Overload Flux – Free Sample Chapters

This is a free sample of the first two chapters of Overload Flux (Central Galactic Concordance • Book 1), by Carol Van Natta. Enjoy!


 

CHAPTER 1

* Planet: Rekoria * GDAT 3237.026 *

Their footsteps echoed in an empty corridor of Rekoria’s planetary spaceport. Mairwen caught herself touching the outside of her coat pocket that held the wirekey, and ruthlessly controlled herself to keep her uneasiness at bay. Though neither man she accompanied down the tall, wide corridor had said so, she had the feeling they didn’t want to be discovered doing whatever it was they were about to do.

Motion-sensor lighting triggered as they approached each segment. At ninety-four minutes before midnight, the noisy passenger area of the spaceport had been as busy as ever, but the commercial shipping section where they now walked was deserted. Trending galactic headlines and bright vids flashed silently on the continuous overhead displays along the corridors, creating constantly changing lights and shadows. It could have been worse; in the passenger section, the animated displays took up entire walls.

She walked two paces behind the two men, like any average, incurious security guard, and kept her expression blank. Her company uniform and long topcoat passed as conservative corporate wear at a casual glance. As long as no one noticed her heavy boots, she wasn’t likely to draw unwanted attention to their group.

Personal security detail wasn’t her usual assignment. While she did usually work nights, it was mostly as a solo guard or security systems monitor at large industrial complexes in marginal sections of town. This was supposed to be her night off.

She hoped the only reason she’d been chosen for tonight’s activities was because she was a name on a La Plata Security Division “night-shift available” list of dozens, and not because she’d stood out in some way. She’d been careful to stay unremarkable. This was the first time in months she’d allowed herself to open her extraordinary senses even a little, noting and cataloging the distant sounds of automation and the stale scents of people. She shouldn’t be doing it now, but the increasing tension of the two men she was accompanying was contagious.

The older man, Velasco, about her height, was entertained by the flashy wall displays in a variety of languages, and softly repeated the words that caught his attention. He again switched the padded strap of the large forensic kit he was carrying to his other shoulder. Lukasz Foxe, taller than Velasco by a dozen centimeters, stood straighter and carried two bags slung over his right shoulder, a smaller hardcase and a larger curved bag, and had a winter greatcoat over his left arm. He was leaner and clearly in better shape than Velasco. So far, Foxe hadn’t said much.

When she’d received her orders from dispatch to check out a company vehicle, pick up the wirekey and a forensic kit for Foxe from the office, then pick up Velasco from a restaurant and take him to the spaceport—she had assumed she would then remain with the company vehicle while Velasco did… whatever it was he was here to do. Instead, for reasons unknown to her, Velasco had told her to come with him to collect Foxe from the gate of an incoming interstellar ship. The need for her presence certainly wasn’t for her company or conversation, because once they’d entered the brightly lit spaceport, Velasco had all but ignored her. She was relieved. From what she remembered from meeting him once at a company event, he had nothing worth saying.

She’d never met Foxe before tonight. Dispatch’s orders had included his company photo, which didn’t do him justice. Even though he was obviously tired, he was handsome, with light brown skin and wide, angular cheekbones, and wore his casual business clothes with more style than Velasco’s ultra-trendy but unflattering suit.

She was already familiar with Lukasz Foxe’s name. She’d memorized most of the Investigation Division’s investigator names and titles so she’d know whom to avoid. She didn’t want the possible attention that came from being in the orbit of a blue-hot company star. She didn’t know what a High Court-certified forensic reconstruction specialist did, but she had the feeling she was about to find out.

She hadn’t quite figured out what Velasco’s role was. From something he’d said in the first burst of jabbering he’d subjected her to as she drove him to the spaceport, he was with the Security Division of La Plata, but assigned to Investigation. She’d mostly tuned him out for the rest of the trip, choosing instead to focus on traffic, which wasn’t well automated, especially at night. Etonver city drivers were allowed to disable vehicle autopilots, and mostly did, making for bad ground traffic, twenty-five hours a day.

The spaceport corridor split, and they turned toward the section with commercial interior warehouses. When they rounded a corner to the left, Velasco pointed halfway down the hall to a large cargo bay door of opaque flexglass. The logo said “Centaurus Transport” in huge letters. A smaller, human-sized door farther down to the left had the same logo. The two men stopped in front of the bay entryway, and Foxe looked to Velasco.

“Anything from the Port Police?”

One of the benefits of working for a security company was official access codes for police bands. Foxe’s first order after arriving had been to tell Velasco to monitor the frequency from his percomp. It had been Mairwen’s first clue they were expecting trouble.

Velasco activated the company-issued percomp he wore strapped to his wrist. It was a more recent model than hers; night shift tended to get refurbished leftovers. Tech Division had been nagging her to surrender her clunky hardware for an update.

“Nothing,” Velasco said after a moment. Mairwen got the impression he hadn’t been paying attention to it until asked. Fortunately, his assessment was accurate. Even though she hadn’t been ordered to do so, she’d been monitoring the same frequency via live audio sent to the earwire adhered to her jawline, and had heard only two routine communications in the last eleven minutes.

Mairwen was becoming increasingly resentful at being kept off the net as far as what she was being dragged into. She had no idea why investigators from her company were going to the warehouse office or what they expected to find, other than something that would need a forensic kit. Meaning it was more than a simple slice by interstellar jackers or some ground-based theft crew. But she couldn’t ask without drawing unwanted attention to herself, so she stayed quiet. It was one of the few times she’d ever wished she was a telepath. Most telepaths she’d ever met were under the thumb of the Citizen Protection Service, and she knew the steep price of that all too well.

