Book Smugglers Publishing Quarterly Almanac The Novella Initiative

Nice by A.E. Ash

On August 15, we will publish Temporary Duty Assignment by A.E. Ash–a science fiction romance novella set in an alternate future world. To celebrate the release, we are thrilled to share with you this short story prequel set in the same world as TDA, originally published in our Quarterly Almanac.

Temporary Duty Assignment - art

Nice by A.E. Ash

“Good morning, Yukiko. Awake before the alarm, as usual.”

My Homespace VI’s warm, lilting voice greets me at 06:30 just like it does every morning. I call him Henry—a strong and capable name, and if I had to guess, his accent is Australian.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Beautifully, Henry. I dreamed about Iceland.”

“I see your exercises in dream-control are working, then.”

“Better than I hoped. Northern lights this time, all over the sky.” I gaze up the wall facing my bed and scan today’s bullet points. Customized backgrounds stretch behind these lists, detailed renderings of the current weather in Reykjavik. Today, cloud hangs low over Mount Esja half a world away from the Metro and my climate controlled cocoon.

We don’t get snow in these parts anymore. Haven’t for decades.

“Yukiko, I’m ready to scan your vitals now. Remain still for a moment—”

“Henry, that’s imprecise. Not a moment—for just shy of seven seconds.” Seven seconds of whatever remaining accountability I owe to Command.

Seven seconds of every day that ensure I am still an asset.

“Ah, Yukiko—you always know the drill.”

“I know all the drills. That’s why I’m so good at what I do.”

 

I sit in place but I don’t need Henry’s assessment to tell me I’m in top form. I reach out my awareness—I can hear the city, sense its clockwork breaths. Beating hearts and a million feet. Organic and mechanical minds, the scurrying of scavengers in the alley beneath my high-rise. A fluttering of wings above me.

I breathe in and the scents are that of home—all as it should be. Nothing out of place.

“Let me guess, Henry… blood pressure one-ten over seventy-five. Pulse, forty beats per minute. Same as Monday, right?”

“You’re no fun, Yukiko. I’ll have to remember to test you more.”

“Oh, come on, I’m tons of fun.” I grin. I never get tired of being right. Henry’s voice follows me into the washroom.

“I’ve prepared today’s shopping list for your review, Yukiko, and your coffee is finished brewing.”

“Domo, Henry.” My voice is bright over the spattering water. I try to stay cheerful. It helps with my work almost as much as routine does.

I step out, dripping. Two minutes and fifty seconds, right on schedule. I’m rich enough to be able to afford actual water showers at least twice a week, but I don’t take it for granted. That would be disrespectful in a way I couldn’t live with.

I reach for the clothes draped over the same chair as always and smooth my hand over the applique on today’s shirt—a miniature graphic of the solar system in hot-pink satin. My calloused finger catches on the smooth fabric.

This time, the glitch-itch, the misgiving—whatever it is—lasts exactly two-point-five seconds. Half a second longer than usual.

I wander out into the living area of the EcoPod I share with a philodendron that might be dying. Lukka—that’s her name, the philodendron. According to Henry, the name is Icelandic and means “lucky.” It fits. Lukka has this uncanny way of resurrecting just when I’m about to give up on her.

I can count on Lukka’s predictable rallying back to life, but for whatever reason, this part of my routine doesn’t make me smile. I think that I just wish she were always green, always thriving. Today, Lukka is a mottled green-brown, with fronds drooping lethargically. This upsets me, and I feel myself holding my breath, my pulse quickening. Sixty beats per minute.

I breathe again, and will my pulse to slow. Maybe the lucid-dreaming took a toll on my vitals.

“Hey Henry, how about letting me know what I can expect in the sustenance department if you’re not too busy.”

“Ah, now you’re surely joking—I’m never too busy for you. Your regular Wednesday market and courier drone shopping orders are prepped, Yukiko, but I’m sure you already knew that. Whitefish will be sent express. Tomatoes and snap peas are no good this week, or at least that’s the scuttlebutt. Would you like to order frozen ones instead?”

“They’ll work. I’ll just add more chili sauce. Anything else, Henry?”

“Glad you asked… there is, in fact. I’m patching in today’s requests. Please stand by.”

