Authors: Christine Pope
“But you need a way out of here,” Thorn whispered, his voice cracking on the last syllable.
Concerned, Miala looked over at the mech. “Should he have some water or something?”
The machine drifted over, looked at Thorn’s vital signs, then laid a temp strip across his forehead. After that it flashed a light into each of his eyes. Through all of these dubious ministrations the mercenary remained stoic, unmoving.
“Water, okay,” the mech finally decreed, pulling a perma-sealed moisture pack from one of the cupboards and attaching it to a long flexible tube. It pushed one end of the tube through Thorn’s cracked lips and hung the pack from another arm of the rack holding the various fluids that were slowly seeping into him.
Thorn took a few careful sips, then nodded at the mech, which removed the tube from his mouth. “Better,” he said. “So you’d give me half Mast’s treasure just to get you off-planet?”
He was silent for a moment, apparently considering. “You don’t need me to get off Iradia.”
Miala tried to remind herself that he was in a lot of pain. “Well, yes, I do, actually, because you’ve got a ship right here. I don’t know how much is in those vaults, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than I could load onto a skimmer, and those are the only vehicles left in the garages now. And in case you weren’t aware of the fact, the chances of a single unarmed skimmer making it all the way from here to Aldis Nova are pretty slim. So you and your ship are my best bet.”
Before answering, he gestured with one bandaged hand to the mech to give him another few sips of water. Then he said, “Better half than nothing?”
Another, longer silence this time, one in which she could only imagine what he must be thinking. Probably that she was unbelievably naïve and would be easy enough to take advantage of later on, after the treasure was actually secured. There were hundreds of places to stash a body in the compound, after all...
“All right,” he said finally. “I owe you one.”
That was the second time this evening he had managed to render Miala speechless. She had expected much more of an argument over her request, but she should have known that whatever else he might be, any mercenary who’d survived this long in the business would have to be a realist.
However, she was able to recover herself enough to nod coolly and say, “Good.” Inwardly, though, she was cheering. Now all she had to do was crack that damned code.
He nodded, but his eyes were sliding shut already. Even that brief exchange seemed to have exhausted him.
“Sleep now,” she said, “but I’ll be just upstairs. Have the mech message me if you need anything.”
The barest movement of his head was the only reply she received, but Miala was satisfied. He seemed willing to help her. The best thing now was for him to get plenty of rest so he could heal as quickly as possible. In the meantime, she needed her sleep as well, if only for a few hours. Then it was time to really review the defenses of the Mast’s compound and hope that she and Thorn could retrieve the treasure and take off before any of Iradia’s teeming underworld showed up with the same idea.
Miala had planned to sleep for only a few hours, but almost seven passed before she awoke with a start, fumbling for a few moments at the unfamiliar covers before she remembered she’d put herself to bed in the slave girls’ dormitory, and not on the lumpy pallet which had been her sleeping accommodations for the past few months. A few narrow bars of sunlight made it past the heavy metal shutters on the window, bright and sharp as laser beams in the otherwise dim chamber.
She had been so tired the night before she hadn’t even tried to find some sort of garment to sleep in and instead had collapsed onto one of the narrow cots fully clothed. Now the garments she had chosen so carefully the day before were crushed and stale, but she couldn’t worry about that now. She had work to do.
The computers in the security station were as she had left them, of course, still humming quietly to themselves in the unnaturally chill air. Miala briefly detoured to check on Thorn as she made her way downstairs, but he slept soundly, with the mech a watchful shadow in one corner. She thought there were one or two fewer bags of medication attached to him than there had been the night before, and once again she had uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for his apparent resilience. Maybe they could get out of here even more quickly than she had hoped.