The door frames of the transport company entryways had visible security monitoring devices in the form of flat camera eyes that looked glossy and new. She angled herself away from them, not knowing their peripheral range. If they were like the industrial versions she was familiar with, they’d only be triggered when the doors opened, but better safe than sorry. She considered whether or not a simple security guard would notice the cameras or think to point them out. Probably not, she decided.

Foxe checked the elegant, transparent percomp he wore on the back of his hand. “Still no pings.”

He sighed and ran his fingers through his dark, wavy hair, making it look even more unruly than it already did.

“Let’s go in.” He didn’t look happy to be there. Mairwen sympathized.

Velasco held out his hand toward her expectantly, and Mairwen slipped the wirekey from her pocket and gave it to him. As he fumbled with the lock on the smaller door, she took a couple of steps back from both men and the camera eyes, toward the center of the corridor. She opened her senses wider to check that they were still alone.

Sounds came from the electric hum of lights, the pulse of the air circulators, and the whine of automated grav sleds. Somewhere inside the warehouse, a loose vent rattled intermittently. There were scents of lubricant, petroplastic, paper dust, and humans, mostly hours and days old except for the strong new scents of Velasco and Foxe. Velasco smelled of too many cosmetics, synthetic fabric, fruity alcohol, and meat, probably steak. Foxe smelled of wool from his coat and a natural buttery, subtle exotic wood scent that was incongruous in a spaceport. Velasco’s scent was boring, but Foxe’s was… interesting, almost intense. She caught herself just in time from stepping closer to breathe in more of it. Very bad idea, her cautious brain told her.

Velasco couldn’t get the wirekey to work on the small door, so he tried the cargo bay door. It lifted swiftly and quietly. She was immediately assaulted with the unexpected stench of blood, bile, bowels, and recent death as colder air billowed out from the warehouse. She slammed closed her suddenly overloaded senses, blinked away involuntary eye moisture, and smoothed her face to hide her reaction. She was glad neither man had been watching her. They didn’t appear to notice anything amiss, but she couldn’t tell what normal people could smell. She focused on Foxe to see if he expected this magnitude of trouble, and thought he didn’t. It wasn’t likely to make him any happier to be there.

When they stepped in through the bay door, bright overhead lights in the warehouse blinked on. She hung back momentarily, thinking of standing guard in the corridor, but concluded the Port Police would consider her equally involved if she was outside or inside with Velasco and Foxe. She followed them in, tucking her face into the shadow of her high, wide collar as she passed the cameras. Velasco closed the bay door behind them and inexplicably handed her the wirekey again instead of keeping it. Probably he didn’t want to be caught with it. She put it back in her pocket without comment.

Mairwen looked around for more security devices but saw none. She’d have liked the time for a more careful examination.

Before them were several disarrayed rows of waist-high palletized crates. Foxe and Velasco walked roughly parallel paths through them. They passed a line of grav sleds into a more open area. She followed Foxe’s route and stepped to his left, stopping when they did.

She hadn’t seen a lot of underground spaceport warehouses, but she imagined this one looked and smelled like any other. Except for the mute evidence of a wholesale robbery by a sloppy crew in a hurry. That, and the two dead bodies in a pool of congealing blood on the floor. From the smells, which she couldn’t totally block even with her senses practically zeroed, the bodies were only a few hours old.

Velasco’s shock caused him to inattentively drop the forensic kit with a crash, missing his own foot by centimeters. Foxe stared at the bodies for six or seven seconds, then turned toward her and focused on some point above and behind her to her left. He didn’t look squeamish or nauseated like Velasco did, but he was paler than before. His jaw was tight and his breathing was shallow, like he was wishing he didn’t have to breathe at all.

“Shit… shit… shit,” Velasco muttered, mesmerized by the horrific aftermath of violence in front of him. He swallowed hard.

Foxe gave Mairwen a quick, assessing look, which she met with equanimity. He nodded minutely, perhaps relieved that he didn’t have to deal with incipient hysteria from her, too. He turned his head to focus on his associate.

“Velasco, check the rest of the warehouse for doors and offices. Tell me what you find.”

“What? Oh, yeah, okay,” said Velasco, almost stumbling over the forensic kit at his feet. “I’ll see if there’s an evac map or something so we’ll know what… Shit, is that more blood?” He leapt away from a black smudge and looked at the bottom of his shoe, then skirted away toward the wall and disappeared down a row of shelves. “Why don’t they have auto lights… Oh, finally… It’s a mess back here…” His voice trailed off as he moved away. Babbling seemed to be his method of coping with stress.

Foxe turned toward Mairwen again and activated his percomp. His earwire was probably as unobtrusively elegant as the unit. Investigation Division stars rated much better tech than night-shift guards. At least all the La Plata company percomps were encrypted for traffic and location, so a later net dump by the Port Police wouldn’t be traceable to any of them.

“I’m at the warehouse. It’s been sliced, and Leo and Adina are dead.” His tone was flat, but his face showed a depth of emotion not expressed in his words. “I’ll do what reconstruction I can before the police get here. I’ll ping after.” He disconnected. Whoever got that message wasn’t going to be happy tonight, either.

