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By Sara King
Stop. Let me out for air. I can’t stand this anymore. Tatiana gave her soldier the signal to halt.
It hesitated. “We’re still in colonial territory, Captain Eyre. It is very much advised that you--”
I don’t give a damn! Tatiana snapped. Let me out. Now.
The soldier sat down and unfolded, allowing fresh air to enter its belly cavity.
Tatiana gasped and choked on the tubes, knowing she was hyperventilating, yet unable to force the machines to produce more air.
It’s happening again, she thought, panicking. She had to get out of her soldier before it beamed her heart rate back to base and she got hangared for another Psych eval.
Damn it, she thought, gagging as she drew the food tube from her nose and the intravenous lines from her arms. Tears welled in her eyes as she endured the nauseating pull of electrodes from deep under her skin, but she knew ten more seconds in her soldier and she was going to lose her mind.
Like last time.
Damn it, damn it.
She disconnected the wastes lines and then pulled herself out of the sticky, mucousy substance that cradled her, protecting against sudden blows and jarring explosions. Then, her naked body pricking with goosebumps and dripping slime, she stumbled off the leg hydraulics and fell to her knees in the brush.
Hands splayed on the alien dirt, head hanging down amongst the sticky green stems, she panted until she saw stars.
This can’t be happening. Not again.
Trembling, she glanced back over her shoulder. Her soldier sat lifeless, egg cracked open, engines powered down, waiting for its operator. Her. A host of precautions--thumbprint, retinal scans, genetic tests, voice comparisons--made it impossible for anyone else in the universe to operate the weapon.
And with good reason. Fallen into the wrong hands--like the two rebel brothers for whom she was told to keep up a lookout--and, lord forbid, reproduced, the Coalition could lose its precarious hold on the surface of the planet until the Void Ring could bring in reinforcements. Soldiers, unlike the ultra-high-tech laboratories required to make a Nephyr, were rather simple in design, and could be easily modified for clunky radio-controlled combat.
No, it was the operator that was the real prize. Inside Tatiana was all of the top-secret technology that the Coalition had gained from their defeat of the Treitons in twenty-eight sixty-two. Within her was everything the Coalition’s multiple enemies needed to finally mesh man with metal and build their own armies of mechanized warriors. From specialized nanobots to waste systems to interface hookups, all of it was right there for the taking, just a simple dissection needed. Like the Nephyrs, operators were walking fountains of Coalition technology. Unlike the Nephyrs, however, they weren’t also walking badasses. Not only did the extra hardware weaken their natural bodies, but Tatiana, like all operators, had to be naturally tiny to fit comfortably inside the soldier’s shell.
It was one of the sacrifices an operator made before signing up for the Program: No vacations, no joy-rides, no leaving the base ‘skinny’ again until you retire. Hell, it was a well-known fact that the going rate for an operator corpse--dead or alive--was three hundred million on the blackmarket. The Nephyrs liked to rub it in, whenever they caught an operator being cocky.
She really needed to get back in her machine.
Yet, looking back at the dark egg-shaped chamber that awaited her, Tatiana felt an overwhelming, gut-wrenching dread. She pushed away from the still-warm cermotec armor leg-plating, stumbled through the sticky, globular weeds until she could barely see her soldier through the brush, dropped to a relatively clean patch of the tall, colonist-introduced terragen grasses, brought her knees up under her chin, and cried.
She--Tatiana Eyre, decorated Captain of the United Space Coalition, one of the six best operators in the Coalition Space Force, commander of the Eighth Operator Pod, hero of the Sunwash Valley, last remaining defender of the Blacksands Mobile Facility--was afraid of the dark.
Like a child. Like the goddamned pussy the Nephyrs claimed she was.
Twenty minutes later, Tatiana had stopped crying, but she hadn’t done much else. The buoyancy gel had dried on her naked skin in a tight, painful crust. Her fingers were stiff, her lashes and brows gummy, her short-cropped hair a spiky mass of dehydrated bouyagel. The dry alien air had already whisked away most of the substance’s moisture, leaving her body covered in hard goosebumps around the cold metal nodes.
Tatiana shivered and tried to cover the biggest nodes with her hands, hating the creepy feel of cold air penetrating her insides. Huddling in on herself, listening to the brisk alien breeze stir the terragen grasses that were currently at war with the less savory, sap-soaked native species, she could almost believe she was in a very bad dream. She looked up at the big, slick alien trees around her, trying not to feel as tiny and vulnerable as she felt. The odd clicks and cooing of native wildlife echoed from the gnarled red canopy, and Tatiana was reminded again that, as valuable Coalition property, she hadn’t stepped outside sealed Coalition structures in over eleven years, zoomtime. Twenty, if you counted cryo-travel. Too dangerous. A single bug...
Swallowing away that thought, Tatiana quickly checked the ground around her to make sure she wasn’t sitting on an alien anthill. She would have given anything for some node-caps, but she’d left those back at the station and the crash-kit didn’t include any. After all, operators weren’t supposed to leave their vault until they were safely docked at base...
She was so screwed.
Tatiana knew she couldn’t stay there forever, staring at her soldier like a dipshit, but the thought of climbing back into the slimy chamber and reattaching the lines, tubes, and nodes that had taken assistants over an hour to prepare--and should have lasted her a full five-day shift--left her feeling sick.
