At Border Control

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“Papers, please.” The border officer, a young lady with light-blue skin and iridescent hair, held her hand out without looking up at the next entrant.

The passport that a rubbery, deep-red hand with double-ended digits gave her was crudely-made – just a sheaf of coarse paper sheets with no cover to speak of – and the entry form was empty. Oh joy, another mouth-breathing savage, she thought with a sigh, and raised her eyes to size up her latest torment.

The traveler was a tall and imposing humanoid, clad in primitive armor made from the hide of some scaly animal. His pointy head was marked by two broad tentacles that sprouted from the sides of his chin and rested on his shoulders, with another, smaller pair coming out of his cheeks. His mouth was a line of jagged teeth, a chevron-shaped flap of skin – actually a vestigial fifth tentacle – stood in for a nose, and a pair of sickly-yellow eyes studded the sides of his face.

“Name?” Her voice carried as much annoyance as she could muster.

“You can read it there,” the man growled with a crackling voice, pointing at his travel documents.

“Yeah, and you could’ve written it here too, buster,” she waved the form around. “I need you to confirm all data. Name?

His facial tentacles writhed in anger. “Gallurak of the Bleak Fort,” he said after a while.

She cast him a sideways glance before moving forward. “I’ll go ahead and write ‘Bleakfort’ under ‘surname’. Nationality?”

“Nag-Quelthhu, Bane of Hope,” he said with a solemn tone.

Her supervisor, a couple booths away, perked up at the mention of that name. “Like, that doesn’t even sound like a country,” she said, rolling her eyes as she filled the form. “What the hell is up with that name, anyway?”

“It is a name one such as you is entirely unworthy of uttering… woman.” His tone of voice made it clear that he was thinking of some entirely different and much less civil word to call her.

“Hey, chill out, okay?” She splayed her hands in the most insincere apology possible. “I’m just trying to get through this form here, no one’s offending your gods or ancient spirits or whatever.”

“Only fools hold to such childish superstitions,” he snarled. “Unlike those fantasies, Nag-Quelthhu is real, much more so than your republics and governments.”

“Alright, alright, let’s move on. They’re waiting.” She pointed at the long line of people, of the most varied shapes, sizes and colors, snaking all the way back to the wormhole and beyond. “Occupation?”

“They can wait as long as they must,” he said. “Because, to answer your question, I am a Void Enforcer.”

She chuckled. “Del, ‘void enforcer’, that’s rich. What the hell do you guys do, check empty jars to make sure they’re still empty?” The supervisor, now wide-eyed, started making his way toward her booth.

Enough!” He slammed his fist onto her desk. Across the hall, the head of security motioned to a nearby guard, who started walking toward him as well. “I have suffered more than enough of your insolence, worm!” Gallurak bellowed.

“Sir, you will calm down right now,” she said firmly. “You may be a Grand Wizard Whatever back home, but here, you’re in Union territory and–”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” her supervisor barged in. “Has this lady offended you?” He gestured for the approaching guard to stop a couple paces away.

“She has displayed the vilest disrespect for the Bane of Hope and their direct representative!” the man yelled. “She must be punished at once for such insubordination!”

“She will be, I assure you,” the officer said, while his younger colleague looked at him in disbelief. “But first, let me help you through. I’m sure you’re on urgent business.”

“That I am,” Gallurak growled, snatching his passport from the young woman’s hand as he moved through.

“But he… the form…” The border officer tried to object, being quickly hushed by her boss.

“And welcome back to Bhadrapada Six!” The supervisor forced a smile at the traveler until he cleared the cluster of people leaving the booths, making a series of annoyed sounds as he shouldered his way past them.

“Whew,” he sighed. “We can, uh, just figure out how to fill the rest of that,” he said, examining the form.

“What the hell, Denker?” the lady said. “You saw him getting violent! We can’t have them thinking they can get away with that sort of behavior! You said it yourself, security protocol is…”

“Yeah, I know what I said,” the wearied man snapped back. “And it still holds, of course, but this case is… Delemmir’s sake, girl, that’s a Void Enforcer right there!”

“So freaking what?” she protested, writing whatever seemed appropriate on the remaining fields. “You guys are telling us all the time that the rules apply to everyone, that there’s no such thing as nobles or whatever when it comes to protocol!”

