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One - Flynn
When the first settlers discovered Sukiyaki, they must have pissed themselves.
On a scale measuring luck, they’d found a leprechaun struck by lightning while it was fucking a god-damned unicorn.
The planet was that magical thing that didn’t happen.
A habitable equatorial zone and two dozen low-orbit moons perfect for terraform staging platforms….
Those void-drunk kids had hit a proverbial gold mine.
Except drilling rigs hadn’t pulled up anything as worthless as that yellow metal; it gave them something the galaxy actually needed.
Something it would pay for.
UPD-5 was the most powerful—and dirtiest—way to fuel a spaceship. Mining it was a pain in the ass, but the rewards….
Flynn honestly didn’t know what those were.
He wasn’t standing in the main shaft of the Tahina Well mine in the middle of an otherwise uneventful Tuesday to get his hands on the toxic substance.
He wasn’t even there to escape the bone-sucking heat on the surface.
He was there because someone thirty-two trillion miles away had nefarious plans for the planet. Plans he may have inadvertently set in motion.
And his momma taught him to clean up his messes.
The discarded odds and ends in the soft dirt around his feet reminded him that his brother had never taken to that particular lesson.
Their mother had named him Patrick, but their sister had dubbed him Putty, and the latter had stuck… rather like putty.
“Why,” Putty glared at him over a red-and-green-flannel shoulder before he turned back to his work, “Do I get the feeling I’ve been talking to no one but this weigh belt feeder for the last half hour.”
Putty had torn the machine in question open, its enormous conveyer belt exposed to the thick air. Its wiring spilled out like distended entrails. The memory of gore forced him to look away.
“Because I haven’t been listening.”
Snorting a laugh, Putty threw a rusty bolt at him. “Asshole.”
Flynn couldn’t argue with that, and Putty didn’t give him time anyway.
“If you listened to me once in a while, you wouldn’t be the idiot in the family.”
“Which one of us failed Nonlinear Dynamics And Chaos?” Flynn could practically hear the eyeroll in his brother’s sigh.
“That was a glitch in the software!” Putty wrestled off the feeder’s internal aluminum covering and set it aside. “And you didn’t even take it.”
Flynn took one end of a strut support and helped pop out the edge sticking in place. “Because I was smart enough to know better.”
The mechanics of reactor cores weren’t necessarily a mystery. Attention required caring, and practical applications didn’t always translate to passing grades.
But Putty wasn’t giving a pop quiz, and Flynn knew more than enough about the importance around him.
He could thank the bastard who’d given him the soon-to-be necklace scar for that. The wound was slowly desiccating beneath the cloth he’d fashioned to keep it mostly clean.
Being on the actual planet had been an odd crash course, and far and away more interesting than any nexus-based text.
But that was completely his brother’s fault.
He hadn’t shut up since Flynn arrived—unannounced and probably unwanted—two weeks ago.
Putty, for his part, didn’t actually seem to care if Flynn was listening or not.
At some point in the dust bucket’s long life circling Sola-778F, a meteor shower destroyed Sukiyaki’s surface, pelting it with enough UPD-5 that after fifty years, the mining union who owned the equatorial regions still had no accurate estimate of the planet’s potential yield.
The miners had bored down deep, every thousand miles or so, working their way around the uneven belly of the planet. They’d sold off parcel rights to terrafarmers willing to break their backs and bank accounts to turn the dirt on the far sides of the subsolar points into something that might—one day—yield food outside an agri-shield dome.
And the Colarium governed it all... however absent their influence might seem.
He’d spent years trying to tear apart the bureaucratic hold on planets like this one. And now, here he was, trying to help them. One moment’s recognition away from a trip across bent space to a lethal injection.
Losing the war had changed the Lazarai. Flynn wasn’t sure what they’d do anymore.
“Go away. Last I checked, I don’t need your muscle to get this guy back up and running.” Putty thrust the pry bar back, waggling it without looking, until Flynn plucked it from his hand and set it against the mess that passed for a tool box.
“Sure you do.” He tapped the housing and smiled when his brother glared at him through one of the ventilation slats. “Who’s going to be here to help you out when this thing decides to blow up in your face?”
“That’s physically impossible.”
Leaning against the housing, Flynn shrugged his free shoulder. “I can think of four ways to rig it up right now.”
“Yes, but I can think of twenty, and I’ve already checked.”
Putty tossed something that had once been a bolt to the ground where it carved a trail and finally disappeared under the dirt.
“Besides, no one gains anything by blowing up one feeder belt in one mine shaft. They’d have to destroy half of the planet’s facilities to cause anything worth taking the trouble.”
Flynn stared at his brother, but Putty didn’t seem to notice he’d gone silent at the words. Words that were a hair's breadth from treason.
“Who told you that?”
His brother looked out and then away, a little too quickly. “Phee.”
“Ah, yes, the mystery woman. When do I get to meet her?”
Putty spared him a momentary glance. “After the wedding. I’m not giving you a chance to scare her off.”
“I wouldn’t do that.” Not on purpose.
“Phee’s a law abiding Colarium citizen, and I don’t want her anywhere near your anarchist bullshit. It makes people uncomfortable.” Shaking his head, Putty muttered, “It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Some things don’t change.”
Putty looked up at him and glared. “If you’re not going to be useful, you know the way out.”
“Alright, fine. I won’t make you ask a third time.” Flynn held up his hands and backed away, a smile creeping to his lips despite his best efforts. “Don’t stab me with that screwdriver. I’ll take a walk.”
They were in the far end of the top level of a spiral slope shaft that had been temporarily closed, while the Captains waited for Putty to fix the feeder.
The dust in the air only got thicker the further he went, but as he walked around the power supply core at the corkscrew’s center, the draft of current sweeping through the ventilation pipes broke the eerie silence. A shiver sliced down his spine, set goosebumps sprouting over his flesh.
Unnatural ghosts lived down here.
Ones he didn’t want to meet.
He had enough of his own.
This shaft was only a mile deep. Others were nearly three. Getting to the bottom of any of them was not on his to-do list.
Dual rails ran beside his boots in a half inch of thick, viscous dust.
Drab, rust colored, and gritty.
Half sand, half whetrock.
Footprints disappeared as quick as a breath of wind could flutter down the shaft. But there was something there. He squatted down, certain he was paranoid. The depression wasn’t clear enough to discern anything.
The dirt fell from between Flynn’s fingers, glinting—even in the dim light—like granules of red sugar.
He pulled one of Putty’s discarded rags from his pocket to wipe the clingy stuff from his hands, and the dust puffed in front of him.
A shadow fluttered in his periphery and he looked up as something… someone disappeared around the corner of a spider-webbed tunnel that branched off the screw-like path.
The mine wasn’t technically off limits, but no one had any reason to be down there if they weren’t working. And none of the equipment would power back up until Putty plugged the feeder back in and reenergized the circuits. Some of the smaller tunnels would be suffocating.
So, why was….
He’d started toward the tunnel entrance when the floor shook and particles fell from the ceiling. They hung as though gravity had decided to clock out for the day.
He’d heard his name called in that tone enough to know he didn’t have time for hesitation.
Sliding in the dirt as he spun around, he ignored the jarring pain in his neck as his boots hit the ground and the shockwaves laced straight up to his throat.
Putty wasn’t where he’d left him.
On his knees in the soft dirt, his brother frantically pulled cording out from beneath the machine--the machine that should have been dead.
Flynn skidded to a stop and slammed the side of his fist against the red emergency disconnect.
It blew sparks instead of doing its job.
The energy load readings pegged in the red and the feeder looked ready to shake off its mountings.
“Where’s the backup power cable?” Flynn’s shouted words were half-drowned by the screeching wail. He grabbed hold of the machine a moment before it would have toppled and crushed his brother.
“There shouldn’t be a backup power c— Motherfucker.”
Putty wrenched the cord, tearing the wiring from its receptacle.
A grinding crunch echoed through the cavern and the ground shook as the machinery finally whirred to a shuddering stop. The air filled with the noxious scent of burning metal and Putty kicked the feeder.
Flynn was still catching his breath when his brother stormed off, muttering things that would likely have made his mysterious “nice woman” run the other way.
Gingerly touching his neck, Flynn felt the cold wet of his reopened wound.
He chose his favorite of the many words Putty had used and glanced back toward the screw, wondering if the person he’d seen was somehow involved.
Whoever they were, they were long gone by now.
In the semi-darkness, he knew the smallest things could play tricks on his mind, but he hadn’t imagined them. And as soon as he dealt with his brother—and his neck—he’d be back to figure out exactly what was going on.
Putty waited at the surface gate, knuckles white as he held the boards. He stared into middle distance, his mouth a flat scowl.
He didn’t say a word as Flynn took the locks from him and closed the entrance up tight.
Didn’t say a word as they walked to the little two-man buggy Putty had rented and slung themselves in through the scaffold-style frame.
The seat’s restraints cut into Flynn’s neck as they took the dusty road back to town at twice the posted limit. He wanted nothing more than to tear them from their bolts and throw them away like vipers.
If it wouldn’t have incurred a massive penalty from the rental company—and encouraged more questions from the already suspicious mines’ captains—he might have.
Beneath the already constraining collar he’d fashioned to hide the wound, pain clawed its way down from the too-slowly healing laceration that encircled his neck. He shifted his shirt lapels to hide the darkening line.
Putty slammed the buggy to a stop and was out of the vehicle before Flynn could unclip the cursed belts.
