Chapter 1

A hail of bullets slipped past Riana’s lithe form as she dove behind the metallic cargo crate, rolling into a crouching position with her bull-pup machine gun held at the ready and her back to the crate. Glancing at the translucent casing of the magazine on top of her weapon, the computers in her brain told her she had twenty one rounds left to expend.

“How’re we doing?” she said calmly into her comm link.

“Everything is moving along swimmingly.” Willhelmina’s voice replied silkily. “Another five minutes should do it.”

“Five minutes. Right. No problem, take your time,” Riana’s voice dripped sarcasm as she looked around to see what she could use to keep her attackers occupied for a while longer. Finally, she planted her heavy boots on the floor, set her shoulders against the pressurized shipping crate and pushed with her legs.

It took a moment, but eventually the bottom edge of the crate came up off the floor and she redoubled her efforts, extending her legs and bringing her cybernetic strength fully to bear. Bullets continued to ricochet off the crate and the nearby wall until the ten-ton box finally toppled over.

Instantly, the room was filled with the sound of a metal-onmetal crash, followed by the groaning of the floor and its support structure being bent and distended by the sudden impact of the immense weight. The room shook and light fixtures broke away from the ceiling, causing the lighting to change and throw strange, jagged shadows across the crowded space. Several smaller crates in the area also toppled over, only adding to the cacophony, but the constant gunfire came to an abrupt stop as the armor-clad soldiers scattered.

Whipping around with the butt of her weapon pressed snugly into her shoulder, Riana picked out a couple of the soldiers andsqueezed off a short burst at each, the bull-pup machine gun pressing into her shoulder with each burst. The brief hail of armorpiercing slugs tore up her selected targets, driving them violently to the ground where they twitched for a moment before shuddering to stillness.

Satisfied that she had succeeded in keeping them occupied for a few more minutes, she stripped a concussion grenade from her combat webbing and tossed it into the center of the room before dashing out of the blast radius and crouching behind another crate. Absently, she brushed a lock of royal purple hair out of her face as she stripped the spent magazine from the top of her rifle, slipping it into an empty pouch and extracting another.

The loud thump of the explosion washed over the room, knocking out the rest of the light fixtures in the area and bathing the scene of the battle with deep, foreboding shadows. The sound of boots scurrying and shuffling around came to her long, pointed ears as she casually set the fresh magazine on top of her weapon and slapped it down on top of the receiver, locking it into place.

Looking over her shoulder into the shadows, she shifted her vision into the ultraviolet spectrum. Tapping her headset, she activated the UV light that was mounted next to the camera at her temple, causing the room to fall into stark relief as she scanned around for signs of her opponents.

Catching sight of someone dashing out of the center of the blast radius, she took aim and cut loose a short burst. Her weapon belched fire as she cut the soldier down and then rolled back behind the crate as return fire homed in on her muzzle flash. Spinning toward the other edge of the crate, she peeked around the container,

leveling her rifle and squeezing off another short burst. Her target fell to the ground clutching his stomach.

Her long, tapered ears dropped down low as she focused on the sound of footsteps creeping up behind her, getting a fix on the person’s location. When she heard the click of a trigger being pulled, she uncoiled her legs from beneath her, launching herself into the air as a stream of projectiles passed through the space where she

had just been crouched. Throwing her legs over her head, she wheeled around in mid-air, grabbing the surprised soldier by the shoulder straps of his combat webbing. As her feet came back to the ground, she bent over forward, hauling the man off his feet and launching him bodily out from behind the crate. The panicked soldier crashed like a discarded rag doll into a pile of smaller containers twenty feet away, sending the metal boxes scattering in every direction. He then slumped down to the ground, motionless.

The clamor of the event distracted the rest of them further, allowing Riana to pick off two more as she rolled behind another crate and quickly checked her magazine again.

“Are we done yet?” she asked calmly into her comm link as she looked carefully around the edge of her cover.

