Lost Colony Ch. 12-4

“You know you look ridiculous in that thing, right?”

“If you’d been given a glorious trophy like this by the leader of a band of sexy hunters, you’d wear it proudly, too. Anyway, it gets cold up there.”

“Whatever,” Tracee said, suppressing a yawn. “At least bring me back something from the airport gift shop this time. I like saltwater taffy.”

*

The Odysseus camp took only minutes to find. Flying as high as he could while still being able to make out the landscape, Sparr first spotted the clearing where landing craft were kept. With that landmark identified, he began to make out prefabricated buildings and a modest communication tower. A stream ran through the camp, widening toward the edge to become a placid lake. He couldn’t make out the defensive ring, but it had almost certainly been among the first things the Alliance had constructed. Perimeter defenses were designed to be unobtrusive, but able to detect anyone approaching the camp. Drones or compact stun turrets would help neutralize anyone who persisted. The whole system, no doubt, would be controlled by Kevin.

Sparr took one more circle around the camp, completing his aerial survey. He thought he could tell which cluster of structures was the command center and which were residential. If there were any airborne drones he couldn’t spot them, and no signs of small craft shuttling to or from the Odysseus. There were two options. He and Tracee could approach the trading zone on foot, hoping to find someone there willing to escort them back to the camp. The plan involved less risk of violence, but depended on finding a sympathetic member of the crew. Depending on what lies Calista and Kevin had fueled, they might be greeted with hostility or fear.

Or he could simply fly into the middle of camp, land near the command center, and find Captain Fowler. The direct approach was appealing, but riskier. The air car would be seen as an unknown vehicle approaching the camp and might be shot down. He would discuss the options with Tracee.

“Let’s go, boy,” Sparr said, scratching at Bogg’s greying muzzle. He turned back toward Neeva.

The shot struck without warning. Before Sparr even heard the combat drone’s distinct high-pitched whine, an explosive round tore into the aft of the air car, shredding the passenger side thruster housing. Shrapnel spiderwebbed the rear window as the brittle sound of an explosion rang in his ears. Bogg yelped in surprise and pain.

“Fuck!” Sparr glanced back over his shoulder. Two drones were pursuing him, approaching from above, one to either side. He shoved the stick down, sending the car into a dive just as another shot clipped the car without exploding. Descending, the car was faster than the drones, and for several seconds he pulled away. Below he spotted a wide, flat valley, fed by the innumerable streams and springs that wound their way through Neeva. Ahead of him, they began to merge, forming fewer but stronger streams. If he could reach the far side where the streams fed into a single canyon he might be able to make an escape.

The drones seemed to have a similar plan. Sparr had pulled ahead, but they continued to flank the air car, pursuing him across the valley. Sparr allowed himself a brief surge of optimism. The car was faster. Once he opened up enough distance it wouldn’t matter that he was flanked. He could simply outdistance them. The ground rushed by, a patchwork of streams, sandbars, uprooted trees, and debris. Clouds of startled birds erupted from cover.

The car jerked, a shudder running through its entire frame. Sparr looked back to see the damaged thruster shooting a spray of sparks and smoke. Immediately the car began to edge sideways, its stabilizers losing the battle to fly straight with only three thrusters. He had lost his advantage.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Sparr fought to keep the air car on course as the drones closed the distance. The canyon grew before him, ever nearer, but it would be desperately tight. He might already be within range of the drones.

As if to confirm his fears, one of the drones fell in directly behind him, leaning forward, angling its thrusters for maximum speed. Sparr jerked at the stick, hoping to spoil its aim. The frantic maneuver worked, forcing the drone to correct course before lining up again. The canyon loomed before him. He repeated the maneuver, but this time the drone recovered quickly. He wouldn’t slow it again. He was almost there.

The drone’s shot struck the passenger side just aft of the forward thruster, filling the cabin with smoke and metal. Sparr’s arm and shoulder swam with pain, cut in a dozen places by flying shards. He clutched at the stick and for a moment, somehow, controlled the air car. The wretched vehicle shot into the canyon, missing the edge by a whisper. The car was already losing altitude, unable to both fly straight and maintain lift. Even clutching frantically at the stick, Sparr could do little more than keep it level.

Nor was the canyon the escape he had hoped for. The streams had combined into a single, furious river, crashing over a jagged waterfall. Spray filled the air, blinding him and washing his blood onto the floor of the car. Sick resignation filled him. He was losing control of the car, and his future. He would die here, a five-minute flight from the camp he had sought for almost a year.

Not expecting it to work, he gave the stick a final push. Miraculously, the car turned, veering out of the spray. There was a cave, little more than a ledge sheltered by an overhang where the worst of the torrent was held back. With the car’s display a riot of warnings, he aimed for it. Too fast, the car smashed against the ledge.

