First Monday Free Fiction: Double-Cross

Double-Cross by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the November 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. Well theoretically, this is the second Monday of November, because I forgot to post the story last week, but it’s still a free story and it will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

Later this months, I will be releasing two new adventures of Anjali and Mikhail, my pair of intergalactic mercenaries on the run from two regimes that want them dead. So I thought I’d share Double-Cross, an earlier In Love and War adventure, with you today.

I tend to call the In Love and War series space opera romance, because the protagonists are a committed couple having adventures in space, but the individual stories are all over the genre map. This one has a strong cyberpunk vibe, largely because it was inspired by by two pieces of cyberpunk artwork, this one and this one. It also is a science fictional crime story. As with all the In Love and War stories, the cover art is by the hyper-talented Tithi Luadthong.

So accompany Anjali and Mikhail, as they retrieve some stolen medical nanites and deal with a…

Double-Cross

The independent rim world of Kyusu was infamous for its pervasive cloud cover and its constant, never-ending rain.

Landing on Kyusu was dangerous because of the low visibility. Yet its spaceport was one of the biggest on the rim. For Kyusu was also a major hub for both legal and illegal trade along the galactic rim.

The capital Shusaku was a neon-drenched maze of skyscrapers and open air markets offering literally any legal good in the galaxy and most of the illegal ones, too, provided you knew where to look.

A man and a woman strode side by side through the neon labyrinth that was Shukasu, their movements perfectly synched, indicating close companionship.

The man was tall with pale skin, striking blue eyes and long black hair that he wore tied back in a ponytail that was now dripping wet. He was clad in a long back synth-leather coat, the collar of which he’d pulled up against the rain. This was Captain Mikhail Alexeievich Grikov, formerly of the Republican Special Commando Forces, now wanted as a deserter and traitor.

The woman by his side was a good head shorter, with brown skin, sparkling dark eyes and black hair tied into a straggled braid. She was clad in utility pants and an electric blue tunic, topped by a poncho of transparent plastic as protection against the steady downpour. This was Lieutenant Anjali Patel, formerly of the Imperial Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, now wanted as a deserter and traitor.

They’d met on the battlefield of the eighty-eight year war between the Republic of United Planets and the Empire of Worlds, fallen in love and decided to go on the run together. Their flight had brought them to the independent worlds on the galactic rim, the only place in the galaxy where they could live in relative safety, far from the forces of the Empire and the Republic both that pursued them, determined to bring them to heel.

And now their flight had brought them to Kyusu, while their work as mercenaries had brought them to the rain-drenched markets of Shukasu.

Anjali looked up. Before her loomed two towers of stacked up freight containers, covered over and over in neon ads, many of them rendered in the boxy characters of the old script of Kyusu. A makeshift bridge stretched between the two towers, also covered in ads.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” she asked Mikhail, “Because I’m cold and soaking wet and not really keen on trudging through the rain for another couple of hours.”

“The pharmacist we interrogated said ‘the Open Market’. So unless you’re losing your touch…”

“I’m not,” Anjali replied.

The guy had practically peed himself as soon as he saw the dagger with the Shakyri crest at her waist. And afterwards he’d been only too eager to talk. He’d talked like the proverbial waterfall, confessing to every single substance of dubious legality he’d ever sold in his shop. No intimidation necessary, the problem was getting him to stop talking.

“…this should be the place.”

Anjali was still doubtful. “There are dozens, probably hundreds of markets all over the city. How can we be sure that this is the right one?”

In response, Mikhail pointed upwards at the makeshift bridge that stretched between the two towers. It was emblazoned with the words “Open Market” in Standard or rather what the Republicans insisted on calling Standard in their infinite arrogance.

“I’d say that’s a pretty big hint.”

Anjali still wasn’t convinced. “And how do we know that this is the Open Market the guy at the pharmacy was talking about? After all, the place where we found the pharmacist was also called Open Market.”

“Public Market,” Mikhail corrected.

“Same difference.”

