Part 1: The City
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.
Part 2: The River
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
Part 3: The Thin Man
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.”
Part 4: The Port
The rebels had sheltered in crude tents of their own, made of the shaggy hides of native animals. As Tenlok approached, crawling through the snow, he could hear all the sounds of a military camp waking up. There were no more than twenty rebels in the little outpost, their tents huddled around three big snow-tracks. Massive, tank-like vehicles, they were well suited to this rough country.
There were no sentries posted, and approaching the camp was easy. Everything he’d seen of the Northern Union’s troops suggested they were amateurs. Some of them, like the three at the river, had talent, but even the best the rebels could muster were little more than bandits.
Then again, against people like the girl’s folk, all you needed were guns and numbers. Merchants and pampered nobles, with only a few bodyguards and militia between them. How they thought they could get away with antagonizing the populace forever, Tenlok wasn’t sure. He guessed there was something about having too much money and not enough work to do that made people short-sighted.
He halted in a low ditch, peering over the lip at the camp. A few of the rebels were warming the snow-track’s engines, others were breaking open crates of ammo for their weapons. Someone had started an old fashioned cook fire, and was heating up rations. He waited, and slowly about half the rebels gathered around the fire.
They began talking loudly, swapping jokes and insults. Then one of them got up on a crate and began to give a speech. She was a tall woman, broad shouldered and strong. She was calling them things like “Comrades” and “Heroes”, listing off all the atrocities they’d suffered. She was riling them up for the advance. Tenlok knew an opportunity when he saw one.
“Cover your eyes,” he whispered into the commlink. “And remember when it starts: center mass. Don’t get fancy.”
Two clicks on the comm. She understood.
He detached a grenade from his belt, judged the distance, then hurled it into the cook fire. It exploded immediately, engulfing the rebels in a cloud of white smoke. In seconds they were screaming. The gas was a phosphorous compound that could eat its way through almost anything. Tenlok’s armor would hold against it, but the rebel’s furs and cold-suits didn’t stand a chance.
He leaped from the ditch and sprinted into the camp, rifle at his shoulder. A burning man came staggering out of the fog, blackened flesh peeling off of his body. Tenlok shoved him away, and shot him in the chest as he fell. The Bondsman moved quickly, darting to a pile of crates and loosing a burst of shots into the throng of howling rebels. Most of them still had no idea what was happening.
A pair came running from the snow-tracks, weapons ready, shouting in confusion. He rose from cover and gunned both of them down, their bodies spraying into the snow. With practiced ease, Tenlok moved through the camp, efficiently slaughtering anyone he found. A few managed to return fire, but they were confused, panicking. By the time he had to reload his magazine, the phosphorous cloud had burned out, and the camp was still. He counted eighteen corpses.
“We’re clear,” he said into the link.
The girl emerged from her hiding place, cradling the rifle in her arms. She picked her way through the camp towards him, small and white, surrounded by blackened bodies. The smell of cooked fat was rich in the air, along with the iron tang of blood.
The girl stopped a few paces in front of the Bondsman. Her face was masked, but her eyes were wet beneath her goggles.
“I got two,” she said, pointing at a pair of dead men, scattered away from the rest. Clean shots through their torsos. It’d taken them a while to bleed out, but they’d been out of the fight the second they took a hit. One of them, he realized, had been coming at him from behind when he was hiding among the crates. Not bad.
“You need a minute?” Tenlok asked.
She shook her head.
“Okay,” he said.
Together, they climbed into one of the snow-tracks. It took Tenlok a few moments to figure out the controls, but then the girl helpfully pointed out that the emergency locks were still on. The machine lurched to life with a start, and they headed for the Port, leaving the burning camp behind them.
Tenlok’s rifle, fully loaded, lay across his lap. The girl clutched at her gun too, like a sacred talisman, or a doll.
When they reached the outskirts of the Port, the rebels had launched an all-out offensive. Missiles screamed through the air, and the glitter of pulse beams danced across ruined buildings. Tenlok drove the snow-track through the broken streets, hunching low in the cabin. Stray rounds bounced off the vehicle’s sturdy frame.
“Get low,” he growled to the girl, who ducked immediately.
His auto-cartographer told him the landing field was only a few blocks further. He was gunning the engine down a main boulevard, heading heedlessly towards one of the barricades when it suddenly erupted in a wall of fire. He pulled the brake and came spinning to a halt.
A massive strike, a low-yield orbital weapon perhaps, had hit the barricade and sent its shielded walls high into the air on a plume of black smoke. Before the dust had settled, rebels were emerging from the ruins, some mounted on vehicles, others sprinting along the ground. They hurled smoke grenades as they rushed into the breach. Some waved banners. All chanted the same words:
“UNION AND FREEDOM! UNION! UNION AND FREEDOM!”
