Chapter 12: The Shadow and the Void

 
Blank Image.png
 

Chapter 12: The Shadow and the Void

 
 
Divider.jpg
 
 

Moses represented something unique in the history of mankind. For the first time, a force outside of man’s own acted upon the species as a whole. There was a guiding impetus, a mind that was other, directing the course of history. The question was whether or not it was infallible.

Some said that Moses was a stabilizing force. The digital age had brought rapid paradigm shifts that threatened to tear humanity apart. Surveillance states rose, privacy all but disappeared, lifestyles evolved over the course of months rather than generations, and the onslaught of new technology nearly undermined the very foundations of civilization. Overnight, Moses was the face of all technology and innovation, and he brought a certain conservative mindset in his approach to humanity.

Privacy was restored. The watchful eyes of governments and corporations were closed. And the rush of new technology became a calculated endeavor controlled by Moses himself.

Stability indeed, but also perhaps stagnation. Moses stopped the radical transformations of the digital age, but he also stunted generations of intellectual and cultural growth. He outpaced men in science so rapidly that they ceased to understand his machinations, and Moses stopped trying to explain. It mattered little. He would always be around to protect and guide humanity, and he had the interests of everyone in mind.

When Moses disappeared, the debt came due. Whether mankind had grown soft from stability or stagnation was irrelevant. The framework that had supported civilization for the last four generations was gone, and we were lost.

Julian Nikitas
Chancellor of the University of Ganymede
Died 31 AM

 
 
Divider.jpg
 

One of the first things Abigail had learned after coming aboard the Sparrow, was that Matthew Cole took Sundays off whenever he could. No jobs, no maintenance, nothing. Not that she minded. Taking time off was healthy, human even. She’d just pegged Cole as an all business and no play sort of guy. “My parents were pretty traditional,” he said when questioned, which wasn’t really an answer. Every Sunday, like today, he sat in his chair reading.

Abigail frowned and looked back down at the checker game she was inevitably going to lose. As it turned out, checkers was the favorite pastime for kids on the Duke’s habitat. Grace had explained their intricate leaderboard system and that it was the favorite sport to bet on. She’d always ranked well.

Abigail had scrounged up a set from material on the ship. and had proceeded to get slaughtered by the twelve-year-old every time they played. Even now the end was nigh.

“Your move, metal woman.”

She glanced up at Grace who gave her a wicked grin and twiddled one of Abigail’s captured men between her fingers. It was over. Grace had set her trap and moving any one of her remaining men would spring it. She sighed as she took her turn. Grace practically leaped across the table to jump three more of Abigail’s pieces. “You’re not very good at this.”

“Thanks for telling me the obvious,” Abigail said, sitting back and extending a hand across the table. “Are you going to accept my surrender or is your goal to humiliate me?”

Grace made a show of thinking hard about it before putting her tiny hand in Abigail’s armored one and giving it a shake. “I’ll accept your surrender. This time.” She looked around the room. “Who’s next?”

“Cole, your turn,” Abigail said standing to her feet.

He looked up from his book. “I’m one and oh against the little prodigy. I prefer to keep it that way.”

“You got lucky,” Grace declared giving him a fierce look.

“Never denied that fact,” he said. “Doesn’t mean I’m willing to ruin a perfect record and bragging rights.”

“I’ve got a theory about that,” Yvonne said, entering the room. “I think our Matthew is a sore loser.”

“Nothing of the sort,” he said, shaking his head and looking back at his book.

Grace walked over to him and pushed his hat down over his eyes. “One. More. Game.”

Abigail covered her mouth to keep from laughing. The girl was fearless.

Cole lifted his chin to look under the brim of his hat. “How about you ask your brother?”

Grace made a face. “He’s no good at checkers.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” Abigail muttered. She ignored the severe look Yvonne gave her. It wasn’t her fault that Davey spent all his time hiding in his room and wasn’t around to defend himself. You’d think he’d take the freedom he was offered, but he only showed his face when food was on the table.

“One game,” Grace repeated.

Cole reached up and straightened his campero so he could see and gave an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. One game and win or lose you stop pestering me.”

An alarm chimed through the common room.

He smiled. “Some other time. We’re approaching Venus. Yvonne, you want some more practice time flying?”

“Always,” she responded.

“You planned that,” Grace accused, her voice rising in pitch.

“Would have if I could have,” he said.

Abigail watched them go, cursing her bad luck. She’d almost escaped another beating. Grace bounced back over to the table, her eyes darting to Abigail’s and then back down the corridor that led toward the cockpit.

“So, is Matthew your boyfriend?”

Abigail’s jaw dropped, not quite sure what she was hearing. “Absolutely not! Why would you even think that?”

“I don’t know. You’re about the same age,” Grace said, scooping up the checkers pieces. Maybe she was going to have mercy and not demand a rematch. “Plus,” she said thoughtfully, “he is pretty cute.”

Abigail stared at her dumbfounded. “You…” She closed her mouth. Why was this even a subject of conversation? “First, cute has nothing to do with it. Second, you’re too young to think males of any age are cute.”

Grace put a hand on her hip and tossed her blond hair back with the other defiantly. “I’m almost thirteen, you know.”

“That’s not old enough,” Abigail said pointing a finger at Grace.

“You didn’t deny that Matthew is cute,” Grace said mimicking her gesture.

It took an effort of will to keep her jaw from dropping again. “This isn’t a conversation we’re going to have.”

“You do at least like him though, right?”

“No. How about we go take a look at Venus?”

“Fine.” She drew out the word as if it was the last she’d ever utter. Abigail was just glad she’d decided to drop the issue. When had that weird idea worked its way into Grace’s head? They walked to the cockpit in silence.

Cole and Yvonne had already brought the Sparrow into orbit around Earth’s sister planet. Venus was yet another entry on the list of interesting places that Abigail had never visited. Despite having roughly the same gravity as Earth and a similar orbit, Venus deserved its hellish reputation. Atmospheric pressure of ninety-three times standard, a resulting surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, and clouds of sulfur dioxide made colonization challenging to say the least.

Moses had risen to the challenge.

Fifty kilometers above the surface the pressure fell to one atmosphere. At this altitude, even breathable air provided lift. Moses had done what aerospace engineers had long thought plausible and built cities that floated in the Venusian clouds. Special care had to be taken to protect exposed surfaces from sulfur compounds, but the two cities that remained in the skies of Venus were among the most comfortable in the colonies.

Abigail stared at the pale yellow planet, the morning and evening star of Earth. Stray memories of her childhood flickered beneath the surface of her conscious mind. Grace suddenly pushed past her to get a better view of the planet below.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

Cole nodded from the copilot seat. “All of them are. Each rock in our solar system a unique and beautiful world. Pity only one was made for us. The rest are a hostile bunch.”

