Heritage Verse: The Promise Part III

Katya and her team are roused to follow a lead on traffickers.

In rapid succession, Katya led her team via tram to rendezvous with Captain Ragonius’s Cervum Squadron; the tracks carried them in a closed-off tube into the depths of Reznic. Far darker, she mused upon their departure of the tram. Crumbling buildings. The population of rats and feral dogs far outnumbered sentient beings. They traveled several miles from the station. Their targets had hunkered down in an abandoned industrial sector. The location then was narrowed to the monstrosity before them. Katya readied her weapon and scanned the windows of the massive factory. It’d once been used to manufacture automatons. A collection of boards and broken glass, some of which lined the pavement and likely the floors inside, dotted its exterior. In some windows, bits of plastic danced in the wind, providing the only movement.

Let it be the right spot. Heart beating, she tried not to think of the children if they were wrong or too late. Always too late.

Com traffic, relayed by the device nestled in her ear, informed her Cervum would press in through one of the rear entry points. Its commanding officer instructed her to go through a side entrance, marked on a holographic map displayed from her wrist device.

A jerking motion with her hand directed her team of twelve into a narrow alleyway—barely wide enough to fit a person. They traveled in absolute silence, scaring up rats and other creatures of the night, forcing them to abandon their feasts. Rotten food, excrement, and she didn’t want to know what else filled the alley. The stink was unbearable. They had to rely on their helmets’ augment visors to navigate the mess and alley. It might have been late-morning topside, but the Reznic Electric Grid Association had deemed lighting this sector of its underbelly unwarranted. No workers, no energy.

She fell in behind Corporal Rein, the man with no last name—though really, he didn’t stand out in that respect. Quite a few Reznic inhabitants lacked them, or rather had shed them like unwanted scales that tethered them too much to a background. Best to have no ties, no backstory.

Ahead, Lieutenant Freitas signaled she’d found the door highlighted on the blueprint file. It’d been an emergency door, but given the narrowness of the alleyway, it didn’t meet code. If there’d been a factory fire, the workers would have bottlenecked at the exit.

Leaning in, Freitas pressed her ear to it, likely trying to discern if their targets lay beyond. Katya waited until the lieutenant shook her head before ordering them to take the door off its hinges. A wide opening for their entrance was better than a slither, especially if the mission turned into a show in the brown.

Rein and a private obliged, doing so with the utmost silence. Once the door came off, they slid it along the exterior wall until it was well out of the way.

Freitas entered first, her AAR rifle at the ready. The gun followed her line of vision as she scanned the space. Katya came in next, the rest following.

The space, which had been a large storage room for automaton parts, was bare. Well, except for bits of the second floor that had caved. Then there was the glass and refuse that had been scattered over the years. Bags had been piled in one corner, probably by squatters. In her earpiece, she heard Cervum make its entrance through its point.

With a sharp series of hand signals, Katya led her team into the next section.

She pulled double duty, both scanning her surroundings with the augmented visor and studying the projected blueprint. The building had three stories, an expansive assembly room, tons of storage, and offices up top. The upper levels were obviously in disrepair—a thought that turned her stomach when she considered their base, which had been built on top of similarly defunct buildings. Would she wake up one morning buried? Catastrophic structural failure aside, its current status probably kept their targets confined to the ground floor.

A shot fired with a flash of orange. She swung to find the private—Bren or Burn or something along that line—holding his revolver and farther ahead a no-longer-moving Reznic rat, which, unlike the rats Katya had been familiarized with, could grow to the size of a small dog. This one had probably stood almost a foot and a half tall.

“What do you have?” a deep masculine voice in Katya’s ear asked.

Hissing, her nostrils flared. “A misfire. Proceed with caution.” She then rounded on the private. “You and”—her finger landed on another—”you. Back to the entry point. Guard it. No one leaves, no one comes in.”

A shot collided in the concrete a foot away, coming from an upper catwalk.

“Move!” Katya shouted, though there was no need, as her team’s training kicked in.

With no cover, they pressed into the next space, relying on movement to not become easy pickings.

Into her com, Katya said, “We’re under fire. Almost to the assembly room. Going to press on.”

“Stay—”

“Captain Ragonius,” Katya ground out as she flung herself behind a narrow pillar, which still exposed too much of her. “There’s no cover. The assembly room is my team’s best option.”

“Proceed,” the man said. “We’ll catch them in a pincher.”

After an affirmative response, Katya waved her team onward. None had gone down—the privates hopefully had fallen back like ordered. They tore through the sorting room, where empty carts with moldy, deteriorating fabrics still waited for parts. The gunfire had been halted by the walls, but Katya knew it was temporary. Their foe would abandon the catwalk to pursue them. She estimated from the shots that there’d been two sentries—easily dispatched.

She instructed two of her noncommissioned officers to guard their backs should they be chased from that direction. From the blueprint, it was hard to tell if there were other avenues where their enemy might come out at. She, however, harbored no doubt that her team would act as any Magistrate soldier would, no matter the complication.

Freitas brushed up against her, clearing her throat as if to say something, but she didn’t get the chance.

A scream erupted from farther in the derelict structure, though it went completely forgotten when fire—bright orange—banished the darkness and followed them from the rear. Some substance, still clinging to the floor, greeted it, billowing flame into an inferno that swept across the floor.

Krezk! The Riautus curse flickered to mind. Krezk!

Aloud, Katya bellowed, “Run!”, not once pausing in the mad dash from the space.

Even escaping the room might not be enough. Her lungs burned as she shoved the thought down, adrenaline driving her forward. Oil, perhaps? Some other substance used to lubricate the dolls? A remnant from the factory, or a trap laid? Heat tinged with a chemical taste tickled her throat with each breath, drawing out a series of coughs.

Visible in the flickering light created by the intensive flame, the others tagged along. No one had dropped off, except for the two noncommissioned officers. Had she put them directly into the flame? She grimaced. No, that’d come later.

She guided the team members with her into a long, narrow secondary room. Lockers lined it with a series of scattered benches that teetered at odd angles, a few missing legs. The fire didn’t follow them into the space and appeared to have devoured its food source, the light fizzling. Darkness enveloped them, making them reliant on their augmented visors.

