Emma Cross was sitting at the edge of the Elder Dock, staring out at the reflective lake and the cosmos. She was seventeen rotations now, taller, with blue eyes and short silver blond hair that rippled in the wind. She wore black clothing, with beaten white and blue armour, with a small silver double-bladed knife at her hip. Her helmet sat beside her.
She remembered this place. Over to the north, among the Juniop Bushes, ashes sat where the cottage she'd grown up in had sat, blown up by the Kilon bombers. The Eastern Mountains were still pristine, but the ones behind her had been broken, in a bombing run that had killed over two hundred and fifty soldiers and more than four hundred children, elders, pets and civilian men and women. Three of her cousins and one of her aunts had died there.
To the West, the Altan Planes were pocketed with new lakes and rivers, bomb holes and trenches filled with rainwater. Further beyond, the city of El Moran was smouldering, ruins that were being picked through for anything of value, while the plans for reconstruction were only just starting.
The war took too much. Emily had known that since her brother died, the day she'd joined the war. And every time someone she'd met, or seen, or known, had died, she'd felt the weight of the stars on her shoulders more and more every time.
The hardest to bear was the one she was working on avenging. Someone had killed her mother, the leader of the negotiations. She intended to find out who, and pay them back in kind. The war had dragged out for four years after the first session of negotiations. The killer might very well be dead. But she still wanted to stab them, whether they were dead, or not.
A ship's engine whistled overhead, and Emma stood, shielding her eyes with a hand as she watched it fly by. It was a newer model, an S-15, and the markings matched the description she'd been given. She grabbed her helmet and started walking.
It was time to start the hunt.
"Kathrin Heston?" the man asked. He was shorter, with brown hair and eyes, and wore the uniform of a medical officer, a higher rank than most. Emma had made her way to the ship docks, that were already undergoing repairs, making her way towards the ship she'd watched fly in. Said whip had been unloaded by the time she'd arrived, and left, but her informant, this man, was still waiting.
"Daniel." Emma had met the officer before, and he was trustworthy enough for what she needed. On a planet with people that wanted her dead for war crimes, even though all had been officially forgiven, a fake name, and people like Daniel Charles were worth their weight in diamonds. But names were one thing. Faces were another.
"I believe that I have the records you requested." Daniel was nearly always nervous, but he was excellent under pressure, and one of the most famous war heroes to date, risking his life in the most dangerous of situations to save anyone he could. She'd pulled him out before. He was repaying the favour.
"Of course," Emma replied in a cold voice. She'd activated the one-way glass on her helmet and adapted a persona to match. War experience was useful when it came to certain jobs. And this was one of those jobs.
"The trial records from the Seventh Rotation of the Circle of Fire?"
Short, cold answers were better. Idle talk could give things away, she reminded herself as Daniel handed her a holo-displayer, a white oval with one flat side, and yellow light forming patterns along with it.
"May the war never start again," Daniel muttered when she did not speak, or thank him in any way.
"Hm?" Emma looked up from studying her new acquisition. "Yes. Of course."
She spun on her heel and walked away, clipping the holo-displayer to her belt, beside a T-13A blaster pistol. A warning, to any thief or pickpocket.
She hated treating Daniel in such a way, but if the person she was going to track was dangerous, it was better for people to think that she had no connection to him. Safer, for him. Easier for her. She glanced around and slipped, before opening the holo-displayer. It contained the records, not from the Seventh Rotation of the Circle of Fire, but the medical records from her mom's autopsy (that had been inconclusive, unfortunately), and all security footage from the week of her death. Emma linked the data to her helmet and began to download it, as a precaution as she started to walk through the streets.
Rubble was scattered, shops set up on either side of the road, like some kind of free market, people crowded together, glancing over their shoulders. A ship flew overhead. For a city that had, only months before, been the site of cat-and-mouse warfare. She'd been blowing holes in the sides of these buildings, aiming guns at people and taking their lives. She'd been running and punching, blocking kicks and avoiding thrown stones. Desperation had made people dangerous.
Emma had only just finished the download and started to run the information through a program to pick anything she might use out when the snap she'd been waiting for happened. Someone slammed into her back, sending her flying forwards, into a display of fruits. The shopkeeper started to shout furiously, as Emma pushed herself up, glaring at him from behind the helmet. "Shut up."
