Book: Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller



Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller



Copyrighted Material

Deadland Wanderer Copyright © 2020 by Variant Publications

Book design and layout copyright © 2020 by JN Chaney

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from JN Chaney.

www.jnchaney.com

https://www.ellleighclarke.com

1st Edition





Deadland Wanderer






Book 2 in the Deadland Drifter Series


J.N. Chaney Ell Leigh Clarke


Book Description


Deadland Wanderer

Deadland Drifter #2

A mysterious message beckons Jack to a clandestine 'meet', but something is off.

The code is identical to one his team used back in his Union days.

When no one shows, he and Sara find themselves drawn into an investigation to uncover who sent the message... and why.

It isn't long before they find a trafficking ring that snatches women from shelters and wipes their memories, all with the hope of selling them to the rich and powerful as 'wives'.

But this is bigger than just a gang of criminals. There's an organization that stretches across both sides of the law with connections to elected officials at the very top.


Books in the Renegade Star Universe

Renegade Star Series:

Renegade Star

Renegade Atlas

Renegade Moon

Renegade Lost

Renegade Fleet

Renegade Earth

Renegade Dawn

Renegade Children

Renegade Union

Renegade Empire

Renegade Descent

Renegade Rising

Renegade Alliance

Renegade Evolution

Renegade War (Coming soon!)

Standalones:

Nameless

The Constable

The Constable Returns

The Warrior Queen

The Orion Colony Series with Jonathan Yanez:

Orion Colony

Orion Uncharted

Orion Awakened

Orion Protected

The Last Reaper Series with Scott Moon:

The Last Reaper

Fear the Reaper

Blade of the Reaper

Wings of the Reaper

Flight of the Reaper

Wrath of the Reaper

Will of the Reaper

Descent of the Reaper

Hunt of the Reaper

Bastion of the Reaper

The Fifth Column Series with Molly Lerma:

The Fifth Column

The Solaras Initiative

The Forlorn Hope

Final Battlefield (Coming soon!)

Resonant Son Series with Christopher Hopper:

Resonant Son

Resonant Abyss

The Galactic Law Series with James S. Aaron:

Galactic Law

Galactic Judge

Galactic Jury

Galactic Executioner (Coming soon!)

Deadland Drifter Series with Ell Leigh Clarke:

Deadland Drifter

Deadland Wanderer

Deadland Sentinel (Coming Soon!)



Contents


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Connect with Ell Leigh Clarke

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Epilogue

Renegade Star Universe

Join the Conversation

Connect with J.N. Chaney

Connect with Ell Leigh Clarke

About The Authors


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

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Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

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1 Luxury Suite, Canteri Hotel, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner had been ready for some downtime—a well-deserved vacation after stopping a terrorist plot to kill thousands. He had checked into a nice hotel room (on the Union’s credit, no less), where he was reunited with one of the most beautiful and deadly women he had ever met. He was prepared to spend a few weeks with his feet up and his nose out of current affairs.

That was, until a message flashed up on his comm.

Jack Burner – I have a request for you.

A more reasonable person might have just ignored the message and continued on with their vacation. But there were a few things he couldn’t ignore. For one, he had recently changed his comm’s identifier. A brand new alias was associated with this one, and it wasn’t public. Whoever had sent this message had been looking for him specifically and knew his protocols for establishing identities well enough to track him down.

That bothered him.

And, perhaps more importantly, was the way the message was worded—his name, followed by a dash, followed by the phrase “I have a request for you.” It was an oddly formal and polite way to initiate contact with an operative that you had gone through an exceptional amount of trouble locating.

It was also the tactic that members of Burner’s old unit used.

Burner was formerly of Union Intelligence, a branch that investigated crime and corruption in the military and government. Because of the covert nature of his work as an operative, he was often alone in the field. But he was always supported by a team of professional and highly skilled specialists who performed duties like coordinating tactical strikes when more firepower was called for, organizing extractions when he found himself in over his head, and ensuring that Burner always had access to the networks and technology he needed.

Because Burner was often undercover and surrounded by people who didn’t trust him and might demand to read any comm messages he received, they developed a system of communicating that would seem innocuous to any snoops. The opening message always started with the recipient’s name (or alias, as the case might be) followed by a dash and then one of a handful of key phrases. “Uncle Adam would like to call” meant that there was important information waiting for him and he needed to find a private moment to call headquarters. “Don’t forget your doctor’s appointment” was code for “your cover is in danger and you need to get out of there.”

“I have a request for you” was the signal that he had new orders that would impact his mission parameters. Which was strange, since he wasn’t currently on a mission.

And he was no longer part of the Union.

He and the Union had a falling out over things his last investigation had uncovered that threatened some important careers. While officially he had received an honorable discharge, there were a number of powerful people in the military who would be happier if he vanished. And Burner was an expert at vanishing. He’d taken to drifting through the Deadlands, far from the eyes of the Union.

That was, up until recent events forced him back into the light.

There was next to zero chance that the way that the message had been phrased was a coincidence. To be sure, he replied the way he would have if he was on an undercover mission.

I’m free – What is the Request?

“I’m free” indicated that he was alone. Capitalizing “Request” acted as acknowledgement that he was about to receive official orders.

Need you to go shopping – Beans, Water, Seeds, Top-Shelf Wine

“Shopping” was code for a meeting. Lowercase s indicated the meeting was unofficial, off-the-books. The shopping list after the dash were hints as to where the meeting was supposed to take place.

“Beans” and “Water” were frequently used to indicate a café. Burner’s addiction to coffee was well-known, so coffee shops were common meeting places. “Seeds” was a reference to birds, meaning someplace outdoors. ‘Top-Shelf Wine” could indicate either the level that the café was on or its richness. Normally he’d expect more clues to narrow down the possibilities, but there were only a handful of cafés on the station. If that was the end of his hints, then there must only be one that fits. He’d have to search a map of Pharbis Space Station to find the right place.

In this case, either someone masquerading as a former team member, or they were an actual team member. Of course, being able to mimic their very personalized codes was going to be tough for an interloper. Some of the codes were made up of idiosyncrasies based on things only they would know. Like betting 666 meant that they were holding a certain pocket pair in a poker game, which someone would only know if they were there on the occasion that Burner messed up using sixes instead of nines, nine being representative of the German word nein, meaning “no.” Most of their code was that convoluted and personal. No, it was clear that he was talking to a member of his former unit. Burner had never been sure what had happened to his team after he retired from the military. He assumed they would have been reassigned to other operatives. Unless a spiteful superior had reduced them to desk duty.

Why one of them would choose to contact him was a mystery. They must have been really desperate if they thought he would be allowed to help with an Intelligence investigation. It was career suicide for whomever had sent the message. Burner wished he could tell which member of his unit it was. But he couldn’t ask now. Protocol demanded comm silence between that message and the meeting.

He would find out tomorrow. Their meetups were always at an early hour of the morning, unless otherwise specified in the shopping list. He’d just have to hold in his curiosity until then.

In the meantime, he heard the shower turn off and the bathroom door open. He figured he wouldn’t have too much trouble keeping his mind occupied tonight.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

When he awoke in the morning, Sara was already up and nearly dressed. The leggy blonde was an agent of the Constables, another covert branch of the Union military. Intelligence mainly focused on internal matters or serious outside threats. Constables? Well, no one really knew exactly what they did. Their missions were often clandestine and shrouded in hidden convoluted motives. She and Burner had worked side-by-side to stop the terrorist plot against Pharbis station.

Along the way they had developed romantic feelings for each other. They didn’t know what that meant for them in the long term, particularly since Burner had recently turned down an offer to join the Constable ranks. For now, they just weren’t overthinking things.

Burner wiped at the sleepiness in his eyes. “I thought I was the one with the early morning meeting.”

Sara was lacing up her boots. “I need to speak with Hank. I’m going to head out for a while.”

Hank seemed to be acting like Sara’s handler from what Burner could tell. He’d had only limited interaction with him, but from what he’d seen, Hank was a dependable, if somewhat enigmatic, character. Like all Constables, he kept many secrets close to his chest and only dispersed information when he thought it was necessary. His aid had proven pivotal in stopping the terrorist plot against Pharbis, so Burner was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Though that didn’t mean he wanted the Constables involved in what might be a personal matter. “You’re going to tell him about my meeting today?” He had given Sara the details last night in the name of honesty.

She chuckled. “No. I’m sure he already knows. I just want to make sure he doesn’t think there’s anything going on that needs his attention.”

He got out of the bed and went looking for his pants. “He already knows?”

“Knowing Hank, he’ll have been monitoring all the transmissions to and from the station, particularly those along Union frequencies. Anything with your name in the message would have definitely raised flags for him. I doubt your little code would have withstood much scrutiny.”

Burner didn’t feel the need to defend his unit’s codes. “What, Hank is spying even on his own people? So much for being on the same side.”

She finished with her boots and stood up straight. “He says paranoia is what keeps him sharp. Besides, it’s kind of standard for people in our line of work.”

Burner thought back to all the times the only thing that saved his life was his natural distrust of others. “Fair enough.”

After they had finished dressing, Burner checked his comm to see if he had received any new messages from his mystery contact. There wasn’t anything, though that was expected unless plans had to change. A confirmation of when would have been nice, particularly since Pharbis was different than Union standard time. He was forced to assume they were operating on station time.

Sara was finished getting dressed before him and was ready to head out the door. “Guess I’ll be going, then. Unless you think you’re going to need backup after all?”

He shook his head. “I trust my team.”

A look of mild surprise crossed her features. “Even after all this time?”

There was no hesitation in his response. “Even after all this time. They always had my back, even when I was pursuing leads that endangered all of our careers. They wouldn’t be looking to suddenly lure me into a trap.” He thought about that for a moment. “Besides, they know me well enough that they could have set a much better trap.”

She tapped the device on her wrist. “Well, you have my comm information if things change.” As she was opening the door, she paused. “Be careful, Burner. I know you’re the type who wants to try and help everyone. Don’t let that get you in over your head.”

He smiled. “You mean for the second time in a month?”

Sara didn’t share his mirth. She shook her head and walked out the door.

Burner was left alone in his luxury hotel room. As he finished dressing, he took one last look around the place that was supposed to represent his time off. It was possible that this meeting would be quick and he could still finish his vacation. Maybe one of his old teammates just wanted to catch up. But his instinct told him he was about to get involved in something serious. Again.

This instinct was something Burner had developed over a long and dangerous career. It was almost like a premonition, a supernatural sense of something being off. He knew it was actually a combination of his experiences working together to feed him information before his conscious mind could make connections. In the field, this instinct could warn him that there was a gun pointed at him from the next room, or that he was about to walk into a trap. Right now, it was telling him that the only reason one of his old team would go to the trouble of finding him was that something big was happening.

The prospect wasn’t as exciting as it might have usually been. Burner still wasn’t completely recovered from his last big endeavor, during which he had been beaten, shot, and blasted with grenade shrapnel. After receiving the best medical care the Union could provide, the wounds were at least closed and well on their way to healing. But he still didn’t feel like he was operating at one hundred percent.

The timing made sense, though. After years of living under aliases and avoiding Union space, he had been forced to return to Dobulla, a planet in major Union territory. While there, he had given the authorities his real name. Anyone who had been waiting for him to resurface would have received a flag that he was active again. If someone from his team had been hoping to find him for a while, getting the notification that he was in Union space would have given them the starting point to track him down.

It still wasn’t clear which member of his team he would be meeting. He went through faces in his head and tried to match them with the messages he had received. There was the operations manager, the weapons specialists, the technology experts, the researchers. Not to mention the dozen or so members of the support staff. He was not able to narrow it down with what he had right now.

He could get his answers soon. Without knowing a time, he wanted to be at the meeting soon on the chance he could see who was arriving.

The directory of shops on the station only listed one café that met the requirements set in the mission. Burner made sure his weapon was loaded and discreetly holstered, then he went out to meet a part of his past life.


2 Ambrose Women’s Shelter, Herod District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


Two Years Ago

The women’s shelter located on Dobulla served a unique purpose. While battered women’s shelters were not uncommon in Union space, none provided residence to the number of amnesiacs that the Ambrose center did.

Dozens of women, mostly of a younger age, milled about under the watchful eyes of a caring staff. The ones with the most extreme forms of memory loss were given therapy to help them relearn how to care for themselves, while others were given job training in preparation for getting back into the real world. All the while, promises were made that the center’s investigators were hard at work trying to learn the women’s real identities and locate any family or friends that could help them return to their life. At a glance, it was an example of the Union doing its job and caring for people who couldn’t care for themselves.

A more critical person might wonder why there were so many young women in the Union missing their memories. A person like the woman currently seated in a back office of the center.

Mary, as she had been told her name was, sat patiently in a stiff, plastic chair while she waited for the administrator, who had called her in, to return. She watched through the office window as the shelter’s residents went about their lives. The day’s therapy and training sessions were done so many were on their way to the various recreational activities that the shelter offered. Movies were popular, as was the game room. Others went back to their rooms to read or get some extra rest. Most seemed content. Or at least as content as they could be while not knowing who they were.

The staff couldn’t be faulted for the care they provided for the women. The same couldn’t be said about the building itself. The furniture was all cheap and makeshift, the walls looked like they hadn’t been painted since the planet’s colony days, and here and there cracks could be seen in the foundation. It could be assumed that the cost of caring for these women was so great that there was no funding left for building maintenance.

The administrator Mary had been waiting for finally returned to the office. He was a chubby man with a bushy beard whose smile made it look like he was always about to burst out laughing. His ID tag labelled him Mitch, and he plopped down hard in the wheelie chair next to Mary. He nearly toppled over, forgetting that the chair’s back was broken, but he caught himself in time and sat up straight.

Mitch cleared his throat as he tried to recover from the embarrassment. “Good news, Mary. Our investigators have made a great discovery in your case. We’ve found your husband! He’s been very worried about you.”

He pulled out a datapad with enthusiasm and laid it on the desk in front of her. It seemed he didn’t get to deliver good news all that often and was excited by this turn of events.

She couldn’t share his enthusiasm. None of it felt right to her. Maybe that was how all amnesia patients felt when they learned the truth about themselves, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that none of what she had been told was true.

Her earliest memories were of waking up in a shelter. They told her she had been in the hospital after collapsing and she couldn’t tell the doctors her name. They had found the name “Mary” on a tag on her clothes. The hospital had transferred her to the shelter for care. That was the story she had been given.

The name Mary meant nothing to her. It sounded wrong on her tongue. She had suggested to the staff a few times that perhaps she had been wearing borrowed clothes when she was brought to the hospital, but they kept insisting it was far more likely that was her name.

Now the datapad in front of her displayed the name “Mary Pangel” next to her picture, along with all sorts of information about her so-called life. None of it sparked any recognition from her. It was as if she was reading about some stranger she had never met.

According to this, she was married. That sounded particularly wrong. The very idea of marriage caused a vitriol reaction from her. Could someone who had that kind of reaction really have married?

She rubbed at her ring finger and saw no sign that she had ever worn a wedding ring. No tan line, no indentation, no patch of smooth skin. If she was married, why would she never have worn a ring?

Mary scrolled through the collected information, looking for anything that looked right. There was a lot of it. “How was all of this collected?”

Mitch beamed as if he had personally been responsible. “We have some of the best investigators on staff. They took your picture and ran it through several Union databases until they found you. Then we contacted your listed husband and he identified you from your picture. You’re pretty lucky. Usually we don’t get results in just a few days like this.”

“Why not?” She stopped scrolling through the records. None of it was helping. “If your investigators are so good, shouldn’t they be able to do the same database searches for the other women here?”

The administrator scratched at the bush on his face. “I’m sure they try, but not everyone has so many official records connected to their face. Then they’ve got to use more involved ways to investigate. Like I said, you’re one of the lucky ones.”

“And have your investigators ever been wrong?” She gestured to the datapad. “Have they ever given you information on a woman that turned out to be inaccurate?”

“Oh, no. You don’t have to worry about that.” Mitch nearly leaned back in his chair before remembering there was no back and stopping himself. “Our guys have never been wrong.”

“I assume they have a one-hundred percent accuracy then? They must be amazing investigators.” Mary knew that even the best investigators weren’t right every time. Though she didn’t know how she knew that. “Do you ever follow up with the women who have been claimed by their families?”

Mitch looked confused. “Well... no. Once they are signed out by their families, they are no longer our responsibility. We do inform them of where they can find continued support for their condition, though. Don’t worry, the Union has many programs to help women in your situation.”

It became clear that Mitch wasn’t going to be of much help in unravelling the mystery of her life. She would have to figure it out on her own.

So, what did she know about herself? She was tall and well-muscled. She seemed like the type who was used to exercising a lot. She certainly didn’t seem the type to sit all day in a bureaucratic job, as her file would suggest. Obviously she was very logical, as her ability to think through this situation proved. And perhaps just a tad bit violent, given her desire to strike Mitch in his smiling face for his complete incompetence and lack of analytical thinking.

Slowly, things began to come back to her. Just flashes, but these were these were the first flashes of memories she’d had since waking up in the shelter. Flashes of violence. Of a spaceship. Of men in military uniforms. But it was all disconnected, and everything between was still blurry. If she could just clear those images in her mind, she knew she would remember who she was.

The only thing she was positive about was that whoever she was, it was not the person on that datapad. And there were other questions, too. Who had forged that data, and who was this supposed husband who was coming to get her? She would have answers soon.

Mitch was saying something else, but she didn’t hear it. She let her mind drift while studying the false information on that datapad, wondering who she really was.




3 Café Fresia, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

It was no surprise that Café Fresia, an outdoor coffee shop located on the main thoroughfare of this “natural” level, was so busy. Above it, screen panels that lined the ceiling simulated a blue sky with slowly drifting clouds. High powered lights in a faint orangish tint beamed down to imitate natural sunlight.

The morning coffee rush was in full swing, so it took a few minutes for Burner to find an empty table with two seats. He placed his pack on the other seat to discourage anyone but his contact from sharing the table. The act would be considered rude by some, who were now forced to stand with their drinks or leave, but Burner put on an uncaring expression and tuned his datapad to the local news.

The main story was, as it had been every day since the incident, about the bombs that had been discovered on the station and the two explosions that had impacted against the station’s shields. The Union had covered up the whole truth, only admitting to the decoys that were found in public areas and not to the ones planted below the station’s core which would have destroyed the entire thing. One explosion was confirmed to be a ship that the terrorist who had planted the bombs had been aboard, and the other the Union claimed was a bomb that had been planted on an exterior system of the station. That latter story was heavily questioned by the author of the article, who had several eyewitness accounts claiming that they saw the Union ship Liberty Ward fire upon the station.

In Union space, questioning the official story about an incident like this was a good way to ruin your journalism career. Not to mention the risk of being pulled into some secret interrogation room with the demands of revealing your sources. Out here, a right to free speech was intrinsic to the local values. It was one of the things Burner liked about the Deadlands.

Pharbis was sort of unique in its position on the frontier, where it served as a major trading post between the Union and the residents of the Deadlands. Technically outside of Union space, it wasn’t bound to Union law, but roughly half the people on the station at any given time were citizens of the Union. This created an odd mishmash of culture between the traditionalist and orderly Union and the chaotic and capitalistic ways of the Deadlands.

The result was a rigid class system that most of the permanent residents weren’t even aware of. Burner could see it as he glanced out of the corner of his eye and observed the milling crowd of coffee patrons. They showed it in the way they carried themselves, the groups they kept themselves in, and the way they looked at others.

The barista, for example, was part of the common class. She lived and worked on the station, but her job didn’t offer her a chance to share in the wealth that trade brought to the station. Even with tips, which Burner deduced from quick flashes of totals was somewhere between five and ten percent here, she would barely be able to eke out an existence in the expensive living conditions on the station. In the Union she would have been guaranteed a certain standard of living (though Burner had seen enough corruption to know local governors weren’t always creating those standards on smaller planets). but here she worked hard for bare survival. Burner spotted a scar on her arm from where she had once been burned, probably in the line of duty. A simple procedure could have repaired the burn long before it scarred, but such things would have been out of budget for her.

The man she was currently serving, who was dressed in a bland gray suit and wearing a generic blue tie, was part of the Union class. As a Union official, he didn’t have much more in terms of credits than the barista did, but he was also responsible for less of his own expenses as long as he was here on sanctioned business. His housing, medical expenses, and network access fees would all be covered by Union credits. He traveled in a pack with other Union officials and looked at the residents of the Deadlands with a sense of superiority. Like many of his kind, he considered Union life to be civilized and thought everyone who chose to live outside its laws to be savages.

Sitting at a table across from Burner was a man dressed in the latest fashion out of the deep Deadlands, close-fitting black and white slashing across the chest around a large logo that branded it so everyone knew how much was spent on that outfit. He was part of the trader class, so he made his fortune bringing supplies and manufactured goods from the big Deadlands companies and trading them with his Union counterparts. Deadlands manufacturing didn’t have the same regulations and restrictions as in the Union, which led to the creation of unique and cheap products that were in heavy demand in Union space. Of course, that came at the price of some inhumane working conditions and a degree of violence between competing firms, but that hardly mattered to the trader. He simply collected his credits and amassed an amount of wealth that made him expect preferential treatment on the station. Treatment he received, as he was one of the few customers the café’s staff took orders from at his table instead of being made to order at the counter.

There was only one representative of the final class here. Standing in the back with his arms crossed and a frown plastered across his heavy face was the café’s owner. The only real winners of Pharbis’ unique position, the owner class of the station benefitted both from the freedom from regulation of being in the Deadlands and the security provided by the frequency of Union ships in the area. For most who decided to operate businesses in the Deadlands, the benefits of being able to operate in a free and capitalistic society came with the costs of lawlessness, such as frequent raids by Ravagers and corporate espionage. Few Ravagers wanted to risk attacking anywhere near Pharbis with Union vessels always so close by, so owners like the heavyset man were able to get the best of both worlds. This gave them a level of wealth and influence that surpassed even the station’s authorities.

There were other intricacies behind the obvious. A difference between Union traders and Deadlands traders, different tiers of owners, Union packs organized by their level of authority back home. But Burner didn’t want to spend too much time analyzing the social structure of the station unless it became relevant later. The observations he had made so far were offhand, the result of an analytical mind that never stopped drawing conclusions even without conscious effort. That was what Intelligence training did to you.

More immediately important was to see if anyone appeared to be taking special note of him. He had taken all the necessary precautions after leaving his hotel room to avoid being tailed. From his front door, he took a hall that he had already disabled the security on, then he took the stairs down to the employee level and went out through a service entrance. Once on the street, he walked in winding circles to pick up on any tails and hadn’t noticed anything.

Since he was confident no one had followed him, that left the only danger having already been waiting for him at the café. He wished the contact had chosen a more private place to meet. The general roar of a large crowd was great for masking conversations from long-range listening devices, but it also meant there were a lot of targets to consider and rule out.

First were those who had a legitimate reason to carry weapons in public. Burner had already learned that the station security was not incorruptible when several of their members had tried to kill him while working for the terrorists. Security was still on alert after the attempted bombing, so it was not surprising that there were two posted within range of the café. Burner casually glanced in their direction to see if either were looking at him. One was daydreaming, content with looking up at the simulated clouds and not at the café. The other’s attention was fixed at the café, but his longing gaze was directed at the barista. Burner felt a small amount of pity for the man. His observations of the barista’s body language when interacting with customers suggested that she wasn’t interested in men.

Burner scanned the crowd for anyone who might be carrying a concealed weapon or who seemed to be paying him undue attention. A young man with a mohawk and a nose ring definitely had some kind of compact weapon tucked into the waistband of his pants. He wasn’t here for Burner, though, and instead took a seat next to the trader Burner had identified earlier. They leaned in to whisper to each other. A representative of a group of wannabee pirates, making a deal to either offer protection through a part of the Deadlands or to raid a competitor’s ship. The conversation might usually interest Burner, but for now it wasn’t his concern.

He caught a red-headed woman sitting at a nearby table giving him a couple of side glances. When their eyes caught, she smiled. Not spying on him but interested in him physically. Burner frowned at her and she quickly looked away. It was a little mean, but when his contact showed up, he couldn’t afford any onlookers.

If his contact ever showed up. They were ten minutes past their scheduled meeting time, according to the station time displayed by his comm. Not that they had an agreed upon meeting time explicitly. Burner was operating under assumptions from his time with the unit. The same time he had received the message but in the morning. It was possible protocols had changed in his absence and his former teammates didn’t realize he wouldn’t be aware of his changes.

It was also possible that something had happened to his contact. If they had gone so far as the get in touch with Burner, a move that could be career suicide, it was likely that whatever they were bringing to him was serious and a danger to someone in a position of authority in the Union. They could have grabbed the contact before they had reached the coffee shop.

Burner decided to wait a little longer, though doing so risked drawing attention from annoyed café patrons waiting for a table to open up. He could only push it so far. He had already finished his bagel, and despite taking slow sips, he was already halfway through his second cup of coffee. He pretended to be absorbed in reading the news on his datapad and being completely unaware of the busyness of the café around him. Once his coffee was finished, he wouldn’t be able to stall any longer.

Another five minutes passed. Nothing. He was starting to draw attention from the chubby café owner, no doubt thinking Burner’s table would more profitably put to use occupied by one of the traders. Not good.

After five more minutes, his cup was empty. He contemplated getting a third, but it was a poor idea. Ordering three cups of coffee over the course of a single morning was a good way to be remembered. Plus, he could see the café owner getting ready to come over and ask him to clear the table.

He figured if his contact was coming, they would have been here by now. Acting unhurried, he slipped the datapad into his pack, got up from the table, and strolled out of the café.

Once he was out of sight, he doubled around and did a circuit of the surrounding area. His contact might have been watching the café while having second thoughts about meeting him. Or, if the worst had happened, the ones who had taken his contact could be lingering around, waiting for a private moment to grab him. He tried to give them those moments to lure them out, choosing to take narrow alleys and side paths away from the crowds where a scuffle might go unnoticed. No one took the bait and his sixth sense for that kind of thing didn’t go off. He wasn’t being followed.

The station’s levels were designed around a large circle, in which a slight, barely perceptible incline caused the levels to spiral out gradually around the center. Burner went up to the next level of the spiral and found the spot that directly overlooked the café. It would take a decent zoom function for a device to get a clear image of the patrons down below (barring using something that would draw attention, like binoculars). If someone wanted to spy from a distance, this was the place to do it, as the spiral layout would block the view of the café on any higher levels.

Burner looked for any of the obvious signs that someone had recently spent a great deal of time here. Cigarette ashes. Candy wrappers. Empty food cartons. The ground here was clean, and the trash cans were as empty as would be expected this early in the morning. It seemed unlikely that anyone had been spying on him while he was enjoying his coffee.

Assess. Plan. Act.

The three-step mantra had been drilled into Burner’s head through repetition throughout his Intelligence training. The ability to properly take the time to analyze a situation in its entirety and come up with an appropriate solution before leaping into action was what separated a successful Intelligence operative with a dead one.

Unfortunately, Burner seemed to be stuck at step one right now. There was very little information to go on, and without it, he couldn’t form a plan. As much as it frustrated him right down to the core of his being, he had to admit that there wasn’t anything he could do right now.

He would try again in twelve hours. Standard protocol was that, if for some extraordinary circumstance an agent was forced to miss a meeting, another attempt would be made a half day later. Perhaps his contact had simply missed their flight or was otherwise delayed beyond their control from reaching the meeting on time.

It was a better thought than the alternative. That a member of his old unit had tried to reach out to him and had suffered for it.


4 Unknown Location


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


Present Day

The slow drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet echoed through the windowless room. It was the only sound now that the prisoner had finally decided to be quiet. She had put up a valiant struggle despite being outnumbered and bound at the hands and feet as she was dragged inside. It took three men to secure her to the metal chair in the center of the room, and one of her captors, a man named Gray, had taken a knee in the groin during the effort.

Finally, all of her grunting, screaming, and flailing had come to a stop, and she settled back in the chair. There were no signs of the panic that usually overcame that chair’s other guests. Her eyes didn’t dart around to the various instruments of torture that had been hung on nearby racks to intimidate her. She didn’t breathe heavily or tremble. All she did was sit there, glaring into the darkness.

She would be a tough nut to crack.

With Gray off in the other room, icing his nethers, it fell to Smith, another of her captors, to take the first swing at her. He walked in, illuminated by the room’s sole light source, a dim overhead bulb, then he stepped around the racks of torture instruments and stopped in front of the prisoner. “Before we get started, one chance. Anything you’d like to tell us, Judy?”

The stocky woman cocked her head to look up at him. Her blonde hair had been tied back when they grabbed her, but in the struggle it had come loose and now fell across her face in wild strands. “Judy? I was told my name was Mary. You all need to make up your minds.”

Without warning, Smith struck out and punched the woman in the jaw. That was Smith’s way. Cold. Ruthless. Down to the point. He didn’t waste words or time.

Judy’s head lolled to the side and she groaned. “Gods...”

Smith folded his arms in front of him. “It will only get worse if you don’t cooperate.”

“Not that.” She cocked her head to the other side and her neck cracked. “I meant, ‘gods, you punch like a little girl.’ If you’re going to work me over, can you send in someone who has at least been to a gym in the last decade? Otherwise, we’re going to be here all day, and I’ve got a meeting to get to. If you guys make me late, I’m going to be upset.”

To his credit, Smith didn’t rise to her bait. He simply shook his head and walked over to the rack of instruments to pick his first tool.

Frank Rosen watched through a window in the door, stress smoking his second cigarette. “I’m telling you, Larry, this one is trouble. And I always call the troublemakers, don’t I?”

Larry didn’t look through the window, but he nodded at the boss’s observation anyway. “You do.”

“Like that one guy, back in Makeno. What was his name?” Frank took a drag on the cigarette that reduced it to a stub. “Remember, the one with the weird eye?”

His second-in-command looked thoughtful for a moment. “Montgomery something or other, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, right, Monty and his cyber eye. I said back then, ‘This guy Monty is going to be a problem.’ And what happened? Turns out his eye had been recording everything the whole time. Gods know how many hours of evidence. It took us weeks to track down all the servers that shit had been sent to. They reamed my ass so bad for that one, I thought I’d be sitting sideways the rest of my life.” He tapped at the glass, pointing to where the unimpressed prisoner watched Smith pick out his instrument of interrogation.

Larry shrugged. “We’ll have to be more careful this time.”

Frank grunted. He was always careful. Or, at least, he always tried to be. As much as could be reasonably expected, anyway. He was well into his fifties now and had been doing this kind of work for most his life. He knew when a situation was going to put his neck on the line and it was time to focus. This was one of those times.

He sometimes wondered if he should have retired already. When the last organization he had been a part of was acquired by bigger fish, many of his boys had decided to take the big payday offered and go find some beach somewhere to live out their days. But not Frank. Frank had said, “It’s not about the credits, it’s about the respect.” He’d used that as an excuse to stay in the game.

Truthfully, he was just worried he’d get bored. What was a man to do when he didn’t have to work for a living? Get old and fat, that’s what. So what if his hair had silvered a little? So what if some of the younger boys made fun of his style, the way he slicked back his hair and dressed in suits that were fashionable a decade ago? He was kept active, and he was damn good at the job. That’s why he’d been put in charge around here and those younger, more stylish kids worked for him now.

But when a situation like this arose, sometimes he wished he was on a beach with his old boys. Judy, who had gone by Mary when she was a guest at one of their shelters, had been doing some digging and asking around about one of the people who had held her there. Her questions triggered a search on that person by people they’d rather not have looking closer into the shelters.

She was up to something. Digging into their operation. And she was resourceful. Too resourceful to have been just some random woman with a vendetta. She had training. Union? Renegade from the Deadlands? Maybe one of their competitors looking for a leg up on their competition?

Didn’t matter which. The important thing was, she needed to be silenced. But first, they needed to make sure she hadn’t shared that information with anyone so that there was someone else they’d need to track down and grab before this spiraled any further.

He looked through the window, where Grey had picked a long needle to get started.

Judy laughed. “Think that little prick is going to scare me?”

Frank sighed, turning away from the window, and lit up a third cigarette. “I’m telling you, Larry. She’s going to be trouble.”

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

LUXURY SUITE, CANTERI HOTEL, SPACE STATION PHARBIS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS

Burner was surprised to find Sara waiting back at the hotel room when he returned. “You couldn’t possibly have gotten to Hank and back already.”

“Well, let’s just say I didn’t have to literally meet with him and leave it at that.”

Burner shifted his pack off and dropped it in a chair. “Okay, I won’t press for details.” Burner knew better. A Constable’s agenda is always that. Theirs. And there was no point in asking questions if you didn’t want to be lied to.

“How’d your meeting go?” Sara deflected.

“It didn’t.” Burner sat down on the bed and kicked his shoes off. “They were a no show.”

With effort, he hid the concern in his voice, but Sara had been trained to pick up deviations in a vocal pattern. “You think something happened to them?” she pressed.

“Can’t be sure.” He looked at his comm. Still no new messages. “I don’t even know who it was that sent the message. But for them to just not show up after sending a coded message...”

Sara nodded. She knew what it implied. “Let me help. I’ll send Hank a message that our meeting is going to have to wait.”

“I appreciate that, but I’m not sure what more we can do at the moment.”

“You mean what you can do at the moment.” She was smirking. “I have access to all kinds of resources. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s tracking down where messages were sent from.”

Burner lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. “Won’t Hank be upset with you using Constable resources to investigate something outside the scope of your missions?”

She scoffed. “Probably. But he’s been asking for something like this. Besides, he’ll only get mad if our investigation doesn’t turn up something interesting. And I have a feeling what we find could be interesting.”

He couldn’t argue there.

Within the hour, Sara had used her authorization to link them to a confidential network that gave them access to a powerful logic processor, decoder, and signal tracker. Burner entered into it his comm’s identifier and the exact times of the two messages he had received and the one he had sent. The tech dug through its database of all the intercepted messages going to and from the station and found the three that matched the query. They all came from the same location.

Burner activated a trace to identify that location.

Even with the power of the Constable network, it was a slow process. The signal had been bounced around a number of times, each point changing the identifying information and re-encoding the broadcast. The trace algorithm had to stop at every point to check if this was the true origin or if the message had come from somewhere else.

After about half an hour, the trace had gone as far as it could. It hadn’t been able to track the message all the way back to the originating comm, but it had reached a server that it identified as being responsible for the first long-range broadcast. The server had a name attached to it.

“Tamara Cameron,” Sara read out loud. “Ring any bells?”

He shook his head. “Not a member of my team. Could be an alias, but not one that was active when I worked with them.”

The server had several layers of access protection and was encrypted on top of that. The Union algorithms cut through the protections like a hot knife through butter.

It made Burner a little uncomfortable. “Is it me, or has the government gotten better at invading privacy since I left?”

Sara apparently mistook his sentiment for a compliment. “You can thank Hank. He always insists on having the best toys available to him wherever he works. I think I heard that he wrote a lot of the newer decryption algorithms himself.”

Burner ignored the comment and began to dig through the server. There was one thing that the Union algorithm couldn’t adjust for, an old-fashioned method of protecting your sensitive data that had existed at least as long as computing existed: burying it deep in a bunch of bullshit. Dozens of folders were filled with unrelated pictures, documents that contained nothing but sports scores, and complete episodes of a popular sitcom. Burner was forced to manually dig through each folder and subfolder to see if anything stood out as important.

He finally found a folder full of communications labeled “Baby’s First Birthday” buried among recipes for soy cakes. Each communication was encrypted, though he knew that the Union tech would take care of that. He just had to pick a place to start. He scrolled down the list and stopped when he saw a subfolder in the middle of the list. The name of the folder told him he had found what he was looking for: ICE.

Sara was watching him over his shoulder. “What’s ICE?”

“In Case of Emergency.” Burner opened the folder and let the decryption program do its thing. “It’s kind of like a last will and testament used by Intelligence agents in the field working on dangerous missions. It has all the intel of whatever we were working on, so if you’re killed or captured the next person can pick up the mission where you left off.”

Inside the folder were only two bits of data. One was the will of Tamara Cameron, in which she bequeathed, in the way of Union regulations, her possessions to her three daughters in event of her death. The other was bank account information, with a balance of credits that matched the will. Burner knew the data would be a top layer that kept the real info hidden.

Sure enough, when Sara ran a data extractor on the folder, they found the real files they were looking for. They were organized by date, with the lead file being a blank text document titled Burner_Start_Here.

“Looks like they expected you to find this,” Sara commented.

It didn’t feel right to Burner. “But why me? If they were conducting such a big investigation, they must have had a support team. The ICE files should be left for them.”

“Unless the investigation was off the books.”

“Only one way to find out.”

They opened the first file. It was a record of admittances to a women’s shelter on Dobulla. Burner scrolled through to the end of the record, but nothing stood out as unusual to him.

The second file was a collected list of bank transactions. The end point of each transaction was a large donation to women’s shelters, including the one on Dobulla. Nothing illegal, though it was certainly strange that so many large donations were being made to these shelters by a variety of wealthy families. Could the shelters be involved in credit laundering?

The truth turned out to be much darker. The next bit of data was a collection of hospital records. It was divided into two sections. The first was a list of surgical procedures performed in response to “extreme head injuries.” The second was a group of amnesia diagnoses and the discharges of those patients to the care of the women’s shelters. The amnesia diagnoses had different names associated with them than the surgical procedures, but Tamara’s notes connected the description of the patients from the first section to the patients from the second.

The following files were Union personal records with the names and pictures of the amnesia patients. The records themselves were clean, oddly so, to the point where they didn’t have so much as a single traffic violation. It was like someone had been creating aliases but didn’t go through the trouble to properly live them before using them. They seemed to have been born as full-grown adults. Besides all being amnesia patients and having clean records, the only thing that connected the women was that they were all married.

And with that, the dark picture was complete and Burner knew what it was his former teammate had stumbled upon. He didn’t want to believe it so he said it out loud, hoping that Sara would find a flaw in his logic. “They’re kidnapping women. Performing some kind of surgical procedure to wipe their memories. And then... they’re given to these shelters where they are held until they are purchased. Like a mail-order bride, except they’re being told they were already married to these men.”

Sara didn’t disagree with him. She just added to it. “They’re able to create entire new identities for these women, identities they can’t argue with because they have no memories. And then these rich bastards ‘donate’ to the shelter in exchange for ‘recovering their wives.’”

Burner felt physically sick.

He thought he understood well the depths of human depravity, having waded deep into its waters both as an agent of the Union and as a free drifter roaming the Deadlands. Sometimes the reminder still got to him, though.

Whoever was behind this, Burner was going to make them pay. That was for sure.

But first, he had to find out who Tamara was and make sure she was okay.

The last file was a journal of Tamara’s investigation in which the operative detailed her suspicions, their suspects, and their methods. Tamara used female pronouns to refer to herself, narrowing her down to the women in Burner’s team. Another thing of note was that she never made reference to a support team or Union handlers in the journal. It seemed Sara was right about this investigation not being on the books.

It was near the end of the journal, when Tamara was drawing the same conclusions that Burner and Sara had, that Burner realized who these files must have belonged to. Up until then, the notes had been meticulous and neat, each bit of evidence perfectly documented and cross referenced in a way that would make any prosecutor’s case easy. But as the investigation continued and the darkness of the crimes she was uncovering became clear, the notes became more chaotic and brief. By the end, they were emotional, with the writer promising to “personally crack each of them over the head.”



“Peterson.” Burner shook his head in disbelief. “Judy Peterson. Part of tactical operations.”

If these kidnappers had somehow managed to capture Judy, then Burner almost had a bit of pity for them.


5 Unknown Location


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Over the years, Judy had learned a variety of techniques to withstand torture, but theory always has a tendency to water down the actual practice. It was one thing to be taught what you should do to withstand intense, gut-churning physical agony. Actually doing it, though? Well, that hurt a hell of a lot more.

Her captors took care to immediately cauterize any wounds they inflicted. They wanted her talking, not dead, at least for the moment. Of course, although it stops you from bleeding out, cauterization does little to dull the pain. Especially when it’s being done with nothing more than forceps and the searing heat from an oxyacetylene torch lighter. Considering how her cheekbone still throbbed from the first punch he’d thrown, Judy wasn’t all that surprised that his bedside manner was severely lacking.

Despite his lithe, muscular frame, her interrogator had tired and was now sulking in a corner of the cell. He crouched against the wall, breathing deeply. Even in the dim light, Judy could make out his nostrils flaring wide with each exhale. Frustration, anger, exhaustion: these were all good things, these were things that she could work with.

Psy-ops—mental warfare, in civilian speak—were some of the most important tools in an Intelligence officer’s arsenal. Weaponry and hand-to-hand combat were important, but any sort of physical altercation came with a range of drawbacks and limitations. How much ammunition do you have left? How many opponents are you facing and how far are each of them from you? Or even sometimes, Judy mused bitterly, do you find yourself in a holding cell, strapped down to a fucking chair?

Though she could hold her own in most fights, in this situation relying on the physical would only allow her to act defensively. To resist, to react. That course of action would get her no closer to escaping from here and also came with a ticking countdown attached to it. No amount of training could make any operative “torture-proof.” Everyone has their breaking point, whether that means you talk or die. Given enough time, Judy knew that her captors would find hers too. And there was no way she was going to give them the satisfaction.

Judy swirled a gob of coppery blood around her mouth before spitting it loudly onto the floor. In the corner, she saw her captor’s jaw clench for the barest fraction of a second. He looked up, his face otherwise blank and impassive. Judy figured that he must have worked years to perfect that stony stare. Probably thought it meant his expression gave nothing away. He was wrong of course. Everybody gives things away, it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

“You need something?” he asked without a hint of sincerity.

“I’m wondering.” Judy ignored the question, responding with one of her own. “What does your mother think of this fine line of work you’ve carved out for yourself?”

“Bold of you to assume I have a mother,” he snorted.

Judy smirked back at him, immediately regretting it as fresh pain shot up through her jaw and cheekbone.

“You know,” she said slowly, deliberately. “We used to have a name for guys like you back in the day.”

“Oh yeah?” he mused, vaguely curious where this was going.

“Yeah,” she continued. “We used to say you were all just ‘blunt instruments.’ Useful, simple tools, you know?”

He felt like he was in on the joke enough to give another grunt. Seemed to be as close as he could get to laughing.

When at a physical disadvantage, operatives who attempt to psychologically manipulate their captors should avoid being aggressive or confrontational. Judy could still hear her CO’s words ringing in her ears.

Never forget, you’re the one who’s shit outta luck right now, and they know it. Verbal attacks are only going to get you roughed up some more. They think they have all the power and it’s your job to let them go on thinking that. Because that’s when people get sloppy and make the kind of mistakes you need them to do so you can get yourself the hell out of there.

She knew how to play guys like this, knew precisely what she needed to do here. Appeal to his ego, toss in some subtle digs and a little grim humor: it all works wonders when properly applied. Once she got him talking, she would let him get enough rhythm going to relax a little. She could get a good read on him that way, start building a profile. Strengths and weaknesses. Discomfort, hesitation, and so on.

“But seriously,” Judy continued. “How does somebody find themselves doing this stuff for a living? I get if you’re in it for the money. Unless the perk of getting to slap women around is the real draw?”

Her tone was casual, enough that he could almost confuse it for joking, despite the cutting things she was suggesting. She didn’t believe for a minute that this man had any moral qualms about what he and his employers were doing here. But that wasn’t the point. The goal now was to get him to let his guard down just enough to get into his head. To plant a seed of doubt big enough to get him questioning the men he worked for.

Her captor gave another short exhale of half-laughter and shook his head. One hand fished the torch lighter out of his pocket. He played absentmindedly with it, thumbing the lid open and then shut again as he paced the cell.

“You really don’t realize you’re in over your head here,” he cautioned in the same flat monotone.

Judy flashed him a grin again, no less pained than the last one. She was starting to wonder if he’d managed to fracture her jawbone.

“You sure that I’m the one who’s in over my head?” she asked, goading him softly.

He shook his head at her some more as he patrolled around the chair. He walked in smaller and smaller circles, like a shark cornering its prey.

“Judy, Mary...whatever it is you want me to call you,” he taunted. “I’m comfortable with my work. And I feel very secure in my position. Let’s leave it at that.”

Reasserting his authority. She didn’t have him on the ropes. Not yet. But the fact that he needed to acknowledge her question at all betrayed a lingering insecurity. And his desire to “leave it at that” meant something.

She tried again. New approach.

“I’m betting they pay you pretty well, huh?”

Every time her captor replied to her, it was key to move the goalposts instead of directly responding. This kept him feeling comfortable on the surface of the conversation, while still subconsciously throwing him off balance. She kept him feeling like he was directing the conversation, but she continued to maneuver it as she saw fit. The illusion of control.

He let the pay question hang in the air. No reply forthcoming besides the rhythmic shiiick of him flicking the lighter open and closed.

“I mean,” Judy continued in a softer, more vulnerable tone. “I know I would expect damn good money to get involved in this kind of shit.”

Speaking to her captors sympathetically was a classic case study in building rapport. The Union had dealt with more than enough cases of Stockholm syndrome—hostages identifying with their kidnappers—to realize that this was a two-way street. If she could get the people holding her to see her as a sympathetic ear or a co-conspirator instead of a prisoner, then she was well on her way to getting out of their clutches.

“They pay me well enough,” he replied, his voice now tinged with irritation. Only one reason for that. She’d hit a nerve.

There was that nostril flare again. Confirmation. The squint: half-suspicious, half-inquisitive. Judy watched as he shoved the lighter back into his pocket. No more time to fidget now. He was on edge. She took several deep breaths, not wanting to go for the throat too quickly and give the whole gambit away.

“Well enough compared to who though?” she asked, raising the pitch of her voice just enough to sound genuinely curious. “I mean, what does your boss make off each of these brides?”

He turned his back to her, looking toward the cell door. Through the tiny window, she could just about see a swathe of dark hair. It belonged to the other guard, the one she’d given a swift kick in the balls when they secured her to the chair. It had been a hell of a kick. She was surprised how soon he’d managed to get back up and about.

What had they said his name was? Something short, simple even. A color maybe? On a better day, Judy would‘ve been able to recall this information in an instant. But in the last few hours, she’d taken more than a couple blows to the head, and worse. Combine that with what these bastards had done to her brain, and she figured anyone would be hard pressed to retain that sort of detail.

It didn’t matter, though. She didn’t need his name to know that his partner ranked higher in the pecking order. Or at least he thought he did.

“Your buddy out there.” She cocked her head toward the door, ignoring the sharp pain that spiked through her face and neck. “The one doubled over in pain from the kick to his balls.”

Her captor froze for a fraction of a second. Still fixated on the door, he didn’t turn to face her. But now she was getting somewhere. Time to add some salt to the wound.

“I mean, he clearly doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing,” Judy needled. “Letting a prisoner who’s all bound up lay you out like that? Amateur stuff.”

He was silent but still hadn’t turned around. She had his attention though, even if he didn’t want her to know it.

“What do you think they pay him?” she probed, watching for the slightest hint of a reaction. “Less than you? More than you?”

He swiveled, turning on his heels faster and more smoothly than most Union cadets she’d seen on parade. He glowered at her through narrowed eyes but still said nothing.

“I mean I would hope it’s less,” she continued matter-of-factly. “But from talking to him, I get the impression that it could go either way.”

He cleared the distance between them faster than Judy was expecting. The hook was in. The question of money was clearly one that triggered him because money was about power. His power. Or lack thereof. The chain of command might even be an issue, too.

“What did he say to you exactly?” he snarled, leaning low over her.

He was reasserting his physical dominance, trying to bring her thoughts back to the torture she’d endured only minutes before. Judy knew these games, and dammit she was better at them. She widened her eyes deliberately.

“I mean, we didn’t talk s-s-salaries if that’s what you mean,” she stammered, allowing a note of false panic to creep into her voice.

They think they have all the power and it’s your job to let them go on thinking that.

Reaching for the nearest rack, her captor picked up the long, thin needle his partner had sunk into her thigh at the start of their interrogation.

“What I mean,” he hissed, waving the needle a hair’s breadth from her left eye. “Is what exactly did Gray say to you?”

Gray, that was it! She knew it was a color. Judy let her bottom lip quiver, trying not to oversell it but also not entirely convinced that this man wouldn’t plunge the needle into her head either.

“He just doesn’t understand why they’ve made you both glorified babysitters,” she blurted, letting the words flow as fast and frantically as she could without stumbling over them.

Fear was what guys like this lived for, Judy knew. They were addicted to it. They loved nothing more than feeling like they were the big boss, like they were in control, because in every other aspect of their life, they weren’t. Giving them their fix at the right time could count for a lot.

“He said you’re both better than this… or at least he is,” she gasped, her eyes still focused on the gleam of the needle under the bare bulb above them. “Doesn’t understand why you let them push you around like this.”

Her captor’s face twisted, his lips curling in a muted rage. He resented Gray’s incompetence at letting himself get tagged. The idea that an idiot who would let that happen could still think they were better than him cut to the core of his ego, his view of himself as a consummate professional. He held fast to the needle but drew back from Judy’s face.

“Look, I clearly don’t agree with the guy,” she insisted, “I’m the one who laid him out!”

Judy was forging ties with him now. Making him think she saw things through his eyes. He was like putty in her hands.

“I’m just saying,” she added. “If you’re going to let a guy like that disrespect you and get away with it, something’s not right.”

He held her gaze for a moment, his eyes burning almost brighter than the light overhead. He tossed the needle to the floor and swore under his breath. Judy continued to pant, her eyes glancing around fearfully. It wasn’t enough to just start off implying distress. She had to sell it, right down to the last moment and detail.

Her captor hauled the heavy metal door open and dragged his companion roughly into the cell. Gray almost lost his footing, stumbling into one of the equipment racks.

“Hey!” he protested. “What the fuck, Smith?”

Smith was not inclined to give explanations.

“Stay here and don’t take your eyes off her,” he barked, barging past his struggling comrade. “And don’t fucking talk to her.”

Smith slammed the door shut behind him. As he stormed away down the corridor, Judy caught the faintest hint of comm static and a garbled voice responding to Smith’s muffled growls.


6 Café Fresia, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner returned to Café Fresia later in the evening. A 12-hour follow up was Intelligence standard for this sort of rendezvous. He found the café in the opposite state as when he’d left that morning. Besides a handful of stragglers, most of the tables were now unoccupied. There were no more mohawked pirates peddling their services, or Union officials looking down their noses at the locals. Just a few Station clerks pulling deeply caffeinated overtime, and the occasional student or prospective cadet loading up for an all-nighter.

The chubby owner had evidently gone home early for the night, though Burner noted that the same barista was still behind the counter. Her body language was less frazzled now that there were fewer customers to take care of. From her bloodshot eyes and the sweaty mess of bangs poking out from under the cap, Burner could tell she’d swapped frenzy for fatigue.

He continued to scan the occupied tables as he approached the register with shrinking optimism. Most of the clientele weren’t even as old as Judy—and what would she be now, thirty-five? Thirty-seven? Burner knew she was a little younger than him. How much younger exactly, he wasn’t sure he’d like to admit. Still, there was hardly anyone in the café who looked a day older than twenty, and the ones who did didn’t exactly give off a military vibe.

A man pushing seventy played alone with a set of holo-dominoes at a table in the back corner of the café, the soft blue glow of the game pieces highlighting his deep-set wrinkles and slight frame. A mother, her back turned outward toward Burner, nursed her infant in a booth. A scruffy middle-aged guy returned to his table from the restroom with a slight wobble in his step. Probably had more than just coffee tonight.

Judy, like any Union Intelligence officer, had been trained to use disguise. Especially in situations where she was liable to be compromised. Even so, Burner thought, if any of those are costumes, they’re pretty damn convincing. And if she was in disguise it would be up to her to recognize and approach him.

As he drew level with the counter, the barista flashed him a half-smile. He gave a quarter of one in return.

“Know what you’d like?” she asked.

Her voice still rang with the same enthusiasm as this morning, although her facial expressions had probably stopped mirroring it hours ago.

“Large coffee,” Burner requested. “The hottest and darkest you have.”

“Sure thing,” the barista chimed, punching his order in. “Though I’ve got to say, it’s a little late in the day for that isn’t it?”

Burner considered this for a second, tilting his head upward. Through the café's skylight he could see the artificial evening projected across the station’s interior above him. It wasn’t an image of the actual stars and planets that floated in the dark space beyond its boundaries. More likely it was a rendering of a night sky on a planet doubtless very far removed from here, if it was even based on a real view at all.

“That all really depends on what you mean by a day,” he mused. “I get the feeling you’ve been on this station a lot longer than I have.”

The barista shrugged her shoulders as she positioned a mug beneath the dispenser’s nozzle.

“You do what you gotta do.” She sighed. “You know?”

Burner nodded. He knew.

Scanning the tables as he waited, Burner assured himself that Judy was a no-show. Again. His brain spiraled off on a dozen different tangents. Who had stopped Judy from meeting him and how? Where was she now? Had she even been the one who sent the comm? Or was someone using one of his old team as bait to lure him into a trap?

Burner caught his gaze wandering, his eyes glazing over. Distraction, complacency: that was a death sentence waiting to happen. He re-focused his attention on the barista. Her back was still turned to him as she finished pouring his coffee.

As she passed the mug across the counter and reached over to accept his credits, the barista paused for a moment, arching one pierced eyebrow.

“You were here this morning too, weren’t you?” she asked, tilting her head. “Must have coffee in your veins to drink it all day like that.”

Burner laughed at this, though mostly to cover up his unease. He hadn’t figured on being that memorable. Internally, he berated himself for not changing outfits once more before returning tonight. He’d worked Intelligence long enough to know better than to underestimate any eyewitness, regardless of their profession.

“Could say the same about you,” he countered casually. Deflection. Good. “You’re here at seven in the morning, busting out coffees. And at seven at night, you’re still here. Hell of a shift. You know, in my experience, somebody who pulls those kinds of hours either really loves their job or is saving up for something better.”

Burner leaned across the counter to take his mug. The barista seemed intrigued by him. He wasn’t sure if he should take this as a bad sign or a good one. Spies never looked the way you expected them to and he had more than enough enemies in this galaxy already. He took note of her nametag—Brianna B.—though if she actually was spying on him, this would obviously be a false ID.

“No offense,” he added, taking a grateful sip from the steaming mug. “Your coffee’s great, and if that’s your passion, you’ve got it made.”

Brianna offered him a smile that Burner found endearing, folding her arms over her tan-stained apron. “You know, people don’t normally ask me that kind of thing,” she replied. “But if you really want to know, I have plans to test into the military.” She shrugged, trying to deflect her embarrassment about having ambition. “If that doesn’t pan out, I’ll probably head to one of the Luxoplanets to work at a resort. At least the weather will be nice and the people will tip better.”

It was Burner’s turn to raise an eyebrow. She was a sharp one. Not what he’d expected. It sure didn’t seem like a trap anymore. Way too obvious to drop the Academy’s name if someone was trying to pump him for information. But he was impressed, nonetheless. Being a Union prospie, especially in this part of the galaxy, took some serious grit. He was starting to like this girl.

“Of course,” she continued, giving him a sly look. “I’m sure you already know what kind of credits that ticket costs.”

The sentence itself was fairly innocuous, but Bryoni’s tone let Burner know that she had made him as a Union (or ex-Union) officer from the first moment he’d set foot in Café Fresia. He sucked in a deep breath. This whole luxury hotel deal was ruining him. Making him more relaxed, more obvious. He’d have to get that under lock and fast.

“Oh yeah.” Burner chuckled nonchalantly. “I sure do. What branch are you going in for?”

“Infantry,” Brianna proudly declared, hands firmly on her hips. “What about you? What branch did you serve in?”

“Trade Enforcement,” Burner lied as easily as breathing.

This was his go-to story. His old reliable cover if someone ever clocked him as a Union officer in unfavorable circumstances. Nine times out of ten, you tell someone you work in Trade Enforcement, they’d be bored enough to end the conversation right there. Every now and again you might find someone who was persistent, maybe a little better informed. They might ask a follow up question or two. The trick was to make sure your answers were as dull as somebody would expect from a Trade Enforcement officer, and they’ll back off quickly too.

Brianna seemed disappointed, but not enough to stop talking to him completely.

“So, what brings you to Pharbis?” she enquired, taking her time finishing the transaction.

“Vacation,” Burner lied again, chasing the untruth with another sip of coffee. “Though I have to admit,” he continued, letting a hint of embarrassment trickle into his voice, “I might have messed up.”

“Oh?” Brianna cooed, placing her elbows on the counter, waiting to hear more.

“Yeah,” Burner muttered, taking another swig from his coffee. “See, I was supposed to meet an old colleague here. Now I thought she meant 7 o’clock this morning, but she didn’t show.”

Brianna clicked her tongue. She was judging him a little now. A former Union official, messing up something as basic as a meeting?

“I figured maybe I got it wrong. Had a long night last night,” he went on, gesturing with his coffee. “So I came back at 7 tonight, just in case. Still no sign of her though.” He drained the rest and slid the empty mug back across the counter.

“Don’t suppose you’ve spotted any other Union types lingering around today? Low-key obviously,” he added. “Us retirees typically don’t parade around in uniform.”

This exaggeration stung a bit, but it was necessary. To people her age, anyone over thirty was already ancient. If she’d pegged Burner as a military pensioner, chances were she would have thought the same of Judy if she’d shown up. Brianna mulled it over for a minute, tossing an extra splash of coffee into Burner’s empty mug. On the house.

“No,” she said finally. “Nobody like that. The usual Union officials of course. Security liaisons, ambassadors’ guards. About who’d you’d expect this far out in the Deadlands.”

