My name is Quintus Atticus Agrippa. A name long on words and short on meaning. I’m just a man trying to get by in His Imperium like everyone else. I make what little money I can by providing a service in constant need: finding out what people want to know and dealing with problems they don’t. There are sewers full of men like me, but I do my work the most honest way I can. Especially the dishonest work. In His Imperium, on this planet of Illis, in the backwater Hive of Wiscin, I’m just another man trying to get by, and mostly succeeding.
I try to make my living honestly – if dirtily – investigating lovers, business partners, missing persons; sometimes I even handle negotiations. While these are necessary services, my clients can’t often pay much. That’s fine. A good service leads to good rewards, I always say. However, sometimes a client walks through my door with an account as big as their waistline, and even I can’t refuse. No matter the job.
That’s how I ended up staring at this rotund morass plopped uncomfortably in my unpadded chair. This man – who could have been mistaken for a couch of poor taste if he stopped fidgeting – had abruptly called my secretary to set up this meeting. His jowls quivered, and his sausage fingers twiddled as he concluded his long-winded story full of overripe hardships. I thought I might need a shower to get off all the spittle he flung as he spoke. A portrait of every backwater noble I ever met, he was old too. I despise fat old men.
‘Well?’ he asked, still fidgeting. ‘Will you take the case?’
I glanced over to the large shape behind him: a slab of muscle, no doubt from hormone treatment, dressed in unobtrusive black carapace armour shrouded by a large coat and concealing a large-bore stub pistol. He had dark glasses over his eyes even in this gloom. ‘So let me make sure I understand you.’ I drawled, leaning back in my chair. I knew the effect my lazy Hive Chago accent had on the backwater Hive Nobility. It was like I was too drunk to properly care that I was better than them. ‘Your talented servant has been taken from you. The kidnappers are demanding you pay an exorbitant ransom of five hundred million dolgrams. And you want me to locate these kidnappers and negotiate with them?’
‘Yes, yes!’ he spat. ‘My slave girl is a rare prodigy. From her, I will be able to make billions! We will be able to leave this dump and move to Hive Chago!’
‘I see.’ I leaned forward onto my desk. It was a simple plasteel thing, its thick top scuffed and worn. I only half-joked that it could stop stubber rounds. ‘And why not go with someone else? I’m sure you could find someone besides me.’
‘I need… discretion.’ he answered. I raised my eyebrows, causing him to flap one bloated hand. ‘Yes, yes, I know. Coming here isn’t discreet, but I had on a falsehood, and I know you have a blanket of anti-auspex devices.’
He did his research; or rather, someone did it for him. I kept the interior of the office safe from all sorts of scanning equipment. It wasn’t subtle. Anyone with a sensor – or metal fillings – could detect it. But subtle costs money.
‘If that’s the case, why haven’t you just paid the ransom?’ I asked.
‘Because I don’t know if they’ll give her to me, and they requested only one person to come.’
‘Ah, I see. You need someone you can trust to go there, come back with either the girl or the money, and not let anyone know you’re doing it.’
‘Precisely.’ He smiled. Or I think he did; it was hard to tell through the fat folds of his jowls. ‘Will you take the case?’
‘You know my fee?’
‘Once I see it in my account, I’ll start immediately. Please send over any information you have.’
He snapped his fingers, and the hulk of muscle dug into his pocket. I nonchalantly placed my hand on the pistol under my desk. The hulk gave me a frosty smile, one professional to another, and withdrew a dataslate. He handed it to me over the desk.
‘I trust we can get the matter solved quickly?’ sniffed the Fat Old Noble.
‘I will do my best to resolve it as quickly, and discreetly, as possible.’ I answered. I reached over to the vox-caster on my desk and pressed a button. ‘Cassia?’
‘Our guests will be leaving.’
‘I don’t like the look of him.’ Cassia said as she barged in my door.
Her hands were full of papers, but I doubted she actually needed me to sign anything. Cassia was a constant worrier. She was old – well, maybe not. Working out here made one look old when they were young. What spoke that she might be old was not the hunch, gravelly voice, or milky film over her eyes, but the rictus in her hands. Cassia was a rare one who could use a cogitator to fill forms. Her hands, however, had a hard time moving as they should. Rictus would end a clerk’s career early.
‘Of course not. You have taste.’ I replied without looking up from the slate.
‘It’s no good getting in business with nobles. They’ll knife you and leave you in the gutter.’
‘You’re not wrong, but I like to eat. If I get killed I won’t have to worry about starving.’
‘Oh great, and what should I do?’ Cassia asked, placing her hands on her hips.
‘Rifle through my corpse for loose change.’
