Alien safari, p.16
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       Alien Safari, p.16
 

           Robert Appleton
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  Chapter Nine

  Swampland the color of wet khakis whipped by outside the windows of the vicar’s hold. 100 kph was too fast at such low altitude, with so much vegetation around, but he had to admit Jan was a capable pilot. More than capable, impressive.

  Tied to one of the retractable passenger seats—this had originally been a vehicle for tourists—Vaughn watched the endlessly odd forms of stooping, brokeback wraithulia trees suspended inches over the darkly phosphorescent marsh water. They resembled the fingers of old hags, each inflicting a curse in whichever direction the bony digit tended. Bald bay-skimmer chicks peered cautiously down into the water from hairy nests in the tree branches. Every now and then something large and eel-like would jump up from the swamp in a perfect arc and make a grab for one of the chicks. Vaughn didn’t see a successful attempt. The chicks knew when to duck, and their nests were deep enough.

  Stopper sat beside him in the vicar, ever watchful of Lindsay Polotovsky, who was perched on the hoverbike secured in the center of the hold. The dog appeared fascinated by a rear panel on the bike, but wouldn’t go near it. Vaughn guessed the Fleece was hidden in there. It was a professional mercenary’s bike; no doubt Finnegan had used it to smuggle all sorts of illicit things across the colonies.

  He didn’t like the idea of being a hostage any more than he approved of Finnegan calling the shots in the cockpit. Far more dangerous than the wilds of Hesperidia were the desperate men heading this way; an Omega and several Phis, armed to the teeth, would make short work of a single mercenary and his muse. This escape required insight, a thorough inside knowledge of how ISPA hunters were trained to catch their prey.

  It made no sense to keep him tied up like this.

  Polotovsky was busy fiddling with the compressed oxygen canisters on her mask. She retrieved a spare one from the bike’s pillion bag, tested its valve, then shook it. Empty.

  “How much O2 did you have left in those—before we showed up?” asked Vaughn.

  “Not much. Another couple of days’ worth. We packed for emergencies, not for a goddamn safari. And of course we had to crash on a rock with no terraforming. Typical.”

  “You must have seen DeSanto’s ships fly over. You could have made for Jan’s outpost.”

  She eyed him askance. “As a last resort. Jesus, how dumb do you think we are? For all we knew, there was a full garrison there. Odds not exactly in our favor.”

  “Where were you two heading after Saint Jacques? Somewhere far off, I’m guessing. Somewhere with lots of traffic—easy to disappear into?”

  “Yeah? Lots of traffic, huh?”

  “Those assholes who followed you, forced you to land here, they were desperate. They couldn’t let you reach the warp gate. They might have lost your trail for good.”

  She shrugged. “Like you say, desperate. And assholes.”

  “So it’s best if I don’t know where you’re headed, is that right?”

  “Better for everyone.” She got up impatiently, gazed out of the window as the vicar made a long, arcing turn around a section of the swamp that spat and bubbled violently. One of the super-geysers Jan had mentioned yesterday? Vaughn was surprised to see dozens of bay skimmers swooping low into the effervescence, biting at the bubbles and splashing their wings in the hot water as though they were frolicking in a giant, oily Jacuzzi.

  Polotovsky marched to the cockpit door, flung it open, and said something to the pilots Vaughn couldn’t quite hear. On her return she went immediately to the gun rack on the hoverbike, slung an incendiary rifle over her shoulder, and retrieved Vaughn’s baldric, holster and sidearm.

  “What is it? What did you see?”

  She said nothing, instead hurried around the bike to Vaughn’s seat. She rummaged through the utility compartments in his baldric until she found the magnetic code key for his cuffs. “This was never my idea, tying you up. He just wanted to make sure.” After freeing him, she handed Vaughn his belt and weapon and led Stopper into one of the kennel cages at the back of the vicar. The bemused dog obeyed without objection. Vaughn hadn’t seen him this compliant without the use of a whistle; it was as if his proximity to the Fleece had neutered him of all aggression.

  “How far back are they?” Vaughn massaged his sore wrists, then cocked his sidearm, ready for action.

  “Three or four kilometers.”

  He looked out of both windows, couldn’t see anything resembling another vicar or a Phi craft. “You’re certain?”

