Nilah wandered through the warehouse district for the better part of an hour, not stopping to talk to anyone. She didn’t like the look of the people there; most of them didn’t seem like they wanted to speak with her, and she feared anyone who did. Predatory eyes leered at her from the shadows between buildings, and several times, someone beckoned her to come to them. She wasn’t stupid, and she had no intention of winding up in an alley with her throat cut, or worse. Her father had always taught her to avoid the lower districts no matter where she went, and Gantry Station was no exception.
In any civilized area, there would’ve been cops, or at least private security, but this place was bleak and industrial. She found a public terminal, but some intrepid looters had long since gutted it for parts, and there were no Hansom Consoles to hire a cab to take her back to the track and her team.
Her car’s radio and transponder had been destroyed, and she had no personal comm unit with her. She had a Fixer chip, but cashing a million-argent policy to get a ride back to the track was massive overkill. There had to be some other way out.
As she walked, the scene of Clowe’s death played out over and over in her mind. Mother’s brassy exoskeleton and tattered cape sent shivers up her spine. The sight of Cyril’s blood oozing out of his helmet would haunt her dreams forever. But another memory crept in alongside the blood: the panicked mention of the name Elizabeth Elsworth. Where did Nilah know her from?
Nilah mentally checked off the names of the team principals; she would’ve recognized them instantly. Same with any PGRF officials. She felt 99 percent sure Elsworth wasn’t anyone from the world of racing. Perhaps it was banking? Her father’s business on Taitu certainly brought Nilah into contact with her fair share of those. Yes, that was it. Elsworth had something to do with investment… but what? Maybe some sort of space travel investment.
Then it clicked: the Link. Elsworth was a treasure hunter who’d had some silly famous show where she went around begging for venture capital: Searching for Something or Other… Nilah had only watched a few episodes before checking out. She found the whole process rather degrading and couldn’t imagine the sort of person who’d invest in legends and myth. Then again, had to be a sucker for every purpose.
The first episode had taken place on Gantry Station. Could Elizabeth Elsworth actually be here? Nilah could look her up and get some answers for herself, or better yet, have Elsworth arrested and let the police sort it out. It’d be good publicity and perhaps get Claire off her back. She still hadn’t located a working terminal, and the locals appeared more menacing the farther she went.
Nilah unzipped her fire suit halfway and tied the sleeves around her waist, leaving her arms bare and maneuverable on the off chance someone tried something. She’d left her helmet with the wreckage, not wanting to draw any more attention than she already had. A set of ocean wave tattoos covered her forearms, dermaluxes shivering with a cold purple light—her fear. Under normal circumstances, she enjoyed brazenly sharing her emotions through her tattoos. Her confidence and anger played well on the track, and the press would crow with delight when Nilah’s tattoos flared red, amplified by the translucent cuffs on her racing gloves.
In the back streets of Gantry Station, however, she psychically suppressed the luminescent nanobots, hoping no one saw how nervous she actually was.
Was she headed toward the higher decks, or deeper into the industrial zone? She absentmindedly rubbed her forearm where they’d implanted the Fixer chip, reminding herself that she would be fine, and it would be daft to spend so much money when she could just walk.
The Fixers were the gold standard insurance policy among the galactic elite, and technically illegal. Specializing in protection and extraction, the paramilitary group had rescued people from the icy glaciers of Yearling, protected provincial governors during coups, and even broken their customers out of maximum-security prisons. The chip they’d implanted in Nilah had the strongest shadow marks woven into it, and it was completely undetectable by all but the best scanners. She could always fall back on it if things got dicey.
Heading down a long, dilapidated corridor, she arrived at an open-air cafe and allowed her tattoos to show her relief with flowing golden light. At least, she thought it was a cafe, though they didn’t serve anything that she’d consider food. As a Taitutian, she wouldn’t touch animal flesh, and her stomach churned from the stench of roasting fat and soot. In the ancient past, it’d been considered imprudent to have a fire on a space station. In the cloying fumes of burning meat, she wished fire was still banned.
