Excerpt for Thieves' Guild eBook Bundle/Box Set (Books 1-4) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


THIEVES’ GUILD

eBOOK BUNDLE

BOOKS 1-4


By C.G. Hatton



RESIDUAL BELLIGERENCE #1

BLATANT DISREGARD #2

HARSH REALITIES #3

WILFUL DEFIANCE #4



Published by Sixth Element Publishing

Arthur Robinson House

13-14 The Green

Billingham TS23 1EU

Great Britain

Tel: +44 1642 360253

www.6epublishing.net


© C.G. Hatton 2011-15

www.cghatton.com


Also available as individual books in paperback.


C.G. Hatton asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of these works.



For Hatt



CONTENTS


RESIDUAL BELLIGERENCE #1


BLATANT DISREGARD #2


HARSH REALITIES #3


WILFUL DEFIANCE #4



RESIDUAL BELLIGERENCE

(Thieves’ Guild: Book One)


By C.G. Hatton



Published by Sixth Element Publishing

Arthur Robinson House

13-14 The Green

Billingham TS23 1EU

Great Britain

Tel: +44 1642 360253

www.6epublishing.net


© C.G. Hatton 2011

www.cghatton.com


Also available in paperback.


C.G. Hatton asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.



For Hatt



Chapter 1


Where is he now?”

The atmosphere in the Man’s chambers was heavy at the best of times, the scent of spices and oils from all corners of the galaxy mingling into a warm intoxicating concoction. The question hung in the air like a wisp of smoke, swirling provocatively between them.

The Man spoke again without giving him time to think up an answer, a warning edge to his voice, “Don’t try to read me, NG.”

He should have known better but it hadn’t been a conscious effort, more a gentle testing of the mood to gauge what the tone of this meeting was going to be.

We don’t know,” NG said finally.

Sit down.” The Man nodded towards the heavy set wooden chair in front of his desk. It wasn’t often that he’d get summoned to the chambers and only rarely was he asked to sit. He sat.

Outright war between Earth and Winter,” the Man said and shook his head slowly, his hands clasped in front of him on the desk. “Factions finding the audacity to make moves against us. Our own demonstrating questionable motives. And we don’t know where he is?”



There wasn’t usually much that could go wrong with an easy acquisition. He wiped blood from his cheek with a shaky hand. Senses still spinning, he tried to lean forward to disengage the drive but the restraints tightened and pulled him back into the seat. An alarm was sounding, distant and irregular, only now becoming an insistent irritant inside his head, which was pounding and wondering where the hell things had gone wrong.

He tried to twist around in the harness to check on the package but his neck resisted and a pain shot through his side with enough bite to make him straighten up and groan. The proximity alarm, he thought. And remembered it sounding much louder not so long ago. It faded as he closed his eyes.

The voice that penetrated the fog was soft and feminine, nudging gently into his awareness. “Hil,” she said in persuasive mode, “Hil honey, you need to wake up now.”

He could taste blood and smell hydraulic oil. That couldn’t be a good combination and his survival instinct was screaming at him to jump up and fight, or run, he wasn’t sure which because it was being soundly beaten into submission by his immediate need to fade out again.

“Hil,” the voice was louder now. “I need you to get up and help me, hon, because I can’t fix this by myself. My suppressant systems are shot and if you don’t get back there and do something to control the pressure that is building up, the drive is going to explode and we’ll both die here on a godforsaken planet in the back of beyond and no one will care or miss us except for that damn package you had to go get.”

It was a dream he had too often so he embraced it and decided to let it run out. Usually he’d wake abruptly and go get a beer to calm his nerves. The nightmares had been more often of late but this was the first that hurt so bad. And the first where Skye was so polite. And come to think of it, the first where he could feel his head spinning from the smell of fumes.

He jerked awake and gasped as the movement reignited all the sparks of pain.

God dammit, Hil,” Skye was screaming, “you worthless son of a bitch dragging us out here on a goddamned wild goose chase and dying on me.” He’d never heard so much emotion from the ship before.

He couldn’t help the smile that crept across his face, sore as he was and in no way sure enough of the state of the ship to be cocky. But he’d gotten hold of the package and made it away. So why was he sitting here grounded on god knows what planet with his wits scattered as far as wreckage from his ship?

The smile faded.

Skye shut up mid-flow. Then tentatively whispered, “Hil, you with me? Hil? Trust me, you need to move. We have three ships moving in on our position and if that damned package means as much to you as you make out, we have to go.”

He couldn’t even remember what was in the package, but he had a vague recollection of taking the tab and the guild would be unimpressed to say the least if he lost it. The chances that they’d crashed by accident were slim and that three ships were bearing down on them probably meant that someone had taken offence at losing whatever it was that was sitting back there. That wasn’t good. And the cold chill of that reality seeped through faster than any nagging from the ship.

Hil freed himself from the restraints and staggered to the back of the compartment. He squeezed into the tiny maintenance area and got access to the main controls, coughing from the smoke, each cough sending a shard of pain spiking through his skull. The bonus in working solo was that the split of credits, both financial and performance points in the guild standings, was always one hundred percent his.

The worst thing, he decided as he hit manual over-rides and released the building pressure in the main conduits of the jump drive, favouring his left hand because the right one didn’t seem to be working properly, was that there was no buddy on the way in to pull off a rescue in the nick of time, to clink beers with as the sun set on each close shave. Unlike some people that he didn’t have much time for, he’d never worked with a partner, never needed to or wanted to. So as he squinted at the flickering displays, it was down to him and Skye, the ship he’d known and flown with since he was a kid, who was now wittering on about company closing in.

