The temporary shelter among the rubble offered almost no protection from the winds that whipped over the dunes. The ruins had once been a barracks, erected in haste during one of the never ending Corporate Wars that consumed the planet. Flames from a small fire guttered with a shift in the wind and smoke drifted into the youthful, unlined face of Javo Loopstock. He held his breath and squinted, then ducked sideways a bit. He’d been warned that the fire was a risk but after three days of cold rations gulped down in the freezing desert he wanted to be warm. To hell with what that crazy woman said.
“You should put it out,” her voice said from outside the flickering circle of light. “You had your tea and warmed your ass. Now it’s just a beacon for trouble.”
“Any trouble comes this way, you’ll handle it,” snapped Javo. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
The woman stepped out of the darkness. Liza-Ennui Bangstar was a veteran of the notorious Tricaricom Military Division. Bio-mech enhancements and android augments had replaced limps and organs lost in battle; and thanks to the corporate med-techs, the line between human and machine was blurred. Perhaps she had once been attractive, but to Javo she was merely impressive and more than a little intimidating. She stared at him with perfectly machined eyes incapable of mercy or any hint of softness.
“That’s what your father contracted me for, yes,” she said, “and that’s what I’ll do.”
“So? What’s the problem?”
She contemplated the flickering flame. “Trouble doesn’t need an invitation,” she said quietly. “It just needs a direction.”
“You’re a paranoid.”
“And you’re careless. It’s likely to get us both killed.” She stood up. “Put it out, Javo, or I’ll piss on it myself.” She walked away, making no noise as she merged back into the darkness.
“Oh so you can still piss?” Javo muttered.
“I heard that.”
Javo cursed to himself. He didn’t understand why Father had to hire her for this run. There were plenty of mercenaries who would have killed each other for this job. But no, the old man had to go with Bangstar: a woman with an admittedly terrifying reputation who radiated cold shards of menace even before she reached for a weapon. He knocked down the fire and a shower of sparks rose into the cold air.
She watched the sparks fly up and heaved a sigh. Two more nights of this and they’d be in Water’s Gap and if she were lucky she’d never see this little shitheel again. She’d taken jobs that were far more dangerous in the past but it was hard to recall any that had been so annoying. The offspring of resource-rich landowners should never be allowed to leave the friendly confines of the compound and they certainly had no business in the former battlegrounds. Why Loopstock The Elder hadn’t put this gibbering idiot on a slow sky barge from Dharma to Water’s Gap was an unknown; she’d asked, but he hadn’t seen fit to answer.
Instead, they’d been outfitted with a couple of speedy jetters, low altitude skim-bikes that were fast but lightly armored and even more lightly armed. In keeping with some bizarre Loopstock tradition, they were painted a garish tint of red and covered with stylized flames. It was a five day run from the compound to the Gap on a jetter, through territory that while nominally under the joint control of the rival corporations Tricaricom and Amking—per the agreement that had ended the latest war—the war scared wastes harbored any number of highly dangerous possibilities and unknowns.
“That includes radicalized bandits,” she’d ticked off her fingers while Acha Loopstock stared at her from behind a desk carved from a single fell oak, “the predatory native wildlife of course, traitor Corporate agents, deserters and rogue elements leftover from the last war, and probably a few rogue war-beasts and battle-droids roaming around looking for something to kill.”
He’d nodded. “This is why I’m hiring the best.”
Liza had shaken her head. “You need an army, not me. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to get rid of him. And me.”
“It has to be done this way,” Loopstock had insisted. “Speed is of the essence. More than that is none of your concern.”
She wasn’t even sure why she’d taken it. She didn’t need the job. She had enough stashed away, in corporate script, metal, and slow decay isotopes, to allow for a comfortable if boring existence on this planet or even on a more pleasant one not brimming with hateful memories. She wasn’t burdened by family or business associates. She was even clear of the Tricaricom Military Divison, despite their rancorous past: thanks to a few stealth operations she had earned a retroactive honorable discharge and cleared the deserter status that had hung over her head for so long.
Liza circled the perimeter, checking the goodies she’d deployed: a few lethal surprises, but mostly motion sensors to give her a few seconds warning if anything did try to get cute. She could handle almost anything out here that wasn’t a Chief Executive-class battle-droid; and if one of those heavy metal motherfuckers locked onto them, she’d hit the throttle and not look back, contract or not.