Nilah spotted a door marked as the water closet, and she made a beeline for it.
“Paying customers only,” came the venomous voice of a greasy-faced blond man. He couldn’t have been much older than twenty-five, but his skin had been carved with wrinkles, as though someone had stretched it too hard over his delicate face, then let it snap back.
She inhaled sharply, then immediately regretted it. “Of course. Um, right.”
He nodded to her fire suit. “You race?”
She donned her podium smile, the one with which she charmed so many interviewers. “I dabble. Do you have a comm I can use?”
“No, and if you want to use the can, you got to buy something.”
“The can? Oh the, ah, the loo. Got it. Maybe I could get directions to—”
“You going to buy something?”
“Ah.” She pointed to the mass of brown, stringy meat steaming underneath a heat lamp. “What’s that then?”
She gulped. “All of it? Do you have anything fresher?”
His derisive snort gave her the answer she needed. “What, you want a live one?”
She put a hand on her hip. “I’d prefer something not dead and not sentient.”
He smacked the metal trays each with his serving spoon. “Beef, pork, chicken, marpo. That’s what I got. You want it?”
“Can’t I just give you some money to use the restroom?”
The man scowled. “I look like a beggar to you?”
“No. Of course not. I’ll have the beef, please.”
He slopped some of the meat onto a plate alongside a roll, then poured a soupy, red sauce over the whole thing. The rising vinegar steam mixed with an undercurrent of hot spices nearly knocked Nilah unconscious. Her dermaluxes flared a bright green to the churning of her stomach, and she didn’t bother hiding her displeasure.
He held out his cash pad. “That’ll be five.”
She signed her glyph, then set her meal down at a table before hurrying to the water closet. She held her breath as she wrenched open the door, expecting his restroom to be nothing more than a horrific wreck. Instead, she found it spotless, with a faint scent of flowers. She spun and looked over the chipped cafe tables, then realized how clean they were as well. Damaged, yes, but free of grime, their remaining paint polished to a spotless shine. His kitchen implements, terrifying though they were, also held no spots or grease.
Nilah briskly strode back to the man with the hunks of flesh. “Did you clean these things?”
He barely looked up from his work, where he carved a large slab of muscle into slices. “Yeah.”
“You’ve got the hotelier’s sigil.” Cleaning magic was rare, and unemployed cleaning magi were rarer still.
His eyes darted between her and the food. “Yeah.”
“Incredible. I’ve never seen one of you outside of hospital and lab work. We’ve got two at our factory, but you’re a hard lot to find.”
He slammed down hard with his knife, shearing through a bone.
She winced, but brought back her smile. “How would you like a job, working for me?”
“Got a job.”
“Yes, well I can hardly call this working. You’re scarcely using your talents. I’ve been looking for someone like you for—”
He shook his head. “How would you know? You ain’t even tried my beef yet.”
“I could pay you a lot of money. Setting animals on fire and chopping them to bits is hardly—”
“Just use the damned bathroom and get out of here.”
She held up her hands and backed away. “All right. All right. I can see when I’m not wanted.”
She’d always desired a hotelier in her employ, but she didn’t have time to convince this one—not with Mother out there somewhere. What an awful shame.
She stepped inside the bathroom, where sparkling walls greeted her, and looked down at the skin tag at the base of her wrist; beneath it lay the Fixer chip. The better part of an hour had passed since she’d disappeared during a live stream. Her father was one of the most well-connected financiers on the richest planet in the galaxy. The Prime Minister was basically her godfather, for god’s sake. Surely they’d find her before Mother did.
Don’t call the Fixers just yet. Just calm down.
Nilah washed her arms and face in the basin. The clear water had a pleasant, herbal scent, like her father’s garden after a rainstorm. It didn’t matter what that bloody hotelier thought, he was wasting his talents on culinary catastrophes when he could be working for her. After all this was over, she’d send for him with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Nilah pushed open the door to find the cafe had taken on a few more diners since she’d visited the restroom.
