Risha lowers the LH-86 pistol, still shaking from her trembling hand. A thin wisp of smoke trails from the barrel, the air smelling of cordite and burnt ozone. Her ears ring from the shot, reverberating off the prefab walls and mixing with the belching of air filter exhaust. The flash of light in the near darkness nearly blinded her but her vision is clearing, letting her see the fallen woman at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” she says aloud, wanting the still form to hear her, to forgive her. But the woman doesn’t stir, her chest rising and falling ever so little and growing less with each moment. Risha steps closer and kneels at her side, touches her cheek, forces herself to look the woman in the eyes. They are wide, in shock and pain, the lips are parted and sticky with foamy blood.
Tears cloud Risha’s vision but she doesn’t clear them. Instead she feels around on her armored chestplate for the coagulant. It’s there, but there isn’t much left. She uses it all on the single wound in the woman’s chest and puts a self-pressurizing seal on it. Reaching down to the woman’s waist, she feels around until a familiar device is found. There, her hand hovers, waiting, not depressing the switch. Instead, she leans down and presses her lips to the woman’s temple, her breathing growing ragged with emotion and distress.
“I’ve missed you so much, why did you have to… why…” But Risha knows why. She knows the Advocacy sent Amelia after her because of this exact thing. Incorruptible Amelia. Loyal Amelia. The only person Risha might turn herself in for. The only one who could believe the Advocacy wouldn’t kill her in interrogation. But Risha couldn’t, wouldn’t, let them have it. Not even for Amelia.
Risha touches the switch on the device, prepares to activate it when Amelia turns to look at her. She still doesn’t speak, all her energy spent on trying to breathe through a collapsing lung. There is accusation, confusion, and love in those eyes. Risha almost can’t bear it.
“I’ll never see you again,” Risha says, more to herself than the woman lying there. Her head shakes, the tears fall freely, and she activates the switch. A light flashes on the device and somewhere on Vega, an Advocacy signal is caught, boosted, and transmitted: officer down, needs assistance. Her location is given down to the centimeter.
It’s time to go.
“Goodbye Amy,” she says, squeezing Amelia’s hand once and then rises. Risha doesn’t look down as she steps past her former partner, doesn’t look back as she runs down the darkened corridor, because if she does, she knows she’ll be lost. Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out her own Advocacy badge and tosses it down a drainage pipe, along with her service weapon.
Behind her, Special Agent Amelia Karr struggles to breath among her sobs.
TWO YEARS LATER
The fat man grins at her through a mouth of teeth stained red by Fury Dust. She sits across from him in the dark hole he calls an office. Everything on Nyx is dark, even the light. Somehow, despite coming and going from this hellhole for over a year, Risha never quite got used to it. Some adapt, like this man. His eyes are pale silver and glint with Augmented Reality hookups. His skin sports a few implants that take in what nutrients it can via the sparse light.
He is fat entirely because he can afford to be. Nyx is not a place of opulence and most who live here do so off ration packs and nutrigel. No one ever got fat on that stuff.
Risha’s stomach growls as she eyes the scallops placed before her. The fat man ensured her that they were real, that she should avail herself of them, but if she did, she’d acknowledge his superiority, his power over her. She leaves it uneaten.
“Risha, Risha!” the fat man says, his laughter fading into giggles. “My dear, pretty little Risha, I don’t understand these words you say? What you say is you dumped my drugs, neeza? This is not something I am hearing?”
“I had to, I was going to be boarded, Nexo,” Risha says, sliding her gaze left and then right. The exit is behind her and on either side is a man with a machine gun. Getting out of here will be hard, if she got out at all. “And I don’t appreciate the bag job. I’m one of your best.”
“You lost me over fifty thousand credits!” Nexo screams, suddenly devoid of his humor. Spittle flies from his lips, black flecked and red tinted. “Do you think this is game, little girl? That Nexo is kind man who will give you hug for being sad?”
Risha says nothing. Nexo is corpulent, lazy, and corrupt, but he also kills at the drop of a hat. The authorities ignore him because he lines their pockets with Fury Dust blood money. Those two men behind her will shoot her without thought.
“No, Nexo,” Risha says. “Let me make it up to you.”
“How!” Nexo says, picking up a scallop with his fingers and shoving it between his lips, sucking it down. “Little girl is tagged now by Advocacy. You never fly again!”
“That’s not true,” Risha says, pointing a finger at him. “My ship was never tagged by the Ads. Trust me, I know.”
Nexo chuckles again, low and dangerous. It begins as a shake in his stomach and shivers up to his fat neck. The laughter goes on for several uncomfortable moments before it subsides and he eats another scallop, licks his lips, and blows a globule of red spit onto the floor.
“Yes, you would, wouldn’t you, little girl. You were Advocacy Agent in lifetime past, neeza?” Nexo smiles as Risha shifts, swallowing hard. She’d done her best to cover that part of her life, but there was only so much a data hacker could do. Nexo laughs again.
“I know who you are, Risha Gray, Special Agent. You used to catch Dusters, now you sell Dust! Or maybe… see maybe you still catch Dusters, neeza? Maybe you dump my cargo where other Agent find it?”
Risha feels the room go cold. The men behind her shift their weapons, their thumbs removing safeties. She resists the urge to panic, to give in to the danger around her. The conditioning the Advocacy gave her so many years ago kicks in and she feels her heartbeat slow, her reasoning sharpen. She is too close to Nexo to be fired at, for fear of missing her and hitting him. This is a scare tactic.
“If I was going to report my findings to the Advocacy I would have let them board me, been taken prisoner, not run. If you know my name, then you know they burned me, Nexo. They want me dead.”
She sits back, her risk calculated. She tries her best to appear cool but angry, insulted. For a moment, no one says a thing, no one even moves. Then Nexo grins and reaches down, plucks up a scallop and puts it on a plate, then slides it over to her.
“Little girl has backbone. Good. You will need it. You will pay Nexo back for the lost shipment plus extra. Seventy-five thousand credits.”
Risha almost doesn’t take the offered food, but it is part of the custom here. If he offers it, with his own hand, you take it. It keeps you safe. Still, her hand shakes. Seventy-five thousand. How is she going to get that much?
She will have to run Dust again. It is the only way. One more piece of her soul.
“You have one month, little Risha. If there is no payment, then I find someone who will bring you to me. That conversation, it will not be so nice, neeza?”
One month. Her life span is now one month.
“Understood,” she says.