Koko Martstellar, the assassin-turned-brothel-owner, has starred in two futuristic adventure novels thus far, Koko Takes a Holiday and Koko the Mighty. But what was she like back when she was just a struggling young assassin? Here’s an exclusive look at a short story from the early days of Koko.

THE MEAT CLOCK

By Kieran Shea

Koko Martstellar dreams of fire.

Laddering flame.

Chugging blizzards of ash and searing black smoke.

A thumping jars Koko awake: mechanical knuckles rapping on the translucent, blast-proof canopy directly above. Wiping the last of sleep’s gummy tentacles from her eyes, the canopy gets rapped sharply again.

“Martstellar, oh-three-hundred!”

Oh, for the love of…

It’s her mission chief, an anvil-headed Parisian known as Balzac. Built like an armoire and a former field operative, Balzac isn’t really a full-on hard case for the most part, but he does like to keep his crew on schedule. Of course with a name like Balzac it wasn’t a shock that some of Koko’s fellow mercenaries took to calling the big man “Ballsack” out of earshot. A judicious move that. Deride the huge, salty Frenchman to his grill? Balzac could easily beat anyone to death with a few quick whips of his prosthetic right arm.

DUNK! DUNK! DUNK!

Koko nods to demonstrate she’s awake and unbuckles her cross-strap stability harnesses. Her bunk’s canopy lifts with a short pneumatic hiss.

“Let’s go,” Balzac says. “Wakey, wakey.”

Koko pulls herself into a sitting position. Swinging her legs, she slips her socked feet into her boots. “So, what? No kiss?”

“Pardon?”

“I said, no kiss? I thought Sleeping Beauty is always supposed to be woken with a kiss, Chief.”

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Glaring, Balzac’s walrus-like mustache twitches. “Va te faire mettre. In Perrault’s original story there actually never was a kiss.”

“Really?”

Balzac nods.

“Wow. Never would’ve pegged you for the fairytale type.”

“Let’s go, on your feet,” Balzac says. “Municipal commerce zone, Tower Two. Relieve Hesketh on the sweeper weapon and check in when you’re in the slot.”

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Yawning, Koko gives the big man a thumbs-up and then watches as he lumbers off and out of the barracks. Hopping to her feet, Koko strums her mid-section beneath her tank top and slumps her way across the room to gather her gear. Dozens of other mercs snore away in their bunk tubes oblivious to her movements, row after row stacked to the ceiling like so much cord wood. Koko wonders whether any, like her, are troubled by dreams of fire.

After hauling on her tactical suit and body armor, Koko checks her pulse rifle. It probably isn’t necessary, but she packs two extra speed clips out of habit and when all her gear is squared away, she activates the ocular implant forked into her right temple. Settling her cover, Koko then gives her face a brief once over in a small mirror taped to a bulkhead by the door. The whites of her green eyes are still pink. Man, she thinks, the dehydration on this desert op is freaking killing me.

Two months ago, a Peruvian-based conglomerate known as OpTel International experienced a catastrophic explosion in its Atacama Desert factory installation. The mission brief outlined what OpTel actually assembled there before the incident, but once Koko learned there’d be minimal bio-hazard credits attached to her paystub she pretty much stopped giving a shit. Widgets, smelted circuit-board scoria retrieved from the planet’s devastated hot zones—did it even matter? To her, a paycheck was a paycheck, and the job was simple: secure the peace until OpTel’s subcontractors got the factory back online.

Exiting the soundproof barracks, the thundering round-the-clock percussion of subcontractors’ rebuild machinery is deafening. Being several hours before daybreak there’s still a chill in the arid air so Koko takes a moment to engage her tactical suit’s thermals. Her flesh warms and a lungful of pulverized grit forces a cough. Spitting to her side, a silvery beam from a survey kytoon hovering above blinds her momentarily. Registering her presence, the survey kytoon then moves off, combing the site’s reconstructive progress and clouds of ever-present dust.

