Dekker's Dozen: The Last Watchmen

Flammable Kittens and Conspiracy Theories

Dekker’s Dozen #002

Vesuvius clenched her teeth and groaned. Pressing thumbs against her temples, she hoped the pressure would drown out her headache. The constant, monotonous chanting began the day they’d arrived back at Earth. At first, the protest rally amused her, and then it irked her. Now, it went beyond tedious, growing torturesome.

Following the Osix mission, the Dozen laid over at their earth-side headquarters while Dekker tracked down the next authentic lead. They often refused jobs that felt dirty and their high standards kept them in good graces with those who booked higher-class, legitimate jobs. Of course, that hadn’t stopped the felinoid Dachan from organizing the protest which had become a daily nuisance.

Because of unscrupulous acts by certain Investigators, the profession walked the edge of MEA laws. Following the Krenzin Revival, the majority of Earth’s populace disapproved of the trade, favoring instead the guiding principles handed down by The Pheema, the Krenzin religious leader.

Vesuvius glanced out her window. The sight of naïve, fur-loving, hippie types snapped her last nerve. Her mind boiled. I’ll show them! Vivian “Vesuvius” Briggs means business.

She grabbed her weapon and kicked the shuttered window open. With a scream of rage, she leveled the barrel at the gathered crowd and squeezed the trigger.

Flammable Kittens and Conspiracy Theories

Protesters dove for cover. Panicked shouts echoed through the streets of Reef City as people ran off screaming, fearing for their lives, and fleeing the imagined weapon. The steady burst of water shot out like a laser as a wicked grin crept across Vesuvius’ face.

People just don’t understand the way the universe works, especially these beatnik types. Stupid Krenzin converts.

The Pheema’s disciples… so wrapped up in empty-headed philosophy that they’ve forgotten reality—this is not the next step in societal evolution… idiots don’t even know the difference between a rifle and a fire hose! She shook her head in disgust.

Vesuvius had no love for the Krenzin; nothing in the galaxy could make her respect them. Not after… Silently reflecting, she watched the drops of water fall; the abhorrent memory surfaced. Vesuvius shook it away, refused to honor it by reliving that moment. She tossed the hose aside and closed the shutter, looking for something to occupy her mind.

Guy walked past her as she wound up the water hose. “Hey, Vesuvius, you wanna take a drive? Dekker says I gotta go pick up a package; something MEA Customs wouldn’t deliver. They say we gotta come get it in person.”

“Yeah, sure,” she said, glad for any kind of distraction.

She followed Guy to the oversized garage and swiped his keys. “But I’m driving,” she told him and climbed into the speeder transport.

Reef City’s alabaster buildings seemed to glisten in the mid-morning light. The entire city had been terraformed atop the ever-growing Great Barrier Reef: the world’s largest living structure. Graffiti on a nearby building read, “Investigators, leave!” reminding her of how unwanted they were in the community.

Vesuvius hit the accelerator and pulled away from the Dozen’s base of operations. Nerves finally calming, she sighed with relief. Her pent-up tension dissipated as she focused on a task, even one as simple as driving.

“So?” asked Guy.

Guy had long been one of her good friends, almost as long as Dekker. He was one of the few people she could ever open up to—but only on her terms. “‘So’ what?” she countered, forcing him to pry.

“Did you and Dekker patch things up? Ya’ know, start fresh?”

Vesuvius frowned and sighed. “We didn’t get to have an actual conversation about it. He’s been too busy. He has to practically prostitute himself to employers,” she mock-glared at him, “and all because of you.”

“Hey,” he threw up his hands. “It wasn’t my fault! Oh, wait a minute, yes it was. But what was I supposed to do?”

Most of the Dozen’s finances fell by eminent domain after the fines levied by the Mother Earth Aggregate. They’d been lucky to retain their licensure.

“You should have let those people die,” said Vesuvius. “We could have killed that thing later; it would have caused at least as much destruction on its own, but then we wouldn’t have been liable for the damages.”

“I guess I just have a soft spot for kids.” Guy continued, “It’s just stupid politics is what it is. I had a choice: destroy a treasured landmark to kill the giant, rampaging plant-monster, or let said monster destroy an orphanage and devour the children,” said Guy. “But hey… we still have our corporate Investigator’s License.”

