An hour before the girl was due to wake, the Bondsman rose and scouted the area. He walked along the edge of the valley, then took a quick sprint through the forest to the furthest ridge he could see. There he took out a monocular, and raised it to one of his eyes. Steadily, he glassed the area below.
Beyond the foothills was another plain, and beyond that, the Port. A large city, much of it was taken up by huge landing fields. On a good day, hundreds, perhaps thousands of trans-atmospheric craft could land there. It was no wonder the rebels had laid siege to it.
The city was on fire. The fields were pock-marked with craters. Yet still, there were ships there, protected by a ring of defenses. As the Bondsman swept his vision back and forth, he watched a rebel war party launch a faltering attack, their scattered a-grav tanks and missiles shot down by sentry turrets. He could see standards hanging from some of the vessels still sitting idle on the landing field. One bore the sigil and colors of the LeNoy.
“Well,” he murmured, “At least they haven’t cut and run yet.”
He returned to the camp, picking his way through fallen tree limbs and scrabbling across barren rock. Reaching the tent by the river, he saw that it was still and quiet.
“Hey,” he called as he approached. “Wake up! We don’t have time for you to sleep in.”
“I don’t think you’ve got much time left at all, actually.”
The voice was mockingly loud. Tenlok knew that tone, the sort only used by someone pointing a gun at your back. He froze in place. Boots crunched in the snow behind him.
“It’s alright. You can turn around, pal.”
Slowly, Tenlok did as he was bid.
Two figures were standing in front of him, weapons leveled at his chest. A third, the speaker, was perched nonchalantly atop a boulder a dozen paces away. He was a thin, rangy man, snow goggles pushed rakishly up on his forehead, rifle across his shoulders as if he hadn’t a care in the world. His comrades, however, kept their guns steady and glowered at Tenlok. One was massive woman, hardened muscle apparent beneath the sleeves of her cold-suit. The other was a small man with a face like a slab of raw meat.
“That’s some armor you’ve got on,” the Thin Man said, swinging the rifle down into his hands and aiming it playfully at Tenlok. “Think it’ll stop a round from this?”
Tenlok inclined his head slightly.
“Is that a maybe? Heh, all that gear looks expensive,” the Thin Man continued. “I’m going to take a wild guess and say you’re not working for the Northern Union, are you?”
Tenlok said nothing.
“ANSWER!” the Big Woman roared.
“No, no, no,” the Thin Man cooed, sliding down off the rock. “He doesn’t have to talk if he doesn’t want to. We’re reasonable people, in the Union. Just want a fair shake for everyone, that’s all. Reasonable, right?”
The Bondsman kept his breathing slow and even. The last thing he needed right now was an adrenaline kick. These three were a cut above the rebels he’d come across so far. He scanned the area behind them, searching the tree line for movement, trying to discern whether there were more ambushers waiting out of sight.
No, he decided. They were confident, but not over-confident. All three kept a good distance from him; never took their eyes off of him. The Thin Man did love to hear himself talk, though.
“You can tell a lot from how someone looks,” he said. “How they dress. Me, I’m a working man! Look at this coat: second hand. Goggles, got from my pa, he was a snow-cutter, second generation. This gun? Well, yeah, this was expensive. But worth it for a good cause, am I right? Now you…”
The Thin Man pointed a finger at Tenlok. The Bondsman couldn’t fathom what the theatrics were in aid of. He noticed the Big Woman glaring at him, but Meat Face seemed to be flicking his eyes back and forth across the river bank.
“Expensive armor. Weapons from all over. And that thing on your face,” the rebel said. “You’re a mercenary, aren’t you? And mercenaries follow the money. Not a lot of money on our side, so you must be working for the opposition. Am I close?”
The Thin Man grinned at Tenlok.
“I think we should kill him,” the Big Woman grunted. Meat Face nodded silently.
“Not unless we have to,” the Thin Man said. “Well, how about it? Whose side are you on?”
“I’m working a contract,” Tenlok replied. “Sides don’t come in to it.”
“Mmmm, yeah, I figured. So what’s the job, can I ask?”
“That’d be a breach of professional ethics,” the Bondsman said evenly.
The Thin Man laughed. It was too loud, too high-pitched. There was a tinge of hysteria fraying at the edges of the sound. Tenlok could tell he had been at war a long time.
“You scouting?” the Thin Man asked. “No, can’t be. We wouldn’t have caught you if you knew the land. And that tent, that’s built for two, isn’t it?”
