Fireteam Freelance Episode 9: Apatos

This is Episode 9 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.

Apatos

Pain was the first thing that swam to the surface of her awareness. A deep, throbbing pain in her side and in her arm.

Still, that was, in a way, good. Pain means I’m alive. The spirit world wouldn’t have such troubles, lacking physical form.

Still, it wasn’t comfortable. Ursa moved her good arm first, probing for any resistance. The world around her felt … wrong, somehow. The cardinal directions confused, and it took her a moment to remember why.

Drugged. The autodoc. Which meant next would come—

The nausea hit her like a wave, her stomach flipping and convulsing as her system reacted to the concoction of drugs she was coming out from under. Hands grabbed her shoulders, and she opened her eyes to see blurry figures standing above her, rolling her over onto her side so she could empty what little was in her stomach across the deck. It wasn’t much, but the heaving continued for some time, her stomach cramping.

Finally it was over, the convulsions stopping as her enhanced system pressed the last effect of the drugs from her.

Yuck. While there hadn’t been much in her stomach, there had been a little, and it now clung to the side of the autodoc, a greyish liquid mass that made her wrinkle her nose with its stink. Gross.

One more thing to clean, since it looked like a good bit of it had gone over the edge. At least she hadn’t vomited on any of the two figures that had turned her on her side. Or choked on it. “Thanks,” she said, rolling back and squinting as the bright overhead lights beamed down at her. “Sorry about that.”

“It happens.” Adah reached out and tapped at the autodoc controls. Luckily it doesn’t look like you reopened anything when you were vomiting.” There was a sudden clang nearby as Anvil opened a small cabinet, pulling out cleaning supplies.

“I’ll do—“ Ursa began, starting to sit up, but Adah’s hand caught the center of her chest, blocking her.

“No you won’t. The autodoc took five bullets out of you and patched the holes with nanites. You’ll recover, but you still have five bullet wounds in you. You just lay there for a minute.”

Ursa nodded and let her body sag back down. “No painkillers?”

“We’ve got a limited supply. You’re on light ones.”

“Oh. Good.” I guess it could hurt worse. “What’s the situation?”

Anvil let out a snort. She was still wearing the bloody clothes they’d escaped in. “The situation is that we’re fu—“

“It’s a foxtrot,” Adah said. “A bad one.”

“How long was I out?”

“About a half-hour.”

Her mouth felt dry. And tasted awful. “Don’t keep me in suspense.”

“Our faces and names are all over the news. They know we escaped. Commander Castillo is …” Adah paused. “She’s confirmed dead.”

Ursa let out a sigh, sinking further into the bed of the autodoc. It had seemed almost certain when the missile had slammed into the megascraper, but … “Owl?” she asked.

Adah just shook her head, her lips pressed into a thin line, and said nothing.

That’s not good. The woman had simply … shut down … the moment the missile had hit. Like a broken building collapsing in on itself, closing off the outside world. Never thought that’d be something I’d see happen to Owl. The woman who could cut down three combatants at long range in half as many seconds and not even blink.

But where the three of us were employees … Owl’s relationship with Castillo had been different. Like a mother and daughter.

What would I do if my mother died right in front of me? The thought made a shiver run through her. Owl needs to grieve.

And we will let her. She turned her eyes back to Adah. “How’s the news handling it?”

“Badly,” Adah replied, her voice low. “The missile strike that took out the building has the entire planet in an uproar. The Dragon Bloc is furious, the megacorps are mobilizing, and the UN is continuing to respond that it was attempting to remove a dangerous group of unstable terrorists.”

“And the megacorps?”

Adah shook her head. “They’re not taking our side. They’re just using a strike on the Bloc as a reason to mobilize their own forces further. Supposedly the Bloc is somewhat neutral, so a broad attack like this …”

Ursa nodded, her head rocking in the cradle of the autodoc. Which I need to be out of. She held up her good arm, the one that wasn’t throbbing. “Help me up.”

Adah nodded and took her hand, slowly pulling her up into a seated position and pulling her legs over the lip of the table. The segmented panels weren’t comfortable to sit on, but getting upright was the first goal. She took a quick look around the VTOL’s cabin. It didn’t look much different from when she’d gone under. Owl was even in the same place, strapped into one of the seats with a hollow expression on her face.

Something Adah had said lagged at Ursa’s memory. “Wait,” she said, frowning. “You said our faces and our names are all over the news. You mean—“

“Yes,” Adah said with a nod. “Even yours. Not that I can pronounce it.”

“Faasulu. Lovai Faasulu.” It felt strange to say it after so long. Worse, however, was what it implied. “Shit. They’re going to go looking for my family.”

“They’re off-world, though, right?” There must have been something in her expression, because Adah shrugged. “Why else would you use the full comm-rig?”

“Mars,” she answered. “They’re on Mars.” She shook her head. “Ruining things for them again.”

“Mars is pretty different,” Anvil said, rising to work on the side of the autodoc. “They’re UN-run, but loosely, I think? They might be okay?”

“I don’t know,” she said. Suddenly she felt like she had when she’d awoken, like down was up and left at the same time. “It is, but I don’t know.”

“Well, at least they’ve got your money,” Adah said. “That’s where most of your paychecks have gone, haven’t they? And I’m going to make a wild guess that they don’t trust the UN any more than we do.”

“No. Or the megacorps.” Hearing it said aloud did help. “So they might be okay.”

“Plus, the mercenary license is supposed to matter for some form of buffer,” Adah added. “That’s what my family is going to have to fall back on.”

“And hey,” Anvil cut in. “It sounds like your family at least will have your money. We just lost all of ours. Terrorism charges. Automatic lockdown.”

“So we’re broke.”

“Broke and on the run,” Anvil clarified. “But we’ve at least got our gear.” She nodded in the direction of her exosuit, hanging from its gantry near the front of the aircraft.

“Where are we right now?” She pushed herself forward, standing for the first time since she’d woken up but feeling no residual dizziness.

“We’re still where you put us down,” Adah replied. “Minimal power, like you said, and under cover.”

“Right …” She glanced down at the holes in her side, now patched, where her injuries had been. The flesh around them was still red and swollen, but at least none of them were bleeding. “Do we have any idea of where we can go?”

“No.” Adah shook her head slowly. “At least, I don’t. Outside of far outside the UN’s reach.”

“Easier said than done.”

“I know. And we can’t just run to the megacorps.”

Ursa nodded. “We’d just be leverage to them. Currency.”

“Exactly. I’ve spent the last half-hour monitoring news reports and trying to get a feel for where we might slip by but … On the bright side, we’ve got about fifty-five thousand kilometers of range left before we run out of fuel, or enough to lay low for a month or more if we don’t do anything and conserve what we have.”

“That’s a lot of range.”

“Enough to fly us around the globe more than once. I’m glad the commander insisted on the long-range tanks. We’ve also got all the supplies that were aboard with us. So we’ve each got a set of armor, a skinsuit, some basic standards, and weapons.”

“Stuff we could sell for a lot of money,” Anvil added as she finished wiping up the vomit. There was a disposal by the autodoc, and she tossed the sponge into it, the small hatch shutting a second later so the material could be incinerated. “Of course, we’d get a low rate for a lot of it, and it’d be selling our best assets out from underneath us, so …” She waggled a hand back and forth. “Not really our best option, on it?”