Cassia threw up her hands in exasperation. As she left the room, not leaving any papers, I smiled. When I hired her, I didn’t look into her background. Everyone has their secrets. She didn’t ask mine and I didn’t ask hers. That’s how things worked here, somewhere between the Middle Hive and Lower. As I finished reviewing the slate, Cassia knocked on the door.
‘I’m done for the day, Boss. I’m heading home.’
I grunted in acknowledgement. Looking at the wall chrono, I figured I might leave as well. Locking up my desk, I walked over to the coat rack in the corner. The wide hat and long dark jacket were caricatures of my trade. Unfortunately, they were necessary to keep the constant rain off. Most days it was harmless, but every so often a piece of machinery blew and it could burn the skin. The thick jacket and hat kept me safe. It’s bulk also hid the patchwork flak jacket sewn into the lining and the pistol strapped under my arm. It may have been patchwork, but it worked.
I stepped out into the ever-present mist. Though it was early enough for Illis’ sun to still be up, the dirty white clouds and towers of the Hive Center broke that light into hazy streams. Glancing around, I began my walk home from my office. Never could be too careful.
Wiscin was a hive city because of its sprawl. It consisted of three rings which were separated by thick walls with heavy gates and armed Regulators. Transportation was provided by a system of raised railcars that webbed their way through the rings. The center was the towers and domes of the Upper Hive. That was ringed by the Middle Hive which contained residences and offices for Hive officials and Constable watchstations. Further out, the Lower Hive was home to manufactorums and menials. These ramshackle buildings of faded rockcrete were as durable and depressing as the Imperium itself. There was no underhive, just the slow decay and dissolution of habs until they surrendered to overgrown wilderness.
The streets were mostly empty as I walked them. Even in the late afternoon most were still working their luxurious ten hour days. There wasn’t even much work; the manufactorums basically ran themselves. Water and waste purifiers for nearby Hives, their fusion and geothermal reactors provided the heat to purify water pumped in and then pumped it back. Constant leaks were why it was always humid.
The system had been here as long as Illis had been inhabited. No one knew who built it. The water network was the reason a small hive like Wiscin, had an actual Arbites presence – as much as this backwater planet off no trade routes could. For any member of the Adeptus Terra, it was a dead end or punishment. I should know.
I made it to my apartment hab. Looking behind me first, I stepped through the doors. As always, it shut with a heavy click. Pressing a button, I locked the door. I pressed the other button for the vox-caster.
‘Please enter your code,’ came an easy voice.
I punched mine in. With a loud buzz, the doors to the hab unlocked and I walked through. They swung shut behind me with a heavy thud. The entrance was time consuming, but I chose this hab because of the tight security. Part of that was the entryway of rockcrete and steel doors. The other part was the man lounging lazily behind the counter.
‘Hey, bosssssss,’ said the same voice that had come over the vox. ‘Nice to see you’re back.’
‘Nice to be back, Norris,’ I replied as I walked past him.
‘If you want anyyyyyything, or neeeeeeed something, you let me know, yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ I said as I walked around the corner.
The lift that brought me up to the third floor was functional, austere, and smelled like oil – probably a freight lift originally. Like the rest of the building, it now saw a different use. I took out the heavy key in my pocket, and turned the series of locks on my door. The heavy bolts clanged open. I pushed the plasteel door open slowly. Completely. No one hiding in the corner. I shut it with a bang and quickly scanned my apartment. The open kitchen and the center room were empty. I glanced into the sleeping quarters, but saw nothing there either. Satisfied, I went back and turned the lumens on.
It was a simple place: a kitchen connected to the center room and sleeping quarters. The couch had seen better days, and there was a patch over the cushions, where some slugs had passed through. I was proud that I’d managed to get the bloodstains out. A small table, a few chairs. My sleeping quarters had a sturdy mattress over a plasteel frame. There was one closet with the clothes I needed, and a little false vent where I stored my safe. There were two windows – one in the center room and one in the sleeping quarter – but both were barred. The only thing not typical was the shower. That was a luxury most did not have anywhere, but in Wiscin everyone above the Lower Hive had access. It was just recycled anyway.
I stepped into the bathroom, hung up my holster and gun on the towel rack, and turned on the water. Some thought me crazy, but a hot shower was needed at the end of a long day.
Thinking about this case, it seemed easy and straightforward. Those were the kind that could get you killed quickest. You relaxed and let down your guard. I didn’t know much about this case, but I knew someone who would. I guess that meant I was taking a trip downtown tomorrow to see an old friend.
I glanced at the quickly fogging mirror. My short hair didn’t need another shearing yet, and the bags under my eyes weren’t too bad. The brown of them were still muddy and uninspiring. My stubble would need shaving tomorrow. Otherwise, I had the angular features of a man with enough to eat but not much more.