Sputtering against the smoke and fumes that lingered, Katya squinted at her device, tears streaming from her eyes. “Next space, large . . . our targets are—”

A scream stopped her breath. It issued from ahead. Sgt. Salvius started past her, but she caught his arm, pinching it with her fingernails, before bringing him to face her.

“Cool minds,” she whispered, refusing to buckle to the stormy emotions in his eyes, the water collecting in them, and the obstinate line of his mouth. “We go in, secure the perimeter, and eliminate our targets. The commotion will save the kids.”

“If they don’t kill—”

Katya dug her fingers in. “If we aren’t smart, it’ll be them and us.” She released as more cries, wretched screams reached them. “Cervum’s coming from the south. Don’t get caught in a crossfire. Move in!”

They barged into the assembly room, fanning around the edges in rapid succession. Chaos descended with an onslaught of gunshots. One skidded against Katya’s arm but didn’t penetrate the ballistic material woven into the fibers of her uniform. She still hissed and returned fire at the person—a Borelle—who’d shot her. A bruise already formed beneath her skin, aching as her muscles pulled taut.

Ducking for cover, Katya used a collection of desiccated crates to block further hits, flinching when a spray of splinters flashed past her. Constant com traffic rattled in her ear, from Cervum Squad, from hers. Someone screamed. She couldn’t tell who. Reznic curse words were bandied about by both sides.

Swinging around, Katya surveyed the space, counting at least fifteen enemy combatants. At the center on the ground, a lithe form lay, the only movement slight tremors passing through her limbs. Among the mass of red, there was light lavender skin belonging to a young Csek girl. Katya swallowed bile. Monsters, the lot of them. A few feet from that center, a crew of syndicate members were arguing over six more tearful children who were far too languid. Drugged. The lipstick . . .

“Seven children. One crit,” Katya said into the com to Captain Ragonius. “Fifteen assailants. Possibly more. Your ETA?”

Ragonius, voice tight with tension and exertion, muttered, “We have ten. Point of entrance—booby trapped. We’re working on rendezvous.”

“Roger.”

Focus reverted to the mess before her. Frietas had already cut off any escape with the children, redirecting the group of men with her fire. A markswoman, she did so with ease. But then again, the men, underneath it all, were cowards. They would abandon their claims to save their own skins.

Katya, grabbing Rein and another sergeant, moved to intercept them while avoiding returned fire. One of syndicate members tossed something back, breaking their pursuit in favor of cover. She threw herself behind one of the shoddy support beams, begging it to hold.

Hiss. Click-click-cleck. The blast rattled their surroundings and sent moldy bits of ceiling showering down on her head but did little more.

The world settled, and Katya rushed forward, taking a wide path. Take one of them from the side. They needed at least one alive. Her side splintered with pain. Gaining, so close. The scrawny Borelle glimpsed to the side at her and deviated from his path.

No, you don’t! She leaped, tackling the man to the ground while keeping her firearm raised should his compatriots double back. They didn’t. Each to their own.

Grinding her knee into the Borelle, Katya stilled her captive. “Yeah, I wouldn’t try it.”

“Ma’am!”

Rein draped an arm around her shoulder, causing her to stiffen.

“I’m fine. Cuffs?”

He removed a pair and Katya shifted, allowing him to secure their prisoner. There was no point sending more after the traffickers. Another trap might lay ahead; reinforcements might wait . . . It was best to secure the area they’d taken.

The firefight that’d been raging behind her quieted. Bodies now dotted the factory’s floor. The children remained as languid as they’d been, making it hard to tell from a distance if they’d been caught in the crossfire. In the abnormal silence, only Salvius’s baritone voice could be heard.

“Thrashers natter, time to go. Little orange lights beckon you home. Follow them, along the wood row. No need to dally, no need to roam.” He cradled the little Csek girl so close, not deterred by the blood. Her unseeing eyes gazed at the ceiling. A quiver on her dyed lips was the only sign she still clung to life. Salvius’s voice broke, sobbing. “Just through the meadow, and you’ll be home. In my arms . . .”

A common Magistrate lullaby. Memories of her father singing it to her and her siblings in the yellow nursery filtered to the forefront of her mind, along with its white curtains that danced in the breeze. There’d also been the warm comforter surrounding and protecting her. Her throat clenched as a burning sensation spread to her eyes. Salvius squeezed one of the girl’s bruised arms. At least in this one moment, she hoped the girl knew she was loved.

Frietas limped toward her. “Lieutenant”—she glanced back at Salvius—”most of the children are uninjured. One appears to have a rash from whatever sedative they were given. The Csek . . . she doesn’t”—her lips pressed together—”her injuries are too much. The politician’s granddaughter isn’t here.”

“We have someone here”—Katya gestured to where Rein manhandled the Borelle—”who might be able to help us with that.”

“We have two more who are only mildly perforated.”

“Better than they deserve.” Then into the com, she said to Ragonius, “Space cleared. We have the children.”

“Almost to you. They’ve booked it.”

“We have three operatives alive.” She surveyed the ones lining the floor. “About eight removed. The rest fled . . . not sure the exact number.”

Ragonius sent affirmation, and Katya ended the link.

Across the way, Salvius eased the still figure of the Csek girl to the floor, tears and mucus streaming down his face as he rose. He walked in a circle, hands clenching and then loosening. His constant motions kept his face from his peers.

“What a galaxy we live in,” Frietas muttered. “We stomp out these roaches, but I’m afraid we’ll find they’ve multiplied. Who knows how many children they have.”

Katya rounded on the man contained by Rein and hefted him to his feet, earning several slurs. She’d stumbled through her language requirement at the academy, but she was all too acquainted with the slurs favored by Reznic natives—they’d been hurled at her more times than she’d bothered to count. Hackers, drug dealers and producers, and weapon dealers, she’d let their words roll off her. Her grip tightened when she jerked the man toward the body. This man, who’d been a part of this, done this . . . she wasn’t allowing it.

“What do we call a being who does this?” she hissed.

He sputtered more in his native tongue, and she forced him to face the girl before yanking him away and tossing him alongside his fellows.

