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Yuki: Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you all have had a great day so far.

Assistant: With plenty of excellent gifts, and lots of food, and plenty of time with your family.

Yuki: And if you’ve had too much of your families, we’re your perfect “out”. So grab some milk and sugar cookies and pull up a seat by the fire and we’ll have a look into the Void.

***

cruise

The ocean liner crawled down the Australian coast, nearing the end of its nine-day excursion. Off the port side, the sun sank toward the horizon–a stunning sight, for sure. And it was made all the better by the fact no one else was crowding in on the view. All the other tourists had had their fill on all the previous at-sea days and the three spent off the coast of New Caledonia.

Maria Kelly leant over the railing, crossed her arms and enjoyed the breeze and ocean spray. She gazed into the distance, letting her eyes wander from the cold blue waters all the way up to the fiery orange skies. A sigh escaped her lips. Sometimes, she thought, her job was the greatest.

Out of the corner of her eye, a figure approached the railing and did as she had and took in the view. The presence did not bother her and she kept her attention on the Pacific.

‘Gorgeous view tonight,’ the figure–a man–spoke.

‘Mmm,’ Maria agreed. It’s nice to be here without a crowd.’

‘Sorry; I’m not bothering you, am I?’ The accent was American…or Canadian, she was never sure.

Maria smiled and turned to face her fellow traveller. He was handsome: tall, tanned skin, with swept-back blond hair that had the faintest traces of silver, eyes as blue as the waters below. Probably in his late thirties or very early forties, Maria wagered. She got the impression he was wealthy. So many of the bogans aboard wore tattered jeans and aging rockband t-shirts or whatever tacky holiday wear they picked up at Kmart or Lowes for a solid $30; most paid no mind at all to the dress codes highly-recommended (but not strictly enforced) by P&O. This gentleman was wearing a designer polo shirt–complete with aviator sunglasses dangling from the placket, chinos, and boat shoes. The body of a surfer pressed against the deep purple of the shirt fabric, trying like hell to escape from its confines. She very much doubted he was cosplaying for their time out at sea.

Maria shook her head. ‘No, not at all.’ She eyed him up and down. ‘This view is just as good.’

A dimpled smile answered her flirt and showed off his pearly-whites. ‘I’m flattered,’ came his reply with a light chuckle. ‘But, no, I can’t compete with the views before me.’ He gestured toward her and the span of the ocean.

It was her turn to laugh.

‘So, I’m guessing you won’t mind too much if I offer to buy you a drink?’ The man nodded in the direction of the poolside bar.

‘Not at all,’ she replied and glanced down at her watch, ‘but I do have a table reserved upstairs for dinner.’

‘Oh…’

‘I mean, that is, if you’d like to join me, you can buy that drink up there instead.’

He looked up and hummed to himself. ‘Yeah…yeah…I do think I can accommodate.’

‘Good, we can head there now, if you’d like.’

‘Sounds amazing.’

And that it was. The table for two was located at the rear of the restaurant, with their seating keeping them parallel to the glass wall that gave them an even more impressive view of the sunset.

The man finally introduced himself as Nicholas Maddox and began to talk about what brought him out to this little holiday cruise over his steak dinner and her surf and turf, along with her promised drink. To Maria’s delight, he covered all the important bits: where he was from (California–the accent was American after all!), his career and how it led him to Australia (a security company based out of Melbourne, poached him from a trade convention a few years before).

He hadn’t known, but she’d seen him plenty of times in the days prior. Hours were spent poolside and at the cabanas, with plenty of drinks piling up beside him. And there was always a small notebook and mechanical pencil in front of him, the only exceptions being when he was doing laps in the pool and over the course of their time together. He clearly wasn’t with anyone else on this trip and didn’t seem to speak with anyone besides the bartenders and waitstaff. Didn’t seem to have a mobile on him at all.

