Gideon Asaph hurried down Saint Ithica Way, walking fast. He had long since left behind the area of Tasckird that he knew well, and he didn’t care. A sheen of sweat glazed his forehead, but not entirely because of the heat. He wore no hat or headscarf despite the baking sun - he had dropped his hat two streets back and had not dared stop to pick it up. He knew they were still following him. A glance over his shoulder confirmed the fact.

They had the look of working-class Tasckird citizens, both in thin coats with wide-brimmed hats shading their heads against the sun, but Gideon knew all too well who they really were. They quickened their pace, still walking, but briskly now as they weaved around the pedestrians in their way. It was mid-rotaa and most citizens were on their lunch break, sheltered inside air-conditioned canteens and eateries. A few still walked the streets of the bustling Tasckird suburbs, but not enough to allow him to lose his pursuers or seriously impede their progress.

Gideon’s heart was hammering in his chest as he turned into a street signposted Peresov Street, breaking into a jog. Looking up he saw something black darting across the rooftops, moving in the same direction as him. He knew what that was too. Behind him, the two pursuers were closing fast. He needed somewhere crowded, somewhere where his pursuers wouldn’t dare try anything. He saw a pub across the street and made for it.

The two men rounded the corner a moment later, just in time to see their quarry disappear through the front door. They stopped for a moment and looked at each other. Nearby, a black ground car eased to a halt directly opposite the pub. One of the men glanced at the car, then up at the sun-bleached rooftops. He nodded to his companion, and then began to cross the street. His hand drifted to a shoulder holster concealed inside his coat.

******

The internal circulator units hummed softly, keeping the air inside the modified Devilfish transport at a comfortable 20 degrees C despite the dusty heat outside. For Shas’la Lynu’cha and his pilot, this adjustment was largely superfluous; rather it was for the comfort of their human compatriots, who did not share the same evolutionary bias towards hot environments.

Lynu’cha surreptitiously glanced left and right at the seven human Gue’vesa sharing the transport compartment with him. On his left was Gue’vesa’la Sorid, a compact and lean individual who had once piloted a Sentinel - a primitive human battlesuit. In the last 20 rotaa Lynu’cha had come to learn that he was an introverted but meticulous man, and the latter trait made him useful for their investigations.

Next to Sorid was La’Blerr, the young and idealistic offworlder who had been assigned to the Shas’kar’tyr’s human auxiliary initiative in the last kai’rotaa. Blerr, despite being the least experienced, was also one of the most trustworthy, having been raised under the Greater Good on Kat’lon.

In one corner of the transport was La’Mikhailov, dark haired and dark eyed, lost in his own thoughts. La’Pike, hawk-featured, sat with his human-designed slug thrower across his knees in the other. Opposite Lynu’cha himself were La’Kade and La’Cenk, native Valkorans both, and the youngest and oldest of the team respectively. Cenk had seen the light during the liberation and defected, bringing with him information that had shortened the battle of Tasckird by an appreciable margin and proved that one was never to old to serve the Tau’va. Kade was a skilled negotiator in spite of his youth, possessed of a natural charm that had greatly impressed his former employers in the Water caste. This charm was at least partly due to some kind of subliminal warp manipulation, which seemed benign enough and unarguably furthered the cause of the Greater Good, but following the Medusa V debacle the Earth caste had given instructions to keep a closer eye on the young Gue’vesa and his powers - just as a precaution. Lynu’cha would do so.

And finally his second in command, Gue’vesa’ui Bentu’Cea, the transfer from one of the Vior’la cadres who had so impressed his former overseers that they had honoured him with inclusion in their Ta’lissera - an almost unheard-of honour for a non-Tau. Ui’Cea was the only member of the team who Lynu’cha truly trusted. If the presence of a Gue’vesa hero such as Ui’Cea could not inspire the citizens of Tasckird, nothing could.

“Kor’la,” Lynu’cha called through to the front of the modified Devilfish, “Anything from the other teams?”

Kor’la Ke’lshan Anuk’ta glanced briefly over her shoulder through the open airlock that linked her command pod to the main transport compartment. Aside from the Y-shaped forehead ridge, there was little to distinguish her from her male counterpart, as like most Tau below ’El or ’O rank she kept her head shaved as a mark of humility and discipline. More distinctive was the elongated, almost spindly bone structure visible beneath her armoured flight-suit, marking her as a member of the Air caste.

“Nothing in the last hour, Shas’la.” she replied.

Even between themselves, aside from difficult to translate elements such as caste rank, Lynu’cha and Anuk’ta spoke in the Valkoran tongue for the benefit of the humans. The Water caste had recommended it as a measure to reduce culture shock, at least until the current transition period was over and the population more receptive to Tau society.

Lynu’cha leaned back slightly in his seat. There were seldom any disturbances during the midday hours, when the humans sought shade for their half-shift break.

That notion was shattered a minute later by a flashing light and a series of beeps. They drew Lynu’cha’s attention to an octagon-shaped screen on the cabin’s front wall, just to the right of the airlock that led to the vehicle’s cockpit. The Gue’vesa turned in unison to follow his gaze as the screen flickered into life. The vehicles of the Shas’kar’tyr were all linked in to the city surveilance network, which was in turn managed by a drone AI capable of recognising signs of potential trouble and automatically alerting any Fire caste in the area.

The screen showed a high-angle image of one of Tasckird’s minor streets, rendered in black and white. The flashing glyphs in the bottom right of the picture detailed the location of the security camera transmitting the image as the southeast city centre, specifically Peresov Street.

