Chapter One

My cell was little more than a steel framed bed that had seen better days, a mattress that was thin enough that I could feel the springs underneath, and a bucket. I had no idea how long I’d been a prisoner. A few days, probably. There were no windows. No glimpses into the outside world. Just a steady stream of cold air flowing around the badly fit steel door. 

I would remain in my dingy cell until those who put me here decided when to execute me. That had been made clear from the moment I’d arrived. That was my fate. A fate I was still trying to figure out how to ensure didn’t come to pass.

No matter that I’d worked for the city of Euria—the largest city on the planet of Xolea—and the people who lived there for a decade. No matter that I’d fought against the criminal gangs of Euria while the galaxy around us burned in civil war. No matter that I protected the people of Euria from those same gangs, or that I saw friends give their lives in their duty as judges and Blackcoats of this fine city. No one will ever know that I tried to do the right thing, no one will remember that I stood up against corruption. It was all for nothing. 

The realisation had taken a toll on my confidence of being able to get out of the predicament I found myself in. 

Xolea is on the far edge of Union space, and consisted of four continent-sized cities. Only Euria, with its population of over twenty million, was considered helpful to the Union in any meaningful way. It was one of the largest manufacturing cities within the entire Union, and during the civil war had been heavily guarded by the Union’s fleet to ensure it couldn’t be captured or destroyed. Life had been hard in Euria before the war, but during it, when everything was done for the war effort, life had gone from hard to almost unbearable, while those in charge got rich and powerful. Richer and more powerful.

Now that the war was over, those who had benefited from it the most refused to give up their gains. Refused to allow people to go back to what had gone before. The gangs that had been around for my entire life, had been taken over by the most affluent in society to be used for their own goals. Keep the people down. Make sure no one tries to stop them from becoming more powerful. I knew the Blackcoats had been infiltrated, knew there was corruption, but I hadn’t realised just how deep and far-reaching it had become. Until one dark night on my way home from work, I was jumped by half a dozen people who were meant to be colleagues. Meant to be friends. 

The anger at what had been done to me and my city had been all that had sustained me for my time in my dark cell. My partner had vanished, presumed killed by the gangs, and I had been framed for treason against the Union. All because I didn’t take bribes. Because I thought that Blackcoats—the Union’s law enforcement—were meant to be better than that.

The door to my cell opened with a shriek of metal on stone, bringing with it a gust of freezing air. A Sanctioner stepped inside. One of the five judge ranks. Sanctioners usually didn’t deal with crimes that involved the death penalty. I got the feeling in this case there might be an exception. 

Two guards—both wearing charcoal-coloured, thick, thermal protection suits, and carrying plasma rifles—stood at the door. Masks covered the lower parts of their face, and each wore dark glasses either to protect their eyes from the harsh sunlight outside or because they thought they looked menacing. Their pale foreheads were all the skin that showed, and both had short, dark hair cut close to the head. The Sanctioner waved them away after one of them brought the man a metal chair that had seen better days. The folds of the Sanctioner’s fur-lined, ornate red and yellow robes almost enveloped the chair when he sat. 

A scan mask hovered into the room, its two red eyes glowing inside the dark face. At some point, someone—possibly a psychopath— had decided to make vid recorders look like black face masks with red glowing eyes. I’d always hated them. Not because they were particularly creepy or unpleasant—although they were definitely both—but because I found them to be intrusive. Which, I had to concede, was probably the point. 

“Celine Moro,” the Sanctioner said, looking down at the brightly lit screen of the data-slate in his hands. “Thirty-eight, female, no family. If you like, I can read you the list of commendations you’ve received over your career as a Blackcoat? It’s honestly very impressive.”

I glared at the Sanctioner. “I didn’t expect to see you,” I said through gritted teeth. “Not here. Not with these murderers and thieves, Gorat.”

Gorat took a deep breath and let it out slowly, reclining as much as possible in the rigid chair. “You should have taken the money,” he said eventually.

I wanted to rip his tongue out for that. I wanted to beat his head against the thick walls of my cage, but instead I remained seated and seethed inside. “I am a Blackcoat of the district of Euria,” I said, keeping my tone level. “I do not accept bribes. It’s quite literally a line you have to say when you’re sworn in. I’m pretty sure there’s an identical line for judges when they’re sworn in too.”

“Maybe you should have just taken that line as a suggestion,” Gorat said with a slight sigh. 

“I can’t let people’s lives be ruined when I could do something to try and stop it,” I snapped, before reining in my temper. 

“And that, dear Celine, is why you’re here in this shithole,” Gorat said. “The mask is here to document this conversation for… prosperity. You were offered wealth to look the other way in the dealings of one Trias Nateria, a well-known and wealthy Confessor of the Golden Dawn, and a Councillor of the Union. Did you really think you were going to win this? Did you really think your actions would do anything but end with you here?”

I turned to the scan mask. “You can fly into a wall.”

“That’s not very mature,” Gorat said. 

