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Authors: Sara Creasy

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BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
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“Test it. Just once.”

Her throat dry, Edie ignored Haller's forbidding expression and swung back to her food with a quick shake of her head.

“Finn looks hungry,” she muttered.

Haller glared at her for a long moment. Finally, he stood up, indicating with an elaborate wave of his hand that Finn should sit. The serf moved around the table to the bench directly opposite Edie. She waited for Haller to leave. Instead, he leaned over her, resting one hand on the table near her plate, and spoke with chilling precision.

“Something else you should know. Around here, when someone gives an order, you obey—like the good boy over there. I just gave you an order. Maybe you didn't realize because I asked so nicely, but that's what it was.” His free hand traced slowly down the length of her spine, and she suppressed a shudder. “Now, this time you get a free pass because you're new here and because I like you. Next time, you ask me how high to jump. I don't care if you
yes sir
,
no sir
, or not, but you do what you're told. Understood?”

Edie slid her hands into her lap so he wouldn't see them tremble. After what he'd done to Finn, he'd already gone too far with their deal. She wasn't about to put up with his sleaze as well. “I
understand
the ‘heart of your mission' might inexplicably forget all her expensive CCU training if the XO doesn't keep his hands to himself.
Sir.

Haller's fingers froze. The briefest flicker of a muscle at the corner of Finn's mouth told Edie he appreciated her response.

Edie slipped sideways along the bench, out of reach, and said to Finn, “I'll fetch you a plate.”

Finn's eyes flicked from her to Haller, and she followed his gaze. Haller straightened, a smile fixed to his face, but the twitch in his jaw signaled his suppressed anger.

“Please, sit and enjoy your meal,” he said with forced congeniality. “I'll feed the dog.”

He sauntered into the galley and Edie was left staring at her plate, wishing she'd voiced an objection to the insult on Finn's behalf, but not wanting to further aggravate Haller. Haller returned with a large dish heaped with dumplings and
a loaf of sour nut-bread. He placed the food on the far end of the table, forcing Finn to lean across to drag it closer—which he did without hesitation.

“One more thing,” Edie said, knowing she was pushing her luck. “The voice snag—Zeke said he'd take it off.”

“Let's see how he behaves first, shall we?”

“What use is he as a bodyguard if he can't even speak a warning? Don't you think this will work out better if I have his cooperation rather than his resentment?”

Haller raised his brows in a shrug of disinterest. “I don't even have
your
cooperation, apparently.”

She had no intention of obeying the order to jolt Finn, not even as a trade for the voice snag. But this was nothing to do with the snag. Haller was simply savoring the power game and didn't want to let her win any more points.

She'd have to tackle it another way. Much as it irked her, she proceeded with a deferential tone. “I'm sorry about my earlier insubordination…
sir
. If he misbehaves, I'll jolt him.” A lie, but to her ears she sounded fairly convincing.

Haller considered her a moment before unclipping a magkey from his belt. Edie held out her hand, expecting him to reconsider at any moment. But he pressed the small tool to her palm.

“Since you asked so nicely.”

“Thank you.”

“There. Isn't that much better?” He seemed genuinely relieved. “Now get some rest. Read your memos. CPT at six sharp, tomorrow morning.” He walked off, calling over his shoulder, “And keep that snag handy. I can't vouch for his manners.”

With Haller gone, Edie could breathe again. She was used to dealing with people who needed her cooperation, and while Haller's attitude was less refined than that of the Crib 'crats, his method was the same. He was willing to make small compromises to keep her on-side because she had a talent that would make him rich.

Seated opposite her was a man who probably didn't know, and certainly didn't care, that she could create valuable new worlds with little more than a well-aimed thought. Depending on what they'd told him, he might not even consider her an ally, but she intended to gain his trust. The jolt that excited Haller so much was the worst possible way to achieve that. She couldn't imagine using it any more than she could use the drub. She wouldn't discipline him like an animal.

Nor would she keep him silent.

Finn tucked into the food, ignoring Edie's frank gaze as she picked thoughtfully at the bread, savoring the spices that stung the roof of her mouth. His age was difficult to estimate. His position as a serf may have added a few years to his appearance, but she guessed he was under thirty. Old scars marred his jaw and cheekbone, and fresher ones slashed across one arm, snaking under the sleeve of his tee.
His midtoned skin made the pale lines stand out. Patchy yellowing bruises ringed his wrists, and his long fingers were calloused, the nails worn down though fairly clean.

Edie forced herself to stop staring and concentrated instead on fastening the tool belt around her waist—a delaying tactic. The familiar, encouraging weight of the belt boosted her courage.

Finn lifted off his seat to reach across the table with a quick, controlled movement that made her sit back in alarm. He flicked her a calm look that held neither query nor reassurance, took her cup and drained it. His presence set her on edge. She couldn't tell if it was an overreaction on her part or something more. The carefully directed defiance told her this man had learned to survive his servitude but had never succumbed to it.

