MACKENZIE’S FIRST CLUE someone had entered Cordoba’s estate ahead of her was the guard slumped by the gate. A cauterized hole ran through the man and his thin flexsteel armor. That was the work of a heatsword, about as subtle as a brick.
The man’s murder raised several questions Mackenzie couldn’t answer. First, if you were going in heavy, why stab this man instead of shooting him? Second, why didn’t the estate alarms go off when the man’s heart monitor stopped? And finally, was Cordoba still alive?
Of these three questions, the last bothered her the most. Because if Cordoba was dead — if whoever killed this man without raising the alarms had killed Cordoba, too — she wasn’t getting paid. Her bounty was very clear about that.
Mackenzie kicked off her heels, smoothed down her slinky black dress, and opened the unlocked metal gate. “Jinx? Didn’t you tell me you had Cordoba’s estate locked down?”
“Yes ma’am,” Jinx said, through the sub-aural implant imbedded in Mackenzie’s ear. “I have everything.” Jinx was her support, communications, and tech expert, and she was sitting in a warm shuttle a half klick into the forest. “Alarms disabled, camera feeds cloned, comms monitored. Is there a problem?”
Mackenzie pulled the weapon off the dead guard — a Tech Sixteen submachine gun — and found it still cool. “Did anyone lock the estate down ahead of you?”
“Ahead of…?” Jinx went silent for a moment. “No ma’am. At least, no one I can detect. We’re the only ones in the system.”
Jinx was good, very good, so anyone she couldn’t detect would have to be better. That narrowed the list of competitors considerably, and Mackenzie didn’t know any fellow bounty hunters who used heatswords. Bringing a sword to a gun fight was a great way to die holding a sword.
Given her alternate outfit for tonight’s abduction had been a three-meter-tall suit of powered armor, Mackenzie now regretted her fashion choices. She had planned to pose as an escort and abduct Cordoba quietly, because he had a fetish for tall Latin women who looked muscular enough to break him in half. Now, her plan was not to get stabbed with a heatsword.
She kept off the main path, moving from shadow to shadow across estate grass, and encountered a disturbing lack of private security. The huge white globe of Ceto’s sister planet, Phorcys, gleamed in the dark sky, lighting Cordoba’s estate even well past sundown. Mackenzie could do with a bit less light, personally, but it wasn’t like Phorcys was going anywhere.
“I need eyes on the estate,” Mackenzie said. “Fire up those telescopics for me, would you?” The signal returned to Jinx was linked to her mouth movements, so her own voice was less than a whisper.
“Yes ma’am,” Jinx said.
Mackenzie kept moving as she waited for Jinx’s updates, bare feet treading on wet grass she couldn’t feel. One downside to cyberized feet: while they looked perfectly human, they were actually mechanized prosthetics. Great for kicking in doors, less for wiggling toes in grass.
“I don’t see any active security,” Jinx said. “I don’t see any movement in the courtyard, except you.”
Mackenzie might still find Cordoba before her competitor did, because she knew about his safe room. Her competitor might not, because they didn’t have Jinx’s impressive ability to reverse engineer security systems. If they moved fast, they could still take this bounty.
“Keep those eyes on me,” Mackenzie mouthed. “Let me know if anyone wanders by.”
“Got you covered, ma’am.” Jinx remained adorably formal when they were on a bounty. She also did the ma’am thing in bed, which was sexy but a little strange.
Moments later Mackenzie found another dead guard, crumpled in the shadows by the wide stairs leading to Cordoba’s sprawling mansion. This guard, too, had a hole where his heart had been. His hand still clutched his Tech Sixteen, and like the first guard, he hadn’t fired it.
Was her competitor wearing mimetic camouflage? That was hard to come by these days — when the Supremacy pulled back to Phorcys, they took their toys with them — and that exonerated every hunter she knew. Her competitor had to be connected to the Supremacy, fond of heatswords, and tech-savvy, and she didn’t know anyone who met all those criteria.
This bounty smelled worse by the second, but Mackenzie hadn’t earned her rather legendary reputation by letting minor setbacks discourage her. Besides, she’d paid the Network for an exclusive window on Cordoba’s bounty. If her competitor seized it illegally, the Network’s recourse involved everything from seizing their assets to assassination. One step at a time.
Instead of climbing the wide white stairs like an idiot, Mackenzie crept into the rising shadow on their east side. The estate plans Jinx had hacked out of the public records bureau showed a locked security door below these stairs. Breaking open that door would set off an alarm, of course, except Jinx had disabled the alarms.
She found a third guard by the closed security door. This one had a dagger in the top of her head. There had been no reason to kill her, since her competitor obviously bypassed this guard by using the stairs, so tossing a knife down was just mean.