“Yeah. Barely.”

“I still don’t know why there was never an official inquiry into those Krenzin who ‘accidentally’ brought the seeds for that thing planet-side, anyway. I guess they had some kind of diplomatic clearance, but still. We never got a word about it; normal plants, even normal alien plants, don’t act like that. The MEA’s covering something up.”

“Right,” Vesuvius said sarcastically. “It’s all a big conspiracy.”

Guy rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Don’t believe me, but one day you’ll see… you’ll all see!” he said with an intentionally crazy voice. “And stop busting my chops about that whole getting sued thing. Even Dekker doesn’t give me crap over it anymore… well, not often.”

“That’s ‘cuz he likes kids,” said Vesuvius flatly. Her tone of voice killed the conversation.

That had been the wedge that drove her and Dekker apart a year ago. Dekker wanted children, Vesuvius didn’t.

She’d faced down scythian worms, dueled with assassins, and faced death countless times. Ironically, parenting scared her more than anything else. It came naturally to ordinary folks and yet it paralyzed her with fear.

They rode the rest of the distance in silence.

Inside the customs center, Vesuvius and Guy presented their identification and passed a security check. They followed an uptight intern with a weasely face into an office run by a clearly relaxed official. Weasel-man flipped through his files and called for a worker to retrieve a package from storage.

“I am sorry, Ms. Briggs. It seems that your organization was supposed to receive this package a week ago, sensors flagged it. As you know, all weapons must be shipped through private courier services; MEA sponsored shipping lines cannot transport armaments. We only kept it because of… your relationship with my boss.”

She nodded and glanced at the laid-back manager who clearly didn’t understand his job. The Dozen had helped him relocate and secure a cover-identity years prior when he’d been in great danger from an Ahzoolien crime syndicate.

The intern handed her a clipboard with a standard release form on it while a young man brought in a rectangular, wooden crate and then promptly exited. “After examining the package, I was able to find you a loophole so that it wouldn’t be returned, which is good since we have no return address. We designated it as a work of art; sign here.”

Vesuvius scribbled on the paper and then opened the crate. Her face fell as she removed the pair of elegant weapons. With a pained look, she showed them to Guy; he didn’t understand.

Verging on tears, she pointed to the engravings on the sheaths of the two swords. “This is a matching set: a katana and wakizashi. These symbols say they were given to Shin Muramasa.” She pointed to a set of freshly engraved markings, “These say that the swords now belong to me.”

Guy still didn’t know what she meant.

“We have to go,” she said. “I need to see Master Muramasa.”

“Your sensei?”

“Yes. These belonged to his son.”

Suddenly, Guy understood. Shin Muramasa, her cousin, was dead.

* * *

In the communications room, Dekker shouted above the cacophony of digital voices. He hated the bidding process, and yet he knew that he had to endure it to get awarded high profile jobs. Most of the top jobs, the ones that led to more high-end jobs, were farmed out in this manner. Clients often held live auctions to see how low they could drive their fees. In a system that lacked legitimacy for its jobbers, finding honest work could be tedious. Some Investigator groups hired professional negotiators to locate and bid their jobs; that seemed frivolous and lazy to Dekker.

“Come on,” Dekker told the representative from the MEA, “You know that we’re the best, that’s why my price is set where it is.”

He scowled at the professional bidder who’d just undercut him in the real-time data feed. “Why would you want to hire a hack corporation, like my competitors, to transfer a prisoner with this kind of profile?”

“Well,” said the MEA’s man, “their price is significantly lower. I have to seriously consider accepting their bid over yours.”

“We’re not talking about just any prisoner,” Dekker interjected. “This is Prognon Austicon, the most notorious assassin in the galaxy. He’s a modern Guy Fawkes. This guy’s got connections and shady friends in every dark corner of the galaxy. His past employers will want him sprung or murdered because of what he’s got on them, and you know a prisoner transfer is the most convenient time for his allies or enemies to move on him. In this case especially, you need to hire the best.”

Only the military branches of the MEA had any real firepower, but that was all tied up in system-wide politics and was rarely brought to bear. Because of those restrictions and the bureaucracy imposed by government, this particular prisoner transfer had to be outsourced. The fact of the matter was that licensed, private parties were more capable than the MEA’s own constabulary services. And this prisoner, especially, could not be left to chance.

