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As I lay in the rafters of the Old West Cattle Co., surrounded by dust, shadows, and the smell of stale hay, anticipation raced through me. I cradled an A-7 pyre-rifle in my hands, the barrel aimed at a steep angle. Below me, several halogens hung strategically from the walls, giving me the visibility I needed, but at the same time shielding me from view. No one wanted to stare up at those harsh lights.
To be honest, I didn't like staring down at them.
The warehouse boasted no furniture for my target to hide behind. Only people (human and alien), dirty floors, and weapons. Right now, a crowd of other-worlders teased and taunted two naked, whimpering females banded to the far wall. The bastards who weren't participating were watching, waiting their turn. My anticipation for the kill increased, and I gripped my gun tighter. The tormentors were having such a lovely time, but my fun would come when I broke up the party with a few rounds of deadly fire.
See, I'm paid by the government to destroy other-worlders so vile, so disgusting, they can't take a chance alien rights advocates will get involved in the case. I'm not A.I.R., Alien Investigation and Removal. I'm worse.
Just a little longer, Eden. Information first. Kill second. EenLi (my target) and his compadres were abducting humans and shipping them off-planet to sell as slaves. I needed to know where they were storing the human "cargo" before deportation. More than that, I needed to know how they were hopping from one planet to another.
Oh, I knew they were using interworld portals the same portals they'd used to invade our planet. I just didn't know where or how to find these portals.
I should have known exactly where they were. I'm an alien. A Raka. A golden one, some humans call us, because our hair, skin, and eyes resemble liquid gold. But I was conceived here and raised by a human. The portals are as much a mystery to me as they are to every other Earth-born.
One of the women screamed, slicing into my thoughts. A man was pinching and twisting her nipples, laughing while he did it, laughing while she writhed and sobbed in pain. My finger twitched on the trigger. Hold. Hold.
Tonight I'm going to prove I'm as capable as any man as any human. Over the years I've been delegated the easy marks, the ones requiring no more skill than a blind man in a virtual game. Since my father is also my boss, he's the reason for my lack of hard-core cases. I know he hopes to protect me, but I'm long past the need.
My success tonight is critical. I took this case against his wishes, and I would not fail.
I had my target in sight: EenLi Kati, a.k.a. John Wayne and Wayne Johnson. He was a thirty-something Mec, average height, with eerie, narrow white eyes. We didn't know a lot about Mecs, only that they had some control over the weather and preferred hot, dry climates.
Like every Mec, EenLi possessed opalescent skin that glowed different colors with different emotions. He was the leader of this elusive group, and right now his skin glowed bright red. The bastard was pissed.
Dressed like a desperado from the past hat, boots, and spurs he stood in a shadowed corner, arguing fiercely with another Mec known as Mris-ste. The latter wore boots and spurs, but had opted not to wear a hat. Who did they think they were fooling? Cowboys. Please.
They spoke in their native tongue a halting, guttural rhetoric of clipped syllables and high-pitched timbres. Languages were one of my specialties, and I'd mastered this one years ago. As I listened, I managed to pick up words like bodies, profit, and underground.
Technically my assignment is to eliminate EenLi. However, I'm going to do Mris-ste for free. A bonus, if you will. At the thought, my lips curled into a half smile. The two men had been working together for over a year. No telling how many men and women they'd raped. No telling how many people they'd enslaved.
I drew in a measured breath, then slowly and calmly released every molecule of air. Sharp, spiky splinters from the old wooden rafters dug past my shirt and into my belly, but that wasn't the worst of my discomfort. The air was stifling and hot, and it didn't help that I wore military fatigues and a face mask. The heat wave blasting through New Dallas had yet to dissipate probably because of the Mecs. Sweat pooled between my shoulder blades and ran down my back.
I yearned to spirit-walk just then, to force my consciousness out of my body so I could leave my body behind and walk unnoticed, invisible, below. Like a ghost. A phantom. I had killed many of my targets like that, but I only did so when my body was totally and completely protected. Otherwise, I was left physically vulnerable because I couldn't do my job and guard my body at the same time.