As far as he could tell, the ship was just about intact, the package was intact – if battered – and although they were leaking fuel and the jump drive was burned out, at least it wasn’t going to explode now and they should be able to fly out of this and get some place where they could figure out what had happened.

No matter how hard he tried to think through the pounding in his head, he couldn’t remember any specifics about the tab he’d taken. The three craft heading for their position might be local farm dwellers come to investigate the crash or they could be bounty hunters out for his head for all he knew.

He paused and tried to clear his mind and calm his heart rate. There’d be no reason why they would be bounty hunters, no one ever messed with guild business. Unless the package had more baggage than had been declared.

He crawled out of the maintenance space and struggled to make it back to the bridge, vision blurred and not helped by the trickle of blood that was running into his eye.

As he passed the stowage area, he paused, one hand resting for balance on the package tied securely into place. He resisted the urge to crack open the seals and take a look. Never interact with the merchandise. It was a guild mantra and one that Hil had only broken a handful of times, all with good reason. Was this one of those times? He stared at it, sitting there in its silver case, sealed with a mark that would get him thrown into the jail on Io Optima for the rest of his life if he was caught with it.

It was about briefcase sized and he had no memory whatsoever of acquiring it, or what could be in it. But whatever it was, he was fairly sure he’d been shot down on his way back in with it.

“Honey, get back up here,” Skye said quietly, this time directly into his head through the neural implant embedded beneath the skin on the side of his neck. “C’mon, leave it. We need to get out of here.”

She was right.

He grabbed a medical kit from the compartment above it and fell back into his seat. He held a patch over the gash on his forehead and watched nervously as the ship went through the checks, most lights red, some burnt out and safety parameters out of the window but so long as they could fly, they’d fly. He didn’t want to encounter the ships that were closing in, friendly or not. He needed a place to hole up, fix the ship for jump and stay under the radar for a while. He’d get the package back, grab the credits for it and take that break he’d been promising himself and Skye for too long now.

Simple.


Taking a package from A to B always gets more complicated when A doesn’t want to lose it and C will pay and do anything to get their hands on it. Hil was good, one of the best in the guild. Problem was, he couldn’t remember when it had gone wrong.

Skye was being no help, concentrating as she was on outrunning the three ships that were chasing them. She’d said, snapping in frustration at his insistence, that he ran on board with the package, yelled at her to go and then they’d taken a hit after dropping out of jump and crashed.

He couldn’t even remember who the client was or where he’d acquired the package. He recalled saying yes to a tab but that could have been three jobs ago. Or three years ago. His memory seemed screwed up and that was more than a bit disturbing. What was worse was that while he knew his guild handler was Mendhel, he had not the slightest detail in his head how to get in touch or get back to base or where he had to take the damn package to.

Skye was getting up some decent speed now. Hil watched the ships lose distance on them then break off, flying away in opposite directions. One shot vertically up, heading for orbit and jump, he reckoned. That was odd. Probably not locals then.

How far to town?” he said and cringed at how pathetically weak he sounded. He cleared his throat and tried again. “How long ’til we make the space port?”

“Three minutes,” she replied curtly. Skye was a typical female AI. They all cared and fretted when they thought you were in trouble and as soon as you were fine, the sympathy evaporated.

Hil sat back. He knew Skye was fast. She’d been built for speed. She was the fastest ship in the guild because they’d refused any weapons. Apart from some light shielding that would barely diffuse the effects of the smallest energy weapons, they didn’t even have any defensive measures. His philosophy was along the lines of run to live another day. Hil fought his battles on his feet. If he’d wanted to shoot guns, he would have joined the navy. But fast as they were, they’d taken some serious damage in the crash and bless her for doing her best, but Skye wasn’t flying at top notch right now. Anyone should have been able to catch up with them. So why had the three ships chasing them down suddenly given up the ghost? It was enough to give him a headache. If his head hadn’t already been pounding. They’d been called off, he decided, so what now? Should they be expecting a welcome party when they landed?

“I need to contact Mendhel,” he said abruptly, out loud, interrupting his own train of thought.

“Not until we reach the guild, unless you have some other way of communicating.”

Hil detected a hint of sarcasm. “Skye, help me here. I honestly don’t remember where we were supposed to be going,” he said. “Where do we usually...?”

“Honey, you just rest your cute butt until I get us to an airfield and a repair yard where we can get some of these systems back online. Then you can worry about getting back and signing in to check your status.”

Checking his status. That sounded familiar. Status meant all green, safe and sound, home straight. He’d never had an alert on him. Of course he’d never outright crashed before. So maybe this was what it felt like when the guild put out a red or black. He’d seen poor suckers tagged with alerts before and had felt smugly superior with his spotless record, vying for the top spot, not scuzzing around waiting for an extraction team to haul him back in like he’d seen some of them needing. He’d always been package delivered, thank you very much and onto the next. No matter how tricky – the trickier the better in fact. Thing was, he vaguely remembered thinking that this should have been a walk in the park. Or was that the last job? It was enough to make his head spin. He closed his eyes and let the minutes fly by.


There were two kinds of planet-bound space port that were worth visiting – the big, extravagant, old-Earth style supersizers where you could catch the latest gambling crazes, try out the newest biowares and get cosy with just about any fantasy you could imagine, and the seriously hi-tech Wintran machine shops that were on the fringes of reality, crossing military hardware with upgrades that hadn’t even seen a field test yet. He’d spent his fair share of time R&R’ing at the first and spending his hard-earned credits at the second, treating himself and Skye to anything that could keep them a second ahead in the race.

