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Hunter & Swan (complete)

Hunter & Swan

“Right here in the middle of this place
I am becoming Mirage.
Let them not see me,
For I am of the sun.”

                                - Apache Incantation

Benito Redmoon recited the ancient incantation beneath his breath, wishing that he could disappear, become invisible, a mirage to the two thugs that flanked him in the shuttle craft as it punched its way through a turbulent down draft. He had promised himself that he would never again visit Nemo, and more importantly, the Barone family complex. But here he was, abandoning his dignity and pride, sitting between two goons he’d rather kill than look at. They were taking him to see Angus Barone, the master of the house. The old man had a job, and despite his better judgment, Redmoon understood one immutable truth, a truth that his old friend and mentor, Mirage, had taught him years ago: A bounty hunter that doesn’t work, doesn’t exist.

“You will have to relinquish control of your weapons when we touch down,” one of the guards said, his face hidden beneath the dark visor of his helmet. “Mister Barone’s orders.”

“Has he grown paranoid in his old age?” Redmoon asked, chuckling, though he didn’t expect an answer. He didn’t get one. He liked giving up his weapons about as much as he liked leaving his Freelancer, the Ahagahe, in orbit, under heavy guard. But those were the rules when visiting Barone Enterprises. He’d put up with it for now, at least long enough to hear what the old man had to say.

More after the jump...

The shuttle cleared the turbulence and flew smoothly into a shuttle bay on the western edge of the complex. When the craft touched down, the guards got up and helped Redmoon to his feet. He pushed them away and stood under his own power.

“Your weapons, sir?”

Redmoon paused, sighed, then unbuckled his belt, handed over his laser pistol and holster, dug a slug thrower out of his hard black-leather boot, then pulled three small blades from his waist. He handed them all over. The man accepted them, placed them in a plastic bag, and set it on the chair where Redmoon had been sitting. “You will get them back upon your departure. Follow me, please.”

He followed them through a maze of white, sanitized hallways and into a plush, circular room, lights dim, a low strain of music twirling in the air. Near the bar sat a man, short, squat, heavyset but not overly plump. White hair. He was in decent shape for his age. Redmoon recognized him immediately. He frowned. “I resent the rough treatment, Angus. I’m not a criminal. I’m a bounty hunter, or have you forgotten?”

Angus Barone chuckled, climbed off the barstool and walked across the room. He waved the guards off. They left without speaking.

He offered his hand, and Redmoon took it reluctantly. “I’ve not brought you here to fight about our past relationship. I’m here to offer you a job . . . a very important one.” Barone turned and walked back to the bar. “Come and sit, old friend, and let me get you a drink.”

Redmoon ignored the “old friend” remark and followed the little man to the bar. He shook his head. “I don’t drink.”

Barone chuckled again, grabbed a crystal-clear bottle of bourbon, and poured generously. He gulped it. “Oh, yes, I remember. Mirage taught you many bad habits.”

“Sobriety is a good habit, Angus. You should learn it. Mirage taught me truths too, like . . . beware oil barons bearing gifts and promises.”

Barone laughed out loud at that, a deep, phlegmy laugh that made the bounty hunter wince. “I assure you, Benito, that this is no gift. You will have to earn this job . . . every credit of it.”

“I earned every credit for the last job, if you recall, but you didn’t complete payment.”

Barone nodded, looked genuinely sorrowful. “I apologize. Extenuating circumstances. But this time, I promise to make good. Full payment for past services has been factored into this new contract.”

Redmoon paused, then said, “Okay, say your piece. What do you want?”

Barone paused, and his face grew stern, serious. He then tapped a square plate behind the bar. On the far wall a vid screen appeared and revealed the face of a young girl, black hair, blue eyes, petite, with a soft white face, pale lips, thin nose. She wore a worker’s dress, a brown and white shift. Pretty, but plain. “Do you recognize this girl?” he asked.

Redmoon shook his head.

“Her name is Kimmy Swanson, and she used to work for my son Garryn, about five years ago. Kitchen help, wait staff, maid service, things like that.”

He paused, tapped the plate again, reduced the girl’s image to one side of the screen, and then brought up the face of another girl. The two faces sat side by side. The second one was definitely older, with short but well-kept dirty blonde hair, her white skin tanned as if she had been on a beach on Ellis. Radiant green eyes, professional makeup, dark eye-liner, mascara, clearly posed for the camera. Redmoon squinted to pick out the details, and at first, he didn’t recognize her. Then he did.

“You know who that is, don’t you?” Barone asked.

Redmoon nodded. “Yes, that’s Cassidy Hurston, of the Hurston family.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Barone, “also known as ‘The Swan’ by her millions of adoring fans. She’s the hottest pop commodity on the scene today, billions of vids sold. A musical phenom. What do they say about her? . . . ‘Her voice makes the heavens cry.’ Yes, she’s a marvel. But she is also Kimmy Swanson . . . and she is also a murderer.”

The accusation at first did not register with Redmoon. He stared at the faces, very different from one another, even their shapes unique. He shook his head, letting Barone’s indictment of the girl set in. “What did you say?”

“She’s a killer, Benito, and mentally unstable. She murdered Garryn in cold blood, a knife right through the throat. He bled out.” Barone sniffed as if he were forcing back tears. “I . . . didn’t witness the event, thankfully. Garryn was a happy, boisterous, generous boy. Very affectionate. He had gone to the kitchens that day to wish the ladies well. Eyewitnesses said he was just trying to give her a hug. She snapped and killed him. My son. The heir to my family name and holdings . . . stabbed through the throat.”

Redmoon stared at the girls. “They look nothing alike. Their faces are even structured differently.”

“Reconstructive surgery, pigmentation changes, professional makeovers. The Hurstons have put a lot of money behind this deceit, but a simple DNA scan in comparison to Swan’s DNA will prove me right.”

Redmoon shook his head. “Why would the Hurstons plant one of their family members on your staff?”

Barone cleared his throat, as if he were growing impatient. “She’s not Hurston by blood, dammit! She was Kimmy Swanson long before the Hurstons claimed her. A street urchin, a runaway, probably a whore as well. But I don’t care what she was before she came to us, nor do I care what she is now. For the moment that it mattered, she was a killer.”

Redmoon turned away from the pictures and rubbed his chin. “I don’t know of any sanctioned bounties on a Kimmy Swanson, Angus, and I keep up with Guild announcements on such matters.”

“The Hurston family’s power is vast. They have kept the matter out of the courts and away from the attention of the media. They are too well-connected, too influential to allow such a thing to happen to one of their family members, so as far as the public is concerned, she is one of theirs and that’s the end of it. They have altered her appearance and presented her to the world as some musical messiah. But they didn’t fool me. Not everyone in Hurston’s employ is silent. Money talks. I found her, and I want her brought back here to Nemo and handed over to local law enforcement alive. I want you to get her for me.”

“Sorry, Angus. I’m a legitimate bounty hunter, not a kidnapper.”

Barone quickly punched buttons. The girls disappeared and were replaced by a document, with Kimmy Swanson’s face in the upper right corner. Redmoon zoomed in on the first paragraph, read it carefully. It was legitimate. He sighed. “A pending bounty, eh?”

Barone nodded. “I’ve been looking for Kimmy Swanson for a long time, Redmoon. This bounty has been in circulation for as long as my son has been dead. Yet despite my family’s wealth and prestige, I could never get it authorized. I finally found out that Hurston has been quashing it. I do not have the standing or influence to go up against Hurston in a public challenge. The Advocacy is on their side. Any public move on my part, and the girl would slip through my hands and be gone forever. No, I have to seek justice for my son this way. It’s the only way, and I need your help.”

What would Mirage do? Redmoon considered. It was a question that challenged his thoughts often. The infamous bounty hunter was dead going on three years now, and Redmoon had tried to maintain his teachings, his philosophies about life and about the business. Pending bounties were to be avoided, Mirage always said, for they were illegitimate as far as he was concerned. The only true bounty, he would argue, was one sanctioned publically by the Guild and supported by the Advocacy.

But was that true? Could justice flow only from a publically recognized sanction? Redmoon had experienced sanctioned “justice” first-hand from the UEE military. The universe was a big place, and there was no way the authorities could be everywhere all the time. So where did the common man get his justice when the system refused to recognize his legitimate claim? Where could a guy like Barone seek justice for a murdered son?

Redmoon paused and looked into Angus Barone’s deep, dark eyes. He saw no malice or deception there. Barone had lost his son, and he was hurt and angry about it. And the bounty that he had just shown him on Kimmy Swanson was real; Redmoon had seen enough of them to know the difference. Still . . .

“Not a job for me, Angus. There’s no way anyone can get close enough to the Swan to snatch her. Multiple layers of security, plus the spotlight on her all the time. It’s a suicide mission.”

“Normally, I would agree with you,” said Barone, “but not this time. She’ll be participating in a benefits concert on Terra, one that just happens to be heavily financed and patronized by yours truly. Security will be tight, but there will also be a lot of chaos in the mix. A small but carefully planned tactical strike can get in and out quickly. The job can be done and there’s no better time than now.”

Clients! They don’t understand anything. They think their money rules the hour. “No, Angus. I’m sorry, but you can find someone else.”

Redmoon turned to leave.

“Two million!”

Barone’s offer stopped the bounty hunter cold. “Come again?”

“Two million,” Barone repeated. “A quarter now, and the rest when you return with her alive.”

Redmoon stared Barone down. “Why me?”

Barone gave a look as if he considered the question a surprise. “Why not you? You have fallen on tough times. Your recent failed job in the Goss System is well known. I keep up with news too. You are the hand-picked successor to Mirage, and everyone knows it. That is no small honor. But you are also quite different than your mentor. You’re not as squeaky clean, and you’re willing to take risks. You live under Mirage’s shadow, and yet you wish to become your own man. I know your past, I know it well. I know of your unsavory experiences with the Marines. I know your dealings with pirates. And now here you stand, a bounty hunter, of limited reputation but with an insatiable desire to prove yourself, to break clean from your troubled youth. I know the kind of person you are, Benito. I know desire and drive when I see it. Here is an opportunity to crawl out from under Mirage’s coat tails. Here is a way for you to become the hunter you want to be. Are you smart enough to accept?”

Barone’s number rolled over and over in Redmoon’s mind. Two million! All of his previous jobs combined hadn’t come close to that number. It would more than erase his debt, giving him the freedom to be more selective in the future on what jobs to accept and which to refuse. Plus, the added financial security would allow him, even in lean times, to pursue those loftier, spiritual matters that he found comforting and fulfilling in his mentor’s tutelage. And . . . I am not Mirage, nor will I ever be. He could not make it as a hunter by always trying to emulate someone else. Barone was right: He had to assert his own skills, acquire his own reputation. Such a job, if successful, would solidify that reputation forever.

“Two point five,” Redmoon said, slamming his hand down on the bar. “And I want full tactical control of the situation. You secure me safe passage to Terra, and then step out of the way. I’ll do the rest. For two point five guaranteed, I’ll get you your damned pop singer.”

* * *

The Swan was good, Redmoon realized. She stood in the middle of a catwalk that jutted out into the excited masses, her long white and azure gown – with frilled tail and shiny crenulations – lying around her slender body like snow. She did not hold a microphone; her transmission devise was not visible, though clearly she had one. The hidden mike picked up her crisp, powerful alto and piped it through the auditorium. She sang with full-throated fervor, belting out phrases to the tune that Redmoon recognized as the one that Barone had been playing in the background at his home.

Let me dive into Olympus Pool,
let me love a Neutron star,
let me know what it’s like to taste the solar winds,
and let my light shine for a billion years!

It was a powerful, stirring anthem that Redmoon appreciated all the more because he had visited Olympus Pool during his time as a pirate. He found himself closing his eyes and mouthing the words as she sang them. He was slowly, slowly being lulled into a fine sense of euphoria, very much like the meditation that his mentor Mirage had taught him to perform before missions; meditation unburdened the soul and unfettered the mind. He started dreaming of those early days, but was quickly brought back to reality by a shrill voice in his ear.

“She’s awesome, isn’t she?”

It was one of the two crewmen that he had brought to the concert. Redmoon nodded, pretending to care. “Awesome!”

But her talent didn’t really matter, he realized. No matter how good she was, how powerful her words were, soon he would meet her. And soon, they would be gone.

Barone had secured safe passage to Terra. Redmoon had done all the rest, pulling strings, calling in favors, greasing palms, able to grease them handsomely with the advance he had been given. He was amazed at how easy it was to secure favors with so much credit at his disposal. He made calls, he made promises, he transferred money, and here he was, waiting and watching. It was all part of the plan. He just had to focus on the moment at hand and play the part.

She sang a couple more songs, one in which two orphans from Elysium found love among the bitter cold of deep space. He liked the song, considered it her finest vocal piece of the night. And then she disappeared in a puff of white smoke. For a moment, Redmoon panicked, worried that her departure schedule had somehow been changed at the last minute without his knowledge. But then she emerged again from a trap door in the stage, her dress gone and replaced by a form-fitting body suit of black and violet. The crowd roared, clearly knowing what she was about to do. Redmoon had no clue.

He stood there and watched as a large chandelier moved across the vast open space of the auditorium on a suspended track, dangling down from sturdy cable. The chandelier was lit brightly like earthshine, almost too much to bear, as Redmoon put up his hand to shield his eyes from the glare. Then it dimmed somewhat as it found its mark and stopped, hovering almost 100 feet above the auditorium. The crowd pulsed with each beat of the Swan’s stage band, their arms raised up into the air, as if worshipping divinity. Perhaps they were, Redmoon thought. The goddess on the stage, her motions matching her fans’, jumped and writhed with each beat.

Then she began to sing again. Not words this time, but just pulses, notes, at first in the lower registers, bass, baritone, and then slowly rising with each octave until it seemed as if she were screaming, like a banshee, wailing her pain to the audience, and they in kind returning the feeling with chants and motion and intensity. The people near Redmoon were no different, but he stood his ground, unmoving, waiting and watching, fixed to the rhythm of the room.

Then the Swan raised her arms and white and gold feathers cascaded down from them. She held them up above her head, and the feathers reached all the way to her fingertips. For a second, it didn’t look as if she had arms anymore. She was a bird, a Swan, as if sunning itself in the light of the chandelier. And then she hit a note that Redmoon had never heard before, never knew that Human vocal cords could reach. The Swan opened her mouth and pierced the dull roar of the crowd.

The chandelier exploded into a thousand peppered lights of blue and green and red and gold. Like fireworks, the individual pieces of the chandelier erupted upward, spinning like crazed hornets. The Swan held the note and down, down, each shard of crystal began to fall. And then, just above the crowd, the pieces exploded again, this time into a fine dust, luminescent and thin, like star stuff. And the people below raised their hands and accepted the harmless dust as if it were rain.

Redmoon could not help but raise his own hands and catch some of the golden dust, letting it cover his left palm and flow down his wrist. His hand sparkled, but he quickly wiped the dust away, then rifled in his coat pocket and produced a stylus and notepad.

“Let’s move,” he said, and the crewmen with him nodded and followed him to the edge of the stage where the Swan was scheduled to depart. He would be there to meet her.

It was all planned.

* * *

Cassidy Swan greeted the red-haired journalist the same way she had greeted a thousand like him before, with a quick smile and a limp handshake. Perhaps this one was in better shape than previous ones she had met, perhaps even a little taller, but in most other ways, he was typical: A small set of glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, a stylus and a notepad in the hand, a sly little smile and a glaring spark in the eye. He was old school. She liked that in a way; less pretension.

But it also meant that he would probably ask her the same tired old questions that every other middle-aged reporter had asked: How do you sing so well? When did you discover your talent? How difficult is it to live in the spotlight? She had no desire to answer these stale questions once again. All she wanted was to retreat into her dressing room, find a drink, and rest her voice. But it had been planned by her label as promotion for the upcoming release of her latest vid and concert tour. They had insisted upon it.

“It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Swan,” the red-headed reporter began, accepting her hand and squeezing it gently. His hand was warm. “My name is Marcus Reincroft, and this is my camera crew from At Large Media. We’re here to interview you, and —”

“Yes, I’m aware,” she said, nodding and politely parting the camera crew and walking down the backstage hall, her personal security and various sycophants in close pursuit. “I’ve been informed of your request. Come . . . let’s talk in my dressing room where it’s more private. Will this be going out live?”

Reincroft nodded, trying to keep up. “With a 30-second delay. Is that acceptable?”

Swan nodded. “Whatever my label wants is fine with me.”

And she meant it. They had been very good to her over the past three years. It was the least she could do to allow the media some special exposure. In fact, it was the least she could do for anyone. Who could have imagined how her life would have turned out just five years ago? She shuddered at the thought of it, but was grateful for everything that she had, and she intended to pay it forward as often as possible. She was hot, sweaty and tired. She was in no mood for conversation. But so be it. Fame had its price.

She stopped her security at the door. “I don’t think you’ll need to come in, Clyde,” she said, giving the burly man a soft tap on the shoulder. “It’s small and hot as shit in that room anyway. Just wait out here. I don’t think we have anything to worry about from these guys.”

Clyde relented but insisted on frisking them before they entered. Reincroft and his crew agreed, allowed themselves to be checked, then followed Swan into the room. When they were in, she turned, shut the door and locked it. “Give me a second, guys, if you don’t mind. I need to freshen up a bit.”

“Take your time,” one of cameramen said. “We’ll get set up.”

Reincroft gave instructions on where he wanted the pod camera to be placed. The other cameraman had a handheld and was trying to figure out the best angle to take side shots. Swan listened to their conversation with little interest, letting the water cool her face and trickle down her neck. She grabbed a towel, wiped her face clean, then turned back to the reporter. “I don’t remember ever seeing you before, Mr. Reincroft. Are you new?”

The reporter cleared his throat. “Pretty new, Ms. Swan, in some things. But not in this business. I usually handle . . . criminal activity.”

She stood up and looked at him. He smiled. “This is my first benefit concert.”

Swan nodded, threw the towel aside and took the chair they had set up for her. “And how did you like it, the concert?”

“You’re brilliant,” he said, stepping backwards until he was standing beside the pod camera. He placed his hand on it. “That thing you do with the chandelier is quite impressive. Care to explain how it works?”

Swan smiled and winked pleasantly. “Not today. One of my many trade secrets, but I assure you that my voice can actually shatter glass.”

The reporter huffed. “I’ll bet you have many secrets. So, Ms. Swan, while the guys set up the cameras, may I ask you a few starter questions?”

“Shoot.”

“There are a lot of charities and causes being benefited tonight. What is your primary cause, your favorite charity?”

Swan breathed deeply and sighed. “Victims of human trafficking.”

“I see,” he said. “And what were you doing, oh, five years ago?”

The question surprised her. She had expected a followup to the first one, but to come back with such a strange question shocked her, made her breath catch in her throat. She swallowed. “I don’t understand the question.”

“Well, I mean, you weren’t born a singer, I’m assuming. No one had ever heard of you, heard of Cassidy Hurston, and then boom! There you were. Where did you come from? What were you doing?”

She stared at him for a long moment, considered calling for Clyde, but instead, she sat back in her chair, took a deep breath, and smiled. “I’m Cassidy Hurston. The Swan to my many loyal fans, thousands of whom are just beyond that wall. I am the daughter of Phillip Hurston, a cousin to the bigwigs of Hurston Dynamics. I’m proud of my family, and I am proud of the opportunity that they have given me. What was I doing five years ago, you ask? I was singing, Mr. Reincroft. Singing for my life. Does that answer your question?”

The reported nodded. “Yes, Ms. Swan. I just have one more question before we begin.” His hand reached underneath the pod camera casing and stayed there. “Have the decisions that you’ve made in your personal life over the past several years shaped the woman that you have become?”

She stared at him, felt a tear well in her eye. She nodded, her voice wavering. “Yes, they have.”

He gave her a big smile, then said, “Thank you, Ms. Swan, for your honesty.” He looked at the cameramen. “Okay, guys, eyes on me! Are we ready?”

They both nodded and looked at the reporter. Swan fixed her eyes on the tall man, whose hand inside the camera casing now moved so fast that she could see nothing but a blur. But he suddenly closed his eyes, bent at the knees as if he were bracing himself, yanked something from inside the camera and threw it hard at the floor near her feet.

A blast of white light hit Swan like a supernova.

The concussion of the strike knocked her from her chair, although she didn’t remember hearing any blast. She hit her head on the floor, her eyes closed tightly. There was commotion, and she tried blinking, tried lifting herself up on her elbows, but could not get the proper orientation. An image was moving fast . . . was it Reincroft? She couldn’t tell for sure, but it was doing something. Swan blinked hard, tried mouthing words, and was only able to make out a fuzzy shape moving in rapidly and then separating from another fuzzy shape on the floor. She managed to raise her hand and rub at her eyes.

More of the room came into focus.

The moving shape was indeed the red-headed reporter; that much she could tell. He had pulled a camera from one of the cameramen, ripped open its casing, poked at it, then laid the camera against the far wall. Then he moved toward her, like a dark shadow, with his arms extended as if to hug her.

He hurled himself onto her, covering her body like a blanket. She heard his muffled voice, “Stay down or you’ll die!”

A few seconds later, the camera exploded, and the wall it was lying against blew outward. Dust and debris went everywhere, and there was banging on the door. But the reporter didn’t respond to it. Up she went over his shoulder, like a sack of meal, his strong hands gripping her sides and keeping her from falling. Then he ran. He picked up the other camera that had fallen during the blast, tucked it under his arm, and then stepped through the hole in the wall.

For several minutes, Swan fell in and out of consciousness, feeling the incessant bouncing of the man as he moved relentlessly. She felt like throwing up, but slowly, the world was coming back to her. And then there was color once more, and cool air, and the harsh breathing of the man who held her. There was gunfire as well, the ground around them popping as each slug hit the gravel and concrete and sparked. A round grazed the man’s side, and he stumbled for a moment, but kept his balance, and his grip, on her.

“What . . . what are you . . .?” she slurred, trying to pull herself up. “Let me . . . let me go . . .”

She said it over and over, eventually screaming the words, as she tried flailing at his back. She was upside down, over his back, her face level with the man’s waist. She reached down and tried weakly to claw at the small of his back, tried grabbing his belt and pulling, pushing, trying to do something to slow him down, to make him stop. He smacked her hard on her left thigh. “Be still,” he said, “or you’ll get us both killed.”

“I don’t care! Let me go!”

More gunfire hit the concrete guardrail nearby. The man jumped over the railing, knelt down and let her slip off his shoulder. She went down hard on her tailbone, and yelped. His hand was around her throat, squeezing tightly. “Now, shut up.”

He kept his grip on her throat while he smashed the camera against the railing, fumbled through the broken pieces, and produced a small laser pistol. She recognized its thin, sleek power supply, its reflective metal sheen. It was a good model. He flicked it a couple times, then powered it up with his thumb, leaned over the railing and fired. Multiple shots, quickly. A few more shots, and the gunfire subsided.

“Who are you?” She asked him through raspy gasps. She could hardly breathe from his fingers tight across her throat. She tried breaking free again. “What do you want?”

He did not answer, but his hand released its pressure on her throat. She knocked it away and slashed at his face, her long, fake fingernails finding his cheek and making three deep gashes. One of the fingernails broke off in his flesh. He fell back a little, obviously surprised by her sudden attack. It disoriented him, although he did not say a word. Swan pushed away, scrambled to her feet and tried to run.

His hand was on her ankle immediately, twisting.

She screamed again and tried crawling away, but he was on her, straddling her stomach, pushing her into the hot asphalt of the road. “Please,” she said. “Please let me go. Please . . . don’t kill me.”

That last plea seemed to stop him for a moment. The man stared back at her, his jaw muscles working madly. Blood trickled from his cheek, but he ignored it, letting a drop fall on her neck. He wiped the blood away with a soft finger, rummaged in a pocket, and pulled out the stylus he had held earlier. “It’s not my decision whether you live or die, Swan. I just do what I’m hired to do.” He held the stylus like he was going to write something, then he said, “And it’s time for you to take a nap.”

Before she could scream again, he jabbed the pen into her neck, right where his blood drop had hit.

A bolt of electricity jumped through her body, hit her brain, and knocked her cold.

 


 

Bounty hunter Benito Redmoon has been given a pending bounty on Kimmy Swanson, wanted by tycoon Angus Barone for the murder of his son. The kicker in the deal is that runaway servant Swanson is now the Swan, idolized pop singer and daughter of the Hurston family consortium. Redmoon has succeeded in the initial grab and escaped out of Terra system . . .

The Ahagahe slowed out of jump, and Benito Redmoon braced for the imminent wash of nausea. He had come out of jump hundreds of times over the course of his life, and sickness was rarely a concern. But he was wounded, his shoulder, arm, the ribs on the right side, all grazed and bleeding by bullets from security as they had fled Terra. It was hard to say how a jump would affect him under such conditions. He braced for sickness, but none came. He exhaled, thankful for finally catching a break. The girl, bound and lying on the floor at his side, had a different reaction. She moaned, rolled her eyes, turned her head, and puked all over the cockpit floor.

Damn!

It was his fault. He should have secured her in the cell he had built in the primary cargo hold of his Freelancer. But when you’re dodging bullets and laser beams, you can’t always take the time to do everything perfectly. The security response was particularly savage as they fled; understandable given the circumstances, and they would not be able to stay for long here in the Kilian System. UEE law enforcement would be coming, and in strength. The Swan needed to be in her cell to ensure her safety for the rest of the trip. But before that, he needed to do something.

“I’m sorry,” Swan said weakly as she tried clearing her throat. “I didn’t mean to —”

“Sit up,” he said, putting the ship on auto and standing. “You’ll feel better if you do.”

She pushed herself up as best she could, given her bindings. Redmoon pulled a DNA tester from his pocket and knelt down beside her, careful to keep his boots out of the vomit. He wriggled his nose against its sickly-sweet smell and concentrated on a small needle inside the kit.

“What are you doing, Reincroft?”

Redmoon chuckled at that. “Don’t be naïve, girl,” he said, pulling the needle from the kit and quickly jabbing it into the base of her neck. She squealed as he pulled the needle back out. “My name isn’t Reincroft.”

He put the needle back in the kit, touched a few buttons, and waited.

“Who are you then?”

He ignored the question. Double helixes rolled into view on the kit’s tiny vid screen. Redmoon watched as each allele, each codon, each amino acid along both samples were marked with green highlights. He closed the kit and tucked it away. A perfect match. This woman was Kimmy Swanson. But how marvelous, how well designed, had been her reconstruction. No wonder Barone had spent years looking for her. A murderer in plain sight.

“Look, whoever you are, I can pay you. I can pay you double whatever you’re getting now.”

“I’m sure you could,” Redmoon said, rising and pulling Swan to her feet. She could probably pay triple and possibly four times as much. “Money is not everything. There is also justice to consider.”

Swan paused at that last remark. Then her eyes grew large, her face paled as if she were going to vomit again. “No,” she said, her voice growing agitated, unsteady. “Don’t take me back there. Don’t take me to Nemo. I won’t go back there. No . . . I did nothing wrong. I’m innocent!”

“That is not for me to decide,” Redmoon said, yanking her forward. He pulled her down the steps, past the jump seats and into the galley. She struggled and pleaded the entire way, desperate to avoid his restraining cage.

“Let . . . let me help you clean up my mess at least.”

“No.”

“Then, then let me help you with your wounds. I used to —”

“No.”

She flailed around, pushed her feet into the floor, trying to gain purchase. She halted, seeing the weathered Marine insignia on his sleeve. “Are you a Marine?”

Redmoon paused. He looked at the patch. “I was, once,” he said. “A long time ago.”

He pulled her into the secondary cargo hold. “I know a song about a Marine,” she said. “Do you want to hear it?”

“No.”

She ignored him and began singing. Her voice was lithe, subtle, bereft of fear and apprehension.
There once was a brave Marine who sang and danced,
and all the ladies loved him, until the day
the music stopped, until he danced the pirate’s dance,
and death and sorrow found him.

He knew the song well. He had sung it himself many times in his youth, although the version that he and his pals had sung over mugs of beer had been bawdier . . . There once was a brave Marine who liked to f . . . Well, no time for that now. Swan’s version was better, her voice much more pleasing than a bunch of horny Marines on R&R. Redmoon halted, kept holding her bound arms tight, but let her sing, let her voice wash over him like warm spring air. He was exhausted. The fight and flight from Terra had taken more out of him than he realized.

“Let me help you,” Swan said once she finished the song. Her hands were tied behind her back, but she moved closer to him, her face mere inches from his own. “I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t take me back there.”

He pulled back, reinforced his grip on her arms and clutched her neck. He pulled her through the secondary cargo hold and into the primary. “Don’t mistake me for one of your fan boys, Ms. Swan.”

Now she began to cry, scream, continuing to insist that she was innocent. Redmoon ignored her, reached the cell, tapped the panel outside its door. When it opened, he pushed her inside. He followed and secured her in a jump seat, strapping her in tight. This made her angry.

“You won’t get away with this, whoever you are,” she threatened, spitting the words at him. “I’m Cassidy Hurston, the Swan. My family is powerful, and they make guns — big ones! They’ll find me, and when they do, they’ll kill you!”

He closed the door and lowered the volume on the monitor he had installed to keep tabs on his bounties. She would go on for some time, he figured. It wasn’t unusual. Many bounties did, professing their innocence loudly and with great enthusiasm. None of them ever were innocent in the end. None of Redmoon’s bounties had been, at least. Mirage had taught him great care in picking jobs.

He returned to the cockpit and began cleaning up the vomit. The mess came up quickly. He adjusted the air flow to cycle the foul smell away, then tossed the dirty rags in the chute in the galley. He then grabbed a med kit and began to swab and dress his wounds, Swan’s claw marks on his face, and especially the cut across his ribs. It hurt and had bled the most. He winced at the tenderness of it, but finished patching it up, then pulled his coat back into place.

It would have been nice to let Swan clean his wounds, he confessed to himself. She certainly had a delicate touch, a soft demeanor. But that would have been a major error of judgment on his part. Mirage would never have allowed such a thing. Hell, Mirage would never have let his guard down and allowed her to try serenading him. That was a stupid move, Benito. He could almost hear his mentor’s disapproving voice on the recycled air. Yes it was, Mirage, Redmoon replied to himself as he strapped into the pilot’s seat. But you know what? You aren’t here, and I have to deal with this matter in my own way.

Something wasn’t right about this whole situation. Redmoon couldn’t put his finger on it exactly, but something in Swan’s manner, in the way she pleaded her innocence, made him pause. He could usually tell whether someone was telling the truth, but Swan’s proclamations of innocence left him confused. The bounty on her, while pending, was legitimate. He had studied it carefully after leaving the Barone complex, and the woman in the cargo hold was without doubt Kimmy Swanson. But was that all? Mirage would never have questioned anything at this point. The bounty was above board. He would have finished the job with an impressive moral clarity. But what am I going to do?

Redmoon looked down at the coordinates punched in for an Ellis jump. He shook his head and deleted them, then punched in new coordinates to Magnus. Ellis would be a mistake at this point. A more direct path, indeed, but quite foolish. Now that the Murray Cup Race was about to start, security in and around that system would be ridiculously tight. No, the best path was to Magnus. Besides, Vernon Bosch was there, and if there was anyone who could provide him with some answers, it was Bosch.

Redmoon turned off the auto-pilot, took the sticks, and made for the jump point to Magnus.

* * *

Redmoon removed her bindings, gave her food and water and told her that if she behaved herself, he would not rebind her arms. She nodded quietly, rubbed her wrists until they felt better, then dove into the food. Redmoon sealed the door of the cell behind him and returned to the cockpit, where he secured the ship for docking.

He had settled on Odyssa, Magnus’s industrial city and chief manufacturer of spacecraft. It also had a healthy criminal element, and thus it was a perfect place for a man like Vernon Bosch to reside. In truth, Bosch was an easy man to find, for the right price and intent. He was a data specialist in the criminal underworld, and his information did not come cheap.

He found Bosch in a club called The Night Stick, nestled in Odyssa’s very small but prosperous money district. He paid the doorman triple to ignore the pat down, then stepped into a shaking, uncontrollable darkness. The place was wall-to-wall bodies, the dance floor nothing more than a mosh pit of young people with more booze and less clothing than morally prudent. The music being piped in was too loud and too kinetic, the singer brash and incomprehensible. In his own youth, he might have joined in. Now, he ignored it all, cutting through the shifting sea of bodies like a knife, until he found the person he was looking for.

