(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
JAKARI CIRCLED THE BATTLEFIELD in her pterocanis form, trying to burn off some of her rage. She hated losing a Talus. It wasn’t that they were hard to replace. Connect a Shim to your Phylactery, them stick it in a mass of TOP matter, and you had a new Talus. The problem was, no two Shims ever felt quite the same, and it took time to get used to a new one. That was time she wasn’t fighting at her best.
She could have taken down the Char without using the self-destruct on her Talus, but a Class One against a Class Three in an open field battle wasn’t a fight she wanted to have when there was a time constraint. Keeping the locals from knowing there were aliens among them was still listed as a mission priority, which meant she’d needed to end the fight and end it fast.
There was nothing for it, though. The battle was over, and her Talus and the Char Talus were both expanding vapor. The difference was the Char soldier hadn’t had the good sense to bail out. She wondered who they were. Were they a recent recruit, someone just a few decades old, who didn’t know when to cut and run? Or were they someone who had fought in the rebellion, and just made a mistake? Did they even know what they were fighting for? And what about the foot soldiers she’d killed? How many centuries or millennia of lived experience had she erased from the universe that night?
God, she was so tired of all of this. It was all such a waste.
She circled lower and lower until she came in for a landing, touching down near the bridge, then shifting back into her human form.
Jakari spun around, morphing her right hand into a plasma cannon and pointing it at the person who’d spoken, only to relax a moment later as she realized it was the human who she’d rescued. She morphed the plasma cannon back into a hand.
“You were supposed to go and find help,” Jakari said. “Someone to get you away from here.”
“I didn’t want to leave you,” she said. “You saved my life.”
“And you…Forget it. Get out of here.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. Just, get out of here. Forget you saw any of this.”
“I can’t do that,” the woman said.
“I’m a cop,” she said.
“Fuck.” Local law enforcement. Just what she needed. “Jakari to Mamachi. Where’s my backup?”
“Close. Two minutes.”
“We’ve got a security breach,” Jakari said. “Local law enforcement.”
“That’s not good,” Mamachi said. “Gomez is not going to be happy.”
“Yeah. She can get in line. My Talus is gone. I’m going to need transport for two.”
Jakari turned and looked at the human. “You have a name?” she asked.
“Detective Hayami Takahashi. Dallas Police Department. And who are you?”
“You can call me Jakari,” she said.
“That a first name or a last name?” Hayami asked.
“That’s an only name,” she said.
“Okay,” Hayami said. Jakari got the feeling she didn’t believe her, but there wasn’t a lot she could do about that. “You want to tell me what just happened?”
“You stuck your nose into something that’s way above your head,” Jakari said.
“Except it’s not,” Hayami said. “I’m one of the detectives working the kidnappings downtown. You know, like what happened to us.”
“Well, I suppose that would explain why you walked into the middle of a perfectly good trap,” Jakari said.
“So, you were looking to get kidnapped,” Hayami said.
Jakari shook her head. “I can’t talk to you about this. You’re going to have to wait and talk to my boss.”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Jakari said as she spotted her backup. “Our ride is here.”
Cikara looked up from the display as the door to their office opened. Bayadani stepped inside and came to attention. Cikara felt a small wave of disquiet at the sight of them. Even after five local years wearing one, the sight of the human forms still disturbed Cikara. They missed their true form, and longed to return to Cruthanna, however impossible the current situation made that.
“Yes?” Cikara asked.
“Forgive the interruption, General, but there’s a situation you should be aware of.”
“Go on,” Cikara said.
“The Collection team is dead.”
“What?” Cikara asked. “How?”
“They grabbed two specimens for conversion, but shortly after the grab, a Class One Talus attacked them. One of the specimens turned out to be a Suil operative. They attempted to escape with the other specimen, but the Collection team gave chase. The Suil operative led them into a dry riverbed where they turned to fight. After that, we don’t know exactly what happened, but we lost the Collection team’s comm beacons one by one.”
“They had a Class Three Talus!” Cikara said. “How could they lose to a Class One?”
“I believe the Class One was piloted by Jakari, General.”
Cikara slumped back in their chair, shocked by what they had just heard. Jakari was here?
“What makes you believe that?” Cikara asked.
Bayadani stepped forward and placed their hand on an interface point on Cikara’s desk. The holoprojector in the center of the desk came to life, projecting an image of a Class One Talus in a mech configuration, and Cikara felt a chill run down their spine. One of the quirks of the way Gadan technology worked was that no two Talus users would ever create forms that were completely identical. They might start from the same templates, but a Talus was a living extension of the user, and the more experienced a user was, the more their Talus tended to reflect the user’s personality and experience. More the experienced a Talus user was, the easier it was to identify them by the quirks of their mech forms.