“They’ll spill,” she said, facing Frietas. “Cobartis.” Cowards. The lot of them.

The word had barely left her mouth when Cervum Squad made its arrival and Captain Ragonius took over the scene. It was his team that took over securing their prisoners, and their medic oversaw the children.

“I’ve already called for assistance and reported to the colonel,” Ragonius said upon arriving at Katya’s side. “Once they come, your team can return to base. All of you”—he gestured to the bags under her eyes—”are running on fumes.” His gaze narrowed on Salvius, who continued to pace like a caged animal. “Fresh, isn’t he?”

“To this underbelly, yes.”

“All a shame.” He dusted off his uniform’s front. “But you either bend or break.”

She simply nodded, pointedly not looking at the children.

The captain lingered only a minute longer, gauging her in a calculating manner as if to wager how close she was to breaking. It only made her stand taller.

“Some people bend too much that they lose sight of the why.”

A snort came in response before Ragonius stepped away, continuing to process the scene.

By the time their team was released, it was midafternoon, which meant a lunch of reheated leftovers, courtesy of the canteen. They ate in silence together, though Sergeant Salvius only took a few bites before retreating from the catacomb-like canteen. Probably heading back to the barracks. Katya couldn’t clear her own plate, the food tasting like ash and her stomach clenching with each bite. So, she took the plate still laden with food to the private stuck on dishes duty.

From there, she considered tracking down Valens and worming her way into the interrogation of the prisoners. But he was likely holed up with Captain Ragonius, the mission’s CO. She couldn’t barge in on that.

Clearing a hut used for storage, she paused. Salvius’s little friend sat on a nearby stoop that belonged to an empty office building that’d been converted into an archive. Her hand messed with something in her pocket, unaware she had an audience. A silver canister caught the sun, and the blood fled Katya’s face when she caught a pop of red.

“Hey!”

The girl jumped, eyes darting, more white visible than normal. She finally caught sight of Katya and sprang to her feet.

Krezk. She was going to run.

“Wait—”

She didn’t. She darted as fast as her little legs could carry her. Pushing back the fatigue of the day and her numerous sleepless nights, Katya raced to catch up.

Cursing under her breath, she shot off on a shortcut. She couldn’t risk—tears prickled in her eyes, thinking of the list of girls, missing and deceased, the Csek girl, Salvius’s voice. A tinge of pain shot up her side with each hard hit of her feet against the artificial turf. Hopefully, the girl wouldn’t divert her direction. Katya weaved through one of the open-ended huts.

Yes!

The girl tried to backpedal as Katya came out ahead of her, but she snatched her arm faster than a mantis grabs a fly.

“You’re not in trouble,” Katya managed around ragged breaths.

The girl’s stony expression said she didn’t have much, if any, faith in the statement. Her stoicism in the face of a Magistrate officer was impressive.

“Where’d you get the lipstick?”

A blink, then the child pressed her still-nude lips, just a shade deeper than her copper-toned skin, together.

“I bought it.”

Katya lifted an eyebrow, which sparked a fire in the girl’s brown eyes.

Her free hand landed on her hip. “I didn’t steal it!”

A deep breath. “I didn’t say you did. It wasn’t just given to you?”

“Why?” She chuckled. “Nothing’s free on Reznic. Nothing.”

“Isn’t the food from Sergeant Salvius?”

“He’s not from Reznic.” Then the girl drew her tone into a horrible impression of a Core accent. “He talks like this, doesn’t he?”

“So you bought it,” Katya redirected. “Legit source?”

“Why do you care?”

Katya ground her teeth. Children could be so contrary. But then again, she was a stranger who’d caught her, still held her tightly by the arm, and had a firearm in a holster that could in one instance be turned against her. Reznic built its children tough, but . . . Her gaze shifted to the pocket with the canister-size bulge. She didn’t want to freak out the child, but she needed to be aware.

“Serva’s been busy,” Katya settled on, not surprised to see a flare of recognition with widening eyes and a sudden intake of air. “One of their calling cards has been red lipstick.” She released her grip on the arm. “What’s your name?”

Rounded eyes met hers. Doubt, fear, tears—they all mingled there. The child, no matter how old she tried to present herself in the face of danger, in front of Salvius and the other soldiers, was just that, a child.

She warred with herself a moment longer before finally muttering, “Mina.”

“After the singer?”

Her lips tightened. “Maybe.”

“Parents?”

Her head lowered, and she answered with silence.

Sighing, Katya held out her hand, palm facing up. “Can I see it?”

Mina fished out the silver canister and relinquished it. Katya, in turn, slid it into her uniform’s breast pocket, where it would not be as impacted by her body heat. She’d take it to the lab once she saw to her new friend, who she couldn’t leave to roam the base. Images of her father, hair not as thinned, a few pounds lighter, at the spaceport swirled. She couldn’t leave the girl.

“So, shall we fetch your things?”

“I’m not going to no home—”

“You’re right. You can stay with me.” Katya shrugged. “You can stay for as long as you like. Unless you find my habits annoying. It’s a rather small space, and I’ve been told I move around too much and stay up too late.”

Mina’s eyebrows rose at the offer. She shifted but didn’t bolt. “What do you get out of it?”

“Hopefully? A respectful roommate.” She smiled when the girl squinted, perhaps expecting the older woman’s eyes to glow or something equally ominous. “A long, long time ago, I was alone too. I was lucky to land somewhere safe; it’s only fair I return the favor.” She tapped the pocketed canister. “At least until we check this out. Though, I imagine you’ll find my quarters—as cramped as they might be—better than your current ones, which are . . .”

The girl’s shoe ground into the gravel path as she looked down, mulling over the offer. The action furrowed her brow, giving her a much older appearance. Katya kept her posture loose, making no effort to press her. Trust wasn’t going to come quickly, not from this child. And she had every reason to doubt the older woman’s motives or fear her acceptance would end with her being passed over into the care of Reznic’s child services. Improvements had been implemented to it over decades of Magistrate influence; however, it had cracks. A generous description. Whole canyons was more suitable.