Her father, like most hackers, made a habit of building back doors into his code. Although clients disliked the practice and usually hired other hackers to come in and disable the back doors, the truth of it was, if you were hiring the best, there wasn’t much you could do but pay your experts enough to keep them happy so they would have no reason to use the back doors. Or you could just have them killed, as Mast had done with her father and no doubt many others. Miala had so far been able to access the standard security protocols, the automatic systems that kept the perimeter activated and restricted entry in and out of the compound—except to those who knew the access keys. So far, however, she had been unable to pick her way through the forest of code that protected Mast’s vaults and the databases that contained his personal financial information.
She could not allow herself to become frustrated. Unraveling code was as delicate and time-consuming an affair as picking apart a skein of moon-moth silk, and once false move could be just as deadly. The standard bits of data her father usually embedded so he could access all areas of a system without having to go through the regular protocols were suspiciously absent in Mast’s security systems. Either Arlen Mast had been wise to him from the beginning, or her father had worked scared, burying the back doors so deeply that even his own daughter could not begin to guess at the keys that could unlock them.
The hours passed, uncounted and unnoticed. It wasn’t until the pain behind her eyes grew too sharp to ignore any longer that Miala finally sat up from the console, leaning back against a chair intended for a far larger occupant. As she did so, the base of her spine added its protest to her already outraged brain cells.
“Okay,” she said softly, easing herself out of the chair. Dimly, she realized she was hungry as well. What time was it, anyway?
She glanced up at the chrono on the wall, saw that more than six hours had passed, and swore. No wonder her head was killing her. And what of Thorn?
When she arrived in the med unit after a guilty dash upstairs, Miala saw that her concern was unfounded. The mercenary was sitting propped up against the cushions, sipping some kind of broth through a tube.
“Nice of you to drop in,” he commented.
“I figured you weren’t going to die any time soon,” she said, giving him a sour look.
“Right. ‘Too mean to die’ is what you said, I think.”
“Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.” What was it about him that just rubbed her the wrong way? He was far too self-assured for someone who had come within inches of being squashed to a jelly.
Her stray thought of the evening before had been correct—he did have a nice smile, even with the chapped lips and abrasions marring his chin and left cheek. “I’d say that assessment was correct.”
“Hmm.” She made a show of scanning the life-support machines at his bedside, although she could make very little sense of most of the readings, except the heart-rate monitor. “So you’re eating already?”
“The mech seemed to think it was okay.”
“Well, that’s more than I’ve gotten today,” she said, aware all over again of how empty her stomach felt.
If it was sympathy she was looking for, she had definitely come to the wrong place. He just watched her, face expressionless, and she was suddenly all too aware of her rumpled clothing, the hair she had knotted back into a careless braid hours ago when she tired of it continually falling into her eyes. Of course, what the hell did it matter what she looked like, anyway?
Annoyed, she said, “Since you’re obviously not going to drop dead any time soon, I’m going to go fix myself something to eat. Then I’ll get back to work.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” Thorn’s tone was carefully neutral, but she got the impression he was laughing at her.
Son of a
—she thought, but she only gave him an irritated nod before stalking out. Who knew she could come so close to throttling a man she had just saved the day before?
Several days passed in much the same fashion. Thorn continued to gain strength, although the mech insisted that he stay in bed and not risk disturbing the bandages that protected his healing flesh. Miala knew he must be in considerable pain—she could see it in the sudden tightening of his jaw sometimes when he spoke, or in a subtle deepening of the lines around his eyes, but he uttered not one word of his discomfort. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he was pulling the stoic act for her benefit, but as far as she could tell, Eryk Thorn didn’t do things for anyone’s benefit but his own.
The forced inactivity must have been driving him mad—Miala knew she would have been climbing the walls in similar circumstances—but he never let on that his convalescence was anything more than a minor inconvenience. His only request was that she retrieve a tablet computer he had secreted in his rooms. She had done so, and after that he had sat up for hours in bed, making notations, scribbling away at who knows what.
For her own part, Miala felt no closer to breaking her father’s code than she had when she first arrived in the compound. She knew intellectually that was not exactly true, but still the hours of careful tinkering with very little to show for them were beginning to wear on her. Thorn’s silence on the subject didn’t help, either. After one inquiry—to which he received a reply that even she had to admit was snappish—he had refrained from mentioning the subject again.
