RIGHT ABOUT THEN, it became official: Holt Hawkins was having a bad day.
“Hey, you’re right,” one of the kids shouted, reaching for him underneath the crumpled old truck. “There is someone under here!”
The kids yanked him out from under the ruined vehicle and slammed him hard against its rusted door.
They were younger than Holt, but not by much. Seventeen or eighteen he guessed, looking at the black veinlike growths crawling through their eyes, the telltale sign of the Tone. It had a firm hold on them now; it meant their time was running out.
Holt sized them up quickly. They were shorter and thinner, weaker, less quick probably, but those things mattered a lot less when you had guns or knives, and these kids had both. Holt had left his with Max, near the tree line, not wanting to risk the weight on the precarious bridge. A decision he was quickly coming to regret.
The six kids holding him had small tattoos on their right wrists. The one with his forearm pinning Holt to the door sported a Scorpion. Two more, knives at the ready, had a Coiled Snake and a Heart respectively.
The wrist tattoos were bad news. It meant these kids were in the Menagerie, and the situation had just gotten a whole lot worse. Then again, Holt thought … maybe they wouldn’t recognize him. He glanced at the single, fingerless glove he always wore on his right hand.
“Hey, this guy’s a Heedless, look at his eyes!” one of them pointed out bitterly. They were right—Holt was Heedless. One of the rare few on the planet the Tone didn’t affect. His eyes were perfectly clear; there were no signs of the crawling black tendrils. It was the only reason Holt had made it to twenty years of age. “Isn’t Tiberius looking for a Heedless out here somewhere? Tall guy like this one?”
Holt grimaced. So much for not being recognized.
He peered upward, looking for any sign of the ship. There were no clouds, the sun was high, and in the blue sky it would blend in perfectly. He had no way of knowing if it was even still there. Which was unfortunate, because it was probably his only shot at getting out of this.
“One way to be sure,” another said, younger still, fifteen maybe, with two tattoos: a Yellow Skull on his right wrist and an eight-pointed star on his left. The star had only two of its points filled in; the rest were just outlines. It was a sign of promotion—it meant he was an Adjutant, a lower-level commander in the Menagerie. As he rose in rank, more star points would be filled in.
“The glove,” the yellow skull said. “Pull it down.”
Holt’s heart sank. He struggled when they went for the glove, but a couple more punches brought him in line. It was a leather one, and he wore it for only one reason, to hide what was under it: a black tattoo just like these kids’ … only his was half-finished.
It was hard to make out what it would have been, but there were hints of a birdlike shape, wings, claws. Whatever it was, it was enough for the Menagerie thugs who had him by the throat.
“Yes, indeed!” said the yellow skull. “This is Holt Hawkins—Tiberius is paying big money for his head, no wonder he’s hiding under there.”
The funny thing was, Holt hadn’t been hiding from them at all. He’d been huddled underneath the truck because of what had been circling in the sky. He glanced upward once more, trying to find it.…
“That what you were doing, Holt Hawkins? Hiding from us?” the yellow skull asked with a sneer.
“If you want the truth, I was taking a nap,” Holt replied, holding the yellow skull’s eyes as solidly as he could. He had to stall them, had to keep them talking. “Nice under there, you should try it.”
Holt groaned as one of their fists made less-than-gentle contact with his stomach. The Menagerie still lacked a sense of humor it seemed. Where is that ship?
“You’re a funny guy, Holt Hawkins,” the yellow skull said, stepping even closer. “Didn’t know that about you. Say something else funny. Go on.”
Holt didn’t bother. Instead, he glanced at the environment out the corner of his eye.
They were all standing on a massive, decaying steel bridge that spanned what used to be called the Missouri River. It stretched as far as Holt could see in both directions, and was filled with hundreds of old cars, where they had either been abandoned by their owners or blown to bits by Assembly gunships during the invasion.
Holt’s fists clenched in frustration. Even if he ran, there weren’t many places to go, other than taking a swan dive off the edge. The way Holt’s luck had been going today, that probably wasn’t the best idea.