  “You’d better believe it. I’m starting to feel like I’ve been chased my whole life.” In her unkissable-by-the-sun, pink-and-white complexion there was such raw vulnerability, such girlish exertion, he couldn’t quite take in how this woman had survived a desert manhunt from the entire Iolchian army, let alone the incredibly dangerous weeks since, as a fugitive in possession of the Golden freaking Fleece. Whatever feistiness and inner fortitude she had, Finnegan had seen it, fallen for it, and was now staking his life on it.

  A formidable woman.

  He thought of Jan.

  Make that two.

  By the time the chasing ships came into clear view, the swampland had hardened into a damp, red-brown clay. For miles in every direction, it had been furrowed into crazy rivulets with high banks, perhaps by some colony of subterranean creatures burrowing for nutrients in the seepage water below the surface. The area resembled a primitive battlefield prepared for armies yet to arrive. No other signs of life were evident.

  The two Phi hover ships skimmed the furrowed banks at high speed, their alt thrusters snatching up trench water behind them. Similarly to Vaughn, they’d chosen to track the fugitives at ground level; their ships were faster than a vicar and more maneuverable, but they were hover ships just the same, not shuttles. They couldn’t go anywhere the vicar couldn’t go, nor fly any higher. This was a flat-out chase, then. Over some of the strangest terrain Vaughn had ever seen. Jan was guiding the vicar; no doubt her colleague, Bilderbeck, was guiding DeSanto and his men.

  “Linds, I need you up here!” Finnegan shouted from the cockpit.

  Polotovsky rushed to his aid and motioned for Vaughn to stay put. “Leave him to me,” she said on her way.

  “Just so you know, those cuffs aren’t going on me again.”

  “I know. Just chill, all right, lawman? Chill.”

  Vaughn swallowed hard. Rechecked the pulse setting on his firearm. Switched it to medium range. A few seconds later, Jan stumbled through the hatch, doubled up in pain, arms wrapped around her stomach.

  “I’ll kill him!” In Vaughn’s whitening grip, the means to murder a mercenary.

  “No,” she insisted after standing tall and closing the door behind her. “I’m faking. Vaughn, I’m fine.”

  “What? Why?”

  “So he’d let me lie down back here. So I could try to free you.”

  “I’m already free.”

  “Yes, I can see that. Told you you could trust her.”

  “And what about him?”

  “This is your chance to convince him. He sees you resisting your own colleagues, he won’t dare doubt you again. We’ll be a four-strong unit. Better chance for success.”

  He reached over the bike’s mudguard and kissed her on the cheek. Her eyes danced a little, then she touched that spot with the backs of her fingers. “What for?”

  “For being you.”

  “Not getting soft on me, lawman?”

  “Maybe a little.”

  Her gaze slipped to the gun in his hand. “O—kay? Couldn’t do it without back-up, huh?”

  Vaughn offered her his hand. She took it and didn’t speak. Reality suddenly chafed, like the sores on his wrists, as he led her to the back of the bike. There she saw Stopper gazing forlornly through the steel lattice of his kennel.

  “Easy, boy. It won’t be long now. Everything will be back to normal soon. Then you can blame it all on the horrid Omicron agent.”

  “Hey,” Vaughn cut in.

  “Hey nothing. So what can we d
o when they pull alongside us, when they see us on board with the most wanted couple in the cosmos?”

  He spun the word couple in his mind. Two chasing ships. One target. Two couples in here but only one...no...two transports!

  “I don’t think we can talk our way out of this,” she said. “And I’m all out of Tranc a la Fizz. Any ideas? I mean we could always—”

  He snatched her up, mid-prattle, and plonked her onto the hoverbike’s pillion seat. He tossed the bag full of empty canisters onto the floor. “Whatever happens, don’t let go.”

  “Of what?”

  “Of me.” He hit the vicar’s side-hatch release, letting in a blast of cold air that filled the hold and kept circulating. Tepid water in the wind peppered his bare hands as he undid the magno-clamps holding the bike in place. Then he climbed onto the front seat and gripped the dirty, comfortable handlebars, unequal to what he was about to do but utterly resolved to doing it.

  “Vaughn, this is insane, even for you.” Jan had to almost scream for him to hear her over the inrushing wind. Her mask’s audio speaker nearly exploded.

  “Remember what I said,” he yelled back, hurting his own ears. But the feel of her arms tightening around his waist, and now locked in a grip stronger than he expected, ranked him higher than anyone in the Service. Alone, as an Omicron agent, he might be able to pull this off; but with Jan holding onto him, her life in his hands, there was no way he could fail.

