“You.” Jed Christensen didn’t keep the skepticism out of his voice. “You’re Heavy Forces.”
“Me!” Saffron grinned up at the tiger, spinning around on her stool and brushing a lock of stray hair away from her amber eyes.
Christensen glanced at his squad-mates; their smirks were as incredulous as his. Sure, the jackal girl was almost certainly more than she appeared; her sleek forearm and shin bracers, glittering in the bar’s dim purple ambient lighting, had a distinctly cybernetic look to them. And, hell, she wasn’t just at a bar in Port Firecloud, she was at this bar, a bar full of off-duty private police and contract soldiers like them. But not like her. Women soldiers had a common physical type, and that type wasn’t Saffron’s. Tight dark grey halter, matching shorts, black fingerless gloves, fashionably chopped bob haircut. Sure, she looked fit, but she’d barely hit one point seven meters on her tiptoes, and if she massed much past sixty kilos it had to be because of her dare-you-not-to-stare chest. None of them had passed that dare.
“And here I thought you were just here for the end-of-days party, not to cause it.” The other two guffawed. “Okay, Saffron, fine. Tell us how much time we have to enjoy your company before you go off and…what? Pilot a GEV? A bomber?”
“Giant mechanical monster,” Bradley Sutton, the human in the group, said. The other two looked at him, and he shrugged defensively. “Hey, that’s what I hear. Seen some satellite images to back it up, too.”
“Oh, I like that one. Let’s go with giant robot. Giant sexy robot.” She laughed, then looked around the bar’s open, three-story-high interior, at the hoverlights, the floating banners. “You have until I finish this drink. And I didn’t know Firecloud Syndicate’s official response to the ultimatum was to hang up ‘fuck you’ decorations until I got here a few days ago. But aren’t you here just in case this isn’t a joke? I know Vanta does contract work for them.”
Thomas Hampton, a rat who was somehow taller than both of the others and never let them forget it, snorted. “We do, and so do half the other outfits around here.” He waved a hand around.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that.” She looked around again. “Kind of ironic.”
“What ya mean?”
“I mean the Firecloud Syndicate’s paying to have private law enforcement keep the laws from being enforced on them.”
“Law ain’t what’s written down, honey, it’s what you pay for.” Sutton finished his beer. “That’s what this whole ‘ultimatum’ shit is about. Sector Gov’s unhappy they’re not getting their cut.”
“When court rulings don’t go the Syndicate’s way, they bomb the courts. When their own third-party arbiters decide against them, they murder them. They’re using this as a base to conduct terrorist actions.” She shook her head. “Technically, once they stopped paying for the lease on the Port, they lost the right to be here, but that wouldn’t have been enough for me to take this job. I’m not a bill collector.” She took a long sip of her drink. “The problem is that the Syndicate decided to go and make themselves an existential threat. And there’s a lot of pressure at the highest levels now to close this place down by any means necessary.”
“So sector gov’s gonna hire their own terrorist group to take it all out? Come on, stay real.” Hampton grinned. “And I’m gonna be blunt here, Miss Saffron. When I look at you, I feel things, but terror ain’t one of them.”
Christensen and Sutton laughed. Saffron smirked faintly, and knocked back the rest of her drink. “I’m not a terrorist, though. A condition for hiring me is telling the target I’m coming and giving them five standard days to make things right, or if they can’t, evacuate. My targets are never as nice as I am.” She waved the bartender over from the other side of the central bar. “Gotta close out.” It was hard to tell what species the bartender was—some kind of octopus thing, maybe—but they nodded in acknowledgement.
Christensen’s ears lowered. Her blithe refusal to drop the story had started getting rattling. “C’mon. If this was true, why would you tell us any of this? I mean…” He trailed off and spread his hands.
She stood up and stretched, distracting all three of them momentarily. Damn, that was a thousand liters of fuel in a five hundred liter tank. “Maybe I just wanted to keep you talking long enough to confirm a few bits here and there I was only ninety-nine percent sure of.”
His ears splayed.
She grinned. “And maybe I’m giving you a chance to run.”
“And maybe you’re just fucking with us.” Christensen crossed his arms. “If we really thought you were with Heavy Forces, we’d have to take you down.”
