FORTY MINUTES and one very sweaty walk later, Hayden entered a valley between shipping containers and found his new apartment: 105. He touched his palm to the bio-reader. The door rattled open, he slipped inside, and he tossed his duffel on the bed. The armored security door closed on a metal rectangle that smelled like industrial cleaner and dirty socks.
The interior of his refurbished shipping container was a dull metallic gray, with a huge floor-length window on its north side. That offered a terrific view of the dilapidated street, rusted trash cans, and plundered street lights, but the window had been designed to withstand micrometeorite impacts, which also made it bulletproof. On Ceto, that was a selling feature.
His unit’s only amenities were plastic cabinets welded to the ceiling, a working sink with rationed water, and an efficient air toilet screened off by a curtain. There was also a queen bed and a black faux leather couch, pre-furnished. For a glorified shipping container, it could have been a lot worse.
Renting actual real estate — under his false identity, of course — was his best chance to keep Ryke from learning he was here. Taking one of the hundreds of open leases in the depressed Star’s Landing housing market would draw less attention than checking into a hotel. Ryke had snitches in all of those, and they kept a list of undesirables and kill targets.
Hayden settled on the bed. He let the nervous edge that kept him alive bleed off, forced his muscles to relax and his heart to slow. He was here. He was armed. And Morna was holding a message from his dead wife hostage.
Why had he agreed to piss off Tyler Ryke? Zack was right. He should have demanded Morna’s message. There was no guarantee Morna would still have it after he rescued Cassie — what if it got deleted, or corrupted? — and then how would he go on, knowing he’d never hear it?
Those thoughts damaged his calm and left his fingers tingling, and that’s how he knew the emotional balancers he took in Duskdale were wearing off. His dry mouth should have been his first clue — that, and the taste of freshly chewed paper — but he’d chalked those symptoms up to the air in Star’s Landing. He’d gotten better at lying to himself over the past few years.
Sitting in this apartment, alone, wasn’t working. All he could think about was Dani and the way she’d died thirteen years ago, instead of him. Fragments of bone. Barbecued meat.
It was his fault she was dead, and the reason Varik fired him two weeks ago was because he was taking emotional balancers in the field. Those little red pills were the only way he slept without dreaming about Dani getting murdered again, but there was that pesky chance of hallucinations. There were safer drugs out there, of course, but those cost money he didn’t have.
If Hayden went too long without his pills, he sometimes heard gunshots, or screaming, or a vidscreen that was too loud in the next room. Sometimes he heard Dani singing a lullaby, or asking the son who died in her womb why Daddy let terrorists blow them up. None of those things were going to help him rescue Cassie Ryke, so he popped two pills dry.
The balancers worked fast, flooding Hayden’s brain with fresh calm and simple solutions. So long as he had a steady supply and a clear objective, he was going to do just fine. The side effects only happened once he stopped.
Hayden picked up his pistol — its weight was both comforting and familiar — and paced the apartment, working through his plan to rescue Cassie Ryke. It was a good plan, with steps and fallbacks and everything. He would succeed if he kept his head. He also had Zack.
His commlink buzzed. Hayden set the pistol on the bed and tapped his jacket. “Pickup or delivery?”
“I’m five minutes out,” Zack said. “SpaceGov doesn’t care that I missed you.”
“Neat.” They had the element of surprise and an actual plan, which was more than he’d had on half of his operations with Zack. They were ready for anything. They were ready to kick the world in the balls.
Hayden’s door chimed recognized access, which didn’t make sense. Had his new landlord come by with more paperwork? The door rattled open.
Hayden spotted a rifle tip. Then he threw himself behind the black pre-furnished couch. Then someone started shooting at him.
Just another day in Star’s Landing.
A knockout round whizzed over his head and splattered blue gel across the floor-length window. Another buried itself in the couch, buzzing like an angry insect. Hayden’s pistol sat on his bed, entirely out of reach, but the knockout rounds told him something interesting. His attackers wanted him alive.
“Come out!” a heavily accented voice shouted. It sounded Russian or Ukrainian, a legacy from the many cultures on the homeships. “Give up now and I only break small bones!”
Tyler Ryke (or someone else) had found him, somehow, and that wasn’t really fair given all his precautions. Still, Hayden’s balancers kept him calm and focused on his next best move. That was taking this thug alive so he could find out who sent him. Heavy boots rushed the couch.
Hayden launched himself from behind the couch and drove his shoulder into his attacker’s gut. He also bounced off, shoulder pulsing with agony. He felt like he had just shoulder-checked a wall.
