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STARSHIP RENEGADES: REBELLION
Copyright © 2020 by Saffron Bryant. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events or locales is purely coincidental. Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.
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A band of rebels. An impossible mission.
The Starship Renegades have one mission: save the civilians.
Standing in their way: The Imperium.
The Imperium killed Kari's sister. She was just a child at the time. But now, Kari won't let them hurt anyone else. She will risk everything to help the Renegades and save the civilians.
Because if the Renegades fail, hundreds will die.
Grab a plasma pistol and strap in for this space adventure.
If you enjoy misfit bands of rebels and adventures through space, then you'll love Starship Renegades. Get it now.
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Kari pressed her hand to her throbbing side and tried not to let her pulse increase. Any strain to her heart or lungs only brought pain, and the slight risk of death. But how could she stay calm? Something—or someone—had been secretly controlling the whole of the Raxis system for a very long time. Like a puppet master standing in the shadows. Worse. They'd stamped their symbol all over both planets and Kari hadn't even noticed.
Atticus rubbed bloodshot eyes as he leaned against Ghost's engines. Grease covered his hands and clothes. "I still don't know who they are and I could only narrow down their location to an approximate area of space. It could take months to locate anything there, especially if they're using a moving ship like that last Imperium facility."
"If it takes months then it takes months," Kari said. How many times had they had this conversation in the last three days? It felt like a hundred. What more did Atticus want? He'd been lucky to get as much information as he had, the chances of scraping more from the back end of the Cloud were minuscule.
"That's if this engine lasts that long," Atticus muttered. "It's held together with luck and sticky tape, remember?"
"I trust your work," Kari said.
"Good work can only do so much," Piper said, her legs sticking out from the engine, her upper half hidden somewhere beneath.
Ghost's central communication line flashed. Kari frowned. No one used Ghost's line except for telemarketers and Kari already had Ghost's systems filtering all those to a digital junk heap. So who was this?
She took three steps into the pilot's pod and pressed the connect button. "Hello?"
The front screen flickered, becoming dark except for a pale, bloodstained face.
"Gareth?" Kari said, leaning forward. She could barely recognize her fellow rebel through the layers of blood and dirt, even though it had only been a couple of weeks since she last saw him.
"Kari? Oh, thank the stars. I knew if I kept trying that one of you… at least someone would still be alive."
"Gareth, what's going on?" Kari said. "Is that your blood?"
A barrage of noise crackled and rumbled through the speakers. Gareth flinched, ducked his head. When the rumbling stopped, he sat up, eyes huge in Kari's screen. "They're attacking. Full force with enforcers and those other… things."
Kari's stomach tensed. The rebellion raged on without her. Meanwhile, she did what? Searched for a conspiracy theory?
She had to believe that she was doing the right thing. Even if it meant leaving good friends, like Gareth, behind. "I can't get to you. I'm sorry. I have a mission of my own."
"Kari, it was General Klaxis. He led three hundred good people on a suicide mission. They're all dead."
Kari's throat went dry. Three hundred people? All gone? "What? Who?"
Gareth shook his head, his hair glued firmly to his face with dried blood. "Too many to name. You knew a lot of them."
Kari hung her head. Of course she did. She'd been a part of the revolution for how long? Did she really want a list of names?
"Klaxis went crazy," Gareth said. "Wouldn't listen to us. He led them out and…" His voice choked into a sob. "They all died."
"The general too?"
"Yes. Rumors say he was the first to go."
Kari kept her lips pressed tight, but in her head she thought good. What was he thinking leading people into a mission like that? He deserved everything he got.
"I'm so glad I got hold of you," Gareth said. "We need your help."
Kari's gaze slid up to the screen. "Gareth…"
"I know you left, and I know you're working on your own thing. I assume you did something a couple of days ago?" Gareth smiled through his tears. "Yeah, of course you did. The enforcers went crazy, the attacks here eased for the first time in days. They're back now though."
"If I could come back, I would. But there's something I have to do."
"We're all going to die," Gareth said. His hands reached up and then the camera angle moved, panning around the room behind him where hundreds of people lay in ragged lines on the floor of a cave.
Kari's breath caught in her throat at the sheer numbers. "Where are you?"
"Lower, lower tunnels," Gareth said. "I didn't even realize they went down this far."
"But who's fighting?" Kari said. "The rebellion—"
"Is dead," Gareth said.
"What?" Kari's hands tensed on the control board. "It can't be dead; it's barely begun."
Gareth shook his head. "The Imperium decided not to play by the rules. Well, one of their officers anyway."
"What does that mean? What rules?"
"They're filling the tunnels with gas," Gareth said, the sad smile returning to his face. "Slow-acting. I guess they do that so they can live with themselves; it gives us a chance to crawl up and ask for an antidote I guess."
"No!" Kari said.
Gareth nodded, head dropping. "I'm one of the lucky ones. It hasn't hit me so hard yet. But Polly…" he drew a ragged breath.
Kari leaned even further forward, her nose almost touching the screen. "Where's Polly? What's going on?"
Gareth moved the camera again so that it pointed to the ground near his leg. His wife, Polly, lay on a thin sheet, her face pale and her chest rising and falling with tiny gasps. The view returned to Gareth's face. "Based on the others, she doesn't have much longer."
"Gareth, I'm so sorry."
"It's not just us," Gareth said. "It's everyone. Even the innocents who live down here, and the children that came with us. They're killing everyone."
"They can't gas everyone."
"They are," Gareth said. "Like I said, someone isn't playing by the rules."
"Based on the news reports, they're hailing a Captain Jic as the hero of the Imperium. That's how he'll be remembered too, as a hero, not a murderer of innocents and children."
Kari could only shake her head.
"Please," Gareth said. "You have to help us."
"I can't," Kari said. "I don't even know where you are, and even if I did, what could I possibly do?"
"Please," Gareth said. "I've tried everyone else. No one is answering. I think the Imperium got them. Either that or they've gone to ground."
Gareth allowed the camera to pan around the room once more. "You're our last chance."
A deep boom and then the room around Gareth rocked. Pebbles and rocks fell from the ceiling. The view flickered and went black. The audio cut out, leaving static.
Kari tried to return Gareth's call but the dull, monotonous beep of a dead line greeted her. She gripped the control board, wishing for any kind of answer. She couldn't leave Gareth and the others to be gassed, but what could she possibly do for them?
She jolted to her feet and stomped out of the pilot's pod, toward the kitchen. Piper fell into step beside her and Atticus trailed behind, a spanner in his hand. "That didn't sound good," he said.
"How much did you hear?"
"All of it."
Kari called Wren and Ryker to the kitchen where she repeated what Gareth had said.
Ryker's hands—one normal and one sheathed in metal—clenched into fists. "Those bastards. We have to go back. Drop me near the tunnel entrance and I'll tear every damn enforcer in half."
"We can't," Wren said. "That will only get you killed. One new arm won't help you against an army of enforcers. Besides, we have a bigger mission."
"What good is a bigger mission if we let hundreds of innocent people die?" Piper said.
Kari's stomach felt as though she'd swallowed a gutful of worms. "Atticus?"
"We need to save those people, but we need to be smart. Like Wren said, Ryker's fists will only get us so far."
Despite the shadows, Kari thought she caught a flash of irritation on Wren's face. She hadn't fully recovered from the poison she'd been given which meant she didn't have her usual control over her expression.
"Wren?" Kari said.
"Whatever the majority decides."
"Join the fight," Ryker said. "We can chase these damn coordinates any time."
"He's right," Atticus said. "And I already told you I haven't been able to narrow them down yet. Without more information we might as well be on Zenith as anywhere else."
Kari let out a slow breath. She'd been so sure they were doing the right thing in chasing the power behind the Imperium, but Piper, Ryker and Atticus were right; she couldn't turn her back on her fellow rebels, couldn't let them choke to death in the caves. "Right. We save the rebels. But like Atticus said, we do it smart."
"Just because I'm half metal, doesn't mean I'm not smart," Ryker grumbled as he took a seat.
Kari activated the wall screen and did a quick search of the Cloud for Captain Jic. His professional biography appeared, along with a picture of him in official Imperium uniform.
"Your next date?" Ryker said.
Kari scowled. "No. This is the man responsible for gassing the tunnels."
"I'll kill him," Wren said. "Just like any other job. It will be quick and we can get back to the real mission."
"That might work," Kari said. "But it might also make him a martyr and his people aren't likely to stop the gas."
"So what's your plan then?" Ryker said.
Kari tapped the wall, pointing to a paragraph of text. "We hit him where it hurts, just like he's doing to the rebels."
"His family?" Ryker said.
Kari nodded once. "He's got a sixteen-year-old daughter, Mirriam, on Albion. We take her hostage until he frees the rebels."
Ryker raised an eyebrow. "We're kidnapping children?"
"Hardly a child," Kari said. "I'd killed three people by that age."
Wren snorted. "Amateur."
Kari shivered to think how many people Wren had killed by sixteen, let alone her current count. She'd probably lost track a long time ago.
"Besides," Kari said. "We won't hurt her as long as Captain Jic does what we say."
"And if he doesn't?" Ryker said.
"We cross that bridge when we come to it."
"I don't like it," Ryker said.
"Do you have a better option?"
"Not unless you're going to drop me on Zenith."
"I'm not," Kari said. Other than knowing it was a stupid plan, she didn't quite trust Ryker to look after himself properly. Ever since his encounter with the Imperium and his partial transition to a super-soldier, he'd been different. More reckless, more apathetic. She couldn't trust that he wouldn't get himself killed over something stupid.
"Fine," Ryker said. "But I'm not hurting the girl."
"I'm more than happy to take that job," Wren said.
Kari nodded. She'd been hoping Wren would say that. "We'll aim for a quiet extraction. In and out with no fuss, okay?"
Wren inclined her head.
"Good. I'll get the home address and fly us in. On the way we'll come up with a plan. But, Atticus…"
"We're still going to those coordinates outside of Raxis as soon as we're done here. So keep digging; we need a location." Kari paused at the door. "Oh, and better make sure that engine is stuck on tight, I have a feeling this is going to be a bumpy ride."
Picking a disguise was almost as important as picking a weapon in Wren's experience. According to Kari, this captain's estate was remote enough from any main cities on Albion that there wouldn't be a major military presence, but close enough that they weren't likely to have a private militia of mercenaries either. They'd be landing soon, just outside the estate. But what persona would get Wren furthest? Servants usually got to see the truth behind the façade, a good choice for information gathering, but they also got ordered about and questioned; not so good for a quick in-and-out mission where she had to get to the heart of the estate without being interrupted.
Wren selected a shimmering blue toga with a gold sash; one of the most expensive—and ridiculous—pieces of clothing she owned, but the height of fashion on Albion. Another Guild rule; commit to the role one hundred percent. There would be no point trying to half-ass a disguise like this; people would notice.
The toga had been specially designed so that while it looked like the loose-fitting garments common on Albion, it sported dozens of hidden pockets. The slits up the arms and legs meant that it wouldn't impede Wren's movements and a small stitch at the base would stop it from flapping about if she had to start running.
Wren slipped knives and vials into the pockets, mentally cataloging each one. She also hid several hundred tokens; never underestimate the value of a bribe.
Footsteps. Ryker's heavy footsteps. A moment later, the door slid open to reveal the giant man with his metal arm. He raised an eyebrow. "Wow."
"Don't get used to it," Wren said. She straightened her shoulders and tilted her head up so that she looked down her nose at Ryker. A slight pinch to her eyebrows and she fell into the character of a haughty member of Albion society.
"Why do I get the feeling that you've done this before?"
"Because you're not as stupid as you look?"
"I assume you're here to tell me we've landed." As if she wouldn't have noticed the bump and the engines whirring down.
Wren followed him to the main entrance where Kari and the rest waited. Kari's eyebrows rose in a mirror of Ryker's reaction while Atticus whistled. Of them all, Piper remained the most unmoved.
"I'll be back before daybreak tomorrow," Wren said. "Or I'll send a message. If you don't hear from me, assume the worst."
"We're not going to leave without you," Kari said.
"If you don't hear from me, I doubt very much that I'll still be alive."
"That won't happen," Ryker said. "Hell, you could remove an enforcer's balls without him noticing."
"Oh, he'd notice," Wren said.
"Anyway," Kari said, giving Ryker a hard glare. "I'm going to go into the shopping district not far from here and see if I can dig up any information."
Wren made a point of looking Kari up and down. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
Kari's eyes narrowed. "We can't all afford fancy silks."
"They'll notice," Wren said. "Trust me."
"You've been here before," Ryker said.
Wren turned her hard eyes on him. "Many times. And never been caught despite all the bodies I left behind."
Ryker dropped his gaze.
Wren returned her attention to Kari. "Remember how your face was plastered over every TV screen between here and Zenith? There are more clothes in my sleeping quarters. Wear the purple suit."
"Thank you," Kari said.
Wren shrugged. "No captain, no escape route."
"I don't know," Kari said. "Apparently Atticus can fly the ship."
Red crept across Atticus' cheeks.
"Don't touch anything else in my room," Wren said. "Some of those clothes have… points."
"You don't have to tell me twice."
"Good. Blend in. With the rebellion—"
Wren nodded once and stepped out of the ship. Her sandals—decorated with gold lace but strapped tight so she could run—landed on grass greener and more vibrant than anything that grew on Zenith. The first time Wren had seen Albion she'd been overwhelmed by the colors and smells, then Guildmaster Silvan had smacked her in the back of the head with an iron bar. When Wren woke up—headache threatening to split her skull in two—Silvan had told her not to be distracted by pretty things or she'd end up dead.
So Wren didn't bother looking at the bright blue sky or admiring the white flowers that dotted the rolling hills of grass. They were just colors, no different to the grays and blacks of Zenith in a way. A mansion stood on top of the next hill, surrounded by a high fence with a single gate. Even from a distance, Wren could see two armored men standing in front. Nothing more than she expected.
She tilted her head and stomped forward, falling into a character outraged at having to walk even a few feet. By the time she reached the guards, they looked nervous.
"Good afternoon," one said.
"Good afternoon?" Wren screeched. "Are you blind?"
"No, esteemed one, I'm not."
"Then did you not see me struggling up this ridiculous hill?"
"Didn't it occur to you to send a vehicle?" Wren yelled, her voice getting louder and higher pitched with every word. "Do I look like some common street urchin who should walk everywhere?"
"No, your greatness."
"Well? Are you going to make me stand outside for hours as well?"
The first guard jumped to unlock the gate. The second had slightly more courage in him. "I'm sorry, great one. Might I ask your business with the Jic Estate?"
Wren narrowed her eyes, putting as much rage and affront as she could into the glare. "I hardly think it's your business."
"I'm sorry," the guard said, and he did seem sorry, quaking in his thick armor. "But we aren't to let anyone through who's not on the list."
Wren threw her hands up. "I swear. Mirriam would forget her own head if it wasn't screwed on. I told her a dozen times to make sure she cleared my visit."
"You're here to see Mirriam?" A look passed between the guards.
Wren studied their expressions out of the corner of her eye. These two didn't seem fond of Mirriam. Good. That could work to her advantage. It probably meant the rumors she'd read in the gossip columns of Albion's press were right; a spoiled girl with no sense of responsibility. Good. Easy to manipulate.
"You know what she's like," Wren said, appealing to their underlying dislike. "I swear, she probably left me off the list intentionally so that I'd be in trouble with Captain Jic."
"We're sorry for the inconvenience," said the second guard—the one with a backbone. "But we can't let you through."
"Call her," Wren said. "Get her to confirm. I didn't come all the way here just to walk away again."
The guard lifted his communicator, as he pressed the transmit button, Wren hit the scrambler in her pocket.
"What?" said a sour voice. It was a pretty good imitation of the news clips they'd seen of Mirriam, but Wren recognized Piper's voice underneath it.
"Sorry to disturb you, my lady. We have a visitor here who says you—"
"That damn woman! Can't she take a hint?"
The guard's cheeks reddened as he glanced up at Wren. "So you were expecting her?"
"I don't want to see her. It's my father's stupid idea and I don't—"
"Captain Jic organized the meeting?"
"Yes," Piper said in a sulky tone.
"Very good, my lady," the guard said. "I'll send her through."
He killed the communication before Piper could respond and looked up at Wren. "My apologies, your greatness."
Wren sniffed. "Just see that it doesn't happen again. Although I'm not sure how much longer I can put up with that girl anyway."
The second guard stepped back, waving for the first to continue unlocking the gate. Wren waited until he'd opened it all the way before stalking through, head held high. Both of them reeked of fear. Wrongly placed though; insulting her or Mirriam wasn't the real danger—the real danger was the blade Wren had in her sleeve that she would have used to slit their throats and steal their identity cards if they hadn't let her through.
The breeze carried the smell of apples and flowers. Below that, the distant scent of people, hard to distinguish because they all bathed with the same floral soaps. So much easier to discern people on Zenith, where their natural odors were allowed to flourish and accumulate.
Wren stalked up the path to the front door without looking back, sure that the guards would be watching her; probably with relief that she hadn't reported them to their commander. The front door was made of a deep, dark wood with flowers and animals carved into it.
Before Wren pressed the ringer, a round woman in a simple servant's outfit opened the door, head lowered. "My lady, to what do we owe the pleasure?"
"I'm here to see Mirriam," Wren said with as much disdain as she could manage.
"Oh, I don't believe my lady is expecting—"
"This house is a disgrace!" Wren roared. "I've already had to explain myself once to those idiot guards by the gate. Now you? Am I meant to stop at every door and tell every damn servant my business?"
The woman quailed, taking three steps back into the house. "No, my lady."
"Then get out of my way. I swear, if I even see you again I will make sure you're fired and put on the first ship to Zenith."
The woman squeaked and scurried away, leaving Wren alone in the hallway. A sharp smile spread over Wren's face. Poor woman; not a courageous bone in her body. The irony being she probably would be shipped to Zenith when Mirriam went missing.
Wren eased the door shut behind her. Straight corridor. Three doors on either side. Sounds and smells came from each, but they were too noisy, too many people. These would be the common quarters. A winding stairway at the end of the hall led to the upper levels. Wren didn't need a map or a guide to know that was where her prey would be.
A narrow blade slipped into Wren's hand as she prowled down the corridor.
Kari tugged her hood lower over her face, wishing the suit Wren had given her wasn't quite so bright or purple. Although she had to admit; she would definitely have stood out if she'd come to Albion in her stained and torn clothes, made predominantly of plain, black cotton. Even so, she was glad she'd brought the cloak with its hood to hide her face.
She stalked along a broad street with vehicles—most of them hovering—shooting past every few seconds. The rush of their passing whipped at Kari's clothes and threatened to pull her hood free. She tugged it down. The buildings in this part of Albion formed a kaleidoscope of colors and styles, from open, ancient-styled amphitheaters, to towering skyscrapers made entirely of metal. This particular street sported a few stalls, reminiscent of the bustling markets on Zenith, except that here the sellers didn't dare call out, and there were no crowds to hide among.
Kari tried not to rush. She feigned interest in a pile of fruit—some of which she'd never seen before in her life, all purple and swollen—while studying the people around her. Could they tell that she didn't belong? Would they take one look and report her to the authorities? She certainly felt as though she didn't belong. Everything was so clean, so sterile. And outside! The people of Zenith would go mad if they saw the open expanse of everything on Albion, where the people didn't have to cower inside tunnels to avoid deadly radiation every day of their lives. Kari would have gone mad too, if she hadn't seen the vastness of space, or spent time on other planets with plenty of sky of their own.
"Just twenty tokens each."
Kari jumped at the voice, reaching for her hidden gun before realizing it was just the plump woman behind the stall. Kari had to choke back her first response; twenty tokens for a piece of fruit! Hell, she wouldn't spend that much on a whole meal.
"Oh, no thank you, I'm quite full," she said, doing her best to neutralize the drawl of the Zenith tunnels. It was a lie; her stomach rumbled in an effort to give her away. The fruit looked damn good too, but she didn't have twenty tokens to waste, no matter how sick she was getting of the protein powdered rubbish Ryker kept cooking.
She moved to the next stall where dozens of screens glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. Text scrolled across each.
Rebellion Enters Third Week. More Deaths.
Captain Jic Continues Victory Streak.
Zenith a 'Blight' on the Raxis System.
Kari couldn't help but slow to read the text that accompanied each headline even though it made her stomach sour. They treated the enforcers like heroes while describing the rebels as criminals. Nowhere did they mention the fact that Captain Jic was at that very moment gassing children.
Those news headlines never made it to Zenith—a strict censor kept such inflammatory material from ever reaching the planet. Instead, news was restricted to light and fluffy stories about new crops, or distractions like solar flares, or yet another crystal hunter death.
"You'd think they'd learn," a short, bald man said as he sidled up to Kari. He wore a gold vest that opened wide to reveal his round stomach and loose white pants that came in tight again at his ankles.
Kari swallowed a hot response.
"I mean, they keep rebelling. We keep killing them. Idiots. When will they get it?"
"Sorry, I'm in a hurry." Kari moved to step past him before she did something they'd both regret.
His hand snapped out, snatched hold of her wrist. He squinted up into her hood. "Not a local then."
Kari's heartbeat thrummed in her throat. What should she do? Kill him? Pretend not to understand? Argue?
He sneered. "Getting a lot of you around here lately, what with the enforcers off fighting. Looking for work then are you?"
Seeing no other option, Kari shrugged. "Yeah."
"Mercenary, is it?"
"No. Although I'm sure you won't have any trouble getting a job."
As Kari tried to pull her arm free, he squeezed her wrist—just enough to hurt, but not enough to do any damage—then flung her arm away and stalked off. Kari longed to shoot him in the back but managed to restrain herself. He'd get what was coming to him eventually.
Around the next block lay a large shipyard with a high metal fence. Huge ships—three times the size of Ghost—towered over smaller one-person vessels. A stream of people pushed to get through the gate into the yard, elbowing and shoving each other.
Kari sidled up to a nearby man, doing her best to put on the appearance of someone with too much time on their hands. She really needed to get Wren to teach her the art of disguise at some point. "What's going on?"
"Same as every day for weeks." He spat a glob of spit into the road beside him. "People panicking, getting off planet."
"That's the question isn't it? Bad for business, that's all I know." He turned and stomped through a small doorway that Kari hadn't noticed behind him. The sign in the glass window pronounced best dumplings in Raxis. Empty tables filled the room beyond.
Kari resisted the urge to point out that he might get more customers if he didn't spit right where they had to walk. Still, he had said something useful; people were trying to get away from Albion. But why? She could understand people wanting to flee Zenith; the enforcers had turned the planet into a damn warzone if not a mass graveyard. But why would people leave Albion? Perhaps it was just paranoia or hysteria. Crazier things had happened.
As Kari watched, a second group of people approached from the next street over. They moved in time, some holding screens that flashed with words and images; Free the Rebels. Independence for Zenith. Kari's mouth dropped and she took a half dozen steps toward the group to make sure she'd read the signs right. What were they doing?
The group approached the shipping yard but came to a stop just short of the gate, in front of the queue of pushing people. They held up their signs but stood in silence. Those in the queue scowled at them, a few tossed rocks.
"Get the hell out of here," said a burly man near the front of the line—his elbows had got him a long way while Kari was watching. "We don't need rebel sympathizers here."
A woman in a black suit stepped forward from the protesters. "We ask for justice for those who can't ask it for themselves."
"And I suppose you want them living here on Albion?"
"The radiation on Zenith is unsafe. Studies have shown that—"
"You know where you can put your studies?"
"Our sources report that Captain Jic is using chemical weapons forbidden under articles—"
"Captain Jic is a hero!" The burly man pushed out of the crowd, fists balled at his sides.
"We request a full investigation into his military tactics. In the meantime, we demand refuge for the people of Zenith to—"
"Right," the burly man said. "You're a coward. Standing here preaching at us. If you care so much about those rats, why don't you go and see it for yourself?"
"Like you are?" the woman said.
A couple of people snickered.
The man's nostrils flared. He drew back, preparing to hit the woman.
"Stand down!" Two enforcers appeared at the head of the street, marching toward the rabble.
The burly man took two quick steps back, then shoved his way to the front of the queue. The enforcers looked on for a few more minutes before marching away again.
Kari frowned. What had just happened? If she'd been on Zenith with a sign like that woman carried, the enforcers would have shot her dead a dozen times over. Here they did nothing? How could the people on Albion possibly understand what it was like on Zenith, when they may as well be living in different centuries?
While Kari seethed, more people joined the queue to get into the shipping yard. A steady stream of ships left the planet, with very few coming in to replace them. Most of the people joining the queue wore sparkling clothes with jewelry that glinted from every finger. On Zenith they would have been mugged a hundred times, here they barely drew a glance. Men and woman carrying heavy guns stood around these sparkling people. They might as well have had 'private security' written across their foreheads.
So that's what the bald man had meant by Kari looking for work. Hell, he probably wasn't far off the mark either. No doubt these people had done something exceptional, probably served with the enforcers to get a place as personal security to the high and mighty of Albion. But how far could their humble origins be from Kari's own?
Not that it made a difference now.
"Are you going to buy food?" The man who'd spat stuck his head out from the shop door.
"No," Kari said.
"Then move the hell along, you're scaring customers."
Kari didn't want to risk a fight so she shuffled down the street. She'd never understand how people who had so much could be so damn miserable. Didn't he realize there were people choking to death in dark tunnels? Probably not, seeing as the news didn't report it. People had to know though; the protesters knew. Perhaps everyone else chose to ignore it.
Kari sank deep into thought, letting her feet carry her where they would. She doubted she was going to get any more useful information from the people on Albion; they were either too stupid or too censored to know anything. Perhaps it wasn't so hard to believe that they were being controlled—just like the people of Zenith—without even realizing it.
Now that she knew what to look for, Kari saw the symbol everywhere— four squares arranged into a diamond; stamped into the buildings, dotting the metal covers that hid the sewage pipes through the city, even hidden in the corner of the damn tokens she carried.
"Hey, do I know you?"
Kari's stomach tightened as a young man waved at her from across the street. She pulled her hood lower over her face.
"No," she said. "I don't think so."
The young man jogged between traffic to stand in front of her. "You look so familiar. Do you work around here?"
"No." Kari tried to walk around him but he danced back a step, squinting into her hood.
"Man, I swear I've seen you before. It's like—" The color drained from his face, and he stopped dancing backward. "It's you."
Kari ran, seeing the recognition on his face. Her boots slapped the metal sidewalk while her cloak flared out behind her. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Why hadn't she paid more attention to her hood?
"Enforcers!" The man bellowed. "Someone get the enforcers. That was Kari Nyseth. From the Tournament! The rebel is here."
Voices rose in a wave behind Kari, chasing her. She dashed into a side street but knew there was no way she could get away from them. Cameras gleamed from every street corner and now they knew who she was. Hell! What had she been thinking?
Footsteps echoed at her from every direction. How long before enforcers arrived? Or members of the private security. Either way, Kari ended up dead.
She darted around another corner, sprinting toward the outskirts of the city where she'd left Ghost and the others. Oh damn, she hoped Wren had finished the job already because there was no way they could wait to take off.
A hot blast of plasma singed Kari's ear and slammed into the building on her left, exploding into sharp rocks and shrapnel.
Wren crept up the stairs, her footsteps like the brush of a gentle breeze. The servant she'd run into downstairs must have warned her companions to stay away because Wren could hear people moving about but no one entered the hallway. Good. The fewer people who saw her, or asked questions, the better. While Wren didn't mind shedding blood, it would be cleaner if she could get in and out without killing anyone.
The stairs spilled onto a wide hall with two doors leading off on either side. A thick, red carpet lined the floor, further silencing Wren's footsteps. A sickly-sweet smell—rose oil—permeated the air on this floor. Near the stairs it mixed with the scent of lavender and apples to create a cocktail of smells that turned Wren's stomach. She'd rather the iron tang of blood any day.
Wren tilted her head, listening. Only one person on this floor, in the room to Wren's left. Heavy footsteps but no weight behind them—petulant stomps at Wren's guess. A raised voice filtered through the thick wood of the door. "I told you I wanted to go this weekend! It's so not fair."
With knife still in hand, Wren darted across the hall. She pressed her palm to the door; unlocked. The whining voice inside continued. Mirriam was lucky someone hadn't stabbed her already with a voice like that.
Wren eased the door open on well-oiled hinges. As soon she could fit, Wren slipped inside. She already knew where Mirriam would be from the echoes of her voice. Three quick steps carried Wren to her side. She clamped one hand over Mirriam's mouth and held a knife to her throat with the other.
Mirriam tensed, her fingers clutching like claws around her communicator. Bright light spilled through a huge window that looked out over the rolling green hills.
The smell of rose oil inside the room was strong enough to make Wren's eyes water. She hugged Mirriam close and spoke into her ear. "Tell them you have to go. One scream. One warning. And you're dead."
Mirriam's eyes bulged. She strained against Wren's hold but it was like a fly fighting against the weight of a ship.
Wren pressed the knife harder so that the very tip dug into Mirriam's skin. "Do it." Only when she saw complete terror overtake Mirriam's expression did Wren ease her hand from the girl's mouth.
"I have to go," she said, voice trembling.
Wren hit the disconnect button on the girl's communicator, ripped the device from the girl's hand, and tossed it to the plush bed where it disappeared into the thick covers with a quiet puff.
Mirriam trembled, making Wren's knife drag back and forth along her throat. "What do you want?"
"I want you to be very quiet. You and I are going for a little walk."
"My father will kill you."
Wren grinned. "I'd like to see him try. Hurry up. If anyone asks, I'm a tutor your father has hired."
Mirriam opened her mouth, her jaw set to argue.
Wren dug the knife just a little deeper into the girl's throat so that a trickle of blood spilled out. It dripped down her neck and pooled at the white, lacy collar of her shirt, staining it bright red.
Mirriam winced, tried to pull away.
Wren held tighter. "I don't have patience. We leave now, and we leave quietly, or you die. Understand?"
"Good," Wren said. "You lead the way, but remember, I'm right behind you and it would surprise you how quietly a blade like this can slip between two ribs." She eased her hold.
Mirriam took a deep breath and reached for her neck. Her fingers came away spotted with blood. "You'll pay for this."
"I doubt it. Move."
Mirriam shuffled for the door, head down.
Wren followed close behind, although she didn't expect the girl to do anything. Besides, Mirriam looked like she barely had the strength to lift a full cup, let alone put up any kind of fight against Wren. Much easier than some other hostages Wren had taken. Like the last time she'd been sent to Albion and—
Mirriam darted forward.
Wren had been so sure that Mirriam wasn't a threat that she'd let her guard slip for just a second—lost in memories.
Mirriam made it to the door where she slapped her palm against a tiny, red button set into the frame.
Wren caught up, wrapped her arms around Mirriam's body to pin her arms to her sides, and hauled her away from the door. But it was too late. A loud siren wailed through the house accompanied by a red, flashing light. A thick sheet of metal fell from the top of the doorframe, sealing Wren and Mirriam inside the bedroom.
"What have you done?" Wren said, pressing her knife to the girl's throat.
"Now you'll be caught and killed," Mirriam said, voice trembling. "I'm not going anywhere."
Wren shoved her against the wall. The point of Wren's knife rested in the small divot between Mirriam's collarbones. "I should kill you."
"If you do, your death will be even more painful." A smile split Mirriam's face, and Wren had to admit that despite her spoiled upbringing, the girl had guts. "You shouldn't try to take from your betters."
"Right." Wren grabbed both of Mirriam's wrists in one hand and hauled her across the room to the window.
Mirriam tried to pull away. She dug her heels into the soft carpet but Wren yanked her forward.
"What are you doing?"
Footsteps thundered through the house. Personal security would be barreling through the door any second; Wren had run out of options. She kept hold of Mirriam with one hand and slammed the elbow of her other arm into the window. Re-enforced glass; she'd known from the rainbow shimmer—but Wren had trained on tougher material than that. The window shattered, exploding outward in a colorful rain of broken glass.
Wren knocked out the jagged shards that remained in the frame to create an opening a couple of feet wide in each direction. A hard wind howled through, bringing the smell of fresh apples and carrying away the scent of rose oil.
Mirriam pulled, twisting her arms. Wren dragged her toward the gap in the window.
"What are you doing? It's a two-story drop. I'll be killed."
"Maybe," Wren said. "But unlikely unless you land on your head. Might break a few bones though."
All color drained from Mirriam's face, along with any defiance. "Please, don't do this. I'll explain that it was all a misunderstanding. Just don't do this."
"We could have walked out of here nice and easy. Whatever happens at the bottom of this window is your own fault."
"No, please." Mirriam strained but even with both hands she couldn't pull away from Wren's iron grip.
Footsteps pounded on the landing just outside the door. Wren dragged Mirriam in close so that their noses almost touched. "If you keep struggling, I'll throw you out and there's no telling how you will land."
"Better," Wren said. "I suggest you go out legs first."
Tears glistened on the girl's face. "Please, don't make me do this."
"Three seconds and I push you."
Mirriam sobbed as she slipped her legs through the gap in the window. The wind outside caught her skirt, making it flap like a flag.
"Two," Wren said.
Mirriam froze. Not unexpected; Wren would have been more surprised if she'd been able to jump. Even the bravest people seized up when it came to actually throwing their bodies off great heights.
Wren released her hold on Mirriam's wrists and with both hands gave her a hard shove in the back, pushing her out of the window.
Mirriam screamed as she disappeared below the level of the floor. A hard thud followed a second later, accompanied by a higher pitched, more pained scream.
The metal door behind Wren beeped and began to slide up.
Wren grabbed the windowsill and swung herself through the gap. The momentum carried her several feet away from the side of the building. The ground jumped up to meet her but Wren had practice falling from much greater heights. Her feet hit first but she bent her legs into the impact and rolled, her shoulders digging through gravel and plants until she came to a stop a few feet from where she'd landed.
She leapt up and darted to Mirriam who lay curled on the ground directly beneath the window. She clutched her arm and howled. Dark purple bruises already colored her wrist. Definitely broken. Probably a few other injuries too, but not her legs. Good.
Wren grabbed hold of Mirriam's blood-stained collar and dragged her to her feet. She shoved the girl in the direction of the gate. "Run or I kill you."
Kari cursed her own stupidity as she sprinted down the broad street toward the outskirts of town. Of course people on Albion would be looking out for her face; it had probably been plastered over every screen for weeks after she escaped from the Tournament. She'd been so focused on collecting information, finding out the state of Albion and Zenith, and who the other mysterious controller could be, that she hadn't properly considered that someone might recognize her. Stupid! She should have sent Atticus. He might not be as good with a pistol as her, but at least he wouldn't be recognized.
A flurry of plasma blasts streamed by on either side. Kari dodged and darted, zipping back and forth across the street. A quick glance over her shoulder showed a mob bearing down on her, carrying pistols that they fired one-handed, each blast shooting off uncontrolled. A small miracle, seeing as Kari would be dead already if anyone who actually knew how to shoot had caught up. It wouldn't be long now though; wailing sirens echoed through the streets, getting closer. The enforcers would have automatic rifles, probably with auto-aim software.
Sweat trickled down Kari's face. The clinging fabric of Wren's purple silk and the weight of Kari's cloak made the heat worse. The cloak kept tangling in Kari's arms, slowing her and making it harder to shoot behind.
One more corner and she burst free of the town's outer limits, into the bright green fields that surrounded it. Paved roads led away from the city to the surrounding hills and the mansions that perched atop them. Kari could just make out the distant blob of Captain Jic's house. Was Wren still there? Had she succeeded? Or had she been killed?
Kari's boots thudded on the pavement, echoed by another series of blasts that chewed into the road to her right, sending up loose pebbles and rocks. They pattered against Kari's side. What a damn mess she'd gotten herself into.
A roaring engine sounded behind her. Kari glanced back to see a huge enforcer tank bearing down on her, a cannon protruding from its front. Enforcers hung from the sides, huge rifles slung over their chests. One leveled his gun at Kari's back.
Kari hurled herself sideways, into the grass at the side of the road just as the man fired. The blast carried over the top of her head with a hiss and a bang. She scrambled to her feet, kept running.
The tank closed the distance in seconds, racing many times faster than she could ever run.
Kari fired a few shots over her shoulder but the pistol did nothing against the enforcers' armor. She should have brought the rifles they'd taken from the Imperium ship; at least then she'd be leaving more than scorch marks.
A sharp whine warned that the tank's cannon was warming up.
Kari twisted away from the road, leapt over a small gully that ran parallel to the street, then vaulted over a wooden fence into the field beyond.
Brakes screeched and people cried out. Kari didn't risk looking back. Fifty percent chance that the tank had hover capabilities and the fence would offer no protection. Even if the tank couldn't follow, she still had the enforcers to worry about. Better to keep running and hope to put some distance between them.
Soft dirt gave way beneath her shoes. Grass that came up to her knees parted before her, opening a way across the hill. A faint dot darkened the field ahead. Ghost. It seemed a hundred miles away. How could she possibly get there before the enforcers caught her? And even if she did make it, the tank or the enforcers would shoot her down.
Kari squeezed her eyes shut for a second, forcing the thoughts away. She wasn't done until they actually killed her. She leaned forward and ran harder, muscles burning.
No more rumbling, which meant the tank hadn't followed her over the fence. Kari allowed herself a brief flare of relief. It meant the enforcers were limited to running, same as her, and she had far more to lose.
"Stop and we'll let you live," called out an enforcer.
Kari had to admire his ability to lie. There was no way she'd survive this; she'd already done too much damage to the Imperium, both real and in terms of reputation.
A sudden blast exploded the grass to Kari's left, only one step away from her. She darted right, but another blast scraped past her shoulder. Her skin flared, the burn eating through her flesh. She gritted her teeth and kept running. The rabble that had chased her through the streets were gone, replaced with enforcers who knew how to hit a target. The first two shots were getting their eyes in. They wouldn't miss again.
Kari hurled herself forward just as a plasma blast streamed through the air where she'd been standing. It would have blown a hole in her chest if she'd stayed upright. She let the heat of it singe the grass in front of her, then scrambled up and kept running. A good trick, but it only ever worked once.
Kari lifted her communicator. "Atticus, better get those engines fired up."
"I'm coming in hot."
Atticus muttered something just at the edge of hearing. Kari thought she detected the familiar noise of Ghost's engines. She put every last ounce of strength she had into racing toward her ship. Enforcers puffed and panted behind her. Despite the lightweight material, armor would get heavy after a while, especially running uphill.
Kari took the advantage, sprinting with everything she had. Ghost grew bigger. A heat haze distorted the grass near the rear thrusters. Kari didn't think she'd ever seen a more welcome sight. Even the dents and marks from their recent battles didn't make Ghost any less beautiful.
Kari's attention was distracted from Ghost by a commotion on the other side of the field, in the direction of Captain Jic's house. Two figures sprinted through the grass, behind them a troop of rough mercenaries waving guns. Wren ran with a lithe grace that seemed to eat up the distance without effort, while dragging a girl who staggered and stumbled with every step.
An explosion to Kari's right made her realize that she'd slowed. She tore her gaze from Wren and the girl and focused on reaching Ghost. Wren could more than look after herself and the hostage.
Ghost's main door slid open as Kari drew close. Piper appeared in the doorway, waving her forward. Kari hurtled into the opening, diving to avoid the flurry of plasma blasts that careened over her head.
Kari fought to catch her breath as Wren and the hostage darkened the doorway behind her, piling into the ship. Enforcers and mercenaries closed in on the door as Piper slammed it closed. The engine roared to life before it clicked shut.
Inertia grabbed Kari's stomach as the ship shot upwards. She turned, putting her back to the wall while panting hard. Atticus was driving her ship again; she wanted to feel angry or annoyed, but if he hadn't then they'd probably all be dead.