The minor wounds to his ego aside, Burner liked this kid. He slipped another handful of credits across the counter as a tip and downed the rest of the coffee. For a brief moment, he considered warning her not to disclose this conversation to anyone. But he already knew that wasn’t necessary. Someone who’s working a dead-end job until they made their way into the military already knew when it was best to keep their mouth shut.

“Well,” Burner said, sliding the empty mug toward the register, “I appreciate the help. Sorry to bug you. I’ll get out of your hair so you can close this place down.”

Brianna snatched up his empty cup. “Always happy to help out the Union,” she beamed.

Burner could give her any number of good reasons to rethink that outlook, but it wouldn’t do either of them any good. He thanked her again and left the café, then he perched on the veranda outside.

Above him, the higher levels of the station spiraled upward against a backdrop of fabricated stars and planets. In the distance back toward the hotel, Burner could just about see the final fringes of the station’s artificial sun disappearing beneath a false horizon. He wondered if Judy was watching the same, fake sunset somewhere on this station. And if not, when was the last time she’d seen one?

Burner ambled out of the café and stood for a moment, watching the pale, computer-generated aura of the night sky fade to black. Wherever Judy was—dead or alive —he was going to find her. And whoever was running the “shelters” and selling women off as if they were trinkets? He’d make sure they’d never see any sun come up again. Simulated or not.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

LUXURY SUITE, CANTERI HOTEL, SPACE STATION PHARBIS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS

The door clicked shut behind Burner as he entered the suite. He’d taken his time getting back, opting to walk instead of taking transit. It gave him more time to weigh this all up. To assess. To plan.

“You’re alone,” Sara noted without looking up from her datapad.

“Yep.” Burner sighed, sinking down beside her on the bed.

He bent over to remove his shoes as Sara’s fingers continued to fly rapidly over the datapad. She said nothing further, her eyes intensely focused on the screen. Burner cocked his head, trying to get her attention.

“Hey. Are you working on something important there?”

Sara shushed him, scarcely even glancing away from the screen to acknowledge the interruption. Her eyebrows—a slightly dirtier blonde than the cascading gold of her hair—were drawn close together. She chewed gently on her bottom lip, threatening to smear the deep red gloss that she’d lined it with this morning. Whatever she was after, it was important alright.

Burner waited, mustering up all the patience he could after hitting two dead ends in the same day. He watched Sara work and felt the unfaltering focus that came off her in waves as she swiped through files and hammered out notes. Despite how grim this situation with Judy was, he felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. Sara was a born investigator, and she was relishing this challenge.

Minutes passed in relative silence before Sara abruptly dropped the datapad on the bed and drew herself up into a sitting position. She locked eyes with Burner, the thrill of the chase fading to be replaced with grave concern. Burner held his tongue, giving her time to switch gears. Sara wasn’t one to wear her emotions on her sleeve—in the Constables, this was practically a prerequisite—but from the hard set of her jaw, Burner could tell she was deeply unsettled by what she’d uncovered. Disturbed, yes. Upset, probably. Angry? No doubt.

Eventually, she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, her face regaining the studied composure of a Constable.

“I think I know where she might be. Or at least, where she was.”

Burner nodded. “Tell me more.”

Sara retrieved the datapad and pulled up the list of financial transactions they had reviewed that afternoon.

“I was able to find coordinates for some of the shelters Judy flagged donations to. Still no luck tracking down the actual donors, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

It was. Burner leaned over her shoulder for a better view as she toggled from the accounting documents to a separate file, listing two of these so-called shelters on Dobulla and their coordinates. One was in a familiar neighborhood, the Herod District. The other was on a part of the planet he didn’t immediately recognize but still within a reasonable distance of the first. There was a whole network of these places. It made sense that they would want to be able to travel between locations within a solar day or less.

“I cross-referenced these with some of Judy’s notes,” she continued, pulling up another file containing several maps.

They appeared hand-rendered, sketched out by Judy herself with a stylus. Old-school and, more importantly, harder to identify if you didn’t have access to the rest of her files. All of the maps had minimal markings, though one undoubtedly depicted districts around the Capital of Dobulla with three locations highlighted.

“This one, here.” Sara gestured at the first name.The Ambrose. I think that’s where she was held.”

“Held?” Burner inquired. “What do you mean held?”

Sara’s frown deepened. She gave Burner a long, grim stare.

“Somewhere in the course of her investigation, I think Judy found herself inside one of these fake shelters. And I’m pretty sure it was this one.”

Burner flashed back to the medical files they’d uncovered that were filled with cold clinical descriptions of procedures that manipulated women’s minds and obliterated their memories.

“Do you think they...” He struggled to choose his phrasing for a second, renewed disgust rising in his throat. “Do you think they tampered with her brain?”

The word was nowhere near harsh enough to convey just how horrific this whole operation was. Then again, Burner wasn’t sure there were any words that could describe crimes this heinous.

“Hard to say for sure,” Sara replied, swiping through several more documents. “It’s possible she inserted herself into their operation and went undercover to gather more information. But if that’s the case, then why hasn’t she shown up to meet with you?”

Burner massaged the two-day stubble on his cheek with his right hand, while the left tapped out a furious rhythm on the bed sheets. He hated to admit it, but Sara was right. All the evidence they had so far pointed the other way.

“But if they wiped her memory,” he ventured, floating his theory by her as it continued to form, “how did she manage to send me that comm? Did she reverse the procedure somehow? Or retain just enough to remember my name and aliases?”

“Could be either.” Sara shrugged. “Or neither. Like you said about the ICE file, Intelligence officers prepare certain things in advance in case they’re captured or killed. If Judy suspected these people might take her like they took others, she might have set up that comm to send well in advance. Even the response could have been automated, triggered by you using the proper code.”

Sara’s theory rang true, although the sentimental part of Burner wished it didn’t. The messages, the rendezvous: it could all have been a dead drop. Just enough to arouse his suspicions and get him digging in the right place. He still found it hard to believe that anyone could have captured Judy Peterson alive. Of course, that didn’t mean she wasn’t already dead.

“What about this?” Burner asked, pointing at the third location on Judy’s map that didn’t match up with any of the shelters listed in the financial records.

“Private residence,” Sara revealed, her fingers now a blur on the datapad’s on-screen keyboard. “And a pretty luxurious one at that.”

Drawing her thumb and forefinger across the screen, Sara superimposed the crude outlines of Judy’s map on a satellite composite image of Dobulla, pulled from the Union’s database. The third location marker layered over a sprawling residential complex, with a lavish mansion house at its center.

“At first I thought maybe it was a base of operations, headquarters of some kind,” she said, enhancing the image with a double tap. “But it seems too obvious. I mean a place like that? It’s not exactly subtle.”

“No,” Burner concurred. “But if it’s not a headquarters, then what are we thinking?”

“Well, I haven’t been able to match it to any of the donor records,” Sara admitted. “But if Judy was captured herself, that would make sense. She wouldn’t have had a chance to access those documents.”

She put the datapad down again and shut her eyes, exhaling deeply. Burner noticed the slightest tremor in her hands. Whether it was just righteous anger or some more acute distress at what they’d learned, he couldn’t be sure. Not that Sara would ever admit to it either way. After a long pause, she spoke up again.

“I think this is where they sent her after the shelter, or this first shelter anyway. After someone...” she trailed off for a moment, biting down on her lip again before going on, a look of pity in her eyes. “...after someone purchased her.”

Burner put a hand on Sara’s shoulder. He didn’t speak for a moment. He didn’t need to. There were no words that would make this any easier for either of them, no magic phrase that would dull the rage. All they could do was take that indignant fury and use it. Direct it at the bastards who’d done this to Judy and who knows how many others.

“Do you think she’s still there, then?” Sara finally asked. “At this...compound?”

“Hard to say,” Burner admitted grudgingly.

I don’t know were probably the three words in the galaxy that he hated most, and he avoided saying them at all costs. For him, I don’t know was an admission of failure, defeat, or simply giving up.

“I reached out to a few old contacts who are stationed on-world on Dobulla,” Sara offered. “I’m still waiting to hear back.”

Burner’s mind cycled through theories and hypotheticals in double-time. He followed each thread until it caved under the weight of logic and then started over, again and again in interwoven loops. The information they had wasn’t enough, damn it. They needed more evidence, more data.

“What about other shelters? Other locations off-world?” he wondered aloud. “A trafficking ring this sophisticated and expensive isn’t likely to be restricted to a single planet, or even a single system.”

Sara was already prepared for this, pulling up another set of image files. More of Judy’s hand-drawn maps. Burner squinted over her shoulder, not sure if he was missing something. She passed him the datapad so he could get a better look. He wasn’t missing anything. These drawings were entirely unlabeled and much more rudimentary than the others.

“She marked locations on every map she drew, the same way she did with Dobulla,” Sara explained as he scrolled through the folder. “But either she didn’t know the names of the shelters...sites...whatever in question, or she was keeping them under wraps on purpose. I haven’t been able to match the others to any of the financial records or pinpoint their coordinates. It’s just all too vague.”

Burner tilted his chin downward in agreement. He swiped to the next image, then the next, then...

Wait.

He was sure he hadn’t mistaken it, couldn’t have. He hadn’t been on Pharbis that long compared to some of the other temporary homes he’d found throughout the Deadlands, but his years in Intelligence meant he got the lay of the land quickly. A couple days wandering a new city or spaceport and Burner would have it down like a cadet rhyming off Union protocols. He scrolled back through the folder once, twice, three times.

There.

Judy had kept her linework very basic here, distinguishing entire buildings or blocks with little more than a variation in fill. Cross-hatching here, shading there. If the outline of the map itself weren’t so familiar, Burner wouldn’t have had a hope of deciphering it.

But he knew this place, and he knew its landmarks. As his eyes scanned the small, determined lines, he could even identify the very building where they sat. He passed the datapad back to Sara, tapping the herringbone block that symbolized the Canteri Hotel with his index finger.

“It’s this station,” he told her. “It’s here.”

He let his finger hover above the screen for a moment before putting it down on the location Judy had marked, nearly on the opposite side of the map to the Canteri. Another pseudo-shelter.

“They’re here. They’re on Pharbis.”


7 StormBrew Café, Herod District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


6 Months Ago

Steam had stopped rising from her cup more than a half hour ago. She scarcely noticed. Instead her eyes were focused on the café's wide front window. Almost the entire shopfront was glass, letting in plenty of natural light on the good days. More importantly, it offered a panoramic view of the buildings across the street, specifically the Hollybridge women’s shelter.

This had been the true appeal of the place, rather than the hokey, sun-stained BEST COFFEE IN THE SYSTEM! sign that hung from the café's front door. She’d never really cared much for coffee anyway, though for reasons she couldn’t explain it felt off somehow to admit that.

She pushed the now cold blossom tea aside. The menu called it A Dobulla Tradition! though she’d noticed the generic branding of an off-world corporation on the label. She shifted in her seat to get a better view of the man approaching the door directly across from the café. It was at moments like these that she wished she’d picked up smoking, or at least learned to fake it convincingly.

It would’ve given her the opportunity to observe certain things more closely without ever seeming suspect. Lingering alone on the sidewalk was too conspicuous: she’d be pegged as a loiterer, a troublemaker, for sure. Put a smoke in her hand, though, and she’d be just one of thousands of dedicated addicts, feeding the habit that health experts claimed ought to have died out decades ago.

She watched the man emerge from his vehicle, dressed to the nines in a suit of fine imported velour.

Kind of a fancy outfit to be wearing to volunteer at a battered women’s shelter, she thought to herself, adding weight to her already existing suspicions.

As the vehicle pulled away to seek parking further down the street, she noted that the driver also wore a suit, though even from this distance it looked significantly cheaper than his passenger’s.

The man knocked at the door and a counselor emerged, greeting him with outstretched arms. They both disappeared inside. The door shut behind them with a foreboding finality.

She made a note on her datapad of the time he entered and then waited, passing the time scribbling in the margins of the file. She spelled it out, the same word again and again, in different styles and various fonts.

J.

U.

D.

Y.

That was her name, wasn’t it? It sure as shit wasn’t Mary, of that much she was certain. Four letters, two syllables. Such a simple thing and yet so endlessly complicated. And that was only a first name. She had yet to discover the second.

The man in the velour suit emerged approximately twelve minutes later, followed by the counselor and another man Judy had watched enter the shelter not long before. He was dressed well, like the others, though his style was more muted. A suit too, but in plain blacks and grays. She recorded both of their arrival and departure times, as well as mentioning that neither had left with a woman in tow.

This didn’t necessarily put them on the moral high ground. She sipped her stale blossom tea and shivered. The shiver wasn’t from the cold contents of her mug. Just watching these men file in and out sent her spine quivering in revulsion.

These were no volunteers. For one, the number of men found staffing the average shelter could be counted on one hand. Women were the victims here, sure, but women also drove the treatment, put in the hours, ran the groups and the activities.

Judy herself had returned to Ambrose as a volunteer several months after leaving. She didn’t know then that her name was really Judy, even though she had already been suspicious about her new home life. But still, she felt like the least she could do was to give back to the place that had helped her out. After less than a week, a condescending psychiatrist with a bad haircut and a bowtie told her that her services would no longer be needed. Apparently, you can fire someone who’s working for nothing after all. Who knew?

In two weeks of observing the Hollybridge, Judy had noted dozens of men entering every day. Apart from the permanent staff of counselors, few of them stayed for more than twenty to thirty minutes. A handful lasted just shy of an hour. This wasn’t nearly enough time to be doing any sort of meaningful humanitarian work, not by a long shot.

Her suspicions were compounded by the fact that the longer a man stayed, the more probable it was that one of the women being housed at the shelter would depart with him. This didn’t happen all that frequently, but over time there’d been enough for Judy to pick up on the pattern. On these occasions, Judy recognized an unsettlingly familiar look in the women’s eyes. Hesitation, confusion, relief, and fear. She’d stared at the same expression in the mirror when she first arrived “home” after her stay at the Ambrose.

Most disturbingly, twice now Judy had watched from the café as what she could only assume were prospective female volunteers were turned away and hurriedly rushed off the property by counselors. Not only would these supposed charities fire volunteers, but it seemed like it could refuse to hire them too. If they were the wrong gender or dressed in clothes a little less flashy than their male counterparts.

The owner of the café—a tiny, frail old lady named Fran—trundled over to the table. Judy swiped quickly across the screen of the datapad, obscuring her notes with a Dobullan newsfeed. Fran had never asked Judy what she did for a living, which was just as well since it saved her inventing another lie and a complicated backstory to reinforce it. Though at this point, Judy realized that almost anything she told Fran could be false or fabricated. Apart from those four letters. Those two syllables…

Ju-dy.

She honestly couldn’t claim to know anything about herself for certain.

Fran pulled the other chair out from under the table and sat across from Judy, the corners of her eyes crinkling upward in a world-worn smile. Glancing at the clock in the upper right of her datapad, Judy noted it was almost four in the afternoon local time. She’d already been here for six hours; for at least two of those she’d been the only customer in the building. No wonder Fran was taking an interest.

“How’s your work coming, hen?” the old woman asked, her voice warm with a genuine interest.

Hen, Judy thought, that’s an interesting one. A term of endearment for sure, but not one native to Dobulla. She could have sworn she’d heard it somewhere before though. It felt familiar. It definitely wasn’t something she’d have called someone, but this definitely wasn’t her first time encountering it. Maybe sometime in her past she’d worked on a planet where it was commonplace? Or had a colleague who shared Fran’s dialect? Judy clawed desperately for a more concrete recollection, but the memory simply wasn’t there.

“It’s coming,” Judy replied, keeping her answer deliberately vague.

She wasn’t sure exactly what kind of work Fran had decided she was doing, but if she could avoid having to confirm or deny this with a more specific lie, then all the better. For her part, Fran seemed satisfied enough with this answer. Above all, she struck Judy as a woman who made a habit of keeping her nose out of other people’s affairs. This was great news for Judy: less so for the women housed across the street in the “shelter.”

Fran, taking the hint, rose again and gathered up Judy’s near-empty cup and the untouched caddy of sweetener, then she expertly balanced them all in one hand.

“Can I bring you another cup?”

Judy considered for a moment. She found the prospect of more blossom tea much less appealing now that she realized it was probably the same synthetic junk that most places served in this system. She glanced at the on-screen menu behind the counter for an alternative, but nothing else caught her eye either.

The Arabica, at least, she knew was real. She’d watched Fran haul a bulky aluminum sack of honest-to-god beans—not that dehydrated, freeze-preserved crap—out from the back to the grinder when she’d first arrived. She wasn’t a big coffee fan but something about the smell of it brewing had seemed strikingly familiar. She got the sense that at some point in her past, she had spent a hell of a lot of time around one. Maybe forcing herself to sip on a cup would jog her recollection further?

“Actually, I think I’d like a coffee,” she told Fran, offering up a friendly smile.

The old lady pursed her lips quizzically at Judy’s departure from the norm but held back from questioning it aloud. Judy hoped that Fran’s stoic discretion would hold out if anyone ever stopped in here asking what the hell she’d be up to sitting in the window for weeks on end.

As Fran busied herself with the coffee, the door of the Hollybridge across the road slid open again. Judy’s pulse quickened at the potential new development. This feeling deflated almost immediately. It was just the counselor she had seen answering the door earlier stepping out for a late lunch break.

Over the course of her surveillance, Judy had only seen three women (although, she had lately begun to think of them as inmates) actually leave the shelter. They were always accompanied by a well-heeled male escort. Two she never saw again. One was “returned” less than 48-hours later. Judy almost hadn’t recognized her at first, as upon being brought back she was wrapped up in a heavy ankle-length gown complete with a low-hooded cowl. It might have been high fashion at a cooler time of year, but with midday sun beating down it looked cumbersome and out of place. A grim-faced counselor had let the woman back into the shelter and pulled back her hood in the doorway to inspect her face. She sported an angry yellow and purple bruise that had swollen her left eye almost completely shut.

Fran dropped the coffee off, distracting her for a moment. Steam curled upward from the cup, wafting into Judy’s nostrils. She didn’t find it an appealing scent, not exactly, but it definitely brought her back to something, somewhere. She inhaled deeply, trying to place it. The memory was still fuzzy, but it was there. For Judy, the coffee smelled like determination.

She turned back to the window just in time to see the counselor crossing toward the café. Shit. Judy didn’t recognize him from her time at the Ambrose, but given how determined they’d been to keep her away once her inquiries had started becoming too awkward, she couldn’t rule out that they’d shared her information with the other “shelters” on Dobulla.

Judy’s hair was pulled back and woven in an almost too-tight ponytail. She’d gotten into this habit while staking out the Hollybridge; somehow it made it easier for her to focus, even if it looked a little formal and severe. She reached up and quickly removed the cheap blue tie that held it in place and let it unravel and cascade to hide her face.

As the counselor entered the café, Judy abandoned her normally upright posture and slouched forward, nearly doubled over the datapad. Her dishwater blonde hair fell forward, obscuring her face even more. In fact, she could hardly see the screen in front of her. She hadn’t realized just how much longer it had grown in the past year and a half, but right now she was grateful for it.

Judy stayed hunched over, pretending to fidget with an app on the datapad as the counselor ordered his coffee and a small packet of ginger-snap soy bites to go. Chancing a brief glance up, she caught Fran looking at her over the man’s shoulder. The old woman’s lips were still pursed in that same puzzled expression. They locked eyes for a second or two then both quickly looked away. Fran was still staying out of it, at least for now.

The counselor didn’t tip and didn’t linger but it still took Judy a good ten minutes to sweat the adrenaline out of her system. She berated herself internally for being so reckless. She couldn’t afford to be caught out at this stage, especially in such a stupid, obvious way.

You’re better than this, Judy, she thought, furious with herself. Get it together. She lifted the lukewarm coffee to her lips and grudgingly sucked down almost half of the cup. The bitter liquid bathed her tongue.

There. From the addled depths of her mind, something floated to the surface.

What’s it going to be, Judy?

She could almost hear the gruff timbre of the man’s voice, and visualize a foggy impression of his stern features and closely shorn sandy hair.

Do you want to be a professional, or do you want to be just another P.F.C.?

A P.F.C, sir? she recalled herself answering, confused by what he meant. Private, First Class had been her guess. A military term. A rank. More strands of memory began to knit together.

Like watching a low-res transmission on a holoscreen, she conjured up the bleary image of the man giving her a smug grin before responding.

No, Lieutenant Peterson. I mean a Poor Fucking Civilian.

As faint as it was, the memory coaxed a smile out of Judy. She might not remember who the man was yet, but she was already pretty sure that she liked him. And now she knew her last name.


8 Luxury Suite, Canteri Hotel, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Judy’s mission reports read about as caustic as they always had, though Burner had to admit that toward the end they got slightly more ruthless, even for her.

Though she hadn’t known the names of most of the major operatives she’d been investigating, she’d written up physical profiles and given each of them nicknames. An employee at the shelter on Pharbis—who she’d christened Jar-Face because he wore a thick pair of corrective lenses—was apparently in line for some very intensive dental torture.

To call Judy Peterson a loose cannon would be an understatement. An entire silo filled with “loose” nuclear warheads might be more accurate. That said, Judy’s approach, while often brutal, was rarely applied to anyone who didn’t absolutely have it coming.

Burner recalled having to speak in her defense in the course of a particularly gruesome kidnapping and murder case. A cadet in his final year at the Academy had an affair with an older woman, who just so happened to be married to one of the Vice-Admirals in charge of his training. When she had refused to leave her husband for him, the cadet took her at gunpoint from her executive quarters, killing her housemaid in the process. The Vice-Admiral arrived home to find their infant son wailing in the dead maid’s lap, drenched in her blood.

They’d tracked the cadet across three systems, cornering him in a transit depot on the edge of Union space. When he refused to give up his hostage’s whereabouts, or even reveal whether she was dead or alive, Judy had propped his leg up on a crate of nutrient supplements destined for the Deadlands and shattered his patella with the butt of her rifle.

He relented almost immediately, giving up the code for the shipping container where he had locked the Vice-Admiral's wife. Judy had then broken his other knee for good measure. Burner still wasn’t sure whether his testimony or some under-the-table interference from the Academy brass had swayed the court-martial, but Judy was let off. And awarded a commendation at the following year’s graduation ceremony.

Though the later mission logs maintained Judy’s characteristically righteous ferocity, relevant mission details became increasingly sparse. The final twelve entries were undated, and many more included little to no location data. Intelligence officers were cautious by nature. but working alone on this investigation had made Judy downright paranoid.

The operation is larger than I thought possible, one read. More fingers in pies than should be feasible when you have to keep a secret this big. Conspiracies tend to be small as a rule. Less people to police. Either there’s enough money backing this to bribe or blackmail half the galaxy into silence, or the people are good at getting rid of any inconvenient corpses. My guess is it’s probably both.

Burner concurred with her assessment. To pull something like this off on a multi-system basis—hell, even to manage getting a single trafficking hub to fly below the radar here on Pharbisyou would need more than just hired muscle. An organization like this wouldn’t be made up of career criminals alone. They’d need technical support and advanced military know-how.

Judy had exposed the base of the pyramid, but Burner suspected that if they managed to uncover the pinnacle of it that they’d be dealing with some very powerful people indeed. From his standpoint, it seemed like yet another good way to ensure he stayed on the Union’s shit list.

Beside him, Sara was tooling up. Her tactical hardware and weaponry were arranged on the bed in neat rows and she cycled through them methodically, testing that each piece of equipment was functioning and ready. No self-respecting soldier or agent let any of their gear go unprepared before a mission; that way, if things went south you’d have only yourself to blame. It was a harsh credo, but it had kept her alive so far.

“What sort of approach are you thinking here, Constable?” Burner asked.

Using her official title earned him a derisive snort. At this point, he supposed they really were past all formalities. Sharing a bed tends to have that effect on the dynamics of a working relationship.

“Strong but subtle,” she declared, locking an ammunition magazine in place to punctuate her point.

Burner nodded an affirmative. “Come in cold and only bring the heat once we’re sure it can get us more information.”

Sara slid her sidearm into the drop-holster concealed in the ankle of her boot. Her toned calves never looked bad, but Burner did have to admit they were especially alluring with a weapon strapped to them. She straightened up and flicked a stray golden lock off her face. She tossed a second pistol to Burner, and he loaded it before stowing it under his loose-fitting jacket.

“Precisely,” Sara agreed. “We don’t know what kind of security we might be facing in this place. But in my experience, human traffickers don’t tend to let their assets go without a fight.”

Burner wondered how well the powers-that-be on Pharbis would respond to him being caught up in yet another incident on their station. He had a feeling that his days kicking back in a luxury hotel were soon to be behind him.

“Judy suspected that there’s more to this whole thing than just your run-of-the-mill organized thugs,” he reasoned. “We should assume that they might have the technical capacity to access the station’s systems. Might even have people on the inside.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen that,” Sara agreed.

“That being said, there’s almost nowhere you can go on this station without being recorded somehow. This shelter...” Burner paused, referring back to Judy’s notes for the name.

“The Loreilla is in the Wellness District, surrounded by some of the busiest clinics and infirmaries on Pharbis. I’d suggest we abandon any hope of getting there without being caught on camera right off the bat.”

“You’re right.” Sara nodded. “If I was able to contact Hank, there might be a chance he could work some of his technical magic, but it’ll be another six hours before he’s back within comms range.”

Burner didn’t press for further information on Hank and his whereabouts. He knew better. He crossed to the walk-in closet and dug out a hat with a low brim and a light scarf to obscure the lower part of his face. There was technically never any winter on stations like Pharbis, but even outside Union space there were still plenty of people who valued fashion over function. Some civilians might peg him as an aging dandy, trying a little too hard to keep up with the trends, but not enough to arouse suspicion.

“Right,” Burner acknowledged. “And we can’t wait that long. This is our best hope of getting a lead on Judy’s whereabouts, and something tells me she wouldn’t appreciate us wasting any time to run it up the official chain of command.”

In fact, he was pretty sure he knew exactly where she’d tell him to shove his chain of command.

Sara followed Burner’s lead on selecting a civilian outfit, shrugging off her tunic and opting for a fashionable high-necked top, a hooded shawl, and wide, circular glasses. After inspecting herself in the mirror, she slid the glasses down the bridge of her nose and peered over them at Burner. A slight frown crinkled the edges of her piercing eyes.

“Burner,” she murmured, her tone brimming with guarded reluctance.

He looked up immediately. Hesitation was not something he’d come to expect from Sara.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but what makes you so sure that we’ll be able to find Judy? I mean she missed her rendezvous with you. That’s not supposed to happen. Not to put too fine a point on it, but shouldn’t we be checking dumpsters?”

Burner could see she was worried about sparking some kind of overly emotional reaction. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He had learned a long time ago that panic served no purpose other than to activate the enemy. Letting his personal feelings clog up the works when somebody’s life was on the line only put them—and him—in more danger. Besides, there was no way he could see anyone taking Judy Peterson out without getting some of their own blood spilled in the process.

“I hear what you’re saying,” he replied. “But you don't know Judy like I do. Even if they sent multiple guys after her, she wouldn’t have been blindsided by it. She would’ve been ready. Even if someone did manage to take her, my money is on her being alive.”

At least for now, he added internally, unless they can get her to talk.

“What if they tried and didn’t succeed, though?” Sara asked, working through the alternative scenarios one by one as she’d been trained to do. “I mean, this shelter’s in the Wellness District. If she’s half the fighter you say she is, maybe she got away but took a beating in the process. Maybe we should check clinics and hospitals too, rule it out.”

Burner shook his head. “No, even if she was hurt pretty badly, the last place she’d go is a hospital. If someone’s out to get you, that’s the first place they look. She’d patch herself up and lay low.”

Sara accepted his explanation. With what she’d learned of how hardcore these Intelligence people could be, it checked out.

“Even if she hasn’t been captured,” Burner said. “Even if she’s not at the Loreilla, I’m betting that there’s someone there who knows where we could find her. Or at least knows enough to get us closer.”

He inspected the spread of Sara’s remaining gear, which was still laid out on the bed. The pistols could be useful but would garner a lot of attention if they were forced to discharge them. The glinting blade of a combat knife—dual edged, titanium alloy, and lined with toothy serrations that would tear through body armor as easily as flesh—caught his eye. He picked it up in one hand to test its weight then tossed it in the air. The blade turned over once, twice, three times as it descended before Burner caught it deftly and slipped it into his jacket pocket.

“Show off,” Sara muttered, trying to hide a smile.

Burner winked. “Me? Never. Figure I’ve probably impressed you enough already.”

Sara actually laughed this time, selecting a more compact folding blade for herself and stowing it up her sleeve.

“So, what’s our cover story here,” she inquired, pulling up a map of Pharbismass transit system on the datapad to plot their route. “Are we potential clients?”

Burner considered this approach for a second. From Judy’s notes, it seemed like the buyers she’d seen visit the shelters in person were exclusively male. However, Burner figured if there were wealthy men in the galaxy who were twisted enough to take advantage of a system like this, there were probably at least a handful out there who already had female partners that were equally depraved.

Still, he didn’t expect that they’d be well-received as potential customers if they showed up without an appointment or an introduction from a trusted source. The shelters weren’t exactly openly advertising their trade in traumatized human beings. Two strangers arriving with advanced knowledge of the operation would raise some serious red flags. Might even get them taken out on the spot, no further questions asked.

“I’m thinking of potential volunteers,” Burner suggested. “A couple of well-meaning civilians looking to help out the vulnerable in their community. They’ll feed us some prefabricated bullshit story to discourage that of course, but we’re going to make sure to impress upon them just how truly, deeply committed we are to this cause.”

It was Sara’s turn to wink. “Forcefully if need be?”

“Something like that,” Burner grunted.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Outside the hotel, they crossed to the station and boarded the first transit headed for PharbisCentral Hub. From there, they could have switched lines for a direct route to the Wellness District: however, that would lead to them disembarking right in front of the Union Military and Veterans’ Medical Center. In the interest of avoiding anyone who might recognize Burner, they plotted a more roundabout approach.

The Central Hub was bustling with people, to the point that Burner let Sara get ahead of him as he struggled to maneuver his bulky frame through the crowds. Last thing he needed at this point was to shoulder-check the wrong angry commuter and cause a scene. He kept an eye on her blonde head, which was gleaming under the Hub’s massive spotlights as she weaved through the main lobby with considerably more ease. It seemed that people were much more inclined to get out of the way for an attractive woman than for a man approaching middle age who was dressed more like a teenager.

They reunited at the top of a rolling walkway and picked their way through the flock of people awaiting the next transit. Burner was grateful for the predictable weekend habits of civilians: shopping, sports, bar hopping, and romantic dinners in overpriced restaurants. Sara linked arms with him to prevent them from getting separated again, and instantly they were just another ordinary couple on a night out.

They disembarked from the transit four stops down and squeezed themselves out of the packed carriage moments before the pneumatic doors swung shut and it whipped off again at breakneck speed. Their next connection was one of the smaller autoshuttles, with local service to the less prominent parts of the Wellness District.

It was less busy, though it seemed to Burner like everyone on board apart from them was nursing an illness. Amidst the chorus of hacking and wheezing around him, he tugged his scarf a little higher up, covering his nose and mouth entirely. He was glad they’d opted to go this way. Having his face concealed would look a lot less suspicious on security cameras if he was surrounded by people coughing their lungs up.

Gazing out the window at the sublevels shooting past below, Burner saw countless walkways lined with people who looked smaller than insects from this altitude. He thought back again to the rogue cadet that he had tracked with Judy and how her particular approach to interrogation had probably crippled the rookie for life. Though it had been excessive, at no point had Burner felt sorry for him. He had killed one woman and showed every sign he was going to kill another. He’d left an innocent child with trauma that it would probably carry for the rest of its life. Frankly, he was lucky that Judy had only decided to break his kneecaps.

Over his time in Intelligence—not to mention these past few years—Burner had done a number of things he didn’t relish. He took no pride in brutality. No joy in causing harm. There was no glee to be gleaned from violence. Sometimes it just needed to be done. And if something was the right thing to do, Burner did it. Without hesitation and without regrets.

He thought about the people running these shelters, selling women to the most well-off men in the galaxy as if they were just another luxury to be possessed and savored, like jewelry, vacations, or a steak dinner. It ignited the same fiery anger and thirst for vengeance in him that it had in Judy. And now she had probably found herself caught up in the very system she was trying to fight. All because she tried to do the right thing.

Burner rolled his neck to the left, then the right, his vertebrae cracking audibly. He considered what he might have to do to get information from the Loreilla. Morals were a hell of a lot messier than people liked to think. Burner knew more than most that standing on some abstract principle to avoid getting your hands dirty was a selfish indulgence in a galaxy filled with this much cruelty. Sometimes, you had to get down in the mud to pull the innocent out of it.

He thought about what pain he might have to inflict here today. What bones he might have to break. He didn’t look forward to it, but he certainly wouldn’t shy away from it either. They’d give up the information he wanted.

An image of Judy’s battered face came to mind, and what she’d suffered at the hands of these assholes.

No one would have mistaken the smile that stretched across his lips as a friendly expression. Burner was thinking that maybe he would look forward to it after all.


9 Ambrose Women’s Shelter, Herod District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


Six Months Ago

After days of staking out the Hollybridge, Judy felt almost strange to be back at the Ambrose. Though she hadn’t minded Fran’s cafe, and had even started to enjoy the coffee by the end, sitting there for hours at a time had become repetitive. She was glad to be doing something different.

The peeling paint and scuffed floors of the women’s shelter weren’t exactly uplifting, but then Judy had never cared much about that anyway. At least, she thought she didn’t. It was still strange, her memory coming back in fits and starts. Relearning her preferences, what outfits she’d choose, what smells delighted her and what made her gag. Right now, the only thing she knew for sure about herself, aside from her name, was that she wouldn’t rest until she stopped the assholes trafficking women through Hollybridge.

But for now, she had actual volunteer work to take care of at the Ambrose shelter. A young woman had just come to the front desk, crying baby in tow, and was desperate for a place to stay. Judy filled out the woman’s intake on the pad and took her into one of the smaller offices. She offered to get a rocker for the woman’s baby girl, who continued to cry, but the woman insisted on holding her. Judy sat down across from the two of them on a ratty chair.

Judy motioned around at the dismal interior décor. Torn curtains hung across the window. Strange dark circles encroached on the white spaces on the ceiling. “I know it’s not much, but you get used to it,” she ventured, breaking the ice and apologizing for the state of the place at the same time. “Takes on its own sort of charm after a while.”

The woman’s eyes were blue, and her face was streaked with tears. The décor was probably the last thing on her mind. Her strawberry blonde hair puffed out wildly, making her look even more frazzled. “Right now, I’d be happy with a cardboard box. They kicked me out of the last place. I’m at my wits’ end. I don’t know where else to go.”

Judy nodded sympathetically, watching the infant squirm and cry in her swaddle. “Don’t worry. I’m going to take care of you.” She paused, watching the baby fuss. “Hang on one second.”

She got up and headed into the playroom, which was really just a utility space that had been cleaned out and furnished with some cheap toys, and came back with a squishy blue teething ring from the cupboard. She pulled it out of the sterile packaging and handed it to the woman. “Here.”

The woman gave it to her baby, who quietened down immediately and started to gnaw on it.

The mother forced a smile. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sandy. This is Rachel. She’s usually very good. It’s been a hard couple of days.”

“Sandy. I like that. Fits with your hair. I’m Judy.” She extended a hand, but Sandy didn’t move, loathe to loosen her grip on her baby. Judy instead patted her knee softly before pulling back and returning her attention to her datapad.

“We’re going to find space for you here, Sandy. Don’t worry about that. I just need to ask you a couple of questions first. If you don’t mind, would you tell me a little bit about this other shelter? The one that wouldn’t take you in?”

Judy already had a pretty good idea which shelter had turned Sandy away, and why. But any concrete information she could add to her notes on her datapad would be useful. And learning these asshole’s M.O. would help as well. Maybe they only took single girls with no attachments. They probably figured the women with kids or jealous husbands were too much trouble.

“It was over in the Herod district.” Sandy’s voice was quieter now, and she hunched over when she spoke, as though she thought someone sinister might be listening in on their conversation. “A place I found on the gal-net. Everyone gave it rave reviews. The name was something with Holly…Hollyhock, maybe? I was so scattered I don’t even remember.”

“Hollybridge.”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

Judy nodded. “Yes, we’re acquainted with Hollybridge. We get a lot of business from them turning people away. In fact, we’ve come to joke about it,” she lied. “When we have a busy day, we say, ‘oh, Hollybridge must be full again.’”

The mother tried to smile at Judy’s attempt to cheer her. “I don’t understand it, though. All the reviews said they were the most loving, kindest place. But when I showed up with Rachel, they treated me like I was a piece of garbage.”

Worse than garbage, Judy thought. They saw you as meat for the grinder. A body to be sold.

“What exactly did they say to you there?” Judy asked.

“I went in, told them I needed a place to stay. The lady working the desk was really cold. Like she could barely stand to look at me. She told me she needed to check with someone and then left me and Rachel in the waiting room for almost an hour. Finally, she comes back and tells me there’s no vacancy. That next time I should call beforehand.”

Judy pursed her lips. “They wanted you to call ahead?”

“Yeah. I told them next time I’ll be sure to give them heads up notice when my boyfriend beats the shit out of me.”

Judy waited, studying the young mother. She noticed the faint bruising on Sandy’s face. Sickly orange and purple, they now looked obvious against the harsh office lighting. Human traffickers, abusive assholes—none of this was painting a pretty picture of life in Dobulla.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that.” Judy remained calm on the exterior, but inside she was seething. They thought Sandy, with her baby, was too much of a hassle to sell, so they turned her away. When she found out who was in charge of this operation, she was going to make them pay. That was for sure.

Rachel had fallen asleep. She was now dozing peacefully in her mother’s arms, oblivious to her surroundings. Sandy leaned over and lowered her voice to a near whisper. “So, you think I’ll be able to stay here a couple nights?”

“Of course.”

“And my boyfriend? What if he comes looking?”

“He won’t. Trust me. Everything is completely confidential. He’ll have no idea you’re here.”

Sandy’s eyes were clear of tears now. They were a vibrant sky blue, but sad, like they’d seen much more in their 20-some-odd years than a young mother should. The bruises on her face said everything. She tapped her foot nervously.

“I just don’t get it. Do you think they were really full?”

No, Judy thought grimly. I think they wanted to wipe your memory and sell you to the highest bidder. But they would have had to do something about the baby. And they decided you weren’t worth the trouble.

Sandy didn’t need to know any of that. Still, Judy had to be sure not to let anything slip. She had to choose her words carefully.

“I don’t know why Hollybridge would do that.” Judy felt bad that this woman was feeling rejected. “We get a lot of complaints from over there,” she added, trying to reframe the situation subtly so the woman didn’t blame herself. “It’s possible they thought your boyfriend might come around and cause trouble. I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors that their security isn’t so good, and they’ve had issues with liability in the past. In all likelihood, you dodged a bullet.”

“Gods.” Sandy shook her head, looking very tired. “How can a place like that continue to exist?”

“I’m not sure. But don’t worry. I’m going to report this, run it up the chain. The authorities will be able to sort things out.”

Sandy looked suddenly panicked. “No. Please. Don’t report it. I don’t want my name coming up. Nobody can know I was here.”

“Relax,” Judy said, doing her best to sound comforting and patting Sandy’s leg again. She’d never been that great at commiseration. At least, that’s how it seemed from what she could recall; another vague sensation of a memory slowly coming back to her as she continued with the interview. “Your name won’t ever come up. I promise. You did the right thing telling me about Hollybridge, but now the most important thing is for you to get back on your feet. Forget about them and focus on recovery. For you and Rachel. Can you do that?”

Sandy nodded, slowly. “I think so.”

“Good. Now come along with me. I’ll show you to your room.”

Judy brought Sandy to where she would be staying: a dimly lit space with a small cot and tiny wooden crib. It wasn’t much, but it was a safe place to sleep. She fetched blankets and diapers and told her to call the front desk if she needed anything. Then she went back to the office to think. Sandy had seemed skittish enough that Judy doubted she’d mention anything about Hollybridge to anyone. Which was good, because talking about it would only put her in more danger.

Judy had mentioned reporting her experience to the authorities, but that didn’t seem like the best idea at the moment. Gods only knew who the police had on their payroll. She wouldn’t be surprised if half of them were working to funnel girls through the shelter. She would be adding this case into the pile of data she’d been collecting, though. One more data point might be all it takes to crack this case wide open.

So yes, the police were out. The authorities weren’t an option. Judy just needed more information before she made any moves. But she would prove what was happening and put a stop to it. Once her memory returned in full, she would be more than capable. She didn’t know how she knew this, but she knew it just the same.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The next morning, her investigation continued when a chance opportunity for some reaction data arose. Judy sat in Michael’s office for a quick chat, having caught him on what was turning out to be a relatively slow day.

“I hear you’re doing good work. Very active with your volunteering.” He smiled condescendingly across his desk, his hands steepled in front of him.

“I try my best.”

Michael was her supervisor at Ambrose, though she never saw much of him during her shifts. He was always in and out, and on the rare instances he stayed around to chat or actually get some work done, his manner was terse and bristly. Judy pictured him more as a bureaucrat in a government office somewhere, rather than a pillar of strength for battered women. But Michael had leverage she didn’t, and she thought it a good idea to find out just how much he knew. It was always possible he was just busy or didn’t like small talk. She knew she wasn’t always the most accommodating person in the world when something irked her, too.

He’d looked annoyed at first when she asked to see him, but to his credit had smiled warmly and invited her in.

“What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Well…” She had to play this carefully. Raise some concerns without coming off as too suspicious. “Don’t you think it’s weird? All the girls who end up here not remembering who they are?”

Michael nodded, still looking down at his pad. “I’d say it’s more sad than weird. It’s an indicator of just how big a problem drug use is on Dobulla.”

She paused a moment before continuing. “Sure, but you don’t think all these women are drug addicts? I mean, doesn’t something about that seem a little odd to you?”

His facial muscles tensed. “I’m focused on helping the women that come through here. I’m not a social scientist. That’s beyond our purview. We don’t have time to figure out the root causes of poverty and drug addiction. We just have to make do with what we’ve got.”

Michael’s desk was pristine with everything filed and orderly. His shirt was freshly pressed, like it had come straight from the dry cleaners. He was balding on top, two tufts of brown hair sticking out of the sides, and he was thin, almost willowy, like a strong breeze might crack him in two. He looked back up at her, relaxed his jaw, and smiled again. This time she found it more infuriating than welcoming. “Anything else on your mind?”

“Yes.” Judy leaned forward like she was about to share something confidential. “I’ve also noticed we’ve been getting some girls who have been turned away from other shelters. I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly. I’ve just got the feeling that something might be wrong.”

“Look, Judy, just focus on helping the women here, okay? We can’t spend our time worrying about what they’re doing over at Hollybridge.”

Judy nodded. But something in his words bothered her. I didn’t mention Hollybridge, she thought. There are other shelters that are closer. How did you know it was that one?

Michael was suddenly no longer interested in his datapad. He looked at her, his expression inscrutable. “Who exactly said they were turned away?”

She felt her stomach lurch. Was he in on it? She couldn’t say for sure, but she wasn’t about to reveal anything further to him. And she certainly wasn’t going to put Sandy or her baby in danger by mentioning who they were.

“Oh, she left a few days ago. Her name was Patricia, I think.”

Michael cut her off quickly. “And what shelter did she come from?”

“She didn’t say. Only that it was in the city.”

No chance she was going to tell him Sandy’s real name or that she had come from Hollybridge for sure. But she had a suspicion Michael knew she was lying to him.

“I see.”

“I just wanted to talk to you about it. I didn’t know who else to talk to. Although now I feel kind of silly, because it seems like I was just blowing things out of proportion.”

Michael gave her a stony stare. If he wasn’t so scrawny, she might have been nervous. Judy knew she could take him out, though, if it came to that. She figured she could have him on the floor in a few seconds, begging for mercy. She had to admit the thought of it was somewhat appealing. But it hadn’t come to that, not yet. Besides, although she felt like she could do him damage, she hadn’t recovered enough of her memory to know for sure that she could take him. Maybe this was just a feeling of over confidence. She didn’t recall any actual training and hadn’t been in a real fight in the memories she’d had since her stay at the clinic.

He held her gaze. “And what exactly do you suspect is happening, Judy?”

Again, Judy fought back the urge to clock him in the face. Instead, she tried to look confused and helpless. “I don’t know. Just a funny feeling about some of the other shelters. Maybe their standards aren’t as rigorous as ours. It’s probably nothing.”

Michael relaxed and gave her another toothy smile. “This girl’s name was Patricia, you said?”

“Yes, but she didn’t have ID. Could have been an alias.”

“Last name?”

“She didn’t say.”

Michael grunted.

“Sorry. I should have asked.”

This was a mistake, Judy thought. I need to end this conversation and get out of here.

Judy looked down at her watch, like she was in a hurry to get somewhere. “Anyway, I’m sure it wasn’t a big deal. I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to meet with me, Michael.”

She made to get up, but Michael put his palms flat on the table and looked at her.

“You’re very welcome, Judy. Why don’t we keep this conversation just between us for now? I wouldn’t want to alarm any of the women unnecessarily.”

“I will. My lips are sealed, sir.”

“And if Patricia comes back, I want you to tell me immediately.”

Of course.”

Michael eyed her as if he wasn’t sure whether he believed her or not. Finally, he gave a little nod and dismissed her. Judy left the office and went straight to the front desk to sit down somewhere where she could look busy for a moment. She slowly released a breath, surprised at how tense she had become. A minute later she picked up her datapad and made her way to a corner of the building where she wouldn’t be seen adding to her notes. Hollybridgethat was the crux of all this. She thought of the counselors she’d seen on her stakeouts, shuttling women in and out of the shelter at all hours, the girls’ faces battered and bruised. If Michael was part of what was happening there, it meant he was dangerous. Anyone at Ambrose could be. One of the unfortunate side effects of losing your memory was not knowing who you could trust.

Judy finished entering her notes and hid the datapad away. As of now, the only person she could fully trust was herself. That was all right. She was getting closer to finding answers.

Head down, and eyes on the prize, she thought. We’re making progress.

She didn't know how much farther she had to go. But she’d get to the bottom of this, one way or another.


10


Wellness District, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The autoshuttle wheezed to a halt, the pneumatic doors opening with a sucking whoosh. Vance Street, the Wellness District. Their stop. Burner and Sara funneled off the shuttle along with a good number of sick travelers who were coughing and blowing their noses as they emerged out onto the street. Sara followed close behind him, the shawl and glasses she wore doing a good job of muting her beauty. Burner felt a little silly in his silly low-brimmed hat and scarf, but the disguises were working. Nobody on the street had given them so much as a second glance.

They were far from the luxury hotels and trendy bistros of the upscale districts of Pharbis. This part of the Wellness District was where you went if you were sick and had no credits for treatment. The streets were lined with pharmacies, free health clinics, and “under the table” dispensaries where people could skip the lines and get medicine without a prescription. In some of them you could even buy drugs that were illegal on the space station if you had the money. The injured and ill waited in long lines outside the clinics, sometimes stretching halfway down a city block, as salesmen and hucksters in trench coats and duster jackets wormed in between them, hawking their illicit goods and snake oil cures. Sara took Burner’s arm and they started walking east at a casual pace. According to the map, the Loreilla was only about a kilometer from the transit station.

“Any tails?” he asked as they continued moving.

He pushed awkwardly at the scarf that was impeding his peripheral vision. That was one of the problems of field work—you couldn’t always be comfortable and 100% operational. That’s especially true when you’re improvising off the cuff like this.

“None that I can see. Just a lot of people coughing their lungs up.”

“Kind of glad this thing is covering my face,” Burner mumbled from behind his scarf.

They passed a hospital, its exterior severely run down and boxy. The grass surrounding it was brown and dying, with cinder blocks and rebar scattered all around. A few ambulance shuttles waited in the emergency lane, detailed with red and white paint that had long begun to fade. Nearby, a homeless-looking woman stood over a lit barrel, staring at the flame. The temperature was controlled on Pharbis, so she was either cooking up drugs or her dinner. Neither option seemed particularly appealing. In any case, the acrid smoke wafting from the barrel couldn’t be good for all the sick people.

Sara adjusted her glasses, the darkened frames giving her a quizzical look. “Hang a left up here, yeah?”

“Yup. Should only be a few more blocks.”

They turned left, ignoring a dog snarling at them from the other side of a fence. Burner caught a glance of himself reflected in a storefront mirror. Their outfits were doing a good job of keeping them low-key. With his hat and scarf, and Sara’s cowl, they looked like hipsters or eccentrics, either lost or touring this part of the Wellness District for party favors. They did not look dangerous or like Union officers. That was for sure.

Sara touched his elbow. “How do you want to play it?”

He’d been considering this. If they were really trafficking women, the Loreilla would have tight security. Compared to a normal women’s shelter, the extra precautions would be relatively obvious. Still, his time in Intelligence had taught him you never attempted to infiltrate a location unprepared.

“We’ll case it first. Try and get a general sense of the security, how many guys they have. Then we’ll go with our cover story. Two naïve do-gooders looking to do help.”

Sara nodded. “Okay. I hear you. You got your alias down?”

“Dan Crendall. Antiques dealer and community organizer. You?”

“Elizabeth Jeffries. Former social worker and recent transplant to Pharbis. Devoted women’s rights advocate.”

“Good enough.”

Finally, the Loreilla came into view. From the outside, it looked more like a warehouse than a woman’s shelter. Only a few windows faced the street, curtained off from the inside. There was no sign out front, although that wasn’t unusual for a shelter. Across the street, people milled outside a busy clinic, smoking and chatting. The clinic was doing brisk business. The Loreilla was not. Someone passing by would likely assume it was closed, or even abandoned. The only hint that something strange was afoot was a robust collection of cameras pointed at the front entrance. Burner saw two obvious ones right above the doorway, and another less conspicuous camera aimed at the west corner of the building. A woman’s shelter was a good cover. Not inconceivable a haven for battered women would have cameras and security. These people had planned well.

Sara tilted her head and adjusted her cowl. She leaned in toward him. “Three cameras I can see. There will be more around back.”

“Let’s take a loop around the block. See what else we find.”

Still arm in arm, they made a lazy circuit around the block. There was a severe metal door with no knobs or handles on the outside. More cameras above it, leering down. A few shuttles parked in the lot near the back door. It would be the easiest thing in the world to drag the girls out here in the dead of night and ship them off to who knows where.

“No hinges on that door,” Sara whispered as they continued to stroll. “Could be pneumatic. Only opens when the guy puts in a code.”

Burner swung his scarf around, making sure the fabric covered his mouth. “If we’re being conservative, I’m gonna guess at least three guys. One guy working the front door, one watching the cameras, and one watching the back door. At a bare minimum. That’s how I’d do it.”

They strolled along the other side of the building. Its sides were brick, no utility doors or cellar entrances, and the windows were several stories high and boarded over. Sara gave him a slight grimace. He agreed with a small nod. They weren’t sneaking into this place. Not in the daytime, and not without a detailed plan. Burner slowed their pace as they finished their loop and once again neared the front of the building.

“We’re going in?” Sara asked.

“May as well try. As far as anyone knows, we’re Dan and Liz, community activists trying to help our fellow Pharbis residents.”

“Let me do the talking. I’m less intimidating.”

Burner snorted. “That’s a matter of opinion.”

“Charming is not the same as intimidating. And I’m the Constable here, anyway.”

Burner felt like reminding her that he’d done plenty of missions for the Union using aliases. But while bickering made them look more like a real couple, it wasn’t going to help them focus. He nodded and they headed for the entrance.

The front door of the Loreilla wasn’t quite as off-putting to visitors as the metal monstrosity around back, but it was imposing nonetheless. It was painted completely matte black, with a grimy brass knob. He twisted it. Locked. Sara ran her finger over an intercom on the wall. She pressed the buzzer.

For ten seconds, there came a burst of a static and a voice. “Who is it?”

“Hello! My name is Liz and this is Dan, and we have come all the way from across Pharbis to volunteer for you.” Sara’s expression changed to match her airhead voice, a bubbly smile coming across her face.

After a pause, then was another burst of static. “We’re not taking volunteers.”

“But that can’t be. We were told you were looking for people to help out at the shelter. We’ve been looking forward to this all week!”

“Sorry, lady. Someone told you wrong.”

“Oh, come on! We’ve come all this way. I had to take off work to be here. Can’t we just come in and talk to you for five minutes and get this straightened out? I spoke with someone there the other day. They told me it was fine.”

A sigh was audible through the static. With a loud buzzing noise, the door opened. Burner gently squeezed her side as they entered. An unspoken message. Play it cool.

Once in the lobby of the Loreilla, cracks began to show in the façade that this was a shelter. There was no waiting area to speak of. No chairs or couches, no tables with magazines. Just a guy sitting at a wide desk that was inset with monitors. Burner couldn’t see what was on them, but it was no doubt feeds from the outside cameras.

The only way through the lobby was a set of wide double doors with what looked like sensors beneath them, leading to another corridor. They were like something you’d see leading into an intensive care unit at a hospital. Big, imposing. In front of them was a huge, full body metal detector. And next to that were two men in suits who were so tall their heads nearly scraped the ceiling.

Burner noticed all this in a fraction of a second. The way the goons’ suits hung slightly bulky over their torsos suggested they were armed. Three guys had been a modest estimate. If they were bringing this much force out just for two would-be volunteers, then the rest of the building would be locked down like a prison. All pretense of being a shelter had vanished as soon as they were through the front doors. Burner thought about the pistol under his loose jacket. He could probably take out the two guys by the metal detector before they knew what was happening. Quick draw, two shots each. But not necessarily. And that left the guy behind the desk, with Burner and Sara directly in his sights.

Sara, experienced Constable that she was, pretended to notice none of this. She strolled over to the desk, still with a beaming, ditzy smile, and Burner followed her. She put her palms on the desk and leaned over, granting a decent view of her cleavage. “Someone needs to tell me what the problem is. Why can’t we volunteer?”

The guy behind the desk didn’t smile. He had enormous coke-bottle glasses, which made his eyes look small and squinty. This must be the guy Judy called Jar-Face, Burner thought. Has to be. Maybe they shuffle them around the “shelters.”

“Like I said,” Jar-Face started. “We’re not taking volunteers, currently.” His face was scarred and pockmarked with the remnants of teenage acne.

“You’re just going to turn us away?”

“We’ve got all the help we need right now.” He nodded to the two thugs near the metal detector, who stared icily at them.

“We’ll be back,” Sara snorted. “I’m going to talk to my manager. You’re going to be in so much trouble when he finds out!”

“Okay, sweetheart, that’s great.” Jar-Face waved mockingly at her. “Bye bye, now.”

“Come on, honey.” Sara grabbed Burner’s hand roughly. “We’re going.”

They left. Burner could feel the eyes on their backs as they went. He hoped he wasn’t about to feel anything else, but they made it outside in one piece.

They walked a little way down the street to a local coffee shop and sat down to drink.

“Good idea, cutting it short.” Burner took a deep sip of his coffee. The steaming liquid felt good going down. After all the walking they’d done today, he needed it. “We weren’t getting anything from them.”

“Security is tighter than we thought.”

“Yeah. I estimated three guys. It’s probably at least double that. We’re going to need a plan.”

Sara studied the lid of her coffee cup. “Let's stake it out. Find out exactly how many of them there are. Figure out the best way in then hit them in the middle of the night.”

Burner nodded. “That’s what I’d do.” He finished his coffee and stood up. “We’ll get them. We’ll get all of them. But we’ll be patient. We’ll do it smart.”


11


Unknown Location


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


Present Day

Judy tilted her head from the door, giving Gray a feeble wink that still hurt less than smiling.

“Just you and me then, huh?”

Gray took up Smith’s sulking position in the corner, sinking down to his haunches. He gave her a weary look from beneath his heavy brows.

“Listen, I’m not here for your games,” he declared. “I don’t know what you said to Smith, but he and I are not the same. Got it?”

Judy got it; in fact, she was counting on it.

She let a couple minutes of silence elapse, straining to hear more of what was going on beyond the cell. Smith’s footsteps and the squawk of his comm faded quickly, but she could pick up slight shuffling overhead. Some faint voices, maybe three or four. All male? It didn’t matter. That could all be figured out once she’d gotten out of this godsdamn room.

“Sorry about before,” she finally offered, giving Gray a sympathetic look. “Wasn’t anything personal. Lock someone up like this and they’re bound to lash out, you know?”

Gray treated her to a sullen stare. If his balls weren’t still hurting, his pride was. That said, she didn’t see the same brutality in him she’d seen in Smith. He was trained, sure. Mercenary, obviously. But that cold, reptilian vibe that came off Smith in waves was nowhere to be found. Gray might be bad, but he struck Judy as an ordinary, decent sort of criminal.

“Can I ask you a question?” Judy enquired, letting an uncharacteristic breathiness creep into her voice.

It was bait, but Gray still wasn’t biting. She let the silence hang a while longer before continuing.

“What do you think they’re going to do to me?”

“Re-house you,” Gray responded without a moment’s hesitation.

So there it was, the company line. The euphemism, the justification that kept this whole seedy machine going.

“Oh, just like that?” Judy asked, staring directly up into the light to coax tears from her eyes. “You really think they can put me through that surgery twice without turning me into a vegetable?”

Gray had no good answer for that, and she could tell that didn’t sit well with him. He may not be the smartest or most senior in this whole operation, but he wasn’t someone that was used to coming up blank either.

“Look, you’re a smart guy, Gray,” she went on, letting the manufactured tears roll gently down her cheeks. “You know just as well as I do that there’s no money for them in keeping me alive. They’re going to kill me. If anything, Smith is probably going to make you do it.”

Gray was on his feet now, brows knitting together in disbelief.

“What do you mean?” he asked, before hesitating, “Why me?”

