iam dove behind his target’s ping into a landfill of plastic, which had twisted and settled into a strange formation mimicking the natural. From the bits of rock peeking through the debris, Liam guessed the satellite originally had a cavern where the material had clustered and taken over, eroding and shaping the landscape to its artificial will. His smart contacts scanned the area and picked up the outline of a cloaked ship, parked beside the looming mouth of a cave.
Kin. Liam knew his target only by last name—a common one at that. Kin. It was the name of a movement and a religion. It was also the name of the man who’d changed everything for Liam almost thirty years ago.
Zak’s data dive had paid off. Kin lived almost entirely off the grid, which made him nearly impossible to track. But Zak was good, and Kin had clearly grown old, because he’d slipped. Zak had sighted Kin like a gopher popping its head up from the ground. From a handful of hits, Zak had been able to build a faint digital footprint of their suspect.
That’s all Liam had needed to take the search physical.
They’d isolated travel patterns to catch Kin on the move. Judging by the lengths the man had taken traveling this far from home, the move was significant.
“I’m going in,” Liam said.
Zak’s voice came through the con in his ear, sprinkled with static. “I’ve got your ping.”
Liam opened his hatch and hopped out, landing with a crunch. His gravity-adjusted boots steadied him as he found his footing, ankle deep in plastic bottles. Spires of plastic rose above him, appliances and jagged components tangled between coils of wire. Bags had caught along the edges and hung suspended, unmoving, like ghostly flags.
On the flight over he’d done his research into this satellite—a testament to humanity’s incredible capacity for waste. The sheer amount of disposable junk surrounding him boggled his mind, and there were hundreds of satellites like this one. For a while the earth had become so saturated with trash the Alliance had taken to shipping the refuse off-planet for disposal.
Kin was after something big—a weapon of mass destruction. He could hardly find the components in this day and age to build such a thing, so he’d likely gone in search of one already built; a relic from humanity’s darker times. Almost all weapons had been decommissioned by the end of the twenty-first century, but war had become so prolific by then that Liam could imagine some slipping through the cracks to end up in a landfill.
Liam stepped into a fog of tiny plastic pellets and approached the ship, his legs sweeping through a clatter of junk with each stride. His contacts stripped through the invisibility cloak, allowing him to see the state of the art vehicle underneath. He cast his eyes over the interior, his contacts recording his view for later analysis.
Zak whistled in his ear, watching from the livestream. “Nice ride.”
“Let’s get a tow in here,” Liam said. He slapped a tracker on the underside of the ship then peered beyond the entrance of the cave.
“Secondary is five minutes out,” Zak said, cutting out. “I’m losing you.”
Liam’s contacts adjusted to brighten and sharpen his view, then overlaid a working map of Kin’s path down into the dark. The thinning manmade atmosphere coursed with a ripple of movement.
He deployed his strongest armor, a series of ultralight alloy plates unfolding over his suit and covering his head, and picked his way down a wall of twisted webbing, cable, and pipes. The cave was littered with disposable goods: tools and toys, lids and parts, mass-produced gadgets and appliances; things that had fallen out of use over a hundred years ago but remained as indestructible as ever. He swatted away the plastic bags billowing at his face.
A chunk of plastic broke away from under his grip, sending loose a flutter of rubble. Bits and pieces spun, buoyed by the light gravitational pull of the satellite, and cut in every direction like shrapnel.
Liam flattening himself against the wall, his forcefield absorbing the hits he couldn’t avoid. He waited for the clamor to settle before continuing. His con picked up the trace of a man at the end of a tunnel several meters down.
“Alliance,” Liam called out. “Come out with your hands up.”
His contacts showed the outline of a man, straightening from where he crouched.
“You’ve only got one way out,” Liam said.
The man crawled out slowly, his face obscured by the dark tint of his helmet.
Kin—if it was him. Or an underling. A flush of satisfaction coursed through Liam as he pulled the trigger of his gun, his first shot set for tranq.
The man’s forcefield repelled the hit, the shot ricocheting away.
“That’s a neat trick,” Liam said. He took a deep breath and turned the setting of his gun. His next shot would slice through force field and armor alike. He’d wondered whether this moment would come—the moment he’d accept taking this man’s life if it meant stopping him.