Seven minutes later and after a long ladder climb, Koko finds Hesketh up in the box on Tower Two. Koko has been relieving Hesketh on the predawn shift for the past five days straight and despite Hesketh’s constant tongue-wagging, she’s sort of taken a liking to him. Regal-boned with plum dark skin, the word around the campfire was Hesketh used to be a long gun with a record confirmed kill shot of three thousand plus meters. For a sniper, having that kind of five-star stat on your resume was impressive, but Hesketh being on a non-combative assignment and pulling a detail with tripod-mounted sweeper had Koko scratching her head. On full-auto, a sweeper weapon was designed to dissolve a crowd into paste with a single trigger squeeze. Pretty strange work all in all for a long gun. Maybe Hesketh, like her, just needed the credits that came with an easy, mindless job.

“Hey, Hesketh…”

Staying on the sweeper, Hesketh clucks his tongue and doesn’t turn around.

“You’re late again, Martstellar.”

“Sorry,” Koko replies. “I got here as soon as I could.”

Hesketh snorts. “As soon as you could, right. Bet anything Ballsack had to light your pilot to get you out of bed.”

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Koko stows her pulse rifle in the back of the box next to Hesketh’s. “So, has everything been on the up and up out there tonight?”

Hesketh rolls a shoulder. “Other than mercury-crazed rats zipping along the gutters, the Municipal Commerce Zone has been tight all night.”

“Sweet.”

“Sweet nothing,” Hesketh scorns. “Boring as all get out is what it is. Night after night, day after day, keeping watch on this place is like watching paint dry. Although on the patch earlier I heard there was some kind of ruckus in the re-civ burrows. Northeastern quad, up along the slides. Seems some hump crazed on the starch drip felt cheated in a dice game and got all stabby.”

“Charming.”

“Hey, man, at least it’s some action.”

Koko steps forward, taps Hesketh on the shoulder, and like waltzing partners the two swap places. As Hesketh shuffles back, Koko runs her check on the sweeper. Beneath her armpit she can still feel Hesketh’s residual heat on the weapon’s oversized stock, and when she hears the chittering, telltale rasp of a lighter behind her, Koko lets out a small groan.

“Hesketh...”

“What?”

“Mind not broadcasting my silhouette?”

Hesketh laughs. “Your silhouette? Please. There’s more than thirty-six hundred re-civs out there in those shale burrows. What, you think one of those cave-dwellers is suddenly going to get all brave and take a pop at us? What’re they going to use? A sling-shot?”

“Hey, man, stuff like that can happen.”

“Not in this hellhole it won’t,” Hesketh counters. “Those re-civs out there are cowed through and through. Sure, I’ve heard the rumors about labor dissidents and whatnot down here, but OpTel’s techs confirmed the site’s forensics. What happened here was an accident. Those animals? Saboteurs? Don’t make me puke. Those people are not even smart enough to stop drinking the damn well water that makes you retarded just looking at it. Hell, all those re-civs want is for the factory to get back online so they can work, get paid, and drink themselves to death.”

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Koko sighs and puts the sweeper in the cycle. Six o’clock, eight o’clock, up to twelve, all the way around and then back again. She covers the MCZ’s dilapidated pre-fab buildings, the surrounding rooftops, and checks the vantage points on the end of the commerce zone’s alleys. Like the rebuild site, the MCZ is pumpkin-hued with overhead sodiums, and in under a minute Koko concedes Hesketh’s earlier assessment is spot on. Dullsville incarnate. A building directly across from the tower has a yellow bed sheet hanging from the upper windows with large, red letters spray-painted on it:

¿Cuándo, ah, cuando?

Koko continues her cycle. “You believe everything you’re told, Hesketh?”

“Hell, no. I’m no idiot.”

“Well, have you ever considered that maybe OpTel is keeping what really happened here quiet on purpose?”

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“Oh, mercy, here we go again. What’s with you, girl? Why is it always the paranoia with you, Martstellar?”

“Paranoia keeps me sharp.”

“It keeps you cuckoo is what it does.”