“So … we’re fubar.”

“Yeah,” Adah agreed with another nod. “We are.”

“Shit.” She sank back, leaning against the outer wall of the cabin. And we can’t stay here forever. The wilderness she’d dropped them down into was still part of the Dragon Bloc, and was protected forest … but that came with its own problems. Like UN and megacorp oversight. Nothing that was likely to break the stealthy profile of the gunship, but more than enough to make it a position they couldn’t simply wait things out in.

Inevitably a drone will swing by looking over things and we’ll get spotted like any other squatter. And that would make its way up the chain of command until … They were willing to call in a hypersonic cruise missile strike on a meagscraper in the middle of the Bloc. Would they even send someone out after us? Or would we simply disappear in a fiery explosion and impact? One that the UN could just explain away with a single sentence.

What the hell did we get involved in that they’d stir up the Bloc like this?

Whatever it was … We need to be out of it. We’re in over our heads. Way over. “So … what do we do now?”

“I don’t know.” Adah’s frankness was almost worrying. “Our first priority should be to get some better medical treatment. The autodoc is good for patch jobs, but it’s not a full suite. You’re tough, but you took five bullets. The nanites and your augments are the only reason you’re not dead, let alone standing.”

“Yeah, it hurts,” Ursa said, nodding. “And I’m not the only on injured.”

“Exactly. We need medical care. Good medical care. Past that, we’ve got rations and water onboard this thing, but not for long. There’s a toilet, so at least we’re good there for a bit, but medical care is the most essential.”

“Yeah, I feel that,” Ursa said, pushing herself away from the cabin wall. “I’m going to go up to the cockpit. See if I can poke around and maybe get a passive look at some of our dataweb nodes.”

“Careful.” There was a definite tone of caution to Adah’s voice. “That’s all.”

Ursa nodded as she turned for the front of the cabin. “I will be.”

Getting up into the cockpit was difficult, mostly due to her injuries. The narrow passage and ladder combined with her broad shoulders and size meant that she had to twist her body to climb upwards, a motion that sent fire rushing through the bullet holes in her side and probably didn’t do the nanites attempting to stitch up her muscle or whatever other injury she had any favors. Even just the short exertion of dropping into the pilots seat left her feeling winded. Not a good sign.

It was dawn outside the cockpit glass, faint rays of sunlight slipping through the foliage of the tree she’d parked them under. A few birds flickered out from under a nearby tree, and for a moment she considered cracking the cockpit seal to see if they were making any sound.

Costs a lot to get a view like this, she thought as she watched the forest around her for a minute. That or a healthy aversion to risk.

Given what had transpired in the last few hours, the penalty for violating a preserve was pretty low on the list of worries.

The brought the console to life, leaving the engines down and the VTOL’s systems on minimum, passively scanning what information the comm equipment could pick up. It wasn’t much, mostly public channels and dataweb signals, but it was enough. More than enough to get an alarming picture of their circumstances.

Seeing her own picture on one of the first feeds she brought up didn’t help.

Anvil wasn’t kidding. We’re absolutely fubar. She skimmed through multiple feeds, each time seeing her face or that of another team member’s on display. It’s a global manhunt.

For the moment. It had happened before. We just need to lay low. But where? She flipped through a few more feeds, then shook her head and closed them. At least we’ve got a good means of getting around undetected. The Stalker’s stealth was top of the line, save perhaps against some of those experimental hard-light stealth systems there were always rumors about. Probably the single most expensive piece of equipment we own, and we didn’t lose it. We can live out of it.

It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than rotting in a UN or megacorp cell somewhere. We need someplace with medical care, she thought as she brought up the Stalker’s navigation system. I’m going to need meds and better treatment soon. Adah probably would too, though her injury had been a lot less severe. And while they’d checked Owl and found no signs of serious physical injury …

She needs help all the same. Something in her mind might be broken.

She spun through the map, checking nearby cities and trying to mentally line up how much surveillance they’d be under. Anything in the Bloc is probably out, except maybe the Corporate … No, they hit that last night, didn’t they? That was why Castillo put us on alert.

She could feel a hard lump in her throat the pulsed as she thought of the commander. She’s gone. Really gone.

She shut her eyes for a moment, controlling her breathing. Grieve later. When you’re safe.

She adjusted the map again, staring at another city, this one in the southern regions of the Bloc. A light flashing behind the image made it a bit difficult to concentrate on, and she twisted her head to one side. That’s not too far from here, and it’s a pretty big city. If we brought ourselves down in the outskirts, found a place to hide the VTOL …

It would still leave them with the problem of their face being scanned by every person, phone, and camera they passed. And all of them were flagged. And we don’t have anything that could make quick adjustments to our looks, either. Cosmetic mods, the best option, took decent medical facilities to fabricate and apply. Leading us back to square one.

So … that’s an option. She moved the map on, scowling as the light behind it continued to flash. What the hell is that little—?

She paused, her mind catching up. That’s a comm channel light. Why is a comm channel message light flashing at me?

The controls for the comm channels flashed to life as she brought them  up, staring at the text that appeared in the air. For a few seconds she sat in silence, but then she leaned over and keyed the intercom. “Adah? Anvil? I’m about to put something on the viewscreen down there. You want to tell me what you think?” A few taps at the controls sent what she was seeing down to the cabin, and a moment later Adah’s voice came back through the cockpit.

“How’d we get this?”

“I told the system to check the feeds. Looks like it pinged an anonymizer and we had a message waiting for us.”

“Could we be tracked through that?”

She thought for a moment. “I don’t think so, no. Not unless someone had both the hard addresses and our codes. And the equipment at the base …” There was no need to expound further. It was nothing but slag now.

“So this is legitimate?”

“Well, your guess is as good as mine, but it was sent directly to the commander’s secure channel. You don’t get that easily.”

For a few seconds there was only silence. “What’s on the other end?”

“Give me a minute.” She punched the string of numbers in manually, watching as the map display once again scrolled, but not too far.

“It’s … an island in the Pacific,” she said as the search came to a stop. “Middle of nowhere. Maybe artificial? There’s structures on it, but they’re blurred.”

“Private, then.” Adah went silent for several seconds. “Ursa, Anvil, what do you think?”

“Well, it’s an invitation, on it,” Anvil said. “But is it a trap? That’s the risk.”

“It did come directly through the commander’s secure comm channel,” Ursa noted. “Maybe it was a redoubt?”

“Could be,” Anvil admitted. “Plus, we don’t really have any better options, on it?”

“Ursa?”

“Seems as good an option as any, Adah, but this is your call. I trust your gut. What do you say?”

Again there was a pause, this one stretching on even further than the last.

“We come in low and slow,” Adah replied at last. “Use every trick to stay off anyone’s screens. Maybe it’s a redoubt, maybe it’s a trap.”

“Maybe it’s help,” Ursa replied as she fed the coordinates into the VTOL’s systems.

“Maybe,” Adah said. “Let’s go find out.”

“Bringing us up.” The jungle around the Stalker began to shake as she brought the engines up to speed. “It’ll take us about … an hour. Settle in.”

She ignored the burning throb in her arm as she guided the VTOL out over the jungle, toward the distant ocean.

And toward the coordinates they’d been given in the message, along with a single word.

Sanctuary.