Mackenzie checked the door — locked, of course — and set her bare feet in a wide A. She pressed one palm to the door, wrapped the other around the handle, and turned it, or tried. Servos whirred inside her cyberized arms and shoulders. The handle popped off in her hand.
She grimaced and tossed it aside. No choice now but to go loud. She stepped back, raised one leg, and kicked the door with one cyberized heel.
Her kick smashed the door in with a bang, because that’s what happened when a cyberized foot encountered a standard security door. She lunged through the doorway with the Tech Sixteen before the three men inside could draw their weapons. One tried anyway, of course. She put a bullet through his hand.
The injured guard’s scream split the shocked silence as blood spurted on the round green table in front of him. She had interrupted a poker game. That suggested these men had no idea the other guards were dead.
“Guns on the table, please,” Mackenzie said. No reason to be impolite.
The others withdrew pistols from inside suit jackets, slowly, and set them on the table, slowly. The man she’d shot clutched his hand and hyperventilated. He wouldn’t bleed out for another hour or so.
“What’d you do to Wilson?” the man behind the table asked.
The speaker, Elijah Clayton, was Cordoba’s newest head of security. Mackenzie recognized him from Jinx’s preparatory hacking. Clayton had a rugged jawline, dark skin, and fuzzy black hair. He also had a tattoo of crossed swords on his neck, marking him as an ex-Patriot commando. So that was interesting.
“Was Wilson the woman on the door?” Mackenzie asked.
“That’s her.” Clayton didn’t seem all that concerned she had a gun pointed at him, but being a former Patriot, he was probably used to it. “You kill her?”
“I didn’t, but whoever walked in ahead of me did. They also killed the man on the south gate, and the one by the courtyard stairs.” Had they really missed the whole thing? “Someone’s come to kill your boss, and it’s not me.”
“She’s lying!” the other guard said, a man who’d been stupid enough to wear his sunvisor indoors. “She shot Kevin in the hand!”
“Because he drew a gun on me,” Mackenzie said, “when I already had a gun on him. You don’t draw a gun when someone has a gun on you, Kevin.”
Visor bared his teeth like a yappy dog. “We’re not telling you anything!”
This idiot was wasting time Cordoba didn’t have. “Listen, cowboy—”
“Let me check with central,” Clayton said. “We won’t mention you just yet, okay?”
Mackenzie rewarded him with a smile. “Let’s do that.”
Alerting Cordoba’s security to the intrusion was a big risk, but a bigger risk was letting her competitor get to Cordoba and kill him. After all, if Cordoba lived tonight, she could always abduct him later.
Visor glared from behind his reflective rectangle, constantly glancing at the pistols on the table. Mackenzie considered shooting him too, a leg wound, maybe, but then she’d have two people groaning and moaning, and one was already giving her a headache.
“Help me,” Kevin whispered. “God, help me!”
“You can bandage his hand,” Mackenzie said. “Actually, please do that.”
A new player was muscling in on her bounty, someone with motivations she didn’t understand and behaviors she couldn’t predict. She couldn’t let these men become distracted. Bleeding distracted people.
Clayton touched a hand to his ear. “Central? Mind running a diagnostic on our alarms?”
Visor glowered as he stalked, hands raised, to a cabinet with a red cross.
“Central?” Clayton asked again. “You hearing me?”
Mackenzie suspected “central” wasn’t going to respond. Her competitor had taken them out, too, which meant they might already be closing on Cordoba. She had one more card to play.
“Jinx,” she mouthed, “set off the alarms, please.”
“Ma’am?” Jinx must think that was a bit odd.
“The alarms will warn Cordoba to flee into his safe room. Our competitor can’t kill him in his safe room.”
“Oh,” Jinx said. “Okay.” A moment later, she added, “Uh oh.”
So there was someone else in the estate’s security system, and that person was actively suppressing the alarms. How were they doing it in a way Jinx couldn’t detect? Just who were they up against tonight?
“Central’s not answering,” Clayton told everyone.
Visor jammed a finger her way. “She’s talking to someone! I saw her lips move!”
Mackenzie resisted a mighty urge to roll her eyes. “I’m talking to my partner, genius, because we’re all fucked if whoever’s after your boss gets to him before I do.” She focused on Clayton. “Do you have some way to warn Cordoba manually? A hard line?”
“Not down here,” Clayton said.
Visor yanked gauze out of the medical station like a man in need of toilet paper. “This bitch is playing us! She’s keeping us busy while her partner kills Cordoba!”
“If this woman was here to kill Cordoba,” Clayton said, in a tone that suggested he didn’t like Visor very much, “we’d all be dead right now.” He glanced Mackenzie’s way. “There was a woman scheduled for Cordoba tonight. Mariana Lopez?”