“You wouldn’t have to. You always have a choice.” She touched a finger to his nose. “It’s on you to make choices you’re okay with.”
He furrowed his brow, tail flicking.
“Anyway, my drink’s finished, so our time is up.” She flexed her fingers, then started tapping along her right arm bracer. “Also, I didn’t say I was ‘with’ Heavy Forces. I said I was Heavy Forces.”
Before Hampton got out a wise-ass response, all four of her bracers lit up with thin green-neon lines that spread out through her clothes. “Okay, you have…” The words force armor died in his throat. The light-lines weren’t in her clothes, they were in her body, partially obscured by cloth and fur.
Sutton’s eyes widened. “Should we start running now?” He smiled weakly, trying to make it a joke.
“Yes.” Saffron watched her bracer, as if reading a display, rather than looking up. The glow in the lines grew in intensity, colors cycling across the spectrum. Bar patrons stared, some laughing, some nervous, a few police types standing to watch warily.
Christensen and Sutton hurriedly stepped back. Hampton stayed where he was, turning toward them with contemptuous looks.
“Come on,” he snarled. “What do you—”
“Three,” she announced, holding up three fingers. An audible whine came from space around and above the jackal, a sound disquietingly like invisible turbines spinning up.
“—think she’s gonna do, explode?”
“Two.” The lines across her body shifted into pure, almost blinding white. Then her eyes did, too.
Christensen and Sutton started running.
“Morons!” The rat shouted.
An uncontrolled corona discharge blasted through the bar, lights around the entire space exploding simultaneously. A split-second hurricane blew the two soldiers off their feet, sending them sprawling. Abruptly the sound of screams and raining debris drowned out the club music.
Christensen rolled onto his back and gaped. Where their barstools had been—where Thomas had been—was a single, shapely jackal paw in a thick, open-toed sandal that had to be fifteen meters front to back. The matching paw stood a good twenty-five meters away. The floor between her two feet had been scoured, leaving bulldozed lines of splinters, shards and spilled alcohol. Even with most of the three-story-high roof gone now, he couldn’t even see her knees. The lines in her fur had faded to mere flashes, although the bracers still showed energy lines.
Nearly everyone in the bar who hadn’t been swept away or caught under those sandals had been knocked down, but they were starting to scramble to their feet, to make mad dashes for safety or to pull out weapons. The energy bolts lancing through the air only increased the panic. Innocent bystanders were getting cut down, but so far, Saffron hadn’t even reacted. The strikes on her—not just her sandals and bracers, but anywhere on her body—dissipated with the telltale flash and fizzle of force armor.
“This isn’t real,” Sutton gasped. “It’s not possible!”
One foot lifted off the ground, almost to the roof level—
“We need to fucking go,” Christensen screamed, scrambling to his paws and dragging the human with him.
They shoved their way to the exit, trying to ignore the bone-shaking thump when the sandal came back down, bursting out into the open, crisp night air before turning and staring.
An hour earlier, the street had matched the most stereotypical sights of Port Firecloud’s “City District”: a wide, pedestrian-filled concrete avenue running along a metal and glass canyon of multilevel clubs, bars, hotels, restaurants and tax-free shops. Neon signs and animated billboards climbed toward the stars—or at least, toward the hazy gray sky; the industrial towns around the port insured it never reached full daylight, while the light pollution reflected in the haze and occasional rain insured it never reached full midnight. It felt like a city here, but it was almost all for tourists, all a resort and travelers’ oasis set up to compliment the launch facility that took up half the designed area.
Now, though, all that neon and glow played across Saffron’s beautiful, unbelievable form, a hundred meters of jackal woman amidst the soaring skyscrapers, clouds of debris rising around her legs. It seemed like Port Firecloud hadn’t quite started to react to suddenly having a giantess standing near its center. To suddenly being under siege by Heavy Forces.
Then the alarms and sirens started to wail. Red and white strobes fired off on building corners. Partiers started to run, finally realizing this wasn’t just a grand finale to the End of Days Party—or, if it was, it wasn’t one they wanted to be around for. Street-level auto-taxis either came to full stops or sped up, trying to navigate through crowds to get away.
