Fireteam Freelance Episode 7: Missing Persons

This is Episode 7 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.

Missing Persons

Ursa heard Adah before she saw her. The door to the hell trainer room was open to the rest of the gym, sounds of heavy impacts echoing from inside. Ursa smirked. Of course she is.

She stopped at the doorway, leaning against the frame as she caught sight of Adah’s workout. In the center of a lowered, padded mat Adah was fighting against two combatants, blocking, countering, and attacking whenever she could. Her opponents were quick, but they were taking blows. With a sickening slap, Adah’s fist made it past one’s guard and slammed into its face. The featureless figure flew back, breaking apart into motes of colored light as it did so. A large set of digits on one wall ticked upward.

Forty-six? She’s been going for a while. But … I might as well let her hit a prime fifty. Ursa folded her arms as Adah caught the other assailant, flipping them over her shoulder and headfirst into the mat. They too broke apart, colored motes fading as the number ticked up once more.

Three new attackers materialized at random points on the edges of the mat, two already at a dead run, the last hanging back but clearly moving forward. Adah jumped, flipping as the first two reached her and kicking one of them in the back as she descended. The third moved to kick her as she landed, but she caught the blow, flowing with it and yanking them forward, taking a glancing blow to her shoulder in exchange for delivering a crippling one to her attacker’s throat. She continued forward in the wake of her attack, the hand that had struck the throat wrapping around the back of her assailant’s head and throwing them behind her, where they collided with one of the other attackers, giving Adah time to take up a new defensive stance. The figure she’d struck the throat of faded away as its ally threw it aside, and the final two converged on the woman.

It was over in seconds, the tally on the wall hitting fifty and flashing as the program completed. Adah let out a sigh as she dropped her stance, shaking her arms and flicking sweat across the mat.

“Your doctor approve this kind of exercise so quickly?” Ursa asked, taking a step onto the mat. “Five days ago you had a chunk of metal in your side.” Adah have her a flat look. Not a great sign.

“I’m fine,” Adah said, unwinding the wraps from her hands. “It was just a broken arm and a new scar on my ass. Bone’s healed, and no one’ll ever see the latter.”

“Mom’s not getting grandkids, huh?” Ursa asked with a laugh, only to cut it short as Adah scowled. “Okay, peace,” she said, holding up her hands. “I was just kidding around, Adah. If you’re fine you’re fine.”

“I …” Adah shook her head and let out another sigh. “I’m sorry, Ursa. I didn’t mean to bite your head off. I’m just … Today’s not been good.”

Ursa nodded, then sat down on the mat, crossing her legs. “What’s on your mind?”

“Thanks.” Adah say down a few feet away, tossing her wraps at her feet. “A lot. I spoke with my family last night.”

Oooh. “Bad news?”

Adah nodded. “Yeah.”

“Have to do with all the revolts and everything else going on?”

Again Adah nodded. “Yeah. A few family members have already come back. Hunkering down just in case this all goes …” Adah gave an off-handed wave. “Bad.”

“They ask you to?”

“No,” Adah said, both her response and the shake of her head coming quickly. “No,” she repeated. “They wouldn’t. But they’re not above giving me as much ‘information’ as they can that convinced them to come back.” She let out a scoff. “Some even sent scripture. Thank you, uncle, but I’ve kept up with my reading, and I can make my own conclusions about all this.”

“Sounds like they’re pretty worried.”

“Aren’t you?” Again Adah shook her head. “Sorry, that was harsh. But aren’t you? I am. It’s been what, four weeks since Pisces revolted?”

“Something like that, yeah,” Ursa said, casting her mind back. “I think so.”

“Right. So four weeks now Pisces has been out of UN control. We’ve got revolts on all these other worlds, and despite what UNSEC is saying, we all know they’re lying to us.”

“Like about how Pisces is a lawless anarchy of genocidal violence that they’re going to ‘tame?’” Ursa made quotes in the air with her fingertips. “Yeah, lawless anarchy with genocide doesn’t tend to be stable or put up a fighting resistance that could hold up to fleets like UNSEC has.”

“That’s the other thing,” Adah said, her frown deepening. “Do you know how many ships UNSEC has?”

Ursa paused, thinking. “No …” she admitted after a moment. “The UN releases fleet numbers, but—“

“But everyone knows those are faked,” Adah finished. “My aunt follows an amateur astronomy network that’s all about tracking UNSEC operations around the solar system. She told me that there have been ships arriving for two weeks. More than the UN claims are in system.”

“Sounds like they’re gearing up for a push on Pisces or one of those other worlds that’s still in revolt. Doesn’t do much for their ‘lawless anarchy’ explanation.”

“That’s what my aunt said. She thinks we’re headed for some sort of interstellar war.”

This time it was Ursa’s turn to frown. “Wouldn’t that be a pretty one-sided war? FTL-tech is restricted. Even if the revolt on Pisces somehow had a fleet, they’d have to figure out FTL on their own. Even if they’re holding an FTL ship for that purpose, I think that’d take a while.”

“One-sided war is still a war. All they’d have to do is defend the system. And the planet. You can’t drop onto a planet covered in water the same way you can anywhere else.”

“Good point.”

“But my family is less worried about that and more worried about what’s going to happen here,” Adah continued. “With all those ships in system. And the megacorps and the UN at each other’s throats.” She let out a little laugh. “You know one of them brought up our raid last week? They think it was a bunch of desperate people from inside UAI.”

“The follow-ups have been.”

“Yeah.” Adah’s expression soured. “I didn’t think we were going to inspire copycats.”

“I don’t think it’s our fault,” Ursa countered, leaning forward slightly. “Things just … aren’t great right now. Both sides are looking for excuses.”

“And we gave them one.”

“We’ve probably given them a couple, though I still don’t know why,” Ursa replied. “I’m glad we’re not doing jobs for that client anymore, though. I prefer more normal work.”

“Like whatever Commander Castillo’s got for us right now?”

Ursa winced. “Was it that obvious?”

“Owl came by a few minutes before you did and let me know something was up.” Adah shook her head, rolling her feet and rising up in one smooth motion. “So much for our promise of R&R.”

“We can always turn it down,” Ursa said, pulling her knees together and rising in much the same manner. “I don’t think Castillo would think any less of us. Especially after that last job. We’ve got plenty of cash banked against the future.”

“And there are plenty of other mercs looking to make a mark.” Adah stretched her arms above her head. “So when’s the briefing?”

“There isn’t one.”

“There isn’t?”

“Nope. We’re meeting in Owl’s apartment. Strictly casual.”

“Huh. So Castillo’s either trying to win us over by playing nice, or we’re on a pretty relaxed clock.”

Ursa have Adah a half-smile. “You always this paranoid?”

“Serves us pretty well on missions.”

“We’re on R&R right now.”

“Fair enough. All right, I’ll meet you four there. After I get a shower.”

Ursa nodded and stepped out of the hell trainer, pulling her phone from her pocket as she moved for the exit from the gym. “See you in a bit.”

“Uh-huh.” The reply was almost a grunt, but the conversation was over anyway. Ursa moved toward the elevator, than halfway there changed directions, aiming for the stairs up to the apartments, flicking her display and opening her last message from her parents.

She’d already read it more than once. But one part of it was flashing through her mind, and as she reached the stairwell, she found it again.

Coconut— She smiled at her father’s old name for her. –have you ever thought about leaving Earth? Not to Mars, girl. You know we all love you, but you don’t have to come here. But really, anywhere but Earth. With everything that’s going on out there in the stars, well … Bad things have a way of coming home. And Earth has been home to a lot of bad things for a long time.

Though you do make a good mark fighting them.

She smiled and closed the message, but her smile dropped away not long after. They’re watching, and they’re reading the signs.

Megacorps mobilizing. UN forces securing borders and points of interest. Rebellion on over a dozen worlds. And massacres, she added, recalling some of the “reports” that UNSEC had released in the last week about the worlds that had “returned to humanity’s fold” after “encouragement” from UNSEC forces. I’m pretty sure most revolting colonies wouldn’t slaughter their own civilians like that.

Well, the megacorp ones would. But the only section of space that truly applied to was Hades. Most everywhere else was UN owned. But Hades has a nasty reputation for exactly that reason.

Whatever’s going on with Pisces, they probably started with the right idea, wild claims about aliens or not.

Laughter sounded down the hall as she neared Owl’s apartment. The front door was open, and as she neared the commander’s voice echoed out from within.

“So then, Vick turns to the lieutenant, and in the most deadpan voice imaginable, tells her ‘But sir, you told me that the VTOL needed to be spotless before I could sleep. It’s not spotless yet.’”