As she swept the horizon with her monoculars, set to heat detection, the memories of those insane battles flickered in her mind, massive battle-droids that unleashed unbelievable firepower upon each other, beams of focused energy that sizzled across dampening shields, the sharp smell of ozone in the air as shields collapsed and the wretched sound of metal broken apart with explosive fury. All the while, beneath their churning treads or armored legs, the human elements of the corporate armies blasted away in a pale mockery of the metal gods fighting above them.
These battles between corporate entities raged because there was no one to stop them. The Sol governments were only interested in the continued delivery of raw material, not in who delivered it. Early in the history of extra-Sol exploitation, as the first Tannhauser Gates were activated around planets viable for either colonization or rich with resources, an effort had been made to cooperate for the greater good. It was, after all, a hideously expensive enterprise, and the few corporations that could afford it stood to make more by working together. That period of good will had lasted right up until the first serious profits were made; when it became clear how much was at stake, the planets became blood drenched battle grounds.
It was during one of those wretched conflicts that Liza had a moment of clarity, or stepped across the breach into insanity, depending on who was doing the telling. History recorded this as the Battle of Fey Ridge. Amking’s Computer Warfare Division successfully hacked the Tricaricom battle command orbital relay station and scrambled the brains of the indomitable battle-droids. Liza had watched in disbelief as the monstrous war machines fell over, churned in circles, or simply ran away into the wilderness. The resulting carnage among the human troops was indescribable. At some point, falling back from one defensive position to another, she’d snapped. One of her primary commitments was to look after her battle-workers and protect the company assets. Instead, she abandoned them and saved her own ass, which earned her a terrible rating on her next review. She’d deserted soon after that and hadn’t looked back. It wasn’t a proud moment, and the sting of that betrayal had never really gone away.
She froze, forced back into the present by a blip of heat signature. She zoomed in one the area but now there was nothing.
There had been something, though. As she feared, they weren’t the only ones out here tonight.
There were three of them, crouched low behind a shallow dune. Every inch of skin was covered with heat dampening material; one of them was busy adjusting his cloak.
“I told you to keep that wrapped tight, Sicnarf,” a voice hissed.
“Sorry, boss; nobody saw nothing.”
“You’d better hope not,” Nicky Shag the Nothing said. “Of all the bad luck! The old man could have hired any of the scum in Dharma. But it had to be her, didn’t it?”
Nicky waited until he thought it might be safe and eased his head over the top of the ridge. The googles that hid his eyes adjusted automatically but now that the fire was out, there wasn’t much to see. Some heat still came off the rapidly cooling engines of the two jetters, and there was no sign of the kid. The woman who stalked around down there didn’t give off a heat signature or make any noise but he knew she was there. For once, he wasn’t too concerned with having her slip over to check them out. Even if she had seen something, she couldn’t leave the package alone and she sure wasn’t going to drag him with her. He was a liability to her and a boon to Nicky and his crew.
“You know her, then?” Sicnarf asked, his voice low.
Nicky simply nodded.
“What’s the big deal, anyway?” Sicnarf groused. “One guard and three of us—we could grind her out like that.” He mimed crushing something beneath his gloved fist.
“Lighten up, Sicnarf.” Nicky said. “We’re backing out now, so keep low, move fast, and keep quiet.” He led the way, crouched over but still moving at a high rate of speed. The other two followed behind him. They jogged along a broken track for half a klick until they reached the cache point. Water and ammunition were carefully concealed among the rocks, along with the punched-up sled Nicky had stolen from Dong the Butcher a while back.
“I still say we should take her tonight,” Sicnarf complained. “Go blasting in on the sled and squash her. What’d’ya say to that, Ochos?”
Ochos, the third man in their group, had kept quiet until then. He lifted the material that masked his face and swallowed some water. His skin was brown and coarse, a long crooked nose splitting bright eyes beneath a heavy brow. “I says you’re a fucking idiot,” Ochos muttered. “I call first watch.”
Nicky nodded. “Keep sharp. She didn’t see us, she won’t come after. But keep sharp anyway, you know? Just in case.”
Sicnarf made a show of checking his rifle. “What’s she like, then?” he asked. “I never knew you or Ochos to be scared of anything out here.”
