Authors: Christine Pope
As she inched closer, she finally saw the man who lay face down in the sand. From this angle he looked dead, his body armor scored and even smoking in a few places, the dark cloth he usually wore wrapped around his face and head torn away, lying like a ragged scarf against the ruddy sand. Even in the dimming light Miala could see blood gleaming in his short-cropped hair, black against black. But then she saw one of his hands move slightly, a futile clenching gesture that seemed as if he were trying to gain a purchase so as to pull himself farther away from edge of the cliff.
Although she’d never seen his face, she recognized him at once. Eryk Thorn, the notorious mercenary Mast hired for the times when he needed people disappeared instead of dropped off a cliff. Just one of the myriad scum the crime boss had infesting his compound. For one moment she was tempted to leave Thorn there to die—after all, the man made his living from human misery—but almost as soon as the thought crossed her mind, she knew she could not abandon him to the desert, no matter who he was or what he had done. Anyone who had the strength of will to survive an attack that had killed everyone around him deserved a second chance.
She squatted down in the sand next to him. “Thorn?” she asked softly. “Can you understand me?”
The smallest movement of his hand was his only reply.
Still, it was better than nothing. “I’ve come from the compound,” she went on, thinking that perhaps her words would give him something to hold on to besides the pain. “I have a sand skimmer. I’ll bring it closer so I can take you back.”
This time there was no answering movement, and Miala could only hope he had heard and understood. As quickly as she could, she threaded her way through the wreckage back to the skimmer and then maneuvered it as close as possible to the wounded man. Once she had clambered back out again, she looked at Thorn and swore softly. He would be no help to her in his condition. How she was supposed to maneuver his approximately ninety kilos of dead weight into the skimmer was beyond her. She’d seen nothing in the immediate vicinity that would help her lift him up off the ground, and she was afraid to leave him to go look for something in the wreckage farther away.
In the end, she did it through brute strength and sheer force of will. She was young and healthy enough, and the last few months had hardened her muscles to the point that she found in herself the power to do what was necessary. Somehow she managed to half-lift, half-drag him to her vehicle and then push/pull him into the passenger seat. These operations did nothing to improve his condition—halfway through her maneuvering he finally fainted, for which she was grateful. She hated to think of even Eryk Thorn suffering the kind of pain her awkward handling must have caused.
Finally she was able to take the driver’s seat and then push the accelerator to maximum, retracing her path back toward the compound. At some point during the time she’d been dragging Thorn into the skimmer, the sun had dropped even further, and now was only a bloody smear on the far horizon.
Speed was the only thing that could save them now, and she used it brutally, jouncing the skimmer with reckless determination over landscapes not meant for that sort of travel. She had thought Thorn still completely dead to the world, but after one particularly harsh drop-off she felt his hand tighten on her leg. Startled, she’d looked down for a second to see him shake his head slightly.
“Don’t do that again,” he whispered, before passing out once more.
“No problem,” she muttered, but she did ease off the accelerator just a bit. He was right—it wouldn’t help if she upended the skimmer in a ravine or particularly deep sand dune, or pulled the treads off their gears by hitting a rock outcropping at the wrong angle.
After what seemed like an eternity but was actually less than an hour, she saw the walls of Mast’s compound appear on the horizon, glimmering faintly in the purple-hued hour after sunset. The security perimeter was still in place—she could see the faint bluish haze between each of the markers—but she had a remote with her that would deactivate it long enough to allow them inside. What she was going to do with Thorn after they reached the relative safety of the garage, she wasn’t sure.
Whether it was just luck or the aura that still surrounded the compound even though its owner was now dead, they managed to slip inside the perimeter unremarked and unmolested. Miala pulled the skimmer into the garage, then leaned over to make sure that Thorn was still just unconscious and not actually dead. Yes, there was still a pulse in his throat, but it was thready and weak. She needed to get him into a med unit as quickly as possible.
