Finnegan hooked an arm over the top of his windshield, wiped away the dust with frantic strokes of his sleeve. A slight improvement, but he was barrelling at ninety kph over rocky desert terrain. Even a slight headwind would throw enough sand to blot his vision again in seconds, and tonight was a gusty bitch. Should have been a breeze, sure as shit wasn’t. About as far from one as he’d ever experienced, in fact, because every single thing about this operation had gone south, except one.
He’d escaped with the merchandise.
Alone. Pursued. Thousands of miles from safety. But at least he had the Fleece.
A blizzard of tiny rocks pelted the windshield; dust and sand quickly coated it. An old hoverbike like Bess wasn’t much use at high speeds at night without her automapping, and the laser incision had cut right through her appendix cell, disabling her shield wipers too. Finnegan was driving blind.
Hell with this. He drew his 8-yield Shelby pulse cannon from his leg holster, veered Bess to one side and blasted the windshield off into the wind. It took two shots. Then, as he watched his pursuers’ rose-coloured searchlights feel across the desert for his caboose in the rearview, he gripped the handlebars with one hand and leaned back. Touched the large pillion bag. It fluttered, and he heard a smothered grunt from inside.
Good. The condor was still there. Still alive. He would do anything to make sure it lived through this. In the midst of this whole rad-suck operation, the condor was the only one who’d shown any kind of class. A genetically modified monster, maybe, but this bird had swooped out of its mangled cage like an avenging angel to rip Finnegan’s enemies to shreds just as they’d been getting the upper hand in the firefight. Why? It was a super smart flocker, yeah, a GenMod, but it had never seen him before tonight. And for its troubles it had suffered severe laser scarring to its right wing, so it could no longer fly.
A strange intervention. Damned if he could figure it out. But the bird had earned this chance to survive. It might never fly again, but as far and as long as he could last, Finnegan would look after the poor brave fella.
No sooner had he resumed his upright position when a blinding flash of orange rain from a clear sky made him jump. Much more than a simple hallucination or some superimposed fantasy brought on by tiredness, the orange rain was vivid, ferocious, and real. He almost swerved, but gained control just in time. Took several deep breaths to calm himself. Goddamn, he could’ve sworn that shit was real. Orange? What the hell? He checked the sky, just to be sure.
Moonlight, starlight, the roving pinprick twinkles of orbiting satellites.
He adjusted his goggles. Upturned the collar of his duster to cover his mouth. Limbered up in his seat, trying hard not to try too hard at predicting the road ahead. Take what comes as it comes. He lengthened Bess’s headbeam, though, just in case. The last thing he wanted was to barrel nosefirst into one of those statues mounted on rock pedestals some ancient alien civilization had built along a precise line of longitude. There weren’t that many, one every twelve-point-three miles—he’d measured on his way in to the Core—but they could easily sneak up on someone fuming this kind of speed at night. And anyway, this was all alien terrain, formerly a shallow lake; who knew what surprises waited for him in these wastelands. Or rather, what other surprises, because Malesseur’s bullshit intel was a tough fucking act to follow.
One he had no intention of forgetting.
The op had called for Finnegan and six other mercs to infiltrate Iolchis Core, a multi-billion-credit Genetics complex in the heart of the Iolchian desert. Their mission: to retrieve the Golden Fleece—some kind of watershed lab creation for rapid cell regeneration. A biotech bonanza, the patent for which the top companies were already engaged in a violent bidding war. To achieve this coup, Lori Malesseur, Finnegan’s employer for the op, had provided the team with all the tech they required to breach the facility: scattershocks, ghost points, nano-fluid cutters and other infiltration equipment, most of it illegal.
But none of that meant a limp goddamn clip when the facility itself housed its own private army! At the first alarm, the entire complex had been surrounded, and four of his six team members had been shot to bits while making for their hoverbikes outside, including Manolo, an acquaintance of Finnegan’s from a few previous ops. In the shitstorm that followed, half the east wing had been damaged. Scattershock blasts had collapsed several massive aviaries. Genetically modified birds of all shapes and sizes were now perched on the facility’s roof. Unable to fly away unless they found the doorway in the compound’s forcefield that Finnegan’s team had shored up for their return run to the border.
