Diamond Life
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.


Corona Diamond's eyes cracked open just a little at the sound of the door chime. She took a deep breath and slid her hand silently behind the pillow on the arm of the couch she'd been sleeping on, her hand closing around the heavy piece of iron underneath.

Who is it? She asked lazily.

Captain Diamond? It's ah, Lieutenant Morris, ma'am, the voice on the other end of the door responded. Colony Police sent me. We've got a Code E situation.

Her thumb silently flicked the safety switch off of her weapon. All right, she said, her deep green eyes opening wide, adjusting to the darkness then narrowing again on the door. Come on in.

The door slid open, and Morris walked in. He was a younger man, early-20s if he was a day, Corona thought. He was wearing the typical blue and grey uniform of a Colony Policeman--drab and functional, with only a small pistol slung at his hip. His eyes still had the jittery nervousness of a cop who'd never drawn that weapon to kill.

Corona stretched and slid off the couch, rubbing her eyes. She yawned. What time is it? She asked.

1645 local colony time, ma'am, Morris said. She nervously stood a few feet away in an at ease posture that betrayed how few years since his academy days.

What's the situation? Corona said, drawing the huge revolver from under the pillow on the couch. Morris gasped as she checked the weapon to make sure it was loaded and relatively clean.

Hostage situation in one of the charge stations, Morris said. We've got a cyborg holding three people hostage, one dead, multiple casualties. We've tried taking him out, but he's in an area with too much cover, and uhm, anything else would present a danger to the surrounding civilians.

Corona raised an eyebrow as she reached for her gunbelt. How many casualties?

Three officers down with plasma burns. We think he's packing some kind of energy blaster.

Corona frowned. A cyborg with an energy blaster, she mused. Didn’t the colony security check him when he came in?

It seems ah, not, ma'am.

Typical, Corona said. She ran a hand through her red hair and sighed. All right. Wait here while I get dressed.

Morris nodded. He looked around the spare dark apartment inquisitively as she padded off to her bedroom. It was like a lot of apartments in the colony--a barely pleasant little cubicle with an endless view of buildings containing cubicles just like it stretching on as far as they eye could see.

Inside hers were a few mementos, but mostly it betrayed the look of someone who spent just enough time in here to sleep and go on to the next job. Only a few pictures on a shelf near the couch seemed to give any hint of individuality to the place.

OK, Corona said, stepping out from the bedroom. I'm ready now.

Morris was surprised despite himself. Over her black body armor she wore green gauntlets and a green shirt, green being the color of her division in Colonial Police. The heels of her white boots clacked on the floor of the apartment as she leaned over the sofa to get her gunbelt.

Something wrong, Lieutenant? Corona asked, bucking her gunbelt, an archaic-looking thing of tooled leather, like a cowboy in those ancient movies.

Sorry ma'am, he said. This is my first time working with a member of Division E. I wasn’t really prepared for how . . .informal you guys are.

Well, not all of us are, Corona said, holstering her gun and opening a pouch on her belt. She produced to discs from the pouch and kept talking. But, since Division E's brief requires a exceptional people . . .well, we get a little more latitude.

Morris watched as Corona meticulously drew round after around from their places on her belt and loaded them onto the disc. They were unlike any bullets he'd ever seen before--metal casings at either end, but the rest was clear, almost like lethal jewel.

I see, Morris said. Well, until today I thought you guys were just a myth. They talk about you down at the stationhouse like you’re some kind of superheroes.

Do they? Corona asked smiling. You'll have to tell me about it in the car, then. C'mon, let's move Lieutenant.

* * *

The black and white cruiser skimmed between the canyons of buildings within the colony, the red lights on its roof blaring warnings to anyone foolish enough to get in their path.

Anyway, Morris said. I always thought Division E was a myth.

Well, Corona said. In an ideal universe, you wouldn’t see us at all. Unfortunately, so long as there are threats normal colony police can’t handle, we'll be needed. This is a good case in point. This cyborg guy, I'll bet you anything he's a cheap hood who somehow managed to steal enough to get himself enhanced. Unfortunately, since most back-alley cyberneticists aren’t qualified to turn a screw, you end up with phenomenally powered mental cases.

You sound like you've dealt with his kind a lot, Morris said, ducking into a sidestreet.

Well, the human body really wasn't mean to sustain something like metal in it, Corona said. So if the connections are wrong either the mind rebels and goes insane, or the body rejects it and the sickness drives you nuts. The results are the same though--too powerful for your own good, too crazy to know when to quit.

The cruiser turned above the knot of policemen at the power station, landing a safe enough distance away to land without alarming anyone. Corona unbuckled herself and stepped out the door, walking calmly to the line of policemen crouched around their cruisers, their guns trained on the doors of the power station, waiting for any break in the stalemate.

Who's in charge? Corona shouted at them.

I am, ma'am, an older, grizzled man in a uniform like Morris said. Sergeant Thomson, 8th precinct.

She crouched down next to him. Morris gave me the generals, what's going on now?

