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Chapter 1

 


October 31, 2388 AD
Tau Ceti Planet Four, Moon Alpha, aka Ares
Madira Valley Beach Spaceport
Saturday, 5:00 AM, Earth Eastern Standard Time
Saturday, 1:00 AM, Madira Valley Standard Time

Kira, behind you! The artificial intelligence voice rang loudly in her mind.


Kira watched the glare in the computer monitor as it suddenly darkened, and the reflection of a soldier filled the screen. She clicked off the direct-to-mind link to the Separatist ship's computer manifest that was displayed virtually around her head and prepared herself for action. She had successfully managed to board the ship, stow away long enough to hack into the Separatist control database, and download what she felt would be extremely important intelligence data on the Seppy regime plans. The plans might enable the United States to counter them—if she managed to escape the ship with them. The Separatist soldier sneaking up on her from behind probably intended to prevent that.


Quickly, Kira ducked and then back-kicked the man in the shin. With a swift and fluid clockwise turn, she slammed an elbow into his rib cage, forceful enough to crack bone, and followed with a backfist to the face.


"Uh!" the man grunted, but he somehow managed to stay on his feet and lunged toward her with blood starting to trickle from his lower lip.


He was a fairly large man. Kira surmised that he was most likely of full-blooded Martian lineage because of his pale skin and dark hair. From the size of his midsection, she also guessed that he had never missed a meal.


The bigger they are . . . , Allison started.


The harder they hit, Kira finished, as she attempted to sidestep his advance, unsuccessfully.


The force of his lumbering weight was enough to push Kira off balance and to the ground underneath him. The man probably assumed that he was going to use his size to overpower Kira easily—a mistake often made by large men when it came to women—because he tried to grapple with her and force her into a bear hug on the deck. But Kira knew better than to let that happen and forced herself up from the floor onto all fours and threw her head backward into the man's nose twice.


"Goddamn bitch!" he screamed. He grabbed at his broken nose with both hands while sending an alert via his direct-to-mind, com- net connection.


Security detail to maintenance office 13B on hangar deck C. Alarm klaxons sounded and filled the ship with flashing yellow lights.


The backward head-butt had stunned the man slightly and enabled Kira to work one of her legs free enough to direct a sweeping kick to his crotch with the heel of her foot. The blow to the man's private parts made him let go of her completely and clutch himself in pain instead.


Kira crawled like a bear from underneath him to avoid several telegraphed punches in her general direction as he recovered. She jumped to her feet only to find that a security guard was coming through the doorway and was raising the bad end of a stunner toward her. The young security guard hesitated too long before pulling the trigger, allowing Kira to slip under his line of fire. The blue electric bolt whizzed past her head, causing her hair to stand on end. The bolt made contact with the clumsy man behind her and incapacitated him. He convulsed from the stunning electricity dancing down his body and collapsed.


Kira spun around, placing her back to the security guard, while at the same time grabbing his wrist—the one with the stunner in it—with both hands. She then turned his hand, palm upward, and yanked his arm down, forcing her body upward and pushing her right shoulder against his elbow. The elbow snapped through at the joint with a clean break, causing the guard to drop the gun with a wail of agony and surprise.


Before he had time to complain a second time, Kira rammed her left elbow through his nose twice, rendering the young man bloody and unconscious.


Get his gun, Kira! Allison said into Kira's mind. I can hack the ID code.


Got it!


Kira hefted the stunner in her left hand, feeling the weight of it. The small red light on the safety lock flashed yellow twice and then turned green.


The ID code has been overridden, Allison assured her.


Good.


Kira poked her head around the doorway. The hallway was dimly lit with the flashing yellow security lights but was otherwise typical of any Separatist battle cruiser, except for the fact that there were three men and two women in uniform rushing toward her with firearms at the ready. And Kira was pretty certain that they weren't holding stunners. If only there had been a way to sneak on board through the ship's security with her handgun, she wouldn't have felt as vulnerable as she did with that damned range-limited stunner.


Shit! Kira thought to her artificial intelligence counterpart implant. We're cut off.


Yes, we are, Allison agreed.


The computer terminal that she had been hacking into was in a small storage clerk's office, which was two decks up from the lower and aftmost hangar deck of the ship. It was probably the maintenance clerk that first stumbled upon her and triggered the alarm. That was unfortunate for him. Unfortunate for Kira was the fact that her presence had been compromised, and there were guards coming for her. The data she had just stolen needed further study to understand what it really meant, but she was certain that it meant trouble for Earth. She had to analyze it in greater detail and find a way to get it back to the Sol System. First, however, she had to escape from the Separatist battle cruiser, get her hair dyed back to her normal color, change her costume, and blend back into her cover story without being exposed, all without getting captured or killed—piece of cake.


This is a lot like that time in New Africa when we got stuck in that meat truck for an hour during a firefight, Kira said through the mindlink.


Yes. We were outnumbered then and trapped. But then we had more ordnance with us, the AI reminded her.


