Chapter One: Ashoka River Basin, Kairos Mountains, North Country
Martin and Ivy sat on a limestone outcrop, sharing a flask of smoke mixed rum and watching the distant road. All around them, burr trees loomed, their dark branches weighed with snow. High above, the little moons shone green. Ivy pulled up her knee to retie the rag holding on her boot sole. “So you ain’t think it’s a trap?”
Martin snorted. “Pirians got better shit to do with their fuel and their time, is it.”
She tugged at the rag, wiggled her foot in the boot, and then got up and scuffled around on the rock, trying out the repair. “Just ain’t see why they want alliance with us. I mean hill cots,” she added. “I know what Jossa said, Pirians want alliance with our Revolution. But why not link up with the Committee?”
Martin drank more of the smoke and rum. It was warming him up, easing the ache in his muscles and belly. Ivy dropped next to him again, reaching for the flask. He let her have it. Two or three years back, Ivy had tailed it from an estate in the Rift Valley where she was a field cot; maybe fifteen now, she was as skinny, filthy, and ill-geared as all hill-country contracts. “I’d make alliance with the holders,” Ivy said moodily. She banged her heels against the rock wall. “Wish they’d hurry. I’m cold. You ain’t afraid? Of the Pirians?”
“Why in shit I’m afraid of Pirians?” He took the flask back.
She drove her elbow into his ribs. “You ain’t ever scared.”
“Now that’s a lie.” He tucked the flask in his cargo pocket.
She cut her eyes at him. “Are you scared now?”
“Jobs aren’t scary,” Martin objected, grinning. She laughed louder, shoving at his shoulder. He shoved back, and the handheld on the rock between them meeped. Martin flicked his dropbox open: two stars. The job was go.
Ivy jumped from the rock, landing tidily on her feet. Martin handed down her Lopaka long rifle. She slung it across her back and headed off at a trot. Martin stood, stretching his spine, waiting for her to get out of range. Far off through the trees, he saw lights from Lord Naoko’s sedan sweep across the river. Distantly came the crump-thump of the bridge blowing. He glanced to be sure Ivy was clear, then knelt to the detonator. Sliding back the ports, Martin clicked the switches. A second later, the trap blew: thud, and ka-thump.
Nothing happened for long enough that Martin got worried. Then slowly, with a great dull rumble, rocks thundered across the road. A second fall crashed beyond the first, spilling and bouncing. A final few rocks tumbled from the muddy banks.
Martin rolled down from the outcrop and loped through the blackwood and burr trees, some of them thousands of years old – this was Naoko’s land here, high up in the Kairos Mountains, most of it untouched since settlement days. In among the trees, space lay open, vast and empty on this luminescent night; burr needles, glittering with ice, padded the forest floor. Winter insects racketed against the dark.
Skidding down the bank, Martin peered up toward the bridge. Nothing. Darkness. The metalled road shimmered with moonlight. He located a thick stand of box reeds and rolled onto his belly behind it. Propping his Lopaka short rifle on his forearm, he ran a few test sights. Once he was sure this was a good place, he scanned the brush, hunting for Ivy or Dallas or Liam – any of his crew. The deep cold of the ground bit through his trousers and jacket. Shitting winter.
Far off, he heard the growl of a transport engine. Inside him, calm drew together. He didn’t notice the cold now, or the dark. He felt easy and merry. As the transport rounded the curve, he drew a deep breath, his blood as light as fire.
It was silver-blue Vahid sedan. No use aiming at the windscreens, then. They’d be reinforced against plasma. Martin took sightings on the engine casing and fuel-cell assembly, also shielded. He was just messing, though. When it came to shooting, he would take out the axles. The Vahid was driving fast, so they had heard the explosions, despite Kit using small charges. Rounding the curve, they saw the rock fall, and skidded. Martin waited. It was always the chance they’d be idiots and get out of their own accord.
Not this time. The Vahid reversed, going for a K-turn. He fired twice, hitting his target both times, and then a third, to be certain: both axles blown, and the front near wheel as well. Then he raised his aim and put a blast into the front windscreen. This wasn’t to blow the screen, but to scare those inside. He heard their screams even through the blast glass. As he had hoped, panic did the rest. They threw open doors and scrambled out. Idiots. Smart would have been to stay put, call for Security – it was a solution for that, but it’d have won the holders time, maybe even enough time.
Inside the Vahid, someone was shouting to do just that: come back, seal the doors, wait for help. Too late: Ivy and Naz were grabbing fleeing holders, knocking them to the ground, getting the restraints on. Martin went up to the sedan and put his rifle into the open door. Only one holder was left inside, the one they wanted, in point of fact, Harold Lord Naoko. His long high-boned face, dark with temper, went blank when he saw Martin.
Martin smiled sweetly. “Step out now, is it, sir?”
Naoko squeezed the handle of his door.
“Else I could shoot you where you sit,” Martin said. “Not in the plan, but I might could tell my hook, oops, finger slipped. He ain’t like me much anyways, what’s to lose?”
Naoko swallowed visibly. Then he unsealed the door and stepped out into the icy night. Tall, like most holders, he wore fancy dress: a long dark jacket of fine wool, slim hand-carved buttons, silk and linen trousers. Martin, thinking how he would look after a week in the hills, felt the edge of his smile crook higher.
Naoko didn’t like that. “Filthy chip,” he spat across the lid of the sedan. “Security will have you on your knees for this.”
Martin laughed. “Ain’t be the first time.”That was when it went to shit.