He's in there, Thomspon said. Still got three people. My sharpshooters can’t get a clear shot without risking setting off some of the storage cells in the power station. Just in case, I've ordered this whole block locked down, though.

Corona stared at the door of the power station. Have we got an ID?

Can’t get a clear look at him to make a match, Thomspon said.

Corona sighed. Specs on the energy-beam?

Ultra-energy plasma, Thomspon said, pointing to a hole near the door. Burned through the wall there. It's a tight beam, but the radiant heat sent burned the Christ out of one of my men.

How many shots has he fired and how long between them?

Four, and about five minutes apart.

Hmm, Corona said. Tried sending in a negotiator?

Can’t get close enough to him.

Corona sighed and stood up. OK, here's how we're going to do this. Thomspon, get one of your men to put a teargas round through that hole he put in the wall. Then get the hell under cover.

You’re trying to flush him out?

No, I'm trying to make him shoot at us, she said.

Have you lost your mind? Thomspon asked with obvious incredulity.

Sergeant, I have command over this whole situation now, Corona said. I don’t have to explain myself, and even if I felt like it, I don’t have the time. Do it.

All right, Thomson sighed, waving one of his men over to give the order.

One of the policemen walked at a crouch over to the whole, cradling his rifle as he did so. She raised it and pumped a shot through the whole. The bullet streamed a wisp of gas as it sailed into the whole.

EVERYBODY DOWN! Corona shouted.

The policemen hit the pavement as a brilliant red-orange stream of energy blasted outwards, melting through the door and punching into one of the cruisers. Corona could feel the ambient heat from the beam as it passed a few feet away from where she lay. There was a hiss of sparks at it burned into the passenger door for a few seconds, then the beam dissipated.

Corona stood up and gradually so did they. Okay, she said. Tell your people to hold their fire. I'm going in.

You’re going in there after that? Thomspon said.

Be nice, Sergeant, Corona said. I'm taking the risk so you don’t have to.

Thompson shook his head and leaned down to his radio. This is Thomspon, he said, looking at her. Hold your fire. Diamond Dust is going in.

Corona grimaced as she heard one of the squad let out a muffled cheer She slid between the two cruisers that were their cover and walked slowly and deliberately towards the door, counting silently to herself. Morris slid up and took Corona position next to Thompson.

Diamond Dust? Morris said. What the hell's that all about?

Thomspon looked over the cruiser. She didn’t tell you?

Morris shook her head.

Diamond Dust is her callsign, Thompson said. Because she's unbreakable. No matter how dangerous things get she's always cool and she always comes out of it without a scratch.

* * *

Corona silently noted every second that was passing as she mounted the steps of the power station. The air was fresh--the heat from the gun had burned off the tear gas and ionized the air. About five minutes between shots, she thought. That means he's got a recharge time. Considering the power in that gun, it's no wonder.

So I've got something less than five minutes to wrap this up.

She stopped, noticing the marble floor was singed into black glass beneath her feet. A few feet away, at the center of the blast, was a headless body, the neck perfectly cauterized by some terrific heat. Corona grimaced.

Apparently this perp had executed one of the staff by pressing his head against the floor and hitting him point-blank.

That's far enough.

Corona sighed, her hands down at her sides. In the muddled light of the power station he came into view. He was tall, favoring his left side because the heavy metal arm he carries. Servomotors whirred at he brought his weapon to bear on her.

Except for the obviously ill-fitting metal parts, he was a typical male, human, with a shock of blonde hair and nervous eyes. He twitched his head in a nervous tic that told Corona all she needed to know about the quality of his modifications.

Who the hell are you? he asked.

Captain Diamond, Division E, Corona replied, her voice quiet and calm. Seems you've caused something of a commotion here and you’re holding up the line at the station. So I'm here to bring you out.

What are you lady, some kind of negotiator?

Nope, Corona said, her hand resting on the belt buckle of her gunbelt. Just a cyborg-killer.

You guh-gotta be kidding me, the cyborg said, his head twitching backwards. No cop dresses like that. And no cop would come in here all by her lonesome.

Corona laughed. You’re right. I'm kidding, she said, laughing and making a small flourish with her hands. Suddenly her right hand passed her holder and in the blink of an eye, drew her pistol.

Oh, wait. No I'm not.

You think that little thing can bring me down?

She nodded. Easily.

It's not even a beam guh-gun, he said, his head twitching again. Just some old slugthrower.

That's where you’re wrong, Corona said, keeping the gun leveled at his head as she quietly counted down the last few ticks until he could fire. This is a slugthrower, but it's not old. No, this is a custom weapon. I call it my Diamondback, because it has a serious bite, and I already had the motif going.

That's nothin' compared to my gun.

Think so? Corona said, her eyes narrowing as her voice got more and more steely. My gun packs loads with a chemical explosive. Has enough of a punch to tear your pretty new arm off.

Forty-five seconds.

I duh-don’t believe you.

Believe it. You’re under arrest.