“He wants you to prove that you’re loyal,” Judy choked, squeezing out a few more tears with a couple of furious blinks. “That you’ll follow orders. His orders.”

Gray’s hands curled into white-knuckled fists, his face flushing red.

“I’ve worked for them for this long,” he ranted. “Never questioned a godsdamned thing.”

“That’s not what he thinks,” Judy whimpered back. “He thinks that this whole time you’ve just been waiting to move against him. Take his spot and have your bosses kick him to the curb.”

“Son of a bitch.”

Gray put his palm to his mouth, drawing a sharp breath in. Out of the corner of her eye, Judy could’ve sworn she saw him bite down on his index finger. Was he genuinely hurt by the idea that Smith might see him as a traitor? No time to consider that now. This was her chance, the moment to deliver the crushing blow. Hit ‘em while they’re weak; it isn’t cowardly if that’s what it takes for you to stay alive.

“He wants you to kill me,” she told Gray. “He wants you to be a murderer. Is that what you are? Are you a murderer, just like the rest of them?”

“Fuck, man!”

Gray punched the wall nearest him and immediately winced, waving his bloodied hand as if he could shake off the self-inflicted pain. His shoulders heaved with a couple of deep breaths before he turned back to Judy. “I need to think.”

He left the room, only to return just as disturbed several minutes later.

Judy waited patiently. Quietly. Even when he returned, she just waited.

Finally, he spoke. “You know I can’t let you go.” His voice was now wracked with guilt. “I can’t. They’ll kill me if I do. This mission is ‘of the utmost importance.’ That’s what John said.”

Judy closed her eyes, willing this last desperate play to work the way she hoped it would.

“Then you’ll kill me. And then they’ll kill you anyway for being a traitor. How many loose ends do you think they really want here, Gray? Isn’t that the whole reason you brought me here in the first place? To tie up loose ends?”

The color ran out of Gray’s face and his fists unclenched as the logic of it all sunk in. She was right. They were all going to be patsies on this thing. Him and Smith.

“You know I’m right,” she urged, forcing a few final tears from her eyes as she craned her neck to face him. “What kind of person do you want to be, huh? Isn’t it better to die a hero than to have to live as somebody else’s bitch?”

Gray didn’t acknowledge this with words. Above all else, he was a man who valued action over talk. He crossed the cell and began to untie Judy’s bonds.

From the hallway, Judy heard a low clatter, followed by the unmistakable sound of gunfire.


12


Wellness District, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

In the simulated darkness of nighttime on Pharbis, the Wellness District was a very different place. The bustling crowds of coughing people were gone. The clinics and pharmacies were closed up and the streets were desolate save for a few wandering drug addicts. Then came the sound of dogs barking and glass breaking.

Burner and Sara waited in an alley facing the rear of the Loreilla. The gaudy outfits they’d been wearing before were gone, replaced by black tactical shirts and pants, along with dark knit caps pulled down over their heads.

The alley was the only approach to the building they’d found that wasn’t covered by cameras. They’d decided the back door was their best bet. After watching the place all day, they’d found that Jar-Face came out through the back to smoke every hour, like clockwork. During Burner and Sara’s brief foray into the Loreilla, he’d been the one watching the cameras. Obviously, it was possible he had someone covering him, but it was their best shot at getting inside. No one besides the two of them had come by all day, so it was likely they weren’t bothering to watch the feed at all times.

“What do you think?” Sara asked him as they squinted toward the dim street light shining on the Loreilla’s back entrance. “Knock him out? Or take him out?”

Burner narrowed his eyes. “People who are knocked out get back up, eventually. I’d prefer if these guys didn’t.”

“Roger that.”

They’d been lucky in one way; the big metal door stayed open while Jar-Face stepped out to smoke.

“I’ll distract him. You take him out. When we’re inside, we stay stealthy as long as we can. But once we’re made, we go guns blazing. Take ’em all out.”

“What about the women? If they get caught in the crossfire?”

“I suspect they’ll be in lockdown. Maybe on a different floor. We might have to make our way up to them. But let’s not shoot in their direction if we can help it.”

Sara snorted. “That’s about the level of strategy I’d expect from Union intelligence.”

“All right, enough talk. He should be coming out soon. You ready?”

She nodded. They moved toward their positions, taking long, silent strides, trying to minimize the sound of their footsteps against the ground. There was a small copse of shrubs about as high as Burner’s chest surrounding the streetlight facing the backdoor. He crept behind them and waited. He’d be totally invisible until he stepped out into the halo of light. Squinting, he looked for Sara, but she’d disappeared into the darkness. None of the moons in view of Pharbis were in their visible phases. Another way they’d been lucky. Trying to infiltrate the Loreilla with moonlight beaming down on them and illuminating everything would have been nearly impossible.

Five minutes passed.

Then ten.

Burner waited.

Waiting was a skill like any other. His time in the Union had taught him that. He’d spent many long nights on stakeouts, parked outside of buildings, waiting for some AWOL Union soldier to emerge from a restaurant or a bar and show his or her face. Sometimes they never did. A lot of the guys in Burner’s position couldn’t handle it. They’d get antsy, try to make something happen, cause a scene, and foul things up. Burner never had that issue. He had no trouble waiting as long as needed. He’d never really discussed it with Sara, but he was positive she felt the same way. Constables had to pretend to care about inane conversations, had to listen to drunk people ramble on for hours at a time, waiting for that one piece of crucial information.

Suddenly, there was a whoosh of air. The pneumatic door sucked open, cutting through the night time quiet like a howitzer. A man stepped out into the air and breathed it in, then he pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

The waiting was over.

Time to move.

Burner stumbled out beneath the streetlight, swaying as he went.

“Hey buddy,” he slurred. “I… wash waiting for… the sh…uttle and I losht my wallet. Got a credit I could, ah, sh-pare?”

“Fuck off, asshole.”

There was a problem. This wasn’t Jar-Face. It was one of the goons he’d seen earlier near the metal detectors. Huge and bald, with no neck and arms like ham hocks. Which meant Jar-Face could have been at the desk, watching the cameras. But they might not get another chance to make it inside.

The signal to abort was Burner stretching his hands up over his head and yawning. But he only had a second or two to decide. Calculations raced through his mind as he lolled from side to side, pretending to be drunk.

Screw it, he thought. Let’s do this.

“Those are shume nice shoeth.” Burner pointed at the man’s feet. “I useth to have a pair juth like that.”

The guy took a step forward, sneering. He flicked his cigarette into Burner’s face.

“Listen, asshole, I told you to—” His words cut off.

The guy dropped to the ground like a sack of cement. Behind him was Sara, who wasted no time retrieving her knife from the lug’s spinal cord. A well-placed blow, instant death. She knew what she was doing, that was for sure. Burner wouldn’t want to get on her bad side. He blinked, trying to clear ash from his eyes, then he dragged the corpse back toward the bushes, where he hid it unceremoniously.

“I saw that. Piece of shit. You okay?”

“Just a slight burn. I’m fine. Let’s get inside.”

But as soon as he said that, another man came out the door.

“Hey Paulie, I thought you were gonna wait for—”

The man stopped dead in his tracks.

He had a greasy ponytail and an earring above his left eye. Burner had never seen him before. The man saw the two of them and his hand darted beneath his jacket. Sara grabbed his arm, and the man shoved her backward with a hard palm to the chest. Burner covered the distance in fractions of a second. He grabbed the guy’s hand as it came out with a silver pistol and yanked it as hard as he could in the wrong direction.

The man cried out in pain, but Sara had righted herself and moved behind him. She muffled his cries with her hand. With another sound like a thwickk, the guy dropped. Unlike the bigger guy, this one’s legs were still twitching. Burner knelt down and put his hands on his head and twisted, making sure the spinal cord was completely severed. He was breathing hard. They’d been watching all day, and only one at a time had come out. This was their first piece of bad luck.

“Inside,” Burner grunted. “Now.”

Not bothering to hide the second body, Burner and Sara crept beneath the cameras, through the pneumatic door. They emerged into a kitchen. Stoves, burners, pots, and pans hung on walls. No alarms yet. At least none they could hear. Sara took point, with her knife in one hand and her pistol in the other, bracing them against each other.

She pointed to the ceiling. “I’d bet the girls are upstairs. No windows down here. They’d get antsy with no sunlight.”

“Let’s move.”

They threaded through the kitchen, out into a long hallway. A man burst through a swinging door. He was enormous. Probably the partner of the big goon laid out in the bushes. He was maybe twelve meters from Burner, a black submachine gun swinging out in front of him. Burner saw his eyes light up in recognition after the second it took to realize what was happening.

No way he could cover the distance in time. Burner drew, pulling his pistol from the holster with a swift, practiced motion. The guy had just about raised his gun when Burner’s bullet smashed through his forehead. The roar of the gunshot was deafening in the cramped hallway. His ears were ringing. So much for the stealthy approach.

An alarm began to ring.

Burner and Sara stepped over the body of the goon with the submachine gun and rounded a corner in formation. Signs on the wall pointed to the stairs, along the far end of the hallway. Burner pointed toward the ceiling, and Sara nodded. He nudged the door open and went into the stairwell. Then came more deafening gunfire. Sparks danced at his feet. Someone above was shooting. He could hear the ricochet as bullets whizzed and deflected off the concrete stairs and the iron railings. Sara yanked him backward out of the stairwell, and Burner narrowly avoided getting caught in a hailstorm of bullets.

He cursed.

“You think there’s another way up?” Sara yelled.

“No idea. There might be an elevator. But we can’t take that. We’ll be easy targets.”

“We’re easy targets here!”

“Throw a flasher,” Burner said. “I’ll rush them. I think it’s just one guy.”

Sara stared at him. “That’s insane.”

“Throw it!”

She pulled the flasher from her belt and eased open the door. She tossed it up the stairs then shielded her eyes, as Burner did the same. One second later came an enormous blast. It was so bright he could see it through his hands. From above, he heard a muffled grunt. Burner charged into the stairway and raced up the steps. One of the guards was on the next level, curled up against the wall. He raised a submachine gun and fired blindly.

Burner hit the deck. He felt the shots arcing just above his head. The submachine gun clicked. Burner darted forward and put his pistol to the guard’s head. The guard staggered forward, and Burner used the momentum to throw him up against the railing. Again, he put his pistol to the guard’s head, bending him down. He fired. The guard’s body dropped limply over the railing and crashed to the first floor below.

A moment later, Sara joined him. She stared at the wall, which was covered in bullet holes.

She shook her head, amazed. “Lucky,” she mouthed.

Burner thought about taking the submachine gun off the guy’s body, but it might have been damaged in the fall. Nothing worse than a gun that jammed because the barrel was bent. It sounded like he’d been out of ammo anyway, and Burner didn’t know if he was carrying any extra magazines on him. His mind flicked through all these considerations in a split second.

From above, they heard screams over the incessant buzz of the alarm.

Sara waved him along. “Girls sound like they’re one more floor up.”

“Watch your friendly fire,” he reminded her.

She nodded once. “How many more goons they got running around this place?”

“I don’t know. Let’s be quick. They could have already called for reinforcements.”

They climbed one more level. The door to the third floor was locked. Some kind of complicated keypad system was attached to the wall. Burner yanked on the handle, but it didn’t budge. The lock seemed like it was magnetic.

“Move.” Sara pushed him aside and took a silver card from a satchel on her belt. She pressed it against the keypad, and the air began to sizzle with electricity. Something shorted out, and the door sagged open. They kept on. The third floor of the Loreilla didn’t have the sleek hospital look of the lobby. Instead, it looked more like an orphanage. Beds were arranged in rows, facing each other. Wooden cabinets held personal items: clothes, knickknacks, and stuffed animals. Hand painted art adored the walls, and large fans whirled impersonally above. Burner and Sara stepped carefully into the large open space.

The women were huddled at the other end of the room, shielding themselves with desks and furniture. Their screams mixed with the still-ringing fire alarm. They looked absolutely terrified. Two women with white hoods stood in front of them, their arms outstretched in a pleading gesture. Burner’s first thought was that they were nuns, which confused him. Then he realized they were probably nurses, or caretakers for the women. He lowered his pistol.

“Don’t shoot! Please!”

Sara moved forward and put a hand on one of the women’s shoulders. The woman recoiled in terror, her blue eyes wide and frightened.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Sara said. “We’re here to rescue you.”

“Rescue us? From what?”

“You don’t know what’s going on here?” Burner asked.

“These women have lost their memories. We’re trying to rehabilitate them. To get them back on their feet and protect them from people like you.”

Burner shook his head. “You’ve been duped. The men running this place are trafficking these women. They’re sending them out to be sex slaves.”

The second nurse shook her head vigorously, but there was doubt on her face. She turned back to look at her wards, who were still huddled, some hugging each other. But they seemed to realize Burner and Sara weren’t going to shoot them. Some of them poked their heads curiously around the furniture shielding them, as if trying to figure out what was going on.

“No, that can’t be true,” she repeated, with less certainty now.

One of the handful of women who had been hiding bravely came out from behind the barricade and approached them. The nurses turned to her sharply.

“Cheryl, get back! It’s dangerous.”

Cheryl had short blond hair. She wore a look on her face like she was racking her brain hard, trying to figure out what was going on. She looked at Burner and Sara.

“What did you say about slaves?”

“What do you remember about coming here?” Sara asked.

“Not much. I was wandering the streets. Or at least that’s what they tell me.” She gestured to the nurses. “They’ve been helping us. Trying to get our memory back.”

“We’re looking for a woman named Judy. She might be called something else. She’s tall and wears her hair in a ponytail. She’s got an attitude. If you met her, you’d remember. Is she here?”

Cheryl shook her head. “I don’t know her. But I heard some of the men talking when I was in the bathroom. They said there was a girl they needed to keep separate. That her memory was totally gone, and they would need to pay special attention to her. They sounded concerned.”

“Did they say where?”

“No. That’s all I heard.”

Burner thought hard. That sure sounded like Judy. Like a special prisoner, kept away from everyone else in the facility. He turned back to the nurses.

“Tell me about the layout of this building. What’s upstairs from here?”

“Upstairs? Nothing. Storage. It’s cluttered with desks and junk.”

“What about below? Basement?”

The two nurses exchanged a look.

“There’s a basement,” the nurse with the blue eyes told them. “But they keep it locked. We don’t go down there.”

Now it was Burner and Sara’s turn to exchange a look. Sara nodded. “Sounds promising.”

“If Judy’s here, that’s where they’re keeping her. Can you tell me if—”

The doors at the far end of the dormitory burst open. Jar-Face was standing there, and in front of him was a terrified young woman, tears streaking down her face. Jar-Face had a shotgun pressed into her back and walked her slowly into the middle of the room. The huddled women again began to scream. The sounds created a cacophony of horror. It was impossible to think.

“Drop your weapons!” Jar-Face shouted. His voice was frantic and reedy, his eyes squinting behind his huge glasses. He was twitching in a way that Burner didn’t particularly like. The woman he was holding hostage had her hands clasped in prayer.

Burner and Sara did not drop their weapons. They trained their pistols on Jar-Face. But his finger was on the trigger. Even if they got off a clean head shot, there was no guarantee his finger would spasm and kill the poor woman.

“You’re outnumbered!” Sara yelled. “Put it down!”

“Backup is on the way,” Jar-Face yelled back. “You two are fucking dead!”

“Think you can shoot that shotgun out of his hands?” Burner muttered to Sara out of the corner of his mouth.

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll dodge left. You go right. I’ll distract. You take the shot. Two seconds.”

“Okay.”

For a second, time seemed to stand still. Jar-Face stood, gun against the woman, while screams filled the air. The nurses were crouched down, hiding behind the beds. On the next beat, Burner went left, and Sara went right. Jar-Face's eyes tracked Burner first, and the shotgun moved a few fractions through the air. Sara went to her knees, braced, and fired.

The gunshot echoed off the tall ceilings of the dormitory, and the bullet plowed into Jar-Face's forehead. The woman was flung forward onto the floor. Jar-Face collapsed, his face a mess of gore, covered in shrapnel.

The woman moved, scrambling from being laid out on the floor, terrified but appeared unhurt.

Burner stood over Jar-Face, who was still writhing on the floor. “Where’s Judy?” he barked. But the guy was too far gone. All he could do was scream with what was left of his mouth. Burner didn’t particularly want to execute him in front of the horrified women, but he wasn’t completely immobilized and there was still a chance he had weapons on him. Before he could do anything, Sara shot Jar-Face in the head.

He shrugged. “I guess that settles that.”

“I’m going to get these women out of here,” Sara told him. “You head down to the basement and find Judy.”

He nodded and took one last look at the huddled women and the blood-strewn floor then headed back out toward the stairwell. The basement would be well guarded. He checked his pistol and ammo supplies. There were still plenty of magazines left, and he planned to use them.


13


The Loreilla Women’s Shelter, Wellness District, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The fire alarm had finally stopped, and he could almost feel his eardrums relax in relief. Burner could smell smoke and cordite, the remnants of the bullets that had been fired all over the facility. With his pistol in front of him, he tracked slowly down the staircase, keeping his head on a swivel. He knew they could be coming from above and below.

Sara was upstairs, trying to get the women holed up somewhere safe and finding them a way out once he reached Judy.

Burner listened for footsteps but heard none besides his own. The heavy brick walls of the basement gave the area an eerie quiet, muffling the frantic sounds from above. Slowly he made his way down the stairs—one story, then another, then down to the basement. There was a rusty door that led into a brick alcove. Ahead, a dimly lit passageway was covered in water from leaky pipes. Trash was strewn across the ground, and cleaning supplies balanced haphazardly along the walls.

Noise came from ahead. It sounded like a group of at least two or three guards. One of them was barking orders Burner couldn’t make out. The hallway curved around into a blind turn. If they were waiting to ambush him, he was in big trouble. He had a grenade he could toss around the corner, but he’d be tossing it blindly, and he didn’t know where Judy was. And that was his one move.

Still, it’d be better than nothing.

He crept closer, trailing along the brick wall. Everything smelled strongly of mildew. He could hear shuffling from up ahead, like the guards were getting set in their positions. Judy was nowhere in sight. Burner took his grenade and primed it, then he waited four seconds and lobbed it around the corner.

“Grenade!” a voice shouted.

Burner braced, and a tremendous bang erupted like the air itself had snapped in two.

He gave it a second before he peered around the corner and was met with a burst of submachine gun fire. He cursed, falling back. Something slashed across his chest. He felt around his torso above his heart. Just a ricochet, grazing the flesh.

That’s twice now you’ve gotten lucky, said a voice inside his head. You’re getting slow, Burner. You should be dead.

Possibly. But he thought of the words of his old drill instructor back at Intelligence training. The guy had been all of a meter and a half tall, but he was stronger and fitter than a country ox. Are you dead? he would bark at recruits who were too exhausted to go on or too frightened. No? Then you’re alive. Get up!

Burner weighed his options. There were an unknown number of hostiles in front of him, armed to the teeth and clearly using tactics and teamwork. Trained operatives. He had no grenades left. Plenty of pistol ammo remaining, but he was outgunned by the submachine rifles.

Strategically, he was in a decent location. The curving brick wall jutted off to his left into a little alcove less than a meter wide, so he could have his back to the wall and not have to worry about anyone sneaking up on him. But that presented its own problems. He could be swarmed. Or they could retreat and flush him out with grenades of their own.

Judy’s waiting for you, his incessant brain spat at him. Make up your godsdamned mind.

Before he could react, two guards came charging around the bend. Like Burner, they were dressed in black, except they had body armor and helmets. He raced for cover as gunshots swarmed toward him like hornets, then he peered around the corner as sparks flew, more bullets clanging off the brick walls. He was in big trouble. If these guys had any sense at all, they were already sending more men down the stairs in a pincer attack. He could turn to retreat and get mowed down as soon as he stepped into the stairwell.

There was only one option left: attack.

Burned rolled from cover. One of the guards had a grenade in his hand, and the other fired at Burner. The sound was intense.

They were maybe twenty meters apart. A submachine gun should have been a sure thing at twenty meters, like hitting the broad side of a barn. Burner should have been shredded into bits. But the guard panicked.

Trained, but lacking experience, Burner thought. The pistol felt good in his hand, like an extension of his arm. Aim for the soft spots—neck, ankles, shoulders.

Burner took aim at the panicked shooter first and fired. Then he went for the legs; three bullets to the right, three to the left. At least one of the shots missed the armor and penetrated through bone. The guard screamed, blood splattering out against the wall, and he toppled over, still clutching his gun. But Burner had other problems now. The second guard panicked and flung the grenade way too hard. It went sailing past Burner, down the hallway. Burner raced forward, shooting as he went. The second guard was slightly off balance from the throw and struggled to get his gun up to shoulder level. Burner aimed at his neck, again firing six shots. Only one found its mark, but it was all he needed. The guard fell, a red mist lingering in the air above him, his body now on the ground, unmoving.

Burner hit the floor just as the grenade exploded. He felt the shockwave blow past him, pieces of brick and plaster raining down. But the shrapnel was too far away to really do damage to him. Burner’s ears were ringing badly now, though, like someone blasting an airhorn in his head. He got up again.

The first guard had forgotten all about Burner. He clutched at his shattered leg, howling. Burner yanked the submachine gun away from his weak grasp then kicked off his helmet. The guy was young, his face contorted in pain, hair a sweaty mess.

Burner pointed the submachine gun at the guy’s good leg. “Judy Petersen. Where is she?”

“She’s down here,” he gasped. “Basement. Keep going past the quiet rooms. White door with an Employees Only sign on it.”

Burner couldn’t hear a word he said with his ringing ears. He bent down. “What?”

The guard repeated himself, sputtering frantically.

“Is it secure?”

“What?”

Burner stepped on the guy’s leg. The howling screams didn’t help his ears any, but he savored them nonetheless.

“The door. Is it locked? Reinforced? Can I get through it?”

“No. Steel. It’s locked.”

“Give me the key.”

“I don’t have it!”

Burner pressed his foot down again. Blood welled in a pool on the floor. The guy had stopped shouting and was now just making high pitched squealing noises. His face was white. He was probably going into shock, bleeding out from his leg.

“Who does?”

“John Smith. He has it.”

“Where is he?”

The guard just shook his head. Burner exhaled. The guy was getting paler by the second. He didn’t have long. Burner shifted the gun to his head.

“No. Please, no.”

“You sure? All right. Suit yourself.”

Burner stripped him of his remaining ammo and a single grenade. The guard didn’t resist, so Burner left him there to die and continued deeper into the basement.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Gray froze in the midst of untying the thick ropes wrapped around Judy’s legs. There was a sound of muffled gunfire from somewhere down the hall, and then an explosion. Gray looked like a deer in headlights, a tiny bolt of fear slicing through his gruff façade.

“What the hell is that?” he muttered, half to himself.

As far as distractions go, this one’s pretty good, thought Judy. The rope around her legs had slackened enough that she felt like she could break free with enough strength. Gray’s hands were still holding the ropes.

“Listen,” he started. “I’m don’t know what’s going on, but I’m gonna need you to—”

Judy flung herself forward, coming up off the chair as far as she could and tackling Gray with her weight. She was solid and it was enough to send them both crashing to the floor.

“Hey!” Gray squirmed to get free of her. “What are you doing?”

In the fall, her bottom half had come free. Her hands were still bound, but she could move her legs. She reared back and kicked Gray in the face. Hard. There was a thick thudding sound, like someone had dropped a cinder block. Gray’s head snapped back. One of his fists went swinging wildly and connected with her gut.

Judy buckled over and grit her teeth. “You’re gonna wish you hadn’t done that.”

She straightened up quickly, still grimacing. With deft speed, she swung her legs around Gray’s head, then she locked her legs together around his neck and began squeezing her thighs. He gasped for air, battering her arms with punches, but she held tight. She squeezed harder, rolling on the floor to get more leverage. Gray began to wheeze. His punches got weaker. In desperation, he bit down on the inside of Judy’s thigh. She cried out but didn’t let go. Instead, she squeezed harder. And harder. She kept squeezing until she was dizzy, about to pass out. Then she squeezed some more. Finally, he went completely limp and she let go.

Gray’s face was a ghastly purple, his eyes open and fixed in a blank, dilated stare. She waited a beat to see if he would start sputtering and come back to life. He didn’t. She dug into his pockets and found a combat knife, then she cut the ropes from her hands. She got to her feet, bloody and a little wobbly. Taking a moment to assess herself, she braced against the wall and took a few deep breaths. Winded and bruised, she wasn’t seriously hurt, but she couldn’t see very well out of her right eye.

She spat a thick wad of blood onto Gray’s lifeless corpse. “Should have found a new line of work, fucker,” she hissed.

She tried the door. Locked.

She went back into Gray’s pockets, rooted around, and came out with a key card. She stumbled forward, still unsteady, and unlocked the steel door.

Where she came face to face with John Smith. Smith was trying to put his own keys in the door. He looked at her, puzzled for a moment, and then his face morphed into a scowl.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

As Burner made his way farther into the basement, he wondered if he should have felt guilty about leaving the younger man to die. He was wondering in a clinical sort of sense, the way a scientist might wonder about a lab rat that failed to thrive. Obviously, most people would feel a certain way about it. They might have thought Burner’s actions as cold, something akin to a war crime on the field of battle. Failing to render aid, that sort of thing. But Burner’s conscience was completely clear. After all, he’d given the guy a choice, right? Offered to put him out of his misery with one quick shot. And he’d declined. So it wasn’t his problem anymore. Even if he made the charitable assumption that the guard didn’t know they were trafficking women through this place, he’d still taken shots at Burner. Which was unacceptable, in his view.

Sara’s voice buzzed through the comm in his ear. “Sitrep? You still alive?”

Burner pressed a finger to his earlobe. “Roger. Making my way through the basement. Judy should be close.”

“Copy that. The women are holed up, safe. I’m watching the streets. No reinforcements yet, but I’d hurry it up if I were you.”

“We’ll rendezvous in the alley once I’ve got Judy.”

“Okay. Out.”

With the submachine gun on his shoulder, Burner turned a corner and found himself in a narrow corridor. There were small rooms on both sides, each one with a tiny window to let someone look inside, like you’d see at a mental institution. Or in prison cells. Burner peered through the squares of glass. He wanted to make sure there were no women being held inside. There weren’t, but he saw other things in there. There were racks, meant to stretch the body in uncomfortable positions, and tools like drills and scalpels. In another room, he saw a table full of syringes, each one filled with some murky liquid. These weren’t just holding cells. They were torture chambers, where they brought the women who were being difficult. Or maybe just because they felt like it. His stomach lurched. He’d been too easy on that guard.

Burner searched for the white door with the employees only sign on it, but he still hadn’t found it. The basement area was huge, probably taking up most of the city block. Brick tunnels branched off from one another in a confusing, twisting maze. Burner needed to hurry. If the alarm had been raised, they might have already decided to get rid of Judy.

Then, up ahead he heard noises. He was just able to make them out over his battered ears, which were still ringing. Muffled shouts, what sounded like a man and a woman. He ran forward and came to two people grappling on the floor.

“Judy!” Burner shouted.

A man was attacking her with a knife. He brought it down in big swooping slashes. Judy was fighting for her life. She was blocking the knife blows with her arms, trying to get purchase on the man to kick him off. Burner circled around them, submachine gun leveled, but with the two of them rolling around it was impossible to get a clean shot. The man let loose a fierce open palm blow to the side of Judy’s head, which dazed her. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled back, moving the knife up to the soft part of her neck.

But Judy wasn’t some damsel in distress. She was fighting and kicking, landing several blows to the man’s groin. He struggled to keep the knife against her neck. The edge pricked her, and blood welled down like teardrops.

There was still no way Burner could get a clean shot. Instead, he went for the knife, but the man had expected it. He grabbed Burner’s dangling submachine gun and yanked it from him. It went flying down the hallway and clattered to a rest somewhere far away. He kicked Judy off him and went for Burner instead. Probably the right decision. Go after the more dangerous threat. But these guys were seriously underestimating Judy. Ignoring her was a mistake.

But Burner had other things to worry about, namely the crazed man lunging at him with a knife. That was one of the benefits of bladed weapons in close quarters combat: an enemy could close the distance in an instant. There was no time to draw his pistol. Suddenly, he was as good as unarmed, with a knife on a beeline for his heart. He darted back, then forward, meeting momentum with momentum.

The knife went high for Burner’s chest, while he went low, at his attacker’s shins. He let loose a fierce kick and the man stumbled but didn’t go down. He circled around, slashing, and the blade caught Burner’s left hand, leaving a gash above the knuckles. Judy was already nearly to her feet a few paces away. The attacker had his knife, but Burner had Judy behind him. And his gun.

The guy was on Burner like a fly on honey, not wanting to give him a chance to draw his pistol. He raced forward into a tackle that would have sent Burner tumbling. He dodged right and jabbed left, a solid blow across the man’s cheek. The knife stabbed down toward Burner’s stomach. Burner grabbed his arm with both hands, trying to halt the progress of the blade. The assailant was wiry but much stronger than he looked. Burner heaved and gasped as the knife sank lower and lower.

Then suddenly the assaulter was flying off him. Judy, from behind, had flung him aside. Burner scrambled up just as the attacker regrouped and sprang up, swinging the knife at Judy this time. Burner grabbed him from behind, trying to avoid the wild blows of the knife. Judy danced forward and kicked her attacker in the groin, hard. He groaned and stepped to his left. Burner had his pistol out now and was looking for a clean shot, but the guy was once again tangled up with Judy.

“Get clear!” Burner yelled.

Judy shoved her attacker with all her might, but he latched onto her shirt, attached to her like a barnacle. He raised the knife, but Burner grabbed his arm and twisted it to the side with all his strength. There was a sickening crack, and the guy screamed. The knife fell and at the same moment Judy shoved the guy forward a meter or so.

Finally, some space. Burner fired three shots, a tight grouping into the torso. The attacker’s eyes opened wide in surprise, like he couldn’t believe how bad his day had become. Large spatters of blood splashed on the wall behind him. He fell over, breathed through a sucking chest wound for a few seconds, then collapsed in a heap.

Burner and Judy stood, panting and sweating, bloodied, battered and bruised. Her hair had come undone during the scuffle, and she calmly tied it back up behind her head.

“You okay?” Burner asked.

She scoffed. “Am I okay? Yeah, I’m great. I’m just peachy. What took you so long, boss?”

He smiled. “Got caught in traffic.”

“I’m ready to get the hell out of here if you are.”

“Sounds good. Stay close and follow me.”


14


The Loreilla Women’s Shelter, Wellness District, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Sara’s voice buzzed into his ear. “We’ve got a small problem.”

Burner and Judy were making their way out of the basement. Judy was doing her best to keep pace, but she’d been beaten up pretty badly at the hands of her captors. Her right eye was black and blue, swollen shut, and her mouth was bloodied. They were almost at the stairwell, past the bodies of the guards Burner had taken out earlier. He was grateful to almost be out of there. He’d had enough of the Loreilla for one lifetime.

“What?” Burner buzzed back.

“Reinforcements have arrived. They’re massing at the front.”

“Is the back exit still clear?”

“For now. But I’d hurry. I’m going to drop some smoke to clear the way for you. Can you navigate through it?”

Burner turned back, as Judy limped forward. She was going faster than a normal person would walk but was still slowed.

“Whatever they’re saying, just agree and let’s go,” Judy grumbled. “I can make it.”

“Yeah,” Burner said into his earpiece. “We’ll get through it.”

Climbing the stairs was slow going. Burner had his arm around Judy, and he watched her grimace as she churned her legs forward. It took nearly a full minute to make it back up to the first floor. There were noises, commotion, but everything was so chaotic it was impossible to tell where they were coming from. Burner saw dark smoke curling out of a corridor, so he figured that direction must be the kitchen and the pneumatic back door.

He pulled Judy gently forward. “This way.”

The smoke grew impenetrable almost immediately. Visibility was zero. Worse than zero, because it was easier to get disoriented in the thick smog. Burner held Judy’s hand and felt his way along the left wall, hearing her coughing and sputtering. The smoke was designed to camouflage, so breathing it wouldn’t kill them, but it still couldn’t have been good for their lungs. He felt like a blind man walking through a jungle.

Eventually, wall tile gave way to pots and pans rattling in their holders.

Burner urged her along. “Come on. We’re almost there.”

A dim patch of smoke up ahead looked brighter than the area surrounding it. Burner yanked Judy toward it. The smoke was everywhere. Finally, they pushed together through the square of light and emerged out into the back of the building. Burner blinked furiously as his eyes adjusted. It was still dark, but the streetlight overhead gave some illumination.

Judy turned to him, breathing hard.

Without warning, a shuttle screeched to a halt in front of them. It was sleek black, with tinted windows. Burner drew his pistol, his aim wavering. The door of the shuttle sucked open, and Sara was sitting in the pilot’s seat, smiling at them.

“Ready to go?” she beamed.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

LUXURY SUITE, CANTERI HOTEL, SPACE STATION PHARBIS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS

Burner and Sara sat on the bed, listening with morbid fascination as Judy slurped her soup down in big heaping gulps. They’d ordered room service as soon as they’d returned back to the hotel. Neither Burner nor Sara were particularly hungry, but food had been all Judy would talk about on the ride back.

“Careful,” Sara reminded her. “You said it’s been almost two days since you’ve had any food.”

Judy grunted dismissively and kept slurping. Burner wanted to get her patched up, but she’d insisted on eating something first. He didn’t blame her. Thirty-six hours without food is a long haul, even for a trained operative.

Judy finished her soup and finally allowed them to tend to her wounds. Burner wrapped some ice cubes in a towel for her to put on her swollen eye, and Sara got to work bandaging her wounds. She was slashed all over, but fortunately most of the cuts were superficial. Only one or two were deep enough to be concerning, and in lieu of stitches Sara patched those up with a couple of butterfly bandages.

Judy sat passively while Sara tended to her. She glanced over at Burner as though she wanted him to speed things up.

“I’m ready for debriefing, officer,” Judy told him.

“That can wait,” Burner replied. “Let Sara finish cleaning you up. Then why don’t you soak your feet in the tub, relax. You deserve a rest.”

“Huh. That doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea.”

Burner set the hot water running in the tub then joined the women again. Sara finished her nursing duties, and Judy headed into the bathroom. They could hear her moan of satisfaction as she slipped her feet underneath the water.

Sara sprawled out on the bed, resting her head against the pillows. “She’s tough.”

“That she is. Should be interesting to hear just what the hell she’s been up to for the past year.”

“Are you all right?”

“Me?” He frowned at her. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know. A lot of shit just went down at the Loreilla. Just want to make sure your head’s in the right place.”

Burner shrugged. “I’m fine. If you’re asking if I feel guilty or conflicted about those dead guards, the answer is no. I just hope the women are all right. That the other guards don’t take it out on them.”

“I doubt they will. Those women are their investments, after all.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t see the rooms in the basement.”

Sara raised her eyebrows. “What rooms?”

“Not sure exactly. But they weren’t used for anything good. Like prison cells or torture chambers. I have a feeling some of the women were brought there.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.” He lowered his voice. “Don’t mention anything about it when Judy comes out. For all we know, she was in there.”

“If she was, I’m sure she’ll tell us all about it.”

Burner wasn’t particularly keen on staying at the Canteri Hotel for much longer. Too many chances for people to see them coming and going, and a hotel door lock wasn’t the most secure thing in the world. But he figured they’d be all right for the next hour or so while Judy cleaned up and they got her debriefed. Also, he was tired. It had been over 24 hours since he’d slept, and he’d just spent the night getting punched, stabbed, shot at, and nearly blown up. He felt he deserved a nap too. He watched Sara, combing her blond hair in between adding mission information to her datapad. He was about to tell her he was going to grab a few Zs, but he felt his eyes grow heavy and his head hit the pillow. The next thing he knew he was waking up and an hour had passed.

Judy was out of the bathroom and dressed, sitting at the coffee table. The swelling around her eye had gone down some, and she was eating a croissant, taking small, cautious bites. Burner guessed her jaw was still sore. She might have had a few loose teeth in there too. He thought about his own previous encounter at the dentist, back in the Deadlands. It hadn’t turned out particularly well. But that was a whole different story.

“Pleasant dreams?” Judy asked him as he blinked awake.

“I never dream,” he told her. “Or if I do, I don’t remember it.”

“That must get boring.”

Burner shrugged. “It is what it is.”

Sara sat, inputting something on her datapad, then she looked up at Judy. “Are you ready to tell us what happened over the past year?”

Judy nodded, wiping some flakes of croissant off her chin. “I’ll tell you everything I can remember. A lot of things are still spotty. I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out who I was. And who you guys were.”

Sara motioned for her to continue. Judy sat back, her eyes involuntarily gazing upward as she tried to recall her hazy memories.

“I was kidnapped and held by those assholes. For exactly how long, I’m not sure, but I initially escaped from them a year ago. At the time, they were calling me Mary. I didn’t know who I was or where I came from, but I remembered enough about myself to know something was wrong.”

“These were the same guys we just dealt with at the Loreilla?” asked Burner.

“Yes,” Judy answered. “But they didn’t only operate there. It’s a complex operation, lots of moving parts. They’re running these fake shelters all over Dobulla and Pharbis. Professionals, well-funded with elite tech and support from some powerful people. It took me a while to put things together. There’s a reason they’re taking these girls’ memories. It makes it impossible to figure things out, to come to logical conclusions. How can you know what’s happening around you if you don’t even know who you are?”

Burner put a hand on her shoulder. “You managed it.”

“I had training. These other girls, they didn’t have a chance. They’re like little lost lambs being led to the slaughter.”

Sara was taking all of this down on her datapad. “Why specifically did they choose you?”

“I don’t know for sure. It might have something to do with me being part of the Union. Or it could have just been a bad coincidence. But I don’t really believe in coincidences. Once I figured out what was going on at the shelters, I knew I was going to take them down, somehow. I was still regaining my memories every day, and pretty soon I had enough of myself put together to start investigating. I figured volunteering at an actual women’s shelter would be a good place to start. It would give me some insight into how the system works, and they would have connections with the fake shelters.”

“Wait,” Burner cut in. “You were volunteering at a real shelter? Not one where they were trafficking people?”

Judy nodded. “Yeah. I figured trying to volunteer at the trafficking sites would look suspicious, and they probably wouldn’t have taken me anyway. So I just took a job at a real shelter. While I was there, I learned the protocols. Made connections. There was a lot of scuttlebutt between my coworkers about shady things going on in the industry. We were getting a lot of women who were turned away from the trafficking shelters. Women with kids, jealous husbands, that kind of thing. I guess they considered them unfit to be slaves.”

“Scumbags,” Sara spat.

Judy continued. “Then, when I started staking out other shelters, I was able to tell what was right and what was wrong. I staked out the Hollybridge for days. Another shelter in the Herod district that’s been trafficking women. It was around that time I started to remember about the Union. And you, Burner.”

“But you didn’t remember enough to track me down. Not yet, at least.”

“Right,” Judy continued. “I knew you were out there, but I had to go about finding you the hard way. I was running searches with no luck. Thought you were going to be a dead end. Then your badge pinged in Union space when you entered Dobulla. From there, I was able to track you back to Pharbis with the help of an old contact at the Union MP. I had enough info to send you a coded message.”

“Tamara Cameron,” Burner started. “Your alias. I got your message but didn’t know who it was from. I knew from the phrasing that it had to be a member of my old spec ops team. Sara was then able to decode your messages.”

“It sure took you long enough.” Judy smiled, but there was real strain on her face through the tough-girl façade. Her eye and jaw must have been killing her. Burner didn’t blame her for grimacing. She’d been through a hell of a lot the past year.

Sara seemed confused. “You’re a field agent, no? Reverse tracking location pings is some pretty technical stuff. How’d you figure out how to do that? Did you get your contact to do it for you?”

Judy scoffed. “No, my contact didn’t do everything for me. Who do you think I am? Actually, this is one of the things I do remember. Before I was taken, I was put on desk leave for a few weeks back in spec ops. Analytics. Don’t recall exactly why, but I’m sure it was some heroic gesture I made.”

“I think I remember that,” Burner recalled. “You got shot going after that deserter. That whole debacle back in the Deadlands. You were hit in the arm, right?”

Judy stared off into the distance for a long moment. She touched her elbow unconsciously. “Elbow, actually. Wasn’t too bad, just a graze, but they put me on desk duty. I was getting restless there. You know me.”

“Yeah. You weren’t too happy. And neither were the people in Analytics. Typically, field agents tend to shoot the equipment when it doesn’t work. They’re always getting into trouble.”

“That’s true,” Judy agreed. “But I made a resolution that I was going to make the most of my time there. I didn’t want to just be the token field person who lounges around and doesn‘t get anything done. I don’t know how I remember this. Must be one of the neurons those bastards forgot to fry. But I do remember that I actually made an effort to learn things. Eventually, I became friendly with the crew and they put me on the day shift. They taught me a lot of useful stuff.”

“Like how to find the fake shelters throughout Dobulla,” Sara chimed in.

“Uh-huh. They showed me how to track what they called DBs—disused buildings. A lot of these derelict factories or drug houses eventually get bought up by criminal enterprises looking for a cheap place to set up shop. A lot of the fake shelters started off as properties that were abandoned. Once I remembered how to search through the record for these newly purchased buildings, it was a lot easier to piece things together.”

Burner nodded, impressed. “It sounded like you were starting to get most of your faculties back around six months ago. How come it took you so long to contact us?”

Judy sighed. She’d finished her croissant, and she was rubbing her jaw, which was no doubt sore from the effort of chewing. “Here’s the thing. They could just wipe your memory clean completely, sure. But most of the time they didn’t do that. I guess they figured that if the girls couldn’t remember anything, they’d be a lot harder to transport and sell.”

“What are you saying? They could pick and choose what memories to erase?”

Judy nodded. “I know it sounds crazy, but there were definitely specific memories they tried to block out. I had to fight to remember them. Like my Union training, the stuff I learned in Analytics. Useful stuff. Other things, like you guys, took me even longer to remember. It’s hard not knowing who’s on your team.”

Sara was gritting her teeth. “These guys are really some bastards, huh.”

“Yeah,” Judy agreed. “Losing your memory is a scary thing. They had their two goons beating the shit out of me in that basement, but I would have preferred that any day of the week to not being able to remember.”

“Burner said you had freed yourself by the time he got there. How’d you manage that?”

Judy grinned. The injuries to her face gave her a grotesque kind of look, slanted and bloody, like an ill-fitting mask. “I used my extensive psy-ops training. The two of them split up, which was their first mistake. The guy guarding me, Gray, I got into his head pretty easily. One of those ultra-macho guys who’s super insecure on the inside. Started sowing some doubt in his mind about his place in the pecking order. It took a while, but eventually I was able to get under his skin. I managed to change his mind about the whole hostage thing, and got him to start untying me. I was halfway free when you guys showed up and I had to take him out.”

“You did good, soldier,” Burner told her, giving her a crisp salute. She waved him off with an it was nothing gesture. “I’m proud of the way you handled yourself.” He paused a moment. “I know you deserve a rest, but we’re going to have to trade this luxury suite for more pedestrian accommodations. It’s not safe here. Too public. Too many people who can track us coming and going.”

“Right now?”

“I don’t think we’re in immediate danger, but I’d prefer to leave by nightfall. No sense in sticking around, being an easy target. By now, anyone could know where we are.”

Judy nodded. “All right. I’m going to enter everything I can remember from the time I was taken hostage into my datapad. Get it all out while it’s still fresh in my mind. My memory is still spotty in a lot of places. I don’t trust it.”

“Good idea,” Sara told her. “We should start working on finding a new place to hide out. Somewhere more remote.”

Burner could have used another nap, but he had a few calls of his own to make. He watched Judy, fingers flying and clacking over the screen as she typed into her datapad. Her hands were working, but she had a faraway expression, a distant look in her eyes like she was remembering something important. He thought about asking her what it was but in the end decided not to interrupt. He knew from his own experience that some memories were better left unshared.

Either way, the Canteri Hotel was no longer safe for them. It was time to find some new digs.

And come up with a plan.


15


Suncrest Valley Residential Community, Ranch District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


23 Months Ago

“This is where I live?” Judy asked.

The woman she was with smiled. “Of course, Mary. You lived here with your husband for almost ten years before you lost your memory. His name is Paul Baxter. Which makes you Mary Baxter.”

She gazed up at the house. It was a squat, two-story duplex with hydrangeas hanging out over the windowsills and green grass that was neat and well-manicured. The house’s siding was a very light red, almost pink. A little garden gnome stood grinning near the front door, with a carved wooden block above its head that read “Gnome Sweet Gnome.” None of it looked the least bit familiar to her. She racked her brain and tried to reach down deep to find some reference point, some recollection she could draw from, but she found nothing. The woman from the shelter, whose name was Amanda, led her from the shuttle down the short path to the front door. A moment later, the door opened and a man was standing there, waiting for her.

“Paul?” Mary asked hesitantly. She had hoped that seeing his face might spark some recognition in her, but the man in front of her might as well have been a complete stranger. He was bald on top, with two blond crescents of hair covering the sides of his head. He was tall and wearing a plaid sweater, and he had the look of a doctor or accountant—some kind of intellectual profession. She wasn’t sure how she knew this, but that’s what her brain was telling her. Maybe she was starting to remember something.

“Mary!” he said, a big beaming smile on his face. “I’ve missed you so much. Welcome home.”

He pulled her to him in an embrace that felt uncomfortably close. His hands pressed against her midsection, not at all bashful. She didn’t feel any sort of bond or connection that came with the touching. Instead, she breathed a sigh of relief when he finally let go of her.

Amanda went with them into the kitchen, where Paul poured them all some tea. The refrigerator was covered in magnets from different districts and space stations, the names of which were foreign to her. Mary tried to think about being here in the past. She tried to test herself about where the dishes were, the silverware, the food. But everything was foreign to her. She could have sworn she’d never been here before in her life.

“We know it’s going to be a difficult transition at first,” Amanda said, as Paul sipped his tea and stared at her in a way she would charitably describe as leeringly. “But Paul has been very patient throughout this whole process, and he’s going to be a wonderful anchor for you while you regain your bearings.”

“Paul Baxter.” Even his name felt strange on Mary’s tongue. “How long have we been married for?”

“Almost seven years,” he answered. “I was so distraught when you lost your memory. Just devastated. I’m so glad Amanda and the others at the shelter found you and brought you back to me. Who knows what would have happened otherwise?”

“Right,” Mary started, though she wasn’t entirely convinced. She looked around the house, trying to find a point of reference, willing her brain to remember. She shook her head, defeated. “I’m still pretty confused about all this.”

Amanda placed a comforting hand over hers. “Take it one day at a time with Paul. You’ll get your bearings back before you know it.”

There was some more small talk, then Amanda told them she had to get going. Mary’s stomach suddenly dropped at the thought of being alone with Paul. It was as if someone had told her she would be sharing a bed with a stranger. That’s not the way a wife should feel about her husband, Mary thought. What is going on with me?

She wanted to shout at Amanda, “don’t go!” But she had the feeling things might go bad for her if she did that. So she just watched as Amanda waved goodbye and left out the door, back to her shuttle. Mary sat with her tea while Paul continued to ogle her.

“You must be tired,” he said, coming up behind her and massaging her shoulders in a way that he must have thought was relaxing but made her tense up instead. “I’m going to go upstairs and get our bed ready. It’s great to have you back, Mary. We’re going to have so much fun rebuilding our life together.”

Fun? she thought. That didn’t jive with everything she had been through.

Mary nodded meekly and forced a smile. “Okay. That sounds great.”

Paul kissed her on the cheek and went upstairs. Mary waited until he had cleared the last step, then she ran to the sink, dry heaving. She took a few gulps of water and composed herself, her face sweaty and pallid. Whatever was going on here, she needed to find a way out of it, and sooner rather than later.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Paul stood across from her with his hands on his hips and watched her chopping vegetables. “Well, at least you still remember how to cook.” He nodded, satisfied with himself. Mary gave him a weak smile. Just enough to deflect his attention for the time being. He sat down at the kitchen table, reading the news on his datapad.

As she’d feared, her “husband” had wasted no time trying to consummate their marital bed the night before. She’d had to fight off his advances with a growing list of excuses as he pressed himself against her and wafted his sour breath onto her neck. She told him she was too tired, that she still needed to adjust to her new surroundings, that it was her time of the month. He was maddeningly persistent. Finally, she managed to annoy him enough that he rose from the bed, cursing at her, and told her he was going to sleep on the couch. She breathed a sigh of relief as she heard him trudge down the stairs, the room still thick with the smell of his overbearing cologne.

Now, as she stood in the kitchen chopping vegetables, a building rage began to come over her. Watching Paul at the table, waiting for her to prepare his meal, irritated her. He kept making snide comments as she worked, wondering out loud whether her cooking would be better before or after she lost her memory.

“I didn’t realize you were such a prude,” he told her, chuckling to himself. “Maybe you’ll actually remember how to have a good time one of these days.”

Mary ignored him, focusing on the food in front of her. She was chopping the vegetables up into perfectly spaced lines, her hands expertly manipulating the knife as it sawed up and down. She felt strangely comfortable with the tool in her hands. No, more than comfortable. Proficient, almost. Like if she wanted, she could find Paul’s jugular vein in a matter of seconds, a few brisk cuts here and there, have him bleeding out on the kitchen floor like a stuck pig before he could finish sending out another one of his barbs at her. She pictured it in her mind: slicing through his neck with the precision of a skilled butcher.

Mary blinked. She looked down at the knife in her hands, the vegetables strewn across the cutting board. Where were these thoughts coming from? How the hell did she know the right spots on a person’s neck to kill them? Paul continued ignoring her from the kitchen table, unaware at just how much damage she could do to him if she wanted. She wasn’t about to kill him—not yet. But if he kept on trying to get handsy with her, she couldn’t make any promises.

Something very strange was going on, Mary knew. These things at the back of her subconscious—how to use a knife as a weapon, how to kill. She wasn’t just some ordinary housewife. She’d had some kind of training, some kind of combat experience. Were they keeping it from her? Was this whole domestic scene just designed to mess with her head?

She glanced over at Paul again, with his toothy, nauseating grin. Yes, it had only been a few days since they’d been “reunited,” and she didn’t know him that well. But from what she’d seen so far, he was repugnant. How could she have ever married such a person? Someone who not only demeaned and belittled his wife who’d been through a severe trauma, but who hounded her for sex even as she was trying to readjust to her surroundings?

I wouldn’t have, Mary thought. Not in a million years.

But here she was, in his house, cooking his food. Again, she pictured cutting his throat, and this time the fantasy appealed to her. Maybe she should take him out, make a run for it. Lay low out on the lam while her memory came back to her. But that seemed a bit hasty. She had to figure out what was going on first.

The only other possibility was that they were all lying to her, Amanda and Paul and everyone at the shelter. She didn’t know if that was true, but something was definitely wrong here, and she was going to figure out what it was. When Paul left for work, she would get to work investigating.

Fortunately, Paul did spend much of his day at work, though he was cagey when she asked him what exactly it was that he did.

“Don’t worry about it, darling,” he told her condescendingly, before giving her a kiss on the forehead that she struggled not to recoil from. “I work with numbers, investments—you know, that sort of thing. Nothing for you to fret about.”

“You’re an accountant?” she asked him.

“Something like that.”

She nodded, although from the tone of his voice she didn’t quite believe him.

“Listen,” he continued. “I don’t want you out wandering the streets when I’m gone. That’s how you got into this mess in the first place.”

She stared at him, unable to believe what she was hearing. “You want me to just sit in the house all day while you’re at work?”

“Just until you get your memory back. It’s too dangerous otherwise.”

“But what if I need to—”

Paul put a finger over her lips.

“That’s enough now. I have to go. I should be back around sunset. It would be nice if you have dinner waiting for me when I return.” He smiled widely and trundled out the door.

Mary stood in the kitchen for a few moments, wondering if this was all some horrible nightmare. She waited until she heard his shuttle fly away, then she slammed her fist down onto the stone countertop.

“Screw this,” she muttered. “I’m not going to sit around here all day like a goddamned house pet!”

She stormed out of the kitchen to the front doors. She turned the knob, but it didn’t move. There was no deadbolt or mechanism to release from the inside. Only a keyhole, set into the knob itself. She gripped the knob more firmly now, yanking it around, but the door didn’t budge.

Locked in. She made a beeline for the back door, only to find it locked just as tightly, no way to open the thing without the key. She went around to all the first-floor windows and found them locked also, refusing to move when she yanked up on them. She sat down on the sofa, breathing hard, in a state of disbelief. She was a prisoner here.

But you’re going to turn the tables on them.

How did she know this? She wasn’t sure. But the confident voice in her head was calming. And besides, she wasn’t trapped, not really. Not yet. Unless the windows were made of some super-strong material, she could break them open with a vase or a pot from the kitchen. Or she could find a way to take the hinges off the doors.

It might work against her. She could see Paul coming home, seeing the shattered glass on the carpet, and waiting for her to return. You’re still confused, she could picture him saying. You’re a danger to yourself and others. We’re going to have to commit you to a psychiatric ward until you learn to be more obedient. She shuddered at the thought.

Before she staged a prison break, she would see what she could find inside the house. There had to be something in here that she would remember, something that might give her a clue as to who she was and what had happened to her. Mary made her way through the first floor, meticulously combing through the kitchen, the dining room, and the den.

There were pictures of the two of them together, her and Paul, but they looked recent. The same face she saw staring back at her in the mirror. She was smiling at the camera in some of them, but in others she had a glazed expression on her face, like she didn’t know exactly what was going on. She searched for a picture in which she was heavier or lighter, or had a different hairstyle, different styles of outfit, but couldn’t find any. They all looked to have been taken recently.

The kitchen had food in the fridge and pots and pans, but nothing useful. The den was filled with history books, but nothing that she recognized. She went upstairs and into the bedroom, hoping that there might be something in Paul’s closet or dresser that would jog her memory, but all she found were clothes, pills, and a few strange leather apparatuses that she certainly did NOT want to touch.

Mary rooted around the top of his closet and found a box with a datapad. She stood on her toes and dragged it forward. Getting a better grip on it, she pulled it down and plopped it onto the bed. Suddenly paranoid, she ran to the window and peeked out of the blinds, expecting to see Paul’s shuttle pulling up. No one was there. All she saw were a few people out on the sidewalk, walking their dogs. She breathed a sigh of relief and went back to the box. There’s no way she’d be so jittery if this was her real home. Her subconscious was sending alarm bells through her body, telling her that something wasn’t right.

Swiping through the documents, she strained to find some kind of clue she could use. It was slow going. The pad contained a number of documents, though why he hadn’t put them on a drive was beyond her. They were mostly financial statements, tax records for Mr. Baxter. Nothing especially useful to her. But in a file labeled Assets, she found something interesting. It looked like a birth certificate, but instead of a date of birth, it read:

This is a notarized and official document.

This document acknowledges ‘MARY DOE’

As the property of one PAUL BAXTER

All debts paid for and settled.

Mary stared at the pad in her hands, fighting the urge to throw it. She was coming close to the truth of what was happening here. She’d been bought by this creep. His “property,” according to the deed or bill of sale or whatever the ghoulish thing was called. Why had he even kept the document? As some kind of sick trophy of his purchase?

How could this kind of document be real? Surely it wasn’t official? Perhaps it was just a receipt, rather than a legally binding statement of possession.

Her mind whirled and she felt nausea sweep through her, making it hard to focus.

She went through the rest of the documents, but there was nothing else that could help her. She placed the datapad back in the box then returned it to where she’d found it and went through to the other upstairs rooms. There was a bathroom with a linen closet. Nothing out of the ordinary there. There was also a smaller room that looked like it was used as an office. In it was a desk with a computer, its screen flashing mellow colors, indicating it was in hibernation mode.

The gal-net, Mary thought. If she could get on there, she might be able to figure out who she really was. It occurred to her that she wasn’t sure exactly what the gal-net was, only that it had a lot of information on it that she desperately needed to access. She touched the screen and was prompted for a password.

“Damn it.”

Will you relax? Her mind told her. This model is ancient, a real piece of shit. Just log in as an administrator and pull up the root directory and you should break through this pathetic excuse for security in no time.

She blinked. How in the hell did she know how to do that? The words sounded like gibberish to her at first, but as she began to type, she realized that she did in fact know what she was doing. Her fingers moved over the keys like it was all second nature.

Huh, she thought. Guess I was a techie in my past life. Who would have thought?

In minutes, she had defeated the security system and had full access to Paul’s computer. Soon she was linked into the Gal-Net and on her way to discovering the truth about who she was and where she had come from.


16


Tech Cave, City Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

“Boris, get your ass over here. Now!” Ivan’s voice was chilly.

“Who, me?” Boris asked, pointing at himself. He shook his head sadly at Ivan, wagging a finger at him. “I can’t give you coding help right now, Ivan. I’ve got a lot of work that I have to handle all by myself. But if you ask me again in a couple hours, I might be able to find the time.”

“Cut the shit. I know you’ve been screwing around with my computer. Did you add these vulnerabilities? This isn’t the way I designed it.”

Boris rubbed his goatee quizzically, a gesture that tended to infuriate Ivan. “You’re asking if I used my brilliant coding prowess on one of your projects? I’m afraid not, my friend. I wouldn’t be caught dead wasting my efforts on such trivialities. If you’re having trouble getting your code to execute, you’ve probably got a PEBCAK issue.”

To the uninitiated, this may have sounded like Boris was using some more techno jargon, but it was actually an insult. PEBCAK: Problem exists between chair and keyboard.

Ivan rose from his seat, lightning fast, sending Boris scrambling back toward the servers. But the tech room, or the “Cave” as the team liked to call it, was tiny and cramped, probably one of the reasons why Boris and Ivan got on each other’s nerves so often. As Ivan rushed him, Boris put up his fists meekly, but the much bigger Ivan grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and lifted him off the ground.