Just the idea of closing the lid, locking herself back into darkness, left Tatiana in despair. Last time, on Muchos Rios, the psychologists had written it off as wartime stress. A few too many close-calls, a few too many friends shredded by artillery fire. Now, on a routine patrol, deep in the vast, uninhabited forests of Fortune, no native contact in hours, not an enemy in sight, they were going to realize that the problem was much deeper.
When she finally couldn’t take the cold any longer, Tatiana crawled back to her soldier and pulled out the survival pack--cold-weather gear, food, water-filters, fire-making supplies, and an emergency beacon--from the compartment under the pilot’s shell. She removed a crisply-folded navy blue jumpsuit from the bottom and, after much debate, shook it out and stuck her sticky legs into it. When Tatiana returned to base, the Coalition would know she had exited her soldier, but, with nightfall approaching and the weird alien creatures around her getting more vocal, she was willing to bite that bullet when she came to it.
She zipped up the suit, tucked the collar down, then built a fire and ate a packet of rehydrated stew. Even after it became obvious to her that she was not going to be able to get back into the soldier, she could not bring herself to trigger the distress beacon. Doing so, she knew, would only be trading one horror for another.
Once she was finished eating, she set the beacon on a log across from her and stared at it.
Screw them. Tatiana glanced at the surrounding alien forest, judging her chances of survival. It was a point of pride for her that not two generations ago, her grandparents had survived some of the Aashaanti Corridor’s most brutal extremes to found the first colony on Gorgon.
Her rebellious streak was short-lived, however. As much as she admired them, Tatiana was not her grandparents. She was Coalition property, and had the lifeline to prove it. And, on an alien planet, glittering with metal hookups, she wasn’t going to blend in. She’d be lucky if her nodes didn’t get infected during the first day, even luckier if a colonist didn’t find her before she died of exposure.
She had no misconceptions about Fortuners’ love for their federation. Thanks to the Yolk trade, the Coalition ranked right up there with Treitons on Fortuners’ List of Favorite Governmental Bodies. Whispers from intel had it that Fortune had the same stirrings of unrest that Redrock did, right before rebels captured an entire Coalition base and murdered everyone with a government lifeline.
...Which meant she had to go back. Tatiana slumped back into a hunched posture, palms holding up her chin as she stared at the beacon.
The moment she triggered the beacon, a Coalition retrieval team would come, find a fully-functioning soldier, a perfectly healthy operator, and know she had freaked out again. The nine years left on her enlistment would be put on pause as they worked the kinks out of her brain.
And, even if she didn’t trigger it--especially if she didn’t trigger it--they would track her down by the lifeline chip lodged in her spine, just beneath her skull, directly connected to the medulla oblongata. Hell, they might not even bother tracking her down. They might just save themselves the effort, bring up her chip ID on the base computer, and fry her brainstem.
Unwillingly, she started crying again.
“Damn,” a voice said. “I never would’ve believed Milar if I wasn’t seeing it myself.”
Tatiana gasped and spun.
A big man in rough colonist garb stood at the edge of the firelight behind her. He had curly auburn hair, a heavy spattering of freckles, and dimples. He was smiling.
He was also holding a Laserat pistol aimed at her chest.
Tatiana froze, her eyes on the gun. “I’m Coalition.” The words burned in her throat, which was still scratchy and raw from the tubing.
He laughed and motioned with the barrel of the gun at the soldier. “Obviously.”
What the hell is this? she thought, confused. Fortune had the Yolk trade. The Coalition had so many soldiers on this planet that it would take a nutjob to start a scuffle with government troops. Tentatively, eyes still fixed on the pistol, she said, “Then what are you doing?”
“Rebellin,” he said. He grinned. “Step away from the soldier, please.”
Tatiana glanced back at the egglike chamber.
“Don’t,” the man warned. His Coalition New Common was clumsy, like it had been learned from a textbook.
Tatiana hesitated. It took hours to fully calibrate a soldier upon reentry. Even if she made it inside before he hit her, they could certainly pry her out again before she’d activated systems. She glanced at the beacon.
“It’d take them an hour to get here.” He started to swagger toward the fire. “Besides, I just wanna look.”
“Are you trying to start a war?” Tatiana demanded.
“Wouldn’t mind it,” he said. The colonist walked over to the soldier and tapped on the ultra-light armor plating.
“Get away from my soldier,” Tatiana warned, every pore on her body suddenly constricting at the idea of the Coalition finding out she’d let a colonist this close.
“Calm down, pumpkin,” he said, flashing her a charming grin. “I just wanna look.” Then, ignoring her complaints, he climbed up the side and poked his head into the captain’s chamber. He whistled. “Sweet Aanaho, woman. This looks all sorts of uncomfortable.” He dipped a finger in the gel and held it up so she could see it oozing down his hand. He scrunched his face and wiped it on his pantleg.
I’m dead, she thought. The inner workings of the soldiers was highly classified. Scratch unkinking her brain. The Coalition would kill her. She ran to the base of her soldier and slapped her hand against the sheeting near his foot. Trying to keep the desperation out of her voice, she said, “Ha-ha, really funny. Colonist pulls one over on Coalition operator. Show us who’s boss. I get it. Now please get down. I don’t know what sort of macho games you’re playing, but the Coalition finds out you saw the inside, they’ll kill us both,” she said.