Kari wiped sweat off her forehead as she glanced up at Wren, still clutching the girl's collar. The girl cradled one hand to her chest; swollen and blue.
"This is Mirriam?" Kari said.
"You'll pay for this," Mirriam said between sobs. "Whatever you do to me, you'll pay."
Kari grimaced. "Lock her in the empty sleeping cell. I don't want to have to listen to her."
Wren disappeared, returning a few minutes later without the captive.
"I'm guessing everything didn't go according to plan?" Kari said.
Wren snorted. "Bitch tripped a personal alarm. We had to jump out the window."
"Is that what happened to her arm?"
"Clearly has no experience landing."
"Do we need to see to it?"
"I will," Wren said. "But it might come in handy in the negotiations."
"Good point. We'll get Captain Jic on the line as soon as—"
"What the hell did you two do?" Atticus said, bursting into the hallway.
Kari assumed they'd left atmosphere and made a clear break from Albion. No doubt they were still near the top of the Imperium's most-wanted list, but they probably wouldn't give real chase until the people in charge realized that Mirriam was missing, and even then they might be too busy with the war. "They recognized me," Kari said.
"Not that," Atticus said, eyes wide.
He turned and stomped through the ship. Kari sighed, got to her feet, and followed him through to the kitchen where a rolling newsfeed played on their screen. It showed a picture of Senator Olfred. The text read: Esteemed senator shot dead by terrorists. Enforcer troops are still hunting for the culprits. Two known terrorists were spotted on Albion today. The image changed to show two grainy pictures; one of Kari running through the street, and the other of Wren standing with two guards outside of the mansion's gates.
"Oh shit," Kari said.
"You were just supposed to get information," Atticus said.
"I did. I didn't have anything to do with this."
"Wren?" Atticus said, turning on her.
"How could I possibly have had time to track down Olfred and kill him? Did you see me running from that place?"
Kari slumped into a chair. "This is bad. This is very bad."
"They're probably sending the whole Imperium army after us right now," Atticus said.
"It's worse than that," Kari said. "Don't you see? Someone killed the senator."
"Isn't that good for the rebellion?" Atticus said.
"Not if someone worse gets elected. But don't you see? We didn't do it, and the rest of the rebel troops are trapped in a cave on Zenith."
Realization spread over Atticus' face and he slipped into the chair beside Kari.
"I feel like I've missed something important." Ryker sauntered into the room. His eyebrows rose as he read the text scrolling over the screen. "Olfred is dead?"
"And the rebels didn't kill him," Kari said.
Atticus tugged a screw from his top pocket and rolled it between his fingers. "In-fighting happens all the time. Perhaps another contender for the title saw this as an opportunity."
Kari shook her head. "Perhaps if the war was won, then someone might consider killing the senator, but not now, not with the heat of everything breathing down their necks."
"Which means…" Atticus said.
"It was probably the external force," Kari whispered.
"Whoa," Ryker said. "That seems like a pretty big jump. They've laid so low for centuries that we didn't even know they existed, and now they're killing senators?"
"It's only obvious because we know about them," Kari said. "No one else does. The people on Albion, and hell even the rebels too, will assume it was us."
"We're a target," Ryker said.
"A target?" Atticus said. "We've got the biggest damn bullseye in the whole system."
Kari could only shake her head. How deep did the conspiracy go? Why had they killed the senator? And how the hell were she and her crew supposed to survive now?
Kari positioned herself directly in front of the large wall screen in the kitchen, sitting straight backed in the central chair. Mirriam hunched beside her. Kari aimed her pistol at Mirriam's stomach beneath the table. Out of view of the screen's camera stood Wren, knife in hand in case the girl did anything stupid.
Mirriam's swollen hand rested on the table, purple and bruised. Kari had asked Wren to set it so Mirriam wouldn't suffer any permanent damage but it looked bad and from the constant sobs, must hurt.
Kari let out a slow breath then hit the connect button. After two rings a thin woman in an Imperium uniform answered, her straight hair framing a bland face. "You've reached the Imperium hotline, how my I direct your call?"
"Put me through to Captain Jic," Kari said.
The woman's expression didn't change. Kari suspected she was probably some kind of AI, not a real person at all. "I'm sorry. Captain Jic is unavailable to take your call right now. Perhaps I can direct you to one of our many services. Would you like to register your appreciation for the captain's work?"
Kari tugged Mirriam closer so that her tear-streaked face filled most of the camera's view. Their heads danced in a small square in the top right of the screen, overlaying the woman from the Imperium. "Tell the nearest human that I have Captain Jic's daughter hostage and if I don't talk to him directly in half an hour, she loses a finger."
The woman's eyes flickered a fraction of an inch. "Please hold."
Her face was replaced with a spinning Imperium emblem, the silver shield gleaming.
"He'll kill you," Mirriam said. "You'll wish you'd never been born."
"Trust me," Kari said. "We've faced much worse than your father. And remember he's the one gassing innocent people in the tunnels."
"My father would never kill innocents."
Kari snorted. "You can ask him yourself when he answers."
The half hour dragged by, but Kari didn't allow herself to slouch, or her attention to wander. Captain Jic was no fool and no doubt they would be trying to track the call's signal at that very moment. Atticus had routed it through a few satellites and security hotboxes, but with the resources of the Imperium behind them, they'd get through eventually.
Twenty-nine minutes after Kari made the threat, the spinning emblem disappeared, replaced with Captain Jic's face. Kari recognized him from his many posters and his biography, but she would have known it was him anyway from the way his eyes narrowed when he saw Mirriam.
"What have you done to my daughter?"
"Nothing," Kari said.
"Father!" Mirriam wailed. "They beat me. They threatened to shoot me. Look at my hand. They're animals. Please, get me out of here."
Beneath the table, Kari jabbed the barrel of her pistol hard into Mirriam's ribs. "Shut up."
Mirriam's mouth snapped closed, tears trickling down her cheeks.
"You'll pay for this," Jic said. "Release my daughter at once and I will make sure your deaths are swift."
"That's not how this works," Kari said. "We're the ones making demands."
"How dare you. Who do you think you are?"
"You got access to the news there on Zenith?"
"Do a facial search on me."
Jic's eyes narrowed as he glanced at something slightly off camera. His eyes widened. "You killed Senator Olfred."
"And if you don't do what we say, I will kill your daughter," Kari said. No point denying the allegation when the Imperium were intent on making it stick. She figured she might as well use it to her advantage.
"What do you want?" Jic said.
"Free the rebels."
"What?" Jic sputtered. "We're fighting a war here."
"No. You're performing a slaughter."
Jic's lips thinned.
"Care to tell your daughter what you're doing down in those tunnels?"
"Father, tell them you would never—"
Jic cleared his throat. "I can't let the rebels go. The Imperium would kill me."
"It's either you or her," Kari said, tugging Mirriam hard so that her head jerked to the side.
"I can't trust you," Jic said.
"And we can't trust you. So I guess we're all going to have to do better."
"I can pay you."
"I don't want money; I want freedom for the fighters."
"Please," Kari said. "We've all read the stories. Nothing is impossible for you."
Jic's nostrils flared. "Fine. I will release the prisoners if you give Mirriam back to me."
"We'll give her back. But first, release half the prisoners as a sign of goodwill."
"How do I know you won't—"
Jic spoke over his shoulder, too quiet for Kari to hear. When he turned back, some of the color had left his face. "There, it's done."
"Then I guess we'll both wait until we get confirmation," Kari said.
She kept a steely gaze on the screen, doing her best not to fidget. Jic did the same, although his eyes kept sliding to Mirriam.
Fifteen minutes later, Atticus appeared at the door. "I've got confirmation of rebel forces emerging from the lower tunnels."
"Good," Kari said. "Get one of them on the communicator. I want to know they're free and clear."
Atticus nodded, jogged away, and returned a short while later. "I spoke to a woman named Polly, she said she knew you?"
If she hadn't been under close scrutiny by Jic, Kari would have smiled. "I do."
"She says she and Gareth are okay. She says they let half go, just like we asked."
"Good." A wave of relief washed through Kari. Hundreds of people saved, now she just had to get the rest.
"So give me my daughter back," Jic said, cutting in.
"We'll drop her near the B4 tunnel in five minutes." Kari stood and dragged Mirriam away from the screen before Jic could respond. They were already parked near the tunnel; no sense giving Jic time to find and shoot them.
The ship's main door hissed open and Kari marched out. She kept one hand on Mirriam's shoulder and her pistol pressed into the girl's shoulder blades until they entered the circle of light that marked the entrance to the tunnel. A quiet night on Zenith; probably because of all of the death Captain Jic and his fellow enforcers had been dealing out. If Kari still lived on the planet she'd probably be lying low too, or dead.
She pushed Mirriam against a pole just outside the tunnel. "Stay here until your father collects you."
Mirriam sneered. "You think he'd risk coming himself?"
Kari clenched her jaw, not questioning the fact that Jic wouldn't risk himself to save his own daughter. Didn't that speak volumes? Instead, she hurried back to Ghost, ran to the pilot's pod and flew away from the tunnel. They parked in a busy shipping yard with dozens of other ships in as bad a state of repair as Ghost.
The connection with the captain was still active when Kari returned to the kitchen.
Jic glanced up at someone behind the camera, smiled, and then nodded. His gaze returned to the screen, seeming to stare right through Kari. "You kept your word."
"Of course," Kari said. "Now release the rest of the rebels."
Jic's face hardened. "You're a fool. I will kill you for what you did to my daughter, but first I will kill your traitor friends."
Kari sighed and glanced up at Wren who stood by the door, a predatory smile on her face. "Thanks, Captain." Kari rifled through her pockets. "You just cost me fifty tokens." She held the tokens to the camera before tossing them to Wren.
Jic frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Kari returned her attention to the screen. "My friend bet me that you wouldn't stick to your end of the deal."
"Your friend is smart. Say goodbye to your rebels."
Kari held up her finger. "She told me we should poison Mirriam, just to be safe."
Jic froze. "What did you just say?"
"I told her that was barbaric and that being an honorable Imperium captain, of course you would stick to our deal."
"I demand you tell me—"
"But my friend can be very persuasive."
"If you think I'll believe—"
"She's fast too. Mirriam probably didn't even feel the needle. I bet she's getting tired now though."
Jic spun away from the screen and darted out of sight. Raised voices buzzed through the speakers. "What do you mean she fell asleep? Wake her up! Dammit! Get Doctor Figli in here, now!"
Jic returned to the camera, a sheen of sweat gleaming on his forehead. "If you thought you were going to die painfully before… now I am going to rip each one of your teeth out personally."
Kari held up a finger. "Might I suggest that you're not in the strongest bargaining position?" She leaned forward. "And also, you cost me a lot of money so I'm not in a good mood."
"What do you want?"
"The same thing I asked for before. Release the rebels."
"I can't. It would be suicide."
"If you don't release them, your daughter dies. You've got thirty minutes before the poison shuts down her organs. The sooner you release the rebels, the sooner we tell you the antidote."
"I've got doctors here, the best money can buy. They'll know what's wrong with her. I don't need—"
"Did I mention that my friend used to work for the Guild?" Kari said.
Jic's words choked in his throat.
"Your doctors won't be able to cure her. Not before it's too late."
Jic adjusted his collar as he glanced over his shoulder. "Tell me the cure."
"Not until you release them."
"She's running out of time!"
Jic stood, yelling at the people around him. Kari leaned back in her chair and waited. Ten minutes later, Atticus returned to the kitchen. "More rebels are coming up. Polly says it looks like the lot of them."
"Good," Kari said. "Tell them to hijack or borrow every damn ship they can see. They need to get the hell out of there because as soon as Jic is sure his daughter is safe, the enforcers will start shooting."
Atticus jogged down the corridor, out of sight.
"There," Jic said. "I did what you asked. How do I save her?"
"Just a little longer," Kari said. She kept one eye on Wren who knew the workings of the poison better than anyone. They needed to the give the rebels as much time as possible to get away, while at the same time not condemning Mirriam to die.
"She's dying!" Jic said. "And I will have to get the antidote once you tell it to me. I demand you answer."
Wren gave a short nod.
"Guanapharadine," Kari said. "Your precious doctors should have it."
Jic jogged from the camera. A commotion broke out to the side of the screen. A short time later, he returned.
"You're still here," he said.
"And your daughter is alive," Kari said. "Just remember that if we'd been like you, we wouldn't have kept our promise and she'd be dead."
His face stiffened. "I have a lot of calls to make."
"We didn't do it," Kari said.
"Kill the senator. It was a setup."
Jic snorted. "Isn't that what all criminals say?"
"Doesn't mean it's not true."
"Right now I've got bigger problems than who killed the senator."
"Have you ever heard of someone controlling the Raxis system?" Kari said. She'd had no damn luck gathering information on Albion, perhaps she could wring something out of the captain.
"What? You're a conspiracy theory nut as well?"
"Answer the question."
"I've never heard that from anyone sane. I suggest you start running, because when I find you—and I will—you'll long for death."
The screen went black.
Kari heaped a second helping of chocolate dessert onto her plate—a gift from Gareth and the other rebels. They'd managed to get away before Captain Jic and his team could give chase and had melted into the fabric of Zenith and the surrounding asteroids and moon bases. The captain would be hard pressed to chase down more than a handful of rebels now.
According to Gareth, the rebellion was far from over. If anything, the incident with the gas in the tunnels had only brought more people to their cause. He'd sent the chocolate dessert by way of a thank you and—Kari suspected—as an apology for General Klaxis and the way he'd dealt with Kari.
"How long has it been since you ate something this good?" Ryker said.
"I can't even remember," Piper said. "I feel like we've been living on rations and bark for years."
"Or prison food," Atticus said.
Even Wren had taken a small serving, although only a tenth as much as Kari had. Kari waved her spoon at Wren. "You know this won't damage your assassin abilities?"
"Moderation is a form of discipline."
Ryker snorted. "If you had any more discipline you'd be an atomic clock. I can tell you right now this cake isn't going to harm my aim at all."
Kari chuckled. "Is that because it can't get any worse?"
Ryker scowled, brandishing his spoon. "I challenge you to a shoot off, as soon as we finish this cake."
A series of loud beeps cut through the conversation.
A number flashed across the wall screen.
"It's from Albion," Atticus said.
Kari's fingers hovered over the controls. It could be a trap; Jic or one of his friends trying to use the communication network to get a lock on them. But how would they have got her number? It had been blocked. Curiosity won and Kari hit the accept button.
Blackness filled the screen. "Kari Nyseth."
"Who is this?" Kari said. "Show yourself."
"It's not safe for me to reveal my face on this unprotected line."
Kari raised an eyebrow and shared a look with her companions. "What do you want?"
"I hear you've been looking for information on the outside influence."
Kari dropped her spoon. It landed with a wet splat in her dessert. "You know about it? Who are they? Where are they based? What are they doing with Zenith and Albion?"
"Shh! Not here. We must meet in person."
Kari swallowed. It didn't take a genius to spot a trap, but what if it wasn't? What if this person really did have information? "Okay. On Zenith there's a small—"
"No. You will come to me on Albion."
"Look, I'm not an idiot. We'll meet—"
"My house or nowhere. I'll send you the address. It's encrypted using the date of the worst day of your life."
The call cut off, leaving a deep silence. Everyone had stopped eating.
"What the hell was that?" Ryker said.
"A trap," Piper said. "It has to be."
"We have to go," Kari said.
A text message arrived on her communicator. She doubted that the man could possibly know what date she considered the worst of her life, but she typed it in anyway. The cryptic text morphed into an address on Albion.
"What the hell?" she said.
"You got the right date?" Atticus said.
"How?" Ryker said. "I wouldn't even know where to start. What's the worst date?"
Kari looked up at them, a chill creeping down her spine. "The day Piper was taken."
"This is a bad idea," Atticus said. "A very bad idea."
"Which is why you are staying here," Kari said. "So you can bail us out of any trouble we might get into."
"I won't have time to bail you out. You'll be dead."
"Try to look on the bright side," Ryker said, squeezing Atticus' shoulder. "You'll inherit Ghost."
Atticus scowled. "Small comfort."
"You can reach us on our communicators any time," Kari said. "But don't call unless you need to. I want to get in and out of there as quick as we can."
"Because it's a trap," Atticus said.
Kari rolled her eyes. Atticus meant well, and he was only saying what they were all thinking, but it wouldn't change the plan. She had to find out what the mysterious caller had to say. And if it was a trap, well they'd deal with that when the time came. Besides, with Ryker and Wren on her side, she pitied anyone who tried to lay an ambush.
"Make sure he doesn't fly off with my ship," Kari said to Piper.
"You're leaving me behind again."
"Only to protect Atticus."
"Sure," Piper said. "You know I can fight as well as anyone."
"I know you can fight," Kari said. "But I don't want you getting caught up in whatever this is."
"An ambush," Atticus muttered.
Kari, Ryker, and Wren left Ghost—parked in a quiet shipyard on Zenith—and hiked to a transport hub. Kari and Wren kept their faces covered in the traditional face masks of the Sisterhood of Twilight while Ryker strode at their side wearing an enforcer suit of armor—the one they'd taken from their prisoner before Wren took care of him—that only just fit over his modified arm.
Swarms of enforcers surrounded the transport hub, checking IDs and pulling people out of line to question them. While the place usually buzzed with activity, now only a few people stood milling about, waiting for the next transporter. They looked like either off-duty enforcers or journalists. Who else would risk traveling in the middle of a violent revolution?
"Stop," barked an enforcer, stepping in front of them.
Ryker held out their identity chips—fakes that had cost Kari a fortune she didn't think she'd ever make back and that she'd only managed to get after selling the rest of Aydin's cargo. Thoughts of Aydin made her chest hurt. She'd hated selling that damn cargo—he'd cared so much about it—but what choice did she have? She hoped that he understood, wherever he was now.
"Religious pilgrimage is it?" the enforcer said.
"They've taken a vow of silence," Ryker said, his voice muffled by the helmet. "Crazy if you ask me."
The other enforcer snorted. "Tell me about it. We've had a stream of this lot ever since the fighting broke out."
He scanned their chips and returned them to Ryker. "How'd you get stuck on escort duty?"
"Beats me," Ryker said. "Must have pissed someone off. One of them is related to one of the captains or something. I didn't ask questions."
"Good policy. Go on then, next transport in thirty minutes."
They joined the others in the waiting area but stood apart, none of them talking. Kari scanned the room for potential threats, knowing that Wren and Ryker would be doing the same. They were on a knife edge; if anyone demanded to see their faces they would be recognized instantly. Kari and Wren from their time in the Tournament, and Ryker was bound to be cataloged in the Imperium systems from when they'd tried to convert him.
They stood in tense silence until the transporter landed, sending up a puff of dust before spilling its occupants onto Zenith. More enforcers marched out, journalists dotted among them. A few wore recorders strapped to their heads and spoke in a running commentary. Kari turned away from them, just in case someone recognized the tilt of her eyes, or the way she stood.
"All aboard," said a voice through the intercom.
Kari and her companions traipsed after the rest of the travelers. Inside, the transport smelled of lavender. Plush cushions bloomed from every seat. Not a single crumb remained from the previous passengers.
"Keep moving," Wren hissed into Kari's ear.
Kari blinked. The shear difference between Zenith and the transporter made her stagger to a stop. How did it make sense? Not even the dust and dirt of Zenith managed to penetrate the transporter.
She slid into a chair by the window, hating the way the cushions embraced and supported her all at once, and the temperature control that made her feel warm but not hot.
Kari spent the journey to Albion scowling behind her mask. She didn't dare risk talking in case someone noticed her breaking her vow of silence, but it didn't matter because she didn't much feel like chatting anyway. During the last rebellion she'd fought on the frontline. She'd watched hundreds of friends die. This time she felt more like an observer standing on the outside but not actually doing anything. Sure, she'd helped destroy an Imperium ship, but she'd only gone there to save Ryker. And she might have helped Gareth and the others escape from the tunnels, but she hadn't really got her hands dirty. Things were so much simpler on the frontline; gun in hand, shoot the enemy. None of this cat-and-mouse game of disguises and mysterious contacts.
She sighed and tried to sleep but her swirling thoughts refused to let her drift off.
"Welcome to Albion. We trust you had a pleasant trip."
They joined the stream of passengers out of the transporter and into a busy city on Albion. They'd already looked up the route to the address the mysterious caller had given them and set off without speaking. Shining streets and clean buildings rose high into the sky, gleaming in the sunlight. A stark contrast to the flat and barren landscape of Zenith's surface.
Even so, Kari noted small differences from the last time she'd come to this city—before they'd been abducted for the Tournament. There were more enforcers coming and going from the transport hub, but even more noticeable was the number of private security personnel. Most people on the street had a brawny security guard striding beside or just behind them. Where before the people of Albion had strolled from place to place as if they had nowhere better to be than parading the streets, now they hurried. Wide streets lay empty, without the colorful celebration seen previously.
They followed the main street for some distance before turning down a narrower road. Kari suspected this area would be considered the slums of Albion, even though the buildings gleamed with fresh paint and bright flowers bloomed at every window. The road ended in a trellis wall with a green vine climbing over it, dotted with white flowers.
"It's supposed to be at the end," Ryker said.
Kari tugged her mask up so it rested on top of her head, no longer impeding her vision, and placed a hand on her pistol. A knife glinted in Wren's hand as she too removed her mask. A gentle breeze blew along the road but otherwise it was silent; no shuffling of attackers lying in wait, no scrape of metal.
Just before they reached the door, Wren paused.
Ryker tensed, lifting a bulky gun to his shoulder. "What is it?"
"I smell blood."
Kari turned in a slow circle, ready in case people jumped out of the adjoining buildings.
"Are you sure?" Ryker said.
"Like someone cut a finger?"
"Be ready," Kari said.
They edged forward, Ryker at the front with his gun still up, ready to blow a hole in the chest of anyone who appeared. At the end of the street stood an orange door with the number three hundred on it, just as the instructions had described.
Ryker nudged the door with the barrel of his gun. It squeaked as it swung wider. The broken lock dangled from the edge and orange chips of paint lay on the ground where someone had forced the door.
Kari's stomach tightened.
They squeezed deeper into the room. Kari took the right side of the room while Wren went left. Ryker took the middle. A spindly chair lay toppled in the middle of the room over the remains of a broken table. Through a doorway, Kari came upon a kitchen littered with broken shards of plates and glasses. A few drops of blood gleamed on the floor. Still wet.
Kari crept back into the main living room where Ryker was checking behind an overturned sofa.
Wren emerged from an adjoining room. "I think you guys should see this." Her face remained as unreadable as ever.
"The kitchen's clear," Kari said. "A bit of blood."
"No one in here," Ryker said.
Kari lowered her pistol as she crossed the room to the doorway where Wren stood. On the way, she eased the broken front door closed and propped a damaged chair behind it. The last thing they needed was people sneaking in behind them. A mess like this was bound to slow them down, which might be exactly what their ambushers had planned.
Wren stepped aside so Kari and Ryker could enter the small bedroom beyond. Shards of glass sparkled from the blue carpet. Clothes lay strewn across the floor, some of them ripped. A shirt dangled from the back of an overturned bedside chair, tattered ends waving in the slight breeze of Kari and Ryker's entrance.
Kari stumbled to a stop. Ryker bumped into her back then cursed.
A body lay on the bed. A man. Young. Maybe twenty-five. Cuts and bruises covered his arms and legs. A gaping wound in his chest had probably been what killed him; a blast from a high-powered plasma weapon in Kari's estimation. But that wasn't what shocked her; she'd seen more than her share of dead bodies.
The man's mouth had been sewn shut with thick, black wire. Trickles of dried blood dribbled from each stitched hole, staining his chin. Some of the stitches had torn great gashes in his lips where he'd tried to pull his mouth open, perhaps while screaming.
"Who the hell did this?" Kari said.
The room had to belong to the man on the bed; the clothes were the right size.
"I can guarantee they didn't leave a calling card," Wren said.
"I say we get the hell out of here," Ryker said. "Whoever did this could have called the enforcers. If they find us here…"
"Who says it wasn't the enforcers that did it?" Kari said. Still, Ryker had a point. They had to get out and fast. Clearly their mysterious contact wasn't going to tell them anything. Hell! To come all this way for nothing made Kari's gut squirm. "Ten minutes. We search the place, if we don't find anything in ten minutes then we get out."
"I think someone already tried searching." Ryker waved his massive metal hand at the overturned furniture.
"Just hurry up." Kari dashed out of the room and returned to the kitchen. Most of the benches were clear; everything on top of them had been hurled to the floor in a smashed pile. She wrenched open the drawers. Cutlery clattered. Kari searched the first drawer, careful to avoid the knives, but found nothing. Next drawer: bowls. Next drawer: random cables. Kari pulled these out. They twisted and coiled on the floor like snakes, trailing into the drawer where a circuit board the size of Kari's hand connected them.
Kari heaved the board out. Could it mean something? Hell. It could be the guy's porn collection for all she knew. She shoved it into a pocket along with the tangle of wires, just in case. Bangs and clatters came from the other rooms as Wren and Ryker made even more of a mess of the place than it had already been.
Still in the kitchen, Kari found empty cupboards and a fridge with a single wilting lettuce rolling around the crisper drawer. Tiny magnets held posters to the door of the fridge. A few announced upcoming performances by some band called Midnight Express, but one caught Kari's eye. "Ghost Tour; for those seeking Phantoms." At the bottom of the sheet it directed the reader to a website to buy tickets.
Kari bit her lip and looked once more around the dingy apartment. It didn't strike her as the type of place a fan of Ghost stories would live. Sure, the punk music made sense, but a ghost tour? Not so much. Which meant that the poster wasn't what it seemed. Her heart pumped a little faster. What if he'd known he was in danger? Maybe, just maybe, he'd put the poster there specifically for Kari to find.
The communicator at Kari's wrist vibrated, startling her out of her thoughts. "Atticus?"
"Kari, please tell me you're out of there."
"Not quite. There was a problem—"
"Get the hell out. There's an enforcer alert running. I think they're coming your way."
Kari disconnected the communicator, snatched the poster, and shoved it into her pocket along with the circuit board. "We've gotta go!"
Wren and Ryker emerged, both running to the door. Ryker tossed aside the chair Kari had used to prop the door shut and wrenched it open. Kari pulled the stifling mask back into place over her face and stepped into the street. The sunlight blinded her after the relative gloom of the apartment. A distant siren wailed.
They hurried as fast as they could without drawing attention, out of the alley and onto the main street. There they slowed, Wren and Kari shuffling in front, masked faces down and hands folded in front of them while Ryker strode behind, a casual hand on his gun.
Seconds later, an enforcer vehicle raced past them, its siren wailing. A gust of wind followed, lifting Kari's skirt and buffeting it against her ankles. The sharp noise of the siren pierced her ears but she kept her face down, doing her best not to flinch.
The vehicle screeched as it rounded the corner onto the road with the mysterious apartment and the orange door.
Kari's tense shoulders refused to relax. Any second the enforcers could come racing around the corner. Did they know what to look for? Who had tipped them off?
It took all of Kari's self-control to keep a measured pace through the streets of Albion until they reached the transport hub. Once there, she had to stay silent, demure, while Ryker bought tickets back to Zenith.
"Weren't you in here earlier?" the enforcer checking tickets said.
Kari's heart lurched into her throat. They couldn't start a fight here; every shuttle would lock down and they'd never be able to get back to Zenith.
"Yes," Ryker said. "Unfortunately."
Seven enforcers in the room. Enough perhaps for Kari and her companions to kill, but that wouldn't help them with the cameras in every corner and the reinforcements that were bound to appear. And what about the private security who lounged throughout the transport hub? Many rich and powerful people were buying tickets away from Albion. Not to Zenith though.
"Don't remind me," Ryker said. "Finally thought I was free of the place, then this one decided she hadn't completed her obligations."
"What does that have to do with you?"
"Exactly what I've been asking myself," Ryker said. "Apparently she's related to someone important. Although how you'd know with those damned masks is a mystery to me."
"Doesn't say much, does she?"
"Vow of silence."
"Ah, small blessing then. At least she's not trying to convert you to the path all the time."
"You say that, but you can see it in her eyes, you know? Gives me the creeps."
"Ha! Better you than me. Have fun back on Zenith."
"Yeah right," Ryker said, taking their tickets. "Hey, I've been in religious confinement for a while. How are our soldiers doing?"
The other enforcer leaned toward Ryker and kept his voice low. Kari strained to hear. "Mixed reports. We seemed to have them, then suddenly rebels are escaping all over the place. They've disappeared like some damn mist."
"Hell," Ryker said.
"Exactly. Heads will roll for it, you mark my words."
"So long as they're not ours, am I right?"
The other enforcer grinned and bumped his fist against Ryker's. "So right."
Ryker waved for Kari and Wren to go ahead of him, with the air of a frustrated guardsman. Kari and Wren followed his directions and boarded the transporter to Zenith. They sat in silence the whole way. Every slight noise made Kari tense, wishing she could pull her gun. What if enforcers stopped the ship? What if they found out who she and Wren and Ryker really were? They'd effectively trapped themselves on an enemy ship.
Torturous hours later they landed on Zenith and Kari practically ran to get out of the ship and onto the empty, free, expanse of Zenith's surface. They hurried away from the transport hub, toward the empty shipyard where Atticus and Piper would be waiting for them.
"I am never doing that again," Ryker said. "I don't care what kind of mystery message you get. My balls are practically choking me."
"Graphic," Kari said, "but I know what you mean."
"You found something though?" Wren said.
"When we're back on Ghost." Kari didn't bother asking how Wren knew; Wren had senses that Kari could only dream of.
The journey back to Ghost felt like one of the longest Kari had ever taken. As soon as the door closed behind her she tore off her mask and hurled it into a corner. Sweat stuck to her face, gluing strands of hair to her cheeks.
"Thank the stars you made it out," Atticus said.
"Only just," Kari said. "Thanks to you. How did you know?"
"I was keeping an eye on the enforcer channels. Anonymous tip came in about a murder at the address. What the hell happened?"
Kari slumped into a chair in the kitchen. The others did the same, their expressions a mix of exhaustion and concern. Except Wren, who remained as expressionless as ever.
"I wish I knew," Kari said. "We went to the address like the instructions said, but the place had been turned over and the occupant killed."
"Not just killed," Ryker said. "His damn mouth had been sewn shut."
They sat in horrified silence for a time.
"It's a message," Atticus said. "It has to be."
"A message?" Kari said.
"Yeah… keep your mouth shut, don't talk, you know?"
Kari drummed her fingers on the table. It definitely made more sense than sewing a guy's mouth shut just for the fun of it. "But a message for who? For us? It's not like it's going to do the dead guy much good."
"Maybe the dead guy has friends," Atticus said.
"This is getting way too hypothetical for me," Ryker said. "What happened to good old-fashioned rebellion?"
Kari nodded. Hadn't she just been thinking the same thing?
"Did you find anything else?" Atticus said. "Some clue as to why he called you?"
"I didn't find jack," Ryker said.
Kari pulled the circuit board with its tangle of wires from her pocket. "I found this, but I have no idea what it is. I was hoping you might?"
Atticus took it from her and turned it over. He studied the circuits, his white eyebrows pulled together. He untangled the wires and spread them out on the table so that it looked like a spider on an electric web. "It's complicated. Almost too complicated."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kari said.
"Imagine finding a spoon with multiple handles poking out of it. They don't improve the function, if anything they make it awkward to use. It's more complicated than it needs to be, with extra parts that don't do anything. It doesn't make sense."
"So it could be a message for us?"
"No. It's someone's idea of a joke, or a distraction."
"So what does it do?"
Kari massaged her aching head. "Great. Then the only other thing I found was this." She pulled the crumpled poster from her pocket and flattened it on the table. They all gathered around to look.
Ryker leaned back first. "You suddenly taking an interest in ghosts?"
"Don't you think it's a little convenient that he had this on his fridge the day that we were meant to show up? Me, who drives a Phantom named Ghost?"
Ryker shrugged. "He seemed like a weirdo to me."
"Not that kind of weirdo," Wren said.
"It's not just that," Piper said. "Look at the numbers in the background."
Kari frowned at the poster. She hadn't noticed any numbers. But now that Piper pointed them out… there they were, embedded in the image, hidden in the ghostly house that formed the background of the poster.
"It's Ghost's serial number," Piper said.
Kari raised an eyebrow. "How do you know that?"
"I saw it on the engine when Atticus was fixing it, when we got stranded on that planet with the monkey-imps."
"That seals it then," Atticus said. "This is definitely meant for you."
"There's only one option then," Kari said. "We go to the website."
"Is that smart?" Ryker said. "Couldn't it be like some kind of homing beacon that lets every enforcer know where we are?"
"I'll reroute us," Atticus said. "And put up some shields. We'll be fine."
Kari used the table's controls to activate the wall screen and entered the address. A black page filled the screen with a single text box and jagged writing that read password.
"Password?" Ryker said. "How the hell are we supposed to know the password?"
"Ghost's serial number?" Atticus said.
Kari lifted her fingers to type.
"No," Piper said. "Don't."
"I'm not sure we'll get more than one chance at this," Piper said. "Whoever this guy was, he seems paranoid. If we get it wrong…"
"It might shut down completely," Atticus said.
"But the serial number is right there," Ryker said.
"Exactly," Piper said. "Anyone could have seen it."
Kari stared at the blinking cursor in the text box. "He's known more about me than anyone should."
"And this is meant for you," Piper said. "He must have made it something he thought you'd get."
"How?" Kari threw her hands up. "It could be a thousand things."
Piper fiddled with the corner of the poster. "Take your time. Better that than have it self-destruct."
"Great," Kari said, running her hand down her face. "No pressure."
Kari drummed her fingers on the table and glared at the black screen with its damn blinking cursor. All the others had left except Piper. She couldn't blame them; watching her watch a screen was probably more boring than watching the screen itself. But Piper stayed, sitting in solemn silence at Kari's side.
"Did you ever suspect that there was something controlling everything in Raxis?" Kari said.
Piper shifted, coming out of whatever deep thoughts she'd been lost in. "Not really. Not seriously anyway. I mean I'd noticed the symbols, sure, but I figured they were from gangs or something."
"I never even noticed the symbols. It should have been obvious."
"Don't beat yourself up about it too much. There are lots of obvious things that people never notice."
Piper gave a sad smile. "Except me."
Kari hung her head to stare at the scratched surface of the table. When they'd first rescued Piper, Kari had been so committed to making up for lost time. She'd been determined to look after Piper, knowing that it wouldn't be easy after everything she'd been through and after whatever the Imperium had done to her head. But they'd been so damn busy since then. "Do you really see so much?"
"When you look at that screen, what do you see?"
Kari sighed and glanced at the blinking cursor in case she'd missed something. "Black screen, text box, stupid blinking cursor."
"Do you know what I see?"
"I see an off black. Color code 0a0a0a to be exact. I see the cursor blinking ninety-eight times a minute in a white—code FFFFFF—box that's thirty centimeters long as projected on the screen. Although as a ratio of screen width it's about twenty percent."
Kari gaped at Piper. "You see all that?"
Piper turned sharp eyes on her. "I see all that in everything I look at, and it all stays in here." She tapped her right temple with her index finger. "I don't think I could get rid of it if I wanted to."
"That's amazing," Kari said. "I remember as a kid you always noticed things. Is it… did the Imperium…?"
"They made it sharper. Or they made more room in my brain for all the information. I'm not sure."
"I'm so sorry. I should have—"
"There was nothing you could have done."
"Every time I think of that day… I came back and they were dragging you out—"
"Don't. It's in the past."
"That was the worst day—" Kari froze. "That's it."
"The code," Piper said.
"It has to be, doesn't it? He hasn't given us anything else."
"It makes sense. There's no reason for anyone else to guess it, but it's something that he's already used for you."
Kari's fingers trembled as she held them over the keys. "What if I'm wrong?"
"I don't think we'll come up with a better option."
Kari swallowed, typing the date one key at a time. Her finger hovered over the enter key. "What if I mistyped?"
"Do I need to tell you how many screws are in the engine room?"
Kari smashed her finger down before she could have any more doubts. The text box and its blinking cursor disappeared, leaving just the black screen.
Knots coiled through Kari's stomach. "Something should be happening. We've put in the wrong code."
They stayed frozen for what felt like hours before the screen changed, the black box replaced with the face of the man they'd found in the apartment. Only now his mouth wasn't sewn shut and he wasn't dead. Kari recognized the walls of his bedroom, the blue cover of his bed just visible behind him.
The video started playing automatically.
"Captain," he said. "If you're watching this then I didn't make our meeting. Those bastards finally got me." His mouth twisted.
Kari could only imagine the thoughts going through his head as he recorded the video; knowing that if anyone saw it, he was dead.
"There's so much I wanted to tell you, but it's only a matter of time before they find this video and shut it down. I hope you get to watch it first. It will only play once, then it's gone, so pay attention."
Wren appeared at the doorway, followed soon after by Ryker and Atticus.
"You got in?" Ryker said. "What was the password?"
"Shh." Kari waved at him without taking her eyes off the screen.
"I know what you've been looking into, and you're right. There is someone pulling the strings behind the scenes. A corporation, or part of one anyway. I've been tracking them for years, but what could I do? I don't have a ship, or weapons like you do, and do you think anyone on Albion is interested? No way."
Kari fiddled with her necklace, urging him to hurry and get to the point. What if the Imperium, or whoever else might be listening, were closing in on her right now?
"This group has been in charge for a long time. As far back as I could go anyway. Their funding comes from a company called FutureFarm Industries. Sounds innocent, right? But it's all a front. They've got their hands in every pie in Raxis, and a hundred more."
Kari shifted in her seat. The guy sounded like a conspiracy theory nut, and if she'd found this video even a few weeks ago she would have discounted it all. But now, after seeing what she'd seen: the symbol hidden everywhere, the non-existent organizer of the Tournament, this man dead with his mouth sewn shut. She couldn't be so sure of her convictions.
"If I'm gone, then it's up to you," he said. "So far they've been happy to sit back and let the bastards ruling Albion be in charge, but something's changing. I don't know what started it, but there's trouble coming. Just look at the super-soldiers they've released on Zenith. There are rumors." He leaned closer to the screen, as if that would shield him from prying eyes and ears. "There are rumors that they plan to exterminate Zenith. I don't know why, but if you don't do something, think how many people might die."
He leaned back and sat in silence for a few moments. Kari's grip tightened around her necklace. He couldn't be serious, could he? Surely no one would consciously want to kill so many innocent people? How could they justify it?
"It took me a long time," he said. "But I finally got coordinates for FutureFarm headquarters. Took a lot of money too which is why I'm reduced to living in this hellhole." He glanced around the apartment.
Did he realize how good he had it compared to most of the people on Zenith? Probably not. He seemed to oppose Albion and this FutureFarm for intellectual reasons, but Kari doubted he had any true understanding of the suffering on Zenith.
"I hope you're writing this down," he said. "They're in the Porphyrion system, quadrant forty-five, seventy, twelve. I haven't been there, but from the information I've got, I'd say it's some kind of space station."
He leaned forward again, staring directly out of the screen so that Kari had the unpleasant sensation of him seeing her, even though she knew he was dead. "It will be guarded. These people have access to technology we haven't even heard of. Good luck. I hope you manage to do what I couldn't."
The video cut off, replaced with a black screen. A moment later, an error message appeared: server could not be found.
Kari tried refreshing, but the page was gone, along with any hint or trace of the video.
"Great," Ryker said. "Very convenient for him to be dead so he can send us off on a suicide mission."
"I don't think that would have been his first choice," Kari said.
"What are we going to do?" Atticus asked.
