Twenty stories tall and one of the few buildings still standing after years of war, the former office building loomed like a shadowy monolith out of the sea of rubble surrounding it. My sense of unease grew.
The building looked as dark as a tomb. I would’ve expected at least a few lights, especially in the top floors. Had they blacked out all of the windows or was I operating on bad information?
Or perhaps the Quint Confederacy knew I was coming.
The Kos Empire and the Quint Confederacy had been locked in an intermittent war for the last three decades. I had hoped that the newly crowned Kos Emperor would bring an end to war, but so far all he’d managed to do was get himself captured by the Confederacy.
At least his stupidity was going to put food on the table for my people, once I collected him and the hefty reward for his return.
I continued scanning the building while I waited. A few minutes later, a distinctive tickle in the back of my mind indicated an incoming neural link—my contact was right on time. I mentally activated the link and asked, Jax, are you there?
The mental response came across as a garbled burst of static then silence. I waited as patiently as I could—which wasn’t very—to see if Jax could fix the link. A security specialist who had yet to find a system he couldn’t crack, I needed his eyes on the building’s video feeds or I’d be going in blind.
More static crackled across the link.
I took the extra time to do a final check of my equipment. I wore a stretchy black stealth suit that would help me slip past any perimeter security that Jax missed. Soft leather boots hugged my calves and protected my feet but kept my footsteps light. A belt around my waist secured a holstered blaster, an extra magazine of stun bolts, and a sheathed ceramic knife. I would’ve preferred more weapons, but tonight I traveled light in the name of stealth.
Adrenaline dripped through my system. I used the familiar high to sharpen my focus and push away the anxiety I’d been feeling. I couldn’t afford any mistakes tonight.
Then the top floor of the building lit up with blaster fire.
Jax! Something is going on. Should I hold or go? I mentally asked across the link. More static responded. Jackson Leopold Russell, get this link working and answer me right now or so help me…
Sorry, sorry! There’s no reason to bust out my full name, Samara, I’m here. Mostly, his faint mental voice said. Our neural link is being jammed. Give me five minutes to get it sorted.
I don’t have five minutes, I said. There’s a shit-ton of blaster fire happening on the top floor and I’m already two minutes behind schedule. Do you have the vid feeds?
Only of the outside, he said. Your path to the building is clear. The inside feeds are proving tricky.
Get eyes on the inside or kiss the rest of your contract money goodbye, I warned.
He grumbled but didn’t reply.
I started towards the building, carefully working my way along the path Jax and I had planned. Cloud cover blocked the light from the moon and stars, forcing me to rely on the speciality night-vision contact lenses I wore. I could see, but only in shades of greenish-gray. I couldn’t afford the ocular implants that would let me see in full color in the dark.
I couldn’t afford many of the things that would make this job more doable and less crazy-fucking-stupid.
I paused at the side door and took a deep breath. The easy part was over. If I went through this door, I committed. No one knew I was here; I could leave and no one would be the wiser.
Except my people would still be starving.
Decision made, I gripped the door handle and pulled. The door didn’t budge. Jax! The side door is locked. Remind me why I’m paying you a mountain of credits for this?
Because I’m the best, he said. I heard the lock click. Try it now. You’re clear to the elevator.
I’m taking the stairs, I said.
Up twenty stories? Samara, you’re crazy.
Maybe, I agreed. But an elevator was a trap waiting to happen, either en route or once it hit the top. At least with a stairwell I had more than one exit path.
You’re clear to the stairs, Jax said. I’m still trying to get the rest of the vid feeds. You’ll be blind in the stairwell.
I’ll take my chances, I said.
The stairwell was as dark as the rest of the building. I cleared the stairs one floor at a time, moving as quickly as I dared. I didn’t run into anyone else, but all of the doors I tried were locked. If I needed an escape, I’d either have to get Jax to unlock them or retreat all the way to the ground.
On the twentieth-floor landing, I paused. Jax, I’m at the top. Do you have video? I asked.
A burst of static blasted across my mind just as the building shook, rocked by an explosion I could feel but not see. Jax, what the hell is going on in there?
It’s chaos, he said, his voice staticky. It seems Kos soldiers are attempting to retrieve their emperor. And the Quint Confederacy mercenaries are resisting, naturally.
