The suns are low in the sky as I stroll through the little alley, humming along and moving my hips in time to the music blasting through my headphones from the little handset tucked into my purse. There’s something about twilight, fresh sea air, and a good song that always makes me want to dance in public. And, well— for once, it’s not like there’s anybody around—
—then two burly men step out of the shadows directly into my path.
“Hello there, young lady,” leers the first.
I sigh, yanking the headphones out of my ears and glaring up at the thugs towering over me. “Thanks, dick. I was just getting to the best part.”
The other bows mockingly. “Beg pardon, miss, we sure don’t mean to trouble you. Let’s just be having the contents of your little bag, there, eh? And then we can all get on with our business, civilized like. We’re just here for your coin, see. Your womanly virtue’s safe with us.” He winks.
I fold my arms, rolling my eyes. “I really thought you people would have learned by now.”
The larger man steps forward, cracking his knuckles. “Come, now, m’dear; none of us want this to get… ugly.”
“You just interrupted me in the middle of my favorite song.” I drop my hands to my sides, narrowing my eyes at the thug. “So speak for yourself.”
The second thug gives a hoot of laughter. “Feisty one, ain’t she?”
“Now, there, missy.” The first thug bends down until he’s face to face with me. “We’re gonna have to teach you some manners now, ain’t we?”
“Let’s get this fascinating little cultural exchange over with,” I reply coolly, adjusting my footing. “I got places to be.”
The thug reaches out a hand to grab my shoulder — and howls in surprise at the sound of bone cracking, as he hurtles past me onto the cobblestones. I flex my fingers, advancing on the seccond thug, who can’t seem to believe his eyes.
“Come on. You’re not even trying.” I spread my arms wide, waggling my fingers at him. “Show me what a big, bad zia dzuang can do.”
He growls and makes a fist, driving it towards my gut with all the force he can muster. I catch his hand easily in midair, his momentum breaking like a wave on rock.
His jaw drops.
“What the dua be sha—”
I grin. “My turn now!”
The punch actually lifts him off his feet, carrying him a short distance through the air before he lands, spluttering, ass-first on the street. I amble forward, idly massaging my knuckles.
“Let me give you a little social studies lesson, hm? Don’t get up.” I grip him by the shoulder and slam him back downwards as he tries to clamber back to his feet. “I know we look real small and all, but here’s the thing about my people, kid.” I lean down until my face is level with his. “See, it just so happens I’m the end result of over a thousand years of meticulous breeding and genetic engineering by the most skilled biologists and eugenicists in the galaxy, all with the sole aim of producing the ultimate soldier. In fact, every last one of my people is too!”
I slap him lightly in the face and his head jerks violently to the side. “So here’s the thing. These arms might look slim but there’s titanium in our bones. And I mean that literally. On my worst day, I am above and beyond what the strongest Rosie could aspire to on his finest. I know teenagers back home as could snap you in half without breaking a sweat. Which, incidentally, was how old I was when I was learning how to bullseye a target at six hundred paces with a combat rifle.” I leer at him. “We’re stronger than you. Faster than you. More durable than you. Better than you. And—” I pause to thrust my fist behind me; I’m rewarded with a crunch and a scream as the first thug topples “—we’ve got better senses than you. I could take you both blindfolded. With one hand chained behind my back. That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve done it before. On a bet. I was real drunk.” I lean closer, savoring the terror in his eyes. “And you know what the best part is?” I giggle. “I’m not even that good at UC! I’m green-sash. That means solidly mediocre. Our real fighters?” I give him a wide, toothy grin. “Pray to that God of yours you never, ever go up against one of them.”
I finish the lecture with a boot planted firmly in the thug’s chest, sending him hurtling along the cobblestones and into a heap of trash like a greased icepuck skidding down a tue shan alley. I delicately slip my headphones back into my ears, idly dodging a punch from the first thug and returning one that breaks at least two of his ribs. I catch his remaining arm and bring my knee up sharply, shattering his radius and ulna with the blow.
“It’s been real, boys!” I offer the screaming thug a jaunty wave as he collapses back onto the pavement, then turn on my heel and saunter on towards the ocean waves and sunset. “I would trade all the stars, I would trade all the moons / I would trade my life, for your heart, for your heart,” I sing aloud as the track reaches the chorus. “I would trade all of space, I would trade all of time / I would trade my life, for your love, for your love…”
The guard at the compound gates salutes me as I approach; I return the salute lazily. “How’s the shift, Lisa?” I call out in our native tongue as the heavy gates begin to slide back.