Unfortunately for both of them, this was neither. Skye found them a way in and managed to haggle permission to land at a repair bay. They were dwarfed by a cargo ship on one side and a courier on the other. Both looked to be trash end of the market and Hil felt his skin crawl at the thought of going out there.

“All repairs booked in and authorised,” Skye declared. “You go get seen to.”

Go get seen to? He didn’t want to go anywhere here. Hil didn’t move. He couldn’t see anything that matched the signature of the ships that had been following them. But that didn’t mean they weren’t in here somewhere.

“You’re still bleeding all over me, Hil honey. I’ve made a reservation for you at a Wellbeing. It just looks like a small one but they should be able to patch you up.”

“Cancel it, I can wait,” he said, thinking of the package and trying to remember what the hell he had to do with it.

Skye was a mind reader at times. “They’ll help,” she said. “You have a concussion and I don’t know where we’re going so I need you to go get seen to, let them spark that short-term memory of yours back into shape and by the time you get back, we’ll be fixed up and ready for go. And the package will be fine in storage.”

He weighed up his options. Having full control over life support, Skye could make it impossible for him to stay. Wellbeing it was then. Normally a stay in a Wellbeing of choice was a much anticipated post-tab treat. But even at some of his favourite haunts, there were Wellbeings he’d avoid. Chances of this one being above par were slim but this was purely medicinal, being mid-tab and all, so a quick fix-up wouldn’t hurt.


Hil checked that the package was still secure and left the ship on shaky legs, still light-headed and more than a little shocked to see the state of the ship from outside. There were massive scorch marks etched across her hull, Skye’s sleek form and elegant wingspan battered from impacts he couldn’t remember. Her landing gear was standing crooked and debris littered the floor beneath her. Hil kicked absently at a piece of twisted metal. It was the first time they’d ever got their fingers burnt. But she’d got them here and she’d get them home. Somehow.


He was halfway across the concourse when he got an urgent recall from Skye sounding in his head. He turned and spotted two uniforms making their way towards him, too rapidly to be routine. He turned again, expecting trouble from the other side and saw a guy in a dark business suit standing, just staring at him and intimidating as hell. Hil stumbled slightly as he back-peddled and tried to look nonchalant as he headed back to the ship.

He glanced back and the two uniforms broke into a run so he did too but his flat out was more of a limping ramble. Their outright sprint, guns up, intercepted him before he was anywhere near Skye’s on ramp. He stumbled as one of them grabbed hold of his arm and the other wheeled around in front of him. They were probably just grunts from customs, he thought as they forced him to his knees. He could buy his way out of this, but as he opened his mouth to speak, a blow to the back of the head sent his already scrambled senses spinning into darkness.



Chapter 2


Breathing in the heady air of the Man’s private office was giving NG a headache. He sat bolt upright, waiting for the Man to continue.

The Man stared straight ahead, his eyes glinting like tiny black gems catching the light from the many candles that sent shadows dancing around the nooks and crannies of the chambers.

The guild had never before had to deal with a situation like this, one that threatened its very existence. NG kept his breathing calm. It was one that he should have averted. And one that was still not resolved and still had the momentum to inflict more damage.

The fact that their operative, one of the best operatives in the history of the guild, was still missing was unnerving; never mind the financial cost of losing such a valuable asset, losing anything didn’t settle well with anyone inside the Thieves’ Guild.

The Man reached for a large pewter goblet that was resting on the desk. He poured carefully from a glass jug, dark red liquid that was steaming vapour splashing into the goblet and sending more fumes to swirl between them. He gestured absently towards a second goblet as he raised his own to his lips.

Never one to refuse hospitality, NG poured himself a dash of the wine.

To the guild,” the Man said and drank deeply. “Now tell me everything – from the beginning.”



Waking up in a Wellbeing was a warm, cocooned, snug and peacefully slow surfacing to soft cream lights and the gentle awakening of awareness with a nudging from Skye to tell him it was time to get back to work after a well earned rest and rejuvenation. Hil was cold and sore and a pitiful ache deep inside told him he wasn’t connected to the ship anymore. Not in a Wellbeing then. It was also sickening to realise that he didn’t know where the package was. It was the closest to panic that he’d ever experienced. It was the first time he’d ever been forcefully parted from Skye and the void of quiet felt like it was sucking his brain out into a vacuum.

He gasped and tensed, eyes opening to a harsh white light. He could sense someone standing close by to his right but couldn’t move. He was lying flat, wrists and ankles restrained and someone was fumbling to free him. A hand took hold of his arm, pulling it straight, and he was too weak to resist. He felt cold then in the crook of his elbow and a sharp sting followed by a slap to an already tender cheek.

“C’mon Hil buddy, we’re out of here as soon as you can gather your butt to move.”

The voice was vaguely familiar but Hil felt himself drifting back into the dark.

“God, give him some more, we don’t have time for this.” The second voice belonged somewhere else and he struggled to place it, female, aggressive and condescending, the kind of voice that was okay in small doses but one you didn’t want to be around too long. Another jab hit his arm and as the drug kicked in with a rush he almost gagged. Arms were lifting him up then before he could protest and he couldn’t help that his knees buckled as his feet hit the floor. It was distressing to be this helpless but at least he was dressed – coat missing but he was wearing his own clothes. They held him, one on either side, both of them wearing black, lightweight combat gear that he recognised from somewhere despite the lack of insignia. The woman leaned in close and said, “Good god Hil, you’re a mess,” and there was something about that voice that rankled somewhere deep down.