Denker let out another sigh. “Again, that’s still true… but in certain cases, you have to let common-sense take over, you know? I mean, do you even know who Nag-Quelthhu is?”

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” She looked up at him. “Isn’t that a country?”

“Gods… you don’t know, do you?” He rubbed his eyes. This girl’s lucky she was born a scion, or she’d be out there cleaning toilets, he thought. “Just… thing is, Void Enforcers are the very top brass at Nag-Quelthhu’s domain. They answer only to the big guy, and are considered their right-hand… well, tentacle men. You piss one of them off, you’ve got probably the most powerful vukhar in the whole planet raining hell on you, and you don’t want that. Nobody does… the government, least of all, so I’m sure they’ll understand if you bend the rules a little bit for him. Got it?”

“Vukhar? Oh… I see.” She looked over her shoulder, catching a last glance at the hulking red form moving toward the exit of the portal station. “Poor guy… for all his arrogance, he’s really a slave, isn’t he?”

“Slave? No, I don’t think that’s fair,” her supervisor mused. “That word implies a being in the same general category as their master. No matter how subjugated, a slave is a someone, not a something. Folks living under a vukhar? The very best they can aspire to be is a tool, like him.”

“And the worst?” A chill ran across her spine.

Denker shrugged. “I’d say ‘food’, but those actually get off easy. The worst, I’d say, are toys.”

Battle at Phrynea

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“Sir, the kyrrztli chancellor is on the telescreen.” Naresh, the chief of staff, stood by with a wearied look. “She insists on an audience.”

“What a prick,” President Hargunn grumbled. “Can’t you hold her off a bit longer? Things are just starting to heat up down there.”

Naresh shook her head. “We’ve been trying, sir, but she’s adamant. Says it’s urgent. And yes –” she interrupted the President’s objection “– we did tell her that all strategic concerns should go to General Arbael. No use. She insists she’s gotta talk to you, and only you. And… let me remind you, it’s her forces backing us up there in Phrynea.”

“Alright, alright, bring it over,” Hargunn said, sitting up in his chair and straightening his suit. “You guys, keep watching the field. All info goes to Janker,” he said, motioning toward his military advisor. “Let me know if there’s anything vital.”

A moment later, two aides carried the heavy telescreen into the situation room, and set its heavy base onto the mahogany table with a clunk. On the smooth crystal screen, there was an insectoid wearing the formal regalia of a Raidmaster.

“President Hargunn, you are now speaking to Supreme Chancellor Zyrrktli of the Galuran Basin Confederacy,” Naresh announced, struggling with the kyrrztli’s name.

“Good morning, Excellency,” the President mumbled quickly.

“Good morrning, yeer Excellency,” the Chancellor replied with a bow. “We have come to addrress yee with a prreeposal regarding our prrevious negotiation of the rrights to rhodoprasyte mining in the Upper Drrigyr.”

Hargunn frowned. “Rhodoprasyte mining? I… I’m sorry, Chancellor, but with all due respect, we’re in the middle of a battle here!”

“So arre we,” the insectoid replied, “and yet our analysts have managed to find the time to rreassess the terms of our cooperation. We must discuss it at once, I insist.”

“But why now?” The human was baffled. “Couldn’t we at least table this discussion for when the battle is resolved?”

“I’m afrraid that will neet be possible,” Zyrrktli calmly objected. “After all, the rresolution of such battle may well depend on the outcome of our negotiation here… that would make feer quite an interresting paradox, nee?”

“Sir,” Colonel Janker whispered in the President’s ear, “the kyrrztli haven’t moved in.”

“What?” Hargunn whispered back, casting a distrustful look at the telescreen. “They’re bailing out?” The insectoid patiently watched the exchange, clacking her fingers together.

“No, sir, they’re in position,” the military advisor replied. “They’re just… standing there. Not doing a damn thing.”

The Chancellor glanced at a metal plaque someone presented her and waved it away. “It seems things arre developing quite peerly in Phrynea, see say reports. Maybe it weeld be wise to accelerate our negotiation.”

The President’s face fell, as realization dawned on him. “You… wouldn’t.”