So, Tenlok realized. That was the Thin Man’s game.
“You’re a Bondsman. A bodyguard, a very expensive bodyguard. Which means some rich bastard is hiding nearby, doesn’t it? You two work out a little hiding spot, huh? Maybe just before you went to bed? ‘If there’s trouble, get behind the red tree’, sort of a thing?”
Tenlok breathed out. He hadn’t done that, actually. Mind too distracted by the girl nearly drowning last night, and her incessant questions before she went to sleep, he’d neglected yet another vital ritual.
“Why don’t we speed this up,” the Thin Man said. “Call your boss out. We’re not going to hurt him, he’s a good bargaining chip. Command will make sure you get full pay for your work, too. Everybody wins.”
Something caught Tenlok’s eye on the far side of the river. A faint shimmer, coming from a thicket of pale shrubs bunched around a gnarled tree. He breathed in, feeling the stimulants start to flow into his body. Beneath his mask, he smiled.
“Enough!” the Big Woman roared, thrusting the muzzle of her gun at Tenlok. “Start talking, or I’ll blast your damn head off!”
“Honestly, even at this range I’d go for center mass,” Tenlok replied, his voice loud enough to carry across the river. He nodded his head at the Big Woman deliberately.
There was a loud crack, and she collapsed. Not waiting for the girl to line up a second shot, Tenlok lunged at the meat-faced gunman. The rebel’s weapon was up and barking, rounds sparking off of Tenlok’s armor as he slammed into the little man. He grabbed the barrel of the weapon and ripped it out of his enemy’s hand, striking him in the face simultaneously.
Meat Face shrieked, and Tenlok’s boot connected hard with his groin. As the rebel fell to the ground, the Bondsman took the smoking rifle and smashed the stock repeatedly into the man’s head, turning it to pulp by the fourth blow.
Something hard hit him in the back, knocking Tenlok sideways. The Big Woman was still alive, her cold-suit torn and stained crimson. She reared back for a second blow of her fists, but Tenlok’s dagger was out and ready in a flash. He struck high with his empty left hand, while his right punched into her stomach, chest, and thigh in a flurry of blows, over and over. In heartbeats he had opened a dozen wounds, and soon the color had drained from the Big Woman’s face. She pitched back into the snow.
Then the Thin Man shot him. It was a heavy round, its core solid metal, the kind meant to puncture concrete and ground crawlers. It sparked off Tenlok’s armor, but even a grazing shot sent him sprawling.
“Son of a bitch, guess it doesn’t work,” the Thin Man muttered as he shot Tenlok again.
Pain lanced through the Bondsman’s body, but his armor held. Another shot hit his shoulder as he rose to his knees. His armor was strong enough to stop the rounds, but not for too long, and if the Thin Man got a lucky shot in, hit someplace that wasn’t covered, or turned his attention across the river…
Tenlok raised a vambrace, shielding his augmented eyes as he staggered towards the Thin Man. The rebel was quick though, dancing backwards, firing from the hip. He was putting distance between himself and Tenlok, using the Bondsman as cover to block the girl’s fire as well.
Wrestling his scatter-pistol from its holster, Tenlok fired back at the rebel blindly. Pellets kicked up the snow around the Thin Man’s feet, but none of the Bondsman’s shots hit their mark before the pistol went dry. Another round struck Tenlok’s breastplate, staggering him, but then he heard the tell-tale click of an empty weapon, and the Thin Man swore.
Stimulants surged through Tenlok’s system, and he pounded forwards. The Thin Man dropped his rifle, and drew an angular blade from his bandoleer. His thumb hit a stud on the weapon’s side, and suddenly it was glowing red. He slashed at Tenlok the moment he came within reach, a glancing blow that ripped clean through one of the Bondsman’s vambraces. He pulled back, circling the Thin Man as his damaged armor flapped uselessly on his forearm.
“Ice-pick,” the Thin Man smirked. “Cuts the deep frost. It’ll even get through that fancy gear of yours, looks like.”
The Bondsman had been lucky: the heated blade had just barely missed his arm itself. He still held his dagger in one hand, but he had no doubt it would be destroyed by a single good strike of the Thin Man’s weapon. The two of them sized each other up, the Thin Man bouncing from foot to foot, Tenlok steady and low in a defensive stance. He thought about throwing his dagger, or drawing another weapon, but he knew the moment he moved the rebel would rush him.