“You think this is funny?” Ivan spat. “Leaving these backdoors open in my programming? Anyone with half a brain could gain access. The entire system could be compromised. What would Frank say if he found out—you really think this is funny?”

Boris couldn’t stifle his giggle. His feet still dangling above the floor, he winced as Ivan raised a hand to throttle him. It was at that moment Margarita came storming back into the Cave. Her face was flushed almost as red as her hair, and she whipped her glasses off furiously to face them. She meant business.

“Mr. Kupchenko! Mr. Gregory! You two knock it off. Can’t you behave like professionals instead of little children?”

Ivan grunted. He let go of Boris, who fell to the ground with a dramatic thud.

Boris sprang back up again and brushed himself off.

Margarita stared daggers at him.

Boris sighed. “Oh, would both of you just relax.” His tone was one of exasperation. He moved over to Ivan’s workstation and tapped on the screen. “If you’d have actually used that keen intellect you’re so often bragging about, and thought for two seconds, you would have noticed that your server is still in sandbox mode. Do you know what that means, Ivan? It means settle yourself down. You got pranked.”

Ivan glared at him for a moment, then he went storming over to his computer, muttering to himself. He made a few keystrokes and then shook his head in disbelief.

“See?” Boris continued. “Just a test. You think I’d be dumb enough to leave those vulnerabilities up on a live server? Give me a break! The point was, don’t leave your workspace unsecured. The next person to wander by might not be as nice as I am. And no matter how impregnable you think your code might be, it isn’t.” He paused. “Consider it a learning experience.”

Ivan let out a long sigh. “You know, Boris, I’m starting to think you like getting your ass kicked.”

Margarita shook her head disapprovingly, but there was a hint of a smile on her lips. “You guys cool? Do I have to escalate this up the chain?”

“We’re fine,” Ivan grumbled. Boris opened his mouth, no doubt to make some wise remark, but when he saw the expression on Ivan’s face he clammed up and simply nodded.

“Good,” she said. “Because we’ve got actual important work to do today, and we won’t be able to get it done if we’re at each other’s throats.” She put her glasses back on and sat down in front of her computer. “Oh, and Boris? If you ever touch my computer without my permission, you’re going to get wheeled out of here on a gurney. Got it?”

Boris bowed his head contritely. “Yes, Miss Elson.”

“In case you forgot,” she continued, voice thin with disapproval. “We just had a violent incident where one of our assets, Judy Petersen, was taken. We need to figure out who snatched her. Fortunately, we’ve got video of the entire incident. Boris, can you pull the feed up onto the screen?”

Boris nodded and hopped to it. Now that there was a task at hand, he was more focused. He brought up the camera feed from the Loreilla and projected it onto the holo screen above them. Boris, Ivan, and Margarita watched as the scene played out. The video jumped between feeds: first there were two people, dressed in black, gaining access through the backdoor. They took out the two security guards like it was nothing, leaving them bleeding on the pavement outside. Ivan whistled.

“These guys are pros. Look at that infiltration. Smooth and practiced.”

The feed continued to show the two, barely visible in the smoke, making their way through a kitchen then out into a hallway. From there, they drifted out of sight. The cameras were only pointed at the exits and entrances. Boris skipped ahead in the feed. They watched as one of the intruders walked with a limping woman back out through the same door, into a shuttle that quickly blasted off into the air and out of sight.

“A different driver?” Boris asked. “Or is that the same one we saw outside in the first shot?”

Margarita waved her hand at the hologram, replaying the footage from the initial break-in. She saw the figure bring something up to the guard’s neck, then she saw him drop instantly to the ground like a sack of potatoes. She pointed. “I think that’s a woman. Something about the way she moves. Can we get a close up?”

Boris zoomed in on the image. The face was smooth and androgynous in the picture, hair hidden behind a dark-knit cap. Their eyes were cold and determined.

“Definitely a woman,” Ivan agreed. “I think she’s probably driving, too. We never see her come back out. My guess is she slipped out a window and found a shuttle to boost. Or she had it stashed somewhere beforehand for the getaway.”

“Identification?” Boris asked.

Margarita nodded. “Already ran it. Shuttle was reported stolen the next morning. Found later in the parking lot of the Central Mall of Pharbis. Owner works in sewer maintenance and lives near the Loreilla in the Wellness district. Think he just got unlucky. Perps dumped it right after.”

“I’m going to run a trace on her,” Boris told them.

Ivan raised his eyebrows. “You think that’ll work? The picture isn't great.”

“You doubt my ability?”

Ivan grunted. He turned to Margarita. “Fine. Let him deal with her. We’ll focus on the guy.”

Fortunately, there was a nice clear shot of the guy’s face right outside the back door of the Loreilla. He was dressed in black, but everything had been lit brightly by the camera’s ambient sensor. The man carried a pistol, and he knew how to use it. He looked like he was in his forties. He showed neither fear nor excitement on his face, but an overriding calm, like he had done this many times before. He was definitely a professional.

Ivan isolated the photo and ran it through the public database. Everyone who’d come on or off Pharbis should have been in there. Theoretically. There were always exceptions made—for government employees, military, those who had paid to have their identities scrubbed. The program Ivan had made spent a few minutes trawling through the database, looking for the man’s face. It beeped. No matches.

Margarita squinted at the screen and cleaned her glasses with a piece of her blouse. “Weird. With that level of fidelity, it should have found a match.”

“Right,” Ivan agreed. “Unless this guy’s a Union spook. Which, given his skills, wouldn’t surprise me.”

“No problem,” Margarita countered. “I’ve had access to the Union Database for months now. Stroke of luck that one of the administrators forgot to change the default password. Which was eight zeroes.”

Ivan laughed. “That’s my girl. Top secret, my ass. Think you can get a bead on this?”

She flourished her arm dramatically. “Your wish is my command, O’ master.”

Ivan watched as Margarita initiated the program she’d put together. He was impressed with the efficiency of the code, the no-nonsense way the algorithm got right down to business. Margarita knew her shit, that was for sure. She knew what she had to do, and she got it done, without any headaches or screwing around. For all the bickering between him and Boris, it was possible Margarita was better than both of them. But unlike Boris or Ivan, she didn’t have the ego to say so.

Margarita smiled to herself. “Here we go. Narrowing down the matches now.”

They watched as the program went from five thousand potential matches, to two thousand, to one thousand, to a hundred, down to ten, then all the way down to a single match. She tilted her screen toward Ivan. “Looks like we found our guy.”

“Hmm.” Ivan leaned in. The guy looked younger in the picture than on the screen, but that made sense. Who knows how long ago it had been taken? He had a strong jaw, brown hair, and blue eyes. The guy was handsome in a rough sort of way. But nondescript enough that you probably wouldn’t look twice if you saw him walking down the street.

“Jack Burner,” Ivan read. “Ex-Union MP. Out of the game for a few years now.”

“MP?” Margarita asked.

“Military Police. The guys who police Union soldiers. Go after deserters, investigate crimes on Union bases, that sort of thing.”

“Oh. Like the Internal Affairs officers at a police station.”

“Yeah. Pretty much. This guy Burner has a hell of a track record. Awards, commendations. But then he left the service suddenly. Doesn’t give a reason. Usually that means a discharge, but with this guy, who knows? He could have joined some special super-secret unit.”

Margarita went behind Ivan and put a hand on his shoulder, looking at the screen. “Would an MP have the skills to do what we saw? To nab Judy?”

“This one would. I’ve read my share of Union bios. They’re as telling about what they leave out as what they keep in. This one is playing up Burner’s investigative skills. Barely even mentions anything about his combat prowess. And based on the video, he’s got a hell of a lot of prowess.”

“Which means,” Margarita started, tapping her fingers on Ivan’s shoulder mindlessly, “that this guy’s detective skills are even better than his aim. What is he doing breaking into the Loreilla?

“I don’t know. We don’t have to worry about that. That’s not our job. We just have to find him.”

From the other side of the table, Boris let out a moan of displeasure. He sat down and leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling with his tongue lolling out.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.” Boris shook his head. “No match for this girl. Not in any database. If you say that guy is a spook, this one’s a bonafide, no-bullshit ghost.”

“You think it’s the picture?” Ivan asked. “Not clear enough to get a match?”

“No,” Boris replied. “It’s plenty clear enough. She’s not in the public database, she’s not in the Union database, she’s not in the Criminal database. You ever heard of anyone who’s just off the grid like this?”

“She could be anything then,” Margarita mused. “Assassin for hire, Renegade… who knows. Odds are if we can’t identify her, she’s dangerous.”

Ivan looked troubled. “This Burner is a skilled investigator. He’s taken down criminal organizations. Crooked quartermasters. It seems like he’s pretty good at his job. If he’s willing to break into the Loreilla and snatch Judy, I don’t see why he would just stop there.”

“You think he’s going to come after us?” Boris asked.

Ivan grimaced. “I think it’s a very real possibility.”

Margarita put her hands on her desk, palms down. “Let’s not get ourselves panicked. So far as we know, Burner and the woman were sent to grab Judy. Who knows what their orders were from there? If they’re even working from orders.”

“Still,” Ivan said. “We need to pass this along the line to Frank. A guy like this investigating the organization isn’t great news. He has the potential to cause a lot of damage if left unchecked.”

“I’m going to go set up a private comm with the boss,” Boris told them. “I feel like this is a priority. He’ll know what to do about this Burner guy.”

Ivan scowled at Boris. “Taking all the glory for yourself again, huh?”

“I’ll give all the appropriate credit, don’t worry.”

Boris rushed out of the room to go call Frank, his gait awkward as he went. Gracefulness was never his strong suit. Ivan sighed and leaned back in his ergonomic chair.

“He’s a rare one, that guy. If he weren’t such a tech wizard, he’d be out panhandling in the Deadlands somewhere. No one else would be able to stand to work with him.”

Margarita smiled. “Give Boris a break. He’s not that bad. But you two are always at each other’s throats. Maybe if both of you just cooled off a little bit, things would calm down around here.”

Ivan put up his feet. “Maybe. But if I’m being completely honest, I think the rivalry is good for the team. Keeps us on our toes.”

Margarita pushed her glasses up onto her forehead. “You’re telling me you like coming to blows with Boris every day?”

The feud between them had been the ongoing drama in the Cave for as long as she could remember. The idea that there was a mutual respect between the two, even a grudging one, was shocking to her. Margarita herself had no real problems with either of them. They sometimes kept her at arm’s length, maybe because she was a woman, but they always treated her with respect and like one of the team. Boris would sometimes poke fun at her dyed red hair, but that was about it. And either way, she was tougher than she looked. She could handle it.

Ivan shrugged. “I’m not saying he doesn’t grate on me. But as much as I hate to admit it, he did find some vulnerabilities in my program. To be fair, he’s probably the only person on Pharbis who could have found them, but that doesn’t change the fact that he did. And I know wanting to get the better of me is what keeps him sharp, also.”

Margarita smiled. “It’s almost like a sibling rivalry then. You two are like brothers who can’t stop one-upping each other.”

Ivan shrugged. “It’s better than having our skills get stagnant and stale. We’re all about making sure the product is moving smoothly. It’s nice when we can all work together to go after a wrench in the gears, like this Burner guy.”

Margarita nodded, but her brow was furrowed in concern. She leaned in and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Ivan… do you ever think about what we’re really doing here? The ‘product’ we’re moving?”

He shook his head. “That’s not our concern.”

She paused, struggling to articulate herself. “I know but… I guess I always just assumed Frank and the higher-ups were smuggling drugs, which is bad you know, but also kind of a gray area. But what if it’s not drugs? What if it’s weapons? Or worse?”

“Marge, I’m telling you, don’t worry about it. We’ve got enough to deal with here as it is. You know what they say—curiosity killed the cat. You’re great at your job. You do this another few years, you’ll have enough money to retire and go live on a resort system somewhere. Frank’s in charge, and he gets paid commensurately. Let him deal with the heavy shit.”

“I always do,” she replied, flashing him a toothy grin. But deep down inside, she wasn’t sure. Something about this latest operation rubbed her the wrong way. It gave her the sense that there was more going on beneath the surface than either Ivan or Boris realized.


17


Luxury Suite, Canteri Hotel, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

As Judy’s memory continued to strengthen, so did her resolve. Burner watched as she, patched up and ready for business, got to work scouring the gal-net for where they could go next. As he watched her eyes focus on the screen with determination, he was impressed. Not everyone could bounce back so easily from being imprisoned and tortured for the better part of two days. Not even most Union officers. She was a special breed, that was for sure.

None of them felt like rushing out of the luxury hotel room, trading the steamy shower and comfy beds to hide out in a hovel somewhere. But the longer they stayed at the Canteri, the more likely it was someone was going to come by, kick their door down, and give them one hell of a bad time. Burner knew from experience that complacency was probably the biggest enemy of security there was. It wouldn’t happen to them, not so long as he had a say about things.

Judy pointed to an image on her datapad screen. “I think I’ve got something,” she told them. “One of those disused buildings I mentioned. A warehouse. Not too far from here. It isn't as posh as this place, not by a long shot, but it’s as off the grid as we’re gonna get with such short notice.”

Burner studied the picture—a wide, run-down looking building with broken windows lining the sloped roof and everything painted a dull camouflage green. It was hard to tell from just a still image, but the warehouse looked large enough and remote enough for them to plan their next steps. He nodded. “Good job. I’m going to sneak in a quick shower, and then we can head out. I’m thinking the autoshuttle is the best way to travel, unless you two have any better ideas.”

They didn’t. They’d ditched the shuttle they had used in the escape from the Loreilla before returning to the hotel. That was a no brainer. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for someone to track. But unless they decided to steal another shuttle, they would be stuck using public transportation for the time being.

Burner stepped into the bathroom, then came the sound of running water. Sara stretched out in front of the hotel mirror, bending back her lithe frame, then she sat down on the bed across from Judy and put a hand on her knee. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Better than okay.” Judy clicked off her datapad and started preparing for the upcoming trip. “I’m doing just great, actually. My memory is starting to come back. You know, Burner makes it sound like he did everything during my rescue, but I was already halfway out by the time he got there. Had the guard untying me and everything. Burner just made it slightly easier for me to bust some heads.”

Sara laughed. “No one is mistaking you for a damsel in distress, Petersen.”

“I should hope not. So…” Judy lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You and Burner. Are you guys a thing? Or just very good-looking partners?”

Sara laughed. She tried to flatten her expression. She didn’t know how Judy felt about Burner. No sense in bringing any jealousy into the equation when the three of them were going to have to work together for the foreseeable future. “Just partners. We’ve got enough on our plate at the moment without having to throw romance into the mix.”

“No judgement either way. I just saw how you were looking at him.”

Sara felt her face flushing, but she played it off. “The job can get lonely. A lot of tedious nights. A lot of listening to assholes trying to buy you a drink at the bar. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a man around who isn’t slavering at the mouth all the time.”

“I hear that, sister,” Judy said. She raised a fist and Sara pounded it, smiling. Judy motioned toward the bathroom where the sound of running water was now mixed with some off-key whistling. “Although I don’t think Burner is going to be joining the Dobulla Men’s Choir anytime soon.”

Sara smiled. It was true. Burner’s whistling in the shower was probably attracting a line of dogs outside their hotel door. Maybe he was listening, because a moment later the water cut off. Burner toweled off and came out two minutes later, his hair wet and cowlicked on his head. He gave them a funny look. “Were you talking about me?”

Neither Sara nor Judy could help it. They both broke into laughter.

Burner scoffed. “That’s just great. You were saying nice things, I hope.”

“Always,” Sara replied.

Burner stood in front of the mirror, combing his hair with his fingers. “You know, you wasted a perfectly good opportunity to talk about anything you wanted other than me.”

Judy stared at him blankly.

Sara stood up, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “Actually, we were discussing your melodious whistling. Your dulcet tones brought Judy and me to a place of transcendent bliss.”

Burner scratched his chest. “That bad, huh?”

“Let’s put it this way,” Judy started. “If you’re ever taken prisoner, you’ll have an effective counter-torture tool at your disposal.”

Burner snorted. “All right, that’s enough out of you two. You ready to go?” He started pulling on clothes and packing.

Within a matter of minutes, everyone had made sure they’d gathered all their stuff, so they killed the lights and headed out.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

REGIONAL COMMAND CENTER, SPACE STATION PHARBIS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS

“So that’s what we’ve got so far, boss.” It was Boris’s voice on the other line, reedy and excited. He could be an annoying little twerp, but there was no denying he knew his stuff when it came to computers. All of them down in the tech cave did. The operation had lucked out in that department, Frank felt. It may have seemed like everything else was going to shit, but at least the tech team was doing their job.

“Keep on it,” Frank instructed Boris. “I want you to find out everything you can on this Burner guy. Find out about his past. His training, his skills. Find out who the girl is he’s working with. Find out where they’re likely to go. Dig up whatever you can, and send it all to me, ASAP.”

“You got it, boss. I’ll relay the order along to Ivan and Margarita. Oh, but before I go, Frank, I actually have a question real quick. In terms of superiority, do you think Ivan should defer to me when we’re working on a project? He has a tendency to ignore my suggestions, even though I clearly have seniority.”

“Boris, just get what I asked for.”

“Okay, but I was just thinking—"

Frank clicked off the comm. He shook his head in disbelief. It seemed that, in Frank’s experience at least, it was always the weirdos that made the best techies. It was probably due to the long hours of isolation, no human contact. They were guys who preferred machines to real life. At least he usually only had to deal with them through comm calls. He shuddered at the thought of having to be stuck in the tech cave all day with the three of them.

Frank was supposed to run the new intel up to the big boss, Hardy. And he would—when he got around to it. But he had a sandwich he’d just unwrapped, and that had his attention first. One of the annoying things about his current outfit was that he found himself often eating at his desk. He was a guy who enjoyed savoring a meal, taking some time to relax and read the news feed, maybe chat with someone on the diner stool next to him. Sitting in a dingy office and watching monitors, comm lines, and console screens wasn‘t exactly his specialty.

Frank lifted the sandwich to his mouth, about to take a bite, when the comm rang again. It was Hardy. Think of the devil. Hardy must have been impatient for news. Grunting, Frank put down his sandwich and answered the call.

“Hi boss. Was about to call you. Just got off the horn with Boris two seconds ago.”

“What have you got for me?”

Hardy’s voice was flat, emotionless. Frank knew plenty of tough guys who affected a tough guy voice, trying to appear badder than they actually were. But Hardy never seemed like he was faking it. He’d order lunch in the same voice he’d order the execution of fifty people. Frank was used to dealing with thugs, criminals, and killers, but something about Hardy’s lifeless tone still gave him a chill.

“We have an ID on the male,” Frank revealed. “Ex-Union MP named Jack Burner. Skilled operator, strong investigator. Apparently, he’s one hell of a detective. But we knew that already from the incident in the Wellness District. You ever heard of this Burner guy?”

“Not as such.” Hardy’s words hissed through the comm. It was like talking to a cobra. Frank tried not to let it rattle him. “He killed a bunch of our men without much effort, so in my estimation, I’d say he’s trouble.”

“Yes, well, he is trouble,” Frank concurred. “Exactly how much trouble is yet to be determined. No ID yet on the girl with him yet, but they’re working on it. I’d bet she’s Union too.”

“Since she’s not on any database, but my guess is she’s dangerous, and if she’s working with Burner, she’s against us. End of story.”

Frank nodded cautiously. Despite the attack on the Loreilla, Hardy seemed like he wasn’t in too terrible a mood. Maybe he had something up his sleeve that none of them knew about. Frank wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.

His tone dropped. “Listen, Boss, heard about Gray and John Smith. Sorry. I know they were your guys.” Frank figured Hardy cared as much about Gray and John Smith as he did about the parking ticket he’d received that morning, but it never hurt to try and figure out exactly how the boss was feeling.

Hardy exhaled into the mic. “You get what you pay for. Their deficiencies were exposed. I’ll find others.”

Yep, that was about the response Frank had been expecting. No real emotion, just cool, collected calculation.

Frank tried again. “You think this Burner guy just got lucky and hit us when we weren’t expecting it?”

“Not enough intel to make that call yet. The good news is that this doesn’t appear to be an on-the-books Union operation. They would have sent an entire fleet over to the Loreilla, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

You mean it could just be Burner and the girl? Working together?”

“I’m assuming they have some kind of prior Union connection with Judy Petersen. Still, there might be more of them out there. They could be waiting to rendezvous with the rest of their team. Or Burner might try and get in contact with them if he feels like he needs help. I’d say three is the lowest amount of people we’re dealing with right now.”

How do you want to play it?”

A pause from Hardy’s end. “Circle the wagons and lock down all existing merchandise until this situation is resolved. Make sure the men keep it clamped down tight. No business until I say so. I don’t want any girls coming in or out.”

While Hardy gave his orders, Frank used the break to sneak a bite of his sandwich. He gulped it down, unable to keep from smacking his lips in satisfaction.

“Gotcha. We’re hitting the pause button on the operation. I’ll make sure everyone gets the message, loud and clear.”

“Frank, are you eating while you’re talking to me?”

Frank paused. “No.” He took another, bigger bite and continued talking with his mouth full. “I don’t know where you got that idea from.”

Amazingly, this got a chuckle out of Hardy. “You’re worse than the techs, you know that?”

“I’ve been up almost twenty-four hours monitoring this situation,” Frank rebutted. “We’re not all superhuman like you, Sir. Some of us get hungry.”

“Seafood?”

“You know me too well.”

I do. Relay the orders, finish your sandwich, and get some rest. Mental acuity drops precipitously when we’re sleep deprived. I need you sharp.”

“Yes, Boss. I’ll talk to the tech team when I come in, and I’ll have a sitrep first thing in the morning. Anything else?”

There was a pause on the other end of the comm.

“This Burner guy,” Hardy said slowly. “I’ve got a bad feeling about him. You’ve been in this game a long time, Frank. What do you think?”

Frank swallowed. He leaned back and considered it. The truth was, yeah, this Burner guy could be a problem. The assault on the Loreilla and freeing Judy Petersen had been a bold, dangerous operation, and he’d pulled it off nearly without a hitch. So, he wasn’t exactly excited about the prospect of having this Burner person as an enemy. But Frank also didn’t feel like doomsaying. He just wanted to finish up the call and his sandwich and get some sleep.

“I’m not too worried,” Frank lied. “We’ve dealt with worse.”

“I’m not entirely sure about that. Either way, I hope you’re right, Frank. Have a good night.”

The comm clicked off. Frank stared apprehensively at the red light on it, sure it was about to go off again. When it didn’t, he breathed a sigh of relief and took another bite of his dinner.


18


Abandoned Warehouse, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

There was a gate surrounding the warehouse in the Herod district, but the barbed wire strung around it was missing in places and the three of them had no trouble clambering over. Burner looked around in case anyone was watching. There were a few roaming stray dogs who watched them disinterestedly as they climbed up the fence. The main entrance to the warehouse was bolted shut, but around the back Burner found a loading dock secured with a rusty padlock that he was able to smash open with a large stone. He lifted the big metal door, listening to it squeal in protest as Sara and Judy ducked inside. Burner hopped in as well and made sure the door didn’t slam behind him.

Immediately they were hit with the smell of damp and mildew. The interior of the warehouse was a wide-open space, the vaulted ceilings stretching nearly ten meters high. A thin breeze blew in from all the windows, which had been broken by vandals.

The edges of the warehouse were lined with shelves stacked with junk—empty paint cans, lengths of cord and wire, rusty shuttle parts, tools in various stages of disrepair. The sunlight coming in from the overhead windows illuminated the space and threw shadows across the three of them. It wasn’t glamorous but it seemed like it was going to be home for the next few days, and they’d do what they could to make it livable.

Sara found a few work tables in one of the far corners and dragged them into the center of the room. They made a horrendous squealing sound as she dragged them, like nails on a chalkboard, and they left long drag marks on the floor. That was all right. None of them were too concerned with the upkeep of the place.

Burner lifted their duffel bags onto the table and unzipped them. They began unloading their equipment. There wasn’t a whole lot. One submachine gun with two magazines of ammo, a few pistols, a combat knife, one flasher and one heavy ordinance grenade, their datapads, a change of clothes, a flashlight, and a few bottles of water and candy bars Judy had taken from the hotel minibar. It wasn’t exactly an arsenal of epic proportions, but it would have to do for the time being.

Sara paced through the new environs, casing the place. She sniffed the air. “I feel like I’m getting sick in here already.”

Judy shook one of the shelves, which rattled loudly, echoing throughout the cavernous space. “I think this used to be a paint factory. So, we probably only have to worry about, oh I dunno, noxious fumes.”

“Wonderful.”

Sara eyed the weapons on the table. “This is all we’ve got for equipment?”

“For now,” Burner answered. “As far as weapons go, we can get more. But it’s going to take some doing.”

“Not much to work with.”

“No,” he agreed. “It’s not. We’ll scrounge up other stuff once we get ourselves a little bit more settled in. But before we make any big moves, we’re going to need a plan of action. And it better be a damn good one if it’s going to have any chance of success.”

“Is that what they teach you in the Academy?” Sara asked. “Lemme guess: Assess. Plan. Act.” Her eyes smiled, hinting that she was teasing him about Intelligence training.

It was a jibe mostly without malice. Mostly. But the reality was they were all tired, hungry, and sore. The night before they’d been shot at, had grenades lobbed at them, been punched, kicked, and dealt with all manner of bodily assault. They only barely made it out of there in one piece. Judy had taken a beating at the hands of the traffickers. Now, they were squatting in a derelict warehouse, trying to come up with a way to take down a sophisticated criminal syndicate. Anyone would be touchy in their situation. He wished he knew exactly what to do, that he could say we’re going to go here and here and here, but he didn’t. Not yet. It was going to take the three of them working together to come to any kind of plan for the coming days.

Judy moved to Sara and patted her back in a sisterly way. “Hey, no need to shoot the messenger. I know it sucks. We’re all in this together.”

Sara put a hand to her forehead and nodded. “I know, I know. You’re right. I’m not angry with either of you. It’s been a long couple of days, and I could use a few hours' sleep.” She exhaled, her eyes relaxing their focus. “And I keep thinking about those women at the Loreilla. I know there’s no way we could have rescued all of them, given the circumstances, but I still wish we could have done more. I really hope they’re not just cutting their losses and getting rid of them.”

“They won’t,” Judy assured her. “Trust me. When they’re not erasing their memories and selling them to be sex slaves, they treat those women like VIPs. If it wasn’t for the whole smuggling and memory loss thing, it would almost be kind of nice. If the women are hurt, they don’t make any money. I really doubt they’re going to do anything crazy. Most likely they’ll either move them to another location or shut down until they get a handle on what’s going on.”

Burner nodded. “That makes sense. In any case, we can’t worry about them right now. We need to focus on our own situation. We need a plan.”

“I feel like any plan at this point would just be winging it,” Sara told him. “We’re kind of flailing in the dark here. What we need is a solid lead to go on.”

“You’re exactly right. Once we have some solid intel, we can formulate a plan. Until then, we’re just pissing in the wind.”

Judy sat up straighter in her chair. “What do you think we need to know?”

“Three things.” Burner spread his fingers. “One, we need to find the locations these guys are working out of. Judy, you said the Loreilla is just one of the shelters they’ve been using to traffic women, right?”

She nodded. “There are several. They shuttle the women around between them. Maybe so the lower-level workers don’t get suspicious. Almost for sure more than three. Could be five or more. Even the shelters that aren’t trafficking women will have staff who are in on it. I think that was the case with my boss back when I was volunteering.”

“Your boss?” Sara asked.

“Guy running one of the legit shelters I was volunteering at. His name was Mike or something, I think. Before I totally had a handle on what was going on, I told him I was suspicious. He kind of brushed me off, like he didn’t really care about it. He gave me the sense that I shouldn’t dig any deeper. I don’t know if he was active in the smuggling, but he definitely knew something was going on.”

Burner tapped his foot. “Right. We need to know every place these guys are, where they’re concentrated. But that’s just the first step. Next, in addition to knowing the locations they’re operating out of, we have to find out just how big this operation really is. Who’s running it, what kind of power they have, their connections, that sort of thing.”

“We already know this thing is pretty big,” Sara interjected. “They have a ton of manpower, and they’ve been operating out of a bunch of different locations. They can hire trained guards and equip them with top-of-the-line weaponry. They’ve bought property and have paid off a lot of people to get where they are.”

“But who’s funding them? The mob? A legitimate business with an illegal side racket? Or does it go even higher? Government officials, maybe?”

Judy looked up at him. “You think someone in the Union is trafficking these women?”

“I don’t know. Crooked Union officials or agents are not out of the realm of possibility. All I know is that we’d better find out who is, and fast, if we’re to have any hope of stopping them. Information is worth its weight in gold, especially when it’s the three of us versus gods know how many of them.”

Sara shifted her weight impatiently. “What’s the third thing we need to know?”

Burner cracked his neck. “We need to figure out how to take the smugglers down. But that’s what follows.”

Judy cocked her head. “Huh?”

“What I mean is, we need to know the first two pieces of information before we tackle the third. We need to know who we’re up against and where they are. Then we fight them. Seems obvious, but breaking things down into their component parts will make it a lot easier to handle in the long run.”

“There are only three of us and barely any resources.” Sara dragged over a stool from in between one of the shelves and slumped down on it. “How are we supposed to take out a potentially vast criminal conspiracy with tons of moving parts? It’s impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible.” Burner turned to Judy. “Petersen, what do you remember about your psy-ops training?”

“Psy-ops?” Judy rubbed her forehead. “Let’s see… Similar to guerrilla tactics in asymmetric warfare. We have to make the enemy uncomfortable. Quick, controlled attacks on their systems. Disrupt their normal way of doing things. Make them mistrust each other, start to doubt themselves.”

“Exactly,” Burner agreed, pointing determinedly in her direction. “And how do you stifle a professional team made up of killers and mercenaries? You cut off their communications. If they can’t contact each other, then suddenly their numbers advantage doesn’t help them quite as much. They can get confused, start sending people to the wrong places, have them doing the wrong things.”

“What about the money?” Sara suggested. “Surely an operation this big is contingent upon a steady stream of credits coming in and out. If we could somehow cut off their funds, we could do some damage. Maybe we could figure out some kind of computer attack. Mess up their servers. Or go after their bank. I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here.”

“Good.” Burner nodded. “I think going after the money will be important. If anything, finding out where it’s coming from and who’s funding them. Following the money will always tell you what’s going on and who’s in charge. What else?”

Judy cracked her knuckles. “Fear. These assholes have been running things their way for too long. They’re used to meek women who do exactly what they say. It’s their turn to be scared. We have to strike some fear into them. I think rescuing me from the Loreilla was a good first step. But we need to go further.”

“That’s where gathering information comes in,” Burner agreed. “We find out some of the higher-ups in this scheme, and we take them out. Right now, they’re insulated from all this. They’re sitting in meetings and driving around in shuttles and playing golf while all this is going down. They aren’t worried about physical harm coming to them or their families. They’ve got hired thugs in the line of fire. But if those guys start getting killed, they’re going to be thrown into panic mode.”

Judy pulled her lips to one side in light skepticism. “Easier said than done.”

“All of this is,” Burner concurred. “That’s why it’s called making a plan. You have to say it before you actually do it. Implement a plan then put it into action. That’s what they used to teach us in the Union. Again, it sounds overly simple, but it’s effective. It’s a matter of training yourself to think in an efficient way. Like a soldier would.”

Sara nodded. “It’s a start. If we figure out who and where, we can work on jamming their communications. Going after the soft targets. We don’t have a lot of equipment, but we have the know-how. It’s better than sitting around doing nothing.”

“I can compile a list of shelters,” Judy volunteered. “The ones we know for sure are trafficking women, and the ones we suspect might be, or might be complicit. There’s a chance we could pinpoint their likely base of operations if we form a nexus based on the outlying data.”

“Good,” Burner said. “I think if we’ve got any shot of figuring out how big this thing is, we’re going to need a tongue. Someone we can capture and interrogate to spill the beans. I don’t imagine the grunts with guns guarding the shelters are going to know much. But once we have a location, we can nab someone with greater importance in the hierarchy.”

“We’re going to need supplies,” Sara suggested. “If we’re going to be staying here for any length of time, we need food, water, and tech. A place to go to the bathroom, a way to arrange all the data coming in.”

“You’re right.” Judy looked around, as if gauging which items that were lying around they could use. “We’re going to have to scrounge to make do.”

“I’ll go outside and sift through the dumpsters,” Burner told them. “Sara, you take a quick walk around the block and see if there are any stores in the area where we could get some food or supplies. Judy, you’re still hurting so I don’t want you to have to go too far. You can look around the warehouse and find stuff for us to use. I’m sure this place is a treasure trove of junk just waiting to be found.”

“Hooray for me.” Judy’s playful sarcasm was evident. Sara smiled at her. Nothing like a shared mission to bond a team.

They set about gathering what they could from their respective areas. In the trash, Burner found a ton of useful items: some perfectly good particle board, plastic piping and copper wire and chains, some buckets, and even a small futon they could lie down on. Sara came back with snacks and a bunch of large jugs of water. In the warehouse, Judy didn’t find much, but she was able to pull some tables and chairs together to make a kind of command post where the three of them could work in relative comfort. A few hours had passed by the time they all reunited around the table. It took them the better part of another half hour to unload all the stuff and start setting everything up.


19


Abandoned Warehouse, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The warehouse in the Herod district was about as far from the gun battles and explosions of the past few days as they could get. But this was where Burner felt most comfortable. He had his boots on the ground doing actual investigative work. Their tools and methods were decidedly low-tech. The little command center they’d built from scratch was actually somewhat impressive. In any case, it was enough for them to start tracking the movements of the criminal organization to figure out who the higher-ups were and who was funding them.

The materials had been discarded in front of buildings and in alleyways, or taken from dumpsters or nearby yard sales . Over the last few days their supplies had grown, with Burner and Sara taking some time each day to go outside and scavenge for equipment. They’d managed to put together a halfway decent little makeshift base of operations, nestled inside the grimy warehouse.

While it was true they were making progress, the facilities were severely lacking.

Still, the dismal surroundings had a way of spurring them on, focusing them. It was like they were holed up on some remote backwater planet, deep in enemy territory, searching for a way out. The harder they worked, the closer they were to getting out of the warehouse and back into civilized society. None of them wanted to be stuck here longer than they had to be. And the lack of distractions made it easier for them to concentrate on the task at hand.

Sara had been working on the holo they’d set up in the center of the command post. The place was still connected to the electrical grid and only required a bit of hacking to the power company to get running again. She’d created lines between two or more confirmed shelters that had been running women.

Red symbols marked the shelters on a map of Dobulla’s capital, with the name of each noted beside it. The digital pins formed a loose circle that concentrated mainly on the Heron District.

Judy’s face was illuminated in the dull light of her computer screens, which were spread across the table as she worked furiously, her fingers tapping away at the datapad. She’d spent the last day or so digging through the servers of the computer systems connected with the women’s shelters. She’d discovered these servers during her prior investigations when volunteering at the halfway house, and with this data she was essentially doing in cyberspace what Burner and Sara were doing on the big board—mapping the operations of the traffickers. Judy had managed to hack into the financial records of a few of the shelters, and though Burner was sure that most of the sensitive data would either be forged or encrypted, there was still a goldmine of information to draw from.

“We need something here.” Sara put her hands up, exasperated. She had been getting antsy, cooped up in the musty warehouse for almost a full day now. “We’ve got all the known locations of the shelters on the map, which is good. But without a concrete lead, we’re just treading water.” She sighed and rested her head in her hands on the table, taking a well-deserved break.

Burner was working his way through data they’d gotten from the public and Union databases, desperately searching for faces he recognized, guys they’d seen at the Loreilla, or some sort of connection he could make that would give them something to go on. Things like potential suspects, ex-Union soldiers who’d deserted or gone criminal, known crime bosses, and smugglers in the underworld. But it had been difficult to narrow down the leads so far. The databases had a lot of people in them, and until they were able to establish a money trail, links to the smuggling ring were tenuous.

They had attempted to track down Judy’s fake husband, but he had disappeared and the trail had gone cold.

Burner set down the datapad and exhaled. “There’s not enough here. Or, should I say, there’s too much. I can’t sift through every one of these suspects. I’ll be doing this all day. And it’s all starting to blend together, anyway.”

“What’s the matter?” Sara teased. “Desk work not your thing?”

“Desk work is fine, but I feel like I’m searching for a needle in a haystack here. We need to work smarter. There’s just too much to sift through. We need actual pictures of the perps, and we need equipment that can scan the pictures and give us a match.”

“Burner’s right.” Judy looked up from the computers, her eyes bloodshot from the many hours she’d spent fixated by the screens. “We’re making some progress, but we can’t do this all from here. We need to conduct in-person surveillance if we’re going to go up the chain and find out who the guys are that are running the smuggling ring. Someone has to do a stakeout at one of the shelters.”

“I’d be willing,” Sara volunteered. “Actually, scratch that. I’m dying to go. Anything to get me out of this damn warehouse for a few hours.”

“What about staking out the Loreilla?” Burner asked. “No doubt they had a lot of equipment damaged when we hit them, given all the gunfire and explosions. That stuff is expensive and time-consuming to replace. I doubt they’re just going to write it all off.”

Sara paused. “You want me to go back to the Loreilla? We just hit it the other night.”

“Might be worth a shot. It’s very possible they have more manpower there, bringing in the new equipment. It’s hard to keep vigilant for days at a time. There’s a chance you could catch someone coming or going. And since we were just there, they probably won’t be expecting you. You could slip in right under their noses.”

Sara had been pacing in circles on the warehouse floor. She started to gather up her equipment for the mission. “Fine with me.”

“You sure you don’t want me to go with you?” Burner asked. “It could be pretty dangerous to go alone.”

She shook her head. “No. The last time the two of us went sneaking around we got caught almost immediately.”

Burner rubbed his chin. “Hmm. That is true.”

“It’ll be a lot easier if it’s just me,” Sara continued. “We won’t have to keep tabs on each other. I’ll be fine.”

“If you can get us some pictures of the bosses that would be helpful… Hell, it would crack the case wide open.”

“Those guys holding me…” Judy started thinking back. “In the basement. One of the guys, Gray, his name was. And John something, the other was called. Those guys were hired muscle. Just goons they sent down there to break kneecaps and keep the other guards in line. I highly doubt they knew anything important. But their boss definitely knew what he was doing. You could tell the other guys were afraid of him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was ex-Union or spec ops.”

“You have any idea what he looks like?” Sara asked. “The boss?”

“No. I didn’t actually see him. I just heard them talking about him. But he sounds like a real tough son of a bitch. I’m sure the men surrounding him will be pissing their pants.”

Sara gathered her knife and pistol, cinched her utility belt around her waist, and glanced over at the two of them. “I’ll keep an eye out for any goons who are pissing themselves,” she confirmed with a small smile. “I’ll be in radio contact when I can.”

“How are you getting over there?” Burner asked her.

“Thought I’d just use the autoshuttle. It’s cheap enough. Low profile. And if I take a roundabout route, I can make sure no one’s following me.”

Burner nodded. “Okay. Be careful.”

She smiled at him. “Always.”

Sara left, leaving Burner and Judy with a mountain of data to sift through and still no clear path forward.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

“Hey.” Burner put a hand on Judy’s shoulder. She’d been glued to her computer screen for the past two hours, staring intensely as she worked. Her right eye was still badly swollen and was starting to turn a bright eggplant shade of purple. Somehow it hadn’t seemed to affect her work. He didn’t know how well she could see out of it, but if she was in any pain, she didn’t let on. “Take a break. You’ve been going hard at this all day.”

Judy blew out some air, blinked a few times, and pushed herself back from the table. She glanced up at Burner like she was seeing him for the first time. Her good eye was bloodshot and bleary, and her hair had come undone from its hair tie and fallen in stringy clumps down the nape of her neck. She looked about as good as Burner felt.

“You’re right. Sometimes I get tunnel vision when I work on something for too long.”

Burner sat down across from her, stretching his limbs. “I’m feeling kind of burnt out myself. It’s been a long day. Feels like we’re up against a mountain here. It’s always hardest in these moments, when you’re unsure which direction you’re going, what path to take next.”

“We’ll figure out a way to get these bastards. We always do.” She smiled.

Burner watched her eyes, which were a little glazed-over but still alert. He saw how her bruised jaw was clamped resolutely. Judy was tough, that was for sure. One of the toughest.

“Do you remember working on our team?” he asked her. “In the old days?”

She rubbed her temples. “I do. Well, some of it. Bits and pieces. Like, I remember you. I remember going on missions, working surveillance, that kind of stuff. But the other people in the group, the exact places we went and things we did... It’s hazy. I’m hoping once I come face to face with them, I’ll remember again, but I don’t know. It’s messed up, Burner. A lot of my memories from the past are like that now. They’re still there, but it’s like I have to cast out a lure to catch them. Like I’m a fly fisherman or something.”

“I’m sure in time they’ll all come back. The brain is pretty strong. And you’re tougher than most. You managed to piece this whole operation together while you were busy piecing yourself back together.”

Judy shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m afraid that’s not really how it works. I did a lot of research on memory after I lost mine. Memory is formed by neural connections in the brain. You take those neurons out, and that memory is gone for good. Irretrievable. The information is just gone.”

“Is that what they were doing?” Burner asked. “Destroying neurons?”

“I think that’s what they were trying to do. Who knows how skilled these guys are, or if they even knew what they were doing. But I think the point is, they wanted these girls to have no idea of who they were, no sense of their past lives. Just scared, mindless zombies, wandering through the halls of the shelters until they get shipped off to some pervert’s house. They weren’t just doing it out of cruelty. It was practical to them. If you have no sense of self, you’re a lot easier to control. The only reason I made it to where I did is because they screwed up. I’m pretty sure that some of my neurons were only damaged during the surgery, not completely destroyed. That’s why I’m able to remember some things instead of just being a complete blank.”

Burner put his hand over hers. “You’re doing remarkably well, considering,” he told her. “Whatever damage was done, you’ll recover. I’m sure about that. If you can remember me, you can remember other stuff too. And beyond that, even if you remember nothing else, you know enough. You can build from where you are.”

Judy nodded in agreement, before glancing down at her datapad. “You know, in some ways, losing my memory has been helping me. I’d never been all that tech savvy, even after I got put on desk duty at the Union. But since I was kidnapped, I’ve been learning way more about datapads and computers and servers than I ever thought was possible. I’ve learned how to scour databases, forge location addresses, and attack enemy computers with viruses. I kind of like it. It lacks the visceral thrill of shooting someone, but there’s definitely a sense of satisfaction in being able to outwit your opponent from behind a keyboard.”

Burner nodded, suitably impressed. “Those are useful skills to have. I never really knew much about technology myself. Sara seems to know more than I do.”

“What’s the deal with you guys?” Judy asked. “I don’t remember Sara.”

“It’s a long story,” Burner started. “And no, you guys haven’t met before. We got into some trouble together recently. When this is over, I’ll tell you all about it.”

Judy shrugged. “Fair enough.”

Burner hated that they had caused her even a moment of uncertainty or fear. His unit was tough, and Judy Petersen was no exception. Still, they weren’t robots. She’d gone through a trial and it would mark her.

“We’ll get there,” Burner reassured her. “Don’t worry. We won’t let these assholes get their hands on you again.”

Judy smiled. “I know.”


20


Unknown Location


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


Sometime in the Past…

She was surrounded by a glowing aura. It was everywhere, all around her, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything to block out the harsh white light beaming down on her. She blinked her eyes and cried out, unable to see beyond the painful light. She tried to move, but her body felt strangely stiff, and all she could do was wriggle in place helplessly. Her hands and legs felt like they were tied. She was on a bed. Her head was filled with terrible pain, as if there were creatures on the inside of her skull clawing to get out. The light was killing her. A wave of nausea swept over her, and for a moment she thought she was going to vomit. The feeling passed, only to be replaced with a feeling of utter exhaustion. She couldn’t struggle anymore.

Was she dead? What was happening to her?

Slowly, the bright light seemed to fade, as her pupils adjusted and her eyes started taking in her surroundings. The room was white, cast in a sickly pale glow from the pale glow of poorly maintained lights buzzing above. The walls were bare, the paint peeling, and the one small window was covered with a thick curtain that blocked any sun from coming in. She tried to sit up and realized she was indeed strapped to a bed, leather restraints tight around her wrists and her ankles. She tried to scream, but her throat was dry, and all that came out of her mouth was a painful rasp. How did she get here? She had no clue. In fact, she couldn’t remember anything. Right now, her entire life up until this moment was a giant blank. She didn’t even know who she was. Gulping, she began to panic, overthrowing the bodily exhaustion, thrashing against her restraints, the bed creaking and as she did.

Calm down, a voice in her head told her. Freaking out isn’t going to help. Get yourself situated and figure out what’s going on. You might have lost your memory, but you can still think.

She wasn’t sure where this steadfast voice inside her was coming from, but it spoke sense. She took a few deep breaths and relaxed, getting herself under control. With the deep breathing and the calming voice, she was able to avoid having a complete panic attack. But she was a long way from okay. There was a chasm, a dark empty void where her memories should have been. She tried to focus, but it was like walking through a room that was pitch black, trailing your hand against the wall with no sense of direction and no sense of where you were going.

She tried to call out again, and this time her voice was a little stronger. She strained to listen and thought she heard someone stirring in the hallway outside the room. After a moment or two, the door opened and a man and a woman came into the room. The woman wore a white smock and cowl, and she looked down at her with small, close-set eyes. The man was tall, well-built, and stood off in the corner, watching her with his arms crossed and a blank expression on his face.

The woman looked like a nurse, but her manner was cold and clinical, none of the caring bedside manner that nurses were supposed to have. She bent over the bed, watching her, while typing something in the medical datapad. The nurse touched her neck then put a cold instrument to her chest and observed a display for a moment before continuing to input information onto the chart.

She squirmed on the bed. “Hey! What’s going on?”

The nurse looked down at her without much pity. She put a hand against her forehead, checking her temperature, then marked something off.

“Patient is awake,” the nurse recited in a flat voice. “No signs of outward trauma. Vitals seem stable. Temperature is normal.”

“My head hurts,” she protested. “I don’t remember anything. Where am I? What’s going on? Who are you people?”

“Just try to stay calm,” the nurse instructed, but the harsh tone of her voice wasn’t helping matters any. “I know you’re confused. It’s all right. Your name is Mary. You were found unconscious in the street down near skid row. A good Samaritan found you and called the authorities, and they sent you here. I know it’s scary, but you’re in good hands. We’re doing our best to take care of you.”

Mary? Was that her name?

It sounded somewhat familiar but also wrong. The room seemed to swirl around her. In the corner, the man continued standing like a statue watching her with a bored expression. He didn’t seem particularly concerned with her health. She was positive she had never met him before in her life. And the more she stared at him, the more she had the sinking feeling he wasn’t exactly a doctor. Right now, she wasn’t even sure this lady hovering over her and taking notes was a real nurse. Nothing about the situation felt right at all. But what else could it be? If she had been kidnapped, why would they go to the trouble of making it seem like she was in some sort of hospital?

“Where exactly is here?” Mary asked. “What hospital am I at?”

“Everything will be explained to you in time. The most important thing now is for you to rest. You were in bad shape when they picked you up. We needed to operate on you. You almost didn’t make it.”

Mary’s eyes widened. “Operate? What kind of operation? What did you do to me? Is that the reason I can’t remember anything?”

“It’s possible,” replied the nurse. “Sometimes the anesthesia can cause memory loss. I’m sure if you just relax, your memories will return in due time. We’ll come back to check on you a little later. Maybe try and get some sleep.”

Mary had a million questions. Where was her doctor? What was in her medical file? Why was she tied to the bed? Why was there a brutish looking man hovering over the bedside examination?

Watching the expressionless face of the nurse, Mary had the feeling that asking any of these questions would only lead to more trouble. She considered her options and decided to play dumb, or at least docile, for the time being.

“I am tired,” Mary told them. “I haven’t been able to sleep at all because of these restraints you’ve got me in. Do you think you could please loosen these buckles? It’s kind of hard to get comfortable on the bed with these things digging into my skin.”

The nurse paused, as though she wasn’t sure if tying up the patients was standard procedure. She turned to look at the man in the corner, who thought for a second and nodded. She bent down and unfastened the buckles. Mary thanked them and stretched out, her limbs at least feeling a little better as the numbness subsided. The nurse stuck the pad into a holder on the front of the bed, then she and the man left the room without another word. Mary could hear the thick clunk of a deadbolt locking behind them. Just great. She may have been free from her restraints, but she was still trapped in here.

She waited a few minutes until she was sure they weren’t coming back then got up. The room spun. She was still woozy from whatever they’d done to her, so she put her hands on the bed and tried to steady herself. She could feel herself in frail physical condition, although she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was wrong with her. Either way, it didn’t seem like she would be making an escape anytime soon.

Even so, she wasn’t going to just sit in the bed and wait for them to do what they pleased with her. She was going to try and figure out just what the hell was going on. Mary pushed herself up off the bed, slower this time, trying to ensure she wouldn’t swoon again, and she was able to get up and steady herself. She was still a little dizzy, but she wasn’t going to fall over. She padded over to the door, her bare feet on the cold flooring, and tried the handle. The knob didn’t budge when she tried to turn it.

Frustrated, she glanced around the rest of the room. There was a tiny window near the bed, but with the thick curtain, there was no light coming through it. Peeking beneath the curtain, it looked like the window had been boarded over with wooden planks from the outside. A strange choice of accommodations for a hospital. Puzzled, she padded over to the foot of the bed and took out a datapad to look at her medical chart.

According to the data, her full name was Mary Doe. The surname didn’t sound familiar to her either. It must have been made up, as part of the front for the client. She didn’t know anything about medical charting, but the document looked relatively standard. At least, it looked like what she imagined a medical chart would look like. It had sections for medical history, height, weight, ailments, that sort of thing. But most of the sections hadn’t been filled out. And the parts that had been filled out were full of strange coded acronyms she didn’t understand. Some type of medical jargon, maybe? It was possible, but for some reason she didn’t think so.

Mary scanned the sheet to see if she could find what she’d been diagnosed with, but all she saw that gave any indication of what was wrong with her was a short note saying she’d been brought in to the hospital while unconscious. Yet oddly there was no hospital name anywhere on the document. Everything about this smelled rotten. She was sure that if any real doctor or nurse had filled out a patient’s chart this sloppily, they’d be staring down a heap of medical malpractice lawsuits. Something else was going on here.

She shuffled quietly over to the door again and put her ear to it. She listened hard to what was happening outside. There were no PA announcements, no wheelchairs or gurneys squeaking by, no footsteps and chatter from doctors and nurses walking through the hallways with a purpose. She heard only the buzzing of the lights. This was no hospital. Hospitals didn’t tie you to the bed, didn’t lock you in the room. A mental institution? Maybe. But wouldn’t they have told her if that was the case? Why keep her in the dark?

Mary got back onto the bed and pulled her knees up to her chest. As she rocked back and forth, she tried not to cry, but the grief welled in her chest, and in no time she felt the tears pricking her eyes, regardless. She had no idea who she was, and she had no idea what she was going to do next.


21


The Loreilla Women’s Shelter, Wellness District, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller


Present Day

Sara felt a little strange being back inside the Loreilla so soon after the melee a few nights before. What had been a locked-down, security-focused stronghold was now a mess of all sorts of people coming and going. Delivery trucks made constant rounds, collecting equipment, and loading docks sat open. There were still armed guards, of course, but for the most part they looked apathetic. Sara guessed they thought there was no way someone would hit them again so soon after the first time. How wrong they were.

Having snuck in through the vents from the roof, she was now on the second floor in a small office. She closed the door to maintain a decent amount of cover. Most of the windows in the building were boarded up, but she’d managed to kick out a plank without being noticed. As a result, she now had a decent vantage point of the loading area below. Sara zoomed in with her camera and snapped away silently as men came out of the back door, moving heavy equipment on hover carts, sweating and cursing as they went.

Sara wasn’t sure exactly what the equipment was. All she knew was that they looked like medical devices. Expensive devices. They were bulky machines, and there were some, presumably operating chairs, with head restraints and trays that attached. Some of the equipment was unmarked, but a lot of it was stamped with the same manufacturer name: Dodgson-Jasper. The font was stark and bold, and the way it was written reminded her of something, although she couldn’t put her finger on what at first.

Finally, it came to her. She had no idea who Dodgson was, but she’d heard the name Jasper before. It was some sort of research firm that also did heavy amounts of political lobbying. Sara remembered seeing some of their holographic advertisements, along with their slogan: Jasper-Tomorrow Begins With Today. If they were a big enough lobbying group that she’d heard of them, then Sara guessed they were in the pocket of who knew how many senators and lawmakers. She smiled in spite of herself. They were starting to make progress. It was another piece of the puzzle falling into place.

Suddenly, there came footsteps and banging behind her. Sara swiveled around and crouched beneath the simple wooden desk that abutted the window. She felt her heart throb frantically in her chest and forced herself to take a few deep breaths to calm down. It wasn’t as if she’d never infiltrated enemy territory during her time as a Constable. Right now, she was on her own, and she had no doubt these guys would kill her without hesitation if she were found. She had her pistol and knife, but she was vastly outnumbered. She’d only be able to shoot so many of them before one of them took her down. Being found in here wasn’t an option.

Sara flattened herself to the ground and waited. It sounded like two guys lugging more of the heavy equipment. They’d stopped for a smoke break right outside the door, it seemed. She could smell their cigarette smoke wafting into the room. Apparently, they couldn’t wait until they were outside.

She heard the rasp of matches and heavy breathing. These guys were exhausted. There was a lot of stuff to remove, and a tight deadline to do it in. They were talking to each other, but the dialogue was hard to make out over the sound of the loud trucks idling outside. Slowly, Sara crawled forward across the floor, trying to hear what they were saying. If one of them came inside, she’d be exposed. But she decided to risk it. Information was the most important thing at this point, and it was very possible one of the grunts would let something important slip.

She pressed her head against the door. The men were laughing at something. One of them hocked up a wad of phlegm and spat it out.

Lovely.

“You believe all this shit they want us to move?”

“They could have told us they were cleaning out the whole godsdammed building.”

One of them mumbled something unintelligible. Something hard slammed against the door, and Sara flinched. She gripped her pistol, the metal cool against her clammy palm. At any moment she was prepared for the door to swing open and all hell to break loose.

“Machines leaking sludge everywhere. All over my boots, see?”

“What the hell even are these things? Like scanning machines?”

“Hell if I know. I doubt it. If they were just scanners, they wouldn’t be so hot about getting rid of all of them.”

“Check out the needle on this one. Maybe they’re lobotomizers.”

“Huh?”

“I said they look like fuckin’ lobotomizers.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t know what a lobotomy is? It’s when they jam a needle through your eye and take out a piece of your brain.”

“Why the fuck would anyone do that?”

“Because—”

More footsteps, and another voice rang out. “Hey! What are you assholes doing smoking in here? Get this stuff downstairs, now!”

There was loud grumbling, followed by the heavy squeal of the machinery being dragged across the floor. She heard it rumble down the stairs.

Then things went quiet.

Peeking out of a crack in the door, she found the hallway empty, save for a few smoldering cigarette butts tossed aside haphazardly. Sara considered for a moment what to do. She had a good view of the men loading the trucks from here, but if she went deeper into the building it might be possible to get a better look at the equipment and the men. It might be possible to figure who was in charge. Before she could do anything, someone came running up the stairs in a beeline for the door she was peeking from.

She had no time to think. She pulled the door toward her and hid behind it in the corner, trying to make herself as small as possible. She could see only a small piece of the room from her position. A guard burst through the open doorway, rifle in hand.

“Someone in here?” he demanded. He started for the far end, toward the desk and the window. Sara didn’t move. The guard checked under the desk then stuck his head out through the hole in the boarded-up windows. Another guard came to the threshold.

“Sam, what are you doing?”

“I thought I heard someone moving around up here. Look. Someone punched out one of the boards.”

The second guard came inside and joined his partner near the window. Then he started toward the door. Right for her. She swallowed, pistol still in hand.

Just then there was a tremendous crash from outside, followed by shouts and cursing. The guard raced back toward the window. She apparently hadn’t been spotted.

While their attention was diverted, she slipped silently around the door and into the hallway. It was time to exit. Sara hightailed it back to the vent she’d entered through and managed to climb inside without being spotted. She squirmed her way through dust and cobwebs, cringing at the echo of metal clanging around her as she went.

She emerged on the roof, back through the grate she’d removed on her way in. Crouching, she peered over the rim of the building to see what the commotion had been all about. Someone had knocked over one of the big machines and several men were trying to lift it back up. Another worker was picking up pieces of plastic and metal that had sheared off when it fell. Clearly they were on a tight deadline. It was likely they assumed the Loreilla was compromised as a base of operations and were antsy to set up shop elsewhere.

There was a certain amount of audacity in kidnapping these girls, taking back the equipment, and moving locations once the heat became too much. It was like a roach infestation—you stomp out one nest, and they spring up elsewhere. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen this cycle, and she knew Burner would have seen it before as well. What it meant was having a plan was more important than ever. These guys had experienced a pretty significant setback, but they were carrying on, making plans, and regrouping without any qualms. That meant they were experienced, well-funded, and dangerous. They were headed someplace new, and she needed to figure out where.

Once the equipment was loaded onto each of the trucks, they began to pull away from the Loreilla. Sara had to figure out a way to follow them. She was going to have to improvise.

She thought for a moment about what devices and tools she had on her person. Camera, knife… No good. Sensors? What sensors did she have? Tracker! she realized. She had a tracker. But no way of getting it onto a truck from here.