I suppressed the urge to bang my head against the wall. Couldn’t the Kos Empire have waited one freaking day? I needed that reward money.
Jax continued, But the Kos soldiers seem to have underestimated the Quint forces, again. They’re getting their asses handed to them.
Send me the vid feeds so I can see what I’m up against, I said.
No can do, I’m afraid. The whole area is actively jamming neural links. It’s all I can do to keep our voice channel open.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and thought patient thoughts. It didn’t help. Follow my progress and let me know if I’m about to walk into a squad of soldiers. You are capable of that much, at least, right?
No need to get snippy, Sammy dear, Jax said in a saccharine tone guaranteed to enrage.
It worked. It’s Queen Samara to you. And this is not snippy. When I get snippy, people die, I said.
Oh, so you’re still pretending to be queen of that uncouth group of heathens you call subjects?
The Rogue Coalition took in anyone tired of the fighting between the Kos Empire and the Quint Confederacy. And while it was true we had a higher than usual number of people with less-than-legal professions, we also had a large population of refugees, mostly women and children, who’d lost everything during the war.
And no one got to insult us without repercussions.
The Rogue Coalition named me their Queen and so their Queen I remain. Insult them again and you’ll get to see why they chose me. I let deadly promise sink into my voice. It would be my pleasure to enlighten you. Personally.
I didn’t set out to become queen. As a refugee with a less-than-legal profession myself, I’d been perfectly happy looking out for number one and ignoring everything around me. Then I saw a little boy starving to death while everyone turned a blind eye to him.
My rusty conscience groaned to life and I set out to make sure everyone had food. Then housing. Then people starting coming to me to solve squabbles. Then, before I knew it, the people had voted me Queen and given me the power to decide their fate.
And the crushing responsibility to ensure their health and safety.
Which is how I found myself breaking into a building filled with enemy soldiers who would like nothing more than my head on a pike. Yay, queendom.
Jax’s voice spluttered across the neural link. Geez, it was a joke. Lighten up.
It wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t funny. Can we get back to business? I asked.
Neural links weren’t always good about transmitting non-verbal communication but I caught his huff just fine. Fine, he grumbled. The hall outside the stairwell is clear for the next thirty seconds.
I pulled out my blaster and eased open the stairwell door. The hallway was lit with intermittent emergency lights that cast weird shadows in the smoke and dust swirling through the air. Visibility was shit, even with the help of my lenses. I turned right down the hall.
Samara, what are you doing? Jax shouted in my mind. Go left. Left!
I memorized the floor plan. Left is a dead end. Are you trying to get me killed?
Left was a dead end, but that was before the Kos soldiers blew a hole in it. If you keep going right, you’re going to run into a squad of Quint mercenaries. He paused. But, by all means, keep going. I have popcorn standing by.
I changed direction and headed left. Fine, left it is. Which room?
First one on the right after the stairwell, Jax said. Incoming!
His warning came just after I’d already spotted the two soldiers ahead of me. I didn’t have time to figure out which side they worked for and it really didn’t matter—I needed to rescue Emperor Kos myself. I shot them both before they had time to draw their blasters. The stun bolts sent them to the floor. They’d be out of commission for the next ten minutes at least.
Wow, nice shooting, Jax said. You weren’t joking about being a crack shot, were you?
No. Any other surprises I should be aware of?
Two more ahead. They’ll detect you before you make the door.
Seriously, Jax? I asked. Stun bolts don’t grow on trees, you know. This was supposed to be a stealth mission. I’m not loaded for full combat.
Suck it up, princess. You’re the one that went charging in without waiting for information.
I sighed and crept down the hall. Two figures appeared through the haze. I shot them both and they slumped to the ground without a sound.
Did you just shoot them in the back? Jax asked. That’s hardly fair.
Truth be told, I couldn’t see them well enough to know which way they were facing. But their lack of reaction made more sense if they had been facing away. I don’t have time to play fair, and I wouldn’t even if I did. I need every advantage I can get.
I stepped over the soldiers’ bodies. The door on the right stood open. Air currents pushed smoke and dust out into the hall.
That’s your door, Jax said. As far as I can tell, the room is clear, but some of the cameras are out.