His knowing the murder victims explained some of the look of distress in his hazel eyes, the look that said what he’d seen had been etched in his memory with acid.

He studied the nearby stacks of crates, as if memorizing them, then put his luggage on top of one stack and pulled on his greatcoat against the chill of the warehouse. He retrieved the forensic kit from the floor and set it on another stack of crates and opened it.

Velasco returned from his task and stopped near the suspended work surface along one wall. He looked up toward the lights, clearly avoiding the less pleasant things on the floor.

“There’s a regular door in the back, and an office, and a full fresher. The alarm was tripped back there, or at least that’s where it’s blinking. There’s nothing else, uh, like that.” He tilted his head toward the bodies. He looked bilious. He turned away and picked up a stylus, as if to examine it, but dropped it on the floor. He retrieved it, but in trying to avoid looking at the rest of the floor, he bumped into the work surface hard enough to set it swaying.

Foxe happened to be facing Mairwen’s direction again, so she saw him wince before he smoothed his face and turned to Velasco. “Why don’t you go watch the back doors and monitor the Port Police chatter?” Though phrased as a suggestion, it was unmistakably an order.

Velasco had the grace to look faintly embarrassed as he headed toward the back. Mairwen had taken him to be older, though with decent bodyshop work, he could have been nearing civilian retirement age at 130, and no one would know it. His unprofessional behavior, regardless of whether or not he’d known the victims, made him seem absurdly young and inexperienced. Odd that he was paired with Foxe.

Foxe began pulling instruments from the forensic kit. It was obvious he knew exactly where in the kit to find each item he wanted. So as not to disturb him, she stood still where she was. She turned down the volume of the Port Police frequency on her percomp so she could listen for changes in audible rhythms from outside the warehouse. If the police weren’t using their net, she hoped her senses might at least give her an early warning.

The tripped alarm, evident from the security system’s blinking lights, should have brought a response within minutes, but the Port Police were infamously slow in handling incidents that didn’t involve passengers. It made her antsy not knowing how long the alarm had been signaling, but there was nothing she could do about it. She focused her gaze forward and used her peripheral vision to watch Foxe work.

From what she could tell, the instruments he used were for detailed measurements or capturing images, like the cloud of little flying 3D cameras he was directing now. They resembled the nuisance flying adbots that increasingly swarmed retail shoppers and tourists throughout the galaxy, but Foxe’s had camera eyes instead of holo projectors. She had the vague notion that crime scene investigation involved taking samples, but she’d never seen a reconstruction specialist in action. They weren’t common, and Foxe was touted as an expert, which was undoubtedly why La Plata’s Investigation Division had hired him. La Plata Security and Investigation specialized in providing the best, and set their fees accordingly.

He moved economically and gracefully as he worked, but it was still eating up the minutes. He was looking everywhere except the bodies, but his tense expression as he looked at her, which was increasingly often, said they were all he was thinking about. She supposed she might be affected, too, if they were her friends, but she didn’t have any, so she could only speculate.

He hadn’t said more than three sentences to her since she introduced herself at the gate, so his request now almost startled her.

“Morganthur? We’re on borrowed time. Can you do something with their office comps, and still monitor the Port Police band?”

She didn’t think he’d noticed when she’d adjusted her percomp. She made a mental note to be more careful around him.

He sounded tired and hurting, although she couldn’t have said how she knew. A moment of uncharacteristic empathy made her want to help him, instead of act fog-a-mirror dumb like she ordinarily would have. Like she had for the past four years.

“Clone, take, or flatten?” she asked. Admitting to some comp skills was probably safe enough.

His eyes widened and an eyebrow raised, and she had the impression he was actually paying attention to her for the first time that night. She disciplined an impulse to flinch at the surprising force of his regard.

“Clone, preferably without leaving a trace.”

To her relief, the connection broke when his gaze left her. He opened the small hardcase he’d brought with him, which turned out to be another forensic kit. He took out a clonewire and handed it to her.

She went to a large terminal on a nearby mobile table and inserted the clonewire. The wire was fast and the cloneware was glossy. It only took a few moments to breach the warehouse’s barely adequate internal security and get their entire data hypercube. Centaurus Transport must trust its employees a lot more than the average company, she thought. On a whim, she found and cloned the security module while she was at it, noting with wry amusement that the warehouse was scheduled to have the new door cameras operational later that week. More worryingly, she discovered the intruder alarm had been tripped more than two hours ago.

Four minutes later, she disconnected the clonewire and wordlessly handed it to Foxe. She was unexpectedly… aware of his proximity, so she backed away fast to return toward her self-appointed post near the crates. His voice stopped her.

“I need your help.”

He looked toward the direction that Velasco had gone, then back to her. His expression and tone said he really hated having to ask. “If you can handle it, I need you to search the bodies quickly, and tell me what you find.”

He’d given her an out, but the despairing, almost haunted look that shadowed his warm hazel eyes and tense mouth were more than she could stand. For whatever reason, he couldn’t handle it right then, and she knew she could. She knew death from way back.

“Gloves?” she asked. She didn’t want to leave her biometrics around for the sniffers that even incompetent police typically used. She took off her topcoat rather than chance trailing it in body fluids. The warehouse felt cold but not unbearable.