"I have to check it out," Kari said. "But I don't expect any of you to come with me. We have no idea what we'll find out there, and the last time we left the Raxis system…"
"It took us a long time to come back," Ryker said.
Atticus gestured at Kari with the spanner that seemed always to be in his hand. "You're not getting rid of me that easily. Some kind of cross-system conspiracy? I'm in."
"You already know I'm with you." Ryker lifted his modified arm. "What else am I going to do? Try to blend in on Zenith?"
"And this time you're not getting rid of me," Piper said. "Hopefully our discussion earlier has made you realize that I'm more useful than you thought?"
Kari's heart jolted. She wanted to send Piper away. Wanted to drop her off on some tiny, safe asteroid, but that wasn't fair. And Piper had a point; with her ability to notice and remember things, she had more to offer than Kari had given her credit for.
"And you know I'm in," Wren said. "The Guild somehow knows about this corporation. Might even be working for them. I need to know."
"Right," Kari said. "Then it's decided. We'll go to the Porphyrion system and check it out."
"The weirdo was right," Ryker said. "It's going to be protected."
Atticus nodded. "And if this corporation is behind everything that's been happening on Zenith then they'll know who you are, they'll know your ship."
"Good point," Kari said. "Probably best we don't fly straight there. Everyone dig up everything you can about the system, and see if there's any records of this place, now that we know the location. Hell, maybe they do day tours."
Ryker snorted. "Sure, that's what evil corporations do; offer day tours of their headquarters."
"I can't believe they do damn day tours," Ryker grumbled.
"They're a modern organization." Atticus adjusted his shirt to hide the single pistol he carried. "They've got to show public engagement."
"Doesn't make any sense," Ryker said. "And I still think it's a bad idea to send you."
"Thanks," Atticus said. He didn't let Ryker's doubts trouble him; Ryker hadn't been the same since the Imperium tried to convert him. Atticus suspected there were still a few ghosts floating around inside Ryker's head and it would be some time before he found a way to deal with them all.
"Atticus is the only one of us they might not have on file." Kari gripped Atticus' shoulder. "I'm sorry to send you in alone."
"Please," Atticus said. "It's a public tour, what's the worst that could happen?"
"Famous last words," Ryker said.
"I was joking. I'll be careful, I promise."
They'd flown to the Porphyrion system without incident and landed on a small transfer planet that the travel guides said was the ideal spot to catch tours to local attractions. From there, Atticus would ride a tour ship to the FutureFarm headquarters and pretend to be an ordinary member of the public while gathering as much information as he could. It sounded easy on the surface, but he had no illusions.
"Communicator on at all times," Kari said. "And if you run into trouble, we'll come for you."
Atticus saluted and stepped out of Ghost's main door. He landed on a paved street bustling with people. Hundreds of different accents and dialects floated around him, taking him back to his days in the military when he used to travel to exotic places like this all the time. People wearing togas, or tight-fitting bodysuits, or patches of armor or a hundred other styles surrounded him. Most carried bags bigger than they were. Some strained under the weight, while others had gravity-assisted pull-carts that did all the work for them.
Food stalls lined the street, giving off spicy aromas, some of which Atticus had never smelled before. He would have liked to stop and explore the place properly but knew they didn't have the time. It would only take one casual scan of their ship for the Imperium or FutureFarm to catch onto them.
Atticus sauntered through the crowds to the tour reception desk where he purchased a ticket for the FutureFarm public tour. He took a seat on a small transporter with a handful of people in business suits—corporate spies perhaps?—while the rest of the seats were taken up with a school group and their frazzled teacher.
"Must be hard work," he said.
The woman rolled her eyes. "You have no idea. But the days out are nice."
"FutureFarm seems an odd choice?" He needed to know everything he could about this company, and if the teacher took groups there regularly, then she might know a thing or two.
"Oh no," she said. "Half the things the kids own are made by FutureFarm. Plus they have a great exhibit for children. Careers information too, for the older ones."
Two children erupted into a screaming match a few seats away and the woman rushed off with an apologetic glance at Atticus. He shrugged, hiding his true thoughts. What sort of criminal corporation set up career information? What angle were they going for? Recruitment?
He found it hard to get comfortable with the school group yelling and arguing all around him and the sharp worry in the back of his mind that someone would recognize him, or that he'd give himself away.
Despite his fears, they arrived at corporate headquarters without incident.
The mysterious contact from Albion had been right; a giant space station loomed out of the darkness ahead of them. They docked with a gentle hiss and Atticus let the children and other passengers leave ahead of him. He was more than happy to lurk at the back, out of sight.
A tour guide in a stiff blue uniform met them, a bright smile plastered on her face.
"Welcome to FutureFarm," she said. "My name is Stacy and I will be your guide today. Please stay with the group. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that much of our work is protected by intellectual property laws and corporate espionage is punishable by death in this particular quadrant." Her sharp blue eyes locked onto a man in a white suit standing near Atticus. Her smile never wavered and yet the threat in her words was as sharp as a knife. The man beside Atticus took a half step back.
"Right this way," Stacy said.
They followed her through a long exhibition hall with displays of various inventions made by the corporation since its founding, more than one hundred years ago. Atticus frowned at the first exhibit; a simple energy storage device.
"Ah, I see the Vortrex 3000 has caught your eye."
Atticus jumped, heart clenching, to find Stacy standing right beside him.
"Oh," he said. "Sorry. I er—I thought I read somewhere that FutureFarm had been around a lot longer than a hundred years."
Her smile widened, revealing perfectly straight, gleaming white teeth. "Ah, we have a learned man in our midst. While FutureFarm as it is today has only been around for one hundred years, the original founder's family owned similar companies."
"Oh right," Atticus said. "Thanks."
"Do you have any other questions?"
"No, thank you."
Stacy smiled as she strode to the group of schoolchildren who were gathered around some other exhibit. A trickle of sweat slid down Atticus' back. He hadn't even noticed her approaching; maybe Wren or Kari would have been better suited to this mission. He let out a slow breath. No. They probably would have killed someone by now. Who better to go undercover on a public tour of a company than an old man with deep wrinkles?
An interesting story though; why would they claim that the company had only been established for a hundred years if the actual history went back much further? Perhaps the other inventions went against their image? Atticus filed the information away in the back of his mind to examine later.
Stacy led them from the first hall to a corridor with glass windows on both sides that looked out on a production floor. Robots and mechanized arms worked and pumped on the other side of the glass in a conveyor belt of activity to produce a series of pipes and metal parts.
"These are later assembled into the ships and vehicles that you are so familiar with," Stacy said.
On the far wall of the warehouse-like building hung massive banners depicting gleaming rifles and the tagline: Trimatech Rifles: for when a sword isn't enough. Atticus shivered, his memories thrown back to the Tournament, forced to watch his friends fight for their lives. Sponsored by Trimatech, apparently a subsidiary company of FutureFarm. Great.
The next room sported a single table with a metal box sitting on top of it. "This is very exciting," Stacy said. "It's one of our latest inventions but soon there will be one of these in every house and every ship in the whole universe."
Atticus raised an eyebrow; that was a big claim.
Stacy leaned down to one of the children. "If you could eat anything, right now, what would it be?"
"Chocolate cake!" the child bellowed.
Stacy straightened and winked at the rest of the crowd. "A popular choice."
She pressed a series of buttons on the right-hand side of the device. A light came on inside the box and a few moments later it gave a single, sharp ding. Stacy opened the door to reveal a plate with a chocolate cake sitting on top. She grabbed a spoon from a box beside the device and handed both to the child.
The children surged forward, all of them yelling for their own piece of cake.
Stacy held up her hands. "Slow down. There's time for everyone."
She then went through each person in turn, asking what they would like to eat, typing it into the machine, and a moment later removing a plate with their request sitting on top.
"I don't believe it," said the man in front of Atticus. "It tastes exactly like chicken."
Atticus was the last to approach.
"And what would you like, sir?"
Atticus shook his head, staring in wonder at the machine. He could tinker almost anything into existence, but he'd never dreamed of anything like this. Even he was hard pressed not to think of magic.
"How does it work?" he said.
Stacy smiled. "Of course it's patented technology, but you know how they three-D print organs?"
"Sure," Atticus said. They'd been doing that for centuries.
"Similar technology. Smaller building blocks."
"It's incredible." For the moment Atticus forgot his mission, lost in a rush of excitement at the new technology. "What's it called?"
"We're calling it the Food Generator."
"And it has options for every food?"
"Not yet," Stacy said. "We're still building up the library. Luckily most people who come through don't ask for anything too exotic. So what can I get you?"
"I'll have some of the chocolate cake."
"An excellent choice."
Minutes later she handed Atticus a plate of cake with a spoon. He wandered to a quiet part of the room and ate a small mouthful. So sweet. So delicious. He'd eaten the whole thing before it even occurred to him that it might have been poisoned. And that brought reality crashing back; why he'd come to FutureFarm, the crimes that they were allegedly responsible for, or yet to commit. The sweet taste of the cake turned sour in his mouth and he placed his dirty plate on a pile with the others. As amazing as the Food Generator was, it didn't outweigh the slaughter of thousands of people.
More exhibits and more snippets of information came with each new room, but Atticus couldn't help feeling that the facts had been filtered somehow. If the tour was to be believed then FutureFarm only produced toys, agricultural equipment, and other technology to make life easier. No mention of weapons—except the Trimatech posters—or super-soldiers, or anything else that might be connected with the hell currently unfolding on Zenith. They'd sterilized everything. No wonder they allowed public tours; they didn't reveal anything about the true nature of the company.
"And here we are at the final stop of our tour—the gift shop!" Stacy said. "Be sure to grab the limited-edition souvenirs. The transporter will be going back to the transfer planet in twenty minutes. If you have any more questions, I'll be right here."
Most of the tourists sauntered into the rows of shelves stacked with FutureFarm merchandise. The massive room with its plastic badges and cheap stickers left a bad taste in Atticus' mouth. Didn't this company already make enough money, without selling tacky crap that people would throw out in two weeks' time?
"You look thoughtful?" Stacy said, once more appearing at Atticus' side.
This time he managed to restrain himself from physically jumping. "Oh. I was just wondering about the CEOs and other heads of the company. I thought we might get a chance to meet them on the tour."
"Ah," Stacy said. "I'm sorry to disappoint you. I'm sure you can appreciate that they're extremely busy."
"Of course," Atticus said. "But then I would have thought we'd see them at work? Perhaps see their offices?"
"Oh, they don't work here at the station." Stacy's smile widened to reveal even more teeth, much like a shark.
"Where do they work?"
Stacy shrugged. "Wherever they like. When you're as rich as them, you're allowed to work remotely." She winked at him. "I guess we can all dream of that someday, am I right?"
Atticus faked a short laugh but it sounded false even to his ears. "But FutureFarm must have other facilities?"
"Oh yes, hundreds. This is just the central headquarters, but we've got factories in half a dozen systems and smaller outposts in a hundred others."
Atticus' heart sank. How the hell was he supposed to learn anything if the corporation had so many bases? The thing they were looking for might not be in Porphyrion at all. "You must use a lot of energy."
Stacy's face turned serious. "Yes, but it's all ethically sourced from our partners in the Raxis system."
Atticus fought to keep his expression neutral. "Raxis?"
"Yes." Stacy's face brightened. "In fact, they're just about to build a brand new, sustainable energy plant. It will revolutionize the way FutureFarm runs."
"A new energy plant?" Atticus' mind raced. He hadn't heard about anything like that. For it to revolutionize a company like FutureFarm it had to be huge.
"Still under development I'm afraid."
Atticus drew a breath, doing his best to cloak his real identity, to become someone else like Wren did. "I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to energy. I'd love to see the new plant when it's built. Where will it be?"
"I'm not sure they'll be doing tours, doesn't quite have the same glitz and glamor as this place."
"But a man can try."
Stacy flashed her too-white teeth. "He sure can. I haven't got coordinates, but the internal press release said they'll be using a barren planet. Apparently the radiation in Raxis is awful."
"A barren planet?" Atticus said before he could stop himself. There were no barren planets in Raxis—just Zenith and Albion.
"With the potential to harvest more energy than FutureFarm could ever use. Exciting isn't it?"
Atticus swallowed. "Yeah. Exciting. Thanks."
"Any time!" Stacy moved on to speak to one of the other tourists.
Atticus pretended to browse the shelves but it took all of his control just to keep his hands from quaking. He had to get back to Kari and the others to tell them what was happening. They had to get to Zenith.
He was first back on board the transporter when Stacy announced it was ready and the first to get off again once they landed. He raced through the busy streets, no longer distracted by the smells or food. He just wanted to get back to Ghost. Back to safety.
Kari swilled a glass of cheap brandy, watching the patterns of the overhead lights swirl through it. She sat in the kitchen with the others. Usually the brandy was reserved for special occasions but considering the news Atticus had brought back from the corporate headquarters, it was either this or the cheap moonshine Ryker had been boiling away in the back cupboard. Kari suspected that by now even the smell of that stuff would be fatal.
"Are you sure it was making the food?" she said, as way of distraction. "Couldn't they have had a delivery tube or something underneath?"
"No," Atticus said. "The machine was making it right there, anything you asked for."
"Bet it's not as good as I make," Ryker said from the kitchen. He towered over the stove, something hissing and spitting in a pan in front of him giving off a spicy, garlic smell.
"Sounds much faster," Kari said. "Come on, I feel like I've been waiting for this dinner for weeks."
"Perfection takes time."
Kari did her best to keep her voice light, but in truth she didn't feel like eating or joking. "This FutureFarm person. She didn't actually say it was Zenith that they were going to use for energy production?"
"No, but what else could it be?"
"It explains everything," Piper said.
"I wish someone would explain it to me," Ryker muttered from the kitchen.
"They're going to use Zenith. Maybe they've found a way to harvest the radiation, although more likely they found a katium deposit," Piper said. "They're going to turn the whole thing into an energy plant but they can't do that with all the people on it."
"So what?" Kari said.
"So they kill everyone."
Kari's heart stuttered. Somewhere in the back of her mind the possibility had drifted by, but she'd discarded it. "The Imperium are evil, I'll give you that. But surely even they wouldn't agree to slaughtering a whole planet of people."
"So they pit Albion against Zenith until the enforcers and everyone on Albion are glad to see Zenith go."
"The dead senator," Wren said.
Piper nodded. "Exactly."
"A set-up," Kari said.
"There's probably a small group that know the truth," Piper said. "The rest are just following orders. I bet most of FutureFarm don't even know what's going on. Like Atticus' tour guide they probably think it really is a barren planet."
Kari could only shake her head and swirl the brandy in her glass. Everything they'd been facing made sense; the unnecessary violence of the enforcers on Zenith, Captain Jic and his plans to gas thousands of people. Hell, even those crystal hunters she'd seen in the deep tunnels. Maybe they were there looking at a katium deposit.
"So what do we do?" Ryker said, placing steaming plates in front of each of them.
Kari didn't know how he managed to turn the unappetizing vacuum-packed rations they had into the meals he did, but even his skills couldn't overcome the rolling nausea in her stomach. "They're on a deadline. They have to be if the rest of FutureFarm is expecting them to provide energy."
"Which means Zenith has an expiry date," Piper said.
Ryker and Wren were the only ones eating, the others apparently sharing Kari's lack of appetite.
"We've got to get back," Kari said. "We have to warn the people of Zenith. Hell, we'll tell the people of Albion the truth so that these people—whoever they are—don't bomb Zenith and say it was an accident."
"The dead guy on Albion told us to come here," Ryker said.
Kari splayed her hands. "We have no way of knowing what he knew. Maybe he didn't know the truth either but thought this would be a good place to start. Either way, now we know."
"We've got to get back," Piper said with a firm nod.
Kari shoved away from the table and stomped toward the pilot's pod, leaving her food untouched.
Kari pushed Ghost's engines as hard as she dared to get them back to Raxis. What if they were too late? What if the Imperium, or FutureFarm, or whoever the hell was in control had already destroyed Zenith? Dammit. She should never have left. Even at maximum speed it took them far longer than Kari would have liked to get to the Raxis system. Kari didn't dare fly to Zenith without knowing what was happening so she settled for a small transfer asteroid—more reputable than some, but unlikely to be swarming with enforcers or Imperium leaches.
"What's the play?" Ryker said, flexing his mechanical arm.
"Information only," Kari said. "Wren and I will go. You might draw attention."
"Trust me," Kari said. "As soon as things get hot, you can be right there."
She turned to leave the dining room, but as she did, something hard slammed into the side of the ship, making it rock. The force of the blow knocked Kari sideways so she had to grip the back of her chair to stay upright. Atticus' tools which had been laid out on the table flew sideways and clattered across the floor.
"What the hell was that?" Ryker said.
Kari held up her hand for silence as she crept to the small window that looked out of the side of the ship. Her heart lurched. Super-soldiers surrounded them, their armor-plated bodies towering twice the height of any man. She'd been to this asteroid a couple of times. It should have been swarming with people, ships, stalls, but it was empty, a ghost town, except for the troop of super-soldiers.
"What is it?" Piper said. "Kari, you look like you've seen a ghost." She joined Kari at the window, then staggered back a step.
Ryker and Atticus followed a moment later.
"Hell," Ryker said.
From between the press of super-soldiers stepped a man. Kari recognized the hard line of his jaw, his narrowed eyes, and the crisp collar of his Imperium uniform. Captain Jic. His short, black hair gleamed in Ghost's outer lights as he lifted a single hand, waved, then held up his communicator. A second later, Ghost's communication system rang.
Kari's legs shook like jelly as she went to the wall screen and activated the audio. "Hello?" she said, hating the way her voice trembled.
"Kari, we meet again."
Kari swallowed. They were dead. "What do you want?"
"I told you to run."
Ryker, Atticus and Piper stayed crowded near the window. Kari stood near the screen, glad that none of them were looking at her and able to see her face. She considered sprinting to the pilot's pod and trying to fly away, or activating the weapons systems, but the sudden blow to the ship's side had been intentional; the captain had wanted her attention which meant he was confident she couldn't get away. What had he done?
"What happened to all your smart talk?" Jic said. "Last time you wouldn't shut up."
Heat crept over Kari's flesh. She should have checked in with some of her contacts before landing. She should have done a better sweep of the asteroid. If she'd just paid more attention she would have noticed how empty it was. They'd been so sure they were safe. What the hell were they thinking, stopping for dinner and drinks?
"I'll cut to the chase," Jic said, any humor dropping from his voice. "We've put charges over the outside of your ship. Hell, you look like a damn Christmas tree."
Kari's stomach tightened; there it was, the reason he'd been so confident that they wouldn't fly away.
"If you try to leave, they explode. If you try to shoot us, they explode. And if you don't come out, unarmed, in the next two minutes, they explode."
Kari met the panicked gazes of her companions.
"In case you're not convinced," Jic said, "let me assure you that these are powerful charges. If you're caught inside when they go off, you'll all die. It would be a shame for that pretty sister of yours to be blown to pieces, wouldn't it?"
"You leave her out of this," Kari said through gritted teeth.
"You should have thought of that before you took my daughter. You've got one minute and fifty seconds left."
The connection died.
Kari's arms fell to her sides.
"They'll kill us," Ryker said. "We can't go out there."
"They'll kill us if we don't," Atticus said.
"If they just wanted us dead, they wouldn't have bothered warning us about the charges," Piper said.
"Makes you wonder what they're planning on doing with us," Wren said.
Kari pushed down panic. There had to be a way out of this mess. Perhaps if they put on their enforcer armor they could fight their way through—but no. That armor would be useless against the super-soldiers.
"I don't suppose you have an emergency escape hatch?" Atticus said.
Kari gestured toward the back of the kitchen. "It's no good though. They have us surrounded and would catch us just as easily as if we walked out the front door."
"I'm not giving up my weapons," Ryker said.
"Look at them!" Kari said, temper snapping. "You go out there with your precious guns and they'll grab you and take them off you. I doubt you'd even get one shot in."
"Then what?" Ryker said. "Go out there unarmed so they can gut us?"
"No." Kari paced back and forth in front of the screen, begging for any idea or plan to come to her.
"This is my fault," Atticus said, slouching into a chair. "They must have followed me from the facility."
"It's not your fault," Kari said. "It was my idea to send someone in. If they recognized you then they definitely would have recognized one of us. Maybe someone scanned the ship. Hell, if Jic is a part of all this—and it looks like he is—then he's probably been waiting for us to come back."
"It doesn't matter how they found us," Piper said. "Because it won't get us the hell out of here. We've got forty-nine seconds left."
"Maybe they're bluffing," Ryker said.
Kari shook her head. "We're not worth that much to them alive. They'd be happy to get rid of us."
She drew a deep breath. There was no way out of it; they had to give themselves up. But what the hell would their captors have in store for them? Nothing good.
Kari drew herself up to her full height and did her best to control her voice. "We can't avoid it. We're going to have to go out there."
"Within thirty seconds," Piper said.
"I don't know what they'll do to us," Kari said. "But we have to fight through it and survive. All of you know Morse code." She didn't have to wait for a response; she made anyone who joined her crew learn it. "What about intergalactic sign?"
They all nodded.
"It's been a while though," Ryker said.
"Twenty seconds," Piper said.
"Alright," Kari said. She placed her plasma pistol on the kitchen table beside the discarded remains of dinner. "We do what they say, we stay alive, but we don't give up hope. Okay? We're all getting out of this, one way or another. Got it?"
"Got it," they murmured.
Kari straightened her back and strode for the front door. She heard the others placing their weapons on the table but didn't look back. Captain Jic would blow the charges if he didn't see movement soon—and probably enjoy it.
With a deep breath she pressed the door release button. It opened, allowing a gust of cold air into Ghost that chilled Kari's face. She faced a wall of super-soldiers, their beetle-like black helmets reflecting Kari's pale face but giving no expression of their own.
Captain Jic sauntered out of the crowd. "Cutting it fine. But I'm glad you came to your senses.
Kari hated him with every fiber of her being. The super-soldiers had probably been brainwashed like Ryker. Hell, they could have been prisoners just like her at some point. But this Captain Jic, he knew what he was doing, and did it freely.
"Step out of the ship, all of you," Jic said. "Arms up where I can see them. We're going to take a little ride."
Kari stepped out of Ghost, her feet dragging. A hard, steel smell replaced the soft cinnamon scent of home. Rough hands grabbed hold of her wrists and forced her to her knees in front of Jic.
"Search them," Jic said.
Groping hands—unarmored, clearly other normal soldiers had been hiding amongst the bigger super-soldiers—ran over Kari's body. They groped her as they looked for weapons. She glared straight ahead, at the lower leg of a super-soldier, refusing to let them see that it bothered her.
"You want to go a little deeper?" Ryker bellowed. "Maybe I hid one up my ass."
Kari's gaze slid to the side where a half dozen soldiers held Ryker down while another two ran their hands over his body. A small thing, she supposed, that the groping wasn't gender limited.
Unlike Kari who hadn't bothered to bring any weapons, they found three guns and two knives on Ryker and another dozen knives on Wren.
Jic clicked his tongue. "It's amazing how some people can't follow simple instructions." He crouched so that he was eye-to-eye with Ryker. "When you're finding your punishment especially harsh or unfair, remember this. Remember that you didn't follow my instructions and I could have killed you right here."
Ryker's face twisted in an expression that Kari knew all too well. "Ryker!" she barked, before he could spit in the captain's face.
Ryker's throat bobbed as he swallowed.
"Good choice." Jic pivoted so that he faced Wren. "You. After what you did to my daughter…"
"She did it to herself."
Jic lifted his hand, ready to backhand Wren's face, then let it fall. "No. I already know that you're about to suffer far worse than I could ever inflict."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kari said. "What are you going to do with us?"
"You'll find out soon enough, and then you'll probably wish you didn't know. But first, I think our little assassin here still has a few secrets." He pulled a small knife from his belt, short but so sharp that its edge gleamed. "Hold her."
More hands grabbed Wren. Even with six people holding her in place, Kari wouldn't have been surprised if Wren managed to throw them off.
"Leave her alone," Kari said.
"I will," Jic said. "Once she's given up all her weapons."
The soldiers pinned Wren to the ground. Jic slashed through the leg of her pants, exposing the scar on her thigh.
Kari's blood went cold, leaving her lightheaded. How did he know?
Jic pressed the sharpened tip of the knife to the top of the scar and dragged down, creating a narrow cut like opening a seam. He pressed his fingers to the gash, pulling the skin aside to reveal two tiny glass vials and five thin, metal needles.
Wren bared her teeth at him.
"It's a clever trick," Jic said, pulling each item out one by one, careful to avoid the tips of the needles. "But I'm afraid someone warned us about you."
"Who?" Kari said. Who could possibly have known about Wren's scar? Her skin crawled; their chances of escape got smaller every second.
"She'll find out soon enough," Jic said. He wiped his blade clean on Wren's torn pants and stood. "Dose them."
A sharp sting bit into Kari's neck. She tried to pull away, but strong hands held her in place while a soldier injected something. A chill spread from her neck, encasing her head and making it hard to think. Her eyelids drooped despite her best efforts, and darkness enveloped her.
"She's coming around."
"You've checked those restraints? We know she's a fighter."
"She's not getting out."
Kari blinked, aware of a blinding light above her. Cold metal held her wrists and ankles in place. Her eyes sprang open. She was seated in a hard chair, partially propped up.
"Welcome back," Jic said, strolling into her field of view.
A bank of monitors lined the wall behind him, all dark.
"Where am I?" Kari said.
Jic spread his arms. "The cream of the Imperium fleet. My ship."
"You'll pay for this," Kari said.
"A fighter to the end. I can respect that."
"Who do you work for?"
"There's someone behind all this. We know about FutureFarm."
Jic leaned on Kari's arms, crushing her wrists against the hard metal of her chair. "Who's to say that kidnapping my daughter wasn't reason enough for me to take you?" Dark violence seethed in his eyes.
"You're not working alone."
Jic sneered. "There are people who want to get rid of you. Don't doubt that. But they would have shot you between the eyes by now. You took my daughter. You'll pay for that."
"You were going to kill hundreds of people!"
"The price of progress."
Kari fought against her restraints. They bit into her wrists. "The rebellion will—"
"Die, just like last time."
Kari floundered. "Fine. Keep me, but let the others go."
"They have as much to answer for as you do."
"We didn't do anything."
A flush of red crept over Jic's face. "Didn't do anything? Didn't do anything? You destroyed a facility worth millions of tokens, not to mention killing all the soldiers inside. Do you know how long it took to find all those next-gens? Now we've only got a handful left."
"You were experimenting on people."
"You ruined this year's Tournament."
"You were forcing people to kill each other."
"You hurt my daughter!" Jic bellowed each word and spittle flew from his mouth, flecking Kari's face.
Kari's heart pounded. She wanted to rage and scream but the words got caught in her throat. They'd given his daughter back, but he and his Imperium friends had killed hundreds of people and planned on killing millions more.
"Do you remember what I said I'd do to you when I caught you? Last time we spoke."
Kari's mind raced. It might as well have been a lifetime ago that she'd spoken to Jic on Ghost's communicator. She'd been so confident then, everything had been going to plan.
Jic gestured at one of the enforcers who handed over a jagged set of pliers. A second enforcer clamped his hands around Kari's face and wrenched her mouth open.
"Let me jog your memory." Jic thrust the pliers into Kari's mouth, clamping them around one of her back teeth. Flakes of rust from the pliers coated her tongue. She tried to pull back but the restraints and the enforcer held her in place.
He couldn't. He wouldn't. She tried to cry out but the pliers filled her mouth, squishing her tongue.
Jic's lips twisted as he wrenched down and back. Kari's head would have followed if not for the hard, armored hands holding her skull. Instead, her tooth yanked free, trailing blood. Wrenching pain and the taste of iron filled Kari's mouth. She tried to scream. Blood poured over her chin.
Jic held up the pliers; her tooth, including the root, shone white through the blood. "That's one. I'll take the rest after the next phase of your punishment."
Kari's eyes watered. "You bastard." Her words came out muffled by blood.
"I always keep my promises. But as painful as that was, I think you'll find the next bit worse."
Kari's arms jerked but the manacles held them to the chair. "What are you talking about?"
Jic stepped back from the chair and gestured at the blank screens. "You pride yourself on being a good captain, don't you?"
Kari tried to pin her lips shut but she had to open them again to let blood dribble out. "I do my best."
"And you care about your crew?"
Kari didn't answer. He was toying with her and she refused to play his games.
"You were difficult." Jic's mouth twisted. "Some of us wanted to turn you into a super-soldier, the ultimate irony. But the nerds in the lab said it wouldn't take; something about your brain patterns which is why it didn't work last time."
Kari shivered as she remembered her eyelids being pinned open and the screen blaring just inches from her face with that horrible buzzing noise.
"You're no good to us as a soldier, but I knew the perfect punishment. You took my daughter. Forced me to watch on a screen as you threatened her life." Jic's nostrils flared. "Knowing there was nothing I could do. And so… this…" The wall of monitors behind him flared to life.
Kari squinted against the sudden bright light, then her chest constricted, making it hard to breathe. "No."
The top four screens showed different views into what looked like a hospital room with white text that read Room 741 floating in the bottom left corner of each screen. People in white coats bustled around, aligning sharp tools and laying out needles. Three of them leaned over a figure lying prone in the bed. Thick metal bands encased the patient's wrists and ankles.
Kari's stomach clenched, the throbbing pain and gaping hole in her gum forgotten.
The patient's left arm looked normal enough, but their right arm was encased in metal.
One of the doctors moved aside, giving Kari a clear view of Ryker's strained face. He fought and pulled at the restraints but succeeded only in causing deep wounds and purpling bruises at his wrists and ankles.
Kari recognized the setup of the room; the screen hanging just above Ryker's bed, the tools laid out. Her heart twisted. They were going to try to convert him again.
"You know what will happen to him," Jic said.
"You bastard," Kari said. "Let him go."
"Ryker is strong, fierce. He'll make an excellent soldier."
"I swear, if you don't let him go—"
"You'll what? You're as trapped as he is."
Kari pulled against her own restraints but had no more success than Ryker. She twisted, hoping to find some weakness in the chair, but the metal frame held firm. They couldn't do it. Not again. She'd barely dragged Ryker back from the brink last time. She couldn't lose him. "No."
On the screens, one of the doctors injected Ryker's arm with an orange substance. He fought against them. From the way his mouth worked he was cursing them with every word he knew—although no sound came through to Kari. The doctor finished injecting and stepped back. Ryker's movements became sluggish, heavy. His head drooped and he lay still, eyes still open, but unable to fight.
"This isn't right," Kari said.
"It's exactly right," Jic said. "He should have been converted weeks ago, but you interfered. We're finishing the job that's already been started."
Heat boiled inside Kari but it sputtered and died against her inability to do anything. The doctors activated the screen over Ryker's head and pinned his eyes open.
"It hurts when you have to watch one of your own in pain, knowing you can't do a goddamned thing about it. Doesn't it?"
"We didn't hurt your daughter."
"You broke her arm!"
Kari swallowed. It wouldn't do much good to point out that that had been an accident.
"I think you'll find the other screens just as entertaining," Jic said, activating them before turning and striding for the door.
"Don't you dare leave," Kari said. "Come back here!"
But Jic yanked open the door and left the room without a backward glance.
Kari's attention snagged on the new screens, forcing her to look even though she didn't want to see whatever Jic had planned.
The second row of screens showed another hospital room, Room 111, only this time Piper lay restrained in bed, her wrists and ankles pinned.
At first Kari thought they intended to convert her into a super-soldier as well. How would that even work? Surely Piper's tiny frame wouldn't be able to support the armor, even with modification? But then she saw the equipment and the layout of the room. It was different. A heart monitor flashed beside Piper's bed, and above it a continuous MRI showed Piper's brain. Doctors crowded around Piper's bed, taking blood, or asking her questions.
Piper strained against the manacles, twisting and pulling. One of the doctors clamped her hand around Piper's wrist and said something. Piper stopped twisting, but her wide eyes gleamed with fear.
"Piper," Kari whispered, wishing she could reach out. But of course, she was trapped in the damn chair, as useless as anything. They'd put Piper right back into an experimental facility, just like the one Kari and her companions had rescued her from. Back then Piper had assumed Kari had abandoned her, when actually Kari thought she was dead. When Kari didn't come and rescue her now, would Piper assume the same thing?
Kari forced herself to scan the rest of the screens. She had to find some clue, some way out of this hell so she could save the others. But the third row of screens were black except for white text; Room 723. Kari couldn't tell if it was because the room they were meant to be filming was dark, or if the cameras were off.
The fourth row of screens gleamed with the heat of a bright fire. The words Furnace Room covered the bottom left corners. Kari squinted to see what fresh hell they showed. A metal walkway, and at the end of it a raging fire, glowing white hot. Tiny figures trudged up and down the narrow hall. Those going toward the furnace carried armfuls of something—waste? Kari couldn't be sure. When they reached the flames, they hurled their cargo into the hungry fire, then turned and trudged back toward the camera and out of view.
Kari recognized the figure approaching now: Atticus. His feet dragged and purple bruises colored his swollen face. His skin glistened with sweat, cutting clear lines through the dirt. He glanced once at the camera.
Kari's heart lurched. Did he know she was watching? Was he trying to tell her something? Dammit! She needed to speak to him.
His gaze slid aside and he shuffled out of view.
Kari pulled once more at her restraints, tugging with every fiber of her being. Nothing. The metal dug into her skin and chafed her wrists until they were red and raw, stinging with each movement.
"Let me out of here!" she bellowed. Her voice echoed in the small room.
Her attention returned to the screens. Apart from the chair, they were the only other damn things in the room. As far as resources went, Kari had been in better situations.
Ryker's pinned eyes continued to stare at the screen fixed inches from him. The light from the images flashed over his face and reflected in the whites of his eyes. Kari tried not to watch too closely for fear that memory of the images she'd seen would come back. Hell, if she tried to listen too hard she imagined she could hear that same buzzing, the one that had got inside her brain.
Wren. Wren was missing from the video feeds. No doubt she was supposed to be in the third row of screens but she wasn't. Was it her choice or theirs? What torture did they have planned for her? What could they possibly do that she hadn't already experienced? Deep in her heart, Kari hoped that Wren had somehow found a way to get free. Perhaps that's why the screens were black. If Wren were free then they had nothing to worry about. But Kari couldn't rely on that; she still had to find a way out.
Piper's arms tensed as the doctor on her right injected something into her neck. They'd attached her to a dozen machines, all flashing or spitting out numbers. What did it all mean? What were they doing?
Piper's hand spasmed again, the fingers jerking out of sync with each other.
Kari's chest hurt. They should never have gone to the Porphyrion system. Hell, they should never have investigated FutureFarm at all. What had she been thinking? It was just like Ryker said; one ship—five people—against a whole company with a private army? Stupid.
Piper's hand twisted.
Kari frowned. None of the doctors were standing anywhere near Piper. Was one of the machines hurting her? It seemed unlikely; they were all analyzing her, but none seemed to actually be doing anything harmful. So why did Piper's hand keep twisting like that?
Realization dawned. If Kari hadn't been tied up, she would have hit herself in the head. Signals. Hadn't they discussed Intergalactic sign language right before they were taken captive? In all the confusion, and her panic, Kari had completely forgotten, but there Piper was, signaling even while doctors poked and prodded her.
Kari focused on Piper's hand, doing her best to interpret the symbols given Piper's limited range of movement and the fact that she had to stop every few seconds to avoid any of the doctors noticing.
The doctor nearest Piper's head moved aside, revealing Piper's face. Her eyes were locked on the camera; seemed to see straight through it to Kari's eyes. Piper's nostrils flared; angrier than Kari had ever seen her.
Kari returned her attention to the jerking symbols. How much had she already missed? Idiot! She should have been paying attention.
"Third right," Piper's signal said. "Big door. Ryker being converted. Kari, hope you're watching. Overheard enforcer. Tortured."
Kari's head ached from staring at the screen without blinking while at the same time trying to understand Piper's halting message.
"Custom torture. Me experiment. Ryker conversion. Not sure Atticus. You…" Piper's gaze seemed to get even more intense.
Kari's neck tingled. Piper had strange abilities; that much Kari knew for sure. But surely she couldn't see the wrong way through a camera. That didn't make any sense. But still Kari felt like she was being watched, even though she was the one sitting in front of a wall of security feeds.
"You must watch," Piper signaled.
"I don't want to watch," Kari said. "I want to help, dammit. Tell me how I can help you."
"Took us from hanger. First left, third right. Big door—" Kari blinked and sat back. Piper was repeating the same gestures, repeating her message. Hell, how many times had she done it already just so that Kari would notice? And lucky she had too, seeing as Kari hadn't noticed at all. But what did it tell her? Directions. Probably to where Piper was being held. But it wasn't as if Kari had any chance of following them. Hell, she'd have to find the hanger first, and that would mean getting out of these damn restraints.
She heaved, wrists burning. Nothing.
Kari settled into her chair, seething. There had to be something she could do. From this position she could see all of them—well, all except Wren who she still hoped had got free somehow and was on the way to rescue them all. If she could just communicate then maybe she could coordinate an escape, or at least try to keep Ryker on the right side of sanity before they converted him completely. But she had no controls. Hell, she couldn't even reach the screens to turn them off if she wanted to. As useless as any bystander; that's what she was.
Atticus had looked at the camera when he walked past. There'd been something in his eyes. Maybe he'd overheard the same conversation as Piper.
Kari wished her hands were free so she could beat them against her temples. She needed ideas! Just one small way to communicate could change everything.
The screens remained torturously out of reach.
Wren kept her breathing slow and steady, feigning sleep even as she came to full wakefulness. Without opening her eyes, she took stock. Square room. Four yards in any direction, based on the faint echo of her breathing. Dark—no red gleam filtered through her eyelids. She sat on a hard chair, her arms tied behind her back with solid knots. She might be able to break through them, but it would take a long time and probably cost her a broken wrist. She had to hand it to whoever had put her away; they knew their stuff.
How did Jic and his Imperium bastards get someone competent? And he'd known about the cut in her leg…
The faintest whiff of fresher air came from Wren's left; probably the door. It would be sealed tight though. Depending on the lock, she'd be able to get through, once she managed to break free of the damn chair.
A sharp stabbing pain emanated from Wren's thigh where that bastard had carved into her skin pocket. Beyond that, a few scrapes and bruises, but no new injuries. Idiots. They probably expected her to be asleep for another hour at least, not counting on her body's trained ability to filter toxins.
Wren froze, even her lungs seizing and cutting off her breath part way through inhaling. A voice. A voice coming from someone inside the room with her and yet she hadn't sensed them. How could she not have heard them? Even now, she strained but there was no breathing, no shuffle of movement, not even a faint change in air pressure.
"You've caused us a lot of trouble."
Ice filled Wren's veins. Now she knew where she recognized the voice.
"Guildmaster Silvan," she whispered, voice hoarse. She'd known the woman had powers of deception even greater than Wren's own, but to stand not three feet from where Wren sat and give off nothing? That was a special level of skill and for the first time in a long time, Wren was scared.
"You've gotten sloppy."
Wren couldn't argue with that; aside from not noticing Silvan standing right beside her, she'd managed to end up captured by some corporate lapdog.
"This is what happens when you go against the Guild."
Wren frowned, coming partway out of the pit of self-loathing into which she'd fallen. "You were taking jobs for the Imperium."
"We take jobs from all employers, you know that."
"No, this was different. You were doing them favors."
A slight rustle of clothing. To Wren it sounded like frustration, but knowing Silvan's skills, she wouldn't bet her life on anything.
"You're wrong," Silvan said.