Saffron, though, ignored the mounting chaos. She crouched, looking straight down Orion Avenue, then kicked off into a sprint. The avenue was wide, but she barely fit between the buildings.
Christensen and Sutton weren’t in her direct path. If they had been, they wouldn’t have had time to get out of the way. Her first step felt like another detonation, smashing a section of street—and anything on it—into rubble. And the next, some fifty meters down Orion, followed less than a second later. And the next. By the fifth step, the mini-quakes were lost in the percussive chaos of collateral damage: Catwalks and fragile signage knocked off buildings, debris from crumbled facades when she brushed too close, hovercars spinning out of control from the turbulence of her passing.
In the seconds it took Christensen to get up, he’d almost lost sight of the giantess in the billowing cloud of debris behind her. She was tall enough to still be seen from the waist up, but she was blocks away, almost at the downtown core, in the midst of buildings taller than she was.
The tri-tone alert went off in his earpiece a split-second before Sutton’s did, but the tiger took a couple of seconds longer to put on his HUD glasses, still dumbstruck. The in-glasses displays clicked on as soon as he got the band behind his head; commands were already coming in. “All personnel meet at point Sigma, stat! Repeat, all personnel—”
He looked at the jackal again, thumbing the display controls to zoom in on her and fiddle with the spectral imaging to reduce the smoke. Saffron had come to a stop in front of a sleek tower that had to be one of the tallest at Port Firecloud, at least twice her height. Wasn’t that thing—the Fire Needle—basically empty, just a base with shops and restaurants at the bottom and a tourist observation deck at the top?
“Christ, Sigma’s the park across the street from the Needle, isn’t it?” Sutton stared ahead.
“Yeah, I think so.” Christensen’s HUD—and presumably Sutton’s—had lit up with a suggested route to the Sigma rendezvous point, right along Orion Avenue toward Saffron. The squad often joked about the “smart” display being dumb at the worst possible time, but this was unusually stupid. The force of her run had turned the road into a debris-filled obstacle course; they wouldn’t just be fighting their way through stunned survivors, they’d be climbing over flattened vehicles and broken concrete.
“Ours is not to question why.” Sutton pointed at a side street, then started shoving through the crowd.
Christensen frowned, but ran after his squad-mate. They had to get two streets over for the pedestrian traffic to become merely snarled. It was still chaotic, but the street remained mostly intact, apart from the light dusting of debris and the occasional fallen sign or catwalk.
The observation deck started to collapse, plunging almost straight down, as if brought down by a professional demolitions team. Saffron hadn’t pushed it over. She’d smashed its support legs. The thundering crash brought everything and everyone to a halt for a moment, the giantess completely hidden by the cloud of smoke now.
Christensen swallowed, then picked up his pace.
They hadn’t made it even another half-block when Saffron took off in another run. They felt and heard her motion more than saw it, at least until she got out of the smoke, jogging thunderously toward a high-rise tower just a block away.
Ears skewing, Christensen zoomed the view in, calling up a quick infobox. Steelgate Towers was an exclusive luxury residential hotel, where the Syndicate’s bigwigs lived full-time and their best customers had vacation homes. The only other places you could actually live in Port Firecloud were the tenement row houses on the other side of the launch facility.
The jackal circled to the narrower side of the building. It came up to her chest level—a height made dramatically clear when she started walking forward, using her hands to rip at the building. Her breasts smacked into the tower’s side wall, compressed for a moment—then, inevitably, won the brief battle, the side of the tower crumbling under their weight and force. Saffron winced, but kept walking and ripping. The tower kept falling.
“Need a confirmation, Christensen.” Sutton stared up. “We are looking at a smoking hot hundred-meter high jackal girl over there demolishing Steelgate Towers with her tits.”
“Yes we are,” Christensen said weakly. Technically, she was using her whole body, but still.
A jet-engine buzz from above heralded security drones beelining toward the giantess, four flying in formation until they broke off, bright flashes signaling rocket launches. They’d be enough to take out even lightly armored vehicles, but Saffron only flinched and grimaced at the explosions across—thanks to her force armor, technically just over—her body.