Although the MEA espoused that it had achieved veritable utopia, Dekker knew better. The MEA was as corrupt as any other political body. If he wanted this job, he would need to use his ace-in-the-hole.

“Well,” Dekker addressed the MEA bargainer, “Perhaps you should question your superiors about the quality of service you recently received from us in the Alpha Centauri system.”

The screen flickered and a bureaucrat who monitored the auction overrode the channel. “Mr. Dekker,” he said, “we would be delighted if you could render the same quality of service to us once again. Your services have always proved to be worth every bit of your compensation. And, as usual, your commitment to confidentiality is impeccable.

Dekker grinned. Just as I thought. The MEA’s covering up the incident at Osix. The possibility of a resurgent Mechnar threat would destabilize the people. His subtle threat of an information leak won them the contract.

“Bidding is over,” the bureaucrat announced. “The job goes to Dekker’s Dozen for his bid amount, plus five percent.” The premium implied hush-money.

Exasperated, Dekker never hid his frustration with the bid process. Potential data leaks were across the board. The MEA should have hired Dekker privately without risking the security of the prisoner, and he let the bureaucrats know it. Because of the defunct process, the time and date of the prisoner transfer had become public knowledge.

Dekker switched off the monitors and the secure data feed whirred as details for the new job downloaded. He looked up to see Vesuvius coming in.

With a sober expression, Vesuvius displayed the katana. Dekker’s face fell with shock and dismay.

“Shin?” he asked, recognizing the markings. His voice was as close to trembling as it would ever come.

Emotions still bottled up, Vesuvius nodded and bowed her head.

Dekker hesitated, unsure of what to do. “Um…” he fumbled and then stepped forward and embraced her. She buried her face in his broad shoulder. Shin had long been one of Dekker’s best friends, but he was like a brother to Vesuvius.

Finally, in the security of Dekker’s arms, she let out her emotions and broke. Only in his arms, nowhere else, would she ever allow that. Not even with Guy.

In that moment, the contract became unimportant. Dekker didn’t bring it up. For a long time, he simply held her.

* * *

Vesuvius dreamed. She remembered; the memory overtook her when her guard was down—as she slept.

Flames terrorized her, flames and the howls of her dying father. This memory haunted her more than any other. Vivian was just a girl, barely beginning to cope with the changes in her teenage body. She remembered the kitten, a gift from her father on the anniversary of her mother’s death. She loved that kitten.

The flames became gushes of water—they nearly drowned her as they quenched the blazing apartment—drenched everything with cold wetness. It had come too late, though, to save her father, the famous war general, Harry Briggs. The memory remained preserved in crystal lucidity.

A Krenzin zealot burst through the door of their home; he stunk like the inflammable canister he carried. Her father tried to stop him, but had only been doused, himself. The media called it a ‘peaceful demonstration gone wrong.’ Flames engulfed both zealot and general with an inferno that couldn’t be extinguished, killing them both.

She remembered the stench of burning flesh as it lingered in the air. She remembered the blackened cadavers of her father and of the Krenzin ‘peaceful demonstrator;’ the body of her scorched kitten lay next to her father’s.

There was the thought that haunted her. You can’t take care of anything. You couldn’t care for a kitten, let alone a child.

* * *

Vesuvius awoke in a cold sweat, her dreams too lucid to tolerate.

She’d awoken in Dekker’s quarters, in his main room, curled into a ball on his couch. He’d laid her there to rest; she just didn’t want sleep at her own place—she didn’t want to be alone with her grief. Vesuvius glanced at the closed doors to Dekker’s bedroom: it had always been an impassable barrier. Not even during the serious days of their relationship had she been behind those doors.

It was a mystery she seemed unable to solve. Try as she might, there were aspects of that man that seemed forever closed off to the rest of humanity.

Pounding her pillow, she rolled herself back into the blankets. In a few hours morning would come and they would have a job to do. At least for tomorrow, she didn’t have to think about the funeral.

* * *

“You know, those weapons are illegal,” a snooty corporal said in his nasal tone. “Only beam-weaponry is allowed per MEA regulations.”

Disapprovingly, he looked Dekker up and down. The Investigator flashed him a smile. Dekker wore his favorite weapons, a pair of semiautomatic flak pistols, strapped to his hips and in plain sight.