A rifle sounded, and snow puffed up between them. The girl had taken a shot, a long shot, and missed. At least she hadn’t hit him, Tenlok thought grimly.
was enough to convince the Thin Man though, and he leaped forwards,
swinging the ice-pick high. Tenlok dodged under the strike and aimed
a cut at the rebel’s stomach, but the Thin Man brought his blade
down hard, slicing off the end of Tenlok’s dagger before thrusting
the weapon towards the Bondsman’s throat.
He twisted away from the attack, sending a spinning fist into the side of the man’s head. Darting back, he tried to give the girl as clean a shot as he could, but the Thin Man was after him, desperation in his eyes. The rebel wanted this to end, and quickly.
The Thin Man’s blade weaved and danced, sketching a whirling pattern in the air as he pressed the attack. Tenlok gave as much ground as he could, but every slash was getting closer to him. Suddenly his foot struck a rock, and he fell onto his back.
The Thin Man stared down at him dumbly for a heartbeat, before a brief laugh escaped his lips. Reversing the grip on his weapon, he pounced on Tenlok and thrust the blade downwards with both hands. The Bondsman caught his arms, holding back the attack inches from his breastplate. He looked up at the Thin Man’s worn face, saw the grimace of fear mixed with rage, felt the warmth of the quivering blade. Steam rose from his armor, its sheen of ice melted by the heat of the weapon. Tenlok shifted his grip, clasping one hand over his opponent’s white-knuckled fists, wrapping them tight. If the Rebel let go, the blade would plunge straight into Tenlok’s chest.
“I got you,” the Thin Man whispered. “I got you, you stupid bastard.”
“Yeah,” Tenlok replied. “And she’s got you.”
The girl’s shot punched straight through the side of the rebel’s stomach. There was a look of shock on the Thin Man’s face. Then his body relaxed. Tenlok heaved him to the right, keeping a grip on the ice-pick. The rebel’s dead weight shifted obligingly, flopping onto his back at Tenlok’s side.
He was still breathing when Tenlok pried the blade out of his hands, but the Thin Man’s eyes were staring at nothing, tears silently leaking from them. Tenlok stood over the man for a moment, then stomped on his throat once, hard. There was the familiar sound of snapped vertebrae, and after a moment the Thin Man stopped breathing. Tenlok switched the blade off, and tossed it onto the Rebel’s chest.
He walked to the frozen river, and called for the girl. She rose from her hiding spot among the bushes, slinging the gun onto her back with ease now. She wasn’t wearing her cold mask, and he could see her face was pale but her jaw was set. Her steps were cautious but sure as she crossed the river, coming to a stop in front of him. She looked passed the Bondsman at the three bodies in the snow.
“Take care of the tent,” he said. “I’ll deal with them.”
She nodded, but didn’t move.
“Hey,” Tenlok said. “I need you to help me right now, alright?”
The girl nodded again
“The tent,” Tenlok repeated.
At last she seemed to hear him, and ran to her task. While she busied herself with the camp, Tenlok dragged the three rebels together. He made sure there was plenty of blood, opening a few extra wounds, then carefully cleaned himself up. Sannat had its share of indigenous scavengers, and on a snowbound world like this, they would be scent-hunters. Come the next dawn there would be little left of the dead.
The girl was nearly done with the tent by the time Tenlok had finished. Her rifle was laid against a boulder, within easy reach. She’d learned something, at least.
“Good news,” Tenlok said. “We’re closer to Port than I thought.”
“Are my parents there?” she asked, seeming to come alive at the words.
“Maybe,” Tenlok said. “I saw their ship. Trick is, Port’s under siege. Rebels have the whole place surrounded. They’re giving it a good beating.”
“Could we… could we call them on the comms? Maybe they could come get us…”
Tenlok shook his head.
“Any ship trying to land’ll be shot down easy. Only way out is to burn hard and break atmosphere before you can be tracked,” he said. “Look, we’re close to getting out of this. It’s not going to be easy, but I think I’ve got a way through.”
“What is it?” the girl asked.
“The rebels have a little camp set up at the edge of the foothills. Looks like stragglers mostly, probably where those three came from. They’ve got ground vehicles, though.”
“So we’re going to sneak in, steal a snow crawler, and drive to the Port?”
“Not quite,” Tenlok said, looking from the girl to the rifle and back again. He picked it up and handed it to her. “Like I said, it’s not going to be easy… but I know you can do it.”