The next morning, Valens’s movement beneath her brought Katya to full alertness as he extracted his arm. “Did the call come in?”
He chuckled. “I’ll alert you the moment I hear anything.” He played with one of her frayed braids before sliding from the bed and leaving the room. He muttered, “I shall check posthaste.”
Twisting, Katya pushed aside the pillow. The small alarm clock Valens kept beside the bed read 6 a.m.. They’d slept maybe five hours. It was more than she’d been averaging most nights lately. If her father could see her, she’d be in for a lecture regardless of her age. She stretched, grunting when something pulled in her back. The sheet slipped from her body as she stood and entered the living area, fussing with her wrinkled uniform with each step.
“It doesn’t look bad,” Valens assured her from his desk. He flipped through his slate. “And all’s quiet.”
“Maybe the Oneiroi team they brought in are all tyros.”
He started to respond when is com initiated a series of short, annoying bursts resembling a deranged bird. He silenced it with a tap.
“Colonel Ulpius,” he said as way of greeting.
“We’re ready, sir,” someone said on the other end.
“I’ll be right there.” He disengaged the call and said to Katya, “Not tyros at all, I’d say.”
“Before 8 a.m..”
“They’re scary at their job.” Valens rose from his desk and pointed to his refrigerator unit. “Help yourself to anything in there or in the cabinets. I want you to actually eat, and I pray it doesn’t have the same opposite meaning as ‘rest’ does in that brain of yours.”
She shrugged. “We’ll have to see. Though I should probably raid my own supply and check in on my houseguest.”
“Your ward.” Valens rebuttoned his uniform jacket, with its double row of buttons, before pulling down on its front. “We both know you aren’t going to let her go into the world alone from here on out. Might as well call the situation what it is.”
“Ward,” Katya mimicked the word, pressure building in her chest. Ask her a week ago and she would have laughed at such a notion . . . but he did have her. She’d never be able to cast aside the girl. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Carrying on a grand Magistrate tradition.” He hugged her before going to the door. “We get things wrong, for sure; but that tradition, it’s not one of those things.” His smile warmed her. “We get gems like you.”
“Report to your post, soldier.”
He winked at her and exited.
Re-braiding her hair, relying on muscle memory, Katya couldn’t disagree with him. The lack of emphasis placed on blood ties had given her so much.
With appearance restored, she returned to her own quarters. Mina jumped up from the sofa when she entered, almost falling to the floor.
“Where were you?”
Katya quirked an eyebrow. “I left a note.”
The girl blinked before rubbing away the sleep that clung. “I didn’t hear you leave,” she muttered.
“You were tired.”
“I’d be dead or worse if I’d been out and about.”
Katya shrugged and poured herself a bowl of cereal. It was a tasteless bran. “You aren’t out in the city. No one’s getting in here but you and me.” She held up a second bowl. “Do you want some?”
Mina scrunched her nose and flopped back onto the sofa. “It’s too early.” Only it came out muffled, as the girl had planted her face into the pillow. “I’m . . . bed.”
Katya ate quickly, slid her slate into its bag, and left the girl to sleep well past the rising of the sun if she so chose, which she probably would. After skirting around the activity of the base, which never really slept on a world like Reznic, she beelined to HQ. Like the rest of the base, it always hummed with activity, thanks to the variety of operations that were hosted by the facility. Sector defense operations were coordinated there, despite numerous attempts to move them to a sister planet by their space-faring branch’s upper echelon on-world. Also present were the more planet-focused operations; in fact, HQ coordinated the bulk of them, which were spread over a thousand bases scattered across planet.
HQ resembled a small city with its numerous floors and sheer size, filled to the brim with offices; some quarters; mess halls; open spaces with more botany than was left on the entire planet; miles of corridors that divided up the different operations, offering clarity in what could have been a confusing mess; and the more private, unadvertised spaces, a series of catacomb-like interrogation rooms. It was all tied together with an array of digital displays and tech.
