Earth Year 2285
From behind a battered wooden crate smelling of moldy bread, Constable Sidra Elvenstri pressed her knuckles into the hard-packed dirt floor and scanned the interior of the warehouse until her gaze fell upon the reason she was there.
Jupiter’s moons, Section 10 got something right.
Considering their score was zero for five on useable intel, accuracy on this particular mission kicked ass. The warehouse did contain the expected goods. Goods that no matter how many times she had to see them, never failed to turn her stomach sour. Even now, bile rose to her throat.
The rusty metal cage hunched in the corner near the main door was packed with boys and girls of various ages, none of them over the age of twelve, on their way to new owners. Not parents. Owners.
Slavery, which despite having been outlawed for centuries, continued to be too lucrative to cease. The new world governments were quick to take a portion of the wealth. Another reason why the buying and selling of children continued. Who was going to go against the Black Dealers and the government to save children?
Her shoulders sagged. She did what she could when she could. Still, it was never enough. As she stared at the children, memories of the past tried to drown her in horror and loss. She was all too familiar with the children’s plight. It had been years since she’d escaped their fate, but that didn’t make the flashback any less painful when her mind drifted.
Shaking off the unwanted memories, she shifted her weight to her toes, wincing when the muscles in her calves tightened and locked. Feck, she didn’t think it had been that long between exercises.
Back to the mission. With her sonic-emitter constantly humming in her ear and her eyes scanning the warehouse interior, she sought proof she and the children were alone. There. The sonic chirped, indicating the presence of three drones. The robots, sentient at the basic level, were easy, and expendable, muscle. In an average situation and against an average person, they were formidable enough. Against her, a piece of cake. The old Earth saying fit well.
The sonic, after identifying the drones, went back to humming. So. No Dealers or their soldiers lurked about. Despite the sonic’s relative quiet and the lack of echoing voices, footsteps or other noise, she stayed alert. Silence didn’t mean the building was empty. The Dealers had been known to leave quiescent drones behind, ready to activate at a moment’s notice, and the sonic’s range was limited to active drones.
At least this warehouse wasn’t full of crates or boxes. This meant there weren’t many places a drone could hide. Unlucky for her, because there weren’t many places she could hide. Which was why she was reluctant to leave the dubious safety of the battered crate and slight comfort of the scent of spoiled yeast.
While patience wasn’t a virtue she possessed in any sort of quantity, neither was stupidity. It would be phenomenally stupid to venture out without knowing if there were drones in the area. She hadn’t survived over twenty missions by being thick-headed. Or careless.
Or relying solely on equipment.
Still. She glanced at the cage. Despite the limited light filtering through the cracks and holes in the ragged ceiling, it was bright enough for her to see the small forms shifting positions within their rusty confines. The low shuffling and murmurs whispering through the quiet warehouse told Sidra the children were alive. Obviously frightened, but at least physically unharmed. Mentally, well, that was something else entirely. Their miniature shadows flickered as they fidgeted within their confines.
The Dealers hadn’t even attempted to keep the children clean. Or clothed. Underneath shredded shirts and pants, cuts and bruises turned their skin mottled shades of red, blue and green. Some of the children talked quietly. Others stared out into the warehouse depths, their haunted expressions seeing only stars knew what.
A lump filled Sidra’s throat. No matter how often she saw children like this, torn or purchased from their parents, she couldn’t seem to power off the emotions. But she knew how to bury them deep. She took a deep breath, forced down the pain and focused.
Her mission parameters were clear. All she had to do was call in the confirmation and get the hell out of the way. The point team would then sweep the area, rescue the children and effectively halt Dealer operations out of this warehouse.
Oh, and they’d recover the priceless silk in the plasti-crates near the children’s cage. Yes, she’d clearly noted the black market trade she hadn’t been briefed about. And the silk, not the children, was the mission. She was sure about that. It wouldn’t be the first time Triad had sent her on a cover mission while a point team handled the real mission. Not because she couldn’t handle a black market recovery operation. She knew she was one of the best Constables Triad had. However, during her first, and coincidentally last, time she’d been sent on such a mission, the black market silk had somehow been, well, misplaced.
At the bottom of the Grand Canyon Sea.
In her defense, that hadn’t been her original intention, until she’d overheard two of the strike team members joking about what they’d do with the money they got from the sale of the recovered silk. When she’d…encouraged them to share what they knew, she had learned the silk would end up right where it would have in the first place: on the bodies of the rich and powerful. So, instead of the credits lining the Dealers’ pockets, it would line Triad’s.
