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Authors: Ann Aguirre

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Wanderlust (24 page)

BOOK: Wanderlust
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“Couldn’t be better.” Yes, I exaggerate.

“Fine,” Hit answers with a smile. “But the smell is nasty. Let’s get on.”

Nobody else seems to notice that a long slash on Jael’s arm has now closed itself up. His blood-soaked clothing offers camouflage as well. With everything happening at once and the uncertain light, it’s easy to miss, or to think you were mistaken. I know better.

My bodyguard falls in behind me, serving as rear guard. “Thanks,” he murmurs, low. “Most of this crew doesn’t know anything about me, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

I shrug. “We all have shit we’d rather didn’t come to light. In your case, though, Jael, you didn’t
do
anything. You didn’t ask for any of this.”

“That hasn’t stopped people trying to kill me just to see how long it’ll take for me to die,” he returns. “And let’s not even get started with the zealots.”

“Fair enough.”

I push down the raw grief clawing at me, trying to compartmentalize. At this moment I need another Jax, one who’s tough and capable, but she won’t manifest. I can’t banish this loss as I have so many others. March got to me the way nobody ever has, burrowed beneath my skin in a way that I don’t think I’ll
ever
get over him. And I’ve lost enough people to know.

Glenna, my best friend from the academy, burned out faster than most. She was twenty-three when she died. I said some empty words at her service, took some mental-health days, and drank myself stupid in some scroungy spaceport bar. And I haven’t thought about her in ten turns. Odd that her memory would surface here, now.

I shake off the melancholy, noticing that the tunnels seem to be sloping up. At first I’m not sure because it’s subtle, but as we go along, I decide the bounty hunter’s leading us in the right direction. The new pilot sticks close to Vel, shadowing him as he guides us around corners. His handheld feeds him data he doesn’t bother sharing. We only need to know about bad news coming at us.

So much stone. The ceilings are barely tall enough for Hit to pass without stooping. She’s easily as tall as Jael. I draw my fingers along the walls as we move, listening for the telltale sound of wings.

Instead I feel a gust of air, which shouldn’t exist down here. A draft can mean only one thing. I pause, spin, and then tilt my head back.

In the darkness I can barely make out a ragged hole above our heads. The broken stone doesn’t look as though the Gunnars included this in their original construction either. Dread crawls over me like maggots from an old corpse.

“Shit.”

My worst fear, realized.

Everyone glances back at Jael and me. Since he’s right beside me, he catches on first. The merc tips his head back, and asks, “How close are we to the surface?”

Vel taps on his handheld. “In a direct vertical line, or as the tunnels run?”

In running a hand through his hair, Jael reveals his impatience with Vel’s precision. “As the tunnels run, unless you can take us straight up this shaft.”

Even assuming her sled had that much lift, Dina couldn’t clear the opening, so I take that for a rhetorical question. I can’t imagine how she feels, if she’s put the pieces together. These monsters I’m so scared of, they
ate
part of her. I don’t know how she isn’t one giant ball of terror.

Hit taps a booted foot gently, as if she thinks we’re wasting time with all this jawing. Maybe she has a point. The longer we stand around down here, the more chance they’ll find us.

“Nearly two kilometers,” the bounty hunter answers at last. “But it winds around, so it will take twice as long as a straight hike.”

“We have to assume the tunnels ahead are infested,” Dina says flatly. “Vel, can you get a message back to camp? They need to know the bunker’s not as safe as they thought. With the wounded, the Teras
will
find them sooner or later.”

My imagination supplies the details. Death exploding into an unsuspecting camp with claws and fangs. Rending, devouring—I have to shut down the images; they come too quick and violent for me to bear. If they get to Keri, Lex, and . . .

March.

Then the McCulloughs win. And I lose everything.

“I can try.” Vel punches keys, shifting this way and that.

“Try under here.” I step back, making room beneath the hole in the ceiling.

Maybe that will be enough. If he can’t, we’ll have to go back. Make our last stand with them. The others watch him with varying degrees of tension. I’m not alone in how badly I want off this desolate rock.