He ignored his brother and managed to extricate himself. The ride had him moving like an eighty-year-old.
Damn, he hated the ways his body chose to fail him.
Pacing back to the buggy, Putty grabbed hold of the roof bars and glared down at the driver’s seat. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
Flynn pretended he didn’t feel like shit, slowly making his way around the buggy. “Accidents are called accidents for a reason. If you were perfect all the time, it’d just make me look shittier than I already do.”
Shaking his head, Putty finally looked up and then grabbed him in a bear hug that would have sent them both to the ground if Flynn’s back hadn’t been supported by the buggy’s A-pillar.
Putty growled something unintelligible before he managed a “Thank you.”
His brother’s violent mood swings were starting to feel normal again. And despite the pain slashing through Flynn’s neck, he didn’t push his brother away.
“It’s been a very long time since someone’s been happy I was around.”
Putty finally let up and with a hand on each shoulder, held him at arm's length. His brother looked him over with a scrutinizing glare. “That’s not true. And it hasn’t been since you got back.”
He shook Flynn as he said it, and Flynn had to grit his teeth against the pain.
“I have someone I have to go yell at.” He let go and jabbed a finger toward Flynn’s throat. “You go deal with that mess.”
Without anything resembling a good bye, Putty turned on his heel and disappeared around the corner, his shirt a garish streak of cherry and olive in the harsh light of day. Leaving Flynn alone with his thoughts. The very worst place to be.
Two - Sophia
Sophia Refuti had been back on Capo for less than a standard day, and already the mess of her so-called vacation was catching up to her.
She leaned back in her plush, wingback chair, idly tapping through the pages of her latest holdings reports. These particular accounts were well established. She trusted the women who managed them. But the numbers needed a brief audit before they could be sent off to her analysis team for final upload and archival.
Running a corporation the size she’d built took the majority of her time, and all of her energy.
More so when she sat at this desk, under these lights.
If she hadn’t just taken that working vacation, she might have told herself she could put off the reports for another day.
Her door opened without a knock and she didn’t look up as Banks—the only one on the planet with the ability to open all her locked doors—strode in.
He paused in front of her and in the reflection of her desk screen, she saw him give her a stern look, assessing her like she was an errant child he had to keep tabs on, instead of his employer.
“You slipped your security detail.”
“I gave myself a birthday present.” Finishing up her scan, she shifted, hooking one knee over the other and moving into a position he’d register as “comfortable,” before she sent her head of security a genuine smile.
“Would I know your birthday present’s name? Or is she a secret?” The smile twisted and she considered teasing him. But there was no point.
“I was working with a competitor and that’s always easier if their employees have no idea who I am. An environmental risk assessor doesn’t need a bodyguard.”
“So you left yourself at their mercy?”
Banks had never believed in trusting thine enemy--no matter how far he could throw them.
“Sophia, they could have killed you.”
She shot him a look she normally reserved for men like her brother.
Banks wasn’t an idiot, though he could wear that mantle when it suited him. He wasn’t the sort to jump at shadows, or draw his gun when a blade would do just as well.
And he wasn’t someone who underestimated her.
She knew how to take care of herself, and he knew arguing with her was a waste of his time. But it entertained him, and usually amused her, so she didn’t bother to send him packing.
Instead, she reminded him of one very pertinent fact.
“All my competitors know what happens if I die. And it doesn’t benefit them in the least. I imagine I had more protection there than I might have had if I’d stayed here.”
A strange commotion echoed in the hall beyond her office. The sort where soft voices were more jarring than shouts. A familiar voice of incorrectly assumed authority sounded like a cold knife, serrated and sharp.
Banks grimaced, and Sophia pretended she hadn’t noticed as the man who was her legal heir appeared in the still-open door, cutting off her guard’s examination of why her competitor wanted nothing to do with her death.
The reason had, after all, just walked through the door.
A silence descended on them and her little brother looked between them, eyes darting as though following a pingball.
He’d had his irises tattooed six months earlier, and the swirling patterns reminded her of infectious worms.
Geo had been born—unfortunately—a near carbon copy of their father. A tragedy that inspired alterations like those he looked at her with now, and she’d indulged, despite the unsettling consequences.
Banks turned his back on Geo and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. He’d labeled her brother a “Fashion fuck”—though he’d never used the term in her hearing—and Geo’s suit certainly confirmed the insult. It was so tightly cut, she wasn’t certain he’d be able to sit down.
The silence stretched too long and her time was finite. “Good morning.”
“Sophie.” He scowled at the back of Banks’ head. “Can we talk privately?”
Where others might have scurried away, Banks waited for her dismissal, which she gave with a nod. She knew he’d be outside the door waiting.
“I don’t like him,” Geo sneered at the closing door—no doubt hoping Banks heard him.
She didn’t bother to tell him the feeling was mutual.
She’d never been a fan of stating the obvious. “Is there anyone you do like on my security team?”
“That one’s too familiar.” Grumbled words followed that statement, but she didn’t bother to try to understand them.
They’d had the argument too many times for it to warrant a response.
Sophia glanced down at the report she was almost finished with, and Geo moved to the window, scowling out at the darkly glittering city as though it was crawling with filth and mildew.
It took a scant thirty seconds to complete her work and send it on.
“What brings you all the way up here?” She knew it wasn’t her view.
“You don’t usually venture up this high.” Geo tossed the information tab across the room and onto her desk.
The surface screen lit up as soon as it slid to a halt.
A standard bounty notice flickered, information scrawling a touch faster than a normal person--someone who hadn’t read a thousand of them before--might be able to read in one go.
“Send it off to the collections department. The chair head will decide if it’s worth it.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why—” Except the look on his face made her stop.
She rescanned the information, paying attention to what wasn’t there. “No.”
“It’s free money, Sophie.”
“That,” she pointed to the notice that was anything but standard, “is a setup for a treason conviction.”
The notice hadn’t come through the official channels—which was why he was bringing it to her instead of the head of collections. It had no ident photo, no name. Just a description and a bogus list of charges.
At least, she hoped they were bogus. She shivered to think.
But beyond the fact it had no information to be sure of who, or what they’d be bringing on—one of her hunters could kill a civilian without a tag, and then they’d be in deep shit—the real problem was in the issuer.
And the faked identity block didn’t fool her for a moment.
“The Lazarai could have set the bounty for a political assassination.” She shook her head, a little too vigorously. “We don’t hire murderers.”
His pout was too familiar. “Come on, Sophie. How is anyone going to get that guy mixed up with anyone else?”
She didn’t need to reread the description to know what he meant. It contained some generic points relating to his build, eye and hair color. The nameless man had a skill set too many could claim now that the Colarium had declared the Reject Wars over and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were left unemployed. But she doubted she’d find two men who fit the description and wore a laser-noose scar.
“The answer is no.”
Geo’s pout disappeared as though he hadn’t expected her to take the offer anyway, and he flicked his hand back and forth. “Yes, of course, you’re right. You can’t compromise the company’s reputation.”
She pulled the tab from the screen and set it on the dead edge of her desk where it wouldn’t interact with the processors, but she didn’t throw it away.
Not until she had someone look into who this nameless man actually was. More importantly, not until she’d figured out who’d given the information to her brother, and why.
Making notes on who she’d need to contact, she didn’t notice her brother had moved until he was leaning on her desk, the pressure of his hands distorting her data.
“I didn’t forget your birthday.” He smiled so brightly, she couldn’t help but return it. That didn’t stop her from grimacing. “But my surprise is taking a little longer to put together than I thought.”
The year before he’d brought her a chocolate display the size of a ground car.
Before that, he’d cut a hundred positions from her admin department. The decision never made it past the initial request write up, so none of her employees knew he’d attempted to save her money in the least helpful way imaginable.
She knew he wasn’t foolish enough to try something like that again, not after she railed at him. But she hoped whatever he had planned for this year would at least fit in a freight elevator.
A tone in his hand chimed and he drew his wrist up. Lights danced across his eyes as he viewed the holo-projection. His smile spread wider still as he ended the comm without a word.
“I’ve got to go. But we’ll talk at dinner?”
He left before she could agree, or say goodbye and she sent a note to her assistant to forward her schedule to Geo so he wouldn’t forget she’d be leaving the planet again within a week.
Banks came back in the moment after her brother left. “What scheme is he cooking now?”
“He brought me a bounty.” She threw him the chip and waited while he pulled it up on his datapad. “What do you make of it?”
Banks didn’t answer at first. Scowling at the pad as though he couldn’t see the screen, when he finally looked up, his jaw was a hard line. “You're right to have turned him down. I don’t think it’s political, not against the Colarium at any rate. The price attached… it’s too high. This is a personal vendetta. And if you can pay that much, you’ll know how to get a pagoan assassin.”
She’d known he’d confirm her suspicions, but it was always nice to have another sound mind backing her where Geo was concerned.
“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow for our weekly report.”
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere.” He settled into the chair across from her. “I’ve rearranged things, so you’re my problem now.”
“Problem?” She couldn’t stop herself from smiling.
“Kent about had a heart attack when he had to confess he’d lost you. You can’t slip away from me as easily as you have from others.”
“Are you sure you’re not hoping for a repeat of Caireaux?”
Mention of the planet and their chosen pastime brought a faint blush to the man’s cheeks and she looked away to keep from laughing. Teasing him wasn’t going to end well for either of them.
And she was going to be late if she lingered much longer.
