(extinction)
(quotient)

/note: violence, language/

A missile detonated in the auxiliary docking bay and sent the Felicitation shuddering, the ship's navigational systems whirring into overdrive as its centre of gravity shifted half a metre to one side. On Productivity Deck A, the lights died, leaving those inside with nothing but the stars for illumination. For a few seconds there was only panicked screaming. Then the lights returned, just as suddenly as they had left.

Gregory Lynch stared through his office windows at the pandemonium below, his senses dulled with confusion.

"Who's attacking us?" he demanded. "How did they find us?"

The giant diamond panes muffled most of the noise from P-Deck A, but he could still hear all the workers yelling. Or screaming. Same difference.

"How did they find us so quickly?" Lynch repeated. "They couldn't have followed us. They-"

A large hand landed on his shoulder. "Please, Mr Lynch. It's not safe in here. We need to move."

"Don't touch me!" He brushed the hand aside angrily. "You work for me, Bill, not the other way round!"

"It's not safe in here, Mr Lynch-"

Lynch wheeled around. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? This office is the safest room in the whole ship! You said it yourself!"

A large man, hook-nosed and unshaven, stared back passively. "Safest, yes, but not impenetrable. If you stay here they'll know where to find you."

"Who are 'they', Bill? Deltas? Bounty hunters? How did they find us?"

Bill shrugged. "You'll know when I do."

Lynch grunted and turned away. He'd hired Bill as his head of security nearly eight years ago. The man had come with good credentials, including an impressive service record in the Federation navy and a brief but lucrative career as a bounty hunter. Upon his employment by Epidyne Pharma, Bill had spent his first few weeks firing all of Security Division and replacing them with a few dozen hand-picked recruits. Over the next six months, productivity increased by fifteen percent, and production line theft stopped altogether. Bill asked for a raise and got it.

Lately, though, Lynch wasn't so sure about Bill. Ever since Lynch had opened the J'krida contract, his head of security had become increasingly vocal in his duties, blathering on about improved fortification and advanced screening procedures that, Lynch was sure, were completely unnecessary. He'd said as much to Bill but the man refused to drop the point.

Another explosion shook the ship so hard that Lynch fell backwards. He shot out a hand to break his fall and felt a sharp pain in his wrist as it connected with the ground.

He looked sideways. Bill was already jumping catlike to his feet, one hand pressed firmly against his earpiece.

"Statrep," he barked, leaning over and pulling Lynch to his feet with one muscular arm. He paused, listening to the tinny voices on the other end. "Yes... Yes... Any casualties?... Shit."

"What just happened?" said Lynch, dusting off his shirt. "Who's attacking us?"

"The auxiliary docking bay was just breached," said Bill distractedly. His eyes were distant, calculating. "They're inside the ship now."

"Who's attacking us?"

Bill was talking to his earpiece again. "I want a description of the hostiles. Species, equipment, formation... How many?" He frowned. "And you can't... who?... I see... Listen up! All units in the breach zone fall back to P-Deck A. Seal the doors, don't engage. Repeat, do not engage."

"What is it?" snapped Lynch. The cryptic shorthand was trying his patience.

"Good news is it's not the Federation. One of their crack Delta teams and we'd be dead already." Bill ran his hands across his belt, lightly tapping each weapon and gadget strapped to it. "Just a bounty hunter." Satisfied with his check, he fished into a pocket of his combat jacket and produced a thin black visor which he strapped onto his eyes.

"What's that?" said Lynch suspiciously. "I've never seen it before."

"Custom-made," said Bill, flicking a switch on the visor's side. Its lens went opaque. "Does infrared, thermal, Geiger..." He paused, adjusting the visor to his satisfaction. "Eats batteries like a bitch, though, so I keep it for emergencies."

"Like now?" said Lynch. Through the diamond pane he saw the black and orange uniforms of Security Division trickling into the deck below.

