Ardashir raised a hand to help shield his eyes from the icy desert wind. The sleeves of his linen robe swathed his hand, offering it a little warmth against the nocturnal chill.
“I told you we should’ve gone north,” he said, words muffled by his headscarf. “The valley’s more sheltered than the open desert.”
Sithil-Horak squinted a glare at him. “Everyone runs north,” she hissed. “The Koreshadur send a bird to warn of the escape, and the valley gets sealed at both ends. Heading east has bought us hours, and if we can reach the Temple of Mahin we’ll be safe.”
Ardashir glanced back, grateful to get his eyes out of the oncoming sandy wind. The fires of Ralakkai were hidden behind the soaring dunes, and there was no sign of pursuit. Yet. The Koreshadur were skilled hunters, and once they realised the escaped prisoners had gone east it would be a race to the temple. Assuming Sithil-Horak was right.
He looked back east, and his companion waved a hand to her back. She was taller and more brawny than most women, and he was glad to use her as a windbreak.
“What crime did you commit?” Ardashir asked her. In prison, it was a question you didn’t ask. But on the run, he was curious. He had been accused of treason because his fool cousin had become involved in a plot to topple the emir. To be consigned to the same prison as traitors, she must have done something terrible.
Gertrude and the others were glad to finally return to The Sun Dancer. Their stolen gunboat, renamed The Tiger’s Eye II by Tristan, had not taken long for the crew of pirates to hijack, and they were delighted with the small arsenal of weaponry its former owner, a bounty hunter, had left them. It was a tight fit with twenty of them squeezed into a ship designed for fewer than half a dozen, and they were grateful when they were safely aboard The Sun Dancer and could escape the gunboat’s confines.
The bald, bearded, bloated form of Captain Brasidas was waiting for them.
“I was having a ship refitted, after we saw The Tiger’s Eye crash,” he told Drusus, the first officer who had been in command of the mission. “Everyone ok?”
Drusus nodded. “No thanks to Ump’gomptar.”
Brasidas scowled. “The engines are straining to get to him, and we’ll incinerate the compound the instant we drop to sublight.”
Gertrude stared at the tablet’s screen for a moment, scarcely believing that the Murovians had covered up the Emperor’s murder, or that Drusus was responsible, at least in part. Then she tossed the tablet onto the deck and crushed it beneath her boot. She found a coil of rope inside the gunboat, and tied it around the landing gear. It was still night time, but dawn would not be too far off.
Gertrude tossed the rope over the cliff edge and began the descent. It was a good deal easier than climbing up had been, particularly with the tranquilliser rifle and ammunition bandolier slung over her shoulders. Once she reached the base of the cliff she checked on the unfamiliar alien that had been trying to hunt down Drusus, and had terrorised the native Naxonians in the meantime. The armour-clad alien was still unconscious, but she shot his exposed reptilian arm with another tranquilliser dart just to be on the safe side.
Wep, the leader of the small Naxonian group she had travelled with, was just coming around. He shook his elongated, narrow head groggily, and washed his small eyes with his long, pink tongue. Standing on his hind legs, he towered above Gertrude’s six feet and three inches.
“This is the demon that has been plaguing you,” she said, thrusting the barrel of her rifle at the alien hunter. And then she remembered he couldn’t understand a damned word that came out of her mouth, and hoped her gesture got through to him.
Gertrude eyed the stranger for a long time. He seemed content to watch her through the augmented vision of his mask, and was in no rush to start the hand-to-hand fight he knew was coming. His species was an utter mystery to her. He could have been a man in exotic armour, or a robot with advanced personality software. A bandolier of tranquilliser darts ran from shoulder to hip, but he had no pulse pistol holstered in his belt. She smiled at the thought of her flint knife being the deadliest weapon either possessed. Gertrude tossed the blade aside. She didn’t know the make, but she knew armour, and the most dangerous thing her knife could do would be to shatter and get a fragment in her eye.
He ran at her and she tried to sidestep, but he was too fast. The hunter tackled her and attempted to pin her down, but he hadn’t reckoned on her left arm. The artificial limb shrugged off his efforts and grabbed his arm. She tried throwing him off of her, but he weighed far more than she had expected, and even the metallic might of her robotics couldn’t shift him. Instead, she tore off the armour covering his upper arm, revealing slimy, reptilian scales.
The hunter hissed. “Last mistake, little girl.”
She lashed out with her synthetic arm, but he grabbed the metal with both hands and gradually forced it to the ground.
He laughed at her helplessness. “Weak, like all your kind. I’m twice as strong, even if you are a cyborg.”
Night had fallen. Gertrude glanced at her half-dozen comrades, and was glad that they had embarked at once instead of waiting for daylight, and the boiling heat that would come with it. The narrow-headed, furry Naxonians seemed as comfortable on two legs as four, and were all around eight feet tall on their hind legs. Their uncertainty about her trustworthiness meant that whilst each of them carried a long, stone-tipped spear, she had been given only a flint knife.
Before leaving the Naxonian village she had been shown the rest of The Tiger’s Eye’s crew. All seemed well, other than being confined, and were relieved to hear her explanation of the situation. If she could help the natives deal with the ‘demon’ that had been hunting them, the crew would be released.
“When you find it, try not to damage his ship,” Drusus muttered. He slurred his words, presumably still groggy-headed after being hit with a tranquilliser dart. “It might work despite the atmospheric interference, and could be our way off this rock.”
Gertrude had grunted acknowledgement, though in truth she was uncertain whether or not she would prefer to leave without the crew she had been forced to join.
