Scythia

Earth Alliance Colony
                                                                                                                                                                        

Alex exited the levtram and crossed the elevated terrace at a hurried, clipped pace. She made a passing attempt at reminding herself she wasn’t technically beholden to a schedule, but soon abandoned the effort. This stop on Scythia represented a detour, in time if not so much in location, and she intended to treat it as such.

The request for an in-person meeting had been waiting on her when woke up this morning. She almost declined, but in truth she was right there. Her planned route took her less than a hundred parsecs north of Scythia’s system. It still meant a delay of several hours in reaching her ultimate destination, but Astral Materials had proved a lucrative client. It would be folly to snub them.

Her gaze lingered on the glittering teal waters which stretched beyond the terrace as she neared the Astral offices. The gentle but dramatic tides intruded as much as eight hundred meters inland at their high point. This had led settlers to situate the coastal city largely on a series of elevated platforms, thus allowing them to enjoy the scenic and fertile environment free of constant water damage and its insidious, corrosive effects. The platforms eventually met the sloping coastal plain, and the city continued to spread across drier land; the prime real estate was above the sea, however.

The glass doors of the mid-rise building opened on her approach. It wasn’t her first visit, and she proceeded directly up to the Astral Materials executive suite on the 5th floor.

Isas Onishi greeted her as she entered, presumably having been alerted to her arrival. “Ms. Solovy, it’s a pleasure as always. Shall we go to my office?”

A pleasure so long as she continued to make him money, anyway. She shook his hand brusquely and encouraged the movement toward his office. “Yes, please. I’m afraid I don’t have long.”

“I understand. You’re a busy woman, as I am a busy man.”

She didn’t hold out for an invitation to drop into one of the chairs facing his desk. Floor-to-ceiling windows spanning two of the four walls provided a stunning view of the ocean and evoked a sensation of floating. Onishi was doing very well for himself.

“Your Lacertae discovery continues to impress, Ms. Solovy. It’s going to help us build the safest, most durable space stations in the galaxy.”

“Glad to be of service.” The earnings bought me a new lattice layer for the Siyane, three top-of-the-line scanners and a supply of long-range probes, so quite glad. “What can I do for you?”

He settled into his chair opposite her. “I’m giving you first refusal rights on a new contract. Spectrum surveys of M11 have identified an interesting L red dwarf hosting four planetoids. The system shows strong spectral lines of a magnesium/chromium isotope, one which should be paramagnetic. We need someone to confirm the findings and determine if, as we hope, the planetoids contain harvestable concentrations of the metal.”

“Interesting. What’s the timetable?”

“That’s why I was glad to learn you were in the area—you’d need to get out there in the next couple of days. We’re not the only ones in possession of the survey data, and both Palaimo Metallurgy and Surno Materials are doubtless planning their own expeditions as we speak. If we want discovery privileges, we have to move fast.”

Alex groaned inwardly. M11 was in the other direction from Metis, well to the northwest past Arcadia. “Fee?”

“Forty thousand credits up front and irrespective of your findings, Ͻ20,000 on proof of harvestable material and another Ͻ40,000 if we succeed in claiming the system.”

Her mind leapt to what the proceeds could translate into: a more efficient power allocation optimizer for the Siyane and two new ware customizations for her eVi she’d been researching, for starters, with forty thousand or so left over for savings and whims. Kennedy kept mentioning them taking a vacation to some new resort on Atlantis….

But she had her own plans. The whole point of being a freelance scout, and an unusually successful one, was the freedom to set her own schedule. To go where she wanted when she wanted. To serve no boss and owe no obligations outside negotiated contracts.

And she wanted to go to Metis. She wanted a new mystery to unravel.

She managed to look regretful. “I’m sorry, Mr. Onishi. I’m booked for the next month.”

He regarded her from across the desk as his fingertips drummed on its surface. Five seconds ticked by…he dipped his chin. “And if I tack on an additional twenty percent to the fee?”

Her lips pursed, buying herself a breath to reconsider. “That’s very generous of you, and I appreciate the vote of confidence. Unfortunately, there’s simply no way for me to rearrange my schedule.”