“Rough” didn’t even begin to describe the fellows in the cafe: three blokes in sweat-stained work clothes, wiry and tense. They eyed her from under ragged thermal hoods, never saying a word to one another. She sat down at her table, keenly aware of all the eyes on her, then glanced at her plate—she wouldn’t have touched it even if she ate flesh. But now that these men had been alone with her food, she didn’t even like sitting near it.
“You like racing?” said the nearest bloke. He was missing part of his nostril, and Nilah looked away, not wanting to stare. She doubted he had lost it in an accident.
She glanced about for the hotelier, but he was nowhere to be found.
Nilah brushed off her legs. “Um, yes. How did you know?” He nodded to her fire suit, its sleeves still knotted around her waist. Her tattoos went a little green with disgust at his gaze.
“Those are some pretty waves, kid.”
The dermaluxes turned an acidic shade in response to his open leering.
She prodded her stringy meat with a fork, scowling at the vinegar sauce. “Thank you. If you don’t mind, I’m famished, so I’d, uh… I’d like to tuck in.”
“I like racing, too,” said Clip-nose. “I was watching the GP today.”
This wasn’t going to end well. These boys obviously knew who she was, and they were toying with her for some reason. If they wanted trouble, she could be trouble.
She put her fork down, cracked her knuckles, and picked it back up. “Oh? Who’s your favorite driver?”
His cracked-egg helmet oozed back into Nilah’s mind, and she shook the image away.
The men stood up in unison, their chairs scraping against the floor like growling dogs. “You’re Nilah Brio,” said Clip-nose.
Time to get them riled. Riled men make mistakes.
She took to her feet and actively tuned her dermaluxes to a dim white. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours. They probably aren’t worth knowing.”
“You trying to start a fight with us?” Clip-nose looked to his compatriots and chortled. “We’re just a couple of concerned citizens, trying to do right by the law.”
She kept a tight grip on her fork, not wanting her anger to show in her posture. “Really? You look like a couple of boys contemplating whether or not they can assault a woman.”
“We’re just here to collect the bounty.”
She couldn’t catch her laugh before it escaped her lips. “Bounty? I’ve been gone for an hour!”
Clip-nose sauntered toward her. “I couldn’t believe my luck when I heard you were down here. This little payout is going to set me and my boys up for a good long time. Cops are saying you’re dangerous. I think we should test that theory.”
It had to be a distraction tactic, some way to get her to go along with them voluntarily. She was the wronged party here; she’d borne witness to a murder and lost out on her championship points.
“Oh, spare me. I’ve got the fastest reflexes in the PGRF. I don’t think beating up a couple of malnourished hicks is going to—”
Clip-nose took a swing so telegraphed he could’ve sent her an invitation to it. With very little effort, she ducked back and planted the fork in the outside of his bicep. He howled in agony, and she kicked his knee out from under him before guiding his head into the table. On his way down, she jerked the fork back out.
Nilah’s father had always insisted that a rich person needed to know self-defense. Kidnapping and extortion were common in many parts of the galaxy, and racers were always touring dangerous places. Nilah silently thanked her lucky stars for such a prudent parent.
She took a step backward and straightened, brandishing the bloody fork. “Who’s for seconds?”
The two other men flipped out knives and rushed forward without another word. If they intended to escalate, she’d respond in kind. The ocean waves on her arms pulsated with a strobing, white flash, nanomachines responding to her mechanist’s art.
Of all the martial arts Nilah had tried in her life, Flicker was the most potent. It was the art of misdirection, of stunning hits delivered with no defense.
She dodged left, narrowly avoiding the point of a knife before whipping her arm in a wide arc, blinding her opponent with her strobing tattoos. She shut off her right arm tattoos and put a right cross through his jaw, snapping it instantly. When his partner came in from the other side, swiping like crazy, she turned everything on full blast, fanning her arms to create a wall of light.
Then she crushed his balls with a racing boot.
Clip-nose had regained his feet, and No-balls and Jawless were considering a second attack. If she stayed, someone might die, and she didn’t feel up to making her first kill that day. Worse still, there was nothing more unpredictable than a desperate man. Nilah cut her losses and ran.