He handed her a pair of microskins from his kit. She smoothed them on as she looked more closely at the bodies. They were about a meter apart, both wearing black civilian clothes and light coats. The dark-skinned woman would have been tall and imposing in life. One of her long legs lay across the lighter-skinned man’s feet. His body was curled in a fetal position, so it was hard to judge, but she guessed him to be considerably shorter than the woman. She crouched between the bodies, balancing on the balls of her feet to avoid the combined pool of blood and less-pleasant fluids that had leaked after death. Her boots would leave a distinctive print if she wasn’t careful.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

The corpses were starting to stink, so she cut off her awareness of it. There were other scents nearby, besides Foxe’s, but too degraded to be of any interest, except a couple of hours-old human scents and maybe a hint of something medicinal. She cut off her awareness of those, too, dismayed that she had so unthinkingly and easily allowed them to register in the first place.

“Tell me what’s in their pockets, anything unusual about their clothes. Anything you notice about their injuries,” he said. Although he was turned away, she thought he might be watching her with his peripheral vision. He still looked pale, almost traumatized. “If you have to move anything, try to put it back like you found it, so it doesn’t screw up the official investigation too much.” His tone implied he didn’t think much of the Port Police’s ability to notice things like that. Given their reputation and lack of response so far, she had to agree.

She started with the man first. Foxe had called him Leo, and she finally put it together with the last name of Balkovsky that she remembered from the Investigation Division. He was the source of most of the blood and stench, and now that she was close, she could see why.

“A broken-handled forceblade is stuck in the man’s left pelvic bone. The forceblade is large, maybe twenty-five centimeters. The strike came from right to left through his pelvis and intestines. He bled out.” If the handle hadn’t failed, the forceblade would have finished cutting the man in half and spilled more of his fried entrails. He’d died with an anguished look on his ash-white face.

Perhaps that was part of why Foxe couldn’t look at the bodies. In her peripheral vision, she saw him shiver as if even his winter coat couldn’t keep him warm.

She gently probed the body with her gloved fingers and searched the clothing, while avoiding the blood and tissue, and described what she found. Foxe had her clone the gory wrist percomp but leave it and the earwire on the body, as well as the ankle gun, jewelry, and a couple of wirekeys. When he told her to take and bag a joyhouse souvenir token, she did as he asked, but a hint of puzzlement must have shown on her face.

“It’s a percomp. Leo liked hiding things in plain sight.” He kept his eyes focused on hers, so she could see the effort it was taking to maintain composure, and his strong jaw pulsed once. It was like seeing someone unexpectedly naked.

She looked away and moved to the woman, Adina, whose body was lying on its right side, legs twisted unnaturally. She was feeling the pressure of time and worked quickly. “Holsters empty… pockets too. They were searched.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked.

She started to show him, but he’d retreated to his resolute stare away from the scene. “Pockets partially pulled out.”

“But not Leo’s?”

“No.” She continued her examination. “Blunt impacts on the left shoulder… Left elbow feels broken… Knuckles are bruised and broken… Percomp like yours on her left hand.” She leaned in and looked at it more closely and saw the characteristic distortion pattern and pinpoint blood spots on the nearby skin. “De-rezzed. Probably a mister.” Misters were small hand weapons that could temporarily paralyze or render unconscious. They were illegal in most places, but not in Etonver, where almost anything could be openly carried or concealed.

“A mister?” he asked.

Mairwen could have kicked herself. Dull security guards wouldn’t know what mister damage looked like. But she’d already opened her mouth, so she might as well go on. “Two shots, maybe more. Left arm, neck.”

“Misters aren’t usually fatal.”

She gently lifted the lapel and collar of the woman’s singed flatcoat to look underneath. “No, but a forceblade through the heart is.” The singed entry wound was unmistakable. The bottom half of the coat had soaked up most of the leaking blood.

She saw the hint of a tattoo on the woman’s neck and pushed aside the shirt collar to see the rest of it, and the skulljack behind the ear she expected to find. Now the woman’s bruised hand and broken elbow made sense.

“She did some damage to her attackers after the man—Leo—went down. Ex-Jumpers are hard to kill.”

Jumpers were the military’s elite special forces under the Citizen Protection Service. Unsurprisingly, both La Plata’s divisions employed a large number of military veterans.

She made one more discovery. Under the woman’s body, obscured by the blood-logged coat, were three identical, sealed packages of what looked like medical capsules, labeled with obscure identification codes and symbols. They were the source of the medicinal scent she’d caught a whiff of earlier. She shut down her sense of smell yet again, perturbed by how often that evening she’d been lured into breaking her own rules about using her extraordinary senses.

“Three squibs under her, maybe pharma or blackmarket chem samples,” she told him.

“Bag them.” She used her right forearm knife to lever each sample up and slide it into the bag he held open for her. She re-sheathed the flat blade and used her glove-protected fingertip to gently smear nearby blood around to obscure the shape of the void the packages had left.

She started to ask if he needed anything else from the bodies, but momentarily froze when she realized the rhythm of sounds from the corridor outside had just changed. Wheels on plascrete, the click of motion-sensor lights blinking on, human voices. Very likely the Port Police. If she said nothing, and the police entered the warehouse before checking in, she and her co-workers would be caught in a locked room with two murder victims.

Foxe noticed her hesitation and focused his eyes on hers. “What?”

Unable to come up with a plausible excuse, she gave him the truth. “I thought I heard something.” It sounded lame. She looked toward the bay door they’d used twenty-three minutes before.

He considered her words a moment, then put the evidence bag in his kit and started rapidly closing it up. “I think we’ve pushed our luck far enough. We’ll go out the back way with Velasco.”