“And she got away with that?”

“The lieutenant had been very clear. Spotless. And by that point, Vick had been up for about 47 hours, so it wasn’t hard to point out that she had done exactly as she’d been asked.”

“So what happened to her?” Ursa walked into Owl’s front room just as Anvil finished asking her question.

Castillo smiled. “Well, the colonel sent her straight to bed, and she got to spend the next day resting to make up for it. The lieutenant, however, had to redetail the VTOL by hand, and ended up opting out of renewel when the next option came. They lasted six months.” The commander looked over as Ursa entered the room and held up a drink. “Ursa! Join us! Owl found fresh, real pog juice at one of the stalls today.” She motioned at a jug sitting atop the table between the group, slowly sweating. “It’s good stuff, but save some for Adah.”

“Real pog?” Ursa asked as Anvil moved to one side, making room for her on one of the couched and sliding her an empty glass.

“Real pineapple. Real orange. Real guava,” Owl said tipping her own glass in Ursa’s direction. “It’s not my favorite, but I know you like it.”

Ursa’s only response was to pour a cup and take a long, slow drink. “Yeah,” she said as she lowered her glass. “I do. Who was selling it?”

“Mei,” Owl answered. “Don’t ask how much it cost.”

“I won’t,” Ursa said with a grin. “And Adah’s on her way. She just wanted to shower first.”

“Good. Then we’ve got a minute, maybe two, before she stops us from drinking what’s left of this stuff.” Castillo leaned forward and topped off her own glass. “How’s the family, Ursa?”

“Doing pretty well. They’re suggesting I get off earth, though.”

A few of the smiles around the room faded slightly at her words. The commander leaned back, eyeing her glass and then slowly nodding. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Something about her tone sent little shivers of worry down Ursa’s spine. “Commander?”

Castillo’s response was to take a sip of her drink before replying. “That’s kind of what this meeting is about, Ursa, but …” She shook her head. “Let’s wait until Adah’s here. Anvil, how’s the Abrams?”

“Almost back in one piece,” Anvil said, leaning forward and speaking with her hands. “It’s not completely authentic, but it’s still pretty nice.”

“What’d you have to change?”

“Well, nobody makes Chobham armor anymore, so that was out. But composite isn’t cheap, and while we’re all pretty good for cash I didn’t want to go that far, on it? So I layered some stuff from surplus armored cars and I’m working on a cover that’ll make it look authentic. In a fit of irony, that’ll still make it a little tougher than what it was made with despite being patchwork. They just didn’t have island metals at that time.”

“I changed the engine too. I thought about keeping it the same, using the old turbines, but the cost of fuel just wouldn’t be worth it to me. I had to make some alterations, but it’s running an electric motor now with a bunch of batteries. Again, not authentic, but …” She shrugged. “I can always rig speakers to mimic the old turbines. The place I’ve been following advice from has a couple of rigs that have done that.”

“End result,” she said with a shrug. “It’ll be a lot lighter than a true M1A3, and faster too. Quieter. Plus, the original M1A3 was meant to be crewed by a team of three: Commander, loader, and driver. I’m not three people, so I modernized some things. One person can drive it and run it now. Hell, I even set it up to run on remote.”

“So now what?” Owl asked. “Take it out for a spin?”

“Yeah,” Anvil said, smirking. “I thought I’d do some shopping. Maybe drive it down the market and get more pog.”

Commander Castillo snorted. “That would be amazing. Can you imagine?”

“Oh I can,” Anvil said, laughing. “Roll up one of the old ramps and out into the market, people screaming everywhere. Paps trying to figure out what to do while the treads chew up the pavement.”

“Hey,” Castillo said, sitting up. “Those treads aren’t going to damage the garage, are they?”

“They would, but it’s got rubber guards on. No damage unless it really gets moving, on it.”

“Hello?” There was a knock from the door, Adah poking her head around the corner.

“Owl gave her a wave. “Enter, Adah! Partake of pog, and listen to Anvil’s latest plan to amplify her usual bar antics by rolling the bar over between the treads of her new treads.”

Ursa snorted, almost spilling her drink and bringing up one hand to wipe at her nose as juice burned through it.

“Well I wasn’t thinking about that, but there’s that bar on the shitty side of the city that overcharges all the time. No one would miss them.”

“No,” Castillo said, though her stern look was slightly broken by the smile trying to break free beneath it. “As of right now, that’s an order. You are not to drive your new tank to bars. Old tank, whatever. No tanks to bars. I know it’s technically not mine, but I do not care. I do not want to have to deal with the local paps and city council to try and explain that one to them.”

‘What if it was just one particular—?”

“No. Just no.” The commander was clearly trying not to laugh. “Not going to happen. Nyet. Nein. Bú shì. And every other language you might know or think of.”

Owl frowned, giving the commander an odd look. “But didn’t you once use your VTOL to buzz a local—“

“That story,” Castillo said quickly and with a very straight face. “Is not relevant to our current discussion. “Adah! Have pog!” The commander almost shoved the last cup at the woman as she sat down.

“Wait a moment,” Ursa said. “Yes pog, but what’s this about you and your VTOL?”

“She told me about it once,” Owl said, giving the commander a grin. “Something about a mayor or something who complained about the backwash from their maneuvers—“

“Oh look! All of us are here now!” Castillo sat up straight, almost shouting as she drowned out Owl. “So we need to talk about some important business. And if you really want to hear that story, I’m sure Owl can tell you all later. When I’m not around. Frankly, it’s still embarrassing.”

“May I say something?” Adah asked. “As the sort of not-official-but-kind-of-squad-leader?” Castillo nodded. “If we’re not going to hear it right now, I really do want to know the context.”

“One corrupt politician, a bed full of mistresses, very light curtains and bedsheets, and a pilot with a really good knack at flying low,” Owl said.

“Which you will all discuss at some length, I am sure, at a later time,” Castillo said, spreading her hands and clearing her throat. “But now that Adah is here, we need to talk business.”

“Focusing as ordered, commander,” Owl said with a bright grin.

The commander rolled her eyes but set down her cup. “All right, then let’s begin. As all of you have no doubt guessed, we’ve got a job offer. One which I’ve looked at, rather than simply and immediately reject as I have for the last few days. The only reason I did that, despite my promise of a break to all of you, is because of who it’s from: my old friend.”

“That said,” she continued, leaning forward and resting her arms on her knees. “I’ve only listened to them make their case, and their offer. And I’d be lying if I said the money didn’t catch my attention, but—“

“How much are they offering?” Anvil asked, cutting the commander off.

Castillo sighed. “A hundred million euromarks.”

“Holy shit. What do we have to do? Invade England?”

“I’m not finished,” Castillo said. “We already made twenty million of that. Just for listening to her offer.”

Her? The thought was only slightly behind the stunned realization that whoever this old friend was, they had paid the commander twenty million euromarks just to listen.

“It’s not a tough job,” Castillo continued. “Dangerous, yes, but most of our work is. The conundrum is, in addition to your promised break, this: I’m considering temporarily disbanding the team.”

“What!?” Owl’s shout drowned out the rest of the team, though each of them reacted similarly.

“Easy!” Castillo barked, rising to her feet. “Like I said, temporarily!” She drew the word out. “But hear me out. Ursa!”

Ursa jerked upright at the commanding tone. “Commander?”

“Your family. They’ve asked you to consider laying low, haven’t they?”

She nodded. “They have, commander. Actually, they asked me to consider leaving Earth.”

“Adah,” Castillo continued, turning her focus. “What about your family?”

“They’re hunkering down,” Adah said. “And yes, they suggested we do the same.”

“Anvil?” Castillo’s focus shifted once more. “How much money have you made in the last few weeks?”

“In total? Or minus expenses?”

“Minus official expenses.”

“About forty-one million euromarks.”

“And how long could you live off of that. Comfortably? Without any work at all?”

“Assuming society doesn’t break down completely? A couple of years, easy. Longer if I actually did anything with it.”

“Exactly.” Castillo sat back down. “All of you have that much money right now, unless you have some simply horrific debts I wasn’t made aware of. Enough money that you could live for years, or even buy an off-world ticket. Right now, none of us need to work. And with everything that’s going on right now …” Her voice quieted slightly, and she hung her head. “I’m not sure we should.”

“Castillo?” Owl’s query was quiet but full of emotion.

