Fireteam Freelance – Episode 5: Catch Your Breath

This is Episode 5 of Fireteam Freelance! The episode is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.

A reminder that all episodes of Fireteam Freelance are posted in pre-Alpha, pure draft state. As such there may be minor errors, typos, etc as a result of being pre-edit. But you’re getting it for free, so that’s the trade-off.


Catch Your Breath

Owl was halfway through the market when the gang appeared, spreading out slowly from the edges and moving their way into the center. Gangly youths of both genders, bearing the latest fashion of skin-mods and identifying marks. Newly organized, from the shine to some of their tats. Which a few of them were trying to cover, though not very well. The only reason no one else had reacted to them yet was that the group had at least spread its members out, and the two paps who were supposed to be guarding the market were more interested in ogling one of the dancers at the far end than keeping an eye out for criminal activity.

Well, she thought, keeping her eyes on her roujiamo but her focus on the gang. What’s the marker going to be this time? She took another bite of her meal, tilting her head back and casting it over the crowd like she too was watching the dancers performing at the far end of the square, with their rippling mixture of silk and hard-light cloth that, at strategic beats and intervals, almost teased the crowd with something the paps would be required to ticket. Even if they did appreciate it and cheer it on.

But her focus wasn’t on the dancers. It was on the crowd around them: What they were wearing, how they were moving. What they were doing.

The lookout was easiest to spot. The youth wasn’t even trying, standing on the base of an old streetlight and surveying the crowd as if they were looking for someone, but spending entirely too long at it. That and they had the same silvery-green hair-mod as the other members of their little gang.

Idiots. She took another bite of her roujiamo, weighing her options. On the one hand, they’d probably get caught before long, as obviously connected as they were. But they looked fairly healthy and hale. A new gang, then. Either with backers, or more likely birthed out of a back-alley fight between a prior organization. There was probably some former leader lying rotting in an empty building somewhere. There’s certainly plenty of those around.

It didn’t take her long to spot the leader, nor to see the group pull off their first ploy. Two of their member were dressed more provocatively than the rest, while at the same time in a style that was less conspicuous than the rest of the gang. A slightly exposed chest, slick with a sheen of water or oil. Just enough to catch a mark’s eyes for a moment as they bumped into them in the crowd, and then one of the other members would swipe the person’s phone or purse.

Classic. But only good for so long. Another bite, spiced pork spilling across her tongue. Especially when you’re that obvious about your targets. The gang was moving across the square in a zig-zagging line, hitting every individual that looked like they had a bit of money about them. Contact, grab, do some browsing on your way to the next mark, repeat.

Sloppy. Whoever was in charge of this group wouldn’t be for long. Even their hand was slow, the motion much to noticeable and easy to catch if you knew to look away from the spectacle of flesh the distraction offered. And they’re coming this way.

She swallowed the last of her lunch, wiping her fingers on the napkin that had come with it and standing. Perfect. She’d dressed up slightly for her excursion, which meant—

The lookout’s eyes snapped to Owl and held, as did the eyes of the distractions.

Outstanding, Owl thought as one of them put down the vegetable he’d been “browsing” and started making a wavy line in her direction. I just wanted lunch and a chance to buy a few of the things Ursa asked for.

She turned in the direction of the distraction, who to their credit didn’t react to their good fortune. The picker was coming from another angle, and she held back to urge to smile, instead staring straight ahead like she was simply another well-to-do patron of the square.

The bump came right on schedule. The distraction “tripped,” letting out a faint curse and falling into Owl’s shoulder, and the picker stepped close, ready to drop their hand into her satchel and search for her phone.

The distraction wasn’t expecting Owl’s shoulder to be as unyielding as a stone wall. Nor did they appear to expect the iron grip of her left hand as it wrapped around their neck and jerked them upright. Her right caught the picker’s wrist just as easily, before it ever entered the bag, and with a sharp twist and a flick, the would-be pickpocket found themselves on the tips of their toes, arm and wrist bent up and over their shoulder in a painful hold.

Let me give you a little tip,” Owl said in mandarin, pulling the pair close together so that they both could hear her whisper. “First, your lookout sucks. Second, everyone avoids this area for a reason. Do you understand, cracked ones?

She waited for both to mutter something slightly affirmative, the shoved the pair away. “Good. Don’t come back.” The rest of the gang had already split, but their actions had drawn the attention of the paps, who were making their way over.

The picker gave her a slightly irreverent bow, backing off before ducking into the crowd and running. He hadn’t even noticed that she’d grabbed his bag when she’d let go.

The distraction, however, had, glaring at her with one hand to his neck. Wounded pride. She’d seen it before. “Don’t—“ she began to warn, but then with a an angry shout they darted forward, one hand pulling a small knife from beneath their clothing.

With her augments, he might as well have been moving in slow motion. Her left hand snapped out, casually shattering his nose and rocking his head back. The youth crumpled, folding over backwards as she stepped out of the way of his limp form and dropping his knife on the pavement.

Dammit, she thought, glancing at her knuckles and then the skirts of the dress she’d put on for her outing. There was blood splattered across both. I like this dress.

The paps arrived, shoving their way through the crowd with brandished batons, shouting to know what was going on. Until one of them saw her. The other’s eyes narrowed, and he stepped forward, raising his baton with clear intent of carrying out the standard operating procedure of assuming everyone was guilty, beating them senseless, and sorting it out later.

His partner stopped him, extending his own baton across the man’s chest and shaking his head slowly but purposefully.

Pickers,” Owl said, kicking the thieves’ bag toward the pair. “Their loot.” At least with the paps getting the bag in full view of the public, they’d be a little less inclined to simply keep its contents for themselves. She shook the blood from her knuckles. “You should keep a better eye out.

The first guard flushed and opened his mouth, probably with an angry retort at the ready, but again his partner shook his head, tapping their baton against his chest again. Owl lifted one eyebrow, but then turned and walked off through the crowd.

No point in getting the rest of the stuff Ursa asked for, she thought. Too much attention now. She’ll have to do with half, or go out herself.

She understood why Ursa had asked her, instead, though. At six-six and with her heritage, Ursa towered over most of the locals. Where while I’m somewhat tall, I at least blend in.

Well, she thought with a glance at her bloody knuckles. I did before that happened.

And now she’d need to sterilize her hand, just in case. Her augment package toughened her immune system, but there were a lot of strange diseases out there. Especially on the streets.

Her mind flashed back to the plague of rotlung that had swept through the undercity when she’d been younger, and the sight of several members of the gang coughing their own liquefied insides up.

The CPC had some very nasty secrets. On the other hand, several of the members that had caught it and died hadn’t been very good people. An upside, if a grim one.

She only had to walk a block or two before she reached the closest subway entrance, moving down the steps without hesitation and noting a few concerned glances from squatters when they saw her bloodied knuckles. Or maybe they just were new to the area and didn’t expect to see her heading into the underground. But neither they nor anyone from the market square followed her that she could see.

The station at the bottom was incomplete, the collapse having called a stop to work long before any train had ever run the underground rails. Decades later the whole station had been sealed off, along with much of the underground in every direction. What local elements who objected to the action had been advised to find someone else to complain to, and those that hadn’t had found themselves in need of a very pressing desire to be anywhere else as soon as they’d found out exactly who they’d been dealing with.

A scanner lit up as she neared the seal station, flashing as it scanned her and then obliging by opening the nearby security door and letting her through. Beyond it, the station was still unfinished, Castillo’s desire for privacy rather than running her own subway network the cause of the takeover.

A construction bot had paved over the rails, and a small cart sat on what had once been the track, patiently waiting for her return. She checked her skirts once more before sitting down, making sure she wasn’t spreading the gang-members blood across the seat. A moment later the small cart was humming along the tunnel, heading back toward the base.

The distant echo of stellar metal assaulted her ears as the cart pulled into the garage, mixed with the screaming sound of tools as Anvil continued to work on her new tank.

I have time, I may as well poke my head in and see how it’s going. After I clean up.

There was, by way of intelligent architecture, a restroom and aid station just inside the garage, and she washed her hand thoroughly, spritzing it with a nanite sanitizer just in case, and then eyed the blood splatters on her clothing. I did like this dress.

Maybe the machines would get it out. Maybe not.

I could always afford another one, I suppose. Or a dozen. Or a hundred. Most of the money from her jobs was simply sitting in accounts. Young me would have been ill. A fortune most of them couldn’t count to … and I’ve left it sitting in accounts.

