A man in a blue suit and a silent boy with pink hair greeted Gaston and Aaron at the port in Opera. Both of them looked deceptively dangerous. The man in the suit introduced himself as Chaos and the boy as Zero. Zero watched their hands with big attentive blue eyes. Chaos seemed bored, but he was impeccably polite. Gaston and Aaron were a little surprised that anyone from Esterhazy's company had been sent to greet them.
"How did you know we were coming?" Gaston asked.
"Mr. Esterhazy does have psychics on the pay roll," Chaos said. He smiled, as if to say it saddened him that Gaston hadn't been able to conclude that on his own.
"Along with all the refuse from the experiments during the war."
"If you're referring to Ghostshadow, I have to say I agree with you, but Mr. Esterhazy is rather fond of him. Well, except for recently."
"Who's Ghostshadow?" Aaron asked.
"Oh, you aren't here about something he's done. I'm sorry. I thought for sure it was about him. Obviously, I'm not one of those psychics."
"Should we be concerned about him?"
"Perhaps. I haven't seen him in several days. I suspect he's found his pretty by now and is playing with him, probably too rough, I'm sure."
"We're actually here to ask some questions about a material made at Winterhaven Materials."
"Certainly, although you'll have to ask Mr. Falkenberg and myself. Mr. Esterhazy is unavailable today."
"Is he sick?" Gaston asked.
Chaos hesitated. "In a sense," he said. "In a sense, we all are. That's the price we pay for our changes. Please, come with me. Mr. Falkenberg is waiting."
They followed Chaos to a waiting vehicle while Zero followed them, still watching their hands as if he expected them to pull their laser pistols and start shooting. The vehicle then took them to the compound of buildings that made up the A.D. Esterhazy Enterprises family of companies. From there, Chaos led them to one of the smaller buildings that was home to the offices of a company called Dane Pharmaceuticals. Inside, a tall man with dark hair and blue grey eyes greeted them. He looked just like his mother.
"Welcome, detectives," he said, shaking their hands. "I'm Pavel Falkenberg. What can we help you with today?" He gestured for them to sit down in the chairs in front of the desk while he sat down behind it. Chaos stood at the left side of the desk, and Zero stood in front of the door, still not taking his eyes from their hands.
"Well, we'll start simple," Aaron said. "A few days ago, there was a robbery at the Museum of Antiquities on Solo. Whoever pulled the job was very good. They also had a little help from strips that disrupted the laser grid around the Shikkongou. The strips were made from a material manufactured by one of Esterhazy's companies. We were unable to find anything like these strips on the black markets anywhere, not even Junket, nor do we have any reason to believe these were stolen from the military or any other organization that might legitimately use such a thing."
"So naturally, you would like to know if it was stolen from us directly or if we ourselves make such strips."
"That's the plan, yeah."
Pavel furrowed his brow. "You're probably referring to material T1-778. It's used mostly in the medical profession as it makes an excellent and cheap suture, and in cargo netting. To my knowledge, it has no properties that would disrupt a laser grid. Chaos, what do you know about it?"
"Material T1-778 is a synthetic based on the structure of an extinct plant once found in the forest on Saint Dominic," Chaos said. "Certain inhabitants of that forest prevented the plant from being harvested by humans, although DNA samples were taken long before the era of the Empire. The plant's fibers resemble the silk made by silk worms, but it's much stronger and more durable. It's fire proof and waterproof. The process of synthesizing the fiber was perfected about ten years ago, and in that process, the fiber took on a light refracting quality. As a suture, that quality is negligible, since the strands tend to be quite thin. Cargo netting shows a little bit more of that quality, though its practical uses are nonexistent in that case. The tighter the weave of the finished product, the more light it will refract, and if the weave is tight enough, yes, it could disrupt a laser grid. A laser is, after all, light.
"Now, have we made such things? To my knowledge, yes, while we were experimenting with the uses of the material. Do we manufacture such things for commercial use? No, we do not. The closest thing we have to that is a prototype mesh meant to be layered over a soldier's flak jacket to deflect blasts from lasers. And it is only a prototype."
"Who has access to this stuff?" Gaston asked.
"The scientists, engineers and designers who are working on the project. And of course, Mr. Esterhazy, Mr. Falkenberg and myself. I assure you, detectives, it's very closely monitored."
"I'm the security director for all of A.D. Esterhazy Enterprises."
"How many people work on this project?"
"At the moment, about fifty. They all live on site. The material would not leave this compound without me knowing about it."
"So how did it end up in the hands of a thief?"
Chaos said nothing and looked at Pavel.
"I wouldn't know anything about that, detectives," Pavel said. "As he said, it's very closely monitored. And there have been no break-ins. No thief could get away with it. Getting inside is one thing. Getting out is quite another."
