Opus X Book 12: Crucible of Truth
Danger around every corner, new mysteries unfolding. What is Julia planning?
1 – May 10, 2231, Wolf 359, Remus, New Rome
Yan ducked into the alley, guns cracking loudly. Bullets ripped into the corner of the commercial storage facility right behind him.
At least, that was what it was, according to the sign he’d noticed while sprinting down the narrow space between the two buildings.
The narrow alley was wide enough for a couple of men, but there was no way his pursuers could get their hovertruck through. The decisions he made in the coming moments might help determine the fate of the UTC.
He wouldn’t die there. No, it wasn’t that he wouldn’t, he thought. He couldn’t die there.
Fear for his life didn’t enter into his concern, only fear of failing his Immortal Empress.
He would not lose his life under the false holographic blue sky of a colonial dome before finishing the tasks appointed him.
He was an elite, a top agent, and one the empress had personally selected for this role.
A role he cherished and a role he would complete. Dying or being captured by the government was not acceptable.
They weren’t alike. He was better, stronger, and faster. Yan carried the blessings of his empress, and he’d show the government dogs what that meant.
He leapt at a wall and pushed off on contact toward the opposite wall, then repeated the movement. Barely a challenge.
The empress’ scientists and doctors had done their work well, granting him abilities far beyond those of humans at only the cost of his lifespan. There was a beautiful symmetry in the contrast between his fleeting life and her eternal life, she who would advance the human race beyond the petty limitations of his forebears. Eventually, a historian would document his sacrifice for his people, and at that time would the value of his efforts be known.
Yan had given up any expectations for recognition during this lifetime.
The men chasing him were custodians of stasis and weakness. They protected a corrupt order riddled with political cancer. Fools, all of them, serving false ideals.
A gray hovertruck whirred to a stop at the front of the alley. Yan was already halfway toward the roof. Mere misfortune allowed the Intelligence Directorate agents to detect him.
Detect, not defeat.
The agents called themselves ghosts and took advantage of the fear of the masses to enhance their reputation and resulting effectiveness to extract information. Their advanced technology and the resources of the government convinced some they did have supernatural powers like their namesakes.
He grunted as he pushed off the wall once more. Ghosts in name only.
They were men and women, nothing more.
He would go so far as to add they were cowards who lacked commitment to the cause. That was why they would fail.
There was no pity in his heart for government dogs.
An ID agent jumped out of the car, a pistol in hand. He swept it back and forth before lifting his head and shouting a curse, but it was too late. He got off one shot before Yan was out of range.
“You had your chance,” he murmured. A few small pieces of a badly attached pipe dropped as he continued up the walls and landed on the flat roof of the storage building.
Drones aimlessly circled in the air, relying on their preprogrammed flight paths. Yan didn’t try to avoid them. His jamming made them useless. All he needed to do was keep moving.
The ghosts’ movements made it obvious they’d never had direct camera or drone line-of-sight on him. Which, he had to admit, puzzled him. Given their clumsiness, how had they spotted him?
Yan smiled thinly as he charged to the opposite edge of the roof. His leap cleared the distance easily. He headed for the next roof, his anxiety lessening. Yan would not fail his empress, but that changed nothing.
He couldn’t risk contacting the Beidou until he finished cleaning up his mess.
It wouldn’t take long.
* * *
Yan stood in the darkened apartment near the door, his fingers tight around the handle of a knife. The late arrival of his would-be assassins surprised him. He’d assumed the ghosts would retreat immediately to their safehouse.
When they’d spotted him, he wasn’t anywhere near it, and there was no reason to assume he’d compromised the location. Instead, they’d spent far too long trying to track him in the city. He waited with a small glint of amusement at the idea they would die in the one place they believed secure.
Standing in the darkness of the quiet apartment, the only sound the mild hum of the environmental control system, transformed Yan’s assassination preparation into a near-meditative experience.
The apartment lay inside a tall building and was located near the center. That insulated it from the noise of street-level traffic or the occasional flitters allowed above buildings in the tight airspace of the domed colonial city.
The location annoyed him.
The arrogant ghosts had picked a poor location. He could understand their choice, but it was flawed.
The large strike team would have to travel through more than one hall to arrive, and the lack of windows to the outside combined with apartments beyond provided a natural sniper defense. Those advantages were canceled by the lack of an easy escape route.
Yan’s frustration with the quality of his targets built.