"Yes, like now," said Bill patiently. "Anyway, this bounty hunter-"

"Just one, is it?" interrupted Lynch, thinking. That actually made sense. Just another opportunistic bottom-feeder who'd gotten lucky, stumbling upon the Felicitation just hours after the warrant had been issued. "So we outnumber him, don't we? We can just gun the bastard down... You said that was the good news. What's the bad news?"

Bill grimaced. "Mr Lynch, does the name 'Samus Aran' mean anything to you?"

"No, it does not," snapped Lynch. "I'm a businessman, not a... bodyguard. Thug. Whatever it is you call yourself."

Bill raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Lynch felt his pulse rising – the man wasn't even trying to hide his insubordination. He ought to dock his pay just for that.

The lights flickered with the rumble of a distant explosion.

A static crackle. Bill was listening to his earpiece again. "Repeat your last...? Hmm. Hold your position, then. We're joining you."

"What now?" said Lynch quickly.

"Eleven guards are arriving on P-Deck A now," Bill replied, striding towards the door of the office. "The others are incapacitated." He didn't elaborate.

"Is that bad?" Lynch scurried after Bill.

"It's enough for a decent escort."

"Escort?"

"To get you to an escape shuttle. You do want off this ship, don't you, Mr Lynch?" Bill pressed his hand against a scanner, waiting as an oscillating blue line verified his palm print.

One, two, three. The scanner beeped and the door unsealed itself with a quiet hiss.

"Obviously," Lynch snapped. "Open the door."

Bill swung the door open, holding it out for his employer. Lynch grunted and stepped through into P-Deck A.

Open plan offices were making a comeback fix or six years ago when Lynch had had the Felicitation commissioned. The result: Productivity Decks A, B, and C, a set of similar workspaces located on opposite ends of the ship. The architects who'd been paid eight-figure sums for this claimed that the design was perfectly calibrated to maximise employee productivity – just one benefit of a human-only recruitment policy.

Hence, as Lynch strode down the staircase from his office, he saw a dreary grid of cubicles but a comforting vista of abstract architectural elements and potted flora, in which the tables and chairs (made of real wood, believe it or not) were just secondary elements.

The ceiling was a single expansive skylight, dotted with a hexagonal grid of sodium lamps, which were always kept dim to give a crystal clear view of the starscape outside. One could be forgiven for thinking the stars were within arm's reach if not for all that damned diamond in the way. Currently the skylight provided a breathtaking view of the NR493 nebula, where green and gold wisps of stardust danced past the slowly moving Felicitation. (It had always fascinated Lynch how some nebulae closely resembled the structure of biochemical compounds. This one was like a steroid backbone, with its interlocking rings and long-trailing tendrils.)

Looking down, Lynch saw several dozen Epidyne employees: biochemical engineers, to judge by their bland clothing and pale complexions. They stared back at him, wide-eyed and mute. Perhaps they were in shock. That wouldn't surprise him.

"It's real, all right," he said loudly, flinging his arms up. "Not a drill."

The workers exchanged horrified glances. For a few seconds, it looked as if they were too terrified to speak. Then the floodgates opened, all of them rising from their chairs and starting towards him. They all began to babble all at once, the individual words nearly incomprehensible in the din.

"What do we do?"

"Are they after us too?"

"You bastard, Lynch. You never warned us."

"Will they kill us?"

"Are we war criminals?"

"They can't kill me, what would my family..."

"I want out! Let us out!"

"Quiet!" roared Bill, taking a single step forward.

Complete silence. The employees stared at the head of security wide-eyed, some of their mouths frozen in mid-sentence. Bill was not a small man. His muscular bulk and fiery orange mane combined to give him the appearance of a warlord back in the pre-space days. Certainly he looked capable of ripping someone in two if sufficiently provoked. The same could not be said for any of the biochemical engineers.

"That's better," said Lynch, seizing the silence. He glared at the assembled engineers. "I can't believe you're all such cowards. The Federation doesn't want you dead." (They'd given him an extinction quotient of point eight. Point eight. As if he'd killed someone himself.)

Bill strode through the workers without any expression on his face. "Just shut up and surrender when the hunters arrive."

