Hayden left Duskdale that same night, on a public shuttle, under a false name. Tyler Ryke had too many connections in the shuttle system to risk traveling as Hayden Cross. When he stepped onto the sticky transport pad ten hours later, the air in Star’s Landing was as hot and wet as he remembered. The acrid smell of engine grease and the rattling hum of ventilators felt like home.
Time to save a little girl and piss off a crime lord.
The gleaming white edge of Phorcys, Ceto’s sister planet, was just rising in the west, which meant it was almost time for dinner. That lush, water-laden sphere was where the Supremacy was based, and its huge bright bulk, marred only by the planet-spanning line of Poseidon’s Trench, had been a fixture of Hayden’s life since the day he was born. He didn’t hate Phorcys or envy its people, like the Patriots did. It felt right for it to be up there.
He wore a half-zipped jacket that was too warm for this heat, because wearing a jacket suggested he was armed. He wasn’t — the Supremacy barred all weapons on commercial flights — but that didn’t mean he had to look unarmed. This aging starport was all peeling rubber and rusted edges, dripping condensation and mismatched panels. Pro-Patriot graffiti covered most available surfaces.
Hayden strolled the cramped metal halls at an unhurried pace, dodging prospectors with hard eyes and engine techs in jumpsuits and grease. He exited the starport’s security plaza to find Ceto’s first human settlement spread out below: Star’s Landing. The Supremacy’s new glass and polypropylene towers dominated the skyline, like glistening icicles freezing their way upward off a grimy biocrete ledge.
Hayden knew all the old buildings would be gone in a few years, the blood and sweat of Ceto’s first settlers crushed beneath drone-built clones. It was insensitive crap like that which motivated the Patriots to blow things up. That, and the Supremacy’s perpetually unending occupation.
Randomly bombing Supremacy assets was about the least effective way to convince them to leave Ceto forever, but no one had ever accused the Patriots of being intellectual titans. Most of them hated the Supremacy’s attempts to remake Ceto in their own image, but not Hayden. He welcomed the changes, welcomed anything that made this place different. There were still too many places here that reminded him of her.
He strolled toward the taxi station as a brown four-wheeled sedan pulled up to the curb and stopped. Both its gullwing doors opened, and a man who shouldn’t be here stepped out. Hayden dropped his duffel bag and frowned.
“Zack?” Hayden’s best friend in the world was a slim, brown-skinned man with a bald head, small ears, and a PBA that could crack five-level encryption. “What the hell?”
“Good to see you too, man.” Zack snatched Hayden’s duffel and tossed it into the sedan’s open trunk. “I’m your ride.”
Zack wore plainclothes, gray jeans and a dark T-shirt with the letters “SG.” SpaceGov regulated interplanetary traffic between Ceto and Phorcys as both planets whirled in their barycentric orbit around the solar system. Everyone in SpaceGov was a civilian, like Hayden was now.
Zack’s idling sedan had sleek lines and mirrored glass windows that were illegal for everyone else. It had sculpted door panels, narrow running boards lit with blue light, and Supremacy plates. It was almost certainly bulletproof.
“Like the car?” Zack asked.
“How did you know I was coming?” Hayden did like the car, but that was completely beside the point.
“You caught a flight halfway across the planet without notifying Varik.” Zack slammed the trunk. “Does that sound like a good idea?”
Hayden glanced around for more Vindicators. “Maybe it did at the time.” Captain Karus Varik ran Special Investigations, the elite arm of the Supremacy Hayden had worked for until Varik personally fired him. “I’m not his problem anymore, so why am I yours?”
“Get in the car and I’ll explain.” Zack hopped into the sedan’s front seat and pushed back the manual controls. “Unless you’re waiting for someone.” He swept his gaze across everyone within running distance. “You waiting for someone?”
Honestly, Hayden hadn’t thought that far ahead, but that would be hard to explain without explaining the lying. He slid into the other seat and watched the doors close. It was actually a really comfortable seat.
“Car, drive,” Zack said, and his sedan cruised off. Most people used voice commands to direct autocars despite the fact that a PBA could interface with them, because linking to a car on the city’s Traffic Control System was just begging to get your brain hacked.
Zack turned to Hayden as the sedan merged into automated traffic on the Two, a four-lane highway that ran above the Pipe: a massive pipeline that transported water from Ceto’s damp southern pole. “So, about Duskdale. That really pissed Varik off.”
Hayden’s stomach did a little flip. “What did I do this time?” So long as the answer wasn’t, “You met a Patriot spy and lied to the Supremacy,” he might not dive out of a moving car.
