ASH

CHAPTER 5 (Unfinished)

This is not to say there weren't serious conditions on my Apprenticeship. More than half the Disciplinary Committee was in favour of expulsion, even if I was a Met. I'd defied them twice and I was going to get myself killed doing it. Investigator Fey-fey's intercession is the only thing that kept me in that school.

Every Watchman is expected to take on a Ward. The only exceptions are for certain ranks, particularly dangerous assignments where taking a junior member is unwise, or where a Ward would jeopardize a given mission. Fey-fey was none of these. She simply refused to take on another. To a point it was considered acceptable, given the nature of what happened with her last one. But by the time I came along it was long past the point where her lack of a Ward – and the School's apparent inability to do anything about it – was considered embarrassing. Rules were rules and she wasn't following them, but she was the best Investigator in the Vigil and they couldn't afford to take her off duty for insubordination. Also, politically nobody wanted to look like they were picking on a grieving Master, no matter how long since her Ward vanished. It was a rough spot for the Committee and the Grand Master in particular.

So when she went before them and argued in favour of not only not expelling me, but allowing me to take the exams so she could Apprentice me.... They argued that I was openly defiant and allowing me to take the Apprentice Oaths would be tantamount to rewarding me for disobedience. She argued that if I was good enough to somehow contact a known assassin and go meet him in the middle of the night almost without detection, and despite the restrictions the Committee had put on me, perhaps the school was not the right place for me and I would behave better in a more hands-on learning environment. They argued that I remained obsessed with finding Noelle, despite everything I'd been told. She pointed out that in the Field I would be kept too busy to be gallivanting off after curfew and Noelle would have to take a backseat to my work – in the school I was bored and had the time to obsess over her. They told her there were plenty of other Initiates writing their exams and she could have her pick of any of them. She told them it was me or no one.

The Grand Master asked her the same question I had – why?

And she gave them the same answer – that they'd told me no and I'd fought them on it. That in her eyes that made me worthy of the Investigation Field. And then she summed it up for them – let me take the exams, and they would no longer be embarrassed by her refusal to take an Apprentice, and the Vigil would gain a Psychomet with Investigative training. Deny me the exams, continue to be embarrassed, and lose a Psychomet.

I owe her my life – and I don't mean my physical life, though I probably owe her that a thousand times over. I mean the life I've lived. Everything I've done. The places I've been. The fact that I was Apprenticed and was able to join the Vigil and I'm not sitting in a kitchen cooking your meals right now. My life. If it weren't for Iris Fey-fey I'd have none of it. Some day I'll repay her for it, though I've no idea how. It's a debt beyond words.

Anyway, all of that to say the Committee wasn't entirely happy about the situation, but I swore up and down to them that they wouldn't regret it when they called me in to talk about conditions. I had two very serious disciplinary marks on my record. They made it exceedingly clear that it was only Fey-fey's influence that kept me from getting expelled, and equally clear that as long as I was an Apprentice, I still fell under the jurisdiction of the Grand Master and the Disciplinary Committee – basically I was still a student, and expulsion was still possible; I was on my last chance.

Fey-fey set the terms. She told me that my Apprenticeship would continue as long as I never disobeyed her without reason, did not unduly risk my own life or anyone else's, and kept my personal search for Noelle to my spare time, never allowing it to interfere with my lessons or our work. I was a junior member of the Vigil, and the Vigil had to come first.

"But...I can still look for her?" I'd asked, startled.

"Yes," she replied simply. "But be wary of obsession and ensure your head remains clear."

Thus I began my apprenticeship with the woman who was my hero, became my mentor, and is still my friend.

Anyway, this story's not supposed to be about me. I think maybe I'm not as ready to lay this all out there as I thought I was because I keep finding excuses to talk about something else. Suffice it to say I spent the next year being worked to the bone by Master Fey-fey, learning the techniques and tricks behind psionic Investigation, strengthening my control of my psychometry, and collecting every piece of information I could find about the Antares system and the Daal.

After our meeting, Ash hopped a freighter to Aramid. My father had taken Loish there to recuperate from the trauma of losing her daughter to the people she'd been hiding from for the last sixteen years. Dad wasn't there anymore, of course. He'd probably die if he had to spend that long away from home. He took her there, got her settled with her brother, and went home to Ytoh II. Lo was in safe hands, and would have time to think things through and move on.