It didn't matter if the workers surrendered to whoever was outside; they were no longer useful. His only regret was that they might end up working for a competing corporation.

The workers parted in Bill's wake. A few of them had their mouths frozen open mid-sentence. Lynch followed quickly behind him, holding his head high.

Eleven black and orange Security Division uniforms stood in a loose semi-circle, keeping their mouths professionally shut as Lynch and Bill approached. Most of them were looking at Bill. Lynch coughed and made eye contact with a few of them. It never hurt to remind them who signed their pay checks.

Bill looked at them calmly. "How far away is she?"

"We have four minutes, maybe five, sir," said one of the guards, a tall dark-skinned man who looked like he belonged in law school, not a war zone. Come to think of it, none of the guards looked a day above thirty. "We sealed all the doors behind us but that won't buy much time."

"Then let's get moving," said Bill. "We all armed?"

All nine of them swept their hands across their belts and backs, running through some imaginary check-list of weapons and ammunition. Two seconds later they were standing at attention again.

"Good," said Bill. "Now let's get-"

"Give me a gun," said Lynch.

He felt all pairs of eyes swivelling to look at him. Some of the security guards seemed surprised – bemused, even. So little respect.

Bill pursed his lips. "My job is to make sure you don't need-"

"Just give me a gun, Bill," said Lynch, his voice sounding steadier than he'd expected. "Right now."

Without turning his head Bill motioned to one of the guards. "Wildcat. Give Mr Lynch your pistol, show him how to use it."

With a shrug, 'Wildcat' strode over to Lynch. She was a few inches shorter than him, affording him a good view of her dark short-cropped hair. She pulled a slim grey weapon from her belt and offered it to him barrel-down. Her face was halfway between a glare and a smile.

Lynch took the gun. "Point and shoot, right?"

She took that as a cue to talk, pointing at each component on the weapon one by one. "This is a standard civilian energy pistol. Safety is that switch on the left. That switch is for the laser sights. Don't use them, they're off. That dial controls intensity, but just leave it on maximum unless you want your shots bouncing off her armour."

A couple of other security guards were behind Lynch, nudging him forward. "Come on, sir. We've got to go before she gets here."

"Who's she?" said Lynch, annoyed. He swatted away the hands on his back. "Why won't anyone tell me anything? I'm not doing anything until you tell me-"

The guard called Wildcat grabbed him by the shirt sleeve and dragged him forward. "She is a bounty hunter called Samus Aran," she said. "Human female, late twenties, aggressive sociopath..."

One of the guards behind Lynch laughed. "Doesn't sound like anyone I know..."

"Go to hell, Janus," she snapped, receiving only another laugh in response. She turned back to Lynch. "But no, Aran is no bottom-feeding amateur. As far as hunters go, she's as..."

Her words were cut off as an explosive bang echoed across P-Deck A. The floor shook violently, throwing everyone onto the ground. A high-pitched squeal of rending metal pierced through the air so loudly that for a moment Lynch feared he was going deaf.

The noise stopped. The security personnel were already back on their feet by the time Lynch began to scramble from the floor, listening as Bill barked orders.

"Wildcat! Janus! Get the primary out of here! Redtooth! I want human shields! Everyone else-"

A wall halfway across the deck exploded in a shower of stainless steel shrapnel. All heads turned.

For a few seconds, there was complete silence on the deck as the dust from the explosion began to settle. Then, faint footsteps reverberated across the hard floor.

From the cloud of debris emerged a humanoid figure covered from head to toe in red and orange armour. The visor of its helmet glowed an ominous green, and one armoured hand was clasped around a dull teal cylinder on the other arm.

The guards surrounding Lynch all froze where they were, staring at the suited figure. Most of them already had their guns drawn and aimed, but none of them looked as if they wanted to start shooting. A few eyes darted in Bill's direction, dully hoping for more orders.

"Is that the bounty hunter?" whispered Lynch to Wildcat.

"Yes," she said. "That's the hunter."

He could have sworn he heard a touch of reverence in her voice.