“No,” she heard Anvil say as she neared the garage. “Don’t stop. I need that wheel off. Cut the thing if you have to. Not the shaft, the wheel. We can make another one.” Anvil was standing by one of the rig control panels, scowling as she stabbed at the display. Around her was the mostly disassembled remains of her tank. “Yes, that one. The one that’s stuck. Can you cut it off?”

The display flashed red, and Anvil let out a groan loud enough to still be audible over the stellar metal pouring over the garage speakers. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll do it when I get back. But I want the rest of those treads disassembled, understood?” The display flashed again, this time green, and past Anvil the various arms swung into life, working on the large mass of the tank. Anvil turned, and then her eyes widened.

“You got back fast,” she said, reaching out and turning down her music with a quick wave of her hand. “Is it that serious?”

Owl paused. “Is what serious?”

“The op,” Anvil said. “The commander just called me and told me when I reached a stopping point to head on up. But … you didn’t know that, on it?”

The phone in Owl’s satchel let out a ring, and Owl shook her head. “No, I did not. Though unless I miss my guess …” She pulled out the phone. She’d been sent a message.

New job. On clock. Return ASAP. Castillo.

“That it?”

“Yes.” She slipped the phone back into her satchel. “So I suppose it’s fortuitous I came back early.”

“It have anything to do with the blood on your dress?” Anvil grinned. “I swear, if you went and got into a good fight without me …”

“A gang of teens was picking pockets at the market.”

“Oooh …” Anvil let out a low whistle and began to move toward the door. “They alive?”

“The rest scattered when I gave them a chance, but their distraction tried to knife me,” Owl said, walking with her. “So I broke his nose. Then the paps showed up.”

“Tough break for him. Should have known better though, on it?”

“Agreed. How is your project coming?”

Anvil shrugged. “It’s coming along. Sometimes I wish we’d jailbreak that rig. It keeps insisting things need to be done by a person. Stuff I’d really rather not do.”

“You could probably buy one and break it yourself,” Owl pointed out as they reached one of the main elevators.

“True, but then I like the hands-on stuff, you know? Just not all of it.” The elevator began to ascend, climbing into the upper levels of the structure. “Did have to use my armor a few times though.”

“Really?”

“I did, on it. Some of those parts had seized up pretty hard. And the rig didn’t want to life the turret or the engine out.”

“Why not? Wait,” she shot Anvil a sideways glance. “Because it was a job for a person?”

“On it,” Anvil said, scowling. “A job for a bunch of people, so it had to be done by them. Getting that engine out was not easy, even with the armor.” She shook her head. “But hey, at least I’m getting somewhere. It’ll be a while yet, but it’s a great start.”

“A great start?” Anvil asked as the elevator reached the floor with their apartments.

“Uh, yeah, a great start. The way we’ve been earning money lately, I figure this is just the start of my collection. By the way, you get that stuff Ursa was after?”

Owl shook her head and stepped out of the elevator. “Only half.”

“Damn. Maybe there’ll be time for me to run out and get some. I was looking forward to it.”

“I’m going to go change,” Owl said, giving Anvil a nod. “You probably should as well.”

“What, for this?” Anvil extended her greasy, dirty arms. “No, I always go to briefings like this. Everyone should. It’s good for the skin.”

Owl rolled her eyes and gave Anvil a shake of the head. “And one should imagine what that would feel like under a skinsuit.”

Anvil let out a laugh. “Fair point. See you in a few minutes.” She turned and headed off down the hall, humming one of the stellar metal songs that had been playing in the garage.

Once in her apartment, Owl shucked her dress and took it immediately to the washer, carefully instructing the machine to do its best in getting the blood out, and then changing into a more relaxed shirt and pair of pants. If the briefing had been truly time critical, Castillo would have called.

Though sometimes she called anyway. Just to talk. It was part of their more unique association that the rest of the group didn’t quite share. They’d never addressed it, not directly. I can face down bullets and certain death, but to talk with Castillo about her taking me under her wing … Somehow, the conversation had never come up. It simply was, neither of them broaching it.

Maybe it had a little bit to do with the tendril of fear that coiled against the base of her spine every time she thought about it. Fear that maybe, just maybe, all of it was in her head, and that it was better to live as though what she had were true than ask and shatter the illusion.

She shook her head and headed out of the apartment, driving the thoughts away. So. Mission. It had been five days since their last operation, and there hadn’t been any notice that morning of anything coming up. Someone must have called with a deal too good to turn down.

There had been a lot of those lately. Four, to be precise. Two from Castillo’s “old friend,” and two from the strange client that kept sending them out to do unusual things.

Though the last one had sent rumbles echoing across the globe. Almost enough to make one think that the datacore wasn’t really the real goal, Ursa’s observations notwithstanding. Aeroline had seized on the idea that the UN had conducted a covert strike against its assets, as had the general public in many megacorp controlled countries—not that the megacorps hadn’t stoked the fires to help make it so.

Of course, the UN’s seizing of SoulComp being still fresh on everyone’s minds had made it a lot easier for people to believe they could be moving on Aeroline next. While Aeroline hadn’t been as large as SoulComp in what was left of the United States, it had still relied on the country as a safer haven from the machinations of the UN. Now that SoulComp was wholly owned by the UN …

I can’t ever recall ever seeing tensions between the megacorps and the UN this high. Plus with Pisces and its ilk still being problematic …

People were on edge. Which, in fairness, does make for good work in our business.

The door to the briefing room slid open as she approached, revealing Ursa, Adah, and Castillo all engaged in conversation. Ursa looked up as Owl entered the room, smiling.

“Hey! We didn’t expect you back so quick! Did you find everything?”

Owl shook her head. “I did not. I got half.” Ursa’s face fell slightly. “A new gang was trying to move on the market and decided I would make a good mark.”

“Oooh,” Castillo said. “Did you leave them with their hand intact?”

“A sprained wrist and a battered ego, perhaps, but otherwise unharmed. The distraction tried to knife me, so I broke their nose.”

“Ouch. Maybe I should have gone,” Ursa said. “Make them think twice.”

“I think Owl’s done that already,” Adah countered. “Unless they’re really foolish kids.”

“So, only half? Which half? I might be able to make it work.”

Owl reiterated what she had managed to pick up, and from there the conversation shifted into alternative meals Ursa could make with what she’d had, unless one of them decided to go out into the market once more. Glances at Castillo, however, failed to deliver any clues as to whether or not they would have the time to do so.

A few minutes later—the conversation now having shifted to a few of the arena teams that were struggling in the current season—the door opened once more, Anvil walking into the room and giving them an exaggerated wave.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said as she sat down. She held up a freshly-scrubbed arm. “Had to clean up.”

“It’s not a worry,” Castillo said, smoothly switching into her commander persona. “While we have a time sensitive-mission, we also have plenty of time to move forward and take action.” She tapped at her controls, and the display in the center of the table lit up, showing an aerial view of what looked like a massive harbor.

“This,” Castillo said, “is Kaohsiung Harbor. Corporate Dragon Bloc.”

“Old Taiwan,” Ursa said. “There was a time when you could be executed for calling it that.”

Castillo nodded, then tapped the display again. “And this,” she said as the face of a large-jowled man appeared in the air above the table, rotating slowly. “Is Fat Shrimp. Yes, that’s the name he goes by.”

“He looks like he stuffs his face with them pretty often,” Anvil said. “Maybe that’s how he got the name.”

Castillo didn’t comment. “Fat Shrimp runs a criminal organization specializing in information  and data brokerage.”

“Things like the datacore on orbital data we grabbed the other day?” Ursa asked.

“More covert, but yes,” Castillo confirmed. “His organization moves other things as well, but their primary focus is data.”

“Does he have something our new client wants?” Anvil asked.

“Old client, actually. And no,” Castillo said. “They already delivered it. The problem is that Fat Shrimp decided to play both sides.”

Oh.

“The client is my old friend. Again.” Castillo tapped the display, Fath Shrimp’s face moving out of the way as the harbor came up once more. “They hired Fat Shrimp to acquire a specific piece of UN data—what it was they didn’t specify. Shrimp delivered. But now Shrimp has flipped on them. Or at least, he’s threatening to flip.”

Owl nodded. Now they were in familiar territory.