Lo, of course, couldn't sit still. When she'd been on Mimas Prime with me and Noelle, she'd managed a chapter of Redfield Security. She loved the work and it kept her busy – it's where she built and maintained her little black book of mercenary scum. Now she was back home on Aramid after too many years to just pick up her old social circles, with no job, and nothing to do but sit around and think about Noelle and what had happened to her and trying to determine how much of it had been her own fault.

Lo deals with her problems by keeping busy, so against the advice of everyone around her, she abruptly established her own security company – on a planet where the competition for security contracts is incredibly fierce – and threw herself blindly into it. Every moment of her day went into it, and there was never a shortage of complicated, difficult tasks to be done. But it was work she enjoyed and the way she tells it she'd always considered breaking away from Redfield and starting up her own company anyway, she just needed an excuse – thus, V-Sec was born. Some part of her may have been thinking down the road in terms of usefulness, but mostly I think she just wanted the distraction. She wanted to come home every night burnt out to the point where she could just fall into bed and pass out.

Ostensibly, Ash went all the way out to Aramid to return her book to her – she was very happy to have it back, of course. The contacts within were invaluable given her current project. Ash, to his credit, didn't rat me out. I don't know what excuse he gave her for having it, but she either believed it or didn't care to push.

He also managed to somehow convince himself to volunteer his services as her first freelance mercenary if she wanted them.

Freelance. What a crock! He worked almost exclusively for V-Sec from that point forward. Lo'd send him out to do this or get that or capture them, and he'd return when he was done and find some excuse to hang around until she had something else for him to do. Bastard didn't want to leave and it took him years to see it.

There are two things in this universe that Loish understands without trying – the security business, and men. Poor bastard. I could have warned him.

I'm joking, Lo, I'm joking.

Sort of.

Anyway.

Sometime in the middle of that year a rash of shipjackings hit the trade routes on the inside edge of the fringe. Nothing particularly high profile, but early Intelligence analysis indicated links between each attack, which suggested a well-organized group. The Consortium was starting to consider sending more colonists out in the same quadrants as the attacks and decided they wanted the shipjackings dealt with before they started advertising.

A low-profile, straightforward case – perfect for a seasoned Investigator with a new Ward. Fey-fey and I were assigned to it.

"So," she said as we settled into our bunks on the small cargo ship that would take us out to the Fringe, "who do you think it is?"

I'd fallen for this trap a hundred times, and by that point knew how to answer. "I don't know who it is," I told her. "We don't have enough information yet." You don't guess with Fey-fey, you don't assume. You don't jump to conclusions. If you don't have incontrovertible proof that it is what you think, it's not.

"Good boy," she said with a grin. "I thought I might have to cuff you again. You're far too certain of your own conclusions."

"Yes Master Fey-fey," I said, and rolled my eyes once she'd turned her back to throw her bag onto her bed.

"So, if you do not have the information required to determine who it is…who do you think it's not?" She took a seat and regarded me closely.

I pulled myself up onto the top bunk and turned to dangle my feet off the edge of it as I considered the question. "Intelligence said they hit quick and disappear again, no trace left behind after the attack. So it's not the Night Furies and it's not the Shyrik'ti."

"Why not?" Fey-fey asked, ever the instructor.

"The Night Furies would be after the ship, but not its crew. They never leave survivors. Their typical modus operandi would mean they would likely jettison the bodies and anything else they don't want before leaving. So there'd be a trail, but there isn't. Whoever it is they take the ship and everything and everyone on it."

"And the Shyrik'ti?"

"Scavengers," I responded immediately. "They strip whatever they take and leave the bones behind. We'd find empty hulls full of bodies with all the tech stripped out. Computer systems, weapons, that kind of thing. The Shyrik'ti never take the whole ship – too hard to sell later."

Fey-fey nodded in a way that meant my answers so far had been satisfactory. "Anyone else?"

I shook my head slowly. "Not for sure," I said. "Shipjacking is out of character for the Blue Raiders, but not unlikely. It fits the profile of the Zhuzhus, but they're a long way from home out here. This isn't their usual stomping grounds."

"Could be a group passing through the system. Lost or on another job," Fey-fey noted.

