Between her Ranger training and years of nerve-wracking personal experience, Mira snuck past the battered load-skimmer, then behind the frayed corner of the girl’s house.
With a nudge she tested the strength of the wall before flattening herself against it, chancing a look around the corner. That spot offered a good view of the skimmer and the front door.
But again, no sign of Darquin. She snorted and shook her head. He made such evil tricks look easy.
And just then, something rubbed her shin. Mira stiffened. Looking down, she found a Centauri cat, a stray with a dull bedraggled coat and a hopeful gaze. She glanced back to the corner and got a rather determined bump to her leg. Of all the times for a wandering house pet to appear!
How did it survive this long after the bombardment? Curious, she gave it a quick pat and pinched its scruff. It kept its shape for too long, a sign of dehydration. Pulling a hypo needle out of her bag, she filled it with saline. Then holding the hypo between her teeth, as medics often do in a pinch, she picked the cat up. Perhaps she was no demon-phantom like Darquin. But she had fiendish plans of her own.
The sound of footfalls drew Mira back to the corner of the house and watched the men stepping out. And one of them carried another over his shoulder, an unconscious Centauri male whose hair stood up and then straight backward. Gazpari’s eccentric father.
She took that moment to hug the cat against herself with one arm, quick but gentle. Taking the hypo from her mouth, she injected the saline solution under the cat’s dry pelt. The skin on this Centauri breed of domestic pet was more sensitive than those of Earth pets. The Centauri animal rankled at the piercing of its skin, even with such a good needle. But it would soon hate the harmless but otherwise confusing, nagging, aggravating sensation under its pelt even more.
And that was the idea. Or part of it.
The cat had already begun to fidget, knocking the instrument out of her free hand. The hypo needle hit the ground with a dull clack. Mira held her breath. Luckily the strange men around the corner were busy dumping Gaz’s father into the backseat–
Leaning into the skimmer, one of them unwittingly revealed Darquin behind him. Darquin grabbed the Centauri thug’s upswept duckbill of hair and slammed his head into the roof of the vehicle.
The others were only just reacting when he fell with his unconscious victim. The first one to sprint around the skimmer got his legs kicked out from under him. Darquin hopped over him, through the now vacant space, dive-tackling the next target to the ground.
He delivered a sideways punch to the head before rolling into the next target. That Centauri dodged, unwittingly providing a better opportunity. Darquin bounded up and laid the fifth man out with a direct strike to the face.
His attack had driven them into confusion and taken two of them down. But the rest were getting up and turning on him, drawing ornate Centauri PPGs. He bolted and kept the skimmer between him and his opponents.
Mira released her increasingly ill-tempered new friend. The Centauri cat dashed straight ahead, yowling, right into the Centauri gunmen. Darquin made the most of the distraction. While their eyes were on the cat and their feet, rushing, he body-checked the gunmen into each other. Before they could disentangle themselves, Darquin showered them with blows.
Trusting neither luck nor marksmanship, Mira ran in and clubbed them with the butt of her PPG — or at least as many as she could reach in a hurry. Before she knew it, they had all crumpled to the ground.
“Ow.” Darquin glanced at his leg. “Something scratched me.”
Mira couldn’t help grinning, wide and proud. Before he could ask what it meant, she poked her head into the backseat of the skimmer.
Darquin ran across the street and returned with Gaz. Instead of the usual surly expression, her face revealed utter dread. “Father…?”
Mira stood up and smiled at them. “Minor concussion, I believe. I think he’ll be all right. Stay with him in the rear seats. We should go now. Even with the current state of the city, this scuffle is bound to draw attention.”
While Gaz and Darquin climbed in, Mira took the driver’s seat and examined the controls. An open panel under the dashboard revealed a hot-wired starter. Mira squeezed a warm tangle of wires and keyed the engine. A gentle nudge of the accelerator pedal began a steady glide down the broken street.
Sitting low beside her, Darquin reached down for the scratch on his leg, then caught her smiling again. “Okay, what’s that for?”
“Think of it as payout.”
With a destination in mind, Mira took a circuitous route through the shattered city, reluctant to give away their next hiding place. It was meant for a final gambit, in the event of total disaster and the ire of one rival too many, when the time came to leave her homeworld. Like all the other times.
She asked Darquin for advice. And as usual, more familiar with evasion on foot, he had plans to offer. Near their final stop, she let him drive. Darquin dropped the others off and drove the skimmer out of sight.
Mira helped Gaz Arscampana carry her unconscious father down into the rococco ruins piled high. Inside, wedged into a disorienting forest of collapsed rooms and sturdy columns, they set him down and examined his bruised head closely.
Gaz had found a bare spot on the floor and sat there, cradling his head in her lap. “You’re sure he’ll be all right?” The gruff Centauri child brushed her father’s still face and, for a moment, actually looked vulnerable for a change. “I gripe about him a lot, I know that. But I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. Not for real.”