Just then EenLi's cell unit erupted in a series of beeps, and he barked an irritated "What?" into the receiver. I couldn't hear the voice on the other end, but whatever was said caused the other-worlder's spine to stiffen and his fingers to clench into fists.
One heartbeat of time passed. Two.
As he continued to listen, he removed his hat and swirled the gray felt between his fingers. Give the man a pony and ask him to shout "Yee haw." That's all the scene lacked. By the time he returned his hat to his shiny, bald head, his skin pulsed so brightly red, I wanted to shade my eyes.
Finally, he replaced the unit in his back pocket. Then, growling low in his throat, he shoved Mris-ste, propelling the hatless Mec backward. The latter man's long, dark hair (obviously a wig) danced around his shoulders.
"Tell me you moved the tainted cattle from the Pit," EenLi shouted. "Tell me you have not screwed this up yet again."
The pit. The pit. I rolled the phrase through my mind. An image quickly clicked into place, and I frowned. The Pit was a local bar known for its criminal patrons, druggies and whores who bought their way into oblivion. Could that be the place under discussion?
"Well, I they have been moved," the other man offered, righting himself. "I am not so stupid that I would leave the sick in cells with the healthy."
Cells...I'd followed EenLi inside the bar just two days ago, but he never left the main area. Never even went to the bathroom. I hadn't noticed any doorways leading to other rooms. The cells could be hidden. Or underground. Very, very interesting.
"Do you want to know who just called me, Mris-ste? Pablo. He found two of our cattle dead in their cells. They'd obviously been sick, and you left them there."
"I...I..." Mris-ste's opalescent skin began to pulse with blue. Even without the distinctive shading, the alien would have reeked of fear.
"How many died in the move?" EenLi demanded.
"Three," came the shaky reply.
This enraged EenLi further. His scowl turned black. "We were to deliver twelve. Not seven. You idiot!"
"I am sorry."
"Your sorry doesn't bring my cattle back to life. If one more is lost, just one more, I will sell your worthless hide to make up the difference."
Mris-ste shook off the threat with a nervous laugh. "We will not lose any more. This I swear. I gave the sick to Rose. She will care for them until they are well."
I knew Rose. Sahara Rose, human. Twenty-six years old. Blond hair. Blue eyes. I'd trailed her for a few days after taking this case. She was a known alien sympathizer and had spent many nights in EenLi's bed. I knew where she lived, what kind of car she drove, and what brand of vaginal lubricant she secretly used whenever her lover visited. And, of course, I now knew she was hiding some of the missing humans.
"There is no time to find more cattle," EenLi said. "The portal opens in one day."
The portals weren't always open? I'd always assumed aliens traveled through whenever they wanted. Tell me where they are...tell me where they are...
EenLi soon changed the subject, and the two men actually began discussing how to dress the female slaves. Information I didn't need.
It was time.
I preferred close kills to shots fired over a long distance. Nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of my labor up close and personal. Sauntering into the middle of all those men, however, significantly decreased my odds of success. I'd stay here.
My anticipation renewed as I closed one eye, my face mask and powered autoscope narrowing my field of vision. Still locked on target? Check. Disposable silencer in place? Check.
I knew I had one chance to nail him. Just one. Because the moment I fired, everyone below me would whip into action, aiming and firing their own weapons straight at me.
EenLi began to pace in front of Mris-ste as he expounded on the merits of stiletto heels and kristales, jewel stones brought over from Mecca. I kept my barrel still. My pyre-rifle produced heat-sensitive fire bullets, and those would follow him straight into hell.
One. He moved away from Mris-ste.
Two. He turned, facing Mris-ste.
Three. He stepped into my line of fire, and I squeezed the trigger.