“Two weeks after he fires you, you save a hundred people and a train. Imagine how that made him look.”
Hayden smiled, just a bit. He did like how that made Varik look.
“SG owed Varik a favor,” Zack continued, “so they sent me. They ordered me to bust your balls, remind you we’re always watching, but I figured I’d pick you up and buy you a drink instead.” He grinned. “I missed you, man.”
That was total bullshit, except … maybe it wasn’t. This was Zack, after all. Hayden’s partner for almost ten years, his friend for ten more years before that, and a man who wasn’t working for the Supremacy at the moment. He was also offering to buy.
“One drink,” Hayden said. Because refusing a free drink would just look suspicious.
There was no parking in front of the Painted Tiger, a squat red tavern with a pink neon sign on the roof, but sedans with Supremacy plates parked wherever they hell they wanted. Zack chose a stretch of sidewalk no one was currently using. They entered the bar, found some stools, and ordered what passed for alcohol in a Star’s Landing dive.
The Tiger was messy, dirty, crowded, and way too loud for anyone to record their conversation. Glasses clinked and voices mixed as Hayden glanced around the dusky interior. It was lit only by faded domelights, with dented crawler hull covering its walls. How many times had he and his squad thrown back a drink here after a successful op? This tavern felt more like home than home. Hayden had missed it.
“So,” Zack said, “any plans while you’re in town?”
Hayden thumped over a salt shaker. “We ordering first?” At least Zack’s interrogation came with a free drink.
Zack rubbed the back of his bald head. “This was my way of sugarcoating things.”
Hayden snorted. “I’m here on a contract. The private kind.” He hoped Zack would take the hint.
“Need any help?” Zack didn’t take the hint.
“It’s nothing that would interest you.” Zack had been a Special Investigator, too, until he stepped up into SpaceGov, so Hayden wouldn’t lie to him. You just didn’t lie to people like that.
“Try me,” Zack said. “It’d be good to work together again, wouldn’t it?”
Hayden met Zack’s gaze. “It’s great to see you, but I’m good. I don’t need help.”
That was as clear as he could be without forcing Zack to choose between him and the Supremacy. He couldn’t tell Zack the truth because Zack would never betray him, and that would make Zack a traitor, too. Traitors had a habit of getting shot.
Zack looked away and sighed. “Dammit.”
“Dammit?” That didn’t sound like he was letting this go.
“I kind of lied about why I came to pick you up.”
His honest ruefulness almost made Hayden laugh. “No, really?”
“SG actually ordered me to deliver you to the police station. There’s Vindicators waiting there to take you into custody.”
So Varik did want to talk about that train tunnel. “Can I finish my steak first?”
Zack slugged him in the arm. “Could you just listen for a second? I know you don’t follow politics, but this is a bad time to hint at Patriot sympathies.”
“Good thing I don’t have any of those.”
“Just this week, the senate on Phorcys called two votes to implement martial law, after the Patriots hit that hospital in Pioneer Point. Both votes failed, but not by enough.”
Hayden didn’t care what a bunch of Supremacy senators did on another planet. “They’ll never get the votes they need.”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Zack said, “the Patriots aren’t running out of bombs. If the Phorcys senate decides what freedom we still have is causing a problem, they might sweep us away and take Ceto for themselves.”
Zack looked convinced, but Hayden had been to Phorcys more than once, seen its sandy white beaches and gorgeous houses. The Supremacy didn’t want this planet. They just needed its crops because the bacteria here was further along its evolutionary path in comparison to the stuff on Phorcys, or something. He was thirty years past useless stuff from school.
Hayden spotted their waitress, a dark-skinned woman with remarkably spiky hair, and waved. “I don’t see how this changes my vacation.”
“Varik suspects you came to Star’s Landing to sell Supremacy secrets and pad your depleted accounts. That’s why he wants you arrested.”
Zack’s words conjured thoughts of a concrete cell and a metal chair, one with electrodes and restraints, and Hayden felt a chill. He knew what the Supremacy did to people they suspected of working with the Patriots. He wouldn’t be in any shape to rescue Cassie after they finished with him.
He pushed back into action mode and counted the steps to the door, the people he would knock over on his way there, the stools he’d drop behind him. “What about you, Zack?” He casually leaned back on his stool. “You here to arrest me?”
Zack leaned close. “I’m here to help you.”
“Because we’re family?”