*             *             *

Ursa heard Adah coming up the ladder well before the woman spoke, her footsteps clanging against the thin metal steps. “Any change?” she asked, leaning against the back of the pilot seat and poking her head through part of the rear display.

“No,” Ursa said with a shake of her head. Outside the cockpit the Stalker was sliding slowly over the endless blue expanse of the Pacific ocean, only a few dozen feet above the water’s surface. Close enough that they were leaving a small trailing wake on the waves from the force of their jets visible in the rear cameras. “No change, no active tracking … nothing.”

The object of Adah’s inquiry lay ahead of them, a faint, green smudge on the horizon, beneath whispy trails of white cloud. An island.

An occupied island. The long-range imaging software had picked up that much at least. Not that it was too surprising. There weren’t many islands in the Pacific that weren’t anymore. Not when they could be vacation homes for the rich and famous.

“Outside of what we can already see,” Ursa said, tapping at a control and bringing up a distance shot taken with one of the gunship’s long-range cameras. “This is what we’ve got, and there’s been no change.” The building in the image certainly looked like a retreat for someone with a lot of funding, massive and expansive, with huge swaths of glass and angular architecture. Probably shines like a palace once the sun really gets into the sky, Ursa thought. She’d already seen a few reflective glints coming from it as they’d drifted closer. Of course, cutting around the island and approaching from the east with the rising sun at their back helped there.

“Give me a live feed?”

Ursa nodded and tapped the controls again, displacing the prior image with one that was a little shakier but more up to date. If not for the changed positions of the shadows, it would have been identical.

“Still no change,” Adah said, and Ursa could hear the hesitation in her voice. Hesitation that was well earned. The mansion atop the island was impressive, but it hadn’t been eye-catching enough to distract either of their eyes from the high-powered communication and sensor arrays poking out of the nearby tropical trees. Or the conspicuously blocky parts of a few seawalls that more than likely hid anti-air and missile defenses.

Adah shook her head. “All right. Keep us going in, I guess. If they want us dead, they’re going to get a pretty good shot.”

“They haven’t so far,” Ursa pointed out as the island drew closer. “And we’re not that stealthy. Not this close in the middle of nothing.”

“Keep alert anyway. You picked out a landing spot yet?”

“The house has a pad,” Ursa said, nodding her head in the direction of one end of the house, where a raised lift was clearly meant as a landing site for VTOLs. “And it’s up.”

“Like we were expected.”

“Or that’s just the default position.” Either could be correct, and they both knew it.

“Right,” Adah said after a few seconds. “Keep us on course. I’m going to go suit up.”

“What’s the plan when we land?”

If we land,” Adah said, her voice clipped and precise. “Anvil and I are going to do a nice, slow, careful sweep. With the Stalker’s sensors on active.”

“You don’t want me along?”

“You’re injured. I’d rather have you stay in the cockpit for a quick dustoff.”

Ursa nodded. The island was closer now, less a smudge on the horizon and more a clear distinction between sea and earth. “Understood.” And my arm is still throbbing a little. “We’re about five minutes out from landing at the moment. Just don’t expect any fancy evasions if something does go wrong. I’m not nearly as good at this as …” Her throat hitched slightly. “As the commander was,” she finished.

“I understand,” Adah said. “Just do what you can. I’m going to go suit up. Keep me updated on anything interesting.”

“We’re getting close enough for you to see anything interesting,” Ursa replied. “But yeah, I will.”

Adah clapped a hand down on her shoulder—her good one, not the one that was still sore—and then backed out of sight, a clanging announcing her departure down the ladder. Ursa dispelled the close-up of the manor, bringing her focus back to the sensor readings and smaller images around the edges of the console.

Definitely some rich person’s retreat, she thought as details continued to make themselves clear. Just whose?

None of them had said it, but she knew at least three of them had hinted that it could have been the commander’s. A final redoubt, off the books, and hidden so well—That we didn’t even know about it.

It wouldn’t have been too hard to do. Build a safe house. Set up a trigger so that if something ever happened to the megascraper it would send word out. The only bit that didn’t add up about the entire operation was the staggering cost.

And island like this would cost billions to set up, Ursa thought as the ocean beneath the VTOL shifted to a shade that was more emerald green, the seafloor rising into beach.

It was clear too. Clear enough that she could see hard lines through a rolling surf still well away from the edge of the island. Artificial breakers to disrupt the sea swells so that the island itself could have a calmer, more tranquil beachfront.

That kind of thing this far from civilization takes money. A lot of it. The commander’s payout from the destruction of Valkyries had been large, but … This island must still have cost billions. The VTOL passed another ring of artificial breakers, the cement barriers cleanly visible through the water from above.

Those are solar and wind arrays on that part of the island, and that clearing in the trees could be a garden. Which would mean either staff or automated attendants … But there hadn’t been any sign of the former. Not yet anyway.

“We’re coming up on the island itself,” she said, triggering the intercom. “Still no signs of any activity.” Place actually looks really nice.

Still, she couldn’t help but feel uneasy as her eyes locked on the blocky, plant covered shapes of heavy emplacements scattered across the island and beachfront. Someone inside that house taps a button right now and we’re in real trouble. It was hard not to picture the tops of each one grinding open, exposing an array of anti-air missiles capable of reducing the Stalker to so much glowing wreckage strewn across a beach.

Then they were past them, the VTOL continuing on toward the manor without so much as a ping from an active targeting system. It only made her feel more nervous. Who the hell wanted us to come here?

She shifted the yoke in her hands, adjusting their course slightly and doing a slow, easy loop around the house itself. Up close it was even nicer. The landing pad was on the north side, a raised portion of the building that was somewhat apart from the rest of the structure, connected by a glass skybridge that extended over the grounds. And probably a below-ground tunnel, too, Ursa thought. The garage beneath the pad was easily large enough for four aircraft.

The mansion itself was almost like a resort, laid out in sprawling layers of balconies and glass. Near one end of the structure the building rose to a sharp peak, almost a tower, covered in security-tinted glass that was currently dark.

Security tint, she noted, that was several levels past legal, to the degree that even the Stalker’s sensors were having trouble getting a look inside.

“Ursa? Anything?”

She shook her head. Not that Adah could see the motion. It was just habit. “Nothing notable. Place looks quiet. Like no one’s home.”

Her slow orbit around the estate complete, she pointed the VTOL at the landing pad once more, bringing them over it slowly and then easing the landing struts down onto the pad so gently she didn’t even feel the bump as the craft settled in place. Flight-assists for victory, she thought as she powered the engines down to a low idle. “We’re down, and—“

One of the console lights flashed. “We’re being pinged,” she said, tapping the board and bringing up the proposed link. “Says its an automated system. For refueling and maintenance.”

“Says?”

She shrugged. “You know as well as I do you can spoof that.”

“Decline it. We’re still in the dark here.”

“Done.” The system let out a beep, almost as if it was disappointed in her response, but didn’t question her further.  “I’ll keep the engine—hey!” Alerts flashed across the console. “Adah, someone just engaged the pad locks. We’re pinned. We can lift off, but the next time we land we’d be without anything to land on but the belly.”

“Deliberate?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Could be automat—“ With a faint lurch the pad began to drop, descending into the garage. “And now we’re—“

“I see it.”

“Right.” Viewscreens. “Could still be automatic. There’s probably an override in the garage.” Above the VTOL the pad doors began to fold shut, lights around them activating as the lift lowered into the garage.