“Not if you’re Kyusan, apparently.” Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. The rain pasted a few stray hairs to his forehead. “What’s the matter? I thought you liked markets and shopping.”

“I do,” Anjali said, “But not for days on end and not in constant rain.”

She tried to look dignified in spite of the downpour, but instead she only managed to look like a drowned kitten.

“And besides, we still haven’t found a decent Rajipuri spice merchant in this swamp. Let alone a clothing, jewellery or weapons merchant.”

To Anjali, the quality of a market was directly proportional to the number of Rajipuri merchants to be found there. And the many markets of Kyusu really sucked in that regard. Though she should probably grateful there was no jewellery merchant, cause that would only encourage Mikhail to buy her things they couldn’t afford and that weren’t appropriate for a mere peasant like her anyway.

“We did find a shop that sold bootlegs of Rajipuri vid dramas,” Mikhail reminded her, “You liked those.”

“I just want to know whether they’ll hang Roshani for that murder she didn’t commit or whether she’ll be saved at the last possible minute.”

“She’ll be saved, of course,” Mikhail said, “And then there’ll be a big song and dance number. Isn’t that how those stories always go?”

“Not always,” Anjali said. She’d tried to introduce Mikhail to the joys of Rajipuri vid dramas, but so far he failed to get it, “When I was a kid, we watched a vid drama where the heroine Chandara was actually hanged for a murder her husband committed. Okay, so maybe the fact that the drama was called Trial and Execution should have tipped us off, but it was still a shock. My sister Lalita was in tears for days.”

Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. “What about you?”

“I fantasised about breaking Chandara out of prison and making sure that bastard husband of hers was hanged instead.”

Mikhail winked at her. “You would have pulled it off, too. If Chandra…”

“Chandara.”

“…had been real. But now let’s get on with the mission, so we can go somewhere warm and dry and watch some of your new bootleg vids.”

“Maybe we could first stop at one of those noodle bars that are everywhere,” Anjali said, “Cause a bowl of hot noodles sounds heavenly just now.”

Mikhail nodded. “Sounds good. First mission, then noodles, then home.”

***

So Mikhail and Anjali ventured into the compound of converted shipping containers that made up the Open Market.

The mission was to retrieve a shipment of medical nano-agents that had been stolen from the smuggler kingpin who was hoping to make a fortune with them. Okay, so the client was a crook and the nanos were not just illegal, but also cheap knockoffs of the military grade medical nano-agents that coursed through Mikhail and Anjali’s veins. But a job was a job and beggars couldn’t be choosers. And so they went about their business, scanning the shops that made up the Open Market.

Half of the businesses could be dismissed out of hand. Stalls that sold fresh vegetables and prepared foods, clothing stores, body modification shops or businesses that sold com units and vid players were all unlikely to carry bootleg medical nanos.

“The pharmacist we interrogated did say the guy’s name was Shibuki, right?” Mikhail asked Anjali, when he was both thoroughly wet and thoroughly sick of running about in the rain.

“He definitely said Shibuki,” Anjali confirmed, squeezing water from her braid, “Too bad we don’t know which of these shops is owned by Shibuki, because we can’t read the script.” She shot Mikhail a questioning glance. “You can’t read that, can you?”

The script was similar to the one used on the Republican world of Shubashi. It was logographic script, complicated to learn. And though Mikhail had tried, once upon a long time ago, he’d never been very good at it.

“Not nearly well enough,” he admitted.

“So you can read that.” Anjali looked serious impressed. “Is there any language in the universe you don’t speak or read?”

“There are plenty of languages in the universe I neither speak nor read,” Mikhail countered, “As for this language, I can tell that shop over there offers hot noodles…”

He pointed at a business on the other side of the street, where patrons were sitting along an open bar, slurping noodles.

“…and that the one behind us sells hairstylers…”

“That’s no big deal,” Anjali said, “I can tell what those shops sell just by looking at the displays.”

“However, I can’t tell if any of them are owned by someone named Shibuki.”