The ID had always been a minor consideration in the plans of the Core. While the government agency’s efforts against other members of the Core had facilitated the acceleration of the empress’ plans, the current fevered timetable had never been her intent.
At least, not when he joined.
Harassment of the other Core members was one thing, but the damage to her operations was unforgivable. In the last few years, the ID had changed from a manageable threat to a potentially lethal one.
Yan’s teeth ached as he subconsciously ground his annoyance between them. The Last Soldier and the Warrior Princess were the problems. A small number of highly skilled people could execute missions with far greater success and influence than their organization could account for.
Morale. Momentum. Mayhem. He understood those tactics all too well. They were the ID’s reflection of Yan, Tralian, and Celeste.
Empress Julia had alternately attacked the pair and used them for her own ends. He wouldn’t dare question her vision, but it was obvious Blackwell and Lin had become catalysts for the efforts against her. All efforts should have been expended to crush them before they’d gained the protection of the ID.
The apartment door slid open, and a man stomped in with a frown. He was one of the ghosts who’d been chasing Yan. The idiot didn’t bother to sweep the apartment. He all but begged for death.
“What’s up with the lights?” the ghost asked. He tapped his PNIU.
Yan sprang away from the wall and planted his knife in the agent’s throat before the man could turn his head. After Yan pulled the man’s gun out of his shoulder holster, a quick shove sent the wounded agent gurgling into the hallway, his hand to his throat.
The ghost’s partner jumped back and reached for his gun but hesitated since his partner was in the line of fire. That brief indecision cost him his life. Yan shot him twice in the head before shoving the gun against the knifed agent’s forehead and pulling the trigger.
A short silence extended as two bodies thudded to the floor.
No screams. No alarms. Useful to know.
He hadn’t been sure what would happen but hoped the ghosts had taken measures to ensure they could kill someone near their place without it bringing in the police for an investigation.
Yan tossed the gun to the floor.
“So disappointed.” He sighed.
He didn’t fear the ID would ever know who killed their agents. They wouldn’t be able to trace anything to him, other than whatever brief pictures the agents had sent in during the chase.
Those didn’t matter. As far as the UTC’s databases were concerned, Yan didn’t exist.
He bent down, yanked the knife out of the agent’s throat, and wiped it off on the dead man’s shirt before checking his own jacket. A couple of spots might be noticeable, but he’d done well, considering the close-range kill.
He secured the blade in a hidden leg sheath, then jogged down the hallway.
Now he was satisfied with his outing’s success. The ID might suspect something was happening in New Rome or on Remus, but the death of two of their agents would set back any investigation.
They could obsess over it all they wanted. If anything, that would be more useful to Empress Julia’s plans.
This city and world were unimportant as anything more than a distraction.
Yan emerged from the building through a side exit, and a parking lot filled with hovertrucks and miniflitters greeted him. Instinct and recent experience led him to immediately sweep the area, and that saved his life. Suited men stood on both sides of the building, aiming their guns in his direction. They opened fire.
Yan rolled forward and took cover behind a hovertruck. A bullet nailed him in the back, but the fiery pain dulled after a couple of seconds with the help of a nerve override. The enemies continued shredding nearby vehicles with their uncoordinated fire.
Something was off; the ambush was too sloppy. If the ID had known he was in the apartment, they wouldn’t have sacrificed two agents and waited until he was back outside, which gave him more places to hide. The bold open attack risked drawing attention, even if they’d done something to keep the local police away.
Yan kept low as he made his way to another vehicle for cover.
“Did we get him?” one of the men called.
“Close in and make sure,” another man shouted in response. “Be careful. This guy probably already iced a couple of ghosts.”
Heavy footsteps sounded from both sides. The entire group was closing in on him. Yan drew his gun, shame surfacing.
I am reduced to using a tool such as this.
He stowed his feelings. The coming weeks would mean sacrifices for his empress. His strength was her gift to him, but he could never lose sight of the reason for it. The best honor was success.
As Yan had lived for the Immortal Empress, he would die for her, and he would kill for her again and again until he breathed his last.
Even without using drones or bots to verify his death, there were many ways they could have finished him off without risking themselves. They obviously didn’t care about making noise, so there was no reason not to use explosives.
He waited and listened, his breathing shallow, the bullet wound in his back now a minor ache. The footsteps grew closer and closer—more amateurish techniques. They could have gotten a man close enough for visual inspection without giving up the positions of everyone in their group.
