Morena will go crazy if she doesn’t shoot something in the next fifteen minutes. Reza is making her do lookout duty as usual, which means she has to lie on her belly under the three suns of Elios Major doing fuck all while she waits for her target to pop up. From her vantage point on the roof of a star cruiser parking garage, she has a pristine view of the compound below. Thick grey walls jut out of the earth to surround a series of squat, boxy buildings—ZenoTech Research Facilities, where Morena’s plasma rifle has been pointed at for the past hour. And sure, Morena might be a fugitive from thirteen planetary states with cinder blocks for arms, but that doesn’t stop her from wiling the time away with a short, sappy romance novel.
“Just get a Holo-Reader already,” says Ayesha, high-pitched and snarky, from Morena’s earpiece. “Or at least, I dunno, an audio drone. No icky grease stains, no silverfish living between the pages…”
“I told you,” says Morena without peeling her gaze from the inky text, “books are like guns. I like having one in my hands.”
“Oooohhhh, so books are like titties, then.”
Morena blushes. It doesn’t help that she’s in the middle of a particularly intimate scene between the two female leads.
Reza’s voice arrives in her earpiece, calm and commanding. “Ladies, while I quite understand the allure of the female body, I would feel far more at ease if our sharpshooter and hacker were more focused on the task at hand.”
“Then hurry up,” snaps Morena. “My trigger finger is getting itchy.”
“Not too itchy, I hope,” says Reza. “The last thing we need is the Galactic Federation picking up a trail of blood that smells of our handiwork.”
“Hear that, chief?” says Ayesha. “I think that’s the sound of Morena spiralling into a deep depression.”
“If I don’t get to kill one of those ZenoTech bastards,” seethes Morena, “I’m killing one of you instead.”
“Ooh, me or the Captain?” wonders Ayesha.
“I reckon we ought to flip a coin,” suggests Reza.
“Hilarious,” mutters Morena.
While her crewmates laugh it up, Morena takes a second to run her hand over the sleek metal of her plasma rifle propped up beside her on a tripod. At the squeeze of a trigger, it will launch a bright orange streak of death that will burn through any particulate matter, living or dead, foolish enough to be in range.
She sets her book aside and presses her eye against the scope. It picks up the heat signatures of two figures moving behind the walls of ZenoTech—one silhouette a little shorter than the other.
Don’t do anything stupid, Reza, she silently prays. I can’t kill you if someone beats me to it.
Reza strolls down a white-walled hallway, trying his best to match the hurried gait of ZenoTech scientists passing by. He wheels a trolley holding a cuboidal DuraGlass container, which contains something it most definitely shouldn’t. His lab coat fits him perfectly and he can do a rather convincing Eliosian accent, so, in theory, no one should suspect that he doesn’t have a single PhD, or that he’s from another planet.
He arrives at a security checkpoint, where a grand metal door separates him from the most secure area in the building. A panel beside the door requests a DNA sample to verify his identity; Reza retrieves a glass vial from his coat pocket and tips a viscous pale liquid into the container presented to him. Collecting the sample had been an… awkward procedure.
A reassuring beep resounds from the panel. Phew, thinks Reza, which is when a panel in the ceiling above him slides open to release a drone carrying a miniature machine gun.
“It has been one hundred and sixty six days since User: Makoto Tanaka has received entry authorization,” rings a cold voice from the drone’s speakers. “To verify your identity, Mister Tanaka, please answer the following security question.”
Reza takes a deep breath.
“What is your favorite anime?” asks the drone.
“Ayesha?” whispers Reza.
A flurry of keyboard clicks plays in his earpiece. “Cowboy Bebop,” replies Ayesha. “Wow, our Mister Tanaka has good taste.”
Reza relays Ayesha’s findings to the drone. “Welcome back, Mister Tanaka,” it says, before leaving the way it came. Reza sighs in relief when the metal door phases out of existence with a faint crackle of static.
Eliosian tech is something else, he marvels as he wheels the trolley in. The door phases back into solid matter behind him.
