It wasn't any different from a dozen other firefights Wendy had been in, the last few years with the Middleman. Wendy had her arms full with the two Abdielan-human hybrid children they were rescuing from Thamarian outlaws. Since she couldn't fire, the Middleman had to both take point and keep an eye out behind them.
There wasn't a human being on Earth better equipped for the job. But however splendid his reflexes, he couldn't fire in both directions at once. He caught the first Thamarian sniper, ahead of them. The second, behind them, had been canny enough to hold his fire until they were surrounded. The Middleman sensed him almost in time, almost got off his second shot. The sniper had already aimed. One blast from the pulse rifle hit the Middleman's chest like a hammer-blow, sprayed it outward like a red flower.
He didn't look hurt, only surprised. He folded forward and collapsed like a puppet with cut strings.
Wendy let the children in her arms fall, unheeding. Her training, not her, brought her own gun out of the holster and up. Fired in controlled, paired bursts. The alien was perfectly centered in her sights; he exploded. She kept the sight picture on him as he fell, fired and fired and fired the gun empty.
The Abdielan toddlers were clinging together and whining. Wendy could barely hear them over the tearing screams. Her throat hurt.
She didn't move fast. All the love and terror in the world couldn't make her believe it mattered. Her shirt and vest were soaked with blood. She took his shoulder and rolled him gently onto one side.
Wendy could have put her fist inside the hole in his chest. She touched the side of his neck, a caress rather than a search for a pulse. There was no pain on his face. She told herself it was because he hadn't felt any, not because the muscles had gone slack. She kissed his cheek and it was warm. It had been that fast.
Her gun was empty. She left it and took his. No more enemy troops in sight, or they would have killed her while she was blind and deaf with emotion. Less than ten yards, to the public street and the Middlemobile and safety. Behind them, more Thamarians who would be organized and ready to fight before too long. "Damn you," she said quietly, as the children stared up at her. "Now I have to take you home first." She scooped them up again, strode toward the exit. Reached a hand around them to key her watch. "Get the Abdielan clan group on the line, Ida," she said. "I have their kids back. If they aren't at HQ by the time I get there, you're just going to have to babysit. I need ammunition, maybe some body armor."
"What happened? Where's the Middleman?" Ida was a robot, but she had her own kind of instincts. On some level, she already knew.
"I'm the Middleman," Wendy Watson said.
She wouldn't talk, or eat, or shower. She wouldn't change her stained clothes. She wouldn't talk to the tearful, grateful aliens when they took their children back. Wendy cleaned and loaded weapons in the armory, far more than she could use or carry. She ignored Ida until the robot shoved herself bodily between Wendy and the gun lockers.
"Move it or lose it," Wendy snarled. "I've got things to do."
"That's right, Juliet," Ida snapped back. "Things more important than going boo hoo, let me die beside him. You don't get that luxury. You maintain, like every Middleman before you. You do the job, you live the job. You find an apprentice, before too long. You're in the chain of Middlemen, and that chain doesn't break."
Wendy was wearing his gun, in a new belt and holster sized to fit her. Her fingers caressed the grip; her expression was ugly. "You think you can make me?"
"Yeah. I can make you," Ida said doggedly. "Boss. Because if you eat that gun it's not just you that fails; he fails. The last real Middleman, who blew the whole thing by hiring a piece of nookie and not keeping his hands off her. You let him down now and you're no Middleman, you're not even an apprentice. Just a smart-mouthed little poser who was in it for the tail."
"I'm not trying to die," Wendy said flatly, without conviction. "That nest of Thamarians is still there, most of it. I have to clean them out for good. It's the Middleman's job."
"Bullshit," Ida shot back; it startled a real reaction out of Wendy. "Yeah. Damn shit hell fuck. He didn't like swearing. He doesn't get a vote any more." Ida considered. "Although ... there's a code forty-seven. There always is. If you won't listen to me, maybe..."
Wendy's hand came up smooth and fast. She jammed the pistol under the robot's chin. When she fired, Ida's metallic skull bounced off the walls in three large pieces.
