Rituals brought order to the chaos of life. Order was something Matias Baena deeply cherished, and so every Monday, at precisely 7:00 a.m., he entered his office on the top floor of the twisted blade that was Baena Tower and spent the next three hours sorting through the issues that had accumulated during the weekend. He read everything, organized it in order of priority, and formulated an action plan. At precisely 10:00 a.m., the small team of his top people entered his office to offer their insights and receive their marching orders.
Monday morning was sacred. The office door remained shut, the vid display refused incoming calls, and visitors were told to wait, no matter who they were. Nothing short of an attack on the building would warrant an interruption, so when Solei slipped through the door, Matias raised his head from R & D’s progress report and braced himself.
The chief security officer looked unperturbed. Of average height, with the lean, powerful build of a combat athlete, sandy skin, and pale-blond hair, Solei had been a civilian for six years, but his composure had been tempered in hundreds of space battles. He would report a small leak and a planetary invasion with the same controlled calm.
“Yes?” Matias asked.
“Ramona Adler is here.”
He must have misheard. “Define here.”
“She’s waiting in conference room 1A.”
“Waiting for what?”
“She would like to speak with you. Privately.”
If Solei had announced that his dead father had risen from the grave and was waiting outside the door, Matias would have been less surprised.
Of all the kinsmen families Matias disliked in the city of New Delphi, and he detested most of them, the Adlers were the only ones he hated. It wasn’t a personal hate. It was generational. He had inherited it the way he had inherited his father’s black hair and his mother’s hazel eyes. Both the Baenas and the Adlers had arrived on the planet at about the same time, settling in the same province and inevitably doing business in the same city, both possessed about the same amount of territory and resources, and more importantly, both were secare.
The two families had clashed repeatedly over their first 150 years on Rada. The last outburst of violence had taken place when his grandfather was young and ended without any formal ceasefire. The two sides had nearly wiped each other out and simply couldn’t continue to fight. Since then, the Adlers and the Baenas had settled into icy hostility, always watching each other, always ready for the feud to flare into raging violence. The animosity was mutual and deep. And now Ramona Adler waited in his conference room.
What was so important? Their policy of avoidance was working well so far. When forced to be in some proximity in public, he and Ramona painstakingly pretended the other didn’t exist, and the kinsmen society, which had a long memory, enthusiastically supported their strategy of evading a bloodbath. They were never seated near each other. They were never formally introduced to each other. They never had a conversation.
Ramona could have called. Instead, she marched into his den and demanded to see him. She knew he could react with violence.
Normally, he might have called this reckless, except Ramona Adler was anything but. He had studied her since he was in his teens because she was a potential enemy, and he knew her as well as he did his own family. Ramona was like one of the smoke-furred foxes that inhabited the deep woods in the north, careful, calculating, and subtle. She struck only when she had complete confidence in her success, and she was lethal.
He had to know why she was here, and there was only one way to find out.
Matias rose and strode out the door. Solei turned with crisp precision left over from his military days and followed him, a vigilant, silent shadow.
The conference room lay at the other end of the tower, separated from Matias’s office by a hundred meters of hallway. The Baena building borrowed its shape from the unfurling seco blade that gave the secare their name. It began as a wave, a low curve of plastisteel wrapped in panes of dark solar glass, dipped, then suddenly surged upward to the height of seventy meters, expanding into a hard vertical plane. A not-so-subtle warning.
The glass brightened as it climbed, and here, at the very top of the building, the panels were a deep, vivid red. The tinted light flooded the hallways through the translucent ceiling. Normally, he found it soothing, but today the air above the black floor seemed drenched in blood.
Most kinsmen didn’t know where their unique abilities came from. Their beginnings had been lost to centuries of galactic expansion. The secare were different. All of them traced their origins to the Second Outer Rim War, when two budding interstellar empires clashed over a resource-rich cluster of planets. The brutal conflict lasted for sixty-two standard years, and the secare had been genetically engineered for that war.
While massive spaceships collided across the star systems, spitting energy and missile salvos, the secare fought in close quarters with seco weapons embedded in their bodies. A tool like no other, the seco technology allowed its owners to project short-range force fields from their arms that could become a shield or a blade in an instant. A seco shield could absorb an energy blast and stop a stream of projectiles. A seco blade could slice through solid metal like it was warm butter.
The secare had developed their own martial art, shifting between assault and defense in the blink of an eye. They were the silent dagger to the blunt hammer of the space armada, and the Sabetera Geniocracy used them again and again to bleed their opponents dry.
The war was long over, and the few remaining secare had scattered through the galaxy. Once comrades in arms, now the secare avoided each other at all costs. It was one of the universe’s great ironies that after running halfway across the galaxy to get away from each other, both the Baenas and the Adlers ended up in the same sector, on the same planet, and in the same province.
The Baena family was guarded by state-of-the-art security. Matias oversaw it personally, and he hired only the best. All his guards were seasoned veterans with combat implants and skills honed by training and battle. They were well armed and ready. And if he felt like it, he could kill everyone in the building in minutes. It would be a massacre. They would know that he was coming, and all their experience and weapons would do them no good.
If he could do it, so could Ramona. The secare were killing machines, and the six generations separating them from a long-forgotten war had done nothing to change that. If she snapped, he would be the only barrier between her and the slaughter of his people.
Why was she here?
“How did she get into the building?”
