Ocbeta’s Revenge

Uncle Theo was murdered when I was seventeen.

If I hadn’t snuck into the infamous Poisoned Oath bar that afternoon I wouldn’t have gotten into a brawl with the son of a local ganglord over a game of cards. I then wouldn’t have shot him with the illegal pocket pistol I’d bought in a back-alley with money stolen from Uncle Theo’s just-in-case box. In turn, nobody sent by the ganglord would’ve gone to Uncle Theo’s looking for me and for payback.

My parents, black marketeers with lofty ideals, were killed when I was eight. If I hadn’t begged to go with them that night, they could’ve focused on protecting themselves when the authorities dropped in, guns blazing, rather than on protecting me.

Ma died with her lips pressed against the top of my head. If the beam that sliced through her neck had been an inch to the left I’d be dead with her. Instead I have a tiny scar on my ear and Ma’s dying gurgle in my nightmares.

I see Ma and Da and Uncle Theo’s faces in my thoughts often. And they always clamor for attention strongest when the life of one of my team is on the line.

Tonight it’s Mistry. Abducted from our ship. Not because of the price on her head, though that’s sizable enough, but because her abductors knows I’ll come a-chasing, and then they can cash the two of us and whoever else I drag along into their trap all at once. I know what Mistry would say if she was eavesdropping on my thoughts right now.

She’d get angry.

“Iz, I am not a damsel who’s got to have some knight save her. You got that? Not that you’re a knight. No way, no how.”

She’s right, no arguments there. Hell, she’s probably escaped already and hung her captors from a landing by their balls. But I think of her as family. And I don’t need a psychologist to tell me I’ve got a major fear of losing family members. There’s no way I can sit back and wait to see how this plays out.

The plan is to go in alone. I know where Mistry’s being held, thanks to the SOS signal she’s continuously sending, transmitted via an emergency com implanted in her temporal lobe and activated by a thought.

Bounty hunters good enough to get onto our ship and abduct our security and electronics expert from her cabin–the most secure place on the entire vessel, and possibly this planet–have to know what Mistry’s doing. However, the signal hasn’t been interrupted, rerouted, or otherwise tampered with. It’s coming through loud and clear, with all the embedded markers that identify it as Mistry’s. Hence why I’m sure this is a trap.

I do know Mistry must be alive, because the signal would change if she was dead. That means this is a rescue mission, not a vengeance mission. I much prefer rescuing to avenging.

My plan hits its first snag before I’m even out of my chair. Lege and Vale burst into the command room to tell me Mistry’s been kidnapped and they know where she is.

I’d been hoping to get off the ship without them noticing. If nothing else it would give me enough of a head start that when they did turn up they’d do so in time to save my ass. Provided it needed saving or Mistry hadn’t already saved it. Contingency saving plans are underrated.

Lege gives me a narrow-eyed once over.

“I know that look.”

I don’t reply.

“We’re doing this together. No buts.”

Experience has taught me arguing will only waste time. Instead I nod and stand.

“Let’s go then.”

We head off towards the vehicle hold, Vale in the lead. He says,

“We’ll take Hop. She’s quickest.”

Neither Lege or I say anything. Vale knows our three atmobiles like they’re extensions of his own body. No other team members pop their heads out of their cabins or the lab or the common room or the gym when we trot past. I’m annoyed, but then I remember Tycha had volunteered to play tour guide and take everybody into town. If I was a more paranoid sort I’d be thinking how convenient that was.

We’re halfway across the city in five minutes, travelling on the granny lanes far in excess of their speed limits. It’s three a.m., the traffic heavier than I’d expect for this time of night. But Vale’s an ace. Semi-pro racer before he hooked up with us, a big future ahead of him. Then he got framed for fixing. Or so he’d like us to believe. He can fly, though, and hasn’t shot us in the back yet. That last is what matters most.

Mistry’s tracking signal is coming from a cannery deep in an industrial zone. The layout specs on the council databases haven’t been updated in eight years, but the building hasn’t changed owners in that time so I figure they’ll be close to accurate. We duck off the highways and race at ground level through deserted streets. The fences are tall and ringed with combinations of electrified razor and barbed wire. The buildings are drab brick-and-stone behemoths. Graffiti decorates the fences and the buildings. Litter decorates the footpaths and gutters.