“What the hell is an ‘anime’?” asks Morena, voice deep as a lunar ravine.
“Oh, just a fad from the twentieth century that you should stay faaaar away from,” replies Ayesha. “Unless it’s Cowboy Bebop.”
“Samurai Champloo isn’t bad either,” says Reza.
He finds himself in a spacious chamber lined with rows upon rows of safes. He heads over to the far wall, where a safe the size of a small house waits for him.
“Five minutes before her shift begins,” reminds Ayesha.
“Which is plenty of time,” says Reza as he opens the DuraGlass container on the trolley to retrieve a laser-saw. He switches it on; the blade glows a regal orange hue as it whirrs to life and emits a dull heat. He gets to one knee and sinks it into the metal of the safe, sending a shower of sparks into the air.
After a few minutes, a slab of sizzling metal falls away from the safe. Reza carefully steps over it to grab a small cylinder sitting on a pedestal. He gives it a shake and listens for the sound of sloshing liquid. Bingo.
“We’re gonna be rich, guys,” he declares, heart pounding out a triumphant tune. Assuming I can get out as smoothly as I got in.
Ayesha lounges in her chair, eyes glued to a dozen different monitors. They each depict live security feed of different sections of the ZenoTech building Reza is currently snooping through. Well, except one monitor, which is hooked up to one of Ayesha’s video game consoles. Nintendo had gone bankrupt a few centuries ago, so getting her hands on a copy of anything in the Zelda series had been a nightmare.
Ayesha shoves stardust-and-vinegar chips straight out of the colorful packaging into her mouth as she watches Reza step out of the safe. He waves the tube-shaped container at a security camera, and the knot in Ayesha’s stomach uncoils.
Passing a viewing panel that shows a star-speckled blackness, she rides her swivel chair over to her study desk; it’s a beautiful mess of research notes, food scraps and esoteric lab equipment collected from at least eighteen different galaxies. Over at the far end is Gumdrop, sitting silently in his little glass tank of river water.
“Hey, lil’ guy. Guess what?” says Ayesha as she plucks a live cricket from a cardboard box and dangles it over Gumdrop. The solar worm lunges out of the water at lightning speed, clamping a set of luminous fangs around the insect before dragging it into its burrow and tearing it to ribbons. “We’re about to be filthy rich! Soon you’ll get to chow down on deluxe worm pellets instead of boring ol’ crickets.”
When Ayesha returns to her monitors, she notices a guard strolling down a hallway towards the room Reza is in. Not just any guard, but one with a master key in hand and clearance to shoot anything suspicious on sight.
Right on schedule.
“Morena,” says Ayesha. “I hope you finished that chapter.”
Morena closes the book and sets it down. The job always comes first, she reminds herself as she peers through the scope and finds a burly figure moving down the hallway. Reza’s silhouette remains still as he waits for Ayesha to confirm that the coast is clear.
Morena aligns the crosshairs over the guard’s head. She takes a deep breath. Her trigger finger itches like crazy…
A cold metal object presses into the back of her head. Doesn’t take a genius to know what it is, especially in her line of work. She sighs and releases her grip on the rifle.
“Morena Alvarez,” recites a cold voice. “On behalf of the Galactic Federation, I hereby arrest you for multiple accounts of manslaughter, arson and piracy, and one account of jaywalking.”
Shit, thinks Morena. You’re on your own, Reza.
“What do you mean, she hasn’t taken the shot?” frets Reza.
“I don’t know,” answers Ayesha. “Why don’t you ask her?”
“She’s not replying.”
“She’s not replying to me either!”
Reza sighs in defeat. He ought to have been a standup comedian, if he’d known he’d be doing this much improvising. He pulls a pistol out of the DuraGlass container, which is the only way anyone can get a weapon past security these days. Of course, pistol rounds aren’t going to do a damn thing to Eliosian body armor, but Reza feels naked without one in his hand.
Since there’s nowhere to hide, he stands in the middle of the room and watches the huge metal door fade away to admit a tall, bulky figure clad in pitch-black armor.