Nick said this wasn’t so much as holiday for him, but more of a way to get some important work done while being able to keep a clear head and away from the distractions of the city; his company was basically paying him to stay off the coast where outside interference was a bit difficult to come by.

‘That’s a hell of a generous offer,’ Maria observed, ‘even for a tech company.’

He sipped from his Corona. ‘They do make lots of money–and I help them keep it safe. But every day, it seems like people find more and more ways to break through. Some of the higher-ups can’t seem to understand that.

Maria sniffed. ‘Yeah, a lot of places are like that.’

‘True, but I wouldn’t be out here if a quarter of security IT didn’t bail on them for cutting resources and stacking them with O.T. for months on end. They panicked and started doing all they could to take the pressure off the employees and supervisors.’

‘Terrible for the people who quit, but not entirely bad for you in the long run.’

‘There is some guilt that goes along with this role…but, yeah, I guess you can say that.’ Nick took another sip of his beer. ‘So, what about you?’

Maria sipped from her Mai Thai. ‘What about me?’

‘What do you do?’

‘Similar to your job, oddly enough. I help companies with their problems–so third party assistance or mediation. As successful and loaded as some businesses are, it always surprised me how some can’t–or won’t–handle their problems internally.’

‘Based in Australia specifically?’

‘Oh, no. Been to the States plenty of times. The U.K. and the E.U., a few trips. Most of my time is spent in Oz.’

‘The added benefit of travel as well.’

‘For sure.’

The dinner plates went and the dessert bowls replaced them immediately. Then the cocktails kept on coming long after the bowls had been retrieved. The sun disappeared below the horizon and eventually the only things visible from the window were the white caps of the sea.

Maria checked her watch.

‘It was a lovely time, but I really should be getting back now. I have a little bit of prep work to do tomorrow.’

‘A “work and holiday” trip as well! Now that you mention it, I need to continue with my job as well. Would you mind if I walked you back to your room?

She beamed. ‘Not at all.’ She stood and he followed suit.

The pair walked from the restaurant down to the level six deck (Maria insisted the fresh breeze would be good for them both; help clear their heads before they put their noses back into their respective books). The night air was chilled, but the light ocean spray felt magnificent. No one else was out and about, at least on the port side. Maria gently took Nick by the hand and guided him closer to the rail for their stroll. He soon brought his arm around her shoulders and she slinked hers around his waist. They passed into an ill-lit section of the deck where some room blinds were shut. He stopped mid-stride and turned to her. Without a word, he leant in for a kiss; Maria, likewise…

Nicholas Maddox could not comprehend what happened as his face was slammed into the thick metal rail and felt his feet leave the floor. His body was suddenly inverted, head down and toes up. A second later he was in the Pacific with a splash that none could hear.

Maria pocketed the room key she’d picked and strode off in the direction of his room. At such a late hour, she didn’t have to worry about being seen strolling down his corridor and entering his room (the stewards had damn near everyone memorised by day four).

Within a few minutes of entering Nick’s room, she’d found the notebook he’d been carrying and managed to get the room safe open (a seemingly random number he’d scrawled on one of the pages). She gathered his money (his company’s money), wallet, and passport.

By the time the crew realised they had a passenger missing, Maria was off the ship and approaching her gate in International Departures at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport, less a wig, contact lenses, and false fingerprints. An hour and a half after that, she was out of the country.

Maria Kelly, who only existed nine days at sea, vanished into thin air.

***

Assistant: I…did not see that coming.

Yuki: Clearly, neither did he. I wonder what the hell he did for an assassin to be hired and…what is it?

Assistant: We’ve got another signal coming in through the Void.

Yuki: Wait, what? Holy shit. Can we pinpoint it?

Assistant: The signal’s weak, but I think we can. Once we do, we can jump in and see what’s up.

Yuki: Guys, we’re gonna try to focus on this now. Enjoy the rest of your Christmas. We’ll broadcast as soon as we get this thing going.

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