Twenty seconds. A low hum filled the room. The air was becoming hotter.

You can go to hell, lady!

Corona saw his arm-cannon swing into position as she fired.

There were two explosions--one when Corona's bullet struck him and another bigger one when the arm cannon expended its charge, shearing bits and pieces of the apparatus across the room. The cyborg fell to the floor, landing hard on where his arm mechanism had been. The bullet had hit him in the elbow, but the real damage had been from the explosion of his cannon. Half his body was covered by severe burns. He writhed on the floor, bleeding and moaning in pain.

Corona walked over to him, turning his face up with the tip of her boot. Still alive? Good. Now as I was saying, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be held against you in court of law. You have the right to legal defense at the judiciary's expense.

Corona hit her transceiver. This is Diamond Dust, she said. Code 4. Suspect is in custody. Bring in the cleanup crew--medevac and coroner. Confirming one fatality, possibly more.

There was a rush of activity as the police squad fanned out and surveyed the scene. Behind them, the medic team came in, ready to save who they could.

This him? Thomspon said, aiming his shotgun down at the still-groaning former cyborg.

Yeah, Coroan said. He was playing with fire. Bound to get burned doing that someday.

Funny, Thomspon said. You read him his rights?

She nodded. Better keep him under guard at the hospital. Burns like that he might not life to arraignment.

The medics came in and stretchered the perp out, as Thomspon waved them on. Corona looked around the power station, quiet but pensive.

Third one in two weeks, she said to no one particular.

* * *

Corona paused as she read back what she'd written on the data clipboard. Most officers dreaded paperwork, but she loved it. Considering every job she was called out on was full of tension, fear and a lot of quick thinking and improvisation, most of the time she needed the time to get some distance, let her adrenaline go down and relax as much as she ever did.

She looked out the window of the cruiser. It had been a couple of hours since she'd brought down the cyborg inside the power station and the last stages of cleanup were nearly done. The busted cruiser was being towed away, and pretty soon they'd unseal this sector of the colony and to the people who came by it would almost be like nothing had ever happened.

Unless you happened to be named John Doe, she thought. They hadn’t been able to identify the man who'd had his head vaporized--the DNA matching might take weeks. Corona couldn’t help but feel a little sad for his family, having to learn weeks after the fact that their son had been killed by a stupid punk who killed people because he was just dying to show off his new toy.

She grimaced as she slid the data clipboard into the cruisers' uplink slot. With seconds the report was filed. She sighed and learned back in the seat, only to be disturbed a few seconds later buy Thomspon knocking on the window.

What is it? Corona asked.

Thompson smiled. What's your drink?

Corona shook her head. Thomspon, I just saw a man's head fired clean off of his neck. Forgive me if I don’t feel like going out to party.

It's Morris' idea, Thomspon said. Wants to buy you a drink. I think we all need to unwind, yeah?

I need to go back to sleep, Corona said. She really didn’t feel like being feted at the moment. Too many bad memories came up after a job to be the mythical Diamond Dust for a throng of fanboy cops. Which is where I was before I got the call.

C'mon, Diamond, Thomspon pressed. I gotta know how you knew the perp wouldn’t kill you the minute you walked into the place.

Corona sighed, banging her bead against the headrest of the seat in frustration. Ok, she said. One drink, if you promise to leave me alone afterwards.

You got my word, Diamond.

* * *

The Palomino was a cop bar. It had been ever since the colony went online. Something about the familiar ambience of the place--the owner had spent a lot of money to make sure the place was furnished back on Earth--hard wood furniture, hardwood floor. Except for the food and drink dispensers and the music player in the corner, only the sliding doors betrayed the colony outside.

Inside it was a nice quiet pocket of the past. Simple was good in the complicated life of colony policemen. The stress of having to suppress threats sometimes outside your capacity to do so while serving multiple masters could break a lesser-willed man.

So tell me, Diamond, Thomspon said, throwing back a shot of Orion bourbon. How'd you know he wouldn’t fire?

Didn't, Corona said, quietly nursing her Cygnian rum. Took a gamble that he'd gone in for power at the expense of efficiency. Ultra-energy plasma guns are powerful but they eat up a lot of power and take forever to recharge without supplemental cells. My guess is he figured it out and that's why he tried to jack the power station.

You took a hell of a risk, Morris said.

It's what I get paid for, Corona said, twisting a lock of hair around her finger as she stared into her glass. Besides, once I saw him, I knew I could take him. His brain was so scrambled by his metal so as long as I kept him off-balance, I was in control.

God damn, Thomspon said, obviously impressed and a little drunk. So tell me, how's a lady like you get into Division E? I've gotta be five years older than you if you’re a day.

It's not really an honor, Thomspon, Corona smiled bitterly. You should be glad your days are basic street crime. I'd give anything to be back on a normal beat.

What's stopping you? Morris asked, giggling. Obviously this was one of his first encounters with hard liquor, too, Corona thought.

Habit, now, she replied slowly. And I promised Caitlyn I wouldn't.

