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Authors: Ann Aguirre

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BOOK: Breakout
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In the end, Perdition always wins.

•   •   •

JAEL
could tell something was eating at Dred, but she wasn't talking. Instead, she silently bundled some gear into a blanket and created a makeshift pack with enough proficiency to make him think she had experience sleeping rough. Now that was a sweet mental picture, imagining her free and easy beneath a night sky. The constellations wouldn't come into focus, but that didn't matter. The abstract was enough.

Once she was done, he followed her back to the others, keeping one eye out for an ambush. This would be the perfect time for Silence to finish them off, but he hoped she had been sated by the recent slaughter.
If I've any luck at all, she's reveling in her triumph.

Everyone else was ready to go when they got to the common room, and Keelah led the exodus. They passed through what used to be the eastern barricades, now just a jumble of shrapnel. Blood spattered the walls, and biological material had dried in crusty chunks. The stench was similar to massacres he'd survived, and the smell carried him back to the killing fields on Nicu Tertius, where the marshes sucked at his boots and swallowed the dead. That fast he was lost, fog everywhere, separated from the few mercs who had survived the butchery some idiot noble called a battle, and a child's face leapt out of the whiteness. He bent to check for signs of life, but this girl was more than two days dead; her eyes didn't blink at his retreat, the mossy foliage, or the large, green-backed fly that landed to sample her remains.

He stumbled forward, and Dred was in front of him, eyes narrowed. “You sick?”

Only of the killing. The dying. The dead.
Their ghosts were always with him. Sometimes it felt as if he had a spectral army at his back, and now it wasn't just the ones he'd murdered but also the ones he'd chosen not to save.

“Not exactly,” he said.

She aimed a hard look at him and let him pass her before she fell in at the rear.
Guarding my back.
The idea filled him with so many conflicting reactions that he couldn't name the emotions, and it was enough that some of them were good. Keelah took them into the ducts before any of Silence's people attacked; that didn't mean they weren't watching, of course. But once they vanished into the walls, they could reappear anywhere.

The route was dusty and winding, and the lack of footprints made Jael think the aliens hadn't used these passages much. He lost all sense of direction along with concept of time; the narrow space, people ahead and behind, it hadn't seemed nerve-wracking before—when they had a whole settlement waiting for them to return. Now, everything was different, not a recon mission but a group of refugees fleeing for their lives.

At last, Keelah guided them into a small room hidden in engineering. At least, that was how it sounded, soon confirmed by a glance at a faded Monsanto sign, left from the days when this place was used for deep-space mining. There was machinery everywhere, but the noise came as a welcome change from the echoing silence in Queensland. Space would be at a premium in here, but he could see how heavy the door was across the room, and there were two bars across it, presumably to keep inmates from getting inside.

Keelah followed his gaze with her own and nodded. “They likely counted on the prisoners killing one another in the first turn. They didn't think we'd make alliances, take territory, and explore as deeply as we did.”

“Your people charted the station far more than they fought,” Calypso commented.

The fur on Keelah's neck puffed up. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“It's a big help now,” Jael cut in.

Dred nodded. “If they stumble on us, we'll have time to prepare. That wall panel doesn't come off quickly or easily.”

Tam crossed the room and knelt, inspecting the security door from top to bottom. “This doesn't seem to have a panel that can be hacked. It would take brute force or heavy weapons to break it down.”

“This is a rat hole where vermin go to die,” one of the mercs mumbled beneath his breath.

Jael had heard that particular slur aimed at Keelah's people before, so he took offense before she did. “Do we have a problem, mate?”

The merc took a step toward him. “Dunno.
Do
we?”

Vost spoke for the first time in what seemed like ages. “Enough. Think of this lot as your new squad.”

The second merc spat on the rusty flooring, tipping his head at Dred. “And she's our new CO?” His tone said
Hell no
.

Jael tensed, but before the scene could turn ugly, she answered, “There are so few of us left . . . we don't really need one. An oligarchy makes more sense at this point.”

The two mercs looked blank. Vost laughed. “It's a committee that runs a country, you idiots. Look at something besides porn-vids now and again, why don't you?”

“Can't even get porn, here,” the taller one complained in an undertone.

Calypso smirked. “Welcome to
my
world.” She took a step closer and scrutinized both of them. Then she tapped the side of the short one's helmet. “What's your name again?”

“Duran.”

“You're with me. We'll stand watches together, and if I'm in the mood, you'll do for a warm body in my bunk.”

The merc stared, openmouthed.

“She's not kidding,” Tam said helpfully.

Deciding this could be fun, Jael put in, “She'll most likely kill you if you decline.”

Calypso tilted her head, playing along. “I might do. Rejection is painful.”

The merc took a long look at her, then grinned, his teeth white in a filthy face. “Done worse. I can muster up some enthusiasm for
you
, goddess.”

“It makes sense to divide up the watches that way, one of us with one of them.” Martine spoke low enough that only Jael could hear.

He nodded at the former mistress of the circle, now laughing with the merc she'd claimed. “I highly suspect that's her plan.”

Bad enough that Silence is out there, but we also have to worry about having our throats cut in the dark by one of our own.

