“What’s the emergency?” I took a seat before the director’s shiny black desk, adjusting my plasma pistol so it wouldn’t dig into my ribs.
Director Renko didn’t look up from her glowing 3D workspace.
I fidgeted, impatient. My reflection gleamed in the polarized black windows of the director’s sanctum. I tried to smooth the creases from my forehead, wishing I’d tied my hair up more neatly or revitalized my make-up tints to make it look like I wanted to be here.
Damn her for dragging me in from vacation. I needed the break. My most recent mission—bleeding out a rebellion in a backwater star system, a new Imperial conquest whose poor and hungry hadn’t learned to keep their mouths shut yet—had been a quiet but definite success. The rebel leaders had died a slow and conspicuous death, the poor and hungry had got a tough lesson in Imperial citizenship, and I’d got a pat on the head and a long-awaited week off. I’d worked without rest for months on end and I was exhausted. I’d booked a swim-out bungalow at the pleasure resorts on Vostok Four: UV-filtered sunshine, cocktails by the pool, an anti-gravity combat gym and twice-daily deep-tissue massages from a blue-eyed underwear model named Antonio.
But you’re never really on vacation from Axis, the Imperial secret intelligence service. Especially not from counter-insurrection division. They know exactly what you’ve done, where and to whom. They could screw you to the wall in an instant. So if they whistle, you jump, and you do it right away, no matter what Antonio’s doing.
At last, Lyudmila Renko, my boss, director of Axis’s counter-insurrection division, flicked her workspace away and reclined in her transparent chair, resting pointed elbows on its arms. Today she wore a black silk flight suit, same as mine, belted around her greyhound-thin waist, her blonde hair pulled tightly back.
“Aragon. You’re late.”
Aragon’s my codename. I doubted she remembered my real one: Carrie Thatcher, ex-lieutenant of marines, one-time military intelligence officer, now Imperial secret agent extraordinaire with a license for mayhem.
“Sorry, ma’am. I got here as fast as I—”
“Three days ago, a rebel colony in sector five surrendered.” No small talk. No apology for interrupting my rest. “In eleven days, that colony is joining our Empire. The negotiation teams are meeting at a neutral space station as usual, but surveillance reports have uncovered an insurrection problem in the area. I want you to stop it before it interferes with Imperial business.”
Translated: before it makes us look weak in front of our new subjects. Weakness breeds rebellion, that’s the Axis motto. Still, I wasn’t sure what it had to do with me.
“Eleven days from now? Doesn’t sound like much of an emergency. What’s their target?”
Director Renko studied her clipped fingernails. “The neutral space station is a casino called Casa de Esperanza. The criminal’s target is the vault, on the day the surrender pact will be signed.”
I swallowed to stop my jaw from dropping. She’d dragged me in from vacation to stop a petty thief robbing a glitzy, mob-infested gaming palace? Granted, the Esperanza vault reputedly held enough cash to buy a few minor planets, and to have it whipped out from under our noses in the middle of the surrender negotiations would splat egg on some important Imperial faces—but still.
“With all due respect, ma’am, you’ve got dozens of people for work like this. Why me? I’m on vacation.”
A sly eye-twinkle. “This particular criminal may interest you. Our source agent suggests the thief is Dragonfly.”
I sat up, my pulse leaping, my exhaustion forgotten. Dragonfly. Not just a thief with a grand reputation for audacity and skill, but an insurrectionist with a following. He stole to finance his bloody little wars, and rebels and malcontents all over the galaxy loved him for it.
I’d crossed him before, though I’d never seen his face. My guts heated at the memory.
Three years ago; Urumki City burning, night air filled with smoke, gunfire and dying screams. Our troops under fire, running and hiding like vermin, armor glinting, lasers flashing. My counter-insurrection team, armed to the hilt, searching dark streets and crumbling towers for the enemy cell, the leaders. My point sharpshooter, her rifle arm ripped bare to the muscle by an acid bomb; my comms tech with bioware torn loose from his skull and his shoulder blackening from a poison dart; and sweet Mishka, my second-in-command, his long black braid singed, one brown eye seared shut from atomflash. It was fluid, knife-edge work. One moment we were cleaning up a row of tenements with smart plasma rounds. The next, liquid shatterfire descended in burning streams, flames and deadly molten glass fragments erupting like lava. I ducked for cover, and never saw my team alive again.