I eased into the room, sweeping for enemies. Chunks of debris littered the area. Dust and smoke swirled on the breeze coming through the gaping hole in the side of the building.
The Kos soldiers did this? I asked.
As far as I can tell, Jax said.
The explosion had also blasted a hole through the floor and part of the wall in the back of the room—Jax was right, this was no longer a dead-end. The Kos soldiers must’ve expected to be long gone before the blast because it could’ve taken out the whole floor.
Where is the Emperor?
You want the good news or the bad news? Jax asked. I growled across the neural link and he continued, Okay, okay. The good news is the Quint mercenaries stashed him close by.
And the bad news? I asked, already dreading what he was going to say.
Well, the bad news is that the only path to him leads you right through the fire zone between the Quint mercs and the remaining Kos soldiers. How fast are you?
I had biological augments that made me stronger and faster than the average human, but even so, I wasn’t that fast. I can’t dodge blaster bolts, Jax. And theirs won’t be set to stun. Find a way around.
There’s nothing. He dropped into silence. Wait, look down, is that a hole in the floor? Can you see the crawlspace?
I peered into the hole. The blast had revealed a narrow utility crawlspace between this floor and the one below. Yes, I can see it, I said.
Do you have any breaching charges? he asked.
No. Stealth mission, remember?
You’re killing me here, he groaned. No choice, you’re going to have to go through the middle. It’s a straight shot. I will unlock the door. It has a sensor, so it’ll open as soon as you get close. I’ll lock it behind you to give you time to free the Emperor and plan your escape.
Seriously, that’s your grand plan? Run for my life through an active fire zone?
If you have a better idea, I’m all ears. But based on what I’m seeing, you have about three minutes before the last of the Kos soldiers are wiped out and every Quint merc converges on the Emperor.
Shit. I couldn’t take out a fortified contingent of Quint mercs on my best day, even if I was loaded out for combat and had a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder. If they made it to the emperor before I did, I could kiss that reward money goodbye.
How are we going to get out? Surprise only works once, I said.
His room connects out the back. I can unlock the doors all the way to the balcony, then lock them behind you to buy you some time.
Couldn’t I get in that way?
You could, but you’d still have to go through the Quint mercs to get there, Jax said. They have the other hallway completely blockaded and there’s no cover. The smoke is mostly on this side of the building.
I can’t believe I’m actually considering this, I said. How many soldiers are left?
A couple dozen Quint and five Kos. Half of them are between you and the Emperor, so I suggest you move fast.
I peeked through the hole in the wall. According to the floorpan, it should be a large open room. Red blaster bolts lit up in the distance but thanks to the weird light refraction through the smoke, I couldn’t tell how far away the soldiers actually were.
Two meters to your right is the path through the room that leads straight to the door where the Emperor is held. The path is a lighter color than the rest of the floor. I think it’s marble.
Where are the soldiers? I asked.
On the far side of the room. The Quint mercs are keeping the Kos soldiers pinned down away from the door. You’ll only be in their field of fire for a few seconds.
If I was smart, I would retrace my steps and disappear into the night. But it had taken weeks to track the Emperor’s location and I didn’t have the money to pay informants a second time. If I walked away, the Rogue Coalition was done.
I ducked through the hole in the wall and found the path right where Jax said it would be. Let me know when you’ve got the door unlocked, I said.
It’s ready when you are. I suggest you go sooner than later because another Kos soldier just fell.
I sprinted through the smoke, thinking invisible thoughts. Blaster fire lit up in front of me but I didn’t slow down. A door loomed out of the darkness, close enough that I thought I would hit it.
It slid open just as I was bracing for impact. Momentum carried me inside, even as I tried to backpedal.
Agony arced up my spine as stun bolts slammed into my body. My muscles seized and I hit the ground and slid.
A trap. I’d just run face-first into a fucking trap. I couldn’t move my body, not even to speak, but the neural link still worked. Jax, please explain why there are two squads of Quint mercenaries in the room that supposedly held the Emperor, I said, my mental voice eerily calm.
Sorry, doll, he said. They pay better than you do. Though, to be fair, Emperor Kos really is in there with you.
When I get out of here, you’re a dead man, Jackson Russell, I promised.
His laugh echoed across the link. Good luck with that. Enjoy captivity, Queen Samara.
He cut the link before I could respond.