They spent the next day trudging through the wilderness of Sannat. Endless fields of black trees stretched out to the horizon, limbs thick with ice. Sannat was a rocky, arboreal world. There was much moisture and water on the planet, ideal for settlement. The winters were very cold, though. Give it a century and all the mining for the surface ores would raise the temperature a few degrees, but for now the place spent much of the year in an arctic chill.
The Bondsman’s given name was Tenlok, though few people called him anything other than “Bondsman”. His profession was written in his gait and gear. His armor was a blueish black, a ragged half-cape fell from one shoulder. Weapons were strapped all across his body, daggers and pistols, a collapsible pulse rifle on his back; grenades and hatchets and tools close at hand. Most of his guns were empty, though. He’d expended almost all of his ammunition when he’d first taken the LeNoy girl out of the Capital.
It was an impromptu contract: the result of bad luck, not planning.
He had been recovering from his last job, a stretch as a bounty-killer on Naransetti, and this world was a good resting place before heading into the Deep Frontier. The plan was to wait a week or two for a ship with a Slip drive to pass through. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been paying attention to local politics.
The Northern Union, a group of miners dissatisfied with the Capital’s governance, had started a rebellion. Tenlok suspected someone outside the system was funding them, because rebel troops had been inside the Capital in a matter of days, looting and burning before the militia and house guards could react.
He’d been content to wait the whole rebellion out, and had been in the process of fortifying his quarters when there had been a knock on his door. He had opened it cautiously, gun in hand, but it wasn’t rebels or looters waiting for him. Just a bald, chubby man and a little girl. He might have preferred the rebels, in retrospect.
“Much farther?” a small voice asked, bringing him back to the present.
“Rest in two hours,” he replied. He was ten paces ahead of her, crossing an open plain. An iced-over lake, incongruously green against the field of snow, stretched out to their right. Not far beyond its edge was another long expanse of forest, and beyond that, the foothills. His holo-maps said the star-port was only a quick march from those same hills.
If he was alone, he could have made it to the Port before dusk. But he had to contend with short, weak legs and a body more used to dance lessons than struggling through sleet and snow. Her feet would be blistering. He’d have to take care of that when they stopped.
He heard a rustling and turned around to see the girl had taken her mask off, exposing her goggled face to the wind. He stopped and stared at her. She couldn’t see his expression beneath his mempo, but it was clear he was glaring.
“Mask back on. Now.”
“My nose is running,” she insisted, rubbing at it.
“You want frostbite? Put it on.”
“Just for a minute, I’ll be fine!”
“I don’t get paid as much if your face is all fucked up,” Tenlok growled. “Contract’s for you alive and un-injured.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, reluctantly covering herself again.
They kept trudging along for a while, but Tenlok could sense tension in the girl. He subtly slowed his pace, letting her catch up. His eyes still constantly scanned the horizon, but he didn’t see movement, or any heat flares. If they were lucky, they were alone for klicks in every direction. He doubted it, but one could hope. The girl sniffled loudly.
“Blow it all out into the mask,” he said.
She sniffled again and patted at her nose.
“You gotta get the gunk out of you. I don’t want your sneezing giving us away.”
“I’m not walking another ten klicks with snot all over my face!”
“Fine, we’ll compromise. Rest stop’s the tree line. Then we push on ‘til nightfall.”
“Thank the gods,” she said, suddenly bursting into a run towards the trees.
“Wait! Wait! Dammit!” Tenlok shouted, running after the girl.
He caught up with her a dozen meters from the forest, and put a hand on her shoulder. She was huffing and panting, the rifle on her back askew. It was harder to run in thick snowdrifts than she’d expected.
“You pull that again, I’m going to dose you with tranquilizers and carry you the rest of the way to Port,” the Bondsman said.
“Good!” she spat back. “Better than walking with you shouting at me all the time!”
They reached the tree line and the girl tore her mask off and blew her nose angrily into a kerchief. Tenlok crouched down and began setting up their camp while the girl grumbled and cleaned her face.
“You shouldn’t talk to me like that, you know,” she said.
“Oh yeah?” Tenlok asked as he cleared out a space next to one of the trees.
“I’m the heir of the LeNoy. My Grandparents settled this world, we made it so that people can live here. There wouldn’t even be colonists if it wasn’t for us.”
“And now they’re trying to kill you,” the Bondsman said.
“They’re ungrateful. That’s what my father says. They’re jealous of what we have and they want to take it from us.”
“Sounds about right.”
She had taken her gloves off and was running one of her hands across the leaves of a white shrub. Still glaring, she plucked one of the buds and put it in her mouth, chewing angrily.
“Hey!” Tenlok barked. “Stop that! What if it’s poison?”
The girl rolled her eyes and spat it on the ground.
“It’s not poison,” she said. “It’s ghost-finger. We used to have these in our garden. I’d play hide-and-seek with my nurses in it all day.”
“Fine,” he said.