The bridge’s supports and cables were barely holding on, many of them had snapped already, and a huge crack in the asphalt near the middle showed where the bridge was pulling itself apart in slow motion. Of course, the bridge’s state of disrepair was the reason he’d bothered to check it out in the first place. Places like this, precarious ones that were risky, they were where you still found valuable things for trade. It had been eight years since the invasion, and most everything not locked down had already been taken, unless it was difficult to get to. Clearly, these Menagerie thugs had been thinking the same thing.
“Get something to tie him up with,” the yellow skull ordered.
The snake groaned at the implications. “We have to drag this loser all the way back to the Samneric?” he asked.
“The bounty says Tiberius wants him alive,” the yellow skull said. “How else are we gonna collect it?”
“What do we tie him up with?” the heart asked.
“Rope. Wire. Your shoelaces—do I have to do all the thinking? Go find something,” he said with impatience.
Two of the boys left to go find restraints. When they got back and tied Holt up, it would all be over, plan or no plan. As ironic as it was, he needed that ship. He just hoped he could draw its attention.
“Kind of funny, I guess,” the yellow skull said, his eyes back on Holt. “Bounty hunter with a price on his head. Could’ve just turned yourself in, collected your own reward. You ever think of that?” The yellow skull laughed. The others laughed with him.
Then a strange sound filtered up from under the truck. The laughter died; the boys all looked down at it. It hadn’t been there before, the sound. Holt knew why. What he’d left under there was starting to burn hotter.
“What’s that?” one of the boys asked, kneeling down to look underneath. His eyes widened at what he found.
“Well?” the yellow skull asked. The boy grabbed hold of something and pulled it out. A long cylinder that sparkled bright red. Even in the daylight, the kids had to shield their eyes.
A road flare. Sparkling and burning hot.
If this was going to work, it would happen any second. Holt looked up into the sky.…
… and saw a flash of light, far above, as the ship twisted and caught the midafternoon sun. His heart made a hopeful leap in his chest.
“What did you do?” the yellow skull demanded, looking back at Holt, his voice nervous and unsure for the first time.
Holt smiled. “E.T. phone home,” he said.
Something slammed into one of the boys, knocking him to the ground and pinning him at the same time.
Holt had just enough time to see the clawlike contraption, the cable stretching up into the sky … before it yanked the poor kid violently off the bridge. His scream quickly faded to nothing as he disappeared far above.
The others flinched, panicked, looked around the bridge in confusion. It was only the leader, the yellow skull, who knew what was happening. “Vulture!” he shouted, fear in his voice.
Another boy screamed as the claw ripped him upward out of sight. The rest bolted.
Holt rammed his head into the face of the lone boy still holding him, sent him reeling backwards. He was loose; the yellow skull was too shocked to react. Holt’s kick found his knee, crumpled him to the bridge. The other Menagerie were already running, no longer interested in Holt, concerned only with escaping the horror circling above.
Holt didn’t waste the opportunity. He ran with them, toward the edge of the bridge several hundred yards away. Unfortunately, abandoned, rusting cars blocked his path like an obstacle course.
Another boy went down, pinned by the claw of the Vulture scout ship above … and then screamed as it yanked him powerfully up and away.
Holt had seen the Menagerie approaching, knew the Vulture was circling above. The Assembly scout ships’ optics were infamously powerful, so he’d lit the signal flare before the pirates grabbed him, hoping to attract the thing’s attention. A gamble, but it had paid off.
Of course, there was no guarantee it wouldn’t grab him next, but he liked those odds a lot better than the ones he would have gotten with the Menagerie.
As he ran, Holt leapt over the hoods and trunks of cars, sliding over them agilely, hitting the ground at a sprint. Ahead, the two Menagerie who had gone for rope were running back. They weren’t totally aware of their predicament yet. They were still focused on Holt. He saw them raise their guns, and he ducked quickly behind a ruined station wagon.
Gunfire erupted from ahead of him. He flinched as slugs sparked on the hood of the car.
From the other direction, the remaining boys were closing on him, drawing their own weapons.
A scream echoed from in front of him. Another grapling claw yanked one of the two blocking his path into the sky. Immediately after, one of the boys behind him was ripped upward as well.
No Vulture could fire and retract its claw that fast. Holt ripped his gaze back up to the sky. He saw one flash above him. And then another, separate flash several meters to the north.
There were two of them.
“Super,” Holt groaned. His plan had just backfired.
The kid in front of the car, just now figuring out his problems, stared up into the sky with terror.