“Look,” Commander Castillo said, lifting her head once more and looking at each of them. “Things are getting worse, and we all know it. Just today we’ve had three more instances of shots being fired by one side or the other on the hotter borders. Both the UN and the megacorps are moving troops, gearing up for a fight that might never come … or might happen next week. None of us here are strangers to dangerous work, and a war, if it does come to that, will provide plenty of it.”

“At the same time,” she continued. “The way I see it we just got paid very, very well for jobs less risky than most of what we’d get in an actual war. Even if it doesn’t come to that—and I hope it doesn’t, because it’d be bad—we all have enough money that we could just take ourselves off the market and stay neutral as possible until things shake over.”

“I’m not saying you’re cowards,” Castillo added quickly. “Or that you aren’t all capable soldiers. Every one of you is. Just that if we keep this up, the close calls like the one Adah had last week will catch up. And, well …” She swallowed, but didn’t finish her statement.

She didn’t need to. We all know what she wants to say. Any one of us could never come back.

Or all of us. And the commander had already lived through that once.

“Maybe it’s because I’m not—“ Castillo began, but Owl cut her off.

“No,” she said, rising from her seat. “Whatever you were going to say, it’s not because of that.”

“Agreed,” Adah said, nodding. “You’re worried because you care about us as a team. You always have, and you’ve always put us before the money, along with your ideals.”

“At the same time,” Adah continued.  “You’re conflicted because your friend asked for help, and has offered a lot of money, while you want us to be out of the game completely for a little while. Plus, you had told us we were taking a break for a time. That about sum it up?”

Castillo nodded, and then smiled. “It does. Thank you, Owl, Adah.” Owl nodded and sat back down.

“So then,” Ursa said. “What’s the job? If we already got paid, I’d like to at least earn it and hear what you heard.”

The commander nodded, sitting up straight once more. “Very well. It’s a smash-and-grab. Live target.”

“Where?”

“Saint Petersburg.”

The team exchanged worried glances. “That’s core UN territory.”

“I haven’t told you who we’d be abducting yet,” Castillo countered. “Or rather, which targets we’re after. It’s a team. UN wetwork specialists. Six of them.”

Again Ursa saw the team giving one another glances. The hundred million makes sense already.

“Apparently they did a job for the UN that our client wants information on. What information, I don’t know. Something to do with what happened to some of their targets.”

“That’s … risky,” Anvil noted. “They’re not going to want to talk. Those are high-level operatives.”

“Our client thinks they will. And no, they wouldn’t say why.”

“She.”

“Pardon?” Castillo looked over at Adah.

“You said ‘she’ earlier,” Adah said, folding her arms. “Your old friend is a woman.”

“I … Fine. She is. And she thinks that if we can bag one of them for her, they’ll talk.”

“Then what?”

“Well, death probably. I’ve seen their dossiers. They’re not good people. And that’s the stuff we can extrapolate. To our advantage, however, is that our client assures us they won’t see us coming. Whatever this last job was, it bought them all leave in Saint Petersburg. We drop in, we grab one of them, we get out. Our client gets to have her interrogation, we get paid.”

“Then we take a break,” Anvil added.

“Then we take a break, if you’re all in agreement with it.”

“And we’d do this job as us?” Ursa asked.

“Unmarked, but no false flag. Even if they do ID us, we’d be under contract. A job like this would fall in favor of our license anyone contested it.”

“Smash and grab in Saint Petersburg. Huh.” Ursa took a sip of her pog. Never actually seen the place, but … It was massive, she knew that much. The center of the UN’s space engineering industry. Or at least, the ground-based components of it, like the offices. But even before mankind had swarmed space the city had been and economic hub. The place is vertical. Really vertical.

Lot of places to hide. But then, that would be no different than a bounty hunt.

“That’s a big place,” Anvil said. “Went there once. Lotta people, lotta big buildings. Lotta places to hide, on it? How’re we going to find them?”

“Our client said they’d get us full access to the city’s public networks,” Castillo responded. “Access they already have, as they’ve been tracking our targets for three days now. They’ll be able to guide us right to them. And they’re on leave, so we’ll have a force advantage.”

“They’ll be on their home turf though,” Owl added. “Deep in UN territory. That means enforcers once we draw any sort of attention to ourselves.”

“But if we go in hot, the only advantage they’ll have is numbers.”

“And information. They’ll be able to track us just as well.”

“Maybe our client can cut us out? Give us a blackout for a brief period?”

“There’s always dead zones. Even in the UN. There’s always some place for people who want to be off -camera for a little bit of business.”

“I can check with the client, but if the risk there, I would imagine, is that if we have to vanish from the grid that probably involves taking our target off of it too. Like taking the whole grid down. I’ll still ask though.”

“Do we have names on any of these targets? Dossiers?”

“No. Just their occupation. She gave me information about the mission, but just enough to know what we’d be getting into. Not a full read.”

“We also need to know how fast she’d want this done, on it?”

“Tomorrow.”

“That’s quick.”

“But not out of character for everything else we’ve done these last few weeks,” Ursa pointed out. “That said … it’s risky, but doable, and that extra twenty or so million marks would go a long way to stretching out our budgets for the next year.” Plus I could send some of it to Mars. Hell, I could take it to Mars!

“That’s one for,” the commander said, eyeing the rest of the group. “I suggest we make this decision unanimous.”

“I’m in,” Anvil said, slapping the top of the table and grinning. “Been a while since I’ve seen Saint Petersburg, and a chance to shoot it up sounds nice.”

“That’s two, with obvious request for oversight.”

“I wouldn’t just shoot anything, on it? Just the stuff that needs it.”

“ And we only need one of the six?” Owl asked.

“Alive, but yes.”

“Very well. I see success well within our capabilities. I cast my voice in favor.”

All eyes turned to Adah. “Boss?” Anvil asked. “What do you think?” Adah stayed silent, but it was almost impossible not to see the thought going on behind her eyes.

With everything her family said to her, she’s probably weighing this very carefully.

Several seconds passed, but then Adah broke her silence. “I say we do it. But after that, I agree with the commander. There’s a time to keep our heads down, and we’re all wealthy enough to do so for quite some time if we’re careful. Work might be plentiful right now, but we’re better off waiting or laying low until things settle. So one last mission.”

“All right.” Commander Castillo rose from her seat. “I’ll go let the client know we’re taking the job—provided she agrees to our conditions. Which means—“

“We need to meet you at the briefing room,” Owl said, pausing to throw her head back and empty her glass.

“Start looking at possible venues into and out of the city so we can find routes to our target.”

“Figure out loadouts,” Ursa added. “We’re bagging someone live. We’ll need capture gear.”

“Excellent.” The commander gave each of them a nod. “Ladies, I’ll see you in the briefing room.” She turned and left the room.

“Bring the pog,” Adah said, rising from her seat. “This is going to be busy.”

*             *             *

“So many people live in Saint Petersburg anyway?”

Ursa looked up, away from the Rezzer she’d been carefully cleaning to pass the time. Anvil stood in the middle of the VTOL, the last bit of her exosuit having just gone into place, her focus on the projection of the city floating a few feet away.

“About seventy-five to eighty million,” Owl answered without looking up. She was sitting in her seat, her body still and motionless. Ursa could almost imagine the woman’s eyes being closed. “Official estimates vary due to the number of undocumented living in the undercity.”

“That bit’s weird too,” Anvil replied, rotating one shoulder but still staring at the image of the city. “Undercity. It sounds like something from a Sci-Fi novel.”

“Hey, it fits,” Ursa said, snapping a piece of her Rezzer back into place and nodding at the display. “If you’ve got an overcity and a midcity, then there’s got to be something under that.”

“Fair enough, on it? But who designs a city like that?” Anvil asked, waving a hand at the display. “Even I can tell you that’s going to make problems.”

“No argument there,” Ursa said as her own eyes flicked over the city. It was an odd design. Like someone had built plates around the tops and middles of a bunch of squat, short megascrapers and then linked them together.

“Antoine Archalov,” Adah said from her spot at the front of the aircraft. “Proposed the design in 2053. Historically, Saint Petersburg had a law against tall buildings due to the historical nature of much of the city. But Archalov found a way around that restriction that still let the city grow: He proposed lifting the historical sites atop the megascrapers that would be built. Hence the wide, flat tops they all share—each is topped by one of these ancient historical sites, such as the Hermitage Museum or the famous Palace Square.”

“Wait, is that why they’re all so squat?” Anvil asked.

“No. They’re just old. Saint Petersburg’s megascrapers were some of the first ever built. That’s why they have the wider base relative to the top. They could have gone higher, but Archalov and the city wanted to preserve the heritage. The middle layers were added when they realized that due to the design concessions of the top layers, they could add a wider ‘belt’ around the middle that could compliment the upper levels.”