“She walked in,” the CSO said. “Our security intercepted her, and she told them that she’d come to see you. They called me. It seemed prudent to control the situation by escorting her to a secure room, away from civilian personnel.”
They both knew that Solei’s control of the situation was an illusion. Ramona could leave that room any moment she wished. And Solei’s people would sacrifice their lives to keep the other employees safe until he got there.
They reached an ornate double door. It whispered open at their approach, and Matias entered a large crescent-shaped room. The wall opposite the entrance was curved red glass, presenting a distant panorama of New Delphi. Between him and the glass wall stood a large oval table, carved from a single massive chunk of Gibirus opal. The mineral inclusions within the stone reacted to light, fluorescing with shifting ripples of color—fiery red, glittering gold, and splashes of intense emerald—setting the table aglow from within. Ramona sat at the table, her back to the window, her face lit up by gem fire.
He had never observed her from this close.
Twenty-eight years old, average height, athletic build of a practicing martial artist, long brown hair, features most people would find attractive. All things he already knew from images, recordings, and occasional cursory glances during the handful of times they had found themselves in relative proximity at formal events. None of it had prepared him for her impact at this range.
The difference between her images and reality was shocking. Like seeing a recording of a brontotiger taken with care under perfect lighting versus turning around in the middle of a hike and finding a pair of golden eyes staring at you from the brush.
Her hair was a warm chocolate brown. She hadn’t bothered to put it up, and it spilled over her white jacket down to the curve of her breasts. The red light from the windows played on the dark strands, coaxing auburn highlights from the mass of loose waves. Her face was a soft oval, with a small but full mouth and high cheekbones. Her nose had a tiny bump on the bridge.
A narrow white scar, about two centimeters long, traced the curve of her bottom lip, stretching just under it to the corner of her mouth. She had killed the kinsman who gave it to her. She’d cut him in half, from right shoulder to his lowest left rib, with a single strike. The recording of it made the rounds. No other family dared to attack the Adlers after that.
Her eyes, a bright, startling blue, looked at him without fear or apprehension. She sat with a calm assurance, her body supple and elegant in a simple white pantsuit. She knew she was strong and fast, and that confidence showed in the tilt of her head, in the line of her shoulders, in the way she held herself. She could jump onto the table in a fraction of a second and dash toward him, her forearms releasing the seco and shaping them into lethal blades. A part of him would’ve welcomed it. He had never fought another secare outside of the family training hall.
He wanted to keep looking at her.
He wondered how fast she was.
He wondered if he was faster.
Ramona raised her eyebrows slightly.
He had to say something or do something. He couldn’t just stand there, gawking like an idiot.
Matias took the closest chair and waved his hand. The ten guards positioned along the wall lowered their weapons and walked out. Solei lingered. Ramona looked at the CSO with her disturbing eyes and then looked back at Matias. He felt a sudden urge to do something dramatic and impressive.
He needed to get ahold of himself. She was in his territory, in the building he owned. He already had her undivided attention.
Matias dismissed Solei with a nod. The CSO withdrew, giving Ramona one last warning look. The door shut behind him.
Matias fixed her with his stare. “To what do I owe the horror?”
“I came to ask two questions.”
Her voice suited her, a rich, smooth contralto.
“Very well. I’m all ears.”
“Do you know where your wife is?”
His brain skipped a beat, then kicked into high gear. It wasn’t a threat. If the Adlers had kidnapped Cassida, the ransom demand would have been delivered via a message. There was no reason for Ramona to put herself in danger.
He accessed his implant. A translucent interface overlaid the vision in his left eye. He selected Cassida’s name from the contact list and waited.
A second passed.
She should have answered. Her implant would have recognized his call and linked with his even if she was unconscious. Either her implant was removed, which meant Cassida was dead, or she had deliberately blocked his calls.
“No answer?” Ramona asked. Her tone was perfectly neutral, but somehow, he felt mocked.
“Fine. I’ll play. Where is my wife?”
“I wish I knew.” She slowly reached into her jacket, withdrew a small tablet, and placed it on the table. “But I think he does.”
On the screen, Cassida ran across a small, paved lot, her bright golden dress flaring around her, her auburn hair flying, as she sped toward a blond man waiting by a late-model aerial. He opened his arms, and Cassida jumped onto him, wrapping her legs around his hips.
A wave of ice splashed Matias and evaporated into intense, furious heat. His left hand clenched into a fist under the table. His wife was cheating on him.
Their marriage wasn’t perfect. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t loving or passionate, but it was perfectly amiable. He had remained faithful to her since their wedding almost three years ago. It never crossed his mind that she wouldn’t do the same.
Ramona was looking at the screen with an odd expression. Not pain, but rather resignation. “The unbridled joy seems unfair.”
“What is the point of showing me this?”
“That’s the wrong question. The right question is, Who is the man she’s climbing?”
She zoomed the recording with a flick of her fingers, and he saw the man’s face—golden tan, square jaw, glowing with health and that particular polish that came with wealth and too much grooming. Recognition punched him.
“Your wife is having an affair with my husband,” Ramona said.
For a moment they shared a silence as he came to grips with Cassida licking the inside of Gabriel Adler’s mouth.
Ramona spoke first. “That brings me to my second question. Have you experienced any security or data breaches in the last few weeks? Go ahead. Check. I will wait.”
Matias surged off the chair and out the door. In the hallway, the guards saw his face and flattened themselves against the walls.
“She does not leave,” he growled. “Solei, with me.”