Steadily, Tenlok erected a collapsible heat shield. It was only a small tent, made of silvery cloth that seemed to blend in to its surroundings. Once it was secure, he set up the thermal generator inside.
not stupid,” the girl said. “I was born here, you
“Yeah,” Tenlok said. “I know. Come on, get inside”
The two of them clambered into the tent, the girl settling opposite him across the generator. He flipped the switch, and with a hum the tent was filled with a soft yellow glow. Gentle warmth worked its way into his limbs. He didn’t need it like a normal human did, but he could tell it was doing wonders for the girl. She rubbed her hands greedily and scooted closer to the heater, beaming.
She’d taken her hood off, exposing long hair, coiled into a tight bun. It had gotten tangled over the past few days of travel, and she picked at it absently, then with more effort, but to no avail. Eventually she gave up. Slowly, the smile on her face fell away as she stared into the glow.
“I thought you were supposed to like me,” she said.
“Who told you that?” The Bondsman asked. He had switched his eyes to a broad scanner, and was slowly sweeping the forest for other signs of life, seeing through the tent as if it wasn’t there.
“You’re bonded to me. Faulton said that’d make you like me. It’s wired into your brain to want to protect me and help me, right?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Tenlok grunted.
“Well, how does it work? Explain it to me.”
“Your man negotiated a contract. For the length of that contract, yeah, there are chemicals in my brain making me put your survival above mine. It’s not a choice, if someone’s gunning for you I’m going to put myself between you and them, and I’m going to kill them,” he said. “But that’s instinct. Rational brain’s still mine. Mostly.”
“So you’d die for me, but that doesn’t mean you like me?”
“I just… how can you do all that and-and not like me? Why would you do it?”
“Money,” the Bondsman said.
The girl hugged her knees to her chest, and said no more. That suited Tenlok just fine.
The last light of the day was slipping beyond the horizon by the time they hit the foothills. Soon they’d be in twilight, then the total blackness of night on Sannat. Tenlok had to admit he preferred young colonies like this. The night was truly dark here, wild and full of mystery. Not like on the civilized worlds, with their blazing cities and roaring starcraft.
The girl was breathing hard. Nothing more than a little phlegm in the lungs, but Tenlok slowed his pace again anyway. They were still all alone as far as he could see. Occasionally, he’d hear shots in the distance, and every now and again, the rumbling of high explosives. That would be a problem tomorrow, but for now they were as safe as one could be in the middle of a war zone.
As they crested a ridge, Tenlok raised his fist for the girl to halt. He dropped to one knee, rifle ready. She plopped onto the ground, panting.
“Prone, like I showed you,” he said.
The girl rolled onto her stomach sulkily, still trying to catch her breath. Even at a slow pace, he had pushed her too hard. Tenlok cursed himself, she’d need at least an extra hour of sleep to recover from this. He considered giving her some of his stimulants, but he doubted his clients would appreciate their daughter being returned to them dosed to her eyes on combat drugs.
Beyond them was a low valley, leading up into the foothills again. A wide river cut through it, completely iced over. It was like a pale green serpent, coiling its way through rocks and thin black trees. He could see a few heat flares in the forest beyond, but they were small. Probably local animals. Cautiously, he rose, and started heading down into the valley.
“Slowly,” he said over his shoulder. “Don’t know who’s watching us. Lots of good cover around here.”
The girl followed silently. They reached the lip of the frozen river and stepped out onto the ice as the last red and purple light of the day faded away. The whole world was twilight blue now. Not that the Bondsman had to see it. With a thought and the tensing of his muscles, his sight became a sickly green, details as clear as daylight. The girl didn’t have the advantages of his cybernetics, but he trusted her well enough. She was born on this world after all.
It had all sounded straightforward enough back in the Capital. The girl’s tutor, a flabby, bald man called Faulton, had explained the contract to him in faltering words. Take her cross-country to the star-port. The rebels were shooting down every aircraft and speeder that came out of the Capital, and ground crawlers were getting ambushed left and right. On foot, through the deep wilderness, they stood the best chance of not running into anyone at all. They had to keep their heat signature as low as possible though, nothing that would cause a spike that might attract unwanted interest.
They hadn’t seen anyone the first few days, then the girl had dumped her pack of rations in an icy river like this one as they crossed it. Tenlok was forced to make a detour through one of the outlying cities to secure supplies. She had only complained a little the night before that her rat-pak had blood on it.
Of all his charges, she hadn’t been the worst. She wasn’t a pirate or a mercenary resenting him for being a better killer than them, or a mega-corp baronet, thinking that a fat bank account translated into knowing what to do when the shooting started. Mostly, she was just quiet and sullen, with the occasional stupid question. She’d even taken to his improvised shooting lessons well. Give her ten years, or some proper augmentation, and she’d make a good markswoman.
He heard a crack. His rational mind knew it lasted less than a second, but it dragged through his ears, long and loud, followed by a splash. No scream. He spun around instantly, saw the hole in the ice, the girl’s rifle laying beside it.
Stupid, stupid! He cursed himself. The ice wasn’t as thick as he thought. All these years, fighting on worlds and stations across the Frontier, and it was here that he hadn’t bothered to learn the topography. He stripped his pack and his rifle in seconds, and sprinted to the hole the girl had fallen through.