Lori Malesseur, then, had lied. A person with her connections—her dad was Simon Malasseur, a former shack sheik from the border colonies turned interstellar criminal entrepreneur—would know exactly how many personnel were in any facility in any star system in the inner colonies, not to mention their eye colours, mating habits, the number of times they showered in a week. That was the way the Malesseurs and assholes like them worked. Finnegan had dealt with their ilk most of his life, especially after Megan’s death, when he’d been glad to take any job that came along. Anal bosses, mostly, clever, paranoid and anal. But this was the first time he’d worked for the Malesseurs, witnessed their ruthless manipulations firsthand.
They’d had nothing to lose by arming his crew to the teeth and sending them into a hurricane. Except the phrase Lori had used in her digital briefing, “mostly automated security”, had painted the op as a hi-tech burglary, not the OK-freaking-Corral.
He wrung Bess’s throttle up a gear so that she screamed at over a hundred-and-twenty kph. Just over a thousand miles to his left, the border where Malesseur was waiting for his return. Ahead, empty, unmapped wasteland all the way to the giant dams over the Segado Lakes. At least there he might be able to find a neutral port, a band of traders, some way to get offworld without triggering the Interstellar Planetary Administration’s blockade satellites with their ever-watchful arsenals ready to shoot down any vessel that violated the no-fly sanction on this rock.
The Iolchians would hound him every step of the way, but he’d made it this far, he had enough clips to buy a cot on a shuttle, and anyway he had Bess. His beloved Bess. She’d never let him down, not in eleven years. She could live without her windshield. And as long as the sun came up in the morning—only a couple of hours away—she had enough power to run indefinitely.
Enough power to keep him alive long enough to find—and murder—that bitch, Lori Malesseur.
With it being this gusty his enemies wouldn’t be able to track him out of sight, so he turned sharply around a large conical rock—a hollow hive, in fact, home to vicious steeler insects—and wound his way through a miles-long maze of similar structures.
That should lose his pursuers. Soon as he hit open space again he tore to the only tree for miles around, an Aguarbor, at a faint crossroads in the desert, hoping to procure water from the bulbous epiphytes wrapped around its bark; every Aguarbor had them, and his throat had begun to peel. Irrigated farmland far to the west boasted thousands of orchards devoted to cultivating the various Aguarbor genera, mainly for off-world export; some produced water, others natural oils used in herbology or fuel refinery, while the most precious grew, through their symbiotic epiphytes, a kind of protoplasm amazingly eloquent of fertility, in which scientists had begun to grow brand new alien cells from scratch. Curious plants.
But the only trees that grew out here produced water. Which was good, because right now he just wanted to neck a few pints. It took him much longer to reach than he’d guessed, though, because he’d underestimated the tree’s height. It was gargantuan, at least a hundred feet.
Unfortunately, it was also dead. The bulbs hung shrivelled and empty around its gnarled girth.
He stopped a few moments to stretch his legs. Slapped the dust off his black jeans. Crouched to inspect the hole in Bess’s appendix cell. Jesus. He could see right through the bike. If the laser had hit an inch or so behind it would have TKO’d the servos and—
A figure moved between the tree and the bike.
He crouched on his heels. Lost his balance and had to backscrabble in the dust. Then he flipped onto his side and in the same motion drew his Shelby, rising to one knee. Just one glimpse and the sumbitch would be garnish, whoever it was.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice. Breathless. Choked dry. “Who’s there? Rogers? Manolo?” she said. “I need your help.”
He tightened his grasp on the well-worn stock of his cannon. First, how could anyone out here know the names of his team? Second, what was this person doing all the way out here? Third, revisit one and two...closely.
“Who are you, lady?”
“It’s me, Lori. Lori Malesseur.”
Bullshit. Bull. Shit.
“Try again, sweetheart. You’ve got one more shot. I’ve got plenty.” He buzzed his Shelby for effect.
After a silence, she blurted out, “You’re Finnegan, aren’t you? The big one...from...where are you from again?”
“I’m asking the questions.”
“Okay, yeah. Shoot. I mean...go ahead. Ask me anything.”
“If you’re Malesseur, what the fuck are you doing out here?”
