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Dirt and rocks exploded under Trish Monagan's heels as she sought to slow her frantic descent down the rocky slope. Each time she leaped she tried to land on the shadowed side of the thorncactus, knowing that the vicious spines would be pointed toward the morning sun. Moving fast like she was, the plants didn't have time to swing their spines in her direction.

Talina was down there with a quetzal, just out of sight over the lip of the drainage. And, damn it, Trish worshipped that woman. She would do anything for Talina.

The moment the beast had leaped down out of sight, Trish had launched herself, calling, "Step! Talina's down!"

"Yeah, I saw. On the way!"

Talina Perez was a living legend. A woman tougher than duraplast tempered with ceramic, a hard-fisted, undaunted, scrapping survivor.

Please, God, tell me she's all right.

What if Trish crested that lip to find Talina halfway down a quetzal's throat? What then?

"Kill the fart-sucking quetzal!" she growled, using her rifle for balance as she skipped sideways and back-heeled down a loose fan of colluvium. She dared to slap the trunk of an aquajade tree to keep upright, then leaped from a crumbling sandstone outcrop. Knees bent to take the impact, she slowed, hopped from boulder to boulder, and, as the ground leveled, charged forward at a run. The tremolo of the invertebrates went silent as she passed. The thorncactus and claw shrubs began keening from broken branches in the wake of her passage. On trembling legs, Trish dashed up to the lip of the drainage, flipped her auburn hair out of the way, and looked over.

For a couple of heartbeats it didn't register. The quetzal lay curled in the narrow confines of the streambed, its hide glowing all the colors of the rainbow. More actually—but the human eye couldn't see the infrared and ultraviolet.

A broken Talina Perez lay tucked inside the quetzal's protective curve, unmoving and cuddled as if she were a precious infant. Blood covered Tal's face and matted in her hair. Her left leg stuck out at an incongruous angle. Worse, the quetzal's wedge-like head lay against Talina's, its blood mingling with hers, the creature's tongue against Talina's lips. The three eyes seemingly had fixed on Talina's.

"Ah, shit," Trish whispered, her heart suddenly leaden in her breast.

"What's up?" Iji asked through her com system.

"It's Talina!" Trish dropped to her knee and raised her rifle, trying to stabilize it as she panted for breath. Through the optic she studied the quetzal's head, wondering if the thing were still alive. As close as its massive head was to Talina's, she didn't dare use an explosive round.

Pressing the magazine blocking lever, she cycled the bolt and ejected the explosive-tipped round. From her belt, she fished out an armor-piercing cartridge. Slipping it into the chamber, she slapped the bolt home before sighting through the optic.

As the dot fixed on the beast's neck just behind the head, Trish shot, saw the creature's head jerk at the impact.

Dead all right.

"Oh, Tal," she muttered as she stood, made her way to a break in the steep gully side, and slid her way down to the streambed.

She approached, rifle up, her finger hovering over the trigger. A person just didn't take chances with quetzals.

Trish could see the quetzal's torn flesh—the broken bone and shattered cerebral tissue. It still took all of her courage to step over the creature's tail, straddle the thick body, and kick the tongue away from Talina's mouth. Only then did she reach down for Talina's torn hand.


No response.
Switching her grip to the woman's wrist, a strong pulse beat there. "She's alive! We need to medevac!"

"We'll have the aircar there in minutes," Stepan replied.

It took all of Trish's strength to pull Talina free of the dead quetzal's coils and ease her over the creature's corpse—especially given Talina's broken leg. Kicking some rocks out of the way, Trish laid her out on the sandy streambed and began checking her vitals. Respiration slow but steady. From her belt pack, Trish took a gauze pad and wiped away as much of the combined blood and gore as she could, then used a quick tie to put pressure on Tal's bleeding head wound.

The sound of rolling rock and cascading sand above made her reach for her rifle. Then Iji appeared on the terrace lip.

"How is she?"

"Unconscious. Took a blow to the head. Broken leg."

"Be right down, Trish."

Iji began working his way down the drainage in search of an easier means of descent.

Trish turned her attention to splinting Talina's leg, finding two rather cumbersome pieces of jadewood and using the last of her quick ties.

She was pulling thorns out of Talina's hand when the woman gasped and blinked her eyes open. For a moment they stared—wide and disoriented. Struggled to focus, and finally fixed. "Trish?"

"Glad to see that you're back with the living. Stepan's called for the aircar. It's picking up the drones. We'll get you out of here."

"But I was..." Talina clamped her eyes shut for a moment. "The quetzal and I..." She swallowed hard.

"What?" Trish propped her elbows on her knees.

Talina shook her head. "Man, that can't be. It's like I was inside its mind. Seeing myself. Weird. Like it admired me."

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

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