Mathis turned his vehicle around with a screech. His pursuer couldn’t stop in time to avoid skidding past him then, in the middle of the street, and Mathis got a quick but good look inside their cockpit. He didn’t recognize the hard-faced woman who spared a quick glance across at him as she worked the breaks to try and repeat his maneuver to keep on his tail. She wasn’t one of the surveillance agents he had shaken in the Raxim bubble. That didn’t tell him much, but had it been one of them, he could have assumed they weren’t on their own turf. With this woman, he didn’t know. He for sure wasn’t on his.
She didn’t pull the same hairpin turn he had, but instead disappeared around a corner to catch up with him at the next intersection. Mathis’s cockpit’s windshield display estimated her position, barreling the wrong way down a one-way street, moving a little faster than he was. He would guess she was watching him the same way.
This street was part of the stretch of roads that directly connected the bubble’s west exit with its east. Always busy, frequently backed up. Half the vehicles on it were modern, built in spaceborne factories or on other exoplanets; the others were relics brought from earth by once-wealthy colonists who hoped the tightly controlled artificial atmosphere would preserve their treasured Fords and Austins. “Once-rich,” because they spent fortunes to emigrate, often escaping troubled lives. As had Mathis. But he had known better than to spend the bulk of his savings bringing something with him to the colony worlds that would just weigh him down and remind him.
Which wasn’t to say he cursed those expatriates as he wove between their fiberglass treasures. But he might later, when there was time to think about it.
He sped up, retracted the wheels and put down the all-terrain running legs. With the turn of that switch, the cockpit fell back by just a few inches as the vehicle’s frame opened up activate the stabilizer that would keep it from being jostled by the uneven hexapedal gait. That setting was for the rocky earth and nature preserves outside of the bubbles, but from Mathis’s experience it got the job done in crowded streets too. It could get him over obstacles – like other cars and pedestrians, if needed – with some amount of speed and ease, while his seat remained almost perfectly stable. He braced the package next to him with one hand anyway.
The red dot in his windshield display that represented the woman’s car reached the intersection where he expected her to try and cut him off. The car leapt out from behind a dilapidated brick building just as the dot disappeared. Mathis crossed directly over her. A series of hollow thunks as the rounded rubber pads on his car’s legs struck her cargo bay. He continued straight, though that would be the direction she was expecting him to go. She was back on his tail in seconds.
Except, on his tail wasn’t accurate. The woman was pulling off to the side and driving parallel, sometimes even getting ahead of him. He was being corralled.
He wasn’t going to let that happen. At the first opportunity, he spun on the pad of one running leg, though the turn jostled the package dangerously, and sped in the opposite direction. A cargo truck slid to a halt across an intersection, but Mathis’s car jumped it easily. He might have bounded directly over the blockade behind it, too, if he hadn’t lost focus upon noticing the faces of the three drivers poised outside their cars with weapons drawn. They were all the same woman, the same as the one he was trying to shake.
His car stuttered and stumbled over the blockade, but Mathis kept it running. Another of the woman pulled up next to him in the same car, and another was directly behind him. Someone fired a tether that caught one of his legs. He got away, but it tore a hunk of metal and wire out from it, disabling it. Reduced to a three-legged gait, Mathis couldn’t keep up his pace, and with a growl he dropped his wheels again to roll on the asphalt. A screen on his dash showed him the view from his rearmost camera, in which a sixth identical woman perched on a rooftop now far behind him, with a tether launcher.
At this point, he thought, he wasn’t being corralled anymore; now it was an escort.
The several cars driven by multiples of Mathis’s pursuer forced him back to the main road, and out of the bubble through the airlock. The roar of rapid pressurization in the antechamber surrounded him for a few seconds, and then he was out under the alien sky. Out here there was no escape: silent purple rocky earth in every direction, nowhere to hide, and one of his legs disabled. The next bubble was over a hundred miles away. He had no choice but to let the ring of multiples bring him off the road and to a stop.
Mathis pulled on his face mask and opened the hatch, package held out between him and any guns that could be aimed his way. Apparently this one wasn’t going to make it to the client; it wasn’t worth a firefight to avoid an inevitability. Two of the woman waited outside their cars, arms folded. She didn’t have a mask on.
“I don’t want trouble,” Mathis said. The cockpit was still suspended over its cradle, and it took him a moment to get to the surface. The just-slightly-heavy atmosphere made him itch. “It’s just a job.”
“It’s my goddamn husband,” the woman said. One of her snatched the package away from him. There didn’t seem to be any guns involved, but Mathis didn’t trust appearances. “He thinks he can destabilize me.”
She opened the case and pressed a thumb to the device inside. For a moment there were many more of the woman. Twenty, thirty, crowding the circle of cars. The device whirred, and they all vanished, except for the one holding it. She spat something thick and gelatinous into the dust and turned her eyes to Mathis.
“Tell him no go,” she said, eyes narrow. “And give the bastard a refund, or he’ll send someone better on principle.”
Mathis threw his hands up in frustration. He watched the woman drive off with her stabilizer, followed autonomously by the rest of the cars.
Someone better, his ass. She’d had an unfair advantage.