The building where Mistry is being held sprawls across one whole side of a cul-de-sac. The three-story exterior is stained with filth, but none of the windows are broken, the rubbish bins are full, and working security cams–placed to be as visible to passersby as possible–dot the eaves.

We do a quick pass. The stone fence rises ten feet, and the metal entrance gates are locked tight. The upside is that there doesn’t appear to be any onsite security team, mechanical or otherwise. We can’t do a fly-over of the building, as the airspace directly above is seeded with no-fly markers. Nudge one of those and we’d have the police bearing down on us quicker than we could sneeze. Mistry’s signal has narrowed to a point in the center of the building. If the council schematics are accurate, it’s within a large, open room. Packaging or machine room, are my guesses. We’ll have to navigate through the factory to reach her.

“Blast our way in?” Lege asks. “If we aim carefully enough, the ship guns can level the walls all the way to Mistry without compromising structural integrity.”

As much as I like the sound of that, I shake my head.

“Might be innocents inside. Plus, we’d piss the city off. I’d prefer not to draw attention to ourselves while we’re here. If that’s ever possible. And the owner of the building would sue us and win, if the local police don’t press charges.”

Lege throws his hands up in a surrender gesture.

“Okay, okay. We go in all subtle-like.”

“Land in the parking lot, then?” Vale says and proceeds to do just that. Less than subtle, but at least we hadn’t damaged anything. Yet.

We disembark, stealthed and shielded up to maximum. Both Vale and Lege have dampener bubbles, and turn themselves into moving shadows. I’m not so high-tech, but my disruptor field does the trick well enough without putting fuzzy edges around my peripheral vision.

We have no idea what we’re up against. Has Mistry been abducted by a single individual or a team? Mech, meat, or both? Do we know them, or are they opportunists?

I’m fairly certain of some of the answer to that last question. Even if the kidnappers aren’t anyone we’ve met before on our travels, the raid needed considerable advance preparation as well as knowledge of our whereabouts.

That suggests they’ve got someone inside my team. Not Lege, I’m certain. We started out together as mercs, and we’ve pulled each other out of death’s way too many times for one of us to betray the other. Plus, Lege has a hero complex. He’s the noblest merc I’ve ever met.

I can’t be as convinced of Vale, but my gut tells me he’s okay. Problem is, I trust everybody in my employ. For now I push those thoughts aside. I need to focus. Traitors can be dealt with later. Skirting along the closest wall, we make it without incident to an iron access door. The door’s lock is of local manufacture, swipe and print. I’ve got a masker on my belt but, like all things lock-breaking seem to be, it requires finesse. I have finesse… when it comes to precision shooting, not sweet-talking electronics. The lock doesn’t respond to my attentions. In the end, I overload the power cell. It works, though I’m sure it triggers an alarm someplace. We’ll just have to move even quicker.

The room we enter is unlit. It takes a moment for my armor’s night-vision overlay to kick in. Rows of conveyor belts, the hulking machines that run them powered down for the night. A few benches are stacked high with cans–full of some sort of fish product, judging by the smell–and a tap drips above a large washbasin. I switch to sub-com.

“I’ll take point. Watch for any ceiling mounts.”

“Aye, skip,”

Lege responds at the same time as Vale says,

“Sure thing.”

The conveyor room exits into a canteen. Toilet facilities are boldly marked in a dozen different languages on the right-hand side of the room. The left is dominated by the serving counters, and tables and chairs in orderly rows fill the rest of the space. The ceiling is at standard height and stairs lead to the levels above. I always get a tingle in my spine when creeping through an empty place that would be full of activity at other times. Like maybe the whispers of those beings who were there during the day have settled for the night, and I’m disturbing their rest.

There are fixed cameras in the roof corners, but they won’t be able to see us. My scans show no signs of mote cams or other surveillance gear, and the ceilings are free of weaponry.

We progress on, through the kitchen–empty of life except for edible sea creatures floating listlessly in a huge tank–down a corridor flanked by storage and maintenance rooms, and into the bowels of the facility. A giant pit full of huge engines, purring while at rest, lever and gears still twitching and turning. The air smells of engine grease and fish fat, but the walkways are clean. Dim light pokes in through a ring of square, grimy windows just below the ceiling, which is back at three-story height.