“OK. OK.” The girl ran her fingers through her cropped hair and headed toward one of the huts.

Katya trailed a few steps behind. She imagined Sergeant Salvius would have chattered incessantly in order to lighten the mood, to reassure, but that wasn’t her. Such attempts in the past had brought out a certain awkwardness. Mina glanced back at her and slid her hands into her pockets, clenching and unclenching them. She paused at the mouth of the hut, the debate undoubtedly renewing.

“I promise,” Katya prodded, “everything will be all right.”

A visible swallow, and the girl pressed into the hut, weaving around several crates so closely stacked together that Katya struggled to follow. Toward the back wall, a small opening had been filled with a sleeping bag and various odds and ends—clothing, wrappers, unopened food, a backpack, and a lone pencil, which stuck out from under a wadded up pink long-sleeved shirt.

“You’ll definitely be more comfortable.” Katya bent and helped collect the items. “Though I’m afraid I also don’t have a window.”

Mina shrugged. “Reznic doesn’t have many sights anyways . . . not in this area.” She stuffed everything into her bag, not bothering to fold or organize it—nope, she just crammed it in until the backpack bulged.

As she continued with that, Katya rolled the patched-up sleeping bag—way too thin for the cooler nights—with a precision earned from years of practice. She wedged it under her arm, then guided the girl back to her quarters not too far away.

The girl lingered an inch behind, though she crept forward the moment Katya opened the door with a voice command.

“This is all they give you?” Mina asked.

“I told you it was small.”

Katya bypassed her and laid the sleeping bag on the sofa. “You can camp out here. It’ll fit you a lot more comfortably than me.”

Across the way, Mina traced her finger along the contours of a glass vase from Riau. It stood out in the unadorned apartment, the only real personal touch beyond a smattering of family photos. Her little finger dipped into one of the cuts that formed a pattern of flowers, tracing it to the waterline, only an inch.

Katya had tossed the flowers out a week ago but kept forgetting to dump that little bit of water.

“It’s pretty.”

“A gift from my father.” A last-minute one, but she didn’t add that.

Mina didn’t reply; instead, she appeared to be intent on inspecting every inch of the vase. Then she moved toward the stack of paper case files and one of Katya’s slates.

“You could look at those, but I’m afraid you’d have to go into lockup afterward.”

The girl’s copper complexion reddened, and she stumbled back. Though, she pouted after she caught Katya’s lopsided smile. “Don’t say stuff like that!”

“Still,” Katya mused, “you probably shouldn’t be browsing case files or anything on that slate. There’s classified information, though your snooping would probably put me in the stockades. So let’s avoid that.” She pointed to the small lavatory. “You can clean up in there. Feel free to use anything, except the toothbrush. I won’t share that. Afterward, we’ll get you settled in.”

After the girl went grabbing what looked like a pair of short-shorts and a T-shirt, Katya took up residency at her table and activated the slate. The sound of water running in the bathroom reached her by the time she’d messaged Valens for orders. It took only a minute: “Stand down. Your team’s out of rotation for R and R.” Then: “REST.”

Biting her lip, Katya clenched her slate while resisting the urge to throw it into the nearest wall.

Running her fingers through her overly long bangs, she sighed. She then skimmed her fraying braids, done up in a fashion from her original homeworld. She’d received a special exemption to keep them, pleasing her father. Pushing them aside, she rubbed her eye sockets. Every bit of her body embraced the wisdom of Valens’s orders. She had to look like a kargaloo from the bags under her eyes. Yet, she couldn’t banish the Borelle and his foul mouth from her mind. A politician’s granddaughter was still missing. Two more little girls were still dead. She had to see the case through. Right now, she imagined the screws were being driven into the Borelle. They’d move quickly after. Unless . . .

Valens, what aren’t you saying?

“Why do you wear your hair like that?” Mina asked from the bathroom’s entryway.

“Do you think it’s weird?”

“It seems like a lot to keep up with.” As if to prove the point, she skimmed her hand through her own wet and very short hair, which would dry in a matter of minutes—what would take Katya’s hours to do.

“It is.” The braids, all of the pins. Yet she’d had plenty of years to master her technique. “But I’m used to it. It’s the way women wear their hair on my homeworld. Or, at least, that’s what my father tells me. I wear it like this more out of habit than anything else.”

“I could change it up.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to find myself in the mirror if you did.”

Mina raised an eyebrow, scrunching her lips together.

Katya smiled and glanced back at Valens’s last message visible on her slate. Rest. Right when all she wanted to do was move. Now with an audience in her quarters, she shut the slate off and stored the paper files in a narrow lockbox that’d been issued to her.

“Effective immediately, I’m on ordered R and R, but I do want to get your lipstick tested before I make it official.” She rose, pushing back in her chair. “I’m going to let you get used to the space. No safe or slate cracking while I’m away. It shouldn’t take me long.” She paused in front of the door. “Make yourself at home otherwise.”

Mina blinked while the skin on her chin wrinkled as tears welled.

Katya’s throat constricted, torn how to approach the preteen. She didn’t know her, didn’t know how she’d react to comforting words or even a hug. In the end, she decided space provided the safest option. Allow Mina to dive into her emotions in a safe, quiet space—probably something she’d gone without for a while.

She opened the door and started out.

“Thank you.”

Lingering in the doorway, Katya nodded, acknowledging the comment had been heard, before continuing to the lab rats.

Heritage Lost’s final cover by MissChibiArtist.

Stay tune for the rest of “The Promise.” Currently, Heritage Lost is available for pre-order as an e-book on Amazon, The paperback version should be available to be pre-order shortly. If you’ve enjoyed this story and would like to support my indie publishing, I also have a Ko-Fi account.

Heritage Verse: ‘The Promise’ Part II

Last time: Katya and team cleared a murder scene involving a young girl, only to be told that the criminal syndicate Serva had also stolen a Magistrate senator’s granddaughter. Katya knows eventually they will be yanked from their current case to the more high profile one.

A sea of faces, so many children, blinked by as they ran a facial comparison search using a post-mortem photo of their victim as a reference point. Algorithms pulled out missing children that shared similar features with a degree of error. DNA and fingerprint searches were also being conducted elsewhere in the lab. Hopefully, by the end of the day, they’d have a match, an investigative lead to follow. If there was a match to be had.

