Authors: Christine Pope
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
BLOOD WILL TELL
Copyright © 2012 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
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Blood Will Tell
Welcome to Iradia, where the Gaian Consortium looks the other way if enough money changes hands, and the best way to ensure a long life is to secure passage off-world…
When Miala Fels’ father is murdered by a vicious crime lord, she decides the best way to get her revenge is to hack the accounts of the man responsible and bleed his hoard of ill-gotten loot dry. Her plans go awry when Mast is killed by a rival, and she ends up nursing one of his men, the notorious mercenary Eryk Thorn, back to health. Her only thought is to have Thorn help her get off-world in exchange for half of Mast’s treasure. The last thing she expects is to lose her heart to him…or to have the consequences of that love change her life forever.
They had been gone far too long, that much she knew. Although there were no chronos in the compound’s kitchens, Miala had trained herself to make a rough estimate of the passage of time without any visual aids. She knew that at least four, and possibly closer to five, hours had to have passed since Arlen Mast and his various lackeys and hangers-on had enthusiastically sallied forth en masse to watch the baiting and eventual deaths of his latest batch of prisoners. “Cheaper to kill ’em than to feed ’em!” he’d guffawed, and everyone had laughed at his wit, or at least pretended to.
Except Miala. Unlike the others, she had no stomach for that sort of thing. The compound had emptied down to the lowliest kitchen drudge—except for her. She had a knack for hiding in shadows, making herself easily overlooked, and so no one gone in search of her when she vanished into one of the larders as everyone else was hastening out the rear entrance of the building and into their various sand-skimmers and all-terrain transports. At the time she had only thanked God that she would have a few hours of uninterrupted time to resume her careful hacking into Mast’s security system.
That fat bastard would probably have had a long-overdue heart attack if he knew how far she had already gotten, but she was careful to cover her tracks. Anyhow, she knew the basics of the system well enough; it was her father who had programmed it, after all, and he had trained Miala in the tricks of his trade. Good thing that Mast hadn’t bothered to investigate Lestan Fels closely enough to discover that Iradia’s best hacker had a daughter, let alone one who rivaled her father in her ways with a security system. No, Mast had thought himself very clever to hire Fels and then have him killed once the security system was in place. He hadn’t thought that there was anyone on this miserable rock who would even notice the hacker’s death, let alone bother to avenge it.
She’d come here two months earlier, already aware of what had probably happened to her father, and she’d been careful to come disguised. Mast’s lechery was legendary, and Miala, after carefully regarding her reflection before setting out, had come to the dispassionate conclusion that she was just pretty enough to attract attention if she didn’t do something to alter her appearance. Nothing drastic, of course, but it was amazing what deliberately dirty hair pulled back in a severe knot, a few carefully applied blemishes, and exaggerated shadows under one’s eyes could do to make a person look absolutely unappealing. Even so, she’d been on the receiving end of a few nastily significant glances from Barris Jax, Mast’s self-styled majordomo and right-hand man. She counted herself lucky that it hadn’t gone any further than that—and perhaps his unhealthy interest was what had led him to hire her in the first place.
But now—she settled back on her heels and sighed. She’d made good progress during the past few hours and felt confident that, given a little more time, she would finally be able to hack the codes that protected Mast’s vaults and gain access to the treasures she knew he hoarded there. Of course she would never be able to bring her father back, but at least she could steal his murderer blind and finally get herself away from this forsaken planet once and for all. And while her main goal was to gain access to Mast’s off-world accounts, she’d be a fool not to take as much cash from his vaults as she could. The amount she could carry would certainly not be enough for him to ever notice.
The silence around her was disturbing. She knew the compound as well as anyone, but it was an unsettling place even when fully occupied and somehow much worse when it was apparently deserted, as it seemed now. What could possibly have happened? There had been whispers that one of the other crime bosses had been planning to make a move on Mast, but treachery among the bosses was as expected on Iradia as its frequent sandstorms, and Mast had laughed off the rumors, claiming there was no one in the region who could possibly get the drop on him.
Miala pushed her chair away from the computer console in the security office. Like the rest of the compound, the room had been hewn out of the native Iradian sandstone, but the banks of machines were an incongruous note in the otherwise primitive surroundings. It was cool in here, though, air conditioners working overtime to ensure that the precious computers didn’t overheat. Perhaps it was the temperature of the room that made her shiver.
Or perhaps it was something else. She suddenly felt she couldn’t stand the silence a moment longer. The air seemed laden with ghosts; she wondered how many hapless prisoners had met a violent death in the building, and she shivered again, harder this time.
Anything would be better than sitting here and wondering until she slowly drove herself mad. She remembered how her father used to tease her for her endless questions.
