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.”
“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—”
“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.”
“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!”
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.”
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.