“He told our client that he wanted double by two days from now, or he would sell the UN what he could gather on them as well as what they’d purchased from his organization.”

“How much were they paid?” Adah asked.

“Forty-five million euromarks.”

Anvil let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot. Must have been some bit of info they paid for.”

“And it’s quite a lot for a demand to double, as well,” Castillo replied. “So our client wants us to remove them.”

“A straight up hit?” Adah asked. “On a crime lord? That’s … a little outside of our line of work. Usually we’re going after targets that are involved in a war effort or something similar. I’m not trying to undermine you, commander. I just want more detail on what we’re getting into.”

“I understand,” Castillo said, zooming the display in. “And you’re right. We’ve taken down criminal organizations before, but not for something like bribery. And I wouldn’t have accepted the job, regardless of prior experience with the client—“

“Your ‘old friend?’” Anvil pointed out.

“In a way, yes,” Castillo replied. “But I wouldn’t have accepted it if not for the fact that Fat Shrimp is far from a good person.” The display was now fixed on a large boat in the center of a marina, surrounded on all sides by other boats that were tied to it. “Something I suspect our client knew going into business with them.”

“Far from a good person how?” Ursa probed. “Flipping someone on illegal goods isn’t exactly that specific. Even if he’s blackmailing people to get the information he does …”

“Fat Shrimp also funds a lot of local drug activity with his earnings from his information exchanges.” A list appeared in the air. “He’s also shown a number of signs that he considers ‘humans’ a viable information.”

“Human trafficking?” Owl asked.

“Close ties with them,” Castillo answered. “Shrimp seems to find them particularly favorable clients. He both provides them with information on pending raids, potential targets, even links up clients. While he doesn’t deal in people himself—not that anyone knows of, in any case—he certainly provides a lot of the information that makes it possible.”

“If we take out fatty here,” Anvil countered. “That won’t stop his organization.”

“Depends on who his successor is,” Adah countered. “And how centralized his organization is. But even if given answers most in the favor of the group, our taking down their head would certainly deal it a blow, as well as those it does business with.” Her forehead creased. “And your old friend knew that, didn’t they?”

Castillo nodded. “They didn’t specifically say that, but there’s a very good chance that they saw it as such, yes.”

“They may a deal with someone just because they knew if Shrimp did try to angle for more money, his business was objectionable enough to meet our morals with regards to taking him out.” Adah scowled. “I don’t like being used like that.”

“Easy,” Ursa said, holding up a hand. “That’s one way to look at it, yes. But it could also be that they were hoping to find an excuse to get rid of them along with getting whatever information they needed.”

Adah nodded, her expression softening somewhat but not entirely dropping the distaste. “I can see that. Though they could have simply hired us, if that were the case.”

“Maybe not,” Owl said. “For one, why not get what they needed out of them and then have an excuse to get rid of them? Fewer questions would be asked than simply telling us to the kill the man. Assuming,” she said, turning her focus back to Castillo, “that is our goal?”

“That’s what they’d like us to do,” the commander confirmed with a nod. “Them and their yacht. All drives, data, records … Everything.”

“They could have off-site backups,” Ursa pointed out.

“Our client is fine with those persisting as long as we cut the head off the snake. And, as they pointed out, doing that might lose the rest of the organization access to those backups.”

“They definitely were counting on this eventuality then,” Adah said, frowning.

“So?” Anvil countered. “I’m all for killing someone who needs killing.”

“I don’t like feeling used,” Adah said. “But you’re right. It would damage things for that market. Used or not, it’s not a bad idea. But to be the most effective, we’d need to jam the area, make sure any last-second transmissions can’t get out.”

“Hard-line too,” Anvil added. “You can wired a boat into the grid. We’d want to take that down as well.”

“The Stalker can handle the jamming with the right equipment,” Castillo noted. “And since it’s the corporate block, no one would question our being in the area.”

“We can drop right in.”

“Carefully,” Anvil added. “It’s a harbor.”

Right. Owl nodded. Swimming in armor doesn’t happen.

“What’s our force estimate?” Adah asked.

“Limited in detail,” Castillo replied. “But we should definitely expect augmentations and skinsuit armor.” Photos began to flip past above the table, showing several armored figures. “Our client estimated at least six. Plus additional guards.”

“And crew,” Anvil added. “Boats always have a crew.”

“Ships,” Owl corrected. “But yes. What about the ships around them?”

“Unknown. The ones directly tied to his yacht may be part of a security escort, but the rest …” Castillo shrugged, the display once again showing the array of boats tied to one another in the harbor. “We’ve got time to find out, but a lot of them probably aren’t related to our client.”

“We still should,” Adah said. “Some of them might be business partners that start shooting the moment we come for their client. We don’t want to turn the entire harbor into a firefight.”

“I don’t know.” Anvil grinned. “Sounds fun.”

“Four of the five of us don’t want to turn the entire harbor into a firefight,” Adah corrected. “Fine. You’re outvoted.”

“A lot of those boats aren’t as nice as the yacht at the center,” Ursa said. “Though some of them are.”

“We could check the harbor listing, if they have one,” Anvil suggested. “Someone’s got to be keeping a loose eye on who comes and goes.”

“And if we can access orbital footage, we could see how often any of them move,” Owl said, leaning forward. “Which would give us better modifiers with which to clarify friend, foe, or neutral.”

“Sounds good,” Adah said, looking at Castillo. “What’s our timetable? You said we’re on the clock. When do they think Fat Shrimp will pull the trigger?”

“Shrimp’s deadline was midnight tomorrow. His time. Our client would like us to take him out of the picture comfortably before then.”

“Tomorrow afternoon then. Daylight, plenty of time to gather information. Unless we feel we need to do the job tonight?” Adah looked at the rest of the table.

“The cover of darkness would be better for staying concealed.”

“I don’t mind working in the open,” Anvil added, but then looked at Castillo. “What did our client suggest?”

“UN Peacekeeper colors .”

“Daylight it is then,” Adah said. “Once again, I do feel a bit used.”

“Forty-five million euromarks may go a long way toward easing that feeling,” Castillo noted.

Owl perked up. “Forty-five million. The same she gave Fat Shrimp?”

“I think they intend to send multiple messages,” Castillo said with a nod. “Concerning their own dealings.”

“They’re playing a careful game. But I’m in.” Ursa slapped her hand down on the table. “Good pay, and we get to make the world a little better.”

Owl nodded. “I’m for it. Let’s plan.”

“All right.” Castillo tapped at the display again. “Let’s start with everything our client gave us …”

*             *             *

Ursa looked over at Anvil as the woman let out another sigh. “Come on, Anvil,” she said as the woman shifted in her seat. “It’s not that bad.”

She couldn’t see Anvil’s expression behind her visor, but the tone in her voice as it came across the comm channel made it fairly easy to imagine. “I thought we were promised no more naked missions.”

“You’re not naked. You’re in armor.”

“Skinsuit armor,” Anvil said, tapping her armored knuckles against one of the plates, “is basically naked.”

“You gonna complain like this the whole op?”

“No. I might crank it up if I get shot.”

“Anvil …” Adah’s tone sounded tired. “It’s funny. I get it. But enough. Exosuits and unknown boats don’t go well together, and the suit’s too identifiable.” She tapped the blue plates on her chest. “We’re playing at being peacekeepers here. Standard loadouts.”

“Yeah, I know,” Anvil said. “But I don’t like it.”

“Well tough,” Adah replied. “You like money, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. So shove it in a can and drop it out the side. Are we prime?”

“Prime,” Anvil said, though her voice was a little reserved.

“Good. Commander, ETA?”

“Three minutes.”

Ursa took a long, slow breath, inhaling evenly and then pressing it out through her nose. Just like you used to do before a fight. Control the breathing, control the nervous edge.

Her seat shook slightly, the VTOL passing through some sort of turbulence the internal gravitics didn’t quite cover for. Review the goals. Eliminate Fat Shrimp and any guards. Destroy any electronics, datacores, or drives. She was carrying capacitor-poppers for that, small anti-electronic devices designed to wreak havoc with enemy electronics. Shaped like a small, thin grenade with two thin spikes on the bottom, cap-pops could be driven into any electronic device and discharged, dumping a lethal electric current along their tines that would short out even heavily shielded systems.