“It’s eye-catching,” Ursa said. “I’ll give it that.” She eyed the display for a moment. “Are the middle belts at different heights in some cases because of some external factor?”

“Sunlight, I think, relative to the structural diameter of the building they’re placed on.”

“Did it work?” Anvil asked. “I mean, I want to guess ‘no’ because I’ve never seen anyone else try it.”

“And you’d be right,” Adah said, rising from her seat. “It didn’t. It remains a unique architectural achievement, but in actual practice once enough people moved in the results were less than ideal. The upper levels aren’t so bad, but the lower levels didn’t work as well as they’d hoped, and the undercity is quite obviously a pit that doesn’t get much light.”

Ursa frowned. “Modern metropolises don’t have that problem, do they?”

“No,” Adah said. “They don’t. They learned from Saint Petersburg. Airflow, weather patterns, stuff like that. But the city is flush with cash and no one really wants to tear any of the megastructures down to rebuild them while they’re occupied, so for now it stays. If the climate control systems in the lower levels go inactive, though, supposedly things get pretty active.”

Adah stepped through the display, colored bits of light scattering around her and then reforming in her wake. “With luck, though, we won’t see any of the lower levels on this trip.”

“Likely not.” Commander Castillo’s voice echoed through the cabin. “Just had word from the client. She’s tracking three of our targets heading to the same club they hit the last two nights. They should be there by the time we arrive.”

Ursa smiled. “Perfect. Route A then?”

“I think so,” Adah replied. “As long as our commander can get us to the drop point.” She glanced up at the ceiling, as if the commander were above them rather than in the cockpit.

“So far so good,” Castillo replied. “The transport we’re tailing hasn’t noticed us. It should take us right past the drop point. Just be ready to jump. Two minutes.”

Ursa nodded, snapping the last piece of her Rezzer into place and giving the weapon a final once-over.

“Alright ladies!” Adah said as the lights inside the VTOL shifted into red. “Two minutes out, so last minute checks. Gear, ammo, grenades … Whatever you got, make sure it’s what you’ve got!”

Ursa nodded and began looking over her gear. Most of her compliment hadn’t changed, though she’d taken the liberty of painting her gear black like the rest of her armor. It wasn’t a great color for camouflage, but there was a definite meaning behind it.

Get out of our way, she thought as she drew her slugger, checking to make sure she’d loaded it with stun rounds. The shots were low-impact and non-lethal, discharging a capacitor through hollow, pinprick needles when they struck a target as well as pumping them full of disabling drug. First they went down to electric shocks, and by the time the shock had worn off the drug would be well into the target’s system.

Zip-cuffs, flashbangs … She even drew her knife, eyeing the long serrated blade and then slipping it back into its sheath. With luck, the only use she’d have for it would be to cut through any locks she couldn’t just rip open, but one never knew.

She checked over her armor next, making certain that each thruster was secure and that sahe was properly synced to their comm net, fully primed for the mission ahead. The last thing she did was sync her tactical map, making sure to give both it and her guidance system a location on the edges of her vision. Don’t want to get lost.

“One minute.”

Her check complete, she looked over at Adah and nodded. Adah returned the motion, and Ursa moved aft, toward the rear hatch.

“Ready.” A moment later Owl stepped up alongside her.

“Switch to comms now. All externals off.”

Ursa tapped at her suit controls. There wasn’t any immediate noticeable difference, but now her voice wouldn’t be transmitted through her helmets speakers unless she directed it to. Silent warrior time. She grinned. In and out. Heavy footsteps marked Anvil’s approach as she moved up behind them.

“Team ready to drop,” Adah said.

“Thirty seconds out,” Castillo said. “Popping the rear hatch.” A second later the interior lights went out, Ursa’s visor shifting automatically to color enhancement modes. Then the sound of ragged wind filled the cabin as the rear hatch began to drop, faint light spilling in, blues and reds, bright colors of a city all around them.

Drop zone C, Ursa recalled from the decision the team had made the day before. Middle-level of the megascraper our targets are inside. Her hud began to flash, warning her that her jump was imminent.

It wouldn’t be a long drop. They were already below the tops of the nearby megascrapers, making it look like the Stalker had flown down a bright, neon metal canyon of some kind and gotten lost. Giant billboards played news reels or advertised products, their projections smiling and waving as they shilled products. The Stalker passed by them like a whisper. Anyone who noticed their passage would simply assume they were an escort for the transport they were shadowing. Or, if they looked a little more closely, probably duck their head down and walk swiftly in another direction.

“Fifteen seconds.” The city around them tilted slightly as they rounded the corner of a megascraper. The middle plate around the structure’s middle was visible below them, though only just.

Bit of a drop.

“Ten seconds. Drop zone coming up.” A notification popped up just below the center of her vision, transparent but a very clear and distinct yellow.

“Ten seconds.”

And the wait always feels longer. The VTOL straightened out. Another aircraft flew past above going the opposite direction. Off to her right she spotted a train rolling past on a rail system connecting the megascrapers and traveling through them.

“Five seconds.”

People and cars, out even this late. She could see them maneuvering through the lanes of traffic atop the middle level. Clearly someone had tried to lay things out there like a more traditional suburb, complete with small parks and plaza squares … though the parks looked half-dead, which spoiled the effect a little.

“Clear for jump!” The yellow marker on the middle of her visor flashed green, and Ursa surged forward, taking several steps down the ramp and throwing herself out the back of the VTOL. She spread her arms and legs quickly, faint puffs of air from her thrusters stabilizing her fall and eliminating any awkward tumble. Even through the seals of her suit she could hear air hissing over her armor plates, like the breath of the earth swelling around her.

She was falling on target, her visor marking their chosen landing zone and guiding her toward it. A wind-power substation, a small cluster of slowly-rotating vertical blades feeding off the currents of the chasms, built before fusion power had taken over but still functioning decades later.  The thrusters in her arms fired, rotating her slightly as the ground swept up. The landing zone itself was only a few meters across, an empty space left by the removal of an old power control station for a newer, smaller one. It wasn’t much. But from such a low height, they didn’t need much.

She tucked her legs together, her body rotating as the open patch neared. Thirty meters. Twenty. Ten. Her thrusters fired, the world around her slowing. A second later she hit, the impact no more dangerous than if she’d been wearing a full parachute. A matching hiss and impact to her left marked Owl’s landing, followed by two more in quick succession—Anvil and Adah.

“Contact,” Adah said over the comms. Owl was already moving toward the fence around the substation, a quick hop carrying her over it. “We’re on the ground and moving out.”

“Copy that. I’ll wait for your signal. Good hunting.”

Ursa glanced back at the sky, but the VTOL was already gone, though she could see one or two civilian models slowly passing between the buildings. The lights and advertisements all across the surrounding metal walls gave her black armor a bluish sheen, and she paused as she noted the giant sign proclaiming the structure the headquarters of the AT-Orbital Manufacturing Industries Corporation.

A very polite way to say they build spaceships, Ursa noted before turning and following in Owl’s wake. Mostly warships.

“Found the maintenance entrance,” Owl said. A moment later there was a sharp pop from ahead of the team. “Just a padlock. We’re in.” She came into view a moment later, crouched by a small hatch in the metal “ground.” Light spilled out as she opened it up, dingy and dim, and a second later Owl dropped through the opening.

Ursa followed, pressing her shoulders together but still scraping against the sides as she landed next to Owl. “This thing looked taller on the map,” she said as she rose partway, stopping with her head just shy of the ceiling. “How long are we going to be in this thing?”

“About a half a klick.”

“Lovely.” She moved to the side, Adah dropping in behind her and making space for Anvil, who like her scraped the sides of the hatch as she moved in, metal squealing against her plates.

“All right,” Adah said as Anvil reached up and closed the hatch, cutting off the outside world and leaving their only illumination the dingy, dusty LEDs of the tunnel. “Checking  and … targets are still on the way to the club. Let’s get moving.”

The team complied, Owl jogging down the passage with the rest of them following. From time to time the top of Ursa’s helmet scraped against the ceiling, and a similar sound from further back told her she wasn’t the only one having the issue.

“For once I’m kind of glad to be the short one,” Owl muttered after the third or fourth instance. Ursa rolled her eyes but didn’t respond.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to move through it for long. Ahead of her, Owl slowed and then stopped as the passageway met another running perpendicular to it. She turned left, vanishing from sight, her voice coming across the comms a second later.