Thirty minutes later Matias marched back into the conference room, and this time he didn’t bother to sit down.
Ramona offered him a bitter smile. “She took everything?”
He didn’t answer. The humiliation was too deep, and his rage burned too hot.
For the last two weeks Cassida had used his credentials to log into their files from his home office. He had no idea how she’d obtained his password, but with the proposal deadline approaching, he had worked from home with increasing frequency, logging in after hours. Her activity hadn’t raised any alarms. She’d copied the entirety of their seco research.
“Gabriel has done the same,” Ramona said.
They were sharing a rapidly sinking boat.
Until three years ago the technology of the seco had been lost. The seco weapon was a marvel of bioengineering. In its initial form, it was a hair-thin glowing strand visible only under strong magnification. When examined through nanoscale imaging, the strand turned into an ethereal narrow ribbon knitted from a million nanobots. It floated in the buffer solution, undulating and shifting, waiting for its host. When the time came, it and its twin would be implanted into the forearms of a newborn from a secare bloodline.
If the baby didn’t inherit the secare ability, the ribbon would harmlessly dissolve within a year.
If the baby was born secare, the glittering constellation of nanobots would anchor itself and grow for another twenty-five months, forming a subcutaneous channel along the front of the arm until eventually the skin would split, allowing a microscopically narrow ridge to rise to the surface. It was invisible to the naked eye and too small to be felt by touch, but he knew exactly where it was. If he held his arms straight out, palms down, he could almost see the ridges running from his elbows to his wrists. When he wanted a blade, the seco burst forward over his wrist. When he wanted a shield, it fanned out from the entirety of his forearm, projecting into a shape he required.
The secare started training their children as soon as they could walk. They used the seco, they killed with it, and they replicated it, but nobody fully understood how the strands worked or why some children from secare bloodlines could use them and others couldn’t. The secare were never trusted with that knowledge by their creators.
Then, three years ago, a salvager had stumbled onto a forgotten Sabetera Geniocracy lab in a random asteroid field. He brought the data banks he found there to Rada, sold them to the Baenas, to the Adlers, and to a third kinsmen family, the Davenports, letting everyone think that the sale was exclusive, and got the hell off planet as fast as his ship’s drive would carry him.
The recovered intel opened the door to the creation of seco force fields by industrial means. Oh, it would require significant power and complex machinery to accomplish this, but it would blow conventional shields installed on modern warships out of the proverbial water. Bringing seco generators into mass production promised enormous benefits.
It also required a huge infusion of cash. Between the cost of rare metals, the custom nano cultures, and the cutting-edge tech required to retool the field to work without the biological component, developing the prototype would drain the Baenas’ savings to nearly nothing. They could lose everything they had built over the last seven generations, but if they succeeded, the family would be stabilized and well funded for centuries to come.
The secare were born risk-takers.
Nine months into the project, Matias realized that they were in a three-way race. The space sector offered only one industrial partner capable of mass-producing the seco generators. Whoever successfully pitched their idea first would reap all the spoils. All three families abandoned their other projects and shifted all their resources toward building a successful prototype.
Now Cassida was on the run, and a copy of the Baenas’ entire research was on the run with her. And so was Gabriel Adler with all his family’s work.
Matias unclenched his teeth. “What are you offering?”
Ramona narrowed her eyes. “I know my husband. This wasn’t his idea.”
“He’s off with my wife and your research. Now isn’t the time for sentimentality.”
Ramona shook her head. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to imply that he is an innocent pawn and your wife led him astray. But Gabriel lacks any sort of ambition. He has very little self-discipline, zero interest in business, and no knowledge of kinsmen politics. As long as he is fed, given an ample allowance, and allowed freedom to indulge himself, he’s perfectly content. He is too lazy to start this adventure on his own. I’m in awe of your wife. She has managed to motivate him in a way I never could, and the universe knows I’ve tried.”
“Cassida is very good at motivating.” She had mounted a relentless assault on his peace of mind since the moment they’d married. He thought they had reached an understanding. Apparently, Cassida simply shifted focus to a more receptive target.
“Time is a factor,” Ramona said.
He understood what was left unsaid. The stolen research would be sold. That sale would bankrupt their families.
“Cassida wouldn’t have left without lining up a buyer,” he said. “She isn’t always prudent, but she is shrewd. She knows that the moment I discovered the theft, I’d go after her with everything I’ve got.”
Ramona nodded. “I thought as much.”
They had to move now. They had to recover the research, and they had to do it quietly. On Rada, a kinsmen family’s standing was vital. It could mean the difference between being targeted in a feud and being invited to a negotiation table. Deals were offered and agreed upon based on the respect afforded to one’s family name.
The secare enjoyed an aura of menace. Both families had been attacked, and both he and Ramona had delivered a gory object lesson that the city wouldn’t soon forget. Most of their rivals considered a direct conflict with them out of the question. If it became known that not only had they suffered a catastrophic data breach, but their spouses had done it and then run away together right under their noses, their reputation would be in tatters. They would be disgraced. Even if they recovered the tech, they could no longer negotiate from a position of strength.
If speed was first, secrecy had to come second. Involving their families would only hinder them. He trusted his relatives with his life but not with his secrets.
“Who else knows?” he asked.
“The chief of cybersecurity and Karion,” she said.
Her older brother. He wouldn’t talk.
“I know my husband, but I don’t know your wife.” Ramona met his gaze.
