At twenty-three, Jazen Parker has completed his Legion hitch a hero. But in four months, he’ll have a price on his head. Worse, he’s lost his past, and he can’t find his future. Unfortunately for Jazen, he’s chosen to search for them on one of the deadliest planets known to mankind.
When Jazen reluctantly hires on to a Trueborn Earthman tycoon’s safari to bag a deadly trophy, the reluctant mercenary finds himself consigned to an outpost at the end of the universe known to everyone except its tourism bureau as Dead End. When the hunt goes terribly wrong, Jazen must survive a tough, beautiful local guide who hates mercenaries, an eleven ton beast that can crush main battle tanks with one claw tied behind its back, and the return of a nightmare that has haunted Jazen since birth.
Orion Parker lowered her head and stared down into her glass when the cop appeared, silhouetted against the pedway glow beyond the open door. Like all cops, he stood a head taller than the crowd, with his helmet and antennae adding another half foot.
The bar crowd was as light as crowds ever got on Yavet, because by the fortieth day of any month paychips had vanished down throats, into veins, or into somebody else’s pocket at gunpoint. The cop, shoulders square, plowed through the drinkers and dancers toward the service ’bot. Some cops deigned to snake sideways through the crowds, polite even in a hole like this. Vice didn’t.
The cop reached the service ’bot, pressed his ID against its reader, then watched as the list of open tabs in the bar rolled across the ’bot’s screen.
‘‘Crap on crust!’’ Orion slid off her stool and burrowed into a crowd too drunk to smell its own vomit and too stoned to smell her fear.
She hadn’t ﬂed ﬁfteen feet when a gauntleted hand clamped her elbow.
The crowd shrank back, made a hole around them. The cop peered down at her through his face shield with eyes like black stones. It was Polian, from Vice. ‘‘Must have been a good month, Parker, if you can still afford whiskey.’’
She stared at the ﬂoor, shook her head. ‘‘I haven’t served a client in six months.’’
He cocked his head, sneered for show. ‘‘Really? Let’s talk about it.’’ He shoved her toward a vacant Sleeper, and she stumbled against a fat man who smelled like urine.
Polian slammed her through the booth’s open door, wedged in alongside her, then pulled the door shut. He took one breath, voiced up the ventilator, then waited. ‘‘Okay. What you got for me, Parker?’’
‘‘The trade’s slow.’’
‘‘I swear.’’ She pointed at the ceiling. ‘‘Slow Uplevel.’’ Down at the ﬂoor. ‘‘Slow Downlevel.’’ She tossed her head left, then right. ‘‘Uptown, downtown. Nobody’s got clients.’’
He stared at her, drummed his ﬁngers against the Sleeper’s closed door.
She sighed. ‘‘Okay. I hear Mouse Bell’s taking clients.’’
He smiled. ‘‘Already? The Mouse just got out of the House last month. Where?’’
She stared at the gilt CFA scrolled across Polian’s breastplate badge. ‘‘I dunno.’’
Polian stared back at her. ‘‘Parker, you of all people know it’s cold in the House. Wanna go back?’’
She sighed again, turned her head toward the Sleeper’s stained padding. ‘‘Twenty-second and Elysian. Fifteen lower. Kube fourteen.’’
Orion shook her head.
Polian stabbed his armored ﬁnger at her face. ‘‘I ﬁnd out you short-decked me, you’re back in the House. For good!’’
She wormed her hand up between her body and the booth wall, raised her palm, and looked the cop in the eye, without blinking. ‘‘I don’t know about any other clients. Mother’s Blood.’’
It was the cop’s turn to sigh. ‘‘Okay. Where you want it?’’
‘‘Someplace that won’t bleed.’’
‘‘If you don’t bleed, they’ll know you’re a snitch.’’
Orion tapped her index ﬁnger to her right cheek.
Polian drew his mailed ﬁst back, until it brushed the Sleeper’s padding, then slugged Orion so hard that her body sprung the door, and she crumpled onto something sticky that puddled the bar’s ﬂoor. She lay gasping, while Polian stepped across her and left.
Orion rolled up, onto her knees, and tasted a salty trickle inside her mouth. It hurt when she smiled, and when she touched her tongue to her teeth, two moved. She spat blood onto the bar ﬂoor. It was a bargain price for two successful lies, the one her blood told the world, and the one she had just told the cop.
Ten minutes later, Orion left the bar, squeezed past a robbery in progress on the pedway, then climbed four blocks uplevel, walked two across, and four over, until she reached her Kube.