And two trucks had already left.

With catlike reflexes, Sara shimmied down a drainpipe that ran down the sheltered side of the building. She didn’t have long. She needed to somehow get a tracker on one of these trucks before they finished loading the last of them. Between her and the truck were several men still loading items… and about ten meters of open space. No way she could make it that distance without being seen.

Having made it to the ground, she now had a closer view of the trucks. There were small grates on the back, just wide enough to stand on. It might be possible for her to sneak over, climb up on the platform, and hitch a ride. But she had no idea how far they were going. It would be way too easy to fall off or get spotted. No, what she needed was a vehicle of her own to follow them.

Her brain flicked through various ways of getting a tracker onto one of the trucks. She churned through ways of sending it like a dart. No dart gun. Slipping over there wasn’t going to happen. She thought about throwing it into the open door of the truck. It was too far, and besides it was so tiny and light it wouldn’t carry. Maybe if she had something she could push it into, like plasticine to weigh it down, but she nothing came to mind.

She scoured the area around her from her hiding place. There was all kinds of trash and discarded packaging. She grabbed a piece of packing foam. It was dirty. Probably from when they’d taken delivery of something long before the raid. She shoved the tracker into it and gripped it in her hand as she pressed herself back against the wall while another hover cart glided past the corner she’d been loitering around. In a flash of insight, she realized that anything on the hover cart was being put onto the truck. Without thinking through the consequences, she flicked the piece of debris onto the machine, praying it caught in it and didn’t fall off the cart to be left behind.

She watched as the man steered the cart up the ramp and onto the waiting truck. She didn’t see anything fall. It occurred to her that the only way she would see if it was on the truck or if it was being brought back on the cart was if it stayed in the same position on her holo screen. She backed up from the corner and activated the wrist device. It was already paired with the tracker and flashed in the center of the screen. She waited, watching the man on the truck shuffle things around just out of view in the darkness of the truck. After what seemed like an eternity, he emerged with the cart and headed back across the loading bay to the building. She checked the display on her holo. The tracker had remained in the same location.

SCORE!

With that sorted, she next needed to source a vehicle. The range of these things weren’t great. Besides, she didn’t want to be too far behind the action. If it took her too long to show up at the destination, she might miss out on any tailgating she needed to do. Or worse, getting the money shots that would incriminate those involved.

Before she had managed to steal a shuttle. But that had been in the dead of night, with no one around. Now it was broad daylight, and though the streets surrounding the Loreilla weren’t exactly bustling, there were enough people coming and going that jimmying her way into a shuttle would draw suspicion.

The guards closed the rear door of the truck with a loud clank and latched it up. They were about to leave, and she had to follow them. She snuck around to the front of the building. All the activity seemed to be focused at the back; Sara figured the front doors were probably still guarded but there was no one outside. She headed down the road, thinking she might be able to hail down a passing shuttle, but the few that whizzed by paid no heed to her outstretched arm.

Frustrated, she jogged onward until she came to a small dive bar wedged in between a health clinic and a pharmacy. Placebo was the name of the place. That was fitting. She found what she’d been hoping for: a line of hoverbikes parked in the lot outside. There was a biker just getting onto his ride, a bright red, twin-engine hoverbike. It wasn’t exactly the least conspicuous vehicle in the world, but it would have to do. Sara shook out her hair, smiled, and called out.

“Hey, honey,” she purred. “Got room for one more?”

The biker was burly, with a thick beard and leather jacket sewn with patches. He smiled widely.

“Always room for a lady,” he replied, practically licking his chops. “Where you headed?”

She sat down behind him on the bike and swung her legs around.

“To be honest, I’m not sure.” Sara flattened her palm and hit the biker where his neck met his shoulder. It was an area with lots of nerves. The biker twitched then fell over off the bike onto the pavement. He’d be stunned for a minute or two, but uninjured. Once he was off, Sara scooted forward on the bike and gunned the engine.

“Sorry,” she told him, as the hover tech kicked in and lifted her off the ground. “It’s an emergency. You’re insured, right?”

She didn’t wait for a response. Gunning the engine, she raced back toward the Loreilla just in time to see the large box truck slowly pulling out of the loading bay and onto the road. Sara backed off and let the truck get ahead of her.

Her hair blew relentlessly across her face, obscuring her vision as she weaved along. She was driving a cherry red hoverbike with no helmet, and she had no real way of disguising herself.

She did her best to remain within signal range but far enough back to avoid being recognized or noticed. She drove slowly for the most part, pretending like she was lost, staying out of sight and occasionally watching the direction of the truck in the glass windows of buildings. They were nearing one of the transport hubs of the space station, and the air lanes began to swell with other shuttles.

Sara pulled back, watching the truck from a few shuttle lengths behind. She made a left turn to avert suspicion then looped around and split through the lanes of traffic as she desperately shook her head to get her hair out of her face.

She knew she couldn’t keep this up much longer. If the bad guys had any kind of awareness, they were going to notice a blonde woman weaving back and forth, following them. She decided on a different tact. She sped up and zoomed forward, keeping an eye out for police cruisers. Getting pulled over at this point wouldn’t exactly be smart. She rode up into the truck’s blind spot like she was in a great rush then pulled forward to overtake it. Then she sped off ahead, while watching the truck in her side mirrors. She was following them from in front. She leveled off her speed and kept going. Trucks that size do better when they just maintain a constant speed. As long as nothing changed, this could work for a while.

There was indeed a long straight stretch where she thought her plan was working well. Then the truck took a hard left. Sara cursed and swung the bike into the other lane as soon as there was a break in the traffic, then she turned around and tore after it.

The truck had turned into a business district. Office windows gleamed in the artificial sun, creating narrow lanes for the shuttles to navigate. Either the truck had spotted her and was trying to lose her, or they were nearing their destination. She suspected the latter.

After wending its way through the district, it eventually slowed to a crawl and turned toward a large building that had several dark slits all along its side in lieu of windows. It headed toward a parking pad just at the back corner.

Sara cruised by, trying to appear nonchalant. As she passed, she noted there was a group of people waiting at the parking pad. One of them was wearing an expensive suit and stood tall, with gray hair and a steely expression on his face. She figured there was a good chance that was one of the bosses. But she couldn’t get closer, and she couldn’t snap any pictures without being obvious—or without falling off the bike. She needed both hands to retrieve her camera. Across the street, a glassy office building stretched high into the air. If she could get up to one of the higher floors, she’d have a perfect view of the unloading truck. But she’d have to hurry.

Risking a second pass, she glanced through the windows into the lobby of the office building. Inside, she saw security guards milling around and a line of people waiting to get their IDs checked. No time to finesse her way in. Instead, she moved around to the back of the building, where she quietly abandoned the hoverbike and used a dumpster to scramble up onto the fire escape.

Grunting, she pulled herself up and raced up the rackety metal staircase. One story, then another. Then five more. She was sweating and out of breath. From there, she slipped inside a rear door and braced herself for an alarm to sound. None did.

Sara emerged into a spacious room covered in drop cloths. There were exposed wall studs everywhere and a sink, torn from the plumbing and resting against the wall. She’d been lucky. They were doing remodeling on this floor, but either it was a day off or the workers were out to lunch. Cautiously, she made her way to the opposite end of the building where there was a row of large plate glass windows that looked out directly over the landing pad.

Kneeling, Sara quickly dug into her pack and took out her camera and zoom lens. It had been bouncing around on her back the whole time, but she knew her equipment. It was secured and durable enough to be fine. She shuffled into position while barely looking at it, then she screwed the lens into place and raised it to her face.

A magnified image of the loading zone jumped out at her. She was just in time. The guards were wheeling the last of the equipment out of the shuttle-truck. Sara clicked away, making sure to get pictures of the manufacturer’s logo. She took pictures of everyone’s face she could see, especially the man dressed in the smart suit who seemed to be directing things. He was flanked by two bodyguards, who were scanning the area with large rifles in their hands. If she had tried to climb the fence, they would have cut her down instantly. But there was no way they could see her from where she was.

Sniper’s advantage, she mused dryly to herself.

The gray-haired guy was definitely a higher-up. Someone important, maybe a boss. He didn’t stay out in the open for long and retreated back inside the building with his bodyguards once he’d confirmed the arrival of the truck. After all the equipment was removed, the empty truck once again lifted into the air and flew away, trailed by a noxious tail of smoke. Sara stowed her lens and camera once again and took a moment to catch her breath. She hadn’t been spotted, and she had the shots she needed. Not bad for a day’s work. She got up. It was time to head back to base, show Burner and Judy what she’d found, and figure out the next phase. But she had a good feeling they were one step closer.


22


Abandoned Warehouse, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner had been trying to keep himself busy while Sara was running her surveillance, but the truth was, he was concerned. She’d been gone for hours now, on a dangerous assignment, and if something went wrong they’d have no way of knowing. Additionally, he didn’t think she would lead the enemy back to their hideout, but even the best agents could be tailed without them knowing. All it took was getting unlucky one time. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the desk in front of him. Accomplishing this mission with three people was going to be tough as hell. Doing it with only two would be impossible.

That’s why he breathed a deep sigh of relief when the warehouse doors burst open and Sara strode in. She stood on the threshold, her hair wild and tangled and her clothes ripped and stained in places.

“Guess who’s back?” she announced. Grinning, she turned to chain the doors shut behind her. “Things got a little hairy when I was chasing down the bad guys on a hover bike, but we managed to get it done.”

“You get anything good?” Burner asked.

“I think so,” Sara replied. She took out her camera and held it up to them, as the three made their way over to Judy’s workstation. “They’ve closed up shop at the Loreilla. Moved everything to another location downtown, a building in the heart of the city. Place is a fortress. They’ve got a concrete wall around the entire thing.”

Judy took the camera and began to upload the pictures. “I doubt a wall would have stopped you.”

Sara shook her head. “Not this one. The thing is sheer concrete, with gates and barbed wire at the top. I’d need real climbing gear to get over it, and there’s no way to do it in the daytime without being spotted. I managed to get into the building across the street and get some pictures though.”

The pictures began to appear in an album on Judy’s screen, uploaded from the camera. Sara bent over and scrolled through them with her finger. It showed images of shuttle trucks, bulky equipment, and rough-looking men carrying things and milling around with weapons slung over their shoulders.

“Most of the guys moving the equipment seem like low-level grunts,” Sara explained. “I managed to get close ups of nearly all of their faces, but I doubt it will lead us anywhere. The equipment could be a clue, though. Look at this device. I overheard one of the guards saying he thought it might be used for lobotomies, and you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised.”

They stared at the photo. The device had a large bowl-shaped covering, along with long needles and a flexing robotic arm that seemed to adjust the size.

Judy paled. “I saw that thing when I was at one of the fake shelters,” she told them. “That’s one of the machines they use to erase memories. I remember the needle and the bowl thing. They had me hooked up to one of those. I’m certain of it.”

Sara swiped again, this time on a close-up photo of the manufacturer’s logo: Dodgson-Jasper. Burner ran his finger over the image in front of the screen. “I’ve seen that name before. They’re affiliated with the Union. Defense contractor, maybe. Political lobbyists. Someone crooked would easily be able to access that equipment.”

“Definitely Union affiliated,” Sara agreed. “But that’s not even the best part. I think I got a snap of one of the VIPs in the organization. Look.”

She scrolled through a few more pictures until she came to the zoomed view of the loading bay and the gray-haired man in the suit who had been giving direction. Sara focused in on his face, moving the cursor over the enlarged image.

“I haven’t seen this guy before,” she said, pointing at the screen. “He was at their new location, throwing his weight around. Trying to put it into everyone’s minds that he’s still running the show. He’s definitely a bigshot. Had bodyguards all around him and was barely in the open for a few minutes before going back inside.”

“You see him do anything else?” Burner asked. “Or just directing the guys unloading the equipment?”

“Just standing around, giving orders. Plausible deniability, I guess. No crimes committed on camera. He wanted to flex his muscle, but not in a way that could really incriminate him. I guess he could always claim he didn’t know where the deliveries were coming from, that he just happened to be at a loading dock at the same time some cargo was being unloaded. Bullshit, obviously. But someone who’s careful.”

Judy cropped the photo of the man’s face and started to run it through the facial recognition program. “Great pics,” Judy told Sara. “Really high quality, considering how hard it must have been for you to get the shot. If the guy’s in here, we should get a match.”

“Thank the camera, not me,” Sara replied. “I just point and shoot.”

They huddled around the computer, waiting for the facial recognition software to complete its search. There was a huge database for the program to scour. The process could potentially take hours. If the subject only had a few pieces of data in the system, he would be much harder to find. The computer would have to exclude his picture against everyone else.

Their man might not be in the system at all, in which case the program would have to exclude everyone in its database before telling them they were out of luck. But the process didn’t take hours. It didn’t even take minutes. After all of fifteen seconds, the program pinged, and the same man’s face appeared again on the screen.

This time, it was a different picture. The man was younger, still some dark in his hair, and there were fewer lines around his eyes. He was smiling into the camera, his teeth pearly white. He was wearing a crisp suit and tie, and his smile gave the air of someone with a practiced, public personality. It was a professional Union photo, the kind they took of generals, judges, and senators.

Beside the picture was a name: Ron Capulet, Senior. He’d held a long list of Union jobs: a stint as an army private, a few years in the space piloting program, then a foray into politics. He’d been the representative for a few small districts before moving up in the world. According to the computer, Ron Capulet Sr. was now a full-fledged senator, proudly representing the people of Dobulla.

“You seeing this?” Judy asked, fixing her eyes on the screen.

Burner nodded solemnly. “Yeah, I see it. It’s not exactly a comforting development.”

“We already knew that some powerful players were involved,” Sara cut in. “Why are we surprised?”

“Because these are the guys at the top of the food chain,” Burner commented. “We’re not just going up against a criminal organization. We’re going against the entire Union.”

The full brunt of the revelation finally seemed to hit Sara. She took a deep breath, stopped pacing, and sat down. The three of them faced each other at the table, forming a small triangle. On the computer screen, the crisp color picture of Senator Capulet stared back at them, smiling.

“Do you know this guy?” Judy asked, turning to Burner.

He shook his head. “Not as such. But the file tells me everything we need to know about him. This guy knows the top brass of the Union. He’s got the full force of the government behind him. And the fact that he’s willing to show his face means he’s not worried about getting caught. At least, not by us.”

“But he barely showed his face,” Sara protested, pointing to the screen. “He was never there at the Loreilla. And he was only giving orders on the loading dock for a few minutes. Doesn’t seem like he wanted to be seen.”

“Just because he’s not out on main street leading a parade doesn’t mean he’s afraid,” Burner countered. “He’s connected. He wouldn’t have shown his face at all if he thought anyone could trace anything back to him. And as of right now, we can’t. We’ve got pictures of him standing on a landing pad, with some unidentified equipment being unloaded into a garage. Not exactly a smoking gun.”

Sara cursed. Her shoulders slumped forward, and Judy’s body language followed suit. This was not the development they’d been hoping for. Burner tried to stay positive for the two of them. But the truth was, knowing they were up against this kind of adversary was a heavy blow.

Judy scrolled through the rest of the pictures, as if trying to distract herself from the grim news, but there wasn’t anything more to see. She turned off the screen and clasped her hands on the table.

“We’ll be going against our own government,” she began, her voice low. “The Union. They’ll look at us like traitors.”

“They’re the traitors,” Sara growled. “Not us.”

Judy nodded. “That’s not how they’ll frame it.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. To go up against some unknown enemy was one thing, but the Union? It was like finding out your family had betrayed you, left you out in the sun to rot. The entire mechanism of government would be against them, ready to stomp them out like insects.

Burner cleared his throat. “We shouldn’t be surprised,” he started. “I mean, we expected this, right? We knew these guys were well-connected, that they had money, that they had friends in high places. The fact that a senator is running the show should have been something we considered from the start.”

If he is the one running the show,” Sara added. “If this thing goes higher than a senator, I don’t even want to think about it.”

“They can’t all just be criminals.” Judy was looking up at the ceiling, like she was trying to remember something. “Some of the people at the shelters were definitely in on it, but they were only doing their small part. They weren’t members of some shady organization.”

“Bribes,” Burner told her. “Or blackmail. An operation this big is going to have its hooks in a lot of people. The fact that a senator is involved just makes it easier for them. Who knows what kind of dirt he has on people? With muscle like that, the ones who can’t be bought off would have their families threatened. If you’re working the front desk of a shelter and someone comes to you and says ‘hey, we’re going to be moving some girls through here. Just look the other way, or else we’ll kidnap your wife and chop her into pieces,’ well...it’s not much of a choice, is it?”

Sara snorted, seemingly at the absurdity of the situation. “So much for just another case, right? This thing just got personal.”

“It’s been personal,” Judy replied. “For me, anyway. It’s about basic human rights, like the right not to get sold as a sex slave to some scumbag. It’s about the memories they stole from me and who knows how many other women. They took my life from me. I could have forgotten everything and lost every moment I’d ever experienced. And they don’t care at all. I’d be just another product in their ledger. So I don’t give a shit if the Prime Minister of Dobulla is in on this thing. We’re gonna take them down, and I’m gonna smile while we do it.”

Sara grinned. “That’s the spirit. That must be the old Judy coming back, huh?”

“I don’t know,” Burner mused. “I feel like old Judy would have sent an artillery barrage down on these guys the moment we found their hideout.”

Judy smiled back. “I’d hit the button right now if I had the chance. Just give me the order.”

“You must be conflicted, huh?” Sara turned to Burner. “The Union officer. The company man. Now you’re up against the guys that made you.”

Ex-Union officer,” Burner reminded her. “And I’m no more conflicted than you. I left the Union in my past for a reason.”

“Why? So you could stand up for the little guy? So you can get eradicated by the same organization you once loved?”

Burner shook his head. “I never loved them. It was a job. Like driving a hover bus or cleaning out a clogged waste disposal unit. I was good at it, and it was good to me. For a while. Then we went our separate ways. I figured they’d do just fine without me. They were making plenty of money. Seemed like they were more interested in making sure the right people’s pockets got filled rather than carrying out a sworn service to the people.”

“That was your main job anyway. I helped you with enough cases to see how things can get.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Burner replied. “To an extent. But I only investigated what the Union wanted me to investigate. A deserting soldier, a company stealing firearms, fine. That hurts the Union’s bottom line. When I started looking too closely at these other actors, that’s when things got hairy. I got too close to the truth in a few cases. More than once I was told to leave things be, and more than once I ignored orders. In the end it just got too risky. I consider myself lucky being allowed to just leave. I disappeared to the Deadlands and out of Union space for a reason. I’m not saying I’m not averse to going after these people, but it’s not going to be without consequences. We have to be aware of that.”

“I’m still bound by my oath.” Sara drummed her foot uncomfortably. “If we attack the Union, who knows what might happen to me. It’s not like they’ll have an HR inquiry. Not for”—she hesitated, not wanting to say the word Constable—“someone like me.” Her gaze fell to the floor, deliberately masking her true feelings. “Unlike you,” she continued, changing the subject, “it’s more than just a job for me. It’s a calling. I don’t know what else I’d do if I was left out in the cold.” Her words rang with truth, but her voice had turned impersonal. Old habits die hard.

“Hell—what else can we do?” Judy interjected. “We can’t just do nothing.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s another way. Maybe we can take it through the right channels. Tell people we can trust.”

“The problem is, we don’t know who we can trust.” Burner sighed. “Anyone we confide in could be part of this thing. We just don’t know.”

Sara shrugged sadly. “I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just saying it feels weird to me. Like I’m playing both sides.”

Judy turned. “You’re a Constable. Isn’t that what you do?”

“Yeah, sure, I pretend to be different people, but I always know what side I’m on.”

“You still know what side you’re on,” Judy replied. “You’re on our side, right?”

“Of course. I’m just pessimistic about our chances. I feel like we’re floating in the ocean without a life jacket. I’ve never really been in a situation like this before.”

Burner cracked his knuckles. “Adapt and survive. That’s what we were taught, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll gather as much information as we can. Assess the situation logically. Then, we’ll strike when they’re not expecting it, as hard as possible. Otherwise, I don’t see what options we have. We could give up and walk away. Go back to our lives. But that’s not my style. And I don’t think it’s yours, either.”

The steely look of determination in their eyes told him it wasn’t. They sat in silence for a few moments longer, all three of them contemplating the hard road ahead. Then Sara stood up from the table abruptly. She put a hand to her ear and muttered something while she paced a short circle around the center of the warehouse. Then she came back to them with a strange look on her face.

“Speak of the devil,” she told them. “That was Hank. I have to go meet him.”

Judy looked puzzled.

“Her handler,” Burner explained.

“Now?” asked Judy.

Burner shrugged. “They typically don’t like to be kept waiting.”

Sara glanced anxiously in his direction.

“Go,” Burner said. “Act like everything is normal. Don’t let on that anything has changed. See what he wants and then get back here as soon as you can. Tell him I say hi.”

Sara nodded.

Quietly, she gathered her things and headed out the front doors of the warehouse.

Judy turned to Burner, concerned. “I hope she comes back.”

Burner nodded. “She’ll be all right.”

“What do we do now?”

“Now? We get some rest. It’s going to be a tough couple of days coming up. We’ll need to conserve energy.”

“Roger that,” she agreed. Judy stood up stiffly and started making her way to the back rooms where they had set up sleeping quarters. There was worry written all over her face.

Burner didn’t like that. No, he didn’t like that at all.


23


Abandoned Warehouse, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Sara made her way farther from the warehouse, using a roundabout path that looped in several different directions. She constantly circled back around, checking for tails in storefront windows and using the reflection in the corner of her dark glasses to check for any persons following her. She would occasionally take strange paths down side streets and dead ends. Her eventual destination was the auto-shuttle, which she would take to rendezvous with Hank, but for now her main priority was making sure she wasn’t being followed. By anyone.

Now she had almost completely doubled back around, to just about where she’d started. She was making her trip twice as long, but it would be easier for her to spot any tails. She waited on the street corner, scanning her surroundings, only about a quarter kilometer or so from their hideout at the warehouse. Satisfied, she walked slowly for about a kilometer down the main drag, until she came to a shuttle-bus stop. She sat down on the bench, trying to look nonchalant. She had her sunglasses on and her hair tied back to attract less attention while she sat leisurely, waiting for the bus and not doing much of anything.

The streets were fairly quiet, and she felt like anyone out of the ordinary would be spotted immediately. She was in a somewhat poorer part of the station, and the streets weren’t especially crowded at this time of day. Most of the people were either at work or traveling by private shuttle. There were a few women out on the sidewalk, walking dogs. She saw a guy in a full catsuit pedaling furiously by on his bicycle. An old man sat down on the bench next to her with a huff and began to read the news report. None of them seemed a very likely candidate for a tail. Still, she assessed each and every one of them, waiting for them to move along or until it was clear they had no interest in her. None of them did. She went unnoticed, at least for now.

Sara waited another five minutes, just to be especially cautious. By then, it was clear no one was coming. She thought it was possible that maybe Burner would want to see where she was headed. His demeanor when she told him she had to meet her handler held a glint of suspicion, but he wasn’t trailing her. She knew Burner was good, but when it came to surveillance, she was better. The fact that he wasn’t following meant he had taken her at her word. Which meant he trusted her. Which was good.

The shuttle-bus hovered up to the stop, and she boarded. It would be another twenty minutes to the transit hub, and from there give or take a half hour until she made it to her handler. It had been a strange few days, and she had the sinking feeling things were about to get a lot stranger before it was all said and done.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

ABANDONED WAREHOUSE, HEROD DISTRICT, SPACE STATION PHARBIS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS

A few hours later, Sara arrived back at the warehouse. Burner met her as she was making her way over to the command table with an expression on her face that was hard to pin down.

“Glad you came back in one piece,” he started. “What did Hank have to say?”

Sara brushed past him and headed over to the computer desks, where she started unpacking her gear. Her pistol and knife clattered down onto the surface of the table, clanging loudly through the open space. Sara pulled a wad of credits from her pocket, riffed through them, and set them down on the table as well. She gave him a funny look.

“Why?” she asked Burner. “You don’t trust me?”

“I trust you,” he replied. “I just want to know what he said.”

Sara scoffed and disappeared behind one of the racks of junk cluttering the midsection of the warehouse. “He’s not on to me that something’s up, if that’s what you’re insinuating,” she called to Burner. “Also, I’m changing my clothes. Why don’t you give me two seconds to unwind, all right?”

Confused, Burner threw up his hands and went to join Judy, who was already waiting at the command table, sorting through a glut of data on the computer screen. Judy pretended not to notice the tension building between Burner and Sara, but Burner could tell by the staccato way her fingers started and stopped on the keyboard that she was listening intently to their conversation, and that she was concerned.

A minute or so later, Sara came back out, this time dressed more casually in a cardigan sweater and jeans. She plopped herself down across from them and hesitated for a moment, like she was unsure of what she was going to say. Finally, she put her palms face down on the table and began to talk.

“I talked with my handler,” Sara started. “Hank. Didn’t tell him anything new. Didn’t let on that something was wrong. As far as he knows, I’ve been on the straight and narrow. He’s kind of paranoid, so if something were wrong, I’d know. The only problem is, he told me I have a new assignment. I have to take a hiatus from this job.”

Judy tilted her head. “What are you talking about?”

“I just told you,” Sara said quietly. “I have an obligation. I need to follow orders. I have a job to do. And I’m conflicted here, all right? You think I want to be playing both sides like this? But if I don’t follow through with this mission, he’s going to know something’s up. And that’s no good for any of us.”

Burner looked at Sara, trying to make heads or tails of her expression. “You’re positive you didn’t let on about what we’re doing? Didn’t let anything slip?”

“No,” she insisted, her tone more irritated now. “Of course not.”

Burner studied her reactions carefully. Quietly. “Well, it seems to me it could be a ruse. Hank could be monitoring your conversations. Your handler could want us to drop this. He could even be in on it.”

“Burner, he has no idea what’s going on. He’s not in on it. Trust me.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I just do, all right? He’s my handler! I’ve been working with him for years now. You don’t think I know him better than anyone? He’s a good guy, Burner. In fact, maybe I should tell him what’s going on. He’d probably be able to help us. We’d increase our odds of surviving this thing by a good 25%. And we’d have someone on our side with access to actual technology and information. No offense to Judy’s makeshift rig here.”

“No.” Burner shook his head. “You can’t tell him anything. We don’t know who’s compromised. And we don’t know who’s listening.”

Sara stood up, clearly restraining her tone and body language to hide the extent of her frustration. “You think I don’t understand that, Burner? I’m trying to do the best with what we’ve got here. It’s not like there’s a Union guidebook for this situation. 100 Things to Do When You’re Actively Conspiring Against the Union. You get what I’m saying?”

Judy stood up, gesturing with her hands, palms in a downward motion. “Guys, let’s take a beat. Fighting amongst ourselves isn’t going to help matters any. That’s what they want us to do.”

“Look,” Sara started. “I don’t know who knows what. At this point, I barely know which way is up. All I’m sure of is my handler has another mission for me. I have the sinking feeling that my career could be in danger, and that Hank right now is trying to mitigate the damage. I think that if I don’t follow through on this new assignment, I’m going to get direct orders from Union headquarters to quit while I’m ahead. But I don’t know any of that for sure. It’s just a gut feeling I have.”

“What are you saying?” Judy asked, trying to read her expression and between the lines of what she was hearing. “You think the Union is on to you?”

“I don’t know!” Sara said more loudly now, unable to constrain her tone. Burner and Judy exchanged a look, both of them unsure how to proceed.

“My career—everything I’ve worked for—is in danger because of this. All of my beliefs are being flipped upside down.” Sara started to pace back and forth between the computer station and the rows of junk in the middle of the warehouse. Her footsteps echoed through the wide space, making a clack clack clack sound.

“Hank didn’t say anything outright,” Sara continued. “But I do get the feeling the Union knows something’s up, if not exactly what or where. There’s a reason they gave me a new assignment right now. The guys behind this are too big, they’ve got too much money... and they’re probably running the whole system—or at least controlling it. I don’t know. We’re going to have to take a different tact.”

Burner took a few steps closer to her. “Sara.” He put his hand on her shoulder, and she moved away with a jerk.

“Hey.” Burner grabbed her softly by the arms, and Sara spun toward him, her face a mask of exasperation. “This is what the government is good at,” he told her. “They’re making you question your loyalties. Making you question your own sanity. You can’t let them get to you.”

Sara moved away again. “That’s easy for you to say, Burner. If I can’t trust my handler, who can I trust?”

“Us!” Judy threw up her hands. “You can trust us.”

“I do,” Sara replied. “But I still have a duty. I have to toe the line.”

Judy put a hand to her face. “In this situation, I feel like toeing the line is going to get one of us killed.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Okay,” Burner said slowly. He crossed his arms, trying to project a measure of calm, as well as a commanding presence. This was part and parcel of leading a team, after all. There would always be fights, and there would always be bickering, whether it was the three of them or a military division. The key to it was acknowledging the problem and then sorting things out in an orderly manner. Although, that was sometimes easier said than done. “Let’s all take a breath and have a seat,” Burner continued. “Sara, come back to the table. No one’s judging you. We’re going to figure this out, one step at a time.”

“Right,” Judy agreed. “Getting agitated and bickering isn’t going to help us solve anything. That’s what they want us to do. The only way we’re going to get through this in one piece is if we work together. And if that means Sara has to keep up appearances with her handler for the time being, well, then I think that’s what she should do. Hank is going to realize something’s wrong if Sara breaks off all communication with him. It’s not an option.”

Sara looked at them, her face steely. It seemed like she was thinking hard about what she was going to do next. Finally, she came back to the table and sat down, shaking her head like she was out of ideas. “Judy’s right,” she told them. “Maybe I should cut Hank off, or maybe I should stay in contact with him. I’m used to making decisions on my own, but not like this. This is a whole new world for me, and I don’t like it.”

“That’s why we need to relax and think calmly.” Burner spoke softly, making sure to modulate his voice into an even tone. “We can just sit and mull it over. There’s no need for rash action. We’ll take it slowly.”

Sara sighed and looked at him. “Okay. What would you like to mull over?”

“Let me ask you a question,” Burner started. “It’s a moral quandary. Maybe theoretical, maybe not. Did you pledge allegiance to your government, or your Union?”

Sara seemed confused. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s a simple question. When you swore an oath, did you swear it to your government or the people?”

“Aren’t they the same thing?” Sara asked.

Burner shook his head. “No. Not necessarily. The Union is a many-headed beast. It deals with weapons development and warfare, sure. But it also has plenty of charitable causes. Outreach for the homeless. Welfare for the destitute and downtrodden. It even builds houses for people in poor systems and defends the rights of the indigent who have no one else to stand up for them.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, it’s not always a simple question of right or wrong, good or bad. There’s a portion of the Union that is no doubt corrupt, that has a hand in trafficking women. And that portion needs to be excised, like a cancer. But you can’t say that’s the entire entity. It’s too big for that, with too many moving parts. I’m sure there are other departments of the Union that would be horrified to hear what’s going on.”

“So you’re saying the corrupt members can be rooted out?” Judy asked. “We can use the brunt of the whole thing to ferret out the people causing harm?”

“Right.” Sara snorted gently with a hint of sarcasm. “Because the Union is so great at communicating with itself.” She shook her head. “It’s a bureaucracy, same as any business that’s become too big for its britches. The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. Even if we managed to contact a piece of the Union that wasn’t compromised by this trafficking ring, who knows if we’d be able to convince them of what was going on. And even then, we’d have to communicate with them in a way that wouldn’t tip off anyone privy to the criminal enterprise. It would be a serious long shot.”

“Okay,” Burner started slowly. “Let me ask you another question. A few more, actually, since we’re in the midst of an ideological argument here. Is it a Constable’s job to defend the Union? Or the people? Or the power structure enacted by the Union? What about the bosses who prop the whole thing up? When you go out on a mission spying, surveilling a target and taking pictures, or maybe knocking off a few guys when they’re not looking...who are you working for, exactly? What are you trying to protect?”

Sara stared hard into Burner’s eyes, trying to figure out just what he was getting at. “Are you questioning me about morality right now? Because I don’t have time for that theoretical nonsense. I’ve got real, concrete problems to deal with in the here and now.”

“It’s not philosophical,” Burner said, his voice dipping lower. “It’s the core of what you are. And what I am. Trafficking women and erasing their memories is wrong, right?”

Sara nodded. “Of course.”

“Obviously,” Judy added.

“Okay. So then it’s simple. Any opposition to the forces carrying out such a thing, logically, must be correct then. Am I wrong? No matter how we go about it, we’re in the right.” He paused, waiting for agreement. The two women nodded, allowing him to continue. “In that sense, should we be wringing our hands about loyalty to your handlers, or the Union? Or whatever other abstract concept we’re using to rationalize us not doing the right thing?”

“It’s not a judgement on right or wrong,” Sara replied. “I want to shut down this trafficking ring just as badly as either of you do. Well, maybe not as badly as Judy.”

Judy shrugged, as if to say it is what it is.

“But I can’t just shrug off my handler,” Sara continued. “If I don’t go ahead with my orders, he’s going to get suspicious. And if he gets suspicious, my whole role could be put on hold. They could rescind my rank as a Constable. I’d have a lot of extra eyes on me wondering what went wrong. And that wouldn’t exactly help me in my goal of trying to take down a smuggling ring comprised of Union officials and higher-ups, right?”

Judy turned to Burner. “I see what she’s saying. She’s kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. If she helps us, the Union will know something’s up. And if she doesn’t, then we’re screwed without her help.”

“I still think you’re overcomplicating things,” Burner told them. “At the core this is a question of morals. I walked away from the Union because I couldn’t square my sense of right and wrong with how they operated. You’re going to have to make the same choice. Either you’re saying that you’re okay with plucking these women from their normal lives, giving them a lobotomy, and selling them into slavery, or you’re not.”

“Of course I’m not!” Sara burst out. “How could anyone be? I’ve already done so much to try and stop it. Don’t insinuate that if I choose to see my handler I’m okay with it.”

“Well, then I still think it’s pretty simple,” Burner replied. “We’re all in agreement that erasing memories and selling women into slavery is wrong. No human being, no matter what flag they’ve sworn allegiance to, or what organization they took an oath to protect, should be able to sit by and just let it happen. That’s really my final point. I don’t know how to break this thing down into its basic elements more thoroughly than that. It’s good or evil. Right or wrong.”

Judy looked at Burner, surprised. “That’s funny, coming from you. I would have figured you of all people would be the one to see the world in shades of gray.”

Burner seemed puzzled. “Why? The assholes in the Union enslaving women are wrong. Just because I used to be a part of them doesn’t mean I can’t see that. Politicians or corporations can dress up their misdeeds in as many layers of abstraction as they want, but wrong is still wrong. No matter how they sugarcoat it. Sara, do you agree?”

Sara was quiet for a beat. When she spoke again, it was soft. “Maius bonum.” Her gaze focused and she nodded. “For the greater good. I know what I have to do, and that means keeping up appearances.”

Burner studied her, taking in the square set of her shoulders. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ve got to gather my gear together and get out of here. We’re all still on the same page. I’ll be in contact with you when I can.”

Burner nodded, though none of them seemed happy about the arrangement. He knew that the odds were stacked against them, and that splitting up would only make things more difficult for everyone involved. But Sara was dead set on returning to her handler, and realistically there was nothing Burner could do to stop her. He just hoped the dissolution of the team wasn’t permanent. They’d have to all come back together and start working as a cohesive unit if they stood any chance of taking on the Union and stopping the smuggling ring. And right now, it felt like every hour that passed had them drifting further and further apart from each other.


24


Abandoned Warehouse, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Although it wasn’t as if any of them had a ton of personal stuff with them at the warehouse, the way Sara went about meticulously packing her things and loading them into her duffel bag hammered home the fact that this was to be a farewell of sorts.

The dynamic between Burner and Sara had become stressed, to say the least. There was an unstated tension in the air, as if their parting had been building for some time. Still, Burner sincerely hoped this wouldn’t be the last time any of them saw Sara.

“What are you taking with you?” Burner joked, as Sara continued to load her gear into her bag. “I’m going to take an inventory so we know who has what.”

“Not a ton of stuff,” Sara answered, slinging her dark leather jacket over her shoulders and slipping her arms through it. “My pistol, knife, a flasher or two. My datapad and my comm, and a change of clothes. Also, my hairbrush and makeup kit. You need to take that down also, or are we good?”

“We’re good,” Burner replied gamely. His gaze followed her across the room. “I guess it’s easier for you to travel light.”

She shrugged. “I see no reason to bring the whole armory with me. Like I said, I’m going to try my hardest to be back as soon as I can. I just don’t see any other way around this.”

Burner returned the shrug. “Okay,” he said flatly, turning in his chair and putting his attention back on the computer console he had been distracting himself with.

Sara gave him a look before going back to packing. As she gathered her equipment and prepared for the journey ahead, she and Judy chatted about idle things, cracking jokes, generally being amicable toward one another. A bond had grown between them in the short time they’d known each other. It wasn’t hard to see why. When they first rescued her, Judy had been a prisoner, sold into slavery, just trying to regain her memories.

“I haven’t been this stressed out since I was taking my Constable exams,” Sara joked as she finished folding some of her clothing into a dark duffel bag.

Judy chuckled, remembering her own training.

Whether Sara was telling the truth or just exaggerating to make Judy feel better, Burner couldn’t tell. His boot camp days had been tough, but at least he wasn’t getting shot at or having grenades lobbed at him.

“Wish I could trade places with you,” Judy replied, smiling. “Not that I don’t enjoy spending time with Burner, here.” She tilted her head conspiratorially in his direction. “But I’ve had just about enough cramped, confined rooms for a lifetime. I’m itching to get out into open space and make something happen.”

Sara finished packing what remained of her wardrobe and zipped up her bag. It closed with a raspy sound that had a grim kind of finality to it. Judy got up and shuffled over to her and gave her a long hug, and they talked about what sector they would vacation on when this was all over. “Any sector with a nice beach,” Judy mused. “White sand, warm sun. Just relaxing and listening to the waves come in and out. A beach where we can sit out by the water and sunbathe, and we’ll have hunky guys come out from the cabana and give us Pina Coladas.”

Sara grinned. “You better stop talking. I might just say to hell with all of this and go there now.”

She set her duffel bag down by the door and went over to say goodbye to Burner. He appeared pensive, still unsure about her leaving, but his face softened when she approached him. He got up and embraced her. It was readily apparent that he still had some unacknowledged feelings for her, but whatever they may have been, this wasn’t the time to explore them. That would have to wait for another day.

“Don’t worry about me, Burner.” Sara’s voice had a wry undertone to it. “After everything we’ve been through, it was kind of inevitable that we’d be parting ways sooner or later, right?”

“Right,” Burner agreed. He looked like he was about to say more but didn’t.

“Right?” Sara parroted. “That’s all you have to say?”

“No,” he protested. “There’s a lot I want to say. I’m just not sure how to do it. I’ve never been good at goodbyes, or farewells, or whatever you want to call it.”

“We’re going to figure this thing out,” Sara reassured him. “Have a little faith.”

“I think we have a fundamental difference in the way we see the world,” Burner replied. “We make a good team when we’re together in enemy territory, taking out the bad guys. But when we’re back at base, strategizing, trying to figure out what tact to take to solve a certain problem, we’re pretty different.”

She nodded, still standing close to him after the hug. “That’s probably true. But I mean, we’re different people, Burner. And our jobs were drastically different. Of course we’re not always going to see eye to eye. I wouldn’t look at it that way. You know, maybe it’s a strength rather than a weakness. Different perspectives and all that.”

“I hear you.” He reached up and squeezed her upper arms one last time. “Take care of yourself, Sara. And try to contact us when you can. We’re going to need you in the coming days.”

Sara nodded. “I will.” She grinned. “Good luck while I’m gone.”

She turned on her heels and strode back to the door before sketching them a wave. Then she picked up her duffel bag and headed out the door. It clanged shut behind her, echoing through the warehouse, and she was gone.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

ABANDONED WAREHOUSE, SPACE STATION PHARBIS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS

“You know, they did give us chopsticks.” Burner watched with mild amusement as Judy struggled to work her fork around the noodles.

“I never learned how to use those things,” Judy shot back. “Or if I did, I lost it when they wiped my memory. Oh well.” She plucked a strand of lo mein that had fallen onto the screen of her datapad and slurped it in before wiping off the grease and keying in another line of data. With Sara gone for a few days now, the amount of work that Burner and Judy needed to accomplish had effectively doubled. They worked continuously, plugging away at their datapads while they ate. Burner took a moment to chew before returning to the complex web of names, addresses, numbers, and blueprints that comprised the collected information he was putting together.

Even without Sara’s help, they’d made a great deal of progress in the days since she’d been gone. Her pictures of the senator, and their ability to link him to a web of other figures in the government, had blown the case wide open. Now, every day there were a growing number of potential conspirators, shadowy officials who could have been pulling the strings from behind the curtain. It didn’t make the prospect of going up against them any less daunting, but at least they had a clear idea of what they were up against and what direction they needed to head.

Between the two of them, they’d managed to map out most of the criminal organization, tracing a line from Ron Capulet Senior at the top, all the way down to the hired muscle guarding the women and the hideouts. Their goal now was to figure out how the enemy was communicating with each other. This tied in with their funding, which way the credits were flowing. If they could stymie the organization’s communication, they could potentially stop the money coming in, which would give them a big problem, to say the least. But that was easier said than done. There were so many moving parts in the smuggling ring that it was difficult to know where to start.

“How’s it coming over there?” Burner asked, watching as Judy attempted to continue working on her datapad while finishing her meal.

“I’ll give you an update once I’m done eating,” Judy called back. “We’re making a lot of progress.”

He was still concerned. Both for her safety, and the fact that she knew plenty enough to bury them, if the wrong people got a hold of her. Burner didn’t think she’d lead the bad guys back to their hideout. After all, she was trained to withstand torture, and he was sure she was familiar with all the common interrogation techniques. Still, anyone would crack after enough time. She was probably smart enough not to get herself captured, but it was always a possibility. A possibility he tried not to think about.

Ten minutes later, they’d finished their Chinese food and were once again tackling the problem at hand with 100 percent focus. Judy called Burner over to her computer, where the screen was filled with a crisscrossing grid of names.

“This is the updated map?” Burner asked, taking a long swig of water to wash down his meal.

Judy nodded. “Yep. It’s the hierarchy of the smuggling ring so far and all its contacts. We’ve got Capulet at the top, stretching down to the grunts.” Some of the names, like Gray and John Smith, were crossed out with big red X’s. They had been pieces of the puzzle, now deceased. But the X’s were few and far between. Burner would have preferred to see a lot more of them before it was all said and done.

“As we discussed, our goal right now is to halt their communication,” Judy continued. “Make it so they can’t talk to each other, jam up their credits. The easiest way to do that is via a tech standpoint—hacking, DDOS attacks, that sort of thing. But to get that done, we’re going to need to know the locations of the enemies remaining servers.”

“Physically?” Burner asked. “Or where the servers are located in cyberspace?”

“Both,” Judy replied. “But if we find one, we should be able to deduce where the others are located. I’ve already found a few during the course of the contact chaining I’ve been doing. Basically, connecting the dots, linking names to each other and seeing where everyone fits in the hierarchy. But as far as how the enemy is transferring their funds, I still haven’t finished mapping that out completely. Their credits are being funneled through a number of different servers, including hidden and proxy servers, in order for them to avoid detection. It’s been more difficult than I envisioned to piece them together.”

Burner looked over Judy’s shoulder at the computer screen as she updated the page to show the unfinished list of servers she’d been investigating. Burner was at once awed and extremely grateful that Judy was on his team. He’d never been much of a tech guy, himself. He could use a computer to send comms or look up easily accessible information on the gal-net, get directions somewhere. But this kind of deep dive into cyberspace was beyond him.

He scratched his chin. “Does this have anything to do with the nether net?”

Judy nodded, her fingers moving in a blur over the keys. Burner noticed she didn’t even have to look at the keyboard when she typed. This was probably not uncommon amongst the younger generation, but it made him feel slightly self-conscious about his labored hunt-and-peck technique.

“The nether, yes,” Judy started. “You know what that is?”

“Sure,” Burner replied. “Hidden information and sites you can’t get on the gal-net. It’s deeper.”

Judy bobbed her head. “Exactly. Not indexed. To find a page on the dark web, you need to know exactly where it is, meaning you need the exact address to locate it. Querying a search engine won’t do anything.”

“I know it’s a hotbed for criminals,” Burner said. “Illegal drug markets, cybernetics, murder for hire. That kind of thing.”

“Right again. The site addresses will look innocuous to the casual observer. Just servers with numbers in them. Having them exist on the dark web is just an added measure of security.”

Burner tapped the side of the computer absentmindedly. “It’s all about patience. I’ve dealt with it some in the past. Monitoring existing pages, watching the web traffic, and seeing what other sites those visitors check out.”

“That’s precisely what I’ll be doing,” Judy confirmed. “Eventually, one of them will lead me to the servers where the traffickers are funneling the money through. It just takes forever, because I have to wait for all these things to happen in real time, and I have to attach viruses into the code of those web addresses in order to monitor them.”

“Backdoors,” Burner added. “Right? Code that hides out before it does its thing?”

Judy laughed. “You know more about this stuff than you let on.”

“Never good to show your hand.” He watched as Judy typed out a string of code that was indecipherable to him. It may as well have been in some ancient language. “Is that what you’re doing now? Waiting for them to slip up?”

“Along with what feels like a million other things,” Judy replied. “I’ve automated the software to tell me if any of the viruses become active. Until then, I’m focusing on finishing mapping out the missing links in the hierarchy. There’s no way to really speed up the process of looking for things on the dark web. All we can do is wait.”

“What if they never trip? The viruses?”

Judy shrugged. “Then we’ll have to find some other way to get to the servers. Or come up with a different plan entirely. It’ll be a disappointment, to say the least.”

“What would you say the odds are? Of it working?”

“I think they’re pretty good. I imagine the placement of the money is pretty important to these guys. They’ll have accountants, tech people trying to make sure it’s all flowing smoothly. Sooner or later, one of them will connect to one of the sites we know about and hop over to where the money’s located. I just can’t tell you if it will be today or a week from now.”

“All right,” Burner told her. “Good job.” He wished he had more to contribute, some way to help Judy along with the process, but he didn’t. In any case, she seemed to be on the right track, so he let her focus on her work. In the meantime, he’d do what he could with his old-fashioned detective skills. Part of him wished he had a real live person to interrogate, a human lead he could follow.

Soon enough, he figured. He had the feeling he’d get his share of human contact before all this was said and done.


25


Druhoff Communications Building, Business District, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The server room in the Druhoff Communications building on Pharbis was a massive space, filled to the brim with all manner of computer equipment. There were computers, datapads, screens, and keyboards cluttering shelves on the wall. But the main attraction was located in the middle of the room. Rows of bulky servers sat in neat lines, like soldiers in formation. The machines were connected through a complex web of wires, and fiber optics with flickering umbilicals of electricity that sent information from server to server, throughout the station and beyond.

Typically, only the tech guys were allowed into the server room, and with good reason. Someone who hadn’t been cleared, a corporate spy or a person with mal intent, could easily cause serious damage. They could hook up a rogue data stick to one of the servers, capturing all the data that came through. Or, they could potentially shut down the entire network for thousands of people. Things were running smoothly for now though, and the room was currently empty.

An observer in the room who wasn‘t a tech expert might have been overwhelmed at first by the sensory input. They would see a number of flashing lights—some red, some blue, some white, all of them blinking on and off at different intervals, occasionally making different sounds. It was chaotic enough that an epileptic would be advised to steer clear.

Even a technician would have been hard-pressed to notice the single red warning light that started flashing on one of the far servers. It started flashing brightly for two seconds, turning off, then repeating the process over and over again. To the untrained eye, it would have blended in completely with the other flashing lights, calling no particular attention to itself. But there was a good reason for this.

The servers were programmed with precautions against attacks, both in real life and from cyberspace. There were all sorts of traps in the code, trip wires and alarms that would be triggered if someone searched for the wrong thing, or a program was found where one shouldn’t be. The security was robust. The system did a fine job of guarding itself against threats with minimal human supervision. The automated systems embedded deep within the computer’s code never had to sleep, never took a break. In fact, they did a much better job of guarding themselves than any person, or group of humans, ever could. And whenever it found something, a threat, the red warning light would go off.

But the warning light was just a part of the security system. The servers were programmed to send out a message to other servers located on Pharbis whenever the light started flashing. This message would be sent immediately, and it would take priority over all other communications. It was designed for simplicity and efficiency, and in that it accomplished its goal perfectly, albeit with little fanfare.

As soon as the red warning light began flashing, a packet was sent out from the server room, racing toward its destination via cables and wires, screaming beneath the space station at impossible speeds, completely invisible to the tens of thousands of people walking the streets above. Along its journey, the packet was rerouted through a blockchain, operating virtually through the datapad of a young professional sipping coffee at a sidewalk bistro. The young woman sat watching a newscast on one of the overhanging screens, completely oblivious to the fact that her device had been hijacked by unknown actors that were using her device as an intermediary to send this crucial packet of data on its way. She had no knowledge of any servers, nor of flashing red alarm lights or packets of data being sent. Instead, her attention was on the newscast and the sports scores, and she was unaware that a clever hacker had used her innocent device as a junction along the pathway of this important message.

This may have seemed like an unnecessary extra step in the process, but it was an important one. The trip through the woman’s datapad made tracing the origin of the message all but impossible. Instead of the Druhoff building, anyone trying to trace the origin of the data packet would think it came from a datapad at a bistro on a space station. This was only a brief stop, after all. Once it had finished taking the short detour through the blockchain, the pulse continued on its journey, and in just a few tenths of a second more, the packet reached its destination. It emerged in the basement of a corporate office in the Industrial district, all the way on the other side of Pharbis.

On the upper floors of the building, office workers in suits and ties went about their business, holding meetings, building databases, and taking breaks in the lunchroom. It was business as usual. There were no loud alarms that sounded, no sudden signal from below. None of the workers had any idea that an important message had been delivered to one of the servers in the basement, a message that would tell whoever was watching for it that there had been a breach of security. The only hint that the message had been received was a tiny pop up on a computer screen somewhere on Pharbis.

The message was brief, just three words in capital letters to underline its importance. It read:

UNKNOWN FOOTPRINT DETECTED


26


Tech Cave, City Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

“Looks like we’ve got a nosy little bee trying to get into our business,” Boris told the rest of the team. He had just returned from his lunch break to find the message UNKNOWN FOOTPRINT DETECTED had popped up on his computer screen.

Ivan looked up over his shoulder. “What are you talking about?”

Boris swiveled his computer screen in Ivan’s direction. “Check it out.”

Ivan and Margarita came over to Boris’s desk to read the message.

Margarita seemed concerned. “Someone’s been sniffing around,” she mused. “When did this come in?”

“Just now,” Boris told her. “I’m going to run a reverse search, try and figure out what happened.”

Ivan looked irritated. “How come your system was the only one to receive an alert?”

“Because,” Boris started, turning his screen back in his direction, “I was the one who designed the security protocols.”

“You didn’t design them,” Ivan shot back. “We all did.”

“Well, I was the one who implemented them. Ergo, I set it to tell me.”

“What if you were gone? We’d have been in the dark about this.”

Boris flashed him a look of mock innocence mixed with exasperation. “Look, in the future I’ll make sure everyone in the room gets an alert when there’s a data breach, all right? Hell, I’ll make sure everyone in the building knows if you want. But right now, we’ve got more important things to worry about.”

Margarita sat down at her workstation and put on her glasses. “He’s right, Ivan. We’ll bicker later. Let’s make sure we’re not compromised.”

Boris began to work. “It seems like someone tried to get clever. Set up a virus in our system. They didn’t do the greatest job of it. Probably that Burner guy, or someone he’s working with. I’m going to try and see if I can locate the source.”

“How much do you think they know?” asked Margarita.

Boris began to answer, but Ivan interrupted him. “Probably not a whole lot. The security systems that we designed are fairly robust.”

“I’m going to lock down our servers either way,” Margarita said, keying the commands into her computer. “Even if they haven‘t found anything useful, this is serious.”

“Agreed.” Boris flashed a thumbs up at her, still typing away with his left hand. “I told you guys a booby trap was a good idea. No one ever suspects the old reversal of fortune. We should be able to find them before they have any clue what’s happening.”

A few loud pings chimed from Ivan’s computer. “All the servers with money moving through them are now frozen,” Ivan informed them. “No one except us gets in or out. Boss won’t be thrilled about it, but he’d be a lot less thrilled if any of them were compromised.”

Margarita nodded to him. “Did you hit the failsafe?”

“No.” Ivan shook his head. “Just some of the servers.”

Margarita frowned. “We’re going to have to do it.”

“Are we sure?” Ivan asked. “That’s a big deal. We’ll be shutting down operations at least for today, possibly tomorrow. Any chance this is a false alarm?”

“You think my program produces false positives?” Boris sneered.

Margarita was typing quickly, scanning through the failsafe protocols on her computer. “Any suspects yet?” she asked as she multitasked.

“Doesn’t look like a Union operation,” Boris said. “Seems like the work of one person, maybe a small team. Some knowledge of the system, but the attack wasn’t particularly sophisticated. The tech guys at the Union wouldn’t have used these parameters, I don’t think.”

“Could be another organization,” Ivan suggested. “Someone trying to muscle in.”

Boris shrugged as he typed. “Anything’s possible. With any luck, I should be able to get a location before long. They might still be there, if he's dumb enough.”

Margarita sat up straight in her chair. She tied her red ponytail back behind her head nervously and turned to face the other two. “If we’re all sure about this, I’m going to hit the failsafe. But there’s no going back once I do. Are we good on this?”

Ivan nodded. “Don’t think we have a choice. It’s protocol. The higher-ups will be pissed, but they’ll want to know.”

“Yeah,” Boris agreed. “It’s a pain in the ass, but do it.”

Margarita typed in the command. There were no alarms or sirens going off, but all operations of the organization would have been frozen. No more money moving in or out. No product moving in or out. Those at the lower level would have quietly received orders to remain on standby. Those at the top of the chain would be receiving the message that something was amiss: a possible security breach. With luck, they’d get the message quickly and get in touch with the tech team to work on the next steps.

Ivan watched Margarita’s display for a moment, confirming that the failsafe had been ordered. Then he turned his gaze down to the tiles on the floor. “I hope Hardy is reasonable about this.”

“He’s a logical guy.” Margarita tried to comfort him. “He’s not going to shoot the messenger.”

“Maybe he’ll shoot one of us, just as a warning,” Boris joked.

Not one of them laughed.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

HARDY'S COMPOUND, CITY OUTSKIRTS, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Suddenly, it seemed like every electronic device in Hardy’s office began going off at once. His console, his comm, and his datapad. All of them started flashing and beeping, alerting him to the fact that something was wrong. One by one, he switched them off. He knew someone would be contacting him shortly—that was just how these things went. Whenever there was a problem, he was the one everybody would come running to. Hardy expected Frank to call him first, but he was slightly surprised when he picked up the phone and heard Boris Kupchenko from the tech team on the other line.

“Boss. Er...I mean, Mr. Hardy, that is.” Boris’s voice came through reedy and nervous. There was a reason why Hardy usually spoke through Frank as an intermediary. The tech team wasn’t exactly known for their communication skills.

“What’s going on, Boris?”

“Sir. There’s been a security breach. You should have been alerted.”

Hardy sighed impatiently. “Yes, I’ve got every alarm in my office going off at once. Is it Jack Burner?”

Boris cleared his throat. “Ah, we think so. We've managed to pinpoint the location where we think he is. A warehouse in the Herod district. Supposed to be abandoned, but we think that’s where he’s holed up.”

“Okay. What about the servers? Is everything secure in the meantime?”

“Yes, everything has been frozen, and we’re looking to see if anything’s been compromised. We don’t think so. It seems the automated security caught it right away.”

“Good. Keep monitoring things. I’ll let you know when your orders get updated.”

Hardy switched off the comm. He had a decision to make. It seemed as if Burner’s attempt to infiltrate their system had been clumsy. A booby trap that the tech team had left in the system had found the intruder almost immediately. But the fact that Burner could have found their servers in the first place meant that he still had some knowledge of the organization and the cyber structure. If Burner knew enough to implement a virus, then that likely meant he’d mapped out at least a basic hierarchy of the Ring.

This meant he could have a few names of the important people. Maybe he even knew Hardy himself was involved. Hardy thought back to their assault on the Loreilla. Judy Petersen could have provided him with valuable information. It was possible, though not likely, that they could map out where the money was coming from and trace that back to the heads of the trafficking ring. Hardy was afraid that if they let this problem fester, it could become serious very quickly.

According to Boris, they had pinpointed Burner’s location. An abandoned warehouse in the Herod district. It was probably a decent enough place for a makeshift hideout, but it would be difficult to fortify. It didn’t sound as though Burner had a big team working with him, if anyone. It was possible he was flying solo, doing the lone wolf thing. From reading Burner’s file, Hardy would guess that Burner preferred working alone. He’d left the Union after all, under some uncertain circumstances. But he likely had at least the kidnapped girl along with him. And he had broken her out of what he had thought was a secure location at the Loreilla.

It was better to be prepared, not to underestimate his enemy.

Hardy was a practical person. He knew an opportunity when one presented itself. If they hesitated, it was possible they could let slip something was wrong, which would alert Burner and give him an opportunity to escape. Hardy and his team were lucky enough to have a location, and the tech had sounded pretty sure about it. The techies were usually very good about that sort of thing. He figured the likelihood that the address was phony, or some kind of decoy, was probably not worth considering. With the facts in place, the course forward seemed fairly obvious. Burner needed to go.

