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Feb. 14, 3306

UNKNOWN

I heard voices in my sleep. Foreign voices. Someone barking orders. Someone panicking. Someone reassuring me. If I concentrated, as much as I could while unconscious, I could almost make out direction of their voices. The gender behind them. Men. Women. I heard a voice I swore was Elly's. She would talk for the longest time. Then Looper's. I think it was Looper's. He didn't say much. But I got the feeling he was trying to comfort me.

I felt pressure on my hand. On my chest. The voice sounded familiar. Everything was growing distant. Every time I could get close to the sensations, I would be drawn back.

The dreams melded into the sensations. The nightmares stopped, but not before I was begging whatever god watched over the cosmos to spare my friends the horrible things done to them. I watched them torn apart, reassembled, then eviscerated in a thousand ways.

Towards the end, I thought the dreams were reality. And then the voices and the moving sensations took over. 'Relieved' was not strong enough a word for it.

The voices came and went. The pressure on my hand and chest. . . stayed. There was a light all around. A soft glow. It called to me.

My eyes ached when they opened. Everything was out of focus. White fuzz with a dark splotch down and to the right. I was sitting upright. There was a subtle, quiet beep, beep, beep sound coming from my left. I looked over. A monitor displayed a green line that jumped a few times a second.

Looking down, I saw something attached to my finger. Plastic lines hooked to my arm, and IV drip hovering over my bed. I was in a hospital room. Had to be.

The dark splotch was a head of raven black hair. My right hand squeezed by familiar fingers. Soft and smooth. The smell of Carlotta's hair product made me smile.

"Hey there, beautiful," I said, my quiet croaking voice barely registering in my ears.

Carlotta snapped awake, lifting her head off my chest. Breathing in sharply, she looked around quickly, then looked at me. She looked relieved and then moved in to kiss me. I couldn't resist and II weakly kissed her back. God it felt like I hadn't seen her in months.

"Welcome back," she said.

"How long was I out?"

"A little over a week, now."

"Watching me this whole time?"

"Most of it. I should get a doctor, I'll be right back."

"OK. Not gonna fight you."

Carlotta got up and practically leapt out into the hallway. She called down the hall for a nurse to signal a doctor. I let my head fall back against the pillow.

Everything was white. The chairs. The table. The window curtains. Everything save for my sheets, which were a pale sea green color. I tried moving to stretch my arms and legs, they responded slowly. My entire body complained with the movement.

That's when I noticed the pale scars criss-crossing my arms. Carlotta was back at my side. She put her hand in mine.

"I should've been faster," she said, tracing the pinkish lines with her other hand. "I'm so sorry."

"It's OK. Heard chicks dig a guy with scars." A wave of exhaustion hit me and made me fall back into a resting position. "I'm really tired, babe. "

"Doctor's on her way here. Just stay up for a little while longer."

I tried. I really did. I passed out. Right before I did, I realized that I could see Carlotta, her fine jaw line, her cute nose and sea-blue eyes, through my left eye. That didn't square with what I remembered from the torture, but I filed it away and let myself sleep some more.


ACHERON, CAPITOL, IMPERIAL GRACE GENERAL HOSPITAL

Woke up the next day to a doctor knuckling my chest. My eyes felt lighter than yesterday, but I still didn't enjoy being woken up.

"Oh good, responding to external stimuli, now," she said. It was a woman in a white coat, scrubs, with pixie hair as white as the room. Carlotta, Looper and Elly waited at the foot of the bed, all of them happy to see me do what anyone would do after having the bejesus dug out of your sternum.

"Cynic!" Elly jumped up and down, I could tell she wanted to jump on the bed but Looper kept a hand on her.

"Let the doctor finish," he chided her.

"She's alright, I'm almost done," the doctor said. She held a light up to my eyes, checked the plugs and IVs attached to me. "Most of his injuries have healed very well. We'll keep him here for another week for observation, then he should be well enough to go." She smiled at me and walked out the door.

"Hi guys," I weakly said.

Elly couldn't contain herself anymore. She skipped around to the side of the bed and crawled onto it enough to give me a hug around my neck. I managed a chuckle and hugged her back. Strands of blonde hair stuck to the stubble on my face.

"It's good to see you, kiddo," I said.

"We were worried about you," she said.

"I was worried about me, too. I'm OK, though." I closed my eyes and just enjoyed the attention. I patted Elly on the back as she released me.

"Do you like your new eye? I made sure they made one for you just like your old one."

"Oh yeah," I said, pressing my fingers delicately on the replacement. "So I have you to thank for that."

"Her and a, um, generous and grateful benefactor," Looper said, giving Carlotta a look. "Apparently that new eye is from one of the finest cloning facilities on Achenar."

"Spared no expense," Carlotta interjected. "You're getting patched up good as new. Doc said the scars will go away in time, too."

"Drat. I was starting to like them."

I asked them what happened, as my memory gets really sketchy towards the end of my ordeal. They told me how they identified the CEO of the company that owned the building, how Elly spotted the signature forgeries, the plan to rescue me and the assault on the building. I was pleased to learn that it was almost entirely one-sided on our part.

"Buncha criminal masterminds, I managed to put together," I said. Everyone smiled at each other and nodded. "Thank you. Seriously, thank you. I'd probably be dead if it weren't for you."

"Well, we owed you," Looper said.

"Oh! I made you something," Elly said, running to the table by the window. There was a small duffle on the chair that she reached into. She pulled out something that glinted and sounded like metal as it left the confines of the pouch. She brought it up to me and I couldn't help but laugh.

"Is that the Golden Goose," I asked. It was a metal sculpture of a Faulcon deLacy Python made out of spare parts - nuts, screws, bolts, washers, I think I spied some spark plugs, and wire. She nodded excitedly.

"Dad helped me weld the pieces together but I designed it myself."

I took the model and turned it over in my hand. "I love it. Thanks, Elly."

She beamed.

"Come on, Elly, time to let Cynic and Carlotta have some time."

"Awww, but he just got up."

"Ellidia Marie Dilucca," Looper sternly said.

Elly growled. "Fiiiiine. Bye Cynic!"

"Bye, kiddo," I waved the model at her. Carlotta came up beside me as I set the gift to one side. I held open my arms and she fell right into them.

We just held each other for the longest time. No words. Just squeezing each other and listening to the other breath. It was infinitely comforting. Might be the medication but just having Carlotta near me felt like a weight being lifted off my heart.

She pulled back and we kissed. Goddamn was I a lucky bastard. "Was afraid I wasn't going to be able to do that again," I said.

She smiled. "Couldn't just leave you to them, now could I?"

"I'm glad you didn't. By the way, what happened to Hewitt?"

"Arrested. I delivered all the information we gathered to the Capitol Police." She pulled back, a look of concern on her face. "Cynic, there's something-"

There was a commotion out in the hall. Or the absence of one, rather. The noise of the hospital just seemed to cease and it sounded like an army was marching down the corridors.

Two men in black suits and tactical shades entered the room. Carlotta visibly stiffened, but didn't reach for the pistol at her side. One of them took up a position facing me against the inner most wall of the room. The other mumbled something after pressing his ear.

More movement outside. A woman in a grey and black dress, trimmed in gold walked in the room. Middle-aged with short, dirty blonde hair and a look of supreme confidence. Carlotta's eyes went wide and she stood straight up and bowed.

The last piece of the puzzle was the crown embedded in her neatly done hair.

I felt like an idiot, but I did my best to bow my head before Emperor Arissa Lavigny-Duval.

"You may leave us," she said, her voice firm and cold.

Her bodyguards withdrew, and Carlotta nervously followed them.

I. . . OK. I had no idea what to do. The Emperor seemed to be studying me as I laid there in nothing but a hospital gown and some thin sheets. I didn't know what the proper ettiquette was here. The beeping heart monitor betrayed my nervousness.

"Forgive me, your. . . highness? I'd stand but it's a bit difficult for me. I'm not sure what the proper etiquette here is."

Her stern face was expressionless for a minute. But then, to my relief, one corner of her mouth cracked into a smile. "The proper etiquette is to wait for your betters, in this case, your Emperor, to speak first. Judging by what I've been told, you're not very keen on such. . . niceties. You are Cynic, are you not?"

"Yes, ma'am." Ma'am? Jesus. I don't know how this woman did it, but I felt like I was back in grade school addressing my teacher as she tongue lashed me for tying little Susie's hair up in a knot. And all she did was walk in the room and be Emperor and shit.

"I've come here personally to thank you, Cynic. As your actions, and those of your friends, have put an end to a plot that I have been chasing for many, many years now."

"I assume this has to do with the girl?"

She nodded, solemnly.

"So. . . she IS a clone of your niece?"

Another nod.

"Why?"

"What do you know of my niece's politics, Cynic?"

"Nothing, ma'am. Except she doesn't really care for slavery."

"She is an abolitionist. My niece has been something of a thorn in the side of the Senate," the Emperor said. "More conservative elements within the military and Imperial society did not take kindly to her opinions."

"Elements like Angivale and Hewitt?"

"Yes. They plotted to replace her with someone more. . . pliable and amicable to Imperial traditions. My agents discovered the plot and alerted me when I was still just a princess."

This raised my eyebrows. "You weren't even the Emperor yet?"

"No. The ascension wasn't even on anyone's minds when this was brought to my attention."

"When was this?"

"I found out about the same time the child was born."

Three years before she became Emperor.

"Wait - forgive me, your highness-"

"Your Imperial majesty, would be the proper title."

"-Your Imperial majesty," I corrected, "You've known all this time and just now are catching up on things?"

"Dr. Tenesha Paulsen, one of the geneticists working for Hewitt, had. . . misgivings about the project. She got in contact with authorities after she had managed to spirit away the child.

Unfortunately, when she alerted us, Angivale and Hewitt were alerted as well. We thought, incorrectly, that both Dr. Paulsen and the child had been killed eight years ago.

The plot ended, the focus turned towards arresting those responsible. They covered their tracks too well. As you've seen, they closed down every company and business end they dealt with. We only had one lead - the authorities who leaked Dr. Paulsen's betrayal. That led us to Angivale.

A paranoid and thorough individual, the only way to get close to him was to install an agent of my own in his ranks."

Realization dawned on me, hitting me in the chest like a brick through a window. "Carlotta."

She nodded again. "Agent Huxley is in my personal employ. She was vital to the operation. You sped it up considerably with your recent activities."

I. . . I didn't know what to say or think at this point. I was too stunned to form a complete sentence in my head.

"The Empire is in your debt, Cynic. The house of the Emperor is in your debt. I am hear to offer my personal thanks." She bowed her head at me quickly, then returned.

"I, uh. . . you're welcome, ma'am. Can I ask you a question?"

"You may."

"What's going to happen to her? To Elly, I mean."

"Agent Huxley and my regents do not believe her to be a threat to the crown. I will not seek to interfere in her life, if she does not seek to interfere in mine or my family's.

For the sake of security, however, she will be monitored. Her medical records will be falsified. Her lineage kept secret. Beyond that, she will be free to do as she pleases."

"That's. . . more fair than I thought would be the case. Does Princess Duval know anything about this?"

"She does not," the Emperor said curtly, "nor will she."

That left a hanging silence in the room. This was a lot to chew and I still had meds pumping through my veins, addling my thoughts.

"And Carlotta?"

The Emperor tilted her head at me. "What of her?"

"Is she. . . going to remain in your service?"

The Emperor straightened herself. "Agent Huxley's business is her own. If you wish to know her intentions, I suggest speaking with her."

I nodded. "Fair enough. One last question and I won't occupy anymore of your time, your majesty."

She waited patiently.

"I know Angivale is dead - but this whole deal with Hewitt? And GenuSect? Is that going to be a problem?"

She cracked a cold, knowing half-smile at me. "Hewitt will be judged. GenuSect itself is being dealt with. You need not worry, as you were never there."

I nodded again. "Thank you, ma'am."

The Emperor walked towards the door and the guards outside sprang to life. She left, not looking back once. Her entourage quickly closed around her and the cacophony of voices resumed. The noise quieted. The hospital resumed operations.

I sat there for a good, long while in silence before Carlotta sheepishly wandered back in.

"Cynic?"

I looked at her as she walked towards the bed. She took my hand.

"So," I said, "Are there any other secrets you're holding from me?"

"I wanted to tell you," she said quietly. "Do you understand why I couldn't?"

"I do. But that doesn't mean I like it."

We stared at each other for a moment.

"Are you going to tell me why you joined the Imperial Navy?"

"Are you going to tell me your real name?"

We stared again.

"So. . . is this it," I asked.

She shook her head, then leaned in and kissed me. Not a "goodbye it was fun" kiss. An "I'm never leaving you and you better get used to it you stupid bastard" kiss. She pulled away after a long while.

"You're an idiot," she said.

"Just had to check."


ACHENAR, UNDISCLOSED PRISON COMPLEX

Dorian Hewitt stared at the plasteen walls of his cell. His old joints ached from laying on the flat, unyielding surface of the bench that doubled as his cot. The hum of a forcefield kept him from falling asleep. Well, that and the excruciating pain from his leg that wasn't healing right from the blaster wound.

There was a snap as the forcefield shut off. The quick tap of footsteps. Before Hewitt could move, a wire slipped over his head and cut into his throat. He tried to cry out but his larynx was crushed under the thick cable. He grasped and grabbed and struggled off the cot. He gagged and huffed until his vision began to fill with stars, then darken.

His final thoughts were of home. What would happen to his wife? His children? Who would take care of them now that he was no longer there?

He had no idea that they were waiting for him, already.


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SENATE IN MOURNING

Senator Dorian Hewitt was found dead by an apparent heart attack in his home late last night. His family, who could not be reached, were on vacation off-world at the time of his death. Authorities were alerted when one of his slaves found him in the morning.

"He was the nicest lord one could wish for," Jennel Arlath, mistress of slaves said to the press.

Fellow Senators and the Emperor have expressed their condolences, and each stated that they would pay their respects once the family had returned and been notified of Senator Hewitt's passing.

GENUSECT STOCKS PLUMMET

Rising genetics firm GenuSect was thrown into financial disarray yesterday following the unexpected deaths of CEO Dalton Machesky, killed in a car accident, and benefactor Imperial Senator Dorian Hewitt, dead by apparent heart attack in his home.

Members of the board could not be reached for comment, though an anonymous source close to the CEO stated that "the company was very closely tied to the Senator's and Mr. Machesky's interests. They loved this company and everyone in it like family. I'm sure this will pass."

Stocks for the company had lost 47% of their value since the announcement of the deaths this morning. The market has yet to display what the current stock market shares would be since the unconfirmed report of an industrial accident at the headquarters of GenuSect on Acheron last night.

CHARITY RECORDS BROKEN BY IMPERIAL VISIT

Emperor Arissa Lavigny-Duval made a surprise visit to Imperial Grace General Hospital last night. Like most hospitals in the Empire, charity and benefaction allow them to stay fiscally solvent.

"It is important that everyone under Imperial rule is seen to and that facilities are meeting standards of Imperial care," the Emperor said. "And, let's face it, sometimes you just wish to help people."

The visit kicked off a wave of donations to the Imperial Medical Fund that the Emperor's staff have stated, "will more than offset any cost" that the medical system is bearing for the current year.


SIX MONTHS LATER

SOMEWHERE IN AQUILA'S HALO

The sun beat down on the Sasha Nova's hull. Shears of worn, white paint glowing orange as the sun set below the horizon, it's reflection long across cresting waves. Triplet moons rose ahead of night on the other side of the sky. The sound of the waves pounding against the sand was something I would never get tired of.

The hammock strung up between one of the landing struts and a tree that managed to stay upright when we touched down swayed in a sweet smelling breeze coming off the water. Carlotta rested in the crook of my arm, breathing softly as we swayed there.

I sighed, content. At peace. Happy.