Katya shuffled around the buildings’ permanent workers—or drones, as they’d been nicknamed since they kept to their paperwork roles, retreading the same paths each and every day—and entered a corridor lined with synth glass. It led to her own division’s wing. The building, as a whole, utilized synth glass to a high degree, but only in all the right spots where Reznic’s finer features lay.
She paused. Their own section’s window to the world centered on a museum and education sector, green with an impressive fountain that stretched upward, sending water cascading down with flecks of foaming white. Yes, it was beautiful, but she couldn’t help but think it’d been placed as a reminder: There is good here, no matter the death and sorrow seen on a daily rotation. Rubbing her forehead, she was also reminded of Mina and the need to secure an education for her.
Eh, Papa, what would you think of that neglect? She chuckled inwardly, continuing forward. The man had been so prompt in shoving her into the classroom, the best he could find for her and her siblings, which, given his status, was not difficult.
Bypassing the reception area, she entered the wing belonging to the Res Publica de Magistratus Planetary Peacekeeping and Investigation Division, making her way toward Valens’s office. She hoped enough time had passed that he would’ve been briefed and—
“Lieutenant Cassius,” Captain Ragonius called.
After facing him, she saluted.
He handed her a slate. “I’m assuming you’re pursuing this.” He then plowed ahead not waiting for her to read the file. “I think you should be receiving the call to mobilize your team before long.”
Mobilization. Her body thrummed at the word while her index finger tapped against the back of the slate as she scanned the document. The comfort district. Her mouth’s corners slanted downward. It was based in the mid-upper level of the planet, largely residential, with a selection of hotels, spas, and pleasure centers. But there was a spaceport, which was largely private, and not to mention individual hangars. Sure enough, the information gleaned from their prisoners’ minds suggested they’d be moving product—a sour flavor entered her mouth—in this case, children.
In such an expansive galaxy, these children would disappear in an instant. Even if they didn’t end up outside of Magistrate space, it’d be impossible to spread the information of their abductions wide enough. There were too many worlds and stations to ever do that in an efficient manner, even for a Magistrate senator’s granddaughter.
“I’m assuming traffic is being monitored?” Katya asked.
“Monitored, yes. But no more than normal. We don’t want to tip our hand, especially since I’m sure they’re already on guard.” He folded his hands across his lower back. “We’ve had their compatriots in our custody for hours. We must assume their plans have changed, particularly when they seem to have eyes everywhere. I’d place money on them knowing the Oneiroi touched down.”
As he spoke, in the background, Katya caught a man with wavy black hair, dressed in an off-reg uniform. It had the basis of a special ops jumpsuit, but the collar stretched to his jawline. Not an inch of skin poked out from the black material of the suit, apart from his face. Even a type of razor sunglasses obscured the man’s eyes.
A tingle coursed down her spine. Was that an Oneiroi?
In her ear, her com buzzed. “Lieutenant Cassius,” she answered at the same time Captain Ragonius responded with his own name.
“Our eyes on the ground have picked up activity just shy of the location our terrifying friends have ferreted out,” Valens said through the device. “Gather your teams. The RRSCs are already being fired up, so suit up. They feel the noose tightening. Information’s being sent to your slates now.”
Katya removed hers from its container, first summoning her team to rendezvous, fully armored, at the RRSC dock before diving into the intel. A former spa resort had been labeled as her team’s target while Ragonius’s team would enter its sister building, a former hotel. Both had been mothballed for a little over a year.
Brushing her tongue against the backs of her teeth, Katya wondered if they’d been utilized throughout that period for alternative purposes. Given the location, rich customers would easily have access to their illegal offerings, in the setting of a ritzy-yet-dated spa. The private hangar that connected the two buildings clenched the sites’ perfections, which suited both trafficking and potentially prostitution.
Very little movement had been recorded by their eyes on the ground, only enough to know the structures were not abandoned.
“Here and here,” Ragonius muttered, highlighting aspects of the two buildings as they proceeded to the armory. “We will keep our teams separate for this operation. We’ll use the RRSCs and surprise them through these selected points; there will be ground teams ready to assist. I want this to be as clean and surgical as possible.”