The impact should have emptied his opponent’s lungs. Instead it sent the big man stumbling sideways and sent his knockout rifle clattering to the floor. The thug was a pale-skinned giant with a crew cut and a good half meter on Hayden. He snorted and rushed.
Hayden dashed inside a clumsy punch and sent two open-palmed blows into the man’s ribs, but he only bruised his hands on concealed armor. Flexsteel. It was the only thing light enough to go under clothes this thin, and it cost a small fortune.
The flexible and bulletproof armor covered Hayden’s assailant from neck to toes, which meant he needed to go for the eyes, balls, or nose ring. Teeth weren’t an option, this time, because this particular attacker had sharpened them to dagger points.
“Nice teeth,” Hayden said. “Lose a bet?”
Daggermouth grunted and lumbered forward. Hayden ducked past and kicked the back of the man’s knee hard enough to drop him into eye-poking range. He was just about to gouge when he noticed the second man outside his door. This one had decided to aim.
The knockout round took Hayden center mass. He woke face down on a cold floor, with Daggermouth’s knee digging into his back. The man weighed as much as a Vindicator.
How long had he been out? Not long. He knew that from Daggermouth’s heavy breathing and how much salty blood had gathered in his mouth. They wanted him talking and mobile, and quick. They probably wanted to ask him some questions.
“Careful there!” The man who’d shot him actually sounded worried. “Ryke wants him alive!”
Daggermouth panted like a giant dog. “Little mouse isn’t going anywhere.”
So these men were Ryke’s thugs. Hayden stayed limp. The voltage had not left any permanent damage, but he could not give these thugs any sign that he was lucid. Not until he did something that required being lucid.
The second thug closed with the distinctive swish of soft shoes. Sandals? Who the hell wore sandals on a bounty hunt?
“You awake, Cross?” the second man asked.
Hayden just drooled on the floor.
“Ease up. Let him breathe.” He did sound worried.
Hayden felt the pressure in his back ease, though not enough. He couldn’t get up without getting beaten down. His too-calm brain considered and then discarded solutions.
“Sit him up,” the sandaled man ordered.
Daggermouth’s calloused hands rolled Hayden over, pulled him up, and propped him against the container wall. Hayden let his head loll forward. Something hard slapped his cheek.
The blow snapped his eyes open before he was ready, and that revealed his captor: a slim Asian man, like Zack. This man had a thick shock of purple hair and a game show host’s chin.
“Hello!” The new thug fixed him with a blinding smile. “I’m Slim.”
“Hey, Slim.” Ryke’s thugs were cheerier than Hayden remembered. “How’s Ryke doing?”
“He was fine last time I saw him. Torturing some guy.”
“You know you’ve got the wrong apartment, right?”
Slim clucked his tongue. “I thought you did this for a living, Cross.”
“Who’s Cross?” Hayden feigned confusion. “My name’s Bucky Wonderballs.”
Daggermouth punched Hayden in the gut. Hayden curled up, coughing up his lungs, and casually locked the commlink inside his jacket on open transmit. Hired muscle always fell for the old “punch him in the gut” play.
“Ow,” Hayden added, when he had his breath back.
“It’s just procedure, roughing you up a bit.” Slim almost sounded like he was apologizing. “Now who else knows you’re here?”
Hayden forced his torso straight. “I didn’t know I’d be having visitors today, let alone two of them.” Zack could hear everything now. “What if I offered you something to let me go? Either of you need a used sedan?”
Hayden didn’t glance at the floor-length window looking out onto the street. It was bulletproof, but a bigger projectile would go right through it. He hoped Zack remembered how they’d solved that problem in Trifold City.
“Watch the street,” Slim told Daggermouth, which was about the best Hayden could ask. “Now answer my question please, Cross. Does the Supremacy know you’re back in Star’s Landing? Does anyone?”
Daggermouth stood in front of the window now, pressed against it. He was either very brave or very stupid. Hayden had his suspicions.
“Cross?” Slim asked.
Hayden ignored him. “Hey, shredmouth. You’re blocking my view of the street.” Zack could hear that, too.
Slim sighed heavily. “So we’re going the ignore me route. Fine. I was hoping you’d talk to me, but I know you’ll talk to Ryke. Get up.”
Hayden complied because that would make it easier to dodge. “You don’t have to shove me up against the wall, dickhead.”
“You know—” Slim started, but then Hayden’s commlink beeped.
“Hey!” Slim pulled Hayden’s jacket open. “Your commlink’s on?”
Hayden shrugged. “Ever had a roadkill taco?”
“What?” Slim asked.
“What?” asked Hayden.
