Page 43

Author: Rachel Bach

Crouching low, I ran into the kitchen. My plan was to use the bar as cover for a better chance at getting the drop on whatever came in next. When I ducked below the counter, though, I found something I didn’t expect.

The bar that separates the kitchen from the rest of the lounge is held up by two sturdy metal poles, but lying between them was a third pole. The spare was braced against the underside of the bar by a box of dried noodles and the soup pot that was too big to go in the cabinet. Like the others, the spare rod was steel, thick walled and heavy, about thirty pounds. Without my armor it would have been slightly too heavy to be a good weapon. In my armor, it gave me an idea.

Quietly as I could, I grabbed the metal pole and wrapped my hand around one end, squeezing until the metal collapsed into something resembling a sharp point. Satisfied, I hefted the pole in my left hand while keeping Sasha firmly in my right. Armed as best as I could manage, I settled down to wait.

I heard the symbiont the moment it entered the lounge. It moved quiet as a barefoot man. Quiet as Rupert, I realized with a pang. But I was listening hard and my speakers were very good, and I caught the soft click of its black claws on the lounge’s metal floor. If the symbiont had had sensors like mine, it would have found me instantly, but it must not have, because it paused just inside the doorway, and that was when I attacked.

I shot up and jumped sideways over the counter, shooting the second I was clear. The move was too fast for my computer, but I didn’t need my targeting system for a shot this close. Sasha’s bullet hit the symbiont square in the head, right above where its ear should have been, slamming it into the wall.

The moment the shot left my gun, I charged, throwing my suit’s strength behind the metal pole in my left hand as I stabbed for the symbiont’s stomach. I’d expected piercing the black scales would be hard, but even though my suit would never throw around the sort of weight Cotter’s did, I was sure I could punch the pole through. That is, I was sure until I actually tried to do it.

Stabbing the pole into the symbiont was like trying to drive a toothpick through a rock. The sharp point snapped the second it made contact, and then the pole snapped again just above my grip. The symbiont’s stomach wasn’t even dented, but I could see its layered black scales rattling, scraping together just like they did on an enraged xith’cal.

But though my assault had proven useless, I’d still surprised the thing, and I dropped the bent, useless pole to grab the symbiont’s neck instead. Using all my suit’s strength, I pinned it to the wall with one hand while I pressed Sasha against the side of its skull with the other. As soon as the barrel was firm, I fired three more shots in rapid succession.

I was about to land another when the symbiont’s arm shot out and slammed me right in the chest. The blow knocked me back, and I hit the ground hard. I had one second of scrambling before the black figure was on top of me, the clawed hand wrapping around my throat as I’d just held its.

Even as the symbiont pushed me down, part of me couldn’t believe this was happening. Counting my initial attack, I’d shot this bastard four times at point-blank range in the head. Even a Devastator would have gone down under fire like that, but while the symbiont was bleeding now, the blood red and human looking as it splattered across my visor, the head wound didn’t seem to slow it down at all.

Its weight was like a boulder on my stomach as it pinned me to the floor, using its legs to hold mine flat. It held my right hand and gun down with its left while its right hand worked on prying my helmet off. My left hand was free, and I got several good punches on its shoulder, but the alien didn’t even seem to feel it. Its entire focus was on my helmet, and its arm was so strong I could feel the pulling all the way down to my toes. But the Lady Gray doesn’t give up easily. Despite the creaking, my locks held firm, though they wouldn’t for much longer under that sort of pressure.

By this point, my mind was scrambling. I didn’t know why the symbiont was so intent on getting my helmet off, but I knew the moment my locks popped, I was dead. But what could I do? I was on my back with my gun hand pinned and my punches useless against the symbiont’s alien strength. I was outmatched in every way. I would have dropped my grenade string like I had back on the xith’cal ship if I’d thought it would have broken the thing’s hold, but with my helmet lock about to go, a blast like that was more likely to rip my own head off than do any good.

I was fighting the urge to panic when a fresh drop of blood hit my visor, drawing my eyes up to the hole my shots had hammered into the thing’s armored skull. The wound was on the side, so I couldn’t get a good look at it from this angle. I could see something, but it took me several seconds to recognize that the dark, matted strand sticking out from the black armor’s head was hair. Bloody, dark brown human hair. And that was when I knew what to do.

I flung out my left arm and felt along the floor until my fingers found the dented length of the broken pipe I’d dropped earlier. I wrapped my hand around it and, throwing every bit of power my suit had left into my arm, swung the pipe up like a spear. I hadn’t even looked to see what end of the pipe I’d grabbed, but a little luck was still on my side, because it was the sharp, broken end that I slammed with all my force into the side of the symbiont’s skull, right where the hair stuck out.

Since none of my other hits had meant a thing, the symbiont had stopped paying attention to my flailing. It had dismissed me, and because of that, it lost the precious second of reaction that could have saved its life. The dodge, when it came, was too little and far, far too late. My makeshift spear sunk through the hole my shots had made, and the black scaled body went stiff. The grip on my neck slacked, then fell away as the symbiont slumped forward on top of me.

I knew it was dead, but after watching the thing soak four head shots, I wasn’t taking chances. I scrambled out from under it and locked my gun against its bloody temple. But as I squeezed the trigger to fire one last shot, just to be sure, my body froze.

