For the past five years, Talon Terry has been living the life of her dreams. Every night she comes home to the love of her life, is always surrounded by loved ones, and now graduating top of her class. But all these gifts were in danger as long as her father roamed the outer reaches of the void.
Things have been eerily quiet since the attacks on Ohmani, but Talon knows it is just the calm before the storm. With intelligence training under her belt and the resources of the department at her disposal, she can finally begin fulfilling her own destiny - to find and destroy Kravis before he can cause any more harm.
Talon soon discovers, however, this is much easier said than done. Body and mind will be put to the test, sacrifices will have to be made, and through all the loss and mind games she will have to ask, how far am I willing to go?
Talon Terry’s legs were beginning to cramp. Despite how much her muscles screamed for her to move just one little bit, she dared not accommodate them. Thirty minutes had passed of her crouching low behind an alabaster statue that barely blocked her athletic frame. There was a cocktail party winding to a close on the other side. She was dressed in tight clothing the color of the shadows, her auburn hair pulled into a tight bun and tucked neatly under her favorite beanie. Murmured voices grew closer and she was in luck – one of them belonged to her target.
A famous surgeon, Frank Garvie, and his mistress, Kasilla Mayport, were sauntering over to the very spot where she was hiding. This party was his annual charity fundraising gala, and it was always held at his ostentatious home on the south edge of the asteroid. The luscious greenery at the poles, although meant for oxygen supply, made for desirable real-estate. After weeks of study, she knew these grounds – every room, every hallway, every pathway, bush, crack, crevasse, angle and sightline.
Talon heard the woman giggle as she drunkenly frolicked her way over to lean against the statue, oblivious to the operative-in-training hiding on the other side. Kasilla gave a breathy, come-hither purr to her plump lover. A sandpapery sound scratched above Talon and she snapped her head to see the doctor’s sausage fingers creep around the statue. Dr. Garvie settled his plump digits around the buttocks of the chiseled maiden whilst successfully entrapping his mistress between his arms. Talon heard the unpleasant slurping of spit as the surgeon’s fingertips clutched the chiseled maiden’s derriere in a white-knuckled grasp.
Dr. Frank Garvie, famous surgeon and public figure, was also the worst kind of criminal…a terrorist as far as she was concerned. According to his file, Frank had laundered a percentage of his charitable donations to fund terrorist activities. Little did his party guests know that their contributions, meant for expensive and difficult operations, would be muled through wormholes to radical crime rings. Thinking of Dr. Garvie cheating children out of treatment and directly aiding terrorists like her father was the fuel she needed right now. She knew of two others who had failed before her, and Talon refused to join the list. This mission was but a hurdle, albeit a necessary one, to her ultimate goal.
Her mission was clear. Get the device that could be used to indict the surgeon in a court of law. She had been given his file, the layouts of the grounds, and two weeks to prepare. Talon’s original plan was to wait until all guests had found their way out of the courtyard before continuing. After all, she rather preferred covert-style execution over other aggressive alternatives. But as she waited, her muscles burning from fatigue and her patience with their public display of affection wearing thin, she quickly regrouped to change tactics. A fire of anticipation lit up inside of her.
With breakneck speed and incredible grace she took the handcuffs from her waistband and with one flick had them around the doctor’s wrists. Talon then wielded a blade and tucked it below the mistress’s throat. Kasilla gasped and threw her head back in reaction. Talon responded by grabbing the woman’s hair and forcing it back on the marble with a hard thud.
“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” Talon spoke low. “You wouldn’t want to get blood on that pretty dress.” She knew from her research that the young lady meant more to the surgeon than just a night in the bedroom. Although her target was currently married, his real wife knew of the affair and cared little so long as she could have her fun too. Love was always a good weakness to exploit.
Dr. Garvie jiggled his wrists and tugged his arms, gasping at his current state of imprisonment. “Who are you? What do you want?” he spoke in obvious distress.
“I want your computer.”
“My computer has already been taken by authorities and given back to me because I’m innocent. I have nothing to hide.”
“Everything alright?” A voice yelled from the center of the courtyard. It was another party-goer that hadn’t quite made his way out.