“Because I owe you, and yes, because we’re family. You’ve had my back for years, but more than that, you got me through that crap with Nissa.” Zack’s eyes might be damp now, or maybe it was just the smoky tavern. “You kept me sane.”
Hayden settled on his stool and wrapped one hand around his drink. Nissa was — or had been — Zack’s niece. She died with eight others when the Patriots of Ceto blew up a passenger train running through New Haven. That train had also carried Supremacy drones.
Hayden could relate, given Dani, and what that Patriot bomb had done to her. It had taken some time to get Zack past Nissa’s death, but they figured it out. Hayden learned then that some people got better after those they loved died. Others did not.
“You can walk out that door right now.” Zack didn’t actually point at it. “I’ll tell Varik I missed you at the starport. I even know a few places you can lay low.”
Zack was risking arrest despite the fact that Hayden had just shut him out. He had explicit orders to bring Hayden in, and he was kicking those orders in the face. “Zack—”
“Or you can tell me what’s going on,” Zack said. “And I can help you take care of it.” Their waitress dropped two plates on the bar. “And you can finish your steak.”
Hayden cut and speared a chunk of charred brown. The first bite was a little slice of home, meat cloned and burned and way too chewy for anyone outside Star’s Landing. Hayden had come here for allies, for contacts, and Zack was obviously one of those. Given the fact that he had orders to arrest Hayden, Zack had already betrayed the Supremacy.
“We’ll talk,” Hayden said, between bites.
Zack speared his steak. “Damn straight we’ll talk.”
They both took time to eat, because once you started a job like this, you never knew when you’d get another good meal. Once they finished, Zack disabled the sedan’s GPS and drove manual. They stopped in the lowest floor of a parking garage, hidden from drones, and Hayden told Zack everything: about his plan to kidnap Cassie Ryke, his deal to get Morna’s message, and Bucky’s cairn. With Captain Karus Varik and the entire goddamned Supremacy looking for him, he wasn’t doing this alone.
“So,” Zack said, when Hayden was done. “One question.”
“Just one?” He must have explained things really well.
“If you need this message. If you really think it came from Dani. Why not go after Morna?”
Hayden remembered Morna’s eyes as she begged him to save her daughter. “She’s been my informant for years. Risked her life more than once to help me nail Ryke’s people.”
“She’s holding a message from your dead wife hostage.”
“And a murderous psychopath could fillet her daughter at any time, so I’m trying not to be a dick about this.”
The way Zack shrugged didn’t concede the point. “You really think that message came from Dani?”
Hayden smelled burned flesh and hair again, mixed with the smell of Dani’s flower perfume. “Of course not.”
“Then why risk any of this?”
“Because I haven’t got anything better to do?”
Zack gave his sedan’s dashboard a slap. “At least you’ve got your eyes open.” A drawer opened in the dash, revealing three empty slots and one dark gray pistol, battered but intact. “Weapon.”
Hayden took the pistol, a common dumb gun favored by Patriots, and tucked it into the pocket inside his jacket. “This traceable?”
“To a dead man.” Zack handed Hayden one of two shielded commlinks. “It’s been a few years since we worked those cases against Ryke.” He thumped a button, and the sedan’s gullwing doors hissed open. “You think he’s still pissed at us?”
Hayden rolled his eyes as he slid out of the car. “Yes, Zack.” The weight of a weapon inside his jacket made him feel better about everything. “I think he’s still pissed.”
They were going after Ryke as partners, again. It felt good. Before Zack moved to SpaceGov, when they were both still Special Investigators, they netted six Ryke lieutenants and cost the man millions in lost drugs and guns … with Morna’s help. Hayden’s personal crusade against Ryke had filled the void left by Dani’s death, at least until it stopped doing that.
Hayden looked to the exit stairs on the south wall. “You can still not be an idiot today. You know how Ryke gets, all wrathful and sadistic.”
“That’s exactly why you need me to keep you alive,” Zack said from the sedan. “You always get shot without me.”
They were leaving separately, of course, because neither of them was an idiot. The commlink Hayden carried would allow Zack to trace him to his new apartment, so there was no reason to say the address out loud. “You think SpaceGov will be a problem?”
“Nope,” Zack said. “I’ll pick up some beer and a deck of cards.”
Hayden swallowed against a lump he didn’t expect. “Thanks for this.” He turned to the sedan to find Zack watching him from the driver’s seat. “You know we’re on our own, right? Even if Ryke sends an army at us, we can’t call the Supremacy for help.”
“No worries.” Zack slapped his gun drawer closed. “I don’t even like those guys.”