Vernon Bosch was thin to the point of emaciation. His hair was a long mane of tiger white, his eyes perpetually covered with sunglasses, no matter the brightness of a room. He drew incessantly on a stim, and nursed a gin and tonic. When he saw Redmoon, he waved him over. The women at his side got up and walked away.

“Ah, Benito,” Bosch said in his high-pitched voice. “Come, and sit . . . and let us tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Redmoon took a stool and cleared his throat. “You say that to me every time we meet, Vernon. You need to find a better line, perhaps from a play that’s more modern.”

“Shakespeare will never die,” Bosch said, taking a long draw from his stim. He finished his drink and pushed the glass away. “But you seem like a man with a lot on his mind, one who wishes to engage in heady conversation. What can we speak about today?”

“Not the death of kings. Let’s talk about the death of a prince.”

That piqued Bosch’s interest. He sat up straight. “Yes, please continue.”

Redmoon waved off a waitress, then asked, “What do you know of the Barone family?”

Bosch shrugged. “As much as anyone, I suppose. They’re oil barons, but of course a family like that never keeps its interest and assets confined to one industry. Angus has his greedy little fingers in a lot of pots. Manufacturing, entertainment, textiles . . . charity events.”

“What do you know of Garryn Barone?”

“Ah, the late baby boy Barone.” Bosch shifted in his seat and his face soured in a show of great sorrow. “It’s a shame what happened to him. Such a model citizen, a paragon of moral certitude, a great son. To be cut down in his youth in a fluke hunting accident no less. What a tragedy.”

“That’s the public story. Peel back a layer for me.”

“You want the truth.” Bosch said it as a definitive, crossing his thin legs and lighting up another stim. “The truth comes at a price, Benito. You know that.”

“I removed a rival of yours from circulation not long ago, Bosch. I’ve paid in full and then some.”

Bosch drew long from the stim. “Fair enough. Garryn was a complicated boy, as most boys are. He was indeed a charitable fellow and a good son as far as it goes, but behind closed doors . . . let’s just say he was less than pure.”

“Say it.”

“He was a gambler, excessive if I may say. Loved the pit fights. In fact, I procured fighters for him on occasion, and I want to say on the record, that that is a legal endeavor on Nemo.”

Redmoon chuckled and waved away a waft of smoke in his face. “Don’t worry, Bosch. There’s no bounty on you . . . yet.”

That seemed to put the thin man in better spirits. “As I say, he loved the fights. Would get in the pit once in a while himself, although only after several drinks.”

“He’d win a lot of money on the fights?”

Bosch nodded. “On occasion, although he’d blow it all afterwards on one failed pipe dream after another. Garryn never had his father’s good business sense.”

They were interrupted briefly when one of Bosch’s girls came to the table, whispered something into his ear. He whispered something back, then she left. “Sorry about that,” Bosch said. “Business never rests.”

Redmoon continued. “What kind of person was he?”

“We weren’t friends, Benito. He never invited me to dinner.”

“Did you ever see him act violently? Did he have a temper?”

“Not that I ever saw, although as I said, after a few drinks, he’d sometimes drop into the pit and duke it out. I think that’s where he’d work out his demons, whatever they were. We all have demons to exorcise, Benito.” Bosch drew again on his stim then set it down in a tray on the table. “What’s your interest in Garryn?”

Redmoon shook his head. “Nothing special. Just asking some questions.”

“A bounty hunter never ‘just asks questions’.”

“It’s not your purview to know, Vernon. I ask, you answer . . . or not. That’s as far as our relationship goes.”

Bosch seemed to take offense at that. He clasped his long fingers together and leaned into the table. “Then I guess this conversation is over. Let me sum it up for you quickly. As I said, Garryn Barone was a complicated boy. Complicated boys turn into complicated men. Complicated men rule the universe, Benito, and sometimes these men reach a point in their lives where they feel entitled to control the lives of their toys. Garryn Barone had a lot of toys, and he loved playing with every single one of them. And he’d break one once in a while. Do we understand each other?”

Redmoon nodded. “Yes, I think we do.”

He stood up, and the music in the room changed. The crowd on the dance floor drifted away to their tables as a more solemn, sensual song played over their mindless banter. The song was lifted into the air on a voice so pure, so delightful, that even the most ardent clubber had to pause a moment and pay it homage. A quiet fell across the dark space, and Redmoon paused to listen as well. He recognized the voice immediately.

“Breathtaking, isn’t she?”

He barely heard Bosch’s comment. “What?”

“The singer,” the thin man said, pointing to the ceiling. “Such a terrible thing that’s happened to her, isn’t it? To be snatched off Terra, and in broad daylight no less. Who could have pulled off such a feat, I wonder?”

Redmoon shook his head, felt at his side for the laser pistol hidden away beneath his belt. “I wouldn’t know anything about it. I’m a bounty hunter, not a kidnapper. There’s no bounty on the Swan.”

“Of course. But there is a big reward for her safe return. An astronomical amount, in fact.”

“I’m sure there is. Thank you for your information, Vernon. We’ll speak again.”

Bosch juiced up another stim. “What’s your hurry? Please stay, as I always enjoy your company. The cold expanse of space feels so much warmer when you tell your wondrous tales of bounty and breathtaking escapes. Sit. I’ll buy you a drink, and I’ll have one of my assistants be nice to you.”

Redmoon waved him off. “No thanks. I don’t drink.”

Bosch held there for a moment, the stim suspended between his thin lips. He smiled broadly. “As you wish. Nice to see you again, Benito. Take care of yourself, and next time, let us speak of the death of kings.”

Redmoon, ignoring that last comment, turned and walked quickly out of the nightclub.

* * *

There were three armed men at the Ahagahe, trying to pry open its stairwell. He expected more, but apparently the order that Bosch had whispered to the girl during their conversation had not translated to swift action. Bosch was running on a hunch that the Swan was in the Freelancer, and Redmoon had upset his plans by refusing to sit back down and chat. His goons had not mobilized fast enough. More would be coming for sure, but here was an opportunity.

Redmoon stepped into their line of sight, drew his laser pistol and fired. The closest man went down with a hole through his throat. The other two, shocked at the abruptness of the assault, stood paralyzed for a moment, then raised their lasers and fired. Too slowly, however, for Redmoon had already taken cover behind another ship in dock. Their shots hit its hull but did little damage. Redmoon waited until the fire subsided, then rose again. He put a pulse of intense laser light between the guards and hit his own ship. Shit! He hated missing. As Mirage had never tired of reminding him, missing meant your enemy could retaliate. But the wound in his side was still giving him fits, causing him to be inaccurate, to pull the shot to the right. He fired again, aiming more to the left. The beam of light cut into the guard’s shoulder. The man went down screaming, his weapon skidding across the bay floor.

That left only one man, and he was falling back, desperately popping off shots that pinned Redmoon behind the landing gear of another Freelancer. He waited again until the shots subsided, rose and fired. A grazing shot. Just a flesh wound. The man yelped, raised this arm and fired. Another pause, then Redmoon stood boldly, aimed carefully, and put a shot in the center of the man’s chest. He went down without a sound.

Redmoon ran to his ship, picking up the discarded laser that the wounded guard had dropped. For good measure, he drove his boot into the man’s face, silencing his moans of pain. The laser had cauterized the chest wound so there was only a small trace of blood. He didn’t like working this way, attacking so savagely. Bosch had left him no choice, however. Redmoon tapped a box on his belt, and the middle landing gear stairwell began to drop. He didn’t wait for the stairs to deploy fully; he jumped on it and began shuffling upward.

Laser fire hit the hull of his ship.

He fell back to the bay floor of the landing zone, wincing at the pain in his side. Am I hit? He checked. No. It was the Terra wound, newly torn open by his abrupt move. It was bleeding again, through his shirt, but he had no time to worry about it. He lay flat on the bay floor, keeping his head protected behind the landing gear.

The laser fire stopped. “Give it up, Benito,” Bosch shouted across the bay. “We don’t want to kill you. We just want the girl.”

“Sorry,” he said. “She’s not for sale.”

“Funny,” Bosch said, “but foolish. Whatever Angus Barone is paying you for her bounty is nothing against the reward for her safe return. Give her up. I’ll share the reward with you, but keep your name out of the loop. Sixty-forty split. The authorities will not know of your involvement. What do you say?”

As his finger found the trigger, Redmoon considered the offer. It was tempting, and from anyone else, it might have been worth pursuing. But not from Vernon Bosch. Redmoon didn’t believe for a minute that Bosch would keep his word. He would keep it until the very end, and then bail. The crook had done it before; he’d most certainly do it again.

Redmoon didn’t bother answering. He rose from behind the landing gear and popped off three quick shots, scattering the men around Bosch. The white-haired man fell down as well, clutching his arm. Redmoon sent several more shots their way, pinning them behind a long line of crates, barrels, and ship hulls. He jumped onto the stairs and scrambled into the ship before they recovered and returned fire once more.

He tapped panels, and the stairwell began to close. One of Bosch’s men had grown a pair and tried jumping onto the stairs as they folded up into the ship. Redmoon fired his pistol again and burned a hole into the man’s hand, forcing him to scream and drop. The stairs closed and Redmoon made for the cockpit.

He strapped in and punched more panels. The engines fired. Their sweet, incessant roar sounded good as it vibrated through the deck like music against the scrape of laser fire on the hull. Bosch was persistent, Redmoon had to give him that, but as he said himself, foolish. There would not be enough damage from all that fire to chip paint, let alone cause a breach. Redmoon tapped thrusters and guided his Freelancer back and up. Then he clicked a button on his chair. The vid and voice monitor of his passenger’s cell activated.

“Strap in. Now!” He barked, guiding the ship back and accelerating. “It’s going to get ugly.”

“No!” Swan said, holding up her right hand in an obscene gesture. “Let me out of here!”

He thoroughly regretted his leniency when they had arrived. “Negative! We’ve got to move fast. Strap in, or be killed.”

“Then I’ll be killed! What’s Angus Barone going to say when you deliver my corpse? Let me out. I can help you.”

Redmoon cleared docking and let his ship rise with light thrust. By now, he should have gunned it. They’d be in Magnus’s stratosphere already if he had. But she simply stood there, her face on the vid screen, looking petulant.

“What can you possibly do for me?”

“Whatever you may believe about me, I am a Hurston!” She screamed and punched the screen with an index finger. “I can help!”

Her claims to proficiency were an obvious sham, but she had a point about her broken corpse. That wouldn’t fly with Angus or Nemo authorities. The job was to deliver her alive and unblemished. He could guarantee her life; but her health and physical safety? The way things were going . . .

He tapped the pad again on his chair, and the door to her cell slid open. “Get up here and strap into the co-pilot seat,” he ordered. “Fast!”

He watched her scramble through the secondary cargo bay, up the narrow ramp, and into the cockpit. She was shaking, clearly scared, but glad to be out of her cell. She reached the co-pilot seat, strapped in quickly, and said, “Who is firing at us?”

“Nobody you ever want to meet,” Redmoon said, banking left as they shot through the troposphere.

“Turn on navigation and sensors for me,” she said. “I want to see what’s happening.”

He gave her access. “What’s happening is that we are about to be jumped, I suspect, by Auroras. Don’t know how many though.”

“Do you know what kind?”

Redmoon shrugged. “Probably ES’s. At best, forward-firing Behring lasers.”

Swan huffed. “Fixed lasers. Nothing special. You can take them.”

They slipped through the stratosphere and into the mesosphere, both pushed hard against the backs of their seats from strong G. It was not a good time to talk or move or do anything. “Yeah, but they might have missiles, so keep quiet,” he said to her, “or I’ll —”

Radar sounded, and blips appeared on Redmoon’s display. Damn! Three of them. Individually, the Aurora was no match for a Freelancer, but three . . . Redmoon sighed deeply and shook his head.

“Don’t worry. You have a good complement of lasers and missiles on this bird,” she said. “My recommendation is to fire lasers on the Aurora’s forward shielding to bring it down. Then pound the cockpit with missiles. You’ll cook the pilot right where he sits.”

He paused and absorbed her chatter. “How the hell do you know all that?”

“My father ran one of Hurston’s proving facilities on Stanton 2. We conducted missile trials on Aurora cockpits all the time. Once its shielding is severely weakened, its cockpit can’t withstand a powerful barrage of missiles. Not from a Freelancer anyway. Trust me, it’ll work.”

Trust you? This was a first for Redmoon . . . one of his bounties asking him for trust. It usually went the other way. He knew the tactics necessary to defeat an Aurora, but he was actually impressed with her knowledge of it, and he understood what she was doing. She did not know who it was that had sent these fighters against them. Perhaps it was the UEE, perhaps it was the Hurstons themselves. But what she did know was that Redmoon had her life in his hands, and that was forcing her to be nice. She was playing for time, providing help so that they could get past this matter and perhaps proceed to a better accommodation. Just like Mirage would often say: Tomorrow was another day.

“You may know a lot about weapons, Swan,” Redmoon said, banking right to position himself for the first volley, “but you know nothing about dogfighting. Three against one. It’s not so easy to get off a frontal shot like that on a ship that’s faster and more maneuverable than you.”

She paused, then replied, “You’re right, but it’s your best chance.”

The Auroras moved in a tight pack against the Ahagahe’s port side. Their best bet was to pour laser fire upon one shield face to bring it down quickly, and then follow up with missile fire. Redmoon’s best bet was to crowd them, to fly as close to them as possible, to get parallel with their wings and thus disrupt their tight pattern and force them to spread their attack across his entire hull, thus diminishing the effectiveness of their lasers. With best luck, the Auroras would accidentally fire on one of their own ships. Luckily for Redmoon, these were Bosch’s men, better at blades in the back than laser play in space.

Redmoon banked hard right. The closest Aurora broke pattern, tried to recover, turned its nose toward the Freelancer to try to get off a shot. Laser fire from the other ships clawed at the Freelancer’s shields.

Redmoon looked down at his monitors and saw that one of the other Auroras had dropped below the Freelancer, attempting to turn upward and bring both its lasers to bear against his belly and the jump drives. They were trying to immobilize him, to keep him from escaping the system. “Not this time,” Redmoon whispered, and banked hard right again, taking his ship into what Mirage called an Immelmann.

Redmoon conducted the maneuver and lay hard on his laser cannon, pounding the forward shield of the Aurora until his monitors indicated a sixty percent drop in its strength. Not quite the overwhelming strike that Swan was clearly recommending, but close enough. He baked the forward shield with another barrage, then fired a Talon into the weakened field.

Just as she said, the missile struck the Aurora’s cockpit, shattering its canopy and immolating the occupant in a gout of fire that torched the Aurora’s controls and ripped the pilot from his restraints, tossing him into the void. Redmoon had to bank hard left to keep from taking collateral damage from the destroyed Aurora.

The other two attackers continued their assault against the jump drive, pouring more laser fire into his shield, which had fallen dangerously to thirty percent. But they had not yet fired missiles. Clearly that meant they did not have them, and were trying to bring him to heel with just lasers. Redmoon felt like chuckling. Thank the gods of war, he thought, letting his ship fall behind them. He struck the closest with a laser shot and followed it quickly with another missile. Three, two, one . . . Boom! The missile struck the Aurora and sent it spinning. Redmoon checked his sensors. The ship’s engine was gone. He smiled. Dead in the water.

The last ship, seeing its cohorts eliminated from the fight, turned tail and fled. Apparently, the pilot was not as interested as Bosch was in Swan’s reward.

Redmoon turned off his weapon systems and brought the ship back into normal flight conditions. He checked damage. Shields weakened fore and aft. Laser burns along the starboard hull. Scorch spots near the cockpit. Minor damage to the power plant casing. Nothing to worry about. Nothing that would keep him from leaving the system; the jump drives were still intact.

“Thank you, Swan,” he said, catching his breath. “You were helpful.” Not really — she hadn’t said anything he didn’t already know — but she definitely had more on the ball than he’d expected.

“You’re welcome, sir.”

Redmoon cleared his throat. “My name is Benito Redmoon.”

“Redmoon . . . I like that.”

“It isn’t my real name. It’s a moniker. An old friend gave it to me.”

“What does it mean?”

Redmoon shook his head and punched in the coordinates for their jump into the Nexus System. “I don’t know. He never told me.”

There was a long pause, then Swan said, “Are you still going to take me back to Nemo?”

There was a sinking feeling in his gut. Was he? Considering all that had transpired, all that he had learned from Vernon Bosch, was it practical to see this mission through? He considered his options carefully, but in the end, there was only one correct answer. I’m a bounty hunter. And as such, the expectations of his current, active contract took precedence over everything else. There was only one answer he could give.

“Yes,” he said, swallowing back the bile in this throat. “I’m still going to take you back to Nemo.”

 


 

Bounty hunter Benito Redmoon has been given a pending bounty on Kimmy Swanson, wanted by tycoon Angus Barone for the murder of his son. The kicker in the deal is that runaway servant Swanson is now the Swan, idolized pop singer and daughter of the Hurston family consortium. Redmoon has escaped a trap and is now in search of answers . . .

Redmoon brought them out of jump into the Nexus System. None of the damage that his ship had sustained in the fight against Bosch’s men gave any trouble. He was glad of that, but they had much further to go. Their next jump would be into Taranis and then on to their destination of Nemo, where local authorities would be waiting to take the Swan (Kimmy Swanson) into custody for murder. Assuming, of course, that the UEE didn’t find them first. That dust-up with Bosch’s Auroras had probably triggered a spike on the Empire’s monitors.

How did he feel about delivering her, now? He searched his thoughts, but they yielded nothing concrete on which to settle his anxious mind. After what Bosch had said about Garryn Barone, things had become more complicated, uncertain. But did that really matter? In the life and business of bounty hunting, there was little room for soul searching. Mirage had always made it clear that a bounty hunter who searches too hard for the truth often finds more lies than answers. ‘Your client will have a truth,’ he would say, ‘and your bounty will have a truth. Which truth is the right truth?’ But as he set the Ahagahe to a soft, comfortable course toward their next jump point, Redmoon wondered . . . If I ask her, would she tell me her truth? Maybe at gunpoint, under duress. But that was not his style, not for someone like the Swan. She deserved better.

He laid his head back to take a moment. Swan had not spoken since they had thwarted the Auroras. She had sat quietly in the co-pilot’s seat, although he could hear her sniffle as if crying . . . Then she began humming softly. It was a song that he had heard before; in fact, he had played it through the ship’s sound system more than once. It was not a Swan original, but a cover of an old tune from Sol’s earlier days:
I promise, child, the sun will rise,
and Earth will shine again,
be patient, love, for doves will fly,
and save us once again.

She was singing to herself, he knew, trying to calm her nerves, and he didn’t want to interfere. Redmoon closed his eyes and dozed. When he awoke, he felt fingers at his ribs.

He pulled his pistol and set it against Swan’s forehead. “Please,” she said, pulling away her hands and holding them up in surrender. “I just wanted to see your wound. It’s bleeding again.”

Redmoon unbuckled and stood up. “It’s nothing. Just needs a new dressing.”

“I’ll do it. Where is the med kit?”

He paused, sighed, then told her. He sat back down and waited until she returned. He tried grabbing the bandage but she pulled it away. “No. I said I’ll do it.”

Redmoon growled then pulled up his coat and undershirt. The cut was still painful. He gnashed his teeth but refused to let her see his pain. He looked away as she applied a new bandage and taped it up. The silence lasted awhile, then she said, “A Freelancer is a big ship for just one man. I’m surprised you pilot one.”

Redmoon shook his head. “You don’t know my business. I need room for cargo. You think that cell back there can fit comfortably in a smaller ship? Besides, it’s not mine really. It was my partner’s.”

Swan closed the med kit and set it aside. “Where is he?”

Redmoon cleared his throat. “He’s dead. A few years now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s the way of it. The universe exacts its revenge on us all in time.”

Swan moaned and shook her head. “You are one gloomy creep, you know that?”

“Look,” he said, taking her arm and guiding her back into the co-pilot seat. “We don’t have time to talk.” He knelt down beside the chair to stare her in the eye. “Why don’t you come clean and tell me the truth of it. What happened between you and Garryn Barone five years ago?”

She tried pulling away. “What the hell do you care? Toss me back in the cell if you want. I don’t care.”

He was about to say something else, but sensors began to wail from the cockpit. He jumped up and returned to his seat.

Two blips were approaching fast from the Magnus jump point. Bosch’s ships? No. Impossible. Bosch’s were local craft, a hodge-podge of Aurora parts, incapable of jump. These were something else, these were . . .

“M50s!”

Swan blurted it out just as he reached the next conclusion. “Advocacy ships,” he whispered. His heart began to race. While not unexpected, he had hoped that he could avoid their pursuit until he delivered her to Barone. He closed his eyes and recited the chant. “Let them not see me, for I am of the sun . . .”

“What?”

“Nothing. Strap in!”

“You can’t outrun these, Benito, and they have more than enough firepower to bring us down. Give up, and I promise I’ll plead mercy on your behalf.”

Redmoon huffed and punched in new jump coordinates. “Not on your life, bird. I’ve never been caught, and I won’t start now.”

“You can’t jump to Taranis clean. They’ll get us before we make that jump.”

“We’re not going to Taranis. We’re heading to Cathcart.”

“Cathcart . . . why?”

Redmoon smiled. “To see the pirate king.”

He grabbed the sticks, banked to the left and gunned it hard.

The M50 pilots were tossing warnings at him as he fled, telling him to surrender peacefully, but he ignored them. He pushed his engine as hard as it would go, its own warning lights flashing madly as they neared the Cathcart jump point.

Missiles and laser fire from the M50s struck the Ahagahe in several places. Warning lights flashed in his cockpit, indicating a drop of fifty percent efficiency in his jump drive. It was clear that they weren’t trying to destroy his ship; they knew perfectly well who was on board.

“They’re trying to knock out the JD,” he said. “We’ll have to hit the jump point in roll to keep them from succeeding. Can you handle it?”

Swan said nothing at first, then whispered, “Go.”

The Ahagahe spun like a top, faster than he had ever made it spin before. Then again, he had never been in this kind of danger before. It was all so new. Perhaps too deadly? Perhaps . . . but two million credits. Even now, the number staggered him. Even after all that had happened, all that he had learned, he could not deny the long-term value of such a prize. All he had to do was deliver the Swan to Nemo, and he’d be rich beyond anything he could have imagined. Then again . . .

Laser fire scraped at their hull as they rolled into position for jump. Redmoon counted it down through his dizzy mind. Five, four, three . . .

The jump drive sensor dropped to 25%.

Two, one . . .

Redmoon tapped the drive panel, and they were gone.

* * *

They emerged from darkness. Internal lights were out, and the Ahagahe was spiraling through space, but not at top rotation, which meant that the IFCS was trying to level it out. He had a headache, but considered that lucky. It could have been a lot, lot worse.

“Where are we?” Swan asked in a groggy voice. He looked over at her; thankfully, she hadn’t puked again.

“In Cathcart . . . I think.” He shook the cobwebs from his mind and flicked on auxiliary lights which bathed the display in soft white. He did a quick check on systems. Most were operable but would require reboot. At least the jump drive coordinates were still functional, and they showed the correct numbers. They were in Cathcart. Redmoon sighed relief, then sent out a coded distress signal on all channels.

“What if they come after us?” Swan asked.

Redmoon shrugged. “I hope not. It’s a possibility, but with only two of them, they’ll probably wait for backup. This is Cathcart after all. Pirate country. It’s a dangerous place.”

Cathcart was nothing more than a junkyard of old starship hulls bolted and fused together to create habitats for the most ruthless and nefarious pirates, killers, mercenaries and bounty hunters in the UEE. This cobbling together of old ships was called Spider. That’s where they needed to go.

“Are you okay?”

He checked himself. A few bumps and bruises, but no worse for wear. “I’ll live,” he said. “You?”

She coughed. “I’m fine. I’m tired, though. Can I go back and sleep?”

“Not yet,” he said, assessing the damage on the forward hull. “Soon.”

Fifteen minutes later, a gruff voice came through radio. “Who’s out there?”

Redmoon chimed in. “This is Benito Redmoon of the Ahagahe. Requesting escort to Spider.”

“State your business!”

“I’m here to see Beddick O’Van.”

Cheeky laughter. “Nobody sees O’Van without a prior —” The man yelped out the last word as if he had been punched in the gut. A scramble for the mike ensued, then, “Son of a bitch! Benito, is that you?”

He recognized the voice immediately. “It is. How are you, Beddick?”

“Surviving. What brings you into the Spider’s web?”

“Business,” Redmoon said. “Serious business. Tow me in, and I’ll explain.”

There was a pause, then, “Very well. Sit tight, and we’ll get you.”

While they waited, he allowed her to eat and shower. He took a few nibbles himself on tough jerky and desiccated orange slices, and even splashed a little water on his face. Life support had been damaged as well by the M50s. Down to forty percent and dropping slowly, but steadily. He sighed and leaned against the small sink in the mess.

“It’ll be all right,” she said after she had finished and dressed.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your ship. She’s hurt, but she’ll get better, and so will you.”

“How . . .” He stopped himself. Not another one. Mirage had a similar talent, capable of reading people no matter how much they tried to mask it. It could be a very frustrating skill to be around. She had to be that way, given her line of work and given how she had so captivated the audience at the concert. The Hurstons may have given her the tools and the access to become a star, but she had made herself one. Being able to connect with people — empathy — was not something that can be taught, Mirage always said. A person was born that way.

The pirates came loaded for bear and tugged the Ahagahe into safe harbor on Spider. When they saw it, even the Swan marveled at its gangly beauty. As its name implied, it was an arachnid monstrosity of old ships bolted together to create a swarm of iron and steel. It was impossible to tell where the landing bays were. There were hundreds spread all around the structure, but mostly hidden from plain view. This was by design, for if the UEE ever got up the nerve to come into Cathcart and try to assault it, they’d be hard pressed to figure out where to land the Marines. To an outsider, it was intimidating. To Redmoon, it was like home. He had lived here once for ten years.

They were taken into a bay complex near the central hull. The Ahagahe was brought in delicately, tethered and sealed to equalize the pressure in the ship to the bay. Pirates had trouble with the damaged hatch, but with Redmoon’s help from inside, they manage to pop it open. Redmoon led the Swan down the stairwell. They were greeted by three pirates Redmoon did not know. But one pirate didn’t look much different from another: like Spider, they were a hodge-podge of clothing, cobbled together personal sidearms, and body augmentations. These three looked relatively new, as they lacked the gruff facial hair and scars some pirates wore as badges of honor. They appeared to have most of their teeth. They were young.

“Follow us,” one said.

They were led into a small room with a few chairs and a table off the bay. Beddick O’Van waited for them.

He was all arms and trunk, a big man that swooped Redmoon’s much thinner frame into a bear hug that rattled the bounty hunter’s spine. Redmoon allowed the older man his friendly greeting. “Damn your mother, it’s good to see you, old friend!” O’Van’s voice was deep but smooth, much like his large bald head. “What brings you back to Spider?”

Redmoon motioned to his cargo. “This is Cassidy Hurston, better known as the Swan.”

He didn’t need to say more. Everyone in the room knew who she was. O’Van’s expression turned sour, his eyes glaring into Redmoon’s. “Do you realize that the whole damned UEE is out looking for her?”

“Yes,” Redmoon replied. “Have you seen my ship?”

“And you dare to bring her to me? I’ve got enough problems to deal with, Benito. Admiral Darring is breathing down my neck. There’s talk of a fleet action against Spider, and he’ll do it too. He’s a crazy son of a bitch. I don’t have time to deal with celebrity kidnappings.”

“It’s not a kidnapping. It’s a bounty. I don’t intend to stay long,” Redmoon interrupted, “but I need your help. Let’s talk in private. Please.”

O’Van scratched his head, rubbed his face, sighed deeply, and finally said, “Fine. You two come with us. You . . . guard the girl. And if she so much as steps one toe out of this room, I’ll blow your head off. Do you understand me?”

The young pirate nodded and took a position at the door.

“Okay, Benito. This way.”

Redmoon followed O’Van through the door and back into the bay. He turned to Swan and said, “Sit tight, and behave.” He shook his head at her. “Don’t make a mistake.”

Swan nodded meekly and took a seat at the table.

* * *

She sat at the table and boiled. Don’t make a mistake! The nerve of the bastard to say such a thing. He had made a serious mistake grabbing her at the concert, and despite everything she had done for him since then, he was still intent on taking her to Nemo. Bastard! Well, it was clear to her now that she had to take matters into her own hands. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again. She had trained on Garryn; this kid should be easy.

“Hi,” she said with a smile, standing up and moving toward the boy. “What’s your name?”

* * *

The pirate king was annoyed. “Look, we can repair the damage on your ship. Some of the parts won’t be new. We’ll replace your jump drive with something inferior, but it’ll get you to Nemo. We can recharge your lasers, fill your missile tubes. But I can’t give you escort through Taranis.”

“Bullshit,” Redmoon said. “You always have the manpower.”

“Not anymore. I’m telling you, this Admiral Darring is becoming more than a nuisance. He’s got the packs pinned down in Olympus Pool. I can’t even communicate with my own son. I don’t know where the hell he is. And with threats against Cathcart . . . I can’t engage in another dispute with the UEE right now. I can’t provide cover so that you can carry a silly bitch to Nemo.”

“She’s not —” He suppressed his unexpectedly emotional retort, and then more calmly answered. “She’s a very capable woman.”

O’Van grew still and smiled. “Then why are you taking her back to Nemo?”

“I’m a bounty hunter, Beddick. That’s what I do. She’s a murderer. She should answer for her crime.”

O’Van laughed. “There are murderers, Benito, and then there are murderers. You know the difference as well as anyone. At least you did when you were my second in command. The best I ever had, in fact. You should have stayed with me. You would have been a king yourself by now. Instead, you chose to run off with that crackpot.”

Redmoon checked his words, gnashed his teeth. “Mirage was no crackpot.”

O’Van’s expression turned serious. He placed his hand on Redmoon’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, my friend. I know you’re in a spot. We can make your repairs, but I just can’t jeopardize an escort large enough to help if the UEE finds you before you reach Barone —”

He was interrupted by the comm link buzzing on his belt. “What is it?” he asked.

The voice was young, and in pain. “Sir, I’m sorry . . . but . . . the girl. The Swan . . . has escaped.”

* * *

She grabbed the boy’s rifle and security card, cleared the door and ran for her life. She didn’t know where she was going; like five years ago, she just ran. And ran and ran. Through poorly lit corridors, popping and sparking with substandard electrical ballasts. It was cold, and the air was thick and smelled like copper. She wished she had a Breather. Her lungs were working double, but she kept going, pausing at each intersection, looking both ways, then blowing through the opening, or turning left, then right until she came upon rooms. She knocked on the doors. Silly of her. She had a weapon and a card. She tried the card a few times, but none of the rooms opened. She knocked with the butt of the rifle, yelled out, trying to find someone, anyone who might take her in, give her shelter, and then . . . who knows? Perhaps the person would keep her hidden until Redmoon gave up the search. Then she could make her way out of here, contact her father, and get free from all this.

She found no one. She began to cry, her voice sore and scratchy from all the yelling. She made a wrong turn, and the corridor ended at a thick bay door. She tried the card again. Nothing. She pounded the door with her fists, the butt of the rifle, her foot. Nothing. She turned the rifle toward the door and put her finger on the trigger.

“Look what we got here, boys,” a voice said from behind. “The bird is out of its cage.”

Swan turned and sent an accidental shot into the floor. A man was on her instantly, knocking the rifle from her hands and grabbing her arms. His face was a patchwork of scars and whiskers. His eyes were wild. “Can the songbird sing for her life?”

Three other pirates came up behind him, giggling like children, all equally thin with vicious faces. “Look,” Swan said, trying to reason with them. “I’m Cassidy Hurston. Help me. I’ve been kidnapped. Get me out of here, and I’ll pay you. Get me home, and you can have anything you want.”

The man was not budging. He grabbed her by the collar. “I know what’ll make you sing!”

She cringed, as though resigned to what was about to happen, but when the man relaxed just a little, she brought her head forward quickly, striking against his nose. It broke in a shower of blood, and he fell back. The strike, however, left a cut above her eye, and she fell to her knees.

Another man was on her, screaming, tearing at her clothes. All around her laughing and cursing echoed through the corridor like some mad circus show. She screamed and pleaded for him to stop. But when that didn’t work, she closed her eyes, trying to numb herself from what was about to happen. God, not again, she said. Not again.