For the hundreds of thousands of children missing on Reznic, there were more who had never been reported. They had passed into thin air with no notice from family or friends—if they had any to begin with. Those who might care about their absence were often street kids themselves, disenfranchised from authority figures and unable or unwilling to report to them. It had bred a cycle, a mindset, on Reznic over the centuries. One that, no matter how Magistrate forces tried to combat it, refused to budge.

Katya clenched her hands behind her back. Not for the first time, she was grateful her father had seen a girl with nothing and taken her into his home. Without that shelter, she could only imagine what might have become of four-year-old her, arriving to the core worlds from a war-torn planet, not even a spare set of clothes to her name.

Valens materialized beside her and handed over a thermos of what she hoped was coffee. Sure enough, a nutty fragrance wafted up as she imbibed. A wonderful blend with a slight hint of vanilla and some type of fruit, no doubt procured while he’d been in the Mezzo.

“I thought you could use a freshener,” Valens said. “Up all night and all.”

“The call?”

“Hasn’t come yet, which is why I suggest hitting the canteen and catching a catnap.” He conjured the most innocent smile to his face, his teeth barely visible. “Don’t make it an order, Lieutenant.”

She snorted. “And yet you load me up with caffeine—”

“Decaf.”

“You play a dangerous game, Colonel.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Shaking her head, she handed the thermos back and gave a brief salute before sauntering from the lab, still catching the deep chuckle behind her.

Short, professional. It’d been a holding pattern between them, leaving the rest to closed doors and vacant corners of base. They were both playing a dangerous game, and if the right person caught on, there’d be hell to pay.

Hitting up the canteen, Katya left with a plate filled with eggs and sausage, then weaved her way through the base’s buildings and open spaces. Already, drills were underway. Equipment moved about, hauling supplies to various storage units. With her free hand, Katya shielded her eyes as a freighter caught the sun’s rays on its shiny exterior while coming in for a landing.

By the fencing that sealed off the base, Salvius towered over a young girl, approximately thirteen, maybe fourteen. Whatever her age, she was a slight thing, her shirt hanging off her frame while a bright yellow belt kept her pants secure. A smile was plastered to her face as she talked to the soldier, gesturing in an overexaggerated fashion: pointing, resting her hands on her hips—just a flurry of motion. She presented an air of ease, but Katya knew better. There was tension under the bubbly surface. Each time Salvius moved, her frame tightened, only a fraction. The soldier never noticed this. The girl also maintained a distance, though not so much that she’d potentially set the man off.

He handed her something—food. She recognized the red packaging of a candy bar among the standard Magistrate-issued bagged B-rations. The girl beamed at him as if he’d handed her a six-course meal rather than flavorless slop that passed as food.

Then with a smirk, the imp darted away, her loot pressed to her chest.

Salvius gaped before chuckling, shoving his hands into his pockets and walking in the opposite direction; however, Katya’s voice stopped him. “A kid doesn’t belong on a military base.”

“Hard to say that, ma’am. Especially after what we saw last night,” Aquila responded, tone grim. “We may not all be gems, but I like to think what happened to that girl wouldn’t have happened here.”

He had her there. And if ill did come to the girl, it wouldn’t come from Aquila Salvius. He was far too kindhearted for Reznic, but a year here from the Mezzo, he had yet to lose that luster. He remained gold.

“Her parents?” Katya pressed.

“Can’t get it out of her.” He straightened his collar. “I assume they’re out of the picture, given her being here and all. It’s been”—he scratched his clean-shaven cheek—”four, or maybe five, months since she turned up.”

Katya faced the direction the child had vanished, a frown setting in. “She’s coming through the fence.”

“Just a small breach.”

“Heh!” She had to straighten her plate. “You know what some of our fine friends on-world would do with a hairline fracture in our defenses. Report it to the colonel.”

“But—”

“If your little friend is as clever as I think she is, you needn’t worry.” She started off again toward her quarters. She imagined the girl had already found a hold up somewhere in the base. Four months alone gave plenty of opportunities. Why chance Reznic’s underworld when you had found a raft amongst its tides? One with suckers who’d steal food for her.

Clever girl, indeed.

Once sequestered in her quarters, which consisted of a small common room and kitchenette, a square of a bathroom, and a narrow rectangle of a bedroom with only enough space to slide out of bed, Katya ate her already-cooled, overly salted breakfast. She continued poring over the files on her slate at the small circular table she’d procured. Their targets used a variety of sectors, which fell under the territorial control of a variety of syndicates. Either they had quite a bit of power in Reznic’s underbody, or a cut was being given to the syndicates whose territory they were using to film their travesties.

The victims themselves represented all of Reznic, the cornucopia of species that it was. They’d speculated that a call for a certain type would go out in some subsection of Intortus, then their grabbers would find a close enough match.

She pushed her plate away, and with it cleared, there was no longer an excuse to not get some sleep. She powered down the slate, but the sofa catnap that followed was more meditative, eyes closed, controlled breathing. In her mind’s eye, she summoned crime scenes, their locations, the sin-eaters’ notes on the streams. She shuddered. A job spent in the webs of Intortus. To watch those videos . . . to ignore the actions playing out on the screen, rather searching for locational tells, dissecting the data available through the upload . . .

Her quarter’s built-in com unit bleated several minutes later. Katya lingered on the sofa as it continued its mechanical pattern. If it were mission related, the message would’ve been directed to her personal com. The only people who—

Lurching up, she found, as she’d suspected, her father’s name on the display.

It’d been—she grimaced—months. With wavering fingers, she activated the call.

“Ah, Kat’ee,” he began, using the nickname an older brother had christened her with. “You do exist. I’d begun to wonder.” Faustus Cassius’s image flickered into existence, his heavyset body filling the frame. His gray hair appeared to be thinning more than the last time they’d spoken. Oh, his eyes were narrowing at her.

“Sorry, Papa.” She applied her most charming smile. “Reznic never rests. You know that.”

“You look tired.”