"Everything alright," Carlotta asked quietly. I almost didn't hear her over the surf. She shifted her body to look up at me.

"Everything's perfect," I said. "I could stay like this forever."

"Well at some point we should probably put some clothing on."

"Shhh. Don't ruin it."

She giggled. "When do you think we'll head back?"

"Dunno. It's only been. . ." I struggled to remember. How long had we been wasting away on this beach now?

"It's been six months, dear."

"Wow. Really? Holy shit."

"I love how you can just let details like that go. True Bohemian, you."

"Just like any other skill. One hones it through years of practice."

"Hmmm, I see."

I kissed her. "Were you getting antsy all alone on this planet with nothing to do but each other?"

"I love it here. I love you."

"Love you, too," I replied.

She kissed me. "But I do miss the eventfulness of the Bubble somedays."

"Yeah. You know what? I miss it, too. Wait, isn't Elly's birthday soon?"

"Next month."

I whistled in amazement. "Alright. Yeah. Best we make it home for that, then. No telling what the wunderkind will sick on us if we miss her birthday."

Carlotta giggled again and pressed close against me. The hand that had been resting on my chest began to wander south of my waist.

"Soooo, not leaving right now then?"

"Shut up and kiss me you bloody pirate," she whispered in my ear.

I did as I was told. It was just then that the perfect callsign for her popped in my head. "Whisper". Goddamn that was good. I couldn't wait to tell her.

She climbed on top of me, her cat-like balance keeping us from flipping over in the hammock.

OK, maybe I could wait just a little longer.

THE END . . . (END ANSIBLE TRANSMISSION)

Feb. 5, 3306

ACHENAR, CAPITOL, MACHESKY RESIDENCE

Dalton Machesky rode the elevator down from his loft apartment. He had a splitting headache, and pressed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He was getting older and he didn't like it. Falling asleep drunk was becoming harder and harder to recover from. He had taken some aspirin for the pounding in his skull but it did nothing for it. Nothing at all.

The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. He stepped out . . . and wondered where the hell his driver was. The poor weather had been going on for days - typical for a Capitol winter. He didn't like how his sports coupe handled in the cold so he ordered his slave Marco to start driving him to and from GenuSect headquarters. It had only been a few days, and Marco was never late picking him up or dropping him off.

That is, until today.

"Where the hell are you, Marco? I am not in the mood today."

He hit the call button on his wrist computer and pressed the number to reach his slave directly. This was unacceptable. The call rang and rang.

Finally, the car pulled out of its spot and began driving towards the pickup zone in front of the elevator doors.

The rear passenger door opened automatically for him and he climbed in.

"Marco, I know it's only been a few days but- JESUS CHRIST!"

A woman sat opposite him, wearing a skin-tight suit with all sorts of pads and pockets protruding from it. A pistol was aimed squarely at his head. Good god he was tired of seeing pistols aimed at his head this week.

"Close the door, Mr. Machesky."

He did. As surreptitiously as he could, he pressed the emergency button on his wrist comp. It beeped in failure. He pressed it again.

The woman held up a small device between her fingers with an antennae on one end. "Won't work. Not while this is on."

"What do you want."

"A few answers, a little access."

"Look, I can give you the codes to my personal account. Take all the money you want."

"You mean the money that is insured and the code that will trigger and emergency response squad the moment I try to access it? Nice try. You aristocrats are so easy to figure out."

"What do you want, then?"

"Where's Cynic?"

"Who?"

The pistol barrel lit up as a single PEWFT and a puff of gas exited it. Dalton clutched his chest, something small had dug in and he had no idea what it was.

"AGH! OK OK! Please don't shoot me anymore oh god."

"He's in the basement of GenuSect. Hewitt's driver brought him in yesterday morning."

"What are they doing to him?"

"I. . . I don't know."

Another shot hit him in the chest. The he was bleeding from pin prick holes that felt like they were tearing into him.

"GNF! Please!"

"What are they doing to him?"

"H-Hewitt sometimes brings people in for i-interrogation. Oh god what is burying into me?"

"Delayed explosive rounds."

"Oh god."

"Don't worry. They'll only explode if I activate them. Cooperate and your guts won't be painted all over that side of this very nice car."

"Oh god oh god." He wet himself. He couldn't help it. He knew Hewitt was going to get at the wrong end of someone and here they were threatening his life for something he didn't want anything to do with.

"Is there any way into the building?"

"I go in through the front door. There's several security zones between drop off points, parking lots and garages. . . it's impossible to get in if you aren't an employee. Hewitt had a military contractor design the building I don't know all of it's ins and outs."

"I want you to get Hewitt in the building."

"He - he's already there. Has been for two days. He was still there when I left last night."

This information seemed to surprise her, and she lowered the pistol ever so slightly. He took his chance. He popped the door open and ran for the elevator. Two sticatto pops sounded, and the next thing he saw was his legs as they fell to the ground, topped with a spurting mess of intestines that he used to be attached to.


Calotta grimaced at the gory death of Mr. Machesky. She looked at the pistol, gave an impressed nod, and holstered it. It helps to read the manual, after all. She knocked on the driver window. It lowered. Looper looked back, the original drive unconscious beside him.

"Damn. Did Cynic give you that toy?"

"He did."

"Why? What happened," Elly's voice came over the radios embedded in their ears.

"I'll tell you when you're older, honey," Looper said. "So. Same plan as before or do we improvise?"

"Elly? What do those schematics look like?"

"Ummmm," came the child over the comm, "He's not lying. I think I'm seeing multiple layers of shielding in the walls, security stations at every entrance, and fortified rooms with little windows in them near the main entrance. But there's a delivery dock around back that looks pretty weak."

"Like a fort," Carlotta said. "We improvise. Michael, all I need from you is a distraction - a LARGE distraction on the main gate. I'll go in the delivery dock where it isn't so fortified."

"Think I can manage something."

"Good. Elly, is there a natural area adjacent to the building?"

"Yup. I think there's a park or forest that the fenceline touches. On the west side."

"Drop me off there."


A hideous smell woke me up and I blanched at it. The same masked person was putting away a vial that he had up to my nose.

I was upright. Attached to the table again. My body reported, painfully, that it was still attached to my head. Sweet jesus everything hurt. I saw a machine pumping some red liquid into a hose connected to my arm. A blood transfusion. Sadistic fucks. They're going to get their pound of flesh and then some. My left eye, or the hole that now comprised my left eye, was in excruciating pain.

"You were very close to death, Cynic," William said. "Senator Hewitt still wants to know a great deal from you."

"If he needs a restaurant recommendation, I know a few really good ones in Cubeo." It hurt to talk. My throat felt like it had been through a blender.

"Your humor is your strength, I see. I have never seen anyone take as much punishment as you and not break. Most people don't last a day. You have lasted two. Please understand, I am most impressed."

"Ma always said you only get one first impression. Hey, can I ask you something?"

"Normally I would say no, but I think you have earned it. Go on. Ask."

"Can I get something to drink? Water maybe? I'm so thirsty I could drink the shit that's in these containers."

"A reasonable request, but no. No food or drink before the next procedure. Anything else?"

I slowly, slowly shook my head. "Nope. That's all I had. Thanks."

Hewitt walked into the room. Christ I hated, HATED how smartly dressed he always was. Snakes always had shiny scales.

"How is he, doctor?"

The masked man had finished throwing away the latex gloves he was wearing. "He'll be fine. The transfusion is doing wonders for him. We should be careful though. No telling how quickly he might overdose."

Overdose?

The doctor plunged a syringe with clear liquid into a stopper on the infusion machine.

"Thought you said I cost you enough money as it is?"

"You have, but I'm growing impatient," Hewitt said. "We'll give this a second to work its way into your system. We'll see how you feel then."

An itty bitty, tiny, miniscule moment of confidence at the idea of getting high off government drugs almost made me smile. But this wasn't going to be a ride like that. I had no idea what to expect. Drowsiness? Euphoria? Terror? The pain surrounding my body started to. . . float? Is that the word for it?

The cacophony of pain that was my face also grew distant. The colors on from the containers began to melt together. The containers themselves began flowing like rivers of mercury back and forth across the floor. William, the doctor and Hewitt seemed both hundreds of feet tall and small enough to step on.

"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck," I said. I think.

They asked me a question. I had no idea what it was. But I felt that uttermost compulsion to answer it. What did they ask?

"Where have you hidden your ships?"

"Baskin Robbins. 43 flavors man. Can't hide it all that well."

Again, that's what I think I said. I swear I heard someone snort? One of the bendy figures in front of me disappeared behind a spinning portal. The stars glowed in the ceiling. Not many of em. Maybe a dozen? White dwarfs, if I had to guess.

"Need my ship to scan the stars."


William and Hewitt looked at each other. The doctor came back in.

"I must apologize, Senator," the doctor said, stifling a laugh. "Sometimes this drug takes a moment to, um, spin up, as it were. Give it another minute and he will be out of this phase.

Hewitt scowled at the man and turned to look at Cynic. His head was rolling around on his shoulders like some buoy cresting gentle waves in the ocean. He shook his head and sighed.


It felt like the snow was being blasted in from all directions. That was good. Carlotta already had a deep covering of the white powder as she watched the delivery dock of GenuSect through a scope. The snow was also fortuitous, as it hid the four foot-long barrel of the anti-material rifle the scope was attached to.

"You staying warm down there?"

"I'm fine, Michael. The suit is designed for this sort of thing. Did you make it back to the Yamato?"

"Yup. We're already in the air. This blizzard is serious. How long do these last here?"

"Two to three months. It's all gone in a matter of days once spring hits."

"Can we come back here during the summer? I don't like the cold," Elly said.

"Maybe, sweetheart. Michael, how close are you?"

"Ten seconds. You ready?"

"Do it."

The roar of the Yamato was hidden by the blizzard. They had no idea what was about to happen.


Looper was only able to see the front of the building through the nightvision mode of the viewport. The HUD droned a lock, and he hit the trigger.

The Yamato's twin pack hound missile launchers lit up. PWOFF-PWOFF-PWOFF. Nearly a hundred micro-missiles swarmed towards the main entrance of GenuSect. The first missile hit above the entrance, the remaing scattered all around it, exploding with ferocity that sent people and parts of building flying in every direction. The shockwaves cleared temporary bubbles of cleared snow before it moved in again.

He could hear alarm klaxons sounding off.

"Alright, Carlotta. You're good. You sure you don't want me to stick around?"

"Go. I'll be fine."

"Roger. We're history."

Looper dumped everything into the engines, pointed the giant warship 90 degrees up and blasted away from the planets surface. The ship was above the clouds when the mass lock finally cleared, and Imperial patrols were closing fast. All they could do was read his wake as supercruise made a bright, long rubber band of their silhouette in the sky.


PTOOM! The first shot ripped the security guard in a shack right in half. PTOOM! Another one suddenly had a hole the size of a basketball in his chest. PTOOM! The door they were using was blasted off its hinges. The last guard had spotted her and was aiming an assault rifle directly at her. PTOOM! His head exploded like an overripe watermelon, a round section of the wall behind him bursting in a cloud of plaster.

"Thanks, dear," Carlotta said, patting the rifle and leaving it as she made her way towards the dock. The alarm klaxons were obnoxious, but all of their attention was on the front entrance that was just blasted apart. She crossed the loading dock tarmac, keeping her pistol aimed at the guard door she blasted open.

There was a commotion. Two guards came out and began looking for what happened. Red, misty puffs made the hats on their heads fly off and they collapsed to the ground. Carlotta was beginning to like this pistol immensely.

She was in the building and making her way down corridors like Elly had told her to. Her sneak suit muffled her movements almost perfectly. Even the padded footings didn't squeak from the snow melting on her as he moved.

"I'm coming, Cynic," she thought to herself. "Just hold out a little while longer."


The building shook. Hewitt, William and the doctor were knocked to the ground. Containers fell off shelves, breaking open and spilling their contents onto the floor.

"What the fuck was that?"

"I-I don't know, sir," the doctor said.

"FIND OUT!"

The doctor scrambled out of the room, trying desperately to regain his foot.

"Shall we continue another time, sir," William asked.

"Go see if that nitwit needs help. I will handle Cynic myself."

William nodded and quickly ran out the door. Hewitt grabbed a shelving rod that had fallen from one of the storage units. He tested it with a swing like he was sizing up a baseball bat.

"You have got to be one of the most meddlesome sons of bitches in the galaxy. Now WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN YOUR SHIPS?"

He raised the shelving rod over his head, and then collapsed to the floor in terrible pain. Hewitt cried out. His leg felt like it was on fire. He looked down, his thigh had a gaping hole that was bleeding profusely. He clutched it and winced.

"Noooo," he screamed. "NO!"

A woman appeared above him. She had a pistol aimed directly at his head.

"Yes," she said.


Carlotta had never felt the impulse to do something so strong in her entire life. Her finger squeezed back on the trigger, she could feel it creep closer to releasing the deadly round that would paint the floor with Dorian Hewitt's brains.

"Fuck," she said, holstering her blaster. Instead, she knelt down, punched Hewitt right in the temple and let him go limp. "Better than you deserve."

She immediately went to Cynic. "Oh god, what did they do to you?" She pulled the IV line out of his arm. "Cynic? Can you hear me?"

She held his face, horrified at the lacerations and burn marks covering his body and the hole where his eye had been. His remaining one rolled around looking at her, the eyelid barely able to stay open.

"I think Baskin Robbins needs a 44th flavor."

Carlotta blinked a few times. "You are high as a kite. Let's get you out of here, love."

She went back to the console and hit the release for the table. Cynic was dumped on the ground and she immediately felt bad about it. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she heard padded footsteps quickly approaching. She ducked, barely missed by a kick that would've broken her neck.

She rolled back as another kick shattered the console. Sparks flew as she got to her feet and held up her fists, ready for an the next attack. A bald man in a suit stood in front of her doing the same. He backed away slowly, kneeling down to check the pulse of the senator.

"You must be the ex-Agent."

"You must be the driver."

The bald man looked down at the senator, then back at Carlotta. His fists clenched in their raised position. "Cynic is an impressive man that keeps impressive friends. I can't let either of you go."

"I have no intention of leaving without him."

They squared off. Each of them waiting for the other to move. He was a big man, bulky so it would take precise hits in the right places to get around the muscle that would pad every impact against him. His head shone with sweat in the harsh lighting. She could feel her own dripping down the side of her face, the sneak suit slick with it against her skin.

A set of hands suddenly appeared around the man's neck. A sharp piece of glass punctured one side of his throat and was drawn in a frayed line of flesh across to the other. He gasped and spit blood as crimson spurt in foot long arcs away from him. He collapsed, feebly grasping at his neck. Blood splashing around his fingers.

Cynic stood over him, holding the bloodied piece of curved glass that belonged to one of the nearby containers. His legs were shaking and he rocked from side to side.

"Not so tough without your ship, are ya?"

He dropped the glass and Carlotta rushed to catch him. He fell into her arms and she struggled to keep them both on their feet. The bald man's writhing slowly turned to subtle shaking as she got under Cynic's arm.

"Hi beautiful," he said drunkenly. "How'd I do?"

"Not now dear."

She began guiding him towards the exit when men with pistols and rifles stormed into the room.

"Capitol Police! Freeze!"


Dozens of twisty shapes stormed the room. I saw lots of black and white, like a checkerboard mosaic with faces poking out of it. They were screaming something. I looked over at Carlotta. God she was gorgeous. How'd I get so lucky?

The shapes closed in. All I wanted to do at this point was sleep. I tried to keep my eye open. It was too much. I drifted. It was peaceful at first.

I had dreams. Horrible dreams. I felt jerking motions. My feet felt like they were being put on ice. Blinding lights that hurt my senses. It all blurred together.

I saw the thousands of ships I've destroyed, their pilots cooked alive in their cockpits. Their skeletons twisted into the forms of their final screams. I saw Elly and Looper crushed as the cockpit imploded from a missile blast. Their bodies squeezed dry of blood like twisted sponges.

I saw Carlotta. Her beautiful head floating without a body in a space helmet singed at the neck, with only her long pony tail and a portion of her spine poking out the bottom.

Over and over and over. I wanted to scream but couldn't. I wanted to run away but was stuck. I wanted to reach out and shield them from their horrible fates but my arms were bound to some unseen force.

I remember breaking down. I remember begging whatever invisible power showing me these visions to take me instead. I pleaded and clawed at my skin, not wanting to feel the agony of their loss. Of my failure.

I wanted it all to end for them. I didn't care what happened to me. Just don't let them suffer.

They don't deserve it.

Feb. 4, 3306

OPALA, ROMANENKO ESTATE

Carlotta carefully brought the behemoth warship down on landing pad 33 of Romanenko Estate. She dialed in the commands to have the ship lowered and parked in the bay underneath the green parks and white buildings of the station interior. She was alone on the bridge of the Soliton Yamato. Elly and Michael were asleep in the quick bunks she had thrown together back on Big Pappa's Base.

When the elevator finally settled and the docking pad rolled into storage, she covered her face with her hands and cried. She couldn't stop herself. She moved her hands to her arms, holding herself and rocking as she kept her crying as quiet as possible. She managed a relieved laugh.

Cynic was alive. Oh thank god, he was alive.

They found the Golden Goose - both halves of it. The aft part of the ship was empty. The fore part of the ship, bridge and part of the cabins, was intact. The bridge door had been forced from the outside. No blood. They found a spent gas round that she later identified as a tranquilizer propellant when Michael brought it back on board.

Cynic had been taken by their attackers. But he was alive.

They were able to download the sensors logs from the Golden Goose. The ship registry was traced to a financial firm headquartered in Futhorc. Imperial space. They had the name and Carlotta was about ready to sift through the data dump from Kader. She just needed a few minutes to feel relieved.

A few hard sobs and deep breaths. She forced herself just to let it out. And at the end of it, when she could gain control of herself, she wiped her tears from her face.

"Alright," she said to herself, "Let's get to work."

She unbuckled from the pilot's chair and made herself comfortable at the desk to the aft of the cockpit. She pulled the data slip from her vest pocket, and then the octagonal cylinder. She laid both on the desktop.

A few hours ago, when Carlotta explained what she and Cynic had discovered, Elly looked utterly nonplussed.

"You mean - I'm not. . ."

Looper interrupted that train of thought. "Elly, I want to make something perfectly clear. You are my daughter. You will always be my daughter. I love you with all my heart and nothing in the world is going to change that."

Elly was on the verge of tears, but she nodded and said, "I know. And I love you too."

"This will prove it one way or the other," Carlotta said. "But you have a right to know as much as we do. More so. Or you can choose not to know. What do you want Elly?"

"No matter what," she looked up at Looper.

"No matter what."

It was confirmed by the scroll of paper inside the cylinder. Elly's DNA was a match with that of Princess Aisling Duval.

"I don't wanna be the princess, I don't wanna be," she said, hugging Looper as tightly as she could.

"Shhh, no one said you had to be."

It was heartbreaking. The product of someone else's cruel scheme, escaped into a world that would always judge her by the fact she had been engineered. Nothing left to chance. Every strand of her genetic makeup picked over and decided upon.

Carlotta stared at the cylinder on the table. Were it up to her, she would have burned the paper inside right in front of Elly. But there were. . . other people to consider.

She shook her head and put the data slip in a slot on the desk. She brought up all the information she'd pieced together.

It frustrated her to no end because every branch of information died out when it led to a company that went under. Every single one. She went over it and over again. All of the bills were for companies that were no more. All of the work orders belonged to the same. All of them signed by Hewitt and Angivale.

She had been comparing the data for hours when small footsteps approached her. Carlotta was startled, her hand instinctively reaching for her pistol. Elly yawned and rubbed her eyes. It was then that Carlotta realized that she had been up all night.

"Morning," Elly said sleepily.

"Good morning, Elly," Carlotta said. "Can I get you some breakfast?"

"I'm not hungry, but thanks. Is that the data dump that you and Cynic were working on?"

"Yes it is. Do you want to see?"

"Yes, please."

"Come on up." Carlotta lifted Elly onto her lap. The desk surface was illuminated with dozens of the transaction papers with signatures on them.

"Can I move them around?"

"Um, sure," Carlotta said, a bit confused as to why Elly would want to.

Elly began creating two piles, the electronic records stacked over each other like piles of papers. Then she went through each pile, creating a third.

Looper walked in the door.

"Morning. What's going on here?"

"Elly wanted to see the document dump from Kader. Some of the things I found are in here, too."

"What's she doing?"

Carlotta shrugged her shoulders. Elly was completely oblivious to them. She now had four distinct piles. Looper tilted his head. Carlotta watched intently. Elly suddenly stopped, hit a sequence of keys that made each pile orderly.

"There. Organized."

"By what, sweetheart," Carlotta said.

"By who signed them."

Carlotta and Looper were instantly confused. What? Elly looked at them both.

"Honey," Looper said, "They're all signed by the same two people."

"No they aren't. Look."

She brought up two comparisons. Both signed Dorian Hewitt and Harishaw Angivale.

"They look the same, dear."

"No they don't. Look at the I's."

On the signatures, neither of them could spot the difference. They looked at Elly again and she rolled her eyes.

"On Ang-Ang-"

"Angivale," Carlotta helped her pronounce the last name.

"Angivale - one is a loopy I, the other is a pointy one." Elly zoomed in on both of them.

"I'll be damned," Looper said. The subtle difference was there. The sharp return of the pen stroke on one signature. The soft, almost curved return on the other. The dots were even slightly off. No one would have noticed this.

"And so," Elly said, zooming the documents out, "This pile was signed with with loopy Dor-ee-an? Dorian? His name. This pile was signed with the loopy Angivale name. This pile has both. And this pile has none."

They were forged. The signatures were forged. There was a third party, a possible clue. One that wasn't impossible to reach like Hewitt.

Carlotta kissed Elly on the head. "Elly, you're a genius."

"I know. The test said so," she replied with a little sadness in her voice.

"I need to make a call," Carlotta said, lifting her off her lap.

"Who?"

"Trust me," she said. "It will be worth it."


///IMPERIAL INTELLIGENCE SERVICE - OFFICE OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS

///PLEASE PROVIDE ACCESS CODE

: \ ] . . . . . . . . . . . . .

///ACCESS DENIED

: \ ] override auth b-7-8-2-4-9-5-1-3-5-7-4-6-HUX

///ACCESS GRANTED

///PLEASE ENTER FUNCTION

: \ ] call [REDACTED]

///INITIATING TRANSMISSION

[Comm beep]

[Comm beep]

[Unknown 1]: Code in.

[Unknown 2]: Huxley Sigma Four Two Zulu

///COMM ENCRYPTION ENABLED

[Unknown 1]: Go.

[Huxley]: Analysis request - transmitted samples. Forged signatures on documents. Need match of handwriting to anyone in Imperial records.

[Unknown 1]: Time?

[Huxley]: Sensitive Black.

[Unknown 1]: Materials received and forwarded. Anything else?

[Huxley]: Equipment requisition. Need immediate delivery to Romanenko Estate, Opala. Authorized to include analysis results.

[Unknown 1]: Loadout?

[Huxley]: Distance engagement, possible infiltration. Hot and cold.

[Unknown 1]: Anything else?

[Huxley]: No.

[Unknown 1]: Requisition confirmed. Go to transmitted address and await contact. This number will no longer function after call termination.

[Huxley]: Understood.

///CONNECTION TERMINATED


UNKNOWN LOCATION

The table was gone this time. Instead, my wrists were chained to two poles that stretched my arms out beside me. They lowered into the floor, forcing me down to my knees. I was tired. So very, very tired. I was constantly cold. I used the blanket last night to dry myself off. The cold kept me from sleeping very well. They came in and prodded me out the door with stun batons right when I dozed off. They forced me into the same room as yesterday.

I was able to get a better look this time. About the size of a warehouse. Everything white. Everything sterile. Shelf after shelf of cylinders with glowing pink liquid. Each one had some fleshy formation floating in them.

The smell of cleaning agents was heavy in the air. Must've been one hell of a spot I left them. They hooked me up and forced me down and I didn't hear from them for what felt like hours. My stomach grumbled.

"I know buddy. If we get outta this, I promise steak and potatoes as only science can assemble from base molecules."

The door to the space opened, and in walked Hewitt and William. William was carrying a bag, weighted down by something.

"Good morning, Mr. Cynic. I trust you slept well?"

"Cynic."

"Beg your pardon?"

"Just. . . Cynic. Don't need to be so formal with me." My throat was scratchy and dry. Christ I was thirsty. Note to self - take advantage of the water in the rinse off area.

"Very well, Cynic. I must say yesterday was quite unpleasant."

"Tickled a little."

"Ah ha ha. So humorous. Today is something a little different. Normally, I would skip immediately to drugs and truth serums and impulse inhibitors. However, those options are expensive and you have cost me quite enough over the past month."

"Can't afford take out anymore?"

Hewitt ignored me. "William here is a student of interrogation."

The bald man set the bag down, kneeling to unzip it and pull out its contents. He pulled a coil of something out. It shone in the light and it creaked in his grip.

"But he is a bit old hat, you see. Very fond of older techniques. He is a good servant and I feel he has earned a bit of indulgence."

William let the object uncoil. A bullwhip. The motherfucker had a bull whip.

"William?"

With a quick circular motion of his arm, the whip twirled around him. His arm extended, the deafening CRACK and searing pain in my chest. I cried out, and stared at the gash left by the end of the whip. It went from my collarbone across to my hip. Another gash opened up across my chest. Another across my belly.

I screamed with each crack of the whip. Fwip-CRACK. Fwip-CRACK. The hot, sticky sensation of blood seeping out of the wounds almost felt good in the cold environment. He had opened up gashes everywhere on my chest. My arms. My thighs.

Either by luck or fiat, other bits were untouched. A small mercy, but I didn't plan on it remaining so.

"Thank you, William. That is enough, yes?"

"Yes, Senator Hewitt."

"What," I said, gasping for breath and trying to ignore the open wounds all over my body. "No questions this time?"

William coiled the whip and replaced it in the bag on the ground. He then pulled out a jar of what looked like white powder. He opened it, setting the lid quietly aside, and began walking towards me. His hand reached into the jar.

"Our sources," Hewitt said, "have told us that Agent Huxley, Ellidia and Michael have not returned to Andhrimi. Where else would they have gone?"

"I hear Bora Bora is kinda nice. Not sure what the season is on Earth right now though. I can recommend a decent travel planner."

William looked back, and Hewitt nodded at him. He pulled a handful of the grainy powder viciously rubbed on my arm.

Imagine acid burning into your skin. Imagine a bonesaw being raked across a scab, the teeth scraping along and tearing bits of connective tissue away as it traveled. Imagine ants digging out little chunks of your flesh and carrying them off for the colony to eat.

The pain was terrible. Not excruciating, but bad enough. I growled and cursed at William as he viciously rubbed the grains into the gashes left by the whip.

He worked it over every wound he could find. All the while Hewitt spat his questions. Where are they? Where are your hideouts? Who are your contacts? Ho many ships do I really have?

There was a briny smell that caught my nostrils and that's when I realized these Old Testament motherfuckers were rubbing salt in my wounds. The salt exacerbated my thirst. I could feel my lips chapping and my tongue growing hot and dry. I refused to answer any question. None. They rubbed salt in every gash three times and I wouldn't give them shit.

Except for yesterday. That was the type of shit I was willing to give.

"That's enough William. I believe he's grown numb to the sensation."

I hadn't, the shit still stung like a bitch. But William complied and moved away.

"I believe Cynic requires a little more, motivation, William. Take something from him."

This was the part I was worried about. William uncoiled the whip, wound up, extended his arm. The whip uncoiled in front of me in slow motion. I thought he was going to whip my junk off. I made out the smallest detail of the sharp, metal barb before searing pain exploded on the left side of my face. I screamed.

I felt thick, hot ooze running down my cheek. My other eye teared up, but I couldn't open either of them. I screamed some more, realizing he had just taken my eye. My fucking eyeball was still dripping out between my eye lids when I got mad.

"YOU FUCKERS! I'M GOING TO KILL YOU," I howled at the top of my lungs. "I'M GOING TO FUCKING KILL YOU!"

I strained against the chains that kept me exposed, my arms trying desperately to cover the eye that was just obliterated.

William traded the whip for the salt. Hewitt asked more questions. Baldy's salted fingers forced my eye socket open. He dug around in there. I was mad with agony and rage. I fought the chains with Williams hand around my throat and the fingers of his other pushing into the open socket.

Still I refused. I began to question why the hell I was doing this. Was being stubborn and silent worth this? The pain? The humiliation? To stare power in the face and give a final 'Fuck you' to it? What made it worth it?

"Jesus Christ, that's enough William."

The bald man pulled his finger out of my face and I shook my head, trying desperately to clear the acid salt sensation behind my absent left eye. I howled at them and flung curses. I was furious being tied down. Just give me an opening and I would've them apart with my bare hands.

William took up the whip, but walked around me. The fwip-CRACK of the whip sounded. Pain against my back. Again and again. I screamed with each strike. Each question from Hewitt accompanied by another. Another. And another.

I don't think I stopped screaming until everything started to get fuzzy. The room started spinning and I went limp. I just remember the darkness. The stinging all around me. One side darker than the rest.


I woke up sore as hell. Cold. Wet. I couldn't move. My face hurt. The lacerations over my skin made every movement agony. I was in my cell. Same blankets as before. I reached out for one, the stretching wounds making me flinch and groan. One of the blankets was still damp. I took that one, delicately wiping down what I could. I couldn't bend my knees to wipe them off. I gave up.

The other blanket provided little comfort to me. I shivered uncontrollably. Just as I was about to pass out, the door opened. The orderlies lifted me off the floor, making my wounds tear open as the dragged me back to the warehouse/torture chamber.

The table was back. I was lifted onto it. A man in a surgical gown, face mask and flashlight began poking and prodding me. I let my body take me away to sweet, sweet slumber.

"He's lost a lot of blood. What do you want me to do?"

"Keep him alive." It was William's voice. His face looking over mine was the last thing I remembered.

What day was it?


OPALA, ROMANENKO ESTATE

Carlotta climbed the Yamato boarding ramp with a large, heavy bag over her shoulder and what looked like a large briefcase in her right hand. She was quick to bring up the ramp behind her and lock it down. She went to the empty room where she lambasted Cynic for being so cavalier about this whole mess. She set the briefcase on a nearby table and the heavy bag on the ground.

She stood over the briefcase. It was non-descript, black, and had a biometric latch. She placed her thumb over the sensor and the briefcase popped open. Inside was a dataslip, the weapon she had requested, and enough ammo to take down a building.

She palmed the data slip and headed for the bridge. Elly and Looper were waiting there.

"That was quick," Looper stated.

"It was a good call. I have the analysis here."

Elly moved out of the desk chair as Carlotta slid in. She inserted the data slip. A readout displayed only text:

///HANDWRITING ANALYSIS 45A

///FORGED SIGNATURE

///HANDWRITING SAMPLE MATCH

///MACHESKY, DALTON - CEO, GENUSECT, INC.

///SOURCE: IMPERIAL ARCHIVES, CORPORATE REGISTRY

The file also listed the home address of this Machesky person and the address of GenuSect headquarters - both on Capitol, in the Achenar system. The heart of the Empire.

"Well," Carlotta said. "I guess I'm off to Achenar."

"Not without me," Elly said. She was buckling herself into the engineers station just beside the desk.

Carlotta looked at her, then at Looper.

"Don't look at me like that," he said. "If this guy will lead us to Cynic, I'm going to help."

"Can you fly this ship?"

"I can manage."

"Elly, how's your computer skills?"

"COVAS does most of the work now," she tapped the portable computer on her wrist. "He's really smart."

"I've got a few things to prep. Michael, start getting comfortable with the Yamato. Elly, I need you to get me blueprints for GenuSect HQ and the Machesky home. Think you can do that?"

"Yes, ma'am," they said in unison.

"Good. We'll shove off as soon as everyone's ready."

Feb. 3, 3306

UNKNOWN LOCATION

My eyelids felt like they weighed a hundred pounds as they slowly crept open. The readouts in front of me made me wince. I turned my head away, trying to get away from the burning brightness of the console. I couldn't move. My arms were cuffed behind me and my legs were bound to the floor. I squirmed a little, trying to get my eyes to adjust to everything.

Sounds started to register, though in a fluid-like state, like I was underwater. The humming of ship engines. The pitch of them throttling up and down. A muted boom every now and then. I shook my head and was finally able to bring things into focus.

I was groggy as hell. But I recognized the controls in front of me. I turned my head to the left, and saw the wide front cockpit of an Imperial Cutter spanning under a wide, giant view port.

"You're awake," the voice came. "Much sooner than I thought you'd be. You have impressive stamina, Mr. Cynic."

"Always was a quick healer. Fuck," I said, a wave of drowsiness fogging my head, "What did you shoot me with?"

"Just a tranquilizer. Nothing dangerously debilitating."

The engines wound up and there was a bang as the view out the front port shifted from stars to witch space. The pilot got out of his chair and walked behind me where I couldn't see him. There was a click and the chair spun around. It clicked again, locking into place. He stood over me with a small needle in his hand and what looked like medical wipes in the other. His bald head shone against the ceiling lights.

"Please do not move," he said. He wiped a spot on my arm, and then delicately injected the syringe into the spot.

"Why bother being cleanly about it? You fucking shot me already."

"Yes, and that was supposed to keep you unconscious until we reached our destination. This will help with the rest of the journey. Goodnight."

I tried to respond but whatever it was made my eyelids even heavier. Everything went dark.


BUKOMO, PLANET 2, ICE RINGS

It had been hours since Looper had watched the Cutter take off after Cynic in the Golden Goose. Long enough he felt safe to use the emergency distress beacons on his suit. He held his daughter close to him as they sat, drifting on the warped chunk of ice Cynic had left them on.

The formation slowly, ever so slowly spun on its long axis, the view shifting from stars, to ice field, back to stars about twice an hour. The flight suits kept them warm in the vacuum, but did nothing to curb the feeling of helplessness as they sat waiting for a pick up.

"Elly? Are you OK?"

"I'm OK," Elly said. Her voice was weak and tired. Like during the brief stint they had moving alien tech parts around the cargo hold of another Python he'd soon just forget.

"I activated my emergency beacon. Shouldn't be long before we get picked up."

"Picked up by who?"

"Don't know," he said. "Somebody."

"Our suits are on standard radio bursts. It could take decades for someone to hear us."

"Stop that. This is a highly populated system. Someone will hear us, for sure."

Elly was quiet for the longest time, huddled under Looper's arm. He stared out at the field of ice-roids. All he could think about was how often he'd seen the same view from the cockpit of a Type-7. Shadow in a Viper on his wing. He remembered her smiling face. Not in the flight helmet he met her in, but in the crown of white flowers on their wedding day. The sun hat as she worked in her garden. Her long, raven hair always flowing or swaying down to her shoulders.

"What did you and Cynic fight about?"

"Hm? What dear? I'm sorry, my mind was drifting."

"Cynic and you. You talk about how you were good friends. You hadn't spoken to him until today for a few days."

"We are good friends, sweetheart. Do you know how long we've known each other?"

She shook her head against his side.

"Twenty years. I've known that man for twenty years."

"Then why did you fight?"

Looper sighed. Elly was going to figure it out sooner or later. The infuriating thing about her was how she could piece together bits of information. Infer remaining bits from what she WASN'T told. And put it all together with 99% accuracy. There wasn't hiding anything from the beautiful genius held close beside him.

"He told me some things," Looper said. "Things I wasn't ready to hear. Things that make sense now that I've had time to mull them over."

"Mull?"

"Think about very deeply."

"Oh. What did he tell you?"

"Stuff about you. Why all this happened. Why your mother died."

"Can I tell you something, Dad? Something I've been afraid to say for a while now."

"Sure, Elly. You can tell me anything. You know that."

"I do. But I'm afraid of what you'll think of me."

"You'll always be judged by someone, Elly. Humans do that. I'm not immune, but I will not act on those judgements if I can help it. Good enough?"

She sniffled under her helmet. "I guess."

"What did you want to tell me?"

Elly was quiet for a moment. Looper gave her the time to collect her thoughts.

"When Cynic told me about when he first hurt Cyrano, I was happy. He killed Mom and all I could think for the longest time was how much I wanted to hurt him. And then Cynic kills him in a space fight. I was happy again. So happy that justice came for him.

And I feel disgusted because I don't like watching people get hurt. The other prisoners on the Pistol Derby. Mom. I feel angry and helpless watching others die but I'm happy when someone I think is bad gets hurt. Does that make me a monster?"

"No, Elly," Looper said. "That's what it is to be human. A walking contradiction. What if I told you I was happy when Cynic killed Cyrano, too?"

"Really?"

"I was slightly sad, but only because I wasn't there to deliver the blow myself. But I couldn't have done it. Not without Cynic's help. I gave up fighting a long time ago so your mother and I could have a peaceful life."

"You didn't, though. You didn't have a peaceful life. We're stuck on a block of ice after being chased and attacked and I'm so tired of it all."

"I know sweety, I know. The galaxy has kinda thrown that attempt right in my face. Our faces. But that's why you have friends who care about you. Sure, Cynic and I fight sometimes, but that doesn't change the fact that I care about him."

Elly was quiet for a long while again. "Do you think he made it?"

"I do, kiddo. I do. What do you think?"

"I think he did."

Lights blinded them as a giant Corvette with familiar blue stripes roared from under the horizon of the ice chunk. It hovered over them for a second then cut the lights. A crackle came over the comms.

"Need a lift," Carlotta's voice came in crisp and proper.

"Ms. Huxley," Elly yelled.

The ship manuevered so that its cargo bay door was directly facing them.

"This heap is too big for that ice. Think you can float to the cargo door?"

"Hang on to me tight, Elly," Looper said. Elly squeezed her arms around him as he crouched, then sprang for the open cargo door. They flew inside the ship opening with relative ease, seeing as the thing was about 50 feet across. The moment they passed the threshold, the cargo bay door close and artificial gravity engaged.

The fell a few feet to the floor and were jarred against the cold metal.

"You OK? Anything broken?"

"No. I'm OK," Elly reported. They both stood up, the cargo bay venting full of oxygen as they did. When the vents went silent, a door opened at the top of a flight of steps against the front side of it.

Carlotta emerged from the access door and climbed down the steps. Elly and Looper slapped the button on their collars that withdrew their helmets into the backpacks of their suits. All three embraced each other.

"How did you know to look for us," Looper asked.

"I was attacked on Big Pappa's," Carlotta said. "A Centurion was sent to kill me. I figured an attack on you wasn't far behind."

"A Cutter pounced us while we were mining. Cynic dropped us off on that ice block and led it away. We don't know what happened to him after that."

"We have to find him," Elly begged.

"We'll look for him sweetheart. Come on let's get you upstairs and warmed up."

Carlotta led them to the only room with a pair of bunk beds on the ship - something she threw together last minute since the Soliton Yamato only had Cynic's quarters in order to begin with. There they rested, with blankets thrown over them.

"Michael, can I talk to you?"

Looper stood, patting Elly on the head as she pulled her blanket tightly around herself.

Carlotta led him far enough away from the room so her voice wouldn't carry. "I found the Golden Goose's emergency beacon on the way in system. I haven't followed it yet."

"Do you know if the authorities have responded?"

"They won't respond. They're first priority is pirate hunting."

"I'm going to go look for him. Did you want to come along or did you want me to drop you off first?"

Looper looked back at the room where Elly sat. The sinking pit in his stomach didn't want to even think about whether Cynic was dead. He wasn't sure about what he wanted to do. And whether he should let Elly find out first hand, in case he was.

"I want to go looking. I'm going to ask Elly, though. She deserves to be part of this."

"Agreed," Carlotta said. They walked back to the room to find Elly shivering in her blanket. Looper sat down next to her and pulled her close.

"Elly, Carlotta found the emergency pulser for the Golden Goose. We were going to go look for Cynic, but I needed to ask-"

"Yes," she said with muted enthusiasm.

"Hold on, before you say 'yes'. I need you to understand-"

"-that he might be dead? I know. I'm not stupid, Dad. But he's not dead. He's not. He's way too good for that. He's alive I know it."

Elly buried her face in her blanket. Looper looked up at Carlotta's sympathetic face, then back down at his daughter.

"Alright, honey. It's ok," he said, shushing her as she began sobbing. "It's OK. Let's go prove it one way or another, alright?"

She nodded.

"I'll start heading towards the beacon," Carlotta said, "But first." She pulled an octagonal cylinder from her flight vest. "I think we need to find out about something else, too."


UNKNOWN LOCATION

It was cold. Damn cold. That's what I'm feeling as my eyes pry themselves open. I'm staring up at ceiling lights. They're soft and they don't hurt my eyes like the console on the ship.

I sat up, well, tried to. There was a strap over my chest, arms, legs. I lifted my head and looked around. There were cylinders of glowing liquid surrounding me. Not on the ship anymore. My head spun and I let it hit the surface I was on. I hate being drugged when I'm not the one doing the drugging.

There was a WHOOSH from over head and the sound of footsteps. The lights came on bright.

"Agh, come on, man," I said, wincing under the now harsh lights. There was a mechanical whirring sound and I was slowly brought upright. Oh great. An operating table.

The bald pilot was in a suit, manning a control panel when they came into view. There was another man there, VERY finely dressed in a dapper uniform of state. Imperial rank. Realization hit me.

"You must be Senator Hewitt," I said.

The older man cocked an eyebrow at me. "Quick witted, this one," he said.

"Yes, sir," Baldy replied.

"And you, my good lad, are Cynic. Pilot. Privateer. Tradesman. Bounty Hunter. Triple Elite. Admiral. And King. Have I left anything out?"

"I think you got the highlights. Oh! Smuggler. You forgot smuggler."

"I'm sure," he replied.

It came to my attention that I was completely naked in front of these guys. That would explain the cold. I slight feeling of embarrassment crept through me, quickly ignored by the fact that I was 100% confident these guys were not here to examine me or show me off.

"I should thank your pilot over there," I said. "Usually when I'm kidnapped I get a knock on the skull."

"I told William to bring you in as unharmed as possible. I understand you caused extensive damage to his ship, however. A most commendable performance, isn't that what you said, William?"

"Yes, sir. He is an exceptional pilot."

"Thanks, I guess."

"However, he did fail to bring in the rest of the party that boarded your ship. A cute trick you managed to pull at the last second. A young girl and her surrogate father. What happened to them?"

"Didn't your man tell you he rammed my ship? They were in the aft compartment when he buzz-sawed it in hal-" There was a snap and every synapse in my body felt like it was on fire. Every joint. Every muscle in a hot, twisting grip that made me shake uncontrollably. I couldn't scream as my tongue pressed back against my throat, my jaws clenched tightly together.

The pain stopped and I gasped, drooling all over myself. Smoke filled my vision and the disgusting smell of burnt flesh hit my nostrils.

"That was but a taste, dear lad. Do not lie to me again."

I guffawed, unable to swallow so I continued to drool uncontrollably.

"Whu the fug you wan?" My tongue and lips were number from the electricity.

"I want to know how you hid them in the middle of an ice ring," he growled at me. "And I want to know WHERE."

The feeling in my mouth was returning. "Go fuck yourself," I spat.

The pain returned. It wasn't the pain so much as feeling my body contort and writhe free of my own will. When it stopped I cried out and drooled some more.

William shocked me again. The pain was incredible - it was all my senses could feel, taste, touch or see. Like a roiling white wall of static in front of me, blocking out everything else.

It stopped again. My body continued to shake. I couldn't stop it. The inability to control my own body was terrifying and made me feel small and weak.

I would've rather they shot me.

I wouldn't answer any of their questions. No matter how much they shocked me. I have no idea how long they kept at it. I had lost all sense of time. Night. Day. Didn't know. Didn't really care. I no longer registered the smell of my burning skin.

They finally stopped when I relieved myself after one last round of shock therapy. Hewitt was starting to get squeamish. William was the model of stoicism.

Two orderlies in face masks appeared as William pressed a button. I hit the floor like a sack of hammers when the straps around me released. Naturally, I landed in my own filth. Again, didn't really care at that point. I was picked up by my arms and dragged down white hallways with black tile. Thrown in a room with drains in the floor.

They hosed me down like an animal. Treatment was par for the course. They had brushes on me at and scrubbed me down at the end of broomsticks. The burns where the straps were stung something awful. They threw me wet, naked and freezing into a cell with a cot and a few blankets.

One day down.

Feb. 2, 3306

ANDHRIMI, BIG PAPPA'S BASE

Elly and Looper were waiting at the landing pad where the Golden Goose was docked. Elly jumped up and down waving her arms at Carlotta and I as we approached.

"Cynic! Ms. Huxley! See what Dad got us!" She started pirouetting around, showing off the flight suits they were now wearing.

"Fancy duds, kiddo."

"Now I can actually work around the ship and not be confined to the cockpit!"

"Oh ho ho. . . greeeeat," I said before I was in earshot.

"Elly hasn't been able to talk about anything else since the last time we went mining," Looper said. "If we're going to be out in the black more often, I wanted to make sure we were properly equipped."

"It's a smart look and a smart idea, dear," Carlotta said to Elly as the little girl rushed her in a hug.

"Are you going to come with us this time, Ms. Huxley?"

"Not this time, sweetheart," Carlotta said. "I have something to do on station while you're away. Maybe next time though."

"Are you and Cynic fighting?"

Goddamn that kid sometimes.

"Elly, what did we talk about," Looper sternly asked.

She looked down at her feet. "Don't be nosy and respect other peoples privacy."

"Very good." Looper punched the controls on the landing strut of the ship and lowered the boarding ramp. "Come on, Elly. Get on board."

"Yes, Dad. Bye Ms. Huxley - see you when we get back!"

Elly ascended the ramp, her father draping an arm over her shoulders.

I turned to Carlotta. "Nihkano is expecting you. I'd tell you not to let him push you over, but I think you won't really have that problem."

"No, I don't think I will. After all," she patted the fancy blaster and the knives on her hip, "I'll be packing."

"Looks good on you. Natural, even."

"Ha ha. You should get going."

"Alright. Just remember, you've got the run of the ships here if you want to go and do anything. Just bring them back with full tank."

"Don't worry. I will."

We pulled each other in for a kiss. She held me a little longer than I thought she would.

"Come back safe you bloody pirate," she whispered in my ear.

"I will. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"Not a very long list."

"No, but distinguished."

She kissed me again. "Go."

"Gone."

I hurried up the ramp and waved back at her. She waved back and started heading towards the portplex. I raised the ramp and locked it down for flight. Elly and Looper were already buckled in when I walked onto the bridge of the Python. Elly was moving her hands over the controls, hitting switches and buttons in pre-flight checks. Again, something I've never shown her how to do. I looked at Looper, pointing at her and mouthing a 'What the hell' at him.

He shrugged his shoulders, pointed at himself and shook his head. Whatever. Genius kid probably taught herself how to operate the damn thing in an afternoon of book reading. Might as well roll with it.

"Ship status, Ms. Dilucca," I asked, making my best Captain Blood impression.

"Pre-flight checks done and ready for take off, Skipper." The sound of an eight-year old sounding it off was odd. But fun. I won't lie. It amused the crap out of me.

"Alright," I said, climbing into the captain's chair. I took the controls, did a quick read of the systems (which were perfectly readied for our flight, I will add), and signaled the computer to take the ship up to the docking bay. The elevator hissed and rolled us loudly onto the lift as I hit the comms. "Control, this is Golden Goose, requesting permission to depart."

"Roger, Golden Goose. Stand by, we have heavy transports incoming. Shouldn't be more than a minute."

"Copy, control. Signal when clear."


William watched the ramp raise and former agent Carlotta Huxley head into the portplex. The controls on the Imperial Cutter "Coupe de Grace" were dark and silent. The agent beside him was, likewise, silent, watching the same thing he was out of the giant ship's viewport. He was pleased with the Centurion, so far. He had remained hidden, had provided all the information he had gathered without any questioning of William's taking over of the operation. A professional. William admired professionalism.

When the Golden Goose started raising to the main bay of the asteroid base, all William had to do was nod at the Centurion and he was on the comm system, sending an encrypted signal to Senator Hewitt.

The signal was answered almost immediately.

"We've been given the clear, sir," the Centurion said.

"Silence agent Huxley. I will go after the ship."

"Yes, sir."

The Centurion was out of his seat and walking past the exit of the bridge in a hurried rush. William's hands danced across the controls, bringing the enormous Cutter to life. Lights beamed on, the engines wound up, then ignited.

"Control. Coupe de Grace, ready to depart."

"Roger, Coupe de Grace. Raise to station interior and await orders. Heavy traffic in the area."

"Understood, control."


Carlotta was angry with herself. She hated this position. Hated being in the middle of something that she knew she had to see through but wanted desperately for Cynic to know the truth of it all. But she also knew that if she told him the truth. . . that would be it. There would be no going back. She would face judgement from him and she knew she would be found wanting.

She hated it because, even as things had taken her entire mission off course, had nearly killed her, had made her part of an odd family of sorts fighting a full third of the galactic powers in the Milky Way, she liked it. Enjoyed it. And she especially hated the vulnerability she had for Cynic.

He was arrogant and cocky and nonchalant. Yet devoted to his friend and his daughter. Honorable to a fault, and capable of such wrath that has left a trail of bodies and ship wrecks from here to the Outer Reach. And bloody articulate and handsome and. . .

She snarled as her tram hummed across Big Pappa's Base. And then she sighed, letting the back of her head bang against the window of the tram car. She dreaded the thought of her relationship with him and what it meant for her. For them.

"Sod off," she said aloud. Trying to take her mind off it. The tram announced her stop as it slowly came to a halt on its mag-lev track. She stood, holding the passenger rail above the seating. The doors opened, and she joined a throng of people moving out of the transport and up an escalator to the main street level.

South Under Pawn & Loan was easily the most run-down looking store on an already run-down street. Prostitutes, in the middle of the day, were already cat calling for the Johns passing by on scooters or rickshaws. She approached the store not without receiving a few calls herself. She ignored them and pushed the door open. The bell announced her entrance into the shop.

Touristy knick-knacks and tchotchkes lined every wall, every counter, every shelf. With the exception of an upright soda vending machine near the door. How in the hell did Cynic find this place?

"Hello" she said, walking up one of the aisles.

There was a snort and the crashing of objects from some unseen area of the store. A short, old man appeared from behind a curtained doorway.

"Welcome! Welcome, traveler, to my humble store! May I interest you in a bauble to remind you of your stay here on our lovely station? A Paladin bobblehead? Maybe this floating model of Big Pappa's Base? We even have ship models made from pure serendibite. Safely suspended in toxin-neutralizing gel, of course."

"Are you Nihkano," Carlotta asked. Her high, posh accent was a stark contrast to the shop owner's low, droll common.

"I am, my lovely guest, I am," he said. Carlotta winced at the amount of charm he was pouring on.

"Cynic sent me. He said the item he talked to you about might be in by today?"

"Ahhhhhh, so YOU'RE Carlotta. My god, he's a lucky son of a bitch. But yes! It actually came in just this morning. If you wait right there, I can go and get it."

He disappeared behind the curtain again. Carlotta decided to take a closer look at the curios. She realized quickly that they were all counterfeit, but knew that such shops are often fronts for more. . . volatile material. She recognized that the baubles on display were merely low key advertisements for said materials.

The coy fish model by the door advertised Uszaian Tree Grubs. The waterfall statues along one wall, the Waters of Shintara. The tea pots and tea accessories shelf advertised Tarach Spice. Potpourri candles for Lyrae Weed. She counted a dozen or so contraband symbols. Never had she seen so many illicit materials advertised in one spot.

"You have the most interesting friends, Cynic," she said to herself.

Nihkano emerged from the curtain with a octagonal cylinder in his hand. "Right here, miss- um. . ."

"Carlotta is fine." She offered her hand up to him. He placed the cylinder in her palm. She saw a small red dot appear over the old man's chest, and her eyes went wide. "GET DOWN!"

A hole the size of a grapefruit exploded from Nihkano's chest. Carlotta dove for cover behind one of the shelves. The old man slumped to his knees before collapsing to the ground.

"Fuck," Carlotta swore under her breath. She placed the cylinder in her vest and drew her pistol. A flip of a switch charged the weapon. She stayed huddled behind small statues of naked, dancing women. She made to look over the shelf but accidentally knocked the shelf, sending one of the statues tumbling.

Trinkets began exploding from weapons fire around her. She laid flat against the floor, crawling to try and get out of the field of attack. She listened as the shots whizzed overhead, cracking against fixtures and objects. Until suddenly, it went quiet. She was able to peak around the shelving of her cover. The front window of the store was still perfectly intact. It flickered.

It was a holographic window. That meant there was a switch somewhere that could turn it into a shield in case of emergency. Nahkino definitely was NOT on the up and up, but she didn't know what she expected from one of Cynic's friends.

The store suddenly went dark. The holographic window went dead. The lights no longer on.

Carlotta took an attachment off the side of the pistol - a tube with a small, rubber cone on one end. She opened her eye wide and pressed the cone to it. A quick electric snap sounded as the HUD lens attached to her eye. She winced as her eye burned and watered, the device adjusting to the shape of her eyeball. It took all of her concentration not to make any noise, letting the tears stream down her cheek until finally the irritation went away.

The HUD read out the ammo in her pistol, the time of day and the temperature. It also had a crosshair that followed her eye movement. She blinked, the HUD not changing in any way. She did a double blink, and was thrown into a fit of vertigo as the right side of her vision went into a night mode of green. She double blinked again, and her vision went purple. She saw the heat blooms of the fresh weapon impacts on the walls and ceiling. The fading yellow-to-blue of Nahkino's body. Another double blink, and everything was black. A white outline shown against every object, but she could see a passageway where the curtain was that lead out back and down into a basement.

She stifled a whistle, seeing row after row of weapons, drugs, and all manner of illicit substances below her feet. When she looked back up, she saw a shadowy blur come in through the back door. She blinked and cycled to the thermal vision. The blur translated into a man with a pistol drawn moving towards the curtain.

Carlotta was too far away to ambush him as he cleared the curtain. She moved away as quietly as she could, watching him lead into the room with his pistol. It was Imperial Navy issue. Jesus, she was in a fight with another Centurion. She fiddled with a knob on her pistol, her HUD reading HE, then IN, then DE, then AP, and back to HE. She could only guess what they meant. She set it to DE.

The Centurion stopped by Nihkano's corpse, kicking it just to make sure he was dead. Then he began systematically clearing row after row of the shop. Carlotta was able to quietly keep out of his line of sight, going back to a row he had just cleared. His glowing yellow-red image was clear as day in her thermal vision.

Steeling herself, she stood, aimed, and pulled the trigger three time. The pistol sounded off with FWIT-FWIT-FWIT. The Centurion cried out, clutching his chest where the rounds impacted. He began firing into the shop at random. She ducked, one of the rounds blowing a giant hole in the shelf above her head.

She cursed the pistol. If she had some normal, non-fancy techno-junky piece the fight would've been over. She tried switching to a different setting, but the DE display in her HUD blinked red and did not change. She got angry, holstering the thing and pulling a dagger from her back sheath.

"It's over, Huxley," the Centurion said. "The girl and your lover are both going to be in Imperial hands very soon. There's nothing you can do. Give up."

Carlotta said nothing, using the thermal vision, she was able to maneuver around him. He frantically aimed this way and that, trying to see in a way only she could in the dark. Inch by inch she got closer.

Her foot crunched on something and he whipped around. She ducked, a suppressed shot of his blaster singing the hairs on top of her head. Carlotta swung her blade up, catching him in the wrist. He screamed as his the tendons leading to his fingers were cut, forcing him to drop his pistol.

He jabbed with his other hand, catching Carlotta in her nose. The smell and taste of blood flooded her sinuses. She coughed and shook her head, trying to clear it. Another strike landed against her temple, sending her reeling. She ducked under his next blow, kicking out with a leg and catching him right in his knee.

He was not in a good stance, and the knee buckled straight backward. The Centurion screamed as his body thudded to the floor. Carlotta recovered and pressed her knee to his throat.

"Who sent you," she demanded.

He spat in her face. She drove the dagger into his shoulder, pinning him to the wall. He screamed again. She realized then who she was talking to. He wouldn't talk. It took drugs to make her talk. Imperial training made sure that their agents were perfectly taciturn in the face of physical torture.

She growled, pulling the blade out of his shoulder, readjusted her grip, and drove it into his temple. His eyes went bloodshot, his body began trembling violently. He grunted and snorted reflexively. She smelled piss and shit as his bowels vented. She twisted the knife, as she had been trained, to verify the kill. Then withdrew the blade.

She collapsed backwards, catching her breath. She checked the cylinder in her vest pocket - it was intact. Undamaged. She heard sirens in the distance. She had to get to Cynic. She had to warn him.

She stumbled over the wreckage of South Under Pawn & Loan, making her way out the back of the store. Thankfully, the other people on the tram back to the dock didn't bother her.


BOKOMU, PLANET 2

It took a line of T7s lead by a single T9 Heavy fifteen minutes to unfuck themselves in the docking queue. Elly visibly sighed with relief when I was finally able to press the throttle forward and glide us through the mail slot. The asteroid belt was quickly left behind as we made our first jump.

Of course, Elly picked up the the different course the minute we didn't line up for Sarugh.

"We're not going to get painite?"

"Not today, kiddo. We're gonna try something a touch more profitable."

"But I read that void opals were down on the market as well."

"Elly had time to read the stock market after her studies every night," Looper said from behind them.

"I can see that," I said. "But no, not void opals. We're going after low temperature diamonds today."

"Ooooh. That means more core mining?"

"Yup it does. Think you're up for it?"

"Yes sir!"

"Alrighty. Plot us a course for Bokomu 2."

"Aye aye!"

The jumps were nothing special. We stopped off at Cuffey Port to pick up limpets and then were headed to the second planet in the system. The gas giant grew in our viewport, and then the glistening inner rings and darkened outer rings became visible.

"Hey Looper, you mind throwing some probes on that ice ring when we're close enough?"

"Sure," he said. "Lemme know when we're in range."

"Yup. We're about a minute out." The distance ticked down. As we got close enough I pulled back on the throttle, letting the engines thrum down from their high, almost quiet supercruise. I took us high over the northern pole of the gas giant, slowing to a crawl. "Alright, Mike. You should be good."

"Firing probe," he said. The probe launched with a fwoosh, leaving a long, bright contrail as it flew towards the ice ring like a comet. The impact sent a ping around the entire ring. The HUD registered yellow spots in the ring, indicating various material hot spots. Two of them were overlapping low temperature diamond hot spots.

"Thar she blows," I said.

"What," Elly looked at me funny.

"Erm, forget it. That's where we're going."

I brought the Golden Goose in close to the center of the overlap, slowing down enough and then COVAS dropped us out of supercruise. The icy rings spread out before us for what seemed forever.

"Wow," Elly said, watching as the distance star's light reflected against the icy surfaces.

Looper was standing right behind her. "It's been a long time," he said. "Didn't think I'd ever see another ice field as long as I lived."

"Sure is pretty," I added. "Ready to go blow it up?"

We slowly worked our way through the field. Elly popping prospectors and slicing away at lasers. We took it slower around core deposits, making sure Elly had time to analyze each one for the most effective blasting pattern. Our hold was about half full when I saw a stuttering dot on the radar.

"That's odd," I said.

"What," Looper asked.

The blip turned solid. It was getting closer.

"This system is showing clear of pirate activity," I said. "Blip on the radar."

"Should we run," Elly asked nervously.

"Dunno. If it is a pirate, they'll demand a portion of our cargo. Important lesson, Elly. No cargo is worth your life."

"Unless it's people," Looper added.

I nodded in agreement. "Unless it's people."

I pulled back on the stick, bringing the Golden Goose to face the blip. I selected the ship on the HUD and a small sliver of fear crept into my chest.

An Imperial Cutter. The largest of Gutamaya's civilian ships - 1100 tons of ship that could haul more than a Type-9. If configured that way. 4 medium hardpoints, 2 large and 1 huge. A Type-9, with its token weaponry, was a space cow. Vulnerable and slow. A Cutter was a rhinoceros of the stars - deadly, armored, and capable of incredible speeds.

It got within 6 kilometers and COVAS reported its hardpoints were deploying. And it wasn't slowing down.

I pipped all the energy out of the weapons to the engines and shields and kicked our Python over on its belly, pulling up hard and hitting the boost.

"Incoming missile attack," COVAS reported.

I scooted behind an ice-roid just as the missile impacted it with an enormous BOOM that shook us in our seats and rattled the cabin.

"That was a torpedo," Looper yelled.

"Then he shouldn't have too many of those left," I yelled back as I began diving in between floating ice formations.

Cannon, multi-cannon, beam lasers, pulse lasers, and flak bursts opened up all around us. The majority of it smacking against ice, but I kept an eye on the shields. They weren't great to begin with, and we were already down to one ring.

"Cynic, they're going to tear us apart if we lose those shields, we need to get out of here!"

"I'm TRYING!"

I juked in time to watch a smoking contrail sail past us and explode against the ice-roid ahead. The explosion tore the cold blue formation in half. I hit the boost again, trying to out run the larger ship, but the other pilot would answer with his own boost. They were keeping up with us without effort.

"Looper, when I say, dump everything in the cargo hold. Limpets and all."

"Ready."

I weaved between two ice-roids, ducked under the next, and brought the ship up in a steep climb out of the belt.

"NOW!"

The thunk of the cargo door opening sounded and the sticatto clunks of our cargo releasing into the void was reported by the computer. I hit the boost, leaving 130 tons of debris in our wake. Watching the Cutter's readout on the HUD, the pilot tried to turn the heavy ship but instead ran wing first into the makeshift mines. The debris exploded against his shields, just as COVAS reported our shields had gone offline.

I started charging the FSD for supercruise.

Their was a soul-jarring PANG and our ship pitched forward.

COVAS reported, "Frame Shift Drive Offline."

"Fuck fuck fuck!" The other pilot had bullseyed our FSD with a railgun shot. Without shields it ripped through us like we were a wet paper sack. Allowing the Python to continue nosing over to point at the belt once more, I hit the boost. The Cutter was right in front of us, cannon and multi-cannon tore chunks out of our ship, the sound frightening, the cockpit canopy cracking as we rocketed past our attacker.

Elly was crying in her chair, "What do we do? What do we do!"

"Elly, listen, start looking around for the most fragile looking ice-roids out there and lead me to them. Can you do that?"

"I don't know, I'm so scared."

"You can do it, Elly. We need you right now."

She tepidly looked out of the view port, scanning for what I asked. We didn't have the assistance of limpets anymore, since we just dumped them.