Holt drove straight into him, sending him crashing to the crumbling concrete of the bridge.
He could hear the shouts of the other Menagerie pirates behind him, chasing after him. Gunfire sparked all around him as he ran, but Holt ignored it.
Only two pirates were left: the heart and the yellow skull leader. They rushed after him, leaping over the cars almost as agilely as Holt, guns drawn.
More gunfire shredded the bridge near his feet, barely missing him.
Holt lost his footing, stumbled forward, crashed into the open rear door of an old van, hit the ground hard. The wind burst from his lungs; he struggled to get up. The kids were almost on him—he could hear their shouts, growing louder, their footsteps.
He got to his feet and ran. He had to keep moving, to get to the tree line on the other side of the bridge. It was his only shot.
The heart grabbed him from behind. Holt lashed out with a foot, managed to connect and sent him spinning away.
Another grapling claw blew the kid to the ground, pinned him … then yanked him with ferocity up into the air.
Holt stumbled to his feet, ran for the edge of the bridge. Above him, sunlight flashed off the metallic fuselages of both Vultures.
He dodged and shimmied past the remaining cars on the bridge, and came out the other side onto solid ground. Holt instantly turned right, down a grassy slope toward a thick line of trees just a few dozen yards ahead.
It was going to be close.
Holt reached and burst through the tree line with a sigh of relief. With the tree canopy above, he was safe, at least from—
Holt groaned as the yellow skull hit him from behind, tackled him to the ground. He tried to roll over, but the boy grabbed his hair, shoved his face into the dirt.
“You cost me my whole crew!” the boy shouted. “You know what that means?” Holt did know. It meant the Menagerie would hang the kid on sight, but right then he was too preoccupied to answer. The pirate pounded Holt’s face into the dirt over and over, and he struggled to get loose, but the boy’s grip was too strong.
Something growled behind them. The yellow skull gasped as a big blue gray shape rammed into him.
Holt rolled onto his back, saw the yellow skull wrestling with a large cattle dog, its mouth clamped down firmly onto the boy’s arm, its eyes intense slits. It growled angrily as it tried to chew the kid’s appendage off. The boy yelled in pain and shock.
Max. One of the few things Holt ever counted on.
Holt leapt for the yellow skull. Max was tough, but he wasn’t a pit bull. The kid would get him off eventually; it wasn’t a fight the dog could win.
Holt punched the yellow skull hard. Max let the pirate loose, barking furiously.
The two kids grappled, but it wasn’t a school yard fight—it was life or death, and they knew it.
They rolled through the dirt, and the yellow skull maneuvered on top of Holt again. His hands circled Holt’s throat, started to squeeze.
But Holt had seen it coming, got his feet underneath the boy when they rolled over. He kicked outward with everything he had … and the pirate went flying.
The yellow skull hit the ground and rolled right out of the tree line and back into the open field beyond.
Max barked after him, but Holt grabbed the dog and held him in place, staring at the open air beyond the trees with trepidation.
The yellow skull looked up in a daze. Then his eyes widened as he realized he was no longer concealed by the trees. The two looked at each other. Holt almost felt sorry for him.
The grapling claw flashed down from the sky, pinned the pirate to the ground. Then he yelled as it ripped him upward out of sight, back into the deadly blue sky.
It was over. Holt let Max go. The dog brushed against him affectionately, licked his face. Holt smiled, tried to push Max off him, but it wasn’t the easiest task. His fur was a mixture of gray and blue with spots of black, and under it rippled muscles made strong by years of carrying packs full of salvage … and chasing the occasional rabbit. Max was considered only a medium-sized dog, but Holt had seen him readily take on creatures and kids three times his size without any hesitation.
“Thanks, pal,” Holt said, scratching the dog’s ears. “Another one I owe you.”
Holt found his pack and weapons where he’d left them, loaded up, made ready to move. He whistled three short notes. At the signal, Max bounded off into the trees ahead of him to scout.
Before he left, Holt looked to where the last Menagerie kid had been. Other than the scarred ground where the Vulture claw had punctured it, there was no indication anyone had ever been there at all. Here one moment. Gone the next.
Just like everyone else …
Holt set off through the trees, following Max’s trail.
Copyright © 2012 by J. Barton Mitchell