"We have two suspects in the case," Aaron said. "One of them is Nick Tsyplakov, who is rumored to be a Falkenberg."
"If it is my brother, I don't know anything about it. He ran away from home when he was fourteen. No one has seen him or heard from him since then."
"Why did he run away?"
"Who knows? He was a strange child. A disturbingly strange child. Personally, I don't think he's alive. He wouldn't have known how to survive on his own."
"What do you mean, strange?"
"He wasn't like other boys his age. He wasn't interested in things boys should be, like girls for instance. Not to say he was interested in other boys. He didn't seem to be aware of things like that. He spent most of his time reading books he wasn't supposed to read. He got along very well with Talon's son-in-law, and I think it was Ryan's influence that eventually led Nikolai to the conclusion to run away."
"Could we possibly take a look at the labs where this prototype is made?" Gaston asked.
"With a search warrant, I would gladly show you the labs," Chaos said. "I have to protect our corporate interests in the matter."
"That's understandable. Maybe we should get warrant."
"I am sorry we couldn't have been more help, detectives," Pavel said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting to attend."
The impact of a human body on the windshield sent the nose of Reifujin Hagane dipping nearly ninety degrees downward. The pilot, Dominick Steele, wasn't sure what had happened at first. He saw the cracks in the windshield and saw outrageous repair bills flashing before his eyes. The navigator, Iago Park, came rushing up to the front after Dominick had steadied the grappler ship.
"What the fuck was that?" Iago asked.
"Um. Looks like a dead body," Dom said.
"Shit." Iago sat down and very carefully used one of the grappling arms to pluck the body off the windshield and bring it inside the ship.
"He's dead," Zeva Bryce said, pressing her fingers to the man's neck. She didn't have to check for a pulse. She knew there wouldn't be one. The man's body was twisted and his limbs lay at impossible angles. Every bone in his body was probably broken, and that wasn't to mention the stab wounds in his shoulder and his stomach.
"He just fell out of the sky like that?" Shinzui asked. "Humans don't do that. Do they?"
Zeva smiled at the android engineer. "Not usually."
"Why would he do that then?"
"Looks to me like someone was trying to kill him."
From the front of the ship, Dom shouted, "Zeva, what the hell did you just say? Did you say he was murdered? So I gotta deal with a murder and fucking expensive repairs? I hope you're ready to work."
"I will not wear the bunny costume again!"
It was dark and cold. Nick's fingers ached. He tried to move and couldn't, but he felt no pain. Of course you don't feel any pain, he thought. You can't feel anything when your spinal cord's been shredded.
The last thing he remembered was telling Galen to let go. He barely remembered anything before that, except knowing that Ghostshadow was about to show up inside the helicopter. He felt the impact long before it actually happened. He had had visions of it, but he wasn't sure if he had known when he told Galen to let go that it would happen then. What he knew at that moment was that whether Galen let him fall or managed to pull him back inside, he was going to die. The second Ghostshadow had driven the knife into his stomach, his body had gone cold and then very slowly numb. The knife had gone almost all the way through him, chipping a vertebra and nicking his spinal cord.
He heard water dripping. A woman's face leaned over him. She had no hair, her skin was pale blue and her eyes were deep purple. Her fingers hovered above his lips. "You are the stars," she said. Her voice sounded like so many different things that Nick wasn't sure he was hearing a voice. He was vaguely aware that the cold was coming from her skin.
He opened his mouth. "God," he said.
She smiled. "My angel," she answered.
"Where am I?"
"In my heart."
"I ... I don't understand."
"Shaman is very tired, and there is still so very much to do."
"But ... "
"He is not dying. He has many years yet to live. The fire came back to me, and we loved so fiercely that we made another. And it twinned to Shaman because of blood. So you are the same yet different."
"You will learn. You are still growing, angel. When your wings are strong and they unfurl, you will know what the difference is."
She touched his lips and rippled away. Pain tore though his back, squeezing his heart so tight he thought it would explode. Then it let go, and he breathed.
"Holy shit, he's breathing," a young boy's voice said.
Nick opened his eyes slowly. The world was grey and running together like chalk drawings in the rain. He caught flashes of red and green and white. He felt deft fingers moving around him.
"We need a healer!" the boy shouted.
Ghostshadow moved through the crowd at the docks in Newton, watching ships carefully as they docked. He sang to himself as he walked. "Where oh where has my pretty one gone? Where oh where can he be?" he sang, over and over.
A big yellow and black grappler with a busted windshield looked like a promising hiding place. He got a little closer. The hatch popped open. A dark haired woman stepped out, looked around then took a big breath. "Hey!" she shouted. "We need a healer! Is there a healer in the crowd! We got a serious injury in here! Please help!"
Ghostshadow rushed up to her, trying to hide his grin. "I'm a healer," he said.
