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Bought: Chapter Six

Serra

The next morning, I surveyed the gallery.

The force shields had acted as designed, locking down every shelf, every case, every pedestal.

I sighed.

It was a brilliant system, but for security’s sake, once it was activated, I needed to go and release every one.

Individually.

I sent a longing glance to the storage crates waiting for me.

What fabulous treasures waited inside?

New finds, new stories, new puzzles.

And it would all wait.

Then I took a deep breath and got to work.

The job couldn’t be all fun.

Not that last night’s attack had been anything I wanted to go through again.

Despite knowing the gardeners were only moments away, my heart had been in my throat and all I’d wanted to do was press myself closer to the reassuring mass of Jenke.

My explorer-rogue-scholar was apparently also a dead shot.

I’d barely seen him raise his blaster before those attack bots began falling.

“You don’t get breakfast first?” I startled out of my thoughts, my hands fluttering as the subject of my morning musing leaned casually against my worktable.

“Does there need to be more to breakfast than kaf?” I asked. “Besides, it’s going to be a long day reopening the gallery.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

I studied him.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him around the artifacts.

Not anymore.

While he looked as if he would blunder right through an entire shelving unit and not notice, he’d proven to be graceful and careful.

“You can keep me company, if you’d like.”

At the first sealed cabinet, I pressed a finger to the indentation and winced.

This was going to be a long day, and all of my fingers would be red and ragged by the end of it.

“You can’t tell me there isn’t a way to do this that doesn’t require blood every time.”

“I could spit?” I said. “But then I’d worry about the artifacts. And the floor.”

That ghost of a half smile curved his full lips and I looked away.

Good move, Serra.

Talking about spitting in front of your handsome mystery man was always a great strategy.

I stumbled slightly.

Not my handsome mystery man. Not my mystery man at all.

I moved quickly to the next cabinet, determined to ignore my brain for as long as it insisted on being ridiculous.

“So, all these things are grouped by theme?” Jenke asked.

He studied the items, then shook his head.

“A pile of shiny sparkly things?”

“Pretty close,” I agreed. “Crown jewels of deposed rulers.”

“Well, that’s cheerful.”

We moved to the next cabinet.

I moved to my fourth finger, hoping that by rotating along each hand my finger pads wouldn’t be completely torn up by the end of the day.

“This is one of my favorites,” I admitted as the shimmering field dropped, revealing the treasures within.

“Ritual gods of old Earth,” I breathed, taking in the displays.

What a strange, primitive time.

A menacing grin stretched across the rigid face of a short, oddly shaped black figure, two round discs jutting out from either side of its head, three bulbous fingers and a thumb encased in pale gloves.

Despite the years, traces of red and white paint could still be seen embedded in the surface.

A stone hand, broken off midway up the arm, the carving still a breathtaking work of grace and beauty stretching through the millennia since its creation.

A golden disc, scratched outlines on its surface barely visible.

A row of thin rectangular boxes standing on their ends, each topped with a distorted, leering face.

“How does she find things from Earth?” Jenke wondered aloud. “I’m not sure anyone even knows the location anymore.”

I trailed my finger along the edge of the cabinet.

“When it was abandoned, people brought their gods with them. It seems like a natural thing to do.”

“Humph,” he grumbled as we moved away to the next cabinet.

But even as I braced myself for yet another prick at my finger, Annie rolled up.

“Curator Serra. Chairman Transaman is ready to see you and our guest now.”

“Did she find them?” Jenke interjected quickly.

“In the Gold Room again?” I asked, turning away from the cabinet.

“No, Curator Serra. The Chairman requests that you bring our guest to her chambers.”

I stiffened. “Are you sure?” Then I bit off the words.

Of course she was sure.

Annie wasn’t the most imaginative AI around, but she was more than capable of conveying a message.

Well then.

I glanced up to find Jenke frowning at me.

“Something about her chambers I should know before we get there?” He glanced down at his jumpsuit, refreshed and clean, but still just a jumpsuit. “I could change. Probably.”

I shook my head. “Andrea doesn’t care about that. It’s just, she doesn’t usually see people in her chambers. I wonder what she’s found that makes this a special occasion.”

But Jenke didn’t volunteer any information, staying silent as we passed the dining room, entering what once had been the family wing.

“This way,” I said, gesturing towards the lift.

“She’s by herself all the way over here, and you’re by yourself over there?” Jenke said. “I understand the collection takes a lot of space, a lot of your time, but-”

“That’s not it,” I said softly. “You’ll see in a minute.”

As the lift door slid open, I braced myself.

While Andrea and I talked every day, usually several times throughout the day, it had been a while since I’d been to her chambers and seen her without the softening effects of the avatar.

Before we entered her chambers, I spun, a mix of fear and worry coursing through my veins.

“You be nice to her!” I thrust my finger into Jenke’s broad chest. “She didn’t have to look for your friends. No matter what she found, you be nice.”

“Hey, hey,” he said softly, his massive hand folding gently around my own. “Nobody’s gonna hire me or my code to sell stuff, but I promise, I don’t make a habit of being mean to old ladies. Young ones, either.”

My shoulders slumped. “I know,” I said. “It’s just, well…”

I pushed the doors open, letting the scene in front of us explain what I couldn’t.

“There’s my girl,” the thin voice croaked from the middle of a thin, gleaming white bed.

Not that you could see much of it.

Tubes and wires ran back-and-forth, framing the bed, sliding underneath the thin gown that covered Andrea’s frail form.

I hurried to her side, smiling.

