Sixth Element Publishing
Tel: +44 1642
available as individual books in paperback.
Hatton asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of
(Thieves’ Guild: Book One)
Sixth Element Publishing
Tel: +44 1642
available in paperback.
asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
is he now?”
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.
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.”
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.
don’t know,” NG said finally.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
jerked awake and gasped as the movement reignited all the sparks of
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.
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?
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.”
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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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?
need to contact Mendhel,” he said abruptly, out loud, interrupting
his own train of thought.
until we reach the guild, unless you have some other way of
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
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
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
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.
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.
repairs booked in and authorised,” Skye declared. “You 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
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.”
it, I can wait,” he said, thinking of the package and trying to
remember what the hell he had to do with it.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
one to refuse hospitality, NG poured himself a dash of the wine.
the guild,” the Man said and drank deeply. “Now tell me
everything – from the beginning.”
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.
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.
Hil buddy, we’re out of here as soon as you can gather your butt to
voice was vaguely familiar but Hil felt himself drifting back into
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
calm down, you’re freaking out the ship.” It was the woman again.
She rattled off more numbers.
out the ship? He was freaking out himself.
just need to know what’s happening,” he mumbled. “I need to get
back to Skye.”
a nutshell,” the woman said, “… ten seconds to jump… you’ve
been extracted. The guild wants that package… five seconds.”
package. That cold touch in the pit of his stomach again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
damn light was still red.
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
some things you need to know before you go in.”
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
you want to come on back and sit down? You don’t look so good, 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.
The guy looked uneasy as hell. “Mendhel is dead and LC is missing.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
dead? It didn’t register. Hil felt wide-eyed and stupid as the
words simply didn’t register.
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.”
happened to Mendhel?” Hil said, a chill clutching at his stomach.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
for the rescue,” he said and went home.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
good to have you back, Hil,” NG said softly. “We’re in the shit
and I really need to know what you can remember.”
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.
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.
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
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?”
stopped at the door to the conference room.
Hil was screaming inside his head. “Yeah,” he said. You never
said no to NG, he had a habit of hearing yes anyway.
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.
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?
took his place and started up proceedings. “Chief,” he said to
the huge man sitting opposite Hil, “do you want to take this up?”
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.
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.
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.”
Hil blinked and felt a pulsing tick above his eye start to flicker.
No one ever took an unauthorised tab. Not ever.
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?”
was silence as the accusation swirled around the room. He didn’t
know what to say.
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?”
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
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.
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?”
must have shown something in his face because NG shot a glare
straight at him.
don’t remember leaving with LC,” NG said quietly. It was a
statement rather than a question and he had it right.
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.
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.
glanced at it but didn’t say a word.
looked over to Legal and saw that she was staring at him, eyes cold
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?”
shook his head miserably. It hadn’t felt like five days.
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.”
felt disgustingly tainted. God knows who’d had their freaking hands
on him. He wanted to go and shower, feeling more and more
that leads us onto the other matter,” Media said, “the implant.
That was a Senson Six, right?”
stared, and absently reached up to his neck.
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.”
year at best,” Science said.
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.”
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.
course, we did,” said Science, with disdain. “We wouldn’t send
out such a valuable asset unless it was absolutely secure.”
what consequences are we looking at here?” That was from Media he
thought but their voices were merging and he couldn’t see straight.
faded out, like he was sitting in the centre of a bubble that was
shielding him from everything outside.
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.”
took a sip of the wine. It was hot and strong, and even that small
sip burnt his throat.
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.”
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.
your judgement,” the Man said, “was there a risk?”
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.”
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.
we’re home. Calm down that heartbeat or they won’t let you go.”
of a hard, cold console, Hil felt pillows.
he thought and reached up to feel smooth intact skin behind his ear,
just the vague feeling of an implant beneath his fingers.
both been through the mill, honey but we’re home now.”
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.
know, honey. When I lost touch with you, I thought… I thought
they’d killed you, Hil.”
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.”
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.”
package was empty?”
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
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?”
crashed,” he said.
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?”
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
hand started to shake.
slipped the knife back into his boot and stood up.
are you doing, Hil honey?”
leaving,” he said. “How long have I been here?”
didn’t reply and that wasn’t exactly reassuring.
he thought, and looked up as the door opened.
medic stepped into the room, flanked by another two security
personnel, both armed and wearing armour.
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
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.
he sent, going through the motions of reading the information on
display on the board. “Why the security detail?”
she said, “I’m trying to find out but I told you, I’m locked
down here. I don’t have access to anything.”
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’.
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?”
medic looked at him like she was used to patients being assholes when
they left. Maybe she’d dealt with field operatives before.
welcome to leave,” she said.
to leave?” he asked, glancing from her to the armoured figures at
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
was the intelligence arm of the guild, gathering data, recording
information and negotiating contracts.
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.
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.