Through dead glass eyes, the Bondsman watched the city. Snow licked at the snarling features of his mempo. Shattered panes of hologlass scarred the streets, images flickering and dying on them in endless cycles.
It was early spring on the world called Sannat, still held by an arctic cold. Gunfire sounded, many blocks away. His grip tightened on his rifle, and slowly he edged down the alley.
The charge was twenty paces behind him, trembling in the cover of a ruined drone-hulk. He resisted the urge to glance backwards as he came to the end of the alley, crouched, and peered out. With a thought his vision changed, mechanical eyes cycling from conventional to back-scatter and then to thermal vision.
He saw them: thin orange blurs in the blue world that surrounded him. They were hiding in an attic across the street, four floors up. A badly damaged balcony and shattered window gave them a good view of the street below. Swaddled in cold-suits to match the background temperature, they’d be almost invisible to anyone else. But their rounds were live and hot, and they’d been sweating.
He could smell them through the crisp air.
“Could get messy,” he growled into the commlink. “Stay low. Don’t fire your weapon, no matter what.”
Two clicks in response. The charge understood.
He brought the rifle to his shoulder, sighted in on the attic where the snipers were huddled. With a press of his thumb he disengaged the safety, powering on the weapon’s internal magazine. The twist of a dial set the capacitor to maximum, the heat of the weapon letting off a subtle mist.
One of the figures in the attic noticed and cried out, just as the Bondsman loosed his first salvo. Three shots struck the sniper’s roost, then he tossed his weapon away and sprinted forwards. The street erupted in gunfire, the snipers blazing away haphazardly at his discarded weapon, mistaking its heat signature for his own. He hurled himself forwards, crashing through what remained of a storefront window, and rolled into a crouch.
Scatter pistol in one hand and dagger in the other, the Bondsman looked upwards, mentally mapping the building and pin-pointing his opponent’s location. He could see the snipers above, their bodies and weapons glowing bright red as they fired blindly out into the city. One of them was cradling another in its arms, the body slowly cooling from orange to blue.
Only one hit, the Bondsman realized. He’d have to do better. Taking stock of the building as he padded around the ground floor, he found a single stairway leading upwards. He switched from thermal to back-scatter, and a garbage chute appeared along the far wall, leading from the attic at the top straight to a recycler in the basement below. Checking on his enemies again, he found they were holding their position, some reloading, some shaking, some cursing at each other.
He crept to the stairwell, detaching an incendiary grenade from his belt as he walked. His armor was thermal-masked, but all his weapons and cybernetics would still reveal him to anyone with the presence of mind to look. It was lucky he was facing amateur insurgents, but he hadn’t got this far by trusting to luck alone.
When he was one floor below the attic, he left the stairwell and moved silently and swiftly down the hall, finding an empty room that the garbage chute passed through. A metal grating covered the chute’s mouth, weak and rusted. Standing in the doorway, the Bondsman primed his grenade and tossed it at the stairs. Flames erupted into white-hot life the moment the grenade struck, and soon fire was licking its way along the hall in both directions, and greedily climbing the stairs. Cries of shock came from above. He sprinted to the garbage chute and wrenched the grating aside in a single clean motion.
It hadn’t been used in weeks, but the chute still smelled rank. With his opponents distracted by the fire, the Bondsman braced his back against the chute’s wall and awkwardly climbed up it, his armor scraping against the filthy metal. When he got to the top he paused, his vision returning to normal, and peered out through the chute’s grating into the attic.
The rebels were screaming at each other in blind panic.
“The window! Out the window!” one of them shouted.
“There could be more out there! We have to put the fire out before this place comes down around us!”
“Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell…”
“Dammit, he’s still got to be in the building, we move passed the blaze and-”
There were four of them standing, the fifth lying cold on the floor. They were flagging each other with their weapons, gesticulating wildly. The leader pulled her hood back, revealing a long mass of unkempt blonde hair. Young. All of them were young.
“You need to get it together!” she scolded, pointing a finger at the chest of one of her comrades. “Keller, I told you we can’t have you panicking at a time like this-”
Keeping his dagger forward in his left hand, his scatter-pistol in his right, the Bondsman pressed his feet against the back of the chute and braced himself. With a mental signal, he switched his chemical stimulants on and breathed deep. The twin tubes that fed into his war mask quivered, and drugs began to flood his system. His muscles went taught, his limbs shivered with adrenaline. He let out a hiss, and burst through the wall, shattering the rotten steel chute and pouncing into the rebel’s midst.
The pistol barked twice, and two of the white-clad figures went tumbling backwards. Without hesitation, the Bondsman hooked his knife into the third, pulling the man’s body close and spinning him round to face his companions as he twitched and bled.