Zack’s sedan crashed through the window wall, popping Daggermouth up on its hood. Hayden flattened himself against the container wall as Slim leapt into the air like a circus performer. He almost cleared the hurtling sedan before it clipped his hip and spun him around. He went down hard.
Zack’s sedan stopped when it hit the far wall and closed door, crushing Daggermouth’s legs between itself and buckled metal. Flexsteel could stop just about anything, but it was called flexsteel because it could compress when necessary. Daggermouth’s shriek of agony as his legs got crushed would have been comical, if Hayden was a terrible person.
Slim clutched his hip, gawking at Zack’s terrible parking job, so Hayden didn’t go for his gun. He jumped on Slim instead, pinning the thug before he could get up. They struggled until Hayden kneed Slim hard in the balls.
Slim gasped and curled up. He glared in righteous indignation, as if Hayden had broken some unwritten rule. As if he had crossed a line. That was when Hayden grabbed his gun.
He stood over his former captor as the gullwing doors of Zack’s sedan thumped the container’s low ceiling. Zack hopped out, glanced at the half-crushed man vomiting blood all over his slightly crumpled hood, and frowned at Hayden. “This is your fault, you know. This thing is a rental.”
Slim squirmed on the floor. “Really?” He coughed and clutched his damaged components. “You go right for the balls?”
“Listen, kid, you shot me.” Hayden knelt beside Slim as Daggermouth gasped and choked. He tried to block it out, tried to ignore it, but it still made his stomach churn.
Crushing a man’s legs made for an agonizing death, and Hayden pondered putting Daggermouth out with one clean shot to the head. Yet he’d have plenty of time for guilt later. He still had more little red pills.
“Time for twenty questions.” Hayden pressed his pistol to Slim’s thigh. “Or bullets?”
Slim’s palms popped up. “Ask me anything! I’m quite mercenary, I assure you.” Even in obvious, excruciating pain, he still had a smile on his face. “What do you want to know?”
This sort of bald-faced cowardice was refreshing. Still pinned against the wall, Daggermouth shuddered, died, and did what people did when they died, which was even more horrible in a small apartment. Hayden measured his breathing and blocked out the smell.
“How’d you find this shipping unit?” Zack asked.
“First,” Slim said, “I bribed the facial recognition office at the starport! After that, we tailed you via streetcam.”
“Does Ryke know where you are now?” Hayden asked.
“Not from us! Hans and I didn’t want to share your bounty. If we’d split it, we would have had enough to retire.”
“How did Ryke even know I was here?”
“No idea!” Slim said. “But he told us an hour ago.”
Had Hayden been spotted at the Painted Tiger? At the starport? It didn’t matter. What mattered is that Ryke didn’t know where Hayden was right now. Also, so long as Ryke didn’t know why Hayden had risked coming back here in the first place, his plan to rescue Cassie could still work.
“Here’s the good news.” Hayden glanced out the shattered window, at the disturbingly empty street, and imagined the air out there was nicer. “So long as you keep talking, I might not actually kill you. To start—”
Zack gripped Hayden’s arm and tapped the side of his head, one eye distant. “There’s armed men approaching on foot from both ends of this block, two and two.” Zack must have one of his contacts sending an eyeball feed to his PBA, off streetcams. “We’re boxed in.”
Just what kind of shoddy encryption were the streetcams running these days? “So Slim lied to us?” Hayden pointed the pistol.
“I didn’t lie!” Slim said, eyes wide. “Ryke’s got everyone searching for you. I didn’t call for backup, ‘cause like I said. Big bounty.”
Hayden kept the sight between Slim’s eyes. “Who’s coming for us?”
“If they’re slow and moving like military, my money’s on Martin Zane, Ryke’s second cousin. I once saw him shoot a man for bumping his autocar. He likes amputating things.”
“We should go,” Zack said.
Hayden pulled a pair of zipcuffs from his duffel bag. “You’re in the back, Slim. If you try anything, you’re out the door.”
“Deal!” Slim offered his joined wrists.
Hayden zipcuffed Slim’s wrists and pushed Slim into the back of Zack’s autocar, then got in himself. At least this sedan was armored. Was it just four more thugs coming up on them, like Zack said, or were more out there?
The doors shut as Zack pulled out the manual controls, grabbed the wheel, and reversed with the reassuring crunch of tires on plastic. Hayden didn’t look at the body that tumbled off the hood. He looked at the man in the backseat and wondered if keeping Slim alive was a mistake.
Maybe he’d lost a step. Maybe it would be safer to just put a bullet in Slim’s head. Still, his captive was information, and Hayden had killed enough times to know he never liked it.