“Those things are near the top of the banned weapon’s list, actually.”

“Are you going to take them from him?” Vesuvius challenged. She knew the MEA’s law enforcement had a ‘hands tied’ judiciary system; they were bound by so many layers of protocol and legality the paperwork even to report him would take hours. She glared at the corporal. “Do you really want to slow down this prisoner transfer, or maybe you’d like to keep Austicon around?”

The corporal pretended he hadn’t heard Vesuvius. He also pretended he hadn’t seen Dekker’s weapons and waved them through the security checkpoint.

Guy chuckled, “So this lunatic that eluded us for years, only to get accidentally locked in a cryo-unit by kids on a field trip? This is gonna be fun.”

“Don’t run your mouth in front of him,” cautioned Dekker. “He may have an ugly soul, but he is the most dangerous man in the galaxy. His skills demand respect. Let’s not antagonize him.”

Guy shrugged. “Well, I hope those kids used the reward money for something worthwhile.”

* * *

The Dozen split into three groups. While the job seemed simple by any account, Dekker insisted they maintain the highest alertness. One group remained aboard their armored transport. Another group deployed to the loading zone, weapons ready. Dekker, Vesuvius, and Guy would escort the prisoner to their craft.

“I almost feel sorry for Shaw,” quipped Guy.

Shaw’s team remained outside in the frigid air which currently registered ten below centigrade. The prison, built in the middle of Antarctica, discouraged escapes by nature of its climate. The prison’s surveillance monitored the entire continent via heat signatures which were even more pronounced by the cold.

“If you’d like,” said Dekker, “I can always let you trade places.”

“No thanks. I’m good.”

Vesuvius was in no mood to engage Guy in playful banter. Shin’s death consumed her thoughts. After all these years, you’d think I’d be used to my loved ones dying.

The security team led the Investigators on a short walk through sterile corridors until they came to a small retaining room. On the far side of the room, Austicon sat behind a transparisteel barrier watching video feeds of his past exploits. He’d been stuck in the Antarctic detention center for nearly three years as the MEA compiled case evidence against him. Waits of this length were only normal if the death sentence was sought, a rare occurrence. Still, even some Krenzin cried out for lethal justice against the notorious terrorist—especially those with ties to the old Krenzin parliament which fell by Austicon’s hands. Austicon’s terrorism led to the emergence of the theophilocratic rule of The Pheema.

Austicon grinned sadistically as he watched old footage of his crimes played over and over on various channels. His upcoming trial had become the center of media attention. Pixilated explosions peppered the digital playback as the Krenzin parliament building detonated over, and over again.

Security guards exited and locked the room behind them as the transparent barrier lifted. They weren’t paid for this and didn’t want to liability for anything that happened after Austicon’s cage opened.

“Prognon Austicon,” Dekker said, weapons ready.

The criminal looked up, his reverie broken. “Dekker,” he said. “Ironic that you should be the one chauffeuring me about. We go way back, don’t we? And far forward as well, I should suspect.” His tenor words dripped with a sinister tone.

Dekker kept his gaze fixed. Prognon Austicon had an old face, but his body looked virile enough; a long silver mane draped over his shoulders. Even in what appeared as advanced age, he remained extremely dangerous. Enigmatically, he’d always registered as a human in scans, but the assassin had spent over two hundred years as the most wanted man in the galaxy, and he hadn’t aged so much as a day in all that time.

“How many years did you waste trying to hunting me, eh? I suppose that this token transport job will help you to recoup a little portion of those losses.”

Dekker ignored the taunt. “Fasten yourself to the cart,” he demanded.

Austicon stood upright and stared into Dekker’s eyes. Dekker’s guns stayed level at the prisoner’s vital organs. “I wonder,” he mused. “If I tried to escape, would you kill me?”

The prisoner chuckled. “My guess is no. You have too much at stake; murdering an inmate would ruin your reputation. Plus, you wouldn’t get paid for today’s transport.”

Prognon Austicon feigned a lunge at Dekker.

The Investigator didn’t even flinch at the mock attack.

“The only thing keeping you alive right now is due process. Your life should have ended a long time ago. I’d have pulled that trigger years ago if the bounty was DoA.”