Mast did have a fairly well-stocked med center in the compound, for whatever reason. Possibly to keep his victims alive between rounds of torture, or possibly because he had some valuable slaves and other hangers-on who were of more use to him alive than dead. Most likely, though, it was because he feared his own mortality but knew better than to avail himself of the official medical facilities in Aldis Nova. Although she had never been there, Miala knew where the med unit was located; she had made it her business to learn as much as she could about the compound and its inhabitants.
Again she spoke to Thorn, not knowing whether he could even hear her. “I’ll be back soon. I have to get a stretcher for you.” Thank God the med unit was equipped with a powered stretcher. She knew there was no way she could have dragged Thorn all the way from the parking garage to the med unit.
As it was, the trip nearly finished him. Just the act of dragging him out of the skimmer and onto the stretcher caused him to cough up a great gout of dark blood, staining what remained of his jacket, as well as half of the shapeless tunic she wore. After that his swarthy skin took on a strange, grayish pallor, and the black shadows beneath his eyes seemed to spread. All Miala could do was guide the stretcher along as quickly as possible, keeping one hand resting on his as she did so. Somehow she thought it was important that he know at some level someone was still with him, even if he had retreated so far into unconsciousness that it seemed almost like death.
Mast had spent a chunk of change on a mech for the med unit, probably because a mech could be trusted to keep its mouth shut. Its hum seemed to become steadily more disapproving as it moved its sensors over Thorn’s motionless body, almost as if it thought she were somehow responsible for his current condition. After a moment, though, it began hooking him up to various life-support devices, even as it started to cut away his shredded clothing and the few bits of armor that still clung to it.
Embarrassed, Miala looked away, but not before she could see the extent of the lacerations that covered his torso, angry burns and something that looked like marks left by pulverized sand or bits of metal. She shuddered, then went to a cabinet off to one side of the bed on which Thorn now lay. Her back was beginning to throb, and she hoped she could find some sort of painkiller to keep the ache from getting any worse.
Sure enough, there was a row of analgesics and narcotics in the first cabinet she opened. She selected something low-level enough that it wouldn’t make her drowsy but at least would take the edge off the pain. She had a feeling this was going to be a very long night.
Behind her the mech methodically worked away at Thorn, wrapping his body in some sort of healing pads until he was practically cocooned in them, with only his face visible. He had a few cuts and bruises across his forehead and on his chin, but that seemed to be the least damaged part of him; Miala supposed the fabric wrappings he normally wore had protected him somewhat before they were torn away.
“Will he live?” she asked finally, as the mech stepped away from the bed and began disposing of the bloodied pieces of clothing it had cut away from Thorn’s body.
If a mech could shrug, Miala thought it might have. Instead it said only, “A chance. Not much. He is strong. That helps.”
Yes, it does
, she thought. She supposed he would have to be, to survive for so long and so well in a profession as ruthless as his.
“The night will tell,” the mech added cryptically.
For a moment she could only look at it, uncomprehending.
, she thought.
If he lives through the night, he might survive after all
“I want to stay with him,” she said at length. “Stay here, of course, but you can shut down for now. I’ll call you if I need you.”
The mechanoid nodded its assent, then resumed its normal station in a far corner of the room, powering down against further need. The light in its eyes dimmed, and its head slumped forward.
Miala waved a hand to bring down the light level in the room; it was too harsh, too bright. She didn’t know how Thorn could rest in that sort of light. Once it was a softer, more reasonable level, she went to one side of the room and rolled the chair she found there next to the bed. Then she took one of Thorn’s hands in both of hers, but lightly, so the pressure of her fingers wouldn’t do any more damage to the wounded flesh underneath.
“I’m here,” she said again, wondering as she did so whether it made any difference. Really, why should she care if this man lived or died? She didn’t know him. She was nothing to him. But irrational tears rose up in her throat and choked her as she thought of her father, dying alone and unregarded in this place, surrounded by strangers who had laughed and jeered at him. No one should have to die that way. Not even Eryk Thorn.