She quickly stripped off the gloves inside out and put them in her pants pocket, then grabbed her topcoat and the large kit he’d just finished sealing and slung its strap over her shoulder. He picked up his luggage and hustled toward the back of the warehouse. She kept pace right behind him through the jungle of shelves to where Velasco was standing. She was now glad he’d given her the wirekey earlier, because it meant they wouldn’t lose valuable seconds waiting for Velasco to produce it. As she moved in front of Foxe and headed straight for the door, voicecomm from the Port Police band sounded in her earwire.

Base two, six thirty at Centaurus Transport bay side. No visible breach. Harris is downloading the keycode now. Sitrep in ten.”

Velasco heard it, too. “Shit, the police are out front. They’re getting the key now.”

“We’re done. Let’s go,” said Foxe.

Mairwen used the wirekey to open the door in the hope it wouldn’t trigger another alarm. She calculated they had maybe ten seconds before the police entered at the other end of the warehouse. They’d be as unpleasantly surprised by the bodies as Foxe and Velasco had been. All in all, no one was going to be happy that night.

Once Foxe and Velasco were through the door, she sealed it and put the wirekey in her pocket, while turning up her senses to make sure more company wasn’t coming. Foxe seemed all right, but Velasco’s shallow breathing and fast heart rate said he was headed toward panic again.

She took the lead to get them walking fast down the corridor to get Velasco to put some of his adrenalin to good use. She heard a distant grav sled coming their way. She looked for and found the corridor split and led them into the side hall. She wanted to avoid triggering the motion sensors for the hallway lights, so she slowed to a stop after a few steps, as if adjusting the shoulder strap.

Velasco’s breathing was heavy, but he seemed to be in better control of himself now. Foxe took the opportunity to call up a holo map of the spaceport on his percomp. She was relieved because it meant he could plot their path away from trouble and out of the spaceport. She’d already planned multiple escape routes the moment she’d learned the warehouse’s location, but that wasn’t the kind of initiative exhibited by unambitious night-shift guards.

“Cart coming,” warned Foxe. Thankfully, his hearing was good enough to notice it. She felt him step close behind her. His unique, exotic scent teased her senses before she ruthlessly blocked it. What the hell was wrong with her?

Foxe’s fingers brushed her arm. “Wait until it goes by,” he said. Velasco nodded. She nodded, too, but moved a step away because she didn’t want Foxe touching her again. She put her coat on and sealed it, wishing it was lined with flexin armor.

Even when he was quiet, the pressure of his breath and the resonance of his voice rumbled in her ears, provoking a desire to hear more. Very bad idea, the cautious part of her brain told her. She dulled all her senses to practically comatose levels. Her inexplicable and uncontrollable awareness of him was an unwelcome distraction, and dangerous. If the universe loved her, after tonight, she’d go back to her safe routine and never cross his trail again.

 

CHAPTER 2

* Planet: Rekoria * GDAT 3237.027 *

Luka Foxe slumped in the company vehicle’s well-padded back seat and huddled in his greatcoat while rubbing his throbbing left temple. The cold was in his bones again. He was grateful he didn’t have to drive, because even at one in the morning, Etonver traffic was horrible. He’d have liked to blame the double full moons, but Etonver traffic was notoriously bad all 388 days of the year.

He was deeply tired and stressed. Re-certifying his expert credential at High Court on Concordance Prime hadn’t been a vacation, and the last few hours had been a klústérfökk. The incompatibility of ship schedules and local times on two planets meant his body clock was haywire. He didn’t sleep well on small starships. He didn’t appreciate cramming five hours of reconstruction into twenty minutes. He didn’t like dodging the police. And he didn’t reconstruct murder scenes any more. Especially when one of the victims had been his best friend.

The vivid impression of the bodies of his colleagues Adina Schmidt and Leo Balkovsky was still acid sharp. It had only taken seconds for the phantasms of how it could have happened to ooze up and contaminate his mind with bile. Even though he’d looked away quickly, he’d already seen and memorized too much. The talent-driven visions of possibilities had twisted his train of thought, until he could hardly think of anything else.

It hadn’t always been that way. When he’d worked as a civilian for planetary police and military criminal investigation units, his hidden minder talent to see a crime scene and imagine the scenarios that fit had been useful. Involuntarily triggered by evidence of violence, but manageable. His final case changed everything. He’d hoped time and disuse would have made his talent easier to handle, but tonight proved that, if anything, his wayward ability was just as strong, and his ability to control it weaker.

As tempting as it was just to doze, he needed to organize the data and send a preliminary report now, because he expected to flatline for at least eight hours once he got home. The only bright spot of the night was Morganthur. She’d been much more useful than his nominal assistant, Velasco. He was glad Velasco had been dropped off first.

“Assistant” was maybe too strong a word. La Plata policy required its investigators to have partners, but no one else had the background to help him, and he was accustomed to working alone. They might have let the policy slide, except for his tendency to lose all track of time and space when he was deep in a reconstruction, even without using his talent. La Plata solved both problems by assigning him a personal security detail out of the Security Division. His assistant accompanied him, drove him places, provided another set of hands, and kept track of things. He’d gone through several of them. The latest was Velasco, who was comparatively reliable and affable, but talked a lot, was distracted by women, and was prone to fidgeting with anything nearby, including evidence.

Luka hadn’t really noticed the difference until tonight, when Morganthur had stood quietly still for fifteen minutes straight. At the end, when the violent visions of what had happened to his friends in the warehouse were practically blinding him, she’d been a living, steady anchor to reality, even if she didn’t know it.

That she’d been both unperturbed and competent in searching the bodies was a small miracle. Velasco would have thrown up on them.

Luka encrypted his findings and the data clones Morganthur had retrieved and transmitted them to Seshulla Zheer’s attention. The net connection was secure, but it never hurt to use added security with sensitive data. He guessed Zheer, the president of the company, was now his boss until she found a replacement for Leo.

Luka had never wanted a lead role, at least not until he regained control of his talent, and not while Leo enjoyed leading. Luka was numb now, but he knew the heartache would come. He was fluxed and wrung out at the same time. He swung his long legs across the seat and leaned back in the corner, trying to think of other things.

Movement up front from Morganthur caught his eye. He’d initially taken her for ex-military, but she was too slight to be an ex-Jumper, and her movements were too unconventionally fluid for regular military standards. Her almost translucent pale skin, arctic-lake blue eyes, and spiked blonde hair should have been dulled by the gray and black of her company uniform and coat, but weren’t.

Now that he had time to think about it, she was an enigma. She clearly had some intelligence behind the bland stolidity she wore like flexin armor. His other wayward talent, the one that let—or forced—him to see the essence of a person was curiously quiet around her.

And maybe he was too tired to think straight, and maybe he shouldn’t be imagining intelligence or mystery in a woman he’d only met two hours ago.

Just as his eyelids were drooping, he was surprised by a live ping from Zheer. He kept it earwire-only, rather than bring up the holo on his percomp.

Where are you?”

On the way home. I sent the data already.” His voice sounded as tired as he felt.

It’s already being analyzed. Stop at the office first and see me. LANR says you’re close.”

LANR was the nickname for the planetwide Location and Navigation Reconnaissance system. Businesses paid to use it to track their commercial ground, water, and air vehicles anywhere on the planet surface. Up until that moment, Luka had thought it was a good idea.

“It can’t wait?” He couldn’t keep the reluctance out of his tone.

No, but I’ll make it quick. You need to get any samples in custody, anyway.”

He started to say there hadn’t been time to collect any, but then he remembered the unidentified squibs.

“Fine,” he said, and disconnected. “Morganthur, we have to stop by the office first.”

She nodded and changed lanes. She said nothing the rest of the trip, for which he was grateful.

 

* * * * *

The executive suite of La Plata’s president was palatial, designed to simultaneously impress visitors and make them comfortable. Mairwen had never been there before and didn’t want to be there now. She suppressed the uncharacteristic urge to fidget.

The meeting shouldn’t have involved her, and yet there she was, becoming a known name and face to the company president. Foxe wasn’t helping.

“Getting the warehouse’s security cube was Morganthur’s idea,” he said, pointing her direction.

Zheer reflexively glanced at her with a slightly raised eyebrow. Mairwen kept her expression blank.

“Well done,” Zheer said, then returned her gaze to Foxe. “The analyst on call sent preliminary data trends to your display.”

La Plata needed to hire a better photographer, because Zheer’s official picture didn’t do her any more justice than Foxe’s had. Zheer’s patrician features, deep black hair, and slanted eyes spoke of an Oriental heritage, and she had an undercurrent of strength. Her age was impossible to gauge. Despite the late hour, she was dressed as if for a board meeting.

Although Mairwen sat and listened politely, underneath she was irritated. She didn’t care that Juno Viszla Casualty, La Plata’s insurance company client, was trying to get out of paying more claims from Centaurus Transport. She didn’t need to know that the murder victims, Balkovsky and Schmidt, had been looking into a series of thefts, or that they’d notified Zheer earlier that night they were investigating a fresh break-in at the warehouse. Foxe and Zheer should have let Mairwen wait with the vehicle so she could take Foxe home, then get back to her ordinary life. The life where low-level uniformed security guards worked the graveyard shift, and didn’t have meetings in plush executive offices that smelled of expensive coffee, leather, and a hint of smoke.

Mairwen was glad Foxe was looking less distressed than he had in the warehouse. It made it easier to be annoyed with him now. At least he had the good sense not to talk about how she’d helped search the bodies, or that she knew what forceblades could do, or what mister wounds looked like. Her background records were as average and boring as she could make them, and she couldn’t afford the chance that someone smart might notice the discrepancy between her life on paper and her real life. Someone like Foxe, whose keen intuition was off the charts.

Even though he was plainly exhausted and distracted, he’d quickly seen a pattern in the thefts that suggested the real targets were Loyduk Pharma vaccine shipments, not the shipping company itself. She wouldn’t be the least surprised if Foxe turned out to be a minder, some rare type that the Citizen Protection Service hadn’t yet found a way to exploit. Which made him all the more dangerous, beyond the fact that her physical and sensory awareness of him hadn’t faded. She needed to get away from him soon.

Zheer opened her display, then gave Foxe a measured look.

“I’m making you the lead for this. I know you don’t like working murder cases, but you were damn good at them. We just lost two top-notch investigators. La Plata will be picking up the tab for the murder investigation for now, but I’ll work on getting Juno Vizla Casualty to pay for it. Hand off or subcontract your other cases. I want you on this full time.”

Foxe’s expression darkened, and Mairwen thought he might be about to object. Apparently so did Zheer, because she stood up and leaned in toward him, fists on the desk. “No arguments, Luka. I am beyond angry at whoever killed my friends and yours, or had it done. Go find them for us.”

After a moment, Foxe nodded, his reluctance plain. “Is that all?”

“For now,” she said, seemingly unperturbed by his icy tone. “Go home and get some rest.”

She waved toward the door, signaling the end of the meeting. Foxe stood and grabbed his greatcoat, and Mairwen followed suit. She watched him surreptitiously, wondering how he was taking Zheer’s hardnosed attitude, which was less considerate of a star employee than Mairwen would have expected. More than anything, he looked stunned.

She slung the strap of his small forensic kit over her shoulder as he grabbed his travel bag. He nodded thanks, but she wasn’t doing it for him. The faster he left the executive suite and the sooner she got him home, the faster she’d be out of sight and forgotten.

#

The rest of Mairwen’s night didn’t go any better than it started. After driving Foxe to his townhouse and returning the vehicle to the office, she discovered the company garage was closed, as it was occasionally. Her neighborhood wasn’t safe for new-looking vehicles, even with upgraded security features, so she parked it near the office. Dispatch told her they had no orders on what she should do for the rest of her shift, so she took the metro home, where she cleaned her apartment, tried to read but couldn’t focus, and did reps on her force isolation exerciser until the garage reopened at seven.

She parked the vehicle in an available stacker slot, then pinged dispatch that she was signing out. They pinged her back promptly with an order to report to her supervisor before leaving.

Malamig’s office was on the first floor, near the La Plata building’s back entrance. He was only just hanging up his coat when she arrived.

“Sit. What did you do last night?” His expression was mild, but his tone had an unexpected note of hostility. He sat at his immaculately arranged desk and aligned a cup of hot coffee with the edge of his deskcomp.

“Should I file a report?” she asked. Her usual assignments required shift activity reports, so perhaps he was displeased because she hadn’t submitted one.

“If Investigation Division wants one, they can request it through proper channels. It’s bad enough I have to special bill them so your salary doesn’t come out of my budget. Who did you talk to? I want to know why Investigation asked for you without going through me.”

Good question, she thought, but if Malamig didn’t know, she doubted she’d ever learn the answer. She shrugged. “Dispatch sent orders.”

“Yeah, I’ve already had a little chat with them.” His narrowed eyes and thinned lips told her dispatch probably hadn’t enjoyed the exchange. He leaned back and crossed his arms. His chair creaked as he rocked.

“Company policy says I have to give you a compensatory day off, so I’ll have to take you off your current assignment.”

“I’ll waive—” she began, but he interrupted.

“Too late; I’ve already changed the roster.” The creaking stopped, and he gave her a smug, almost taunting smile. “Next time Investigation calls you, maybe you’ll think to check with me first.”

Mairwen gathered his intent was to punish her for her part in what he perceived as a challenge to his authority, regardless of her blamelessness, and was using company policy as his weapon. Before she could answer, he leaned forward in his chair, feet stomping flat on the floor. “And don’t get any ideas of working for Foxe or Investigation Division, either. I say who goes, and it won’t be you ever again.”

That was the best thing he could have told her. She almost smiled. “Understood.”

He looked nonplussed by her response, as if he’d been expecting an argument, maybe even hoping for one. She’d heard rumors he enjoyed exercising power over his subordinates, but she hadn’t experienced it until today. She presumed it would soon blow over and he’d go back to ignoring her. To most of the night-shift employees, he was just a name on procedure memos.

He waved her away dismissively as he woke his deskcomp. “You can go. I’ll have dispatch ping you when I find a new assignment for you.”

She left his office and started to leave the building, then changed her mind. Since she was already there, with unexpected free time, she went to the Tech Division on the second floor and surrendered her percomp for updating. They loaned her a thincomp and told her to come back at eleven.

Since she didn’t have a vehicle, there was no point taking the forty-minute metro ride home, only to have to turn around and come back almost immediately. She’d get home and to bed later than usual, but she didn’t usually need much sleep.

With no office of her own, she cooled her heels in the employee lounge area and got caught up on some administrative work. She even wrote a shift report on the previous night, in case Malamig changed his mind. She didn’t want anything unusual in official records, so she phrased it to imply her role had been little more than chauffeur and door guard.

Fifty minutes later, a co-worker she remembered from previous assignments and more recent company meetings came in. The woman had a fruit cube and spoon in hand and plopped on the well-worn but durable couch. Beva Rienville, if Mairwen remembered the last name right, was a breezy, generously built woman with smooth chocolate skin and a lilting accent that Mairwen recognized as a French variant. Beva was the most congenial, sociable person Mairwen had ever met on the night shift, or anywhere else, for that matter. Beva insisted on using first names immediately whenever she met anyone.

“Mairwen Morganthur! Comment vas? How are you? Don’t see you in the office much, at least during daylight hours.”

Clearly Beva had a better social memory than Mairwen, who needed sensory cues, usually scent or sound, to remember people’s names. Keeping her extraordinary senses dulled to near unconscious levels had its disadvantages.

“No,” agreed Mairwen.

“Still like working in the field?”

At Mairwen’s nod, Beva smiled. “Good for you. I never looked good in the uniform like you do, and I got tired of them forgetting I was even on the planet. Besides, my wife wanted me home on time, and I missed our kids. And now I’m up for a promotion.” She took a bite of yellow fruit. “Mind you, office work has its downside. Tech is upgrading the network, and half the time, we may as well have dumb kiosks at our desks.” She rolled her eyes. “Hard to get work done when you can’t get to your work, savez? Know what I mean?”