Hardy had made up his mind. He dialed the head of his security team—the “hit” team, as they called themselves, though Hardy preferred them to use the official name, for professionalism’s sake. The team was currently stationed in the compound, running exercise maneuvers. His security leader picked up immediately, sounding out of breath.

“Boss, what’s going on? We’ve got alarms sounding all over the place. Everyone is in an uproar.”

“We’ve got a bead on Jack Burner. He’s in a warehouse in the Herod district. I’ll send the exact coordinates over to you in a moment. I’m authorizing you to take him out.”

“Affirmative.”

Hardy had to smile at this. No hesitation in his voice, just following orders, calm and collected. It was what he liked to hear.

“We have a count of hostiles?” asked his security chief.

“Only Burner for sure,” Hardy told him. “If he does have a team with him, it’s a small one. I’m estimating no more than three or four people. You shouldn’t encounter heavy resistance.”

“Affirmative. I’ll prep the guys on the situation, and we’ll draw up a plan to breach. We a go right now?”

“ASAP, sergeant. Get your men down there and take out Burner before he has a chance to escape. We don’t need to give him a heads up. He’s proven to be crafty, so survey the area with a careful eye. Wouldn’t put it past him to have fortifications or booby traps around the perimeter.”

“Roger. I’ll send a squad out immediately.”

Hardy hung up. He sat down at his desk, reading over the tech report that Boris had emailed to him. Hardy hoped he was making the right decision. Either way, they were going to stomp Burner out quickly and efficiently. He’d been a big enough problem as it was. No need to let his little crusade against their enterprise go any further.


27


Abandoned Warehouse, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner watched over Judy’s shoulder as she monitored the gal-net traffic. In the past half hour, there had been a flurry of activity on some of the sites. Judy was tracking it eagerly, trying to trace a connection and figure out where the servers were located. Burner looked on in fascination, wishing he could do more to help.

“Where’s all this sudden activity coming from?” Burner asked. “Could it have anything to do with the virus we used?”

“I don’t think so. It was hidden pretty well.”

“It seems like if we throw a wrench into their communications system, they’re kind of at a loss for what to do.”

“Yeah,” Judy replied, browsing through a list of servers on the screen. “But they’ve got a bigger team with more expensive equipment and more experienced people. Even if the virus gets through, it will point us in the right direction, but it’s unlikely to do any real damage.”

Burner cracked his knuckles. “There are other ways to damage them.”

“Give me a sec,” Judy told him. She was focused intently on the screen. “I think I might have located one of their servers that has money flowing through it. I just got a ping on a small credit buffer over in the Wellness District.”

“Any way of finding out who owns the accounts?”

“I’m checking. It’s a tiny bank. Might even just be a front for these guys. We’ll have to see if it’s just another dead end, or if the accounts are actually connected to someone in the smuggling ring.”

“Gotcha.” Burner rose from his chair and stretched out, feeling his muscles expand as he moved.

He took an orange soda from the fridge and popped the tab, hearing the crisp hiss as the gases escaped. He sipped it as he walked, letting the sugary taste linger on his tongue. It was worse for him than plain water, but he liked something sweet every now and then. It was easy to build up quite a thirst sitting in the dusty warehouse all day.

Then, a siren began to wail. Not a pleasant chirp, or even the constant ringing of an alarm clock. This was a loud, trilling, klaxon siren. Unmistakable for anything else and letting them know immediately that something was very wrong.

Judy turned to Burner. “What is that?”

The soda fell from Burner’s hand and splashed onto the floor. “Perimeter switch has been tripped.” Burner raced over to the workstation. He’d set perimeter alarms all over the outside of the warehouse. Each one, when activated, would light up a specific portion of his screen. What he saw was not good news. The top alarm had lit up.

“They’re on the roof,” Burner told her. “Grab a weapon. We’ve got to go. Right now.”

Judy stood up, looking around frantically. “What about all our data? I still need time to wipe the servers.”

“Forget it!” Burner snapped. “There’s no time.”

Burner ran to the shelf where his weapons were laid out. He slung the dark submachine gun over his shoulder and stuffed two extra clips in his belt, then he jammed his pistol and grenades into his pockets. Judy grabbed a pump-action shotgun and ammo then raced to meet Burner near the doors on the east side of the warehouse.

Suddenly, gunfire rattled through the building, followed by the sound of broken glass. Above, armored men came crashing through the skylight windows, rappelling down thick ropes toward the center of the warehouse. Something clattered against the floor, and the room began to fill with smoke. In seconds, visibility inside the warehouse had dropped to zero.

Burner grabbed Judy’s hand and pulled her toward the door. His escape plan had prepared for the enemy to congregate at one entrance, maybe two, giving them enough time to slip out unnoticed. He hadn’t expected the bad guys to show up from every angle, all sides of the building, including the roof. Now it seemed like any direction they went, they were in trouble. There would likely be enemies waiting for them at all points of egress, but they no longer had much of a choice.

Judy stuck by him as he kicked open the door, and together they staggered out into the street. For a moment, things went silent. It was like they were just out on the street during a normal, sunny day. Then, a second later, Burner saw the shuttle parked lengthwise with its doors open about fifty yards away. Gunfire erupted as muzzles flashed brightly from behind the shuttle. Burner crouched down and returned fire as Judy pulled him to her right.

“Come on!” she yelled. “Along the side of the building!”

They raced in a line, perpendicular to the shooters, wincing as bullets ricocheted above them. Burner knew they weren’t in a great spot. Bullets tended to tunnel through walls. It also would be nothing for one of them to deflect off the metal sides of the building and right into their soft flesh. But the alternative was worse. They’d be helpless out on the street.

They ran along the side of the building, as fast as they could go while crouched, heading toward the loading bay. There were no vehicles for them to hide behind, but there was a little recessed wall where the delivery trucks parked that afforded them some cover. They huddled there together, bullets still clanging all around them. Both of them were breathing heavily but not panicking. This is what their training had prepared them for.

Burner sketched a quick plan on his arm, using his finger as a marker. “If we can get clear past the shuttles here,” he yelled, trying to make himself heard over the din, “we can get into the residential streets and lose them.”

Two soldiers rounded the corner toward them. Judy fired the shotgun, sending one of them tumbling backward. Burner sent three bullets into the other soldier’s helmet, and he dropped.

“How are we going to do that?” Judy asked.

“I don’t know, but we’ve got to figure it out. They’ll be sending more around for us any second.”

Burner glanced around frantically. There were no shuttles they could commandeer. Nor was there anything mobile they could use for cover. They had about 10 seconds to do something before the other soldiers figured out where they were and started lobbing grenades in their direction.

Burner pointed to a spot in the distance. “There’s a drainage pipe that way where we hooked up the spigot,” he yelled. “See the long hedge there?”

Judy nodded.

“We run along that hedge, full speed. Stay low. It slopes down and will give us some cover. Into the pipe and keep moving. Ready?”

He leaped out from their cover and took off, making a mad dash across the street toward the long hedge. Bullets danced off the asphalt all around him. The sound of gunfire was overwhelming. He had no idea who was shooting at him, or from where, but there were a lot of them. His breath heaved raggedly as he ran, and he expected at every moment for a bullet to take him in the head or neck. There was no time to look back and see if Judy was behind him. Ahead was the white concrete of the sewer, and as the ground sloped downward, the hedge covered more and more of his body.

Somehow, he was still moving forward and there weren’t any bullet holes in him. Burner could see the yawning black opening of the drainage pipe growing larger and larger. Fewer bullets were landing near him now. Either they were beginning to lose sight of him, or the surrounding brush was soaking up some of their fire.

From behind, he heard Judy curse loudly. He considered it a good sign; she was still alive. Finally, Burner made it to the pipe, which had a trail of foul-smelling sludge trickling out. He’d never been happier to go wallowing in shit. Gasping, he squirmed into the pipe and felt relief flood him as he heard the sounds of another person coming in after him.

“Judy?” he yelled.

Her voice was warbling, unsteady. “I’m hit!”

“Can you keep moving?”

“I think so. Tagged me in the arm.”

Burner turned and saw her struggling forward. She knocked her arm against the side of the pipe and let out a small yelp of pain.

“We can’t stop,” Burner told her. “Not until we come out the other end.”

He could hear her sarcasm. “That’s just great!” she called back dryly.

Then they both went quiet as they tried to conserve energy to propel themselves through the pipe as fast as they could. Burner had no idea where it led. They could emerge into an underground sewer or a reservoir, or they could get sucked into a turbine at a waste water processing plant. He had no doubt the enemy was right now pulling up blueprints, mapping waterways, desperately trying to figure out where the pipe emptied. For a moment, Burner considered trying something risky: turning around and heading back the way they’d come. He quickly discarded that idea. All they’d need was to post one guard at the entrance of the pipe, and that would be that. There was only one way they could go, and that was forward.

As they traveled, the pipe began to widen on all sides. Soon, there was enough room for them to stand almost fully upright. Burner flicked on the flashlight from his belt and hopped back a few paces, shining it on Judy’s arm. He was no doctor, but it looked to him like a through and through. The bullet had missed the bone and any arteries. However, wading through human waste with an open wound wasn’t the best idea in the world. There was a serious chance of infection. They couldn’t worry about that now, though. Judy saw him examining her arm and gritted her teeth, pointing forward.

“I’ll be fine,” she told him. “I’ve got my belt wrapped around it. I don’t think I’ve lost that much blood.”

Judy had dropped her shotgun when she was hit. Not that she would have been able to fire it with one hand anyway. If they met with resistance, Burner was going to be the only one who could fight back. That was all right in his book. They had a much better shot of surviving anything that came their way from this point on.

The enemy had gotten the drop on them, not to mention having the high ground and vastly outnumbering troops. And still, they’d managed to slip away. It was like that sometimes. He’d been on the opposite end of missions like this before, sending an entire platoon after one slippery criminal who scurried his way out through a drainage ditch, or an air vent, or managed to hail down a shuttle-cab when no one was looking. But whoever was running the show wouldn’t be happy about it. This alone made Burner glad. He’d very much prefer to stay alive and continue to keep pissing off his enemies, if at all possible.

He squinted. It looked as if there was light at the end of the tunnel, but it just as easily could have been his mind playing tricks on him. They kept walking in silence for what he guessed was maybe another half a kilometer. The shining light was bright and obvious now. The end was approaching. Whether they’d emerge alone or staring down the barrel of twenty rifles remained to be seen.

“Stay quiet when we come out,” Burner whispered. He tried to soften his footfalls as well, afraid of the echoes reaching the ears of their potential assassins.

“You think they’ll be waiting for us?”

“I think they’ll be looking. But figuring out where a single pipe empties is probably more difficult than you’d think. Think about the kilometers of plumbing underground.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“So do I,” he retorted grimly.

After the darkness of the pipe, the light shining through the opening at the far end looked like it could have been its own sun. Burner and Judy slowed their pace as they approached, but the water had grown deeper and clearer. It was hard to walk without splashing.

Burner approached the lip of the pipe first and peered out.

There was no one around. It was just a sewage cavity somewhere in the lower bowels of the space station. Burner slipped down into the cold water, which only came up to his ankles, then he turned and helped Judy down. She clutched her arm at her side. Her face had gone pale, and Burner could see blood soaked through her shirt. He hoped she wasn’t going into shock.

“Where are we?” she asked, ignoring any pain she must be in.

Burner shook his head. “I don’t know. Probably somewhere in the facilities tunnels of the station.”

Burner started moving them through the water, heading for what looked like a ledge onto a walkway that disappeared into the darkness ahead.

Judy started to speak. “We’re stuck out here—”

“Shh.” Burner put a finger to his lips. He thought he’d heard the faint sounds of a hoverbike. Both of them strained, listening. The sound was growing louder.

He motioned for them to get down, and they lay flat against the side of the pool of cold water. The angle shielded them from view while giving them a good sightline into what they could only guess was a facilities area. The hover bike came trundling out from a service tunnel into the opening. Burner noticed a few bullet holes in its side as well, just to hammer home the fact that their arrival was no coincidence.

It slewed to a stop and two men got off. One of them was carrying a long rifle, and the other was holding some kind of scope. An infrared heat detector, maybe. Burner craned his neck and listened hard, trying to hear if any other shuttles or bikes were approaching. Or maybe a dropship. Or maybe an entire godsdammed division, he wondered.

He didn’t hear anything.

Just these two guys, who were both now looking into the scope device and pointing in Burner and Judy’s direction. It seemed as though the enemy had split up. Maybe they were searching different drainage pipes all throughout the station. It made tactical sense. The probability of finding the target would increase significantly if they did, but their numbers advantage would go way down. If the target had emerged into good cover, it could present a problem. The infrared device could mitigate that, but not for long.

“Looks like we’ve found our getaway,” Burner whispered quietly to Judy. She opened her mouth to reply, just as one of the guards took a few steps in their direction.

Burner put a hand up. “Wait there. Come when I signal, got it?”

After Judy motioned that she understood, Burner turned back to the ridge. Both men were headed in their direction now. One of them was leading the way, holding the scope ahead of him. The other one had his rifle at the ready, but he was also looking through the scope, which meant he probably saw nothing but a bunch of blurry colors. Maybe only a pair of bright red blobs, representing Burner and Judy.

Burner considered the easiest way to go about neutralizing the two and decided the simplest was probably the best. He checked that the magazine was snug in his weapon. Then, in one fluid motion, he rose up from his hiding spot and raked the two soldiers with gunfire until the gun clicked empty. He’d given them all he had, from a range of about twenty meters. Their armor looked like a decent grade, but no armor was that good. Burner reloaded and checked the bodies to be sure.

There wasn’t much left of them, so he waved Judy out from the creek and helped her up the sloping path toward the hover bike. He listened for any backup, but all he heard was the whir of fans and pumps echoing through the metal chamber. The hover bike hung silently, beckoning them to go on.

Within moments, they were straddling it, disappearing quietly down one of the tunnels.


28


Disused Apartment Complex, Space Station Pharbis, Nimrod Sector, Deadlands


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner returned from searching the abandoned garages of the apartment complex. The place had been boarded up for the most part, but since it was old and unkempt, it had been fairly easy for Judy and Burner to force their way inside. Of course, they weren’t the only ones who used the building. There were the rats and spiders and the odd addict here and there. Thankfully they’d been able to make their way into a closed-off section of the building other humans hadn’t managed to access and lock themselves away from the rest of the population.

Burner pulled the crude covering, a sheet of plastic, back over the door to disguise their new hideout.

He wandered into the apartment’s kitchen, where Judy was sitting at the table, the glow from her datapad shining onto her face. There were a few lanterns that still held a charge, something they’d found in one of the first garages they’d searched, but the overall aesthetic of the place was dim. Judy had completely encrypted her datapad to avoid anyone pinging their location.

“You find anything?” Judy asked, her eyes never trailing from the holoscreen.

“Nothing useful.” Burner ambled over to examine her arm, careful to not actually touch the wound with his dirty hands.

She’d been incredibly lucky, all things considered. The bleeding had stopped, and the color had returned to her face. Burner had found a bottle of whiskey in the hover bike and poured it over the arm to disinfect the wound. Judy had gritted her teeth and tapped her foot, par for the course as far as the woman was concerned. She had a higher tolerance for pain than most soldiers he knew.

She likely needed stitches, but duct tape would have to do the job for now. At any rate, she was no longer in mortal danger. There was always still the chance of infection, and Burner was monitoring her to make sure her blood pressure didn’t dip below safe levels. The very fact that she was upright and working was a small miracle.

“It feels all right,” Judy told him, flexing her arm softly as Burner inspected it. “And by that, I mean it hurts like hell. But it's a pain I can tolerate.”

He shook his head gently, letting the arm go. “Just as your eye starts to heal, your arm gets shot up,” Burner joked. “You just can’t seem to catch a break, huh?”

She sighed. “I know, right? Maybe next time one of the bullets will wing you for a change.”

Burner gave her a funny look, and she seemed to realize what she’d said. “Sorry. You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know what you meant.”

“You’ve saved my ass about a hundred times by now...” Her voice trailed off.

Burner sat down next to her. He looked glumly around at the dour surroundings. “I know this place sucks. I’ll try and have us out of here by tomorrow and figure out the next steps.”

“I don’t know about that, Burner. They’re going to be combing the streets, looking for us. Staying here might be our best bet.”

Burner still wasn’t sure about that. He grunted.

“You searched the hover bike?”

“Yeah, I went over every bit of it. Disabled all electronics, looked for any kind of trackers or beacons. There was a satellite tracker that I reduced to its component pieces. If they’re going to find us, they’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“You sure there’s no place they could have hidden something? The engine, maybe?”

Burner shook his head. “No person alive can hide something from me in a vehicle. I’ve seen everything before. Every trick you can imagine. And these guys would have no reason to hide anything, anyway. Not like they were expecting it to get stolen.”

“All right, I believe you.” Judy looked at him like she had something more to say.

“What is it?” he pressed.

“I was going to tell you. I figured it out at the exact moment the perimeter alarms when off and the bad guys came bursting through the windows.”

Burner tilted his head. “Figured what out?”

Judy’s eyes flashed in the dim lantern light. “The final server. I have to be there. On site. It’s the only way to take the whole thing down.”

“Think you can manage that?” Burner asked, motioning toward her injury.

“Not much of a choice. The server room will be somewhere else. Somewhere on Dobulla, but apart from the main location. That’s where their operation began, and it only makes sense that it’s where the critical node of the data ring is.”

“That still doesn’t change the fact that you’re injured.”

“Well, unless you can learn how to hack a server in the next twenty-four hours or so, I’m going to have to be the one to do it. I have to be at ground zero when it goes down. Taking down the servers one by one, like weeds that keep growing back. If I’m not there, there’ll be no way to wipe them out completely.”

“And what will I be doing?” Burner asked. “Backing you up?”

“No.” Judy sat back. “We’ll be on our own for this one, Burner. I’ve got enough data nodes collected now to be able to piece together where the head of this operation is located. Once we figure out where he is, you’re going to have to go in there and take him out.”

Burner chuckled morbidly to himself. “They just sent a hit squad after us. I’m supposed to just break in there and take them all out? Who knows how many men they’ll have, or what kind of security I’ll be up against.”

“I don’t know,” Judy admitted. “We’ll have to come up with some kind of plan. That’s the best I can do. I’m not exactly working with a huge amount of resources here.”

Burner put a hand to his forehead. “We need help on this one,” he muttered. “I don’t know how we’re going to be able to pull this off, just the two of us.”

“Sara’s carrying out her duties.” Judy’s voice had the slight hint of sarcasm. “Would be nice if she was able to cut out and get back in touch with us. But it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to count on her for the time being.”

Judy turned her gaze back to her datapad. “I’m close to figuring out where the boss of the operation is located. I’ve got access to the data nodes the group uses. It will only be a matter of time before I link them together to find them.”

Burner got up and went over to the sink and wondered when anyone had been in here last. The basin was supported by a rotting cabinet, and the material was chipping away in places.

His thoughts wandered back to the impending problem. Trying to take down a fortified location by himself was likely suicide, but if he was going to attempt it, he would at least plan it out correctly. For one thing, he’d need weapons, probably a lot more than the submachine gun and pistol he had on hand. He’d need maps of the compound. He’d have to study the movements of the guards, figure out the weak points of entry, and get inside without being seen. And this would be coming while the place would likely be on high alert, ready for him. Even if Sara was here with a whole other team of Union operatives, the odds still wouldn’t have been very good.

But he didn’t tell Judy any of this. She’d been working frantically even through her injury, and although Burner wanted to tell her to take a rest, he had the feeling she might have needed to do this. The case had become an obsession for her, and with good reason; these guys had kidnapped her and taken her memories. Plus, her work with the computers was vital, tracking the data nodes and piecing together the traffickers’ movements one painstaking step at time. Her tech skills had really grown from what Burner remembered during their time at the Union. But all of it would be for nothing if they rushed into this thing headlong and were killed.

And then there was the matter of how much the enemy knew about them already.

“How do you think they found us?” Burner asked. “Could they have tracked us from the Loreilla?”

Judy raised her gaze to look at him, her arm pressed against her chest in a sling stained with blood. Her eyes were bleary and tired, her hair mussed and falling everywhere. She needed sleep; both of them did.

“It’s possible,” Judy said, blinking rapidly as she continued to key information into the datapad. “But I think it’s more likely I screwed up. They probably had some level of security in their system that alerted them to the virus I sent. I figured my program was benign enough that it wouldn’t trip any alarms. I guess I was wrong. It means their cybersecurity is better than I expected. They made sure all the bases were covered.”

“Great. That doesn’t bode well for my chances of infiltrating the hideout.”

“There’s always a way in, Burner.”

He grunted, sounding more irritated than he meant to. Burner trudged through to one of the bedrooms and sat down on a ratty mattress. He was thinking about where he was going to get weapons from. There were old Union buddies he could ask, people he trusted. But contacting the Union didn’t seem like the best idea at this particular juncture. It was possible they had people watching his contacts or had set up another malicious bit of code like the one that had tipped off the enemy to their location. The other, more obvious way was to go buy some. There was no shortage of weapons stores on Pharbis, but most of them specialized in pistols and shotguns. A big purchase of heavier firepower would be sure to raise red flags with the authorities. But at this point, they might just have to roll with it. The credits could always be repaid later. And he was sure he could find some gung-ho gunsmith who wouldn’t mind letting Burner take a look at his special inventory he kept hidden out back.

Burner sat with his back against the wall, his eyes half-shut, trying to reach his practiced meditative state. It wasn’t easy, considering what had happened the last twenty-four hours. His mind kept flashing. Wandering. He didn’t know if they were safe here, or how long they would stay. Instead of finding Nirvana, he became sleepy. His eyes closed fully, and he sank down on the mattress. The next thing he knew, Judy was shouting his name and he came awake with a start. He scrambled up off the mattress and stumbled out into the living area, expecting the worst. Instead he found Judy in front of her datapad, a triumphant smile on her face.

Burner rubbed his eyes blearily. “What is it?”

Judy motioned to the datapad. “I did it, Burner. I was finally able to track the nodes to a specific server. All the nodes converge at one point. It’s the bad guys’ hideout, for sure. No other place it could be.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s a compound located on the outskirts of the Goya District.”

Burner’s eyes widened. “A compound?”

“Mmm hmm.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Judy shook her head. “Afraid not, Burner. Take a look.” She indicated the holoscreen in front of her.

He took a seat next to her and examined the datapad. The picture wasn’t very clear, almost blurry. It indeed showed what looked like a compound, perched on the ridge of a cliff. Burner could see a five-meter concrete wall circling the entire structure, as well as guard towers and parapets surrounding the property. He’d been expecting an office, maybe a bunker somewhere. Not a freaking compound. That spoke to another level of challenges.

That’s what you want me to break into?” asked Burner, incredulous. “How the hell did these guys build a compound on a planet like Dobulla anyway?”

“I guess the human trafficking business is more lucrative than we thought, in terms of money and local civic influence.”

Burner ran his hand over the screen. “Have you got the blueprints for this place?”

Judy’s fingers raced over the keys. “I’m working on the blueprints now.”

“That’s not all,” Judy continued, excitement in her voice. “I think I’ve got a lead on the guy in charge of the whole thing.”

Burner leaned in closer. “Let me see.”

She typed a few more lines then turned the datapad to him. “Rolf Hardy. He’s had his fingers all over the transactions I found on the servers. He’s rich and highly trained, plus he spent time in the military. According to all sources, he’s a cold, clinical psychopath. Not the kind of enemy you want to have.”

Burner studied the picture. Hardy had buzzed hair and dead, gray eyes with no expression on his face whatsoever. Burner couldn’t tell if he was looking at an official picture or a mugshot. The only distinguishing feature about him was a scar on his upper lip that pulled the skin, making him seem like he was looking into the camera with contempt.

“A remorseless, trained killer.” Burner put a hand through his hair. “Interesting. Sounds kind of like me.”

“You’re not remorseless,” Judy told him. “Not like this guy.”

Burner shrugged. “Maybe not. But if he has no qualms about trafficking women and taking their memories, I can’t imagine what he does to his enemies.”

“So we’re going to need a way to get planet-side,” Judy ventured.

“Good point. Think you can handle that?”

Judy smiled. “I’ll figure out a way that doesn’t require ID. One of the cheaper services will likely let us do that. Something where we buy a ticket just before boarding.”

Burner nodded. “Good thinking. We’ll have to acquire weapons when we get there too. Don’t want to have to carry them. I’ll look into that.”

Burner also instructed Judy to give him everything she’d dug up on the compound in Dobulla and this Hardy character. They were seriously lacking materials, but she was able to bring up some projections of maps and floor plans on her datapad, which Burner was able to look over. He studied the plans as best he could, trying to come up with a picture in his head: points of ingress and egress, weak spots, places where someone could climb over the wall and other places where it would be impossible to scale.

There were few positives. The only one Burner could find that jumped right out at him was the fact that it wasn’t that big. Around 10,000 square meters, which was still pretty damn big, all things considered. But it wasn’t especially roomy if they were housing soldiers and other people on the premises. He wondered if there was an underground barracks, or if additions had been built since the original floor plans were made

The negatives were many. It had been built in a defensive position on a hill. It had been constructed to withstand waves of attackers, coming at it from all angles. Infiltration by subterfuge would be difficult. It wasn’t like there’d be a lobby or front desk he could talk his way into. There would almost certainly be an alarm system in place. It would likely be swarming with guards, all of whom by now had probably received the memo about Burner and knew what he looked like. A disguise might possibly help, like a guard uniform, but he still had to obtain one and make sure it all looked legitimate. The leader of the enemy seemed to be a skilled tactician with a glut of resources at his disposal.

The more Burner looked over the plans and maps, the more discouraged he became. To go in by himself would be a suicide mission. It was as simple as that. To succeed, they’d need extensive planning. Weeks of it. They’d have to case the area and figure out guard movements and a hundred other things. It was impossible. They needed another person, someone with tactical experience, who knew what they were doing and could help them pull this off.

Sara would be the obvious choice, but she was incommunicado. Burner didn’t know who else they were going to be able to find on such short notice.

He told Judy to go upstairs and get some rest, that in the morning they’d find a new hideout and figure out what they were going to do. She agreed and left him alone in the kitchen.

Burner turned his attention back to the floor plans.


29


Carhardt Building, Rochet District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

“So my golf ball hits off the old lady’s head and into the water. Then she turns to me with this look of utter surprise on her face and all I could say was, ‘I think I’m gonna take a mulligan on this one!’”

The senior vice president of the company brayed with laughter and Sara joined him. He was ostensibly conducting a job interview, but he’d already moved to informally take a seat next to her. Sara could understand why. She was wearing a sheer black dress, high heels, a blouse that was low cut to provide ample view of her cleavage. Her lips were red and her blonde hair was teased out, flowing down past her shoulders.

The senior vice president, whose name was Alan, put a hand on her knee. She fought the urge to elbow him in the face and instead grinned stupidly with her best glassy eyed look.

“You know, you should come out golfing with us sometime. The firm actually owns part of the best golf course in lower Dobulla. This place is beautiful—eighteen holes, full amenities, amazing food. We could have one hell of a time.”

The offer was not particularly tempting. Alan was over-confident and lecherous. He had a bit of muscle that was fast turning to pudge. She would have rather gone for a double root canal than spend a day golfing with this moron.

Sara flashed him her brightest smile, displaying her sparkling white teeth. “That sounds amazing. I can hardly wait. But don’t I have to get the job first?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. You have a decade of secretarial experience. Hiring you is a no-brainer. Easiest decision I made all day. What more could I ask for?”

Sara giggled. She’d already managed to get hired after doing nothing but giggling at his jokes and flirting with him the entire time she’d been there. It had been pretty easy so far. Not like infiltrating a smuggling ring, or taking down armed guards, or anything like that. She turned her gaze to the shelf on Alan’s wall, where a line of liquor bottles rested in a cabinet behind glass. Sara leaned forward and squinted her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she started, staring at the cabinet. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but...is that a bottle of Dobulla eighteen-year reserve sitting up there?”

Alan raised his eyebrows. “The lady knows her scotch! I’m impressed. You’re an aficionado?”

She shrugged, smiling. “I dabble sometimes.”

He laughed. “I wouldn’t have guessed it! Broads like you, they usually go for those fruity drinks, you know? Appletinis, Pina coladas, that sort of thing. I like a woman who can appreciate the finer liquors.”

I’d appreciate wringing your fat neck, Sara thought, though she was practiced enough not to let any of this animosity show on her face. How about you quit blabbering and go grab the damn bottle so we can get this over with?

Alan rose from his chair and made his way over to the cabinet. She could tell from his gait that he was excited.

“A scotch as fine as this is worthless when it’s just sitting on a shelf,” he told her, grinning. “We should have a drink.”

“Oh no!” Sara put up a hand. “That’s so expensive. I couldn’t.”

“Nonsense.” Alan had already cracked the seal and was opening the bottle. He poured two glasses and handed one to Sara. “We should celebrate. I’m offering you the job, obviously. No sense in stretching the search out longer than it has to be. I have to run it by Upstairs first, but that’s just a formality. It’s always such a nightmare dealing with those broads in HR. But don’t worry about it. You’re as good as hired.”

“Wow.” Sara beamed. “Thank you!”

She sprang forward and encased Alan in a bear hug, making sure to slip the sedative she’d been palming into his drink while he was preoccupied looking down her shirt. They clinked glasses and drank. Alan tilted his back and poured a long swig of barbiturate-laced scotch down his gullet. Sara kept him engaged in small talk for another minute or so, before he started to sway back and forth.

“Huh,” Alan started, rubbing his head. “Drink hit me a little harder than I was expecting. Guess I didn’t eat enough today.”

“Maybe you should sit down,” Sara cooed, gently guiding him over to the chair behind his desk. “Your face looks a bit pale. Feeling all right?”

“I’m just...I dunno. I’ve got the room spinning all of a sudden. Let me just...get my...uh...what do you call it...”

His words trailed off into gibberish. Another moment and he was slumped over on his desk, out cold. Sara got up and locked the door.

“Fucking finally,” she muttered to herself. She started dragging Alan over to the side of the room, where he’d be out of sight of anyone passing by the door. “If I have to hear....one more...godsdammed stupid golf story...I’m going to lose my shit!”

She grunted with effort, letting go of Alan, who would be sleeping like a baby for the next several hours. Hank’s voice chirped in her ear.

“Since I can hear you talking to yourself, I assume you’ve neutralized Mr. Benedict?”

“He’s nestled warmly in the arms of Nod,” she replied. “I’m booting up his computer now.”

Alan’s computer was on his desk, the keyboard covered with a mess of objects. Evidently, Mr. Benedict wasn’t especially tech-minded. That would probably make things easier for her. Sara brushed the trash aside with a huff and turned on the computer. She had no idea when someone would come looking for Alan, so she needed to work quickly.

She pressed her earpiece. “All right, Hank. I’m at the home screen.”

“Log in as an administrator and open up the directory files. I should be able to brute force the password on this console fairly quickly. This guy doesn’t strike me as the kind to encrypt his data.”

She worked as quickly as she could, following Hank’s instructions, listening to him rattle off the dense, technical computer jargon. Hank’s talent in computers was really second to none. He was almost too good sometimes. Other parts of his personality tended to suffer, as he was always especially paranoid about securing his data and making sure he had every single one of Sara’s movements tracked and accounted for. On a mission like this, that could be a lifesaver, but most of the time it was just annoying.

True to form, Hank got the job done. Within seconds, he had cracked Alan’s password and Sara had full access to his system.

“Search for their payroll documents,” Hank instructed her. “See if we can find some of the payments they’ve made in the last six months. You know, debits and credits, that sort of thing.”

Sara ran a search, scrolling through pages and pages of data, looking for Alan’s business ledgers. Footsteps would come and go outside the door, and every time she braced for someone to knock, but so far no one had.

“I found the employee payroll,” Sara told him, scrolling through the long list of names and numbers. “But I don’t have access to their clients on the outside. They probably didn’t trust this schmuck enough to give it to him.”

“Hmm.” She could almost hear Hank thinking, tapping his stylus against the side of his head. “You’re going to have to find another computer. Probably the IT guy’s. They’ll have access to everything. Then you’ll need to download the info onto your datastick.”

Sara groaned. “Hank, I was supposed to be in and out of here. There’re armed guards walking all over the place. I can’t just go traipsing around on this floor by myself. Not unless you want me to get carried out of here in a body bag.”

“Well, you could always abort the mission. We thought Benedict’s computer would have what we needed, but I guess not. You’ll likely have to find a workstation with more privileges.”

“I’m not going to abort,” she hissed, indignant now. “I’m already here. Just be ready to instruct me once I find this other damn computer.” She got up and headed for the door.

“Don’t worry, love. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just up here orbiting Dobulla. High above the world, as it were.”

She groaned again. Glancing back at the room, she saw that Alan Benedict’s shoe was sticking out from beneath his desk. She headed back, nudged it under out of sight, and then slipped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. They’d given her a green visitor’s sticker to wear. She’d managed to just stick it on her purse, telling them she didn’t want the adhesive to ruin her expensive dress. Inside her purse was her gear: ropes and climbing equipment, guns, knives. She’d been hoping she wouldn’t have to use any of them today. Still, she’d been given strict orders by the doormen downstairs that she was not to go anywhere in the building unchaperoned. They were paranoid, and with good reason. There was a lot of illegal, shady stuff going on in these offices.

One of the guards shuffled past her, carrying a semi-automatic rifle. She stood up straight and walked with a purpose, trying to pretend like she belonged. The guard nodded to her and kept going. She breathed a sigh of relief and rounded the corner.

She glanced around to make sure she was out of earshot of anyone else. “Can you give me some directions?” she whispered under her breath.

“Keep going straight,” Hank told her. “Ahead of you, the server room is at the end of the hall, to your right. I would imagine the IT room is probably nearby. One of those computers should have the access you need.”

Sara clopped confidently down the hallway in her heels. A pair of guards came toward her, and one of them stared her down, furrowing his brow, like he was trying to place who she was. Sara smiled at him and quickly ducked into the ladies’ bathroom. She went into the stall for a few minutes and waited, then, when she was sure they weren’t following her, she poked her head back out. The guards were gone.

“You really should hurry up,” Hank chirped at her. “No time to powder your nose.”

She ignored him and pressed onward. The end of the hallway turned into a dead end, with a thick wooden door straight ahead and another door to her right. She pressed her ear to the door in front of her and listened. Inside, she could hear the loud whir of the servers, but it was locked when she tried it. Just then, the door to her right opened and a large, portly man with a thick beard and glasses came out and looked at her, puzzled.

“Uh, can I help you?” he asked.

Sara turned to him and smiled, the same bright smile she’d given Alan that had so disarmed him. But it didn’t seem to be working as well on this guy. He looked annoyed, like she was wasting his time.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I thought this was the IT room.”

The guy looked at her strangely. “No, this is the IT room.” He pointed to where he’d just come from. “That’s the server room. Can I help you with something?”

“Well, I thought that should be obvious. I’m having problems with my datapad.”

The guy rolled his eyes and put his hand to his head, like the strain of the conversation was wearing greatly on him.

“If you’re having computer trouble, you’re supposed to send a ticket. You know, through the system? You’re not supposed to come down here. We don’t want people coming and going all day, interrupting us. Like you’re doing now.”

Sara pretended to be overcome with embarrassment. “Oh no! I’m new here...I didn’t know.” She pulled her datapad from her back pocket. “Please, can you just take a look anyway? I’m already here.”

The guy sighed again. “All right. Come inside.”

He led her back inside the room he’d just come out of. It was small and filled with computers. There was another, similar looking man with a beard who was typing away at a keyboard. He looked up at Sara as she came in and he smiled, seeming surprised.

“I didn’t know you were bringing company,” he snickered. The other guy ignored him.

“Okay, what’s the problem?”

Sara, annoyed, blew some of the white sedative powder into his face. He staggered forward, nearly toppling over into one of the desks, and she helped him gently along to the floor. The guy was a jerk, sure, but no reason to have him crack his head open on something on his way down. His partner’s mouth gaped open and he stared at the scene like he couldn’t process what was happening. “What’s going on?”

Sara went over to him. “Shh,” she whispered, blowing more of the powder into his face as well. He slumped back in his chair, mouth open. Sara marched back to the door and locked it.

“Hank? You still there? I had to take care of a couple computer technicians in here. Nothing too terrible, just a slight distraction.”

“I’m here. For what was supposed to be a quiet job, you’re certainly ‘taking care’ of a lot of people, it seems.”

“They all decided to just take a nap rather suddenly. I’ve got the room to myself now, so we can get on with this, if you’re ready.”

Hank was smiling when he replied. She could tell from his tone. “I’m sitting comfortably at my desk, if you must know. You at a terminal?”

She sat down and woke up a console. The screen gently flickered on and Sara hunched over the keyboard, listening for the instructions through her comm. Hank ran her through much of the same steps as she’d done in Alan’s office, and soon she had infiltrated the building’s directory. The process was fairly basic, and Sara could probably have done it herself if she needed to, but she figured she may as well have Hank tell her exactly what to do so that there were no hiccups.

“Okay,” Hank said. “Now I’m going to have you input a program that will give you complete access to all of their back-end data in that office. Once you have access to that, it should be easy to go through the system and find the information that we need.”

“Roger.”

She waited patiently, tapping on the keys. There were muffled noises coming in from her comm, like Hank was fidgeting about over something. She tapped her ear. “Hank? You still with me, buddy? What’s the next step? I don’t have all day here.”

“Input the program like I said.”

Sara furrowed her brow. Something about Hank’s tone was wrong. It had gone stiff. “What’s wrong?”

“Now’s not the right time.”

“Are you kidding me? What the hell is going on? Did I trip a wire or something? Set off an alarm? I need to know what’s happening, Hank!”

She heard him sigh in exasperation on the other end. “No, it’s not that. You’re fine.”

“Then what?”

He sighed again. “When you contacted me earlier, I put a tracker on you and your friends. To keep tabs on your movements. I didn’t tell you because it wasn’t relevant at the time. But now it might be.”

“You got an alert? Is it Burner and Judy?”

Hank sighed once more, for the trifecta. “Yes. But for now, just carry on with your mission. You know the drill. Focus on one thing at a time. I’ll give you the details when you’re out of there.”

“Hank.” Her voice was firm. “I’m not kidding.”

“All right. I downloaded a program onto the computers you were using at the warehouse and I’ve been using them to monitor things. I can tell when the computer systems have been damaged by watching the power supply. And it looks like they have been.”

“What are you saying? Their computers have been destroyed?”

“It seems so. Which means it’s very likely their location has been compromised.”

Sara cursed. Maybe she shouldn’t have abandoned her team after all.

“You’ve still got to focus on the task at hand,” Hank reminded her.

“I know that,” she shot back. “I need you to track them. Find out where they’re heading. I can finish up here on my own.”

“I’ll try,” Hank muttered distractedly, as though he was already typing on another console. “But it might be difficult, seeing as the computer systems have been compromised.”

“Just figure it out, Hank. Let me get this done and I’ll contact you once I’m clear. Over and out.”

She clicked off her comm, her stomach doing somersaults. Burner and Judy could be dead and it would be her fault. The thought of it made it almost impossible to concentrate on the job at hand. She would get it done as fast as she could and then go find her friends. With any luck Hank would have located them by then. If they were still alive.


30


Carhardt Building, Rochet District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Sara had been letting Hank guide her through the computers, but she’d been around the block enough times now to know how to do it mostly by herself. She input a command that would give her access to the company’s back-end, and once she had made her way into their system, she set up a command to begin searching through it, downloading any information that seemed relevant onto her datapad. Things were proceeding relatively smoothly, but the current mission seemed pointless when she thought about Burner and Judy in danger.

She kept trawling through the computer systems in the dank little IT room. Aside from the two snoring techs, it was almost like she was supposed to be there. Still, she had to work quickly. Another five minutes and she’d have all the data she needed. Her thoughts raced, trying to figure out what could have happened to Burner and Judy. How could the enemy have found their hideout? They’d always been so careful. It wasn’t like them to make a slip up.

Maybe it had been something she’d done. Some trace she’d left that had led the enemy back to them. Maybe she’d been tailed when she left the warehouse, despite her best efforts.

Stop it, she told herself. There’s nothing you can do from here right now.

She looked back at the computer. The program had just about finished, with most of the relevant information being uploaded to her datapad. Soon she would have all the data she would need. Finally, the program finished scouring. Sara gathered her datapad and stood up, ignoring the loud snores from the two incapacitated IT workers sprawled beside her.

Suddenly, an alarm began to blare. She jumped, caught off guard. There was a loud crackling sound and an announcement came ringing out over the building’s PA system.

Attention! Attention! Possible security breach in the building. Repeat, possible security breach in the building. Suspect is a blonde woman in a black dress, late twenties to early thirties. Considered armed and extremely dangerous. Secure yourself in your offices and workspaces while security performs a sweep of the building. Do not panic! Thank you.

She groaned. So much for the stealth approach. Although she did feel a tinge of pride that she was considered “extremely dangerous.”

Sara peeked her head out the door, trying to ignore the siren screaming through the halls. People were running, and workers barricaded themselves in their offices. She could hear activity in the hallway next to her, which sounded like guards mobilizing. She thought she’d done a good job of hiding Alan’s body, but apparently someone must have found him napping. She should have dumped his ass out the window instead.

The elevators were a no go. It wasn’t like she could just pop down to the lobby and stroll out the front doors. They probably had people watching the stairs, so that was out too. Frozen for a second, she considered what to do. Finally, Sara left the IT room and ducked into the first office she could find where the door wasn’t locked. She could hear guards just a few doors away, going from office to office and room to room, searching for her. She softly shut the door behind her and put her back against the wall.

Inside the office was a woman typing at her computer. She looked up at Sara, and when she comprehended what she was seeing, her mouth dropped open, almost comically.

“Oh no,” the woman began. “You’re the one they’re after. Stay back!”

Sara ignored her, despite her display of deductive skills. She was more interested in the window, which was big and bright and gave a stunning view of the grassy park fifteen stories below. Sara hurried over to it and tugged.

“Does this open?” she asked.

The woman put her hands over her face, as if not being able to see Sara would make her go away. She spoke through her fingers. “No, I don’t think so. You can’t open them.”

“That figures,” she muttered dryly. She tugged again. The window didn’t budge. “Nothing around here is easy, is it?”

After another moment of thought, Sara sighed, then she reached into her purse and pulled out a glass cutter. It had a circular blade that was diamond-tipped and would slice through even this industrial office glass without a problem. She fired it up and began to cut a large hole in the window, turning her face to the floor to avoid the sparks and glass from flying into her eyes. A minute later, she popped the piece of glass out and took her rappelling gear from her purse. At that same moment, the door to the office slammed open and armed guards began piling inside.

“Don’t move!” one of them yelled. The lady screamed and dove under her desk. Sara did some fast calculations in her head. She had a better chance of survival going out the window than being cut to pieces by a hail of bullets.

Typically, Sara would have liked a few more seconds to make sure her ropes were secure, and that the rig wouldn’t come loose and send her tumbling fifteen stories to her demise. But, seeing as how she had about five rifles pointed at her, she didn’t exactly have time to check. She jumped out the window and slid down the rope that had a worrying amount of slack. The wind blew through her hair as she fell, the ground rushing up to meet her.

There was no way for her to control where she landed. Fortunately, she was in luck; there was an overhang about five stories up from the ground. The rope went taut enough that she could slow her fall, but it singed her hands as she tried to stop her momentum and slide down. She unhooked the rope and fell about five meters onto the overhang, then she landed flat on her ass.

The bone on concrete landing jolted her, jarred her neck muscles, and made her teeth smash together. She braced herself for a few moments of pain and for her heartbeat to catch up to her. After a few seconds, she caught her breath and got up stiffly, her pride hurt more than anything else. She blamed the adrenaline. She knew a landing like that was going to leave her suffering for a few days.

Peering over the ledge of the building, she saw a mess of awnings, scaffolding, and ledges. Her spirits lifted. Finally, something was going right for her today. With a little maneuvering, Sara was easily able to parkour her way down, jump from ledge to ledge, slide down pipes, and finally leap out onto the street, where she took off running to get clear of the area.

Her mind released from the mission, she needed to contact Hank. She needed to find out where her friends were before it was too late.

Turning the corner and simultaneously slowing to a walk to blend in, she watched a few dark shuttles go speeding by. She discreetly slipped into an alleyway while they passed. She wasn’t sure if it was security from the building trying to hunt her down, but her mind was so preoccupied with Burner and Judy that she could barely focus. There was a clothing store. She ducked in, pretending to browse for a few minutes, before purchasing a bulky sweater and sweatpants along with a dark knit cap. She paid for the items and put them on over her dress, then she continued on her way, looking for a shuttle to steal. She’d taken public transit to get to the job, assuming a dramatic getaway would be unnecessary. So much for having a plan.

She thumbed her comm. “Hank, tell me you’ve got good news for me.”

Hank’s voice came back strained and high. “Don’t cut off communications like that again.”

“They set off the alarm. I almost got popped trying to get out of the building. I had to jump out the godsdamn window on the 15th floor.”

“Ouch. That’s a high fall. Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine now. I’m wandering the streets trying to find a shuttle so I can get the hell out of here. What’s the situation with Burner? Were you able to track them?”

“I’m trying,” Hank began. “The fact that their computers were likely destroyed in the assault is making it difficult.”

“Well keep trying,” Sara instructed. “I need a location as soon as possible. Anything you can scrounge up. Give me a ten-block radius or address. Something.”

Across the street from Sara was a large parking lot. There was no attendant in sight and a lack of pedestrians wandering through it. She crossed the street into the parking lot and took a look around. The shuttles were jammed tight next to one another, commuters who had paid for spots while they worked in the city. In the middle of the row she spotted a boxy white delivery shuttle, wedged in between a bevy of personal vehicles.

Sara didn’t want to steal some poor lady’s ride if she didn’t have to and she figured the business that owned the delivery shuttle was likely insured against theft. She didn’t have her tools with her, having lost them in the escape, but scouring the ground she was quickly able to find a piece of bent wire, which was all she needed. She started working, jimmying open the lock, with Hank still in her ear. She could hear him babbling to himself as he worked, the faint echo of his keyboard clicking in the background. Suddenly, his attention seemed to switch focus.

“I have a question for you,” he announced.

Sara wiggled the bit of wire in the keyhole and heard a satisfying chunk as the lock popped free. She yanked the door open and slipped inside.

“You don’t have to preface your questions,” she told him, already working on hotwiring the shuttle’s ignition. “You can just ask them.”

“Alright, then. Did you have any protocol in place to contact Burner in case of something like this? A backup?”

“No,” she replied. “We assumed that the compromised party would have gone underground. And the first thing Burner would do is ditch the old comms. Would be way too easy for the enemy to trace if one of us got captured.”

“So you had no contingency plan to contact Burner in case of emergency?”

“I was leaving,” she snapped, frustrated. “Walking out on them. Establishing a means to get back in touch beyond the usual channels wasn’t the first thing on my mind, Hank.”

“Okay, no need to get snippy. You’re right that not having a way to get in touch with them was probably the right move. Let me think for a moment. Actually, while you were in the midst of justifying your poor decision making, I remembered something.”

Sara grunted, trying to bring the shuttle’s engine to life, without success. “Did you now?”

“Yes, as I mentioned, I deployed that tracer to your local network at the safehouse. Something I do as a matter of course, for precaution’s sake. Do you think Burner and Judy were able to take their datapads with them?”

“I have no idea, Hank.” Sara twisted two wires together and heard the satisfying sound of the delivery shuttle’s engine roar. She checked her surroundings then gunned the motor a few times and began to lift off into the air. “Probably? I’d say it’s a decent bet at least one of them was able to take it with them. If they’re even still alive.”

“I think if I make some tweaks to my patch that I should be able to track their datapads. Yes, actually thinking about it now, I’m fairly confident that will work if given the correct parameters. If I can do that it will lead me right to them.”

She liked the confidence in Hank's voice. “You could do that?”

“I see no reason why it shouldn’t work. And it’s the best chance we have right now.”

“But Hank,” she started. “If you can track them, can’t the bad guys?”

“No. It’s my own proprietary system I loaded up before they went on the run.”

Hank continued to mutter to himself as he worked. His expletives rarely became too graphic, but he was always talking to himself, even when he was alone. She knew it was just his way of doing things. Typically, he would be on the verge of giving up on a problem when the solution would suddenly come to him.

Sara checked her mirrors, wary of any patrols still out searching for her. The only thing she saw was normal drivers and people walking casually on the sidewalks below. She was itching to go find Burner and Judy and help them.

“You know,” Sara started. “I didn’t realize you had a tracer on us this whole time.” She knew that Hank was more focused when he was talking to her. Something about doing two things at once seemed to spark something in his brain, giving him more ideas. “I feel strangely violated,” she continued. “If I’d known you were spying on me, I might have chosen my words a little bit differently.”

“Not as violated as Burner must feel,” Hank returned. She could hear the smirk in his voice. “From what I’ve read in his file, he strikes me as a man who values his privacy.”

“About that, you’d be correct,” she replied. “He’ll probably kick your ass when he finds out. Assuming he’s still alive.”

“I hope not. That would be rather ungrateful of him considering all the effort I’m putting into saving his backside.”

She cruised down the street, drumming her hands nervously on the shuttle throttle.

“I think I’ve got something.” Hank’s voice had a titter of excitement to it now. “I’ve got a lock on their location. I’m certain it’s them, it’s got to be. I’ll send the coordinates over to you. They’re by the spaceport. Not sure where exactly, but it looks to be a populated area.”

“They’re alive?”

“I can’t say for sure, but at least one of their datapads just pinged. Unless the enemy has their datapads, it’s likely they are still alive, yes.”

“I’m heading over there right now.”

“Stay in touch. I don’t know what kind of trouble your friends have got into, but it seems like things have gotten really dangerous. Don’t get yourself killed out there.”

“I won’t. I’ll be in contact. Thanks again.”

Sara reversed course and sped off in the direction of the spaceport.


31


Over Easy Diner, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

“So, what do you want for your last meal?” Judy asked, thumbing through the choices on the order pad. “I’m thinking a nice omelet. Or maybe steak and eggs. I’m in a breakfast kind of mood.” They had selected the booth furthest from anyone else, right at the back, and far from the door and counter. They knew they would have to talk out the final details and sought out as much privacy as they could, given the environment.

Burner shook his head. “Don’t talk like that. We’re not done yet.”

Judy flashed him a look of skepticism. “I’m just being realistic, that’s all. Humor and all that. It helps me focus.” Her right arm was in a sling and she swiped the menu pad with her left hand. Burner had ordered a mug of coffee and was gulping it down like it was due to be rationed. The waitress regarded him with a raised eyebrow before moving off. Burner guessed she had to deal with stranger things on a daily basis.

It had been an arduous trip down to the planet. Pharbis to Dobulla transits were regular enough, but finding a shuttle service that wouldn’t demand ID and traceable credit transfers had meant they needed to take one of the slower shuttles. Slower and with fewer facilities. In fact, between the uncomfortably hard metal seats and smell from the cabin toilets coupled with some of the station’s least desirable passengers, it had been an ordeal even for seasoned operatives. Burner had joked they were getting soft.

Burner placed his mug down on the table for a moment. “Well, a defeatist attitude is not going to help us. You know that. How’s the arm?”

Judy glanced down at her sling. She didn’t seem to be in much pain, but the arm itself would be fairly useless until it healed. It wasn’t exactly an injury you wanted to have when you were about to go waltzing into enemy territory. Although, he supposed, it was better than a broken leg.

“Not too bad. Mostly just annoying. Having to type things out with only one hand is weird.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t get you to a hospital,” Burner told her. “Hopefully there won’t be any long-term damage. Doesn’t look likely to me. Not that I’m any kind of medic.”

“You know we couldn’t do that, Burner. Too conspicuous. Who knows what kind of monitoring system the bad guys have in the hospitals around here? Plus, if they’ve been able to bribe the people working at women’s shelters, then doctors would be easy.”

“I guess you’re right.” He took another large swig of coffee and then allowed the passing waitress to top it off for him.

Judy shook her head at him, bemused. “I don’t know how you can function with all the coffee you drink. I’m wired after two cups. How does your heart not explode?”

He shrugged. “I’m addicted to it. My tolerance is high. Same as a drug addict. Except instead of killing me, it keeps me focused. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

“It stains your teeth.”

“There’s a downside to everything.”

Judy glanced up briefly to see his expression was deadpan. She lowered her gaze back to the menu. A moment later, the waitress appeared by her side and they ordered. Burner wasn’t particularly hungry, but he figured he should eat some high calorie food and get something substantial into his stomach. It would give him some stamina for the mission ahead. He settled on a cheeseburger and fries, while Judy ordered her steak and eggs, along with a chocolate milkshake. Not bad for a last meal, if it came to that. Burner had told Judy to stay positive, but the truth was, words were just words. It wasn’t the time for platitudes. They were up against overwhelming odds, and both of them knew it.

Burner checked his new comm, making sure everything was working properly. He could hear the sounds clearly in his ear and was satisfied that it wouldn’t give out during a heated battle. The new comms were single use, more or less untraceable, and he was hoping they’d hold up at least until tomorrow. But if they failed now, there wasn’t a whole lot he could really do about it.

A pair of fans whirred overhead, keeping the diner comfortably cool. Smooth, adult contemporary music played softly from speakers. Everything seemed completely normal. Nobody inside the place knew that he and Judy were about to head into battle and probably wouldn’t come back. That was fine with him. He didn’t really like people knowing his business, anyway.

Burner thought about what it meant that the enemy they were about to fight was Union affiliated. He wished he knew more about their links to the organization. It wasn’t as if Burner was unaware that Union officials could be corrupt, that the people who swore an oath to protect could be capable of drugging and selling off women to be sex slaves. But he wondered just how deep the thing went. Was it just a small faction of criminals and extremists who’d managed to bribe a senator into doing their dirty work? Or had the institutional rot seeped in deeper, to the point where the crooked Union members would be indistinguishable from the rank and file mercenaries that comprised Hardy’s organization. And how did Hardy fit into all this? He was the leader, but was he in it strictly for the money? Did he have some kind of vendetta against the Union and this was his revenge? There were many questions, the kind Burner would have liked to know the answers to before he rushed headlong into danger. But the fact remained that he didn’t know, and he was about to go against an entity that he’d been a part of for the better part of two decades. And he didn’t know how he felt about that.

To take his mind off the Union, Burner once again took a look around the diner, assessing the patrons and the staff, trying to see if any of them seemed odd or out of place. It was an old habit of his. Subconsciously, he’d checked all the people in the diner for potential threats, but he didn’t find anybody or anything that raised his suspicion. He also clocked the shuttles in the parking lot, but none of them looked like undercover police or potential security shuttles. There were no shuttles idling across the street, watching the premises. None of them had any idea what Burner and Judy were up against, that they were about to rush headlong into what amounted to a suicide mission.

Judy, for her part, seemed mostly unfazed, attacking her steak and eggs when they arrived. Her fervor suggested she had no intention of dying anytime soon. He smiled watching her eat, seeing the concentration she mustered up and how content she looked doing it. He wished he was as hungry as she was, but even the juicy burger sizzling in front of him wasn’t doing all that much to whet his appetite. Burner forced himself to eat his cheeseburger and fries, then he washed it down with yet more coffee.

He glanced back up at Judy, speaking in a hushed tone. “We clear on the plan?” he asked her. “You know what you need to do?”

She nodded, checking around them quickly to make sure no one was in earshot. “I’m going to head on foot to the transit station. From there, it’s off to the server room, in downtown Dobulla. As far as we know, security there isn’t stellar. Shouldn’t be too hard for me to slip inside and do what I need to do. The enemy is opting for a ‘hiding in plain sight’ sort of route, at least when it comes to their servers. Like a needle in a haystack.”

Burner nodded. “But we found it. They won’t have expected that. They’ll think we’re somewhere else, holed up, waiting for them to come find us again.”

“Right. And on that score, they’d be dead wrong.” She intermittently checked around to make sure they couldn’t be overhead. “I’ve run all the data, many times, and the result is clear. Every piece of information points to this one location in Dobulla. So that’s where I’m gonna go. In any case, I don’t expect to encounter much resistance when I’m there. And even if I do, I can shoot pretty well with just one hand.”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that. I’m betting you’ll be able to get in undetected if you work smart.”

Judy, finished with her meal, looked over at Burner, smiling at the fact that he was still drinking coffee, even going as far as to ask the waitress for yet another top up. “So,” she started. “You know how you’re going to do it? Get inside?”

He smiled, tilted his mug, and took another long sip of fresh coffee. “More or less. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to improvise. Maybe steal a uniform from someone, or take a hostage, have him walk me in. There’s always a way in, compound or no. I’ll think of something.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very solid plan.”

“It’s the best I’ve got right now. I’ve spent all night studying the maps and the surrounding geography. I’ve got a decent idea of the layout in my head. Where the points of exit and entry are. Security may be tight, but it’s not like we’re attacking a Union fort. These are still criminals and drifters, mercenaries doing dirty deeds for a quick buck. I’m almost positive there will be weaknesses to exploit.”

“Sure,” Judy replied, taking a long sip of her shake then smacking her lips in satisfaction. “But it’s still a freaking compound you have to infiltrate. It’s not like you can just talk your way past the doorman in the lobby, you know?”

Burner took another gulp of coffee. “Being inside could work against them. They’ll be tempted to think they’re in some impregnable fortress. Easier to let your guard down when you’ve got walls and a moat surrounding you. But there are other ways in. There always are.”

Finished, she pushed back her chair and stood up. Her injured arm smacked against the side of the table as she moved. She winced. Seeing the look on his face, she tried to play it off, chuckling to herself, but he could tell she was in some real pain.

