I tackled the Emperor to the floor and pinned his arms with my knees. I clenched my hands around his neck and squeezed hard enough to block his airway. I hadn’t warned him because I needed his reaction to be real. It took him a second, but once he realized he couldn’t breathe, he began to fight in earnest.
What are you doing! he shouted at me across the neural link.
Keep fighting and don’t pass out, I warned. I let off just enough for him to grab a desperate breath then retightened my fingers. He writhed under me, trying to buck me off, but what I lacked in mass, I made up for in strength. I kept him pinned.
The door lock clicked open. A guard entered pistol first, but I was already moving. He didn’t expect my speed and his shot went wide.
I swung the heavy shackle still attached to my right arm and smashed it into his temple. As he fell, I grabbed his arm and turned the pistol on the guard behind him. She dropped like a rock, stunned.
Stun bolts meant they were trying to re-capture us instead of kill us, which was a tiny bit of good news.
“Time to move, Emperor!” I yelled. He was still on the ground, gasping like a fish out of water. His legs were shackled and I didn’t have time to pick the locks, so I squatted down and pulled him over my shoulders.
His frame dwarfed mine, but my augments made me far stronger than I looked. Augmented muscles and bones barely flinched at the added weight as I stood with the Emperor draped across my shoulders.
I picked up the second guard’s gun and handed the Emperor the stun pistol. “Do you know how to use this?” I asked.
He nodded shakily.
“Shoot anything that moves,” I said. “Do not hesitate. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t shoot me.”
I caught my ship’s flickering signal and opened a connection. I could carry the Emperor for as long as I needed to, but we didn’t have a lot of escape options. I directed my ship to remain cloaked but to maneuver closer. We’d have to risk a building-to-ship transfer because I very much doubted we’d be able to make the stairs.
I eased us out into the hall. A guard popped out from behind the nearest corner and I shot him on reflex. He went down in a cloud of red. Note to self: this blaster didn’t contain stun bolts.
After two more turns, I knew where we were on the floorpan I’d studied. Our best chance of escape was from the balcony. We’d have to cross half the building to get to it, but it was still better than the three-quarters of the building we’d have to cross to access the stairs.
Making a split-second decision I hoped I wouldn’t regret, I backtracked one turn. The rest of the floor had gone silent, a sure sign that the mercs knew we’d escaped. “Can you eavesdrop on the soldiers’ neural link?” I asked the Emperor.
“Yes or no?” I demanded.
“Yes,” he said, his reluctance clear.
“Do it. Loop me in if you can. If not, let me know what they’re up to.”
It took a few seconds, but Commander Adams’ voice filled my head, directing troops to various points around the floor. He was trying to surround us.
“They can’t hear you,” Kos said, “even if you transmit to me over the link. Your connection is receiving only.”
I opened a door on our left and was met with a wave of blaster fire.
The Queen’s in here! a soldier called across the link.
Don’t harm the Emperor! Commander Adams barked. He ordered two squads to converge on our location and another squad to cover the exits.
Time to move.
A peek around the door provided me with the soldier’s position. I ducked back and blaster fire slammed into the wall across from the doorway. So much for not aiming for the Emperor.
I counted to three, then rounded the door and shot the soldier in the head—he hadn’t moved. He went down with a look of surprise on his face.
I didn’t have time to gloat. I moved across the room and out the door on the far side. The Emperor shot at someone with a muted curse.
The Queen has the Emperor, a soldier reported.
Find them! Commander Adams ordered.
Listening to the soldiers’ neural link, I avoided the squads heading our way and put some distance between us. With the exits blocked, we’d have to fight our way out. I needed the Emperor on his feet.
The next door I tried wouldn’t open. I stepped back and kicked it in. Emperor Kos grunted as I jostled him, but no one inside the room tried to kill us, so I chalked it up as a win.
Given a tiny reprieve, I set the Emperor down and started picking the lock on his right ankle shackle.
“Samara, my brother didn’t send you to kill me, did he?” Emperor Kos asked.
“Of course not,” I said. “But the fact that you believed he did says a lot about your family.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt he would if he thought he could get away with it. But I don’t think you’d take the job.”
The lock snapped open. I looked up and met his eyes. “Don’t paint me better than I am. I would absolutely take the job if he made it worth my while.”
A Quint merc peeked into the room. The next time she appeared, I shot her. The Emperor spun in time to see her slump to the floor. He turned back with wide eyes.
“This is what I do, Emperor Kos, and I’m damn good at it, but I’m not a good person.” I pointed at the shackle still locked around his left leg. “Don’t trip on that.”
He frowned. “I never said you were a good person,” he said quietly. “And my name is Valentin.”
It wasn’t worth the time it would take to argue. “Valentin, don’t trip on that and try to keep up.”
His smile nearly stopped my heart. I blinked at him, then shook myself out of whatever spell he’d cast on me and refocused on the mission. Escape, money, food—these were the only things that mattered.