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McGrath raised his submachine gun and fired a burst into the smoke-filled compartment ahead. The bullets ricocheted off something moving rapidly toward him, its enormous form barely discernible through the billowing clouds. His heart pounded. It had been a long time since he’d experienced genuine fear. A glowing aura shimmered briefly, its edges hissing and sparking where it touched the smoke.
Clawed feet dented the thin material covering the floor. Crimson eyes burned with raw fury as the Rigelian brought her blaster to bear. Her force field dissipated, and she unleashed a burst of supercharged gas. McGrath dove for cover.
The plasma bolt ripped through the passenger compartment and punched a sizzling hole in the side of the car. She howled in anger, her sonorous voice echoing off the walls of the tight space around them like thunder in a steel drum. McGrath grabbed his ears in pain.
Somewhere behind him, Zephyra opened fire. Her rifle boomed in the confined space. The other bandits joined in, the chatter of machine guns rattling the walls and ceiling. They concentrated their fire on the alien’s torso. Most of the bullets impacted harmlessly against her armored scales, but some managed to find weak spots. Blood spilled from the exit wounds, pattering against the floor around her. McGrath clambered to his feet.
“Aim for the throat!” Abigail shouted. Clearly, she knew her Rigelian anatomy.
McGrath emptied his magazine and tossed the submachine gun aside, drawing his sidearm instead. He took aim, increasing the magnification of his implants to focus on the exposed breathing vent between the Rigelian’s throat plates. Crosshairs flashed in his field of vision, and his finger constricted on the trigger.
The armor-piercing round shot from the barrel at just under the speed of sound, burrowing a tunnel through the smoke toward its target. Then it vanished in a burst of light, vaporizing as the Rigelian’s shield snapped into place. The force field had reduced the projectile to a cloud of ionized dust.
McGrath fired again, but his second shot skimmed harmlessly off the edges of the shield. “Get down!”
Plasma bolts crackled overhead, burning incandescent tracks in the air. One struck Kelley in the chest, and he staggered back. The front of his body armor scintillated. He screamed in agony as the plasma flash-vaporized his clothing underneath, fusing it to his melted flesh. He hit the floor with a loud thump, rolling onto his stomach in a futile attempt to put out an invisible fire.
McGrath swallowed the lump forming in his throat. Instinct told him to put the man out of his misery, but he clamped down on that impulse. This wasn’t the war. There was a chance he would survive…if they got him medical attention in time.
The muzzle of the Rigelian’s blaster turned toward him, and she lowered her shield to take another shot. Zephyra was quicker. Her rifle snapped out a fusillade that struck the Scaly dead center, knocking her off-balance. The distraction gave McGrath the opening he needed. He whipped his gun up and got a positive target lock on the breathing vent. He gritted his teeth and squeezed. The Rigelian released an ear-splitting roar as the projectile hit home, penetrating the membrane between the two throat plates. Blood spouted from the wound.
She stumbled back, muscular legs driving into the floor of the car like hydraulic rams. Her right arm flailed into a nearby window. The reinforced glass spiderwebbed as she careened off it. She unleashed a wheezing growl that grew into a gurgling scream as she collapsed in the corner of the compartment. Then, the screaming stopped.
“Go! Go!” McGrath vaulted over the Rigelian’s motionless form—she wasn’t dead, he could still hear her breathing—and toward the door leading to the next section of the train. Someone had tried to close it during the firefight, but it had jammed half-way. He squeezed through and found himself face-to-face with two of the Magistrate’s men. Both immediately dropped their weapons and raised their arms into the air. Obviously, they weren’t paid enough to give up their lives.
Donner sat on a plastic crate, cuffed hands hanging loosely in front of him. His bloodshot eyes found McGrath. “Don’t take me back,” he said weakly. “I don’t care if you kill me, but don’t take me back.”
A twinge of sympathy niggled McGrath. It wasn’t his place to judge. Whatever Donner had done, whoever he’d pissed off, it wasn’t his concern. He was only here to do a job. “Up. Now.” He gestured with his gun. “We don’t have much time.”
Donner looked to the men standing to either side of him, then let out a sigh. He rose from the crate like it was the hardest thing in the world, muscles visibly straining as he forced himself to his feet. He cleared his throat. “Where are we going?”
McGrath hit the control panel, and a door to their right sucked open. Emergency brakes had stopped the train moments after Flora blew the tracks. Cyrus’s jetcycle idled a few meters a way. McGrath grabbed Donner’s bicep and directed him down a set of stairs and out of the car. Boots crunched on the loose sand. A warm breeze blew through the valley, stirring a nest of desiccated foliage at their feet. The second moon loomed overhead, washing them in its turquoise radiance. Had their circumstances been different, it might have been serene.
“Did they even tell you what I did?” Donner asked.
McGrath grunted. “I don’t care.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“How do you know what I think?” McGrath didn’t often speak with his bounties. It complicated matters. But something in Donner’s voice had caught his interest. He’d gone through hell to get him, faced a corrupt Magistrate, hired guns, and a pissed-off alien. Though it went against his better judgment, he had to admit, he was damn curious. “You stole something from Pollux Three, and now there’s a bounty on your head. It’s not my job to interrogate you. I’m just here to take you home.”
“But aren’t you—”
“Hey!” Abigail stuck her head out the door. “We’re about to have company. Vernon just ID’d a caravan en route from Landing.”
“More bad guys?”
“Looks like. We better get out of here before they show up. Unless you’re looking for another tussle?”
“Don’t think so,” McGrath said wearily. “I’m all tussled out.” He nudged Donner toward Cyrus’s jetcycle, then joined Abigail by the train. “How’s Kelley?”
“In a lot of pain, but stable for now. Zephyra’s working on a field dressing, but he’ll need dermal regen when we get back to the compound. What’s the plan?”
“Get to Prosperity as quickly as possible. Do you think your team can handle the reinforcements?”
“You got it, but I can’t let you go it alone from here. You’re going to need back up, and as much as I trust Cyrus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t see this through to the end.”
A genuine smile tugged at the corners of McGrath’s mouth, and a warmth he hadn’t felt in ages bloomed in his chest. Who was this woman? And why had she been so kind to him? Experience had told him not to trust her, but she’d risked her life and the lives of her friends for him. At the very least he could accommodate her wishes. “All right. Let’s go. We’ll take the ‘cycle.”
Cyrus dismounted and McGrath climbed on. He motioned for Donner to get on behind him. Abigail whistled, and a few seconds later, Vernon brought his jetcycle over. “I need you and the Angels to create a distraction.”
“Happy to oblige.” Vernon stepped off the ‘cycle. “Flora’s got enough explosive to light up this whole valley. They won’t even see it coming.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” She slapped his shoulder and climbed onto the vehicle. “Do me a favor, will you?”
Abigail revved the engine. “Try not to kill all of them.”
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