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Operation Cobalt (Nova Force Book 2) by Susan Hayes (1)

Chapter One

“It’s the only thing that makes sense.” Dr. Tyra Li could see her teammates weren’t in agreement. They were all crowded into the space they’d designated the meeting room, because it was the largest one they had. It wasn’t big enough, though. It was standing room only, all of them leaning against the grimy walls as they talked through their current challenge.

Barry Carver, the second-most senior doctor on the team, shook his grey head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t see the correlation. The medic who made the initial report wasn’t specific enough for anyone to make the leap you’re making, Dr. Li. Just because two drugs cause violent outbursts and psychosis doesn’t mean they’re made from similar compounds.”

“We need more than second-hand descriptions of the effects, we have to get our hands on an actual sample of this drug,” Dr. Oran Castille chimed in from his corner. It was a common refrain from him, one they were all tired of hearing.

Tanis Vinos, the team’s systems tech, shot an irritated look at Oran. “Why don’t you trot down to the local pharma den and pick us up some, then? Oh, wait, we tried that. There’s not a trace of the fraxxing stuff anywhere.”

Frustration was making everyone short tempered. How could a street drug hit so hard and then disappear completely? “I know this has been a uniquely challenging assignment, but we’ll get there in the end.” Tyra looked around the room at the men and women who made up her team. They’d all joined Boundless to make a difference, to help people in crisis no matter the risk. Standing idly by wasn’t in their nature.

Jessica scoffed. “There’s no challenge here at all. Bellex 3 is hardly paradise, but the population is relatively healthy.”

Riku hummed in quiet disagreement. “There may not be a drug problem, but these people still need us.” He gestured out the dirt-encrusted window to the gray, dismal world beyond the glass. “We’re the only qualified medical personnel in this entire district! Bellex Corporation should be ashamed of themselves. These are people, not animals. But they’re treated like livestock, or worse. Makes me glad cloning has been outlawed. Can you imagine what the corporations would do if they could manufacture their workers the way they did the cyborgs?”

“They’d love to create another slave workforce with no rights at all,” Tanis said. “Though that’s damned close to what’s going on here. Have you seen the tattoos? Cute little triangle symbol on their necks? They might as well be the barcodes they slapped on the poor cyborgs. Anyone with that tattoo has been chipped by Bellex so they can be scanned and tracked. It’s horrible.”

“We’re not here to judge, Tanis,” Barry said with a hint of reproval.

“Attitudes like that are how the corporations got away with abusing the cyborgs for so long. No one wanted to interfere. They were just vat-grown machines, so what was the harm? Only they weren’t machines at all, and they suffered all sorts of atrocities because no one wanted to stick their neck out. The corporations have proven they can’t be trusted with tech like that. Clones. Cybernetic implants. Nanotech. They’ve abused it all.”

Barry stiffened. “We’re here to help the people, not get involved in local issues. That’s a key part of Boundless’ mission statement. If we start interfering…”

Tyra cleared her throat. “I’m sure we’re all aware of our mission statement, Dr. Carver, but I understand Tanis’ concerns, as well. No one wants a repeat of what happened to the cyborgs. While we can’t interfere, we can certainly document what we’re seeing.”

Both Tanis and Barry nodded in silent agreement.

“And while we are here, we can help these people as much as we can.” She reminded them. “After all, while we’re helping them, we’re giving ourselves the best chance of finding some trace of cobalt. The blood samples we’ve taken from our patients have made it clear something is going on here. Most of our patients are sex trade workers, pharma peddlers, and street kids. The fact that none of them show any sign of the drug is one of the main reasons I believe it’s not being used recreationally. That’s the most vulnerable population. If they aren’t using it, then it has to be the workers.”

“I want to support you, Dr. Li, but once again, you’re using a lack of evidence as proof of your theories.” Barry said.

Dr. Carver was steadfast and unflappable in a crisis, but he always needed a mountain of proof before he accepted any diagnosis or theory. It made him a valuable member of the team, but right now, she was frustrated no one else saw the patterns she did. It was as clear as fraxxing crystal to her. “If I’m right, then the only way to get proof is to test the factory workers.”

“Our agreement with Bellex doesn’t allow…” Barry started.

She cut him off with an angry slash of her hand. “I know. I know. But if I’m right, they might very well be in on this. You’ve seen the workers. The way they behave. Hyper- focused, frenetic, pushing themselves to the point of breakdown without slowing. That’s not normal.”

Everyone else remained silent.

“Alright, you’re not buying my theory. Let’s hear yours.” She leaned against the wall and waited.

