The Hunter stirred to consciousness. He felt a hand dabbing at his face with a cloth, saw a dark head appear as if through a fog. He grabbed the hand as it moved in close, causing the owner to emit a shriek of surprise.
Drune sat up, still gripping the hand. There was a young man before him, dark curly hair, a gash to his head, dark bruising on his face.
'That was one hell of an entrance,' Jai Rhitta said. He was holding the sensa-gun, but loosely. He tried a salute, then a smile. 'Jai Rhitta. Engineer. Third class. And you must be...?'
Drune didn't answer. He released Jai's hand, retrieved the gun then stood slowly, mentally checking himself for damage. He looked around him.
The room was empty. It was covered in graffiti and stank of rot. There were broken mirrors on the wall: a web of glass reflecting a jigsaw of dark skyline.
Drune looked over the city, shadowed by the huge terminal. There was something unnerving about a dead city: a silence like no other that made you want to tread its deserted streets lightly so as not to disturb whatever rested within. The back of Drune's neck prickled. He was becoming superstitious in his old age. Or long suppressed memories were tugging at his emotions. Either way, now was not the time. He checked his timer then went to the door.
It was locked.
'Why the locked door?'
'I'm valuable.' Jai pointed a finger to the ceiling. 'At least, he thinks so.' Then laughed. 'Not God. I don't think He knows I exist. I mean the guy upstairs.'
Scavenger moaned, drawing Drune's attention.' The kid's okay.' Jai flashed a smile. 'I cleaned him up a little.' Bloodied rags rolled in the wind. 'He's still somewhat smelly, though.'
Scavenger raised himself. 'I's heard that!' Pale streaks ran down his body where the dirt had been wiped away. A sour expression crossed his face. 'Who's you, anyway?'
Jai just grinned.
'The guy upstairs,' Drune prompted.
Jai tried to explain. 'I was on a shuttle heading for the terminal. Me, Bo, and five others with a cargo of electrical equipment when we were brought down on the other side of the city. The Baron's doing, I would guess. Have you met the Baron yet? Nice man. A bit over-friendly though.' Jai paused for a moment, lost in thought. 'The others didn't make it.'
He told the Hunter about Bo. 'I didn't know what else to do so I walked toward the terminal. Suddenly this truck appeared from nowhere and these heavies piled out. I tried to get them to help the others but they said it was too late. I reckon they were right.' He seemed to push it from his mind. 'They brought me here.' Jai waved his arm, encompassing the building. 'The Baron was very pleased to see me. Gods, I thought, what have I fallen into? A bit of persuasion―' he rubbed the bruises on his face―' and I am now assisting him in his endeavours to conquer the universe.'
Jai got the look.
'It's true. The cable cars used to run regularly from here to the terminal. The Baron figured, if I could get the winches working, he could storm the terminal with his troops. ―Troops, hah! That's a laugh! He plans to take over. Easy enough then to use the shuttles to hijack a ship, then space piracy, sort of.' He grinned. 'Good idea, if it would work.'
'And did you?'
'Did I what?'
'Fix the cable cars.'
'Not yet. There was a problem.' Jai had a twinkle in his eye. 'Hey, I'm no fool. The minute that winch works I'm dead meat, so it's not going to work until I can think of a way out of here.' He narrowed his eyes at the Hunter. 'You wouldn't have any thoughts in that direction, would you?'
'Working on it,' Drune said. Then, slowly, so there was no misunderstanding his question, he asked, 'Could you get the winch to work right now?'
'Sure,' Jai said. 'If it wasn't for that megalomaniac upstairs.'
'Don't worry about him.'
Jai fixed a dumb expression on his face. 'Don't worry? Have you met the man? He's pure maniac! Thinks he's invincible. Thinks he's the divine descendant of Anupta The Great!'
'He's dead,' Drune said.
'Yeah I know,' Jai grinned. '702, or was it 709? I can never remember.'
'No,' Drune said. 'The Baron is dead.'
Jai's mouth dropped open. 'Well in that case, what are we waiting for? We've only nine hundred and ninety-two others to deal with.'
'Nine hundred and ninety-one,' Drune said, lightly. There were eleven in the truck. Nine new faces in the tower. Gladson got three. Seven dead later. Seven had just been eliminated. There were three rows of shackles in the Hopper. Assuming they had all been occupied, that left fifty convicts.
Fifty. Not good odds.
In fact, there were nineteen convicts. Better odds, but not great.
'I's got two!' the boy said with a side-look at the Hunter.
'Well what do you know?' Jai strode over to the boy, slapped him on the shoulder. 'Things are looking up.’
The boy winced.
Jai pulled a face: a sort of apology
'Any idea where the holding room is?'
'Yeah, they use the kitchens. Handy torturing tools. They took me there when I first arrived. Why?'
Drune went to the door. All was quiet. He adjusted the beam on his gun, fired around the lock.
Metal bubbled, the lock falling to the floor with a resounding clunk.
Jai jumped up and down waggling his head crazily. 'Terrific ... Ter-rif-ic!'
There were men banging doors and running up and down stairs. 'No they didn't fall. They're here somewhere. Keep looking.'
Jai led the way, up the inner stairs then the outer, always one flight ahead of those searching. They heard footsteps on the stairs above them. Drune grabbed the boy's arm and pushed him through the open door of a room to their left. Jai followed.
The room was a jumble of boxes and crates. There were old charts on the wall, pictures of the terminal in various stages of development, propulsion engines (old and new), sports through the ages. Fascinating stuff. One crate was open, a bat sticking out: red resin, rounded on one side, flat on the other. Jai picked it up, swung a wide arc. A convict walked in.
