Authors: Christine Pope
Not that Thorn would have any reason for taking her with him now, before the treasure had been secured. There was also the very good chance that he was still far too unwell to drive a skimmer, let alone pilot a spacecraft.
Miala hadn’t even realized she was running to the med unit until she found herself pausing at the open door. She waited there for a moment, looking in; Thorn seemed to be asleep, the tablet lying on his chest, his bandaged hands folded across its surface.
“You’ve been running,” he said then, even though his eyes were still shut.
Had she really been breathing that loudly? She supposed she was; she knew her heart was beating so heavily she was surprised he hadn’t mentioned that, too. “I just—” she began, then realized she didn’t know exactly what to say. Again, the gravity of their situation hit her, and she gripped the skirt of her tunic with both hands, hoping that would be enough to quiet their shaking.
At that point Thorn did open his eyes and look over at her. She thought she saw the faintest flicker of concern cross his shadowed features, but his voice was expressionless enough as he asked, “Is there a problem?”
“You might call it that,” she said, and gave a short laugh, which she clamped down even as it escaped her lips. If she started in with that there was no telling where she might end up. “I just monitored the comm station in Mast’s chambers. Thorn, the Iradians have risen up against the garrisons…sounds like the locals are in charge. Which means it’s all going to fall apart.”
If she had been expecting any sort of outward response, she would have been disappointed, but by now she had come to realize that Thorn revealed very little of his emotions. Still, with news as astounding as that, she would have thought he’d look at least even slightly shocked.
He didn’t, of course. The dark eyes narrowed a little, but that was all. “Interesting,” he said, after a lengthy pause.
“’Interesting’?” she demanded. “That’s all you have to say?”
With that he did give her a quick glance, and there was the faintest quirk at the corner of his mouth. “All that’s changed for me is who might be paying the bills,” he replied.
Outraged, she glared at him, wanting to say something witty and cutting in response, but she knew that was impossible in her current state. “So what are we going to do?” she managed at last.
“What we have been doing. I’m not fit to get out of here yet, and you haven’t broken the security code. So I don’t see much changing.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “Although if you could work a little faster, it might be a good idea.”
All the epithets her father had hurled at recalcitrant computers and Gaian tax collectors came bubbling up to her lips, but Miala knew better than to say anything out loud. She couldn’t risk antagonizing Thorn now, not when things were even more unstable than she had thought. “If you think I haven’t been working myself to death over that code—” she spluttered finally, knowing even as she said them how weak the words sounded.
“I know you have,” he said, and although she should have been reassured, somehow she wasn’t. There was something very cold and measured in the glance he gave her. “Believe me, if I thought you weren’t doing everything in your power to break that security system, I’d have been standing down in the security station with you, holding a gun to your head.”
He meant it, Miala knew. For the first time she realized how dangerous he really was—and how very little she meant to him. She was a tool, nothing more. And if that tool should prove to be useless...
“I’d better get back to work, then,” she said at last, when she thought she could speak without completely breaking down. She had no idea how she could possibly concentrate at such a time, but she also knew she had to get out of Thorn’s presence as soon as possible.
“You do that.”
And taking that as a dismissal, she turned and fled in the direction of the security station. It was only once she was there in its relative safety that she collapsed in her usual chair, shaking in the overly air-conditioned air, forcing her palms against her eyes in a futile attempt to hold back the tears that had already begun to stream down her cheeks. If someone had asked, she probably couldn’t have even explained why she was crying, whether it was for her father, or the collapse of the only system she had ever known, or simply because she was so very, very tired.
Once the fit of weeping had passed, though, a deeper chill took hold of her. All this time she had feared the outsiders who might converge on Mast’s compound at any moment—and all the while she had been harboring a man who could prove to be a greater danger than any of them.
In her dreams Miala heard an insistent shrilling that went on and on, a sound that could not be ignored, even though she only wanted to sleep for at least a hundred years. With a gasp she sat up in bed, clasping the side of the cot on which she lay in an attempt to orient herself. The room was dark, except for a light fixture she had left burning at quarter-power in the dressing area, but it took only a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Nothing seemed any different from the time she had put herself to bed—had it been hours or only minutes ago? Then she realized the screaming sound had not originated in her dreams but had actually interrupted them—it was the siren for Mast’s perimeter security system. That could mean only one thing.
Cursing, she pushed the covers away and bolted for the door, tripping over the sandals she had left on the floor next to her bed. She paused just long enough to gather them up and half-skip, half-run as she slid her feet into first one, then the other, even as she pounded down the hallway to the staircase that led to the ground floor of the compound. As Miala passed the landing to the second floor, she heard a loud crash from the vicinity of the med unit and looked back, startled, only to see Eryk Thorn stagger out into the hallway, pulling at the bandages on his hands even as he headed toward her with grim determination.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, stopping to let him catch up to her.
“Is that the perimeter alert?” he asked.
She scowled at him, provoked that he was out of bed at all, and even more irritated that he had so obviously brushed off her first question. “Yes,” she said shortly. “I can handle it.”
“You?” he asked, and raised an eyebrow. Before she could reply, he went on, “Are the main defensive controls in the security station?”
He didn’t bother to wait. Limping a little, he hurried down the stairs as Miala trailed in his wake, desperately racking her brains for any argument that would be effective at getting him back into bed and finding none. Not for the first time she mentally cursed the monks who had built the place—they had deemed elevators a worldly indulgence, instead building stairs everywhere. Mast had a private lift that went to his suite, but it was locked down, and she’d had better things to do than break the code just to avoid a little exercise.
At this hour the compound was dark; no one was around, after all, to see that proper illumination was provided. Thorn seemed to have very good night vision—
he must have eyes like a Stacian
, she thought—but even he accidentally collided with some low-hanging chimes in one doorway, the sound a sweet discordance against the continued shrilling of the siren.