It’s smoggy out with an air-quality warning issued from Metro Command. Henry warned me about this but I always hope against reason that I’ll spot some tiny glimpse of blue through the bruise-yellow haze. On a more practical level, it means visibility will be affected. If my task list for the day keeps me outdoors, this could be an issue. I gaze up to where the tops of the buildings and the Skyway are obscured by the smog.

So much less inspiring than mountaintops shrouded by fresh winter snow. I hear that in the Seed colonies, the air is clear enough you don’t have to wear a breather at all—those places with names like Victory, Bounty, Cornucopia.

I’ve also heard that the rain there doesn’t burn… at least, not like it does here. That crops can thrive and farmers can do their work with skin exposed to air and sky.

Must be nice.

I sniff the air before I equip my breather. Everything seems normal—the bakery two streets over yeasty and warm as always, the garbage scows’ fetid, rot-sweet stink, the warm-oil and plastic scents of the automated parts replicator operating above the storage facility to the east.

If anything, my little corner of the Metro smells cleaner than usual.

I tug a lightweight breather over my already frizzy hair and power on my optics. The world goes abruptly clear. My lenses don’t look like much, but they’re top of the line, high-cred stuff. I strike out, my head low, and wind my way through the morning crowds on the walkways. Voices, music, trams, never-ending holo-ads for food and drink and drugs are a raucous symphony complemented by my light footfalls on the pavement.

Nobody notices me. This pleases me, an anonymity comfortable as an old sweater. Also, useful for all the things I have to get done. If someone does greet me or offer any small talk, I return the favor. I like to be nice to others when I can because you never know who they are, or what they might be going through.

South Terminal Market is busy for a Wednesday. I know this because even though I’m here at the same time as always, I have to wait in line two minutes and forty-seven seconds longer than usual at Hal’s counter.

Grumpy, sharp-eyed Hal himself oversees the transaction kiosk which he only does when it’s this busy. He crosses his arms over his chest, frowning. At least he looks the same as any other day, v-necked white shirt stained with the spices he sells. His son—I call him Hal Mark 2 but only to myself—packages quick-mixes for a gaggle of elderly women in discount breathers and plastic protectives stretched over their big hair.

I pull away my own mask and the savory tang of masalas smacks me in the senses. “Morning, Hal,” I say and he wipes his hands on the white cotton stretched over his belly, trailing a yellowy smear of curry.

“Yeah, yeah, hi-hi Missus—”

“Amada,” I smile. “Miss Amada.”

“Right. Usual order, Miss Amada?”

“Absolutely, thanks so much.” I nod even though I know I don’t have to, that he will hand over the order like he always does, face blank, pulse fast and irregular.

“’Kay. Gimme a second.” Hal reaches under the kiosk and retrieves a foil-wrapped packet taped along the sides. Same package, same spiking heart-rate and twitchy Hal but three minutes later than usual.

“Need a bag?”

“Please,” I say, and it’s like a song or rhyme that has to go a certain way.

He shakes out a flimsy, yellow plastic sack and with more care than I ever think is possible, places the foil brick in the middle, and ties the bag’s handles in a neat loop. “Receipt’s sent to your account. See you soon.”

“Thanks, Hal—take care. ‘Til next week.” I bob my head politely but he’s already busy with another customer so I’m off to the next stop and behind schedule.

 

The twinge is back. The misgiving I’m feeling has got to be related to weird sleep or funky dreams. Nothing else makes sense. I shrug it off and decide to splurge on lunch today. I check for new messages with Henry, and notice an urgent transmission from Sam Gao, my eyes and ears in Metro. She also happens to be my protégé, even if she’s one of the shittiest snipers on the TAC team (but don’t tell her that). She makes up for it by being the best at everything else.

Her message informs me that the Super Gyro guy (pun intended) is set up in Transit South for an extra day this month and I really can’t say no to that. Food’s so damn good that the transit cops reroute their enforcement drones away from the square just so they can stuff themselves full of affordable slow-roasted meat and tzatziki, like everyone else around here. Real meat—at least more than half soy.

I need to remember to send a gift to Sam—that kind of vigilance in these things that truly matter are what keep us all going. I mean, Sam is gruff on the outside but she’s a squishy teddy bear when it matters.