“Found it! Elevator maintenance access, level 326. Right where it’s supposed to be.” Ursa stepped around the intersection see Owl peeling back a metal hatch, bending the metal like it was cardboard. From beyond it came faint, shrill hums and rushes of air as things sped past. Elevator cars.

“Anvil, you’re up.”

Ursa moved past Owl, her back scraping the concrete walls of the tunnel and making space for Anvil. Anvil poked her upper body through the opening, head twisting as she looked in multiple directions. A few seconds later there was an “Aha!” and she pulled herself back, drawing her knife.

“You find it?” Adah asked.

“Yeah. In a weird spot, on it, but it’s definitely the maintenance controls. Now, if I just pop this here …” The faint snap of an electrical discharge sounded from inside the shaft. “Still got it!” She pulled herself out of the hatch, sliding her knife back into its sheath. “That is a lot easier when you’re wearing a grounded exosuit. Car’s on its way, on it!”

“Neat trick,” Ursa said as Anvil leaned partway back out of the passage. “How’s it work again?”

“Maintenance panels can call cars so they can be worked on, looked at, used, whatever,” Anvil said, her head still through the hatch. “Of course, if you push the button, it makes a flag. Pretty obvious when a button is pushed. But if you peel the metal around the edge back and trip one of the circuits behind the button, the system flags the button as having been pushed, but then depressed a moment later. Puts it down to a short, but the elevator still comes. And,” she said, squeezing her armored form through the hatch. “We get a ride to a floor near our destination without anyone knowing about it.”

“No one’s ever bothered to fix it?” Owl asked, following Anvil through. From the look of it, the hatch let her crawl onto a catwalk of some kind.

I hope that metal’s sturdy.

“If it ain’t broke, on it? One short every once in a while isn’t that big a deal. Send someone down, maybe have them swap a breaker out. Elevator still works. It just makes a random stop somewhere before leaving again.”

“And,” Anvil finished as Ursa crawled through the hatch. “If that hadn’t worked, we’d just press the button. Leaves a bit of a trace, but …” She was leaning out over a low railing and around what had to be track for the car, looking down a shaft that stretched on, Ursa knew, for over a mile. “Not like they can stop us. Car’s almost here. Remember, walk onto it so we don’t trip the brakes and hang on. Brace your feet. We won’t have any gravitics when it takes off or stops.”

Across the open shaft another elevator car shot past with an electric whine, so quick it would have been past had she blinked at the wrong moment. Another shot past opposite their own position, descending down into the depths of the structure.

“Here it comes …” The elevator arrived just moments after Anvil had spoken, coming to a quick stop in front of them, roof level with the catwalk. “Go!” She was already stepping forward as she spoke, over the railing and onto the car. Ursa followed, the elevator not even moving under their feet.

“Now hang on,” Anvil said, bending down and grabbing a crosspiece on the top of the elevator with one hand. “Because when it starts—“

Ursa felt her weight suddenly triple as the elevator took off, rising into the sky like a rocket.

“Yeah, that, on it?” Anvil said as the elevator ascended up the shaft, wind whipping over them. “Be glad this building’s so old. If it were a newer one, this shaft would be a vacuum and we’d all be sealed.”

“How many times did you do this as a kid?” Ursa asked, bracing one foot against a crosspiece and using her elbows to lock her hands against another.

“Enough.” Anvil let out a laugh as the elevator continued up, floors whizzing past.

“How’d you not fly off?” Owl asked.

“We had these little homemade magnetic vests, on it? You’d lock ‘em on the roof of the elevator. That club was on level 576, right?”

“Yes.”

“Getting close. Anyway, it was still a pretty rough ride. Lot of us lost teeth, broke bones, but … you do what you gotta do, on it?”

Ursa caught sight of large set of stenciled letters flashing by on the wall. Level 500. They were almost at the top. The megascraper they were in was only 600 stories and some extra tall. Short compared to many of the thousand-plus, more modern behemoths, but they’d been an achievement at the time.

“Everybody brace,” Anvil warned. “This tends to be really—“

A tremendous force seemed to wrench Ursa up, her feet and hands sliding even against all the force she was exerting on them. Owl actually lifted off, letting loose a curse as she lifted into the air. She still, however, managed to land gracefully and with almost no noise.

“Go!” Anvil was already moving for a nearby catwalk like the one they’d left behind, though it was a little above their position. She jumped, swinging her exosuit over the railing with ease. Ursa pushed herself up, following in the woman’s wake and landing atop the catwalk with a faint clang, Adah landing beside her. Owl was the last to arrive. Barely a second after she’d touched down atop the catwalk, the elevator shot upward once more, accelerating up the shaft to its destination.

“And that’s how you do it,” Anvil said, both hands on her hips, visor tilting back as she watched the car speed out of sight. “And only two floors below our target, too.”

“That’s pretty good?” Adah asked.

Anvil let out a laugh. “Are you kidding? Couldn’t do it without augs. Without ‘em, it’d be lucky to get within a dozen floors.” She turned and drove one hand into the nearby access hatch, the thin metal squealing as it crumpled beneath her fingers, and then screaming as she ripped it aside completely, exposing a dimly-lit maintenance tunnel not unlike the one so many stories below.

Except shorter, Ursa noted with a scowl as she stepped into it, her head and shoulders hunched until they were almost tucked into her chest. Owl was already leading the way, Adah feeding the rest of them an adjusted route. There was little to do but follow.

“How are our targets?” she asked as Owl led them to a ladder set against the wall and began to climb.

‘All three are in the club now. Doesn’t look like any of them are going for the special packages yet.”

“Shame. It’s way easier to nab someone naked and in the middle of someone. Or several someones.”

“Yeah, on it? It’s pretty easy to get a stunner shot into someone’s bare ass.” Anvil’s chuckled echoed across the comms. “And they’re so shocked they don’t even react half the time. You just burst in and bang, down they go.”

“Literally.”

“Did Owl just make a joke?”

“It happens from time to time.”

Ursa stepped off the ladder onto the next level. The ceiling in the new passage was higher, giving her enough space to stand upright. It was also wider, and it wasn’t hard at all to see why. The metal floor had been worn down by decades of tires rolling past. Maintenance carts, probably. Or stocking.

And Owl was already leading the way, moving down the hall with a clear goal in mind. A moment later the map on her hud had caught up, and she could see where Owl was moving toward: the underlevels of the same club their targets were currently occupying.

 

She drew her Slugger, thumbing the safety as they moved down the corridor. Let’s hope there’s no one down here at the moment, or they’re going to have a very bad night. Ursa and Owl had drawn their own pistols as well, at the ready now that their target was so close and there was a chance of being discovered.

Or just stumbling onto some poor janitor, Ursa thought as Owl reached a plain-looking metal door that had to be the entrance to the club. It was flanked by a small, grey panel—security access point for employees. Owl simply stiffened her fingers, drove them through the hollow metal surface of the door with a faint crunch, and ripped the lock out. A second later the door was open, Owl stepping through with her pistol up. Anvil followed, and then it was Ursa’s turn, just in time to hear someone begin to say something in a language she couldn’t identify that cut off too soon to matter.

Inside the door she could hear the faint thump of the club’s speakers, the sound too muffled by baffles to make out any detail. She could also see the source of the sudden voice: A worker in a jumpsuit with his hands in the air, standing next to a mostly-full bin of garbage.

Owl motioned with the barrel of her pistol, the man nodding and stepping over to the wall, putting his hands next to an exposed pipe. A moment later Ursa had cuffed the man’s hands to it, and she tapped her visor where her mouth would have been, giving the man a nod. He nodded back, his lips pressed into a thin, terrified line.

Stay quiet or we’ll shoot you. And the worker had no way of knowing exactly what their guns were loaded with. Only that they’d already been lenient by not simply opening fire.

They moved  deeper into the underbelly of the club, the heavy thumps from above increasing in volume. The layout was simple but adequate, mostly given over to supplying the needs of the club—something which, Ursa noted, required both a laundry and linen service and what looked like a large supply of legal drugs.

There was a break room as well, but it was unoccupied at the moment, and they moved on.

“Stairs,” Owl said, gesturing to a nearby doorway and the small safety placard next to it. She hit the door first, using her shoulder to nudge it open and keeping her gun at the ready.

The thumping, pounding beat from above was louder in the empty stairwell, shifting more toward something recognizable as they ascended. What exactly, Ursa couldn’t tell. Neo-pop-opera? But no, that didn’t fit the type of club they were in. Maybe REO-Dance? Or something new that some DJ’s system had thrown together. There was a lot of music out there to pick from.