“Done,” he says, after an interminable moment. “Dr. Solaith should see the warning soon. I hope it gives them time to prepare.”

We all heave a collective sigh. Part of me feels it isn’t enough. I want to turn and run back down the dark stone passage toward March. It will drive me nuts, not knowing what happens here after we go.

I ache.

Only the fact that he made his choice prevents me from doing just that. Well, that and my secret, shameful fear of the dark. But March made it clear we’re on diverging paths, and only time will tell whether that’s always going to be the case. I don’t have enough faith left in me to believe, but I curl my hand into a fist, fingering the cheap ring he gave me.

Ahead of us lies probable death and dismemberment. Behind us lies an encampment of weary, beleaguered clansmen with a war to fight. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

Two kilometers between us and daylight. I wonder if the dead we left behind will draw them, all hunger and keening sonic rage. Fighting Teras underground sounds like suicide. Fuck that. If I meant to take that route, I’d have chosen an easy death. Made my appointment with a Psych, and then visited a clean, safe Eutha-booth.

I sigh. “So what the hell do we do now?”

Hit’s teeth shine in the dark. “We kill the muthafuckers, one and all.”

Easier said than done.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 35

My heart thuds in my ears.

I’m conscious of each footfall, each scrape against stone. We try to move as a unit, permitting no space between us, but the soft hum from Dina’s sled echoes down the corridors. Can the Teras detect vibrations? Each meter feels like a kilometer since I expect at any moment to hear the terrifying sound of wings.

“The passage will not permit them to swarm us,” Vel says.

He’s right. We can’t even pass two abreast, and from what I recall, the Teras have a two-meter wingspan. So Vel will bear the brunt of a first attack. Perhaps his faux-human skill will shield him somewhat.

That’s no guarantee he’ll survive, however, if they rend him limb from limb. I wonder how his unique body chemistry will affect the monsters. I can’t ask, though.

“Can that thing detect movement?” I nod at his handheld.

“Ordinarily. The rock interferes somewhat with the readings, however.”

Dina glances back at me over the rim of her sled. Her eyes glow with an odd radiance, echoes of the torch-tube. When she turns back, the light paints her fair hair with oily green streaks.

“If it comes down to it,” she tells me, low. “If it’s life and death and I’m slowing you down, you leave me, Jax. They already had a taste of me, so they may as well have the rest.”

A chill shivers through me. I remember Loras on his belly, shoving March toward me. I recognize self-sacrifice.

I’ll be damned if it happens again.

“No. We’re not leaving anyone behind.” Not this time. “We’ll find a way to fight them.”

“Better hurry,” Hit says, jerking her head at the red blurs on Vel’s data screen. “We got two, just around the corner.”

“We
have
a way,” Jael says, pushing past me. “Jax, stay back, and keep the other two safe.”

The pilot glares at his back. “You think I need your protection? I killed one of those monsters topside with nothing but a knife. I just need a ride.”

“Then
you
guard Jax and Dina,” comes his response. “You ready, Vel?”

The bounty hunter responds by tossing a weapon to Jael. They take up a position just around the corner, and I shudder, barely registering a keen of pure hunger from the beasts. I remember the way their song nearly killed poor Loras.

A burst of orange lightning zags from their hands, igniting the very air before them. The Teras’ camouflage fails under such duress, and for an instant, I watch their silhouettes inside the pocket inferno, watch them writhe. Heat washes over me.

Fearing an explosion, I hit the floor, and Dina guides her sled over me. I appreciate the gesture; even now she’s got my back. When I’m greeted by the stench of sizzling meat, I chance a peek. Hit stands her ground, watching the monsters burn. Jael and Vel have designed something that propels an incendiary cloud.

“We will burn a path out.” Vel holsters the oddly shaped weapon. “They cannot swarm us in the tunnels, and if we move cautiously, they will not detect us easily. I believe they utilize sonar to locate their prey.”

I can’t be the only one thinking this. “Will their screams draw others?”

The bounty hunter’s answer drifts back to me over the hiss of smoldering flesh. “It is possible.”

“Then they can just line up to die,” Jael says. “I’m so tired of this planet.”