“You know them better than I do, General,” Bayadani said.
“Her,” Cikara said.
“Ah, yes,” Bayadani said. “I forgot that she’s a Migrant.”
“That’s definitely her,” Cikara said. “That means her little partner is here too.”
“Dubari,” Bayadani said.
“Have you informed Nira of this?” Cikara asked.
“No, but the chances that she doesn’t know are slim.”
Cikara wished they could argue, but that was one of the unfortunate side effects of having the Char’s chief spy master looking over their shoulder. She always knew everything. In this case, that might actually be a good thing, though. Jakari had been a thorn in the Char’s side since the civil war began. Jaya had issued dozens of bounties on her, but no one had ever been able to collect. Nira would love the chance to remove Jakari from the board. Anything to appease her master.
“Do we have an ident scan of Jakari’s human form?” Cikara asked.
“We have scans for both her and the human who was with her,” Bayadani said. The hologram switched from Jakari’s Talus to an image of two woman. Cikara has spent enough time studying the humans to learn their phenotypes. One of the women looked Japanese, though she had darker than normal skin for that ethnic group, and hair that was a closer fit to various African groups. Possibly mixed race, then. The other woman had slightly darker skin and short-cropped hair. Light-skinned African or mixed race. Both were attractive as humans considered such things. Cikara had learned to read the signs even if they didn’t see the appeal of the creatures.
“Which one is which?”
Bayadani pointed at the one that wasn’t Japanese. “That’s Jakari.”
“And who is the other one?”
“We’re unsure. Possibly an agent of the human government.”
Cikara thought about it. That would make sense. The Suil had been working with the local government and had been assisted by humans in some of their previous encounters with them on this world.
“Do you think you could take Jakari?” Cikara asked. They knew there was no way Bayadani could, but they were curious to see if Bayadani realized their own limitations.
“No,” Bayadani said. “Not alone. I’m good, but…”
Cikara nodded, reassured that Bayadani had a realistic understanding of their own skills. That would be important when it came time to be rid of Nira. Cikara took a moment, turning it over in their head. Up until now, the Suil presence on Earth had been little more than a minor nuisance, but if Jakari was here, it was very likely they had worked out what Cikara was doing. That wasn’t unexpected after they had captured a couple of Cikara’s Helots, but it also meant that Jakari was here for them. It was hardly the first time an assassin had targeted them, but it was the first time they were actually afraid. Jakari wasn’t just any assassin, and Jakari knew them. They’d fought side by side often enough during the rebellion. And there had been the incident with Mamachi.
“Send Birat and Ghuma out. Give them the ident scan of this human and tell them I want a location on the Suil base of operations. It’s time we dealt with them.”
“Birat and Ghuma?” Bayadani asked. “Are you sure you want to send them?”
“Yes,” Cikara said. “Them and only them.”
“Nira would not be happy about that.”
“Nira is not in command,” Cikara said. “Send them.”
“Of course, General,” Bayadani said. They turned and left without further comment.
Cikara closed their eyes, turning everything over in their head. They thought they’d have more time before they had to deal with the Suil, but what was done was done, and this could be an opportunity. If Cikara could just redirect Jakari’s attention onto Nira, the plan might still work. Perhaps kill her human associate and make it look like Nira was to blame.
They wondered for a moment if they could actually recruit Jakari. It had been a long time since the two of them spoke, not since the incident with Mamachi on Cruthanna, but if Jakari was still anything like the person Cikara remembered, she might be willing to work with Cikara if it meant an end to the war. It was likely wishful thinking, but Cikara didn’t want to kill any more friends. They didn’t even want to kill Nira, Jaya, Saka, and Arthan, but they had realized a long time ago that the war would never end as long as the four of them were alive. Killing Nira, Jaya, and Saka would be relatively easy, but Cikara wasn’t sure how to get to Arthan, and if they could convince Jakari to help, she might be the key to that.
They looked back down at the display they’d been working on before they’d been interrupted, dismissing the idea. It was wishful thinking and Cikara had done too much of that of late, but they were tired of war and short on hope.