If there’s going to be an ambush, it’ll be here. I tell the others to slow up, but they already have. I track Vale’s movements in my cams; he’s doing nothing suspicious.

The pincer move we walk into catches him in no-man’s land.

Six bots, humanoid in form and wearing armor rigs, appear on either side of the corridor in alleyways created by one machine ending and another beginning. They open fire, pumping laser rounds at us. I dive to partial cover behind a cherry picker parked in the middle of the corridor. Lege scurries to a similar vehicle fifty meters back.

Vale has nowhere to run. The bots concentrate their fire on him, but they’re weakened rounds, designed to overwhelm shields rather than punch through them, incapacitate rather than kill.

We have an advantage. The bots have obviously been instructed to take us alive.

Lege is already providing covering fire with his two pistols, their plasma charges melting holes in both bot and machinery. I draw my MultiPurpose, set it to EMP mode, and join the fray. Vale scuttles up to where I crouch, but even as he makes it to me his dampener bubble fails and he’s suddenly an easy to see target with only his armor to protect him. A shot grazes his shoulder, leaving a dark smear on the golden armour.

“How did they sneak up on us?” he gasps.

I grunt by way of response, intent on felling our attackers. Some of their rounds scorch the sides of the cherry picker, bubbling the paint, but we’ve already whittled them down from six to two. With Vale’s help the remaining two fall in short order.

While we regather our breath I run the most intensive scans my plugins can handle. They see no more attackers, bot or flesh–98.88 percent probability–though the machinery gives off faint magnetic pulses that force me to continually rerun the command to get a proper scan.

Lege joins us. Vale sets his bubble on recharge, but it’ll take hours for it to come back online. In the meantime, he has no electronic mask and no physical protection bar his armor.

“Got overwhelmed quickly there, buddy,” Lege says.

Vale growls, which makes his sideburns bobble, and swipes sweat from between his eyebrows.

“Too quick. Even with me taking almost all the heat, bubble should’ve lasted twice as long. Those were effectively stunners.”

“Obviously frequency targeted. They’d hurt a bit more than stunners if they hit.”

“Flesh wounds. I bet the mark on my armor burnishes right out. It better burnish out.”

The way Lege holds his head–buried beneath a helmet fixed up with so many gadgets and add-ons I’m not sure how he can walk straight while they’re in operation–tells me he wants to argue, but instead he shrugs. “What I can’t understand is why we didn’t get finished off just then.”

I nod. “Huge element of surprise, but only six bots. Basic, too.”

“We’re being taunted,” Vale says, his face scrunched like he’s just eaten vomit. He hates being taunted.


I reply, though I agree completely. I shift my HUD-view for a moment to the map showing Mistry’s emergency signal. The magnetic pulses stop me from building a three-dimensional map, but I can tell she’s still in the exact same spot. In a room a corridor past this engine bay.

We make it into the corridor without any more ambushes. We’re halfway along when an arm appears from a doorway and lobs a grenade at us.

“Fall back,”

I shout, forgetting to subvocalize.

The grenade bounces once, twice, before going off. We’re hit by a ripple of concussive force, but we’ve backpedaled enough to minimize the damage. Overclocked stun grenade. Again, designed to overwhelm shielding devices. Punchy, still. I tried to take up as much space in the corridor as I could to protect unshielded Vale, but my rear cams show blood dripping from his nose. His gun is held at his side steadily enough, though, and his lips are set in a thin ‘bring it on’ line.

I hand-signal him and Lege to stay back, then charge up the corridor, dive, and slide on my side across the doorway. A single bot stands dead center. It doesn’t even attempt to evade my shots. One misses, the other two hit an arm and torso. There’s a clatter and a crash, then silence.

I finish my slide in a crouch, waiting for return fire, another grenade, more bots to stream out from the office, but there’s nothing.

After five seconds I poke my head and gun into the room. Only the one bot, now in two halves. It didn’t even attempt to evade. I look for signs it might be about to explode, but I see nothing. Even so, I duck back behind the relative safety of the corridor wall. Vale and Lege patter up beside me.

“There’s going to be hell in that room,” Lege says.

“Yeah,” I reply. There’s nothing else to say.