Emma scanned the area for her wasn't hard to spot them. A taller figure in dark robes, a sword drawn. Their clothing made it impossible to distinguish their gender, but Emma decided to refer to them as male because a male attacker was more annoying. And more likely. Men seemed to think they could take her down. They didn't seem to realize who she was, other than her file and name.
"Emma Cross." the figure growled in a monotone. That didn't mean anything. He had a faceplate, that could easily house voice-altering tech. ¨You are wanted for war crimes by the Karnin Clan. Surrender, or die."
A bounty hunter then. Probably from off-world, coming to Damor after the war looking for work. It was well known that Damor had suffered the most damage, making it easy for someone like him to earn a living.
"No." she replied, drawing her knife. It shimmered and lengthened into a thin sword. Her attacker darted forwards, his sword raised. She parried easily and used her free hand to hit him in the gut. He grunted in pain, and stumbled back, before coming back. She blocked again, and this time, pulled her weapon back and dropped to the ground, tripping him with a sweep of her leg. He rolled away, and stood up again, and charged.
He was a good fighter. But she was better. Parry, back-step, doge, strike. She ducked under a particularly hard swing and pushed him just a bit with her palm. He overbalanced and fell to the ground. She darted forwards, a foot on his chest, holding him down. The sword had clattered to the side, out of his reach, but it might have some kind of magnetic feature.
Emma frowned from under her helmet, as her sword morphed, becoming a knife. She didn't want to kill this person, but she couldn't have him following her around. Above her, police sirens wailed. She made her choice and removed his mask, tearing it off, revealing a tattooed face.
"Stay down." she warned him. He was a man, as it turned out, and he growled, trying to sit up.
"Stay down!" she snapped again, pushing him back, and dropping the mask, before stepping into the crowd. There was nothing that could come from going to jail, but she watched the man get carried away from the market, from the safety of the shadows. He would stand trial, and likely be convicted of War Retaliation, a new punishment. While what Emma was doing was War Retaliation, she did not plan on getting caught.
Her helmet beeped, and a small viewing box opened in her HUD. A security file played, showing an empty kitchen scene, and froze, zooming into the sole figure in the room who was adding something to the soup. They wore loose pants and wrappings, with an unusual feathered mask obscuring their features. The helmet's AI program opened a file overtop of the security one, displaying information about the pants and mask.
The pants were a no go, but the mask was useful. Since it was worn by the Go'Neb Tribe, and only them, it gave her a lead. The Go'Neb Tribe was very friendly, and she knew someone from it. Sor'Mar, a warrior. Emma had saved the woman's life, and Sor'Mar liked repaying favours. It wouldn't be hard to speak with her. All that was a challenge was getting there.
"Better start searching."
"Emma!" Sor'Mar jumped up from her seat in the tribe's circle and hugged the older girl. Like all of the Go'Neb members, she wore a feathery mask, had darker skin with swirling green tattoos, and wore traditional clothing, the beads that hung from the fabrics tapping against each other as she moved around. "You have coming!"
The Go'Neb tribe had an unusual way of talking, and it always made Emma want to laugh. She held in, breaking the hug, glancing around them.
"I need help." she admitted to the warrior in a low tone, trying to convey that she didn't want everyone to hear. Sor'Mar wasn't the best at keeping secrets unless she was told upfront. Most Go'Neb were similar. Secrets weren't a big thing for them.
Sor'Mar bounced on her toes. "I be helping!"
"Sor'Mar!" one of the elders called. "You be introducing you friend to us?"
Sor'Mar grabbed Emma's wrist and dragged her back to the circle, shooing the people she sat beside away to make room for Emma, both girls sitting down.
"This Emma!" Sor'Mar declared proudly. "Mesa friend, from the Big War!"
The Elder nodded, dipping their head in Emily's direction, and she returned the gesture, as was customary. They sat up straight, speaking once more. "Me thinking, we continue the meeting nowish. Bam'Kom?"
A- older male began to speak, talking about a nearby herd of Banbush, horse-like animals that the Go'Neb used as mounts. Emma tried to listen, but her mind started to wander. It was hard to focus on the conversation when she had more pressing questions, but she could hold her tongue. She knew that being disrespectful would greatly lower her chances of getting the answers she needed.
So she waited until the gathering was over before speaking to Sor'Mar. The woman had been chattering as she dragged Emma to her hut, speaking about the final battle of the Great War, in which she'd fought.