“Anyway,” Koko says, “Paranoia or not, regulations say there’s no smoking in the box and you know it. If the big man finds out you’re firing that crinkle flake up here, I’m telling you, he will blow a valve.”

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Hesketh defiantly puffs and puffs and fills the box with electrically sweet haze. “That old toad, I’m not afraid of him. If Balzac doesn’t like my smoking flake up here he can kiss my butt. Goddamn, girl, how many rebuilds have you been on anyway?”

“This is my third non-combative.”

“And you’re riding me for a smoke when I’m knocking off my shift? It’s what I always thought. You’re nothing but a mission pup.”

“Excuse me?”

“You. You’re a mission pup. Still wet behind the ears and all that tight sphincter hoo-ha. You still haven’t figured out that regulations on these affairs are for suckers.”

“Look, the rules are the rules, Hesketh.”

“Rules. They could have fixed combat bots doing this watch work for looters, and it would be a hell of a lot cheaper too.”

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“OpTel wanted a physical presence. And anyway, for the record I’m not some mission pup.”

“You get to be my age everybody under twenty-five is a mission pup.”

“Oh, really? Well, maybe later you and me can take a spin to sort it all out.”

“Whoa. Is that an invitation?”

“Might be.”

Amused, Hesketh chuckles. “You know, I’ve seen you cage sparring in the fitness center. No doubt you’ve got some serious moves, but if you’ve paid attention you might’ve noticed that I do too. What class you tiger fight anyway? Bantam?”

“Fly.”

“Not exactly fair if you really are serious about a tussle. But hey, maybe it’s more of a social grapple you’re pining for.”

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Koko glances back at Hesketh and shakes her head. “Seriously? You’re coming onto me? Sheesh, you’re not my type, Hesketh.”

“Oh, so you don’t shift and shake chocolate hetero?”

“I don’t shift and shake with jerks, period.”

As if he’s been slayed by an arrow, Hesketh clutches his chest and embellishes a low moan. “Aww, cutie pie, why you got to go and dash my hopes like that? And here I thought you were warming to my charisma.”

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Koko taps the side of her head. With a swerve of her eyeball, she activates her ocular implant and transmits back to Balzac at operations. “Martstellar in the box, Tower Two, MCZ.”

Balzac confirms with a blip of pulsating overlay code across Koko’s line of vision as Hesketh sits down and blows smoke rings at the box’s ceiling.

“So, when’re you rotating out?” he asks.

Koko licks her lips and continues to move the sweeper’s sights in a pattern on the MCZ. “Not for another month,” she says.

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“A whole month? Hell, this place will be up and running in two weeks the way this rebuild is going.”

“That may be, but I signed on for the full estimate,” Koko explains. “I’m in for the breakdown and the gear pack-up too. What can I say? I need the credits.”

“Don’t we all,” Hesketh says, “but I swear, another month in this wasteland and I think I might just blow my brains out. These machines, its like watching ants rebuild a hill.”

“Beats taking live fire.”

“True, but first transport out day after tomorrow I’m, like, ghost. That’s right. I’m headed for some real juicy action up Brazil-ways for a proper credit payday. Unlike you, I kept my contact options open.”

“Surprised someone like you is here anyway.”

“How so?”

“Heard you were a long gun.”

Hesketh lazily fish-mouths another smoke ring. “Yeah,” he says, “I was, but that was a long time ago back before I got shot. Got me some major yips now that I just can’t seem to shake.” He holds out the crinkle-flake spliff and blows on the cherry. “Hence, my choice of medicine.”

“Where?”

“Where what?”

“Where did you get shot?”

“Are we talking body-wise or locale?”

“The latter.”

“J-burg. A skyscraper siege. Took a round in the shoulder.”

“What happened?”

Hesketh taps his spliff. “Raktell International’s acquisition of Valcum Fluid Controls is what happened. Pretty good scale as Johannesburg has been a certified warzone since, like, forever. Kind of a long story, but I ended up in a cat and mouse with some Croat-based sharpie working for Valcum.”