“An alliance?” He raised his eyebrows, pretending to be surprised.
“A temporary one. Not between our families or our companies. Only you and me. We go quietly, we find them, we recover our assets before they destroy us, and then we never speak of it again.”
Ten minutes ago, as the cybernetic security department fell on its figurative sword in front of him, his brain had already cycled through the possibilities and arrived at the only possible course of action. He’d been going to propose the same thing, and if she’d balked, he had a list of arguments ready to convince her. She’d saved him the trouble. If only his enemies were always so obliging.
Ramona was waiting for his answer.
He let her wait for another breath and nodded. “Agreed.”
Matias Baena was something else.
Ramona leaned back in her seat and listened to him issue a flurry of orders to his CSO and Ladmina, his VP. He rattled off a quick, succinct rundown on immediate corporate tasks referred to in a manner that told her next to nothing about their true meaning and moved on to a catalog of things he required.
A fast, untraceable aerial with a survival kit.
A threat assessment on the Davenports, the third family with access to seco tech.
An internal lockdown on all information associated with the data breach.
A gag order and an expungement of her visit this morning, erasing all traces of her presence in the building from their surveillance.
An immediate implementation of a monitoring protocol tracking Cassida by implant and banking activity and both Cassida and Gabriel through a face recognition algorithm. If his wife spent any money, appeared in range of any cameras accessible by the public, or attempted to leave the planet, Matias would know about it.
He must’ve constructed a thorough list in his head, and now he methodically went through it, knocking items off one by one without a pause. Nothing was left to chance. He’d dissected the situation into chunks and addressed every aspect.
Precision was the quality secare prized most.
He acted like a secare, and he looked like one too. Her family kept the archival footage of the original unit, and she had watched it so many times over the years she could likely draw them from memory—the lean, strong soldiers in identical charcoal black, hardened by battle, stripped of all softness, with eyes that warned you off. The space crews developed the spacer stare, a haunted, distant look. The secare stared at you like a pack of human predators.
With his powerful body in a black doublet and his chiseled, harsh face, Matias would’ve fit right in, but it was the stare that cinched it. The scalding-hot stare of a hunter.
She had always thought he was cold, a closed-in, distant man with a stern glower. Someone capable of rationalizing cruelty. Someone who didn’t bend because he couldn’t be bothered, who never lost his composure. Impenetrable, like a chunk of obsidian. Who knew there was fire under all that volcanic glass?
A stray thought flickered through her mind. It must be so nice to have someone like him watching your back. Someone competent. Decisive. Someone who has his shit together. Too bad he is an enemy.
Earlier that morning, Ramona had sat in her office alone and viewed the two recordings of Gabriel, the first showing him stealing their data and the second of him meeting Cassida. She remembered the exact moment her brain processed what she was seeing. She felt a blinding pain, and then she went numb.
There was no time to feel or to come to terms with anything. She had to save the family. The emergency was so dire it pushed all her emotions out, leaving room for nothing else.
She had to hunt Gabriel down. She had two brothers, her parents, two aunts, an uncle, and a handful of cousins, and yet she had no one to turn to. Karion might have joined her, but she needed him to hold on to the family while she was gone. Santiago, her younger brother, was barely twenty and lacked patience. He would fly off the handle, and that was the last thing she needed now. None of the other relatives were secare, except for her retired father, and she would rather die than get him involved.
She was on her own. At the time she had simply accepted it, but now, as she listened to Matias, she felt a crushing realization—she was alone. Utterly, completely alone. She would never let it stagger her, but it hurt.
The CSO and VP departed, Solei giving her a cold, flat stare before he left the room. Matias tapped the corner of the desk, and the ethereal light screen materialized on the wall. An older woman appeared, sitting on a garden bench against the backdrop of heavy dahlia blooms, her skin a deep brown tinted with red, her silver hair braided into a thick plait wrapped in an elaborate gold mesh.
“Aunt Nadira,” Matias said.
After Matias’s father died, his mother sank into her grief, abandoning her post as the leader of the family. Nadira jumped into that pilot seat before the Baenas had a chance to drift off course and steered the family for another eight years, until Matias was ready to take over.
She looked so harmless now, just an older woman in a beautiful emerald sari, surrounded by dahlias blooming in every color. And if an intruder broke into that garden, they would die before they ever sensed her presence.
Nadira smiled. “And how is my favorite nephew?”
Matias leaned forward. “Incredibly concerned and saddened by your recent illness.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Am I sick enough to require your immediate presence?”
“And am I refusing all visitors except my precious nephew because he is the only one I will allow to view me in my sorry state?”
Matias nodded. “Exactly.”
“The shit has hit the fan, I take it?”
He moved his fingers right to left. The sensor in the vid screen obeyed, tilting it toward her. Ramona met the older woman’s gaze.
“Oh,” Nadira Baena said. “That bad?”
He tilted the screen back and nodded.
“As long as it takes.”
“Very well. I’ll have Sylus inform the family.” Nadira leaned toward the screen and fixed her nephew with a sharp stare. “Watch yourself. Come back alive.”
“Always.” He kissed his fingers and offered them to her.
The display vanished.
“I can’t simply disappear,” Matias said.
It was an issue she was intimately familiar with. “The problem with spearheading a family business is that most of the corporate officers are also your relatives, who view you as the ultimate arbiter of their disputes.”