"Talk about the right place at the right time," she said. She grabbed his arm and yanked him inside the ship. They stopped where Nick was laying on the floor with a young boy kneeling next to him pressing make shift bandages to the stab wounds. "He - "
Before she could finish, Ghostshadow dropped to his knees beside the kid. "Oh my God," he said. "What the hell happened? Nicky, what happened?" He put his hand on Nick's face. Nick opened his eyes. Ghostshadow almost laughed when Nick tried to fight and couldn't move.
"You know him?" the woman asked.
"Yes. He's my boyfriend. We had a little fight yesterday, and he walked out on me. I've been looking for him ever since."
"He fell on our windshield," the pilot said, coming in from the front with the co-pilot close behind him.
Ghostshadow put his hand on the wound in Nick's stomach. Nick's fingers twitched as he tried to move his hands. Ghostshadow took Nick's hand in his and kissed Nick's fingertips. "It's okay, Nicky," he whispered. "I'm here. I've got you." He could feel the fractures running up the length of Nick's arm. "I've got you. I won't let you go." He looked over his shoulder at the crew. "Thank you," he said. "It might be a while before I can heal him enough to move him."
"Do you need anything? Bandages? A hospital?" the pilot asked.
"No, that won't be necessary. Just a little time, that's all I need."
"Take all the time you want. I gotta go buy a new fucking windshield. We'll be back."
After almost two hours, Ghostshadow had healed most of Nick's injuries, including his broken back and pelvic bone and the internal injuries his splintering bones had caused. The smaller fractures in Nick's arms and legs would have to wait. Ghostshadow was too exhausted to carry Nick himself, so Dom and Shinzui concocted a make shift stretcher and carried Nick back to the apartment Ghostshadow had rented. With Nick comfortably unconscious on the bed and Dom and Shinzui glad to be rid of what could have been a big problem, Ghostshadow sat down in a chair and laughed until he fell asleep.
Lash and Galen had spent hours scouring every inch of Newton for Nick and had found nothing. They had checked every hospital and clinic. They had even gone to the morgue. They had gone to the docks, but any time either of them asked about a man falling from the sky they just got strange looks. After a while, all they could think to do was give up. Galen went home, and Lash wandered despondently around the docks. He sat on a bench, sipping a cup of coffee and watching late night repairs to the nose of a grappler. He half listened to the crew yelling at each other and wondered if the BII had gotten any closer to figuring out who their thieves were.
A woman came out of the ship with a news slate in her hand. "Hey!" she shouted up at the others.
The three guys on the nose stopped and looked down at her. "What now, Zeva?" one asked.
"That guy, what was his name?"
"The one that fell on us? The creepy ass healer called him Nicky. Why?"
"You gotta look at this."
She climbed up to the nose and handed over the news slate. The boys poured over it.
"Goddamn! Look at all those zeros!" one of them shouted.
"That's him," the girl said. "Nikolai Falkenberg, two and a half million dollar reward for his capture or information leading to his whereabouts."
"That'll pay for hundreds of windshields."
"Damn, I wish we'd seen this before you took him away. Where did you take him?"
"Some crappy little apartment complex down the road. I think it was called the Colony or something like that."
"You boys keep working. I'll go see if I can make us a little money without having to wear the stupid bunny costume."
Lash knew exactly where the Colony was. He had lived there for a short time just after the war. He took off running in that direction as fast as he could. The office was closed when he got there, so he let himself in and searched through the records, although he wasn't entirely sure what he was looking for. He would know when he found it. He found it in C3; a man named Robyn Chartrand who listed his employer as A.D. Esterhazy Enterprises and his occupation as public relations. He had moved in the day before.
Lash drew one of his guns and made his way to building C. From the outside, everything looked normal and quiet. He could see light inside from the window and around the doorframe. He listened at the door. He heard nothing. He put his hand on the doorknob and pressed his shoulder to the door. He turned the doorknob. It wasn't locked. Before he could push the door open, it was jerked violently out of his hands. Ghostshadow grabbed him, pulled him half way inside then slammed the door, smashing Lash's head between the door and the frame. He dropped his gun. Ghostshadow kicked it towards the kitchen. Lash's head was spinning. He tried to reach for the other gun. Ghostshadow opened the door, pulled Lash in a little further then slammed the door again, this time crushing Lash's shoulder. He let Lash fall to the floor and closed the door.
Lash felt sharp knees dig into the small of his back. "Now I have two toys to play with," Ghostshadow said. "This one's not as pretty. But that's okay." Lash struggled as Ghostshadow hogtied him and dragged him further into the small apartment. Ghostshadow bent down and whispered in his ear, "You can watch what I do to the other one." Lash passed out to the sound of Ghostshadow's maniacal laughter.