CHAPTER 15 (part 2 of 2)

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"I planned to work, make some money," Maggie said. Maggie reached up to her mantle, pulled off a small silver disk with the emblem of an android on it. Regretfully, she handed it to the man. She would be giving up all her knowledge about androids.

"I—I can't take this," Bavin argued, apparently having an attack of conscience. "It's too much!" The little man grumbled under his breath, looked about the room. "Get out of here. Just get your things and sneak away."

Maggie still had the pack she'd carried in. She went to her bedroom, got her blanket and robes. The soil of the day's travel was still on them, and she was loath to wear the dirty robes, but she slipped into them quickly, wrapped her blanket around her shoulders. When she was ready to leave, she returned to the living room. Bavin was gone. He'd left the front door open for her.

She followed the little footpath through the fog toward the common room, thinking to warn Orick. But as she reached the corner by the pools, she could see the front of the inn.

Three green-skinned vanquishers hunched over her airbike. Two were ogres—typical military grunts—the third was a tracker.

The tracker leaned down, sniffing the airbike, his flat orange eyes tilting about like those on a fish. "This bike was driven by a woman and a bear. They traveled through two worlds in a matter of hours."

"Then we've found her?" one of the soldiers asked.

"Yes," the tracker said. Maggie began fading back into the shadows, looking for a way to escape. She wanted to circle the inn, approach the bike from the other side. Orick was eating in the common room and he needed to be warned, but she dared not go back into the inn. She thought that, instead, perhaps the vanquishers would go into the common room searching for her. If she reached the far side of the inn without being seen, she could hop on the airbike and speed away, creating enough of a diversion so that Orick could also escape.

She ran down the trail and circled to the back of the inn where there were no lighted trails. One moment she was rushing around a building, and the next someone leapt from the shadows, knocking her to the snowy ground.

Maggie screamed, tried to leap up and get some footing. But her captor held her arm, hissed, "Quiet!" then pulled her to her feet with great haste. She stood in the darkness, looking at the thin man she'd seen earlier in the dining room.

"Hurry—they're after us!" he said, pulling her arm. She heard shouts at the front of the inn, and Maggie didn't need coaxing. They ran over frost-crusted snow to a small field at the back of the inn, where dozens of aircars hunkered in the cold night.

Maggie looked back, saw vanquishers rushing toward them past a green footlight. One pulled out an incendiary rifle and fired.

The actinic chemical light shot out in an expanding ball, and the thin man pulled her down to the right. The fireball whooshed overhead, singeing Maggie's face as it passed, then splattered against an aircar.

She and her benefactor weaved between several cars. Maggie spotted one with an open hatch. A guard dressed in black stood at the door, carrying an incendiary rifle.

Maggie glanced at the man, caught her breath. He was a twin to the thin man. She froze at the sight of him, but her companion urged her forward. As she lunged into the back seat of the aircar, the guard leapt away into the shadows.

The thin man started the ignition, began firing the thrusters, and Maggie looked out the window. His twin took cover behind another aircar and fired his incendiary rifle at the vanquishers. The tracker burst into flame, burned like a pillar in the night, his huge spiderlike body twisting in pain. From around the far end of the buildings, three more thin men rushed from the shadows, and two loped around from the front of the inn.

The vanquishers dove for cover behind some planters and began laying down suppressive fire while shouting for help.

The aircar rose, began sliding away into the darkness, and Maggie cried, "Wait! I've left a friend down there!"

"I know!" the thin man said, though he did not slow the aircar. "I was trying to warn him when the vanquishers arrived. They sent for reinforcements, so we had to move fast. We hope that by killing the tracker, it will give your friend a chance to escape."

"We?" Maggie said.

"My doppelgangers," the thin man said.

Maggie had never heard the word doppelganger, so her mantle filled her with understanding. Some people chose to become immortal by cloning themselves and downloading memories into the clones. Among those immortals were people who often kept multiple copies of themselves running at the same time so that they could work toward a common goal. Their leader was called the primary, while the copies were doppelgangers.

The aircar slid smoothly up into the sky, and Maggie looked down. White volleys of gunfire were whipping through the air. The hot springs looked like cloudy green gems from up here, and she watched another vanquisher turn into a living torch, then saw a doppelganger take a hit to the left leg and stagger. He managed one last shot before he toppled; the shot went wide and torched one of Bavin's apartments.

She looked down at the dying man and felt peculiarly detached. Though he was human, he was, after all, only a copy of a man, and therefore not real. But she knew that the man had felt pain and desires like any other person; he had hopes and dreams, and he'd just chosen to give his life for her.

Maggie looked up at the thin man who piloted the aircar. Somehow it was comforting to know that he was the kind of man who would be willing to die for her.

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