Standing, she glanced at the still dark sky. It wasn’t long to dawn.
“Where are we going?” Banks hadn’t stood, but she’d only need to take two steps toward the door before he would.
She looked at the antique clock set into the far wall and raised a brow at him. It had been a long time since he’d worked her detail, but some things didn’t change. “Where do you think?”
Snatching up her coat, she slipped the thin fabric over her arms and listened for an objection as he rose and followed her to the elevator and when they reached the bottom, led the way to her ground car.
He seethed in silence as she watched the sun rising over the unending skyline. Capo was beautiful in the way an ugly baby was beautiful. You loved it because it was yours, not because it fit any aesthetic ideals. The central planet was more city than nature, and more refuse than city when you left the gilded towers.
Even in the manicured areas you could smell the rot if you inhaled deeply enough.
But there was one bright mark in every city she visited or temporarily called home.
Even here in the heart of the Colarium, Serbal’s reach seeped into society and the temple’s marble pillars swept upward toward the slowly brightening sky.
Banks slowed as they entered and jerked his head toward the wall carving of the devout sacrifice. “I’ll wait here.”
The temples made his skin crawl, and he’d never bothered to hide it.
Disapproval written on his face, he leaned a shoulder against the wall, arms crossed, a scowl cutting lines across his pretty jaw. The stance disguised the gun inside his coat, but his searching glare hinted he was more than a casual observer. She didn’t need his particular expertise.
She was safe here.
The safest she could ever be on Capo.
Despite the planet’s grandeur, the temple was small.
White stones painted with depictions of the holy trinity—Great Mother, Daughter, and Sister—lined the aisle and its pews. The five disciplines, each represented by sigils in the color chosen to make a sister readily identifiable to anyone in need of aid were represented with beautiful wall hangings that softened the hard architecture.
She paused, staring at the red flower as though it would give her some wisdom. She’d never met a sister of that discipline. She wasn’t even certain what it was called.
Rumors floated through the Colarium of monstrous women with scythes who could draw the truth from a man as easily as they drew blood. They were slandered as executioners and witches.
Religion always sparked superstitions from those who didn’t understand it.
As she passed the bulk of the temple’s seating, she joined the circle for the pre-devout—those who had done everything short of traveling to Ludo to take the rites.
Forty-odd women sat on the pillow strewn floor, some chatted quietly, others swayed in silent meditation, fingers toying with the beads of their rosaries.
Sophia joined those in the latter group, sitting cross-legged on a round pouf and pulling the necklace from its customary place beneath her shirt. The beads were warm, the madris claw as well. Two groupings of three white beads on either side of the main chain and a single grouping of three purple on the small chain that dangled from it and held the claw pendant.
She’d always been drawn to the amethyst beads, to the meditations for leadership and guidance of self as well as others.
The woman beside her wore two—one green, one yellow. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence in followers, but the disciplines weren’t crossed by the truly devout. If she eventually chose to take the robes, the Great Mother would choose her path for her.
Swishing skirts pulled her from her thoughts and she followed the green that clawed its way up from the sister’s hem, as she sank to her knees in front of them. “Blessings of the Mother.”
“Blessings of the sister and the daughter.” Sophia repeated the words with the women around her and then closed her eyes to hear the teachings of the Great Mother and seek guidance.
Three - Flynn
The mining town spanned sixty miles from end to end, but everything seemed to happen on that one street.
Three dozen oblivious civilians walked the streets around him.
But when he turned the next corner, he almost ran into the one woman in town who knew enough of his history she should have thrown his ass off her planet as soon as she’d heard the words “special security consultant.”
She’d chosen to wait and watch.
“Henri, how strange to see you here.”
She wore a wide brim hat that cast shadows over her face and half of her torso, but when she looked up at him—and with a foot difference in their height she had to—there was no disguising the bright pink on her cheeks.
She swallowed, straightening her shoulders. “I didn’t realize you were in charge of my schedule, Monroe.”
Henrietta Flack was the elected ruler of the Redlands, though, if you called her a queen, she’d drop you on your back faster than half the men he knew. He’d learned as much to his cost.
Governor was her official title.
It didn’t quite fit.
And Flynn wouldn’t have accepted her job for any amount of money.
Dealing with the shit brought to bear by the mines, the terrafarmers, the school’s delinquents, and he didn’t want to know what else. The stress simply couldn’t be worth it.
“My brother steered his temper toward your office. I’d suggest you run the other way, unless you’d feel bad about leaving your assistant to deal with him.”
Henri didn’t say anything for a long moment, and then, “You know,” she watched him closely. “Chadrick told me the two of you were alike. But I don’t see it. Aside from the physical similarities, of course.”
“The only one I’m really like is my sister.” He smiled and looked toward his warped reflection in the window beside them. “Twins. Putty had a hell of a time growing up with the two of us ganging up on him.”
“I weep for your mother.”
“I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”
“So why isn’t your sister here? I thought you were moving the whole clan to our beautiful paradise.”
“Kathrynn has other commitments.” He watched suspicion dawn in Henri’s too sharp eyes. “But if the Great Mother needs her here, here she’ll be.”
“Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that. I don’t think we can handle many more Monroes.”
She nodded a curt goodbye and swept past him, her full skirt billowing behind her.
Henri still owned and worked the only textile fabrication shop in town.
They called her a tailor and she dressed the part.
Despite her objections, she’d have made a good fucking queen. That level of imperiousness could easily be employed toward personal gain.
He brushed the dust out of his hair and slapped it from his pants and shirt as he walked the short distance to the hard flaps that served as Susan’s doors.
A screen in one corner of the bar was full of bright uniforms and three different pingball games in progress, but as a heavy gust rolled through town, the building shook and the games cut out. Patrons steadied their glasses on autopilot and ignored the interruption.
The screen turned to black and rebooted, briefly displaying the date and time in glowing numerals.
Flynn hated that they called it that. Bad enough he had to live in a galaxy mourning a single planet’s passing, they threw it at him with every date marker and communique.
He couldn’t name anyone who even remembered what Earth looked like, and artistic renderings only agreed that the planet had water.
The bar bustled with familiar faces. The one he needed to see--and wanted to see the least under the circumstances--was seated at a table, playing poker for peanuts with a kid in a red cowboy hat and a black and white flannel that would never have been seen in Putty’s closet.
The kid’s dog sat beside them, eyes on those peanuts, speckled tongue lolling.
“Doc,” Flynn sat in the chair perpendicular to Chad. “Seamus.”
The kid nodded, earrings catching the light.
“And Missy.” He reached down and scratched both sides of the dog’s face. Her name was Mischief and she’d earned it.
“Don’t,” Seamus held up a hand. “You’ll break my concentration. I’m going to win this time.”
“You won’t.” Flynn bit back a smile as the kid’s foot stopped swinging, leg tangling in their skirt.
The kid glared at him.
“It’s not a measure of your skills kid, it’s of his.” Flynn jerked his head toward Chad and immediately regretted it.
One searing bout of agony, a long, slow breath, and he wasn’t seeing black spots anymore.
The only reason Seamus Saguas was allowed in the bar—the only reason Flynn even knew who they were—was because their mom was the Captain in charge of one of the three largest shaft mines. And the kings of those kingdoms were the second tier of government in this town.
Flynn took a moment to scan the patrons. “Your mom’s looking for you.”
“Nuh-uh.” The kid didn’t look certain.
Seamus laid down their hand and lost, again.
Flynn looked up at the games in progress on the screen and forced a--gentle--one shouldered shrug. “I could be lying, but what if I’m not?”
Eyes narrowed, Seamus packed up their things, scooped their remaining peanuts into their hat, and took off out the door. Mischief followed after, tail wagging.
“Is she really?” Chad shuffled the cards and put the deck back in the center of the table.
Flynn wasn’t fool enough to play. Chad wasn’t fool enough to ask.
Shrugging, and immediately regretting it, Flynn bit back a wince. “Fuck if I know, haven’t seen her all day.”
“Last I heard, you were headed to deal with a tricky feeder.” Chad glared at Flynn’s neck. “Where’s your better-looking brother?”
“Right here.” Putty flopped into the chair Seamus had vacated. “What do you need my pretty face for this time?”
“Nothing, I just like to keep track of you so I know you’re not killing one another… or yourselves.” Mouth thinning, he nodded at Flynn’s neck. “Or do something like that.”
Flynn could feel the drying blood. “I’ll deal with it when I get home.”
“Not well enough.” Chad said, heading for the back.
Chadrick VanHeslinbergenstone—a man with a mouthful of a last name, a medical degree worth more than half the town, and eyes Flynn had heard more than one person complain were wasted on him—stood at the bar, talking to Susan like they were discussing a tab, not the medical supplies on hand.
They’d been friends longer than Flynn knew and the older woman handed across a kit no doubt reserved for bar brawls--no doubt curated by Chad himself.
A man in the far corner shouted something, the beginning clatter of a fight fizzle, died. And when he looked back, Chad was already in his seat going through a mess of gauze and creams.
The doctor had a face that should have had him staring in holo-ads. But the boy Flynn had known since he was twelve had never liked the spotlight. The man hadn't grown out of that shyness.
Most men with Chad’s pay grade would have spent their leave partying on Oblivion. But, if what Putty said was true, this wasn’t the first outpost he’d gotten back to Colarium medical code standards on his mandatory month-long sabbaticals. Few others would loathe the glitz of his current position in the Colarium medical complex on Caireaux.