Tunnel after tunnel, corner after corner, she pressed deeper into the guts of Gantry. The situation agitated her, but fleeing wasn’t all that difficult; her would-be captors faced massive injuries, and she’d grown used to long-distance runs during training. She lost them within a few blocks and found a large rubbish bin to hide behind.
Perhaps those weren’t the only men looking for her, though. She’d have to use her chip after all.
Nilah felt her way up her wrist and found the skin tag. She traced her sigil and focused her mechanist’s art into the dormant circuit, forming an ad hoc transmitter core. Then the sting hit. The chip glowed white-hot, cauterizing instantly before healing over with a brassy sheen. Her dermaluxes flashed red, and she bit her lip. The sheen faded to her normal dark skin, concealing the fact that she’d done anything at all. Thankfully, the pain vanished, just as the Fixer doctor said it would. The chip would remain active for a few days, then dissolve into her body.
She sighed as the pain subsided, and her waves faded to a cool daylight. The signal had been sent to the Fixers; they’d follow her beacon and see her out of this situation within the hour. They had agents all over the galaxy, and surely one would be on Gantry Station. Everything would be okay. Nilah kept reminding herself that their work was legendary. Maybe the Fixers could even help her with this Mother character who’d murdered Cyril.
The bounty on her head shocked her. Law enforcement didn’t typically put bounties on innocent women. Perhaps they only wanted to make sure someone spotted her quickly. She ached to check the news, but had no comms. She racked her brain, trying to think of something she could hack to get a bit of info. Any network-connected device would do: maybe one of the drones shuttling cargo around, an unguarded temperature sensor or lock on one of the buildings. She was so desperate, she’d consider hacking one of the security dispersers guarding a nearby depot.
Then she remembered: the dispersers back at the racetrack hadn’t come to her and Cyril’s rescue.
What did that mean? Were the station administrators behind this? Could it be someone on Gantry’s board of shareholders? Nilah regretted not paying more attention at the various Gantry parties and press events.
She sat down behind the stinking bin, happy to keep her face hidden for a bit. It had been years since she’d been far from her bodyguards, creature comforts, and money.
“Nilah Brio,” came a woman’s whisper. “I’m Agent Mikaela Dawsey, from the Fixers. I need you to get up right now and come with me.”
Nilah peered around the bin to find a skinny, tanned woman with bright, gold eyes and a comforting smile.
“Oh, thank god.”
“We believe there is an active threat on your life. Let’s get you onto a transport to Lang’s headquarters.”
Nilah stood and brushed herself off, then held out her hand. “Chuffed to see you, mate.”
The Fixer shook it, then handed her a slinger. “Tuck that in the back of your jumpsuit. We’re going to walk straight to the maintenance dock, climb on a ship, and head for the jump gate, all right?”
Nilah wasn’t a great shot, but her self-defense training had taught her enough. She tucked the slinger into her waistband. “What kind of hazards are we expecting?”
Mikaela looked her up and down. “Let’s just get on with the task at hand, shall we?”
They left Gantry’s industrial section with little trouble, emerging into a slightly more populous thoroughfare. Nilah drew lots of stray looks, and Mikaela coached her not to look people in the eye. Distant news screens overhead showed pictures of Cyril’s crash, along with old footage of Nilah from last season. Her portrait was captioned: CRIMINAL?
“Didn’t you bring a change of clothes for me?” Nilah hissed.
Mikaela shook her head. “Everything is going to be fine, Miss Brio. We’re almost to the maintenance dock.”
“Okay, but there are a lot of people on this street. Suppose one of these clever boys recognizes me?”
Mikaela shot her a grin. “It’s my job to think like that, Miss Brio. If you’ll refrain from speaking, it makes you less recognizable.”
“Right. I should just shut it.”
The Fixer nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Nilah’s Fixer chip itched, its golden threads still transmitting her location to their clandestine headquarters. It made sense, not deactivating the transmitter until she was safe, but it still felt strange to be a beacon.