Yan popped up from behind a truck and opened fire. Despite the pain being under control, his movements were stiff.
That wound might cost him.
He fired three quick shots, none wasted. His targets all fell backward, new holes in their faces.
“Shit!” one of the men on the other side shouted.
They opened fire again, but it was too late. Yan dashed forward, darting back and forth as he took three more shots. Headshots killed two of the men instantly. The third fell to one knee, still alive despite the painful graze on the side of his head.
The man stumbled away, grimacing in pain, with blood blinding one eye. Two more rounds into his head finished the job. Six men now lay in pools of their own blood in the parking lot, dead or close to death.
They’d gotten one good hit on him.
Yan stayed low, listening and checking the nearby roofs for suspicious glints that might suggest a sniper. After twenty seconds of no follow-up, he nodded in satisfaction and stood. He pulled out a med patch and applied it to his wound.
No matter the advances, applying a patch to the back was never simple. Shame the bullet didn’t penetrate his side; much easier to reach.
He walked over to the corpses and pulled off their PNIUs. There was no way these men were ID agents, but the empress’ operations couldn’t continue on the planet without identifying all enemies.
Jamming would keep the devices from being traced until he got what he needed from them. For the moment, he needed to figure out the men’s identities.
* * *
Yan bowed his head. Empress Julia lazed in a high-backed chair, wearing a loose blue dress, and she had a faint look of boredom on her face. He’d already told her he wouldn’t report to her until he had the full details of what had occurred.
“Speak,” she ordered.
Yan lifted his head. “My Empress, the second set of assassins were syndicate-affiliated.”
She raised a delicate dark eyebrow. “Syndicate? How far operational security must have fallen if common thugs were able to ambush one of my top agents.”
Yan didn’t avert his eyes despite the shame flowing through him. She was right to highlight his failure. Killing them all after being ambushed was barely a victory. He should have never been wounded.
“What local syndicate trash was after you and why?” Julia asked. “If they were seeking your life, that means they’re seeking mine. No one can be permitted to attempt that.”
“Their attempt was not made at the behest of a syndicate,” Yan explained.
“That’s odd.” Julia frowned for a moment, thinking it through. “Are you saying the ID hired syndicate killers?”
“No, my Empress.” Yan shook his head. “They work as syndicate assassins, but from what we know, they are allowed the freedom to take private assignments, provided they give a fee to their superiors.”
“I see. And who hired them?”
“That’s difficult to know for certain,” Yan replied. “We did find one reference to ‘Old Man Barbu’ and a rough description of him, but no images. Judging from some of the location data, they were watching the apartment building even before our arrival in the city.”
“They used the ghosts as bait to kill you?” Julia laughed. “How deliciously entertaining.” Her smile faded. “Old Man Barbu. Marius Barbu. That name keeps returning to haunt me. How does that piece of underworld trash know so much about me? About the Core?”
“My Empress.” Yan bowed his head. “This Barbu might have served one of the others in the Core. That’s the most likely explanation.”
“Maybe.” Julia looked thoughtful. “But we have evidence that he was helping the ID fight the Core as well. I have suspicions about the Chang’e incident, among others. His name has surfaced too many times.”
“I’ll find him, and then I will kill him,” Yan spoke as if Barbu were a fly he needed to corner.
Julia waved a hand dismissively. “It’s unfortunate he has greater knowledge than one like him should have, but it doesn’t matter. Even if he is a leftover servant of Sophia’s or one of the others, I’m the only one left alive. Knowing part of my plans or resources will be insufficient, especially with the current chaos.” She sighed. “I would have liked to spend a couple more days in preparation, but the same could be said about this entire plan. We will move things forward. The outcome will not be adjusted because some underworld cockroach hires riffraff. Soon, he won’t matter. None of them will.”
“And the backup plan?” Yan asked.
Julia folded her hands. “Consider it less a backup plan than the final part of the current plan. It’s irrelevant at this point. Even if I sent a recall signal, they wouldn’t get it before carrying out their orders.” She stood, an excited gleam in her eyes. “No matter. Let the galaxy burn from both ends. Let the UTC become a phoenix, with me at the center of the fire.”
Man, it is so hard to not root for Yan, even though he is working for Julia. More will be revealed though so keep checking back for more snippets of Opus X Book 12: Crucible of Truth. Pre-order today and get ready because on February 5th it will be loaded to your device.