The duffel bag, slung over my left shoulder, was light. I’d get most of my working kit when I arrived at Mu Arae. I exited the transport hauler’s docking area and entered the Tau Ceti station concourse that was more empty than my duffel. But it was late shift station time.

With no one around, I decided to walk to my next transfer instead of taking a tram. There might be a diner or pub open. The transport hauler’s cook didn’t deserve even that title. But, in my years of service I’d eaten worse.

I walked the main area, avoiding the ill-lighted side alleys during off shift. Safe enough with people about, but not so much during this time of station shift. Not that I had to worry. I could handle whatever came, unless it was a tank with infantry support, but I’d rather avoid confrontations. Especially as those would lead to questions from local leos.

I just passed one such passage when a familiar sound came to my augmented hearing. A scuffle. A soft woman’s voice, “stop.” and a little louder, “help!”

I sped up my pace and came upon two people. One, the woman who I’d heard, was being dragged off by a much bigger man. I paused to take in the scene. All this passed through my mind before he could drag her another pace.

He had her by one arm and in the other he held her bag. He was big, not just tall but muscular, as if he spent years on a planet. He had a darker skin tone than I, but within the range of anyone from the colonized planets. She on the other hand had very light brown hair and pale, I almost thought sickly pale, skin tone. I wondered why she didn’t or hadn’t called for emergency help on the nets?

Maybe she had, but I went ahead and did so as well. Accessing the local nets with my cranial augment I sent for help to the people I’d hoped to avoid. All the while recording all the details of the assault and assailant at the same time.

“Hey!” I yelled and ran forward. The man took one quick look at me, pushed her and ran off. I tagged the full face shot and sent that to the leos as well. I skidded to a stop next to her as she lay panting on the decking.

She had such a foreign look to her, even to me who traveled extensively. But her foreignness had a beauty to it. Even if at the moment, she was scared, close to crying, and panting in exertion.

“Why didn’t you call for help?”

“I yelled. I tried. You came.” Her answers were short as she tried to get her breath back.

I knelt down, bringing me to eye level. “You don’t have any augments.” It wasn’t a question, but she shook her head in the negative anyway. “Where are you from?”

“Sol system. Earth.”

Ah. that explained a lot. Her light skin tone; lack of augmentation. I’d never been to earth myself, but had heard of it staying insular. “You should look into getting a wrist augment. It’s not permanent and has an emergency button.”

She shook her head, not answering. She was still probably in shock. I went back to my duffel where I’d dropped it. She stared at me as I walked back to help her to her feet. I knew what she would see; average. Average height, average looks, even average skin tone, though compared to her I was dark. I was anything but average and many who found that out never lived long enough to pass it on. I knew what she was gauging: Was I male or female?

“Are you injured?” I smiled at her. I never hid what I was exactly, it came in handy to be confusing. And I was definitely not as well endowed as she was. Again, I was average.

She shook her head again, light brown locks waving around her face. “I-no. I don’t know what to do. All my credit and IDs, everything was in that bag. He took it all.”

She looked close to tears again.

“My name is Taji.” I wanted to calm her.

“Anika.”

“Anika. The local leos will be here shortly and they will help you out. I’ve already sent a full transcript over the nets and a full recording of the incident and I magnified his image. I’m sure they’ll find him.”

“But, but how?”

I tapped my right temple with a single finger. “I have cranial and visual augments.” Some of which, most, she and the leos, didn’t need to know.

“He got away with my ship contact info. I have to be on it!”

Again heading toward tears, and I hated seeing anyone cry.

“Where are you heading?”

“Pavonis Delta.”

I nodded. “I can get you there. That’s one of my transfer points. The least I can do is escort you.” Her tears disappeared and instead I was looking at suspicion. I couldn’t help but smile. “What am I going to steal? The clothes on your back? I don’t think they would fit me.”

Her suspicion lessened, the tears started to come back as she realized her situation. I gripped her upper arm to stop both. “On my honor, I will get you there safely. The leos can run my credentials and check my contract.”

“Contract?”

“I’m heading to Mu Arae for a job.”

She gasped and a lock of her light brown hair fell across her face. “That’s a warzone.”

I shrugged, slinging my duffel over my shoulder again as my augmented hearing picked up the leos on their way. “It’s where the money is.”