“No, but you’re going to execute me anyway because I’m not corrupt. Unlike you, unlike half of the people I worked with.” The words tumbled free before I could stop them. “I did what was right and for that I end up here. I end up a criminal. Framed for treason because I was an inconvenience. Because I wasn’t corrupt. Framed by a Councillor of the Union. Godsdamned it, Gorat, these people aren’t meant to be tyrants, that’s why The Wardens exists.”

“There are no Wardens on Euria,” Gorat said. 

“Which is exactly why people like Trias are allowed to do whatever they like.” I wanted to throw something at the wall in frustration. 

The Wardens were responsible for the protection of every single Councillor and their families throughout the Union. But they also investigated any wrongdoing by those same Councillors. If they’d been on Euria there was a good chance I wouldn’t have been stuck in a damn cell, and Trias wouldn’t have been allowed to make himself the tyrant of the city.

“You always were too stubborn, too sure of what was right and wrong,” Gorat said, angry. “Everyone else just manages. You don’t have to like it, but it’s how things are done here. Especially during the war.”

“The war has been over for two years.” 

“Yes, which is why we need to help the people of this planet,’ Gorat explained slowly, as if I was an idiot. 

“And corruption helps them, how?”

“The workers here need these drugs, need to be helped.”

“Because they got addicted helping the war effort,” I said, the anger bubbling up inside me once again.

“There’s no going back now,” Gorat said. “Too many people made too much money to change things back to how they were.”

“Then maybe those things need to change,” I snapped. 

“You think you’re the one to do it?” Gorat snapped back. “Trias doesn’t play games. He wants you dead. He wants to know what you know, and then he’s going to have you executed, and your body will be taken to one of the factories and burned up in a furnace. The people will look the other way, and do you know why? Because Trias either pays them to, or they’re not worth his money and they’re so terrified of him that they do it for free.”

“He’s a Confessor of the Golden Dawn and a Councillor of the Union,” I said, not really sure how to convey the betrayal I felt, not only at Gorat and my old comrades turning against me, but that a Confessor—a man who was meant to protect the people of their planet—could turn his back on everything he was meant to believe in. For profit and power. The fact he was a Councillor too, made the transgression doubly hard to take. Two jobs that were meant to be carried out by those who were meant to want the best for their people. It was a corruption of two great institutes of the Union, and when I’d first discovered the truth, it had made me physically ill. 

Gorat sighed again.

“You knew my parents,” I said, my voice now barely above a whisper. “You worked with them. You knew me as a child, and now you’re going to be the one to have me executed. Why keep me here for however long it’s been? Why not just kill me?”

“I told you, Trias needs to know what you told to whom.”

“So you can go and kill more people?”

“Your parents were good people in a different time,” Gorat said, rubbing his eyes after several seconds of silence. “They would have taken the bribe.”

really wanted to hit him for that. 

“Trias wanted to come see you himself,” Gorat continued. “That’s why no one has hurt you yet. But instead, he’s decided you aren’t worth him venturing out into the cold. You’re just not important enough to him.”

“I could have brought him down,” I said more to myself than Gorat. 

“You gathered more information on his operation than anyone else ever has. You and that other Blackcoat you were working with.”

“His name was Prasan,” I said, the familiar and warming sensation of anger keeping me from breaking down.

“He’s dead by the way,” Gorat said. “They’d considered framing you for the murder, but honestly, you both vanishing is much easier. Neither of you have families, both single, both married to the job, both disposable.”

“He didn’t deserve that,” I said. Prasan did have a family, a sister. They’d kept their mutual existence secret from those they worked with. Prasan the Blackcoat, and Rika the criminal arms-dealer. Having a criminal or a Blackcoat as family members didn’t inspire confidence or trust in their allies. “He was a good Blackcoat. He was a good man.”

“He was,” Gorat said. “I made sure his death was quick. It was all I could do for him. Some of Trias’ more… ardent supporters wanted him flayed. Wanted to send a message to other Blackcoats, but I managed to convince them otherwise.”

“Am I meant to be grateful?” I shouted.

“You’re meant to understand that I can only do so much for you and those you work with,” Gorat said. “I can’t begin to tell you what some of those same people wanted to do to you. I got Trias to agree that making you vanish without a trace was better in the long term, but if you won’t tell me who you spoke to, his people are going to get to make you talk. I can’t stop that.”

“So, did you come in here to get information, or to taunt me?”  

“This isn’t easy for me either,” Gorat said. 

“Oh, I’m sorry, are you being betrayed by your own people and about to be executed for standing up against a crime boss?” I looked around the room. “No? Just me then.”

“Councillor, not crime boss,” Gorat corrected, his tone soft as if imparting a lesson.

I laughed in his face. “If it walks like a crime boss, talks like a crime boss, and shoots people in the face like a crime boss, he’s a crime boss.”

“This isn’t going to get us anywhere, is it?” Gorat said with a sigh. He got to his feet and looked down on me as if about to scold a child. “For the final time, Trias told me that if you cooperated, your death would be quick. But if not, then the guards will come in here and get the information out of you in another, much less pleasant way.”

“They’re going to sing a song?” I asked. “Or maybe do a dance routine? I think both of those would be less pleasant.”