"Really?" Wren lifted her chin and opened her eyes for the first time. The faintest spear of light filtered around the door on her left. It would have left a normal person blind, but Wren had trained in such conditions and she'd just spent five minutes with her eyes tight shut. The dim glow revealed a darker shadow amongst the gloom: Silvan. She stood tall, not crouched or defensive. A sliver of steel hung from her right hand. One quick slash of that and Wren would be dead.
"Because it seems to me," Wren said. "That you must have been working for the Imperium, or these corporate suits. Otherwise, how did I end up here, with you?"
"They owed us some favors."
"Exactly," Wren said.
"Don't question what you don't know." Faster, sharper than her previous words.
Wren bit her tongue, opting for silence in the hope of learning as much as she could, perhaps even discovering a way to survive. Besides, she had all the answers she needed. The Guild had taken on jobs for the Imperium, or for the corporate people pulling the strings—Wren didn't really care which—and based on the slight panic in Silvan's voice, they'd gotten in deep. Serves them right for breaking with the Guild's principles.
"You've killed two good agents," Silvan said. "You know the punishment."
"They came after me, I killed them fairly."
"That doesn't matter when you're a traitor." Silvan stepped closer, although she remained a blurred shadow in the darkness. "You could have been Guildmaster someday."
Wren swallowed and kept her face turned away from the light in case a hint of a traitorous emotion should cross her face. Guildmaster. How many times growing up had she longed for the title?
"I know you want it."
"Used to. A long time ago."
Silvan sighed. "Pity. That would have provided hours of fun. I suppose we're going to have to get straight to it. You know the policy, hell, you've even helped me uphold it on occasion."
Wren pulled at the rope tying her hands. Now the complicated knots made sense. Silvan had chosen them on purpose. They were tight enough that Wren couldn't break free without warning, but also loose enough that if Wren really wanted to, she could free her hands and they could fight properly, as members of the Guild should. That calculating bitch.
"Say it," Silvan said. "Say the punishment."
"I'm not your dancing monkey."
"Say it, or once I've finished with you, I will go after that captain you love so much, and all the others."
A sour taste filled Wren's mouth. Her whole life she'd been trained not to care. She'd been taught that caring created a weakness that people would use against her. Now look—the very Guildmaster that had taught her the lesson was using her weaknesses.
Wren swallowed a scream. Why had she ever joined Kari's ship? If she'd picked a different one, any other one, then this never would have happened. She would never have questioned the Guild's practices, would never have refused a job, and one day she would have been Guildmaster.
"Say it," Silvan said, her voice low and menacing.
"A member of the Guild who turns traitor will be made to suffer until they beg for death."
"The torment they withstand shall be noted down, with the hopes of it going some small way to canceling out their traitorous ways."
"And then they will be made to suffer more until their body gives out."
Wren thought she caught a brief flash of white near where Silvan's mouth should be but couldn't be sure in the shadows. Besides, that couldn't be right because Silvan never showed emotion, never smiled.
"Excellent," Silvan said. "At least you haven't forgotten everything I taught you."
"I haven't forgotten anything you taught me."
"Oh, Wren." Silvan stepped closer still. "If that were true, we wouldn't be here."
Now, only a foot away, Wren could feel the presence of her in the flow of air. If only she'd been standing so close when Wren first woke up, maybe she would have noticed. But then what? She still couldn't move her arms or legs. What good would knowing have done? But that was easy. At least then she wouldn't feel so outwitted and outclassed by the old Guildmaster.
A light flickered and flared; a tiny lighter in Silvan's hand with a flame that danced and twisted, casting orange light over her face. Silvan was older than Wren remembered, more lined, but the hard eyes were the same; unyielding as a storm. Silvan held the lighter near Wren's arm. It provided a welcome warmth after the chill of the room, until Silvan moved it closer, pressing forward until the flame touched Wren's skin, licked across it, burned.
Before Wren's eyes, the flesh of her upper arm blackened and peeled away, exposing layers of new skin that similarly burnt and fell. Agony ripped through Wren's arm, piercing her head. She bit her tongue to stop from crying out.
Just when Wren didn't think she could stand another second, Silvan straightened, pulling the lighter away, although she kept the flame going.
"Amazing how such a little thing can cause so much pain," Silvan said.
"How much do you know about FutureFarm and their plans for Zenith?" Wren said between gasps, more to distract herself than any real information gathering.
Silvan glanced at her through the light of the fire. "Why would I know anything?"
"I know you're working for them."
"The Guild works for no one!"
"Fine, with them, even though you're the one here getting your hands dirty."
Silvan scowled and pressed the lighter to Wren's arm, a little lower than before so that new pieces of skin shriveled away and a second searing pain wracked Wren's body. "They're getting their hands plenty dirty." Silvan pulled away. "What do you think is happening to your little friends?"
The pain fled Wren's awareness. In truth, once she'd realized the Guildmaster herself was there to deliver her torture, she'd forgotten all about Kari and the others. It hadn't even occurred to her that they might be suffering a similar fate.
"You've given these corporate assholes control over even more Guild members? Don't you see? This is exactly what I was talking about."
Silvan hissed; an animal noise that Wren had heard her make before, usually right before severing someone's carotid artery. "How dare you!"
"Of course I'm not wasting good Guild people on your little friends. FutureFarm can look after its own prisoners. But you. You were mine."
Silvan brought the lighter in close to Wren's eyes so that the heat from the flame brushed over her nose and cheeks and made her eyes water. Just one inch further and the fire would burn through Wren's iris, permanently blinding her and possibly killing her.
Silvan seemed to consider the option before settling for pressing the fire to Wren's collarbone. Her hands clenched into fists but she didn't cry out.
"At least you retain some control," Silvan said. "From all the stories, I worried that you'd cry at the first hint of pain."
"I killed Lya and Gracy, didn't I?"
"Clearly they didn't deserve the titles they'd been given."
"And you," Wren said. "Do you deserve the title you've been given?" She tugged and wrenched on the rope holding her hands. As far as she could see, there were only two ways out of this mess; either she did nothing and Silvan gradually tortured her to death, or she tried to escape, thus forcing Silvan to give her a quick end.
Better to go quickly.
Wren had seen too many people—strangers and friends alike—go the slow way. That was no way to die; lying in a puddle of your own shit and begging to an imaginary friend. No. She'd take the cold slash of steel across her throat any day.
Silvan must have seen the change in Wren's face because lowered the flame a few inches. "So you've chosen to fight. I could kill you now, before you get out of that rope."
"You could," Wren said, picturing the knot in her mind and working the ends loose. "But you won't."
"You want to see if you really deserve your title, or if I should have been made Guildmaster years ago."
"You go too far."
"I'm still right." Wren wrestled with the rope, twisting her shoulders until the tendons strained. She had to keep Silvan talking or the woman may very well decide to kill Wren while her hands were still tied. At least it would be fast. Wren had no illusions about beating Silvan in a fight. Just look at how the other woman had stood so silent, blending her own tiny movements with that of the air so as to become invisible. How could Wren fight that? But still she struggled to free her hands. Even an impossible chance was better than no chance at all.
She pulled the edge of the knot and paused. The only way to get her right wrist free now was to squeeze her thumb through, pushing the joint to the wrong side of her palm. It wouldn't be the first time Wren had done it; they'd trained on escaping all forms of capture as children, but the last time it had taken weeks for Wren's hand to heal, and even now it couldn't move as well as her other one. What happened when she broke it a second time? What if she could never use her hand properly again?
Blinking, she glanced up at Silvan's cold face and saw the woman was ready to slit her throat if she showed even a hint of weakness.
Wren let out a quick breath and heaved.
Kari's chaffed wrists stung with each movement, and her head pounded with frustration, fear, and rage. Her tongue probed the huge hole in her gum, the bleeding had slowed but the throbbing pain only got worse. How twisted was Jic's mind to come up with this punishment for her? To make her sit and watch as her friends—and her sister—were tortured?
A few moments ago a warm glow had flared to life in the third row of screens, a lighter from the looks of it, and in the flickering flames she'd recognized Wren's face. A different woman held the light, a woman with cold, dark eyes and a hard mouth. She'd pressed the flames to Wren's arm, had charred away the flesh. Even the memory brought bile to the back of Kari's throat. And yet through it all, Wren hadn't even flinched.
It looked as though the pair shared a few words, then there was a flash of movement and everything went dark. If only the light would come back, or even if there were sound. Dammit. Now she knew the screens should be telling her what was happening to Wren and yet she couldn't see a damn thing. What if that cold woman was killing Wren at that very moment? Kari couldn't even do her the decency of paying vigil. Not that she wanted to, but it seemed wrong that Wren might be slaughtered in the dark like some animal.
Meanwhile, Ryker's eyes glazed over and he stopped fighting the doctors. They didn't even have to pin his eyelids open anymore. His eyes stayed fixed on the screen and its brainwashing images, a faint smile curling the corners of his lips.
The doctors gathered around his right arm, the one with the metal plates. They seemed to be discussing some aspect of it. Perhaps it hadn't been installed right the first time, or it wasn't complete. Kari didn't know and she didn't care. How much more strain could Ryker's personality take before he was lost? Kari had no illusions. While she and Piper had managed to haul Ryker back from the brink before, it had been a close thing and a shadow had remained just behind his eyes. What would happen now that he'd been exposed to their brainwashing twice? She shivered.
She couldn't fight Ryker. She just couldn't. They'd been through too much together. She'd lost count of the number of times he'd saved her life, and not just physically by killing some sniper or taking a bullet for her. No, he'd saved it in other ways too, like when she thought Piper had died and had committed to drinking herself into an early grave. He'd been there, with his stupid jokes and his honest eyes, and he'd pulled her through. How could she kill him after that?
Eyes stinging, Kari's gaze drifted from Ryker's slack face to Piper. The doctors had left her alone although she remained strapped to the bed with wires and machinery feeding off her. Kari dreaded to think what they might have planned for Piper. Were they going to turn her into one of their monsters? Would they try to brainwash her too? They'd have a hard time of it, Kari suspected. Piper's brain didn't work like other people's and she had an inner strength that Kari often overlooked. But then what happened if they couldn't convert her? Would they keep her strapped to the bed for the rest of her life, running tests? Or would they carve out her brain and turn her into a mindless cripple?
Every few minutes, Piper repeated the hand gestures. Kari wished she could tell her that she saw, that she understood, but that she couldn't do anything with the information.
Piper had been staring up at the ceiling, but partway through another repeat of her signaled message she paused and turned her head to stare at the camera.
Kari had that same sensation of Piper actually seeing her but shrugged it off. Instead, she did her best to lean forward, to focus as hard as she could. Something had made Piper pause, but what?
Piper's hand resumed moving, only this time the message was different. Kari's stomach tightened. She needed this, just a tiny break, any way to get them all out of this hell.
"Sigy's Surveillance brand master key. Four, L, eight, four, M."
Piper stared hard at the camera as if willing something to come across.
Kari kept her eyes locked on her sister, twisting the message over and over in her head. What the hell did it mean? What master key? But that look in Piper's eyes… Kari knew she was missing something. Piper had a message for her and she was too damn stupid to understand it!
They were on board Jic's ship—the Imperium logo plastered over the walls. So what was the key Piper was talking about? Perhaps it was the code for her door, she could easily have seen one of the doctors typing it.
Kari's stomach sank. That had to be it. She was giving Kari the code, hoping that she'd come and rescue Piper from the experiments, like she'd done last time. How could she explain to Piper that she was as trapped as any of them? That this time there was no grand rescue? And that without a way to get out of the damn chair, Kari had no way of using the code Piper had given her.
Piper repeated the message once more, all the while her gaze locked on the camera.
Kari wanted to scream. She wanted to take hold of the screens and hurl them to the floor. "Turn on the sound, dammit!" But of course nothing happened. No doubt they had voice activation, but that would be locked behind a wall of security.
Kari's gaze rose from the ground to Piper who had returned to staring up at the ceiling, hands still at her sides. It couldn't be… could it? She cleared her throat, doing her best to sound confident. "Master access code."
A text box sprang up over the video feeds of each of the rooms. Kari's heart pattered faster. "Code four, L, eight, four, M."
The characters appeared in the text box as she said them. As soon as the M appeared, the textbox winked out and a menu appeared.
Kari could have cried if she'd had the time, but she had no idea how long it would be before Jic or one of his cronies worked out what she'd done. Hell, they were probably watching her that very moment. "Activate audio."
A sudden blare of noise came from hidden speakers around Kari. A grunt, and the clatter of metal. Kari had to assume that came from Wren's darkened room. At least she was still alive then, although who the hell could have survived so long in a fight against Wren? Even if she had been tied up the last time Kari saw her.
In addition to the sounds of a scuffle, she could hear the murmur of voices; the doctors in Ryker's room as they pointed at his arm and discussed some aspect of the conversion.
Kari's hands gripped the armrest of her chair. "Intercom to Room one hundred and eleven," she said, voice shaking. A tiny speaker appeared in the bottom of one of Piper's screens.
"Piper?" Kari whispered, daring to hope.
Piper sprang up as far as she could get with the restraints holding her to the bed. "Kari! Took you long enough."
Kari's heart soared. For a moment she'd thought she'd never hear Piper's voice again. "I don't know how long I have. They must be monitoring me."
"I know. How are the others?"
"They're trying to convert Ryker."
Piper's face darkened. "We have to save him."
"You can't get out?"
"No. I'm even more confined than you."
"What about Atticus and Wren?"
"Atticus isn't so tied up, although I don't know where the hell he is."
"You're watching security feeds."
"You should be able to bring up schematics."
Kari's heart pattered faster. If she could work out where the hell she was—and where the others were—then things would be much easier. "Wren is fighting… someone."
"It has to be someone from the Guild."
The hairs on Kari's neck stood on end. "What?"
"It has to be. They're punishing us, each of us getting our own customized hell. They'll have someone from the Guild for Wren—who else could punish her?"
Kari wanted to argue, but how could she? Hadn't she seen the cold eyes of the woman as she pressed the flames to Wren's exposed skin? It all made sense now. A member of the Guild was the only one likely to hold their own against Wren in a fight. Hell, they might even be able to beat her.
"Are you okay?" Kari said, trying to put thoughts of Wren from her head for the moment—it's not like she could do anything anyway.
"So far just checkups," Piper said, voice trembling. "But soon they'll start… experimenting."
"No, they won't. I'll get you out of there. Can you get free?"
"No. The controls for the restraints are on the wall." She jutted her chin to the side, out of Kari's view. "I can't reach them and there's no way I'm getting out of these."
"Okay, it's alright," Kari said, although she wasn't sure if she were trying to calm herself or Piper. "I'm still watching you, but I have to see if maybe Atticus—"
"Do what you have to. If they loosen these clamps I'll do my best to get out."
Kari drew a strained breath that scratched her throat. "Be safe."
"Intercom to furnace room," Kari said. The speaker icon jumped screen. "Atticus?"
A filthy figure appeared in the screen, Atticus just recognizable beneath the soot. "Kari, is that you?"
"How the hell did you get into their system?"
"Long story and I don't think I'll have access for much longer. How easily can you get free?"
Atticus snorted. "Not at all. You can probably see the damn furnace at one end—only death that way. At the other end are two enforcers who I just know are itching to kill something."
"I don't suppose you're able to break us out?"
"No," Kari said, voice hoarse.
More ragged figures shuffled past Atticus, their arms full of waste.
"How many of you are there?" Kari said.
"Twelve," Atticus said. "Some of the guys have been down here for weeks. I think the heat is starting to fry their brains."
Kari took a deep breath. There was no point hiding the truth; if Atticus wanted to survive—hell, if any of them wanted to survive—then they had to take chances. "Atticus, you have to find a way out of there."
Atticus frowned. "I told you—"
"I can't come for you. And the others are in worse shape than I am. Please. There has to be something. If there's a furnace there must be equipment. Use some of your tinker magic—we could really use some."
"Oi, you there. What are you doing with that camera? Get back to work!"
Atticus flinched, hands falling away from the camera. He glanced up at Kari once more and his pale eyes gleamed in the harsh glow of the furnace. "I'll do my best," he said, before turning and hurrying toward the flames.
Kari sat back, meaning to bring up schematics, when a loud bang exploded from the speakers, accompanied by a blinding flash of light on the third row of screens.
Wren's thumb twisted, crunched, loosened. She pressed the sudden rush of pain down deep so that it barely brushed the edge of her consciousness as she tore her hand free of the tight knots. At the same time, she ducked, feeling a rush of air as Silvan slashed a knife where Wren's throat had been.
Silvan darted away, her shadow melting into the darkness at the back of the room, untouched by the faint glow filtering from the door.
Wren rolled forward, slipping her uninjured hand free of the restraints, and twisting behind the chair.
A series of metal clinks warned that Silvan had fired darts or similar in Wren's direction. Most of them hit the chair, but a few scraped against the wall behind Wren before falling to the floor with the faint tinkle of dropped metal.
Wren kept her injured hand tucked close to her chest as she darted from the chair and into the shadows at the side of the room. She ran a mental stocktake of her resources: clothes, torn and bloody. Not good for much except perhaps tying someone up temporarily or strangling them. No weapons. Injured hand and leg. She could try snatching the darts from the floor, they would be loaded with a poison or sedative, but that's exactly what Silvan would expect. No doubt she crouched on the other side of the room, a gun or throwing knife aimed at where the darts had landed.
Sweat trickled down Wren's back, tickling her spine. She kept her breathing light, as silent as possible. Even when she held her breath, she couldn't hear Silvan in the darkness. Damn, the woman was good. And what other weapons did she have?
Wren had come into the room as a prisoner whereas Silvan had come prepared. She could have any number of weapons on her. What if she had a poison gas that she'd worked up an immunity to? That's exactly what Wren didn't need. Shoulders tense, Wren sniffed the air, filtering through the smell of her own sweat and the cloying closeness of the room, for any hint of poison. Nothing. That didn't mean much though. Some deadly poisons had no smell.
It seemed unlikely that Silvan would take the poison route unless she absolutely had to. She'd made a mistake in talking to Wren. She should have stuck to one of her own rules; don't talk unless you have to. In stopping to chat, she'd revealed a weakness that Wren intended to exploit; Silvan wanted to fight Wren, wanted to win in a fair fight so that she could stay confident in her right to rule the Guild. That meant she was having doubts.
Good. She should be doubting herself after what she'd done. Dragging the Guild into working for the Imperium. Shame on her.
Unlike Silvan, Wren hadn't had a chance to bathe or remove all the scents from herself and so her traitorous body reeked of sweat and blood. Silvan would be able to sense her, could probably throw a knife between her eyes without a hint of light. Wren's only hope was that the smell was so strong it filled the room and distorted Silvan's sense of direction.
Wren slid her right foot along the floor. Silent.
The faintest rustle.
Wren dropped and rolled.
Solid metal slammed into the wall where she'd been standing and fell to the floor with a clatter. Wren's uninjured hand snaked out, snatched hold of the hilt, and pulled the knife in close.
Silvan had to have modifiers, surely. How else could she have heard Wren moving? Wren's jaw clenched. Either that, or Silvan was naturally that good. It seemed unlikely, but then lots of normal people considered Wren's abilities unnatural. Perhaps she'd be better—as good as Silvan even—if she'd trained more or harder. Perhaps she'd wasted too much time with Kari and the others. If she'd only—
Wren rolled—more from intuition than any specific sense—but a series of metal clicks warned that darts had landed right behind her.
This strategy wasn't working. For whatever reason—natural talent or unnatural modification—Silvan had better senses than Wren did. That meant there was no point trying to sneak up on her or wait her out. Wren's only chance was to fight and hope that she somehow won.
Decision made, Wren shoved off the floor, knife in hand, and lurched across the room toward the darker shadow where she'd last seen Silvan. The faintest flash of movement came from the shadows. Wren darted to the side but too slow. A second blade hurtled out of the darkness and scraped Wren's shoulder. A bloody cut opened wide, coating her arm in warm wetness. At least it was her injured arm and wouldn't get in the way of her knife fighting.
She didn't pause or slow, instead leaning forward and racing even faster at the shadow.
Silvan had made a mistake; she'd let Wren have a knife. If she were as smart as she pretended to be, she wouldn't have risked throwing the blade. Now she'd helped level the playing field and even during training with the Guild, Wren had met few people who could wield a knife as well as she could.
Wren slashed at the shadows. The silhouette darted back with a faint rush of air. Wren pushed the advantage, forehand and backhand cutting through the darkness. Three slashes later, a pale hand lunged out of the darkness and knocked Wren's knife aside. It was as if Wren's hand had encountered a solid wall and numb tingles raced through her arm. Her fingers spasmed, spilling the knife to the ground.
Instead of scrambling for the knife, Wren darted in the opposite direction. Sure enough, Silvan was already stabbing the air above Wren's knife, anticipating that she'd go for her weapon. Wren grinned in the darkness. Clearly Silvan didn't know her as well as she thought she did.
Wren didn't dare dance any further back for fear of poison darts so as Silvan stabbed, Wren barreled forward. She slammed into Silvan like a freight train and knocked them both into the wall. Silvan grunted, legs quaking under their combined weight.
Wren kept her injured hand to her chest but drove her other fist into Silvan's gut. Once. Twice. Three times.
Silvan hurled Wren away, like some monster throwing off parasites.
Wren staggered, caught herself on the wall, and sidestepped, anticipating more poison darts. None came. Despite the brutal blows, Silvan seemed unaffected. She stood tall and strong, hardly puffing. Wren had to admit to being impressed. Brutal tactics like her tackle weren't taught much in the Guild; refined skills being far more valued, but sometimes it didn't hurt to throw a few fists. Clearly Silvan was no stranger to the rougher side of fighting either.
"Surrender now and I'll let you live," Silvan said.
Wren sneered but didn't dare reply. The offer was no more genuine than Wren's many disguises and she wouldn't give Silvan the satisfaction.
"Worth a shot," Silvan said. As she spoke, her hands moved so fast they formed a series of blurred shadows. Flashes of metal caught in the dim light from the door.
Wren twisted sideways, presenting a smaller target, and tried to get out of the way. One knife caught her in the thigh, not far from the cut where her skin pocket had been. The throb of the two pains joined together, forming one source of agony. Wren set her jaw and pushed it down. She'd dealt with pain like this often enough to know that it would come back to her ten times worse later, but that was fine; she'd deal with it then when it was less likely to get her killed.
Another thin throwing blade caught the back of Wren's neck, peeling her skin open. A hot line burned but she resisted the urge to reach up and feel the wound. The last thing she needed was a slick palm, especially when she had to fight one-handed. The heat didn't feel good though, probably poison. All she could do was hope that there hadn't been enough on the side of the blade to kill her.
Wren danced into a deeper pool of shadows. How many more knives could Silvan have on her? Wren didn't dare underestimate her former teacher; that would be a quick way to get killed. Alright, so she had to assume many more throwing knives lurked around Silvan's body. That brought Wren back to the same problem; she couldn't risk a drawn out, distant conflict. She had to get in tight and kill Silvan quickly. Easier said than done now that she'd lost her knife.
It would be on the floor. Halfway between where Wren crouched and Silvan lurked; three steps at most. But Silvan would be watching it. She had to know that knife was the only way Wren had a chance of winning. She'd probably laid a trap. Wren couldn't fall into it.
Wren's attention flicked around the rest of the room. Four smooth walls; she'd been close enough to brush her hands over all of them now. Only the one door and the chair bolted to the floor. Everything else belonged to Silvan.
Wren had to find an advantage. Already she could feel the heat from the wound at her neck spreading. If it were a swift-acting poison, she'd be dead in five minutes and she wanted to take Silvan with her. If it wasn't so bad, she'd still probably fall unconscious, and then she might as well be dead anyway.
Deep shadows hid the shaking of Wren's hands. Why did Silvan have to come herself? If it had been one of the other assassins, Wren might have stood a better chance. But who could claim to take on the Guildmaster and live to tell about it? No one—that was the whole point.
Wren dashed from her crouched position toward the faint gleam of light at the door. Metal clinked against the wall behind her and a single blade twisted through the air just in front of her. If she'd been just a fraction of a second faster it would have buried hilt-deep into her temple.
Instead of slowing, she ran faster, jerking sideways every few steps to make it hard for Silvan to predict her location. She reached the wall beside the door and slammed her hand against the smooth metal, three and a half feet off the ground. Her fingers found it; the light switch, exactly the standard distance from the floor as mandated by Imperium regulations.
Wren flicked the switch. As she did so, she closed her eyes and dived toward where Silvan had been. Behind her eyelids a bright, yellow light flared to life. Silvan grunted.
Wren allowed herself one second before springing her eyelids open. The sudden flare of light over her head lit up the room like a midday sun. It reflected off the pools and streaks of red blood that Wren had left across the room and glinted on the dozens of darts littered across the floor.
Silvan squinted, snatching for a gun at her belt.
Wren dived across the room at her fallen knife while Silvan's eyes were still adjusting. Wren's injured shoulder landed hard on the ground but she refused to cry out. She snatched the knife with her uninjured hand, and hurled it.
Silvan tried to move, but too slow. The knife buried itself in her chest, just beneath her sternum. Blood bloomed from the wound, staining her shirt a bright crimson. Silvan gasped, took a half step forward.
Wren scrambled to her feet. She snatched the other woman's wrist just as she raised her gun. With the strength leaching out of her, Wren managed to overpower Silvan, although it took all of her strength to wrench the gun out of her hands. Wren spun the weapon and fired.
Sweat poured down Atticus' face and glued his shirt to his back. Heat pulsed from the furnace in waves so hot and so strong that they knocked him back half a pace. Scorching wind rushed over his bare skin, cracking his lips and making his eyes sting. He struggled under the weight of a pile of rubbish that had been dropped into his arms. His shoulder strained with the effort of carrying it and his legs shook with every step, but he kept walking.
If he dropped the burden, he'd never have the strength to lift it again, and then the guards would kill him. He'd only been in this living hell for a few hours, and yet already he'd seen the guards kill one of his fellow prisoners. The poor man was older than Atticus; his white hair reduced to a few straggling strands. They'd given him too much to carry. If only they'd been more gentle, had given him a smaller pile. But they hadn't. In fact, a part of Atticus thought that maybe they'd done it on purpose so they'd have an excuse to kill the old man.
Gerry was his name. He'd said it with a quick smile the first time he passed Atticus in the chain gang. He'd seemed nice enough, a light shining in his eyes despite their circumstances. Gerry had staggered, not far ahead of Atticus, and dropped his load. He'd knelt, tried to gather it all up, but bits kept falling and when he tried to stand his legs gave out and he sprawled to the floor, spilling the rubbish once more.
An enforcer emerged from the shaded cool of the waste depot.
Atticus had staggered forward, weighed down by his own burden but intent on saving Gerry. He'd teetered to within a foot of Gerry when the other man's chest exploded in a burst of plasma. Gerry sprawled across the walkway, ribs smoking.
Atticus gaped, for a second the weight of his load forgotten. He kept begging for Gerry to open his eyes, to get up. Nothing.
"Move along unless you want to go the same way, old man."
Atticus fought the urge to fight. Despite having no weapons and feeling only inches from death by dehydration or exhaustion, it had still taken all of Atticus' control not to run at the enforcer. What kind of a monster shot an old man in cold blood? What kind of people worked prisoners to the bone in a pointless job that could just as easily be carried out by a conveyor belt? Wrongness leaked from every crack and pore of the place and it made Atticus sick.
As Atticus returned from dropping that load of trash into the furnace his eyes locked on Gerry's prone body, still lying in the middle of the corridor where he'd fallen. The other prisoners had to step over him to get to the furnace.
"You," an enforcer said, stepping out from their temperature-controlled shelter. "You loved him so much, you throw him in."
Atticus staggered to a stop. "What?"
"You deaf, old man? Throw him in, he's taking up space."
Bile roiled in Atticus' stomach and for a moment his feet refused to move.
The enforcer's hand fell to his gun. "Do it now or I'll kill you."
Atticus shuffled. When he got to Gerry he paused to stare at the other man's face. At least in death he looked to have found some peace.
The skin on Gerry's face peeled away in the heat of the fires. How long would he last lying there before the fire devoured him, even from a distance?
Atticus bent to the body, scooping Gerry up with a hand behind his back and another behind his knees. Atticus' spine burned with the effort and his head spun. Still, he managed to hobble toward the fire. Blood stuck to his fingers where it had leaked through Gerry's shirt.
"I'm sorry, Gerry," Atticus whispered, his voice hoarse because of the dry heat that scraped his throat raw. "I wish there was something I could do."
On the way down the corridor, Atticus fought within himself. He couldn't throw Gerry into the flames like some piece of rubbish. He deserved better. If not a proper ceremony then at least a proper cremation, not tossed through the garbage shoot. But as Atticus got closer to the flames, the heat seared his thoughts, and by the time he got to within arm's reach of the fire he couldn't afford to wait or plan.
"I'm sorry," he said as he hurled Gerry's body at the flames. They licked his clothes and crackled his skin.
Atticus turned away before he saw any more and hurried from the fire, doing his best to ignore the crackle and hiss of burning meat.
That was five loads ago now and there was nothing left of Gerry.
The items on top of Atticus' current rubbish pile teetered. He moved his arms to the right to balance the load but went too far. The items tilted left. He moved again, this time getting it level. He shuffled toward the furnace, the baking heat getting stronger with each footstep. It beat at his head, reaching through his skull and into his brain. Heat sucked the moisture out of Atticus' mouth, out of his very blood, so that a pounding headache thumped in his skull, threatening to break out.
He clenched his jaw and kept walking. The sooner he threw his trash into the furnace, the sooner he could hurry in the opposite direction. His whole existence had been reduced to that small window of time when he shuffled with empty arms, his back to the flames. Hardly comfort by most people's standards but compared to marching toward the flames with a backbreaking load, it might as well have been heaven.
But now he had bigger things to worry about. He'd managed to talk to Kari, just out of sight of the enforcers. He had no idea how she'd hacked through the communication system but it had been so good to hear her voice. The possibility crossed his mind that it might not have been Kari, and was instead an elaborate trap, but he discarded the thought. What more could Jic possibly hope to get out of him? They already had him trapped, working a job with an average life expectancy of less than a week. Jic wouldn't waste the time or energy on a trap like that, which meant it had been Kari and that the others were in trouble.
A trickle of sweat dribbled into Atticus' eye. He blinked and flicked his head, trying to get rid of it, but his movement made his pile of rubbish tilt. He jerked to the other side, righting the slip. Rather than trying to shake the droplet away, he put up with the salty sting, knowing that it would be gone soon, unlike an enforcer's plasma blast to his chest.
His gaze ran along the edges of the furnace. It formed a gaping black hole at one end of the hall with a fire burning in the middle, so bright it hurt. It might have powered the ship's heating, although Atticus suspected it was just as likely that the furnace did nothing at all except keep people like him busy. There was no way it could burn like it did just on the loads of rubbish he and his fellow companions threw in. The sheer energy consumption boggled his mind. And for what?
Perhaps he could use the energy somehow. He needed to find a way out of this place, a way to help Kari and the others. With enough energy, a person could do almost anything, but how could he channel it?
For the first time he studied the rubbish he'd been given, rather than let his gaze get trapped by the furnace. Some of it was old food that squished beneath his hands, rotten and giving off foul smells, but there were other things too; chunks of metal, bits of wood—where they got that on a spaceship, Atticus had no idea. But aside from a few bits of rubbish, most of his load was made up of rocks.
How had he not noticed before? They weighed down his arms, uneven chunks of gray and brown with cracks and notches running across them. Of course. The ship didn't produce nearly enough actual waste to have people carting it to the furnace all day, but rocks? Rocks in space were as common as tokens on Albion. And no doubt these burned; partly coal or something, giving off the flames Atticus could see, and probably thousands of tons of toxic gases that he couldn't.
Alright… rocks… what could he do with rocks? The fact that they burned could be useful. That made them a kind of weapon. Atticus adjusted the balance of his load so that his right hand could snatch a smaller rock and shove it into one of his pockets. He repeated the process a half dozen times, stashing stones all over his body, until he got within reach of the furnace. He hurled what remained of his load into the fire and turned.
He had more time now, walking away from the furnace, and with the blinding light at his back he could make out more details of the corridor. Twelve other men shuffled along the passage, some with arms full heading toward the furnace, and others in front of him, trudging to the waste depot to collect more.
They weren't allowed to talk, but still Atticus felt like he knew his fellow prisoners, even after spending only half a day with them. During the five-minute drink break they'd been allowed, he'd learned that Eddie had been working the furnace for weeks; some kind of record apparently, but Eddie hadn't joined in the conversation. His gaze stayed fixed on the furnace and he kept muttering about flames and burning.
The others hadn't broken, not yet, and Atticus sensed a different kind of fire in them. Like him, they'd been caught up in one treason or another, or at least that's what he assumed by the murderous expressions they threw at the enforcers. They'd help. If he offered a plan that didn't mean certain death, they'd help.
Now he just had to come up with the plan.
Cameras lined the hallway. Atticus stared at each one as he approached, wishing he could talk to Kari again, find out how the others were doing, but he didn't dare. Their only chance for survival lay in staying hidden, staying unnoticed.
The heat of the furnace faded as he trekked up the corridor. It never quite went away; the flames were too ferocious for that, but at least they eased so that it didn't feel like his flesh was peeling from his very bones.
At the end of the corridor a shielded room on the left sheltered the enforcers. A gentle puff of cold air from the temperature-controlled room flowed under the door and brushed Atticus' legs, making him shiver. Oh how good it would be to sit inside that room. He'd be able to open his eyes properly without being blinded, and the burning sting on his arms would ease. Plus there'd be water, enough to drown in.
Atticus ran a dry tongue over his parched lips. It did nothing to help. A sideways glance into the enforcers' room revealed screens, comfortable chairs and three enforcers engaged in light conversation. There was no point trying to sneak in, the room was too small. The enforcers had access to the communication channel, and they controlled the exit door set into the wall directly opposite the furnace. None of the prisoners could leave the furnace room without the enforcers activating that button.
A second doorway, past the enforcers' room, led into the most sheltered area available to the prisoners: the rubbish depot. Atticus allowed himself three deep breaths. The room jutted off the corridor so was hidden from the glare of the flames and cut down the worst of the heat. He didn't dare stay long though; the enforcers watched the prisoners like hawks and if they stayed even a second too long in the depot, the enforcers made sure they had to carry twice as much in their next trip to the furnace.
One enforcer remained in the depot room at all times. His helmet hid his face, but Atticus imagined he spent most of the time scowling; he would too if all of his companions got to stay in air-conditioned comfort while he was left throwing putrid rubbish at prisoners. The enforcer gestured Atticus forward and proceeded to pile his arms high with rubbish. Once more, most of it was made of rocks with a few bits of plastic and metal thrown in at the bottom to hold the rest.
When Atticus was sure he could take no more, the enforcer placed a single pebble on top of the pile.
"Make sure you don't drop it."
Atticus' arms trembled. He didn't waste energy on a reply as he shuffled from the room, into the glaring, biting heat of the furnace. He needed to focus on finding a way to escape, but the pain and the heat and the fear that the tiny pebble on top of his pile would fall—leaving him in the same situation as Gerry—made it impossible to concentrate.
He'd drop this load into the furnace and then he'd think. But the furnace seemed an impossible distance away.
Guildmaster Silvan's face exploded in a spray of smoking, red flesh that splattered the wall behind her, visible in the bright flash of the plasma weapon. The sharp smell of burning meat filled the tiny room while a fine crimson mist coated Wren's hands. Silvan's body crumpled to the floor with a dull noise like a thick jacket that's been carelessly dropped.
Wren darted back, gun still in hand, and switched the light off again. Darkness gave her an advantage over any normal soldiers or enforcers who might be nearby. She strained for any hint of sound. Sure, she thought she'd seen Silvan's head explode. But what if that had been a trick? A key lesson hammered into Wren at the Guild; don't relax until you're sure they're dead. Three more heartbeats and the only noise was a steady drip. Too thick for water; blood then.
The dripping blood and continuing stillness suggested Silvan really was dead and that there were no other enemies in the room. Wren flicked the light on once more. With eyes squeezed shut, she took three quick steps to the right, just in case Silvan threw or shot at her in the sudden clarity of the light. Still no noise.
Wren opened her eyes a slit, allowing just enough light to filter through to make out the scene. Silvan lay on the floor near the far wall. The steady glow of the overhead light revealed in detail what Wren had only seen a flash of before—the ruined remains of Silvan's head. Her neck ended in a jagged tear of flesh, the top of her spine poking out like a white skewer from her back.
Blood and bits of brain smeared the wall behind. Thick chunks slid down the smooth metal and pooled on the floor. The dripping came from Silvan's neck, where a stream of blood dribbled the short distance to the floor in a steady rhythm. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Iron tang in the air, unmistakable. Below that a more subtle smell, one that Wren had never sensed before because Silvan had been so meticulous about removing her own scent. In death she had no such control.
Wren stayed frozen in place for two more deep breaths; despite a missing head, Wren couldn't quite believe that Silvan was dead. A small part of her had believed the Guildmaster was invincible. Ridiculous of course, but she'd spent so much of her life watching the woman do impossible things… and now she lay dead in a pool of her own blood, just like so many of her targets. Would anyone believe that she was dead? What did it mean for the Guild? Would their association with FutureFarm and the Imperium continue?
So many questions, but Wren silenced them. It didn't matter to her what happened to the Guild. She didn't belong to them anymore. Still, she owed Silvan some small gesture for taking her in as a child and teaching her what she needed to survive.
Wren closed the distance between them to stand over Silvan's body, her boots just clear of the growing puddle of blood. "Atoms to atoms."
Neither Wren nor Silvan had any extra clothes to cover the bloody mess so the words alone would have to do. When Wren had first learned about Silvan's treachery, she'd promised herself that she'd tear out the woman's lying tongue. Now that gesture seemed pointless. And besides, Wren had more pressing concerns.
Wren knelt and stripped Silvan's body of its weapons. A dozen knives and throwing blades, more poisoned darts, and a tiny plasma pistol with more power than seemed possible. Wren strapped the weapons around her body. She also found an access card which she slipped into a pocket.
Pain pulsed in time with her heart from her injured right hand. Purple bruises spread halfway up to her elbow. The base of her thumb had swollen to three times its normal size while the thumb itself dangled useless from her hand.
Looking at it made the pain worse but Wren knew enough about injuries to know that if she didn't do something soon then she would lose the use of her hand forever. That couldn't happen. With a sharp blade, she cut away a clean strip of fabric from Silvan's pants. She held one end in her teeth and with her free hand she wrapped the fabric around her bruised palm, doing her best to fix her thumb in place. She bit down hard on the cloth, more pain than she'd felt in a long time filtering through the walls she'd set up to block herself from feeling anything. It seemed like hours later that she finished wrapping the bandage. By then, sweat poured down her forehead and she was breathing hard. Hell. She'd have to get someone to help her set it properly, and soon. Damn Silvan. She'd wanted to hurt Wren and had succeeded, but where had it gotten her? Dead.
Wren turned away, shutting away thoughts of Silvan into one of the many compartments that occupied her mind. Stray thoughts like that only got in the way of things. Worse was the burn of poison at Wren's neck. She didn't have time to assess it, and besides, she didn't have any antidotes on her, but already Wren could feel it eating into her nervous system. Besides, she had bigger problems. Cameras blinked in the corners of the room. What would her captors do now that she'd killed Silvan? They were probably on their way at that very moment. But they'd made a fatal mistake; they'd left her with weapons.
Wren pulled a knife and spun toward the voice, ready to kill whoever had managed to sneak into the room without her noticing. Empty.
"Wren, it's me."
Wren didn't lower the knife. "Kari?"
"What the hell happened?"