Chad scooted his chair closer and snipped through the cloth around Flynn’s neck, a grimace marring that pretty face as he peeled it away.
“It’s fine.” Flynn grabbed his friend’s wrist to keep him from touching the wound. Clean hands or not….
Sliding a pair of over-magnified glasses up his nose, Chadrick squinted at Flynn’s neck. “Actually, it looks like infection is setting in. Again.”
“It’s fine.” Flynn clenched his teeth, knowing the doctor wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“How’d it happen this time?”
Flynn glared, wondering how he could get out from under his friend’s ministrations and still manage to get lunch. “One of Putty’s toys tried to get up and walk away.”
Objecting loudly, Putty told the story while Chadrick did something painful with swabs and a black liquid that smelled like rotten whiskey.
Somehow, Flynn got through the ordeal without grinding his teeth to dust.
“And then I paid a visit to the Captain’s office to let them know why their problem wasn’t getting fixed today.”
“It’s the Colarium trying to drive us out again.” Someone, somewhere behind him—Chad wouldn’t let him turn—called out. “They say they’re happy to have us do the work and pay us for the oopeedee, but they want to cut out us middle men.”
Flynn smiled at the overly slurred version of UPD that had been stuffed in the middle of that sentence, and Chad gave him a warning look.
“I’m not going to call for a revolution when you’ve got a scalpel and my throat at your disposal.” Flynn kept his words quiet.
“If it was anyone else saying that, I’d be seriously offended.” Chad pulled out a roll of gauze and began twisting it around Flynn’s neck. “From you? I don't know what my upper limit is anymore.”
Before Flynn could ask what that meant, another patron started grumbling about power fluctuations and breakdowns. “Used to be a time when we could count on our equipment. Count on the people who kept it up, but now…. I’d swear someone is sabotaging us.”
Another patron muttered something under his breath, then said. “I’d put money on it.”
Susan dropped a tray of drinks on the table. “Ignore that fossil. His ‘good old days’ weren’t as idyllic as he thinks.”
She passed around their usual drinks and Flynn took his with a quiet thanks.
Susan didn’t look like she could control an entire bar of drunk and rowdy miners. But he’d seen the woman drive out a man twice her size without having to raise a finger, much less her voice.
Thick around the middle with a ruddy face and dark blonde hair that might have been permanently trapped in her bun, the barkeeper looked perfectly at home as she slipped behind her ten-foot long wooden countertop.
But as the other patrons continued to speak of conspiracy, Flynn looked out the window toward the rickety solar tower and pulley system that still serviced a large portion of the town. Perhaps the captains should post guards.
“The Colarium definitely isn’t causing your machinery breakdowns.” Putty twisted his glass on the table. “It would cost them more in downtime if they tried to take control than it does to pay the prices you post.”
“But those shakes we’ve been having? They’ve got scientists working up all sorts of messed up experiments in their labs on those planets where no one has to follow any kind of regulations.”
“They’re not causing ground flux.” Susan swapped out the man’s empty glass.
“You’re sure it’s not just old, faulty systems breaking down after so many years of use?” Putty’s eyes were closed, the movement beneath his lids told Flynn serious calculations were taking place. “From what I’ve seen most of your problems are age related.”
“The last explosion came from an extruder that was less than three months old.” Susan’s lip twitched upward in an impression of a snarl.
Odd for someone who’d just been arguing in Putty’s favor.
The bartender was one of the more skeptical of the residents Flynn had met in his brief time on the planet, but Flynn wasn’t willing to assume the woman had her head screwed on any straighter than the rest of the people who chose to live there.
“I suppose there’s a possibility someone’s getting in.” Susan looked toward the windows and scowled.
Flynn thought of the person he’d seen before the machine had gone into overload, but he wasn’t stupid enough to bring it up. No one was looking to him for comment anyway.
To the people of the Redlands, he was just Putty’s dumb kid brother, here to play muscle when it was needed. And he was happy to let everyone believe it.
“What about that ground shift though?” One of the men asked.
“The ground is a veritable honeycomb of mine shafts. Even when you fill the dead ones back up, you’re destabilizing the soil.” Chadrick packed away his kit as he spoke. “I’d be suspicious if things weren’t settling every now and then.”
“We’ve been here long enough to know what to avoid.” Drea Saguas stood in the door to the street, light spilling in from behind her. “Our focus charges are specially calibrated for this planet, for these mines. None of the fluctuations have been strong enough to be suspicious. The good doctor’s right, you’re looking for ghosts where none exist.”
Flynn shared a glance with Drea, but said nothing.
“You know what I think?” A man in the corner asked, continuing before anyone could answer him one way or another. “I think it’s the Refuti.”
“Of course you do, your boyfriend works for ACOOR.” Chad chuckled into his beer.
A few laughed, but others nodded, and Flynn forced himself to focus on his food instead of looking north.
The RTF Terrafarm was the largest on the planet. Flynn knew enough about the company to understand why some might suggest their involvement.
“The RTF do hostile takeovers, but that’s corporate mergers. Boardroom stuff.” Chadrick leaned back in his chair, stretching out his neck. “And they’ve had two decades to try to get in on the mining business here. Why wait until now?”
Grumbles met his question from the far end of the room and Flynn took his finished glass up to the bar.
“Can I talk to you outside, Mr. Monroe?” Drea was at his left, her expression inscrutable.
She’d said the “mister” a little too sharply, but he followed her out and away from the speculations of sabotage.
“Your brother said there were problems. What happened?”
“I don’t know. The thing went into overload. Why don’t you ask him?” Flynn glanced down the long drag and gingerly tested his neck.
“Because he can spew technical data all day long, but you’re an expert in… security and the men in there aren’t as far from the mark as they might sound.”
“Someone actually is messing with the mines?”
She nodded. “It’s not the RTF. Sophia’s not exactly a friend, but she’s never been anything but supportive of our efforts. And if she wanted to get in on our operation, she’d buy her way in. She’s not going to create a mess she’ll just have to clean up later.”
“Okay, then who?” Flynn had his own theory, but he wasn’t about to voice it.
“That’s the problem. I don’t know. I can’t discount the Colarium. Regardless of anything else, they do like to control things.” She swallowed, glanced at the peace officer’s station a block away. “Do you think the Lazarai might have something to do with it?”
Flynn set his jaw, trying to decide what to tell her, trying to decide what she could possibly know about his past.
“Maybe? They have to fuel their ships too, and I doubt the tithe the Sisters smuggle off planet is enough to satisfy their needs.” And it would never be enough to satisfy Archimedes. “What do the other captains think?”
“They don’t trust you if that’s what you’re asking.”
“They don’t know what I’ve already guessed. And it’s better for everyone here if it stays that way.” She smiled at him but there was a threat behind her bared teeth. “For now, I’ve gotten Henri’s permission to use you anyway I see fit... within my jurisdiction.”
He considered making a joke about his uses, but Drea hadn’t appreciated his humor yet. He didn’t expect her to fake a laugh just because she needed his help. And he certainly didn’t want her to take him up on an offer he hadn’t meant.
She went to leave. “Find an answer for me and I’ll make sure your stay here is worthwhile.”
From another woman, it might have sounded like a sexual advance. Another man might have taken it as such, regardless.
“Oh, and by the way?” Drea didn’t turn back to him, but there was enough menace in her tone to know she’d do more than just scold him next time. “Don’t ever lie to my kid.”
She left him alone in the street and he glanced at the bright interior of Susan’s, but had no desire to go back to the pooling suspicions.
Explosions, implosions, cave-ins. It was all bound to happen in the course of normal mine operations. He’d seen workers carting around bags of focus charges and det cord. They might have been locked up when not in use, but a single misplaced mini bomb could spell disaster.
The days were short on Sukiyaki, and even though he’d be underground where natural light levels didn’t matter, searching the mines in the dead of night wasn’t going to win him any friends. But what no one knew….
Hitching a ride on the back of an automated crew transport still running its trips despite the suspension of the mine’s operations. The trundling vehicle’s straight line path gave him an unimpeded view of the flats that spread from the spires, to the town and the horizons in both of the other directions. If he hadn’t just left town, he could have believed there was nothing, and no one else on the planet.
Putty had given him the passlock code, but Flynn still felt as though he was breaking in as he headed down the dark slope.
A dozen meters down, Flynn paused in the clay scented shaft where he’d been when Putty had called for help.
The shallow mine had been among the first bored and its walls were still rough. The lights had been ripped out of the cross tunnel the figure had disappeared down, but Flynn grabbed a phosphor stick from the cabinet of supplies bolted to the wall a meter into the tunnel.
Cracking it, he studied the floor. A depression in the thick dust—a trail of snakelike void.
He knew the signs of a tunnel that had run its course and was slated for infill. The rail cart track was one of the first things to be removed, repurposed.
Without the noise of Putty and his machinery, he heard, more than felt a draft from the far end of the tunnel. He followed it, and the depression, keeping his boots in the same line.
The wind whistled, louder with each step, with each ventilation shaft he passed.
Flynn dodged small piles of dislodged rocks, and took care to not trip in the rubble in the slowly vanishing dust at his feet.
This part of the mine had been bled dry. Nothing on the rock walls gave clue to any remaining UPD-5.
They were scarred, useless.
He could relate.
The footprints—and they were footprints now the dust had given way to bare clay—followed a path down the tunnel for twenty minutes before he found anything worth commenting on aside from the likelihood the walker had a limp.