“You never could keep a civil tongue in your head,” Gorat said, disapprovingly.

“And, apparently, you never could stop taking bribes to look the other way,” I said, leaning back on my bed. “I guess we’ve both been disappointed today.”

I looked up at the mask as it stared at me with its red eyes. “Trias, when you read this back, or watch the vid, or whatever you’re going to do, I hope you realise one day someone will actually find you in that lovely home of yours looking down over the rest of the district, and they’ll kill you. I’m just sorry to say I won’t be there to celebrate it myself.”

“Trias controls this city,” Gorat said, the palm of his hand against the door. “You should have realised that. Soon, the four guards in this building will come for you. They will take you to the room where you will eventually meet your death.”

“Only four?” I asked. 

“Torture doesn’t take many people,” Gorat said. “They will hurt you before you die. You could have ensured that didn’t happen.”

You could have ensured that didn’t happen,” I said, throwing his own words back at him. 

“Goodbye, Celine,” Gorat said, pushing open the door, letting in the cold air from outside. 

The mask left the cell first and Gorat reached inside his robes and placed a small box on the floor. The rectangular box was eight inches long by three inches wide, and was no deeper than the length of my finger. It was coloured orange and red with yellow trim, and reminded me of Gorat’s robe. 

“Goodbye,” Gorat said again, and left me alone in my cell. 

I stared at the box for some time. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. Was it a bomb? No, probably not. That seemed too much like hard work for Gorat. My curiosity eventually overrode my feelings of trepidation and concern, and I picked up the box, flicking open the metal clasp and lifting the lid. 

Inside sat a six-inch-long carbonate-fibre combat knife. I lifted it free and examined it. It was light, and sharpened to a dangerous edge. Knives were used by anyone from generals to street scum, but carbonate-fibre was different. They were used to by Special Forces members to be able to cut through shields and armour. It was the same material used to make the battleships and was almost indestructible against conventional weapons. It was the weapon of an assassin, of a warrior. And they were banned on Euria for one reason and one reason only: Trias and his loyal supports wore specially designed force shields at all times. If you wanted to kill one of them, you’d need to get close, and there was little chance of that with all of their guards and spies looking out for them. 

Thankfully the carbonate blade would work just as well on flesh as it would on those with shields. The question was why had Gorat left it? Had he intended for me to use it to escape, did he think I could use it to kill Trias? Or had he left it because he knew I would try to escape and would be killed in the process. Giving me a heroic death instead of one screaming through hours of torture? Did it matter? Probably not. But it still played on my mind. Whatever else happened, escaping from the cell was my first move. 

The shuffling of feet sounded outside the cell, and I held the knife down by my leg, the blade against the outside of my thigh, hidden from the man in foul weather gear who opened the door and stepped inside. 

“It’s time to go,” he said with a snarl, a plasma rifle casually slung over one shoulder. He considered me no threat. He was an idiot.

“I think I’m okay right here,” I told him. 

“I didn’t say I was giving you a choice,” he barked, stepping toward me, reaching for my arm. I sprung toward him, brushing his arm aside as he tried to grab me. He never saw the dagger until it was buried in his throat, his eyes wide with shock. He was dead a moment later.  

I stepped aside as I removed the dagger, avoiding any blood as the guard collapsed forward. I dragged him further into my cell and checked the hallway beyond, finding it empty. There were three more guards somewhere in the building I’d been held in, and I had to work fast in case they were on the way to me as well. 

I removed his red, fur-lined jacket and put it on; it was a little big, but it was that or deal with the sub-zero temperatures of a Euria winter without one, and that wasn’t much of a choice at all. I removed his second layer of clothing too—a skin-tight, black, cold-resistant top that was designed to change size to fit any frame. Anything to make sure I didn’t freeze to death the moment I stepped outside. I took his back holster and the energy pistol inside it, leaving the well-used plasma rifle where it was. The damn things only take six to eight shots before the magazine overheats and you need a new one. An energy pistol can put three times that number of shots out. 

It took me a few minutes to get dressed, and every noise outside of the cell made me pause, and pick up a weapon, waiting for the inevitable attack. But none came. I wondered where the other guards were. Had they expected this one guard to be able to deal with me? Were they torturing some other poor soul? I pushed the thoughts aside; I didn’t need the distraction right now. I was soon dressed and ready to battle both the enemy inside the facility, and the elements outside. 

I picked up the cell key card—a small, transparent blue device— and after checking the hallway once again—and finding it thankfully empty—I stepped out of the cell. The cold air whipped through the hallway of the building. Six doors ran the length of one side of the hallway, and large windows opposite each showcased the frozen tundra outside, the snow coming down hard. There would be several feet in a few hours in some parts, a dangerous time of the year for those working on the trams moving goods to and from the space port. 

A light overhead flickered, and I counted to thirty to see if anyone would come check on their friend. But after forty-five seconds, I decided it was safe to continue. I had no idea exactly where I was or why Gorat had left me a weapon, but I planned on finding out. And then I was going to find Trias and we were going to have a long conversation about the error of his ways.

%d bloggers like this: