Nicole Walsh

Last Job

I stepped out of the teleportation channel onto soot-grey stone, beneath soot-grey sky. My muscles buzzed and tingled, like parts of me were sizzling back together.

I took the recommended five big steps away from the teleportation mat, even though no one was expected in behind us. Took me off stained concrete, onto powder-soft ash and charred bone. My apprentice stood a few steps behind me, her back to the channel, squinting about.

“This it?”

Peta’s a tall girl. Nearly as tall as me. Not as bulky. Has a habit of fool questions, of talking when she’s nervous.

I checked the soot-stained sign. Sign reads: Run-End.

The thrum of power behind us cut off.

We walked down the main street, two black-leather crows in a world of starved, mangy pigeons. Colonists, third or fourth wave, I would suspect, gawked at us from the stalls on either side of the path, ducked to peer through shop windows. Every store sold canned, bottled or boxed products. No local produce here.

I had my badge out, raised.

Bounty. Townsfolk don’t have to whisper it. It’s etched on their faces.

“Yuck,” Peta winced. “It’s all... dust and ashes.”

“Better than rampaging hordes of flesh-hungry beasts.” My voice came out like a growl, throat and voice-box damaged from kicks and punches, poisons and a hanging. I checked the dust underfoot. Organic material charred to ash, blobs of metal and plastic and denser bone.

People slipped away, abandoning market stalls and shops. I checked my ’com screen, squinting at the tiny screen. Fifth-gen? They’ve had trouble here.

Nerves coiled in my belly. I checked the squat, ugly buildings, noting the scours and scratches at every door and window.

“Stay frosty.”

Peta was checking her boots, pulling a face at the ash. She blinked as she looked up, discovering us alone. “Where’d they go?”

I ignored her. Peta and I talk less and less. Not much left to say. I’ve taught her what I know. Another job or two and she’ll figure that out.

“They can’t all be runaways?” Peta asked. “Right?”

Talking hurts. My mouth is parched from teleportation, damaged throat hurting in this thin, dusty air. There’s something else as well, buzzing beneath my sternum. Nerves.

“I’m seeing...” Peta frowned.

“No,” I growled.

Only the most desperate flee to a colony like this, with a history like Run-End.

A clink of metal against metal. Peta was rolling small metal cubes between her gloved hands. I paused whilst she checks the dice.

“Trouble,” she warned.

My body tensed.

“Complications,” Peta amended, studying the cubes.  “Social and moral complications.”

I ground my teeth. There’s an abyss of f-ing difference between “trouble” and “moral complications”, a difference life has yet to hammer into Peta’s pretty little head.

A siren started. A low, eerie whine. Peta whirled, checking our six, hand on her weapon.

“Bounty siren,” I explained.

“For... us?”

I didn’t bother answering her, heading down the street.

There was a tiny pouch of bones down the front of my vest. It buzzed with power. Made my skin crawl. I’m more into tech than fetishes. Magic itches my skin, makes my hair stand on end, throws off my intuition. Still, you took what jobs you could get – especially when they pay like this. The man who wants this girl is a mage. We do this his way.

“You feel it?” Peta whispered.

Another stupid question. We both felt it. I ensured Peta had a fetish as well. She’d been with me a full year. Time for her to pull her weight, or at least measure the feel of her weight. She had her hand locked about the fetish. Stupid. Drew attention to where it was hanging. Mine’s inside my armour, tucked beneath the breastplate, beneath my damaged left breast.

I paused at the crossroad, staring left and right down lines of squat, ugly houses. Unnecessary, but I’m old and slow and one day Peta will be walking a job like this without me. Our last job put a scar across Peta’s scalp to compliment the new boots on her feet. Slapped wariness into her eyes, hardened her up a dash.

“Which way?” I asked it gentle. Came out as a growl.

Peta paused. Stood very still, eyes closed. “That way.”

It wasn’t a question. She knew. I grunted a nod, close as I’ll come to praise.

There was a toy on the street. A wooden toy truck, abandoned by some child yanked out of sight. A child who had never met his father, perhaps. A child hidden from his grandma. A child born to inherit some awful thing, hidden in the soot and ashes of this world.