Some of them were carrying EM-rounds as well, ammunition that had been specially made to deliver similar amounts of unexpected voltage to any electronic device they passed through and hopefully shorting it. And if one didn’t do the job …

Well, that’s why we carry lots of bullets. Sadly, just smashing a drive wasn’t enough. Otherwise we’d just missile the yacht from shore. Nice, clean, easy. But if a single drive survived even in pieces with data on their client and whatever it was Fat Shrimp had procured for them, in a format that either the UN or a megacorp could read or decrypt, then it was all for nothing.

“Two minutes.”

In and out. The viewscreens flickered on, showing the bright, tropical waters the VTOL was flying over. They were coming in low and fast, as was suitable for the raid they were about to undertake. While some in the Corporate Dragon Bloc would likely notice their approach once they shot over the harbor at mach one, the most many of them would do is ready their own defensive systems in case it looked like the aircraft was coming for them. If it wasn’t, then it was someone else’s problems.

Fat Shrimp. What a weird choice of name. There was probably a story behind it, just like there was her own handle of Ursa. But why shrimp? What might they have done that would earn them that name?

She made another examination of her gear, frowning slightly as she checked over each of the plain, blue-colored panels. They looked wrong without her tatau. Too many missions lately where we’ve pretended to be someone else.

For the best with how edgy everyone’s getting, though. News of a skirmish between UAI and UN troops along the Egyptian border had dominated the news this morning, both sides claiming the other had fired first. No one had been injured, but even bored or tense soldiers taking potshots at one another was cause for alarm.

Then again, we’re contributing to that. But … better the suspicion be with them than on us.

I still miss seeing my armor with its proper color and tatau though.

Each panel was still secure, and she turned her focus to her armament. A whole row of cap-pops running down her left thigh, a dozen in all, charged and ready. Several smoke grenades, as usual. She pulled her Slugger from her right hip, the mag-locks disconnecting at her pull, and gave it a quick once-over, making sure that it was loaded and a round chambered. She’d debated brining jello-shot in case she needed non-lethal options, but ultimately decided against it. Anyone who sees our armor and doesn’t run isn’t going to be dissuaded by some riot-control shots.

So she’d loaded the Slugger with splinter rounds. Dangerous, and the kind of thing that could hull their target if she fired blindly, but as a holdout it would have to do. And splinter rounds would tear through armor.

She’d settled on heavy shot for her Rezzer, rather than flechettes or standard shot. Heavy shot would have a better chance against skinsuit-level gear, and would still be brutally effective against more civilian armors.

And no one on this boat is a good person. That was something Commander Castillo had reminded them several times during the planning of the operation. Anyone who worked this closely to the top of Fat Shrimp’s organization wasn’t going to be just an ordinary person brought in for doing cooking or cleaning. They were going to be well aware of what Shrimp’s business was.

Stay alert. Stay on guard. She replaced the Slugger and moved to her Rezzer, making sure that a round was chambered and she’d filled the opening in internal magazine left afterward. Everything was readied.

Frag grenades. Each of them had at least two, owing to the smaller vessels tied around Shrimp’s yacht. What’s it named again? She gave her head a faint shake. They’d looked it up, but only to try and find information on what they might find below decks. Either way, the vessels around it seemed to be escort craft, and the frags she was carrying were for them.

“One minute.”

Adah rose from her seat, one hand grasping one of the bars running along the ceiling. “All right team, we’ve reviewed the op and we know the goal. We hit hard, we hit fast. I want to be in and out in five minutes. Be ready for our objective to change at a moment’s notice. Watch your corners and check your angles.”

The whine of the VTOL’s engines shifted, the aircraft slowing to sub-mach speeds. Ahead of them, the viewscreens showed a line of green on the horizon that rapidly swelled. Ursa stood and grabbed one of the bars across from Adah. Owl and Anvil followed, each of them stepping up until there were two of them on each side of the aircraft.

“Thirty seconds.”

Ursa glanced at Owl. She’d chosen forgone her usual long-range focus, her armor a bit heavier and less focused on stealth or scouting and her armament a compact SMG perfect for close quarters. Owl noted the direction of her focus and nodded.

“Twenty seconds.”

Here we go. She drew her Rezzer, holding it easily with one hand. They were still flying at high speed, the distant coastline now close and stretching from horizon to horizon. Here and there a boat dotted the ocean beneath them, the Stalker whipping past so fast the small vessels were almost a blur.  A larger blur shot past, a heavy container ship coming into port.

“Ten seconds.” The VTOL slowed again, then shuddered as the hatches on both sides rolled back, wind whipping through the interior and buffeting Ursa’s armor. Beneath them the ocean changed, the darker blue waters shifting to a lighter emerald green.

And then it wasn’t water, but piers and ships. The engines let out a scream as the Stalker threw itself into a sharp turn, Ursa rocking slightly as the inertia leaked past the gravitic generators. In less than a second the aircraft had decelerated from several hundred kilometers an hour to a complete stop, and directly below them, about twenty feet down—

The upper rear deck of Fat Shrimp’s yacht, two suit-clad guards looking up in shocked surprise.

“Drop!”

Ursa stepped forward, dropping out of the VTOL and down toward the deck. One of the guards was already reaching for her weapon, hand slipping inside her suit jacket and eyes narrowing in shocked anger.

Ursa fired, the Rezzer kicking against her palm. The heavy-duty shot ripped through the guard in a spray of blood, peppering her face and chest with holes and blasting out of the woman’s lower back. A quick burst of automatic fire from beside Ursa marked Owl taking down the other guard, the man spinning back as she walked the rounds across his arm and chest.

Both guards slumped to the ground roughly the same time their team made contact, armored boots hitting the deck with a crescendo of thuds. Before Ursa had even taken her first step the Stalker’s engines roared once more, the aircraft spinning and flipping as it darted off to one side to provide overwatch.

“Jamming field engaged,” the commander said, and part of Ursa’s hud flashed as the jamming field dropped into place. She was already moving for the port side of the yacht, her eyes on the rear-port escort boat. It’s rear door had just started to open when she flicked her free hand outward, two frag grenades sailing across the open space and bouncing down into the vessel’s interior. To her right she saw Owl carrying out her own version, flinging both grenades and then shooting out the glass of one of the cabin windows.

A crescendo of heavy thuds echoed across the harbor as eight frags went off almost simultaneously. The windows of her own target blew out in a spray of fragments and red.

“Six guards second deck.”

Ursa nodded but didn’t reply, already in motion and dropping over the railing to land on the wider, main deck, her gaze already hunting for targets.

Movement! Someone was rushing down from the bow, shouting as they ran and struggling to get a bead with an SMG. She fired, dropping them to the deck, then darted to her side, pressing her body up against the wall of the main cabin. Behind her Owl’s gun barked twice in short, staccato bursts.

“Two down,” Owl said.

“One down.” Ursa added her own tally, watching the bow for just a moment longer, but no one else came running from that direction.

Another flash of movement caught her focus, and she brought her Rezzer up, only to stop at the last second as the nature of the movement became clear. Mechanical. Stiff. A second later the heavy duty emitter flashed, whorls of color spilling out over the harbor, and the purpose became clear.

Hard-light shields. She didn’t stay put to watch them snap fully into place, instead turning and backing toward the rail. We could take out the emitters, but … It would be a lot faster to simply take down the yacht’s reactor.

She adjusted her footing slightly, weapon at the ready as she eyed the yacht’s heavily-tinted windows, then threw herself forward, charging across the deck and firing just as she leaped. The heavy shot tore into the glass, perforating it but not penetrating. Bulletproof, as she’d expected.

Bulletproof, however, was not insurance against several hundred kilos of direct, armored impact. Especially after the outer layers had already been weakened. She crashed through the window in a spray of broken glass, her landing rough but with at least one foot under her.

Two targets made themselves immediately noticeable, one clad in the same suits as the rest of the security forces she’d engaged already, the other wearing what looked like a staff uniform of some kind. Both were armed, the former already lifting their weapon, the second struggling to draw a pistol from their belt.

She fired at the same time the guard did, his shots painting a panicked stitch across the wall next to her, hers striking true. The guard fell back, their last and final shot skipping off of Ursa’s shoulder. She snapped her Rezzer to the right, firing before the steward could and cutting them down as well.

Stay moving. The back door of the cabin was open to the rear deck, but another burst of gunfire and the guard she saw going down in a heap showed that Owl had the task of clearing it well in hand. She spun forward, eyes taking in the decadent luxury of the yacht’s interior and sliding over the wood trim and crystalline design. A part of her mind flagged it as ostentatious, even by the standards they’d been led to expect—Fat Shrimp liked living large—but it was the flashes of movement or activity she was interested in.