Soldiers from Vanta and at least two other competitors converged on the park at different rendezvous points, ordering remaining civilians out of the way. They hadn’t made it to Sigma before their earpieces beeped another tri-tone alert, the display highlighting a waiting troop carrier GEV other squad-mates were already piling into. Both human and tiger scrambled into the back, grabbing rifles.
The mission commander was a wolf they’d worked with once before. “Where’s Hampton?”
“Gone, ma’am,” Sutton said. The squad looked like it was down a few other men, too. So did ones from other outfits. He wondered how much of that was due to Saffron’s strategic choice of bars tonight.
The wolf only hesitated a moment before nodding. She flashed a signal, and the vehicle started rolling, falling into line behind several others—not just from Vanta. “Job one, buy Syndicate personnel enough time to get to the launch facility via private subway and into the air. Job two, take that thing down by any means necessary. Corporate would like nothing more than getting Heavy Forces out of commission once and for all.”
“Yes, ma’am,” everyone said, mostly simultaneously.
“We were at ground zero,” Christensen blurted. “She was just—just this high.” He held out his hand at about the right height. “Then—then that.” As if on cue, thundering footsteps started outside again, rocking the vehicle. They couldn’t see Saffron’s direction from the back of the truck, but she was clearly on the move again.
The wolf’s sharp look turned on the tiger. “Talk, soldier.”
Christensen’s ears lowered. He quickly sketched out meeting Saffron in the bar, the strange effects when she grew, watching her launch her seemingly random attacks.
“Not random, smart,” a fox piped up. “The Needle wasn’t just for tourists, it was a communications center. We’ve got no satellite links for at least an hour.”
More jet-drones flew overhead, low and close by, and explosions sounded from behind. Then one sounded directly ahead, shaking the vehicle like an earthquake. The GEV slowed down, jerking to the left, back to the right, then dropping to a crawl before coming to a stop.
The wolf scowled, clearly listening to her earpiece, then standing up. “It appears, ladies and gentlemen,” she announced, “we’re stuck in debris. But we’re only a few minutes from our intended destination. Move out!”
They scrambled out, then came to a momentary stop, gawking. The explosions behind and ahead had been Saffron’s run. The debris they were stuck in was where her sandal had hit seconds before, leaving behind a pit filled with broken concrete and twisted metal. The vehicle ahead of theirs in line had been less flattened than erased. Only sheer, dumb luck had saved their GEV from being crushed by the girl they’d been flirting with a half-hour ago. And she was clearly going to reach the Syndicate’s headquarters building before they would.
A block ahead, Orion Avenue met the Government District on the opposite side of the City District: a nicely manicured block of park and green space separating a set of buildings reserved for Firecloud operations, sector government offices, and “embassies” less for other governments than for other Syndicates. The central building stood tall, at least twenty stories, but as Saffron’s run tore through the sweeping artificial lawns, smashing trees and sidewalks and benches, it looked woefully fragile.
Fortunately for Firecloud, the teams coming from rendezvous point Sigma weren’t the only ones deployed. While the heavy fencing and guard stations that separated the park from the government buildings meant nothing to a giantess, the line of soldiers already in front of it would. The thunder of firing PSAMs met the thunder of the jackal’s run. Saffron went down—
—no, she went into a slide, sandals first. The lines of light along her body fired up again, a force armor supercharge, becoming the only visible part of her as clouds of dust plumed along her entire form. The slide didn’t just take her under the path of the missiles, it took her through a line of defenders, those sandals hitting them at eighty or ninety kilometers an hour.
The missiles turned, re-orienting on the giantess. Instead of trying to evade, though, she just rolled into a sitting position, tapping on her bracer in the same motion. Why would she—?
“Oh, shit,” Sutton said aloud as the missiles streaked past Saffron into the headquarters building. A row of explosions blossomed along its front, and the facing collapsed, a waterfall of shattered glass.
The jackal watched, breathing hard but grinning manically. Despite everything, watching her breathe like that remained supremely distracting.
Bursts of conflicting orders, from both Vanta and other teams in the operation, filled Christensen’s earpiece. He made out go to manual, go to manual. As if listening in, Saffron’s immense form was back in motion before a new round of rockets lit up.