“Bad scene?”

“Not too bad, but that Croat fucker was gifted. I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t patient enough. See, in a sniper standoff it’s always the little things that ruin your day. Flinch a couple of millimeters out of position and it’s lights out. Guess I was lucky. Secondary round vaporized my partner’s head like a piñata. I still feel kind of bad about that.”

“And now you have the yips.”

“Yeah, so no more bolt from the blue work for ol’ Hesketh. I still get called in for the occasional training session, though.”

Koko laughs. “You? A teacher? Far out.”

“With the Newton apostle exponent-coefficient I’m downright dazzling.”

Hesketh gets up and takes a few more lazy draws on his smoke before he tamps it out on the sole of his boot. Picking up his pulse rifle from the back of the box, he heads for the tower ladder just as Balzac crashes in on Koko’s ocular.

“Martstellar, you there?”

Koko taps in. “Go ahead, Chief.”

“There’s motion on the thermals.” A crackle of static sizzles in Koko’s skull. “Three hundred meters, right side north, ground level. Curry concession with the rolled-back awning, over.”

Koko locates the curry shop in the sweeper’s sights. “Copy that. Count?”

“Two,” Balzac says. “But the thermal scans went dark before analytics kicked in. Checking rollback and subcontractor data streams, standby. Data overlay in two.”

“Go for overlay.”

Hesketh steps behind Koko as she lines up the sweeper. “What’s going on?”

Koko raises her chin. “Balzac says there’s possibles three hundred meters on the right. Four doors up from the second alley, the curry joint.” Koko taps the side of her head once more and reviews the overlays sent from Balzac. The blurry yellow shapes are almost sphere-like before they inexplicably disappear.

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Hesketh retrieves a set of binoculars from a shelf and lifts them to his eyes. Koko glances at him.

“I’ve got this, Hesketh.”

Hesketh doesn’t lower the binoculars. “And what, miss all this? Uh-uh, no way. Possibles in the MCZ is getting me hard. How the thermals look?”

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“Couple of blobs so there’s heat,” Koko says, “but the shapes are off.” Koko taps the side of her head. “Here, I’ll feed them to you.”

“Man,” Hesketh says after a quick study, “that’s freaky. One second they’re there and the next, nothing.” He replays the thermal visuals again. “Huh. Too big to be coyotes. Maybe code cryptographic interference?”

“Balzac would’ve said so by now.”

“So, did the chief give you a green light?”

“OpTel wants to keep infrastructure damage in the MCZ on the minimum, so no.”

“There you go with those damn rules again.”

Hesketh and Koko wait in silence for a solid minute until the chief updates.

“Hold your position,” Balzac advises.

“Hesketh is still with me in the box,” Koko says. “Request permission to check possibles out on foot, over.”

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Hesketh and Koko exchange looks. When Balzac responds there’s amplified irritation in both their ears.

“Hesketh?!” Balzac squawks. “What’s he still doing up there? Negative. I repeat, negative. Both of you stay put and keep your eyes open.”

“Copy that,” Koko says.

Hesketh bumps a fist on Koko’s shoulder.

“Guess I’m keeping you company,” he says.

*

At zero-six-hundred, Hesketh and Koko stand at attention in the briefing room. Balzac sits at a desk and for what appears to be the umpteenth time reviews their action report on a projection screen in front of him. Koko’s ears are hot. Pulling this drama, making her and Hesketh sweat. Her opinion of Balzac may be vacillating, but Koko has definitely changed her regard for Hesketh who is literally vibrating with rage just to her right. As soon as they’re clear of the briefing room, she plans on kicking Hesketh’s ass seven ways from Sunday.

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“I am deleting you from this action report, Hesketh,” Balzac says. “As far as OpTel’s on-site records are concerned, Martstellar was solo on Tower Two so it’s her kill.”

Hesketh’s eyes bulge in total disbelief.

“With all due respect, Chief,” Hesketh says, “I think I deserve a little recognition on this action.”