Dragonfly killed six Axis agents that night. All of them my friends. All my responsibility. And one of them, the love of my life, the man I was going to marry. Mishka’s codename was Ariel, after the nebula cluster, and maybe the angel too, but in private we’d long gone beyond codenames. I didn’t even get to weep over his body, because nothing was left. I’d returned to base alone, my heart bleeding cold with fury and vengeance.
A hole still festered there, where my friends—and especially Mishka, my silent, loyal soldier—once lived. A tortured, broken Dragonfly would fill it nicely.
This was the assignment I’d dreamed of. I’d done well in my recent mission, but I still needed to prove myself. I always needed to prove myself. If I could pull this off, maybe I’d finally be back on Renko’s go-to list.
I inched forward in my seat. “When can I start?”
Renko smiled thinly, narrow cheeks creasing. “You will travel to Esperanza station and meet our source. Your mission is to foil Dragonfly’s plan using whatever means necessary—short of termination.” Her red lips tightened even further. “Dragonfly irritates my superiors. He makes them itch, and they want him squashed—but in full view of any disgruntled idiots who might be thinking about emulating him. The further his little expedition gets, the more satisfying and spectacular the squashing will be. Understood?”
My stomach tightened with relish. They wanted an agent provocateur. Someone to whisper in Dragonfly’s ear, guide him softly into the trap, and crunch it closed at the last second, when he’d have no escape. Renko knew this was personal for me. It was part of the test. And I wouldn’t fail. I’d give them Dragonfly with his sticky little fingers on Esperanza’s money, and I’d laugh as our interrogators took him away.
The director returned to her glowing desktop projection, golden datastreams reflecting in her eyes. “I want full reports on schedule. Collect your preliminary briefing from intelligence as usual. You’ll get the rest from our source when you get there.”
I stood, eager to get on with it. Esperanza lay a good two days in slipspace away. “Understood. What’s the rating?”
“The mission is classified omega blue.” Impatience sharpened her tone.
Excitement rippled warmer in my blood. Blue meant a dire security risk. Omega meant no one knew about the mission except me, Renko, and our source. Axis wasn’t messing around on this one. The source had better be someone good, with the proper clearances. Someone who wouldn’t get in my way.
“Who’s the source?” I asked.
My heart thudded into my guts, and I flushed, my palms damp.
Renko’s thin blonde brows rose. “Is there a problem?”
Damn right there was a problem.
“No, ma’am, not at all.”
Taking on Dragonfly had just gotten less enticing. And a whole lot more dangerous.
I walked out of Renko’s office, past potted green ferns and into the dim blue lobby, where brightly colored fish cruised up and down in a wall aquarium. Calmlights swirled and glowed in columns lining the pale walls, their randomized display designed to soothe savage nerves. They weren’t outside the director’s sanctum by accident, but tension still ached in my fingers as I touched the silver contact to call the elevator.
The gleaming black door dissolved, and scarlet sunlight poured in through the elevator’s clear plastic walls. I stepped inside, an infuriating wobble in my legs, lemon-scented airborne antivirals making my head ache. “Thirteen,” I mumbled automatically, and the elevator shot silently down the side of the Axis building toward intelligence division, where I’d get my briefing.
New Moskva, the Empire’s capital city, glittered to the horizon, sharp metal and glass towers shining like needles spiking into the red-stained midday sky. Glinting silver flyers flitted to and fro, and a few bulbous passenger transports cruised by at higher altitude, windows flashing golden as stray electrical storms crackled in the dusty air. But I couldn’t concentrate on the view. Ideas bounced around in my head like shrapnel, and I wanted to duck for cover.
First, if Renko had put Malachite in charge, she was taking the Dragonfly threat very seriously. Malachite was her top agent, and she didn’t waste him on trifles. There was more to this mission than she’d let on.
Second, I was targeting like a smartbomb toward making an abject idiot of myself, and I had no idea what to do about it.