Then the distinct, hot whoosh of a laser beam cut through the clamor and struck the man on top of her in the shoulder. He howled and fell away. She opened her eyes. Another assailant tried to run, but Beddick O’Van’s fist caught his chest and he went down in a wet crunch of ribs. Redmoon was beside her immediately.

He picked her up and carried her down the corridor, his words soothing. “It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re safe.”

“Thank you,” she cried into his shoulder. “Thank you.”

Redmoon nodded. “Then do something for me. It’s time to come clean. Tell me what happened five years ago.”

* * *

They sat in the galley of the Ahagahe while repairs were being made on the hull. Swan sat at the table, looking withered, defeated, her arms clutched across her chest. She didn’t want to speak, but she did. Redmoon sat beside her and cleaned the cut above her eye. O’Van stood in the walkway.

“My parents were graduates from Rhetor,” Swan said. “They moved to Croshaw right before I was born. Starving artist types, you know? My mother, unfortunately, was too much a free spirit, liked to spend lazy afternoons getting high. She fell in with bad people and just up and left us. My dad struggled for years as an assistant professor of art history in one of the universities there, but he liked to drink and gamble too. He was always trying to strike it rich with that one big score. He particularly liked pit fighting, and there was an arena in the warehouse district where we lived. That’s where he met Garryn Barone.

“Garryn had come to Croshaw for an event. My father, so sure that his fighter could best Barone even on a bad day, bet everything we had against Garryn himself. He lost, of course, and Garryn came by the house to settle up. My dad didn’t have the money, so he tried bribery, offering him the chance to participate in some wild scheme to bilk the university out of millions. Garryn looked like he was going to accept the deal, and then I caught his eye.

“I was fifteen at the time, and I had just started noticing boys. Garryn was young, confident and built like an ox. He had the most charming smile, a pleasant way of speaking. I was swept off my feet. And he must have noticed, for his demeanor changed immediately. He rejected my father’s proposal and pressed him physically to pay up. My father pleaded to give him time to earn the money. Garryn refused and made a counter offer. I would go and work for the Barone family on Nemo, a two-year contract, after which all of my father’s debt would be paid in full.”

“Your father let you go?” O’Van asked.

Swan nodded. “Of course. He really had no choice. Either that or get his head bashed in. Besides, he wasn’t prepared to raise a daughter on his own. Hell, he could barely take care of himself.”

“You must have been scared.” Redmoon said.

“I was, at first. When I got there, I had assumed that I was going to work in the main complex, where Angus, his wife and their younger children lived. That was the agreement my father had signed. But instead I was taken directly to Garryn’s personal home, which was in a different part of the city.”

“He was lying from the beginning,” Redmoon said.

“Yes,” Swan said, “but it wasn’t bad initially. There were a few other girls my age there, and we did what we were brought there to do. We cooked his meals, kept his house, and catered his parties, which he threw quite often. Times were pretty good.”

“How long did that last?” O’Van said.

“About a year. He’d come down to the kitchen after the parties and flirt with us. He was usually drunk, and so it was pretty easy to brush him aside. He’d laugh, tell jokes, try to paw us, but we’d fight him off. Then it got worse. He stopped letting us push him off, and when we tried, he’d get angry, and sometimes he’d drag one of us out.”

“What would he do?” Redmoon said.

Swan shook her head and was silent for a few moments. “He was a strong man, and he wasn’t above hurting us.”

“He did this to you too?”

“A few times. Although I was lucky. I was able to keep him at bay for most of it. He’d wind up thinking he’d done something when, in fact, he’d passed out and couldn’t remember it the next day. Then one night, things changed. He came down real furious. I think he had lost a lot that evening in the pits. He looked beat up too, bruises, a cut on his cheek. He grabbed one of the other girls, but she had had enough. She struck him with a pot, knocked him for a loop. She tried to get away, but he grabbed her and threw her very hard against the cabinets. She hit the floor and didn’t move. The rest of us ran out and hid till morning. The next day, the girl was gone. He claimed that she had been taken to the hospital and then discharged from his service. We never saw her again.”

“He killed her.” O’Van said.

Swan nodded. “That’s what we suspected, but we didn’t know for sure.”

“How did you kill Garryn?” Redmoon asked.

She breathed deeply, wiped a tear from her eye. “About a month later, he came down when I was alone.”

“Angus said there were witnesses.”

“That’s a lie. I was alone, although people did see me run from the house later. Anyway, he came down and started getting rough with me. He pushed me against the stove. He was disgusting. His breath stank, he smelled of stale smoke and vodka. When he put his hands on me, I pulled out one of my hair pins, and jammed it into his throat. I didn’t mean to kill him, you understand. I just wanted him to stop. But he fell back, clutching his throat, blood pouring out through his fingers.”

“From a hairpin?” O’Van asked.

She nodded. “This was no ordinary hair pin. It was silver, about four inches long. Garryn had given them as gifts to all the girls. Anyway, he fell to the floor, and that’s when I screamed and ran. I ran right out of the house, past the guards at the gate, and kept running until I collapsed near the loading dock of one of Barone’s factories. I hid there until I saw a chance to sneak into a ship and hide in its cargo bay. I wasn’t discovered until after departure.”

“And it was a Hurston ship,” Redmoon said.

“That’s right. I didn’t know that at first, of course, but I was discovered and handed over to Phillip Hurston. The rest is history really. He took me in as his daughter, had me work as his assistant in a number of his proving sites. That’s where I learned about weapons, and that’s where they discovered I could sing. I’ve been singing ever since.

“And I have no regrets,” Swan said, standing firmly now with her arms crossed. “I know I killed him, and I’ve always known that, someday, I would have to face that crime. But I’m glad he’s dead, and I would stab him a thousand times again if I could.”

“See, I told you, Redmoon,” O’Van said, a smug smile on his face. “There are murderers, and then there are murderers.” He said that last word making quote marks with his fingers. “So what are you going to do now?”

Redmoon sat there, speechless. He didn’t have a good answer, as several options flew through his mind at once. He rubbed sweat from his forehead, concentrated on the banging and clinking of the hull as men swirled around the ship.

He glared at the pirate king. “My decision would be a lot easier, Beddick, if you would agree to my request.”

O’Van mumbled something indecipherable, threw up his hands, paced up into the cockpit, then returned in a huff. “Fine. You win. But a small one. Three ships only.”

Redmoon nodded as a plan developed in his mind. He smiled, stood, and put his hand on Swan’s shoulder. “Go in the back, Ms Swan, and get some rest.”

“What are you going to do with me?” she asked.

“I’m going to do what I’ve contracted to do.” He smiled, then winked. “I’m taking you back to Nemo.”

 


 

Bounty hunter Benito Redmoon is determined to deliver pop star Swan to Angus Barone, to be put on trial for the murder of his son. It is unclear what he will do once the delivery is complete . . .

“This is as far as we go, Benito,” O’Van said over the comm. “Good luck.”

The pirates had escorted them through Cathcart and Taranis, all the way to the Nemo jump point. “Thank you, Beddick,” Redmoon replied, keying the comm and transferring a little financial support to the pirate king’s account for his troubles. “I owe you one.”

The trip had been uneventful, much to the satisfaction of them both. Swan had been able to get some much needed sleep, and even he had been able to find a few moments of peace and self-reflection. Redmoon rarely slept in the traditional sense while on the job; his lifestyle offered little in the way of a long-term, multi-hour rest. But Mirage had taught him how to find sleep throughout the day, fifteen minutes here, an hour there, just enough to keep the body and mind clean and healthy. Perhaps after all this was over, he’d find time for real sleep. Perhaps.

She was back in her cell now, strapped into the jump seat, quiet, calm. Redmoon was surprised and impressed with that. She had been through a lot, and it wasn’t over yet. She seemed to accept her fate like a professional. She was a professional, at least in her own life. The job of entertainment was a tough one, just as rigorous as any other job; more so even. An entertainer’s “office” was a stage for thousands of watchers, each with his or her own agenda, likes, dislikes, moods and attitudes. A good entertainer had to play to them all. A good entertainer had to be a good actor. Swan was a great actor.

Redmoon made the jump from Taranis to Nemo. It too was uneventful and relatively smooth. They came out of it in one piece. Swan didn’t get sick and neither did he, despite the fact that his wounds from previous engagements were still healing and giving him pain. As O’Van had promised, his new jump drive had gotten him from Cathcart to Nemo in one piece. That alone was worth a small celebration. The question, though, was whether it would get him out of Nemo.

As soon as they emerged from the jump point, the Ahagahe’s sensors glared red. Redmoon had placed them on long range, and they spotted something immediately. An M50, probably one from his engagement at Nexus, picketed the point — typical for the UEE, especially while engaged in a heated manhunt. He wondered if Angus knew of this.

“Trouble?” Swan asked through her comm in her cell.

Redmoon watched as the M50 “quietly” scanned his ship, picking up his registration code. “Not yet. Just got scanned by an imperial picket. It won’t move against us. It’ll call in reinforcements first. But we don’t have much time.”

“Then let’s get this damn thing over with,” she replied, and slapped off her comm.

Redmoon continued inbound and began sending an arrival signal, per his agreement with Barone. An hour later, the signal was acknowledged.

“Benito Redmoon,” said a nameless voice, “you are to maintain this course until you reach Nemo II, at which point you are to dock with the Maximus in primary orbit, docking bay one.”

“That was not my agreement with Angus Barone,” Redmoon replied, his voice teeming with controlled anger. “My agreement was to deliver the cargo to Nemo authorities planet-side.”

“Mr. Redmoon,” the voice said again with more authority, “maintain this course to the Maximus and dock as specified. The cargo will be handed over to the proper authorities at that time.”

Sure she will, Redmoon thought, but sent the acknowledgement signal and set course as directed.

Redmoon dimmed the lights in the cockpit, then laid back in his seat. He took deep breaths and closed his eyes. He hummed one of Swan’s songs to himself.

Showtime . . .

* * *

The Maximus had originally been the Barone family yacht, but even at its creation was more of an orbital platform than anything else. Nowadays, like Spider, it was a composite of ships, but only three, cobbled together over the years. Its design, of course, was far more elegant than a pirate’s hangout, fully capable of supporting a corporate lifestyle, with impressive viewports and swimming pools, a fully stocked bar, a ballroom for parties, and six plush guest quarters for multi-day stays. It had two docking bays, the main for Important People, and a secondary bay for the help. At least Barone had considered Redmoon’s service worthy enough to have them enter the main bay.

“Don’t touch her,” he said, pushing away the hand of a guard who tried grabbing Swan’s shoulder. “She’s my charge. I will deliver her personally.”

Redmoon easily stared the guard down; he didn’t seem willing or able to put up much of a fight. He asked only, “May I have your sidearm, sir?” holding out his gloved hand.

Redmoon had expected this. He handed it over, and they were escorted from the bay towards Barone’s receiving room.

Swan walked in front of him, head down, her hands handcuffed in front of her. She shuffled along as if her leg hurt, limping every few steps. Her hair was messy, her forehead still cut and bruised from the pirate assault. Her shirt was wrinkled, and torn in several places. She even smelled of stale sweat. She looked weary, beaten, a prisoner who had given up. Redmoon maintained a dominant position behind her, making sure the guards acknowledged his authority.

They turned a corner and moved into what Redmoon called the ‘gaudy hall.’ Barone used it to display his abstract art collection and precious souvenirs bought (or stolen) from around the UEE. Every few feet, a multi-colored painting hung from the wall, or a precious gem or locket, an ancient firearm, or some piece of antique technology in a glass display inset into the wall. Each artifact was properly lit for effect, each piece displayed with a metal nameplate showing “legal” provenance. The most impressive, or some might say garish, aspect was the ballast lights in the ceiling. Between the fixtures of soft white light that cascaded down to the plush carpet lay stained-glass ballast domes, which Barone lit up when entertaining important guests. Green or blue or red rays, whatever fit the theme or mood of the moment, could cascade out of those domes and colorize the entire hallway. And they were glass, exquisitely thin antique glass, imported from Sol.

Finally, they reached the end of the hallway. A door slid open. Angus Barone was waiting for them inside.

They walked into the fully-lit receiving room, the guards moving aside to allow Redmoon and Swan forward. Barone stood looking out the floor-to-ceiling Plexi, his back to the door. Nemo II shone in widescreen below, a bright perfect marble to accentuate an even more garish room. Additional art pieces adorned the red, orange and yellow painted walls. There was a bar, of course, and plush throw pillows and couches randomly spread around the floor. In the center lay a glass table. On the table sat an open briefcase. Nested inside the briefcase lay a mound of brightly glittering diamonds, representing more credits than Redmoon had even seen. It was rare for anyone to deal in raw goods these days, but it was clear that Barone wanted Redmoon to see it, to know what it meant to walk away with two point five million. Redmoon’s heart raced, his mind overcome with all the possibilities that such wealth could afford him.

“Leave us,” Barone said, briefly turning to face his guards. They bowed and left. Redmoon and Swan stood in front of the table. Barone smiled and walked over to them. He eyed Swan with barely contained hatred, his face swelling with blood, his upper lip wet with nervous sweat. Redmoon could hear the old man breathe, could smell his excessive cologne. “Kimmy Swanson,” he said, coming to stand right beside her. Swan didn’t move a muscle; she kept her head down. “I’m glad to see that the murderer of my son has finally come home to face justice.”

“This wasn’t the deal, Angus,” Redmoon said. “I was supposed to deliver her to Nemo authorities, not to your yacht.”

“And they will be here soon enough,” Barone said, “but first, I needed to look into the eyes of my son’s killer.”

Barone grabbed her head with both hands and forced it up. “One last time before they close forever.”

He held her there for a few deadly seconds, looking straight into her face. Then he let her go. Swan fell back with a whimper, and a tear fell from her eye. She sobbed.

Barone laughed. “Thank you, Redmoon. I think our contract can come to a close now. You have fulfilled your duties well, and the Barone family thanks you.” He motioned to the open briefcase. “You may take your reward and leave.”

Redmoon shook his head. “No. Not until the authorities arrive. My duties are not fulfilled until they do.”

Barone’s expression turned serious. “It’s over, Benito. You’ve delivered your charge to me. There is no need to linger.”

“If you wanted someone with less concern for procedure, Angus,” Redmoon said, “then you should have picked an assassin. I stay until they arrive.”

“I picked you because of your hunger for fame and success,” Barone said, “especially now that Mirage is dead. Regardless of what you may think of the situation, regardless of any concerns that you may have had with delivering her to me, I knew you would finish the job, because that’s what Mirage would have done, and you are, to my benefit, a slave to his principles. Now don’t suddenly turn foolish, Benito. Take your money and go. The Swan . . . Kimmy Swanson, is no longer your concern. Take the money, and go live the life you’ve always wanted to. The life Mirage would have wanted you to live.”

Redmoon stared at the briefcase and briefly considered that alternative. God, so much! Two point five million could make a big, big difference in his life, and potentially in the lives of others if he used it in the manner that Mirage would have wanted him to. The way Mirage would have wanted him to . . .

Redmoon nodded. “You’re right,” he said, kneeling down to close the briefcase. He ran his fingers across the front of its display panel and sealed it with a private code. “I’ve done my job, and it’s time for me to leave.” He stood up, holding the case in front of him like a dinner tray. “Mirage would have wanted me to do this. But you know what, Angus? It’s taken me a long time to realize that I’m no Mirage.”

He tossed the briefcase hard into Barone’s chest. The old man fell back at the suddenness of the attack, and Swan pounced, holding her handcuffs forward and wrapping their chain around his neck. Her weight brought him down onto a couch. Redmoon followed, pulling a small metal blade which he had taped down along the back of his waist. An old pirate’s trick, and one deadly for the wielder if things didn’t go as planned. But this did, and Redmoon drove his knee onto Baron’s right arm to hold him down, while Swan pulled her chain deep through his fat neck and into his windpipe.

“You knew all along, didn’t you?” Swan shouted the words into Barone’s face. Her tears were real this time. “You let Garryn brutalize us, and you did nothing to stop him!”

Barone nodded through gasping air. “Yes, I knew. What was I supposed to do? He was my — my son.”

“You should have stopped him! You should have protected us, taken us away!”

“He was my heir, my son.” He coughed and sputtered spit down his face. “And regardless of what he was, you killed him.”

“As an old friend recently reminded me, Angus,” Redmoon said, holding the blade a centimeter from Barone’s face, “there are murderers, and then there are murderers. Your son is the one who deserved to die, and as the son goes, so shall the father.” He removed the blade from the eye, but kept his knee on Barone’s arm. He looked straight at Swan and gave a nod. “Finish the job.”

But as Swan dug the chain deeper into Barone’s throat, the door slid open again. Three armed guards stepped in, drawn by the screams, rifles quickly leveled at Redmoon. Slowly, Swan released her stranglehold on Barone’s throat. Redmoon released his arm, and the man crawled away, coughing and gasping for air.

“I didn’t become a powerful man without having a plan B,” Barone said, rubbing his throat. “And you’ve given me far more than I could have hoped for, Benito. This was the best return on an investment I’ve ever made. You’ve brought me my son’s killer free of charge, and I have witnesses to an attempted murder. You’re going away for a long, long time, old friend, and you, young lady, will suffer . . . suffer like you never have before. I have that on very good authority from my friends in Nemo’s judiciary. Take them, and get them ready for transport to the surface. And search the bounty hunter more carefully. He had a shiv.”

They checked Redmoon thoroughly this time, but found nothing more. The guards escorted Redmoon and Swan out, back toward the main bay.

Once again, Redmoon took note of the extravagant ballast lighting. “Such a pretty hall deserves pretty music, wouldn’t you say, Swan?”

Swan, at the head of the procession, snapped her head toward him, and then slowly nodded in understanding. She began to sing in response, the same song she had sung at the end of the concert. Slow and quiet at first, then quickly building, building, until the guard behind her told her to stop. She didn’t, even when he shoved her in the back with the butt of his rifle. She kept singing, her voice steadily rising in volume and pitch. Then, as she reached the far vestibule, her voice took one final leap into a scream, a long piercing note while Redmoon pulled his trenchcoat over his head. The fine ballast fixtures began to break, shatter, first the one closest to her, then the next and the next until a shower of multi-colored glass cascaded down like rain, eerily reminiscent of the concert’s final staged effects. But this shower was much deadlier. The guards tried to protect their faces from the unexpected shards. Redmoon swung back and struck the rearmost in the face with his elbow, breaking his nose and taking him to the floor. He grabbed the man’s rifle and yanked it away, turned the barrel around and fired two shots into the man’s stomach. He died instantly.

In panic, a second guard tried to reorient his rifle on Redmoon. The bounty hunter ducked and sent a laser round into the man’s neck, taking him down with one shot. Redmoon then turned his attention to the guard attacking Swan. She was still in her handcuffs, so it was difficult for her to fight. But she ducked and twisted and rolled away from every blow the guard delivered. He obviously refused to shoot at her, not wanting to cause her serious harm, for his orders were clear: take them to the surface. And no one disobeyed Angus Barone. Redmoon put two shots through the man’s back. He was dead before he hit the floor.

Redmoon stepped over the dead bodies and helped Swan to her feet, and she quickly keyed in the handcuffs’ release code. He picked up another rifle and handed it to her. “You know how to use one of these?”

She gave a quick nod as she inspected it.

“Then let’s go.”

They ran towards the bay where the Ahagahe was docked. “We’re going to have to shoot our way through.”

“I’m ready.”

“And you’re going to have to man the turret when we get on board,” he said, stopping and peeking around a corner.

“I’ll try . . . but don’t blame me if I take out the cockpit with you in it!”

Red alarm lights flashed along the outer hall. Redmoon picked up the pace, Swan following. They turned the corner to the bay, and a guard stood in the doorway. “Stop!” he cried, but Redmoon knelt and fired. Swan standing over him, fired her rifle as well. One shot hit the man in the shoulder, the other in the hip. He went down screaming.

They ran, jumping the wounded guard, and entered the bay. Only the Ahagahe was there; no other ships were docked, and it didn’t appear as if any further guards would delay their escape. Not right away at least.

They climbed the landing stairs and punched them closed, then made for the back of the ship, taking the narrow hallway past the cells and up to the gunner’s rear turret station. He made way for her to pass and climb into the seat, then leaned over to light the monitor panels. He punched a few other displays, and guidance and tracking responded.

Swan strapped in and grabbed the turret. “I’ve fired this kind of laser cannon before,” she said, activating the swivel, getting comfortable with its weight and motion left and right. She stumbled a bit, had to adjust her seat and retry. “It’s been awhile.”

“That’s okay. Don’t force anything. Use the tracking system.” He pointed to the monitors. “Let it tell you when to fire, and when you get tone, lock on target and let it rip. You’ll do just fine, and we’ll be in constant contact. I’ll monitor your activity. Are you ready?”

She looked at him, her expression a jumble of nerves, uncertainty. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For . . . everything.”

Redmoon waved it off, climbed down, and made for the cockpit. “Save that for later, bird. We’re not out of it yet.”

He returned to the cockpit and strapped in, gunned the engine, and readied for launch. His only concern now was how effective the repairs were that O’Van and his men had made to the ship. Would the missiles fire true; were the lasers fully charged and ready? And especially, would the turret (which hadn’t been fired in a long time) work consistently and accurately? Like muscles in a body, ship weapons worked best if kept clean and used on a regular basis. But there wasn’t anything he could do about it now. They’d do the job, or he and Swan would be dead. Just as long as they could reach the Rhetor jump point before his ship gave out. Then he’d release Swan and end this charade. She’d go back to her family, and he’d disappear until the tumult had died down. He had friends who could help him there.

He punched in the coordinates to the Rhetor jump point, turned his ship, and flew out the bay door.

They were on him the minute he cleared the yacht. Two ships, fewer than he expected, although that might be the capacity of the second bay. Perhaps more were coming from the surface, but he didn’t intend on waiting around to see. The first ship was an old Aurora, sporting only a couple of laser hardpoints. It didn’t even have missiles. Redmoon figured it was probably used to shuttle between the yacht and Barone’s surface compound. The second ship, however, was loaded for bear.

It was an F7C Hornet, fully kitted out with multi-phase shields, neutron cannons, Badger repeater lasers, and a pair of missile racks. Barone had even sprung for a laser cannon in the ball turret.

“There are two of them.” Swan said over the comm.

Redmoon nodded as if she were sitting next to him. “I’ll try to focus on the Hornet. You take out the Aurora.”

“I see,” she shot back playfully, but not completely hiding the tension in her voice. “Keeping the big game for yourself, eh?”

“Show me what you can do first,” he said, “then we’ll talk.”

The communication display on his cockpit lit up. He turned it on. “I gave you a chance to leave with millions, Benito.” Barone’s voice was scratchy, sore, but confident. Perhaps overly. “Now you will both die.”

“I doubt you would have allowed me to leave with the payoff anyway,” Redmoon replied, setting his laser for the first barrage. “That’s the kind of businessman you are. Lousy businessman, lousy father. The two go hand in hand, apparently.”

There was silence on the other end, then Barone said, “This is your last chance, Benito. Give her up, and you can go free.”

Redmoon chuckled. “Shut the hell up, and fight.”

He killed the comm to Barone and banked right, bringing the Ahagahe close to the Aurora. He fired an initial laser volley, pelting the ship’s already weak shields, forcing it back and into Swan’s targeting scope. “He’s all yours,” Redmoon said, but she was already swinging the turret left and tracking the damaged ship’s movements. When it struck the center of her reticule, she fired, pelting its left side with short beams of light. It tried responding with its own fire, and it struck the Ahagahe’s turret shield, bringing it down by twelve percent. A minor hit, and one Swan responded to by rebalancing her chair, turning left again and laying on the trigger. The Aurora tried banking out of the way, but the laser fire ripped across its underbelly. It went black, disappearing from Redmoon’s sensors. But there had been no explosion.

“That was easy,” she exulted, almost giddy. “Where’s the bigger target?”

“You might have disabled its life support,” he said, trying to get his sensors to pick it up once again. “Its electrical system could be damaged. But it’s still out there. It may come back.”

“Then let’s get the Hornet!”

“Here it comes,” Redmoon said, pushing his sticks forward hard and turning the nose of the Freelancer down as if they were conducting a bombing run. The heavy Gs of the move pushed him into his chair, and he could hear Swan’s excitement turn sour as she groaned through the comm. He had experienced the move several times, but she would probably get sick again from its unexpected stress. It was necessary, however, for just as he expected, Barone fired his first missile. The cockpit lit up with warning lights. The missile was flying straight towards the rear of the Ahagahe.

He rolled the Freelancer 180° and passed beneath the Hornet as it tried gaining the advantage of position in front of Nemo’s sun. Redmoon didn’t fire his missiles, the usual move, but not necessarily the best in this situation. The Hornet was moving too fast and away for an effective shot. But Barone’s missile was trying to acquire them, and he now launched a second. “Hang tight,” Redmoon warned, rolling left, then bringing the Ahagahe back to its original orientation, swooping up and behind the Hornet. Swan’s dissatisfaction with the maneuver stilled, and she reacquired with her cannon. “We can’t get away from the missile,” he said. “It’s going to hit.”

It did, right square in the center of the rear turret. Swan screamed as she was rocked back in her chair, the rear shields straining against the hit, some of the missile’s impact penetrating and striking the armor. Redmoon looked at his monitors. The rear shields were nearly gone, and the hull had also taken damage. “Are you all right?” he asked.

There was silence for a few seconds, then her breathless voice came on. “Yes, I’m fine. Still here.”

“Good. Now watch this.”

He knew the harsh move wouldn’t free them from the missile; the reason for it was to get behind the Hornet faster than it could respond. At full throttle, the Gs that the Hornet would pull in a turn were difficult even for experienced pilots. Barone was more experienced than Redmoon had given him credit for, but he wouldn’t be strong enough to turn that craft around in time. The only thing to worry about was the ball turret.

It opened fire, sending laser rounds across the hull of the Freelancer, knocking his bow shielding down a few notches. Redmoon responded, firing all his lasers at once, trying to anticipate where Barone would go. He fired a volley of missiles as well. All of his shots tried to find vulnerability in the Hornet’s backside, where it was weakest. The laser hampered the shields. The missiles penetrated, knocking the Hornet off course and sending it spiraling through the vacuum.

“Direct hit!” Swan said, her enthusiasm back.

Another ship appeared on the sensors; the Aurora was back. “Keep on the Aurora,” he said, banking right in order to give her a good chance to strike. Her turret had been damaged by Barone’s missile, so it was less effective. But it still worked, and she targeted the Aurora like a pro, swinging right and striking the Aurora again and again with laser fire until, once and for all, its internal systems ignited and blew. Swan yelped with glee.

“One down, one to go!”

The Hornet had recovered and was coming on strong, firing its neutron cannons. Those were the weapons Redmoon feared the most. Their energy, if taken in full barrage, could devastate his ship. He barrel-rolled, trying to deny Barone a clean shot. The cannon fire struck his hull anyway, rocking it left, right, pushing his ship off course. Redmoon fought to keep it in one piece, watching as the bow and port shields were knocked down to near ineffectiveness until they could recharge. He returned fire, sending another barrage of lasers into the Hornet and watching as its own shields began to drop.

Barone’s Hornet flew quickly overhead, clearly trying to position his ball turret in such a way as to once again hit Swan’s turret. Redmoon knew exactly who was manning the rear gun.

He flipped on the comm. “Leave her alone, damn you!” he shouted at Barone.

“She killed my boy!” Barone shouted back. “Are you prepared to die for a pop singer?”

“Yes.”

Before he realized what he was saying, the word slipped out of his mouth. It shocked him, but in his heart, he knew that this had been the case almost from the very beginning. It wasn’t that he was willing to die for a simple pop singer; Swan was much more than that. She was his second chance, a way of redeeming himself for not fully protecting Mirage on that terrible, fateful day years ago when his mentor met his end. I should have given my life to save you, Mirage, Redmoon said once more to himself as the Ahagahe was rocked by another volley of neutron fire. You should be alive, and I should be dead. ‘Decide what matters most to you, Benito,’ Mirage would always say, ‘and then defend it with your life.’ There was a time when Mirage meant everything to him, but when it mattered most, Redmoon had failed him.

“I won’t fail you again.”

He turned the Freelancer in a hard G maneuver to the right, ignoring the sensor reports that most of his shielding was at critical levels. It didn’t matter anymore. The only way to save Swan was to kill Angus Barone . . . before the son of a bitch killed her. “Get out of the turret,” he ordered over the comm.

“No way. Get me close to him. I can take him out.”

“You don’t have enough power left, and your shields are down. One more strike, and you’re dead.”

“I’m not running anymore.”

“Get out!”

She ignored him, of course, and whipping the turret to the right, put a meager barrage into the Hornet’s portside. It did little damage. Redmoon added another missile and fired his lasers, but Barone had turned and aligned his neutron cannons squarely towards the turret. He fired.

“Get out!” Redmoon screamed into the comm again, and this time, seeing the target lock on her station, Swan tried getting out of her chair. The neutron fire struck, and his comm link and monitors to the rear turret display fell silent. The Ahagahe was tossed end over end.

Redmoon screamed as he tried righting his ship, while the much-weakened IFCS worked double time. I’ve failed you again . . . I’ve failed . . . she’s dead . . . dead . . .

The Freelancer stabilized, and Redmoon fired the rest of his missiles, followed closely by lasers, until his console lit with warning signs of overheating. He didn’t care. He raced the Ahagahe towards its target, not caring any more about maneuver or position. He went straight towards it, letting its neutron cannons graze his hull, letting its last missile strike the front shields and bring it down total. He answered Barone’s attack with everything he had, watching as his laser fire tore the ball turret away and knocked out the Hornet’s left wing. Nearly at the same time, both ships fell silent, the devastation of their last barrages ripping through their ships, damaging electrical systems, life support, jump drives. Both ships hung in deadly vacuum, quiet and peaceful. But Redmoon had one laser left.

Five blips appeared on his damaged sensors. Five blips clearly marked as Advocacy M50s. They had arrived, and their guns were trained on the two ships.

“Captains of the Freelancer and Hornet,” said a commanding voice crackling over the comm. “You will cease firing and relinquish control to the Advocacy.”

Redmoon paused, waiting to see if Barone made a move. He did not. Perhaps his comm was out, perhaps he was unconscious. Perhaps he was dead. His Hornet floated in space, its IFCS working to keep the ship oriented. Redmoon activated the comm. “Angus Barone is a murderer.”

“Stand down or we will be forced to open fire.”

Redmoon moved to fire his laser, but a small, quivering hand stopped him. “No, don’t.”

It was her, next to him, on her knees, her face bruised, her lip cut. Part of her hair was burnt, her clothing black with smoke, scorched by fire. She was alive. Somehow, she had managed to escape Barone’s last deadly attack, and had crawled through the ship to the cockpit. She was injured badly, but she was alive.

“Don’t,” she said again in her effortless tone. “It’s over, Benito. There’s nothing more for you to do. Whether he is alive or dead, I don’t care anymore. I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself for me. You’ve done enough. Just let it go. I’m not going to hide the truth. It’s all coming out now. I’ll confess everything and let the future unfold as it will.” She let a tear drop from her bloody cheek. She leaned over and kissed his hand. “You’ve gotten me this far, now let me do the rest.”

He put his hand on her head and stroked her hair. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Turn off your weapons, and let them board.”

He did as she asked. Two of the M50s tethered themselves to the Ahagahe, and two Advocacy officers made the short leap through space to board. One began administering triage to Swan, while the other took Redmoon into custody, relieving him of a second hide-out knife and cuffing his hands behind his back. They were placed in jump seats, and the Freelancer was towed to the Corel jump point. There, they would be taken onto an Advocacy frigate, and Redmoon formally arraigned, and then on to Ellis, where the Swan would be reunited with her family. Redmoon could see the joy in her eyes at that prospect. He smiled, happy for her.

When they reached the jump point, the frigate bay door opened, and they were taken inside. The Ahagahe was secured to the hull. They were disembarked, but before her guards took her away, she broke from their care and flung her arms around Redmoon. She buried her face into his neck. “Can I thank you now?” she asked.

“You may, but thank yourself. I nearly got you killed.”

“I will speak for you. I will tell them the whole story.”

“Thank you. It may help. But more importantly, look to your own care. There will be tough days ahead for you. Many will second guess you, scorn you, want to tear you down. The Barones will continue to call for your imprisonment, if not death. But you have a strong family with plenty of good lawyers, and you have a good heart. Just remember: Every day is better than this day, and every day thereafter will be better than the last. You will survive this.”

