Zack leaned against a tree until he felt the wave of nausea pass. His throat was scratching like a flea circus pitchman, but he couldn’t cough until he had the Phantom Matador in point blank range of his strikers.
He lifted his head. The clearing was large, and the glowing fire cast long shadows which Zack tried to use as he left the tree line. The Phantom Matador was sitting near the fire, his cape pulled behind him and his hat pulled down in front of his face. He might have been dozing, an ideal situation that Zack wouldn’t count on.
He stepped closer, covering the distance. He checked Nectra’s scanner one last time, and determined that The Phantom Matador was, in fact, right in front of him. No strange psychic projections were hampering the scene.
Zack slipped the tracker into a pocket of his coat and reached for his holsters. The twin Purcellian Striker pistols lifted and aimed at the Matador. He stepped closer. Hey, Mat… that’s what he’d say. Hey, Mat. It’d give the upper hand conversationally.
Zack closed to within five feet of the Matador. A gentle wind was blowing through the clearing, pushing the smoke from the fire to the side.
Zack heard a click from the treeline ahead of him.
The whine of a powerful capacitor charging sounded from the darkness.
Zack panicked and started jumping to the right. Time slowed as a glowing sphere of blue-white energy launched from the darkness. Zack fell on the ground and the blast of energy passed over his head. Zack rolled to a kneeling position and aimed his Strikers at the darkness. He watched and listened carefully as the analytical part of his mind started processing.
“Vodianoi Cannon?” he whispered to himself, watching the trees carefully, and missing the sound of the footsteps behind him.
“Samodiva Cannon,” said a voice. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw a woman in a blue cysuit with a cybernetic reticle over an eye. She held her near-legendary Chernoblaster, keeping it at a point-blank range.
“Fletch?!” he said, instinctively trying to jump back, but tripping over his own feet as he did so.
“The Vodianoi Cannon is built to be submerged under water. The Samodiva Cannon is built to hide in clusters of trees, caves, other dark wilderness locations. Now, I would’ve preferred to use a Jinmenju Snare instead of a Samodiva Cannon… and if we were near water I actually brought a Jorogumo Striker… but you work with what you’ve got!”
Zack’s mind raced. He didn’t know military-grade munitions the way that Fletch did, but there was a definite pattern.
“I don’t… I don’t understand. Fletch, the Samodiva’s not deadly.”
“What if you’d picked up the poor Phantom Matador to use as a human shield?” she said. “I can get his bounty if he’s alive.”
“But… the Jinmenju Snare, that’s just a trapping device, isn’t it?”
“Doesn’t leave much mess to clean up, and doesn’t take away so much evidence that they’ve only got my say so that I finished the job. The DMA’ll award a bounty if there’s no body, but only if you can prove that you caused the death.”
Zack narrowed his eyes.
“That blaster of yours would leave the evidence, though. And I can’t help but notice that I’m still noticin’ things, almost like you hadn’t killed me yet.”
“You’re a professional, Fletch,” he said. “Best in the business. Not that I’m not grateful, but why’re you not finishing me off? What do you want?”
“Make no mistake, I do want to kill you,” said Fletch. “I wanted to kill you before, at Murk’s stronghold in Helix. There were too many other mercenaries crawling around, though. Too much competition. Especially from your friend Igneous.”
Zack slowly rose to his feet, keeping a close eye on the gun.
“You think she’d stop someone from gettin’ to me? She’s not stupid. The DMA’d put a bounty on her head just like on mine if she helped me.”
“She could still injure another assassin and claim it was an attempt to catch you. A moot point, though, as she helped me to find you here on Mandrake. Practically arranged it, even.”
Zack opened his mouth to respond but couldn’t. Fletch paused and watched his face carefully.
“Did she, now?” he said.
“She did. Now, I do plan on killing you, Zack Gamma, the bounty’s only good if you’re dead. But I need some information first, and fortunately there aren’t any other bounty hunters or assassins on this planet who might overhear, assuming he knows what’s good for him.”
“Had some competition when I first got here, but it’s been handled. Ready to tell me what I want to know?”
“Why should I? You’ll kill me anyway.”
“You want a five minute head start?”
“Pass. I’ll take a day’s head start, though.”
“You think I’d let you last a day out there?”
“I think you’ll let me last however long we agree on.”
Fletch paused and, after a moment, lowered the gun to her side.
“Six, or I kill you right now,” she said. “I want to know, but I don’t want to know that badly.”
“You’re tryin’ to lowball me. We can push this to seven.”
Fletch raised the Chernoblaster.
“Or six,” said Zack. “Six hour head start… and I get the Phantom Matador.”
Fletch lowered her weapon and looked over at the unconscious figure that she’d propped by the fire.
“He’ll just be dead weight while you put distance between yourself and me. And with no way off the planet he’s just going back into my custody after I catch you.”
“You’ll have to pry him away from the Sthenites,” said Zack. “I’m in the middle of a trial, and I’m about out of time, but he’s important to it.”
Fletch looked up to the sky, then back to the Phantom Matador. Her reticle swiveled and focused on Zack while she stared at her sleeping prisoner.
“I suppose six hours would give me time to make some more preparations at the Bake-Kujira.”
“My ship,” said Fletch. “Fine. You’ve got your six hours, and the custody of the Phantom Matador. Congrats on another fourth of a day of life, Zack Gamma. Assuming, of course, that your information is good.”
“Shoot,” said Zack. “Well, I mean… go for it. Ask your questions, I mean.”
“I’ve only got one,” said Fletch. “What did you do to get the DMA to put this bounty on your head?”