Drune knocked him cold with a blow to the jaw.
'That was close.' Jai handed the bat to the boy, picked up the fallen man's gun. 'Follow me.' Then left the room, trampling the convict underfoot.
Up more stairs, then down, then up again, floor after floor, then a long corridor. Jai
pointed. 'In there.'
Drune could have broken the lock with a single kick, but that would have brought the others, so he drew his gun and burned out the lock.
Gladson was shackled to a metal support, the shelves above still stacked with dishes, dust covered but intact. He had been beaten: his face swollen, lip cut. Blood ran down his chin. He prised one eye open and grinned as the Hunter entered. 'Never thought I'd be pleased to see you again, boy.'
Jai just stared at the big man.
Drune pulled at the chains. 'This may burn.'
Gladson winced, swore as links melted under the heat of the gun. 'What about Shona?'
'Where would they take a girl?' Drune asked, taking the gun from Jai and giving it to Gladson.
'46th I think.' Jai grabbed the bat from the boy. The boy snatched it back again.
'Who's he?' Gladson asked.
'Long story,' Drune said.
Jai sprinted for the door, sprinted back again. 'Grizzly on stairs.' They heard footsteps pass by, stop, then turn back again. Drune gestured for silence as bloodshot eyes peered through the large hole where the lock should have been.
Drune's fist jabbed through the hole, silencing any outcry. 'Follow him,' Drune said, as Jai swept out of the door past the prostrate man, and up the stairs. 'And not a sound, understood?'
'We have to divert again,' Jai told Drune as they neared the 46th. ‘Use the outer stairs.' He was panting.
Scavenger held his side and looked around him in disgust. 'We's been here already.'
'Next floor up. Corridor E46.' Jai said, taking his bearings.
Jai shook his head. 'No, but they sleep there. Staff quarters. It's the most probable place, according to the schematics.'
Jai thought for a moment. 'There's the main central shafts and outer service corridors. Communications at the top. Cable cars, then stores. Then staff and security quarters. This floor's mainly admin. kitchens and dining below. Lower was recreational, Base held lobby, reception and general facilities. Then you worked up to accommodation. Was quite a place once, I should imagine.'
'Shit!' Gladson said suddenly and raised his gun.
A young man came into view, dark hair, dark eyes. 'Don't shoot!' Farrow said. 'I know where the girl is. I'll help you get her.'
Drune's hand lowered the gun. Gladson tried to free it. 'What are you doing? He's one of them. They deserve to die. All of them.'
'I'm not one of them. Really I'm not.' Farrow was almost in tears. Drydon would use the girl, slit her throat and think nothing of it. 'There's two in the corridor. The rest are on their way. I'll help you pass them. Hurry!'
The Hunter moved without hesitation.
Gladson grabbed his arm.' Hey, you're not going to trust him, are you? It's a trick, has to be. You can't really think he's going to help us.'
The Hunter removed Gladson's hand. 'It's the girl's life and your call. Will you risk that he's not?
Gladson shifted uneasily. 'Hell―'
'You head for the top. That way.' Drune pointed the direction. 'I'll get the girl.'
'Why the top?'
Gladson got the look. 'Okay, I'm going.' Then furrowed his brow. 'But you watch your back.'
The nape of Drune's neck twitched slightly. He thought of Torrace and his parting words. But there was no time to ponder things past or future. He let Farrow lead.
The sign above Drune's head read D-46 in large letters. The corridor was dimly lit by small windows that fed light from the rooms on each side and the occasional door that was left open or had been broken from its hinges. Green mould clung to the faded wall panelling and the smell of urine filled the air. At that moment, Drune so longed to be elsewhere, near clear blue oceans and salt sea spray. Why did he continue with this nightmare? He knew, of course. He was punishing himself.
For things he should have done. Or shouldn't have done.
Just let it go.
Another corridor and his gun arced a thin needle beam, felling two men in his path.
'This way.' Farrow pointed. 'I'll lead the others off. The girl's on corridor F. Third room on the left.' He turned and ran.
It was the right corridor, but the third room on the left was empty. Drune tried the next, also empty but for box upon box stacked to the ceiling.
Shona was in the fifth room on the right, stripped and tied, her head rolled to one side, eyes closed. There was blood on her face, and she wasn't alone.
Red was too busy to notice the Hunter's entry, intent on an entry of his own. The girl was Drydon's, but Red had no intention of waiting in line, not this time. This time Drydon could try dead meat, see how he liked it. Red moved bloated hands over the girl's warm flesh. God, it felt good. He couldn't remember the last time it had felt this good.
A cold fury gripped the Hunter as he levelled his gun on Red’s heaving buttocks. This was violation of the worst sort. He clicked his claws together, once.
Red thought it was Drydon. His hand went for his gun. He stiffened when he saw the Hunter's face, tried to roll over, tried to shoot the Hunter at the same time. The pellet went wide, glancing off a pillar to Drune's right. Red knew he was a dead man. His body jerked violently then slumped lifeless over the unconscious girl, a hole in his temple, blood vessels and tissue fused by the beam from Drune's gun.
Drune walked to the body, yanked Red to the floor by his matted hair. There was an expression on the dead man's face―agony or ecstasy, Drune didn't care much which. He cut the girl's bonds, covered her, then walked from the room to stand guard outside, his thoughts dark and chilling.
Gladson skidded into view. 'There's a bunch of them coming this way.' He stopped when he saw the Hunter's face, and fearing the worst he rushed into the room.
Jai and the boy appeared round the corridor. 'How many?' Drune asked.
'Lots!' the boy said.
'Bring the girl,' Drune called at the door. 'Quickly!'