  Two hunters. Now two targets.

  “Okay, DeSanto, see if you can catch this.”

  Though Vaughn had piloted hoverbikes before—in the dusty colonial towns, they were one of the most popular forms of transport—he hadn’t for some time. And certainly not one this touchy.

  Bess was her name. It was tattooed on her dash. And she was a custom-built bitch.

  At the slightest twist of her throttle she slammed into the forward bulkhead, fender-first, crushing Vaughn into the handlebars and Jan against his back. With a growl Vaughn yanked the bike around by the horns, facing the open starboard hatchway, and revved her into a buzzsaw-like screech. She shot out onto the clay field, her altitude immediately starting to undulate over the troughs and banks of the trenches. The lolling, bouncing sensation wasn’t unpleasant.

  Vaughn could have sworn he glimpsed coils of sloughed skin floating in one or two of the water channels. In his rearview he saw the chasing vehicles separate. So far, so good. The Phis would be expecting Finnegan and Polotovsky to be on the bike, with Vaughn and Jan piloting the vicar. But they couldn’t be sure who had the Fleece, nor why Vaughn would let his two suspects loose like this. Therefore the Phis would have to trail both vehicles, dividing their forces. And a divided force was a weaker force.

  Vaughn gradually arced to the northwest, the thrusters whipping up water from every rivulet along the way; that would make it more difficult for the chasing ship to see who was piloting the bike.

  Then something happened he didn’t expect. The top half of the pursuing ship—an unfamiliar Phi model—slowly peeled away as though it had worked itself loose. It slid backward, finally detached and fell away behind the lower section, only to reappear with a vengeance moments later. It briefly pulled alongside its big cousin before tearing ahead at twice the speed. Flat, light, and shaped like an isosceles triangle with the nose tip rounded off, it caught Bess in no time. The two pilots lay on their bellies inside the cramped cockpit.

  Vaughn squeezed the bike’s throttle to 150 kph, once more eliciting her buzzsaw whine. But the bizarre ship kept pace without breaking a sweat. What could he do? He couldn’t out-pilot a ship he didn’t understand, outrunning it was out. And he couldn’t exactly fire his sidearm and steer Bess at the same time.

  “Doc, I need you to do something for me.”

  She didn’t reply, probably hadn’t even heard him over the bike’s whine.

  He plucked her right hand from under his ribcage and pressed it onto his holster, then shouted back, “Let them have it! Keep firing till you hit something.”

  After a long pause, she patted his shoulder in acknowledgement, then unmagnoed his pistol from its holster. Lifted it by its chamber rather than its grip, but managed to—No, she dropped it? Shit! Luckily she caught it against his thigh. Jesus Christ, lady. Vaughn’s heart fisted, squeezed out a momentary flood of panic. It left him a little lightheaded. Then he remembered to breathe. Filtered air, not the sweetest taste, but it was on his side. Luck was on his side.

  So was Jan.

  Her first shot skinned the flat-ship’s cockpit roof, enough to crack the glass but no more. Her second missed altogether when the craft peeled back and took up a firing position directly on Bess’s tail.

  Bad move.

  Vaughn cornered the bike onto the course of a nearby water channel and choked the throttle again. In his wake, a steady, heavy spray was thrown high, drowning the flat-ship from view. But not for long. It banked to Bess’s port side, where its cockpit roof suddenly retracted, exposing the pilots. Vaughn veered away, but the flat-ship anticipated, following suit. Before he knew what had happened, the vehicle’s nose was shaving the top off a clay bank inches away from his left knee. Its wings dipped drunkenly, one after the other, so low that the flat-ship almost ate dirt several times.

  He glimpsed the reason in his rearview before he felt it—a dark flash of insanity, impacting on the seat behind him, damn near tipping the hoverbike onto its side.

  One of the Phi pilots had leapt across onto Bess. To force Vaughn to stop.

  He couldn’t. Not while there was another ship chasing and the Fleece was hidden inside the bike and Vaughn could still draw breath.

  A dull, rupturing pain exploded in his side. The bastard had kicked him in the kidneys. Another kick found the small of his back. It knotted him inside, and he struggled to breathe. Fractions of snatched air smuggled into reluctant lungs.