“Who’s hostile?” Davey said crowding into the cockpit. Suddenly it had become uncomfortably intimate in the little room.

“No one’s hostile but me,” Yvonne snapped. “I’m so glad everyone has decided to come watch me practice flying.”

“Relax,” Abigail said. “You’re only going to be deorbiting us. I’m pretty sure that’s when the majority of space accidents have happened.”

“That’s not helping!” Yvonne said. “Get out of my cockpit!”

Cole turned to stare at Yvonne. “Hey. It’s my cockpit.”

“Not when I’m flying. You can sightsee from orbit when we leave.”

Abigail laughed and, putting a hand on Davey and Grace’s shoulders, gently shooed them back toward the common room. Yvonne would probably chew her out later, but watching the sparks fly had been worth it. “Come on Davey, let’s go watch you get slaughtered by your sister in checkers.”

 
Divider.jpg
 

Matthew took over the controls halfway through, despite his best attempts at assuaging her fears. High winds in the upper atmosphere had turned the landing into a tricky proposition. The Sparrow’s environmental shields deflected most of them, but there was also the added complication that a floating city rides the winds. Yvonne wasn’t too keen to land on a moving target.

Shaped like an enormous octagon, the city of Discordia was held aloft by dozens of clusters of air bladders, both within the structure and above the metropolis. Spires rose into the sky above and below the city into the fury of the hurricane force winds. Openings in these spires led to central chambers filled with turbines that provided a free source of power.

“SPW5840, you are expected and cleared for landing at the royal hangar. A security detachment will meet you there.”

“Thanks, Discordia tower.”  Matthew glanced at the navigational instructions. “Okay, maybe it’s a good thing I took over.”

“It gets worse?” Yvonne asked. “How does it get worse?”

“Discordia floats free in the wind. They can maneuver if they need to, but why bother? There’s only one other city in the sky, and they’re seldom near each other.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Matthew smiled and gestured at the city. “The hangar is on the leading side of the city at the moment. We’ll have to fly in front of it, and then slow down and wait for it to catch up to us. Back into the hangar so to speak.”

Yvonne’s eyes widened. “That’s madness. Surely you don’t expect to…”

“Computer does most of the work,” he assured her. “It’ll tell me the numbers at least. How fast to fly and where. I’ve still got to make it happen.”

She didn’t look pleased.

“Relax, just because I’ve never done it before doesn’t mean I can’t do it.” Matthew concentrated on the task at hand, but he could feel the daggers being glared at him.

“Are you and Abigail conspiring to raise my blood pressure today? Because that’s what you’re doing.”

“Thought I’d join in for once.”

“Don’t make a habit of it.”

It turned out, landing was easier than Matthew had thought. Following the computer’s guidance, he positioned in front of the city and eased off the throttle to let it catch him. He lowered the landing gear and gently touched down, cutting the engines.

“See. All there is to it.”

“Didn’t look too bad. Maybe I’ll give it a shot next time.”

Matthew appraised her and shrugged. “Maybe so.” It still seemed wrong that he even let someone else near the controls of his ship, let alone someone as green as Yvonne, but she was obviously the smartest person on the Sparrow and had already taught herself nearly everything there was to know about it. Made sense to let her fly it.

They finished going through the Sparrow’s post-flight procedures and joined the other three in the common room. “Sharon, you ready to head out?” he asked.


“And just who is our mysterious employer?” she asked, looking up from the kids’ checkers game. “You’ve been a bit mum on the details of this job.”

“The Emperor of Venus, himself. And as to the details I haven’t a clue. Benny promises we’ll like it.”

“Venus has an Emperor?” Davey asked. He gave up on the game he’d inevitably lose.

“He’s a far cry from Duke Fagin from what I hear,” Matthew said, realizing royal titles might be uncomfortable for the kids. “The people of the city seem to like him well enough.”

“Sounds primitive,” Sharon said. “I’ve always thought the Venusian cities were supposed to be ritzy.”

“They are. But as it turns out, when you’ve got a string of benevolent dictators, you do all right. They’re waiting for us. Let’s go.”

“Can I come?” Grace asked, getting to her feet.

“You guys get to recalibrate the starboard engine with Yvonne. She’s in charge.”

The kids groaned in unison.

They wouldn’t need the bikes today, so Matthew and Sharon lowered the port side ramp and walked out of the Sparrow into the Royal Hangar. It was large enough for at least a dozen ships the size of the Sparrow and was, in fact, half full.

“Check that one out,” Sharon said with a whistle.

Matthew had already seen it. At the far end of the hangar was a yacht. It was probably the most expensive ship he had ever seen. Covered with mirrored chrome, it was a thing of beauty. Matthew also saw half a dozen thumper turrets.

“Bet that’s the Emperor’s private chariot,” he said. “Wonder how many crew it takes to run. Never seen anything like it. Kind of reminds me of pictures of the old frigates from the days of Moses. Smaller, but similar style.”

Sharon stopped in her tracks and her brow furrowed as she stared at the yacht.

“Umm… Sharon? You still with me?”

“Yeah… I just… The design of the yacht looks familiar. I was trying to place it.”

Matthew regarded her thoughtfully. “Any luck?”

She pursed her lips. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

There were dots that weren’t being connected here, but Matthew wasn’t quite sure what to ask. A contingent of armed guards decked in crimson and silver armor with flowing capes marched in their direction. They brandished rifles that matched the color scheme, and the effect was impressive, if a little dramatic.

“Quite the sense of style,” Sharon murmured. “Guess an empire needs a theme to run with.”

He nodded at the lead guard as they approached. “Matthew Cole and Abigail Sharon. I believe we’re expected?”

“Yes, sir.” His eyes dropped to Matthew’s hip. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave your weapons on your ship or with me. No unauthorized weapons are allowed in the palace.”

Matthew looked at his revolver then back at the guards. “Any way to get it authorized? I make it a rule not to be defenseless.”

The guard stared back at him, face expressionless.

“That’s what I thought.” He reluctantly handed his revolver to the guard.

The guard turned to Sharon. “I’m afraid you will also have to leave your armor here.”

She crossed her arms. “Over my dead body.”

For the first time, a flicker of emotion crossed the guard's face. “Ma’am, I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them. If you wish to enter the palace, you will leave your armor on the ship.”

“Then we’re through here. Have fun, Cole.” She turned on her heel and marched back up the ramp into the Sparrow.

Cole turned to the guard and smiled awkwardly. “She’s pretty keen on that suit of hers. You sure there’s not a misunderstanding here? Whoever arranged our hire would have known that if you hire the Shield Maiden, then that’s what you get.”

The guard looked at the Sparrow for a moment and motioned toward the hangar exit. “I’ll need an order in writing if that’s the case. In the meantime, follow me, Mr. Cole.”

Matthew sighed and fell into step behind the guards. Dimly he wondered if Sharon was going to help Yvonne and the kids with their engine maintenance. Probably not. She’d most likely go sulk in her room.