The door at the top of the steps was heavily padded, and Owl stopped in front of it, carefully easing one of her snake-like camera wires through the gap. “Looks like the back of house for the club,” she said. “Sound baffles, some equipment, cabinets, a sink. No people, but there’s a doorway that probably leads to the bar. And another set of stairs heading up.  Nice ones.”

Managers, probably. Or backstage staff, given the kind of club this is.

“There’s a door to the main floor, though. Just to the right.”

“Excellent,” Adah said. “All three of our targets are still on the main floor. One’s over by the bar—“ A live feed popped up in the corner of Ursa’s visor, highlighting a man sitting with his back to the crown nursing a drink. Sitting alone, she noted, but not unaware. Not from the way he was holding himself.

“—one at one of the tables—“ A second image popped up, highlighting a woman with closely-cropped blue hair spiking her drink a drug of some kind, probably blissed. “—and then this one perusing the wares.” The last feed was of a younger man flipping through a holo-display, slightly blurred for security purposes but not enough that it wasn’t obvious they were selecting a partner for the evening. Or several.

“All right, boss. What’s the plan?” Anvil asked.

“We only need one of them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take our pick,” Adah replied. “We’ve got the advantage of numbers, so let’s see if we can take all three. Anvil, you wait by the door to the bar, and the moment we move, blast through and grab the drinker. I’ll move for the one taking blissed with their drink. Ursa, see if you can nab the one making his purchases. Owl, fan out and move to assist where needed. Everyone got it?” There was a chorus of acknowledgements, and then Owl opened the door.

Pistol low. With luck, most of the crowd won’t notice us as we move through, Ursa thought as she moved out with the group, three of them heading for the door to the dance floor. The music shifted as she moved past the baffles, growing much louder and more distinct, though still not entirely familiar.

“Go.”

Owl pushed the door open, and the three of them moved out into the club itself, a whirlwind of sound and light sweeping across them like a storm as they left the coverage of the baffles behind. Bass-lines pulsed to a beat she could feel in her bones, a slowing and speeding cadence mirrored in reverse by the pulsing lights set up around the edges of the room. Holo-displays flashed, featuring closeups of gyrating bodies set to the music, interspaced with flashes of the club’s name and a logo that had to be the current DJ’s.

Several people who had been dancing nearby turned and stared at the three of them as they began to walk through the club, a few looking surprised, but a few even looking amazed or happy to see them. One staggered as their sloppy dancing and lack of focus threw them off balance, bumping into their fellow and drawing out laughter. Others didn’t even notice, no more than they noticed her as she began to weave her way through the thick crowd toward the other side of the club. There was a raised stage in the middle of the dance floor, speakers pumping out music from beneath and a trio of shapely dancers shaking away atop it. She lost sight of Adah and Owl as she moved around the right side of the crowd, both of them breaking left.

Gene-mods, she thought, glancing at the trio of dancers, all of whom sported some very obvious non-human features. No way her legs are that long naturally.

Then again, the cat ears and the bushy tail aren’t exactly natural either. Doesn’t that thing get hot?

She could see her target now, laughing as he swiped at the display and nursing a bottle of something in one hand. Nice and easy, she thought, moving through the crowd with a bit of a slouch to her shoulders and taking care to step around clumps of dancers rather than just stride straight through. The crowd was starting to thin as she neared the edges of the dance floor, making it easier to pick up speed.

“You there!” The lead dancer pointed a clawed finger right at her, eyes all across the club looking right at her. “Cool shit, but this isn’t a costume party! And how’re you gonna—“

Whatever the dancer was going to say next was lost to Ursa’s focus as her target looked up from his display. His eyes went wide as she bolted forward, but he was already spinning launching himself for a nearby set of stairs that led up to the balcony.

Someone screamed as she threw herself over a nearby table, jumping for the steps and slamming into the railing halfway up, one groping hand just narrowly missing her quarry’s shirt. She caught the backside of the railing with it instead, lifted her pistol with her other hand …

And a trio of shots slammed into her shoulder and head, all of them thankfully hitting her plating, but knocking her aim askew enough that her single shot caught a stunned bystander in the chest rather than her target, dropping them to the ground.

The club had erupted in chaos, but she zoned it out, flipping herself up and over the railing as her target vanished around a bend at the top of the steps.

You can’t outrun me, she thought as she reached the top of the stairs, cutting around the still twitching patron she’d incapacitated and scattering glassy-eyed patrons who’d finally figured out what was going on. You’re augmented, but I’m in a skinsuit and armor while you’re—

Really fast. She almost fired as her target vanished around another corner, but saved her shot, tearing off after him instead and passing through a curtain of beads and hard light.

Guess I know what section this is, she thought, noting the thick carpet and sudden abundance of doorways. Still— One of the doors opened, a head poking out and then retreating as they caught sight of her all-black armored form. –you can’t outrun—wait.

She rounded the corner just in time to see her target slam through an emergency fire exit, her shot bouncing off of the metal door with a ping. A fire escape. Of course. Alarms had joined the screams and panic from the club below now, lights flashing in reaction to the door having been opened.

She hit it at a run, the metal buckling as she smashed it aside and slamming into an otherwise undistinguished hallway. Which way did he—there! She caught sight of the man’s form passing through another doorway, probably to a public concourse. He’s fast, but we’ve got—

“Shit. Guys, I think my guy just cracked a cyanide tooth.”

Or not. She pumped her arms, sprinting down the hall and slamming through the door her quarry had just passed through. People screamed as the door slammed open, revealing an internal concourse with dimmed, night-time lighting. And rushing away from her, past storefronts closed and open, was her target, sprinting for all he was worth, but moving through the crowd with an ease she couldn’t hope to replicate even out of her armor.

Civilians fell back as she rushed forward, shouting and screaming but still not quick enough, forcing her to dodge body after body least she slam into one and kill them from the force of impact alone. She fired, sending two shots into the ceiling and knocking out one bank of LEDs, and the screams grew louder. At the same time, however, it did call the attention of those that hadn’t seen her yet, sending them surging away from her.

Except for a duo of security officers, rushing in her direction, both drawing their weapons. Singled out amongst the crowd they were easy targets, especially when one of them slowed and held up their hand as a sign for her to stop, the other on a PDS. She fired twice, catching one of them in the palm and the other in the flesh of his arm. Both went down like first time fighters, spasming as she ran past.

Up ahead her quarry was still moving through the crowd, rushing toward the massive windows that made up one wall of the concourse. Or rather, heading for—

Of course. The elevators. She slowed, raising her Slugger and taking aim as her quarry shoved a collection of people exiting out …

And then he was gone, the doors sliding shut and the elevator shooting downward.

“Shit!” She slowed, eyeing the nearest board, but the next elevator wasn’t expected for at least a minute. He could be long gone by then. “My target’s in an elevator. Going down.”

“Ursa, we need him. One target is down, the other is having a bad reaction to whatever drugs she took mixed with the stunner. We need yours, and we need him fast. Security alerts have already been sent out: peacekeepers and building security are on their way. We’re moving for the D-evac.”

Shit shit shit! She spun, taking a quick look around. How am I supposed to get down? By the time I board another elevator or find a private one …

She paused for a brief instant. That could work.

She launched herself forward once more, noting another pair of security officers running in her direction as she barreled across the concourse, late night shoppers screaming as they scattered around her.

“Adah, I’m going to need to know what level he’s getting off on or where he’s headed!” Her Slugger snapped back into place against her hip as she picked up speed. “He’s in an elevator on the south side of the building, car … two! Dropping fast!”

“I’ve got him,” Adah replied as Ursa drew her Rezzer. “But he’s already fifty floors down and there isn’t a car—“

“Just get ready for a messy evac!” She could see people staring at her in shock as they realized what she was about to do. I’d be staring myself.

She fired, the Rezzer kicking in her hands. Ahead of her, the massive pane of glass that gave the concourse its view of world rippled as her shots slammed into it, chipping the glass. She fired again, and again, watching as the chips widened into cracks, the whole window bowing more and more until—

She threw herself into the glass, feeling it bend, flex, and at last shatter, breaking apart with a howling of wind as she ripped free into the open air, dropping down the side of the building.

But only for a few seconds. The sloped side of the megascraper rose to meet her back, and the she was sliding down the glass exterior, wind howling around her and bits and pieces of the shattered wind cascading with her down through the night.

Despite everything, she grinned. This. Is. Awesome! The glass surface shrieked as she slid down it, but there was no doubt that she was picking up speed, barreling toward the mid-plate at high speed.