Looking at her team’s entry point, her stomach clenched. Through the bloody windows. She rubbed her tensed jaw, ultimately lowering her hand. “If they see the RRSCs coming in, they’ll be lined up and ready for our entrance.”
“No different than if we went in through the doors.”
True. But she still hated window entrances and the fraction of a chance that a hook or ‘cracker’ would fail; both devices had been proven to be fallible. Nothing was worse than being left dangling on a building, the wind whipping against you, burning your skin, and drying out your eyes and mouth. She’d gotten enough of that experience in training. But that was better than dropping several feet down, either to your death or to a pulled shoulder if you could deploy the backup hook in time.
“I’ve informed the local authorities. The ones I trust,” Ragonius continued. “They’ll keep the area as clear as possible. But I still expect a hotbed if the intel is right . . . I have my doubts.”
“A lot must have changed after the raid.”
He nodded. “Yes, they’re a paranoid bunch.”
They parted each other’s company, entering separate locker rooms. As Katya came to her locker, using her wrist device to unlock it, Freitas leaned beside her, her long fingers rapping against the metal.
“How sure?” the woman asked.
“Suit up good.” Katya pried her own heavily armored tactical suit from the locker and worked it onto her frame. “Everyone will get debriefed at once. But”—Katya swallowed in her fight with the heavy breastplate, which was wrapped in a tough fabric—”bring everything. We’re going for the aerial approach.”
Freitas softly cursed in Rekanek, Reznic’s main language, and returned to her own locker. The other women that filled out her team didn’t break from their tasks, though Katya witnessed a special care when they fastened on components of their gear.
Feeling at least fifty pounds heavier, Katya checked her slate, running over every detail. She snorted, finding a note left strictly for her: “Be safe. — V.U.” She deleted it and slid the device into her locker before latching the door. She’d rely on her wrist device from here.
By the time they arrived, fully armed, at the bay for the RRSCs, the crafts buzzed, just a slight sound. In the air, they moved with an eerie silence. They had a slighter look to them that had been crafted for speed and movement, being able to divert directions at the pilot’s whim. Its sliding doors on either side allowed for quick disembarkation. What they’d be doing.
Katya pulled up the thick navy blue ring scarf so it’d protect her lower face and nose before lowering the synth glass visor on her armored helmet. As soon as it locked in place, data appeared, pinpointing aspects of the hangar she’d never cared to know. It was intertwined with mission details.
In front of them all, Ragonius shared each point of the plan and then waved her forward.
“Lieutenant Cassius will oversee entry into the western building. Obey her in all matters.” He then added, “Our task is to ensure the safety of the children, at all costs. Engage as needed but don’t needlessly risk their lives.” He pounded his fist against his chest twice, an action repeated by all. “Good hunting.”
Katya and her team of twenty climbed into their two RRSCs. Even with ten per vehicle, they brushed against each other like olives crammed into a glass jar. When the vehicle lifted and darted into the avenues created by Reznic’s tall buildings, they bumped into each other. Traffic had been cleared in the upper level, which would be noticed. The travel adviser shared by her visor gave the reason as heavy equipment transport. They’d never buy that.
Katya clenched her hand strap, the sole thing keeping her in if the pilot had to bank. With her free hand, she prepped the cracker first in her launcher. Her pulse thrummed through her body. They’d be coming in hot. Her Avitus AAR 10-5, fondly called “Tens” by the lay soldier, shifted, its strap digging into her shoulder. Reaching down, she maneuvered it so its butt rested against her shoulder. Right hand, hook. Left, finger on the trigger. It ran through her head, her stomach clenching. Thirty-some stories up.
Her wrist device rattled. Just a few klicks.
Clearing her throat against the rushing wind, Katya shouted, “Weapons ready! Make sure your hooks lodge in. We’re a long way up.”
She eyed the nine with her. Salvius wore a nervous smile, completely transfixed by the buildings they passed by; he idly tapped a finger on his AAR. Young, ready to leave his mark. Rein, meanwhile, never wavered from her. The others shifted with their own AARs and hooks. Freitas had taken up with the second wave team.