“He’ll be fine,” Mira said softly. “Your father has a thick skull and will likely only suffer a bad headache from this blow.”
Gaz shook her head. “This is all part of the same thing, isn’t it? Those Drakh, or gellac, or mansiamac.” She dismissed the nonsense words with a shrug. “I kept hoping it was just another one of his … well, you know.” Before Mira could answer, the girl fixed her with a stare. “Who are you, really? And your friend? He’s human, right? I’ve never met a human. And he’d be in big trouble if anybody knew he was here.”
“He is human,” Mira replied quietly. “He came here for me, when he heard that I was losing my way. I was preparing to leave Home, anyway.” Mira smiled sadly at Gaz. “Now we will simply take you along with. Don’t worry too much. We are here to help…as much as we can.”
The buzz from the comlink in her pocket made Mira stop short. Darquin was signalling his impending arrival. She let herself breathe again. In minutes, he was crawling through the crevice of debris, the only way in or out.
“You’re back so soon?” she said, teasing.
Darquin grinned, a little winded. “Didn’t want to lose you. I parked the skimmer in an alley. Three hundred meters away. Near that fancy kiosk dome thing with the brassy things on top.”
Shaking her head, Mira chuckled. “That quarter is notorious. By now, the street urchins have reduced that skimmer to an empty frame.”
“Yeah. It’ll be hell to trace now.”
“How long can we stay here? It’ll be easier for us to move if we don’t have to carry him.” Mira gestured at the elder Arscampana and then she paused in thought. “On the other hand, if he’s unconscious, he can’t argue with us.”
Gaz smothered a snicker.
Darquin smiled again, then eased himself back, against flat stone, deep in thought. “One name-drop of the Drakh, from a relative nobody, was enough to send out a goon squad.” He glanced at Gaz and her unconscious father. “Sorry.”
“Well, it’s true,” Gaz said. “But these Drakh aliens care.”
“Well, somebody cares,” he said. “Way too much. We have to get on a ship that’ll take us through the nearest jumpgate. We can get to Beta 2 or Cargan in about a week. If we time it right, we can get help. But we’re stuck as long as they keep looking for us. Whoever they are.”
Mira nodded. “Yes, but the longer we hide waiting for them to ‘cool off,’ the more likely we are to be found or betrayed. We should get out of the city. They won’t expect an urban journalist to hide in the country. There must be dozens of abandoned manor houses out there.”
“Manor houses.” Darquin took a music player out from under his leather jacket, scrolling through files. “Got a surveillance map, less than a month old. A few rivers run either through the city or near it. We can ride them out of town.”
“But those rivers are the most popular sources of fresh water. They’re surrounded by people.” Mira’s eyes widened. “Except the Zeoni River.”
Gaz pulled a face. “It’s disgusting!”
“She’s right,” Mira said. “It’s become an open sewer. But it’s not far.”
“So that’s what that smell was,” Darquin muttered.
Mira looked over his shoulder at the map on his music player. “There. It joins the River Orego and flows to the north, into the ocean. Show that area. Yes, there. That is a Crionza family estate. The Crionza fell out of favor a year ago. The manor house belongs to no one. Perfect for us.”
“If ‘perfect’ means sailing on the nastiest river in the world,” Gaz added.
“Ah, but the smell of the river would have, shall we say, discouraged anyone from using the Crionza Estate. They used to have a fruit tree garden. Some of the trees might still be alive. What shall we use to sail? No one puts boats in the Zeoni anymore. We will have to provide our own from somewhere.”
Darquin ran his fingers through his hair, giving it more thought. “Improvising a raft could be a pain — getting stuff that was flat and light, then having to bind it all together.”
“Before everything got bad, I used to go to a water park by the Zeoni,” Gaz suggested. “They rented little boats. Maybe there are some still there.”
“Gotta love local talent.” Darquin gave her his best approximation of a courtly nod. “Thanks, my lady.”
Gaz crossed her darkly clad arms. “Finally. Now does one of us go scout it out? Or wait until dark?”
Mira looked at Darquin thoughtfully. “You are a bit more noticeable than I am right now.” She winked at him. “Unless you will allow me to style your hair again.”
“Let’s give my hair a break,” Darquin said, smirking. “I’ll look after Gaz and her dad until you get back.”
“I can be there and back before our sleeper awakens. It’s not far from here.” Mira checked her pockets, left her bag and pulled a scarf over her head. “I’ll just check out the area, see if there’s any useful boats left, and such. No worries.” She was gone quickly with little more than a rustle of skirt.
ISA Phoenix–“Whose Wing Are You Under?” (c) 2011 Jamie Lawson, Mona Hinds, Joe Medina Babylon 5 tm and (c) 2011 Warner Bros Entertainment