Damn, Talon swore under her breath. She wondered if she had made the right decision. “Send him away…now.” Talon quickly un-cuffed one of the doctor’s hands but kept the small blade pressing so hard against the mistress’s throat, any more pressure and blood would be drawn. At least she was cooperating without damsel-in-distress drama.
The doctor’s eyes grew large with worry. He spun around, his arms already waving the onlooker off. “Yes, everything is fine. Thank you for coming, Leon. Good night,” he offered swiftly and unnaturally.
There was a strong, tense-filled silence. For a scant moment Talon wondered if her cover had been blown. The surgeon dived forward, kissing his girlfriend like it would be the last time. Talon’s prisoner gasped at the surprise, but yielded to the advance with an open mouth. Talon quickly made more space between the knife and her throat.
“Alright, you two love-crullens have a good night!” the man called again, now convinced.
Talon listened as his footsteps become fainter against the stone. “Give me your hand.” The knife was again under Kasilla’s throat.
“Yes, okay! Please, just don’t hurt her!” The man pleaded rather loudly, throwing his arm back into the handcuff. “Who are you?”
It was to her advantage that the marble kept her hidden from the surgeon’s view. Her overall appearance didn’t necessarily portray that of a true-born killer. For God’s sake she was standing on her tip-toes. Luckily her aura of mystery kept him more willing to cooperate. He certainly seemed terrified.
“Who do you think I am?” She didn’t know why she asked the question. His opinion of her mattered little.
“You can’t break into my office if you’re a cop. It’s illegal. You can’t use evidence against me in court if it has been collected without a warrant. I know my rights!”
Obviously he didn’t and, oh, was she a fan of the laws here in Ohmani. Evidence could indeed be used against him in court if obtained without a warrant under two conditions. First, the extraction must be performed by a certified intelligence operative under a formalized plan approved by the division, and second, the extraction must not ‘unnecessarily harm any persons or properties.’ Talon wasn’t going to educate him now, or he would realize the knife was a bluff.
“I’m not a cop.” It wasn’t a lie.
Frank began shaking uncontrollably. “No…no. You’re not her, are you?” he asked in a quivering falsetto. “The older one? You came back for me. Please don’t kill me!”
Talon immediately became confused. Who was he talking about? Talon decided to go with it. “Yes, that’s right.”
“I knew you would come for me again! Please don’t kill me, please don’t —”
The doctor fell forward, bouncing off Kasilla’s breasts and continuing onto the pavement in a sweaty, motionless mound. Kasilla jumped out of the way and shrilled into the crisp air. Talon had to think fast. She removed the handcuffs from the surgeon and ran around the statuette. Kasilla was already on her knees, shaking him by the shoulders.
“Baby? Are you alright?”
“Help me move him,” she commanded. It was pure luck no one saw the incident. For the first time tonight, Talon worried she might be on the road to failing the mission.
Kasilla looked up and saw her mysterious attacker for the first time. Her eyes squinted in hatred. “What did you do to him?”
Talon didn’t know, but it sure seemed as though he actually fainted in fear. The man was more pathetic than she imagined. “He will be fine. Help me move him,” she repeated.
Kasilla stood up, but instead of obeying Talon she turned and began to make a run for it. Her long legs didn’t get too far with the heels that were attached to them. Talon grabbed the mistress’s upper arm and Kasilla thrashed at her assailant’s face. It was easy to block and take the gazelle of a woman down. When Kasilla was on her back, her breasts rising and falling with frantic breaths, Talon decided to step up her game. Apparently Frank’s mistress wasn’t too terrified of Talon after seeing just how unintimidating she really was. Talon pulled an MF-816 from her waistband and pressed the barrel between her sapphire eyes. Kasilla stopped breathing.
“Don’t let my appearance fool you,” Talon warned softly, but with a tone that surprised even her.
“If you’re a cop or a spy you can’t hurt me,” Kasilla noted hastily. Talon was happy to see her finally losing her poise. It would make the next phase of her new game plan much easier.
“Do you want to take that chance, Kasilla Mayport?” People were always unnerved to hear a stranger speaking their full name without a proper introduction.