The figure took a few slow steps towards them. It moved deliberately and mechanically, yet as Lynch watched he could have sworn he saw a hint of femininity in its gait: a slight sway of the hips, the confident bearing of a black widow spider.

"On five," said Bill so quietly it was nearly inaudible. "Four..."

The hunter's helmet turned slowly, sweeping past the windows and holographic displays and panicked workers until it was facing in their direction. Even from this distance Lynch could sense the bounty hunter was staring right at him.

"Gregory Lynch," the bounty hunter called, her amplified voice sounding harsh and metallic. "You are under arrest for war crimes. Resis-"

All the security guards opened fire simultaneously in a cacophony of submachine guns and energy rifles. Their aim was good but the bounty hunter was already diving out of the way, raising the cylinder on her arm and launching her own volley of shots.

At the same time, Wildcat pulled Lynch to his feet. "Run!" She dragged him away from the shooting and, too stunned to argue, he ran with her.

The woman set a fast pace. Lynch was not an entirely unfit man; he exercised daily and sometimes took calls on a treadmill, but even with the initial surge of adrenaline he was struggling to keep up with her. He hazarded a glance behind his shoulder and saw another guard following close behind, gun cradled in his hands as he ran. The other guards were fanning out, assuming a wavy formation that spanned most of the deck. Shots flew this way and that, sending chairs and computer screens flying and burning deep into the walls and floor.

A structural column exploded in a blinding white flash, and Lynch averted his eyes.

It took him a few seconds to see where the guard was taking him: a door placed flush into the wall. Dazed, he couldn't quite think where it led, but any way off this deck was a godsend right now. He sped up what little he could.

They were about twenty metres away from the door when the guard behind him shouted loudly: "Wildcat! Incoming!"

The guard in front glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes widened. Before Lynch could even begin to react she had spun around on the spot and lunged at him, knocking him to the ground.

He landed hard, the breath being forcefully expelled from his lungs. Then there was a whistling sound and something exploded right next to him. A wave of heat rushed past, and he felt something hot spraying across his exposed arm.

"Shit!" The guard who'd shouted the warning skidded into a crouch beside them. "Wildcat, are you all right?"

"Help him up," she groaned, pushing herself from the ground.

"Are you all-"

"Janus! Help him up!"

The guard – Janus – leaned over Lynch, grabbing him by the shoulder. Some murky part of Lynch's mind looked past the sweaty face and black eye to notice that he was clean shaven. Very careful, very professional. "Can you hear me, Mr Lynch?"

Lynch tried to reply but instead found himself coughing painfully.

Janus grimaced and helped Lynch up as he caught his breath. "Letting off missiles in a crowded office," he grunted. "Good thing her aim-"

With the same whistling noise, a second missile streaked from the bounty hunter's direction, heading straight for where they stood.

With an angry cry Wildcat pulled a gun from her back and held the trigger down, letting out a spray of laser fire. It caught the missile halfway, and it detonating in mid-air, erupting into a fireball the size of a person.

"Door," she said, eyes firmly fixed on the bounty hunter.

Janus took the hint, shoving Lynch forward and running after him.

The bounty hunter, who had been evading Security Division fire with surprising agility, now froze on the spot, turning her full attention to the escapees. The security guards quickly took advantage, sinking dozens of bullets and energy blasts into the hunter's armour, but she ignored them, launching a stream of missiles in Lynch's direction.

Wildcat, running just a few metres behind Lynch and Janus, was intercepted the first few, but as the missiles became more frequent and their trajectories less linear, her aim began to fail her.

"There's too many!" she shouted unnecessarily.

Lynch reached the door and slammed his palm onto the scanner. "Come on..." he muttered, watching the blue line crawl up and down. His grip tightened around the pistol in his other hand.

One, two, three. With a low hum the door slid open, and he pushed himself through the opening as fast as he possibly could. The two security guards dashed in right behind him.

Wildcat went straight for the scanner on this side, ripping its front off to reveal a set of maintenance controls and punching in an override. Instantly the door slammed shut, its surface losing all colour as it clamped itself shut.