Come to think of it, that summed up every other night he'd spent in Perdition.

2

Improv Rules

For the next two hours, Dred supervised the allotment of space and the allocation of resources. Really, that was deceptive. It wasn't like there were suites available or even bunks like employees would use. Instead, they had to set up camp and each of them claimed a section of the room. Tam and Martine chose a spot together, while Vost and his men went to the far corner. Dred should probably have been worried about that, but she wasn't here to turn this crew into a happy family.

No, we just have to survive long enough to get off Perdition.

Easier said than done.

She had taken enough from her old quarters to craft a comfortable nest, but she couldn't help think that it was poetic justice for the once Dread Queen to live like an animal in her final days on station. It might be nothing but intuition that told her this would end soon, one way or another. If Silence didn't kill them, it was only a matter of time before the conglomerate sent more troops to finish the job.

Jael watched her. She was aware of the weight of his regard, his gaze prickling on her skin. But she didn't say anything as she worked. The destruction of Queensland might just be hitting her harder than she'd expected. Though the place was a hellhole, it was one she had built from the ruins Artan had left behind.

“I think we're safe for now,” Tam said, still studying the door.

Vost nodded. “Let's divvy up the watches and get some rest.”

“We should eat first,” Keelah said.

The alien had a point. Nobody had any particular skill in cooking, so they drew lots, and Tam won . . . or lost, depending on your definition. Martine helped him, and before long, they had a basic soup bubbling. Dred didn't know where they'd scavenged the hot plate, but it was a good thing. Without the Kitchen-mate and hydroponics garden, it could have been much worse. In this scenario, they could've ended up eating raw station rats until they died of internal parasites.

Conversation was sparse. That was to be expected. This was an uneasy alliance at best; it would be a miracle if it held long enough to construct a ship. Now that they had access to previously locked-down areas of the station, it should be possible to cobble a shuttle together, given sufficient time and expertise. Given their predicament, Dred was more worried about the former than the latter. Tam had predicted, and Vost confirmed, that if his team didn't return victorious, his employers would hire another band of mercs. For whatever reason, they wanted Perdition cleansed.

We can't withstand another tactical assault. Hell, Silence is likely to kill us before the second strike team arrives.
She let out a near-inaudible sigh.

They drew straws one more time to determine the order of the watches. Tam and Martine took first, then Calypso and Duran got the second. Dred volunteered to work with Vost on third, which left Jael, Keelah, and Redmond on duty together for the last shift. While she didn't expect any problems so soon, it was best to be prepared. The merc commander apparently shared that opinion.

The corner she had chosen was behind a tall, rectangular machine, giving the illusion of privacy. Her head teemed with inchoate fears as she rolled up in her blanket. Jael didn't speak as he came in behind her, and maybe she should cut ties with him immediately because it was
so
unlikely that they'd both make it out of here. Better if she iced over now in preparation for that moment of parting. Yet she couldn't protest as his arm went across her side, and his heartbeat against her back was the only reason she could sleep.

Calypso woke her with a toe in the ribs. Dred was out of her bedroll with knives out by the time she realized why she was awake. The taller woman smirked at her. “Whatever time, and all's well.”

“No problems?”

“Just Redmond's snoring,” the other merc said.

“Vost is up already. We've been sitting near the duct-access panel, seemed like the most probable breach point.”

Dred nodded and headed over to join the merc commander, who had a rifle propped across his knees. She frowned as she sat down on the other side.

“Something wrong?”

“You'll kill us all if you use that thing in here.”

“Yeah, well, somebody stole my pistol.” He aimed a pointed look at her, and she suppressed the urge to snicker.

She managed, “That's a shame. I don't know what this world is coming to.”

He aimed a wry, green-eyed look her way. His hair was all spiky, salt-and-pepper dishevelment, and the lines about his eyes and mouth suggested he carried a heavy burden when he wasn't killing criminals. The icy shiver of curiosity felt like sensation returning to a long-paralyzed limb, and Dred didn't know if it was welcome or painful. She flexed her fingers and chose not to ask.

Best not to get personal.

“How long do we have?” she asked.

“Until . . . ?”

“The next squad arrives.”

Vost shrugged, and his expression made her think he wasn't holding back. “I don't know what they want with this place, so I don't know how urgent it is. You know Conglomerate types.”

“Not really,” she said with a certain irony.

“I guess you didn't mingle in the corporate world much.”

“Not unless I was hunting someone who had a desk job. Most monsters don't keep regular hours.”

A few did, though. They had wives and children, almost like camouflage, and wore normal like a skin they could peel off to reveal the red and oozing truth, etched into the curl of sinew and meat. The worst of them listened when their inner voices told them to do terrible things. Turns ago, she'd nearly lost her soul as a vigilante, stalking serial killers that ran beneath the radar, not that society thanked her for it. Instead, the authorities clapped her in chains and proclaimed her the worst of the lot.

I never asked to be Psi.
The thought came faintly flavored with bitterness since the empathic gift came at such a high price. It had driven her into the dark like the fiends she hunted.