So easy to forget the warmth in her dark eyes when the silver of her avatar had been taken off.

But it didn’t make up for how brittle she looked, her dark skin stretched over knife-sharp bones.

“Stop looking like that, child, today’s a good day,” she insisted.

“Now, why don’t you step to the side and let me see our visitor for real,” she directed gently.

I swallowed hard, then shifted to stand guard at the head of the bed, my left hand resting on the mattress rather than her shoulder, where I knew it would cause as much pain as comfort.

Her sharp eyes ran up and down Jenke’s form unabashedly.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” he said with a slight bow. “I hope the day finds you well.”

“Goodness, manners, too.” Andrea coughed. “Yes, now that I’ve actually seen you, I think I do have something you want.”

With the slightest twitch of her finger, a series of screens sprang to life around the edge of the room, covering the banks of machinery that quietly whirred and beeped, keeping her alive.

“These are the only men I have working for me that I think you would be interested in.”

One by one, men’s images filled the screens.

I didn’t need to look at Jenke for confirmation.

These men, whoever they were, bore the same wild stamp.

Different skin tones, different hair colors.

But no one could have mistaken it.

“Ulf. Yenik. Kane.” His whisper filled the room. “Where are they now?”

“They’re in the field, and,” she cut him off before he could speak, “I don’t have a way to contact them until they return.”

He tried to protest, but she kept speaking, her quiet voice rolling on.

“They’re undercover. I wouldn’t want to endanger the project, or your friends.”

Jenke squared his shoulders. “They’re together on the mission. They’ll take care of each other. When do you expect them back?”

“A few weeks, perhaps, but you must understand, they’re still under contract.”

“I’ll buy it out. How much is it?”

I blinked.

Another strange bit of data about our guest.

To buy the remainder of the contract for skilled mercenaries, as I had no doubts these men were, could run to millions of credits.

And yet, I had no doubts that Jenke was perfectly capable of handing over the credits immediately.

“I do like you better than that asshole Ran, but what makes you so certain I would release them?”

“You have to let them go.” His whisper sounded strained, desperate. “They have to come home.”

The intensity in his eyes nearly knocked me back.

Whatever the connection between these men, there was a story there, a tale as intriguing as that of any of my artifacts.

“There is one thing you could do…” Andrea began and I stifled a smile.

She did always have something up her sleeve.

“What? Anything,” Jenke blurted.

She brought up another screen.

“I want that.”

It was a primitive sculpture of a black bird. From the reference point to the side of the image, it was no taller than my forearm, with crude triangular incisions curving around its breast to give the bare illusion of feathers.

Nothing special.

At least, it wouldn’t look like it, if you didn’t already know what it was.

“They’re selling it?” I gasped.

Andrea glanced up at me. “Except the old bastard refused my offer. Decided to put it up for auction through Zonkredie’s.”

I nodded, still running my gaze over the figure’s bulky form and the clawed feet as it gripped the blocky ebony base.

“What is it?” Jenke asked, then waved his hand. “Never mind. I don’t care. Where is it? You need me to steal it? Just give me the coordinates and I’ll be back here in a day, maybe two.”

I stared at him in shock while Andrea coughed.

“If it was stolen, how in all the worlds would she ever display it?” I argued.

He shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like you get a lot of visitors around here to worry about caring. Who’s going to know?”

“I thank you for your initiative,” Andrea finally managed. “But that won’t be necessary. The item will be at auction, and I would like you to acquire it for me.”

I frowned. “Why not just use one of the avatars?”

Most auctions were remote.

The few that wanted a physical presence had always accepted her avatar.

Considering how widely her avatars were used throughout the sector for business negotiations in nearly every corp, it would be ridiculous for them not to be allowed.

But apparently we’d entered the realm of the ridiculous.

“Zonkredie’s has decided that, between the falcon and the rest of the catalog items, this should be an exclusive event on their own resort moon. With mingling. Of actual people.”

She tapped again and the screen began to flip through image after image of gorgeous, tempting things.

“Obviously,” she said, as she glanced down at her body and the apparatuses that kept her with us among the living, “I’m not exactly leaving the estate anytime soon.”

“My darling Serra can’t go. She’s not a field agent, and has plenty of important tasks to do here.”

My heart caught in my throat for a moment.

It was true.

I wasn’t a field agent. I didn’t want to be.

And yet…

“So, what does this entail?” Jenke asked, his arms crossed over his chest.

“The auction house will begin their event tonight,” Andrea explained. “All bidders must be on site before the opening reception. A force shield will be placed over the entire resort until the final bids are collected.”

He scowled. “Go, smile at people, buy the thing, return? And then you’ll release their contracts?”

“Something along those lines, yes,” she answered, but doubts ran through me.

Auctions were never that simple.

Dealing with collectors was never that simple.

The people who would be at this event, those were contacts Andrea had carefully cultivated over decades.

I studied Jenke closely.

Adventurer, scholar, rogue.

But how well would he do, dealing with the wealthy and powerful of the sector?

“I’ll go,” I said, then realized I hadn’t quite been able to force the words from my throat.

I never left the estate. Ever.

But if this went sideways, Andrea’s heart would be broken.

“I’ll go.”

I said the words louder this time and Andrea turned to look at me sharply.

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t ask you to.”

I swallowed hard and tried to sound far more confident than I felt.

“Of course I’m sure.”

“Then I’m going with you,” Jenke said. “If this is how I get my brothers back, I’m not letting a few fancy parties get in the way.”

Well.

This should be interesting.

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