They hauled him upright and he tried his best to put one foot in front of the other. He couldn’t see much past the bright glare of spots in front of his eyes so he put his trust in these two somehow familiar figures that seemed to be rescuing him from he wasn’t sure what. He kept trying to reach out to Skye but the void was complete and there wasn’t so much as a whisper from her.

They navigated a bright blur of corridors and steps and he still couldn’t see or stand straight by the time they pushed through a door to a blast of chill air and he was bundled into a vehicle. He lay back on the cold seat and tried not to throw up as they drove fast, veering around corners and accelerating hard.

Nothing else was said until they came skidding to a halt and Hil’s stomach flipped sideways. He could hear launch engines firing up, cracks that sounded like gunfire and someone yelling. There was a sharp metallic impact near his head and he curled up reflexively, rolling off the seat and landing with a groan in the footwell, banging his head and feeling the cut on his forehead open up again. The door near his feet opened and he was dragged out, no apologies, an arm thrown around his shoulders. He was pulled into a run onto an up ramp with bullets impacting around them.

As soon as the arms holding him let go, he sank to his knees on what felt like a loading bay deck and braced his left arm against a cool bulkhead. He heard the ramp slam shut, then footsteps clanging away from him, more yells that he could recognise as the two voices he couldn’t quite identify, then the comforting lift of a ship leaving the confines of the planet’s surface. No guild monkey ever liked to be planet-bound. The more dimensions you have around you to play with the better. And he was with friendlies. As much as he couldn’t place the voices, he knew they were guild and he knew he was in safe hands.

The acceleration was tough. Hil tumbled against the bulkhead as the ship pulled out of the atmosphere. He couldn’t stop himself rolling a ways down the deck, wondering vaguely what would happen to him if they went into jump and he tried not to pass out so he could at least attempt to hold onto something.

He passed out anyway and woke abruptly some indeterminable time later to feel the reassuring tug of a restraining harness against his chest and a pressure building behind his eyes. He could hear numbers being checked off, the two voices joined by a third that he reckoned must be the ship.

They were being pursued from the planet and had fighters on their tail from what he could make out. It didn’t make sense and he couldn’t understand why Skye wasn’t goading him into action. Raising a hand up to his neck he felt with horror that there was a bandage patch taped behind his ear. He tore it off and felt the sting of cold air against a wound that was still tender. His fingers came away red with smears of blood. That hadn’t happened in the crash. The Senson had still been there, still functional, the implant providing a clear connection to the ship. He’d been talking to Skye before they got to the space port. Crap. What the hell had they done to him?

“Hil, calm down, you’re freaking out the ship.” It was the woman again. She rattled off more numbers.

Freaking out the ship? He was freaking out himself.

“I just need to know what’s happening,” he mumbled. “I need to get back to Skye.”

“In a nutshell,” the woman said, “… ten seconds to jump… you’ve been extracted. The guild wants that package… five seconds.”

The package. That cold touch in the pit of his stomach again.

“Three… two… one.”

Then jump. Hil closed his eyes and let the motion of jump pull at his every molecule. He was screwed. He was well and truly screwed.


They made five jumps. And by the time they docked with the Alsatia, they were fairly sure they hadn’t been followed. It was the first time he’d ever been here without Skye. The first time he’d ever lost a tab. But crap, that was nothing compared to losing Skye.

Once they’d edged onboard and were given the go ahead to disembark, Hil shook off the cobwebs in his head as he unhitched the restraints and limped down to the airlock without waiting for either of them to say anything. He knew he was being obnoxious and knew he should be grateful for the rescue and humble and patient in his current pathetic state but the cold and aches had turned into anger and he didn’t want to talk to anyone. He wasn’t sure he wouldn’t yell and scream and, obnoxious as he was feeling, he didn’t want to inflict that onto the two people who had just saved his ass.

He stood and glared at the red light above the airlock and willed it to turn to green before either one of them appeared behind him.

It was a relief to be home. The Alsatia was a massive wandering cruiser owned by the guild that flitted around known trade routes and uncharted shortcuts, both sides of the line, operating in Earth and Wintran space and the Between. No one outside the guild should ever be able to find them if they didn’t want to be found. It had never been attacked, never been infiltrated and it never would be because every single person inside was family, with bonds stronger than blood could ever be. The guild looked after its own and these two people had been sent for him because the guild wanted him back in one piece. And it sucked that he’d screwed up badly enough to need extracting. He’d never needed rescuing from anything.

They’d said the guild wanted the package. The only thing he knew for sure was that the package was with Skye and she was god knows where. He’d lost both of them. Why they hadn’t left his sorry ass there and gone after the package itself was beyond him right now. And he didn’t feel inclined to ask. The only plan he’d been able to come up with was to grab a ride in another ship and go after her. There were a couple of people he thought he could count on and he was desperately hoping they’d be home.

“Hil wait up.”

The damn light was still red.

The guy walked up behind him and caught hold of his arm to twist him around. He resisted because he was still feeling belligerent but it was only half-hearted. He really did appreciate that they’d come after him.

“There’s some things you need to know before you go in.”

Hil stared. He’d thought his emotions had bottomed out, that it wasn’t possible to feel any more cold and sick. He reached a new low at the guy’s tone.