She pulled away, looked deeply in his eyes. “Are those Mirage’s words?”

Redmoon smiled. “No. They are mine.”

“Goodbye, Hunter.” She kissed him on the cheek.

“Goodbye, Swan.”

The guards pulled her away. Redmoon watched her leave, and as she slipped out of sight, a song came to him, a song that he had heard many times. A song about a Marine and a pirate’s dance. The first song that she had sung to him. It was a marvelous song, one of betrayal and punishment, but also of courage, honor and duty, both beautiful and strong.

Just like her.

 


 

The End

 


 

Tagged: Robert_E_Waters, Hunter_and_Swan, Fiction, Subscriber
Comments (0) | last updated on June 3, 2014

Contest Update

Due to the longer than expected wait for the DFM module, the April quarterly contest never occurred. Since we are already halfway through the quarter, I've decided to push the competition back to July.

The good news is that all prizes were already purchased in advance, so that means we'll be able to give away even more prizes in the upcomming contest giveaways.

We will also be moving to a more exclusive selection pool for candidates, choosing strictly from Free Trade League membership (which is free and open to all) to encourage new membership joins, and as a benefit to FTL Membership

Tagged: FTL, Prizes
Comments (0) | last updated on May 12, 2014

Whisperer In The Dark (complete)

Whisperer in the Dark

People complicate things. That’s what they’ve always been good at. Take a look at any functioning civilization and you will see chaos, confusion, and frustration. It could be human, Xi’An, Banu, Vanduul, whoever. We may look different, be built different, but boil us down and you’ll find the same insecurities, fears, and anxieties gnawing.>

Tonya Oriel watched the yawning abyss outside the window. Kaceli’s Adagio in 4 gently wafted through the otherwise empty ship. Scanners cycled through their spectrums on the hunt for any flagged anomalies.

The void. It was pure. It was simple. It was permanent.

A calm serenity huddled around Tonya’s shoulders like a blanket, the kind that can only exist when you are the only person for thousands of miles. Everyone else can have Terra, Earth, or Baachus, with their megacities teeming with people. Never a moment where there wasn’t a person above, beside, or below you. Everything was noise. Tonya needed the silence.

Her ship, the Beacon, drifted through that silence. Tonya customized almost every hardpoint and pod with some form of scanner, deep-range comm system, or surveying tech to get her further and further from the noise.

The problem was that the noise kept following.

More after the jump...

* * *

After three weeks on the drift, Tonya couldn’t put it off any longer. She was due for a supply run and to sell off the data and minerals she’d collected. After repairs, new scrubbers, and a System Almanac update, she hoped she’d have enough for some food.

The Shipping Hub in the Barker System had been the closest thing to a home she’d had for the past few years. Tonya set her approach through the shifting entry/exit patterns of ships. The Orbital was busier than usual. As soon as the Beacon docked, her screen buzzed with a handful of new messages from the CommRelay. She passed them to her MobiGlas organizer and went to the airlock.

Tonya paused by the entry and savored this last moment of solitude, then hit the button. The sound of people swept inside like a wave. She took a second to acclimate, adjusted her bag and crossed into the masses.

Carl ran a small information network out of his bar, the Torchlight Express. An old surveyor for a long-defunct Terraforming outfit, Carl traded moving minerals for slinging booze and information. Tonya had known him for years. As far as people went, Carl was a gem.

The Express was dead. Tonya checked local time. It was evening, so there was no real reason why it should be like this. A group of prospectors sat at a table in the corner, engaged in a hushed conversation. Carl leaned against the bar, watching a game on the wallscreen. His leathery fingers tapped out a beat to some song in his head. He brightened up when he saw Tonya.

“Well, well, well, to what do we owe the honor, doctor?” he said with a grin.

“Don’t start, Carl.”

“Sure, sorry, doctor.” He must be bored; he only called her that when he wanted to pick a fight. Tonya slung her bag onto the ground and slid onto a stool.

“Anything interesting?” Tonya pulled her hair back into a tie.

“I’m great, Tonya, thanks for asking. Business is a little slow, but you know how it is,” Carl said sarcastically and slid a drink to her.

“Come on, Carl. I’m not gonna patronize you with small-talk.” Carl sighed and looked around.

“At this point, I’ll take any patrons I can get.” He poured himself a drink from the dispenser. Tonya swiveled her MobiGlas around and showed him her manifest. He looked it over.

“Running kinda light this time, huh?”

“I know. You know any buyers?”

“How much you looking to get?”

“Fifteen?” Tonya said as she sipped. She knew she was pricing high and from the look on Carl’s face, he thought so too. “I need the money.”

“I might be able to get you ten.” He said after a long pause.

“I would give you my unborn child for ten.”

“With all the unborn kids you owe me, you better get started,” he said. Tonya smacked his arm.

One of the prospectors drifted over to the bar with empty glasses. He was young, one of those types who cultivated the dirty handsome look. Probably spent an hour perfecting it before going out.

“Another round.” As Carl poured, the prospector looked at Tonya, giving his looks a chance to work their magic. They failed. Carl set a fresh batch of drinks down. The prospector paid and went back slightly deterred.

“I think someone liked you,” Carl teased.

“Not my type.”

“Living?”

“Exactly.” Tonya watched the prospectors. They were really in an overtly secretive conversation.

“Any idea what they’re here for?”

“Of course I do.”

“Yeah? What’d they say?”

“Nothing . . . not to me anyway.” Carl pulled an earpiece out and held it out to her. Tonya wiped it off and took a listen. Suddenly she could hear their conversation loud and clear. Tonya looked at Carl, stunned.

“You have mics on your tables?!” she whispered. Carl shushed her.

“I deal in information, honey, so yeah,” Carl said, almost offended that he wouldn’t listen in on his customers.

Tonya took another sip and listened to the prospectors. It only took a little while to catch up. Apparently Cort, the prospector who tried to woo Tonya with his ruggedness, got a tip from his uncle in the UEE Navy. The uncle had been running Search & Rescue drills in the Hades System when their scanners accidentally picked up a deposit of Kherium on Hades II. Being the military, of course, they couldn’t do anything, but Cort and his buddies were fixing to sneak in there and harvest it for themselves.

Kherium was a hot commodity. One of the core minerals the Xi’An used to armor their spacecraft, it was exceedingly rare in UEE territory. If these prospectors were on the level, they were talking about a tidy little fortune. Certainly enough to patch up the Beacon, maybe even install some upgrades.

Even better, they obviously didn’t know how to find it. Kherium doesn’t show up on a standard metal or rad scan. It takes a specialist to find, much less extract without corrupting it. Fortunately for Tonya, she knew how to do both.

“You’ve got that look,” Carl said and refilled her glass. “Good news?”

“I hope so, Carl, for both of us.”

* * *

Carl offloaded her haul at a discount so she could set out as quickly as possible. Last time she checked, the prospectors were still at the Express, but from the sound of it, they would leave in hours maybe a day.

Tonya disengaged the Beacon from the dock and was back in her beloved solitude. The engines hummed as they pushed her deeper into space, pushed her toward a lifeline.

The Hades System was a tomb, the final monument of an ancient civil war that obliterated an entire system and the race that inhabited it. Tonya had it on her list of places to study, but every year Hades was besieged by fresh batches of young scientists exploring it for their dissertation or treasure hunters looking for whatever weapon cracked Hades IV in half. So the system had become more noise to avoid.

Tonya had to admit that passing Hades IV was always a thrill. It wasn’t every day you get to see the guts of a planet killed in its prime.

Then there were the whispers that the system was haunted. There was always some pilot who knew a guy who knew someone who had seen something while passing through the system. The stories ranged from unexplained technical malfunctions to full-on sightings of ghost cruisers. It was all nonsense.

There was a loose stream of ships passing through Hades. The general flight lane steered clear of the central planets. Tonya slowed her ship until there was a sizeable gap in the flow of traffic before veering off toward Hades II.

She passed a barrier of dead satellites and descended into Hades II’s churning atmosphere. The Beacon jolted when it hit the clouds. Visual went to nil and suddenly the ship was bathed in noise, screaming air, and pressure. Tonya kept an eye on her scopes and expanded the range on her proximity alerts to make sure she didn’t ram a mountain.

Suddenly the clouds gave way. The Beacon swooped into the light gravity above a pitch black ocean. Tonya quickly recalibrated her thrusters for atmospheric flight and took a long look at the planet around her.

As was expected, it was a husk. There were signs of intelligent civilization all around, but all of it was crumbling, charred, or destroyed. She passed over vast curved cities built atop sweeping arches meant to keep the buildings from ever touching the planet itself.

Tonya maintained a cruising altitude. The roar of her engines echoed through the vast empty landscape. The sun was another casualty of this system’s execution. The cloud systems never abated, so the surface never saw sunlight. It was always bathed in a dark greyish green haze.

Tonya studied the topography to plot out a course and set the scanners to look for the unique Kherium signature she had programmed. She engaged the auto-pilot and just looked out the window.

Being here now, she kicked herself for not coming sooner. It didn’t matter that this was one of the most scientifically scrutinized locales in the UEE. Seeing the vastness of the devastation with her own eyes, Tonya felt the tug that a good mystery has on the intellect. Who were they? How did they manage to so effectively wipe themselves out? How do we know that they actually wiped themselves out?

A few hours passed with no luck. Tonya had a quick snack and ran through her exercise routine. She double-checked the settings on her scans for any errors on the initial input. A couple months ago, she was surveying a planet and found nothing, only to discover on her way back that there had been one setting off that scuttled the whole scan. It still bugged her; it was an amateur mistake.

She brought up some texts on Hades. Halfway through a paper on the exobiology of the Hadesians, her screen pinged. Tonya was over to the display like a shot.

The scope gave a faint indication of Kherium below. She triple-checked the settings before getting her hopes up. They seemed legit. She looked out the front. A small city lay ahead, perched above an endless sea of dead trees. It looked like an orbital laser or something similar had hit it, excising massively deep craters from buildings and ground.

Tonya took a closer look. The craters went about six hundred feet into the ground, revealing networks of underground tunnels. They looked like some kind of transport system.

Tonya looked for a suitable landing spot with cover from overhead flights. If she was still here when the prospectors showed up, spotting her ship would be a dead giveaway and things would get complicated.

She strapped on her environment suit and respirator. She could check the ship’s scanners through her MobiGlas but threw another handheld scanner/mapper in with her mining gear just in case. Finally, she powered up her transport crate, hoping the anti-gravity buffers would be more than enough to lug the Kherium back.

Tonya stepped out onto the surface. The wind whipped around her, furiously kicking up waves of dust. She pushed the crate in front of her through the blasted forest. Gnarled branches clawed at her suit as she passed. The city loomed overhead, black silhouettes against the greygreen clouds.

Her curiosity got the better of her so Tonya decided to take a ramp up to the city streets. She told herself the detour would be easier on the crate’s battery. Smooth streets are easier for the anti-grav compensators to analyze than rough terrain.

Tonya moved through the barren streets in awe. She studied the strange curvature of the architecture; each displayed an utterly alien yet brilliant understanding of pressure and weight dispersal. This whole place seemed at once natural and odd, intellectually fascinating and emotionally draining.

The Kherium signature was still weak but there. Tonya maneuvered the crate around destroyed teardrop-shaped vehicles. Pit-marks in the buildings and streets led her to suspect that a battle took place here, however many hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The crater closest to the Kherium was a perfect hole punched through the middle of the city into the ground. Tonya stood at the edge, looking for the easiest way down. The crate could float down, but she would have to climb.

In a matter of minutes she secured a line with safeties for herself and the crate. She stepped over the edge and slowly rappelled down the sheer wall. The crate was making what should be a simple descent a little more complicated. The anti-grav buffers meant that any kind of force could cause the crate to drift away, so Tonya needed to keep a hand on it at all times. To make matters worse, the wind started picking up, flinging small rocks, branches, and debris through the air.

A shrill scream tore through the air. Tonya froze. She heard it again and looked for the source. The screaming was just exposed supports bending in the wind.

Suddenly, she realized the crate had slipped out of her grasp. It slowly drifted further out over the crater, the swirling wind batting it around like a toy. Tonya strained to reach it, but the crate floated just out of reach. She kicked off the wall and swung through the churning air. Her fingertips barely snagged the crate before she slammed back against the wall of the crater.

Her vision blurred and she couldn’t breathe from the impact. The HUD went screwy. Finally she caught her breath. She took a moment or two before continuing down.

The scanner from the Beacon couldn’t isolate the signature any more clearly to determine depth, so she had to rely on her handheld. The Kherium looked like it was situated between two tunnels.

Tonya secured the crate, climbed into the upper tunnel, and tied off her ropes. She checked her suit’s integrity after the debris-storm. The computer was a little fuzzy, but gave her an okay. She turned on a flashlight and activated the external mics on her suit. The tunnel was a perfectly carved tube that sloped into the darkness. A transport tube? Tonya couldn’t see any kind of power or rail system to confirm her theory. She started walking.

Hours passed in the darkness. Feeling a little queasy, Tonya stopped to rest for a few minutes. She sipped on the water reserve and rechecked her scanner. She was still above the Kherium and it was still showing up as being in front of her. That much hadn’t changed . . .

She heard something. Very faint. She brought up the audio settings and pumped the gain on the external mics. A sea of white noise filled her ears. She didn’t move until she heard it again. Something being dragged, then stopping.

IR and Nightvision windows appeared in the corners of her HUD, but she still couldn’t see anything. In the far stretches of these tunnels, there was no telling how far that sound had travelled. Still, she went to the crate and pulled the shotgun out. She made sure it was loaded, even tried to remember the last time she had cause to use it.

Tonya started moving a little more cautiously. She doubted it was the prospectors. For all she knew it could some other pirate or smuggler down here. Regardless, she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The tunnel started to expand before finally giving way to a vast darkness. Tonya’s Nightvision couldn’t even see the end. She dug through her supplies and picked out some old flares. She sparked one.

It was a city. A mirror city to be precise. While the one on the surface reached for the sky, this one was carved down into the planet. Walkways connected structures built out of the walls on the various levels. She’d never heard of anything like this before. Everyone speculated that it was civil war that destroyed this system. Was this a city of the other side?

She came to an intersection and the first real sign that the fighting had spread here. A barricade of melted vehicles blocked one of the tunnels. The walls were charred from either explosions or laser blasts. A shadow had even been burned into the wall. Tonya stood in front of it.

The Hadesian was probably seven to eight feet tall. It seemed to have a roundish, bulky main body with multiple thin appendages. A thousand- year-old stain on a wall is hardly much to go by, but it looked like it had four to six legs and two long arms. Even as a silhouette, it looked terrified.

A cavernous structure was built into the wall nearby. Tonya stood and approached to examine the craftsmanship. It was certainly more ornate than most of the other buildings down here. There weren’t doors down here, just narrow oval portals. There was some kind of tech integrated into the sides.

Tonya decided to take a look. It was a deep bowl with rows of enclosures built into the sides. All of them were angled towards a single point, a marble-like cylinder at the bottom of the bowl. Tonya descended toward it. There was a small item sitting on top of it. She kept her light and shotgun trained on it. It was made from a similar marblelike stone as the cylinder. Tonya looked around. Was this some kind of church? She leaned down to get a better look at the item, careful not to disturb anything. It was a small carving. It wasn’t a Hadesian shape, at least not one she was familiar with. She weighed whether she should take it. Tonya’s head suddenly swam. She stumbled back and steadied herself on the enclosures. After a moment or two it passed. A subtle stabbing pain started to ache in her arm. She stretched, trying to work out the ache. She took a last look at the small carving.

Tonya stepped out of the ornate building and brought up her scanner. The Kherium was close. She followed the scanner’s directions into the dark and twisted tunnels. Her eyes stayed locked on the growing glow of the screen. She tripped over something. The scanner clattered across the floor. It echoed for a minute.

Tonya shook her head slightly. This place . . . She turned her lights back right into the face of a rotted corpse, its mouth open in a silent scream.

“Hell!” she yelled as she scuffled away from it. She looked around. There was another form on the floor about twenty feet away. A strongbox sat between them. The initial shock subsided.

Tonya got up, grabbed her scanner and walked over to the first body. Its skull had been cracked open. There was no weapon, though. No club or bar nearby. That was odd. The other one had clearly shot himself. The gun was still in his hand. They were definitely human, and based on their clothes, they were probably surveyors or pirates. She didn’t know what kind of elements were in the air here so she couldn’t give an accurate guess how long they’ve been dead, but suspected months.

She shuffled over to the strongbox and kicked it open. Kherium. Already extracted and carefully wrapped. Sweet relief drifted through the exhaustion.

“Thanks guys.” Tonya gave them a quick salute. “Sorry you aren’t here to share it.”

Something flitted across her IR window.

Tonya snatched up her shotgun and aimed. It was gone. Her breathing became rapid and shallow as she waited. Her finger hovered over the trigger. She pumped the gain on the external mics again and scanned the hall. The whole time, telling herself to calm down. Calm down.

Every movement of her suit was amplified a hundred times in her ears. She tracked the rifle through the tunnel, looking for whatever was in here with her. Something came through the static. Close.

“Welcome home,” it hissed.

Tonya fired into the dark. She spun behind her. Nothing down there. She racked another round and blasted anyway. The shots blew out the speakers in her helmet.

She grabbed the strongbox and ran.

Ran through the slippery, sloping tunnels of pitch black. Now in total silence. She passed the intersection, where the Hadesian still raised its arms in terror. She kept looking back. She could swear something was there, just beyond the range of the IR, watching from the static.

Tonya sprinted up a rise to see the grim overcast light of the exit, now just a pinhole. Her legs burned. Her arm killed. All she wanted was to go to sleep, but she wasn’t going to stop. If she stopped, she knew she would never leave.

She pulled herself up the rope and pushed through the blasted forest back to the Beacon. Thirty seconds later, the thrusters were scorching earth. One minute after that, she broke atmo.

As Hades II drifted away, she tried to steady her nerves. Her environment suit slowly twisted on the hanger in the decontamination chamber. She noticed something.

The respiratory functions on the back were damaged. The fall in the crater must have done it. It bashed up the feeds and she was getting too much oxygen. The headaches, nausea, and fatigue . . . even that voice. Even though it chilled her still. They were all probably just hallucinations and reactions to oxygen poisoning.

Probably.

Tonya set a course back for the Shipping Hub in Barker. She had goods to sell, true, but even more right now, she wanted to be around people.

She wanted to be around the noise.

Back in the decontamination chamber, the tiny Hadesian carving sat on the floor.

 


 

THE END

 


 

Tagged: Dave_Haddock, Whisperer_in_the_Dark, Fiction
Comments (0) | last updated on March 2, 2014

A Separate Law (complete)

A Separate Law

Knowing it was bound to go sideways, Gates went in anyway. Sometimes, stepping directly into a situation was the only way to salvage it. Beyond that, you had to be seen trying to protect your assets. If people learned your snitches could be hurt or killed with impunity, the price of information grew too great for a poor working man.

He sighed and resisted the urge to check his weapons again. The sensor blister mounted in the elevator ceiling was probably recording. And if they’re smart, Tiger Kitty has someone watching through the nets, so why give away any hints what I’m here for?

The tenement elevator creaked to a stop, door opening at a decrepit pace Gates found both annoying and symbolic of the general state of the planet and its vast populace of Civilians. Impatient, he turned sideways and slid into a hall marginally less dank and dark than most Civilian housing he’d been in during his near-fifty years working this kind of operation.

Lenses adjusting quickly to the dimness, Gates picked out details he would have just as soon miss: the carcass of a rat in the far end of the hall, hard by the fire door, stimstick stubs and less identifiable things littering the rest of the hall, the vacant hall.

No physical sentry? Not so smart, after all. It is late, but still, I thought Tiger Kitty smarter.

Gates walked past the door, put his back to the wall beside it and pulled the local-built compromiser out. He hated relying on local, untested tech, but in this case the possibility of leaving an electronic signature that could lead investigators to suspect an off-planet connection was not acceptable.

He needn’t have worried — the local locks proved less reliable than the compromiser, releasing their hold on the door in a few seconds. He put the compromiser back in his pocket and drew his sidearm.

The cheap door groaned along its tracks as it opened. He stepped inside, gun in the lead and sweeping the corners for targets.

Short entry hall, opening on the left for a kitchenette, another opening straight ahead.

More after the jump...

He checked the kitchen: tiny, full of stinks, smears and discarded food containers, no threats.

Moving on, Gates entered the main living area. A female, snoring lightly, ass-up, on an air mattress laid out in the midst of what appeared to be an incongruously pricey entertainment system.

The grinding whine of a poorly-maintained waste recycling unit announced the presence of the other inhabitant and identified the room off the living area as the bathroom. Gates crossed the floor in a few strides, put his back to the wall.

The bathroom door popped open, his quarry shuffling out. Tiger Kitty had looked better in the booking vids.

Shortly, he would look a lot worse.

Gates kicked out, hard, into the back of his knee. Kitty went down, hard, head caroming off the entertainment console’s casing and activating the system. Sataball scores and standings scrolled through the air between them. Gates closed and snapped another kick into Kitty’s face as he rolled over. Tiger Kitty collapsed onto the mattress, waking the sleeper from her doped slumber.

“Wha?“ Doper asked.

“Angelique sends her regards,” Gates said, stepping forward and sending his boot into the woman’s groin. Doper wheezed, rolling into a ball in a belated attempt to protect herself.

Kitty was trying to shake the stars from his eyes. Gates put a stop to that by pressing the barrel of his pistol to the man’s bloody forehead.

“I have money.”

“I bet you do. Unfortunately for you, this isn’t about money.”

“I got dope.”

Gates tapped Kitty’s forehead with the pistol’s aperture, “Again, not what this is about.”

“What, then?” Kitty whined.

“You beat a girl bloody the other night, you and your friend here,” Gates sent a lazy kick at Doper, sending the wind from her again, “tuned her up real good, all because she had the nerve to come looking to buy from you, money in hand, no less.”

“She deserv–” Gates shut him up with the gun.

When Kitty was tracking again, Gates returned to his narrative: “Now, leaving aside the bad business practice of beating up customers willing to pay for their dope with cash instead of–of, what was it, again?” Gates asked, knowing the answer.

Kitty opened his mouth but Gates cut him off: “Oh, yes, you wanted her to get in bed with you and your friend here.”

Kitty’s only answer was the closing of his bleeding mouth.

“That particular girl, the one who resisted your advances? Her saying ‘no’ should have been enough for you, but it wasn’t. Now you have been made aware she has friends. Friends who would be terribly disappointed to learn she’d been harmed, refused service, or even spoken to with less than the utmost respect. Their disappointment will lead to another visit from me or someone like me. That visit will not be a polite conversation like this. In fact, very little would be said, beyond a bit of begging on your part, if the messenger was into listening to such before he blew your brains out the back of your head.”

Gates smiled, “Am I understood?”

Wiping his bloody mouth, Kitty nodded.

“Tell me I won’t have to come back.”

Kitty spat blood. “You won’t.”

“Can I trust that you speak for your friend here, too?” He gestured with his free hand at where Doper was still curled up and wheezing.

Another nod.

Too easy, part of him whispered. “You wouldn’t happen to be telling me what I want to hear, would you?” Gates asked.

Kitty shook his head, blood spattering the floor between them.

“Somehow, I don’t believe you.”

“Don’t know what I can say to that.” Kitty looked into Gates’ eyes. He read angry, sure, but there was a healthy dose of fear in there as well.

Gates shrugged. “Fair enough, I suppose.” He gestured at Doper, “Might want to get your girl to a medstation.” When Kitty looked at his lover, Gates backed toward the door. “Remember what we’ve discussed,” he said from the doorway.

Another nod.

Gates made his exit, but didn’t go far. A moment later he heard a clatter from inside followed by the sound of bare feet on the floor.

Stupid. Could have got off with a warning, kid.

Kitty charged out, cheap pistol in hand and a snarl on split lips.

Gates, kneeling just outside the door, put him down with two shots. Blood and bone spattered the lower third of the doorway, paired snaps of coherent light superheating cartilage and making a mess of the workings of the dealer’s knees. Kitty slammed into the floor, momentum sending him sliding across the hall to slap face-first into the apartment door on the other side.

Shaking his head at the stupidity of man, Gates headed for the stairs.

Doper’s screams started as the fire door snapped closed behind him. Gates barely spared her a thought as he mounted the stair. Kitty would survive if Doper would unlock from panic long enough to call emergency services.

Gates exited the stair on the top floor, walking out onto street level. This far into the planet’s sixteen-hour night, the streets were just beginning to return to life. He hailed a passing pedicab and boarded. “Central Station,” he said.

A few blocks from the station Gates reactivated his MobiGlas. The device immediately pinged with a number of alerts, including an incoming call from Agent In Charge Mitchi Oda.

Suppressing a sigh, he opened the channel, “Gates.”

The Advocacy Seal was replaced by Oda’s disapproving expression. “Where have you been, Agent Gates?”

“Serving my suspension, remember?”

“Your suspension ended last night.”

Gates covered surprise with a shrug, and a drawled: “News to me.”

“Wouldn’t be if you kept your MobiGlas on.”

Gates let it pass. She’s not half my age, has barely a tenth my field experience, and, frankly, isn’t worth arguing with. “I assume you aren’t calling to congratulate me on my reinstatement, then?” he asked.

“No,” she answered, lips twisting as if she found her next words distasteful: ”though I am required to formally lift your suspension for the record: Special Agent Arminius Gates, you are formally reinstated to your rank and privilege as Special Agent of the Advocacy.”

“Thank you, Special Agent Oda.”

She tossed her head. “Wouldn’t have happened, were it up to me.”

Again he let it pass, focused instead on what was important. Suspecting he’d be riding a desk, doing something boring like background investigations on potential civilian contractors, he asked her, “What assignment, then?”

He hadn’t thought she could look more bitter. “You’re going back to the Black Box: Special Action Division requested you return.”

Home.

He couldn’t keep a broad smile from creasing his lips. “Thank you, Special Agent Oda.”

 


 

Dropping his duffel, Gates looked around his tiny apartment a last time and verified he had every one of his very limited assortment of personal items. Satisfied, he took his MobiGlas out and called the management company to let them know he’d vacated the premises.

Mundane matters complete, Gates cued the cutout software on his MobiGlas and placed another call. Angelique’s heart-shaped face appeared in the pick-up, smiling. The bruises Kitty had put there were already fading. “Armi!” she said, eyes too bright for complete sobriety, but not so high he had to take notice.

“Good to see you’re feeling better, Angelique.”

She nodded, picking up on the cool response. “What is it, Armi?”

“I’m leaving on business. You’ll be on your own for a bit.”

Angelique frowned, pretty brows drawing tight, “But who’s going to look after me?”

“You will continue as arranged. Nothing changes.”

“The Se-“

He interrupted her, not wanting her to use the title, “Nothing changes. Deposits will continue. Keep happy and listen well. I will be in touch.”

“What about the other thing?” Angelique asked, brushing her bruised eye.

“Taken care of.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

“A word of advice: clean up, if you can. I won’t be around to correct such problems in the near future. Besides, you know that stuff does you no good.”

She bit her lip, looked away, “I know … thanks.”

“Be safe.” He closed the channel and put his MobiGlas away. She would either sort out her drug problem, or not. Either way, she was a good source on Senator Yaldiz’s secret life, being the central pillar of it. He gave the apartment a final glance. Two years, reduced to a single ruck and a couple new assets; some on and some off the books. Not bad, but not the best use of an old agent’s time. He sighed. It will be good to be back in the fold, back with Special Action. Picking up his ruck, Gates left.

An hour later he stepped up to the local Advocacy quartermaster’s counter to claim the tag for the ship he’d been allotted. The kid behind the counter smiled as he pushed the datakey across. “Avenger, designated A3301. That old bitch is on flight line two.”

Ignoring the kid, Gates signed for the tag and hit the locker room. Donning his flight blues lit the old excitement, putting a bounce in his step as he walked onto the flight line. Gates found her by the designator painted on her tail. Found her, and snorted. He was tempted to go back and punch the kid quartermaster out: A3301 was an early model Avenger, but at least a decade younger than Gates.

He shrugged, mounted the ladder. It’s been too long, he thought, slinging the ruck through the hatch of the old fighter.

Pre-flight was easy and quick, old skills coming back. Gates logged his ground-to-orbit flight plan and request to depart. Both were quickly approved.

He took off a bit gingerly, getting a feel for her. Been flying a desk for a long time, even before the suspension, after all.

Gates found an honest smile curling his lips. In comparison to the ships he’d piloted at Special Action, she was sluggish and long in the tooth, but A3301 was his for the next little while.

The trip to the Black Box was long and less than entertaining, requiring several transits and a few stops to confound anyone trying to track him. The irregular black asteroid wasn’t all that box-shaped. Gates was one of the few that knew its shape wasn’t the reason Special Action had named the place — it was their policy of wiping the black box nav recorders of ships that stumbled upon it.

The defense network surrounding the Black Box sent multiple queries to verify his ID. For a long moment the only evidence he had that he’d satisfied the security protocols was the fact he hadn’t been blown to tiny particles.

He was given a flight path and followed it to the last decimal. Some things you just don’t take chances with. He entered a blacker pit in the dark side of the asteroid and slowly linked up with the docking collar extended for his craft. The hull clunked as mag-locks gripped his ship, connecting his systems with those of the base.

Gates smiled as his sensors went off-line and all lights went dark before the docking collar started drawing A3301 into the asteroid. Advocacy agents were trusted, generally, but institutional paranoia was the name of the game with SA.

This way he couldn’t have told anyone what ships were in the docking bay even had he wanted to.

“Special Agent Gates, welcome back to Special Action,” a woman’s voice interrupted his thoughts, mild trace of an accent spinning the words in pleasant fashion, “I’m Vasser, Special Agent in Charge. When your hatch opens, follow the blue line to me. I’ll brief you in on your mission.”

The Special Agent in Charge briefing me in herself? Unusual. Probably wants to set the tone by putting the old warhorse in his place first off. Setting himself to keep his temper, Gates collected his bag and waited for the hatch to pop. When it did, he followed the illuminated line along a series of empty passages to a hatch. It opened under his hand, revealing a small room.

Vasser sat inside, fingers interlocked on the table before her. White-blonde hair, cut short to fit under a flight helmet or combat armor. All in all, a bit hard on the edges for his personal preferences, but quite attractive. Her expression was neutral as she shook his hand. Nice grip. Not trying too hard. Good sign.

Gates smiled, “SAC Vasser.”

She gestured him into the seat across from hers, “Special Agent Gates. I trust your trip wasn’t too trying?”

He shook his head. “Good to be back in a cockpit.”

She smiled, showing even white teeth for the first time, “You might grow to resent being in one before this is over and done.”

“I doubt it, but do tell.”

“All right.” She punched at the tabletop, calling up a series of files.

Gates heard his MobiGlas chirp as it received copies for later review.

“Three Advocacy agents have been murdered in recent months.”

That got his attention. “Why haven’t–” he snapped his jaw shut on the question when he realized why he hadn’t heard: if these were deaths of undercover agents on active investigations, they wouldn’t have been reported, not through any channels to which a suspended agent would have access.

She continued as if he hadn’t started to say something stupid: “We already have a team chasing down the primary suspect in one case, but I’m tasking you with looking into the other two. On the quiet, as a bounty hunter.”

Not adding up.

She read him too easily, or at least figured her explanation was lacking: “Problem, Agent Gates?”

He shrugged, “Just that I’m not known for the quiet quality of my investigations.”

Her smile returned. He decided he liked it as she continued, “No, you’re known for breaking things. That works in our favor on this one: in fact, as far as anyone but you, me, and your old SAC knows, you’re still on suspension.”

“About Oda, she’s not a fan of mine … And there’s the quartermaster who assigned the ship I came here on.”

“My problem, and already dealt with.”

“All right.”

A barely-visible eyebrow arched, “Just like that?”

He smiled, “If you say Oda is handled, then she’s handled. Same thing on the kid manning the ship depot. Beyond that, I’d rather get on with learning what you know about someone who thinks they can plant our agents without retribution.”

She looked at him a long moment, seeming on the verge of saying something.

Gates waited, expectant.

Vasser didn’t speak, instead looked down and called up an image of an agent in his academy uniform. “Agent Max Nawabi. Graduated twelve years ago. Most recent assignment: Customs Control and Enforcement. Sent in, undercover, at Corel, to investigate rumors of slave trading. Expected to be a long-term op, he was checking in regularly before his handler lost contact two months ago. He turned up dead in a back alley on Nexus last month.”