I take a moment to sigh in contentment then ping Henry.

“You were right about the weather, as much as I hate to admit. Any updates, oh great prognosticator of skies and smog?” I mutter into my wrist-comm and try to flatten down the pile of flimsy paper napkins in my lap.

“Thank you for recognizing my superior talents. And actually, yes, Yukiko,”

I take another bite of my ridiculously tasty gyro. The whole square smells like garlic and I can sense the waves of animal satisfaction radiating outward from the crowd of greasy-fingered devotees near the food-shuttle.

“You received a new appointment request for an hour from now, just east of your current location. Full payment. Wired instantly, vetted through Command.”

“How much?”

Henry tells me the fee and details and I pause mid-chew.

“Ihnsschantly?” A blob of meat drops from my mouth onto my arm and I stare at it, incredulous.

That’s different.

My heartbeat quickens—my pulse increases by three beats a minute. My senses sharpen with the adrenaline flooding my body and suddenly the smell of Super Gyro is too much.

There’s the glitch again, the nerve-itch shuddering over my spine, through my brain.

It’s been a long time since someone prepaid in full. Since I got that much for a job.

I remember to swallow my food. Henry continues, his voice implacable in my earpiece.

“It sounds like a cinch. I’ve messaged you the coordinates and on your orders I’ll release the security on Terminal Holdings Locker 423. I will note, you’ll need different tools than usual today. Mixing it up for a change.”

Different tools?” I don’t hide my curiosity or impatience.

“Hold your horses, details incoming.”

I cram the last bit of gyro down my gullet, too twitchy to enjoy it. My routine is shot to hell. Nothing’s normal today—from frozen tomatoes to the delay at Hal’s to… whatever this is. I toss my trash into the nearest processor.

Something really doesn’t feel right.

I fit my breather back over my face and enable incognito mode so I can scan the perimeter while obscuring my features to passers-by. When I set out my pace is faster than before but still casual. Nobody notices a faceless, average height, middle-age woman hustling through a crowd—rushing to make her skin-regen appointment, shopping, or meeting friends for afternoon drinks. A flat-out mad dash in a busy terminal will always draw unwanted attention.

I am good at not drawing attention.

Henry has an update for me by the time I reach the lockers.

“A new parameter’s been added, Yukiko—they’re really keeping you on your toes today.”

“I’m always on my toes. Or, you know, the flat-footed but prepared-for anything equivalent. And what new parameters, Henry?”

“Command has asked for a full status report including scans and even labs following engagement, Yukiko. Shall I send word that you’ll comply?”

Again, I pause. Command has all but cut me loose from the busywork these past years—outside of my specialties, they get the regulars to handle all the little stuff. I pretty much rely on Sam for regular updates and all the good gossip. Why would they interfere now, and on a private contract?

“The request is irregular for the way I’ve operated the last year,” I pause. “But yeah, Henry—I’m still officially Metro-employed and this is still regulation and with a job like this, I wanna cover my ass. Tell them to watch for a report tagged with authorization Kit-four-two-Zed.”

“Excellent, Yukiko. Always the model Metro citizen. Your locator shows that you are at the terminal now—”

“At the lockers. Please disengage security.” I sit on a low bench in front of rows of metal lockers. I listen. No footsteps on either side of the hall. No proximity alerts on the scanner at my wrist.

Only the rhythmic surge and ebb of my own breath.

“Done,” Henry replies helpfully and I hear the chink of a lock releasing from inside the compartment of one locker directly before my eyes.

I pull the plain brown rucksack from inside and replace it with my day’s shopping. I reach back in and grab the package from Hal’s. I don’t know what kind of tech I’m up against so I’m not taking chances today. I don’t care what the mission specs are, close quarters work is not my strong suit and I never leave a mess behind.

I make my way to the staging area—women’s facilities in the South Terminal dining plaza, second-to-last stall, just because it’s usually the cleanest.

I’m on full alert now. The earlier warning twinges have blossomed into full-blown alarms. I’ve learned over the years to know when those little bioengineered genetic extras I’m so lucky to have, especially now that they’re outlawed for the rest of the world, kick in bigtime.

Now, this is definitely bigtime.