Kasilla thought for several moments, her eyes darting in all directions in extension of her racing thoughts. Finally she stood up and wobbled her way back to her boyfriend’s body. She grabbed one of the doctor’s wrists and stood silently for Talon to join her. Talon tucked the gun back into her hip holster and together they dragged his dead weight behind the statuette. The women leaned him up against the cold marble, and Talon double-checked that the surgeon still had a pulse.
“What are you going to do?” Kasilla asked with a newfound tremble in her voice.
It wasn’t a bad question. Talon couldn’t leave Kasilla behind and she certainly couldn’t knock her over the head and break the injury clause. Luckily, the sprinklers came on for their nightly watering, which gave her an idea. Talon pulled the thin black cylinder from her belt and shoved it into the Kasilla’s hands. She had always wondered when this tool would come in handy in the field.
“Come with me.” Talon yanked Kasilla to her feet and pushed her gun into the woman’s kidney. “Produce an airbrella, full body, and walk towards the front door. Get me in and stay quiet and I won’t come back to kill your little love crullen. Deal?”
Kasilla nodded understanding. Air shot up and over their frames, deflecting the few drops of water that made contact with the rushing current.
“Change the color…let’s go with blood red.” Talon needed to step up her scary factor if she was going to get through this bold tactic of walking through the front door unbeknownst.
The woman pressed another button on the device and the air began to tinge pink as the red dye began to saturate into the stream. Talon made sure to step in line with Kasilla’s feet. Hiding behind her was fairly easy seeing as the woman stood ten inches taller in her towering stilettos. She was also a Sydces, with thick purple hair that made a wide curtain around her upper body.
“Don’t turn that airbrella off,” Talon warned as they walked up to the house.
She knew the impressive domicile had an advanced security system to match. Luckily, Kasilla was one of the few people who was granted access.
“You have to hold this,” Kasilla sneered. “It takes both hands.”
Talon complied, taking the base of the airbrella. The mistress slid her left hand into a slit in the security box. It was taking a biometric 3D scan and confirming a viable pulse. With her other she authenticated herself with a password and signature. Any slip up and her left hand would be captured, shackling her to the side of the house until security could be alerted. The door opened and Talon nudged her inside.
“Take me to his private office.”
Kasilla led Talon to the staircase and the two began their ascent. Every few steps the lanky woman would falter like a newborn giraffe. “I can’t see anything!” she griped.
“Just walk normally.” How many times had this woman gone up a flight of stairs?
Kasilla tripped again and fell to her hands. By the time Talon saw her tense up it was too late. Frank’s mistress used the power of her lengthy limbs to launch backwards as hard as she could, sending them both flying down the stairwell. Talon rolled ungracefully and hit the tile at the bottom with a hard thud. A pain in her leg made itself known. She winced through it as she stood and looked for the culprit of her injury. A flying object made contact with her temple, stunning her momentarily.
Kasilla had recovered from her tumble further up the staircase and, after removing her high heels, proceeded to chuck them down at her face. Talon had to give Kasilla some props, but she still had use for the feisty girl. Talon stood and ran up the velvet finish two at a time, adrenaline helping to alleviate the discomfort in her leg. The security system would have picked up the unusual kinetics, lessening the amount of time Talon would have in his office.
By the time she reached the top of the stairwell and ran down the corridor to the left, she could see Kasilla placing her palm on the doctor’s office door reader. She was staring at Talon catching up to her like prey being closed in on by a lioness. She fumbled the key code and fought through her tremulousness for another attempt. She succeeded.
The high-pitched scream of the alarm sounded, which meant the security system would be automatically activating the back-up locks on all the doors and windows at any moment.
Talon stuck her foot out to block the closing door at the last possible second. After she stepped inside the office, she fed a demagnetizer through the strip and then hurried to the window, opening it just as the security locks gave an intimidating series of clicks all around her. Anyone in the building would be stuck where they were. Too late, she smirked. She was in and had a way out.
As Kasilla cowered in the corner, Talon ran to the desk on the opposite side of the room and quickly picked the lock of several drawers until she located the one that contained the doctor’s computer. After turning the device on, a username and password box shone back at her. The agency had sent the doctor a spear-phishing link that contained an automatically installing ghost program. All his key-strokes for the past month had been recorded.
