The worn picture of Sera’s baby girl slipped off her rifle and fell into a puddle of cobalt.
“Damn.” She tried to reach for it without breaking her position.
Sera Storme lay prone in the cobalt-rich rain. Pink-tinted water ran down her face in streams, the river of her onyx-black hair clung to her cheeks and hung dripping in her eyes. On Xi, the rain was relentless. It sometimes stormed, sometimes drizzled, but no matter where on the planet you were, it never stopped.
She reached down to retrieve her photograph, wiped it off on her black tunic. She gave the picture a quick kiss before placing it in her breast pocket.
Sera’s legs were cramping up; she stretched them slightly and fished in the pocket of her web belt for an iron ration pack. She had been lying in the same spot for close to two days now, waiting for her target. Still no sign. The rain poured on.
“So Sabian,” she said sub-vocally over her com, “how long have you been in the business?”
“Please try to keep this channel closed except for emergencies,” came the emotionless response, transmitted directly to her eardrum via sub-dermal implant. Anyone standing beside either of them would not have heard a word of their conversation.
Well, if Sabian didn’t want to chat that was fine by her. She wasn’t particularly in the mood to deal with him either.
Sera hated working with a partner. Unfortunately, that had been one of the criteria for accepting the job. The bounty was Sabian Delain’s; she was being hired to assist only. Her share worked out to be 4,000 Republic Dollars (not just local Sector Credits) dead, 10,000 RD if they captured him alive. She couldn’t complain about the pay, she just wished that he wasn’t such a prick.
Their target, Alistair Lu, had somehow found out about the price on his head and vanished. It had taken Sabian and Sera a week to track him to his safe house, tucked away in the middle of the cobalt blue jungles of Xi. Lu was a labour racketeer with connections to the Glass Spear, who ran most of the illegal activities in this sector. It was never explained to Sera why Dione Systems wanted Lu dead or alive, and she had never asked. A job was a job.
This was her life; she took work where she could find it, she stayed on the move.
One day she would be able to stop moving, to be with Lani again.
Soon. Just a few more jobs.
A flashing amber icon appeared in the corner of her field of vision; a vehicle was approaching. Finally.
From her vantage point beneath a giant blue tree fern she could see a dot just above the horizon, coming in low and fast. She looked closer. Her cyber-augmented eyes zoomed in, providing a data readout about the vehicle; make, model, max speed, max altitude. A wireframe line indicated its velocity vector.
“Heads up Sabian,” she announced, “there’s a limo coming in. It’s got to be our guy.”
“Excellent. Don’t try anything yet. We’re going to observe him for a day or so.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Sera had had quite enough of being rained on. “Why? We can just take him out when he gets out of the limo and go home.”
“Because I said so, Storme. This is my operation. Be patient.”
The limo came to a soft landing on the pad outside of the small house. The door opened and a figure emerged.
“This is ridiculous,” Sera cursed and hoisted her carbine. Her enhanced eyes fed her targeting information. As the figure approached the doorway she squeezed the trigger. The figure dropped to the ground.
“Done,” she said, “he’ll be stunned for the next few minutes. Let’s bag him and go home.” Sera stood up, ignoring the jolts of pain from her cramped muscles. She curled her toes to get the blood flowing in her legs again.
“I told you to wait,” Sabian’s voice was loud in her ear, “we had no idea if-”
The rest of the sentence was drowned out as the fern tree she was standing next to exploded into splinters. An eighth of a second later another blast blew apart the ground where she’d been standing, but Sera was already away.
“Bolter fire!” she yelled, running through the foliage, “I can’t see the source. Where is it coming from?”
“Two seven oh degrees, but I have no line of sight.”
Sera twisted her body mid-stride. Her foot hit the ground and she sprang off in the new direction. She pulled out her sidearm and zig-zagged to avoid a succession of three more blasts. Circles and arrows filled her vision, showing probability fields for where her opponent might be.
“There are two more hostiles,” Sabian announced, “Four five degrees and one five oh.”
Sera dove to avoid another bolt, hit the ground and rolled back up to a run.
TARGET ACQUIRED, her display showed, with a short arrow pointing to her left. She spun around and fired two shots.
TARGET NEUTRALIZED. One down, two more to go.
“How’s it going with our other two friends?” she demanded.
“Engaging now,” Sabian responded. In the distance she heard more shots ring out. Sera sped towards them.
More bolter rounds exploded by her feet. Her proximity sensor went off, showing a fourth opponent to her right.
“Where are these guys coming from?”
Sabian’s cool voice responded. “This is precisely why I said-” She heard the crack of small arms fire. “Target at two seven oh neutralized. This is why I said to hold off and observe.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Sera retorted. “Oh, damn.”
