Chapters:

Prologue

"Time is running out."

"It always is for someone," Vexler said, training his pistol on the woman across from him in the elevator. She leaned back on the elevator railing and considered him.

"If you’re going to kill me, now would be your chance."

"Have you ever wondered what it was like, Penelope?" he asked, "What it was like to live on Earth?"

She hesitated, staring into his eyes for a cold, brief moment. Of course, she had wondered what it was like, sometimes it was all she thought of. But, Earth was long gone and everything she knew about it was from volumes and volumes of historical records, meticulously curated by those who had actually lived on the planet before its final day. She knew all about the television shows, movies, books, celebrities, rock stars, geniuses, and dictators. She could recite Shakespeare, name the capitals of all fifty of the United States and knew only one person better at American Civil War trivia than herself. Not bad, she thought, for someone who had been born nearly two decades after the human race was forced to abandon their home planet.

However, the man in the elevator across from her probably knew this about her already, just as he knew that only her mother called her "Penelope" and not "Penny" like everyone else. He wasn’t testing her, he was taunting her. This was all part of the game; the mind games that spies played against the world and each other. Deception, distraction, and misdirection. She knew she had to keep her wits and not let herself become careless. He was in control now and all she needed was the right opportunity to gain the upper hand. Penny knew this from personal experience...he had trained her himself.

"All the time, Vexler," she admitted, "but, we’re roughly a hundred and sixty million miles away from what’s left of our homeworld, so let’s focus on the here and now."

Vexler looked out the glass elevator they were standing in, the car sitting stationary several floors above the lobby of a lavish alien hotel. An orange landscape stretched out beyond the borders of the resort, framed by a greenish-blue sky. He turned back toward her and affected a calm and collected air, leaning back against the elevator railing. There was a certain youthfulness to his severe features. An angular, stubbled chin and a mess of brown hair with only the faintest hint of any gray. Yet, his eyes seemed to sparkle with something younger, or perhaps, Penny thought, from a different era long gone. It was as if he didn’t belong anywhere and what she saw in his eyes was something that seemed both lost and vengeful for being lost in the first place.

"New Year’s Eve," Vexler tapped his fingers against the elevator’s railing, "nineteen sixty-nine. Hours before the apocalypse a quarter of the population vanished...men, women, children..."

"I know," Penny interrupted, "my parents were children at the time. They and their families were among those that were saved."

"Saved?" he scoffed, "or abducted?"

"You said it yourself. It was hours before the apocalypse. Everyone that was left behind burned up with the rest of the planet."

"What about the children who were ’saved’ without their families? Surely, that’s enough proof that there was some malevolence involved in our relocation."

"Earth orphans. I’ve heard the stories and I agree it was a terrible thing, but they account for less than one percent of-"

"You really are turning into an obedient government lapdog," Vexler cut her off, "I think you need to reexamine the bigger picture here."

"What does this have to do with anything?"

"It has to do with everything," Vexler leaned forward, almost growing in stature as his voice rose in intensity, "the aliens that took humanity off the Earth before it was destroyed claimed to be our liberators. They gave us a shiny new home and let us decide what to make of it. But, isn’t that how oppression starts? An illusion of freedom while real freedom is slowly chipped away, until before you know it...it is completely gone."

"The human race has lived pretty peacefully on the moon...on Avalon for decades," Penny shook her head, "this is why you left? You could have just moved to any number of colonies throughout the system. Plenty of those colonists share your views about ’oppression’, but they didn’t go off and join a cult."

"The Sons of Mars may not seem like much right now, but Avalon was a mess in the beginning as well. The real question is-"

Before he could finish, Penny kicked the pistol from his hand and as he dove for the weapon, she shoulder charged him, forcing him back into the opposite wall. She then scooped up the pistol and took aim. The elevator was not moving, but they were too far up for anyone in the hotel or casino to see anything. They had already been talking long enough that any minute now somebody would be bringing the elevator back online. Even though she had disarmed him...Vexler had won this particular game and she was sure he knew it. But, she dared not admit it.

"What happened to you?" Penny lowered the weapon.

"What really happens to anyone? I can only imagine what your orders were...’retire’ me, maybe?"

"Nobody ever really just leaves this line of work," Penny stuffed the gun behind her back and under her brown leather bomber jacket, "especially not to join an organization that throws up all sorts of red flags in the intelligence community. You know, the community you were a part of up until just recently."

"Is this professional courtesy?" Vexler grinned, "Or are you letting emotion guide your decisions?"

"I don’t care what you think you taught me," she said as the elevator suddenly jolted to life, "but, there has to be an ounce of emotion in every decision."

