Page 19

Author: Rachel Bach

Other than this, the night passed uneventfully. No one bothered our ship, not even the guys in the control tower, who were usually the first to stick their noses in. When I walked Basil and Nova into town the next morning for a non-reheated breakfast, the whole place felt like it was holding its breath.

The quake damage wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Mycant had a lot of room, so all the buildings were low, wide, and spaced well apart. Still, people had pulled everything off the walls, and several roofs were cracked. And though I looked for them, I didn’t see a single clock.

“I hope the quakes ease up soon,” Nova whispered to me when we were walking back to the ship half an hour later. “This place is black with fear.”

“Natural phenomena like this can take a while to sort out,” I said. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll have to abandon the colony.”

Nova paled, something I didn’t think was possible since she was already the color of bleached flour. “I’m glad we’re leaving soon.”

“Me too,” I said.

We prepped for launch when we got back, and then we sat down on the ramp to wait for the captain. And waited. And waited. Mabel was late, too, and I was starting to get frustrated.

“Where is everyone?” I snapped. “The coms are damn near useless now. You’d think that would be enough to send someone with any sense running home. I know that leaves the captain hanging, but Mabel at least should know enough to get back.”

“I’m sure she’s just delayed,” Nova said, but her face was worried as she watched the trees at the edge of the starport’s clearing wave in the wind.

“Mabel can take care of herself,” Basil said. “And she has plenty of time since we’re stuck here until the captain gets back.” But while his words were flippant, his head was bobbing nervously, the little crest of rust-colored feathers on top wobbling like gelatin.

Nova saw it, too, and she reached out to touch his wing reassuringly, but just as her fingers brushed his feathers, another quake began to shake. It was a small one, little more than a quiver, but it was enough for me. I looked at Cotter, catching his eye through my visor as I cut my outside speakers and opened a private com just for him. “One hour,” I said in King’s Tongue.

Any merc who makes it past their second year develops an almost supernatural instinct for danger. Mine had been screaming at me for two days, and I knew Cotter’s was going off as well when he accepted the order with no back talk. He just nodded and pulled out his pistol, checking each chamber with deliberate slowness. I followed suit, checking each of my weapons with my delayed but still functional clock square in the center of my vision as I watched the hour tick down.

Ten minutes before our deadline, Cotter and I stood up in unison.

“I’m going to get the captain,” I announced. “Cotter, get everyone inside and secure the ship. We’re launching the second I get back.”

“Now wait just one moment!” Basil screeched, his growing fear forgotten in his rage at having his command usurped. “Caldswell left me in charge, and—”

“He did,” I said, cutting him off midsentence. “But your job is to obey the captain. Our job is to ensure the safety of ship, crew, and cargo. Right now, our job takes precedence. If the captain has a problem with that, he can take it out on me.”

Basil’s eyes went wider than I’d thought possible, but I was already jogging down the ramp. “Get ’em loaded, Cotter.”

I heard Cotter making shooing sounds as he swept Basil and Nova into the cargo bay. Basil must have realized he was outgunned, because he went inside with only minimal protest. I saw the bird shooting me nasty looks through my rear cam, but not nearly as nasty as I’d expected. He wanted off this planet, too, I realized, and below his anger at having his authority overturned, he was happy I was doing something to get us out. At least, I hoped he was. Otherwise, this stunt was probably going to be my last on this ship. But every instinct I had was screaming at me to get us off Mycant as soon as possible, and my instincts had never led me wrong before, so I left Cotter herding the others up to the bridge and went around to the hold under the cargo bay where the atmospheric skippers were stored.

Caldswell had taken the better of the two, but the one he’d left flew just fine. I unlocked it from the berth and rolled it out. Skippers are flat, light aircraft meant for getting across a planet comfortably and quickly. They’re civilian craft, but they weren’t that different from the Paradoxian landers I’d been taught to fly in the army, so I hopped in and hit the ignition without much worry.

The faded plastic seat wheezed under my suit’s weight, but the skipper flared to life after only a few shudders. The moment it came online, I punched at the control pad, flipping through options until I got to one marked security. I hit it, and my face lit up in a grin. No trader captain would ever keep a skipper without putting in some kind of location program to prevent theft and joyrides, and, for once, Caldswell was no exception. The skipper’s security tab showed a map with two marked dots: my skipper and the ship. A hundred miles away, a third dot glimmered in the middle of a large, blank spot on the map, our missing skipper, its signal clear and strong despite the interference.

I plugged in the coordinates and hit the thrusters hard, jumping the skipper into the air. The ship, starport, and small town beyond shrank beneath me as I set off in a straight line toward the missing skipper and, I hoped, my missing captain. Far below, the trees wobbled as another quake shook the planet.


Atmospheric skippers are built for speed, and it took me barely half an hour to clear the hundred-plus miles to the spot where my map said Caldswell’s skipper was. Mycant was sparsely populated, so I didn’t expect to see much when I got there. A little town maybe, or a commercial farm. What I got was endless forest stretching as far as I could see in all directions. I spotted Caldswell’s skipper sitting abandoned in a clearing not much larger than the Fool’s footprint. I set my skipper down beside it and jumped out, turning every sensor I had to full sweep.