Henry has already disabled the weapons-scanners in the area by the time I get to the facilities. They’ll go back up right after I’m out of the vicinity. I don’t want civvies getting hurt because of what I do, ever. I care about them—they’re really just like me, just with far less hazard pay.

“Thanks, Henry,” I remember to say before opening the door. “You really are the best at being you, you know?”

“I’m glad to hear it. Being less me than someone not me would damage the old ego. One last thing…about the job, did you see Command’s note?”

“Would I be here if not?” I reply more tersely than I mean to. “Sorry, I’m trying to think and prep. Didn’t mean to be short.”

“No worries, Yukiko. About that note—let me be specific. Did you see, Kitsune,”

Henry used my code name for emphasis,

“the part about a suspected illegal augments runner being the one who contacted them about putting the mark on you?”

“Oh yes, Henry, I most definitely saw that part. It’s like a move right out of an action vid. A stupid move too, if they were bold enough to engage me without knowing they were dealing with Metro Command to start with.” I laugh grimly.

In the restroom, I see a woman hunched over, cooing behind her curtain of shiny black hair, wrestling a kicking, giggling baby into a diaper on the Sani-Changer. I smile before latching the stall door behind me.

I unwrap Hal’s package first, peeling away the outer foil that covers the thin envelopes of curry and chili powder that he pads the delivery with. They are the same spices I use every week in my cooking, I muse to myself. Ironic. I pick away the thick black plastic that covers the real package.

One full clip; prototype Cleaner Rounds. Military-grade, courtesy of Metro through very unofficial channels. Big-cred stuff. I make a note to send any extras to Sam over in TAC, just to give her an edge when she does those illegal augments runs.

I open my rucksack to inspect my favorite weapon—a long-range sniper rifle—but after making sure all of the components are where they should be, I choose not to assemble it yet, instead loading the clip into my sidearm with a muffled click. I leave the safety engaged for now.

Anything else I need has a special compartment in the rucksack or on my person, including a bio-sample collection kit and mini cold-pack for transport. I zip up my bag and sling it carefully over one arm, making sure to tap the hidden pocket on my left shoulder in the process, checking on my ceramic knife, undetectable by scanners. Everything’s where it should be. I’m ready in four minutes and three seconds and it’s the first time today that things go smoothly.

I stand, let the toilet flush and by the time I leave the stall, the woman with the baby is gone and I’m the only one here.

“Yukiko, an image of your mark is incoming. You’ll love this.”

“Thanks, and… why would you even say that?” I blink at the image that ports to my optics, and have to give Henry credit, yet again.

She’s got to be younger than me by at least twenty years and she’s dressed like a hit man in a bad action movie. Tight black synth-leather suit without a single crease or stain. Sleek, gold-threaded ponytail. Judging from her jewelry and designer shoes, I figure she’s into something big-cred, like illegal pharma or augments-running—which would confirm Command’s suspicions. She’s too manicured to be the kind to get her hands dirty. I consider calling in TAC for a split second, then shake my head. A hit this costly has to have some strings attached, and if she put a hit on me, then I doubly owe her the pleasure of seeing to the job myself.

Plus, I’m not getting Sam mixed up in this—not after what she’s been through these last two years.

“I’m ready for this showdown, Henry,” I say.

“I’m sure you are as always—you were born ready, yes? You will have a taxi waiting at Reading afterwards, prepaid under an alias provided by the contractor. Good luck, Yukiko—this sounds like an interesting job.”

 

Now comes the part I both love and hate—the wait. Time to test my senses and my abilities, pushing them to their limits. But sometimes, too much time means I start to think too much. Sometimes, too much time means I get complacent.

I follow my assignment parameters to the exact coordinates to set up. It’s an expensive high-rise under construction but there are no workers, which ratchets up my adrenaline and suspicion—I query the network and discover the workers have gone for the day due to some sort of hitch in safety protocols. I’ve been given full building schematics and architectural details, any expected security blocks, and whatever else I’d need to make this a no-brainer.

The thing is, I don’t normally take on no-brainers.

I do all the headwork, all the wet work, and any other piece of plain old work for any of my jobs—that’s why my clients come to me in the first place. They’re rich, and they’re lazy. Win-win for me, and Command turns a blind eye while I mop up unwanted Metro problems and keep my skills sharp for when they are really needed.