“That makes two of us. Any chance you made a spare?” With a nod, Hit indicates the weapon in his hand.

“Only these. Sorry. We can take turns if you prefer.” Trust Vel to be scrupulously fair about who gets to barbecue the horrible things.

Personally, I don’t care. I’ve seen what they can do; so has Dina. I suspect she and I are content to watch the action from a safe distance this time. After checking his handheld, Vel maneuvers past the smoking pile with a precision that once again reveals his inhuman nature, once you know what you’re looking for. He waves us on.

The smell damn near makes me sick. There’s no climate control down here, no ventilation, and the smell of charred meat flashes me dangerously close to the
Sargasso
. By itself, the dark was bad enough. Add this stench to it, and I struggle to stay in the here and now.

I grit my teeth until pain shoots up my jaw to my temple. I won’t lose it. I’m stronger than that. March would’ve known how bad this is for me. I could’ve counted on a touch on the shoulder, a reassuring nod. So would Doc, for that matter. But those days are gone.

And I have to deal with what is, not what was. Story of my life.

“Watch your step.” Jael guides us around the corpses.

Dina slaps at him, which improves my mood somewhat. I’m not sure she’s all right with the battlefield medicine that went into saving her life, but we don’t have a Psych on hand. Just as well, most of them are crazy bastards. After all, look what they did to me in the name of mental health. When we get out of here, I’ll fix her the Jax way: loads of liquor and some pretty girls.

Vel leads us out of that hallway and into the next turn. It’s a maze, and I’m hopelessly lost, just as I was when Doc found our way in. Dirtside, I have no sense of direction, something Kai loved teasing me about. When I got lost at the Gehenna starport market, he never let me live it down.

Oddly, thinking about him takes my mind off March. An older loss doesn’t sting as much. The memories offer some comfort and distraction as we creep along, slaves to Vel’s handheld.

Listening for the rasp of talons and claws against the rock. A dragging sound or a leathery flap of wings. Sonic shrieks echo in the distance, making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. My nipples perk from the chills running over me steadily, like I have a fever. But I don’t think fear counts as an illness.

They’re here with us. Hunting. Coming closer, each turn we make. Mary help us, will I never see the sky again?

In Jael’s hand the torch-tube starts to flicker, casting odd shadows along the floor, and then it winks out. At first I’m just blind; it’s like that long moment after I jack in, but before we jump. And then the walls kindle with their own light, a pale, ethereal twinkle that reminds me of the stars.

“The stone is full of phosphorus,” Vel says in a hushed tone.

Once my eyes adjust, it’s better than the tubes, more pervasive. I feel less like we’re scuttling along in the oily dark, huddled in our tiny isle of illumination. It also smells fresher now that we’ve moved away from the funeral pyre.

“Does that mean something?” Hit asks him.

Vel lifts his shoulders. “Probably. But I lack the time for extended study.”

“No shit. You remind me of Doc sometimes.” Dina sounds more herself, less the sacrificial lamb.

“I will take that as a compliment.”

“It wasn’t meant as one,” she mutters.

Ahead of Dina, Hit smothers a chuckle. “Should we leave you two alone?”

Now I laugh. I sense more than see the puzzled look the pilot casts over her shoulder at me, so I explain, “Dina doesn’t like men, and Vel, well . . .”

As a Slider, he can grow human skin to pass among us, concealing his mantis form. But I’m not going to out him since Hit hasn’t seen him au naturel. No more than I’ll tell her about Jael being Bred. Like I told him before, we all have our secrets.

Vel surprises me by finishing the sentence with a flicker of that dry sense of humor that occasionally rears its head. “Let us say she is not my type.”

For the first time, I wonder what that would be. He said he left Ithiss-Tor because sexual relations between his people sometimes became deadly. So that means he’s been alone this whole time? Not that it’s any of my business.

On some level, I’m aware I’m losing myself in these inane speculations in order to distract myself from the soul-scouring fear engendered by the echoing shrieks. The Teras sound so goddamn close now; they should be on Vel’s screen.

BOOK: Wanderlust
12.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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