About two seconds later, a half dozen missiles slammed into the other side of door. The ground shook under their feet, but as the last explosion finished the door appeared to have held.

Lynch and his escorts stood there, staring at the deadlocked door. Lynch was gasping in air in great big gulps, trying to ignore the sudden wave of dizziness that had emerged now that he was standing still. The two guards looked similarly out of breath, though they didn't have their hands on their knees.

"Thank God," Janus said, wiping sweat from his brow.

Wildcat snorted. "We're not out of the minefield yet." She waved her hand behind her. "Better get going."

"Wait," said Lynch, blinking away stars. "Just a moment."

"That door won't buy us much time," she said. "If you want to lose our head start-"

"Just a moment!"

She threw her hands in the air and turned away. "Your funeral."

Lynch clenched his jaw but said nothing.

Janus was talking into his earpiece. "Janus reporting. Primary is alive and well... Her too... Already locked. Do you want us... What?... Pardon? I can't hear... Oh. Affirmative."

He turned back to them. "Bill says to head for the escape shuttles without him."

"Obviously," said Wildcat, fiddling with her gun's battery dock. "As if he'd just let Aran go."

Janus shrugged. "Yeah, well. Better to make sure."

"You want to call Bill before every single decision?"

"No, but..."

"It's called thinking for yourself, Janus. You should try it some time."

He wheeled on her. "Oh, for fuck's-"

Another few missiles slammed loudly into the door, sending everyone staggering a few steps backwards. The overhead lights flickered.

For a few seconds nobody spoke.

"Ready yet?" said Wildcat, glancing pointedly at Lynch.

Lynch forced himself to his feet. "I'm ready."

-/-/-

On P-Deck A, things were not looking good. One of the guards had let himself get into close combat range with the bounty hunter. It was an amateur mistake and it pissed Bill off.

He and the remaining half dozen guards were standing around the hunter, weapons aimed at point blank range.

"Nobody fire," he said, keeping his voice level. A faint red overlay in his visor confirmed that his gun was aimed right between her eyes. Her visor looked to be the weakest point in her armour, and if he landed enough bullets on it, it would crack, no question.

"Wise words," said the bounty hunter. She had the unfortunate guard pinned to the ground and was kneeling on his back with her arm cannon pressed into the back of his skull. The guard looked like he was hyperventilating. "So much as one shot and this man dies."

"What do you want?" said Bill.

"Your employer, Gregory Lynch," she replied, not missing a beat. "There is a bounty on his head."

"No shit," muttered one of the guards.

Bill could sense his team growing restless. It was nothing obvious – a slight change in breathing here, a shifting of weight there – but it was a problem. The last thing he needed right now was for his team to get emotionally involved.

Maintaining a steady grip on his gun, he slowly lifted the third and fourth fingers of his right hand, sending them a clear signal. Stay calm.

Gradually, warily, the other guards relaxed. Better.

His eyes not having moved this whole time, he returned his attention to the hunter. "You're holding one of my men," he said. "Planning on shooting him or negotiating?"

"The door Lynch just left through is deadlocked," said the hunter. "Open it and this man lives."

A life for a life. It was almost a reasonable exchange, damn her. But Bill's employer was far more important than some idiot grunt who couldn't even remember to keep his distance.

"Impossible," he lied. "It can't be opened from this side any more."

"I see," said the hunter after a pause. "That is unfortunate." To accentuate the point, she pressed her arm cannon harder into the guard's head, causing him to gasp in pain.

"Pull that trigger and we cut you to shreds."

The bounty hunter laughed, her voice sounding inhuman through the suit's synthesiser. "If you could kill me that easily you'd have already done so. No, I think there's still room to negotiate."

"What do you want?"

"A ceasefire. Lasting until I am out of this room with a closed door between us. None of you move."

Bill grimaced. His ultimate priority was to keep Lynch alive, but he couldn't afford to act like his men were expendable, not while they were watching. And twenty seconds' head start was such a small concession...