“I’m going to throw you a pair of shackles and you’re going to put them on,” Liam said, unclipping the braces from his belt and tossing them toward the man.
Kin’s helmet gleaned as he tilted his head. “Willing to kill for your cause,” came his distorted voice. “I admire that type of dedication.”
His words sank in. Liam had prepared himself for the moral consequences of his choice. He was not prepared, however, to see his own choices reflected in this man—a ghost who’d haunted him his whole life.
A man who had already killed for his cause. A man who was willing to kill again.
Were they so similar?
No. There were multitudes of gray. Liam would kill to save. Kin killed recklessly, with what Liam could only characterize as a touch of glee.
His pause cost him. Kin darted away and Liam fired a glancing blow off his leg. Droplets of blood floated from the tear of Kin’s suit. Liam switched off the gravity setting on his boots and shot up after Kin, following the red trail. Adrenaline coursed through him, fueling something dark. He could taste the metallic tang of bloodthirst.
His quarry was injured and bleeding, and Liam was enjoying the hunt.
As Liam closed in, Kin released a blinking object. It expanded above them with a flash and Liam froze as if stopped in time, his surroundings suspended with him. His muscles contracted but his mind did a whiplash, mentally jarred from his body. He could only watch as Kin scrambled toward the entrance—and then a rippling blow reverberated through Liam’s chest, releasing and knocking him back.
Liam wheezed and struggled to find purchase, the cavern rumbling around him. He lurched forward and activated his SOS, his head throbbing with near blinding pain. He saw another blinking light. This time he ducked behind a chunk of debris, avoiding the flash. The world froze while he used the extra second to climb through the cave as it was suspended mid-collapse.
Another blow followed the flash, knocking Liam back and shuddering through the cave.
He’d forgotten that part, and he felt the hit harder this time, his forcefield flickering.
He fought back up, thrashing as a cord tightened around his arm. He slipped out just in time but lost his weapon to its coil, then clawed through the landslide to the entrance. He cleared the rubble when his leg jerked back. A vine of cables coiled around his knee and up his thigh, while a layer of netting reached around his other foot. He grabbed at whatever he could find, the plastic pulling him under.
He looked up to see the whole pit collapsing, obscuring his view of the stars.
A wave of debris came over him. The pressure bore down on his physical armor, his last line of defense. A plastic sheet unfolded above him like the wings of a suffocating angel.
He couldn’t die here. He had too much yet to do.
A woman shot out from behind the sheet, shredding it with a laser machete. She cleared her way to him, slinging aside clumps of plastic with one hand and slicing with the other through the web tangling him.
She extended her hand to him. “Come on!”
Liam grabbed her hand and she fired the boosters on her boots to hoist him up. They whipped back, dregs of plastic clinging to his armor.
“Your armor,” she yelled. “Take it off.”
He hesitated. Her gaze was bright but steady, her eyes hot pink. She was as if from another world. For an instant he wondered if she was an Elder, somehow on this side of the galaxy—but he knew that wasn’t possible. She could only be human, and her request was inconceivable.
He kicked his feet, his limbs straining with the pull. “I’ll get torn apart.”
“You won’t make it out otherwise.” She tightened her grip. “Trust me on this. I’ve got you.”
He was now pulling her down with him, but she held on, steady and strong. She’d taken the risk to follow him down here. He realized that if he could trust anyone, he could trust her in this moment.
He released his armor, keeping his helmet but shedding the rest like molted skin. They broke free as the plastic crushed and swallowed the human-shaped shell he’d left behind. They vaulted above the crest, the pit stretching below them, an irregular, jagged landscape alive with agitated hunger.
He couldn’t see his ship—or Kin’s—anywhere.
They cleared the perimeter and descended near a hoverbike, the woman setting him delicately on his feet before landing herself. Her helmet unfolded into her collar, revealing a bun of dark purple hair.
His contacts scanned her face and identified her as Yona Kabul, the steward of this satellite.
“Second rule of the plastic pit,” she said, guessing his thoughts. “Always park out of its reach.”
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