But this? This is different. Working to someone else’s specs. Vetted through Command, so the job’s government-sanctioned but also mixed up in high-risk private concerns. The whole thing stinks.

No wonder they’re being specific with instructions.

Not to mention, the creds I’ll make for this could float me till the end of my days. Given the hazards involved in my line of work, I might not have that many days. This stuff’s dangerous even for a Gen-M soldier like me. I’m not only Gen-M, I’m a natural hunter. And something in my hunter’s instincts tell me, this is not right.

Any of it.

I assemble my piece, my favorite baby—the best tool in my arsenal. Long range Zephyr, Metro-military scope and optics. It’s also rapid-fire, at least for a rifle, and loaded with a full clip of high-powered rounds. Normally only the nastiest players can get their hands on these but Metro Command values my efficient and reliable work. In a city this size, there’s a new job every week.

Whether or not they want the liability of someone with my talents, they need me.

I look at my Zephyr and sigh. Anywhere I’d set up in here is not optimal for a long-range hit and it bugs me, but I was informed this is where I’d find her so here I am, not a clear vantage in the whole damn place thanks to girders, plastic, and the whole unfinished half-assedness of the site. I have my pistol ready, powered fully and unlocked. The ceramics and metal are warm to the touch.

I still mount the rifle on a ledge at the far end of the job area and look around me, wishing I’d not eaten so fast. Or at all. I have horrible onion-breath and the acid in my gut is throwing off my senses.

My client has ordered me set up for close-quarters surprise combat, a quick hit-and-clean operation. Just another criminal-type on the way to some shady rendezvous in a half-finished building that is conveniently vacated for the day.

Not fishy at all. And right on time, there’s that feeling again, of everything going sideways—by now more familiar than I’d like.

I take another steadying breath and calm my heart rate, controlling my pulse and respiration. I dislike tight quarters and the half-constructed offices around me have too many blocked angles and blind corners for comfort. The wind roars from the east wall where temporary windows have come loose and now that I’ve taken off my breather—I trust my own eyes more than any optics—I can smell the dank city air.

I keep watch behind a stack of plastic-wrapped drywall. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember another job in a place like this. That mark had been a real winner—a drug trafficker, Madame, slave-maven. By the time she looked up from her neat lines of Fairydust, I was there and it was too late to draw and she knew it so she just stared, pupils so black she looked like some kind of demon. The weirdest thing—she laughed. An ugly, snorting laugh. “You’ve gotta be shitting me,” she’d said, right before I put a bullet between her demon eyes.

Back in the moment I freeze suddenly. I feel it before I see it come up on my gear—a presence nearby, but not a human one. It pings my proximity monitor, less than ten meters ahead of me. It zips closer, but then the pattern stalls and goes erratic. A zig-zag back and forth within a tight radius like it’s stuck in a choke point.

Like a drone caught in a corner, or a closet—

Shit.

By the time I realize I’ve been had, it’s too late. I spin and she’s standing there—my mark, a smug grin tugging her lips.

I see that I was right about her being over-the-top fancy. I was not right about her being some dumbass off the street. She stinks of Gen-M ability. What kind, I can’t tell. I can’t sense anything—my awareness is clouded, and everything around her is dull and gray.

“A Dampener… aw, hell,” I say, shaking my head.

Dampeners are bad news for people like me who rely on their senses to get a job done. I’d thought we’d neutralized any of the ones left over from the Gen-M initiative…even Command didn’t want that kind of liability around, not after the war. Yet here she is, in the smirking, annoying flesh.

“Oh yeah. This is corporate tech, baby, so I’m way badder than you rent-a-cops could ever hope to be.”

I just stare at her. Who the hell even talks like that?

“And god, you’re the infamous Kitsune? Wow. You must’ve really let yourself go.”

I open and close my mouth, an idiot fish out of water.

“Actually, my name is Yukiko,” I say in my everyday normal-lady voice, giving the name I put on all my “official” paperwork (I stole it from an anime about a mech pilot) and I steal a peek at her gun. It’s a pistol, silenced, a mark I’ve never seen and probably worth an ass-ton of creds. She holds it just a bit too high for an optimal shot. I look her up and down. She’s flush with top of the line cybernetics—every single bit of tech on her easily costing more than my whole kit combined. Well, except for maybe my ammo.

