Dead Man’s Bounty (Part Four) by T. Eric Bakutis
Arcasia took a look at the soldiers in exo-armor all around them and the large rifles each carried, powerful enough to punch holes in a sedan. “Can I put my hands down now?”
Josef snapped his fingers. Two soldiers grabbed the panicked, sobbing suit and dragged him off toward the aircars. Two more led Bennett and her family away, but not roughly.
“Wait!” Arcasia said. “I need Jaime.”
The soldiers stopped. Bennett stopped, with her family, who all looked very confused for a moment. “Why?” Bennett asked.
“I need a pilot,” Arcasia said. “Give your family a big hug and then get ready to make this up to me.”
Josef frowned. “Why would either of you fly anything?”
“We need to track down Stephen Galloway,” Arcasia said. “He’s still alive, somehow.”
Her father raised one puffy eyebrow. “And?”
“I think we’d both feel better if he wasn’t.”
Josef crossed his arms. “If Galloway is in this city, we’ll find him.”
“Actually,” Arcasia said, “I’ll find him, using the tracer script he just downed.” She’d embedded one in Codex Rondo, of course, because Galloway was stupidly predictable.
“You abused my trust,” Josef said. “You invaded my company under false pretenses, extracted and stole data I’m contractually obligated to protect, and have now transferred that data to an international fugitive. Is there anything I have misunderstood?”
He wasn’t wrong, but neither was she. “I admit it wasn’t my best plan, but Galloway abducted Bennett’s family. Giving him that file was the only way to get them back, and if we catch up with him before he escapes, we’ll also get your data back. If we go now.”
“This was your idea?” Josef glanced at Bennett, a woman who looked suspiciously like she was about to incriminate herself. “You hired Agent Bennett to cover for you?”
“I forced her to help me steal that data because I didn’t see any other way to save her family.” Arcasia caught Bennett’s gaze and demanded silence. “Galloway wouldn’t bring her family here if he didn’t think we had the real thing.”
“You should have involved me,” Josef said.
“You have a mole,” Arcasia reminded him. “Maybe more than one, if Galloway was clever.” She stared at her father and crossed her arms. “Should I have let them die?”
Josef glowered at her, and for a moment, Arcasia felt like she was thirteen years old again, cowering naked in a steel paddock while Stephen Galloway sprayed her down. Cleaning off dirt and blood. Her father had never looked at her like this before, but she’d never crossed him so ruthlessly. The fact that his glower faded quickly felt unearned.
“Give me the script key,” Josef said.
“Give me Bennett and an Avispon.”
“This is not a negotiation!”
“I actually can’t give you a script key,” Arcasia said. “My tracer is encrypted in my PBA. My head is the only one that can track him, unless you want to slice it open and look.”
Bennett hugged her daughter, kissed her husband, and walked away from them both. She stopped at Arcasia’s side and looked at Josef. Arcasia looked at Josef too.
Josef turned and stalked toward the aircars. “You are a troublesome child.”
Arcasia followed, throat tight as she realized he’d just forgiven her, again, and that he was trusting her, again. “And you’re actually a great dad.”
She and Bennett got an Avispon to themselves, since each only carried two. Once they were airborne and had altitude, Arcasia pinged Galloway’s location. It wasn’t good news.
“At these velocities,” Josef said over the aircar network, “Galloway may leave Japan’s territorial waters before we overtake him. We have no units that can intercept.”
Galloway was on a boat, moving. He must have been running things from offshore. Aircars were faster than boats, yet the projected AR map on the Avispon’s dash showed glowing pips and ticking Time-To-Destinations. Josef wasn’t wrong about the math.
“With a decent tailwind,” Arcasia said, “we can still catch him.”
“We might,” Josef corrected.
Bennett pushed the Avispon hard over Tokyo Bay, flying onto land and off again. Josef’s aircar and three others flew escort. Twenty minutes later, as they approached the line in augmented reality that marked the start of the Pacific Ocean, the math stopped working.
“We’ll log his direction,” Josef said. “With luck, the Chinese may be able to intercept.”
Even if he hadn’t bribed them, the Chinese didn’t have a chance in hell of catching Stephen Galloway. “What happens if you assault a foreign ship in international waters?”
She knew, of course. They both knew. This was for the flight recorder in Josef’s aircar.