“So how do we find this Shibuki then, if we can’t even read the language?” Anjali wanted to know.

Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. “Simple. We ask.”

Since the noodle bar across the road was too busy, they decided to try the hairstyler shop instead.

A chime rang, as they entered. The owner of the shop, a woman in her fifties with a complicated upswept hairdo that suggested she was the best customer of her own devices, bowed profusely and complimented Mikhail and Anjali on their beautiful hair. Then she immediately launched into a spiel about how her hairstylers could arrange that beautiful hair into the most elegant styles in mere minutes.

“I’m sorry,” Mikhail interrupted her, “But actually we’re looking for someone named Shibuki. Do you know where to find him?”

The woman scoffed. “You should rather invest in one of my products than in Shibuki’s services. My products will make you pretty. Shibuki’s just a hack.”

“Oh, we’re not planning on engaging Mr. Shibuki’s services,” Anjali, who’d been studying holos of the hairdos the stylers could produce, said, “We merely need to talk to him. And afterwards, we may be back for some of your very impressive products.”

The woman smiled, her painted lips forming a blood-red crescent. “You’ll find Shibuki’s shop at the corner of Akira and Yuzu Street. But be careful. Shibuki is a crook.”

Anjali replied with a smile and a bow of her own. “Thank you, madam, but I think you’ll find that we can take care of ourselves.”

“You’re not thinking of buying one of those things, are you?” Mikhail asked once they were outside in the rain again. He loved Anjali’s hair just as it was, even now when it was dripping wet, and he wasn’t at all sure how he’d feel about the towering beehives an automatic hairstyler produced.

Anjali shook her head. “Goodness, no. Not my style.” Her voice turned quiet. “I just thought how much Lalita would love something like that.”

Lalita was Anjali’s younger sister, aspiring to become an actress in those silly vid melodramas Anjali liked so much. Anjali hadn’t seen her or the rest of her family in almost ten years now, ever since she left to join the Shakyri Corps and her family disowned her.

Silently, Mikhail reached out to squeeze her hand. Sometimes, he forgot he wasn’t the only one who’d lost his family to the war.

They found Shibuki’s shop exactly where the woman had said it would be, on the corner of two neon-drenched streets. It turned out to be not a pharmacy or a clinic, as they had expected, but a body modification parlour.

“No wonder we couldn’t find it,” Mikhail remarked, “Who would look for medical nanos in a place like this?”

“Well, I guess getting yourself injected with nanos does count as body modification,” Anjali replied, “Besides, the body modification parlour could be a front for his real business.”

Mikhail looked at the shop, at the screens displaying functional piercings, cyber-implants and animated tattoos as well as more traditional forms of body modification.

“Have you ever been inside one of those places?” he asked.

Anjali shook her head. “Nope. A bindi and pierced ears is as far as I’ll go. You?”

Mikhail nodded. “When I was a cadet, I had the names of my parents and my sister tattooed on the inside of my wrist, so I wouldn’t forget them.”

Anjali was still holding his hand. She turned it over and gently pushed up the sleeve of his coat, revealing smooth, unmarked skin. “But…?”

“The nanos erased it, just like they erase all other old scars.” Except for the ones that really mattered.

“I’m sorry.”

“Brian Mayhew said it was all right, that I would always carry their names tattooed on my heart.”

When they entered the parlour, a tattooed and goateed man, Shibuki most likely, was inking a complicated animated tattoo into a customer’s back. The customer was a young man, pale-skinned and blonde. Not Kyusan then, but probably a spacer on shore leave.

Shibuki did not even turn around, he just waved vaguely at them. “Take a seat. I’ll be right with you.”

Mikhail and Anjali exchanged a glance.

“Should we wait?” Mikhail whispered, switching to the Imperial tongue, so they wouldn’t be overheard.

““I don’t know.” Anjali glanced over to where Shibuki was tracing the outline of a foam-crowned ocean wave onto his customer’s back. “Any idea how long that will take?”