“Do you want to come on back and sit down? You don’t look so good, Hil bud.”

Hil thought he could have been less hostile if he could remember the guy’s name. “No,” he said and gestured toward the airlock and its infuriating red light. “I just want to go in and get this sorted. I need to get back out there and find her. Mendhel will set me up with a ride.” He trailed off at the expression on the guy’s face. He actually didn’t know what the procedure was once someone had been hauled in. His reputation would be screwed and his average would tumble but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get hooked back up with Skye and rebuild it from there. Screw the standings.

“Hil.” The guy looked uneasy as hell. “Mendhel is dead and LC is missing.”



Chapter 3


Losing Mendhel has been a blow,” the Man said slowly, every word resonating. “The guild must be seen to be invincible – on both sides of the line. I trust that action has been taken.”

NG didn’t answer straight away. He wasn’t sure that an answer was necessary. He held the goblet and felt the warmth of the wine. Mendhel had been more than just one of his best handlers, he’d been a good friend.

The guild is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said quietly. He swirled the wine gently around the bowl of the goblet and watched the vapours rise. It was true, the guild had survived, but the cost had been far higher than anyone had realised. It wasn’t just that it had unbalanced their standing in the complex and delicate political situation between Earth and Winter. The guild thrived on the paranoia and hysteria that rumbled between the two. No, it was the repercussions of the conflict this whole incident had sparked within the guild itself that had hurt.

Thinking back, he’d known right at the start how much certain individuals, key individuals, had been tempted by the chance to use the situation to force a shift in power.

The Man smiled and shook his head. “It’s not wise to get caught up on hindsight,” he warned gently and filled NG’s goblet to the brim. “This turn of events was unexpected but such is the nature of man. The greater our understanding of that capricious nature, the more we can exploit its strengths to our own end.” He paused and directed his gaze directly at NG once again. “Tell me more.”



Mendhel dead? It didn’t register. Hil felt wide-eyed and stupid as the words simply didn’t register.

“The package was switched on you, buddy,” the guy said. “We have Skye, and the package you put in storage is phoney baloney, bud. NG is seriously pissed. We’ve all been played for fools. The guild has lost its best handler, its best field-op and its second best has been severely fucked with. We were lucky to get you out of there, Hil. We’ve had teams all over looking for you.” He paused then repeated the only bit Hil could grasp. “We’ve got Skye, Hil. She’s as screwed as you are but we’re hoping we’ll be able to recover from the two of you what’s actually happened. Because NG wants that package and he wants LC back.”

“What’s happened to Mendhel?” Hil said, a chill clutching at his stomach.

“Hil,” the guy said, “that’s not your biggest problem right now, trust me. NG wants to know what the hell you were doing out there.”

“I don’t remember,” Hil said, frustration fuelled by obnoxious belligerence and every hurt yelling at him to fight back. “I don’t know where I’ve been. I don’t know what I was doing. I don’t even know your name.”

He didn’t get an answer before the woman stomped up next to them and gave him a disgusted look. “God, you people are so damned cocky when it’s all tickety-boo. It’s pathetic to see you like this.” She hit the button. He hadn’t seen the light turn to green. “Go, scoot. Get your ass up to Medical. I’m sure NG will send for you when he’s ready.”

He had a dozen questions on the tip of his tongue but he couldn’t formulate a whole sentence. He kept his mouth shut and was halfway down the tube before he thought to turn.

“Thanks for the rescue,” he said and went home.


Medical was the last place he wanted to be. Hil checked the docking schedule but there was no listing for Skye. If they were bringing her in, she hadn’t got there yet. He had to get to Acquisitions if he was going to have any chance of finding out what had happened to LC and Mendhel. His nerves were trembling, from the crash, the drugs or what, he couldn’t tell, but he felt edgy and uneasy as he’d never experienced before at home. Home was a secure, safe place but something had changed. He tried to remember exactly what the guy had said but the words slipped out of his memory and were gone, try as he might to bring them back.

The dock area was busy. He didn’t want to be around people who would ask him awkward questions and he didn’t want this nightmare making public. He knew that Skye always logged in their successful deliveries and let him know if there were any urgent requests for him to contact Mendhel. He could remember that much even if he couldn’t remember anything from this latest job. Usually coming in after a big tab involved checking the bank account, picking up any messages and heading out to R&R. Downtime on the Alsatia between routine tabs meant time in the Maze, training, getting to grips with any new upgrades to bioware or just flat out pushing to get fitter, faster, stronger and better for the next one. Coming home was usually a cocky checking of the standings before waltzing out on the next tab. But not this time.

Hil slunk into the lift and kept his eyes on the floor. Three dock jockeys edged in after him and he squirmed, expecting a hard time but either they hadn’t heard or they didn’t recognise him. They pushed the button for three and two grunts entered the lift between the closing doors. Hil pushed his back against the back wall and let the lift take him up. They reached three and the doors opened. The three dockies jostled each other out and Hil made a move to push the button for ten. He was pushed aside by a black armour-clad arm that pressed twelve. He could see the grey insignia of the Watch – guild internal security – so they weren’t just grunts from the guild’s militia wing, they were here to pick him up. Shit. They turned to face him as the doors closed and the lift started to rise.


NG was waiting for them as the lift doors opened. NG was the guild’s head of operations, head of the guild effectively because no one else ever actually met the guild’s council of elders. The Man was the only one of those mysterious figures who ever visited the Alsatia and he only dealt with NG. It was NG who knew exactly who was where, what was what and where they were going. Why everyone called him the New Guy was a mystery because he’d been there as long as Hil could remember.