The Lady’s sensors filled my perception. Suddenly, I could see the whole clearing through all twelve of my separate filters, the information overlapping and merging until the flood of input was almost overwhelming. I might as well not have bothered. The clearing was blank on every frequency, just a hollowed-out stretch of scrubby grass and bushes. I didn’t see so much as a rat, much less a person, but I didn’t find any corpses either, so that was something.

I toned down my scan and looked around at the tree line as I tried to imagine what kind of business took Caldswell to a desolate place like this. The only captains I knew who did their dealings this far from civilization were smugglers. Caldswell being a smuggler would explain a lot, actually. I didn’t usually care for smuggling, but if Caldswell was shipping something other than fish, the chances of my getting paid went up tremendously. Assuming, of course, someone hadn’t left him out in the woods to die.

Such dour thinking was hardly helpful, so I pushed the worst-case scenarios out of my mind and walked back to the skippers to decide my next move. On the way, I tried to raise the ship to let them know what I’d discovered, but my com was now completely dead. I was giving it a mental poke to see if I could at least get text out when my cameras began to go fuzzy.

I stopped midstep, six feet away from my skipper. Static lines were dropping through my vision on all sides, popping in my ears as they passed. I glanced at my suit monitor to see what the malfunction was, but everything looked perfectly normal.

I reset all my cameras anyway, but the lines didn’t go away. I kept trying, changing every setting I could think of, but my screen refused to clear up. I bit my lip in frustration. Nothing bothered me more than a problem with my suit. The com I’d expected, but my cameras were my eyes. My clock going wonky was bad enough, but—

I froze, eyes locked on the time display I’d kept large and forward ever since I’d realized something was wrong. It was still there, the numbers glowing like phosphorus despite the static lines running over my vision, but they weren’t ticking over. My clock was no longer slowing, it had stopped altogether.

And that was when something enormous hit me from behind.

It felt like I’d been slapped with Mabel’s plasma patch. The thing that hit me was soft and slightly yielding but so heavy I couldn’t do anything except grunt as it threw me forward. I would have fallen on my face, but while her cameras might be on the fritz, there was nothing wrong with the Lady’s emergency mode. My suit flipped me just like it had in the cargo bay, and I landed on my feet, boots skidding through the vegetation as I whirled around with Sasha in my hand.

I’d fired twice before I realized there was nothing behind me. My shots hit a tree on the clearing’s edge, shredding the soft trunk to streamers. I pulled my gun back and swirled my cameras, but I saw nothing. The clearing was empty as ever and, except for the lingering echo of Sasha’s shots, utterly silent. There was no wind, no bird cries, nothing but the soft whisper of my suit’s motor and the crush of my boots as they dug into the grass.

The next blow hit me low and from the left.

I grunted and stumbled forward. As soon as I realized what had happened, I left my balance to my suit, trusting it to catch me as I focused all my attention on my side cameras, trying to catch some hint of what was attacking me. But I saw nothing. The air was completely empty. No matter what filter I tried, all I saw was the empty clearing, even as the thing lifted me up and hurled me at the trees.

Again, it was like getting picked up by something soft, and squishy, but enormously strong. In the second before it tossed me, I could actually feel the shape of it as it wrapped around my middle, two feet thick and articulated like a snake. It flung me so hard my teeth knocked, but not before I’d painted a target on the air where I’d just been. I fired without looking, and Sasha jerked in my hand, her barrel homing in on the spot I’d marked before firing a burst right into its center.

A screech stabbed through my mind as I crashed back-first into the forest, and my suit went dark. My cameras, my internal monitors, even my vitals all flickered out as I fell hard, hitting the ground without stabilizers for the first time in years. The crash knocked the wind out of me, but I barely felt it. All I could feel was the scream.

It wasn’t even a sound. It was a feeling, an intense surge of pain, surprise, and fear that vibrated through my brain and gave me an instant splitting headache. For a moment I lay there in my dark suit, unable to move. I don’t think I could have moved even if the Lady had been working. I was too busy gritting my teeth against that horrible sound that wasn’t a sound. Slowly, the screech began to fade, and as it did, my suit came back online.

The ground filled my vision as my cameras flickered back to life. I was lying on my stomach, trapped beneath the half-broken trunk of the tree I’d crashed into. I pushed off the ground with enough force to break the rest of it, surging to my feet.

I’d landed ten yards out of the clearing, and though I still couldn’t see anything, I could hear something moving. The underbrush rustled at the edge of the tree line closest to my position, and I felt the screech again, lower this time. Predatory. My screens went snowy as the sound increased, and I decided I’d had enough.

I reached up and thrust my visor open. My naked eyes saw even less than my cameras, but at least they stayed on when the thing roared. Thanks to my neural net, I could still see my suit’s vital info off to the side, but my targeting system was useless.

I sighed and glanced down at my pistol. I’m a good shot, but running and gunning without my targeting system was suicidal. If I was going to be fighting with my own eyes, I needed a lower bar, so I shoved Sasha in her holster and grabbed Mia off my back. The plasma shotgun whined to life as I dialed up her charge, running sideways through the trees as I did.