He cupped a hand around the lighter’s small flame against the cold wind, gently coaxing the cigarette perched between his lips to catch.
It struggled, at first – the night air was damp, wetting the synthetic tobacco the cig was made of just enough to make it an uphill battle. Finally, it lit.
Leaning back against the side of his car, he looked up at the brilliant night sky. The coreward reaches of the Spur were fantastic for skywatching, great bands of dust and myriad stars filling the darkened vista every time he drove out here to see. Benefit of lower-tech worlds, no towering megalopoli or satellite clutter, just the warm, dependable city lights and a tank full of water to carry you and your four wheels wherever you needed to go.
It was funny – of all the tech to hang on over the countless millennia, he never would’ve guessed cars to come back into style. Easy to power with electrolytic hydrogen engines, relatively cheap to construct en masse, surprisingly robust at stringing distant settlements together along lonely, empty roads.
Didn’t get much lonelier or emptier than this, did it.
Low, scrub-dotted tundra stretched off into the distance in every direction, dotted here and there by a patch of snow glowing a soft white in the starlight. He’d stopped for a smoke, figuring it was as good a place as any – the next settlement wasn’t for nearly two hundred miles, and the view was nice for one that hadn’t changed since he’d made planetfall.
One last long inhale spelled doom for the poor stub clenched in his fingers as he dropped it to the cold pavement and squashed it beneath the toe of his boot, climbing back in and starting the car back up. It purred as the hydrogen engine slowly whirred to life, headlights illuminating the road ahead.
Two hundred miles.
Gently nudging the car back out onto the road, his journey resumed.
The sun was only starting to rise as the little car rumbled into the frontier town of Sacha, coasting into the lot in front of the town’s only hostel. An old, off-white, beaten-up thing, it largely escaped notice by the town’s residents as they started yet another day. A single new person wasn’t exactly something to write home about, and the town being on the only real northern route out of the planetary capital meant travelers passed through from time to time.
What did draw focus was the fact the newcomer was looking for someone.
Looking for a bioframe. About this high, canid-form? Goes by Ori.
He’d played this same song and dance six times, already – following the Great Polar Road as it wound northwards across Hallison’s northern hemisphere. Scarcely a trace of his quarry, aside from the vessel they’d tracked down at the capital’s starport.
Whoever this frame was, they were good at going to ground – but he was an excellent tracker.
Climbing back into the little car, he shut the door and darkened the windows – bringing up the file he’d been given by his employer.
Kellen, Orion C. CN089-112.
A scruffy, blond face stared back – bright blue eyes and slightly-flopped ears giving them a surprisingly affable appearance for someone who’d made the top twenty on OKin’s shit list. Not to mention the prior evasion of two others just like him.
He chuckled. Always liked a challenge.
Valen Sonoda was a… seeker for hire. He didn’t like the title bounty hunter – sounded too much like he did dirty work. No, Sonoda preferred to imagine himself as a private eye who sometimes got involved in the more fun side of finding someone who didn’t want to be found. His frame – largely biological apart from the three large, white oculi set into his face where a nose might have once been and his smooth, bald head – was personally designed for the job. Improved muscular locomotion, data tracers built into the palms, mark-six auditory receptors and amplifiers.
Sacha hadn’t been a complete waste. The frame’s vehicle had passed through about a day prior – stopping only for a new tank of water and a few provisions from the town’s small store. The more exotic frame had stood out more than Sonoda had, meaning he had a wider range of accounts to draw from.
All said he should keep traveling north, further into the polar tundra.
It was the same news in the next town – and the town after, though each stop provided more pieces of the puzzle. Kellen was taking on more supplies, and not simply traveling rations – supplies one would need to live on the tundra, and – most interesting of all – a short-range high frequency beacon.
The road ended just short of a wide, glacial valley.
Sonoda shut the door behind him as he stepped out of the car, popping the latch on the trunk. Wildflowers waved in the cold wind, occasionally shadowed by the fluffy white clouds that dotted today’s sunny sky. A river ran below at the bottom, crashing against great rocks on its way to a distant sea.