#

The local law enforcement had checked my credentials, taken statements from both of us, but by the time Anika had accepted my help, they still hadn’t found the assailant. The ship I’d arranged travel on wasn’t pleased with the extra passenger, until I talked the captain into accepting if I worked for him during the transit.

The weeks passed.

I knew Anika wasn’t happy about the small cabin we’d been assigned, as it was the only cabin available, but she would have just been a passenger anyway on a different ship. This just had less amenities and was more utilitarian. She had access to the rec-room, which was off of the kitchen and dining area. Posters covered the grey of the inner bulkheads. Anika surprised me by allowing the crew to download some of the most recent movie vids off of Earth that she carried. The crew were friendly enough, and she found ways to pass the time.

Her favorite way to pass the time was to question me when I was off shift.

“Taji,” she asked as I entered the cabin one day after my work shift, “are you eating again?”

I stopped the motion partway to my mouth. “I have a high metabolism.” I popped the protein cube into my mouth and started chewing. I was augmented both mentally and physically and that burned calories. It was also why I may have been thin – but not weak.

She watched me a second before asking, “What is it you do. Not just here but in general?”

I paused a second and then secured the hatch behind me before answering. “Security.”

“You are always so terse.” She flopped onto the one bed in the cabin. I’d slung a hammock for myself. “What exactly does that mean? This isn’t a passenger ship, it’s all crew, except for us, so what exactly do you do aboard?”

“Confidential.” But I smiled to take any sting out of the word.

Nearly a month in transit and we arrived at Pavonis Delta. We were both glad to have left the ship. Pavonis had a space station, but the cargo the ship was hauling was slated for on-planet and so when we left ship we were greeted by sunlight and atmo and wind. The sky was two shades too yellow to my eyes, but Anika reveled in being back on a planet.

She smiled as she flung her arms wide and span in a circle. “It’s so green and colorful. Ah, I could never be a good spacer. Give me sky above and ground under my feet. Everything on ship and even at Tau Ceti station was so drab and grey.” She slowed her spin to a stop. “But I’m here and I have work to do. Get me to a comm so I can contact Drakon offices.”

I patched into the local network around the spaceport and tapped her on the shoulder. “Done. What do I tell them?”

She blushed, having forgotten my augment. “Tell them that Anika Drakon is here for the shareholders meeting.”

Not too long after, an automated aircar with a personal assistant picked us up at the spaceport and we were on our way to Drakon Industries. Before my eyes she transformed from the terrified, inexperienced young woman to a capable businesswoman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. She had the personal assistant ready a change of clothes for her, ready a suite at the best hotel and inform all stockholders that the meeting was still on.

I trailed along, quite happy to say little, be looked over and able to listen to everything. That’s what usually happened when you looked average. I wanted to make sure things went off without a hitch. The attack on Tau Ceti was not your normal mugging and the leos there still hadn’t found the attacker. By observing now, it made me altogether suspicious that someone didn’t want Anika at this meeting.

The aircar landed in front of one of the taller buildings on Pavonis Delta and she charged inside past the security desk and reception area, past a huge pond inside the building and toward the bank of lifts to head up to the executive level.

I slowed behind the group to admire the pond and its very ancient oriental design with a flair of local trees and sculptures to it and I noticed koi fish swimming. There were black and pale white, and orange and yellow spotted orange. It had been a very long time since I’d seen koi. Not since leaving home. I wondered then if they were real or animated or genegeneered. I then hurried to catch the lift up in time. But noticed that Anika had held them for me to the great impatience of the mid-level functionary who’d greeted us and the personal assistant who still trailed along.

I smiled as I ambled over for all the world looking like an average tourist.

One meeting went onto another with Anika taking charge. I sat aside and waited. An hour passed and suddenly I went into action mode. Alerted by someone very different having come out of the lift – another big man, cut from the same mold as the attacker on Tau Ceti. His eyes passed over me without a second glance, dismissing me. I had a hard time not smiling, for the smile would have been feral and given me away. The man had to have muscle augments and the others in the office seemed to know it as well; they cleared a path for him directly leading to Anika. He leaned over her back to whisper into her ear.

Even with my own augments I could barely hear some of the words from his deep rumbling voice. “Come.” And, “he’s waiting.”

She shook her head in the negative. And I heard her response clearly. “I’ve already given my response. It was no. It is still no.”

I watched with growing apprehension and heightened responses. Don’t go with him. Don’t go. I pleaded at her silently, wishing she’d had augments so I could send her my message, not merely wishing. He then placed one beefy hand on her shoulder and I could just make out him squeezing slightly and lifting. I then heard, “contract” as she stood up next to him.