Jessica cleared her throat. “What if the original overdoses weren’t from a drug like crimson. What if it was crimson, or at least a bad copy of it? Someone local tried to replicate it, but they got it wrong. The overdoses and deaths brought too much attention, so they closed shop and bailed. They’ll probably try again with a new batch in a new district. We could stay here, help out the locals, and wait to see if the problem starts again elsewhere on the planet.”

Several others nodded, and Tyra grudgingly accepted that they weren’t going to see things her way. “Anyone else got a theory they’d like to put forward? Some angle we haven’t thought of?”

No one spoke. She let the silence continue for a few minutes, then pushed off the wall she was leaning against and moved to the middle of the room “If that’s everything, then let’s call this meeting and get back to work. We’ll revisit this discussion in a few days.”

There wasn’t much said as they filed out. Riku gave her a brief nod and a smile as he left, and Tanis bumped shoulders with her as she passed by. Once they were gone, Tyra sighed and looked out the window at the grim, colorless world outside.

There was something going on here, and she was going to prove it, one way or another. Until then, there was work to do.

Tyra rested her hand on top of Nico’s, both as a comfort and to make sure the boy kept still until the tissue regenerator had completed its work. “You should have come to see me sooner. Your arm must have been hurting all day.”

Nico nodded but didn’t take his eyes off the rapidly healing wounds on his forearm. “It did. Lots ‘n lots. But Livvy said I couldn’t go until I brought in my share.”

She bit back her opinion of Livvy, the adolescent girl who offered protection and dubious employment opportunities for the local band of street kids that called this neighborhood home. Not that most of them had homes. They were orphans and runaways, abandoned by their parents for reasons Tyra couldn’t begin to fathom.

“How did you manage to scavenge that much with your arm all cut up? You must have worked very hard.”

Nico looked up, his dirt-streaked face splitting into a gap-toothed grin. “I went down to the mag-train station and begged. People always give you more when you’re bleeding. I even got more ‘n I needed. I was going to go down to the market tomorrow and buy a hamburger. I never ate one that I bought myself.” His eyes widened. “Or maybe I should pay you for fixing me? That’s what real patients do, right?”

“You are my patient, but not all my patients pay me with money. Keep your coins and buy yourself a burger tomorrow.” She smiled down at the boy. He might have been as old as twelve, but he was so thin and malnourished it was impossible to be sure.

“How do your other patients pay you?”

“Sometimes they bring me things they’ve made themselves, or they cook me a meal. Other times they help me get the things I need to help my patients.” Tyra had spent the first years of her life in Xinshi, an Earth-based hive city on the coast of what had once been called China. Barter and trade were second nature to her, and she was happy to accept whatever form of payment her patients could afford – if they could afford anything at all.

Nico nodded. “I could do that. Bring you things. Help you help other people.”

She had no doubt Nico could bring her plenty of things, all of them either broken, stolen, or both.

“What about working here, instead?” She gestured around the cramped room. What passed for the government on this corporate-controlled world hadn’t wanted the Boundless team to set foot on the planet. It had taken an undue amount of outside pressure to force the governor’s agreement. While he’d granted permission for Boundless to come to Bellex 3, he had managed to express his displeasure in petty ways, like the building he had grudgingly allowed them to turn into a research and medical center. It was rundown and dirty, with entire rooms crammed full of trash, and wiring so old it could barely support their equipment. They’d managed to reclaim, organize, and sterilize the space they needed, but another pair of hands would be welcome.

Nico eyed her with a suspicion that made him look far older than his years. “Doing what?”

“Sweeping. Helping me and the other doctors organize this place. Maybe run a few errands? If you went to the market and bought us lunch every day, that would be a great help.” It would also make sure that the boy got at least one meal a day he didn’t have to scavenge from the automated organic waste bins. She was certain that was how Nico had gotten the cuts on his arm and hand. The clean slices had to have been made by a blade, and they were too uniform to have been made one at a time. He was lucky he hadn’t lost his hand.

He considered her offer for a moment and then gave a slow nod. “I could do that. We’re allowed to work for others, but only after we do our share. Otherwise, Livvy gets mad.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want to make her mad, would we?” Tyra checked his newly healed arm and was pleased with the results. There would be no permanent damage. While they were officially here to investigate the cobalt crisis, she saw no reason not to help the residents in other ways.

“Nope” Nico shook his head. “Livvy’s real mean when she’s mad. Not like you. You’re nice, Doc Li.”

“Thank you, Nico.” She was about to put a layer of sealant over the freshly grown skin when someone shouted. Before she could do more than straighten, the shouts turned to fearful screams punctuated by the terrifying sound of blaster fire.

Nico sprang from the chair and raced toward the window. “C’mon, Doc Li!”

