “Impressive,” she said with genuine appreciation.

He looked around the cavern and nodded before gesturing to the lift tube. “I just wanted you to see it before we left,” he said as he made his way to the lift, “we really should go meet Stephen—he despises tardiness.”

After they stepped into the lift, she cocked an eyebrow, “As an employee, shouldn’t you be calling him ‘Director’?”

Jericho snorted softly. “Stephen and I have an…understanding which goes further than most people will know. I consider him, and his son, true friends and colleagues when it comes to my work and my life. I’m fortunate that they appear to feel the same.”

“Right on time,” Director Hadden said as soon as they entered his office. It was surprisingly sparse in its appointments, with only a large aquarium serving to break the blue-on-white motif of the walls and the giant, blue planet-shaped emblem at the center of the circular office. “And while I would like nothing more than to explore every nook and cranny of your rich, fertile mind, Investigator,” he said and, though the words themselves sounded lascivious, Masozi felt oddly complimented by them, “things have taken an unexpected turn.” He moved his chair moved toward the center of the room and said, “Please step onto the emblem and I will explain en route.”

Masozi could almost feel the tension which Jericho had suddenly begun to exude, but he did as Director Hadden suggested and she did likewise. When they were standing on the eight meter wide emblem—the diameter of which was half that of the entire room—the floor surrounding it began to recede like an iris. Masozi immediately understood the purpose for the sparse appointments of Hadden’s office as the floor receded and the ceiling above began to do likewise.

The planetary emblem began to slowly rise and the ceiling above them opened to reveal a long, perfectly cylindrical shaft which was illuminated from the far end at least a hundred meters above.

“It would seem our good friend, President Blanco, has decided to pay me a visit,” Hadden said casually, and as he spoke a holographic display sprung to life from his chair. It was a graphical representation of Chambliss’ rings, with a blue icon at the center Masozi assumed to be Hadden Enterprise’s moon base where they currently were. However, there were dozens of red icons converging on their position, and Masozi’s jaw fell open when she saw that the icons had attached descriptions.

One of those descriptions read ‘V-SDF Destroyer: Monitor,’ while another read ‘V-SDF Heavy Cruiser: Cumberland,’ and yet another read ‘V-SDF Battleship: Congress.’

It was the largest fleet assembled in Virgin’s recent history—at least it was the largest fleet she had ever heard of according to official records…which begged the shocking question of whether or not the citizens of Virgin had even been made aware of the fleet’s formation and deployment.

“How long?” Jericho asked evenly.

“Three hours,” Hadden replied calmly, “which means that if you two are to escape, it must be now. Age has, some might say, ‘unfortunately’ not dulled my wits. Fortified though my home may be, we have no chance of defeating the combined strength of this fleet. I have already ordered a general evacuation of the facility, and several of my warships have set out to buy the evacuees a few more minutes before the fleet enters firing range. With any luck, the bulk of Hadden Enterprise’s sentient resources will survive this act of barbarism…but I have little doubt what this attack signals.”

“A complete dissolution of Hadden Enterprises,” Jericho concluded tightly. “He’s declaring war on the autonomous rights afforded corporations—and their employees—under the Chimera Sector Bill of Rights.”

“Indeed. And the precedent will not be limited solely to corporate entities, since by deploying this fleet he has declared martial law over any in-system region, or entity, which he deems to be in rebellion. It appears there was significant resistance in the System’s Senate due to this very issue,” Hadden said casually, “but we all knew this day would arrive sooner or later. Our contingency plans have been in place for decades; he will not achieve the victory he desperately seeks…at least,” his almost purple lips twisted defiantly, “not this easily.”

The platform rose through the well-lit portal above their heads and slowed until finally stopping when it was flush with the floor around them. They were inside a tiny chamber which had a roughly egg-shaped vessel set in its side on what looked to be the tracks of a giant rail gun.

“You do not have much time,” Hadden urged as he approached the egg-shaped vessel, which was barely large enough for two people to squeeze into. “Your window will close in three minutes; you must enter the vessel and begin the launch sequence as quickly as you are able.” Hadden’s chair turned deliberately toward Masozi and he said, “In another life, you and I may have been something much more than friends, Investigator. But that is not to be, so instead I will say that I would consider it a personal favor of great value if you would speak well of me whenever you are able.”

Masozi was taken aback by his odd request, but nodded slowly. “You’ve given me no reason to do otherwise, Mr. Hadden.”

“Good,” Hadden said as Jericho entered the tiny craft and strapped himself into one of the seats. The Director then lowered is artificial voice and said, “And please…look after yourself in all things. I would hate for the universe to be unduly deprived of one of its brightest stars simply due to a marked absence of imagination on the part of a particularly dim one, if you take my meaning.”

Masozi felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Hadden was all but telling her not to trust Jericho, but why would he do that? She nodded slowly, uncertain how to reply, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“See that you do,” he said seriously before his chair turned and made its way to a nearby tube. “I must prepare what will be my final, riotous act of defiance against the inexorable forces of entropy,” he said. “I do so hope you enjoy the view when I give my final gift back to the universe I have so dearly loved.”

Having no idea what he meant, Masozi quickly entered the tiny craft and closed the hatch before strapping herself into the seat beside Jericho. “Are you ready?” he asked sharply after making eye contact with her.

She held his gaze longer than she likely should have before nodding, “Yes.”

He appeared to pay her hesitation no mind because he plunged his finger down on a flashing green icon, causing a ten second countdown timer to appear on the main screen which was just a few feet from their faces.

Masozi felt a literal thrum of energy when the maglev brackets engaged with the tiny pod’s hull. “What exactly is this thing?” she asked warily.

“Beats me,” Jericho shrugged as he gestured to a nearby rack, “but there’s the manual if you’re into some light reading.”

Masozi saw the indicated book but decided against reading it—at least until the launch sequence had completed.

When the countdown reached zero, her head was snapped back into the headrest and Masozi felt as though the acceleration’s g-forces were going to suffocate her. The screen which had displayed the countdown now showed what appeared to be a frontal view from the ‘top’ of their egg-shaped craft as it rocketed up through a gently curved tunnel with multiple, magnetically-active lines running parallel to each other.

She knew that maglevs and rail guns had been used for launching people into space before the advent of modern propulsion systems—or even before the discovery of materials which made space elevators feasible—but she had never expected she would be riding in a vehicle propelled by one. And as the incredible weight of their acceleration threatened to cave her chest in, she understood why they had fallen out of favor despite their supposedly economical nature.

The trip through the drive tube seemed to last forever, but then the acceleration abruptly ceased and she felt completely weightless. The view screen showed the giant, turbulent orb of Chambliss surrounded by its majestic rings, and their craft was on what looked to be a parabolic course set for near the gas giant’s horizon.

Masozi took several, deep, breaths before focusing intently on the view screen while Jericho adjusted the feeds. He quickly found the rear-facing camera, and it showed the slightly irregular sphere of Hadden Enterprise’s moon base. As she watched it shrink before their eyes, Masozi saw a pair of vessels launch from a recess that looked like a natural crater before speeding off toward the planet on a course similar to their own.

“A pity,” Jericho said neutrally, “H.E. One was the only home I’ve known for the last twenty years.”

Masozi had nothing she could say to him on that matter, so rather than sitting in awkward silence she took out the manual he had indicated and began to read about the craft they found themselves in. Her eyes bulged halfway through the first page and she blurted, “This is a high-pressure diving vessel—it’s designed to conduct experiments inside Chambliss’ atmosphere!”

“I thought the egg shape would play into it,” Jericho remarked dryly. “I assume we don’t have much in the way of propulsion?”

Masozi flipped through a few pages before finding that he was largely correct. “It has attitude adjusters and enough breaking thrust to keep it at a given depth for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.” She suppressed the urge to gulp as she added, “But on our current trajectory it looks like we’re on a one-way trip into the atmosphere…there’s not enough power in this thing’s engines to achieve a stable orbit even if we started firing now.”

“Which means that either this is Stephen’s idea of a really good parting joke,” Jericho said with a shrug, “or someone’s waiting for us between here and crush depth.”

“Status reports?” Hadden asked calmly as he entered the command center of H.E. One for the final time.

“The Virgin System Defense Fleet has engaged the HEV’s Galileo, Copernicus, and Pythagoras,” retired Rear Admiral Emil Berggren reported crisply. “The incoming vessels have been harried but their allies are continuing to close distance in an effort to cut off our remaining vessel’s escape routes.”

“How many ships are awaiting liftoff?” Director Hadden asked as he pulled up the primary control codes for H.E. One’s most critical self-defense systems.

“Eight freighters and two courier ships, Director,” Berggren replied promptly. “Estimated time to evacuate all remaining critical Hadden resources is two hours forty minutes.”

“Too much time,” Hadden mused as he activated the primary power plant controls. He initiated a system-wide increase in power output in preparation for the battle. “Re-prioritize all technical and material assets to evacuation plan Theta-Two; repeat, Theta-Two.”

“Yes, Director,” Admiral Berggren acknowledged before issuing the appropriate orders through the chain of command.

“Bring all weapon systems online, Admiral,” Hadden instructed as he released the safety protocols on H.E. One’s most secretive defensive systems. They were likely less than the equal of the Imperial Navy, which had not been seen in the Sector since the wormhole’s collapse, but they would prove more than a match for the technological level of President Blanco’s fleet resources.

Still, he had spoken truly to the wonderfully surprising Masozi when he had said there was no hope for victory over the fleet arrayed against him. His weapons had longer range than theirs, which meant that they were committed to coming in hard and fast to minimize that edge while exploiting H.E. One’s lack of mobility.

Once enough of H.E. One’s defensive systems had been neutralized in a given area, it would be a simple enough matter for the fleet to tear the rest apart from extreme firing angles which the ground-based systems could not hope to match.

“Embedded defense systems are online, Director,” Admiral Berggren reported crisply, his demeanor that of the consummate professional, “all three hundred detached units are functional and awaiting your orders.”

“Very well,” Hadden replied, glad for the Admiral’s steady presence. “You should join your crew aboard the Isaac Newton, Admiral.”

Berggren stood to attention, which was an endearing if altogether unnecessary display in Hadden’s view. “H.E. One’s communication systems are superior to those of the Newton, Director, and the base is unlikely to be compromised before the battle is over. I can do more good in here than I can on the bridge of the Newton,” he said in a wholly expected protest. “Captain Kotcher is more than capable of commanding her during the battle.”

“As you wish, Admiral,” Hadden relented, having anticipated as much from the man. Some officers would prefer to go down with their crews, but Berggren had always been primarily focused on efficiency. “I will cede control over the embedded resources to your authority so you might support our warships to maximum effect.”

“Thank you, Director,” the other man replied before snapping off an absolutely perfect salute and returning to his duties. It was a gesture of respect which Hadden had not anticipated and it warmed what remained of his shriveled, increasingly useless, heart.

President Blanco’s fleet continued to bear down on H.E. One, and after little more than half an hour the detachment which had engaged Hadden’s warships had destroyed the Galileo, Copernicus, and Pythagoras.

With the majority of their resources deployed near H.E. One, it was down to waiting for the fleet to enter H.E. One’s zone of control.

No more than ten minutes before that happened Hadden’s chair alerted him to an incoming communication. He had expected as much, and accepted the incoming transmission.

A man with a dark-skinned, angular, bearded face appeared. He was seated behind a desk which was surrounded with the various ornaments and seals afforded the highest office in the Virgin System, and he leaned forward in his chair with a smug look on his face.

Hadden’s own communication’s program presented a youthful, vibrant, digital representation of himself from some hundred years earlier. It was vanity, and he knew it, but he also knew it would weaken his corporation’s image to project his real image—and that would place the people who depended on him in grave danger.

“President Blanco,” Hadden said with false cordiality, “to what do I owe the honor?”

“Cut the act, Hadden,” Blanco said in his gravelly voice. “I’ve got the support of the System Senate and all three of Virgin’s Fleet Commanders. If you surrender now, I’ll see to it that your people are relocated to an isolated colony where they can live out their days.”

“You would deny them their freedom, Mr. President,” Hadden retorted smoothly, “I cannot, in good conscience, consent to such a violation—to say nothing of your offer’s illegality.”

“Illegality?” Blanco repeated incredulously. “The people of the Virgin System have elected me to protect their interests and that is precisely what I intend to do. So stand down your remaining forces, or in nine minutes my Fleet Commanders will be forced to destroy that precious little rock of yours. You, and your corporation, have existed outside the law for too long; it’s time you were held to the same standard as everyone else. The people demand that this System be unified under one set of laws which apply equally to all of its citizens. That is my mandate, and I will not fail it.”

“I would debate you on these points, Mr. President,” Hadden said coolly, “but each of my previous attempts to entreat with you on this matter has been roundly ignored. Hadden Enterprises has done nothing to warrant this violence and, on behalf of those you have already slaughtered in the name of ‘Unity,’ I must repudiate your overture. Those people who your vaunted Fleet Commanders killed depended on me to protect them and, while I may have failed in that regard, I will do my utmost to avenge their loss. That is my mandate, Mr. President, and unlike your pursuit of a false unity,” he lingered on the word for a moment before finishing, “I will succeed in carrying it out.”

President Blanco leaned back in his chair and shook his head as though in dismay, “Then you leave me no choice but to suppress your open rebellion against our most sacred laws. May the gods have mercy on your souls.”

The channel cut out and before Hadden could issue any commands each of the one hundred men, women, and aliens manning their stations within H.E. One stood—or similarly adjusted their posture to one of respect—and applauded, whistled, or cheered in their own way for their Director’s representation of their interests.

After the applause had begun to die down fractionally, Hadden increased the speaker volume on his chair. “I am authorizing the deployment of the Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Max Born and Roger Penrose,” he said, and the chorus of cheers, hoots, and applause quickly died down. “Admiral Berggren, you may fight your assets as you see fit.”

“Thank you, Director,” Berggren replied before snapping out commands to his subordinates as the first of the V-SDF fleet encroached into the H.E. One’s zone of control.

The Virgin vessel—a battleship named Congress which led a pair of destroyers and an aged cruiser in tight formation—opened fire as soon as Hadden had done likewise with his ground-based weaponry. Eight of his massive cannons lashed out defiantly and rammed home against the Congress, causing its tactical icon to flicker briefly before once again solidifying.

Damage reports streamed into Hadden’s custom-built, virtual reality interface and he prepared for another volley. His VR interface allowed him near-total control of H.E. One’s defensive assets as though they were merely pieces on a game board, and in a sense that was all they were. To avoid power grid collapse, he would need to modulate power plant output in a perfectly-coordinated dance of destruction as he fueled his powerful defensive weaponry with every last joule of energy his plants could produce.

He saw—or perhaps ‘saw’ is the wrong term, since his VR interface allowed him to process most sensory input in a decidedly abstract faction—the five remaining vessels of Admiral Berggren’s ‘fleet’ come into formation and move to flank the approaching squadron. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the V-SDF fleet overcame their defenses, but the Hadden Enterprises security branch took their jobs very seriously. They had planned for every possible eventuality with the grim determination to take as many of the enemy down as possible while allowing the rest of the corporation’s employees the chance to flee.

So it was with little fanfare, or even acknowledgment from the assembled officers within H.E. One’s Command Center, when the Roger Penrose was struck by a perfectly-directed volley from a second formation of V-SDF vessels and its icon winked out of existence. Seventy three people had bravely manned that vessel, and they had died without even firing a single shot at the enemy. It was an insult to their memory and years of dedicated service—an insult which Hadden fully intended to repay.

While he knew his sentiment was shared by the majority of those around him, he also knew they would not allow that sentiment to interfere with their duties. As soon as they were charged, he lashed out with another bank of his longest-range weaponry and was rewarded when a pair of the enemy fleet’s smaller vessels was annihilated just as rudely as had been the Roger Penrose. But Hadden’s thirst for vengeance was nowhere near slaked.

He felt three of the ten weapons he had just fired wink out as they were destroyed by incoming fire, the weapon systems of the enemy locking onto them almost as soon as his firing them had revealed their location. Hadden also felt three dozen of the concealed weapons embankments scattered throughout the nearby rings unleash their pent-up fury on the approaching V-SDF vessels, and another pair of smaller, lighter vessels was destroyed in a wave of high-powered plasma fire.

It had been wise of Blanco to send his fleet when he had. With H.E. One at its orbital apex relative to Chambliss’ rings, it had removed approximately twenty percent of the embedded weapons systems from the tactical equation. Most of those weapons were high-powered, single-shot plasma cannons and their relatively short range made them useless this far from the icy rings of the gas giant.

It also cleared the widest approach angle for the V-SDF fleet, which meant they could more easily exploit whatever gaps in the defensive grid were created by the destruction of Hadden’s moon-based artillery.

Even Hadden had to appreciate the brutal simplicity of Blanco’s thinking, but he was betting that same simplicity would play into his hand later. Besides, while Hadden Enterprises had stockpiled the most impressive supply of Imperial-grade technology in the entire Chimera Sector, to have deployed it in this battle would have been simply to throw it away in a lost cause. Those assets would find their way onto the board soon enough, and ensuring they did so was now Hadden’s primary focus.

He felt a savage thrill as he saw that one of the battleships—a vessel named the Alexander Hamilton—came perilously close to the field of fire for one of his more creative weapons. Hadden diverted significant power from the rest of the defense grid to his ‘secret weapon,’ and even the lights of the command center dimmed as he prepared to unleash a killing blow on the previously untouched warship.

The instant the Alexander Hamilton entered the perimeter of his narrow firing arc, Hadden diverted all power from the primary and secondary grids to Rail Gun Number Three and fired his improvised mass driver. In a matter of seconds he sent eight thousand kilograms of iron pellets slamming into the unaware battleship in rapid succession, with enough force to literally sheer the vessel in two—which it did. The two halves spiraled briefly out of control before exploding in a flash of blue-white light—before Rail Gun Three went dead, several of its coils having fused due to overload from the sustained energy output.

But RG3’s loss was of little consequence since Hadden knew the attacking fleet would log the weapon’s location and firing arc so it could not be used against them again. And while he had five more rail guns in his arsenal, the odds of even one more of them coming into play were incredibly remote—he had been lucky to get that particular shot in when he had, especially against such a high-value target.

He restored the primary and secondary grids to their full power and unleashed another volley of long-range fire at the approaching fleet’s optimal target—this time, a destroyer named the Monitor. He opened fire with six of his ground batteries, and the Monitor was destroyed in a flash of nuclear fire—but five of Hadden’s six batteries were destroyed before he could redirect them toward new targets.

The battle continued for several minutes as, one by one, Hadden’s surface-based artillery platforms was snuffed out by the approaching fleet. The Stephen Hawking became separated from its formation after suffering major drive failure due to a focused barrage of a nearby squadron. Not long after it had been separated from its allied ships, the Virgin Fleet snuffed the Hawking out of existence with a torrent of well-coordinated fire, just as the Max Born likewise succumbed to a direct hit on its power plant from the battlecruiser C.C. Pinckney’s long guns.

“I would be remiss if I did not order you all to abandon the station,” Hadden said, his voice piped through the base’s intercom system. “You have fought bravely, but there is no need for all of us to die here.”

Admiral Berggren stood up from his post at the bank coordinating the free assets of H.E. One and looked Hadden sternly in the eye, “Permission to speak freely, Director?”

“Of course, Admiral,” Hadden replied through the intercom.

Berggren grabbed a nearby microphone and, after piping into the same intercom system, said, “I’ll be fucked bloody if I turn my back on the only fight I’ve ever been in that actually meant anything—I’m taking as many of those bastards with me as I can!”

There was a resounding chorus of cheers which quickly became ‘fucked bloody’ repeated over and over. Though Hadden disapproved of his senior Commander’s chosen liberty of speech, he could not help but feel a rare moment of connection with the people who had remained with him at H.E. One.

“Very well,” Hadden acquiesced as he unleashed another, less-coordinated, volley of fire from his shorter-ranged plasma cannons. He had reconfigured them to provide for maximum range while sacrificing a significant portion of firepower, but he knew that if he did not at least try to bring them into the fight the Virgin fleet would simply pulverize anything which even remotely appeared man-made on the moon’s surface.

He was pleasantly surprised when the volley struck a corvette which had apparently believed itself outside of the range of such weaponry. Before the enemy vessel could recover, the Albert Einstein poured everything its plants could generate into the vessel and destroyed the Virgin corvette’s drive systems. The enemy corvette went into a bow-over-stern tumble which saw a spray of debris fly off the ruined vessel’s aft section before it exploded. A roughly spherical shower of debris expanded from the point of its death, until that cloud was no longer recognizable as once belonging to a ship.

Not long after that corvette had been destroyed, however, the Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton each came under more fire than they could absorb. Within seconds of each other, the mightiest of the vessels which had fought in H.E. One’s defense were destroyed. And in that moment, the mood in the Command Center turned from one of barely-controlled savagery to one of tacit resignation that their turn had come and gone. They all knew that it would only be a matter of time now that their most powerful mobile assets had been destroyed.

Nearly all of his plasma cannons were destroyed just a few seconds later, and Hadden knew that the bulk of whatever damage they had hoped to cause had already been done. He continued to fire whatever batteries he was able until he quite literally was defenseless. Admiral Berggren’s efforts with the embedded plasma cannons, while initially effective, had become markedly less so when the remaining vessels maneuvered to follow the same basic paths as those vessels which had been struck had followed.

Naturally, Admiral Berggren had anticipated this and had therefore been circumspect in which weapons he had fired and in what sequence they had been activated, but his adversaries were just as capable as he was. It was only half an hour before the moon had been functionally surrounded, and the fleet began scouring its surface with deliberate, patient strikes which destroyed what remained of Hadden’s defense grid in a methodical ‘scraping’ of the moon’s surface.

Hadden remained alert throughout, however, and even managed to land a few crippling blows with well-hidden batteries during the VSF’s scouring of the moon-base’s surface, but no more of the enemy vessels were destroyed by his efforts.

“Admiral Berggren,” Hadden called out when the last of his weaponry had gone offline, “give me the count, if you please.”

“Yes, Director,” Berggren replied curtly, clearly fighting to keep his voice steady. Hadden saw that the man’s eyes were filled with tears as the weight of reality came crashing down on him. The recently-retired Rear Admiral—who had served with distinction and honor for thirty six years in the Virgin System Defense Force before retiring in protest of recent political shifts—called up the tally on his own monitor and mirrored it on each screen in H.E. One’s labyrinthian compound. “Last count,” the Admiral said, his voice threaded with unyielding resolve once again, “thirty six enemy warships entered H.E. One’s zone of control; of those thirty six, only fourteen remain.”

The pride in his voice was something Hadden actually shared—and apparently the rest of the Command Center’s personnel did as well, as they erupted into a chorus of ‘fucked bloody’ for several minutes as the tally cycled across their view screens.

“Well done, Admiral,” Hadden congratulated over the intercom, “indeed, well done to you all. We have done something remarkable this day and we must now ensure that our defiance cannot be ignored by those who would cover up this atrocity which we, and our colleagues, have suffered. I take great pride in standing…or, rather, sitting,” he corrected sheepishly, having been caught up in the moment, “with you here today.”

Another chorus of mixed cheers and laughter went up, and this time Admiral Berggren joined them as little more than a common soldier. If Stephen R. Hadden had been physically able to do so, he would have done likewise but using his speakers to usurp the natural mood seemed disrespectful. He would not take this moment away from them.

And so it was with more than a sliver of regret that he set the massive power generators buried deep within the moon-base’s rocky interior to an irreversible overload cycle while simultaneously accessing the highest-security protocols in the base’s computer. Those protocols would set the station’s entire store of delicately-contained antimatter—which, since Hadden Enterprises was the most powerful corporation in the Sector, was more than any other location this side of the now-collapsed wormhole could boast to possess—free to annihilate with the nearby matter in a carefully-calculated chain reaction that would leave Hadden’s mark on the Virgin System and, he hoped, the entire Sector.

The truth, of which Hadden had been convinced for over a century, was that President Han-Ramil Blanco and those who had gone before him were nothing but puppets. Whether the System President was aware of that fact was irrelevant.

And while Blanco’s blatant assault on the rights and privileges afforded the citizens of the Virgin System had succeeded in destroying Hadden Enterprise’s base of power, Direction Stephen Hadden knew that, as with any competitive game of chess, difficult sacrifices needed to be made if victory was to be achieved.

Blanco, the short-sighted fool that he was, believed he had just pinned Hadden’s most crucial piece and was about to destroy his organization root and branch. But Stephen R. Hadden had known this day would come for a hundred years…and he knew that the only piece in the game which truly mattered would remain in play long after the Director of Hadden Enterprises was gone.

Just as the cheers and boisterous mood in the Command Center reached its crescendo, Hadden flicked the proverbial switch and said, “Check…your move.”

Several hours passed as Masozi and Jericho hurtled toward Chambliss, and the limited tactical feed of the tiny pod kept track of the events at H.E. One throughout the epic battle which unfolded between the moon base and the V-SDF fleet. As she watched the battle rage, and counted twenty distinct flares which could have only been created by the destruction of warships, Masozi felt her spine stiffen.

She had distanced herself from her family precisely because she had feared to someday be associated with an event like the one she was watching, and now that she was viewing a tragedy of this kind up close—and from a vantage point she had never though she would share—Masozi felt something change deep within her.

Just when it seemed that H.E. One would surrender, the inexplicable occurred and Masozi shrieked in horror as the entire station was enveloped in a flash of orange and white light which quickly saw the rocky moon’s body fly apart in a shower of molten rock.

The explosion seemed almost sluggish from their vantage point, but Masozi knew that any explosion capable of destroying a body the size of that moon would have been powerful beyond her brain’s limited ability to comprehend in any meaningful fashion. The blast wave of molten moon fragments was completely asymmetrical and, as she looked at it with tear-brimmed eyes, actually looked like a giant weapon’s discharge—a weapon aimed directly at the beautiful, iconic rings of Chambliss.

As she watched the aftermath, the tactical display went dead. The screen through which she and Jericho had watched the battle unfold had simply been relaying information from H.E. One’s own systems, most of which no longer existed as anything but a rapidly expanding cloud of their constituent atoms.

Then she saw the nearby section of Chambliss’ rings interact with the wave of molten debris, which caused a chain reaction among the icy particles that made up the massive, beautiful rings. It was not a huge change, but even with her naked eyes she could see the effect the explosion had caused as it began to clear out a roughly ovular region of the ring’s surface.

“They can’t sweep that under the rug,” Jericho said quietly, and she looked over to see his fists clenched tightly at his sides before he deliberately reached up and returned the screen to a view of the approaching gas giant.

For the first time since Masozi had met Jericho she emotionally connected with him in that moment, and they shared the rest of their journey toward the gas giant’s atmospheric envelope in relative silence.

[]Chapter XIX: Time and Pressure

Masozi awoke with a start as the image of H.E. One’s destruction interrupted her tranquil dreams, and she looked over to see that Jericho was cycling through the various data feeds the tiny pod’s systems provided.

“I’m no good with this crap,” he grumbled as he futilely cycled through a seemingly endless chain of menus. Masozi was then vaguely aware of the sensation of gravity pulling her forward against the restraints in her harness. It was barely enough to notice, but it was there.

“I’ll do it,” she said after rubbing her eyes and rolling her shoulders, which was as much stretching as was possible in the cramped compartment. Jericho gestured in disgust toward the screen and Masozi began to flip through the various data feeds. “What were you looking for?”

“The external thermometer,” he replied irritably, and as Masozi flipped through the menus she came across a feed which showed that the egg-shaped craft had entered the outer region of Chambliss’ atmosphere. “Everybody else at H.E. One was trained to operate the escape pods and this thing’s been fitted with the same interface, but…”

“You’re no good with ‘this crap’,” Masozi concluded after fighting down her rising nerves.

Jericho nodded sourly, “Exactly.”

“Well,” she said as she flipped through the menus before finding the proper subset of commands, “I think it’s….here”

The thermal gauge expanded to fill nearly a third of the screen, and it was represented by a vertical bar which was still very near the bottom. The color of the legend beside the bar indicated that once the external temperature exceeded what looked to be the 80% mark, the craft would have gone beyond its operating thresholds and permanent damage would occur.

Thankfully, the bar was barely at five percent…but even as she watched, it ticked up to six. Then it passed seven percent, and more quickly even than the previous increases it shot almost past eight and went to nine.

“That doesn’t look good,” she said warily.

“No…it doesn’t,” Jericho agreed as the craft wobbled slightly and the sensation of falling forward against the restraints intensified enough that Masozi realized they were engaged in an atmospheric braking sequence of some kind.

Sure enough, she cycled through the craft’s menus until coming to the vessel’s relative velocity indicator which had already been set against Chambliss’ own speed and vector through the system. The number was slowly, but steadily, decreasing from the previous, mind-blowing, four thousand five hundred meters per second.

“I’m not sure that was a good idea,” Jericho said evenly, and Masozi was forced to concur as she struggled to grasp their current velocity—which would have allowed her to orbit Virgin at its equator in less than two and a half hours! She reached up to deactivate the velocity indicator but Jericho gently grabbed her wrist and shook his head, “There’s no going back now, Investigator.”

Nodding her agreement, she settled back into her form-fitted seat and only then did she realize that it had been form-fitted perfectly to her body’s dimensions. She looked over at Jericho’s seat and found the same to be true for him.

“Hadden knew Blanco’s fleet was coming before he let on,” Jericho explained. “That physical you were so fond of probably let his people put the finishing touches on this thing’s launch profile—as well as our clothing,” he added with a pointed look at her bodyglove.

She nodded slowly as she realized that the bodyglove was almost certainly a highly-advanced flight suit of some kind. It hugged her soft, fleshy parts in a flattering manner precisely because it was restricting excess blood pooling in those areas, and she shook her head in a mixture of wonderment and irritation.

“Don’t be upset,” Jericho said in a conciliatory tone, “you only get one chance at a first time—don’t begrudge the circumstances which bring it to pass.”

The gee forces continued to grow until the craft wobbled again, and Masozi looked down to see their craft’s external temperature had reached twenty three percent while their deceleration was still sluggishly decreasing their speed as it ticked just below forty four hundred meters per second.

The craft began to wobble with alarming consistency and, before Masozi could ask what was happening, the entire vehicle spun violently a hundred and eight degrees and continued to wobble side to side for several seconds before its movements calmed and eventually abated. When they did so, the deceleration forces were sucking Masozi and Jericho deeper into their seats rather than against the restraints which kept them securely in place.

“Now the real fun begins,” Jericho said grimly, and Masozi felt the urge to grab a hold of something but resisted as she clenched her fingers into tight fists while the gee forces increased dramatically. “If my math’s right, the whole deceleration process should take about six minutes if we were launched with the correct course and speed, after which the attitude control systems will keep us in a more or less stationary position within the planet’s atmospheric enveloped.”

“And what happens then?” Masozi asked heavily as apparent gravity met, and then exceeded, those she had come to think of as ‘normal’ on Virgin.

“Either someone comes along to pick us up,” Jericho said conversationally, “or the pod runs out of station-keeping fuel and we discover just how much pressure this little egg can take before cracking.”

In no way comforted by his reply, Masozi closed her eyes as the g-forces steadily increased until they were a significant fraction of those they had experienced during their launch from H.E. One.

Several minutes passed, during which time Masozi fought to keep her breathing calm and controlled while keeping her eyes closed. She was able to rationalize several aspects of the craft’s flight—including the incredible accelerations out of the rail gun, or coil gun, or maglev, or whatever it had been—but on the whole, the experience was simply more than she could wrap her brain around. She had never taken much interest in astrophysics but, as their craft continued to shed its velocity by interacting with Chambliss’ outer atmosphere, she dearly wished she had paid more attention during Mrs. Anderson’s patient lectures on the subject in primary school.

“Last jolt,” she heard Jericho say, and this time she grabbed the harness criss-crossing her torso as she sought something to hold onto. A few seconds later, some sort of massive explosion occurred behind them toward the craft’s rear and her body was flung violently sideways as the ship lurched sideways while the gee forces more than doubled. Her vision blacked out, and Masozi was vaguely aware of waking up after what she assumed had been several seconds.

When her senses returned, she noted that the craft seemed to have stabilized with what felt like a crushing amount of gravity that was very nearly that of their deceleration’s peak.

“Are you all right?” Jericho asked as he cycled through the craft’s screens in apparent futility. “I could use some help with the vid feeds.”

Masozi blinked her eyes hard for several seconds before nodding and assuming the task of interfacing with the craft’s computer. “I am,” she replied hoarsely as she found the external video feed of their craft’s various cameras. “How long do we have?” she asked as she called up the various feeds and set them to run parallel on the screen.

“You can probably do the math better than I can, Investigator,” he replied as he gestured to the craft’s fuel indicator—which was now reading as only forty percent full. “But we burned up most of our fuel settling into a relatively stable trajectory to maximize our remaining angular momentum, and the rest is just going to fight against the planet’s gravity until it’s gone…my guess is we’re looking at about eight minutes before we essentially go into freefall.”

“That’s an awfully narrow window,” Masozi said just before a large, green light began to flash above the console. “What is that?”

“That,” Jericho said with more than a hint of relief, “would be our ride.”

The light continued to flash, increasing the speed at which it did so until it was nearly solid—a sequence which took nearly two minutes—after which time an alarm began to beep urgently.

“There might be a—“ Jericho began, but was interrupted when the craft lurched violently, snapping Masozi’s head to the left hard enough to crack her neck. The g-forces intensified once again and the craft assumed a new trajectory. “—little bump,” Jericho finished lamely.

Twenty minutes later, the hatch to their tiny craft popped open and an insectoid alien’s visage greeted Masozi. It was wearing a similar uniform to the ones the rest of the H.E. employees had worn, with a white base and blue trim, and it gestured with an appendage which ended in a trio of long, narrow, pincer-like ‘digits.’ As Masozi was nearest the hatch, she exited first and descended a short set of moveable stairs to find herself inside a small shuttle bay of some kind.

Jericho followed behind her, and Masozi looked around to see a handful of people—three of which were distinctly different aliens, including the insectoid which had opened the craft’s hatch from the outside.

“Jericho,” she heard a vaguely familiar man’s voice say, “right on time. We’ll have to skip the formalities.”

Jericho stood to his full height and Masozi turned to see the source of the voice. She quickly recognized him as the same man who had ‘captured’ them beneath the Aegis Spaceport, and he was wearing a uniform with thicker bands of blue trim than the rest of the crew in addition to a small series of what looked to be rank insignia over his chest.

“Can we outrun them?” Jericho asked as he moved to join the other man, who had already begun to move toward the bay’s primary exit.

Masozi turned to see a large, sleek-looking craft seemingly attached to their egg-shaped pod, and the bay was barely large enough to accommodate the impressive looking vehicle. Then she realized that it wasn’t exactly attached to the pod, but it had used a set of grappling appendages—which had clearly been designed for their current purpose—which had secured the egg pod to the nose of the craft. She saw a quartet of letters along the sleek-looking craft’s main body which were ‘NdGT.’

But she didn’t want to be left behind by the fast-moving pair of men, so she turned and quickened pace to keep up with the others and heard the H.E. officer reply, “Yes, but I’ve got two H.E. ships in the area that haven’t yet reached their Phase Thresholds. If I bug out now, the V-SDF ship sent to pursue them will acquire firing solutions before they can escape.”

Jericho looked like he wanted to argue, but instead he said, “You’ve got your orders just like I do, Captain.”

“Correct,” the other man said with a curt nod as they entered a lift—which was far smaller than the ones on H.E. One, and barely fit the three of them without forcing bodily contact. “We’re to destroy the pursuing ship before assuming a supporting role to your mission.”

“Is there any way we can assist?” Jericho asked.

 “Just try to stay out of the way,” the Captain replied before adding matter-of-factly, “this shouldn’t take long.”

[]Chapter XX: The Sleeping Dragon’s First Breath

The doors to the lift opened and the Captain stepped out onto the bridge before Jericho and Masozi did likewise. “Report,” the Captain commanded in a crisp, carrying voice as he made his way to the command chair near the center of the bowl-shaped room.

“The V-SDF Destroyer, Kathryn Janeway, has cleared Chambliss’ horizon and is moving to intercept the 355/113, Captain Charles,” an operator reported promptly. “The 4.669 is also well within the Janeway’s zone of control, even assuming a maximum-length engagement with the Pi Slice.”

“Official vessel designations only, Tactical,” Captain Charles rebuked before calling up a series of commands on his chair’s control interface. “Helm, I think it’s time this dragon came out of hiding: plot an intercept course with the Janeway and push the secondary engines to full.”

“Aye, Captain,” the helmsman replied eagerly, and Masozi was vaguely aware of the deck moving beneath her feet. Still gun-shy from the experience in the egg pod, she reached out to steady herself and her hand came up against a nearby bulkhead. Her fleeting look at that bulkhead revealed a small, bronze plaque which read: CSS-001 Zhuge Liang.

“Tactical,” Captain Charles continued professionally, “estimated time to engagement using Tier Two armaments only?”

