A grim city in a grim world where people are stratified by how much they have and corporate law is a thing unto itself: Here, Sabra works as a gladiator, a mixed-martial artist in bouts that have roots in blood sports from knife fighting to wrestling, playing to the crowds and trying to stay on top of the field. And she wins, even if her opponents fight dirty.
When the manager of the arena sees a chance to get some creds, Sabra is forced into another line of work as a bodyguard for a corporate head who's gearing up for battle. A rival corp has been interfering with their exclusive deal to distribute a particular drug, and now there are grounds for corporate war.
Then Sabra discovers her brother, whom she hasn't spoken to in years, is working for the other side. The conflict between the corps heats up, chaos erupts on the streets, and Sabra finds herself targeted in attacks on the streets and at home. Fed up with being a fish out of water, her entire focus becomes getting the job done, seeing the war ended, and returning to her old life where she knows the rules and the consequences of losing aren't fatal.
I think E. M. Hartshorn's submission was the first one I selected for this year's bundle. I enjoy a good sci-fi story where the nature of society is such that morality is at best vague and at worst a liability. Bodyguard of Lies is as gritty as it is futuristic, and ties its characters in complex and agonizing knots before the end. I was particularly fond of the descriptions of the world itself, a place where the population is divided into color-coded levels that more or less determine the quality of air and water, the nature of employment, and pretty much whether or not a person is allowed to be happy or successful. – Joseph R. Lallo
Mick pushed past her, and Trace leered over his shoulder at Sabra. Yeah, she'd gotten what she wanted, the bitch. Sabra should have pushed her face in. Maybe she'd get another chance later.
"I'll find something," Mick said.
Sabra went out to the lounge. She still hadn't drunk her coffee, but she didn't need it now. Just the thought of drinking filled her mouth with the taste of bile. The mercs ignored her, though Owen—or was it Ian?—winked at her. They were wearing the same face again, and she couldn't be bothered to sort out the body language.
She slumped against the far wall, away from everybody. She almost wished someone would make an attempt on Leo; then she'd have something to do that didn't involve getting into a ring with Mick.
No such luck. Mick walked into the lounge a few minutes later, without Trace. Probably tucked her back into bed, the bitch. He crossed the room to stand over her.
He shook his head. "We're going to use one of the old training facilities, down in Green."
"There's no gladiator facilities in Green."
"I didn't say it was for gladiator training." He walked away. "You coming or what?"
She followed him. What else was she going to do? Leo had better not get into any danger while she was off doing this. Right now, she was trying to think about Mick, about the way he moved, his temperament, how he would fight. Not how his lips had felt on hers, not how much she wanted to stop the elevator and take him right there, vids or no.
He wasn't looking at her. He faced straight ahead, his face impassive, just a fighter going off to fight someone beneath his notice. Like he didn't even care she was there. Far cry from the day before. Well, this would be the last time she tried to hook up with someone so regimented.
The lift doors opened into a corridor lined with weapons. Guns, ammunition, knives, swords—it was all there. She'd love to spend some time ogling the inventory, but not now. Sabra followed Mick down the dark hallway, trying not to be intimidated by the evidence of fighting prowess around her.
The hall ended in a T-junction, and Mick turned to the left. This hall was shorter, and only had one door at the end. Mick opened it and motioned her through.
She craned her neck to see the lights above. This room might not be quite as large as the arena, but it would do as a substitute. No ropes, just open ground, plus the metal rafters and piping above.
"Arena rules, or what?" she asked.
His answer was a hook across her jaw with his left fist. She backed up. Okay, so that was the way he was going to play it. Or no, play had nothing to do with it, did it?
She kicked toward his leg, but he wasn't there. He danced away and back in, using his longer reach to jab at her again. Sabra ducked under the blow and came up inside his guard to punch at his gut.
This wasn't like fighting Lip or Grunt. She didn't know his moves, and she was confused emotionally. She had to focus on the fight.
"What's the matter?" he asked as he backed even farther away. "Don't know what to do without your precious choreography? Need to be told exactly what to do?"
Right. If she wanted to be told what to do, he wouldn't have a problem with her, would he? Because then she'd have listened to him, not jumped out of the ship on its fly-by and taken out Gareth on her own. Sabra circled the room, edging clockwise, not to get behind him, but to get under one of the rafters she'd noticed.
"Nothing to say?" Mick matched her circle with one of his own, maintaining the distance between them. "Guess you hate admitting the truth."
Did he really think he could bait her into charging him? Not going to happen. He'd know that if he ever saw her—
Sabra halted. He had seen her fight, at the very least the day she beat Lip senseless. So the patter, the circling, was meant to cover something else. She darted a glance to either side; no other openings for people to come in, so he wasn't expecting reinforcements.
Maybe she should do something unexpected. She stepped back and dropped her hands to her sides. He cocked his head, uncertain, and she ran at him. She jumped into the air, and he spun to the side, arm whistling to connect with her arc. It slammed into her breastbone, and she tumbled backward.
She kicked at him, but missed as he darted forward to grab her once again. His fingers pushed into her side, tearing open the cut once more. She slammed her fists down on the sides of his neck. He dropped her, and she sprinted away.
A klaxon sounded overhead, and she looked up. The other mercs had followed, and now they hung in the rafters and beams, watching avidly. She couldn't let that distract her. A metallic clunk and puff of smoke brought her attention back to Mick.