“Only if you tell,” he laughed, holstering his pistol. The stranger jumped down beside her, the impact making the ground shudder under her bare feet. “Besides, it ain’t like the soldier’s the big prize, anyhow. Everybody knows it’s the--” His impish hazel eyes met her face and he froze.
This close, it felt he had roughly the same mass as a Coalition carrier, though he didn’t seem to be carrying any added fat. He was just...tall.
Realizing how tall, Tatiana quickly backed up. Then, growing uncomfortable under his prolonged stare, she said, “Uh...reconsidering?”
He said nothing. Just stared.
“Tell you what,” Tatiana said quickly, “You forget you saw me camped out like this and I’ll forget we had this conversation. Deal?”
The man cleared his throat. Looked to the side. Then his eyes fixed on her again and kept staring.
Tatiana began to scowl. With shorn hair and electrode nexuses jutting out all over her body, she knew she was ugly, but this was just plain rude. “Listen, dickweed, Fortune ain’t got enough firepower to start a war with the Coalition, so just go the hell away and let me go power up my bird.”
His voice cracked when he spoke. “Actually, I think you’re going to have to come with me.”
Tatiana stared at him. He didn’t retract his statement. Then she threw back her head and laughed. After several moments, she snapped her head back down and jabbed a finger at him. “Not even a dumbass, retard, colonist prick like you would do something that stupid.”
He took his gun from his hip and pointed it at her.
Narrowing her eyes, Tatiana strode toward her soldier.
The man threw out an arm and snagged her, dragging her back against his chest. He was bigger than her. Much bigger. And warm. Tatiana froze. At four foot eleven, she had been too short to be a Nephyr. Instead, they’d taken her high IQ and molded it around brain-signals and war games and top secret weaponry. Her instructors had always assumed that she would never need to face the enemy hand-to-hand, because the only way rebels were ever going to be able to open the belly and drag her out was if she gave the order to the solder to open the hatch.
Now, outweighed by eighty pounds and shorter by over a foot, she was suddenly very acutely aware of why she had not been chosen for the Nephyrs. She was short. Even for a girl.
And he was tall. Even for a guy.
The bastard would pay.
Tatiana tried to pry the thick arm from around her middle, but when it remained firmly in place, she blurted, “When my Pod gets done with you, you’re going to be pissing out a bag on your hip.”
He laughed. “As long as they use plastic...I’m allergic to latex.”
Tatiana twisted around to face him and stuck a finger into his chest. “You’re committing a federal crime. Let go of me. Now.”
The effect wasn’t as terrifying as she would have hoped. She found herself with the top of her head at approximately the same height as a nipple, peering up at the base of his chin, what seemed like miles of dirty leather jacket separating them.
He actually gave her finger an amused look. “I don’t think so.”
Tatiana froze as he shifted, settling the gun over his shoulder by the strap. She tried not to feel the places where their bodies touched as he unhooked something from his belt. A knife? A gag? A garrote?
You are a Coalition fighter, a part of her ranted. You operate the most fearsome machines in the word. Pull your goddamn head out of your ass and take charge.
She jabbed her finger back into his filthy leather jacket. “You have twenty seconds to tuck your tail between your legs and get the hell out of here before I call in the Nephyrs.”
“Uh-huh.” Still holding her pinned to his torso, he raised something to his mouth and said, “Milar, you need to come take a look at this.”
Usually, even the whisper of Nephyrs was enough to make colonists jump with panic. This guy sounded like she had told him teddy bears were going to tickle him with feathers.
“You think this is funny?” she snapped. “You think assaulting a Coalition fighter is funny? You’re setting yourself up for execution, pal.”
He peered down at her, grinning. “From what I saw, you’re pretty close to that yourself. What’d you have? Some sort of nervous breakdown? I heard Coalition don’t take too kindly to their operators going chickenshit on them.”
“Who is Milar?” she managed, her throat stiff with fury.
“Milar’s my brother,” he said.
“Who are you?”
His amber-brown eyes were teasing. “I’m Patrick.”
She squirmed, but the arm across her backbone might have been iron. Exhausting herself, she poked him again. “You’re making a mistake, Patrick. Operators are the most highly-trained federal employees out there. The moment I don’t show up for debriefing, they’ll come looking for me. They find out you kidnapped me and you’ll be executed for--”
“They won’t find me,” he interrupted. “Or you, either.”
Tatiana froze. “If you kill me--”
“You’ll do what?”
Silence hung between them as he grinned down at her. Tatiana became acutely aware of how their bodies were touching--and where. If she were back in her barracks room, boredly flipping through teaser mags, she would’ve paid to see him naked.
He’s a hunk, she thought, unable to stop herself, And you haven’t gotten laid in two years.
“I’ll haunt you,” she blurted. “I’ll haunt your bathroom and scare the crap out of you every time you try to take a dump.”
A smile began to play at the corners of his lips. “We’re not going to kill you. We’re going to take you to see Wideman Joe.”
He really was going to kidnap her.
This time she began to struggle, and in earnest. She kicked out at his shin and, at the same time, bit down hard on his arm. He cursed...
...but he didn’t let her go. Instead, he grabbed her hands, twisted them behind her back, and cinched them in place with some sort of cold, sharp metal banding.
“Ow, spawn of xenophage, those hurt, what the hell, you bastard!” She kicked him again and started running for her soldier.