Oh well. Nothing to do about it and no need to keep my shower waiting.
‘And just what are you doing here?’ the rough bombastic voice assaulted me. I blinked in surprise, though I expected it. Traditions and all.
‘Can’t I stop by to visit an old friend, Aetius?’ I replied.
I was standing in the lobby of a Constable watchstation. It wasn’t the fortress style you’d get with full Imperials, just a ferrocrete box with subdividing walls. Constables, Regulators, and clerks flowed around me while locals waiting to see kin or address a grievance crowded behind. It made me mildly nostalgic and nauseous.
‘You don’t hop a rail to travel half the Hive to come see me on a pleasure call,’ he answered.
Sextus Aetius, or Constable Minoris Aetius, was a large and imposing man. Shaved head with a pair of well-kept sideburns that travelled down his chin and jaw, he was everything the Imperium hoped for in their law keepers: fair, honest, dogged in pursuit and ruthless in his pronouncements. He was the type of man the Imperium was built on. However, those that ran it did not see his value. By all rights he should be commanding a watchstation in a better Hive, or in a more prestigious area of this one. Hell, he should have been an arbites. But his honest pursuit of justice made as many enemies as friends. He was the commander that any Constable would want, and his men loved him for it.
But now he was standing there glaring at me, a cup of recaf in one hand and a stack of files in the other.
‘Well?’ he asked, his barking tone never lowering in volume. ‘You coming in or what?’
I followed the familiar route to his office. As I walked behind him, I thought about how this man kept the peace as best he could, and delivered justice as much as could be said, for the entirety of the rings outside the Center. Aetius was the Senior Minoris Constable here and had been so for a decade. All the others in his time had either retired, been killed, or moved upward. Aetius – by his nature – never would.
His office was the same as always. File stacks crowded corners while others lay open all over. Only a single seat was clear. Aetius motioned for me to close the door and took his seat behind his desk. I sat and waited. Aetius opened his file, put on his glasses, and read it over. A few minutes passed as he made notes in the margins. I did not know what he was writing, but knew it would be a follow up for some Regulator. Finally, he put the file down on top of a stack of others, and looked at me.
‘So what is it?’ he asked.
‘What do you know about Escimar Rolansque?’ I asked. Aetius’ brow furrowed.
‘Why do you want to know about Escimar Rolansque?’
‘No particular reason.’ I answered. With most people I would look away or act nonchalant. With Aetius direct was best.
‘I highly doubt that. Nothing to do with his missing slave girl?’ he probed.
‘Now why would I have anything to do with that?’ I replied.
‘Uh huh.’ He answered, not believing me for a moment. He jabbed at a file cabinet with his stylus. ‘Second row. I assume you remember how to look through those?’
I gave a condescending laugh as I opened the drawer. Searching through the active cases – a death near a manufactorum; mysterious hunchback mutant sightings; reprisal killings by local gangers; something about parts missing from another Hive’s manufactorum – I found it. Missing slave girl.
‘I didn’t think you would have an open case on this,’ I said as I opened it. I went to sit, but a loud cough caught my attention. Aetius jabbed his stylus at me. I sheepishly closed the cabinet.
‘Bring it here,’ he said, putting out his hand. I scowled. He raised an eyebrow. ‘What, you thought I was just going to let you rifle through it? Come on, give it here.’
My scowl remained as I handed the file over to him. I sat down as Aetius flipped open the file.
‘Escimar Rolansque; properly Baronet Rolan of the Sque family, if you want to be long winded. He’s a lower noble, as the title suggests. Mostly ignored by the Upper Houses, even those in his family. However, he had a slave that seemed to be helping his fortunes. Some sort of tech savant.’
‘Tech?’ I asked, genuinely surprised. ‘It sounds like the local Cogs would be all over that.’
‘Yeah, that’s the issue. His bragging drew their attention. However, the local Mechanicus doesn’t have enough pull to force it. So it’s been this dance of them requesting an audience, and Rolansque making excuses.’
‘Until she went missing. He hasn’t said anything, but whereas before he was trotting her out now he cancelled all those appointments. Word is she disappeared from his estates, and no one knows how. He’s been desperate to get her back.’ Aetius looked up at me over his glasses.
‘So it’s probably an inside job, huh?’
‘That’s the current thought. Either way, he hasn’t asked for Constable help, and it’s not my jurisdiction anyway.’
‘Then why do you have the file?’
‘Because it’s helpful to be prepared,’ he answered, slamming the file shut. ‘Now, if you’re quite done taking up my time, I’ve got work to do.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, and stood up. I put my hat on. ‘If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, stop by for a drink.’