"Long story." The voice came from the camera. But how could Wren trust that it was really Kari? And if it were Kari, how could Wren be sure Jic and his lot weren't making her say what they wanted? Nothing could be trusted. Nothing.
"Tell me about it. But, Wren, you've got weapons and hopefully a way out of that room. I need you to come and get me. The others are in trouble."
Wren took three steps backward so that her spine pressed against a smooth metal wall, protected in case of a trap. "What kind of trouble?"
"They're trying to convert Ryker again."
Not good. Wren had noticed a darkness in Ryker after the last time. She suspected the conversion had come closer to success than anyone wanted to admit, and now they were trying a second time? Based on how long she'd been trapped in the room fighting Silvan, she wasn't sure Ryker could be saved.
"Why haven't you stopped them?" Wren said.
"I'm strapped to a bloody chair."
It sounded like Kari. Certainly had the same voice patterns, but they could be replicated by machines easy enough provided they had a big enough sample.
"Dammit, Wren, you're the only one in a position to help us, but I doubt you'll be left alone for long."
"If you're so trapped and helpless," Wren said. "How are you talking to me?"
"Damn your suspicions, Wren."
"My suspicions have kept you alive on more than one occasion. Of course, if you were really Kari, you'd know—"
"Of course it's me. Piper knew the master code for the equipment. I've managed to override it but I'm sure they're working to kick me out right now. Either that or they'll bust through the door and kill me. Hence, get your ass here!"
Wren kept her injured hand hidden in the folds of her jacket; if there were enemies watching then there was no point giving them an even better look at her weaknesses. With her other hand she fiddled with the sharp throwing blade. Her plan had been to try to save Kari and the others anyway; she'd come to appreciate some of their quirks, even if she'd never quite understand them. So what harm would it do to listen to this voice that claimed to be Kari? It could lead her into a trap, sure, but she was just as likely to step into one of those without the guiding voice. At least this way she had a better idea of what was coming. "Where are you?"
Silence for a few moments, broken by occasional muttering that sounded a lot like Kari's cursing when she was trying to work out a problem. If it were a simulation, it was doing a good job.
"Ha!" Kari said. "Idiots. Through your door, turn left. Through two sets of double doors, then turn right. Third door on your right after that."
Wren raised an eyebrow. "Good instructions for someone strapped to a chair."
"If you get your ass here you'll be able to see why."
"Oh shit." A muffled bang and then the sounds of a struggle.
Wren pushed away from the wall and ran to the door. The sounds of struggle cut off, the audio feed going dead. Not good. If it wasn't really Kari then she had nothing to worry about, but if it were, then things could get very bad, very quickly. Wren slapped Silvan's access card to the lock panel and it flashed green. Wrenching the door open, she paused just inside the doorway, expecting a stream of plasma fire. Nothing.
Wren ducked her head out then back in. Still nothing and the hall had looked empty. She returned the throwing knife to her belt and instead took up the plasma pistol. She preferred knife work, but with her injured hand and the fact that she might well come up against armored enforcers or super-soldiers, she felt that just this once a plasma pistol might be a better option. Especially as Silvan's weapon had a higher power rating than any Wren had seen before.
The dripping from Silvan's neck had stopped sometime during Wren's conversation with Kari, but the smell of her had only gotten stronger. Tendrils of scent clung to Wren as she moved into the corridor. She closed her sense of smell off for the moment, finding the cloying odor too much.
Wren crept down the corridor, leaving the small room and Silvan's dead body behind. Every few paces she stopped to listen. If enforcers or super-soldiers did come for her, she would hear them. No matter how softly they walked, their armored boots gave them away. Nothing so far. Other noises though. The rumble of engines through the floor, the buzz of electricity in the lights above her head.
A dull awareness of the pain in her hand, and throbbing from her injured leg and shoulder, hovered in the back of Wren's mind but for the moment she could ignore them. Harder to ignore was the hot pain burning at the back of her neck and spreading down her spine. Silvan's blade had been poisoned. Wren had hoped that the graze wouldn't deliver enough toxin to have an effect, but already she could feel it; interrupting nerve impulses, sending out signals of its own, so that Wren's little finger jerked every few seconds of its own accord.
If the effect got stronger, it would be her whole hand spasming and she wouldn't be able to shoot or fight. Then she'd end up back in a cell, this time with no chance of escape.
She drew a deep breath.
The worst thing to do when poisoned was panic because it pumped the toxin faster. So she slowed her breathing, then her heartrate as she'd trained to do for so many years. During complete relaxation, sitting in her locked room, she could take her heartbeat down to twenty beats per minute. Creeping down a corridor with her senses on full alert while also numbing her own pain, she could only get down to thirty beats per minute. Still, it would give her twice as long with the poison as a normal person, and maybe that would be enough for her liver to process and get rid of it.
Sweat poured down Atticus' face, but now from more than the heat of the furnace. He turned his back to the flames and did his best to savor the small cup of water he'd been given. An enforcer loomed a short distance away, gun held across his chest, while the ragged prisoners clutched their metal cups as if their lives depended on it. Ryan had swallowed his whole cup in one go and now his glazed eyes stared at the empty metal, as if willing more water to appear. Atticus took another sip from his cup, barely enough to wet his parched lips, let alone stave off the aching headache that pounded in time with his heart as a result of worsening dehydration. No wonder people didn't last long on furnace duty. A few days like this and Atticus knew his brain would fry, and starved of water he'd go mad. Then how long before the glow of the furnace started to look like a good way out?
All the more reason to act now.
He lifted his cup to his lips but didn't drink, instead using the tin to hide his mouth from the enforcers. "I have a plan."
A few of the newer prisoners glanced up at him, but the others, like Ryan, continued to stare with glazed eyes at whatever held their attention.
"If we don't get out soon, we'll all die here," Atticus said. He gave Ryan the slightest nudge, not wanting to draw the enforcers' attention, but also knowing he needed as many helping hands as possible. Ryan didn't look up.
"How are we supposed to get out?" one of the new prisoners—Sid—said. "This place is locked down tight. Don't think I didn't look."
"There's only one way," Atticus said. Or at least, only one way he'd been able to think of that they had even a chance of carrying out before the furnace took his sanity. He leaned over, pretending exhaustion, and spoke in a fast whisper.
The prisoners protested at first, called him crazy, but what choice did they have? It was either his plan, or let the furnace burn them.
"Right, break time's over," the enforcer said, his heavy boots clunking on the metal floor. "Back to work."
Atticus ran his gaze over the ragged group of prisoners. "We're agreed?"
The more able-bodied among them murmured agreement, a couple more gave dull nods. The rest, including Ryan, shuffled away at the guard's command as if Atticus hadn't spoken at all.
"It has to be now," Atticus said.
Sid lunged forward, large hands landing in the middle of Atticus' chest. "I said give me your water."
Atticus staggered under the weight of the blow but managed to grab hold of Sid's stained shirt. He clutched and pulled, tearing away a strip of fabric.
"I'll kill you for that—"
But before Sid could get to Atticus, the enforcer stepped between them, slamming the side of his rifle into Sid's chest. "I said back to work!"
Sid pressed a hand to his side where the gun had struck but shuffled toward the depot, casting one last glare at Atticus.
The enforcer lifted his gun, preparing to slam it into Atticus' face, but Atticus danced out of the way. In all the confusion, the enforcer didn't notice him slip his metal cup into his pocket.
Atticus hurried after the other prisoners, into the depot where he allowed the enforcers inside to load his arms to breaking with chunks of rock and bits of stray rubbish, all the while keeping a tight grip on the strip of fabric he'd torn from Sid's shirt. His heart ached for Ryan and the other veterans who would be caught up in his plan, probably killed, through no fault of their own. But his only other option was to do nothing, and in that case they all died anyway.
Atticus joined the line of prisoners shuffling from the depot toward the raging heat of the furnace that sucked every bit of the water he'd just drunk out of him. Sweat soaked his shirt, itching his skin, and the ache in his head grew more intense, so bad that it made his stomach churn. His arms trembled under the weight of his load but he kept moving. If he failed now, dropped his burden, then the whole plan would fail. The other prisoners, like Sid, were counting on him. He had to make this work.
The roar of the furnace filled the passage, the flickering glow of its fire bouncing off the walls and sucking the very air out of Atticus' lungs. A lucky thing he'd decided to act now; he wasn't sure how much longer he would survive.
Sid passed Atticus, having just dumped an armful of trash into the furnace. His gaze locked with Atticus' eyes and he gave a single, short nod, patting a slight bulge in his pocket. Atticus blinked acknowledgment but didn't slow or change his step. As he drew closer to the furnace, and further from the watching eyes of the enforcers, he inched one hand around the side of the heap of rubbish in his arms and managed to pluck a loose rock from near the bottom of the pile. He eased it into his hand, continuing his march toward the hungry flames the whole time.
As he drew close, the skin on his face peeled, pushed back and singed by the heat. Atticus squinted and turned away, shielding his eyes from the blinding heat as he hurled his armful of rubbish at the flames. He pretended to trip, his throw going wide so that instead of falling into the gaping mouth of the fire, some of the rocks fell to the ground at the base of the furnace and the rag he'd torn from Sid fell across the opening, one end in the flames and the other dangling almost to the floor beside Atticus' foot.
In the far distance he heard someone shout, but the voices of the enforcers couldn't penetrate the roar of the furnace. If they fired, they had a good chance of hitting him, but Atticus hoped that they would hesitate. He'd been a good worker so far, and as long as he cleaned up his mess they had no real reason to kill him.
He crouched, his back to the enforcers. His spine tingled, expecting the sharp tearing of a plasma blast at any second. His hands trembled as he snatched a fallen rock from the floor. Hopefully, to the enforcers it would look like he was fixing his mess. They couldn't see the small pile of rocks he'd built leading up to the end of the rag.
The flesh on his hands turned red and raw, skin peeling and pulling back from his fingernails. His clothes burned where they touched his skin. How much longer before his brain boiled inside his skull? He pushed the thought away, no time for that now. Flames raced along the rag, shooting out of the furnace and down to the rocks piled in front of Atticus.
Footsteps. He glanced up to see Ryan standing over him, an armload of rubbish in his hands. Ryan blinked, his eyes coming into focus for the first time since Atticus had started working in the furnace. Ryan hurled his armful of rubbish over Atticus' head into the flames but instead of marching back toward the enforcers and the depot, he bent and snatched a rock from near the top of Atticus' pile. Flames licked across its surface, sending up bright sparks like tiny fireworks.
"Ryan," Atticus said, but it was too late. The light of the furnace reflected in Ryan's eyes as he turned toward the enforcers. He ran, careless of the fiery rock in his hands that sent flames licking across his fingers. The flesh of Ryan's hand turned black, catching fire, but still he ran.
Atticus' gaze stayed locked on Ryan's back as the other man sprinted at the enforcers. One appeared from the guardhouse, weapon raised. The other prisoners pulled away from Ryan. The new ones, the ones who'd heard Atticus' plan glanced between Atticus and Ryan with panicked eyes.
Atticus' heart clenched. Ryan had wrecked the plan. They wouldn't get another chance. But what the hell was he supposed to do? His mind raced. Use the distraction. That was all. He tore his gaze from Ryan just as the enforcer fired. A blast of blue plasma exploded from the barrel of the gun, almost dull against the blinding brightness of the furnace.
Atticus snatched his own rock from the pile, but instead of using his bare hands, he used the metal cup that the enforcers had served his water in. He stood, held the cup behind his back, and walked as fast as he could toward the enforcers without drawing attention.
Ryan lay sprawled across the narrow corridor. The rock sputtered and flamed a few feet from his outstretched hand, the fingers blackened and charred. Blood pooled beneath his chest.
"Take him to the furnace!" the enforcer roared, half inside and half outside the shielded shelter.
A handful of prisoners knelt beside Ryan's corpse, including Sid. Sid hunched so that his body hid the sputtering rock from the enforcers and from his pocket produced his own stone, he held it close to Ryan's, letting the flame race across. He looked over Ryan's body, locking eyes with Atticus.
Atticus hurried faster, wishing he had telepathy so that he could tell Sid to hold back, to wait. It was too risky, and anyway, what would two tiny rocks do?
"Oi, you!" the enforcer roared.
Atticus' gaze snapped from Sid to the enforcer.
"Look at the bloody mess you've left, are you trying to kill us all?"
Atticus glanced over his shoulder. The pile of rocks he'd left burning just outside the furnace had become a dancing blaze, bright and fiery. As he watched, the rock at the top, the one that had caught first, exploded in a bright shower of sparks, the force of which hurled the other stones outward so that they banged into the walls of the corridor and skittered along the floor, all of them burning with fires of their own.
"Oh hell," the enforcer said.
Atticus' heart stuttered. He hadn't known the rocks would explode as well as burn. His eyes snapped to Sid, hunched over Ryan and two sputtering rocks. Sid's eyes widened as realization dawned. He erupted to his feet, turning as he did so and kicking Ryan's rock toward the enforcer. At the same time, he threw the rock in his hand toward the depot.
The rock he'd kicked exploded halfway to the enforcer, lighting up the corridor and causing prisoners and enforcers alike to yell and pull back. In the brightness, the enforcer didn't see the rock Sid threw as it sailed past him and into the depot. Sounds of alarm from the enforcer inside were swallowed by a sudden barrage of explosions in the corridor behind Atticus as the other rocks reached critical temperature and burst.
He didn't have time. He pulled his cup from behind his back and threw it past Sid and the others, toward the enforcer. It bounced to the right of the enforcer, against the door, and rolled into the shelter beyond.
A sudden flash and a scream. The explosion knocked the enforcer off his feet, into the corridor, while smoke and sparks poured out of the sheltered room. Coughs and shouts echoed from the enforcers inside. They spilled into the corridor moments later, one cradling a broken arm to his chest.
"What the hell happened?" the one with a broken arm yelled.
The remaining prisoners dropped the loads they'd been carrying, rocks and bits of rubbish rolling across the floor. A few rocks spilled into the enforcers' shelter and the flames that chewed through the equipment beyond.
Another bang shook the corridor, this time from inside the depot. A high-pitched scream followed. The enforcer with the broken arm waved the others to the depot door. They paused at the entrance for a bare second before rushing inside. They returned a moment later dragging the enforcer who'd been stationed there. Blood coated the side of his face and poured from a wound in his leg. A half dozen more explosions echoed from inside the depot.
"Sir! It's a chain reaction," said one of the enforcers who'd rescued the man from the depot. "We've got to get out of here or we'll all blow."
The enforcer rounded on the prisoners, already reaching for his pistol.
The door to Kari's room slid open and a handful of enforcers poured through, Jic in the lead. Kari strained against the restraints that pinned her to the chair but achieved nothing more than chafing her skin raw.
"What the hell is going on here?" Jic said.
The enforcers surrounded Kari. One of them pressed the barrel of his pistol into her temple, hard enough to hurt but she couldn't pull away. A different enforcer went to the screens and cut off Kari's outgoing audio feed to Wren as well as the schematics she'd managed to pull up on one of the screens. Kari did her best to memorize the layout. She had to know how to get out of this place and find Piper.
"The weird one has escaped," the enforcer closest to the monitors said, tapping an armored finger against the screen which showed Wren's empty cell.
"Hell!" Jic said. "This is what happens when you leave the work to others. You two, find her. Kill her if you have to."
Two enforcers ran for the door and disappeared into the corridor while the others shuffled, helmeted heads looking down at the floor except for the one at Kari's left who continued to gouge her temple with his pistol.
Jic towered over Kari. He placed his hands on either armrest and leaned in close so that his nose was only inches from hers and his sour breath brushed over her face when he spoke. "How did you get access to the audio?"
Kari's heart stuttered but she did her best to control her expression. Maybe, just maybe, if she could distract Jic and his companions long enough, then Wren, and maybe even Atticus, would have a chance to escape. If they could just get to Ryker in time…
Jic drew back his right hand and slammed his open palm against Kari's cheek. The force of the blow knocked her hard against the pistol, threatening to crack her skull in two. Everything went dark for a few moments and her awareness dipped. Rough hands snatched her chin, jerked her head up.
She opened bleary eyes.
Jic's face filled her vision, eyes hard and angry. "Well?"
Kari's face stung, but that was nothing compared to the agony expanding from her temple where the pistol continued to press. A warm trickle on her cheek warned that she was bleeding, though how bad the wound was she had no way of knowing.
Jic drew his hand back for a second blow.
"No," Kari said. She hated the way her voice shook, but damn, it felt like she was only just clinging to consciousness. How many more blows could she take?
"How did you get the audio feed, and where's your little friend?"
Kari drew a ragged breath. "Override commands."
"How did you get them?"
"Each manufacturer has a standard—"
Jic's face paled and he straightened, pulling away from Kari. "You got lucky."
Kari decided not to correct him; better that he not know Piper had somehow memorized the code for every damn manufacturer she could find.
"Sir, something's happening at the furnace."
Jic turned to look at the screens.
Kari strained to see around him without pressing the pistol any harder against her head. Bright lights exploded across the video feeds where she'd last seen Atticus. Shadows ran among the smoke but it was hard to make out specific features.
"Get a team down there," Jic ordered. "Now!"
One of the enforcers raced out of the door, already talking into a communicator at his collar.
Jic turned once more on Kari, his nostrils flaring. "I'll admit, I underestimated you and your team."
Kari met his gaze, refusing to let him see the pain that encased her skull.
"I thought the others that had captured you before and somehow let you slip through their fingers were incompetent, but perhaps I didn't give you enough credit. After all, you managed to trick me by poisoning my daughter."
Kari tried not to look at the screens where Piper and Ryker lay, people in white coats surrounding them. Something was happening in Atticus' screens but she didn't dare draw Jic's attention to it.
"But unlike those others," Jic said, "I'll do what has to be done. Cut off the head and kill the beast, that's what they say."
He pulled a small pistol from a holster at his waist. It gleamed in the overhead lights. An array of knives protruded from his belt and Kari got the impression that he would have much preferred to use those than his gun, to really draw out her death, but he wasn't stupid. If he killed her quick then there was less chance of anything interrupting.
He leveled the gun at Kari's forehead, aimed right between her eyes. "Good riddance."
The door to the room wrenched open.
The armored body of an enforcer hurtled through, landing with a crash on the metal floor. Blood poured out of his open helmet from a deep gash in his throat. Jic spun round, keeping his gun aimed at Kari but stepping around her chair, putting her between himself and the door.
A second later, Wren rounded the corner, one hand bandaged and clutched close to her chest, the other holding a gun. Her gaze ran over the scene, coming to a stop on Kari and Jic.
"Put your weapon down," Jic said. "Or your captain dies."
"Put your weapon down, or your captain dies."
Wren heard the words but they came to her as if through a dream. With her heightened senses she took in the whole room in less than a second. The enforcer she'd killed in the hallway lay on the floor to her left in a pool of blood. Beside him, two more enforcers, only just lifting their guns toward her. A shame they had their helmets up, otherwise she'd be able to kill them both before they had any chance of firing.
In the middle of the room sat Kari, chained to a chair, her chin coated with blood. At least that proved that the voice coming through the speakers had been her, a shame though, the wound at the side of her head looked bad and her pupils kept dilating and contracting. Concussion. Jic stood behind her with a pistol pointed at the back of her head while an enforcer jammed his pistol into her temple, right into the purple bruise that colored half her face.
One more enforcer stood to Wren's right, near a bank of screens. That explained how Kari had been able to see what was going on. Other than the smell of sweat and blood, the room held no strange scents—no poisons—other than the one slowly eating through Wren's own nervous system, but that one could wait.
"I mean it," Jic said.
Wren blinked, having finished her survey of the room. A bad situation. They had her outnumbered, and with her injuries she wasn't as fast or accurate as she would be normally. Plus they had Kari in a hostage situation. Bad. Very bad.
Wren lowered her gun to the floor, moving slowly so that the enemies wouldn't know the true extent of her injuries and also giving herself the time to scan the room for any other weapons. Nothing.
"Good," Jic said. "You've caused us a lot of trouble. But as I was just explaining to your captain here, I won't make the same mistake that your other captors have made. This ends here." He jerked his head at the enforcer on his left. "Kill her."
The enforcer lifted his gun while at the same time Jic adjusted his grip, pressing his gun into the back of Kari's head and laying his finger on the trigger.
Wren met Kari's wide eyes.
Atticus' heart stuttered as the enforcer lifted his gun.
Sid dived at the enforcer.
Atticus reached out to stop him, shoulder and arm straining and stretching. Too slow.
Sid slammed into the enforcer, knocking him sideways just as the plasma pistol went off. The bright blue blast exploded into Sid's chest, the sharp bang muffled by Sid's soft internal organs and further disguised by the pops of the grenade-like rocks bursting all around them.
Atticus stumbled to a stop. Bile rose in the back of his throat.
Sid's back exploded with the power of the blast, his ribs forced outward like the broken bars of some cage, coated with chunks of red. The enforcer landed on his back, Sid sprawled on top of him. Blood dripped from Sid's prone body, soaking his soot-stained clothes. The enforcer struggled beneath Sid's corpse, the armor making it hard for him to move. He managed to get an arm up and hurled Sid aside.
Sid rolled a few feet, his blank eyes staring straight ahead, blood trickling from his slack mouth. To Atticus it felt as though those few seconds stretched on for hours, with Sid rolling over and over until finally coming to rest on his side, his mutilated back pressed against the wall of the passage.
An especially loud bang brought Atticus back to the present. A wave of heat washed over his back, propelling him forward a few steps so that he loomed over the enforcer, still trying to get to his feet. Rage seized Atticus, squeezing his chest and narrowing his thoughts to a single purpose: revenge.
Atticus snatched the pistol from the enforcer's hand as the man struggled to rise. At the same time, he slammed his boot down on the enforcer's armored neck, pinning him. The enforcer snarled.
In the back of his mind, Atticus dimly registered the door at the far end of the corridor, the door to freedom, opening. Enforcers poured out, the prisoners along with them. One enforcer stopped at the door and tried to shove the prisoners back. The prisoners pulled together, forming a mob-like wave that slammed into the single enforcer. He went down under their feet. The prisoners rushed into the corridor beyond, out of Atticus' line of sight. The enforcer's armor had protected him from the stampede but he was still slow to stand, holding a hand to his bruised cheek.
"Get to the escape pods!" Atticus bellowed after the mob, hoping they heard, hoping they kept enough wits about them to get off of the ship.
The enforcer beneath Atticus' foot strained to rise. Atticus pressed his boot harder. "You didn't have to kill him." Hot tears burned his cheeks, evaporating in the heat from the furnace before they reached his chin. The corridor grew warmer, a few more minutes and his brain would boil.
The enforcer's lips twisted. "Prisoners deserve to die."
"No," Atticus said. A part of him wanted to shake the man, to explain the intricate workings of the Imperium and the secret power he'd been working for. He wanted to show the man the innocent children ripped from their homes and experimented on. But what good would it do? Surely this man had to have some idea of what went on, and yet he did nothing. And he'd killed Sid. Sid had saved Atticus' life and what had he got in return? A plasma blast through his chest.
Atticus' gaze slipped sideways to Sid and the gaping hole in his torso. Chunks of meat and pools of blood streaked the floor where his body had rolled. Sid deserved justice, but who would give it to him?
"This ends." Atticus squeezed the trigger and a bright blue blast lit up the corridor. It took the enforcer full in the face, reducing his head to a smoking ruin of splattered red across the floor. Some droplets sprayed up, coating Atticus' hands. One chunk landed on his cheek with a warm splat and clung to his skin. Atticus' hands trembled, quaking so hard that he struggled to keep hold of the gun.
A rapid series of explosions sounded from the depot and flames licked out, reaching for the door to the hallway beyond. It wouldn't be long before the enforcers outside came to their senses and locked the door, trapping Atticus inside to burn alive.
Atticus pulled away from the dead enforcer and staggered for the door. In his mind's eye he kept seeing the enforcer's face exploding, disintegrating and burning at the same time. He'd done it. He'd killed the man in cold blood. But hadn't the man deserved it? Atticus' arm hung loose at his side, the gun dangling from his hand.
Heat poured out of the depot, knocking Atticus back like a physical force. The flames sucked moisture and oxygen out of the air so that he struggled to breathe. Heat crisped his lungs and burned along his skin. He snatched for the tattered fabric of his clothes and tried to shield his face and hands from the blaze. It took all of his willpower to press forward, into the heat. He had to squeeze his eyes shut and turn away from the depot, staggering blind.
His elbow smacked into something solid. His heart lurched. The enforcer had shut the door. He was trapped inside! His hands shot out, careless of the burning heat that scorched his exposed skin. His right hand—the one holding the gun—smacked into a wall, but the left, the left shot free. Was the air slightly cooler there?
Atticus' vision dimmed. It wouldn't be long until he lost consciousness. His brain couldn't handle the heat anymore. No time to stop and consider. Too hot to open his eyes. So he raced forward into the opening his left hand had found. For a heart-rending second he thought he'd run into the depot, into the raging flames and explosions. But then the scorching heat at his side eased. He staggered a few more steps, gasping in the cooler air. Only then did he risk opening his eyes.
He'd made it. The enforcers hadn't shut the door after all. In fact, all but one had run. That one stood gaping at Atticus, a dark purple bruise taking up most of the right side of his face. A prisoner must have stomped on him in the race to get out.
Atticus reeled to a stop, staring at the man while drawing ragged breaths that made his whole body heave. Should he kill this man too? What would that make him? He'd been so sure that an answer to the Imperium's control could be found without violence. How wrong he'd been. But did that mean he had to kill them all?
"Give me your weapon," Atticus said.
The enforcer continued to stare.
"I can shoot you before you shoot me," Atticus said, making a gamble. The man's eyes seemed to be jerking back and forth, unable to focus. Perhaps he'd been more injured in the stampede than Atticus had originally thought.
After three long seconds, the enforcer held out his gun. Atticus took it, careful to keep his own weapon ready in case the other man decided to try anything. But the enforcer released his pistol without trouble and returned to leaning against the wall, one hand massaging his purple cheek.
"Where are the rest of my crew?"
The enforcer scowled. "How should I know?"
Atticus brandished the pistol. "Kari. The captain. Where is she?"
"I don't know. I wasn't even on duty when they took you."
"She was one of the Imperium's most wanted. You must know." Atticus could see it in the man's eyes, but how to make him talk? Atticus didn't want to use the gun, but he pressed it against the man's bruised cheek all the same.
"Where is she?"
"I don't know. I told you."
Atticus jabbed the gun harder into the man's face. Guilt twisting his stomach but knowing that he had no choice. The others were in trouble.
"I don't know! Everything's confused with the meeting happening and all the new prisoners."
Atticus hesitated. Meeting? What meeting? But he didn't have time for that. He had to find Kari and the others. "If you had to guess?"
"Prisoners are usually kept on the seventh floor. Okay? But I have no idea if your captain is there. That's all I know."
Atticus stepped back. "You should get out of here. There were a lot of rocks in that depot and eventually they'll explode."
The enforcer nodded but didn't move.
"You should leave this whole place," Atticus said. His chest burned, but this time not from the heat. Maybe if he could save just one person, if he could show mercy to just one person, then he could convince himself that he wasn't all bad, that he was better than the faceless monsters that ran the Imperium and FutureFarm. "Stop being an enforcer, do something else."
The enforcer met Atticus' gaze, brows drawing together.
"Leave." Atticus turned and hurried to the nearest elevator.
The doors dinged as they opened. He hurried inside, using the wall for support. The doors closed, sealing off the heat of the corridor so that it didn't feel like his eyeballs were boiling in their sockets and he could breathe without pain scorching his lungs. But that didn't help the itching burn that covered every inch of his skin. He risked glancing at his arm only once. Angry, red flesh covered him, peeling in some places and blistered and leaking yellow fluid in others. His face burned too, although he dare not catch a glimpse of his own reflection in the smooth metal walls of the elevator. He didn't want to know. Burns like that didn't go away; they'd stay with him for the rest of his life, reminding him of what he'd done.
He shoved those thoughts down. What did a few burn scars matter when his companions might already be dead? He had no way of knowing what had happened to Kari since he'd spoken to her, and what about Ryker? What if the Imperium or FutureFarm—or whoever the hell was in control—converted him, turned him into one of their super-soldiers? Atticus' heart ached. When he'd first come on board Ghost, Ryker was the one who'd shown him around. Ryker was the one who was friendly, who took an interest in his gadgets, and shielded him from Kari's frequent bouts of distrust. If they took Ryker and turned him into a monster, Atticus didn't think he'd ever be able to forgive himself. How many times had Ryker saved his life? The least Atticus could do was return the favor.
The doors opened on the seventh floor and Atticus raced out, forcing himself to move faster despite the agony it brought to his burnt and cracked skin. In some places his clothes had melted into his flesh and they tugged and pulled with each movement. Still he hurried on.
A siren wailed into life, howling from every speaker. The noise of it pounded at Atticus' already throbbing skull. A fire alarm because of what he'd done in the furnace room? Or a different kind of alarm? Had Kari or one of the others got free? He had to get to Kari, at least then he'd have some idea of what was happening.
He turned right down a corridor, slowing as the prone body of an enforcer came into view. He lay just outside an open doorway, a pool of blood drying around his neck.
It had to be.
Atticus edged forward.
Voices came from inside, hard, threatening. "Kill her."
Atticus hurled himself into the room, firing at the first enforcer he saw before registering what was happening. His shot slammed into the closed helmet of the enforcer, leaving a black soot mark but nothing else. A shadow flicked to his right.
Only then did he see Kari strapped to a chair, Captain Jic pressing a pistol to the back of her head.
What had he done?
Wren recognized Atticus' smell a moment before he burst through the door; a familiar combination of engine grease and rust, although overlaid now with an acrid, burning smell. She tensed, ready, as he hurtled through the door. She couldn't really blame him for not taking the time to properly assess the situation—she'd made the same mistake. But at least his outburst might just give her the chance she needed.
Atticus fired, a bright blue plasma blast lighting up the small room. It crackled and hissed through the air, creating an electric tang that buzzed over Wren's skin. The blast slammed into an enforcer's helmet, the one on Wren's left.
She moved as soon as the blast left Atticus' gun, diving out of the line of fire of the rifle that had been aimed at her head and snatching her gun off the floor. She hit the ground hard, jarring her injured arm, but kept rolling. Her eyes stayed locked on Jic and his finger, resting on the trigger that would turn Kari's head into a spattered mess. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, Wren didn't want to see Kari die. Sure, she could talk about atoms to atoms and how nothing really ended, but right then a piece of her was scared to lose Kari. A weakness to be sure, and one she'd examine with a scalpel as soon as she got a chance, but right now it controlled her every move.
The tiny muscles in Jic's finger tensed, preparing to pull the trigger, perhaps even encouraged by Atticus' sudden appearance. Wren rolled over the floor, each jolt sending agony through her injured hand. But the momentum carried her around the side of the chair so she had a clear line of sight at Jic.
A red blast chewed through the air, taking Jic in the side of the head. His body jerked sideways, following the momentum of the tattered remains of his head. Blood spattered across the room, coating the two enforcers who'd been standing on his other side.
In that split second, Wren assessed the room. Three enforcers still standing. Kari strapped down and unable to help. Atticus with a gun, but the enforcers fully armored. One of the enforcers still had his pistol pointed at Kari's head. It would only be a split second before his mind caught up with what his eyes had seen, then he would fire. He might choose to squeeze the trigger and kill Kari, but Wren suspected that instinct would make him aim for the more immediate threat: her. That would be good, that would buy a few more precious seconds, but what about the other two enforcers?
The one at Wren's back would probably be aiming at Atticus. The old man wouldn't be able to get out of the way of the shot. Especially as he'd looked half-dead in the brief, sideways glance Wren had caught of him. The third and final enforcer was like a wildcard, playing havoc with Wren's careful calculations. He might choose to fire on her, or Kari, or Atticus. Hell, he might decide to blow them all up, or to run for the door, although those last two options seemed less likely.
At peak condition, Wren would have been able to assess each option, weigh up the probabilities, possibly even act on two of them with her super-human speed, but not now. Not with poison pumping through her veins and her heartbeat slowed to half that of a normal human just to keep herself alive. No, in this condition she felt almost… normal. She hated it.
One choice—either kill the enforcer aiming at Kari, or the one aiming at Atticus.
She didn't have time to waste on useless emotions, so instead she hurtled to her feet, spun, and dived at the enforcer who'd been just about to shoot Atticus. She carried the armored man sideways, the force of their collision sending waves of agony through her body that made it hard to breathe.
His shot went wide, slamming into the wall and leaving a smoking hole. Atticus flinched, ducking. He would have been far too slow to avoid the blast if not for Wren.
Another sharp bang and a red ball of plasma seared past Wren's back. Blisters and burns rose along her skin but she grinned; she'd calculated correctly and instead of shooting Kari, the enforcer had changed targets, aiming at Wren.
The enforcer she'd knocked aside regained his feet, turned, and slammed his armored fist into her cheek.
Wren's head swam, stars exploding across her vision. She couldn't remember the last time somehow had managed to hit her like that. Staggering back, she blinked, trying to clear her eyes. Blood coated her mouth and her probing tongue found two loose teeth. She drew a deep breath, shutting down her pain receptors. No time for that now.
She lunged, grabbing hold of the enforcer who'd hit her and spinning him around so that the blast from the other enforcer's rifle took him square in the back. The pistols might not do much damage to their armor, but the rifles still packed a punch.
The enforcer gasped and took a stumbling step closer to Wren. She kept him upright, straining her injured hand, to use him as a shield. In the shining metal of his helmet she caught her own reflection, bloody and wild. Already a purple bruise colored half her face.
The two enforcers on the other side of the room gestured to each other, trying to skirt around on opposite sides to get a clear shot at her. Idiots. In all the confusion they'd forgotten about Atticus. Wren hated having to rely on the tinker, but there were only so many things she could do, injured as she was.
He huddled in the shadows just behind Kari's chair, forgotten by the enforcers, rummaging through Jic's pockets. A flash of metal, then he bent over the clamps that pinned Kari's legs to the chair.
Battle increased Wren's heartrate, despite her best efforts, and the poison chewed through her nerves. The fingers of her right hand spasmed, struggling to keep hold of the enforcer. Sweat poured down her face and yet she felt so cold. Damn. She needed to buy Atticus just a few more minutes, then Kari would be free and could help, but the enforcers had her outnumbered and outgunned.
The weight of the enforcer she'd been using as a shield became too much and her arms gave out. He dropped to the floor with a clatter of metal on metal, revealing the mangled back of his armor which had become a confusion of twisted metal and flesh.
Wren darted right as soon as her arms gave out. A second later, two plasma blasts cracked through the air where she'd just been standing. She couldn't risk circling around them in case they saw Atticus, but then how the hell was she supposed to stay alive?
An unfamiliar feeling of panic curdled inside Wren's stomach. A side-effect of the poison, it had to be. But still, it made her uncomfortable. She hadn't felt panic for a very long time; it was one of the first emotions squashed by Guild training.
It had got her out of far worse situations than a couple of enforcers. She kept darting in erratic patterns, managing to stay just ahead of their shots, but inside her head her thoughts turned to a calm pool, logical, smooth.
Her pistol wouldn't bite through their armor. She could try getting in close and disabling their helmets but that would be risky. She'd already been hit once, proving her reflexes weren't what they used to be, and if one of them snatched hold of her she was done. The enforcer who'd been shot in the back had had a rifle. If she could get to that then perhaps she could kill these others. A hard shot though in the close confines of the room and the enforcers were closing in. What about her enemies? What were they thinking and planning? The one on Wren's left moved with sure feet, in command. More experienced, probably a veteran, and not afraid of her. The other hesitated with each step, his helmeted head moving between Wren and the other enforcer, checking for direction or approval. A rookie. But how did that help her? If she had more time she could try to intimidate him, but she didn't.
The obvious choice would be to go for the rookie, take his gun and possibly use him as a shield like she had the other one. But even encased in armor, Wren could read the unwavering devotion of the veteran to her left. He wouldn't hesitate to kill his companion. The other one though…
Wren dived at the veteran. She hurled her gun toward the rookie—the pistol wouldn't do any good against their armor anyway—and pulled a thin blade. The veteran tracked her with his gun, firing, but each shot sizzled just behind her. She'd allowed her heart to return to normal speed for just a few moments, giving her the extra push of oxygen and adrenalin to move faster than the veteran enforcer expected. She slammed into him and the shots from the rookie stopped—just as she'd expected.
She scrambled at the veteran's neck for his helmet release. His rifle was too large to get between them but he wasted precious seconds trying anyway. Wren grinned as she found the switch.
The glass face shield slid down. Wren plunged her knife through the gap before it had fully opened, releasing a gush of blood that coated her hands. She buried the blade just behind his ear, into the base of his skull. His body crumpled, dead before he hit the ground. Idiot. If he'd dropped his gun and gone for her with his hands as soon as she attacked then he'd still be alive and she'd be dead.
Wren allowed the pull of his fall to ease the knife out of his skull and kept moving. She couldn't risk increasing her heartrate again, which made her slow. It felt like her limbs moved through thick molasses, holding her boots to the floor. The rookie would have a clear shot of her back and she couldn't move fast enough to get away. Atoms to atoms, right? But in that moment Wren didn't want to die.
The sharp crack of a plasma rifle.
Wren braced for the blow, for the sharp burn of a plasma blast through her spine, but it never came. She blinked, turned, and found Kari standing, the restraints that had held her to the chair hanging open and an enforcer rifle clutched in both hands, her eyes still sighting along the barrel. The rookie enforcer lay dead at the side of the room, a smoking hole in his neck.
Wren blinked, swallowed, pulled back from the brink of death. "Cutting it a little fine," she said.
Kari lowered the rifle. "Likewise."
"There'll be more coming," Wren said, "Probably super-soldiers too."
Kari's face hardened. "We have to get to Ryker."
Kari lowered her weapon, breathing hard. A thrill raced through her as the enforcer's body crumpled to the floor. Her only regret was that Wren had killed Jic before Kari herself got a chance. She hefted the rifle and leaned it on her shoulder, scanning the small room. Half the screens had been smashed, blasted apart during the fight, cutting off any glimpse of Ryker. A screen at the right buzzed and hissed, lines of static running across it, but Kari could still see Piper lying on her bed. Her heart twisted. She wanted to race to save Piper, but she knew Ryker faced a bigger threat. "We've got to find Ryker."
Atticus straightened from where he'd been kneeling over Jic's body. Burns and blisters covered him, leaking. Kari couldn't imagine how much pain he must be in, but he was holding himself together. "This might help." He held up a small communicator, the one Jic had had strapped around his wrist.
"The screen said room seven forty-one," Kari said. "It's on this floor."
Atticus fiddled with the communicator. "Got it. This ship is massive. It will take ten minutes to get there at least."
"Then we have to hurry." Kari started for the door. The longer they stayed in the small room, the greater the chance of more enforcers finding them. An alarm wailed from every speaker, gnawing at Kari's thoughts. She spared a glance at Wren as she raced past. "Are you okay?"
Wren scowled and straightened, but Kari didn't miss the way she moved, at normal speed instead of with the catlike agility she usually had.
"Of course I'm okay. I saved your ass, remember?"
A torn scrap of fabric made into a rough bandage hid most of Wren's right hand but a dark purple bruise peeked out around the edges. Fresh blood dribbled from a dozen wounds across Wren's body. More blood coated her hands and clothes, although Kari couldn't be sure how much of it actually belonged to Wren and how much to those she'd killed. None of the wounds looked bad enough to slow Wren down, so what was the problem?
Wren's hard expression revealed nothing. Kari spun away. She couldn't waste time trying to wring answers out of Wren. But something was wrong. Kari couldn't count on Wren's fighting skills in the battle to come or it might get them all killed. "Atticus, which way?"