Worst of all, that tech—some nasty mix of neural scrambling and pheromone cocktails—has effectively messed with my senses. The only who could pull a fast one on me are big money with illegal implants that were originally created to keep us old guard soldiers in check before the whole kit and caboodle was outlawed. Only the worst sort of private concerns have access to this stuff.

She fixes me with an eyelined-gaze, arranging her face in a practiced snarl and suddenly I can’t help but giggle.

“What the hell are you laughing at?” She’s confused, and annoyed at her own confusion. This makes me laugh even more.

She’s new. Brand spanking new.

“Sorry,” I say and force myself to look at least a little serious. “You got me good, you know.”

“Shut it. Drop the gun,” she orders, her tone going icy.

“Sorry.” I let my expression morph into surprise, even a hint of fear. I feign nerves and worry at my arm just over the hidden pocket at my shoulder so she yells at me.

“I said drop it, you old cow—hands up!”

I let the pistol fall with a clatter and throw my arms high, toe the gun away from me but to her right—towards her already occupied trigger hand.

“You listen to me, Kitsune. I’ve shadowed you for two weeks. Two lousy, long-ass weeks. You’ve gotta be the most boring assassin in the history of history. I seriously had to put out a hit on myself through your Command to catch your attention and that cost me a lot of creds, and now I’m really pissed off.”

I hear a click of metal and see a flash of light over her sights.

Of course she uses laser-sighting. Amateur.

I fight away the urge to scoff. I know that the (useless) little red dot will be between my eyes because that’s how she’d work.

“If you’re going to kill me, please make it quick,” I beg her meekly, while internally weighing my options. She seems like the type to monologue, and that would buy me time.

She doesn’t disappoint. “Oh, quick? Like you so kindly did for my old man when you pumped him full of holes in his bathroom in the middle of a goddamn dinner party? I know you were the one who took that contract. I asked around. I paid half my trust fund to know the shit you did.”

“A dinner party?” I murmur, watching her and managing to look concerned. “I don’t remember. I-I’m so sorry. I can’t really think—”

She interrupts me. “Of course you don’t remember how you freaking offed my father. Just another job, right?”

But I remember everything. That man was awful. The worst sort of bad—and I only knew about the human-trafficking operation that he ran. I took that job without any greenlight from Command and I did the world a favor that day. My C.O. gave me a commendation for taking initiative.

“I’m sorry,” I reply, my voice contrite. “It was nothing personal. It was a job. You’re right.”

She fumes. I wait.

Rich, out for revenge. Had enough money to find me, to put a hit out on herself to get me here…

But she’s sloppy. I see how this will play out.

“What, you’re playing sorry-for-your sins now?” She shrieks and it’s clear she’s getting really pissed. That’s a good thing. Whatever she’s been doing to jam my senses is weakening, and I can sense her heartbeat like a transit train thundering off-rails.

“It’s not like that. Please, ma’am, if you could calm down and just listen to me—” I let a little tremor enter my voice, let my eyes widen.

“Shut it!” She cuts in. “You have no damn right to get all nicey-nice with me.” Now she’s sweating. I can smell it, acrid and bitter beneath her expensive clothes.

I size her up in detail. Pistol, standard clip, stock designed for minimal recoil. Practically does everything for you. Held higher now—grip unsound. Hands shaking, widened pupils. Stance tense, leaning heavily on forward-placed right leg.

Less than two meters from me—

Nice?” I shoot back, a note of genuine confusion in my voice. “I’m a contract killer, lady. I’m not supposed to be a nice person.”

“Bullshit,” she scoffs. “I’ve seen you around the Terminal, the vegetable markets. Have a nice day. Nice weather we’re having. Nice-looking avocados you got there. Nice work on those lists, Henry Whoever. Nice, nice, nice. A nice lady in mom-jeans iced my goddamn father.”

Pistol no longer aimed at lethal angle. Chance of surviving a shot high…

Her face is splotchy with rage and she keeps yelling. “Well guess what, Kitsune—you’ll be a nice big stain on the floor when I’m done with you.” She’s breathing even faster and doesn’t see that I’ve lowered my left arm slightly, that the blade hidden in the fabric of my shirt is near my fingers now.