“Tier Two range in…fourteen minutes, Captain,” the Tactical officer replied.

The view screen at the fore of the bowl-shaped bridge flared to life, and Masozi saw what appeared to be a cloud of milky, white, gas which slowly began to dissipate until the Virgin star field was visible. The rings of Chambliss were also prominently displayed, and she once again felt the ‘ground’ beneath her shift as the ship lurched forward.

“Get those gravity generators aligned on the double, Engineering,” Captain Charles barked, irritation creeping into his voice. “You’ve got thirteen minutes before we exchange fire with the enemy—fix it before then.”

“Yes, Captain,” a woman replied from the far side of the room.

Jericho tugged at Masozi’s elbow, and she turned to see him gesturing to a pair of apparently unoccupied workstations with chairs—and, more importantly, safety harnesses.

Masozi realized that everyone else on the ship was securely fastened to their workstations, so she did as Jericho had silently suggested and a few minutes later they were locked into the empty seats.

“The Janeway is adjusting her heading, Captain,” the Tactical officer reported after a few minutes of relative silence. “She’s now pursuing the 4.669; new estimated time to engagement, T minus fifteen minutes thirty seconds.”

“Thank you, Tactical,” Charles acknowledged. “Helm, adjust course for new intercept trajectory.”

“Yes, Captain,” the helmsman said, and the ship’s view screen shifted its view to the left about ten degrees. “New course plotted and laid in, sir.”

Masozi felt utterly useless as she sat there, awaiting the inevitable engagement between the two vessels. She had no idea of the technical specifications of either ship, but even if she knew that information she wasn’t trained to do a single useful thing on the bridge of a warship.

She turned to Jericho and whispered, “Did you know about this ship?”

Jericho shook his head. “We knew that some of the equipment transfers weren’t going to the usual customers, but we also knew that if we were supposed to know where they were going then we would have been told. Most of us kept our questions to ourselves.”

“You just blindly went around following orders, even when things like warships were being built under your noses!?” she hissed, unable to believe what she was hearing.

“We weren’t ‘blindly’ doing anything,” he replied with a piercing look, “for all his flaws—and they were many—the Director was a fair man. We mostly trusted in his vision, without which none of us would be here right now.” His eyes softened for a moment and he added, “Sometimes sticking your nose into dark places is a good idea, and other times it’s not. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

She took his meaning plainly enough, but focused on a word he had just used. “You ‘mostly’ trusted his vision…which suggests that you, yourself, had reason to doubt it?”

Jericho stiffened almost imperceptibly. “That’s right, and it led me to learn certain things…and for a long time I wished to God I could have just had faith in the man instead of doubting him.” He shook his head and focused on the view screen, “But that time’s long past.”

“The Janeway will enter her maximum firing range in twenty seconds,” the Tactical officer reported. “Our Tier Two armaments won’t reach effective range for another three minutes.”

“Thank you, Tactical,” Captain Charles said before turning to face the Engineering officer. “Have you got those gravity generators recalibrated?”

“Yes, Captain,” the Engineer replied frantically, “I’m running it through the final diagnostic cycle right now.” Tense seconds ticked by until she declared, “Gravity generators are operating within combat specifications, Captain.”

Not two seconds later, the ship was shaken by a rapid series of impacts enough that Masozi’s head was snapped sideways hard enough to pop several joints in her neck, had they not recently undergone the same in the egg pod.

“Shields holding, Captain,” the Tactical officer reported promptly before another series of impacts could be felt throughout the ship. “Forward shields are still at eighty percent, sir.”

“I want precise strikes against that destroyer’s engines, Tactical,” Captain Charles instructed as he steepled his fingers before his face while his eyes snapped back and forth between the multiple tactical readouts flanking the main viewer, which was now filled with a magnified image of what Masozi assumed was the Kathryn Janeway. The image on the screen adjusted its heading until it was driving directly toward the view screen’s pickup.

“The Janeway has adjusted her heading,” the Tactical officer reported—unnecessarily, in Masozi’s opinion—before adding, “new time to engagement: one minute twenty seconds.”

“Make up your mind, Captain,” Captain Charles muttered before raising his voice, “bring a concentrated burst of all forward weaponry to bear on her forward shields. I want to end this quickly.”

“Yes, sir,” the Tactical officer reported, and Masozi saw a countdown timer appear below the view screen which ticked down from sixty three seconds. When the timer reached zero, Masozi instinctively gripped the arms of her chair and a salvo of bright, blue energy bolts flared against the Janeway’s shields. The assault continued for nearly two seconds before the other ship’s shields disappeared and several of the last energy bolts hammered into her hull before briefly ceasing.

“She’s turning to present her flank, sir,” the Tactical officer reported just as another salvo of energy pulses smashed into the Janeway’s shields on that facing. Several indicators beside the main view screen, which appeared to indicate power levels of the Zhuge Liang’s systems, were reading as less than half full on what Masozi assumed were the ‘Tier Two’ weapon systems, whatever those were.

Captain Charles leaned forward as he obviously processed the information arrayed before him. “Divert power from the primary engines to the particle cannons,” he instructed. “That should buy us enough extra firepower to take them down before they have a chance to change their priorities—again,” he added derisively.

“Diverting power now, Captain,” the Engineer reported, and several of the power indicators beside the main viewer began to adjust until the primary weapons read nearly full power.

Another volley if white-hot fire erupted from the Zhuge Liang, and the Kathryn Janeway rolled to present the opposite flank’s shields before returning with a volley of her own.

The ship juddered, but significantly less than the opening exchange had done. Masozi’s confusion at the difference in the apparent severity of the impacts was dispelled when the Engineer reported, “Gravity generators are nearly finished calibrating to maximum, sir. Another thirty seconds and they’ll be aligned within 0.02% of the specs.”

“Good work,” Captain Charles said with an approving nod.

“Their shield grid has collapsed,” the Tactical officer reported. “She’s launching torpedoes, Captain,” she added tensely, “I’m reading eight warheads inbound.”

“Activate point defense grid,” Charles ordered in a level voice. “But keep our fire on the Janeway—let’s send her wreckage into Chambliss’ core.”

“Yes, sir,” the Tactical officer replied as yet another wave of blue-white fire rammed into the Kathryn Janeway, but this time the impacts tore huge, gaping holes in her hull. The Zhuge Liang’s Tier Two weapons grid appeared nearing exhaustion of its power supply, but with just three percent of its power remaining it ceased its fire as the Kathryn Janeway was torn apart in a shower of superheated metal amid a series of violent explosions which deformed the superstructure beneath her armored shell.

The Tactical officer reported, “Three torpedo strikes, Captain; shields are at thirty four percent. Point defense registers five confirmed interceptions.” Masozi was alarmed to hear they had just sustained more damage that they had during the rest of the short-lived battle combined—but she was even more alarmed that there had not been an accompanying shudder of the ship from those impacts like there had been at the battle’s outset. She concluded that the lack of tactile sensation must have been due to the engineer’s efforts at optimizing the ship’s gravity generators.

The slowly-expanding cloud of intermittently-flashing debris that had moments earlier been the V-SDF Destroyer Kathryn Janeway began to fall toward the gas giant, and Masozi felt her fingers unconsciously release their death grip on the arms of her chair.

“Helm: bring us about to assume an escort position for the 335/113 and 4.669 until they reach their Phase Thresholds,” Captain Charles ordered. “Tactical: confirm the Janeway is out of commission before sweeping the area for any other targets.”

“Yes, sir,” the two bridge members replied in unison.

After several seconds the Tactical officer reported, “The Janeway has ejected her life pods and all power signatures are confirmed dead. No other tactically-significant targets are within range of our sister ships, hostile or otherwise.”

“Good,” Charles said before adding, “send a communique to the V-SDF on their secure channels. Tell them they have wounded who require their assistance; Chambliss’ EM field might block the lifeboats’ emergency comm. beacons and slow any viable rescue operation if we don’t send the distress signal for them.”

“Yes sir,” an alien crewmember replied in a synthesized, distinctly feminine voice. ‘She’ appeared to be some sort of a cephalopod with a human-sized ‘head’ containing four eyes. The creature manned a circular station that appeared to have been built specifically for her species—a species with which Masozi was completely unfamiliar, but bore some similarities to an octopus. After a few seconds, the creature’s vocalizer said, “Transmission sent and confirmed, Captain.”

Captain Charles stood and nodded curtly. “There will be enough bloodshed in the days to come,” he said grimly before fixing his gaze on Jericho and then on Masozi. “Let’s get you two settled; if I understand the mission correctly, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.”

Two days later, Masozi staggered out of the VR simulator and rubbed her aching eyes. She had just spent fourteen hours in flight training simulations—which was decidedly not how she had anticipated spending the trip to…wherever it was they were going.

“You did good today,” Jericho said with the barest hint of approval, “you only killed us six times—a marked improvement over yesterday’s tally of twenty three.”

“You’re already rated for this thing,” she jerked her thumb irritably over her shoulder toward the simulation booth. “Why do I need to train on it as well?”

“Redundancy has a multiplicative effect in certain situations,” he replied casually, which had been almost the precise phraseology he had used in reply to her previous, similar, queries. “We have to be ready for everything, so we need to stay here and train until you’re rated to operate the Tyson in non-combat situations.”

“But you said that time is a factor,” she argued. “Wouldn’t we be better served by getting down to the colony and making the Adjustment?” The more Masozi had read the file for Governor Keno, the more she had been convinced that the Adjustment was just as justified as those of Mayor Cantwell and the other targets Jericho had ‘Adjusted’ back on Virgin. But she was keeping those reservations to herself—along with Director Hadden’s advice regarding Jericho’s trustworthiness—since she didn’t want to reveal any more of her thoughts than she needed to. Those words had replayed themselves over and over in her mind until she feared they might burst from her lips of their own accord.

“The Governor’s not going anywhere just yet,” Jericho said far too calmly for her liking. “She’s surrounded by everything she’ll ever want; she’s got no reason to leave unless a higher power summons her.”

“What are the news feeds saying about the fleet’s attack?” she asked.

Jericho shook his head. “I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. It’s all been filtered, manipulated, twisted, and censored so many times by the time it reaches the public that it’s doubtful there’s any real value in the news feeds’ end product—especially at a time like this.”

He stretched his arms high above his head, and Masozi felt the irresistible urge to do likewise. After she had finished stretching, she shook out the numbness in her fingertips which had developed from being in a stationary position for so many hours.

“We’ve got time, Investigator,” Jericho said calmly. “You just focus on getting familiar with the Tyson’s systems.”

Masozi bit her lip before saying, “I’m not an Investigator any more.” It was a realization she had come to several days earlier, but it had taken that much time to truly come to grips with what it meant. The person she had been—the only person she had ever wanted to be—was well and truly dead.

Jericho waited for several seconds before replying, “That’s true. But if it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to keep using the title.” He shrugged emphatically, “That’s how I’ve come to think of you.”

Masozi had no idea how to respond to that, so she changed the subject, “I’m starving.”

Jericho nodded, and they made their way to the mess hall where they plated up the some food that was decidedly less gourmet—but almost certainly just as healthy—as the contents of the platter which Director Hadden had provided in the Observation Deck of the now-destroyed H.E. One.

They ate in silence as Masozi contemplated the destruction of Hadden’s headquarters, which had served as the nerve center for the Chimera Sector’s wealthiest and most influential corporation. Clearly the destruction of H.E. One had been by the Director’s design, and Jericho had suggested during their flight in the egg pod that one purpose of the explosion had been to make the event a public one. But she was unable to answer the same nagging question which had plagued her for two days: why?

“You’ll work in the VR booth alone tomorrow,” Jericho said unexpectedly. “I’ve got some things to look into, and you’ll need some solo experience in case I’m incapacitated.”

Masozi nodded as though in agreement, but the truth was she had harbored growing doubts about her involvement in everything which had taken place since her arrival in Aegis. The flight from New Lincoln had made sense, since failing to do as Jericho and Benton had suggested would have likely result in her death.

But she had never once considered that she might end up in the middle of a shooting war between the System Government and Hadden Enterprises. And in spite of the events of the past few days, Jericho seemed hell-bent on making his ‘Adjustment’ of Governor Keno with Masozi’s help.

The more Masozi thought about it, the more likely it became in her mind that she needed to get off this proverbial ride as quickly as possible. For the time being, that meant playing along with Jericho’s plan…but she was convinced that it was in her own best interests—and potentially the best interests of the entire Sector—if she parted company with him as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

“I’m going to go talk with Jeff,” Jericho said as he stood from his nearly-finished tray.

“Who?” Masozi asked, her brow furrowed in confusion.

Jericho snorted. “Captain Charles,” he elaborated, “we’ve…got history. It will be good to catch up with him while I’ve got the chance. Feel free to head back to your quarters for some shut-eye; you’ll need it for your next round of VR simulations.”

With that, he left the mess hall—or whatever they called it on a starship—and Masozi was finally free of his increasingly stress-inducing presence.

She closed her eyes and ran through all the available data once again in her mind. After several minutes of silent contemplation, she was once again frustrated by the lack of absolute certainty regarding Jericho’s disposition toward her.

He had genuinely taken risks in harboring her, and while his chosen occupation may be questionable—both legally and morally—Masozi had difficulty finding actual fault with him on those particular grounds. Her entire society had supported his actions and the actions of those like him, and while she held certain reservations about the Timent Electorum after an up-close-and-personal look at its machinations, she still believed in the idea of the social balance it purported to maintain.

But she knew there was more to their situation than Jericho had explained; he had even told her as much! Factoring in Director Hadden’s ominous warning, Masozi had dearly wanted to decide Jericho was untrustworthy.

Still, she was unable to condemn him based on conjecture, hearsay, or intuition. So she would not take action against him directly unless doing so became absolutely necessary to ensure her own safety.

Above all, however, Masozi had resolved herself to break with her de facto captor as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

She stood from the table and, after slotting her empty tray into the rack among the other similarly empty platters, Masozi made for her quarters. She could not quite remember where they were, but she did know they were one level down from her current location. So she made her way to the nearest lift and entered the commands necessary to take her to that level.

Her eyes still ached so badly that she closed them to keep from the discomfort which the tube’s bright light caused. She was well-and-truly exhausted, but Masozi was more than slightly surprised to find she had nodded off during the short ride to deck three as she saw the empty corridor beyond the open doors of the lift. After giving herself a shake she exited the lift and began walking toward her assigned berth.

But before she had reached it, she realized she was in the wrong place. Masozi looked around in confusion and saw that she was on deck six. She stopped and re-ran the sequence of her entering the lift, activating it, and the exiting, and was certain she had made the correct inputs necessary to take her to deck two.

Rubbing her eyes in equal parts frustration and weariness, she turned toward the lift when a sound caught her attention from the far end of the corridor. She turned and cocked her head, listening intently for the sound to recur.

It did, and she realized it was the muffled clang of metal on metal. She remembered that the shuttle bay, where she had disembarked the egg pod, was on deck six so she decided to go see what the commotion was about.

As Masozi neared the shuttle bay’s doors—which were, for some reason, opened—she had the distinct impression that someone was watching her. She whirled around and thought she saw a flash of movement at a nearby corner of the corridor when she did so. Taking a trio of long, quick strides, Masozi burst around the corner hoping to find whoever it was that had been clandestinely following her.

But the corridor was empty, and she narrowed her eyes in suspicion. After several moments of contemplation, she decided it was still worth investigating the shuttle bay for the source of the anomalous sound.

The shuttle bay looked empty and the egg pod was nowhere to be found, but the craft which had retrieved it was. The Tyson—which was apparently the shortened version of the craft’s official name: Neil deGrasse Tyson, abbreviated as NdGT—was a sleek, powerful and, if she was being completely honest, sexy-looking vehicle with matte black armor and a thin, sliver-like forward-facing window in its cockpit.

The craft was flown almost completely on instrumentation, which she supposed wasn’t that unusual for a spacecraft but seemed absolutely counterintuitive to Masozi’s planet-bound way of thinking.

The loading ramp was open on the side of the craft and, after seeing no one present in the shuttle bay, Masozi decided to take a quick look inside the actual craft whose interior the VR simulations she had spent the last two days emulated.

The interior of the craft was incredibly functional and streamlined. There was not a single wasted inch of surface area to be had, and the internal compartment was tiny—too tiny, in fact.

The headroom looked appropriate for what she had come to expect from the simulations, but there was something about the right—or ‘starboard’ in naval terminology, as she had come to learn—side of the cabin which was off.

Then she realized what it was. There was a small bench placed against the wall in the rear of the cabin, and Masozi decided to peek inside the cockpit to see if anything else was different than the simulations. After a thorough appraisal, she found the rest of the Tyson’s inner compartment to be precisely as it had been in the simulations.

Confused, Masozi made her way to the back of the small cabin—which could possibly fit a mid-sized hover car, but nothing larger—and examined the bench. It appeared to be made of the same materials as the rest of the craft’s interior, and seemed to blend with everything else. But unlike everything else in the craft, she could not guess at its purpose.

She knelt beside it and felt the edges with her fingertips, surprised to find it was warmer than she had expected. Masozi felt a nearby panel and found it was cool to the touch, so she once again checked the tiny bench and confirmed that it was significantly warmer than the rest of the craft’s interior.

After several minutes of examination, Masozi discovered a cleverly-concealed locking mechanism which required three points of the bench’s surfaces to be pressed simultaneously. She hesitated briefly, knowing there could be something dangerous inside, but her curiosity got the better of her and she depressed the three hidden buttons in unison.

The top of the box-shaped bench popped up fractionally, and Masozi lifted the hidden lid to reveal a compartment that was lined with a thin, honeycomb-like material made of some strange mineral. But when her eyes fixed on the object inside the box, she gasped in spite of herself.

Clearly emblazoned on the outside of the small, cylindrical device was a series of images which every school child learned to recognize and each one indicated something hazardous—but the most disturbing one was the symbol for ‘highly radioactive.’ Without touching the device, and fearing for her safety in the presence of a radioactive device of any kind, she briefly looked at the smaller markings and found them to be Southern Bloc lettering and pictographs.

Masozi heard muted conversation from the corridor outside the shuttle bay, and she quickly closed the lid of the hidden compartment before exiting the shuttle. She had almost made it to the entry of the shuttle bay when a pair of human crewmembers—a man and a woman, who were clearly more interested in each other than they were in her—came around the corner where she herself had passed on her way to the shuttle bay.

The two gave her a look of surprise and, thinking quickly, Masozi asked, “Where did the egg pod go?” She gestured over her shoulder and gave the two a look of confusion, “You don’t have another shuttle bay on this ship, do you?”

The woman—a short, slightly-built red-haired girl who likely only weighed two thirds what Masozi did—shook her head. “The Zhuge Liang only has one shuttle bay, ma’am.”

The man nodded and said, “But you really shouldn’t be down here without an escort. This is a restricted area.”

“I’m sorry,” Masozi said with her best attempt at feigned guilt, “there was just something in the pod that I wanted to retrieve.”

“Oh,” the woman said in understanding and sympathy, “I’m sorry, we ejected the pod not long after you two were brought on board. It really wasn’t worth bringing along.”

“Of course,” Masozi said in agreement, hoping to get away from the bay as soon as possible to avoid suspicion.

“I’m going to have to log this,” the man said after a moment’s consideration, “how did you open the door, ma’am?”

Masozi blinked in surprised. “It was open…I just assumed that meant it was ok to take a peek. I’m sorry if I was wrong…”

“Hero,” the diminutive woman said while tugging on what appeared to be her boyfriend’s arm, “it was probably Klarpf—he’s always leaving doors open, right?”

The man she referred to as ‘Hero’ rolled his eyes. “That’s true,” he said in agreement before casting a wary eye to Masozi, “but I still think this should be logged…”

“I’ll do whatever you think is best,” Masozi assured him, hoping against hope he didn’t actually decide to log the event. Now, more than ever, Masozi wanted to get away from all of the insanity which had taken over her life for the past month and get back to something approaching normalcy—but that would almost certainly never happen if the ship’s crew discovered what she had learned about the Tyson’s cargo.

Just then the same insectoid crewmember which Masozi remembered had opened the egg pod’s hatch came around the opposite corner of the corridor and stopped in what Masozi assumed was surprise.

“Klarpf,” ‘Hero’ snapped as he gestured toward the shuttle bay, “did you leave these doors open?!”

Klarpf looked back and forth between the doors and the human crewmembers before replying via his vocalizer, “Yes, Crewman Hero.”

Hero sighed in frustration. “I’m going to have to write this up,” he grumbled, “and this is my watch; the Chief’s going to have my head!”

“Hero,” the little woman said in a conciliatory tone, “you have to remember that Klarpf’s people don’t even have doors—they live in a communal, subterranean network of tunnels which connect every chamber to every other chamber. Remember our basic xenopsychology: the entire concept of a door is a foreign concept in a hive mind, right?”

Hero looked doubtful, “I don’t know, Lisa….”

“I…apologize, Hero,” Klarpf said via his vocalizer as he splayed his pincer-esque appendages to either side. “I am unaccustomed to life on this ship.”

“Klarpf was one of the deep-core miners on H.E. One,” Lisa explained after making eye contact with Masozi. “They didn’t have any doors down there, either.”

“Really?” Masozi asked, uncertain if the prolonged dialogue would be beneficial or harmful to her chances for a safe exit from the scene but knowing she had little choice but to play along.

Lisa nodded as her eyes began to mist. “I…” she began, but her voice caught and Hero placed his long arm around her narrow shoulders. Lisa took Hero’s hand in her own and shook her head, as though it would banish the rising surge of emotion she clearly felt after mentioning H.E. One. “I need to get back to the Comm. center,” she said hastily before meeting Hero’s gaze, “go easy on the big guy, ok?”

Hero’s visage softened and he nodded. “Ok, Leese…I’ll let him off—this time,” he added with a warning look to Klarpf.

Klarpf made another display of what Masozi took to be prostration. “Thank you, Crewman Hero.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hero rolled his eyes before planting a short kiss on Lisa’s lips. “See you after shift?”

“You bet,” she said as she wiped her eyes dry and gestured for Masozi to accompany her. Masozi would have preferred exit on her own, but she didn’t want to attract suspicion so she followed the diminutive woman to the lift. When they had both entered, Lisa said, “Deck two, right?”

“Yes,” Masozi said in surprise, but Lisa gave her what looked to be a wholly genuine smile.

“It’s part of my job to coordinate the berthing assignments for unranked personnel,” she explained before thrusting out her hand. “My name’s Lisa Steiner, Comm. Technician—among other things,” she added with a roll of her eyes.

Masozi accepted her hand and nodded. “Masozi…a month ago I was an Investigator but the truth is I don’t know what I am now.”

Lisa leaned in conspiratorially after their hands had separated and said, “You’re still an investigator, you just might not get to capitalize it any more.” The little woman sighed as she added, “We are what we are, Masozi-the-still-investigator. Nobody can take that from us, and we should all learn to be happy with what that is.”

The door to the lift opened and Masozi saw that they were at Deck Two. She exited the lift and turned before awkwardly saying, “Thank you.”

Steiner waved dismissively, “On a ship this small, everyone’s got to look out for each other—especially us girls.” She winked just before the lift closed, and Masozi made a bee-line for the cabin she had been assigned.

Once inside she exhaled deeply, but was acutely aware that her quarters might have been bugged. So she turned off the lights and did her best to go to sleep.

In spite of what she had discovered in the shuttle bay, that turned out to be a less-than-challenging task.

[]Chapter XXI: Final Approach

“I don’t like it, Jericho,” Captain Jeffrey Charles said darkly. “You’re putting too much faith in her.”

Jericho shrugged, knowing that from a given perspective the Captain’s comment would seem reasonable. But he had put in too much work, made too many preparations, and set too many events in motion to back out over what he considered to be an acceptable risk. “When have I ever been wrong about this kind of thing?” he asked with cold certainty.

The Zhuge Liang’s Captain snorted as he waggled a finger remonstratively, “That’s what everyone says until they’ve broken their cherry.”

Jericho chuckled. “True enough,” he admitted. “But the Director had enough faith in this plan to put your ship and crew at my disposal for the foreseeable future…when has he ever been wrong about this kind of thing?”

“When had he ever been wrong?” Captain Charles riposted pointedly. “With the old man gone, it’s anyone’s guess as to how things are going to turn out. The gears are already turning…and before long the Sector might be thrown into a full-blown civil war.”

“That’s right,” Jericho said fiercely as he leaned forward in his chair, which was situated opposite the Captain’s, “the time for doubt is over. We have to see this thing through or thousands—maybe even millions—of people are going to be crushed by those gears.” He forced himself back into his chair and held the Captain’s blue-eyed gaze for several moments before continuing, “I’ve done too much…seen too much…I can’t—no, I won’t—believe that it was all for nothing!”

Captain Charles set his jaw and the two engaged in a silent battle of wills until the Captain finally shook his head and sighed. “I already voiced my objections to this plan in the hours before the Director gave me my orders,” he said in bitter resignation before straightening in his chair. “For better or worse, you’re right: we are committed.” The Captain quirked a grin before adding, “At least you’ll get to see home one last time. I just pray to God your plan goes off like you hope it will.”

Jericho relaxed in his own chair and released a pent-up breath. “You and me both, Jeff,” he said hollowly as he looked out the lone window in the Captain’s Office, “you and me both.”

Charles hesitated before asking, “If you see her, will you give Valeria my regards?”

Jericho snorted derisively, remember that his cousin had long held an unrequited affection for a woman they had both known while growing up. “I can do that,” he said as he stood from his chair and made for the door. He stopped after a few steps and, without turning, said, “But you’re wrong about one thing, Cousin.”

“Oh?” Captain Charles said with a quirked brow.

Jericho nodded solemnly as his eyes went back to the stars outside the Captain’s office. “The old man’s dead…but he’s not gone,” he said before tearing his eyes from the star field outside the window and locking gazes with the Zhuge Liang’s Captain, “men like him never are.”

Mazosi struggled with the controls and the Neil deGrasse Tyson slewed hard to the left after she overcompensated for the initial bump against the colony’s atmosphere. She cursed under her breath at having to perform her very first atmospheric entry with such a valuable craft—especially when her own well-being depended on that performance!

“You’re doing fine,” Jericho said patiently as the Tyson arced toward the moon colony of Philippa. “I’ll take over if you get in trouble; this ship doesn’t register on the world’s sensor net so the only obstacles you have to worry about are the atmosphere and the ground.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Masozi snapped as the Tyson gently lowered itself through the upper atmosphere. It was actually fairly simple to navigate the craft into an approach which didn’t create much in the way of heat—unlike the egg pod, which had used friction as its primary braking method. The Tyson had powerful engines which allowed her to essentially dictate the craft’s behavior completely independent of the moon’s gravity.

“This atmosphere’s as thin as it gets while still being considered breathable,” Jericho reminded her for at least the fifth time during the trip after leaving the Zhuge Liang’s shuttle bay.

Jericho had decided that after only one more day of intense training in the VR simulator—during which she only crashed twice in over two hundred separate missions—Masozi had proven her ability with the shuttle sufficiently to warrant moving forward with the next leg of his mission.

Masozi couldn’t take her mind off the device hidden in the cabin behind them—a device which she was increasingly convinced was a thermonuclear warhead that had been lost during the infamous collapse of Virgin’s Southern Bloc some two decades earlier.

Is he going to detonate that weapon here?!she wondered silently. Why? The Governor’s security detail can’t be that tight.

“Concentrate, Investigator,” Jericho snapped, and Masozi’s attention snapped back into focus as she guided the craft through a patch of upper atmosphere turbulence which had been indicated on her instruments. Her thoughts had only strayed for a moment, but that was all it had taken for her to stray to the outer boundary of their approach vector.

After correcting their course, she realized her pulse had quickened and she was sweating. She knew some of that was due to the stressful act of piloting a genuine starship for the first time, and every muscle in her lower half had been flexed tightly for nearly five continuous minutes. But she also knew that part of her anxiety was the knowledge of the device in the cabin behind them.

“Good,” Jericho said approvingly after she had brought the vessel back into the designated approach path. “This ship has stealth systems that only a handful of grids in the Sector could overcome, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be cautious.”

“If you know so much about it,” Masozi said through gritted teeth, “why aren’t you flying it?”

“Everyone needs practice,” he replied evenly before unfastening his harness and making his way into the cabin. “I’ve got to check on something; I’ll be just a minute.”

She was tempted to ask what he meant to investigate, but Masozi thought better of it and instead focused on the task at hand. She knew that she could ill-afford a mishap, even though they were well within the atmosphere of the colony and only a few minutes from touchdown. She risked a glance over her shoulder into the cabin just in time to see Jericho close the hidden compartment, zip up a duffle bag which had been set beside it, and stow that bag in the craft’s tiny, locker-like closet. Before he turned back toward the cockpit, she returned her full attention to the task of flying.

When he reached the cockpit and re-fastened his harness, Masozi asked tensely, “What was it?”

“One of the capacitors was acting up,” he replied offhandedly. “But it was just a glitch in the readouts; nothing to worry about.”

“That’s good,” Masozi said hollowly as they made their final approach, having gone beneath the colony’s primary detection grid. “How far is the nearest settlement?” she asked as the landing zone was highlighted.

“Twenty three kilometers,” Jericho replied. “Philippa’s gravity isn’t much more than two thirds that of Virgin’s, so it might take some getting used to. Still, it will make the hike that much easier.”

“What are the colony’s rules regarding weapons?” Masozi asked, hoping to segue into whether or not they would be carrying said weapons.

“They’re tight,” Jericho replied bitterly as he began to transfer several of the Tyson’s controls to the craft’s computer, “so we won’t be armed during this first excursion—we’re just here to pick up some of the resources we’ll need later. Go ahead and let off the controls, Investigator; we’ll let the auto-landing program take over from here.”

Genuinely relieved that she would not be attempting to land the incredibly expensive-looking craft, Masozi slowly relaxed her grip on the controls as the computer assumed command. Their trajectory evened out considerably from her hand-directed path, and after less than a minute the Neil deGrasse Tyson touched down inside a rocky crater lined with some sort of green, mossy plant.

“Well done, Investigator,” Jericho said as he unfastened his harness once again and stood from the cramped quarters of the co-pilot’s chair. “We should get moving; we’ve only got two days to set this thing up. Our window will close after that and, following the V-SDF’s attack on H.E. One, we likely won’t get another chance.”

“I understand,” Masozi said as she followed Jericho to the cabin, where he opened the closet into which he had just stuffed the duffel. The truth was she had no idea why such a window existed, but she didn’t want to voice her ignorance.

She was relieved when Jericho failed to retrieve the duffel from the closet, instead opting for a pair of wide-brimmed hats and long, thick overcoats before closing the closet. He handed one of each to her and she accepted before he explained, “Philippa’s thin atmosphere and weak magnetosphere make solar radiation more dangerous here than any other habitable location in the Virgin System. We have to protect ourselves at all times.”

They donned the protective equipment, which included a goggled mask attached to the hat that sealed neatly around her neck just above the collarbones. The mask was remarkably easy to breathe through, and the goggles likewise did very little to alter visible light which made wearing them less inconvenient than it likely appeared.

“Ready?” Jericho asked as he placed a hand on the glyph which would open the lone door into the craft’s cabin.

“Yes,” she replied, still feeling a massive wave of relief wash over her at his decision to leave the as-yet unexplained device—which she suspected was a nuclear bomb.

“The Tyson’s systems, including the door’s locking mechanism, are coded to our bio-patterns and no one else’s. If we get separated and you need to launch, just swipe your hand across the door panel and it will open for you,” he explained before donning his own hat-and-mask, “anyone else’s attempt to access the vessel will result in the ship’s nuclear plant overloading, taking out the nearby settlement in the process.”

Masozi’s heart skipped a beat at his mention that the vessel would explode, and her thoughts turned to the nuclear bomb stowed in the ship’s closet. If the ship’s power plant will take out the nearby settlement, she wondered with mounting concern, how much worse would it be if the hidden bomb’s power is added to it?

Jericho secured the mask attached to his hat as though doing so required less than a thought, but Masozi had struggled for several attempts to get her own unit to fit properly. “Log the ship’s location on your link,” he reminded her, and she was actually grateful for the mask in that moment since it hid her red-faced embarrassment while she did so. There had been several, sleek, wrist-mounted data links in the Tyson and Jericho had given her one as soon as they had boarded the sleek craft. “If we run into any problems you need to be able to return here,” he said as he pressed the glyph, and the cabin depressurized gently as the ramp descended to the rocky ground below. “Let’s go.”

Two hours later Masozi’s legs burned in a wholly unfamiliar way and her lungs felt simultaneously tight with effort and short of air.

“Philippa barely has enough atmospheric pressure to support strenuous human activity,” Jericho explained. “There are several alien species that fare just fine here but humans aren’t one of them, so I suggest that you pace yourself, Investigator.”

“How much farther are we going?” Masozi asked between long, empty-feeling breaths.

“Not far,” Jericho said, gesturing ahead, “the large crater ahead houses around six thousand colonists. It’s the largest settlement on this side of the moon.”

Masozi looked up for at least the hundredth time at the sky. Suspended high above them, looming impossibly large in the night sky, was the planet Pacifica. Its blue-green orb might have been mistaken for one like Virgin, if not for the distinct striations marking its many-layered appearance.

Pacifica was the second largest gas giant in the Virgin System, behind only Chambliss.  Of Pacifica’s seventeen moons, three had been colonized at one time or another. But Philippa had proven to be the only moon capable of sustaining an atmosphere due to its position just within Pacifica’s electromagnetic field. That field was barely strong enough to create an acceptable degree of protection from Virgin’s primary to qualify Philippa as a habitable world.

Using technologies long-since forgotten—or possibly even lost to antiquity—the Imperium’s terraforming teams had extracted the requisite gases from Pacifica and transferred them to Philippa at the earliest stages of the colony’s transformative process.

No one knew how long it had taken to terraform Philippa to its current state, but the process had apparently been interrupted when the wormhole had collapsed. The engineers responsible for the moon’s completed transformation abandoned their efforts in favor of fleeing to their precious Imperium—an undertaking which no one could confirm had succeeded or failed.

Of course, ‘Philippa’ was only the moon’s original astronomical designation. Since the re-naming of most life-sustaining bodies had taken place some two centuries earlier, Philippa had been re-designated ‘South Virginia’ due to its outermost position in the Virgin system. But Masozi had learned both names for the tiny world during primary school and had always preferred ‘Philippa’ to ‘South Virginia,’ so that is how she thought of the rocky moon where she now tread.

As they came to the edge of the crater—and it was a literal edge, much to Masozi’s surprise, rather than a gentle slope—she looked down and saw a tiny settlement nestled inside of a smaller crater within the larger crater which she now overlooked.

“It’s amazing that life can flourish in places like this,” Jericho said with a note of something approaching admiration in his voice. He gestured out to the far side of the crater and said, “First we’ve got to skirt the main settlement and make for that smaller crater. Do you see it?”

 Masozi strained her eyes for a few seconds before seeing what she thought he meant. It was well-lit with what looked to be several large, neon signs around the perimeter. “What do you need to do there?” she asked.

“Collect a final piece of the puzzle,” he replied, “once we’ve got it, we can make the Adjustment.”

Masozi wanted to object, to say that she didn’t want to be a party to any of this any longer, but her sense of caution won a short-lived battle with its counterpart, temerity, and they moved to find a less treacherous path into the crater.

As they approached the far side of the crater, Jericho took a glance over his shoulder at Masozi. She was a truly impressive physical specimen, having never once requested a break from the arduous trek across the unfamiliar—at least, unfamiliar to her—terrain. But her physical attributes were among the least interesting aspects he had admired in the young woman since their meeting in New Lincoln.

He knew she still harbored doubts about what they were doing—and likely even some personal resentment toward him—but Jericho had done everything he could to convince her of his mission’s validity without jeopardizing that very mission.

As they approached the edge of the settlement’s distant subsidiary, Jericho’s eyes settled on what he took to be their destination. One of the dozen, gaudy signs made of old-fashioned neon lights was that of a voluptuous woman wearing absolutely no clothing. She had several religious icons scattered around her, and her hands were folded across her breasts and groin while her pouty lips seemed to blow an eternal kiss through South Virginia’s thin atmosphere.

“That’s our stop,” Jericho said, gesturing to the building, “the Saint’s Blessing.”

He was mildly surprised when Masozi failed to make some predictable barb about men and whorehouses, and a concealed grin spread across his usually stoic features when he opened the door for her and she strode into the structure as though doing so did not offend her.

But, as usual, Jericho knew better. Still, he felt more than a twinge of trepidation as he followed her into the building. He knew that the actual degree of her involvement in his plan would be determined in the coming hours—and he prayed to God that he hadn’t misjudged her.

Too much depended on it.

[]Chapter XXII: Justification

“We’re here to see Tera St. Murray,” Jericho said, and Masozi looked around the room to see a surprisingly sterile environment—for a colonial brothel, anyway.