There was only darkness.

***

It was the dripping that woke him, a steady spattering of water against his cheek. As Sparr dragged himself toward consciousness, his first thought was to brush the water away. When the sensation returned, he dragged open his eyes. The scene was horrific.

He was still in the mangled car, spray whipping around him. On impact it must have spun, turning front to back as it slid along the ledge. The passenger side had been destroyed, first by fire from the drones, then the crash. Scraps of metal and glass were everywhere, both inside the cabin and strewn behind. One of the thrusters was still humming feebly.

Gingerly, Sparr extracted himself. The right side of his body was bleeding and sore. He didn’t know how long he had been unconscious, but several of the shallower cuts had begun to clot over. A few of the deeper cuts still welled-up angrily, but the coat had saved him from a dozen more. Groaning in pain, he pulled off the sticky garment and tossed it aside. The survival pack held bandages, but something more urgent pressed upon him.

Bogg wasn’t in the car. The passenger side door had been torn off, and, when Sparr looked carefully, he spotted signs of blood. His heart sinking, Sparr followed the trail farther along the ledge to where it turned sharply away from the stream. He found the animal curled on his side against the cold rock, unmoving. He ran the last few steps, sank to Bogg’s side, and checked for a pulse. None was to be found, but when Sparr ran his hands through the creature’s thick pelt Bogg opened his eyes.

The animal was dying. Bogg’s coat was sticky with blood, and Sparr found a wicked piece of shrapnel embedded in his midsection. When Sparr touched it by accident, the animal groaned weakly with pain.

“Oh god,” Sparr cried out, choking with grief. “Bogg, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I should never have… oh I’m so sorry.” A hundred pangs of guilt pierced him. He should never have taken the animal along to survey the camp, should never have adopted Bogg in the first place. He had dragged the innocent beast into his own, fraught life. Sobbing, he held the animal tight, feeling the labored breathing, sensing Bogg’s pain. He rubbed the greying muzzle, whispered comforting words, and a dozen times over cursed the endless cruelty of the planet. When at last the animal lay still, he cried out.

The whine of drone thrusters finally tore Sparr from his grief. It came back to him now. The drones and the bastards operating them had taken Bogg from him. Now they were coming back to finish the job.

“No way!” Hissing with pain, Sparr hauled himself to his feet, returned to the car, and located the heavy pistol. He had only one chambered round, and one spare charge. They would have to be enough. Pausing only long enough to grab the saber, Sparr hustled back around the corner.

It wasn’t long. Muttered human voices echoed in the overhang, their low tones a contrast to the drone’s shrill thrusters. They weren’t far. After a discussion too soft for Sparr to make out, he heard footsteps approaching. There would be no better time. He stepped out, pistol raised, quickly assessing the scene.

Two men and one woman faced him, their faces pale with surprise. Like the assassins that had hunted him in Santi, they stank of the gladiator pit, tense and alert. The combat drone hovered placidly behind them, ringed with sensors and weapons. Sparr fired.

The explosion was spectacular. The drone burst almost completely in half as a thick gout of flame erupted from it. Explosive rounds discharged at random, shooting against the wall of the overhang, or tearing through the mist into the canyon beyond. Sparr was knocked back by the shockwave, his ears ringing. The drone dropped like a sack of sand.

“Fuuuck!” Sparr gasped. A fresh wave of pain shot through his arm and shoulder.

“Ughh.” Two of the assassins, the man and woman who had been standing closest to the drone, lay unmoving. The remaining man, like Sparr, had been knocked to the soil. He rolled to his side, dimly returning Sparr’s gaze.

What happened next seemed to unfold in slow motion. Sparr had dropped the pistol, and any event could barely move his right arm. Instead, he rolled to his back, seeking the saber with his left hand. His hand found only the rocky surface of the ledge. Meanwhile the assassin sat up groggily. He clutched at his waist, awkwardly pulling free a knife.

Sparr took another painful roll away. The saber was somewhere. It had to be. The assassin was recovering faster than Sparr, and wasn’t already injured. At last Sparr’s fingers closed on the blade, seeking the grip.

“Shit!” The assassin stood, unsteady from the blast. He took a step toward Sparr, knife ready.

Knowing how much it would hurt, knowing he had no choice, Sparr rolled to his right toward the assassin. Searing pain lanced him, spreading from his injured shoulder, but the motion freed his left arm. He flailed the saber in a wild arc, burying it in his attacker’s thigh, releasing a spray of blood.