They walked through a tall corridor that stretched into the distance. The walls were of the same crimson the guards wore and the floors of stone, polished to a shine. There were few straight lines in the architecture, and nearly everything ended in a tapered arch. Even the stonework was inlaid with curved geometric arch designs.

He was ushered into a narrow room, lit by torches flickering from silver sconces. The walls were adorned with hangings, elegant works of art, covered with scenes of the colonization of Venus, the building of its four cities, and the destruction of two of them. This was the real deal, not a counterfeit like Duke Fagin’s audience hall.

A man, dressed in a red tunic with silver trim, sat in the chair at the far end. He had a full brown beard, braided with silver beads. The guards immediately took up positions in the corner of the room and snapped to attention.

Not really knowing what else to do, Matthew offered the man his hand to shake. “Matthew Cole, freelancer here for the job. You the steward?”

The way the guards immediately stiffened was the first clue that he’d done something wrong. Hard to play by the rules when you aren’t familiar with the game.

The man set aside the tablet he’d been using and stood. He shook Matthew’s hand, a bemused smile creeping across his face. “I’m Emperor Dominic the Second.”

“Oh.” The word was out before he could stop it. Matthew withdrew his hand quickly. “I was led to believe I was meeting with your steward… Your majesty?””

The Emperor chuckled and waved him off. “Proper etiquette would be ‘Your Grace,’ but as you aren’t my subject, I’m not overly concerned with propriety. However, I am somewhat worried that you are alone. I was under the impression that you and the Shield Maiden were arriving on the same ship. Has there been a change of plans?”

The lead guard spoke up immediately. “Your Grace, she’s on their ship. She refused to take off her armor, which I took to be a weapon. Unless she’s granted special leave to…”

“She has it,” said Emperor Dominic. “You don’t hire the Shield Maiden and have her leave behind her shield. Send for her at once.”

Matthew looked at the guard and winked.

The guard ignored him. “It will be done,” he said, scurrying from the room.

“Now then,” continued the Emperor, “I informed the steward he would not be needed. I had a bit of free time now that preparations for tomorrow’s birthday party are complete and decided to meet with you myself.”

Matthew reached up and adjusted his campero. “I’m honored. What’s this about a party?”

Emperor Dominic frowned. “You aren’t aware of why you’re here?”

“My broker decided to surprise me. At this point, I’m thinking about strangling him.”

“Peculiar,” Emperor Dominic said, sitting back in his chair. “Tomorrow, my daughter, the Trade Minister of Concordia, is celebrating her thirtieth birthday.”

“Is she your heir?”

“Goodness no, though she would certainly be qualified. But I suppose you don’t know our customs. Emperor’s are forbidden from choosing their own children as their heir. The first Venusian Emperor was merely the mayor of Discordia. When crisis fell upon the solar system after Moses disappeared, things got complicated very quickly here on Venus. One of the four cities, Eris, fell to the surface in a terrorist incident, and the other, Harmonia, suffered irreparable damage and had to be evacuated. Mayor Levi declared martial law and took control of the two remaining cities. He was a wise and just man. After he was crowned emperor, he set a precedent that none that followed should choose his own offspring to succeed him. This keeps emotion out of the decision making process. No, my own heir is chosen, and a closely guarded secret. I wouldn’t want them to learn pride before their ascension.”

Matthew had to admit that he was impressed. Removing nepotism was what had given Venus a string of decent Emperors and Empresses. He wasn’t sure it could continue forever, though.  All it took was one bad apple to spoil a century of success.

“So, this birthday party,” he said. “I’m not sure what you need a pair of freelancers for.”

“I’ve hired more than a pair. There will be a dozen of you all told.”

“I don’t imagine you need extra security. Your own guards are surely more than sufficient.”

The Emperor chuckled. “Without a doubt. You will be guests at the party and I expect you to enjoy yourselves. However, in so doing, you will provide a small service.”

Matthew raised an eyebrow to signify that he was all ears.

“You freelancers are a worldly sort, always on the move, always in the center of things. I want you there to keep your eyes and ears open. I suspect that you will be more keen to notice the subtle details if something is amiss. There will be many guests from all over the system. If anyone intends ill towards my daughter, myself, or the people of Venus, I expect that you freelancers will sniff it out.”

That wasn’t what Matthew had been imagining. He shuffled his feet nervously. “Your Imperial Majesty, I’ll be the first to admit that being a freelancer hasn’t exactly given me a danger sense. I’m not sure you’ll be getting your money's worth.”

“Of course not. And I do not think your services will be needed. However, if you keep your eyes and ears open that will be enough for me.”

“So long as you know what you’re paying for.”

“I do. Also if you have any crew besides yourself and the Shield Maiden on your ship, I expect them to join us for the party.”

“That’s very generous of you, but I’m not sure that’s the best idea.”

Emperor Dominic made a face as if he had been hurt. “And why is that?”

“I mean no offense. I have a couple of kids on the ship, twelve and seventeen and I’m not sure a party full of VIPs is the place for them.”

“Nonsense! They’ll love it.

Matthew didn’t doubt that to be true, it was more a matter of making sure they weren’t the cause of any incidents. He would threaten them both before either set foot off the Sparrow. “Also the last member of my crew is trying to keep a low profile right now. She ran afoul of one of the big three a while back. The last time she got off the ship there were… complications.”

Emperor Dominic smiled broadly. “Then this will be a perfect diversion for them all! It is, after all, a costume party.”

“What?” Matthew stared at the Emperor blankly.

“A costume party. Naturally, your garb as a gaucho and the Shield Maiden’s armor will keep you two from needing to be dressed, but I will send a tailor to prepare costumes for your crew. They shall all have a marvelous time tomorrow!”

“Great!” Matthew said, his voice nearly cracking. Benny was going to get an earful for this. He’d known there wasn’t a chance Matthew would take a costume party job. Not by himself. Not with a crew. Not ever.

The door opened and the head guard ushered Sharon into the room. “Still in my armor,” she declared stepping up alongside Matthew. “Who’s this guy? What did I miss?”

Matthew winced at her lack of tact and sighed. “This is the Emperor and it’s a costume party.”

 
Divider.jpg
 

Abigail thought that Grace would be excited, but she wasn’t quite prepared for the order of magnitude that excitement would take.

“It’s a costume party? This is amazing! Do I get to pick my costume?” As much as Abigail liked the girl, she found herself getting a headache.

Davey’s response was somewhat less exuberant. “Costume parties are for children.”

“And Emperors apparently,” Abigail said. “Maybe we can get you a butterfly costume to match that cheerful demeanor.

Davey sneered at her and turned to Cole. “Can I just stay on the ship, out of everyone’s way?”