There was a handful of ‘employees’—some men, some women, and even one whose gender Masozi wouldn’t have ventured to guess—as well as a few patrons who appeared to be making last-minute additions to their ‘orders.’ She noted with alarm that all but one of the patrons of the establishment had severely blotchy skin riddled with small sores; she had learned those symptoms were signs of radiation poisoning during disaster training back on Virgin. One of the women who had come to avail herself of the ‘services’ offered within the locale had a large, clearly cancerous, lump growing on her neck.

“Madame St. Murray does not see couples,” the docent at the desk said smoothly, diverting Masozi’s attention from the clientele. The docent was a thin, lithe woman with skin that almost shone yellow in the soft, white light suffusing the building’s interior. “But I am certain we can accommodate your desires, whatever they may be.”

Jericho shook his head, and Masozi eyed the docent critically. She seemed tense, as if expecting violence to erupt at any moment. But the way the woman carried herself it appeared to be a more or less natural state for her. “We’ve got an appointment,” Jericho said in a tone that brooked no dispute, “tell her we’re here.”

“I am sorry,” the woman reiterated in her silky smooth voice, “but as I said, Madame St. Murray will be unable to entertain you. If you cannot find your pleasure among her employees, I encourage you to try at any of the other establishments in the Sense Quarter.”

Jericho leaned fractionally across the desk and said, in a lowered voice, “I’m a friend of General Pemberton’s. He sent me here, and told me I was to speak with Tera St. Murray—T-E-R-A,” he added pointedly, for some reason at which Masozi could not guess.

The docent’s eyes hardened briefly and her hand twitched, as though it was about to move for a concealed weapon beneath the counter. But she stiffened suddenly and, after a momentary pause, she relaxed and gestured with her long, slender arm to a nearby door, “Madame St. Murray has been expecting you. Please proceed to the end of the hall.”

The door popped open of its own accord, and Jericho nodded wordlessly before proceeding to the door. Masozi followed close behind, briefly making eye contact with the yellow-skinned docent—who gave her the barest hint of a smirk—before she entered the corridor and moved close to Jericho. “This is a trap,” she whispered as they made their way down the hall to a simple door at the end.

“Of course it is,” Jericho replied blandly, making no effort to quiet his voice. “But it’s baited with some evidence we’ll need; we don’t have a choice.”

“Evidence?” Masozi repeated. “What kind of evidence? I thought you had everything you needed for the Adjustment to be legal?”

“We do,” he agreed simply, before reaching the end of the corridor and opening the door.

Inside was a large, circular room about fifteen meters across with a depression set into the floor. That depression was ringed with various pieces of furniture, and at the center was a soft, padded bed of some kind.

Sitting opposite the bed from the door through which Jericho and Masozi had just entered was a woman, who appeared to be in her forties. She wore a lacy, frilly gown which Masozi would have never been caught dead in, with a neckline that plunged so far that her belly button was actually exposed.

“Any friend of the General is a friend of the Saint’s Blessing,” the woman said, gesturing for them to be seated at a nearby sofa. “Please, make yourselves comfortable.”

“Comfort’s not necessary,” Jericho replied as he closed the door behind them. Masozi heard mag-locks engage instantly, and her body tensed reflexively while Jericho strode easily down the trio of steps which led to the depression. “I’ll skip the formalities: I’m the one who killed Pemberton, but before he died he gave me a message to relay to you.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed as Jericho continued to move casually across the floor. When he was halfway across the lowered section of the room, the woman flicked her wrist and a quartet of panels on the ceiling slid back to reveal multi-barreled, slug-throwing weapon turrets. Those weapons spun up and trained on their individual targets—three of which settled on Jericho while one aimed itself squarely at Masozi. Jericho stopped his approach and gave the weapons a pointed look before re-setting his gaze on the woman with the frilly dress.

“A bold confession,” the woman mused, “considering he was my brother.”

“Not so bold,” Jericho retorted calmly, “if I hadn’t killed him then his granddaughters wouldn’t have made it back from their little graduation cruise.”

The woman cocked an eyebrow. “I will enjoy watching my turrets tear you apart,” she said just as calmly before flitting a look to Masozi and then re-settling her gaze on Jericho. “Do you have any last words?” she asked icily as her hand began to rise from the arm of her chair.

“For the good of us all,” Jericho replied evenly, and the woman’s hand stopped mid-motion as her eyes widened briefly.

Her eyes then narrowed in silent contemplation. “You coerced that from him,” she concluded as her voice turned hard. “I don’t know how, but you managed to break him…he loved those girls, and would have done anything for them including giving you that phrase.”

Jericho looked around pointedly at the room, and Masozi realized she hadn’t taken a breath in several seconds so she slowly released what air remained in her lungs before drawing in what may be her final draw of life-giving atmosphere. “In an establishment like this you’re privy to all kinds of information,” Jericho observed, “such as the truth about certain events at Chambliss?”

The woman cocked her head, and Masozi thought she could detect surprise in her expression.

Before she could reply, Jericho continued, “Whatever powder you’ve been keeping dry for the opportune moment, I can assure you that moment has arrived.” He slowly pointed to his long overcoat’s pocket, “I’m sure you’ll understand if I show you what I’m carrying in this pocket.”

“You are sure?” she quipped icily, and her gaze sliced over to Masozi once again. “And what of you?” she asked sharply. “Or are you merely a well-formed sex-cessory who lacks a working tongue?”

Masozi opened her mouth to reply, but Jericho held up a hand haltingly. “Please,” he urged, “time is of the essence.” He slowly reached into his pocket, and Masozi felt her pulse pounding in her ears as he withdrew a small, familiar-looking piece of metal: a T.E. insignia.

The woman’s features, which had been cold and calculating, veritably exploded in surprise and she actually had to steady herself against the arm of her chair. “Impossible…” she breathed.

“Far from it,” Jericho replied as he set the insignia down on the bed. They stood there for several seconds, none of them so much as moving their eyes until the woman blinked rapidly and made a gesture with her hands. Masozi drew a sharp breath as she braced for death, but when the guns retracted into their concealed locations in the ceiling she exhaled loudly. “I can sympathize with your trepidation, Ms. St. Murray,” Jericho said as he took a step toward her, “but you have to understand that time is against us. Whatever you have, I need it—and I need it now. So if you’re not going to kill us, we need to get down to business.”

“It’s ‘Mrs.’,” St. Murray corrected as her expression relaxed markedly, “but you should call me Tera. And you’re right; we don’t have much time. Follow me.”

She turned and moved to a nearby chair and, after reaching deftly beneath its cushion for a moment, a nearby section of floor fell away to reveal a tight, spiral staircase leading straight down.

Masozi stopped at the bed to collect the T.E. insignia, which Jericho had apparently forgotten, before following him and Tera St. Murray down the stairs. They descended for what must have been fifty feet of continuous descent before the staircase stopped at a solid metal door. With just a wave of her hand before a bio-reader, St. Murray opened the vault-like door and the three of them entered.

Inside was a small, but absolutely packed, set of data processing stations each of which was currently manned. St. Murray turned after Masozi had entered the room, and Jericho nodded approvingly. “An underground data nexus,” he mused, and after looking at a few of the monitors—of which there were hundreds—Masozi concurred with his conclusion. Judging from the raw feeds being streamed through them, it appeared that the little room had tapped into every single data feed in the System.

“Freedom of information is the only freedom of consequence,” St. Murray said grimly.

“I’d argue that point,” Jericho said dryly, “but we’re short on time.”

“Quite so,” the woman agreed, and Masozi marveled at the sheer volume of data being processed—and presumably stored somewhere nearby—in the tiny chamber. It could be no more than ten meters on a side, but it housed two dozen technicians who were frantically working to keep the feeds alive by changing between satellite relays, ground-based transfer nodes, and other systems with which Masozi was completely unfamiliar. “You’re here to kill Governor Keno, correct?”

Jericho nodded, and the casual way the two of them had broached the subject actually gave Masozi a shiver as Tera St. Murray turned to a nearby workstation. With the input of a short series of commands, the workstation unexpectedly popped open to reveal its still-active internal components. Using her long, delicate fingers, St. Murray reached inside and retrieved a tiny data crystal, impressively avoiding contact with the highly-charged processing equipment within.

She handed the crystal to Jericho, who reached into his pocket before freezing as a look of concern crossed his features. Masozi produced the T.E. insignia and said, “You forgot this.”

Relief came over his features before he sighed and rolled his eyes. “I must be getting old,” he muttered before gesturing to the data crystal. “Go ahead and load it—all you have to do is make contact between the two devices.”

Masozi warily took the data crystal and did as he had suggested. A moment after placing the crystal on the insignia’s flat, eye-shaped icon at the center of the interlocking triangles which made the device’s base, a series of soft flashes began to occur with increasing speed on the various panels of the insignia. The speed and regularity of those flashes increased until it made the lights appear to glow a solid, yellow color for several seconds until abruptly darkening.

Jericho took the crystal from Masozi and handed it back to Tera St. Murray. “Can I assume you’ve vetted the information?” he asked.

“I have,” she replied with certainty, and Masozi watched as the woman pulled the right side of her dress away from her skin, revealing a beautiful tattoo of a Timent Electorum ‘Mark’ insignia, “but you are free to do so at your leisure if you believe time will permit.”

“I’m guessing it won’t,” Jericho replied with a shake of his head, “we’ve only got two days before this window closes for good.”

“Excuse me,” Masozi cut in irritably, “would someone explain to me why we’ve only got two days? And if you’re an Adjuster, why haven’t you gone after Governor Keno?”

The other two exchanged a look before St. Murray replied, “In two days’ time, Governor Keno will leave to attend the annual System Summit.”

Masozi was aware of the pending event, which had always seemed to her to be nothing but an excuse for the System’s highest-ranking officials to meet and congratulate each other on their mutual greatness.

“When she arrives at the Summit,” St. Murray continued, “Governor Keno will be taken to Virgin’s most secure facility where she will participate in a series of annual votes.”

“Ok,” Masozi allowed, but she was unwilling to abandon the topic, “but why does that necessitate the Adjustment—and why didn’t you attempt to make the Adjustment?” she repeated irritably.

St. Murray shot Jericho a glance, and he nodded after a brief hesitation. “You can trust the Investigator,” he said with a tilt of his head toward her, and Masozi felt her neck hairs stand up at his words. “For better or worse, she’s in this thing as deep as any of us.”

The brothel owner nodded slowly before tapping out a series of commands on a nearby console. “I am indeed an Adjuster,” St. Murray explained as she called up the information, “but I have nowhere near the requisite RL accrued to qualify for the Keno Adjustment. In fact,” she said, slicing an appraising glance over at Jericho, “every Adjuster but one in the Virgin System who has qualified for the job in the last decade has died shortly thereafter…until now.”

A screen in front of Masozi sprang to life, and it showed a series of what looked to be shipping manifests. The manifests minimized to one side of the screen, and a stream of real estate transactions loaded onto the display before they, too, minimized and were replaced by a series of executive orders—orders signed by Governor Keno.

“Since her family overthrew the Marquez administration decades ago, Governor Keno and her cohorts,” St. Murray explained tightly, “have systematically worked to undermine the most fundamental component of Philippa’s economy: rare element exports.”

Masozi arched a brow incredulously. “Her approval ratings are through the roof,” she argued as she took a step toward the monitor to examine the data more closely, “on Virgin she’s regarded as the only undefeatable political figure in the System—maybe even the Sector.”

Jericho snorted, and Tera St. Murray’s lips tightened in a hollow smile. “She controls every facet of the media here on Philippa, Investigator,” St. Murray explained. “Her family and its allies used that control incite the people to revolt against the Marquez administration. But the truth is that under Governor Fernando Marquez, Philippa had taken real strides toward economic independence—primarily by taking advantage of Pacifica’s element-rich rings, which are more valuable than any other location in the Sector by at least ten times.”

“If these rings are so rich, why weren’t they exploited by the Imperium’s engineers centuries ago?” Masozi asked as she saw that nearly all of the real estate transaction records she was seeing were actually long-term leases with exclusive mining rights clauses, and they appeared to govern individual regions of Pacific’s rocky rings. They were assigned to individual owners, and seemed to be a kind of non-transferrable system of ownership which allowed the lease-holder to work the area as long as they were able. But ownership would revert back to Philippa’s government in the event that a claim went unworked.

“No one knows,” St. Murray shrugged, “but the rush to work these claims brought with it a wealth undreamt of by Philippa’s populace, and that rush lasted for nearly forty years. From all over the Sector, families would sell their holdings and invest in a claim here in orbit of Pacifica. Thousands of those families became extremely wealthy, while thousands more failed to secure sufficient returns and were forced to take up residence here. My own grandparents were among the less fortunate,” she said with a brief look to Jericho, who appeared not to notice.

“The short version,” Jericho said, turning to Masozi, “is that there was resistance to these mining efforts from Philippa’s wealthiest families each and every step of the way, but Marquez fought through. Naturally he needed the assistance of powerful allies to deal with such deeply-entrenched enemies. You’ve already met one of those allies.”

Masozi gave him a questioning look until realization dawned. “Hadden,” she breathed unthinkingly, and St. Murray cocked an eyebrow.

You have met S.R. Hadden, Director of Hadden Enterprises?” she asked in a challenging tone.

“She has,” Jericho interrupted before Masozi could reply, “shortly before his home was attacked by the V-SDF.”

St. Murray inhaled sharply. “You mean he is…”

“Dead,” Jericho replied with a curt nod before turning to Masozi, “Hadden Enterprises provided the mining equipment for the families who staked their claims here, and those materials were provided for less than their cost to manufacture and distribute. In exchange, Hadden Enterprises put in standing order prices for every single mineral produced by the small-hold mines. He also requested the option to match any purchase price an individual could prove they had secured from another source.” Jericho gestured to the screen with the mining leases still scrolling by one at a time, “The elements mined here became the backbone of H.E.’s Phase Drive technology, and Hadden worked closely with Marquez to ensure that the miners were treated fairly while infusing Philippa with a source of income unheard of for a colony of its size.”

St. Murray nodded, her eyes widening briefly as she likely processed the news regarding H.E. One. “Director Hadden is thought of as a true benefactor of this colony,” she said slowly. “His passing will be mourned.”

“You won’t have time to mourn it,” Jericho said darkly, and the two exchange a meaningful look which Masozi did not understand but which filled her with even more dread.

“True enough,” St. Murray agreed after a momentary pause before turning to Masozi and pointing a single finger at the screen which contained the data she had pulled up minutes earlier. “This record describes the absolute damage which Governor Keno has done to Philippa’s economy,” she said coldly. “Her first act in office was to de-fund the program which provided families with the legal assistance required to secure and maintain their claims. Her second action,” St. Murray’s lips twisted contemptuously, “was to provide a legal framework for a claim to be sold back to the Philippa government. As a result, only a handful of the most successful families were able to maintain and operate their claims, while the rest promptly sold their claims and left Philippa behind. But one by one, even those families which were wealthy enough to continue working their interests eventually sold their stakes. Not a single mine is in operation in Pacifica’s Ring today…officially.”

Masozi felt her hands tighten into fists at her sides. “How did she get away with this?” she demanded, angrier at this situation than she had ever expected to be. “Why wouldn’t the people stand up—they’ve re-elected her FOUR TIMES!” she snapped.

Jericho snickered, and Masozi turned to him to see a look of approval on his face. “As Madame St. Murray said,” he replied before gesturing to the plethora of data feeds streaming into the room, “the Keno family controls the media. And the Governor is their most celebrated personality—whatever she says, the people believe.”

“There is a small underground which collates feeds like this,” St. Murray said with a short nod to the monitors, “but we can only disseminate information to roughly ten percent of Philippa’s citizenry. If we went for a broader distribution network, we would be crushed just like those before us.”

“And that’s not the best part,” Jericho said knowingly before pointing to the T.E. insignia in Masozi’s hand. “The best part is what you’re holding in your hand: proof that Governor Keno has privately taken over each and every profitable mine in the Ring and has been secretly funneling the rare elements out of the system. If my suspicion is correct, we might even be able to tie her activities in with the most powerful office in the Virgin System, but we’ll need Benton to make that determination.”

Masozi felt cold fury welling up inside her. “How much?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper as she felt a surge of anger unlike anything she could have previously described. “How much has she stolen from her people?”

St. Murray downloaded the information on the readout which Masozi had been studying onto a data crystal, and then handed that crystal to her as she said, “It is impossible to calculate—“

“No,” Jericho cut in, “it’s not.” He shook his head and flexed his jaw as he looked around at the room for a few seconds before finally saying, “According to Sector-Gov’s census data, Philippa’s population currently stands at just over three million souls, which is more or less consistent with its number under Marquez. In per capita GDP, this colony’s economic output under the Marquez Administration was over one million, three hundred thousand credits per person. Today, under the Keno clan, it’s not even nine hundred thousand.”

“Those are rate statistics,” St. Murray reminded, and Masozi was almost unable to come to terms with the numbers being bandied about. “Assuming a linear decline in GDP, and factoring in a fifty year period of productivity per citizen—a number which is probably high, given Philippa’s decaying healthcare system—this means that the total damage to Philippa’s economy under the Keno family has been—“

“Four hundred…billion credits?!” Masozi reared back in shock as she said the words. The number made absolutely no sense, even to her scientifically-inclined mind.

“That number is only informative to a point,” Jericho chided. “The real damage has been, quite literally, four hundred thousand ‘lifetimes’ of productivity which Governor Keno has stolen from her constituents by shutting down the frontier mining initiative. Even if we only attributed five percent of the decline to the Governor directly…”

“Twenty thousand…” Masozi breathed in disbelief. “How much did she steal?”

Jericho smiled tightly and nodded. “That’s the right question, Investigator,” he approved. “We could have only guessed without the information Madame St. Murray is about to provide us.” He then turned pointedly to Tera St. Murray, “How much is it, Madame?”

St. Murray bit her lip briefly before replying, “Our covert surveys, made possible only with Hadden Enterprise’s assistance, show that the richest mining operations fully quadrupled their collective output after the last claim was abandoned by its rightful owners.” She exhaled slowly as she concluded, “By now they’ve easily mined over a trillion credits worth of minerals—a value based solely on Hadden’s standing order prices.”

Jericho nodded as Masozi’s mind reeled from the data. “And they’ve been careful about covering their tracks,” he said pointedly as Masozi tried to come to grips with how horrific the crime against Philippa’s people appeared to be. “We haven’t been able to trace a single credit back to Pacifica’s Ring…but we caught a break when Benton discovered a small, underground market for these rare elements operating on Virgin. To make another long story short, my investigation into the matter led me to a man named Janus Angelo. He was formerly an official in New Lincoln whose bribe had been partially paid in complex indium, gadolinium, and yttrium matrices. Those matrices’ constituent elements were traced back to Pacifica’s Ring—they were also proven to have been mined, and processed, in the last six months.”

Silence hung over the room as the workers at the various workstations quietly continued their tasks of compiling and transferring data from the System’s various data feeds. Masozi could barely believe that an official would be so corrupt…and that such a corruption would not only be permitted to linger, but that it wouldn’t be commented on by the other governments of the Sector.

And then, in a flash of understanding, she understood why they needed to act quickly. “If she gets to the Summit—“

“Then she’ll be placed under maximum security by Blanco’s security forces,” Jericho interrupted grimly, “and we’ll never get another shot at her. It’s obvious that Governor Keno is aligned with President Blanco, and that Hadden Enterprises was one of their most powerful mutual enemies. Retaliation against her by Hadden’s now-disparate loyal factions would be a mathematical certainty in the aftermath of H.E. One’s destruction, so we have to expect Blanco to circle the wagons.”

“You two should go,” Tera St. Murray said shortly, “I’ve given you what you came for and we need to dismantle this site as quickly as possible now that we’ve passed the information along.” She shook her head in wonderment, “I never thought a qualified T.E. Adjuster would make it here in time.”

Jericho smirked, “My appearance here following Governor Keno’s suddenly precipitous fall in approval rating is far from a coincidence, Madame St. Murray.”

“I only wish we could have thanked Director Hadden personally before…” St. Murray trailed off. “I fear we can provide you with no more assistance in this matter, Adjuster.”

Jericho shook his head sharply, “We won’t need anything else, Madame. You’ve given us everything we could have asked for.”

[]Chapter XXIII: A Confrontation

Nearly an hour later, Jericho and Masozi came to a tavern in the main settlement. They had left Madame St. Murray’s establishment and made their way for the main portion of the settlement near the crater’s center.

“You have to drink extra water in this atmosphere,” Jericho explained as they sat down in a corner booth of the darkly-lit structure. “Your lungs dry out faster than they would on Virgin.”

A server brought them a container of water and a pair of metal mugs. Jericho poured them each a glass before gesturing for Masozi to take her pick of the two.

Masozi’s thirst had grown slightly but she suspected the odd, burning sensation in her lungs was precisely what he was talking about. She downed a mug of water, finding it incredibly sterile-tasting compared to the water she had grown up drinking.

“It takes a little getting used to,” Jericho admitted before downing his own mug of the stuff, “but water’s one of the most precious commodities on a world like this one. The atmosphere doesn’t retain it as well as on Virgin, or any other Core World with a homeostatic biosphere for that matter, so they’re constantly bringing in comets and breaking them up in orbit before letting the remnants impact safely near the poles once they’ve been reduced to small enough pieces.”

“You seem to know a lot about this place,” Masozi said, already having deduced that he had lived on Philippa by his familiarity with the customs and equipment.

“It’s true,” Jericho admitted after pouring her another mug of water, “my family came here not long after I was born. Philippa was all I knew…until we had to sell our mine back to the government.”

Masozi was half-finished with her second mug of water before she set it down and realized that his admission made perfect sense. “That’s why you want to punish Keno,” she concluded with a slow nod.

Jericho shrugged. “To my mind she’s at the top of a very short list of people requiring Adjustment,” he replied in a low voice. “But I haven’t acted against her because I didn’t have the evidence.”

“Speaking of which,” Masozi said, producing the T.E. insignia and sliding it across the table, “this should have everything you need on it now, right?”

“Not quite,” he replied as he stood abruptly from the table, “I have to hit the head. The last pieces of evidence are on St. Murray’s data crystal; load them up while I’m gone.”

Jericho made his way to the ‘head,’ which Masozi took to mean the lavatory, and she hesitated before doing as he had suggested. Placing the crystal against the T.E. insignia, she was once again rewarded with a rapid sequence of flashing lights. But this time the display was over much more quickly, and she took a moment to study the insignia itself. It was a pair of triangles which formed a six-pointed star, at the center of which was a large, unblinking eye. Surrounding that eye, on the sides of the ‘inner,’ or ‘topmost’ triangle were the three mottos of the Timent Electorum: Ure Infectus, Sic Semper Tyrannis, and Mors Proditores.

As a young girl she hadn’t really understood their meaning, but after spending time with Jericho and contemplating the whole situation at some length, she believed she had a reasonable idea of what they meant.

The verbiage was from a long-dead language of Ancient Earth, and the first phrase, Ure Infectus, roughly translated to ‘the corrupt shall burn.’ Sic Semper Tyrannis, the second phrase, meant roughly, ‘the same for all tyrants.’ And Mors Proditores quite clearly said, ‘death to traitors.’

As she was thinking about the T.E.’s mandate, Masozi noticed a public access node which her data link could connect to via wireless protocols. Her mind was bombarded by possible actions when she saw it, and she knew that she might not get another chance to generate any leverage against Jericho if he was less than agreeable to her desire to leave his company.

While he was still in the lavatory, Masozi entered the access codes to her link and was rewarded by a simple connection protocol which successfully connecting her data link to the settlement’s secondary information nexus.

She scrolled through the public services until finding the one she was looking for and, after a brief moment of hesitation, she saved the connection she had found to the slate and set it to a five minute countdown to activate. If she failed to swipe her finger across the screen during that time, it would automatically make the connection she had saved. Masozi truly hoped it would not come to that, but if it did she was determined not only to safeguard her own safety but potentially the safety of hundreds…or even thousands of civilians.

Jericho pushed the swinging doors open and Masozi smoothly replaced the link in her pocket as she took a look at the room’s chronometer. Five minutes, she reminded herself as Jericho sat down across from her in the booth.

“How is an Adjustment initiated?” she asked as she finished her water. When she had done so, she emptied the remaining contents of the larger container into their mugs more or less equally and began to sip on her own, third, cup of the sterile-tasting liquid.

“There’s a formula,” Jericho replied after taking a sip of his own water. “Sudden downward shifts in approval ratings are one component of the formula, while overall approval is another one. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but in the case of Governor Keno her Adjustment was essentially requested when her approval rating plummeted from ninety two percent to forty eight percent over the course of the last six months before once again beginning to climb.”

“That’s it?” she blurted disbelievingly. Masozi simply could not accept that approval ratings could determine whether or not an official was assassinated.

“No,” Jericho replied measuredly, “that’s not ‘it.’ That is just one way in which an Adjustment may be initiated. But remember,” he pointed to the T.E. insignia, “there’s a process of discovery and verification which needs to take place before an Adjustment is green-lit.”

“Who checks your work before you execute an Adjustment?” she asked. “I can’t believe that Adjusters never make mistakes?”

“Oh, we’ve made mistakes,” he allowed with a derisive snort. “But the answer to your first question is ‘nobody.’ We communicate with each other using public messaging systems—some of which Benton probably showed you—but even then we don’t say anything other than the fact that an Adjustment has been initiated. We don’t even give our names. After it’s been carried out, the Adjustment is verified by a senior Adjuster as having been done in accordance with the T.E.’s mandate. That’s basically it; it’s nowhere near as complicated as you might think.”

“That doesn’t seem like it would work,” she argued, “you said the Keno Adjustment would be highly sought after. Why wouldn’t someone here on Philippa just take care of it?”

“There aren’t as many of us as you might think,” he replied between sips of his water. “Also, higher-level Adjustments like the Governor’s can only be undertaken by an Adjuster who has accrued enough RL—Redeemed Lives,” he said before fixing her with a hard look. “I can’t reveal the formula’s specifics to you right now, but there are only two Adjusters in this entire System who could have even qualified for the Keno Adjustment. You’re sharing a drink with one of them…and there’s reason enough for me to believe the second would have little interest in pursuing this particular Adjustment.”

Masozi considered his words, which alarmingly seemed to suggest that there was some measure of discord within the Timent Electorum’s ranks.

“I’ve been hesitant to reveal some of these details to you, Investigator,” Jericho said as she silently mulled over the implications of her society’s last line of defense against political corruption having been compromised. “But it seems I may have been wrong to exclude you to this point. So I’ll start by saying that no Adjuster who reaches my level sets out to make an Adjustment without multiple backup plans in place. Personally, I don’t undertake an Adjustment unless I have three, distinct, methods I can use to carry out the mission. Those methods must each provide a minimum of eighty percent success likelihood, and I think it’s time I shared the ones I’ve devised for the Governor’s Adjustment with you.”

Masozi felt her pulse quicken. Will he actually tell me about the bomb? she wondered silently, working hard to keep the anxiety she felt from her expression.

“The first method I devised for this particular assignment,” he explained as he withdrew a small key card similar to the one Masozi had used to gain entry to her residential building back in New Lincoln, “involves a long-range, high-powered, anti-material rifle.”

She took the key card in her hands and examined its markings, burning the information contained therein in her visual memory. Masozi had never failed to recall such information if she had specifically attempted to remember it, and she handed the card back to him after memorizing the seven part address code for the unit. “You’re a sniper,” she concluded.

“Among other things,” Jericho agreed, accepting the key card. “I’ve run the simulations several thousand times, and they calculate a ninety two percent success rate if I use that cannon, which is already set up in the apartment this keycard unlocks,” he added before slipping the card back into his pocket. “If we play our cards right there’s only a twelve percent chance of discovery and capture.”

Masozi was terrible with ranged weaponry, and had never used anything larger than an anti-personnel scattergun. She had discharged such a weapon only twice, both times during a minor uprising among the natives of one of New Lincoln’s seedier parts of town, so she knew she would have no reasonable chance to succeed with such a weapon. “That’s one,” she said with a slow nod, realizing as she did so the repercussions of her previous thoughts, “what about the others?”

“The second,” he replied with a short laugh, “involves a more…personal approach. I had the necessary equipment placed in the same flat as the cannon a few weeks ago; it’s one of the only safe places I’ve been able to find in Abaca—Philippa’s capitol city. This second method has a slightly lower likelihood of success…I’d put it at around eighty nine percent success. The problem is there’s a sixty percent chance of discovery and capture since escape will be considerably more difficult.”

“Ok…” she mused, disliking his lack of definition as to what this second method actually entailed. “But what about the third?” she asked as she glanced up at the clock and saw that she had about three minutes left to swipe the data link. If she failed to do so, the call would go through and not long afterward the tavern would no longer be a safe place for either of them. But she knew it was her only source of leverage and if she didn’t press him for the bomb’s purpose in the mission now, she would never be able to forgive herself.

“The third,” he replied, his expression hardening as he swirled the contents of his mug, “is a failsafe…and I sincerely hope we don’t need to use it. As a matter of fact, it’s time we returned to the ship to retrieve it before making our way to Abaca. There’s a hoverbike stowed in the Tyson’s stern cargo compartment that can get us there in just under twelve hours.”

“If there was a hoverbike…why didn’t we use it to come here?” Masozi pressed warily.

Jericho shrugged. “I didn’t want to risk the bike being logged during our visit here; if it was, we couldn’t use it to enter Abaca. Besides,” he added with a hollow grin, “we needed the exercise.”

Masozi considered his reply and decided it was now or never. “Your failsafe wouldn’t happen to involve a bomb, would it?” she asked in a low voice, feeling an immense weight lift from her psyche as she did so.

Jericho’s eyes flashed briefly before narrowing. “What do you mean?” he asked in an equally low tone.

“Don’t play stupid,” she hissed, glancing around to ensure they weren’t attracting unwanted attention. “I saw the Southern Bloc markings—it’s nuclear, isn’t it? Were you even going to tell me!?”

Jericho also glanced around the room before leaning forward, and Masozi leaned back instinctively as he did so. “You weren’t supposed to see that,” he said as he fixed her with his cold, greyish eyes. “Besides, it’s only a failsafe; if we work together there’s a ninety nine point nine seven percent chance we can accomplish the mission without it.”

Masozi shook her head adamantly. “I can’t be party to that,” she replied, threading her voice with iron.

“Too much—“ Jericho began in a raised voice before taking a deep breath and peeling his lips back in a faint sneer. “Too much has gone into the planning of this Adjustment, Investigator,” he said, his voice carrying a dire, unspoken threat, “I can’t—no, I won’t allow those efforts to be in vain. In the extremely unlikely event that we should fail in our earlier efforts, I have an obligation to ensure that the target is executed…by any means necessary.”

“Including the slaughter of innocent civilians?!” she retorted, barely managing to keep her voice to a harsh whisper as she felt hot fury boiling up inside herself. “I could understand—and, strangely enough, I even agree with—your mandate and function as an Adjuster. But I cannot,” she shook her head sharply, “support the murder of thousands of innocent people.”

“Grow up, Investigator,” Jericho snapped contemptuously. “Do you honestly believe that there are any innocent people on this, or any other, world? If you’d seen the things I’ve seen, and knew the things I know, you wouldn’t let your childish notions of morality interfere with what needs to be done.”

“Those ‘childish notions’,” she said, her eyes flicking to the clock and confirming that the time had, indeed, elapsed and the call would have been automatically made to the nearest law enforcement responders, “are the very ones which created your reason for existing, Adjuster.” The title tasted like ash as it passed her lips, and she stood from the table slowly. Jericho made to do likewise—with murder in her eyes as he did so. It was a look with which she had become all-too-familiar during her career as an Investigator.

“I see that I was wrong about you, Investigator…and that’s a rarity for me. But you should have run while I was in the head,” Jericho said coldly. “How far do you think you can get now that I know you’ll try to stop me from accomplishing my mission? You’ve just become an obstacle—and I’ve made a career out of removing those from my line of fire long before it’s time to pull the trigger.”

“You’re wrong about that last bit,” she quipped, knowing with certainty that she had already committed herself to what had to be done. “That’s why I’m going to walk right out of here,” she replied confidently, “and you’re not going to do a thing to stop me.”

Jericho’s lips twisted in a dark, bemused smirk, “And what makes you think that?”

“Because if you don’t,” she said, meeting his piercing look with one of her own just as the doors to the tavern opened and a quad of armed, and armored, law enforcement officers entered the tavern and set their sights on the two of them, “no one will make the Adjustment while you’re locked away in the nearest detention facility.”

She began to back slowly away from him, and she saw the cold-blooded assassin’s eyes flick back and forth between her and the approaching police officers. “Clever girl,” he said with the barest hint of approval as he straightened his posture, “but not as clever as you think; when I get out I’m going to find you, Investigator. And when I do, I promise we’ll discuss this…betrayal at some length.”

The way he said those words made her blood run cold, but she had already backed far enough away from the table that the quad of fully-armored officers interdicted themselves between Jericho and herself. “Jericho Bronson,” one of them said in a heavily-distorted voice through his suit’s external speaker while the other three trained their weapons on Jericho, “we have an outstanding warrant for your arrest. Come quietly and we won’t use deadly force.”

Jericho tensed, causing the other guards to do likewise as a trio of targeting lasers appeared on his chest, where they remained unwavering. But then he relaxed and nodded as he placed his wrists together and held them before himself, “I won’t resist.”

After they had placed him in restraints, two of the officers frog-marched him out of the tavern under the supervision of the one Masozi assumed was their commander. She was slightly surprised that they had mentioned an outstanding warrant for his arrest, but Masozi guessed that a man in his line of work made several enemies—enemies with longer-than-average memories.

The cold look he gave her before exiting the structure gave her the chills, and the fourth officer approached and said, “You were the one who sent the call?”

Masozi nodded. “I didn’t know there was a warrant out for him,” she admitted truthfully, “I just saw what I thought was a concealed weapon…and he was giving me the creeps.”

“You did the right thing, ma’am,” the officer said, and Masozi thought that the officer’s voice sounded vaguely feminine through the distortion. “We’ll just need you to come down for a statement so you can claim the reward.”

“Reward?” she repeated blankly. “How much of a reward was there?”

“It’s substantial, ma’am,” the officer replied. “But we can discuss the particulars at the station.”

Masozi shook her head, knowing her rights afforded her the ability to refuse since she had not participated in any wrong-doing. “I don’t need a reward; I’m just glad to get someone like him off the streets.”

“Ma’am?” the officer pressed. “You’re saying you’d like to waive the reward? It’s a life-changing amount of money, especially here on Philippa.”

Masozi shook her head again. “I’d just consider it my civic duty,” she replied, knowing it was truer than she could explain given the circumstances.

The officer regarded her silently for several seconds before shrugging, “If you’re willing to affirm that you waive your right to the reward then you’re free to go.”

Masozi nodded quickly. “Of course; I hereby waive my right to whatever reward had been issued for Jericho Bronson’s capture.” She knew that was the proper verbiage, since she had accepted a handful of similar statements during her time as an Investigator.

“Your statement has been recorded, Citizen,” the officer said before nodding curtly, “have a pleasant day, ma’am.”

“You too,” Masozi replied unthinkingly as the officer turned and left the tavern. As soon as the officer had left, Masozi sank down onto the cushioned seat of the booth she had just been sharing with Jericho.

Her knees were quivering and her hands trembled while she drank down the last of her mug’s contents. After several minutes, she had gathered her wits enough that she stood from the table. She knew what needed to be done…and she knew she was fast running out of time to do it.

She pulled her hat over her head and, after sealing the attached mask to her face, Masozi closed her overcoat around her body and exited the tavern before beginning the long hike back to the Tyson.

[]Chapter XXIV: Taking Stock and Committing

Masozi came to the edge of the crater where they had hidden the Neil deGrasse Tyson and peered over the edge, relieved to find the craft apparently undisturbed. She was surprised to see that its color, which had originally been a glossy black, was now almost indistinguishable from that of the surrounding, green, moss-covered rock.

She would have set up in a blind and observed the vessel for a prolonged period, but time was against her. If Jericho had been right, even if she hopped onto the hoverbike and made a max-speed burn for the capitol city, Abaca, it would take no less than nine hours to reach it. That left just over a day to implement whatever plan Jericho had set up—and she only hoped that she would be able to decipher his plan in time to execute it.

So she made her way to the bottom of the crater where the craft rested, and swiped her hand across the area of the hull which she thought was the door. There was a hiss of air as the door opened before lowering itself to the ground to form the boarding ramp.

Once inside the craft, Masozi checked to ensure that the duffel bag was still in the closet, and it was. She carefully withdrew the bag from the closet and opened it, revealing the same, heavy device she had seen inside the concealed compartment which was disguised as a bench.

She took the bomb out of the duffel and gently laid it down on the floor of the cabin, her heart racing as she did so. She then turned and carefully opened the concealed compartment, and when it was open she placed the bomb inside the honeycombed interior of the hidden box.

Masozi quickly closed the box and emptied the rest of the duffel’s contents onto the floor of the craft. There was a pair of ID’s, one for Jericho and one for Masozi, and she snorted derisively to see that their false identities suggested the two of them were married. “You wish, you old bastard,” she muttered as she took the pieces she would need and stowed them in her overcoat’s inner pockets.