“Hold up!” He caught her by the waist, his big fingers brushing the sensitive waste nodes a hands-width under her breasts. “Just calm down. We’ll take them off once we get you safely on the ship.”
They were going to take her away from her soldier. She was so dead. “No, dammit!” Tatiana kicked and twisted in his grip, wrenching her wrists until the cold metal sliced into the skin and she felt blood dripping down her fingers.
“Hey, easy.” Big hands grasped her wrists and kept them from twisting behind her. “You’ve never been in these before, have you? Nephyrs use them on rebels. They’ll literally cut your hands off if you struggle too much.”
Tatiana screamed her frustration, but stopped moving. Instead she stamped her foot and started cursing his name, his family, his heritage, his village, his Sign...
From the woods, someone laughed. A man entered the ring of firelight, and for a moment, Tatiana was so shocked she could only gape. Either both Patrick and Milar were robots made in the same factory, or they had shared the same womb, at the same time. Milar had the same laugh lines as Patrick, the same heavy build, the same towering height, the same metallic red-brown curls--even their chiseled jaws shared the same reddish I-Shave-When-I-Feel-Like-It bristle.
Milar, however, had two scaled beasts tattooed up his neck, obscuring the skin. From what Tatiana could see, it was a small part of a much larger tattoo, the feet and tails of a red and a black dragon that climbed all the way to his ears and out to his fingertips. Further, his curly auburn hair was also much longer than his brother’s, unfurled halfway down his back, tied back with a wide black leather strap. To top it off, he was wearing a black leather trench coat, black military-issue workboots, black pants, black shirt, and beetle-green sunglasses. At night.
It was revolting, to say the least. Tatiana came to the sad conclusion that the poor, unwitting fool had probably been gene-spliced with a peacock.
“Looks like you caught yourself a feisty little Shrieker, Pat. What did you wan--” Upon getting close enough, the man’s words cut off with a stare. He yanked his glasses off, revealing startled golden brown eyes.
“Oh hell,” was all he could manage, staring at her. Unlike Patrick’s, Milar’s Coalition New Common was almost flawless.
“Then you see it?” Patrick demanded.
“Yeah.” It sounded like a croak. “Merciful Aanaho. We’re not ready.”
“Well we better get ready, wouldn’t ya say?” Patrick demanded.
“Get ready for what?” Tatiana demanded. “Let go of me. Get my goddamn hands out of these things. They cut me.” She could feel blood dribbling off her index finger, and it was bringing up bile. “They cut me,” she said again, biting down panic.
Patrick ignored her. As did Milar.
Then, to her frustration, they switched to a rough colonial dialect she had never heard before. Automatically, Tatiana gave her soldier the order to translate it. Then she realized she wasn’t in her soldier. She cursed and fought back tears.
After a long, drawn-out argument in which both twins yelled and gesticulated at nothing in particular, Milar suddenly switched back to Coalition New Common. Growling, he said, “Duck your head down.” He drew a nasty-looking hunting knife from a sheath on his belt.
Tatiana froze when she realized he was talking to her. Duck her head down? Why would he want her to duck her head--
She froze. Oh no. Tatiana straightened as far as she could go and pressed her rigid spine against Patrick’s chest. “Stay away from me.”
Milar snorted and moved toward her.
She kicked him. Right in the crotch.
“Oh crap.” Patrick tugged her away from Milar, who was crumpling on the ground, the big knife fisted in white knuckles, his red face straining with veins. The dragons on his neck bunched up, their scales glistening and pulsing ominously, like they were about to tug themselves free and attack her.
“I’m going to kill her,” Milar said, between clenched teeth. One hand on his crotch, he started to get to his feet.
“Dammit, Milar, she didn’t mean to--”
“She kicked me in the junk!”
Tatiana felt Patrick balk. “Well, yeah, she meant to do that. But she’s scared and--”
“Like hell I’m scared!” Tatiana snapped. “You two are so dead. You are assaulting a Coalition officer. Or are you two so high on testosterone that doesn’t that register to your puny colonist psyches?”
Milar glared at Patrick, then stepped in sideways and grabbed the top of Tatiana’s head with a big hand and wrenched down.
Tatiana cried out as muscles pulled in her neck, but she twisted and struggled to keep out of his reach anyway. “Stop it, you simian bastard!”
“Easy,” Patrick said. “He’s just going to--”
“I know what he’s going to do!” Tatiana screamed. “And I’m going to kill him!” She started kicking her foot in Milar’s general direction.
Milar growled something under his breath. Still holding the top of her head, Milar ducked so that he was looking up at her downturned face. He brought his knife up so that it was an inch from her eyes. Tatiana froze.
“Milar...” Patrick warned.
“See this?” Milar said, ignoring his brother. “This ain’t exactly the best equipment to work with, so unless you want me to chop off your damn head, hold still.”
“Maybe we should take her back to the ship to do it,” Patrick said. “We’ve got anesthetics.”
“And have them realize she left the crash site? No. We’ll do the little government shit right here. Help me hold her head.”
They propped Tatiana’s head against the leg-hydraulics of her soldier and Patrick held her skull in place while Milar massaged the back of her neck with rough fingers.
“Got it,” Milar said, pinching a sensitive bit of flesh.
“You dick,” Tatiana muttered.