Onishi threw his arms in the air and slid his chair back. “I shouldn’t be surprised you’re booked up. I suppose I’ll have to engage someone else, then, as time really is of the essence. Terrence Macolly perhaps. He’s submitted competitive bids on several recent contracts.”

She smirked as she stood. “If you’re willing to accept a sloppy investigation and unreliable data, go right ahead. If you want it done in a professional manner, hire Santino Dominguez instead.”

“He’s even pricier than you are.”

“True, but he gets results.” She gave Onishi a half-smile. “Don’t tell him I said so, though.”

“My lips are sealed.” He walked her to the door of the suite, still courteous despite her rejection.

She accepted his outstretched his hand again; no reason to alienate a well-paying client. “Please let me know when another opportunity arises. Hopefully my schedule will be more accommodating in the future.”

“I’ll do so, Ms. Solovy. Safe travels to you.”

S

Alex stared at the billboard hovering above the glass doors.

She’d been headed for the exit with single-minded purpose when the colorful holo brought her to an abrupt halt and demanded her undivided attention. It accomplished this feat by blasting a promo for a ‘special acoustic performance’ by Ethan Tollis at the Seaspray Amphitheatre on the adjacent platform.

Tonight.

Damn Kennedy for seeding her subconscious with thoughts of Ethan the other day. She scowled at the promo, eyes narrowed, until it cycled to the next ad, and tried to pretend she wasn’t checking the local time.

Seven hours from now. Of course if she were to stay for the show, it would be far longer than seven hours before she was again en route. More like tomorrow…afternoon.

It was as if the gods themselves were conspiring to entice her away from Metis. First the Deep Space Exploration job offer, then the Astral Materials contract and now this. A rather vivid image of what staying promised to bring flared in her mind—a final, deliciously prurient temptation.

But she would not be deterred. She squared her shoulders in a show of defiance, exhaled…and turned away from the billboard. By the time she hit the terrace, she had resumed her hurried, clipped pace. She had a nebula to explore.

S


Seneca

Cavare
                                                                                                                                                                        

Caleb had gotten as far as the hallway to his apartment when the alert flashed in his eVi. As soon as he saw the header he opened the file.

Cavare Police Department

Harassment Report:  1628 - 02.09.2322

Complainant:  Dr. Jesse Valente

Suspect:  Mr. Francis Gerod

Summary: Complainant stated that Mr. Gerod, a coworker at Hemiska Research, physically assaulted her this evening as she was leaving work.

According to her statement, she and Mr. Gerod had a heated disagreement during a staff meeting. He followed her out of the building, and when she refused to converse with him he yanked her arm roughly. She escaped his grip, but he pursued her to her vehicle and slammed the vehicle door shut before she could climb in, nearly crushing her hand. She retrieved a stunner from her bag and pointed it at him until he backed away, at which point she departed.

Complainant displays bruises on her left forearm (visuals attached) consistent with a handprint. She stated that she did not initially report the altercation because she “prefers to handle problems on her own.” She reconsidered after realizing if Mr. Gerod came to her home, he posed a threat to her four-year-old twins.

Complainant doesn’t wish to file charges at this time, but wanted to ensure there was an official record of the incident.

Status: Officers interviewed Francis Gerod at 1840 tonight. He admitted to having an “unpleasant encounter” with Complainant but denied he intended to harm her physically. He claimed he was upset about problems at work, but once he cooled off he recognized he had overreacted.

Mr. Gerod received a warning and was informed a second incident would result in arrest and formal charges.

The alert had been sent due to a flag Caleb maintained in the Senecan security network. It was one of many he’d placed over the last fifteen years. Some were on people he’d investigated in the past, individuals he suspected were dirty but who hadn’t yet made enough of a mistake to get caught. Those flags were designed to alert him when that mistake occurred. Others were on people he cared about—or had once cared about, as was the case here—and were designed to warn him if they might be in trouble.

Jesse wouldn’t want him protecting her. As she had admitted in the police statement, she took care of her own problems. But he hadn’t asked her permission.

Caleb went inside his apartment long enough to grab a nanobot injection to speed the metabolizing of the alcohol in his bloodstream. The evening at the bar with Noah had been entertaining, but he needed to be sober when he reached Francis Gerod.