In her earpiece, she heard Ragonius: “We’re on progress to arrive in five minutes. Ground teams standing by.”
“Yes, sir.” She then shuffled to her team’s channel, using the right sweep of her eyes to lock in on it. “We’re almost at Point A. Enter. Find cover. We’ll move out as able. Expect heavy resistance.”
“Yes, sir!” A chorus answered.
Katya flipped off the safety on her AAR and lifted her right arm with the hook launcher. Their momentum slowed. Her wrist device buzzed again. Five. Four. Three. Two. The vehicle entered a hover. One.
“Ready!” She launched a cracker, then immediately fixed the hook into the device.
Outside the RRSC, the cracker collided with the large synth glass window, small cracks forming around its burrowed circle before they spread like a wildfire, creating an off-orange color as it ruined the built-in tint.
“Aim high,” she called before launching her hook, embedding it two feet above the entry point. “Three. Two. One!”
She swung from the RRSC, her face burning from the momentum. Curling in, she braced, hissing as she broke through the weakened glass, shattering it alongside the rest of her first wave. She cut the line with haste, stumbling forward, half-expecting to be greeted by enemy fire. But there was silence. She didn’t rest on her laurels, moving through the space, which was devoid of furniture or anything, not even a wall hanging. It reeked of bleach.
“We’re in,” Katya said in the channel to Ragonius. “Clearing the space currently.”
Through the gaping hole, her team filtered in, along with the air. It batted her braids against her neck.
“Proceed,” Ragonius responded.
Pressing her lips together, Katya flipped her first two fingers forward.
They crept through a darkened hallway that lacked any windows and cleared rooms until the floor had been thoroughly explored. Nothing but storage and scattered boxes that’d contained cleaning supplies and fabric, some quite pricey, made from metallic thread and rare silk.
“Perhaps they’re nearer to the private hangar,” Freitas said beside her.
Katya nodded, though a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. The space was far too sanitized. Perhaps the Oneiroi had failed. Could a party being interrogated throw false information to them? The silence along their channel only worsened the sensation.
“We’re moving on,” she said into the line connecting her with Ragonius again. No answer. She then switched to her team’s channel. “Call out if you see anything.” She faced them. “Did anyone get that from the headset?”
Reznic curses rushed through her mind. What were they entering into exactly? “Don’t let your guard down,” she told them and led them farther in.
Only the fall of their feet echoed through the hallways and rooms, all resembling caverns—unending and vacant. On the floor above the one connecting to the hangar, they entered a voluminous space filled with two long parallel pools surrounded by a series of arches and sweeping columns. Steam floated from the water’s tranquil surfaces. Katya skewed her mouth. Salt. It clung to the air so thickly she could taste it.
Continuing along the western wall, they gave wide berth to the water. Halfway through the room, her feet faltered and her heart leapt into her throat when her visor settled on a human shape. She jerked her weapon toward it, then stopped. A bloody, ball-jointed automaton. Her exhale came in one gigantic wave. Krezk . . .
Behind her, she caught Salvius react, his AAR’s muzzle whipping toward it. Katya flung her hand out and squeezed his arm, nails pressing in.
“Don’t,” she hissed. “It’s just a doll.”
“Ma’am,” Freitas said, “they could be watching us through its framework.”
Her visor continued its readings of the automaton; it didn’t catch a signal, but . . . the silence in her headset filled her with doubts.
“Corporal Rein,” she called. The man had decent mechanical skills, and it didn’t hurt to be thorough. “Is it really deactivated?”
The tightness in his jawline was all too visible as he stumbled forward with uneven strides. He crouched down and pried off the automaton’s control panel cover.
As he worked on, Katya examined their surroundings, catching nothing in the steam. One hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit. Rather on the hot side, but it’d be wonderful on sore muscles. Everything had been scrubbed, yet here the pools still ran. She licked the salt from her lips, sweat pooling against her helmet.
While it’d served as a spa, Katya wondered once again what its most recent purposes had been.
“Ma’am,” Rein called, causing her to turn. His jaw looked like it’d snap from the pressure building. “It’s rigged.”