“I was on my way to find you, to call off the op. We received intel about a new security force at Iolchis, not longer after you left. We were trying to warn you, to bring you back. But an armed patrol ambushed us, gave chase and I...our truck flipped over. Then they opened fire on my crew. I was lucky to make it out. Look, look, you dumb son of a bitch; they shot the shit out of my leg.” She groaned—overdone? “See for yourself if you don’t believe me. And anyway, why else would I be all the way out here?”
Bullshit. It’s a bunch of bullshit. Lori Malesseur hardly ever showed up in person, and she would never risk herself like that.
Not for anyone. Least of all some suck-bait squall of mercs she’d never even met.
Never even met. Hmm...that might trip her up. “What was the last thing you said to my face before I left?”
Another pause—significant? “You thick ape, you know we’ve never shared face-time. What do I have to do to convince you I am who I say I am?”
Finnegan rose slowly to his feet, crept around Bess. His first glimpse of the injured woman confirmed his suspicion. This was not Lori Malesseur. It couldn’t be, could it? This woman was terrified; trying not to look it, but she was shaking like a bled-out leaf under the dead tree. She also had soft, pink-and-white milk features under her black head scarf, not at all the hard-and-sharp-as-glass queen bitch he’d heard so much about. This woman reminded him of Megan, his foster-sister, the only girl whose word he’d ever trusted; that had backfired, too. He’d sworn to follow Megan anywhere, even when she’d signed for the Vike Academy and a career in uniform. In comparison, Lori Malesseur was about as trustworthy as a black widow inside his boxers.
But she had a point. Why else would she be out here, riddled full of bullets?
A restless flutter from his pillion bag reminded him what was coming from Iolchis. When Malesseur tried to get up, she crumpled in a dusty heap. “Christ, lady.” He’d already made his mind up what he had to do, and hated himself for it. An injured woman was an injured woman. “Twice as useless.” He plucked her up and, ignoring her cries of pain, set her on the seat behind him. “Hang on.”
“Wait. Which direction are we headed?”
“To the dams. Why?”
“No, no, no. That’s not allowed.”
“Not allowed. What is this, playground tag? I make the rules here, sweetheart.”
She squirmed to slide off her seat, struggled more than the condor had when he’d first stuffed it in the pillion bag. She bit his hand, even thumped his earhole when he squeezed her arm to still her. “Let me go! I’d rather crawl back.”
“What are you, nuts?” He leapt off, ended up hopping sideways to keep his balance. “This ain’t a taxi service, honey. I’m saving your life. And count yourself lucky—on the way here I swore I’d wring your bitch neck for what happened to us.”
“I—I’m sorry about that, truly. If I could have done anything more to...” Those words and her reputation simply did not gel. He wasn’t buying it. Any of it.
“Get off my bike. I’m dumping your double-crossing carcass right here. Lori Malasseur or not. We’re done.”
She glared at him with big moist wounded eyes, and slowly, pitifully adjusted her head scarf. Colour drained from her face. She started shaking again. Convulsing. Holding in violent sobs through sheer forceful pride. “You have to help me, Finnegan. I’m—I’m nobody.”
“Ha! I knew it. So what’s your real name?”
Her gaze darted side to side, questing for the right response. “I mean you need to think of me as a nobody. Not as your boss.
Right here, tonight, I’m just an injured woman who’s going to die unless you take me back across the border.”
“Why? So your people can double-cross me again? Take what I’ve got and dump my ass in the desert?”
“So you managed to get it?”
“Oh.” She eyed him mistrustfully. “Well it doesn’t matter now. If you take me back across the border to my people, I’ll triple your fee.”
He thought for a moment, whether to trust this bizarre flip of events. She’d only make trouble for him the whole way if he went east, and with things ostensibly patched up between them—she’d at least attempted to uphold her end of the bargain by venturing out here to warn him—a big payday couldn’t hurt. If she was who she said she was. “Quadruple.”
She looked down into the sand, corking her hate with a lumpy swallow. “Classy, Finnegan. You’re my freaking Lancelot.”
“I get you safely across the border, I want five times my original fee.”
“Five? But you said quadruple.”
He got back on the bike, revved the throttle. “Is it your money or isn’t it?”
“Then it’s five.”
“All right, five.”
“Fuck you back.”