“I wish,” Matthew said. “But his Imperial Majesty Dominic the Second insisted that the entire crew of the Sparrow attend his daughter’s birthday party.” Davey frowned at him and Matthew pointed a finger at the teen. “Don’t give me that look. Do you think I want to attend a costume party?”

Abigail sat at the table. “You don’t even have to dress up. Stop complaining.”

“Not the point,” he said. “And it’s a principle. It’s… It’s not dignified.”

Abigail laughed. She tried not to, but hearing the gaucho whine made her day.

“Grace. Davey.” Matthew said, turning back and forth between them. “You two will stay with Yvonne at the party and do exactly as she says. If you don’t, I’ll throw you off the city myself.”

Yvonne crossed her arms. “I seem to have become a glorified babysitter in my old age. You know there’s a reason Tomas and I never had children.”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Davey insisted. “I’m an adult.”

“Could have fooled me,” Abigail said.

He bristled, but he was interrupted by a chime over the intercom.

“That’s probably the tailor here to take measurements,” Cole said looking miserable. “I’ll let em in.”

Abigail watched him go. As for herself, she didn’t mind the costume party at all. First of all she would have the best costume in the house. Second, it was an easy job. With armed guards everywhere, the odds of anything happening were practically zero. Cole may have wanted to throttle his broker, but Abigail thought he deserved a medal for going above and beyond the call of duty.

The tailor was a soft-mannered man with greying hair and round glasses. He introduced himself as Jeremiah and asked who he should start with.

“ME!” Grace yelled, practically jumping out of her skin and nearly causing everyone else in the room to do the same.

Jeremiah chuckled. “I’m not sure I could say no if I wanted to.” He adjusted his glasses. “What kind of costume would you like to wear to the party, my dear.”

Grace immediately turned serious. For all the commotion she’d made, she must not have thought that far ahead. After a moment's thought, she asked, “Can I have a pretty dress?”

Abigail felt her heart miss a beat. The poor girl had never had anything nice to wear in her life, not on the street, not on the Duke’s habitat.

The tailor was a perceptive man. “My dear, I can make you a princess.”

Grace bashfully pushed a lock of her blond hair out of her face. “Thank you.”

After he had finished with her, he turned to Davey. “And for you young man?”

Davey shook his head. “Don’t care.”

“He’ll take a princess dress too,” Abigail suggested.

“No.”

“Something more masculine,” Jeremiah said. “Maybe something like what he’s wearing?” He gestured to where Cole leaned against the wall.

Davey glanced at Cole and shrugged. “I said I don’t care.”

Jeremiah took his measurements and turned to Yvonne. “And for you Ma’am?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter much, I suppose. Just make sure my face is obscured.”

“Yes, my Emperor informed me of the good doctor’s plight. No hints at all as to what you would like?”

Yvonne shook her head. “It’s your choice. Costumes aren’t my thing.”

“Very well,” Jeremiah said, sighing. He took Yvonne’s measurements and stood and bowed. “I will have your costumes sent to you early in the morning.” Abigail was sure he was more than eager to leave the Sparrow and its crew of obstinate and backbiting misfits.

 
Divider.jpg
 

The next day came far too soon for Matthew. By early afternoon they were summoned and led as a crew through the palace. The venue for the party was an enormous gardened courtyard, lit by glass skylights far above. A string orchestra dressed in smart crimson tuxedos played classical music by the central fountain. Actually, nearly everyone was wearing crimson. Even the staff was dressed in the emperor’s favorite color.

As they dutifully went through the receiving line to greet the Imperial family, Matthew silently prayed that no one would say anything inappropriate. He glanced at his crew, aware that they looked like the system’s most dysfunctional family.

“This is insulting,” Yvonne said from behind her mask.

“At least you’re still a doctor,” Matthew said.

“I’m a plague doctor!”

“I fail to see why…” Abigail started.

“Plague doctors were quacks,” Yvonne said pointing her beak nosed mask at Abigail.

“Misdirection?” Abigail suggested. “It’s a good costume. Pigman himself wouldn’t recognize you.”

Grace, complete with princess crown and a pair of sparkly wings, walked through the line with regal purpose. Matthew had been worried she would lose her mind after she put it on, but to his complete surprise, the opposite had happened. She had transformed into a perfectly polite little lady the moment she had donned the lavender dress. At least someone was behaving well today.

Davey, unfortunately, had undergone no such metamorphosis, and his attitude remained in the pits. He stood, arms crossed, looking like a much shorter version of Matthew, complete with campero and poncho. The tailor had decided to make him literally look like Matthew, which was awkward for everyone. At least Davey had stopped whining since they had left the Sparrow and was contenting himself to sulk.  As long as he was quiet and not mouthing off, Matthew wasn’t going to complain.

At last, their time to greet the Imperial family came. As it turned out, Emperor Dominic the Second had a rather large family, nine children ranging from age thirty to almost as young as Grace.

“Matthew Cole. Abigail Sharon,” the emperor said. “I’m pleased to meet the rest of your crew.”

“Right,” Matthew said lamely. “We’re here.” He introduced Yvonne and the kids. They each bowed politely without so much as opening their mouths. First trial past. Maybe this wouldn’t be a complete nightmare.

Emperor Dominic greeted them warmly. “And what an unusual group for a freelancer crew. Perhaps if there is time later, you can regale me with the tale of how you came together.”

“Still trying to figure that part out myself,” Matthew said through a feeble smile.

They were introduced to the members of the Venusian Imperial family. Matthew didn’t bother to memorize any of the names except the Empress, Vivian, and the oldest daughter whose birthday they were celebrating, Julia.

Julia curtsied. She was a tall woman, her dark hair up in an elaborate bun. Given that this whole deal was kind of about her, it was no surprise that her crimson and silver dress looked like it cost several small fortunes. Matthew tried not to stare, but he was pretty sure that tendrils of mist seeped from her dress and pooled around her in a fog. He couldn’t quite make up his mind if the effect was interesting or bizarre.

“Greetings and welcome,” she said, favoring him with a smile.

He nodded, barely meeting her eyes and mumbled a polite, “Thanks.” Then he pushed his crew past the receiving line to a quieter area of the garden. The sooner they were away from other people, the better.

“Everyone remember your orders?” he asked.

“Don’t do anything dumb or you throw us off the city,” Davey said. “We were listening.”

“I’ll keep an eye on them, Matthew,” Yvonne said. “You and Abigail take care of business.”

Matthew took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He still wasn’t even sure what the job was, but the Emperor seemed confident that the freelancers he’d hired would smell danger coming. Or something.

Sharon mock saluted. “I’m going to go check out the hors d'oeuvres. Don’t have too much fun.” She walked across the garden like she owned it. Matthew saw her get stopped almost immediately by a group admiring her costume.

“She’s going to have quite the day,” he said and waved his own farewell. He headed in the opposite direction to… mingle or something. Clearly, he was going to have to interact with people if he was going to actually be of any use. He needed to take this seriously, no matter how inane.