She retrieved her own tablet from her pants pocket and pulled its edges at a diagonal to double the size of the screen, connected it to the laptop, and allowed the virus to automatically update its findings onto her device. While she waited, she addressed Kasilla, who looked like an abused giraffe in the corner.
“What was the code for the door?”
Bingo. It finished uploading. The program was written to record time between strokes. She searched for a hiatus of over eight hours. The next strokes were his username and password, which she quickly typed in. With the alarm sounded, she didn’t have time to upload the entire hard drive. Instead, she aimed to locate where his incriminating files were located. She used her key-stroke program to search for terrorist organizations that could lead her to where his files were hidden. Nothing.
A pounding sounded on the door. She could hear the police trying to swipe their override keys through the strip, only to find that she had destroyed the magnetic reader.
“We need a laser saw!” she heard a voice yell.
She had to hurry now. Talon refocused her attention on his laptop and typed in the names of known terrorist leaders, illegal operations, and criminal wormholes. Still nothing. Frustrated, she paused and thought. This was the laptop that was confiscated already. Why would she be able to find something a professional could not?
Her mission details disclosed that the files she needed would be found on his laptop located in his office, but perhaps there were two computers? Her confidence was shriveling as she desperately looked around the room. There were an infinite number of potential hiding spots in here between the bookcases, wall pieces and file cabinets.
“Where is the computer I want,” she held her gun up to Kasilla.
“I…I…don’t know,” she stuttered. Talon could see the woman visibly shaking and couldn’t help but believe her. She had to discover the device on her own.
Talon heard a sharp buzzing sound coming from the hallway as security began shooting lasers into the door. She had four minutes maximum before guns were pointed at her head and she failed her mission.
It wasn’t unheard of for the Ohmani State Police to do routine yet unscheduled sweeps for unauthorized technologies by using sensitive magnet-sensing rods. This was of course illegal in a private home. She didn’t have a magnet detector…
Talon took the watch off her wrist and turned it over to reveal a company-issued compass. There was no magnetic field on Ohmani and so it had always seemed useless. However, certain materials had magnetic properties – especially those used in building electronics. She walked briskly around the room, looking closely at the tiny hand. As she passed the right side of the desk near the wall, she saw it – the slightest twitch. She walked closer and saw the anomaly again right in front of a painting of Ohmani State President, Crea Lindelhan. She lifted it off its supports and studied the space behind it. It was perfectly flat, and when Talon rapped her knuckles left to right with her ear pressed to the plaster, she could not hear any change in tone. Her heart sunk.
Just as she decided to forego that area and keep looking elsewhere, she noticed several scratches on the edges where the painting rested. They would only be there if Dr. Garvie removed the painting on a regular basis. Talon had a gut feeling she was in the right place, but what was she missing?
Talon traced a finger on the marks. If it wasn’t the wall that hid the laptop, perhaps it was the painting? She held it up, and studied the surface, tracing her finger over the material. It was a magnetic shielding film. She turned it over and took out a pocket knife, slitting the back canvas to retrieve the laptop surely hidden inside. After pulling back the paper, she was surprised to find that the inside of the painting was warm and blinked at her like a Christmas tree. The painting was the computer. She traced her fingers along the top of the frame until she felt a small smooth circle. When she pressed it, the picture of Crea Lindelhan disappeared and a bright blue screen now shown asking for authorization.
Talon had never seen a computer disguised as patriotic wall art before and felt unprepared for this new development under the time constraint. Perhaps sticking to her original stealth-approach would have given her more time. She sighed. No point in what-iffing now. In less than a minute they will have sliced a hole big enough to crawl through and, judging by the number of voices in the hallway, she could not fight her way out of this one. Although not ideal, she would have to escape with the painting in tow.
Suddenly, a laser shot clear through the door, its red heat searing a vase of flowers on the other side of the room. Kasilla yelped in surprise and ducked for cover. Talon hauled ass to the window. Police cars descended on the grounds. Of course being captured was out of the question. Talon was confident she could reach the designated end point without even being seen. A rope with a triangle claw would have done her well here.
Luckily, the doctor liked a more elegant and dated decorative style, which seemed a little at discourse with the asteroidean location. The windows were framed with floor-length Victorian-style curtains that were characteristically crowned with an elegant valance and layered with thick mounds of fabric. Talon undid the tassel bundling the drapery and tied it onto the window’s locking mechanism. She would soon find out if it would hold her body weight.
