Rake gripped his pistol firmly, telling himself, No, I’m not terrified. Just because there’s someone out there apparently willing to break the rules to get at me doesn’t mean I’m a dead man.
“Come on, Earthstepper, I don’t have all day,” the filtered voice said.
“Who are you?” Rake demanded, checking his ammunition and charge on the weapon. Looks good. Keep him talking, and then jump out and nail him by surprise. He did his best to ignore the nagging voice telling him that he already knew his reflexes were subpar.
“Does it matter, Rake? You’re my payday, regardless of who I am.”
“Well, you broke all the rules by coming into an insurance facility with gun in hand and apparently willing to shoot anyone in your way,” Rake commented as he tried to recreate the room in his mind. If he’s near the entrance to this room, there’s no real cover there. This simulator’s on the opposite side of the room, and there’s good cover here. I should be able to get a clean shot at him. “That means you’re either new to the game or damned good.”
The filtered voice took on a dry tone. “My name is Slade.”
Rake swallowed hard. Great. One of the best skiptracers in the Expanse.
“I’ll admit, I thought I had you on Gallos,” Slade commented. “I could have sworn no one else was even close to you. But then you turn up dead, and I had to lay down a lot of credits to find out where I could catch up with you again. Of course, now you don’t have all the information that made you so valuable, but I’m sure we can find some way of getting that again.”
“I’m sure,” Rake repeated. “What information did I have, anyway?”
Slade’s chuckle was colder than deep space. “See, that’s the problem with your insurance policy. You got yourself killed, and you don’t even know what’s coming for—“
Rake didn’t bother listening to the rest, hurling himself from the simulator and twisting his gun hand toward the entrance. His finger was squeezing the trigger when he smashed into the floor.
“You’re not bad, kid,” an unfiltered male voice said as a cold barrel tapped his ear. “Now drop the weapon.”
Rake carefully laid the weapon down on the floor. “Look, I don’t know what you want from me, Skip, but we both know I don’t have it.”
“What I want is your head,” Slade said calmly. “Now stand up.”
Rake glared at the treacherous door. “You hijacked a soundbox for your voice, didn’t you? So I’d be looking the wrong direction.”
“Kid, you don’t get to be the best by using insurance policies,” Slade said smugly. “Now stand up, nice and slow, and we’ll both get out of here without your insurance company paying for another body.”
Rake swallowed hard. Great. Trapped in a faulty body and caught by a skiptracer. This day couldn’t get better. Slowly, he rose to his feet with both hands held away from his body. “I don’t suppose there’s any way you and I could discuss an alternative, is there?”
“Earthstepper, a skiptracer gets a reputation by bringing in his target,” the hunter said coolly. “Even if you had an extra couple million credits in your back pocket—which I somehow doubt—to take your money and let you go would be to ruin my own reputation.”
Rake tried to think, but everything had moved so fast since he woke up in the tank. “It doesn’t really have to be this way,” he said offhandedly. “I mean, it’s not like anyone would know.”
“I shot three of this company’s personnel on the way in, and I don’t doubt my face is plastered all over security cameras right now. So move.” He prodded the pilot again with his gun.
Rake spun, hand flashing out to knock the weapon away. Slade was caught off-guard by the sudden move and lost his grip on his carbine, allowing the two-handed gun to clatter away across the floor. Rake scooped up his pistol and sprinted straight for the exit, not bothering to turn back and fire at the skiptracer.
If he lives up to his reputation, that’s the last time I’ll ever take him by surprise, Rake thought as he sprinted hell-bent for freedom.
He had just broken the plane of the doorway when fire blossomed in his calf. He stumbled and went down hard, smashing head-first into the hallway wall, rebounding and landing in a heap on the floor.
Rake looked down and saw blood beginning to pool on the polished floor.
Slade walked up to him, the carbine leveled at the fallen Rake the entire time. He didn’t speak as he bent over to retrieve Rake’s pistol, attaching it to his own belt with a magnetic click. “Looks like my information was wrong,” he remarked. “Here I thought you’d be moving slower in that new body of yours, at least for a few days. Instead you damn near made a fool of me and got away.”
“I aim to please,” Rake mumbled, trying to cope with the ringing in his ears, the dizziness from running headfirst into a wall, and the throbbing in his calf. “You shot me in the back. Not very professional of you.”
“I shot you in the leg while you were fleeing,” Slade corrected him. “Very professional of me. Prevented your escape, and I can deliver you intact to Colonel Velles.”
Colonel Velles? Why does that name…? Oh, shit.
That’s not good.
“Great,” Rake said. “Very professional, then. Except now I can’t walk out of here.”
The bounty hunter looked him over, and for the first time Rake got a good close look at the infamous skiptracer.
If Slade had a last name, Rake had never heard it—and he looked like a man who didn’t care about such trivial things. His dark hair was gathered back in a ponytail, and he wore a dark leather duster over a heavy set of armor. His face was unmarked, revealing cold blue eyes, an over-large nose, and a plethora of scars.
Slade looked every bit the fearsome skiptracer his reputation made him out to be.
The armed man snorted in disgust. “Thought you were supposed to be tough, Earthstepper. One little bullet wound and you’re too injured to walk.” He reached under his duster and withdrew a small coil of rope. With practiced ease he formed a loop and pulled it over Rake’s uninjured leg. He pulled it tight, wrapped the other end of the rope around his left hand, and began dragging the pilot across the polished floor.
“You can’t really think,” Rake said from the floor as he slid along surprisingly easily, “that you’re going to drag me to wherever your ship is moored.”
