Hide in plain sight: that's master thief Misha Kif's strategy for survival. Keeping her true identity as a genetically altered Synth secret with a bounty on her head from everyone in the Hundred Worlds except her partner in life and partner in crime, Jerrold McKell. After all, what's life but risk, right?
Smuggler-thief Jerrold McKell knew how to work alone. And then Misha Kif entered his life and turned it upside down. But when their work styles and attitudes conflict, can they live together on a small space cruiser? More to the point, can they work together to offload a priceless painting, con a cartel boss, and rescue a man everyone believed long-dead?
Leigh Saunders writes light fiction, dark fiction, and sometimes a combination of both. In addition to debuting a new series in this StoryBundle, she has also contributed a creepy (and ultimately heartwarming) story to Fiction River Presents. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"…Steal one thing, betray one person to another, steal another item to trade for someone, rescue a person, go off to steal another item… it's great, and each situation is new and interesting…"– Amazon Review
"…A fun, adventurous ride, in the tradition of C. J. Cherryh…"– Amazon Review
"…I love the attitude of the story. It's unique and thrilling, with characters unlike anything we readers are used to…"– League of Utah Writers 2016 Writing Contest
"…This would make a great movie!..."– Utah Arts Council 1997 Writing Contest
Chapter 1:A Bird on the Ledge
Misha Kif edged forward a millimeter at a time, her back pressed so flat against the cold metal wall she could feel the decorative rivets as she slid over them. Like so many galleries across the Hundred Worlds this one was a maze of randomly angled passageways and slick surfaces – and just like all the others, it was peppered with temperature and motion sensors, meant to foil would-be thieves. Clearly the owners believed that only a lunatic would attempt to slip in after hours and make off with any of the treasures currently on display.
But Misha Kif wasn't a lunatic. She was a professional.
The thermal regulators in her skinsuit absorbed and reflected the ambient temperature, shielding her from the temperature sensors. And the modified eyewire lenses she wore enhanced the minimal lighting provided by the display cases, allowing her to view her surroundings with complete clarity.
They also provided a steady stream of data scrolling along the periphery of her vision, tracking the edge of the area monitored by the motion sensors – a narrow strip along the angled walls, just barely wide enough for her to creep along. As long as she stayed close to the walls, she was invisible to the motion sensors.
Still, she moved slowly, cautiously, not wanting to risk detection, confident that her partner, Jerrold, would succeed in his efforts to disable the sensors and the autolocks on the display case. She would have less than a minute to grab the jewel-encrusted Rigan ceremonial mask and spirit it away before the sensors switched back on.
She tapped the comm unit in her ear twice, signaling to Jerrold that she was in position.
Jerrold responded with a double-ping, and Misha relaxed, rolling her shoulders and shaking out her arms, relieving them of the built-up tension.
A third ping sounded in her ear and she tensed. But instead of a warning signal, the next thing she heard was the too-cheerful voice of Nick, the partial instance of an AI that Misha had accidently brought onto Jerrold's ship in a handheld device a few weeks before, and which had taken up residence in the Skimmer's system.
"I could help, you know," Nick said.
"This isn't a good time, Nick," Misha growled, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Jerrold's skills are impressive," Nick continued blithely, ignoring her. "But he is only human, after all. I could have quite easily shut off the system from here and saved you both a great deal of time and effort."
"Like I need you chatting up another security system and leaving your digital footprints everywhere," Misha said.
"I do not leave footprints," Nick replied with a huff.
"You are a footprint," Misha corrected. "And until we figure out how much of you is with us, how much of yourself you left behind when you decided to hitch a ride on the Skimmer, and what that all means to us, I'm not having you interface with other systems any more than necessary."
A double-ping interrupted the conversation, signaling that Jerrold was ready. She triple-tapped her comm unit in reply, then crouched, ready to leap at Jerrold's signal. "Now if you don't mind, Nick, I have work to do."
As the triple-ping sounded in her ear, Misha sprang from the wall. In the span of a single breath she crossed the space between her position and the center of the gallery where the sides of the large, multi-faceted crystal case holding the Rigan mask unfolded like the petals of a crystalline flower.
Coming to a stop precisely in front of the open display case, she allowed herself only the slightest gasp of amazement. The diffraction crystal had been designed to filter the gallery's lighting to more closely mimic the harsher light on Riga and display the mask as it would be viewed on its homeworld, heightening the perceived depth and color of the gems. Even with the case open, the glittering gems and fine detail work were breathtaking.
But this was not the time to stand around gawking. Misha reached down and unsealed the flap on a narrow pocket that ran the length of her thigh.
"I actually contacted you to tell you that you have an incoming call," Nick said.
"I'm working here," Misha replied, pulling a long, slim cylinder from her pocket.
"I have observed that you are quite adept at performing other tasks while talking."
"It will have to wait."
"You have fifty-six point seven seconds until the security system reactivates."
Misha ignored the AI, raising the cylinder above the open display case.
"Don't you want to know who is calling?" Nick said, the tone of its voice bordering on petulant.
"Not really, no." Misha pressed a button at one end of the cylinder. A cluster of thin, translucent filaments extended from the opposite end, moving slightly as though looking for something to grasp. Misha lowered the cylinder until the filaments completely surrounded the mask.
"It's Lady Claudia Hamylton. She sounds distressed."
Misha sighed, touching a second button on the cylinder. The filaments swirled, overlapped. She could not ignore Lady Hamylton's call. "Tell her I will speak with her in three minutes."
A third button, and the filaments bonded, cradling the mask in a protective cocoon half again the size of Misha's head.
She lifted the bundle from the case, then deftly flipped the cylinder from vertical to horizontal, the last unattached filaments adhering to the opposite end of the cylinder, giving it the appearance of a small satchel. She set it on the floor, tagged it with a precious L'Engle dot, then turned away signaling to Jerrold that the parcel was ready for transport.
"You should return to the Skimmer as well," Nick whispered in her ear. "The back-up power supply will re-enable the security system in forty-three seconds."
"I can do a lot in forty-three seconds," Misha said, turning away from the display case, and beginning to sprint down the length of the gallery. She double-tapped her comm unit. "Jerrold, pop the locks on the Sligatti Tear."
"That wasn't part of the plan," Nick said.
Misha's smile broadened as Jerrold's triple-ping confirmed her request.
"It is now."