Cautiously, we approach the closed door at the end of the corridor. There are other ways into this room, but they require clambering through narrow ventilation and air-con shafts. Most standard commercial systems aren’t built to carry beings wearing armor, and I don’t much like the idea of slithering into a snake pit without any protection.

My life detection scan winks and dies as soon as I attempt to run it. I try again and get the same result. It’s always been a sensitive plug-in. The magnetic pulses must’ve fried it.

“We’ll have to go in blind,” I say.

Lege holds a hand up.

“Allow me.”

I roll my eyes. Recently, Lege took a correspondence telepathy course. His latest fad.

“Lege,” I say, “now’s not the time.”

He doesn’t reply. A few seconds pass, then he grunts and says,

“Let me try again.”

After another brief silence he lets out another grunt, more guttural this time, and follows up with a disappointed:

“Sorry, Iz, it’s a bit fuzzy. There might be minds in there, but I can’t say for certain.”

Vale sniggers–which, subvocalized, sounds like someone hocking up spit. “There’s at least one, Lege. Mistry.”

“Oh, right.”

I would’ve laughed any other time, too, but not tonight. As Vale says, Mistry’s just beyond that door. We have no idea what sort of condition she’s in, other than she’s alive, and we have no idea what opposition awaits us. Everything we’ve encountered so far indicates a supremely confident, or extremely stupid, foe. Supremely confident is most likely, and if so, there must be a reason.

I hand-signal that Lege and I will go in first and low, and Vale should follow after a three-count. Vale nods, back to being serious.

“Lege?” I sub-voc.

“Yeah, got it,” he replies. I hope he does. Now’s not the time for heroic entrances.

The door, an old-fashioned hinges job, is unlocked. I push it open and dive inside.

The room is brightly lit, devoid of furniture and machines. Polished wood floors, second level balconies fenced in by ornate balustrades, chandeliers and giant, stained-glass skylights. Who the hell puts a ballroom in the middle of a fish cannery? Then I spot Mistry and decide that last question is unimportant.

She’s suspended from the ceiling, a rope tied around her waist, a hangman’s noose loose around her neck. Three stories up. I can’t tell if she’s unconscious or not.

The room appears empty. No bots, no turrets, no obvious explosives.

“You wearing your jetpack?” I ask Lege.


He readies to fly up to her, but I signal him to stay on the ground. Something’s very obviously wrong with this picture. Mistry’s first words, strained and reedy, confirm what I’ve been thinking since I found out she’d been kidnapped. She shouts, sending herself on a slow spin,

“Iz, it’s a trap.”

“But who’s the trapper?”

Vale mutters, crouching in the doorway. My scans continue to indicate no explosives or hidden weaponry, but by now I have no trust in them. I hazard shouting back.

“What sort of trap?”

Before she can answer a door creaks open. I whirl, looking for the location. One of the second-level balconies, in an area hidden by shadow. A small office of some sort. Probably to control the lighting. Vale and Lege have already got their weapons trained on the region. A being walks into view. Tall, robust. Orange-skinned and clothed in a brown leather vest and pants. Two arms, two legs, no visible weapons. He walks, casually, down the flight of stairs to ground level. As he gets closer I make out small, knobby protrusions on the skin of his neck and arms. Something about him is very familiar, but I’m certain we haven’t met before.

“Ah,” he says, bowing, “the notorious Iz Venjari, and his infamous Heroes for Hire. Or some of them, at least. Disappointing. I was hoping to meet the whole crew.”

Lege’s hero complex kicks in. He stands tall, puffs his chest out, takes a stride forward and says, “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”

The man ignores Lege, continues walking until he is in the center of the room. There are lines on the floor where he stops. The markings of a jofrē ring.

“I’m pleased you came, Iz,” he says, “though I knew you would.”

“Glad you’re happy,” I reply. Scans tell me nothing about him, except that he’s organic. “You want to let Mistry down?”

“All in good time.” He begins to remove his clothes.

I glance at my two comrades. It’s impossible to see Lege’s face, but Vale has an eyebrow quirked.

“Look,” Vale says, “I like a bit of role-play as much as the next guy, but I don’t think we’re quite the Heroes for Hire you’re looking for.”

The man chuckles, now down to a pair of loose training slacks.

“Amusing, Vale, but I assure you Iz is the man I want.”