Milar gave a cruel laugh. “Maybe someday, sweetie.” His fingers pinched harder.
Tatiana cried out when she felt hot fire lace the flesh between his fingers. “Stop! “That’s got electrodes in my spine. You pull it out, you’ll kill me.” She tried to struggle, but Patrick held her head utterly motionless against the soldier, her body firmly held in place with his bulk.
“Don’t move,” Patrick said softly.
Something metallic scraped in her neck. Then clicked.
Tatiana felt her guts roil as she felt a tugging sensation in her spine, like worms crawling through her flesh. She closed her eyes and shuddered. This can’t be happening.
“There!” Milar released his hold on her neck and backed away. “You think you’re the first coaler bastard we’ve operated on, Princess?”
Patrick released her head and withdrew, allowing her a good look of the thing they’d removed from her. Tatiana could only stare at the object in shock. Milar held the government chip out triumphantly before her, the four foot-long filaments glistening pink with blood, twitching like legs and feelers on an insect. She stared at the trembling wires and could only manage, “That’s programmed to kill me if it’s removed before my enlistment is up.”
“Just a myth,” Patrick said. He wiped away the blood that was now running down her backbone from Milar’s ministrations. Then he hesitated. “Well, sorta. It could’ve killed you, but we’ve done it enough times we pretty much got the hang of it. Gotta knock out the battery cap before you start pulling anything out, otherwise it’ll start frying neurons.”
“You actually pulled out my lifeline?” Tatiana had never been so unnerved in her life. “Are you the reason Coalition forces keep disappearing on Fortune?” Then she blinked. “You’re the rebel brothers they just put out the bulletin on.” Oh shit. Kiss her ass goodbye, send Aunt Cherry a good form-letter, she was a goner now.
Milar grunted and wrapped big fingers around the insectlike chip. He sheathed his knife and slid his shades back over his eyes. “Take her back to the ship. I’ll take care of things here.”
Tatiana’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, ‘take care of things?’”
For all his reverential staring earlier, Milar’s bow was now filled with harsh sarcasm. “Why, stage your heroic and tragic death, of course.” His eyes caught on the lapel of her emergency jumpsuit and his face contorted in a sneer. “Captain.”
“Easy,” Patrick said, though if it was meant for Milar or Tatiana, she couldn’t be sure. She kicked and struggled regardless, her panic ratcheting up several notches as he began to push her into the darkness of the forest, away from her soldier.
“Let go of me!” Tatiana cried. “I am one of the best operators in the Coalition! If I go missing...” They’ll what? she thought, verging on despair. Train a new one? There were over six hundred operators in this section of space. Not many, but not irreplaceable, either. Tatiana’s supreme ability to mesh with metal and AI would be missed, but not mourned.
Especially when they discovered she freaked out again.
“Let go!” When she landed another good kick to his shin, Patrick’s breath hissed between his teeth and he stopped. They were well out of sight of the fire and there was no sound but the buzzing of alien insects. Tatiana went utterly still, every molecule of her suddenly aware that she was Coalition and he was a colonist and they were four thousand miles from any authorities. Even in the cities, Coalition fighters who ran afoul of the locals went missing at night and their bodies washed up in the Shrieker lakes, or they were uncovered in the bog pits, or were simply never found at all.
“Listen,” Patrick said in his broken New Common, spinning her around to face him, “No offense, lady, but if you kick me again, I’m gonna sock ya one.”
“Take me back to my soldier,” she said, locking gazes with him.
“No. I’m taking you to see Wideman Joe.”
“Wiseman who? Listen, pal, do you have any idea of the kind of deep shit you’re getting yourself into? Removing a lifeline’s a federal crime. They’ll come down on you so hard it’ll make your head spin.” She glared up at him, but was distracted by the constant, nagging dribble of blood down her back. “And I’m bleeding, jackass. Fix it.”
“I got some nanostrips in on the ship,” Patrick said. He grabbed her elbow and started walking again, tugging her with him.
Tatiana had the choice to follow or have the metal bands cut deeper into her wrists. She struggled over the alien landscape, her small size and bare feet making it difficult to keep up.
She froze when she saw the ship. A colonial ultralight, it was nevertheless capable of transporting her across the globe. And, with the Coalition only having five Yolk factories and two major cities on a planet larger than Old Earth, Patrick was quite literally telling the truth--the Coalition would never find her.
“Come on,” Patrick said, giving her a gentle tug on her arm. “It’ll work out.”
“You are so dead,” she whispered, but she followed him up the steps.
Inside, Patrick motioned her over to one corner of the cramped and cluttered cargo bay, then pressed the button to shut the door and seal them inside.
“Might as well get comfortable,” Patrick said, dragging a heavy metal chair between her and the door. He sat down and reached under his grungy leather jacket, then pulled out a age-worn, rectangular--
“Is that a book?” Tatiana asked, a bit shocked. Never in a million years would she have guessed that a colonist would have carted something as clumsy as a book across five years of space. Even back in the Inner Bounds, it was a rare find. The last printing press had gone out of business many centuries ago.
“Why?” Tatiana demanded. “They’re so...” Useless, bulky, old...
“The Coalition banned the great philosophers on electronic media,” Patrick said. He held it up. In an ancient Ne’vanthi script, the cover read, The Life and Works of Ghani Klyde. He smiled. “This is one of the only copies left, though a friend of mine has been translating them back onto electronic formats.”