Another graduation image. “Agent Gage Knowles. Graduated ten years ago. Most recent assignment: Narcotics Investigations. Sent in at Nexus on long-term undercover operation regarding narcotics trade along the Magnus-Nexus-Corel systems. Made regular reports until contact was lost two months ago. Turned up on Nexus in a trash heap within days of Nawabi’s corpse.”

“Aside from the timing, what makes you think the killings are related?”

She looked at Gates, called up the autopsies of both agents. “They made almost no attempt to cover up either killing, and the weapon used was the same in both instances.”

“Exactly the same?”

“Yes.”

 


 

So the same shooter killed both agents. Anything else linking the two?” Gates asked.

Our analysts think their investigations point to the same criminal enterprise.”

Gates couldn’t keep the snark off his lips: “Such a difficult stretch for the analysts: smuggling dope and smuggling people are so very different, after all.”

Vasser cocked her head, expression revealing nothing, “There’s more to it than that. For the last two years we’ve been running up against some unusually tight-lipped crims working back and forth between Corel, Magnus, and Nexus systems. We’d arrest some mope for whatever crime and run the usual on them: offering reduced sentences and Advocacy Witness Protection in exchange for their testimony, but everyone stopped taking us up on it.”

“Someone get popped in Witness Protection?” he asked.

“Not that Witness Protection is willing to tell us about.” She shrugged, “Either way, someone probably took credit for killing a witness, telling all their minions they’d have the same done to them if they turned on the organization.

At about the same time the best source of informants we had started drying out, some less useful local assets started complaining about competition in the narco-trafficking arena. Les Inconnus, they called the new group.”

“Any electronic intelligence, some computer record of their existence?”

She shook her head, “Very little, and always from groups in conflict with them, never from anyone inside Les Inconnus.”

Gates cocked a brow.

She nodded, “Unusual, I know. That’s why my equivalent over at Narcotics Investigations sent Knowles in. The story was more or less the same with Nawabi.”

“Did either of them seem to be getting somewhere?”

“It’s all in the files, but the short answer is: no, they hadn’t accomplished much. Knowles had penetrated some small-time local distribution networks and Nawabi’s last contact with his handler mentioned a meet that was supposed to go down on Nexus, but we haven’t even confirmed he was upright and walking when he left Corel.”

“No?”

“Advocacy assets in this sector are stretched thin and we didn’t want to tip the adversary off as to how thin by asking too many questions in the clear. Again, that’s where your suspension and reputation comes in handy.”

“Deniability.”

She nodded. “You’ll have full and public reinstatement once you’ve identified the principals in this case, should you wish it. Otherwise, I may need you to stay on in an off-the-books capacity.”

And there it is — a promise of future glory for an old warhorse, or a quiet pasture, should I fail.

“Any suggestions on where to start shaking trees?”

“Nexus. We know both Agents were there, however briefly.”

“Anyone in place I can talk to for the lay of the land?”

“No one we can trust, given recent results.”

“Any more good news?”

A partial return of that smile, “Just a new ship for you, everything else we have is in the file on your MobiGlas.”

“There a time-limit on this?”

She stood, “Sooner would be better … just close the case on whoever is behind the killings.”

Close it, with or without breathing suspects, Gates translated, climbing to his feet. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Follow the blue line to your new ship, I think she’ll be to your liking.”

Thanking her, Gates withdrew.

With the Black Box’s lack of viewports, Gates didn’t know what he’d been assigned until he read the Origin Jumpworks GmbH and platinum-chased 325a etched into the ID plate set in the docking ring of the ship.

A 325a? A bit high-end for me, but I suppose I can play the well-to-do bounty hunter, if need be.

The absurdly-well-appointed cockpit was a shock after the Avenger, automatically powering up as he entered. He set the system to run a series of diagnostics while he examined her armament: a matched set of Omnisky VII laser cannon for close-in work and a pair of Talon SB missile pods to extend her reach. Not too high-profile for a successful bounty hunter… In fact, just about perfect.

Gates selected one of the 325’s multiple tags and set up the first of many jumps. I’ll have to contract a courier or two to send a few messages once I’m away — see if any of my sources can scratch something up on what’s going on.

A number of jumps later and several frustrating days lingering in the shadier bits of Nexus had earned Gates nothing but a few outrageous bar tabs, a couple of hard looks from the local lawmen, and the sneaking suspicion he’d have to break something to get anywhere.

Now, Kantor, a small-time dealer and sometime informant, was late.

Out of options, Gates stood waiting in the rain resulting from the non-stop operation of one of Nexus’ giant terraformers, still churning to maintain and improve the minimally breathable atmosphere. He wiped his bald scalp and shrugged deeper into the dubious shelter of an advertisement for a chemical company that claimed the cure for his condition.

Normally, Gates would have left and let the young dealer try and catch up with him some other day, but Kantor was the only crim Gates had spoken with who’d shown the least interest in dropping information on Les Inconnus. Even then, he’d asked for an exorbitant sum for his tidings. If a little rain and a few extra minutes were the only surcharge on the price of it, Gates would gladly pay.

The taverns, gambling halls and knocking shops, while open all hours catering to the stevedores that made up the bulk of Nexus’ population, were also the least likely places Gates could get dependable intel. Everyone in them suspected the other guy was reporting to Les Inconnus, with a result that no one was willing to talk.

Gates almost admired the intensity of the paranoia Les Inconnus had established regarding the identity of its members. Even better, they maintained it with very little obvious violence: he’d yet to see a single street killing, or even hear of one on the vidcasts. It all smacked of a highly professional outfit, which begged the question: why kill agents? Such was usually the death of quiet commerce as the Advocacy crawled up the ass of the offending organization and chewed its way out as messily as possible.

Were it a small-scale and violent operation, I’d just start offing street soldiers until they decided enough was enough and came after me. With this larger, more sophisticated group, that way’ll only serve to get me smoked. Still, it would be easier, short term, than this.

A shadow detached from the alley across the street, moved his way. Gates laid a hand on his weapon, turned to present a smaller target.

The shadow resolved into a young woman Gates didn’t recognize. She stopped some ten meters from him.

“Bounty hunter?” she called, peering through the rain at him.

“Who’re you?” he asked.

“Nobody, just here to tell you Kantor changed his mind, he don’t wanna talk to you or anybody else about nothing.”

“Where is he?” Gates asked, taking a step toward her.

Her only answer was to turn and run.

Damn.

Knowing she had the advantage of a head start and intimate knowledge of the ground, Gates let her go. He turned and set out for the spaceport. Nexus is a dead-end just now, at least from the street. Grasping at straws here … but maybe D’Ivoire or even Zara, with her corporate contacts, can run something down.

He sighed. Damn, I hope so.

He was wait-listed for permission to take off. The spaceport was busy, even this far into the local night, vessels of all types and vintage come to the surface to transship and cross-load cargoes from any number of systems. The five jump points connecting the system to nearby stars gave rise to the name of Nexus, its high volume of trade, and, ultimately, the delay for Gates. Even if a couple of the jump-point systems were pirate-infested trash heaps, they still linked to systems beyond that had things worth trading.

Pirates. The word surged free of his subconscious, dangling ropes of thought. I wonder if the Navy has any data on Les Inconnus. Of course, getting them to open their books to a civili– Wait, someone — Morgan! — was hooked up with a rear admiral or some such. And he’s out here, somewhere … He tapped on the console, wracking his brain … Nemo? Yes, Nemo.

A shark’s grin. Time to call in that marker from Vega.

The comm console pinged, notification he was cleared for liftoff.

Gates slipped the 325 clear of her pad and smoothly built power until he was rocketing free of the thin, rainy tendrils of atmosphere and groping fingers of Nexus’ gravity well.

This one’s going to ruin me for any other ship.

The planet receding behind him, Gates called up the nav plot. Examining his options, he decided against making the run through Corel. If he had to come back and start asking questions on Corel IV, he didn’t want some busybody noticing he’d been through the system recently. He instead chose the Taranus jump point. The nav system began updating, switched to a sullen amber and displayed:

NOTICE: YOU HAVE SELECTED A STAR SYSTEM THE NAVY HAS RECENTLY IDENTIFIED AS HAVING A HIGH INCIDENCE OF PIRACY. DO YOU WISH TO CONTINUE OR SELECT AN ALTERNATE ROUTE?

Gates reached out and hit the ‘Continue’ key.

 


 

Well now, isn’t this the perfect welcome to Taranis, garden spot of Human-controlled space?

A pair of obvious pirates were closing on a trader just at the edge of Gates’ sensor coverage. He’d been tracking developments for a while, watching as the captain of the long-hauler, trying to escape the two vessels behind it, blundered across the pirate lying doggo along his path. The third pirate went active with his sensors, closing the sack.

The trade-ship captain compounded his error, slowing when he should try and shoot past the lone ship along his trajectory: a stern chase was still longest … But no, he’d slowed, the course alteration only serving to keep him in the weapons envelope of the pirates that much longer.

Missiles traced between the pirate and quarry. EMP hashed his sensors as the opening salvo of the pirates downed the trader’s weak shields. Despite the blurring of the sensor image, Gates knew what was next: a high-speed pass with guns, aimed at damaging drives and shield generators, and destroying whatever weapons the owner had mounted.

Gates felt his upper lip curling, conflicted. Bounty hunters rarely took on pirates on the prowl, preferring to take down individual bounties while the pirate was planetside, hopefully drunk, and certainly well away from ship-destroying weapons that might put the hunter out of business. It was a practical tactic, and one that, if ignored, would raise questions about his cover.

If everyone kept to their present course and speed, their trajectories would close enough to get them inside his missile envelope in just under three minutes.

Someone always survives these things, and they always talk. Can’t have ‘em talking about how I blasted in for no guarantee of cash for my efforts.

The trader’s emergency beacon lit up.

Stupid. Should have just given in and lost the cargo. There’s insurance for that kind of thing. Now the pirates’ll take it out of their hides, literally.

The tags on the transmission identified the vessel as a T-XIII, one of the cheapest cargo-haulers plying the space lanes. Capable, barely, of transiting jump points, they had large holds and minimal crew requirements, making them the piece of crap of choice for down-at-the-heels traders.

Two minutes before entering engagement range on his missiles, the tactical plot beeped. The hauler had stopped maneuvering.

Damn it. Gates increased throttle by twenty percent, increasing his rate of closure. Maybe the pirates will spook, they see me coming.

He ran the drive signatures of all the vessels against the 325’s database of ship profiles. The one that had been lying in wait was a Cutlass, as was one of the pair of chasers. The other chaser was a Caterpillar, a modified cargo hauler; big, slow and certainly not going to win any battles of maneuver.

Gates checked the tactical plot, running a missile solution on the closing Cutlass and checking the positions of the other vessels. The Caterpillar was almost on top of the hauler, probably using its tractors to haul the cargo vessel in.

The general comms came to life: “Fellow traveller, you need to make for elsewhere.”

Polite breed of pirate I’ve found. Polite and nearsighted. Can’t see what he’s facing.

Gates smiled as the range ticked down. Once he had the other ship deep enough into his envelope, he launched.

It took a measurable moment for the sensors to report their findings to the pirate, during which the comm warning continued: “I won’t warn you aga-“ the speaker cut off with a squeal of panic as the pilot realized he’d gone from fox to hen. He didn’t react well, punching out countermeasures far too early and jerking his stick around. His indecision killed a lot of speed for no gain. He ended slower than he’d begun, and moving away from his support and almost parallel to Gates.

Gates punched the throttle and went straight in at the Cutlass. The targeting computer chuckled as it worked out a targeting solution on the other vessels. If the first Cutlass survived the pair of missiles sent its way, Gates would end him with guns.

Gates adjusted course, slid sideways as the ECM suite lit up with warnings.

He ignored them for the moment, spitting his own pair of missiles; both rocketing toward the other Cutlass. Gates lined up the mass driver on the first Cutlass and snapped a burst of hypervelocity rounds at him.

He needn’t have bothered. Both missiles from his first salvo easily overtook the Cutlass and its inexperienced pilot: the first detonation downed its shields a split second before the follow-up exploded right beside the vessel’s cockpit. Several heartbeats later the hypervelocity rounds from the mass driver ripped into the flank of the Cutlass just forward of her drive section, blowing great chunks of armor and internal components free. Bleeding atmo, the Cutlass pinwheeled into the long, dark night.

He tore his gaze away, saw the pair of bright pinpoints of their drives as the missiles raced at him from the remaining Cutlass. He waited as the warnings came more and more shrilly.

At the last instant he sideslipped again, dumping countermeasures to continue along his original vector. Both missiles bit into false signatures, tiny electronic minds deceived. Spheres of expanding plasma lit the black behind Gates. He adjusted course a third time, pushed the throttle to the stops.

He’d lost track of his own missiles, had to glance at the plot. This pilot was better.

Must have avoided one of the blasts entirely. His shields were just coming back on line. The Cutlass was punching it, maneuvering to come at Gates from the side, hammer to the Caterpillar’s anvil.

Gates lined up on the Caterpillar, trusting to the 325’s better speed to get him in and out before the Cutlass could peg him with sufficient cannon fire to overload his shields.

Entering range, he snapped the 325 into a roll and held both firing studs down. Coherent beams snapped across the vacuum even as a stream of metal splinters followed at a velocity that was slower on a scale that only machines could appreciate.

The turret on the Caterpillar got into action.

Gates slammed the yoke forward and then hard left, stamping his right foot down at the same time, then immediately hammered the yoke to the right. Thrusters fired, yanking the 325 down and left before rolling in a righthand spin that leveled out ‘below’ the Caterpillar in its current orientation, preventing the turret gunner from targeting him. Turret gunnery required close coordination between pilot and gunner — something most pirate scum didn’t practice.

He brought his own nose up and fired into the belly of the Cat, hits spalling armor and releasing superheated metal vapor to glow against the black. Something broke loose inside the Cat as Gates straightened out, a half-dome of fire erupting like a glowing blister from a directional thruster.

More warnings blatted, this time from his shields. The Cutlass had come in when Gates slowed, managing several hits with its laser cannon.

Good pilot. Better, by far, than his wingman.

He pushed the comm button, broadcasting even as he maneuvered to shake the Cutlass: “Gonna have the bounty on one of you. Don’t need more. Should you want to run, I won’t be chasing you.”

Several more cannon shots tapped against his shields.

Still adding velocity, Gates cranked the 325 into a widening spiral, pushing the ship and its compensators to the maximum.

The Cutlass followed, inferior thrust costing her position with each passing second, despite the Cutlass’ better turning capability.

Starting at the apex of a turn, Gates reversed course. The world grayed, G-forces crushing despite compensators. Breathing hard and holding onto consciousness with an act of will, Gates lined up on the Cutlass and pressed both firing studs again.

Her shields buckled under the high cyclic rate of the 325’s laser cannon, then the hull cracked open under the flail of the mass driver’s munitions.

The Cutlass pilot’s gunnery was damn good: a series of successive shots managing to down the 325’s shields before wrecking the empty starboard missile pod and cracking armor all along that stretch of wing.

“Call it even, then,” the pirate’s transmission came as the Cutlass shot past Gates’ rapidly decelerating ship.

Gates turned but checked fire as the pirate continued to add velocity and run for it; a deal was a deal, after all.

The Caterpillar was already making best possible speed for the depths of the system.

He turned for the hauler. The comm went active again: “This is Captain Charles Zhou of Saint Claire’s Kiss. Please identify.”

“Arminius Gates, bounty hunter. The pirates won’t be back.”

“Oh, thank the Buddha.”

What followed was far too many tearful thank-yous that Gates found increasingly irritating. It took some doing, but the captain eventually got their primary systems up and running. Some hours later Gates was escorting the trade ship Saint Claire’s Kiss to the jump point for Nemo, trying to politely turn down Captain Zhou’s dubious offers of assistance he or his crew might render their savior.

 


 

It had been, Gates reflected, a frustrating week. First, the 325 had developed an electrical problem in the damaged wing after the jump, then the sole civilian shipyard in orbit over Nemo III claimed all their repair bays were occupied.

He would have landed and taken advantage of the cheaper facilities planetside, but re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere would surely burn out the rest of the electronics in that stretch of wing, costing more time and money he didn’t have.

He’d set the ship into high orbit and sent a message to Morgan asking for a meet, then settled in to check his mail. Courier ships ran electronic mail across systems, delivering it to local holding networks for delivery when a recipient checked in. It wasn’t entirely secure, but it worked well enough if you had enough junk mail to cover for the occasional nugget of important correspondence encoded in some advertising packet or other.

Buried in one such advertisement proclaiming the wonders of Universal Health Corporation’s latest life-extension treatment, Vasser’s message was brief and to the point: No additional developments our end. Any on yours?

The reply Gates sent was equally terse: No. Still trying. Running at it from different angle. The blue-green marble of Nemo III spun carelessly on beneath him as Gates deleted the actual junk and scrolled through a few more messages, finding them no more pleasing. Those of his informants who’d responded didn’t have anything on Les Inconnus. Those that didn’t were even more unlikely to have anything, as they were generally involved in, or reported on, matters political.

The comm blinked, indicating an incoming message from dockside. Gates slapped the pickup, “Gates.”

“Sir, your request for service on the 325 has been expedited.”

“Expedited? By whom?”

“A friend to this yard: Jimmy Morgan says he owes you.”

Gates was caught off-guard. He hadn’t thought to get a pleasant surprise anywhere during this investigation. “Ah. Very good.”

“Please proceed to bay One-Eight along this course.”

Gates slugged the data to his navcomp and set things in motion as the shipyard rep continued, “Our estimate on your repair time is about fourteen hours. Will you need a shuttle to the planet or care to stay aboard the station during the work?”

“A shuttle, please.”

“You can pick up your complimentary shuttle ticket upon arrival. The next will be leaving the station at 17:15 Zulu. If you have other business to attend on station, shuttles depart for the surface hourly at quarter after.”

“Thanks.”

“Our pleasure. Thank you for choosing NemoNautics for your service and repair needs.”

Several hours later, he was sitting down at a table across from Commander James Morgan (Retired) and placing his noodle order with an attractive server.

“Good to see you, Gates,” Morgan said as the server left.

“And you, Morgan. How have you been?”

“Old and decrepit.”

Gates snorted. “You’re twenty years my junior.”

“It’s not the age, it’s the boarding actions.”

“I’m not some young woman you’re trying to impress. Besides, how many desperate boarding actions have you been in?”

A snort. “None.”

“Right.”

“So, you retired yet?”

Gates shrugged. “Kind of.” The lie came easy, Morgan wasn’t Advocacy: “On suspension, again. Doing some bounty work to keep myself afloat.”

“Bounty work? Who you looking for?”

“I wanted to know if you have any intel on new criminal organizations in this region of the Empire.“

“New?”

“Yes.”

“What are they into?”

“Slaving, smuggling, and piracy.”

“What systems?”

“Corel, Nexus, Magnus, maybe Cathcart and Taranus, too.”

“That’s a lot of systems for your people to fail at tugging a thread loose.”

Gates shook his head, “I know. I wouldn’t be gnawing on noodles and listening to your inflated tales of yesteryear if I had other options.”

“Ass.”

Arminius chuckled, “I’ve been called much worse, and far more inaccurate, names.”

Morgan tossed his head, “I’ll ask around.”

“That’s it?”

“I am retired.”

Gates grinned. “Heard that before.”

“It’s true, this time.”

“Guess I should have called in that marker from Vega back when.”

Morgan raised his hands, “Hey, I’m not saying I won’t get you some answers. I know I owe. It’s just that I’m not directly in the loop anymore. Besides, if I wasn’t interested in paying you back, I wouldn’t have arranged your repairs.”

“And thanks for that … How’d you come to call the shots for that kind of thing, anyway?”

“I’m retired from the Navy. The pension ain’t the best, especially with my exes to pay, but I managed to land some consulting work. Enough to scrape a nut together so I could put my fingers in a few pies.”

Gates nodded, “Good to hear you’re doing all right. Even so, I’m buying.”

“Damn right you are.”

His MobiGlas beeped as Gates signed off on the repairs. He stepped away from the counter and attendant, taking the call, “Gates.”

“You private?” Morgan’s voice.

That was quick. I knew Morgan wasn’t as retired as he let on. “Not really. Just about to board ship. Call me back in five.”

“Will do.”

Gates finished up the paperwork and set out for bay 18. The MobiGlas went off again just as he was boarding. He slapped the hatch closed and routed the call through the 325’s intercom. “All right, I’m private,” he said, stowing his gear and beginning to change into his flight suit.

“Good. You were right, there is a connect between the pirates in Cathcart and Taranis. Starting about a year ago, some organization calling itself Les Inconnus muscled in and laid a couple of pirate clans flat, then offered the same guys new ships and weapons, so long as they made nice and played by some new rules. My information is sketchy on the new rules, but it’s clear the main point is keeping your mouth shut about who is on payroll and who isn’t. Our sources were clear that those who refused the offer didn’t appear again.”

“Anything on the where and who of Les Inconnus?”

“Corel-359 is supposed to be some kind of command center for their operations.”

Gates checked his MobiGlas, “Isn’t that a dead rock?”

“Sure is.”

“Expensive.”

“Yes, but private.”

“Why hasn’t the Navy moved on them, then?”

“Bigger concerns elsewhere, and I’m sure someone, somewhere along the line, is getting a subsidy to encourage them to look the other way.”

“Damn.”

“Gates, don’t go after these people. By all accounts, they’re heavy hitters.”

“Last I checked, I am one too.”

“Hey, I tried, right?”

“Sure, Morgan. And thanks for the intel, I needed it. We’re even.”

“No, I still owe you, Gates. Safe travels.” The line went dead.

Gates was jumping to Corel an hour later, having updated Vasser about his destination.

Gates was on a ballistic course, coasting in toward Corel-359 over the last three days, sensors in passive mode. The rogue planetoid was well out from the system primary and off the beaten path, its orbit an odd ellipse currently passing above the plane of the ecliptic. It made sense as a base in that regard, but the fact it was a lifeless rock made it a hard sell for anyone mindful of logistical costs. There were several rings of ice and dust around the planetoid, as well as four even smaller orbiting rocks cluttering up readings, but drive signatures were easy to pick out, even for civilian sensors at a distance.

_Problem is, even with my enhanced sensor suite, I’ve picked nothing up. Not a damn thing. Messing with my cherub-like demeanor, this waiting game. Much longer and I’ll be in orbit myself.

To hell with it._

Gates went active — all at once — punching the throttle up to eighty percent and pinging everything in the local area with his sensors.

Minutes passed, the 325 building speed and a more accurate picture of the planetoid and its orbital companions. Still, nothi–

Three drives lit up on the tactical display: two in front, one almost immediately to starboard and below his line of approach. Gates picked the two ahead for attention from missiles, setting the comp to find a targeting solution even as the 325 identified his opponents as a pair of Cutlasses and an Aurora.

Gates altered course, stretching the time envelope to prevent the Cutlasses closing before he’d dealt with the closer Aurora.

The targeting comp pinged readiness. He pressed the firing stud.

For a moment, nothing happened, then the 325 lurched as the missile drives, still clutched in their pods, ignited.

They won’t arm this close to the ship, so they shouldn’t explode, but someone ha– sudden certainty froze his blood — Morgan! Get me expedited for repairs so you can sabotage my pods, eh? Should never have trusted hi– The ECM suite started blatting. Missiles incoming, from all three ships.

He started evasive maneuvers, test-firing the mass-driver and cannon. Both were working properly, as were his shields.

If he survived the missile attack, there would be a reckoning.

Face set in a death’s head grin, Gates pushed the throttle to the stops.

Wolves beware, this old dog still has teeth.

 


 

“Gates, can you hear me?”

The words brought pain. Gates recoiled from them, retreating into a calm pool of nothing.

“Up the interrupter, he’s suffering.”

“Yes, ma’am,” a digital voice. Somehow, that was important, spurred him to think about his surroundings. Viscous gel-like fluid surrounded him: warm, yet cool, gentle, comforting.

A medbay. The thought came without alarm.

The pain eased. Gates floated, taking his time coming to his senses.

“Gates, can you hear me?” Details floated slowly to mind: a woman’s voice. Not one he recognized.

“Yes, I can,” voice weak.

“Good. Do you remember what happened?”

Images flooded the calm pool of consciousness, shattering it completely.

Gates snapped his eyes open. The glare of light was blinding, at first, but resolved to an attractive woman of indeterminate years standing beside him, arms crossed over a high-end civilian flight suit.

“Wher–” he started, licked his lips, and tried again, “Who are you?”

“To answer the first question: you’re on my ship.” She clicked her heels and presented her MobiGlas, “As to the second: I’m Agent Seabrook, Special Action. Vasser set me as your backstop Agent.”

“Vasser?”

Seabrook snapped her fingers, “Get your shit together, Agent, and focus: you were sent here by?”

He tensed. “Morgan. That motherf–” pain shut his mouth as he tried to rise from the medbay, gel sluicing from fresh-knit skin that marked his dark flesh like pink paint.

She put a hand out, “We’ll get to him, if he truly is responsible, now you’re tracking a bit better. Think a moment.”

Say this about my anger; it clears the mind of cobwebs quite nicely. Gates settled back into the grip of the medbay, just leaving his face above the gel. He took a few deep breaths, asked when he was calm enough: “I thought Vasser sent me in alone?”

“She did. I was ordered to keep to the background and well out of sight, which I did, at least until I was sure there wasn’t anyone else to pick up the pieces for the other side. Quite the gunfight. A gunfight you won, at least for certain values of winning.” Gates recognized the predator’s grin that spread across her face. He’d worn a similar expression often enough.

Gates winced as an image swam to mind: Beyond his shattered cockpit and crazed helmet glass — the pirate’s Aurora breaking apart under blasts of his sole remaining operational laser cannon.

“Thought I was dead.”

“You would have been, given a few more hours. You were a few hours from hammering into one of the moonlets. As it is, your 325 is all busted up and you’ve had some nerve damage in your extremities from vacuum-induced freezer-burns. Nothing the medbay can’t handle in a few more hours. I managed to stabilize your ship’s orbit, but it ain’t going anywhere any time soon.”

Gates grunted. “I’ll take it out of Morgan’s hide. After he tells me why.”

“I assume you’re talking about James Morgan?”

“Damn straight I am. You must have been closer than Vasser wanted, you know who I was talking to.”

“I know because, right after you left, Morgan showed up on the orbital platform where you had your repairs done, escorted by some serious-looking men.”

“Serious?”

“You know the type: muscle that has to act all hard and over-attentive to their surroundings, just to scratch a living. They were not being terribly gentle with Morgan, either.”

Maybe, just maybe, Morgan didn’t willingly hand me over. Best not to hope too hard, that’s how they suck you into making mistakes.

“How do you know they didn’t make you?” he asked.

“I was there,” she glanced at the ship bulkheads, “getting maintenance done.”

A new suspicion bubbled: “How’d you know who he was?”

“Vasser wanted me familiar with you and your contacts, so she gave me your records.”

Lips twisting in a grin made sharper by the pain of damaged flesh, he asked: “The official one or Special Action’s?”

Her smile was bright, even touched her brown eyes. “Both. Quite the history.”

“I’m old, see. History is longer for me than for you.”

“Yeah, but we both know that’s not what I meant. I must say I hadn’t thought to meet a living legend, let alone save his ass from certain death.”

He glanced away. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Even places I don’t want to go?” she replied, archly.

The medbay beeped in alarm as his chuckle tore open stretches of skin along his flanks. Wow, must have done a real number on my suit when the cockpit went, he thought through the pain.

When it eased, she was smiling at him, “Really, though, it makes for interesting reading, your history. The last bit, especially: did you really dismantle Doctor Pantroski’s entire operation in one night?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Your SAC at the time, she didn’t appreciate it.”

“No, she did not. I had reason to suspect Pantroski of killing a couple of Advocacy agents.”

“And?”

“Oda didn’t think what I had was enough. I disagreed. Turns out I was right.”

“And Oda nearly had you run out of the Advocacy for it.”

“Nearly. Been closer a few times.”

“Me too, with Oda at the helm,” another flash of that predatory grin. “Oda’s all about making Oda look good to the Director. Brought me up on charges, once: claimed some ‘irregularities’ in one of my investigations.” She shrugged. “All I did was make the rapist slaver scum’s face ‘irregular.’ I had to try and keep him from doing … what he did … to anyone else …” Having worn them himself, Gates easily recognized the expressions crawling across Seabrook’s face as she related her tale: disgust at what the pirate had done, discomfort with her own response, followed by the calm surety that those actions had been completely necessary. Gates knew from long experience that the appearance of certainty was easier to maintain during the day. During the long hours of the night, sleep let the guard down, let the nightmares run free.

Gripped with a sudden urge to change the subject, he asked, “You didn’t happen to see the techs that sabotaged my pods, did you?”

“No.”

“You know if Morgan is still there?”

“He’s not.” Gates’ disappointment must have shone through, because she quickly went on: “I managed to tag the cutter he was shipped out on. He’s in-system, on Corel II. Or rather, in orbit around it on another orbital, this one owned by a Anselm Holding LLC.”

“Should that company name mean something to me?”

“The same company owns Nemonautics.”

“The company that facilitated the sabotage of my ship. Sounds suspicious.”

She cocked a brow.

“I’m wary of easily-drawn conclusions.”

“So am I, that’s why I ran a few checks while you were recovering. As the company is privately held, there’s very little information available, but they sprang into being three years back, buying up a bunch of shipping companies and several orbital maintenance facilities, all without any kind of financing on the books.”

“A front?”

“Absolutely, though I can’t say who for.”

“What kind of orbital is it?”

“Harmony Maintenance and Transhipment, much like the one in orbit around Nemo.”

“Any other corporations leasing space?”

She glanced at her MobiGlas. “No.”

“Any defenses?”

“Standard anti-meteor.”

He nodded and hit the inside edge of the medbay, gel sluicing around his fingers, “How long do I have to be in here?”

“A few more hours should see you well-cooked enough for very light duty.”

“Good. Then all we need is another ship.”

“We?”

Gates hadn’t even realized he’d made the decision about Seabrook until she called him on it. He looked her in the eye. “Yes. I need your help, Agent Seabrook.”

Seabrook returned his gaze for a long moment, clearly weighing the situation. “All right. For what?”

“We’re going in after Morgan. Either we spring him if he’s being held against his will or, if he’s not, we take him for questioning.”

She pointed at the medbay, ”You’re not going to be fully healed any time soon. Can’t see how you’ll get aboard without tripping alarms.”

“I won’t be boarding, you will. If they twig to you, they’ll expect you to extract to the ship you arrived on. That’s why I’ll be aboard another ship, ready to run in and extract you both, should it come to that.”

“Warrantless?”

He just looked at her.

Seabrook looked away, pained. “Stupid question, I know.”

“So, know where we can get a third-rate ship on the quick, cheap, and down-low?”

“Might be I know a guy, yes.”

Gates smiled and changed the subject, “How long you been Advocacy?”

“Nearly twenty, why?”

“I didn’t get to read your file, remember? And while SA is made up of harder-working agents than the rest of the Advocacy, it might help me plan if I know some of the specifics of your background.”

“I’ve been SA for seven years.”

“Ah, that explains why we never met.”

She nodded, “I arrived right after you were sent to work under Oda. Special Action needed a data jockey with field experience. I think the SACs did it as a one-for-one transfer when they shifted us.”

Data jockey, now that both explains a lot and could come in quite handy.

“Careerist bureaucrats do like to keep things tidy,” he said, to keep a verbal hand in the conversation.

She snorted, “But Oda got more than she bargained for with with you, eh?”

“That she did. Let’s hope that Morgan, or any people holding him, do the same.”

 


 

“You copy?”

Gates slugged the live feed to the command terminal, then had a moment of vertigo as the view wobbled, Seabrook climbing out of the Caterpillar’s conning chair and moving for the hatch.

“Yes, quite clearly.”

“Good. You ready?” she asked, her hand appearing in the view as she reached for the access patch.

He gave the question a moment’s honest thought as she moved from the bridge and headed toward the airlock. The op was cobbled together on short notice, with no real resources but the balls and brains the two of them brought to the table. That and the aged Avenger Seabrook had managed to track down.

They’d had two breaks that made the plan feasible: first, while they still weren’t sure Morgan was being held against his will, Seabrook had managed to find out where, as of five hours ago, Morgan was. Second: given the covert nature of Les Inconnus operations, there didn’t appear to be heavy security on the station.