"We had almost five years. I know what he'd say. I'll play it later. If," Wendy said. "Code Forty-Seven: hello, replacement Ida. If I come back, this should settle who's in charge around here. If I don't, then the new hire is your problem."
His pulse pistol, and an ordinary handgun for backup. The lightest energy rifle in the armory, or she wouldn't be able to carry it all. Grenades. Ammunition.
Wendy's mind drifted back to another, lesser candidate for the title of worst day of her life. They'd been fighting alongside a supernatural/alien/whatever being who looked human. He'd called himself Immortal; he'd hinted that Wendy, or her Middleman, or both, might be like him. Lying little weasel. If she was still the Middleman after this (God, the weariness of the thought) Wendy resolved to find him and cut his head off. Or cut everything but his head off and do a "Han Solo in carbonite" performance art piece. She put the thought away, with all the others, and left.
Darkness, disorientation, an organic stink. The Middleman felt for his gun, found an empty holster. A faceful of mud was almost, not quite, cutting off his breathing. He flailed for balance. Half the disorientation, it turned out, came from being head-down in a pit. The light from above was dim but usable; he wasn't blind, then. The Middleman measured the distance to the rim of the pit and considered his options.
They'd been fighting Thamarians, he remembered. So the pit made sense. The species dug them habitually, whenever they had access to raw soil. Among other purposes they dropped enemy dead, enemy wounded, and prisoners in the pits indiscriminately. The ones who weren't simply forgotten were retrieved for later interrogation and/or victory feasts. He shuddered. He and Wendy and the abducted half-Abdielan children needed to be out of this compound as quickly as possible. Breathe. They haven't caught her, or not when they caught you. Otherwise she'd be right here, alive or dead...
This hole was less than eight feet deep. He caught the edge on his third try, shinned up like a rock climber. He checked himself over in the better light at ground level. The Middleman's shirt and jacket were in shreds, soaked with dried blood, but he couldn't find a wound. The Thamarians had made a mistake, there. Normally they'd have killed a dangerously healthy prisoner, or maimed him, or found a deeper pit.
The main exit, from the alien enclave to the outside world, wasn't much more than a dozen yards away. He vaguely remembered being here. He'd shot one of the perimeter guards. At least one, since both of them were here and visibly dead. Things were blank after that. The other Thamarians hadn't taken them away -- they didn't eat their own dead -- but both bodies were stripped of weapons and gear.
He spotted a familiar outline against the floor; Wendy's gun. The metal was cool when he touched it but subtly warped, the energy cartridge half fused. She'd fired it dry, all at once, even though the metal must have scorched her hand. It sounded like a crisis. His stomach churned; Wendy's gun was caked with blood. More blood coated the floor, in clots and puddles and sprays. If it was human, and it seemed to be, the person who bled out here wouldn't have walked away unassisted. Probably not alive. Wendy'd had no help with her, after he was out of action.
Maybe I was wounded, somehow, and she wouldn't leave me. Maybe the children panicked, and she had to go after them... He could hear her scream in his memory, a sound with no image. If she'd been gravely wounded he'd have held her; that could explain his blood-soaked clothes.
He raised his Middlewatch. "Wendy, are you there? Can you hear me?"
Nothing. He wasn't surprised he couldn't raise headquarters. Thamarians secreted a complex polycarbonate lining for their nests that was an amazing insulator. But if Wendy was inside the nest with him, he should get a locator signal from her watch. Even if she was...
He dragged his mind away from a dozen possible nightmares. If Wendy hadn't left the hive under her own power, she was still here. Dead or alive he'd bring her out, or stay with her. The Middleman picked up a sharp-edged piece of metal, until a better weapon was available, and trudged away from the exit.
His body was gone. The two dead aliens had been stripped of their weapons. Something, or several somethings, had left trails through the dried sloughs of blood and moved her empty energy gun, but there was no sign of the Middleman himself.