The leader raised her rifle and fired instinctively, a burst of shots ripping into the Bondsman’s human shield. His ploy had worked, the bullets stopped short of his breastplate. Horror spread across the leader’s face.
She’d cared about this man. The one she’d singled out. Who was he? A brother? A lover? It didn’t matter. He’d been dead on his feet the moment the Bondsman’s knife slipped into his chest. All she’d done was speed him on his journey.
He flung the corpse at the blonde woman. She was screaming the dead man’s name, rifle falling from her grasp as she caught his body in her arms. The Bondsman lunged after, his dagger high.
But she was quicker than he thought. She rolled out of the way, recovered her rifle and swung it like a club. The stock struck his helmet, staggering him, pistol flying from his grasp. She spun the rifle round, brought it to her shoulder, but for all her youthful speed and ferocity she was a sluggish thing compared to him. He flung his dagger at her, sticking it to the hilt in her shoulder. She jerked backwards, the rifle blasting into the ceiling as her fingers tightened in pain.
He grabbed her with one hand, ripped the knife free with the other; but the rebel was not done yet. Rearing back on her heels, she flung her full weight into him, sending the two of them crashing through the window and out onto the precipice beyond. She smashed him into the balcony railing, exposing the two of them to the bitter cold.
Slamming her fists into his ghoulish mempo again and again, she snarled like an animal, each impact sending his head back, pushing him over the edge of the railing. Her knuckles bruised and bled.
“Fucker!” She screamed. “Demon! Bastard! You killed them! Bastard!”
She grabbed one of the tubes that fed into the fanged mouth of the Bondsman’s mask and pulled. His gauntlet suddenly shot out, wrapped around her hand. The woman… no, the girl’s hand snapped, bones turning to pulp beneath metal fingers. She was not more than twenty. His dagger plunged into her stomach and raked to the side, ripping her open with a single motion.
Instinctively, she clutched the wound, holding her entrails in. The color drained from her face, but still she glared at him, impotent rage on her frail young features.
“You killed them,” she spat, her blood coating the Bondsman’s mask. “They were fighting for freedom, for something, they were my people and… You killed them.”
“I did my job,” he replied.
He grabbed the front of her jacket and hurled her head first to the street below.
Once he had caught his breath, he went back into the attic. He could hear flames crackling on the floors beneath. With practiced ease he recovered his pistol, and stripped the bodies of anything useful he could find. He looked down the stairwell. The inferno was already claiming the building. Turning on his heel, he walked back to the balcony, and leaped from it.
It was only four stories down, shock-absorbers in his armor cushioning his descent. He had landed a few paces from where the girl fell, her head shattered by the hard concrete and turned to paste. She had a satchel full of rat-pak’s on her back, and he took that, too. In moments, her body was covered by a thin coating of snow, and soon the pink-red mess was fading from view.
Backlit by the burning house, the Bondsman strode across the street, picking up his rifle where he’d left it and slinging it over his back. He returned to the alley, approaching an outcropping of rubble and the shattered hulk of a combat drone, mentally checking the day’s progress. It’d be nightfall soon, but they couldn’t stay in this city. He’d have to make a shelter in the woods nearby, and-
A shot rang out, sparked across his breastplate. The Bondsman jerked backwards, rifle swinging into his arms.
“HEY! HEY!” he roared. “What did I say?! WHAT DID I SAY?!”
A small figure emerged from the rubble, looking comical swaddled as it was in a cold-suit and heavy fur robes. A girl of ten, carrying a gun too big for her arms.
The heir of the LeNoy.
The Bondsman’s charge.
She looked at her snarling protector, tears beneath her goggles.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a quiet voice. “I thought… I thought…”
“What did I tell you? When we started this, what did I say?”
“Don’t… don’t point the gun at something you don’t want to kill.”
“You want to kill me?” he asked.
“No. I’ll-I’ll do better next time.”
“Good. Come on, we gotta get out of here.”
The girl slung her rifle and ran to the Bondsman’s side. They walked single file back to the edge of the alley, and like they’d practiced, the girl held back while the Bondsman peeked his head out. No movement down either side of the street.
“It was a good shot, anyway,” he said.
The girl perked up.
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing at the spot where the round had bounced off his breastplate. “Center mass. Nothing fancy, like I showed you. Just make sure it’s one of them next time, alright?”
“I will,” the girl said. “I promise.”
“Good. We’ve only got two more days ‘til Port.”
“We’re gonna make it aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” The Bondsman said, taking the girl’s hand as they went forward.
She half-skipped as they stepped out onto the boulevard, oblivious to the burning buildings and the rumble of artillery beyond the horizon.
“No money’s worth this,” he muttered to himself.
The two of them walked down the street, hand in hand, and soon they were swallowed in the swirling drifts of pure, white snow.