“Two more minutes,” Willhelmina’s voice panted back. It sounded like she was in the middle of running a marathon.

“Having trouble?” Riana smiled as she taunted her sister.

“No,” Willhelmina replied breathily. “No trouble. Just ten or twelve armed people who don’t seem to want me leaving with this thing.”

Riana’s smile faded a bit as the thought of her best friend, her sister, being chased down by an armed lynch mob raced through her head. “Where are you? I can…”

Willhelmina cut her off, knowing full well what she was thinking of doing. “Stick to the plan Ree. I’m fine. I’ll be ready in two minutes.”

“Fine,” Riana growled into the comm link. “Two minutes. Mark.” She tapped the small computer on her wrist and a two minute count-down began on its tiny holographic display. A few seconds ticked off before the display went dark in order to keep her position secure. She didn’t need the wrist computer. Her brain was more than half computer as it was. But something about using the device, just like everyone else, helped her feel in some way… normal.

“Mark.” Willhelmina echoed through the comm link.

Poking her head out from behind cover again, Riana’s ears twitched and she yanked herself back behind the crate as a storm of bullets converged on her position.

“Took them long enough,” she mumbled to herself as she detached a smooth metal disk from the combat webbing at her hip and attached it to the crate with a dull ‘thunk’ noise. Springing lightly up on top of the ten foot high crate, she picked off two more of the soldiers, who were taken completely by surprise at her shift to higher ground. She then dove across twenty feet of open air onto another stack of crates, slipping quietly behind some smaller boxes.

Removing an identical metal disk from her other hip, she attached it to one of the small crates, then stripped off another grenade and tossed it back toward the soldiers as she leapt across another huge gap. Several sprays of gun fire followed her as she arced through the air, and she felt several projectiles tear through the shimmering fabric of her long, fitted duster. The flowing garment did its job, obscuring her form and causing the bullets to miss the reactive armor covering her body like a second skin.

Skidding to a stop behind cover, she braced her sensitive ears, clenching her jaw just as the concussion grenade exploded with a loud thump that rattled the entire room again. This time, she removed a slightly smaller metal disk from the outside of one of her knees and attached it to one of the crates she was using for cover, then jumped down to the floor and made her way to the other side of the room.

The group of soldiers was obviously falling apart. She passed within a foot of a pair of them and they didn’t so much as twitch at her passing, focusing instead on the area in the center of the warehouse where all of the action had been thus far. She could have easily dispatched them both, and all of their comrades as well, given

enough time, but she hated the thought of killing people unnecessarily. She preferred to just do her job and go home.

As she approached the door to the room, she clicked the disk off of the outside of her other knee and attached it to a nearby crate. Tapping her wrist computer, she conjured up the holographic display and its steady countdown. One minute and thirty seconds remained. She sighed heavily as she eyed the door, then focused her attention back toward the soldiers in the center of the room. Concentrating on the sounds in the room she could hear four… no, five of them moving around the area, searching for her and trying not to cut one another down in the process. Apparently, she had them pretty riled up.

Glancing at her computer display again, it read one minute and four seconds. She eyed it as it counted down and when it hit fifty nine seconds she turned her head to the side and shouted into the room, “You have sixty seconds to get out of here, otherwise you will be leaving in a refuse bin when they clean up the mess.”

Then, she dashed for the door and slid calmly out into the adjoining hallway. She let her bull-pup fall back to its resting place between her right arm and body, allowing it to be concealed by the shimmering fabric of her jacket.

She didn’t look much like the normal employees in the area, but she knew she stood a better chance of moving unhindered if she didn’t appear to be bristling with weaponry so she tugged the duster closed and moved off into the corridor. As she rounded the fourth corner between the storage room and the airlock where the Kestrel

was docked, she glanced down at her wrist in time to see the counter reach zero. She braced herself as a massive explosion rocked the entire station, before dashing, full speed, toward the airlock.

On to Chapter 2