My first thought was that all the pulling on my helmet had broken my suit, but the Lady was working fine. It was my own body that was frozen. My muscles simply refused to listen to anything my brain said. I was paralyzed, stuck like a bug in glue. I couldn’t even move my eyes, so though I heard someone enter the lounge, I couldn’t see who it was until he reached out and gently plucked Sasha from my now-limp hands.

“I told you you wouldn’t like the hard way.”

I would have jerked at the familiar voice if I’d been able to move, but even my paralysis couldn’t stop the growl that rose in my throat as the man who’d blocked my way on the boardwalk at Seni Major ducked down to look at me through my visor. “Nic,” he said calmly. “Would you ask Miss Morris for the emergency unlock code for her armor?”

There was some shuffling, and then a pale young man I’d never seen before knelt beside me and turned my head so I was looking him in the face. “Deviana,” he said, his voice richer than anything I’d ever heard. “What is your emergency code?”

The stiffness in my throat and mouth vanished, and I took in a breath to tell them exactly where and how they could shove my emergency armor code. But the words that left my mouth were not the ones I’d meant to say.

“Eight six four five three.”

As the code left my lips, my armor dutifully shut down. My cameras went dead, my locks popped, and the Lady Gray fell off me like a shed skin. When it was done, the man from Seni Major lifted my helmet off my head with a smile that I would have given every gun on Paradox to punch off his face.

“Get her up and make her comfortable,” he said, tucking my helmet under his arm. “Miss Morris and I have a chat to finish.”

I wanted to struggle. I wanted to scream. I wanted to shoot every single person in the room, even the dead ones, but all I did was stand when Nic bade me and walk over to the bar stool that the third person, a woman about Nova’s age, pulled out.

She met my eyes, and I expected her to order me around like Nic had, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, a wall of force landed on my shoulders, and I collapsed onto the stool. The wall wrapped around me like a blanket as soon as I was down, but I barely felt it. I’d finally put two and two together.

“You’re plasmex users.”

“They’re much more than that,” the man from Seni Major said, striding over to stand in front of me. He was speaking Universal with no accent at all, and I dismissed my earlier assumption that he was Paradoxian. No Paradoxian could be this much of a backstabbing coward.

He waved his hand, and Nic and the girl fell back, though the girl kept her hand on my shoulder. “I think we got started on the wrong foot,” the man said, leaning down with the same winning smile he’d flashed back on the boardwalk. “My name is John Brenton, and believe it or not, I’m one of the good guys.”

“I don’t believe anyone who calls himself ‘one of the good guys,’” I snapped, pushing as hard as I could against the invisible pressure. “And if you’re trying to play the shining knight, you’re doing a damn poor job.” I glared pointedly at the dead symbiont by his feet.

Brenton suddenly looked sad. “He wasn’t trying to kill you, you know. His name was Anton Mikel, and he was a good man. I would never have sent him to subdue you if I’d thought there was a chance of either of you getting seriously hurt.”

“He killed Cotter!” I yelled, jerking halfway off the stool before the girl caught me.

“Your partner was a Paradoxian skullhead,” Brenton said dismissively. “Not the sort who’d listen to reason even if we had offered him a surrender.”

He was right, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell him so. I think Brenton saw it on my face, though, because his smile turned into a smirk as he continued.

“If we’re reckoning blood debts, Miss Morris, I believe I’m the one coming up short. The two of you killed a dozen of my mercs, though neither of us can beat your captain when it comes to blood spilled.” He leaned back and tilted his head like he was trying to get a better look at me. “You know, none of this would have happened if you’d just told me what I wanted to know back on Seni.”

I lifted my chin stubbornly and kept my mouth shut.

“You’re awful loyal for a merc,” Brenton went on when it was clear I wasn’t going to rise to that one. “I can’t believe Brian’s changed so much in the last five years that he’s become likable enough to inspire genuine loyalty in the people he hires to die for him. Tell me, mercenary, what did he pay you to buy such stubborn silence?”

I shrugged. “Nothing special. He gave me a job, and I honor my contracts.”

“She’s telling the truth,” Nic said behind me.

Brenton heaved a long sigh. “You Paradoxians and your damn honor.” He wiped a hand over his face and started again. “You know, you don’t look like a dumb girl. Aggressive as a mad mountain cat certainly, but not dumb. You must have realized by now that your captain’s not the trader he pretends to be.”

I kept silent, which was answer enough.

“He’s no smuggler, either,” Brenton continued. “Or spy, or anything so nice.”

He paused there, letting the words dangle. Rupert had warned me once that just because someone baits you doesn’t mean you have to bite, but I guess I don’t learn, because my curiosity snapped it up. “Okay.” I sighed. “What is he?”

Brenton crossed his arms with a thoughtful look. “That’s a complicated question. Back when I worked with him, I used to think of us as brave heroes giving our lives to defend the galaxy from what it cannot fight on its own.”

I arched an eyebrow at the overblown rhetoric, but Brenton just kept going. “There are things in this universe we do not understand, Miss Morris,” he said. “Things we cannot see, cannot detect, and yet they could wipe us out, all of us, without even noticing we were here.”