She lashed her arms around his waist and squeezed a little as Bess washed a northward path over a neverending expanse of untrodden dirt. Shortly a nib of hot iron sun lit a slow-burning dawn, and the bruised sky grew blue and green, then blue-green, ever lighter, ever less ominous, until the entirety of Iolchis was unveiled. Nothing but sand, dust, and slow death.
They wouldn’t be able to make out the border for another day or two, as it was still almost a thousand miles away. A hazy upright colossus to the east, one of the Segado dams, seemed to be part of a giant step up to another floor of the planet itself. As far as the eye could see in every other direction, empty desert save for those weird stone statues that a previous, now-extinct alien civilization had erected along a perfect line through Iolchis. Towering, intricately carved, weatherbeaten depictions of humanoid forms.
But—a hoverbike wouldn’t be difficult to spot in the middle of this open expanse. Tracking it, too, would be a kiddy’s dot-to-dot now that the winds had died down, once they refound his trail. His northward turn last night had thrown them off, bought him a few more hours, but it was only a temporary escape. His best bet, then, after he stopped for a quick rest, was to just keep on going until they absolutely had to stop.
“Did you see that?” Malesseur yanked his shoulder. “That glint behind? They’re onto us.”
“You need to speed up, Finnegan.”
He ignored her for the moment—hell, he couldn’t have the bitch giving orders to him and Bess—but he, too, saw the flash in his rearview. More than one. It was a single hover vehicle of some kind, way ahead of the convoy that had trailed him last night, but that, too, was closing in from the east. Maybe hours away from Bess, but unquestionably in pursuit. And as much as he hated to admit it, Malesseur was right. They seemed to be gaining.
Shit. He’d wasted too much time at the tree last night. What he needed was a strategy...and fast. He thrust Bess into high gear, but even that might not be enough. She was, after all, an old bike. Indefatigable but old. New tricks were beyond her. And no doubt the Iolchians had new tricks up the wazoo. Bess’s hidden specialty, the pyro boost, was good for one final hair-raising spurt of acceleration; he daren’t use that with so much ground still to cover, not until all else failed.
“Any bright ideas, Your Highness?” he shouted back.
“We need a place to stop.”
“Rest, recharge, because I said so.”
“What about that ridgeline, two o’clock?”
What the hell was she looking at? “Come again.”
“It looks like a scar across bald rock. I’m telling you it’s a ridgeline. The desert dips there. It’s a concavity about five or six square miles. Maybe a dry lake.”
Damn, she had good eyes. At first glance it was an optical illusion, the shape of the ridgeline and the rocks surrounding the dry lake making the whole area appear uniformly flat. It was like one of those image-within-an-image colour puzzles you had to train your eyes to discern. “You’re the boss.”
He grinned when she didn’t reply. Strangely, that silence raised her stock a few points. He patted her good leg, and enjoyed the sensation, however fleeting, of her re-clasping her hands against his abs.
So she knew who was in charge. That was something.
A half dozen of the twenty-odd smallish moons orbiting the world were still visible at various points in the sky, like milky marbles behind frosted emerald glass, by the time the hoverbike reached the ridgeline. Finnegan hadn’t said a word for a while now, and though she’d tried to stay upbeat about their chances of making it out of this alive, this was likely the last ride either of them would ever take. If he knew the real story of why she was out here, he’d turn and make for the dams immediately. Leave her here. Maybe even kill her.
But there was something about this big galoot the others hadn’t told her. A vestige of a past life when perhaps money didn’t have the first and last word in his moral vocabulary. She’d seen it lash through his contemptuous gaze like a solar flare last night, awakening an old sense of right and wrong? This thug. This son of a bitch. This cold-blooded killer she’d helped recruit for the near-impossible Iolchian job. He had a code after all, damn it. Deep down inside, a code of honour that wouldn’t leave a wounded woman to die at the roadside.
Had the others known that about him when they’d sent her out here to dupe him?
Shit, of course they had! Why else would they have shot her—
Finnegan’s tired hand slipped on the throttle, accidentally revving the engine. It barked out over the valley. “—by water?” he said.
He looked at her askance, scowled as he hung his goggles on the handlebar. “Unless that’s your name, lady, I was referring to the fact we’re dead in a day in this heat unless we find something to drink. You said this is a dry lake? Does that mean it’s covered by water for part of the year?”