Malachite had been my mentor when I first transferred to Axis from military intelligence, way before I’d met Mishka or even heard of Dragonfly. Even back then, Malachite was a legend. The perfect operative: skilled, effortless, suave; the one everyone wanted to be. I was young, awe-struck, desperate for his approval. He’d said everything I’d ever dreamed he’d say, and I was starry-eyed enough to believe he meant it. We ended badly, and for the last six years I’d avoided him. If I never saw Malachite again, I’d die a happy woman.
I laughed. I was an Axis agent. I couldn’t expect to die happy anyway.
The elevator glided to a halt and the door phased open. I stepped out onto the glare of the black floor, my reflection sharp in white icelights. The smell of gunfire coated my tongue, hot metal and salt. No white corridor, no laserglass security screen or pale blue orchids. Just a black vault door, silvery shatterbolts gleaming.
My spine prickled. This wasn’t floor thirteen.
The elevator phased shut behind me with a sizzle. Alarm stung my body into action and I lurched backward, my hand flashing upwards for my pistol.
The hard, hot edge of an atomflash barrel jabbed into the base of my spine, and a warm male voice caressed my ear. “Think again.”
I froze, alert but angry at myself. All very well to pay attention now. Slowly I eased my hand from my holster, fingers twitching. No need to ask who this was.
“I already told your boss no,” I said. “What do you want?”
The shatterbolts cranked aside and the vault eased open in a puff of warm darkness. A hand pressed me forward. I swallowed dryness and did as I was told.
Inside, a corridor stretched black under reddish icelights, glaring and uncomfortable. No calmlights here. They wanted you on edge. At the end, a fireproof black ultraglass door whisked open. My escort shoved me through, and the glass slammed shut with an echo straight from a bad prison-colony movie.
The man behind the desk looked up, and his green lasersight eyes slitted in the light like a cat’s. My stomach rippled. Arkady Surov, director of black ops division, the shady cousin no one talked about at Axis parties.
At counter-insurrection, we infiltrated, spied, collected information, did the odd elimination if necessary. We were all a little angry and maladjusted, but basically normal. Black ops agents killed people for a government salary, and to get assigned there, you needed to have something seriously wrong with you. Surov had been trying to poach Malachite for years, only he wouldn’t go. Black ops was too anonymous for Malachite. He liked the spotlight.
Apparently, I was now on Surov’s headhunting list. I wasn’t flattered.
I folded my arms, ignoring the atomflash still pointed at me and the warning tingle in my spine. Black ops agents thought everyone at counter-insurrection was soft. We thought they were gung-ho freaks. Some things never changed.
“You guys are such drama queens,” I said. “Slam this and crunch that. How about some blood dripping down the walls? That’d be a nice touch.”
“Aragon. So nice to see you.”
Surov flexed to his feet and slinked around the desk to drape himself on the front edge like a twitchy feline. He wore a standard black combat suit: tight, bullet-retardant armor that hugged his long muscles. A cortex stimulator flattened his dark hair over suspiciously sharp-pointed ears, and a plasma pistol lay half-stripped on his desk, like he’d just come in from the virtual range. He gestured to a black velvet lounge, and slick gunmetal claws gleamed in his fingertips.
I wrinkled my nose in distaste. I mean, we’d all had work done—some plastic hyper-extending joints, or a nose job, or some superconductor filaments to spice up your reflexes. But metalcore biotech enhancements and weaponized gene splicing were illegal. They messed you up; everyone had known that for four hundred years, since the Kovalev Six Mutant Massacre. The fanatics at black ops just didn’t care, and I guessed that when you shot people in the back for a living, you wanted every advantage you could get. People said that Surov the cat-man could leap two stories high and shoot a man’s eyeball out in the dark from two thousand meters. I didn’t doubt it. Hoped it made all the raw fish dinners worth it. And at least no one could say the folk who handed out codenames didn’t have a sense of humor. Surov’s designation was Felix.
“Hear you’ve got a tasty new mission,” he said, licking his chops.
So much for omega blue.
I ignored the lounge and stayed standing, tossing my braid back over my shoulder. “Sorry, comrade. Can’t confirm or deny. You know the rules.”