She'd been rolling the magkey between her fingers as she watched him. Not once had he looked at it, yet she knew that was by conscious effort. She'd heard that the voice snag was the single most despised tool that serf handlers used on their charges. Cleanly and silently it removed identity. The uniform garb rendered them unseen, while the snag ensured they remained unheard. It was easy to assume a man lacked normal human thought processes when he was unable to speak them.

As Finn wiped sticky crumbs off his fingers, Edie mentally braced herself before walking around the table to stand beside him. As obediently as if she'd given him an order, he swung a leg over the bench to straddle it, and tilted his head. The snag, a flat metal strap the length and width of a finger, was locked with a magnetic seal into his throat. It prevented the vocal cords from moving and made even whispering too painful to attempt.

But she'd heard him whisper, once, when he asked her to save his life.

His skin was warm under her fingers. She fitted the magkey against the indentation in the center of the snag and
it fell away. It didn't detach completely. Three thick wires were embedded into the corded flesh of Finn's throat, and the snag dangled from them. He reached up and tugged at it firmly. The hard line of his mouth was the only clue to his pain, while Edie winced at the sight of the slick red wires emerging. The snag finally came free. Three parallel trails of blood dribbled down his neck.

Finn drew a ragged breath and started to choke. The snag clattered to the floor as he coughed up blood onto the table top. Edie backed away involuntarily. Was this normal? As she retrieved the snag, she noticed the cook hovering nearby.

“Go on, I'll clean up.” The cook swept in without taking a second look, as though crewmembers depositing blood on her tables was a daily event.

“Will he be okay?” It seemed both logical and absurd to be asking the cook, of all people, such a question.

“He's been snagged a long time, this one, eh?” The woman stopped wiping long enough to give a sympathetic shake of her head. “Infirmary's on deck two.”

Edie touched Finn's shoulder. “Come on.”

Finn followed her out of the mess, doggedly wiping his mouth and throat with the back of his hand as though this, too, were nothing out of the ordinary.

In the infirmary Edie handed him medigel and swabs and watched him clean up his wounds. From there he trailed her down another ladder to her quarters. The tiny annex seemed ridiculously small to serve as his berth. With the portable bunk and the console, there were barely three square meters of floor space.

She indicated the bunk. “I guess this is where you sleep.”

Finn walked past her and entered her room without a word. He hadn't yet spoken and she was worried perhaps his vocal cords had been permanently damaged. For the first time, he seemed to take an interest in his surroundings. He investigated her quarters with methodical precision—which took about thirty seconds. There wasn't much to see. He checked
the hatch between the two rooms, flipped open the lockers, ran his hands briefly along the interior bulkheads as though feeling for something.

“We're not bugged, if that's what you're looking for. I already checked.”

He spared her a thoughtful glance, apparently decided to believe her, and stopped his search to face her squarely.

“The leash,” he rasped. “Can you—”

A coughing fit interrupted his question. He leaned against the bulkhead and choked up more blood.

“Hey.” Edie tried to sound annoyed, but it was hardly his fault. She went to the washbasin in the corner and filled a beaker. He slid down the wall to sit on his haunches and drank the water. Crouching beside him, she took back the beaker and placed it aside, waiting.

“Can you cut the leash?” he said at last, his voice grating.

“I'll try.”

He jerked his head up, as if surprised by that.

“Of course I'll try.” She lifted her hand and almost changed her mind when he shied away. He recovered quickly, although he still looked wary. “Keep still. I'll use a softlink this time.”

She touched the fresh scar at his temple, felt the steady pulse under his skin, and then the sizzle of data flowing through the link. Her eyes closed and she sensed him breathing, slow and deep beside her.

As soon as she jacked in, she knew something was different: instead of the cold, flat flow of dry-teck in the datastream, she heard the unmistakable chime of biocyph. Considering the simple task his chip performed—monitoring her splinter to check she was in range and alive—it seemed like overkill. Then again, they must have known she'd try this. She'd deactivated his boundary chip before, and they'd made sure she couldn't do it again.

There's always a way in.
That's what Bethany had taught her. Climb over, dig under, smash straight through…But she could see it was hopeless. A strand of biocyph bur
rowed into his cerebral cortex like a tiny, immature version of her wet-teck interface. It anchored and controlled the explosive device that would detonate if she went out of range, and it was wired to painfully paralyze him if she triggered the jolt.

The graft was artless, not the work of a cypherteck. But now that it was integrated into his brain and locked with unbreakable biocyph coding, it was immune to reprogramming and impossible to remove. It was already part of him. Attached to it was her ident code—in fact, her wet-teck sought out the ident like a voice calling her name across a crowded room. But nothing else was familiar. She circled around the thread, prodding at the edges, creating dissonant notes in the datastream. Was there anything here she could piece together to create a meaningful melody?

A single, pure chord disengaged itself from the rest. Edie grabbed it and traced its source, certain she was doing the wrong thing, but it was all she had. Her interface kept the chord separated, but the cacophony surrounding it obliterated its path. A hard vacuum of silence cut through the link for an instant, and then a warning glyph screamed.

