MOST PEOPLE, WHEN SOMEONE CHOPPED OFF their right hand, howled bloody murder and collapsed. Mackenzie punched with her left instead, where her attacker’s jaw should be, and felt a satisfying smack. The mimetic hood covering her attacker’s head flashed rapidly white and black — mimetic cloth was easily damaged — and allowed Mackenzie to launch a door-breaking kick at where her assailant’s body should be.
The floating, flashing headgear tilted backward beneath Mackenzie’s scything leg, suggesting the rest of the owner’s body had done the same. Mackenzie flowed with her momentum and kicked back into the flat of the attacker’s heatsword. The blade powered down as it went flying, flipping end over end like a gymnast, to clatter into the stairs.
Her failed assassin sputtered and backed up, clawing at haywire headgear before ripping it off to reveal short pink hair, light brown skin, and painted purple lips. “How did you do that?” Her attacker was now a floating head. “I just cut your hand off!”
Mackenzie raised one fist and one metal stump. “Fake hand.” She kept herself between the woman and her extremely dangerous heatsword. “Why are you after Cordoba?”
Her opponent tossed an open-fisted punch, or rather, Mackenzie assumed she did. Fighting a head balloon was more than a bit challenging, but Mackenzie still slipped aside — barely — and sliced back with extended fingers. Though the Advanced woman stepped out of range, her whole suit shimmered visibly. Rapid movement had it overloaded.
“Who’s Cordoba?” the shimmering pink-haired woman asked.
“The man who owns this mansion?” Mackenzie jabbed again to keep them moving, to keep the woman visible. “The man whose private security you just poked full of holes?”
None of Mackenzie’s punches came close to landing, and the Advanced woman landed two good ones on her. Mackenzie couldn’t actually feel pain, thanks to having her parietal lobe modded, but pressure and tightness suggested her ribs had concerns.
“Is that his name?” the woman asked. “I never get their names.”
They stalked each other as Mackenzie kept the Advanced woman away from her heatsword, kept her moving and shimmering and mildly annoyed. Even with all Mackenzie’s combat training and cyberized body parts, a well-trained Advanced was too fast for her. At best, Mackenzie could fight this genetically-modified woman to a draw, except she was already down one hand.
“Promise you’ll let me go,” Mackenzie said, “and you can have Cordoba.”
The woman stepped back and lowered her fists. “Okay.”
“Okay?” That was a quicker agreement than she’d expected.
“We’re not here for you anyway. Before you go, would you like your hand back?”
Mackenzie spotted a man moving on the second floor. “Cover!”
As Anton Cordoba sprayed bullets from the foyer’s second floor, Mackenzie dived for the stairwell leading back to the poker game. When he realized his bodyguards were dead, Cordoba should have locked himself in his safe room. Instead he was shooting and shouting Spanish epithets, because he was an idiot.
Something knocked her off balance just outside the doorway to the stairwell, but she made cover. She rolled out of the gun range and collapsed onto the first set of stairs. A quick self-inspection revealed a fresh bullet wound in her thigh, which made her grateful again she couldn’t feel pain. Otherwise, getting shot in the leg would really hurt.
She quick-peeked around the corner to see Cordoba reloading his smoking weapon. She could never get up that grand stairway before he started shooting again. She evaluated the mix of brown cybernetic fluid and dark red blood pumping from her cyberized thigh and judged the bullet, at least, had hit more metal than meat. Hooray.
“I’ll gut you!” Cordoba shouted from the second floor. “I’ll mount you on my wall!”
Mackenzie didn’t care to be mounted on anything. She saw no sign of the Advanced woman, which was unsurprising. What was surprising was the invisible woman’s heatsword was gone.
“Jinx,” Mackenzie mouthed, “lift now.” It was risky bringing her shuttle in with the Supremacy watching Cordoba’s mansion, but it was also risky to let some crazy Advanced lady stab her in the heart. Unlike her modified cybernetic limbs, her torso was not cyberized.