A muscle moved in Wren's jaw—an overt sign of emotion from the assassin—but she said nothing.
"Left down this corridor, straight for a while, then it gets complicated."
"Got it." Kari resisted the urge to glance at Wren. If anyone could take care of themselves, it was Wren. Ryker needed help more. Both Atticus and Wren took long rifles from the dead enforcers—weapons that would be able to blast through enforcer armor.
The corridor was empty except for the dead body of an enforcer who lay half in and half out of the room, keeping the door open. Kari stepped over him, careless of her footsteps. The enforcers already knew where they were, were probably watching them on screens just like the ones they'd used to torture Kari. Well, let them come. They'd find she wasn't so easy to hurt with a gun in her hand.
In the back of her mind a voice urged caution; even if the enforcers knew where she was, she was making it extra easy for them by barreling past doorways without taking the time to check for ambush. But how could she slow? How could she waste precious time when each second could mean the difference between Ryker staying his old self or becoming one of those monsters?
"Kari, slow down," Atticus said.
Kari glanced over her shoulder, scowling. If the old man couldn't keep up then—
But it was Wren. Her stony eyes glared straight ahead and she made no noise of complaint, but she'd fallen behind, one leg dragging behind the other as if it wouldn't quite take her weight. Her right arm hung limp at her side, had it been like that before?
Kari's hand clamped around her gun. She had to keep moving, but what hope did she have against Jic's forces on her own? At least with Wren at her side she might stand a chance.
"What's wrong?" Kari said.
Wren kept limping down the corridor, leaving a trail of bloody droplets. "Poison."
"Do you have an antidote?"
Wren glared at Kari out of the corner of her eye. "They took all my stuff, remember? Besides, I'm not sure what it is."
Wren shrugged. "Don't know."
Heat prickled Kari's skull. She'd thought Ryker was in the most danger, but here Wren was quietly dying. What the hell was she supposed to do now?
"Keep going," Wren said, as if reading her thoughts. "I either die or I don't. Atoms to atoms, remember?"
"Do you still believe that?"
Wren stayed silent.
Kari strode onward. If Wren could keep calm, then so could she. But she slowed her pace, even though she itched to run, to sprint to Ryker's side. She'd have more chance of winning with Wren than without her, even if it meant going slower.
"Don't they have vehicles or something for traveling in a ship this size?" she said.
"If they do, it's not mentioned in Jic's communicator," Atticus said.
Kari rubbed her aching eyes. When she'd been rushing ahead to save Ryker she hadn't had time to think, she hadn't had time to acknowledge her pounding headache or the way her stiff shoulder didn't move quite right. Or the gaping hole in her gum where the tooth Jic had wrenched out used to be. But now, inching along, all the pain came back and worry churned her gut. What would she do if Ryker had already turned by the time they got there? She couldn't kill him. She just couldn't.
"Footsteps," Wren said, coming to a stop.
Kari froze. She'd been so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn't been paying attention. Even half-dead, Wren had better survival sense than any of them. Now that she listened, Kari could hear them, heavy footsteps that made the walls of the passage vibrate.
"Super-soldier," she whispered.
"Bad place to make a stand," Wren said.
Kari's gaze slid to either side; smooth passage walls in all directions except for an elevator—too far away for them to reach in time. A closer doorway might offer some small area of cover, but what good would that do against one of the monstrosities? Still, better than nothing. She hooked her arm under Wren's and dragged her down the corridor. Wren usually gave off such a presence, such a sense of danger, that she seemed bigger than she really was. Now that Kari held her weight, she realized just how small the other woman was. How did she do so much damage?
Atticus reached the door first and threw it open. They fell inside just as an enormous, metal-clad figure rounded the end of the corridor. Light bulbs flared overhead as they entered, revealing a storage room with shelves stacked high with food and medical supplies. Kari's heart twisted. It threw her memories back to a different, massive ship. The wreckage of the Imperium vessel that they'd explored right after Atticus joined the crew. It had been full of medical supplies too.
That was where it had all begun. The ship had given her the clues to finding Piper and she'd been on the run from the Imperium, with a score to settle, ever since.
The footsteps grew louder, heavier, making the items on the shelves bounce and vibrate. A bandage fell free of its box, hit the ground, and rolled beneath a shelf.
Kari leaned Wren against the wall. Wren managed to lift her gun, although all the color had gone from her face, leaving her pale and soaked with sweat and blood. Other than food and medical supplies, it didn't look like the room held anything useful. Why couldn't they have stumbled into the weapon's storeroom?
Kari gripped Atticus' upper arm. "Work your magic."
He frowned. "What?"
She waved her gun at the shelves. "We need something. These rifles are about as much good against a super-soldier as our pistols were against the enforcers."
"I can't make a weapon out of bananas and bandages."
Kari locked eyes with him. When they'd first met, she hadn't trusted him. But then he'd saved her life, and Piper's. And since then… he'd snaked his way into her trust without her even realizing it. But instead of hating him for it, she had to admit that she'd be long dead if not for him—Ryker and the others too. Back when she'd first met him she would never have dreamed of placing her own life, or Ryker's, into his hands. Now it was her only choice. "You've got this. I'll keep it busy."
Kari ducked through the doorway before he could say anything more, already firing. The kickback of her rifle slammed into her shoulder but the pain made her focus. Crackling blue bolts of energy careened from the rifle to light up the corridor, revealing the super-soldier. It stomped toward her, almost at the doorway now, its bulk taking up almost the whole passage and the top of its armored head brushing the ceiling.
The plasma blasts slammed into its chest, knocking it a little to the side, but not doing any real damage. Kari squeezed the trigger, bracing herself for the inevitable counterfire. Her shots left soot marks on its armor. She tried aiming for the joints at the shoulders, but they'd reinforced the material because even the powerful enforcer rifle couldn't do any damage.
The beast lifted its arm, aiming a long barrel that ran the length of its forearm at Kari's head.
Kari lurched to the side, pressing herself flat against the passage wall. A stream of heat brushed her spine, lifting her sweat-soaked hair. The wet blood on her clothes dried, giving off tendrils of steam. Her arms trembled. She had to move, or the hot blasts would reach her and turn her into a pile of smoking ash, but damn it was hard. Squeezing her eyes shut, she shoved away from the wall, crouching and running toward the soldier, even though every instinct said to run away. She hurled her rifle to the ground. It clattered and bounced on the metal floor. It would do no good against the soldier, she needed to be creative.
Fiery blasts raced over her head, heating her skull and making her hair burn her skin where it touched. She dived under the soldier's arm, twisting between it and the wall so that she ended up behind the creature. Smooth metal plates shielded its back, overlaid at the neck and giving no point of weakness. It wasn't even like the enforcer armor where she could have disabled the helmet.
When they'd tried converting Ryker before, the metal plates of armor had been fused into the flesh of his arm, becoming part of him, impossible to remove. Thoughts of Ryker made her stomach churn—while she wasted time here, he could be dying, or becoming one of these monsters.
The soldier rounded on her, the barrel of its gun glowing hot.
Nowhere to run.
Kari staggered forward. If she could just get under the gun then maybe she could avoid the worst of the blast. But already heat poured from the muzzle, making her cheeks sting and drying her eyes. No way could she get out of the way in time. She tensed, ready for the blast to consume her.
A figure streaked out of the doorway beside the monster, slammed into its side, and knocked it a step off balance. The super-soldier's gun jerked to the side as it fired, the blast careening into the wall. Metal turned white hot, twisting in on itself around a blackened crater.
Kari leaped away. Heat singed her legs but nothing compared to the pile of ash she would have been if the blast had hit her full on.
The monster roared.
Wren clung to its left arm, blood pouring from her injuries and coating the soldier's armor in slick, red streaks.
Kari took a half step forward. Wren's arms and legs wrapped around the thing's arm, like a monkey clinging to a tree. A metal knife glinted in her left hand, lying flat against the armor.
The super-soldier flicked its arm, trying to shake Wren loose. She grimaced but kept hold. With a groan, she eased the hand holding the knife away from the monster. Metal glinted, dotted with dull spots of dried blood. Wren slid the knife up, toward the soldier's neck. Kari floundered, hoping that Wren had seen an opening that she had somehow missed.
A dull clatter of falling items came from inside the storeroom. Kari had to hope that Atticus would look after himself because she couldn't leave Wren now, not clinging to a super-soldier.
The beast's massive hand opening wide as it reached for Wren.
"Wren!" Kari cast around for a weapon. Stupid for her to throw her rifle away; better to have that than nothing. The gun gleamed on the floor on the other side of the soldier. To get it, Kari would have to slide past the beast and risk being shot or crushed in the process. No time for that.
The soldier's second hand clamped around Wren's neck, large enough for the thumb and fingers to touch. Wren's eyes bulged. She slashed at the creature's neck but her knife made dull clinking noises against the smooth metal of armored plates.
Kari hurtled forward with a roar. No time for a plan. Within a step of the beast she leaped, hands outstretched for the armored arm strangling Wren. Kari snatched the smooth metal, slipped, managed to get hold. Her exhausted arms ached but she kept her grip, her legs dangling beneath her.
A surprised noise rumbled from the super-soldier. Kari's sudden weight had dragged its arm down. It might have snapped Wren's neck—something Kari hadn't thought of before she jumped—but thankfully it had lost its grip. It roared and shook both its arms. Kari squeezed her eyes shut, holding on with all her strength. Her lower body whipped back and forth, brain jostling inside her skull.
The beast paused and Kari risked opening her eyes. Wren stared at her with black eyes from the other side of the creature's chest. Sweat gleamed on her pale face. Now that she was closer, Kari could see the way Wren's muscles tensed and writhed beneath her skin, not wholly in control. The poison. How much longer did Wren have? But Kari couldn't say anything. They both knew the truth. If one of them gave up the fight now, the other one would die. Ryker would be converted, and one by one the others would be killed. So both Kari and Wren stayed clinging to the super-soldier, dragging its arms down.
Kari strained her neck to look up into the gleaming glass faceplate. Both of them stuck in a stalemate. But how long until more enforcers—or worse, more super-soldiers—arrived? Then she and Wren would be picked off like stray asteroids circling Albion.
Time. They needed more time. Atticus would come up with something, but he couldn't very well pull something out of thin air. Kari and Wren had to buy him time. But how long had it been? How long did he need? Already the muscles and tendons in Kari's shoulder felt stretched to breaking point. Every few moments, the soldier flicked its arms. Each time, Kari's grip on its armor slipped, her aching fingers giving way.
The soldier raised its arms and whipped them, front, back, front. Wren grunted, meeting Kari's gaze as she slipped. Wren fell away from the soldier, tossed into the air by the force of its movements. She slammed into the wall to their left and crumpled to the floor. The muscles in her arms and legs twitched and convulsed even though she appeared unconscious.
Kari wanted to rush to Wren's side but she couldn't let go.
The soldier lifted its free hand, aiming the gun that ran along its forearm at Wren's twisted body. Kari kicked and writhed, trying to pull the soldier off balance, or at least throw its aim, but it was too strong. Its shining faceplate turned toward her and she saw her own fear-filled face staring back at her. The soldier drew back and slammed its free arm into Kari's ribs.
Air exploded from her lungs as a bright ball of pain encased her chest. She lost her grip, slipped. The force of the blow hurled her against the wall opposite Wren. Kari's shoulder hit first, creating another point of agony, then the rest of her body crashed into the wall, fell, and slammed into the floor. She groaned, trying to catch her breath, but her lungs refused to work. Curling into a ball, she prepared to feel the hard kick of the soldier. Or perhaps he'd make it quick and just shoot her.
"Kari, Wren! Cover your heads."
Kari's body didn't want to move, too much pain encased her, but she forced her arms up as best she could so that they fell across her face. A moment later, a rumbling roar filled the corridor, followed by a solid thud and the scrape of metal on metal.
Kari sat, her tortured lungs drawing in a single breath.
The super-soldier lay crumpled in the corridor, Atticus standing over it with an exposed cable in one hand, held far from his body.
Kari clamped a hand to her injured side; probably a few broken ribs. "What did you do?"
Atticus lifted the cable a half inch. "Metal conducts electricity."
"Is it dead?"
"I doubt it."
"Better keep hold of that thing then." Kari dragged her injured body along the floor until she sat beside the fallen soldier. If she could just find a way to remove the faceplate or get to the neck then she could kill it and save them all trouble in the future. With one hand on her chest, she used the other to search for cracks or clasps.
"Is Wren okay?" Atticus said.
Kari glanced over the soldier's chest to Wren's twitching body. "I don't know." In other circumstances, Kari would have gone to her. But she had to deal with the soldier first, then they had to find Ryker.
Her probing fingers dug deep beneath the overlapping plates at the soldier's neck and there she found it: a single clasp. There was no way the soldier would be able to reach it on its own, not with its thick, armored fingers.
Kari flicked the connector and wrenched the helmet back.
Her heart lurched and she fell back, all pain in her ribs forgotten.
"Stars!" Atticus whispered, stepping away until he bumped into the wall.
Kari reached out a shaking hand but couldn't bring herself to touch the scarred face. "Ryker."
Kari's injuries faded to the back of her mind, replaced by a deep heartache. Strips of metal buried deep into Ryker's neck, fused to his skin in patches of burnt and twisted flesh. Cuts and bruises marked his cheeks beneath patches of dried blood.
"You killed him," she said.
"No." Atticus knelt beside Kari, the exposed cable held out to the other side. He pressed his free hand to Ryker's neck. "He's still alive."
Relief flooded through Kari.
"We have to kill him." Wren's sharp eyes gleamed. She must have woken at some point, although she hadn't moved from her crumpled position against the wall.
"We're not killing him," Kari said.
"He's gone," Wren said. The poison had its claws in deep because she almost sounded sad.
"He's not gone," Kari said. "I brought him back once before, I'll do it again."
"We don't have time. They still have Piper, remember?"
Kari's stomach twisted. Piper. The longer she stayed here, the longer Piper was left to whatever these monsters had planned for her. But she couldn't leave Ryker; no doubt Wren would kill him as soon as she got a chance.
"They'll send more soldiers," Atticus said. "We can't stay here."
The corners of Kari's eyes stung but she blinked the tears away. No time for weakness. The Imperium would not take anyone else she cared about. Ryker would come back to his old self and she would destroy every last trace of these bastards. "Help me drag him into the storeroom."
Atticus looked ready to argue but one glance from Kari silenced him. He trudged inside and deposited the live cable out of the way before returning and hooking his hands around one of Ryker's giant arms. Kari took the other.
They strained. Atticus' face went from red to purple. Kari's arms burned, her back cried out. Ryker had been heavy before, but now, with the armor and metal plates, he had to weigh at least four hundred pounds. Inch by inch they dragged him through the narrow doorway into the storeroom. The metal of his armor screeched on the floor. Halfway through, the armored plate of his left leg got caught on the doorframe, pinning him in place.
Kari eased his arm to the floor, sweat streaming down her face, and unhooked the armored plate. When she tried to lift his arm again it weighed twice as much to her exhausted limbs. Only by focusing on his face, by thinking of all the times he'd saved her life, was she able to draw enough strength to drag him the rest of the way into the room.
Wren appeared at the doorway a moment later, her bandaged right hand clutched to her chest while her legs trembled and jerked every few moments. "Now what?"
Kari straightened, standing over Ryker and shaking her head. She knew a little about brainwashing people but not enough. Besides, that needed time, something they definitely didn't have. "We keep him here while we find Piper," she said, mind racing. "Then all of us get the hell off this ship. We go somewhere quiet and find a way to get through to him."
"He'll never stay here while we're finding Piper," Wren said. "I'm surprised he hasn't woken up already."
Kari fiddled with her necklace. Wren had a point. With Ryker's new, augmented body, he wouldn't stay unconscious for long. Then what? "Grab whatever rope and cables you can find," she said, already scanning the shelves.
"Rope won't hold him," Atticus said.
"It's better than nothing."
Kari ignored her aching back and exhausted muscles as she scrounged through the room for anything useful. With ropes, cables, zip-ties, and scraps of cloth, she tied Ryker's wrists and ankles together as tight as she could. One rope wouldn't hold him, but maybe a dozen would.
"Atticus, bring the cable," Kari said.
He returned from the corner of the room with the thick chord held away from his body.
"If he tries anything, you zap him," Kari said. She didn't like it, would have much preferred that no one hurt Ryker again, but she couldn't risk all of their lives—including Piper's. Besides, the voltage hadn't killed Ryker last time and she had to believe he'd survive a second blast.
"You're going to leave me alone with him?" Atticus said.
Kari wished that she could clone herself. She didn't trust anyone else to find and save Piper, but she also didn't trust anyone else to look after Ryker. It felt like sacrificing one to save the other. She drew a deep breath. Hadn't Atticus come through for her when she asked him to find something? And Wren might have murderous intentions, but hadn't she just saved Kari's life by leaping out at Ryker, despite the danger to herself?
"Wren will stay with you," Kari said. It didn't look like Wren would be moving very far anyway.
"You're going alone?" Atticus said.
"I have to find Piper."
"What about when he wakes up?" Wren said.
"You keep him here. Try to talk to him."
"He won't listen."
"Don't you dare kill him," Kari said, locking eyes with Wren. "He's not a target."
"If he tries to kill me, I'll kill him first," Wren said, cold eyes unblinking.
Kari clenched her jaw. Could she really begrudge Wren the right to defend herself? Logically, no, but Kari knew in her heart that if Wren killed Ryker she'd never forgive her.
"We'll keep him here," Atticus said.
Ryker stirred, head twisting.
Kari, Atticus and Wren took a step back, though Atticus kept the cable up and ready.
Ryker's eyes flicked open, bloodshot. His gaze whipped around the room, coming to rest on Kari and her companions. He snarled, made to stand, but his tied hands and ankles made him struggle.
"Stay down," Kari said, doing her best to keep her voice steady.
Spittle sprayed from his mouth as he writhed into a sitting position. He tried to lift his bound arms, no doubt to shoot at them with the barrels fused to his wrists, but they'd tied his hands to his feet, forcing the guns to aim at his own legs.
"Ryker, it's me." Kari's heart broke to see him struggle on the ground like a bound animal.
He didn't seem to hear, too focused on trying to snap the ropes that held his wrists to his ankles. The thick cord stretched but for the moment the fibers held.
Part of Kari knew she needed to go, needed to find Piper. But on the other hand, how could she leave Ryker like this? She needed to get through to him. No matter how good Atticus was at tinkering, or Wren was at killing, neither of them would be able to reach Ryker like she could. She knew him. Probably better than he knew himself.
With tears in her eyes, Kari knelt, doing her best to catch Ryker's wild gaze, but his head flicked and twitched, much like his arms and legs as he fought against the rope.
"Ryker," she said, voice trembling. "Please, look at me."
The last time, when they'd almost converted him, she'd managed to bring him back by reminding him of the promise they'd made to never hurt each other. "Ryker, you didn't hurt me last time. We always have each other's backs, right? The Imperium can screw themselves and Raxis burn before—"
He snarled louder and wrenched his arms up. The cable tying them to his legs held but he managed to move enough to clip Kari on the chin with an armored elbow. The force of it sent her head ringing. She sprawled backward, stars flashing in her eyes.
Atticus lurched forward, the cable outstretched.
"No!" Kari said. "It's fine." She sat, massaging her aching jaw. She'd managed to avoid biting her tongue in half but damn that hurt. One of her teeth jiggled in its socket next to the gaping hole in her gum.
This time she stayed out of Ryker's reach. He'd returned to snarling and spitting as he wrestled against the rope. He'd only exploded at her when she mentioned their pact. Was that part of the brainwashing? Making him stop anything that might bring him back? It made sense. But it also made it even more dangerous to try to get through to him.
"Atticus, be ready," she said. "And stay out of his reach."
Kari didn't stand, although that would have made it easier to get out of Ryker's way if he lunged at her. She needed to keep on eye-level; she needed him to be able to see her.
"Ryker, I'm not going to hurt you. I've got your back." True enough—technically Atticus had the electric cable.
Ryker's head snapped up. He bared his teeth.
"We could have flown away from here," Kari said. "We could have left Raxis forever. We talked about it after the end of the rebellion, remember?" They'd been so young then, so naive. "But you made us stay because you wanted to change things. You wanted to get your place on Albion and make things better."
Tears came to Kari's eyes but this time she didn't blink them away. "I think you could have done it too. Even though I made fun of you. If anyone could have changed Albion, it was you."
Ryker's movements became more violent. His shoulder muscles bulged as he strained to pull his arms apart. The ropes stretched, tiny fibers snapping. The thicker cables held, but for how much longer?
Kari hoped that meant she was getting through to him. "I'm sorry we couldn't change it the way you wanted. We ended up having to use violence. But, Ryker, I can't do it without you."
He roared, head tilted toward the ceiling, and wrenched his arms apart. The ropes snapped, the ends flicking aside. The thicker cable held a moment longer but without the support of the ropes it stretched, became thin, and broke apart with an audible crack.
Ryker lunged, despite his tied feet, and snatched Kari around the neck with one massive hand. The momentum of his leap carried them both through the air until Kari landed on her back, Ryker above her, his hand pinning her to the ground at her neck.
"Kari!" Atticus appeared over Ryker's shoulder, the cable in his hand. He danced from foot to foot, face pale.
Kari understood. If he used the cable on Ryker, the voltage would no doubt kill her. She let Atticus fade into the back of her awareness and instead stared into Ryker's eyes. The pressure of his hand on her throat cut off her blood supply. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears and her skull felt heavy, bloated. Her breath scraped past his grip. He hadn't quite squeezed hard enough to choke her completely, although how much longer she could cling to consciousness she didn't know.
His brown eyes looked just the same as they always had, albeit bloodshot. Scars and blood covered his face between chunks of fused metal, but those eyes hadn't changed. In them she saw her old friend, her ally. He had to still be there.
Her vision shrank, becoming darker. Her thoughts slowed, reduced to a single idea; she had to save Ryker. Her limbs moved as if through a thick paste, but eventually her right hand gripped her plasma pistol and pulled it free. She lifted it slowly, sure to let Ryker see. One shot into his exposed head would kill him—no armor plates to protect him there.
His eyes widened, just a fraction. He understood.
Kari smiled and deliberately placed the gun on the ground to her side. "I never would," she whispered through the narrow straw of her throat.
Ryker's eyes widened and the pressure on Kari's neck eased just enough for her to draw a ragged breath that pushed the darkness at the edges of her vision away. Clarity brought pain, focused mainly on her bruised windpipe but none of that mattered. In Ryker's face, a battle raged, the muscles at his jaw twitching and his mouth twisting, like spirits fighting for control inside him.
"Ryker," Kari said, hoarse.
His gaze snapped to her and his grip on her throat tightened once more, choking the breath out of her. Her pulse beat at her temples.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Sheer rage clutched Ryker's expression as he bore down on her, as if she were a hated enemy that he had to crush.
Wren appeared over Ryker's shoulder, a gleaming blade in her hand. A quick slash to the back of Ryker's neck, or a jab up into his brainstem would take care of it, would free Kari. "No," she whispered. Wren would hear, or lip read, or at least know. She had to. It took all of Kari's courage to say that tiny word. Wren couldn't kill Ryker. She just couldn't. Besides, Ryker would come around, he'd see.
As if in answer, the grip on Kari's throat eased and she managed another ragged breath, more painful than the first thanks to new bruises. How much more could her windpipe take before it collapsed?
Ryker sat higher, his weight still pinning her to the ground. His head twitched side to side, expression shifting between rage and fear, between determination and confusion. His hand pulsed in time with his expression; tight, loose, tight, loose, in a gagging cycle that made Kari's head spin. She had to cling to consciousness. If she fell then Wren would kill Ryker without hesitation. Wren might have come to appreciate Ryker in their time together—although it was hard to tell with that woman—but she'd still kill him.
Snarls and growls emanated from the back of Ryker's throat. Metal plates at his cheeks rubbed his flesh each time he moved his head, leaving red lines of raw flesh. Kari could only imagine the battle going on inside him. His own personality fighting against whatever brainwashing Jic's doctors had done.
"Come on, Ryker," she said.
He tightened his grip on her neck, the brainwashed part of him knew that to win, he had to silence Kari. The sudden pressure choked Kari mid-breath. She tried to cough but couldn't, her chest convulsing to clear her airways but failing. Bright spots danced in front of her eyes. Must. Stay. Conscious.
He grimaced, revealing blood-stained gums. His right hand swung around, gripping hold of his left, trying to pull it away from her neck. Pressure built up behind Kari's eyes, threatening to push her eyeballs from their sockets. They bulged, blood building up behind them. Heat covered her face, pulsing, gluing hair to her cheeks with sweat.
The tendons in Ryker's massive arms stood out between metal plates as he fought against himself. His right hand won a small victory, pulling his left a half-inch from Kari's neck. She drew a breath, only to have it cut off a second later by the left hand snapping closed once more.
Veins stood out on Ryker's forehead like pulsing, angry snakes. She wanted to speak to him, to ease his pain, but she'd run out of breath for words, now she had to focus on keeping her eyes open. Ryker's battle had passed out of her control, but what about Piper? While Kari lay trapped under Ryker's weight, anything could be happening to her. And what about the enforcers, the other super-soldiers, whoever actually ran this place? They had to know what was going on, were probably watching her at that very instant. They wouldn't let Kari and her companions save Piper, they'd be planning something. Perhaps they'd even…
Kari shut down that line of thought, allowing the pulsing numbness of oxygen deprivation to carry it away. They wouldn't hurt Piper; they wouldn't dare. She was too valuable to them alive. The same couldn't be said for Kari and the others though. If Ryker didn't kill her now, they were bound to have something else planned, something bad.
A long, wailing howl escaped Ryker's lips, bringing Kari back to awareness. She'd been close to drifting off to sleep—or death. Ryker writhed on top of her, his hands still clamped together, the left still clutching her throat. She needed to breathe. The inescapable need clutched her chest, making her gasp and kick like a dying fish, sucking against her closed windpipe. This was it.
Wren loomed closer, silver blade gleaming.
Kari tried to shake her head, to say no, but she couldn't. Every muscle in her body had only one purpose—getting air. But even with the strength of the dying, she couldn't throw Ryker's weight off her chest.
Her arms weighed a hundred pounds as she raised them, wrapped them around Ryker's left hand. The cold armor made her skin crawl. She tightened her grip, meaning to add her strength to his right hand in an effort to get rid of the left. But as soon as she touched him, his eyes widened and his gaze flew to her face. The old Ryker. She could see him in the shadowed corners of his eyes, pained and desperate.
Instead of fighting, she gripped his hand tight, holding it in hers, ignoring the armored plates and trusting that he could feel her anyway. They'd been friends a long time, knew each other well enough that they didn't need words most of the time. She hoped that was true now as she locked eyes with him, trying to put everything she felt into that gaze, hoping to get through to him.
Muscles twitched across his face but his eyes stayed locked with hers.
Kari's vision darkened. But that was okay, she didn't blame Ryker. She blamed the damn Imperium and everything they'd done. Even though she wouldn't survive to see it, she knew the Imperium would end, and FutureFarm too eventually. The people had seen too much, knew too much. It had to end.
She gave Ryker's hand a last squeeze with all the strength she had left, ready for the darkness to swallow her.
The pressure on her throat snapped away.
Kari's body reacted of its own accord, dragging in a deep breath that chafed her bruised windpipe. Everything snapped into focus. She hadn't even realized how blurry everything had become until the bright lights in the ceiling above bloomed, highlighting the raging red of blood on Ryker's armor, accompanied by the sharp tones of Atticus and Wren arguing.
Ryker's hands pulled away, wrenching free of Kari's grip. He tilted to the side and rolled, landing with his back on the floor beside Kari. Both of them stared at the ceiling, breathing hard.
It took Kari a long time to regain her breath. By then, Atticus was kneeling at her side although she couldn't focus on his words. As soon as strength returned to her muscles, she pulled herself up, ignoring the deep, bruised pain in her throat every time she swallowed, or breathed, or moved her head. She dragged herself the half foot to Ryker's side and looked down into his eyes. His gaze flicked from the ceiling, troubled, pained, terrified.
A small flicker of fear bloomed inside Kari's chest. What if he turned again and tried to strangle her? She didn't think she could take another bout of that, not without permanent damage. And how much longer would Wren and Atticus hold back?
"I'm sorry," he said.
Relief flooded Kari. Her head dropped to his armored shoulder so that none of them would see the gleam of tears in her eyes. "You're okay."
"No. None of us are."
Kari braced her exhausted arms on the floor and pushed herself to her feet. She swayed, the room spinning around her so that for a moment, two Rykers lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling. The only part of him she recognized was his face, armor plates covered the rest of him, turning him into another monstrous soldier of the Imperium. She staggered, steadying herself on the wall. She couldn't think like that. This was Ryker, her Ryker. And he was no Imperium soldier. He'd proved that.
"We have to find Piper," Kari said. Her voice sounded like that of someone who'd been inhaling the black smog of the lower tunnels for forty years. It scraped her raw throat, stinging.
Ryker sat up. "You still haven't got her?"
Kari gestured at the small storage room, not wanting to talk any more than she had to.
"I've got bad news." Wren crouched near the door, one hand placed flat on the floor. "More soldiers."
"Enforcers?" Kari rasped.
"Some. But more of him too."
Ryker hung his head.
Kari took a half step toward Wren, her fingernails digging into her palms. "He's not one of them."
Wren shrugged. "Either way, they're big, armored, and coming this way."
"Take it back!"
Wren's sharp eyes moved between Kari and Ryker but she said nothing.
"She's right," Ryker mumbled.
"She's not. You're nothing like them."
"Look at your neck! Bloody hell, it's a miracle your head didn't fall off." He still didn't look up from the floor.
Kari fell to her knees in front of him and tried to catch his eye but he kept looking away. "This isn't your fault. None of it."
"They've turned me into a monster."
Atticus snorted. "You want to see monster, look at this." He gestured to the burned and twisted flesh of his face and arms. Kari winced just looking at it. How much pain must the old man be in?
"They tortured all of us," Kari said. "And you're no more to blame for what they did to you, than the rest of us are for what happened to us."
Ryker glanced at each of them in turn before his gaze locked on Kari. "What did they do to you?"
She drew a ragged breath. "They made me watch."
"All of you." She hated the memories, but she needed to make Ryker see that it wasn't his fault. She hated having to talk even more, every word like a razor down her throat. But she had to make Ryker see, had to make him understand. "They made me watch you being converted."
Ryker's face reddened and he started to look away again but Kari grabbed his face, forcing him to look at her. "They made me watch Atticus haul hunks of rock and almost get burned alive. They made me watch Wren fight a member of the Guild. And Piper…"
Fear flashed over Ryker's face. "What did they do to Piper?"
"They're experimenting on her. Carrying on from where they left off at the facility."
"We have to find her."
A single ding rang through the room. Atticus frowned down at Jic's communicator. "Someone's trying to get hold of the captain, asking what happened."
"They're a bit late getting their information," Kari said.
Atticus shook his head, scrolling through the communicator. "I should have gone through this before. Senator Kimchan has sent him a half dozen messages. She's furious. Apparently his people are holding to military protocol and not telling her anything."
"Senator Kimchan?" Kari said. She remembered the woman from the farce trial where she and her companions had been sentenced to life in the Tulon prison mine. A hard face with cruel, mocking eyes.
Atticus' eyes widened. "She's here."
"What?" Kari and Ryker said in unison.
"On this ship. Along with a bunch of others. I don't recognize some of the names but others… these are important people. There's a message chain about a meeting. I think Senator Kimchan is in charge of everything."
"Remember those soldiers I mentioned?" Wren said.
"How long?" Kari said.
"Five minutes tops."
Kari bit her lip. They needed to know what else was in Jic's messages. It could be the information they needed to get the hell off this ship and save Zenith, but they didn't have time. "Atticus, try to read and run at the same time. Piper is being held six floors down. We move. Now!"
"There was an elevator in this corridor," Wren said. "We take that down, hopefully lose these soldiers."
Kari nodded once.
Wren stood, wrenched open the door, and slipped into the corridor. Her shoulder bumped the doorframe on the way out. In anyone else, Kari probably wouldn't have noticed, but for Wren, it was the same as seeing a normal person bang their head repeatedly against a wall. Something was very wrong. Wren's legs trembled as she walked, throwing her in an erratic line down the hall to the elevator where she jabbed the call button.
Vibrations shook the floor, resolving into heavy footsteps. It sounded like a whole troop of soldiers. No way could Kari and her companions survive that. Not in the close confines of the passage, and not with Wren how she was. Kari snatched her rifle from the floor as she hurried to join Wren.
The metal doors in front of them slid open to reveal a shiny box. They piled inside. Ryker had to bend low and tuck his enormous arms around his body to fit. A shadow passed over his face. Kari knew what he was thinking—would he ever be free of the armor?
The doors slid shut and the elevator dropped. Gentle music floated from unseen speakers, making Kari's back tingle. It didn't seem right that a ship like this, full of human experimentation and torture, should have classical music in their elevators.
They stopped six floors down and the doors slid open, revealing a man in a white coat with a tablet in one hand. He went to step into the elevator, then glanced up at his traveling companions. His mouth dropped wide as he took a stumbling step back.
Ryker lashed out, hand snatching the man's neck and pinning him against the wall, feet dangling off the ground. Kari hurried out, the others right behind.
"Ryker, just put him down," Kari said. "The people in charge already know where we are, there's no point killing him."
"Don't you recognize him?"
In truth, Kari had barely glanced at the man. He worked for the Imperium—or for Jic, she hadn't quite worked out the difference—another faceless drone, but getting to Piper was her only priority. The man had turned a shade of purple under Ryker's crushing grip—Kari could sympathize with that—but his thick lips stood out like purple slugs around his mouth. Now Kari recognized him.
"He was one of the ones in the room with you."
"He turned me into this," Ryker said.
Heat flooded Kari's face. The man's right to live was far less sure now.
"Please," the man said. "I was just following orders. They would have fired me if I hadn't—"
"Fired you?" Ryker shook him so that his head smacked against the wall. "Fired you? You turned me into a monster."
"It's not my fault. I was just following orders. I—"
Kari stepped back, letting her hands fall to her sides. The man deserved whatever he got. Both she and Ryker had agreed long ago that there was a special kind of hell for people who used 'following orders' as an excuse for the terrible things they did.
Atticus fidgeted. "Surely we can—"
"No," Kari said. "This is Ryker's."
Besides, she didn't believe any of these Imperium bastards really deserved a fair trial, or mercy. Had they shown it to any of their prisoners? And what was this man doing on this floor now anyway? Had he been seeing Piper? Experimenting on her?
A sour taste filled Kari's mouth. She wouldn't have minded a little bit of vengeance of her own, but Ryker deserved this one. He'd suffered more than any of them.
"Not that I care what you do with that dweeb," Wren said between ragged breaths. "But I'm on a clock." She stood with one hand against the wall, head down. Sweat poured from her, pooling on the floor.
"A shame," Ryker said. "I would have liked to draw this out."
"Please," the white-coated man said. He kicked and thrashed, tugging at Ryker's armored hand, but his struggle was as useless as Kari's had been.
Ryker's arm tensed. The man's face turned a darker shade of purple, eyes bulging. He scrabbled at Ryker's hand, tugged and fought, until he lost the strength and his arms fell limp at his sides. Ryker kept squeezing until a sharp pop filled the corridor, then he released the man. The body crumpled when it hit the floor, glassy eyes staring.
Kari turned away from him. The man deserved everything he got, but that didn't mean she wanted to spend time gloating over his corpse.
The elevator behind them dinged, doors easing shut.
"Oh, shit," Kari said. She lunged forward, dropping her hand between the closing doors just before they snapped shut. The sensors beeped and the doors sprang open again.
"What are you doing?" Ryker said.
"Enforcers can ride elevators too," Kari said. She cast around for anything to hold the door open and keep the elevator on this floor. Her eyes fell to the dead man's body. "Drag that here."
Ryker scowled but snatched hold of a limp hand and dragged the corpse so that it lay half in and half out of the elevator. "I'm not a piece of muscle you can order around."
"Sure you are," Kari said. "Nothing's changed."
The elevator started a continuous string of beeps.
"There are other ways down to this level," Atticus said.
"But this one came out right on our asses," Kari said. "Better it's blocked. Come on."
She hurried down the passage, leaving the beeping elevator and the corpse behind. Ryker's footsteps clanged. He'd never been able to move quietly, now it was like running with a rusty mine-cart at her side. Still, she'd rather have him with her than the alternative.
"Piper's room is just around the next corner," Atticus said.
"Bad news," Wren said, coming to a rasping stop. She leaned against the wall with her shoulder, lifting her rifle. At any other time, Wren would have gone for her knife, the fact that she went for her gun instead left a bad feeling in Kari's gut.
"Soldiers?" Kari said. At least the constant fear and adrenalin helped to numb the pain in her throat.
"Two enforcers and a super," Wren said. "Based on the footsteps. Around the next corner, coming this way."
"Do they know we're here?"
Wren gave Kari a flat look. Kari shrugged. Okay, it had been a stupid question, what with the cameras and Ryker's footsteps. No alcoves or rooms for them to take cover in, leaving them with a full-on shoot out in the narrow confines of a corridor. The enforcers and the super-soldier would have armor. Kari, Wren and Atticus had nothing.
"Stand aside," Ryker said. He shouldered past Kari, his massive armor filling most of the corridor. He flipped his helmet into place. It clicked, leaving him gleaming in the passage, faceless and nameless just like any of the other super-soldiers.
Kari's stomach roiled. She wouldn't recognize him. Sure, with his helmet off and face revealed, he was her old Ryker. But like this? He could be anyone.
Atticus grabbed Kari's sleeve, pulling her behind the relative shelter of Ryker's torso. She didn't like using her best friend as a shield, but he had a better chance of surviving than she did.
A moment later, a super-soldier flanked by two enforcers rounded the corner. They fired as soon as they came into the corridor. Smaller blasts from the enforcers' rifles, and deep, booming blasts from the super-soldier. The shots from the enforcers hit Ryker's armor and bounced off, not even leaving dents. The electric tang of spent plasma filled the air.
The super-soldier's blast filled the whole corridor with heat. It crackled and popped, like a living thing as it streamed toward Ryker's chest. The passage left no room for dodging or escaping, so the shot hit home. It knocked Ryker back.
Kari, Atticus and Wren had to scramble not to be crushed by Ryker's stumbling feet. As he twisted to regain balance, Kari could see the caved-in plate of his chest armor. A few more shots like that and he'd be dead.
She swallowed. No.
Before the enforcers could fire again, Kari leaned out from behind Ryker and fired twice. The blasts from her enforcer-issued rifle slammed into their heads, knocking them both off their feet and leaving smoking ruins at the ends of their necks.
Ryker whistled. "Lucky shots."
But Kari couldn't enjoy their usual banter. Not when the super-soldier at the other end of the corridor leveled his gun at Ryker's head. Would the helmet withstand a blast like that? Probably not. And even if the armor survived, the force of the blow could kill Ryker. She knew from past battles that the enforcer rifles would do nothing against the super-soldier, but she fired anyway.
Streams of plasma filled the corridor, slamming into the soldier's helmet, chest and arm. It didn't even knock him off balance. Atticus and Wren added their firepower to hers. Still nothing.
The opposing super-soldier growled, then fired. But he'd adjusted his aim. Instead of shooting at Ryker's head, he went for Kari, standing just to the right of Ryker. Unlike the super-soldiers, Kari had room to move in the corridor. She darted left, behind Ryker. The shot went wide, slamming into the corridor wall and leaving a gaping hole in the metal. The lights overhead flickered and went out, replaced a second later by red emergency lights. The sound of water, dripping from the wall and forming a puddle around Kari's feet.