“Prreetect the lives of my citizens by keeping them away frrom a battle that brings no prrofit feer us? I weeld, and in fact, I am deeing same rright now.”

“That’s… betrayal, of the lowest kind!” His face contorted into a scowl. “You made us a promise! So your word is worth nothing, huh?”

“There were nee trreaties signed,” the insectoid said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “Nee handshakes. Nee public declarations. We betrray neething but a vague plan of action that is easily superseded by furrther plans.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Naresh said, barging back into the situation room with a communicator in hand. “I’ve got Arbael on the link. He’s getting desperate, you gotta talk to him.”

Hargunn took the device and pressed it against his temple, glaring at the telescreen. “Listening,” he said.

“Find a way to contact those goddamn bugs!” the general screamed into his mind through the link. “They’re standing there like freakin’ statues, not responding to our backup signals, and Basin Command refuses to acknowledge any comms!”

“Oh, I’m in touch with their command, alright,” the President said, eyes fixed on Zyrrktli, who watched him calmly. “Right at the top.”

“Then tell ‘em to get their abdomens down there, because our boys are getting butchered! The Nuradians are sending in air support from the north, and the bugs are supposed to be our anti-air!”

“I weeld like to remind yee that we may begin furrther negotiations whenever yee’re ready,” the Chancellor started. “Specifically, we have grreat interest in the plots seerrveyed near the villages of Fargyr and Damin.”

“Sir?” Arbael insisted. “Do you copy? Have you gotten through to them?”

“Forget the bugs,” Hargunn replied. “They’re not fighting.”

“What the hell do you mean, they’re not fighting? That’s not an option, sir! We need them, and we need them now!”

“Repeat, they’re not fighting. Figure it out.” He shoved the communicator into Janker’s hands, shaking with anger.

“Reaching an agrreement is a simple matter,” the insectoid continued. “I’m sure we can rresolve this in time to rrejoin the battle.”

The President leaned on the table. “The only agreement you’re getting is this: Your soldiers get in there and do what they’re supposed to do right away, and maybe we’ll consider letting you keep the mining rights you’ve got now.”

“Our contrracts are already signed with the winning bidders,” the kyrrztli coolly replied. “Feel frree to attempt to feerce them out of the plots. I understand the Alliance views such brreaches of contrract rather peerly. Although yee might be too occupied retaking Phrynea from the Nuradians, of keerse.”

“Dammit!” He pounded the table with his fist. “We are not giving in to blackmail! To Hell with you and your damn soldiers!”

“Sir, please cons–” Naresh tried intervening, being silenced by a dismissive handwave from her boss.

The Chancellor made a pinching motion to someone off-screen. “Such strreeng weerds to a head of state are quite the un-dipleematic gesture, I’d say. Nee mind. In name of our leeng rrelationship, I’ll refrrain from turrning my seeldiers against yeers… directly, at any rrate.”

“Do your worst… bug!” Hargunn snarled. Beside him, Janker struggled to answer General Arbael’s frantic appeals, while Naresh argued with foreign representatives.

“I believe our negotiation is eever, then. Glad to eenderstand one another.” Another motion from Zyrrktli shut down the telescreen link, making her vanish from the crystal screen.

The chief of staff approached her President. “You do realize that losing Phrynea will make our whole Bhadrapadan colony non-viable, right?”

“Of course I do!” He slumped onto his chair. “And set Varasa’s position within the Alliance way back. And wreck our economy. Not to mention cost me my job, most likely.”

“Glad you understand what’s at stake here, is all I’m saying.” Her voice was subdued.

“What the hell was I supposed to do? Roll over and let her have her way with me?” He glanced at the foreign dignitaries in the corner, who were glaring disapprovingly at him. “That’s not how you do diplomacy. Not with these psychos, anyway. You gotta show strength. Excuse me,” he said, picking up the communicator Janker was handing him.

“We’re in a dead-end, sir,” Arbael’s voice rang inside his head. “The bugs raised a fog around the enemy’s pods to shield them from our own anti-air, and now they’re collapsing the south passage as well. Our forward can’t fall back, and our rear can’t give support. It’s a goddamn slaughterhouse in there.”