A very nice garage, Ursa noted as the lift came to a stop. With only one other occupant. The other VTOL was already in one of the bays, a high-end model with no markings. It could have just come fresh off of a factory floor.

The lift they’d descended on rotated, sliding their craft back into one of the bays. “Ursa,” Adah said. “You did tell the garage’s systems we didn’t want a refuel, correct?”

“I did,” she said as the VTOL came to a stop. “I guess we’re just being stored in case someone else needs the pad.” As she spoke another lift moved out of its stall, rising up toward the roof, the cover sliding back once more as a new pad took position.

“That’s going to make it really hard to get out of here quickly if something goes wrong,” Anvil pitched in. “Can you get us out?”

“Not while we’re refusing to communicate with the garage, no.” The comm console was flashing at her once more. “Looks like—“

Her eyes saw the new text and she jerked upright, her side shouting in painful protest. “Whoa! We just got another message.”

“What’s it say?”

“Not much. Just ‘Welcome, please come inside.’”

“Better than a missile, on it?”

“I’m still not convinced it’s to our benefit.”

“Well,” Ursa said, reaching out and shutting the engines down. “There’s not much I can do here. I’m shutting the VTOL down. Want me to suit up and come with?”

“Shutting—“

“The VTOL can power on faster than that lift can let us out,” Ursa said, flicking the final switches. “I’ll leave us in standby, just in case, but if we’re going in, I’d rather be with your two.”

“Leave Owl behind?”

“Three, then.” Ursa lifted herself out of the seat, wincing as her side complained once more and slowly making her way down the steps. The door at the bottom was shut; she moved it to one side to see both Adah and Anvil suited up and looking in her direction. Owl wasn’t suited up, but she was no longer sitting with a blank look on her face. She’d snapped out of her fugue earlier that morning, cleaned up, and changed into her skinsuit with barely a word, even when spoken to.

“Can you even suit up?” Anvil asked as she saw Ursa. “You’ve got four bullet wounds in your side.”

“No,” Adah said before Ursa could reply, her own slightly distorted voice coming out of her helmet. “She can’t.”

“Well I’m not staying here alone,” she said, reaching one of the weapon racks and yanking a Rezzer out of it with her good arm. She snapped the feed open and began shoving shells into it. “I’m going with you.”

“Naked?” Anvil asked.

“By choice,” she retorted. “If things go bad, you can carry me back. Probably wouldn’t matter either way. We’re in deep enough now.”

“I can’t disagree there,” Adah said. “But keep behind us. First sign of trouble—“ She turned, looking at Anvil. “Scoop her up and run.”

“You got it, boss.” Anvil’s armored helm turned. “Smallest chick on the team carrying the largest.”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Ursa said, giving Anvil a smirk. “It isn’t going to happen often.”

“Depends on how many bullets you feel like running through.”

“No more chatter,” Adah said, reaching out and putting one hand on the starboard door. The viewscreens were still active, showing the empty garage around them. “We’ve got another VTOL out there, so we might not be alone. Be prepared for anything.” With that, she slid the door forward, opening the craft to the world outside.

Well … it’s a garage, Ursa thought as she followed Adah, Anvil, and Owl. A really nice one though. Nicer even then what we had at the megascraper, if civilian. Another strike against this place being the commander’s, I think.

There were two exits out of the garage, and Adah chose the one the lead across the skybridge, the team moving carefully and precisely, their weapons up. Ursa kept her gaze moving, searching for any signs of ambush.

“Security sensors,” Anvil said quietly as they passed down the bridge. “We can be tracked.”

Not much we can do about it. Ahead of them the bridge ended in a simple double door, but as the team approached it retracted into the walls, exposing the inside of the manor.

Ursa almost stopped in shock as she saw the polished hardwood floors. That’s genuine wood. It has to be. The furniture too looked to be genuine leather and wood. An actual painting hung on one wall, behind a protective cover and in a wooden frame. She recognized it, though she couldn’t recall the name. It had hung in museums once. Long ago.

It was almost rustic, but there were signs of modern design at play as well. The lighting was soft and yellow, the source hidden somewhere inside the ceiling. Hard-light controls decorated the walls. But the most conspicuous of all, even more conspicuous than the giant display emitters dominating to the room off to the left, was the empty space directly in front of them that led down to the next floor, a space that as Adah stepped forward, began to softly glow, blue steps made of hard light forming in the air.

“An actual floating staircase,” Anvil said. “Now that’s decadent.”

Adah held up a hand, motioning for silence. A small hard-light display at the top of the steps came to life, text forming in the air.

Welcome, Ursa read as the text flashed. Please come down.

“Someone’s dramatic,” Anvil said. Again Adah held up her hand for silence, but Anvil shook her head. “They obviously know we’re here, Adah. And who we are. No point in being quiet.”

“Besides,” Anvil added. “You saw those emplacements. If someone wanted us dead, we would be, on it?”

The flashing text changed. Trust your gut.

Adah jerked slightly, the motion almost hidden but barely slipping through. But she lowered her rifle. “All right,” she said aloud. “We’re coming down.”

She still sent a quick hand-signal to the rest of the team. Be ready.

As one, they moved down the steps. If not for the way they glowed, they could have been made of glass. It was almost distracting.

But there was more to look at then the steps. They moved down, the level below coming into full view and revealing a massive semi-circular room, the far wall nothing but giant panes of glass. It appeared to be a theater room of some kind, judging by the emitters arrayed before a circle of couches along with what could have been a fire pit.

The most striking feature of the room, however, even more than the floors of polished hardwood or the works of art and sculpture positioned around the room, was the white-haired woman standing in the middle of it. Her back was to the team as they descended the stairs, and as they reached the bottom, she waved one hand, dismissing an image of the team being projected from her datapad. A live image, Ursa noted as it faded away. She was watching us.

They stopped at the bottom of the steps, silent. Weapons lowered but not lifted. The woman didn’t turn around, either, as if the entire exchange were some strange, reversed standoff.

Adah broke the stalemate at last, her voice filling the room as she spoke. “You’re Commander Castillo’s ‘old friend,’ aren’t you? The one we were doing those jobs for.”

Ursa’s eyes widened in surprise. Did she know? Or was that a guess?

“Did she call me that?” The woman in the center of the room spoke, her voice soft.

“She did,” Adah confirmed. Her rifle came up again. “Were you?”

The woman nodded, head bobbing. “I believe I was.” She let out a little laugh. “I’d just never thought of it that way until now. But yes, I suppose so. As she was mine.” She turned around, giving the team the first glimpse of her face, and Ursa caught sight of a glimmer in the corner of her eyes, tears barely held back from the woman’s pained face. She took a slow, unsteady breath, more tears welling in her eyes as she offered them a smile. “You don’t know how much—how glad I am to hear that. I haven’t had many friends. Not … real ones.”

“Who are you?” Owl’s voice was cold. Devoid of emotion.

The woman nodded, swallowing. “I …” she said, clearly trying to compose herself. “I am Samantha Apatos.”

Ursa glanced at the rest of the team, but none of them showed any signs of reaction to the name.

“You probably haven’t heard of me,” the woman continued. “But you’ve worked for me before. That was how I met Valerie, actually. She worked for my predecessor, back when she was a Valkyrie. She had an honor about her. I think I hoped that by giving some of my jobs to her, maybe I was excusing some of my own actions.”