Mikhail thought back at the time it took to tattoo three simple names in a dead language onto his wrist ten years ago.

“Too long,” he said and got to his feet.

“Excuse me,” he called out, switching back to Standard.

“I said I’ll be right with you,” Shibuki hissed and mumbled something under his breath in his own language.

Mikhail did not sit down again. “This will only take a minute,” he said, “Madame Yasuhiro sent us.”

The effect was immediate. Shibuki dropped the tattoo gun and ran, vanishing through a beaded curtain into what Mikhail assumed was the backroom.

Anjali sighed, “Why do they always do that?” and set off after him.

The customer sat up, a look of pure confusion in his eyes and a half finished ocean wave tattoo on his back.

“You’d best come back some other time,” Mikhail said to him, “Mr. Shibuki is busy right now.”

The customer nodded mutely, grabbed his coat and shirt and left.

Once he was gone, Mikhail locked the door and lowered the shutters, so they would not be disturbed.

Meanwhile, Anjali had easily caught up with Shibuki and had him in a control hold. She pushed him out of the backroom and onto the chair the customer had just vacated.

Mikhail drew his blaster and levelled it at Shibuki, while Anjali strapped him to the chair with a set of insta-cuffs.

“Is this how far Masako Yasuhiro has fallen that she has to hire offworlders now?” Shibuki spat, struggling futilely against his bonds.

Mikhail settled down on the counter, the blaster casually resting on his thigh. “All right, Mr. Shibuki, let’s make this as easy as possible. My partner and I are here to retrieve a shipment that Madame Yasuhiro seems to have misplaced. Tell us where it is and we’ll be on our way.”

“Do you take me for an idiot? I know how Masako Yasuhiro operates. I tell you where it is and you’ll kill me.”

“We’re troubleshooters, not assassins,” Mikhail countered, “You have my word that if you give us the medical nanites you appropriated, we’ll let you go.”

Shibuki was still defiant. “And what if I don’t?”

Anjali picked up the fallen tattoo gun and switched it on. The gun buzzed, the needle vibrating faster than the eye could see.

“You know, I always wanted to try out one of those,” she said to Mikhail.

“Be careful with that,” Shibuki snarled, a hint of panic in his voice.

Anjali ignored him. “In the Empire in the olden days, criminals and thieves were branded with their crimes. The practice was abolished, but I always thought it was a good idea to warn people, so they know who they’re dealing with.”

She turned to Mikhail.

“How about the word ‘thief’ tattooed on his forehead in colour-changing nano-ink? To warn his customers.”

She leant closer to Shibuki, the buzzing tattoo gun still in her hand.

“Stop,” Shibuki cried, “I’m no thief, I bought the medical nanos from Madame Yasuhiro for a fair price.”

“That’s not what she told us,” Mikhail countered.

“You work for Masako Yasuhiro and you want to warn people about me?” Shibuki exclaimed, “I’ll tell you something about your boss. She’ll double-cross you, because she double-crosses everyone. I bought the nanos from her fair and square. We just had a… a disagreement over the price.”

“That’s an issue you should take up with Madame Yasuhiro,” Mikhail said, “We’re merely here to retrieve the nanos. So if you could just tell us where they are…”

Shibuki practically deflated. “They’re in the bottle with chartreuse nano-ink.”

Mikhail and Anjali exchanged a look. “What the hell is chartreuse?” Mikhail wanted to know.

“Top shelf, second bottle on the right.”

Mikhail picked up the bottle in question. It looked just like the other bottles of nano-ink that Shibuki used for his animated tattoos, except that according to the label, this particular nano-ink came in an ugly, green-yellow colour.

“Looks like snot or puke,” Anjali remarked, “Who the fuck wants a tattoo in such an ugly colour?”

“No one,” Shibuki said, “That’s why I’m using it to hide the medical nanos. Because nobody in their right mind ever chooses that colour.”

Mikhail put the bottle in a pocket of his coat. Mission accomplished.

