Science Fiction / Thriller
Date Published: February 9, 2018
Publisher: SF Productions
For Hayden Cross, a military investigator in the far future, whether his wife faked her death is the question that is probably going to get him killed. Having lost the only job that kept him sane, he has few resources and fewer leads. Oh, and a sadistic crime lord really wants to kill him.
As he fights through an underworld of fanatical rebels, callous bounty hunters, and corrupt cops, each step takes him closer to the truth about his wife’s fate and the oppressive government he once loyally served. On the way he may even liberate a planet and stop a war … but only if he betrays everyone he loves.
Nathan Pierce was very dead, and Hayden hadn’t killed him.
Pierce lay sprawled on a maintenance walkway beside the maglev track: a tunnel that smelled like plastic and wet biocrete. An oozing red line split his very thick neck. The small pool of blood beneath him was expanding, and Hayden didn’t have to touch it to know it was still warm.
Pierce still clutched his submachine gun, highly illegal on the best of days, but its magazine was missing. The basketball-shaped bomb Pierce had carried into this tunnel hadn’t exploded when he died, which was good, but the red light on top of it was blinking fast, which might be bad. Hayden wasn’t a bomb technician, and though he’d called the people who were — those almighty assholes known as the Supremacy — he wasn’t sure if they were still taking his calls. They had sort of fired him.
Blinking red bomb light aside, the decidedly unlive state of Nathan Pierce changed Hayden’s plans for the night. Braving a hail of bullets to stop a bunch of taxpayers from exploding had seemed acceptable when chasing Pierce was his only option, but getting blown up now, with the threat over, seemed rather unnecessary. He had better things to do tonight than die.
He looked down the walkway in both directions for any sign of Pierce’s killer, but found nothing. Embedded LED lamps lit the narrow metal gantry every twenty meters for as far as he could see, but he didn’t see anyone dumb enough to carry a live bomb out of this tunnel. He had just reached down to pick it up when all the lights went out.
Boots hit the walkway behind him as Hayden drew his pistol and aimed in that direction. He didn’t fire, of course, because he couldn’t see, and also, he was out of bullets. Pierce’s body armor hadn’t come cheap.
The lights flipped on to reveal a woman in a black riding suit and combat boots with knife holsters, but no knives. A hoverbike helmet hid her face. She was shorter than he was, athletic, and absolutely Pierce’s killer, given the blood rorshached all over the front of her suit.
“Easy, Hayden.” The woman raised two blood-stained gloves. “I sent you the intel on Pierce.”
Hayden kept his pistol on her anyway, out of principle. “Thanks?” He pointed at the body with his other hand. “I think you got him.”
“Pierce isn’t the reason I called you.”
“Okay.” He’d heard this woman’s voice somewhere before, though he couldn’t place it at the moment. “Is that bomb going to explode?”
“No. I called you, Hayden, because I have a job for you.” The woman pulled off her helmet to reveal short black hair, pale blue eyes, and a light brown face with soft cheekbones. “You’re free now, right?”
Hayden breathed as five minutes of gunfight tension bled out through his toes. “I have hobbies.” He knew exactly who this woman was, now, and he also knew he’d just been played.
Morna Solace was a trusted informant who had passed him information about the Patriots of Ceto for years. A woman who looked a lot like his dead wife. Even with Dani thirteen years gone, that still tugged at him, but that didn’t excuse her prank call.
“You obviously had this handled before I flew all the way out here,” Hayden said, keeping the fact that he’d just been unnecessarily shot at from his voice, “so why the bait-and-switch?”
Morna dangled her helmet in one hand, not guilty, exactly, but not as confident as she’d been a moment ago. “I couldn’t risk the Patriots or the Supremacy learning we’d met. Luring you here with an anonymous tip was the best way I knew how to do that. I can’t trust this to the Spacenet.”
At least Morna was sufficiently paranoid. “You know the Supremacy is on their way here now, right?”
“I do. I’ll be quick. Three weeks ago, Tyler Ryke abducted my daughter.”
“Well,” Hayden said, as he remembered Morna’s ruthless and wealthy ex-husband. “He is a crime lord.”
“Tyler’s beyond that now. He’s gone as sadistic as I’ve ever seen him, torturing for fun and pleasure, and I’m afraid of what he’ll do to Cassie if she tries to escape again. Last time she tried to sneak away, he caught her. Then he made her boyfriend explode.”
Hayden sympathized, he really did, but custody battles were messy even when both parents weren’t trained killers. “You must know dozens of people who could get Cassie back for you.” Dozens of terrorists, anyway.
“None of them know Star’s Landing like you. None have your experience or contacts. Also, I’m willing to trade a message from your wife.”
Hayden’s mind blanked a moment — just a moment — before snapping into focus. He remembered speeding toward his and Dani’s burning home, rushing into the still smoking wreckage. Tripping over Dani’s severed arm. Anger and guilt twisted his gut as the audacity of Morna’s lie made him want to kick that bomb down the tunnel. “My wife’s dead.”
“I thought so too.”