"Th-there. Over there," she pointed to our starboard side.

I hurled the Python in that direction, the ship's frame groaning from the strain. The hideous hiss-drone of beam laser hitting the hull sounded through the cabin.

"Which one?"

"That one! Right there!"

"I'm going to loop around it, think you can hook some of those charges into it while I fly?"

"Yeah, I think so," she said, grabbing the controls.

We approached the 'roid, and Elly went to work. Two pops and explosive canisters went tumbling end over end towards their target. I banked and pulled the Golden Goose's nose around it. One, two, three more pops. Our orbit brought us into line of sight of the Cutter again and more impacts registered against the ice and us before we got behind it again. I hit the boost. The other ship was just on the other side of the ice.

"BLOW IT!"

The charges exploded right behind us, the ice-roid's cracking BOOM sending chunks of itself in every direction. We were overtaken by the shockwave and the hull groaned as it was rent by the blast. The radar registered multiple, multiple targets. Our hull readout registered 12%.

After we were done being thrown around in our seats, I grabbed the controls, relieved the ship was still flyable. I covered our heat vents, deployed landing gear and found an ice chunk to land on. We began to overheat when we touched down, I used the upward thrusters to nestle us into the melting ice and then shut off the ship.

Not 10 seconds later, the Cutter flew overhead, and continued in the same direction.

Our heat signature wasn't being picked up by his sensors. We were hidden.

I breathed a multi-staged sigh of relief. I peeled my hands off the controls and let my head sink into them. I heard the panicked breathing of Looper behind me. Elly's sobs to my right.

"Everyone OK," I asked. Less for me. More so they could say so themselves.

"Y-yeah, Cynic," Looper said.

Elly didn't respond. She was sobbing, her knees against her chest, her arms wrapped around them and her head buried in the bundle.

"You are INSANE," Looper said. "Fucking mad, is what you are."

"But we're alive and we're safe for a while. I need to-"

The Cutter roared close by them and took off in another direction.

"Who IS this guy," I asked aloud.

"What're we going to do now," Looper asked me. "We can't out run him. We can't take any more damage. Our FSD is fried."

"Yeah, COVAS told me that, too," snapped back. "Give me a second to think."

The cabin went quiet, save for Elly's sobs. I looked at the girl. She looked at me, eyes puffy and red from crying, tears still streaming down her cheeks. Her face flushed from fear and panic.

And then down at her new flight suit. I looked back at Looper - they were both wearing the same brand.

An idea popped into my head.

I unbuckled my harness and drifted out of the captain's chair. Without power, the gravity generator wasn't functioning like everything else. I floated myself towards the back of the bridge.

"Both of you, follow me."

"Why? Where are you going?"

"I'm gong to try and save both of your lives. Er, again. Just, come on, Mike. I just need you to trust me once more on this, alright?"

"Daddy, please," Elly said, climbing out of her chair. She grabbed Mike's hand and clung to her dad as he floated above his chair.

"OK, sweety. OK."

Kicking off panels and grabbing handrails, I led them down the main corridor to the aft exit hatch. We entered the antechamber, and I closed the door behind us. There was now only a single door between us and the vacuum of space.

"You both have good flight suits on you. Their survival models. They'll keep you warm out there for hours. I have oxygen tanks that are good for two days. The plan is: go out their, hang onto the asteroids and I'm going to try and lead this asshole, whoever he is, away from you."

"Again, I reiterate, you're insane!"

"Do you have a better idea?"

"I don't want to go," Elly begged.

"Both of you, shut it. Mike, Elly has a long future ahead of her, and she needs her father to be there for her. Elly, I'm just an old man who's lived long enough in this 'Verse. If me dying means you, especially you, living to fight another day. . . well I call that a fair trade."

She started tearing up again, staring at me with the most agonizing look that ripped my self-confidence to shreds.

I shook my head and turned away, hooking my foot against a locker and popping it open. Two oxygen tanks drifted out. I grabbed them and handed them to Looper and Elly. Looper took both, helping Elly into the back straps of the tank. When they were both secure, he hit a button on the suit that made the helmet pop over his head. Elly did the same.

"Wait," I said. I popped open another locker, and took two combination pick axe/hammers and some pitons and rope. "To secure yourself to the asteroid. I'm going to blast out of here pretty quick. You should be ok so long as you're hooked in."

I closed my flight jacket, zipped it up and slapped a button on the collar. A helmet popped over my head. The seal hissed and my ears adjusted to the sudden pressure change. With everyone safe from the rigors of the void, I forced open the hatch emergency access panel. I pressed a button to equalize the pressure to keep us from being shot out of the hatch like a cannon. Then, I reached in, grabbed the release handle, and pulled.

The hatch's bolts exploded and the doorway careened away, slamming into the ice and spinning end over end into the belt. Looper guided Elly through the doorway. Following, he turned to me.

"Cynic, I. . ."

I held up a finger. "Keep her safe."

"I will."

I gave him a light shove out of the doorway and headed back to the main cabin.

This is stupid. This is desperate. I've done crazy things before. I've gotten out of so many close calls. And here it is. The end. I'm going to die saving my friend and his daughter from some unknown assailant in warship dressed to kill.

I got to the main cabin, floated towards my seat, and buckled in.

"Hope you guys are secure."

I brought the systems back up, the damaged engines sputtering to life. I hit the downward thrusters. I could hear the ice melting and cracking underneath. The hull groaned again and I looked around, uttering a silent prayer for the ship to hold together. The Python suddenly lurched upward, free of the ice.

"Yes!"

The Cutter appeared right in front of the Golden Goose. Hardpoints drawn, nose pointed directly at me. I hit the boost. The Python blasted past the Cutter with inches to spare. I pulled up, reaching for the outside of the belt. I hit the boost as often as I could, the engines recharging slower and slower.

Suddenly, the Cutter drifted into view at my 2 o'clock. It slowly banked to face me, and then the ship was drowned in a burst of light from her engines. I banked too late. The two ships collided and the view of the stars was sent tumbling end over end. I crossed my arms as objects in the cabin slammed into each other. The spinning was maddening and undending. I fought to keep from vomiting, the g-forces draining blood from my head.

And then suddenly I stopped as a loud BANG resounded through the cabin. Instruments were dead. Not even an emergency life support readout. The canopy was still intact, though. I tried a few of the controls. Nothing.

And then I caught sight of the aft 3/4 of the Golden Goose, drifting away from me. That son of a bitch had cut my ship in half. I was way too impressed to be angry. The view shifted and inertia rocked me sideways as this portion of the ship was pulled as if by some mooring device.

I fumbled with my harness, finally releasing. Placing a foot on the front control panels, I was about the shove off towards the exit.

That's when I saw the man with an assault rifle pointed at me. He floated in the doorway, face hidden behind a dark helmet.

"You've put up an impressive fight, sir. Don't mar that with stupidity."

"You're the guy who cut me in half," I asked, holding my hands up.

"I am. You have two choices - board my ship awake, or board my ship asleep."

"You know what? Fuck you. I'm not gonna make it easy."

"So be it."

The last thing I remembered was the PWIFT report of the rifle, and staring at the longest dart I had ever seen in my life protruding from my chest.

Feb. 1, 3306 - MAMARAGAN, WOLF PLATFORM

Mining has become an enormous pain. Nowhere near as profitable as it was. Something happened in the precious minerals market that has the entire Milky Way in a tizzy. I decided to do some trading missions in the Novan Ranger, swapping out for mercenary work in the Soliton Yamato. Carlotta was with me, flying the on board fighter the past few days.

I told her I wanted to try and get a feel for what the markets were doing. My ulterior motives being 1) Give Looper his space (he was still pretty sour on our working theory on Elly being an Aisling clone), and 2) maybe give Carlotta a view of some of the options she had open to her.

She's good. REALLY good. A pair of Kraits jumped us while we were delivering 500 tons of advanced medicines to a system experiencing an outbreak. In the Ranger, I depend on shielding, drifting, and turrets to handle the bulk of the fighting. She smoked the first one, then came back to help me out before I had managed to strip the shields of the other ship. In the on-board fighter. The one made out of origami paper.

"You know you could've asked me," she said out of the blue.

Me, being the ever mindful one who remembers everything at once, said, "Asked you what?"

"About why I chose to be in the Imperial Navy."

"Oh! That. Listen - I want you to tell me when you're ready. And only when. Unless you're ready now?"

She looked at me like I had two heads. I could tell she was uncomfortable weighing whether to throw the weight of whatever info she chose to share on me.

"I'm- I. . ." She struggled to tell me. "OK. Dammit. I feel terrible being so mum on the subject considering I've shared," she waved a hand up and down her body, "all of this. Wait a minute, that reminds me: you never did tell me your name."

"Oh yeah, I never did, did I?" I gave an exasperated sigh. "Well I guess a deal is a deal. My real name's-"

A buzz came over the comm system.

"Oh look, we got a call."

She scrunched her face at me, reaching over and giving me a playful punch on my arm.

"Go for Cynic."

"Hey Cynic, it's me. Elly."

Bit of a surprise. "Hey Elly! Does your dad know you're making this call to me?"

"Yeah. He knows. He's sitting right here. Hi Ms. Huxley, too!"

"Hello there, sweetheart."

"Hey, Cynic," Looper's voice came from the background.

"Hey, Mike."

"Sorry, Elly was missing you guys and I figured I'd show her how to route the comms properly without COVAS doing all the work."

Carlotta and I shared a smile. Elly was a precocious kid and maybe all of us were indulging her a bit too much. But we couldn't help it. She had wound herself around our hearts, and us around her dainty, sweetly manipulative little fingers.

"Cynic," she said, "Can we maybe go mining again sometime soon?"

"Have you done all your school work and all the chores your dad asked you to do?" I could do this parent thing. Shit.

"Yeeees," she said, I could almost hear her eyes rolling over the speaker. "The ship is cleaned, the dishes are done and I've even recycled the rest of the things I made using the probe replicator."

"And the school work?"

"Yup! I'm. . . where am I again, Daddy?"

"She's in what would be college graduate courses, Cynic."

"Umm, wow. I thought you were still studying for the secondary school exams."

Carlotta in the seat over was nodding with an impressed look on her face. I could only shake my head. School was never that easy for me. Ever.

"I got, uh, the paper thing. GED! I got my GED this morning! Straight A's!"

Goddamn. "Well, then, congratulations. I'm very proud of you sweety," I said.

"That's fantastic, dear," Carlotta said.

"Thank you Cynic and Ms. Huxley. Since I graduated and been good with my homework and chores, can we go mining?"

"Hell, kiddo, you held up your end. Carlotta and I just made our last drop off and are going to fly back. We'll head out first thing tomorrow, if your dad's OK with that."

"He's fine with it," Looper said.

Elly squealed over the radio. "Yay! Thank you, Dad! Thank you, Cynic! I'll make sure I'm all packed!"

"You do that, kiddo. We'll be back soon."

"OK. Can't wait to see you!"

"Back at you, Elly."

"Buh bye!"

"Bye, Cynic," Looper said. "Carlotta."

"See you soon," Carlotta said.

The comm call ended and I leaned back in my chair. "I think even COVAS won't be able to keep up with her for too much longer."

"Bloody hell she's racing through schooling."

"I'll say. Primary and secondary were hell for me. College was a wash of drugs and alcohol."

Carlotta gave an incredulous laugh. "And you still graduated?"

"With a 2.3 GPA, boo ya. It's in some computer somewhere for sure. The physical evidence has LONG since been recycled."

"Oh really? What was your degree?"

"I'm going to be entirely honest with you here: if I told you what my degree was, you will never take me seriously ever again."

"And you think I take you seriously now?"

"I set myself up for that," I said rolling my eyes into the ceiling. "What about you?"

"I collected lunch money until college."

That made me laugh. "Why am I not surprised. And college?"

"I. . ." she just kinda trailed off, looking down at her lap.

The most paranoid, overly cautious alarm bell started ringing in my head. But nobody was perfect, and I had no right to judge her based on her past. If it wasn't readily apparent, I will tell you that I am no saint. And I had already told her she can tell me her life story when she wanted.

"Forget it," I said. "Ready to get out of here?"

She nodded her head. "Yeah. I'm ready." She started buckling up while I ran pre-flight checks on the Yamato.

The awkward silence that followed was so heavy it felt like it had it's own gravity well. We took off, cleared the station and started flying towards the outside of the station's mass lock. Carlotta just sat there, her hands folded in her lap. I busied myself with the jump, sneaking a glance at her, trying to get a read.

I set the coordinates for our first jump and entered witch space. She wouldn't look at me.

When you interact with people - a lot of people - you can figure some things out about their mannerisms. A bouncing leg that tells you the person is anxious to be elsewhere. Excessive sweating in an otherwise comfortable environment means stress. People who fidget with pens or cigarettes or paper clips while talking to you indicate boredom with the conversation.

Withdrawing into yourself when confronted with subjects you're not comfortable with? That's hiding the truth. Carlotta was actively not telling me things about herself. I got the sense she wasn't doing it out of maliciousness, though. Like she was trying to protect me. I caught the briefest look of anger on her face just as we popped out of our first FSD jump.

Maneuvering around the star for our next, I looked over at her. "Hey. Everything OK over there?"

"Yeah," she said, smiling at me. "It's OK."

And when they smile at you and say everything's OK? That's lying.


We spent the rest of trip in silence. It was easy for me, I was flying nearly 1000 metric tons of warship with the supercruise maneuverability of a drunken cow. Flying into stars coming out of a jump was my biggest concern. Carlotta shifted her gaze from her lap, out the cockpit window, to a random screen readout and back to her lap the whole journey.

The final jump completed and I turned the ship towards Big Pappa's. Andhrimi 5 slowly grew in the viewport, its rings getting closer. We dropped into the asteroids and roared towards the station's glowing entry port.

I cleared us for entry, brought the ship in, landed her, and as the elevator began taking the ship into the dock, Carlotta finally said something.

"Cynic, I want to tell you something."

"Carlotta, I already said-"

"Shut up. Just - just let me talk."

I kept my mouth shut and watched her as she unbuckled and swiveled her chair to face me. I swiveled my own toward her and waited while she leaned on her knees with her hands folded together in front of her mouth.

"You are one of the most amazing people I've met. You saved my life without asking a thing in return. And I have to say, this past week has been. . . well you feel the same thing I do, yes? I want to tell you about myself. I want to lay it all down for you. You deserve to know everything about me. You, more than anyone else I know, deserve the truth."

Here comes the but.

"I need time. Just- I need time. I have no right to ask after everything that's happened. I have to ask you to give me some more time."

She really was struggling with this. And I suddenly had a lot more questions and suspicions than I had before. She wasn't asking for a break, though. Or space. Just time to wrestle with herself.

"Please," she begged.

"Alright," I said, nodding. "Alright. If you need time, you need time. I'm not some grand inquisitor that-"

Her leap out of her chair caught me off guard and she had her lips pressed to mine in one fluid motion. We held the kiss for what felt like an hour. The intensity of it making me feel like my brain was going to explode out the back of my skull.

When she pulled away she pressed her forehead to mine.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome."

She sat in my lap and we held each other. I was asking myself, over and over, what in the hell is going on? I felt the warm trickle of tears down my neck.

"You going to be OK," I asked. She nodded as I held her head, my other arm around her waist. "OK."

We sat there, letting her grip around me alay whatever fears I had. "So. . . this is probably a bad time to ask for a favor, then?"

She chuckled and pulled away, sniffling and wiping tears from her face. "You have the worst timing."

"Yeah, well, I try."

She looked at me, smiling and shaking her head. "What?"

"Since I'm going to be taking Elly and Looper out for mining tomorrow, you mind stopping by Nahkino's to pick up the sample? Well, check on it. He said it might be ready by then."

"I thought you said he was skittish?"

"Oh he still is. I'll convince him."