“And then you got her killed!” Owl shot across the open floor, right up to the woman, one hand locking around her throat and lifting her from the ground. “You!”

“Zhang Li!” Adah’s use of Owl’s actual name seemed to pull the woman back. “Stand down. Now!”

For a moment Owl seemed to shake, as if she wasn’t sure where she was. Then she let go, her victim letting out a gasp and staggering back, rubbing her throat.

“I understand,” she said, her voice croaking slightly. “I’m to blame. I’m the one that sent you after that team. I didn’t—“

“You didn’t what!?” Owl’s voice was a raw scream as she threw her rifle aside, the weapon clattering across the floor. “You didn’t think it was dangerous? Didn’t think it’d get her killed?”

“No!” Apatos’ cry seemed to shock Owl back somewhat. “I didn’t, all right! I knew I just didn’t need the best, and I needed someone I could trust! Valerie always had that honor! It was why I liked her. Not just as someone I could hire, but as … as a friend. Someone I could respect. She had conviction!” Apatos’ hands were tightly clenched now, her datapad long-since having fallen to the floor. “I admired her. And I knew your team had the best chance of getting the job done.”

Apatos shook her head. “Her death is my fault. I freely admit that. But I take no pleasure in it, understand?” She turned her eyes from Owl to the rest of them, her face almost plaintive. “Understand? Please?”

Adah reached up and unsealed her helmet, pulling it off over her head. “Almost,” she said, her gaze hard. “But you’re going to need to explain a lot more than that for us to trust you. So get talking.”

Apatos nodded, her shoulders sagging. “Very well.” Then she slumped back, sitting on one of the couches. “I’m—“

“You can start,” Adah said, cutting Apatos off and stepping forward. “By telling us where we are.”

“This?” Apatos glanced around at the expansive room. “This is the private island retreat of Han Ndiaye. One of them. He’s a board member for United Africa Industries.

UAI.

“He doesn’t know we’re here,” Apatos continued. “And as far as the house is concerned, no one is here, or ever was. The security here is decent, but not decent enough.” She bent down, picking up her datapad and flicking the screen with one finger. “Mr. Ndiaye is currently in Africa, hard at work managing the deteriorating relations between his corporation and the United Nations.”

“It’s how I’ve spent the last month,” Apatos continued, motioning toward the couches as if hoping they would sit. She gave them a faint, sad smile. “Running from place to place, staying off the UN radar.”

Running? For a month? Ursa let out a gasp, the group’s eyes jumping to her, along with Apatos’. “You’re a SoulComp executive, aren’t you?”

“Close,” Apatos said quickly, then nodded in the direction of the couches. “Go ahead, sit. It won’t stop any of you from squeezing the life out of me if you decide you don’t wish to hear what I have to say.”

“I’ll stand,” Anvil said, her voice still distorted by her helmet. “So you’re a crouper?”

“Depends on the parlance yes or no,” Apatos said, bobbing her head from side to side in a half-shake. “I was head of all operational security for SoulComp. Anti-espionage activity, security divisions, recruitment, protection … I did it all.”

“We have worked for you then,” Ursa said, moving to take a seat. Her side hurt. “Not a lot, but …”

Apatos nodded. “I’ve hired your team before. And a lot of others over the years. Including the ones where everything went wrong.”

“By design, I gather?” Anvil asked.

Apatos flinched, the motion slight but visible. “Sometimes, yes. I won’t lie, I’ve done … some dishonorable things. Less than most, but … my hands are not clean.”

“And we should let you live?” Owl’s question was almost an angry growl.

“Penance,” Apatos said quickly, looking at her. “I can’t change what I’ve done in the past, and I am—“ She paused, swallowing slightly. “I am in part responsible for everything that’s going on now. But … I’m trying to make up for it.”

Ursa glanced at Adah, watching as the woman narrowed her eyes but then took a seat on a couch directly opposite Apatos, her plating digging into the leather. “All right, then,” she said. “You told me to trust my gut. The commander told you about that?”

“She did,” Apatos said. “She was very proud of what you four accomplished. That was why when things played out the way they did, she was the first one I could turn to.”

Adah nodded. “All right. Castillo didn’t tell many people about that. If she told you … I don’t trust you … but I’ll listen to what you have to say before I decide whether or not we’re going to shoot you.”

Apatos swallowed again but nodded. “That’s … You understand I’d rather live, but … I won’t say that isn’t fair. This is my fault.”

“You knew Bora was going to come after us?” Anvil asked, her rifle rising.

Apatos shook her head, so quickly her white hair splayed out about her like a halo. “No, I didn’t. If I’d thought that—I didn’t even know Bora was involved until …” She shook her head again, then looked up at them. “I’m not just talking about Valerie’s death. I’m talking about all of it.”

“All … what do you mean, crouper?” Anvil asked.

“Pisces,” Apatos said. “The revolt. The fall of SoulComp. It’s not my fault, but …”

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Adah said. Her rifle was up again, held loosely but pointed right at Apatos. “Like maybe with how you’re responsible for Pisces throwing Earth into a near civil war.”

Apatos sighed. “It’s not my fault. Not entirely. If anyone is to blame for how things transpired between Pisces and Earth, it is the UN. I, however … I am the one who chose the agents SoulComp sent to Pisces.”

“SoulComp sent—?” Adah’s jaw dropped. “You mean the revolt—“

“Was carried out by a former high-ranking employee of ours,” Apatos said. “Something the UN has not publicized. The agents we dispatched were independent contractors, sent to retrieve that former employee. Who was the head of Project LockOut, the logistical software the UN uses.”

“And the one that got the company taken over by the UN,” Anvil added.

“Yes,” Apatos said with a nod. “Our suspicions that Rodriguez, this employee, had altered the software turned out to be correct.”

“And he used that in some way to aid his rebellion, didn’t he?” Ursa threw in, watching as Apatos nodded. “It was a long-term ploy. And then you defaulted on the contract with the UN.”

Apatos nodded once more. “We did. And the UN came for us. You’re aware how that turned out.”

“So how’d you escape?”

“One doesn’t become head of operational security without being reasonably paranoid,” Apatos said with a sad smile. “Once I realized what was coming for us I put my escape plan into action. My public accounts were sacrificed as decoys, while I drained several shell accounts that I’d placed the majority of my funds into instead. As well as few other company expense account, some of which were black-box slush funds under my department, and a few which … weren’t. I then detonated several data bombs to scramble records and cover my tracks. Some of it made it through, some didn’t. I dispatched my personal security escort as a distraction, went another way with my personal sidearm. I had an unlisted VTOL in a launch bay that I’d scrubbed from official files.”

“The one sitting in the garage right now?” Ursa asked.

“The very same. UN forces were already closing in on the building. My VTOL, like yours has some quite advanced stealth technology. I slipped into the morning air traffic and bluffed my way out. I’ve been on the run ever since.”

“That mission in Kamchatka,” Adah said slowly. “Where we took down the data relay. That was you.”

“It was.”

“We were covering your tracks.”

“You were. Those relays were the only ones I couldn’t manage to get to with my access clearance before it was revoked, and they held traces of my activity. I needed someone to eliminate them.”

“What about the job in Mexico?” Anvil asked.

