The office was silent, still, and dark except for the shaft of light from the open door that fell across the corpse.

I blew out cigar smoke and stared down at High Senator Gunnar Hagrim’s body. His eyes were wide, but rolled back in his head so just the whites showed. There were five tiny holes in a star pattern in his forehead, each of which had leaked a little trail of blood that ran back toward the top of his head where it lay fallen against the low back of his chair. The same as the others.

I figured it was some kind of nanite weapon. It probably fired several small groupings of the microscopic robots that self-guided themselves to the victim, pierced the head, and set off tiny explosions once they’d bored through the skull. Precise and, at least on the outside, clean.

The Chief contacted me via my com implants, interrupting the silence, and said, “Hagrim’s dead?”

“Yes.”

He sounded angry, “Six powerful people. Well-protected, rich people, dead, and you still haven’t caught him?”

“Sorry boss.” I replied, and rubbed my forehead. “These things take time. GovCloud might have figured out the pattern, but we started out five steps behind. I’m still catching up.”

“Fine, Matthew. Then quit wasting time.”

I grunted, stuffed my cigar into a receptacle on the Senator’s desk, and left.

GovCloud said the trail of corpses led to the Jagared System. I hit the wormhole at 9 P.M. shipboard, told the ship to wake me, and drank myself to sleep.

Ten hours later, Harriet, the ship’s A.I., pinged me out of my stupor. I showered, used my internal nanites to cure my hangover, and slouched into the cockpit two minutes before we arrived at the Jagared System.

The coruscating colors of worm-space vanished from the bubble viewscreen, and the massive ring of the Wormhole Gate flicked past. Stars billowed out of the dark like a slow explosion of sparks and settled into place all around. Harriet highlighted the gate patrol for me in blue. There was also a line of freighters and transports, highlighted yellow, waiting for customs to clear them, but I ignored it.

“Unidentified Corvette, return to line or you will be fired upon.” The lead battle-cruiser painted me with its targeting equipment. I painted it back, with my com laser, and shot it a coded identity burst with Gov encrypt. A moment later, it stopped targeting me, and the same voice came back on and said, “Let us know if you need anything, sir.”

“Nothing now, Commander. Carry on.” I turned off the com laser.

Most planets have something interesting about them when seen from space, their own kind of beauty. Jagared Prime might have been like that once, but its industrial society has left it covered in roiling gasses somewhere between the color of rust and shit.

 

I let Harriet take me down through the sulfurous atmosphere and land in the Gov Plaza hanger. On the way in I used my I.D. to slice through red tape and spoke to Planetary Coordinator Michael Kurusaki’s personal assistant.

“Is your boss in?”

“Who is this?”

“Check your screen.”

I waited for her to read my I.D. When she spoke again, her voice was uncertain.

“I, uh, yes, he’s here, Mr. Conrad.”

“Call me Matt. I need an appointment with him in five minutes.”

“Okay. I’ll send him your I.D. and the request.”

“Thanks.”

I disconnected. Harriet touched down in the hanger, and I stuck a wireless, remote ship control electrode onto the side of my head. I grimaced at the potential lack of security wireless signals implied, but I didn’t have a choice since I’d be out of the ship. I focused on my internal nanites for a moment and set them to give me 360 degree visual awareness with threat detection, then stepped off the ship.

I was halfway to the PlanCo’s office when I got a call on my com from the PA.

“Mr. Conrad. Matt, I just realized that the PlanCo is out to lunch. His status was updated, but I didn’t notice until now.”

“Damn! What restaurant?!” I was already running down the hall back toward the hanger. I called up some extra speed from my nanites and let the 360 vision collapse so it wouldn’t distract me while I ran. The situation had just gotten much less controllable.

There was a moment of silence from the PA while I pounded down the hall and stabbed the button for the lift. You’d think we could have come up with something better than elevators, but no, same damn idea as the old cable-and-pulley contraptions, just this one is electromagnetic. I tapped my foot, waiting for it to get to my floor.

“He’s at the Chez Carlos on 7th in the basement.”

I swore at the PA and said, “You should have told me that before I landed! His life is in danger!”

I cut the connection and jumped in the elevator. Because the restaurant was in the basement, I couldn’t take my ship there, it was just too large to take into the lower parts of the city. Industrial planets usually have dense layers of city built up over the surface, and this one was no exception.

I reached the bottom level of the GovPlex offices and entered the airlock to the street. I could have told my nanites to filter the smoggy undercity air for me, and gone without a mask, but I wanted to blend in until I found the restaurant, so I snatched one of the courtesy masks off the wall and pulled it on. I hit the dimly lit street and pulled up a map I’d gotten from the planet’s GovCloud. Chez Carlos was down two levels. I headed at a swift walk for the nearest liftway, swerving between commuters on my way.