Mackenzie incrementally inclined her head. “You can call me that.”
“All right, Miss Lopez. We have a hardlink to alert Cordoba if the system goes down—”
“Shut it!” Visor shouted.
“—but reaching it requires me to leave this room and climb the stairs,” Clayton finished. “It’s on the foyer’s south wall, beside the door, behind a painting of a lady in a white dress.”
“Great,” Mackenzie said. “Off you go.”
His brow furrowed. “You’re letting me go up there?”
“Does it look like I’m stopping you?”
After a moment, Clayton hurried up the mansion stairwell. Belatedly, Mackenzie considered returning his gun. Soon there was a loud thump, followed by silence. Whoever had killed the other guards had just killed Clayton, too, and Mackenzie honestly felt bad about that.
Her murderous rival was in the foyer upstairs, meaning all that separated Mackenzie from her bounty was one stairway and a hall. Given the shenanigans going on with his alarm system tonight, Cordoba was likely still waiting for Miss Lopez. So she could call in Jinx and escape, without her bounty, or head upstairs to fight an invisible killer with a heatsword.
Mackenzie was almost out the door when Jinx spoke again.
“Gosh darn it! I’ve figured out who hacked the estate ahead of me. It’s a Supremacy satellite intrusion, a brute-force electromagnetic override. Doesn’t that violate our treaty with the Advanced?”
“It does,” Mackenzie mouthed, turning right back around, “which means this must be one of the Supremacy’s black ops.” Supremacy involvement explained the mimetic camouflage and everything else. “It also means they know I’m here.”
The Supremacy was a planetary government run by a spacefaring society of genetically-engineered dickheads known as the Advanced: humans who had modified themselves. While the Advanced all lived on Phorcys, Ceto’s sister planet, their government had occupied Ceto for more than ten years under the auspices of “improving” it for everyone else. To thank them, freedom fighters called the Patriots of Ceto started blowing things up.
That endlessly fatal clusterfuck ended three years ago when the Supremacy pulled out for no discernable reason. They signed an armistice with Ceto’s shocked politicians and withdrew their assets practically overnight. In addition to returning Ceto to its people, the treaty between Ceto and Phorcys forbid the Supremacy from conducting military operations on Ceto, which is what they were doing right now.
Why was killing Cordoba worth possibly starting a war?
Either way, Mackenzie knew the Supremacy was here, which meant they now considered her a security risk. Being a security risk didn’t work for her. She had to let whatever Advanced officer was running this Supremacy op know she could keep her mouth shut, before they murdered her.
Visor finished wrapping Kevin’s hand. Kevin looked miserable and tired. She could kneecap them both and walk away, but she didn’t see the need.
“Get out of here,” she told them. “And Kevin, sorry about your hand.”
As they stared, not leaving, she carried their guns up the stairs. She doubted they’d follow now that the Supremacy had someone stabbing people’s hearts out. She tossed the guns one flight up, because waving around a Tech Sixteen hadn’t done any of the other dead people any good.
“Jinx, warm up the shuttle. Don’t lift without my orders.”
“Yes ma’am!” Jinx’s voice trembled. “Please be careful!”
Mackenzie found Elijah Clayton collapsed on the steps leading into the foyer, unconscious and breathing, which was odd. Why knock him out when they’d stabbed everyone else? Had the Supremacy tagged him as a former Patriot of Ceto? Did they want to abduct and interrogate him?
That wasn’t her problem. None of this was her problem. Mackenzie stepped over Clayton’s still-breathing body. “I’m not armed!” she yelled. “I just want to talk!” She crept into the foyer. “Don’t fucking stab me, please!”
She found the foyer empty save for a couple of tasteful potted plants by the locked front doors. Hardwood floors shined in the light coming from the foyer’s large front windows. A supremely tacky rug sprawled in front of the grand stairway leading to the second floor, to Cordoba’s bedroom.
“I know who you are and why you’re here!” Mackenzie informed everyone. “I’m also very good at keeping secrets! Let me live, and no one has to know what happened here!”
No one spoke up, but also, no one stabbed her, which she considered a net positive. If her competitor was hiding in the foyer, they were listening. Mimetic camouflage suffered visibly if its wearer moved too rapidly, but if they didn’t move, she’d probably never see them.
“If you know who I am,” Mackenzie said, “then you know how much attention killing me might draw. You don’t want that, but Cordoba’s all yours. Let me go and I won’t say a thing.”
As she moved toward the stairs, the paneled floor creaked under her cyberized weight. A creaking floor could work for her. She let her eyes relax and worked with her ears instead.
A creak that wasn’t Mackenzie’s sounded behind her. She spun, hands raised and empty. A glowing heatsword lopped her hand right off.