“All right, you’ve got the nanos,” Shibuki whined, “Now let me go. You promised.”

Mikhail nodded to Anjali who put down the tattoo gun and released the insta-cuffs that bound Shibuki to the chair.

However, Mikhail still kept him covered with his blaster. “No false moves. We leave and you can reopen your shop.”

“Reopen my shop?” Shibuki emitted a bitter laugh. “I’ll pack up my stuff and make a run for it and hope I can get out of the city before Masako Yasuhiro finds me.”

***

Some twenty minutes later, Mikhail and Anjali were strolling side by side through a street that was lined with eateries offering all sorts of delicacies.

Anjali cats a surreptitious glance over her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Mikhail asked quietly.

“I have a feeling we’re being watched.”

She paused and looked around again. The street was bustling with people, all engaged in business of their own.

“I can’t see anything, not even Kyusan Peacekeepers. Maybe I’m just paranoid.”

Mikhail shook his head. “I trust your instincts. So let’s be careful and stay alert.”

Anjali’s stomach chose that moment to grumble. “I’m still hungry,” she said, “So what about those noodles you promised me?”

Mikhail nodded and pointed at a shop a little down the street where the customers were sitting outside, slurping bowls of noodles. “That looks promising. So what do you say?”

A few minutes later, Mikhail and Anjali were sitting at one of the colourful plastic tables on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, a bowl of hot noodles in front of them. The food was excellent. The broth was hot and spicy, the noodles had just the right texture and the various toppings — seaweed flakes, chopped scallions, pickled vegetables, soy balls and a poached egg — complemented the noodles perfectly.

But in spite of the fine food, Anjali still felt that tell-tale prickle at the back of her neck that someone was watching them, stalking them. Once, she even thought that she’d spotted a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye. But when she turned around, all she saw was a large vid display on the side of a building that played what looked like a Kyusan vid drama.

Mikhail shot her a concerned look. “You’ve still got that feeling?”

Anjali nodded. “What about you?”

Mikhail considered for a moment, then he nodded. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something is wrong.”

“So what do we do?” Anjali asked.

“Finish our noodles, deliver the cargo and head back to our quarters.”

But they never got that far.

It was the briefest of moments. The tell-tale red dot of the targeting system of a sniper rifle, reflected for a split second in a condiment bottle on the table. But it was enough.

“Down,” Anjali yelled and hit the floor. Less than a second later, a projectile ripped through the awning of the noodle bar and lodged itself in the counter.

All around, the patrons screamed and made a run for it. Tables and chairs, bowls, glasses, chopsticks, noodles and condiment bottles went flying everywhere.

Anjali and Mikhail sought cover behind the counter, which was solid enough that a regular projectile could not penetrate it. They both had their weapons drawn.

“Fuck! I knew someone was watching us,” Anjali exclaimed.

“Can you see where the sniper is?”

Cautiously, Anjali peered over the edge of the counter and scanned the street, that was suddenly a lot emptier, now the civilians had fled. On the wall display she’d noted earlier, an over-made-up woman was engaged in what appeared to be a tense scene with a silver-haired man. Her complicated hairdo was marred by a human silhouette bearing a rifle.

“Up there, at the wall display.”

Another movement caught her eye. Not at the display, but along the wires that stretched across the street.

“Bad news. There’s two of them.”

“You sure?”

Anjali nodded. “The sniper and another who’s sitting on the wires. That one doesn’t seem to have a rifle, just…”

Anjali peered over the edge of the counter again.

“Looks like some kind of knife or… nope, it’s a sword.”

“Not the Republic then,” Mikhail said.

Anjali looked at the two dark figures again. They were clearly professionals, but they did not move like any soldiers she’d ever seen.

“Nor the Empire either.”

Mikhail fired over the edge of the counter into the general direction of the sniper, but only hit the wall display. It exploded in a shower of sparks and parts of the image went dark.