Rigged? Her eyes darted to the columns, so easily toppled . . . bringing down a chunk of the overall structure. They’d known that normal Magistrate tactics would dictate going through this one room to reach the hangar. Her blood rushed from her face.
“Timed or remotely triggered?”
“I think timed. There’s no reader.”
Katya swallowed. “Can you disarm it?”
Rein clicked his tongue against his teeth, head angling as he stared down at the control panel. “May—yes. Yes, I can.”
He dug into his uniform pulled out a pair of tools. Sweat, a combination of stress and the heat sweeping from the faux hot springs, crept down his brow while he worked. Katya admired the calm under such duress. He kept a steady hand, even as the muscles in his neck trembled.
“What happens if that thing goes off?” Salvius asked Freitas.
“We all die. While the building crumbles, distracting our friends on the outside, they make their jump into space.” She shook her head, cursing beneath her breath. “Still can’t get a word out.”
“I’d wager there’s another in the other building,” Katya muttered.
“And if Captain Ragonius’s team doesn’t find it?” Salvius pressed.
“We’ll be fine”—Katya gestured to the automaton—”if we disarm this. We can’t assume the captain’s situation. Instead, while Rein works, fan out. Carefully. Let’s make sure nothing else is going to explode on us. Visual and visors. Don’t go near the next room. There might be sensors.”
Katya joined them, verifying everything they reported. She refused to be blown up today. Reaching up, she brushed away sweat, which had plastered her long bangs to her forehead. Though—she faced Rein and the automaton—their enemies really didn’t need to place more explosives. The doll was more than capable of taking them all.
She walked back to Rein. “How’s it going?”
“I think I have it.”
“Yep . . . but they might have a nasty surprise buried.”
She licked her sweat-covered lips, wanting nothing more than a glass of cold water. “If there aren’t any?”
He removed a component from the automaton’s back; wires poked out of its back. “We have nothing—”
A distant rumble shook the room, the deep pools of water no longer tranquil, their contents sloshing every which way and over the marble ledges. The water seeped over Katya’s boots, which she’d spread apart to keep her balance. Krezk! She thrust her arms out, their surroundings continuing to shake. A piece of ornate tile plummeted from the ceiling, clattering against the marble floor. Others caused splashes when they collided the pools.
“Mind the ceiling!” Katya shouted.
A dangling pendant light, sizeable in circumference, crashed down; its glass and metal veining proceeded like scattershot through the air in its near proximity.
And then . . . stillness.
Katya scanned the ceiling, seeking flaws that’d suggest collapse. Only the decorative tiles that’d once formed an intricate mural of nude women lounging near similar pools and waterfalls had been dislodged. A few small pendant lights were only suspended by their electrical wires.
“Ragonius’s team?” Freitas asked, her face paler.
Katya narrowed her communication line to the captain’s. “What’s your status?”
Her eyes strayed to the device in Rein’s hand. Despite external pressure, he’d never dropped it.
Do they go on alone? Surely, that explosion had been in the second building. Their targets would catch that one charge hadn’t gone off unless it was sensor triggered. She massaged her face, which felt numb. They’d walk into a hot bed. But there were the children. They were their last chance. Well, besides the Reznic peacekeepers and the Magistrate’s traffic control, but Reznic smugglers had long learned how to exploit their weak points.
She gestured with two fingers to the doorway.
They did uncover sensors—probably the very same variety that’d went unnoticed by the second team—along its frame. These they disabled before leaving the pools behind. They snaked through the hallways, narrowing in on the hangar. She kept the pace quick. They had to sting with what little surprise remained; she only hoped they’d have a chance to observe the situation instead of responding to a hostile situation with fire.
The visor relayed the layout of the space to her as she led toward the private hangar. Each feature it highlighted—stands, windows, doorways—spiked her heart rate. She expected resistance at any moment. Muffled sniffles stopped her.
Where was it coming from?
The visor caught a seam, though no door was visible to the naked eye. Prying a finger into it, Katya traced the hidden door. The panel should be near.