She felt a smile pull at her lips. It had been a simple matter to dump the silk and claim the Dealers hadn’t wanted anyone else to have the rare material.
While no one actually spoke against her, she knew Triad leaders had their doubts. If they could have proven she had anything to do with their silk’s disappearance, her career as a Constable, and her life, would join the silk. At the bottom of the deepest body of water they could find.
Hence the children. Timely, convenient afterthoughts meant to distract her. But, she supposed, working for an organization that walked the line bordering protection of humanity and destroying humanity, those that did the dirty work couldn’t be concerned with a little thing like morals.
Whenever she questioned her own decision to stay with the organization, all she had to do was see the children, and then she remembered. Despite Triad’s less than savory pursuits, they had a lot of contacts and resources she would never have been able to gain on her own. And even if freeing children was not their main goal, they still did. She’d have never gotten so far without Triad. So, for now, she’d stay with them.
That didn’t mean she’d let the point team members, sociopaths every one of them, have responsibility for safeguarding innocents. In their psychotic zeal, they’d not worry if any children were harmed. After all, the children’s parents had sold them into slavery. They weren’t wanted and would only be a burden on the City-State. So, did it really matter what happened to the children?
Sidra’s lips twisted. It fecking mattered to her.
About to press the activation pad, she hesitated. This type of behavior, ignoring her orders to act as a scout only, earned her a lot of desk time. Def Logan, Triad Commander and second only to Triad’s senior executive Control, wanted her in solitary, and had threatened her with that if she stepped out of line again. This was just the excuse he needed. She had no doubt he would follow through with his threat.
At times, his hatred seemed to run neck and neck with his desire for her. A double-edged sword. Yet, she knew the hatred wasn’t just for her refusal to follow orders. Okay, most of it was. The other part, well, that was for the whole Control-likes-you-better-than-me issue. She’d been Control’s first choice for Commander. And when she’d turned it down, Def had been chosen. She was sure it didn’t help that everyone she worked with knew Control hadn’t chosen Def. He’d won by default. Difficult to accept under the best circumstances. For a man who believed women had only one purpose, the realization was impossible to swallow.
Her inability to keep her smart-ass comments to herself when he was around didn’t better their relationship. Def could foam at the mouth all he wanted. Threats aside, no way was she leaving the children at the mercy of the strike team.
Sidra noted the position of the drones then keyed the hologram switch on her wristband. She could easily handle the three, but why work up a sweat when she didn’t have to? After spinning the dial on the holo emitter fastened to her waist belt, she punched in a code on her wristband, hoping this latest invention worked as she was told it would.
Usually there was time to test Triad’s gadgets. Not for this mission. She’d barely had the chance to shower after the last assignment before leaving on this one. So, here she was, stuck with a new piece of equipment that might or might not work.
The hologram, a fairly recent tech toy from the Triad brain guys, projected a holo image across the gray interior of the storage bay. The drones froze for a moment, and then grabbed their weapons. The holo figure fired a few realistically fake shots, then turned and ran. Two of the drones followed while the third stayed near the cage.
She couldn’t blame them for their response. Even she had a hard time believing the other figure was only an image. Sidra shook her head. Hmm, two out of two. Another piece of equipment the Triad scientists developed actually worked as intended.
At least their record was higher than Intel.
She crept forward, her ninja-like slippers gliding silently over the concrete. The specially designed footwear provided stealth, protection and surface stability.
The drone guarding the cage craned his neck and peered into the semi-darkness where his partners had disappeared. She grinned. She really liked going up against androids.
Human-shaped, if not exactly human, the drones were constructed of metal, plastic and some sort of neural networking frame. Only possessing rudimentary skills, what they lacked in mental ability was a non-issue when in hand-to-hand combat. She loved being able to test her skills against drones. The android’s focus was so intense on what his teammates did, her presence went undetected.
Slipping into the shadows surrounding the cage and its whimpering occupants, she moved closer. She hated the damn Dealers with every atom of her body. These children belonged with someone who loved them, not stuck in a dirty holding facility waiting to become someone’s laborer or worse–someone’s sex toy.
She knew what that felt like. The waiting. The wondering. Because she knew, she freed any children she found. Didn’t matter what her orders were. Didn’t matter if she ended up in solitary. Didn’t matter if she suspected Def had set this up just so he could force her to disobey. When there were children, she’d let them go.
She glanced at the children and her gaze locked on a young girl, her hair stringy with dirt and sweat. Not much more than ten, the girl’s brown eyes held betrayal and loss. The stark expression was a mirror image of the haunted look that had been on Sidra’s face before Norah Rainwater found and saved her.