Tatiana realized her mouth was hanging open. “You’ve got Ghani...Klyde? In your hands?” Never mind that a two-bit colonist on some nowhere planet in the Outer Bounds could even read Ne’vanthi. Tatiana herself could barely read it, and she’d spent two years stationed outside the Ne’vanthi capital during the Pauper Rebellion.
“Yep.” Patrick proceeded to crack open the ancient tome and his golden-brown eyes started to scan the words upon the aged pages.
Tatiana was so shocked by this new development that she didn’t know whether to laugh at his bluff or run away screaming. It had to be the former, she decided. Colonists were not that smart. “Ghani Klyde was a traitor. He brainwashed the Circle’s children into rebellion just by writing a few lines in his blog. He was advisor to Emperor Treiton, before Treiton killed him.” It made the fact that Patrick was holding his words as they were meant to be read all that more unbelievable.
“Uh-huh. He was also a tactical genius. He masterminded one of the most efficient war machines in the universe, before Treiton bastardized it. Only reason the Treitons fell is the Emperor killed Klyde. Once he ended the merit-based leadership program, that was the beginning of the end.”
Mercy of the Phage, Tatiana thought, in horror, He’s actually read the damn thing.
When she could only stare at him, Patrick returned his attention to the book.
Still, Tatiana was suspicious. “Where did you learn Ne’vanthi?”
“Friend taught me,” Patrick said.
Tatiana narrowed her eyes, once more beginning to suspect that this was somehow a ruse. “What friend?”
“You wouldn’t know her.”
Deciding to call his bluff, Tatiana said, “Miserable gakeii.”
Patrick jerked his head up, raising a brow. “I always liked that one,” he said. “The Ne’vanthi have such...colorful...curses.”
“What’s it mean?” Tatiana demanded, triumphantly sure, now, that he was bluffing.
“Eater of human shit,” he said, without a pause. He quirked a brow in the Now Are You Done Wasting My Time look. “Any more questions, or will you let me get back to my book?”
When she didn’t respond, he did just that. Tatiana’s curiosity piqued despite herself. She eased herself around Patrick’s chair and glanced over his shoulder.
Patrick snapped the book shut and scowled. “Like hell am I letting you get behind me, coaler.” He jabbed a finger across the room. “Go. Now.”
Glaring, Tatiana began to trudge back and forth along the far wall, eying the exit, wondering if she could press the unlock switch and get outside before the brute caught her. Damned little chance of that, with her hands trussed behind her like a Troop-Day turkey. She could still feel blood dripping down her fingers, and it was getting worse, despite how much she tried to keep her hands still.
“Pacing isn’t going to get you out of here.”
“Screw you.” She paced harder.
Patrick sighed, “Well, at least have the decency to bleed in one place.” He motioned at the line of ruby droplets she had spread across the floor of his ship, squished and smeared by her bare feet.
Seeing that much blood, Tatiana suddenly felt nauseous. She stopped pacing.
“Thank you,” he said. He looked like he was going to say more, but the sound of an explosion made him jerk.
Tatiana grinned. “My cavalry,” she said. “I hope you’re ready to expand your horizons, rebel, because the Nephyrs are gonna tear you a new hole.”
“Naw,” he said, turning back to the book he was reading. “Milar just killed you.”
Tatiana froze. “My soldier...”
He grunted. Didn’t look up from the book.
“You bastard! That’s a billion-dollar machine!”
He kept reading.
Scowling, Tatiana went back to pacing. As the minutes ticked by, her soldier burning, the chances of rescue by the Coalition growing increasingly slimmer by the second, Tatiana struggled for something to say that would somehow change his mind.
“I can pay you,” she muttered.
“Not enough, pumpkin.” Patrick turned another page.
Irritated by his lack of concern, Tatiana narrowed her eyes and forgot her attempts to negotiate. “There’s nowhere on this planet that you can hide from the Coalition. It’s got the fastest ships, the biggest guns, and the most brains. When the Nephyrs get you, they’re gonna make you scream for days before they let you die.”
“Uh-huh.” He sounded bored, but she could tell by the tightness in his face that some aspect of what she had said had gotten through to him.
He’s afraid of Nephyrs, she realized with delight. She continued on gleefully, “The last correction I saw, the guy lasted four weeks. A rebel. The Nephyrs strung him up and tore off skin until you couldn’t see anything but muscle underneath. They had him in a sealed room, see. Everything was sterilized. Humidified. IV fluids. No chance of infection. It was friggin’ awesome.”
She was lying, of course--Tatiana had never been able to find the stomach to watch a correction, any correction, but her fellow operators had raved about them enough that she had a pretty good idea of what went on.
“I have tapes if you want to see it,” she prodded. “It’ll give you a good idea of what’s coming to you, collie bastard.”
Patrick slammed his book shut and scowled at her. “You talk a lot, for something I could squish with my pinkie.”
Tatiana narrowed her eyes. “Skinned alive.” She showed her teeth. “That’s what’s gonna happen to you if you don’t let me--”
Patrick was out of his chair in an instant, and Tatiana gulped as he strode forward and forced her into the wall.
With one hand planted on either side of her head, he leaned forward, until their faces were almost touching. “You wanna talk about torture? Let me tell you about torture. It happened to my sister. A regiment of Coalition Nephyrs kidnapped her when she was working ryegrass in the fields. We found her corpse buried a mile from their campsite, once the regiment moved on.”