A whiz. A scream. The big, bad Mec went down like a depressurized hovercraft, his hat rolling off his head like tumbleweed. Only it was the wrong Mec. This one had thick brown hair. I stilled. No. No! My fire bullet had slammed into Mris-ste. Not EenLi.
When had EenLi given him the hat? When the hell had EenLi given him the hat? I'd watched them. Once I'd locked on target, I hadn't lost my focus.
Shock bubbled inside me as the men below cursed and shouted, scrambling for their guns. Bullets and blue fire launched in my direction, raining like deadly hail. Remaining calm, focused, I dropped my rifle and grabbed the thick wire beside me, already anchored to a sturdy beam. Then I jumped. I kept one hand clasped to the metal handle that allowed my downward slide, and used the other to whip out the pyre-gun strapped to my waist, dialed to kill.
I started firing.
As I descended, a bullet cut into my left forearm. I didn't stop, didn't even slow down. The determination rushing through my veins muted the fiery sensation of being shot to a sharp sting. Oh, I knew I would feel it later in full force.
I wished I had time to doctor up. The longer the slug remained inside my body, the more damage it would do to me. Earth metals act as a deadly poison to me. To all of my kind. But the mission came first.
I had to finish this. Fast. Maintaining my inner balance, I continued shooting, not taking time to aim, but simply allowing a continuous stream of fire to discharge; the blue beams of molten heat spewing from my gun lit up the warehouse like a nuclear war.
The moment my feet hit the ground, I released the wire and reached for my other gun. With both of my hands armed, I scanned from left to right, taking in every detail.
EenLi was gone. Gone! He must have hit the door running the second Mris-ste fell. I couldn't chase him down, not pinned in by gunfire like I was. That meant...
My shock grew, almost freezing me in place, but I kept firing. Kept moving. Bile rose in my throat. I'd truly failed. I'd missed my target and allowed him to stroll from the building as happy as he pleased.
I failed echoed continuously through my mind.
I shook my head in disbelief. All I could do now was get the two women and myself out of here alive.
No, I thought in the next instant. I was taking down any man who'd been stupid enough to stay. My gaze scanned the area again. Five aliens remained inside the warehouse, their bullets and fire spraying all around me. Calculating the distance between them and the chained women, I started running forward. Right at them. I cringed when another bullet struck me. Twenty feet. Not much, but enough to risk what I was about to do.
I dropped one of my weapons and reached for a mini grenade in my side pouch. In one fluid motion, I pulled the firing pin with my teeth, tossed it, and dove to the ground.
The impact threw me backward, slamming me into a wall. Air shoved from my lungs. When I was able to breathe, dirt and ash bypassed my mask and filled my nostrils. Instinctively, I covered my face with my hands as fiery wood chips rained. Then, several minutes passed in silence. No return fire. No screams or moans.
When I looked up, all five Mecs were strewn across the ground, lifeless. The human women were bloody and bruised, but alive. They were No, I realized then. Only one of them was alive. The blonde. The other, the one with curling red hair, had been caught in the crossfire and stared out at the charred warehouse through lifeless eyes.
My eyelids squeezed shut, and I let my head sink into my hands again. The atmosphere was thick, hot, and laden with smoke. I needed to drag in a deep breath, to fill my lungs with oxygen, but didn't dare.
There was no help for it, no other choice; I had to call my father. With shaky hands, I tugged out my cell unit and said, "Boss," taking comfort in the sound of the automatic dial.
I trusted this man with my life. He was the one who had found me as a small child, alone and lost on the streets after my parents died. I don't know why he'd taken me in, and I couldn't ask him. He stiffened every time I brought up that horrible night. But he'd raised me, loved me, and trained me to be an assassin just like himself.
And I had just let him down.
He answered after two rings. "What happened?" were the first words he spoke, his raspy voice upbeat. He clearly expected me to give him the usual "all went well" report. Over and over he'd advised me not to take this case. When he'd realized he couldn't talk me out of it, he'd followed me here "just in case I needed him."