“It ain’t fear, you git. It’s respect. You don’t go kicking a snake pile just to see what bites,” Nicky said. “Manger-Captain Liza-Ennui Bangstar. She’s lethal, and it’s not just the eighteen ways she knows to kill you with a pointy stick. Tricaricom invested a lot of time and money in training her; she doesn’t think like you or me. She’s devious and crazy and has been augmented from top to bottom for maximum lethality.”
“How do you know all that?”
Nicky settled onto the ground and stripped back his face mask, revealing a face like a rock that had been in a fight with other bigger rocks. Scar tissue creased his cheeks like erosion carving up a mountain. “She’s a fucking legend, isn’t she? But I been around a bit. Before all that legend bullshit, I knew her: we was in the Home together. Got hired into the TMD at the same time, went through Orientation-Boot together. But she was special and I wasn’t; she ended up in charge of my unit. I fought next to her enough to know it’s not just reputation—she’s a piece of work and then some, even if she was a fucking deserter.”
“Oh.” Sicnarf coughed. “Didn’t you defect, too?”
“No, I was arrested and sentenced to death, and escaped. There’s a difference,” Nicky grumped. “Listen, I got something planned up here, don’t you fret. There’s a thing she doesn’t know; we’ll take a crack at her tomorrow but it’s going to be on my terms, not hers. It’ll be a small advantage, so we’ll have to make the most of it. You’ll see. We’ll sled up close before dawn, so get whatever sleep you can.”
Liza had the young man up and ready to go just as dawn broke. She’d only slept for a short bursts but it had been enough. Javo was groggy and more than a little grumpy; he fiddled around with the jetter while she sat in the saddle, gunned the engine and scanned the horizon. She was pretty sure he was stalling just to be a pain in the ass.
“Get that bike fired up and ready to move or I’m leaving you behind,” she snarled. “I’d rather deal with the fallout from not delivering you than wait to get jumped here.”
He kept his head down and said nothing, still messing around with the storage compartment. She revved the engine, ready to make good on her promise, when he darted away from the jetter and disappeared behind the rocks where they’d camped.
“You fucking nit—” but the curse died on her lips. She dove to the side and the shot intended to splatter her head kicked up dirt a few meters away. The shot came from behind her; she had ducked it more by instinct than training or experience. She risked a glance over the top of the idling jetter, squinting into the rising suns, but the sniper was well hidden.
Ochos spat and lined up for another opportunity; only now she was behind the bike and he didn’t have a clear shot. Her head popped up for a moment and then disappeared.
“You weren’t supposed to miss that,” Nicky Shag the Nothing muttered.
“She wasn’t supposed to move,” Ochos said. “I could put a round in the fuel tank,” he offered. “That’d get her moving.”
Nicky drummed his fingers against his thigh. “Not yet. I want to see what she does.”
Sicnarf scoffed. “That was your whole plan; get the kid to stall her and line up for a single shot?”
“Shut it, or I’ll put a round through you,” Nicky snarled. “There’s more to it than just this.”
“Javo Loopstock, you little shitstain,” Liza shouted. “I hope you know what you’re doing, because you just pissed me off.”
There was no answer. As much as she wanted to stick around and teach the kid a lesson, it was time to go. She reached over the seat with her metallic right arm and held tight. Her left hand reached up and grabbed the throttle. The bulk of her body was behind the jetter and even though it leaned hard with her weight unevenly distributed, she was still able to put it in the air and get it moving. She kept going sideways to the suns, and more than one shot pinged off the metal chassis, but she didn’t slow down until she’d put a good klick between her and whoever was trying to kill her. When she thought it was safe, she swung into the seat and blasted out across the wasteland at full speed.
Crossed up by a child! Now that was something new. Betrayal was common coin in her profession, an often useful shortcut; she wasn’t averse to using it herself when the occasion called for it, and as such she didn’t have any more animosity toward Javo Loopstock than she had before. She was, however, irritated for thinking the kid wasn’t devious enough to pull a stunt like that. The set-up, such as it was, had failed; but she’d still been complacent enough to not see it coming, and had underestimated the son of a guy who had pulled some vicious betrayals in his day. She was determined to make both father and son regret it.
The contract wasn’t cancelled, at least not in her mind. She still had a job to do and now there was more than just the money on the line. You could get killed by a neutron death ray shot from space or you could get killed when the bastard next to you picked up a rock and hit you in the skull. Either way you were dead. Her professional pride had been impugned and she was pretty damn well riled up.
