"That fucking son of a bitch!" It was more of a roar than anything. The words were unintelligible. But I could feel them. An impact reverberated through my head. I tasted blood and steel at the back of my mouth. My teeth clenched. My ears rang softly. I heard through packed cotton. Pain ripped up my left side. Pieces that had once been inside were outside. My bones splintered like dead twigs in a dry winter. I felt fire. I opened my eyes.
She was inches from my face. Her eyes were half shut. I could see the dark rim of her irises and a sliver of stark white. Her skin was cold. Cold came off her in waves. I wanted to shiver, but I couldnít move. She had no hair, and she seemed sort of blue or green. It was dark; I couldnít tell. Her hand rose to my face, her icy fingers hovering above my lips. She exhaled. I could see her breath and feel its warmth and moisture on my skin.
"Where am I?" I asked. I could manage no more than a whisper. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to talk.
"You have died," she said.
"Who are you?"
""I am the Light."
"I want to go home."
She opened her eyes. They were purple, like the skin of an eggplant. She smiled. Behind her full lips, I saw no teeth and no tongue. It looked as if she breathed in the darkness and rolled it around the back of her throat before breathing it out as steam. "I am the Way. You have come to me," she said. Her voice sounded like stars, ethereal and cold.
I could find nothing to say. I was dead. I knew that. At the last second, as I realized that I had built up too much speed and hadnít reversed the thrusters fast enough, I knew that the impact was going to kill me. I wasnít afraid. Death had never bothered me. I didnít believe all the church teachings about God and heaven and hell and what may or may not happen to a soul when the body ceases to exist. But I didnít believe there was nothing after death. I didnít fear leaving life behind for bliss, damnation or reincarnation. Or nothingness. After all, I believed in an afterlife, but no one said I was right. I had made a choice. That choice was to crash the ship. There was no other way. My survival was irrelevant. That cargo could not make it off that ship and into the universe. Once I discovered what it was and what it had done to the rest of the crew, I didnít care about walking away from the crash. What was one life to save billions?
"You are the stars," she said, and a tear crystallized in the corner of her left eye. Her hand was still suspended over my mouth. "You will not stay."
She touched my lips gently, and she rippled away like a reflection in water when a rock is dropped into it. Something in my chest expanded forcefully. There was a sharp, throbbing pain on the left side of my head, like my skull had shrunk and was constricting my brain. It lasted for a while. I wanted to cry. I wanted to press my hands to my head and pressure the pain into going away. I could feel my neck and my shoulder muscles bunching themselves into knots and yanking themselves tight. I wanted to bite down on something until the pain stopped. But I couldnít do anything. I felt my eyes open. The crystal tear came down in slow motion and shattered on my forehead. My vision faded to grey. I heard machines hissing and beeping. There was something thick in the back of my throat. I turned my head to spit it out. On a metal tray, I saw gory lumps and fragments of something stained red. Bones, lungs and a heart. All of which had been mine.
"For Godís sake, calm down," a manís voice said. It was a smooth voice, the voice of someone who was used to talking people out of violent tempers, among other things.
"How many of them?" Dylan asked.
"Eight, at least."
It was morning. Warm light poured through the window under which I had fallen asleep. I stood up and stretched. "Eight what?" I asked.
Dylan growled and turned his back on the man heíd been talking to. There was a large hole in the wall.
"Brechttarian mercenaries," the man said. I recognized him as the well-dressed man from Boom.
Brechttarians were large insect-like aliens who had never appreciated that humans came into their worlds and took their homes. They lived in tribes and fought amongst themselves constantly. There was no word for peace in their language, nor was there a word for friend. They attacked explorers, colonists, diplomats and passers-by. I would hate to say that their technology was inferior, but it was ineffective against humans. When the legions arrived in huge, well-armed and well-armored battleships, there wasnít much the Brechttarians could do but fight to the death. Once they accepted defeat, they waited. They improved their technology. They looked at how best to get back at the humans. And somehow, they came up with the idea of stealing children and genetically altering them to be more Brechttarian. Once the altered kids were old enough, they became the ones who attacked villages, stole other children and killed everything they could. So far, no one lived to tell tales of the altered childrenís attacks.
"Iím Kaylan Ashburn. Iím an aide to Senator Irial Remmington Falkenberg," the man said.
"I figured that much."
"I had a long conversation with Danel last night."
"So you know everything now. Good. I donít want to waste my time explaining things."
"What do you want to waste your time with?"
"Iím not in the habit of wasting time on anything."
"Okay. Thatís great. Then letís get right to the point. When can we expect the eight nasties, and what can you give us to help us take them out?"