Wendy knew she wasn't thinking clearly. She hadn't thought clearly since ... be damned if she was going to start now. Hell was waiting for her outside this shell of emotional numbness, and the shell was temporary. But she remembered more about this alien species. A hive organism, the workers and warriors about as smart as a bright dog; the queen had the only full-fledged intelligence. On worlds like Earth where they couldn't pass for natives, they corrupted or intimidated a few locals into being their front men. Thamarians weren't a destroy-the-Earth level threat, they weren't well enough organized. But they had nasty habits, and one of them was eating their dead or half-dead enemies.
Something in the back of her brain was screaming. The wall of detachment cracked and shuddered. Wendy gritted her teeth, fought herself back under control. This just means I have to hurry. She wasn't leaving him here, that was all. She wasn't leaving anyone.
The Thamarians had nested inside a seedy abandoned warehouse, filling the above-ground spaces with dirt as they dug out the underground tunnels they preferred. The result was a maze of passages, many of them too low for a standing human. There were sharply sloping pits dug into the side walls every few dozen feet. Some were dry empty holes, some radiated a stench that had to be alien waste. Some ....
Something ghost-white moved inside the mouth of the third pit, the size of her torso, covered with a thick clear membrane. Larva. Wendy slagged it with a burst from the energy rifle. She didn't know how big a nest this was or how fast these things bred, but she was going to get every damn one.
Movement in the dim tunnel ahead. This one was dark red, with sharp mandibles and an energy gun in human-like hands; warrior caste. Wendy smashed it open with one shot. She kept moving inward and downhill, making no attempt to hide.
The alien nest had a few of the usual human front men. They were on guard duty closer to the Queen, since they were more intelligent than Thamarian warriors. The Middleman used stealth in the bad lighting to disable the first pair without killing them. He collected two ordinary human handguns from their semiconscious bodies. Real weapons would make the rest of the mission far easier.
A gunshot, a smashing pain over his left hip. The Middleman whirled and fired by reflex with the gun he'd just picked up; a textbook center-of-mass hit. The third human guard was shocky and fading fast. His eyes barely tracked when the Middleman pulled him half upright. "Prisoners," he snapped. "A woman with dark hair, some half-human children -- did they get away? Where are they?" If the guard heard, or understood, he didn't care about answering. When his eyes dimmed completely the Middleman let him fall.
His own injury wasn't as bad as he'd thought. More of a graze, cutting skin and a few layers of muscle. He wrapped a piece of shirt around the wound; it shouldn't slow him much. The Middleman kept moving. If the sound of the shots had carried, he'd lost the element of surprise.
He shouldn't have worried. The further down he went, closer to the central Queen's chamber, the louder things got. The sounds resolved into the whine of energy weapons, punctuated here and there with bursts of gunfire. Then a concussive impact that nearly knocked him down. The Middleman broke into a run, transfixed by sudden hope, because only his own plasma grenades made that particular sound.
All the Thamarian tunnels led to the Queen's chamber, a rough-walled space fifty feet high by a hundred wide. Thick layers of fungi lit it to a usable level. The tunnel the Middleman was in met the chamber about thirty feet above its floor; he had a panoramic view.
The Thamarian Queen, the size of a small car, normally held court on a raised platform in the center of the chamber. This one was huddled behind her platform, in clear distress. Warriors, workers, and one or two more humans were bunched in front of her. Two warriors fell to well-placed shots as he watched. The entire hive was under siege, from...
"Wendy!" the name broke loose before he could think.
Something like madness gleamed in her eyes. But otherwise, Wendy looked uninjured. Her head came around at the sound of his voice. Her eyes fixed on him with utter disbelief; for a few seconds she completely forgot about the fire fight.
I'm a fool. The Middleman skidded down the rough slope toward the chamber floor. He had a gun in each hand, but accuracy was impossible at this distance. He couldn't give Wendy much cover, only diversion. Half, more than half, of the Thamarian warrior caste were diverted, but not all. Before Wendy could start firing again one of them darted out of cover and buried its mandibles in her stomach.