  The furore on the seat behind him rocked the bike’s equilibrium. Jan was putting up one hell of a struggle, but she couldn’t last long against a Phi.

  Goddamnit.

  If only he hadn’t given her his weapon. It was right there in her outstretched fist, hanging over the side, no more than three feet from Vaughn’s reach. He could see it in the wing mirror. But the Phi agent’s knee was planted on her forearm, so she couldn’t move it. Jesus, if only he could stop and kill the sonofabitch himself.

  A blip of a scream, then a woman’s unfiltered cry of agony made his mind up for him. It was all he could think of to keep the bike going and help Jan at the same time. A move he’d never tried before. Admittedly, not one from the ISPA pilot’s manual.

  He locked the altitude gimbal, so that steering was his only concern. If it were a standard hoverbike he’d be able to put it on autopilot, but Bess was a custom-built bitch, her secrets known to few. Despite the throbbing pains in his side and his back, Vaughn managed to kick his legs up onto the seat. There he wedged his knees under the handlebars, bracing them in their current position, to keep this heading. More importantly, to keep him on the bike, to anchor him.

  He winced aloud as he leaned back, his kidney pain driving up into his ribs. A series of Jan’s identical punches to the Phi’s face looked ridiculous when viewed upside down, but they hurt him. He let go his stranglehold and swiped her across the face. Fucker. It was then that Vaughn realised...she wasn’t wearing a mask! He’d ripped it off her! She struggled and punched and tried to knee him in the balls, but without a mask she was done for. The bastard resumed his chokehold.

  At full stretch Vaughn reached out over the side of the bike, missing the gun by millimeters. A second lunge caught Jan’s sleeve. He yanked it toward him, buying himself another inch. On the third attempt he grabbed her fist, pried her fingers open, and took control of the weapon. No time to change its blast setting.

  Crack!

  The pulse ripple broke the sound barrier before it reached the Phi man. When the shot hit, his shoulder exploded completely, leaving his left arm dangling by the thread of his ja
cket. Vaughn shot again.

  Crack!

  The impact spun the man’s top half around so that he snapped inside. He started to slump, lifeless, onto Jan.

  Crack!

  One last shot hit him square in the sternum, throwing him off the back of the bike, where he cracked against the tail hump, and into the murky spray that pursued Bess like a cloud of ill omen across the never-ending clay field.

  “Jan, I need you to climb forward to me, right away. Can you do it?”

  When she didn’t respond, he made ready to sit upright and stop the bike. He’d just have to fight all comers on the spot, whether they surrounded him or not. Jan had no air. He couldn’t just leave her there to die, inches out of reach.

  She slowly sat up, gasping.

  Vaughn stayed on his back, watching her. “Good girl. Now I’m going to give you my mask.”

  She shot him a terrified look, simultaneously clutching at her throat with one hand while warding him off with a wave of the other.

  “Don’t worry. We’re going to take turns.” That seemed to placate her a tad. She nodded emphatically between coughs, her face bunched into a purple scowl that looked ready to either burst or implode.

  Still on his back, Vaughn took a deep breath, removed his mask and held it out for her, not letting his gaze leave her for an instant. They would drink to this moment when they got back to Jan’s office. McCormick’s. A whole bottle...or what had been a whole bottle. Upside-down, sharing his air with a spunky zookeeper at 150 kph: that was worth a generous toast right there.

  She affixed the mask and inhaled greedily, her whole shuddery frame rising and settling. All the while she watched Vaughn, and he her. It was then that he realised...there was no going back from this, from what he’d found here on the Hesp, from Dr. Juanita Corbija, Zoonygaloonyologist. If they did make out it through this day, things would be changed forev—

  Jan threw her legs up to avoid a sudden impact. The flat-ship rammed them side-on, intending to crush her. A close call. Vaughn sat up to steer the bike away. As he did, the flat-ship struck again. This time the impact spilled Jan sideways. She scrambled to keep her balance, but the damage to Bess’s flank panel had warped the pillion seat and ripped one of the rear stays loose. She had nothing to hold onto on that side. She went over...

  Vaughn threw himself onto his back, grabbed hold of something, anything to hand on the opposite flank as he reached after her. He snagged a fistful of her soft material. Held onto it for dear life. The scruff of her jacket. A fistful that weighed more than his arm could hold, fighting him and burning in his grip. He used his other arm to pull himself farther across the seat, pulling Jan with him, a little closer, a little higher, so that she might get a foothold, goddamnit, just one foothold, and climb up on her own.