Lisren shrugs. “Boring day, y’know? Didn’t get to bust a single head.” He catches my wrist, glances at my bruised knuckles. “Unlike you, looks like!”
I laugh, yanking my wrist back and punching him in the shoulder. “Come out with me on one of your days off duty; I’m sure we can find some kind of trouble to get into.”
He grins back. “I’ll hold you to that. Hey, still on for sparring tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I give him a peck on the cheek. “Later, you.”
“You take care, Niri.”
“Not a chance, bitch.” I wave as the gates slide shut behind me, and head on into the compound.
“Niri!” Sofi jumps up from her desk in the screening room and gives me a hug as the doors behind me slam. “You’re back! I missed you.”
I kiss her softly. “I was gone for like three hours, babe.”
“Yeah! Three whole hours.” She pouts. “I get lonely.”
“I am going to find you more friends here if it kills me.” I hand her my handset; she slots it back into its cubby as I start to slip out of my clothes. Sofi pads back over to me to help, unbuckling my breastplate and taking every opportunity to feel me up. We stack the gear in a laundry chute and Sofi fetches me a freshly-washed rancal. I smile at the feeling of the soft, familiar fabric on my skin; of smooth hardwood beneath my bare feet.
She cinches the robe around my waist and hugs me, kissing the back of my neck. I squeeze her thigh gently.
“Gotta say, I’m loving this welcome home. This is way better than when Lanved is on screening duty.”
“Mmm.” She nuzzles me. “I don’t suppose you’ll believe me if I make some excuse to keep you locked up in here until I’m off shift?”
“Not a chance.” I pull her around in front of me and kiss her on the lips. Her eyelids flutter and she goes limp in my arms as I dig my nails into her shoulders. “But maybe I can get you recharged a bit for the next hour or two.”
“Aaahh.” She squeezes her eyes shut and rests her head on my shoulder, kissing me gently on the neck and wrapping her arms tight around me. “I love you.”
“I love you too, you poor trainwreck of a girl.” I ruffle her hair. “I love how you obsess over me. How you cling to me every waking moment.” I run my fingernails along her side where I know she’s ticklish; she lets out a yelp and buries her head in my shoulder, blushing hotly. “I love how useless you are when I’m not around.” I nip her neck. “How easy I can make you just come apart in my arms. How much raw fucking power I have over you.”
She giggles and turns her head to gaze up at me. “Ughhh. Fuck you, Niri.”
“Damn right I will.” I pat her on the ass. “In just four more hours.”
“Mmh.” She smiles. “Yeah.”
“Alright, you lovebirds.” Sarlis raps her knuckles on the wall. “Let’s get moving, you’ve tied up Screening long enough.”
Sofi pouts as I withdraw, holding my hand until I cross the threshold into the Green Zone. She waves at me as the doors slide shut between us, her expression pitiful. I blow her a kiss and wave back.
I grab a laptop as I head into the mess hall. Lights are low and gentle ambient music is playing, setting a warm, intimate mood. I flop down at a table near the window, flipping open the laptop. My name flashes on screen for a moment, then my workspace loads up, just the way I left it. I tap a key to switch over to the reports screen—
“Seluen-nillas.” I look up, flashing a salute to the woman approaching my table. The outpost head of intelligence returns it and sits down across from me, pressing my laptop shut.
“You know, what gets me,” she says drily, folding her arms and gazing levelly at me, “is that not only do you always see me coming, but you always know it’s me. Without even looking. Stars! I’m getting old, Nirlis.”
“Like a fine wine, ma’am.”
She rolls her eyes. “Drop it, will you? It’s dinnertime. Surin a surin anarte, venan?”
“I don’t see you eating, ma’am,” I reply levelly, sliding the laptop aside and leaning forward. She glares at me, and I hold up my hands, inclining my head. “Comrade, I mean.”
“That’s better.” Seluen beams at me. “Let’s have your report in person, shall we? Save you time writing and me time reading.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Hey, now. Something’s up.”
“This is Saravan, dear. Something’s always up.” Seluen leans back, propping her feet up on the seat next to her. “Out with it, girl. I can tell you’ve had an eventful day.”