Balzac arches an eyebrow. “Oh, is that a fact?”

“Yeah, Chief, it is. Plus, it should’ve been two kills out there not one. But this one here, she flaked.”

“And split your lip apparently,” Balzac adds.

Hesketh shoots a cold, venomous look at Koko and licks his swollen upper lip. “I plan on filing a grievance.”

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Balzac’s eyes don’t move from the projection screen. He flexes his metallic hand, which looks to Koko like the meanest crab in the world.

“Feel free,” Balzac says. “But before you do you might want to re-read your contract. All grievances on this assignment go through me.”

“Meaning what?” Hesketh asks.

“Meaning get out of my sight,” Balzac replies.

Hesketh stares at both of them before he pivots clean and stomps out of the briefing room. A reverberating bang wallops just after he slams the door shut and from the sound of it, it’s either a fist or a leg hitting something hard just outside.

Balzac snaps out a prosthetic finger.

“Sit down, Martstellar.”

Koko drags a stool from the back of the briefing room and plants herself across from the chief. Balzac leans away from the projection screen and settles in his chair.

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“I have no idea where those two re-civs secured lead blankets,” he says, “but you know what you’ve done here.”

“Yes, Chief.”

“You made a bad call. You should have liquidated both targets, because that’s your job. You let sentiment cloud your judgment, and looters are looters, no exceptions. The parameters of our contracts here and yours specifically are clear. You pull a stunt like this again, and I swear I will put it in your records and recommend forfeiture. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Chief.”

“I have seen worse,” Balzac says shifting a bit. “Done worse, in fact. No doubt in your career you will see and be required to do worse. That old man out there, he pushed that girl into the line of fire to save his own pathetic skin, but you just let her run off.”

“Rancid soybean shortening, Chief.”

Balzac purses his lips. “Calories are calories when you are starving. I repeat, they were looters. There are no exceptions.”

Koko swallows and nods. “Was there a name?”

“What?”

“The dead re-civ. The old man I killed. Has he been identified?”

“Does it even matter?”

“I’d like to know.”

Balzac slides his eyes to a secondary file on the projection screen. “Blood scrape says the target was Yordy Malinas, age sixty-seven. Living here for close to a decade and before that whereabouts unknown. Large family ties to the area apparently, but who knows what that even means anymore. You want to know the real kicker? Blood scrape indicates Malinas had bladder cancer and wouldn’t have lasted another month. You did him a favor.”

“Gee, I feel so much better.”

“You being smart?”

“No, Chief.”

Balzac sighs, closes the files, and terminates the projection screen. “Look, with any luck this incident won’t rile up the client and if it does, I will cover for you.”

“Thank you, Chief. So, am I dismissed?”

“That depends.”

“Depends on what?”

Balzac’s eyes mischievously flick toward the door. “On what you are planning to do to Hesketh after you leave.”

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Koko looks over her shoulder at the door and then back at the chief. Balzac’s mustache tics and all at once she catches the man’s drift. Koko mulls it over.

“You’ll need time to get a buzz going,” she says.

“Oh, the buzz is already going. A good fight with the likes of you and Hesketh? I’m thinking that sort of thing will be a bonfire for morale.”

“Permission to stand?”

Balzac nods and Koko rises.

“I think I can draw it out if you want. Let him take a few shots. Make it look good.”

“Of course, but nothing too obvious.”

“Naturally.” Koko cracks her knuckles. “So, um, what’s the line?”

Balzac pushes to his feet. “As of right now, the line is in your favor, but me? I’m more interested in the side action. First blood, contact points, takedowns, the whole package.”

“Any chance you could lay a few side bets for me?”

“I can,” Balzac says, “but be warned. You’re a good fighter, one of the best I have ever seen, but do not underestimate Hesketh. That man has reach and is well seasoned.”

Koko grins slightly. “I like my meat well seasoned, Chief.”

Balzac winks. “Oh, I bet you do, ma chère. I just bet you do.”