"Too many ships taken too quickly," I replied with a shake of my head. "If they were passing through they might take an opportunity if it presented itself, but we're looking at something planned and organized well in advance. To be honest, it doesn't really seem to fit any of the known groups particularly well." I kicked my feet idly as I mulled it over. "Could it be a new group?" I asked.

Fey-fey nodded. "Or a splinter. But as you say, we don't know enough yet to come to any solid conclusions. Now get some rest, youngling. It's a long way to the Fringe."

We started our search on the planet Chukana, speaking with the companies that had been the victims of the jacking. In my general naiveté I had been expecting a warm welcome. After all, weren't we the cavalry, come to the rescue? Who isn't happy to see the Watchmen arrive?

What I got instead were a lot of angry businessfolk, upset about everything from how long we'd taken to arrive, to how few of us were sent, to how the jackings were all our fault in the first place for not having better security in the Fringe. They were just honest businessfolk trying to make a living in one of the harshest areas of known space, and now they were suffering and losing profits because the Vigil couldn't do its job.

I was offended beyond words, but Fey-fey handled it with a professional calm that never faltered, even when the one Weekah just about exploded at the sight of us with a profanity-laced rant, complete with thinly veiled threats. Twice Fey-fey squeezed my shoulder – hard – when I was about to speak or interrupt the stream of abuse.

"You need to remember," she told me later, "that these people are not Watchmen. They are not psions. They are ordinary sentients who lack the abilities and training we have. Things that are not a concern to us are often large and frightening in their eyes. They are threatened by their troubles, and wounded at having to call for help at all."

"They're not even worried about their employees," I'd returned in a huff. "All they care about is their ships and their cargo! Their profits! We should arrest them—"

She grabbed my chin in her fingers before I could continue and pressed her claws against my skin in a way that meant I was being reprimanded. "Listen to me, youngling," she said seriously when I met her gaze, "our job is not to judge. Never to judge. We care for our case, our mystery, nothing else." She gave my head a shake, as though I was a bad puppy. "Do you know the most common reason an Investigator falls from the right path and goes rogue?"

I shook my head mutely at her, startled by the unexpected reproach.

"Because they forget that they are an Investigator – not a Judge. Not a Jury. Not," she added and tightened her grip, "an executioner. This is the Investigator's trap. This is the danger inherent in our path. Do you understand my words?"

I nodded again and she released my face with a nod.

"Good. Then let's continue."

I didn't really understand her then. In theory, I knew what she meant. In practice it's a much harder concept to apply. But she was right, and I've never forgotten that moment, confusing though it was at the time. Some of the things I've seen since then…some of the things I've investigated, things I've read through psychometry…. It can harden you. It can scar you in ways you can't fully appreciate until it's far too late. It's very easy to investigate a crime, to come to your conclusions, and to make judgements based on them. But it's not your job. It's not your job because you're too close to it and by that point you can't be impartial, it's impossible. And it's an alarmingly small jump from judging a person guilty and acting on that.

If you knew what some sentients were capable of….

Corporate greed is nothing.

But I was young and excitable and it was my first time out in the field. Between the shock of not receiving a hero's welcome, and learning the hard, cold fact that yes, there are people out there who care more about money than actual living beings, it was a bit of a rude awakening all around.

God I was stupid.

At any rate, we didn't learn anything new from the ship owners. Everything they knew they'd already filed in their initial reports with us. We asked them for next-of-kin contact information for all the missing spacers, names and schedules for all employees involved in the scheduling and prepping for the trips, and their full cooperation in our investigation. We got the first two. The third…well, two out of three ain't bad, I guess.

We spent the next few weeks travelling all over the system, interviewing people at every stop, taking notes, analyzing, slowly but surely puzzling out what might have happened. More painful than talking to the businessfolk was talking to the families of the missing employees. I've never seen so many upset, terrified people before. They peppered us with questions as soon as they realized we were Vigil, wanting to know where their loved ones were, when we would be able to find them, whether we thought they were dead. It was like watching Lo come home without Noelle a hundred times in a row. I understood what they were going through, and what comforting words we could offer sounded hollow, even to my ears.

It must have showed on my face, because Fey-fey made the offer once that I could go back to our lodgings if I wanted. I thought about it, I really did. But I was caught now. We'd told those people we would do what we could to help. That didn't include going back to my room to hide from the reality of the situation.