For the first time since she'd made the deal with the merc commander, she opened her senses to take stock of the survivors and got only softly sleeping yellow from most of them and a muted blue worry from Vost himself. Of Silence's killers, there was no sign. No black of malice or red for impending violence, not even skimming the edges of her perception.

If I had been awake, I might have saved them.

He watched her with an inscrutable expression. “Sometimes you speak such madness with the saddest, sanest eyes I've ever seen.”

“Yes,” she said, unsmiling.

It was the last word from Dred for the rest of their watch.

•   •   •

ONCE
everyone was awake, and they'd eaten, Jael mentioned what he'd remembered in the night. “Where's Ike's RC unit?”

A host of blank looks met the question.

Finally, Tam said, “I have no idea. I lost track of it in all the chaos.”

Martine shrugged. “Is that important?”

“Aside from the fact that the bot is handy, you mean? It is indeed, bright eyes.” He reminded everyone of Ike's message about the supply caches.

“Thank Mary.” That wasn't an expression he often heard from Dred, and he appreciated the swift kiss she planted on him more. “There's no telling what it could be. Parts, food—”

“Both,” Calypso put in with a palpable air of excitement.

Redmond stretched as he clambered to his feet. “What are we waiting for? We should hunt the droid down.”

Dred shook her head before Jael could speak. “Best for all of us not to go. Too much movement, and Silence will find us for sure. You saw what she's capable of, and now we're certainly outnumbered . . . by what margin, I can't even guess.”

“So who gets the mission?” Duran wanted to know.

“I'll go,” Jael offered.

“I should as well.” He was surprised to hear Keelah volunteer, but when he considered, it made sense. Her people had survived by sneaking around the ship longer and better than anyone else, and without her as a guide, he'd probably wander the ducts for days.

Dred's gaze met his, silently asking if he was okay with that. He inclined his head slightly.
I don't hate all aliens. It's only Ithtorians that get under my skin.

They left shortly thereafter.

He didn't speak as they moved through the walls, like ghosts or rats or the ghosts of rats, eaten long ago by Mungo's ghastly horde. He focused on Keelah's breathing, and listening harder, found her heartbeat. She was nervous; it came in the rapid patter of her pulse, in the musk lingering on her fur. But he would be more surprised if she were completely calm.

That'd make
me
nervous.

They paused to take a break halfway, and Keelah produced a flask from one of her many pockets. She took a sip and offered it to him. Jael wasn't familiar with her customs, but it seemed best to assume a refusal might offend. Besides, he needed the fluids. The water was tepid and brackish, but no toxins prickled his tongue. That was a handy skill, one that had saved him from many a poisoning.

“Are you still seeking a good death?” he asked softly.

She'd said as much after her mate, Katur, died, but so far, she hadn't found one. Her alien eyes were wide and glimmering, looking at him and
not
, somehow, at the same time. At last she said, “That's what we're all waiting for, ultimately, and not all of us find one.”

He thought of the dead children on Nicu Tertius and the bodies of the cannibals still rotting on the lower levels of the station. “Disturbing yet true.”

“Come, we have a good deal more ground to cover before we reach Queensland again.”

It felt like hours, but in the dark, Jael couldn't be sure. Eventually, she paused near a vent and cocked her head, ears swiveling. Her whiskers twitched.

“Problem?” he breathed.

She held up a small hand, motioning him to silence. A few seconds later, he heard it, too, no more than a whisper of sound. Straining, he translated it to the scrape of murderous feet, clad in grisly, real-skin slippers. He tilted his head and stared out through the slits in the metal, barely breathing. A company of five passed just in his line of sight, and from their movements, he could tell they belonged to Silence. It was unlikely there were other survivors though her men were probably sweeping the station, just in case.
So this is how it feels to be hunted.
He'd been chased before, but with his abilities, he'd never felt like prey. No injury had been too grievous, no stunt too insane if it offered a chance at freedom.

Jael counted to a thousand after they disappeared from sight before risking a whisper. “Safe to move?”

“It should be, I don't hear anything. Stay close.”

It was strange to travel with someone whose senses were sharper than his own; that almost never happened. But he merely nodded and followed her into the wreckage of Queensland. It seemed unlikely that—

The attack almost caught him off guard.
Almost.
But he smelled the killer before he saw him and sensed the stirring air behind in time to avoid the garrote. Likewise, Keelah had her shiv out and was crouched low, a small, ferocious target. Her front teeth were long and sharp, perfectly designed for gnawing, but they'd also sink deep into an assailant's flesh if the idiot got close enough.

In hand-to-hand, he had the advantage. His opponent excelled in sneak attacks, but he didn't have the strength or reflexes for a long battle. Jael rushed him and slammed him to the ground.
I know, mate. I'm stronger than I look.
Vicious anger rushed through him, and he crushed the asshole's larynx with his heel. Keelah opened an artery in her attacker's thigh, and he bled out while she darted away, whiskers flexing.

“This is better than a good death,” she said with dark relish.

“We gave them better than they'd have offered us.” Dead revulsion crawled over him, imagining what Silence might have in store for any captives she took. Death wasn't always easy or quick, after all.

BOOK: Breakout
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