Finn knew there was a problem at the same moment she did.

“Back off,” he hissed.

With a gasp, she dumped the chord and let his splinter kick her out. She pulled her hand away, opened her eyes to stare into his, into the dark gold flecks radiating across the irises. For a long moment she couldn't speak. She had to make herself breathe again. Staggering to her feet, she felt like she should apologize but didn't know how he'd take it.

Instead, she stuck to the technicalities. “They've injected biocyph into your cerebral cortex.”

His eyes widened. “Biocyph? In my head?”

“Just a single strand. But it can't be removed or interfered with, or the little bomb in your skull will go off. I don't know what to do.”

“How does it work?”

“It tracks my splinter—my wet-teck interface. Specifically, it monitors my brain waves via the splinter so it knows I'm still alive and within range. And it's a hatchet job. A real disaster in there. It'd be dangerous to mess with any of it.”

Finn nodded. He believed her, then. He believed she wanted this to be over as much as he did.

“And if you die, my brain fries,” he said.

“That's it.”

“You're not suicidal, are you?”

She examined his face for any trace of humor. His tone was deadpan, but his eyes glittered.

“That warning we got,” she said, sticking to the subject, “that's supposed to let you know you're going out of range. Or, in this case, that the splinter doesn't like being interfered with.” Her wet-teck interface quickly analyzed the stored reflection. “You get zero leeway, instant detonation, once we're separated by two thousand meters.” The interface fed her new data. “Make that one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-nine meters.”

“Hatchet job,” he echoed. “They couldn't even get that right.”

Edie leaned against the opposite bulkhead. “How did this happen? You didn't agree to it, did you?”

He stared at the patch of blood drying on the deck. “That outworlder woman on the station, Lancer, she bribes our handler to let us escape—if we help her grab this A-grade teckie so her people won't have to risk their own asses in case it goes wrong. She told us we'd be freed.”

He paused, swallowed, rubbed his throat, having trouble speaking through disused vocal cords. He continued more slowly.

“I didn't believe a word of it, except the part about you.” His eyes met hers again, and Edie remembered his trust in her abilities, back in the freight car. “I'd seen you around. Heard things. I knew you could break the boundary link, just like she said. Figured it was worth it, even if they were lying about the rest. It was worth trying, for a shot at freedom.”

“But this leash—they didn't tell you about that.” It wasn't a question.

Finn set his jaw. “No, I never agreed to
this
.” He flicked his hand at his skull. “Now it's a life sentence, right?”

More like a death sentence. Edie hugged her arms around herself. “So what do we do?”

Finn considered in silence. She could see the cogs turning in his mind behind those unwavering eyes. Then, “When do we jump?”

“We already jumped once. I don't know where from, or where to.”

“What's the mission?”

She shrugged, feeling out of her depth. “These guys are BRAT seed rovers. Trading illegal biocyph.” She remembered Haller's unread memos. There must be information in there about the mission, or at least about a briefing.

Finn stood, eyeing her carefully. “So what are you thinking?”

“I'm thinking we have to get back to that medfac. Find the infojack who made the leash. Or someone else who knows what they're doing. I mean, if it's even possible without…”
Without killing you
. She couldn't say it.

“How much will that someone cost us?”

“A lot. It's not a service you pick out of the catalog.”

“Well, I don't know about you, but I'm broke.”

She smiled grimly, appreciating his levity. “They told me I'd get twenty thousand for this run, plus the same in bonuses.”

“Is forty enough?”

“Might be. So you're saying we should go ahead with the mission?”

“What do you think?”

“Don't keep asking me that. It's your life we're playing with.”

“I need to know where you stand.”

Where did she stand? She'd been trying to figure out her own future, but now his was inextricably intertwined. “I
didn't ask to be here, either. I might've stuck with them for a while. But not now. Not with you forced along for the ride.” She swallowed a bitter lump in her throat, remembering the dead serf on Talas Prime Station. She wanted no more deaths on her conscience. “We have to cut the leash—and to do that, we need the creds from this mission.”

He didn't look convinced. “And you'd spend it all to free me?”

In her mind, there was no question. In his mind, clearly, there were plenty of questions. He had no reason to trust her, or anyone.

“It would be freeing us both.”

Disbelief flickered again in his eyes, but he didn't voice his doubts. “So, one mission. Then we split, find an infojack.”

Edie nodded, wondering if he had a plan for himself after they cut the leash. “What did Zeke mean—who are the Saeth?”

“Never heard of them.”

His quick response and cold glare told her he was lying and that he didn't care if she knew it. She let it drop and pinched the bridge of her nose—the burden of the cached data had left her wet-teck groaning in protest. She should copy it to file at the console in the annex, but she didn't particularly want to leave evidence around for someone else to find, so she wiped it and forced herself to relax. As she turned from the wall, something jabbed her thigh. The voice snag in her pocket.

“Here.” She handed it to him. “A souvenir.”

BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
2.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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