“Lifting,” Jinx said. “Where’s the pickup?”
“Courtyard stairs.” Mackenzie grabbed the guardrail and pulled herself up. “Make it a quick one, okay? I got a new hole in the excitement.”
“On my way!” Jinx sounded worried, too worried.
Jinx’s obvious distress was one of many reasons bounty hunters never got involved with their partners. Yet the two of them were involved, and how could Mackenzie resist? Jinx was smart, amazing, and super cute, and a short life without loving wasn’t a life worth living.
“I’ve got a hit on the underground tunnel!” Jinx shouted, as Mackenzie struggled stair by stair. “Is that you?”
“It’s Cordoba,” Mackenzie mouthed, because as far as she knew, no one else knew about his escape tunnel. “Track him.”
This was actually good news. It meant Cordoba wasn’t coming down from the second floor to shoot her, that he didn’t have a smoking hole in his chest, and that she could actually still capture him later. Assuming, of course, she didn’t get impaled by a heatsword.
“Ma’am,” Jinx said, “I think they’re—”
Static burst in Mackenzie’s ear, then nothing. A shockwave rattled Cordoba’s windows. Mackenzie stumbled and caught herself before she broke anything else, but stumbling still pissed her off.
“Jinx?” Mackenzie said the name louder than planned. “Did you do that?”
Jinx didn’t reply, and Mackenzie felt something beyond professional worry. Her heart thumped in her chest. That shockwave had sounded an awful lot like a shuttle explosion.
Focus. If their shuttle was gone, Jinx had certainly ejected, but where had she come down? The forest? The grounds? Mackenzie collapsed on the stairwell as she considered what to do next. Then she heard the rumble of incoming repulsor jets, and knew it was a bit late to worry about that.
Mackenzie watched in professional appreciation as Supremacy Vindicators — suits of powered armor wrapped around their elite soldiers — smashed through the ceiling of Cordoba’s mansion, further lowering its resale value. She could still see into the foyer from her vantage on the stairs, where Elijah Clayton’s body slept blissfully knocked out. Grimacing, Mackenzie pushed up and raised her hands — well, a hand and a stump.
Vindicators, the Supremacy’s suits of powered armor, stood a little over two meters tall. Like her own powered armor, Vindicators were bulletproof and had no viewports; their pilots saw through external cameras. Their sensors could see through walls, which meant they could see her, and also, according to the treaty, they weren’t supposed to be here.
Elijah Clayton chose the perfect moment to sit up in the doorway. “Shit?” As four Vindicators turned rifle-mounted spotlights on him, he added, “Shit!”
“We surrender!” Mackenzie shouted from behind him. “We know where you can find Cordoba!”
After a moment, Clayton added, “Yeah!”
None of the Vindicators murdered them immediately, which was encouraging. One jumped to the second floor as others kicked down doors. The last covered them with its rifle.
Mackenzie’s world spun as her thoughts lurched back to their exploded shuttle, to Jinx, who had ejected. She had ejected. Jinx was alive out there, possibly injured. Mackenzie needed to help Jinx, and she could only do that by convincing the Supremacy to let her help Jinx.
She floundered up the stairs, hand and stump raised, then collapsed beside Clayton. She’d have to do something about this blood loss soon. Blood loss, she remembered, was bad.
“Cordoba?” Clayton whispered.
“He took off.” She pressed her remaining hand to her leg wound as hard as she could. “Let me do the talking.”
Clayton grimaced. “He shot you.”
“No shit, really?”
“I’ve got an Ezo in my front jacket pocket.” It was a syringe that injected painkiller.
“Thank you, but no. Pain’s not really a problem for me.” She needed to stay alert.
Gunshots echoed from the poker room. The Vindicators had found Visor and Kevin. Another wave of guilt pummeled Mackenzie’s calm, but she pushed through it. Useful, she reminded herself. Be useful.