Tenlok shifted gears. The girl looked at him uncertainly.
“We’re going right in after them,” he said. “This track looks like one of theirs. Gotta rush for your folk’s ship, and hope they’re too busy fragging the rebels to blast us.”
“We should call them on the commlink!” the girl said. “Tell them not to shoot at us!”
“Not yet,” Tenlok said. “Gotta get a little closer. We can do this. Trust me.”
The girl nodded silently, jaw set.
The engine roared, and they charged down the street. Rebels cheered them as they drove passed into the cloud of smoke. For a moment they were thrown into total darkness. The girl choked and sputtered, but Tenlok felt nothing behind his war mask. It filtered the air as much as it fed him his combat drugs. He even had a few hours spare oxygen in it, too.
Without a thought, he detached the mouth piece of his mempo and handed it to the girl.
“Breath deep,” he said.
Still coughing the girl took the mask and inhaled. Gritting his teeth against the dust filling his mouth, Tenlok gunned the engine harder and they lurched forward out of the cloud.
They were rolling across the cratered landing pad, streaking by burning ships and bodies. Rebels dug in to foxholes, firing at their retreating foes, who were pulling back to the last few undamaged ships. Tenlok sighted the LeNoy craft, its banners still hanging below its hull, a ring of troops holding a second barricade around its base. Suddenly, its thrusters ignited with blue flame.
“Call them! NOW!” Tenlok shouted, ripping his mask away from the girl and clasping it back in place.
The girl thumbed through her comm controls, finding her family’s personal channel.
“Mom! Dad!” she shouted. “It’s us! It’s us! We’re here!”
Shots ripped around the snow-track as it thundered forwards, breaking passed the foremost rebels.
“In the track! We’re in the snow-track!” the girl said. “Please hear us, please hear us, please hear us, please please PLEASE!”
The ship’s loading ramp suddenly lowered. At that moment, the rebels followed Tenlok’s lead and began to charge from their foxholes, a hail of shots before them. A massive round took the snow-track’s right tread out, and the vehicle spun wildly.
Without waiting for it to come to a halt, Tenlok grabbed the girl’s hand, kicked his own door open and pulled her out after him. They landed in a heap as the vehicle skidded away. Once he was sure she hadn’t broken anything, they leaped to their feet, moving at a dead sprint towards the LeNoy men’s position. Tenlok fired from the hip as he ran, blasting away a rebel who got close enough to recognize his strange armor and the terrified girl running at his side.
One of the LeNoy troops behind the barricade was shouting something, and suddenly they let out a burst of covering fire, every man behind the defenses emptying his magazine into the encroaching rebels. Tenlok arced to the right, keeping the girl ahead of him, shielding her with his body. A rebel round took him in the back, but his armor held. They were moving too slow. They’d be shot to ribbons before they made the last dozen meters.
He inhaled deeply, drugs spiking into his system.
The Bondsman roared, a new strength coursing through his body. Killer strength, berserker strength. The only thing that could get him through a storm of fire and across the barricade.
He dropped his weapon, seized the girl up in his arms and sprinted forwards. Shots shrieked passed him, into him, but nothing touched the girl. He was sure of it. As he thundered towards the barricade, his leg muscles tensed, and he leaped. He vaulted clear over the fortifications, landing on one knee, the girl still held tight to his chest.
The LeNoy troops cheered.
“The heir! The heir’s alive!”
“My lord look! She made it!”
A man, the girl’s father, came running down the loading ramp of the ship, low to the ground. He wore armor over an elegant blue uniform, and judging from the dirt and tears, he had done hard fighting in the siege. For the third time today, Tenlok found himself impressed with the LeNoy folk.
“Tara!” he shouted, falling to his knees beside the girl. “Tara! My sweet child.”
He wrapped her in his arms, and the girl returned his embrace fiercely. Father and daughter held on to each other a moment, while the battle raged around them.
“My lord, you must go!” one of the guards shouted. The rebels had pulled back, but their fire was becoming more accurate. Tenlok could see a dozen of them darting from crater to crater, moving to flank the barricade.
Lord LeNoy turned to the Bondsman.
“There… there isn’t room,” he said. “We thought you two were dead. We took on refugees. We could barely fit Tara, but-”
“Dad, no!” the girl cried. “We can’t leave him here!”
“Go,” Tenlok said, placing a hand tightly on the man’s shoulder. “But don’t forget my contract. I expect to be paid!”
“No, no, you can’t, you’ll die!” Tara pleaded.