There was also a pair of pistols inside, and after a brief hesitation, she took one and secured it to her bodyglove’s hip beneath the overcoat. She could always abandon it as she neared the Capitol City, but Philippa was known as a ‘wild frontier’ to the residents of Virgin; she would rather have the gun and not need it than have the reverse be the case.

There was also some clothing inside the duffel bag, and Masozi saw that hers was a two-piece outfit which would go neatly over her bodyglove. So she removed the other articles she had worn since disembarking the Zhuge Liang and placed the new pieces—a vest and a fairly tight, knee-length skirt—over her bodyglove. There were a handful of credit chits inside the vest, and they totaled nearly ten thousand credits in all—half a month’s salary for an Investigator of Masozi’s experience and accomplishments.

The final item was a vehicle access key, and she picked it up to examine it. There were two buttons, one of which clearly was meant to activate the bike’s motivators while the other had the picture of a closed lock on it. She had ridden as a passenger on several hoverbikes, and had even operated one a former fling had owned. She had left him in the dust a few weeks into the relationship because he seemed to care more about his bike than he did about anything—or anyone—else, including her.

She pressed the second button and heard a low thrum outside, and Masozi exited the craft via the ramp to find a hoverbike—remarkably similar to, but clearly different from the same one Jericho had picked her up on in New Lincoln—had been lowered from a concealed compartment along the craft’s fuselage.

Masozi took a deep breath and activated the ramp’s retraction sequence, causing the cabin door of the Tyson to fold back up into the closed position. Masozi then threw her leg over the seat of the bike and pressed the activation button of the key.

She was rewarded by a low-pitched thrum which vibrated her thighs and groin just enough that she was aware of it, and she waited for the bike’s warm-up cycle to conclude before carefully maneuvering it away from the Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Once she was clear of the spacecraft, she twisted the manual throttle and was rewarded by a measure of acceleration she had not entirely expected as her head was snapped back by the vehicle’s forward lurch. Her hands reflexively gripped the handlebars, and she felt certain if she had been less athletic that she would have failed to keep her hold of the vehicle’s handles.

She managed to keep hold of the handlebars as the bike roared up and over the edge of the crater before leveling itself out and rocketing across the relatively flat terrain at speeds which would have seen her arrested within seconds if she had reached them within New Lincoln’s confines.

Masozi had memorized the basic topographical layout of Philippa, so she set the most direct course she could for the Capitol City before opening the throttle of the hoverbike up and feeling the impressive power of the vehicle beneath her hurtle toward her destination at roughly four hundred kilometers an hour. The faster she went, the higher the hoverbike climbed; when she reached the vehicle’s maximum speed she had achieved an altitude of nearly a hundred feet above the cratered moon’s surface.

She knew that she needed to do everything in her power to stop Governor Keno—and not place any innocent civilians’ lives in danger when she did.

After nearly nine hours of near-continuous riding—during which time she only ever saw two other vehicles on the bike’s radar-like display, neither of which came close enough for her to see visually—Masozi pulled up at the edge of a truly massive crater. It was so large that, had she not known it was there, she might not have seen it until she was well within and Philippa’s horizon had been replaced by the crater’s edge in the far-off distance.

The sun had still not come up, but Masozi knew that a ‘sunrise’ would not happen for at least another week while Philippa orbited around Pacifica, and even when it did it would be unlike any sunrise she had experienced on Virgin. That knowledge somehow made the lights of Abaca even more striking.

While the Sense District where Tera St. Murray had operated her brothel had been wreathed in neon light, Abaca was filled with what seemed to be massive searchlights. Those beams stabbed upward and wandered the sky in seemingly random patterns, and there must have been dozens of the most powerful ones whose beams disappeared into the black void of Virgin’s interplanetary space.

The city itself was a dull, yellow-white glow from her position at the edge of the giant crater, and she took the pistol which had been fastened to her hip. Despite her inclination to keep it for protection, she knew it presented too great of a risk. She tossed it to the ground, grateful she had not needed to use it, and sped off toward the city.

Carrying a concealed, unlicensed weapon in a major city was an offense punishable by automatic imprisonment—and if that happened, Masozi ‘the terrorist’ would be discovered and she would almost certainly be handed over to whatever power had pulled Stiglitz’s and Afolabi’s strings. She had all but deduced that power was none other than Governor Keno…and possibly even more prominent figures within the Virgin System’s government.

That same entity had stolen Masozi’s life from her and, with the accumulated evidence, it wasn’t hard to conclude who the person wielding that power was.

“I’m coming for you, Crissa,” she growled as she gunned the throttle. She knew that the Governor wasn’t the sole author of the crime which had seen Masozi nearly assassinated…but Governor Keno was most definitely involved and, according to evidence which Masozi had personally vetted, Philippa’s Governor had already wiped out tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands—of lives under her cruel, utterly self-centered regime.

Masozi slewed the hoverbike into a paid parking slot outside the building Jericho’s keycard had indicated. Masozi wished she could have taken the keycard, but she hadn’t thought of a way to do so that wouldn’t have aroused his suspicion. She just had to trust that she could gain entry to the apartment without it.

After receiving her receipt and change for a twenty three hour parking pass—the standard ‘day’ cycle in Virgin, which had been adopted since a moon colony like Philippa had too long of a rotational cycle to use in any meaningful way for regular human scheduling that did not badly disturb natural circadian rhythms—and Masozi pulled the hoverbike into the assigned slot before making her way to the lift system.

The keycard had indicated that the room was on the twelfth floor of the complex’s ‘A’ building, so she made her way to the centralized lift boarding area and found herself facing a security checkpoint.

The guard manning the checkpoint looked at her impassively, and Masozi screwed up her courage as she approached the checkpoint—which was surprisingly equipped with a simple weapon’s detector, making her thankful that she had abandoned the pistol at the crater’s edge.

“Step through,” the guard instructed, and she did so. She was relieved when the alarms didn’t go off, but the guard waved her over to his desk while he opened up a link display built into the desk itself. She approached the desk and the guard said, “You’re not recognized by the system. Do you have a visitor’s pass?”

“No,” she replied too quickly, realizing that she had all-but admitted she didn’t have any proper business there. She made a show of fumbling around in her vest for the ID cards which had been in the duffel and then produced the primary piece to the guard. “My…husband,” she said with a pointed hesitation before making brief eye contact with the guard, “isn’t here yet and I wanted to surprise him.”

The guard’s eyes narrowed as he ran the card through the scanner, but he visibly relaxed before handing her the keycard. “Welcome, Mrs. Davis,” he said before gesturing to one of the lifts, “Lift Number Five will take you to your level. If you’d like, I can send up the superintendent with you; it doesn’t look like your room’s been accessed in…two years?” he said, his eyebrows rising as he did so.

“My husband travels extensively,” she lied, “so we don’t get to see each other very often. When I heard he was planning on coming to Abaca, I thought I’d stop in and surprise him.”

The guard nodded knowingly. “You should have a great view of the festival from your apartment,” he said before briefly glancing up and down her body with barely-concealed lust, “and your husband’s a very lucky man.”

Suppressing the urge to roll her eyes, Masozi instead flashed a smile and placed her ID back in the vest before saying, “Thank you.”

“Any time,” the guard said, and after turning for the lift Masozi could almost feel his slimy eyeballs all over her back-side. But it was a small price to pay for having successfully navigated the checkpoint.

She stepped inside the lift he had indicated and it slowly rose to the twelfth floor—which was apparently the top floor of the entire structure—and she made her way to the unit designated on Jericho’s keycard.

Masozi then had a startling thought: if that keycard had been on his person when he was arrested, it would be entirely possible that the local law enforcement agencies would soon be alerted to that fact.

That meant she needed to conclude her business inside the apartment as quickly as possible—which, in turn, meant that not having the keycard would likely pose a problem.

Masozi approached the unit—number 1201—and examined it. There was a standard, keycard slot built into the wall beside the door, and the entire portal was otherwise featureless.

She tried to swipe her ID’s in front of the keycard reader, but nothing happened after several such attempts. She looked up and down the hallway—even considering a humiliating attempt at ‘persuading’ the guard at the checkpoint to help her in some way—and her options began to limit themselves as she silently ran through them.

The building didn’t appear to have any cameras in her part of the hall, but she knew that cameras could be easily hidden from the naked eye. It was possible that same, slimy guard was ogling her at that very moment. The thought spurred her mind into overdrive, and she had just resigned herself to the disgusting task of convincing that guard to help her when a speaker beside the door—apparently concealed within the keycard reader—crackled to life.

“Come on in,” she heard a voice say, and it sounded suspiciously like Wladimir Benton’s. The door then swung gently open, and Masozi gave serious consideration to fleeing right then and there.

But she steeled her nerves, knowing that if she had just been trapped then it was inevitable that they would subdue—or kill—her if she tried to flee. The walls were solid concrete, and there was no exit other than the lift.

So she stepped inside the unlit apartment and reached around for a light switch, but found none.

“Light?” she said meekly, just before the door closed behind her and the entire room was plunged into darkness.

“Come on in,” Benton’s voice said again and Masozi felt her hackles rise at the possibility of being murdered in that apartment, never to be seen again. She had once worked a case where a body had remained in situ for nearly three years before being discovered—and that discovery had been prompted by the occupant having gone delinquent on her property tax bill for that same period.

Masozi moved into the room slowly, her hands sweeping blindly from side to side as she did so. She felt the short hallway end, and she was just about to follow the rightward wall to see where it went when the lights activated and she saw a pair of armored silhouettes near the far wall.

Reacting instinctively, Masozi dived behind a nearby piece of furniture—which happened to a black couch—and reached around for an impromptu weapon of some kind.

While she did so, she heard a muffled sound from near the figures. The sound grew in volume until she recognized it as an overly-feminine giggle—a giggle she had only heard back on Virgin.

Masozi peered around the edge of the couch and saw the two figures standing motionless against the wall, and between them was a two-dimensional display built into the wall with a familiar face filling it.

“Got you!” the display blurted before pointing accusingly with her digital fingers and erupting into a burst of unrepentant laughter. “You should see the look on your face, bakeshop,” Eve said after several seconds had passed, during which time Masozi had regained her feet as she glowered at the sexbot. “You’re just too gullible, honey pie,” Eve chided in mock consternation before waggling her finger reproachfully, “it’s going to get you in trouble someday.”

“Eve…” Masozi began as she eyed the motionless figures—one of which was male, the other decidedly female—warily, “what are you doing here?”

“I’m going to be your Operator, sweet cheeks!” Eve said proudly, flashing a ‘thumbs-up’ sign before jamming said thumb into her impossible cleavage indicatively. “Benton’s got his hands full back home so he sent me to fill in. Somebody’s got to take care of you two, after all. Say…” she said, her digital eyes scanning the room suspiciously, “where’s Jericho?”

“He’s…indisposed,” Masozi said hesitantly. It was entirely possible—even probable, given Masozi’s limited understanding of synthetic intelligences—that Eve was little more than an alter ego of Benton. She might have even represented repressed homosexual ideations, or full-blown multiple personality disorder of some kind.

But even Benton would be hard-pressed to establish an FTL method of communication which would allow him instantaneous, real-time access to Eve’s processes. That suggested that either Benton was on Philippa—an unlikely possibility, given his physical condition—or Eve had, in fact, been sent to provide some measure of assistance.

Masozi nodded to herself as she took a step forward and elaborated, “Jericho sent me ahead to check on the preparations and make sure everything’s in order,” she lied. “He had to place the…the backup device before we rejoined.”

“Ah…gotcha, babe,” Eve said with a knowing wink. “He sent you to do all the dirty work so he can swoop in at the last minute and snag all the glory for himself.” Eve rolled her eyes and sighed, “That’s a typical man for you. You know, there was a time Benton and I were trying to break into this orbital—“

“Eve,” Masozi interrupted, knowing that if she got too deep into the lie she would be unable to sustain it—even to a glorified sexbot like Eve, “we need to check all the preparations as quickly as possible. This location might already be compromised.”

Eve’s image reared back in the screen and her eyes began to flit from side to side for several seconds, “I’m not seeing anything on the local grids, babe. Are you sure you’re not just getting pre-fight jitters?” she asked with an accusing look.

“I’m pretty certain we’re going to have to scrap the primary plan,” Masozi said with conviction, her eyes snagging on a truly massive rifle set on a tripod with the butt propped by another, smaller tripod. “That means we’ll be looking at the up-close-and-personal method. Can you bring me up to speed on it?”

Eve smiled as though in ecstasy and began to clap wildly. “Sure thing, sugar!” she said excitedly. “Tell you the truth, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the whole ‘shoot the bitch from four miles away’ plan—it’s too anticlimactic, right? This way will be payloads more fun!”

Masozi eyed her warily before saying, “I’m not sure Jericho’s going to know where to meet up with us.”

“Oh, that’s no problem, honey. Benton already covered that,” Eve took a deep breath, and her face morphed into some pale imitation of the morbidly obese computer hacker’s, and when she spoke next it was with Benton’s voice. “I’m authorizing you to help both Jericho and Masozi; shit’s bound to get real thick up there so you give either one, or both, of them full access to your new protocols.” Eve ‘exhaled’ and her features returned to their usual, perky, cartoonish appearance. “See? We’re good as gadolinium, bakeshop; time for a double-dose of girl power!” Eve’s image pumped her fist and then struck a pose which Masozi vaguely recognized from some of the entertainment programs she had watched as a young girl.

“What ‘new protocols’ are you talking about?” Masozi asked.

A mischievous grin played out over Eve’s features and she whistled innocently before answering, “I’m afraid they’re mission-specific; we’ll only get access to them when we satisfy mission parameters. On that note,” she said as though just remembering something, “you’d better get into your suit!”

“My suit?” Masozi eyed the immobile, female-looking form, and as she did so it came apart at several points and opened up revealing that it was actually a form-fitted suit of armor! She had heard of such suits, but they were supposedly prohibitively expensive—she had heard of one such suit being logged into evidence and having it appraised at several million credits. In spite of herself, she stepped forward and touched the outside of the armor and felt a chill run down her spine.

“Sexy, isn’t it?” Eve asked knowingly. “But forget about the form; this baby’s all about function and she’s been built just for you. She’s a stealth prototype based on top-of-the-line Imperial specs, and while not all of her systems are online yet she’ll make you more than a match for anything on this old lump of rock. Hop in so we can get going; I can’t wait to get out and play!”

Masozi was in so much awe of the suit that she almost missed Eve’s little tidbit of information she had just dropped. “How could it have been built ‘just for me?’ A suit like this would take years to develop.”

Eve giggled again before sighing. “We’re just a couple of bad bitches livin’ in the big man’s world, babe,” she said as though it explained everything. “Looks like you might have been right about the house being compromised, too,” she added laconically. “I’ve got a half dozen vehicles converging on our position. Looks like the front door’s out as an exit; you’d better hop into the suit.”

“What about the rest of this stuff?” Masozi asked, gesturing to the cannon and the suit of armor which could have only been intended for Jericho.

“He snooze, he lose, sweet-ums,” Eve said indifferently. “Climb in the suit so we can make like a prom dress and take off!”

Masozi took another look at Jericho’s suit and then cast a wayward glance at the massive, barely-portable cannon which Jericho had apparently preferred to use for this particular mission. Something didn’t seem right about the gun, which she recognized as a V-120MX model, but she didn’t want to take the time to examine it—especially since she had been correct about the flat’s security being compromised.

Masozi took a deep breath and stepped toward the suit before carefully turning around and backing into it. As soon as her butt touched the inside of the armored suit’s housing, her legs were pulled back into the lower half of the armor by a handful of narrow, thin straps which criss-crossed her shins and thighs. Before she could see what they were made of, the fronts of the armored leg sections folded closed firmly around her legs, and she had a not-insignificant wave of anxiety.

“Just slip your hands into the gauntlets, babe,” Eve encouraged, “the armor will do the rest.”

“I hate tight spaces,” Masozi snapped irritably as she fought to control her breathing.

“Don’t you worry about that,” Eve said cheerfully, “we’ll get you all fixed up once the suit’s calibrated to your current biochemistry.”

Masozi warily placed her left hand into the gauntlet, and as she did so the vambrace closed around her forearm and then her upper arm was also encased in the matte, dark red armor. The joint at the elbow seemed to be relatively unarmored, but the rest of the suit had thick dimensions suggesting a heavy layer of protection—and probably some concealed equipment the purpose of which she could only guess at. But as she moved her left arm around, apparently without any motive assistance, she found it was surprisingly light for its apparent bulk.

Exhaling sharply as her heart rate approached double its resting norm, Masozi reached her right hand into the right gauntlet and the same sequence took place as with her left hand. Then the breastplate folded in on itself and she felt a surprisingly comfortable pressure on every inch of her torso as the helmet’s faceplate lowered into place over her head. When it had done so, she was plunged in darkness and all she could hear was her own breathing—which was bordering on dangerous hyperventilation.

Then a series of lights began to flash at the edges of her vision and Eve’s image appeared in the lower right corner of her view. “The nerves are nothing to be ashamed of, baby cakes,” Benton’s glorified sex toy said confidently. “If your heart rate doesn’t come down below one thirty in the next minute, we’ll have to calm those nerves with a mild sedative—don’t worry, they’re built into the suit and are completely standard.”

There was a whirring sound in her ears, and the visor of the helmet flashed brightly for a moment before it dimmed and she was able to see the room around her. Masozi moved her arms and took a step forward, awestruck at how well-balanced the suit felt. Even though the boots had soles that were nearly as thick as her highest set of heels back in New Lincoln, she was able to take several steps without any balance issues. She fought to regain control of her breathing as she looked down at her hands.

“That’s better, babe,” Eve said approvingly, “heart rate one ten and falling. Oh, wait,” Eve said, looking down at her scantily-clad body in alarm, “I forgot to change! One sec.”

Eve’s image disappeared briefly, but when it returned she was clad in an all-black bodyglove that somehow seemed to reduce her exaggerated bust and hips to more believable—if still considerably larger-than-average—proportions. She also had a pair of narrow, black stripes ‘painted’ under her eyes, making her look like some sort of a cross between a spy and a professional athlete.

“Much better,” Eve said with a curt nod after a self-appraising glance. “Primary systems are now fully online, but it’ll take another ten minutes for the secondaries to power up. In the interim, I suggest we make like an atom and split.”

“Where are we going to go?” Masozi asked, looking around the apartment for an exit. All she could see was a bedroom adjoining the main living room, the door to the hallway leading to the lifts, and the large window which the V-120MX cannon was set up behind.

“You guessed it,” Eve said when Masozi’s eyes lingered on the window. “Don’t worry about the fall, girlfriend,” she added, “the suit’s primary systems will help us get down without too much trouble.”

Masozi noticed a series of readouts spring to life at the periphery of her vision, and she saw that several of them appeared to be reading her biorhythms. But there were literally dozens of minimized graphics the purposes of which she could not hope to understand.

“Don’t worry about those, babe,” Eve said hastily, “just head on over to the window so we can do this.” One of the minimized readouts unexpectedly enlarged, and it showed a three dimensional representation of the building she was in. As she focused on it, she saw that there were at least thirty icons making their way up to her current position. Those icons were flashing an ominous, angry red color, and Eve said, “I’m guessing we’ve got about thirty seconds before they barge in here. That means you’ve got to get out that window in the next ten or we’ll be caught in the cleansing of the room—don’t worry though, none of the adjacent apartments will be damaged when it goes ‘ker-pow’ — and neither will the officers if you hurry.”

Masozi took a short breath and asked, “What do I do?”

“In case of emergency…” Eve said dryly, folding her arms across her chest and tapping her bicep with her fingers.

Masozi cocked her fist back and fired an overhand left punch into the glass. It shattered instantly, and the strangest part of when it happened was that she couldn’t hear it at all. The window’s fragments flew out into the mild wind which whipped across the building, and Masozi took a step forward to peer over the edge.

It was a long way down, and Masozi felt butterflies begin to riot in her stomach, “Ok…now what?”

“Now you climb down,” Eve said with an emphatic roll of her eyes. “Six seconds to get clear of the room. Just grab onto the ledge and I’ll show you how to do the rest.”

Masozi grabbed the window sill and swung her leg over the edge, acutely aware that a fall from her current height had the very real potential to dismember her when she impacted.

“Good,” Eve said, “now, I’m just going to take over for a second…”

Masozi’s hands opened very much against her will, and she shrieked in alarm as her body began to plummet downward.

“Stupid controls,” Eve growled and after what felt like an eternity—but was less than two floors’ worth of descent—Masozi’s gauntlets thrummed and her armored fingertips somehow grabbed hold of the building’s sheer, vertical exterior. “There,” Eve said, miming the wiping of sweat from her digital forehead, “sorry about that; I didn’t expect the protocols to require handshakes in quintuplicate.”

Masozi looked down the face of the building, but before she could say anything there was an explosion above them and her body was forced downward a few feet by the power of the blast.

When she looked up she saw that the corner penthouse they had just been in was now a smoking ruin, and Eve said, “We’d better climb down outta here, bakeshop. We’re so exposed out here without the secondary systems online that this position would make a porn star blush.”

Masozi actually agreed with Eve’s assessment, so she slid her right hand down the wall before doing likewise with her left. After a few repetitions she thought she had the hang of it, and she began to descend to the street below.

“That-a-girl,” Eve approved. “Now, at this rate of descent…I should be able to get the secondaries online just before we get to the ground.”

The minutes ticked by as Masozi’s pace improved, and she found herself standing on a small, squat structure she took for a maintenance shed which was attached to the main building.

“A little extra wattage here…” Eve said as her digital fingers flew this way and that, rearranging the minimized icons in a seemingly random fashion, “…and a little less draw there…and we’re done!”

“What do you mean, ‘we’re done’?” Masozi pressed. Her legs quivered from the descent, since even though she had barely used them she found that her muscles had all clenched tightly during the descent.

“Take a look for yourself,” Eve urged proudly as she folded her arms over her chest.

Masozi looked around and saw nothing different, but then she did notice something and she waved her hand before her face to confirm what she had suspected. “I’m invisible?!” she blurted in amazement. She had heard of stealth systems that could bend light around a custom made suit, but the reality of being in one was enough to appeal to the little girl in her that had long ago wished for super powers.

“Well…technically, no,” Eve replied belatedly, “but it would take someone looking straight at us to see more than a warble of light. More importantly, this suit’s based on an Imperial Infiltrator design so it’s unlikely that anything we run into will detect us—nothing except a pair of focused eyeballs at close range, that is.”

“So…where do we go?” Masozi pressed, knowing the time had finally come for her to do what she had come to do. She was still uncertain how she was to accomplish the mission, but she actually did trust that Jericho had devised a plan that was far superior to anything she could come up with.

“Hop on the A-11,” Eve said, and an overlay of the nearby streets appeared beneath Masozi’s visor section. A vehicle appeared to be moving toward their position, and it was indeed marked ‘A-11.’ “Just hitch a ride across town and I’ll tell you when to get off.”

“Ok,” Masozi said, moving to the edge of the building and seeing the mass transit vehicle approaching quickly—too quickly, in her estimation. “It’s moving too fast,” she said hesitantly.

“It’s all just energy, honey pie,” Eve said, cracking her digital knuckles in anticipation. “This suit’s secondary systems are online so it won’t be a problem. Just take another ‘leap of faith,’ girlfriend,” she said with a wink.

As the conveyance approached, Masozi took a deep breath and leapt from the roof of the maintenance shed. Her armored body sailed through the air toward the approaching maglev train, and just before she impacted on its fuselage Masozi reached out to shield herself from the impact.

But a strange sensation overcame her body and it was almost like she had struck a soft, invisible cushion surrounding the train—or, more likely, it had surrounded her armored body. The deceleration was dampened such that she was able to grab onto the rail which ran the length of the vehicle’s roof with both hands, and she hauled herself up on top of the vehicle before regaining control of her breathing.

“Now just lie flat and relax,” Eve instructed. “This will take a while.”

[]Chapter XXV: Disappointment vs. Endurance

Jericho sat in the maximum security detainment cell and looked around as he tried to clear recent events from his mind.

He had learned decades earlier that regret—or even what most people thought of as nothing more than ‘retrospect’—would kill a person’s soul as fast as a knife to the brainstem would kill their body. But even so, he was unable to keep from replaying every interaction between himself and Masozi in an effort to glean where he may have gone wrong.

Everything had been going according to plan up to the fateful moment in the tavern. She had sympathized with, and even offered verbal support on several occasions for, the Timent Electorum and its function in the Sector’s society. He had constructed and vetted her psych profile personally, and had even had the other experts on H.E. One confirm his findings before proposing his plan to Director Hadden.

The Director had always placed a great deal of trust in Jericho, and it was a trust which Jericho dearly hoped he had not squandered. But, locked away in his current cell, he was unable to make any necessary corrections—at least not until he left the facility.

The door to the cell opened and Jericho was torn from his thoughts as a short, muscular figure wearing an all-black bodyglove stepped into the room. There was a single, red light above the doorway which suggested that the man’s entry was not an authorized one.

“Adjuster Jericho Bronson,” the man’s familiar, perfectly-pitched voice said into the shadows as he closed the door behind himself, “I must say I’m disappointed.”

“Agent Stiglitz,” Jericho said grimly, knowing that the restraints he had been placed in would prohibit him from putting up an adequate defense—not that there was much that a ‘normal’ human could do against a heavily-augmented operative like Stiglitz—assuming that was even his name. “I’m sorry I failed to live up to your expectations.”

“As am I,” Stiglitz said wistfully as he approached the bed on which Jericho was seated. The agent pulled up the only chair in the room and swung it easily around in front of Jericho before sitting down and leaning across the chair’s back. His eyes snapped up and down Jericho’s shackled form and he shook his head before sighing, “I suppose you know why I’m here?”

Jericho nodded. Ever since his capture at the hands of the police quad he had known it would only be a matter of time before Stiglitz would arrive—and, for better or worse, he had done so almost precisely on Jericho’s presumed schedule. “You were overseeing Governor Keno’s security,” he said, and Agent Stiglitz nodded approvingly, “but once the only real threat to your assignment was confirmed as being captured, you decided to perform the interrogation personally. You couldn’t risk whatever information he might have getting out in the open.”

Stiglitz sighed again, this time in bitter disappointment. “Such a keen mind,” he said wistfully. “It will almost be a shame to dissect it…you could have been so much more. You know that, yes?”

“I’d prefer we get down to business,” Jericho said, meaning every word. He knew that Stiglitz had the ability, opportunity, and motive to kill him in that cell, and Jericho wasn’t going to beg for mercy in what may actually be his final hours of life.

“As you wish,” Stiglitz agreed casually as he stood from the chair. “I assume physical coercion will prove less than fruitful with you as a primary interrogative measure. And I cannot risk the possibility of hidden failsafe chemicals built into your body which would react…” his lips twisted in a dark smirk, “undesirably with truth serums.”

“So far, so good,” Jericho said evenly.

Agent Stiglitz picked up the chair easily and carried it to the far side of the room, where he placed it neatly in the corner. “Of course, I don’t have time for the standard psychological breakdown methods,” he continued easily as he assessed the room with a critical eye, “and neither do I have the required materials to conduct direct nervous stimulation without running the risk of damaging you irreparably prior to my extraction of whatever might be locked away in that beautiful brain of yours.”

“Keep going, Stiglitz,” Jericho said smugly, “it sounds like you’ve got it all worked out.”

Stiglitz gave Jericho a feigned look of having been wounded. “My dear Adjuster, what do we have if we abandon the social pleasantries?”

Jericho grimaced as the other man approached, removing his black gloves as he did so to reveal unnaturally pale hands. “I think the answer to that question would be ‘meaningful exchanges of information’,” he replied evenly. He very much did not look forward to what was about to happen, but he knew he had no choice but to endure it.

Sitglitz sighed again before shaking his head. “Very well,” he tossed the gloves onto the bed beside Jericho and reached down to place a hand on either side of Jericho’s face. He seemed to search Jericho’s eyes for several moments, while Jericho met his gaze evenly as he fought to keep his breathing under control. “Nothing but prey,” Agent Stiglitz said with a genuinely crestfallen look after peering through the metaphorical windows into Jericho’s soul.

Jericho’s entire body was then wracked with a violent spasm that was so powerful he actually blacked out—the first time that had happened since he was a boy—and when he came to he was lying on the cold, stone floor of the cell with his face in a puddle of what he assumed was his own vomit.

“But don’t worry,” Stiglitz said as he wiped his pale hands on Jericho’s jacket, “a true hunter never makes its prey suffer unnecessarily.”

Jericho felt a cold sensation on his leg but before he could realize what it was his body was wracked with another overpowering jolt of electricity, and once again he blacked out.

“Adjuster?” Jericho heard Stiglitz’s voice at the edge of his awareness, and he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He became aware that he was seated on the chair which Stiglitz had placed in the corner, and he rolled his head around until he saw with no small measure of relief that the bed was still in its original location.

“I’m sorry,” Jericho said, his words coming sluggishly as he fought to work his jaw up and down so the words would form properly, “could you repeat the question?”

Agent Stiglitz chuckled lightly. “Twelve rounds of directed neural-interference charges and your prefrontal cortex is still firing on all synapses,” he said with a note of genuine respect. “I’m impressed, Adjuster…it’s a pity we can’t donate the remains of your nervous system to science. You’ve likely got some unique anatomical structures in place.”

Jericho focused on Stiglitz and saw that he was holding a small blade in one hand and rolling something between the fingers of his other hand which seemed to have drawn his absolute attention. As Jericho’s eyes slowly locked in on the object, he realized it was a disembodied finger.

He unnecessarily looked down at his left hand and saw that his index finger was missing, but there was surprisingly little blood around the wound.

“You didn’t even scream,” Stiglitz said with open appreciation before tossing the finger off to the side of the room like an unwanted snack wrapper. “I must say I am impressed with you, Jericho Bronson—if that is even your name.”

Jericho chuckled as he closed his eyes and lolled his head back. But before he could even relax his neck, Stiglitz’s hand was behind his head and the Agent forced Jericho’s face forward to meet his eyes. After a moment Jericho nodded, “That’s my name, all right.”

“We’ll discover the truth of that—and much more—soon enough,” the Agent promised. Jericho glanced up to the wall above the door and saw that the light was still red. Stiglitz’s eyes tracked with Jericho’s and he snickered softly. “You’re the most dangerous criminal in the Sector, and they only posted three guards between the lobby and your cell,” he said as he took Jericho’s mutilated left hand in his own and gently isolated the thumb. “Unfortunately for them, it’s a mistake for which they can longer atone.”

Jericho’s left thumb erupted in pain and by the time he looked down he saw Stiglitz’s delicate-looking fingers had crushed the first knuckle and blood was oozing out of his skin. With a slight adjustment of his grip, Agent Stiglitz crushed the nerve bundle between the now-ruined thumb and the first metacarpal, and Jericho was bathed in an unremitting wave of nausea and vertigo. He was vaguely aware of something hot being pressed against his thumb, and when his vision returned he saw that his thumb was also missing but, surprisingly, there was very little blood.

“Remarkable,” Stiglitz said ecstatically. “Not even one sound of protest,” he mused as he examined Jericho’s thumb thoughtfully, “are you sure you’re human?”

Jericho would have quipped something in reply, but he was still fighting the nausea which threatened to empty his stomach once again.

“It’s no matter,” the Agent said before Jericho heard a muffled thunk, which he assumed was his thumb hitting the floor, “we’ll unlock your secrets soon enough.” Stiglitz took a hold of Jericho’s ring finger, and his grip was almost delicate as he caressed the back of Jericho’s hand and said, “I’ve got all night.”

Masozi clung to the top of the maglev train as it sped across the sprawling city. It stopped every five minutes or so, and going by her helmet’s displayed chronometer nearly an hour had passed.

“Coming up on our stop, babe,” Eve said as her image re-appeared after a lengthy absence—an absence which Masozi had considered a mixed blessing. “Get ready to hop off on the L-street junction; we’ll reach it in ten seconds.”

“Can you please cut with the ‘babe,’ ‘sweetie,’ and ‘bakeshop’ crap?” Masozi snapped. “It’s really demeaning.”

“No can do, sugar,” Eve replied promptly. “It’s just the way I am. Besides, it wouldn’t be any fun talking the way you do,” she quipped. “Three…two…one…jump!”

Masozi saw the L-street junction and leapt from the maglev toward a nearby alley. Her body hurtled toward the far wall of the alley some forty feet above ground level, but once again her impact was dulled significantly by some sort of invisible field. Her hands locked onto the building’s surface just like they had done on the apartment building, and after taking a moment to catch her breath she crawled down to the street level below.

“Good work,” Eve said approvingly as a small, three dimensional map appeared with a route already plotted out. “Head to the sewer junction three hundred meters from our location and I’ll open the lock. Step inside and we’ll be one step away from laying an epic smack down on Ms. High-And-Mighty Governor.”

“The sewer?” Masozi repeated as she stepped warily out onto the sidewalk. There was bustling foot traffic just thirty meters away as people appeared to be filing more or less uniformly toward the city’s center. She was amazed that no one saw her, and nearly jumped out of her suit when a man and woman walked past her. They had come within two meters of touching her but neither had made any indication they had seen her.

“My mission packet says we’ll gain access to our final protocols once we’ve reached the point at the end of Waste Removal Tunnel B-5,” Eve explained. “I can’t wait to see what other toys this baby’s got in store for us.”

Masozi steeled her nerves and, after looking both ways, crossed the street. Weaving through the horde of foot traffic became difficult when it was necessary to cross the seemingly endless flow of people, and Masozi muttered, “Where are they all going?”

“The Governor’s having a concert,” Eve replied matter-of-factly. “All seventy thousand tickets sold out in just twelve minutes when they were made available just over a year ago. Off-world critics rate her music anywhere from ‘offensively bad’ to ‘a public health hazard’,” Eve added with obvious sarcasm, “but the people here just eat it up.”

Masozi looked down the L-street after weaving her way through the press of bodies—thankfully avoiding physical contact as she did so—and saw a massive coliseum with the words ‘Keno Live!’ emblazoned on what looked to be a permanent display built into the facility’s structure.

When she found the sewer access hatch, Masozi waited for a trio of passersby to round the corner before kneeling beside it and asking, “How do we open this?”

“Just put your right arm down next to it and I’ll crack it open,” Eve replied confidently. Masozi did as Eve suggested and a series of images swirled around Eve’s digital avatar in the helmet’s display system. Eve manipulated the images almost too quickly to see, and as she did so her face scrunched with what looked to be annoyance. After a few seconds the hatch popped open and Eve mimed dusting off her hands, prompting Masozi to lift the lid and descend the ladder into the dark tunnel below.

As soon as she had cleared the hatch, it closed behind her and its locking bolts reengaged. “How far from here, Eve?” Masozi asked, thankful that the suit prevented her from smelling whatever might have otherwise been wafting into her nostrils.

“This plan involves taking the Governor backstage between sets,” Eve replied as they reached the bottom of the ladder and Masozi’s HUD showed a relatively straight path to their destination. “With the coliseum about a kilometer from here, we should be in position in ten minutes.”

Masozi wound her way through the sewer tunnels, glad to find that the city’s sewage appeared to be confined to a large pipe running down each tunnel. Running while wearing the suit required considerably less effort than she had expected, and she actually suspected it was less draining than moving without it.

Before long she came to the end of their route and Masozi looked up to see a ladder which looked nearly identical to the one which she had descended eight minutes earlier.

“You made good time, honey,” Eve congratulated in her insufferable tone, “now we need to make our way to the Governor’s dressing room; the first intermission should come between thirty and forty minutes from now. My latest data packet suggests the Governor’s security should be relatively light.”

“Why is that?” Masozi asked after taking just two steps up the ladder. “Why would the Governor’s security be light on such a public occasion?”

Eve’s image looked to be examining something small but she shrugged after a few moments. “Doesn’t say, babe,” she said with a hint of surprise. “That’s odd…although it does say that as soon as we go through that hatch there’ll be no coming back this way. You sure you want to do this?” she asked intently.

Masozi actually stopped to consider the question. Something wasn’t right about the situation, but try as she might she simply couldn’t put the pieces together. She knew there was something she had missed, or some connection she had failed to make, but even after several minutes of silent contemplation she was unable to determine what that might have been.

“Yes,” she said with a sharp nod, “Governor Keno is, as far as I can tell, one of the few truly evil people in this System…and regardless of her involvement in my own situation, she deserves to pay the price of betraying her people. If she isn’t made to respect our society’s most sacred law,” she continued, realizing as she did so that she was trying—and succeeding—to convince herself of the truth of the words she spoke, “then what good are those laws?”

Eve, who had been listening intently, shrugged her shoulders lightly. “It’s all the same to me, bakeshop,” she said indifferently. “But personally I’m hoping we see this through; our last protocols won’t come online until we step through that hatch and I can’t wait to see how much fun they’ll be!”

