She had to bring it to the brutal conclusion now or forever give up on her revenge. She had promised herself at the start of the mission that she would remain strong and finish it, but she’d grossly underestimated her own heart.
It would be so easy to surrender. To simply let him carry her off, to become his. He would never have to know the truth.
Twelve years, she reminded herself. Twelve years of rejection and quiet pain, of feeling broken as if a vital part of her was lost. Twelve years of controlled anger.
A storm was locked inside her and it was tearing her apart.
She cried and when her sobs exhausted her, she washed her face and once again faced the screen.
You can’t smelt happiness from a lie. She knew him, but he did not know her.
She had to end it.
Celino was enraged. The first time Meli had ignored his call, he dismissed it. Perhaps she was in the shower or out at the market. He was in the middle of a smoking ruin awaiting excavation of the reactor and his time was limited to a few precious seconds.
The second time she refused to accept him, he called the man he had left watching her house. The man’s personal unit was set to Do Not Disturb.
Worry shot through him. Ignoring the explanation of the diagnostic engineers, he stole a minute of precious time to queue up the camera he had planted in the garden on his personal unit. The camera captured the door and he saw Meli move past the screen inside. He pinged her again and watched her ignoring his call.
Perhaps his man was inside. Perhaps she had invited him in. Maybe he was in her bed.
His face must’ve turned dark because people around him fell silent. He moved and they scurried out of his way, reading death in his eyes.
An hour later, when he ended the investigation and entered his aerial, he saw a notification of a private message. He locked the doors and brought it up. A “recording disabled” warning popped up—the message would play only once. He wouldn’t get a chance to keep it or replay it. “Accept,” he ground out through his teeth.
Meli filled the screen. Her hair was pulled back. She wore a grey tactical vest over grey shirt. He had no idea she owned one.
“Your man is in the kitchen. I tranquilized him, but he should come to his senses by the time your crew gets here. I’m leaving you, Celino.”
Pain lanced him.
“This is the end. You will never see me again. A man once told me that even if he met the most elegant and refined being on the planet, he would push her aside, because he valued his freedom more. This is me pushing you aside, Celino. After years of waiting, I’m finally free of you.”
He forced himself to punch through the pain clawing at him and concentrate on her words. They seemed hauntingly familiar but he couldn’t recall if he had said them or if they were said to him. He knew he had heard those words spoken before.
“Thank you for my freedom. I will strive to never think of you again. Farewell.”
The screen went dark. He felt oddly calm. Empty. Cold. He sat before the dark screen, patiently waiting to feel something. Anything at all.
Finally a spark of emotion flared in him. He puzzled over it and recognized what it was. Hot, blinding rage.
It took him less than an hour to cover the distance that typically demanded two and a half. He nearly burned out the aerial’s engine. When he dropped out of the sky at reckless speed to land on the slab before her house and stepped out of the cabin, his crew recognized signs of danger and gave him a wide berth. Only Marcus dared to approach him. Celino looked at his face. The Anglican shook his blond head. Meli had escaped.
Inside the house was gutted. The linen, the pillows, every scrap or fabric or cloth was gone. Her terminal was missing, removed from the wall. The kitchen lay barren, every item sanitized.
Celino found the biotech. “Tell me you have something.”
The woman shook her head. “The place is sterilized. She did a complete sweep, probably using a bioscanner. There are no traces of biologicals except for the plants in the garden.”
He growled. He’d had countless opportunities to obtain a DNA sample, but he consciously had set them aside, determined to reconstruct her secrets from conversation alone to satisfy his cleverness. Back then, he thought he had all the time in the world.
Now she had obliterated every trace of herself and vanished.
He would find her. He would find out why.
The garden flashed in his head. He had seduced her on the soft grass in the garden three days ago. He remembered sun on her face and her succulent body against the green. She smiled at him from the depth of his memory and he steeled himself against another stab of pain.
Celino strode into the garden and knelt on the patch of grass. Any liquid traces of their coupling had long vanished. He scanned the area, his vision heightened by his fury, and saw a single long hair tangled in the dahlia stems. She’d missed it. The signatures of the plants had dampened her bioscanner and the hair had gone unnoticed.
He untangled it gently, as if it were made of the most precious metal, and took it to the biotech. “Run a match against kinsman database.”