The man screamed, staring at his injured leg in disbelief. He hopped once to his left, teetered, then collapsed. Sparr, too, fell back, weakened by pain, blood loss, and fatigue. He was defenseless, but the other man was no longer a threat. The assassin dragged himself less than a meter before he lay still, his blood soaking the earth. The entire encounter had lasted fewer than thirty seconds.

Sparr caught his breath. Grief still tore at him, but the instinct for survival was more pressing. At the edge of his sight, a sheet of water poured from the overhang. He yearned to be clean, washed of his blood, the assassin’s, and Bogg’s. Surely, he thought, just to stand in the water would renew him. Sparr dragged himself to his feet and lurched toward the cascade.

It was just as cathartic as he had imagined. The spray chilled him, sending tremors through his already weakened body, but washing away the caked blood, dirt, and perspiration of the last hour. He stood under it as long as he could bear, letting the sensation take him to a place without troubles. When at last his flesh was washed clean and raw, Sparr stepped toward the canyon, into the late afternoon sun, and within range of the waiting drone.

The stunwire landed against his ribs, first a bee sting, then a bolt of lightning.

***

For the second time in less than half a day, Sparr swam toward the elusive surface of consciousness. Everything felt thick, incomplete. His vision was a tight, foggy band revealing little more than blunt shapes. His hearing was distant and muffled. He tried to stretch, to explore his world, but found he didn’t have use of his hands.

With a painful effort Sparr pried his eyes open. Though still dim, he began to make out his surroundings. Figures moved, just outside his ability to focus. Animals snorted nervously. He was no longer near the ledge. The air was drier, and stank of human occupation. His hands were bound.

“You should have stayed where you were, Alain.” The male voice was familiar, but distant, disembodied.

“Whaaat?” Sparr strained to open his eyes. It took him a moment to realize the voice was speaking English.

“The western continent. You could have been a prince. A pistol and the will to use it. The filthy locals bowing to you.”

Sparr’s vision was slow to clear, but some details emerged. He was lashed to a litter, naked except for his shredded trousers. “They’re human, Kevin.”

“Sure.” The voice didn’t come from another person, but from a drone which rested on the ground. Around it, a small band of slavers moved nervously, spooked by the unfamiliar technology. “They live short, miserable lives, keep slaves, follow fucked-up religions, and fight to the death, but sure. Let’s call them human.”

“You shot me into space with only a survival pack.” Given how quiet it was, he must already have been moved from the scene of the crash. “Not much room to talk. And for what, money?”

Even through the muffled speaker, Kevin’s derision was plain. “Money? Oh Alain, you have no idea.” Sparr could hear wind in the background, and something which might have been surf breaking against rock. “What Mineral will do for me goes so far beyond money… I can barely describe it. My house will be a palace overlooking the beach. Not sure exactly which one yet,” he said lazily, as if the decision was yet to receive his full attention. “Maybe New Zealand. They’re strict on waterfront development, but with enough of a donation to their vaccine fund they’ll bend. Oh, and the pussy I’ll get. They’ll beg for it, Alain, fucking beg for me to fuck them. It’ll make your sad little fling with Calista look like junior high.”

“Speaking of my fling, perhaps you can put her on. I’d love to say hello.” He tested his bonds again without luck.

“And I’m sure she’d love to say goodbye,” Kevin said through the speaker. “But we’re both kinda busy right now.”

“Busy cataloging species for Mineral’s claim.”

“Oh, and Calista said you were as dumb as the trees you love to study.” A shorebird screeched in the background. Kevin was definitely somewhere along the coast.

“A claim you’ll make as soon as the year passes.” Alliance contracts were written such that if no claim was made within one year, they became non-exclusive. Sparr took a look at the men around him, grim and purposeful. “You know if I turn up dead no one can make a claim until they sort it out in the courts?”

“Yep,” Kevin replied, a tone of contrived boredom entering his voice. “That’s why, just after a year passes, a drone will accidentally spot you. With proof that you’re alive, but never filed a claim, we’ll be free to do so on Mineral’s behalf.”

So they would keep him prisoner, then shortly after his anniversary of landing on the planet, release him. Once a drone had positively identified him, he would no doubt be killed.

Before Sparr could reply, Kevin switched back to the local tongue. “Be sure you search him,” he said, addressing the slavers. “Don’t let him keep anything, no matter how small. He is to be guarded at all times.”

“Sure,” one of the slavers replied, busy securing Sparr’s litter.

“Guarded at all times!” Kevin’s voice rang out angrily. The drone rose into the air, aiming a beam of light at the man. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes,” the man stammered, stumbling away in fear. “We’ll guard him, I swear.”

Kevin chuckled as the drone began to float away. “Goodbye, Alain. Enjoy your last few weeks on Kaybe. Your last few weeks ever.”

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