“You sure you’re gonna be all right?” he asked her. “No shame in backing out.”

“Backing out? Never. I’m just fine, Burner. Don’t worry about me.” She stretched her limbs. There was a steely look on her face, one that gave Burner some confidence. This was it. The parting of the ways. Burner dug into his wallet to pay for the meal. Then, from behind him, he heard a familiar voice.

“You guys weren’t planning on going out there without me, were you?”

He turned, surprised. It was Sara, striding toward them. Her blonde hair and long legs, the whole package. She was wearing a strange getup, sweatshirt and sweatpants, but she was grinning from ear to ear.

“Looks like you got caught in some trouble,” Sara told Judy, pointing at the sling.

“We made it out,” Judy replied. “Barely.”

“How’d you find us?” Burner asked, getting to his feet. “We thought we were laying low.”

“Hank had a tracker on our systems at the warehouse. He was able to get a bead on your location whenever you used the computer there. When that was compromised, he was able to follow a ping from your datapads.”

Burner raised his eyebrows. “He was tracking us this whole time?”

“Don’t take it personally. That’s just what he does. And it was a good thing too, because otherwise there would have been no way in hell I would have found you.”

Judy put a hand over her mouth, suddenly worried. “If Hank could track us, then so can Hardy.”

“There’s always the danger of being tracked,” Sara said. “Who’s Hardy?”

“The leader of the assholes we’re up against,” Judy told her. “He’s holed up in an evil lair in Dobulla. We were just about to leave to try and take him out when you showed up.”

Burner nodded. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a fortress. I’ve gone over the maps, but we haven’t done any in person recon. There will be ways in for sure, but it’s going to be tough. I know how good a climber you are. We could certainly use your help.”

Sara smiled. “That’s what I’m here for. I wasn’t going to let you try this crazy plan alone. So, what exactly have we got?”

“Right now,” Burner started, “with your arrival, we’ve got about a fifty percent better chance of surviving this mission. Judy has tracked the enemy’s server room to an office in Dobulla. Security there is expected to be light. She’s going to sneak in and hack the system while I attempt to get inside Hardy’s compound. With any luck, she’ll be able to take down their servers, giving us an opportunity to strike a killing blow to their organization.”

Judy nodded. “Unfortunately, my arm being shot up kind of limits my capacity to climb walls. So I think my skills are best used on the computers for this one… as much as I’d like to be there with you, showing that piece of shit Hardy what I really think of him.”

Sara turned to Burner. “And what about you? You were going to try and infiltrate this base alone? That doesn’t sound like the Burner I know. That sounds more like someone rushing headlong into an unknown situation. That sounds like someone who’s likely to get themselves killed.”

She laughed, and so did he, but he knew she was right. Burner trying to get inside alone would have been a death sentence. It still might be, even with Sara accompanying them, but at least now they would have a fighting shot. Still, he thought about what she said. It’s not like he’d never been accused of being reckless in the past. But the way he saw it was, sometimes you had to rush headlong into things. Otherwise, if you sat and thought about it for too long, you’d never act.

“Well, you could be right,” Burner replied.

“You have comms?” Sara asked. “I figure you ditched the old ones after these guys tracked you down. Probably something we’re gonna need if we’ll be working together on this one.”

Burner nodded. “I bought new ones. They’re single use, but they seem solid enough, at least for one night. Should be untraceable by the enemy, though we’ve thought that before and been unpleasantly surprised. They also have a silent, electronic pulse system, so we’ll be able to communicate with each other silently while we’re working. It’ll just be basic beeps, but it should be enough to let us tell each other what we’re up to. I’ll hook you up with it on the way. But right now, I think it’s time we get going. Judy needs to head out to the server room, and we’ve got to get going too. It isn’t too far from here, but we need to get into position on the perimeter and recon the place before we make any big moves.”

Sara gave him a thumbs up. He was glad she was back, and it seemed that she was ready for action. Judy bid them goodbye and then Burner and Sara were out the door and into Sara’s shuttle. They were headed toward maybe the most difficult mission either of them had ever attempted, and there was no guarantee they’d be coming back alive, but Sara’s arrival had lifted their spirits. For the first time in the last few days, Burner felt something unusual: a sliver of hope.


32


Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner’s knuckles were white as he gripped the handle just above his seat. The delivery shuttle shuddered as Sara took a sharp right. Where did you find this piece of junk?” he grunted as she guided the bulky vehicle through traffic.

“I was in a high-pressure situation,” she told him, flashing her Class A grin. “I didn’t exactly have the time to go car shopping.”

Burner looked off out of the window behind his arm, checking the outside wing mirror. “I guess it’s inconspicuous enough.”

Sara turned onto a new route and they soon left the limits of the city. Office buildings and congested avenues gave way to trees and foliage, a sign that they were heading further to the outskirts of the district.

“How were you planning to get here?” she asked.

“That’s a good question,” he replied. “I was probably going to walk, or maybe hitch a ride with a kind passerby. Nobody hitches rides anymore these days, but it’s a good way to meet people. Fortunately, you showed up when you did and I didn’t have to worry about it.”

“Right. You were going to hitchhike.” Sara laughed and he joined her.

Both of them were a little giddy, both from the joy of reuniting and from the pre-battle adrenaline. This was the calm before the storm—the few moments of respite they’d have before all hell broke loose. He’d been in this situation many times before and he’d run the gamut of emotions: fear, excitement, boredom, and uncertainty. At this point, he was experienced enough to control his emotions to the point where he could function.

It was part of his training as a Union officer, where they’d drilled it into him over and over again: assess, plan, act. That’s why he couldn’t stop himself from doing it, even when he was sitting in a diner or walking down the street. His skills were a part of him now, as inextricably linked to who he was as his DNA. Sara must have gone through similar training. She’d had no shortage of life or death situations herself. He admitted to himself he didn’t know how she felt, deep down. If she was afraid, she didn’t show it on the surface.

“I’m feeling pretty optimistic about things now,” Sara said without looking at Burner. “Despite the fact that we’re cruising into what could amount to a suicide mission. But that’s neither here nor there. I want to know how you managed to escape from the warehouse.”

Burner tapped the window of the shuttle and ran it down for her.

Sara nodded, impressed. “Sounds like it was pretty touch and go for a while there.”

“It was. That’s for damn sure.”

“How did they find you?”

“We’re not exactly sure. Judy thinks they might have placed a booby trap in one of their servers. She created a virus program to try to infiltrate their systems and pinpoint their location. But they must have had an alert set up for that sort of thing. From there, it would have been relatively easy for them to reverse engineer the signal and figure out where we were hiding. The real amazing part is that they managed to screw it up. By all rights, Judy and I should be dead, but we’re not. So I’m going to make the most of the extra time I’ve been given.”

“That’s a good attitude to have.”

“What else would I do? Fret about how I was almost killed? If I did that, I’d never leave my bedroom.”

Sara laughed. She checked the navigation equipment and leveled off the shuttle into a slow cruise. “We’re getting close,” she told him. “I’m going to slow down a bit. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” he told her. “A little nervous. But I’d be crazy not to be.”

“Fighting the good fight, yeah? That’s what you do, isn’t it? You must be used to it by now.”

He shrugged. “You never really get used to it. But it’s better than being on the wrong side of things. Makes your goals a little bit clearer. Helps you see the forest for the trees, if you’ll excuse the cliché.”

“I think our goals are pretty clear,” Sara agreed.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t be. These guys make me sick. I’m sure you feel the same way. Trafficking women, erasing memories... if they were just some run of the mill crooks, I might be a little bit more conflicted about what we’re about to do. But as it stands, I don’t see a whole lot of room for any moral equivocation. The crew we’re going up against is scum and they need to be taken out. One way or another.”

“May as well be us, right?” she asked, smiling.

He smiled back. “That’s how I see it.”

She nodded, her eyes never leaving the airway ahead of them. “Alright, that’s enough philosophizing for one day. We’re approaching the target. Maybe five minutes out. Anyplace in particular you want me to set this thing down?”

“According to the maps, there should be a tall ridge about a half kilometer from the compound. I’m thinking that would be a good spot to set down, do some reconnaissance. We’ll have cover and be far away enough to not be noticed.”

“Aye aye, captain. Let’s get it done.”

Night was coming soon, and the last rays of light diffused through the air. Burner wondered if either of them would be around to see the sun come up.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

DRUHOFF BUILDING, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Judy breathed heavily, adjusting her shirt and pinning her hair back into place as best she could. She made her way past the crumpled bodies of the few guards she’d had to dispatch, then into the server room proper. They hadn’t presented much of a threat and she’d easily been able to overpower them. It made her think that they were just run-of-the-mill security, not part of Hardy’s squad. Either way, she wasn’t going to complain. Ignoring the pain in her arm, she moved into position and got to work.

The room was a small, claustrophobia-inducing cave, with the bulky servers crammed next to one another along with a mess of wires and cables. She heard the sound of many fans going at once and felt the harsh white LED floodlights beat down on her from above. It was stiflingly hot in the room and she wasn’t in there for more than a minute before sweat began to pool on her forehead, trickling down her neck and beneath her armpits.

She ignored the heat and moved swiftly. By the main server she knelt down and took out her datapad, booting it up and clearing some space on a nearby workstation to work with. She set up the rest of her equipment, preparing for the arduous task of taking down the servers. She touched her ear and spoke through her comm.

“Burner. I’m in position and setting up. If all goes well, I should be finished with my part in around 15 minutes. Once I’ve taken down all the servers, I’ll send a message through to your end.”

Burner’s voice came back, gruff and muffled in her ear. “Roger. We’re moving into position. You run into any trouble on your way in?”

“Just a couple of mooks out in front of the building. Had to take a couple of them out with just one arm. No sweat, though. Doesn’t look like I raised any alerts. Should be able to get my hacking done undisturbed.”

“That’s my girl. Stay safe in there and work quickly. Don’t get complacent. We’ll be in contact soon as we can.”

“Take care of yourselves.”

The comm clicked off. Judy rubbed her hands together. She had a difficult job to do, but she was confident she could pull it off. She’d been in tighter spots before. There was nothing like a little infiltration to get the blood pumping. Doing tech work behind a desk wasn’t so bad, but it wasn’t the same as the thrill of working in the field. Grinning, she linked up her datapad with the servers and got to it.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

HARDY'S COMPOUND, DISTRICT OUTSKIRTS, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Burner and Sara lay prone on the ridge, the building 100 meters or so away from them. Full dark had come swiftly and the area they were in was deserted—apart from the compound they were about to infiltrate. Soon it was hard to see even your hand in front of your face without additional light.

Burner squinted ahead at the structure, just barely able to discern its outline. It wasn’t brightly lit, but there were enough lights to make it visible through the darkness. Sara peered through a pair of binoculars, scoping the perimeter of the area while Burner finished up the call with Judy. He clicked off his comm and tapped Sara on the shoulder. She passed him the binoculars. He looked through them, seeing the front of the compound lit up in the bright green of the binoculars’ night vision.

Guards walked around in blurry blobs, making their rounds along the walls. The night-vision goggles would have been a useful asset, but unfortunately, they only had the binoculars and there was no way to reliably keep them on your face when you were moving through enemy territory. The one saving grace was that none of the perimeter guards seemed to have night-vision goggles either. Burner was sure Hardy’s people would have them, but until they reached them it was going to be both sides fighting in the dark.

“They’ve got people coming and going from the side entrance,” Burner noted. “I’m almost certain that’s the route they take for deliveries, coming and going. They may be out in the middle of nowhere, but they still need to eat. Need supplies. I’ve seen at least two shuttles pull up there. They must be unloading equipment. Weapons, or maybe more of the lobotomy machines. Who knows what they’re moving in and out of here? If you can get the first gate open from inside, I can get to one of the guards and steal his uniform. Then I can grab a box or something and pretend to be making a delivery. I think that’s going to be our best option. I can’t climb as well as you can and going in through the front gate seems like suicide.”

“It won’t be easy,” Sara replied, watching the guard towers. “I’m going to have to scale the walls from the rear. It’s a long way up and I’m going to be working in almost pitch darkness. Hopefully I should have enough cover, but if anyone gets a spotlight on me, I’m done for.”

Burner nodded solemnly. “We’re up against too many people to fight our way in, so our options are limited. Not getting caught is your best bet.”

“Yeah, I’ll take that into consideration when I’m dangling like a trapeze artist hundreds of meters in the air.”

“You check your gear?” he asked her.

She nodded. “Everything we’ve got. Should be all set. What about you?”

“Same. Don’t need much, just my pistol, brass knuckles, and comm. Oh, and also my wits. But that’s all I need, right?” He winked at her.

She chuckled. “I’m not going to be able to talk to you once we start this. We’ll use the pulse system, like we planned. Send a blip through the comm. Single pulse means I’ve deactivated a gate. There should be two layers of security I need to breach in order to get you inside. Three pulses in a row means we abort.”

“Got it,” Burner replied. “I’ll send you a single pulse when I’m in position. Then I’ll send another single pulse in reply to yours, to acknowledge I’ve received the message. Otherwise, I’ll stay silent and wait to hear from your end, unless there’s an emergency. Once we get inside, we’ll meet up if we can. Ready to do this?”

“Born ready.” Sara smiled at him. Some of it may have been the nerves, he thought, but she also seemed excited. Perhaps she even had a touch of bloodlust pumping too. That was good. They were going to need it tonight.

“I’m going to circle around to the rear,” she told him. “I’ll take a long, looping route to avoid being spotted. I’ll have to move slowly, so it might take me a while. I’m guessing it could be about half an hour for me to get all the way around there from here.”

Burner nodded. “Okay. During that time, I’ll stake out the delivery entrance. I’ll be waiting for one of the guards to expose themselves, and when they do, I should be able to sneak up on one pretty easily. I’ve seen them smoking on the east side, right when they’re switching shifts. That’ll be the time when I can grab one. Until then, I’m going to keep my distance until I see a guard split off from the pack.”

Sara nodded then extended a fist, and Burner pounded it.

She grinned. “See you on the other side, Burner.”

And then she was gone, stalking off into the night.


33


Hardy's Compound, District Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner’s pulse came through Sara’s comm, echoing in her ear like the throb of a heartbeat. So far so good. That signal meant he was in position. From now on, the electronic pulses would be their only communication, at least until they had both breached the inner sanctum of the structure.

Sara had slowly looped around, taking great pains to keep her distance from the front-facing side, which was swamped with floodlights, guard towers, and security checkpoints. The back of the compound sat over a large ravine, where she guessed all the water they used inside drained out into a brackish swamp below. There were no floodlights in the back of the building, but the surrounding wall stretched high into the air. She also knew there would still be guards patrolling above. But the security was much lighter than in the front. Sara guessed they thought no one was crazy enough to climb 30 meters of sheer granite in pitch black. It would have been a reasonable assumption.

But Sara wasn’t reasonable.

With her gear, she made grueling but steady progress up the wall. One axe into the stone—thunk!—then the other. The smooth wall wasn’t the greatest surface for climbing, most likely by design, but she was able to sink enough of the axe into the material to create leverage for herself. Chips of stone rained down on her as she went. About halfway up, her left axe clanged hard off something solid and lost purchase, leaving her suddenly dangling by one hand. Her tiny headlight was only enough to see the wall in front of her. Below was a twenty meter drop. One slip and she’d be done for.

Sara swung her left axe back into the wall. It held.

She exhaled, keeping herself together mentally as much as physically. After a moment to settle herself, she pulled herself up and kept climbing.

Just a few meters from the top, she heard voices. Two guards were out on the balcony, laughing at some dumb joke. Sara hung beneath them, waiting. Cigarette smoke wafted down as she contemplated her next move. She needed a distraction, so she tapped one of the pickaxes against the wall, loudly.

“Huh?” One of the soldiers leaned over the edge, confused. She grabbed his arm and yanked him, hard. He went screaming down into the darkness.

“What the hell?” His buddy peered over the ledge, his face white. Sara gave him the exact same treatment. Arm, yank, scream. His body caught on the ledge as she pulled him down, causing it to bounce out further out on the way past, tumbling into the void below.

Without waiting for a thump or a reaction from the surroundings, Sara scrambled over the ledge and checked around. No alarms had been raised. The screams of the guards had been lost against the sheer length of the wall. It was time to move.

Her goal was the gate control tower. Slowly, she made her way around the top of the wall, trying to find a good view of the tower. The parapet was dark. Crouched in her all-black jumpsuit, she was practically invisible. Ahead, a soldier stood facing the direction Burner was coming from. She tiptoed past him, a few coins in her hand, ready to toss them in the opposite direction to pull the guard’s attention. She held her breath, waiting for him to spin around and see her. He didn’t. She had a feeling that wouldn’t be the only time she’d have to get lucky tonight if they were going to make it through this thing alive.

Beneath her, about twenty meters below, she could see the control tower. There were no spotlights currently on it, but she knew there were guards inside. At least two. One of the guards was out pacing on the balcony, with no idea she was waiting there above him. She could probably rappel down and take him out, but she wasn’t sure if she could do it without making any noise. Opting for the crossbow. Sara unslung it from her back, steadied herself, aimed and fired. The bolt sliced silently through the night, taking the guard through the face. He hit the floor. She waited with bated breath for any screams or alerts. Nothing. She attached her rope and cautiously made her way down until she could safely climb up onto the guard tower balcony.

She crawled past the body of the first guard, hoping no one below had suddenly decided to look up. The door to the control room was open a crack and inside she could see the other guard, intently watching what looked like a sports match on his monitor. Sara eased the door open a sliver more, aimed her crossbow, and fired again. Another clean shot. The bolt hit the guard straight through the heart and he dropped silently out of his chair. Sara crept forward toward the control system.

She looked over the switches, trying to ascertain which of them did what. The gate controls were a system of simple levers, but the labels on them were confusing at first glance. After a quick study, she was able to decipher deliveries. That had to be it. The entrance Burner had mentioned—it must have been what she was looking for. She yanked the lever. A moment later, gears started to grind. Something was happening. She sent a pulse to Burner. For a few long seconds, she felt nothing. Then her comm vibrated in her ear. Burner’s reply.

Message received.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

As Burner crawled through the muddy reeds that circled the place, moving meticulously slowly, one thought kept playing over and over in his mind: this is the reason I never finished sniper school.

Back then he’d been just a young recruit, still unsure what career path he wanted to take. Everything had been open to him. Endless potential, endless opportunity. He could have become a pilot or been in wetwork. He could have done airdrops or requisitioned supplies. But Burner had no desire to do any of that. He’d always been an expert marksman, a natural shot and so sniper school seemed like a logical choice. Waiting on the fringes of a battle for the perfect shot, dueling with enemy snipers like two expert chess players. What could be better?

Except his romantic view of the process wasn’t even close to reality. He learned that quickly the hard way, when he first arrived at the academy. He expected to have crazy target practice, insane shots from insane distances, each of them battling over to see who could be the most accurate. It would all come down to hand-eye coordination, whether or not they could stay focused under extreme pressure. But it wasn’t like that at all. In reality, nearly all of the training involved waiting. Hiding and waiting. Waiting for hours, then crawling through brush. Then waiting some more. And waiting. Then crawling. Then waiting. Over and over and over again.

Burner considered himself a pretty patient guy, but some of the instructors were on another level. They had the patience of saints, at least when it came to the battlefield. Some of them told stories about camping out for forty-eight hours straight, waiting for that one brief moment when the enemy general would expose himself. They would wait for two days, take the shot, then spend another two days crawling back through the mud and dirt. It was insanity.

Burner had no trouble with the technical side of things. He had performed just fine during basic training and shooting accurately at ranges of up to a thousand meters. His instructors had been impressed with his acumen. But the more he trained, the more he realized his heart wasn’t in it for the long haul. The waiting was just too draining on him. It was a rare type of soldier who was built for it; he wasn’t. Burner had no doubt he could make the high-pressure shot, but he figured that all the time he spent waiting, he could be doing something more productive instead. So, he quit sniper school and started along the path that led him to becoming an investigator.

This crawl was nothing compared to those he’d done in school, but it still felt interminable. Centimeter by centimeter, he made his way through the muddy swamp, the wet seeping down through his clothes, the chill permeating his entire body. He was nearly invisible, sure, but he was working pretty hard at it. He could see the destination ahead of him, close by but still a long way off. He’d learned one thing about himself over the years: he didn’t particularly like crawling through the mud. But sometimes you had to get your belt buckle dirty.

There was a delivery shuttle pulled up along the side of the compound, the driver rifling through the contents, checking for something. Burner was maybe a hundred meters away, covered by reeds. The shuttle had come in and parked perpendicular to the building, shielded from view of the guards by the corner section of the wall.

The driver was going through his inventory, maybe making a check of things before he went through the front gate. Burner assumed he was on a schedule. He was taking a while with the process, going over his goods meticulously. Maybe the delivery guy was early, or late. He figured the process of getting checked out and getting inside took some time. The security protocols were probably pretty tight. But maybe there was an expedited path for deliveries. Could be that things weren’t quite as tight here as they were at the front. Burner could see another entrance gate where the delivery shuttle could fit through. He had no idea if Sara would be able to get that gate open, but he had to try something.

He moved forward, until he wasn’t far from the back of the delivery shuttle. The driver was still inside, going through his stock. It was now or never. Burner rose, crept to the rear of the shuttle and climbed inside.

He banged on the side of the truck and the driver spun around, a hand on his chest.

“Jeez!” he shouted. “You scared the shit out of me!”

“Sorry,” Burner started. “Got a question for ya.”

The delivery guy wore a drab beige uniform, and he held an official looking scanner in his hands. The inside of the shuttle was stacked with plain boxes. He shook off the initial shock of Burner startling him and now just looked irritated to be interrupted.

The guy came forward, frowning at Burner’s appearance. “What is it? I’m kind of busy here.”

Without hesitating, Burner made his move. Swiftly, he grabbed him in a headlock and spun him around. The guy thrashed and gasped, but Burner had a good grip on him and wasn’t letting go. He didn’t know if this guy was affiliated with the traffickers or just some poor delivery guy doing his job, so he didn’t want to hurt him badly. Instead, he cut off his air until he passed out, his eyes gently rolling to the back of his head. It wasn’t the most pleasant way to go to sleep, but it beat a broken neck.

Burner cleared some space among the boxes and laid him out, undressing him and putting on the uniform. It was a little tight, but it would have to do. He dragged the guy’s unconscious form out of the shuttle and hid him among the reeds. Then he went back inside and looked through some of the boxes. The first one he opened was filled with vegetables. So was the second. And the third.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Burner muttered to himself.

Suddenly, the electronic pulse buzzed in his ear. He waited for more, but there was only one. Good. That meant Sara had managed to open the first gate. He sent a pulse back in response, then got into the driver’s seat of the shuttle and slowly eased it down to the delivery entrance.

The gate was open. Ahead was a long, dark tunnel sloping downward. He guessed there were pathways beneath the ground here that led to different parts of the property. Burner drove through the open gate, thinking for a moment he was home free, before a guard stepped out in front of the shuttle with an outstretched hand.

“Hold up,” he ordered, tapping on the hood of the shuttle as Burner buzzed down the window. “I didn’t get a confirmation from the tower.”

The guard had a rifle slung over his shoulder and a serious expression on his face. Burner considered flooring it—let them scrape this asshole off the ground later. But he opted to play it cool.

Burner stuck his head out the window and sighed dramatically. “Come on, man. This is a priority shipment. I’m in a hurry.”

The guard listened to something on his radio. He scoffed, shaking his head. “Those dicks are probably up there playing cards again. They’re not supposed to open the gate until I say so. All right, go on through.”

“Thanks, pal.” Burner drove the shuttle van forward, the bowels of the compound just ahead.

Then, the guard called back to him. “Hey, wait just one sec.”

Again, Burner considered just flooring it, but he didn’t want to blow his cover this early. He stopped. The guard came over and tapped the side of the truck. “What do you have in here that’s so important, anyway?”

“Vegetables.”

“That’s high priority?”

Burner looked at the guy impatiently. Then he ducked back into the hold, grabbed a box, and yanked open the top of the box to reveal a mound of brown potatoes. He showed it to the guy. “See? For the kitchen. I don’t requisition the orders; I just deliver them.”

The guard eyed him. He was short and pudgy. And something wasn’t sitting right with him. “Let me take a look at your ID first.”

Burner set the box down. “Really?”

“I haven’t seen you come through here before.”

“I’m filling in for a guy.”

“Just show me your ID and you can be on your way.”

Burner thought about the control tower. If Sara had taken them out, that meant the guards up there probably weren’t going to be answering radio calls anytime soon. Which meant they would realize intruders were on the premises sooner rather than later. And that meant this guard might prove to be a problem.

“All right, it’s in my pocket,” Burner said. He reached slowly, gently. He pulled his hand out of his inside pocket with brass knuckles around his fist and in a flash smashed the guard square in the face through the open window. The guard hit the ground, hard. He wasn’t getting back up anytime soon. Burner got out and hurriedly dragged his limp form into the back of the shuttle.

Then he got back into the driver’s seat and kept going.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

HARDY'S COMPOUND, DOBULLA OUTSKIRTS, NIMROD SECTOR, DEADLANDS.

Sara peered out from the window of the guard tower, watching the activity below. Opting for the delivery entrance had been a good call. The main gate was a massive, swinging drawbridge, and if she’d opened that up it would have been bound to cause attention. As it was, she didn’t hear any alarms and didn’t see any soldiers rushing quickly to their stations. Neither of them had been spotted yet. But it was only a matter of time.

The first leg of the assault had been easy. Advancing any deeper into the fort would be the hard part. The inner section of the compound was where Hardy was presumably holed up, and it was protected by a robust security system. They could see that even from the plans on record they’d hacked, and they’d deduced from various installation records that any unauthorized personnel would have to get past a room of laser tripwires. It wasn’t as if you could dodge around them like in the movies, either. The beam would trace across the entire room, leaving no place to hide, and if an intruder was detected, the doors to the compound’s inner sanctum would immediately lock and everything would go on high alert.

She’d been hoping the alarm system would be located in the same room as the gate controls, but no such luck. Hardy was intelligent, which meant the alarm room would be within the inner sanctum itself, meaning there’d be no way to disable it from the outside.

Sara believed there was always a way. She’d found one, in theory. But, also in theory, it would likely alert Hardy and his goons to their presence. Sara didn’t see what other choice she had though. Burner would be heading down into the tunnels now; soon enough, he’d come to one of the security checkpoints. If the system wasn’t disabled by the time he got there, everything would get locked down and they’d be shit out of luck.

Sara’s plan was to place a shunt in one of the electrical junction boxes. If she could divert the current, she could cause an overload in the system, giving them a window to get inside. She was sure they would have backup generators, but the initial blackout would give them about ten minutes to make something happen. That’s how long it would take for the backups to cycle on during a complete power outage.

She didn’t know exactly where the electrical junction box was located, but she guessed it wasn’t far from the guard tower. It was probably just inside, maybe in the basement or a utility room. But that meant she needed to get inside.

Either she could climb down and try to get in through the main entrance, or she could climb back up to the balcony and make her way down from there. The main entrance seemed riskier. There would probably be a strong guard presence there. She set her ropes and climbed back up toward the parapet.

It was only a short climb until she was back up top, giving her a good vantage point of the courtyard. The guard tower where she’d come from was silent, but there was some activity below, a shuttle coming in. She moved quietly along the wall, toward one of the lookout towers. Inside was a spiral stone staircase leading to the first story. Sara took the stairs slowly, listening for any guards making their way up. But she didn’t encounter any.

She reached the bottom and emerged into a very large anteroom. The stone walls were drab, and there were metal detectors and guards walking around everywhere. Sara waited in the darkness the alcove of the stairs provided her. She crouched low and took out her binoculars.

The guards moved and talked to one another, appearing gigantic in the magnified view of the binoculars. Sara turned her gaze toward the metal detectors. She squinted to find the wires coming from them and saw a line of them trailing off toward a door on the far side of the room. It was roughly thirty meters of bright, wide open space. If she left the alcove, she’d be spotted immediately.

She needed a distraction, and she needed one quickly.


34


Hardy's Compound, District Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Frank Rosen was always a little intimidated when he was inside Hardy’s living room, but he guessed that was the point. Hardy called it his living room, but that wasn’t the right name for it. Frank wasn’t sure what was. Command center? War room?

The space was enormous, with a vaulted stone ceiling and massive fireplace on the far wall. Hardy’s desk was massive, and on top of it was a complex web of computers and maps and strategies, all laid out for him. There were portraits on the walls, stern pictures of old-fashioned looking men and women. Hardy’s family, maybe? Frank didn’t know who they were, and he knew better than to ask.

The most intimidating thing about the room was Hardy himself, his larger than life presence and ice-cold aura. Frank knew Hardy was rational, that Hardy respected him and considered him something almost like a friend. There was really no reason to be afraid. But somewhere in the back of his mind was the knowledge that Hardy could tear him limb from limb if he felt like it. And there’d be nothing—absolutely nothing—Frank could do to defend himself. He’d seen it happen before, to soldiers who’d screwed up big time or betrayed him.

“I think the Loreilla is a lost cause at this point,” Hardy mused. “Damage notwithstanding, people are aware something went down there. But there are plenty of other spots we can get up and running once Burner and company are taken care of. A few shelters on Pharbis that look particularly promising. I’ve already spoken to some people and they all seem ready to join our little endeavor. We’ll have a glut of options to choose from.”

Frank hesitated before speaking, wondering if it wise to question the boss. “You sure you want to go wheels up on this thing again so soon? Just seems like maybe we should wait until some of the heat’s died down,” he said, keeping his tone mild. “Even once Burner’s gone, it’s possible he’s made ripples somewhere. Talked to someone he shouldn’t have. Sent a package to the media or some move like that. I’m not really worried, but we might want to wait a little while.”

Hardy stroked his chin thoughtfully. He wasn’t the type of guy who did anything without consideration. Even when he was making an example out of a soldier, demonstrating extreme cruelty, there was always a strategic reason for it that would be revealed later. Frank wasn’t sure if that made him more or less scary.

“I think we can risk it,” Hardy concluded after a few moments of quiet. “We’re already losing thousands of credits a day since the fiasco at the Loreilla. I’ve got soldiers to pay, Frank. They’re not going to be happy when their paychecks don’t come in because we’re sitting on our asses. And we’ve got to pay for supplies, weapons, upkeep. Everything. We need to get things up and running again as soon as possible.”

Frank nodded, putting up his hands placidly. “Hey, you’re the boss. Just my two credits.”

Hardy leaned back and considered Frank. “I still can’t believe Burner slipped away from that warehouse. That was absurd. A drainage pipe, of all things. You’d think that would have been the easiest thing in the world to follow. But apparently not. Apparently, those pipes form a maze underground, almost impossible to track from the surface.” He sounded like he was quoting one of the guard team leaders. He shook his head despondently. “I should have been there to make sure things were done right.”

“The hit team should have been able to handle it,” Frank replied. “Should have been child’s play. The screw-up was on their end.”

“Now we have two more dead soldiers,” Hardy said, his tone chilling. “And Burner on the loose. Not the outcome I wanted.” He shifted in his chair, shrugging one shoulder. “But, I suppose, mistakes are going to occur, like it or not. No sense in worrying about the past. We adapt, learn from it and move on. That’s how I keep the wheels spinning on this thing.”

Hardy flashed the closest thing he had to a genuine smile. Frank smiled back, though the look on Hardy’s face made him a little uneasy. Frank shifted his weight anxiously. He wanted to break the silence between them.

Thankfully, Hardy took it upon himself. “I haven’t spoken with the techs in a while,” Hardy began. “I know they’ve been doing good work, but I need more from them. How close are we to tracking Burner?”

“We actually had a ping on their datapads,” Frank told him. “They were traced to a diner on Dobulla. We sent a team out, but they were gone by the time our guys got there. Since then, they’ve turned off all their traceable equipment. But we know they’re running scared. They’re low on credits and equipment. Right now, we’re just waiting for them to stick their heads out.”

“That’s unfortunate. Sounds like we almost had them.” Hardy got up from his desk and wandered over to the window, where he stared out into the darkness. “Burner’s been pretty lucky so far. By all rights he should have been killed at the Loreilla. I’m going to feel a lot better once they’re out of the way.”

Frank nodded, the motion vigorous. “We all will, that’s for sure. The tech team has also been working their asses off to track these guys. Myself included. Actually, I think I’m about due for a vacation myself.”

“Oh, are you Frank? What exactly did you have in mind?”

Hardy’s tone was light, but Frank knew better than to trust it. He decided to proceed carefully. “I was thinking a safari somewhere. One of those artificial habitats where they keep exotic animals. I’ve always wanted to see something like that up close.”

Hardy nodded to him, though he didn’t seem very absorbed in what he was saying. Actually, scratch that, Frank thought. I don’t need to go to some far-flung sector to see an animal. I’m looking at one right now.

Frank was wringing his hands discreetly. Subconsciously. “I mean, I’m obviously not going anywhere until the heat’s died down,” he clarified. “But I think that—oh, hang on, I’m getting a call.”

Frank pressed his ear. “Hello....yeah, okay. You do? Well that’s great, that’s great. Hang on a sec, I’m gonna put you on speaker.”

He turned to Hardy. “One of the recon guys from the hit team. I think you’ll want to hear this.”

Frank pressed the speaker and the room crackled with the magnified voice of the caller.

“Sir,” the voice started. “I’m calling to report we have eyes on the girl.”

“How’d you find her?” Hardy asked.

“Her datapad was switched back on. The tech team was able to track her location. She’s at the server room at our hub downtown. We’re just waiting for you to give the go ahead.”

Hardy was silent for a long moment. He had a thousand-meter stare going and was obviously thinking hard. Well, he was the boss, after all. It was on him to make the tough decisions. Frank knew he had to make enough tough decisions of his own, ones that he never really received any respect for. There were some suggestions Frank wanted to chime in with, but he knew better than to open his big mouth when the boss was deeply in thought.

Gods, he really did need a vacation. He’d done this for too long now. Maybe retirement was in order. He could go someplace warm, get a nice hut out on the beach somewhere, a place where he wouldn’t have to deal with outright psychopaths, where the only thing he had to worry about was what type of rum drink he’d have that day. Deep down, Frank felt like Hardy would never let that happen. At least not in any traditional sense. Hardy was probably the type of guy who would see retirement as disloyalty. And Frank knew what Hardy did to those he considered disloyal.

Hardy frowned and cocked his head. “She must know by now that the datapad is traceable?” His words were spoken out into the air, giving them a strange oratory effect. “Why would she turn it back on? Could this be some kind of trap?”

There was some discussion on the other end. The recon team must have been reconsidering the possibility. Frank waited for the response, figuring it didn’t really matter either way. Trap or not, she was a dead woman. Frank would have been flabbergasted if Hardy didn’t go on ahead with the hit.

“Uh, we don’t believe so, sir. We’ve only clocked her alone at the facility. No one else with her at the moment. And she’s injured. Her right arm’s in a sling. She was able to take out a few guards on the premises, but those are basically just rent-a-cops who wouldn’t have put up much resistance. As far as we can tell, she doesn’t appear to be armed. I doubt she poses much of a threat to our team. We think she needed to turn the datapad on in order to do something to the servers.”

“She’s probably trying to shut them down,” Frank muttered. “Trying to throw a wrench into the works.”

“Can she pull that off?” Hardy asked sharply.

“Given time, we believe so,” the voice replied. “Or, the tech team does, at least. But our team is holding right outside.”

“Yes,” Hardy told him. “Absolutely. Green light.”

“Roger that, sir,” the voice said. The line crackled once more and went dead.


35


Hardy's Compound, District Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Squad-commander Cliff Jensen burst into the break room. “We’ve lost contact with the tower,” Cliff told the three other squad members who were playing a game. The men laid down their cards and looked up at their leader. “Could be a tech issue, but we can’t say for sure. Gear up. We’re going to check it out.”

His words spurred the men to action. The game quickly forgotten, they moved to their lockers to don their helmets and strapped on their armor with clinical efficiency. Within the space of two minutes they were geared up, and ready to investigate the threat.

Clint gathered his men and they headed through one of the utility tunnels. From there, they could head through to the front gate and make sure everything was copacetic at the guard tower.

Even though they figured it was likely a false alarm, they followed proper procedure, moving in a tight formation along the tunnel, two facing forward and two facing backward, weapons at the ready. They emerged from the tunnel into the large anteroom that marked the second layer of security at the main compound. The first layer was the wall and guard tower outside; the second layer was another checkpoint in the anteroom; and the third layer was the previously-mentioned laser security system which guarded Hardy’s inner sanctum.

The two security officers were working on one of the metal detectors which had started to smoke from the top. Squad-leader Cliff approached them and put up a closed fist to signal his men to stop.

“What happened?” Cliff asked.

One of the security officers shrugged. “Thing just started smoking all of a sudden.”

“Electrical overload?”

“No idea,” the other officer reported. “Called the tech team, but I’m waiting for them to get back to me.”

The anteroom was a huge space, a wide room lit by several overhanging chandeliers. Beyond the metal detectors, a wide staircase funneled upward. Cliff turned to his men.

“Carlsen, you and I will check the utility room. Could just be a mouse got loose, chewed through some wires. You two, go around the other side and up the parapet. Get a visual on the control tower and give them a shout. Once you’ve established contact with the tower, report back to me. We’ll rendezvous back here.”

They nodded.

Cliff led the way, taking Carlsen across the wide room and through a side door which led to the utility rooms, the electrical grid, and boilers that fed power and heat throughout the entire compound. The door to the utility room, which was meant to be locked at all times, was ajar. Cliff stopped his partner with a silent raised fist. He listened. Then he signaled that they’d enter the room together, ready for any hostiles. They crept forward, both of them on high alert, entertaining the possibility there might be an intruder after all.

Cliff heard a loud thud to his left. He turned.

Carlsen lay sprawled on the ground, the tail of an arrow sticking out his left eye socket. His mouth gaped open grimly and blood trickled from where he’d been stuck. He’d been wearing his helmet but no face visor. Cliff immediately spun around, his weapon poised in front of him and ready to fire.

The hallway housing the utility rooms was underground and with the electricity down, the overhead lights were off. Cliff clicked on the flashlight fixed to his weapon, but there were pockets of darkness everywhere. Plenty of places someone could hide. He flipped down his visor, which reduced his visibility even further, but he had no intention of taking an arrow to the face like poor Carlsen had.

Cliff went to thumb his comm to warn the others, but as he did, he heard footsteps in front of him. He raced forward, finger on the trigger and about to spray the darkness ahead of him with bullets, when he felt something breeze over his head. He heard the clink of something heavy loosening and boots hitting the floor behind him. He whirled round, but not quickly enough. A spinning kick knocked the gun from his grip. Automatically, he reached for his sidearm. Another sharp kick hit him at the elbow and snapped his arm. Cliff screamed. Through the dim flashlight glow, he could see a woman’s form. He tried to back away, but in an instant she was on him.

Cliff grabbed at her with his left arm, trying to get her closer so he could use his strength advantage, but she spun away and darted to the side. The next thing he knew, it felt like he’d been punched hard in the side, right in the small space where his armor didn’t quite cover his torso. He reached down where it hurt and felt a wound. It was wet, and warm. It was his blood. He felt instantly woozy but still threw his fists out wildly trying to fight back.

He took a step forward, then another until his legs would no longer obey him. He dipped to one knee as his vision became blurry and the world spun dizzily around him. He clicked on his comm, trying to speak, but every word felt like he was saying it underwater, his breath deserting him, and he wheezed like an asthmatic.

“There’s a...” he sputtered. “A woman...you need to...”

He felt the blood pooling on the ground around him, slick, warm and slippery. Cliff had no more strength. He felt himself collapse and the world went dark around him. The last thing he heard was the sound of footsteps moving briskly away from him.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The shuttle wheezed slowly through the delivery tunnel, climbing the ramp and coming to rest near the loading docks. The two guards looked at each other in confusion. They hadn’t received word from the guy working the gate, which was the usual protocol. This was strange; the guy who worked the gate was a stickler for the rules. The kind of pain in the ass you could rely on to pull up any infraction. Ten times a day, he would call up to them for all sorts of routine deliveries—food, ammunition, cleaning supplies. Each time he would read out the cargo and the ID of the driver, always in the same dull monotone. After a while, they wanted to throttle him. They wanted to go down to the gate and smack him upside the head and say, “hey asshole, we don’t need the godsdamn life story of every guy making deliveries! Just buzz them in!”

But now there was a shuttle parked in the loading docks and they hadn’t heard a thing from the pedant below. They checked the manifest. There was indeed a shipment supposed to come in, stocks of food for the kitchen. Still, something was up. No one had called ahead. Then again, the communications system had been malfunctioning all day. Even recently they’d heard reports of comms not working, of electrical outages and problems with the wiring in the guard tower. Rationally, the fact that no one had warned them about the incoming shuttle wasn’t the most unusual thing in the world. But still…

With their rifles slung conspicuously in front of them, they approached the driver’s side window of the shuttle with caution. The window buzzed down and a man smiled at them. He was in his forties with the beginnings of a five-o-clock shadow starting to cover his face. He looked like a delivery guy, for sure.

The first guard leaned in, taking a not-entirely-surreptitious glance inside the shuttle. The cab was clean and orderly, with nothing suspicious on the seat or dashboard. The guard pulled back and addressed the driver.

“You get buzzed through by the guy at the gate?”

The man nodded. “Yep. Was he supposed to let you guys know? It seemed like he was having some trouble with his comm.”

The guard nodded back. “Yeah, been like that all day. What else is new? Just need to see your ID, please.”

The man handed over an ID. It showed his smiling picture and below that, the name Frederick Womack. The guard looked it over for a few seconds and couldn’t find anything that jumped out at him. He turned to his partner who was waiting a meter away and flashed a quick thumbs up. His partner, who had seemed a little on edge, noticeably relaxed, the tension loosening in his shoulders.

“All right, Fred,” the first guard started. “You’re all set. Just swing your shuttle on top of the dock here and we’ll get you where you need to go.”

“Thanks, pal,” replied the driver. He once again started the shuttle’s engine. The first guard looked back at his partner, who had a finger on his ear and was talking rapidly. Seemed like the comms were back up. He turned back to the driver, who was fiddling with his radio, then he turned back to his partner. He was walking toward him with a sense of urgency, his face crumpled with anxiety. The first guard tilted his head, puzzled. He felt his stomach drop and a chill of fear rippled through his body. He turned back to the driver and the last thing he saw was the barrel of a pistol, pointed directly at his face.

The second guard saw his partner drop to the floor, a red mist spraying out behind him onto the wall. He shrieked and raised his rifle, but in his surprise the strap twisted around his neck and couldn’t bring the gun around fully. The pistol flashed again, this time in his direction. He ducked behind a concrete abutment tossing the clunky rifle away and running full tilt in the opposite direction. Frantically, he thumbed his comm, dialing the security extension.

“Code red!” the guard shouted. “Code red! We’ve got an intruder on the premises! The delivery docks.”

“Roger.” The voice on the other end was cool and collected. “We’ve got a team heading your way.”

The guard scrambled down the maintenance tunnel toward the interior of the fortified structure. He was heading for the next layer of security, the laser-guarded inner-sanctum. If he could get through there, he would be safe.

He wasn’t supposed to abandon his post, but screw that—he wasn’t getting paid enough to be shot. If anyone asked, he’d say his gun jammed. No sense in worrying about what Hardy would do to him later if he got shot to pieces in the present. Priorities.

The guard had made it a few paces down the tunnel when he heard footsteps behind him. It must be the intruder, the shuttle driver, jogging forward. He was coming up a bend in the tunnel, so he couldn’t quite see the guard yet. Then, from the other end of the tunnel, more footsteps. A lot of them. It was the hit team he’d just called for. The guard could see them racing toward him clad in their black armor with their submachine guns at the ready.

He froze, sweat pouring down his temples. He was about to be caught in the middle of a raging firefight. There was no place to hide—the walls around him were bare aside from a few stacked boxes, which would provide barely any protection from a hail of bullets. In sheer desperation, he glanced up and saw a vent in the ceiling. It was covered by a thin grate. He didn’t have many other options at this point. He had to move quickly. Already he could hear the sets of footsteps approaching with both sides drawing closer and closer to the inevitable gun battle.

With newfound strength, he was able to drag the heavy boxes away from the wall and stack them into a kind of ladder. He clambered up them, trying to balance his body weight so the entire thing wouldn’t topple over. The grate covering the vent was secured with only a few screws, and yanking on it with all his might he was able to pry it free and fling it crashing down against the concrete below. Just as the two parties below reached shooting distance, he made it into the vent and shimmied his way to relative safety.

The guard breathed a sigh of relief. He was encased in metal, and there was barely room to crawl, but a little claustrophobia beat getting shot up any day of the week. He squirmed forward, putting himself perpendicular to the shooters below. There were mesh grates every couple of meters or so, so he was able to settle in safely far enough away where he wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire, but close enough where he could watch the show. The asshole who’d killed his partner was about to be decimated by Hardy’s hit squad. A dinky pistol versus several armor-clad guards, all of them wielding submachine guns that could fire dozens of bullets a second. It would be a slaughter.

The guard waited, peering down through the holes in the grate. He saw Hardy’s hit team fan out along the width of the tunnel, going to their knees and preparing to fire. He saw the intruder, still jogging along casually, holding his pistol out in front of him with two hands like he was some kind of spy hero or something. It would all be over in a matter of seconds.

Then the lights went out. The guard heard confusion and shouting and then the sound of gunfire. The noise was deafening in the enclosed space of the vent and the guard put his hands over his ears and cried out. There was more scuffling below. He heard the sounds of people running, screaming.

Dying.

Then everything went quiet.

More footsteps.

The intruder again. This time closer. Too close.

The guard tried to turn himself around and escape backward through the vent. But before he could, another burst of gunfire rang out. This one was directed at him. He shouted involuntarily as the bullets pinged off the metal, holes appearing where the gunshots ripped through them. The entire vent began to sag. The next moment he was falling. The guard crashed to the floor, still inside the compromised vent. He squirmed out of the newly formed jagged opening and felt himself be hoisted up by the scruff of his collar.

“Not so fast there, cowboy.”

The delivery man had a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other. He slowly panned the flashlight around the tunnel where the team lay sprawled out on the floor. None of them were moving. The guard tried to say something to him, but he just sputtered and no intelligible words came out.

“Come again?” the guy asked. He was smiling.

The guard moaned involuntarily and felt his pants fill with urine. He wished he was somewhere else, anywhere else. “Don’t hurt me,” he was finally able to whimper. “Please.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You sell women off to be raped, don’t you?”

The guard shook his head vigorously. “What? I don’t know anything about that! Please, I have a wife and kids!”

“You and I are going to take a walk. Over to the security lasers. You’d better hope you can get me through. Otherwise, you’re going to wish you’d stayed out of that vent and taken your chances on the floor here.”

The guard nodded meekly. The intruder put the gun into the small of his back and began to march him forward.


36


Server Room, Druhoff Building, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The server room was not a peaceful place to work. It was beset by constant sound: buzzes, beeps, clicks, and whirs. There were lights flashing and changing color. Air from the many fans cooling the servers created a roar, like a rushing wave.

Judy didn’t notice any of it. She was in the zone, immersed in her work. The only thing about her environment she was tuned into was listening for the sound of footsteps approaching the room from the outside. So far, she’d been left undisturbed and now she was making headway. The more she worked, the better she felt about things. She knew Burner and Sara were counting on her, and she was determined to hold up her end of the bargain. But the longer she was in there, the greater the chance of some patrol happening upon her.

There were a total of twelve servers she needed to take down in order to effectively cripple the traffickers’ organization. She’d already killed seven of them. The remaining five would be the hardest to crack, but Judy had no doubt she’d be able to infiltrate them. Each of the servers had been more difficult to take down than the last, and each one had tested tech skills that she didn’t even know she had. But she felt more focused than she’d ever been in her life, and with every new challenge she furiously brainstormed problems and solutions.

She clicked through commands on her datapad and began working on server number eight.

While she worked, she thought about Burner and Sara and how they were doing over at the compound. Judy knew the mission was extraordinarily dangerous—she didn’t want to think about either of them getting killed, but she knew it was a very real possibility. Judy knew it would have been impossible for her to go with them with her busted arm, but that didn’t stop her from feeling guilty about it. She was here in the server room, working in relative safety, while they were risking their lives to take down Hardy and his ring.

She shook the thoughts about her friends off and turned her focus back onto hacking the servers. The eighth server’s security was slightly more robust than the ones which had come before it, but already Judy was able to begin theorizing ways to subvert it. She entered commands on her datapad and when one thing didn’t work, she simply moved on to another one. To get through the firewall on this server she’d need to implement code that looked like it was coming from the enemy database.

No sweat. She cracked her knuckles and started writing a program, her fingers flying in a blur over the keys. Within the space of a few minutes, she’d successfully spoofed a program as coming from friendly infrastructure. Another minute of rooting around in the server and she found the kill switch initiating the command to shut the whole thing down. She pressed the button and heard the unmistakable low drone of the server shutting down, its servo-mechanisms slowing and then finally stopping—forever. She smiled. Eight down, four to go.

Judy didn’t want to pat herself on the back or anything like that. After all, she still had plenty of work to do, and there was no guarantee that the remaining four servers would go down as smoothly as the ones that came before it. But she was feeling pretty good about herself, she had to admit. When she thought about where she’d started from, those terrifying nights when she was locked up at the fake shelter without even knowing her own name or where she came from—well, those had been dire times.

Now she was hungry for revenge.

Those assholes had thought she was nothing more than a mail-order bride, another vulnerable girl to be bought and sold like so many others. But they’d made a big mistake when they came after Judy Peterson. Now enough of her memories had survived, her skills were coming back, and she was about to make these guys regret their decision in a big way. She turned her focus back to taking down server number nine and already she thought she spied a few tricks that she could use to permanently corrupt it. Her datapad flashed and she grinned as she worked. Even the pain in her busted arm was almost nonexistent. It hung there uselessly, but she could ignore it. Let them come after her; she would take them all on, she mused. Soon server nine would fall, then ten, and then the last two and her part of the mission would be over.

She keyed in another command and listened to the satisfying hum of server nine shutting itself down for the last time.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

TECH CAVE, HARDY'S COMPOUND, DISTRICT OUTSKIRTS, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

“They don’t pay us enough for this,” complained Boris as he worked away at his computer, watching the display and shaking his head periodically when confronted with some new development that he wasn’t pleased with.

“This is exactly what they pay us for,” Margarita countered, busy at her own workstation. “They don’t have us on call at all hours for when things are going well.”

“Yes, but just shutting down the operation with no prior warning and now having to make sure that all the data is secure...”

“What’s the matter?” Ivan cut in. “Can’t handle it?”

Boris scoffed. “You give a math professor an arithmetic exam, he’ll be able to do it. That doesn’t mean he won’t get bored while he’s wasting his time.”

“So… this is a waste of time for you?”

Boris laughed. He might have been complaining, as was his nature, but the truth was he lived for this kind of thing. The high-pressure, high-stakes environment. This was where he thrived. Truth be told, it was where all of them thrived. The three had been working almost non-stop since the order was given to suspend operations and the group had been pulling fourteen-hour shifts. They had to make sure all the data was encrypted, all the servers were protected, and that the credits had been frozen in the right accounts, along with about a million other things that the boss would have depended on them for.

“I just like to talk when I’m working,” Boris mused. “It helps me focus.”

“Yes,” Ivan agreed. He was juggling his stress balls with one hand, typing with the other. He was quite deft at it, juggling the three balls in perfect precision without even looking at them. “Your talking helps me focus too, Boris.”

“Really?”

“No!” Ivan shouted, winging one of the stress balls at Boris.

Boris snickered and was able to dodge out of the way at the last second. Margarita smirked to herself, her eyes still fixed to her screen. Even Ivan had a grin on his face he couldn’t quite suppress.

“You guys are worse than a boys’ locker room,” Margarita chirped. “How’s our progress? Everything on track?”

“We’re on pace, as of now,” Ivan replied. “Financials are nearly set. All we’ve really got to worry about now are the servers and security systems. I know Boris is working on the security.”

“I’ve been monitoring the servers,” Margarita told him. “Everything looks okay from our end. I get the feeling it’s still going to be another few hours before we’re done here, though.”

Boris grunted. “No rest for the weary. Or, in our case, no rest for the trio of computer hackers who are superbly skilled, so skilled in fact, that they should be running their own frickin’ organization, not playing lackeys to a bunch of jumped up, wannabe mercenary thugs.”

“You’d better hope Frank’s not listening in on our conversation,” Ivan warned him.

Boris scoffed. “Frank? Frank would agree with me. You think he likes playing second fiddle to this Hardy character? The man’s been doing this since Hardy was in diapers. I’m sure he’d have his own say about running things, if it was up to him.”

“Yeah,” Margarita said. “Well, it’s good we can just focus on the computers and don’t have to make any of the tough decisions. I think I prefer it that way.”

Ivan leaned over in Margarita’s direction. “Marge, what’s the situation with the downtown servers? I know we picked up a virus a day or so back. Have there been any other attempts?”

Margarita shook her head. “None that I can tell. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the servers ever since. If they’re trying to get inside, I should be able to see them. I’ve got all it covered.”

Boris was frowning. “They couldn’t just hack their way in from anywhere on this thing,” he added, smacking the side of his console in a huff as if that would make it go any faster. “To get into the servers they’d need someone there on location—which they’d have to find. Then they’d have to get inside. It should be impossible.”

Ivan sounded aloof now, focused more on what he was doing. “I mean, I don’t disagree with you. It’s a longshot, but it is possible. What do you think, Marge?”

Margarita shrugged from behind her console’s screen. “I think it’s a moot point, since I’m monitoring the servers anyway. Even if someone made their way inside, they wouldn’t be able to move around undetected with me watching.”

She yawned, stretching her arms up behind her back. “I’m gonna go make some coffee. I need a pick-me-up, bad. You guys want?”

“None for me,” replied Ivan.

“Yes, please,” Boris answered. “You read my mind, Margie.”

“What would you like?”

“Whatever you’re having. Surprise me.”

“Don’t you have to stay watching the servers?” Ivan asked.

“It’s fine,” Margarita told him. “I’ve written a few patches to cover it. It’ll have my back for the five minutes I’m gone.”

She yawned again and wandered through to their tiny fitted kitchen attached to their work space. The kitchen itself was nothing to write home about—just an oven, a microwave, a few stove burners, and a sink. But Frank had convinced whoever was in charge of these decisions to splurge on a gourmet coffeemaker, which all three of them (even Ivan, who usually preferred tea to coffee) were ecstatic about. The thing was enormous and took up all the limited counter space. It was made of sleek, shiny metal, and there were hundreds of different options to choose from. Margarita dialed in two cappuccinos and stepped back to watch the machine puff and steam while it went to work.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

SERVER ROOM, DRUHOFF BUILDING, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Judy stopped mid-keystroke. Her gaze fell to her datapad. Someone working for the enemy had set up an automated process to monitor the servers. Only moments ago, she had deduced from her pings that there had to have been constant human surveillance. She’d noted the presence of another user inside the server architecture. But now that presence was gone, and it had been replaced with an automated watchdog. Better than nothing, but not nearly as astute as a set of human eyes would be. She guessed whoever had been logged in and watching the system was having dinner, or on a bathroom break or something.

Judy smiled. This was the break she needed. The final four servers had proven much more difficult to crack than the ones before them. They were being constantly monitored, and the encryption surrounding them was far more robust. But now that the human eyes were gone, Judy had her opportunity. She typed frantically, trying to override the security processes. With some luck, she’d soon be able to penetrate the system and get inside the servers, undetected. If that happened, she’d have full access. Not only could she shut down the remaining four servers, but she’d be privy to the information being sent between the server and the compound where Burner and Sara were.

There was no telling when a human would be back watching the system. This was her chance; it was now or never.

“Here goes nothing,” Judy whispered, as she hunched over her datapad and started typing as fast as she could.


37


Hardy's Compound, District Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Burner yanked his hostage forward, moving steadily toward the center of the building. It wasn’t long before they came upon the laser security station. Burner could see it ahead of him—a long row of expensive-looking equipment shining red lasers onto the entire floor, along with the wide staircase that led to the next level. It looked like Sara had been here already. He saw the scattered bodies of guards lying on the floor and dropped weapons, as if there had been a mad scramble. He knew Sara had been taking out the power generators, but he was almost certain the laser technology had redundant systems.

Burner was unsure. He wondered if he could just walk through them. After all, the compound was already on alert. It was possible all they would do was send another team down after him. But he didn’t know if triggering the lasers would trigger a complete lockdown which would shut him out of where he needed to go. He dragged the guard over to the security console and pointed his pistol at him.

“Shut this thing off.”

“I can’t,” the guard stammered. “It’s controlled remotely.”

“Then call someone to do it.”

“They won’t...” he yelped as Burner squeezed his collar harder. “Please, there’s nothing I can do.”

The man was useless. Short of killing him, Burner only saw one other way to shut him up and hit the guard with the stock of his weapon. Frustrated, Burner hit his comm and called Sara.

“I need some help, if you can talk.”

A few seconds later, an answer crackled in his ear. That was a relief. At least Sara was still in the fight.

“What’s up?” Sara’s voice came in high and clipped, alert, but it didn’t sound like she was in any imminent danger. “I’m down in the bowels here with the power cables,” she told him.

“I’m at the laser security checkpoint,” Burner informed her. He had his gun at the ready, aware that at any moment more security guards could come rushing down.

“I’m working on shutting it down.”

Burner paused for a moment before speaking. “What will happen if I go through?”

“I’m not sure. The steel doors have all come down and right now there’s no way to get through to the center and find Hardy.”