“Er… should I get Morena?” asks Ayesha.
“Yes, please,” says Reza. “I’d rather not die dressed like a nerd.”
The guard stops short when she notices the intruder. Her visor flicks between the gaping hole in the safe and the cylinder in Reza’s hand. He pockets it, then pulls out a flask of rum and downs a good helping. It burns; rocket fuel in his throat. He grimaces in pleasure. Reza has travelled from one end of the galaxy to the other, but they don’t make ‘em like they do in the slums of Gaia, home sweet home. It’s amazing what you can do with a bucket and some cane sugar.
“Reza the Reckless,” calls the guard, voice grandiose, like she’s announcing royalty. With a flick of her gauntlet-clad hand, a massive pistol appears between her fingers. “Never thought I’d get to tick your ugly Gaian name off my list.”
“I’m quite flattered, thank you,” says Reza.
“How would you like to die, space pirate?”
“Alcohol poisoning, preferably rum.”
The guard raises the pistol. “How about a gaping hole in that poor liver of yours?”
Ayesha plops down in the cockpit and prepares for takeoff. Normally, Morena is the one that pilots the Wildcat, but Morena is more useful on the field with a rifle in hand and Ayesha is a half-decent pilot if she pretends she’s playing a video game.
Their ship has been making a gentle orbit of Elios Major for the past hour or so, blending into various other metal satellite bodies and municipal waste carelessly ejected into the thermosphere by so-called “environmentalists”. And sure, there’s a delay of around two seconds in the security feed Ayesha hacked into, but she’d rather be up here than anywhere near the ZenoTech compound, where every single guard has their eyes peeled for space pirates.
Ayesha steps on the gas and pushes the steering gear as far down as it will go; tiny satellites clatter against the windshield as the Wildcat plunges through the planet’s atmosphere. Morena would know how far to adjust the thermal shields to counteract reentry heating, so leaving orbit is a rather bumpy procedure when Ayesha is at the helm. Fortunately, the Wildcat isn’t a pussy, so it arrives in the pristine Eliosian sky unscathed. A blanket of amber water is stretched taut across the entire surface of the planet, speckled with green landmasses that grow in size as Ayesha heads for the biggest one. She soars over skyscrapers; it’s a matter of time before traffic cops notice she’s not sticking to the sky road, but it’s not like she’s planning to stay for long. The Wildcat is sleek and silver, like a gigantic manta ray swimming through the air, fins splayed out gracefully.
“Sorry for the sloppy reentry, lil’ guy,” says Ayesha as she cranes her head to check that Gumdrop isn’t too rattled. Solar worms are notoriously bad fliers.
“Hang in there,” she says, to herself as much as to her crewmates, as she speeds towards Morena’s location.
“We could reduce your sentence if you’d care to tell us where your teammates are, Miss Alvarez,” says the Federation officer as he finishes clamping handcuffs around Morena’s wrists.
Teammates my ass, she thinks. They’re more than that.
The officer sighs when Morena stays silent. “On your feet, then. Make any sudden movements and there’s a bullet with your name on it.”
As Morena reluctantly gets to her feet, she hears the officer gasp. “Is that… Heart of Ice, Volume III: Tender Kisses Under the Moonlight?”
She doesn’t hesitate. Using the officer’s momentary distraction, she flicks her head backwards, driving her skull into his. It hurts like a bitch, but it hurts the officer even more; he grunts and stumbles towards the edge of the rooftop. Morena whirls around, shoulder-tackles him and lets gravity do the rest. He screams at the top of his lungs the whole way down, until a dull thud announces a swift death.
The Wildcat touches down on the rooftop in a flourish of dust and hot air. Ayesha’s soft face appears at the doorway, eyes wide. “Who was that?”
“A kindred spirit,” sighs Morena as she picks up her book and rifle. She looks through the scope one last time to confirm her fears: the guard is chasing after a fleeing Reza, much too quickly for her to land a clean hit.