Austicon stood with his back against a wheeled dolly. Mechanical straps automatically wrapped around him, holding him to the vertical, bed-like table. He glared at Dekker with cold regard, “Your eyes tell me you’d shoot.”

“In a heartbeat.”

The criminal shifted his gaze to Vesuvius. “Hello, beautiful. I’ve seen you before.”

She scowled at him.

“Oh, you’re pretty too. But I was talking about your fancy blade.” He bounced his eyebrows as if to allude to some secret. Austicon gleefully pursed his lips and refused to say another word.

* * *

The most critical moments fell upon the Investigators. If a group of strong-arms wanted access to Austicon, this transport would be the best time to act. It was perhaps the last possible opportunity before the assassin would be on maximum lockdown until the trial. They flew with the Rickshaw Crusader‘s weapon turrets hot and ready.

Their armored transport sped just above the ocean. They’d safely secured the storage hold where Prognon Austicon lay strapped down like a piece of cargo.

Not a gunner, Vesuvius preoccupied herself by monitoring the planetary media feeds. True to the senselessness of the modern bureaucracy, the government sponsored propaganda kept very little secret about the highest profile prisoner transfer in decades. Vesuvius scowled when the top story shifted to an interview with The Pheema.

Following the dismantlement of Krenzin political factions, The Pheema and the religious segment assumed full leadership of the race. As the political and religious leader, the Pheema’s followers regarded him as both prophet and king.

“This trial is unjust: a blasphemous miscarriage upon the sanctity of life. I am calling upon the faithful to band together and protest this violation of our most sacred beliefs.” In the background of the video, a Krenzin could be seen setting himself on fire in the ultimate form of protest.

“Stupid Krenzin,” she muttered to herself. Tolerance Law keeps chipping away at any realistic concept of justice. She turned the feed off; listening to The Pheema took more tolerance than she could muster.

She paced across the floor of the passenger area. Austicon’s earlier comments had set her on edge. Vesuvius examined her sword. There was no way Austicon could be linked to Shin’s death; he’s been imprisoned these last three years.

As Vesuvius drew the katana, a jag on her fingernail caught and unraveled the sageo: the decorative silk cord that wrapped around the sheath. She cursed as it tugged free.

Examining the loosened fabric, she noticed additional markings adorning the sheath: markings that had been covered up. Curiosity welled up. She gently unwound the sageo and exposed the kanji underneath. The etched, foreign symbols seemed to shine.

“Sword made by Muramasa, a gift for Harry Briggs, Godfather to my Son.”

Vesuvius was about to explode. That’s how he recognized the sword!

She made a beeline for the cargo hold, and for Austicon. When she arrived, he wore a smug grin, as if he’d expected her.

Austicon spoke in a mild tone, “Now that’s how I remember it.” His eyes aimed at the katana. “Without that wrapping.”

Vesuvius drew the blade and pointed it at his neck. The silk cord fell from her hand, fluttering to the floor.

“You must be little Vivian,” he said. Your father always spoke so highly of you whenever we spoke. I can see in your eyes that you have many questions.”

“Harry Briggs would never have associated with the likes of you!”

“Well,” he said coolly, “If you already know so much, then why are you here… unless you’ve come to kill me?” His eyes challenged her.

Vesuvius tensed, and then relaxed. He was right; she had questions. But she didn’t know if she could believe his answers. “How did you know my father, you worthless piece of slime?”

“Your father knew me well enough to know the danger in speaking to me like that.”

Vesuvius flicked her wrist. The blade twitched and sliced a large section of hair from Austicon’s temple. The lock fell, revealing that the criminal had long been absent his left ear.

“I’d like to think that this very blade took that ear from you. It can surely take the other. Now what was your real relationship with my father?”

The criminal grinned as if this were a game to him. “Many years ago, I met with him several times in the dark of night. Your father had grand political ambitions, goals and plans to make the floundering MEA a stronger body under his helm. Well, let’s just say that both he and I knew that the MEA’s election process could be a real killer.”

Vesuvius cracked him across the face with the hilt of her blade. A small spray of blood splattered from his mouth.

Austicon laughed maniacally. “Believe what you like. But I have spoken no lies.”