  His vision began to blur. He could feel her struggling, banging against the damaged flank panel, bouncing off the banks of the snaking trench. His breath was gone and the toxic otherness of the Hesp made fierce inroads into his core. Air without life. Without memory. With a natural chemical password his lungs absolutely did not have. He couldn’t hold, but he’d rather lose his hand than let go. Or let rigor-mortis extend his desire to save her into death.

  Come on, Jan. Climb. You need...to climb...

  To climb.

  An idea—clinging to his mind the way he was clinging to a fistful of fabric—that rewired him the way only desperate ideas could—was all he had left. There’d been the whine of the engine, the hiss of spitting water, and the roar of the wind in his ears. Now they were indistinguishable. He saw only a blur the color of bloodied mud. Soon he wouldn’t even have that.

  Do it.

  He relaxed his knees, let his legs extend themselves. The bike was now driverless. Feeling up the ignition panel with his boots, he found the alt-lock lever. Kicked it to its off position. The bike was now surfing on its own. He then hooked the heel of one boot onto the bridge of the handlebars, and rested the sole of the other on its underside.

  Best ride in the park, kids.

  With every quark of strength in his left leg, he pulled the bars down toward him with his heel. Bess accelerated up into the air, slowly at first, then like a rocket, pulling him into the seat with awful positive-g elasticity. Almost as a reflex, he shifted all his effort to his right leg and, angling it slightly right of center, kicked out.

  The sudden negative-g plummet—powered—and sharp left turn racked him into a violent cough on a bed of rushing air. He felt Jan’s impact on the seat behind him. He immediately relaxed his legs, letting the handlebars settle to their default position, to level the altitude.

  The next thing he felt was a hot, moist rim pressing against the frame of his face. A flush of warm air wiped his features. The sound of his own gasps, hoarse, intimate, punctured the veil that had drawn over him. He drank air as if it was the last remaining bubble on the roof of a dying world. Again and again. The monotone ring in his ear splintered. Separate sounds emerged, each fueling a separate fear. He saw things clearly, things he knew, things he didn’t know, things he wanted. The shape of Jan reaching over him to steer Bess was mythic, inspiring. It fueled a desire to help, a desire that quickly consumed him...

  She needed air too.

  He struggled upright, took three giant breaths and handed her the mask. Resumed control of Bess. He might not be fully lucid for a while yet but he could do this. This he was trained for.

  “Get us out of here,” she yelled. “We need to get back to the vicar, right now.”

  It all flooded back: teaming up with the fugitives, defying DeSanto, the high-velocity chess game with the flat-ship that daren’t destroy Bess because she might be carrying the Fleece. And the last idea he’d had, a solution he might never have come up with at any other time in his life...

  The sharp, left-leaning fall so soon after the quick ascent had thrown Jan onto the bike; it had given her the reach and momentum to stretch across the seat and grab hold of the opposite stay bar. An elegant idea, physics-wise, that had hit him fully formed in one semi-conscious flash, on the verge of his extinction. He might never be able to explain it.

  His turn to breathe, to have the mask.

  “I see our vicar—ten o’clock, flying high,” he said. “The other ship’s waiting for her to come down. Can you drive for a bit?”

  Her turn to breathe. “You betcha I can drive. Let’s switch.” She climbed over him, fell hard between his legs, almost unmanning him. “Go get ’em.”

  The flat-ship had kept its distance since its last ramming maneuver. Had the pilot decided that strategy was too dangerous? If the hoverbike crashed, it could destroy the Fleece. In any event, he was waiting for Vaughn to make the next move, as was the pilot of the other ship.

  But this wasn’t vehicular chess. Not while Vaughn was armed and in a position to fire.

  His turn to breathe. “Jan, I want you to slow down gradually, reel them in.”

  She did so, a little quicker than he had in mind. The two chasing half-ships gained, then split up to flank Bess. They appeared to have taken the bait, drawing the wrong conclusion that the hoverbike was running low on juice. Good.

  Her turn to breathe.

  She was silent.

  Without warning, Vaughn let go of Jan’s waist and drew his sidearm. He aimed for the flat-ship. Fired.