And a rifle!


That would be handy now, Allison agreed.


Any suggestions? Kira checked the charge of the stunner. It was nearly full, a good thing.


What do we do when we are only slightly outnumbered? Allison asked rhetorically, fully knowing the answer. Just like in New Africa?


We attack! Kira leaped head first through the doorway into the hall, blasting blue electric stun bolts and dropping the larger of the men in a convulsive reaction to the eltrocution of the nervous system. She continued to fire as she rolled through a forward handspring to her feet, dropping another of the men—the second-largest. The element of surprise was working in her favor, for the moment.


The members of the security detail were clearly young and inexperienced with real combat situations and had been hesitant in firing their weapons as they approached. This slight hesitation was long enough for her to close the gap between them, making it more likely for them to shoot one of their own while trying to get her. Only one of them managed to take a shot at her, which passed through the outer fleshy part of her left biceps. Kira ignored the pain and pushed forward. Her rushing tactic forced them to go hand-to-hand, which was just what she had wanted.


With a headlong attack into them, she was able to target their weapons and even managed a couple of shots from her stunner, which went wide and sizzled into the bulkhead. At first there was a flurry of arm grabs, punches, kicks, knees, and head-butts. The end result was that each of their weapons was knocked free to the deck, and all of them were rubbing new bruises while they postured away from each other, readying like lions circling prey.


Get me access to their guns, Allison. Lock them out if you can, but get me access.


I'm on it.


Kira quickly assessed her attackers and used the "snowball" rule. She would start with the easiest opponent first and then snowball her way through them one by one, progressively, to the hardest.


Hopefully by then she would figure out a better means of escape and wouldn't have to face the toughest opponent.


She chose the smallest one and attacked her first. It quickly became clear to Kira that the guard wasn't an amateur and was flexible as hell. The woman managed to hook-kick Kira in the back of the head, forcing her to loosen her grip and bite her tongue. The smaller woman pulled free and jumped out of the way so that the other two could step in with more clear lines of attack.


Kira swallowed the salty blood from her tongue and forced the attack, trying to keep the security detail from picking up one of the handguns on the floor. The man and woman in front of her began testing her with front-kicks and punches that Kira either sidestepped or countered with blocks and punches of her own.


Somehow, and she wasn't quite sure how, she had managed to get herself between the two, while letting the smaller woman whom she had first attacked work around behind her. The tactic was probably part of the security team's training—flank and attack from behind when there were superior numbers. Trained tactic or not, it wasn't a situation that she liked being in.


She's getting the drop on you, Kira! Watch your flanks!


I know!


Then do something about it, damnit!


Okay!


Kira had trained most of her life, from adolescence on, in combat encounters. She had nearly two decades of intense hand-to-hand training and years in actual covert ops and combat, and her reflexes were honed like the edge of a Damascus steel blade. But she barely managed to drop her right forearm in time to weaken the blow from a roundhouse kick to the gut. Kira heaved out and backpedaled, while at the same time she took a punch to the side of the head from the man on her right. The room blurred slightly, and Kira saw stars briefly.


Green light, Kira! The guns are open access! Allison exclaimed.


About time.


Kira shook the stars out of her eyes and counterattacked. She dropped her center of gravity, lunging with all her strength backward into the smaller woman behind her. The force of the lunge slammed the woman into the ship's bulkhead, cracking her head against it with a thwack. Kira reached both hands over her right shoulder, grabbing the woman by the neck, ears, and hair, tossing her over her shoulder as she dropped onto her right knee. This put the stunned woman between her and the other two that were pressing the attack and gave her time to scramble across the floor to one of the handguns.


There was a moment where the smaller woman that Kira had just thrown to the floor cleared her mind long enough to see what Kira was doing. And the two of them struggled for control of the weapon briefly. With a knee to the woman's sternum, Kira pulled the gun free.


Unlike the security detail, Kira wasn't concerned with friendly fire at all. She rolled over onto her back, gripped the weapon with both hands, and put a round into each of the guards still standing. Her first shot was dead-on the forehead of the man to her right, blowing out the back of his head and spreading bloody gray matter against the bulkhead. The second shot caught the woman on her left in the neck, stunning her and spraying blood profusely from the wound. Kira put another round in her chest and one each into the other guards on the floor before she turned back to the storage room to finish off the two incapacitated men in there.


No witnesses, she thought.


Too bad for them.


The younger guard in the storage clerk's office was beginning to come around but still couldn't move. Kira looked into his eyes as she raised the weapon and dispatched him. The other man was still out cold, and now he would never wake up.


No witnesses, she thought again.


Kira slinked back to the doorway to check for more soldiers. They would be coming soon, but they weren't yet. The storage clerk's office was pretty deep inside the belly of the battle cruiser, and the hangar was two decks down and more than a hundred meters out from there. That was a long way to go on a military ship without running into soldiers, especially soldiers that were going to be looking for you.


We'd better get out of here, Allison warned.


You think?


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