Noelle wasn't the only missing person out there, and if I couldn't help her, maybe I could at least help these people.

"What happens," I asked Fey-fey as we drove to the next house on the list, "if we can't find them? Or if we do and they're...if they're not...." I swallowed, unable to finish.

Fey-fey shrugged and didn't look at me. "Then we return their bodies and tell their families that we were too late."

"But we're not too late, right?" I asked, feeling sick to my stomach. "We can still find them? We can still...it doesn't have to be their bodies we bring home, right?"

"Being Vigil doesn't make us infallible," she replied gently. "We don't always win. Sometimes the crooks are smarter, faster, better equipped. Sometimes the trail grows cold too quickly, until there's nothing left to follow. You will be faced with many mysteries in your life, Ikiss. You will not solve them all."

Something in the line of her jaw hardened and set and I knew enough to let the subject drop. I turned back to my window, unsettled and afraid.

It had never fully registered for me that the Vigil could lose. That sometimes the bad guys could get away. The interviews with the family members had made the cost of losing that much more real to me, and it wasn't a cost I wanted to ever have to pay.

As we collected information I was responsible for pulling it together and transmitting the package to Vigil Intelligence. By this point Nephilim had been promoted to Team Leader, and she was our contact for the investigation. She would parcel our information out to other analysts as necessary. To say I was excited to not only be allowed to, but expected to talk to the woman who had practically won the Quiet War from her desk would be a gross understatement. Not only to talk to her, but actually work with her. She sent me an h-mail at one point, thanking me for taking the time to arrange the information for her, as opposed to just sending a stack dump of data that she and her team would then have to sort on their end. I just about died of happiness. I probably still have the h-mail somewhere, and I'm long past the point of being quite so enthusiastic in my hero worship as I was then – though Neph, if you're listening, I will always be your number one fan, no matter who you work for these days.

Anyway, a couple months into the investigation, we were starting to get frustrated. We had determined that the jackings were not inside jobs – in each case a droid had been sent into the company to hack into the system and steal the shipping schedules. But we had no way of finding the droid in question, and it had no distinguishing marks – at least that we could see on the security footage – to help us identify it. It was just an ordinary labour droid, not unusual in any hangar bay. Using the ship models and one of Fey-fey's ex-jacker contacts, we were even able to reliably postulate exactly how the ships themselves had been hacked without any alarm signals going off – exceedingly difficult to do, requiring expertise in a few different areas, which implied that whatever outfit was behind the thefts was either well-funded and could afford top of the line help, or a new outfit lucky enough to have picked up a top of the line tech spec who didn't know his own worth.

Turns out I was actually right on both counts – but at the time I didn't think the latter was likely. Some of the stolen ships were high-end, and their owners took pains to protect their investments. A tech spec good enough to jack them without triggering alarms was one with a formal education and significant professional experience – legit or otherwise. There was no way they wouldn't know what they were worth, and no way a small-time or new gang could afford them. Not without significant financial backing.

Of course, I hadn't met Mr. Terrence Kren yet – he has a knack for defying expectations.

Our first real break came three months in. We were almost ready to call it quits and head home when there was another jacking attempt – only this one didn't go as well as the thieves had planned. Aware that their shipments were being targeted, the company in question beefed up its security – they hired some Shahan-rahad mercs to escort the ship and its cargo, and conveniently forgot just how many mercs they were sending. Somehow a good number of names never made it into the ship's log.

The pirates would have known the mercs listed in the log were on the ship, and they prepped well for it – the jacking went perfectly right up until they boarded and found themselves facing down a group of mercs three times what they'd been expecting.

As it turned out our ship jacking pirates were Syrix – not hugely surprising in and of itself. The Syrix is a humanoid race comprised almost entirely of professional bandits, and that's not me being racist. They actually take a peculiar sort of national pride in their chosen pursuits. Banditry is built into their history, their culture – all their heroes are thieves and pirates and highwaymen. It's considered an honourable profession, and for the Syrix, honour is paramount. They're organized into well-established clans based on an intricate system of deals, duels, and debt. Interestingly for a race of pirates, they have no currency. All their dealing – at least among themselves – is done in the form of contracts; favours, I guess you could say. Their economy is based on the trading of services. Whatever else you can say about the Syrix, their word is almost literally gold.