Who's Caitlyn? Morris asked, ignoring Thomspon stern warning glare.

Caitlyn's my sister, Morris, Corona said. When I got my first posting out of the Academy, we shared an apartment, back on--oh geez, what was it? Sedna colony? Been so long ago now.

Anyways, I was a young rookie, all full of myself, and Sedna colony wasn't too bad back then. I found a gun in her purse one day. One of those illegal jobs like you can buy here. She told me it was for protection. I told her I'd protect her.

Diamond, Thomspon said, rolling the shotglass between his palms. You don’t have to say--

No, no, it's Ok. Corona said, waving him off. It'll do good for Moriss to hear this. I took it away from her. Told her I couldn't have her breaking the law under my own nose, sister or not. That's how I was then. Crammed full of the law.

Anyways, a week later, she was walking home from a bar not unlike this one. Corona gestured around. They found her body in the dumpster under a broken barstool. Someone had waited for her, dragged her in the alley. They . . .whoever it was . . .burned her beyond recognition. And just tossed her away. Just like that.

God, Morris said.

Yeah, I spent a few years being mad about it too, Corona sighed. She finished the rum, sensing it was time to go. But it was my own fault. Learned some lessons that day, I can tell you.

Like what?

Morris, if you need me to tell you, you obviously haven’t been listening close enough, or you can’t hold your liquor. She pushed her chair away from the table, fumbling in her pockets for some credits. Thanks for the drink. I'll take the railcar home.

Thomspon waved her off. I got it, Diamond, he said. You ever catch the bastard?

Corona sighed. No, she said. But not a day goes by where I don't think about it. Seeya round, guys.

Corona walked quietly to the door, bobbing and weaving past the drinkers and dancers, mostly cops, as she headed for the door. As the exit came into view, she noticed something. One of the first things she'd been taught in her Division E training was to always take note of irregularity around her. A break in routine can, and usually did, mean trouble.

Such an irregularity was before her now. It was a woman wearing a grey overcloak, a little taller than the humans around her, with chalk-white skin and red eyes. Her purple hair was cut short and conservative in such a way that emphasized her gaze.

What's a Rigellian doing in a human bar, much less a cop bar? Corona wondered. Instinctively she felt the weight of her gun n her hip, as if it were quietly reassuring her it was still there.

Corona walked past her as the woman said her name.

Corona Diamond?

Corona stopped, her hand going for her pistol. The woman closed the distance in an instant, and Corona felt a sharp object being jammed into her kidneys.

Forgive me, Ms. Diamond, the woman said. Her Basic was actually quite good, despite her thick accent. But we need to talk in private and the urgency of my mission prevents any gentility.

All I have to do is scream, Corona said flatly. This whole place is full of cops. You might get me in a rush, but they'll tear your alien ass to bits.

Perhaps, perhaps not, the woman said. I give you my word you won’t be harmed. My weapon is set to stun you. I'm sorry Ms. Diamond, but we have to speak.

What makes you think I care what you have to say, Rigellian?

The woman pondered that. I have information you need. Information concerning the man you arrested this afternoon and the two before him.

I'm listening.

Not here. We must go someplace private.

So you can shoot me? No thank you.

Very well, the woman whispered, her voice becoming terse and hissy. The reason you’re facing an increase in the rate of cyborg and alien crime coming through here is that your colony is the way station for a much larger operation being planned on the Frontier by one of the syndicates. I have more details, I may even have a way of stopping them, but to do that, I need your help. Now is that enough to get you to come with me?

Corona watched her carefully. She didn’t seem to be lying, and certain bits of her story made a little too much sense to cast aside at least without hearing her side first.

All right, Corona said. Let's talk. Outside.

* * *

They walked for a time, Corona leading the way, until they came to one of the colony's parks. They were liberally sprinkled through out the massive colony's city sprawls, partially because they aided the colony's oxygen production, and partly because of the human desire to surround oneself in nature, even if the cold dark suffocation of space was only meters away.

Will this do? Corona said.

It will do, the woman said.

That's good, Corona said, her voice taking on a gentle sing-song quality. You know I come here all the time, one time I brought a guy here and . . .I was standing under that tree over there and I said to him--

Corona drew her pistol, wheeled on the woman and jammed the barrel between her eyes. Put your god damned hands in the air.

The woman blinked, raising her hands to her waist. You are fast.

Fast enough, Corona replied. Start talking, and I'll decide whether I bring you in or not. You've got one minute.

Very well, the woman said calmly. The recent upswing in cyborg crime is part of a larger problem. Someone is using your colony as rendezvous point to recruit a special brand of mercenary. The colony's a way station, whoever it is ships them on to the Frontier.

Forgive me for not taking your word for it. Us cops need something called evidence.

I have it, but it's in my back pocket, and I need my hands to get it.

Uh-huh, Corona said, planting her feet and drawing back the hammer on her revolver. Then reach for it, nice and slow.

The woman reached under her cloak, her left arm disappearing underneath it. As her cloak parted, Corona caught a glimpse of a white dragon pattern on her body armor.