The sniper answered with a projectile that shattered a bowl and dumped broth and noodles onto them both.

“Must be local talent,” Mikhail remarked.

“But who? Shibuki? Cause he didn’t strike me like the type to pull off a stunt like this.”

Anjali peered over the edge of the counter again. “Fuck, the one with the sword is dropping to the street.”

“Is the street clear?”

Anjali nodded. “All civilians have fled. Just them and us.”

Mikhail’s eyes met hers. “All right. I’ll take care of the sniper, you handle the one with the sword.”

The second attacker had almost reached the ground now. He was clad in a black utility coverall. Above the damaged wall display, the sniper was still keeping watch.

Anjali and Mikhail nodded at each other and burst into action.

Mikhail jumped to his feet, his own blaster drawn. He fired. The sniper returned fire, but Mikhail was quicker. He dove for cover and the sniper’s bullet only hit a pot of noodles that was still simmering on the stove. They exchanged fire once more, then the sniper cried out and fell from the display onto the awning of a shop selling fragrant dumplings in wicker baskets.

Anjali did not even wait for Mikhail to do his part. She vaulted over the counter and met the second attacker on the rain-slick street. The man had his sword drawn. In response, Anjali drew her dagger.

For a few seconds, they just circled each other. The assassin suddenly lunged with his sword, but Anjali sidestepped his attack. Undaunted, the man swung his sword in a wide arc that would have decapitated Anjali, had she not ducked just in time.

However, the attack also left the swordsman’s flank wide open. Anjali used that chance and kicked him in the side with all her power. The man staggered, but he did not fall, not yet. And he still had the sword.

Time to change that. While the swordsman was off-balance, Anjali attacked again, this time aimed her kick at his wrist. Her foot connected and the man yelped, but he did not lose his sword.

He swung his sword once more at her, while Anjali slashed at him with her dagger. His blade only managed to slash the sleeve of plastic raincoat she wore. Anjali was luckier and drew blood. Only a little, but it was enough to slow the attacker down.

And then Mikhail was there, attacking the swordsman from the other side and drawing his attention long enough that Anjali could ram her dagger into his thigh. It was only a flesh wound, but it was enough to drive the attacker to one knee.

He tried to get up again at once, but the ever present rain came to their aid and the swordsman slipped in a puddle.

The fall itself wasn’t very bad, if the attacker’s sword hadn’t gotten in the way, neatly impaling him.

Both Mikhail and Anjali rushed to the swordsman’s side, but it was too late. The man was dying.

“Who?” Mikhail demanded, “Who hired you?”

The man looked at them. “Madame Yasuhiro,” he said, blood trickling from his mouth.

Anjali and Mikhail exchanged another glance.

“So Shibuki was right. Yasuhiro did try to double-cross us.” Anjali shook her head. “Where do you find those crooked clients?”

“They’re not all crooks,” Mikhail replied, ever so slightly wounded.

In the distance, the sirens of Peacekeeper groundcars wailed, drawing steadily closer.

“I suggest we leave, now.”

Anjali nodded. “And then?”

“Then we’ll pay a visit to Madame Yasuhiro.”

***

Masako Yasuhiro had hired the best security money could buy. But it wasn’t enough to keep a very angry and very determined Shakyri warrior and an equally determined and equally angry ex-member of the Republican Special Commando Forces out of her luxurious penthouse office atop one of Shusaku’s tallest buildings.

And so, once they’d disabled her security system and taken out her bodyguards, Mikhail and Anjali burst into the office of Masako Yasuhiro, their respective weapons drawn.

Masako Yasuhiro rose, as they entered, hands held to her sides, clearly visible. She was a striking woman, no longer young, but endowed with the smooth agelessness that cost a fortune to buy. Her jet-black hair was pulled into an intricate up-do and provided a stark contrast to her elegant white gown.

“So I take it you have recovered my merchandise, Mr. Grikov, Miss Patel. But why burst in here instead of making an appointment like civilised people?”