Something was kicking up dust off to her left. Liza hit the air brakes and coasted to a stop. She stood in the saddle and scanned the dust cloud with the monoculers. There was a glint of metal and she refocused, then drew a long breath. Battle-droid—but a smaller one, a Pirhano Mk III by the looks of it, stomping around, way off the control grid and operating on programmed routines never designed for survival mode. No telling how old it was; they had enough independent power to operate for years in passive mode. She was outside of the detection sphere, though, and unless it came stomping toward her, it was no immediate threat.
Time to assess the damage to the jetter; she wasn’t inclined to traverse these old battlefields on foot. A few minutes later, she sat back and shook her head. Nothing major, the shielding around the engine had held, and the main propulsion seemed intact, but the rotors that gave the jetter lift had taken some hits; one of the blades was beyond repair. It wouldn’t cripple her but it would crimp her maneuverability. The jetter was equipped with a small tool kit; she removed the crippled metal piece and worked out her next move.
As she checked the rest of the jetter, she came across something unusual under the seat. She carefully removed it, then sat down on the hard ground and broke it apart: power supply, some sort of grid, a switch and a remote trigger, and a safety lock, still engaged, but no explosives. She put it down in the dirt and flipped the safety, triggered it, and stepped back. It hummed and then a massive energy surge discharged into the air with a wicked crackle. It wouldn’t have killed her, but she would have been shocked stupid and immobile just long enough for someone to take a shot at her. She remembered Javo fumbling around with his bike; he must’ve been readying the trigger, only it didn’t go off because he’d forgotten the safety. It wasn’t the first time she’d been spared by nothing more than dumb luck.
She hoped Javo was with the sniper; if he wasn’t, and had jetted off on his own, it compounded the work ahead of her. If they’d split up, she had to decide who to go after first and neither choice was any better than the other; she felt equally antagonistic toward both parties. The other problem was one of cover, or the lack of cover. A jetter could be seen for miles, and if she took a wide path to avoid being seen, she’d waste time she didn’t have. She could, of course, call for help: the Shattering Sky was still in orbit on this side of the planet and had the capability to give her some useful intel or more but then again, it meant she would owe Captain Jaxx a favor and that was just digging one hole to fill another. She reduced her options again and again until a fairly simple albeit suicidal solution presented itself.
Liza climbed back into the saddle, fired up the machine, and made sure a grenade was within easy reach. Time to execute Operation Drive Right Straight Into The Mouth of Hell While Being Chased By A Dragon.
The three mercenaries brought the sled out of hiding and met Javo Loopstock near the ruins where he’d camped the night before.
“You are without a doubt the worst bunch of self-described mercenaries I have ever dealt with!” yowled Javo. He was face to face with Nicky Shag the Nothing though he barely came up to the man’s chest.
“She was supposed to be immobilized,” Nicky reminded him. “You were going to neutralize the person guarding you with that gizmo on the bike.”
Javo shrugged. “It didn’t work. I punched the button, nothing happened. But you had one job! It’s unbelievable! A child could have made that shot.”
Ochos nodded. “Why didn’t you, then?”
Javo didn’t bother to turn around. “Was he addressing me? Why is your servant addressing me?” he seethed.
Nicky didn’t allow any of the emotion he felt to show anywhere other than in his eyes. His voice remained casual and uninflected. “Servant? You’d do good to remember this isn’t the Loopstock Compound,” he said.
“Meaning Ochos here ain’t my servant and if he gets it in his head that watering the dirt with your blood might be a good idea, it would be just another unfortunate accident in an area that has seen so many unfortunate accidents.”
To his credit, Javo didn’t flinch, at least not that the older man saw. Tough little bastard, but then he had to be to survive under the elder Loopstock long enough to have hairy on his balls.
“Oi, the squirtle is right though, isn’t he,” Sicnarf chimed in. “I’m telling you, that was a daft plan to begin with.”
Nicky’s eyes, already burning with pale fire, narrowed as if to focus on his target and burn Sicnarf into the ground. “It was his bloody daft plan!” he barked, pointing at Javo. “And I swear by all things mechanical, one more fucking word out of you and your family won’t even find your bones!” He turned to Ochos, who had swiveled away from the other three. “What are you doing?”
Ochos scanned the horizon, first with his eyes, then with the scope of his rifle. “We should go,” he said, his voice low.
“You see something?” Nicky stood next to him. “There’s nothing out there. She’s long gone. Blasted out of here. She doesn’t care. She won’t be back.”