Talon swung her legs over the sill, planted her feet along the sides of the mansion, and repelled quickly with the painting tucked securely under her arm. Half way down the rope splintered, sending her hurtling to the ground. The air was completely knocked out of her and she lay stunned for several moments. Kasilla. The woman’s head was poking out of the window now, and she had quite the smirk on her face.
“She’s right here!” the mistress yelled to someone behind her.
Talon took it as a warning to get the hell out of there. She stood and sprinted as fast as she could using the walls as cover. A shot ricocheted off the brick close to her head, sending clay and shale firing onto the sides of her face.
Talon could hear the police barking orders and radioing her whereabouts. That made them easy to evade. She used her environment to her advantage, dipping behind trees and scaling over walls until finally she seemed to lose her pursers.
Talon virtually skipped to the stake set in a wooden area beyond the mansion’s grounds. She was almost there. The taste of victory had her salivating. The end post stood like a beacon in the moonlight, it’s head glowing a soft red. She punched it hard. Success!
The picture she was holding shined bright blue in her eyes, causing a jerk reaction. She dropped it in the grass and stared at the words shining back at her. Words she wouldn’t have betted her life on seeing in that moment.
“Talon Terry, my beautiful eagle, will you marry me?” She stood stunned, motionless, and confused beyond measure.
“My eagle.” She heard a voice saying.
Talon turned her head and her jaw went slack with surprise. Her boyfriend, Levi Avondale, walked from behind a small tree in the thicket. His hair brushed past the nape of his neck in blonde curls any girl would kill for, and he was actually wearing formal attire. Talon didn’t know if it was because he was standing there, or if it was because he looked drop dead delicious, but her jaw dropped to the floor.
“Are you okay?” she found herself saying.
Levi laughed. “Do I look like I’m in danger?”
“Well…no,” she admitted. “I guess I’m just caught off guard. Is this really you?”
Levi chuckled. “Then I guess I did it right. Yes, this is really me, Tal. I had a little talk with your advisory committee. Thought I would ask the love of my life to marry me in style. You passed your final exam, and I have the honor of telling you first that you are officially top of your graduating class. ” Levi picked up Talon’s right hand, sliding a class ring onto her finger.
Talon looked down and studied the bulky metal. The center stone contained the image of the agency’s logo. It was as black as the void, sprinkled with white specs to represent stars. In the middle, was a vermilion-colored oblong rock meant to represent Ohmani itself. The shank of the ring was adorned with jewels the color of the agency – also red and black – along with her year of graduation and her name. Talon’s eyes welled up as she finally came to cognition.
“I like this hat.” Levi traced the golden-stitched eagle on the front of her beanie.
“Thank you,” she replied, pulling it off. She loosened her hair from its fastenings and it went flooding down her shoulders.
“You’re so beautiful.” Levi stepped forward and kissed her.
Talon melted into the moment. Just when she didn’t think it could get any better, fireflies began flashing all around them like they had in Fort Bragg many years ago. She hadn’t seen the magnificent insects since. It was magical and Talon found herself mesmerized by their dance. Levi took her left hand and bent a knee.
“Oh, Levi,” she placed her palm over her mouth to stop the unflattering snuffles.
“Talon Terry, there was never a time I didn’t love you. You are the strongest, most beautiful woman I know. I want to make you happy the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”
“YES!” She jumped into his arms before he could finish rolling the ring on her finger. How could she have gotten so lucky to find such an incredible man? They kissed, savoring the love they shared and the idea that it would never end as long as their flesh was still of this universe.
“Are you ready to celebrate?” Levi spoke softly into her ear. “You have an engagement party to attend.”
She couldn’t see him, but felt the muscles in his face pull up in a smile against her own cheek.
“You really are the best, you know that?”
“You deserve only the best,” he avowed in a way that was so sincere it melted her heart.
“Mission complete. Agent 2744 to disconnect.”