“Yes,” said Mairwen. Should she say something else? She’d never gotten the hang of chatting.

“Does it smell like sour coconut in here to you?”

“I have a poor sense of smell,” said Mairwen, a lie she’d told so often she almost believed it herself.

“Probably Junnila’s breakfast curry again. And speaking of deadly,” she said with a smile at her own joke, “did you see in the news where the NVP pandemic might be hitting Rekoria in the next couple of months? If it does, I’m not coming into the office again until they find a frellin’ cure. They can fire my grand cul. No job is worth the chance one of my co-workers might bring it in for ‘show and share.’”

Mairwen couldn’t think of anything to say to that, but Beva didn’t seem to mind. She continued her meandering conversational monologue another nine minutes, content with Mairwen’s willingness to listen and respond occasionally.

After Beva left, Mairwen spent some time reading intergalactic news, which she’d been lax in keeping up with because it never changed much. The Central Galactic Concordance now had 506 member planets, and three new frontier planet candidates. Concordance Command Space Division was again cracking down on jack crews who preyed on space freighters, stations, and spaceports. A sensational non-fiction publication about a horrific crime last year continued to break sales records. A Citizen Protection Service proposal to require a round of additional minder skills testing for all citizens at age twenty-one was voted down by the High Council. A representative for the Concordance Ministry of Health assured the public that a vaccine against NVP 70 was one of their top priorities, and the public mustn’t panic.

Mairwen snorted at that last item. If Beva’s declaration was anything to go by, the ministry was trying to load ground cargo on a ship that had already gone interstellar transit.

Unaccustomed to sitting for long, Mairwen killed more time by taking a walk around the block twice, despite the blustery autumn wind. She regretted that her uniform and boots weren’t appropriate attire for using the company gym or going for a short run.

When she finally traded the thincomp for her updated percomp near lunchtime, Tech apologized for how long it had taken, what with network contractors under foot and getting in everyone’s way. She stuffed the percomp in her topcoat pocket and headed downstairs to the northeast exit, which was closer to the neighborhood metro station. If she was lucky, she’d be home and in bed in an hour.

She heard her name called just as she got to the door. She suppressed a sigh as she turned and walked back down the hall to where Malamig stood outside his office door.

He was glaring at her, red-faced. “Did you tell Investigation Division that you were available?”

This was not good. “Absolutely not.”

Malamig looked taken aback by the strength of her denial. “Well, somebody did. They want you again tomorrow. Day shift security detail for Foxe.” His resentment was palpable.

She was sorely tempted to refuse the assignment, but doing so would give Malamig something to use against her later, and maybe even cause Foxe to come looking for her.

“Where and when?” She knew it’d been a colossal mistake to feel sorry for Foxe and help him last night. Nothing good ever came from good deeds.

“Check your percomp,” Malamig huffed. “They copied you on the order directly.” Another breach in protocol, apparently. He poked a crooked finger toward her face. “Don’t get used to this. You haven’t earned it. Security Division is the financial engine of this company. Investigation has no right to poach my staff.”

He dismissed her and slammed his office door shut.

#

Late that evening, after a few hours’ sleep and a longer run than she’d planned because she needed it, Mairwen paced in her small apartment. She was restless and full of resentment and other, less easily identifiable emotions. She regretted that she didn’t need as much sleep as other people, because it gave her time to brood.

She hoped Malamig got what he wanted. He was a hidebound jerk, but he managed the Security Division schedule and assignments well, and he usually ignored her. Besides, if he got the director’s position that he’d reportedly been bragging that he was toplisted for, he’d no longer be her problem.

Foxe was another matter. To quote a saying she’d once heard, he was nine yards of trouble.

Eleven hours from now, she was to check out a company vehicle and meet Foxe at the office, then accompany him wherever he wanted to go. She didn’t want to be his company. She didn’t even want to be in enclosed spaces with him, where the sounds and scents of him were too intense. He was dangerously smart and dangerously… tempting. She’d caught herself entertaining idle thoughts of how it would feel to touch his skin, or what his mouth would taste like. It was an involuntary and inconvenient hormonal response to his presence. She’d seen it in others, and read about it, but it was the first time she’d experienced anything like it herself.

She supposed she should be grateful to regain that small bit of normality. It had been four years since she escaped from the Citizen Protection Service, but they’d had nineteen years to burn out most of her humanity. They’d given her the ability and knowledge to survive and succeed in the harshest of conditions, but no useful skills to do ordinary, civilized things, such as have a friendly conversation. Much less how to navigate attraction.

Exasperation coursed through her. She’d only spent a combined total of about three hours with Luka Foxe, but thanks to her suddenly runaway senses, she already knew the cadence of his walk, the timbre of his voice, the smell of his soap. She liked that he had a brain and knew how to use it, but it made her vulnerable to his powerful intuition. If anyone could uncover her secrets, he could, and it would likely get her killed.

Since her sex drive was going to wake from the dead whether she wanted it to or not, why couldn’t it have picked a nice, stupid person?

The only safe course, she finally decided, was to do the job asked of her but nothing more. Foxe would conclude she was useless to him and send her back to the Security Division. Malamig would be happy to get his way, and Mairwen could go back to the safe, quiet anonymity of the night shift, and forget how proximity to Foxe made her feel.

 ~ ~ ~

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