Zack finally extricated himself from the parachute and looked up at Mandrake’s sky. It was a vibrant blue-green, an exciting color that he almost found more appealing than Veskid’s perpetually bluish-gray. He’d heard that one of the reasons humans didn’t like Veskid’s outdoors was because it was a lot like the sky on the ancestral home of Earth, but only if Earth was perpetually overcast and on the verge of bad weather. He’d never been to Earth himself, vast interstellar distances being what they were, but he assumed the people who said things like that knew what they were talking about even if he’d never minded the sky too much one way or another.
He knelt and started folding and packing the robotic parachute back into its compartment, a job that the parachute mostly did itself (making his misadventure on the Phantom Matador’s asteroid more bearable), but it helped him to focus. He was happy, and he wanted to enjoy it.
He’d done it. He’d actually gotten off of Veskid and onto another world. Being declared “dead” by the Desperate Measures Agency was a death sentence for most, but the twelve minute head start Igneous had given him meant he’d set at least two records, one for the amount of time survived and another for distance traveled. He wasn’t in the clear… he’d probably never be in the clear… but he had already beaten the odds. It was good to have a friend like Igneous who’d help him escape instead of collecting the bounty herself, someone he could actually trust even with the temptation of the huge payout. He owed nearly every moment of survival since that night to Igneous and, of course, Carmen.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d have to wait for Carmen, but he felt like he could enjoy it. Carmen was a risk taker, but she was smart enough to know that a calculated risk was better than a wild one. She selected this clearing specifically as his landing site and their rendezvous point, so he felt a certain amount of certainty that as long as he played it smart the local wildlife wouldn’t be killing him.
“Don’t move,” said the voice behind him.
Zack jumped and spun in the air, wildly unholstering one of his pistols. A bolt of black metal, fiberglass and plastic collided with his pistol and knocked it out of his hands. He found himself staring into the face of a human woman who was already putting another arrow into place and drawing it back. She was dressed in greens and browns and purples… camouflage appropriate to the jungles of Mandrake… and glaring at him intently.
“I said don’t move,” she said.
“Let me talk,” she said. “Why did you come to Mandrake?”
He thought over Carmen’s original suggestion. It was best to keep stories straight between co-conspirators, and the question meant that whoever this archer was, she wasn’t a DMA agent.
“I’m a… thrill seeker?”
“I had a chance to parachute from space to a wild jungle world, and… wanted to see the sights until my ride picks me up.”
“Great. Nice job on the landing. You need to leave now.”
“I can’t do that until my ride gets here.”
“Listen,” said the woman, un-notching her next arrow and holding the bow at her side, “there are people on this world who’ve learned not to trust offworlders. Poachers, tomb raiders, industrialists, and other treasure hunters have come here looking for a quick buck, and it’s harmed their cultures. They barely tolerate me. If you don’t get offworld quickly, they’ll show up and try to finish you off because believe me when I say that they already know about you. They watch the skies for reentry, and they can figure out likely descent trajectories.”
“Thanks for the warning,” said Zack, experiencing a familiar feeling. “And the vote of confidence.”
“Vote of confidence?”
“You said they’d try,” he said. “Not that they’d finish me off. You think I’ll survive.”
“Oh, no, that’s not it at all,” she said. “Like I said, I’ve only just barely got their trust. If I think they’re about to show up, then I finish you off to save face.”
Zack took a step back and held up his hands.
“Hey now,” he said. “Hey, take it easy. I came in peace. Let’s not get violent. We’re both humans here, just trying to get by on an alien world, right?”
“Not anymore,” she said, resetting the arrow and aiming it at him again. “I’m a Sthenite now. And you’re Starprey.”