As soon as the words were spoken, she began to feel the warmth and pressure of Levi’s embrace fade away and for a moment she was sad. The romantic thicket began vanishing into blackness and the all-too-familiar dizzy feeling of exiting simulations invaded her head. A shudder washed over her in rejection of the overly air-conditioned room her brain suddenly acknowledged. She slowly opened her eyes and blinked away the fogginess of the simulation that had been her reality for about an hour. This was the real world, and she could not imagine a better one. She was going to marry the love of her life! Talon tried to jump up from her supine position in excitement only to be reminded of her constraints.
“Whoa, whoa,” a male voice called from a short distance away, “you know the drill, Tal, give me a second. These things aren’t cheap.”
She leaned her head back against the warm leather of the chair that reminded her of one you would find in a primeval mental institution. She imagined such a chair would also be fashioned with straps that laced across its prisoner’s body and forehead. The imprisonment was a safety precaution, they said, in case of parasomnia during the simulation process. Her fingers began tapping impatiently by her side, and it was only then that she realized there were no rings on them anymore.
Juv Normandy became clear in her peripherals. He was a thin man in his mid-thirties, but because of his baby face and head of unkempt orange hair, he looked no older than she. He had been her simulation handler all four years since she’d been accepted into the agencies training program. Taking her final exam with him felt surreal.
“You, Talon, are a very clever girl,” he complimented as he removed the restrictive apparatus from her body. “You had me on the edge of my seat with that little stunt you pulled with the girl…and you found the second computer? When they told us about that in the development meeting I didn’t think anyone would find it! Our department is so lucky to be having you join the team.” Juv smiled as he removed the computer’s last corporal connection, which gave a protesting beep.
“I’m glad you were dangerously entertained behind the safety of your computer screen,” she quipped. She had always enjoyed the ongoing banter between the technical support and the field officers.
“At least I’ll be alive in five years to enjoy my mundane existence. No more simulations for you. Now if you actually get shot on a mission it will be real life. So be careful, okay?” His voice and his brows lowered like a concerned parent. “I saw that bullet almost go into your pretty little head.”
“Of course I will be careful, Juv. I promise,” she added reassuringly as she threw her legs over the gurney and retrieved her shoes.
“Good. You are now free to go, future Mrs. Avondale,” he winked.
“Thanks, Juv! I’m sure I will see you around, so, until next time.” Talon gave Juv a friendly pat on the shoulder and started to walk briskly toward the door before turning on the balls of her feet. “Hey, do you happen to know where he is?”
“Your fiancé’s being escorted out of the building. I can’t believe he was able to pull that off…a civilian in a government intelligence training simulation? Pretty amazing engagement idea. And the fireflies? Uh,” Juv threw a hand over his heart. “He’s a keeper!”
Talon laughed. “I know, he is pretty amazing. Thanks Juv!” she waved as she threw open the door and ran down the hall.
As she turned her first corner she slammed into a body, sending whoever it was backwards a solid foot. “I’m so sorry,” Talon panted in a haste.
She looked up and found herself staring into the dark blue eyes of Brody Dutton. These eyes were not calming like an afternoon summer sky, but dark and stormy. White veins laced across his irises like flashes of heat lightening.
“Brody,” she greeted after retrieving her balance. Feeling a little uncomfortable with his stony silence she began to fill it with disingenuous pleasantries. “How are you?”
Brody simply stared at her unblinkingly. He was of Italian heritage with dark features. He had a strong chiseled jaw showcasing purposeful stubble that made him seem all the more brooding. Jet black locks were slicked back neatly on his scalp in a classic way gone slightly rock star. Though the other women in her cohort clucked over him like hens, she always thought his seriousness took away from his handsomeness.
“What’s wrong?” she finally asked.
“That stupid final. What a joke.”
“You didn’t pass?”
“No, no one has. It’s impossible,” he declared. “How did you do? Did you even get up to the office?”
“Yeeeah,” she answered reluctantly, “I did actually.”
He scoffed in disbelief. “Did you find this second computer they didn’t tell anyone about?”
“How do you know the program if no one has been successful? Don’t they tell us when everyone is finished?”
“I have my ways,” he bragged. “I didn’t cheat if that’s what you mean. I didn’t find out until after. So, did you find it?”
“Uhh…yes,” she answered reluctantly. “We’re not supposed to be talking about this until everyone has done it, Brody,” she warned, feeling uncomfortable that they were in the hall breaching confidentiality.