"You're not taking him with you," he said, nodding at the guard-turned-hostage. "I want him released ten metres from the door."

"That would leave me open," the hunter replied. "You can have one metre."

"Seven."

"Three."

"Five."

"Accepted," said the hunter.

In one fluid motion she leapt to her feet, dragging the unfortunate guard up with her. (A few of the others twitched at the sudden movement but held their ground.) She turned her helmet slowly, looking meaningfully from her bargaining chip to Bill to the other guards and back again. Satisfied that her point was made, she took a few steps in a straight line towards the nearest door some forty metres away.

Bill's pulse quickened. The room she was heading for was Maintenance Division. Nothing but aircon controls and cleaning supplies in there. By the time she'd realised her mistake there would be nowhere to go. Gotcha.

Bill was careful not to betray any emotion. "Wait. How do I know you won't kill him anyway?"

The bounty hunter kept walking. "You don't. But y-"

A loud bang shuddered through the room. An energy pellet slammed into the hunter's helmet, leaving a small black burn mark next to the visor.

Bill instantly realised what had happened. One of his guards had gotten trigger happy – the idiot probably thought they were saving their friend.

Before the words 'hold your fire' could reach Bill's lips, the hunter spun around so that she was holding the guard between herself and the others, with her arm cannon resting lightly against his temple. He struggled but her grip was too strong; he tried to say something but was muffled by the hand over his mouth.

"Stop moving," the hunter said. "I can't let you go until you do."

The guard stopped struggling, the panic in his eyes becoming replaced by confusion. Then there was the high-pitched whine of a power beam and his head disappeared.

To absolutely nobody's surprise all hell broke loose. There were one or two cries of 'shit!' from the other guards, the ones sentimental enough to be shocked by cold-blooded executions. Then they came to their senses and opened fire on the hunter, the hunter discarded the headless body (smoke still hissing from its neck) and opened fire on them, and for the next few seconds one couldn't see the shooters for the bullets.

Bill felt a surge of anger at the guard who'd taken the shot. For a brief moment he seriously considered turning his gun and popping the stupid bastard's head off. It would be one less mistake waiting to happen. But that wasn't the job.

"Kill her!" he ordered. That was the job. In this din he'd be lucky to be heard, but his people were already doing that anyway.

The initial dust cloud cleared, revealing the state of the battlefield. Security Division had spread out, assuming a 'crown formation' around the hunter: two concentric circles, the inner ring for containing the target and the outer ring for mowing the cornered opponent down. With less experienced operatives, the risk of crossfire would have prevented such a formation, but Bill hadn't chosen these people for nothing.

Bill raised his own weapon, aiming it at the hunter, and frowned as he got a better look at her. She was sidestepping distractedly, not so much dodging the incoming bullets as ignoring them. She was staring straight up.

He paused with his finger on the trigger, chancing a quick glance at the ceiling. Surely she wasn't trying to blow through the skylight with missiles. It was reinforced with military-grade nanomaterials that prevented exactly that from happening; nothing short of planetfall would break it and any good bounty hunter would know that.

With a high-pitched whine, a pinpoint of light appeared at the tip of the hunter's arm cannon, slowly expanding into a sphere of crackling blue-purple energy that hovered impossibly above her raised arm. Then the sphere went streaking straight up, hitting one of the sodium lamps mounted on the ceiling where it popped in a shower of sparks and glass.

With a low moan, all one hundred and twenty surge-protected lights died. P-Deck A was plunged into darkness.

"Damn it," muttered Bill, quickly flicking his visor over to IR. It took a split second for his eyes to adjust, a split second in which he was thinking: he was thinking it would take three seconds for his guards to get their night vision on, maybe more given how woefully they were performing today. He was thinking whoever the hell had wired this ship had done a piss poor job. He was thinking that whatever had just come out of the hunter's gun looked uncannily like a type of particle beam so unstable, physicists had been struggling for decades to safely use them in warheads let alone arm-mounted cannons.