They're an interesting people, I just wish they had a little more respect for interplanetary law.

At any rate, the group that was jacking the ships turned out to be some kind of splinter – a new clan just starting out. Their markings weren't in our database, and the Vigil has an extensive database. The Syrix pirates managed to escape by the skin of their teeth, but they left a few of their dead behind – including the guy who was obviously their tech spec. He carried three different memberships to various engineering guilds – not one of them forged – and a very expensive tool that utilizes nano-tech to perform functions that would otherwise require an entire suite of tools to accomplish. Very advanced technology, that. Practically a prototype at the time.

I remember being disheartened. One ship and its crew had been saved, sure, but not by us, and I couldn't see how a dead pirate with a fancy tool was going to help us catch those who had gotten away.

Fey-fey shook her head at me and growled with disappointment "Do you remember what you told me the night you snuck out the second time to investigate Ms. Veru's disappearance?" she demanded.

I frowned up at her, not making the link. "That I fell down the stairs?" I ventured.

"About what the stairs taught you," she clarified, raising an eyebrow and crossing her arms over her chest.

"That I need to pay more attention to things that aren't there," I answered. I furrowed my brow and turned my attention back to the dead tech spec, trying to find a new angle to view the corpse from. In retrospect I'm a little surprised I wasn't more disturbed by what I was looking at – it was officially my first body outside the clinical sterility of the Vigil morgue. The guy's ridged face was stiff with death, a big hole where his right shoulder and arm used to be. He'd bled to death of some pretty serious wounds, and I'm guessing it happened pretty fast. But I didn't really notice that, not like you'd expect an SE 15ish kid to react.

Maybe it's because of the Quiet War. It may have been my first official corpse, but it was nowhere near actually being my first. They littered the streets on Ytoh II at one point. I was so young at the time, you wouldn't think I'd remember, but it has to have been that. The dead Syrix was just one more dead body to add to the piles in my hazy memories.

I studied him dispassionately for a long moment, then my eyes brightened. "The tech spec!" I cried, triumphant. "The tech spec isn't there! They have to find another one!"

"Right," said Fey-fey, nodding indulgently at me. "And skills like those are not common. So what's our next step?"

"Find their new guy first?" I ventured.

Fey-fey offered me her canine smile. "I'll make an Investigator of you yet."

We considered our options. The pirates hadn't been expecting to lose their tech spec so suddenly, and they likely had other jobs planned. The Syrix, I believe I've mentioned, are incredibly hung up on honour, and their honour is bound up in their word, and their word is bound up in their contracts. Once a Syrix takes a job, he finished a job. Period. There is no greater crime in their culture than to renege on a contract.

So it was unlikely they'd have the liberty of waiting to ship in another Syrix tech spec from out of the system. They'd have to find a sub-contractor. Someone close – in-system, if not on planet. They'd have to negotiate a new contract, payment details, things that leave a paper trail.

And, like Fey-fey said, the level of skill they needed wasn't exactly common – let alone on the shadier side of the law. All we had to do was find out who in-system had the skills they needed, who among those would be willing to take a potentially dangerous and definitely illegal contract, and at least one of those remaining would lead us to our ship-jackers.

We hit the streets, so to speak. Fey-fey had a few contacts in the system – above-board and otherwise – and we started asking around. Tech specs are in high demand in any industry, and the Vigil makes heavy use of their services, so our questions weren't out of place. We got a few names pretty easily but a quick call to Nephilim confirmed that their records were squeaky clean. They were unlikely to work for the Syrix unless coerced.

At one point Fey-fey left me at our hotel and went out to talk to one of her less savoury contacts. I was incredibly put out at being left behind, but she simply reminded me that one of the conditions of my Apprenticeship was that I did not unduly risk my life or anyone else's, and going with her to see this guy would have counted under that. It was enough of a threat to keep me safely seated in the hotel room, sulking and pouting and generally being childish until she returned.