“That wasn’t her, remember?” Ursa said with a quick shake of her head. Then she paused. “Was it?”

“No,” Apatos answered. “The next job I hired your team for was the one in Norway. The data center.”

“Why?”

Adah’s question pulled Apatos’ eyes back to her. “Pardon?”

“Why hire us for that job? Why have the job at all?”

“That’s the other half of the equation.” Apatos stood, pacing back and forth on the hardwood. “Those agents I sent to Pisces? One of them was a friend. Pisces wasn’t supposed to be that dangerous of a job. It was supposed to be simple. Right up until everything went wrong. Far more so than we could expect. My friend actually outed the flaws in LockOut. Not that I blame him.” Her face fell slightly. “I’ve been a shitty friend. But I never thought things would go as badly as they did.”

“Then, the day he was due to arrive back, he didn’t. Neither did the other two agents. Later that evening, I received a private alert under one of his old aliases. Guess he never took me off his list.”

“It was an alert. He’d been captured. Along with, I suspect, the other two members of his party. The UN intercepted the three of them, and from what I’ve been able to gather, both through your efforts on my behalf, and others, took them someplace. I’ve been trying to find out where that ‘place’ is.”

“So the data logs?”

“Orbital traffic data,” Apatos replied. “It was easy enough to determine that they hadn’t been sent down the elevator they arrived at, so I needed orbital data, to determine if they’d been brought down at all, or if not, where they might have gone.”

“Fat Shrimp?”

“I hired him to acquire some UNSEC clearance codes.”

“And Jahangir?” The query had come from Owl.

“The agents I hired weren’t exactly the most cooperative,” Apatos replied. “The fact that they exposed SoulComp sells that easily enough. Syrah Eidre, who I believe met with them personally, would recognize that. She’d have acquired leverage.”

“So the woman her son that Jahangir picked up were related to one of them?” Ursa asked.

Apatos nodded. “A parent and younger brother. Eidre may have bit off more than she can chew with that particular threat.”

“Why track them down? Why poke the nest?”

“Because they vanished.” Apatos let out a sigh. “I had to know what had happened to them.”

“And that was worth getting my—“ Owl caught herself. “Worth our deaths?”

“No.” The woman sank back onto the couch again. “I truly didn’t expect this to happen. I’ve been playing my cards carefully, but whatever the reason, UNSEC is trying to bury this as deeply as possible. But …” She paused, her mouth closing for a moment. “Look, I truly am sorry. I know that doesn’t mean much right now, but I am. But my work isn’t done yet. There’s more going on, elements I cannot tell you about. I didn’t bring you here just to apologize. It’s one reason, as is giving you a place to lay low and recuperate.” She gave a knowing nod in Ursa’s direction. “But I need you four. If Bora was willing to kill Valerie … There’s more going on than just the three agents I’m trying to track down. There’s too much security.”

“It has to do with Pisces, doesn’t it?” Anvil asked. “You know something. Something important.”

Apatos answered Anvil with a slow nod. “I do. It’s … Look, I don’t have all the details. But—“

“You want to offer us more work.” It wasn’t a question.

“I do,” Apatos said with a nod. “There are still things that need to be done. I’ve been working with someone else caught up in all this. We’ve been pooling our resources. Coming up with a plan. If it works, not only will I get the answers I need, but I’ll have an out.”

“An out?” Anvil shook her head. “From this?”

“Yes, an out. Off Earth. And a way to maybe start making up for all the mistakes I’ve made.”

The room went silence. “You’re serious,” Anvil said after a moment. “On it.”

“Very.”

“How do we know you didn’t set this up to get us to keep working for you?” Adah asked.

“I …” Apatos mouth opened and closed twice before she replied. “It’d be a foolish attempt. I’d have been better off keeping you in the UN’s good graces and offering more money.”

Adah nodded. “True.”

“I did not mean for things to happen this way. I would much rather Valerie be alive and telling me that she wouldn’t accept another job than all this.” Again she looked at each of them. “I’m just trying to make the most of what I have.”

“So what’s your offer?” Anvil shrugged as Adah’s gaze whirled on her. “What? No harm in asking. We’re dead here now.”

“Asylum to Pisces.”

Ursa spat out a laugh. “You’re joking.”

“No. No I’m not.”

“You’re serious. What are we going to do? Steal a starship?”

“Hey, space pirate has always been on my bucket list,” Anvil said. “Maybe—“

“No no.” Ursa rose. “This is crazy. How would we get to Pisces?”

“How about in a stolen UNSEC diplomatic courier shuttle?” Apatos said, rising to meet her. Ursa’s jaw dropped. “Fat Shrimp was a loathsome man, but his people did good work. I have the clearance codes.”

“But you haven’t left,” Adah pointed out. “Why? For this woman?”

“More than that.” Apatos tapped at her datapad, and the emitters around the fire pit came to life. “As far as I can tell, my agents were taken off-world. Where they were taken? That information is more secret then secret. They don’t even exist inside the UNSEC datanet. Believe me, I’ve looked. My … contemporary, shall we say, is here on Earth to find one specific thing, and steal it. I’ve pooled my resources with theirs on the condition that they help me achieve my goals.”

“Information on your agents’ whereabouts.”

“Yes.”

“But they’re off-world,” Ursa noted. “Even with a stolen shuttle you probably wouldn’t be able to recover …”

She paused. Stolen data. Shuttle. Orbital records. Our other client. “Your new partner is from Pisces. They were a spy, weren’t they?”

Apatos nodded. “They are.”

“There’s only one thing they’d want to steal.”

Again, Apatos nodded. “Indeed.” Behind her, on the display, a single image appeared. A flat picture almost a century old. The only image of the most protected device in the world. “Something the UN has buried and used to their favor for decades. The secret of secrets. Schematics for a working FTL drive.”

“Okay,” Anvil said after a second or so had passed. “First? Your new partner is crazy. Second …” She turned, looking at Ursa. “How in the hell did you guess that?”

“What else would Pisces want?” Ursa asked with a shrug. “We said it on the train in Norway: The UN has the navy. All Pisces can do is hold out. But if they have their own FTL drive, one they don’t have to figure out on their own …”

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Adah said. Her eyes looked almost as wide as Ursa’s felt. “That’s all it takes.” She let out a little laugh. “Whoever’s running things over there doesn’t think small.”

“You have no idea,” Apatos said, shaking her head. “Believe me. But being the secret of secrets, that information, wherever it is, will also share a databank with where my agents were sent.”

“And the leverage?” Owl asked.

Apatos smiled, the expression grim. “Alive, I suspect, and in the same place. Did any of you look up the name of Netra Bora?”

“Yeah,” Adah said. “I did. She’s a wraith.”

“More than that,” Apatos said, her smile fading. “Not even her location is listed anywhere. Which can only mean one thing: She works at a black site. Doing research and development. A black site which would have access to the data I and my strange partner need.”

“But there’s more than that,” Apatos said, tapping at her datapad again. The image behind her changed, instead becoming a sequence of orders, followed by coordinates. “This is the firing command for the hypersonic cruise missile that took out your base and killed Valerie. And that,” she said, stabbing at the image, “is the authorization identity of the woman who ordered it. You can verify the authenticity yourself.

“Director Bora.” Owl’s pronunciation was almost a hiss.

“Yes.” Apatos looked angry now. And that was fine. Ursa could feel it too, even above the throbbing in her side.