Rotors whirred outside Cordoba’s mansion, probably in the courtyard. It sounded like a helo. “Captain’s coming,” the nearest Vindicator said. “Don’t move.”
With an ear-damaging kaboom, some asshole blew both doors off their hinges. A moment after that, another asshole of average height sauntered through the shattered frame, hands clasped behind his back. His light brown skin marked him as Advanced, his black Supremacy uniform as a naval officer, and his perfectly trimmed goatee as an overbearing pain in the ass. His narrow, piercing eyes swept the foyer and then fixed on her, because they actually knew each other. Oh boy.
“Freyja.” Captain Karus Varik stalked over. “What are you doing here?”
Clayton stared at her like she’d spontaneously started glowing. “You’re Freyja?” He swallowed. “Shit.”
This was an understandable reaction. Freyja — the name of the armored alter-ego Mackenzie used in public — was one of the most feared bounty hunters on Ceto. No one else ran three-meter-tall powered armor with guns big enough to carve new doors.
“I had a bounty on Cordoba,” Mackenzie told Varik. She’d run several bounties for Varik before the Supremacy withdrew to Phorcys, and she always delivered. He was also one of the few who knew her secret identity, which almost certainly explained why she wasn’t dead.
“That’s interesting.” Varik stopped a good ways off and glanced at her severed hand. “Yours?”
“Yeah. Your partner chopped it off.”
“That was a misunderstanding.” Varik tapped his stupid little goatee. “A medical unit will arrive in three minutes. You have information regarding Anton Cordoba?”
So he had been listening earlier. “Yes sir. I can find Cordoba for you.”
“By find him, you mean you don’t know where he is?”
“He fled using a high-speed underground tram. By now, he has certainly emerged at one of several destinations. My shuttle was tracking his pod, but I’ve lost contact with my pilot.”
“Ah,” Varik said.
“Captain,” Mackenzie said, “did something happen to my shuttle?” She remembered Jinx laughing and shoved that memory off a cliff.
“We did not know it was yours at the time.” Varik waved one hand in possible contrition. “I’m afraid your shuttle was destroyed.”
He said nothing about anyone ejecting, and Mackenzie didn’t dare ask. What if Jinx had landed in a tree and was stuck there, bleeding? What if she’d broken a leg or arm upon landing? It took effort not to tear off into the forest after the woman she loved.
“The pilot was a friend?” Varik asked.
“Just a contractor,” Mackenzie lied, because if Varik knew how much she really cared, he might decide it was safer to shoot her right now.
“We used a high-yield interceptor,” Varik said. “Your pilot would not have felt any pain.”
“I’ll buy another shuttle.” Now to survive and rescue Jinx before the Supremacy found her. “How much is Cordoba worth to you?”
Varik raised one eyebrow. “You’re offering to kill him for me?”
“If you’d like. My former client wanted him alive, but Cordoba shot me in the leg just now, so, I’m open to counter offers.”
The air shimmered as the Advanced assassin who had cut off Mackenzie’s hand appeared. She must have carried an extra hood. Mimetic camouflage was expensive, and it always made Mackenzie jealous.
The pink-haired woman had eyes only for Varik. “There is no sign of Cordoba.”
Varik frowned at her. “You’re supposed to be better than this.”
The woman curtseyed, which was all sorts of weird. “I will find him, sir.”
Varik turned back to Mackenzie. “You seem confident you can locate Cordoba. Why?”
Mackenzie pointed at Clayton. “This man.”
“What?” Clayton’s eyes got real wide. “Now hold on, I don’t have anything—”
“He’s an ex-Patriot,” Mackenzie said. “See that tattoo on his neck, the crossed swords?”
“A mockery of our own crossed hammers,” Varik agreed. “I’ve seen those tattoos before.” He didn’t need to add, “on corpses.”
“Hold on now, wait a minute!” Clayton’s gaze darted between them. “I was just a grunt! The tattoo was beer and bad judgment.”