Was it her imagination, or did she feel a momentary pressure on her fingers from the hand she thought had lain so still beneath hers?
“I won’t let you die,” she whispered fiercely, and there it was again, a flutter so infinitesimal it could have merely been an involuntary reflex, just overtaxed nerves twitching beneath the flayed skin. But she refused to believe that.
The night will tell
, she thought.
But what the next day would bring, she didn’t dare think. All she could do now was sit here in the soft semidarkness and pray that the shadows in Mast’s compound wouldn’t claim yet another uneasy ghost.
At one point during the night she was certain Thorn had died. She had slipped into an uneasy sleep even as she sat in the chair next to the hospital bed, only to be awakened by the strident beeping of the equipment monitoring his vital signs. Before she could fully realize what was happening, the mechanoid was already at Thorn’s side, making adjustments to the liquids that dripped into his arm and sliding an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. When that didn’t produce the desired result, the mech shocked him twice with the fibrillators built into its hands, and suddenly the alarm subsided into the low-level pulsing of a normal sinus wave. It was probably the soft murmur of the machine that had put her to sleep in the first place.
Through all of this Thorn hadn’t moved. Miala reflected, as she tried to settle herself into a more comfortable position in the chair, that the only thing about him which seemed alive was the pulsing light of his heartbeat on the monitor.
“You shouldn’t scare people like that,” she said finally, after making sure the mech had settled back down into deceptive quiescence. Obviously it was on a hair trigger if anything in a patient’s condition changed—she hadn’t even awakened fully before the machine was working on Thorn.
She wondered whether he could hear her at all. Somewhere she thought she had read that people in comas could still sense when people were talking to them, but perhaps that only counted when the people involved actually knew one another. At any rate, talking to him made her feel better, and she hoped it would help keep her awake. Talking helped—if she kept talking, maybe she could shunt aside the worry that at any moment one of the other crime lords was going to figure out that Mast’s compound was currently “guarded” by a young woman and a half-dead mercenary.
“You don’t know me,” she said, making her tone as soft and reassuring as she could. “My name is Miala, and I work here in the compound. That’s where you are now, in the med unit. You’re going to be fine.”
Pausing, she glanced down at Thorn’s slack features and thought he looked anything but fine. Still, a little misplaced optimism couldn’t hurt. “Anyhow,” she continued, “I’m hoping that you can help me out once you’re on your feet again. I want to get off Iradia, and I know you’ve got a ship out back on one of Mast’s private landing pads.” Again she laid her hand on top of his bandaged one. “And if saving your life isn’t enough, I’m willing to share Mast’s treasure with you. I’m close to cracking the code. A day or so more, probably. That’s what I’m doing here—I’m no more a kitchen drudge than you are, but it was a good disguise.”
She stopped then, wondering if she had said too much. What was to stop him from killing her after she had broken the security system? Oh, she had saved his life, but was that enough? She knew next to nothing of him except his reputation as one of the most ruthless enforcers in the sector, but even mercenaries had to follow some sort of code, didn’t they?
Well, there was no help for it now. Very likely he couldn’t understand or even hear what she was saying, as far into unconsciousness as he had retreated. And if he had heard and understood, perhaps the lure of Mast’s riches would be enough to give him the will to survive. It was what had sustained her over the past few months, ever since she realized that Mast had murdered her father after the final code for the security system was delivered.
The money...and revenge.
At first, of course, she had merely been unbelieving. Her father had been secretive about his latest job, but he had promised her that it was finally the big score, the one contract that would earn them enough to get off Iradia forever. His skills with computers had never translated to any sort of talent with finances, and they had always led a precarious existence, never sure if they were going to make the rent or have enough to eat—at least until Miala was old enough to take matters into her own hands. From the time she was fourteen she had managed the household, and things had run a bit more smoothly as a result, but they had never been able to scrape together enough units for passage off Iradia.