What should have been a dead end sloped upward, and Flynn dropped the phosphor stick behind a pile of tumbled rocks.
Enough light seeped down, even here, that he didn’t need it anymore. As he climbed, he wanted free hands—and not because of the steepness of the slope.
The shaft opened out in the middle of a stand of rocky red spires, a rise over the flat of the desert.
To the north, he could see the spindle of the RTF tower and to the south, the darkening silhouette of the town.
Twilight descended over the Redlands, green and orange painted the sky a ghastly hue. And muddy gray-brown moons appeared as the sky darkened overhead, joining the already unfortunate palette.
Jagged lines cut into the dirt at his feet leading down and away.
And boot prints he could now distinguish—with tread that matched those he wore. A Lazarai favorite.
In the distance, Flynn heard the echoing buzz and cough of two stroke motors.
Drea’s suspicions weren’t baseless.
Archimedes Holzen wanted something with this planet. What he was willing to do to get it…. Flynn’s skin crawled at the thought.
Four - Kathrynn
Twisting the sickle in her hand, letting the crescent blade scrape one palm as the hilt spun in her other, Kathrynn Monroe watched her best friend argue with one of his lieutenants across the room.
She’d ditched her robes—as she always did when not within the temple walls—but the man arguing with Archie knew what she was.
He glanced at her every seventh word, as though at word eight, she’d spring from her seat and remove his head for the lies he stabbed through her like burning needles.
Those lies were why she’d remained on this side of the room. Proximity was as much a factor as the breadth of his falsehoods.
The room was round. Three doors. Light filtered down through the algae covered glass of the domed ceiling thirty feet above her head. A lot of space for his words to diffuse and escape.
When Archie turned to her, the other man flinched. His Adam’s apple bobbed. Despite the cold that had forced her to wrap her jacket more tightly around her, perspiration slicked his forehead.
She twisted the blade once more and then set it on the table, resting the handle on the decoratively beveled edge, easily in reach, just in case.
Silence stretched on and she held Archie’s stare. No matter their differences, this was a myth she was happy to help him perpetuate.
She couldn’t speak to him through their thoughts, but the man wracked with worry beside their not-so-fearless leader didn’t need to know that. The longer Archie’s men thought she was one step away from a goddess, the more control she had over them—the more control she had over him.
Not a weapon she’d needed to wield five months ago.
Archie broke contact sharply and glared at the man. Terse words echoed too quietly for her to hear, and the man turned on his heel and scurried from the room.
And then, she was alone with the man whose name was known in every corner of civilized space.
A man despised by most, feared by many, and loved by a very few—fewer now.
Last remaining leader of the Lazarai rebellion. Her best friend. The man who’d almost killed her brother, and destroyed four lives in his failure.
He stalked toward her, jaw twitching in his scowl and gripped the chair back across from her as though it was the only thing keeping him upright. He glanced back at the closed door and then down at the rotund belly under his ostentatious robe.
“You look menacing either way.”
The glare he shot her was half-hearted.
Physical deceptions didn’t sting.
He watched her warily a moment longer, then pulled the garment over his head, taking the flab with it.
Divested and in a shirt that showed the truth of what he was—a soldier, ready and able to fight anyone who attempted to stand in his way—he slumped in his chair and dragged a hand over his face.
But he didn’t close his eyes.
Archie hadn’t learned if he could trust her again. Not yet. And she had no intention of letting him off easy.
Flynn had only escaped his noose four months earlier and she could easily reach the weapon that had removed twenty-six heads by her hand, to date.
Twenty-seven wouldn’t be hard, but the Great Mother hadn’t shown her Archie’s end. So… not today.
These uncomfortable silences had become too normal. She’d taken to spending her free time in the jungles, breathing in the damp, reading the patterns of the universe in the bleeding veins of the uampan leaves. A practice that had, no doubt, caused their rift to widen.
Few of his futures were bright.
A pile of those deep green leaves rested on the seat perpendicular to her. Their viscous humors dripped to the floor with an uneven patter to stain the stone grooves black.
With stiff shoulders, Archie leaned on the table and stared at the same square of his star map that he’d been focused on for weeks.
What he saw, she couldn’t guess. It was a blank void in the nothingness, a patch of what she’d dubbed a slow burn dark. Coordinates where the right ship could settle itself into obscurity and wait like a demon hunting willful sinners.
And she was tired of watching him glare at it. “I’m leaving with Trey’s transport.”
His eyes darted from the map. “Leaving?”
The word was a lit fuse for him now. After all, Flynn’s choice to leave was what had put them there. Fractured, failing.
The word was sharp. An argument would have flowed. She would have relished it.
But the fear and fire in his eyes fizzled.
“For how long?”
She wasn’t sure if it was her, or the information—the resources—she had he was worried about losing anymore. “As long as the Great Mother wishes.”
“You’re going to look for him.”
The accusation stung. Not because it was a lie—opinions didn’t hurt the way lies did—but because his hate was too intense.
“Flynn can take care of himself.” No matter how much she’d like to find him, sweep him out of danger and keep him far from Archie’s reach, she couldn’t.
“And so can you.”
She’d shirked her responsibilities for him for too long. Afraid of what would happen if she left him alone—truly alone—now that Colm was gone. Now that there was no one to temper his moods.
“You’re too calm about this.” Archie’s accusation was lifeless, his gaze on the algae covered glass above him, instead of on her.
“We all made our choices. There’s no way to undo them.”
Archie’s hands twisted, fingers like claws, on the tabletop. “Flynn made our choices for us.”
“It was a cascade starting with him. Then you.”
His jaw twitched, “And then you.”
“Yes, all four of us had the opportunity to choose differently.” She looked past him to where Colm's ashes sat on a high shelf, swirled in crystal and fire. “You and I are complicit in that. Colm was too. But Flynn wasn’t. And he’s the only one you choose to truly blame.”
“He was going to tear us apart.”
Kathrynn saw the familiar wetness in his eyes, knew how close he was to breaking.
She lowered her voice though she knew it wouldn’t soften the blow. “And instead, you did.”
He looked away. He might have been angry, or he might just have been ashamed. Four months of opportunities to apologize, and he hadn’t asked for forgiveness. Not for trying to kill Flynn, not for accidentally killing Colm instead, and certainly not for betraying her. Again.
Maybe he knew she wasn’t ready to forgive him. Maybe he didn’t know how to sort the truth from the lies he told himself.
He’d always been careful to say nothing at all if his only other option was to stab her with untruths.
And that was the tragedy of Archimedes Holzen. He was a man who cared too deeply, who held on to what was his too tightly… and who lashed out like a cornered, starving madris when he thought he was about to lose the things he loved.
Her best friend was a prime example of what poorly wielded good intentions could do to a man.
She sheathed her sickle and left him in his empty chamber, slipping through the dark halls of the Lazarai compound without being seen. Amazing how quickly a home could turn into cold stone walls.
The jungle was even colder. Her breath hung in clouds and her fingers ached at the chill as she stepped into the frost-stiff foliage. Spring would come soon enough and then, it was a slow creep to the hot wet season some called summer, others called the devil’s sauna.
The trail through the dense leaves wasn’t marked.
But today, as she emerged from the undergrowth, she didn’t bother to wait for those in the courtyard at the front of the temple to clear. She didn’t acknowledge their startled glances either.
The entrance was piled with crates and canisters, a new flock of sisters headed for their postings.
A familiar face looked up at her from the crowd of young women.
Sister Pasmin always giggled when she passed. No doubt sharing the memories that flitted through Kathrynn’s mind of tangled sheets and fluttering kisses.
But Pasmin had been given her assignment; she would leave Ludo a few hours after Kathrynn did, and the likelihood they would see each other again was almost as non-existent as the chance they’d find another opportunity and share each other’s bodies before either left.
Kathrynn would mourn the loss when there was time.
No one stopped her as she made her way from the inner sanctum of one leader to the other, to the pagoan female who had formed their religion over a thousand years before. Her followers spread throughout the Colarium systems as well as those planets still held by the Lazarai. Serbal acknowledged her with a nod of her scaled head.
The hot springs within the temple walls were extensive, and the pool that bubbled up in the floor of Serbal’s chambers filled the room with a warmth that began to thaw Kathrynn’s frozen fingers.
“You cut your visit close.” Serbal waved her attendant away, claws glittering in the prismatic light from a dozen mirrored window squares.
“Our conversations do not flow as easily as they once did.” Nothing moved as easily as it once had.
“Does he know?”
Serbal didn’t clarify. Kathrynn didn’t need more to understand the woman questioned Archie’s involvement in her latest scheme.
“I’m sure he has his theories.” Kathrynn leaned back against the wall and dropped her head to the warm stone.
“Good, your true purpose will only make him tighten the leash he thinks he holds on you.”
Serbal didn’t know her true purpose for the very same reason.
The pagoan woman smiled and handed a sheaf of leaves off to a woman with yellow stained fingers and golden hued lips who flowed into the room and out again as if she were on a rail track.
Her eyes swept over Kathrynn as though she wasn’t there. That was the response she received more often than Pasmin’s sly laughter, or the soldiers’ fear. The Lazarai weren’t the only ones who put faith in rumor and myth.
And Serbal had made sure that few knew the truth of what she could and couldn’t do.
“When do you leave?” Serbal pushed herself to standing and Kathryn looked up to her iridescent eyes, her conical irises contracting as her scaled lids narrowed.