The limo was lifting off, its passenger door still open wide. The man she’d shot must not have been Alistair Lu after all. Now Lu was trying to make an escape.
Sera paused for half of a heartbeat to plan her next move. Then she turned right to face her new adversary.
The muzzle of his bolter flashed as he fired. She dodged the blast and ran directly towards him. He fired again, Sera sidestepped and closed into melee range. In one fluid strike she seized the forend of his bolter with her left hand and fired her pistol into his side with her right. She continued her smooth arc of motion, twisting into him so that her back pressed against his chest. She wrenched the bolter from his hands as he fell and dropped her pistol. Sera was targeting the escaping limo with the bolter before its owner hit the ground.
The limo did not get far. Sera squeezed off five rounds. The impact against its hull rolled the vehicle sideways. White smoke streamed out of the back as it curved downwards into the jungle and disappeared into the trees with a crash.
“Got him! Sabian, how’s it going out there?”
“One second.” After a brief pause Sabian came back on the com. “Target neutralized.”
“Good to hear. Let’s go get our guy.”
Sera dropped the bolter and picked her pistol back up. She met up with Sabian and the two bounty hunters jogged through the jungle to the spot where she’d seen the limo crash.
The limo had torn a broad swath through the trees and dug a trench through the wet soil before finally coming to a stop against a man-sized boulder covered in blue-green lichen. Sparks intermittently burst from the smoking engine in the rear. The mirrored view canopy was shattered, reflecting a kaleidoscope of pink sky and blue foliage. Sabian cast her a disapproving look from behind the transparent visor of his combat helmet.
“This was completely unnecessary,” he said.
Sabian’s eyes were a vivid celadon green, set above a straight greek nose and angular jawline. His hard, analytical gaze, coupled with the fact that he stood a full head taller than her, was enough to make even Sera Storme stop in her tracks.
“I’m sorry,” she said lamely, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Sabian hit the door release. The limo door hissed open, and Sera peered in to assess the damage. Alistair Lu was slumped over the cracked control console, bleeding from his nose and forehead.
“Is he alive?” Sabian asked.
“Not sure.” Sera climbed in and reached over, felt at the side of his neck for a pulse. She was relieved to find one, although quite faint.
“He’s alive. No harm done.”
Sabian didn’t respond.
“See, aren’t you glad we didn’t sit there waiting? Now you can sit back and spend your hard-earned bounty, instead of lying in the rain figuring out the best way to pee without blowing your position.”
“We were lucky. It could have gone worse.”
“But it didn’t.”
“But it could have. You should have followed my orders,” Sabian insisted, “Oh, and I always bring a spare canteen.”
“A canteen? For what?” Sera asked, then realized what he meant. “Oh. Well, not all of us are equipped-”
“Quiet!” Sabian hissed. Sera poked her head out of the limo. Sabian was crouched down with his back to the vehicle, staring into the jungle. He pointed with his index finger to a thicket of broad-leaved bushes. Sera’s heads-up display registered nothing, but she noticed a slight erratic movement in the leaves. She vaulted out of the doorway, crouching like a cat as she landed on the soft jungle floor.
“The driver,” Sabian subvocalized. Sera had completely forgotten about the man she’d stunned. The effects would have worn off by now.
“Go left,” Sera said, “I’ll go right. Flank him.”
The movement stopped. Where could he have gone? He had some sort of cloaking enabled; Sera couldn’t pick him up on infrared or through motion sensing. She ducked into the cover of the jungle, eyes sharp for any out of place movement. Sabian disappeared out of sight, heading in the opposite direction.
She heard a splash behind her and whirled around, but it was only the leaf of a plant too laden with rain to hold itself up. She cursed under her breath, realizing she’d given away her location.
The air filled with a sound like a swarm of bees. Hundreds of tiny flechettes sliced through the jungle near her, tearing through leaves and embedding into the ground and trunks of trees. Sera hit the ground, moving as quickly as she could on her elbows and knees. She caught a glimpse of a shape running, but before she could aim her pistol it was gone. The jungle was quiet again, except for the sound of the falling rain.
“Do you see him?” Sera asked.
“Negative,” Sabian responded.
Sera caught motion beside a nearby fern tree. She stood and fired randomly, hoping to draw out her attacker. Then came the insect sound of flechettes and shredding foliage, and she was tackled to the ground from behind.
“Dammit,” Sabian gasped out loud. It was him who had tackled her. He’d saved her but taken several flechette rounds in the arm and shoulder. He slouched awkwardly, nailed to the tree by the vicious needles. Sera scrambled up to help him; he waved her away.
“Just get him!”