“We all have something each of us wants,” Apatos continued. “I need that information. My partner needs the FTL schematics. Bora would have access to both, plus Eidre’s leverage. Help me get what I want, and I’ll get you all off-world. To Pisces. I don’t know what they’ll have for money when we get there, but I’ll make sure you get as much of it as you can. But above all that, I can give you one more thing all of us want.” Her face went hard, her lips pressing into a thin, narrow line.

Revenge.”

*             *             *

The mansion’s medical suite, Ursa decided as she lay on the table, was definitely far superior to the Stalker’s small autodoc. Hard-light hands shifted her to one side, cradling her atop a hard-light table that was contoured to the very shape of her body. Small mechanical arms with spindly attachments were hard at work on her side, poking in and out of her injuries as a nearby display—which moved to face whichever direction the table rolled her—kept track of her vitals and informed her of the machine’s progress.

Minimal infection. Owing to my augments, she read. Smart little doc. I wonder how much this costs?

And how illegal it is to run it without a medical doctor present? The owner of the mansion, whatever his name was, had clearly hacked it to run without that requirement. Not that it needed it for injuries like hers.

Stitching wound four. She tilted her head slightly to see the machine spraying her injury with a thin, clear substance, several smaller manipulators holding the wound shut. Funny how we call it “stitching” when most of the time we don’t do that anymore. And the rare occasions it was done, it was seen as a last resort. The name stuck.

Gently the machine rolled her back onto her back, spindly arms making final checks of her injuries. The door to the medical center opened outward, and Ursa shifted her eyes away from the working medical suite to see Adah stride in. She was clad in plainclothes.

“You’re awake?” Adah asked, clearly surprised as she came to a stop a few feet back from the edge of the bed. “I came to see if you were due to come out soon, but I didn’t think you’d be awake.”

“Didn’t feel like throwing up twice in one day,” Ursa replied, turning her eyes back to the machine as it sprayed another coat of antiseptic over each of her side injuries. “Where’d you get the clothes?”

“There’s a whole selection of cheap, disposable clothing in the rooms for the serving staff,” Adah said, leaning against a nearby countertop. “Took a shower too. I needed it.” She paused, her eyes tracing the path of the medical suite’s arms. “And from the look of your shirt, I’m guessing you’ll want some too.”

“Yeah,” Ursa said as the machine gently lifted her up into a seated position, swinging her legs out in front of her and supporting her back with more of the hard-light panels. “This shirt has definitely seen better days.” Between the autodoc aboard the Stalker and the medical suite, only half of the original material remained, and much of that had been peeled back. She smirked. “And don’t let me catch you staring either.”

“Oh for—It was one time!” Adah said, rolling her eyes. “And it was unintentional. What are you, six?”

Ursa just laughed. It felt … good. Like a pressure release from somewhere deep inside. “Come on, Adah, I’m just messing you. Granted, it doesn’t help that I’m sitting here mostly exposed.”

“Doctors have a tendency to do that,” Adah noted as the machine went to work on the wound in Ursa’s arm. “Also, if I’m going to be staring at anything it’s that hard-light paneling you’re lying on. Is that comfortable?”

“It contoured in real-time.”

Adah let out a low whistle. “I’ve never even heard of something like that. That’s gotta be pricey.”

“And new.” The machine dispatched a single, plastic-wrapped sterile digit into her shoulder, emerging a second later with a small fragment of blood-covered metal. “Works like a charm, though.”

“Does it even need a doctor?”

“Probably for anything it doesn’t have in its banks, but it’s done pretty well so far. How’s the rest of the team?”

“Cleaning up, like I did. Anvil’s expressed a little bit of commentary on the latest turn of events, mostly with regards to making Bora pay.”

“And Owl?”

Adah let out a sigh. “She cleaned up, claimed a room, and hasn’t been out since. I tried talking with her, but …” She looked up. “You were pretty close with Castillo. Maybe you could try talking with her?”

“I was close because Castillo knew my actual name,” Ursa replied. “And my family. Owl and Castillo, well … They were like a mother and daughter. Kind of really were, all said and done. They just … never called each other that.”

Adah nodded but didn’t speak. The medical suite was finishing up, now, a clear pipette partially inserted into Ursa’s arm and slowly releasing a mix of nanites and a sludgy reconstructive material for them to work with.

“I can try talking to her,” Ursa said as the pipette slowly withdrew. It was weird to watch, as part of her mind insisted she should be able to feel the thin object pulling out of her arm. “But I don’t know how much help I’ll be. I’ll still try,” she added quickly, looking up at Adah. “She’s one of us. And we’re all we’ve got at the moment.”

“For now, anyway,” Adah replied. “How do you feel about Apatos?”

It was a change in topic, but a welcome one. “She still reminds me of someone who works for a megacorp. She might be sad that things have gone down the way they have, but she’s not backing off of executing her vision, either.”

“You think she really is sorry?”

She thought for a moment, watching as the medical suite applied another layer of antiseptic. “I think she is. She’s working her own angles, but she sounded sorry. She could be a good actor, but she did know the commander. Unless she somehow fooled Castillo these last few weeks into thinking she was someone else.”

“Which is possible.”

“On the other hand,” Ursa continued. “If she was out to screw us, all it’d take right now is a single alert to just about anybody.”

“Well, I did some digging of my own,” Adah said, pulling out her phone. “She does appear to be who she claims.” An image appeared in the air above her phone, one that bore a striking if not identical appearance to the woman they’d just spoken with.”

“That does look like her,” Ursa said with a nod. A quick glance at the medical suite’s display showed it was almost done. “Probably wouldn’t hurt to get a bit more verification.”

“If she wants us to trust her, she’d better offer it.”

“Might as well get her to admit her new ‘partner’ is that weirdo who gave us the other jobs, too.”

Adah’s head snapped up from her phone. “Wait, what? How?”

She almost shrugged, catching herself at the last second. “Deduction. Both her and that weirdo were after orbital records, right? So we did the observatory job to get a second copy of what we stole for Apatos.”

“Okay. And?”

“We took down the relays in Mexico, meaning that no one could see what was going on for a while, right? Again, orbital related. Then we staged a raid so that we could let a snooper sniff around the logistics network.”

Adah frowned. “What’s the connection?”

“Well,” Ursa said as the table pressed her forward to sit on her own once more, the contoured back panels fading away. “If you were looking to get your hands on FTL schematics, where would you start? They’re built on Earth, so the best place to start would be—“

“Shipping records,” Adah said, her eyes widening. “Starting with the elevators. See if there’s anything that could be explained as an FTL drive going up.”

“And if that wasn’t it …?” Ursa prompted.

“Check the orbital logs. Like we said, you could use any empty spaces to theorize classified flight paths, trace them back to their points of origin … and then if you knew the points of origin and got access to supply logs from logistics centers, you could cross-compare the patterns …”

“Exactly.” The machine retreated away from Ursa, folding itself back up to engage in self-sterilization. A friendly chime let her know that she was free to get down from the table. “Which would let you narrow down a source.”

“I’ll admit, that’s a pretty good case of deductive reasoning.”

She shrugged. “I was lying on a table with a medical bot poking me in the side. Got thinking about it.”

“I wonder why Apatos didn’t mention that bit?”