The smile faltered, its tips lowering a sliver. “I’m fine.”

“Always fine”—he shook his head—”even when you aren’t. I wish you’d come back to the Mezzo at least.”

Her fists tightened out of the frame, a tell her father could not witness, though perhaps he caught the stubborn line her mouth was forming, the change in posture that he was all too familiar with from her preteen years when she was going to the academy one way or the other. Reznic was beating her down after four years of service. Her dreams of piloting still endured. She wouldn’t voice them, wouldn’t wave the Cassius name to get them. Her father, while he’d rather she’d pursued a more academic career path, would not hesitate to do just that, only needing the word. He would approach his older brother for her, the omnipresent uncle whose role in the Res Publica de Magistratus she and her siblings had loved to speculate on.

“Maybe one day,” she said, tone level. “But I’ll handle my own postings, Papa.” She’d make her own escape when she was damn well ready to. “Besides,” she continued, “there’s work to be done here.”

“What has you up these days, then?”

“It involves children.”

A cloud passed over her father’s face. The man had a soft spot for children, taking in six to raise on his own. “Dark matters?”

She nodded. “I won’t go into details, but it’s an . . . emotionally draining case.”

“But you’ll get these people.” It was a firm statement, carried further by the hard, knowing glint in his eyes.

The confidence warmed her. “We will.”

Their conversation shifted to her father’s latest academic undertakings, including a new paper that’d been accepted to a rather prominent Magistrate journal and the potential for a field survey on Pestor. Scattered amongst it were updates on her siblings, from Cypr transferring to a new university in the Mezzo and Anaïs’s latest clothing line to poor Seneca relapsing again—at least this time hadn’t ended with a prison stint.

Her personal com sounded, cutting their conversation short. “I’m sorry.”

“None of that.” Her father waved the excuse away with his hand. “Just remember to call. I worry about you. And be safe!”

“I try.”

She clicked off the set and activated her com. Valens’s voice broke through: “Cervum Squad’s closing in. Get your team around to aid them. I’m routing the information to your slate.”

“On it.”

Heritage Lost’s final cover by MissChibiArtist.

Stay tune for the rest of “The Promise.” Currently, Heritage Lost is available for pre-order as an e-book on Amazon, The paperback version should be available to be pre-order shortly. If you’ve enjoyed this story and would like to support my indie publishing, I also have a Ko-Fi account.

Meet the ‘Heritage Lost’ Cast: Katya Cassius

Character Aesthetic: Katya Cassius

Helming The Maelstrom, much of Heritage Lost is told from the perspective of Katya Cassius. A career military officer in the Res Publica De Magistratus, she has found her career stalled at the rank of captain, but at least, she’s finally received her long-dreamed-of space-faring post with her own ship. The Maelstrom may not be glamorous, but it is hers.

Prior to The Maelstrom, Katya worked primarily in the Magistrate’s military police force, eliminating criminal syndicates, training local law enforcement on troubled worlds, targeting illicit drugs, and breaking up sentient trafficking networks. The planet Reznic pushed her to her limits, especially after a case involving young children occurred (Read ‘The Promise’). Internally, she often feels the only good occurrences from her time on-world were meeting Colonel Valens Ulpius, her secret lover, and Mina, a young girl she takes as her ward, training her as a pilot.

Katya’s own early childhood is largely a mystery, with her memories being a vague, jumbled mess. She was adopted by Faustus Cassius, an archaeologist who hails from a prominent Magistrate family, at the age of three or four. Her homeworld, Mramor, had fallen into chaos following a destructive world war and a serious of radical revolutions. She’s done some research into Mramor but has never dug too deeply out of a combination of loyalty to her adoptive father and a deep fear of what she might find.

Heritage Lost’s final cover by MissChibiArtist.

Heritage Lost is now available as an e-book for preoder on Amazon. A paperback version will be available on the release date, Dec. 6. Be sure to also add Heritage Lost to your “want to read” list on Goodreads. For the latest news, also like my author’s Facebook page, where I recently held a live unwrapping of my Heritage Lost paperback proof.

 

Heritage Verse: ‘The Promise’ Part I

Throughout the month of November, I will be posting segments of a short story called “The Promise,” which serves as a prequel to my debut sci-fi novel, Heritage Lost.. This is Katya and crew before they land The Maelstrom and a space-faring posting with the Magistrate.

Katya circled the murkily lit space, an ill-kept Reznic warehouse in a lower-level section of the planet; it’d long been dominated by the Bone Ash Syndicate. Her team of six combed through the building, collecting every scrap of refuse that littered a cleared circle among shipping containers. She paused by a disabled automaton stripped of its limbs and head. The sight churned her stomach. The persistent smell of oil and blood only furthered the sensation. The absence of normal chatter accentuated every scrape, every boot connecting with cement. Any exchange of words took on a hushed tone in deference to the small form that lay at their center. Even shrouded by Sergeant Salvius’s coat, they couldn’t forget her.

Everyone had been too late, had failed this little girl. From her roughened hands, crooked teeth, and tattoo, a stylized Serva feather, she’d been failed most of her life.

Fingers clenching at her digital slate, Katya shifted from the splotches of currant that spattered the area around the coat. The camera was gone now, vanished with the monsters. Katya would be shocked if she’d even been five. At least, they’d restored some dignity—until justice could be unleashed, any images obliterated. Too little.

Notations sprang to life on the screen as Katya left them, continuing her path of silent observation. She batted away a fly and then brushed her long bangs from her eyes, pausing.

A figure rested his back against the large sliding door they’d busted through close to an hour ago. Wavy brown hair peeked out from under his military cap, appearing much darker in the night than it really was. Exhaling, he sent smoke wafting from his mouth and the joint—Serettiley lace. She knew this even before its earthy, yet elevating aroma reached her nostrils. He’d popped up the collar of his uniform jacket, partially obscuring his face, allowing only a sliver of unhealthy pale skin.

“Since when do you come to scenes anymore, Colonel?” she called, crossing the distance between them. His trip to the Mezzo, a collection of far tamer planets that made up the Magistrate’s “middle,” went unmentioned; they’d tango around that subject until Valens finally yielded.