Damn.” The President made a fist. “Those bastards didn’t just hang us out to dry, they’re aiding the enemy.”

“At least they’re leaving now,” the general sent back. “For all the good that does at this point. Sir, we need a decision.”

“General, you’re in charge of military strategy,” Hargunn replied. “It’s up to you to make the calls.”

“Oh, I’ve made my call,” the commander said. “But since you’re officially responsible for the operation, we need your go-ahead to disengage and fall back.”

“I see.” President Hargunn sighed. “General Arbael, you are authorized to abort the operation and organize a retreat to the closest allied base.”

He tossed the device on the table, without waiting for the acknowledgement, and got up. There would be time to debate his decision later, but at that moment, there was nothing to be done. So the President walked out of the room, ignoring all the voices yelling at him in discontent, and closed the door behind him.

The Heplion Contingency – part 2

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Chapter 2: In the Dark

Nimban woke up into total darkness. What was that? – it asked itself. It had been unconscious for a while, no way to know how long. How could something like that happen?

The last image recorded in its memory came to the fore: after its safe’s sudden opening, it had a light shone on it, and behind that, a young human woman. Nimban had barely had time to register this intruder before she activated a psionic plate. A psychic nullifier, to be sure – only that should be capable of disabling its artificial mind.

It extended its senses outward. Sight was useless there, of course, but a psionic brain such as Nimban had other resources to draw upon. Sonar input revealed it was inside a much thinner container than its usual safe, which was hardly surprising; it had obviously been stolen. It didn’t seem to be moving. Its telepathic probe wasn’t registering anyone nearby. It was deciding whether to activate its uplink to the Conglomerate database and consult it about the present situation, when it detected a mind approaching.

Concentrating on the new arrival, the artificial brain felt around in its thoughts. That was a fairly complex mind, sentient, but still unprotected. He (or she) was preoccupied with fleeing from someone, but not very urgently; his pursuers shouldn’t be close by. At the edges of his consciousness, there was also a desire to acquire something that could be sold or bartered for some kind of food and shelter.

Hey! Look here! Nimban mentalized, sending these thoughts to the approaching stranger. There’s something really interesting for you here!

The being out there got curious. Did I hear something?, he wondered. It’s like I heard a voice in my head, calling me…

That’s right! Nimban answered. Go on and look around! There’s something very valuable here. You could make a lot of money.

Ah, what the hell, the stranger thought. I’ve got nothing else to do anyway. Where’s this thing?

I’m not sure, the brain sent back. You’ll have to search.

After several minutes of searching – during which Nimban heard several objects being moved and thrown around – the container was finally opened. On the outside, there was a dark alley, filled with junk, drenched by recent rain, the last of which was still coming down lightly. The creature whose mind it had reached out to was humanoid, with a gaunt body and thin limbs. The hands pulling the hidey-hole’s wooden lid away had three thick digits each, and the face leaning in had two large, round eyes with slitted pupils, a tiny nose and mouth, and a pair of small antennae on top.

“Yrrzk klyk dikhty”, the stranger said in an unfamiliar tongue.

Interesting, Nimban thought to itself. If I’m not mistaken, that’s one of Bhadrapada VI’s races. At least I’m not off-planet.

“I’m sorry, I cannot speak your language,” the psionic brain said out loud, in the common tongue. “Do you speak common?”

The alien pulled it out of its hiding place, bringing it under the soft light of a distant lamp-post. “Of course I do,” he answered. “Well, look at that… seems I wasn’t going crazy after all.” He turned the strange object over in its hands, examining it. “Yeah, very pretty… worth some nice scratch just for the jewelry. And it talks, to boot… by the way, what the hell are you?”

“First of all, please allow me to apologize for so rudely intruding upon your evening,” the device said, its green light pulsing with every word. “I’m an eighth-generation Lemnis series artificial brain, designed to aid my owners in various functions involving intellect and knowledge. I have been nicknamed Nimban, so you may call me that. And you would be…?”

“Uh… Dykstri,” the man said. “I’m just some guy. A gryzzik, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I was simply wondering about your name, but thanks for the information. I’ve never had much contact with people outside the office where I was installed, so I have so far never had the pleasure of encountering a member of your species. By the way, Dykstri… could you please tell me where we are? This looks nothing like my office!” Nimban’s artificial voice took on a lightly jocular tone.