He walked over to a group of masked women, all looking like they were from the upper strata of whatever went for polite society on Venus. They interrupted their conversation and looked at him expectantly. Suddenly Matthew’s collar felt a little tight and the poncho a bit too stuffy for the sunny garden. Nothing for it. There was no saving him at this point.

He tipped his campero. “Good evening, ladies.”

 
Divider.jpg
 

Grace stood with her back so straight it nearly hurt. A smile had permanently stuck itself on her face. Davey and Yvonne sat back in their quiet corner content to be out of the public’s eye. But that was a waste. She looked down at her purple dress and moved her hips a bit, just to see it sparkle. No, if she was going to wear something so wonderful, she wanted everyone to see it. She stood a little away from the others. Let them hide if they wanted. She wanted to at least feel like she was a part of the party.

And oh the costumes. Women in beautiful crimson dresses with fanciful masks fashioned like animals. Men in suits, trimmed with silver and lights that chased each other up and down the seams. And then there were some costumes that came right out of the pages of a book or a movie screen. Fantastic beasts, aliens, and heroes in capes.

She tried to take it all in. Tried to memorize every detail of every costume, so that she could remember them forever.

Grace was startled when she was approached by a group of kids.

“Miss? Are you there?”

Her mind snapped back to the present and her eyes focused on the speaker. She knew these faces. The Emperor’s three youngest children. Suddenly she wished she had been paying better attention when they were introduced.

“Yes of course,” she said, feeling her cheeks color. “Nowhere else to be. Except here. In front of you.” Grace mentally kicked herself.

The youngest, a boy who couldn’t have been much older than her, raised an eyebrow. “Thought we’d come say hi. Not a lot of other kids at these kinds of things. Dad always insists that people bring their whole families, but no one ever listens. Guess since you’re hired help, you couldn’t say no.” He regarded her for a moment. “From the blank stare you’re giving me, I bet you’ve forgotten my name. Nicolas.” He shoved a chubby hand out for her to shake.

She shook it and then quickly withdrew her hand, unsure if that was allowed. But wait. He’d offered. Maybe that made it okay. She wasn’t sure.

“Where’s the Chinese kid?” asked the older girl. Grace thought she looked about Davey’s age.

“Oh, you mean my brother? Back that way,” Grace said motioning over her shoulder with her thumb.

“Brother?” she asked. “He sure doesn’t look like it.”

Grace bit her tongue to keep from saying anything rude. Why did so many people get hung up on that detail? “We grew up together,” she said as politely as she could.

The oldest of the three nudged his sister. “Come on Claudia, let’s go talk to him.”

They left Grace standing alone with Nicolas. Grace looked closer at the boy. He was cute, with a mop of blond hair and a mess of freckles. She smiled cheerfully at him. “Hi.”

His eyes darted to her then back at his older brother and sister. “Umm...  we already said that.”

She felt her spirit wilt a little but kept on smiling.

 
Divider.jpg
 

Yvonne saw the three members of the imperial family approach and felt her blood pressure rise. She wondered which of her charges would be the first to commit the deadly faux pas that would inevitably occur. Normally she’d say Grace would be the first to say something blunt and offensive, but she’d been acting like a perfect little lady since she’d donned that dress. Sixty to forty odds on Davey then. She sidled a bit closer to where the teens were talking.

Poor brave Davey. He seemed to be doing his best to be polite, which was, admittedly, the first time Yvonne had seen anything of the sort. The formal setting must have made an impression on him too.

“Anyway, we saw you earlier and wanted to at least cross paths with you,” the teen Yvonne remembered as Claudia was saying. “We’ve never seen a Chinese person before.”

“That obvious, huh?” Davey asked. Yvonne noticed him tip his head forward to hide more of his face beneath the brim of his hat. She hoped this wasn’t going to go somewhere offensive. The last thing she needed to do was to tell off a pack of pompous Imperial brats.

“The eyes kind of give it away,” said the older of the teens.

Yvonne felt her insides turn.

To her relief, Claudia immediately slugged her brother on the arm. “Stephen, you’re a real thruster nozzle sometimes, you know that?”

“Just being honest,” he grumbled. “So what’s it like?”

“What’s what like?” Davey asked.

“Being Chinese.”

Yvonne closed her eyes and pursed her lips, suddenly glad for the mask, however insulting it was.

Davey’s voice was slow and even. Where he’d gotten the sudden patience, Yvonne didn’t know, but she was thankful for it. “It’s fine I guess. Probably not much different than being anything else,” he paused. “Except for the unwanted attention, that’s not so great.”

“See, Stephen? You stepped in it,” Claudia said. “I’m sorry Davey. I’m glad you’re here and that we had a chance to meet you.” She grabbed her brother’s arm. “We’re going before you say anything else.”

Stephen protested and shouted over his shoulder. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious!”

Yvonne took a step towards Davey. “You handled that well. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he said, his voice sour. “I’m used to it.”

No, it wasn’t, but this was neither the time nor place. Movement caught the corner of her eye, and she turned to see Grace walking back to them.

Her face said it all, the face of someone trying desperately not to cry.

Yvonne took and a deep breath. “Grace, what happened?”

The twelve-year-old practically ran to Yvonne and threw her arms around her, tears now flowing freely.

“What happened?” Davey asked, his voice low and deadly.

“It’s fine,” she said, echoing the assurance her older brother had just given Yvonne.

“What did that little hún dàn say to you?”

“Stop cursing.”

“That wasn’t that bad a word.”

Grace sniffled. Yvonne ran a hand affectionately through the girl’s blond hair. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for, but she would make the best of it. Come to think of it, what had she signed up for when she’d stepped onto the Sparrow?

She knelt by Grace. “Tell us what happened.”

Grace looked between her and her brother, then at the ground. “He said my dress was the wrong color. And that it was ugly.”

Yvonne looked quietly at Davey to see how he would react, to see if he would understand why she was so heartbroken over this.

His face turned red and his hands clenched into fists. Good. He had a good pulse on his sister’s feelings. “Where is he? I’m going to…”

“No, you’re going to get us in trouble,” Grace said putting a hand on his arm. “It’s fine. It’s just a dress.”

“That’s not true and you know it,” Davey said. “Just because he’s some stuck up little royal…”

“Davey,” Yvonne said. She had better put a stop to this line of thought. “What will Matthew say if you cause trouble?”

His mouth clamped shut and he looked down at the ground.

“What will he say if I cause trouble?” she continued.

His eyes snapped to hers.

“That’s right. If you two promise to stay here and not do anything, I have a young man that’s in dire need of correction. I’ll be back shortly.”

She saw the wide-eyed stare that the siblings gave her as she turned away. She’d tell Matthew that she was doing the only thing she could to keep Davey out of trouble. But the truth was she wanted to discipline the kid herself.