She wondered how he was able to find his way to the security station so easily. It was not as if he had been a regular inhabitant of the compound, after all, but perhaps it was his practice to familiarize himself with his surroundings wherever he went. Again she thought of his murderous career, and of all the survival skills he would have been forced to develop along the way.
Light flooded out of the security station into the dark hallway. Miala wasn’t sure whether she had forgotten to shut it down when she had retired for the evening or whether the overhead lighting came on automatically once the perimeter security system was activated.
Thorn pushed on ahead of her into the room, heading automatically for the main security console. The viewscreens revealed only dark desert, broken here and there by the bluish glow of the perimeter wards—all screens except the one that showed the rear approach to the compound.
?” she asked, pointing at the dark bulk that seemed to fill the screen. In shape it recalled vaguely the ore processors that moved over Iradia’s surface, harvesting any trace minerals they happened to come across, but otherwise it resembled those slow, lumbering vehicles about as much as the local boys’ hopped-up skimmers resembled a GDF attack cruiser. The unknown vehicle had an oily, gunmetal finish that shimmered oddly in the glare of the activated defense field; its outline seemed to be spiked with a number of strategically placed cannons.
“Get me into the system,” Thorn commanded, once again ignoring her question, but Miala knew better than to argue. She hastened to the console, tapped in the code, then stepped aside.
Thorn lifted his bandaged hands to the controls and paused. Then he seemed to shake his head slightly, and pulled at the wrappings that covered his fingers. One by one they came away, revealing mottled, half-healed skin still marked by livid bruises, angry red abrasions, and burns.
Swallowing slightly, Miala forced herself not to look away. If his hands were still that bad after healing for almost a week, she hated to think what his wounds must have looked like when the mech first treated him.
Now unencumbered, Thorn’s hands flew over the controls. Miala watched as he poured extra power into the shields that protected the rear of the compound and activated the pulse cannons mounted to either side of the massive front gates.
“But why—” she began. She couldn’t understand why he was bothering with the cannons if the attackers were coming from the rear. As she spoke, however, the forward perimeter defenses flared as small dark figures came out of the night, guns firing.
“Take the controls,” Thorn said, and she hurried to take his place at the keyboard even as he moved to the right, grasping the heavy console-mounted cannon grips.
The compound’s defenses were good against most types of gunfire, whether pulse or projectile, but no defense field could keep out biological attackers, which was why Thorn had increased power to the shields guarding the rear of the facility. Somehow he had known ground forces would be attacking the main gates, and that increasing the force field there would have been of no use.
He had pushed as much power as he could to the rear shields, but he didn’t know the system the way she did. Miala had spent hours working through its subroutines and codes and knew where she could steal the power they needed—from the back-up generators, the underutilized environmental controls, even the power-cell chargers in the garage. She was but dimly aware of Thorn working beside her as she hacked away at the computer system, shunting power to the rear defense fields. The only systems she considered sacrosanct were the weapons controls, of course, and the environmental support systems for the ground floor of the compound. The last thing she needed was for either her or Thorn to overheat and collapse in the thick of battle.
No sooner had she completed the first pass through the system than the pulse cannons on the massive vehicle threatening the rear of the compound let loose, bombarding the shields with a barrage of coruscating energy. The ground shook beneath them, but the shields held.
“Take that,” she muttered, but she didn’t have time to enjoy her victory for very long. Again the cannons opened up, and this time they knocked the shields back by a good twenty percent.
“Can you hold them?” Thorn asked, not taking his eyes off the viewscreen in front of him. His fingers seemed to move on their own, working the cannon controls. She could see from a quick glance at the screen that the ground in front of the compound’s gates was already thick with bodies.
“You hold yours, I’ll hold mine,” she replied, fingers pounding away at the keyboard. She could steal some power from the environmental systems on the upper floors of the building, as no one was up there to care how hot it got. And of course—the refrigeration units in the kitchens. Several days ago Miala had transferred all the remaining edible food to one unit instead of having it scattered amongst four, but she hadn’t bothered to shut down the power to the three that were now empty. That would do nicely.
The attacking vehicle fired again, and again, but once more the shields held. Beside her Thorn paused, and the endless firing of the defensive cannons ceased.
“What—” she began, lifting her gaze once again to the screen that showed the front gates. Whoever the attackers were, she couldn’t think there were very many of them left. Mast had probably lost more people at the Malverdine Cliffs, but not that many more, and she guessed there weren’t a lot of crime lords in the area who could afford to sacrifice so many men.
“Watch out,” Thorn said, and sure enough the vehicle fired again. This time there seemed something almost petulant in its attack, as if those manning the controls knew all too well that their ground forces had just been decimated.
Miala pushed the back-up power she had just located into the shields, and although they lost a few percentage points, they were still holding just fine. “Why don’t we fire back?” she asked. “There are gun emplacements to the rear of the compound as well!”
“No point,” he said. “We’d have to drop the shields, and right now the shields are doing better for us than the guns would. I’m not sure they’d even be enough to punch through the shielding on that thing.”
He was probably right, but part of her was still annoyed that they couldn’t fire at the invaders, blow a hole in the huge unwieldy machine that continued to fire at them. Now that Thorn had stopped firing the forward guns, she did steal a little power from the cannons to bolster the shields. That seemed to have done it, for after one last shot the firing abruptly ceased, and the bulky vehicle slowly lumbered back into the inky blackness of the Iradian night.
For a moment she watched the viewscreen, unbelieving, certain that reinforcements were just around the next dune. But all she could see was the restored bluish glow of the perimeter wards, as the security system reestablished itself now that the interlopers were gone. “We did it?” she asked finally.