Then, “He has no right.”

“Family signed before…”

He pushed her gently, but still guiding her out of the conference room and toward the lifts. But that was where the receptionist station was and where I waited. They came ever closer. And she wasn’t catching my eye, in fact she was pointedly not looking in my direction. The beefy man’s eyes roamed over me, again dismissing me as a potential threat. Now was the time to strike.

I stood up at the last second, blocking their path. They stopped. It was either that or run into me. I glanced up at the brutish augmented face of the abductor, not making eye contact with Anika, and said, “Hi.”

He glanced down taking in my average height, hair color and lithe build, not knowing what lay beneath and again he dismissed me as a non-threat. Unlike himself, who had been hired for his size and intimidation factor. I could not compete with that. His brutish size and behavior didn’t mean he was stupid, he just appeared that way.

Hand on her upper arm, he again guided her, this time to move around the obstacle in their way: me. I risked a quick glance around the area. Those in the conference room were not paying any attention to the drama unfolding out in the reception area. The receptionist, either by design or for her job, was not at her desk, so there was no-one but these two and myself around.

I activated a different augment and before he could push Anika past me, I had already moved. Fast enough to only be a blur unless he carried specific augments himself. I was on the other side now and kicked out at the back of one knee – as he fell, I released his grip with a quick twist before he dragged Anika down with him. I helped him finish his journey to the ground with a last kick to the head.

His thump on the deck was in normal speed and I had to slow down to ask Anika, “Are you alright?”

She didn’t answer, but the man on the ground groaned. Anika looked from him to me, not sure who to be scared of. I knew my augments affected people like that, but I’d hoped she was past it after saving her on Tau Ceti and spending a month aboard ship. But she was a pure human from a world of pure humans and prejudices persist, and this was the first time she’d actually seen me in action. I tried not to sigh.

The rustle of clothing told me the man was conscious. I hadn’t wanted to kill and with his augments he was awake far sooner than I’d anticipated. A gasp from Anika and I spun on the man on the ground as he leveled a gun at me. Before another eyeblink happened, I’d divested him of the weapon and reversed it on him.

Now another eyeblink as he stared down the barrel of his own gun. “What… who are you?” His deeper voice shook, startled by the incident.

“I’m from Pollax. A volunteer Marine. Do you know what that means?”

He nodded, slowly, ever so slowly. “Yes.”

“I spent two tours on Nosphero.” His eyes widened and I could almost see the whites all the way around them and I watched his convulsive swallow in his meaty neck, veins standing out. So he was smart after all, he just looked and acted dumb. “I see you know what that means. You and whoever you work for, I will only give you one warning, don’t come here again.”

I took Anika by an unresisting arm and strode away. Not to the lifts, but beyond the reception area and deeper into the executive offices. Out of his sight. I stared around the offices and at the people who gaped at us. I ignored them and continued looking for the service areas. They would have their own lifts or a stairwell.

If that would-be abductor didn’t come back, surely someone else will. For some reason, someone wanted Anika gone. I’d told him enough, not all, about me to make them think long and hard before trying again. But I knew that one wouldn’t be the only one here.

I opened the door into the service corridors. And as the doors snicked shut behind us, I asked, “Who was he taking you to?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she answered as we continued on and down. “He said a Drakon made a contract and I had to fulfil it.”

We passed sterile corridors, working our way down utility stairwells until we were at the bottom level and I opened the door that I hoped would lead us out of the building. I wanted to get Anika someplace where they wouldn’t look for her. And that was not this building where they could enter with impunity.

“What does it mean that you’re from Pollax?”

I shook my head, not wanting to talk. Especially not about that.

She ripped her arm from my grip though and we stopped next to the pond on the far side of the reception area by a bank of screens – a showroom for potential investors to witness what their money could do. The large pond wound its way around and back toward the doors we had entered through. The middle and one wall was an entire screen showing scene after scene of Drakon Industries’ potential. We were out in the open, the small waterfall filled in the background with noise and a sweet female voice droned on regarding whatever was on the screen.

“Taji, please tell me. I hate not knowing. What scared that man so much?”

For an entire second, eternity for me, a heartbeat for her, I thought. “I will. Just not now; not until you’re safe.”

