This part of Taris is a wasteland, and Mercurial Swift moves through it like a rat slipping through bolt-holes. The bounty hunter clambers through the wreckage of an old habitation building, its apartments long shattered, the walls torn open to expose the mess of collapsed urban sprawl.
Through the broken world, life tries to grow: creeping three-fingered vines and twisting spirals of slime-slick fungus. And though the ruination conceals it, people live here: They dwell, huddled up together in shipping containers and through crumbling hall- ways, hidden under the fractured streets and atop buildings so weakened they sway like sleepy drunks in even the softest wind.
His prey is here. Somewhere.
Vazeen Mordraw, a wilder girl who stole a caseload of ID cards from the Gindar Gang—cards that were themselves stolen from New Republic dignitaries. Cards that would allow anyone easy passage through the known worlds without triggering a closer look. The Gindar want the cards back. And as a special bonus, they want the girl, too.
Preferably alive. Dead if necessary.
Mercurial plans on the former. If only because it’ll be a lot easier to extract someone who can move around on her own two feet—carting a corpse over the wreckage of Taris sounds like a damn fine way to snap an ankle. And that would make this job unnecessarily harder.
There. Up ahead. Some scum-farmer kid stands in the shadow of a shattered wall, scraping sponge-moss off the stone, maybe to feed his family, maybe to sell. The boy—head shaved, dirt on his cheeks, his lower lip split as a scarmark indicating that he is an owned boy— startles and turns to run. But Swift calls after.
“Hey! Slow down, kid.” He shakes a small satchel at him. Credits tink
as they jostle together. “I’m looking for someone.”
The kid doesn’t say anything, but he stops running, at least. Wary, he arches an eyebrow, and Mercurial takes that as a sign of interest. The bounty hunter taps the gauntlet at his wrist, and a hologram glimmers suddenly in the air above his arm. It’s an image of the girl, Vazeen.
“Seen her?” “Maybe.”
“Don’t be cagey.” Again he shakes the credit bag. “Yes or no.” The boy hesitates. “Yes.”
Mercurial knew she had to be here. The old Ithorian at the spaceport crawled out of his spice-sodden haze long enough to con- firm that he knew the girl and
that she would go to ground near her family. Her uncle lives here in the remains of the old Talinn district. (Swift is suddenly glad she doesn’t have family on the far side of the planet—there the wealthy live in massive towers, hypersecure, guarded by armies of private security.)
The boy’s eyes flit left and right. Like he’s not sure how to answer.
Which leads Mercurial to suspect that the boy actually knows her.
“I . . .”
“Kid. I’m going to either give you these credits, or I’m going to throw you out the hole in that wall over there. You can leave here with some extra currency in your pocket, or with two broken legs. Maybe even two broken arms.” Mercurial flashes his teeth in a sharp grin. “It’s a long way down.”
the boy hesitates. He’s chewing over his options. A heady, swamp-stink wind whips and whistles through the shattered hallway. “I’m not going to hurt her,” Mercurial assures him. It’s mostly true.
In his experience, people want
to be selfish, but they need to feel like they’re being selfless while doing it. They want an excuse.
He’s happy to help the boy feel good about doing bad if that’s what it takes. “Better I find her than someone else, trust me.”
There it is. The moment of acquiescence. The boy closes his eyes gently, a decision having been made. Finally he says: “She’s one building over. The old Palmyra foundry. Vazeen has a little . . . cubbyhole up there. A hiding place.”
“Congrats,” Mercurial says, flipping the satchel into the kid’s open palm. The boy stares down at it, greedy and eager. Too bad he doesn’t realize that the credits are barely worth their metal. Imperial currency has crashed hard, cratering with meteoric impact. Everyone knows that soon the Empire will be stardust—and then what?
That is a worry for another time. The boy runs off.
Hours later, the bounty hunter lies flat on his belly and brings the quadnocs up—he stares through them, flicking the zoom forward click by click until his view is zeroed in enough to make out just enough detail. The roof of the foundry is flat and, like everything else here, broken. A vent stack tower from the next factory over fell across the foundry, connecting the two ruined buildings—and Mercurial decides that will serve as his extraction point if everything goes side- ways. Though he’s hard-pressed to imagine how collecting this simple bounty could go wrong . . .
He spies sudden movement on the roof. Swift focuses in on it, and sees a small sheet of tin move aside—and a brush of pink hair catches the fading light of day.
A little part of him is thrilled to find her, but at the same time, his heart sinks. The future plays out in his mind, and at its end waits a worthless payout. He’ll nab her. He’ll take her to the Gindar prigs. They’ll give him a meager stash of chits—not Imperial credits, not anymore, but chits that he can take to certain
merchants on certain
worlds and cash in for gear or ammo or a meal, but of course they won’t work everywhere,
and what one chit is worth now will fluctuate wildly depending on who owns the currency. In this case, the Gindars are owned by the Frillian Confederacy, and the Frillians are owned by Black Sun. And nobody owns Black Sun. Not yet. But that day may be coming—with the Empire waning and the New Republic rising, the syndicates know that opportunity waits for those willing to seize the galaxy during this time of chaos. But who? Who gets to exploit that opportunity first? It’s led to infighting. The syndicates are aiming to one-up each other, trying to establish supremacy. A shadow war is just getting started. They want to own the currency and
set the criminal destiny for the entirety of the galaxy. Black Sun. Shadow Syndicate. The Hutts. Red Key. The Crymorah. The Sovereign Latitudes of Maracavanya. What a bloody mess.
