Ho–ly shit! Sera glanced down at her dangling legs. The green light of the airship strobed over the ground a few hundred meters below. Swallowing the sour wad in her throat, she stared at the patches of vegetation. The leafy nubs didn’t seem to be getting closer.
Tightening her grip on the ropes, she cut her attention upward. A bark of relief escaped her. The oversized crate was lodged in the cargo opening. Thank the good Lord! Whoever had pushed her out of the airship hadn’t fully opened the bay doors. She was safe.
Swearing sounded above.
And obviously her luck would soon disappear. Her would-be assassin must have realized his mistake. Muscles burned along her arms and her fingers tingled. Right. She had to act. Now would be good.
She threw her thoughts back to her training at the Security Forces Academy. Now what had her training taught her? Not to be outflanked by the enemy in the first place.
Too late for that.
Although to be fair, she hadn’t expected the enemy to be aboard the dirigible. Obviously, she’d have to revise her theories. Not everyone in Dark Hope was an evolved human. Damn, Uncle Glenn Dawson for being correct.
He’d never let her forget it. And he’d probably chuckle when he wrote this unfortunate incident up in her annual performance review. Perhaps she should lie.
Swinging her legs, she twisted her hands until the rough wooden crate scraped her knuckles and the coarse hemp rope abraded her palms. No. Lying would make her no better than the cretins she planned to incarcerate.
And in order to do that, she had to act.
The sound of gears grinding scratched her ears. Looks like the bad guys had found the lever to open the bay. The crate dropped an inch and she jerked to a stop. The carabiners attached to her backpack clinked together.
Her grip slipped, leaving her hanging on by her fingers.
Fear dried her mouth, leaving her tongue stuck to her palate. On the bright side she couldn’t scream. On the dark side, she probably wouldn’t be able to hold on once the crate’s parachute deployed.
The dark side always sucked.
Come on, Sera. You’re the brightest in your class. Figure this out. Wood scraped metal as the crate slid lower. She had a minute tops, plus another thirty seconds before the chute opened and unfurled.
Getting a grip was her top priority. Which meant she would have to free one hand and that one would be her non-dominant left hand. Despite months of physical therapy, her right hand still hadn’t regained its full strength since she’d broken it.
Kicking with her legs, she adjusted her grip then uncurled her right hand. She swung in an arc down. Pain blazed through her left armpit, and rope cut into her palm. Tears stung her eyes. She just needed to hold on a little longer.
No way would she become a Rorschach image on the ground.
Reaching across her chest, she brushed a cold titanium carabiner. With shaking fingers, she unleashed the clasp and slid it free. Fabric whispered as the anchor runner unfurled. Please let it be the newest one. Please let it hold.
She looked up.
Her luck was still with her. The edge of the crate was wedged in the now fully open bay. Alas the bad guy seemed to have realized her good fortune too. She detected grunting above the whirl of the airship’s engines.
Gritting her teeth, she kicked with her legs. She needed to reach that bow in the rope netting before the crate fell through the bay. Once the chute opened, the rope would be snug against the wood. On the bright side, her fingers would be mashed between the net and rope. On the dark side, fingers could easily be severed.
Swinging her arm up, she skimmed the cord with the top of the carabiner. Suck ass. She swayed away from her target.
The crate cleared the bay.
The parachute would deploy soon. Sweat beaded her upper lip and kicked harder. One second passed. Then two. At three she was on the upswing. Holding her breath, she lunged for the net.
The titanium hook slipped over the top and she released the clasp. It sprang closed just as she detected the snap of fabric. Just in time. Crossing her arm over her chest, she clutched the shoulder strap of her backpack and straightened her left fingers. Her numb digits fumbled with the other strap before latching on.
The silk billowed open like a jellyfish then the crate jolted upward.
The movement crackled down Sera’s spine and the pack slid up her back. Her fingers spasmed on the harness before clamping down harder. Please don’t let her slip out. Please don’t let the harness break.
A moment later, she swung four feet from the bottom of the crate.
Thank God. Her head lolled against the pack and she sighed. Either the bad guy hadn’t realized she was underneath the crate or its contents were more valuable than she was. Licking her dry lips, she counted to five while her heartbeats slowed. One moment more to savor her victory then back to work.
She wasn’t out of danger yet.
Shaking herself, she watched the airship putter away. No signal flare shot from the oblong gondola. No spotlight shone on her. Hell, only a handful of people knew she’d been on board.
Only two might know she was no longer aboard.
The bad guy wouldn’t tell.
And the other might very well be part of the landscape beneath her.
Not that she needed to be rescued.
She was a highly intelligent, resourceful, over-trained security officer.
Drawing her legs up, she peeled her right fingers off the strap. She tucked them inside her calf-high boots and pulled a knife out of the built-in pocket. Her timing must be impeccable, otherwise she’d be crushed by the very crate that had saved her life.
Shrubs grew into trees. Their twisted trucks clearly visible under the fuzz of late spring leaves. Spots of green appeared in the brown carpet. White mantles outlined boulders and run off channels. Not a level surface in sight.
Landing was going to hurt.
Not quite the glamorous life she’d pictured when she’d accepted this mission to suss out a traitor. She drifted over a stand of trees. This looked like as soft a landing as she would get. Twenty feet above the ground, she cut the rope anchoring her to the crate.