Why are there three moons, Dad? Why do trees only grow in an oasis?Why doesn’t it ever rain?
Anything of course, but the questions she had really wanted to ask.
Why don’t I have a mother like everyone else? Why did she hate me so much that she left?
But even at five Miala had known better than to ask some questions...
Shaking her head as if to rid herself of these unpleasant recollections, Miala made a sudden decision. She knew where the compound’s sand skimmers were kept, and of course she would have no difficulty getting through the security system that sheltered them. Surely Mast’s people had left one or two behind. If something really had gone wrong, wasn’t it her responsibility to discover what had happened? She hadn’t allowed herself to make any friends during her tenure at Mast’s compound, but at the same time she didn’t think she could leave people she had worked with to die out in the desert. Assuming that the worst had happened, of course. It was entirely possible that Mast had decided to be particularly creative with his executions this time, and they were taking longer than usual. Somehow, though, she guessed that was a false hope.
The parking garages were located at the rear of the compound, not far from the small landing pad kept for the private use of certain guests who didn’t wish to fly into Aldis Nova. There were two sand skimmers left behind, both of them looking the worse for wear. Looks were deceiving, as she knew all too well; Mast’s mechanics kept them well-tuned. On one wall of the garage was a gun locker, and she keyed in the code—stolen during one of her hacking sessions—and lifted out a heavy pulse rifle and a pair of smaller pistols. It was getting close to dusk, and although she knew from watching the sweeps made by the automated security systems that no hostiles seemed to be within a ten-kilometer range of the compound, she didn’t want to be out any later than necessary. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knew better than to wander the open deserts of Iradia after dark.
She selected the skimmer closest to the garage entrance, more for ease than because it looked better than the other one. Since it was an older model, it had a chip-matching system rather than a biometric starter, but the chips had been stored in the locker along with the guns, so it was easy enough to get the thing started and maneuver it out of the garage.
Even now, this close to dusk, the heat was intense, enervating. Miala knew she would never get used to it, even if she lived to be a hundred and died on this rock. But she had brought a few flasks of water with her, knowing that even without direct sun she could die of dehydration within a few hours if she wasn’t careful. She took a few sips, then set the flask down on the passenger seat. The next stage of the journey was going to require both hands.
Mast’s preferred spot for his executions was located roughly southeast of the compound, near a canyon that allowed him to pitch prisoners into the abyss when he tired of other amusements. Even going as quickly as the terrain would allow, it was a good hour’s ride. Miala cast a nervous glance over her shoulder at the setting sun and prayed that she could make it there before the last bit of light disappeared. As good as Mast’s security team might be, they couldn’t drive away all of the planet’s natural predators, and she didn’t care to become yet another statistic. No one would come looking for
if she disappeared.
The smell of burning greeted her long before she reached the Malverdine Cliffs. Acrid, heavy, the scent of smoke hung in the hot desert air like the memory of a bad dream, impossible to ignore. Miala slowed the skimmer’s headlong flight as she came onto the site of the disaster.
There was nothing left, except some scattered wreckage and a few unpleasant dark blotches on the sand. Whoever had hit Mast’s party had obviously done so hard and fast. Black smoke still swirled heavily in the dead, hot air.
She brought the vehicle to a stop, then reached for one of her pistols. Just because she hadn’t seen any movement didn’t mean that predators couldn’t be lurking nearby.
After making sure the safety on the pistol was off, she climbed out of the skimmer and moved toward the cliff’s edge, stepping carefully between the pieces of shrapnel and other, less distinguishable bits of wreckage. The cloying smell of burning flesh rose to her nostrils, and she forced herself not to gag, making herself breathe through her mouth despite the painful dryness at the back of her throat.
There was nothing here, nothing to salvage, no one to save. It was stupid for her to have come; all she had done was risk her own safety when she could have holed up in the compound and worked at the security system until it yielded its remaining secrets. Obviously, no one would have come back to disturb her.
With a sigh, she turned and took a step back toward the skimmer. It was only then that she heard a faint moan from somewhere behind her.
Whirling, she held the gun out before her, one trembling finger hovering over the trigger. “Identify yourself!” she called into the gathering dusk, hoping her voice sounded more confident than she felt.
No reply except another faint groan, this one fainter than the last. Whoever or whatever it was, they didn’t sound very threatening. However, she knew better than to lower the pistol as she retraced her steps toward the precipice, taking care to maintain a respectful distance from the cliff’s edge. The whispered horror stories she’d heard from the other kitchen drudges—“You drop so far there isn’t even a thud when you hit the bottom!”—were enough to convince her that she needed to give the jagged gash in the ground a wide berth.