"They should be here within ten hours. As far as arming you, that will take time, but I can get you whatever you want."
"I need the heavy shit. Something that can get through their exoskeletons. Got a pistol in the nuclear variety?"
"If that kind of weapon existed, I wouldnít know about it, much less be able to acquire it."
"Then what good are you?"
"Itís an old military weapon, used primarily during the conflict with the Brechttarians. It fires extraordinarily sharp razor disks at high velocity. It has an alternate fire that allows you to electrically charge the disks. But itís heavy. How much can you lift?"
"However much I need to."
"Seriously. If you arenít strong enough to hold it, youíll likely kill yourself."
"I can carry a five year old on my back for several hours straight."
"Thatís hardly the same."
"Well, fuck that then."
"A hundred pounds. Thatís how much it weighs."
"Fine. If I canít, Dylan can."
"Flame throwers, grenades, laser blasters and a way off this fucking planet."
"It will take no less than five hours and no more than six for the weapons. I canít promise you a ship right now. Iím sure Danel told you about Shaneís time limit."
"Yeah, I know. The longer he gets stalled looking for me, the better. I donít know why Irial doesnít just lock his ass up anyway. Itís not like Blackstone could stop him."
"She can. And she has. He owes her a favor or two."
"Blackmailing a Falkenberg is risky business, Kaylan. Watch your back."
Kaylan narrowed his eyes. "If you want to live, I suggest you play along."
"Iím not afraid of dying. Itís the easiest thing Iíve ever done. And just a reminder. Threatening a Falkenberg is another really bad idea."
"Iíll bring the weapons back here."
"You do that."
Dylan growled as Kaylan walked out the door.
"You donít like him very much, do you?" I asked.
"Heís a pompous little jackass," Dylan said. "He thinks heís going to get somewhere by using people. Itís gotten him this far, but heís playing with the wrong people. I know Irial. He wonít put up with that shit for long."
"You know Irial?"
"He saved my life."
"How did you meet him?"
"I donít remember. I was in a lot of pain. He told me there was someone who could help me, and it worked. I owe him. When he asked me to follow you, I had to."
"How long have you been following me?"
"A while. He contacted me about a month after Shane tried to kill Blackstone. He already had his brother babysitting Shane. I thought it was a little strange that he was concerned about you. But I never asked any questions."
"But Danel didnít know anything about you."
"No. Irial never told him. He didnít want to take the chance that Danel would tell Shane."
While everything he said made perfect sense, I didnít like it too much. It would have been nice to know that someone was hunting me down and that someone else was watching my back. Then again, if I had known, maybe I wouldnít have been as successful in eluding them as I had been. And I bet they never would have found me if I had kept my mouth shut on Junket.
Dylan picked up a stack of crates and put them in front of the hole heíd punched in the wall. He lifted the top crate and shook it. Then he laughed. It was a strange sound. "Did you know about the Brechttarians before you came to this warehouse?" he asked.
"No. Well, sort of," I said. "I wasnít sure it was something that would happen any time soon. Why?"
He opened the crate and tossed me a canister from inside. It was insecticide.
"Does this work on them?" I asked.
"Even if it doesnít, itíll slow them down. Especially if weíre getting the altered ones."
"I canít do that. I donít even know if I can kill them."
"This isnít the time for moral dilemmas, Talon. Theyíre coming to kill us, not ask us to tango."
"You can tango?"
"Not like I used to."
"If Shane did hire altered mercenaries, they used to be human. They still look human. Mostly human."
"They donít know what they were. They know what they are. Theyíre murderers."
"You remember what you used to be."
"Iím different than them. I was never human."
"Is that why this pisses you off so much?"
Dylan picked up another canister and said nothing.
"You got lucky. You got to keep your mind. They didnít. Is it really fair for us to kill them when they never had the chance to be themselves?"
"Yes. Theyíre going to kill us."
"One of them is Analaís daughter."
"Having a child has made you soft. Thatís not a bad thing. But I remember when you wouldnít have thought twice about killing something to save your life, whether that something was human, alien or otherwise."
"But I never knew their names. I never saw them being ripped from their motherís arms. None of them were children."
"If you donít want to fight them, I will."
"Me, not fight? Please."
"I think thereís a way to save the girl. The rest will be fair game."
We opened several more crates and ended up with about fifty canisters of insecticide that looked useable. So if the ripper didnít cut them in half, we could at least try to choke them to death with clouds of poisonous gas. We were just going to have to hold our breath for a while.
Waiting for Kaylan to return with the weapons was getting on my nerves. I stared out the window and watched the sky get dark. I counted stars. I wondered where Regan was. For just a second, I could almost see her face pressed to the window of a ship cruising over the snow and ice covered mountains of Valewind. Then I decided to go for a walk.