He wraps the rest of his clothes into a ball and drops them on the floor beside him. The knobby protrusions extend all over his torso. So familiar, but I still can’t place him. I step up parallel to Lege–still in his blustery pose–and say,

“You know me, but I don’t know you.”

His skin shifts color, abruptly, from orange to a rich purple. The knobby protrusions change too, from a dull brown to a gleaming black.

“Now,” he says, holding his arms wide, “does that jog anything?”

It does.

I’m in the Poisoned Oath, in the middle of a game of cards, secure in the invincibility of my adolescence and the cool metal of the illegal pocket pistol that presses against my ribcage. There are four of us: me and a buddy; a man who might’ve been a slab of granite; and another youth, older than me but not by much, slight, his skin a rich purple, gleaming black protrusions on his bare arms. The memory turns to a blur. His name was Garnell Riscotten, I’d discovered when the journos plastered his image across every news broadcast for a week. Died en-route to hospital from a single shot to the chest. My shot. One of many I’d fired, but the only one that struck anything other than tables and bar.

The rules have changed. This isn’t about cashing bounties. This is about revenge.

“Garnell’s brother,” I say.

“Yes,” he replies. “Younger, by two years. Ocbeta’s the name, Riscotten the family. Shooting Garnell was a bad thing to do, Iz.”

“I’d take it back if I could.”

“Would you? But it’s made you the man you are today. It’s made me the man I am today.”

I shrug. “Look, I understand. This is about me and you. I’m here now. You can let Mistry go. These other two don’t have to be here, either. They weren’t involved.”

Ocbeta grins, baring sharpened teeth. “Come now, Iz. I let her down, you shoot me, everything wraps up nicely for you. Of course, when I die the building blows up, but I’m sure you’d get out just in the nick of time.” His voice hardens. “No, we do this my way.” “Okay,” I say.

He spreads both his arms again. “This factory was built by a Sluca with a love of–”


I interrupt. Now that he’s mentioned explosives I definitely want to get this over and done with before civilian security guards show up.

“Let me guess. He holds competitions here between his staff and other talents and turns them into gala occasions. Good way to burrow into the pockets of the upper crusts.”

“Very good. Perhaps you are as smart as my intelligence suggests. I have to say, I was a bit skeptical, watching you bumble your way through”

I butt in again. “And you, a master of many disciplines, are going to challenge me to one-on-one combat.”

His skin changes from purple to blue.

“Right again. Almost. This is no challenge. We are going to fight. If you defeat me, I’ll release Mistry and we’ll go our separate ways, never to see each other again. If I defeat you, I release Mistry and you come back with me to experience justice. Otherwise known as my mother, leader of the Riscotten empire. Balancing things out is very important to her.”

Lege says, “How about we just shoot you, let Mistry down and go home?”

Ocbeta inclines his head to one side and removes a hand from his pocket. It holds a remote. “Come now, Lege André. In the time it’d take you to shoot me and jet up to her, I’d have triggered this release for the rope around her waist and her neck would’ve snapped. Like I said, we do things my way.”

Mistry yells from the ceiling, “Just shoot him, Iz.”

I give her a thumbs-up, my helmet and armor torso already on the floor beside me.

Vale sub-vocs, “I’m sure we can figure something else out.”

“Have some confidence in your fearless leader,”

I reply, flicking the catch that opens the front of my armor legs so I can step out. Truth be told, I’m far from confident. I can scuffle just fine, but I much prefer a gun to fists.

“Also,” I add, “don’t interfere unless I say so.”

“Wise advice, Iz,” Ocbeta says.

So he’s got implants that let him tune into sub-vocal frequencies. If he has those, then the remote is probably all show. He could release Mistry at any time with a neural command string. I have no margin for error.

His body shows signs of rigorous training. His muscles are well-defined but lean, and scars run across his chest and stomach, between and over the protrusions. I’d say he’s been preparing for this day for a very long time.

By now, I too am down to light pants and bare chest.

A rainbow of colors ripples across Ocbeta’s body, the protrusions similarly changing sheens. He winks.

“Rules, not many. Hand to hand. No weapons other than your body. When one of us can no longer fight the match is over. That means death is possible, but unlikely. I’m taking you home whole and breathing to my mother.”

I rub my hands on my pant hips and step forward to face him chest to chest. He is taller than me by two or three inches, but my shoulders are broader, my body used to hefting the weight of unpowered armor.

Behind me, Lege and Vale still stand with their guns drawn. Ocbeta pays them no heed.

Nervous energy sees me clenching and unclenching my fists. My legs might as well be stuck in porridge.

“Go,” Ocbeta says, and moves, all grace and poetry. I react far too slow and find myself on my back, trying to recapture escaped air. Surprisingly, Ocbeta doesn’t drop on top of me or kick me while I lie there. Instead he tsks and waits for me to flick myself back to standing.

He doesn’t wait any longer, though. Quick jab, two jab, three palm heel jabs to my solar plexus and I’m reeling backwards, winded and struggling to stay on my feet. His movements are sinewy and fast, economical yet powerful.

He lands more blows, none heavy, disguising his movements, spinning and twisting. Testing me out, toying with me. Finally I manage to brush an arm aside and he grins, the light catching his teeth. I throw a haymaker. He doesn’t sway aside until the very last moment. I follow the punch up with a left and a clumsy kick, neither of which make contact.

“Come on,” he shouts, his skin turning bright red. “Fight like your friend’s life is on the line. Or do I just drop her now?”

His words have the desired effect. I growl and charge forward, plowing my shoulder into his chest. I expected his protrusions to be hard and bony, but they’re soft, almost like giant freckles. Air escapes his lungs in a hiss and I drive him backwards, trying to overbalance him. If I can get him on the ground I might have a chance.

But he slides to one side and propels me past him.

Spinning, I approach again, careful not to rush, trying to pick my moment. He dances, steps in and cracks a palm heel into my nose before darting back out of reach. The pain blinds me for a moment and blood immediately begins to pour, leaving a copper taste on my lips.

I feint left and sweep in on the right with my foot. It works, after a fashion, and he staggers to the side, but remains upright. It doesn’t matter. I’ll use whatever advantage I can get. I rush in, pummel him with blows. Some make glancing contact, others hit home firmly.

He begins to shudder, and I up my intensity. But then I realize he’s laughing, a belly laugh that echoes around the room. In a blur of movement he slaps my face, wraps a hand around my neck, stretches out a leg, and flings me to the ground.

My head hits the floor hard and the world blurs from left to right and back again at an alarming rate. In the haze I see a foot bearing down on my face. I get my arms up, but only just and the force of the blow reverberates through my whole body.

Groggily, I roll to the side and haul myself upright, swaying like an autumn leaf clutching its branch for dear life. Blood drips from my face onto the floor. I can’t stand straight, no matter how hard I try.

Ocbeta is still fury red. He towers over me, in a wavering triplicate.

“How interesting. I’m both disappointed and exhilarated. Save yourself further embarrassment, Iz. Surrender yourself into my custody.”

He’s not even breathing heavily. I can barely breath at all. Feebly I swipe a fist at the middle of the three figures wearing his face. I punch air. With a sigh, he kicks me and I hurtle backwards, landing in a sitting position, legs straight out in front of me. For a few moments all I can hear is the throbbing of my head.

“It’s over, Iz,” Ocbeta says. “The better man has prevailed, like should have happened all those years ago. I can’t bring my brother back, so this will have to do.”

My vision has cleared enough for me to spot Lege raising his gun, but I lift a quivering hand and manage, spitting blood,

“No, Lege. Leave it.”

He hesitates, but then drops his gun arm back to his side. Ocbeta strolls over to me, grabs me by the hair and yanks me to my feet.

“Time to go, Iz,” he says, still gripping my hair, and begins walking.

“First,” I say, slipping a hand into my pocket, “let Mistry down.”

He doesn’t answer. I consider him out of the corner of my eye, and his smirk tells me he’s going to let Mistry down all right, but not in the way I want. Even as I watch, his expression changes from smug to concentrating.

“No,” I yell, wrenching myself free of his grasp. He whips his head in my direction. Good. Momentarily distracted. I’ve bought myself another second.

It’s funny, how sometimes perception of time changes when in the midst of a crisis, how one becomes hyper-aware. Not every crisis. Only minutes ago I had the reactionary speed of a cabbage. But now the world has slowed. A bead of perspiration trickles down Ocbeta’s brow, so sluggishly I’m sure I could reach across and pluck it away whole.