A smoke grenade lay in the center of the room. She ran to kick it to one side. Mick shoved her away, and she hesitated. The push wasn't the type of powerful attack he'd been using. A moment later, the rattle of bullets clattered through the spot above the grenade.
She glanced up again, saw the mercs dropping from the overhead beams, and dropped into a crouch. Mick darted next to her, and she pivoted, fist out.
He caught her fist and pulled her in next to him. "That alarm means intruders."
"So someone dropped the grenade?"
He looked like he wanted to hit her again. "It's not one of ours."
It couldn't have taken her long to process his remark. She felt like she stared at him forever as it sunk in, but mercs were still hitting the ground when she pivoted and darted toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Mick shouted at her.
"Leo's office—I'm doing my job."
She didn't hear whether he said anything after that; five of Cole's mercs blocked the door in front of her. She recognized the slimy smirk of the one in the lead. Without slowing down, she dropped to the floor and let her feet slam into his ankles.
He toppled, and she rolled out of the way. The other mercs moved to fill the gap. She rolled backward, hoping they wouldn't use guns so close to one of their own who was down. The fallen one was back up by the time she was.
She feinted at his knee with another kick but swept her foot into the two men behind him. The second one had the presence to grab it; she flipped over her leg, dropping the lead man again and shoving the other two mercs into the wall.
The fallen man grabbed at her leg. She stomped on his hand. This was taking too long. She pushed off from his hand into the mercs clustered at the doorway. She didn't have much momentum, but they were already off-balance. They all fell into a tangled heap. Sabra yanked her foot free from the one merc, kicking his face in the process, and vaulted past into the corridor.
Three more of Cole's mercs stood between her and the lift. They were arming themselves from Leo's supplies. That would never do. She'd have to talk to Mick about better security for the weapons.
Right, if they were still talking. Today hadn't exactly been a good day for that.
Enough stalling. Sabra grabbed one of the swords from a nearby shelf. It was totally impractical, much heavier than any of the edged weapons she had worked with, and virtually useless against a projectile weapon. She hoped the sight of a crazy woman swinging a sword at them would give the mercs pause.
The closest one hadn't noticed her yet; her running didn't break through the sounds of battle in the main room. She jumped and clobbered the back of his neck with the hilt. He slumped to the ground.
The second was turning, his gun lifting toward her. She jumped to the side, away from his pattern of fire, and continued toward him without slowing. The sword hilt gave heft to her uppercut. The merc was stunned but not out; she twisted his gun from his hand. He grabbed her arm, and she flinched. Damn Gareth's knife. She pulled back her other hand and smashed it into his nose. He went down.
The third merc stared at her from in front of the lift, a gun in either hand. There was no way around this one, and her bodysuit wouldn't stop anything more serious than a small knife. A shot rang out behind her, close, and the merc fell. Sparks arced from the electrodes in his chest. He'd be out for a while. His suit might even have amplified the stun charge.
She twisted to see Mick behind her.
"Couldn't let you go by yourself," he said.
She nodded and darted to the elevator. The controls had been jammed, and it would take too long to reroute them herself. She grabbed the nearest vid.
Leo answered. "I'm fine. My office is sealed off, and they don't seem to have the tech to get in here. Security feeds says they're only down there."
"Well, then," Sabra said to Mick, "shall we?"
He grabbed another stunner and nodded toward the sword. "You going to use that again?"
"Not this time." Her eyes scanned the shelves. No tear gas, nothing to disable large numbers of opponents. They'd have to do it the hard way. She settled for a pair of knives; she knew how to disable people with a knife in her hand. She pushed away thoughts of Gareth slicing into her with a similar knife.
But that was why the mercs were here, wasn't it? Not Gareth, no, but because their corporate wanted the same thing it had before—Leo's business, Leo's drugs, Leo's creds. Time to take them out.
Sabra and Mick moved quickly to the open door and crouched to either side of it, taking in the commotion inside. It was hard to see who was winning. The smoke had cleared, but bodies littered the floor. The blue of Cole's mercs smattered here and there around the room against the green of Mick's, some on the ground, some upright.
Sabra took a deep breath and counted. Yes, more of Mick's were up—they'd had the high ground. If you shot at someone who was dropping at you, they still knocked you down. Only half a dozen left to take out. Owen and Jimmy double-teamed a petite redhead. Five, then.
She wasn't used to melee combat. One-on-one, fine. Two-on-two, occasionally. This free-for-all was something else. She signaled to Mick that she'd follow his lead.
He went around the corner of the door, staying flat to the wall. When he'd traveled about a yard, she moved behind him. The nearest Balark merc stood over Ian, pistol pointed at his chest. Mick rushed him, and the merc swung the pistol at Mick.
Ian cut the merc's legs from under him just as Sabra slammed into him from the side. The bone's snap was audible, but Sabra didn't look to see if it broke the skin. There were other targets to take down.
The next merc whirled toward them. Sabra flicked her knives across the inside of the merc's arms, aiming for tendons. Mick and Ian to either side surged around her to take out the merc behind this one. She pulled back and watched the merc fall. Who was next?
There didn't seem to be a next. The Balark mercs were finished. Sabra stared at the merc in front of her—a woman, about the same size as Charly. She was still alive, but Sabra had hit her veins, too. The merc would bleed out before long if a med team didn't get to her.
She tried to turn toward Mick, but only saw the metal beams and girders that criss-crossed above, and even they were fading. Not the best time to black out, but at least it wasn't the middle of the fight.