“Yeah, well, so far you’re the only one. Seems a little weird to me. Did your simulation controller give you any hints?”
She was insulted that Brody had just accused her and Juv of cheating, especially after his ‘connection’ admission. “No,” she retorted flatly. “Perhaps the committee wanted to see if we could think outside the box under pressure. You’re not going to get all the details in real-life, Brody”
“But it’s not fair!” he shouted like a child and then squinted his eyes at her. “You’re valedictorian now, aren’t you?”
Talon didn’t think it was possible to get any more uncomfortable. “I think I might be,” she winced, preparing for the backlash. Their program was set-up on a point system, and she and Brody had fluctuated between first and second in their cohort over the past year. He had always been competitive to a fault, and it had driven their one-time friendship into the ground as the years went on.
“I should be!”
Talon could see the storm raging on inside of him through the windows of his eyes. She knew she shouldn’t prod his already deflated ego, but found herself doing just that. “I guess the best operative won.” She saw a vein begin thundering in his temple.
“I am going to talk to the committee about this,” Brody threatened, marching down the hall.
Good luck with that. Talon ran to the elevator and when the doors dinged open she all but hopped inside to stand in front of the people already on the ride down.
“Have to pee?” a voice spoke amongst the small group. Although no one addressed her directly, she realized she was shimming back and forth unnaturally in excitement.
Talon turned to see Wilga Fron squeezing her broad shoulders between two bodies to stand beside her. Ironically, Wilga was third in their class of thirty-one, but her rank did not taint their friendship like it had with Brody. Wilga’s talent was pure and she was highly motivated, not to be best in class like Brody, but to be the best of her species. Hamzas were stereotyped as not making the greatest operatives. ‘They’re stockier than a bull, clumsier than a calf, and hairier than an ox,’ she remembered one of her classmates saying her first year. Although Talon dismissed the first two comparisons as cruel, she had to admit the third one held merit.
“No, I don’t have to pee.” Talon noticed a few eyes scolding their choice of conversation.
“Post-simulation restless leg syndrome,” she snorted deep and shook her head knowingly. “The simulations do that to me too…all that laying down for so long, strapped in like…like…what are those monsters of humans that are wrapped in white paper?
“Yeah, mummies. I have to do some squats every time I’m done in there just to relieve the tension,” she nodded firmly and gave her thigh a healthy slap. “So that means you must have just taken your final. How was it?”
“It went well.” It was the only thing Talon could really say without giving anything away. “I’m just excited to be graduating,” and to be getting married, she smiled. “When are you taking your final?”
“Tomorrow. I think I’m dead last. I’m on my way to ImageK now. I’ve gotta get waxed. Twice this year I got major points deducted for leaving evidence,” Wilga self-confessed, pulling a tuft of dark, course hair on her upper arm.
Talon attempted a sympathetic smile. In the five years she’d lived on Ohmani, she still wasn’t used to seeing such hirsute women. “That’s happened to me too,” Talon replied honestly. “It is the reason I always wear my hat on missions.” She was actually quite fond of that beanie. She wore it in every simulation and actually felt a little disappointed that it only existed in virtual reality.
“I couldn’t imagine…you Sydces and your crazy long hair.” She grabbed a lock and began studying it. Hamzas weren’t known for respecting personal boundaries. “Seems like it would weigh your tiny little head down.” Wilga redirected her gaze to her phone.
“Good luck, Wilga. You will do great,” Talon encouraged, stepping out of the elevator.
“Thanks, Talon. And thanks for beating out Brody. I just won fifty ohms.”
Great. The see-sawing in points between Talon and Brody had generated a lot of hype among the other trainees. These bets were only going to fuel Brody’s fire.
Talon rushed towards the entrance, her shoes squeaking every so often as she weaved through the crowds. She turned the corner and saw Levi waiting in the lobby. She couldn’t help but start running.
“There you are!” Levi opened his arms for her to fly into. She didn’t know how long they embraced each other, but when she finally slid back down his torso, he held out the two rings in his palm. “Which one first?”