NG was rumoured to have a sixth sense and it was a relief to see him, to recognise the face and be able to put a name to it. Hil almost fell towards his outstretched hand.

“It’s good to have you back, Hil,” NG said softly. “We’re in the shit and I really need to know what you can remember.”

It was like clutching a warm surge of electricity when you shook hands with NG. The guy was an enigma. He was like everyone’s big brother but no one knew anything about him. Kase and Martha must have reported in already, Hil realised, suddenly remembering the names of the two extraction agents who had rescued him. And realising who it was who had been sent to extract him sent a chill right through him that set him off shivering. He tried to calm down – this wasn’t a good place to go into shock.

NG put a hand up to the back of his neck and nudged him gently into motion down the corridor. That warm hand was reassuring and Hil felt his heartbeat settle slightly. He couldn’t help raising his own hand up to the patch behind his ear, awkward and embarrassed.

“I… they… NG, I’m sorry, I don’t remember anything straight.” He was rambling like a fool so he took a deep breath that caught in his chest. “What happened to Mendhel? Has someone told Anya?” He didn’t even know where Mendhel’s daughter had been living recently.

NG shook his head. “We’ll go through a full debrief later. Right now I need to know whatever you can remember. You okay for this?”

They stopped at the door to the conference room.

No, Hil was screaming inside his head. “Yeah,” he said. You never said no to NG, he had a habit of hearing yes anyway.


There were four people sitting at the round table. All display screens were off and there were no recording devices evidently out. Chances were the monitors were off too – that was a bad sign. That meant that they didn’t want a word of this meeting going any further.

Hil sat down and tried hard to place the faces looking at him. Section chiefs. He was sitting with the five most important people in the guild. Oh crap. And he hadn’t even had a chance to wipe the blood from his hands. A simple screwed up tab wouldn’t warrant this kind of inquisition, surely? Or was this what happened to all the suckers hauled in after screw-ups?

NG took his place and started up proceedings. “Chief,” he said to the huge man sitting opposite Hil, “do you want to take this up?”

Chief was the chief of Acquisitions. He was the only section chief known as Chief, the others referred to by their section. Acquisitions looked after all the handlers, field-ops and security. The Chief was a good guy but Hil had never had to talk to him before without Mendhel smoothing the way first.

He took a deep breath, the loss hitting hard and the loss of memory of recent days making a confusing swirl of empty cold deep inside. He tried to sidestep his emotions and take control. He was with friends here. These people were on his side.

The Chief shook his head, placed his huge hands out flat on the table in front of him and leaned forward. “Where the hell have you been and what the hell have you been doing?” he said coldly. “We get word Mendhel is dead, your emergency beacon yells for help and suddenly we can’t contact LC. We were hoping he was with you but obviously not.” His voice turned icy. “Tell me the three of you weren’t out on a tab that we didn’t know about.”

What? Hil blinked and felt a pulsing tick above his eye start to flicker. No one ever took an unauthorised tab. Not ever.

“We’ve found evidence of a tab at Mendhel’s safe house on Earth,” Legal piped in. She was a smart, black-clad woman who everyone said had connections to the Assassins. Hil had never seen her this close up. She was stunning and scary as hell. “He was handling an assignment that had not originated from the guild. What do you know about that?”

There was silence as the accusation swirled around the room. He didn’t know what to say.

“Do you fully appreciate the consequences of this?” Media was another woman, softer in appearance but with an even more scary reputation. “I can’t believe Mendhel would do that. We need you to detail exactly what Mendhel gave you, where your pick up took place and what the instructions were for drop off because I am very disturbed that one of our handlers could have been acting independently. What did he say to you?”

The room went quiet and Hil looked from face to face. Science was sitting there, a stony look on his thin face, fidgeting with a data board in front of him like he couldn’t believe they were wasting his time with this.

Hil fumbled inside his brain for a set of words to string together into a sentence. He opened his mouth before anything was ready and shut it again when he realised he couldn’t remember the question.

He was saved by the Chief who pushed back from the table and stood up. “Let me set this straight,” he said. “You left here with LC. That’s logged. It is not in dispute and don’t deny it. What the hell were you two doing?”

What?

He must have shown something in his face because NG shot a glare straight at him.

“You don’t remember leaving with LC,” NG said quietly. It was a statement rather than a question and he had it right.

Hil tried to set his face to neutral. It was hard not to fidget. He had dried blood under his fingernails still and his face must have looked a mess. Beyond the pounding in his head, he felt nauseous and the more he concentrated the more he could feel each twinge of pain, in his ribs, his right arm, left ankle, that cold spot behind his ear. He didn’t know what had happened so he didn’t know what to say. He’d never faced this before. Mendhel had always handled the fallout from any little upsets his ego had gotten him into. He felt distanced from it all – it all seemed so unreal.

Legal pushed a data board across to NG, the thin display screen flickering. Hil squinted at it but couldn’t make out any of the text on it and he looked to NG, feeling more and more helpless.

NG glanced at it but didn’t say a word.

Hil looked over to Legal and saw that she was staring at him, eyes cold and distrusting.

“It took us five days to get to you,” she said. “After we picked up Skye’s distress beacon, it took us five days to find you. Can you account for that time?”

He shook his head miserably. It hadn’t felt like five days.