The Tau had made an elaborate show of removing and dismantling the pict-stealers placed all over the city by the Imperial regime, albeit only to replace them with better disguised versions of their own shortly after. Security had to be maintained, after all, for the safety of both the Tau and their human subjects. Less obtrusive observation would lead to less tension among the populace, while still allowing the Shas’kar’tyr to deal with troublemakers. Thus, Lynu’cha and his fellow Tau reasoned, this small deception was necessary for the greater good of their human protectorate.

The source of the alarm was a pair of humans crossing the road towards a bar on Peresov, walking with purpose. The network’s AI had superimposed a flashing rectangle over a rig under the lead human’s arm, visible as he parted his coat with the opposite hand. Angry red runes scrolled over the picture, detailing the threat. Civilian firearms were expressly forbidden under Tau law, and this human not only possessed one, he was about to use it.

“Kor’la.” Lynu’cha began, snapping the pulse carbine free of its magnetic locks on the rack behind him.

“Already on it, Shas’la.” came the reply from the transport’s front seat. A flip-down screen over Anuk’ta’s left shoulder displaying the same image that Lynu’cha was seeing cancelled itself with the flick of a switch, while the pilot simultaneously ramped up the power to the antigrav plates on the vehicle’s underside with her other hand.

“Stand by.” Lynu’cha barked to his team as their armoured transport pivoted on its cushion of air, antigrav plates humming as they carried it up above the ground-bound traffic. Propulsion jets swivelled to the horizontal as the Devilfish dipped its nose and sped off southward.

******

Gideon sat down shakily in the farthest corner of the pub, trying to slow his breathing and arrest the shaking in his hands. It was still the designated lunch hour and most of the tables were full, a pair of human waitresses going to and fro with trays of simple but filling pub food. A group of manufactorum workers sat laughing at one table, cool pints of gently fizzing larger in their hands, while a tall man who looked like he’d just got off a particularly hard shift dozed at another, seemingly too tired to take off his hooded sun-robe. A short, broad-shouldered Demiurg with mechanic’s goggles pushed up above his craggy face stood atop a bar stool to order drinks from the Tau Earth-caste behind the bar. Gideon breathed a sigh of relief. Surely his pursuers wouldn’t try anything here.

That hope was shattered a second later as the two men appeared at the door.

“Aaron.” said one, pointing. His other hand went inside his coat. The Tau barman looked up curiously, but no-one else seemed to notice as the two men crossed the pub floor to stand in front of Gideon’s table. Gideon’s heart-rate spiked, and his eyes darted left and right at the many civilians crowding the pub. Finally, he looked up at the two men.

“Not here.” he whispered, “I’ll come with you quietly, but not here!”

“Let them watch.” the one called Aaron growled, “Nowhere’s beyond the reach of justice.”

The tall man had woken up now and was peering in their direction, while the group of manufactorum workers had stopped laughing. Gideon’s mouth went dry as his pursuer’s hand withdrew from his coat holding a snub-nosed laspistol. He brought his hands up in a futile attempt to placate his antagonists.

“I’m not -” was all he managed to say before a thread of blue light leapt from the gun’s muzzle, connecting the barrel and his face for the briefest of instants before the latter exploded in a puff of vapourised blood, sending pink chunks and most of his skull showering over the walls and ceiling.

A moment later, the screaming started.

The Tau landlord dived for cover behind the bar, while one patron stopped mouth agape in the centre of the floor, a drink still in his hand. Everyone else simultaneously bolted for the exit, shoving each other aside and knocking at least one human to the ground in their panicked flight. The two hitmen followed, ignoring the trampled human who frantically crabbed out of their way. Outside, vehicles both human and Tau skidded to a halt in a screech of brakes as the street was suddenly filled with panicking civilians. The Demiurg who had been standing at the bar rolled up and over the roof of a red four-seater as it braked too late and slammed into him. The screech of tyres was superseded by a deeper whine as a grey and yellow Devilfish swung out from a junction thirty metres up the street, kicking up whirlpools of sand and rubbish with its engine downwash and stopping both of the hitmen in their tracks.

“Shit.” said the one called Aaron, and raised his laspistol.

******

As the Devilfish rounded the corner, banking sharply, it was met by a screaming mob of citizens clawing their way out of the pub. They either streamed past the transport or scrambled for cover as Anuk’ta dropped to ground level and frantically cut the engines to avoid injuring the panicking civilians with the jetwash. In the wake of the crowd, the two men from the security feed came bursting out of the pub at full tilt. Both were holding laspistols. They skidded to a halt as they registered the hulking Devilfish transport hovering twenty metres in front of them, blocking the entire street.

Anuk’ta seized the microphone on her armrest and activated the vehicle’s loudhailer. “Shas’kar’tyr! In the name of the Greater Good, drop your weapons and get down on the gr-”

That was as far as she got before a lasbolt screeched across the Devilfish’s topside, carrying off the delicate aerial mounted on the turret. In the rear compartment, Lynu’cha temporarily slipped back into his native Tau to voice a violent expletive.

“I cannot use the burst cannon, Shas’la,” Anuk’ta warned from the front, “Too many civilians.”

“Drop the rear ramp.” Lynu’cha ordered her. “Gue’vesa, deploy!”

Across the street there was a shriek of wheelspin as a black ground car parked opposite the pub slammed itself into reverse, and the two men caught in the open ceased their ineffectual fire and ran for it.