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Chapter 1 1
PERSEPHONE, A PLANET IN THE SELDORN SYSTEM
The clatter of heavy power-assisted armor echoed off the rocky hills as the corporate mercenaries lined up behind Serrao-Orlov’s latest representative. The scent of machine oil, foul chemicals, and rubberized plastic wafted from the group. A military-grade personnel carrier squatted in the dirt not far away. Its bulk blotted out the morning sun peeking over the horizon. The engines had been shut off, and now that the troops were in place, the quiet tick of cooling metal rode the breeze ruffling Paulie’s long black hair. The wind stank of burned fuel. Paulie sneezed.
A railgun had been mounted on the roof of the craft. Currently, its barrel was aimed at her and the rest of her people. A soldier sat at the controls, their expression lost in backlit shadows.
Paulie shivered, and her stomach fluttered.
Her friend Beak placed a steadying hand on her left shoulder. Paulie caught a mix of muted scents that combined to form a thought.
It is only for show. They are here to talk.
“I know,” Paulie whispered. She should have replied in the same manner, but it was easier to speak using vocal cords while in human form. She glanced up at Beak, who stood at least a foot taller than she was, and tried to smile.
Beak’s short blond hair framed a pale face that almost glowed in the morning light. She moved her sturdy, muscular frame with a gentle grace that Paulie envied. Unlike Beak, she wasn’t athletic. Her area of study was mechanical engineering. Beak was a scientist—an animal biologist. Of course, there was no need for biology at the moment. Today was about representing the interests of their people, the Emissaries. The four of them—Paulie, Beak, Efemena, and Matías—were present merely to demonstrate that Kirby Sams, the designated translator, was not alone.
The Emissaries were a peaceful people.
Another burst of wind pushed against Paulie’s human shape like an affectionate ollayah pup. It was early in the growing season. The spare ground was dotted with blooming densiiflor. The spicy-sweet scent of the purple flowers meant exuberance and new life—a rather incongruent environment for talks that would decide the future of her people.
Everyone assigned to the mission had assumed human forms and names. Such gestures were undertaken for the comfort of the humans. In the century and a half of human habitation on Persephone, no Emissary had shown any non-acclimated human their true form.
Nothing else about this visit was standard. To Paulie’s knowledge, all previous negotiations within the past fifty years had occurred via message or video. Humans didn’t venture on their own into the Badlands—at least not anymore. There were reasons for that. Reasons that her people, the Emissaries, spent a great deal of energy and time creating. Humans weren’t wanted on Persephone. That didn’t stop the Serrao-Orlov Corporation from claiming the planet anyway, of course.
According to official galactic record, the planet was uninhabited, free for the taking. Her people, the Emissaries, were ghosts. Except that they weren’t, and only a select few among humankind knew otherwise. Survival depended upon their remaining hidden. Being young, Paulie didn’t understand why. If the rest of the universe were made aware, Serrao-Orlov would be forced to give the planet back. The United Republic of Worlds had rules about these things, after all. But every time she brought this up, Paulie was told that she didn’t understand the larger view. When Paulie asked for more information, she was told to be quiet and leave her elders to their work.
The corporation’s stated agenda for the day was contract renegotiation. It was always about the Corsini Agreement. Humans were never interested in anything else, but since mediation was what her people had been designed for, this suited the council just fine.
Paulie remained anxious in spite of this. The humans had changed their behavior, and in her experience—what little she had—humans never did that without reason.
The mercenaries formed an orderly half circle between the corporate representative and the personnel carrier. She counted twenty heavily armed and well-trained Serrao-Orlov mercenaries.
Twenty-one, if you count the company representative, Paulie thought.
The Emissary delegation numbered five.
Paulie whispered to Beak without taking her eyes off the mercenaries. “What are they afraid of?”
Beak’s reply was spiced with tartness. Themselves. Death. The void. That which is strange to them—
“I didn’t mean on a philosophical level,” Paulie whispered, rolling her eyes.
Perhaps you should be more specific, came the sharp-scented reply. Beak was smiling.
“Ha. Ha,” Paulie said.
The human dressed in the bulky yellow environment suit stamped with the Serrao-Orlov logo took up a position a few paces in front of the soldiers. After a brief pause, they stepped close enough that Paulie could see inside the suit’s helmet. She started as she recognized the human the corporation had sent as their representative.
That’s Vissia Corsini. The traitor. It has to be. A bolt of terror shot through Paulie’s altered body. This is bad.
All around her, the sharp scent of panic and rage flooded the air. It was heavy enough to be a shout. She found it hard to breathe. At the same time, Beak took three rapid steps toward the humans before she was brought short by a command from Kirby.