“Um, yeah, I guess. See that bracken down there, it follows a winding trail in the sand. That’s probably a river in the wet season.”
“So if we dig down, we’ll find water?”
She shrugged. Finnegan walked away, removed his grey duster, and stretched his solid muscular form, one limb at a time. His dark, blood-spattered T-shirt made her wince. He’d been through hell last night. So had she. But seriously, how stupid could a person be—almost giving the game away like that. By water. So close to her maiden name that she’d answered to it without thinking. Words were life and death now. The wrong one at the wrong time and those four strategic bullet holes in her leg would be the least of her worries.
That had been her name once. Two marriages and a couple dozen light-years ago. A galaxy of possibilities before her. All of them bright and exciting. None of them remotely leading here...to this. But here she was. And this was Lindsay now. A lifetime of five bad choices for every good one had finally exhausted her right to choose.
That was her name now. Her legal one anyway. Her ex, Yuri, had maintained she had a habit of shitting on any good thing in her life, shortly before he’d split for Mars with that trophy slut from Ferrer. Maybe he had a point. But she still had his name. A solid one in underworld circles from way back when, from Yuri’s shack-sheik ancestors in the border colonies. It had given her a bit of currency, at least, in applying for off-the-books admin jobs. Lori Malesseur had grudgingly taken her on because there’d been no one else available at short notice to replace her previous assistant who’d “accidentally fallen out of an airlock on her way to the powder room.” Lindsay’s dubious name had given her that dubious opportunity, then.
Only now she didn’t even have that. Lori Malesseur had dropped her, just like her predecessor, out of an airlock. The difference this time was that she’d given Lindsay a parachute, Lori’s expensive gear to wear, Lori’s own name to use, and four bullets in her leg to help convince whoever this asshole was who’d escaped Iolchis with the Fleece, to bring her—and the merchandise—back across the border. They were tracking the Fleece container’s unique code signature from orbit. So, an injured woman, a bribe, a sob story about trying to warn him of the superior forces: these were the tricks designed to persuade Finnegan to fulfil his mission and not do something stupid...like flee on his own.
And he’d fallen for it, the poor, heroic sucker.
He had no idea he was saving Malesseur’s secretary.
After so long sat in one position, and with a leg full of bullet holes and trancs—both courtesy of Lori in low orbit—Lindsay collapsed in a heap as she stepped off the hoverbike. On her way down she caught the pillion bag and dragged it with her. An almighty ruckus flapped about her ears, as if a hundred bats had just woken from a nightmare and were blaming her personally for it.
“Freaking hell is that?” She scrambled away in time to see the huge bird batter its way out of the bag and hop across the bare rock. It opened its wings to a frightening span—maybe eight or ten feet—and looked at them in turn, flexing, moving them up and down slowly, methodically, with such cool intelligence it bordered on supernatural. Its left wing was scarred, ragged, clearly the least flexible. The bird didn’t even attempt to take flight. “Finnegan, what is that thing?”
“A condor. GenMod. It saved my life last night, attacked the Iolchians and took my side.”
“Beats me. But it’s coming with us.”
The idea of being pecked to death one chunk at a time while she rode behind Finnegan only compounded her woes. The pain from her bullet wounds began to flare, so that she could no longer hide her pathetic hisses of discomfort whenever she tried to move.
“Who put those bandages on?” He strode over, crouched beside her, inspected the dressings one of Malesseur’s goons had applied with remorseless efficiency. She saw Finnegan’s full, weatherworn face for the first time. A little craggy around the eyes, which were narrow, blue-grey, and brilliant. He was older than she’d guessed. Early to mid forties. But he was chiselled for an older guy, and had to have been clean-shaven for the mission; last night’s ordeal had begun to draw out his age a little, though, especially the silver in his stubble. His hair was a sand-blasted mess, but might be slightly on the longish side and mousy brown at its best.
It was good to see the man behind the fearsome resume. They somehow didn’t quite fit together. He had the manners of a blunt groin-kick, true, but he didn’t look particularly threatening. Not that she’d trust him as far as she could throw his bike...and his goddamn bird.
But she had no choice.
“I took first aid,” she said lamely.