He waited next to her while the DNA sequencer purred, comparing the hair to the known families.
“Appalachi, three percent,” she reported. “Patel, seven point two. Vinogradov, four percent…”
Garbage, he thought furiously.
“Galdes, seventy-nine point one percent.”
He whipped around. The genetic makeup within the families varied to a significant degree. Anything over seventy percent was considered a definitive match.
A terrible suspicion flared in his mind. But he wanted proof.
He spun to Marcus. “I want access to the Galdes files. I don’t care how many alarms you set off or what you have to do.”
Three hours later he stood behind his best two hackers peering at the triumvirate of data screens. If he could do anything in his current condition, he could inspire fear. They had breached the security of the Galdes files in record time.
Only the top of the family would have access to an excise. “I want all outgoing transmissions from Lyon, Azare and Angel between the tenth and seventeenth.” A week’s range, extending back from the first time they met.
A long list filled the screens. “Eliminate all known Galdes terminals.”
The list shrank to a fifth of its size.
They hit gold an hour into the viewing. When Meli’s face filled the screen, he almost didn’t register that they had found what he was looking for.
“…a difficult task,” Angel said.
Meli’s eyes were calm. “No more jobs. I’ve retired.”
“This is a personal request, Meli. From Father.”
He watched her close her eyes. She carried on the conversation, waiting for something, standing absolutely still.
A smooth disk of interceptor slid from the hallway behind her. Her eyes remained closed.
The interceptor slid closer, its cannon adjusting to the target.
A translucent green ribbon struck from her, impossibly fast. The interceptor crashed to the floor, smoking.
“Good God,” Angel’s voice intoned.
“A melder,” Marcus hissed. His eyes had gone wide. “I’ve let you walk into the house of a melder without a guard.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
“I don’t hold you responsible,” Celino snarled. “You couldn’t have known.” He turned back to the screen. “Replay the last ten seconds.”
He watched her slice the lethal machine in a half. Precise. Elegant. Economical in her movements. She was beautiful.
And yet she didn’t kill him. For days he had been at her mercy, but never once did she attempt to attack him. Having watched her in action, he was certain he wouldn’t have survived.
“Retina match to the Galdes personnel files,” he said numbly. “Anything with security B or above.”
Meli’s eyes filled the screen. The computer analyzed the tiny patterns, the personnel files cycled on the left and then a match filled the other half of the front screen. The girl on the screen was much younger. Eighteen at most. Her eyes shone, incandescent with hope. His rage died, frozen into a solid block of ice.
“Identify,” he said, barely recognizing his own voice.
“Imelda Anara Galdes. Daughter of Lyon Galdes, sister to…”
Celino closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his fingers. He remembered the source of her words now. He had thrown them in her face twelve years ago.
“There are hidden files attached under her name,” one of the hackers said.
He forced himself to look up. “Bring them up.”
Two files. Engagement and Excise.
They filed out of the room, all except Marcus. “Leave me,” he repeated. The Anglican bowed and retreated from the room.
Celino sank into a chair.
“Engagement,” he said grimly.
A picture of his younger self looked at him. He scrolled past it impatiently. A list of the books from his library, each title with his personal notes. She seemed to have added her own. “Celino: liked it but the main character lacked discipline. Meli: agreed.” Next title. “Celino: garbage. DNF. Meli: tedious beginning but worthwhile finish.” By Scarlet Sails, he had written: Pure sap. She added her own note, “Celino, you’re an idiot.”
A list of holofilms, again annotated with two sets of notes. His school notes, pages and pages and pages of them. She studied him as if he was one of the ancient masters and she a disciplined devotee. She had access to his notes. She must’ve made a friend among the Carvannas.
He scrolled. A collection of recipes. A recipe for passion cones. A note scribbled with a stylus on the screen marked the corner. “Don’t forget the lemons, Meli!” He recognized his mother’s small script. His own mother had conspired against him.
No wonder he felt at ease with Meli. She knew him, intimately knew him. She’d read his notes and his ramblings and peered into his mind. Why had she done it? He searched his mind and stumbled onto the answer that shook him. She had done so they would be happy. She had expected to be his wife. She understood he would resent her and so she strove to become more than his burdensome spouse.