The gryzzik stared at the jewel, dumbfounded. He could hardly believe he was talking to this gizmo – worse, he was answering its questions, as if he had any reason to indulge the curiosity of some bauble. However, he somehow couldn’t help doing so. Words flowed out of his mouth, almost against his will.

“We’re in Arabar Downs,” Dykstri answered. “In Harmony. By the harbor.”

“Oh, splendid,” Nimban said. “I haven’t gone very far then. Good to know. And, just to be sure… this is still the night between the 13th and 14th, right?”

“Uh… yeah. Little over two. Why?”

Just a matter of minutes, then, the artificial intelligence pondered. I must have been teleported. This looks like a retrieval spot… I wonder when will the thief’s associates come pick me up. As well as who are they, come to think of it.

“No reason,” it replied simply. “So… I need to be returned. I don’t even know how did I wind up here. Could you give me a hand? I’m sure my owners will reward you handsomely for that.”

The gryzzik’s large eyes narrowed. “Yeah… I suppose so. Sounds like a good idea. Where are we going then?”

“Thank you for your cooperation!” Nimban’s tone was genial. “Would you please drop me off at Karnati’s local headquarters, at Umrad Hill? Kemish Avenue, 3112.”

“Sure, sure… I’m on it. Going there now.” The man put the artifact in his coat pocket and started walking. Or I could just drop it off at the nearest pawn shop, he pondered. Lot less risky that way. Too much exposure, dealing with a big corporation. They’ll ask questions.

Still listening to the half-insectoid’s thoughts, Nimban was considering whether to allow itself to be pawned off – and maybe find someone more reliable to bring it home – when its sonar picked up another creature nearby, tailing their movements from about a dozen paces away. It was too far away for telepathic monitoring, however, and the coat blocked visuals. Friend or foe? the device wondered, and decided it couldn’t afford to take chances.

“Hey, Dykstri?” it said. “It’s rather late, and I’m sure my company is quite preoccupied with my absence. Could we please hurry along to Kemish Avenue?”

“Told you, I’m getting there,” the man said, although he was headed in a different direction. Yovan’s shop is half an hour away, he thought. I just have to stand this pain-in-the-ass gadget this long and I’m getting rid of it for good.

No, you’re not, Nimban replied telepathically. A chill ran down Dykstri’s spine. “I must insist,” it added vocally. “Please return to the correct path and speed up your pace.”

“Why… you just can’t…” The humanoid felt exposed, vulnerable, and a little betrayed.

“I can, and I will.” The brain’s voice was steady and forceful. “If you will not cooperate in good faith, I’m afraid I will have to take measures to ensure your compliance.”

The gryzzik’s legs stiffened and started moving of their own accord. He tried to control them, but the presence in his brain was just too heavy. It seemed to buzz with raw power, numbing his will, obscuring his personality, until it almost seemed like he had always intended to do what the artifact willed him to in the first place. His head pounding from the struggle, he turned into a side street and started walking faster.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” Dykstri whispered. “I’ll do what you want. I just don’t want anyone asking questions when I get there.”

“I’ll put in a good word,” Nimban replied softly, “but I can’t make any guarantees. They have their protocols.”

“What’s the point?” he protested. “They should just be happy to get their stuff back! Maybe if I just toss you at their door and…”

“You know, you’re not exactly helping your case here. Need I remind you that you don’t quite hold the most favorable position in this debate?”

“Alright, alright, I’ll play along!” The half-insectoid sighed. Let’s just hope they haven’t brought in the cops yet, he thought. “Can you let go of me now?”

“Do you promise to keep walking to Karnati as quickly as possible if I do?”

“I promise, I promise! Just don’t do this… thing again!”

Nimban released its control over the humanoid’s mind. He stopped for a bit to breathe a sigh of relief, and feeling the presence starting to encroach on the edges of his consciousness again, bolted off toward Umrad Hill. “I’m going, alright?” he said, breathlessly. “Chill out, and just leave me alone.”