“Hardly,” Slade said. “My AI and my ship are already at the emergency docking collar at the hospital across the walkway. In a few minutes you’ll be locked away until I can get you to Velles.”
Rake considered his options. Well, I can try to fight him with a bad leg while my good leg is bound—not to mention I’m unarmed. Or I can let him drag me to his ship and try to escape from him there.
I don’t like either of these options.
The hallways of the insurance facility were empty as Slade stalked through them, dragging his prey behind like Rake was already dead. It struck Rake as odd, until he realized that the facility was likely watching the entire thing on camera and wasn’t going to risk its own personnel fighting an armed man.
I hate the Core worlds. Earth or Terra VI, they’re both alike. Well, they were before Earth cooked. Everyone’s too damned scared to do anything, Rake thought distastefully. That’s what happens when you have all the fanciest facilities and a life of ease. You forget how to fight when you need it. This skiptracer walked into your facility, shot up people, and is dragging one of your clients out by a leg, and you sit around and wait for the weathermen to get here.
The front door to the insurance facility hissed open, allowing Slade to walk out with his bound captor in his wake. He immediately turned hard to his left and didn’t miss a step, even when Rake bounced off the corner of the door.
“Ow,” the pilot complained. “Keep that up, and you won’t be bringing me back in working order.”
“Shut up,” Slade said.
With nothing else to say, Rake found himself complying, even as he tried to figure a way out of the trap he found himself caught in. Nothing brilliant came to mind.
The insurance facility and the hospital, separated by less than fifty meters of walkway, were both against the edge of the Terra VI orbital station, to better allow for emergency access. Two airlocks were available in the space, allowing for a pair of ships to be offloaded at the same time. Both locks were currently occupied, the vessels visible through the transparent alloy commonly installed in viewports on space-going vessels; the skiptracer was clearly making his way for the lock closer to the insurance facility.
If he gets me on his ship, I’m dead, Rake thought bleakly. Wow. What a wonderful investment the life insurance policy was this time. I would’ve been better off staying dead, I think.
They were ten meters away from the lock when Slade’s ship blew up.
The viewport took the blast without so much as a scratch—it was actually tougher than the cheaper materials used to build ship hulls—but the open airlock wasn’t so fortunate. As the docked ship was hurled out into open space, the lock failed to close. Wind, virtually unheard of aboard space stations, quickly rose to a howl as it rushed out the compromised portal.
Aboard a station this size, the chances of the airlock failure being fatal to the inhabitants was minimal—it would take many minutes to empty the atmosphere into space aboard such a large space. However, that was the concern furthest from either of their minds.
Slade swore, a curse Rake had never heard before. “Vultures!” he shouted. “Always some damned vultures around to steal from me!”
Chips of flooring began to fly up as bullets rattled around them. Slade took a pair of them without so much as a grunt—his armor deflected the projectiles—but scrambled to free his mask from his belt.
A figure in an assault suit stepped through the compromised airlock. Rake stared in disbelief. That takes guts, he thought blankly as the newcomer leveled his weapon and let another burst loose at Slade. To come in that fast, he had to be sitting just about on top of Slade’s ship when it blew up. Those assault suits can take a few bullets without venting into space, but shrapnel could have taken it to pieces.
Another trio of bullets smacked into the skiptracer. He swore again and dropped the rope around Rake’s uninjured right leg. Slade’s hands ducked under his duster and came out with a pair of pistols, firing nearly non-stop toward the attacker as he half-ran for the scarce cover of a parked magnetic transport car.
Rake decided this was the moment he was looking for and ran for his life.
Or he would have, had his leg not had a neat hole poked through it.
“Rake, come on!” the newcomer shouted, his voice as mechanically filtered as Slade’s had been in the testing room. “Come on, we have to get out of here!”
Try to get away from them both with an injured leg and take my chances getting caught by Slade again, or go with the person I don’t know. With his calf throbbing, there really was no choice. There’s no reward without risk.
He crawled as quickly as he could for the newcomer.
“Dammit, Rake, run!” the attacker shouted.
Deciding that some forward motion was better than none, Rake elected to continue crawling.
The angry whine of bullets over his head motivated him to do better, and a glance over his shoulder confirmed that Slade, rather than risk losing his prey, had chosen to shoot him, too. Doing his best to ignore the pain, Rake forced himself unsteadily to his feet and ran as best he could, his leg on fire every step of the way to the airlock.
Slade wasn’t going to let him go that easily, though.
The skiptracer was on the move again, this time with a different weapon in his right-hand—a highly illegal, very powerful, and very difficult-to-aim one-handed rocket pistol.
The newcomer apparently saw it, too. “Into the airlock,” he shouted frantically to Rake. “Now!”
Hobbled by his injury, Rake knew he wouldn’t make it—particularly when his leg gave out again and he crashed to the deck.
Slade leveled the weapon.
The newcomer dove to the ground.
And a new roar joined the rushing wind.
Metal shrapnel sprayed out at Rake. None of it was life-threatening; the pieces were small and tumbling, though several of them flayed skin open across his exposed arms as he cradled his own head.
The tortured scream of punctured, stressed metal and the ever-increasing roar of wind battled for supremacy for several seconds, before the metal surrendered the contest. Rake looked up, not understanding what had happened.
Holes as large as his fist had been punched through the station’s exterior. Rake’s eyes widened. That ship at the hospital airlock…was shooting at Slade? A starship, trying to shoot a person? The roar in his ears continued to grow in strength. And might have killed us all.
Then there were arms lifting him. Dizziness began to sweep over him. Hypoxia, he thought. The air’s moving past me too fast to get proper breaths.
As his consciousness faded, he managed one last thought: I didn’t have time to take out another policy.