“If we defy international law,” Josef said, louder than necessary, “our operational contracts around the world could be revoked. Under no circumstances can we—”
“I’m going to do it anyway,” Arcasia said.
Bennett glanced at her from the pilot’s seat. “Arc?”
“Say again?” Josef had heard her just fine.
“You can order me to return to BAS, if you want. When I refuse, that’s on me.”
The aircar behind them sped up. Her father was gaining on them now, incrementally. He probably kept the fastest one for himself, knowing him.
“Arc,” Bennett said.
“Keep flying.” She looked ahead. “I’m boarding that boat, Dad. Your thoughts?”
“Agent Bennett,” Josef said over the wireless, “throttle down. We’re returning to BAS.”
“I don’t need revenge on Galloway,” Bennett said. “You’ve done enough for me already.” She didn’t throttle down.
“This isn’t for you.” Arcasia pictured Galloway’s eyes as he dragged her out of his cage, as he beat Rex for smirking, as he laughed with the other pit guards. “You owe me.”
“There is that.” Bennett focused on her piloting. “Think you can take him alone?”
Arcasia imagined you could cram a half-dozen mercenaries inside a boat. “Absolutely.”
“You always were a bit full of yourself.” Bennett flipped a switch. “Hey, chief?”
“Have you secured Arcasia?” Josef asked.
“I’m actually refusing a direct order,” Bennett said. “Doesn’t that mean you have to fire me?”
There was a moment of dead air. “Agent Bennett, you will turn that Avispon around right now!”
Arcasia would have laughed if she didn’t hate betraying him again. She felt another wave of affection for Josef Barondale, for a man who hurt like she did. Things would never be like they were before her abduction, but that didn’t matter so much. He was her father.
“Sorry, chief, but I can’t do that,” Bennett said. “Working for you has been an honor.”
Josef was gaining, but not gaining fast enough. Just before they passed the territorial line projected in AR ahead, Josef spoke again. “Agent Bennett?”
Arcasia held her breath.
The triangle representing Josef’s aircar veered off on the threat sphere above the dash, along with all the others. He couldn’t follow them. He might be wishing them luck.
Bennett eased the throttle down as they cruised evenly across a deceptively smooth night sea. Moonlight revealed gentle waves and Galloway’s low-slung yacht, running dark and impossible to find without a tracer. Fortunately, this Avispon had night vision.
Arcasia looked around for buttons. “Where’s the guns?”
Bennett eased into a dive. “We can’t fly guns in Japan’s borders.”
“What about stealth mode?”
“It’s four huge fans strapped to a helo engine, Arc.”
“Right,” Arcasia said. “Guess we’ll just punch them, then.”
Bennett throttled up again as they sped toward the yacht. “Or not.”
As they shrieked down toward the yacht like a freaky armored owl, night-vision revealed green blobs rushing on deck. Bennett flipped more switches, and every spotlight on the Avispon ignited at once. Even blinded, the soldiers on that yacht knew where to shoot.
Cracks peppered armored glass as pops filled the night, but those trailed off as the Avispon sped on undeterred. Bennett wasn’t pulling up or slowing down, and Arcasia realized then that Galloway’s low-slung yacht wasn’t much wider than the span of an aircar’s quad fans. Oh.
The Avispon’s undercarriage thumped and bumped across the yacht’s deck as they hit things. Blood splattered the windshield. Arcasia gripped her straps as they shuddered away from their pass, cabin rattling violently. Bullets or body parts had bent something.
“Can you land?” Arcasia shouted.
“I can land!” Bennett shouted back.
They crashed, actually, but at least they crashed on top of the yacht.
Arcasia opened her eyes, head pounding. Airbags deflated around her as the Avispon’s shattered cabin rolled with the motion of a gentle sea, meaning she’d only been out a moment. She glanced at Bennett and grimaced. That was an awful lot of blood.
The Avispon’s center brace was bent, making it impossible to reach Bennett from inside. Arcasia tried the door and found it jammed. She activated the field generator on her right knuckle, and for a moment, a humming purple glow lit the aircar. When she punched the doorframe with that glow, it bucked hard enough to break the lock.
Arcasia stumbled out and nearly slipped on a very bloody deck. Bennett had landed the aircar right on the yacht’s cabin, or in it, actually. Even with a smooth sea, landing a damaged aircar on a moving yacht, at night, made Bennett almost as good as Josef.