She sanexed, retrieved the tools of her trade from the dug-out hollow behind the padding, then blew the price of a whiskey on the tube to Sixty-eighth and Park, twenty upper. The hotel district was cream, with sixteen-foot ceilings, virtual sunshine, and pedways wide enough for people to glide four abreast in both directions.
Her client was already waiting. Clients, in fact.
The woman’s face was porcelain-smooth, with huge, brown almond-shaped eyes. By Yavet standards, the woman was old. By any standards, she was beautiful. Except for her grotesque body, misshapen by her brush with felony. And her lips, stretched tight by pain.
Orion tugged her off the main way, into a side passage. ‘‘You trying to get me sent to the House?’’
The woman frowned. ‘‘What’s the problem?’’
‘‘You. You don’t exactly blend.’’
The man extended his hand. ‘‘I’m—’’
‘‘Shut up. What I don’t know I can’t tell.’’
He nodded. ‘‘But you are O’Ryan? And you’ve brought what she needs?’’
Orion looked over her shoulder. A man in the pedway stared at the three of them. She asked the couple, ‘‘You got space?’’
The two of them led her down the passage, and to a Kube on the second ﬂoor of a ﬁrst-rate, boutique Sleeper. The place measured twelve feet long by six feet wide, with a private sanex, a curtained window slit that overlooked the pedway, even a rear door to a balcony big enough for two people to stand on.
Orion set her bag on a side shelf wide enough to sit on, nodded as she looked around, then whistled. ‘‘You deﬁnitely got space!’’
The man said, ‘‘I gather this is illegal, here?’’ Like the woman, he was old by Yavet standards, stood straight, like a cop did, but had soft eyes.
The man stood a head taller than an average Yavi, the couple’s clothes were cut offworld, and he wore in his lapel a button-sized fabric rosette the color of sky in a travel holo, sprinkled with tiny white stars. Veteran of something. Orion snorted to herself. Who wasn’t?
‘‘Illegal? It’s a capital crime for you two. Life for me if I go down for the third time.’’ Orion pointed at the window slit. ‘‘Draw that curtain.’’ A pistol-sized bulge lifted his jacket lapel. ‘‘Better yet, you cover the window, Quickdraw.’’
‘‘Little over the top here, aren’t we?’’ But he stepped alongside the slit.
‘‘You’re not from here, are you? Vice doesn’t knock, they shoot.’’
The man raised salt-and-pepper eyebrows. ‘‘You’re kidding.’’
Orion held her hand palm-up toward the woman and wiggled ﬁngers. ‘‘Cash up front.’’
The woman handed her a fat plastek envelope and grimaced. ‘‘Cash seems melodramatic.’’
Orion cocked her head and batted her eyes. ‘‘When I ﬁle my taxes, I can’t exactly ﬁll out the ‘‘occupation’’ line ‘‘Midwife,’’ can I?’’
The man shook his head. ‘‘This is nuts. A planet so crowded that people live in a layer cake and sleep standing up. The cops ignore drugs and stickups, but childbirth is a hanging offense.’’
‘‘Dope and gunplay thin population. Childbirth increases it. If you don’t like Yavet, why’d you come?’’
The man drew the pistol from the holster beneath his jacket, and Orion raised her eyebrows. A blunt gunpowder automatic, not like the sharky things cops and robbers carried. He stood alongside the curtain, pushed it aside with his pistol’s barrel, and peeked out. ‘‘We came to Yavet for the culture.’’
Orion opened the envelope and walked her ﬁngers through the bills, counting. ‘‘Yavet has no culture.’’
‘‘The brochure misled us.’’
Orion ran her ﬁngers over the raised crest on the envelope, then swore. ‘‘Where’d you swap cash?’’
The woman said, ‘‘At the hotel desk. Why?’’
Orion rolled her eyes. ‘‘Fuck!’’ Then she sighed. ‘‘Pray the desk clerk’s lazy or crooked. That’s a push bet.’’ She opened her bag, and pointed the woman to the horizontal bed. ‘‘Strip down, honey, and let’s see where you’re at.’’
The woman was gravid, and seven centimeters dilated. She panted through a contraction, then said to Orion, as she sat beside the woman on the bed, ‘‘This is dangerous for you. Keep the money. Go. My husband’s delivered a child before.’’
Orion’s head snapped back, and she pointed at the man as he stood by the window. ‘‘You kiss him with that mouth?’’
It proved to be brutal, even for a ﬁrst birth. Seven hours later, Orion dripped sweat as badly as the woman did as she laid the baby on the mother’s quivering belly. But the woman never uttered a peep, and the husband—the expression sounded almost nice since the woman had said it aloud—seemed to manage to keep watch, encourage his wife, and assist Orion without stress, like he had endured a lifetime of it.