He was down and scrambling toward her on his hands and knees, guns forgotten. The thing chewed deeper under Wendy's ribs; he grabbed the chitinous head and pulled it back with all his strength. Blood welled up where the mouth-parts came away. He smashed its head open on the floor -- insect shell was flimsier than bone -- and gathered Wendy to his chest. Her eyes tracked on him. "You're dead," she remarked. "Very dead, I saw ... I must be dead now too."
"You aren't going to die." He tore loose all the fabric he could reach, from both their clothes, and packed the stomach wound. It soaked through. He hated himself, hated to waste any of their seconds together, but the mission still counted for something. "Hold on." He grabbed up one of Wendy's grenades. The Middleman had a much stronger throwing arm. The grenade went off on impact with the Queen's carapace, smashed her into green-purple fragments. The other insectoids, squealing pitifully, fell into seizures when she died.
Wendy smiled faintly. She was shivering as shock took hold of her. "Hi, honey, I'm home. Is dead any fun to be?"
"I told you, I'm not." But more half-memories were clamoring for attention. Pain, numbness, the image of a scarlet spray shooting out of his own chest. His vision graying out from catastrophic blood loss. The Middleman shoved at the bandage around his waist. The deep cut he'd gotten ten minutes ago had healed without a mark. "God. No."
Wendy followed his look. "Immortal, huh? I guess I'd better not kill that supernatural little weasel after all. This is what he was trying to tell us." She grinned fuzzily.
Long ago, when they'd first come together. I've started hoping for a life with you, Wendy. Immortality with you would be just as good. But if we're going to be separated … I'd never have another minute's peace if I could see it coming. Methos could sense who would and wouldn't become Immortal at death. The Middleman had all but begged to keep his ignorance; the old Immortal had let him. Five years of mercy. I'd hoped it wouldn't happen, or that we'd have more time...
"Messy, huh?" Wendy was fearless to the point of giggling. "To think we ever worried about age differences. Bright side, I'm not going to turn into an old lady on you."
He clutched her close; her blood was hot against his chest. "Don't."
"You knew I was a smartass when you hired me. No point in changing now." She leaned her cheek against the side of his neck. "Don't have to talk. We've said it all, one time or another. Just be here."
Wendy was right; she usually was. A hundred battles, with and without injuries. A thousand nights sleeping together, or too tired for anything but sleep. Every possible secret, including his 'real' name. After all that drama, she'd refused to use it because she insisted it didn't fit him. So many things, big and small. A last-second oratory like teenagers in a 1950's car-crash song wouldn't begin to cover it.
He stroked her hair and breathed her scent. The Middleman wouldn't think about Immortality, that was too much to plan for. But he knew he wouldn't simply give up and die without her. Couldn't. His love for Wendy was bound up with the work they'd shared, the people she loved, the world she'd fought for; abandoning all those things to drown his own grief would do her no honor. Standing orders, not to leave your post without proper relief. "I love you."
"You worry too much," Wendy whispered. "Methos said so. I wasn't going to let him tell me either, not and go behind your back. But he said, you worry too much."
The Middleman hadn't feared either death or Immortality, for himself. He'd only been afraid of living without Wendy. "What?" No answer. No pulse.
No pain, anywhere. But her muscles were stiff, and a rock seemed to be digging into her back. Wendy opened her eyes. She was half-reclined against a wall, still in the Thamarian hive chamber. Big insects were still twitching here and there on the floor. The battlefield was starting to smell distinctly ripe.
The Middleman, opposite her, had a warm grip on both her hands. "Your wounds started healing an hour ago," he said. "Even before that ... there was enough hope to go on with. I had to be sure."
"I'm always keeping you waiting. It's a girl thing." Wendy squeezed his hands back. "But Boss, you're getting really stinky. Let's go home. Hot showers all around."
He smiled back at her. "Ida will be so surprised."
Wendy flinched; never live this down suddenly had the potential to mean centuries. "Yeah. There's, ah, something I should mention about that."