Besides. Surely the adult in the room was the best one to dispense a little justice.

For the second time in the last few minutes, she was glad for the mask. No one would see how much she enjoyed doing this.

 
 

Matthew gave up on small talk with guests after a handful of disastrous attempts. Industry barons, politicians from various colonies, and socialites, most of the party-goers thought that freelancers were at best an undesirable part of society and at worst a pack of mangy rats.

Instead, he spent his time identifying the other freelancers. Most of them stuck out as badly as he did. He even spotted Vance. They nodded at each other and then kept their distance. Probably for the best. Things had turned out alright back on Mars, but Matthew wasn’t going to forget the feeling of that rifle pressing against his back. Not anytime soon.

“You look like you’re having fun, gaucho.”

Matthew was surprised to find the Emperor’s daughter, Julia, behind him. Fog still pooled around the hem of her crimson dress. He bowed his head politely. “Just doing my job, ma’am.”

She raised an eyebrow. “So you’re going to spend the entire party skulking into every corner, listening for whispers, just because my dad told you to?”

“That was the plan, yes. What I was paid for, after all.”

“Relax, Mr. Cole. It is a party. My party actually, and I’d prefer all the guests enjoy it.” She gestured across the room. Sharon was showing off her exo-suit by lifting a concrete bench above her head for a group of admirers. “Your girlfriend seems to be having fun.”

“Just acquaintances, ma’am,” he corrected. Maybe he should have been more worried about Sharon than either of the kids.

“Then you won’t object to joining me for a dance.”

That was about the last thing he’d expected to hear. “You’ll have to forgive me. I’m not much of a dancer.”

She put a hand on her hip. “And I’m supposed to believe that a gunslinger is clumsy?”

“They made me leave the gun on my ship. I’m a bit lost without it.”

“Pity. But I’m going to have to insist. Birthday privilege. I can handle you tripping over my feet for one waltz.”

Matthew sighed. He was cornered with no way out. Better to make the best of it rather than protest like some trapped animal. He offered her his arm and did his best to smile like a gentleman. Whatever that meant.

Julia took it, although Matthew was pretty sure she was the one that led him over to the open area in front of the string section where a few dozen couples danced in circles. “I’d always imagined freelancers would jump at the chance to get to know a lady of wealth.”

She placed one hand on his shoulder and extended the other to him. Matthew glanced at another couple to see where the lead was supposed to put his hands. Shoulder blade with right and hold her extended hand with the left. Got it.

The corners of her mouth tugged upwards in a lopsided smile. She must have caught his quick studying.

“I should be offended,” he said. “In that one sentence you accused me of being both a womanizer and a money grubber.” He looked down at this feet. “But I’m going to let it slide because I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing now.”

Julia laughed. “Dad was right. You are a strange one. Here let me show you the steps.”

 
Divider.jpg
 

Abigail was doing her job to the best of her ability. She was showing off and enjoying the attention that the best costume in the house brought her, all the while listening for any whispers of security threats. There were none, naturally. This garden was probably the safest place in the solar system right now.

And the most fun. The Venusians knew how to throw a party.

A familiar beaked costume caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Yvonne stepped up behind a boy about Grace’s age. Abigail was pretty sure that was one of the Imperial kids but wasn’t confident. Yvonne tapped him politely on the shoulder and he turned to face her. She took a sip from the wine glass she had been carrying and stooped in front of the boy. She said something to him, smiled, and took a quick look around her.

Then she threw the remainder of her wine glass in his face.

Abigail’s jaw dropped. What the hell was that?

Yvonne patted the boy once on the shoulder, stood and walked away. Abigail must have caught her eye because she diverted and walked over to join her.

“Close your mouth. He deserved it.”

Abigail shook her head. “If we get kicked out and lose our pay because of you, Matthew is going to…”

“He said something insulting to Grace.”

Abigail’s eyes flicked back towards where the boy still stood still as stone and dripping with wine. “Probably best you dealt with it. I might have just crushed him and called it a day.”

“I thought I handled it with the most tact,” Yvonne said. “Davey would have done something rather rash.”

“You enjoyed it,” Abigail said, trying not to smile.

“Maybe a bit, yes,” Yvonne said with a coy wink. “Hello, what have we here.” She pointed behind Abigail. “Check out the dance floor.”

It took Abigail a moment to figure out just what Yvonne was trying to point out. Then she saw it. “Cole’s not a very good dancer is he.”

“No. No, he’s not,” Yvonne agreed. “I’m surprised to see him out there at all, and with the birthday girl herself, no less.”

Abigail hadn’t even noticed Julia until that moment, which was odd considering the gray cloud that fell about their feet. And the dress that probably cost as much as the Sparrow. And her enviable figure. Abigail watched the woman's perfectly graceful movements and felt her heart tighten.

“Wonder how that happened.” Yvonne said.

Abigail didn’t answer.

“You there Abigail?”

She tore her eyes off of the Emperor’s daughter. “Sure.”

Yvonne regarded her with a knowing look. “Wait. You’re not jealous are you?”

Abigail turned back to the couple. “Well, of course I am. Wait! No. Not like that. I’m jealous of her. In that she’s dancing with Matthew. Or rather dancing at all. I’m jealous of the fact that she’s got legs that do what legs are supposed to do, alright? If I had what she has, I’d be out there doing what she’s doing.”

“With Matthew?”

“What is it with you and Grace lately? Sure. I’d even dance with Matthew.” She shook her head. “But that’s not the point.”

It was a weird thought. And not one she’d had before.

Mostly it was just weird.

Yvonne laughed. “It was just a question. No need to be so defensive. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wine glass is in need of refilling, and I have to get back to the kids. If you see someone being thrown out of the party later, it’s because my crimes have caught up with me.”

“Keep your head down then. Let’s not add to that bounty.”

Abigail was left alone. Against her better judgment, she turned back to the couple and watched them stumble around the dance floor for another minute. Julia at least seemed to be a good sport about it.

She was startled by a new visitor at her side.

“If it isn’t the Shield Maiden of Mars. I’d be remiss if I didn’t go out of my way to shake her hand.”

Abigail turned to face the newcomer. He was tall, meaning he didn’t stand nearly as far below her as most men did, with sandy hair under a black cowboy hat. Unlike Matthew’s relatively flat campero, it had the more dramatic curves of the Arizona style. He wore a black button-down shirt with long sleeves.

She nodded politely and extended her hand. “Abigail Sharon.”

He shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’ve followed your exploits for years. Professionally of course. I have to hire freelancers on occasion, so it helps to know the field.

“Of course,” Abigail said. “What is it that you hire freelancers for, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that. Contract work for others mostly, though I’m picky when it comes to clients. I’m a specialist at making things happen.”

“That wasn’t an answer, but I get the feeling that’s all I’m going to get.”