“Gates?” she asked, hand poised to open the airlock leading from her ship to the station.

“It’s a go,” he answered.

“All right.” Seabrook put her hand to the panel and left her ship.

It would take some time for her to reach the core of the station, so Gates checked his navcomp feed. He’d put the Avenger she’d managed to scare up for him into a gradual approach vector meant to overtake the station in about ten minutes, at which point he’d start talking to them about getting service. In the meantime, Gates scanned the ships currently docked: the Caterpillar Seabrook had IDed as the one transporting Morgan was still there. The two other vessels appeared legitimate customers, there for maintenance, upgrades or to meet the company’s shipping needs.

Seabrook had been the one to see the last group as their way in: she’d falsified a manifest indicating she’d been contracted to transport some parts for Nemonautics and was supposed to pick them up here. Gates didn’t like counting on them not having the parts on hand, but the company reps seemed to have bought the story.

“Hello,” Seabrook said, dragging Gates’ attention back to her.

“Captain Tolliver, I’m sorry for the delay, but we’ve had some problems getting shipments in lately.”

The view bobbed slightly as Seabrook shrugged. “So long as I’m not in breach of contract and you’ve got someplace I can cool my heels for a bit?”

“Sure, we can put you up —” the rep tapped a few commands into his console, “— on deck thirteen, cabin eight.”

“Thanks. I am a bit tired of looking at the same bulkheads, if you know what I mean …”

Careful, he might start thinking you’re into him, Seabrook. Ops have gone south with less reason …

The rep smiled, waved his hands at their surroundings, “Tell me about it.”

Relieved, Gates sighed as his fellow agent stepped onto the lift and pressed the plate for deck thirteen. “Still tracking?” she asked after the door closed.

“Yes, you’re coming in clear. According to your data, we may have lucked out. Your room is just one deck down from Morgan’s.”

Seabrook whistled tunelessly as the decks sped by without anyone else boarding. It seemed they’d chosen well when deciding to extract Morgan late in the local night. The door opened, revealing a short hall. The room she’d been given was on the right side about half-way down. She entered, put down her ruck, and started stripping off her flight suit.

She pulled the hood of her deadsuit up and held her breath as the mask settled into place. Once it started cycling her air and damping her heat signature to ambient, Seabrook unpacked her compromiser and a small holdout pistol, then slipped the empty ruck into the expandable backpack of the suit. Deadsuits scrambled her image on the cams and would spoof heat-sensors, but wouldn’t do anything for actual eyes-on observers.

She used the compromiser to kill the door logs and returned to the hall. Instead of heading to the lift, Seabrook made her way to the emergency shaft and ran the compromiser over the panel. It took a bit longer than the hatch to her quarters, but eventually popped. The emergency escape shafts were meant to be easy to open, but Seabrook didn’t want the automated escape protocol activating. She entered and started up the ladder.

“How we doing for time?” she asked, breathing easily.

“Good. I’ll start hailing the rep in about two minutes.”

“Thought he was going to hit on me.”

Gates grinned, glad she couldn’t see him. “Me too. Good job keeping it professional.”

“Men. My figure is about as obscured as it gets wearing this thing under a flight suit, yet you still want some action.”

“Hey, you won’t catch me ogling.”

“So you admit you have been?”

“I admit nothing.”

Seabrook chuckled, came to a halt. She tapped a command into her compromiser. The live feed from it was simulcast to his feed, taking the place of her view. The hallway outside the emergency hatch wasn’t empty: a thick-necked man, his entire being screaming goon, stood at the end, right in front of the hatch to Morgan’s.

Poor placement, a part of Gates’ mind reflected even as Seabrook cursed under her breath.

“That’s not good,” Seabrook said.

“No, it’s not. Ideas?”

“Should have checked the security system before making a move, dammit!” her frustration was quiet, but no less intense for it.

“Couldn’t risk tipping them off before you got on-site. Any new ideas?”

“Screw it, I’ll do it now.”

“It?”

“Tap in and take over the system. I’ll get this guy out of the way. Be ready to pick up the pieces.”

“You sure?”

“Gates, don’t ask me that. You want this jackass or not?”

“You know the answer.”

“Then shut up and let me work.” Seabrook leaned against the far side of the shaft, stripped the flexible keyboard from her compromiser, and set to work.

Gates’ comm showed another incoming transmission. He took the call. “Vagra Five Five —” it took Gates a moment to recognize the Avenger’s identifier, ”— this is Harmony Maintenance Station Alpha. We show your course as an intercept. Do you require service?”

Gate keyed the mic, “Harmony Maintenance, this is Vagra Five-Five. My ship does need maintenance, can you send me a list of services and your rates for an Avenger?”

“Certainly.”

“Thanks. Do you have an open berth?”

“Yes, sir, what do you need?”

“I’m a few hours over the scheduled maintenance on my drives.”

“How many?”

“A couple hundred.”

An almost suppressed snort, “Just a few, eh?”

“Money’s tight just now.”

“Well, we have plans for every budg–“

“I’m in, Gates,” Seabrook’s transmission over-rode the service call.

“All right, I was just on th–“

“Yeah, he’s not going to be calling you back, bigger problems just started lighting up his boards. I’m going in. Be ready.”

“Copy.” Gates pushed the throttle up.

In the feed, Seabrook took a deep breath and pressed a final key. The station’s emergency sirens started blaring, deafening even through the speakers.

In the security cam, the goon turned toward the hatch to Morgan’s room.

Seabrook popped the emergency hatch and launched herself at the goon. She was on him, fast: open hands connecting with his shoulder, arm and back. The deadsuit discharged with a dull crackle each time she struck. The goon sagged to the floor, out cold after the second strike. The third was either caution or nerves; either way, Gates approved.

The hatch opened under her hand.

Morgan was standing, naked and bleary-eyed, in the middle of a small, unfurnished room that certainly looked like a prison cell.

Relief flooded Gates, surprising him. Guess I hadn’t realized how much I hated the thought of his betraying me.

“Morgan, you want out?” Seabrook asked.

“Hell, yes!”

“On me, then,” she turned and started for the emergency hatch.

“Where we going?” he asked, following her.

“Out.”

“Out!? I ain’t even dressed!”

“I noticed, but the last thing you need just now is clothes.”

“No?”

She pulled the hatch open. “Emergency bubbles ain’t that big, you know.”

“Damn,” he said, turning to face Seabrook, then back to the emergency tube.

Something coughed several times in quick succession. A red hole appeared in Morgan’s chest. Red spattered the inside of the lift tube behind him.

Seabrook grunted, swung around and raised her pistol, snapping several shots down the hall. Gates had a glimpse of the open lift door and a fresh pair of goons standing inside, one of them holding a carbine.

Both goons ducked back into cover. Seabrook shoved Morgan through the open hatch, watched as the automated life-pod system deployed. Morgan, blood smearing the life-pod, shot from view as the system sent him to safety.

More mechanical coughing from behind Seabrook. She staggered against the hatch, grunted, “Damn, that stings.”

Realization struck Gates: The goons are using frangible bullets to avoid piercing the habitat — pounding on her, but the deadsuit should hold.

She rounded on them, sent them back into cover with several more shots, then stepped into the emergency chute, slamming the hatch closed. The pod activated, quickly surrounding her.

Gates slowed, saw Morgan’s pod shoot from the station, and altered course to pick him up. That done, he set up a comm link, “Morgan?”

A cough, a wet, organic one this time, then: “Look at that, I’m bleeding.” Another cough, “Gates. Should have known it would be you. I’m sorry. Don’t have much time, so listen: Commander Gilles Stroller, Naval Intelligence. He’s the inside man. Based on Nemo. Got the address for you … Get him … Make him pay …”

 


 

Gates waited in the underwater transit tube connecting Nemo Prime with the suburb Stroller called home. That house was too tough a nut to crack on short notice, so he and Seabrook had decided on taking Stroller here.

“Go.”

Gates gathered himself and leapt across the tube. He slid on landing, the maintenance stanchion slick with moisture. He barely managed to get his feet under him before a transit pod swept by.

“Close,” Seabrook opined.

“Yes,” Gates grated.

“Two minutes.”

“Copy.”

Gates set to work. Clearing ten years of seeping ooze was filthy work, but he had to be sure the modules were placed precisely.

“Thirty seconds.”

“Copy.”

“Ten.”

He placed the last module and jumped back across. Another slip bounced him off the tube wall. He staggered, the pod nearly raking his back as it hummed past.

“All right, everything’s in place,” Gates said, hands panic-tight on the rungs.

“Going live in two.”

“Clearing.” Gates put hands and feet on the outside of the ladder, letting his weight drive a rapid descent, retrieval line hissing out from his harness at the shoulders. He stopped at the next maintenance platform, leaning back against the sweating tube wall.

The problem with taking someone from Navy Intelligence down, Gates reflected, _is that they are already prone to a certain level of justifiable paranoia.

Especially if, as in Stroller’s case, they’re traitorous scum. Even more so if you want him alive. Easier by far to put a laser beam through Stroller’s heart, harder to keep him alive for questioning._

“Live,” Seabrook said.

The next private transport pod to pass the magnetic modules he’d placed derailed, missing its transfer point and dropping ten meters down the maintenance shaft in a sudden free fall.

On-board safety measures kicked in, meant to slow the pod to a survivable stop. Gates stepped from the gantry onto the roof of the still-decelerating pod. Bending, he yanked the emergency hatch up and away.

Gunshots echoed loudly in the tube, rounds shattering against the combing and hatch. Frangibles. Sensible in pressurized environments where thirty meters of water would make a tiny hole a massive problem.

Gates grinned. Shoot first, eh? Damn fast reactions. He dropped the riot grenade into the pod and slapped the hatch back into place.

The grenade went off in a series of disorienting flashes accompanied by a warbling shriek that would make a deaf man’s ears bleed. Gates let it go on a few seconds, then threw the hatch open again. When no gunshots greeted him, he jumped into the smoke-filled pod, deactivating the grenade.

He found Stroller already climbing empty-handed to his feet.

Gates dropped a hammer fist into his brachial plexus, gloves discharging.

Stroller dropped the gun and grunted, but rolled with the blow, catching Gates on the chest with his opposite fist.

The punch didn’t hurt so much as surprise. Stroller should have gone down with that first strike.

Insulators.

Gates smiled.

Better this way.

He snapped a knee up, aiming for Stroller’s face.

The traitor swayed, grunted again as he took the knee on his upper chest.

Gates’ estimation of the other man’s fighting skills went up a notch as Stroller used the power of the blow to help drive himself erect. Stroller had several centimeters and several kilos on him, but was still groggy from the grenade.

Maximizing his limited advantages, Gates threw a combination at Stroller, pressing him hard in the limited space of the pod.

The traitor managed to get a grip on Gates’ arm, drove an elbow into his bicep.

It was Gates’ turn to grunt. A following forearm clipped his head, making stars come out.

Gates swayed back, pulling his nearly-limp arm free before reversing direction and driving a head-butt into Stroller’s face. He felt teeth snap under his forehead and knew Stroller was unconscious even before he sagged to the floor.

Blood from his forehead dripping onto Stroller’s jacket, Gates bent and slapped the restraints on. The heat-activated memory-metal restraints quickly expanded to enfold the man’s wrists, cinching them tight together before creeping around his waist to connect in front. Gates clipped Stroller’s restraint to his own harness.

“Two minutes.”

“Copy.” Gates pulled Stroller tight, stood up, and promptly staggered sideways, a wave of dizziness threatening to make him puke. He worked on it a moment, figured he wouldn’t puke if he moved sideways to get under the emergency opening, and eased over.

Hard-headed I might be, but damn, I won’t do that again. Swallowing bile, Gates set himself, muttered, “Clear us.”

“Copy.”

The retrieval line went taut, started hauling them in. Gates bashed his shoulder on the hatch combing, and he had to pull one of Stroller’s broken incisors out of his forehead, but aside from that the extraction went smoothly.

Less than two hours later Gates stood across from Stroller’s unconscious form, administering a shot. He closed the medical case but left it on the table between them, not because he thought it would be successful — most Navy Intelligence types had some familiarity with interrogation techniques — but because the threat was often more useful than actual violence, medical or otherwise.

“Mrph …”

“Stroller, wake up.”

“Uh?”

His vital signs were good. He was awake. Not fully aware, but awake. The drugs would loosen Stroller’s hold on courage, but there was a limit to their effectiveness. Dulling the mind could lead to a lack of recollection. So Gates decided to lay out a story for the traitor; to play a character Stroller would find easy to believe.

“You pissed off the wrong people, Stroller.”

Stroller groaned, lisped, “Wh-What?”

Gates slowed his delivery, pasted a wide grin on his face. “You pissed off the wrong people.”

The lisping reply tried for cold anger, came out sounding plaintive: “You’ll let me go, you know what’s good for you: the Navy comes down on those that hurt their own.”

Gates hid a sigh of relief. First mistake. Never, ever open your mouth to say anything during an interrogation but your name and rank. This is going far easier than I’d hoped. “Come on, Stroller, the Navy doesn’t give a fart in a spacesuit about you. You left their protection when you started working with us. In fact, they’ll probably applaud our removing you, once we make it clear you broke faith with them.”

Stroller looked confused, “Us?”

“Our employers, of course,” Gates said, keeping the big smile in place. “Well, in your case I suppose I should say: former secondary employers.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stroller lisped past his broken teeth.

Gates snorted. “Yes, you do. The ones who’ve padded your accounts quite nicely. You know, the ones set up in your daughter’s name.” Gates read the bump in Stroller’s vitals when he mentioned that little bit of data. He made a mental note to thank Seabrook.

“Thoo … So, what did they tell you I did?”

Gates laughed, “It doesn’t matter, really. See, all this consolidation, all the groups under one roof? It couldn’t last. There’s a split in the organization at the system-wide level, and I’m on the winning side. You are not.”

“System, only? Then I–I can be of use, run coverage for you, same as I was doing for Whittaker. I’m not his, by any means. Who is it you’re working for, Chambliss? He knows me, knows the quality of my information.”

Filing the names away, Gates shrugged, “You aren’t making much of a case for yourself.”

“I —”

Gates waved a languid hand, “We have our own sources, ones that we can rely on that aren’t just working with us to save their hides. Besides, I was told to find out what you know and dispose of you if you proved a threat to the new, improved organization.”

Fear lit in Stroller’s eyes. “I’m no threat.”

“I was given wide latitude to decide that. You were not. And see,” Gates smiled again, “here’s the thing: no one said anything about how I dispose of you,” a caress of the medical case, “so I thought I’d play a bit before getting to that point.”

Stroller swallowed. “What?”

“I do so like my little games,” Gates said, opening the case and grinning into it like a pervert presented with his favorite perversions.

“I’ll give you the local leadership, where they live, who their mistresses are, all of it, if you’ll just let me work for you.”

Gates didn’t bother to look at Stroller. “We already have the names of those we need to take down, it’s how we found you.”

“Anything!”

Gates pretended to consider that, eventually shrugged. “No, I don’t think you know anything sufficiently important to make me give up on the one thing that makes my job so much fun.” Gates reached into the case.

“The top leadership, all of it, from every system! They’re gonna be on a ship at the end of next month!”

Too easy, I had thought Navy Intelligence was made of sterner stuff … Gates let his anger show, left his hand in the case.

“_The White Stag_, a corporate liner, that’s the ship!”

“And why would my bosses not know about that?”

“Turner just announced it, the message traffic showed up in my monthly packet. I hadn’t yet forwarded it to anybody. You can confirm it, easy!”

Gates let his lip curl, “Really?”

“Really. Hadn’t you ever wondered how your people were able to coordinate with outside organizations without Advocacy pukes tripping to it? It’s me, man, I’m the one handling the information, so you can’t kill me. I’m too important.”

“Tell me everything, then I’ll decide if you’re worth keeping alive.”

 


 

Gates was growing tired of Nemo, or at least the tiny patch of it he and Seabrook had gone to ground in. The safe house was spartan, yes, but that was to be expected. Seabrook was fine as a housemate, though she had disappeared into the nets as soon as she believed it safe to do so. That left him only Stroller’s statement and Morgan’s dying declaration for distraction, and they weren’t helping much to contain his mounting impatience. He could only listen to Morgan’s last moments so many times without wanting to kill Stroller, and Stroller was no longer on hand for the killing. Gates had the man shipped him off to Special Action’s blackest holding cells, the ones set aside for traitors awaiting trial.

Stroller had given up a lot before he’d been shipped. There was a meet planned for next month. Les Inconnus leadership was looking to integrate the heads of a couple of new slaver organizations into the fold, and had a meeting set up on the White Stag. It had all gone in the report, along with Seabrook’s assurances that she’d managed to cover for Stroller’s absence by planting transfer papers into his file and answering his mail with the data he’d provided them.

It’s driving me mad, this waiting for a response from Vasser!

There was a knock at the front door.

Gates pulled his sidearm and glanced across at Seabrook. No one is supposed to know we’re here, let alone come calling. She tapped a command into her terminal, checking the security feed. She nodded at Gates. Because he wasn’t the trusting sort, he still kept the pistol ready as he opened the door. He nearly dropped it when he saw who was standing on the front step.

“Gates,” Vasser said, brushing past him.

“Ma’am,” Gates muttered, still off balance.

“Seabrook.”

Gates closed the door, tried to get his thoughts moving.

Vasser looked back at him, “Good to see you’re recovered.”

“Thanks, Ma’am.”

“Unfortunately, it’s the only good thing about this visit.”

Gates opened his mouth, but she held up a hand to stop him: “Look, Internal Investigations Division, in the person of one Agent Jakob Neustedt, made a run at me last week, at almost exactly the same time your report hit my MobiGlas —” she paused, held the device up, showing it was in active recording mode, and giving both her agents a chance to think about the timing of that bit of news before resuming: “I told him to walk out the airlock, that it was under my direct orders and supervision. My associates at headquarters are saying that IID is now looking at ‘fiduciary inconsistencies’ in Special Action. They listed Seabrook’s Caterpillar as one of those irregularities.”

“How the hell?” Seabrook blurted.

Gates kept his mouth shut, anger building as he worked through the implications.

Vasser shook her head, “As I was the one gave the order, I felt I owed it to you both to tell you face to face: we can’t continue against Les Inconnus while this crap is going on. They clearly have people with clout on payroll, and those people will tip off the targets as soon as we move.”

“Understood,” Gates said, holding his temper tight.

Seabrook shook her head, “Someone in IID is working for them and we have to call it off?”

“If some Advocacy agent is working for or with them, I can’t prove it, yet. Therefore Special Action is not undertaking any investigation of Les Inconnus until I can clear it. Am I understood?”

“Understood,” Gates repeated, letting out a long, slow breath.

“What!?” Seabrook barked at him. “You were the one who said we had to move, that taking them down wa–”

He spoke over her: “Yes, I did say that.” Gates gestured at Vasser, “The Special Agent in Charge just told us Special Action is no longer on the case.”

“I’ll follow orders … but … it’s …” Seabrook spluttered.

Gates turned to Vasser, clicking heels together. “Thank you, Agent Vasser, for personally informing us.”

Vasser nodded, “You’re welcome. I am sorry I can’t offer more comforting news.”

“Understood,” Gates said, decision made.

“Seabrook, I have a seat for you on the shuttle departing in five hours. I have other business to attend in the meantime.”

Understood.

Seabrook looked back and forth between Vasser and Gates, clearly puzzled.

Vasser left without another word.

“What the hell, Gates?”

He paused a moment before replying, wanting to get it right. “Vasser’s hands are tied, Seabrook. She had to give the order to stand down, and do so on the record. Remember, she had her MobiGlas on and active. If she hadn’t, then she wouldn’t be able to deny responsibility for what I’m going to do.”

“Wait, what?”

“Think about what she said.”

“She said we —”

“No, she didn’t. Think. Her exact words were …”

“She said —” her eyes shot wide. “She said Special Action.”

“Exactly. And I’m on suspension. As in: not even Advocacy.”

“But, that’s messed up.”

He snorted. “Don’t like the heat this close to the sun, change your orbit.”

Seabrook’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What are you going to do, Gates?”

“I’m going to take them down, of course.”

“Call it what it is: you mean to kill them.”

He cocked his head, just looked at her.

“I didn’t sign up for murder. We’re not above the law.”

Gates nodded, “You’re right, we aren’t above it. That said, there’s a separate law for this.”

She sniffed. “Gates, do you actually listen to yourself, sometimes?”

“Look, Seabrook, I’ve been around a long, long time. Longer, probably, than the people you called dinosaurs when you were coming through the Academy. One thing I learned at the knee of the agents I called dinosaurs back when: we can never allow the murder of Advocacy agents to go unpunished. Never. Not once. Usually that means making an arrest and walking someone into a prison cell. Sometimes that means going all the way: off the charts and into the big black, and maybe not coming back. Stroller’s information gives us a shot at the leadership. I’m taking it.”

“It’s not right, Gates.”

“Agent Max Nawabi. Agent Gage Knowles.”

She blanched. He was sure she’d have controlled her shock better if he’d slapped her.

“They are what this is about. Nawabi and Knowles, and making sure Les Inconnus don’t make any more like them.”

She held up a hand in surrender, “All right. I understand. I won’t go shooting my mouth off.”

He nodded, once. “I didn’t think you would.”

She turned away.

“And Seabrook: you’re good people.”

“Screw you, Gates!” she said under her breath. Reaching for her console, Seabrook hunched over the table and started typing.

Gates shrugged. Pacifiers come in all shapes and sizes, I suppose.

“Sorry,” she muttered, “just getting a few things you might find useful.”

“You sure that’s a good idea? I mean, I appreciate it, but Vasser won’t be happy if she has to cover for your ass after that talk.”

She turned and leveled a dark look at him, “You really think I’m that slow? That I don’t know how to dance the data to pick up a few items without it leading back to us?”

“Sorry,” he said, meaning it. “It’s not my area of expertise.”

“I know, it’s mine,” she said, turning back to the comp.

“I’ll just start packing, then.”

“You do that.”

When he returned a few minutes later, she was done and on her way to her room. She said nothing to him. Even so, he heard the accusation in the silence.

He put it away, sat down in the front room and pulled out his MobiGlas. Time to set my people digging. They made a mistake coming after Vasser, now there’s a chance my people can work backward from that point of contact. If there’s an after for me, it’d be helpful to know who Neustedt sold his soul to.

Angelique can start working Senator Yaldiz’s contacts from that end, see if there’s something the Senate Oversight Committee on Advocacy Affairs might do with the knowledge Neustedt is working with Les Inconnus.

He sent Angelique’s message and started going through the mental list of his other contacts. He typed Zara’s address in. Might come across a thing or two as well, with her ties among the corporate lobbyists. Best tap her as well, since Stroller confirmed the corporate connection Seabrook revealed. She still owes me big for keeping her and her corporate clients out of the newsfeeds on the Holbrook case.

He was sending the last message when Seabrook spoke from behind him: “Still using the old protocols?”

Gates looked over his shoulder at her. From the drawn look to her, she’d been thinking about hard choices and harsher realities. He didn’t feel good about opening that particular door for her. He remembered, too well, having the same thing done to him. They were not pleasant memories.

He realized he’d left her question unanswered for too long. “They work, last I checked?” Gates said, wondering how his answer ended up a question.

Seabrook smiled, “Oh, it works quite well, given enough message traffic to bury it in.”

“Good. Our earlier conversation had me worried.”

“Had I known we weren’t going to be working together, I’d have shown you a few tricks.”

“You may have noticed, being an agent and paid to notice things, but I’m an old man. Learning new things does not come easy for me, or for those trying to teach me.”

Seabrook snorted and reached for his MobiGlas, “You mind?”

He handed it over without showing too much hesitation.

She punched several keys, then handed it back to him. An image of an ID and passcode appeared on the screen. “I set up a blind account for you. Check it in a few days, there’ll be something for your use … call it … call it my contribution to the cause.”

 


 

“That’s got it,” Ferrera said, the strained hum of his tractor beam generator underlining the statement.

“Very good, Captain.” Gates tried not to look at the gaping wound of the 325’s cockpit. He had to consciously force his hands to relax from the fists they’d made on seeing the wreck.

Hard to believe I made it through that.

“Damn, but she took a beating,” Ferrara observed, looking at the readouts.

“Yes, she did,” Gates was surprised at how level he managed to keep his voice.

“Any idea what —“

Gates spoke over the salvage man, “I have an idea, sure: it involves you asking questions when you agreed not to, and the provisions of our contract that allow me to deduct from your fee for every single question you ask.”

Ferrara closed his mouth and busied himself with the nav comp.

Gates felt a twinge of regret. Shouldn’t step so hard on the salver, might need some good will before all is said and done.

Finished plotting a course back to his station, Ferrera spoke. “Going to be a day or so before I can pull her into the shop.”

“That was allowed for. Any comms from the shop?”

“No, the deliveries you’re expecting haven’t arrived yet.”

Gates nodded. Good. Don’t want that stuff on site before I’m there to supervise the unpacking and get on the repairs myself.

Never thought I’d be grateful to Special Agent Constantine for pulling me off Special Action’s flight team and forcing me to work Maintenance and Repair on the Black Box. He struggled a moment, trying to remember what it was he’d done to earn that particular punishment. Oh, yeah, the Hadrian incident …

Coming back to the present, Gates found his gaze drifting to the cockpit of the 325 again. Suppressing a shiver, he crossed his arms across his chest.

Get a grip, Gates. Les Inconnus even did you a favor — the repairs will be easier with most of the armor already stripped or cooked off.

Somehow, that was small comfort.

* * *

Thirty-six hours later, the 325’s cockpit was restored and Gates was getting ready to pressurize the living spaces. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional.

He had the use of one of Ferrera’s salvage frames to himself, and was keeping it unpressurized and free of gravity to ensure no one just walked in on him.

He’d found the challenging physical labor helped set aside the fear that wearing a vac suit lit him up with. He didn’t like to think about how he’d react to getting in the pilot’s seat.

I’m gonna need some serious down-time when this is over.

In the meantime — Gates activated the life-support system. It held steady amber, indicating the system was charging the compartments with breathable atmosphere and hadn’t detected any leaks. He climbed around the framework to the wing, examining the site of his next project. The cooked missile pods.

“Mister Zerezghi?” the suit comm crackled with the cover name Gates was using.

“Yes?”

“Your parts are here.”

“Good. Push it in the airlock and leave it to me, I’ll take care of it.”

“Will do, Mister Zerezghi. You hungry?”

Gates realized he hadn’t eaten since starting work some eight hours past. “In an hour or so. Checking life-support now.”

“You work fast.”

“Needs must, when the devil drives.”

“I hear you. I’ll have something ready for you in an hour.”

“Thanks.”

* * *

Gates tossed the empty food carton into the recycler and activated his MobiGlas. He had two new messages. The first was from Angelique:

I’m on it, Armi. My friend got a bit spooked when I asked her about it, said the man you’re asking after is protected from on high. I’ll let you know as soon as I learn anything.

The postscript was interesting: Oh, and congratulate me — I managed to quit the stuff.

Good for you, Gates thought. He said as much in the return message, typed while using the head.

The second message was from Seabrook. The heavily encrypted message took a moment for Gates’ MobiGlas to process: Gates, I know we aren’t supposed to talk, but if this message is intercepted, we need to hire whoever manages it! Just don’t reply. Your decrepit encoding will get stripped first thing. Anyway, I had to tell you: Stroller’s interrogation led to another name, a high-level hitter for Les Inconnus name of Jahangir Kung. Everything indicates he’s the ‘corporate security contractor’ who uncovered Agents Nawabi and Knowles. I like him for their murders, and he’s also listed as Chief of Security for the White Stag.

On the other thing: I got you the funds you need for your ‘big purchase’ (I don’t think I want to know), but you’ve tapped me out completely.

Things are adding up. Good luck.

Smiling, Gates was back at work in minutes.

* * *

The air hissed out of Gates’s borrowed pressure suit.

That’s quite a wake up call, you moron!

The hiss became a high squeal, then cut off entirely as the suit sealed itself.

Pushing too hard. Too tired. Yawning, he’d let his grip on the cutting torch slip, holing the suit above the opposite forearm.

Hands trembling, he shut down the torch.

Lucky, stupid, clumsy, tired, old man. Time to call it a night.

Feeling every one of his many years, Gates left the bay.

* * *

He slept for eight solid, got up, and was at it again within the hour.

The missile pods were so much fused junk, which was easily solved by cutting them loose. Ferrera could salvage them for the material if nothing else.

He wasted the next few hours in mind-searing frustration trying to fit the new pods before realizing he’d misread the schematics. Cursing, he corrected the simple issue and linked the ship to the new systems.

The attitude thrusters were next on the list. Four of them had to be scrapped, and two were looking a little anemic. Ferrara had secured three new thrusters and a pair of salvaged ones Gates would prefer not to use.

The main drive had, for a miracle, not been directly damaged in the fight. The comp links had been ravaged, however, and would need replacement.

His comm activated, “Another shipment, Mister Z.”

“Same routine, please.”

“I ain’t touching this one, Mister Z.”

“Oh?”

“My hazmat detectors say the contents are milspec explosives. Quite a large quantity.”

“I’m on it, thanks.” He made sure the thruster was in place before leaving.

* * *

“That’s some serious gear, Mister Z.”

“I know. It’s for serious business.”

“Just sayin’.”

“And I hear you. There’s nothing that can be traced back to you.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“I mean it.”

Ferrera shrugged. “Again, it’s not your ass going to get worked over if it’s otherwise.”

Gates rolled his neck, tried to relax, force himself not to go where instinct wanted to take him. Instead he said, “Ferrera, I give you my word, this will not come back on you.”

Ferrera went still, realizing too late that he’d made Gates start thinking of him as a potential problem. Problems in this kind of thing usually had simple, fatal solutions.

“I’m sorry, Mister Z. It’s my natural state to worry.”

“I get that, and I can only say I’m doing everything I can to make sure this doesn’t come back on you,” Gates hiked a thumb at his chest, “And I’ve been doing this a while.”

Ferrera looked at Gates a good long time, but eventually nodded. “I accept your word. I’m sorry to have doubted you.”

“I understand your concern. I’ll be out of your hair in forty-eight hours, assuming the test-flight goes without a hitch.”

“Want to eat?” Ferrera asked.

Gates accepted the olive branch.

* * *

An hour later he was back at work, pushing even harder. Ferrera might not — probably won’t — betray me, but the sooner I’m off, the better for everyone.

Each thruster wasn’t too difficult to hook up, but making sure they were properly linked to the comp was time consuming. Gates managed to get the new thrusters installed and working properly. The two thrusters he’d thought to salvage proved beyond his ability to save. Disappointed, he went ahead with installing the used ones Ferrera had found. The first required some tinkering before it would function properly, but worked out. The other fit perfectly and the first time, surprising him.

Despite the late hour, Gates started on the weapons systems. One of the Omnisky VIIs had been destroyed outright and two of the others were off-line because the power coupling had been destroyed. The new cannon proved harder to replace than the coupling, but not by much.

The mass driver had ammo feed problems that occupied his every waking moment for the next day and well into the next night before he was able to resolve them.

The enhanced sensor suite he’d had was blown, but he managed to get basic fire control and navigation sensors back in working order by the simple expedient of replacing the entire system.

* * *

“She’s ready to go,” Gates said as his host entered the galley. He’d taken the time to lay out breakfast for the two of them.

“Ahead of schedule?” Ferrera asked, scrubbing sleep from his eyes. “Ever thought about salvage work? I could use someone works as hard as you.”

“I’ll keep the offer in mind, if I’m back this way,” Gates said. I may actually need work, if I make it through. Suspension is likely the least of the punishments that’ll be in order if Angelique can’t come through for me on the other side of this.

“You going to test-fly her?”

“Yes, but if it doesn’t need work, I won’t be back,” Gates said, holding out a coffee.

Ferrera grinned as he took the drink. “If you really screwed up the repairs, you may not be able to come back.”

That startled a laugh from Gates. “True.”

“You got everything you need?”

“Yes. And I left you a bit of a bonus, for your trouble.”

“Thanks. Unnecessary, but thanks.”

“You did everything I asked you to, and without complaint.”

Another grin, “More or less.”

Gates answered with his own smile, “Yeah, more or less.”