Tatiana met his gaze stare-for stare. “Shouldn’t have been a rebel.”
He gave her a mirthless grin. “Yeah.” He reached up and picked a sticky native seed-pod off the dark blue fabric of her jumpsuit, then flicked it off to the side. When he met her gaze, his amber-brown eyes were hard. “See, only thing was Carol wasn’t a rebel. Never had a bad thought toward the Coalition in her life. That regiment took fourteen women from our settlement that day, all pretty girls. Hauled them from their homes, calling them traitors, but it weren’t no secret why they took ‘em. They were bored and they were Coalition, so they could do whatever the hell they wanted. Called it a ‘correction’ and all was right with the world.”
Tatiana swallowed, hard, and looked away, a sick feeling forming in her gut. “You’re lying,” she muttered. Yet she’d heard the rumors, read the logs, listened to the dark confessions over too much drink...
Patrick grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “Of the eight that came home alive, all but two were pregnant.” His smile was bitter, now. “Only reason they weren’t pregnant was ‘cause they were too young.”
“Sorry,” she whispered.
He scanned her face, his eyes still hard. “Just cut the bullshit, okay? Milar would love to return the favor, if he heard you talking about torturing folks like that.”
“I didn’t know,” she whispered.
“Yeah.” Patrick released her roughly. “Whatever.” With a parting scowl, he went back to his chair.
Tatiana licked her lips. “I really didn’t--”
“Just shut up.” He picked up his book again. “You open your mouth again and I’ll gag you.”
Feeling cold, Tatiana slid down the ribbed metal wall and drew her knees up under her chin. “Sorry,” she said again. “Really.”
Patrick gave her a dark scowl, but stayed in his seat.
Milar strode onto the ship almost twenty minutes later.
“What the hell took so long?” Patrick demanded as soon as he saw his brother.
Milar glanced at Tatiana, who hadn’t moved from the wall, then glanced at Patrick, still in his chair, then grunted and pushed the button to shut the door and seal them inside. As he did, the sleeve of his black leather overcoat slid back far enough to expose the glistening scarlet and ebony scales of dual dragons, twining up his arm.
They must cover most of his chest, Tatiana thought, eying the dragons’ limbs that peeked above his shirt, clawing up his neck, locked in perpetual battle across his throat.
Then Milar turned from the hatch, took off his sunglasses, and locked eyes with her. In that instant, Tatiana forgot to breathe. There was such malevolence in his gaze that she felt like she was going to puke. He looks like he wants to kill me, Tatiana thought, sinking into the wall under the stare. She saw his dragony fist clench once.
“Miles?” Patrick asked, tentative, now.
Saying nothing, Milar jammed his shades into his pocket, stalked cross the room, climbed the scaffolding to the upper deck, and disappeared through the hatch above, slamming his fist on the airlock panel to seal himself inside the cockpit.
Patrick frowned at the cockpit, then at Tatiana, then, after a moment, went back to his book.
A few minutes later, the ship jolted and Tatiana felt her stomach lurch as they took to the air.
“What are you going to do with me?” Tatiana asked, after another twenty minutes had passed with the only sound that of the ship’s engines. On an alien planet, on an enemy ship, away from the safety of her soldier, she felt more alone than ever before. It hadn’t truly hit her how much danger she was in until she felt the thrust of the engines lift her away from her last known whereabouts, destined for some unknown part of a colony filled with people who hated her on sight.
Tatiana realized Patrick had glanced up from his book and was watching her with narrowed eyes. She froze, remembering what he had promised should she continue to speak. “I’m sorry. I’ll be quiet.”
She stared at her kneecaps for another ten minutes before the sound of the book snapping shut made her lift her head.
Patrick was standing, crossing the space between them, a long white rag dangling from his hand.
“I said I wouldn’t talk!” she cried. She scrambled to push herself sideways down the wall, bare feet scrabbling for purchase on the sheet metal. She only succeeded in sliding backwards, until her wrists and shoulder-blades gouged into the floor.
Panic surged when he reached her. She clenched her jaw shut and closed her eyes.
For several heart-pounding moments, she lay there, every muscle tense. Then she tentatively pried an eye open.
Patrick knelt above her with a rag in his hands, his hazel eyes unreadable. “Sit up.”
Tatiana squeezed her jaw harder and shook her head stubbornly.
Sighing, he reached down and pulled her up by the shoulder. Then he withdrew a key from his leather jacket and released the bands from her wrists.
As the metal fell away, clinking against the floor, Tatiana blinked.
“Let me see your wrists,” Patrick said.
Gingerly, she held them out.
He hissed upon seeing the oozing cuts and gouges. Even Tatiana, who had lived with them, hadn’t imagined they were that bad. She felt her stomach lurch.
“Hold on,” he said, getting to his feet. He tossed the white rag at her--bandages, she realized, stunned--and went to a shelving unit secured by a cargo net. He removed the net and from a compartment drew out a bundle of neon green strips.
“Here,” he said, kneeling in front of her again. He pulled a strip free from the bundle and removed the adhesive. “These’ll help.”
“What are they?” Tatiana asked.
“Nanostrips,” he said, grabbing a wrist.