‘If I’m in your neighbourhood, it’s bad business,’ he answered. He took out another file and opened it. I placed my hand on the door but his voice stopped me. ‘Agrippa.’
‘Yeah?’ I said, not turning around.
‘Be careful what you stick your foot into. Nobles will knife you in the back if they can.’
‘I’ll make sure to keep my eyes on them.’
‘Good. And don’t make any more work for us.’
‘Now, would I do that?’ I asked, turning around with a grin.
‘Get out of here!’
The weight of the money case was heavy in my left hand as I walked into the abandoned warehouse. I kept my right free in case of trouble. I hoped there wouldn’t be; Rolansque told them that he would pay. Most times they took their money and skipped Hive, if not the planet. However, there was still something bothering me about this case.
A spotlight hit me. My dark glasses instantly filtered it. I turned my left side forward, shielding my right hand so I could draw quickly from my underarm holster.
‘Hold it.’ An electronic voice buzzed. I froze. It came from a hulking figure in the shadows. They were using a servitor to disguise their identities. Smart.
‘I’m here to make the trade.’
‘Did you come by yourself?’
‘Place the money down and back away.’
‘That’s not how this works,’ I responded firmly.
‘That’s not how this works,’ I repeated. ‘You show me the girl. Once I confirm it’s her, I will put the money down and back up. You will escort her to the money, and then take it while I take the girl. We all leave happy.’
‘And if we don’t?’
‘We all leave unhappy,’ I answered. ‘Only I know the code to open that case. If you try to pry it open, it will ignite. I doubt if this goes poorly my client will be willing to renegotiate. He’d probably go with more forceful methods.’
‘You make your point,’ the servitor buzzed.
From the shadows behind it, a girl stepped out. She was in the simple smock and pants of a menial, with her eyes blindfolded and her hands tied in front of her. She matched the description: dark, shoulder length hair and pale skin. Though I had expected someone in the teens, not the twenty-something standing there.
‘Miss, your benefactor has sent me here to pay for your release. But I have to know it’s you.’
‘Oxenfree,’ was her flat reply. She sounded tired. I nodded.
‘Alright, here it is,’ I said, and placed the case down.
I stepped back several paces. The servitor rolled forward, and behind it I could see several figures standing obscured by long-forgotten crates. I kept my eyes on them until the servitor reached the case. The girl stopped as well.
‘Miss, follow the sound of my voice,’ I urged.
The girl hesitantly started forward. The servitor’s grapple arm whirred and picked up the case. It slowly rolled back. I glanced away from the figures and looked for the girl. She had strayed a bit.
‘This way, Miss. Just a little further. Stop,’ I said gently.
I took the blindfold off. The girl looked up at me with startling green eyes. It took me a moment to pull myself away from them. When I did, I saw the figures looking in my direction.
‘The password is-‘
A door nearby slammed open. Rolansque came puffing through the door with his bodyguard in tow. He looked at the servitor, squinting and blinking in the light. Seeing me and the girl, he ran over.
‘Nyrixiah, are you alright?’ he asked as he grabbed her shoulders.
‘I’m perfectly fine.’ the girl answered.
‘HEY!’ the servitor’s voice boomed. ‘You said no one else would come!’
‘I have nothing to do with this.’ I motioned to Rolansque. ‘But it’s not an issue, as I was saying, the code is-‘
Another slam; only this time it was a ground car slamming through an adjoining wall. My first thought was how unnecessary that was. My second thought was to take cover as gun barrels unfolded from the vehicle. I got two steps towards another stack of crates before it started firing.
I dove to the floor. In my rush, I took down the girl next to Rolansque. He soon hit the floor. At first I thought his bodyguard pushed him down, but his gurgling told me it was a stub round. Cursing, I drew my own pistol. Glancing around the crates, I ducked back as rounds pierced through them. The car must have had sensors to see in this gloom.
From the other side, the kidnappers started firing back. That told me something had gone wrong, and not on either of our parts. I cursed the dying fool for bringing this on me. The bodyguard collapsed next to me, head missing. I dug for his pistol and rounds. Might be helpful.
‘Now how am I going to get out of this?’ I muttered.
The girl’s head turned to me, and then turned away. I risked a glance over the crates. They were still firing at each other. A strong hand took my arm.
‘This way,’ the girl said in her flat tone as she pulled me along.
Something about her made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. We were taught that it was the God-Emperor warning us that something more was going on. I didn’t believe that. The God-Emperor was our Protector, but He was busy protecting His whole Imperium, and not looking at one person. Especially me. But I still trusted that feeling.
I trusted it even more as the girl pulled me to a drain grate. A perfect way out, if you had a lifting servitor. It wouldn’t budge even if both of us tried. Or so I thought until the girl grabbed the grate, and pulled it screeching open. I eyed her warily, but knew better than to price check a gift. She dropped on through, and I followed her down the steel ladder.