  The shot was a poor one but the pilot guessed incorrectly. He swerved into the pulse blast, and couldn’t correct in time. The edge of an energy ripple sheared his starboard wingtip off, flipping the flat-ship into a deadly spinning crash. It exploded against a steep clay bank.

  His turn to breathe.

  The second ship had slowed to a crawl, wary of getting too close because it couldn’t risk returning fire. Not good enough for Vaughn. It would follow Bess until her fuel cells died, keeping this same distance, ensuring a Phi advantage in the end. “Corner her on a clip, Jan, then step on it. We’re going after these assholes.”

  Her turn to breathe. “You’re nuts, Omicr
on.” But after a generous roll of her shoulders, to limber up, “Here goes nothing.”

  She performed a nose-heavy brake and a one-eighty over the bank of a particularly deep trench, leaving Bess’s caboose sticking high in the air. After a quick growl of its engine, the bike shot toward the topless cruiser with blinding acceleration. Their Phi opponent reacted slowly; his ship was nowhere near as maneuverable. Perhaps realising he couldn’t turn in time, the pilot spiraled his vessel into a rapid ascent instead, attempting to climb above the hoverbike’s altitude limit.

  An interesting choice, but a poor one.

  My turn to breathe.

  Jan had forgotten, so he tapped the face of her mask, let her take a deep breath, and snatched it off her. The moment he’d flushed it with O2, he did two vital things simultaneously: sucked in a breath, and fired his weapon skyward. He repeated both, using his crosshair sights for the second shot.

  A thump, a screech, an ear-splitting crack.

  Flames and purple sparks and heavy wreckage rained down on the furrowed clay field behind them as Jan hit the throttle. She made an O with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. Such a nonchalant gesture of approval after so intense a chase, it seemed from another time, another age. After wheeling around the crash site and starting them on a course to intercept the vicar, she clicked her fingers over her shoulder.

  He caught her hand and held it tight, barely able to take in how they’d managed to survive the last few minutes. Together. At high velocity. With only one mask between them.

  How close this alien air had come to killing him...

  Now it was her turn to breathe.

  Diamonds. Diamonds everywhere. A skittish multitude of glittering, flittering lights on the steep slopes of the mountains ahead. No, not mountains. They almost formed a perfect ring, uneven in height but they were all linked, bound at the foundation, like teeth on the trophy jaws of a giant shark.

  It was the caldera of a massive, extinct volcano. Its sides had been eroded by ages of weather to reveal the precious gems inside. It resembled an ancient diadem rising above the misty swamps and clay fields and maze-like stone passes of the Hesp’s northern continent.

  Vaughn and Jan had spent the best part of an hour in pursuit of the vicar, without really closing the gap. If anything they’d lost ground, with both the vicar and the chasing Phi ship able to maintain high speeds far longer than Bess, Finnegan’s touchy hoverbike that, while wicked on the turn and unmatched in terms of acceleration, couldn’t run above 100 kph for very long without automatically recharging via her backup solar wing panels, for which she needed to slow down to about 50 kph. She’d been damaged somewhere. Maybe on the Hesp. Maybe on Iolchis.

  In that time they’d perfected their mask-sharing rhythm to such a science that instinct now told them when to switch; they no longer had to count. How long a single mask could support both of them Vaughn didn’t care to guess, nor would that knowledge have helped. Bess couldn’t catch the fleeing ships unless they slowed or stopped—it was as simple as that.

  A wet mist from the western marshes stole across the clay fields, deteriorating visibility. One or two thunderclaps up ahead sounded strangely low, not the work of a storm. Several times Vaughn had to adjust his course suddenly, and each time the ground beneath them seemed to quake. He swore he saw stacks of enormous tires teetering, swaying inside the mist.

  Jan squeezed his shoulder. “You need to fly higher.”

  But we’ll lose the trail!

  “Trust me,” she added. “Heavy shots have been fired. I think they’ve disturbed the colony. No wonder Finnegan’s had to keep swerving.”

  His turn to breathe, and then some. “What colony?” As he took Bess up above the mist, he clocked the vicar and the Phi ship a little under a mile ahead, at an even higher altitude. What the hell?

  Jan tapped his shoulder, warning him to inhale, then snatched the mask off him. “Jack-worms—bulbogladius exalluvia. They’re nocturnal burrowers. Very shallow depths. They normally sleep during the day, unless they’re threatened. Penetraghelius aerodynae is their enemy, with a long beak that penetrates the loose soil and anchors its food, biting off chunks... Anyway, we need to stay at least thirty feet. Finnegan’s wandered miles off course; I told him to stay east of the caldera, but he’s heading into the crater. There are ways through, but I don’t think he’ll find them, not without me.”