Like the one hastily rushing down a set of steep steps from the upper deck, their eyes widening in panic as they saw her armored figure.

They didn’t get their weapon up in time. Her shot tore through them, turning their frantic descent into a dead, lifeless tumble.

Go. She rushed forward, shoving shells into her Rezzer as she made her way toward where the bridge was supposed to be located, past lounge couches and expensive emitter screens, all flashing warning alerts. More gunfire echoed as she ran, the team taking down any and all opposition.

“Yacht’s trying to move,” the commander said. “Someone’s trying to rabbit.”

“I’m on it.” Ahead of her the luxury narrowed to a single door that had to lead to the bridge. There was a red light next to the latch. Locked.

She fired, someone letting out a shout as her shot perforated the lock. Gunfire thudded against the door before she’d even yanked it open, shaking the metal. She responded by making sure the barrel of her Rezzer was the first thing around it, firing several times in quick succession before bursting through and taking in the bridge.

Her return fire had caught one guard in the leg but hadn’t been fatal yet, and she fired at them first, her shot ripping into them even as their own return fire broke across her chest, failing to penetrate the plate. She spun on the other two figures, one already firing, the other turning from the ship’s wheel and bringing their own pistol up.

One of their shots skipped off of her plates, sliding into her skinsuit but failing to penetrate. There were no more after that, both bodies toppling to the ground.

“Bridge secure,” she said, spinning quickly and checking for any other threats but spotting none.

“Take it offline,” Adah ordered.

“Already on it.” She stepped up to the primary control panel, eyeing the various displays floating above it and finding the one she wanted. “Taking those emitters offline.” Past the thick, heavy glass ahead of her, the shimmering hard-light fields began to break up, bits of light flashing and fading away.

Then they flickered, stopped, and came back together. “And someone’s locked me out,” she said, frowning down at the controls. “They must have an override below.” She eyed the dash for a moment, looking for a good point, then pulled a cap-pop from her hip and stabbed it deep into the console, triggering a discharge. With a chorus of sharp pops, the displays went dead, colored motes spinning off into the air and fading.

“Bridge is slagged,” she reported. “Heading down to the main deck.”

“Top deck clear. Dropping to main deck.”

“Descending to main deck,” Owl added. “Dropping at stern.”

“Taking the stairs.” She retraced her steps, leaving the bridge for the more luxurious rear cabins and finding the stairs down to the main deck a moment later. She almost took them at a running leap, slowing only when she realized that the ceiling was low enough she would have slammed her head into it and settling for thundering down them with her Rezzer taking the lead.

She hit the bottom steps halfway expecting to come under immediate fire, but instead found what looked like an empty dining room that had been quickly abandoned, plates still steaming and one glass tipped across the surface, what looked like red wine staining the wood. A door rearward was partially open, sounds of gunfire echoing through it. A glance through it showed several more guards and crewmembers holed up facing the doors to the stern, all of them taking cover behind the cabin walls or heavy wooden chairs and several of them already firing.

Sloppy, she thought as she opened fire, cutting all of them down from the rear. No one thought to watch the stairs. All four dealt with, she turned and moved forward, passing into a wide hall and checking each side room as she passed it but finding no one. She’d just reached another set of stairs down to the lower levels of the yacht when one a closed door off to one side splintered, Anvil’s compact figure smashing through it.

“Forward’s clear,” Anvil said as Adah appeared from the other side. “Rear?”

“Clear,” Owl said as she stepped into the room behind Ursa. “My thanks for clearing that position, Ursa.”

She nodded, then motioned to the steps leading down. The bottom had been closed off by a heavy wooden door. “I’m going to charge it.”

Anvil peered down the steps but shook her head, stepping back through the door she’d shattered. Past it was a small kitchen. “Wait. Count of ten.”

“All right.” She stepped to one side, watching as Anvil walked over to a small hatch on the wall of the galley and pulled it up to reveal—

An empty cabinet? Anvil climbed in, folding herself in with her gun aimed outward, and lowered the door.

No, she realized. A dumbwaiter! “Guess we found a good reason for you to be naked after all, Anvil.”

“Yeah yeah, just breach in five, on it.”

Ursa nodded and turned back to the steps. Unlike the ones above, the ceiling was higher. So I should be able to make a flying leap. She took a step back, listened as the faint gunfire and screams began to echo up from below, pushed herself forward—

And bounced off of the door like she’d hit a composite wall, the wood flexing but then stopping cold. She slammed into the steps in a confused heap, eyeing the door with surprise. Armor? But there hadn’t been the ringing sound of an impact. How—?

Then it clicked. Hard light emitters outside the ship. No wonder she’d stopped cold.

The gunfire beyond the door stopped, and a moment later the battered wood slid to one side, Anvil looking down at Ursa as she pushed herself up.

“Hard-light field,” she said, tapping a control panel by the door.

Ursa nodded. “I figured that out. We should have brought some energy weapons.” She cleared the bottom of the steps, noting the number of bodies laid out by Anvil’s surprise attack. “Have fun?”

Anvil shrugged. “It would have been more fun If you’d managed to come through the door. I wanted to see the looks on their faces.”

A crash from the steps made them both look, Adah ripping through the cabin wall around the door emitters. “We didn’t bring energy weapons,” she said as she ripped a cable free in a shower of sparks. “But this was a rush job. Hole the walls. Knock them out.” She tossed the cable aside. “Owl, Ursa, sweep the rear, get the reactor. Should be two levels, so work your way forward once you have. Anvil and I will work our way forward and try and find a way down.”

“Understood.”

“Make it fast.” Commander Castillo’s voice cut across the comms. “I’m seeing local enforcement starting to show up. Nothing openly hostile for now, but the longer we’re at this the less time we’ll have before someone pulls a trigger or calls our bluff.”

“Copy.”  There was only one path leading aft, and Ursa began moving down it, taking point with Owl at her back. More luxury, more signs of people leaving in a hurry. Her eyes caught a dapapad that had been left behind, and Owl sprayed it with bullets, the EM-rounds sparking as they short-circuited the pad’s insides.

Ahead of them the luxury slowed, ending in a heavy duty hatch. The sign above it stated “Reactor access” in Mandarin, and Ursa grabbed the lever with one hand, popping it open and leading with her Rezzer.

The gun stopped almost instantly as it met another hard-light security field. Past it was a plain, unadorned metal hallway that passed two doorways on either side before opening up into what was clearly space for the reactor, the metal decking becoming an open-air catwalk.

Of more immediate interest, however, were the two crewmembers taking cover in each of the doorways, their SMGs trained on the security field. “Owl?” Ursa asked, pulling the hatch all the way back and eyeing the wall around the hard-light field. It was metal, but didn’t look any different from the rest of the hall.

“Got ‘em,” Owl said. One of the crew members put on a perplexed expression as Owl aimed her SMG at him, still clearly expecting the hard-light field to stop them. His sudden shock as Ursa fired her Slugger, its splinter rounds ripping through the metal around the emitter and causing it to flicker, only erased when a quick trio of rounds passed through their forehead. The second crewman started, forgetting to fire in their shock at the loss of their safety, only to go limp an instant later as Owl’s second shot found its mark.

Ursa was moving before his body even hit the deck, rushing down the short hall and plunging through the left doorway to see a control station for the reactor. Another crewman was frantically drawing their weapon, and she cut them down with a single blast from her Rezzer, some of the shot penetrating the control console and making the displays fluctuate wildly.

Thankfully, she didn’t need them. What she wanted was right up against one wall. A large, red button covered by a safety shield. She flicked it open and slammed her fist down on it.

Alarms began to sound, the room going dark as the hum of the reactor wound down. A second later the emergency lighting kicked on, and Ursa heard shouts from the level below.

She didn’t let it deter her. She drove another cap-pop into the control console, the displays and meters fluctuating wildly before going dead. A glance out the entrance to the room on the other side showed that Owl was engaged in the same activity.

A bullet cut through the window overlooking the reactor, and Ursa snapped a shot off in return, her attacker ducking back down the catwalk steps. A quick look downward revealed three more individuals, one of them wearing actual body armor, and she ducked back as they sprayed SMG fire upward. The window she’d been looking through shattered. There was a second exit from the room, leading out to a catwalk that circled the room, and she took it, firing on the move and cutting down the gunman on the catwalk steps.