He undid two bandages. The cumulative release of pressure sent her a little dizzy. “Not bad,” he replied.
Eh? She squinted at him. What did he know? She couldn’t do a field dressing if her life depended on it. “I—I’m feeling a bit faint.” She lay down, faked a cough. “I must have lost too much blood.”
He rebandaged the wounds for her, then carried her on his shoulder to a cave he’d spotted about thirty feet below the ridgeline. Set her gently on the cold sand inside. It had the gloomy, musty ambience of a windowless anteroom in a church—one very special church in particular she hadn’t thought about in years. And for good reason. It clenched her heart to think of it even now. That soaring music. Those safe, solemn hours waiting for Dad to finish playing...
As refugees from ISPA’s liquidation of the 100z border, the Bywater family had had to rely on Neo Christian charities while being bumped from world to world, colony to colony for over five years when Lindsay had been little. But when they’d finally settled in the carbon mining colony on Rurenabaque, and the colonists had been offered the chance to purchase the mining rights from the controlling corporation for themselves, the overwhelming majority had opted not to co-op the franchise. Within a few years, the corporation had sealed up the mines until galactic demand for carbon increased—but it never did. Jobless, homeless and almost penniless, the colonists who’d inflicted that misery on themselves had no choice but to migrate to other worlds, other colonies, losing their community forever.
Oh, she knew the price of personal greed. Knew it well. Mum and Dad had been no different. Rather than ante up the capital to ensure their own futures on Rurenabaque, not to mention those of their children and grandchildren, the sanctimonious colonists (and the Bywaters) had chosen to keep their individual savings intact. See how well that turned out.
As well as being a psammeticum drill operator, Dad had become the organist in their local church on Rurenabaque, even though he wasn’t religious. Lindsay, with her mum and three brothers, used to wait in the vaulted anteroom during vespers, and play backgammon and Cydonia Face with the proviso that they pack up the moment Dad’s organ sounded the final hymn, or “exit music”, as she used to call it. The priest did catch them gambling one time and blew his top. Mum called him a “self-righteous toe-rag”, and that was the last time they were ever admitted. But Lindsay had never forgotten how important Dad had seemed, perched on his stool, gazed at adoringly by a full congregation, or his lovely playing as it bled through the walls and the vaulted ceiling with an aching reverence that had always fascinated her because no one in her family regarded religion that way.
She’d had nightmares for years about that empty organ stool, her life that could have been if Mum and Dad had settled there and not drifted apart over years of searching for a better place, a place they never found. Were those other families from Rurenabaque still together? She’d always thought so. Maybe because they had something the Bywaters didn’t.
If she’d been brought up religious, would she be here now, abetting a crime for a criminal’s criminal employer, a few kph ahead of certain death? If those colonists had chosen solidarity over individual wealth, would she have become such an irredeemable loner?
Questions not worth the glob of phlegm she spat out in self-disgust. Nope, this was all her doing, no one else’s.
Soon Finnegan retrieved his bike and the bird, the latter making surprisingly little fuss. It seemed to know he had its best interest at heart. Two invalids, then, nursing their wounds side by side, under the care of one of the deadliest mercenaries in the inner colonies. And he had no idea who or what either of them really were.
“Are you going to look for water?” she asked.
“After I’ve had a lie down.” He curled up on his duster, using the empty pillion bag for a pillow.
“How long are we going to stay here? You do know the Iolchians are still after us.”
“No shit, lady.”
“Then how long—”
“Half an hour. For Christ’s sake, half an hour. Just leave me in peace.”
“What about me?”
“What about you?”
She groaned as she shifted position, mostly for his benefit. “This is uncomfortable, you know.”
“There are rocks everywhere. How about giving me the coat?”
He kicked a bootload of sand at her. “Get creative.” His grim chuckle quickly gave way to quiet, peaceful snoring that lasted exactly eighteen minutes. The alarm on his hoverbike woke him with a beep, bee-beep, beep twelve minutes earlier than it should have. Yes, Lindsay had reprogrammed the timer. No, he didn’t suspect a thing as he sleepwalked to his bike and gathered the equipment for collecting water: two six-pint plastic containers, rubber tubing, an emergency distiller. And no, she didn’t feel bad one bit.
The oaf wanted to play rough. She could play rough.