Most important information first. "The target is on the run. I've got one human casualty, another wounded." My self-disgust rang loud and clear in my tone.
"How in the hell," Michael, my father, said haltingly, "did that happen?"
"I don't know. I had him locked. I fired, and the next thing I knew, he'd switched places with his partner."
"I don't know," I repeated.
"Goddamn it, Eden F." He only called me that when he was mad, or seriously worried. "I told you not to take this case. I told you to leave it alone."
"I'm sorry," I said on a ragged breath. And I was. Because of my failure, a human slaver was even now roaming free. Worse, he knew he was being hunted. He'd be more careful now. I'd just screwed the entire operation. "I think some of the slaves are in cells inside the Pit. It's a bar on the east side of town." I opened my mouth to tell him the rest, but my mind went blank. A thick fog covered my thoughts. I blinked, shook my head and beckoned them back. "Some are with a human,
"I'll put a man on it. You bring the survivor to me. Goddamn it," he snarled again and disconnected.
Silence greeted me. And in the silence, I noticed that the throbbing in my arm had increased. I looked down. Though my vision was clouding, I studied the gaping, oozing wound. The bullet had done more damage than I'd thought. I was losing blood fast. Too fast.
Fighting past the pain and weakness, I pushed to my feet. My knees wobbled, and my bones liquified, and neither showed any sign of improving. Even my stomach battled a sharp pain. I stumbled over to the woman. She flinched as I reached out and cut her free. Then she sank to the splinter-sharp ground and sobbed, her dirty hair covering her naked shoulders. I tried not to think about the other one, the one who wouldn't go home this night or any other.
The crossbow strapped to my back suddenly weighed me down like a concrete block, and the ache in my stomach intensified. It was becoming harder and harder to breathe.
A wave of dizziness assaulted me, heavy and strangely seductive...lulling me to the ground beside the woman. When our arms touched, she uttered a terrified gasp and hastily scooted away. Her movements were so jerky, she flung dirt onto my legs. I wanted to comfort her, but my mouth refused to form the right words.
What the hell was wrong with my stomach? Slowly, so slowly, I lifted my shirt. There, just below my ribs, was another bloody, gaping wound. When had I received that? I hadn't even felt the bullet go in. Wait. Yes, I had. When I'd run with the mini-grenade. Damn.
I set aside my cell unit and reached inside my pouch, withdrawing a thin silver Extractor. Bracing myself for what I was about to do, I bit my bottom lip, centered all of my strength, and jabbed the damn thing into my stomach wound. Instantly the metal-sensitive prongs elongated and probed for the bullet. A scream ripped from me.
How much time passed before the small, round tip was removed, I didn't know. I only knew desperation, pain. And fear. I wasn't ready to die. Not here. Not now. I laughed humorlessly. Not as a failure.
Concentrate. I had to concentrate. Though I craved a moment's rest, a single moment to close my eyes, I repeated the entire process, shoving the now bloody device into my forearm. When I pulled out the last bullet, my shoulders and back sagged in relief. Distantly, I heard the woman crying.
Quickly losing energy, I found the syringe in my pouch and injected myself in the heart with pure molybdenum to slow the spread of copper or brass or whatever the bullets were made of. Searing pain erupted. I screamed again, long and loud, until my vocal cords cracked.
The now-empty syringe fell from my suddenly limp fingers. I hurt everywhere, but a comforting lethargy was already working through me. A minute, maybe less, and I'd be out.
I reached blindly for my cell unit, my fingers somehow closing around it. "Boss," I said. The word emerged so weak and broken, I experienced a moment's surprise when the phone began to automatically dial.
He answered on the fifth ring this time. "What?"
"It just gets better every time you call," he said, his sarcasm heavy. I caught the thick undercurrent of concern, however. "Can you make it to the safe house?"
"I'll..." A murky web of darkness wove through my mind, blackening my eyesight, paralyzing my muscles. "Try."
Oblivion seized me in its demanding grip.
Copyright © 2006 by Gena Showalter