“The Supremacy verified her DNA. I put a bullet in the man who killed her, and I’ve been hunting his Patriots since.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you about something this important,” Morna said, “and I can prove it to you. Danielle said to ask you about Bucky’s cairn.”
Hayden blinked and backed a step.
“That means something to you, doesn’t it?” Morna’s face lit up. “Who is Bucky? A friend from childhood?”
That name conjured a painful memory of a speeding autotruck and his illegal dog, their illegal dog, the crunch and the yelp. Morna shouldn’t know about that. He and Dani were the only ones who knew about that, about Bucky the big dead dog.
Hayden remembered the little rock pyramid Dani piled on Bucky’s grave fifteen years ago. A cairn, she called it. An old word from old Earth.
“I never planned to blackmail you,” Morna said, “but like you said, I don’t have a lot of options.” Her voice gained just the tiniest of trembles. “I can’t lose Cassie. I couldn’t get past it.”
Her eyes held his, wet and fearless and so much like his wife’s, and Hayden recognized her desperation because he’d felt it himself. When he chased down everyone involved in Dani’s murder. When he sent them into orbit or put them in the ground.
Danielle Cross was dead, and she would always be dead, but she had trusted whoever sent Morna this message. Trusted them enough to tell them about the day her illegal dog jumped in front of a truck. Hayden needed to find out what was in this message.
He needed to find whoever sent it.
“Sure.” Hayden forced his nails out of his palms. “I could get Cassie back for you, but Ryke will come after her. He’ll probably try to kill me too, and that gets real annoying.”
Morna knelt and ran a glove along the tunnel wall. “Once you get Cassie out, Ryke won’t be a problem for anyone.” She pressed something, and a maintenance hatch popped open. “She has the image sync to Ryke’s PBA.”
That impressed him. A Personal Brain Assistant, or PBA, was a brain-mounted computer. Ryke’s PBA was where he stored records related to all his illegal deeds, and if Cassie told the Supremacy how to access it, Ryke would be headed to orbit before he finished screaming at his attorney.
The howl of an approaching maglev train rose in the tunnel behind him, and the light on Pierce’s bomb blinked faster. “Say, uh, Morna?”
“You’re sure that thing isn’t going to explode?”
She tossed him a tiny metal key as the train grew louder. “The blinking light means the detonation key’s missing!” She opened the maintenance hatch. “That’s the detonation key!”
Hayden pocketed the key and shouted over the train noise. “How do I let you know when I have Cassie? Getting shot at isn’t my favorite approach!”
“I’ll know, and I’ll find you!” Morna wriggled into the narrow vent. “Get my daughter back for me, and I’ll help you find your wife!”
The hatch slammed. Hayden dropped beside Pierce’s body as a sound like a jet engine roared up on him. He knew the maglev’s passage wouldn’t suck him off the walkway — physics didn’t work like that — but knowing and believing were very different. The world howled as a bunch of angry air boots pummeled him in a parade.
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see. Then the train was streaking away, leaving him with a healthy ringing in his ears and a new appreciation for public transit. He rolled onto his back and took one painful breath.
Metal footfalls echoed in the tunnel, and Hayden tilted his head up to squint in their direction. He recognized two Supremacy Vindicators approaching at an awkward jog. Powered armor didn’t sprint.
The Supremacy’s elite soldiers wore suits of black nitinol, armor immune to small arms and marked by golden stripes. Their sealed helmets had reflective plates in front, and the last thing you saw, before they shot you, was your own face staring back.
On the upside, they were still taking his calls.
Hayden hauled himself up on the guardrail and stared at another dead terrorist and another homemade bomb. If Morna hadn’t stopped Pierce, there would be a whole lot of people splattered across this tunnel right now. He’d take the win and the credit if it kept her out of the Supremacy’s sights.
“Sir?” a Vindicator asked. “Is this the Patriot you reported?” His voice sounded flat behind his modulator. “Is that his bomb?”
Lying to the Supremacy about a meeting with a Patriot sympathizer was as good as signing his own death warrant. That wouldn’t stop Hayden from lying, of course. He’d just have to be real sneaky about it.
“This man was a thug working for Tyler Ryke.” Hayden pulled the detonation key from his pocket. “Now he’s a terrorist as well, which means you boys will get a medal or something.” He tossed the key at the Vindicator, and they both watched it bounce off his knee. “Also, you’re welcome.”
Hayden was going to Star’s Landing. He was going to save Cassie Ryke from her brutal father. It didn’t matter if Morna was lying to save her daughter, or if the Supremacy executed him for treason.
Either way, he might still get to see his wife.
About the Author
T. Eric Bakutis is an author and game designer based in Maryland. He is happily married and shares his house with a vicious, predatory cat and a sad-faced, cowardly dog. He’s been working as a professional videogame developer for over eight years. His first fantasy trilogy, Tales of the Five Provinces, is now complete, and his first science fiction novel, Supremacy’s Shadow, is due in February 2018.
In his spare time, Eric hikes with his lovely wife, little girl, and crazy dog, spends time in VRChat exploring the metaverse, and participates in local events like the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle. His first novel, Glyphbinder, was a finalist for the 2014 Compton Crook Award, and his short fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies.