Dead Man’s Bounty (Part One) by T. Eric Bakutis
Arcasia Barondale woke to a cool rain tapping her leather jacket. She was on her back on a gravel roof, face sheltered by the wing of a thrumming A/C unit, in what looked to be the middle of the night. Her tongue felt like cotton, and her skin tingled unpleasantly.
She sat up, minding her head, and blinked at the distant Skytree, a tower lit blue and white to celebrate some holiday she really didn’t care about right now. It loomed over the city skyline beyond the raised border around the roof on which someone had abandoned her, alone. She was alive, unarmed, and apparently in Tokyo. All right then.
Arcasia blinked over to her headdesk — a screen created inside her head by her Personal Brain Assistant, or PBA — and analyzed her heavily cyberized body. She wasn’t wounded anywhere, and her firewalls remained undamaged. They better be, given their cost.
Naomi. Arcasia still had wireless web access, and a quick check of her bunker’s dozen security cameras in Dallas showed her daughter still asleep, in their bunker, with soldiers she trusted with Naomi’s life playing cards out front. Naomi was safe. Her daughter was safe, even if Arcasia wasn’t, and that made this a hell of a lot easier.
A quick browse of the vitals her PBA constantly tracked assured her she’d just been drugged this time, not poisoned, which was a welcome change. Traces of whatever knocked her out remained in her bloodstream, but her PBA couldn’t identify it. That made it a custom mix, likely corporate and expensive.
A phone buzzed inside her jacket pocket, forcing her to blink back from her headdesk and reflexively check her other clothes. Everything seemed as it had been — tank top, jeans, and boots — but just having to check pissed her off. She stood, shook rainwater off her dark, bare hands, and pulled the phone from her jacket pocket. Still buzzing.
For a moment she considered chucking the phone off the building and taking her chances on the stairs. She put it to her ear instead. Always a chance it might be a sniper.
“Hello, Arcasia,” a man said.
Every hair on her arms saluted. A dead man’s voice now filled her ear, except not, apparently. Somehow, the man who’d tormented her at Staffing Solutions was still alive.
“Evening, Galloway.” Arcasia felt her lips curl back. “Honestly didn’t expect to hear from you again.”
The not-quite-dead man chuckled. “It was just one bullet.”
“It was also in the back of your head.”
“Speaking of, how’s yours feeling?”
“Like you drugged me, asshole.” They were getting off topic. “Why are you calling?”
“I’d like to trade you a location,” Galloway said. “It’s where you’ll find the other man you still want to kill. Samuel Kite. Interested?”
Arcasia took a breath to buy herself time. To focus. From all the leads she’d cobbled together after her escape at age sixteen, Samuel Kite (of Staffing Solutions) was the man who abducted her as a child and tossed her into their underground fighting pits. She’d been twelve years old when she killed for the first time. Not her best day.
There was always a chance Galloway might be lying to her, but she doubted it. He’d gone to too much trouble — taking her — to risk losing it all on a bluff. This also put Galloway in her sights again, after he’d convinced her he was entirely dead, and he wouldn’t do that if this wasn’t important to him. He wouldn’t do this if he wasn’t desperate.
“What’s the trade?” Arcasia asked.
“One file,” Galloway said, “which exists on a single non-networked server in sub-basement three of the Barondale Security complex outside Tokyo.”
Everything about why Galloway had drugged and abducted her, specifically, clicked into place, and Arcasia massaged her temples as she felt the start of a headache. “Dammit.”
“The filename is Codex Rondo,” Galloway continued, a bit of gloat in his tone, “and you’ll find it on a Toshiba console in the third row of a rack in the northwest corner. While the terminal is heavily secured, I’m confident you can crack it.”
This was about her father, Josef. This was about his security business and the fact that she, his only daughter, could infiltrate it without getting shot to pieces. Arcasia pictured her father’s eyebrows pressing together as he waited for her judgment. “We aren’t close.”
“Still, Josef trusts you implicitly,” Galloway said. “Use that. I already sent him word you wanted to meet him on this roof.”
He was annoyingly ahead of her. “You don’t think a rooftop meeting seems suspicious?”
“In our line of work?” Galloway laughed. “Arcasia, it’s practically a cliché.”
Arcasia left the A/C units and stalked to the edge of the roof, to the waist-high barrier. She peered over. She was only around ten stories up, but that was tall for Tokyo, given its propensity for earthquakes. Wind tugged gamely at her dreadlocks.
Guilt pushed at her, and worry for Naomi, but she needed this. She needed Kite. “Once I get the file, how do I contact you?” That was her committing, as clear as it could be.
“The phone,” Galloway said. “Also, scrub Codex Rondo off the server after you down it. If you leave it there, our deal’s off.”
Arcasia hung up and tucked the phone under a nearby A/C unit. She could easily come back and pick it up later, once she had Galloway’s data, and bringing a burner phone into one of the most secure data storage facilities in the world was a dumb idea. She leaned on the barrier and waited for her ride. Her father. A man who trusted her.
Glass and steel buildings stretched out below her as far as she could see. The streets were dark lines choked with tiny ground cars, all moving together at an artificially even pace. Networked traffic was so much better than the alternative.
Faces flooded her memories. The young Latina girl with the buzz cut. The younger boy with the dark skin and hard, haunted eyes. Children she’d fought. Children she’d killed. She shuddered as a phantom rush of heady endorphins chilled her deep inside her chest.
She was shaking. She remembered adrenaline pumping as she cursed, and kicked, and killed. She remembered sobbing after the aggression drugs wore off, when she recovered herself, when she was alive and they were dead. It was an ache that never ended.
Christ! She smacked the roof ledge and focused on the cold air, on her tingling skin, on the wind tugging at her dreadlocks. This wasn’t her. Where was this all coming from?
It was the drugs. It had to be. Emotional junk was spilling everywhere tonight because whatever Galloway doped her with had lowered her mental barriers. So, great. She’d run an unscripted mission to betray her father while murdered children stared accusingly.
At least she might to get to kill Galloway at the end of it.
The whir of enclosed rotors overpowered the thrum of the A/C units. A spotlight found her, blinding, and she raised a hand to shade her eyes. Thanks, Dad. The quad rotors made the familiar looping whump of a Hyundai Avispon, and her PBA identified the aircar as BAS: Barondale Security. They’d added the A for obvious reasons.
The Avispon landed easily despite the stiff crosswind, which told her who its pilot must be. Its gullwing door opened and Josef Barondale stepped out, dark skin glinting in the lights of his Avispon and muscles straining against his blue-gray uniform. Josef had flown military helos for eight years and trained pilots for five more after that. He could also break a good-sized man over his knee.
“Hi, Dad,” Arcasia said. He’d actually flown out here to meet her himself.
Josef’s head was hairless save for bushy eyebrows and the patch of thick beard encircling his mouth. His dark eyes were narrow, his frown concerned. He wasn’t happy to see her today. To be fair, Josef Barondale was rarely happy to see anyone.
“Arcasia.” He clasped both hands behind his back. “What’s the trouble?”
His assumption that she must be in trouble annoyed her, which felt petty and unprofessional. “I need intel.” She needed a cover story.
“Rex’s parents.” She regretted saying that the moment she said it, but it was out there. Whatever cocktail Galloway dosed her with really had lowered her inhibitions.
Josef’s frown faded from disappointment to concern. “What brought this about?”
“Naomi’s been asking questions.” Truth worked best when possible, and Arcasia’s daughter was now curious about her murdered father. She was also eight years old.
Josef stroked his beard, frowned, and turned back to his Avispon. “Get in.”
Arcasia squared her shoulders and stalked toward the aircar. “Yes, sir.”
She didn’t blame Josef for failing to find her for four years after she was abducted — well, she did blame him, and fought not to blame him every day — and that kept a distance between them neither could cross. It was a stubborn wound.
They were airborne a minute later. The Avispon was all leather interior with plush bucket seats, racing harnesses, and two bulletproof windows offering an unobstructed view of the sky all around. A T-brace joined those windows, right down the middle.
Josef banked the aircar over glass buildings and arteries of networked traffic keeping them all alive, flying north. “About your request,” he said. “I don’t think it will help.”
He was right — it probably wouldn’t — but it wasn’t like she could change her story now. “Are Rex’s parents still alive?”
“Then it’ll help.” Arcasia stared ahead. “As soon as I get my intel, I’ll be out of your hair.”
He did not respond to the trite, familiar joke. He did not look at her, even though she knew he wanted to. He just asked, “Are you sure this is what you want?”
Arcasia felt genuine affection, followed by a pang of teeth-grinding guilt. “I’m sure.”
Josef had forbade her to seek vengeance on Samuel Kite. He believed murdering Kite would set off a corporate war that would ensnare thousands. She was not sure she disagreed, but she also was not sure she cared. Kite had kidnapped children and forced them to kill each other. She couldn’t let that happen to any child, anywhere, ever again.
The colored lights of Tokyo dwindled, replaced by a grid of well-lit roads cut through sprawling suburbs. Those were soon replaced by farmland, squares of flowing stalks boxed in by irrigation pipes. Eventually, three vertical lines of blinking lights broke the horizon, joined by augmented reality billboards flashing “Restricted Airspace.” Ahead was BAS Tokyo, which no unauthorized craft could reach without being shot down.
“If you do find Rex’s parents,” Josef asked, as the lights resolved into a huge square concrete pad with a bunch of anti-aircraft turrets on it, “what will you tell them?”
“That they have a granddaughter.”
“And how will you explain that?”
“They should know how their son died, and why. Rex died to save the both of us.”
“I don’t believe Rex’s parents ever learned what happened to him,” Josef said, as they sped between two security spires and descended toward a flashing pad. “They believe Rex died in surgery. Will you reveal instead that their son was abducted and forced to kill other children, in underground arenas, to test experimental military injections?”
Arcasia knew how she’d feel if ruthless scientists used Naomi for that. She didn’t know if she’d survive it. It was why she’d never asked Josef to look for Rex’s parents before, though she couldn’t tell him that. She also couldn’t ask him to find Kite for her, so…
“How did you feel when you found out?” Arcasia asked.
The question slipped out as easily as asking about his day, and it shocked her. She’d spent years wondering how Josef felt when he learned where she’d been, what she’d done, but she’d never asked him. She’d never dared. Lowered inhibitions were a curse.
“It broke me.” Josef’s knuckles whitened around the control stick in a way that hurt her inside. “I failed you in so many ways. No child should endure what you did, and I—”
“Stop,” Arcasia said, louder than she liked. “You did all you could to find me.” Even though he hadn’t. She almost gripped his big wrist to offer comfort, but couldn’t.
Her father cared about her and always would, despite the distance her abduction and resulting traumas had left between them, and she was using him tonight. She was exploiting Josef’s guilt for the worst reasons possible, to steal data he’d sworn to protect and kill a man he’d begged her not to kill. She might not ever forgive herself for this.
But she knew she couldn’t forgive Samuel Kite.
END OF PART ONE