Not that it was a clear path all the way down. She fired her thrusters, shoving herself to one side as a data relay poked through the exterior, then back to dodge another. “Adah, I’m on my way down. Just tell me what level he stops at.”

“I think he’s headed for the plate,” Adah said. “Or rather, the level above it. There’s a transport station there, and—“

“I see it.” The rail poked above the plate, cutting across the gap between megascrapers, one of many that wound through the city. “Let me know if that’s his target, I—“

A blur of familiar lights caught her focus, and she bit back a curse. “Keep me updated, I might be busy.” A peacekeeper VTOL swung through the air in her direction, side doors open and armored figures leaning out.

Her Rezzer was still in her hands, and as the VTOL swooped closer to her rapidly descending position, she opened fire, aiming for the open side door. The shot was ineffective, but it had the intended effect. The VTOL broke off, unwilling to risk engaging such an unusual target.

“He’s stopped at the station level,” Adah’s voice informed her. “He’s headed for the train.” Ursa glanced down at the swiftly approaching mid-plate and the rail moving past above it. “Train’s already moving. He jumped aboard just before it left.”

Which means … Damnit I wish I had a camera! She fired her thrusters again, sliding diagonally across the side of the building. Toward the elevated rail where it jutted out of the structure. “What car is he in? Counting from the front!”

“Seven? Maybe eight! He was moving forward.”

The rail was rushing toward her now, growing closer and closer as she neared the mid-plate. If that train doesn’t pick up speed fast enough …

A second later the engine swept out of the opening, followed by each car behind it.

Now! She jumped, pushing herself away from the wall and firing her thrusters to kill her speed. Her feet hit the roof of the train first, denting the metal and sending her tumbling backwards across the roof of the car. She slammed her fingers down, digging them into the thin metal and catching purchase, bringing her to a halt.

“Ursa, you’re not going to catch—Are you on the roof?”

“Busy.” She pushed herself back up, hunched against the wind as the train picked up speed. It didn’t need to be too fast, give than the gap between the megascrapers wasn’t too wide, but it was fast enough that she could feel the winds pressing against her.

Or maybe that’s just the weather patterns between the buildings, she thought as a gust rocketed into her from the side. Now, if he’s in car eight, and that’s the engine … She counted back to her position. Five!

She turned, glancing back down the train. Six, seven! He was only two cars back. Or maybe three. Better yet, there were two emergency exit hatches on the top of each car. If he thinks he’s safe … She began to work her way back, keeping her body low to offset the buffeting winds from every angle. A sudden gust caught her from the side as the train moved off of the plate, out into the empty space between the megascrapers, and she crouched lower, her feet slipping slightly on the metal but then catching.

I need both hands. She docked her Rezzer on her back, crouching even lower, and then resumed moving down the train’s roof, almost on all fours. One more car.

A sudden roar alerted her to the return of the peacekeeper VTOL, rising up from below, and she locked her feet, looking over in alarm—only to feel surprise as the VTOL orbited around the track instead, dropping into a holding position adjacent to a car three carriages down. So close its port engine was practically pressed against the side of the train.

What are they—?

The aircraft’s side-door opened, and she understood just moments before a familiar figure jumped across the gap, outstretched arms of peacekeepers catching him and helping him inside.

No. You don’t get away that easy. Before she’d almost realized what she was doing she’d risen to her full height, drawing her knife and running down the roof of the train with the wind at her back. The world seemed to slow as she leapt out into the void, surrounded by bright, neon advertisements and empty sky.

Then her feet slammed into the top of the VTOL, and she rolled, bringing her knife down as hard as she could and feeling it bite into the aircraft’s armor. With a jerk that make her arm shout in protest, she came to a stop.

Only for the VTOL to buck beneath her like a wild horse, rolling and spinning to try and throw her off. With a sickening lurch her knife gave—only a single inch, but more than enough for her other hand to flail for anything it could catch.

Where did I land? It was hard to get her bearings with the aircraft trying to throw her off, but the fingers of her free hand found a small ledge in the metal and locked into it, steadying her position.

The wing. She was lying atop one of the stubby wings that graced the VTOL’s body, her knife dug into the middle and her other hand wrapped around the forward edge. And right next to her—

An engine!

“Adah, I’m going to need a pickup at the bottom.” She pulled herself up onto her knees, twisting her knife and locking it into the metal. VTOLs are pretty sturdy. And he’s augmented. He’ll survive this.

She shoved the barrel of her Rezzer into the intake and fired.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then a faint, shrill whine began to build alongside the normal sound of the engine. A moment later it became a howl, and then the engine exploded, jagged bits of metal and composite flying up and out of the intake, backed by fire and smoke.

The VTOL lurched to one side as the engine tore itself apart, the other engine screaming in protest and trying to hold the aircraft aloft. And failing. Her gut lifted as they began to fall, the pilot’s attempts to fix their descent doing little other than putting them into a tilted, angular spin, the world outside her visor a smear of color as they spun faster and faster and faster. It slowed as the automated systems kicked in, control fins and smaller thrusters kicking all over the VTOL as it tried to bring itself out of its spin.

Then the tail clipped against the side of the megascraper, and what little control the aircraft had regained vanished as it tilted forward, its spin turning into a tumble. Ursa’s legs lifted free, only one hand keeping hold of her knife as the aircraft flipped in every direction.

This was a bad idea! She couldn’t even tell which way was up anymore, though she’d doubtless find out soon. The world around her was a spinning haze of darkness and flashing glimpses of color as the VTOL dropped further and further into the cavernous depths between the megascrapers.

I have to let go eventually. Otherwise it could come down on top of me. But if I let go at the wrong moment …

There couldn’t be much time left to decide, either. Not with how long they’d been spinning. She had to take the chance.

There! A bright, white light among the rest of the blurs. And … NOW!

She let go, the forces of the spin ripping her away from the aircraft in a mere instant. The thrusters on her suit fired, trying to stabilize her now that she was independent in the air and at least return a sense of up from down.

Gravity’s grip was lessening, and it took her a moment to realize that she was face down, her feet pointed at the sky as she sailed upward. She twisted, tucking her body in a roll and aiding the thrusters so that her head could be pointed toward the sky once more. The bright, white light she’d used to orient her letting go was the moon, its cities glowing like a dim sun.

Someone’s voice was in her ear, trying to get her attention. How long had they been speaking to her while she’d been busy.

“—not have visual on your location. Repeat—“

“Yeah,” she said, cutting Adah off. “It’d be kind of tricky to have visual on me right now. I’m not in the megascraper anymore.” She was falling again, her upward momentum gone, and once more she flipped, angling herself headfirst downward and following the trailing smoke and flame of the VTOL. “I had to take a shorter route to the bottom. Still in pursuit.”

She’d jumped just in time. As she watched the VTOL reached the city layers between the megascraper, slamming into an elevated freeway and scattering late night traffic as it bounced off of the concrete. The crash-guidance software had at least gotten it to land on a relatively clear space, but it hadn’t been able to bleed the aircraft’s momentum. The VTOL hit a second time, landing at an angle, and went into a roll, slamming into the edge of the freeway and tumbling over it, scattering shattered chunks of concrete in its wake.

Ursa followed, thrusters firing as she angled toward the ground on the other side of the freeway. For an instant the tumbling form of the VTOL was out of sight as the raised freeway blocked her view, but then her thrusters fired again, slowing her descent to non-lethal levels as the ground neared, and she saw the aircraft’s final resting place as she landed.

The VTOL had dropped off the freeway and onto an old but still used street, ending its tumble by slamming into what had probably been an old, run-down storefront like those around it. Probably, because the impact had thoroughly flattened a good chunk of it.

At least there weren’t any lights on in it or the buildings around it. The place looked condemned. Lucky. She drew her Rezzer from its dock once more.

There were several wire fences between her and the wreck, meant to keep people out from beneath the freeway. She vaulted over them with ease. An alert on her hud warned her that her repeated use of thrusters had brought her suit power down to about sixty percent.

More than I need. The VTOL had at least landed upright … mostly. It was tilted to one side, but the top-half was facing upward. One of the rear wings was gone, ripped free of the impact, and the whole unit less resembled a state-of-the-art flying machine and more a child’s toy that had seen repeated blunt impacts from a hammer. The engine she’d destroyed was still smoking and twisted at odd angles, but true to its design the destruction hadn’t spread out to damage the rest of the aircraft.

I think. It was a little hard to tell given the beating the aircraft had taken.