Orion sat back, took a breath, and smiled at the woman. ‘‘Nice job, mama. If this were legal, I’d do it for free.’’
The woman stared at her newborn son as she stroked the infant’s matted hair. ‘‘Why do you do it?’’
Orion rubbed the little one’s tiny back. ‘‘You just look at this guy and tell me how anyone could—’’
‘‘Crap.’’ The man, peeking out the window, snapped back the slide on his pistol.
The woman clutched the baby. ‘‘Jason! What’s wrong?’’
He said to Orion, ‘‘Your vice cops wear armor? And carry assault riﬂes?’’
‘‘Crap on crust! How many?’’
‘‘Eight. So far. They’re still piling out of a four-wheel.’’
‘‘Twatface desk clerk reported your swap!’’ Orion tugged bloody sheeting out from under the woman, and sluiced water over the woman’s loins. ‘‘Finish cleaning up! Change into fresh clothes.’’
She pointed at the man’s pistol. ‘‘Lose the cannon. It could hurt somebody.’’
‘‘It has. Trust me. I thought this place was Dodge City.’’
Orion wadded up the woman’s underwear, the sheeting, the afterbirth, her own bag, then vac’d the whole gory mess down the sanex. ‘‘You can’t shoot cops! And if you could, you couldn’t shoot a twelve-man, armored shakedown squad!’’ She turned to the woman. ‘‘Is he always stubborn?’’
‘‘Usually, he’s worse.’’ The woman gritted her teeth as she struggled, hollow-eyed, into a robe.
Voices shouted faintly, down in the lobby.
Orion paused, took a breath, then faced the two of them, palms out. ‘‘This is gonna be all right. You tell them you swapped for cash to buy dope. But you got stuck up, so you got no dope and no cash to prove your story.’’
The man named Jason rolled his eyes. ‘‘That’s the most—’’
‘‘It happens all the time. The worst they’ll do is summarily revoke your visas.’’
The woman clutched the newborn. ‘‘What about my baby?’’
‘‘The baby can’t be here.’’ Orion pointed at the rear balcony. ‘‘I’ll take it out that way.’’
A doorway banged in the distance, echoing as though up a stairwell.
The woman shook her head, clutched the baby tighter. It kicked and squalled.
Jason shook his head. ‘‘No. Our baby stays. If we have to appeal this, we can do that. We know people—’’
‘‘Appeal, my ass! A vice cop’s badge legend reads ‘‘CFA.’’ For Child First, Always. That doesn’t mean equal opportunity. It means being born unauthorized is a summarily judged capital crime, just like giving birth.’’ Orion pointed at the door. ‘‘When the goons break down that door, the ﬁrst thing they’ll do is suffocate your child while you watch. Then they’ll shoot you.’’
Boots thundered against metal stair treads.
Jason shook his head again, ﬁngered the pistol beneath his lapel with quivering ﬁngers. ‘‘It won’t work. They’ll cover the back of the building.’’
Orion shook her head. ‘‘You would, soldier. Cops get lazy and stupid when crooks have no leverage.’’
The bootfalls rumbled in the hall, now, mixed with the ring of cocking riﬂe bolts.
The man called Jason said, ‘‘Then we’ll all go.’’
‘‘If you both aren’t in the room, they’ll assume an unauthorized birth and keep looking. For your baby. ‘Til death do you part.’’
The husband pried his son from his wife’s arms, kissed the top of the baby’s head, then handed him to Orion.
The wife sobbed.
The husband’s eyes glistened, but his jaw was set. ‘‘This won’t stand. We’ll get in touch with you. Get him back.’’
Orion stepped backward, shook her head. ‘‘If they know he exists, they’ll hunt him down. Not just the government. There are freelance bounty hunters all over this planet. And every other planet, too. Let the government deport you. Go tour the galaxy, or whatever you’re doing, and forget this ever happened. Never tell a soul, anywhere, that the boy was born, if you want him to live.’’
Something heavy pounded the Kube’s front door.
Orion tucked the struggling newborn between her breasts, and buttoned her blouse over it. She said to them, ‘‘I’m sorry.’’ Then she ran to the balcony, and swung a leg over the rail.
Behind her, plasteel splintered.
She lowered herself until she dangled from the balcony’s ﬂoor, like a trapezeier, and dropped the last six feet to the passage pavement. Then Orion Parker stood, clutched the mewling infant to her breast, and ran toward the dark.
Overkill © Robert Buettner 2011