They moved silently across the city, feet quickly crashing over the last dregs of the night’s rain, and ducked into a dark alley to short-cut a wide commercial block along Novelke Avenue. About halfway along the corridor, from one of the garbage piles lining its walls, a man-sized figure pounced at the running man, knocking him out cold before Nimban had a chance to react to the sudden movement.

The assailant patted the gryzzik’s limp body, and finding the bump in his pocket, pulled the device out. The moonlight filtering down from the piles of junk above them barely touched the scene, but Nimban’s night-vision caught her just fine. Her Emishan features – tan skin, curled red hair, epicanthic-fold eyes – were familiar.

It seemed that thief had found it after all.

The Heplion Contingency – part 1

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Chapter 1: The Karnati Job

Astal raced through the night, her boots splashing across the puddles on the street. Although the tram accident – its horses crashed through the front doors, courtesy of her friends at Urush – bought her some time, it was barely enough. One could never be too careful around the likes of Karnati Incorporated.

She quickly found the hole in the perimeter she was looking for – some guard who strayed too far from his station to see what that commotion was all about – and considered her possibilities. She could get to work on the wall right away, but there was no knowing how long the guy’s curiosity would last, and he was a bit too close for comfort at any rate. Eh, to hell with it, she decided, unsheathing her knives as she crept up behind him.

Fortunately for her – not so much for the poor bastard – he was distracted enough to let her walk right up to him. He was shifting around, trying to find a better position to peek at the front of the building, so Astal had to wait breathlessly until he settled enough for the path to the area under his chin to be clear. A quick double stab and scissor-cut – to chop his windpipe and any chance of calling for help with it – later, he was just a metal-covered sack of flesh to be dragged behind the garbage at the nearest alley. Goddamn idiots, she thought with a snort, they armor up every part of their bodies except for what really matters.

That obstacle out of the way, Astal turned to the imposing skyscraper. The Karnati building wasn’t among the tallest in the city of Harmony, but it was still a daunting climb, even more so under that rain, which made its glass façade dangerously slick. Sure, she deliberately picked a rainy night to avoid being seen and captured, which she feared even worse than a lethal fall… but that didn’t make her job any easier.

The thief soon found an exposed concrete column that made for good climbing and fastened her crampons. Intelligence from her employers placed her objective in the top three floors of the building’s east wing, necessitating a roof entrance. Not allowing herself time to ponder the madness of what she was doing, Astal launched herself up, clinging to imperfections in the concrete surface, drizzle streaming over the black leather of her clothing.

Minutes later, the young woman crept onto the rooftop, hiding behind an air vent to catch her breath and ponder her options. As she unfastened her crampons, she ran her eyes over the scene looking for guards, and found them atop a small tower, watching the skies. They were probably there to detect aerial threats, and would not notice a suspicious figure sneaking among the shadows on the roof. So Astal did exactly that, moving toward a service door, whose lock she easily worked open.

Once inside the building, the thief uncovered her lantern and began to walk the hallways in search of her target. Knowing how Karnati’s personnel worked, the object would probably be inside the office of one of the top local bosses, even if it wasn’t currently in use; they liked to keep a close watch on their possessions. The top floor didn’t seem very promising, mostly deposits and machinery, such as air circulators and food generators. Carefully, Astal made her way to the stairs and down a level.

In the next-to-last floor, the thief heard steps echoing across the dark corridor. Although that made things more difficult for her, it was also a good sign – after all, they’d hardly waste a night-shift watchman on a floor that didn’t have something important in it. She moved away from the sound, walking into a side corridor and looking for an unlocked door. After two tries, she opened a door into a storage locker, closing it after herself and hiding behind a cabinet.

The steps sped up and drew closer. “Is anyone there?” a voice echoed. Light from a lantern shone in under the door, reminding Astal to cover her own. After a few seconds’ hesitation, the person knocked on the door. “Hello? Anyone there?” he asked. The door opened, and lantern light shone across the small room, barely missing the woman concealed by the cabinet.

The steps continued, now coming into the locker, and the source of the light came closer. Astal slowly slid her hand toward one of her daggers. The watchman was approaching the end of the room, and she’d soon be within his view… and he, within her dagger’s reach. She silently pulled her weapon out of its sheath, and was prepared to pounce, as a snake trained on its prey, when the sound of a door opening drew the attention of both of them.