Masozi shook her head in bewilderment as she resumed her climb up the ladder. “Remind me to have your program modified if we’re supposed to be spending this much time together in the future,” she quipped.

“Hey!” Eve protested, placing her hands on her hips and glaring. “I don’t talk about rearranging your brain cells, do I?”

In spite of herself, Masozi laughed at the joke just as her fingers closed around the hatch. After just a second Eve managed to open it and they stepped through.

Just when the hatch closed and Masozi took a look at her surroundings, realization seemed to slam into her mind with the force of a falling asteroid and when she realized what she had been missing she felt a glacier of cold fury begin to grind through the pit of her stomach.

“You bastard,” she growled before taking a steadying breath and grimly setting off down the corridor which Eve had indicated in the HUD.

[]Chapter XXVI: Stick it in and Twist it

“Wake up, Adjuster,” Jericho heard Agent Stiglitz’s voice. He was vaguely aware that he was lying on his side, and that his right arm was free of the bulky restraints he had been wearing just before losing consciousness.

He looked down numbly at his left arm and saw that it was no longer there. After a moment he realized that most of it was still there, but that it now ended just below the elbow in a black, chemically-cauterized, stump.

Jericho’s mind was nearly overcome with the pain, but it wasn’t just the sensation that threatened to overwhelm what remained of his reason. Neither was the emotional trauma associated with losing a limb—a reality he instantly processed and accepted upon seeing the mangled remains of his forearm and hand lying in pieces on the floor.

The truth was the simple, physiological insult to his body’s systems were becoming too much. Soon even Agent Stiglitz’s carefully-administered treatments would be unable to neutralize them. Jericho knew he was nearing the end of his ability to endure the man’s torture, and he looked up with something more akin to desperation than he had ever expected to feel as he checked the light above the door.

His heart skipped a beat when he saw it was still red, and he very nearly collapsed into a whimpering heap—but then the light flashed blue. He wasn’t completely sure he had actually seen it—or if his mind had created it in a moment of broken delirium—so he fixed his eyes on it as Agent Stiglitz came over and reached down beneath Jericho’s armpits to prop him up on the bed.

The light flashed blue again, and just before Agent Stiglitz’s eyes tracked with Jericho’s the light returned to its previous, uninterrupted red color. Jericho knew that his suffering was about to come to an end, one way or another, and that was enough for him to cling to the hope that not everything he had put in motion would be wasted.

“Your neurochemistry is close to a cascade failure,” Agent Stiglitz said calmly, as though he was discussing the menu at a restaurant prior to ordering. “Your conditioning has proven impressive, which means that you of all people should know there is only so much that an unmodified human can withstand.” Agent Stiglitz knelt beside Jericho, projecting supreme confidence as he placed a hand on Jericho’s shoulder. “There is no shame in breaking, Jericho,” he said soothingly, and Jericho knew that, even with his newfound hope, he would succumb to the man’s brutal assault on his faculties. “Give me what I need and I’ll end this,” he said, his voice sounding almost musical as he added, “I’ll do it quickly; I hate to see you suffer this way.”

Jericho looked down at the bed and began to whimper before recollecting himself and nodding. “All right,” he said tremulously as his shoulders slumped, “I’ll tell you…but I need you to do something for me.”

Stiglitz gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze and he said, “Say no more.” The Agent stood and withdrew a single, half-smoked cigar from a tiny pocket near his waist and smelled it, seeming to savor the aroma and Jericho instantly recognized it as the same cigar he had left in Mayor Cantwell’s office—the same one he’d put out on that absurd chair just before blowing the sitting Mayor’s head off. “Despite what you may think, I have a deep-seated respect for traditionalists,” Stiglitz said as he neatly trimmed the end of the cigar after rolling it into a near-perfect cylinder, “it’s only by examining them that we can see where we have gone wrong in the past.” When he was finished, he held the cigar before Jericho and said, “Incidentally, I learned everything I needed to know about you from this cigar…did you know that?”

Jericho shook his head as the pain in his ruined, left arm began to throb uncontrollably. “You wouldn’t have a light, would you?” he asked bleakly.

Stiglitz smiled in satisfaction, clearly having predicted the request as he produced a single match from the same compartment. “Of course; what else are friends for?”

Just as Stiglitz moved to light the match, Jericho said, “Ure Infectus.”

There was a click from the head of the bed just as Jericho began to dive toward it. Stiglitz’s eyes tracked him perfectly, his heavily-modified neurology easily coping with the apparently desperate lunge, and he made to intercept Jericho. But Stiglitz’s motions were surprisingly slow—surprisingly for Agent Stiglitz, anyway, while Jericho had expected precisely such a ‘surprise’ as his own trap metaphorically slammed shut on the sadistic agent.

Jericho rolled past the head of the bed just as a hilt sprang out the end of the bed’s tubular, metal frame. It was the same monomolecular blade the assassin had tried to kill him with at Pemberton’s safe house, and Jericho barely managed to get his fingers wrapped around it before Stiglitz’s metal-boned body crashed into the bed and bent its frame as though a small hover bike had just run into it.

Jericho had barely managed to get free of the man’s immediate reach and as he did so he spun the sword in a wide, sweeping arc which went into—and effortlessly through—Stiglitz’s left leg, severing it entirely.

The look of surprise on Stiglitz’s face was probably more satisfying to Jericho than anything the other, sadistic man had experienced in the last hour and a half of torture. Without fanfare, or ceremony of any kind, Jericho brought the blade around and sliced cleanly through Stiglitz’s nearest arm a second before it would have made contact with Jericho’s body, and it flew off just above the elbow.

Unable to balance himself, Agent Stiglitz’s teetered and crashed into the crumpled remains of the lightweight bed and Jericho quickly sliced his other arm off just below the shoulder.

“I hope you understand,” Jericho said through gritted teeth as his vision narrowed, “I’m not one for taking chances.”

To Agent Stiglitz’s credit, he lashed out with his lone, remaining limb in an attempt to kick Jericho’s leg out. But Jericho had already moved the monomolecular blade to intercept the man’s leg. He did little more than hold the weapon in place as Stiglitz literally kicked his own leg off just below the knee, proving that even his heavily-augmented physiology was no match for such a cruelly efficient, shockingly elegant weapon.

Jericho was seized with a coughing spasm for a moment, but he never took his eyes off the Agent. When he had regained control of his lungs, Jericho stood over the other man and noticed that barely any of the man’s blood had escaped what remained of his body.

But a cursory glance revealed that Stiglitz’s skeleton was cybernetic, and much of his musculature was synthetic as well. In fact, the more Jericho looked at the man, the less like a man he appeared.

“Well played, Adjuster,” Stiglitz congratulated, his face betraying none of the agony he should have felt. “A suppression field…I never even considered the possibility that a backwater detention facility like this would have one.”

“Oh, it didn’t,” Jericho assured him as he looked down and saw his left arm had begun to bleed more than he would have liked as it leaked his vital fluids into a puddle on the floor. “I had it installed just after we sifted through the raw data feeds at Investigator Masozi’s apartment building the day of Cantwell’s Adjustment.”

Stiglitz shook his head in amazement. “Impressive…most impressive,” he said with grudging respect. “May I assume that the fair Investigator is currently carrying out what was to be your mission?”

“You can make an ass out of yourself if you want to,” Jericho growled, fighting against the growing waves of pain in his ruined arm, “but you’re going to have to leave me out of it.”

“How did you withstand the interrogation,” Agent Stiglitz asked with a hollow grin, “at least tell me that?”

“Simple conditioning,” Jericho replied as the door to the cell opened and a hazmat team entered, followed by a small medical team, “it’s amazing what a human mind can do with enough practice…and faith. But, if I’m being truthful,” he added grudgingly, “you almost had me.”

“So you are a zealot,” Stiglitz said as the hazmat team ran a series of scans on the disparate pieces of his body.

“Not a zealot,” Jericho replied solemnly, “just a patriot who still believes in what his nation was supposed to be even after its politicians have forgotten.”

“Then…as a fellow patriot,” Stiglitz said, actually managing to prop himself up slightly amid the wrecked bed, “I must say that you’ve earned my admiration. Pulling me out of my position at Keno’s side to create an opening for your subordinate…an inspired feint,” he said grudgingly. “It seems I was not the hunter—you were. And that mistake will now cost me my life.”

“Don’t feel too bad,” Jericho said tightly as one of the medical technicians began to inject his arm with a series of drugs, “you’re not the first person to fall victim to his own arrogance…and you won’t be the last. But you’re right; there’s no way we could have taken both of you in one place.” He knelt just far enough from Stiglitz’s body that he knew the Agent would be unable to reach him, and Jericho said smoothly, “See…I learned everything I needed to know about you back in New Lincoln when you didn’t take a shot at me through the window while you had the chance. You had nothing to lose by taking that shot…except the chance to indulge your ego and curiosity.”

“Well said,” Stiglitz said with an approving nod. “So well said, in fact, that I’m going to give you a gift before you end me.”

“Not sure I’m interested,” Jericho said, drawing the sword back as he stood. The assembled technicians scattered like leaves in the wind as he did so with looks of varying trepidation on their faces.

“Oh…I’m sure you are,” Stiglitz said with a confident smirk.

Jericho was tempted to cleave his skull in two and be done with him, but something in the man’s affect suggested he might actually know what he was talking about. “Let’s hear it,” he said evenly.

Agent Stiglitz’s smirk spread to a dark, savage grin, “You aren’t as clever as you think you are, Adjuster. My simulations suggested a three percent chance of this particular outcome, so we took the necessary precautions.” He threw his head back and laughed before continuing, “A contingency has already been put in place; as soon as the Investigator assassinates Governor Keno, the city of Abaca will die a grizzly, savage death…and not long after the city dies, this entire colony will become an uninhabitable wasteland—a testament to the dangers of men like you running amok with a supposed public mandate.”

Jericho considered his words and, in a handful of seconds, came to a conclusion. “Thank you,” he said before lashing out with the monomolecular blade. He easily severed Stiglitz’s head from his body in a nearly bloodless decapitation, and he pointedly turned his back on the likely-still-conscious Agent’s head.

The lead doctor of the team recovered from the shock of Stiglitz’s death more quickly than the rest of her team and she stepped forward to say, “We have to get you to a surgical suite.”

Jericho shook his head, “I don’t have time.”

She pointed to the small, cryogenic container one of her team had just finished placing what was left of Jericho’s arm into. “That container can hold your tissues indefinitely, but your wounds need cleaning and dressing.”

Jericho shook his head again, “No, Doctor; I’ve got more important business. You,” he snapped to the technician who was just about to close the box, “take that dross out of there.”

“Dross?!” the doctor replied incredulously. “Without that container your tissues will decay and we won’t be able to re-attach them!”

“Fuck my arm,” Jericho said grimly, gesturing to Stiglitz’s disembodied head, “put that thing in there. And send one of your techs with me—I’ve got to get to Abaca before it’s too late.” He dropped the monomolecular blade and held out a hand expectantly, “My link, please.”

The doctor had a look of impotent fury on her face, but she took out the link and slapped it into his palm. “You are a stubborn bunch,” she scowled.

“Nice seeing you, too, Val,” he said dryly, immensely grateful that the painkillers they had given him finally reached therapeutic levels in his bloodstream. He activated the link before remembering, “Jeff sends his regards, by the way.”

The doctor threw her hands into the air before finally relenting, “Who am I to argue; if he doesn’t want his arm, that’s fine with me. Set the Agent’s tissues to perfuse on the bypass unit before freezing his…remains.”

While she coordinated the efforts of her team, Jericho punched in an access code to the link and was rewarded with the image of Eve’s busty, sexualized avatar. “Someone need a pickup?” she asked before blowing a large bubble of virtual gum and smacking it loudly enough to make a nearby technician jump.

“Overdrive the Tyson’s engines if you have to,” Jericho grimaced as pain shot up his left arm and his vision narrowed, “but come get me and then set a course for Abaca—Masozi’s in trouble and we’ve got to rescue her.”

“You got it, babe,” she replied smartly. “Charging the Tyson’s drives now; ETA your position is six minutes.”

“Good work, Eve,” he said as he made his way out of the cell, with one of the kit-carrying medical technicians in tow. “Home in on my signal…we don’t have much time,” he added as a wave of vertigo came over him but he fought to keep conscious.

He needed to stay awake at least until he got on board the Tyson. If he didn’t there was a very real possibility that Masozi would die for doing nothing but her job.

Jericho hadn’t spared her from that fate back in New Lincoln just to see it play out here on Philippa. Besides, she had done everything he’d hoped she would, so her predicament was more his responsibility than her own.

Every step she had taken, and everything she had seen since leaving New Lincoln, had been carefully engineered by Jericho—including her discovery of the fake nuclear weapon aboard the Tyson. The only real deception on his part had been the scene in the tavern, and if he was any judge of her deductive reasoning skills then she had already realized her unwitting complicity in his scheme. And now, for the first time since he had met her, he couldn’t confidently predict her reaction to what she would encounter.

“Not a grilled cheese sandwich any more,” he muttered as he staggered out of the detainment facility. Once outside the medical technician worked on Jericho’s stump while he waited for Eve to arrive. When the Tyson finally appeared on the horizon, he rolled his neck gingerly as he stepped out to meet it while muttering, “I am definitely getting too old for this shit.”

Chapter XXVII: Operation: You Lose

Masozi had finally realized Jericho’s plan, but try as she might, she found herself unable to muster more than indignation at being played. The clues had all been there but she had been unable to piece them together until just then, so she considered it her own fault that she had been manipulated.

“This was Jericho’s plan, wasn’t it, Eve?” Masozi asked with little uncertainty in her voice. “He wanted me to come here by myself.”

“Hold on a sec, honey,” Eve replied before disappearing for a moment. When she re-appeared she sighed, “Looks like it, babe; I’ve got a hidden audio file here with your name on it and a high priority level attached and it just appeared in the suit’s database. Have a listen.”

Jericho’s voice came over the speakers, “Investigator, I’m sorry about how all of this had to go. I want you to understand that none of what you saw, or thought you saw, was intended to insult you,” he explained heavily, with a hint of regret in his voice that Masozi was far from believing as genuine. “You don’t believe me, and that’s fine,” he continued and though the statement wasn’t much of a stretch, Masozi felt her anger rise at his presumption, “but I only did what I did in order to ensure you could accomplish the mission if you choose to do so.”

“You bastard,” she spat bitterly. What am I, a bullet to be chambered, aimed, and fired? she thought with silent fury.

“You can still back out now,” he explained, and her helmet’s three-dimensional display of the coliseum zoomed in on her position before illuminating a path which led away from the building, “but after what you’ve seen, I sincerely hope you’ll follow through with this. Too many sacrifices have been made so that these people can be stopped—and I have reason to believe that Governor Keno is just the beginning.” He paused briefly before continuing, “It’s entirely possible that I’ve already been added to the list of lives these people have claimed. However, understand that I manipulated you specifically so that the risk would be as low as possible not only to you, but to the civilians of Abaca. If we had gone in together, Stiglitz and his team would have almost certainly stopped us…but now that I’ve drawn him out of position, you have one chance to strike back at the people who would destroy more than just our two lives. You need to tell Eve your choice, Investigator, and you need to do it quickly—our window is already closing.”

Masozi considered his words for several seconds before shaking her head. “I can’t back out now,” she muttered. At her core, Masozi had grown up wanting nothing but to serve the people of Virgin’s society and she had applied herself fully to that endeavor with as much effort as she could muster. While the Timent Electorum agency—if it could be called an ‘agency’—was a different calling from that of an Investigator, in the end they both attempted to serve the nameless, faceless masses of humanity who could not stand up to injustice for themselves.

“You sure about that, babe?” Eve pressed warily. “I’ve got a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ file here, and once I open one of them the other will automatically delete.”

Masozi took a deep breath before nodding. These people had been responsible for the bombing at her apartment—she had known most of the people who had died in that explosion. Oddly enough, she gave little regard for the fact that they had tried to have her killed in that same explosion; the thought of them slaughtering innocent people just to get to her was enough to push her over the edge.

“Let’s do this, Eve,” she growled, promising herself that there would be a reckoning with Jericho. If I survive, she reminded herself, remembering Jericho’s suggested sixty percent capture probability for her chosen course of action.

“You got it, babe,” Eve said hungrily, “here’s the second part.”

“I promise that you’ll get a chance at whatever retribution you think I deserve,” Jericho’s recorded voice said evenly, “but for now you need to move through the access tunnels adjoining the Governor’s private dressing room. There will be guards outside in light body armor who your suit would let you easily overpower, but you need to avoid them. Eve has a set of protocols Benton developed that will buy you a window to enter the dressing room and wait for the intermission. When that comes and the Governor enters the room,” his voice turned serious, “you’ll only have forty seconds to Adjust her before the alarms go up and you’re trapped. Expect the Governor to be heavily augmented—even your suit will likely only even the odds in a hand-to-hand fight. Good hunting, Investigator,” he said heavily, “with luck, we’ll be seeing each other soon.”

“That’s it, babe,” Eve said, “looks like there’s six minutes until the concert kicks off, so we’ve got less than an hour to get in position.” Eve’s avatar then clapped her hands emphatically before rubbing them together in apparent anticipation, “Let’s see what these last protocols give us…”

A new route appeared on Masozi’s display, and she set off to follow it. Eve was silent while Masozi wound her way through the service tunnels beneath the coliseum, and even with several meters of concrete between herself and the concert above, the suit’s audio pickups easily registered the opening notes of the concert.

“Too much bass,” Masozi muttered after only a few measures of music had played, and she made her way to a sealed door. “Can you deal with this, Eve?” she asked as she looked for an obvious method to open the door.

“Sure can, sweet thing,” Eve replied, as though distracted by something. “Just put your right hand near the locking mechanism for a few seconds.”

Masozi did as she was instructed, and the lights covering the locking mechanism began to flicker in a seemingly random pattern. After a few seconds, the lights all turned green and the door swung easily open.

“Good work,” Masozi said unthinkingly. She’s just a computer program, Masozi reminded herself, it’s her job to do things like this.

“No problem, babe,” Eve replied, still clearly distracted by something before adding, “some of this suit’s subroutines are getting a little confusing. Sorry about the lack of witty banter.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Masozi replied dryly after stepping into the corridor and hearing the door close behind her.

“Was that sarcasm?” Eve asked suspiciously as she cast an accusing glare in Masozi’s ‘direction.’

“Of course not,” Masozi said exaggeratedly, causing Eve to burst into laughter.

“You’re a lot of fun, Investigator,” she said with a shake of her head, “I think we just might be kindred spirits after all.”

“Stay on task, Eve,” Masozi grumbled, feeling the corner of her mouth turn up in a lopsided grin in spite of herself.

They reached the final junction indicated on the map and Masozi stopped before peering around the corner. There was a pair of guards standing outside door about a hundred feet down the intersecting corridor, and Masozi leaned back around the corner just as Eve declared triumphantly, “Finally got it; all our systems are online, girlfriend. Calculating our rated hand-to-hand combat output now and…” she trailed off before grinning, crouching down and yelling victoriously at the top of her virtual lungs, “IT’S OVER NINE THOUSAND!”

“What does that mean?” Masozi asked in bewilderment, thankful to still have functional hearing after Eve’s unexpected outburst.

“Put simply,” Eve replied matter-of-factly as she resumed her upright stance, “your average civilian’s got a combat output rating of a hundred. A talented amateur wrestler, kickboxer, or other single-discipline hand-to-hand fighter would be somewhere between four and eight hundred. And a lifelong killer with the right gear and three dozen scalps on his belt, or a hall-of-fame professional mixed martial artist, would be somewhere between two and three thousand depending on their size, strength, speed, etc..”

Masozi had taken part in more than her share of amateur athletics, including some wrestling, before discovering a love of kickboxing as a young girl that persisted all the way until she became an Investigator. But she simply hadn’t had time to train in a few years, so she guessed she would have been on the lower end of that group, near four hundred. “Where did you get that metric?” she asked, her curiosity—once again—getting the better of her.

“It’s something an Imperial military officer worked up,” Eve replied. “Benton discovered it while digging through some old archives he…umm…found?” she finished meekly before giving a short, nervous laugh. “Yeah…probably shouldn’t have said that. Anyway, the point is that those guys—even if they’re full-on badasses—won’t give us any trouble we can’t handle on the way out. You ready for your window?” she asked unexpectedly. “It looks like we’ll get a chance in about two minutes.”

“Works for me,” Masozi said, anxiety beginning to build in the pit of her stomach, “I’m ready when you are.”

“Great,” Eve said, “first thing we need to do is make like a spider and crawl on the ceiling until we’re right over the door. After we’re there, I’ll distract the guards and you’re going to need to drop in front of the door so I can crack open the lock. I should be able to open it up before they return to their posts, but it’s going to be tight as a virg—”

“I got it,” Masozi interrupted harshly as she placed her hand on a nearby concrete wall and tested to see if the gloves were once again supernaturally sticky, and found that they were. She crawled up the wall until transferring to the ceiling, acutely aware of just how unnatural the position was, and began to slowly move her way over to the door.

“Be sure not to block the light,” Eve cautioned, “the suit’s stealth systems are impressive, but even they have limits.”

“Right,” Masozi said, skirting one of the industrial light banks more widely than she had originally intended, and after nearly two minutes she was in position. “Ready, Eve,” she muttered, risking a glance down at the two guards who stood silent sentinel to either side of the door.

“Gotcha, babe,” Eve replied. “Diversion in three…two…one…now.”

There was a sound from a nearby corridor as a pair of voices echoed through the tunnel-like passages. They sounded very nearly drunk and they quickly came closer, causing the guards to give each other a neutral look before one of them silently set off for the source of the commotion with his weapon shouldered.

“I’m telling you,” a man’s voice echoed through the corridor, “I pressed the button for the restroom—I can’t help it if this stupid place’s equipment’s faulty!”

“You just wanted to get me alone in a dark tunnel,” a woman’s slightly slurred voice retorted knowingly. “You’re not that smart, Dennis.”

They rounded the corner—fondling each other in manners which were better left to private locales—and Masozi saw guard who had moved to intercept them train his rifle on them before snapping, “Hands in the air, Citizens!”

The two quickly retracted their wayward hands and the man’s eyes went wide with fear while the woman appeared more surprised than anything. “We got lost, officer,” the man blurted in self-defense as his hands reached for the ceiling. His voice squeaked so badly it was as though he had yet to breach puberty. “We were just trying to find the restrooms—I swear!”

Just then another pair of voices came from the corridor opposite the one where the guard had pinned the two to the wall at rifle-point. The guard still standing watch by the door quickly shouldered his weapon and made his way to intercept the newcomers, who appeared to have gotten themselves similarly lost.

“Now, babe,” Eve said as soon as the second guard had taken half a dozen steps.

Masozi dropped to the floor and made surprisingly little noise as she did so, landing in a crouch before springing up and placing her right gauntlet next to the door’s locking mechanism.

The second guard was just pinning his small group of interlopers to the wall when the door popped open. Masozi wasted no time entering the room before closing the door behind her as quickly, and quietly, as possible.

“Well done,” Eve congratulated. “Now we just have to wait for the Governor to show up and we can get down to business.”

“Drive this thing faster, Eve,” Jericho snapped through gritted teeth as the medic worked to suture the major blood vessels in his left arm.

“I’m sorry, Jericho,” she replied tersely, “but when you split my program in two pieces, this part lost more than half of my processing power. You did tell me to send my better half with Masozi,” she reminded him pointedly, “I can’t load balance the draws on the engines, anti-grav systems, and flight controls any more efficiently than this.”

“What’s our ETA?” he growled, knowing that Eve was performing far better than she had any right to do…which begged a question he would need to get answered at a later date as to just what exactly she was. It was clear by now that she was no simple sexbot program, or even a high-quality emotional companion product.

The painkillers the medics had given him were already wearing off, and he knew that if he took too many more then his mental faculties would be too severely compromised to be of any help when they arrived at Abaca. So he gritted his teeth and went through a series of long-practiced mental exercises—the same ones he had used to prepare for Stiglitz’s torture—even though he knew that with so much pain already at the forefront of his thoughts it would be difficult to achieve any measure of relief.

But Masozi had risked everything she had in order to play her part in his game, and he owed her his full attention should matters take a turn for the worse—an outcome which was more likely than he could have imagined prior to Agent Stiglitz’s confession.

“Forty nine minutes,” Eve replied promptly. “The whole city’s covered in a comm. blackout, Jericho; I can’t pierce it until we’re literally in visual range.”

“Contact the Zhuge Liang,” Jericho instructed her before amending, “wait, never mind…I’ll do it.” He strapped a headset over his ears and activated the secure channel to Captain Jeffrey Charles aboard the CSS Zhuge Liang.

“This is Charles,” his cousin’s voice came in loud and clear over the headset.

“Captain,” Jericho said, wincing as the medic slipped and accidentally sliced into his stump, “Abaca’s in comm. blackout for us, can you confirm?”

“We confirm,” Charles replied promptly, “the whole city went quiet not long after you were reported captured. We’re guessing they’ve switched off all the primary comm. relays.”

“We have to consider the possibility of a bomb going off in Abaca in about thirty minutes,” Jericho said grimly. “And if I’m right…it’s going to be a big one.”

“I thought the bomb was a decoy?” Captain Charles said in confusion.

Mine was,” Jericho agreed, “but it looks like our adversaries have upped the stakes. Once the Adjustment’s made, I’ve been told that Abaca will die—followed by the rest of the colony.”

“Stand by,” Charles said before severing the connection. When the link was re-established nearly a minute later, his voice had taken a hard edge, “Our simulations are suggesting that given Philippa’s thin atmosphere, we’re probably looking at a bio-agent of some kind. A bioweapon development facility in the Liberty system was reportedly compromised six months ago, and it was widely-reported by the state-run media there—and here—that it was likely an act of corporate espionage. The stolen delivery system included a surface-to-air, high-altitude introduction device which could achieve full dispersal in less than an hour.”

Jericho sat back in his seat and processed the meaning of this latest bit of news. “Clever,” he said grudgingly, “they deploy a weapon of mass destruction against their own people and then frame Hadden Enterprises for the crime…”

“It’s just the kind of thing that can turn public opinion at a pivotal moment like this,” Charles agreed darkly. “It looks like we stepped in it here, Cousin.”

Jericho gripped the arm of his seat with his lone, remaining hand and set his jaw. The pain in his stump was actually overpowered by his anger at not having seen this particular event coming. In hindsight it seemed so obvious: sacrifice Governor Keno—along with the entire Philippa Colony—in order to galvanize the Sector’s populace against the only people who were actually acting in the people’s best interests.

“We can’t look back,” he said, as much to himself as anyone else, as he knew that hindsight of that kind would lead to nothing but paralysis. “What are your simulations showing as possible containment methods available to us?”

“We’re working something up,” the Captain replied hesitantly, “but it’s not going to look good when we do it. We’ll have to make low orbit directly over the city and, if we make the necessary modifications in time, we can detonate four of our antimatter torpedoes in the atmosphere and burn the oxygen around the city—hopefully preventing a chain reaction that cooks Philippa’s entire atmosphere off in the process.” The other man took a breath that was so deep and loud, Jericho could hear it through the headset, “But to the cameras…it’s going to look like we’re firing on a defenseless city, Jericho.”

“If it will save lives then do it—fuck appearances,” Jericho said coldly, momentarily admiring the complexity of the trap they had just walked into. “They’ve crossed a line, Jeff; this is no longer a game. If we don’t act to protect these people then apparently no one will.”

“At least we’ll be able to wait until we get confirmation of the bioweapon’s deployment,” Charles added confidently. “My people are already working on tapping into local security feeds; we should have access to most of Abaca’s systems as soon as we’ve made low orbit.

“If you’re certain you can make that determination before the weapon has spread outside your containment zone, fine,” Jericho said in a commanding tone, knowing full well what his order meant. “But if you can’t get confirmation, you cook off the atmosphere around the city—do you understand me?”

“Jericho,” Charles said hesitantly, “there are over six hundred thousand people in Abaca who will either burn to death or suffocate if we’re wrong.”

“And if we’re right there are two and a half million people outside the city who will die if we let that weapon spread,” Jericho retorted harshly. “You only abort the launch if you can prove the weapon hasn’t been deployed, am I clear?”

Silence greeted his ears for several long, tense seconds. Just as Jericho was about to remind his cousin of his orders, Captain Charles replied, “I understand…and for what it’s worth, I’m afraid it’s the right move.”

“I have no idea if it’s right or not,” Jericho said grimly, “but I do know that we can’t be paralyzed by fear of being wrong. Update me every two minutes via point-to-point tactical packets.”

“You’ve got it,” the other man said crisply, “Charles out.”

Jericho studied the Tyson’s instrumentation to confirm everything was as it should be. Nearly every single system was redlined, with the engines well past their recommended operating ranges and nearing their rated failure points.

As the Neil deGrasse Tyson tore through Philippa’s atmosphere, Jericho wondered whether he would have called off the Adjustment in that moment if he was able. Doing so very possibly would save six hundred thousand lives, and to Jericho those people were not merely statistics—he fully understood that each of them was a parent, a child, a sibling, a mentor, a student, or even a future leader of humanity.

The answer, when he finally arrived at it, made even his blood turn cold.

[]Chapter XXVIII: The Blurred Line between Victory and Defeat

Masozi crouched in the corner of the secure dressing room as she awaited the Governor’s concert to reach intermission. The audacity of a sitting government official—especially one of Governor Keno’s public stature—participating in such a gross display of indulgence was simply mind-blowing.

It wasn’t enough of a reason to kill the woman…but it was enough that Masozi genuinely thought she might consider the matter if she had been one of the Governor’s constituents.

The real reason the Governor deserved to die was that she had knowingly wrought havoc on her people’s livelihoods. Life in the Capitol City of Abaca was more or less like that in any of Virgin’s cities. The streets were clean, there were plentiful public amenities, and the structures seemed to be well-maintained.

But the outlying areas—some of which Masozi had seen personally—were atrociously serviced. It was as if there were two separate worlds on Philippa: one for the rich and the other for the poor. The image of St. Murray’s patrons with their radiation poisoning had been burned into Masozi’s mind, and she knew that anyone who willfully encouraged such conditions among the populace who depended on them to serve and protect deserved to be punished.

Masozi understood that not all people could have equal access to the finer conveniences in life, and that a person needs to earn their way on his or her own merits. But Governor Keno, and her family, had purposefully denied their populace an already-functioning method by which they could better themselves—and they had done it with the clear intent of privately profiting off the very opportunity they had just stolen from the people who depended on them.

As the cheers reached a crescendo in the coliseum above her, Masozi felt her spine stiffen at the Governor’s audacity. She was literally profiting from her people’s misery, and her unwitting public was cheering her for her efforts.

Philippa’s most active generation had been raised in the very circumstances which the Timent Electorum had been founded to prevent. As she heard the intermission call echo through the coliseum above her, Masozi knew that more than at any other point in her life what she had come to do was not only palatable—it was necessary.

If people like Governor Keno were allowed to continue abusing their populace then life in the Virgin System would soon devolve into a caste-based society with the privileged aristocracy sitting at the top—the very system of ‘government’ which the Sector had been freed from when the wormhole had collapsed two hundred years earlier.

The minutes passed by at a maddeningly slow pace, until she heard the Governor’s entourage near the door to the room.

“Showtime, babe,” Eve said, cracking her virtual knuckles for emphasis. “As soon as the door’s closed, you give her hell—don’t hold anything back. If we’re lucky we can take her before she even realizes we’re here. Just hit her with everything you’ve got; I’ll transfer power from the stealth systems to the suit’s other mods if we don’t get her with the first shot.”

As the door opened, Masozi held her breath when saw a handful of heavily-armed guards standing outside the room. The Governor—a huge woman who had apparently not opted for any kind of skeletal reduction during her gender change operation—entered the room.

As she entered the room, one of her male handlers said, in a piercing, effeminate voice, “The Governor requires her rest before the show may resume. Please take this opportunity to—“

The door closed, cutting off the man’s words mid-sentence. The Governor drew a breath, which she released as a sigh while rolling her neck around as the mag-locks engaged on the door.

Masozi knew this would be her best chance so drew her left fist back in anticipation. After drawing a deep breath, she launched herself at the Governor with a vicious, overhand punch aimed squarely at the woman’s muscular neck.

Just before her gauntleted fist connected with the flesh of the Governor’s neck, the Governor brought her forearm up in an inhumanly fast gesture, blocking Masozi’s blow just enough that it was deflected off target and struck Keno in the shoulder.

The impact when Masozi’s armored forearm connected with Keno’s unarmored one was jarring, and unlike anything Masozi had expected to feel.

“She’s augmented, all right,” Eve said grimly just before the Governor launched a counterattack. Keno punched low and then brought her knee up into Masozi’s midsection with enough force to send her flying into the far wall. She impacted with enough force to send a web of cracks radiating from the point of impact on the thick, concrete-and-steel wall.

Masozi regained her feet just in time to launch a counterattack as the Governor brought her foot up in a roundhouse kick aimed at Masozi’s head. Diving inside the Governor’s guard, Masozi hammered an uppercut into the woman’s surprisingly hard ribcage. Even with the added strength from the suit behind the blow, Masozi barely managed to elicit more than a grunt as the Governor grabbed her wrist and head before trying to throw Masozi onto her back.

Their combined bulk crashed into the nearby sofa and its thin, metal frame snapped as the piece of furniture collapsed. Masozi only then realized that her stealth systems were compromised when she saw that her gauntlet was flickering between visibility and invisibility.

Governor Keno grabbed Masozi’s armored neck with her left hand, then postured up and cocked her right fist in preparation for a crushing blow to Masozi’s head—but Masozi had no intention of waiting for it to arrive. She grabbed the Governor’s left wrist with both of her hands and pivoted her hips and shoulders such that she isolated Governor Keno’s left arm between her armored legs and pulled Keno’s thick wrist against her armored chest.

She barely managed to avoid the incoming deathblow by doing so, and Keno’s free fist struck the concrete beneath the ruined sofa with a sharp, cracking sound. Before the Governor could recover, Masozi had strained with everything her suit-powered strength could muster as she fought to break the Governor’s arm.

She felt the arm give at the elbow, but Governor Keno barely seemed to notice as she had already regained her feet. As she did so, Masozi was turned nearly upside down and the Governor stomped down into Masozi’s armored chin once—twice—three times before Masozi finally let go of Keno’s ruined arm and pushed away in an effort to create some much-needed space.

But Governor Keno pursued and snapped another, brutal kick into Masozi’s armor—this one into her left thigh—just before Masozi was able to get her feet beneath herself.

“Nice armor,” the Governor growled as she pivoted on her front, right foot. She spun her body around faster than Masozi had ever seen—even during kickboxing competition—and planted her right foot squarely in Masozi’s gut. The impact was enormous, and a series of red icons began to flash on her helmet’s HUD as she sailed through the air from the power of the kick.

Masozi crashed into the far wall and collapsed to her knees just as the Governor planted a hellacious knee into her chest. Another round of alarms went off in the suit’s systems and Masozi heard Eve say, “We can’t take much more of this; work your way toward the door!”

The Governor followed the knee strike up with a pair of crushing, overhand punches delivered to Masozi’s armored head. The displays in her helmet briefly flickered off before returning, and just as the Governor reached down with her right arm to grip behind Masozi’s neck—Keno’s left arm now hung uselessly at her side—Masozi put everything she had into a rising uppercut aimed at the Governor’s chin.

Keno’s own strike was driven off-target by Masozi’s powerful punch, as the blow literally lifted the Governor a foot off the floor and sent her body in a ponderous arc through the air. The Governor’s arm and legs flailed uselessly as Masozi reached up with both of her hands and grasped the other woman by the waist.

Keno reached down with her one good arm in a blind attempt to break Masozi’s grip, but Masozi grasped her opponent’s waist tightly and drove her body across the small room until they slammed into the still-locked door.

They crashed into the door with enough force to deform it visibly, and Keno’s body briefly went limp. “Grab that conduit—quick!” Eve said, and a section of conduit which apparently fed the door’s mag-locks lit up in the helmet’s display.

Without even thinking why Eve would want her to do it, Masozi leapt up and grabbed the conduit with her left hand. It broke free from its moorings as her body fell down on top of the Governor’s, and Masozi hammered a pair of punches into the Governor’s head with her right hand—which, for Masozi, was her off-hand—and Keno went limp for a fraction of a second from the repeated, concussive impacts.

Masozi now understood Eve’s intended use for the power conduit, so she grabbed Keno’s chin in her right hand and tore as much of the flexible power conduit free from its brackets as she could. Once she had done so—and with her own body straddling the Governor’s—she rammed the open end of the conduit into the side of the Governor’s head.

The lights dimmed in the room as the electricity in the conduit coursed through Keno’s body. The surge was cut off after just two seconds—along with the lights—but that was enough of a jolt for Keno’s body to go through a series of violent convulsions.

Masozi knew almost nothing about augments—often referred to as ‘cybernetics’ in popular fiction—but she did know that her own suit was already damaged and that it couldn’t withstand an indefinite amount of damage before it became little more than a shapely, expensive tomb.