  Vaughn wasn’t planning that far ahead. Right now he was concerned with staying out of reach of the jack-worms, whose heads were popping up through the mist like pissed-off Whack-A-Moles. Only the mouth and part of the thick, worm-like body appeared to breach the surface. Their segments had the ability to compress into an absurd, erect squat, in preparation for an upward thrust so sudden it was terrifying to behold. The tire segments expanded like the folds of an accordion, only with a violent, vertical snap. The mouth, consisting of four bony mandibles shaped like harpoon heads, dislocated apart before biting together at the apex of the strike.

  One hit would be enough to crush Bess into tinfoil. And they were attacking all over the place, for what seemed miles in every direction.

  “Is that normal?” he asked.

  “No way! Something serious has happened. It’s more than a reaction to a local impact. What weapons do these bozos have?”

  More than a local impact. All over the place? Affects subterranean life? A weapon used to stop a hover ship? Not to destroy it, to stop it...?

  “Em grenades! They’re lobbing em grenades to disable the vicar. Fries all electrical circuitry inside its blast radius. Must be small, very localised, or else it would disable the Phi ship as well. That’s why Finnegan was swerving, at least it’s what started him swerving. And it’s what’s excited the jack-worms.”

  “It’s also why he’s heading inside the crater,” said Jan. “To escape the clay fields. He can see it’s mostly flooded in the crater. No more jack-worms.”

  The flight to the caldera was one of the most surreal experiences of Vaughn’s life. Barely held aloft over giant snapping worms, by a damaged hoverbike that sputtered and shimmied under the strain of maintaining high-alt on labored fuel cells. Sharing air with an amazing woman, but not face to face, and never at the same time. He was also custodian of the most important trophy in the galaxy, but instead of escaping with it, keeping it safe from profiteers and warmongers, here he was, desperate to put it back in the hands of the cold-bloodied mercenary who’d stolen it in the first place!

  Yep, Kraczinski owed him big time after this.

  The clay fields ended shortly before a wide, gushing river that followed the base of the crater’s exterior until it reached a gap in the peaks. Here the watercourse straightened tangentially before pouring into a stunning crevasse. A network of deep, westward-winding canyons probably carried the water far and wide across the continent, but Vaughn’s visibility was little more than thirty meters.

  To the west, fathomless canyons. To the east, upstream against a torrent of water. So Jan was right, Finnegan would have no choice but to fly straight ahead, through the gap in the peaks, into the caldera.

  Across the river, he took Bess back down to an easier, low-alt flight. It felt more like a glide after what they’d just been through. The mist was cool, the scree slopes either side appeared gentle, deserted, and there was no sound outside the bike’s elliptical hum.

  Muscular ripples lapping at the otherwise sanguine shoreline told him the chase had crossed the crater lake at this point. He didn’t hesitate to follow. The water, littered with what looked like pine needles and yellow leaves, was brackish; no telling how deep it went. An archipelago made up of dozens of islands of flat rock, some grassy, others completely barren, covered a large portion of the lake. Many islands were joined together by sharp, spindly isthmuses; so sharp he could see the marks left by the claws or teeth that had sharpened on them.

  On some of the islands, skeletal remains lay strewn about. Birds, fish, beasts of the land. All shapes and sizes. One or tw
o absolutely massive—rib cages big enough to hold Noah’s Ark inside them.

  Jan shifted position, rocking the bike. He was about to ask her what she made of this unnerving place when, from out of nowhere, a brilliant flash blazed through the mist directly ahead. It seared through his vision. He tried to blink it away, but like the sunrise he’d viewed at high contrast the previous day, it lingered on his retina, left him equal parts dazed and annoyed.

  “What was that?” asked Jan before she gave him the mask.

  He considered his answer carefully. “Another em blast, but a lot more powerful than a grenade. More like a goddamn e-bomb. It makes no sense. Whoever let that off must’ve known it would cripple their own vehicle as well, unless...”

  He slowed Bess to a ripple-tickling purr, handed the mask behind him, and looked up.

  Yes, whoever had dropped that e-bomb had to have done it from high above. Maybe he was still up there...

 
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