Her breath caught as she saw the first fluorescent orange sign for the maintenance dock. After such a horrid day, she could only think of a hot bath, so she almost missed it when a gentleman in a heavy coat drew a slinger and pointed it straight at her escort.
Quick as lightning, Mikaela drew her own weapon and hammered shot after shot through the screaming crowd. Each sun-bright needle from her slinger went straight through frightened civilians, even as the man dove out of the way. He rolled across the roadway and came up with a flourish, his gun leveled at Mikaela. The small crowd erupted into screams and scattered as police klaxons sounded through the district.
Nilah’s escort wrenched her by the arm, placing the racer solidly between the two shooters. Mikaela’s gunmetal was hot against Nilah’s temple, and she gasped at its touch. She genuinely wanted to see Mikaela as the good guy in this situation, but there were several uninvolved bystanders bleeding to death on the ground—as well as the nagging problem of the slinger at her temple.
“Dawsey!” screamed the man. “Drop it and you get to live!”
Mikaela snorted, “Not happening.”
“You betrayed us. All of you did.”
She leveled her gun at him, placing a picture-perfect shot straight through his chest. He rocked back with the impact of the hit and signed out the fatalist’s mark. Dawsey put a second shot through his stomach before he fired his slinger, but he got one round off. His magic curved his shot through the air, slicing across Dawsey’s head and taking off the top of her skull.
Both shooters toppled, leaving Nilah standing in the middle of the moaning and half-dead. She whipped her slinger from her suit where she’d tucked it and checked its capacity. It was loaded with inert practice rounds, the kind they used to teach disarming techniques. Dawsey had given her a fake. The Fixers had betrayed her.
All thoughts of calling for help from the police fled Nilah’s mind. If the Fixers couldn’t be trusted, local cops were out of the question.
She rushed to the side of the fallen man and knelt next to him, showing him her weapon. “What’s the meaning of this?”
He coughed and sputtered. “Nilah Brio, I’m Agent Goltz. The Fixers… have been compromised.” He touched the circuit on Nilah’s forearm, and she felt his magic key deactivate the system.
He sputtered blood onto his lips. “If you… If you live through this…”
His eyes rolled back in his head, and he shuddered with violent spasms. His hands thrashed the air as his chest ceased to rise and fall. By some miracle, he returned his focus to her, locking eyes for one more second.
“I hope you get a refund,” he croaked.
Nilah stood, a dead Fixer at her feet, with no clues about an escape route and in a city full of police that would probably shoot her the second they saw her. Her mind reeled for things to say, but she could only form one question.
Cordell hadn’t left Boots’s apartment all afternoon, and now the night cycle cloaked the station in darkness. Every hour, Boots would make a pass down the street in front of the building, then duck behind the electrical substation to check on her apartment through binoculars. Most of the time, she found Cordell standing out on the front balcony, a red-hot cigarette flaring in frustration.
It struck her as idiotic of him to stand around outside where he’d obviously be spotted. Maybe he genuinely wanted to talk to her, but that was the problem with other refugees: they always wanted to yammer about the old days. Perhaps he was a distraction, a scarecrow put out so Boots wouldn’t see the real threat. He had plenty of crew still unaccounted for that could make Boots’s life miserable under the right circumstances.
She thought of the mountain of trouble and restrained a groan. Her arm still wasn’t working quite right since she’d been shot with that paralysis bolt, and her knee throbbed something fierce. Boots hadn’t seen any evidence of Kin, even after canvassing the bazaar, which meant one of the Capricious’s crewmembers had him. She bristled to think of them talking to him. She couldn’t explain it, but the idea of her former captain talking to the simulation embarrassed her. When Kinnard was still alive, there had been a close triad of friendship between Cordell, Kinnard, and Boots.
If she wanted Kin back, she was going to have to go in there and take him. She shimmied around the corner and checked the contents of her coat pockets. She’d blown what little cash she had on a veritable arsenal of nonlethal measures: sleepers, trip sticks, knock rounds for her slinger, waspspikes, and three blinders. Even though she’d betrayed them, she was still uncomfortable murdering them outright.