Peta and I paused, studying the child’s toy. Sky’s too grey to cast a shadow, but I feel the shadow of the toy.

“Spoiled destiny,” Peta whispered, checking her dice. “Things hanging in the balance.”

I rocked my weight, the twist of nerves now a churn of gut-worms. Peta had warned me as I took her on. I’ll be the end of your career, Peta had said. Took her on anyway. I’m forty. A stiff, slow, limping forty, good for nothing but training a few last recruits. Most places give you a better room if you have an apprentice. Better jobs, better food.

“Seena...” Peta whispered.

“No.” Word comes out like a snarl. I’m a big woman. I scare children. The scars on my face scare adults. Clients pick me for my size and my face, same as they’ll pick Peta for the same thing, for different reasons.

Peta checked her screen. “Two hundred colonists here. Seventy-five are aged between 15 and 20.”

I gave Peta a surly look. She flinched and dropped the screen, folding it and pressing it into her pouch.

“We don’t need that,” she said, hand trembling for her fetish. “He’s so powerful. So...” She shivered uneasily. “Focused.”

Peta’s blue eyes were the only colour in this world. Grey skies press down like a smothering hand. Grey buildings, scoured with the claws of beasts. Grey ash beneath our boots, dusting the black of our bounty gear.

“She’s here,” Peta said. “I feel her. She’s... not running.”

“They rarely do. They aren’t stupid people, ones that make it this far.”

Peta’s slim, pretty jaw tightened. “Let’s do this. And get a drink.”

Peta knows I like a drink. Like it a little too much, probably. It’s the only thing that dulled the aches, that pushed the itch and roll of intuition back enough so I could catch a full breath.

I’ll be the end of your career, Peta had said.

Fear curled in my belly.

“You lead,” I decided.

Peta blinked, surprised. She headed off, cool and competent. She’s about ready to fly, about ready to jump the nest and spread her wings. She won’t look back. They never do. The strong discard the weak. The way all worlds, all systems turn. The old are here to guide and raise the young, then churn to dust beneath their wheels.

I feel Peta thinking that as she strode ahead, that she could work this job alone, that she feels the pull of our bounty strong enough not to need me at her back. We’ve worked together so long our thoughts leak together We both know it: this will be the last job we run together.

I will be the end of your career.

I stamped down the panic, shrugged off the itch of it, like a gun aimed at my shoulder-blades. Felt my steps slowing. Felt the urge to run.

How will this go down? Will this girl catch Peta’s eye? Will Peta be a tad too slow to protect me? Will she make a rookie mistake? Hellfire, the ground could open under me for all I could guess.

We walked down the street, past charred rubbish swept out of houses, past barrows filled with stinking empty cans devoid of flies or insects. Peta slowed. Her face scrunched as she found me so far from her back.

“It’s here.”

I grunted a nod, strangled by a rush of panic. The air felt too thin. Peta reached for the door, knocked. It opened. The girl looked worn and tired, whiter than white. Looked exactly like her photo. Dressed down in a colonist’s rags, covered in dust and grime. Smelling, incongruously, of flowers.

Her hands shook so violently she fumbled the door.

“Come in,” she said.

The girl rounded the tiny kitchen table and collapsed into a wooden chair, rubbing dirty hands across her face, smearing dust and sweat and tears. I limped in behind Peta, checking for people and weapons. None. I watched the girl’s hands on the table, making sure they stayed atop the wood. I sensed no spells, no weapons.

My gaze snagged on a flashing icon on the house-screen. Our gild logo, pulsing an angry red.

“Bounty warning?” Peta spotted it. “You knew?”

The girl nodded. The room reeked of her: perfume and sweat and piss in a pot.

“You knew it was for you?” The nuances of this job confused Peta.

I circled wide to watch them both. Old death, beneath the reek of bleach and soap. A hard thing to scrub out, rot. The space is bare of knickknacks. Some colonists keep them, lined along a shelf. Others hurl the relics of the previous colonist into the nearest rubbish pit, or set them in some temple or religious hollow.