Hayami wasn’t sure what on Earth was going on. She’d been shuffled into the back of a Humvee and driven to a military base northeast of Dallas, which she supposed made some sense. The machines she’d seen that night would have had to be military. But that still didn’t explain why people were being kidnapped. It didn’t explain the kind of technology she’d seen. She’d read enough sci-fi to know what she’d seen had to have been some kind of nanotechnology, but that didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. Not what she’d seen, not a military base she’d never heard of, not the way she’d been shoved into an interrogation room as soon as she’d arrived. Someone had checked on her every fifteen minutes, bringing her water, food, and escorting her to a restroom when she needed it, but she’d been sitting there for almost six hours, and she was exhausted.
She needed to call in what had happened, but how the hell could she explain it? No one was going to believe she’d seen giant robots fighting in the Trinity Riverbed. No one was going to believe she’d seen a woman who could apparently turn into a giant bat dog or turn her hands into energy weapons. No one was going to believe she’d shot someone four times and they hadn’t even flinched. She wasn’t sure she believed it and she’d seen it with her own eyes. She finally had a break in the case after six months and no one was going to believe any of it, assuming the military didn’t throw her in some black site so she could never tell anyone anything.
She turned at the sound of the door opening. Jakari and two people she hadn’t seen before came into the room. One was a dark-haired woman wearing a black suit and carrying a handful of evidence bags. The other was blonde man with a deep tan and brown eyes. He was wearing black pants, and a white t-shirt, but looked like he would be more at home riding a surfboard out in California. Jakari and the woman sat down across from Hayami, while the man grabbed a chair out of the corner and pulled it up to the end of the table. The woman laid out the evidence bags in front of Hayami, and she immediately recognized her badge, her phone, her cuffs, her knife, her spare magazines, and her backup gun.
“Where did you get these?” Hayami said.
“You were apparently on the phone with your partner when you got grabbed. She heard the shots and called it in. The Dallas PD traced your phone, and found your things scattered in the road where the kidnappers had dumped them.”
“Where’s my other gun?” Hayami asked.
“In our evidence lock up. You won’t be getting it back,” the woman said. “Now, I do apologize for keeping you waiting so long, but you’ve left us with a huge mess to clean up.”
“I’ve left you with a mess?” Hayami asked.
“Yes,” the woman said. “I’m Special Agent in Charge Silvia Gomez, DHS. Tonight, you walked right into the middle of a matter of National Security. Our agent had to blow her cover to keep you from being kidnapped, which meant blowing an entire op. One we may not be able to repeat. Now, would you like to tell me what the hell you were doing?”
“My job,” Hayami said. “People have been disappearing in that part of town for months. I’m part of a joint DPD/FBI task force looking into the disappearances.”
“Your Lieutenant at the DPD said you are part of their Human Trafficking task force,” Gomez said.
“That’s right. We caught the case because the first victims were girls in their early twenties. We thought it was a human trafficking grab, until victims who didn’t fit that profile started to disappear.”
“That still doesn’t explain what you were doing downtown tonight, or why you approached my agent.”
“I was downtown because we’ve gone six months without a break in the case. I was watching for any potential suspect vehicles, or anyone suspicious. People casing the area. People disabling traffic cams. I was trying to find some clue to tell me where twenty-three missing people have gone.”
“And why did you approach my agent?”
“Because I saw her walking down an unlit side street on her own. I was worried she was going to get grabbed, and I wanted to protect her.”
Gomez looked over at Jakari, who nodded.
“I can’t fault your instincts, but Jesus, you picked the wrong person to help,” Gomez said.
“So, you did want her to get grabbed.”
“Yes,” Gomez said. “We’d been parading her around in the danger zone for six days, hoping they would grab her.”
“And you didn’t think to let the Dallas PD or the FBI in on your plans?” Hayami asked.
“No, we didn’t,” Gomez said. “You might have noticed that all of this is way above your pay grade.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” Hayami said. “We’ve been working the case for six months. You could have brought us in on this. We’ve got hundreds of hours of surveillance. We’ve got videos of four of the grabs. We could have helped you.”
“The only thing you could help us do, Detective, is exactly what you did. Help us blow an op. We have no idea if the people we are trying to catch have eyes and ears inside the Dallas PD. We don’t know if they have selected Dallas as a grab site simply because it’s convenient, or because they have a way of avoiding law enforcement or both. In short, informing you would have put my agent at risk.”
“Okay, enough,” Jakari said.
Gomez turned towards her. “What?”
“The woman was doing her job,” Jakari said. “I don’t know anything about how you people handle your law enforcement, but from what I can see, she seems to have been doing it well. Yeah, she got in the way. Yeah, I’m pissed the op is blown. But she didn’t do anything wrong, and busting her ass is counterproductive.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“I don’t know,” Jakari said. “I have no idea if the Char transmitted ident scans back to their ship, but if they did, she’ll be a target. I’d say stick her in safehouse somewhere and be done with it.”