“Yes. And in my case, they make no distinction between an argument over the precise calibration of the Kelly-particle agitator or the choice of a faucet for a new heated bubble tub.”
They shared a look. They were still enemies, but even enemies were allowed latitude when it came to complaining about family.
He rose. “The aerial is ready. Do you need us to stop anywhere?”
She had taken care of her affairs this morning. If her plan to convince him to cooperate had failed, she would have gone at it alone. “Everything I need is in my vehicle. I’ll give your people the code. They can bring it up.”
“Perfect.” He approached the door and waited as it slid open. She walked through the doorway, presenting him with an unobstructed shot at her back. If he struck, it would be now.
Matias turned left. “This way.”
They headed down the hallway to the same private elevator she had taken this morning, except this time there wouldn’t be six armed guards in it. Just her and Matias Baena.
She had lost her damn mind, but she’d made the right decision. She came to this man she had meticulously avoided all her life, a man who had no reason to trust her, and told him that his wife had betrayed him with her husband. There were a hundred ways he could have reacted. He could have lashed out at her; he could have refused to believe her; he could have shut down, gone into shock, or simply had her thrown out. Instead, they were riding an elevator, determined to fix this disaster before it became a catastrophe.
She was no longer dealing with it alone. She didn’t trust him, but she trusted the rage she’d seen in his eyes when his wife kissed her husband. For the first time since she saw that cursed recording, Ramona had room to take a deep breath. She did, and when she exhaled, she felt angry. Unbelievably, overpoweringly angry.
Gabriel. How dare he? How fucking dare he? She gave him everything. She turned a blind eye to his womanizing, to his endless vacations, to his consistent failure to carry out the simplest tasks. She freed him of all responsibilities. Literally, the only thing she asked for was loyalty. Not to her as a spouse—that was beyond him—but to the family that enabled his carefree existence.
She’d worked so hard on this project. She gave it her all, her every waking hour, her sleep, and her peace of mind. She lived and breathed it for the last three years. Her life had become a grind, a constant search for just a little bit more money, enough to keep the project going while overcoming never-ending technological setbacks. The relentless pressure of knowing that if she failed, or just wasn’t fast enough to outrun the other two competitors, the family faced financial ruin was her constant companion. It kept her up at night and woke her up in the morning.
The two of them, Cassida and Gabriel, thought they could simply take everything she’d worked for. They thought she would roll over.
Ramona laughed. It sounded like a promise of murder.
“We’ll catch them,” Matias said, his voice cold like the space between the stars. “I give you my word.”
The aerial waited for them on a private landing dock on the seventh floor, sleek, silver with black accents, its lines refined and perfect. A large model, with a walk-in cargo hold, it looked like a bird of prey, designed for precision and speed, a hair short of a military ship. She liked it.
Ramona raised her eyebrows. “A little high profile, maybe?”
“As you said, time is a factor.”
Her belongings waited in a neat pile by the aerial: a large waterproof, fire-retardant bag with necessities and a few changes of clothes, a weapon case containing her favorite energy rifle, and a hideous chartreuse gown vacuum sealed in resilient plastic.
Matias frowned at the gown.
“You’re going to visit your sick aunt, and I’m going to the wedding of my childhood friend, whom I haven’t seen in ten years,” she informed him.
“But why is it so . . . aesthetically lacking?”
“It’s tradition. The uglier the bridesmaid’s dress, the better the bride looks. Also, it’s a great distraction. Everyone who witnessed me leaving will remember this monstrosity and little else.”
“It is rather memorable. Where did you find this on such short notice?”
It was the dress she wore the first time she met Gabriel. She had worn it in silent protest against the engagement she didn’t want. “I have my ways.”
He reached for her bag. “May I?”
Matias picked up her baggage and walked up the ramp into the aerial. She followed him, carrying her rifle and her dress. She liked the way he moved, balanced, relaxed but ready. The martial art of seco was fluid, relying on speed and constant movement, which was why the secare children started their training by learning dances rather than specific battle stances. But there was a vast gulf between a dancer and a martial artist. Matias moved like a fighter.
They deposited her belongings next to his large enviro-proof bag, which was stuffed so full it would be in danger of ripping if it wasn’t made of tear-resistant fabric, and made their way to the cabin. Dual pilot seats. In a pinch, either of them could fly. This was a combat ship masquerading as a luxury aerial. That meant the sensitivity of the controls and the acceleration were a step above commercial transport. There would be a world of difference between flying this craft and an ordinary civilian vehicle. Most pilots would overcorrect and crash.
This ought to be interesting.
Matias activated the console and went through a quick checklist. “The Davenports are the obvious choice.”
She’d thought about it too. Like the two of them, the Davenports had thrown all their resources into the production of a working seco generator but had made the least progress.
“And likely the wrong one,” she said. “My husband led a rather cushy existence. I take it your wife enjoyed the same?”
“I gave her everything she wanted. Almost everything.”
Her curiosity spiked. She really wanted to know what hid behind that almost, but his tone told her questions wouldn’t be answered.
“Stealing the research carries a lot of risk. They wouldn’t have done it unless the payday was worth it, and they expected to survive. The buyer must have promised money and protection.”
“And the Davenports aren’t in a position to provide either,” Matias finished for her.
“Their finances are stretched”—she almost said “even thinner than ours” and then remembered who she was talking to—“dangerously thin. Of course, they’re desperate enough to lie to get what they want.”