“Why didn’t you run?” Peta’s still trying to understand.

The girl’s hands dropped. Her face buckled. “Run? Where?”

Peta hesitated.

“You saw him.” The girl glared. “Like I can run from that.”

“You come with us,” Peta said. “Back to your brother. Or you pay us off.”

The girl looked at Peta. Peta looked at the girl. I saw it flash between them, the snap of some connection.

“Did he tell you that?” the girl asked, tone flat. “That he was my brother?”

“No,” Peta admitted.

Our client had not bothered with explanations. A man of few words, that mage. Unused to conversing with the help. What interest would a rich forty-year-old man have with a wilful child?

Brother? I rocked my weight. It had the feel of truth about it.

“He found me.” The girl’s voice was stripped of emotion. “Then he claimed me. After what his beast of a father did to my mother. He dared.” Her hands balled into fists. “He dared.”

Peta’s body was rigid with tension. Intuition turned my gut watery. Made me sweat.

“You hid,” Peta said, quietly. “But not well enough.”

“I fled here, to the very gates of Hell, to ash and bone, to hide from him.” The girl was glorious in her fury.

“You know how this works,” I said. “He hired us. You’re found. We either return you, or you pay us more than he has.”

The girl snorted.

“More than he has?” Her gaze flicked from Peta to me for the first time. I’m unaffected. Pretty, angry girls have never moved me. “Pay you more than he has?”

“Something we’d accept, over his payment,” Peta soothed.

My skin prickled. I should have waited by the teleportation pad. Should’ve sent Peta on alone.

The girl’s gaze flashed to Peta’s.

“That you would accept,” she echoes. “Over his?”

Peta said nothing, waiting.

“I h-have something.” The girl’s hands slid on the table, moving like she was playing notes on some instrument. She had all her fingers.

Peta looked to me for guidance.

This is how it rolled. We find the mark and the mark whined and threatened and bribed. It is up to us whether we choose to be moved, threatened or corrupted. If we fold we get black-listed. Worse, the client’s likely to set a bounty on our ass to match his mark’s.

Hunt, or be hunted.

“Move slowly,” Peta said to the girl. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”

The girl looked Peta in the eye as she rose, moved, holding Peta’s gaze the whole time. Girls like that are born knowing their power. She took a box from the bench, too small and light to be gold. Jewels?

I should have walked out. Taken some air. Given Peta the chance to stun me. Instead, I was paralysed. A voyeur, watching the drama play out. Funny how it works. All things, spinning in a circle. You know that final tilt, have known it all along. Yet still, it surprises you.

The girl set the box on the bench. Peta’s lowered gun trembled against her leather-clad thigh. The girl opened the box. My heart chilled as I spotted the small rectangle of coloured wood inside. Girl lifted it out. Set it on the table.

I stared, horrified. Of all the things...

“A level five world,” the girl said. Her eyes were fever bright. “They only open from worlds like this. I leave tonight. No bounty goes into a world like that. No tourists. No lords. No thieves sent by lords.”

We stared at the coloured strip of wood.

Level five? This world we stand in, this one-way world of bone and ashes and horror, this is a level four world. This is the end of any sane line, the nightmare station.

“That’s suicide,” Peta gasped.

“No,” the girl said. “A new beginning. A dense and beautiful jungle. Pre-fab buildings. Tenth wave of colonisation.”

“Because the other nine died,” Peta squeaked.

“They were stupid,” the girl said. “I am not. This key wins me, and anyone with me, a new life and a new world and a new chance. In the only place he will be too afraid to follow. He’s a gentleman, an academic. He’d never risk himself.”

Intuition shivered like spiders across my skin. Don’t bet on that, child.

Peta moved, raising the gun...

...at me.

“You offer me this?” Peta whispered.

The girl flicked her gaze between us, brow furrowed. I wasn’t moving or reacting.

“I offer you this,” the girl agreed, voice soft and breathy. “And one more thing.”

“Show me.” Peta’s voice was tortured.

The girl checked my expression and rounded the table, moving in that light, soft way of young people. She moved until she was in front of Peta, gaze flicking nervously between Peta and me. She leaned in, kissing Peta on the lips.