Opening the large, black case in the trunk revealed two octagonal silver objects and an inset panel – pressing his palm to it awoke the system. Slowly, the two objects rose into the morning sky, unfurling into a pair of recon drones – before rocketing off into the valley, silent as the breeze.
Calmly walking back around to the front of the car, the bounty hunter tucked their sidearm into the holster beneath their jacket, before turning back to the vista. A crack echoed across the valley, and one of the drones swooped at something far below.
The handgun bucked in their palm as the drone swooped a second time, peppering the loose rocky sand with rounds. It caught the little recon device just left of center, knocking one of the propulsion units offline and sending the device into a wild spin – careening over the boulder they were taking cover behind and disappearing out of sight. The other drone, assured in having completed its task, rocketed back towards the edge of the valley – and whoever had deployed it.
“Fuck!” Cai swore under their breath, throwing the nanocamo mesh aside and slamming the beacon into the rocky soil. It drilled another inch in before securing itself, turning a brilliant blue as it began transmitting. Now to just hope somebody’s listening.
Pressing their back to the rock, they waited – the slight hum of the beacon and roar of the river the only sounds they were able to parse.
A moment later, a crunch of footsteps on rocks. Fast.
The dog peeked out of cover just in time for a stun round to fly past their cheek, its ferroelectric charge causing their fur to stand on end.
The river roared, ice cracking.
Sonoda charged, catching the dog entirely off guard and out of position – striking Cai in the face with his shoulder and sending the smaller bioframe skidding away across the gravel. Wheezing, they came up fighting despite the damage the bounty hunter had inflicted running rivulets of blood from their mouth – snapping off a quick shot that drilled into the boulder just over Sonova’s head. Unfazed, he fired a shot off himself, the stun round slamming into the dog’s shoulder and disabling their firing arm. A second shot slammed into their stomach, and they folded.
The pistol clattered to the ground, and Cai slumped to their knees, knowing further resistance would end in nothing good.
“Orion Kellen?” Sonoda half-asked, pad on his right arm displaying the dog’s file. 99.7% identity match, according to visual scans.
Cai said nothing, spitting a small amount of saliva and blood onto the rocky sand.
“OKin’s got a hell of a hard-on for your capture, kid. What’d you do?”
“Does it matter?”
“I want to know if I have a murderer on my hands.”
“Data theft. Hit their backups on Sanibel, dumped prototype weapons blueprints on the open mesh.”
“Don’t see how data theft gets you spot eighteen on their HVT list.” Sonoda frowned, not liking how the story wasn’t exactly adding up. “There was a lot more to your file I couldn’t see.”
“You’re gonna tell me, or a bloody lip’s the last thing you’ll be worrying about.”
A low roar, different from the river, sounded over the valley.
Both of them instinctively looked skywards just in time for a dark shape to swoop over the valley in a wide arc, thruster wash sending the wildflowers around the edges flapping wildly. It wasn’t exactly a large ship – a dropship at best, painted in strikingly alternating black and cerulean.
Sonoda turned his gaze back to his quarry just long enough to notice they’d made a break for the descending ship, now gently settling onto the sand a few hundred yards downstream.
The bounty hunter fired, round passing just over the dog’s right shoulder as he juked and weaved, the dropship’s gangway lowering and forcing Sonoda to take cover as bullets tore through the air in his direction, a powered armor clad soldier firing from the airlock as the collie scrambled up the ramp.
Fire kept up for a few moments longer, before the thruster whine grew louder, lifting the ship from the sand as it began to rise into the sky. Sonoda managed to catch a glimpse of the ship’s general design – an angled-corner boxy shape, with a small raised bridge and a front gangway. A four-pointed star adorned the side of the dropship, hastily painted if the roughness was any indication.
It lifted off in a cloud of dust, before roaring off into the bright blue sky. Sonoda watched it go, realizing exactly why the file might’ve been redacted – and why they’d made the top twenty.
That bastard’s a Polaris meshdiver.