Her eye was rapidly blackening – you could see it, even under her fur – and she had a vicious cut across her snout that sent me scrambling for the first aid kit, but she was grinning with all her teeth. "Found him," she said triumphantly as I dabbed at her cut with antiseptic. "Human male by the alias TK-M1. Relatively new to the circuit, but already making a name for himself. He's apparently a bit of a whiz-kid with tech, and he specializes in ship-jacking. He's even got a nano-tool. Send the alias to Nephilim and see what she can dig up. Then get ready to head out – we're going hunting."

Nephilim had some answers for us by the time we'd made it to the star docks. TK-M1 was, in fact, one Terrence Kren, native to Antares, in the system of the same name. He didn't have a criminal record yet, but his name had surfaced in a couple other ship jacking attempts. He'd been arrested twice, but never convicted of anything.

Sometimes the universe is a surprisingly small place. Ever hear of the three degrees of separation?

TK grew up in the underbelly of Antares – a multi-layered city-planet, similar to Mimas Prime in concept, but very different in its execution. On Mimas Prime layering the city was just a part of the design process. On Antares it happened because of greed and vanity – the rich literally building themselves up on the backs of the poor. In its early days it was apparently quite the place – the upper city was one of the premiere luxury vacation spots in the galaxy, for people with too much money and not enough brains. But the darkness of the under-city was attractive to all the wrong people, and before long crime had run rampant. The more successful criminals eventually managed to organize themselves enough to start honing in on the upper city. Of course, it wasn't long before all the stupid rich people left. The smart rich people joined the criminals to get more rich, and the planet basically became the hellhole we all know and hate today.

And the sad thing is, the residents of the under-city didn't even notice the difference. Antares had been a hell-hole for them since the day the upper levels of the city shut out their view of the sun entirely.

TK's family scraped out a living on salvage and repairs for the ancient machines used by the under-city residents. TK himself quit what little schooling there was to help his father with his shop and occasionally cause trouble with whatever petty gang had currently decided to declare itself ruler of his neighbourhood.

Sometime around 4188 or 89, the neighbourhood fell under the watchful eye of an unexpected guardian angel. A Relari male named Jordin Solace moved – wilfully – to TK's little layer of Hell and opened up, of all things, a medical clinic. The residents shook their heads and mourned what they assumed to be his imminent death – they'd seen it before, of course. From time to time one person or organization or another would get it into their heads to come and help the poor people of Antares. They'd move in, set up shop, and get robbed, beaten, and/or killed within six months.

Two weeks after Jordin established himself and started handing out flyers advertising his medical capabilities, the ruling gang of the time made a move on him. The next day passers-by couldn't help but notice five tattooed corpses laid respectfully outside his shop for their leaders to retrieve for burial at their convenience. A month after that, ten new corpses lined his walkway. A week later the gang gave up and joined the line-up outside his clinic for medical treatment.

Jordin, you see, was ex-Vigil. A retired Watchman who ended his decorated career as part of our anti-gang division, technological unit. A small-time under-city gang couldn't have hoped to take him down.

TK, of course, was maybe 15 at the time, and had trouble differentiating friend from foe. New people came into his neighbourhood and they either died, or they wound up being worse than whatever had come before them. He wasn't fooled by the doctor's apparent generosity and compassion. He'd never seen a hand extended to him that didn't hide a weapon.

Jordin caught him spray-painting the side of his clinic with a racial slur late one night, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him into the clinic. According to letters I saw later, Jordin handed him one of his instruments, put a tool in his hand, and told him to fix it. "Or what?" TK reportedly asked, defiant as ever, "you'll kill me?"

"Or," said Jordin, putting his face as close to TK's as he felt he could without causing the boy to panic and flee, "I will tell your mother about you graffitying up my clinic."

Startled, disgruntled, and hopelessly trapped, TK did as he was asked. Jordin watched him closely, correcting him when he was about to make a mistake, showing him a couple shortcuts. When TK had finished they tested the instrument together, confirmed that it work, and Jordin escorted him to the door.

TK tried to give him back the simple screwdriver, but Jordin just grinned at him. "Bring it back tomorrow," he said. "I've got some more things I need you to fix."

TK came back every day, and every day he learned more from one of the best Tech Specs the Vigil ever had. He had the benefit of an education that would put most universities to shame, and he never had to take a test or apply for accreditation. Once a year, on TK's birthday, Jordin would give him an upgrade for the tool he'd given him the previous year. The fifth and final thing he gave him before he was killed was a nano-tool, like the one the Syrix tech spec had been using. He couldn't get it on Antares – not a real one. So he wrote off-world to one of his oldest friends – a Fury named Sabes on Aramid – to have one shipped to him.