"- mesa very quick though, and them not so fastish, see? So mesa go under their Banbush, and mesa take them off them Banbush, and then -"
"Sor'Mar, that sounds interesting, but I do need your help." Emma interrupted as the Go'Neb female bustled around, grinding herbs and dumping the powder into a pot, which hung above a crackling violet fire.
"Help? With what?" she asked, turning towards Emma.
"I'm…" Emma paused, considering her words. "I'm trying to find someone. From the war."
Sor'Mar frowned. "War over. Wesa leave all behind. All that stay are stories. Good stories. Bad stories. But not anything else-ish. That the agreement."
Emma had to admire the younger girl's instincts and loyalty. The Go'Neb was not a tribe of revenge. They had been forced into the war to protect their land and traditions. When they had heard that the war was over, everything pardoned, they embrace it fully. This girl did not want to fight anymore. She liked telling her stories, but she didn't want new ones.
"I'm not going to hurt them," Emma promised. "I just need to ask them some things."
"Yousa good spy," Sor'Mar said thoughtfully, stirring her soup. "Why yousa need mesa help?"
"Because they wore a mask from your tribe." Emma pointed to one of the masks hanging on the walls. "And I think you can identify them."
"After soup." Sor'Mar agreed. "Then mesa tell you. If mesa know."
Emma gritted her teeth. It was impossible to change Sor'Mar's mind. She'd tried and failed. The girl was headstrong and brave. That wasn't bad, but right now it irritated her. But Sor'Mar might be the only one who could help her. Of course, Emily could track down the Mask, but that might take weeks, maybe months. If Sor'Mar or someone else in the tribe could tell her who had the mask, it could cut months off the investigation.
Sor'Mar tasted the soup. "Ready!" she declared, and dipped two bowls in, filling them up with a brown broth with flecks of white, green and red herbs. Emma accepted the bowl and took a sip. The liquid burned her tongue and throat, but tasted great, and reminded her of home, and family. While that wasn't something she wanted to remember right now, it reminded her of the better moments. Picking juniop berries with her cousins. Playing capture the flag with her family, and swimming in lakes.
"Mesa family recipe." Sor'Mar chirped, sitting across from Emma. "Juniop berries, and tangroot tree roots for the body, cherry leaves for the soul, and kobar weed for the senses."
"It's very good." Emma praised, forcing the scalding liquid down her throat.
"Drink it fast, while it still hot. Then yousa have the freshest taste!" Sor'Mar gulped down her bowl of soup, apparently not seeing the weird look on Emma's face, or tasting the problems that the former spy found in the soup.
The two girls ate in silence, listening to the sounds of the village around them. The clip-clop of Banbush hooves, the cries of children playing, wood being chopped and metal on metal, as someone trained.
"The village much happier now," Sor'Mar said sadly. "But the Great War. Many hurt still." she nodded to the opening, where they could see a man limping by, a small boy trailing him, chattering away.
"Kar'Bor. He hurt bad. Big mark on leg. Never run again. Very sad." she whispered, shaking her head.
Emma nodded. "I know I can't drag you back into a war Sor'Mar. And I'm not here for that."
Sor'Mar stayed silent, taking another sip of her soup. Emma set hers down, steam still rising from the broth.
"I speak." Sor'Mar declared at last. "I tell yousa want mesa know."
Emma slipped out of the village less than an hour later, having found what she needed. Sor'Mar had told Emma about a woman who had arrived at the village before Emma's mother's assassination, staying with them for a while, before vanishing in the night, in the chaos from when they had set one of the huts on fire. It had only been later that one of the elders noticed a missing mask when they had begun to prepare for a moon ceremony. The thief had never been caught.
Go'Neb masks were considered to be very valuable, carved or woven with expensive materials, and set with jewels and feathers from rare birds, then painted with symbols that the Go'Neb believed could grant protection. While it was illegal to own one if you couldn't prove you had Go'Neb ancestors, the black market had been a hot spot during war times. It was easier to smuggle goods when the government was focused on enemies.
While the black market was not often a good place for a well-known war figure, Emma was certain that it was a better lead than trying to learn who was in the video, since most of the citizen files had been lost or destroyed.
And that was why she was entering the underground sector of the city. Built during the first war, and then deemed unsafe afterwards, the Moth Coven often set up in them, selling wares in secret. One of the services the Moth Coven "offered" was no sales records. However, this wasn't entirely true. The vendors often filmed their patrons in secret and would check the bounty lists, and turn them in, reaping the rewards from sold items and rewards from bounties.