The woman's hand appeared again, holding a small data pack. Corona took it, her eyes looking over it quickly while she kept the gun trained on her. It was a list of recent docking manifests, all of which had a peculiar similarity she couldn’t place.

If I might be permitted to point out, the woman said. On each of those ships was one to five items of cargo marked miscellaneous on the manifest. Of those ships, five underwent spot checks by docking inspectors. Only to find the miscellaneous cargo gone as if it never existed.

Irregular, but not unusual, Corona said. Could be food rations consumed by the crew.

That's tracked in another column.

So you think these are my cyborgs, then?

Not only cyborgs, the woman replied. Aliens, assassins, special weapon systems. Perhaps even combat droids.

Can you prove that?

That's as much proof as I can offer, I fear.

This is a start, Corona said, tossing it at the woman. But I can't make an arrest without hard proof and unless you can show me a ship with a cyborg, alien, or assassin stowaway I won’t have anything that I can make stick. What, you expect me to storm in, guns blazing, do you?

I thought you might say that, the woman said. That's why we waited until a new ship put in to contact you. They're here for eighteen hours while they refuel and meet with their contact.

Corona stared at her. She slowly lowered her gun, and pushed the hammer back. Then she reached for her transciever and made a call. Stationhouse, this is Diamond Dust, code 4123, she said. Send a cruiser remote to my position, Diamond out.

So, I'm under arrest?

No, Corona said. It means that running contrary to years of training, I'm disregarding procedure and going to take the word of a woman who jammed a pistol into my back ten minutes ago. I must be drunk.

* * *

The cruiser picked them up and they flew through the city sprawls in silence for a time. Corona stole a glance to her taciturn companion before finally breaking the silence.

What's your name?

Ronah, she said.

You're uh, a long way from Rigellia, Corona ventured.

You could tell I'm Rigellian, Ronah said. My my you must be a policewoman, your powers of deduction are quite astonishing.

I think it's the near insufferable arrogance, actually, Corona said. Anyways, you aren't known for paying us a visit without a lot of pomp and circumstance.

I'm not with my people anymore.

Oh, I know that, Corona said. You're with one of the syndicates. I noticed the insignia on your leg there. Didn’t know human crime syndicates hired aliens.

I don’t belong to a syndicate.

Sure you don’t.

Ronah pulled back her cloak, her fingers tracing the white dragon insignia. I represent a group called the White Dragons, Ms. Diamond. We're a force against the syndicates out on the Frontier.

I've never heard of you.

It's hard to get your names on the news nets when you don’t kill people, deal drugs or otherwise cause havoc.

And you don’t, right?

We like to think we only kill and explode the bad guys, as my friend would say, Ronah said, looking out the window.

No one think of themselves as the bad guy, Corona said.

Ronah didn’t say anything.

So, Corona said. When you’re not killing the bad guys--

It is not about killing the bad guys, as you put it, Ronah said. For the past few years we gathered our forces, getting people out of the syndicates, getting people to safety.

An underground railroad.

As you say. But now our mission has changed. Now we are actively undermining and destroying the syndicates power.

Corona pondered that for a second. It sounded right, it sounded noble, but she didn’t quite know whether to believe it or not. She knew all about the syndicates, mostly from busting their paid assassins and watching them freed due to their leverage with the courts.

They'd followed humans into space, a constant companion, always ready to feed the human appetite for vice. They'd gradually moved to the Frontier, that lawless, isolated stretch of space that seemed to exist by its own rules.

And these people want to break that, Corona thought. God help them. I've seen the Frontier break good men and kill the ones they couldn't break. I can't imagine anyone actually trying to change human nature on that scale.

One question, she ventured.

Only one? Ronah asked. I counted more than that.


Why what?

Why help us? Corona asked, circling the landing field as she waited for radio clearance to land the cruiser. You Rigellians keep to yourselves, think we're obnoxious Earthlings proudly self-destructing, so why help us?

Ronah pondered the question as Corona set the ship down on a free landing pad. Corona rolled her eyes and sighed. Like drawing blood from a stone, she thought.

Because one of you humans gave me some things I thought I’d lost, Ronah said. And that is all there is to say about that.

I guess so, Corona said, starting the landing cycle. So, where's this ship?

* * *

The unspectacular freighter Aguirre was docked in berth 2493 on the colony's space ring. It was a standard cargo hauler, a drab block of blued metal with engines in the back, in all aspects indistinguishable from a thousand other long-range transports that put in to colonies like this, taking food and raw materials from one end of the galaxy to the other. It had put into the colony this morning to recharge its engines and make whatever repairs were necessary.

On hauls like this, the crews usually left the refueling and repairs to the docker's union, eager to get off a ship they'd spent weeks on. The ship would then be kept in lockdown, with no one cleared to board except the crew, customs inspectors, or the repair crews.