A portrait of a Reznic sour-faced politician—Gergio Dersum—glared at her not far away, his face pockmarked from disease and having taken a shot to the face from an old-fashioned powder revolver. He’d been yanked from office centuries ago, having pursued a bit of piracy on the side while using his political power to squeeze rivals out of the lower docking quarter and extort merchants. A minor animation studio had chosen to animate his story for children; and in one hundred years’ time, he’d been designated as a saint.
After pointing to the portrait, Rein, who’d fixed the dead detonator to his belt, and Salvius removed it, providing her full access to the control panel. She inserted a cable from her wrist device and allowed it to crack the code, using a special program that’d been developed just for the planet by one of its own in return for freedom on a new planet, with a new name.
The hidden door slid open upon receiving the right code. A squeak followed it.
“It’s OK,” Freitas said, approaching a group of cowering children between the ages of nine and fifteen but didn’t enter the hidden space, which had no window or alternative light source. “We’re going to help you. We’re with the Magistrate police.” She then switched to Rekanek, with what Katya assumed to be a repeat message of “Stay still.”
Together they scanned for traps while Katya considered what to do with them, all ten of them. All so scrawny, definitely malnourished. They had a pallor to them. Eyes that were too big on their faces, hollow. Their clothing, loose-fitting dresses, were stained. The eldest had a sizeable bruise on the left side of her face. No politician’s granddaughter.
To Freitas, she said, “They responded more to Rekanek. See if there are more children, and get anything on the captors that you can.” She then rounded up three of her men, pointing to the exposed hallway heading to the hangar. “Guard that point.” Then to the others, she ordered, “Guard our flank.”
Freitas talked rapidly to the children. She entered the space but stopped when they slunk back, pressing into the wall. It was a narrow space that resembled a closet more than anything else. Their little legs shivered. Her sergeant held up her hand and retreated a few inches. She spoke again in a low voice.
The children shifted into each other. One of the youngest wrapped her fingers into the eldest’s dress.
Her sergeant spoke again, her voice taking a pleading tone.
“Perhaps this would help,” Salvius said, coming from where he was supposed to be guarding their flank, and handed Freitas a Magistrate commissary candy bar. He shrugged under Katya’s gaze. “It could help.”
Freitas rolled her eyes but offered the candy bar to the children, saying more in Rekanek. The eldest plucked the bar from her hand but made no attempt to eat it.
They were running out of time. Katya already determined she’d have to divide her team, with a few evacuating these children while the rest pressed on to the unknown.
“Tell them,” Katya said, “that we’re evacuating them.”
Her sergeant did as instructed. Then, the eldest girl responded with a crackly voice in Rekanek. She never once looked fully at any of them in the face, her gaze remaining at their ankles. She said what amounted to a sentence or two.
“What did she say?” Katya pressed.
Freitas focused on the girl, but after receiving nothing further, the sergeant responded, “There were more, but they were taken a while ago.” She spoke to the girl, only getting a stony stare. “I doubt they know how long it was. She’s vague on the number of ‘bad people.’ Only ‘many.'”
Katya bit down a sigh. No matter. They’d still do what was expected of them. She pointed to Corporal Rein, a female corporal, and two male privates. “You’ll be evacuating these children. Use the exit points loaded into the map. And, Corporal Rein, give that”—she gestured to the detonator—”to the appropriate people. Alert them to the doll and its location. I don’t want to chance it going off.”
“Yes, ma’am!” He saluted and started to round up the children, who wanted nothing more than to hide away from him and the others, even the female among them. Freitas placed her hands on her hips and sent these would-be guardians a withering glare, berating them with Rekanek curses. They, accordingly, adjusted their mannerisms to be more kid friendly. Freitas continued to speak in Rekanek, and like skittish creatures, they eventually allowed themselves to be directed away.
“Do you think they’ll manage, sir?” Salvius asked.
“We can only hope.” Katya redirected her attention to the rest. “Weapons ready. Maintain silence.”
Stay tune for the rest of “The Promise.” Currently, Heritage Lost is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, 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.