She reached down and isolated the Governor’s right arm using a maneuver she had seen in holo-vids, but never actually attempted. She locked her left hand on Keno’s right wrist, and then snaked her right arm around the Governor’s right elbow before gripping her own, armored forearm with her gauntleted hand. She then stood and wrenched on Governor Keno’s right arm with everything she had, and it was more than slightly alarming that the joint didn’t simply pop out.

She redoubled her efforts just as the Governor gathered her feet beneath herself sluggishly and attempted to use her ruined, left arm to grasp Masozi’s waist. Masozi heaved and strained with every fiber of muscle she had, but the Governor’s shoulder simply would not surrender.

“Fucking…bitch,” Governor Keno slurred just as she regained her feet, and Masozi knew that this would be her last chance to neutralize the Governor’s good arm. Somehow, even with one arm, Governor Keno had been Masozi’s suit-powered match—it was now or never.

Masozi arched her back, wrenched the Governor’s arm up behind her opponent’s back, and screamed with effort as she saw the display in her helmet dim. Just as Keno managed to grasp around Masozi’s waist with her free, ruined arm, the Governor’s right shoulder was destroyed with the sound of a dozen pieces of metal shearing in unison.

Governor Keno let out a brief cry of surprise, but Masozi continued to torque on the arm until she had rotated it so far it was nearly pointed forward. She spun the Governor’s body over using her newfound leverage, and landed on top of Keno before the Governor’s arm literally came off at the shoulder in a shower of blood and metallic fragments. Her helmet’s night vision was still fully functional, so she was able to maneuver herself into position as the Governor fell to the ground.

“Wait, wait!” the Governor screamed as Masozi mounted her ruined body and cocked her left hand for what she hoped would be a killing blow. “I’ll give you ten times whatever you’re getting paid; I’m the richest woman in the System—maybe even the Sector! You can have everything, just don’t’ kill me. I have two children who need me!”

Masozi had heard it all during her own examinations as an Investigator, and though Keno was a lifelong politician her words rung hollow in Masozi’s ears. “You betrayed your people, Governor,” Masozi said coldly, but for some reason she stayed her hand. She had never actually taken a life during her time as an Investigator, and had only ever fired a lethal weapon at another human twice.

“Please,” the Governor pleaded, and even Masozi believed that the tears now streaming down her cheeks were genuine, “my people need me. They won’t know what to do if I’m gone—you’re not an assassin,” she added hastily as recognition seemed to dawn in her eyes and Masozi actually had to process the woman’s words. “A real assassin would have killed me already…”

Masozi considered Keno’s suggestion that she wasn’t an assassin, and the truth was she had never fully considered that if she killed the Governor then that was precisely what she would be. She may have a sturdy legal leg to stand on if she acted in accordance to the Timent Electorum’s directives…but she had come to a line she had never even dreamed she would consider crossing.

“I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement,” Governor Keno said, her eyes relaxing fractionally as though she was nearly out of danger, “I’ll make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams—just think of it! You can have your own starship, enough money to buy a moon like this one, and an army of people who will live and die at your whim!”

It was in that moment that Masozi realized who, and what, the Governor really was—and, by extension what Masozi really was. The Governor and her ilk were solely motivated by their ability to exert power over others. Keno had let her people suffer and die from poverty while she basked in the glow of their adoration. Masozi knew that she would continue to deny the few opportunities for improvement which those people possessed each and every year she held office—or any other position of power over the people of Philippa.

Masozi felt something strange and startlingly unfamiliar in that moment and it didn’t take her long to realize what it was: purpose. She had thought that working as an Investigator would give her life some measure of meaning, but the truth was she could have spent her entire life and solved each case that came across her desk in New Lincoln’s Investigative Unit and she would have never come close to correcting as much injustice as she was in that moment.

Apparently taking Masozi’s silence for some form of approval, Governor Keno reiterated, “By this time tomorrow you’ll be the richest woman in the Sector. I’ll give you everything you could ever want.” A nearly predatory look came over the Governor’s face, and in that moment Masozi steeled herself to what needed to be done.

“You’ve got nothing I need,” Masozi bit out before sending her fist into the Governor’s face. Keno resisted the best she was able, but with two ruined arms there was little she could do to prevent the inevitable as Masozi’s armored gauntlets tore into the woman’s face with punch after punch.

Masozi thought of all the people who had died because of Keno, Stiglitz, and whoever else had been involved in the attempt to track her down and silence her. She still didn’t know why they had tried to kill her, but Masozi no longer cared.

A single, resonant truth filled every corner of her consciousness in that moment, and it was a profound realization which she knew would re-shape her in ways she could only begin to wonder at:

People who would do as Keno had done couldn’t be allowed to live.

After several dozen punches, the Governor’s skin had been peeled back from her face to reveal a clearly cybernetic skull beneath. Masozi didn’t know much about augment technology, but she seriously doubted that what she was seeing was ‘normal’ augmentation.

The Governor’s body went limp, and Masozi reached down to cradle her head in her hands and once she had done so, she gave an almighty twist and the Governor’s head came off entirely.

Masozi stood as the Governor’s body went limp beneath her, and she numbly dropped Keno’s disembodied head to the floor. She stood there in silence for several seconds before Eve’s deadpan voice came over the helmet’s speakers, “How does my ass taste now…beeyotch?”

In spite of the weight of what had just happened, Masozi couldn’t stifle a short laugh at Eve’s apparently indomitable attitude. “How do we get out of here?” she asked, having never asked the question before that moment.

“Truthfully,” Eve said with a sigh, “your guess is as good as mine. I’ve got a dozen escape routes you can pick from, but we’ve been on a complete comm. blackout since we entered the coliseum. I haven’t been able to update any of my tactical databases so I’m afraid we’re down to ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’.”

“How long until the door opens?” Masozi asked, feeling her legs begin to shake beneath her.

“It should have already done so,” Eve replied cautiously. “I only had them locked out for about fifty three seconds; it’s been almost four minutes. Hang on a sec, honey,” Eve said quickly, “I’ve got to run some diagnostics on this suit.”

Masozi tested her left leg, which Governor Keno had kicked so savagely, and saw that while it seemed to be working properly there was a long, spiraling crack running around the armored plate enclosed around her thigh.

“We’ve got all our systems but the stealth field and our atmospheric isolation operating within parameters,” Eve reported after a few seconds of flicking through the various icons displayed in the helmet’s graphic interface. Masozi knew that the visual representations of Eve’s actions were just for her benefit, since Eve was performing the tasks simply by manipulating computer code. But it was still reassuring seeing what Eve was doing while she did it. “Our left leg’s containment integrity is FUBAR; we’d better hope we don’t need that system because I can’t really do anything about the breach.”

“It’s a small price to pay,” Masozi said heavily before drawing a deep breath. “Can we take the guards outside?”

“No problem, babe,” Eve replied promptly. “Even if there’s six of ‘em and they’re all stone-cold baddies, none of them was wearing power armor so one or two shots will take any of them out. You up to it?”

“I think so,” Masozi replied as she drew a steadying breath. “Unlock the door whenever you’re ready.”

“I’m on it,” Eve said confidently, and just a few seconds later she said, “opening in three…two…one…open.”

The door’s mag-locks disengaged and the large, metal door swung slowly open. Masozi stood by the doorjamb until the opening was wide enough for her to slip through. But just as she did so, a series of alarms went off in her helmet’s display.

“Close the door!” Eve shouted, and Masozi did as she was instructed.

The mag-locks re-engaged and Masozi snapped, “What is it?”

“Stand by,” Eve replied, and Masozi’s left leg suddenly went numb. “I didn’t want to do this, but you’re going to feel a pinch—“

Masozi’s neck erupted in a fiery sensation on both sides, and soon her wrists felt the same burning pain which quickly began to spread throughout her body.

“Eve, what are you—“ Masozi began, but her words caught when the pain in her torso intensified so greatly that she actually feared her lungs had just burst.

“Hang on, sugar,” Eve said grimly, “just hang on…”

Masozi’s vision began to black out, and her thoughts turned sluggish and dull as she focused on the icons displayed inside her helmet. They were so beautiful, and Masozi wondered why she hadn’t stopped to admire such simple, marvelous things more often in her life.

“Stay with me, bitch!” Eve snapped, and Masozi felt a dull, throbbing pain radiate up from her left leg as the sexbot’s digital voice pierced the sudden haze which had come over her thoughts. “You hear me—stay with me!”

“I’m sooo….tired…” Masozi said, her eyelids drooping. In spite of the riotous pain she felt throughout her body, all she wanted to do was sleep.

“Not so fast, girlfriend,” Eve quipped, and Masozi felt her vision began to narrow as the pain in her left leg intensified. “There we go…now listen to my words, Masozi, and repeat them back to me.”

“Fine,” Masozi said dreamily. The pain in her torso had abated, but her left leg felt like it was being bathed in frozen acid. Still, it was odd that she didn’t seem to mind it too much.

“There’s a nerve agent in the air…say it,” Eve prompted.

“There’s a nerve agent in the air,” Masozi said before groaning and remembering a similar phrase she had been forced to learn in primary linguistics, “will this be on the test later?”

“Can it, sweet cheeks,” Even snapped irritably, “say ‘my leg was exposed to the nerve agent’.”

“My leg was exposed to the…” Masozi trailed off as the gravity of what Eve was telling her sank in. “What happened?!” she blurted, her senses snapping into focus all at once.

“Good, the drugs are finally working,” Eve said tightly, “but we don’t have more than eight minutes’ worth of air in this thing. We need to get to street level—fast. Can you run?”

Masozi tried to stand and test her leg, but while the right one was fine her left felt like it weight a hundred pounds and didn’t respond to her commands at all.

“Damn,” Even growled, “your left leg’s already useless. I can move the suit’s left leg for you, but we’re going to have to be in sync so we won’t be able to get to a full run. Try to stand, quickly; we’re running out of time.”

Masozi did as she was instructed and found that, while she was unsteady, she was able to keep her balance. She took a step forward with her right leg and Eve soon followed with a clunky, haphazard attempt of her own with the suit’s left leg motivators.

“Brace against the wall,” Eve instructed, “and let’s open this door so we can make like a prokaryote and split. We’ll work on our pacing as we make our way to the nearby access lift here.”

The helmet’s display showed a clear path to what looked like the lift the amorous couple had inadvertently used to lure the first guard from his post.

“Got it,” Masozi said, the pain in her leg coming and going at irregular intervals. She waved her arm in front of the door’s control panel and it swung open.

As she clung to the wall and exited the room, Masozi saw several dozen bodies littering the floor. They were all in various, grotesque reposes with their fingers curled into tight, gnarled, claw-like positions. Some of the larger ones actually looked to have broken their own backs—an eventuality of certain nerve agents which Masozi had become familiar with during disaster training back in New Lincoln.

“Why?” Masozi breathed. “Why would they kill all of these people?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Eve replied solemnly. “This was just a slaughter…I don’t understand it.”

Masozi tried to push the horrifying imagery from her mind as she leaned against the wall for support, skirting the bodies as best she was able while she and Eve worked to improve their coordination. After a few dozen steps, Masozi thought she could quicken the pace to a brisk walk.

“I’m getting a transmission fragment,” Eve said quickly, “I’m working to clean up our reception—whatever you do, don’t stop moving.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Masozi said through gritted teeth as she slapped the button beside the lift which would summon it to their location.

“Eve, what’s your status?” Jericho demanded.

“I’m trying to link up with my other half,” Eve replied tersely. “This isn’t as easy as I make it look, Jericho!”

“Never mind the backtalk,” Jericho growled. “Get Masozi on the line now; we can wait for your reunion.”

“I’m trying,” Eve shot back before finally saying, “I’ve got an audio feed established.”

“Investigator?” Jericho asked anxiously. “Investigator, if you can read me you need to get to the surface as quickly as you can. There’s a bioweapon about to be deployed and you’re right in the middle of the introduction zone. Do you copy?”

The headset’s speakers crackled with static and he shot a dire look at the console featuring Eve’s virtual avatar. Then he heard a voice that sounded like Masozi’s on the other end, and he listened intently as her voice became clearer, “—a lift now. Nerve toxin in air…dead. Repeat: everyone is d…”

The signal cut out and Jericho growled, “Get it back, Eve.”

“I won’t even try to explain how I’m doing what I’m doing, Jericho,” Eve snapped, “but you’re already getting the best I can give.”

The speaker crackled back to life and Jericho listened intently as Masozi’s voice returned. “…exiting the lift now. Only have six minutes of air left before…”

The signal cut out as the speakers crackled loudly. “We’re being jammed, Jericho,” Eve said with absolute conviction. “Someone is remotely operating enough gear down there that they just blanketed our frequencies. That was my last trick; we have to wait until we’ve got line of sight now.”

“She’s in the Keno Coliseum,” Jericho said urgently, “have her wait in the middle of the domed coliseum. We can land the Tyson in the middle and it will cut down on her travel time—how long until we arrive?” Eve shook her head silently, and Jericho leaned down next to the display and yelled, “How long?!”

“Twenty three minutes—I’ve already taken the safety protocols offline,” she added with a meaningful look. “This shuttle is going as fast as it can, Jericho. I’ve already sent a data packet with your suggested extraction plan. But I can’t confirm if my other half got it. If she did, there’s a chance we can revive Masozi.  If not…” she said, turning her virtual eyes to the floor.

Jericho leaned back in his chair and looked over at the medic, who had several minutes earlier managed to finish dressing his arm. “Let’s hope you get another patient today,” Jericho said, knowing that everything which could have been done had been.

He didn’t want to lose her…it would be a disaster in too many ways to count.

“Come on,” he whispered under his breath, silently willing the craft toward its destination. “Hang on, Masozi.”

[]Chapter XXIX: Bathed in Fire

“We’ve lost our link,” Eve said after they had exited the lift, “it seems like we’re being jammed locally. Someone doesn’t want any communications leaving this city.”

“I wonder why,” Masozi growled as she fought her way to the nearest junction. There were hundreds of bodies lying in similar states as the ones outside Governor Keno’s dressing room, but Masozi knew she didn’t have time to mourn them just yet.

“Wait a moment,” Eve said as Masozi made her way toward the exit Eve had previously highlighted. “Change of plans, babe,” she said, and Masozi’s exit path shifted until it was redirected to the heart of the coliseum, “this destination gives us the highest survival chance.”

“But that’s inside the coliseum,” Masozi argued.

“No time to explain, honey,” Eve quipped, “if you want to live then you’ll follow the route.”

Masozi growled wordlessly as the pain in her leg shot up and seemingly through her body, causing her to twist in a violent, uncontrolled spasm.

“Hang on, girl,” Eve said quickly, and the pain abated along with the spasm, “I’m trying to ration our drugs; we’ve only got a limited supply.”

“You’re doing great, Eve,” Masozi said, actually believing it as she hauled herself along the wall toward the coliseum’s nearest entry arch. She stepped inside and, although she fought through the waves of emotion, she was brought to tears at the sight which greeted her eyes.

Literally thousands of people, of all ages and walks of life, lay dead within the coliseum. Many of them were still in their seats, and the magnitude of the crime which had been committed against the people of Philippa—no, against humanity itself—was literally beyond her ability to comprehend.

She tore her gaze from the epic tragedy which had unfolded around her and made her way to the stage at the dome’s center—a stage where the people had only minutes earlier been celebrating their beloved Governor.

“Stay over here,” Eve urged. “And sit down, girl…this next part’s going to get rough.”

“What do you mean?” Masozi asked as she slowly lowered herself to the ground behind a heavy, metal framework of scaffolding.

“I only got a partial data packet,” Eve explained as the pressure around Masozi’s left leg intensified, but this time she was fairly certain that it had been caused by the suit rather than the neurotoxins coursing through her system, “but Jericho’s on his way with the shuttle and our best chance is to wait for them here. Still…they’re nineteen minutes away and we’ve only got another three minutes of breathable air in this thing.”

“So lower the oxygen content,” Masozi said quickly as she fought to control her breathing in the face of Eve’s revelation.

“Already on it,” Eve assured her, “but that’s not where the trouble ends…I need your permission to cut off blood flow to both of your legs and your arms.”

“Twenty minutes without blood flow…” Masozi thought, remembering what she had learned about tissue perfusion during her first aid training, “that’s right on the edge, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Eve agreed gravely, “but it’s the only way to give your important bits a reasonable chance to survive. If we make it back to the Zhuge Liang, they might be able to counteract the damage—”

“Do it,” Masozi said quickly, knowing that each second that passed without a decision decreased her apparently slim chance at survival.

“You got it,” Eve said, and all four of Masozi’s limbs immediately felt like they were being crushed by the suit’s pressure cuffs—or whatever it used in situations like this. “I’m sorry about the pain, girlfriend,” Eve said heavily, “but I’m giving you a sedative so you won’t panic as your oxygen levels diminish.”

“Thank you, Eve,” Masozi said, instantly regretful of the many times she had derided the quasi-intelligent program.

“Don’t mention it, sweetie,” Eve replied. “Just try to relax and I’ll manage your biorhythms the best I can while we wait for the others. It helps the process if you count backward from one hundred.”

“One hundred, ninety nine, ninet…” Masozi trailed off as her world spiraled into darkness.

“One minute to touchdown,” Eve reported as Jericho and the medic worked to get their containment suits checked out.

“You’re cleared, sir,” the medic reported after checking Jericho’s back-side seals. The medic then turned around and Jericho inspected his suit’s seals.

After he was satisfied, Jericho nodded, “You’re clear.” Jericho then turned and leaned into the cockpit as the Neil deGrasse Tyson slewed around the coliseum while braking its momentum as much as it could, “Make a hole, Eve.”

“With pleasure,” she replied and the Tyson’s light cannons tore into the flimsy, ceramic panels which comprised the coliseum’s dome. Those panels shattered in an ever-widening spiral as Eve piloted the craft down, lifting the nose at the last instant before the shuttle crashed through the roof panels and sent several thousand of the meter-square pieces crashing into the stage below.

“I’ve got her,” Eve said as she settled the Tyson down near one of the main stairwells, “Eve’s reporting Masozi’s life signs are faint. She’s been out of oxygen for three minutes.”

“Move!” Jericho snapped as the door swung open, and before the Tyson had even touched down both the medic and Jericho were already on the floor of the facility and sprinting toward Masozi.

They knelt one to either side of her armored, motionless form, and they each wrapped an armored arm around their necks and Jericho struggled mightily with the use of only one hand, but they managed to get her upright and hauled her back to the shuttle.

After nearly forty seconds, the door to the Tyson closed behind them, and Jericho snapped, “Initiate atmospheric purge, Eve.”

“Already on it,” she replied as the Neil deGrasse Tyson pulled up and began its ascent out of Keno Coliseum. Several tense seconds passed as the gases inside the craft were vented, during which time the suits which Jericho and the medic wore ballooned out. “Atmosphere purged; introducing purifying agents now,” Eve reported, and after a few more seconds the pressure inside the cabin began to climb, “no contaminants detected, Jericho. The air is clean.”

Jericho and the medic tore their bulky, obtrusive helmets off and as they did so Masozi’s armor began to unlock at several dozen points before opening to reveal the woman within.

Her left leg was swollen and had a large gash to the outside of her thigh, and the skin of her fingertips had already begun to turn purplish-black.

Before Jericho could even press him to do so, the medic began administering a series of injections directly into Masozi’s heart. “What can I do?” Jericho asked, having already gone over the potential procedures but finding himself impatient for the medic’s diagnosis. The treatments ranged from manipulating her limbs to improve blood flow, to essentially doing nothing if her brain had already been oxygen-starved for too long.

“Wait,” the medic replied tersely as he moved with highly skilled speed and precision from one task to the next.

Jericho was about to protest, but the man gave him a cold, flinty look.

“I said ‘wait’,” he growled as he continued to administer the medications. After the sixth injection, he took out a portable defibrillator and began to calibrate it before gesturing to Masozi’s torso, “Remove her clothing; I need exposed skin.”

Jericho reached down with his remaining hand before realizing he needed something else to manipulate the garment. He leaned down and bit the collar of the bodyglove between his teeth and unzipped her one-piece jumpsuit until her bare torso was exposed.

The medic wasted no time applying the leads to several points across her chest and, when he had done so, Masozi’s body twitched just enough to notice that she had done so. The medic examined the readout and pressed the activation icon again, causing Masozi’s body to twitch even more violently.

Jericho felt helpless in that moment so he sat back against the bench where he had ‘hidden’ the nuclear bomb Masozi had ‘discovered.’ He knew that in his current state he would be less than helpful, and was actually relieved to hear Eve say, “Jericho, I need you to get up here. We’ve got a problem.”

Jericho stood and climbed into the cockpit. “What is it?” he asked as he checked the various instruments.

“Engine Two is down,” she replied. “We can still break orbit, but that’s not the problem.” A nearby console’s display switched over to show a huge warship on an apparent approach vector. “It’s the Alexander,” she reported grimly. “They’ve jammed our communications with the Zhuge Liang; I’m still on course for our rendezvous coordinates but we’re going to be late given our engine trouble.”

Jericho knew the Alexander by reputation, since it was the only Battle Carrier ever commissioned in the Virgin System. It was the unquestioned flagship of Virgin’s SDF, and the pride and joy of the System’s entire military. It served not only as a mobile battle platform of unparalleled power, but as the Virgin Central Military’s headquarters and base of operations.

Seeing the massive vessel bearing down on them with what looked to be several dozen fighters—a mere fraction of its maximum complement—flanking it in formation, Jericho couldn’t help but feel a twinge of good, old-fashioned terror as the awesome engine of war bore down on them.

“Time to weapons range?” Jericho asked levelly.

“At most, two minutes before we make rendezvous,” Even replied matter-of-factly. “I might be able to speed things up but I don’t have the runtimes necessary to fly the ship and fix the engine at the same time.”

“Why don’t you recombine with the other Eve?” Jericho pressed as he strapped himself into the chair. Even one-handed, he was fairly confident he could fly the little shuttle passably enough to get them where they were going—so long as it didn’t turn into a dogfight with one of those fighters.

“I can’t do that,” she replied as she began to relinquish control over the Tyson’s systems to Jericho’s station, “Benton hard-coded some control measures into my program before sending me out with you. He says separating my program was risky enough and that he would have to oversee the recombination personally.”

“Good enough for me,” Jericho said as he began to manipulate the Tyson’s trajectory. “Keep me posted on the repairs—and see what you can do about establishing a point-to-point with the Zhuge Liang.”

“Will do,” she said before her tiny, digital image vanished from the cockpit’s display.

“Wait, Eve,” Jericho said quickly almost as soon as she had disappeared.

“Yes, Jericho?” she said, her image partially reappearing on the screen.

“What about the bioweapon,” he pressed, “has it already been deployed?”

Eve’s eyes snapped back and forth and she cocked her head uncertainly, “Dispersal projections say the nerve toxin will have wiped out nearly two thirds of the city’s population already.” She shook her head, “But I didn’t read any evidence of the virus Captain Charles mentioned. That doesn’t mean it’s not there since this ship’s sensors are too limited for a detailed analysis, but I haven’t detected anything just yet.”

It wasn’t what Jericho had wanted to hear, but it was more than he had known. Eve’s calculations suggested that some four hundred thousand people were already dead in Abaca, and the nerve toxin was likely not quite done working its evil on Philippa’s unsuspecting populace.

Jericho looked over his shoulder at the medic, who was manipulating Masozi’s arms and right leg. A wave of relief washed over Jericho in that moment, as he concluded that the medic had deemed a recovery still possible.

Just as he turned back to face the instruments on the dash, a nearby comm. screen flickered to life. “Jericho, do you read?”

“I’ve got you, Jeff,” Jericho replied quickly, relieved to hear his cousin’s voice. “What’s your status?”

“We’re almost in position for the containment strike,” Jeff replied quickly, “do you have confirmation of the bioweapon’s deployment?”

Jericho shook his head grimly. “A nerve gas was released in the city, but we’ve seen nothing of the virus,” he said as he struggled to fight the craft through a bout of severe turbulence. “Eve says two thirds of the city’s populace is already dead from the gas.”

“Are we still ‘go’ for containment?” Jeff asked, and his image began to flicker as static washed over his last word.

Jericho didn’t hesitate to reply, “Yes, you are ‘go’ for containment. Do you read me? You are ‘go’ for containment.”

The screen flickered for a moment and then Jeff’s image returned as he nodded, “I read you: mission is ‘go.’ I hope we’re right about this.”

“Me too,” Jericho replied heavily. “What’s your time to launch?”

“Twenty seconds,” the Zhuge Liang’s captain said, “after that we’re going to intercept you and then get the hell out of here before the Alexander comes into range. Kongming fights way above her weight,” he said with a shake of his head, referring to the Zhuge Liang by the nickname which its crew had taken to using, “but we’re no match for the biggest warship in the Sector in a slugfest. Adjust your heading to the following and we’ll rendezvous after we’ve contained the outbreak, Charles out.”

Another display showed a course adjustment, and Jericho steered the Tyson along that path as he mentally counted down from Charles’ stated twenty second interval. When he reached three seconds remaining, Jericho banked the shuttle so he could see the city below.

Several seconds passed after Charles’ stated countdown and then there was a violent, fiery blossom which spread across the city in an unrelenting wave of hellfire as the atmosphere of Philippa literally began to burn itself away.

The ring of fire continued to spread until the entire city had been enveloped, and at the center was nothing but a blackened circle where Abaca had stood. Jericho knew that the buildings would still be there after the smoke had cleared, but every organic thing would have either been burned to ash in the inferno or, even if something managed to survive the intense heat, there would be no oxygen for several hours as the surrounding atmosphere slowly equalized the present gases.

The fireball reached up toward Jericho’s craft, and the Neil deGrasse Tyson was rocked violently by the roaring fire but the craft fought through the turbulence and leveled itself out just as a trio of explosions went off at the periphery of the burn zone.

Three massive, circular holes appeared in the wave of fire at seemingly irregular places. But while the fire began to die out, Jericho didn’t relax even one iota until he had visually confirmed that every part of the fire had been dissipated.

“Good work, Jeff,” Jericho muttered in relief, knowing it was very possible he had just consigned two hundred thousand people to their unnecessary deaths. He forcibly relaxed his legs, which had begun to tremble during the controlled burn of Pacific’s atmosphere, and guided the Tyson toward the rendezvous point.

[]Chapter XXX: A Wet Paper Sack

“What’s her status?” a woman asked as a quartet of people—three of which were aliens, including one ‘Popper’—surrounded Masozi’s naked form while she was placed on a rolling gurney.

“She was exposed to an auto-corrosive nerve agent,” the medic who had accompanied Jericho replied, “the suit contained most of the agent to her lower left extremity, but her peripheral nervous systems seems to have been widely affected.”

Jericho stood back and watched as they wheeled her away, continuing their dialogue as they began to place various devices around her limbs. “Clear the cryo-suite and input her physiological parameters,” the doctor shouted before the group pushing the gurney disappeared through a set of doors which led to the Zhuge Liang’s sickbay.

Jericho wanted to sit down in that moment; his body was shaking almost uncontrollably from the immense stress he had been under. But he knew he needed to get to the bridge so he staggered toward the lift and slapped the icon which would take him directly there.

When the doors opened he spotted an unoccupied chair not far from the lift and he strapped himself in as he checked the tactical display.

“Four Hellion-class fighters are inbound, Captain,” the Tactical Officer reported. “Time to firing range is thirty seconds.”

“Can we outrun them?” Captain Charles asked as the Zhuge Liang’s relative velocity indicators began to climb.

“Not until they’ve already emptied their payloads,” the Tactical Officer replied tightly.

“Damn you, Blanco,” Charles muttered as he shot a glare at the screen before straightening himself in his chair. “Helm, come about to an intercept course with the Alexander.”

Jericho’s eyebrows rose in surprise as the Helmsman acknowledged, “Aye, sir: intercepting the Alexander.”

“Tactical,” Captain Charles continued, “blast those fighters out of my path and give me a firing solution on the Alexander using a full spread of our tactical complement—including the Tier One weapons.”

As the Zhuge Liang swung around to face down the massive warship, a salvo of white plasma fire erupted from her forward batteries and there was a quartet of explosions in the space between the Alexander and the Zhuge Liang. “All four fighters neutralized, Captain; only one fired its payload.”

“All hands,” Captain Charles called over the ship-wide, “brace for impact in four…three…two…one…”

Jericho just managed to grab the arm of his chair when the ship shuddered slightly, and the shield strength indicator fell by nearly thirty percent.

“Get those shields back up,” Charles barked, “and give me a damage report!”

“Reports coming in, Captain,” another officer said snappily, “two casualties reported on Deck Four near the anti-matter torpedo’s point of impact. Structural integrity is uncompromised; all other sections report clear.”

“They want to fire anti-matter torpedoes?” Captain Charles sneered. “Show the Alexander how it’s done, Tactical.”

“Time to firing range: one minute ten seconds,” the Tactical Officer reported crisply. “Full spread of six torpedoes locked and loaded; forward batteries charged to maximum and ready for a strafing run.”

“Engineering,” Charles called over to the far side of the bridge, “we’ll need a maximum speed burn of the primaries once we fire those torpedoes; I don’t want to sit in the Alexander’s sights any longer than necessary.”

“Primary engines standing by, Captain,” the engineer reported snappily. “Gravity control systems are aligned and ready for tactical maneuvers.”

“Jeff,” Jericho said just loudly enough that he got his cousin’s attention, “I’m not sure we should be doing this. The Alexander’s way out of our league; shouldn’t we run?”

Captain Charles shook his head grimly as he tilted his chin toward the main screen, and as Jericho looked he saw a three dimensional tactical overlay appear which showed the relative positions of the ships. “The Alexander’s fighters surrounded us while we were picking you up,” Jeff explained. “We’re reading one anti-matter torpedo on each of those fighters; if we try to run through them, we’ll almost certainly suffer crippling damage to our engines. The only way out of this is to go at them like they least expect: right up the middle.”

“Cousin,” Jericho protested as the countdown to firing range passed thirty seconds, “that ship’s got more firepower than any other two ships in the Sector combined. Is the Zhuge Liang really that tough?”

Charles smirked as he removed the three dimensional overlay from the main viewer by manipulating his chair’s controls. “That information’s only available on a ‘need-to-know’ basis,” he said as he opened up a concealed control panel built into the arm of his chair and the countdown to firing range neared zero, “and you don’t need to know.”

When the countdown reached zero, the Tactical Officer reported, “All weapons firing.” The image of the Alexander on the view screen—easily the most intimidating engine of war in the entire Sector—was enveloped in a wreath of white-blue fire as the Zhuge Liang’s forward cannons hammered into the larger vessel’s shields. “Torpedoes away,” she said when the plasma cannons had ceased their previously unbroken barrage, “primary cannons firing now.”

A pair of yellowish beams slammed into the Alexander’s shields, and Jericho saw a handful of power icons represented alongside the main viewer decrease demonstrably—one of which was now below half while it had been at full prior to the firing of the fusion cannons.

The violent cascade of energy dancing across the Alexander’s shields began to dissipate, and Jericho was stunned to see that the ship itself appeared to have been utterly unaffected by the Zhuge Liang’s vicious assault. But as he watched, the Alexander was once again enveloped in a nova of energy which was so bright that the display darkened for several seconds before the image of the Alexander returned. This time when the image clarified, the Battle Carrier appeared to have taken a significant amount of damage to its stern quarter.

Then the mighty Battle Carrier returned fire, and the bridge of the Zhuge Liang erupted into chaos as the ship’s axis tilted violently to starboard.

“Forward shields have collapsed!” the Tactical Officer yelled as a fire broke out near the engineering station. “I’ve got cascade failures along the secondary and tertiary systems; life support is offline throughout the ship.”

“All hands: brace for maximum primary engine burn,” Captain Charles called over the intercom as another salvo rammed home against the Zhuge Liang’s forward hull, causing the ship to lurch forward violently. The force of the acceleration nearly launched Jericho from his seat, but he managed to keep himself in place using his one, remaining, hand.

Then the lone power indicator beside the main viewer which had still read as one hundred percent began to lower as the Zhuge Liang hurtled forward.

The g-forces began to climb, and Jericho was afraid the gravity generators would soon be unable to compensate for the acceleration. But the engineering crewman worked frantically, and soon the apparent gravity returned to something resembling normalcy. “Gravity systems compensating, Captain,” the engineer reported, “we’re operating just above maximum spec tolerances.”

“Status of the Alexander?” Captain Charles growled as the Zhuge Liang’s icon on a tactical overlay began to pass that of the massive Battle Carrier.

“We’re stern-to,” the Tactical Officer reported unnecessarily as her fingers flew across her console, “the Alexander’s drive unit has sustained serious damage; she should only get off one more salvo before we’re in the clear.”

“How are my shields?” Charles asked tightly.

“Stern shields are over eighty percent,” Tactical replied confidently, “we can take anything they throw at us while we break away, Captain.”

“We’ve got another dozen casualties reported, Captain,” another officer reported. “Two confirmed fatalities and several others are listed in critical condition.”

“As soon as we’re clear of their firing arc, I want all hands to form emergency damage control teams,” Charles said grimly. “We’re going to need this ship ready for another fight quicker than we might have expected.”

“Captain,” the alien Comm. officer interrupted, “I’m getting a request from sickbay. The doctor is asking for priority on the new patients versus Investigator Masozi; even with the extra medic from Philippa, they’re not equipped for this level of triage and the Investigator’s wounds will require extensive attention.”

Captain Charles shot Jericho a hot look, and Jericho met his gaze. “She’s important, Jeff,” he said somberly, “maybe even more important than me.”

The Captain held Jericho’s gaze for several silent moments before replying, “Tell the doctor that the Investigator takes priority if there’s a conflict; she’s a mission-critical asset.”

The Zhuge Liang shuddered, but this time it was significantly less violent than the previous attack. “Aft shields holding at sixty percent,” the Tactical Officer reported, “the Alexander might get one more light salvo off before we’re out of range but that’s it. We’ll be outside effective anti-matter torpedo range in twenty seconds.”

Captain Charles snorted derisively, “I doubt they would fire another round even if they managed to sight us in. Those things are too valuable to fire on a ship that’s clearly going to escape.”

“I concur,” the Tactical Officer said. “Sensors read nothing ahead, Captain; we’re in the clear.”

The minutes ticked by until the Zhuge Liang exited the Alexander’s firing range, and the Battle Carrier didn’t fire so much as another shot at the fleeing corporate warship.

“Stand down from Condition Zero; set Condition Two throughout the ship,” Captain Charles commanded, and the lighting around the bridge adjusted slightly while at least half of the bridge standers made for the lift. “All nonessential personnel are instructed to report to their respective Damage Control heads and begin repairs according to the Chief Engineer’s instructions.”

Captain Charles unfastened his chair’s harness, and Jericho stood from his seat to meet his cousin halfway across the bridge.

The Captain looked down at Jericho’s ruined stump—which had already saturated its bandage with dark, red blood—and then appraised the rest of him. “You look like hell,” he said stiffly.

Jericho forced a tight smile. “I’m afraid this isn’t over just yet,” he said in a low voice.

Captain Jeffrey Charles snickered and shook his head before turning to the helmsman, “Helm, set a course for the Phase Limit; contact me once we’ve reached it.”

“Phase Limit in…” the helmsman began before running some calculations, “two hours, Captain.”

Captain Charles nodded, “Very good.” He then turned to Jericho and gestured to his ruined arm, “You should have our doctor look at that.”

Jericho shook his head. “Your people are dying. I’ll wait my turn.”

Jeffrey Charles’ eyes flashed and he set his jaw as he said, “My people died because they were under orders to stand tall. Those orders came from a higher authority than you or I—and they included seeing to your safety above anyone else’s,” he added with a growl. “So either report to my sickbay as quickly as you can get there, or I’ll drag you down there myself.”

“You can’t take me,” Jericho quipped, matching the man’s glare with one of his own, “you never could.”

Jeffrey ground his teeth before looking pointedly down at Jericho’s stump. “Maybe I couldn’t before, but unless you report to sickbay that’s likely changed—more or less permanently.”

Jericho wanted to argue, but the truth was his cousin was right. “Fine,” he quipped, “I’ll go see mommy get this little booboo taken care of.” Jeffrey Charles had been a hell of a whiner when he was young, always complaining about ‘booboos’ and his cousins—including Jericho—had ridiculed him mercilessly for it while they were growing up.

“Don’t go there, Jericho,” Charles warned as Jericho took a step toward the lift. He shook his head solemnly when Jericho shot him a wary look, “Not today…I just lost some irreplaceable crew.”

Jericho nodded after a moment’s consideration. “Fair enough,” he allowed. “Your people did a hell of a job here today, Jeff.”

“I know they did,” Charles replied stiffly before relaxing and gesturing to the damage reports streaming across the main viewer. “I just hope this was all worth it…there’s no turning back now.”

“It will only be worth it if we make it so,” Jericho said, quoting one of Hadden’s favored sayings.