I headed vaguely in the direction of Boom, which I knew was a mistake as soon as I saw the clubís flashing pink neon signs. In that light, I could see the shadow of someone following me. I could hear his boots hitting the pavement and the faint jingle of guns and bandoliers. This was a bounty hunter I knew well. His name was Hern Szigeti. He had once hired me to take him from Lore to Parable with a bounty. The bounty was a woman named Valentina who was a thief and a gambler. She was wanted in more ways than one. She wasnít particularly dangerous, but the way Hern treated her, you would have thought she was a deranged serial killer. He kept her bound and gagged, and I knew better than to try to get him to be a little gentler with her. She died before we got to Parable. He choked her to death while he raped her. He said it was my fault for not getting there faster. I was afraid of him, but I pretended I wasnít and threatened to tell the authorities on Parable the truth. And I also found myself knowing a few other things about him that would have made him just as wanted as some of the bounties he chased. We came to a mutual understanding, after he tried to break my wrist and I shot him in the foot. But with a bounty or two on my head, that understanding was gone.
The pedestrians scrambled inside. I stepped out into the street and turned to face him. He was even uglier than the last time I saw him. Four shiny pink scars were embedded across the right side of his face. He wore a patch over his right eye. His big chin was covered in black wiry stubble. I could always tell when he was pissed. His chin just seemed to get bigger and bigger. Iíd never seen it that big. I wondered if Shane had hired him or if someone from Junket had or if he was just there to kill me for fun. It didnít matter. He wasnít there for the bounty. He was there for my blood.
We stared each other down. His hands flexed above the handles of his lasers. Cold spiders scurried down my arms. Then something odd happened.
I didnít pass out, and I didnít exactly have a vision. But somehow, I knew every move Hern was going to make before he made it. There was a weird buzzing sensation behind my nose and eyes, and I heard distant wind chimes and a gong. It didnít distract me like I would have expected. Instead, it kept me focused.
He drew his guns. I hit the ground as he fired and rolled left, drawing as I did. He followed with his guns, firing again when I stopped. I grabbed a trash can lid and took the shots. They knocked me back a few a feet, and the trash can lid was no longer useful. I fired at him, tearing through a bandolier strap. That confused him long enough for me to duck into an alley where I knew there was a ladder to the roof. I climbed up and waited behind an air vent. He was up after me a few seconds later, firing at anything I might have used as shelter. When he stopped to reload, I came out from behind the air vent and got him clean through his left shoulder. Then I was out of ammunition.
"Fuck," I said.
I threw my gun at him and ran at him. He sidestepped, and I nearly fell off the roof. In my head, I saw him going for a knife and rushing up behind me. I turned around, catching his downward slashing hand with a nifty karate block I didnít even know I knew, making a V out of my hands so that my wrists stopped his. That allowed me to grab hold of him and toss him off the roof. He landed flat on his back. I watched him, hoping for blood to start pooling around the back of his head. He got back up.
I ran, jumping from roof to roof until I found myself with nowhere left to go but back down to the streets. I knew that as soon as I did that, Hern would be waiting for me. I had no weapons. I could see him clearly putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. The buzzing in my sinuses stopped and the sounds faded. I heard Hernís boots smacking the pavement. I leaned against the vent I was hiding behind. It moved.
It didnít take me long to pull it completely off its base. It was rusty and not very well constructed. But it was light enough to lift and wide enough to fit around Hern. I waited until he was standing directly below me, then I jumped down. I donít know how I was able to aim myself and the pipe I held as well as I did, but it worked perfectly. Sometimes, you roll well; sometimes you botch. But I landed on my feet, with the vent pipe sliding easily over Hernís shoulders, an instant restraint. He didnít expect this, of course. I kicked him a few times, denting the pipe for a tighter hold and finally knocking him down.
"Where the fuck you learn to fight like that?" Hern mumbled, trying to get to his feet.
"Apparently, having psychic powers makes you a bad ass martial artist," I said. "Who hired you?"
"No one. In case you didnít know, there are two large bounties on your head."
"I had a feeling. But it could have just been gas."
"Are you gonna kill me now?"
"I thought about it."
"I can give you information."
"Why? I canít collect on myself. But I guess no oneís ever tried that before, huh?"
"Your old buddy Decker posted the first one over a year ago now."
"The second one came out two weeks ago, before you mouthed off to Vinny. Vinny donít give a shit. But if he ever sees you again, heís gonna hurt you."
"Good. I got a little something for him too. So who put out the second bounty?"
"It wasnít a who. Itís a what."
"What kind of what?"