New orders flashed across his HUD, another building highlighted as a rendezvous point—a low, utilitarian-looking structure on the other side of the combat zone, close to the HQ but still intact. Other Vanta troops were already on the way there. Groaning, he joined the dash. He’d been in combat situations far more dangerous, but few more futile.
“Is this retreating to a defensible position?” he yelled to Sutton, running after—and then slightly ahead of—the human. “Or just gathering in one place to be easier to stomp?”
“Being out in the open armed with these pea shooters is better?”
Another deafening crash drew their attention back to Saffron. This time at least some of the missiles had hit, knocking her off her feet—through a good chunk of what remained of the HQ building. Great. Had they bought any time for syndicate officials to get to their cruiser? Maybe; they could use the subways, rather than being out here, asking to be stomped.
The commander’s voice came over his earpiece, a terse, barked order: “Go to tango.” A new communications frequency, one they’d have to switch to manually. Shit, what channel was tango again? Eight? He fumbled with the switch on the earpiece, clicking until the HUD showed the right number.
He glanced toward the actual launch facility on the outskirts of the port. A few smaller ships—personal craft—were launching, but no bigger ships, not even anything as big as shuttles to low orbit. Would the Syndicate have traffic control support? Probably not. Would they care? No.
They’d almost reached the target building when Saffron staggered back to her feet, a sandal coming down just ten meters away. Debris fell away from her, leaving a coating of dust. Some fur along one leg and her left side looked singed, but she didn’t look injured.
She looked down, still catching her breath, but clearly seeing them. Christensen’s ears flattened. She could take out all of them with a simple sweep of her paw. He put on a burst of extra speed, trying not to think about it.
But she didn’t. Instead, she turned back to her bracer, tapping on it once more. As another round of missiles fired off, she dove behind what was left of the HQ building, leading them straight into it. Jesus, they were doing most of her work for her.
As he and Sutton reached the new rendezvous point, they waded into a bigger group of soldiers milling just outside. Their commander was there, shouting orders; other commanders, other squads, other corporations, shouted at their troops, too, and the shouts blended into one another. The syndicate was down, but not defeated. Their essential personnel were almost at the cruiser. They’d be taking off any minute. They just needed to keep Heavy Forces occupied long enough to let the good guys get out of range. They were to use every weapon, including their own lives.
Christensen tuned out, studying the building they’d met in front of. Most of the signage had been crudely painted over, windows and doors plastered with CLOSED BY OFFICIAL ORDER tape. He could still make out one or two signs, though, declaring it sector government’s customs agency. The door had stuck partway open. He could smell something bad inside.
After a few more seconds of hesitation, he kicked the door open with his foot. Then he froze, staring dumbly at the office chairs lined up against the blood-painted back wall, at the decaying bodies tied to them, at the ragged bullet holes in each head.
“Wow,” someone said right behind him, and he jumped. But it was only Sutton. “Guess we work for some real sons of bitches, huh?”
Other soldiers, from their squad, from others, glanced inside. Nobody looked any more interested than Sutton sounded.
Ours is not to question why.
When Christensen didn’t say anything, the human clapped his shoulder. “Toraco’s loaning us some PGEVs. Let’s ride.”
The personal ground effect vehicles were basically fast, lightly armored trikes outfitted with missile launchers. Christensen just sat on his, helmet in hand, watching the other soldiers take off toward the giantess. She was tapping on her bracer again, watching the approaching PGEVs. She knew their playbook, and she’d hacked their systems at least once before; he gave even odds she’d shut them down again. Even so, while she still didn’t look seriously injured, she looked haggard, edging toward exhaustion. If they got in a few more missile rounds, they might beat her.
“Christensen,” the commander’s voice snapped over his earpiece. “Move out.”
He took a deep breath, looking between his squad-mates and the giantess. This was what they’d all signed up for, wasn’t it? He’d faced death before. He wouldn’t say he was at peace with it, but he’d come to terms with dying like this.
But dying for this?
Gunning the engine, he turned the PGEV hard to the left, accelerating away from the battle.
“Christensen! Where the hell—”
He ripped the earpiece off.