The two figures that walked in shadow to the access ramp were neither of these things. They were cloaked, both literally and shadow, their faces hidden by the hoods of their cloaks. The shorter figure stepped forwards, a white-gloved hand holding a keycard. The doors to the ship opened quickly and the figures stepped inside.

The shorter figure looked around. The overhead lights in the cargo hold flickered fitfully, the fluorescencence giving a strange strobe light effect as she pulled back her cloak. Her blue-black hair spilled out and settled around her shoulders. She surveyed the condition of the Aguirre's cargo hold her lips curled in an aristocratic sneer. Her larger companion remained cloaked as they walked past stacks of cargo containers to looking for a certain crate.

The woman hit a sequence of keys with practiced familiarity. There was a sound of locks being released, loud as a shot in the quiet emptiness of the cargo hold. The woman put her hand over the lid of the crate, feeling the rush of air from the overpressure within the crate.

After a minute, something stirred.

You can come out, now, Charade, the woman said. She turned to her companion. Number Twenty-seven, take the lid off.

Her companion reached for the lid. In the light of the hold, the dull sheen of his green metal hands made him seem more alien. It slid the lid of the crate off, the heavy metal lid slammed against the deck of the hold.

Inside the crate, two white-gloved hands took hold of the edges and a woman rose out of the crate. The woman inside was a young human woman.

Her lips parted with a lazy smile as she stretched. You know, she said quietly. I used to get paid to jump out of cakes.

That's nice, Charade, the woman sneered. What's your condition? Any ill effects?

Charade shook her head. None that I can see, she said, her voice languid and sexy in a false kind of fashion. The drug worked like you said it would. Soon as I was given the epinephrine shot my mechanisms did the rest. Everything's online, including this.

She brushed her hair from her left eye with a dramatic flourish. Under her hair where her left eye should be was an artificial eye red and burning. Her devil's eye. The weapon for which she was most famous.

That's perfect, the woman said coldly. Her cloaked compatriot walked over to another crate, lifting the top of the heavy plastic cover and tossing it aside with contemptuous ease. The woman produced a device and pressed a button on it.

There was a squealing noise as a strange skeletal machine rose from the crate. Corona watched as it stiffly climbed out of the crate, followed by another just like it.

Robots, she thought. She spared Ronah a quick glance as she checked the Diamondback.

They're Jade Tiger sentinels, Ronah whispered. Their syndicate can’t retain professional assassins, so they built their own army. Charade must be along to get them through any customs points. But where are they going?

Nowhere, Corona said quietly. She reached down to her belt and activated her homing device. In the colony a priority call for backup was being made right now and help was on the way.

Until then, it was just her and Ronah.

She rose to her feet, leveling her gun at the group before her. Beneath her Ronah grumbled and drew her blaster pistols.

Foolish humans, she thought. Far too eager to be brave. Or smart.

All right, Corona said, taking the Diamondback's safety off. Hands in the air.

The woman and Charade stared at each other, for a moment. A thin smile crossed Charade's lips. Corona stared at them tensely, reading their expressions for the first sign of subterfuge.

Charade blinked, and Corona saw a sight burst from her eye. Then her world went crazy. Colors shifted, as did her sense of balance. He stomach knotted in waves of nausea. She felt her fingers letting go of the Diamondback, felt it start to slip from her grasp.

It was at that moment that Ronah popped up from behind the crate, red bolts of energy blasting from her guns. She spared a look at Corona, who seemed to be in a strange kind of stupor, and nudged her with her hips.

Corona snapped out of it with a jolt, her vision blurring and clearing into the image of one of the Tiger sentinels. She fired on it, the bullet striking it in the chest, spraying bits of metal all over the cargo hold.

The woman moved behind Charade, drawing her own weapon as Characde tried to catch Ronah's eye.

You’d better protect me, she said coldly.

I can’t do anything unless we lock eyes, Charade said nervously as the woman took a shot from behind her.

Then perhaps you should draw her full attention, the woman said, smacking her forward. She cradled the device she'd used to activate the sentinels in her other hand, sending and order to activate every sentinel in the hold.

She smiled and squeezed the trigger again. With only two of them, there's no possible way they could survive long against those numbers.

* * *

Charade hurled herself at Ronah, just missing her with a flying kick. Ronah knew about Charade's strange ability and kept her eyes moving, looking at anything and everything but her and fighting more on instinct than anything else.

It was an eminently sensible way to fight someone who could essentially hypnotize you at a glance. Unfortunately, it was getting harder and harder to fight. The cargo bay was filling up with sentinels, and they could only destroy so many increasingly close quarters before her or Corona were killed.

Hypnotized and killed or merely overwhelmed, she thought. Damn that woman's grandstanding.

She flipped over one of the sentinels and Charade followed her. Ronah ducked behind the sentinel, dodging her attacks by ducking behind the robot. She ducked down behind him as the robot swiped his arm backwards, trying to knock her away. And idea came to her as she spun around, avoiding Charade's punches and kicks.

You’re far too arrogant about that power of yours, Ronah said, grabbing Charade by the ankle after she kicked out at her. She yanked her forward, sending Charade to the deck.