* * *

The 325 handled just as well as it did before, it was his own state of mind that concerned him. Never had nerves like that, just putting on a damn flight suit. Better not happen when things kick off. Got to be ready …

 


 

The White Stag appeared on the edge of his passive sensor envelope. He’d been on station for two days, waiting for this moment, sleep troubled with recurring images of his cockpit canopy shattering, waking hours spent fearing Les Inconnus had discovered Stroller was compromised. It took longer than it should have, but the White Stag’s escorts slowly appeared, like drops of blood, on the nav plot. He went over the readings: the White Stag was a Drake Industries light passenger liner, about the size of a Navy frigate and designed to transport a better class of tourist or a party of corporate executives in speed and relative safety. She would have strong shields and excellent point defense, but almost no offensive weaponry. She was straight-line fast, and nimble for a vessel her size.

Another full minute passed before his sensors tagged the escorts as Cutlasses. With four Cutlasses along, destroying the White Stag would be impossible if his plan didn’t pan out. Les Inconnus must have a contract with Drake Industries, the number of Cutlasses they field.

More minutes passed. The plot updated again, target and entourage moving in-system from the jump point. Gates sighed with relief. The White Stag’s heading confirmed Stroller’s information: the ship was supposed to rendezvous with another carrying the local Nexus leadership somewhere among the scattered rocks of the system’s sole asteroid belt.

For now, more waiting.

Four hours later, Gates adjusted position, trusting that his tags would show he was just a mining prospector. It wouldn’t stand up once they took a direct read on his ship, but he had to hope they weren’t likely to take a close look until it was too late.

The White Stag’s skipper had other things on his mind, anyway: the system boat the local Les Inconnus bosses were using to meet their counterparts had recently arrived and was now leaving the larger vessel’s grip. It took up station about 100 klicks away, presumably to await the end of the meeting. Not a combat craft, so Gates chose to ignore it, but its escorts remained with the White Stag, bringing the total to six.

Sweating in his flight suit, Gates continued the slow, nearly parallel approach.

An hour ground away at his nerves.

The better part of another.

Gates was nearly in active sensor range. Still no indication they’d figured out where he was. His ship was fast approaching the point where he’d have to alter course to keep closing. He’d been running passive targeting solutions on the escorts for the last hour, planning to distract as many as he could, then saturate the remaining defenses with missiles while he went straight in on the liner.

That was the plan, anyway.

Damn, but I never sweat this much. He cracked his neck, first one side then the other, popping vertebrae in an attempt to calm down. Get it together, Arminius! There’s work to be done and no on else to do it. One clean strike to cut the head from the beast. One action to hold back the continuing tide of lawlessness and disorder. One fight, nothing beyond this moment, this trial by combat.

Not wanting to give himself time to think about it, Gates grabbed his helmet and jammed it on in one nervous motion.

Judging the moment, Gates triggered the simple remote. Well ahead of the White Stag, Saint Claire’s Kiss ignited its drives and started accelerating at a snail’s pace toward the liner. The tramp freighter hadn’t been the most expensive thing Gates had purchased for this operation, but he’d made sure Zhou was well-compensated. Fair was fair.

The seal between helmet and flight-suit wasn’t fully closed when Gates opened the channel and started talking through the empty hauler’s comms: “White Stag, this is Captain Trevor of the Saint Claire’s Kiss. We believe we have something you’ll have an interest in.”

Saint Claire’s Kiss, this is Captain Jahangir Kung, commanding White Stag’s escorts.”

The murdering bastard himself. Good. Gates kept the smile from his voice, “Don’t want to talk to you, want to talk your bosses.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Well then, I suppose they don’t care what Gates had to say when we caught him.”

A delay of a few moments, then: “Might be you do have something we need to discuss.”

The drive signatures of four of the escorts intensified, courses set to overtake Saint Claire’s Kiss.

A few minutes more.

Gates let go of the trigger. Saint Claire’s Kiss stopped adding thrust.

“How did you come to be in possession of the man?”

“He didn’t pay promptly.”

A barking laugh, then: “You were one of the ones hit our station?”

“Could be. Could be I just have someone you want, for an equitable price.”

The escorts were closing fast, already in missile range.

“I don’t know, could be we just take your ship out with a couple missiles.”

“Sure, but then you wouldn’t learn what Gates had to say about a turncoat in your organization he was using to secure intel for bounties. How do you think I knew to be here?”

“Oh?” Kung asked, clearly hoping for more.

“Not that easy. Six hundred thousand credits and safe passage and you’ll get it all: Gates, with whatever he learned about your operations.”

Several moments passed in silence, probably Kung asking his bosses for permission.

“All right, I’ll bite. Prepare to be boarded.”

“Just don’t try and change the terms of the deal, hear?”

“Right, Kung out.”

The four Cutlasses closed in, one preparing to dock with the ugly little freighter. Gates flipped the switch below the drive trigger on his remote.

Saint Claire’s Kiss, her drive, and the explosives with which Gates had packed her detonated. Kung and another of the Cutlasses disappeared into the expanding ball of ravening plasma, while the remaining two were clearly disabled, drives flickering.

Just the right amount of bang for my credits, I think. Damn stuff was more expensive than Saint Claire’s Kiss — gotta be sure to thank Seabrook properly!

Only two escorts remained on the White Stag, and those were distracted by the death of their commander. Satisfaction flooding him, Gates used that distraction to start launching his missiles as fast as the pods would cycle. As the final missile parted from its cradle he changed course, heading directly for the White Stag and pushing the throttle to the stops.

Two minutes to cannon range.

The closer escort turned into the missiles boring in on her, trying to narrow her sensor profile. The pilot was doing everything right, launching countermeasures even as the first of Gates’ missiles, now in active tracking mode, closed.

Gates checked on his quarry: the White Stag was launching her own countermeasures, the captain making sure she wasn’t getting hit.

The nearer Cutlass had avoided the first missile only to take the second one square on the nose. Shields dead, the first missile looped back to explode just aft of her, shredding the primary drive.

It took Gates a moment to find the other escort. When he did, he snarled.

Damn smart. The Cutlass was tight alongside the White Stag, where the larger vessel could use her her point defense guns to protect the escort from Gates. First one, then another of his missiles were burned from space. But by then Gates was close enough to start hammering the larger vessel with everything he had.

He had the aft shields nearly down when his ECM suite blatted a warning. The Cutlass, looking for missile lock.

He swung the 325 into a looping spiral around the axis of his target, maintaining fire from all guns.

Just a little longer.

The warning tone warbled up to a screech, a missile incoming. Fear momentarily paralyzed Gates, mind’s eye replaying past battles. Each breath was suddenly as hard as sucking water from a rock.

He squeezed his eyes shut.

Get out from under it, Gates! No time for this shit!

He broke free of his paralysis with a shout only he could hear. Letting up on the firing stud, Gates slammed the 325 through another roll, exiting closer to the White Stag, so close as to be almost atop the liner’s shields.

The warning tone stopped abruptly as the canopy lit with a dull flare of light: the White Stag’s point defense lasers boiling the deadly missile into its constituent materials.

“See, two can play that game, you bastards!” Gates howled into his helmet.

He cranked the 325 ‘up’ and away from the liner, started battering the bigger vessel’s shields down, one eye on the Cutlass in his plot.

He began scoring hits through the shields, mass driver munitions vaporizing armor plate.

The White Stag spun along its axis, presenting fresh armor to Gates’ guns. He obliged the maneuver with more fire, tagging a shield generator.

The missile lock warning returned, started to doppler up again.

Gates maneuvered in tight with the liner again.

Too late, he realized the White Stag’s point defense systems weren’t firing.

Good coordination, damn them!

The missile detonated off his starboard side. The explosion pounded his shields flat and vaporized the armor all along that side of the 325.

Gates’ grin was feral: the White Stag had taken as much damage, if not more, than the 325. He inverted relative to the Cutlass, presenting his unmarked side to the escort.

The 325 shuddered, lashed by fire from the Cutlass. Ignoring it, Gates kept pouring fire into the wounded flank of the liner, blasts erupting deeper in the hull with every shot.

Just a little longer.

Another pounding, another set of warning lights. Gates adjusted position, started weaving back and forth across the liner’s drive nacelles, still firing steadily.

The Cutlass kept at it, as well.

An attitude thruster on the 325 disintegrated, causing a sudden slow-down in his weave. The next salvo of laser cannon fire meant for Gates lashed past and punched into the White Stag’s hull.

Something finally broke inside the White Stag, a sudden stuttering of her main drives making her slide from under Gates’ guns.

Gates sideslipped then pulled back on the stick. The Cutlass stayed with him through the upper part of the loop, started losing him at the apex. Gates tried to roll out behind his pursuer, but his remaining directional thrusters weren’t up to the task: he exited alongside the Cutlass instead of behind.

Wary of a collision, his adversary turned away, hard. It was the wrong thing to do. The Cutlass clipped one of the White Stag’s drives. The resultant explosion was shocking in its violence.

A massive chunk of one of the vessels — Gates was fairly sure it was part of the Cutlass – flew free of the spherical explosion toward Gates.

In the instant before impact, Gates threw his arms up, an animal’s reflex in the face of death.

Metal and ceramic met metal and ceramic with a crunching finality.

The cockpit went dark; so did Gates.

The rattling quality of his own breathing brought him back. Snorting air through a broken nose. Not the first time that’s happened, eh?

He blinked, tried to get his bearings. The cockpit had enough light to see drops of his own blood floating inside his helmet. It was the thick red of head-blood, already partially clotted.

Thoughts were sluggish: Gravity’s out.

Not good.

Last thing to go, more often than not. If it weren’t, spacers tended to make messy pancakes on the inside of their vessels.

Sudden fear rose up, threatened to drown him.

He let it win for a while.

At least, Gates told himself, he was letting it out.

He eventually managed to dig his medkit out and self-administer a shot of O&S.

Gates spent his last moments of consciousness screaming.

 


 

“Guilty.”

Stroller moaned a denial.

“Guilty.”

“Guilty,” the most senior judge of the Closed Tribunal Council announced her verdict with relish.

Always good to see someone enjoy their work, Gates thought. He was sitting alone in the darkened upper gallery of the tribunal court. Officially, he wasn’t even here. On suspension, he had no right to be present for matters presented here.

None of which had prevented him listening as Seabrook and a team of forensic data miners testified to Stroller’s crimes. Even before Seabrook had finished, Gates knew the judges would have no choice but to come to the proper conclusion.

Stroller started keening as the first judge passed sentence, “Gilles Conrad Stroller, in light of your conviction for treason and betrayal of the trust placed in you by the Navy, Citizens and state of the UEE, I sentence you to death by exposure to vacuum.”

Stroller was screaming denials as the second judge repeated the formula: “Gilles Conrad Stroller, in light of your conviction for treason and betrayal of the trust placed in you by the Navy, Citizens and state of the UEE, I sentence you to death by exposure to vacuum.”

The senior judge gestured at one of her clerks, who shut down the feed from Stroller’s cell. The convicted’s screaming cut off mid-squeal. The judge spoke for the record: “I concur with the sentence of my fellow judges, sentence to be carried out immediately.”

Strong emotions welled, mixed in him. Gates wasn’t all that clear on what he was feeling: satisfaction seemed too strong a word, as did vindication. He was, for lack of a better descriptor, at peace.

Getting up to leave, he saw Seabrook looking up at him from the lower gallery. Unsure what she wanted, Gates returned her gaze.

After a moment, Seabrook punched her chin in the direction of the exit.

He nodded, set out to meet her downstairs. His still-healing legs slowed him down, making it hard to walk, let alone hurry. The medboys said he’d done too much nerve damage too soon after his last stint in medbay. So much damage they considered it unlikely he’d ever regain full function. They had managed to replace the fingers he’d lost, though.

The other, though — the fear when I see a flight suit — don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put one on again, he thought, limping up to Seabrook.

He clicked heels, nodded to her. “Well done, Agent Seabrook.”

“Wouldn’t have happened without you, Gates.” She looked at his face, marked the spider web of fresh scars that would be with him for the foreseeable future. “Heard you had a rough go of it.”

He shrugged, gestured at the scars. “Just a little damage the medboys couldn’t clear up.” And because she deserved to know the full truth of it, he tapped his temple, “Aside from the psych pukes diddling around in here, I’ve been told I’m as well as I’ll get until my body decides to respond at the cellular level to further regenerative therapies.”

She didn’t — quite — manage to hide her wince. “But you did what you set out to.”

“Yes. I’m told that as soon as word arrived that the White Stag had been lost, the criminal organizations of no less than seven systems had sudden, violent changes in leadership or simply broke into smaller groups. We weren’t even aware Les Inconnus were in charge in a couple of the systems.”

She nodded, “I heard. What about IID? I heard Oda was dancing for joy when IID came to her with their investigation.”

Gates grinned. He’d seen the expression in the mirror, and knew that his scars assured the result was both lacking in humor and unnerving to the faint of heart. “Taken care of.”

Her brows shot up, “What, how?”

He waved a hand, “I have friends in low places and dark, mysterious powers of my own.”

She snorted.

“Just because I like to work the field doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to the techniques necessary to get ahead in office politics. Likewise: just because I don’t use my powers of darkness to gain position doesn’t mean I can’t use them for important things.”

“Full reinstatement?”

He gestured at his legs, “Not yet, but once I’m in shape to work, I’ll be at it again. Assuming Vasser will have me, of course.”

“She told me to talk to you.”

“Oh?” he asked, a bit stung.

She smiled, reading his reaction well, “Not that I wouldn’t have talked to you on my own, she just wanted me to tell you these exact words …” her brow furrowed as she recited: “Problem solved, but is the solution now a problem?” She looked at him. “Do you know what she meant?”

Gates nodded, chuckling.

“Care to share?”

“She wants to know if I’m ready to come back, and, when I do come back, will I be hunting the IID pukes that shut us down or ready to toe the line.”

“And?”

“Those friends, the ones in low places?”

She nodded, “Yes?”

“They’ve found a nice, out of the way hole to stuff Agent Neustedt into. I’m told they run supplies in once a year, whether the inmates want it or not.”

“But why would Vasser be worried you were after them if —”

“Oh, he’s not finished answering to the Senate Subcommittee on Advocacy Affairs, so Vasser doesn’t know what’s about to go down, but I have it on solid authority that he will be surprised at the results of the session, right up to when they clap him in restraints.”

That startled a laugh from her, “No, you didn’t!”

“Oh yes. Yes, I did.”

“Remind me never to tick you off.”

“I will be sure to do so. What about you?”

She sobered. “I’m still assigned to the Black Box, but there’s been some rumor about a transfer to HQ, Cybercrimes Division.”

“And what do you make of this talk?”

She shrugged, “I don’t know. Not all that sure I have the sand for Special Action anymore.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I’m not so sure I want to do our kind of work anymore. Hell, I’m not so sure I should have been doing it in the first place.”

Gates shook his head, “Now why would you say that?”

“I can’t do what you do.”

“No one’s asking you to. Look, you’re exactly the kind of agent the Advocacy needs in Special Action.”

She opened her mouth to deny him, but he kept on going, “And I mean it. When I started talking about going off and doing what had to be done, you checked me, forced me to think it through. And when I declared it was the right thing, you got out of the way, even backed me because I was a fellow agent going into harm’s way. To my mind, you showed all the qualities Vasser and Special Action need. And that’s before giving you credit for keeping your head when we were trying to spring Morgan and everything went sideways. No, I think you are just what Special Action needs, Seabrook.”

Seabrook looked half-convinced. “But I couldn’t operate under that, what did you call it? “Separate Law.” I just can’t.”

“Not for nothing, but do you think there might be a reason I’ve been around as long as I have?”

She laughed again, “Because you refuse to stop?”

“Seriously, though, can you hazard a guess?”

She shrugged.

“Because there are very few people who can do what I do. That can go out into the deep black and do the … things I do, then come back. Most people can’t —” he held his hands out, struggling to find the words, “— can’t get the stink off them enough to operate well under normal rules once they’ve gone off into the deep black. They go rogue, start wearing guts for garters, think they can make more money as hit men, that sort of crazy nonsense.” He looked Seabrook in the eye, “As many times as I’ve been made to step into the black, I’ve always come back.”

“Why?”

A deep sadness yawned wide in him. “Too stupid to live, too old to change, I suppose.”

She reached out, touched his arm, “That’s not an honest answer, not really.”

“No, it isn’t. Here’s a truth, though: when there’s someone who checks me at the airlock into the deep black, someone who asks whether what I’m about to do is right, it makes it a bit easier to find my way back. Someone like you, Agent Seabrook.”

She sniffed. Gates was pretty sure he saw the glitter of a tear before she looked away.

“Jesus, Gates, do you listen to yourself sometimes?”

“I try not to. That way lies madness.”

 


 

THE END

 


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Griffin Barber is a veteran police officer with a major police department. In his spare time, he tells fictional tales about far-away places and people he’ll never meet (mostly because they don’t exist). He’s had several short stories published in the 1632 Universe’s Grantville Gazette. His blog, The Ranting Griffin, is a good way to peek inside his skull, if you’re interested in such horrors.

Tagged: Griffin_Barber, A_Separate_Law, Fiction
Comments (0) | last updated on February 22, 2014

The Cup (complete)

The Cup

Hello everyone, and welcome once again to GSN Spectrum Broadcasting’s continuing coverage of the Murray Cup Race. The MCR, or The Cup as it is more commonly known, is one of the finest sporting events in the UEE. Nearly 100 racers compete in the Hare Division’s grueling 10 -stage run, which winds its way through Ellis System’s many wondrous planets and dual asteroid belts. Racers compete to determine who’s the fastest and strongest, as they struggle to maintain the integrity of their racecraft amid some of the deadliest conditions in the galaxy. This year’s competition promises to be one of the toughest, as the top 25 share in a meet-and-greet with media and sponsors in GSN’s sports atrium in orbit above Green. Though many come to race, only a few are considered real contenders, and those contenders are now awaiting their chance for glory and honor.

This year’s darling is Ykonde Remisk, a Human who surprised everyone by winning both the Goss Invitational and the Cassini 500. He comes into the MCR with a real chance to be the first racer to win the Triple Crown in twelve years. Then there is Shoo-ur Motak, the finest Xi’An racer in the history of the sport. If he prevails, he will be the first to ever win three MCRs in a row. Zogat Guul, the old Tevarin warhorse, can’t be counted out, either. This legend has won the MCR more than anyone else in its history, but fate and bad luck have prevented him from winning a major event in over five years. His second place finish at the Cassini 500, however, has brought his name back to prominence. Can he win it once more before he fades away? And finally, newcomer Hypatia Darring has surprised everyone by taking the pole position away from Remisk. She has never won a major racing event in her short career, but her consistent top ten showings for the last two years indicate that her pole position is no fluke.

Can this youngster handle the enormous pressure placed upon her? Only time will tell . . .

Let’s throw it back to GSN reporter Mike Crenshaw, who is making his way through the reception as we speak. Who do you have for us now, Mike?

More after the jump...

Hypatia Darring didn’t even notice the reporter’s question as she stared across the busy reception floor. The Tevarin looked to her like a lean, elegant gray post amid a gaggle of reporters who crowded around his thin body like pecking birds. She felt sorry for him. How silly was that feeling? To feel sorry for Zogat Guul. Ridiculous! I should feel the need to whip his ass, to blow past him on the final stage, to force his ship into an asteroid. That would be the feelings of a great racer, a great competitor, one focused and ready to win. But no. Try as she might, she could not feel that way toward this legend who stood only a few feet away. Much to her sorrow, she hadn’t had a chance to speak with him when their paths could have crossed at Cassini. Now, she had to find the time. She fought the urge to walk across the room, push past the media hounds, invite him to dinner, and ask him to sign the worn, faded, dog-eared poster of him in his youth — standing proudly next

She shook her head and blinked. “I’m sorry. Say again?”

Mike Crenshaw cleared his throat. “Do you think Admiral Darring is proud of his daughter?”

Darring clenched her teeth and forced a smile. “Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?”

“He has stated publicly more than once that he believes you are wasting your talents as a racer. That you should drop all this ‘nonsense’ — his word — and pursue a more fitting career in the UEE Navy.”

“My father has never been one to restrain his opinions,” she said, taking tentative steps toward Guul. “But if you really want to know the answer to that question, you should ask him yourself.”

Another reporter fought her way in. “Ms. Darring . . . taking the pole position from Ykonde Remisk was a marvelous achievement. How did you do it?”

Her smile was genuine. “Luck.”

“Oh, come now, Hypatia,” Crenshaw said, regaining the floor. “Achieving a time one point five seconds off the record is hardly luck. How’d you do it?”

She chuckled. “Patience, dedication, focus and an acute attention to detail. That, plus the fastest damned M50 on the circuit. All things I’m sure my father would appreciate.”

The reporters laughed and scribbled notes. Darring made a few more steps toward Guul.

“Ms. Darring,” another reporter interceded, “how do you intend on maintaining your ‘luck,’ as you put it, through the entire race? Ten stages, all timed, many with narrow, dangerous channels, especially through the asteroid belts. You’ll be racing neck-and-neck with some of the finest racers in history. Being a relative newcomer, how do you intend on handling the pressure, maintaining your good start, and ultimately winning the cup?”

“She’s a natural!”

All turned, including Darring, and found Shoo-ur Motak, the Xi’An, dressed in a bright purple jumpsuit, standing among a pool of sycophants who followed him to every event. Some of them were ex-GSN reporters, now under full employment by the Motak family, captured by his fame, notoriety and wealth.

Darring controlled her scowl as the tall Xi’An stopped a few feet from her. “She’s a natural,” Motak repeated, to make sure the reporters could record his reply, letting the last word bounce across the short, sharp beak of his turtle-like face. He was taller than Darring by an inch or two — unusual for his race — but his cool, amber eyes ensconced beneath a prominent, boney ridge scanned her face as if they were searching for food. His thin, leathery pink-black tongue slipped through his razor mouth, slicing the air like a knife. His powerful jaw muscles pulled back in a tight approximation of a smile. “She’ll win it by being the best racer on the circuit.”

“Do you really believe that?” Crenshaw asked. “She’s the best?”

Motak nodded slowly, diplomatically, his eyes affixed on Darring. “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.” He blinked. “How are you, my dear? Rested from your trials at Cassini?”

“Rested enough,” she replied, beneath her breath. The reporters leaned in to hear. “But you should know all about that.”

Motak waved her off as if she were his lesser. “The dangers of the trade, my dear. I did what I had to do to gain advantage.”

Darring nodded. “But you didn’t win, did you? Cutting me off in a move that, technically, was illegal, only gave you third place.”

“Still, a better finish than you.” Motak chuckled. His devotees did the same. “The Cassini is not all that important to me, my dear. The MCR is the crown jewel. You’ll understand that in time . . . if you last long enough.”

“Can we get a picture of the two of you side-by-side?” a reporter piped up. The rest confirmed that desire with exaggerated nodding.

Motak turned to the crowd, preening his proud, slim form for all to see. “Of course you may have a picture,” he said, offering his hand to Darring in goodwill. “I’m honored to be a part of this great tradition. The MCR is dear to my heart, and with such brilliant competition, like Hypatia Darring here, this year’s race will be one to remember.”

Hypatia took his hand cautiously. She wrapped her fingers around his broad palm. She was surprised how warm and comfortable it was. She relaxed and turned herself toward the reporters to let them take their pictures and ask their questions.

But then Motak began to squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze until she felt the small delicate bones in her hand giving beneath the pressure. She squeezed back against it, but that didn’t provide much relief as Motak continued to grip. Don’t cringe, she said to herself. Don’t cry. Don’t give him the satisfaction. But the pain began to leach up her arm, into her shoulder, through her neck. God, he’s trying to break my hand. He’s . . .

He released, and the pain subsided. She sighed and wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. She used her other hand.

Crenshaw was about to ask another question, but then someone spotted Ykonde Remisk, and they all scurried away like a flock of sparrows.

At her side, Motak chuckled. “We are only as important to them as our last quote.” The Xi’An turned to her again. This time he didn’t offer his hand. He winked. “Athlé-korr to you, my dear. Safe travel. I’ll see you down the line.”

Motak disappeared into the doting arms of his fans. As he walked away, Darring caught the eye of a lean, surly-looking fellow who maintained a watchful position behind his employer. He nodded at her. She ignored him and imagined driving a knife into Motak’s back.

“Don’t let him get to you.”

The voice was soft and amiable. Darring turned to greet it.

There he stood, even taller than Motak. In his shadow, she felt truly small, both in stature and in status. But Zogat Guul’s waxy, pale grey face, small coal-black eyes and tiny puckered mouth radiated a kindness and a quiet experience that steadied her rage. She offered her sore hand humbly. He took it without complaint and massaged it with smooth fingers stained in red tattoos.

“Don’t let that pompous twig get under your skin. He’s infamous for his mind games.” With a quick grin, he snapped into formal posture, as if he were greeting an officer, thrusting his chest out though it was wrapped comfortably in a black-and-gold half-coat. “My name is Zogat —”

“I know who you are,” Darring interrupted, embarrassed immediately by her rudeness. “It’s an honor to meet you. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a kid.”

“And I have been following your career with great interest.” He took her by the arm and began to lead her toward a table filled with three large punch bowls and an assortment of fish appetizers. They walked slowly. “You are rising steadily on the circuit. Your name is on the lips of many. Your fifth place showing at Cassini was quite impressive, especially for someone so young.”

“Thank you. It would have been even more impressive had I won, if Motak hadn’t forced me back.”

“You let him get too close,” he said, with no malice or indictment in his tone. “You had the inside lane, but you slowed down to spar with him.”

“He pissed me off!”

Guul stopped, turned Darring toward him, and held her shoulders with tight, fatherly hands. “Such behavior may be tolerated in the smaller, roundabout races like Cassini. But not here. Here, such raw emotion will get you expelled or killed. True, there are stages along the way where the racing will be tight, where you will have to maneuver for position. But speed matters the most here . . . speed and time. Remember, Hypatia Darring, the one most important fact about the Murray Cup: Speed is life.” He smiled. “Speed is life . . . or death, if you are going in the wrong direction.”

She laughed at that, letting the seriousness of his words trickle away. “We will speak no more of these things now,” he said, resuming their course toward the food table. “We will have further opportunities to talk later, when the wolves are not so thick and hungry.” He ignored the wave of a reporter nearby. “Every word we speak here is interpreted and reinterpreted until, in the end, they will make us lovers in the eyes of the public.”

Darring forced a wry smile. “Sorry . . . you’re not my type.”

Guul let out a hearty laugh. He shook his head. “Story of my life.” He quickened his pace toward the food. “Now come, and treat me to a glass of the greatest gift Humans have bestowed upon the galaxy.”

“What’s that?” Darring asked.

Guul smacked his lips. “Lemonade.”

* * *

Shoo-ur Motak crushed the thin shell of the jumbo shrimp with his beak. He did not bother shucking it as a feeble Human might do. Blast this Human food anyway! What he wouldn’t give to be back at the family complex in the Kayfa System, gorging to contentment on huge handfuls of crunchy needle fish. Their bladders had a dye that was as sweet — no, sweeter — than anything a Human might concoct. Nothing on the table before him was actually enjoyable in his superior opinion, but he tolerated it as best he could, smiling humbly as he picked at this dish or that for the benefit of the media. Motak nodded at a Human reporter as she walked by.

Humans had their uses.

And so did the one that stood now in the center of the media frenzy. Short, stocky, dark-skinned, considered the favorite of the circuit, although the true favorite was Motak. Why wasn’t the media surrounding him, asking him questions, begging him to divulge his secrets for winning the race, just as they had asked Darring. These damned Humans and their racist ways! But Motak was the best Xi’An racer that had ever climbed into the cockpit, and his perfectly modified 350r, with its purple hull and reinforced golden-stripped wings would do what no other racer had ever done: win the MCR three consecutive times. Neither Remisk, nor Guul, nor Darring could claim such a feat. So, why weren’t the GSN goons surrounding him?

But perhaps that was best, he reconsidered, popping another shrimp in his mouth and sipping on a warm, frothless beer. Let Ykonde Remisk have his moment in the spotlight. Let the media have their favorites. For when they fall, when they fail to live up to the hype, Motak’s victory will seem that much sweeter. Yes, let them bask . . . then let them fall. And I will see that they fall hard.

“Is everything in place?” he whispered to an underling at his side.

“Yes, sir. Your maintenance crews are dispersed through the Ellis system per your specifications and per the MCR guidelines.”

Motak scratched his neck in frustration. “That’s not what I meant.”

The underling gulped and wiggled his head. “Yes, that matter we spoke of has been taken care of as well. But I would recommend against it, sir. The risk is too great, and besides, Shoo-ur Motak does not need to rely on such things. He is the best racer on the circuit.”

“I do not pay you to give me such advice or praise. I pay you to do what you’re told. Now go, and make sure everything is ready as I have instructed.” He put his beer down. “And I will go and remind the ‘favorite’ of his obligation to me.”

The underling nodded and ran off to do his duty. Motak sighed deeply, put on his happy face, and walked confidently toward the madness surrounding Ykonde Remisk.

* * *

She loved her Origin M50 Turbo more than life. Banged up, scratched, red and white paint slopped on to cover a hull that needed an integrity sweep, but there had been no time for any of that after Cassini. Nor would her father condescend to send her enough money for such repairs. But what of it? The plant was sound, the thrusters new and top notch. In a pinch, she doubted that any racer, anywhere, could match it. Certainly, none of the other twentyfour challengers behind her — including Guul — could beat her in a straightaway. But the MCR had few straightaways. Hull integrity mattered.

As her crew chief rattled off the final systems check in her ear, Darring pulled up on her navcomp the schematic for the first stage. It appeared with a bright blink to display row after row of rings winding their way through low orbit above Ellis III. Darring studied the rings carefully, reminding herself which ones were large, which were small, where the cameras and timer buoys were located. All racers were required to stay within the “invisible” lane running through the rings; if a racer strayed outside, he or she would lose time. This first stage was both timed and awarded extra credits to first, second and third place. Having the pole position, then, gave her an advantage. But for how long? Darring leaned over in her seat and studied the course carefully.

It was not unlike one stretch of the Goss Invitational, so she had ample experience with this kind of run. Her M50 was built for strenuous zigs and zags through tight spots. But how well would she fare later on, when the courses got more deadly, more strenuous?

From Ellis III, the racers were mini-jumped to Ellis IV where the so-called Seahorse Shuffle took place. Then on to Ellis V and the “Noble Endeavour.” After that through the first of two asteroid belts, a course called The Sorrow Sea, where hulls of previous racers floated as obstacles. Then around the gas giant Wall-Eye, where ships could be easily ripped apart by one foolish move. A longer stage followed, across the outer asteroid belt (formerly Ellis XI) and finally to Ellis XII. Then the race turned back in-system to finish at Ellis VIII. She had run this race before, but never as a true contender, and thus she had taken her time, flown each stage slow and steady, like a marathon runner, to learn all the ins and outs. This time, though, the pressure was on. She held the pole position, the top spot. Everything was different now.

The MCR starter’s voice crackled over the comm link. “Racers, prepare for launch.”

Darring turned off her navcomp, affirmed the standard agreement to MCR rules and regulations in unison with the other racers, strapped herself in, and gave a small prayer. She was not religious by any stretch, but figured it wouldn’t hurt. The prayer calmed her nerves as the bay doors of the starting carrier opened to space.

She could see Ellis III through the door. It was beautiful, green, its orbit peppered with corvettes and pleasure craft of the well-to-do who had come out to view the race firsthand. There would be plenty of spectators along the way, a lot of media, and Darring had to just put them all out of her mind. She focused on Zogat Guul’s words — Speed is life — and looked back through one of her cockpit panels to try to get a glimpse of the Tevarin’s upgraded Hornet. But he was too far back. All she could see was Ykonde Remisk’s M50, with its garish gold and blue trim. She noticed that he was too close to her; by rule, there was a specified distance that racers had to maintain prior to launch: the privilege of the pole position. She gnashed her teeth and cursed beneath her breath. Someone was already violating rules.

“Hypatia Darring . . . you may launch.”

She didn’t even wait for the spokesman to finish. Darring burst out the carrier bay door at top legal speed.

Through a narrow channel flanked by media and spectators, Darring flew the ceremonial lap. The rest of the racers followed behind, releasing one after another, but maintaining their specified positions within the line. Ahead of her, the pace craft sparkled with a flashing red light. Nervous energy spotted her brow with sweat. Her crew chief gave his final comment and instructions. She signed him off and focused on the course ahead of her.