Where the hell? First, up. He had to get in the air while there was still a launch facility left. The City District was a mess, but he bet the container rail lines along the outskirts were still fine. They’d run straight into the launch facility in just a few minutes. When he crossed the first sets of tracks, he took a hard left, and ran the PGEV up the service access ramp and down the walkway between the elevated rails.
He checked the rearview display, watching another round of missiles hitting the jackal, bringing her down again. The light lines in her fur flickered ominously. “Come on, get up,” he hissed, then grimaced at himself.
She staggered to her feet, still tapping furiously on her bracer. Despite the distance, he could read the frustration and nervousness on her face.
Then the power on his PGEV abruptly cut out, locking the steering. “Shit!” Ears back, the tiger managed to bring it to a stop, twice narrowly missing falling off the service walkway onto the tracks.
Saffron pumped her fist in the air, yelling in triumph, then stomped her feet down exaggeratedly. Bam, bam, bam. He couldn’t see if she actually stepped on anything—or anyone—but the soldiers scrambled away in a panic, at least temporarily with no effective weapons.
Then she broke into a full run toward the launch facility. Following the rail lines.
The tiger’s eyes widened farther than he knew they could. Her legs pounded along either side of the tracks. Nothing was collapsing, at least. If he stayed where he was, he might survive. He hunched down, feeling the approaching thunder. Bam. Bam. BAM—
He looked straight up, up the length of the closest towering leg, up along her shapely torso, up to the bottoms of those building-wrecking breasts. He thought he’d understood how tall a hundred meters was watching her earlier. He hadn’t. Now he understood.
The jackal leaned forward slightly, and he could tell her eyes fixed on him for a full second.
Then his PGEV—and only his—roared back to life. She took off in her incredible run again. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, shaking violently, then pushed the vehicle as fast as it could go along the walkway. Now he could feel rough bumps where the vibrations of her footsteps had loosened plates and bolts and beams; hopefully the thing would hold long enough to keep from sending him on a fifteen-meter tumble to the ground.
After another minute of travel, the rail lines kept going over a high fence, but the service walkway descended to street level. He swerved to follow along the fence toward an entrance. Even though it was all the way on the other side of the field, a kilometer away, the syndicate’s cruiser stood out, a stubby-winged ovoid decked out in Firecloud’s orange and red color scheme. A hundred fifty meters long and a third as wide, it wasn’t the largest ship at the field, but it was the largest one with its VTOL engines firing.
Saffron had already stepped over the fence, stopping at the edge of the field to tap her bracer yet again. Her immense ears lowered, and she started striding toward the ship, taps becoming increasingly furious. Whatever she was trying wasn’t working.
Christensen slowed to a halt just outside the field gate. Several guards stood on duty, but they weren’t watching him. The engines roared, blossoming into blue-white fire, and the giantess pounded into another run.
The cruiser left the ground, slowly picking up speed. Twenty meters. Fifty. A hundred. A hundred fifty—
Saffron leapt for the ship.
Christensen stared, mouth open.
Even with that incredible leap, her arc came just under the cruiser’s nose. As she started to fall back, she swung her arms up desperately, one hand catching the ship’s left front.
The craft pitched forward, front engines suddenly a frenzied whine as it tried to stay stable. She brought her other hand up to grab the other side. Incredibly, the ship managed to hang in the air, even slowly gain altitude, although it sounded like its straining engines might blow it apart before the jackal could.
Saffron clung to the ship, claws digging in enough to send out sprays of shrapnel, clearly trying to keep her body away from the engine exhaust ports. The tiger kept staring up, trying to imagine what the view must be like from the deck of the ship: tilted down sharply, an immense jackal nose pressed against the view shield.
Then that imagined view changed to teeth and tongue. Saffron opened her muzzle wide and bit straight into the craft’s front.
“Fucking hell,” Christensen breathed.
She tugged, twisting her head back and forth, pulling the fuselage apart. The engines sputtered out, and the jackal fell back toward the surface, surrounded by huge, disintegrating pieces of spaceship.
He gunned the engine again, driving through the gate, the guards not even bothering to glance his way.
Just before impact, the mysterious lines through her fur and bracers glowed brilliant white again. She landed, feet together, and dropped to her side in the same motion, rolling as she hit the ground before coming to a rest on the other side. The tiger felt her landing like another earthquake, but he kept the PGEV under enough control to keep driving toward her, quickly closing the distance.