“Dragonfly, mmm-hmm. How gratifying for you. Pity Renko won’t let you loose.”
Curiosity itched, and I squirmed. Damn it. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Short of termination and all that. Hardly revenge, is it?” He twitched one ear.
I bristled, because he was right. “Look, I already told you—”
“We at black ops want Dragonfly dead.” Surov’s pupils slitted wide. “No reason you can’t be the one to do it. No more than you deserve, the way Renko’s sidelined you since . . . Well, you know.”
I flushed, and there was no use hiding it. Ever since Mishka and my friends had died, Director Renko hadn’t trusted me. She was always checking up on me, setting other agents to watch over me in case I lost my nerve. My most recent assignment was the first time she’d let me out on my own since Urumki City. And even now, with the Dragonfly mission, she’d crippled me with restrictions. Not to mention with Malachite, who’d graduated academician cum laude in Renko’s class at New Moskva Tech and probably still bought her drinks and let her beat him at chess whenever he was in town. Since Mishka died, my job was all I had. If I stopped fighting for the Empire, he’d have died for nothing. But until Renko let me off the hook, my career was going nowhere.
And I couldn’t deny that the thought of killing Dragonfly—of being the one who pressed the atomflash to his smug forehead and jammed my thumb on the contact—ignited a spark of anticipation in my flesh that wasn’t entirely professional.
But I wasn’t dumb enough to imagine Surov the cat-man was doing me a favor.
Back on Planet Zero, before humans had ventured into space, the Old Russiyans had a vast military empire, the largest on the planet, bristling with holocaust weapons and backed up by iron-cast ideology and the spirit of revolution. Only they lost their nerve, and it all fell apart and gangsters took over. Not much had changed in a thousand years, except Planet Zero was a smoking ruin, and now the gangsters wore uniforms again.
I eyed Surov coolly. “So what’s in it for you if I kill him?”
Surov shrugged, his armor flexing like thick black skin. “Dead insurrectionist: well and good. But this Dragonfly has a dangerous mind. Exceptional mathematician, you may have heard. There are certain . . . concepts we’d rather he didn’t pursue.”
I shrugged. Whatever. I was good at math too, and self-appointed rebel geniuses were common as space junk. I didn’t care if Dragonfly was a concert pianist. He’d still melted my friends. And from what I’d heard, he mostly used his fancy number-theory tricks to crack bank vaults and cheat at cards. Not exactly a model citizen. “No, I mean what’s really in it for you?”
“You’ll come and work for us.” Surov’s sharp teeth glinted. “You’re wasted on Renko, Aragon. She’s lost her way. She’ll be peeved, certainly. I’ll personally cover you. And I’ve got a little vacancy here I think you’ll like.”
I snorted. “Cannon fodder in the Great Renko–Surov War? Thanks very much, comrade, but I think I’ll pass—”
“Assistant director operations,” he interrupted, scratching behind one ear. “It’s a step up for you, but I’ve every faith you’ll manage.”
I caught my breath. Assistant director was the promotion I’d dreamed of since I’d joined Axis; and I’d worked even harder for it since my friends were murdered. I knew I’d never get it so long as Renko was my boss, though. If I defied her and Dragonfly died on my watch, she’d stick me behind a dusty desk in analysis and I’d never see an active mission again. That’s if she didn’t decide I was an unacceptable security risk and send her goons around to slit my throat.
But black ops? Was I cut out to be an assassin? Hell, I’d killed people; it was an occupational hazard. But black ops was different. Colder. More premeditated.
I swallowed. “Umm. I see. Well, I’ll have to . . . A vacancy? What happened to the last assistant director?”
I remembered him. He’d bought me a vodka or six once. Sharp smile, great hair, the planet’s cleanest shower. An okay guy. I mean, sure, he was a compulsive killer with laser-sparked reflexes and a twitch, but he was fun to talk to.
“He disappointed me.” Surov folded his long legs beneath him on the desk, and I swear that mentally he coiled a tail. Gene splicing, boys and girls. Don’t try it at home. “I’m sure you won’t. Kill Dragonfly, and the job’s yours.”
“And if I refuse?”
“You’re a big girl, Aragon. You figure it out.”