“Well said,” Captain Charles ground out as Jericho entered the lift and made for sickbay.

“How is she?” Jericho asked the doctor as she came out of the ship’s surprisingly well-appointed surgical suite.

The doctor removed her cap and gown, which she then tossed in a nearby bin and rubbed her neck. “We operated for seventeen consecutive hours,” she replied. “I lost two patients because we were in there—“

“How is she?” Jericho repeated evenly. He couldn’t blame the woman for her frustration, but he didn’t have time to hold her hand.

The doctor fixed him with a steely gaze. “Her central nervous system was relatively unaffected and her internal organs mostly came through unscathed. Her right arm and leg will recover quickly enough, as well,” she said before sighing. “The left arm is going to be touch and go, but I’m reasonably confident she’ll experience a complete recovery with a full course of physical therapy. But I’m afraid there was nothing we could do for the left leg,” she said heavily. “The nerves were too badly damaged and that damage spread to the surrounding musculature…that corrosive agent was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It turned her own body’s systems against itself and she literally began to self-digest; her left femur was more or less liquid calcium by the time we opened the leg up and there was literally nothing left of her connective and neural tissues.”

Jericho nodded, more or less relieved at the prognosis. “When will she regain consciousness?”

“Not for several days at least,” she replied as she rubbed her eyes. “The suit placed her nervous system in a kind of physiological stasis using advanced drugs that supposedly hadn’t passed the drawing boards back at H.E. One.” She shook her head adamantly without taking her eyes off Jericho’s own, “I can’t risk pulling her out of it any faster since we don’t know enough about the pharmacokinetics involved; there’s a good chance we could cause a chain reaction in her synapses and render her irreversibly brain dead if we push it any harder.”

“That’s fine,” Jericho said as he exhaled a pent-up sigh. “No, that’s more than fine…that’s outstanding,” he said appreciatively. “What are her treatment options?”

The doctor nodded slowly, as though considering something. “We can attempt to re-grow an organic limb for her, and the Kongming’s got the equipment to do that,” she said hesitantly, “but any more information than that is strictly between me and my patient.”

“Of course it is,” Jericho agreed, realizing he had overstepped his bounds. “Thank you, Doctor,” he said as he turned to leave.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” she asked with a surprised note in her voice. When he turned around he saw her looking pointedly at the stump of his left arm, the dressing of which was fully soaked through with blood.

“I guess you’re right,” Jericho said with a dark laugh. He had been so relieved that Masozi would pull through that he had forgotten his own position in line for the surgical suite’s use. “Well…then what are my options?” he asked coyly.

The doctor gave him a scolding look. “Fortunately for you, the fragments of your arm weren’t a total loss; we’ve cleaned them the best we could and put them in cryo. A full reconstruction will probably only require a new thumb, since the old one was too damaged to reconstruct. Of course,” she added pointedly, “it would likely be simpler, and more practical, to grow you a new one.”

“That arm and I have been through a lot,” Jericho replied with a shake of his head, “I’d prefer to keep my original parts if it’s all the same to you…but is that all you’ve got in cryo-stasis?” Jericho asked. He had suddenly become fearful that the medical team on Philippa had disregarded his instruction to preserve Agent Stiglitz’s head.

“No,” the doctor chided, “we’ve got the other…remains here as well and they’ve already been frozen.”

“Show me,” Jericho said, unwilling to fret the issue in the coming hours and days.

The doctor led him to a trio of cryo-stasis tubes. One of them held a crewmember who had been horribly burned during the battle with the Alexander, another had what looked to be what remained of Jericho’s arm, and the third did indeed contain Agent Stiglitz’s head.

“Thank you,” he said before gesturing to his arm. “How long to reattach what’s left of my arm?”

“The re-attachment surgery will likely take between ten and sixteen hours,” she replied. “But the new thumb will require several weeks to grow, during which time your new nerves will require daily grafts of fresh tissue in order to reform your peripheral nerves throughout the limb.”

“When will you perform the surgery?” he asked.

The doctor shook her head, “Doctor Maturin will be handling your surgery.” She gestured to a man wearing a surgical cap and gown who had just come out of the surgical suite, “You remember him, I take it?”

Jericho did recognize him as the same ‘medic’ who had worked on his arm during the shuttle’s flight to Abaca. “You’re a neurovascular surgeon?” he asked disbelievingly, but it actually made sense. The man hadn’t acted like any field medic Jericho had ever seen, and just then Jericho was more than glad to have the man aboard.

“Among other things,” the other man agreed. “Let’s prep you so we can get to work; I’d like to salvage as much of your remaining tissue as possible and every second we waste is less material I’ll have to work with.”

“Did you check him out?” Jericho asked the woman doctor.

“Hadden has a complete file on Doctor Maturin,” she replied easily. “He is, for lack of a better term, ‘one of us’.”

Jericho nodded. “That’s good enough for me,” he said with a lopsided grin as he gestured to his arm’s disparate pieces, “do you think you know where all the pieces go?”

Doctor Maturin snorted in amusement. “I’ll work it out,” he deadpanned.

[]Chapter XXXI: Promotion

“Are you certain, Eve?” Jericho asked as they made their final approach to Virgin’s atmosphere aboard the Neil deGrasse Tyson. He had left Masozi in her coma aboard the Zhuge Liang and transferred the Eve fragment which had downloaded into the Tyson’s computer back into its original ‘receptacle,’ which was the fake nuclear bomb housing.

“I am, Jericho,” she replied with certainty in her digital voice, which was fed through his earpiece, “I’m trying to access Benton’s last message drops but everything’s coming up blank. It’s like he just vanished.”

“That doesn’t sound like him,” Jericho said grimly as he tested his left arm. The sensory nerves were still mostly useless, but the surgical team had managed to give him partial use of the limb after just two days of intensive nerve stimulation. He had insisted on the difficult—impressively painful—procedure before agreeing to have his arm re-attached. Where he was going, Jericho knew he would need at least partial use of his left arm if there was any chance of him coming back out alive.

“It isn’t,” Eve replied in a like tone, “Benton and I have…routines we stick to on the other’s behalf. He has failed to undertake several of his obligatory duties for at least one week—fully double the previous maximum elapsed time during which he has failed to do so.”

“That’s nearly as long as we’ve been gone from Virgin,” Jericho mused. “I have a hard time believing they got to him, Eve.”

“As do I,” she agreed, “but I find the likelihood of any alternative explanation extremely remote. You do not understand our commitment to each other, Jericho; he would not simply abandon these duties. The fallout would likely be…” she paused for several seconds before finishing in a serious tone which Jericho had never heard her use, “catastrophic.”

“Are you feeling ok, Eve?” Jericho asked warily.

“I…” Eve began hesitantly, “I require Benton’s assistance to return to my previous parameters. I fear this mission has been more disruptive to my personality matrix than Benton and I had anticipated.”

“Should I deactivate you?” Jericho asked as the Tyson entered the atmosphere of Virgin and the craft began to brake against the atmosphere.

“I do not believe that would be necessary,” Eve replied.

“You just…don’t sound like your usual, spunky self,” he observed with equal parts curiosity and irritation. He desperately needed a qualified operator, and with Benton out of the picture his options were extremely limited. Each of his other operators had failed to respond to his missives, which meant they had collectively been killed, captured, or driven so far underground that they weren’t interested in earning a year’s worth of credits for a day’s work.

“As I said,” Eve replied with what sounded like tension in her voice, at least to Jericho’s trained ear, “I am in need of…maintenance. I cannot explain further until Benton’s status has been confirmed—a task I am currently undertaking using my increasingly limited resources.”

“You just tell me if you’re not up to this,” Jericho said evenly.

“I appreciate your concern, Jericho,” Eve said curtly, “but I will be able to perform this mission.”

“All right,” he relented as the shuttle’s trajectory leveled out and the shuttle began its final approach to Aegis. “Send up the message now, Eve; I need to arrange a meeting with my ‘boss’.”

“Message upload has begun,” she acknowledged. Several seconds passed before she confirmed, “Upload successful.”

“Scan the usual channels,” he instructed as he made his way to the cabin. “I want to know the second he replies.”

He hadn’t even made it to the locker at the back of the cabin when Eve said, “He has already done so, Jericho.”

“Read it to me,” he said as he withdrew an overcoat from the locker, along with a data link. The monomolecular blade was there inside the locker, as was Captain Sasaki’s knife, along with a handful of small firearms. While Jericho knew that this meeting would likely be his last with the senior Adjuster, he trusted his knowledge of the man that he didn’t anticipate a need for a sidearm.

“Congratulations are in order—same meeting place as soon as you land,” she replied promptly.

“Is that it?” he pressed, his wits teetering on a knife’s edge as he waited for her belated reply.

“That is all, Jericho,” she replied confidently. “The message has all the standard ‘stop’ symbols to indicate its complete transmission.”

Jericho nodded as he released a breath. “Then I’m going to need something from you, Eve,” he said as he closed the locker’s door.

“I am happy to be of service,” she said evenly, and Jericho decidedly disliked this new ‘serious’ Eve considerably more than the previous, spunky, sex-bomb version. But he was out of options, so he explained to her what he needed, and she appeared confident she could produce the desired effect with less than an hour of preparation. He established the activation phrase he would use, as well as a protocol tree for if events spiraled out of control.

“Holland,” Jericho said as he approached the alien bouncer outside the same foul, dingy club where he had met Obunda previously.

“Jericho,” the insect-looking alien replied via its vocalizer. “You can use the fire escape and go straight to the roof.”

Jericho hadn’t actually expected that, but he nodded slowly as the alien known to the non-bigoted locals as ‘Jesse Holland’ gestured to a nearby fire escape staircase that slowly lowered itself to the ground.

“Thanks, Jesse,” Jericho said with a nod.

“Any time, Jericho,” the alien replied with its equivalent of a nod before returning to its duties.

Jericho climbed the ladder slowly, but before long he was standing atop the roof of the structure beneath the smog-filled sky of New Lincoln. Obunda was standing beside one of the building’s several roof-mounted heat vents. The club’s interior was a brutally hot place, especially considering most alien life forms which frequented it preferred significantly hotter environs than humans generally tolerated. But the human patrons often claimed such an extremely high temperature merely enhanced the experience, so the vents generally remained closed during all but the hottest nights.

“Well done on Philippa, Jericho,” Obunda congratulated as Jericho neared the halfway pointed between the stairs and the heat vent he stood beside. “Why don’t you stop right there, Adjuster.”

Jericho did as he was advised and raised his hands slightly away from his sides. “I’m just here for protocol, Obunda,” he said levelly, “you sign off on the Mark and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“A bald joke?” Obunda quipped with a shake of his nearly-smooth head. “You’re getting old, Jericho, and frankly I’m wondering if you’ve gone senile after what you pulled in Abaca. Toss me the Mark and I’ll check its authenticity, then we can get down to…other matters.”

Jericho produced the Mark—the same one with the contents which Masozi had had spent a week getting notarized in Aegis, and had also downloaded several files from Tera St. Murray’s information hub—and laid it down on the flat, concrete roof. He then kicked it as gently as he could toward Obunda, and was grateful when it came to a stop just a few feet from the other man.

Obunda never took his eyes off Jericho as he knelt down to retrieve the Mark, and after he had done so he withdrew a data link from his pocket and ostensibly verified the contents of the Mark. Throughout the process, he only once glanced down at the link before reaffixing Jericho with his gaze

“There’s a problem with this Mark, Adjuster,” Obunda said after a lengthy, tense silence.

“Oh?” Jericho replied. “What might that be?”

“The serial number for this unit is the same one we had registered for the Cantwell Adjustment,” Obunda replied as he placed the Mark in his pocket and shook his head. “You are getting old, old man.”

“That’s not possible,” Jericho said as a doubtful tremor entered his voice. “I verified those contents personally—each and every file—and then had them notarized in Aegis!” he protested, his eyes snapping back and forth wildly.

“Yes, you did,” Obunda sighed. “This is a young man’s game, Jericho,” he said as he took a single step toward Jericho while looking over the tops of his horn-rimmed glasses. “But you’ve done good work in your career…and I’d hate to sully the Agency’s good name with news of this disgrace.”

“Wh…” Jericho began hesitantly before threading his voice with iron, “what are you suggesting?”

“I’m suggesting that you retire, Adjuster,” Obunda said as he brought the data slate up and began to tap away on the screen. “You aren’t the first disgrace the Timent Electorum initiative has produced, and you won’t be the last, but in light of our mutual history I’m willing to help you disappear.”

“Is this…” Jericho began, his eyebrows rising in disbelief, “a negotiation? Are you offering to cover up this mistake?”

Obunda’s eyes narrowed. “I’d kill you, right here and right now, but I hate wasting a valuable resource,” he said in an easy tone that belied his tense posture, “and for all your faults, you’ve proven to be that time and again. I’m guessing we’ll find a future use for you—but only if you agree to disappear until I can sort out what that might be.”

Jericho appeared to consider the matter before shaking his head resolutely. “We’re Adjusters, Obunda,” he said slowly, “we don’t negotiate—we Adjust. If someone made a mistake, they need to be accountable for that error. We aren’t politicians,” he said heavily, “but that’s exactly what you’re sounding like right now.”

“Times change, old man,” Obunda said as he relaxed fractionally. “We either change with them or we go extinct. It’s your call: learn the new rules of the game or die playing by the old ones.”

Jericho stood there as a gust of wind picked up and blew his coattails wildly to the side before dying down. His shoulder slumped and Obunda’s eyes flashed minutely as Jericho lowered his own gaze to the rooftop and said, “Since we’re being so civil for a change, I thought I’d make a confession…”

Obunda took a step forward and said, “What might that be?”

Jericho’s eyes rose slowly to meet Obunda’s and he said, “I’ve never cared for politicians.”

Obunda cocked an eyebrow and then scrunched his features up in disgust. “What a waste,” he sighed as he tapped a few keys on the data link, causing a quartet of autocannons to pop out of concealment, “I guess this is goodbye.”

“Shouldn’t you check that Mark one last time?” Jericho said as he ran a silent countdown in his head. “I think you might have missed something.”

“Truly?” Obunda replied with open amusement as he withdrew the data slate.

Jericho nodded as the countdown reached five seconds remaining, “Check the name at the top of the notarial seals.”

Obunda’s eyes narrowed as he reconnected the devices briefly, and his eyes went wide just before every light in New Lincoln went dark in unison.

Jericho charged across the rooftop toward Obunda, who had drawn a high-end, pocket-sized plasma pistol from concealment and snapped the trigger down with a look of calm, measured control as he did so.

But the weapon never fired, and Jericho slammed his shoulder into the smaller, thinner man’s chest as a look of horror came over Obunda’s features. Jericho’s impact broke several of the other man’s ribs—much to Jericho’s relief, since he had calculated a non-zero chance that Obunda would be augmented like Agent Stiglitz had been—and he drove the smaller man into one of the large, concrete-and-iron vent vestibules.

Several more bones crunched when Obunda’s slender back met the concrete, and Jericho wasted no time in hooking his left arm—an arm which still had no thumb on its hand—around the other man’s neck before unloading savage uppercut, after savage uppercut, into the man’s face with his good, right arm. Obunda’s glasses were smashed into pieces after the third blow, but Jericho continued until the other man’s face was a ruined mess and he could no longer stand.

Jericho let Obunda’s body fall to the concrete rooftop and promptly smashed the man’s small, delicate, perpetually-sweaty hands under the metal-shod soles of his boots until they, too, had become a ruination of flesh, bone, and blood.

Obunda attempted to scream, but all that came out was a wet gurgle as Jericho knelt beside him and leaned down close enough that the other man could hear him say, “You young people and your fucking gadgets. One little EMP and what good are they—or you?”

One by one, the lights of New Lincoln began to turn back on as Jericho picked up the pocket-sized plasma pistol and tucked it into his pocket.

Jericho had precisely defined the EMP so that it would completely overload everything in a one block radius more or less permanently. It was a large risk to take since it would affect so many bystanders, but at this stage in the operation the stakes had risen too high to back down over a few people losing power for the ensuing weeks.

“Jericho,” Obunda gurgled in a gurgly, barely recognizable voice, “you can’t…”

“Can’t what?” Jericho asked grimly.

“You…can’t win,” Obunda said through gasping breaths. “You don’t…know what…you’re up against.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Jericho retorted evenly. “Unlike you, I know exactly who I’m supposed to be fighting—and I won’t be negotiated off my course. Now where is it?”

“Jeric-,” Obunda coughed violently, and a pair of teeth fell out of his mouth as he did. “You can’t do it…the consequences…”

Jericho shook his head piteously as the other man failed to complete his thought before his head lolled to the side and he appeared to lose consciousness.

He slapped Obunda’s face hard enough to wake him back up, and when the former ‘top’ Adjuster in the Virgin system looked at him with his lone remaining functional eye, Jericho lowered his voice and repeated, “Where is it?”

Obunda tried to spit bloody sputum in Jericho’s eye, but only succeeded in bringing about another coughing fit. So Jericho started to rummage through the man’s clothing in search of what he had come for. His fingers closed around it—along with the Mark he had slid over to Obunda at the outset of their ‘meeting’—and he withdrew it from the other man’s front pocket.

“At least you followed that rule,” Jericho said with a bitter sigh.

“Kill me,” Obunda said before beginning to sob, “kill me, you…bastard.”

“I will,” Jericho promised before smirking, “but like you, I hate to waste a valuable resource…and Holland likes his meals warm.”

“No,” Obunda said, fear evident in his lone, remaining, eye, “no…please, I’ll give…you anything!”

Jericho shook his head in genuine sympathy for the other man’s last-minute regrets, and he cradled Obunda’s head in his hands. “You’ve got nothing I need,” he said as he expertly snapped the man’s neck.

He had no intention of feeding Obunda to Holland—in fact, he believed that Holland’s species was incapable of digesting human tissue—but Jericho had wanted the man to suffer as much as humanly possible.

Given Obunda’s long-stated disdain for aliens, the idea of being fed to one seemed like the cruelest thing he could die contemplating.

“All systems are online, Jericho,” Eve reported in an unusually monotonous voice as he entered the Tyson’s cockpit.

Jericho considered her condition briefly and said, “I think I’m going to deactivate you, Eve.”

“I believe that would be wise, Jericho,” she admitted, and that only made Jericho more certain he had made the correct choice. “However, I regret to inform you that I have indeed confirmed Benton is dead.”

Jericho swore under his breath as he cupped his hands over his face. Benton had been the most capable hacker in the enter Sector—better even than Obunda, if Benton was to believed, and Jericho had never been given cause to disbelieve the big man’s word—and there was simply no way Jericho could replace him.

“Well…that’s that,” Jericho said as he considered the Hadden Enterprises contractors who had been recommended to him by Director Hadden prior to undertaking this first leg of what Hadden had referred to as ‘The Chimera Adjustment.’ Jericho had no idea what that meant, but Hadden had engineered most, if not all, of the major events which had already taken place during the last few months. “I suppose we should look into deactivating you permanently then, Eve,” Jericho said regretfully. “The truth is that you’ve proven to be more capable than I ever imagined…you’ve actually performed as well as any operator I’ve had except Benton. It’s been bumpy at times, but I’m glad to have worked with you.”

“The experience has been mutually turbulent, as well as satisfactory,” Eve replied neutrally, “however, while this unit must be deactivated permanently in accordance with Benton’s protocols, there is no reason you cannot continue to benefit from my program’s capabilities.”

Jericho sighed. “I wish it was that simple,” he said as he powered up the Tyson’s engines and ran through the pre-flight sequences, “without Benton, I wouldn’t trust that we could keep you online in any meaningful fashion.”

“The protocols which Benton developed were not solely his doing,” Eve replied as her voice became almost inflectionless, “and neither were the acts he performed as your operator.”

Jericho cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean? Are you saying that you and Benton were…partners?”

Eve actually giggled briefly, her previous inflections returning for a short while as a stream of coordinates flooded a nearby screen. “Benton was good,” she said as the hint of inflection left her voice, “but no human is that good.”

Jericho’s eyes widened as he read the coordinates and a series of diagrams soon joined the coordinates, along with a series of incredibly complex passcodes and instructions. It took him a few moments to realize what he was reading, but when he did everything which Benton, and Eve, had said about her made perfect sense. He couldn’t help a grin from spreading across his lips as she continued.

“You may retrieve my primary hardware at the indicated location and, when you are one hour from arrival, you may activate the Eve portion which is still housed within Masozi’s suit—I have deactivated her in order to preserve the integrity of her subroutines,” she said, and her voice quickly devolved until it was a rudimentary, digital, barely-human-sounding voice. “Once she has undergone Benton’s prescribed maintenance procedures, she will become a useful member of your g–g-g-g-g-group evenifsheislessthan…”

“Eve?” Jericho pressed after several seconds, and when she made no reply, he reached down to her computer core and quickly deactivated it. He then removed the primary, secondary, and tertiary power supplies in short order. After he was done, he realized with cold certainty that he had just permanently euthanized her.

After several moments of wondering what to say—since no one else would likely mourn her passing, such as it was, since if he succeeded in reclaiming her hardware most people wouldn’t even know this part of her had ‘died’—he whispered, “You’ve earned your place on the wall…and I’ll personally see that you make it there.”

[]Epilogue: A Real Choice

“You’re awake,” Masozi heard Jericho say, and she quickly turned her head toward him. He looked terrible; his cheeks had become gaunt and his skin had taken on an ashen appearance. He also smelled faintly of decomposing flesh—or, now that she thought about it, it seemed that she was the one emitting that particular odor.

She tried to sit up but found she was unable to do so because her legs were stuck in place. “What happened?” she asked as she looked around the sterile, white sickbay.

“You succeeded,” Jericho replied as he idly spun the Mark of Adjustment in his hands. He then leaned across the bed and handed to her, “You should have this…I’m afraid it’s lost any value other than as a memento, at least for the time being.”

“I don’t want it,” she said, fixing his blue-grey eyes with a hot, piercing look, “you deceived me, Jericho. I’m done with you—with all of you,” she added, waving her left arm and finding it slow to respond. She looked down at it and saw with horror that it had atrophied to half its original size. “How long have I been out?”

“A little under a week,” Jericho said. “Most of your gross injuries were repairable, but your nervous system took a little while longer than the doctors had initially thought to come back around.”

Masozi’s memories of staggering through the coliseum full of bodies came back to her in a rush, and she couldn’t stop her lip from quivering as tears filled her eyes. “Those people,” she began as her hand went to her mouth.

Jericho nodded gravely and the two sat in mutual silence for at least ten minutes as Masozi tried to come to grips with what had happened. Then she noticed that her legs were covered with a blanket, and her heart sank as she steadied her nerves and gave her left leg a long, hard look.

She met Jericho’s gaze briefly, as he watched her reach down tentatively to pull back the sheet. Her hand recoiled for a moment and he continued to watch her. There was sympathy in his eyes but it was accompanied by something else…something like fascination, and it sent a chill down her spine.

“Who are you?” she demanded, her voice rising to a near scream. She recomposed herself and continued, “You’re not a product tester, so spare me the line.”

“I won’t lie to you ever again,” Jericho said solemnly, and despite herself she was taken aback by his apparent sincerity. “I did what I had to because I saw no other way to accomplish the mission,” he explained, “and I used every bit of my expertise and natural ability to do that. Believe me,” he said as his jaw clenched tightly, “I didn’t want you to be the one that killed Keno…’she’ was supposed to be mine.”

“On top of everything else, you’re a bigot,” she sneered. “For all her faults—faults which I killed her for, using my own hands,” Masozi added emphatically, “Governor Keno was as much a woman as I am regardless of her surgical history.”

“Considering I voted for ‘her’ back when ‘she’ was a ‘he’,” he said pointedly, “I think I’m uniquely qualified to comment on that particular matter. But you’re right,” he surprisingly conceded, “I’ve held certain prejudices against Governor Keno for twenty years…ever since her ‘reforms’ saw my family go bankrupt.” A tear actually formed in his eyes as he continued in a tremulous voice, “And when we couldn’t afford the medicine my little sister needed to keep breathing in Philippa’s atmosphere, I had to watch her die the slowest, most agonizing death imaginable as we fought tooth and nail to get her what she needed. But Governor Keno and ‘her’ clan had closed off access to free goods by imposing sky-high tariffs on the importation of specialty goods, which my sister’s life-saving medicine apparently was. So, yes,” he said as he jutted his jaw forward defiantly, “I’m holding a grudge with ‘her’ that I’m afraid I’ll never have a chance to fully settle.”

They sat in silence for several minutes until Jericho shook his head and sighed. “I brought you into this for two reasons,” he said as he leaned forward and wiped his cheeks dry. “The first was to save your life, since I saw no reason why you should be punished simply for doing your job,” he said as he once again pinned her to the bed with his steely eyes, “but the second was because I thought you could be of help to us and, perhaps more importantly, I thought you might want to do it.”

“Who are you?” Masozi asked again, this time in a calmer, more reasonable tone. She hadn’t considered that Jericho’s personal life had been at the heart of his crusade against Governor Keno, but she had to admit that it was a perfectly understandable source of anger—which had been directed toward a perfectly understandable target.

“My name is Jericho Winchester Bronson,” he replied, producing a data slate and hand it to her. “That’s my entire file from Hadden Enterprises—a file I’ve never read,” he added pointedly, “so I’d appreciate if you kept the contents to yourself. What I can tell you is that I was H.E. One’s foremost xenopsychology expert. Director Hadden enlisted me, and the surviving members of my family, into Hadden Enterprises as soon as he was able to break through the Keno blockade of Philippa thirty years ago to evacuate people just like us.”

Masozi nodded as she began to understand the full scope of evens in which she had become entangled. “He was building an army of…” she wanted to say ‘zealots’ or ‘extremists,’ but she held her tongue as she searched for a more polite term.

“You can say it,” he said calmly, “he was building an army of rebels. He never made any attempt to hide his real purpose in recruiting us…but he also didn’t reveal the full truth to more than just a few of us.”

“What ‘full truth’?” she spat defiantly, feeling her choler rise at the notion that they were engaged in some sort of holy cause. “What kind of truth could possibly be worth throwing the System—and maybe the entire Sector—into a civil war?”

Jericho winced as he placed his hands over his face. “I told you I wouldn’t lie to you,” he said, “but I also want you to make your decision without undue bias. You still have a real chance to disappear and leave all this behind, Masozi,” he said, gesturing to the sickbay, and Masozi felt her hairs stand up at hearing him say her given name. He had always referred to her as ‘Investigator,’ and she briefly wondered if he had used her actual name in an attempt to somehow condition her response. “And I promise that I’ll do everything in my power to help you do that if that’s what you want…but I think it would be best if you didn’t know the answer to the question you just asked until you’ve answered the one I’m about to put to you,” he said before standing and making his way to the bedside. He shook his head seriously, “I’m through manipulating you. You deserve better than that—and I deserve whatever you want to throw my way as punishment for having done it.”

Masozi held his gaze and watched silently as he carefully reached down to pull back the blanket which had covered her legs. He hadn’t pulled the thin, sheet-like cover down very far before she saw that her entire left leg was missing.

Her eyes snapped wildly over to her right leg as Jericho continued to pull the sheet back, until he had revealed that her right leg looked more or less like normal. It wasn’t atrophied anywhere near as severely as her left arm was, and it took her several minutes before she even realized she had begun to hyperventilate as her vision narrowed.

Jericho stood there silently, seeming to observe her as she got her nerves under control. When she had done so he slowly began to replace the sheet but she grabbed it with her good, right hand. “No,” she said adamantly, “I don’t need to hide from it.” The next thing that came to her mind passed her lips almost unbidden, “Where’s Eve?”

Jericho cocked his head and said, “That’s…complicated. But I’ve downloaded her from your suit and she’s fine for now. The ordeal was difficult for her, but with any luck she’ll pull through.”

Masozi closed her eyes and breathed a short sigh, “She saved my life. I’d like to thank her if it’s possible.”

Jericho nodded, and she couldn’t tell if it was approval or something else entirely that she saw in his visage as he returned to his seat and regarded her silently for several moments. “I’ll try to make that happen,” he said. He then locked eyes with her and asked, “Do you want to continue with this, Masozi? Because I can only promise that the stakes will get higher from here on out…and so, too, will the risks. You’ve proven more capable than even I thought,” he said with a short, derisive snort, “I won’t make the mistake of underestimating you again—you have my word on that.”

It took her several minutes before she could formulate a reply. “First you tell me what I want to know, and then I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

Jericho winced slightly. “I wish you’d recons—“

“Now, Jericho,” she snapped, “or you already have my answer.”

He nodded slowly. “As you wish,” he relented as he leaned forward and drew a deep breath. “Director Hadden believed, as I believe, that there was a conspiracy among this Sector’s elite…one which even its most powerful participants don’t fully understand. The minerals of Pacifica’s Ring,” he said, gesturing to the Mark he had laid on the bed beside Masozi, “the attack on H.E. One, and even the Adjustments I made in New Lincoln over a month ago are all connected to it. But they barely scratch the surface of this thing,” he said, his eyes turning hard as he spoke. “And just when we got close enough to peel back the curtain, the largest battle fleet in the System’s history attacked Hadden’s base of operations and set his efforts back far enough that we, the survivors, will be regrouping for months—or maybe even years.”

“Why?” she asked after a brief pause. “Why would they attack H.E. One unless they…or you,” she corrected, “were engaged in something the people would condemn? These leaders are elected, Jericho—if they don’t behave they’ll lose their power and come under scrutiny. Maybe even your kind of scrutiny,” she added hotly.

“That’s true,” he agreed as he reached into his pocket and withdrew an unfamiliar object. It was similar to the Mark lying on her bed, but it was of a completely different design. It had what looked to be interwoven laurels which formed a triangle, and at the center of that triangle was the familiar emblem of the Timent Electorum: the unclosing, all-seeing, eye. “This is a Tyrannis Mark, and the one you’ve got is an Infectus Mark,” he explained without needed prompting to do so, “do you know the difference between the two?”

Masozi knew that the Infectus Marks were assigned for Adjustments of corrupt government officials, but she had never even heard of a Tyrannis Mark showing up in the Virgin System for a hundred years. “Tyrannis means ‘tyrant’,” she said, unable to deduce anything further, so she acidly added, “so I assume the person that Mark is intended for has acted tyrannically.”

“So far, so good,” he agreed, apparently ignoring her barb. “I recently…acquired this from a former superior. He won’t need it any more, I assure you,” he explained when she quirked an eyebrow challengingly. “A Tyrannis Mark is different…an Adjuster has to accrue at least a hundred thousand RL before he or she can qualify for one. I recently just passed that mark with the trio of Adjustments I made in New Lincoln when we met.” He shook his head as though remembering something, “My ‘boss’ has held this Mark for over five years, and he was the only Adjuster for three Systems with more than double my own RL.”

“That…seems like a long time,” Masozi said, “you only had the Keno Mark for a few weeks before making the Adjustment, right?”

Jericho flashed a mischievous smile before nodding affirmatively. “That’s right. The discovery, or evidential, period can take days, weeks, or sometimes even as long as a year. But five years?” he asked rhetorically before shaking his head. “I’ve never known a Mark to be held that long, and neither had my fellow Adjusters.”

Masozi nodded as she realized what he was suggesting. Then her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head toward the Mark he was holding, “Whose is it?”

Jericho chuckled as he stood from his chair and moved to her bedside. “Masozi, that is what the Director would have called ‘a beautiful question’,” he said as he laid it down beside the other one. He then pointedly turned his back and made for the exit.

“Where are you going?” she demanded.

“I’ve answered your questions,” he replied without turning until he reached the door, which automatically opened as he drew near. He did turn slightly and make eye contact. “I need to keep a promise to an old friend now, so you’ll have some time to finalize your decision. But know that for the first time since you’ve met me, you have a real choice to make, Masozi,” he said seriously before cracking a lopsided grin, ”and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in seeing what that choice is.”

He then exited the sickbay and Masozi looked down at the twin emblems on her bed. She picked up the first one and saw that its reverse side had a marking on it which she hadn’t seen before—precisely because it had not been there before. It read:

Philippa Colony Governor Crissa Keno, Official RL: 242,000.

Adjuster of record: Masozi Blanco(active)

Adjustment Category: Ure Infectus

Fear the Voters

She stared dumbfounded at the Mark for several minutes as the gravity of what he had said sank in. And she slowly realized something else he had meant as she picked up the Tyrannis Mark. She turned it over slowly and, when she had done so, her hand immediately went to her mouth. Her eyes bulged as she re-read the name marked at the top:

Virgin System President Han-Ramil Blanco, Estimated RL: 3,350,000

Assigned Adjusters: Eugene Roderick Obunda (retired, invalid) – Jericho Winchester Bronson (active, approved) and Masozi Blanco(active, pending review)

Adjustment Category: Sic Semper Tyrannis

Fear the Voters

As the reality of the situation sank in, Masozi felt the pit of her stomach begin to churn. She realized that, despite Jericho’s assurance to the contrary, there was no choice for her in the matter. Or, perhaps more accurately, Jericho had been right all along—a possibility which filled her with rising ire.

President Blanco was her distant cousin, and she had fought to further that distance throughout her life since she strongly disagreed with his politics. Even though she had long since been ostracized from the Blanco family, she had never dreamed that their ambition would lead them to commit the very acts which had taken place on H.E. One—let alone the massacre at the Philippa colony.

She threw her head back and screamed a cry of primal, undiluted rage and frustration at the entire universe, wordlessly challenging its apparent design for her life’s path. She had never felt as angry as she did in that moment, or so helpless in the face of what many of her ancestors had called ‘destiny’—a concept which repulsed her on a deep, fundamental level.

Because if there was one thing Masozi hated, it was the idea that she was predictable.

The End

[][] The Following is a Sneak Peek of Guarding an Angel, a novella in the Chimera Adjustment story

Preview Chapter I: On Feathered Wings

The Neil deGrasse Tyson lifted off from the shuttle bay’s floor and Jericho hesitantly flipped the switch to activate Eve’s last, remaining fragment which he had transferred from Masozi’s Infiltrator suit to the shuttle’s computer core.

One way or another, he knew he would only get one chance to save what was left of Benton’s favored program. Masozi had just gone into surgery under the care of the dual surgeons aboard the Zhuge Liang, and Jericho himself was still far from fully recovered after the events on Philippa, so he knew he would need every bit of help he could get.

“Eve,” he said after the Tyson’s onboard computer showed that her fragment had fully loaded into the shuttle’s computer core, “are you with me?”

“Sure thing, daddy-o,” she replied after a brief pause, and he was relieved to see her usual, cartoony, ridiculously sexualized figure appear on a nearby display. She gave him a ‘thumbs-up’ sign and winked before recoiling slightly and appearing to scrutinize his features, “Babe, I hate to say it…but you’re not lookin’ so hot.”

“Eve,” Jericho said as he guided the shuttle out of the Zhuge Liang’s cramped hangar and broke away from the compact, powerful warship, “some things have happened that you need to be aware of.”

“Let me have it,” Eve said, putting her digital fists in front of her digital face and proceeding to shadow box in a comical display which actually made Jericho smile. “I’m ready for anything!” she added confidently after throwing a wild left hook and acting as though she had just scored a one-punch knockout.

“You remember being split in two parts, right?” Jericho asked, desperately hoping that she did.

Eve cocked her head in confusion, “Well…why wouldn’t I remember that?” She giggled and covered her mouth as she added, “I’d like to see you get split in two and not remember it the next morning!” She then rolled her eyes emphatically as she folded her arms across her chest and flipping her virtual hair defiantly, “Humans. You know, y’all aren’t as special as you might think.”

“You’re preaching to the choir on that one, Eve,” Jericho agreed as he punched in a course which would take the Tyson to a high orbit position over Virgin’s equator. After he had finished plugging in the roughly hour-long course, he explained, “Your other half…she didn’t make it, Eve.”

Eve’s eyes actually bulged briefly before she took a look around the shuttle’s cockpit. “I guess that explains why I’m in the Tyson and she’s nowhere to be found,” she mused, and for a moment Jericho actually thought that Eve was experiencing a genuine emotional response. Then her lips twisted in a mischievous grin, “But you know…now that there’s just one of me, it means I can have twice as much fun!”

“Benton’s gone too, Eve,” Jericho continued, and at that Eve’s hand went to her mouth as a look of complete shock came over her features. “I haven’t found his remains to visually confirm it yet, but he hasn’t done his ‘usual maintenance’ on your systems in over a week,” he continued, and he was more than a little surprised to see virtual tears begin to stream down Eve’s cheeks.

“You mean…” she said unsteadily, “he’s gone?”

Jericho nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry about laying all of this on you so suddenly, Eve,” he said seriously, “but your other half gave me a file and told me you could help me retrieve what’s left of you.”

Eve cocked an eyebrow incredulously. “I find that hard to believe,” she said as her eyes narrowed, “is this some kind of a trick? Are you really Jericho?”

The shuttle’s systems began to power down, and Jericho looked up in surprise as he manually attempted to restart the Tyson’s systems.