The bottom was pitch black. The same strong grip grabbed me and pulled. I lurched along behind. Randomly, it would tug me to and fro, and we would go down another corridor. Even for someone like me, the smothering darkness that stank of grease and filth was suffocating. Finally, it was too much.
‘Stop!’ I hissed. The pull ceased, but the hand remained.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a lumen stick, cracking it on. It bathed the tunnel in blue light. What met me were the startling green eyes. I jerked back instinctively. Having to look elsewhere, I glanced around the tunnel, then turned back to the green eyes, as they were the best thing to look at.
‘Just what in His Golden Throne are you, girl?’ I asked, my voice dropping into the commanding tone of my previous profession.
‘I am the person you were sent to save.’ was her flat response.
‘Save? You rip a grate out of the ground, and I have to save you?’
‘Yes. Though I am more than physically capable, I know nothing of this Hive. I need you to help me negotiate my way.’
‘I’m not some bodyguard, and my client is dead.’
‘I am your new client.’
I’d never heard something so ridiculous. Here I was, standing up to my calf in industrial water runoff in an underground tunnel, and she was proposing work for me.
‘You can’t pay me,’ was all I could come up with.
‘On the contrary; I am well aware of my benefactor’s hidden bank accounts, and have the ability to access them. I just need you to get me to them.’
‘Okay,’ was all I could answer.
‘Now, please turn off your light. Those who may be following us could see it.’
I hesitated. Though the idea was sound, I didn’t like going back into the dark. With a sigh, I turned it off. The cloying blackness returned and I was dragged along.
We came out from a drain culvert. As I emerged from the gloom, I gave a silent prayer to Him on Terra for returning me to the land of the living. There were worse places in the galaxy than that dark underground, but I couldn’t imagine what. After my prayer, I looked over at the girl. Nyrixiah.
‘Now, I need you to navigate this city,’ she said in her deadpan voice
‘And where will you go when I do?’
‘It is best if you do not know. But we must hurry.’
I grunted in frustration. This girl seemed to think I knew every turn of this city. I didn’t, but knew well enough how to get around. If this was the warehouse district, there was a rail station nearby. But first I needed to get to the street.
‘Follow me,’ I said, and led the way down the culvert.
Finding metal rungs embedded into the rockcrete, I began to climb. Coming to the street level, I spotted a rail station not too far that was busy with menials. I hoped the crowds would hide us from anyone watching. Checking the station map, I charted a course to a little pay-as-you-go motel. It wasn’t respectable by any means, but would give us a chance to plan our next moves. The ride would be a bit long, though. Paying for the both of us at the automated teller, we chose a seat in the back car.
The girl seemed completely interested in everything around her. Those piercing green eyes lingered on everything for too long. Finally, they came to rest on me. I watched her start at the top of my hat and work her way downward. Her gaze slowly crept back up until it met my own.
‘Didn’t get a good enough look at me already?’ I quipped.
‘Your clothing has extensive modification,’ she replied. Not a great conversationalist.
‘Yeah, everybody’s does. We’re not rich enough to pay for new clothes whenever old ones get torn or worn.’
‘There are heavy insets of armourweave and plastek plates,’ she responded. I glanced around to see who heard her.
‘Keep your voice down,’ I warned. Quietly, I answered. ‘I’m a private investigator. It’s part of the job.’
‘Is your stub pistol part of it as well?’ she asked me in a quieter voice. Still, a few heads turned.
‘Yes, and let’s not talk about it anymore,’ I snapped.
The girl took the hint, and did not say anything more. The railcar was too dangerous now. I glanced at the map above; we weren’t too far from our stop. As the car slowed I stood up.
‘This was not the stop you stated earlier,’ she said as she stood anyway.
I let the people shuffle out and in, and as the warning for the doors came, I slipped out with the girl in tow. I hoped that anyone in the car waiting for us would be stuck. I discreetly checked, but it didn’t seem like anyone was following. Unfortunately, getting off here added about half an hour to our walk. Making sure my hat was secure, I turned in the direction of the motel. We walked in silence for a while, but I had an itch I had to scratch.
‘How did you know my jacket is armored?’ I asked. I looked down at her. There didn’t seem to be any sensors on her. She looked back at me.
‘I would think the question would be quite obvious to a trained professional such as yourself,’ she responded.
I opened my mouth to retort, but the look in her eyes stopped me. No, not the look – her eyes. Those piercing green irises shone as we passed a street light. Human eyes didn’t do that, nor did they rotate slowly when you looked long enough.
‘You’re augmented,’ I said.
‘Of course,’ she replied and turned to look forward. ‘I thought you would have guessed that.’