“The Lazarai transport is scheduled for the seventh hour departure window. I’ll be on it.
“Good, we don’t have time to waste.” Dismissing her with a wave of her claws, Serbal returned her attention to the leaves scattered on her table.
Like Archie, Serbal never lied to her. Unlike her friend, their alien leader never had to hold her tongue. The woman believed everything she said as absolute truth.
That level of belief was as useful as it was terrifying.
She had only one more task before she could go.
The majority of the sisters lived within the hive like dormitory in the upper levels of the temple, but Kathrynn hadn’t been welcome there after her ritual of devout sacrifice—a long name for the painful task required to become a robed sister. She had, instead, taken an unused vestry for her personal chambers.
Her room was empty save for a darkly curtained bed, and a rack of ceremonial clothing in one corner. The bag she’d already packed sat just inside her door. Possessions were meaningless without memory, but the space was filled with those.
She watched a specter of memory flicker through the room, a man in panic, a terrible decision made. And then the vision burst like a bubble, Colm’s face lingering a moment longer than the rest. The only thing that remained was sorrow.
Kathrynn left that behind.
Colm's soul was with the Great Mother now. The grief she felt was for the living.
The shuttle waited for her, with Lieutenant Dinair leaning against its boarding ramp strut. She didn’t hurry when she saw his scowl. Didn’t even acknowledge him when she stepped past. She dropped her bag into the cargo netting and surveyed the small ship while she waited for him to join her.
The sisters destined for assignment at their new temple sat in seats bolted to the hold’s wall, already strapped in and tittering nervously. They would get over their jitters as soon as the ship was through the bumpy ascent, but they wouldn’t be comfortable as long as she was within their sight.
“Let me guess,” Dinair stopped beside her and sparing the sisters half a glance. “You’re going to make my people uncomfortable, so yours don’t have to be.”
“It’s always worth it to watch your men squirm.”
Trey was one of the few Lazarai soldiers who—while he still feared her—was willing to treat her as though she was still a human being.
It wasn’t a coincidence she managed to time her departures.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of getting you to stow those for the duration of the trip.” He cast a sidelong look at her back, shifting uncomfortably.
She raised her right hand to touch the joined hilts of her sickles. They sat against her left shoulder, heavy with more than just mass. Pretending to consider his request, she finally shook her head. “Not a one.”
With the hatch closed behind them, and the ship’s lights dimmed to a sickly, power-saving green, she led the way to the over-large cockpit, and strapped in at the empty folding console. They had a long way to go without anyone on board who could operate it.
The wary look the pilot cast her—his gaze darting away the moment their eyes met—told her they’d get to their destination as fast as astrophysically possible.
She hadn’t yet put in the hard contacts that would hide her crimson irises.
It was her eyes that always gave her away.
Serbal was quick to remind her that she’d been touched by the Great Mother in her devout sacrifice. Given a gift that few had been bestowed before her.
But that didn’t change the way others shied away from her when they saw.
Kathrynn slipped in her contacts—hard discs that tinted the world a faint green—and shoved those thoughts from her mind.
Whatever she was, she was supposed to be. And whatever anyone else thought about that was between them and the Great Mother.
And the Lazarai ascribed the same superstition to her as they did the process of folding space….
See red, and you’re dead.
Five - Flynn
Another day, another Mother-damned breakdown.
He followed Putty out of the mineshaft on the furthest western reach of town and glared at the dim afternoon.
Hot, but not pretty.
It would only get worse.
And it did, when Putty flung the key chip for the buggy at his head.
“I don’t drive.” At least, he didn’t in heavy air where controls took too long to react and the things that ran into your path usually had legs.
Putty caught Flynn’s return lob and threw the keys right back.
“You’re driving today. I didn’t spend months in a car teaching you and Kat so that I’d be the one chauffeuring you around for the rest of my life.”
Flynn hesitated, looking at the oddly men-shaped cacti, perfect for a pokey collision.
“You drive, or you walk.”
“I thought,” Flynn slid into the driver’s seat and pushed it back two clicks. “That reaching the age of majority meant I never had to lose another argument simply because you’re older.”
But Putty, already in the buggy with his belts fastened and his fingers tapping furiously on his tablet, wasn’t paying attention.
He didn’t even seem to notice when Flynn stalled the damned thing.
And if he took exception to the speed—or lack thereof—he kept it to himself. All of his mutterings focused on the metal box they’d left behind, its parts in a pile beside it, half rusted.
He moved things around on what Flynn gathered—from his brief, and definitely not safe, inspection—was a parts list.
Then they were in the actual city streets and the things with legs that could throw themselves under his wheels had names and faces he recognized.
By the time he’d parked, and reparked—twice--in Putty’s prepaid space, Flynn couldn’t feel his fingers. He imagined Chadrick’s machines would scream at him for his blood pressure too.
Putty waited for him at the edge of the boardwalk with something akin to disapproval on his face. “You really are shit at that.”
Unable to argue, Flynn followed him to city hall. He’d never been so happy to take a walk in his life. Their boots struck an uneven rhythm on the hard plank sidewalk, a drumbeat he’d grown accustomed to in the recent weeks.
Their destination hadn’t yet gained that familiarity.
The Colarium seal over the doors didn’t make him flinch anymore, but the few employed there who wore the relaxed version of the Colarium uniforms did.
But they’d learned to ignore him and his brother. A blessing if Flynn had ever been given one. He followed silently behind Putty as they slipped into Henri’s private sanctum.
Henrietta’s office looked as though a tornado had blown through and they were still clearing out the aftermath.
The woman claimed she didn’t need to clean. She knew where everything was… and she could prove it.
Flynn hadn’t yet pressed the argument that a filing system wasn’t necessarily meant for her.
Skirting an unsteady stack of coring samples, boxed and awaiting inspection, and the sheaf of reports balancing precariously on the top, Flynn found one of the only empty sections of wall and settled in to hold it up with his shoulder.
His brother didn’t seem to notice the debris that shifted around him as his weight depressed the floorboards—however minimally.
“We have a serious budget problem.” Putty collapsed into the chair across from Henri and ran a hand over his face.
Flynn didn’t point out that the gesture had left him with a red streak down one side of his jaw.
Henri--who hadn’t looked up from her work--let out a long sigh. “Who doesn’t in this town?”
Putting down her pen, she leaned back in the chair and clasped her hands over her stomach, studying them both. “If you want a raise, I can’t give it to you.”
Half hidden behind a stack of detritus, Flynn didn’t bother to smother his smirk. He doubted his brother had even considered asking for one.
“Based on these numbers, I should probably demand a pay cut.” He slid the tablet—screen alight with a parts list that seemed to scroll into infinity—to her. “The Corbett shaft is working with original tech from the first settlement. I can patch it, do some workarounds and refurbish, but if I don’t have those parts, you’re looking at a full system shutdown within the next eight months, a year. You might be able to push to two if you slow production from that shaft and ignore all Colarium safety regulations.”
Henri glanced at the list, but there was no way she could have read two words before she asked. “How much?”
“Assuming I can pull what I think I can from Nika’s salvage yard—not everything has to be new—we’re looking at two hundred and forty thousand Colar notes. Give or take, and just for one shaft. That doesn’t touch the connecting tunnels.”
Swearing under her breath, she nodded. “I’ll talk to the captain, see if we can limit Corbett’s use until we know exactly what we’re working with.”
She grimaced again and Flynn knew who supervised the shaft before Putty asked, “Which one is it?”
“North.” She tapped her desk. “He’s a bastard, and he’s not going to like this. He’s been pushing me to take a bid from the RTF outfit.”
“What would terrafarmers want with the mines?” Flynn didn’t think the locals’ suspicions were likely, but….
Henri tossed him a stack of paper bound with a plastic spine. “They’ve offered us bond money. But it’ll look like a bribe to the Colarium, and believe me, no one wants the headache that would come from that audit.”
Flynn glanced down at the terms and only just managed to not let out a low whistle. They were offering enough money—if his memory of Putty’s other estimates was right—to retrofit three shafts with completely new equipment.
It was on the tip of his tongue to ask why they weren’t better off. He knew how much UPD-5 cost. Their profit margins had to be decent. But a flash of olive and tan caught his eye out the window.
“Speak of the devils….” Putty’s head followed the man as though his head was attached by a string.
Henri looked out the window with a detached boredom that disappeared as she jerked upright in her chair. “Crap.”
Flynn saw the problem at the same moment. RTF was not the only acronym gracing coveralls in the street.
Henri was on her feet before he had a chance to read ACOOR across the person’s back and she was out the door—a pile of calipers clattering to the floor in her fluttering wake—before he’d pushed away from the wall.
“Somebody at the supply depot is going to get a reaming for this.” She said as he caught up with her. “They know better than to cross the pick-up schedules.”
She stopped just short of the street, her heeled boots scratching against the boards as she caught herself on the pillar. He stopped with her. Putty was somewhere behind them, but he’d bear witness, too.
There was no circle like those reminiscent of a school yard brawl. The groups of similarly clothed terrafarmers kept their distance from the men in the middle. Their eyes were the only thing that touched the pair. Not even their words reached, drown out by the hard gusts of wind whipping through the canyon-like street.
Beside him, Henri’s fists were balled, her skirt fluttering around his legs as well as hers.
She wasn’t going to step in. They hadn’t, technically, done anything wrong yet. An argument in a public thoroughfare was annoying, but not illegal.