He tensed, his vision changed, looking through the ice, searching for heat signatures but knowing she wouldn’t have any. She was wearing a cold-suit, she’d look like something tiny under there, carried away on the current, water seeping in under her goggles. Panicking. Liquid filling her lungs. And Tenlok, standing stupidly a dozen meters away, all his killer’s instincts useless against a damnable river.
There was nothing for it. He crouched down, cocked his fist back, and punched into the ice, ripping up the edges of the hole, making it large enough for him to plunge through. He dove in, and was instantly cast into a dark world. Thunder was in his ears. He flipped through vision modes, swimming with the current. He had to be fast, faster than he’d ever been. He took deep drags on the chemical vents in his mempo, his arms cutting the water, propelling him downstream.
She was in the darkness somewhere, hidden. Probably still had that damn mask on that he’d shouted at her about. Now it was hiding her, turning her into the background. He’d never find her.
She would die.
She would die in this endless black river, with no one to help her, not even the man, no, thing whose whole job, whose whole purpose in life was to keep her breathing-
There! A flash of orange in his black vision. He plunged towards it, his arms shooting outwards, catching on a small, struggling form. He held her tight to his chest, his other arm groping out blindly, gabbing a root extending from the bank of the river. He pushed against the muddy bank, the girl still struggling in the water. He wanted to calm her, but she was drowning, even now her desperate breaths sucking water passed her mask into her lungs.
He hooked a leg into the network of gnarled roots, freeing one arm. Then, he tensed his fist and smashed it into the sheet of ice above their heads. He did it again and again, cracking the ice and letting twilight spill into their abyssal world. With a mighty thrust of his legs, he pushed the two of them up through the break in the ice, the girl first, himself scrambling afterwards.
She was coughing and sputtering, vomiting against her mask. Good. She hadn’t swallowed too much.
“Come on,” he barked, grabbing her shoulder. They half-ran back up the bank of the icy river to where he’d ditched their gear. He scrambled to the pack and hurriedly set up their tent and heater, hands moving at blinding speed, all the while only able to think of how little time he had before hypothermia hit her. Once it was done, he rose, and felt a tug.
She had wrapped her thin, shaking arms around his waist, and buried her face against his breastplate. She was hugging him. Tears wet his armor as she held on, fiercely tight.
The Bondsman put one arm around her shoulders slowly. He counted to thirty, eyes still probing the darkness around them. He wondered idly whether she felt the weapons on his belt jabbing into her. It was doubtful her mother had a ripper knife on her thigh when they hugged back home.
At last, the Bondsman let go of the girl.
“Gotta finish up the camp,” he said curtly.
She let go of him and watched as he turned on the heat unit, then meticulously laid out her bedroll. When he was finished she clambered inside, and took off her mask and hood to reveal a tear streaked face. He let her alone in the tent while she changed into a spare set of clothes he had carried for her, her old gear drying by the heater. For a long time he crouched in the dark, before he remembered the girl’s rifle was still on the river where she’d dropped it.
Carefully, he walked out and scooped the weapon up from where it lay near the crack in the ice. He looked at the black fissure for a moment, snow pattering on him. Ice had formed on his breastplate, and it crunched as he rose and walked back. The tent was in a bad spot, but he hadn’t seen anyone all day. He didn’t care to move it. The girl needed rest.
When he returned, the Bondsman tended to her injuries with a practiced hand. He’d patched his own laser burns and slash wounds many times. The scrapes and bruises she’d taken bouncing down the river were a trifle compared to some of the hits he’d walked away from. Then again, he was mostly metal and synthetic muscle now, not flesh.
Gently, he lanced the blisters on her feet and bound them with gauze and ointment. The girl was uncomplaining the entire time, silent. Inside her own mind.
When he was finished, Tenlok sat opposite her in the tent, cross-legged. After a while, she tucked herself into her bedroll, and stared up at the roof of the tent. Her rifle lay alongside her, her dried pack she used for a pillow. Tenlok checked and cleaned his own gun in his lap, drew one of his daggers and tested its weight, as much out of habit as practicality. Tomorrow would be hard. He had to prepare himself.
“One more day,” the girl said aloud.
“Yeah,” the Bondsman replied.
“Then your contract’s up?”
“No,” Tenlok said. “I’m chemmed for another week or so. I’ll need to get de-toxed as soon as the ship gets to the next system.”
The girl looked at him questioningly.
“When the contract ends, the chemicals in my brain start to filter out as part of separating from the charge. They need to be balanced. It’s a delicate process, usually needs a med-tech. Otherwise it can be… harsh.”
“So if I died and you were still alive…”
“That won’t happen.”
“But when I was in the river-”
“I rescued you.”
“But if you hadn’t?” she insisted.
“I was always going to get you out of that. I won’t ever let anything happen to you. I promise,” Tenlok said.
The girl stared at him hard.
“My parents promise things all the time,” she said. “It doesn’t always come true.”
“So if your promise didn’t come true?”
“Then I’d be in for a hell of a time.”
The girl thought about that for a while, then rolled over, and was soon in a deep and dreamless sleep