This last thing was particularly troubling: carefully acquired knowledge of their weapons, tactics and weaknesses was what had given him the edge over equally formidable bounty hunters in the past. If nobody had known that Aran's gun could shoot weakfield activated e-neutrino beams (or whatever the hell 'w/AVE' stood for), there was no telling what other tricks she was hiding.

His eyes adjusted and he immediately spotted her: the sole moving figure in the night vision's green ghostscape, darting between ranks of disoriented guards with a silence that belied the weight of her suit.

Running in her direction, Bill raised his gun and fired a short burst in the hunter's direction. The first bullet clipped her in the back, but she was already spinning out of the way of the rest. No matter. To his supreme satisfaction, she was still heading for the same dead end maintenance room.

The hunter disappeared through the door just as the first of the guards snapped his own night vision goggles into place.

"Where did the bitch go?" he said, apparently oblivious to Bill's running.

"Maintenance," said Bill loudly, waving a hand towards the door in case someone didn't get the point. By this stage nothing would surprise him.

The remaining guards were all quickly behind him as he reached the door. He didn't even bother with the keypad, instead shooting the door dead centre and letting the safety overrides slide it open.

The room was small, suffocating under its own weight, laden with shelves of pungent cleaning fluid and racks of well worn mops. In the corner stood a large metal bank of knobs and keypads that controlled the overhead air filtration network.

The hunter was nowhere to be seen.

Bill stepped warily into the room, sweeping his gun left and right, but there were no hidden spaces, no places where she might be hiding.

"Where are you?" he muttered, glancing back to see his men and women join him in the room. The perplexed look on their faces, doubtless mirroring his own, only added insult to an already disastrous situation.

He looked away, and his gaze snagged upon something strange overhead. A grille was missing from the overhead vents. Things like that didn't just disappear; someone must have removed them, and it easily could have been the hunter. But to what end? The vents were thin streamlined tubes, barely wide enough for a human to squeeze into let alone one in such thick armour.

"Do you think she went up there?" said one of the guards. Her voice was nasally, grating. Bill could have hit her just for talking.

"Don't be ridiculous," he snapped. He raised his voice. "All right. Which of you shitheads fired the first shot?"

Silence. The guilt on all of their faces was palpable – they'd all been on the verge of pulling the trigger. Bill already knew who it was, though; he'd seen the flash in his peripheral vision, traced the bullet's trajectory back to its source, one of his newer recruits, call sign Torvus. The chances of the gung-ho idiot owning up, of course, were approximately nil.

He paused. "Where the hell is Torvus anyway?"

Nobody responded. One or two pairs of eyes dropped to the ground.

Grimacing, Bill strode over to the door and glanced outside, quickly catching sight of the relevant corpse. Great. Wonderful. The least the idiot could have done was survive long enough for Bill to beat him into the ground.

He turned around. The remaining guards were all watching him closely.

"What the hell are you waiting for?" he snapped. "Split up into two. One port, one starboard. Find the hunter before the hunter finds Lynch. Go. Go!"

Wisely – shooting and actually killing someone, regardless who it was, was becoming an attractive prospect – Bill's men and women dispersed without a word, silently organising themselves into teams and slipping out of the room into the darkness.

He remained in the room for a short while, his eyes burning a hole into the opening in the vent, shooting past into the ducts beyond, the corridors beneath them, the entire ship. Wherever she was, she couldn't be far away. He reached for his earpiece.

"Janus. Wildcat. She got away. Watch your backs."

There was a five second pause before any response came.

"Wildcat here. What do you mean, got away? Which way is she heading?" She sounded flustered, out of breath. And the questions. He knew his men, and Wildcat never asked questions.

"I don't know," said Bill.

"Sir. Does she know where we are?"

Bill paused. For a moment he had thought he heard the hunter somewhere in the distance, laughing at him. That wasn't possible. His imagination was getting carried away, that was all.

"I don't know," he said.


(This has been fermenting on my hard drive for a while now. If people like it there may be updates, but otherwise I'm not really that attached to any of these characters. I mean... well, spoiler alert, but life expectancy much? Just consider this an exercise in alternate point-of-view.)