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