Trees rushed up to meet her. She threw her arms in front of her face. Branches smacked her arm, scratched at her clothing and yanked on her hair. The foliage’s limbs snapped under her weight. Fabric ripped.
The moment her feet touched down, she tucked her chin against her chest. Her knees buckled and she pitched forward, somersaulting ass over heels until her butt collided with another trunk.
She groaned. That was going to leave a mark. Spitting out twigs and leaves, she opened her eyes. Stars twinkled in the black velvet sky visible though the skeletal branches. The red, white and green glow of the airship appeared on the fringes of her horizon. Holding still, she did a mental inventory. Aches and pain everywhere but her eyelashes.
She wiggled her fingers and toes before moving onto larger muscle groups. Everything behaved correctly. Thank God.
Bracing her hands at her sides, she pushed into a sitting position. Mud squished between her fingers. Thin branches clattered in the breeze. Unhooking the front clasp of her harness, she shrugged off her pack then brought it around to her lap.
The slide of the zipper sounded overly loud in the quiet. Reaching inside the cold canvas, she rummaged over the slick packaging of emergency rations, the soft rasp of clothing and the hard shell of her canteen. Where is it? Her fingers walked to the side before finding the padded, inner pocket. Dipping inside, she touched the earpiece of her night-vision glasses.
Setting them on her nose, she took in her surroundings.
Shards of moonlight cut designs in the lime green foliage and glinted off her blade laying a few feet away. Her muscles twitched with the need to retrieve it. Patience. Up ahead, the crate she’d flown down on lay cracked in half over a boulder. Silver bars glistened. Her blood thrummed through her veins. That was not scientific equipment, but weapons. TSG-17s to be precise.
Someone in Dark Hope was arming Outlanders.
Were they here to collect their freight?
Ears straining, she counted time in heartbeats. Ten. Twenty. Finally, she detected a faint rustle to her left and the skitter of four legs to her right. Rats. They’d survived the apocalypse along with cockroaches and politicians.
She scanned the area around her once more then rose to her feet. At least, there wasn’t a welcoming committee. Yet. But they would arrive soon. Pain flared down her back and hamstrings when she bent over. Biting her bottom lip, she wrapped her fingers around her knife’s hilt and straightened.
Tending her wounds would have to wait. She needed to neutralize those weapons then find higher ground. She took a step forward. Air hissed through her teeth as pain lanced her right thigh.
Shunting the stabbing feeling aside, she limped forward. She could walk it off, push past it, do whatever it took to reach that ridge. Soldier blood ran in her veins, practically laid camouflage in her DNA.
Upon reaching the crate, she selected the nearest stun-gun. She hoped it still held a residual charge. Wiping the dirt and leaves from the oval barrel, she kicked the rest into a pile. Once done, she aimed and fired.
The charged projectile pinged against the pile of tin and discharged. Blue light crackled across the weapons, triggering the energy from the other weapons and frying their circuits. Now the Outlanders can have them. After blowing nonexistent smoke away from the tip, she scooped up her pack and turned toward the glow of the dirigible.
That ridge should be high enough, but she’d have to walk double time to get there before the high altitude communication drone moved out of range.
She only hoped her uncle would take her call. Perhaps her luck would hold and he wouldn’t be incensed that she’d broken radio silence. She snorted. Geneticists hadn’t been able to make pigs fly yet. After stuffing her hands through the pack’s straps, she secured the harness under her breasts, hooked the TSG-17 on a carabiner and put one foot in front of the other.
Fifteen minutes later, she huffed up the rocky summit and dropped in the grass near a boulder. The granite still radiated a soft heat from the afternoon. Stripping off her backpack, she removed her sweater from inside and unrolled it. Gold and silver baubles glittered against the green wool.
Useless things. Why Outlanders valued them she had no clue. Flicking them aside, she found her communicator’s ear piece and lifted the body. The antenna stayed behind. Well, damn.
Her shoulders sagged as she inspected each half. The molded body split in two under her touch. She’d need more than duct tape and a paperclip to fix it. The airship shrunk on the horizon. Glancing over her shoulder, she switched her night vision to infrared. The ground turned into a patchwork of blue, red and dots of white. Ignoring the white animal shapes, she scanned the distance for any sign of a rapidly cooling human body.
Minos hadn’t fallen to his death.
But that didn’t mean the bad guy hadn’t killed him and stashed his body among the freight.
Knock off the doom and gloom mongering. Attitude was as important in survival as the right tools. And speaking of tools…
She tugged an antique compass from another of the backpack’s pocket. The needle spun, stopped at forty degrees, then pivoted to one-hundred-ninety. With the magnetic poles switching, she didn’t think it would work. Of course, it could still bring her luck. Her ancestor had survived worse. Wiping the dirt off the David Dawson engraved on the cover, she returned it to her pack.
Switching back to night vision, she limped partway down the ridge. Although the going would be rougher, she was better off being high enough to see anyone approach but low enough not to be spotlighted by the full moon.
Her stomach growled and her thigh throbbed.
One hour’s walk then she’d stop and tend her body’s calls. On the bright side, she had some water, food and enough supplies to make a camp. On the dark side, no one would know she was even missing for another five days.
That was four days, twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes more than it took to die in the Outlands.