She spotted the driver running off into the trees and sped after him. He tried to evade, but now that Sera could see him he was no match for her. She quickly closed the distance between them and then stopped, gripped her pistol with both hands and fired a single shot. His body fell hard to the ground.
She headed back to where Sabian had been hit to find him clumsily attempting to fashion a field dressing. He had taken off his helmet and rested it on the roof of the limousine. His auburn hair was sweaty from the shock, and his face was pale.
“Let me help,” she said. Sabian nodded and sat down hard, weak from blood loss. She undid the clasps on the sides of his body armour and pulled it up and over his head.
Sabian’s body was tight, all hard edges and sharp angles. His muscles were lean and hard, streaked red with the blood from his wound. Of course this was neither the time nor the place, but Sera couldn’t help but to mentally record the image. Her pulse quickened as she ran bandages over his firm chest. She cursed the universe that had filled a body like that with a personality as abrasive as Sabian Delain’s.
Sera pulled more gauze from a pouch on her web belt and tied a tourniquet. They made a call, and two hours later a Dione Systems shuttle arrived to take Sera, Sabian and Alistair Lu off-planet.
The pilot cast a disdainful look at the condition of their target as they boarded. If she knew Dione Systems they would probably quibble over the bounty.
Soon, she told herself. Just a few more jobs.
She knew she was lying to herself, but what else could she do?
It was a one day flight to the closest interstellar portal, and another half day on the other end to get Sera back to her apartment building on Castile. Dione Systems had their man so there was no rush to report to their Castile branch office for debriefing. First, Sera badly needed a hot shower to wash the pink cobalt out of her hair, and a solid night sleep.
She caught a taxi from the spaceport to her flat in Lowtown. She paid her fare and walked into the Imperial Gardens, which boasted the single ugliest building lobby in the Perseus Arm of the galaxy.
Sera had lived in her building for close to two months now and still hadn’t been able to get used to it. The original decorator had apparently been going for a “desert mystique” look; she doubted it had looked decent even when new. Now ratty carpets and dust-laden shelves of random Old Earth paraphernalia adorned the walls. The lobby floor was a checkerboard of worn plastiglas tiles embedded with alternating beige and red sand.
She had talked once to Virgil the building manager about updating the look, but it had turned out that the decorator in question had been a favourite niece of his. His feelings had been so hurt that she’d dropped the subject, and never brought it up again. Awful decor aside, it was better than some of the places she’d stayed over the years.
An older man sat at the front desk, dressed in pyjama pants and an undershirt. He was looking at a visscreen show through half-lidded eyes. His head sunk as he nodded off to sleep, then jerked up as he noticed Sera walking in. He moistened his lips with his tongue.
“Good day, Sera Kellister. You are looking very… colourful.” She’d made the name Kellister up on the spot when she’d first checked in. She had become very good at that sort of thing.
Sera looked absently at the streaks of dried cobalt still covering her skin. She was minutes away from her hot shower and not in the mood for conversation.
“Someone left a message for you, while you were gone.” The old man rummaged around under his desk. Sera tapped her foot. Virgil finally found the piece of paper he was looking for.
“Aha. Here it is.” He squinted and read: ‘This is… Nadia. Call me back. It’s important.’ There you go.”
Nadia. Why would she be trying to contact her?
“Nadia, she’s a friend of yours?” the old man asked.
Sera shook her head. “Nadia is family.”
“Sera Kellister has family?” The old man seemed amazed by the concept.
“I do, yes.”
“Well, this is good.” Virgil smiled, his teeth disturbingly white and perfect. “Family is important. I see you often, so alone. You should keep in touch more with your family. Otherwise you will end up like old Virgil here, all by yourself, spending your old age bored watching viscreen at a desk.”
“It’s… not quite that simple.” Sera shrugged and Virgil dropped his gaze, and the subject.
She tried to make it to the lift without having to continue talking. She failed.
“So, have you seen my new addition?” The old man pointed with his chin to a palm-sized rounded rectangle that he had mounted in a wire stand. It was glossy black and mostly featureless, with cracked glass on its front and a white silhouette of a piece of fruit on its back.
Sera really needed to get upstairs, phone Nadia, have a shower and get to sleep. She sighed.
“It’s from Old Earth,” Virgil continued gravely, “It’s a com, probably from 200 BP, maybe 300 BP even. I bought it at auction yesterday.”
Sera wished that the building manager would spend half as much on building maintenance as he did on useless antiques. She smiled anyway, her eyes drifting longingly in the direction of the lift.
“It’s very nice.”
“Nice? That’s history, right there. Old Earth.” Sera took the opportunity to slip away while the old man was shaking his head and making disapproving clucking noises with his tongue.