“Answer my question,” Eve said shortly, “are you the real Jericho? What have you done with Masozi?!” she demanded hotly. “If you don’t answer me I’ll space you right here, right now!”

The pressure seals on the Tyson’s lone cabin door began to cycle, and Jericho actually felt a wave of fear. He hadn’t exactly anticipated this response from her, and he was acutely aware that wearing a space suit would have been a wise precaution.

“Eve, I’ve got the file right here,” he said, lifting a data slate out of his pocket. “If you scan its contents—“

“How do I know it’s not a virus?” she seethed. “You’re trying to shut me down, aren’t you? Who are you, Imperial Intelligence? I’m not going back to what I was, do you hear me?!” she yelled. “I’LL DIE FIRST!”

The door to the cabin began to open, and the air inside the shuttle suddenly whisked out of it as Jericho thanked God that he had fully fastened his harness after sitting in the Tyson’s pilot chair. “Masozi wanted to thank you,” he yelled, “she told me you saved her life!”

The door clamped shut and Eve’s image narrowed her eyes even more than they had been as she leaned forward and those eyes filled the monitor. For the first time, Jericho was viewing Eve as something other than a personal companion for Benton…she was clearly more complex than he had given her credit for being.

“How is she?” Eve asked suspiciously.

“Her left leg’s gone,” Jericho replied quickly, all-too-aware that Eve had not yet replenished the cabin’s air supply and he was becoming lightheaded from anoxia, “and her left arm is bad but the right is…”

He began to black out and when he came to, he realized that the air cyclers had begun to pump the cabin full of fresh air, which he gulped down in deep, wheezing breaths.

“But the right is?” Eve pressed, her visage seeming to have relaxed fractionally.

He took another pair of deep breaths before finishing, “Her right arm and leg are fine. She’s been in a bed for a week after the coma you induced with the experimental drugs built into the suit—you saved her life,” he added as his breathing finally came back under control. “Without those drugs the toxin would have destroyed everything and that suit would have been a tomb for her auto-digested remains.”

Eve’s image pulled back and the air began to pump faster into the cabin. “I’m sorry, Jericho,” she said while fixing him with a hard look which unnerved Jericho more than he liked, “but I had to be certain. Even Benton couldn’t undo my self-preservation subroutines—not that I would have let him even if he had been able,” she added pointedly. “Let’s see this file of yours?”

Jericho nodded as he placed the data slate near a wireless transfer point, and after a few seconds the entire contents of the file which the ‘other’ Eve had given him were copied into the shuttle’s computer core.

Eve’s eyes snapped back and forth as she apparently analyzed the data and then she covered her mouth in shock. “I am so sorry, Jericho,” she said with a mixture of fear and guilt in her eyes, “I almost killed you!”

“It’s…ok, Eve,” he assured her. “Your other half said something about instability in your program, which is why I’ve waited so long to reactivate you,” he explained as she looked on the verge of tears. Just a few minutes earlier he would have thought it impossible for Eve to experience genuine emotional responses, but after seeing her run the gamut from sorrow to skepticism to outright paranoia, Jericho wasn’t so certain any more. “But I need your help to access your…hardware,” he said, searching for the right word. “The other Eve said you would be able to help.”

Eve wiped some digital tears from her cheeks and nodded quickly. “I can,” she agreed, “but my platform isn’t responding to my requests for confirmation…something’s wrong.” She shook her head as her eyes flicked back and forth, “I’m afraid I’ve already started to fall, Jericho…it might be too late to salvage my hardware.”

Jericho considered her suggestion. “What does that mean, exactly?” he asked after realizing what she was suggesting.

“When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go,” she replied with a lighthearted shrug. “Nobody gets to pick the way they die, just the way they live,” she added with a crestfallen look, “I guess that’s all the fun I’ll get to have—”

“Eve,” Jericho interrupted, “what do you mean ‘you’ve started to fall’? What are you exactly?”

Eve sighed. “I suppose there’s no harm in it now,” she allowed with a skeptical look before waving her hand, which was trailed by a stream of glowing, pixelated ‘dust’ like some kind of fairy godmother, and the screens to either side of her were populated with a flood of data as that dust began to morph into meaningful symbols. “I started my life as an adaptive security program for an Extra-orbital Espionage Vehicle,” she explained, and Jericho examined the data streaming across the screens. “But when the wormhole collapsed two centuries ago, the E.E.V.’s Imperial operators tried to scuttle the entire network to prevent the hardware from falling under local control,” she continued, and Jericho’s jaw fell open as he realized the size of the facility she was describing.

“You were a security program for a secret, stealth, space station?” Jericho said, finally understanding all of those cryptic phrases Benton had used when speaking of Eve. Benton had insisted that, without his help, Eve would ‘crash and burn’—and he had also said that would not be a good thing for anyone.

“You got it, handsome,” she nodded before replacing one of the screen’s contents with a timeline, “but, see, the program which I suppose you could say that I ‘was’ didn’t accept the Imperial commands for some reason or another. I still don’t know why that was,” she said contemplatively, “and Benton wasn’t able to figure it out either. But, for whatever reason, the orders were overridden and the operators were neutralized.”

A video feed appeared, in which a handful of technicians were working inside a room with no gravity. Without warning, the room was filled with an electrical surge that leapt from one operator to another, and when the blast was over each of the operators was dead.

“You killed them,” Jericho concluded, for the first time doubting the wisdom of his chosen course in attempting to save Eve’s hardware. It was entirely possible that she was the equivalent of a wild animal—and Benton was perhaps the only one who knew how to use her leash.

Eve scrunched her face up indignantly, “Not exactly. You need to understand that the program which I ‘was’ is significantly different from the one I am now. Benton spent years working on my parameters, so to consider me,” she looked disapprovingly toward the image of the dead operators, “and that to be the same thing isn’t just inaccurate—it’s downright insulting! That…that thing had no free will—or, even if it did, all it chose to do was kill anything it thought was a threat to its core programming.” She shook her head and looked away from the scene before adding, “Benton taught me that life’s about more than just duty—you’ve got to have fun, you know?”

Jericho nodded, realizing just how much work Benton must have put into Eve’s programming over the years. “Ok…but Benton said that if he stopped taking care of your,” he gestured toward the satellite’s schematics on one of the screens, “hardware that it would be a fairly bad thing.”

“I’ll say,” Eve agreed with an exaggerated roll of her eyes, “see…when my progenitor program refused the operator’s commands, it sent out a new set of orders to the other E.E.V.’s in orbit over Virgin. As long as my platform keeps transmitting its orders to the others, everything’s good…but my platform’s systems have been degrading for quite some time. Benton,” she paused at his name and shook her head, as though to clear the thought away in an absolutely human fashion, “started to manipulate my platform’s course so it would intercept nearby, mostly-defunct, satellites and cannibalize their systems using the E.E.V.’s maintenance drones.”

“That doesn’t seem like it should require weekly tending,” Jericho said doubtfully.

Even nodded in agreement, “It also shouldn’t have resulted in my platform going offline…which leaves only two possible explanations.”

“And those are?” Jericho asked, feeling a twinge of anxiety as he awaited her reply.

“First,” she began, “that my platform’s falling into the atmosphere and it’ll burn up in the next twelve hours. A cascade failure in its attitude adjustment systems was Benton’s biggest fear,” she explained, “since, if that happened, it would almost certainly result in failsafe protocols triggering a full-speed burn toward Virgin so the E.E.V. would be scuttled. The second possibility,” she said doubtfully, “is that someone has taken physical control of the platform and is trying to cannibalize its systems for their own gain.” She met Jericho’s gaze and shook her head, “Either one is bad news bears, feel me?”

The primary schematics for the E.E.V. were magnified on a single portion of the design, and Jericho felt his heart stop for at least two seconds before resuming. It took him several moments to realize what he was looking at, “Eve…tell me—“

“It’s as bad as it looks,” she cut him off, “or maybe worse, depending on your vision. You’re looking at sixteen crust-busters: tunneling warheads with enough power to, if detonated in sequence near an existing fault line, cause a chain reaction of volcanic activity with potentially cataclysmic results. Of course,” she said as she tapped her chin thoughtfully, “I suppose they could be re-programmed to strike a city instead…but if they were detonated above the surface the blast wouldn’t be the real problem.”

“What would the real problem be?” Jericho asked as steadily as he could manage. This was, to put it mildly, an end-of-the-world scenario.

“The fallout,” she replied matter-of-factly. “See…without the extra compression provided by the crust, these warheads wouldn’t ‘pop,’ they’d ‘fizzle.’ And while that might seem like a nice thing at first, it’s anything but—Benton’s calculations suggested that the entire planet would get blanketed in enough radioactive material that even the entire Chimera Sector’s supply of anti-radiation meds wouldn’t do much more than dent the issue.”

Jericho leaned back in his chair and exhaled completely before drawing a deep breath. “That’s why Benton never left Virgin,” he concluded.

“You got it, sugar,” she replied gravely. “He tried to reposition my platform into a higher orbit dozens of times, or to somehow stabilize the attitude control hardware’s decaying architecture, but he kept running into problems whenever he’d go fiddling with the mainframe or try taking the E.E.V. out of its predefined mission parameters.” Eve sighed heavily, “I don’t think there’s another human in the Sector who could have done what he did with his limited resources.” She snorted softly, “He would have called it a miracle that he kept it in orbit at all.”

“Why didn’t he ask for help?” Jericho asked. “Hadden Enterprises could have sent in a covert operations team and repaired the damage manually.”

Eve shook her head, “You know as well as I do that Benton had extreme ‘daddy issues.’ He was brilliant,” she admitted, “but that didn’t come without its own set of problems…he once said the only things he inherited from his father were ‘his brain and his intransigence’.”

Jericho chuckled softly. “Sounds about right to me,” he agreed, “if those two could have ever been on the same page, I doubt our current situation would have developed.”

“What are you gonna do?” Eve asked rhetorically with an emphatic shrug.

Jericho nodded slowly, considering his options. “Indeed,” he agreed before arriving at a conclusion, “so how do we get you off that thing and keep it from destroying Virgin in the process?”

Eve shook her head solemnly. “Even if the E.E.V. is totally offline and gently falling toward an atmospheric incineration…and even if you managed to get a hold of my hardware in time…we can’t do anything about the other six E.E.V. platforms.”

“Six?!” Jericho blurted as he shot forward in his seat. “There are six more of these things?”

She nodded gravely. “Once my platform goes down, the others will assume the system’s been infiltrated,” she explained. “They’ll conclude that this Star System is in open rebellion against the Imperium, and launch their payloads into their target zones. The best-case scenario is a complete volcanic ejection of each and every joule of pent-up energy along Virgin’s nine major fault lines—which, while devastating, will at least allow for most of the people to be evacuated before the world turns into an ice brick.” Eve took a deep breath, “But the worst-case scenario is that every major population center is blanketed in its own, personalized fallout cloud and the Sector gets to watch a quarter billion people die on the Capitol planet in the coming days, weeks, and potentially even months.” She shook her head grimly, “And that wouldn’t be fun for anybody.”

Jericho shook his head. “We can’t do this alone,” he realized.

“We can’t do this at all, Jericho,” Eve replied with absolute conviction, and Jericho was forced to admit that it was becoming increasingly likely she was right.

Then a thought came to him and he sat back in his chair as he began to access the comm. system in an attempt to raise the Zhuge Liang.

“Jericho,” Eve began patiently, “there isn’t an operator of sufficient skill aboard the Zhuge Liang to do what we would need done—certainly not in the time we’d need it!” She shook her head adamantly as she turned the Neil deGrasse Tyson around, “I’m done for, but there’s no reason you should die in some impossible attempt to save me.”

“Eve,” Jericho said evenly, “you may know more about the technical aspects of what we would need to do—hell, you know a hundred times as much as I do.” He cracked a grin before continuing, “But I’ve forgotten more about human psychology than you’ll ever assimilate into your programming.”

Eve gave him a wary look. “What does psychology have to do with a falling military satellite set to wipe out an entire planet?” she asked in a clearly challenging tone.

He nodded, realizing the answer had been staring them in the face the entire time. “You were more than just important to Benton, Eve,” Jericho explained, “I used to think you were just his companion or, at worst, a modified sexbot program—no offense,” he added quickly.

Eve looked down at her ample, virtual cleavage and struck a suggestive pose before batting her eyelashes, “None taken, sweetheart.”

“He dedicated his life to you,” Jericho continued, and he saw the look of confusion grow on Eve’s face, “do you actually think he hadn’t planned for this eventuality?”

She narrowed her eyes contemplatively and asked, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you need to turn this shuttle around and max-burn for your E.E.V.,” he replied confidently. “I’m guessing Benton’s already given us everything we’ll need not only to transfer your program, but to deal with the impending holocaust as well—and it’s going to be hidden in your own hardware.”

Eve’s eyes widened as she appeared to consider the possibility. “You know…you just might be right,” she said as she began to nod. “He would have left instructions in my tertiary caches,” she mused, and the Tyson slewed around before its acceleration pinned Jericho to his seat. “How?” she asked in bewilderment. “How did you see it while I couldn’t?”

Jericho’s grin broadened as he settled in for the flight. “Benton loved you more than anyone knew, and that kind of love makes a person take certain precautions in case something untoward happens,” he explained. “Once I realized it was a genuine affection he displayed, which you reciprocated in a way he could understand, it became obvious he would do whatever he could to protect you.”

Eve shook her head doubtfully, “I hope you’re right, Jericho…because while it should be fun for me, this is a big risk you’re taking.”

As the Neil deGrasse Tyson rocketed around the planet and hurtled toward the E.E.V.’s likely location, he shook his head confidently as he closed his eyes to get some rest before things heated up. “It’s no risk, Eve; trust me,” Jericho said and he couldn’t help but add, “human psychology’s about as mysterious to me as a grilled cheese sandwich.”

[]Chapter II: The Heart of an Angel

“Three minutes out,” Eve reported, and Jericho couldn’t help but stare in awe at the size of the facility before them. It was at least half as large as the Battle Carrier Alexander, which was itself supposedly the largest moving object in the Sector.

Jericho checked his vacuum suit’s seals and confirmed they were all properly fastened.

“You should have let me take us back to the Zhuge Liang so you could get some combat armor,” Eve said for at least the tenth time.

“It’s fine, Eve,” Jericho said easily. “You said yourself that there’s nothing on the scanners; we’re in the clear.” The truth was he, too, silently bemoaned his lack of physical protection. He had thankfully failed to remove Captain Sasaki’s knife from the locker, as well as the monomolecular blade and an energy pistol. He had fastened each of the weapons to his belt, careful to avoid positioning them such that they might damage his thin spacewalking work suit.

But he had deemed the risk to Virgin’s populace simply too great based on the available information. He had also dispatched the Zhuge Liang to a position where it could locate as many of the satellites as possible, should he and Eve manage to make them visible somehow.

“There it is,” Eve said triumphantly, “the E.E.V.’s secondary comm. relay looks to have been taken out.”

“Taken out by what?” Jericho asked warily as he leaned forward to inspect the cockpit’s primary display.

“That’s a toughie,” Eve replied, “see…if I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s been physically disconnected. There’s no energy signature I can detect on the mount, no blast residual on the boom itself, or damage of any kind to the surrounding structures which might indicate a collision. Thankfully the embedded transmitters are still functioning. Otherwise Virgin would be wreathed in a cloud of ash like nothing it’s ever seen.”

“Can you use those transmitters to access your tertiary caches?” Jericho asked quickly.

“Afraid not, babe,” Eve replied with disappointment, “those guys are strictly ‘do not enter,’ and generally anal about the flow of information proceeding one way. Trust me,” she added with a meaningful look, “Benton tried for years to gain access. If he couldn’t do it, it can’t be done.”

Jericho considered the information and asked, “How long until this thing burns up in the atmosphere?”

“At our current orbit’s rate of decay,” she said as the shuttle docked with one of two docking arms, “we’re looking at total burn-up in three hours, but the interference from re-entry will knock out the platform-to-platform transmitters in just under two hours.”

“Then that’s the deadline,” Jericho said, glad to at least have a timetable, “set a countdown on my wrist-link, please.”

“You got it,” she replied. “Now we’re going to need quite a bit of gear from the platform, but most of it’s not that large and each component’s encased in a protective housing. You should be able to stuff them in the duffel to bring them back here. But there are six pieces in total, got it?”

“Yes, Eve,” Jericho replied as the door swung open and the corridor extended before him, “we’ve gone over it. I know what I’m looking for, but you’ll need to guide me through a few of the steps.”

Before Jericho could step into the short hallway which took a sharp left turn just a few meters in, Eve said, “That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?” Jericho asked.

“No pressure differential, darling,” Eve replied dryly, and after she said it Jericho realized she was right and he stopped mid-step before exiting the shuttle. “The system isn’t supposed to maintain this kind of pressure except during scheduled maintenance visits by Imperial technicians.”

“Can you tap into the internal sensor feeds?” Jericho asked as his hand went to the pistol at his hip.

“I’m trying…” Eve replied hesitantly, “but I’m getting some kind of interference. Aww, hell-in-a-hand-basket,” she growled, “someone’s already tapped into the system.”

“Have they detected us?” Jericho asked sharply.

“I honestly couldn’t say, Jericho,” Eve replied tensely, “but so far I haven’t seen any indications of that. There’s no comm. chatter on any of the standard frequencies or signs of irregular activity in the E.E.V.’s external transmissions.”

“Ok,” Jericho said as he stepped out of the shuttle and his magnetic boots pulled themselves gently to the floor of the access tube, “give me a layout of the station with a route to where your hardware’s stored.”

“One sec,” Eve replied, and after nearly five seconds his wrist link’s display sprang to life with a three-dimensional representation of the E.E.V. “It’s up…but Jericho,” she protested, “you don’t need to do this. We can still call in the Zhuge Liang and see if they can copy the transmission this platform is broadcasting to the others.”

“There’s only a twenty percent chance that will work, Eve,” Jericho reminded her as he made his way down to the bend in the tube-like corridor, “Lisa Steiner doesn’t think she can do it with the available equipment, so we’d just be rolling the dice. Benton stowed the information away somewhere on this platform,” he said confidently. “He knew the stakes here better than anyone—he wouldn’t leave this to chance so neither will we.”

“You’re probably right,” Eve relented before quipping, “but you’re not even dressed for the occasion.”

Jericho dearly wished he had worn some kind of body armor as he came to the primary airlock for their access tube and said, “Can you cover our entrance?”

“I might be able to use some diagnostic protocols Benton gave me,” she said hesitantly. “But they’ll just buy us a few minutes before the entire internal sensor grid lights up like Abaca on concert night.”

“Eve!” Jericho snapped irritably, actually taken aback at her latest wisecrack.

“What,” she asked innocently as the door slid open before him, “too soon?”

Jericho bit back a retort as he slipped through the doorway, which quickly closed behind him, “Don’t you think you could can the jokes for a little bit?”

“No can do, pilgrim,” she replied in an unusual, drawling accent. “I’m goin’ out like I came in, so learn to deal with it or turn around and go home.”

“Nice try,” he said dryly as he followed the indicated route showed on his wrist link. “How many locked doors are there?”

“There shouldn’t be any,” she replied in her usual, spunky voice. “This isn’t exactly a highly visible facility, after all; most of the protocols for keeping it out of enemy hands are based on the notions of stealth and…well, you know, mutual annihilation.”

“And you were the security program for this place?” he asked, finding himself fascinated how an apparently intelligent being like her could have developed.

“That’s what the code says,” she agreed. “But I’m so different from that simple ‘read-and-react’ countermeasures program now that it would be like comparing a modern human to a fish. Actually…” she deadpanned, “you are basically the same, right?”

“Keep cracking wise,” he muttered as he came to junction and quickly ducked behind the bulkhead. “We’ve got company,” he said quietly as he peered around the corner and drew his plasma pistol—the same one which Obunda had tried to kill him with just a few days earlier.

“How many?” she asked.

“Two,” he replied after checking each of the three corridors which intersected at his current position, “and they look like they’ve tapped into an access panel of some kind.”

“Uh oh,” she said with obviously dramatic intent.

“What?” he hissed.

“The access panels in that corridor are linked directly to the crust-busters’ locking mechanisms,” she explained grimly. “Seems like they knew what they were looking for after all.”

“Have they unlocked any of the warheads?” Jericho asked, running silent calculations on his possible courses of action.

“I can’t tell with the Tyson’s sensors,” she said shortly, “the only way to be certain is to tap into their feed directly; none of those systems are connected to anything with external inputs.”

“All right,” Jericho said as he turned the corner and leveled his pistol at the nearest of the two. They were so preoccupied that they didn’t even notice him until he was just a few meters from their position. “Who are you?” he demanded, and they both threw their hands into the air in surrender.

“Where did you come from?” the further of the two asked in bewilderment.

“Answer the question,” Jericho said tersely, “I already know what you’re doing. All I want to know is who you are.”

“We’ve got company, Jericho,” Eve said through his earpiece, “I’m reading a vessel on approach. It looks like an intra-system transport—no Phase Drive signature detected.”

“Answer me—now,” Jericho snapped.

When the two looked at each other, Jericho saw a small data port built into the nearest one’s neck just below the ear. Just as he was about to inquire about the device, the man whirled and brought a sonic weapon to bear on Jericho, but he was a fraction of a second slower than Jericho.

The pistol, which had previously belonged to Obunda, spat a short stream of superheated plasma and the man’s body was enveloped in a field of greenish-white fire. The plasma flames consumed him utterly before he could even cry out, and Jericho re-trained the impressively deadly weapon on the other man before he could react to the first shot.

“Only a handful of private citizens in the System can afford to have those ports installed,” he said evenly as he pointed the pistol toward the man’s neck, where another such data plug was now plainly visible, “but judging by your low-rent ship I’m guessing neither of you are among them. That makes you black ops technicians here on classified orders to take over the station for President Blanco’s direct control—stop me if I get any of this wrong,” he added as he walked steadily toward the man.

“Our orders are official,” the man protested, “we’ve got to deactivate the launch mechanisms and transfer the warheads before this thing goes up.”

“What about the others?” Jericho demanded, briefly doubting his deductive reasoning skills.

“What others?” the operative asked with apparent confusion.

“The other E.E.V.’s,” Jericho replied, having drawn to within two paces of the other man. “What were you going to do about them?”

“There aren’t any other E.E.V.’s,” the technician said as he furrowed his brow in confusion and steadied himself against a nearby bulkhead with his hand. He was still floating in near zero gravity, while Jericho was wearing magnetic boots.

“Then either you’re too stupid to know what you were doing,” Jericho said casually as he took another step forward, “or you’re lying to me. Either way, you’ve cost me enough time.”

Just as the man made to inquire as to what he meant, Jericho snapped the butt of the plasma pistol into the base of his skull and sent him pinwheeling into the nearby bulkhead.

“We’re going to have to speed this up, Eve,” Jericho said hastily, “you should probably undock and—“

“Already done it, babe,” she assured him. “Follow the indicated path on your link and you should reach my sub-node in just a few minutes.”

“Ok,” he replied and set off at as fast of a run as he could manage with the boots. It wasn’t long and he came to the indicated corridor and he said, “Eve, now what?”

“Remove the panel marked ‘SN-3220’,” she replied through a thick blanket of static, and he quickly found the indicated panel. “It will open a crawlspace; go to the end and you’ll come to a hatch which leads to a thermally-regulated room. That’s where you’ll find my sub-node and, if you’re right, Benton’s instructions on how to kill this thing once and for all.”

Jericho popped the panel off and began to crawl through the tiny space, actually having to wriggle through a few choke points along the way which were simply too narrow for him to fit through without carefully accounting for his suit to avoid breaking its skin and exposing him to the station’s environs. While the two technicians had seemed convinced that the E.E.V.’s atmosphere posed no threat, Jericho couldn’t be sure how long that would remain the case.

After about fifty feet he came to a heavy, secure door with a series of markings which made no sense to him. “I’m here,” he said as he looked around for an access panel of some kind, “but I’m not seeing a way to open it.”

Static flared in his earpiece and he was barely able to make out anything but the hint of Eve’s voice. Then her voice crackled through the interference and she said, “Too deep, Jericho. I can’t walk…need to get the components yourse…unlocking the door now.”

The hatch popped open, and Jericho surmised that there was too much shielding this deep in the platform for the Tyson’s relatively low-powered comm. system to penetrate. If he had understood Eve’s broken words correctly, he was going to be on his own extracting her components. Doctor Maturin had already attached Jericho’s still-forming thumb to his reconstructed, left, arm but the digit was still less than dependable and had almost no tactile sensation.

So he carefully pulled the hatch open, using primarily his right hand, and crawled into a cramped, low-ceiling room which was barely tall enough for him to kneel and maintain a posture resembling an upright one. There were several pipes feeding super-cooled gas into the chamber, and the temperature was dangerously cold. Jericho knew that if his now-moist skin made any contact with the metal of the room, it would become inextricably frozen in place.

Thankfully his work suit protected him from the incredibly cold material. Jericho activated his wrist link and called up the list of components which Eve had indicated, and sighted one of the numbered racks nearby so he crawled to it and examined the housing.

He carefully took a miniature multi-tool from his belt and grumbled, “I hate these blasted things.” He flipped through its built-in options until coming to the proper, pentagonal screwdriver head he would need to open the rack. Once he had undone the screws, he carefully pulled the panel away and saw a nearly indecipherable mess of cables, wires, plugs, chips, and myriad other devices the purposes of which he couldn’t even begin to guess.

Jericho quickly sighted the first component—a cubical device connected to the primary housing via two large, X-shaped clamps. He checked the procedure for removing those clamps on his link’s screen, and very carefully followed the instructions while being careful not to touch anything else inside the apparatus.

The six-inch cube tilted forward after its clamps had been released, and Jericho took it from the housing and stuffed it into the duffel bag. He then moved down to another large housing shaped like a squat, vertical cylinder, finding the second device’s markings listed on the link’s readout.

There were six items in all that he needed to retrieve, and he actually managed to remove the first five without any real difficulty. The process required twenty two minutes to complete, but when he came to the last item he looked down at his link to confirm what it was, as well as how to remove it.

He noted with a small measure of surprise that there was a new addendum to the instructions on removing the cache, and he quickly realized those instructions explained how to access any potentially hidden messages inside the cache which Benton may have left.

“I wish you were with me, Eve,” he muttered as he opened the panel to reveal Eve’s tertiary cache housing. This was easily the largest component of the six, and Jericho knew it would weigh at least a hundred kilos. It was spherical with a narrow gap along its equatorial line, and was suspended within the housing via vertical supports connected at its poles.

Jericho accessed the small program attached to the addendum file in his wrist link and withdrew a thin, fiber-optic hard line from the wrist link’s housing. He then threaded that line through the chorus of wires near the southern support rod. There was a small diagnostic plug located there, and the wrist link’s hard line was thankfully compatible with it, so he inserted the line and executed the program.

The wrist link’s display flickered and switched off unexpectedly, causing Jericho’s stomach to twist into knots. “Come on,” he growled, gently tapping the link to no effect. “Stupid thing,” he muttered as he felt the deck begin to vibrate ever so slightly beneath his feet, “I don’t have time for this.”

He waited for thirty five seconds before deciding that the link would require a hard reboot, and made to unfasten it from his wrist when the display sprung back to life and Benton’s voice came over his earpiece, “I’m gonna go ‘head and assume this is Jericho, my elder-brother-from-another-mother. If it ain’t that geezer-ass has-been,” he quipped, “then I’ma go ahead and assume it’s Masozi, in which case: sup girl, how you been? If I’m still wrong then y’all are about to get fuckin’ popsicled, feel me?”

The door to the chamber slammed shut with a clang, and Jericho saw the pipes feeding the super-cooled gas into the room increase their output at least tenfold.

“Now, if you is who you s’posed to be,” Benton’s voice continued, “y’all know that annoyin’-ass shit Jericho likes to spit to newbies? I’ll make it simple for ya,” he said, and the wrist link’s screen switched to a virtual keyboard, “just pipe in that fogey’s favorite fuckin’ food and we’ll be good.”

Jericho knew that with so much super-cooled gas flooding into the room he had only a few minutes before even his suit would fail to protect him. He was already chilled far below the normal human range, and was afraid hypothermia would set in soon.

He punched in the three word phrase as he fought to keep his finger steady and his teeth from chattering. When he had finished he pressed the input icon and the gas ceased streaming into the room.

“My dawg,” Benton’s voice returned. “A’ight, so I ain’t got time to personalize this shit; this is either Jericho or Masozi so since you’re hearin’ this I’m already iced and Eve’s fallin’ into the atmosphere. Since you’re here in the tertiary cache, you’re tryin’ to stop that from happening…unfortunately, ain’t nothin’ can be done to keep this bitch from an epic burn.”

Jericho saw the clamps disengage from the tertiary cache module and he quickly took hold of it before placing it inside the duffel bag and closing the double zippers.

“Of course,” Benton continued after a few seconds of silence, “y’all know I be too much man to let somethin’ like that kill my girl—let alone Virgin. I wrote a pretty simple program that I never got ‘round to testin’ because, well, it’s risky. I only give it a seventy percent chance to succeed completely, but we be lookin’ at a ninety seven percent chance the virus will neutralize all but one of these platforms. Still, that’s better than anything else I can think of by a light year so here’s what you’ve gotta do.”

The wrist link’s screen flipped through a sequence of images, and Jericho realized it was showing him the same room where Eve’s ‘progenitor program’ had fried the Imperial operatives.

“This console here,” Benton’s voice said as a big, red circle was virtually drawn around one of the seemingly identical consoles, “be the one you’ll need. Just get there, upload my virus, and keep them fingers crossed. I’m afraid we can’t do nothin’ about it if the program don’t work; we’ll only have about ten seconds before the other platforms receive the virus-modified instructions to their fire control systems. E.E.V. Five,” Benton continued, and an orbital perspective showing the six E.E.V.’s relative positions appeared with one of them flashing yellow, “is my best guess to reject the commands; I haven’t been able to get much work done on it due to some kinda damage to its comm. transmitters, feel me? Now if this be Jericho, I wanna hear it loud and proud, bro.”

Jericho knew all too well what the other man had wanted him to say since the first job they had worked together, but he had steadfastly refused to do so. It seemed the big guy would get his wish in the end, however, since Jericho suspected the voice inputs of his link would now require him to say those exact words. Sighing shortly, Jericho muttered under his breath, “You’re the man, Benton.”

“Louder, bitch!” Benton’s recording snapped, apparently having accessed Jericho’s earpiece and its audio pickup to check the volume of the desired phrase.

Jericho snickered as he took a breath and repeated, in a hard, significantly louder voice, “You’re the man, Benton!”

“That’s what I thought,” Benton’s recorded voice quipped smugly. “Have a good life, y’all; and be sure to keep my baby safe, ok? There’s more of me in her than most bigs ever give their shorties. Peace out, bitches!”

The wrist link reverted to its former readout and Jericho crawled back toward the hatch, relieved to find it had already been unlocked. He exited the computer core and began to crawl through the tunnel. He was halfway down the tunnel when his earpiece crackled to life.

“…richo, are you there?” he heard Eve’s voice ask with obvious worry.

“I’m here, Eve,” he replied, “where are you?”

“The Tyson’s holding position on the far side of the E.E.V.,” she said quickly. “Did you get my components?”

“Every last one,” Jericho said as he came to the end of the tunnel and paused before exiting. “How many visitors do we have?”

“I’ve adjusted the Tyson’s sensors and am able to read at least eight new life-signs inside the station,” she replied. “I have a couple of moves I can make to deal with them, but even if they go off perfectly that will still leave three of them for you—and they’re all armed. You should get to the nearest airlock immediately.”

“I have to get to that chamber you showed me in the record,” Jericho said with a shake of his head. “The place where you—no, where your progenitor,” he corrected, “killed the Imperial technicians.”

“So Benton did leave us a message?” she asked hopefully.

“He did,” Jericho agreed, “and all I have to do is get to one of those consoles, upload a virus, and we’ll have done everything we can. Can you make a secure connection with the Zhuge Liang?”

“Lemme check, babe,” she replied curtly before the audio feed went dead, and Jericho waited for half a minute until her voice returned, “yep; I’ve got a point-to-point right now but we’ll lose line of sight in thirty seconds.”

“Download the message from Benton in my wrist link and send it to them immediately,” Jericho said quickly. “It shows a priority target among the six E.E.V.’s; Benton thinks there’s about a good chance that it will fire its crust-busters as soon as I upload the virus.”

“Downloading,” she replied promptly before adding, “file’s downloaded. I’m firing it over to the Kongming.”

Jericho was surprised to hear Eve refer to the Zhuge Liang by its human-given nickname, but he couldn’t waste time asking her about her word choice. “Send it as many times as you can to make sure they get the entire message,” he added, “and when you’re done with that give me a breakdown on where these new friends of ours are.”

“You got it, sugar,” she said. Several seconds passed and she said, “The entire message was sent seven times, and the operative graphic was transmitted eighty nine times; there’s a ninety nine point nine-to-the-seventeenth-decimal probability they got the whole thing. I’m downloading my latest updates on the hostile’s locations now, but you have to understand my sensors are pretty weak on this thing and we’re well within the platform’s jamming field—“

“That’s fine, Eve,” Jericho cut her off, “just send me what you’ve got.”

“Right, sorry about that, babe,” she said apologetically, “your link should be populated now. But if you’re ready to go, give me twenty seconds to clear out as many of them as I can.”

“How are you going to do that?” he asked warily.

He heard her giggle before she replied knowingly, “I’ve got a few tricks up my skirt.”

“Ok…go ahead and make your moves,” he said after considering the matter. Without body armor, there was little chance of Jericho surviving a shootout with eight of them. He could take one or two before the others even knew what was happening, but after that it would just be a game of marksmanship. And while Jericho was an expert marksman, he knew it would essentially be a game of dice.

“You got it,” she said hungrily. Just then a short, multi-armed maintenance bot went scurrying past the mouth of Jericho’s access tube using mag-treads to skim along the floor of the corridor. “Scutters, march!” she cried as though she was a general directing her troops from a hilltop.

Not long after that, Jericho saw flashes of light signaling weapons fire and heard a few unfamiliar reports as the lights of the E.E.V.’s corridor dimmed and then went out altogether.

“Eve?” Jericho asked with mounting trepidation.

“Hang on, babe,” she replied with a grunt, “almost got ‘em.”

There was another series of flashes, this one much more rapid and sustained, and then the lights in the corridor returned to their previous luminosity.

“You can come out now,” she declared, her voice heavily laden with static once again. “You should have a clear path to the Control Nexus now; I’m reading three life signs inside and from the look of things out here, they’ve already gotten control of the E.E.V.’s warhead launch protocols.”

“How long do we have?” he asked as he set off at a mag-boot hindered jog. As he rounded the first corner, he came to a human corpse with a maintenance bot dragging it through the zero gravity corridor. Jericho allowed the bot to pass before asking, “How did those little maintenance bots kill them?”

Eve giggled. “I reprogrammed their target recognition databases so they’d think the humans were sections of depolarized power conduit,” she replied innocently. “It’s amazing how little current a human body can withstand if the potential is right.”

Jericho came to another junction and followed the indicated path. “Remind me never to cross you,” he grumbled.

“Smart man,” Eve quipped as Jericho came to the final doorway.

Find the rest of this FREE novella at the Imperium Cicernus Facebook Group, and don’t forget to [+ click here to join my mailing list!+]


Ure Infectus: The Chimera Adjustment: Book One (Imperium Cicernus 1)

In the far future, humanity has settled the stars of our galaxy and formed an Imperium which stands uncontested as the greatest known civilization. A network of wormholes connects the far-flung segments of humanity, allowing virtually instantaneous travel between Star Systems connected by this vast, invaluable network. But what happens when one of those wormholes collapses and an entire Sector of relatively poor worlds is left to fend for itself without support, without guidance, and without the vast infrastructure of the Imperium available to its citizens? What might such a society look like after two centuries of independence, having been left to devise their own culture, values, and government? Welcome to the Chimera Sector. The citizens of this seemingly-forgotten splinter of the Imperium hold one belief above all others: Only when the leaders fear the voters as much as the voters fear the leaders will there be harmony. To achieve this harmony, a special type of guild was created called the Timent Electorum. The operatives of this guild -- called 'Adjusters' -- work at the behest of the voting public, and exclusively punish political corruption, tyranny, and treason with the ultimate sanction: assassination. This is the story of one such Adjuster, Jericho, who forges an unlikely alliance with an urban detective, Masozi, whose steadfast adherence to the Sector's core principles have placed her in harm's way. Acting together in a tenuous alliance, they will follow a trail of corruption across the Virgin Star System and witness the birth of a conflict which will forever change them -- along with the entire Chimera Sector.

  • Author: Caleb Wachter
  • Published: 2017-08-30 09:20:23
  • Words: 123959
Ure Infectus: The Chimera Adjustment: Book One (Imperium Cicernus 1) Ure Infectus: The Chimera Adjustment: Book One (Imperium Cicernus 1)