Natasha stood beside Collin and squeezed his arm gently, consoling him during his mother’s funeral. They were inside the funeral home’s chapel in Port Ryan, and a pastor said a few words. A couple of his mother’s neighbors showed up, along with a dozen members of her Sunday School class. All had expressed condolences to Todd and shared fond thoughts and memories with him.

When the pastor finished speaking, everyone followed the funeral home’s pallbearer bots out to the cemetery. They watched as the bots set the coffin on a pulley system above a freshly dug grave. The pastor said some final words, and the coffin was lowered into the ground.

Collin approached and dropped a handful of dirt on the casket, followed by Natasha and everyone else. The crowd dispersed, with his mother’s friends giving him a final hug goodbye.

Natasha had no such sentimental feelings, and frankly found this display of grief slightly irritating. But she kept such thoughts to herself. Right now, the important thing to do was keep her asset mollified.

Fortunately, Collin Todd was a typical male and thus easily manipulated. All men were susceptible to money or sex, sometimes both. Todd was no exception. She had plenty of each to offer, thanks to her own good looks and SSI’s funding.

The sort of valuable asset Collin Todd had proven to be took years of cultivating. Fortunately, SSI targeted him before the war began, before all the restrictions that went along with warfare were put in place. They knew he would not be allowed to communicate openly, and travel would be heavily restricted. But, one thing almost guaranteed to green light travel was a death in the immediate family . . .

Natasha only hoped the information he had stored in his head would be worth it.

He told her a little bit about what prompted him to call in the code word. The phrasing that resulted in his mother’s death, the inquiry about his childhood friend, was the prompt that led SSI to hand down an execution order. Natasha had lied to him when arranging the code back in their days on Italia. Because, she reasoned, who would call in their own mother’s murder, willingly? So she lied and said they would simply arrange a family emergency so he could leave work and come visit.

Deep down, she suspected, he knew that she had lied to him. Fortunately, Collin Todd was a man, one easily manipulated. Right now, he willingly suspended his suspicions about the truth in return for intimacy with his handler. And Agent Krizinski complied in order to keep her asset complacent. Men were easy to control, she thought.

Now that the funeral was over, it was time to fully extract the information Collin Todd brought all this way. She suggested they get away from the city and visit a resort she knew about, several hundred kilometers inland and far away from the local AI’s lax monitoring.

Todd felt he really needed to book passage home and get back to work, but Natasha could be extremely persuasive. Ultimately, he agreed and they booked a drone flight to the resort.


Later that day, Ambassador Huntington personally signed off on a private courier delivery to Pekindale Resort from the Petra Roe Embassy. The package included a new cranial scanner.

Although somewhat contemptuous of the local AI, PR’s embassy staff nonetheless respected LuteNet. The cranial scanner had shipped to them from Petra Roe via normal channels, and passed through customs so as not arouse suspicion. This particular model, however, was far more advanced than typical ones. That fact was not mentioned to Customs.

A low-level SSI agent worked at the resort, and the Ambassador addressed the package to him. Huntington personally watched as the courier drone lifted off from the roof of the embassy and headed out of the city toward the resort.

Several hours later, a man currently going by the name Juan Comal waited patiently as the drone from Port Ryan landed.

Comal retrieved the container marked for him, and the drone took off again. He went inside, opened the package containing the cranial scanner, and played a movie in his mind’s eye while he waited.


Pekindale was a beautiful town nestled in the Bountiful Mountains. The main resort was an expensive hideaway for the wealthy, offering gorgeous views and ample privacy.

Natasha led Collin by the hand on a walk through nearby mountain trails, with vivid wildlife and stunning scenery. They discussed longer hikes and maybe some mountain climbing, taking a good look at some nearby slopes. At last they returned to their private cabin, set in an isolated grove a couple hundred meters from the resort’s chalet. Natasha ordered room service.

After dinner, and when Todd felt fully satiated in every way, Natasha at last asked him what information he had to share about Republican Shipworks.

But something had changed in her asset’s mind. Even fully fed and physically satisfied and completely under her spell . . . suspicions swirled inside him. She could tell by the look in his eyes and the way he hedged his words. Collin Todd had lived apart from his mother for many years, but he still loved her deeply. And now he could not help but feel responsible for her death, no matter what his lover told him.

In quiet moments when they were not eating or drinking or doing something else, he began to think maybe the information he held regarding the new Condor-class ships might not be the best thing to share with someone from the League. Even someone like his dream woman, with whom he already shared quite a bit over the years. He had probably shared too much, he thought, in looking back on it.

So, he decided to skimp on the details.

“I don’t know a whole lot about it, Natasha, but we’ve been working on a new class of ship. It’s bigger and more powerful than anything else out there. I thought . . . I thought you should know that it’s launched. It’s probably already in the Seychar system by now, guarding the gold on Gotha Mu.”

“What sort of armament does it have? Is it a big ship?”

“It’s very big, and very expensive. It’s designed to keep flying and survive even with multiple hits. The bridge is in the middle, unlike the Hawks where it’s out front or the Eagles where it’s on top.

“It’s made to be . . . well, ship builders hesitate to use the word ‘indestructible’ after the Titanic. Nothing is truly indestructible, and we’re a superstitious lot. But, it’s made to be very difficult to kill. It can take a brutal beating and still stay in the battle.”

She could sense he was being deliberately vague. These were all generalities, not specifics. He was a programmer, used to dealing in details. Besides, she knew men. And she knew her asset very well. Right now, her asset was trying his best to be evasive without appearing to be evasive.

The woman calling herself Natasha Krizinski had studied men since puberty, when her mother’s boyfriend first molested her. She knew what made men tick, what made them respond. She knew how to please them, how to anger them, and how to kill them. Right now, she knew that her asset was holding back on her.

“What kind of weapons does the Condor have?”

He froze for a moment and looked away. Then he swallowed nervously. This, she knew, was his tell. He was about to lie.

“It’s got some really, really big guns.”

Hm. Must be a lie of omission, she thought.

“That’s all? Nothing special?”

He swallowed again and nodded. “It can take a ton of punishment, and keep handing out destruction with those giant guns. It’s a big deal.”

She decided it must be a partial truth. But still, he was holding back something. Taking out his mother was likely a mistake, she thought. There are few things more powerful than the bond between a mother and son. And SSI had interfered with that bond.

Natasha thought that after all these years on his own, that bond might have weakened some for Collin. But no, she could see it in his eyes. She could see it in the way he swallowed nervously before speaking. He had likely put two and two together and realized that Natasha was probably at least partly responsible for his mother’s death.

“It’s okay,” she said, sliding closer to him and placing a hand on the part of him for which she had the most control. “We’ve got two more days together before you have to go back. I want to drink too much and make love to you all night.”

He smiled and they kissed before she found the wine glasses and asked him to open a bottle. When he ran to the bathroom for a moment, she slipped a sedative into his drink.


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