Paulie had been born long after the Catholic Colonial Era, but she’d heard stories of the infamous Vissia Corsini. The human had once sheltered with her people after the Catholic missionaries abandoned the planet. The Emissaries had helped her. And then Vissia Corsini had betrayed them to Serrao-Orlov.
Vissia looked nothing like Paulie had imagined. The woman was short and stocky—indicating a childhood spent in full gravity—whether that had been artificial or planetside Paulie didn’t know. Within the transparent helmet, the woman’s ageless, pale face appeared gaunt. Her dark brown eyebrows were pinched together in a stern line. Garish red lipstick made her mouth into a disapproving slash. The collar of a black suit and a prim white blouse peeked up from the bottom of her helmet.
Paulie didn’t move. Beak had frozen in place a few paces behind Kirby. That was when Paulie noticed that Beak had a fist wrapped tightly around something small. Something that glinted in the light like glass. Paulie couldn’t tell what it might be.
Throughout the delegation’s panic, the soldiers kept the barrels of their guns pointed at the ground. Kirby was the only exception. Her posture didn’t reveal surprise or fear.
She was a good choice as translator, Paulie thought. I’m glad I didn’t get the job. She wanted nothing more than to not be on this hill, three hundred clicks from safety. She glanced northward.
One of the soldiers shifted position. The muscles in Paulie’s back, shoulders, and stomach abruptly tightened.
“Good morning,” Kirby said. Her tone was calm, even cheerful.
Paulie began to wonder if Kirby had known all along that Vissia would be the one they’d meet.
In contrast to Vissia, Kirby appeared to be a middle-aged human with full lips and braided brown hair. She, too, was short, and her regal bearing projected authority. That was where the similarities ended.
Kirby said, “We are here as you requested. What is it you’d like to discuss?”
“I’m not here to discuss anything. I am here to pick up the shipment,” Vissia said. “Where is it?”
“There is no shipment,” Kirby said. “You will receive the items listed in the original manifest next month.”
Vissia’s voice managed to be authoritative in spite of her environment suit’s tinny speaker. “According to the new agreement—”
“There has been no new agreement,” Kirby said.
Kirby was particularly gifted at reading unspoken cues among humans. Paulie and the others had voted for her for this reason. It also didn’t hurt that Kirby was unflappable by nature.
“Do you know how I know?” Kirby asked. “It’s because agreements are, by definition, accepted by both parties. And I don’t recall the Council mentioning their signing or approving such a revision.”
Paulie caught a whiff of frustration that was a whisper in the air: What in the name of the Makers does Vissia think she’s doing?
Other stronger, more acidic scent-responses mingled in the air. Paulie didn’t join the olfactory uproar. Kirby turned and shut the comments down with an audible hiss.
The twenty-one humans sealed inside their environment suits and powered armor couldn’t discern the scented conversational undercurrent from the nearby plant life—even if they had been exposed to Persephone’s atmosphere. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t developed equipment that could detect Emissary speech. Vissia was familiar with it, and if she knew, then it was easy to assume the other humans did, too.
Kirby continued. “The Council has given me all the information available. And I have a particularly good memory. Even so, we have no record of any such—”
“Request then,” Vissia said. The corners of her red mouth turned upward in an expression that was anything but friendly.
“A request implies the ability to refuse. You appear to be making a demand,” Kirby said. “If you wish to return to a reasonable—”
“Very well,” Vissia said, clearly losing her patience. “We demand delivery. In two weeks.”
“I regret to inform you that the Council does not intend to comply,” Kirby said.
“That would not be in your best interests,” Vissia said.
“I understand,” Kirby said. “However, our refusal remains.”
“Do you know who I am?” Vissia asked.
“Of course I do,” Kirby said.
“Then you know what I’m capable of when crossed,” Vissia said.
“Fortunately for us,” Kirby said, “you are not representing yourself, but your employer. And any infraction on your part will have legal consequences.”
“You’re unarmed,” Vissia said.
“Are you violating the treaty between our people and your superiors?” Kirby asked.
“Not as of yet,” Vissia said. “However, I have been granted a certain amount of leeway. Let me demonstrate.”
Vissia turned and muttered something off channel to the soldiers behind her. They immediately raised their weapons. At the same time, the gun mounted on top of the armored personnel carrier rotated until it was aimed at the settlement of Welan Bloom Hill three hundred clicks to the north.
The air was flooded with sharp but silent protests, hisses, and gasps. Paulie smelled the others’ screams.