S

Gerod lived in a townhouse on the outskirts of the Tellica University campus. The man’s file indicated his wife and two young children lived there as well. In deference to the children, Caleb didn’t intend to break down the door…unless it became necessary.

Twenty minutes after he arrived and set up surveillance across the street, Gerod exited his townhouse and headed for the community parking lot behind the building. He was alone.

Caleb followed.

Though night had fallen in full, it wasn’t inordinately late. Nevertheless, the streets were sparsely populated, a symptom of the family-friendly nature of the neighborhood. He slipped unnoticed into the lot and closed on Gerod as he approached his vehicle.

He had the man locked in an armbar and shoved into the vehicle’s frame before the man knew he was there.

“What—”

Caleb used his body to keep Gerod pinned against the frame while he clasped a hand over the man’s mouth. “You’re going to want to not scream, or the arm that will then be broken will be the least of your concerns. Are we clear?”

Gerod nodded haphazardly. Caleb couldn’t see the man’s eyes, but he could feel the terror in his quivering limbs. He waited two seconds then withdrew his hand slightly.

“Wha-what do you want? I don’t have any valuables with me!”

“I’m not here to rob you. I’m here to kill you. Unless—” his palm slammed back onto the man’s mouth to stifle the cry “—unless you make me a promise and keep it for the rest of your life.” He paused to let the information sink in. “Are you ready to hear what the promise is?”

Another wild nod.

His lips hovered at the man’s ear. “You will never lay another finger on Jesse Valente. You will never threaten or in any way whatsoever cause harm to her or her family. You will be polite and respectful to her at all times. When you next see her, you will apologize for your rude behavior and assure her you bear no ill feelings toward her.”

Gerod squirmed in agitation. He stood no chance of escaping Caleb’s grasp, but he seemed to be protesting in some manner.

Caleb loosened his hand but didn’t completely remove it. “I sincerely hope you’re not planning on refusing to give this promise.”

Spittle landed on his palm as Gerod began sputtering out a response. “N-no. I promise—I swear. It’s just I don’t know if I’ll see her again so I can apologize. You see, I got a new job offer tonight. I sent my resignation to Hemiska a few minutes ago. So it all worked out! I’m not even mad at her anymore.” His words increasingly ran together in a fevered outburst. “I-I’m thankful, really. That business at the office forced me to finally make the decision to leave it behind. But I would never hurt her. I was angry and scared I was going to get fired. But she’s a nice woman. A little intimidating, honestly—but I respect her.” He sucked in a frayed breath. “Please don’t kill me.”

Unseen from his position behind Gerod, Caleb rolled his eyes at the sky but made certain his voice remained suitably frightening. “I told you what you have to do in order to live.”

“But I—”

“If you won’t see her again, you will send her a nice, extended, groveling apology by the end of the day tomorrow. If you don’t, I’ll know.” It would require a bit of hacking on his part, but the active police investigation should make it easier. “The police are watching you, and now I’m watching you. Never, ever forget it.”

“I won’t.” Gerod tried to twist back, but Caleb tightened his grip and held him fast. The man didn’t need to get a look at his face. “I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” He released the man from the grapple and stepped away.

Gerod stumbled around and peered into the darkness, but Caleb was already gone.

S

Jesse Valente laughed as her husband massaged her shoulders and murmured something in her ear. The tender moment was soon interrupted by a blur of motion as two squealing mops of blond hair barreled into them then whirled out of the room.

Leaning against a tree across the street, Caleb smiled, genuinely glad to see her happy. He mentally ticked off the items on his list and confirmed he’d checked everything. Dr. and Dr. Valente had a robust security system installed on the grounds and in their home—so robust he’d almost tripped one of the proximity sensors during his perimeter survey.

Satisfied, he departed for his apartment for the second time that night.

He had found one weakness in the security system, a gap in the sensors in the left rear of the property. Several trees had grown wide enough there that an intruder could climb up and reasonably leap onto the roof without setting off any alarms. When he got home he’d access the police database and add an instruction for a security consultant to be sent out to the residence, including a note to pay particular attention to the left rear area. While he was in the network, he’d also add a new flag for Francis Gerod.

Then he’d get some sleep, because, comm scrambler now acquired, he’d be leaving for Metis in the morning.

~


Starshine

Aurora Rising: Book One

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