Charade started to rise from the floor as Ronah drew one of her pistols, ducking the sentinel's clumsy attacks.

Wanna look me in the eye and say that? Charade snarled, wiping blood from her lip.

Tell it to the robot, Ronah said, turning and firing into the knee joints of the sentinel. The delicate balancing mechanisms shattered sent the sentinel forward onto Charade. Ronah dashed off to help Corona.

* * *

Corona leapt off the top of the crate she was standing on, partly because the woman's shots were cutting dangerously close, partly because something was pushing against crate from the inside. She rolled to a stop, then slid between the legs of one of the sentinel robots as Ronah blasted it to bits. She covered her face to block flying debris and rolled to her feet.

Can’t risk shooting these things in these close quarters, she thought, holstering her weapon. The Diamondback isn't really set up to incapacitate. Better come up with a gentler way.

She grabbed the arm of one of the sentinels, wedging herself under its shoulder and lifting it off its feet, smashing it to the deck. The sentinels were combat robots, built to emulate and improve on human design, but even the strongest machine could be bested if you knew just where to use your leverage.

She tripped another one, pushing forward as fast as she could. The woman was making her way up the access ramp, firing an occasional shot from her weapon more to keep Corona from closing the distance.

Trying to get away, she thought, whipping another sentinel into an advancing group of them to the left. That's what this was all about. Buying time to get away.

The woman's eyes met Corona's for an instant and she pointed her weapon at her. Corona quickly drew her own and leveled it, but before the woman could fire, her weapon exploded in her hands.

Ronah came up alongside Corona, and the two of them fired in the woman's direction. The woman shrugged off her cloak and produced the activator for the Sentinels. There was a thin smile on her face and she keyed in a three-digit code.

The sentinels that had been advancing on them slowly came to an immediate stop. Ronah's eyes looked over them with surprise and a quiet sense of dread moving through her. As the cargo hold became stiller, she thought she heard a more plaintive beeping noise start in one of the sentinels, then another, then another.

As the hold began to fill with the sound, Ronah grabbed Corona and moved her towards one of the crates. As they ran, Corona, having come to the same conclusion, reached down for the crate's top as they rolled inside, the beeping becoming almost ear-bleedingly loud.

Every one of the sentinels exploded, the sound and force of the explosion filling the cargo hold and shoving the crate hard against the far wall of the hold. Corona held the top of the rate down, hearing as the sides were pelted and dented by flying debris.

It took about three minutes for the explosions to stop. Corona cursed herself for a fool for grandstanding like she had. The smarter move would have been to call for backup first, wait for them to get there, then spring the trap.

Instead she'd had a trap sprung on her.

* * *

The woman cursed under her breath as she made her way to a secluded spot on the docking ring. She'd already called for her people on the second ship, and they'd be gone well before the colony police could restrict outgoing traffic, but the entire point of this rendezvous had been rendered irrelevant by those two women's meddling.

Damn them, she thought, finding a communications terminal and coding a message for transmission. I had intended to get to Kuran with a legion of my sentinels and use them to repay all my debts. Now I'll have to rely on my partner's resources. However limited those are.

She pressed a scrambler device to the side of the communications unit, and once the communications channel was established she began to speak.

This is Tigress, she said. There's been a slight change in our plans. Our pipleline encountered some difficulty on the way to the Frontier. Recommendation to proceed with existing assets in place upon your arrival at Kuran. New ETA for my transport at Kuran, seventy-two hours. Message ends.

She hissed under her breath, imagining the insufferable smugness with which he'd receive the message. She wondered sometimes if allying herself with someone from the very Syndicate she was trying to destroy was a brilliant tactical move or would it be the death of her.

She pushed the thoughts from her mind and quickly made her way to the second ship before the police closed in.

Kuran is waiting for me, she thought. And there, revenge. Revenge on my father and on Kienan Ademetria. And nothing will stand in my way.

* * *

It took fifteen minutes for the support crews to burn their way through the hatch to get to them. The multiple explosions hadn’t breached the hull of the ship, surprisingly enough but the debris had deformed and fused the door to the cargo hold enough to make even the manual override unusable.

Once they were inside they found the crate and pulled Corona and Ronah out of it. Ronah was slightly lightheaded and Corona felt incredibly banged-up now that the adrenaline rush from before had deserted her. Not at all up to the battery of questions Thompson was throwing her way.

Yes, I know, Corona said. It was stupid of me not to wait, but I had a feeling the woman wasn't going to stick around. That this was just some kind of inventory check for her. If I’d waited, she'd have been gone, and all you’d have had was a living cyborg and crates full of deactivated robots.

Maybe so, Thompson said. But she'd have at least been alive for questioning. Our forensics teams going through it now but right now we've got nothing we can hold anyone on. Certainly nothing that leaves a trail.

Corona looked around the cargo hold. I guess the explosions took care of that.

You guess right. Thomspon grunted. Still, they've made a positive ID on the Charade woman, so that's something.