I watched patiently. This was Peta’s story, not mine.

The girl rocked back. Eyes closed, face bone-white. “Do you accept?”

Peta paused a long moment.  “Yes.”

Peta looked back down the length of her arm and her gun to me. Panic and intuition raged like a storm. Peta’s gaze was demon-bright, panicked. “Seena...”

I will be the end of your career, Peta had said. Sad, pretty girl. Reading our fate in the shaky fumble of her dice.

“It was always destined to play out like this,” I rasped.

Would the client believe me? That this nervy, half-trained girl got the jump on me, winged me or stunned me or tricked me? Did it matter? My shift was over. Peta’s was just beginning. The new, stepping over the old. Sweeping it out the door, into a charred pit at the back.

“You won’t stop me?” Peta asked.

I mangled a smile.

“I gave you what I had, Peta,” I said. “Your life to make.”

Not this life. Not my life. Had I known that, staring into Peta’s half-starved, tragic eyes? Perhaps that is my final lesson: that it doesn’t need to turn the same way for all of us. A lesson I learn, in my final hours.

A ghastly, frozen pause. Peta stared. I did not move. Then the girl snatched at Peta’s ancillary weapon. Peta moved to stop her, lowering the gun from me as she grabbed the girl, knocking the weapon away.

There’s a moment where I could have shot them both. I did not.

“We have to shoot her!” the girl hissed.

“She’s my friend,” Peta said.

“She saw!” the girl hissed. “She saw where we’re going! She’ll tell him.”

I saw a glimmer of it. Imagined breaking this news to that cold, angry man brimful of power in his cramped, fancy study.

Peta held the girl’s hand, the stolen gun, down. Spoke sideways to me: “Seena. I’m not going to shoot you.”

A dizzy wash of something. Relief, or fear?

I imagined them elsewhere. Green grass and blue sky. An adopted child between them. Laughing. There were no scars on Peta’s face, no parts of her missing.

Peta put her gun up, holding the girl’s wrist and her spare weapon down. She pulled the fetish from a clip on her armour, holding it level with the girl’s eyes.

“I will not shoot my friend,” Peta said, firmly.

My heart squeezed. The fetish burned a cold, angry mark against my scars.

When she spoke, Peta was speaking at me: “Seena, we both have a choice here.”

I blinked. Tried to make sense of her words. It’s almost a laugh!

“A choice?” I growled. “Retire to a half-colonised jungle at the ass end of nowhere, squatting amongst monsters and cutthroats?”

“Yes,” Peta said simply.

Threw my balance, made me shift my weight.

“World like that’s for young folk, Peta,” I said. “Not spent old nothings.”

“You were never nothing, Seena.”

“Her as well?” The girl sounded thoughtful.

“She’ll keep us alive.” Peta soothed. “She’ll keep us all alive.”

“I’m a bounty hunter,” I scowled. “Not a colonist.”

“You’re a survivor.”

My gaze skated sideways, to the wooden tag. A jungle? Not the retirement I’d planned. Yet what had I planned? Dead in some ditch, from bullet or fever? Drunk and starved in some gutter?

The fetish against my rib cooled, fading to a knot of hair and bone and ashes. I’d made my choice, but I let them sweat it out a few moments longer.

“Alright,” I decided. “Bribe accepted.”

The girl rocked back against the table. “Really? Both of you?”

“Package deal,” Peta grinned.

I yanked the worn clips of my armour, snapping a few as I unclipped it, tossing it to one side. Meant I could snag the fetish from around my neck, tossing it after the armour. The badge went next. As it clunked onto concrete, I visualised a black-clad sorcerer crouched here in an hour’s time, examining pouches.

Peta paused, checking her dice.

“Client’s on his way,” she said.

I shrugged.

“Not our client. Not anymore.” I took the wooden tab. “Moving out, ladies.”

 

 





Nicole Walsh

Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel-length speculative fiction and urban fantasy that spans from a little bit dark, a little bit amusing through to a little bit steamy. Visit Nicole at: https://nicolewalshauthor.com/ and www.facebook.com/nicolewalshauthor