She entered the lift, placing her hand on a flat black panel inside. The panel flickered and sputtered to life. The lift was bio-coded to ensure that she alone had access to her living unit. It lurched and hummed for a minute, then the door slid open. Sera walked into her apartment, dropped the duffel bag she’d been carrying.
Sera’s apartment measured three metres by four metres. The floors were made of the same plastiglas as the building lobby, and the walls were mottled tan. Her bed lay in the far corner of the room, and doubled as a couch when she pressed a button on the bottom. A visscreen hung on the wall adjacent. Sera had a small metal armoire for her clothing and a matching shelf.
Sera tried to contact Nadia, but got a pre-recorded message that neither Nadia, Audric or Lani were home but if she would like to leave a message they would be sure to get back to her as soon as they could. Sera chewed her lip thoughtfully. Sera contacted Nadia and Audric fairly regularly, but it was fairly rare that Nadia would reach out to her. She wasn’t sure if she should be worried or not. Unfortunately there was little she could do about it, and she was utterly exhausted. She would try again in the morning.
Sera skipped her shower after all and headed straight for bed. She kicked off her boots as her body grew heavy and fell fast asleep. She didn’t dream.
Without windows it was impossible to tell at what time Sera woke up, but she knew it hadn’t been long enough. Her eyes were dry and leaden and her head ached. Her jaw hurt from grinding her teeth in her sleep. Sera knew that as fatigued as she still was, trying to get back to sleep would be futile. From the bed she pressed her hand against a panel and a sickly bluish light flickered on. She sat up, held her head in her hands and sighed.
She tried contacting Nadia again, but still there was no answer. More than likely it was still early in the morning at their house on Valdres. Everyone was probably still asleep.
Sera climbed into the shower, and when she felt human again she dressed and sat back down on the bed. She reached for a small picture frame, the only object on her otherwise bare shelf.
Images cycled across its surface; Lani as an infant in her arms. Lani at a beach on Serendib, a shocked expression on her face at her first time seeing so much water. Sera hadn’t been on Serendib of course, that was long after she’d had to leave. Lani would have been around three at the time. When the picture was taken she would have been fighting for independence for Polaris, as a hired mercenary. Possibly she had been fighting for sovereignty, she couldn’t remember. Regardless, that whole situation had gone poorly; she found out her superior officer’s ties to the Trillium crime organization just shortly before he had found out hers. She had had to leave everything behind when she fled, including two years’ pay.
Another picture later on by another beach; Sera didn’t know where it had been taken. Her cousin Nadia held a four-year old Lani, with her husband Audric by her side.
An image of Lani a year later in pigtails and a new floral dress, carrying a bright fuchsia backpack; her first day of school. Sera had been on Betelgeuse at the time, unable to find any sort of work. That had been a hard year.
Lani covered in dirt, beaming over a flower garden she’d planted. Sera had seen her on that day, but from afar. Sera and Nadia had decided it would be best if she kept her distance. Having her mother popping in and out of her life would be too hard on the child.
Other scenes flashed by. Nadia and Audric hadn’t sent any new images recently. Sera didn’t have anything past age six; Lani had turned eight two months ago.
Eight years was an eternity. When she’d left Lani as a baby in her cousin’s care, she had only ever expected it to be for a year at most, until her situation with Trillium settled down. It never did, even as months passed, and then years.
Now, Sera didn’t even know what would happen if she was finally able to reunite with her daughter. Sera had barely been a part of her life; the last time she had held her daughter in her arms was nearly eight years ago. Nadia and Audric had looked after her for so long, did she even have a right to expect them to give her up? Lani was part of their family now.
She couldn’t think that. If that was the case, then what was the point of it all? What other reason did she have to continue this existence, living in her cramped ugly apartment waiting for jobs from Dione Systems or the occasional freelance bounty contract? No, she would have her daughter back eventually. There was no question about it. That hope was what let her get from one day to the next.
In her heart Sera knew that she would be a great mother, once she was finally reunited with Lani. That couldn’t happen though until she was able to deal with her Trillium situation, and that couldn’t happen until she had saved up enough to pay them back and make amends.
Soon. Just a few more jobs.
Sera hailed a taxi to the Dione Systems office building. She waited in the building lobby until it finally arrived.
The drive took nearly an hour, which was why the unobtrusive olive green ground vehicle following several car lengths behind her taxi drew her attention. It was an older model sedan. With its sun shield up she wasn’t able to discern who was driving. It followed her taxi turn for turn, changed lanes when it did, until she finally reached her destination. She paid the driver. When she climbed out of the taxi it had vanished.
It was probably nothing.
Probably not. It was never nothing.