Look at that, though. My knife is still there. Lying as it was with the destroyed engine down toward her, she could see the hilt of the blade still sticking out of the wing. I should probably grab that. But first …

“Adah, I’m sending you my location. I need a pickup.” She tapped at her wrist, sending her coordinates across the channel. “Make it fast.”

“It’ll have to be,” Anvil replied. “The whole city is lighting up.”

“Pickup in twenty seconds, Ursa. En route.”

She ducked under the side of the aircraft, eyeing the side door. It was warped, but clear of the ground. Under crash circumstances, it should have primed the emergency bolts. She wrapped one hand around the handle and heaved. With a quick chorus of cracks, the bolts detonated as designed, the door rolling back—

Something dove out of the interior at her, and she batted it aside, realizing as she did so that it was a dazed peacekeeper. They went sprawling to the ground, and she brought her weapon up just in time as her quarry lifted a rifle of his own, pointed right at her. He was bruised and bloody, and his fancy clothing torn, but he was still up. Worse, he seemed to have fared better than the other peacekeepers aboard, who were still dazed and scattered, some down with clear injuries. Guess the internal gravitics couldn’t keep up. Or they failed.

“You are one persistent little mudak blyak, you know that?” He was breathing hard, and she didn’t miss the way he was hunched slightly to one side. Cracked ribs, maybe broken. “Think you can get me before I plug you in the visor?”

She threw her Rezzer at him, his eyes going wide as the weapon collided with his own. He started to move, but even augmented he was still wounded, and she was wearing a skinsuit. Her slugger fired twice, both shots striking him in the chest. What was likely a curse cut off as he convulsed, his weapon firing a single shot into the roof of the cabin as he collapsed.

One of the other peacekeepers tried to rise as she stepped inside, but a single look from her as she retrieved her Rezzer was enough to make them stop. Her target was still convulsing, and she shoved her fingers into his mouth on the off chance he had a similar tooth to his counterpart. A second or two later his convulsions stopped, but he was already dragging as the drugs in the stunners went to work.

He still had enough presence of mind to glare at her as he faded away, however.

“Target is alive and bagged,” she said, throwing his limp body over her shoulder. “Ready for pickup.”

“Almost there.” She stepped out of the VTOL just in time to see the Stalker swoop down from out of the night, settling as close as it could on the empty street. One door was already open, the lights inside out, but she could still see Owl and Anvil motioning for her.

“One second.” She reached up and wrenched her knife free of the wing, stuffing it back into her sheath. “Less evidence.”

“Go!” someone shouted as soon as she was aboard, and the VTOL shot into the sky, darting off through the metal canyons of the city. Someone took her quarry from her and laid them down on the deck. “Strip and silence!”

Every thread of the man’s clothes was torn away and thrown out the open window, along with his electronics and even his watch. Owl ran a scanner down his naked form, catching and removing several embedded trackers or emergency transmitters. Two more were implanted in the bone, and those she covered with an injection of blocking material. Painful, but necessary.

The cyanide tooth she popped and removed carefully. Once a second and third checking had found no other irregularities, he was bound and placed in the back of the VTOL with the other two. Neither of whom, Ursa noted, were alive.

“We’ll dump them out in the gulf,” Adah said, stepping up beside her. “Then double back. The one killed himself with the tooth, the other was riding something illicit that didn’t react well with the stunners. Her heart exploded.”

“And our one live capture had seven transmitters in him,” Ursa said, looking at Adah. “Who the hell did we just grab?”

“A wetwork team with a lot of value, I think,” Adah replied. “The question I have at the moment is ‘how was the ride down on that VTOL, and how did you get aboard?’”

“Well, I jumped on it from the train,” Ursa said. “And yeah, that bit was pretty cool.”

“Sounds like debrief will be interesting.”

“It will, but we’re not done yet,” Castillo said. “There’s still the interrogation.”

“Right …” Ursa glanced back at the trio of naked bodies lying on the VTOL deck. One of them had voided their bowels. At least my helmet is up. “Great.”

*             *             *

The man let out a little moan, and Ursa stiffened slightly. About time. We’ve been waiting for him to wake up for a while now.

“Seeing activity,” Owl said. “He’s coming to.”

“Good. Now remember. We’re just window dressing. Stand still, don’t interact. That’s the client’s job.”

Ursa almost nodded but then caught herself. Stay still. They were standing in a loose semicircle around their captive, but flanking the display that their client would be using to speak. A bright overhead light kept the rest of the room in shadow, not that there was much to see. Some sound baffles and low-level hard-light distortion fields scattered around an empty, abandoned room. Not too hard to find or secure in the Dragon Bloc.”

“He’s awake,” Owl noted. “Just playing possum.”

“Good. I’m signaling the client.” Commander Castillo was armored and present as well, but just outside the light behind their captive. A precaution.

He’s tied to a chair with heavy cuffs, but you never know when someone will surprise you.

The display activated, a undefined, smooth humanoid face and shoulders appearing in the air before their captive. “Aiden Jahangir.” The voice was, like the figure, without any defining features. Modulated and carefully neutral. “Not your real name of course, but that doesn’t exist anymore. No official rank, but high clearance. Wetwork operator.” There was a pause. “Living the high life.”

Their captive didn’t reply or move, but his breathing had shifted. He was definitely awake.

“Of course,” the voice continued. “You live the high life because like most who take up your line of work, you know that one day, the work you’ve undertaken may catch up with you. On a day like today, perhaps.”

There was still no response. Naturally, Ursa thought. Any wetwork operative would have training for this sort of event.

“No doubt right now you’re recalling your training,” the strange voice continued. “Anti-interrogation protocols running through your head. Which is understandable, given the circumstances. However, I’m not interested in your killings. I’m interested in another job you did recently. A live capture?”

Whatever training their captive had broke for a moment, a twitch running through them.

“Ah,” the client’s avatar said. “I see you remember that one. In Brazil?”

There was no response.

“A woman and her son,” the voice continued. “Alive.”

“Elevated heart rate,” Owl noted.

“I know you know who I’m talking about,” the client continued. “I also am aware that you’re considering the most likely forms of torture I could bring to bear against you, but to be perfectly honest, I have no intention of having you tortured. You likely don’t believe that, but it’s true.”

“Instead,” the voice continued. “I’m going to offer you something far more valuable: a way out.”

There was a pause, one that stretched on for several seconds, but at last the man looked up. One had almost swollen shut, but it was already settling down, his augments at work.

“A way out.”

It was a statement. Not a question.

“During your capture, you declined to make use of your directed option of self-removal. You instead called for local peacekeeper forces to pick you up. You don’t want to die, Mr. Jahangir. You want to live. With money. Tell me what I want to know, and you’ll be dropped off in the Corporate Dragon Bloc with the number of an account holding a Three hundred million euromarks.”

Ursa’s eyes widened. Just how much are they spending to find this … couple? Who are they?

“I already know you can’t tell me where the pair went,” the client continued. “But you can tell me whose care you gave them too after you’d abducted them. Three hundred million euromarks, just for a name. You’ll be free to spend it however you wish?”

“And if I wish to go back to my employers?”

“You won’t.” Even through the modulation there was a sense of finality to way the words were said. “You know what will happen if you do. They’ll question you, then kill you. No leaks. No compromises. Not for someone like you.”

“No leaks,” Jahangir repeated.

“Whereas I am willing to let you walk away, and a very rich individual. Change your face, remove the augments. Or get better ones. I really don’t care. But for that amount of money, you had best be telling me the truth.”

“I understand.” Then, to Ursa’s surprise, the man began to laugh. “I may be dead anyway. All of you.”

“The name.”

“You can have the name,” the man said, his voice a sudden hiss as he lurched forward in his chair. “Give me the account number. I’ll tell you what you want. It won’t help you.”

“That is my concern, not yours.”

Jahangir laughed again. “You say that. But it’s your life to waste. I don’t know who that woman and her son were, or what they did, but they made very powerful enemies. Our orders were to take them alive, and pass them over to someone else. Which we did. Along with some other items.”

“To who?”

Jahangir chuckled. “You should just back out now. I don’t know a lot of things, but there are some people you don’t mess with.”

“My. Concern. The name.”

“Your grave,” Jahangir said, shaking his head. “The exchange took place in the middle of the night. At an airbase somewhere. Cold, I know that. But where it was …” He shrugged. “Her guards were creepy. Like … unnerving. I’ve been doing this job for twenty years, and they made me shiver.”

“You want those two back?” He shook his head. “Director Bora had them.” He began to giggle madly. “And now all of us are going to die!”

He threw his head back and laughed.


 

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 action, adventure, and mystery!

 

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

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