Tatiana yanked her hands away and skittered backwards in a hurry. At his scowl, she said, “I’m wired with enough electronics to power a city. Nanos are bad mojo for an operator.”
Patrick’s frown cleared and he glanced down at the exposed strip. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she said, perking up slightly. “Won’t help anyway. I’ve got resident bots patrolling, to keep out intruders. It can take a few, but a whole strip will probably fry something.”
“Huh.” Patrick replaced the strip and returned the strip back to the bundle. He got up again, dropped the nanostrips back into the compartment, and returned with regular adhesive first-aid strips and a bottle of alcohol. He held them up. “These do?”
Tatiana nodded, a little mystified by his sudden change in demeanor.
She flat-out stared, however, when he gently took her hand and daubed it with bandages wetted in alcohol. It burned like hell, but she just kept staring. Her mind once again wandered to what she did when she was bored, and whether Patrick would be good material.
A smile quirked at the corner of Patrick’s mouth as he worked. “I think we got off to a wrong start.”
She blushed, realizing she was gaping at him like a schoolgirl. Looking at the wall, she said, “You’ve committed three federal offenses in the last hour. Assault, kidnapping, and destruction of Coalition property. If you had any idea of how dead you are going to be by tomorrow morning...”
Patrick wiped more dried blood and debris from the wound. “What’s your name?”
Tatiana stiffened further. If this was a ploy to get vital Universal data off of her--
Her mouth fell open and her head whipped around to stare. “How did you--”
Patrick looked up and grinned at her. “Good. Should’ve asked earlier, but we were pretty sure. Milar’s, uh... Well, it’s hard to miss...” He cleared his throat and looked back down at her wrist. “Anyway, sorry about ruining your day.” He wrapped gauze around the wrist and patted it down, then moved on to the other. “If you don’t mind my asking, why were you outside your solider?”
I do mind, she thought bitterly.
Patrick glanced up, saw the look on her face, and laughed. “All right, we’ll leave that one alone for now.”
She let him work for a minute, then muttered, “You were pretty close to the truth, what you said earlier.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her. “About you having a nervous breakdown?”
She ground her teeth together. “I like to think about it as being claustrophobic.”
For the first time, he really smiled at her. His dimples returned, and Tatiana felt her heart give an extra thud.
Then he said, “Claustrophobic. Yeah right. You were bawling your eyes out back there.”
Her eyes narrowed and the extra heartbeats receded. Clearing her throat, she glanced at the ship around them. “So you can fly?” She tapped the wall behind her. “You and Milar are both pilots?”
Patrick shrugged and reached for the second bandage. “Yeah. I’m a little pathetic compared to my brother, but I can get ‘er off the ground if I need to.”
“Still,” Tatiana said, “You must be proud. I hear that’s uncommon for a colonist. Where’d you learn?”
He grinned. “A little undercover operation near the Great Tear. Trained quite a few of the pilots where we’re going.” He tucked the bandage tight and glanced at her. “What about you? Can you fly one of these things?”
Tatiana snorted. “I’m an operator.”
He glanced at her with a raised brow. “I’ll take that as a no.”
Tatiana yawned. “So where are we going?”
“Little place called Deaddrunk Mine.”
Tatiana tried not to twist her face at yet another ridiculous colonist place name. “That’s...quaint.”
He grinned at her. “You’re new to a place, you name it whatever most strikes you about it. Some drunk tripped on a rock and died outside town while taking a piss. Turns out, the rock that killed him was ninety-five percent pure silver. Became one of the best mining towns on Fortune...before the government started the Yolk draft.”
Tatiana yawned again, so tired she felt dizzy. “Lots of people in Deaddrunk, then?”
He snorted. “You mean does the Coalition know it’s there?”
His face contorted in a scowl. “They better. They took another Draft from it just a few days ago. Make a point of visiting twice a year, any time they need more meat for the slaughter.”
Tatiana fought another yawn and wondered if blood loss was making her sleepy. “So it’s got what, a thousand? Two thousand inhabitants?”
Patrick laughed. “Try two hundred.”
“Two hundred?” Tatiana raised her brows. “And Coalition drafts eggers out of it?”
“Every six months,” Patrick muttered.
“A little town like that...must not have many pilots.” She felt like she was getting loopy...like she’d had a good hard drink and was just now starting to feel the effects. Peering at him through heavy lids, she said, “You put something on the bandages, didn’t you?”
Patrick reddened and rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, yeah. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.” As he spoke, he set the bottle of liquid aside. Not alcohol then. Tatiana cursed for not noticing the label.
“Bastard.” But her eyelids were drooping. “There a lot of pilots in that town of yours, Patrick?”
“Naw, just a handful,” he said. “Like you said, it’s pretty rare for a colonist.” He reached behind him and grabbed a cargo mat. “Here. Put your head on this.”
“No, dammit.” But she was already falling over sideways. He caught her and eased her down onto the mat. “You mess with me...” she slurred.
“I won’t,” Patrick promised. “Just thought you could use something to sleep.”
“You mean you didn’t want me to see how you get to Wideman Joe.”
He reddened. “You’re sharp.”
Sharper than you think, Tatiana thought. But she had already passed out.
Author's note: this is an excerpt of my free mailing list project, Outer Bounds. If you would like to read more, just shoot me an email at email@example.com. I'd be glad to send you the rest!