I furrowed my brow in distaste. The girl was right. I should have. The green eyes wouldn’t have given it away, but her strength, dark vision, or the fact she was a tech savant the Cogs desired should have.
‘Your augments must be top grade. I don’t see any metal on you, unless you’re hiding it under those clothes.’
‘They are top grade. I did them myself,’ she answered smugly. ‘Most of my augments are biological. I’ve increased both my bone and muscle strength. My only mechanical augments are my eyes and a small data node to access the noosphere.’
I grunted in response. Not the most eloquent, but there was really nothing more to say. We did not speak the rest of the way. I took that as a good sign. The motel was a grimy two-level structure, converted from an old hab building. The windows were barred and so were the questions. Walking up to the cracked slug-proof glass, a clerk gave me a bored look. As seemingly required in every place like this, he was a heavy set young man. I wondered if the Administratum actually had a rule on the books about that. Probably.
I slipped money to the clerk through the slot and he slipped the metal room key to me. Our room was on the second level, which I disliked, but it did provide a good vantage point. With that in mind, I dug a little camera from one of my many pockets, and stuck it to the side of the door. Nyrixiah gave it a look but said nothing. After she entered, I locked the door behind us. I lodged a cheap plastek chair under the door handle. That would work for now.
Turning around, I found her looking at me.
‘Now what?’ she asked.
‘Now, you tell me where you need to go to get my payment. We’ll go there tomorrow.’
‘Today,’ I replied, taking off my hat and tossing it on a table, ‘we’ve done enough. It will be dark soon, and we don’t want to be out in this area after dark. Besides, we need rest.’
‘You may need it, but I do not.’
‘Fine,’ I said, shucking my jacket and tossing it on the same table as my hat, ‘I need rest. And a shower. And some food.’
‘I do agree on food.’
‘Good. I saw a little takeout joint not far from here. We can stop by the front desk so I can find a store on the way out.’
‘What type of store are you looking for?’
She looked me up and down.
‘Are you looking to update your wardrobe?’
‘Did you forget what we were walking in?’
‘Your comment bears credence.’
‘Also, we need a bit of disguise. Just in case.’
‘A good idea. You are a good private investigator.’
‘Thank you. Now, let’s go hit up the clerk for information.’
I was watching the recording from my camera when I heard the shower turn off. I glanced up from my dataslate as the door opened. Nyrixiah came out in the collared shirt and pants bought at the second hand store. This motel had a cleaning area but I didn’t trust my clothes not to get stolen, so I decided to use the sink for my pants. I dumped hers in the nearest trash. As she walked past I had a chance to admire her from the rear. Her lithe form was deceptively well muscled, but I suppose that’s what having top of the line genetic modifications will do to a person.
On the way back we had picked up some pre-made noodles and broth from a food truck. Picking up the noodle box and grabbing the cheap disposable sticks, she began to eat with the grace of the upper class that made dining almost look like a performance. Her benefactor must have taught her.
The girl was a strange one. Her speech pattern was reflective of a techpriest, but without the voice modulation. Like a child playing at being a techpriest. Then there were the mannerisms that spoke of nobility, like the way she held herself or walked. All in all, it gave me the impression of a puppet pretending to be human.
After my own shower I made my own way to the food. As I started to eat, I noticed that Nyrixiah was in the bed. With my dataslate. I looked at her in annoyance, but she did not notice. That annoyed me more. I decided just to sit and eat my noodles. Besides, she was probably just checking our location. I decided to check to make certain.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I was trying to log into the noosphere from your data slate, but it is quite deficient here.’
‘Stop that,’ I growled. ‘We don’t want anyone to know our location.’
‘It is highly unlikely anyone will try to track your slate.’
‘Really? You don’t think whoever is coming after you won’t be looking into who your benefactor hired, and backtracking the information?’
She looked at me for a moment. Her eyes whirled. ‘True.’
Nyrixiah reached back, and pulled a cable out from under her hair. Attaching it to the dataslate, she began to thumb through it.
‘Now what are you doing?’ I asked.
‘Reviewing notes,’ she replied distantly. ‘I can do it internally but sometimes it’s easier like this.’
I sighed as I got into the bed. It was going to be a long night.
‘Do you mind if I turn off the light?’
‘No. I shall be fine.’ she replied.
Sighing again, I hit the switch for the lumens.
The next morning we made for the rail station. The rail car would give us cover. I hoped that whoever tried to kill her earlier was wary of causing a big enough scene to bring the Regulators down on them. It was partly why I chose this line.
The car was half-full. We had missed the morning rush, but the second-shifters were heading to their manufactorums. Large men in grease-stained overalls sat or stood idly. Some watched the cracked screens in the car. Others had worn copies of newspapers or pamphlets. Most looked tired. Except…
‘Let’s move to the next car,’ I said.