“You know why,” Anjali said, keeping her blaster trained on Masako, “By the way, those assassins you sent after us won’t be coming back.”

“That’s a pity,” Masako Yasuhiro said, “And they came so highly recommended, too. Still, it seems that I underestimated you. And since you’re here, I suspect you’ll want your payment.”

Untroubled by the blasters trained on her, Masako rounded her desk and pressed her thumb to a scanner concealed inside what appeared to be an antique cabinet. The door opened and Masako withdrew a small bag of synth-silk.

“Pearls,” she said, “Natural pearls. Extremely rare, extremely valuable and — unlike credits — untraceable. I suspect you prefer it that way.”

She tossed the bag at Anjali who caught it with one hand, the other still holding the blaster.

Anjali opened the bag and glanced inside. She’d only seen pearls in vid dramas so far, but these sure looked like the real deal. Her brother Milan would know for sure. After all, the last time she’d seen him, he’d been an apprentice silversmith, dealing with materials way too precious for a mere peasant like her.

“And now, if I could have my merchandise,” Masako said.

In response, Mikhail took the bottle of ugly green nano-ink from his pocket and set it down next to a potted plant that looked like a full-size tree shrunken to miniature size.

“Why?” he asked, “Why did you try to double-cross us? It can’t be about the payment, since you’re clearly willing and able to pay.”

Masako settled down behind her desk again. “I know who you are, who you really are.”

She pressed a button and an old service portrait of Mikhail, with his hair still cut brutally short, appeared on the wall screen behind her.

“Grikov, Mikhail Alexeievich, Captain, former member of the Republican Special Commando Forces, wanted for desertion, defection and high treason. And…”

Masaki swiped across the air and another image appeared, a service portrait of Anjali in the green and gold uniform of the Shakyri Corps.

“Patel, Anjali, Lieutenant, member of the Imperial Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, wanted for desertion, high treason and fraternising with the enemy.”

Masako raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.

“The prize on both your heads is extremely impressive, too.”

“Is that why you did it?” Anjali demanded, “To collect the bounty for us?”

“Oh, please.” Masako rose again and picked up the bottle of medical nanos disguised as tattoo ink. “The bounty would merely have been a bonus — it does say dead or alive, after all. But the real prize is the blood flowing through both your veins. Or rather what is contained therein.”

Masako placed the bottle in her concealed safe.

“Don’t look so shocked, Mr. Grikov. I deal in bootleg medical nano-agents. Of course, I know what the secret of the Republican Special Commando Forces is. My bootlegs are only a pale copy. The nanos in your veins, Mr. Grikov, are the real deal and worth a fortune. Even better…”

Masako closed the safe again.

“…it appears the same nanos are flowing through your veins as well, Miss Patel. Which is fascinating. For personally, I had no idea that sexual transmission of medical nanos was even possible.”

“It’s not,” Anjali said.

“It wasn’t like that,” Mikhail said.

Masako cut them off with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“It’s really none of my business. And now take your payment and leave.”

“And why should we do that, considering you tried to double-cross us?” Mikhail wanted to know.

“He’s right,” Anjali added, “Why shouldn’t we take you out here and now? Or better yet, call in the Peacekeepers, so they can tear your operation apart.”

Masako seemed utterly unruffled by the threat. “Yes, I suppose you could do that. On the other hand, I’m a professional and I know when I’ve lost. And if you leave now, you still have enough time to buy a passage off world, before the representatives of your government arrive. Both your governments.”

“You called in the Republic?” Mikhail demanded.

“And the Empire?”

“Of course. They’re paying good money, even for your exsanguinated corpses. And I am, above all, a businesswoman. And I think you’re, too.”

Masako rose and bowed to them, a clear note of respect in her bearing.

“It was nothing personal,” she said, “And the pearls are worth more than the bootleg nanos, much more. So I suggest you take the pearls and run. Leave Kyusu and live to fight another day. After all…”

She bowed again, deeper this time.

“…we’re all professionals here.”

The End…

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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