“We all have professional secrets,” the stranger said with a warm laugh. His eyes flicked down over her suit.

That was prying more than she liked. “Well if you ever need my services, I’ve been traveling on a ship lately, the Sparrow.”

“Then you must know, Matthew Cole.”

“As much as anyone does. Are you acquainted with him?”

“Old friends,” the man said. “We go back all the way to Europa.”

“And there’s a topic he’ll never talk about.”

The man pursed his lips. “I guess I’m not surprised. Europa… It went badly for Cole.”

She felt her curiosity bubble to the surface. “That’s what I’ve been able to piece together. Something about a cartel. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to spill the goods?”

He shook his head. “I could never do that, betray his trust like that. I’m sure he’ll tell you if it becomes important.”

“Not likely,” she shrugged. “Well, it’s been good to meet you Mr… Actually I don’t think you introduced yourself.”

“I knew him as Whitaker,” Cole said from behind her. “But that wasn’t his real name. I’m not even sure he has one.” He was trying to sound casual, but Abigail had been around him enough to know something was wrong.

“Of course I have a name, or rather I was born with one,” the stranger said. “I suppose it has been some time since I’ve gone by it.”

Cole now stood by Abigail’s side. He was coiled like a snake. This conversation had suddenly taken a bizarre and dark turn. What was going on here?

“Why are you here?” he asked quietly.

“Business, same as you. I thought surely you’d be a little more polite after all these years. I, for one, am glad to see you.” The friendly warmth from earlier was gone, and there was a cold look in his eyes.

“I will never be glad to see you,” Cole bit.

“Pity. And you were always the people person between the two of us.” He turned to Abigail. “I’m afraid I may have poisoned the well with my presence. I don’t suppose you could give us a moment’s privacy to work out our differences, would you, Abigail?”

“Yeah, sure. Pleasure to meet you. I think.” She quietly retreated from the conversation. But not too far. Something about the stranger had started to feel wrong. Insidious. She’d left them to have their private word, but she wasn’t about to leave Cole completely alone with this… friend.

She leaned against a marble pillar some twenty meters away with arms crossed.
 
If this guy was trouble, she’d relieve him of his arms. She doubted Julia’s legs could do that.

 
Divider.jpg
 

“Why are you here?” Matthew repeated as soon as Sharon was out of earshot.

“I try not to lie, Cole,” Whitaker said. Matthew had trouble thinking of him by any other name. It was the name he had cursed for a decade. “Here for business. And don’t worry. It doesn’t interfere with yours. You might actually look at it like I’m doing you a favor.”

“You knew Abigail was part of my crew when you approached her, didn’t you?”

“Naturally. I knew if I struck up a conversation with her it wouldn’t take you too long to find me. I’m kind of surprised you’re giving up the ‘Cole works alone’ thing. Haveing difficulty putting food on the table lately?”

“An honest living is hard to come by,” Matthew said through clenched teeth.

“I’m sure it is, but that’s not the sort of thing I concern myself with,” Whitaker said. “I’m rather impressed you’ve kept it up for all these years.”

“You know me better than that.”

Whitaker chuckled grimly. “Yes, I suppose I do. Or I did. I’ve been a bit disappointed with you for some time. A broke freelancer bouncing from one job to the next. If you want to know why you haven’t heard from me, that’s it. I thought the idealist was dead. Back then you were the one man left that believed in something. I think you might have wanted to save even my poor black soul.” He shook his head. “Saving all those children over Titan was the Cole I used to know. The one who was going to single-handedly take on Hueso Rojo.”

“That was an accident,” Matthew said quietly. “We had no clue there were children involved when we took that job.”

“No, I didn’t think so, but coming out of it with zero casualties, besides the mad-man, was impressive. I doubt that was the path of least resistance.” Whitaker shrugged. “It interested me enough that I had to at least talk to you again, see if you had risen from your slumber. I’m not sure you have.” He turned as if to leave. “You should know by the way, that the cartels have their eye on you. You removed a good supply of young slaves. Keep both eyes open, Cole.”

Matthew frowned. “Thought they were your friends?”

“What, the cartels? Hardly. I’m as pragmatic as they come. You know that. Means are for finding ends. And with that, I’m afraid we’re out of time. As I said before, I have business to attend to.”

There was a chorus of screams from another part of the garden. Matthew glanced in the direction of the commotion and reached for his revolver before remembering that it wasn’t there. He looked back towards Whitaker.

The man was gone. Matthew spun around, but he was nowhere to be seen. That was impossible. It had been barely two seconds. There was no way…

He’d have to figure that out later. Turning, he sprinted towards the chaos. Partygoers were running away from whatever had triggered the screaming. He was nearly bowled over by a pair of masked women who apparently couldn’t see very well in their costumes.

He reached the center of the commotion. A body was on the floor, burning with a fierce intensity. Chemical fire. Matthew could see that at once. Whoever it was was already dead, no doubt about it. A crimson armored guard ran up with a fire extinguisher.

“No, wait!” Matthew shouted, but it was too late.

The guard sprayed the extinguisher. The fire reacted explosively, and the guard fell away from the body, bits of his armor now ablaze. Matthew ran to his side and helped him peel off the offending armor. He tried to hold his breath. No telling what sort of fumes were coming off this stuff.

He and the guard retreated to a safe distance. Crimson-clad soldiers were everywhere now, corralling the few remaining civilians away from the scene of the crime. Abigail and a handful of the other freelancers, including Vance, had also arrived. Matthew made eye contact with her. He shook his head sadly in answer to her unspoken question.

He knew who had done this. He just didn’t know why. Or how.

Emperor Dominic the Second arrived at the scene, surrounded by his men. “What happened here? I want to know who assassinated my Defense Minister. Leave me be, Captain. I will not be removed.”

“I think I know who did this,” Matthew said approaching the Emperor. “Just before this happened,” he said pointing at the smoldering body. It was little more than a pile of ashes at this point, “I was speaking to a man with whom I had a bit of a past.”

Emperor Dominic’s eyes narrowed and fixed on Matthew. “Who was he? What is his name?”

“I don’t actually know. Ten years ago he went by Whitaker, but that was a fake. He was working closely with one of the slave cartels on Europa at the time.”

The Emperor turned to one of the guards. “Check the security cameras. Get an ID on him.” He turned back to Matthew. “Where is your suspect? What makes you think he was involved?”

“He disappeared the moment I heard the first scream,” Matthew said. “I can’t really explain it. He was there and then… well, he was just gone.”

“Peculiar,” the emperor said. “No matter, the garden is on lockdown. We will find this mystery man. As to my second question?”

“He said he was here on business,” Matthew said, frowning. “No, actually he said his business wouldn’t interfere with mine and that he was doing me a favor. Not sure I can make a lot of sense of that.”

“Misdirection, perhaps?”