I move.

She fires two shots but they fly wide because there’s a ceramic knife sticking from her neck. She croaks out something between a gurgle and a string of obscenities and hits the ground. I wrench the pistol from her hands.

Double-tap, quick shots to the heart. She doesn’t suffer long.

Because she’s right—I am nice. And yeah, maybe I’m boring too, especially for one of the last of the Powered humans but I’m damn good at my job and that’s really what matters.

Routine. Routine is the secret to success.

I look down—she’s bleeding out all over her expensive catsuit, her ponytail fanned prettily over the dusty floor in a horrible mockery of fashion. It’s ugly, what has happened here—it’s messier than I want to admit. I remember some old saying about age before beauty but I can’t laugh.

The whole thing feels wrong.

I grab my tools and disassemble Zephyr. I almost forget about the knife but I get my wits together and pry the blade free from already paling skin, wiping the blood on the dead woman’s sleeve before I stow my knife in a special bio-repellent bag.

I ping Henry. “What was that thing you were nagging me to remember?” I try to sound casual but it bothers me that my voice is tight.

“Yukiko, are you well?”

“Dandy. The reminder, please?”

“I’m sorry, Yukiko. Remember to take bio-samples. Do you need anything else from me?”

“Nah, I’m good. I’ll be home in time for dinner.” I end the transmission abruptly, tug on some rubber gloves over my normal ones and get to work swabbing at her pulse points, clipping small bits of wire from the tech subtly hidden behind her ears which are already going room temperature. I take blood and a hank of shiny hair. I gather the evidence and pack it all tightly in an insulated pocket with the little cold-pack.

Last order of business: I search her for ID and creds, wipe down her gun, disarm and stow it then use my own pistol to pump her full of Cleaner rounds. One in the head, two in the torso, one in each leg. They work faster when spread out so there won’t be much of anything left by the time I’m outside this place.

It’s odd, but I’m sick to my stomach. Probably that stupid gyro’s fault.

My bag on my shoulder, breather back in place, I work my way out of the back lot and a block away, as promised, I see the cab she called. For her, not me. I ignore it and instead cut around to the busy street running parallel to the construction entrance. I notice that I have pending low-priority messages from Sam over at Metro, from Henry, from my bank but I ignore them all and take the Skyway home like I would any other day.

“Have a nice day, ma’am,” I hear myself saying to the tired-looking kiosk operator and the words stick in my throat.

Nice.

There’s not a speck of blood on my cute glittery-planets sweatshirt. My shoes are clean. I realize I forgot my spices and groceries, still shut away in the Terminal locker. The cilantro will be wilted to mush by the time I’m able to get there tomorrow.

I lift my wrist close to my face, finally mustering the wherewithal to engage Henry again.

“Yukiko, Command is waiting for your report. Shall I patch you through?”

“Not yet. I’m almost home, if they can wait another half hour. Could you… I mean, am I nice, Henry? To work with?”

“Very much so, Yukiko. Well-reviewed by all you do business with, at least the ones paying you. Command still thinks you valuable too, obviously. I personally look forward to our sparkling repartee. Is there anything else you need from me?”

I know I’m going to regret this later but I say it anyway “Yes. Yes, there is. Pad Thai from Siam Dream, extra spicy. And… tell them to add a beer to the order—one of the bottled ones.”

“Yukiko, it’s Wednesday. You don’t order out till Friday. And you never drink.”

Two beers, Henry.” My stomach will be a wreck. I don’t care.

“Of course, Yukiko. Right away—be safe.”

 

I’m restless tonight. I comb through the communications for the job, looking for clues. Command sent me news about that last mark—apparently an elaborate setup or something that really, I don’t give a mutated dirtrat’s ass about right now. The money from the job is still in my account, and I haven’t heard anything.

Okay, that’s not true. I do give at least a little bit of dirtrat ass—a molecule or two. And I’ve heard one thing—the samples all came back clean.

Funny thing about that is I ran a few tests myself offsite—I always keep a bit of the bio and tech scanning for myself, just in case something doesn’t match up. And yeah, something doesn’t match up. What I found—and I checked, and double-checked, and made Henry triple-check—was a whole list of things that should not be there. Illegal augments for sure, but tying my last mark to a very specific company—Greenerhouse, a subsidiary of Novatech.