But it's a post-mortem, Corona said. I didn’t catch anyone behind this. From what you say all we've got are the crew and a minor smuggling charge. Nothing we can hold them on for very long.

Ronah tugged on her arm. Corona ignored her, watching Thomson's reactions.

Excuse me, officer, Ronah asked.

Sergeant, Thompson corrected.

Sergeant, Ronah said. If you check the ship's logs you may find their destination is Kuran colony, on the Frontier. That might be the trail you’re looking for.

She turned to Corona. May I speak to you for a moment?

Thomspon waved back to her. Hold on, now, he said. Just who the hell are you?

On the same side as you, Ronah said, taking Corona's arm. Listen, she said quietly. I need you to expedite this as much as possible.

You think she got away and is already on her way to Kuran, then?

I'm certain of it, Ronah whispered. We have delayed her a little, but my information says this is only a minor setback in the grand scheme of things. I need to get to Kuran first, and I cannot do that if I'm detained here answering questions.

Corona took a deep breath. I can’t let you go and leave me empty-handed, Ronah, she said. Right now, most of what we have is circumstantial evidence, and this much damage with this little a result, well . . .

You want something in return, then?

You've led me around all this time and nearly got me blown to bits, so yes. It would be polite.

Ronah thought for a moment, looking at the teams of police and forensic robots combing the cargo bay.

How long can you hold the crew? Ronah asked.

A few days, maybe a week at the outset.

Give me as long as you can. Once I reach Kuran, I may be able to provide evidence to you that will link them to a larger smuggling pipeline. That should be good for a charge of collusion. In the meantime, will a recorded statement be enough to get me out of here quickly?

Corona pondered that for a second or two. I think so. I'll have to do some explaining, but I think I can arrange it. With your statement on file I can vouch for you against being a flight risk.

Ronah bowed her head. I thank you for vouching for me.

Corona produced a small data pad from her belt and keyed it for audio recording. Okay, she said. Whenever you’re ready.

* * *

Two weeks later, Corona received a transmission at home. She hadn’t forgotten about the battle on the freighter--if anything the various departmental inquests, evidence hearings and assorted paperwork had conspired to keep it right under her nose for as long as possible.

Ronah had been as good as her word. Two days after she'd let her go to Kuran, terabytes of information on the smuggling pipeline were theirs, and not only had it led to long sentences for the crew for weapons smuggling, but five other ships had been caught as well.

Thompson had taken her out to celebrate the huge bust.

Everyone was proud, except Corona.

We caught a few of the smugglers, she thought. Some of them even had Syndicate ties. But a few small fish was all we really caught. The woman, who she worked for, what she was really in charge of, all of that's still up in the air.

It should feel like a big win for the good guys, but it's not. Too many questions without answers.

She pressed the receive button on her communications unit. The signal decoded and resolved into a picture of a face she knew well.

Ronah, Corona responded. I didn’t expect to hear from you. And how did you get my number, anyways?

Corona, Ronah said, ignoring the question. You’re looking well. The information my group provided appears to have brought the matter I left you with to a satisfactory conclusion.

A conclusion, yeah, Corona said. She looked away from the screen, not hiding her annoyance at the loose ends. What about Kuran?

I made it in time, Ronah said. Her red eyes looked down for a moment. But . . .I'm afraid their plan ultimately succeeded.

Corona sighed. How bad?

Very bad, She paused for a moment, as if to let the statement sink in fully. But the woman we fought will trouble you no more, you may be assured of that.

You dealt with her?

She was dealt with, but not by me, Ronah said quietly. In any case, I wanted to contact you and let you know how things had worked out. I had a suspicion that you were dissatisfied by the loose ends left when we parted.

A smile tugged at the corner of Corona's mouth. So I guess the good guys won, then?

We prevailed, I suppose.

Corona nodded. The flat tone of Ronah's voice told her what she was thinking--sometimes it only seemed like a victory, and sometimes you feel like you won even if ultimately, you just broke even.

Corona smiled and nodded. Thanks for letting me know, Ronah.

I thank you for your assistance . . .Corona, Ronah said. There was a harsh beep and the signal cut off.

Corona sat on the edge of her couch, looking out the window. She thought about What Ronah had said, and then about what she hadn’t said, and ended up paying more attention to the latter.

We won a skirmish, ultimately, she thought. Sometimes I realize just how small this space station really is and how big the galaxy outside it is.

There was a sound at the door. Corona stood up, hand on her pistol.

Who is it?

Lieutenant Morris again, ma'am, the nervous voice came from the door speaker. I'm afraid we've got another Code E.

Corona sighed, and pushed the introspective thoughts from her mind as she pushed herself onto her feet.

In an ideal universe, people like me wouldn't be necessary, she thought, recalling her words to Morris on the day they'd met. But it's a broken, imperfect place, and it needs someone unbreakable.

She flipped open the chamber of the Diamonback, making sure she was fully loaded. She snapped it closed and holstered the weapon.

And that's what I'm here to do.

I'm on my way, she said.