Matias touched the controls, and the aerial soared in a smooth curve. She barely felt the acceleration. He angled the vehicle with practiced ease and effortlessly joined the stream of aerials speeding through the air above New Delphi.
When Matias was eighteen years old, he had left the planet for five years. Her family never figured out where he went or what he was doing, but now she had a pretty good idea. Whatever he did had involved piloting small combat craft and lots of it.
At the time he left, she was fifteen. She’d envied him the freedom.
“Cassida would have done her homework,” he said. “She’s thorough, and she had access to our database. Our Davenport file is extensive. I trust yours is as well.”
She nodded. “So, it’s not the Davenports.”
“Still have to check.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I don’t want to hurt them.”
He spared her a long, careful look. “Compassion? At a time like this?”
“Were you happy in your marriage, Matias?”
“Happiness is overrated.”
“The Davenports are happy. They just had a baby. I don’t want to wreck that without a reason.”
“And if they had a part in this?”
She sighed. “Then I’ll cut them in half. Isn’t that what I’m famous for?”
“Very well. We will be gentle as a summer breeze until we have a reason not to be,” Matias promised.
He touched the console, and the aerial swooped down and to the left, banking gently. Ahead the Davenport building rose in the middle of a small park, an undulating flame of orange glass wrapped in an envelope of black callosteel ribbons. The ribbons curved around the building, skimming the solar glass but never touching it, with the widest gap between them barely two meters tall.
At this time of day, Damien Davenport would be at home, while Haider Davenport would be in his office on the twenty-third floor, safe behind that shatterproof solar glass and callosteel designed to hold the enormous structure of the building together through the hardest earthquake. The ribbon envelope was impact resistant. It would take a blast from a midgrade energy cannon to even scratch it.
Twenty-two floors of building security, about a hundred private guards, and several automated turrets. All the standard toys of a successful kinsmen family ready to protect its territory.
Matias steered the aerial toward the tower. “Since you want to minimalize casualties, do you have a plan?”
“How good a pilot are you?”
The woman was insane.
Matias gently tilted the control stick, bringing the aerial down another sixty centimeters. He had positioned the craft slightly above the twenty-third floor of the Davenport building, with the rear of the aerial facing the building and tilted just a touch toward it. The gap between callosteel ribbons widened here to make the best of a spectacular city vista, and the rear cameras presented Matias with a great view of the solar glass window and Haider Davenport behind it, sprawled in his chair, his blond head leaning back on the headrest. The man was passed out.
“Give me another twenty centimeters,” Ramona murmured from the back.
He edged the aerial closer. A meter from the ribbon. This was as close as he dared to get. Another ten centimeters and the current circulating through the metal would short-circuit the aerial’s control system.
This was an idiotic plan. First, she would have to clear the empty air between the aerial and the ribbon, then fifteen centimeters of callosteel, then another fifty-centimeter gap to the solar glass, and then she would have to cut her way through a three-centimeter-thick glass pane, and she would have to be blindingly fast, or she would plummet to her death.
The screen in the dash showed Ramona backing up. She pressed herself against the partition separating the cabin from the cargo hold. Her eyes were focused and calm.
He could just not open the door.
Unfortunately, they had only three options. First, they could ask for a meeting. There was no guarantee the Davenports would agree, and knowing Haider, he would stall as long as he could to gather intel. They couldn’t afford to waste time.
Second, he could land on the roof, dodging the cannon fire. They could break in, kill their way down to Haider’s office, and get what they needed. That way meant Davenport guards would die defending their employers. He had decided long ago that he was the kind of man who didn’t start fights. He finished them, and he never stooped to unprovoked murder. Their ancestors were ruthless killers, but that was six generations ago. Now both he and Ramona were more kinsmen than secare, and the way she wanted to handle the Davenports confirmed what he’d already suspected. Ramona would execute her enemies without hesitation, yet given a choice, she preferred to avoid killing. Life was fragile and precious.
That only left option three, titled “Open the Cargo Door.” He hated option three.
There had to be some other way, some method that didn’t end with Ramona plunging to the ground two hundred meters below, every bone in her body broken. She was an enemy, but it was a truly horrible way to die. If she fell to her death while he was piloting the aerial, nobody would believe that he wasn’t complicit in her death. It would plunge their families into a war.
Ramona took a deep breath . . .
He thumbed the cargo door release. Wind tore into the aerial, but he was ready for it, and the craft barely trembled.
She sprinted, a streak of white, and dived, her arms raised above her head. Her seco blades tore out of her forearms, splaying out like two pieces of radiant red silk. For a fraction of a second, she looked like an angel in white, soaring on glowing bloodred wings, and then the seco field snapped into rigid blades, and she sliced through the solar window and dropped into the hole.
Chunks of amber glass rained down.
He activated the autopilot course he’d programed a few minutes ago, jumped out of his seat, sprinted to the cargo bay, and leaped across the gap. The ground yawned at him, far below, and then he landed on the luxurious Solean pine floor of Haider’s office.
Ramona stood with her back to the office door. A gash smoked lightly behind her—she’d cut the alarm wires running through the door, triggering a lockdown. Haider struck at her, a lethal whirlwind with a short sword gripped in each hand. The Davenport family produced offspring with enhanced speed and coordination, and Haider’s flurry of attacks was so fast Matias could barely follow it with his naked eye.
Ramona had reshaped her seco blades into circular shields, fifty centimeters wide, and glided away from Haider, parrying his furious strikes in a controlled frenzy. Her shields stretched and shifted with her will, creating an impenetrable barrier between her and her attacker.
