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.
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.
was an impromptu contract: the result of bad luck, not planning.
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.
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.
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.
farther?” a small voice asked, bringing him back to the present.
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
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.
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.
back on. Now.”
nose is running,” she insisted, rubbing at it.
want frostbite? Put it on.”
for a minute, I’ll be fine!”
don’t get paid as much if your face is all fucked up,” Tenlok
growled. “Contract’s for you alive and un-injured.”
yeah,” she said, reluctantly covering herself again.
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
it all out into the mask,” he said.
sniffled again and patted at her nose.
gotta get the gunk out of you. I don’t want your sneezing giving us
not walking another ten klicks
with snot all over my face!”
we’ll compromise. Rest stop’s the tree line. Then we push on ‘til
the gods,” she said, suddenly bursting into a run towards the
Wait! Dammit!” Tenlok shouted, running after the girl.
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
pull that again, I’m going to dose you with tranquilizers and carry
you the rest of the way to Port,” the Bondsman said.
she spat back. “Better than walking with you shouting at me all the
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.
shouldn’t talk to me like that, you know,” she said.
yeah?” Tenlok asked as he cleared out a space next to one of the
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.”
now they’re trying to kill you,” the Bondsman said.
ungrateful. That’s what my father says. They’re jealous of what
we have and they want to take it from us.”
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.
Tenlok barked. “Stop that! What if it’s poison?”
girl rolled her eyes and spat it on the ground.
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
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
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.
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.
thought you were supposed to like me,” she said.
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.
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?”
doesn’t work like that,” Tenlok grunted.
how does it work? Explain it to me.”
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.
you’d die for me, but that doesn’t mean you like me?”
just… how can you do all that and-and not like me? Why would
you do it?”
the Bondsman said.
girl hugged her knees to her chest, and said no more. That suited
Tenlok just fine.
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.
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.
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,
like I showed you,” he said.
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.
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.
he said over his shoulder. “Don’t know who’s watching us. Lots
of good cover around here.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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-
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.
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.
was coughing and sputtering, vomiting against her mask. Good. She
hadn’t swallowed too much.
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.
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.
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
last, the Bondsman let go of the girl.
finish up the camp,” he said curtly.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
more day,” the girl said aloud.
the Bondsman replied.
your contract’s up?”
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.”
girl looked at him questioningly.
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…
if I died and you were still alive…”
when I was in the river-”
if you hadn’t?” she insisted.
was always going
to get you out of that. I won’t ever let anything happen to you. I
promise,” Tenlok said.
girl stared at him hard.
parents promise things all the time,” she said. “It doesn’t
always come true.”
if your promise didn’t come true?”
I’d be in for a hell of a time.”
girl thought about that for a while, then rolled over, and was soon
in a deep and dreamless sleep