And that’s when they attacked. Rushing from the corridor we had come through. The first one I sent flying into the water, far out into the water to land with a loud splash. The second and third came in slower. Those two had worked together before and would be more difficult to defeat. Behind them, three more were successfully dragging Anika away. But they were heading around the large pond and taking her out front, the long way around.

The two in front of me widened the distance between themselves which would force me to turn my back to one of them. If I hadn’t been trained and augmented, it might have worked; as it was, it isolated them from each other. I slowly faked toward one, then used my augmented speed to run at the other and I forced her back out the door and had it locked before the first one recovered from the fake. I then had him by the arm and with a quick spin, he went into the pond to swim with the fishes as well.

Those who had Anika were almost to the door and out; there had to be a quicker way across. I looked at the narrow gap in the pond, too wide to jump, but there, just below the surface was a force-screen bridge the workers used. I was on it and across, looking as if I’d walked on water.

We all busted outside at about the same time. With me taking one of her abductors and throwing him into the side of the building. The other two continued to drag her toward the parking lot where I saw a small atmospheric shuttle waited.

I raced toward them, even as two more people exited from the side door of the shuttle to help. I didn’t know what help they would be: a young man, nearly a boy and an older man in an expensive silk suit. I ignored those dragging Anika and as the first one out of the shuttle brought up another weapon, I yanked on his arm spinning at the same time, which dislocated the shoulder. A sick gasp of pain before the boy was face down on the pavement in agony.

The older man was staring in surprise at the boy on the ground. The others had almost reached the shuttle with Anika, and by then I had the older man by the scruff of his neck and grey hair. Those who held Anika stopped at once. He must be the boss, I thought. Good, now we can find out the truth.

I shook him a little. Surprised at the anger I felt. Anger and augments do not go hand in hand. I needed to calm down.

“Wait, wait, wait. Let’s talk about this.” His voice was melodious and rich, used to getting his way by talking.

I shook him harder but only once. “What is there to talk about. You are abducting my friend.”

“What? No, no. We were only going for a ride, just the two of us so no one else could overhear our conversation.” My grip on him loosened slightly and he smiled back at me. “Come with us if you will.”

Inexplicably, my grip had loosened and he stood on the ladder up to the shuttle hatch adjusting his suit. He was now shepherding Anika inside. She threw me an entreating look. She didn’t want to go. I stepped onto the ladder when I heard the older man say to those waiting inside, quietly, in a voice he thought I wouldn’t hear. “Once we are in, secure the hatch. Have those outside finish that one off.”

I moved.

He hadn’t even set one little toe inside the entryway before I blocked his path. “Anika.” She reached for my hand gratefully as I glared a way past the older man. “We are leaving.”

We were at the bottom of the ladder then before he spoke. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

I kept hold of Anika as I turned to face him, while keeping an eye on his henchman too. We backed up slowly. “No, who are you?”

He puffed up, shocked that I didn’t know. “I’m… I’m Grand Vizier Richoff of Richese.”

We backed further from the shuttle, and now all of them were in front of us and I felt a little better. The building’s entry behind us, but closer to us now than the shuttle. And where were the building’s security for that matter?

“Well, Grand Poobah, expect charges to be filed against you. I have already compiled our altercation and uploaded the first transcript onto the net.”

He glared then, looking old and evil and entirely too pleased with himself. “There is nothing this local administration can do. I have diplo-immunity.” He waved at us as the last of his men boarded and the shuttle doors started to close.

“He’s correct, Taji. There is nothing the administration of Pavonis Delta can do to him.”

My smile almost matched his in evilness as I watched the shuttle lift and head into the sky. “Oh, I sent it to them too, but I sent it to the GA as well. His diplo-immunity has no standing there.”

“The Galactic Authority?”

“I don’t know about here, but I know GA law. I spent two tours on Nosphero. The first to pacify and the second as peace keeper. I learned a lot.”

Anika nodded, her light brown hair throwing in golden highlights from the sun’s rays. “Good. Then let’s get back to work. And the shareholders meeting, where I can propose an embargo on all dealings with Richese.”

She didn’t seem the lost young woman from Tau Ceti anymore. Now, with a goal, she stalked back inside and my augmented hearing picked up her parting comments: “And then I’ll find out who in my family signed that stupid Richesean contract and deal with them.”

And I might stay around Pavonis, I thought. Might be more fun than Mu Arae. Anika stopped in the doorway and turned back to me. “Taji, you’re coming with me aren’t you?”

I smiled. “Of course.”