A line of dust appeared on the horizon.
“We should go,” the rifleman repeated, “now.”
That was enough for Nicky. “Right, we’re off, then.” He jogged over to the sled and clambered up the ladder, Ochos on his heels. Sicnarf looked back and forth between the kid and his boss.
“Where are you going?” Javo shouted.
“The fuck away from here, kid,” Nicky said. “I can’t stop you from following us. Or if you wanted to strike out on your own, your father’s compound is three days ride back that away.” He jabbed his thumb back over his shoulder. The sled hummed to life and rose a meter off the ground. “If Ochos says it’s time to go, it’s time to go. He’s got a sense about these things.”
Javo just stood there, his arms crossed. “Too bad one of his talents isn’t hitting what he’s aiming at!” he shouted. “You’re still under contract!”
Nicky shook his head. “We can argue about this all you want, Javo my boy, but just not here.” He throttled up and swung the sled around. It was an industrial model, made for moving supplies or raw material; Nicky had stripped it down and beefed the engine but it still wasn’t nearly as fast as he would have liked. “You know where to find us. You coming, Siggy? Or sticking around here to babysit?”
Sicnarf was about to answer when Javo grabbed his arm.
“What is that?” Javo asked. “You feel it?”
The ground had begun to rhythmically vibrate. Sicnarf yanked his arm away from Javo and sprinted for the sled, leaping for the ladder that was now well above the surface of the desert floor. Ochos leaned over and reached out his hand as Nicky goosed the throttle and the sled started to move.
“I don’t understand,” Javo said but the sled had lumbered off and there was no one left to hear him. He stared at the rapidly growing cloud of dust moving toward him. A large, dark shape was now visible, lumbering forward on mechanical legs that devoured distance with each stride. Survival instinct kicked in and he ran for the jetter. He fumbled with the starter, each second wasted punctuated with ever increasing ground tremors. When it finally started, he yanked the controls so hard the jetter whined as he whipped it around and pointed the nose in the direction the sled had gone. He spared one last glance over his shoulder, cringed, and cranked it up to speed.
Liza Bangstar cut hard left and zagged back to the right almost immediately. The trick, if it could be called that, to avoid being picked up by the targeting protocols of a battle-droid was to avoid patterns and be unpredictable. She didn’t have to worry about outrunning it; the jetter was at top speed and at that she was barely leading the massive metal bastard. Her sideways movements kept her from being scorched or blown to bits but were also slowing her down.
She had no idea how much ammo it still had. The missiles racks that rose from the shoulders were empty, but the Pirhano had enough conventional weapon systems to make it a formidable opponent against anything that wasn’t another battle-droid. The smaller models didn’t have the capacity to carry the dreaded beam weapons. They were usually deployed against ground troops, mobile weapons platforms, or sometimes kitted out with high yield cannons and used as anti-aircraft. Still, no one in their right mind would stick around with an activated Pirhano charging toward them. Then again, no one in their right mind would try to bait a rogue, damaged Amking battle-droid into chasing them across the battle blasted plain.
To get it to change the threat assessment on her from “passive civilian craft” to “active enemy” and chase her back toward the camp, she’d swooped in close, lobbed a grenade and bolted just as it exploded. The Pirhano had stopped chasing its own tail and started to charge after the jetter. Of course, if the sniper had already slunk away into the hills, she was going to have to shake this metal monstrosity before it made her into a grease stain on the killing sands.
On cue, she was bracketed by shells whipping past her. But she also saw the ruins ahead, and just beyond that, some sort of heavy sled and a speeding jetter about to pass it.
This would be fun—if she could stay alive.
“Can we outrun it?” Nicky Shag the Nothing asked.
“Nah,” Ochos replied, watching from the back. “They’re gaining.”
“Can we outgun it?”
“You have a tactical thermal on board?”
Nicky sagged. “Shit. Is there anything good you can tell me?”
“The way she’s ducking and dodging in front of that thing is fucking beautiful,” Ochos said, a hint of disbelief in his voice. “I know she’s good, but that’s some upper level shit there.”
“Not helping, Ochos.”
Javo slid past them at full throttle on the right, his head low, and didn’t look back. Nicky cursed the day he’d let greed overcome his better judgement and taken this job. It had seemed like such easy money: the kid would pay them to knock of his guard and give him safe haven anywhere but the Loopstock home. Now it had degenerated into fleeing from some insane battle-droid and one very pissed off former comrade-in-arms who would likely flay the three of them and make a nice set of chaps from their skins. It was about as depressing a reality as he could have imagined.