“She might not have known about it,” Ursa offered as she examined her shirt. It was ruined. And I liked this shirt too. “Or she just figured it wasn’t worth mentioning while she recruited us.”

“Well, and if her partner really is a spy, there’s definitely compartmentalization involved,” Adah noted. “Here, I’ll show you where the rooms are.”

“Thanks.” They moved out of the medical unit, Ursa stretching her recently stitched-up arm. “So, was it just Owl you wanted to ask me about?”

“No,” Adah said with a shake of her head. “Apatos wants to meet with us as soon as we’ve cleaned up and taken care of things. Lay out her plan of attack for finding and hitting this black site.”

Ursa shook her head as they moved up a set of hard-light steps. “I suppose they can’t condemn us to more deaths than they already have.” The stairs let them out in another wide room, ringed by small sets of doors.

“Anvil, myself, and Owl,” Adah said, pointing to three of the doors. “The wardrobes were stocked with clothes in a bunch of sizes. You might be a bit tight.”

She shrugged. “It is what it is. I’ve got a skinsuit is on the VTOL. If nothing else I’ll just wear that.”

“Probably going to be doing a lot of that anyway. When you’re done cleaning up, the kitchen will have lunch. Apatos said she’d meet us there.”

“Giving us food for an empty stomach during a debriefing? That’s a client I can get behind.”

Adah smiled. “Glad to hear it. I’ll see you there. And later, after we talk with Apatos, we’ll think about something to do for Castillo.”

Ursa nodded and picked one of the doors Adah hadn’t pointed to at random. Despite clearly being a smaller room, meant for service staff rather than the owner, it was still extravagantly plush, and the shared bathroom showed no signs of having been touched by any other occupant.

Maybe it was the decadent lushness of the room, but she lingered in the shower, washing away the grime and blood of the night before and letting the hot water rush over her sore injuries, bouncing off of the nanocoat. Her shirt was a total loss, but the pants she’d been wearing were still functional, if bloody. Her panties were in a similar state, and she tossed both into a washer-dryer in one corner of her room before searching the wardrobe for replacements.

There was a small selection of bras, but none of them were remotely made for her physique. Nor were many of the other clothes choices made available to her, the skinsuit sounding like a better proposition with each passing moment.  But I’d rather not walk to the VTOL naked. She settled for the largest men’s t-shirt she could find and a pair of shorts that were similar, and from the cut meant for someone more rotund than Amazonian.

It’ll have to do. Feeling more human, she left the room, looking for the kitchen and following her nose as it picked up the scent of heavy spices.

“Ursa!” Anvil looked up from a platter of … something, mouth half full. “Come on in! This guy buys real meat. Range stuff.”

Her mouth watered. “And since we’re stealing from him, we may as well take advantage of it?”

“Hell yes,” Anvil said with a laugh. She’d pulled a stool up next to an island, probably either for food prep or the serving staff to eat from, and Ursa followed her lead, eyeing the plate sitting in front of Anvil.

“So what is it?”

“Some African dish, I think?” Anvil shrugged. “Tastes pretty good, and this is real goat, according to the label.”

“It still came in a box?”

“Leftovers,” Anvil replied. “Found it in the freezer. Probably some chef saving it for later. There’s a whole pile of stuff in there.”

“Frozen pork? Real pork?”

“Probably,” Anvil said, speaking through a full mouth.

As it turned out, there was. Three whole pigs worth, in fact, carefully sealed and partitioned in a walk-in freezer that probably cost a decent chunk of one of her last paychecks. The rest of the kitchen was just as well stocked, and by the time Adah arrived Ursa had a large pan sizzling away on the range.

“Our host is pretty gracious with his stocks, I see,” Adah said as she took a seat at the island. “What’s cooking?”

Ursa grinned. “Pork chops, just like my dad used to make. But not as good, cause they ain’t his. But better, because we’ve got real pork. So somewhere around there.” She slid another handful of chopped onions into the pan, steam hissing as they hit the hot oil.

“Anvil couldn’t wait, I see.”

“Hey,” Anvil said, voice muffled as she swallowed. “I’ll have a pork chop too. I was just hungry.”

“There’ll be plenty for all of us” Ursa said. “Plus, the commander always did enjoy my dad’s pork chop recipe.”

They all went quiet for a moment, the only sound the sizzle of pork and onion. “We should set a plate out for her,” Adah said after a moment.

“Agreed. The first one. And pour her a drink.”

“There’s beer in the back, on it,” Anvil said, rising from her seat. “I’ll see if they have her favorite one.”

“Get me one as well,” Adah said. “Something light.”

“Every beer is light with us,” Anvil shot back. “Especially me.”

“We know. I don’t want much, but if the commander’s going to drink …”

“I know what to do.” She disappeared into one of the side doors, the cool chill that rushed out of it suggesting that it was another cooler. A little later she returned, holding a single bottle. “It’s not her preferred type, but it’s the brand. There’s gotta be shot glasses here somewhere. She gets the bottle, we get the shots.”

A few minutes later Owl arrived and took a seat with the others, nodding but saying nothing.

“We’re having lunch,” Ursa said. “And a bit of a memorial for the commander.” She nodded in the direction of the bottle at one end of the island. “It’s not much, but it was a meal she always enjoyed.”

“Good.” It was a response at the least.

The pork was finally done, and Ursa scooped the first two pieces out of the pan, setting them atop a plate and sprinkling green onions over them before passing it to Adah, who placed it at the head of the island alongside the bottle of beer. She served up the next four plates in quick seq     uence, sliding the pan off the heat and sitting down around the island with the others.

One by one each of their eyes shifted to the empty space at the “head” of the island, where Castillo’s plate sat steaming. “We should say something,” Anvil said. “Like how we met her.”

“She saved me from a couple of gangs,” Ursa said, reaching out and picking up her shot, holding it above her plate and eyeing the liquid. “I pissed off one too many fixers, they all decided I needed to die. Castillo showed up in full armor, took all of them out. Blocked a couple of bullets meant for me. She offered me a job while they were still bleeding in the alley. Saved my life.”

“She showed up at my family’s house,” Adah said, lifting her glass. “After I left HailStorm. There was just something about her, you know? She introduced herself, and we talked, and I was sold.” She looked around the table. “I never regretted it.”

“She showed up in a cloak and sat down at my table to wait for me while I was getting another drink.” Anvil lifted her glass. “Never saw her wear a cloak again after that, but it got my attention. She told me I could blow things up for the right reasons and not worry about it. So I was in. Plus … she covered my tab. It was pretty big.”

Their eyes shifted to Owl, who reached out and picked up her own glass in a trembling hand. “She saved me. Gave me everything.”

Adah lifted her glass higher. “To the commander. Valerie Castillo. She made us who we are. May the Valkyries meet her with open arms on the other side.”

“To the big boss,” Anvil said, raising her glass higher as well. “May her glass always be full.”

Ursa lifted hers. “To Castillo. May she find peace among the dead in spirit paradise.”

“To my …” Owl’s voice caught slightly. “To my mother. I love you, mom. Thank you. For everything.”

Their glasses rang as they tapped them together and drank. Ursa set hers down, glancing at the spot left open at the island with tears in her eyes. So long, commander.

Later, they threw the bottle out into the surf, watching as it tumbled out over the waves, spilling amber fluid into the wind.

See you again someday.


 

 

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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