Eventually, Mercurial knows that someone will try to own him,
But he has no intention of being a kept boy.
The bounty hunter stands and emerges from the bent, dented hull of an old freighter—one that must’ve crashed on the habitation roof eons ago and is now just a sculpture of rusted beams.
Swift pulls his batons and moves fast: He runs and leaps off the lip of the building, giving his jetpack two quick pulses. The crackle of energy fills the air behind him, propelling him forward as the foundry roof comes up fast. Swift tucks and rolls, and when he returns to his feet, he spins his batons and runs straight to the ramshackle lean-to where Vazeen has been hiding.
She steps out. She sees him. He sees
that she sees him, and yet his target stands there, unmoving. At first Swift thinks, The girl knows the game is over,
but that doesn’t track. This is a girl on the run. This is her planet. She should spook. She should run. Everyone
And yet she remains, staring right at him. The realization sticks Mercurial like a knife: She’s not running. Because she’s bait.
He drops down again into a roll just as the stun blast fills the air above his head in a warbling scream. Swift leaps to his feet and expects to see someone he knows coming for him: an old enemy, a betrayed friend, an ex-girlfriend with a broken heart and a blaster rifle. But instead, he sees some other
woman coming for him. Older. Silver hair moved by the wind. Whoever she is, she looks familiar to him, but he doesn’t have time to sort through all the faces he’s met, because she’s got a pistol pointed right at him and another stun bolt comes—
But he’s fast: a coiled spring, suddenly unsprung. He deftly pivots on the ball of his right foot, and as he spins around he has one of his batons up and flung—it leaves his fingers and whistles through open air. Clack!
His baton clips the front of her blaster. She cries out as the gun tumbles away, clattering onto the rooftop. The woman shakes her hand—the vibration surely stung her mitt, and now she’s trying to soothe it—but still she keeps on coming, her face a grim rictus of de- termination. Good for her.
But she’s still not going to get him.
He flexes his hand, fingers pressing into the button in the center of his palm. The extensor pads at the tips of his fingers suddenly buzz, and his one flung baton jumps up off the ground—
And surfs the air currents back into his grip.
The older woman skids to a halt, throwing a punch as she does—it’s a good punch, solid, but the bounty hunter knows it’s coming because her body language telegraphs the attack. Mercurial sidesteps, her fist catching open air, and it gives him an opportunity to jab his baton up under her arm. Electricity courses through her. Her teeth clamp together and her eyes open wide as every centimeter of her seizes up. When she drops, he hears the scuff of a boot behind him, and he thinks: I’m too damn distracted.
This job made him too comfortable, too complacent,
and now someone’s hammering a fist into his kidneys, dropping him down to one knee.
He cries out and goes low with the next attack—his baton whips around, catching the second attacker behind the knee. His foe, a tall man with a hawk’s-beak nose and dark eyes, curses and drops hard on his tailbone. He recognizes this one, doesn’t he? Imperial. No.
Working for the New Republic now—now he wonders, Is this about the Perwin Gedde job?
It’s coming back to him now. He stole their target right out from under them. What do they want? Credits? Revenge? Is he on their list?
Doesn’t matter. I have no time for whatever this is.
The girl isn’t worth it. The payout is garbage. It’s time to go. The fallen vent stack tower is his escape route, so he leaps to his feet and bolts fast across the rooftop. Another stun blast warps the air around him (the older woman reclaimed her weapon), but he leaps and slides onto the crumpled tower now serving as a bridge. He rights himself and runs, feet banging on the metal. The vented durasteel provides texture that helps him keep his footing, and he charges down the bridge and toward a break in the factory wall next door. Nobody follows. His assailants are slow, too slow.
Because, he reminds himself, nobody is as fast as me.
Mercurial Swift, triumphant again.
He leaps across the gap—
And an arm extends across the open space and slams hard across his trachea. His heels skid out and Mercurial drops onto his back, the air blasting out of his chest as his lungs collapse like clapped hands.
“Hi,” says a voice. Another woman. This
voice, he knows.
A fellow hunter, a bounty killer and skip-tracer like him: the Zabrak, Jas Emari. She steps over him, and as his eyes adjust he sees her juggling a toothpick on her tongue and between her teeth. She cocks her head, a flip of hair going from one side of her spike-laden scalp to the other.
“Emari,” he wheezes, air finally returning to his reinflating lungs. He wastes no time. He brings one of his batons up fast—
But she is faster. A small blaster in her hand screams. And all goes dark.
Copyright © 2017 by Chuck Wendig. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.