Then she jumped, dropping down from the catwalk toward one of the shocked engineers and bringing the butt of her Rezzer down squarely atop the woman’s head. She crumpled to the ground. The engineer wearing body armor began to turn, only for Owl to catch them in the shoulder. Their weapon clattered to the ground, and Ursa fired, the heavy shot punching through the armor and dropping the guard for good.

Ursa turned for the lower hatch, reloading her Rezzer on the move. A heavy clang from behind her signaled Owl’s descent as well, and then both of them were moving down another, hallway, shorter than the one above but still terminating in hard-light field and a heavy hatch.

Guess the emitters have their own back-up power. She drew her slugger again, the splinter rounds cutting through the metal around the door and shorting the field. Once again, she took up position behind the heavy hatch, Owl covering as she levered it open with a heavy thunk.

No fire shot out at them, and she opened it the rest of the way to reveal what looked like a small, empty hallway, flanked by closed doors down its length before opening up into a larger communal space. Easy. She stepped past the door, Rezzer at the ready as she smashed the first door open, revealing what looked like a small staff room, its bunks empty. Owl mirrored the action on the other side of the hall, revealing more of the same, and step by step they cleared the hall, emerging into a small communal space clearly for the crew and not nearly as luxurious as the rest of the yacht. It had a look of hurried abandonment, personal items scattered on the tables and the door to a bathroom hanging freely open.

There was a closed door leading forward, and Ursa paused beside it. “Adah, Anvil, what’s your location?”

“Didn’t find any bolt holes forward, but we slagged a couple offices and a comm rig. No sign of Fat Shrimp.”

“If he’s not here, our client’s not going to be happy.”

“Forget them, I won’t be happy,” Anvil added. “All this for nothing?”

“The stairs down amidship seem to be our only path. We’ll meet you—hang on, more hard-light fields.”

“There wasn’t one going up.”

“Someone must be tracking us. There. It’s off. Anvil, Owl, meet us and we’ll sweep the last section as a team.”

“Got it.” Ursa glanced at Owl and then opened the door out of the crew quarters, their surroundings once again shifting into decadent luxury and the hallway breaking to the left and offering them several more doors.

Rustling sounds echoed out of one of them, and Ursa swept in quickly lashing out with her fist and catching a crewmember in the back of the head. The other had time to begin a startled shout before her fist caught them in the throat, and then they joined their partner on the floor.

“Adah, we’ve got an office,” Owl said. “Lots of rigs and servers. Looks like they were trying to purge it.”

“Don’t,” Adah replied. “Could be a ploy. Just slag it all.”

“Right.” Owl fired a burst into the laptop the pair had been working with, then a second into the drive attached to it. Both sizzled and popped as the circuits melted.

Three rigs, Ursa noted, pulling several cap-pops from her hip. Three slags. One by one she discharged the tools, smoke spilling out of the computer’s insides.

Distant gunfire echoed for a moment. “We found the security station,” Adah said. “Slagging it.”

“Emitter’s must be a on a different circuit,” Anvil said. “Can’t see any controls for ‘em. Don’t slag that yet, though.”

The room cleared, Ursa and Owl moved on. The next room was another office, though less Spartan and more extravagant. Owl hosed the electronics on display down with abandon, reducing them to smoking piles of worthless plastic and metal.

A door on the right loomed, and Ursa slowed. Rear of the boat, near the offices … I’m going to guess master bedroom. And if they think we’re looking for Fat Shrimp …

She slowed, catching Owl’s attention and making the signal for “danger” at the door. Owl nodded and took up a flank on the other side.

Three, Ursa thought, holding up her fingers. Two. One—She nudged the door open.

A hailstorm of gunfire erupted, both her and Owl ducking as the shots perforated the thin wood and interior paneling. The fire didn’t stop either, not even as Ursa reached for her kit, grabbing and priming a smoke grenade and tossing it blindly around the doorway.

The fire let up as someone shouted in alarm, and she took advantage of the distraction to rush around the opening, only one figure returning fire in time, shots thudding against her side but again not punching through the armor.

Guess Fat’s security guy never thought anyone would send skinsuits after him. That, or maybe they’d been worried that hull-piercing rounds aboard a boat were a bad idea.

Either way, she thought as smoke swirled through the room, blinding everyone. It was probably a bad idea. She stuck to the wall, catching the first figure off guard, her fist punching something hard enough she felt bone shatter. From there, it was simply a matter of staying low and picking each of them off one by one. By the time the emergency systems fired, fans struggling to remove the heavy smoke from the air, all six of the suit-clad guards that had been lying in ambush were laid out on the ground, dead or close to it.

“Ursa cleared Fat’s bedroom,” Owl said, stepping into the room and taking a quick look around. “We’re looking for him now.” She ducked down to check under the bed, but shook her head.

There were three other doors in the room. Ursa swept one to the side to reveal a large walk-in closet, but no sign of their target. She tore the clothes from their hangers just to be sure.

Nothing. The closet was empty. She gave the walls a few quick taps, checking for hidden compartments, but the closet was truly clear.

“What the hell is this?” Ursa turned to see Owl standing by one of the other doors. Beyond it was what looked like a small, cramped guest room, complete with its own open toilet. It was devoid of human presence, and there was clearly nowhere to hide, but it had a look of occupation to it.

“I don’t know,” Ursa said, stepping up alongside her. “Spare room for a guest maybe?”

“Looks more like a prison cell.”

“Agreed, but I don’t like the implication,” she said, stepping to the last door and yanking it to one side to reveal an ostentatious bathroom with a golden toilet seat. The shower at the far end was closed, the glass misted.

“Maybe he wasn’t just dealing info to traffickers,” Anvil said. “Maybe he was a customer.”

“One more reason to bury him deep,” Ursa said, stepping across the spacious bathroom and ripping the door to the shower open so hard the glass cracked.

Nothing. It was empty.

“Fat Shrimp’s not here,” she said, letting go of the door. “No sign of him yet.”

“Sign,” Anvil said. “Security sensors are showing a pack of six people making their way toward the bow on the bottom level. Might be a bolt hole we missed. We’ll slag the system and then make our way up while you two try to catch him.”

“Any other life signs anywhere,” Ursa asked, turning for the hall and breaking into a run.

“No. Just those six. You’re about fifty feet back. Just head forward.”

“Good.”  She shoved a few more shells into her Rezzer as she ran, jumping over expensive leather chairs, a heavily stocked bar, what looked like a private theater, and then the stairs up before plunging into a hall once more.

Someone halfway down opened fire, and she threw her weight to one side, paneling cracking and creaking as her shoulder tore into it. The attacker ducked back as she fired, but then slumped, the shot punching through the interior wall and catching them anyway. An attacker further up ducked out, only for a burst from Owl to pass right by Ursa’s head and catch them in the chest. The went limp, body spilling across the hall.

Three plus Fat left, Ursa thought, shoving herself out of the indent she’d made and rushing down the hall. We’ve just got to catch them befo—

An armored first swung out of a nearby doorway, and she ducked just in time, spinning and firing, her shot cracking off armored paneling. Her attacker snapped their arm back—not quite as quick as a full skinsuit user, but definitely much faster than any normal human. Ursa fired again, but her attackers other arm had already shot out, slapping the barrel to one side, her shot shredding the wall of what looked like another office.

She shoved herself off the wall headbutting her attacker’s visor and smirking as the impact snapped their head back and cracked the glass. Cheap. She dropped her Rezzer, hammering the discount armor with blow after blow, disorienting them until they stumbled back. She gave them a brief moment, during which they rose again, fists coming up—

Only for a blast from her Slugger to send a burst of splinter rounds right through their cracked visor and out the back of their head … as well as the hull of the yacht. Thin sprays of water lanced over the corpse as it swayed and then collapsed, twitching as the cheap skinsuit relayed false death throes across the corpse.

A shadow flitted over the room, and she spun just in time to see Owl blow the brain out of a second, similarly-armored foe, the shot entering one corner of the visor and painting the other side in red. They too slumped to the ground, twitching.

Two left, on Fat. She gave Owl a nod of thanks and they continued down the hall, rushing toward a closed door at the end.