“We can’t go that way, the window is stuck. I want you to hide in there, Nico. No matter what happens, don’t come out, and don’t make a sound!” She pointed to a dilapidated cupboard that spanned one wall of the room. There was just enough room for him to squeeze inside. She scanned the room, looking for anything she could use for a weapon and cursing her decision to leave her sidearm locked in her desk downstairs.

She turned back to the cupboard, expecting Nico to already be hiding inside. The doors were still hanging open, the space empty. Her patient was nowhere to be seen. Before she could figure out where the hell he’d gone, someone ran up the stairs. The footfalls were heavy, uneven, and coming her way. Tyra grabbed one of the cupboard doors, yanking it off its hinges and holding it over her head like a club as she positioned herself beside the door.

The door flew open and Oran staggered into view, one hand clasped to his shoulder as blood poured down his chest. She dropped her makeshift weapon and grabbed him instead. “What’s going on?”

“Masked men. The burst in and just started shooting.”

Fraxx. Where were they going to go?

She wrapped an arm around Oran’s waist and leaned into him. “Come on. We need to find a place to hide.”

Oran sagged against her with an agonized groan. “Where?” He was almost a foot taller than her and outweighed her by more than she wanted to think about, but she managed to help him across the room, away from the door.

“Doc Li. Here. Hurry!” Nico popped his head through the now open window, grinning like he was taking part in a new game and not a life-and-death moment. “I checked downstairs. They’re looking for that guy right now, but they are almost finished clearing the bottom floor. They’ll be comin’ up the stairs any second.”

“This is Dr. Castille, and he’s hurt. Can you help me get him through the window?”

Nico nodded and stuck his hands through the window. “Hurry.”

She grabbed her med-kit and tossed it at Nico before helping Oran to the window. To his credit, he managed to stay mostly quiet as they manhandled him through the frame and out onto the rusty remains of a fire escape. Nico used it like a playground jungle gym, climbing higher and exhorting them to do the same.

She ignored her own instincts, which were all screaming to get her feet back on solid ground, and followed Nico. He was a survivor, and if she wanted to be, too, she would have to follow his lead. Oran gritted his teeth and managed to make it up the ladder to the roof, but after that, he was almost spent. “My friend isn’t going to be able to go much farther.”

“He don’t have to go far.” Nico tossed the med-kit back to her. “Fix him. I’ll get us out of here.” The boy ran to the far side of the roof, rummaging through what looked like a bunch of haphazard junk. Tyra had no idea how that was going to help them get away, but Nico didn’t want to die up here any more than she did, so there had to be a method to his madness.

“How are you holding up?” she asked Oran as she popped open her kit and grabbed a canister of redi-seal, a multipurpose foam that should seal his wound and work as a temporary bandage.

“Getting shot sucks.”

“Yeah, I know. I got bad news for you, though.” She tore open his shirt to expose the gaping hole in his shoulder, broke the seal on the canister, and tossed away the outer casing.

“What’s that?”

“This is going to suck even more. Remember, no noise.” She slid the sterilized section of the redi-seal into the open wound and pressed the plunger. The foam hissed as it expanded to fill the empty space, the heat of the chemical reaction sterilizing and cauterizing the injured area as it went.

Oran uttered a single, muted wail and then slumped over in a dead faint. She finished doing what she could for him and shoved everything back in her kit. He was stirring, but not fast enough. She made a fist with one hand and briskly rubbed her knuckles over his breastbone. “Come on, Oran, open your eyes. We need to go.”

He groaned, but it took another sharp rub of her knuckles to get him to open his eyes. By then, his breath was coming easier, and a little of his color was back, signs that the anesthetic in the foam was taking effect. She was satisfied he’d be ready to run when the time came. If they had anywhere to run to. She looked back at Nico and was surprised to see he’d turned the pile of random junk into a workable bridge. It spanned the gap from their rooftop to the windowsill of a taller building next door. Nico was already partway across, and when he saw her looking at him, he grinned and gestured.

“We go this way.”

“You’re amazing, Nico. When it’s safe, I’m taking you out for all the burgers you can eat.”

The boy’s brown eyes filled with awe. “Really?”

She nodded, slung her medkit over her shoulder, and pulled Oran to his feet. “You get us safe, I’ll buy you an entire vat of cloned-beef burgers. Maybe even real beef if we can find some on this world.”

“And I’ll buy dessert,” Oran chimed in weakly.

Nico was almost dancing a jig now. “Then you better hurry. Come on. It’ll hold your weight, but we gots to go!”

Oran was moving a little better now that the pain had eased, and he managed to get himself across the makeshift bridge with minimal help, though it took both of them longer than she liked to get through the window. I’m getting old. If she survived this insanity, she really needed to work on her flexibility…and her cardio.

The moment her feet hit the floor Nico began hauling the bridge in behind him, erasing any sign of their escape. Tyra helped, and they had it almost inside when the air erupted with shouts and the ring of heavy boots on steel. Their mystery attackers were on their way up the fire escape.