“Angle away from it,” Ochos yelled, pointing to the left, “toward the Claws!”
The Claws were a natural rock formation, pillars that towered above the sands as if some gargantuan beast had been buried there and had breached the surface with grasping hands. It made sense: if Nicky could weave between the rocks, there was a good chance the less agile kill-bot wouldn’t be able to keep up—if he could get there before the damn thing caught up to them.
Liza saw the heavier floater angle left while the jetter kept going straight ahead, but she was a bit too occupied trying to stay alive to even curse. The Pirhano was not only gaining on her, it was coming dangerously close to zeroing in on the bike, no matter how much she jerked and jinked. The thought that that this wasn’t the greatest plan she’d ever come up with floated to the surface but it was a bit late to be second-guessing. Either this would work or—well, it had better work. In fact, it already had, for the most part.
She’d get the kid later. She hadn’t really counted on the Pirhano to take out the mercenaries he’d hired; she’d wanted to flush them out and avoid a prolonged sniper battle when the odds weren’t in her favor. That part was a smashing success. They were headed to the Claws, which was a pretty good plan, something she would have done herself. The Pirhano was fast in a straight line but couldn’t really pivot at full speed. If they were good drivers, they could get far enough away from the battle-droid that if—when—it killed her, the sensors wouldn’t perceive them as a threat and it go back to stomping around in circles.
A blast of heat from behind reminded her that her options were becoming limited with every stride. It was nearly close enough now to roast her with the flame thrower, but their relative speed shaved meters from the maximum range of the weapon. As it hosed the sands behind her, the liquid fuel ignited and stuck to everything it touched. The Pirhano ran through the blaze and while some of it splashed up and plastered the armored exoskeleton, it wasn’t enough to do more than melt the faded paint job. She had some high-yield explosives, but they were all anti-personnel devices and useless against the metal beast. What she needed was a military quality fusion beamer but she’d left it at home.
She leaned hard and pointed the bike in the direction of the Claws. The sled had just reached the first pillar and kicked up a cloud of dust as it shot into the rocky maze. The hard turn had given her a bit of separation as the Pirhano adjusted to the new route. If she could get there herself, she’d have a chance…
The jetter shuddered hard and the front end shot into the air as several high caliber rounds disintegrated the tail rotor. Liza gripped the control bar with all the power in her augmented arms, straining to get her ride back under control but without any lift on the back end it was impossible. She lost her footing on the pegs and found herself hanging from the handle bar as the jetter broke apart, losing speed as it twisted wildly toward the ground. Her plans had always involved a sudden and violent end, only it was supposed to happen to someone else, not her.
She let go and threw herself sideways. The jetter rolled over, lost more speed and was about to dive into the dirt when it flew apart in the most explosive manner possible as the Pirhano zeroed in on it and did what it was programmed to do. The massive machine slowed to a stop and went into passive mode, searching for additional enemies.
Liza was face down in the dust. She wondered for a brief moment if anyone had witnessed her ignoble defeat. There was her not inconsiderable reputation as a legendary bad ass to consider and something like this would make a serious dent. She reminded herself that there would be plenty of time to worry about that later, over a cold drink of something almost deadly, if she could manage to survive being the next target destroyed.
She lay very still. Not that it mattered, as these machines were equipped with enough sensors to pick up a fart in a thunderstorm. The Pirhano had skidded to a stop a hundred or so meters from she had landed; the smoking remains of the jetter were between them. She hurt all over, but it didn’t feel like anything was broken.
A voice crackled in her ear, over the imbedded comm-link system.
“I’d bury my face in the sand if I were you,” someone said. “In 3… 2… 1…”
The air began to sizzle and blister. She rolled over and shut her eyes, pulling the hood of the cloak over the back of her head. There was a hideous crackle and she felt, rather than saw, a beam of immense energy spike the ground. She waited a few seconds and then raised her head.
The battle-droid stood for a long moment on wobbly legs, blobs of molten metal dripping into the smoking sands, and then slowly fell over. A massive hole had been punched straight through it. That kind of power was reserved for the largest kill-bots or a starship.
“I had to wait until it stopped to get a lock on it,” the voice in her ear said. “It’s not easy hitting a moving target that size from orbit.”