Staccato pops filled the interior as the autocar accelerated away from Hayden’s freshly leashed apartment, and then they were past the shooters without any new holes. That made Hayden’s latest investment the site of a vehicular homicide, numerous weapons violations, and probably a gang war. He was not getting his deposit back.
“Great job back there!” Slim said.
“Jesus, shut up.” Zack glanced out the window as they both watched the shooters rush for their own autocar. “I didn’t promise not to kill you yet.”
Soon the autocar driven by the thugs was following them through mostly automated traffic, about one block back. Outdistancing Ryke’s thugs was going to be a chore. Zack couldn’t actually speed without alerting the Traffic Control System, which would alert the Supremacy. Hayden needed time to interrogate Slim before the Supremacy arrested him.
Hayden glanced at Slim. “Can we buy Zane off?”
“Absolutely never,” Slim said. “Since they’re related, Zane’s sworn to family loyalty. Also, sadism.”
Zack cruised around a slow-moving trash drone, continuing one of the most geriatric car chases in which Hayden had ever participated. “What’s our play? Pioneer Point? The trafficking ring?”
“Too dangerous on crowded streets.” Hayden remembered the wheel shaking in his hands. “Besides, I nearly clipped you.”
“You never could drive manual. What else you got?”
They cruised past an old apartment complex hung with tattered red banners, probably Patriot supporters. The Prospector District was one of the oldest areas of Star’s Landing. The buildings here were brown concrete and brick, short and squat, jammed together so there was barely room for a single man between them. It wasn’t a good place to stop.
Zack kept driving. Soon the Pipe loomed ahead, the massive conduit that ran water from the sea at Ceto’s southern pole across the planet. It was tall as a building and coming up fast. Maybe they could lose Zane’s men in the traffic going through the tunnel.
“Hey, take a left here,” Slim said. “Avoid the tunnel.”
That was suspiciously helpful. “Why?” Hayden asked.
“We parked a trash drone off the tunnel road when we came in, to block you in case you escaped. That’s where Zane is herding you right now. He’s probably already called—”
“Take a left,” Hayden said, as the hairs on the back of his neck agreed with Slim. This cheerful thug really did want to stay alive.
Zack avoided the obvious route — the trap — and turned them down a stretch of open asphalt instead, driving beside the Pipe. Hayden watched his side mirror as the black autocar made the turn. He spotted a narrow alley one block up and considered. “Taper’s Point. The bootleggers.”
Zack shook his head. “Armor this heavy would crush a civilian taxi. You want a dead cabbie on your conscience?”
Hayden grimaced. “Not another one.”
Another tunnel beneath the Pipe came up in two blocks, an auxiliary route for empty autocars. Hayden knew the city’s traffic control system wouldn’t prioritize it for civilian traffic, which probably made it safer. “Duskdale. The fat drug lord.”
“Which fat drug lord?”
“The one with the prosthetic eye.”
Zack slowed the car. “You really think they won’t see that coming?”
“These thugs work for Tyler Ryke.” Hayden knew all this bravado was the balancers talking. Otherwise, the threat of abduction and torture might have dampened his mood.
Zack jerked his thumb toward the backseat. “Hidden clasp between the backrests.”
Hayden reached into the backseat and fumbled for the clasp while keeping one eye on Slim, who helpfully pressed against the door. “Just how many guns have you got in this car?”
The center backseat popped open as Zack turned into the smaller tunnel. It revealed two Supremacy smart rifles with AI scopes, expensive and very dangerous. Also, awesome.
Hayden whistled. “How’d you afford these?”
“These scopes legal on Ceto?”
Hayden grabbed one rifle and jammed the other between the passenger seat and center console, where Zack could reach it but Slim couldn’t. After that, he overrode the passenger door safety. As the gullwing door rose Hayden spotted a stack of trash bins as tall as a man, lit by TLED lamps.
Zack slowed again. “What if we logged an anonymous call to the Supremacy instead, reported Zane’s autocar?”
“Like I said before, no Supremacy.” Hayden hopped out, rolled with the rifle clutched to his chest, and dashed behind the bins as the sedan’s door closed.
Hayden heard, rather than saw, the wheels of another vehicle crunching biocrete as it turned into the tunnel. Once it passed the bins, he popped his head up and verified it was the black autocar. Just like that fat drug lord and his stupid, stupid bodyguards.
The other side of the tunnel remained visible in the distance, a tiny circle of sunlight highlighting Zack’s sedan. Zack’s brake lights flashed as he stopped dead. After a moment, the black autocar stopped as well.
It was a blocky hauler with six wheels, big enough to hold four men and two bodies in the bed. That had probably been their plan. The driver didn’t have any idea what to do next.