They ducked out of sight and dropped their voices to hushed whispers. “Where to, now, Nico?”

“I’m taking you somewhere safe.” Nico grabbed her by the hand. “Someplace secret.”

Safe was all Tyra cared about right now. She needed to get somewhere secure so she could treat Oran, find out if anyone else had gotten out, and then figure out who the fraxx had the balls to storm a volunteer medical center in broad daylight. If they’d been there for pharma, they wouldn’t have gone looking for her and Oran. Whoever they were, they were there to do harm, and she had a sinking feeling that didn’t bode well for the rest of her team.

All she had was a medkit, a wounded teammate, and a street urchin whose strongest motivation was his love of hamburgers. It would have to be enough.

Dante slammed his fist into the sparring bot with a satisfying smack. The owners of the club had issued invitations to Dante’s entire team to use their training gym while the Nova Force’s new base on Astek Station was under construction. The feel of the gym took Dante back to his life before he’d joined up, back when blood sports and hurting people for money were the only ways he knew to survive.

“You break it, you’re buying me a new one, Strak!” Cynder, one of the cyborg owners of the club called out from across the gym.

“Don’t listen to her. She’s broken that poor thing more times than we can count. Lieksa always manages to put it back together again,” Toro, the biggest cyborg Dante had ever seen, said before taking another swing at Cynder. The two of them were sparring in preparation for their next matches. Husband and wife pounded on each other with a ferocity that would have done real damage to a human.

“Don’t worry ‘bout your cute little bot. I’m pulling my punches. The IAF training gyms never had anything as robust as your toys, and I learned fast not to break them.”

Jaeger, Cynder’s other husband, looked up from the weight bench without bothering to lower the hundred pounds of weight loaded onto his bar, and stars knew how high the cyborg had the gravity dialed up in that area. Working out with cyborgs had been an eye-opening experience for Dante. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t the strongest one in the gym. Not even close.

“You want a real workout, Strak, you should go a few rounds with Cyn.”

“Nope. I don’t fight ladies. Not even ones that could kick my ass while hopping on one foot.”

There were riffs of laughter from all around the training area. Cynder didn’t laugh, though. She stepped away from Toro and looked straight at Dante, her expression solemn. “Personal rule?”

Dante tapped two fingers to his chest. “A promise I made to myself a long time ago.”

Cyn dropped her head in a brief nod, pivoted, and moved back into range of her husband’s blows. Some women took his stance as an affront, others as a challenge. He appreciated that Cynder hadn’t. He didn’t like to talk about the reasons behind that rule.

Thoughts of the past cooled his interest in working out anymore. He deactivated the sparring bot and headed for the showers. The water might be recycled, but it would be scorching hot, and that’s all he really needed. The showers in the club’s gym were built to accommodate their fighters, which meant that even his six-foot-nine frame fitted comfortably in the stalls. It was yet another reason he liked coming to the Nova Club. There was nothing here that made him feel out of place.

He’d traveled all over the galaxy, but this place was unique. It wasn’t Astek Station itself– there was nothing comfortable about its cramped corridors, battered walls, and recycled atmosphere. It was the beings who had carved out a place for themselves in this collection of platforms and stations that floated out at the edge of known space. Humans, Torskis, Jeskyrans, Pherans, and cyborgs lived side by side, laughing, fighting, and loving each other.

It was a place where air was precious, and life was cheap. The Corp-Sec teams worked tirelessly to maintain some semblance of order, but it was a fight they’d never win. Astek catered to every vice imaginable, and there wasn’t much that was illegal, so long as you had the scrip and the inclination to indulge. Not that he indulged in anything stronger than Ja’kreesh these days. The brewed stimulant was the Torski equivalent of coffee, and most humans couldn’t handle the effect on their nervous systems. Being part Torski, it didn’t bother him. There was a brew shop on the station that specialized in the stuff, and he’d become a regular customer.

He was still mulling over the quirks and qualities of their new base of operations when his comm-device erupted in a strident sequence of chirps and beeps. Veth. That was the priority message alert. He left the shower running and jogged over to where he’d left his belongings, rummaging through them until he found his comm.

He thumbed the control to audio only. “Strak here.”

“This is Rossi. You’ve been tapped for a solo mission. You’ve got ten minutes to get in uniform and report to the briefing room on the Malora.”

“I’ll be there.” He didn’t bother asking what the mission was. He’d find out when he got to the briefing. It wasn’t common for Rossi to split up the team and even less common for Strak to be the one going in alone. For one thing, he was the Malora’s pilot, and then there was the fact his appearance made him stand out. Whatever the assignment was, stealth wouldn’t be part of it.