“Captain Jaxx?” she asked.
“When you tell this story, you can say it was me who selflessly and with no thought of reward helped out a friend, or you can say the gods took pity on you. Either way, it’ll make a hell of a tale. Nice dismount, by the way. Very graceful. The crew up here gave you points for style.”
She stood up. “Shit, the whole crew saw that?”
“We’ve been tracking you ever since you taunted that rogue Pirhano. It looked like you needed some help. Unless, of course, you wish to insist you had a plan and it was all under control,” laughed the captain of the Shattering Sky.
Not for the first time, Liza Bangstar was simultaneously annoyed and thankful of her friend, a man who occupied the fuzzy legal ground somewhere between pirate and merchant of fortune. “How’d you know I was even out here?”
“I haven’t been authorized to tell you that,” Captain Jaxx said, “and I won’t. Draw what conclusions you want from that.”
“I’m stuck out here without transport, Jaxx.”
“Actually, the sled those three mercs you were chasing has turned around and is headed back your direction.”
Sicnarf shook his head and pointed over his shoulder. “You two have gone going that direction as fast as this piece of shit will take us?” When Nicky and Ochos said nothing he added, “That thing may still be there, you know. No guarantee that beam hit anything at all.”
“Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t,” Nicky grunted. “But you don’t fire off a shot from orbit unless you mean to hit something. Besides, look at that smoke, something got slagged but good.” He slowed the sled down. “Off with you,” he said to Ochos, who nodded and leaped to the ground. “We’re going to pin her down so Ochos can take the shot he should have made this morning. Now you know the whole plan so shut up and get yourself ready for a firefight.”
A few minutes later they were on the edge of the Claws. Nicky stopped the sled and the two men climbed down the ladder. They adjusted and checked their weapons before creeping the last few meters until they had a good view of the destruction. He was right: the battle-droid had been burnt down to the ground, a smoldering heap of rubble.
“That’s beautiful,” Nicky muttered. He keyed his throat mic. “See her?”
“Negative,” Ochos replied. “Her jetter got blown to bits, there’s pieces of it all over. Maybe she got nailed.”
“Maybe.” Nicky turned to Sicnarf. “Time to go and make a living, Sic. Go poke around and see if she pops up and shoots you.” He shoved the younger man forward.
Sicnarf stumbled but regained his footing. He crouched down and ran a few paces, then dropped to his knees and brought his rifle up. Nicky scanned the horizon but there was precious little in the way of cover, just a few sunken areas peppered with rocks…
“Sic! On yer left, boy, how can you not see that?” Nicky’s voice hissed in Sicnarf’s ear. He fell forward from his knees to his belly and tried to become one with the desert floor while simultaneously aiming at whatever Nicky had seen. There was something there, a bit of helmet perhaps, a glint of something. He opened fire, peppering the rocks with wild shots. From behind he heard Nicky’s gun open up, the powerful rounds exploding much nearer to the target. When Sicnarf looked again through the scope, there was nothing there.
“Nicky Shag the Nothing,” a woman’s voice said in the comm-link.
“I’m not happy with you, Nicky.”
Sicnarf was puzzled. Where was she? How was she on their comm channel? It was a direct link between the three of them. The only way she could talk to them was if…
“You took out Ochos, then?” Nicky asked as if reading Sicnarf’s thoughts.
“Of course; he’ll live—for now—which is pretty generous considering you had him try to shoot me earlier today.”
“Well, you know how it is.”
“Oh I do, believe me. Perhaps we can all have a civilized chat like old comrades instead of trying to butcher each other.”
“It’s a fair cop.”
“Then meet me back at the sled.”
Sicnarf walked back toward Nicky, shaking his head. This had turned into one of the worst days of his life, and he’d been raised in a corporate institution for war orphans run by the Nuns of the Order of the Clenched Fist, so he’d seen some bad days. He couldn’t understand why Nicky had given up so easy. As he neared the older man, he held up his gun.
Nicky shook his head. “Keep your hands well clear of the trigger, Sic. Don’t even think about getting the drop on her,” Nicky whispered. “We’ll play it her way—for now. Just keep yer trap shut and let me do the talking.”
Sicnarf shook his head but followed the older man’s lead. When they got back to the sled the woman was already there. The unconscious body of Ochos lay nearby; half his face looked like it had run into a wall.