Emma wrinkled her nose as she stepped around a pile of steaming tar, relying on memory to find the Moth Coven. It wasn't long until she heard chattering voices echoing off the walls. A moment later, she turned into a bustling market, with the stalls stacked on top of one another, buyers arguing over the prices of dark silk and stun rifles. One man was even arguing that the lizard he was trying to sell was "Worth ten times that amount of coin-" even though the lizard looked rather underfed, and a bit limp in his hands.
As Emma moved along the stalls, she stayed silent, trying to avoid the noisest people, who were more likely to start an argument with her. In most crowds, the sort of people who navigated these crowds would stand out, with their cloth wrappings covering every inch of skin, or for some of them, the armour and weapons of bounty hunters.
She had reached the middle of the market when someone stepped in front of her. "What'cha doin'?" he muttered, tipping to the side. "This ain't no place for a little buddy like youuuu…"
Emma frowned at him from under her helmet. "I think it is."
"Nah." he drawled, rocking in place slowly. "I think ya'd betta leave."
"No thank you." Emma said flatly. "I'm just fine."
"Nah. Ya ain't." he scrambled for words, trying to follow her as she kept walking. "Oi! Ya ain't supposed to be here!"
Emma gritted her teeth, trying not to stab this person. While a drunk following someone might draw some looks, a stabbing said drunk would cause a riot. And with this many bounty hunters around, she'd probably be in jail within an hour if she killed him.
"Go. Away." she hissed.
"Ya ain't supposed to be here." he insisted. "She'll be coming. She won't like ya snooping."
"I don't care what she likes."
"Ya want an audience?" he muttered. "Or a death?"
Emma was now in a dark alley, in between two stalls, and the man was still following her. She kept going.
"Ya gonna get a death!" he called.
She spun, her blade drawn, extended into a sword, a stopped it right before it cut into his neck. "No, I'm not." She whispered. "You're coming with me."
She'd bound the man's hands behind his back with some cord and was now marching him into the alley, her knife at his throat.
"She ain't gonna like this." the man whispered meekly.
Emma pressed the sharp edge harder to his throat and drew a scarlet drop of blood. The man swallowed but did not speak.
They hadn't yet encountered anyone, although Emma had a feeling they were being watched. Soft noises echoed along the small tunnel. The dripping of water, the squeaking of mice and rats, and the faint noise of the market. And of course, their footsteps. Then something else. More footsteps. She stopped, kicking the man in the back of his knee, forcing him to the ground.
"My name" she declared as a dozen people appeared from the shadows. "Is Emma Cross. And you will bring me to your leader."
One of the warrior's stepped forwards. "You think you can capture one of us, hold a knife to his throat and demand to see our leader?"
Still holding the blade steady with one hand, Emma pulled off her helmet with the other, revealing her face. "Yeah." she snapped. "I don't think I can. I am doing it."
They'd tried to tie Emma up, but after she'd knocked one of them out, they'd just encircled her, and marched along the tunnels, until they reached a sort of miniature village.
"Emma Cross." a woman spoke from beside a small fountain. She was tall, with long brown hair, grey eyes, and pale skin. A dark grey dress that looked far too old fashioned and far too out of place, with black markings along the sleeves and skirt. "So you have come. With one of my men as a prisoner."
"It wasn't hard," Emma replied. "He's not much of a fighter. Not many of your men are." The warriors around her bristled, but the woman only laughed.
"Never one to sugar coat it." She motioned to the man who Emma had at knifepoint. "Now please release Chase. And walk with me."
Emma sheathed her knife, and pushed Chase away, marching through a pair of her 'captors', straight to the woman's side.
"Guide me." the woman requested, and Emma offered her elbow. The woman held it, and they began to walk.
"I thought you might have captured the Moth Coven," Emma commented, as they entered a room much nicer than the tunnels. Lamps hung on the walls, and soft carpets muffled their footsteps as they moved into a similar hall. "I would say that is impressive, except that Morhen was killed in the Final Battle. You only had to establish yourself, did you not, Clarisse?"
Clarisse laughed, reaching with her free hand to brush the walls lightly. "Turn here."
They turned and begun to walk up a flight of stairs.
"You are right. It was quite easy." Clarisse agreed. "And I believe I know why you are here. But first, let me show you the view. I am told it is quite impressive."
"Told." Emma snorted. "As any of those who might see it has any idea what you think is impressive."
Clarisse smiled. "Bluntness serves you well."
"Beside you, perhaps. Others, not so much."