A place that Metro had signed off on as squeaky-clean. A place that should definitely not have someone like my last mark tied to it.

I’m not sure the message saying the scans were clean was really from Command. There’s a digital signature, everything looks all spiffy and official, but Henry analyzed it—and we agree. Something’s not right.

I am sick of not right. Not right really pisses me off. Worse yet, not right means the kind of work I am getting too tired for.

I never thought that would happen but this life…it wears on a person after a while. I think the while has been aftered now.

I think I need to reconsider.

I set aside the tools I’ve been using to clean my new rifle, Metro-East custom-make, unregistered mark. I could afford it since “Command” really wanted Elle, my last “job,” out of the picture to begin with and played along with her ruse, letting me keep the creds. Hooray for me.

But I still feel so off.

I stare stupidly at Lukka the Philodendron and notice she’s a brighter green than usual. I moved her to a new shelf two days ago, bought her a full-spectrum light and she’s not been almost-dead since then.

“Henry, I was wondering—are house plants allowed on Trans-Oceanic Shuttlecraft?”

“I don’t know, Yukiko. But I’ll check for you. Was there a particular destination you had in mind?”

I think about Hal and Hal Mark 2, both men never remembering my name yet always knowing my order. The Terminal markets shadowed by dirty awnings under a yellow sky. I think about my last trainee, Samantha Gao, mourning squadmates she lost to a bad run—the highlight of her day cheap food from the gyro shuttle that I’ll never visit again after that last job. I promise myself I’ll keep in touch with Sam, try to help her out before disappearing forever.

I’ll send her a message about these scan results because I hear she’ll be the one on duty for final sweeps and clearing the site. She deserves to know—how she acts on it is her choice.

“Yukiko…are you lost over there?”

“No, sorry, Henry. Just spacing out.”

Then I gaze up and see it, my daily list background—stark skies over a cold, empty land free of EcoPods and Skyways, nights shimmering with aurorae and, in the longer-light days, icy blue skies tinged with pink. “Reykjavik. I want to go to Reykjavik.” I savor the sound of the word in my voice.

“Iceland is lovely this time of year, I hear. And might I say, a very you kind of choice, Yukiko. I’ll go prepare a dossier and report back in half an hour.”

“Nice. Thank you, Henry,” I say and watch clean, white snow whirl in undulating vortices over the holo-displays surrounding me.

Divider

Make sure to check out Temporary Duty Assignment, available August 15, 2017.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

temporary-duty-assignment-a-e-ash

From the author of Luminous comes a high stakes sci-fi romance.

Samantha Gao is an elite Metro soldier, dedicated to the job and to her team. But following a devastating mission, Sam is handed a new temporary duty assignment. On paper, she’s supposed to babysit a Metro tech-inspector during a routine evaluation of Greenerhouse seed colony’s corporate sponsor. Sam expects to be on duty at all times, ready for whatever comes. But what she didn’t expect was to see him—Caleb—again.

Caleb Estes is an engineer at Greenerhouse and cannot believe his luck when his first love, Samantha Gao, walks into his lab—and back into his life. It’s enough to make him believe in second chances after all.

But Sam and Caleb’s reconciliation will have to wait when the routine bodyguard job goes sideways, and the future of the seed colony itself is at stake..

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4 Comments

  • Book Buyback Comparison
    August 10, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    Looks like an interesting read – the futuristic/sci-fi/apocalyptic setting make for a great story. Thanks for sharing the short story – I enjoyed reading it!

  • David Jebb
    August 13, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Really enjoyed this. I felt immersed in the world.
    One thing though: it jumps to third-person past for two paragraphs in the middle, instead of the first-person present used otherwise. A style choice?

  • Short Story Review: Nice, by A.E. Ash | Rob Boffard
    September 6, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    […] when I was cruising for a story to read this week, I was excited to come across Nice by A.E. Ash, published online by The Book Smugglers, a superb book blog that recently turned to publishing. Nice is set in the same world as Temporary […]

  • Ana Grilo
    September 22, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    David, with apologies for the delayed reply: the story has been corrected now, thanks for flagging it up.

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