Sicnarf looked her over as she stood up, curious about this legendary soldier of fortune. Like them, she was dressed for the desert: boots and leg wraps, a hooded cloak, googles pushed up on her forehead and a breathing filter hung loose around her neck. Her arms, where exposed, were clearly military grade prosthetics designed for functionality, not looks. Part of her face, from the bridge of her nose to her temples, including her eyes, had been augmented as well. She looked—fierce. It was the only word that came to mind. The weapon slung across her chest was an unfamiliar design, clearly not the usual cast-off corporate army rifles everyone around here carried.
She waved them over. “Grab some desert,” she said. Her voice was raspy and hoarse but tinged with an edge that indicated she was used to her orders being obeyed. Right now she appeared to be amused about something and Sicnarf could not think for the life of him what someone like her would find funny under these circumstances. “How long as it been, Nicky?”
“Two Solar years ago, we was on opposite sides of that Curad Uprising mess.” Nicky replied. “Ten years since Fey Ridge.”
“Still mad about that?”
Nicky scooped up handful of dirt and let it dribble back to the ground. “You had your reasons. Who cares now, right?”
“It was a stupid war, that one,” she said and Nicky could hear more than a tinge of bitterness. “They all are, but that one was more stupid than most.”
Nicky nodded. “If you say so. It was all just a paycheck to me.”
“Speaking of stupid, let me see if I’ve got this right. That shitstain on the pants of humanity, Javo Loopstock, hired you to—what exactly?”
“Kill whoever was escorting him to Water’s Gap and help him be scarce for a while. He wanted to hide out with us. All he said was that he wasn’t going to be traded like a pile of veggies.”
“And you had no trouble with that when you saw it was me?” She held up her hand. “Wait, don’t answer that, it’s too depressing. You always were a horrible little man.” Nicky tilted his head slightly and shrugged. Liza continued. “The old man hired me to protect him and forced me to take him out on the jetters instead of a float rig. Said time was of the essence but that’s all he’d tell me. The kid must have gotten the idea that whatever was going to happen in Water’s Gap wasn’t going to be good for him.”
“He never said. He paid up front what I asked, even though it was ridiculous. If I’d known it was going to be you, I would have tripled it. At least.”
She closed her eyes and appeared to be lost in thought. Sicnarf let his hand inch toward the handle of his rifle. He froze when she spoke again, her eyes still closed.
“What’s this one called, the one with the bright idea to try and shoot me?”
“Sicnarf,” Nicky said and shot a sideways look at the young man.
“Move that hand one more centimeter and you’ll lose your breathing privileges, Sicnarf,” she said. “This is a parlay, and you’ve got learn to respect the parlay. We can go back to trying to blow each other’s brains out once we’re done talking, if we feel like it.” She opened her eyes and stared at him.
“Sorry,” Sicnarf said, and for once, he actually was.
Ochos stirred a bit and opened the one eye that was still functional. She walked over and helped him sit up, then handed him her own canteen.
“Just a little,” she said. “I still might have to walk out of here.” Ochos nodded and took a few sips, then spat out some blood. “Nothing personal, you understand.” He nodded again and handed the canteen back to her. “Look, Nicky, it’s like this. I consider myself still on contract with the Old Man. I’m going to track that little fuckstick down and take him to where he’s supposed to go but I don’t need you dogging me the rest of the way. You said you got paid. Why not just take that and be done with this? It’s not like you didn’t try real hard, if your professional pride is on the line here.”
Nicky tried not to look too relieved. “We can do that. You’ll be wanting something in exchange?”
“You want to live and I want a lift back to Dharma since my jetter got a bit exploded. Seems like a fair exchange to me.”
“I bragged earlier about how you was being a sort of tactical genius,” Nicky said. “You mind shinning a light on what you was doing by getting that Pirhano all agitated?”
Liza narrowed her eyes but then laughed and shrugged. “I admit it was a risk, but as I saw it, there was a good chance it would pay off. As it turns out, I underestimated that bucket of bolts and it shot the jetter right out from under me.”
“I say you overestimated your own ability,” Sicnarf said. Nicky sucked in a breath and held it while Liza contemplated the young man. Finally she ducked her head to one side and spit on the ground.
“Yeah? That too, I suppose, you cheeky little bastard.”
Nicky let out his breath with a whoosh of air.
Liza helped Ochos to his feet. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. “It’s a long way back and I’m developing a powerful thirst for something that will make me forget this whole stupid day ever happened.”