Hayden imagined the thugs debating. Floor it? What if Zack’s sedan had dropped some sort of countermeasure? Back up? That was a long way up a narrow tunnel, and it was also giving up. Admitting you’d been beaten.
Zack’s sedan roared into motion. It went speeding … backward. Doors opened as the men in the hauler hopped out, taking cover behind them. Just like that stupid drug lord and his bodyguards had done eight years ago.
As Zack’s sedan sped backward, Ryke’s thugs unloaded a barrage of deafening shots. One of Zack’s taillights blew, but Supremacy sedans had armor and these idiots should have known that. Hayden stepped out from the bins behind them and pressed his eye to his rifle’s AI scope.
Four dotted yellow lines inside the scope targeted four center mass shots. “Head,” Hayden muttered over the cacophony. The scope’s yellow lines shifted to head shots as Hayden categorized the threats.
The two men from the backseat were muscle, big and wearing thick body armor. They didn’t know anything. The driver wasn’t wearing any armor, which meant he hadn’t planned to get out of the car, and that made him too stupid to be calling the shots. The big man by the passenger seat had to be Martin Zane, the man who liked amputating things.
Hayden pressed the trigger. The rifle bucked as the smart bullet launched and banked, and then an armored thug flopped forward. Hayden turned the other line red, then launched another smart bullet. Another thug slammed into his door as Zack’s sedan skidded to face them broadside, taking a few dozen more bullets and keeping up the noise level.
“Knee,” Hayden said. The yellow assist line moved to arc over the rear driver’s door. He fired again.
The smart bullet rose and fell in a smooth arc, hopping right over the back door and into the driver’s leg. The driver screeched and fell as Zane, a dark-skinned man with no hair and a pockmarked face, turned, snarled, and raised his own rifle.
Hayden shot him too, right in his freaky tattooed face. Zane wasn’t going to surrender. Also, Hayden liked his parts right where they were.
“Wait!” the driver shrieked. “I give up!”
Hayden stared down the scope. “Gut.” The networked line from Zack’s AI scope joined Hayden’s as Zack stepped from his bullet-riddled sedan and approached from the other side. Everyone else was dead and the driver wasn’t armed.
He and Zack reached the idling autocar at the same time. Zack loomed over the wounded driver and pointed the smart rifle. “Stay down.”
“Out of the car, Slim,” Hayden shouted, as he gave the sobbing driver a once over. He was just a kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen. What was he doing with this crew of hardasses?
Slim hopped out, hands cuffed behind him, and nodded to the kid on the ground. “That’s Cal. He’s just a bike conscript. Go easy on him, okay?”
Slim’s concern felt almost genuine. Either way, this wounded kid wasn’t a threat, and Hayden’s interrogation window was closing fast. He pointed his rifle at Slim. “Did you notice Zane’s dead?”
“I did notice that!”
“Want to join him?”
“Absolutely not. Ask me anything!”
That felt as sincere as Hayden could expect. “What exactly did Ryke order you to do to me?”
“Bring you in alive, even if it meant getting wounded or killed. If anyone else kills you, Ryke promised to rip them apart with a beltsaw. He promised to make us all watch.”
“So, your standing orders are capture, not kill?”
“For you only.”
“Why am I special?”
“Because Ryke wants to rip you apart with a beltsaw.”
Only the wall of emotional balancers kept Hayden’s legs from trembling. He had seen the autopsy photos of the people Ryke tortured for days, even weeks. Those sort of photos stayed with you, but Hayden pushed past them. “Why did Ryke send that message about my wife?”
Slim blinked as Hayden watched his nostrils, his eyes, and his body language, and nothing suggested anything but confusion and surprise. If Ryke had slipped Morna that message to lure Hayden back to Star’s Landing, Slim knew nothing about it.
“Your wife?” Slim looked like he really wanted to raise his hands, but they were still zipcuffed behind him.
“This is Star’s Landing security!” A magnified voice split Hayden’s ears as it echoed through the tunnel, as did the sound of multiple descending repulsor jets. “Do not move!”
“Well crap,” Zack said.
Hayden tossed his smart rifle as Zack did the same, and then they dropped to their knees and interlaced their hands behind their heads. Slim knelt as well but didn’t interlace his hands, since they were cuffed and all.
Black-armored Vindicators landed with the roar of repulsor jets, two at each end of the tunnel. They jogged in from both sides as Hayden kept absolutely still. This gunfight had gotten a bit too public for the local Vindicators, which meant they were all going to jail now.
So much for keeping the Supremacy out of it.