The same Sabes who, by 4199, had become Loish's second-in-command and her business manager at V-Sec.

See what I mean about the universe?

We climbed out of the car at the dock and Fey-fey told me to close my coat and keep my uniform hidden beneath it. Docks were hubs for trade, legitimate and otherwise, and Vigil uniforms tended to make the folks here nervous. I pointed out that we might have an easier time of it if we split up, but Fey-fey waved me off.

"It's your first mission," she said, scanning the crowds around us. "I've lost one Ward already, Ikiss. I'm not going to send you running around the docks alone. We'll do this together. Put," she barked, throwing me a stern look, somehow sensing the hardening of my mouth, "your pride aside for the moment and focus on the mission. This isn't about you. Now, come." She started off through the crowd and I had no choice but to follow along.

If I said I wasn't looking forward to some super awesome chase scene, with guns and bombs going off, and people yelling and running and maybe some vehicular violence going on...I'd be lying and you'd know it. I was a kid on my first mission, and even if Fey-fey wouldn't let me wander off on my own it didn't stop my brain from running over every bad Watchman holo I'd ever seen.

It's one of the first things you grow out of. The first time you get into a chase like that...it's not like it is in the vids. People get hurt. Sometimes they die. And it's never the ones that deserve it.

It stops being exciting after that.

But luckily enough – though I would have disagreed with that adjective had you asked me at the time – this was a standard chase scene. A quick check of the customs records brought us to the ship TK had come in on. A quick chat with the captain put us on his trail. We found him after about 30 minutes, arguing with a back-alley merchant over the price of a part. From there it was a remarkably boring case of sitting around nonchalantly, watching him fight with the merchant only to ultimately purchase the piece anyway, then trailing him through the docks to a cafe on the far side.

Waiting for him at a table were three Syrix, including one who had to be their leader. He had no less than six bands wrapped around his top-knot – one for every time he'd done his clan a great honour. The bottom one was gold, which meant an honour earned as a clan leader. He looked youngish – probably SE 30 – which suggested he'd only recently inherited leadership of this fragment clan.

"Shouldn't we get closer?" I asked Fey-fey, watching TK throw the part negligently on the table and drop into his own seat without ceremony. The Syrix were obviously unimpressed with his demeanour – contract negotiations are practically a religious event for them – but whatever the part was, it was what they'd been looking for.

"Why?" Fey-fey asked, raising an eyebrow at me. "Getting close would mean risking notice, and unless I am much mistaken I believe we have a young man in our company capable of reading an object's past, no?"

"Oh," I said, and felt dumb. "Right. Psychometry."

So we waited and watched out of earshot. They talked for quite some time. At one point, TK pulled a rod from his pocket and pressed a button on it. He spoke a word and the rod immediately shifted form into some kind of tool. He spoke another word and it shifted again. One of the Syrix held out a hand and the human gave him the dirtiest look I've ever seen. The Syrix withdrew his outstretched hand, looking startled and displeased. TK immediately put the nano-tool away.

The leader leaned back in his chair and gestured. TK got mad, but shook his head and nodded. They rose as a group and left together.

"They're going to get away," I said impatiently as we approached the table. "Psychometry isn't instantaneous. We should follow them."

"If we know what they discussed, youngling," Fey-fey said, "we know where they are going. They will not get away."

We took seats at the dirty table as though we were just people passing through, stopping for a bite to eat. "Who do we care more about?" I asked. "TK or the Syrix?"

Fey-fey considered it. "The Syrix," she said.

"Which cup was his?"

She pushed a half-full mug toward me. I wrapped my hand around it, sank into my centre, and let the memory lingering on the warm porcelain push into my mind.

The world spun around me and suddenly I could see TK as he approached. The Syrix's hand remained relaxed on the mug, but a sudden shot of excitement ricocheted through the memory when the tech spec threw the part down on the table.

"Hahn, take a look. Is it what we wanted?" the leader asked, though he already knew it was.