“I see a staircase leading up. You’re telling me the doors up there are closed off?”

“I think so, yeah. I’m working on taking down the entire security system, which will disable the locks but it’s a bit of a process.”

Burner checked his surroundings. The bank of laser emitters led up to the stairs, which was a decent enough bottleneck. But there was an area of wide-open space behind him with abandoned control stations and little booths connected to one another, with clear glass panes in front of them and few places to hide.

“When the lasers disappear, you’ll be clear to keep going. Until then, you’re going to be stuck there.”

Burner watched the red lasers flashing across the room, dancing off the walls and covering every area of space past the security machines.

“All right,” Burner told her. “I’ll be in contact with you when I can.”

“Okay. Out.”

The comms clicked off.

Burner knew he was vulnerable out here. He’d be completely exposed if more guards came looking for him, and he couldn’t rely on another blackout to save his ass. He needed to set up some fortifications. Gathering whatever he could—chairs, tables, pieces of loose equipment—he fashioned a makeshift cover, a protective barrier in the corner of the room. It wouldn’t guarantee protection against bullets, but it would at least obscure him from view. Last, he secured the guard as best he could in case the man woke up. That done, he glanced hopefully at the laser bank, but they were still there, beaming across the room.

Burner moved over to inspect the dead guards who were sprawled out in various poses on the floor. He patted down one body after another and found grenades and ammo. One of the dead guards had four grenades strapped to his belt. What the hell he had planned to do with them was anyone’s guess, but now that their previous owner had left to the great beyond, Burner had some use for them.

There was an old trick one of his Union commanders had taught him a long time ago in some desert or training ground Burner had long forgotten the name of. You would tie some string to the pin of the grenade and the other end to something solid. Then you’d lay the string across the ground where the enemy would be coming. Next you pull the pin on the grenade, then put the pin back in, but only loosely, so that the slightest tension would free the pin and set it off. Finally, you hide the grenade somewhere out of sight and get the hell out of the blast zone.

Burner took the laces from the dead guards’ boots and got to work laying traps all around the room. He picked points of entry, where guards would likely be rushing in. They’d be focused on Burner and whether they were getting shot at, not what was on the floor in front of them. He hid the grenades in a few loose shoes, underneath a crumpled shirt and beneath the corpse of one of the guards. Ahead, the lasers were still dancing across the room, oblivious to the fact that Burner very badly needed them to go away.

All his preparations were complete. There was nothing else he could do but hole up and pray that his traps activated as planned. He could hear the faint sounds of commotion growing louder, footsteps and shouting and men giving orders. They were coming from the far side of the room, down the stairs. Burner guessed therefore they’d have to all bottleneck through the narrow corridor leading through the lasers and the security machines. This meant they’d be passing right over the grenades. It was a long shot, but if the grenades took enough of them out, Burner might just be able to mop up what was left.

Then again, none of that mattered if Sara couldn’t get the security system disabled. Burner might be able to survive one wave of enemies, but he knew they’d just keep sending more and more after him and eventually he wouldn’t be able to fight them off. He hunched down behind the tables and chairs, trying to get his breathing into a steady rhythm. The voices and footsteps from above grew louder. It was just about time.

Burner’s finger tensed on the trigger. Peering over the edge of his cover, he saw the team coming for him, another squad of armor-clad soldiers marching down the stairs in sets of two. This time, there were six of them. They moved in a tight formation at a disciplined, careful pace. The first grenade was placed off to the side, just where the soldiers would pass through the lasers. The idea was that Burner would rake them with gunfire then they’d run for cover and in the process trip the booby trap. But they were moving slowly and methodically. This might not work. They crept through the grid of lasers until they were just about level with the hidden grenade.

Then the squad leader put up a closed hand. The men behind him stopped dead. Burner swallowed. The squad leader looked around and seemed to notice Burner’s work. He waved his arm forward and he and his men continued.

Burner raised the submachine gun up over his shoulder and blind-fired in the direction of the soldiers. There was no chance he would hit anything, but that wasn’t the point. He heard shouting and scrambling, quick steps as the soldiers moved to get clear of the line of fire. A second or two passed, then Burner heard one of the men shout a warning.

“Grenade!”

Burner popped up from behind the barricade, timing his movement with the explosion of the grenade. There was a tremendous crash and a puff of black smoke filled the air. Burner saw one guy go down, missing most of his legs, and another was knocked backward by the blast. The other four were moving for cover near the far wall, but Burner had cleared out nearly everything that could be used to hide behind. He sprayed bullets in their direction, ducking back out of sight when they returned fire. Bullets clanged off the tables, ricocheting around him in all directions. A moment later, he popped up again and fired, nailing a clean headshot on another one of the soldiers whose helmet went flying off as the body dropped to the ground.

But these guys had grenades of their own. One of them landed at Burner’s feet and he was only just able to kick it away before the thing blew up in his face. More bullets passed through his barricade, shredding it. It was an endless fusillade of fire, all directed at him. The thing wasn’t going to last much longer.

Burner had one grenade he’d kept for himself. He feinted right, firing around that side before darting to the left, just in time to see one of the soldiers break off from the other two and run forward, trying to take cover next to another. The only problem was another of his traps was hidden beneath the body. The soldier didn’t clock it. He trampled over the shoelace, knelt in a firing position next to the body, and shortly thereafter exploded into an unidentifiable bloody mess.

Three down; three to go.

They lobbed another grenade at Burner. The guy weak-armed it and it landed short, but the explosion was enough to rock Burner’s world for a moment. He peered around and saw the remaining three soldiers retreating backward toward the stairs. Either they were trying to regroup, or they were waiting for reinforcements. Neither of those things Burner wanted to see happen.

Burner fired from the left side trying to draw the men into taking cover beside the lasers on the right. He loaded his last magazine and sent a volley in their direction, leading them to scramble behind the bulky laser emitters as he’d planned. Not letting go of the trigger, used his free hand to toss his last grenade at the console.

The throw came up short, but the grenade skidded across the floor and landed flush against the machines. The soldiers, huddled on the other side, couldn’t see it. Even if they had, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The machine came apart with it, sending fragments of steel and glass into the warm bodies next to it. Burner abandoned his fortress and raced forward ready to clean up the stragglers. As he approached, he saw there was no need. The three soldiers had been shredded, lying in a gory mess as if they’d been trapped inside a food blender. It was about that time he realized all the lasers had gone off as well. As if to cement it home his electronic pulse buzzed.

Burner gathered ammunition and raced up the stairs. He figured Hardy’s office or control room or whatever he called it would be high up in the compound. Burner made his way up, climbing spiraling staircases. The metal barriers had all been disabled and he was able to move freely from room to room, heading past an empty barracks filled with rows of cots and lockers and an armory that sat locked behind a thick metal gate. This part of the building was eerily quiet. He emerged into a hallway with art on the walls, fancy embossed wallpaper, and vases along with opulent red carpet. This wasn’t where the rank and file ran their operations. This was where the VIPs hung out, the big boys. He was close.

Burner moved quickly and quietly down the hallway. A soldier came out from one of the adjoining rooms, a rifle slung across his chest. His face barely registered surprise before Burner shot him in the face without breaking stride. At the end of the hall was a large door, guarded by a retinal scanner. He now regretted shooting the guard in the face. He could have used his eye to gain access. As it turned out, there was no need after all; Sara’s work had effectively disabled all the security systems. The retinal scanner blinked an error message, and when Burner tried the door, he found it was locked only with a simple deadbolt. He shuffled back half a step and smashed it open with his boot, then he stepped inside.

He emerged into a giant room. It looked like a combination of a living room and an office. There was a giant war table in the middle, and near it two men were talking. One was an older guy with gray hair, and the other was a tall, fit man with crew cut hair and a scar on one side of his upper lip. That was Hardy. It had to be.

Burner swiveled his gun. Hardy’s reaction time was quick, and he’d moved, putting the massive steel table between them. The older man took a few seconds longer to realize what was going on. When he did, he ran toward a door on the far side of the room as fast as his legs could carry him. He didn’t seem like much of an immediate threat, so Burner let him go.

Hearing footsteps behind him, Burner whirled around just in time for a hand the size of a dinner plate to swoop down and rip the gun out of his arms. It was like taking candy from a baby. The gun disappeared from his hands and Burner now stood face to face with one of the biggest men he’d ever seen. He was puzzled how a man so big had managed to get the drop on him. Burner went for his pistol, but the man once again just reached down and took it from him, then he snapped the thing in two with his bare hands.

“That’s Nigel, my bodyguard.” Burner turned and saw Hardy, who was back standing up behind his desk, dusting himself off and grinning. “He’s not a big fan of uninvited guests.”

Nigel took a step forward. Burner took a step back. Hardy was just standing to the side watching them, amused. Nigel was unarmed as far as Burner could tell, but it didn’t really seem to matter. The way he’d taken the weapon out of Burner’s hands, it was likely he could just reach down and crush Burner’s head like a melon. Burner moved back another several paces, trying to decide what to do. Just then, his comm clicked on and he heard Judy’s voice in his ear.

“Not a good time,” Burner started.

“Burner. I’m nearly done taking down the servers. Another minute or so. But I think they’ve found me. I don’t think I’m gonna make it out of here.”

“Forget the servers,” he told her as Nigel circled around him, waiting to strike. “Just get out of there.”

“No!” Judy argued. “This is our only chance. Besides, leaving now won’t make any difference. I just wanted to say… it’s been an honor.” Her voice cracked and the comm clicked off again.

Burner’s stomach sank.

Nigel came closer, a wide smile on his face. Burner gritted his teeth and instead of retreating backward again, he stepped in to meet him.

“All right, you pituitary freak,” Burner taunted. “Let’s see if you can fight worth a damn.”

Burner cracked his knuckles and rushed forward.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

SERVER ROOM, DRUHOFF BUILDING, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Judy hung up the comm, relieved she could at least let them know the state of play.

Something beeped. The program she’d been running on the fly had done its thing. She glanced down at her datapad. One more keystroke and it would all be over. The servers would be shut down and the trafficking ring would be completely out of commission. She took a breath and pressed the button. There were the final sounds of the servers powering down and the whir of servo motors coming to a halt. The flashing lights began to fade out, one by one, all throughout the server room. She had done it. It was finished.

Outside in the hallway, she knew they were coming for her. She heard shouting, heavy footsteps, and men giving orders. It was very likely there would be no way out. But there was no way in hell she was going down without a fight.

Judy picked up her pistol, cocked it, and aimed it at the door. She waited. A single bead of sweat rolled down her temple. The clamor in the hallway grew louder. And louder. Then, without warning, the door blew open in a burst of white smoke.

Judy began to fire.


38


Hardy's Room, Hardy's Compound, District Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Nigel and Burner circled around each other, each of them feinting and weaving, trying to bait the other into making a mistake. Throughout, Hardy watched from his massive war table. He shouted encouragement at his bodyguard, but overall, he seemed at ease—like he was watching a casual sporting event.

There was nothing in the immediate vicinity Burner could use as a weapon. There was a bookshelf on the far end of the room, along with a large window and some random figurines on Hardy’s desk. Aside from that there was a lot of empty space. Burner danced forward and landed a jab into Nigel’s side, right above his liver. Any normal man would have been on the ground, writhing in agony after a blow like that. Nigel didn’t react. He merely smiled and brushed Burner aside, as if a fly had landed on him. This was not looking good.

Nigel ran forward with a sudden quickness that caught Burner off guard. He tried to take a step backward but stumbled. Nigel lifted him off his feet and tossed him through the air and across the room, where Burner landed hard on his shoulder. He cursed in pain, as Hardy and Nigel began laughing at him.

“Not the most graceful fall,” Hardy taunted. “Never learned how to land into a roll?”

Burner got to his feet, breathing hard and shaking himself off. Nigel was approaching again. He needed some kind of weapon, some way of making up for Nigel’s enormous height, strength, and reach advantage. But there was nothing he could use. There were a few heavy vases near Hardy’s desk, but he doubted either Hardy or Nigel would just let him waltz over there and take them.

Assess. Plan. Act.

Think, Burner. A guy Nigel’s size probably never learned how to fight. At least not with any sort of proper technique. With him, fights were probably over before they started. But even fighting skills wouldn’t be much help to Burner. No way he could go toe to toe with this guy. If he tried some fancy headlock, Nigel would just shake him off, fling him into the wall, and stomp him to death. If his body shot to the liver had no effect, then he doubted a punch to the face would be much better. Burner simply wasn’t strong enough to hurt him.

A structure’s only as strong as its weakest link, Burner thought. What’s the weakest part of any big guy? His knees.

Nigel moved forward, slamming his fist into his open palm and grinning. Going for the knees was his only play. From the way Nigel was moving, it seemed his knees were a little stiff, now that he came to think of it. The giant was taking short strides, little mincing steps. Maybe that’s why Burner hadn’t heard him sneak up behind him. It was a long shot, but at this point he was out of better ideas.

Nigel swung an enormous arm and hit Burner in the face with a sideways palm. Not much more than a slap, but Burner felt like a starship had fallen on him. He staggered to one knee, fireworks going off in his head, his vision blurring. Slowly, he got back to his feet. He took a half-step backward, as if retreating, and then jumped forward and kicked the side of Nigel’s left knee as hard as he could. He heard a snap and Nigel cried out in pain. Now it was his turn to go down on one knee.

Had it been anyone else with the force Burner used, they wouldn’t have been able to get back up. But Nigel was up again in a matter of moments. Burner watched, bewildered, his mind scratching for his next move. He started shuffling backward, trying to regroup. Trying to come up with another plan. Something that might have half a chance of working against this oaf.

Nigel drew himself back to full height, his eyes now glaring at his opponent. It seemed all Burner had succeeded in doing was pissing him off. With a snarl, Nigel charged Burner again. Though he was rattled now, Burner was easily able to sidestep him. Nigel stopped short, his face contorted in a hateful grimace. He swung a wild haymaker that would have taken off Burner’s head had it connected. Burner ducked and darted backward. He did the same feint where he faked a retreat and then moved forward and smashed his boot into Nigel’s knee again.

Hardy stood still, watching but not saying anything. Nigel again went to one knee, and this time Burner knew that if he got up again, he would quit playing around and kill him. So Burner couldn’t let him get up. He smashed his boot into Nigel’s knee, his shin, over and over again—quick, powerful blows, then he darted backward out of reach of Nigel’s arms, which were trying to pull him in. He kicked again and again, until finally Burner heard the unmistakable snap of bone and Nigel collapsed to the floor, moaning in agony. He tried once again to get up, made a horrific, high-pitched shriek as he tried to put weight on the damaged limb, and promptly fell back down. He rolled over to haul himself up onto his other knee and crawled toward Burner, who was careful to keep his distance. Even with one leg taken out, if Nigel got Burner on the floor, he could crush him.

Burner simply moved out of the way. The fight was over.

“Not bad,” Hardy said, coming out from around the table. “I’ve never seen Nigel lose a fight. Of course, most people are smart enough to just run away. But you’re a different breed, I guess.”

Hardy moved as if to pull his sidearm. Out of options, Burner dove toward the giant desk to take cover.

Instead, Hardy walked calmly toward him, dusting his jacket sleeves. Off to the side, Nigel was still sprawled on the ground, moaning in agony.

“I could just shoot you, Burner, but I don’t have to. I’d rather take you out up close after all the trouble you’ve caused me.”

Burner moved into a fighting stance and raised his fists.

“Bring it on, asshole. After taking down your goon here, fighting you should be a walk in the park.”

Hardy grinned. “You think so, do you? Well, let’s see.”

They stepped in closer and circled around one another, neither of them seeming keen to make the first move. Burner was breathing raggedly, and his limbs felt heavy. Moving them took a great deal of effort. It was clear Hardy had a decided advantage at this point. Burner had been fighting his way through the compound, getting bruised and beaten, tossed around by the hulking Nigel, who had finally gone quiet and lay sprawled on the floor. Hardy, on the other hand, was completely fresh. He’d been sitting up here in his office the entire time, watching it all play out. But at least he and Burner were roughly the same size.

Hardy danced forward and kicked Burner in the sternum. It was like a wrecking ball had swung directly into him. He flew backward and fell to the floor, sucking for breath. All the air had been knocked out of him.

Bionics,” Hardy explained, seeing Burner’s confusion. “Cybernetics, technically, I guess is what they call it. But with those guys, usually, it’s pretty obvious. Metal limbs, optics, all that good stuff. You can spot them from a kilometer away, glinting in the sunlight. The thing is, Burner, when you’ve got enough money, you can get your enhancements placed under the skin. The same oomph, but a little less conspicuous. It gives one a sense of security. Even when people are breaking into my compound and throwing a wrench into my plans.”

It took a tremendous amount of willpower, but Burner was able to get back onto his feet. He was taking sucking breaths now, his entire torso throbbing in pain. There was only a certain type of person crazy enough to get cybernetics implanted. The pain endured during the recovery process was said to be tremendous. Burner, with his regular, unenhanced body wouldn‘t stand a chance against Hardy’s implanted steel.

Hardy jabbed at Burner’s nose, and Burner dodged back. Hardy’s fist grazed off Burner’s face, and by its incredible firmness Burner knew his arm was enhanced as well. Even the graze off Burner’s cheek opened a cut. Burner wiped away the dripping blood and sneered.

He grimaced and locked eyes with Hardy. “Real tough guy you are. Kidnapping women to be bought and sold.”

Hardy shrugged and motioned around. “Look at this place, Burner. This is where I live. I have my couch over there, my aquarium, my war table. The girls will be sent to domestic settings just like this one. Maybe even nicer than mine. Their lives are going to get better, not worse.”

“You really believe that?” Burner shot back.

“They were weak,” Hardy said without emotion. “I exploited them. That’s the law of the universe. The strong come out on top.”

Burner darted forward and sent an elbow to Hardy’s head. Hardy dodged aside, but the blow still caught him and shook him. He rubbed his temple, a little surprised but essentially unfazed.

“Pretty good,” Hardy taunted. “Still pretty quick for an old guy.”

“What bent you?” Burner asked. “Rough childhood? Daddy didn’t love you enough?”

Hardy smiled, but something flashed in his eyes. There was a kernel of truth in what Burner had said. He could tell.

“I had to be strong,” Hardy sneered. “Feelings just get in the way. If the girls didn’t want their memories erased, they should have seen it coming. If I had listened to my feelings, I’d just be another sap. Instead, I’m a rich man. Rich and powerful. And the powerful people make the rules, Burner. That’s how it’s always been.”

Hardy dove for Burner’s legs, knocking him to the ground. Burner squirmed, trying to get free of Hardy’s grasp. If Hardy got his weight on top of him, he’d be able to crush him with his cybernetics. Burner flopped on his side then grabbed Hardy in a bear hug, using all his strength to lift him into the air and toss him aside. Hardy landed hard on his Persian rug, which spanned the length of the room. He rose, charging at Burner, but he slipped on the rug and Burner was able to once again break free.

Hardy licked his lips. “While you’re here dicking around with me, my hit team is taking out your partner in the server room. Did you really think we wouldn’t find her? She’s got a bullet in her head by now.”

Burner went quiet. It felt like an icy vine had wrapped itself around his heart. Hardy’s face was cool and calm, betraying no hint that he was making it up. Burner’s limbs felt weak.

“You really think it was your skill that got you here?” Hardy continued. “I knew you could never touch me, Burner. Otherwise I would have posted triple the security. Just face it. I’m enhanced. You’re just a normal guy, who fancies himself some elite assassin. And guess what? All of it was for nothing.”

Hardy clicked on his comm. A moment later, two soldiers burst into the room, dragging Sara by her hair. Her face was bruised and bloody, but she still fought against the men, who slid her across the floor while pointing their guns at her.

“Sara!” Burner shouted.

She turned to him, a flash of hope in her blue eyes. But there was nothing either of them could do. The guards made her kneel and one of them put his rifle to her head.

“Not yet,” Hardy instructed. “I want her to watch Burner die first. A little revenge for coming into my home and mucking up my security system.”

One of the guards kept his gun trained on Sara, while the other took a bead on Burner. Hardy cracked his neck and once again raised his fists. He was taking this personally, Burner realized. He viewed them more as an annoyance than a threat. That’s why he was spending so much time toying with them. Maybe Burner could use that overconfidence to his advantage.

“Guess you never got laid much in school,” Burner taunted, as Hardy let loose with a spinning roundhouse kick that came centimeters from taking Burner’s head off. “No wonder you have to drug and kidnap women. You’re just a loser, full of metal implants. Why would any woman want to be with a freak like you?”

Hardy tried a right hook, but he telegraphed it badly. Burner knew he couldn’t block Hardy’s metal arm, so he dodged left and grabbed it once Hardy had spent his momentum. Burner yanked him backward. Hardy went stumbling forward, spinning around with a scowl on his face.

“You don’t know anything about me.” Hardy’s voice was low now.

“So many implants,” Burner continued. “I wonder what other work you’ve had done?”

He looked pointedly at Hardy’s groin. The man cursed and tried for a vicious headbutt, which Burner was able to sidestep. Burner glanced at Sara, who was still on her knees, watching the fight intensely. He knew she was planning, calculating, just like he would have been doing in her shoes. He was counting on her to make some kind of move if he was able to get the upper hand on Hardy. She had two guards close by, but their proximity might help her. The guards might have trouble getting off a shot with Sara in their faces.

But he still had the problem of Hardy to deal with in the meantime. Hardy was getting worked up. Burner’s barbs were clearly affecting him. For the first time, the veneer of the cold, calculated killer slipped away and Burner saw what was underneath: unchecked rage, pure and simple. With a fire blazing in his eyes, Hardy once again charged Burner, sending a flying kick to Burner’s midsection. A full-on blow would have ruptured every organ in Burner’s stomach, but he twisted left and only felt the glancing hit of Hardy’s heel, which still felt like being barreled over by a hover train. When Hardy landed, he exposed his neck for a split-second and Burner pounced, sending a kick of his own into Hardy’s soft Adam’s apple. Hardy staggered back, gasping and sputtering. As he wheezed for air, one of his guards rushed into the fray.

“Let me take him out!” he shouted, aiming his rifle at Burner.

“No!” Hardy snatched the gun away and shot his own man, spraying him down with the entire magazine. The guard crumpled in a heap of blood and gore and Hardy tossed the clicking rifle aside. The other guard, who still had his rifle aimed at Sara’s head, now looked unsure. He kept his position.

One down, Burner thought.

Hardy turned his attention back on Burner. You’re not getting off that easily.” He smiled. For all the damage Burner thought he had done, Hardy looked at ease. Like he had barely even started. Burner, on the other hand, could barely stand. Hardy darted forward and Burner retreated, backpedaling weakly. He didn’t have much energy left.

He felt a pulse on his arm. His eyes darted to Sara, who raised her head the slightest fraction, looking at the guard above her. With her hands cuffed behind her back, she was still able to send five more pulses to him. Burner nodded, moving his head the tiniest bit. He understood what it meant.

Five seconds. Then we move.

One. Hardy came at Burner once again, but Burner refused to engage. He circled around until he faced Hardy, with the guard and Sara a few meters directly behind him. Two. Burner tensed his legs, trying to gauge how much strength was left in them. He dropped low, like he was going to try and take Hardy in a wrestling hold. Hardy laughed. Three.

“What are you doing, old man? Losing your touch?”

Four.

Hardy went low now, mimicking Burner’s body language. Burner took a step forward, still hunched, like he was trying to grapple. Five.

Then, Burner took a running leap and launched himself off Hardy’s lowered shoulders. He sprung into the air like he was bouncing off a trampoline. Burner was airborne, coming down directly at the one remaining guard. The guard raised his rifle, at the same time Sara took out his legs with a spinning sweep. The guard fell backward, and Burner landed on top of him. Burner stomped his head and picked up the rifle. Hardy, who had realized what was happening, charged at them, his face contorted in rage. Burner fired.

Bullets tore through Hardy’s gut and his legs, clanging off the metal implants but also finding plenty of flesh and blood. Hardy went down, bleeding from a dozen new holes. He lay on the floor, his breath ragged.

Burner raised the gun. “Survival of the fittest, huh, Hardy? By that logic, I should just shoot you now. No trial. No defense. By your own logic, you have this coming.”

Hardy didn‘t reply. He just grinned, revealing a row of bloodstained teeth, like a shark’s. Burner’s finger tensed on the trigger. Then, in one fluid motion, Sara grabbed her knife from her belt and sent it flying into Hardy’s forehead. Hardy fell backward and the light went out of his eyes.

Burner and Sara stood there, breathing hard, surrounded by blood and bodies. They embraced. But Burner’s mind was already racing toward other things.

He thumbed his comm. “Judy, it’s Burner. Come in!”

There was no reply. The comm kept ringing and ringing, the sound echoing in Burner’s head. He and Sara exchanged a look of despair.

Hardy had been telling the truth. He’d sent his hit team to take out Judy, and they had succeeded.


39


Server Room, Druhoff Building, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Judy aimed her pistol at the door and fired. The first soldier who came through took a bullet directly to the face. His body slumped to the floor, blocking the path for the rest of them. Judy backed up, still firing, as more soldiers stormed into the server room. They’d used an explosive charge to blow off the door and smoke was everywhere. Judy ran and ducked behind one of the servers, just as a hail of bullets came her way. They glanced off the hard metal surface of the servers, but they wouldn’t offer protection for much longer. She reached her gun around out of cover and fired until the clip was empty, then she pulled it back. Clumsily, she reloaded as fast as she could with an injured arm. A grenade skidded to her feet, and her heart leapt into her throat. Without thinking, she moved—dashing across the way to another server.

An instant later an explosion erupted behind her.

She peered around the rim of the server and saw two more soldiers coming at her, both of them firing. One of their weapons clicked empty and Judy pounced, popping off shots from her pistol as fast as her finger could pull the trigger. Her bullets found their targets, and the two men collapsed with holes in their chests. But more of them were coming. It was hopeless. She only had a few bullets left and she was badly outnumbered.

Judy made her way around the servers to her right, flanking the soldiers by looping around to the other end of the room. There was no way to tell how many soldiers were here attacking her position, or how many more were out in the hallway waiting to get in on the action. Judy darted back around the stacks, poked her weapon through between servers, and fired. The soldiers whirled around to get a bead on her position. They seemed to realize they were being flanked and tried to reverse course. Her bullets downed another of them, and the remaining soldier gave an order with his hands, maybe trying a flanking maneuver of their own.

Not bad for a solo effort, she thought.

She stuck her gun through between the stacks she was hiding behind and fired again, only to hear the sad click of an empty magazine. Her mind scrambled. If she could somehow get to the door and get a running start on these guys, maybe she could escape. If she could find an exit and get out onto the street, there was a slim chance she could get clear. She and Burner had done it before, escaping from the warehouse where they’d been holed up after it had been attacked by Hardy’s men. Sure, they’d been lucky that time and had managed to slip away through a sewer drain.

More soldiers crowded into the doorway.

Fine. If they were going to try and smoke her out, she’d bring the fight to them. Let them see how they like it.

Judy darted out from behind the servers and grabbed one of the men. She whirled him around in front of her until he was facing his partner, who had his weapon aimed, but he didn’t want to shoot his buddy. She used him as a human shield and dragged him down behind the servers, the two of them scuffling on the floor. The soldier went for his gun. Judy grabbed it too, and it went skating across the room. Grunting, Judy wrapped her good arm around his head and began to twist. She heard him crying and pleading for her to stop, but there was no way in hell she was going to. She wrenched harder, using all of her strength, pushing up on her feet for leverage, and eventually she heard the soldier’s neck break with a sickening crack.

She glanced up.

The other soldier was less than a meter from her, his submachine gun pointed at her head. There was nowhere for her to run. Nothing for her to do.

This is it, she thought, more disappointed than afraid. She wished she’d have been able to take more of them out before she went down. At least I went out fighting.

The soldier’s finger tightened around the trigger. Judy closed her eyes and waited for the shot. But when it came, it wasn’t the clean, triple burst of a submachine gun. Instead it was stark and loud, the report of a powerful magnum. She opened her eyes just in time to see the aftermath of the soldier’s head exploding in a miasma of blood and bone. The warm and bitty gore showered over Judy, getting into her eyes and up her nose. She exhaled sharply through her nose and shook her head quickly.

She heard the footsteps of whoever fired the shot. They were moving away, back out of the server room. She half wondered what had happened to the group of guards at the door. Were they in on it? Had they just left?

But her mind was mostly dominated with wanting to know who had fired that kill shot.

“Hey!” Judy yelled. “Come back here!”

She stumbled to her feet, falling over the dead body with the broken neck. She was a little woozy, and showered in blood, but no worse for the wear. Inside the server room, all the attacking soldiers lay dead. She paused for a half a second to register it. Then, barely thinking, Judy ran out, following the sound of the footsteps. There were more dead soldiers, a trail of corpses leading down the corridor to what looked like a fire exit. Judy raced forward just in time to see a figure opening the door and slipping out. All she could make out was the stranger’s back, whipping away.

And then they were gone.

“Wait!” she called out. “Who are you?”

Judy ran to the door and opened it, the fresh air blowing against her. She wiped more blood from her face. Whoever it was, they were gone. Vanished.

Judy stood there for a moment, dumbstruck. She realized that her comm had been ringing for the last several minutes. In all the shooting and commotion, she hadn’t even heard it. She answered and it was Burner on the other line. Her heart lit up.

“Burner! Is that you?”

“Judy!” Burner’s voice sounded ragged, but it was unmistakably him. “What happened? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she told him. “They sent a hit squad after me, but someone saved me. I have no idea who. What about you?”

“I’m here with Sara. We’re all right. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Judy answered. “Somehow, I’m fine.”

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Hank rounded the corner of the building, his trench coat flapping in the breeze. He wiped some blood off his pistol then tucked it beneath his coat. He stepped out into the street and hailed a taxi-shuttle. Everyone was always giving him grief for tracking their movements, but sometimes it was for their own benefit. It was foolish for Judy to try and tackle such a complicated mission on her own, especially with only one arm. No, not foolish—downright suicidal.

Which is why Hank decided to step in. Sure, Judy wasn’t part of his team, not technically. But she and Sara were working together and so he felt it was his duty to assist her if he could. It had been easy enough to track her to the server room. The shootout had been another thing, but that was why he put in his time at the gun range, wasn’t it?

Finally, Hank managed to hail a cab and he climbed inside. As the taxi took off into the air, a smile spread slowly across his face. He figured he’d probably tell Judy eventually that he was the one who helped her. But for right now, he was content to let it remain a mystery.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

HARDY'S ROOM, HARDY'S COMPOUND, DISTRICT OUTSKIRTS, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Upon hearing Judy’s voice, Burner’s heart soared. She was alive! He had no idea how, but he wasn’t about to question it. “Where are you? Are you safe?”

“Yeah. Had a little scrap getting out of the server room, but someone showed up to help me out.”

“Someone showed up? Who?”

“I have no idea,” Judy replied. “But whoever it was saved my ass. I owe them a drink. I’m also covered in blood and look a mess. I need to get myself cleaned up before anyone sees me like this. But all in all, I’m good. Even the arm feels a little bit better.”

“We’re okay over here,” Burner replied. “Hardy’s dead. We’re cleaning up some loose ends right now, but it looks like the danger’s over. Let’s meet up at the rendezvous spot and we’ll debrief when we get there, okay?”

“Sure,” Judy agreed. There was a note of wonderment in her voice. “I can’t believe we actually did it.”

“Me neither, Judy. We’ll see you soon.” The comms clicked off. Sara watched him hopefully, but it was clear from the tone of his voice that she’d been able to follow most of the conversation.

“She’s all right,” Burner told her. “They were somehow able to track her position. It sounded like she was surrounded and probably going to get killed. She said a mysterious person showed up to help her. She has no idea who it was.”

“That’s weird. Someone knew she was there and went to help her? Who do you think it could be?”

“I have no idea. Someone on our side, I guess. We should be thanking them.” Burner’s eyes suddenly darted to the exit on the far side of the room. It seemed like hours ago now, but he remembered a gray-haired guy who had skedaddled as soon as Burner arrived on the scene. He had seemed important, like one of Hardy’s close confidants, and Burner didn’t want him escaping. He leveled his gun and began walking with purpose toward the door.

Sara eyed him, confused. “Where are you going, Burner?”

“To take care of some unfinished business.”

Sara put a hand on his shoulder. “If you’re talking about the old guy, I already handled him. Before the guards got the jump on me. Let’s just say he won’t be taking any more golfing trips anytime soon.”

Burner stopped in his tracks. He turned back to Sara, shaking his head in disbelief. “You took care of him?”

She nodded. “Except for the senator, all the upper echelon has been wiped out, I think. Well, if they were here. It’s just the lower-level guys who’ve scattered. We can track them down, but it’s going to take some time.”

Burner exhaled, letting all the air out of his lungs in a long, slow breath. He raised his arms in wonderment.

“We actually did it, huh?”

Sara grinned. “Looks that way. But let’s keep our guard up. We wouldn’t want to get taken out by some asshole straggler during our escape, now would we?”

“No.” Burner shook his head. “We wouldn’t.” The bodies of Hardy, Nigel, and the others lay all around them, the last remnants of the traffickers and their sick endeavors. The floor was a bloody mess, and the walls were riddled with bullet holes. Hardy’s vases and artwork had been shredded in the melee and the computer on his desk was smoking and sputtering. Burner went over to the giant table in the middle of the room where Hardy had his maps and strategic pieces laid out. He picked up one of the figures and turned it over in his hands. “Hardy really fancied himself a mastermind, huh? What a sick bastard.”

Sara kicked Hardy’s corpse then reached down to retrieve her knife from his forehead. It came out slowly, with a sickening slurping noise as Sara pulled it free. She wiped the blood off on his shirt and replaced it back in its sheath. “Dude was a stone-cold psychopath. The world’s a better place without him. You think we’ve taken the trafficking ring down for good?”

Burner nodded. “I think it’s mission accomplished. I don’t think we have to worry about this particular head of the hydra growing back. Not with their cyber-network being taken down and Hardy biting the dust. It will take whoever’s left over years to rebuild. An operation this complex doesn‘t just get up and running overnight.”

He winced, struck by a sudden sharp pain in his side.

“You all right?” Sara asked him.

He grunted. “I’m fine. At least compared to these guys.” He motioned around him. “Just not as young as I used to be. I’ve been beat up quite a bit today. A lot more than I’m used to. I have to say, I’m glad it’s over.”

“Me too. Now what do you say we get the hell out of here?”

“You read my mind.”

The two of them started out of Hardy’s massive room, leaving the scene of blood and bodies behind.


40


Tech Cave, Hardy's Compound, District Outskirts, Goya District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

“What the hell is going on out there?” Ivan shouted. Boris scurried back from the staircase, his eyes wide and his frizzy hair even more untamed than usual. The three of them had held their post in the tech cave for as long as they could, but the sounds of mayhem emanating from the rest of the compound had finally unsettled them to the point where they knew they needed to take action.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “But it doesn’t sound good. It sounds like never ending gunshots and explosions. Either some outside force is attacking the compound, or they’re infighting. Or who the hell knows what.”

“The guards are gone?” Margarita asked. “All of them?”

“I saw them racing down the hallway out to the other wing,” Boris replied. “This whole wing is deserted. They’re not watching us anymore, that’s for sure. “I guess they either joined the fight, or they’ve booked it out of here.”

“I think that’s what we should do,” Ivan suggested.

Margarita bit her nails. “I don’t know. You know what will happen if we get caught. Think about what Hardy would do.”

Ivan waved his arms around. “Look outside! Everyone’s gone. We’re going to get killed in the crossfire if we stay here. No one’s keeping us locked up anymore. Screw these assholes. I don’t want to die for them.”

Boris clapped Ivan on the shoulder. “For once, I agree with our friend Ivan here. Let’s get out while we still can.”

The sound of gunshots was drawing closer. Whatever was happening, none of them wanted to be caught in the middle of it. Throughout their time there they hadn’t been allowed to leave their wing and the thought of doing it now was strange, almost like they were breaking the rules. But their tech cave wouldn’t be safe for very much longer, and it didn’t seem as if they had much of a choice.

“All right,” Margarita agreed calmly. She twisted her bright red hair back into a bun. “Should we wipe the data first?”

“Forget the data!” Boris yelled. He took Margarita by the arm, tugging her gently. “We need to move!”

Margarita started to protest but allowed herself to be pulled down the corridor leading away from the tech wing. Halfway to the stairs, she seemed to have adjusted to the plan. “What are we going to do once we get beyond the walls? We’re out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“We’ll take a shuttle,” Ivan suggested. “Any of us can hack into one of their systems in seconds. Considering half the people in the compound could be dead by now, I don’t think they’ll miss one.”

“Let’s just hope Hardy’s among them,” Boris said, sneering, as they made their way into one of the towers and down the long spiral staircase.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

HARDY'S COMPOUND, DISTRICT OUTSKIRTS, GOYA DISTRICT, DOBULLA UX8, UNION SPACE

Burner and Sara marched through the giant, auditorium-like space, the floor around them covered with scattered corpses, scorch marks, and the other telltale signs of a fierce battle. From the looks of things, it seemed as if any stragglers who had survived the battle had turned tail and run. That was fine with Burner. He’d had enough shooting for one day.

Ahead of them was a wide staircase that led down to the lower level of the compound and the exit. All Burner wanted to do was get the hell out of this place and take a long hot shower. He could tell Sara felt the same way. They were exhausted, mentally and physically. There seemed to be the unspoken understanding between them that neither one of them would have made it if not for the help of the other.

“I know you said you think we’ve stopped them for good,” Sara started, as they began to make their way down the large, opulent staircase. “But some proof would be nice. You know, keeping an eye on their communications, making sure the funding has totally dried up. Just so they don’t get any bright ideas to start all over again.”

Burner nodded. “I agree we should monitor them. Get evidence that they’ve been fully destroyed. But if we’re going to make sure that we’ve fully dismantled the ring, we’re going to need a stronger tech team. Not that Judy hasn’t been pulling her weight, but she’s only one person.”

“Hank might be right for the job,” Sara suggested. “But I don’t know how willing he’ll be to tackle an assignment that doesn’t have official Union backing.”

“Might be worth casting a line out to him anyway. Try and see if it might be worth his ti—”

Suddenly, there were noises above them. The sounds of scuffling, footsteps, hushed voices, and people moving in a hurry. Burner and Sara stopped dead in the middle of the stairs. Burner took out his pistol and waited.

A group of three people came hustling down the staircase on the opposite side from Burner and Sara. They were two men and a woman, all of them moving quickly, scattered, and in a big hurry to leave. They looked disheveled, like they hadn’t slept for days, and they carried mismatched bags and backpacks that they seemed to have grabbed in a rush. These weren’t soldiers, that much was clear. The two men were skinny, one of them taller than the other, and the shorter one had wild, dark hair. The woman was young, dressed in a multicolored blouse, her hair bright shades of red and pink. They looked terrified and moved in such a rush that they didn’t even notice Burner and Sara watching them from the other side of the massive staircase.

Burner called out to them. “Hold up there.”

The trio froze.

After a long moment, they turned and stared at Burner with the glazed look of a deer in headlights. He saw their eyes fall on his gun and the girl started shaking. All of them were scared to death.

It was clear to Burner that these guys sure as hell didn't seem like any kind of big threat. Burner slipped his pistol back into his belt and raised both palms in a peaceful gesture.

“Relax,” Burner started. “We’re not going to hurt you. We just wanted to ask you a few questions.”

“We were just leaving,” replied the smaller man, who started to hotfoot it down the stairs.

“Hey!” Sara yelled. “Get back here!” She started moving down the stairs to intercept him.

The man froze then sheepishly climbed back up a couple of the steps to stand with the rest of them.

“You guys work here?” Burner asked.

“We just make sure the computers are running,” Margarita replied. “Everything else, we have no idea about.”

Sara scoffed. “You run the computers, but you don’t know what your bosses are doing? All the shit they’ve been up to?”

“No,” said the taller man. “We were being held here against our will. They were using us for our skills. At first, it just seemed like a normal job. But then they wouldn’t let us leave.”

“It wasn’t like we had a choice,” the smaller guy added.

Burner rubbed his chin. Maybe a solution was already presenting itself. “Tech team, huh?”

“That’s right,” replied the woman.

“You guys any good?”

“We’re the best,” she shot back almost indignantly. “Or else they wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble to keep us here.” She seemed to stand a little taller, her chin raised in defiance.

Burner and Sara exchanged a glance. Neither of them could quite stifle the smile spreading across their faces.


Epilogue


Abandoned Warehouse, Ranch District, Dobulla UX8, Union Space


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The four of them were holed up in yet another abandoned warehouse, this time an artists’ loft that had been cleared out and renovated. Every surface in the place was spattered with paint of all different colors, and there were canvases stacked haphazardly against the walls, but at least it was dry and warm and had plenty of places to sit. There was even a kind of bathroom. It sure as hell beat using a bucket. Overall, it was a little bit nicer than their previous warehouse, and that was about all they could ask for. The Ranch District was also a little more upmarket than the areas they’d been staying in previously too.

A few days had passed since the battle at the compound. Burner, Judy, Boris, and Margarita sat around a table, discussing strategy.

Sara was gone. She had left to go back to her Union missions, and no amount of pleading or rational argument could persuade her to stick around. They’d been focusing more on the tech side of things lately, and Sara was always itching to get out into the field, so there was the sense she wasn’t missing much at the moment. Still, Burner was sorry to see her go. He had the feeling she’d come back into his life sooner rather than later. At least, he hoped so.

Burner had offered the three computer geeks a job, to come and work with him. He’d figured out they would be glad to use their skills for the powers of good, and he could pay them out of the funds they were confiscating from the Ring. Whether it was on account of the friction between Ivan and Boris, or whether it was just that Ivan preferred to work alone, Burner couldn’t tell, but Ivan had flat out rejected his offer.

Boris and Margarita on the other hand had seized the opportunity gratefully and already were making useful contributions to their collective efforts.

Judy had more or less taken over the role of leader, delegating tasks to the newest members of the team. They were continuing the unforgiving work of ensuring the Ring was completely dismantled and stayed that way. Before they had started, Burner and Judy had been slightly worried about where their loyalties would lie, but that worry had been quickly assuaged by the way both of them jumped headfirst into their new roles working for Burner and company. Boris and Marge seemed like good people, and they were happy enough to switch sides. After being forced to do Hardy’s bidding for hours on end, they seemed overjoyed to be working as a force of good.

Judy, who was loving being able to pick the brain of these two tech geniuses, had been asking them more about their work with Hardy. “How exactly were you hired? Were you just kidnapped off the street?”

Margarita shook her head. “No, no. The beginning of the whole thing was surprisingly normal. That’s why I guess we didn’t realize something was wrong until we were both in way too deep. We applied just like any other regular job. We had to go through a series of tough interviews. It was pretty grueling, actually. Lots of complicated math, lots of obscure tech stuff that only real hardcore geeks would know. I thought I had flubbed the interview, to be honest. I was so nervous. But I ended up getting the job and I was so happy. But from there, it turned into a nightmare. Once we were hired, they gave us a list of ‘security protocols.’ There were all these crazy rules. We couldn’t come and go as we pleased, we had to eat at certain times, we didn’t know who the hell we were working for, we couldn’t call our families...”

“Neither of us have much family, actually,” Boris added. “That was probably one of the reasons they chose us for the job. Aside from our amazing computer wizardry. They knew we wouldn’t have people coming to look for us.”

“Same MO as when they chose the women they brainwashed,” Burner noted. “They picked women with no families, or who were estranged from their families. So that the husbands and boyfriends didn’t come snooping around when their spouses didn’t come home. These assholes really had everything all planned out, huh?”

Margarita clasped her hands nervously. “It was bad from the start. We knew they were up to no good, even if we didn’t know exactly what. We figured it was something illegal, but we had no idea just how horrible it actually was. By the time we realized that something was really wrong, it was way too late. At that point, what could we do? If we tried to leave, they would have shot us. They had us monitored at all times, cameras in every room. And you saw how locked down the compound became if something there was amiss. There was no way to blow the whistle or call for help. We were stuck.”

Boris shrugged. “But in the end, I guess it worked out. We found a new team. A real one, this time.”

Burner grunted and crossed his arms. They turned to look at him, bemused.

“What’s the matter?” Judy asked. “You don’t like our new recruits?”

“It’s not that,” Burner started. “You guys seem all right. It’s just...the whole idea of working on a team is foreign to me. Before, when we were taking down Hardy, it was borne out of necessity. With a team, you always have to worry about personal feelings, bureaucracy, jealousy, that sort of thing. I’m just used to working alone, is all. I’m not sure how I feel about being part of a collective.”

Margarita smiled. “Well, get used to it, Burner. You’re stuck with us now.”

They shared a laugh. All of them seemed relaxed, except Judy, who was still all business.

“You think we’ll ever be able to hand off this investigation into Hardy’s ring?” she asked. “Give it to some lower-level Union agents?”

Burner had considered the same idea. He frowned and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Not anytime soon. We still don't know who in the Union we can trust. Until we can definitely link the Ring to Senator Capulet, the Union isn’t going to be bothered with a bunch of low-life thugs getting taken out at some compound. They’ll chalk it up to gang warfare. We’d have to get back into the Union ourselves and work at it from the inside.”

“It’ll be tough,” Judy agreed. “We might need even more help than Boris and Margarita can provide.”

“In the meantime,” Boris stated, “there could be another way we could help. There are still funds from Hardy’s operation floating around in the ether. Those guys had their fingers in a lot of pies. Their network was like an octopus, tentacles branching out in different directions. But they relied on us to keep track of where the money was going. I don't think it would be too hard for Margarita and me to figure out where all that money went. And once we do, we can use it for our own purposes.”

Margarita raised her hand then looked sheepish when everyone at the table looked at her strangely and she realized she didn’t need permission to speak. “I’m positive there are still women trapped in these fake shelters,” she told them. “Based on the spreadsheets I’ve been able to retrieve since we got out, Hardy and his crew were moving quite a number of women in and out of the shelters. It only really slowed down once you guys freed Judy from the Loreilla. And there were also several women who’ve had their memories erased and have been taken to new homes. And I’m inferring all of this from what you’ve told me. They have code words for different ‘products’ on these records… Anyway, I doubt they’re just going to just be freed because Hardy’s been taken out. They’re still out there, without their memories. Living fake lives. We still need to track them all down and get them out.”

Burner rubbed his hands together. “Well, what are we waiting for? An invitation?”

Judy crossed her arms. “It’s not that easy, Burner. It’s going to take several different missions to get this done, and some of these women have been living new lives for quite a while. We'll have to do some convincing to get them to understand what’s happened to them. I know when it happened to me, I was all over the place. Confused, disoriented. I didn’t know if I was losing my mind. Some of these women might not want to leave. They might be happy in their new lives.”

Burner tapped his fingers, nodding. “That’s true. But I’m confident we can figure out a way, once we convince them of what’s been done to them. In any case, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I was wondering if there was any new news on Capulet? The senator?”

“Not really,” Judy replied, shaking her head. “He’s just going about his normal business, keeping his head down. He was smart enough to make sure there were no solid links between him and Hardy’s crew. No real physical evidence that we can use to nail him. But don’t worry, his luck’s not going to last. We’re watching him now. People like him always get greedy or sloppy. He won’t be able to help himself. We’ll figure out a way to take him down.”

“Lots of things we’ll have to take into account on these new assignments. Lots of work to be done.” Burner’s voice was dreamy, like his mind was somewhere else.

“Yeah, well...” Judy began, “it’s always tough, but what can you do? That’s just how life is. Gotta keep on keeping on, as they say.”

Burner nodded, still with that far off look in his eyes. Then, without a word, he rose to his feet and walked out the door. The three of them watched him go.

“Where the heck is he going?” Boris asked.

Judy shook her head. “I have no idea.”

Margarita looked baffled. “Is he coming back?”

Judy shrugged.

Margarita frowned. “Does he always do this?”

“Not typically,” Judy answered. She shook her head again in disbelief. “Sheesh. I know—rude, huh? Guy just up and leaves in the middle of a conversation! I mean, I know we’d already discussed the juicy part, it was nothing mission critical being talked about, but still. I have feelings, too. I’m a human being, he’s a human being.” Judy sighed. “So weird. But that’s just how Burner is sometimes. The moody bad boy. What can you do? He’s just a drifter, I guess.”

Margarita laughed. “Through the Deadlands, right? Burner, the Deadlands Drifter. Hey, I kind of like how that sounds.” She lowered her voice. “Deadland Drifter.” She laughed again. “Great name for a punk band, right?”

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

About an hour later, Burner came bursting back into the warehouse, carrying a large box. He brought it over to a side table and set it down with a huff, then he wiped sweat off his forehead. He opened the box and reached inside. It was a coffeemaker.

He set down on the table triumphantly. It wasn’t an expensive model—just the bare bones type. But it would make coffee and that was all Burner cared about.

“I wasn’t sure you were coming back,” Judy told him.

“Sorry,” Burner replied. “I probably should have said something about where I was going. I just suddenly got an idea in my head that we could use a coffeemaker. If I’m going to be working with you guys for any length of time, I’m definitely going to need real coffee. What do you guys think?”

Margarita and Boris looked over at the machine, it’s sides white and shiny.

“It’s very nice,” Margarita volunteered.

“Sure,” Boris agreed. “Looks good.”

Burner put his hands on his hips. “What? You guys don’t like it? I spent twenty credits on that thing!”

“No, it’s great,” Margarita assured him quickly. She hesitated, glancing at Boris before continuing. “It’s just...well, in the Tech Cave, we had an espresso maker. Top-of-the-line. I think it cost something like four thousand credits.”

There was a pause.

No one said a word.

All eyes were on Burner.

After a moment, Burner scoffed. He shook his head. “Well, when we reclaim some of the funds from your old employer, maybe we can splurge on primo coffee. Cream and steam and all that good shit. But until then, we’re stuck with regular old beans and water.

“Thank you, Burner. I think it looks great.” Judy’s praise at least sounded sincere.

Burner plugged in the coffeemaker, then he turned it on and made himself a cup. He watched the coffee drip down into the mug as the machine slowly worked. Finally, he grabbed the steaming thing and joined the others at the table. Burner took a long, satisfying sip and wiped his mouth.

There was a lot of work to be done, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to do it without coffee.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

JACK will return in DEADLAND SENTINEL, coming soon.

For more updates on this series, be sure to join the Facebook Group, “J.N. Chaney’s Renegade Readers.”


Renegade Star Universe


The Renegade Star Universe

Click the titles below to reach the book’s Amazon page


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The Renegade Star Series

They say the Earth is just a myth. Something to tell your children when you put them to sleep, the lost homeworld of humanity. Everyone knows it isn't real, though. It can't be.

But when Captain Jace Hughes encounters a nun with a mysterious piece of cargo and a bold secret, he soon discovers that everything he thought he knew about Earth is wrong. So very, very wrong.

Climb aboard The Renegade Star and assemble a crew, follow the clues, uncover the truth, and most importantly, try to stay alive.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The Last Reaper Series

When a high value scientist is taken hostage inside the galaxy's most dangerous prison, Halek Cain is the only man for the job.

The last remaining survivor of the Reaper program, Hal is an unstoppable force of fuel and madness. A veteran amputee-turned-cyborg, he has a history of violence and a talent for killing that is unmatched by any soldier.

With the promise of freedom as his only incentive, he’ll stop at nothing to earn back his life from the people who made him, imprisoned him, and were too afraid to let him die.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The Orion Colony Series

Humanity’s Exodus is about to begin.

When half of mankind revolts and demands more opportunity, those at the top decide on a compromise: they will build the first colony ships and allow those who are willing to discover new worlds to leave and start over.

Twelve ships are built, the first of which is called Orion. Many are eager to go, but only one hundred thousand are chosen for each vessel. Far from Earth, a new life awaits, and it promises the prosperity they’ve always wanted.

But still, resistance stirs, eager to sabotage this new expansion effort, threatening the promise of a new life. As Orion moves through the void of space, towards a distant world, its passengers must fight for survival in an unprecedented conflict.

Win or lose, their future will be forever changed.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The Fifth Column Series

After a soldier is left for dead, Eva Delgado's life begins to unravel.

The truth of what happened remains a mystery, and the government will stop at nothing to keep it buried.

Together with the unit's medic, Eva finds herself branded a terrorist and enemy of the State, hunted by two opposing governments.

When the pair uncover a plot that could have ramifications for the whole galaxy, they know they have to act, but it will take all of their training, cunning and just a bit of luck to do what no one else has achieved.

But what do you do when every secret begets another? And how far will you go to find the truth?


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Nameless (Abigail’s Story)

Abigail and Clementine were just a couple of orphans looking for a home.

But when the two girls witness something terrible, they have no choice but to leave their orphanage and go into hiding. The only person willing to take them in is a man named Mulberry, but his home isn't the safest place for two innocent children.

Abigail and Clementine quickly discover that their new caretaker is the head of a guild of assassins, and the two are thrown into a whole new world of danger. To survive, they'll need to adapt, focus, and learn how to survive in a world of killers.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The Constable (Alphonse’s Story)

My name is Alphonse Malloy, and I see everything.

From a simple glance, I know your hobbies, what you ate for breakfast, how well you slept, and whether or not your wife is secretly seeing the high school biology teacher when you're not around.

I can't explain how or why I get these feelings, only that I know they're true.

All the little secrets you're too afraid to tell.

Sometimes, that means helping people. Other times, it means staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

I wish I could tell you I was using this ability for good.

I wish I could tell you a lot of things.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

The Constable Returns

Alphonse Malloy may just be the smartest man alive.

A year has passed since Alphonse joined the Constables, but his work is only just beginning. In order to graduate and achieve full Constable status, Alphonse will need to complete one final mission.

When new information about an old enemy arises, Al and his mentor Dorian must head deep into the Deadlands in search of answers.

But in a galaxy of secrets, the truth is often more elusive than it seems.

As the search continues, Alphonse's talents will be pushed to their absolute limit, and he'll need everything he's learned to make it out of this one alive.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Warrior Queen (Lucia’s Story)

On a lost world, far removed from Earth, a group of humans struggle to survive.

Two thousand years after their ancestors lost control of a hidden genetics research facility, the descendants of mankind have been reduced to a tribe of two hundred survivors. They fight, kill, and die in an endless cycle, all in the hope that things will get better.

Lucia is one of these colonists and the daughter of the tribe's leader, the Director. Together with several other candidates, she must soon undergo a trial to decide her father's replacement. The winner will shape the future of the entire colony.

But the trial is dangerous, meant to test each candidate's wits and strengths to see who is truly worthy. To claim victory, Lucia will need to venture out into the tunnels near the city to search for lost artifacts known as Cores--small but powerful devices capable of harnessing endless energy.

But there are monsters here, waiting in the dark, and they are always hungry. Beware the Boneclaw, Lucia's father use to tell her, for it lives only to kill and to feed.

Lucia must do whatever it takes, learn as much as she can, and fight with every ounce of strength if she hopes to make it through the day.

Forget winning the trial. The real challenge is staying alive.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Resonant Son Series

30 floors of nightmare fueled action. An ex-cop with nothing left to lose.

After losing his job and family, Flint Reed finds himself in the middle of a terrorist attack. With nothing but his wits and experience as a former Union police officer, he must do everything he can to stay alive.

As he soon discovers, however, there are also hostages, and no one is coming to save them.

All hope falls to Flint.

But as he fights to navigate the building, the real answers begin to unravel. What are the terrorists really after, and why are they so intent on getting into the vault?

Experience the beginning of the Resonant Son series. If you're a fan of Die Hard, Renegade Star, or the Last Reaper, you'll love this epic scifi thrill ride.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Galactic Law Series

Lethal force is authorized.

In the wild space of the Deadlands, Taurus Station is where miners and tourists come to play, and the ravager gangs follow close behind. Out here, far from the civilized world, the Law has a name.

Gage Walker is the son of hard-nosed asteroid miners. Brash, rough, and crude, he's one of the few deputies working the station.

Still a rookie, Walker is tasked with the security of a mining magnate's daughter, an easy job that quickly takes a turn for the worst.

The ravager gangs want her, and it falls to Walker to find out why.

In a chase across Taurus Station, Deputy Walker must prove he's fit to wear the badge and issue his own form of justice...one body at a time.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Deadland Drifter Series

When a dental appointment goes sideways, former Union Operative Jack Burner wakes to find himself drugged, and imprisoned.

And he's given a choice: assassinate an Admiral... or allow himself to be killed.

With no other option, Jack reluctantly accepts the mission, only to find himself being trailed by a mysterious blonde woman... and she may or may not want him dead.

As if dealing with a terrorist group wasn't enough.

With the fate of the Admiral and thousands of lives on hanging in the balance, Jack stands in the middle of an event that could ignite a war on the edge of the Deadlands and Union Space.

Despite his exceptional abilities, training, and tenancy, even Jack has little to no chance of preventing this particular powder keg from exploding.

He's going to need a miracle.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Join the conversation and get updates on new and upcoming releases in the Facebook group called “JN Chaney’s Renegade Readers.” This is a hotspot where readers come together and share their lives and interests, discuss the series, and speak directly to J.N. Chaney and his co-authors.

Join the Facebook Group

He also post updates, official art, and other awesome stuff on his website and you can also follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.


Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

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About The Authors

J. N. Chaney is a USA Today Bestselling author and has a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.

He migrates often, but was last seen in Las Vegas, NV. Any sightings should be reported, as they are rare.

Deadland Wanderer: A Scifi Thriller

Ell Leigh Clarke

Recovering theoretical physicist, professional geek, newbie sci fi novelist, USA Today Best-Seller, and die hard Doctor Who fan.

Though she is originally from England, she is mostly what her friends call a "digital nomad", hanging in whichever country calls to her... as long as it has good wifi, and coffee.


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