Emma snorted as they stepped out onto a balcony, with small couches. The view was quite nice, overlooking a small grassy courtyard, complete with small trees, and a fake sun.
"Morhen?" She asked.
"Morhen." Clarisse agreed, reaching for one of the chairs. "He always liked the surface."
Emma nodded, guiding Claressie to sit. "You know why I am here?" She pressed, sitting beside her blind friend.
"Yes." Clarisse murmured. "At least, a guess."
Clarisse made a small clicking sound with her tongue, turned and picked up a black holo-displayer from a table. After fumbling with the smooth device, she managed to turn it on. She tried to navigate the device's systems, but after a moment, Emma took the device and opened a new slot.
"Trade Files," Clarisse muttered unhappily. "Alpha Priority. A-32."
As Emma scrolled, Clarisse stayed silent, occasionally making another clicking sound, to make sure no-one had snuck up behind them. Emma had learned the hard way it was impossible to sneak up on the blind woman since even if you stayed silent, she'd find you by echolocation, and then hold you at arrow-point until you proved you meant no harm. Emma still had the scar.
"Found it," Emma reported a few minutes later. "What is this?" She turned the displayer's images, her nose close to the light.
"After I took Moth Coven, I found Morhen's records. Every single item, person, and creature that has ever entered the Coven was recorded there, with a lot of detail, including some 3D scans, precise dimensions, colours, buyer, seller, and how many times it passed through here. He had a pretty good system, and as far as I can tell, he only did it so that the Government would stay off his back because he'd sell the information to them. But, he didn't sell the original files. They're all still here. He sold duplicates, with slight changes. That's why they never gave him much thought. They thought he was sloppy.
"He wasn't. And Alpha Priority proves that." She continued. "These are items that were, without a doubt, illegal on many levels. So, when I found this mask had popped up again near the assassination, I tried to secretly buy it. But before I could, it was gone."
Emma looked up from the holo-displayer. "Who bought it?"
"That's the thing," Clarisse admitted. "As far as I know, no one. The spy who you captured is one of my best undercover agents. As far as he can tell, the person who brought it in, either lost it or broke it. Maybe in a fire. We had one a week or so after it reappeared."
"Who bought it the first time?" Emma asked.
"A woman who didn't have an ID sold it. A well-known warlord named Surmir bought it. He's dead now." She added, then continued. "The second time, a woman named Alice DuPont. Alice was the one who brought it back before the trail is cold."
"So where's Alice now?"
"Also dead," Clarisse replied. "She died in the fire. But there is something interesting.
"After Surmir died, and Alice brought it back, she met with a man who worked for Surmir. One agent overheard their conversation and reported it back. Alice was being threatened by the worker, and he told her "to destroy the evidence, or the same consequences apply. Alice refused, and then neither of them showed up again. But, Alice's son, who had a terminal illness, turned up dead a week later, alongside her husband, parents, and sister.
"They ended up in the same examination room as your mother. All of them had traces of K-9 B-3 on them, the same poison found in your mother. That's why the autopsy was inconclusive. The doctors figured that K-9 B-3 couldn't be what killed your mother, since no one from Alice's family had ever been to the Government Building, other than her father, who had been filing an insurance report the year before, and there were a lot of deaths from K-9 B-3 during the war. The doctors decided that Alice's family had been electrocuted, but your mother was not. Of course, the security cameras cut out when she died, so we can't be sure."
Clarisse waited for Emma to think. "You know what happened." She prompted.
"Alice poisoned my mother in the kitchens," Emma spoke slowly. "With K-9 B-3. Maybe to get money to save her son. From Surmir. He gave her the mask. Then he died, and the worker who threatened Alice killed her and destroyed the mask in the fire. Since Alice didn't want to kill anyone else, with the fire, her family was electrocuted and poisoned, to help cover up the assassination."
Clarisse nodded. "Go on."
"Surmirs men probably knocked out the cameras at the time of my mother's death and made sure she was examined alongside the DuPoints. So since they all had K-9 B-3 on them, the doctors guessed that the bodies had been contaminated. And Surmirs men escaped. And the guy that attacked me in the market, he wanted to stop me from figuring this out?"
"I would guess so," Clarisse admitted.
"Why not?" Emma muttered, tossing the holo-displayer on a chair. "I guess I know now."
"You don't want revenge?" Clarisse asked.
Emma snorted. "Revenge is tiring. Maybe another time."
"I'll go with you."
"I'd like that."