"You seem to convince a lot of people."

"Do you really want to know what I really do?"

"Bribe them?"

"Yup. You don't approve?"

"Cynic. . . Jesus. Nevermind. Do you really think money buys everything?"

"Absolutely not. Only a fool thinks money buys everything. All it does is buy convenience. And there are a lot of. . . inconveniences in the galaxy."

"Ah. You mean people."

"Not all people, but yeah, certainly enough. And there's the whole food, water, shelter thing."

Carlotta closed her eyes and let out a sigh. "Yes. Your a cynic alright. Do you weigh everything as convenient and inconvenient?"

I pressed my hand against her cheek, and she leaned into it. "I don't think you're inconvenient, if that's what you're getting at."

"Maybe it worries me a little."

"Don't. Nahkino is just someone who doesn't trust anyone, but his trust has a price. A comparatively small one at that. And just because his values are for sale, doesn't mean mine are. Or yours."

"I don't think I will ever understand you."

I kissed her. "That's my other secret. I don't try to figure everyone out."

She kissed me again and got up. "Alright. I'll let you call him. I'm going to take a shower."

"I'll join you in a second, k?"

"Don't be long."

She walked out of the cockpit. As I brought up the comms system and began punching in Nahkino's number, the thought in my head was the one I didn't express when I told her about not trying to figure everyone out.

Because everyone reveals themselves eventually.

Jan. 29, 3306 - ACHENAR, CAPITOL, HAVEN MEMORIAL PARK

Senator Dorian Hewitt sat brooding in the back of his chauffeured hovercar. The vehicle rested on its pads as snow built up on its black surface, the Senate House clearly visible from the park blanketed in white. The willowy trees, free of their leaves since fall, took on spidery visages from the floating crystalline lights hovering around the park grounds.

Hewitt liked this time of year. The ice and cold seemed to slow everything down to a crawl. Ships. Transports. People. Things moving slowly meant he could accomplish more in his workday. He would go to the office and roar through bill proposals and correspondence with his constituency, beating out more weather-sodden personalities to the task. He could go to stores or enjoy time with his grandchildren in public spaces avoided by those who would typically overrun the area during the warmer months. And, most importantly, he could hide anything in the delays the weather would inevitably cause.

A sporty, slimline hovercar pulled up next to his parking spot. It kicked up snow as it came to a rest on its pads. A man in a trenchcoat got out, fumbling with his overcoat to bring the hood up and his fedora down to deal with the powdery crystals in the air. He walked over to Hewitt's car and knocked on the window.

Dorian unlocked the door from a control from a console in the armrest. The door flung open, letting in a cold front of air as the individual sat across from him. The individual closed the door and scooted into position on the soft leather of the bench seat.

"I have an office, Senator," he said, setting his snow covered fedora on the floor. "You could've just called."

"What we have to talk about, we don't want prying eyes or ears."

The man stiffened. "What's wrong?"

"The girl's resurfaced."

The man squinted at him, looking confused. Hewitt pulled one of the lapels on his coat open, reached in and took out a worn, yellowed, crinkled paper htat looked like it came out of a dumpster.

"Order 45-GHQ-55673258. Authorization of impregnation of viable clone specimen into patient 22-12. Signed January 9th, 3298. To be executed no later than January 10th, 3298."

The man looked down at the floor, then up at the ceiling. Then his eyes went wide and the blood drained from his face. "No. It's not possible."

"Now, as I seem to recall, you stood in front of me and told me that Dr. Paulsen was dead. You told me all specimens had been destroyed. You told me all loose ends tied up in a pretty little bow.

You lied to me."

" I- I didn't lie! I thought they were killed."

Senator Hewitt pulled a pistol from the same coat pocket. A small thing with a noise-suppression ring glowing at the end of the barrel. He held it in his lap, pointing it straight at the man sitting across from him.

"Obviously not. What happened the night Paulsen was killed?"

"Oh god, oh god. Ummmmm. . . it was so long ago, Senator."

Hewitt thumbed a button on the back of the weapon, making it click and charge up.

"Think about it very hard."

The man closed his eyes and put both his hands on his temples. He began tapping the side of his head with one hand, desperately trying to make himself remember.

"T-They told me they chased her down to. . . oh god what was the planet? HR 1064! That was what they told me."

"What happened on HR 1064?"

"I don't remember! None of this was recorded, Dorian. You wanted it erased, so we erased it."

The PWHACK sound of a shot striking the armored window made the man cry out and duck down.

"The hunter! The one you gave us! He said he tracked her to a settlement there. I think he said something about chasing her down and she ran in front of a vehicle or something!"

"And he didn't verify the bodies?"

"I-I assumed he did."

Hewitt sighed heavily. "Did you ask him if he did so?"

The man shook his head. "Why would I? He was a killer. I didn't want to have to deal with him at all."

Hewitt gave the man a look of disgust. This sniveling coward, this executive of their successful joint business venture, was the man he chose to keep the wheels turning? Together, they had gotten rich enough to gain positions within Imperial leadership. How did this shit stain manage to keep it together long enough for them to succeed? He sighed again, and lowered the pistol.

"Well it appears that's where that trail ends, then."

The man visibly relaxed. "Christ, Dorian. Just. . . what the hell?"

"I had to be sure. The fact remains that the girl survived Dr. Paulsen's death. She is alive and well and has managed to stay ahead of my efforts to find her.

I need you to go over GenuSect with a fine tooth comb. ANYTHING from the former labs must not exist. Mentions, leftover equipment, if it sniffs of the place I want it destroyed."

"Consider it done," the man said nervously.

"Do we still employ anyone from back then?"

"Dr. Engstrom is still with us. And I'm pretty sure his staff is comprised of veterans."

Hewitt stared out of the window into the haze of falling snow. He could sense the blizzard creeping into their midst.

"Is he doing anything important?"

"What?"

"Can we survive without him?"

"Y-yes. I'm sure we can find people to continue his current projects."

Hewitt put the pistol back in his coat. Folder the work order he had read and did the same to it.

"Fire him. Give him a hefty severance. The same with those knowledgeable of our past."

"I don't think I have to tell you how expensive that will be."

"No. I don't. See that it gets done." He gestured his head towards the door.

The man nervously picked up his fedora and stepped out into the building flurries around their hovercars.

As the sports car wound up and took off, the security window between the passenger cabin and the driver whirred downward.

"Everything alright, sir?"

"Yes, William. He's a spineless fool, but he confirms what you told me. You did check the bodies, right?"

"Double checked. She ran out into the middle of a train track. The child's skull was cracked open. Dr. Paulsen was split in half. There's no way anyone could survive that. But, apparently, I was wrong, sir."

William took off his hat, and Hewitt understood exactly what he was doing. He made his head an open target to shoot, if that's what he deemed a necessary punishment for his failure.

"Put your hat back on, William. You have been a loyal servant for a long time. This situation is not your fault."

William replaced his hat.

'I will. . . need to break the promise I gave you all those years ago," Hewitt said.

"I understand, sir."

"Do you understand why?"

"I do, sir. What would you ask of me?"

The senator drew in a heavy breath. "I want you to capture Cynic, the girl and her father. Kill them only if absolutely necessary."

"And the agent?"

"If she gets in the way, kill her. Go to Andhrimi. I have a Centurion there tracking their movements. Help each other end this."

"It will be done, Senator. Shall I drop you off at your office?"

"No, no. You can take me home. Oh, and William?"

"Yes, sir?"

"See to Dr. Engstrom and his colleagues before you go."

"Of course, sir."

The hovercar droned to life, lifting off the pavement surface and sending clouds of white powder in all directions. Hewitt stared out the window as the vehicle rose above the blizzard, breaking above the storm to reveal a sky dotted with millions of celestial lights and thousands of man-made ones criss-crossing the heavens in every direction.

Jan. 28, 3306 - ANDRHIMI, BIG PAPPA'S BASE

Carlotta and I stared at the ceiling of my quarters on board the Sasha Nova, trying desperately to catch our breath. Every part of my body felt like a firecracker sizzling starbursts through every fiber of my nervous system.

"Wow."

"That was-"

"Yeah...'

"How did we-"

"Dunno."

We both exhaled, turning our heads toward each other. We both broke out laughing.

"Don't make me laugh," I said.

"You started it you oaf," she said.

We both laughed for a while longer, holding hands as we cooled off. We finally caught our breath. I got my arm underneath her and she spooned against me, neither of us caring about our sweaty bodies or the soaked sheets around us. She laid her hand on my chest, pressing it flat to feel my racing heart beat. I ran my fingers through her hair.

I sighed and closed my eyes, allowing the moment to simply linger. Listening to her breathe and feeling her warmth against me. The endorphin rush through my body left me so content I almost fell asleep.

"Do you think they know," Carlotta asked me.

"I think Looper has his suspicions."

"And Elly?"

"Pffft. She had us pegged a few days before al-Din."

"No she did not."

"Swear to god. She called it out on our way to Shinrarta. Apparently she was reading up on certain subjects while us adults were busy making a living."

Carlotta got quiet for a second. "I worry about her," she said. "About her place in the universe."

"What do you mean?"

"She's something of a chimaera. Spliced together from someone elses DNA, her genetic code altered to fit someone elses idea of what a human should be. She's lovely, hyper-intelligent, and she hasn't shown it yet but I'm willing to bet she's physically more powerful than an average human as well."

"That's why the Feds and Alliance outlawed it. But I thought the Empire actually encouraged such things."

"No. Just for aesthetic attributes. Don't like the shade of your skin? The shape of your lips? The color of your eyes? That's what genetic engineering in the Empire is about. Something the wealthy or vain use to project an image of themselves."

"Are you worried that this is a trend? Have you ever heard of anyone like Elly being born with superior traits like hers?"

"No. But that's what concerns me. I fear not for the implications, I fear for her. She will forever be ostracized because of how beautiful, smart and strong she is. I'm afraid she'll spend so long seeing others push her away for what they aren't, that she'll see herself as superior, and then one day try to use that to her advantage."

"You're talking about God complexes and despotism. Elly's a little young for all that. Besides, while she might be mischievous, she's a sweet kid who's only really shown an interest in being an 8-year old girl. Which involves quality time with her dad (whom she utterly adores), hanging out with us, study time with COVAS and mad scientist time when she is left unobserved."

Carlotta sighed. "Just you joking about it makes me nervous."

I was quiet for a moment. "Sorry. Guess it's how I deal with things."

"And that's another thing I don't understand - you. You're this ridiculously successful entrepreneur who has made a fortune simply by flying by the seat of your pants."

"And sometimes yours, recently."

She tapped me on the chest like she was scolding me. She was obviously troubled by what we were talking about. I spent a few breaths collecting my thoughts. I thought about maybe spouting some platitude but that's never been my style. I've never been in any kind of relationship that felt like this. One night stands, flings, paid services, they didn't feel as... deep as this. As important. I decided that truth was what I wanted to tell her.

"Among the many things I've learned in my time - not everyone is understandable, or even relatable," I said. "I have no idea how this drop dead gorgeous woman in my arms became a deadly spy and enforcer for the Imperial crown. No idea of the the thought processes or life events that lead to that career. Or why she decided that I was worth sticking around for after it took a sharp unexpected turn. Or why she would let me do such horrible, nasty things to her in the privacy my ship."

"Oh my god, you," she shook her head against me.

I lifted her chin up so I could look her in the eyes. "But, what I do know is that I enjoy her company, her strength, her repartee. Even admire it and respect it. And I'm thankful for how it makes me feel. That's all you can do. Focus on what's important to you in the moment and act accordingly. And in this moment," I kissed her as deeply as I could, "I also hope that she feels as. . as happy as I do."

She smiled at me, and kissed me, and sniffled as a tear ran down her cheek. We held each other tightly. I had no idea if this would last between us. Had no idea what I was doing. And I didn't care. Man, it felt good. And that was enough for now.

"Plus I REALLY like the bendy thing you do with your hips."

She got out of the hug and tried to smother me with a pillow as I started laughing. She started laughing with me.

"I swear sometimes I could smack the bullocks out of you," she said in between giggles.

"Don't threaten me with a good time."

She hit me with the pillow a few times, showing off her toned physique. I grabbed the pillow from her and rolled her onto the bed, both of us cackling all the way around. That lead to a kiss. Then an embrace. I think you can guess what happened next.

Jan. 27, 3306 - ACHENAR, CAPITOL, SENATE HOUSE

Carlotta was surprised when I presented her with the stuff I bought from Nahkino. A few blades for her boots and wherever else she wanted to keep them, a terminal slicer for hacking (so she could stop tearing up my equipment to do so). Nahkino had a special little something that I thought she would love.

It was a trick variably-suppressed pistol. The trick being it came with an eyepiece, like a contact lens, that went on your eye and acted like a HUD with various modes and scanners.

"I. . . don't know what to say," she said as she inspected it all.

"Well, I was going to buy you flowers. But I thought, 'What do I get the girl who could kill me and make it look like an accident?'"

She laughed. "Usually those who grab my attention don't give me the tools to end their lives."

"Just use the gun. Dying by blade sounds unpleasant."

She shook her head. "You're horrible," she kissed me. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Honestly I just figured you lost what you had back on the Pistol Derby."

"Yes. But this is very nice - MUCH nicer than what I had."

"Being irresponsibly wealthy has its perks."

And so, we were in a holding pattern. With a week to kill before we got the DNA results, we had time to do pretty much whatever we wanted to do. We spent a little time playing with Elly after I dropped off the sample, but decided to make ourselves scarce around her and Looper for a time.

Talking with Carlotta, I recommended we continue to dig through the data to see if there was anything else we could find. She agreed with me as we returned to the Sasha Nova, though she said there was plenty of time for that and other things, too. Things I might like better than research. Stupid me picked up on the hint when she started undressing halfway up the ramp. She was right. I liked this better.


///LOADING IMPERIAL ARCHIVES

///PLEASE ENTER FILE TO DISPLAY

: \ ] cd \bin\senate\sector\cubeo

: \ ] livecast, senator's office, microphone 2

///WARNING: ACCESS RESTRICTED

: \ ]override auth "reindeer flotilla" -nodeny

///PROCESSING...

///ACCESS GRANTED TO USER "null"

///BEGINNING LIVECAST...

[Sen. Hewitt]: Again, thank you for bringing this to my attention, countess. I shall bring your concerns directly to the court. Tah-tah.

[Comm end]

[Comm beep]

[Sen. Hewitt]: Corinne, are there any messages for me?

[Corinne]: Yes, sir. One classified text message.

[Sen. Hewitt]: Send it to my desk, thank you.

[Comm end]

: \ ] spike message \senate\sector\cubeo*.* -latest

/// SPIKE SENT. . .

/// SPIKE SUCCESSFUL

/// DISPLAYING CONTENTS. . .

From: [null]

To: Dorian Hewitt, Senator

On site. Contact urgent. Awaiting signal.

/// END CONTENT

[Comm beep]

[Sen. Hewitt]: Computer, contact the following address. Send ready, encrypt and await.

[Computer]: Channel encrypting. . . Channel open. Awaiting contact.

[Sen. Hewitt]: . . .

[Clicking sound on comm]

[Sen. Hewitt]: I'm listening.

[Unknown]: On site. Targets acquired.

[Sen. Hewitt]: Targets? How many and describe.

[Unknown]: Adult male, matching provided description. Adult female, matching provided description. Suspected secondaries on board target vessel.

[Sen. Hewitt]: Do not move in yet. Stay hidden. Confirm secondaries and report back.

[Unknown]: Understood.

[Comm beep]

[Sen. Hewitt]: . . .

[Comm beep]

[Corinne]: Sir, you have a call from the governor's office.

[Sen. Hewitt]: Send it through.

[Comm beep]

[Sen. Hewitt]: Senator Hewitt.

[Unknown]: Dorian, darling, how are you?