Kirby shouted. “You can’t be serious—”
The railgun fired.
Multiple things happened all at once. The ground beneath Paulie’s feet vibrated with the force of the gun going off. She was temporarily deafened. The exclamations of her comrades again flooded her nose. Beak sprinted toward Vissia.
In the distance, the white walls of Welan Bloom Hill—the place where Paulie’s cousins, aunt, and uncle all lived—vanished in an explosion of fire and smoke. The sound of it echoed off the hills like thunder.
Beak tackled Vissia and smashed a fist against the yellow environment suit. The mercenaries fired their guns. Efemena fell down. Matías and Kirby ran for cover. Gunfire pelted the ground. Paulie didn’t realize she was still standing until she felt someone grab her leg. She dropped into the dirt at once and placed her hands over her head.
Vissia screamed. “Cease fire, you idiots! You’re going to shoot me! Fucking assholes!”
When the guns stopped Paulie lifted her face from the dirt. Her friend, Efemena, lay next to her. Blood covered her cheek. She wasn’t breathing, and her eyes were blank.
“No!” Paulie cried. She laid a hand on Efemena’s back and shook her.
In the distance, the rubble of Welan Bloom Hill was on fire.
“Why?” Kirby dropped to her knees. “Our families! They were no threat to you. Why?!”
Beak rolled off Vissia, smearing a streak of bright crimson across sulfur-yellow plastic.
Paulie scrambled to her feet and ran to where Beak lay gasping. She’d been shot in the arm, legs, and shoulder.
“Matías help!” Paulie pressed her hands on the shoulder wound to slow the bleeding.
Matías staggered to her side. He, too, was wounded but apparently not too badly. She blinked back shock and returned to the work of keeping Beak from bleeding to death.
Vissia struggled to her feet and dusted herself off. At that moment, Paulie spied the small pieces of glass scattered in the dirt.
She blinked. A broken test tube?
Shifting her position so as to not draw attention, she attempted to hide the shards from view. Then she forced an acid-scented question through her semitransformed throat glands. Beak, what did you do? Beak?
Beak’s mouth opened and closed without giving an answer. She shut her eyes. A small self-satisfied smile haunted the corners of her lips.
Emissaries are a peaceful people.
Vissia’s curse pulled Paulie’s gaze away from Beak. Paulie spotted the rip in the yellow environment suit. It was impossible to tell if the damage had been done by the fall, glass shards, or a stray bullet. Either way, Vissia had most definitely been exposed to whatever had been in the broken test tube.
Rage and panic struggled for control on Vissia’s face. “Damn it!”
One of the soldiers arrived to help. He said, “We must get you into quarantine, ma’am!”
Vissia slapped his hands away. She turned and glared at Kirby. “If it were up to me, I’d have all of you exterminated.” She seemed to gather some measure of self-control before continuing. “You have two weeks. No more. If you don’t comply, I’m sending in troops to wipe every last one of you off the planet’s surface. Do you hear me?”
She didn’t wait for Kirby to answer. She whirled and stomped back to the ship while holding the rent in her suit closed with her left hand. The mercenaries trailed behind.
As the ship lifted off, dirt, sand, and plant debris blew into the air. Paulie shielded her face from the worst of it with her hands. Once the ship was far enough away, she got up off her knees and placed a boot squarely on the broken test tube. Matías and Kirby finished preparing Beak for the journey back to what remained of the settlement. It was more fitting. They had medical training.
Paulie sat down hard next to Efemena, plucked her hand from the blood-soaked dirt, and began to cry.
“Let me take her,” Matías said. “Kirby will help Beak.”
Nodding, Paulie scooted back. Matías picked up Efemena as if she weighed nothing and began the journey to what remained of Welan Bloom Hill. Kirby, staggering under Beak’s awkward weight, helped Beak limp down the path.
Paulie lingered alone on the hilltop. She didn’t want to leave until she’d buried the broken shards. The Council might return and examine the area. As she collected the pieces, she noticed the remains of a label. Fitting the fragments together, she was able to read what was written on them. V-357-RA-45. She wasn’t all that familiar with the designations used by the biology teams and their various projects. However, Beak had told her about this one because the proposal had been rejected outright by the Council. It was a virus created to remotely edit human DNA.
A cold shiver passed through Paulie’s body.
It was unthinkable. Violence ran against Emissary beliefs. Our upbringing, even our design. “Damn it, Beak.”
With one hand shading her tear-filled eyes from the sun, she watched the retreating ship for a few moments before joining the others at the bottom of the hill.
No one spoke.
Their mission had failed.