His voice arrives breathless in Morena’s earpiece. “Ladies, whenever you’re—augh—whenever you’re ready!”
Morena boards the Wildcat and lets Ayesha whisk them down to the ZenoTech compound.
Reza races down a hallway, shouldering his way through wide-eyed scientists in white lab coats. His heart pounds out a frantic, staccato rhythm as sweat rushes down his face in salty rivulets. He tosses a few shots over his shoulder; the energy blasts ping uselessly off the guard’s armor, but if he can land a hit on her visor, it might disorient her for a few precious moments.
A scientist ahead pushes a trolley of glass containers into his path; Reza vaults over it just in time and hits the ground running. His heart sinks when he glances over his shoulder to find the guard barreling into the trolley, sending a hail of beakers and test tubes into the air.
“Weird,” remarks Ayesha, while the Wildcat hums in the background. “She hasn’t raised the alarm.”
“The possessive sort, I reckon,” pants Reza as he skids around a corner. “Not someone I’d go on a date with.”
As if to confirm his thoughts, a streak of white-hot energy slams into the scientist next to him, leaving her sprawled on the floor with a hole burnt into her pocket protector.
“You got lucky there, pirate!” howls the guard.
Shots fill the hallway, leaving scorch marks on the walls and ceiling as they miss their mark. Scientists scream and flee in terror. Reza keeps his head down and tries not to piss himself when a shot grazes his cheek. Pain flares bright and hot before the heat cauterizes the wound in the same split-second.
As Reza bursts into the sunlit parking lot, he lets his lab coat go into the clutches of the wind. It flies behind him and wraps around the armored guard like a massive blindfold. She stumbles like a drunk and crashes into a PA system—which promptly tips over and squashes a small spacecraft. Reza supposes he shouldn’t be surprised that the next thing she does is screech like a banshee and fire wildly in every direction. He has no choice—he throws himself to the asphalt and does his best impersonation of a pancake as shots fill the air above him.
I swear, if I get out of this alive, I’m dropping rum forever. Well, maybe for a year. Er, a month, let’s say.
“I think the Captain is in a bit of a pickle,” says Ayesha as she lowers the Wildcat into the parking lot a hundred yards from Reza. “What do you think?”
“He’s been through worse,” says Morena as she perches by the open door of the ship, rifle scope pressed to her face. “Like that one time he accidentally ran over Don Vincenzo’s daughter’s cat. Before running over Don Vincenzo’s daughter, too.”
“Or that one time a Face Shredder almost shredded his face.”
“Or that one time a whore tried to bite off his—”
“It wasn’t a whore,” cries Reza. “It was Don Vincenzo’s daughter that tried to bite off my… Which is why I had to, y’know… I’d love to tell you what really happened, preferably over a few glasses of rum, but that’ll be awfully hard to do if I’m dead in a parking lot, wouldn’t you say?”
“Y’know, he’s got a point,” says Ayesha. “All yours, Morena.”
Ayesha gets goosebumps as she watches the sharpshooter take a shot from a standing position. She’d never admit it, but ditching university for the pirate life had been more than worth it if it meant getting to breathe the same air as the two coolest people in the cosmos.
Morena finds the guard’s black helmet in her sights.
She takes a deep breath.
Reza, you’re one lucky bastard, you know that?
And pulls the trigger.
Reza sets his glass down on the communal table with a clink.
Ayesha stares at him with wide eyes. “So Don Vincenzo’s daughter was actually Don Vincenzo’s son?”
“Not that I have a problem being on that side of the fence. It’s just, she ought to… I mean, he ought to have told me before we did it, you know.”
“What’s in it, anyway?” asks Morena from the cockpit, gesturing to the cylinder resting on the table.
Reza tosses it to her. “Our future. Leave some for me, alright, ladies?”
While Ayesha squeals in ecstasy, Reza hobbles over to a viewing panel. He watches stars drift freely in a sea of ink, carefree and endless. So much space. So much possibility.
And yet, there’s only one place he calls home.