Nyrixiah nodded, not questioning my decision. Bleary eyes glanced at us, shuffling to move out of our way. I hoped I was wrong, but I doubt I was. I hoped that it was merely a tail, and not an extraction team. As we walked into the next car, I knew that was wrong as well. Mixed into the crowd were too many menials in too-clean of overalls. Their stains were weeks old, not days. I glanced at our location. Less than three minutes until the next stop. Moving through a group of actual workers, I turned to Nyrixiah.
‘Go!’ I ordered, and pushed her forward.
She ran up the car, and the too-clean men came after us. The true workers shied away, sensing trouble. Unfortunately for them, I picked the right place. I tripped one of the workers into the path of our pursuers, and pushed another as well. Turning, I went to make a break for it when a hand grabbed my arm. I pivoted and landed a hard uppercut to his jaw.
My plastek-reinforced gloves, normally good for breaking a jaw, only served to protect my hand. The man’s jaw, and probably the rest of him, was heavily augmented. That meant they were no thugs for hire. Still, his head snapped back for a moment, giving time to twist out of his grip. I stepped back into a fighting stance, digging for my shock stick. A small foot flew through where I was, and the man let out a whoosh of air as he was thrown back. Nyrixiah, though lacking fighting skill, was still strong. Another man advanced.
This time I was ready. Augments may have advantages, but ramped up shock sticks could overload them. The man threw a punch, which I easily slipped, and I drove the shock stick into his gut, pressing the button. He cried out in pain as the electricity coursed through him, and collapsed. I pushed Nyrixiah onward, hoping the next car had no more surprises.
Lucky for us – for once – it was empty. Most likely the passengers saw the fight and went further down. I spun around again to see a dozen augments stalking up the car.
‘Watch my back, and hit that blue button,’ I told Nyrixiah.
I did not see her response, but heard the harsh buzz a moment later. Regulator call buttons were notoriously unreliable; unless you were on a rail line that went right past one of their watchhouses. Response time at the next station was under two minutes, if no Regulators were already there patrolling. I just had to hold them off for that long.
‘You’re not just some ganger scum,’ I said as they crossed into the car, the small door frame forcing them into single file. ‘Who sent you?’
There was no response. I didn’t expect one. These were pros, though backwater pros. They knew I was playing for time. They knew I didn’t expect a response. By the way they advanced, they knew I was a pro as well. It was just going to be a slobber knocker. The shock stick hummed in my left hand, my right clenched into a fist. In some pulp story there would be banter or a challenge. Garbage all.
The first augment came at me from my left. I stayed in the middle; he was trying to get me to slide one way to give his buddy room to move on the other side. He threw a punch, but I leaned away. I flicked the shock stick at his arm. He dropped back. His buddy had started to advance, but now had to step back. The most basic opening beaten, they would move onto tactic two.
The lead man tried to tackle me. I pivoted on my heel to the right, blocking his left arm from snaring me. As he cleared past I pressed the shock stick. Stepping forward I drove my elbow into the next man’s face and punched the shock stick into his stomach. I ate the secondary shock discharge to push the augment back into his buddies. It hurt like hell, but I blocked it out and focused. The third augment was smart, dodging his fallen comrade. But he wasn’t smart enough, as leaving that man on the floor made it harder for him to move. Arbites would have known to catch the man and pull him out of the way for the rest of his squad.
The third also tried to grapple me, but I stepped back. As I thought, it had been a feint to draw me in close. He gained a small bit of ground on me, but I still held the doorway. I looked past him towards his comrades. They were pulling out longer shock batons. The man in front of me dug for his own – big mistake. A lunging thrust with my stick sent him to the floor. Overextended, yes, but with their buddies littering the floor they wouldn’t be able to close rapidly. I quickly regained a square stance.
They advanced then, confident in their weapons’ reach. It did give them an advantage; unfortunately for them, I had been trained for that. The lead man swung at me with his shock baton. I stepped back, but quickly stepped forward as it passed. The man backhanded, but I cut down to block with mine. The hairs on my arm raised from the discharge. I grabbed his arm with my other hand and slid my stick down it. He flinched and fell. I ate the burn of secondary discharge again to grab his shock baton.
That was not such a good idea, as the second shock fatigued my body. Nevertheless, I extended the two batons in a double weapon guarded stance. It was all bluff. I was terrible using two weapons and I didn’t think I had the coordination to even keep track of both my hands at that moment. It must have looked convincing, though, as they kept their distance.