“This man will lead me to Cordoba,” Mackenzie said, “if you let us leave here, alive.”
Clayton shut up. He was quick on the uptake. Mackenzie appreciated partners who were quick on the uptake.
“That’s a bit vague,” Varik said.
“As an ex-Patriot,” Mackenzie added, “this man has Patriot contacts all over Argent.” She saw Clayton nodding enthusiastically. “Cordoba will be desperate for a crew to replace all these dead folks, and since he was a Patriot, he’ll naturally recruit Patriots to back him up. So I’ll use Clayton’s Patriot contacts, work my way up the chain, and find Cordoba for you. Easy.”
Varik’s pink-haired assassin scoffed. “We don’t need your help, bounty hunter. I will eliminate Cordoba!”
“Enough, Eden.” Varik dismissed her with a casual wave. “Join the Vindicators on the perimeter search.”
The woman who was apparently named Eden blinked like he’d slapped her. “But—”
Eden bowed her head as she backed up, shooting Mackenzie a venomous glare. Mackenzie felt like the woman would skin her if Varik wasn’t standing right there, and even without the ability to feel pain, that wouldn’t be fun at all. Eden pulled on her hood and vanished.
Varik crossed his arms. “Why would Cordoba trust you? Didn’t you just try to abduct him?”
“He never saw my face, and Clayton will vouch for me with the Patriots. Right?”
Clayton glanced at her, then Varik. “Yes, sir. We can do this, sir.”
“Hmm,” Varik said.
Telling Varik her plan was relatively safe because Varik couldn’t execute it. He was Advanced, and most everyone on Ceto hated Advanced. He couldn’t move openly on Ceto because that violated the treaty he’d just violated, except where people might actually see.
Varik couldn’t cultivate natural-born spies before Cordoba disappeared, or at least … Mackenzie needed him to believe that. Varik wanted Cordoba dead. She had to hope he wanted that enough to let her go save Jinx.
Varik uncrossed his arms. “You have five days to eliminate Anton Cordoba.”
Mackenzie let her very genuine relief show. “Excellent.”
“Once you send confirmation of his death, I will pay you, oh … two-hundred thousand.”
“You’ll pay me five.”
He frowned. “Five is a bit steep.”
“You owe me a shuttle.”
Varik clicked his tongue. “Four-hundred thousand.”
“Done.” She’d lost too much blood to quibble.
“Good hunting, Freyja,” Varik said, as another Advanced entered the foyer. “My medic will treat your wounds. After she’s done, stay here until we leave.” He marched away like a man on a parade ground.
Varik’s medic, an Advanced woman with dark hair, approached looking as far as possible from friendly. She cleaned and wrapped Mackenzie’s leg wound, injected her with painkiller she didn’t need, and pumped in a full packet of universal blood substitute. Mackenzie let her, and honestly would have let her do anything, because she was thinking.
As the medic stapled, welded, and bandaged Mackenzie’s cyberized hand back onto her cyberized wrist, Mackenzie mentally worked through how she’d find Jinx. She’d start at the crash site and run a grid search from there. Jinx was out there alive, somewhere. Mackenzie felt it in her bones.
The medic packed up her bag. “You’re done. Don’t do anything strenuous for the next few days.” She walked off.
“Sure,” Mackenzie said. Her next few days would be absolutely strenuous.
Rotors whirred, then faded. Soon she and Clayton were alone in a wrecked mansion filled with blood, bodies, and a whole bunch of wrecked furniture. So a typical night for her.
Beside her, Clayton shifted his weight. “So uh, Freyja?”
“I guess I’m working for you now?”
The hard Mackenzie forced a smile the soft Mackenzie didn’t feel. “I just saved your life, cowboy. You owe me.”
“True that.” Clayton rubbed the back of his short black hair. “Also, my old boss probably just fired me, so…”
“You got any problems going against the Patriots of Ceto?”
“Naw,” Clayton said. “It was just a job.”