The plan was simple: get Kin, figure out who the crone was (and whether or not she could track Boots across the galaxy), then start a new life far from here. Boots owned a few acres on Hopper’s Hope, purchased after the brief success of her show. The land would be more than enough to start that distilling business she’d always wanted—though she couldn’t afford the gear just yet. If the crone wasn’t a danger, maybe it was time Boots disappeared forever.
As she pondered this, she spotted an odd sight: a familiar-looking woman clad in stained, mismatched clothes made her way up the street toward Boots with a nasty scowl. The woman looked like she’d dug her clothes out of a trash pile or maybe a donation box. At first, Boots thought it was one of the Capricious’s crew, finally wise to her location. Then she remembered where she’d seen the woman’s face before: the newscasts. This was the wanted race car driver whose face had been plastered all over the skies.
There was a huge bounty on that woman, Nilah… Brioche or something: several million argents. If Boots collected, she’d definitely be able to afford the distillery equipment then. She couldn’t believe her luck; of all the people on Gantry Station who could’ve been nearby, this golden opportunity happened to come wandering up the street.
Maybe whatever deity was out there didn’t hate her as much as she thought.
She decided to play it cool and make a capture attempt when Nilah passed. A quick hit with a trip stick and a jab with the sleeper would sort things out.
Except, the racer walked straight at Boots. When her target was four meters away, Boots could see her eyes, intent and furious. Red light spilled from under tattered shirtsleeves. Nilah was only a few paces away now, and closing fast.
Nilah was a hugely popular race car driver with more money than some small colonies, so she couldn’t possibly have business with Boots, right? Almost in answer to that question, Nilah drew a slinger and jammed it up under Boots’s chin.
“Elizabeth Elsworth?” she hissed.
“I get confused for her all the time,” said Boots, raising her hands. “Common mistake.”
Nilah narrowed her eyes. “Do I look like a sodding moron?”
“Let’s just take it easy with that heater, kid.”
She dug the barrel into the soft part of Boots’s jawline. “I saw a murder. I crashed my car. I’ve been chased all day, shot at and used as a human shield, so I’ll do whatever I want.” Her eyes locked onto Boots’s, a burning fire in them.
“Okay. What’s the plan, then?” Boots gently lowered her hands to where she had easy access to the sleeper in her coat. Her index and middle fingers brushed the metal cylinder in her pocket, and she gingerly lifted it into her hand. As close as Nilah was, she’d never see it.
“I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead,” she hissed, “but you know something and you’re coming with me… somewhere. Let’s go.”
Boots fumbled for the button on the sleeper’s long metal tube. It wasn’t a complicated device. Just flip aside the switch guard, press it into the other person, and hit the button. But which side was the business end again? If she looked at it, Nilah would get wise and give her an extra hole or two in her head.
“Okay, where are we going? You can’t just drag me around like this or the cops are going to be pissed.”
Nilah sneered. “All right, well… you can start by going to that alley over there. And then… and then we’ll discuss where we’re actually going.”
It was now or never. Boots jammed the sleeper into Nilah’s skinny rib cage and pressed the button, sending a jolt of pure arcane energy through her body. Nilah’s face froze, agape with surprise, and purple smoke poured from her open mouth. The poor thing couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, and this sleeper was rated for a full-grown heavy infantryman.
Knee throbbing, Boots eased Nilah’s limp body onto the sidewalk. Nilah looked aggressively satisfied, like she’d been hunting a nap, wrestled that nap to the ground, and torn out its throat. Too bad that wouldn’t last. When she woke up, she’d have one hell of a headache and her whole mouth would taste like she’d been chewing charcoal, but she’d live.
Boots straightened up and admired her handiwork. Nilah’s bounty would bring in more than enough argents to get off this tub.
She spun to see who’d called her name: Orna Sokol, quartermaster on the Capricious… and the two barrels of her massive shotgun. Boots had just enough time to brace before a double dose of knock rounds put her off her feet and far away from consciousness.