She glared at him. Hate smoldered in her eyes; she noticed the neck tattoo where she’d cut away his hair. She turned his face away to better look at the marking. A red tree: a slender trunk with crimson leaves had been inked into Austicon’s skin, normally concealed by his silver locks.

She recognized it from her childhood. Some of her father’s files had that same symbol. “Tell me what it means,” she demanded. Intuition told her it informed her of its importance.

The irony clearly amused him. “Dekker hasn’t told you about his special club and the Red Tree? I’m amused—I thought you were close. But even if I tell you, why would you believe me?”

Vesuvius pressed the folded steel to his throat. “You will tell me, or you’ll wear an awfully wide smile to a long overdue funeral.”

“I’ll tell you,” he offered, “if you perform but one simple task for me,” he said lecherously.

She raised an eyebrow.

“Go to the cockpit. On your way, kill each of your comrades; after you set your autopilot, come back and free me. Then, we will leave for a prearranged location. Once there, I’ll tell you everything.”

She spat on his face. Cussing violently, she turned and exited.

“Remember,” he called after her, spittle dripping off his chin, “leave nobody alive!”

* * *

Agitated beyond measure, Vesuvius stomped into the cockpit; she threw herself into the navigator’s seat. In front of her, Dekker sat in the copilot’s chair while Matty piloted.

“Something wrong?” Dekker asked without taking his eyes from the instruments.

“I’d like to kill Austicon.” Vesuvius’ voice was cold. “I think that he may have been involved with my father’s death.” She decided to believe a nicer version of what Austicon hinted at. She couldn’t bear to think that her father might have been in league with that slime, even with the leadership of the MEA at stake.

Dekker spared a glance back. “Why’s that?”

She sighed. “Austicon knows… something…”

A tiny strobe on the pilot console flashed urgently. Vesuvius stopped talking and buckled into her seat.

Matty searched the scanners for the alert. “Real-space reversion in orbit directly overhead—a big mother, too. Class D, oh crap, it’s a Shivan Interdictor!”

The attack ship emitted no transponder signal, keeping the ship’s identity secret. The intent of such a disablement was obvious: assassination.

Dekker barked commands through his headset. “Ready on those guns, everybody! Watch for the dropships. They’ll come in fast and hard.”

The Shivan species came from a superheated, high gravity planet. Their heat resistant, stocky bodies had developed heavy-duty nervous systems that gave them resilient inertial inhibition. Their physiology enabled them to perform unorthodox dive-bombing techniques that only their species could perform, barely affected by gravitational factors that would incapacitate any other species. Interdictors could drop into real-space extremely close to planets and release interceptor drones.

Drop-shaped interceptors shot straight down through an atmosphere, twisting like drill bits to slough off the intense heat. Even hardy physiologies could withstand only a fraction of the resulting heat and g-forces.

Through the cockpit screen, Vesuvius watched vertical streaks of light dropping in the distance. Just meters above the ocean surface, the interceptors turned at right angles towards the Dozens’ transport, firing their weapons. The Shivans’ jet wakes shot geysers of salt water into the sky.

Several of the Dozen’s lasers found targets. Matty threw the transport into a roll and took only a few glancing blows as he accelerated past the enemy. Klaxons warned the pilot of minor damage.

Vesuvius swore as the Shivans turned to pursue the Investigators. While a few lasers found marks, the Shivans still numbered nearly thirty.

The Crusader bobbed and weaved to keep the brunt of the attack off of them. Dekker shouted orders to his gunners and they laced the ocean surface with laser fire. A curtain of steam screened them momentarily.

The Shivan’s broke through the steam and slowed. They frantically searched for their prey which had disappeared.

Momentary confusion was all that Dekker needed. In the middle of Shivan formation, the Rickshaw Crusader shot vertically skyward, breaking through the ocean surface with guns blazing. In a split second, most of the Shivan interceptors erupted in smoke, fell crippled, or plummet below the surface, destroyed. Momentarily retreating in complete disarray, the remaining interceptors regrouped and turned to mount a counter attack.

“The MEA military ship, Basilisk, is moving to firing position on the Shivan Interdictor!” Matty stated.

“Estimated time?” inquired Dekker.

“Less than sixty seconds to intercept. It’ll depend on the red tape. They’ll need clearance to fire this close to the planet.”