“That one!” she pointed to the diamond one, which he slid onto her left ring finger. “Oh Levi, it looks even better in person…and in the light,” she laughed, studying its intricacies. “What is this stone in the middle?” It was a brilliant fuchsia.
“That’s an inja from Dedrake. It is traditionally incorporated into binding jewelry, although they wear them on the middle finger. Do you like it?”
“I love it! You’re amazing!”
“Phew, that’s a relief. I never thought ring shopping would be so stressful,” he disclosed, sliding her class ring onto her other finger.
“We’re getting married. We’re getting married!” she exclaimed.
“Finally,” he laughed. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a very long time.”
“I still can’t believe you were in my final exam simulation! How did you get permission?”
“Well, it was twenty percent your popularity and eighty percent Mantys,” he chuckled, pulling her outside.
“I’m sure it wasn’t so much my popularity as it was your fame,” she countered, noticing a reporter flashing a picture of them on the steps of the Department of Law and Order building.
He held her hand and they waved down a taxi. “If you could pick anywhere on Ohmani to have an engagement party, where would it be?” he asked her.
“Hmm…well, you know I’m not much for big deals. Our apartment?” She giggled, knowing that was probably the least festive place on Ohmani minus the Underground.
Levi flashed a grin. “I know you very well. That’s where everyone is waiting.” He told the driver their address.
Levi was everything to her. Since moving to the asteroid he had grown into a man, and she wasn’t just referring to the physical specimen he had become. Levi had quickly found his way and his purpose. Taking advantage of the optional thirteenth year at Ohmani Academy Central High, he had concentrated on learning Katawil, the common midaki language, in addition to taking the extra Careers in the Cosmos class.
After graduation Levi was in high demand for surfing lessons, which he did at the Waterdrome and through Extension. Subsequent success and endorsements had also earned him a great deal of money, which he used to buy a penthouse condo in an affluent gated community less than a year after high school graduation.
Talon continued to live with Bale and Teddy during the first few years in the program, but with little Pila growing up, it had become crowded. A year ago Talon began looking for an apartment of her own, but under a student budget, she could only afford a small underground studio. Levi had gone with her several times to look at potential places, but between the lack of windows and plethora of cockroaches, he insisted they move in together.
Talon and Levi had settled into a comfortable routine, which meant a lack of one altogether. Talon’s time was stripped due to the rigorousness of the program. When she wasn’t in the DOLO, she was preparing for simulations and studying for tests. All of her hard work had paid off, as evidenced by the fat valedictorian ring on her finger.
Levi, himself, remained extremely busy and now traveling had become a huge part of his job description. In a few days, he would begin his “Extend to Success” tour in the United States. It was a scholarship program for underprivileged high-school students who could benefit from using Extensions for jobs, internships, or even sports. Though the two of them were inherently busy, it suited them, and their relationship had not suffered in the slightest.
The taxi pulled up to the gate and Levi reached outside the backseat window to place his palm in the reader. “Hello, Levi Avondale,” the automated greeter spoke, “Welcome home.” The gate opened and the taxi drove them around a large bend in the road.
“We’re in that one,” he pointed to one of the many buildings on the grounds.
As they made their way upwards to the top floor, Talon’s mind began swimming with thoughts of the future. It had been a big day, both professionally and personally. Over the past four years, she had been so focused on becoming the best operative possible that she hadn’t given much thought to what would happen after graduation. What was the next step? Now that she had set-up her career in the intelligence field, she had a better chance of finding Kravis. But where to start?
As far as she knew, there hadn’t been one act of violence claimed by them since the attacks during the political summit over five years ago. Indeed, the Sinupecs had been eerily quiet since The Great Rescue treaty renegotiations, which did the opposite of make her feel at ease. As of now she had no leads, but she needed to smoke out the snake in the grass before he could bite her first.
“You seem quiet.”
Talon immediately felt guilty she had been thinking about Kravis rather than on their engagement. “I was just reliving today’s perfection,” she lied, squeezing his hand.
“Are you sure you’re up for this engagement slash graduation party? We could reschedule it for tomorrow if you would rather rest. You’ve barely gotten any sleep lately.” Worry was evident in his tone.
“There’s nothing I would rather be doing,” she assured, “Fiancé.”
(The rest of chapter 2 not available....)