She didn’t slow. There was no shimmer of a hard-light barrier, and she barreled into it, the thin metal rending and spinning to one side on its hinges. Revealing an anchor stowage room and a man who could only be Fat Shrimp, holding a gun to the head of a terrified looking naked woman sporting more than a few gene mods, if the tail lashing the deck behind her was any indication.

“Stop!” Fat Shrimp shouted, his voice fairly free of any accent. “You move and I’ll kill—“ His right eye exploded in time with the back of his head as Owl fired.

“No,” Owl said as the naked woman let out a shriek, pushing the now dead figure of Fat Shrimp away and falling to the deck but staring in horror. “You won’t.”

It wasn’t hard to see what the man had been going for. A concealed entryway alongside the anchor chain had been pulled back, revealing a small passage. A laptop was resting in it, and a satchel that had been set nearby.

“Adah,” Ursa said, stepping over the body and picking up the satchel. “Target’s down. Confirm?”

“CNC says it’s him. The other one’s a nobody though. Not matching anything.”

Owl knelt by the woman, who flinched away, sobbing and hugging her knees, her tail curling around her. Owl spoke quietly in Mandarin, then some other variant, and the woman shook her head.

“I think we were right about Shrimp being a customer for traffickers,” Owl said after a moment. “She’s a sex slave. Gene-modded.”

“Then she’s an innocent,” Adah said. “Bring her with us. We can get her help.”

Ursa’s stomach twisted as she looked down at the woman. Gene-modded sex slaves were illegal everywhere, but the demand … She shuddered and drove a cap-pop into the drive array in the satchel, destroying it.

It’s sick. Biological and genetic augments like mine are one thing, but … Her skin felt cold. Messing with people’s heads, their libido, even their looks? Making their own body produce chemicals that make them compliant?

She didn’t feel a single shred of mercy for any of the people they’d just killed. Not with what they’d been covering for.

Owl reached out and patted the shivering woman on the shoulder, only eliciting a small flinch as she continued to speak softly. Then she rose. “She’s rattled, but she wants to leave.”

“Good,” Ursa said, driving her last cap-pop into the laptop and watching as it smoked. “We’ll get her something to cover herself with, check the last rooms, and get out of here. Adah?”

“We’re coming down the stairs now. We’ll check aft and then move forward.”

A minute later they were all on the back deck of the yacht, Owl climbing aboard the VTOL and then turning to accept the shivering bundle of blankets that was the yacht’s lone survivor from Ursa. Once Owl had carrier her aboard, Ursa climbed on, followed by Anvil and then Adah.

“We’re aboard, commander,” Adah said, grabbing one of the overhead bars. The VTOL began to lift into the air above the harbor, doors closing.

“No!” The woman they’d recovered from the yacht surged partway out of her blankets, gesturing at the yacht. “Want to see!” She began speaking rapid-fire in another language, growing more agitated as the doors shut.

“She wants to see it,” Owl translated. “The yacht. Wants to see us destroy it.”

“That,” Commander Castillo said, “I can do.” The viewscreens flickered to life, giving them a full view of the harbor around them and number of pap authorities, all watching. The VTOL spun, aiming directly at the expensive yacht sitting in the middle of the harbor—which, Ursa noted, was now in a bare patch of water, all of the other boats having moved away save its four escorts.

With a faint hiss a quartet of missiles leapt free of the Stalker’s pods, arcing through the air and descending on the five vessels. There was a sudden whump from outside the aircraft as the missiles detonated, ripping the yacht into pieces, and their passenger said something.

“What’d she say?” Anvil asked.

“Die, pig,” Owl translated. “May your soul never leave Diyu. Hell, I think.”

As the burning yacht began to sink beneath the waves, the VTOL turned and carried them away.

*             *             *

“The UN continues to deny responsibility for today’s raid on Kaohsiung harbor in the Corporate Dragon Bloc—” The display in frnt of Owl shifted, the image of the newscaster replaced by a shot of the team dropping from the VTOL. “—instead claiming that they have once again been the targets of a false flag operation.” The picture changed once more, still showing the harbor but after the attack had taken place, pap cruisers and VTOLs assisting a rescue operation. “Corporate officials condemned the UN for the attack, which was confirmed to have killed one Zhang Wei, the owner of the yacht in question. Zhang Wei was a prominent businessman across the Dragon Bloc—“

Yeah, I’ll bet he was, Owl thought with a snort as the anchor kept speaking.

“—whose loss will negatively affect many corporations in the coming weeks. While there has yet to be an official response from the Council to the attack, numerous corporations have released official statements shaming the UN for employing such cowardly tactics to weaken the region.”

Sure, Owl thought, rolling her eyes as the footage looped, once again showing the team dropping to the deck. Because they absolutely believe we were really UN.

It didn’t matter though. Not to the megacorps. She rose from her seat, glass empty, and walked into the kitchen, the display still running behind her, the artificial anchor talking about the dire effects Wei’s death would have on the Bloc.

I should change the channel, she thought as she poured herself another drink.  Listening to this isn’t improving my mood. But it was all most of the networks in the Bloc were talking about. One network claimed to already have footage of a “mass protest” that was clearly fake, but was probably riling people up anyway.

Maybe I should have taken Anvil up on that offer to actually go out. Ursa had gone, with plans to be back later once her pork was done and have a late dinner for anyone who wanted any. Both of them have probably drunk half the bar under a table by now. Unless Anvil had gone to one of the bars where people knew about her little “gimmick” and weren’t so easily fooled.

Then again, she likes the taste anyway, Owl thought, idly sniffing her drink before taking a sip. An old habit, from way back. Before … everything.

The news was still prattling on about Fat Shrimp, though now it was talking about salvage efforts for the precious metals from the yacht. Gold was still gold to a lot of people. And he had no known family. Imagine that. She smirked. And his associates won’t be so quick to come forward for fear that whoever had issues with Shrimp might have issues with them as well …

A frown slipped across her face, and she took another sip. Who were we working for anyway? It wasn’t the weird client that wanted the observatory job, but the other one.

The one Castillo says she trusts. Why? That has to mean its either someone we’ve done a lot of jobs for, or someone that was from … before.

That seemed unlikely. She pushed away from the counter, once again taking a quick sniff of her drink as she padded back to her seat before the display. I’ve never heard her talk about anyone from before what happened. It’s not like there were any survivors but her, and she definitely didn’t want to be associated with anyone from that period of time.

So then who are we working for? The first answer seemed somewhat obvious, maybe too obvious. All of this feels like it started with that job in Kamchatka. Where we took down the SoulComp relay.

Maybe an ex-SoulComp employee? Thousands had fled when the company had changed hands, including more than a few of its board members. Not surprising, considering … She paused the display and entered a new search term, bringing up the former CEO of SoulComp.

Yup. Nathaniel Lang. Executed for gross espionage. The search gave her the option of replaying the actual event itself, but she waved it away. It probably wasn’t real anyway.

Then again, SoulComp had a lot of subsidiaries, plus a lot of people like us on their payroll. Most of it private. So it might not be a board member … She sent out another query, the engine she was using spitting out an answer full of news links a few seconds later.

Four board members ran, two have been caught. But … There was an associated list linked to the story, offering a breakdown of missing employees and associates of the company—or as close to it as a bunch of data sleuths could determine, anyway—and she opened it.

That’s … a lot of names. The final tally in the corner noted that more than ten thousand people had vanished when the United Nations had taken control of the company, then specified that the list only counted those who had legitimately vanished or were suspected to be on the run, not those that had been “retired” and replaced with people more loyal to the UN.

They condemn the megacorps that doing just that when subsidiaries trade hands, but they do the same thing, Owl thought as she skimmed over the list. Low-level mannys are out. To have the kind of money we’ve been getting we’d need real management. Or … She paused. Maybe embezzlement?

“That would actually fit,” she said aloud. She set her drink to one side, working with both hand now.  Embezzlement would give someone the funding to pay us off and a reason to hit that data relay if they didn’t want the UN finding out about it after they took over and audited the place.

But then why the orbital data. That was the piece that made almost no sense. Unless they wanted to build pressure against the UN—Wait, no, because that job was the one from the other, weird client.

So if they were just a middle manager siphoning funds who got away with it, why the orbital data? Kamchatka makes sense. So does killing Fat Shrimp. But Norway?

Was it just to throw us off the scent?

But that didn’t make sense either, unless they were worried about the commander breaking contract and selling them out. But Castillo says she trusts them so that doesn’t add up either, unless this client is really paranoid.