The Shivan interceptors immediately broke off. They fired on their own crippled vessels that couldn’t make the climb, and scuttled any possible evidence as to their origins. Loose ends secured, they rocketed back into orbit and into the holds of their mothership. Seconds later, the Shivan Interdictor winked out of real-space, disappearing just moments before Basilisk reached firing range.

Vesuvius pried her own white-knuckled grip from the arms of her chair. She forced herself to relax and breathe slowly, clearing her head of the adrenaline that muddied her thoughts.

“Someone hired pros,” she commented.

Dekker nodded. “It’s not cheap to pay for a Shivan strike team—they could’ve hired us for that much. Someone with a lot to lose must want Austicon silenced.”

* * *

Just after the distinct clunking sound of the ship touching down on tarmac, the door to the cargo hold slid open. Prognon Austicon smiled smugly.

“That sure was a lot of turbulence, Dekker.”

Dekker glared at the prisoner; he led his team and the MEA’s constables into the hold. “It was nothing. Just wanted you to enjoy your last ride.”

Vesuvius confronted Austicon. It would be her last chance before the MEA took him back into custody. “So, are you going to tell me?”

“I’m sorry?” He feigned ignorance.

“Your tattoo. What does it mean?”

The criminal made a tsk-tsk noise. “My dear, I am a man of my word. Search the galaxy, rim to rim, and you’ll find that I have never lied. Of course, that does not make me any less dishonest.” He grinned through his double-talk. “If you’d upheld your end of the bargain, I certainly would have told you.”

“Bargain?” asked Dekker.

“It was nothing,” she spat. “Just a condemned man trying to make a deal.”

The criminal chuckled under his breath. “You will have to decide for yourself what you believe, little Vivian. I could have escaped at any time; I just waited for you to decide.”

She snapped a quick photo of Austicon’s tattoo. “Sure. Whatever.” Her words dripped with disbelief.

“Believe what you will,” he called over his shoulders as the MEA’s constables began wheeling him away. “It’s only because you were such gracious hosts that I deigned not to part company till now.”

Dekker shook his head at the ranting.

“Remember what I said, Miss Briggs,” his yell echoed in the hall. “I have not lied to you.”

Vesuvius drew her thoughts inward. She pulled aside her Katana and read the inscription again. Sword made by Muramasa, a gift for Harry Briggs, Godfather to my Son.

Between Austicon’s veiled comments and the funeral for Shin, a pall hung over the mood. Dekker put an arm around Vesuvius.

“Come on, Vees. Let’s get out of here; I’ll take you someplace nice for dinner.” He led her out of the cargo hold. “I know a place nearby.”

* * *

Vesuvius threw back the shot of rice liquor and squinted through the dingy, smoke-filled air. Dekker sat across from her, sipping from a glass of water; he didn’t often drink intoxicants.

She smirked to herself, she should have guessed. This grungy dive had been Dekker’s idea of a “nice restaurant.” The food was good, though.

The two reminisced, remembering their good friend, Shin. The family scheduled a wake for two days hence. In the morning, Dekker and Vesuvius would stay with Master Muramasa until after the funeral; following a payday, the rest of the Investigators could take a vacation until then.

In the middle of Dekker’s retelling of an old story involving him and Shin, something caught Vesuvius’ eye. A news brief broke into the sports program on the nearby vidfeed. She pointed to it and Dekker turned to watch.

Footage from the nearby landscape showed the lifeless bodies of MEA constables, the same men the Dozen had turned the criminal over to only hours prior. Captured by a nearby security camera, several lithe, black-clad assassins surprised the escort, cutting them pieces with planned precision. The masked murderers reverently escorted Prognon Austicon beyond the carnage. The criminal smiled at the camera and held up a hollow media tube, the kind used for sending written messages. Playing to the camera, he made a show of tying an elegant silk cord around it before dropping the tube into a puddle of human blood as he departed.

Vesuvius’ hand shot to her hip, looking for her katana. She’d left it in her hotel room; restaurants mandatorily enforced the MEA weapon bans on their premises. Nonetheless, she knew that the message had been tied with the sageo ripped from her father’s sword.

At some point during transport, Prognon Austicon had been free: he’d snatched the sash from the cargo hold’s floor, and now he taunted her. The newscast made no mention of the communication cylinder.

She could only imagine what the message tube contained.

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