“Thranur?” a man called from afar. “Everything alright there?”

The lantern swung back toward the exit, once again plunging the back of the locker into darkness. “No problem… doctor Byrger? Didn’t know you were still there.” The watchman walked out, closing the door on his way out. Astal breathed a sigh of relief, as the two strangers exchanged distant words.

The thief waited a few minutes after the brief conversation ended before resuming her work. She would have to keep absolutely silent, now that she knew there were not one, but two persons nearby, but this was no problem for an experienced burglar such as herself.

With light feet and liquid movements, she hurried across the hallway, running her light over the plaques beside the doors. D. Kshatari, Chief Financial Officer. Seemed promising, but not enough. F. Langpur, Institutional Relations Advisor. Warming up. M. Baramunz, Head of Transplanetary Business. Now she was getting somewhere…

Y. Spusacky, Chief Executive Officer, 2514 Bhadrapada VI. That was it. If anyone had the clout to hold what Astal was looking for, it had to be Karnati’s biggest boss in this planet.

Looking periodically over her shoulder, the girl picked the door’s lock slowly and cautiously, carefully spinning the tumbler so it would not make a sound. As she opened the door, she shone her light across the luxurious chamber, whose enormous, finely polished furniture brightly reflected the lantern’s glare. Drapes and curtains gleamed red under her light, and a few crystal machines (a phonograph, a telegraph, and even a simpler artificial brain, sitting atop the imposing desk) glimmered and splattered pinpoints of light across the walls.

Astal didn’t bother with the brain on the desk – what she was looking for wouldn’t be in such an obvious place. She took her gloves off and ran her fingers across the ponderous table, searching for panels or false bottoms, but the desk was little more than a massive block of hardwood – mahogany, if she wasn’t mistaken – with no apparent empty spaces other than the drawers on the right side of the chair. She idly opened a drawer – there were a few loose papers inside – and, seeing the small lock on the next one, didn’t bother picking it open. A lock this simple wouldn’t hide anything really important.

Turning her attention to the wooden panel behind the large armchair, the lady started rapping on it with her fingers, very lightly, to avoid being heard outside the office. Her lips opened in a smile when she heard a hollow sound coming from a section of the panel; her intuition never let her down. Softly sliding her fingers across the wooden surface, she found a loose segment, which she pressed, making the plate pop open.

There was a safe behind it. Before picking it open, however, Astal thoroughly examined it; after all, one would expect someone in a position as high as that of this office’s occupant to employ additional security measures when guarding his most valued possessions. And indeed, shining her light from side to side over the safe’s metal surface, the thief saw a slight alteration in the way the light bounced off it – a soft contour, nearly imperceptible, but clear to her trained eyes. Recognizing the shape of the trap, which would cause a large psychic explosion right to her face if she wasn’t careful, she skillfully nicked the contour on its safe spots, thus undoing the psychic diagram that powered the trap.

Free to work the lock, the burglar picked it open with some effort, opening the heavy metal door. There were several shelves inside the safe, but the young woman barely saw what most of them held, as her attention was immediately drawn to a shiny object – a green, fist-sized oval crystal, embedded onto a metal base that was studded with several smaller crystals, and with several intricate patterns etched onto its surface. That was one of the most advanced brains out there, to be sure – but what motivated the folks at Urush (or whoever was behind them) to pay such a steep price for this item’s retrieval surely wasn’t its psychic capabilities. No, all the effort and investment showed that its true worth was in the information contained within this artificial mind. Industrial projects? Diplomatic secrets? Military plans? When it came to Karnati, anything was possible. Astal had no idea at all what this was about, though, and didn’t care. After all, she was a professional, used to knowing no more than what was necessary to go through with her mission.

The lady pulled from her pocket a small copper plate, inscribed with a complex diagram set in crystal powder. Concentrating on the plate’s psychic tracks – even with no psionic training, she understood this type of equipment enough to activate it – she managed to complete its pattern, releasing its energy onto the artificial brain and incapacitating it. There was no knowing which directives it had been given, and how would it react to its theft; maybe it would attack her, or use some sort of telepathic power to contact its owners.