When he shut off the engine, he could hear the labored, wind tunnel sound of her breathing, and dozens of new alarms around the airfield. God only knew how much damage to other ships she’d caused with that last stunt. Or to herself. The lights in her bracers flickered with the random fitfulness of shorting circuits. She’d curled into a fetal position, hands around her face to protect it from falling, flaming debris.
Christensen jogged past limp fingers with claws bigger than his torso, along the length of her arm, toward a face that, given the scale difference, was a few too many clicks into godlike to still be cute. Eyes bigger than his trike tracked him, weakly but alertly. “Private Christensen.” Her voice seemed barely over a whisper, but still probably hit eighty decibels. He could feel his teeth rattle.
He swallowed. “Are…are you all right, Miss Saffron?”
“I’ll be okay. I’ll just have a sore everything for a while.” She winced, then lifted her head, spitting out pieces of metal and blood—as far as he could tell, hers. “Ugh. Spaceships make shitty chew toys.” She propped her massive head up with a groan, and looked down at him speculatively. “So why are you here?”
He looked away. “I had to make a choice I was okay with, ma’am.”
“Hm.” She gave him a small-in-scale smile.
He smiled back, nervously, then ran a hand through his fur. “You’re fucking amazing,” he burst out. “How—how are you violating the square cube law like that?”
“Magnificently, I’d like to think.” She pushed herself back up into a sitting position, wincing again. “I’m gonna have to recharge my systems to get back to normal size, though.” She took a ragged breath and tapped on her bracer once more, this time very slowly.
All the lights he could see in Port Firecloud, the neon signs and the spotlights and the streetlamps, flickered and dimmed.
He looked between the city and her, gaping again.
She flashed him another small-for-a-giantess smile. “So now what, Christensen?”
“Jed. It’s Jed, ma’am.”
“All right. Jed. Then not ‘ma’am,’ just Saffron.” She grinned. “Although you can keep saying ‘Miss Saffron’ if you want. So…?”
He smiled more awkwardly, and shuffled his paws. “I don’t know. Get a ride on a ship. I saved almost all my contract money, so I can coast for a couple years while I figure things out. What about you? I mean, you took out a lot of infrastructure, but can’t the Syndicate rebuild and go after you?”
“They’ll try. They always try. But it’s hard to rebuild without any funds.”
“But they…” He blinked up at her huge, smug smile. “You got their money.”
“As far as I know, every last stupid little ‘secure’ account.” She made huge air quotes around secure with her fingers.
“They’re…but…nobody’s been able to…Jesus Christ, how?”
“Remember,” she deadpanned, “I’m fucking amazing.”
He burst out laughing.
“I don’t get to keep most of it. About half goes to sector gov, about two-thirds of what’s left goes to creditors, and I’ll give what I can of the rest to people the syndicate’s screwed over. Or their next of kin.” She glanced down at her bracer, then tapped it again. All the lines in her fur started glowing again, and the turbine noise wound up once more.
Jed’s ears skewed. “Should I—”
A thunder crack cut off his question. Abruptly a storm gale blew him off his feet, right into the abruptly normal-sized Saffron. She was still sitting down; he found himself sprawled across her lap. He rolled over, dazed, blinking up at her.
“Sorry, should have warned you.” She grinned, tiredly but mischievously. “Although from the way you’re staring, maybe you like looking up at me.”
He felt his ears burning. “It has its appeal, Miss Saffron.” Clearing his throat, he stood up, offering a hand to help her to her feet.
“Thanks.” She rolled her shoulders, then held up a hand in farewell. “Nice meeting you, Jed.”
“Nice, uh, meeting…” He took a deep breath. “Could I see you again sometime?”
She studied him for several seconds, then tilted her head. “Ever been to Diamondback City?”
“Three standard weeks from today, I’ll be at the Sandstone Club, 1800 hours. If you meet me there, we’ll have drinks. Maybe more.”
He blinked rapidly, then gave her a weak grin. “You won’t demolish the bar by outgrowing it, right?”
She gave him a wink. “We’ll find out.”