“Safehouse?” Hayami said. “You can’t be serious. And who are the Char? What’s an ident scan? What kind of ship?”
Gomez glared at Jakari, but the man spoke for the first time.
“Jakari, opsec,” he said.
“Seriously?” Jakari asked. “She saw me using my Talus. She saw me fighting another Talus. She saw me morph into a pterocanis when I bailed out, and she saw me turn my hand into a plasma cannon. I really don’t think there’s much point in worrying about it now.”
“That’s not the point,” the man said. “The less she knows, the better.”
“The lieutenant has a point,” Gomez said to Jakari. “Detective Hayami is Dallas PD. We can’t just stick her in a safehouse without explaining what’s going on to her superiors, and even if we did explain, they’re going to raise hell. I don’t think we can hold her.”
“No one is holding me,” Hayami said.
“It would be for your own safety,” the man said. “You don’t have any idea how dangerous these people are.”
Hayami looked over at him. “Do you have a name, Lieutenant?” she asked.
“Mamachi,” he said.
“Well, Lieutenant Mamachi, I’m a cop. I’m not used to hiding from the bad guys,” Hayami said. “Whoever these people are, they have kidnapped almost two dozen people off the streets in my town. I want a piece of them.”
“That’s not your call,” Gomez said.
“Maybe it should be,” Mamachi said.
“What?” Gomez asked.
“She has a point,” Mamachi said. “Her task force has been watching the disappearances for six months. If they stay on the investigation, something like this is going to happen again. And there’s also the fact that we’ve had a lot of luck with cooperation between…” He trailed off without finishing the sentence, which left Hayami a little confused.
Gomez looked at her, then back at Mamachi. “You sure the general would go for it?”
“The general isn’t the one who insisted on keeping what’s going out of the public eye. She would actually prefer more open cooperation between us because it would make things easier.”
Gomez shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “It’s your call. I’m just here to keep it out of the papers.”
“What are you talking about?” Hayami asked.
Mamachi turned towards her. “After this incident, Homeland Security is going to have to take over the investigation into the kidnappings. We can’t risk Dallas PD or the FBI getting further involved. The risk of exposure, and the risk to the lives of your people is too great. However, as Colonel Jakari points out, you’ve already seen a great deal of what’s going on. Since the people we’re fighting most likely have your picture, at the very least, you are already on their radar. What I’m proposing is that instead of putting you into protective custody, we bring you into our operation, and pair you with one of our people.”
“I like that option,” Hayami said.
“It will be dangerous,” Mamachi said. “If they know who you are, you will be a target.”
“I can live with that.”
“Good,” Mamachi said. “Then it’s settled. You’ll work with Jakari.”
“What?” Jakari asked. “No! Absolutely not!”
“Okay,” Hayami said. “I’m not feeling the love.”
Jakari looked at her. “I already have a partner,” she said. “And I can’t protect a squishy in a fight.”
“Did you just call me a squishy?” Hayami asked.
“Yes,” Jakari said, before turning back to Mamachi. “I’m not here to make nice with the locals. I’m here to kill Cikara.”
“I know why you’re here,” Mamachi said.
“Who’s Cikara?” Hayami asked.
“Then you know I can’t spend my time babysitting some defenseless local,” Jakari said.
“She won’t be defenseless,” Mamachi said. “We can equip her with gear that will make her considerably less squishy. As for your mission, you can’t kill Cikara until you can find them, and right now, the detective may be your best bet for actually finding them.”
Jakari stopped and stared at Mamachi for a moment, then looked over at Hayami.
“If they have her ident scan, you know they’ll come for her,” Mamachi said.
“I don’t want to use her as bait,” Jakari said, turning back to Mamachi.
“I don’t either,” Mamachi said. “Part of the reason we’re here is to protect humans. But if we don’t find a way to stop Cikara, there won’t be any humans left, and not long after that, there won’t be any Suil left either, which means there won’t be anything standing in the way of Jaya.”
“Fuck,” Jakari said. She turned back to Hayami. “Are you sure okay with this?”
“Being dangled as bait for people who ride around in twenty-foot tall battle mechs kidnaping random people and doing God knows what to them? No. I’m definitely not okay with that. But people are disappearing, and it sounds like whatever is going on is really fucking bad, so…sign me up.”
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