That’s a lot of money to spend on paranoia, but then again the way the world is …

She dismissed the report, but not before tapping a button in the corner to leave the creators a small tip. The news feeds popped back up, but she waved them away, tucking her legs beneath her on the couch and staring at the display.

We got paid, end of story. Besides, Fat Shrimp needed to die. She’d felt no remorse about putting a bullet through his brain after she’d seen his sex slave. Just thinking of what the poor woman had been through made her angry all over again.

And there’s only one answer to that outside of going down to the firing range or playing something, she thought, sweeping away the news with a wave of her hand. Shopping.

She tapped one of her favorite channels, the room lighting up with specials and deals of all kinds. New types of composite armor. Discounts on bulk ammunition.

She waved it away. That wasn’t what she wanted at the moment. No, she wanted something else.

There we are. She made a selection, her display filling with row after row of offers. Rifles.

New ones. Top of the line. After all, she could afford it.

And after today, with those hard-light fields … A hard-light field could take incredible amounts of punishment and kinetic impact before failing. What they couldn’t take as well was heat. Thermal ammunition, or better yet, energy weapons.

And I don’t actually own one of those, she thought, selecting the proper tab. But I should. And there’s never been a time when I’m more flush with cash.

She skimmed through some of the newest offerings from various manufacturers, eyeing the designs. There were several varieties of heavy laser, being a more “classic” form of energy weapon. Thermal plasma spear sounds interesting though. And what’s a particle spear?

Both seemed to be from the same manufacturer. Interesting. Both have sim demos for testing. She flagged each of them for download. But—Hello, what’s this?

A new image had appeared, an “advertisement” that was really just one of the results granted an entire page floating on black. The PRS Sarissa? Wait, is that …

Her jaw went slack as the manufacturer’s name appeared. Muhimi … that’s by the same manufacturer that made—

The words appeared on the screen even as they came the mind. The PR6-BFG. One of the most powerful—and dangerous—energy weapons on the market.

They made it into a rifle!? But there it was on the display, floating in the air. A long, sleek, dangerous looking plasma energy rifle.

They must have just announced this today, or I would have seen something about it on my feeds. A second display showed that indeed, the weapon had only been demoed several hours ago, while she’d been in debriefing.

A feed showed the weapon firing, the energy cell humming and then flinging a blindingly white orb of destructive energy that snapped across the quarter mile of the firing range, detonating with a crack that overloaded the microphones and reducing a portion of the target to molten metal and smoke.

Those crazy engineers did it, she thought as the feed made a shot for shot replay comparing the projectile to that fired by a PR6-BFG. The shot was both smaller and less destructive, but even so …

“We’re proud to announce that we’re making great strides in compacting our design further,” the spokesman said as the video continued. “With the breakthrough that allowed us to make this rifle possible, we believe we may be able to soon offer a lighter version, perhaps as a plasma counterpart to a machine gun or even a small SMG.”

She closed the feed, eyes sliding back to the long, smooth shape of the Sarissa. How much? Her eyes flicked to the price, and she frowned.

I suppose a price that high makes sense. PR6’s are still fairly rare, and I’m sure there’s a demand. Still, a hundred-and-fifty million euromarks is a lot of money. Maybe the company can get one, or—

A knock at her door caught her attention. She shoved the display to one side, tapping the feeds for the door. Valerie Castillo stood there, clad in civilian garb and holding a heavy-looking plastic bag in one hand.

“Come in,” she said, and Castillo nodded, opening the door and stepping in.

“Hey Li,” Valerie said as she entered the room. Her eyes flicked to the display. “New gun?”

“We’ve been getting paid pretty well lately, and after we saw those hard-light fields today I thought it might be time.” She began to untuck her legs from the couch, but Valerie waved a hand.

“Stay comfortable. I’m here as Valerie first, Commander Castillo second.”

Owl nodded, sliding her legs back.

“I also,” Valerie said, hefting the plastic bag and setting it on the table, “brought dinner. Hope you like American.”

Owl’s stomach let out a hungry twitch as she caught the array of scents coming from the bag. “I could use something to eat.”

“Yeah,” Valerie said, peeling the bag back with a crinkle of plastic. “I figured. That juice probably isn’t cutting it.” She nodded at the glass. “I brought beer. Want one?”

“No thank you,” Owl said, and Valerie let out a laugh.

“That’s fine. I only brought enough for me, and I know you don’t like it.” She pulled out one of the boxes on top of the bag and opened it, exposing an array of tacos.

“Tacos? I thought you said American?”

Valerie smiled. It was an old joke. “Central America counts.”

Owl swept the display away, shutting the emitter down. “So where’s the rest of the team?”

“Well, Ursa and Anvil are out at a bar somewhere, but you know that, since they asked you after the debrief. Adah’s down on the firing range, practicing running shots.” Valerie ripped the top of the box off with a clean twist and slid three of the tacos onto it. “When you weren’t there I figured that meant you’d decided to spend the night in.”

Owl nodded. And we both know why that is. “How’d it turn out for our guest?”

“They took her in,” Valerie replied, her voice growing quieter for a moment. “Thankfully, they were able to catalogue most of her mods with a blood sample, and they can remove them, or at least replace them with something more livable.”

Owl nodded. “Cost?”

“Worth it.” The commander opened the second box in the stack, pulling out a bunch of fry jacks.

Owl smiled as she saw the familiar pieces of fried bread. The first thing you ever fed me. “She brought back some memories, didn’t she?”

Valerie nodded. “She did. That might—“ Her voice caught. “Well, you know. If I hadn’t wandered through the market that day, all those years ago—”

“Yeah,” Owl said, leaning forward and snatching one of the fry jacks out of the box, her hand darting back before Valerie’s halfhearted swat could catch it. “But you did.” She tossed it into her mouth, biting down on the still-warm treat and tasting semi-melted cheese as the fired lump of dough burst. “And I’ll always be glad you did.”

“Me too,” Valerie said, smiling. “Me too. A lot of good’s come of that walk.”

“Even for someone like that woman we found today,” Owl noted. “We saved her. Some other group might not have.”

Valerie nodded, opening the last box to reveal bunch of chips.

“Now that’s American.”

“Chips are global. Not American.”

“They’re absolutely American.”

“Only the same way pizza is,” Valerie countered, sliding the box top across the table and then pulling one of the beers from the bag. “So, find any new rifles you might like?”

“Muhimi’s made a long-range rifle version of their BFG.”

Valerie’s eyes went wide. “You’re joking.”

“Nope. Very prime. Cost a hundred and a half million marks, though.”

“Expensive. But understandable. Are you thinking about getting it?”

“It would be a great pitch for business.”

“Mm-hmm.” Valerie wolfed down a bite of one of her tacos. “So,” she said, speaking with her mouth full. “Did you feel like doing anything tonight?”

Owl shrugged. “Maybe a movie?”

“I could watch a movie. What were you thinking? Something new? Something old?”

Owl shrugged. “Whatever. I just want to unwind.”

“Well, I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but someone made a move about Adah’s stand in Recife.”

Owl sat up. “They what?”

Valerie grinned. “It’s supposed to be really bad. Adah was furious when they found out.”

“She saw it?”

“I think she refused to after the trailer. She mentioned it to me on the firing range.”

“But it’s about her?”

“Yes. And it’s horrid. I checked the reviews.”

Owl grinned in answer to Valerie’s own. “Well, it has been a while since we’ve had time to watch a movie together, just the two of us. Do you remember what it’s called?”

“I think it was Last Stand to the Last Day.”

“That’s an awful title,” Owl said, activating the display and typing it in. The poster came up almost immediately, and she let out a snort. “Is that supposed to be Adah?”

“I think so.”

“That doesn’t look a thing like her! This is awful! No wonder she didn’t see it!”

“So you’re in?”

Owl laughed. “I am so in. We’re watching this now.” A few seconds later the lights dimmed, the movie starting, and she swiped another fry jack from box, once again dodging Valerie’s hand.

My life turned out all right, she thought as they both laughed at the ludicrous display before them.

Maybe that woman’s will too.


 

Thank you for reading Fireteam Freelance! If you’ve comments or concerns, please leave them below! Thank you for reading, and be sure to check out my books for more!

 

Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.

One thought on “Fireteam Freelance – Episode 5: Catch Your Breath

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