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A short story by

Matt Burns

A crowd stands outside the safe house on Anselm, the people shifting and jostling and craning their necks for a chance to see blood. Pandora pushes past the onlookers and through the battered safe house door, which had been blasted open by a concussive grenade half an hour ago. Slabs of flesh cling to a wall above an almost unrecognizable corpse. The ex-Dominion weapons engineer. The deserter. The man she had promised to keep safe. His wife and daughter huddle nearby, bloody and trembling. Both of them are alive. Not by accident. The daughter’s arms are gone below the elbows, the raw stumps carefully dressed by the same men who crippled her. The wife’s face has been slashed and disfigured to leave scars that only the most expensive nanite surgery will heal.

It’s a message written in blood for Anselm’s populace. This is the price of deserting the Dominion. But to Pandora it’s a stinging taunt from her adversaries. We succeeded: you failed.

Although she’d had a chance to pull the deserter and his family out, she’d hesitated. Pandora had let fear take control, and now she sees the grisly result.

The wife lifts her head, dried blood caked around her face. “You promised us we’d be safe. When he warned you the Dominion was coming, you did nothing,” she says in a low trembling voice.

Pandora doesn’t sense rage in the woman; she senses the overwhelming cold nothingness that comes when you’ve lost everything that matters. She quickly erects a mental barrier to block out the wife’s chilling despair.

“You’re no better than they are. You’re a coward,” the wife says, her voice suddenly shrill and crazed. She jerks her arm up, a needle-gun clenched in her quivering hand.

Two shots. Two painful reminders of failure and its consequences. The first tears through Pandora’s right hand and takes her thumb off. She’s down on her knees, gritting her teeth, when the next needle grazes her shoulder.

The wife adjusts her aim but doesn’t fire again. She just sobs. As Pandora struggles to her feet, all she can think about is how she would have come home to Umoja a hero if the deserter were still alive, if she hadn’t been so afraid to take a risk….

A bump in the road knocks Pandora out of her daydream. She shakes off the memories of Anselm and wonders why now, of all times, she is remembering. Fear dictated her life then, but she is different now. She is fearless.

Pandora shifts her hands on the steering wheel of the four-wheeled groundcar as it rumbles through the outskirts of Augustgrad. The surroundings have shifted from the city’s monolithic high rises to a network of factories churning out everything from hoverbikes to packaged food.

Grimy sweat clings to her palms, between her fingers, and around the synthetic skin covering the hollowed-out neosteel chamber on her right hand, the weapon carefully made to look like the thumb she lost on Anselm.

Her body is baking under the tight-fitting black Dominion liaison uniform. She misses being back home in the Umojan Protectorate, where practicality outweighs carefully manicured appearances. Then again, Pandora’s profession is all about appearance. She has made an art out of fitting in, of masking who she really is.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing, her mentor and team leader, Sage, had called her once. But Pandora had corrected him. She’s not one of the wolves. She’s just walking among them.

For four months she has taken on dozens of identities in Augustgrad. Two days ago she was a bright-faced bartender, politely catering to customers until a Dominion military liaison named Colton Miersma died of sudden heart failure after a night of heavy drinking. Yesterday she was a hard-working courier braving Augustgrad’s congested streets on a hoverbike until she made a delivery to the apartment of another liaison named Rebecca Schafer.

Today Pandora is Rebecca Schafer. She’s so used to taking on different identities that she hardly notices the malleable mask hugging her face. The crucial piece of Umojan tech that channels her psionic energy and makes her appear as someone she is not. The psiweave.

The mask has taken on the rough shape and image of Schafer’s face, enough to fool holocams and people from afar. But Pandora also keeps up a relentless mental manipulation of anyone close by to seal the illusion.

The lone passenger in the backseat coughs and then wipes spittle from his chin with a meaty hand. Commander Bartlett. An obese man dressed in a charcoal gray uniform with red piping. Although the high-ranking commander hasn’t spoken a word to Pandora the entire trip, she has caught him staring at her on occasion, his mind filled with lustful thoughts that she quickly blocks out.

The groundcar continues past the factories and into a small pocket of unterraformed desert outside Augustgrad. Pandora risks a glance in a side mirror and sees a tan delivery van that has been tailing her the entire trip. As her vehicle ascends a steep hill, the van pulls off the road. Its driver, Pandora’s team leader, has come as far as he can.

Over the hill, Pandora’s destination comes into view: the Simonson munitions facility. She knows the place well, despite having never been there. She studied old schematics of the facility before it was locked down tighter than New Folsom Prison last year. She knows about the large shipments of battlecruiser-weight neosteel. The powerful seismic shocks and electromagnetic discharges originating from somewhere inside. Most likely a new Dominion weapon to be used to pummel stubborn settlements into submission, though marketed as humanity’s protection from the alien threats lurking in the Koprulu sector.

But the intel ends there.

The first reinforced plascrete wall surrounding the Simonson facility approaches. Armed marines in blue CMC armor wave the groundcar through the entrance after Bartlett flashes his credentials, as do the marines posted at the second, innermost, barrier.

As Pandora had hoped, the guards offer no more than a passing glance at the commander’s lowly driver. But in the back of her mind, she envisions a dozen different ways the guards will make her. The psiweave. The cartridges of poison-laced micro-spikes hidden throughout her uniform. The remote console strapped to her belt, housing a clutch of nanotech micro-spies. She finds an answer for each potential setback, a way to kill the guards and the fat commander and be on a planet-hopper out of Augustgrad before the Dominion is the wiser.

Pandora pulls the groundcar into the Simonson facility’s main hangar and parks between rows of vulture hoverbikes. Bartlett exits the vehicle and exchanges greetings with a waiting cadre of officials, suddenly jovial and boisterous in the company of his equals.

Before the officials can lead Bartlett into the bowels of the facility, Pandora removes the remote console from her belt and steps out of the groundcar. She feigns taking a note on the console’s screen and angles the tip of a stylus toward Bartlett’s back.

She doesn’t see the infrared laser shooting from the pen, locked between Bartlett’s shoulder blades. She doesn’t see the propeller-driven micro-spies exiting the console and flying toward the laser-guided destination. She has practiced this moment enough to know everything is working.

A light on the console blinks green, signaling that the micro-spies have reached Bartlett. There the stealthed drones will stay, trailing close to the commander and mapping 3-D holovids of everything he sees.

As the officials lead the commander into a building connected to the hangar, a guard approaches Pandora and extends an armored glove toward a nearby door with “REC FACILITIES” stenciled on it in blocky white letters.

“Take a load off. We’ll call you when the big man’s finished.”

Pandora nods and moves toward the rec area just as the hangar’s massive blast door closes, shutting out the intense sunlight. Suddenly, the reality of the situation hits her. She’s not just a Umojan shadowguard, an enemy covert agent, working in the Dominion’s capital city: she’s an enemy agent inside one of the Dominion’s most secretive experimental weapons facilities in the Koprulu sector.

You still have a chance to leave. Just get in the groundcar and drive out, the voice in her head says. It reminds her of her team leader, Sage. He would want her to leave and avoid risk.

Pandora shakes her head. She can’t stop. Not after the heinous things she has done to get inside the facility.

Not now.

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