I glance at the bruises. “What, this? Some thugs jumped me in an alley, is all.”
Seluen gives a sigh of exasperation. “You’d think they’d learn. Eventually.”
“You would, wouldn’t you?” I tent my fingers absently. “The real news isn’t so exciting, just your usual tavern chatter. Rumors and lies.” I narrow my eyes. “Though if you’ve come all the way down here for a personal audience with little old me, I’d wager it’s maybe something more than rumor.”
Seluen gazes at me innocently. “Maybe I was just hungry.”
“Ah, yes.” I nod slowly. “That explains why you haven’t eaten anything at all. And don’t even have a tray.” I lean back, my eyes fixed on the spy chief’s. “I did hear one interesting thing, amid all the chatter of ancient Union superweapons and impossible technology in Untúhpana-era ruins. You know who I ran into at the Gnarled Oak this afternoon?”
Seluen clasps her hands in her lap. “I couldn’t possibly guess.”
“Some of Oravdenel’s boys.”
“Really, now.” Seluen leans closer. “Now what could a couple of washed-up smack-peddling minions have possibly said to pique your interest, dear comrade?”
“Not much at first; tight-lipped as ever. But I was feeling flirty and I got them real drunk—” I grin. “It’s amazing what you can get men around here to do if you flash a little cleavage and undermine their masculinity just a touch. I literally drank them under the table.”
“I don’t know if anyone has ever told you,” Seluen returns drily, “but you have a real knack for mixing work and pleasure.”
“A girl’s got needs, you know?” I smirk at her. “So here’s the thing. One of them let slip he’s seen some unusual types around Sŷralën HQ lately. Tall, lanky types with fancy tongues, bare backs, and big tattoos.”
Seluen leans forward, eyes alight. “Really now.”
“I didn’t think all that much of it at the time, but now…” I gaze levelly at Seluen. “What do you know, comrade?”
Seluen grins and flips the laptop back open. The workspace shifts to hers and she loads up a file. “Take a look at this.”
I pull the laptop closer, scanning the text rapidly. “Settlement records? Master Sedvesêra’s been a busy boy lately, hasn’t he?”
“They’ve been planting at least five new opium fields. Big ones. Over the last season.” Seluen entwines her fingers, her eyes fixed on me. “The same Vareçta Sŷralën that already has damn near the whole planet overflowing with opium is doubling the size of its operation. Curious, don’t you think?”
“Oravdenel’s found himself some offworld buyers now,” I murmur, glancing up from the screen, my eyes locking with Seluen’s. She nods.
“And if your drunken junkies are to be believed,” she continues, the corners of her mouth curling upwards, “those buyers have peers in their employ. Or are peers themselves.”
I let out a soft laugh. “No wonder you were so eager to get your hands on me. What’s the penalty for trafficking opium in the Empire these days? Death, isn’t it?”
“Death or the camps, depending. Same as always.” Seluen straightens her back. “I think it’s time to do some digging, don’t you?”
“Some deep digging,” I reply, flicking the laptop shut. “If you’re right about this… this is the blackmail motherlode.”
“Really, Nirsil, you have such a dirty, conniving little mind.” Seluen grins down at me as she stands. “How could you even contemplate such a twisted thing?”
I laugh. “There are no good girls on Saravan… comrade Seluen.”
She claps me on the shoulder as I stand. “I just want to say, Niri — you are damn good at your job. I really appreciate how you go the extra parsec like this.”
I smile and incline my head as I return the gesture. “Only the best for the People, Seli.”
She nods, releasing me. “Pel a nil, surin. I expect you’ve got a whole long night of debauchery lined up, and far be it from me to get in your way!”
I nod. “You know it. Got a poor ceshvol-wracked ruin of a girlfriend to sex up in not too long.” I crack my knuckles. “Not to mention that night sparring session.”
“Oh, you’re going to that?” Seluen raises her eyebrows innocently. “I was thinking of tagging along myself.”
“You and what army, old lady?”
The look she gives me is almost flirtatious. “Oh, maybe I’ll find a kindhearted young lad to let me win. You never know.”
I laugh and flash her a salute. “Pel a nil, surin.”
She inclines her head, returns the salute. “I’ll be on my way. Oh, and, Niri?”
“Please, for the love of the People, eat something tonight. You’re starting to look emaciated.”
“Is that an order, Seli?”
“Damn right it is, soldier.”