The red emergency glow revealed the innards of the wall; the blast had burned through pipes and wires. Frayed cords spat sparks that hissed as they hit the water pouring out of a dented pipe.
Kari's gaze slipped once more to the growing puddle at her feet. Water and electricity did not mix well. "We need to move."
"Would love to," Ryker said. "But minor problem of—"
Another blast from the super-soldier lit the corridor. The fiery ball seemed to fill the whole passage, bearing down on them like a small sun.
"Shit," Kari said.
The red blast sizzled and snapped, reflecting off Ryker's gleaming armor. It skimmed just over Ryker's shoulder, aimed at Atticus.
Heat filled the narrow corridor, evaporating the sweat on Kari's face. It sucked the oxygen out of the air at the same time so that she struggled to breathe. No need for her to die and go to hell. She was already there. She made to reach across the corridor for Atticus but too slow; the blast was already on them.
Wren's hand snapped out, faster than Kari would have thought possible. The woman retained some of her old reflexes then, even half dead. Wren yanked Atticus out of the way of the plasma. The blast chewed through the corridor wall on the other side, revealing more wires and creating a matching hole for the one beside Kari.
Escaping gas created a soft hiss.
"Butane," Wren said a second later.
"Run." Kari shoved Ryker forward, toward the massive super-soldier at the end of the corridor.
Ryker lifted his gun, sighting at the super-soldier. Kari snatched hold and wrenched the barrel down just before Ryker squeezed the trigger.
"What the hell?" he said, pulling free of her and coming to a stop. "Are you trying to shoot off my feet?"
She shoved him but it was like moving a mountain. "Do you know what will happen if you fire your gun when we're standing next to an open butane line?"
Ryker's armored head swung between Kari and the hole in the wall with the hissing pipe.
"You're about to find out," Atticus said.
At the end of the corridor, the super-soldier lifted his weapon and fired. This time he'd aimed the shot at Ryker's head. Kari had no illusions; a shot like that would reduce even the special armor to a molten puddle, Ryker's head along with it. Then they'd all burst into flames from the explosion at their backs.
"Duck and run," she bellowed.
Ryker was already bending, scrunching his armored body as low as it would go and barreling down the corridor. Wren, Atticus and Kari ran behind him, using his body as a shield.
The super-soldier's blast passed just over Ryker's head. The metal at the very top of the helmet turned black and bubbled in places. Kari kept running as she watched the shot zoom over her head. A few yards further down the passage, near the hole in the wall, the blast encountered butane. Flames burst out, growing and spreading toward the wall. Heat scoured the air, dry and deadly, burning the backs of Kari's legs.
"Oh shit," Kari said.
"Blast radius too big," Wren said.
Kari clenched her teeth. "Keep running." She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder, the super-soldier at the end of the corridor her only focus. He could have killed them all if he'd just fired again. They had nowhere to run and if he aimed a little lower, Ryker would have no way to get out of the way of the blast. But the soldier didn't move. His gleaming armor reflected the growing ball of fire behind Kari and her companions. He took a single step forward.
Kari leaned forward and ran faster. Ryker outpaced them all, his legs moving with mechanical precision and carrying him along the corridor as if he had wings. Meanwhile, Wren limped, falling behind for probably the first time in her life. Atticus stopped to help but she shoved him aside. Kari didn't bother slowing—if Wren wanted to live or die on her own, so be it.
Ryker bowled into the other super-soldier like a mining drill into a wall of katium. The blow carried them both back into the passage beyond. Ryker landed on top, drew back his armored fist, and slammed it into their enemy's helmet. The metal cracked and bent, revealing pink flesh beneath.
A deep boom sounded behind them. Kari snatched hold of Ryker's shoulder and hauled him to his feet. "We don't have time."
They staggered and ran, but the wall of heat behind them grew. Another deep boom and a sudden wave of heat and pressure caught them, lifting them off their feet—even Ryker in his armor—and hurling them down the passage. Kari's limbs jerked around her like a ragdoll as she tumbled through the air. Heat crackled over her flesh, leaving it red and raw, blistered in places. She slammed into a wall and dropped like a rock to the floor where she landed on her left elbow and her right knee. Ringing pain ran through both, forcing her to curl into a ball even as sirens wailed over her head and flames gleamed in the distance.
Groans from nearby. It might have been Wren, but Kari didn't have the strength to look. How far had the explosion spread? What if Piper had been caught in the blast? That gave Kari the strength to roll over and stand, using the wall for support. Pins and needles and ringing numbness raced from her elbow. Already it was swelling, turning a deep purple to match her distended knee. When she tried to put weight on her right leg it gave out. She would have fallen to the floor if a strong hand hadn't snatched hold of her waist and held her upright.
After the wave of pain subsided, she looked up into an armored face. Adrenalin surged through her but then eased. Ryker, his helmet up. It had to be.
"Are you okay?" he said.
She limped a step back from him, pulling away from his grip. "Just great."
Ryker knelt and hauled both Atticus and Wren to their feet, one on each arm. A deep cut on Atticus' forehead poured blood into his eye. He blinked, taking a few moments to regain his balance. New burns mixed with old, turning his skin to a red, blistered mess.
Wren looked like she should have died hours ago. The tremors that had been quaking her legs since they'd found Ryker had spread to her arms and her head so that she twitched like a person possessed. Dark bruises covered most of her skin, broken only by blisters, and some of her wounds had started bleeding again, making her ruined shirt gleam in the dim lights.
"Well, you all look like shit," Ryker said.
The corners of Kari's eyes stung. Of all the things he could have said… she was glad that was it. It proved that the old Ryker was still there, buried beneath the armor plating.
"You're one to talk," she said, voice husky.
"That blast is going to chew through your oxygen," Ryker said. "So if you have somewhere to be…"
Kari was already turning. "Piper." Every step hurt, agony racing up her injured leg. She kept the arm of her swollen elbow close to her chest in an effort to stop it moving. On any other day she'd be lying on the floor wishing for death. But not today. Not when Piper needed her.
Dull shuffling behind told her that Atticus and Wren were following, possibly with Ryker's help. Kari didn't look back. She couldn't. Any hesitation could send her to her knees and she didn't think she'd be able to get up again.
Not far now. She followed the directions she'd memorized; down the corridor, to the left. The heat at their backs faded, along with the wailing alarm. Sure, she'd intended to do some damage to the ship before they left, but that particular explosion was all self-inflicted. They should have thought about that when they gave the super-soldiers such powerful weapons. Probably they didn't expect the soldiers to have to fight inside their own ships. Stupid.
No doubt more soldiers and enforcers would be on their way, but Kari didn't care. Let them come. She'd find a way to beat them, to kill them, just like all the others. Nothing would keep her from Piper, not again.
They rounded a corner and came to a passage lined with doors. A medical cart with trays of needles and IV bags lay abandoned to the side of the passage. Kari's memories went back to the facility, the one they'd first rescued Piper from. This corridor looked just like it. The hand of Kari's uninjured arm curled into a fist. She'd fought so hard to shut that facility down and save the people inside, and the Imperium had just started it up again somewhere else! Didn't they care? Didn't they learn?
She limped down the corridor to room 111, leaving a trail of blood on the floor behind her. She took a deep breath and opened the door, arm already outstretched to engulf Piper in a long hug.
She staggered to a stop.
The others crowded the doorway behind her.
"She's gone," Kari whispered.
The sheets were mussed. Kari recognized the room from the video feed, but Piper was gone. Kari tried not to panic, but adrenalin surged through her veins and her heart pumped into overdrive. Where was she? Where did they take her? What if they'd killed her?
Wren staggered into the room with none of her usual grace. Her gaze jerked and stuttered across the bed, the desk. "They left in a hurry. I can't smell poison and there's no smell of plasma pistol. She was alive when they left here."
Kari's head spun. She leaned against the door to stay upright, twisting to look down the corridor they'd just come from in case Piper had somehow slipped past. Empty. Heavy breathing—her own. Kari stepped out into the passage, ready to run after Piper, wherever she was.
"Whoa." Ryker laid an armored hand on her shoulder.
"I have to find her." Kari tried to twist free.
"You've seen how big this ship is. There's no way you'll find her by running away like an NRG addict."
Kari's eyes burned. "Let go of me. I have to find her."
"Kari!" Ryker gave her a shake, his enhanced arms giving him added strength so that her teeth clicked. "Get it together."
"How am I supposed to get it together? They've taken Piper!"
Ryker's nostrils flared as he dragged her in close so that she could feel the heat pouring off his skin. "Look at me."
Kari swallowed. From so close she could see the way the metal plates burrowed into Ryker's flesh, twisting under his skin.
"Look at them." Ryker threw his other hand wide, encompassing Wren and Atticus.
Wren leaned against the wall, her eyes sunken in gray flesh and sweat creating dark circles on her shirt. Blood covered her, but that wasn't so unusual, what really struck Kari was the way Wren stood; slouched, hunched, no grace, no reflexes, no hidden menace.
Atticus' mouth twisted—an attempt at a smile perhaps—the blistered flesh of his face cracked, leaking clear fluid over his chin. His arms and hands looked like the shattered rock of a desert and his fingers curled in on themselves. Would he ever be able to tinker again?
"If the three of us can keep it together," Ryker said, his voice hard and unyielding. "Then damn right you can too."
Kari struggled to breathe, to drag air past her bruised throat. He was right. Even after having most of his humanity stripped away he was still more grounded than her. She drew herself up to her full height and Ryker allowed her to step out of his grip. What had she been thinking? She would have run off with no idea where to go and left the others behind. Then what? They would all have been captured again. She owed Ryker. Again.
"Right." Kari's voice grew stronger as she spoke. "We need to know what's happening. Atticus, what have you found on Jic's communicator?"
Atticus scrolled through the small device. "There are a bunch more messages from Senator Kimchan."
"The good news is she and most of the others are still on board. Jic's enforcers still haven't told them what's happening and I doubt they'd abandon ship for a few escaped prisoners anyway."
"But what about Piper?"
"Hang on. They don't use her name so it's hard to search."
Kari forced herself not to fidget. Given how much pain Ryker, Atticus and Wren must be in, the least she could do was stand still.
"There are old messages here from Doctor Flabrovy."
"Who?" Kari said.
"You need to pay more attention to politics," Ryker said. "He's Minister of Science. Has been for a while."
"Anyway," Atticus said. "He was eager to get hold of Piper. It sounds like they don't have many next-gens left and the ones they do have are all deployed." Atticus' burned fingers trembled as he scrolled through the messages. Kari's need for control made her hands twitch to snatch the communicator from him but she resisted. He knew what he was doing.
The communicator dinged.
"Another message from Senator Kimchan," Atticus said. "She says that Doctor Flabrovy is taking 'the asset'—it has to be Piper—to one of his own facilities. She's also threatening to leave if he doesn't tell her what's going on."
Heat raced over Kari's cheeks. How dare they refer to Piper as an asset. She was a person just like them dammit. No, better than them. "Send her a message from Jic's communicator. If she doesn't know he's dead then we might be able to buy some time. Tell her there was a minor complication but that he'll be with her soon."
Atticus nodded as he typed.
Kari shoved away from the door and went to the screen set into the wall beside Piper's bed. It was the same model as the screens that Kari had been forced to watch. She typed in the same master key as before and went straight to the surveillance videos.
A series of video feeds filled the screen as the others gathered around. Kari shivered. It was just like her torture room. Only this time the feeds came from across the whole ship. She flicked through screen after screen until Wren jabbed a finger at the glass. It left a bloody smear.
Kari leaned closer. In tiny pixels, Piper struggled and strained against two enforcers as they dragged her down a corridor. It looked the same as all the other damn passages in this place.
"Where are they taking her?" Ryker said.
Kari fiddled with an information box at the side of the screen and brought up schematics in a small window. Her stomach sank. "Docking bay."
"Who are they?" Wren said, pointing to another grainy image. "They don't look like Imperium soldiers."
"They're prisoners," Atticus said. "They escaped with me from the furnace."
A dozen other screens showed empty hospital rooms just like the one they stood in. No more next-gens to save.
Kari drew a deep breath. Time to be the captain she was always pretending to be. "We can't let them take Piper. Once they leave here we won't be able to track them."
The others nodded.
"But we can't ignore the bigger mission."
"Dying?" Wren wrapped her arms tight around her chest but couldn't hide the tremors that ran through her body.
"This has to end," Kari said. "If we run away, these people will keep hunting us. But worse than that, they'll kill everyone on Zenith. Thousands of people. From the messages Atticus has read, Senator Kimchan and Doctor Flabrovy and whoever else is behind this are here. We're not going to get another chance like this."
Ryker flexed his armored fist. "I'm ready for vengeance."
"Ryker and I will go after Piper," Kari said. "She's bound to be well guarded."
"And what are we meant to do?" Wren said.
"Destroy the ship," Kari said.
"That will take a hell of a lot of explosives," Ryker said.
Atticus shook his head. "Too much. There's no way we'd be able to find and place enough charges to be sure of getting everyone on board."
Kari had expected more of a protest from him. "You're okay with it?"
"They're on their way to kill everyone on Zenith."
"But we have to get those other prisoners out."
Kari's fingernails bit into her palm. They didn't have time to run around saving people. But how could she argue? She was putting everything at risk to save Piper. "Do you have a way to destroy the ship?"
Atticus' blue eyes glimmered. "Main control room. I'll overload the core which will set off a chain reaction. It will destroy everything."
"Good." Kari fiddled with the screen and enlarged the schematics. "The prisoners are here."
Atticus pointed near the middle of the ship. "Main control room is there. It's not far. We'll pick them up on our way to the docking bay to meet you."
Kari nodded. It left a lot to chance, but what other options did they have? A massive ship, only the four of them, and twice that many people to save while at the same time destroying the vessel. "Hopefully you'll be able to get in and out unnoticed."
"A man can dream. But as soon as you get Piper, find us a transporter. We'll be coming in hot."
"We'll be ready." Kari didn't mention the more likely scenario—the one where they were all killed or captured. Senator Kimchan might not know what was going on, but the enforcers watching the same security cameras that she was would, and they'd be on their way.
"We should go," Ryker said.
Kari squeezed Atticus' shoulder. "Good luck." She shared a glance with Wren then raced for the corridor. She had to believe that they would be okay, even though a dark voice in her heart said that was the last time she'd see them.
Ryker's heavy boots smacked on the metal floor, echoing through the corridor. His looming presence at Kari's back provided some comfort, although there was no way he would be a match for the combined might of everything their enemies had to throw at them. Hell.
Sweat trickled down Kari's cheeks. They had to move faster. In her mind's eye she could see them loading Piper into a ship like a piece of cargo. Where would they take her?
Kari pushed herself, sprinting down corridors, careless. She didn't bother to stop and check at each corner, instead barreling around them.
"You're going to run into a wall of plasma," Ryker warned, but Kari kept running.
A few more corridors and they'd be at the docking bay. They'd already passed the spot where she'd seen Piper being dragged. If she closed her eyes she could almost pretend to sense Piper's presence there, or smell her. Ridiculous of course, only Wren had those powers of perception.
She grabbed a pipe and used it to swing around into the next corridor. A sudden wailing erupted from the wall beside her. Kari half-turned her head as the whole wall disappeared, sucked backward. Air rushed through the opening, into the blackness of space, taking Kari with it. It was as if she'd been thrown into the middle of a tornado, her body lifted from the ground and hurled at the opening where the exit door had been. She scrambled for the pipe she'd just used to get around the corner but it was already far out of reach. Her legs slipped through the opening, her hip clipping the side on the way past. She scrambled, gripped the side of the exit, her fingers clutching the thin metal plate.
Dirt and debris zipped past her head and shot through the exit, spraying like a cloud of exhaust into the empty air around her. Her hair whipped about her face. A hunk of something smacked the side of her face, stinging.
She strained with every muscle to keep hold of the wall, otherwise she'd be sucked out into the vacuum of space along with everything else. Despite the air rushing past her face, she struggled to breathe, panic seizing her cramping lungs.
A loud bang vibrated through the metal in Kari's hands, making her slip a half inch until she held on with just the tips of her fingers. The rest of her body dangled out into space, free of the constraints of the pseudo-gravity engines. If she lost her grip now she'd be propelled away from the ship by the force of the escaping air. There was no way she would be able make it back to the ship before she died of oxygen deprivation. Even now she could feel the blood vessels in her eyes swelling, bursting. And damn, the air moved too fast and too thin to breathe.
A black, shiny head like that of a beetle appeared above her, looming inside the metal passage.
Kari's fingers slipped, her body dropped, thrown away from the ship. An armored hand snapped out and snatched hold of her wrist, catching her a foot from the opening.
The vacuum of space sucked the last of the air from Kari's lungs. Twelve seconds left, at most, before she died.
Ryker's grip around her wrist tightened, then he hauled her toward the opening, dragging against a strong current caused by the last of the air escaping.
Kari's vision darkened at the edges. Eight seconds.
Once inside, gravity returned, tugging Kari to the floor. But Ryker kept her upright. He threw her convulsing body over his shoulder and raced for the next door. Kari bounced and jerked on his armored torso, vision reduced to a single, narrow tunnel.
A clever trick by Senator Kimchan or Jic's soldiers or whoever the hell was in charge. They didn't need to send an army of enforcers or risk their super-soldiers. They just had to open an emergency exit and let space do the rest. In a way, Kari had to admire it. The cold bastard who'd made the call knew how to kill, she'd give them that. Even now, she had no chance of surviving. Ryker's suit obviously came with its own oxygen supply, but that wouldn't help her, and the next door would be locked.
Sure enough, they arrived at the seal to the next compartment but when Ryker tried to open it, a single abrasive beep sounded and a red light flashed. Even if whoever was in charge hadn't intentionally locked everything, the safety systems would detect a vacuum breach and protect the rest of the ship. Standard protocol.
Wren clutched her arms over her chest to hide their shaking. A sour taste filled her mouth and crawled into her nostrils, dulling her senses. Even the familiar scent of Atticus—grease, his sweat, the sugar cubes he liked, all currently overlaid with the smell of soot—was faint. If enemies came at them, Wren doubted she'd know much before Atticus did. Her pounding heartbeat drowned out her hearing as well, reducing everything to the uncertain stuttering of her racing heart. She did her best to keep calm, to slow the spread of poison, but she was so damn tired. Her right leg jerked, almost dropping her to the floor. She shuffled to Piper's empty bed and sat, hating her own weakness. If anyone from the Guild saw her now, they'd shoot her in the head as a kindness.
"What are you doing?" she said, speaking around a swollen and unresponsive tongue.
Atticus hunched in front of the screen, fingers racing across the keyboard as code scrolled past. "Trying to buy us some time."
Wren didn't have the energy to respond. Besides, what was she going to say? Of course they needed time. Although she doubted that Atticus could do anything to help her. She stared at the bland wall, concentrating on keeping her breathing steady. While sitting she could spread her senses a little wider without fear of falling. Tap, tap. Atticus' fingers. Movement of water through pipes. Distant buzz of the engine. Nothing useful. She'd kill for a drink of water, it might help clear the taste of poison in her mouth.
"There," Atticus said, stepping away from the screen. "I've disabled the cameras. At least for now."
Wren raised an eyebrow.
"Tinkers don't just do mechanical machines," he said, then frowned. "You don't look so good."
Wren's gaze slid from him. If only there was a deep shadow to hide in, but the fluorescent light above their heads offered no such shelter.
"You could stay here while I—"
Wren erupted to her feet, managing not to sway through sheer force of will and three decades of training to control every impulse of her body. "I'm not an invalid."
Atticus held up his hands. "Okay. Sorry."
"Main control room," Atticus said. "We'll be able to do the most damage from there."
"Most security too," Wren said.
Wren rested a hand on the gun at her waist and strode for the door. Under any other circumstances, on any other day, she would have relished the challenge of taking on the main security force of a ship like this. Not today. The poison made her reactions sluggish, her muscles weak. Hell, even the old tinker might be able to beat her in a knife fight in her current condition. Atoms! She should have been faster, should have got out of the way of the poisoned knife. Now here she was, dying at the hands of the Guild. They'd got their way in the end. At least Wren had taken down Silvan in the process. Serves them right for getting into bed with the Imperium and FutureFarm.
Wren hobbled down the passage, doing her best to move fast—it wouldn't be long before the cameras started working again—knowing that she was holding Atticus back. Her lip twisted. How long had it been since she was the weak one? Never in her life. She hated it. Would almost rather be dead.
A slight vibration in the floor made Wren freeze. Atticus stopped a second later. Wren pulled her gun from her holster. Footsteps. Not far. Not heavy enough for a super-soldier, but too heavy for a normal person.
"Enforcers," she said, gesturing to the next corner. "Three. Coming this way."
Atticus and Wren knelt to present smaller targets. Both of them carried enforcer-issued weapons that would cut through the enforcers' armor, provided they got the chance to fire.
Wren rested her weapon on her leg until the very last minute not trusting her shaking arms to hold the heavy gun up for any length of time. Only when the footsteps were right at the corner did she lift the gun, firing a moment later as the first enforcer came into view.
Her shot went wide.
Wren's stomach twisted and bile rose in her throat. She couldn't remember the last time she'd missed a shot, especially not from such close range. Heat flooded her cheeks. How could she look herself in the mirror?
Atticus' shot took the enforcer in the face. The man's head snapped back, smacking into the wall behind him. He slid to the floor.
A flicker of movement. The two enforcers who'd been just behind the first retreated around the corner, out of the line of fire.
Wren's arm gave out, falling limp at her side so that her gun smacked against the metal floor panel. Atticus glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "They'll be calling for backup."
No shit, Wren wanted to say but her jaw kept twitching, outside her control. Time was not on their side. The longer they waited, the more enforcers would arrive and the deeper Wren would sink under the effects of the poison. On the other hand, Wren wasn't sure she could drag her dying carcass to the end of the passage, let alone fight the enforcers once she got there.
One enforcer ducked around the corner and fired. He didn't take the time to aim but still his shot whizzed between Wren and Atticus, bringing with it a wave of heat that evaporated the sweat gathering on Wren's forehead.
The next shot would kill. He'd had time to gage their positions.
Atticus fired. His blasts skimmed the corner and slammed into the wall opposite. It left a charred mark. He kept firing, keeping the enforcers pinned and unable to advance.
"You've got to cover me," Atticus said, his voice low.
Wren glared down at her useless arm, limp fingers hooked around the gun. How could she? How could she lift her gun and fire when she wasn't even sure she had the strength to squeeze the trigger.
"Do it or we're both dead," Atticus said.
Wren wanted to respond with her old mantra—atoms to atoms—but words failed her. And besides, she wasn't sure it gave her comfort anymore anyway. Sure, her atoms would continue, but over the last year she'd come to appreciate their current combination. She strained, fingers managing to close around the weapon's grip.
Atticus kept firing, bright plasma blasts lighting the corridor like a firework display. Even if the enforcers hadn't called for backup, the constant bangs and pops would bring people running.
Wren heaved. She managed to lift the gun a half inch from the floor but then her arms gave out and she lost her grip. Her jaw clenched, teeth biting so hard that they threatened to crack.
"Come on," Atticus said.
Wren glared at him. "In my place, you'd have been dead an hour ago."
He stared at her. His bright blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles, seemed to see right through her and despite the exhaustion and the pain, she found herself lifting the gun, resting it on her leg, squeezing the trigger. For some reason, she couldn't bring herself to let him down, even if it hurt like hell. Each recoil made her arm tremble but she kept firing.
Atticus edged forward. Wren tried to move with him but found her legs unresponsive, as if locked in ice, kneeling on the floor. She kept her stream of fire just to his left. At the end of the corridor he paused for a second, then darted around the corner, already firing. His shots lit up the passage and sent a stark shadow of his body across the wall behind him.
Two thuds. An enforcer's hand fell across the floor at the end of the passage.
Atticus glanced back. "We have to keep moving."
"I can't," Wren said through gritted teeth.
Atticus stomped to her side. "I guess you're not so tough." He hooked an arm under hers and heaved with more strength than she'd given him credit for. Especially considering all the burns.
His words combined with his strength gave her enough control over her legs to stand, then shuffle forward.
She resented him. Would probably have buried her knife into his gut if she weren't so damn grateful. She'd see this through. If only to prove him wrong.
Ryker growled, placed Kari on the floor, and gripped the door with both hands. He heaved. Kari had just enough strength to admire his determination.
With a squeal of tortured metal, the door sprang wide, propelled by a sudden rush of air, and swung so hard that it knocked Ryker back a few paces.
Oxygen brushed Kari's face, but once again too fast and too thin for her to breathe.
Ryker scooped her off the floor and carried her into the next passage. Here the air was just thick enough that she could draw a single breath, bringing light to her vision. The hard floor hurt Kari's back as Ryker left her to return to the door. This time he had to fight against the rush of air, the pull of the vacuum, to wrestle the door back into place. But the longer he took, the thinner the air, and the easier the door moved, until it clicked, cutting off the loud rush of wind that Kari had barely noticed.
In this section the enforcers hadn't cut off the air supply so it rushed from other parts of the ship to fill the pocket of thin air as Kari lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling and gasping like some dying animal.
"This is an inner section," Ryker said. "Let's see them try to vent this one."
Kari hadn't regained enough strength to respond, but she wanted to point out that if they could blow a maintenance hatch to the outside, then there were bound to be other things they could do, let alone release more super-soldiers. She strained, forcing herself to sit even though it made her head spin. They had to move. Had to find Piper.
She used the wall to haul her aching body to its feet. Damn! What she wouldn't do for the time and space to rest properly. At this point her body was running on nothing more than desperation.
"Are you okay to walk?" Ryker said.
"I'm fine." To prove her point, Kari shuffled toward the distant door. Nothing would stop her saving Piper. Hell, she'd keep walking even if both her feet had been chopped off.
"Right." Ryker hurried ahead to force the door. This one opened without resistance onto another smooth hallway, indistinguishable from all the others they'd been through.
"Do you think they ban decoration or something?" Kari said, trying to lighten the mood. But neither of them were in the right frame of mind for jokes and her words echoed hollow in the empty passage.
Left foot. Right foot. Left Foot. Right foot. Kari couldn't decide which one hurt more. She must have injured each leg at some point in the hell that had been her last twenty-four hours, although she couldn't remember exactly when. Now a jagged gash on her right thigh oozed blood every time she moved and a sharp pain shot up her left ankle when she put weight on it. Ooze. Pain. Ooze. Pain. These Imperium bastards had a lot to answer for. Hopefully Atticus and Wren were having better luck getting to the engine core.
"Kari, look." Ryker pointed with an armored finger at the nearest camera set into the roof.
"What? There have been dozens of those in every corridor we've been through."
"The light isn't on."
Kari frowned. Sure enough, the damn blinking red light wasn't there. A faulty camera perhaps? She hobbled to the next one, but that was dead too. "They're out." She hurried as fast as she could down the hall, passing one dead camera after another. "They're all dead."
"Jic's people wouldn't have turned them off."
"Atticus," Kari said. Her words tasted like blood because of her injured windpipe and subsequent vacuum damage to her lungs, but she would have roared Atticus' name into space if she'd thought he'd hear it.
"That clever bastard."
"They don't know where we are. That's why there haven't been any soldiers."
"It won't take them long to guess though."
"So we keep moving." Kari scrambled as fast as her injured body would allow. Ooze. Pain. Ooze. Pain. The docking stations were only a few corners away.
At the end of the next corridor, Kari froze. She heard cursing and shouting, distant but definite.
"What?" Ryker said.
"Piper." Kari pushed down her pain and lurched into an uneven jog. Each jolt jarred her injured bones and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get enough air through her crushed windpipe, but that didn't stop her. Ryker pounded beside her, his boots making the passage vibrate. No time for the element of surprise.
Dark clouds circled the edges of Kari's vision by the time they rounded the last corner.
At the end of the passage two enforcers held Piper by her shoulders, dragging her toward the open airlock of a transporter ship. She strained and struggled against them, her arms pulled tight, tendons standing out beneath her skin.
"Let go of me, you bastards. I'll kill you both. I'll tear your eyes out and—"
Kari barreled down the passage, careless of the broad target she made. How dare they put hands on Piper, how dare they try to hurt her.
The enforcers glanced up at Kari's heavy footsteps. One released his hold on Piper to pull his gun; a long rifle with a glowing blue barrel.
Kari didn't slow. Let him shoot her, hell she'd keep running anyway. She'd kill him if it was the last thing she ever did.
The enforcer's finger tightened on the trigger, but just before he fired, Piper brought the elbow of her newly-freed arm down on his wrist. Something cracked.
The enforcer cried out, clutching his hand to his chest, the rifle dropping under its own weight, dangling from his good hand.
"You bitch," he said. He brought the rifle around in a wide arc, catching Piper on the side of the face with the barrel. Her head snapped sideways and she went limp. The second enforcer held her up for a second, but then let her slip to the floor, freeing him to pull a gun.
Kari had halved the distance, leaving just twenty yards. She pulled her gun and fired, but her uneven footsteps made it hard to aim and her shots went wide.
Piper lay unconscious on the ground, a purple bruise spreading over her cheek and blood pouring out of the side of her mouth. The flesh around her eye swelled. Three tiny white lumps dotted the floor near her head; teeth, knocked loose by the blow.
Kari's stomach crunched into a twisted knot. How dare they.
The first enforcer balanced his gun in one hand, as he sighted down his scope.
Kari braced herself for the inevitable impact. She'd make them pay, even if she were nothing more than tatters of dying meat by the time she got there.
The uninjured enforcer fired first. Kari darted as far right as the narrow confines of the corridor would allow. The blast slammed into her left shoulder, searing through skin and flesh. She cried out, stumbled, but managed to keep her feet. The smell of burning meat filled the air, accompanied by a deep, sizzling pain that encased her shoulder, growing worse with each step. She didn't look, couldn't bear to see the cracked, glowing embers that had been her shoulder.
With her right arm she brought up her gun and fired, taking the injured enforcer in the chest. He grunted and fell back, chest smoking. But the other, the one with the steady aim, prepared to fire again. This time, Kari didn't have the strength or the space to dodge. She'd go out fighting, protecting Piper. Ryker and the others would find a way to get Piper out, make sure she was safe.
Kari fired a stream of plasma down the corridor, but pain and exhaustion made her spray the ceiling and the floor. The enforcer didn't flinch.
"What the hell are you doing?" A heavy hand landed on Kari's uninjured shoulder and jerked her back. Then a bulky, black figure streamed past, head almost touching the ceiling.
For the first time, the enforcer's composure slipped, and he took a half step back. He still managed to fire, but the blasts from his rifle did little more than leave stains on Ryker's armor. A second later, Ryker clamped his hand around the enforcer's throat and rammed him into the ceiling, head first. The enforcer's skull cracked like an egg, leaking brains and blood from a jagged fracture that ran from the top of his head almost to the bottom of his ear.
Kari slowed, coming to a stop beside Piper.
Ryker tossed the dead enforcer aside, then stomped through the airlock to the transporter. "Small," he bellowed. "No one inside." He returned a moment later to take up position in front of Kari and Piper, blocking them from any would-be attackers that might enter the corridor.
He faded into the background of Kari's awareness as she eased Piper onto her side, into the recovery position. More blood poured out of Piper's mouth, forming a sticky, red puddle on the floor. No vertebrae broken, but who knew how much internal damage had been done?
Hot tears stung the corners of Kari's eyes. What if that bastard had damaged Piper's brain? What if she never woke up? Or died from the swelling? Even if she'd been conscious she wouldn't have been able to open her left eye because of the distended bruises.
Kari brushed her fingertips along Piper's face, not daring to move her or apply too much pressure in case she did even more damage. "Please wake up." There was no way she could know how bad the damage was unless Piper woke. But she remained unconscious.
Kari's mind raced over all the field-medic training she'd ever done, over the injuries she'd seen and treated during the rebellion. But one thing everyone knew; head wounds were bad. You couldn't stop internal bleeding in the brain.
Kari's breathing became ragged, burning her throat, this time not from her damaged windpipe.
"How is she?" Ryker said without turning.
"She won't wake up," Kari whispered.
"She'll be okay. She'll be fine. But right now, we might have bigger problems."
"What could be—?"
Kari glanced up. She could just see the corridor around Ryker's massive legs. Huge shadows moved at the end, warning of approaching figures, at least three of them.
Too big for enforcers.
Wren was dying.
Perhaps if she'd had her medicines and little glass vials she might have been able to remove the poison. Or perhaps if she'd been able to sit still, slow her heartrate, then she would have survived.
Atoms to atoms.
Only, now that it came down to it, the mantra didn't give much comfort. How many people had Wren sent to die, and never felt a moment's hesitation? And yet now, when she stood on the brink, the Guild teachings failed her.
She limped and staggered up the corridor beside Atticus, refusing to let him help her even though her legs didn't follow her directions anymore, instead jerking and twisting with every step in an effort to trip her. That taste filled her mouth, like sour bile and something else… as if she'd bitten into an insect and its ichor coated her tongue. She stumbled as realization struck.
Of course. She should have worked it out earlier—venom from the salcrento bug. Expensive, deadly, only used by the most trained assassins because even purifying it, even standing near it, could be deadly. Not to mention it made for an unpleasant way to die. Illegal in the Raxis system.
Pounding feet in the next corridor. Erratic. "People," Wren rasped.
They stopped in the middle of the corridor, both lifting guns. The footsteps grew louder. At least six people. Some staggering, some shuffling.
Wren tensed, ready to fire.
A ragged group covered in soot and burns tumbled around the corner, the whites of their eyes standing out against their black-stained skin.
Atticus lowered his gun. "Samus?"
The group stumbled to a stop, the stink of sweat and charcoal running ahead of them, filling the corridor. Some of them lifted fists, others kept looking over their shoulders.
"Samus," Atticus said, with more authority this time. "You and the others have to get to the docking bay."
The man at the front twitched less than the others, but madness and panic lurked at the edges of his eyes.
"Go left at this corner, all the way to the end. Then right. Then first left. Find a ship. Get away from here."
"You're coming with us?" Samus said.
"I've got something I need to do."
Atticus flicked his gun at the group. They flinched. "Get out of here. Now."
Samus held Atticus' eyes for a second longer, then turned and dragged his companions around the corner, out of sight. The clatter of their footsteps continued for much longer.
Atticus sagged. "We found them."
Wren doubted the half-crazed prisoners would remember his instructions, but she didn't say anything. Atticus needed to focus if he was going to blow the ship's core and finish this mission.
They staggered on, Wren using the wall to stay upright and hating herself for it.
"Next corner," Atticus said. Sweat stained his shirt darker, or at least the parts that weren't already blackened by soot and blood. Burnt holes in the fabric revealed blisters and scorched skin beneath. Wren had to admit that she'd never given the old man enough credit, none of them had. He'd saved them all more than once with his gadgets. And now here he was, risking his life despite his injuries.
They shuffled around the next corner. A thick door blocked their way, sealed and without handholds. An access pad sat in the center of the panel, number keys gleaming.
Wren stayed back, half-turned so she could see the corridor behind them, while letting Atticus do his thing. She doubted Jic would have left the core of his ship unprotected. So what would they find on the other side of the door? And what the hell was Wren supposed to do about it when she couldn't even keep hold of her knife?
"Get ready," Atticus said. "I'm opening it up."
Wren didn't have the energy to explain that she didn't get ready. She was always ready, reflexes and muscles coiled like springs. Although perhaps not so much now.
The access panel flashed green and the door heaved upward, retreating into the ceiling with a quiet suck of rubber seals breaking. Before it lifted half a foot, a bright burst of plasma exploded beneath it, slamming into the floor beside Atticus.
He jumped back, cursing.
The door kept rising, revealing the shiny, black armor of a super-soldier looming just the other side. As the door rose, the soldier's line of sight increased. Streams of plasma peppered the floor around Wren and Atticus, forcing them to retreat.
Wren kept looking at Atticus, hoping he'd pull out some kind of explosive or grenade that he'd whipped up while they were running. That was ridiculous of course—he wouldn't have had time and even the best inventors couldn't make something like that while jogging down a narrow corridor.
The last of the door disappeared into the ceiling, exposing the super-soldier in full, its helmet gleaming in the overhead lights. Behind it, the central server core glimmered and flashed with hundreds of different colored lights, much like a galaxy trapped inside a glass cabinet. Funny, Wren had never considered electronics beautiful before.
"How long do you need?" Wren said, voice husky and muffled by her swollen tongue.
"What?" Atticus said.
"To overload the systems. How long?"
"Ten minutes, maybe. Depends on their security."
Ten minutes might as well have been a lifetime. "Go. I'll keep it busy."
Wren shoved him forward. At full strength she probably would have sent him sprawling at the soldier's feet. Now her push barely made him stagger. He didn't argue.
Wren pulled her gun and fired, managing to hit the soldier once in the chest, although her weapon couldn't damage its thick armor. Still, the hit achieved what she wanted: a distraction. Atticus sprinted at the soldier, slipping through the tiny space between the soldier's left arm and the passage wall.
Their encounters with the soldiers so far had given Wren some insight into the creatures; the corporation removed some of their humanity, brainwashed them and turned them into soldiers. But in doing so they made the creatures… animal. They didn't seem to have the same thought processes that a normal person would have. So even though this soldier had no doubt been told to protect the core, Wren was the one firing at it, so it focused on her, leaving Atticus to tear the glass front off the server.
Wren knew she wouldn't survive this fight—it felt more like an execution. She didn't have the strength even if her weapon could have injured the creature. And besides, the poison in her system was like a ticking clock. Not long to go now. She would put her last few minutes to good use. She'd distract the beast for as long as she could until it shot her, or until the poison squeezed her heart too tight and she keeled over.
The super-soldier fired a stream of plasma shots that lit up the passage, reflecting off gleaming metal. Wren kept back-stepping. A side passage opened on her right but she didn't dare duck into it until she was sure the soldier would follow. She doubted vocal taunts would work, so she settled for the erratic fire of her gun. Two shots out of ten hit the monster, enough to coax it forward so that it stepped beyond the doorway.
Wren pulled a knife from her belt, a thin blade with a gleaming edge. On any other day she could have made the throw with her eyes closed. Today, her arm trembled and her numb fingers couldn't properly feel the blade. She adjusted her grip and the sharp edge bit into her index finger. She didn't feel it, she only knew because of the bright trickle of red blood that dribbled out a moment later.
Damn this poison! And damn Silvan for using it.
Wren drew a deep breath, leaning on her decades of Guild training to push the plasma blasts and the red blood to the back of her mind. One shot. One throw. She'd die—was already dying—but at least the others might have a chance, Atticus might have a chance. She released her breath and threw her knife at the same time. It spun, end-over-end, through the air. The tip of the blade passed a hair's-breadth above the soldier's shoulder, almost touching, but not quite. The butt of the blade struck the door-close button in the wall behind the soldier.
Wren sagged, relief and exhaustion flooding her body.
The door hissed and dropped. Just before it closed, Wren met Atticus' eye. Then the door shut, blocking him from her view. He'd been about to say something but the noise of Wren's own heartbeat, and the sharp bursts of plasma, drowned it out. Oh well. He was safe. For the moment.
The soldier glanced at the closed door, then back at Wren, as if confused.
"Catch me," she said, before staggering into the side passage.
She might be dying, but damn, she'd take this whole organization down with her.
Atticus met Wren's sunken eyes beneath the closing doors. Shadows made deep pits of her eye sockets and sweat gleamed across her face, sickly in the fluorescent lights. He itched to run under the door, join her in the fight. How could she hope to take on a super-soldier, especially when she looked half dead already?