Ten minutes later I was confronting the Maitre d’ at Chez Carlos.

“I am sorry sir, you need a reservation.”

“You only think I need a reservation.” I said, and tapped Harriet’s A.I. through my electrode, and slammed my clearance into his wireless computer. He blinked, turned slightly pale, and said, “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I have reason to believe one of your patrons, the PlanCo, is in danger. Take me to his table, now.”

“Yes sir. This way.”

We wound through the tables of happily eating people, and I tried to suppress my stomach’s rumbling. The PlanCo had a private room behind a sound-proofed sliding door, and the Maitre d’ led me to it and pulled it open.

A bodyguard with mil-grade weapons clutched in his hands fell out of the door between the Maitre d’ and me. I instantly kicked into auto-defense, a fine mist of nanites spraying from my pores and filling the air around me. I shoved the Maitre d’ away, sending him flying out of the doorway into a table of patrons. 360 vision snapped back up and the threat signal blared in my head, the red outline of a woman inside the room.

There was a rapid, low popping sound, and I felt flares of heat through my nano-cloud that quickly dissipated as my defenses countered her head-seeker nanites. I dove into the room, checking the vitals of all occupants. Ten dead bodies, one live enemy, and me in the only exit. It was a close thing for a minute: she clearly had her own biomods. She sprang to the ceiling and ricocheted down at me. I rolled away, filling her full of microlaser as I did, but she deflected it and sped out the door.

I chased her through the restaurant and out into the streets; down, down, down to the bottom of the city. It was filthy, packed with the masked, downtrodden working class and smelled of sweat and smoke even through the mask. We buffeted our way through them, neither of us firing on the other. I finally caught her in the midst of a crowd near a factory. I found her nanite power pack and, after a quick melee, neither of us firing lasers or incendiaries, I destroyed it. She fell against the wall of the factory, bleeding from her left shoulder.

“You’re good.” I said, and shot her with a paralysis dart. “Why didn’t you fire at me?”

“These people aren’t my enemies.” She said through a nearly-frozen jaw, flicking her eyes toward the commoners around us. “You should be on my side.”

“What, so I can destabilize the government I work for and start a war? GovCloud saw through your plan.”

I called a cab to take us back to Harriet.

“At least in my plan, places like this won’t exist.”

I looked at the bleak, dirty, startled faces around us. I wanted to set the woman free, let her carry out her assassinations until planets like this were a thing of the past, but I couldn’t do that. Killing a few people at the top wouldn’t fix Jagared Prime, let alone the universe.

“Sorry, kid.” I said. “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it is.”

She just fixed me with her glacier eyes and said nothing. Might be the paralysis had finished its work. The taxi arrived.

“Time to get out of this filth.” I said, and I shoved her into the cab, jumping in after.

Once we were in space, I put her to sleep and tucked her into one of the ship’s cryogenic cells. Ten sleepless, pensive hours back to the Gov Central system, and then I was on the com with the Chief, with only the slight time delay of light speed over a hundred million kilometers of space.

“I got her, boss. Bringing her in for questioning now.”

“Her?” His eyebrows went up in surprise.

“Yeah. She’s some kind of super assassin, her mods are almost as good as mine.”

He grunted. “I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. You don’t kill the people she killed without a big advantage. GovCloud said this was part of something bigger, too bad we still don’t know how deep the roots run.”

“Maybe we can get something out of her, although I wouldn’t bet my ship on it.”

I called up the security feed of the ship’s cryo-cells and looked at her silent, frozen face through the glass of the cell. I doubted she’d give up many more secrets awake, not that someone at HQ wouldn’t fill her full of truth drugs and give it their best shot anyway.

“Right.” The Chief said, sounding tired. “I’m putting people on digging up whatever we can about where her backing came from, but for now, just get back here. I’ve got another job for you. You might be out for a while on this one. We’re getting strange reports from Dolor System on the periphery. I’ll give you the details later.”

I sighed and said, “Okay. Later boss.”

I cut the com and lit up a cigar. Five hours at in-system speeds to Gov Capital, another two hours before I’d be sitting in the Chief’s office. I stared at the assassin’s face in the viewscreen, at a little scar under her left eye, and wondered if I was working for the wrong people.

“Well Harriet,” I said to the A.I. “Looks like there’s no rest for the wicked, or anyone else for that matter.”

“There never is, sir. Can I get anything for you?”

“A scotch. And wake me again when we’re an hour out.”

I’d been wired on the way back through the wormhole, but I was slumping fast. I ate some metals-enriched food from the ship’s stores, drank the scotch, and fell into my bunk. Tomorrow, if you could call it tomorrow, I’d be off on the next mission, doing it all over again. But for now, the pillow felt damn good on the back of my head.