Lord LeNoy looked helplessly between them. Tenlok stared hard at the girl. No tears on her face this time. Just fear: the terrible, all consuming fear that you can only feel for someone else, not yourself. Tenlok knew it well.
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that his money goes through. Now get out of here!”
Together, the LeNoys ran up the ramp. The girl gave him one last look over her shoulder as the ramp shut, and the ship took off. Staying low, Tenlok picked up a rifle from one of the fallen LeNoy troops. The rebels would charge again soon. He realized then that he had been wounded, hard rounds had managed to punch through his armor in several places. He looked down, saw where augmetic fluid leaked from his injuries.
Tenlok took another long drag from his stimulant tubes. Pressing his back against the barricade, he watched as the ship’s engines hit full thrust, and it burned its way up into the sky.
Part 5: Payment
Kel LeNoy had made himself a good life on Epilotii III. A temperate world with vast azure oceans and delicately sculpted coastal cities, it was quite the change from Sannat’s harsh beauty. At the center of many trade routes, in the ten years since they fled Sannat he had been able to recover some of his wealth. But best of all, it was peaceful.
He spent many nights like this one on the balcony of his manor, staring out at the point where sea and sky met and melded into each other. Tara was twenty. She’d be married in the spring. He’d scraped and saved, and now that they’d sworn a marriage pact with House Sayvada, at long last the LeNoy would be secure. Their home and retinue was far more modest than he liked, but he and his wife Yulia had endured their fall in fortunes for the sake of their daughter. Now it was finally going to turn around.
He stepped in from the balcony, a silvery metal portal sliding shut behind him. For a moment he was in the darkness of his office, only illuminated by the starlight playing through the windows. Then his head slammed into the ground.
“Say a word and I’ll put a knife through your kidney.”
A heavy hand was on Kel’s neck, mashing his face into the floor. A boot was pressed down on the back of his knee, and he did, indeed, feel a cold, hard pressure just to the right of his spine. Keeping his arms wide and flat, he relaxed his body as much as he could.
His assailant let him lie there for a minute, waiting to see if he would resist. When he didn’t, the grip on his neck loosened slightly, allowing Kel to breath.
“Lord LeNoy,” the voice said, familiar, though ten years gone. “You owe me money.”
“You were dead,” Kel breathed. “You died on Sannat. I swear, if I knew you had lived-”
“Contract was payment for getting the girl out alive and uninjured. You got that. I didn’t get my money.”
“I swear, I swear, you must believe me-”
“If I died or not, you were still supposed to pay.”
Tears welled up in Kel’s eyes. What an idiot he’d been. So close, so close to getting it all settled, and now, because of one stupid mistake-
“M-may I sit up?” he asked.
The Bondsman was off him in a second, but as Kel rose to his knees and turned around, he saw the killer already had a pistol trained on his forehead. Kel raised his hands. It was all he could do to keep his lip from trembling.
“I don’t, I mean, I can’t pay you right now-”
“Your girl’s getting married soon,” Tenlok said, his dead, red eyes staring pitilessly at the nobleman. “How much is her dowry?”
“Oh, no…” Kel said. “I-I have creditors, don’t you understand? I’ve been trying to rebuild our life here, and it’s been expensive. The marriage pact, it’s the only thing that’s going to keep us off the streets!”
“People all over the Frontier survive on the streets.”
“You don’t understand! If we break the pact with the Sayvada, it’ll be an insult. This could start a feud!”
“Not my problem.”
The Bondsman pulled something small from a pouch on his armor and tossed it to Kel. Kel flinched away at first, but then he saw it was a white chit. An empty credit slip.
“If I pull all our savings and… and Tara’s dowry, it could just about cover your fee,” Kel said. “But please, if you’ll just wait a few months, I can get it all to you with interest.”
“You could hire an army of killers for less than that much. Not good ones, but enough to give me trouble.”
“I wouldn’t do that!”
“I would. Cheaper. And you already proved yourself a gambling man.”
“Ten years. Ten years! Why did you only come for me now?”
“It took a while to track you down,” Tenlok said. “More than a year, just to get off Sannat. Then there was that Guraggan incursion on Chalathren, made traveling these parts hard. So I took other work. But I didn’t forget our arrangement. I did the job. Now I expect to be paid.”
Reluctantly Kel rose and went to his desk. He opened a drawer, finding one of his data tablets within. As he pulled the tablet out, he saw something else in the drawer. He looked from it to the Bondsman, and weighted his chances.
Kel set the tablet flat on his desk, and inserted the credit slip. With a few key presses, he opened all of his accounts. He was one stroke away from signing over all that he had, and his daughter’s future. He had to risk it.