Matias charged across the office.
Haider spun to him, alerted by his combat implant, slashing as he turned, but it was too late. Matias dropped under the strike and kicked, sweeping Haider’s legs from under him. Haider landed well, flexed, and sprang to his feet to find Matias’s right blade pointed at his neck. The tip stopped five centimeters short of Haider’s throat.
Ramona plucked the sword from Haider’s right hand. “Don’t move.” Her voice was calm and reassuring. “We just want to talk.”
Haider tossed his remaining sword onto the desk, crossed his arms, and leaned against it. The desk quaked and slid apart. The right half thudded to the floor, sliced on the diagonal.
Haider spun around to look at it and turned back, his face twisted by disgust. “Damn it.”
Ramona hid a smile.
Matias glanced at her. “When did you even cut this?”
“On my way to the door. I wanted to slow him down.”
Haider stared at the two of them. Slightly below average height, he was built like a gymnast, compact, strong, with powerful arms and broad shoulders. He came from an old family, and the planet had put its stamp on him before he was even born. He was a classic Dahlia blond, with golden hair and skin almost as bronze as hers. No matter what your ancestors looked like, once you made your home in the province of Dahlia, it saturated you with sunlight.
He was also truly fast with those blades, and he’d reacted instantly, going from completely asleep into full assault in a blink. It had taken all her concentration and skill to parry.
“Am I seeing things?” Haider pondered, almost as if talking to himself. “Clearly this is just a weirdly specific bad dream, one where two people who hate each other team up to bust into my office and destroy my prized furniture.”
“Bill me,” Matias said.
Haider knocked on the still-standing half of the wooden desk. “It’s old, you savage. Three hundred years old, brought to this planet by my great-great, however many greats, grandfather. It’s irreplaceable.”
Ramona felt a slight tinge of guilt. “It’s a clean cut,” she offered. “It can be fixed.”
A screen on the wall came to life. A harried woman with dark hair and worried eyes appeared. Derra Lee, Davenport’s chief of security. “Are you . . .”
“I’m fine,” Haider snapped. “Meeting with the new redecorating team.”
Derra squinted at the two of them. “Would you like me to send up some tea for everybody?”
A bit obvious for a code phrase.
“I said I’m fine. Keep your goons downstairs. I will expect a full report after this.”
Haider dismissed the screen with a flick of his fingers, sighed, and looked at the two of them. “Fine. You have my undivided attention. What the hell was so important?”
If he knew, he was a great actor. She’d have to approach this carefully, choosing just the right words . . .
“Did you pay my wife and her husband to steal from us?” Matias asked.
Silence claimed the office.
Haider blinked a few times and looked at her. “Is he serious?”
She shrugged. “I’ve never seen him smile, in person or in an image.”
Haider opened his mouth and laughed.
“Is that a yes or a no?” Matias growled.
Haider shook, bent forward, and held his hand out.
“I think he needs a moment,” Ramona told Matias. “I don’t think he’s involved.”
“I can see that, but I still need to hear it.”
Haider choked a little bit and kept laughing.
There was no point in standing. This would clearly take a while. Ramona walked over to an elegant couch and sat. Matias remained standing, looming over Haider like some dark shadow.
Finally, Haider straightened. “Worth it. Do you know how long it’s been since I laughed like that? It was an ugly desk, anyway.”
“I need an answer,” Matias demanded. His voice was cold enough to freeze the marrow in one’s bones.
“No,” Haider said. “I wasn’t involved in any shenanigans with your spouses. Let me open a window into my life. My company is on the verge of bankruptcy. I’m reduced to borrowing money from distant relatives I hate and swore to never talk to again. Our precious son, who is now four months old, somehow inherited the Tarim mutation, despite numerous assurances by the best genetic firm on the planet that nothing of the sort could ever happen. That means he could simply stop breathing at any moment until he clears his first year. My husband is the carrier. He blames himself, no matter how many times I explain that it’s patently absurd, and he obsessively watches our son every waking moment, and when he should be sleeping, he takes boosters to keep himself awake to watch him some more, because he doesn’t trust the best medical personnel our dwindling money can buy. In the past four months, I had to watch Damien, the calmest, most rational being I know, turn into a paranoid, anxious ghost. He doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t eat, he barely lets me take care of him. I worry about our baby. I worry about my husband. I worry about my five-year-old sister, whom I adopted after my parents passed, because she keeps asking us every five minutes if her nephew is going to die. I worry about keeping the food on our table and salvaging the legacy my family has built. The only time I get any peace is at work, here in my office, when my brain gives out, exhausted by my frantic efforts to keep us afloat, and I shut down into a blissful stupor, which the two of you so rudely interrupted with your unnecessary acrobatics. Have you forgotten how to place a call? Have you considered the painfully obvious method of having your people contact my people, so all of us could peacefully meet in a nice neutral setting? What is wrong with the two of you?”
The office went silent. She saw the signs of fatigue now, the bloodshot eyes, the slight sagging in the skin of the face, and the deeper lines. This was a man on the verge of collapse. Considering that, his response to her attack was doubly impressive.
“His wife is screwing my husband,” she told him. “They have the entirety of our seco research, and they’ve disappeared.”
Matias pivoted to her.
“He deserves an honest answer,” she told him.