Sidra lifted a finger to her lips. She curled her other hand into a fist as her fingers itched with the need to comfort. The little girl shrank back, fear tightening her thin lips. Wide brown eyes stared into hers for a moment, then her mouth dipped and lines formed between her brows. The girl lifted a scrawny arm, brushing her fingers against her own cheek.
Realization smacked Sidra like a hammer. Shred it, she wore a mask. Of course, the children would be frightened. She unsnapped the collar and pulled the edge of the mask up and over her head. She tossed the covering onto a nearby box, and then faced the children again.
“Better?” she whispered.
A slight nod. Fear drained from the brown gaze, hope taking its place. Sidra smiled. “I think it’s time to get you out of here,” she continued, her tone low.
She wrapped her fingers around the cage handle. “It’s going to be all…” Her words trailed off as the little girl let out a tiny gasp and looked upward. Sidra jerked her head in the same direction.
A thick rod honed in on her face. She swore and bent backward. The metal bar missed by inches before slamming into the steel cage with a loud clank. A couple of the children screamed.
Shred it! Focus!
Calling herself all kinds of stupid for being taken off guard, she reversed, her feet sliding on the cement floor as the drone advanced. He held the rod high in a menacing gesture. She widened her stance and when he neared, she pivoted and in a swift, smooth movement, side-kicked with her right leg. The drone’s arm blocked the blow.
Dancing on the tip of her toes, she spun and lashed out with her left arm. She quickly ended with an elbow to the drone’s head. The shock of the blow shot electric tingles up her arm. The strike did more damage to the drone. His knees buckled, and he crumpled to the ground.
Sidra smirked. Despite the tingling in her arm, that felt good. For all that drones were lousy attempts at artificial intelligence–mass-produced, lacking independent thought and action–they could kick butt. Usually stealth worked against them.
Unless, of course, they caught her unprepared, which was what had nearly happened.
What a fecking foolish way to behave. If it hadn’t been for the little girl’s warning, Sidra would be the one on the floor. Then who would take care of the children?
Satisfaction faded as she heard soft whispers. Time was short. The other drones would return soon. She whirled and advanced on the cage. Shred Def, the Triad and their orders, she had to free the children.
The laser knife made short work of the lock. The cage door snapped open with a faint squeal, marking the rust covered hinges. She winced. If her luck held, the absent drones would still be, well, absent. She pulled open the door. At first, the children didn’t move. They stared at her, all of their eyes shadowed with betrayal and fear.
It often seemed unbelievable slavery still existed. It did. If anything, the slave trade thrived. With the variety of recreational drugs and gambling halls, too many citizens sold their own children to fund their filthy habits. Sure, kidnapping happened. That was one thing. Selling one’s own children into slavery was the depths of depravity. There shouldn’t be enough credits to justify such a moneymaking scheme.
These children were much too young. She’d been much too young, too, but it didn’t matter. Way before their time, these children would have their innocence torn from them. Just like she had.
Pain skipped through her chest and she embraced the reminder for a moment then shook off the past. She focused on the children. Still none moved.
“Come on,” she whispered. “Before the other drones come back.”
The little girl with the brown hair pushed through the group and came to the entrance. Sidra held out her hand. With only slight hesitation, the girl slipped her small, cool hand into Sidra’s. She smiled. “Good girl.”
Gently, she tugged the girl through the door. The others began to shuffle forward. She held a finger to her lips and said, “Go through the tunnel and get out of here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.”
As if that was impetus they needed, the children made for the shadows, melting into the entrance to the tunnel.
Sidra pressed the talk pad on her earpiece. “Team Leader, this is Alpha 6. Jewels are on the move. Recover ASAP.”
A squeak of protest from the team leader sputtered through the headset before she cut him off. She didn’t want to hear his pompous reciting of Triad rules and the mission parameters. After all, she’d hear them again from Def before being thrown into solitary.
She glanced about the warehouse. No sign of the other two drones. The hologram was a greater distraction than she anticipated. Or these particular drones were denser than she realized.
One thing was certain, the Techs deserved a medal.
A slight metallic rattle above had her recoiling and settling into a fighting stance. Oops, spoke too soon. She yanked out her Glock and sighted at the direction of the sound.
The rush of air against her face was all the warning she received as a shadow detached itself from the top of the cage and came at her. Sidra swore and stumbled backward. The shadow kicked the gun out of her hand. The weapon hit the floor, metal clanking against cement. She aimed a lethal punch at the mysterious stranger only to find him no longer there.
Strong arms grabbed her from behind, locking her arms to her sides like a vise. She slammed her head back, trying to connect with his nose. A miss, but the momentum threw them both off balance. It was enough to break free.
She spun, and using the advantage of surprise, she leaped at the unbalanced stranger, hooking a foot behind his. That should have knocked him to the ground. Instead, he did some leaping of his own, grabbing hold of an exposed pipe a few feet above his head. He flipped upward, landing on the pipe. She shot him a look of annoyance and was caught off guard when a low rumble came from his chest. Was he laughing at her? She hated to be laughed at. Almost as much as she hated to be ignored.
“Coward. Afraid to be beaten?” she challenged. Good idea, Sidra, bring him back for more.
She eyed her Glock. The nimble bastard was between her and the gun. Like a gymnast, he spun around the pipe and let go, landing on his feet in a smooth motion. A foot swept out and knocked her gun into the darkness. Shred it, that was her favorite gun.
Swinging her gaze around, she narrowed her eyes and thrust out her chin. Now that he wasn’t trying to kick her ass, she saw him clearly. Or at least, clear enough so that she could confirm her initial impression of him being a male. Most definitely male. The form-fitting black suit covering every inch of his body also outlined every inch of his frame, stretching tight over bulging muscles and well-proportioned surfaces.
If not for the fighting, she’d be tempted to see what was really under all that unrelieved black. Instead of responding to her taunt, the stranger tilted his head and waited.
“I see. You’re the strong, silent type.” Sidra paused and tilted her own head, mocking his movement. “Probably a good idea. Most strong, silent types are abominably stupid.”
Laughter flowed, low and dark. That was the only sound he made. It was still enough to make her angry. It was that laughing-at-her-thing again.
She kicked out, aiming for his chin, hoping to knock him on his ass so she could leave. Not flee; leave, before the strike team came in. Which, if she knew anything about the team leader, would be very soon.
He dodged her strike and in a blur of movement, grabbed her ankle and twisted, spinning her in mid kick. She came out of the spin, landing on one knee which screamed in protest. Ignoring the shooting pain, she set her body to defend against his next attack. Except…the stranger was gone.
She scanned the immediate area, including above. Not a sign of him. Where had the bastard gone now?
A slight noise from behind gave her a warning but not soon enough to avoid his grab. An arm wrapped around her neck; the other curled around her waist. She struggled, even tried to stomp on his instep but couldn’t break or loosen his vise-like grip.
“Enough games. Who are you?” Her captor’s liquid voice, tinged with an unrecognizable accent, purred up her spine, leaving behind tingles of awareness. “What are you doing here?”
“Bugger off,” she responded, the words forced between clenched teeth. Splendidly male or not, she’d keep her secrets.
Male voices echoed through the warehouse. She froze and noted the stranger did the same. The other two drones were returning. Impeccable timing. He said a few choice words. Interesting and colorful ones. Hmm. She didn’t know any of those.
“I don’t have time for this,” he finished in a clear voice, the accent heavy with anger. Something under the tone sounded familiar to her but she couldn’t place it. Not in the limited time they had. The room whirled as he yanked her around to face him. She looked into the darkness surrounding his eyes. The bright gold of his pupils dominated the mask. That was all she could see of him.
She wasn’t so fortunate.
She groaned silently. Because she hadn’t wanted to frighten the children as she rescued them, her own mask rested on a box near the cage, mocking her empathetic, rather pathetic, decision. The stranger had the advantage. He clearly saw her face. Saw the shoulder-length dark blond hair that stood out in soft spikes, the wide green eyes framed by a spattering of freckles dancing across her nose. Nothing remarkable. Completely forgettable. She suspected not this time.
Something about the way he stared at her… His golden gaze traveled over her face as if he was trying to memorize what he saw. Great. He got a full picture and all she got was dark, full lashes over sun-bright eyes.
He grabbed both her wrists and jerked them together, then bound them with some linga cord and tugged her toward the gloomy corners of the old building.
Ah, a first date.
Sidra thought about struggling but with the drones returning, she didn’t want to call attention to their location or the children’s absence. And, damn it, she had to admit to some curiosity about this man who had disarmed her so thoroughly and seemed so familiar to her on a subconscious level.
Of course, Control might be interested in knowing what other agency tracked the Dealers. Returning with this information could give her points for good behavior. Keep her out of Def’s hands. Out of solitary. Or worse, sitting at a desk.
Worth a shot.
As they slipped through the shadows, reverberating shouts alerted her to the Dealers return, subsequent discovery of the empty cage and tussle with the Triad strike team. She hoped the children had been smart enough to go all the way through the tunnel.
She thought briefly of the girl, her old eyes and scrawny body. If it had not been for this hulk of a man dragging her around, she would have gone back for the girl. A set to the girl’s jaw and proud stance reminded Sidra so much of herself at that age.
Tough. Independent. Arrogant.
Young Sidra, so contemptuous of others. So sure she knew all the answers. So wrong.
She wanted to find that little girl. A piece of herself. Someone she could save. Like she’d been. Someone who shouldn’t have to go through what she went through before Norah.
A sharp tug on the bonds sent her stumbling forward almost into the back of the stranger. Ducking under the top frame of a small opening, he went out first, and then pulled her forward.
She tripped on the doorjamb. He caught her by the elbow, keeping her from crashing into the metal. Annoyance flared. Okay, so she wanted more information about him but she was getting plenty pissed at being dragged around.
She had barely set a foot outside when he whirled and slammed her back inside the building. A growl pushed out of her. He pressed his body against her, molding to her front like a second skin. Her backside ground against the splintering wood. Something rock-hard and solid jabbed. And not only against her rear.
She tensed, and her stomach clenched. Familiar panic rose with each in and out bump of a particular part of his anatomy against her body. He was leaving pushy and entering intolerable. Her cooperation was about to end.
He leaned in, his mask inches from scraping her cheek. She inhaled, her nose tantalized by his musky scent. Heated male skin mixed with a fresh, clean smell. Perfect contrast to the rodent droppings and rotten fish scents permeating the warehouse and surrounding area. She caught herself from bending to move closer to his intoxicating scent. Right, Sidra, you are in an extremely vulnerable position with a strange man and you are sniffing him like a starving bloodhound?
“It’s blocked,” he rumbled against her chest. “We need to locate another exit. We don’t want to lead them to the children.”
Mentally, Sidra slapped her face, shaking off the hunger his scent evoked. She lifted her chin and glared into his face. No man had been this close to her in a long time. At least in a touchy, feely, physical sort of way. She’d handled a few, okay, pummeled a few, but this close, this personal…
No way in hell.
“Get off.” She found her voice and spoke through clenched jaws. “Right now.”
All thoughts of discovering who he was and what he was about flew away. Despite the men coming into the storage facility any second, she was going to seriously hurt this man if he didn’t back off.
Something in her expression, the rage in her eyes maybe, must have warned him because there was less pressure against her breasts and thighs. Fantastic. Now she could breathe, but the bastard was still too damn near. Amusement radiated from his shrouded figure. So much for her death stare.
Her teeth clenched. His pleasure at her expense left her treading a fine line between anger and a desire to maim. Caught up in her fuming, she didn’t realize he no longer held her captive. A crash sounded nearby, snapping her out of her impression of a piece of deadwood.
Sidra hooked a leg behind his, bent and shoved with her right shoulder. Both of his knees collapsed. A grunt escaped as his backside hit the floor. Without hesitation, she leaped forward, bolting for the far side of the facility. The side that bordered Ocean Bay.
In her reconnaissance, she had noted a small side door with failing hinges. A hard kick would easily break them. The exit was a bit high above the water, but hey, a girl had to take every opportunity available. Even with her hands tied.
She cringed at the thought of the murky, foul-smelling water that was home to all kinds of assorted human and animal waste. She had little choice with the Dealers behind her and this annoying intruder in her way.
A couple of sharp kicks snapped the rusty metal, and the door flew open. One pitted hinge barely held the old door to the frame. She risked a glance behind her. The dark stranger was nowhere to be seen but the bad guys were. A shout rang out. They had spotted her. She faced the opening.
Laser blasts creased the walls. Chunks of plaster and old brick flew at her face. Debris pelted her skin, dangerously close to her eyes. She swore and flattened her back against the wall. A quick glance out the door, and she grimaced. Higher than she had realized. And the water reeked of fish, fuel and other stuff infinitely more vile. Just great.
Her hands were tied.
She had farther to fall.
The water was filthy.
What more could she ask for?
A flicker of movement from above caught her attention. The stranger crouched on a beam, staring directly at her. How had the bastard gotten up there so fecking fast?
Sidra hesitated, hovering at the ledge. A laser blast came from the warehouse, close to singeing the hair on her head. Okay, okay, so one of the bad guys was a pretty good shot. Time to go.
With a final glance at the stranger, who merely inclined his head in her direction, she turned and dove out the door.