Still, everyone knew what was coming.
They were both fighters. The dirt under their nails and the sprout caught in one’s tightly curled hair couldn’t disguise it.
He didn’t hear what was said that turned the ACOOR man’s face to stone, but he saw the first fist fly.
Saw a blade flick open.
Henri muttered a curse beside him and they both looked toward the empty peace officer’s station.
“Do something.” Her command stung like a viper strike. Or maybe that was the nail of the finger she’d shoved into his ribs.
“What makes you think I can do anything?”
“No one’s going to hire you to stand around and look pretty, it’s those muscles that get you jobs.” She glanced down and scowled. “And the gun you continually forget to wear, despite fighting tooth and nail for the permit.”
“You have people you pay for this. I’m not getting stabbed for free.”
She glared at him and stepped forward, but he caught her shoulder before her boot touched the dusty street.
“Figure out my brother’s budget issues, and I’ll go work on not getting stabbed for you.”
Eyes narrowed, she nodded. “Deal.”
He pulled the wallet from his back pocket and tossed it and his work gloves to Putty. “Don’t say I never did anything for you.”
The men had gotten a few hits in on each other. If he stopped them now, it might be enough to sate their anger. For a while, anyway. By the time it wasn’t enough anymore, they’d be back on their respective farms and not his problem anymore.
No one else waded in to help.
Being in the muck of any battle was a blur. It didn’t matter if there were three or three hundred. When your opponent was that close, it was all fists, elbows... knees. Even that solitary blade wasn’t as big a concern as the eight appendages he had no control over. Especially as the RTF man focused his slashes and stabs on the one in the ACOOR jumpsuit.
“That’s enough.” Flynn dodged a fist and stepped out of the arc of the RTF man’s arm.
He smelled the blood a moment before he felt it. Saw it a half second after he heard the scream.
The ACOOR man was on the ground, clutching at his head.
His ear was on the dusty bricks between them
Clutching the RTF man’s hand—fingers locked around his yellow cuff—before he could throw the knife, Flynn twisted his arm behind his back and squeezed it until the blade dropped. He shoved him back to the group of others in his uniform. “I said, enough.”
“He started it.” The man’s eyes flicked toward the knife half buried in the dirt between the stones.
“And you sound like you’re five years old.” Flynn shoved him again when he started toward the man on the ground. “Get your crap and go back where you belong.”
The man didn’t look at Flynn; his glare was firmly fixed on the earless terrafarmer wailing on the ground. “He gets to stay?”
Flynn looked down at the man, mouth half open to demand he get out of town too. But his skin was ashen, and dark blood shaded the space beneath his hand—dribbled down his wrist, into the sleeve of his red jumpsuit.
“As soon as someone reattaches his ear, he’s gone too.”
A woman in the RTF olive green ran up and, without looking at anyone else, shoved her coworker back. He’d walked away from the altercation with nothing more than a bruised cheek and bloody knuckles. In another part of his life, Flynn would have had to fight the man over keeping the ear as a trophy.
He thanked the Great Mother those days were over.
Flynn didn’t turn away until every last RTF employee was loaded into their transport and headed out of town. They took the shortest route through the streets and soon, a billowing cloud of red dust high in the air was the only mark of their passage.
The ACOOR group stood by their rig, shifting nervously. They watched him, not the retreating cloud.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” he said to them collectively and turned back to the man on the ground.
He’d picked up his ear and was staring at it with the dazed look Flynn had seen a hundred times before.
Limbs had been bad enough. He never again wanted to see a person looking at the lower half of their body sitting a foot away from them. It didn’t matter that they went quickly after that. The moment of understanding etched on their face… that was a memory he’d never be able to remove from his mind.
It made him queasy now. Over an ear.
Shaking his head clear, he focused on the items Putty handed back to him instead.
“Get him up.” Henri barked the order to no one in particular.
The man started to thank her—something akin to a smile displaying a broken, jagged tooth—started to thank Flynn, but Henri didn’t let him finish.
“Shut up, Bosco. You don’t get to say a damned word.” Henri glared down at the man until he was on his feet, then she glared up.
Flynn held him steady on his feet as he tensed, but he kept his mouth shut this time around.
“Get him to the doctor, get him put back together, and then get him out of my town.” She turned from Flynn back to him. “I don’t want to see you inside the city limits for a month.”
“Yes ma’am.” The words were barely a whisper, all but drown out by the vigorous wagging of his head. The movement sent more blood dripping down his neck.
He relaxed as she turned away, only to tense again when Flynn steered him with a squeeze and a twist of his arm.
Putty walked with them. “If we could super glue that back on, I’d offer to do it myself. But I imagine you’ll want it to work, not rot off in a week.”
The man made a noise Flynn assumed was fear and went with him meekly.
They crossed the street and dodged into the back alleys, taking shortcuts to a building Flynn had seen on a dozen other planets.
The medical unit was a tidy cube that had settled into the grit of the Redlands like a pearl in oyster slosh. It had been dropped from low orbit by the Colarium decades before.
Emblazoned with sunbleached propaganda posters, in this case, ones of hope and good will. They were deposited on every planet they’d claimed protection over… even ones like Sukiyaki.
The road ran to the cube’s front door and then broke around it like a river the planet was sorely missing.
“Is the doctor in?” Putty called out as the doors slid open in front of them.
“That depends,” Chad said from somewhere in the back, his voice muffled. “If you’re seeking actual medical assistance, or are here to harass my trainee.”
Putty smiled and Flynn knew he was thinking of ways to perform the latter.
Flynn wanted the man in their custody gone as soon as possible. “We need the skills of a seamstress, but the only tailor I know is pissed off at your patient.”
Chad rolled backward, sliding into view with the clatter of casters. “Ah.”
Flynn didn’t have to say anymore. The doctor pushed to his feet—his chair spinning off to knock against a cabinet before it stopped—and crossed the spotless floor to them.
“What,” he studied the hand the man cupped against his face, “happened here?”
“This delinquent decided brawling fist to knife was a good idea, and is now here to pay for damages received.” Flynn pushed him forward.
With a scowl, Chad held out a small sterile tray for the ear and pulled the man’s hand away from where the fleshy piece of cartilage had once been.
“This should be easy enough, but I can guarantee you’re going to want to be very sure you never lose another one. It might be the most painful thing that has ever happened to you.” He nodded toward the diagnostic room. “You work for ACOOR? What’s your name?”
“Bosco,” he said, his voice thin, and the name registered on the comp typing out Chad’s dictation. His full file flicked onto the screen, and the processors scrolled through to the information on allergies and past conditions.
Chad grimaced, but went to work immediately and Flynn heard the man beg for traditional stitches instead of a skin welder.
Even Flynn knew welders weren’t used above the shoulders… not unless you were willing to risk brain damage.
Chadrick probably could have knocked his patient out, but he didn’t. Whether to keep the man’s bill down, or because he thought Bosco deserved a little pain in punishment for his part in the brawl, Flynn couldn’t guess.
He tracked Chad in his periphery as the doctor pulled a micro suture kit from the locked cabinet in the back and returned to reconnect the man’s ear.
Attention divided, Flynn only caught part of Putty’s distant argument over pingball.
Chad’s trainee was still on Caireaux. He’d no doubt observed reattachments before.
Quick, delicate fingers worked, first to clean the wound, then to apply the genetic gel that would allow the blood vessels and skin to grow back together mostly on their own.
He did watch as Chad pulled a pair of glasses down over his eyes—magnifying them to comic proportions—and set to the task of reattachment.
His patient was preternaturally still, eyes screwed shut, mouth a sharp line.
And then it was over.
The sutures were in, and the glue line—which Flynn knew stung like crazy—would let the man walk away without the railroad scars of previous techniques.
“You’re going to have a buzzing headache for the next few weeks, grab some pain killers from the store before you head back to the farm.” Chadrick took his tools and tray to the sterilizer station. “Don’t knock it about, and don’t play with it. It’s going to hurt like hell, and it’s going to itch. Don’t scratch it. If you cannot keep from messing with it, cover it. Get someone to tape a patch of gauze over it. The only caution there is that it’ll rework itself closer to your head than it might have been before.”
Bosco nodded and winced.
“It’s better if you let it do its own thing. And make sure you don’t sleep on it.”
Chad nodded toward the door. Putty followed the now-two-eared man out.
Left without an actual patient, Chad studied Flynn’s neck and his lips twisted in disgust. “I’ve told you. When you’re down in the mines, you have to keep that covered and sealed.”
“Your prescribed solution was more suffocation than help.”
“At this rate, it’s never going to heal properly. Even if you do everything right from here on out, you’re never getting away from that scar.”
Turning on his heel, Chad led the way back to his office and Flynn followed, even knowing his impending fate.
“I bet you didn’t even hesitate to step into that fight. Didn’t think at all about the fact it might tear you open again.”
“Actually, I did. But Henri bartered for my assistance, and it was an offer I was willing to accept. Risks and all.”
Chad sent him a scathing glare and then smacked the chair next to his beside the desk. “Sit. You know the drill.”
He did as he was told. Obedience was easier than having the doctor chase him through town until they were around someone more than happy to take a side. It was never his.
“He wasn’t joking.” Andrew’s face appeared on the screen behind Chad’s head. “You’re not a good patient.”
Winking at the man, Flynn said, “But I’m a great kisser.”