“Well.” Haider took a deep breath, pulled his chair from behind his ruined desk, and sat in it. “I am sorry. I know nothing about this. They didn’t come to us, probably because they realize we can’t pay them. Not as much as they would need to make it worth your combined wrath, anyway.”
As she suspected.
“Even if they had approached us, we would pass,” Haider continued. “Davenport, Inc., has abandoned its seco initiative.”
“Since when?” Matias asked.
“Since the beginning of the month. We can’t stabilize the field fluctuations. I can no longer justify throwing good money after bad. We simply can’t afford it.”
Wow. The shock must have shown on her face because Haider shrugged. “It is what it is. Have you been able to stabilize the field?”
“Yes,” they said at the same time.
“I hate you both.”
She still struggled with the enormity of the loss his company would take. “Walking away after all this time . . .”
“It’s not a complete wash,” Haider said. “We’ve stumbled on a significantly more efficient way to calibrate the Kelly-particle agitator to sustain a constant flow of energy. It has multiple industrial applications.”
He caught on to the expressions on their faces and leaned forward, his eyes suddenly bright. “The two of you haven’t figured it out.”
Neither of them answered.
“Ha! I have something you don’t! You are running out of money. You can’t afford to keep researching it indefinitely. You and you are going to pay me for that tech. All the money.” He leaned back in his chair, spread his arms wide, and howled at the ceiling. “I’m the smartest man in the world!”
Matias looked like he was considering cutting Haider’s head off out of sheer irritation.
“I’ll pit you against each other and make you bid for it,” Haider continued. “Or, better, I’ll want a percentage of each sale. I’ll own this planet.”
Matias rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked at her.
“Clearly, he’s gone crazy with power,” she told him.
Matias didn’t look amused. The word likely wasn’t in his vocabulary. “He’s gone crazy with something.”
“Call me crazy,” Haider told them. “Call me anything you want as long as you pay me.”
Ramona allowed herself a small smile. Licensing from the Davenports would cost her family a fortune, but somehow Haider’s joy was infectious.
“That’s a good plan,” Matias said. “However, unless we recover our files, nobody will be paying you anything.”
Haider sat up, suddenly serious. “That’s right. I just thought of something. About two months ago, we were approached for a complete buyout. They wanted everything, every bit of seco data and research, all of the prototypes, even the failed ones, and the offer came attached with a draconian noncompete. Not only wouldn’t we be able to ever work on seco applications, we couldn’t even utilize any of the side projects we developed as a result. This was ‘abandon the family business, take a lump sum, and retire’ money.”
An alarm went off in her head. “An off-worlder?” she asked.
Kinsmen families had spread far and wide through the galaxy. They had come into being because humanity needed a vanguard for its expansion. Their ancestors led the waves of settlers, establishing footholds on dangerous new worlds. Each planet had their own kinsmen culture, but for Rada kinsmen, family was everything. Money mattered less than growing and maintaining the family business, cultivating it, and passing it on to the next generation. Business anchored them to the province. It rooted them, and they grew from it like a tree. Their status, their life purpose, and their self-respect, all of it was wrapped up in family enterprise. No Rada kinsman would ever make that kind of offer to another kinsman. It was an insult, and they would know it would be automatically rejected.
“Do you know the identity of the buyer?” Matias asked.
“No,” Haider said. “And believe me, I tried to find out. The pitch came from a private shipping firm, but I’m positive it was only a cover.”
“Why?” she asked.
“There was a lot of arrogance. It was less an offer than an order, and when we declined, the reaction wasn’t positive. There was no haggling, no bargaining, no attempt to sweeten the deal. We were expected to take the offer on the table, no questions asked. That’s not the way experienced businessmen do deals.”
The Davenports had a deadly reputation. They didn’t actively seek conflict, but if attacked, they retaliated decisively, and they didn’t stop until the threat was neutralized. The way the buyer went about it all but guaranteed failure. The question was, Was it ignorance or arrogance? Perhaps the buyer wanted his offer to be rejected, although she couldn’t imagine why.
“I can tell you that their cover identities were bulletproof,” Haider continued. “Either they have an incredible counterfeiter, or their fake IDs are real.”
Which would mean they were connected to someone local with a lot of power.
“Did you record the meeting?” Matias asked.
And that right there was the difference between being born on Rada or off planet. Of course Haider had recorded the meeting. All of them knew it. What Matias was really asking was to see the recording, but demanding access to another family’s private business dealings would be the height of rudeness.
Haider stared into space for a couple of long breaths. “I forwarded it to your in-boxes.”
Her implant chimed, acknowledging the receipt. They would have to find a secure terminal to view it.
“Hilariously, they demanded that we erase it.” Haider chuckled. “You have what you need. Go forth, brave heroes, track down the traitors, and recover your data so you can pay me. I wouldn’t recover the spouses, however. Seems like a lost cause.”
True, she thought.
Haider waved them off. “You can take the elevator down.”
“No thanks,” Matias said. “The aerial will be just fine.”
He headed to the window. Ramona followed him, paused, and tossed a brief message to Haider’s in-box from her implant.
“What’s this?” Haider asked.
“One of my childhood friends. Two children, natural conception for both. Both born with the Tarim mutation. They are now five and three. I thought you and Damien could use someone to talk to, and Olivia Solis has gone through this gauntlet.”
Haider smiled. “Maybe I won’t take all of your money. Just some of it. Happy hunting, she-wolf.”
She nodded and leaped across the void into the cargo hold.