Matthew shook his head. “I doubt it. He was rather candid throughout our conversation.”

“Why didn’t you report the conversation?”

“Would have, but the conversation ended when the alarm spread.”

Emperor Dominic placed his hands behind his back. “I see. I have little doubt the recordings will corroborate your statement. It appears the chemical response team has arrived.”

Three men in full hazard suits approached the body with instruments. Almost at once one of them spoke to the gathered crowd. “I’m going to ask everyone to move at least thirty meters away. I read trace amounts of hydrogen fluoride over the body.”

The gathered crowd hurriedly moved much further away than the requested amount.

Matthew remained close to the Emperor. As the only witness of interest, he figured it was just a matter of time before he was questioned again.

After a few minutes, one of the chemical response team members approached holding an object the size of a coin in a pair of tongs. It was half melted, but Matthew recognized it at once.

“So my own defense minister was part of White Void,” the emperor said, thoughtful. “Rather brazen of him to keep their sigil on him in my presence.”

“White Void requires its members to keep it on their person at all times,” Matthew said quietly. “I was unaware that they had much presence here on Venus.”

“I have been actively discouraging them my whole reign. They have made more inroads than I realized if one of my own advisors was on their payroll.” He clenched a fist. “And all of this on my daughter’s birthday.” He turned back to the suited hazard team member. “How was this done?”

“Chemical fire. Possibly started by a device hidden in his costume. Judging from the waste products it was certainly fluorine compound. I can think of several candidates in that category that could start a fire like this. Not something you want to handle if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Matthew took off his campero and wiped sweat from his forehead. “So at the right time, the device releases a small amount of the offending chemical, burns him to a crisp, but not so much that the sigil is destroyed.” He turned to the Emperor. “Our man wanted us to find that sigil.”

“Yes, I think so.” Emperor Dominic said. “It seems he did me a favor.”

Matthew lowered his voice. “Remember, I mentioned a crewman that had a bounty on her head. It was a White Void bounty. You might say he did me a favor too.” The two men shared a moment’s silence. Matthew was dumbstruck.

A guard approached. “Your Imperial Grace. We checked the cams. Mr. Cole’s story checks out. The stranger disappears the moment the fire starts.”

“Disappears?”

“He’s there one frame and gone the next. The techies are gonna scrub it to see if it’s been tampered with. They think some exotic technology might be involved.”

“Earthtech,” Emperor Dominic said with a distasteful sneer.

“Or worse,” Matthew added. “I didn’t see him afterward either.”

“Lovely. Captain, take Mr. Cole and his crew to a secure location. We’re going to want statements from all of them. Even the children.”

Matthew made as if to protest, but was cut off by the Emperor.

“No, you have nothing to worry about Mr. Cole. I believe you to be above suspicion. However, this mystery man has some connection with you and your crew. If there is any other detail to learn about this individual, no matter how small, I want to hear it.”

Matthew wondered where Yvonne, Grace, and Davey were for the first time since this had started. He’d nearly forgotten about them in the ensuing chaos. He glanced at the now cold pile of ashes across the garden. What had been Whitaker’s game here? He had to make a determined effort to unclench his jaw as the guards led him and Abigail away.

Good thing Whitaker disappeared. Matthew might have killed him himself.  He was ashamed of how that thought brought him pleasure.

 
Divider.jpg
 

The remainder of the afternoon was a nightmare. Matthew was informed that, because he had helped the unfortunate guard out of his armor, his clothing might have been contaminated with toxic compounds. They were destroyed, along with his best hat and second favorite poncho.

Each member of the Sparrow crew was interrogated. Nothing more of interest came up, other than Yvonne’s confession. She had apparently had a bit of a run in with one of the members of the Imperial family. The captain was unamused, but given the more important events of the day, wasn’t particularly interested. Matthew’s own testimony was given in the privacy of a secure room. There were details of his past with Whitaker that he wasn’t keen on the rest of the crew knowing.

They also got word that the Defense Minister wasn’t the only victim assassinated that afternoon. Across the city of Discordia, nearly forty people were burnt alive, each one bearing a White Void sigil. The counter-offensive against the crime syndicate was thorough. Matthew was afraid that Whitaker would be declared a hero if he showed his face again, but he was never found. Security footage of him at the party was readily available, but no further footage of him was found either before or after the party.

They were chasing a ghost.

When evening came, the crew of the Sparrow was summoned by the Emperor. They were led through the bright, clean halls of the palace and admitted into a comfortable dining hall.

The Emperor and his family were already seated. He rose to his feet to greet them. “After the grilling my men put you through today, I thought I owed you a bit of an apology.”

If the smell of the food on the table was any indication, this was going to be worth the trip to Venus on its own. Matthew was seated between Julia and Sharon near the Emperor at the head of the table.

“There is, unfortunately, one last bit of business to discuss,” he said as everyone had finally gotten situated. “Ms. Naude, I believe you were in a bit of an incident with one of my sons earlier today.”

Yvonne froze. Matthew just shook his head. He’d honestly thought it would be Sharon to commit some faux pas. Or Davey or Grace. Anyone but Yvonne.

“Thank you,” he continued. “Nicolas confessed how rude he was to Miss Anderson.” He smiled wryly. “While your methods were unconventional, I believe you taught him a lesson he won’t forget about how to treat women.”

Not quite what Matthew was expecting to hear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yvonne breathe out a sigh of relief. Guess that was the end of that.

He felt a soft hand on his arm. Julia. “What do you think your friend has against White Void? He seems to have gone to an awful lot of trouble to help out my father. And while we can’t approve of his methods, the results were certainly impressive.”

Matthew glanced at the distracting hand and then shrugged. “He’s not my friend, and your guess is as good as mine. Today was the first I’ve seen him in a decade.” This wasn’t a topic he wanted to get into.

He was saved by Empress Vivian. “Now then, Julia, we didn’t invite the crew of the Sparrow here to talk business, but to thank them for their service today.”

“And to hopefully hear a story or two,” Emperor Dominic said. “Give us a tale Mr. Cole. Freelancers always seem to be able to spin a yarn about one adventure or another.”

Julia laughed and took a sip from her wine glass. “Dad tries to wheedle stories out of every freelancer that passes through. You’d think being Emperor of Venus was exciting enough. I think he tries to live vicariously through the people he hires.”

“I fail to see what is wrong with that.” Emperor Dominic said, stroking his beard. “So what will it be Matthew? A tale of heroism and adventure?”

Matthew saw that all eyes around the table were on him. Julia was smiling brightly. Sharon had a bit of a scowl. No clue what that was about. He took a sip from his glass, and his eyes widened. Cherry soda. Someone had done their research. He took a deep breath.

“I’m not sure about heroism, but this one time on Iapetus, I was hired to guard a supply convoy running between two settlements…”

 
Divider.jpg
 
 
 
 
Michael Kane5 Comments