The repetitive blare of the approaching station warning rang out. I thought they would charge me then in one last desperate attack. Instead, they moved backwards out of the car. I was surprised until I saw what lay ahead at the station. It was impossible to miss the heavily armoured and shield-wielding Regulators, or the heavy vehicles, or the blare of blue-red lights. Sighing, I turned off the shock sticks, collapsing the baton and putting it in my pocket. Not wanting things to go to waste, I grabbed the other man’s as well. Sighing again, I came to stand by Nyrixiah.
‘Whatever the Regulators say, do it,’ I told her.
‘Of course,’ she replied. As the rail car chugged to a stop, I took a deep breath to prepare myself to be shocked, shackled, and interrogated. When the heavy doors split open, I was shocked, though not with electricity.
‘What did I tell you about sticking your foot into nobles’ business?’ came the bombastic voice of Sextus Aetius. He looked tired, and perturbed. Though that might have just been his face. ‘And not making more work for us!’
‘Would you believe me if I told you this is not my fault?’ I asked, shrugging my shoulders in a way I hoped seemed nonchalant and charming. Aetius was not charmed.
‘No, it’s the dead Baronet’s fault for this mess, but it’s your fault for getting into it,’ he growled. ‘Now come with me.’
I looked at Nyrixiah and motioned to follow. A dozen Regulators flanked us. Looking past Aetius, my heart sank. Besides the Constable APC was another one with the Cog symbol on its side.
‘So what’s the deal here, Aetius?’ I asked calmly. ‘This is a Constable affair.’
‘Yeah, except for the girl,’ he answered. He drew up in front of a red-robed techpriest. ‘They’ve put a claim on her.’
‘She is a tech deviant,’ came a harsh vocalisation from the techpriest. ‘However, she was led astray. Her natural abilities will be put to better use once she is taught the true way.’
‘I took a contract, Aetius,’ I answered firmly. Aetius’ face darkened at those words. ‘My contract was to see her safely to her destination. I never break my contracts.’
‘You’re being stubborn, Agrippa,’ Aetius replied. ‘You think this is going to go down any other way? Don’t be a fool.’
‘You know why I don’t break contracts,’ I answered him. ‘And you know why I do everything in my power to fulfill them, wise or foolish.’
Aetius growled in frustration but said nothing.
‘She will not be harmed. We have only her best interest in mind,’ the techpriest said.
‘Don’t lie to my face when you still have yours, techpriest.’ I replied. Not tactful, but my blood was getting up. ‘If the Mechanicus had wanted to show some respect, they would have sent someone of higher rank.’
The techpriest let out a blurt of angry binary. I figured he was embarrassed at being shamed in front of his colleagues. A lithe, hooded figure stepped forward from the Mechanicus retinue. They were tall, over six feet at least, and as they drew down their hood it was revealed to be a woman. An unnaturally graceful woman.
‘I am Simoenela of the Biologis. I will be taking the girl into my care. She will not be harmed.’ her voice was soft and light. A Biologis Genetor. She was the one who had been behind the pursuit.
‘Still, it is up to my client to determine her safety.’ I replied firmly.
‘They are correct, Quintus Atticus Agrippa,’ Nyrixiah said from behind me. ‘There is no way out of this predicament. Your struggle is foolish. However, I will let you fulfill your oath.’
She walked in front of me and stopped. I looked down into those unnatural green eyes.
‘You have fulfilled your duty to bring me safely to my destination. And for your payment.’
She motioned me down, and I bent my head low. I expected a whispered password, or location, but instead felt gentle fingers against my head, turning it. As she pressed her lips against my cheek, a tingling sensation filled my mind as a long unused implant awoke. After a few more moments, she withdrew.
‘Good bye, Quintus Atticus.’
‘Good bye, Nyrixiah.’
I watched her escorted into the Mechanicus vehicle. Others picked up the prone forms of the menials from the rail car. All its cargo loaded, it rumbled away. The Regulators and Constables slowly dispersed back to their duties. Eventually, it was only Aetius and I.
‘There was no other way it was going to end,’ he said slowly.
‘Of course not,’ I agreed, ‘but that does not mean we do not see our duty to the end.’
‘Reminds me of old times,’ he answered. ‘You ever think about going back?’
‘No,’ I shook my head. ‘There’s too much politics in the law enforcement.’
‘There’s politics everywhere, my friend. And I’m sure the techpriest will remember that insult.’
‘True,’ I sighed. ‘Want to get a drink?’
‘Can’t. I’m on-duty.’
‘If I waited until you were off duty, I’d have to ask you at your funeral.’
Aetius barked out a laugh.
‘Okay. One drink. But you’re paying.’
About the Author
Writing out of the US Midwest, Andrez Beltran is a long-time fanfiction writer who has been trying his hand lately at 40k Fiction.