"It said you killed a bunch of its brothers and sisters who had come into this existence to fulfill a prophecy. Itíd kill you itself, but it canít get here. And it canít touch you anyway."
"I donít think I want it touching me."
"It said youíd seen the Light."
"Iím not blind. I see lots of light."
"No, the Light, capital L Light. God."
I tasted blood and steel on the back of my tongue.
"It said she put something in you, something special that protects you. But part of that is outside you."
"You go anywhere near my daughter, and I swear youíll be dealing with something much worse than a demon."
"I donít doubt that."
"What do you say we reach another understanding, Hern?"
"Screw you, Konstantine."
"Iím sorry you feel that way. Iíd hate to see what a demon will do to you when you fail. But give me another day or two and weíll try this again. I got a bug problem to deal with."
I felt a little weird. Okay, a lot weird. A demon wanted me dead. God was the blue green woman I saw when I died. And she wanted to protect me. I couldnít help but think it was all bullshit. But I was learning that not everything in this world happened in this world. There were spirits. There were demons. There were things I would never understand no matter how long I lived. Then again, it could have been a trick. But I never told anyone what I saw when I died.
I left Hern lying where he was and headed back to Boom for a drink or ten.
The crowd was small. There were about six guys in all, five of whom sat at one table drinking and playing cards. The other man sat in a far corner with a hooded cloak pulled far down over his eyes and a long stemmed pipe clamped between his teeth. He lifted his chin to look out from under his hood when I walked in. Then he shook his head and mumbled, "Nah, too tall."
I sat down at the bar. I really should have been using the money I stole for food or weapons or something useful, but I needed a drink. The bartender was a tall thin guy with a fringe of greasy blonde hair that hung half way down his back. He had a towel slung over one shoulder. His name, embroidered on his shirt, was Bob. "What can I get for you?" he asked.
"Whatís the strongest thing you got?"
"Uh, you donít want that. Itíll pickle your insides like a baby pig in formaldehyde."
"Half my insides arenít real. Who cares?"
He pointed with his glistening head. "She might. Let me get you a beer."
I looked over. Cherry was walking out of the back stage area in tight leather pants, a leather vest that barely covered her breasts and boots that looked like they could kick a hole in solid steel. She sat down beside me and sighed. "You might wanna get her a beer, too," I said to the bartender.
Cherry leaned her head on my shoulder. "Iím so glad youíre here," she said. "I saw that Szigeti guy outside."
"I took care of him."
"And I saw Shane today."
"I bet that was interesting."
"I shot him."
"Good for you."
"He told me about the mercenaries. And he said once they were done with you and Riggs, he was gonna send them after me."
"Why? Because you slept with me?"
"Was that sleeping?"
"He thinks Iím part of the plot. Heís so fucking paranoid. Everyoneís out to get him."
"They are. Heís got less than three days now to turn me over to the Senate and then heís going to Boil."
"For an assassination attempt?"
"Thereís more to it than that I think. But I donít know."
"Heís convinced that Senator Falkenberg is trying to protect you. He swears up and down that youíre the missing Falkenberg kid. He said he used to have proof."
"Oh, right. Like I could ever be related to people like that."
"I donít know. You do look like them."
"Letís not go there. He canít prove it, and no one would believe him anyway."
The bartender put two large mugs of beer down in front of us. Cherry gulped hers down and asked for another one.
"I thought I loved him," she said.
"He always said things would be different if Dylan was still around."
"Thatís not true. Things never would have changed."
"Isnít that the same thing?"
"I guess. But I donít wanna talk about that. I need to figure out how Iím gonna deal with the Brechttarians."
"Thatís easy. I know when and where theyíll be landing. We can set up an ambush. And remember, theyíre allergic to shavors."
"Theyíre allergic to anything with fur. Especially the altered ones. Their systems arenít made to protect them against that kind of stuff. Itís a wonder they donít need biohazard suits to go outside."
"How do you know that?"
"Silly. Did you think I was nothing but tits and ass?"
"Was I supposed to know something else?"
"I was studying xenobiology. But I had to do something to support myself while I was at the university, so I started dancing. You know how those universities are. As soon as one of my professors saw me stripping, he went right to the dean and got me kicked out. Mostly because he was afraid Iíd tell his wife, but there are rules against that kind of thing."
"Sometimes. And thatís on a good night."
"Come with me."
"Everywhere. I need a crew for a ship."
"You donít have a ship."
"Not yet. Iíve got a feeling Iíll have one soon enough."
"Iíd be useless."
"No you wouldnít."
"Not to you maybe."
"I agree the job has certain perks."
"Buy me another beer, and Iíll think about it."