Arcasia fumbled her way around the hull of the crashed Avispon and the boat cabin in which it was lodged, hoping to free Bennett. AR squares from her PBA tagged several badly mangled bodies, but none registered as Galloway. Had he leapt off the side?
“Stop!” Galloway shouted from behind her. “Turn around!”
Seriously? Arcasia stopped, turned, and raised her hands. She didn’t see Galloway anywhere. Was she dealing with some vengeful ghost?
Air shimmered at the back of the yacht, next to a bent leather bench and life preservers. Stephen Galloway appeared out of the salty night, pale face glinting in the moonlight. He wore a skintight bodysuit that looked like a dark-colored diving outfit, but wasn’t.
Arcasia felt another hint of jealousy. That was really good mimetic camouflage. If she didn’t get too much blood on it, she was absolutely keeping that too.
“You just couldn’t let it go, could you?” Galloway’s whole body trembled as he pointed a Glock at her. “Killing me once wasn’t enough? You had to drop an aircar on me?”
Arcasia measured the distance. “Bennett dropped it.”
Galloway took one step closer, feet spread to keep his balance as his damaged yacht rolled on the gentle sea. “It was just a job, Arcasia. I was a soldier!”
“I was a child.” She kept her hands raised. “You going to shoot me?”
“Of course I’m going to shoot you!”
“Then why haven’t you done it yet?” He was trembling more violently than she’d expect from anyone sane.
“You don’t even know what’s in Codex Rondo, do you?” Galloway laughed a decidedly harsh laugh, a sound more bitter than amused. “That’s the most ridiculous part. I’m trying to destroy Staffing Solutions. You’re fighting to save the people you hate!”
If a big wave slammed into the yacht, it might throw off his aim. “Really.”
“Those scheming gasbags pinned it all on us,” Galloway said, “even though they ordered us to do everything. The abductions of human subjects. The drug tests in the fighting pits. Even you, Arcasia. It went all the way up to senior management. They all knew!”
“Tell me why I care.” This was a frustratingly calm sea.
“If you kill me, you’ll never decrypt the codex!” Galloway shouted. “Codex Rondo holds all the proof we need to implicate every last leader of Staffing Solutions, and I have the key.” He trembled so violently his teeth rattled. “They’ll all go down if you let me live!”
“Here’s what bugging me.” Arcasia decided he could get off two shots before she shattered his head with a knuckle charge. “How are you still alive?”
Galloway blinked drunkenly as the boat swayed. “They did it! They didn’t ask me!”
“I shot you and dumped you in a swamp.”
“It’s the PBAs,” Galloway said, “the new ones. They control your body, even if you don’t want them to.” His eyes twitched rapidly inside his lids. “My body pulled me out of that swamp five minutes after you dumped me into it, but I wasn’t awake when it did.”
Well, that was goddamn terrifying. Some recent scientific papers theorized Personal Brain Assistants could control the body as Galloway claimed, to help paralyzed people, for example, but clinical trials were currently banned across the world, like slavery. Of course Staffing Solutions would use PBAs to reanimate the dead.
“I can’t live like this.” Galloway took another step without shooting, trembling, and she wondered then if someone had hacked his cybernetics. “I need freedom.”
“Put that gun down and you’ll get it.”
“Freedom from the people puppeting my limbs inside my head, you witch, not freedom to get dumped in the goddamn sea!” Galloway winced and winced again, but his gun didn’t shoot her. “You bastards. You stop it. You let me go!”
Arcasia rolled the dice and rushed him, knuckles glowing with her other purple charge. He fired just before she pulped his head. Arcasia dropped to her knees as the corpse fell, checking for wounds, but she was whole. He’d missed his shot. How had that happened?
Bennett was bleeding out in her busted-up aircar. Arcasia had to radio for help and then stabilize her friend. She had just turned to find the boat’s radio when the phone rang.
She turned back to the unwelcome sound, to Galloway’s headless corpse. She swept her palms over his mimetic suit until she found the hidden pocket, then pulled out his wafer-thin phone and put it to her ear. It felt like the night was starting all over again.
“Stephen Galloway is dead,” a scrambled voice informed her.
Arcasia glanced at the moonlit sea. “What was your first clue?” She didn’t see any other boats out there, or hear any other aircars, but someone was watching. She looked up.
“We saved you,” the voice said. “We prevented Galloway from shooting you. Scrub Codex Rondo from your PBA and we will transfer you a sum of ten billion dollars.”
“I’m not taking jobs now, voice scrambler.” Arcasia searched glittering stars for the offending satellite. “You’re from SS, aren’t you? Galloway was telling the truth.”
“Ten billion dollars,” the voice said.
“Twenty billion,” Arcasia said.
There was a pause. “Twenty billion.”
Arcasia laughed and sat, cross-legged, on the deck. “Just how desperate are you?”
“Scrub Codex Rondo,” the scrambled voice demanded, “or we will destroy your family.”
“How ‘bout you go fuck yourselves instead?” Arcasia chucked the phone into the sea. Only then, as she remembered the aircar embedded in the yacht’s crushed cabin, did she realize she probably should have used that phone to call her father.
She hoped the yacht’s radio still worked.
* * *
One hour and forty-two minutes later, Arcasia finally had her hot cocoa. She also had a fluffy bathrobe and strict orders not to leave her suite twenty floors below Tokyo BAS without an escort. Four soldiers were now posted outside her room. They didn’t talk.
She relaxed against the backrest of her adjustable bed and sipped delicious chocolate, watching the feed from Dallas until the suite’s armored door opened. Naomi was up now and playing with their black lab, Reggie. She watched them with one eye as the other eye watched Josef enter, alone, and close the door.
Her father walked to the bench beside her bed, sat, and sighed. “I didn’t know.”
“I know you didn’t.” Arcasia set down her mug and closed the AR window showing Naomi. She focused on the father who needed her. “You guys store data for rich people. You don’t read it. Reading it means rich people won’t store their data anymore.”
“I have my people decrypting the codex now,” Josef said.
Arcasia felt a bit like hugging him. “Won’t that cost you a few contracts?”
“If it were necessary to bring down the abomination known as Staffing Solutions, I would destroy this building and my entire company with it.”
Arcasia took one of his big, rough hands in hers. “Dad,” she said, “please stop.”
Josef looked at their clenched hands. “Stop what?”
“Feeling guilty. I love you, and I don’t blame you. For anything.”
Josef scowled and pulled his hand away. “What led you to believe I feel guilty?”
“You treat me like you’re going to break me, even when you know you won’t. You act like you betrayed me when you didn’t. I sold you out tonight, and you didn’t even yell at me.”
“You have not escaped judgment for that,” Josef said, a touch too sternly. “I have every reason to keep you locked up here for decades. I just might.”
“So long as Naomi gets to visit.”
“This is serious, Arcasia.” He grimaced. “Have you even considered the charges you face? I am far from the only authority you have poked in the eye tonight.”
Arcasia shrugged. Her family was alive and Galloway wasn’t. “Find anything to verify Galloway’s claims about remote PBA puppeteers?”
“You disintegrated his PBA,” Josef said, with no small amount of distaste, “so no, we have no proof to verify his claims of mind control. PBAs cannot and should not animate a person’s limbs against their will. That is illegal and, more importantly, immoral.”
“But they can do it now, can’t they, Dad?” Arcasia breathed. “This changes everything.”
Josef sagged a bit, nodded, and rubbed his big hands together. “It certainly does.”
They’d talked enough about mind control for one night. “How’s Jaime?”
“She will recover,” Josef said. “She will also retire.”
Which meant she wasn’t going to jail. “You’d lose a good agent.”
“She refused a direct order after helping you betray BAS.”
“Maybe I’ll hire her, then,” Arcasia said. “I could do with a partner.”
Josef shook his big bald head. “After we decrypt that codex, everyone responsible for the crimes against you will be imprisoned. Staffing Solutions will be dissolved, its assets lost in forfeiture. What remains for you then? What vengeance remains to chase?”
“Kite’s still out there.”
“So’s Naomi,” Josef said. “Had you died tonight, taking revenge, would she be forced to do the same for you?”
He’d always been annoyingly good with logic, but she couldn’t just let Kite go. She couldn’t let him get away with hurting children. “Hunting bounties is all I know.”
“Then learn something,” Josef said, visibly frustrated.
Arcasia looked away. She remembered Rex dying. She remembered Galloway’s head exploding and how it made her feel: not better. She remembered Jaime Bennett hugging her family, remembered Naomi giggling, and remembered she wasn’t alone.
Josef sat back. “Yes?”
“Are you hiring?”