[Sen. Hewitt]: Ah, Mrs. Konicek. I am wonderful now that you've called. And yourself?

[Mrs. Konicek]: Marvelous, darling. I shan't take much time - Wyatt and I were wondering if you and Maryln would care to join us at the opera this evening. Our daughter has taken ill and her date found. . . other things to do. The tickets are so hard to get we would hate for them to go to waste.

[Sen. Hewitt]: I will clear my schedule, Mrs. Konicek. Maryln and I would be delighted to attend.

[Mrs. Konicek]:Capital, darling. We'll see you tonight. The limo will be by, say, 7 o'clock.

[Sen. Hewitt]: That sounds just fine, Mrs. Konicek. We will be ready.

[Mrs. Konicek]: See you tonight, then. Chow!

[Comm beep]

[Sen. Hewitt]: [Sigh] The things I do. . .

: \ ] end livecast

///LIVECAST ENDED

: \ ] exit

///EXITING IMPERIAL ARCHIVES - THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATRONAGE

Jan. 26, 3306 - ANDRHIMI, BIG PAPPA'S BASE

enter image description here

ROGUE IMPERIAL WARSHIP SEIZED

Imperial authorities have seized the IWS Glory's Hammer and her crew after the ship went rogue and invaded an independent system without authorization. Captain Augustus Vasser was taken into custody along with his senior staff after the warship appeared in space near Chelomey Orbital in Cubeo. The remainder of her crew have been confined to quarters until investigators have completed debriefing en masse.

Forces loyal to Princess Aisling Duval were responsible for crippling the mighty warship, having learned of the traitorous intent of her captain from a well-placed source.

"I am shocked and dismayed that a distinguished member of Imperial society would turn traitor," the Princess said in a statement to the press. When asked if the captain was working alone, the Princess replied, "You know as much as I do at this time. Whatever aid the Empress requires in this matter I will gladly give."

"I assure you, and the good people of the Empire," Empress Arissa Lavigny-Duval stated in a holovised address, "that I will focus all of my energies into investigating this egregious violation of Independent system sovereignty."

A diplomatic party of the Empress' highest-ranking officers has already been dispatched to the encroached system, but no larger diplomatic row appears to be forming in the incident's wake.

UPDATE

Imperial Legate Harishaw Angival (13th Legion Commander, Cubeo) was found dead inside his office when authorities were attempting to serve a warrant in connection with the IWS Glory's Hammer incident. While official details have not been released, it is believed that the Legate committed suicide shortly after the warship was seized and her captain arrested.


I thumbed past the article, wondering how Carlotta was going to take the news of her former employer's death. I rubbed my eyes and took a sip from the coffee that had just finished brewing a few minutes earlier.

I sat at the table in the main cabin, the glasses we used for brandy last night still sitting there. I had been up for an hour or so, the station outside buzzing with morning ship traffic and loudspeaker announcements. I had been going through the data slip that Max had given me yesterday, trying to put together pieces of a puzzle I still wasn't sure I understood.

Corporate tax papers, bills of sale, signed approvals and work orders for various things regarding cloning assigned to the former Legate and someone called Dorian Hewitt. I had no idea what I was looking at. I scratched my head and took another sip of coffee.

The door to my quarters opened, and Carlotta stepped out wearing my flight jacket. Just my flight jacket. I took in the sight and smiled at her.

"What," she said, going for the coffee.

"Just enjoying the view."

"Uh huh."

"Sorry, the coffee is pretty much all that's left on board. Uh, besides the brandy."

"Perfectly alright, love," she said.

She got a mug herself and sat across from me. She sipped the coffee, and closed her eyes enjoying the hot drink. I took another sip myself, setting the datapad down.

We sat just drinking coffee. Just... sip after sip for a while. She caught me staring again.

"You can relax, flyboy," she aid smirking into her mug. "I enjoyed last night. Did you?"

I nodded enthusiastically. "Very much so." I held out my hand on the table and she took it. Smiles abound, both of us glowing like a pair of teenagers. I felt stupid and vulnerable and Carlotta was WAY out of my league and my head was spinning from the events of yesterday and last night.

"So," she said, "That the data from Max?"

I handed her the pad, "Yup. And the latest from GALNET News."

She took the pad and thumbed her way to the news article.

"I, uh, I don't know how to break this to you. That Legate, Angivale? He's dead."

She looked at me, then back at the pad, thumbing quickly for the information. Her eyes darted back and forth. She shook her head.

"Not a suicide, I take it?"

"No," she was clearly not surprised by the news. "He was killed. The information we got must've been far more sensitive than he realized. This is someone trying to keep it quiet."

"That mean we should start watching our backs?"

She raised an eyebrow at me and took the data slip out of the datapad. "What do you know about this info transport tech?"

"Dummy drive. You write once and can't write again."

"Which means you can't execute code from it."

"And that."

"And thus, we mustn't be paranoid. Your friend, Mr. Kader, was careful to get us the info on a medium that wasn't compromised."

She put the slip back in the pad and started in on the info.

"I was looking at it earlier," I said. "Lots of memos and signed work orders and the like. Has Angivale's signature all over it. Along with someone named Dorian Hewitt."

She thumbed her way through the info to confirm it for herself. "That's it. He's the one."

"The one what?"

"He's the Senator Angivale was working with. The one I didn't have a name for until now. He's the one who was helping him all along."

"OK, so this Hewitt is - was, sorry - pulling Angivale's strings. Both are high ranking officials. Wouldn't that kind of relationship set off some red flags somewhere?"

Carlotta looked at me like a mother looks at the naivety of their child. "Do you not know anything about how Imperial politics work?"

"OK, you got me there. But even if his name is all over the docs, doesn't a Senator get an official seal of his own after inauguration? For just this sort of thing?"

"No. Look at the dates of these documents."

She handed me the pad and I looked. "This is weird. Their all dated from November 3297 to January 3298."

"Nearly four years before he became a Senator."

"And look at these company logos on the letterhead. Gen-U-Flex, GeneCorps, DNA Mappings, Inc. - I know the Empire trades pretty heavily in genetically modified goods. But what are these two doing with their paw prints all over a dozen of them?"

"Right? Almost every Imperial official has, perhaps, one or two associations with large corporations. But nothing like this. Wait a minute-"

She stood up and ran to my quarters. I tried to stay focused on the current task and not on her lack of attire. She came back with a smaller pad she must've kept in her own clothing.

"They're all gone," she said, sitting next to me.

"Huh?"

She had a list of the companies on her pad and she was right.

"Each and every one of those companies has been closed, shutdown, bankrupted or liquidated," she said.

"And not one absorbed by a larger conglomerate? The fuck?"

"I think Hewitt and Angivale did something and they tried keeping it hidden. Are still trying. Can I hold on to your pad for a while? I want to compare what I've found against Max's data."

"Well you can hold onto anything of mine as long as you like OW!" She punched my shoulder and we both laughed. We kissed, time freezing for the briefest of moments. "I mean, yes, you can borrow my datapad."

She kissed me quickly again, smiled, and took both pads back to my quarters.

Phew. What have I gotten myself into with her? I stood, finishing my coffee.

"You want the rest of your coffee?"

"Leave it there, I'll get it."

I left her mug, gathered mine and the glasses from last night and deposited them in the galley sink. I walked over to the captain's chair, sat down, and turned on the computers. I had one last task to complete and then I could go help Carlotta with her research in as little clothing as possible.

I flipped the screen over to the Galactic Powers menu. Now that Carlotta no longer needed information from within the Empire, I figured it was better to terminate my association from a power within said Empire. No need to leave that particular trail of breadcrumbs in case this Senator Hewitt came looking for us.

I moved the cursor over to Aisling Duval's picture. . . and froze. The flowing, radiant hair. The large, brown doe eyes. The wide lips. The soft cheeks. The perfect Imperial nose. I'd seen her before.

"Carlotta? Can you come here for a second?"

She joined me, without even my flight jacket on, and leaned over my shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

"Take a look. Where have you seen her before?"

"It's the Princess Duval. Are you alright?"

"No, I mean, LOOK."

"Cynic, you're starting to worry me."

"Look and imagine the hair is blonde, not blue, and the face is only eight years old."

Carlotta's eyes widened. "Oh my god. You don't think-"

"up. Let's get dressed. We gotta go talk to Looper."

I quickly finished submitting my resignation to Aisling's faction.


Elly was playing with another one of her trinkets when we arrived at the Romeo Eclipse.

"Cynic! Ms. Huxley!"

"Hey there, troublemaker," I knelt down as the kid raced to hug me. She collided with me in a bear hug.

"How'd your mission go? Dad said you were going to gone for a while."

"Just a day, and I can say we won."

"Yay! When are we going mining again?"

I laughed, looking up at Carlotta who only smiled.

"I'm still working on some things, but we need to talk to your dad OK?"

"OK. I'm working on a robot. Want to see?

"Oof, afterwards, but we need to have a talk about AI laws if that's the case."

"It's just for COVAS so he can do more stuff with me."

"Alright, but after we talk with your dad. Give us a few minutes."

"Okaaaaaaay." She hurried off back to her project.

We began walking through the corridors of the ship up to the main cabin.

"You ARE going to tell her, right," Carlotta whispered into my ear.

"Let's confirm my suspicion first, then we'll share the galaxy-shattering news, if true," I whispered back.

Looper was eating breakfast in the galley. He had a datapad on the table with GALNET news up. He saw us and waved it at us.

"I thought you were trying to be low profile about all this," he said as we sat down across from him.

We put both of our own datapads onto the table and looked at him.

"Mike, we found some possibly serious shit and we need you, I need you, to be very clear with us, OK?"

He put his drink down and furrowed his eyebrows. "OK. . . what is it? What did you find?"

"Elly," Carlotta began, "when was she born?"

Looper looked confused. "Not sure, all the doctor's who looked at her said she couldn't have been more than a few weeks old when we found her."

"When was that?"

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, "We celebrate her birthday on September 28th. That's the day she was dropped on our doorstep."

"3298?" I asked.

"Yeah, that's right."

"And no one asked questions about her," I continued. "Not the doctors, not the orphanages or adoption agencies?

"No, no one. Everyone was as surprised as we were."

"Was your wife associated with any Imperial entities in her past or while you were married," Carlotta asked.

Looper glared at her. "No. We did business in the Empire, but neither of us were ever directly part of a faction or group associated with them. What the hell is this all about?"

Carlotta and I shared a look, and laid it out for him.

"The Legate who was chasing us," I said, "The one who hired the pirates to kidnap you and Elly? He and a Senator buddy of his were part of several genetics companies around late 3297 and early 3298."

Carlotta brought Max's info up to show him.

"The orders," I continued, "are for genetic screenings, cloning authorizations and genetic enhancement orders."

Looper looked more confused.

Carlotta interjected, "The last order was for an IVF impregnation. January 3298."

"Guys, what the fuck are you getting at?"

I brought up a picture of Aisling Duval and showed it to him. "This, Mike. Recognize her?"

"Of course I do who doesn't-" he stopped the moment he looked at the picture.

"Elly is the spitting image of the Princess," I said. Looper sat there staring at the picture. He traced his fingers along the easily recognizable features of the Princess, so prominently shared with his daughter.

"We think she's a clone," Carlotta said, "with certain genetic modifications in place. That's why she's so intelligent."

"This. . . no. This is impossible. Shadow- OUR Elly?"

"It's crazy, I know. But her age fits the timeline of the work orders perfectly."

"And just look at her, Michael," Carlotta pleaded.

"So, what," he was on the verge of hysteria, "You saying she's some experimental tube grunt abandoned by a mad scientist on my doorstep? No. Not my Elly."

"We need to verify, Mike," I said. "We. . . we need some DNA source."

"Hairs, skin, any kitchenware she may have touched or used."

"You both are absolutely crazy." He was trying to keep his voice down and failing. "Cynic, I'm grateful to you, but this is too much for me. It's too much." His hands were shaking and tears were streaming down his face.

I felt like the biggest asshole in the galaxy. Laying this on my best friend, after he'd lost his wife and was chased from everything he knew with a daughter he loved more than anything. It was a lot for one man to take in. I wished there'd been a way to ease him into this, but if Carlotta and I were correct, it meant that both Angivale and Hewitt had created a clone of Princess Aisling Duval.

For what reason was beyond me, but we had to make sure of the facts before moving on. Which could also mean we needed to hide much deeper in the 'verse than we currently were.

He suddenly got up and walked briskly to his quarters. Carlotta was about to chase him, but I grabbed her hand, begging her to sit down. He returned and dropped a hair brush on the table. Blonde strands were wound in its teeth.

"Just go. I need time," he said. He walked out of the galley back to his quarters and closed the door.

I got up and looked around for a plastic bag to put the brush in. Once I found it, I carefully placed it inside and sealed it.

"This is surreal," Carlotta said. "You do realize that the Princess' genetic record is probably classified and guarded at the highest level, right?"

"I know. But I am nothing if not resourceful." I winked at her and she rolled her eyes. "I'm going to go see a guy about a horse. Mind staying here with Elly for a few?"

"What?"

"It's an expression, sorry."

"Alright. You don't need my help?"

"No, I definitely need your help. . . just I'm going to see someone who is, shall we say, skittish?"

"Ah. One of those reputable contacts of yours?"

"The only kind I know."


There was a reason I chose Big Pappa's as a hiding point. The Paladin Consortium, despite its namesake, was a roughshod group with membership spanning every color of existing law in the Milky Way. And because of that, the base, as a mining operation, was a perfect front for all manner of ships, cargo and people to go about their business, whatever that business may be.

You don't get to be a member unless you've done a lot of favors for a lot of people. Needless to say, I was a member. And I had plenty of favors to cash in on.

I approached a curio shop with a few ladies of the night hovering outside it. South Under Pawn and Loan. It had been a few years, but the shop was just as I remembered it. Burned out 'L' and everything. I said no thanks to the women and walked through the door. The bell alerted a short, older man behind the counter at the far end of the store.

"Welcome," he startled, turning around. "How can I help- oh Christ it's you."

I walked back to the counter. "How're you doing, Nahkino?"

"Was afraid you'd stop by. Been here a whole month, got everyone who owes you watching their backs."

"Nahkino, that hurts, it really does. You got my money yet? It's been. . ."

"Three years."

"Wow. Three years."

"N-No. I don't. But I have some goods here that you might be interested in!"

"Relax, Nahkino, I'm teasing. I'm here with an offer. Do me a favor and you're debts are clear."

His worried demeanor evaporated, and a smile crept across his face, "Well why didn't you say so in the first place?"

"I like seeing you sweat."

He hissed at me. "You're an asshole. What's the offer?"

"DNA matching."

"Ahhhh, trying to find someone? A lover, perhaps?"

"Not quite. Need it checked against Imperial records."

"What's wrong with the Imperial Archives?"

"Classified, Imperial records."

"Really? Any slicer on this station could get into their joke of a security system. That's what you came to me for?"

"Classified, ROYAL, Imperial records."

He pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. "I see. And the source?"

I handed him the bag with the brush. He dumped it out on the counter top, nodded, and then grabbed a tool box underneath the counter. He quickly put on latex gloves, set out a collection dish (with suspiciously legitimate medical markings on it), and a set of tweezers for each hand. He carefully collected several strands of hair from the brush, placing each one in the collection container.

"This is not going to be cheap," he said.

"I know. It's going to be free."

"Hrmph." he finished collecting and put the sample in the tool box. He replaced everything and threw the latex gloves away. "It's going to take a week. Maybe two."

"Alright. I'll check back by the end of this week, then," I said, grabbing the brush and putting in the bag.

"You do that."

"Oh, one last thing."

"What?"

"I got a friend who needs some equipment."

"This part of the favor?"

"No, no. The favor is covered, if you hold up your end. This would be an independent transaction."

His grin lifted the whiskers on his face. "Well then, what is your friend looking for?"