I hadnít noticed sheíd already finished her second one. I had a little catching up to do.
When we went back to the warehouse, Kaylan had already come and gone, Dylan was already sorting through what he had left us. Unfortunately, there was no ship. Otherwise, we probably would have taken off right then. I didnít tell either of them what Hern told me about the second bounty on my head. Cherry would find out whether I told her or not. It didnít matter if Dylan knew. Once Shane was taken care of, I was pretty sure heíd take off again. I knew he was taking the whole thing hard. Just like me, he still considered Shane his friend. But if I had known then just how close they really were, I never would have let Dylan get so involved.
Cherry told us what she knew, and we came up with a plan.
The Brechttarian mercenaries were putting down a small ship at a private docking bay just outside Pilon to the west. Similar to where Anala, Regan and I had come in to Pilon, that part of the city was bordered by desert. It was abandoned. The buildings there were low, and there were no lights. But they didnít have to see us. They relied on sound. Cherry and I would station ourselves on a roof with grenades, pistols and the ripper. Dylan had quickly discovered that the one hundred pounds wasnít the problem. It was the recoil. Mounting it somewhere was the easiest way to do it. Dylan would stay on the ground with the flamethrower, the insecticide and his fur.
I was kidding myself and them for thinking it was going to work.
From my vantage point on the roof, I watched the ship set down. Shane stood in the doorway of the hangar. His left arm was in a sling. A few minutes after the ship touched down, eight Brechttarians came out. Six of them were full-blooded Brechttarians, although young. They were a lighter green than the older ones, and they didnít have wings. The two who seemed to be in charge of the group were altered ones. One was Leysa. The other was a male about the same age with long brown hair. Shane handed Leysa a bag of money. She counted it then tossed it to one of the others who took it back onto the ship. Then Shane walked away. I heard Dylan growl. The Brechttarians went back into their ship and came out a few minutes later armed to the teeth. Well, they donít really have teeth, but you get the idea. It didnít look like they were just after one man.
"Itís party time," I said.
I fired the ripper. It knocked me backwards halfway across the roof, but the razor disk went clean through the neck of the one I had aimed at.
Dylan met the whole party head on and tossed an insecticide canister high into the air. Cherry shot it, and a cloud settled down over the Brechttarians. They made wheezing and coughing sounds and rubbed their eyes. Dylan torched two of them. The altered ones began to sneeze. The other three began to fire back. I fired the ripper again, but it wasnít that great of a shot. It hit the corner of a building and bounced towards Dylan at a sharp angle. He ducked, and the razor disk thunked into the street. When he stood up again, he took a blast right in the chest. Lightning tore across the sky, and it began to rain.
"Fuck," I said.
"So much for allergies and insecticide," Cherry said. She pulled the pin on a grenade and tossed it down. One of the Brechttarians caught it and was going to throw it back at us. It blew up in his hand. He ran around in circles, screeching as thick black blood poured from the ragged hole where his arm used to be.
The ripper began to spark as the rain got inside its casing.
"Fuck. We gotta run, Cherry."
We scrambled down off the building and got a couple blocks before the ripper exploded. Shrapnel and bits of concrete rained down on us after we hit the ground. The street shook under us. I expected it to stop after a while, but it didnít. How were we supposed to know that old gas lines ran beneath that part of Pilon and that no one had bothered to shut them off? I told Cherry to run.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Iím not leaving without Dylan," I said.
"Youíre going to get yourself killed."
A chain of explosions went off.
"Iím not leaving him there."
"Iím going with you, then."
"No. I need you to find Kaylan or Danel and tell them what happened."
"Where the hell am I supposed to find them?"
"Go to that Senate building in the middle of the city. Just make sure Shane doesnít see you."
"Youíre crazy. You know that, donít you?"
"Go before something else blows up."
Cherry grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me to her. "Donít leave me here alone," she said. She kissed me then ran.
Off in the distance, I heard sirens. I drew my new laser pistols and headed back to get Dylan. I didnít know if he was alive, and it didnít matter. I couldnít just leave him. When I got closer, I could see that the two remaining Brechttarians were dragging Dylan onto the ship. The altered ones were waiting for me. It was a short fight. My shots bounced off their exoskeletons. The only parts of them I could really do any damage to were their eyes. I thought I would hesitate a little more. But ultimately, Dylan was right. They no longer knew what they had once been, and they had come to kill us. I shot the boy in the right eye. It exploded, spraying greenish gore. He screamed and fell to the ground. Cold spiders spilled down my back. Leysa was behind me, and as soon as I turned around to face her, she swung at my head. I never saw what she hit me with. It only hurt for a second then I was out cold.