The scorpipede crawling up Hob’s foot tickled, which seemed odd for something so deadly. The boulder behind Hob warmed his back as he watched the insect’s dark red body undulate, rippling its skirt of silver filaments. The tickling sensation intensified. The scorpipede held its barbed tail high as it reached the peak formed by Hob’s sandal strap across his instep.
Hob debated moving his foot. If he did it abruptly enough, the thing would almost certainly stab him with its venomous tail. Hob’s death would be painful but quick, and Andre would probably never find his body. He would think Hob had escaped him, and that would be a victory of sorts, even if Hob wasn’t alive to see it.
Hob lifted his head to stare out at the flat reddish-gray expanse of desert, broken only by an occasional cluster of white-flowered calla trees and the distant remnants of an old road. Here and there where the pavement was still intact, smooth puddles of water tempted Hob, vanishing when he turned his head. The deceptive shimmer in the air above the road told him the water was only a mirage.
He had been walking for four days, and the mountains were nowhere in sight. He could sit here and die slowly, or jerk his foot and die quickly. Or he could keep walking and hope that he made it.
The scorpipede flowed down Hob’s sandal and onto the sand, still ruffling its filaments in its quest for survival. After several seconds, Hob could no longer distinguish the insect from the red-gray landscape. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. He was a long way from anywhere. Probably he could have made it this far from Agra in a few hours if he’d had a skimmer. As it was, he had nothing but his own two feet—and even his feet weren’t much good with the damned manacle Andre had locked on his ankle after his first escape attempt.
Hob bent his right knee so that his ankle was close and studied the bright blue band. Its smooth seamless surface, a stark contrast to the bruised and scabbed-over skin around it, seemed to mock him. He had given up smashing the thing with a rock once it was clear he would break his ankle before he would break the manacle. He groaned as he stretched his leg out again. There seemed to be no position where he could hold his foot so that the plastic didn’t touch him, and anywhere it did throbbed with dull agony.
Hob tried to lick his cracked lips, but his mouth was too dry. He shut his eyes and thought about water. Cool, clear water. He let out another groan. Thinking about water only made him thirstier. He sighed and squinted at the sun, a bright golden ball still high in the cloudless blue-green Mariposan sky. Time to get moving. He had let the scorpipede go, so he had to keep walking.
He pulled himself to his feet, feeling the full heat of the sun on his shoulders as soon as he moved out of the meager shade of the dead mara tree, the only mara he had seen so far. He limped across the dry stream bed, keeping the road on his right, hearing no noise beyond his own footfalls and the stirring of a faint, hot breeze.
He had just started to replay the text of his favorite adventure story in his mind when an abrupt, distant sound interrupted his thoughts. He glanced around, surprised, and saw nothing. The noise grew, and he realized it was behind him. He turned and saw a small shape growing rapidly larger.
It was a plain gray skimmer, nothing like Andre’s flashy red model or the large traveling vehicles Hob had seen a few times in the last few days. It was headed north, following the old road, moving fast in spite of its small size.
Hob sprinted as fast as he could run to the nearest calla tree. The gray skimmer was less than a hundred meters away when he ducked behind the calla. He pressed against the branchless bole, ignoring the sharp stench of its flowers and the prickles sticking into him, right through his pant legs. His heart raced. Had they seen him? He held his breath as the vehicle flew past at only a meter or two of altitude.
The skimmer looked not only small but battered, with a distinct bend in one of the struts. After it passed him, Hob drew in a deep breath, then let it out with a whoosh of relief.
A second later, the skimmer banked, turned back, and circled toward his calla tree. Hob scrambled to keep the tree between himself and the low-flying vehicle, tearing his pants on the spiny bristles as he maneuvered to stay on the opposite side of the bole. They must have seen him. Why else would they turn?
The skimmer hovered for a second, then set down between Hob’s tree and a cluster of large boulders. After a moment, the pilot’s door opened and someone in a blue shirt got out. Hob pulled back, his heart thumping in his chest. He wouldn’t let himself peek again. No, no! He wouldn’t go back. He couldn’t go back.
It was a woman’s voice. She sounded unsure but hardly fearful.
The muffled thud of footsteps on sand came closer. “Is anyone there?”
Hob held his breath. What could he do? Even if she didn’t try to make him go back to Agra, she would likely tell someone she had seen him. On the other hand, she had a skimmer. If he could get to the skimmer first, he could get out of the desert. He had to get to her vehicle before she did—no matter what it took.
Hob gathered his strength and let his need take over. He lunged from behind the calla tree, straight at the woman. She was closer than he had expected, and she swung a weapon at him. A sharp pain stabbed Hob’s right shoulder as he jumped at her, but his desperation made him keep going. He knocked the pistol out of her hand and grappled her to the ground.
They rolled back and forth. Hob knew some slave quarter tricks, but none of them helped. Her fists punched him; her hands clamped his wrists; her feet kicked his legs. Hob dodged as her knee came up at his groin. Finally, frantic, he managed to get his hands around her throat and started to choke her.
She croaked at him. “Look down!”
Just as he glanced down, he felt the tip of the small knife she had pressed against his heart, saw his own blood drip red onto her blue shirt.
He let go. It was over. He was a slave again. He could feel his eyes trying to tear up, but they were too dry to manage it.
When she pulled away he saw the tribal mark of two crossed swords on the side of her neck. Alone in the fucking desert and the only person to find him was a fucking Han-Lin! Whatever good luck he had had in his escape had evaporated like the morning dew in the calla flowers.
The Han-Lin retrieved her laser pistol and waved it at him. “Get up!”
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