The door dropped lower, cutting his view of her. His stomach twisted. If she died, how much of it was his fault? He wrenched his gaze away as the door snapped shut, instead focusing on the status readouts and mass of wires in front of him. Hack into the central core of some splinter group funded by the biggest corporation in the near systems. How hard could it be?
His hands trembled as he navigated through the computer systems. Basic encryption made an easy entry point but then he came against the real security, custom keys and physical firewalls. He fell into a kind of trance, similar to when he fiddled with a gadget or repaired something. That's why his repairs often came with unexpected… side-effects. His hands would be busy but his mind would be elsewhere. Like now, when his thoughts drifted to Wren and her ghostlike face. There'd been something in that look she'd given him. Like saying goodbye. But that couldn't be right. Wren would outlive the apocalypse even if everyone else died. But she'd been so pale. And the way she'd staggered and stumbled down the last corridor… not good.
Atticus broke through another layer of security, momentarily distracting himself from thoughts of Wren. This mission had become about so much more than any of them individually. They'd found the true corrupt core of the Imperium. This was what he'd come back to Zenith for, this was the whole reason he'd bought a place on board Ghost. Of course, he hadn't realized at the time just how deep the rot went. If he had, perhaps he would have done things differently. But then he never would have met Kari and the others, they might never have saved Piper, the lottery would have kept happening.
Something heavy slammed against the door, making Atticus flinch. Hairs at the back of his neck lifted, waiting for the door to creep up and reveal some monster on the other side. Nothing. What if that had been Wren? What if she needed his help?
Atticus teetered. Part of him wanted to run to the emergency release and drag the door open, the other part kept him rooted to the spot, fingers racing over the screen. Wren had her job, the same as he had his. The sooner he finished his part, the sooner he could help her.
He broke through another layer of security just as an alarm burst into life above his head. The high-pitched wail pierced his eardrums like a sharp needle, forcing him to snatch his hands from the controls to cover his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut and bent double, urging the noise to stop. It didn't. That alarm had to be for him, which meant he'd tripped something, or the cameras were working again, or somehow, someone knew what he was doing.
Damn! He couldn't think with that noise screeching through his head. He forced his eyes open. He had the whole damn central core at his fingertips, there had to be a way to shut it off. He tore the remains of his shirt over his head and wrapped it over his ears. It did little to stop the noise but it freed his hands.
Code scrolled across the screen. Atticus would have preferred to work with a mechanical problem. Computers could be… difficult. Hidden chunks of code created traps and problems that would never happen with a mechanical device. Oh well. He'd work with what he had.
A small scrap of code caught his attention. He frowned, scrolled up, reread it. His heart fluttered. It couldn't be. A countdown clock, initiated as soon as the alarm over his head started. Sixty seconds.
He swallowed, throat dry, as he followed the command lines through a sequence of progressively more complicated files. He couldn't have more than thirty seconds left. What did the countdown do?
Each second chimed in his head, joining the screech of the alarm and making it even harder to concentrate. With ten seconds left he found the file. It contained a single line of code.
Release Valve 19-DG.
Atticus highlighted the code, hit delete, and retyped.
End alarm sequence.
Two seconds later, the alarm cut off, leaving behind a deafening silence. Atticus peeled his shirt from around his ears and tugged the tattered fabric over his head. It took him a few moments to catch his breath and for the stinging pain to fade from his skull. Only then did he bring up a detailed blueprint and search for the release valve mentioned in the code.
Right where he stood.
His gaze traced past the flashing lights of the server terminal, coming to a stop on a small hole that he hadn't even noticed before. Just behind the hole, disguised by wires and lights, a small gas canister with a skull and crossbones on it. He didn't need to know what was in it. Didn't want to know. If he hadn't found that bit of code, the canister would have tripped and sprayed its contents into his face. He'd probably be dead by now.
He sagged, leaning against the controls for support. He should have known the ship would have additional layers of security that went beyond firewalls. Of course they wouldn't be afraid to kill any would-be hacker. No doubt the alarm sent warnings to a half dozen people as well. They'd know what he was doing, although with any luck they'd assume he was dead. They'd send people to check though, to make sure. He had to hurry.
His fingers raced over the screen, creating complex lines of code while navigating through the file system. This time he didn't let his mind wander, instead scanning every bit of text to make sure he didn't miss any more fail-safes. It wasn't just his life at stake. If he didn't find a way to destroy the ship or missed some important piece of information, then they were all as good as dead; Piper and Kari, and every person on Zenith included.
It felt like hours that he stood in front of the screen. His knees and back ached and his eyes stung, although it couldn't have been more than ten minutes or he would have had every security person on the ship swarming over him.
At last, he broke through the final shield, springing open the core controls. Part one complete, he bent his mind to part two—easier, but far more dangerous. Engine overload. Easy enough to do; disconnect the heat sensors so that the relay would say more energy was required to get to the right temperature. More energy went in, but the disconnected sensors would continue to report insufficient, and so on, in a growing loop until the circuit reached critical and everything blew. Starting with the engine core directly beneath Atticus' feet.
His finger hovered over the button. One press and the countdown started. He'd have maybe five minutes to get out of the room and hopefully to an escape vehicle. But what would he find on the other side of the door? Wren had done her part, she'd kept the soldier distracted. But what would happen when Atticus opened the door? Would the soldier be waiting for him? What about the rest of the security forces that would be on the way? And what about Wren?
Atticus braced himself. He'd try. Dammit, he would run with all his strength. But if he didn't make it… well, at least he would die knowing he did his part.
He drew a deep breath as he slammed his finger onto the initiate key. The floor beneath his feet rumbled as the engine kicked into higher production. Atticus shoved away from the terminal, sprinting for the door.
Five minutes to live.
Two massive super-soldiers marched around the corner, their boots smacking the metal floor to create a noise like an execution drum. Sweat sprang out on Kari's hands. How the hell could she and Ryker fight two super-soldiers? Kari's weapons couldn't even injure them. And Piper…
Piper lay crumpled on the floor, blood leaking from her mouth. She'd be torn to pieces in the firefight.
Kari grabbed Piper under her arms, trying not to knock her around too much, and dragged her to the end of the corridor into the tiny transporter that waited on the other side of the airlock. Kari tucked Piper around the side of the door so she wouldn't be in the direct line of fire of whatever was about to happen.
Ryker stood with back straight in the middle of the corridor. His helmet gleamed, making him indistinguishable from the other soldiers. Perhaps they wouldn't see through his disguise and—
The left-most super-soldier fired as soon as they rounded the corner. The shots slammed into Ryker's arm with loud crashes that knocked him back a few paces. Ryker snatched for a fallen enforcer at his feet and dragged the man's limp body up, holding it in front as a shield. The super-soldiers' shots chewed the enforcer to pieces, but by the time the blasts reached Ryker, they couldn't get through the metal plates of his armor.
Kari grinned. Ryker was always the smartest man on the battlefield. Maybe they weren't lost after all.
Ryker fired around his makeshift shield. Orange balls of plasma sparked and crackled down the hall until they slammed into the chests of the oncoming soldiers. They staggered back, warped metal encasing their chests.
Sharp cracks of gunfire magnified in the narrow passage, deafening Kari. She doubted it would bother Ryker or the super-soldiers in their protective armor. The few shots that went wide ate through the walls, revealing wires and pipes.
Kari tensed. Last time they'd almost been blown up. What if one of their shots hit a gas pipeline? The armor might protect Ryker, but Kari would be torn to a million pieces. And what about the other wall? Kari couldn't help her gaze sliding across it. Nothing on the other side but open space. She didn't think she'd survive another exposed drift into nothingness. Her head had only just recovered from its last bout of oxygen deprivation.
Ryker and the soldiers fell into a kind of rhythm, all of them shooting and all of them getting hit, much like animals taking it in turns to hit each other until one died or gave up. The enforcer's dead body had protected Ryker for a time, but now there was almost nothing left except the gruesome hunk of torso that Ryker clutched in an armored hand.
Kari lurched forward and snatched a gun from the other enforcer. She lifted it and fired around the side of Ryker's body. As she expected, the shots bounced off of the super-soldiers' armor without leaving so much as a scratch.
"What are you doing?" Ryker said. "Get back."
"What are you doing?" she said. "I've seen more battle tactics during rat mating season."
It was the brainwashing. It had to be. Ryker had memorized just about every political and military text ever written. She'd never seen him fight like this before; stand, shoot, be hit, stand, shoot, be hit. The enforcer shield had been a good idea, but now there was nothing left. So why was he still holding it?
Ryker faltered. "Rat what?"
"There are two of them and one of you," she said. "You're never going to win by just standing here." She might not be able to fight these monsters herself, but she could damn well make sure Ryker had the best chance of surviving.
Ryker opened his hand and the bloody corpse fell to the floor with a wet splat, blood leaking out of all sides.
"Take the other body," Kari said. "Do something unexpected." As far as she'd seen, the Imperium had trained their super-soldiers for maximum compliance, unfortunately for them, that also meant minimal initiative or innovation. She hoped Ryker had enough of his old self left to pull off something amazing.
Ryker hauled the second enforcer off the floor, held it in front of him, and sprinted toward the super-soldiers. They kept firing as if nothing had changed until he was almost on them. The enforcer's body had slowed most of their shots, leaving Ryker unharmed, while his blasts chewed holes through the super-soldiers. One of them was missing an arm and the other leaked blood and some black fluid from a gaping hole in his side.
When he got close, Ryker lifted the enforcer higher and swung it at one of the super-soldiers like a club. The force of the blow knocked him sideways into his companion, and for a moment, they stopped shooting. That was all the time Ryker needed. He released the enforcer, leveled the guns that ran along the lengths of both of his arms, and fired twice.
The soldiers' helmets caved in, reducing everything inside to a bloody, smoking ruin. They collapsed, bodies crumpling to the hard floor.
Kari would have cheered if she weren't so damn worried about Piper. And what about Atticus and Wren? If Atticus didn't finish his job, then these people—Senator Kimchan and the rest—would keep chasing them, keep trying to kill them. Kari wished it could end, but she couldn't wait for Atticus forever. It was only a matter of time before more soldiers arrived, and she needed to get Piper away.
Ryker trudged toward her. "That hurt." He rubbed a chunk of armor over his chest that had been twisted and bent out of shape. Kari dreaded to think what his flesh would look like underneath.
The smell of burnt skin and spent plasma filled the corridor.
Kari hovered in the airlock, torn between flying away and waiting for Atticus and Wren.
"They'll be here," Ryker said.
Kari nodded, although she wasn't sure she believed it.
"Do you hear that?"
Kari tilted her head. A rhythmic dull thud. "Marching." Her stomach shriveled.
Kari shoved away from the airlock, away from Ryker, and sprinted to the end of the corridor where the dead super-soldiers lay. She snatched the severed arm that had been blasted free by one of Ryker's shots. So heavy. Heavier than she expected, and heavier than an arm had a right to be. She hunched under its weight, struggling to carry it back to Ryker. She made it, puffing and sweating, with the noise of marching footsteps close behind.
"What are you doing?" Ryker said. "Collecting trophies?"
Kari propped the arm on the ground, fingers pointing toward the end of the corridor, away from the airlock. She located the two wires of the trigger mechanism and rubbed them together. A ball of plasma burst into being near the upper arm, shot through the barrel and exited with a sharp pop just above the index finger.
"I'll be damned." Ryker said.
Kari nodded. "It won't have much power left with the rest of the suit gone."
"Something is better than nothing."
The footsteps became deafening as the first line of enemies rounded the corner; three enforcers and a super-soldier, followed by a dozen more enforcers.
Kari fired as soon as they came into view. Positioning the hand on the floor made it hard to aim, but the enemy had made the mistake of packing close together in the narrow confines of the corridor. Kari's first three shots took out three enforcers. They fell to the floor, missing parts of their bodies. Ryker killed a half dozen enforcers in his first flurry.
The enforcers swarmed, panicked for a few moments before coming to their senses and trying their best to hide behind the super-soldier. Both Kari and Ryker focused their fire on the super-soldier, but he seemed uncaring of the shots that bent and twisted his armor. He only dodged when a blast threatened to take him in the helmet, and even then he moved only just enough to avoid getting hit.
The enforcers and the super-soldier returned fire. Their collective shots lit up the corridor so that Kari had to squint and turn away. A wave of heat filled the passage, washing over Kari and pushing her toward the floor. Ryker managed to block most of the shots. The enforcers did no damage to him, but the super-soldier dented his left knee.The radiating heat scorched Kari's skin, pulling it tight across her muscles so that every inch of her stung.
They couldn't stand against so many.
Ryker kept firing through the confusion and he must have killed some, because the next wave of heat didn't feel quite so bad, although Kari was sure her skin was about to burst into flames. As soon as the bright light faded, she wrenched the severed arm up and fired. She took out two more enforcers, leaving just three enforcers and the super-soldier. But they were still marching closer. Soon they'd be able to shoot around Ryker, blasting her apart. And it was only a matter of time before the super-soldier got a lucky shot and killed Ryker.
Kari roared, pressing the wires of the severed arm together. Plasma streamed out. Another enforcer fell. Then the weapon in Kari's arms made a dull, power-down noise. She tried pressing the wires together but nothing happened.
"Please don't tell me that just died," Ryker said.
"I won't tell you."
Kari dropped the arm to the floor—it made a heavy, metal clunk—and stood tall, gripping an enforcer rifle. She would kill the enforcers before she died. She squeezed the trigger. Ryker did the same. Her shots distracted the enforcers and despite her pain and exhaustion she drew on her years of experience, years in the rebellion, and her shots killed them both, knocking them to the floor.
Ryker roared as he shot, stomping forward to meet the super-soldier. Their shots left black craters across each other's armor. One of Ryker's shots skimmed the side of the soldier's helmet, caving it in, but the soldier didn't slow. They came together with a crash of metal on metal. Ryker swung his arm around in a massive roundhouse punch that clipped the super-soldier in the damaged part of his helmet. His head snapped sideways.
The soldier straightened, bringing his fist up and slamming it into the base of Ryker's helmet. Ryker's head jerked back and he stumbled.
Kari took a half step forward. But what could she do?
Ryker ducked out of the way of another blow, feinted right, then slammed his forearm into the same piece of damaged helmet. This time the soldier fell to his knees. Ryker heaved his arm up and fired into the soldier's head.
Kari was halfway through a sigh when yet more footsteps sounded from the far corridor. A shadow, with protrusions and an awkward gate, loomed on the distant wall.
Ryker's feet dragged as he returned to Kari's side, leaning hard to the left. "I don't think I can fight another one."
Kari swallowed. Whatever Jic's people had decided to send against them, she doubted her weapons would do any good.
"We go down fighting," she said. "Just like we always said."
"I guess you got me to join the fight again, just like you promised."
Kari couldn't see his face, but she could hear the familiar grin in his words. The shadow at the end of the corridor grew bigger. Just a few more seconds and it would be on them.
"And we did change things," she said. "Just like you always said you would."
"We were good," Ryker said.
Kari's throat and eyes stung. "The best."
Vibrations rattled through Atticus' feet, accompanied by grinding and high-pitched wailing. He fell against the door to the central core, slamming his palm into the emergency open button. The thick block of metal retracted into the ceiling, inching upward.
Atticus glanced over his shoulder but aside from a hundred flashing lights, the core showed no sign of meltdown. Not long now though. Four minutes thirty seconds. And this damn door moved too slowly! As soon as it rose a half foot from the ground, Atticus fell to his stomach and slithered under, his back scraping against the bottom of the retreating metal. A strong smell of spent plasma filled the corridor beyond.
He stood, heard gunshots from around the next corner. Wren had to be alive. She had to.
He rounded the corner, sliding to a stop right behind the super-soldier. The monstrosity sported a few dents and scorch marks but was otherwise unharmed. Gaping holes opened the walls of the corridor, revealing sparking wires and broken pipes beneath. Lucky they hadn't all been blown to hell by the looks of it.
Wren leaned against the wall in front of the super-soldier, gazing up at it from sunken, bloodshot eyes. Blood poured down her arm and from a dozen other injuries. Her right leg hung limp, so she stood on her left, her upper half leaning against the wall. She sneered at the super-soldier, as if daring it to kill her.
It would too.
Atticus had no idea how Wren had managed to survive so long. It looked as though she should be dead already—and yet she stood. Tougher than any Marine Atticus had ever known. But she'd run out of energy. Even from behind the super-soldier, Atticus could tell that she couldn't dodge or run anymore. The next shot would kill her.
The super-soldier lifted its arm, the barrel pointed square at Wren's face, between her eyes.
Atticus' stomach dropped. No. Wren had fought too hard. She'd saved his life by keeping this monster distracted, not that she'd ever admit it. He launched himself at the monster with all the strength he had, his burned and bloody flesh stinging and old bones protesting. Still he dived, aiming for the monster's outstretched arm. He caught hold, shoulders wrenching in their sockets, and dragged the weapon around just as it fired.
A fiery, orange blast shot out of the barrel along the top of the soldier's hand, only instead of taking Wren in the face, it careened into the soldier's own chest, blowing a hole as wide as a person. Heat and bits of shrapnel burst out, slicing into Atticus. Hot lines of pain erupted along his arms and cheeks and he lost his grip on the soldier, getting flung through the air. He hit the passage wall and slid to the floor.
The soldier gaped at the wound in its chest for a few seconds before falling to its knees. The monster keeled over with a crash of metal on metal and lay still.
Atticus winced as he tried to sit, pain lancing from where his skull had struck the wall. Blood dribbled over his arms and a warm trickle on his cheek warned of one, if not more, head wounds. His vision swam a little but he used the wall to drag himself to his feet.
"You should have run," Wren said.
"And let you have all the fun?" he said, breathing hard. "We have to go. Three minutes left."
Wren gestured to her limp leg. "I'm afraid I'm not in much condition for running."
Atticus raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think a little injured leg would stop you."
Wren scowled but took a single hop toward him. Poor Wren. Thought she was so tough and unreadable, but she had an ego just like everyone else. Still, Atticus could see how much it hurt, her face twisted with every hop and she had to use the wall to stay upright. Two minutes forty seconds. Dammit!
Atticus scooped his arm around Wren, supporting her injured side, and wrenched her forward. She grunted but managed to keep up. He tried not to think about whatever internal injuries she might have, and how he was probably tearing her in half. If they didn't get out now, they'd both be blown to pieces anyway.
They hobbled around the corner and down the next passage, moving as fast as their injuries would allow. Atticus had memorized schematics from the screens. He hoped Ryker and Kari hadn't gone far from where they'd last seen Piper. Otherwise all four of them would be wandering around lost on the ship when it blew.
Footsteps sounded from the corridor behind. Atticus glanced back, straining under Wren's weight. No one there, although he and Wren had left a trail of smeared blood behind them.
Did anyone else on the ship know about the core overload yet? He'd set up some shields, so that they wouldn't have time to stop it. But a careful engineer might notice the readings. Would they sound the alarm? Would people try to evacuate? He couldn't hear any sounds of panic, but it was a big ship. No doubt there'd still be super-soldiers and enforcers looking for him and his companions.
Wren's head lolled to the side.
"Wren?" Atticus said, shaking her as he dragged her forward. Somehow she managed to keep limping, even though she looked unconscious. She didn't reply.
Atticus didn't know much about Guild training, but from everything he'd seen of Wren, they probably had ways of keeping parts of their brains active even when others shut down, like animals who could rest half their brain at a time. As long as she hadn't fallen too far. He had to believe she'd be okay. They just had to get the hell off this powder keg and back to Ghost. Wren had dozens of different medicines there.
According to the schematics, the enforcers had been dragging Piper around the next passage. There'd been a transporter nearby. Please, please, let Ryker and Kari be there.
Atticus tried to run faster, but Wren was like a dead weight on his shoulder, dragging him down. A sudden barrage of gunfire caught his attention. The corridor ahead. Right where he'd hoped to find Ryker and Kari. More gunshots, yelling. Was that a good sign? It meant they were probably alive, but in trouble. He recognized the deep, booming roar of multiple super-soldier weapons. How could they survive against super-soldiers and enforcers? Especially in these narrow corridors.
He had to get there. Although he had no idea how he'd be able to help. He hadn't thought to grab any weapons from the super-soldier he'd killed and it looked like Wren didn't even have her knife on her anymore.
They were still ten yards from rounding the corner when the yelling and gunfire came to a sudden stop, plunging the corridor into silence.
Atticus' heart lurched into his throat. Why was it so quiet? They couldn't be dead. He couldn't get this close just to lose them. He staggered onward, hobbling toward the corner, dreading what he'd find when he got there.
The shadows at the end of the passage grew larger, accompanied by the uneven sound of footsteps. What fresh hell had the Imperium thrown at them?
Kari's hands trembled where they gripped what remained of the super-soldier's arm, hoping it had recharged enough to fire for just a little bit longer. How long could she hope to hold against the strength of Jic's forces with nothing more than a broken arm? Ryker looked battered too, his armor dented and broken in places, smoke drifting from a split in the plating at his leg.
They could leave. Kari's gaze slid over her shoulder to where Piper lay—still unconscious—and the transporter beyond. She could take Piper and Ryker and fly away.
A stupid idea. How far did she think she would get? This massive ship would shoot them to pieces before they made it a hundred yards from the airlock. And even if they did manage some kind of FTL jump, Senator Kimchan and the rest would come after them with new vengeance.
The shadows grew bigger, the footsteps louder. Kari leveled her gun at the corner.
Her plasma bolt screeched and sizzled down the corridor.
Right at Atticus.
His eyes widened in the bright glow, too fast for him to get out of the way.
The bolt slammed into the wall a half inch to Atticus' right, singeing his arm and turning his already burned clothes to scraps of char.
"Atticus," Kari said.
He stared at her, eyes wide. Wren leaned heavily on his shoulder. If she'd been on his other side, she'd be dead.
Ryker dashed forward, taking Wren's weight.
"Are you going to shoot me again?" Atticus said.
Kari lowered the gun, heart pounding. "Sorry. We haven't exactly seen many friendly faces."
"No wonder when you treat them like that."
"More footsteps," Wren said, voice hoarse. She looked like death itself, her skin a pasty green and eyes bloodshot to the point that Kari expected drops of blood to trickle down her cheeks.
"No time for that," Atticus said. "We have to get out of here. Have the prisoners arrived?"
Kari frowned. "Prisoners? No."
Atticus slowed to a stop beside her. "The others from the furnace."
"We haven't seen them."
Atticus glanced back down the hall, then at Wren. "Is it them?"
She shook her head. "I don't know."
"We can't stand here waiting to find out," Kari said. "If it's more enforcers or super-soldiers, we're dead."
"We can't abandon those prisoners. I told them to come here."
Kari hesitated. What the hell was she supposed to do? Atticus couldn't expect her to stand around waiting for some prisoners she'd never met. Especially not when it meant putting Piper and everyone else in danger. "We have to go."
"Just wait. It has to be them."
Kari considered snatching Atticus and hauling him into the transporter but didn't think she had the energy. Too late anyway. The clatter of footsteps was on them.
Kari tensed, ready to fire with the hunk of broken arm.
Soot-stained people hobbled around the corner.
"Hurry!" Atticus said, waving them on.
"There's more coming," Wren rasped. "Enforcers definitely. Maybe the others."
At sight of Atticus, the prisoners ran faster. Their tattered clothes flapped behind them, revealing patches of burnt and blistered skin much like Atticus'.
They ran past Kari, bringing the smell of burning with them.
"Jic's people will shoot the transporter down," Kari said.
Atticus followed the last of the prisoners into the ship. "Have a bit more faith in me than that. We've got sixty seconds before we're all blown to bits."
Kari carried Piper deeper into the transporter. Ryker followed a half step behind with Wren.
Above the entrance, bright white paint read SS Lukas. The transporter was tiny, a fifth the size of Ghost. A single common room with foldout bunks, a storage locker which took up most of the space, and a tiny chair for the captain. The prisoners huddled against one wall, many of them twitching, eyes wide. Atticus hunched over the controls, fingers flying across buttons. Kari placed Piper on a bunk, then rushed to Atticus' side.
"Do you know what you're doing?"
"I've flown a couple of these in my time. It's just the damn airlock. They've issued an emergency lockdown. It's not releasing us."
"There's a manual release on the inside," Kari said, already moving to the door.
"Oh no," Atticus said, grabbing the back of her shirt. "No more pointless heroics."
"Pointless? I'd say all your lives are worth something. Not pointless."
"It's pointless when there's another way. I just have to override the security protocol."
"How long will that take?"
Atticus looked away from her, fingers running over the controls.
"Two minutes," he said, voice low.
Kari nodded once. The Imperium ship would explode in less than fifty seconds. The internal release was the only way any of them survived this.
How funny to think that not so long ago she would have shot her crewmates if it meant she survived. Now she was willing to sacrifice herself for them. Stupid. Emotions made you do stupid things. And yet, there it was. She jogged toward the exit. At least she'd go out with a bang. And she'd know that she saved Piper. Perhaps now that Jic and his group were dealt with, Piper would be able to live a normal life. Ryker and the others would make sure of that.
But damn, Kari wished she'd had a chance to say goodbye properly. She'd made a promise to Piper—it seemed like a lifetime ago now—that she'd never again leave without saying goodbye. One more promise she couldn't keep. Perhaps she should have told Piper the secret; that there's always another lie. But then again, perhaps it was better that Piper didn't know those truths. She seemed happier without them.
A heavy hand landed on Kari's shoulder just as she reached the exit. It yanked her back, hurling her to the other side of the room.
"Ryker, what are you—"
He opened the ship's door, stepped out, and let it slide shut behind him.
"No!" Kari scrambled to her feet and dashed across the room. But Ryker was already heaving on the manual override. His armored hands yanked the lever. The clamps holding the transporter to the massive ship opened with the sound of grinding metal.
Ryker grinned at Kari through the window set into the transporter's door.
"No!" She smashed her fist against the glass, but the door wouldn't open; vacuum detected on the other side.
The Lukas' engines burst into life and they shot away from the docking bay, Ryker disappearing in a blur behind them.
"No." She pressed the side of her face against the cold glass, straining to catch sight of him. "Atticus, turn around! We left Ryker back there. We've got to go back. We've got to—"
The center of Jic's ship disappeared in a plume of red. Fiery explosions ran along its length, catching new sources of fuel and bursting outward, sending hunks of metal shooting out in all directions. The explosion chewed through the massive ship, spreading from end to end and reducing everything to charred scraps.
In her head, Kari could hear the deep booms, but the real blasts made no noise in the emptiness of space. "No." She pounded on the window once more, bile rising to the back of her throat.
Her eyes filled with tears but she couldn't look away from the mangled mess that had been the ship.
When the last of the oxygen on the ship ran out, the flames died, leaving behind blackened hunks of broken metal, a minefield for any ship passing through the area.
Only Atticus' push on the engines kept the transporter ahead of the shrapnel, otherwise a dozen holes would have punctured through the hull. Somehow, Kari couldn't bring herself to care.
She slid down so that she sat with her back to the wall, hands shaking.
How many years had he been there for her? He'd saved her life a dozen times, dragged her through the rebellion, and kept her alive through all the years after, even when she wanted to die. And now… it should have been her.
She looked up through blurred eyes. Atticus stood above her, deep lines around his blue eyes.
"We left him behind."
"There's nothing we could have done. If we'd gone back we would have been caught in the blast."
"We left him behind." Her whole world had been reduced to those four words. What kind of friend was she? What kind of captain?
"It's what he would have wanted."
Kari wanted to strangle Atticus. He didn't know. He didn't know Ryker like Kari did, and hadn't he been the one driving? Hadn't he been the one to set the explosion? But she couldn't really be mad at him. It was her fault. She should have been the one to pull the manual release. If only she'd been faster, got ahead of Ryker. She bowed her head.
Atticus placed a soft hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Kari couldn't say anything. No words would do Ryker justice. The Universe would be a far worse place without him. He was the one who fought for justice and equality. Even after everything, he'd still clung to his plan to make Zenith a better place, a fair place. Who would do it now?
She could still see him, standing in the middle of some wrecked battlefield, holding that damn astral map of his—broken now too—and smiling because he saw the good in the Universe. The good she'd never been able to see except through him.
Kari's breaths came in ragged fits and gasps as she fought against tears.
Ryker always filled the silence and kept Kari's demons at bay. Now the voices had free rein in her head. So many people had died, but Ryker was one too many.
Something heavy slammed against the other side of the door.
The force of it vibrated through her back. She scrambled away from the door, hand searching for a gun that wasn't there. It was probably a piece of shrapnel that had somehow caught up with them.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Atticus crouched beside her. "Doesn't that sound like—"
"Knocking." Kari lurched forward to press her face against the window. "It's knocking."
Kari jostled with Atticus to see out of the small window in the side of the ship. Her cheek hurting where she pressed it hard against the cold glass.
"A super-soldier," Atticus said, drawing back and fumbling for his gun.
"No," Kari said, heart fluttering. She recognized the dented armor and the slight gap at the right knee. "It's Ryker."
Atticus fell still. "What?"
"It's him." Kari spun in a tight circle, desperate for some way to bring Ryker inside.
Alive. Ryker was alive.
But for how long? His suit might have its own air supply but a tiny leak would ruin everything and the armor looked more damaged than it had when he'd forced his way out of the ship ahead of Kari. That idiot. What had he done? Leapt for the side of the ship as it pulled away?
Kari circled again with no idea what she was looking for. They had to get him inside. They needed an airlock. She pressed her face to the glass once more. Ryker's shiny helmet stared back at her and even though she couldn't see his face, she knew he'd be grinning that same stupid grin.
She waved for him to go to the small airlock used to bring cargo on board and make small repairs during transit. He lifted his thumb in acknowledgment and crawled along the side of the ship, using seams and antennae for handholds.
Kari's toes tingled. If he slipped... it was as good as being spaced. There was no way she'd be able to bring the ship back and find him. Not when he was one tiny heat signature in all the vastness of space. She couldn't lose him again. She just couldn't. But he managed to cling on all the way to the small airlock hatch.
Alive. Ryker was alive! Kari didn't even care if hot tears leaked out of the corners of her eyes to run down her cheeks. He was alive.
She dashed to the airlock controls and opened the external door. A distant knocking let her know Ryker was in place so she sealed the outer door and initiated equalization. The next ten seconds dragged on forever. She danced from foot to foot, urging the inner door to open.
Finally it clicked and slid to the side, revealing Ryker bent almost double in the cramped space beyond.
"Hell," he said, his voice coming through the suit's speakers. "That space was not meant for a normal sized person."
Kari threw her arms around him, her hands unable to touch each other because of the bulky expanse of his armor. His large hand patted her back.
"Who are you, and what have you done with Kari?" he said.
She pulled away, punching the shoulder plate of his armor. "You idiot. I was going to pull the manual release."
"And do you have a suit of armor with its own oxygen supply?"
"I thought you were dead."
He pulled the release for his helmet so that it slid away, revealing his familiar face, bruised and battered. "So did I."
Atticus approached. Kari was glad of the distraction because otherwise she was at real risk of having an emotional breakdown and Ryker would never let her forget that.
"How did you survive?" Atticus said, head shaking. "I thought for sure..."
Ryker grinned. "Are you kidding? I was hoping you guys caught it on camera. Epic. The stuff of legends."
Kari raised an eyebrow.
"I leapt off of the burning wreckage just as you were about to leave me behind."
Atticus hung his head. "If I'd thought…"
Ryker patted the old man on the back, making him stagger forward. "I'm just joking. But it was an amazing jump. Managed to hook onto one of the support struts near the back. I wish you'd spotted me sooner though. I've been banging and calling for ages. I thought my arm would drop off." He rolled his shoulder.
"We didn't know you'd try something so crazy," Kari said.
"Ah, you should know me better than that by now."
Kari couldn't help but smile.
"I don't know about you lot, but I could do with a drink."
"Make it three," Kari said.
"Kari, is that you?" Gareth gaped at the screen. "When I heard they'd found your Phantom abandoned on some transfer asteroid I thought for sure…"
"It was close," Kari said. She sat squeezed between prisoners they'd rescued from Jic's ship and Ryker's armored body. Piper and Wren lay on the only beds, both unconscious. Atticus thought Piper would live but Wren had been poisoned. He'd found an old box of medical supplies and done what he could, but she was still closer to death than she was to life. In the hour since getting away from Jic's ship, Kari hadn't had time to think about it.
"What happened? We're getting all kinds of rumors."
"A lot. Atticus is going to send you some comms. Imperium, high level. You'll want to take a look. Then you'll want to send it to every person you know and make sure they do the same."
Gareth frowned. "What is it?"
"Proof that they'd planned to kill everyone on Zenith."
"Bastards! When they started gassing us…"
"Exactly. But it looks like it was only a splinter group. Dead now. The comms should give you enough leverage against the rest of the Imperium. Not everyone on Albion would support total extermination of a whole planet. Plus, there's proof that Jic and his group assassinated Senator Olfred."
"They framed us. Although now we're guilty of killing a senator."
Gareth's lips twisted. "I never liked her anyway."
"They were fueling violence between Zenith and Albion to make the extermination… more palatable. When people see the truth, you'll have support."
"Why me? Where will you be?"
"I've got people here that need help, besides, I've never been good at talking to people. That's down to you."
"Don't worry, I'm not sending you in alone. Ryker will help."
Ryker shifted where he sat next to Kari. "I don't think that's a good idea. In case you hadn't noticed…" He waved at the metal plates encasing him.
"All the more reason," Kari said. "The people of Albion have to know what happened."
"Kari, it's not me."
"It's exactly you!" She turned away from Gareth to face Ryker straight on. She swallowed the hard, stinging lump in her throat, determined to get through to Ryker. "Don't you see? This is what you always said, that the people of Zenith and Albion needed to find common ground. You've been fighting for this longer than any of us. Who better to make it happen?"
"I can't… I'm a monster."
"No." Kari gripped Ryker's arms, urging him to feel her through the armored plates. "You're no monster. You're the same man I met a decade ago. You're still a hero. You're still better than any of us. They'll listen to you."
"She's right," Gareth said. "People know of you. They respect you. A few bits of metal won't change that."
The muscles in Ryker's jaw worked where they emerged above the armored neck plates.
"This was always you," Kari said.
Ryker straightened. "Okay, I'll do it."
"Of course you will."
"I can't believe it," Gareth said. "We may actually live to see the end of the Imperium's choke-hold on Zenith."
Kari faced him. "We will. Now, you mentioned my Phantom…"
"The vultures were going to sell it for parts."
Heat spread over Kari's face.
"Don't worry. I told them that if anyone laid even one finger on it that I'd chop their balls off myself. It's still on that asteroid."
"Thank you," Kari said. "We'll pick it up. We have some things of our own to sort out. But the Universe is changing. You'll see."
Gareth grinned as Kari killed the connection.
"Do you really believe that?" Ryker said.
"Have you ever known me to be an optimist?"
"Do I say things just to make people feel happy and fluffy?"
"Then you should know that yes, I believe it. Things are changing."
Two weeks after escaping Jic's ship, Kari and her crew sat in Ghost's dining room feasting on a roast that Ryker had managed to cook between trips to Albion.
Wren hunched at one end of the table, eating more food than she had since they'd escaped Jic. She'd been in a coma for most of that time, her heartbeat barely detectable and breathing only a couple of times a minute. Only Atticus and his uncanny knowledge of the Guild and their poisons allowed them to find the right antidote in Wren's room. Even then, it had been a close thing. She'd woken up two days ago—as much to her surprise as anyone else's.
"What will you do now?" Ryker asked Wren.
She raised an eyebrow. "People still want other people dead. Whether the Imperium controls Zenith or not."
Kari and her crew paused, forks halfway to their mouths.
"You're still going to be an assassin?" Atticus said. His white hair stuck out from his head like a wild cloud and a smudge of grease stained his cheek. He'd spent all day working on the engines. They ran much smoother now, although somehow in the process he'd also made the lights temperature sensitive. Another 'quirk' to add to the growing list.
Wren shrugged. "What else?"
"You could heal people, you could do protection, missing persons…"
Atticus had a point. Wren's skills made her valuable in any number of fields.
Wren shook her head. "Not what I want."
"You want to kill? But after everything the Guild did…"
"Not for the Guild. I'm freelancing."
Atticus looked ready to argue more. Kari couldn't blame him, she certainly felt like she'd seen enough blood to last a lifetime. But Wren was special. She had something inside her that needed the thrill, the feel of the kill.
"I'll be selective about the jobs," Wren said. "Not that it's any of your business."
Kari nodded. It was probably safer for all of them that Wren kept killing targets. Otherwise it would be like having a live bomb sitting beside them that could go off and kill them all at any moment.
"Some people deserve to die," Piper said. Her face gleamed white under the fluorescent lights.
"Exactly," Wren said.
Kari squeezed Piper's shoulder. Physically, she'd almost recovered from their time on Jic' ship, although she'd have a scar across her temple for the rest of her life. But mentally… it would take a while for those scars to heal. But this time Kari would be there for her. With tensions on Zenith easing, and the Imperium no longer breathing down her neck, Kari finally had time to give Piper the help she needed.
"How are the talks going?" Kari asked Ryker, changing the subject.
"Not bad," Ryker said. "I made the ambassadors from Albion look real close at my neck today, where the metal is fused. One of them threw up into his hat and after that they were much more open-minded about our suggestions."
"You really think it will happen?" Atticus said.
"Oh, Zenith will be free of Albion," Ryker said. "Things are already better there. We're receiving medical shipments, food. It's getting better."
Kari smiled as she ate and let their conversation fade into the background. It seemed like only a few weeks ago that she'd been barging through the lower tunnels of Zenith to deliver a crate of guns to the rebellion. So much had changed since then. It was a lifetime ago. Finally things were transforming. It had cost a lot of lives. Too many. But here they were, on the verge of a free Zenith. Finally, she could fly around in her ship, with her crew, and take on jobs without the threat of the Imperium hanging over her.
The rebels had won.
Thank you for joining me for Kari and the crew's adventures. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.
If you liked Starship Renegades, you will love The Nova Chronicles:
Plasma pistols, busted ships, and space adventure.
Nova is an adventurer with a heart of steel. All she wants is a quiet life and enough money to keep her ship flying.
The Universe has other plans.
Between ancient aliens bent on universal destruction, and a government bent on universal control, Nova can't catch a break.
Grab your space racer and strap in - this is going to be one wild ride!
If you enjoy space-cowboys, misfit-crews, and adventure, then you'll love The Nova Chronicles.
Get it now: https://saffronbryant.com/books/the-nova-chronicles-books-1-5-box-set/
Thank you for reading, and I'll see you in the next adventure!
Read the Prequel for Free
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A band of rebels. An impossible mission.
The Starship Renegades have one mission: save the civilians.
Standing in their way: The Imperium.
The Imperium killed Kari's sister. She was just a child at the time. But now, Kari won't let them hurt anyone else. She will risk everything to help the Renegades and save the civilians.
Because if the Renegades fail, hundreds will die.
Grab a plasma pistol and strap in for this space adventure.
If you enjoy misfit bands of rebels and adventures through space, then you'll love Starship Renegades. Get it now.
Download now: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/wh88oyyi0z
Find all of Saffron's Books At:
The Nova Chronicles
Transforming Darkness Series
Other Science Fiction
The Blood Mage Chronicles
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Doctor Saffron Bryant was born on the 17th December 1990 in a small town in North Queensland, Australia. She has been interested in fantasy and science fiction from a very young age, writing her first story at the age of seven. She has always been fascinated by fantasy stories and has a passion for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
After an unpleasant encounter with a brain tumour, Saffron turned to writing as a creative outlet and has since published more than twenty books.
Saffron has a PhD in chemistry and a passion for scientific research.
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EMAIL: [email protected]