Failure was not something she could begin to contemplate. Hadn’t her father trained her in code since she was old enough to understand what it was? Couldn’t she, even before she was out of what passed in Aldis Nova for a secondary school, hack programs people twice her age couldn’t crack? So what was it about this one that seemed so uniquely unbreakable? Miala had to give her father grudging credit for what was undeniably his masterwork, but at the same time she found herself wishing he had been just a little less thorough.
It was after one of these brain-bending sessions that she found herself distractedly wondering what was going on in the world outside. They had been so isolated here, so hidden away, that she’d forgotten time was passing for the rest of the Iradia as well. So far there had been no challenges to the security of Mast’s fortress, no interlopers seeking to seize the apparently unguarded compound, but Miala knew that could change in an instant.
She had to go to Mast’s chambers for a comm station that connected into the planet-wide communications net—probably he hadn’t wanted his underlings to be informed of current events. Previously she had avoided the crime lord’s noisome personal suite, having no reason to go there, but a scan of the communications system for the palace showed that his were the only rooms with a properly connected console.
Even after standing empty for days, the chambers emitted a foul reek, as if something had crawled in there and died—which it might very well have, she reflected. But the rooms seemed empty enough, although she tried to avert her eyes from the walls, which were covered in erotic art so garish it would have made an Eridani blush.
The comm station, in direct contrast to the barbaric decorations of the rest of the room, was sleek and new, a very late model. Nevertheless, she had a difficult time finding a clear channel at first—many of the images that came through were fuzzy and filled with static. Most disturbing of all, the channels that usually carried the official Gaian-generated newscasts and other Consortium-based programming were completely blank.
“What the hell...?” she murmured, hands moving over the keyboard. Had the entire planet erupted while she and Thorn were secreted away here in the abandoned compound?
Apparently it had. Finally she was able to locate a relatively clear station, one that was filled for a moment with an unfamiliar symbol, one that appeared to depict two crossed lightning bolts against a dark blue background. Then a dark-haired woman’s face filled the screen. She wore the typical Iradian garments of ivory and beige, but her head scarf had been pushed back down over her shoulders.
“Although isolated fighting still continues, largely it appears that the local Gaian garrisons have collapsed. Leaders of the insurgency are now convening in Aldis Nova, where they are in the process of setting up an interim government. During this period of transition, we encourage residents to remain in their homes whenever possible—”
Hand shaking, Miala turned off the comm. What the hell? Oh, there had always been unrest, isolated flare-ups here and there as the Iradians tried to establish their own sovereignty, to tell the Gaians the world was a colony no longer and that it should have its own voice in the Consortium. But that’s all they had been—flare-ups, tiny spot fires that the Gaian Defense Forces quickly quashed. Had that simmering unease finally come to a boil during the months she had been isolated here at Mast’s compound?
What this might mean for her, she wasn’t sure. The Gaians kept a tight rein on Iradia, but at least their presence had maintained some semblance of order. With the local garrisons apparently crushed for now, she could only think anarchy would soon follow, no matter what that announcer had said about an interim government being set up.
Miala found herself hoping that Captain Malec had made it off-world before the insurgency struck. Perhaps he had been off-duty, enjoying the brief leave he had mentioned to her during that long-ago meeting in his office, and so was safe. For a member of the GDF, the only security lay in being far away from Iradia.
Her mouth was dry, and it wasn’t just because of the parched air. Perhaps she and Thorn were safe here for now—or perhaps the collapse of the Gaian forces would be the final impetus to send all the scum of Iradia running in their direction. Even as she hurried down the deserted corridors of the compound, she found herself mentally reviewing all its defenses, hoping they would be enough, worried that they were woefully inadequate. Maybe it would be better if they just ran for Thorn’s ship now and got out while they still could.