She looked to NG again. “We still haven’t been able to identify ownership or allegiance on the facility where he was eventually found. I have some leads but nothing substantial as yet.”

Hil felt disgustingly tainted. God knows who’d had their freaking hands on him. He wanted to go and shower, feeling more and more uncomfortable.

“…and that leads us onto the other matter,” Media said, “the implant. That was a Senson Six, right?”

He stared, and absently reached up to his neck.

“Whoever took that has violated the guild. We cannot underestimate the damage that can be done because of the loss of that implant. That technology is military grade hardware and anything even approximating its capacity is not expected to be available commercially for at least another two years or more.”

“A year at best,” Science said.

“Regardless, it still means the loss of a distinct advantage across all spheres of our operations. Whoever took it must have been one helluva bio-engineer,” Media said. “We had protections on it, I assume.”

Hil felt distant from the conversation. They were talking about him as if he wasn’t there. He’d answer their questions if he could but they weren’t giving him time to think.

“Of course, we did,” said Science, with disdain. “We wouldn’t send out such a valuable asset unless it was absolutely secure.”

“So what consequences are we looking at here?” That was from Media he thought but their voices were merging and he couldn’t see straight.

Hil faded out, like he was sitting in the centre of a bubble that was shielding him from everything outside.

A hand gripping his shoulder shook him back to the room. He braced and tried to focus as the Chief helped him up. “Let’s get you to Medical. We can go over this later.”



Chapter 4


NG took a sip of the wine. It was hot and strong, and even that small sip burnt his throat.

LC Anderton and Zach Hilyer are our two best operatives, by far,” he said. “They’ve made acquisitions no one thought possible. There have been jobs I almost turned down and there have been items that departments within the guild decreed that we needed that I almost vetoed, but in every case one of those two has successfully pulled it off. No one else is near. Their instincts are astonishing. They never work together, they’re very different and they’re fiercely competitive. Mendhel was the only handler who’d ever been able to keep control of the pair of them.”

He paused to take another drink. The Man was sitting quietly, unmoving, keeping his full gaze focused. It seemed to be getting warmer in there, if that was possible.

In your judgement,” the Man said, “was there a risk?”

Their loyalty to the guild was never a concern to me,” NG said. “They came to us young and they both knew they’d found their home here. Their aptitude for our area of expertise is inherent. But I can see now it wasn’t surprising that when an entity outside decided it was going to cross the guild, those were the two targeted.”



“Hil honey…”

The moment of impact crashed through his bones and sent a spark of pain drilling through his skull. He jerked awake again at the voice, expecting smoke and engine oil and the taste of blood.

“Hil, we’re home. Calm down that heartbeat or they won’t let you go.”

Instead of a hard, cold console, Hil felt pillows.

“That’s better.”

“Skye?” he thought and reached up to feel smooth intact skin behind his ear, just the vague feeling of an implant beneath his fingers.

“We’ve both been through the mill, honey but we’re home now.”

“God, Skye, I’ve missed you.” He felt breathless. The shock of losing contact with her was sinking in worse now that she was back, as if he hadn’t let himself feel the full effect of it.

“I know, honey. When I lost touch with you, I thought… I thought they’d killed you, Hil.”

It hadn’t occurred to him to consider what Skye had been going through. He tried to take a deep breath but his chest was hurting. “What happened? They said I was there for five days.”

“Whoever they were on that planet, they impounded me, hon. They broke in and busted open the package. There was nothing in it, Hil. They were really angry. They just left me there. And I couldn’t find you.”

“The package was empty?”

Hil sat up, favouring his left arm to lean on. There was a brace on his right wrist and the pain had numbed down to a throbbing ache. His head felt better though, a little woolly inside but more settled than it had been. He was in a private room in Medical, white walls and sparse furniture with racks of medical equipment that were beeping at him erratically. Apart from routine exams, he’d never spent time in here. He’d never had to and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.

“We’re in trouble, Hil,” Skye whispered. “I’ve been locked down. They won’t even start repairs yet. They don’t know what happened and it’s scaring a lot of people. Can you remember anything?”

“We crashed,” he said.

“No, honey, before that. I’m missing a memory module, hon. How did that happen? How could I not know? They’ve told me I’m out of action until we find out what happened. Did they tell you about Mendhel and LC?” She sounded scared. How could an AI sound so scared? “What were we doing, Hil?”

He rubbed his left hand across his face, and felt the tug of an IV line. It was irritating so he pulled it out and dropped it to the floor, holding a corner of the sheet against his hand until it stopped bleeding. He felt rung out but he wasn’t going to sit there like an invalid.

They were in the shit. His head wasn’t scrambled that badly. He could remember what Kase had said and how NG had reacted. He’d been hauled in front of the section chiefs, for god’s sake. Skye was a mess too, they’d said. She was worried and scared for him.

Hil clambered out of the bunk, trailing wires he hadn’t realised were attached to him. He pulled loose and looked around for his clothes. The things he’d been wearing when he was extracted were bundled into a locker by the bed, filthy but it was all he had. He rummaged through the pockets and swore as he realised his toolkit and knives were missing. They hadn’t just taken his Senson then. He instinctively checked his left arm, the nondescript-looking band still snug around his forearm. It might not look it but it was his favourite piece of kit. The dull black metal band concealed a lock pick, hidden flexed along its edge, and the band itself was an intricate piece of bio-engineering that included an automatic sensor to warn of contaminants and toxins. It had cost him a small fortune, saved his ass several times, and thankfully, whoever had nabbed him had been stupid enough to overlook it.

“Hil, I’ve heard rumours that Legal want you thrown into the brig,” Skye said. “They’re saying we’ve gone rogue. Have we? Why don’t I have any record of LC being with us on that last trip? What was he doing?”

“I don’t know, Skye,” he said, aware that he was being sharp with her and he tried to be patient, but he didn’t know. How many times did he have to say it?

He pulled on his shirt and combat pants carefully, trying not to flare up the sore spots he could feel through the drugs they’d pumped into him. He put on his boots, not bothering to lace them to avoid bending over any more than he had to, and checking as he did that his knife was still hidden there – it was, they’d missed that too. He pulled it out and sat staring at it, tracing a finger over the delicate pattern of etchings worked into the hilt and weighing up its perfect balance. Mendhel had given it to him a long time ago. LC had one that was identical, Mendhel swearing it was a crime to split up the matching pair but what else could he do with the two of them so close in the scores? Throwing it with astonishing accuracy was about the only thing Hil could beat LC at. That and poker.

His hand started to shake.

He slipped the knife back into his boot and stood up.

“What are you doing, Hil honey?”

“I’m leaving,” he said. “How long have I been here?”

She didn’t reply and that wasn’t exactly reassuring.

“Skye?” he thought, and looked up as the door opened.

A medic stepped into the room, flanked by another two security personnel, both armed and wearing armour.

Hil stared at them. They weren’t Watch; these guys had the giveaway red flashes on their armour that tagged them as the Man’s personal guard. What the hell were they doing here? It seemed excessive and the medic seemed unimpressed by the state he’d left their equipment in.

“Mr Hilyer,” she said, “I see you’ve decided to leave us.” She looked him up and down. It was disconcerting, like he’d been caught trespassing, and with a slight shake of the head, she handed him a data board and pen. The two guards had stationed themselves at the door, but whether they were stopping someone from getting to him or stopping him from getting out wasn’t clear.

“Skye,” he sent, going through the motions of reading the information on display on the board. “Why the security detail?”

“Honey,” she said, “I’m trying to find out but I told you, I’m locked down here. I don’t have access to anything.”

Crap. He glanced up at them while he scribbled his signature with his left hand, twice as big as it usually was. He put a cross-eyed angry face in the descending ‘y’.

“Is that it?” he said, looking back at the medic and giving her the board. “Don’t I get any instructions to ignore? Am I done?”

The medic looked at him like she was used to patients being assholes when they left. Maybe she’d dealt with field operatives before.

“You’re welcome to leave,” she said.

“Free to leave?” he asked, glancing from her to the armoured figures at the door.

She waved the board at him. “You’re released from Medical,” she said and smiled. “What they do with you from here is up to them.”

He narrowed his eyes and walked to the door. They parted and let him pass, taking up position slightly behind and to either side, following as he walked into the corridor.

At the lift, Hil pushed the button for level ten and glared at the two bodyguards he seemed to have acquired, waiting and daring them to over-ride it with a twelve. They didn’t and as the lift took them up towards Acquisitions, it was hard not to wonder what the hell was going on.


Walking out onto ten, Hil felt about as low as he could go. The atmosphere in the halls was muted. Respect for Mendhel, curiosity about himself and LC he supposed. He couldn’t remember it ever being this quiet.

The guild’s massive cruiser had subcultures within subcultures. Acquisitions was the cold steel walkways of the barracks and spooksville, dominated by the endless depths of the Maze, where he spent every spare minute, and the noise of the mess with its rowdy bar and the always looming and ever changing board showing the standings, where every field-op was listed by points. It was a place of gambling and risk, rough and tumble amongst the grunts of the guild’s militia and fierce competition between the field-ops.

Each section in the guild had its own atmosphere and way of life. Legal had three decks of marble hallways and oak panelled staterooms. They controlled the library, the real library with the books crammed into aisles of wooden shelves. Dusty artefacts of long ago and hardly necessary when anything you wanted was at your fingertips through a data board but the library epitomised the compulsive nature of the guild to hoard. It wasn’t often that the field-ops got to visit the library but Hil had occasionally and it was an awesome collection. They had all that as well as the billions of items of electronically-stored information. Legal kept the maps and the star charts and the manuals. The guild owned the history of the human race, from Earth to all the colonies and out to Winter; knowing everything gave them a power that was almost unmatched.

Legal was the intelligence arm of the guild, gathering data, recording information and negotiating contracts.

Media was more superficial and more insidious even than Legal. Media was effectively the espionage branch of the guild, all comfy sofas and real coffee pots with a finger on the pulse of the future. It didn’t predict trends, it created them and used them to manipulate the colonies with a voracity for change that unnerved anyone caught in their vicinity for too long. They didn’t inspire, they dampened individuality and spontaneity by feeding the masses exactly whatever it was they decided was the current in, creating and destroying on a whim. Acquisitions collected. Legal controlled. And Media frog-marched them into the future.

Science was the fourth of the big four. They had a sphere at the very centre of the Alsatia and no one that Hil had ever met on board had been in there. They came out occasionally but any damage caused in there by their many explosions and accidents were dealt with by their own. Science kept to themselves except when they hurled a fast ball of evolution out to the field-ops to try in the outside. Science was also the main drop off point for in transit acquisitions. It was rare for a tab to go straight to the client; more often packages would go through Science first then back to the beyond. That way the guild made much longer term acquisitions itself than purely the price paid for the tab. It was simple and devastatingly effective.


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