The natives might be primitive, but they packed a hell of a punch. When Gertrude peeled her right eye open her head was ringing like a bell. Her artificial left eye flickered to life as she became conscious. She was alone, in a spacious cell of mud bricks. Narrow windows cut high into the wall allowed a little sunlight inside, and told her it was probably around midday. The cell was surprisingly cool, though whether that was due to her artificial lungs and heart working hard or because of the cell’s design she did not know. There was no sign of Drusus or anybody else, and the size of the wooden door suggested whoever had built the cell had done so with a species significantly larger than Homo sapiens in mind.
Should I stay, or should I go?
Gertrude searched for her pulse pistol, but it was nowhere to be found. She swore, but her cybernetic arm could probably reduce the door to matchwood. Gertrude had no idea where she was, or where the rest of the crew were. She had no particular fondness for most of them, but with The Tiger’s Eye at the bottom of the sea it seemed her best hope of getting off Naxos was to stick with them and hope Captain Brasidas sent down a rescue boat.
Unless he’s left already. Brasidas doesn’t exactly have a trustworthy reputation. Continue reading
“By the stars,” Nicephorus moaned. “What are we supposed to do now?”
Drusus laughed. Like everyone, except Gertrude, his voice was modulated by a filter mask. “Calm down. You sound like a schoolgirl whose pigtails have been cut off. The captain’s no fool, and he’ll have tracked us coming down. He’ll kit out one of the other boats with shielding and send it down to pick us up. In the meantime, we need to make for the temple.”
“Shouldn’t we stay near to The Tiger’s Eye?” Gertrude suggested. “The Sun Dancer probably tracked us as we came down. If we leave the crash site they won’t know where we are.”
Several other pirates nodded agreement.
“And if the sun comes up before the rescue boat comes down?” Drusus countered. “It’ll be fifty degrees or more during the day. Do any of you think sitting out in the sun is a good idea?” He gave them a moment to contemplate that prospect, and continued, “Besides, do you want to face the captain without the rhodium? There’s a fortune waiting to be claimed. So what if we’ve lost a bucket of rust? It’s time to plunder a ton of treasure. We’ll occupy the temple and use it to shelter from the sun.”
Gertrude opened her eye. It was dark, and all she could hear were a few quiet groans of pain. Her head throbbed, and she felt the warmth of blood trickling down her temple. Flickering to life, her artificial eye switched to night vision, revealing the carnage of the crash landing. Everything that hadn’t been tied down was strewn in pieces throughout the ship. An ugly gash had been ripped into the military grade plastic windscreen, but it had withstood the impact largely intact. Despite it being night, the warmth of the atmosphere seeped into the ship through the gash.
“Are you alright?” Drusus asked the cyborg. The ship’s power had died on approach to the planet and she could see the Murovian fumbling with his buckle.
She leaned over and unfastened it for him. “I’m going to have strap-shaped bruises, but otherwise I’m fine. In future, could we have landings without a 50G impact?” she asked.
He smiled. “Glad your eye’s still working. And your lungs.”
Not to mention my heart.
All around them crewmen were groaning and struggling to free themselves from their seat straps. Gertrude found hers had been damaged by the force of the impact and couldn’t be loosened.
Time to give my hand a test. Continue reading
As a rule, George Paleologus hated the Christmas party. Pretending to like people whom he knew solely because they shared a workplace was loathsome. But this party was different, because, as far as he was concerned, the cause for celebration was not some carpenter’s birthday but his own promotion. Besides, he had a little business to finish off. It had only been four months since he joined HexBank, London’s foremost boutique bank for the magically inclined, and he was already executive vice warlock. At this rate, he’d be running it by next Christmas.
The floor numbers drifted by, until the lift reached the seventy-seventh storey and its doors opened. It was usually where they entertained idiot sorcerers with more money than sense, but on Christmas Eve it hosted HexBank’s festive frolics.
George stepped out of the lift and raised his hand in greeting to the three dozen other attendees. Most of them returned the gesture, and he made a mental note of those who did not. All were human, more or less, save Barry, the chief of security. A pair of deep gouge marks above the doorway betrayed where the minotaur had forgotten to duck sufficiently.
Chief Executive Warlock Julius Andronicus wandered over and handed him a glass of nectar.
“Thanks,” George said, taking a sip. “I’m surprised Barry’s here. Can’t say I’ve ever seen him before.”
Julius nodded. “Aye, he usually dwells in the security HQ, monitoring the cameras and eating intruders. Can’t stand the place myself, it’s a bloody labyrinth. Come on, I want to have a quick word.” Continue reading
Coffee was not the same. It tasted just as good, but she couldn’t feel it warm her once she swallowed and it coursed down her artificial oesophagus. Brasidas and Drusus were briefing those selected to fly down to Naxos in The Sun Dancer’s mess hall. The twenty pirates who had been picked sipped coffee and smoked sabketh whilst they listened to their leaders. Gertrude was sat far from the purple smoke, on a table with only Sarah Wellington for company.
“Naxos is in dark space,” Brasidas explained. “The Elthurians charted it immediately prior to their extinction, and when the plague came knowledge of its existence returned to obscurity.”
“You want us to go to a damned plague planet?” Nicephorus interrupted.
Brasidas glared at the crewman. “It’s not a plague planet. The Elthurians never established an outpost there. Ask another stupid question and I’ll have you serve a shift in engineering.”
The other crewmen laughed and slapped Nicephorus on the back. Brasidas’s words had provoked a scowl on Nicephorus’s face.
“What’s so bad about that?” Gertrude whispered to Sarah.
The blonde pirate raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t met Primus yet?” Continue reading