"Of course it is," snapped the human, and the Syrix leader managed to swallow his irritation at the youth's uncouth manner. The dark-haired man threw himself down into his seat like a petulant child and gestured. "Isn't it, Hahn?"

Hahn shot him a dirty look, but placed the computer back on the table gently. "It is," he confirmed.

"See?" the human demanded, turning back to the leader. "So do I pass your stupid test?"

"Part 1 of it, yes," he replied, and paused to take a sip from the mug. An image of pointed teeth and a lovely view up the Syrix's nose passed before my 'eyes' before he lowered the mug again. "We now have proof you know what you're doing on paper."

The human leaned forward and sneered at them – the expression struck the Syrix as amusing, given the man's non-carniverous teeth. "Look," he said, "I'm not doing a job for free just to prove to you I can. And I'm just about done letting you waste my time."

"If you don't stop insulting us," suggested the leader, flashing his own definitely-carniverous teeth, "you will not have much time left to worry about wasting."

"Get to your point," the human snapped, leaning back in his chair again.

"We will establish a contract with you. You will get your first payment after you help us jack our first ship. It is a simple job – small freighter, low security, only one crew member. We will consider success as proof of your abilities, which you claim are considerable but have no certificates to prove it with."

"Don't need a PhD to steal shit," TK returned with a scowl.

"Additionally, once you have proved yourself capable, we will give you payment in advance of each jacking up until our contract with our current employer is considered honoured in full – something that should happen soon." And there was an undeniable sense of disgust and bitterness from the man. Whoever this employer was, he didn't like it. Whatever the contract was, he felt it well beneath him. Which strongly implied that he hadn't been the one to negotiate it.

I thought back to the single golden ring at the bottom of his topknot. If he had recently become leader, he would still have to honour whatever contracts his clan had put in place before him. That might explain it.

"Look, Cannon—"

"Canaan," the Syrix leader corrected him sharply.

"Whatever! I don't care about your contracts. I don't care about your honour. I care about getting paid, and not getting shot. Let's just go jack your stupid shit so I can get at least one of those out of the way."

"If he is not careful," said Hahn in his own language, "he's going to have to worry more about getting shot than he thinks."

"Offensive though he is," Canaan cut in with a frown, "we are in negotiations. We will honour that, even if he will not."

"Whenever you're ready to start speaking Common again, you let me know," TK said sourly and Canaan turned back to him with a huff.

"Show us your nano-tool," he said.

"God, you guys got anymore hoops for me to jump through?" he snapped, but pulled the rod from his pocket. "There, see? Precision drill." The rod shifted as the nano-tech responded to the verbal command, reforming itself into the requested tool. "Socket wrench." The tool shifted again. The as yet unnamed Syrix nodded appreciatively and held his hand out to see the tool, but TK hastily shoved it back into his jacket and shot the man a dirty look.

"Sorry," he said flatly, "no one touches it but me."

"It doesn't matter," Canaan said, gesturing to cut off the other man's protests. "We've seen it, we know it works." He leaned back in his chair. "Do you agree to the terms? An easy jacking to prove your claims, and payment after. From that point forward, payment in advance of each jacking until our contract is fulfilled."

"If I say yes can we just get to the job?" TK demanded irritably.

"Yes," Canaan replied, equally irritable.

"Then fine. What's the job?"

"There is a ship in Dock C-7 that will be leaving shortly. It's old, but do not let that fool you – it's what's inside that counts after all."

"Weapons or computer system?" TK asked, but Canaan pretended not to hear him.

"It's pilot is an unknown, but she is alone. No mercs, low security. Just one woman and her old boat. It should be easy picking. We will catch her before she makes her next jump. We have paid her mechanic a good sum to ensure her stardrive will fail when she tries to make the jump. We can simply come upon her at our leisure."

"Why such an easy target?" TK asked distrustfully.

"We are interested in seeing whether you can jack a ship or not, not in getting you killed and having to start our search for a suitable technical specialist anew. And as we've said her ship contains things we want. Something, if I am to be honest with you, we hope will cut a considerable chunk out of the debt we owe to our current employer." Though I didn't detect a lie in his words, something about it wasn't honest, and Canaan felt like Hell for it. He wasn't happy about hiding the whole truth from TK, but by the same token I didn't get the impression he felt he had a choice.

But either way there was more to it than what he was telling.

[...to be continued...]