A desperate mission through the depths of space. They must get out-world to survive.



"Do you think we're safe?" she whispered when the atmospheric portals were sealed. Her breathing was sharp and rapid, her hair smelled of stale perfume and hydrazine, and she was scared. No, she was terrified. "Do you think we're marked?"

"No, and yes." Our berth was a small one, but it was the best I had ever known the Company to provide. Without the woman along, they would have shipped me home with the cargo, the same way they had shipped me out-world. The accommodations were a testimony to her importance, and a possible death warrant for us both. "We can't stay here."

"But what about the mark? Won't they find us no matter where we go on the ship?"

"Shut up," was all the answer I felt she deserved. She was a PACI, a PAid Confidential Informant, not much better than the scum she was betraying.

"I won't shut up! I won't! They're going to kill me! They're going to kill you, too, you dumb bastard! So do something!"

I did. I hit her with a restraint field, and that finally shut her mouth.

Her glassy, stunned eyes stared at me from beneath frozen eyelids. One of her lips twitched spasmodically under the influence of my organically tuned energy field, but she didn't speak. If not for that involuntary tick, she might have seemed almost as dead as I wished her to be, in fact.

I didn't hate her, though. She was just a video profile to me, a face I had studied during my long trip in-system. I knew her name, her stats, what she had done to make her a criminal, what she had said to make her a PACI and put her on the Company's pay roll. I knew her habits, her weaknesses, her strengths, and had studied her psych-file until I believed I knew her better than my own mother. For all that, she was just a profile. Just another compromised PACI stranded on an out-world looking for safe passage home.

I didn't hate her, but I hated what she was. I hated how the Company inflated her importance with accommodations like these, the kind only the most wealthy citizens could afford, and with the services of men like myself and my late partner, T.C., services that were normally reserved for highly sensitive political assignments like assassinations and out-world coupes.

Toting this bitch home was an errand. An errand for errand boys, albeit a deadly one. I was out of my element, if not out of my league.

T.C. had grown careless during the voyage in-system. He had become over confident.

I never understood why T.C. had accepted this assignment in the first place. He called it a vacation, light duty; we were going to snatch the PACI from the out-world yokels as easily as a man might snatch a ball of yarn from a kitten. Then we were going to ship her home in a hurry, and expend the remainder of our contract basking on some tropical planet somewhere. All expenses paid by the Company, per diem, of course.

The mission hadn't turned out as simple as all that, however. Once we made landfall on Seti One, I quickly realized the planet was a human zoo on the scale of the Home World, Earth. It was one of those crossroads planets where the intergalactic merchant fleet docked to warehouse and transfer trading goods; a real cess pool of a solar system. Every imaginable form of human scum filled the streets and orbitals, and every vice, no matter how vile or destructive, could be satiated for a price. The inhabitants of Seti One were not off-world boon sticks. They were killers and thieves, brawlers and sadists of the very worst (or best) kind.

Before we had time to adjust to the planetary G shift, Setian assassins sniffed us out and burned T.C.. He was nothing greater than just one more Company casualty. I didn't mourn his death. But I hated the PACI.

She was nothing. Worse than nothing. She was a political message, and I the messenger boy.

Worlds had fallen to my manipulations. The political structure of entire solar systems had crumbled at my touch, only to rise from the dust and be rebuilt at my whim. I was much more than an errand boy. Much more. This mission was an embarrassment, a demotion. I couldn't understand why T.C. had accepted it. I almost hadn't come, in fact. But he said I should consider it a vacation, an opportunity to spend the fortunes we had amassed.

Now he was burned and I was solo with the PACI. We were stranded aboard a Company Warp Ship bound for the home system, but it was not moving fast enough to save us. The assassins would know where to find us. The PACI was right; we were marked, and they knew where we were. Since the atmospheric portals had been sealed, we were trapped. There would be no getting off until we made landfall at Mars' Penal Colony, months from now.

The PACI and her killers believed the closed environment of this ship was a disadvantage to me, one that would eventually lead to my destruction. They wanted to burn me like they had burned T.C., and maybe they were expecting me to go as easily as my partner had gone. Maybe they thought cutting me off from the planet made their job simpler, made me more vulnerable.

In fact, the opposite was true. This was the same Warp Ship that had brought me in-system. T.C. and I had lived within its hull for eighteen months, without the benefit of mind isolation or hibernetics to ease the passage of time. We had trained together in the artificial gravity of acceleration and deceleration during long periods of propulsion, and had staged mock combat in the zero G environment of mid-flight. My body and reflexes were accustomed to the ship. The assassins' were not.

Much as T.C. had not been fully acclimated to Seti One when they had burned him. He had been an easy target for the butchers, not because he had been slow or stupid, but because he had been suffering from G shift.

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