He took a deep drag from the joint before handing her his own slate. “They’ve hit the hornet’s nest this time.”

Another girl’s image greeted her: broad smile, happy brown eyes, terra-cotta-hued skin, probably about seven. Not much different from the girl who lay slain a few feet behind her, except this one had a well-connected family. A senator’s granddaughter. Krezk.

“We’re being diverted to this,” Katya stated.

“Eventually. For now, Cervum Squad’s headin’ it.” He dropped the joint and ground it into the cement with his heel. “We can hate it from morning to night, but you know how these things work. Until then, we give this kid our best.”

She glanced back at her team, jaw tightening.

Behind her, Valens clicked his tongue against his teeth. “I know it’s not palatable. But we’re about to get more resources. They might not mean for it, but they’ll bring these girls justice too.”

“And the ones that’d be picked up later.” She eyed the girl on Valens’s slate. “There’s been an uptick lately.”

“The third sector army did a massive sting and took out one syndicate on Yolaris. Unfortunately, demand remains, and there are plenty of lowlifes willing to fill it.” He powered down the screen. “I’ve got the lab rats ready; they’ll speed up the processing of what you collect here. We’ll take them down. Nothing else will do.”

He swiveled away from the door and swung over a hoverbike, which had been parked a foot from the door. The alley’s array of neon lights from the many advertisement boards above reflected off its metal and his helmet as he put it on. With a two-finger salute, he said, “I leave it to you.”

“You could’ve just called.”

“I need to move.”

She frowned. “Your head—”

“Not now . . . there’s time for that lat—there’ll be time.” He started the bike. “Focus on the job.”

Bad news, huh? Her throat tightened. But he was right. The mission always came first; it been a long-time agreement as they’d waded into murky waters together.

As he sped off, Katya rejoined her team, doing one more sweep of the perimeter. A small canister, tucked in a crevice under a shipping container, caught what little light was available inside. Bending down and balancing on the balls of her feet, she snapped on gloves and fished it out. Lipstick, bright red. It’d been smashed into the canister. She bagged it, a knot forming in her stomach. The same hue that’d been smeared on their victim’s lips, staining even her teeth.

“Found something, ma’am?” Sergeant Aquila Salvius called.

“Lipstick.”

All their victims had worn it, but they’d never found an actual canister at a scene before. It’d slipped, time had run out, and they’d left it behind. Testing the samples taken from the girls had shown traces of narcotics designed to make them more pliant. She doubted the actual tube would provide more information, but the lab techs could surprise.

She handed the bag to Salvius. “Add it to the rest of the collection.”

“Ma’am,” Sergeant Cecília Freitas cut in, “the morbid squad’s here.”

“About time.”

Freitas quirked her lips, just a shade pinker than her tawny skin. “Apparently, there’d been a fracas between the Two Toes and Hepulah syndicates. Left a bloody mess.”

“Pack up,” Katya instructed her team. “They’ll be taking over the scene.”

She then advised the lead member of the coroner team on all of their actions, walking him through the scene while cataloging what they’d found. The digital notes were also shared. Katya had to bite her tongue when the man, a Core resident from his accent, chided her for the coat being placed on the body. If the man and his team had shown up on time . . . but it went unsaid. That one action was, after all, against protocol, even if human decency demanded such a gesture. Once the grunt work of packing all their instruments had been achieved, they returned to base, a somber atmosphere settling amongst them.

It’d be a long night, one spent racing the clock and the inevitable call.

Heritage Lost’s final cover by MissChibiArtist.

Stay tune for the rest of “The Promise.” Currently, Heritage Lost is available for pre-order as an e-book on Amazon, The paperback version should be available to be pre-order shortly. If you’ve enjoyed this story and would like to support my indie publishing, I also have a Ko-Fi account.

Heritage Lost Cover Reveal And Artist Spotlight

Heritage Lost’s final cover by MissChibiArtist. Heritage Lost will be available Dec. 6, 2019. For the latest information, follow this blog or sign up for my newsletter.

Without further ado, I’m happy to share Heritage Lost‘s cover, which features lead character Katya Cassius and the Oneiroi toddler she rescues, Sotiris Sarris. Maria Freed aka MissChibiArtist is the artist behind this beautiful cover. I had the good fortune to meet Maria during last year’s Hall of Heroes Comic Con, which occurs annually in Elkhart, IN.

Since then, we’ve communicated back and forth as I waited to hear back on a couple of my last queries before kicking off the cover design process in July. I loaded her down with reference photos and a general idea of what I was looking for in regards to the concept, including different bits of symbolism that I wanted to appear in the piece.

She really captured the dream-like quality I was looking for. My Oneiroi are loosely inspired by Greek mythology’s like-named deities, who are the children of Nyx and serve as the personifications of dreams. Their species’ abilities are capable of producing a nightmarish effect in a number of non-Oneiroi species, which has made them invaluable to Res Publica de Magistratus–more commonly called the Magistrate.

The entire process was enjoyable, and it was fun to see two of my characters brought to life. Maria truly captured Katya’s determination. When taking up a cause, she will die on that hill. As for Sotiris, you’ll have to read the book to find out what’s up with him.

With this grand reveal, I wanted to share more about the artist behind the cover with a little Q&A, which includes information about how to commission a piece from Maria.

Q&A With The Artist

Q: Tell us a little bit about your art background and your style.

“Peace”” by MissChibiArtist

A: I’ve been a lover of art since a very young age, and I could often be found with a coloring book and pencils in hand. Without any formal art training, I spent the following years learning everything I could on my own. In 2018, I made my first big steps into freelance illustration. I now travel a lot during the year to sell my fantasy illustration at comic conventions. My main medium is digital art, and I paint either in Photoshop or Procreate. While I describe my style as semi-realism, there is definitely an influence from my love of Japanese comics growing up.

Q: What type of commissions do you offer?

A: My commission work focuses on character illustration with a tendency toward fantasy and science fiction.

Q: For writers seeking to commission you for a piece, how do they begin the process?

