The Last Job


Aral had to close his eyes a moment, to block out even for a second the sound of the cypher-girl's weepy cries as she crouched over the other girl's bloody body, holding the cheek as though to share the life between them.

So much death today, and where did it get any of them? Brock had been right: this whole job was fucked. Payment and permit or no, Aral didn't want any more part in it.

Except for one.

Donegal still needed to be dealt with.

So, pulling a long and cleansing inhalation, he moved his hand to the cypher-girl's shoulder, muttering, "Come on."

"Aral," Zera murmured at his side, almost scolding.

He dropped his shoulders. The weight of their losses threatened, but he still had a job to do. "I'm sorry," he told the weeping girl, now. "But, there's nothing you can do for her, any more."

A sniffing, hitching breath was the girl's only answer.

The younger boy slipped into her arms then, and he helped her – gently – to rise. "She's gone," he whispered close to her cheek, and, this time, she nodded, clutching loosely to his smaller frame.

Aral frowned. Too much death, too much pointless misery.

No more.

He moved one hand to the girl's arm. "We're going to get you out of here," he told them.

"Think again."

Donegal's voice – rough, grating, like something churning inside of it – made Aral – and Zera and Ein beside him – gasp, as he scrambled to his feet. "Fuck-!"

"That's right," Donegal said, lurching up with a whine of gears. "That's what you are, now. Fucked."

"Get them out of here!" Aral shouted, raising his pistol toward Donegal's face.

"You already tried that," Donegal said, his lips curling up and wide over his teeth.

This time, Aral fired, two quick shots at Donegal's head. One made a sharp spang! noise against the metal plate across one half of his face, just narrowly missing the robotic eye. The other caught him in his fleshy cheek, ripping a blackened hole through the skin, to the shiny bone beneath.

Donegal's head snapped to the side, taking the momentum of the bullet. But he didn't stop.

Faster than Aral thought possible, Donegal fired – one shot for Ein in the chest – then slapped the boy to the side with the knuckles of his glove. And before Aral could even shout, Donegal slammed the muzzle of his gun arm into Aral's shoulder, wrenching it deep just as he grabbed the cypher-girl by the neck.

Aral heard himself scream, and Zera, too, and then Donegal's voice whistling clear through the darkening cloud of pain and panic:

"I'm going to make you watch me tear this girl's head off," Donegal told him. "Then, I'm going to do the same to your wife."

The words couldn't come through his agony, but Aral struggled his pistol arm up, toward Donegal's face again.

The Hunter just grinned. "And then," he growled, his robotic eye gleaming bright, "I'm going to let you bleed out, the way you left me on Naxos."

The muzzle twisted again, shrieking against muscle and bone. And all Aral could see was that fucking lurid eye glowing fierce in his vision as Donegal gave a short, monstrous laugh that Aral feared was the last thing he'd ever hear...when it suddenly stopped. The Hunter's whole maligned body stopped, in fact, and it was the cypher-girl's voice that abruptly sounded sharp and distinct and strong in the room:


Donegal's sneer became a grimace. Or, half of one, as only one side of his face complied: his blue eye darted frantically between its lids, while the pinprick stayed locked. The gun arm had stopped twisting, too, and Aral could see the tendons in Donegal's neck shudder, as some pitiful sound came from his mouth. "Whutevhyooduntuhmee?"

Turning his head, Aral's gaze found the cypher-girl's face.

The weepy sadness was gone, replaced by a strange and beautiful – and terrifying – authority. Her blank eyes were still staring, still blind...and yet, not. Aral noticed of a second that her hand was pressed flat and firm to Donegal's wired arm, just as it had been to that lift control. And some kind of luminous power filled her face, even as her voice quivered with subtle fury:

"Do you even know what a cypher is...mechanical man?"

Aral flashed his focus back to Donegal, who suddenly seemed to understand, too, as he stiffened up like a seizure victim.

"Daaammyooo...!" Donegal rumbled at her.

The girl spoke again, this time to Aral. "He's yours, Captain," she said, her timbre clipped, efficient, despite the metal hand wrapped around her neck. She sounded like a Hound. "Don't miss."

The gun barrel was still deep in his shoulder, but, now, the pain cleared Aral's head rather than muddled it. She was right; this was the only way it could end.

Straightening his own gun arm, he pressed the hole of the barrel nearly against Donegal's darting blue eye.

"Aaairruuhl...!" the Hunter wheezed.

Aral felt himself snarl. "Fuck off, Donegal," he said, and gave a quick squeeze of the trigger.

The explosion of the round was dull, anticlimactic, but the splutch! of gore out the back of Donegal's head had an almost calming sense of finality, that made Aral breathe easy again, for the first time in what felt like days.