Andrew blushed. Maybe you’ll have to show me sometime.”
“You don’t want this baggage.” Chad shot Flynn a look that held all the weight of his previous sermons.
Unbuttoning his shirt collar, Flynn ignored the grimace that came as Chadrick saw his other scars—and knew how close two of those he could see had come to killing Flynn.
Looking at the ceiling, Flynn ignored the burn of the stretched skin. The sooner he figured out why he was on the planet, the sooner he could leave it and get away from Chadrick for however long it took his neck to heal beyond the doctor’s ability to prod at it.
A faint whistle echoed from behind Andrew and the young man finally stopped staring. “Gotta go.” He cast a vaguely harassed look off camera. “See you tomorrow Dr. V. Maybe I’ll see you too.” He winked, then he was gone.
Shaking his head, Chad never once hesitated in his ministrations. “One of these days, you’re going to tell me who the hell put a noose around your neck.”
“One of these days, you’re going to accept it’s not important.” Flynn clenched his teeth as Chad touched him again, sending stinging pain clawing its way up his neck.
“Yeah, right.” Clucking his tongue, he reached for an ugly looking, curved pair of tweezers—Flynn should have been used to the sight of them now. “There are new fibers in the wound.”
Gritting his teeth as Chad fished around, Flynn tried to distract himself by counting ceiling tiles.
“So….” Chadrick said as he worked. “Have you solved the mystery of Putty’s nonexistent girlfriend?”
It would have felt like a sharp swerve in the conversation, if it wasn’t for the fact he tried to bring it up every time they were alone. Chad’s childhood crush might have faded, but no one was more protective of Putty’s love life.
“Unlike you, I believe she’s real, and also unlike you, I’m not going to ask him to talk about her when he’s made it clear he has grand plans for introducing her to us.”
Making an unconvinced noise, Chadrick leaned back in and continued with the tiny tugging movements before pressing a warm, wet towel to the four month old wound.
“Please tell me you haven’t been poking around into her past as much as you’ve been poking around in my neck.”
The fact his friend wouldn’t look at him as he cleared up his work tray was clue enough he had.
“I just want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt.” Chad took the cloth away and sprayed Flynn’s neck with something that smelled like black licorice. “After all, we know the Monroes are prone to doing… ill-advised things.”
Refusing the gauze bandage, Flynn put his hands on Chad’s shoulders and looked him dead in the eye. “Leave it alone. He’s survived this long with only mild supervision. He can navigate whatever’s going on with that relationship on his own. If he asks for help, go to town. If not, it was never our business to begin with.”
Mouth scrunched with a bit-back argument, Chad nodded in forced agreement.
“Go away. I’m done with you.” He knocked Flynn’s hands from his shoulders. “But if I see that thing torn open next time, I will attach a bandage to you with a skin welder.”
“Liar,” Flynn buttoned his shirt and left before Chad could decide he’d missed something.
The sun was low. The bar was full. Flynn kept walking.
Too many people in too small a space.
Especially if someone decided to shove him into another fight.
He let the quickly cooling night air clear his head and dilute the smell of the medical cologne the brief visit to the doctor’s domain had left him with.
It was a long walk back to the scrap yard he presently called home.
Putty and Chad had found lodgings in the city center, surrounded by people they were helping, and easy to find.
Flynn was helping by keeping away. And if he had to get out quick, being on the outskirts would save him much needed time. Being isolated also meant that if things went sideways in the worst possible way, he could minimize casualties.
He walked without taking his eyes off the dirty pavement. There was no one he wanted to talk to. No one he wanted to see.
When he used the keycode and passed through the side gate to Nika Kolodjejak’s junk yard, he had a straight-barrel view of the Redlands third most famous spire, the one they called the Anvil. It looked like a rabbit to him. And as he walked down the shadowed aisle amid the hulking wrecks and cast off equipment he—
A cold spike of awareness slid down his spine.
He turned a slow circle and stopped when he saw the figure in a broken shadow. Its movements jerking.
A ghost of a man.
Living form, automated soul.
It was watching him again.
Cloudy eyes following him in a dead light.
The Colarium called them the Reanimus Protocol. The rest of the universe called them slags. Lurching dead men with limbs run by Colarium processors welded into their skulls. The waste remnant of the Absolution Conflict’s casualties.
If he’d dealt with fewer of them in his life, he’d have given into the superstitions so many let claim their minds.
Slags were not zombies.
Not in any way a flick would portray them, aside from being among the reanimated.
The dead man wasn’t stalking him. As long as it stayed where it was, Flynn wouldn’t react. Treating him like a wasp was the only way he’d get a good night’s sleep.
Flynn shivered at the memory of battlefields. Blood still pumping out of a dead man’s chest as they sat, bolt upright, and killed two more Lazarai soldiers before a headshot destroyed their hardware.
But this ghost wasn’t a part of the Colarium’s killing force. It might never have been. This was one of the five dead men who roamed the yard like guard dogs.
Flynn could imagine Nika had sold his soul for the contract that allowed him this little experiment.
On the battlefield, slags programming meant they put a bullet in anything that didn’t have a Colarium uniform. If a civilian caught a slug, that was their own fault.
A buggy slag that had slipped its leash in a civilian population like the one around them… that would be a massacre.
Letting the ghost be—if it was buggy, it would already have come after him—he headed for the ugliest piece of metal on the northern end of the yard.
Long, blunt lines, the ship would never make it off the planet’s surface without a blasting tank and an atmospheric heat cone, but those were problems he’d deal with when the time came.
As it was, the ship wouldn’t make it three inches off the ground, much less all the way to the void.
As it was, he didn’t give a flying fuck.
He just wanted his bed.
But as he rounded the corner, he knew he wasn’t going to get one.
Looking up at his as-yet-unnamed ship, the junkyard owner stood at the base of his jury rigged scaffold-cum-stairs.
“What do you want?”
Nika turned on his boot heel and, after a bare moment’s scowl, forced a smile. If not for the initial emotion—and many a month’s worth of prior evidence—Flynn might have thought him genuine.
The man hadn’t been what Flynn expected. Tall and lanky, the old man looked like a retired vid star. Too pretty for the refuse he surrounded himself with.
“Monroe,” Nika tried to stand a little taller, but an old injury--one Flynn had never gotten the story behind--kept him from pressing his spine fully straight. “Not harassing my watch dogs, are you?”
Flynn didn’t answer the question when he clearly didn’t care about the answer. He stopped six feet away from the man, wondering if he was intentionally blocking the entrance to the ship.
Nika wasn’t that stupid.
“Again,” Flynn considered just walking past the man, but being on bad terms with his landlord wouldn’t do him any favors. “What do you want?”
The smile tightened. “I heard you had a run in with one of Refuti’s yellow cuffs.
“Not sure I’d call it that.”
“I make it a point to be aware of any and all business dealings in and around the Redlands.”
Again, Flynn waited. The man was best dealt with when he was given time to gloat.
But he didn’t.
“Let’s take a walk.”
Despite his own desires, Flynn fell in beside the man. They walked to the central structure in silence.
The scrap yard offices were in a barn-like structure. The painted metal roof mimicked the dirt on which it stood, and the wooden boards of its face were held together with iron and copper straps. Nika shoved aside the heavy wooden door that slid back on rollers and they stepped into the cool, dark interior.
Junk was piled high along the walls. Flynn always felt like he’d entered some surreal maze.
Putty, would be the proverbial kid in a candy store if Nika granted him access.
Flynn ran his fingers over a piece of machinery, guessed it was an oversized toaster with a trio of coils sprouting from its top.
Nika looked sharply around them and then straightened his shoulders. “What do you know about them?”
“Refuti’s yellow cuffs.”
“I assume they’re the ones with yellow cuffs on their uniform sleeves.”
“We’ve got some catching up to do.” He jerked his head to the side, and Flynn fell in line again. It was never a good idea to piss off your landlord.
“Refuti’s people are—for the most part—good, hardworking folk. Hell, I’d have stolen any number of them away, but she pays too damn well. No one’s willing to leave.”
“And the yellow cuffs…?”
Nika snorted, then spit. “They aren’t even qualified as far as I can tell.”
“So why does she keep them?”
“I don’t know. My theory is that she doesn’t know they’re useless. She’s not here all that often—I don’t think she’s been on the surface in three years—and unlike those of us who stick close to our investments, she doesn’t have as much opportunity to see what’s going on when she’s not around.”
“So you’re saying you aren’t surprised one of them tried to kill another terrafarmer in town today?”
“If they’d been going after you, I wouldn’t have been. You’ve annoyed me, and I’m about the easiest going person on the planet.” Nika chuckled and started restacking coils of empty metal-clad.
“Listen, I’ve had a full day’s work and broken up a brawl.” He didn’t mention the pain meds Chad had slipped in his pocket. “I’m not really up for a pingball conversation.”
“Something is going on, and I think you could get to the bottom of it.”
“I’ve already got a job.”
“Good. I’m not hiring. But I know your type. I’ll lay the bread crumbs and you’ll track down the real problem. You’re the type that just can’t help themselves.
“To that point, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Captains weren’t doing their part to mess with production… see if they can’t get more out of the Colarium.”
“The mines are a union. They don’t need to pull that nonsense to get what they want.”
“No,” Nika pushed open the doors, his voice all but swept away by the wind. “But Drea Saguas is up to something. And if not that, then what?”
Flynn didn’t share Nika’s suspicions, but everything was worth looking into.