But I’m otherwise occupied. The pocket pistol tucked into my trousers is now in my hands, and I’m squeezing the trigger even as I fall backwards, still experiencing the momentum shift of ripping myself from Ocbeta’s grip.

A look of surprise, of betrayal, forms on his face, like a cloud changing shape. I can tell by the ways his eyes lose focus that he’s desperately trying to release Mistry, to kill her as a final act of spite.

Vale activates his jetpack and takes off. Lege aims and fires in Mistry’s direction. At the rope.

I squeeze the trigger twice more and the world returns to normal speed. My arm impacts the floor and the guns skitters away, but the damage has been done. Ocbeta clasps at his chest and collapses, his blood a very different color to the red of his skin. I look away, but then look back as he reaches out a hand.

His eyes plead with me.

“You cheated,” he wheezes.

A multitude of responses flash through my mind, but one forces its way out before I can stop it.

“That’s what your brother said.”

Then I hear Mistry yelling,

“Explosives. The whole place is wired to the hilt. Move, move.”

Vale has her safely in his grasp and is hurtling towards one of the skylights. He’s already shot it out, and shards of glass rain down on the other side of the room.

Mistry is safe. I haven’t got her killed today. I relax, exhausted.

Then hands grip me under the armpits and Lege carries me unceremoniously through the air towards the night sky. I don’t have the strength to lift my head, and the image of Ocbeta lying in the middle of the jofrē ring, his body and his blood mingling into one, imprints itself on my mind. It’ll be in my dreams for a long time to come, alongside the gasping face of his brother.

We fly straight up for some distance and then in through the side door of our atmobile. Vale must’ve remotely flown it into the no-fly zone, alarms be damned. Kudos for quick thinking. We make it inside just before the factory below erupts in a fireball. Lege palms the door control and the fireball disappears behind metal. A few seconds later the ship is buffeted from side to side.

“We’re all good,” Vale says over the com.

“Let’s go home.”

We’re safe, but I’m not so sure about good.

By the time dawn has struck the city, we’re well on our way to a jump point between this planet and its sister. We summoned everybody back on board while returning from the factory, and managed to get through customs before they put the city into lockdown. News reports say at least a square mile of industrial development has been destroyed. There have been no reports of casualties, but the whole picture won’t be known until all the flames are doused. The epicenter, the factory we escaped from, is still burning out of control and so are other blazes caused by flaming debris. There’s a danger some fires might spread still further.

Suspicion will surely fall on us once the authorities start digging, but we’ll be long gone by then. Another planet to add to the no-visiting list.

I’ve had a shower, and my bruised body and broken nose ache and moan. But I can’t go to sleep. Not yet. I sit in my cabin, watching news reports with one eye and jotting traitor possibilities on a crew list.

Mistry says she has no idea how Ocbeta got onboard. One minute she was upgrading routines on a defense turret, the next she was dangling from a rope three stories above ground. Her implanted recording devices bear that out. A shadowy figure appears behind her and shocks her with a stun-stick. No ship security system shows even that much.

That can only mean Ocbeta had inside help. Someone who let him into the ship and told him where to find Mistry. Or who shocked Mistry themselves and delivered her to him. Someone who aided his elaborate revenge fantasy, knowing full well that people they knew, and who had no history with Ocbeta’s family, might be killed.

I’ll figure it out. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’ve done so, but I’ll figure it out.

Mistry, looking none the worse for wear, pokes her head in my open door.

“Thanks for coming to get me,” she says. She’s obviously not long had a shower too, because her dark hair is wet, strands of it stuck to her dark skin. She’s wearing her typical work ensemble, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she was off to finish the job she’d started earlier.

“That’s okay,” I say. “You would’ve done the same for me.”

She grins and winks. “Maybe.”

I’m not a huggy person, and neither is Mistry, but tonight hasn’t been a typical night. I jump up and embrace her. She pushes me away after a moment.

“What’s that all about?”

“Just glad you’re okay.”

“You’re such a sentimental coot.”

She shakes her head and heads off along the corridor. I sit back down, turn off the news, and push the crew list away. Tomorrow I can look for the traitor. Today I’ll celebrate that I haven’t lost another family member.

THE END by G.I. Jones

Short Stories

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