"You really think so?" Vexler pushed himself up from the elevator’s handrail, "then you learned a lot less from me than I thought."

"Maybe, I should be grateful for that."

"Grateful," he echoed as the doors opened into the hotel lobby, "grateful is not the word I was going to use."

"Disappear," she called out behind him as he started to exit, clutching his side, "it may not be me they send after you next."

"You and I both know why they sent you," Vexler turned on his heels, "you’re the only one that could have stopped me. I helped make you into what you are."

"I made myself into who I am."

"Then you’ll have only yourself to blame for any of your decisions," he hesitated and looked off toward the alien horizon again, "in the end, that’s always the only person left to blame for anything."

"I found you once," Penny stepped out of the elevator and crossed her arms, "if I have to find you again..."

"Again," Vexler walked into the lobby without looking back, "you know how I feel about ’second chances’."

For a brief moment, Penny thought about just shooting him in the back and the sudden appearance of that image in her head immediately disgusted her. Was he right? Was that her problem? Was it more than just an ounce of emotion she let guide her? If she found this work distasteful, why was she so good at it? What did that really mean?

Penny turned and looked at her reflection in the metal doors of the elevator as they slid shut. Her red hair was neatly cut into a bob, her almond shaped eyes a misty hazel that looked green in the current lighting, her skin a healthy almost bronze tone. She had high cheekbones with a round jaw that converged into a slightly pointed chin. She turned her head to one side, narrowed her eyes at the singular dimple in her right cheek that always bothered her and then let out a somewhat relieved breath. If the work was eating away at her, it certainly didn’t show on the outside. She then looked down at her brown leather bomber jacket and shook her head. It was a gift from the person she was meeting in the hotel’s restaurant. Penny had thought it would be a nice gesture to show up in it. However, she couldn’t wait to put it away somewhere safe after she got back home to Avalon. It was an antique after all. She could only imagine what the man in the elevator must have thought of her as she cornered him wearing that jacket. But, she didn’t care. She was off the clock now, so to speak.

What Penny didn’t know, was that she’d meet the man in the elevator again, sooner than she anticipated and his words about the consequences of her decisions would come to haunt her. She knew there was no "honor among thieves" or in this case, spies. She was fully aware that it was dangerous to assume anything about the motivations of someone so well versed in the spy’s game of deception, distraction, and misdirection. But, she would spend the next year after that next fateful meeting trying to decipher what her thinking was on that day, deconstructing every decision, every word, every movement, replaying that scene in the elevator on an infinite loop in her memory. All of that continuous effort would yield fewer answers and more questions every time, further frustrating the sequence of events to follow and eating away at her in ways she hadn’t anticipated.

But, that was still to come and at this particular moment, Penny knew she had been compromised and had to move the person she was meeting away from this place. She wished she was on her way to have a pleasant afternoon far removed from spy games, questions of morality and lamentations about a dead planet she had never actually known. But, this ’social call’ was an unexpected complication and even though she hoped Eric Vexler was going to in fact disappear, she knew better than to assume anything about anyone...especially in her particular line of work. A text message lit up her wrist mounted display and she couldn’t help but smile.

"I’m at the restaurant. I swear, I’m out of here after lunch. Just a coincidence."

Penny’s smile faded. She knew better than to think anything was coincidence and found herself walking just a little bit faster toward the restaurant. She tapped a reply into her wrist display.

"We both work dangerous jobs, they were bound to cross paths at some point," mostly a lie, but she hit send regardless.

A reply came back promptly, "let’s talk more about your ’dangerous job’ when you get here."

Did they know what she really did for a living? Penny admitted to herself she would only be half-surprised if that was the case, but now was not the time to even try to explain her true profession. She just wanted to be a regular person for a couple of hours with regular concerns who just happened to be meeting someone she was very close with in a hotel restaurant built on the planet Venus.

It wasn’t human beings that had colonized Venus, but reptilian humanoids called Ratharians. Like so many of the humanoids that had come to the solar system, they had adopted a lot of human culture. Avalon, where the human race primarily resided, was something of the system’s capital and human culture was popular with many of the alien refugees who ended up colonizing one of the system’s worlds. As she made her way toward the restaurant, Penny found herself trying to place the name of the hotel mogul who ran this and several of the resorts that dotted the planet’s partially terraformed surface. She knew he had a reputation that seemed reminiscent of a forties style gangster, but she had never met him. All she could remember was that it was some awful name, like something out of a bad mobster movie.

She was waiting in line to be seated at the restaurant while her mind focused on that one simple question, not knowing it would ever have any significance for her in the future.

What was his name again?


Next Chapter: Chapter One