“Wings” by MissChibiArtist

A: The best way to start the commission process is to connect with me through my email thechibiartist@gmail.com. Provide a bit of information on what you are looking for, and if I feel I’m a good fit for the project, I’ll send a quote and ask for further details.

Q: What genres are your favorites to work in?

A: My favorite genres include supernatural, action/adventure, fantasy, and science fiction.

Q: What materials should writers have ready to make the process easier?

A: When I begin the commission process, the first thing I ask for is a detailed reference of the character(s) and style. It’s great if the client has gathered lots of reference prior to starting the process. I like to collect a mood-board of images – characters with a similar appearance or style, book covers in the same genre, and any images that carry the desired overall feeling. The more reference material I have, the faster and smoother the process goes for me.

Q: Explain the commission process. What can people expect?

A: Depending on the complexity, the commission process can take anywhere from 2-4 months. I keep in close communication through the whole process and generally send weekly updates with peeks at the progress.

Q: You attend a lot of comic conventions. Which ones do you usually attend? Are there any coming up?

MissChibiArtist’s booth at a convention.

A: Some of my favorite conventions are Indiana Comic Con in Indianapolis, IN, Hall of Heroes Comic Con in Elkhart, IN, and Dokidokon in Kalamazoo, MI.

My next convention will be Grand Rapids Comic Con November 8-10. My convention list changes up a lot every year, so if you want to see where I’ll be next, check the convention list on the info page of my website misschibiartist.com.

Q: Where can people go to check out your artwork online?

A: My portfolio is available on my website misschibiartist.com. I post a lot of progress and new work regularly on my Instagram @misschibiartist as well. To take a look into my painting process, I have timelapse painting videos on my YouTube, YouTube.com/misschibiartist. I also have an online store where I sell prints on Etsy – etsy.com/shop/misschibiartist.

“Gold Queen” by MissChibiArtist

National Read A Book Day: What Are You Reading?

Did you know that today is National Read a Book Day? It is observed annually on Sept. 6. According to the National Day Calendar, “Reading improves memory and concentration as well as reduces stress. Older adults who spend time reading show a slower cognitive decline and tend to participate in more mentally stimulating activities over their lifetime.  Books are an inexpensive entertainment, educational tool and time machine too!”

Like a glutton for punishment, I have four books that I’m currently reading four books at once. I constantly do this to myself. I tell myself only three books at once, and then that currently reading list balloons to four to six titles at once.

Moving fast on The Burger Chef Murders of Indiana by Julie Young.

Most of my focus has been given to The Burger Chef Murders in Indiana by Julie Young. It highlights a case from Speedway, Indiana, which has gone unsolved since Nov. 17, 1978. Despite having grown up in Indiana, I’d never heard of the case until Julie, a freelance writer for two of magazines that I manage, sent the book by way. After just a couple days, I’m over halfway through. It’s a very interesting case, though it’s also one that frustrates. Police made a lot of errors at its beginning, and that might be one reason why it’s gone unsolved.

I also try to read a writing craft book once in a while, and my current choice is  On Writing and Worldbuilding, Volume I by Timothy Hickson. I’ve been a fan of

Marinus has been taking over my desk …. so he can make himself useful. xD

Hickson’s YouTube Channel, Hello Future Me, and wanted to support his efforts by purchasing the ebook. It compiles a lot of his video content into one easily referenced book. I feel he brings up a lot of good questions that writers should ask while worldbuilding and plotting their novels.

I always try to have one nonfiction book in the works that more often than not is a history book. Currently, filling that position is To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 by Edward G. Lengel. I purchased the ebook to aid with research for my historical fiction novel. I’m only about 14% through but have been enjoying Lengel’s writing style. I look forward to when I can give this book more attention; it definitely deserves that. Similarly, and also WWI-centric, I need to give more focus to Her Privates We by Frederic Manning. My co-worker had loaned me this one, and I’ve been hanging onto it.

So what are you reading this National Read a Book Day?

Book Review: ‘Write Smart, Write Happy’

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time of your life. It’s happened before with How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind: Dealing with Your House’s Dirty Little Secrets by Dana K. White. Something as simple as “just do the dishes” has broken through a funk that has been crippling for me.

Write Smart, Write Happy: How to Become a More Productive, Resilient, and Successful by Cheryl St. John has had a similar effect on my writing. I finished reading it early in 2019, and it has already led to a much more productive 2019. I’m not writing every day, but I am at least writing numerous times per week.

St. John really encouraged me to examine my writing strategy, which had grown nonexistent, and reexamine the lofty goals I had created for myself — aka the goals I was never meeting. It really brought home how unreasonable I was being and how unfocused my efforts have been. But perhaps the most important takeaway was that I needed to forgive myself for each missed deadline and goal. Forgive and move forward. And by move forward, St. John recommends a hard look at goals and not setting the bar so high that you are destined to fail, perpetuating a cycle where you are never good enough.

While a craft book, St. John focuses more on the lifestyle of writers. You will not find writing prompts. It is more an examination of the process, time management, and even being a professional should you attend conferences. She also tackles writer jealousy, which is only human to feel but should never be acted on. It is important to acknowledge another writer’s hard work and not hold their success against them.

It is best to have a notebook when reading Write Smart, Write Happy as St. John provides a lot of homework in each chapter. I’ll admit that I only mentally did the homework as the bulk of my reading occurred during my lunch breaks while I was sitting in my SUV. Part of me wishes I would have used a small notebook; however, I still think I came away from the process with the core takeaways.

My only complaint about Write Smart, Write Happy is that it can get very repetitive, which could be a turnoff for some people. She can also fall on the side of tough love, another possible turnoff, especially if taken as a personal attack. Personally, I needed that tough love to push forward with my work.

If you feel like you are spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, give Write Smart, Write Happy a shot. It isn’t a magical cure for writer’s block, but it will better help you examine your writing strategies with a critical eye.

As I noted above, 2019 has been the most productive year for my writing in a long time. I’m roaring toward the publication of Heritage Lost and have put together a short story prequel for it. I have almost gotten halfway through my historical fiction novel. I still have goals that I want to achieve before 2019’s end, and thanks to St. John, I’m trying to be realistic on what I can achieve with my time. The cycle of failure ends now.