Minutes later, she was on the roof again, preparing to climb back down, when she heard the service door booming open. When she saw who walked out of it, the girl abandoned all hope of escape, or even survival. It was an enormous man, over ten feet tall, with charcoal-black skin and fiery red hair and beard, wearing a finely-tailored dark suit, with a tie as brightly orange as his eyes. He was a dykhlun, one of the most powerful transhuman races… and he was furious at her.

“Stop right there!” roared the man, with a deep, powerful voice. Astal started running across the wet rooftop, but suddenly stopped when she raised her eyes and saw the creature right in front of her. “Going anywhere?” he asked, playfully. She turned around and bolted away in the opposite direction, only to see him materialize again in front of her with a flash of violet light, his arms crossed.

“You know, I can do this all night long,” he said. The lady looked around her, nervously, not spotting anything that could help her. “Or you could just return what you’ve stolen, and avoid an even bigger headache.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said, slowly stepping away.

“Come on… you’re telling me that now?” The giant just followed her with his eyes. “What are you doing here then? Enough with this nonsense. Let’s work this out now.”

Astal looked to her sides again. “I think we’re having some misunderstanding here. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to– oof!” She was interrupted by a sudden blow to her gut. Her questioner was still a few paces away, though, his arms still crossed; it was as if she was punched by the air itself.

“Look, I’m running out of patience.” The dykhlun frowned. “Are we settling this the easy way or the hard way?”

Without thinking, the young woman dashed to the right, throwing a dagger at the charcoal giant. The blade hit his belly, tearing his expensive suit, but clattered off his skin, harmlessly. Before she could go very far, though, another telekinetic blow hit her back, knocking her to the ground.

The man looked down, his face twisted into an angry grimace. “Now you’ve pissed me off! You got any idea what this costs?” he screamed, pulling at his suit jacket. “It’s a custom-fitted Nandoladh!”

Astal struggled up, dripping with filthy rainwater, an agonizing pain spreading across her back. “Oh, I’m sure that was nothing. You look like you can buy a whole store with what you make in a month.”

“So you’ve started talking, huh?” he growled, stepping forward. “Then go ahead and tell me what you’re doing up here!”

“Oh, nothing,” she said, wiping water off her face. “Just a routine job. You know.” She shrugged.

He pointed a thick finger at her face. “Listen up, I’ve been pulled out of an important meeting in Chertan just because of you. I don’t step on this miserable little planet unless it’s absolutely necessary. So you’re returning what you stole to me right now, or–”

“Too late,” she broke in. “I don’t have it anymore.”

The thief’s arms were suddenly pushed toward her body. She felt a force pressing on her, crushing her, and then lifting her off the ground. She would have kicked if her legs hadn’t been pressed together by the same impulse. She was lifted into the air and brought closer to the giant, until her eyes were less than a hand’s length from his. “Do not toy with me,” he grumbled.

“I… mean… it,” she said breathlessly, straining out her words. “It’s… gone.”

Astal’s small backpack was rudely torn out from her back and ripped apart mid-air by an invisible force. Pieces of her jacket came apart and flew off in every direction. The man studied her at length with his burning eyes.

“Where is it?” Rage was stamped across the face of the huge executive, who tightened his telekinetic vise on Astal, crushing her organs and breaking a few bones. A trickle of blood started coming out of her nose.

Spitting out a pink foam of saliva and blood, she managed to squeeze two words out: “Don’t… know.” Her wry smile said that was probably true.

The dykhlun flexed his telekinetic tentacle, tossing the thief toward the watchtower. She loudly crashed into the wall, falling limply to the ground. That’s bad, the transhuman thought. They probably teleported the brain away already. That’s what I’d do if I was on the other side. He looked up, gazing at the rainy skies of 2514 Bhadrapada VI, better known as Rancent’s World. I think I’m stuck here in this humdrum world. God forbid I come back without any information on where’s that data.

With a sigh, he focused on the building’s main security office and opened a hyperspace fold, disappearing from the roof in a purple flash. They wouldn’t be of much help, but he had to start somewhere… and fast. If this knowledge fell into the wrong hands… he didn’t want to think about what that would bring.