“I have to show you something,” he said. The Bondsman’s gun still trained on him, Kel delicately reached into the drawer and drew out a small stack of musty, yellowing papers. He spread them out on the desk.
The Bondsman took a step forward, and glanced down. They were drawings, eight in all. Some were dated ten years ago, others only a year or two back. The oldest were crude sketches, but they grew more sophisticated with age. They were drawings of a man in armor and a little girl, or sometimes just the man. His mempo, especially, seemed to fixate the artist, growing more detailed and well rendered as the years passed. They all bore Tara’s signature.
“You barely knew each other a week, but you changed her life,” Lord LeNoy said.
“Saved her life,” Tenlok said.
“Yes. It broke Tara’s heart to leave you behind. She never stopped thinking of you, like you were something out of a fairy tale. All the other children thought it was strange, her drawings frightened them…but she believed in you. You were her hero.”
The Bondsman’s gaze rose to meet Kel’s again. There was nothing there: just cold, hard disks of crimson.
“The money,” he growled.
Kel sighed. He made the last key stroke, then handed the white chit back to the Bondsman.
“We’ll be destitute without that. We’re finished.”
“You’ll be alive,” Tenlok said, as he backed away to the portal, opened it, and stepped out onto the balcony.
Kel’s jaw clenched and he closed his eyes. He wanted to shout something, he wanted to attack that vile, mercenary bastard. But when he opened his eyes again, the Bondsman had already disappeared into the night, as if he had never been there to begin with.
Tara LeNoy lay flat on her stomach on the beach. Night had fallen, but through the scope the world was a clear green. The only sound was the crashing of the waves and her steady breath: in, then out. She sighted her target, inhaled, let her breath half out and squeezed the trigger.
The buoy flashed and sank beneath the waves. One by one she shot them, ten buoys in all, each target further out than the one before, the last little more than a bobbing dot in the black sea.
It was her private ritual, the thing that eased her nerves and made her feel like herself. She could use a simulator, she supposed, but nothing compared to the feel of a real rifle in her hands, or the wind whipping across her face. Being out here alone made the troubles of tomorrow far away.
She heard footsteps, soft in the sand, coming from her right. Easily, she rolled to one knee, then stood up, keeping the rifle low and ready. On her House’s property, she was not afraid of any intruder, but all the guards and servants knew she hated to be disturbed during her practice.
Her eyes focused on the approaching figure, and she let out an involuntary gasp. She blinked hard to be sure she wasn’t dreaming.
“Tenlok?” she asked.
The figure halted, meeting her gaze.
“Tenlok!” She cried, slinging her rifle and running to him.
She wrapped her arms around him without thinking and hugged him tight. He grabbed her shoulder and broke the embrace, pushing her backwards gently but firmly.
“You’re alive,” she stammered. “You’re really alive! Tenlok, I thought you were dead! Is it… is it really you?”
The Bondsman nodded.
“But… Tenlok, what are you doing here? Did my parents hire you again, or… you’re not here for my wedding are you?”
Tenlok shook his head.
“Just finishing up some business,” he said. “Didn’t think I’d run into you.”
They stared at each other for a long moment.
“Well, you have to stay,” she said. “My wedding’s coming up. You can be in my honor guard! The Sayvada boy I’m marrying is kind of an idiot, but I– if you could be there, then maybe…”
The Bondsman shook his head again.
“Got another job lined up,” he said.
“Oh,” Tara said. “I just… I’m worried. There’s a lot riding on this. My parents told me the pact is everything for our House. It’s my duty as the heir to marry and I’m not afraid of that but… I don’t know. It’s stupid. I thought maybe if you were there, it’d… it would be alright.”
Her cheeks flushed and she looked at the ground. She felt like a little girl again, small and scared and in the wilderness with no one to help her.
No one but him.
“We could pay you,” she added after a moment.
“No,” Tenlok said flatly. “Like I said. Another job.”
He pointed at the rifle on her back.
still practice with that?” he asked.
She smiled. It wasn’t too big for her anymore.
“Every day that I can.”
“You remember what I taught you?” he asked.
“Don’t point it at something you don’t want to kill. Center mass. Nothing fancy.”
“I have to go,” he said finally. He brushed passed her and walked off down the beach, heading into the darkness.
She watched him go, unable to even call out a goodbye. Before long, he had disappeared. Tara sat down on the shore, watching the waves come crashing in. The wind was cold, but not as cold as the snows of her homeworld, and the rifle was no longer heavy on her back. At last, she stood up again, and began the long walk back to her family’s manor.
Whatever the next day held, she would face it.