In her ear, the MCR starter counted down — ten, nine, eight . . . Darring thrust to the left, trying to keep directly behind the pace craft. Ykonde Remisk was right on her six, the nose of his racer dangerously close. Back off! Darring mouthed silently, wanting to flip on her comm link and tune to his frequency. It wasn’t strictly against MCR rules to speak to other racers, but officials discouraged it, fearing that frequent conversation during the race could produce distractions that would lead to crashes and injuries. Besides, there was enough chatter going on between racers and their crews. Still, Darring wanted to open a channel and scream into Remisk’s ear, Get off my back!

Five . . . four . . . three . . .

Now, all the racers tightened as the pacer made the last turn to set them up toward the first rings. Darring gunned it a little herself, closing in on the pacer. She put herself now just a little to the right of it, to keep Remisk from rushing past her at the last minute. Darring’s heart raced, her hands shook on her joystick. She tried concentrating on the small object that grew and grew in her viewport: The first ring, its rotating lights swirling around its virtual frame, signaling the beginning . . .

Two . . . one . . .

The red lights on the pacer flashed green, and it fell to the left quickly, breaking formation.

Darring pressed herself into her seat, gunned her thrusters, and blew through the first ring.

* * *

The flashing lights of the rings caused her eyes to ache. They flew by her quickly and she was concentrating on them too much, too worried about her time, her position in the line. She had fallen to third place by count of the last timing ring. It had been her fault, too, worrying so much about conserving thrusting fuel, letting some pilot with a beat up Avenger take the inside lane. Her crew chief yelled at her for it; she ignored him. The little shit was right, of course, but he was an old academy friend of her father’s, and she was in no mood to listen to a man yell at her. Besides, she could overtake an Avenger at any time. The real focus of her recovery had to be Ykonde Remisk.

The smarmy son of a bitch had forced her against the left wall of the tunnel they were speeding through. Her wing had actually broken the virtual plane, and the voice of the MCR caller came over her comm . . . “Ten seconds added to your time.” Damn! Remisk’s press was not strictly against the rules since his ship had not touched hers, but it was certainly dirty pool and against the spirit of the competition. She had no way out of the pick-and-roll either; it was as if he and the Avenger pilot were in cahoots. That wouldn’t surprise her in the least.

She refocused and thrust her M50 forward, dipping beneath the Avenger and slipping past it on the low. It tried muscling her back, pointing its right wing down to mask her view, but Darring anticipated the move, shifted in kind, and kept her position and composure. Meanwhile, the Avenger pilot had lost his focus on the lane ahead of him, and failed to notice the ring closing fast and to the left. Darring hit her thrusters hard and shifted left, at the last minute moving out of the Avenger’s path. Darring took the turn and ring perfectly; the Avenger saw it too late, tried to adjust, and clipped the ring with its left wing. It broke the invisible plane of the tunnel and then overcompensated into a spin through the void.

Eat that!

She hoped that somewhere behind her, Guul was cheering. She could almost hear his martial voice singing her praises. She liked the thought, but the most pressing concern now was right in front of her.

Remisk had been pushing his craft at full speed the entire course. How was that possible? she wondered. Sure, he had customized his M50 like all the rest, removing hardpoints for extra fuel and cooling equipment, but he must be running on fumes by now. There was no other explanation. He would have to burn out soon, and the sooner the better.

She ignored the three other racers pressing hard at her six. She took the next ring and the next, letting the strong inertia pull and propel her craft forward. That was the best way to conserve fuel, she had learned racing around Saturn. Release thrust on the turns, and let your craft drift at top speed into the vector. Then you had enough thrust to pick up the few seconds you might have lost on drift. This racing gig was a game of milliseconds, and each one counted.

She moved up behind Remisk, taking advantage of the last straightaway before the final turns through the ultimate three rings. There was not much time left, and she had to make her move now.

She tried shifting up and over his craft. He moved to block her. She shifted down; he moved again, in perfect unison, their ships equal size. She shifted left, right, and each time Remisk moved to counter. How is he doing this?

He was a great racer. There was no doubt of that. He was strong, athletic and cool-headed. Remisk had not gotten where he was on the circuit without being smart and precise. But his moves, his instincts were almost supernatural, as if his senses were enhanced. But that was impossible. Every racer went through a rigorous medical exam to ensure that no drugs had been introduced before the race, and further testing would be conducted along the way to ensure none had been taken after the first stage. Remisk was just that good.

Then I have to be better.

She pushed her plant to its limit, exceeding safe levels, much to the ire of her crew chief who implored her to back off, take second or third place, don’t risk blowing your plant so soon for so little reward. Little reward, my ass! She had taken the pole position, and she was going to let everyone know that it was not some fluke, that Hypatia Darring was here to stay. She wouldn’t give her fath– the media — grist for their mill.

She barrel rolled, letting the rotation of her M50 spiral her forward like a screw. Remisk, fearing that he would be clipped himself, shifted ever so slightly to his left, and Darring pounced. She pulled alongside him, letting her craft settle. She punched her thrusters again, feeling them wail their discontent through her arms and hands. Her stick was shaking, her heat warnings blaring. She could feel it all through her body, and there was, in all the galaxy, no feeling like it. It was something her father had forgotten. He was a good fighter pilot himself, or at least he was in his youth. But he had spent too much of his life in the warm, safe comfort of destroyers, cruisers and battleships. He had forgotten what it was like to feel flesh tingle as strong G forces threatened to rip your skin from its bones. Ghuul understood it. Remisk most certainly did. And even that sorry son of a bitch Motak understood the ecstatic feeling of sheer speed.

She pulled ahead. She took the next ring flawlessly, shifting against inertia and rolling through the next ring, which appeared immediately after the last. The final ring loomed large in the distance. Her crew chief, his attitude suddenly changed, barked “Go! Go!” into her ear. She smiled. She’d made the right decision. She most definitely deserved to be here racing among the greats.

Remisk pulled up above her, obviously giving her first place. She kept her course forward and strong, letting her plant holler. She giggled like a little girl, accepting praise from her chief. The flashing lights of the last ring did not make her weak or sick this time. She welcomed them happily.

Then a shadow came up over her, darkening her cockpit. It was Remisk, his M50 finding new life and overtaking her ship. In her joy, Darring had not realized that her thumb had lightened its pressure on her throttle, and she had slowed just slightly. Slowed enough for Remisk to swing his craft up and over her hull and plant itself, with its exhaust nozzle, right in front of her cockpit. Darring tried keeping her speed and course, but Remisk kicked his thrusters and threw a gout of yellow fire across her cockpit windows.

Darring screamed and rolled left. It was a serious mistake. She tried regaining her position, pressed her thumb deeply into the throttle, but it was too late. Ykonde Remisk passed through the final ring in first place. The Avenger and one other racer took second and third, while Darring, her ship rolling uncontrollably through the last ring, barely finished fourth.

 


 

At the end of the first stage in the Murray Cup race through the Ellis system, Ykonde Remisk edged out Hypatia Darring with an exhaust flare that, while technically legal, was definitely dangerous. Both of these two Human racers finished ahead of their main competition, the veteran Tevarin Zogat Guul and the wily Xi’An Shoo-ur Motak. Darring reacts to Remisk’s maneuver . . .

Darring jumped out of her racer, sped across the carrier bay floor, found Remisk in the middle of a media gang, and drove her fist toward his cheery face.

He ducked just in time.

One of Remisk’s crew grabbed Darring and held her back as she hurled accusations. “You son of a bitch! You could have killed me!”

Remisk recovered from the assault and tried to seem cool about it in front of the crowd, adjusting his collar and giving a weak smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Darring. I ran a clean race.”

“You tried to burn me alive!”

Shock and dismay spread among the faces of those gathered.

Out of the corner of her eye, Darring could see an MCR rules official coming their way with a concerned look on his face, but she didn’t care. She fought her way out of the crewman’s grasp and took another swing. Remisk caught her arm and held it tightly.

“Back off, Darring,” he said, “or I’ll file a complaint.”

“The only complaint worthy of filing is one I will submit requesting your dismissal, you cheap —”

“People, come now, let’s remain civil.”

Motak pushed his way through the crowd and stood beside Remisk. He waited until the MCR rules official arrived, then continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you that from my perspective, Mr. Remisk violated no MCR rules. In fact, not only was his move brilliant in its simplicity, but it showed a deep dedication to the integrity of the sport. Remisk never once touched his ship to Ms. Darring’s. He showed incredible care in the maneuver. I can attest to that.”

“You can attest to kissing my —”

Guul stepped in and peeled Remisk’s fingers from Darring’s arm. He whispered into her ear. “Come on, let’s go. Not here, not this way.”

Motak chuckled. “You should listen to him, young lady. Guul is an old, wise soul.”

Guul ignored Motak and pulled Darring through the crowd. “I said, let’s go.”

She relented, and they made their way out of the carrier bay and into a long narrow corridor that led to a small atrium with chairs and tables that looked out over Ellis III. The planet’s orbit was alive with the race as it continued with the remaining racer groups down list. It was a beautiful display, the rings of the course pulsing their light, and the blur of racecraft rushing through them at marvelous speeds. Darring looked out at it, and her anger began to subside.

“Take a seat, Hypatia,” Guul said as he pulled one chair away from a table.

Darring sat, crossed her arms, and kept looking out at the race.

Guul sat down across from her, his long body almost comical in the Human-sized chair. “Now tell me . . . what was that all about?”

Darring did not respond at first, but she met Guul’s stern gaze with her own. Then she blinked, sighed, and said, “He cheated. He cut me off and blew fire into my face.”

“It is not a violation of the rules, and you know it.”

“Well, damn, it should be.”

“You know,” Guul said, shaking his head and leaning back, “I would not expect a loose cannon like yourself to be such a slave to the rules.”

Darring finally smiled. “A residual from my father’s parenting. ‘Play by the rules, Hypatia’,” she said, imitating a deep manly voice, “ ‘win by the rules, and they can never have cause to take your victories away’.”

“It is a noble statement,” Guul said, “but, in racing, a touch naive. There are rules, and then there are rules. But you pull something like that again, especially with witnesses, and you’re the one that will be expelled, not Remisk.”

Darring sloughed off his warning. “He’s a jackass, and so is Motak.”

“That is true, but there’s nothing you can do about it right now. They will do what they have to do to win, and you must keep your cool. Besides,” Guul said, his gaze growing more serious, his face cast down toward the racers rushing past, “I want my last race to be against the best. And if you are expelled, then it will be against cookie-cutters and has-beens.”

Darring wrinkled her brow with concern. “Why is this your last? You have many years ahead.”

Guul nodded. “Many years perhaps, but not as a racer. Every joint aches, every bone brittle, and my eyes are failing. It is time.”

Darring sat in quiet, not wanting to speak, not wanting to accept that her hero was near the end. And she had just met him. How could he be leaving now, when she had so much to speak to him about, so much to learn? Afterwards, he would likely return home (wherever that may be), and she’d never see him again, and time would be so precious during the race. When would she have another opportunity to talk to him, to learn from him? If this is his last Cup, she thought, then perhaps I should back off a bit, let him have a course or two, let him take the lead when

“What is that look?”

She turned to him, shrugged innocently. “What look?”

Guul leaned forward. “You’re thinking about throwing the race for me, aren’t you? You’re thinking, ‘Give the old Tevarin one more victory.’ Well, forget such nonsense. My people are warriors, Hypatia, and we have a saying: ‘Honor your enemy, praise him if you must, but never lose a chance to kill him.’ Here, you and I are friends. Out there,” he said, pointing to the race, “we are foe. Promise me, that if we find ourselves neck and neck on the final lap, and you have an opportunity to win, that you will. That you will show me no mercy, no quarter, and then at least I will know that if I lose, I have lost against the best. Promise me.”

His face was so serious, yet so pleasant in its bland color. His cheeks had darkened somewhat which left a nice contrast against the paler skin of his brow. He was blushing, she figured, perhaps on the verge of tears. A crying Tevarin was almost a contradiction in terms, but there was no doubt of his seriousness at this moment. Darring knew that he would not let her leave the room until she promised and did so sincerely.

She nodded. “I promise.”

Guul smiled, and his color returned to normal. He stood. “Excellent. Now, I owe you a dinner. Hungry?”

“Famished!”

They walked together through the corridor, took a turn toward the carrier’s mess. It was a good idea to get a full meal before the mini-jump to Ellis IV, and some rack time as well. The next several legs of the race would be tough, and Darring would have to face her crew chief soon and figure out if any serious damage had been done to her engine. It was not a conversation she was looking forward to.

“Have your crew chief speak to mine,” Guul said. “He’s an old M50 pilot.”

Darring pinched his arm. “Now that is against the rules.” Guul laughed. “But there is nothing in the rules that says that a crew chief can’t accidentally sit back to back with another crew chief in the mess and accidentally hear said crew chief talking about engine repair.”

She pushed him playfully. “You are so bad.”

“Tricks of the trade, my dear. When you’ve been around as long as I —”

Guul did not finish his words. They had turned a corner and there stood three Humans wrapped in dark clothing to match the faint light of the corridor. The three did not hesitate.

One pulled a knife and slashed towards Darring’s throat. She leaned back instinctively and felt the wind of the man’s brutal attack across her chin. The blade did not find flesh, however, and she tumbled back against the wall.

The other two were on Guul immediately, but despite the Tevarin’s confession of joint pain, he moved quickly, subduing one in a head lock and guarding off the fists of the other. Darring tried to get to him, but her assailant was not finished. He slashed again with his blade, this time toward her stomach. She knocked his arm back with a move she had learned in Basic, then drove her fist into his kidney.

As the man lurched back, trying to recover from the blow, Darring recognized his face. He was from Motak’s entourage, the one who had shielded his boss and nodded to her as the Xi’An had walked away. She gnashed her teeth, scowled, and drove her boot into his crotch, knocking him to his knees. She continued her assault against his face, striking him twice before he managed to turn, kick out his leg, and swipe her feet from beneath her. Darring fell hard, her hip reeling from its concussion against the corridor floor.

He was on her again, but this time she was ready. She timed her move, brought her knees up quickly and flung him up the corridor. She tried rising to pursue, but the body of another assailant flew over her and hit the wall. She looked toward Guul and found him making mincemeat of the third man’s face. His companions, bloody, beaten and clearly not wishing further punishment, collected themselves quickly and dashed away.

Guul released the third man, pushed him back against the wall. Darring tried moving against him, but despite his mangled face, he got away from her grasp, grabbed his blade and shot away down the corridor in the opposite direction of his accomplices.

Darring went to Guul’s side. He had slipped down the wall and was holding a bloody gash across his stomach. Darring moved his hand away to look at it. “Bastards,” she said, trying to help him to his feet. “Bloody bastards. Come on, let’s get you to the hospital.”

Guul shook his head and pushed her away. “No. Just get me to my crew. It’s not that bad. I’ve had worse.”

“But we have to tell someone about this. Tell them it’s Remisk and Motak.”

“How do you know that?”

“One of the men . . . I saw him in Motak’s gang the other day.”

He nodded. “But you can’t prove it.”

“Come on, Guul,” she said, letting her anger rise again. “Don’t play stupid. You know who ordered this.”

“And if you’re wrong, then it will reflect badly on you, especially after your unprovoked assault against Remisk. No, you may be right, but they are far too smart to leave evidence lying around. Motak has too many friends among MCR officials. This will go away as quickly as it was attempted.” He pointed down the corridor, toward the atrium and out to space. “We’ll beat them out there.”

Reluctantly, Darring nodded. She did not like the plan, but let it rest. The most important thing now was to get him to someone, anyone, who could help.

She hugged his waist and helped him back to his crew.

* * *

“You’re late,” Motak said, sitting quietly in the dark of the room while Remisk expressed his agitation in short, sharp barks. “It’s got to stop, Motak. It’s gone too far.”

“How so?”

“They could have been killed. Both of them. That’s not what I signed up for.”

“What did you sign up for?”

“Sabotage is fine. Damaging an engine, clogging a fuel line, denting a wing, forcing a racer back with an illegal move. These are all fine. Win or no, succeed or fail, it’s all part of the unspoken game. But trying to kill people is another matter entirely.”

Motak chuckled. “What would you rather do? Race the final course with only me to contend with, or with Guul and Darring as well? The Tevarin is a beast, and that bitch is far better than anyone gives her credit for. If they remain in the race, you’ll go down in history as the man who had a chance, but failed, to win the Triple Crown.”

You will fail regardless, Motak said to himself. Once I’ve dealt with Guul and Darring.

“It’s over, Motak,” Remisk said, waving his arms in the darkness as if he were slicing bread. “I’m not doing your dirty work anymore.”

Motak turned on an overhead lamp resting on a table at his side. Beneath the cast light lay a small, gold-colored box, which he carefully opened. A small syringe with a green liquid lay in its center. He picked up the syringe and held it as if he were going to give someone a shot. “Oh, I think you will. You still have things to do for me. And if you don’t, I will share with the MCR rules committee what is contained in this needle.”

“What is it?”

Motak shrugged. “The very thing that has given you an almost inhuman energy, an ability to anticipate moves three, four turns ahead.”

“That’s a lie! I’ve never taken drugs in my life.”

“I’ve been planning this for a long, long time, Remisk. So let me lay it out for you. A young, successful pilot wants to make a name for himself. He wins the Goss Invitational by a nose and begins to think he really has a shot at winning the Triple Crown. He goes to a small- time dealer and asks, “What can you give me that can’t be detected by scanners?’ The dealer gives him this, which I gave the dealer — an inert liquid that contains a Xi’An enzyme that, in a Xi’An, is meaningless. But when introduced into Human brain chemistry, it creates an almost extrasensory perception that only activates under extreme stress and excitement — feeding off adrenaline — like during racing. It deactivates and hides itself once your adrenaline subsides. MCR scanners at their current settings cannot detect it. And you have been taking this for months.”

“You’re a liar!”

Motak ignored the accusation. “And here’s the catch. This is your last dose. There’s enough in here to keep you vital to the end of the race. Take it, and you’ll be fine. If not, somewhere around Ellis IX, as your ship is being pulled by the gravitational forces of that giant gas ball, you will fall into a deep sleep and be crushed by the tidal forces of its wild weather.” Motak held up the syringe for Remisk to see, letting a few drops squirt from the needle tip. “What will it be, my friend? Life or death?”

Remisk stood there in the darkness for a long time. Then finally, he fell to his knees and crawled over to Motak, rolled up his sleeve, and offered his forearm. “You bastard!”

Motak punched the needle into a vein. “No, Remisk. I’m not. I’m just a businessman, protecting his investment.”

He pushed the entire dose into Remisk’s arm, then laid the empty syringe in the golden box. Remisk got up and rolled down his sleeve. He turned to leave, but Motak stopped him.

“Oh,” he said, reaching into a pocket and producing a silver capsule. He pitched it to Remisk. “Make sure our man on Darring’s crew gets this. Make sure he puts it where we have discussed. We want to make sure the sweet girl has a pleasant ride through the Bone Yard.”

Remisk left. Motak lingered in the dark, chewing the inside of his left cheek, considering the future. He sighed. He should never have relied on Remisk, on a Human, to do the work. They could never be trusted. He’d never had one pleasant experience with them in all his life. Not as a racer, not as a young adult, and certainly not as a child, when Human pirates had scattered his family and killed his mother. There wasn’t one in the bunch worth a damn. But Remisk . . . could he be trusted to finish the job against Darring? Motak shrugged. It hardly mattered anyway. Whether he did or did not, Remisk’s time in the race was coming to a close. With the dose I gave him, Motak thought, getting up and leaving the room, he won’t survive the Bone Yard either.

* * *

Hello again, and welcome to another broadcast of GSN Spectrum’s continuing coverage of the Murray Cup Race. After a rough start that saw Hypatia Darring warned and reprimanded for her assault of Ykonde Remisk, things have calmed down. Ms. Darring has kept her cool and has fought her way back to contention with a stunning head-to-head struggle around Ellis V against veteran Zogat Guul. Though these two are reported to be the best of friends, no love is lost between them as they make their way through these dangerous courses. But now the most contentious portion of the race is upon us. The Sorrow Sea, or as most of the racers call it, the Bone Yard, looms large in the cockpit window. Can anyone brave the shattered hulls and sharp asteroids that hazard this course? Let’s find out . . .

Motak was on her left, Guul on her right, and somewhere behind her, Remisk waited to pounce. It had been like this for a long time, shifting back and forth through broken hulls of previous racers and multi-ton asteroids, some so large that their gravity tugged on her hull as she passed. Her navcomp displayed the Bone Yard in all its glory, and there were many paths to take through the obstacles; some shorter, some longer. This was a timed course, but the lanes were sometimes so narrow as to force racers to poke and prod one another, thus making it one of the deadliest in the race. The broken hulls of the hollow racecraft around her confirmed its danger.

She shifted left and took one of the shorter paths. Doing so would put her closer to the finish line, but the obstacles here were ridiculous in their distribution. She turned left, barreled tightly through a wide hole of a Destroyer’s ancient hull. The racer right behind her broke formation and flew down another path. At her speed, Darring could not tell if it had been Remisk or not, but one less bee in her bonnet was okay by her.

Motak was still on her left, however. Guul had broken formation as well and had chosen a longer path, but one less constricted with debris. She could see his little red blip on her navcomp, and several others training in on him from all angles. He was in deep shit, she knew, if any of those other racers worked in silent unison to push him off course. His modified Hornet would have trouble with excessive obstacles, but then that’s why he took the longer route. He was no idiot.

Motak turned his 350r sharply and shot above her. Images of Remisk’s scorching exhaust flooded her mind, but this time, she ignored her impulse and kept course.

Speed is life.

A Banu racer in its heavily upgraded Avenger slipped in alongside her. There were a few Banu in the race, and Darring could not remember the name of this one, but she remembered the distinct green-and-black striping of its hull. It tried forcing her into the craterous side of the asteroid ahead of them. Darring took her thumb off the thrust, acting as if she were going to slow and allow the Banu to take position, but at the last moment, she gunned her engine, shifted sharply up so that the belly of her M50 skimmed mere inches from the crater floor, kicking up dust from its ejecta blanket, and blowing it back into the cockpit of the Avenger on her tail. The Banu had to turn sharply to the left, giving advantage once again to Darring.

I can play dirty too, bitches!

Darring laughed into the ear of her crew chief who was warning her to take it slow and not risk getting her hydrogen scoops clogged. He was worried about her engine, which had been refitted after its over-exertion around Green. There was still so much race left, and he was especially concerned with Ellis IX, the gas giant that would place serious pressure on her hull. He didn’t want her engine to go down a second time as well. But she was enjoying herself. She was enjoying the Sorrow Sea, the Bone Yard, in all its wondrous danger.

Only Motak annoyed her now. The rest of her competition had fallen behind or had taken different routes. The route ahead of her was still tricky, but it was hers. She commanded it now, and she leaned back in her restraints and let her engine run.

And now Motak fell back, and his blip on her navcomp stopped flashing red in danger. She was free, and the finish line was close.

A warning light suddenly flashed on her cooling monitors. She looked down and saw that her engine’s heat dissipation, which would normally be at one to one, had fallen sharply to one to two, and now one to three. She pressed controls, tapped panels, and now other warning lights were flashing.

Something was wrong with her fuel. It was rising in temperature, too fast, too hot, and the cooling system could not dissipate the excess heat fast enough. It was burning her engine, and her hull shifted and sputtered, pressing her forward against her restraints.

She tapped her comm link. “Something’s wrong here! Engine reaching critical heat.”

“Check your heat release override valve on the —”

She tried doing as her crew chief advised, but before she could move her arm, fire exploded into her cockpit, engulfing her torso and helmet. She screamed, panicked, tried patting the fire out with her gloves. But that did nothing, as the flames grew larger and larger, working their way under her jumpsuit, piercing the protective lining at her neck, and burning her face and shoulders.

“Power plant breach imminent!” screamed the safety system in her ear. “Power plant breach imminent!”

Through searing pain, Hypatia Darring reached beneath her cockpit seat, tapped the eject pad, and blew her cockpit window into space. Thrusters beneath her seat erupted, and she tumbled after the cockpit, still strapped into her chair, gasping for air.

Five seconds later, before she lost consciousness, Darring watched her M50 explode into a thousand pieces.

 


 

Recovering from her disappointing start in the Cup series, Darring has worked her way back to the front of the pack. She is on her way to victory in the Sorrow Sea — the Bone Yard — when her ship explosively overheats . . .

Darring awoke in a quiet, sanitized room of white walls and beeping monitors. She lay in a medbay tub containing a pale, viscous gel-like fluid. There were monitoring nodes on her neck and chest. She lifted her arm out of the fluid and tried sitting up. A strong hand kept her from doing so.

“Not yet,” the voice said. “Not until the doctor says it’s okay.”

She stared at a figure standing alongside the tub. Tall, thin, gray. She laid her head back against the tub wall and blinked repeatedly until the shape focused. “Zogat,” she said, her voice cracking, her throat dry and pasty. “Where — where —”

“Carrier infirmary,” he said, “in orbit above Ellis VIII.”

She tried sitting up again and felt a deep pain in her shoulder as she moved her arms. She reached across her chest and felt a layer of burnt skin, soft and supple due to the fluid, but still present. Terrifying memories flooded back. “My ship!”

Guul nodded. “Unsalvageable. It’s now a part of the Sorrow Sea.”

Darring massaged her sore shoulder. “What happened?”

“They do not know for certain. But your fuel went through a rapid temperature increase, spread through your systems and ignited the plant. It’s a wonder it didn’t explode while you were still strapped in.”

“How did it happen?”

“They couldn’t recover enough of the fuselage and its monitoring equipment to know the exact cause. No black box either. But . . .” He paused, letting the word linger there in the space between them. “Remisk has confessed.”

“What?”

“He’s confessed to it. Went mad, in fact, attacked a reporter, nearly ripped off her face. He says he put some kind of gel capsule into your tank; or rather, hired someone to do it on your crew, which, by the way, has been scrubbed. He even confessed to sending those thugs against us.”

She nodded, feeling a moment of relief. “Then Motak is finished as well.”

Guul cast his eyes down. He shook his head. “No, Hypatia. Motak has confessed nothing, nor has Remisk implicated anyone else. He’s gone catatonic, can’t speak, can’t move. He’s on something, but it can’t be detected. They fear he’ll die before he’s interrogated. He’s out, but Motak is still in and has condemned Remisk publicly in the most powerful words. The race has been suspended for a few days so that all remaining crews can conduct a mandatory check of their ships. Then it will resume.” He shook his head. “There are three things certain in the galaxy, as you Humans might say: Death, taxes and the MCR. The race will go on.”

Darring closed her eyes and laid her head back once again. She fought tears. “Yes, but it’s over for me.”

A pause, then, “Not yet.”

She tried asking how, but on cue, the room door opened and in walked Motak, straight and proud, wearing a fresh jumpsuit of gold and purple. Three reporters followed in his wake, one with a camera. He pulled his mouth back and said in a sincere voice, “Ah, I am so glad to see you alive and awake, my dear. You had us all worried.”

I bet. She wanted to say those very words, but the pressure that Guul placed on her arm with his strong hand recommended otherwise. She forced her anger down and tried to smile. “It seems as if the Fates are on my side.”

Motak nodded. “Indeed. And it would also seem that Lady Luck has granted you favor as well. With my gift, you can now return to the race.”

“What gift?”

Motak seemed surprised, pointed to Guul. “Your friend hasn’t told you?”

“I was just about to,” Guul said.

“Well, then let me say it proudly for all to hear.” Motak adjusted his position among the reporters, giving them time to ready.

The Xi’An cleared his throat. “I and the Motak family corporation want to again strenuously condemn Ykonde Remisk’s actions. His cowardly assaults are inconsistent with what I and the MCR are all about. The integrity of the race must be maintained. Thus, as a gesture of good will and healthy competition, I have donated my personal M50 so that Hypatia Darring can return to the race.”

It took a moment for the announcement to register in her mind. To help drive the point home, a vid screen on her wall activated to reveal a clean, gold-and-purple trimmed M50, with new scoops, new heat dispensers, and freshly polished cockpit windows. It was brilliant, beautiful. Darring loved it.

“No way,” she barked, pulling herself up in the tub. “I’m not putting one toe into that —”

Guul applied pressure to her arm once again. “What Ms. Darring is saying is that she would be honored to accept your gift and looks forward to further competition in the days ahead.”

“Hey,” she said, pulling her arm away. “Don’t answer for me. I’m not a child, dammit!”

“Well, let’s leave Ms. Darring and Mr. Guul alone,” Motak said. “Clearly, they have much to discuss.” He leaned over Darring’s tub and stared into her eyes, his sharp mouth inches from her face. “I’m so glad to see you well, my dear. Please do accept my offer. It would be a disgrace to lose one with so much talent.”

They scurried out, but left the image of the M50 on the vid screen. When the door closed, she rounded on Guul. “You’re not my father, old man — don’t answer for me.”

Guul shook his head. “I am not your father, Hypatia, but I am trying to get you to grow up a little. If you refuse this offer from Motak, he will have won thrice: by getting rid of Remisk, by getting rid of you, and by further damaging your reputation. Racing is as much about your public image as it is about skill. You already have a bad reputation. Don’t damage it further by being ungracious.”

“But it’s his ship!” she said, pointing to the vid screen. “He’s done something to it, I’m sure.” Guul shook his head. “No, he’s not that stupid. There’s too much light on the competition now, too much that’s transpired. He can’t afford to offer this gift and then sabotage it. He’s done all he can do. It’s a matter of who’s the best now. There’s plenty of racing left, Hypatia. Go out there and prove to everyone, prove to Motak, that you will not be stopped, that you are the best.”

Despite the logic in his words, Darring just wanted to reach out and scratch his face. She was so sick of males telling her what she should and should not do. Dammit, if she wanted to refuse Motak’s gift, she would. And yet, to beat Motak with his own ship, that would be so lovely. But it wasn’t just a matter of getting up and strapping into the cockpit. Every M50 had its own quirks, its own personality. There were always balancing issues, thrust issues, drift issues that needed to be identified and learned. The cockpit displays would be configured to Motak’s own preferences, which would take time to sort out. And it could take weeks for her to get comfortable on the stick and throttle. She had maybe 48 hours to make it all work. Her burns were healing in this goo around her, but her flesh was tight and still stung beneath her movements. Motak was setting her up to fail. He didn’t need to sabotage the ship, she realized. Her current condition was its own sabotage.

And now Guul was taking advantage of their new friendship. He had no right to interrupt her and speak for her publicly. Guul may admire me, she thought as she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the tub. Now, he needs to respect me.

“Okay, Zogat,” she said, looking around for a towel. “You win. I’ll accept his offer. I’ll show him I’m the best, but more importantly . . . I’ll show you.”

* * *

Hello again, and welcome to another GSN Spectrum broadcast of the Murray Cup Race. After the tragedy rising from the Sorrow Sea, Darring’s near death experience, and Remisk’s shocking confession, the competition has gotten back on track and has settled into a sweet groove. From the midway checkpoint and out all the way to Ellis XII, the top racers have pushed their craft to the limit. Hypatia Darring has come back with a vengeance, accepting Shoo-ur Motak’s M50 and taking two of the last three courses before the stage through the asteroid belt and back to the final checkpoint at Ellis VIII. The completion around Ellis IX, in particular, proved raucous, as Darring slowed to allow Motak to gain the lead while dogging Guul’s Hornet, forcing him to flirt with the Eye’s crushing tidal forces. No love was lost between those two during the following press conference. But now the aged Tevarin has surprised everyone once again by taking the final obstacle course in the outer asteroid belt, painting his targets with non-lethal laser fire, showing a refinement that proves that he will go down in history as one of the finest pilots ever to race The Cup. Now, the competition enters its final leg with only 65 racers remaining, and the top three positions held by Motak, Darring and Guul. Can these three power-houses hold out, or will someone fly past them and beat them all?

The final leg awaits. Let’s kick it back to Mike Crenshaw who’s in the thick of it. What’s the mood on the carrier, Mike?

* * *

Raw.

That’s what she was. Just a raw nerve, always ready to spark if you gave her a chance. He had hoped that he could share with her a little of his experience, teach her some wisdom, in a sport just as rough on the spirit as it was on the body and mind. And perhaps she had learned a little. She was racing better, maneuvering better, taking to heart his philosophy . . . speed is life. But looking across the carrier bay floor at her as she ran a cloth across the belly of her borrowed M50, Zogat Guul could not tell if Darring’s improvement was motivated by skill or anger. Did it really matter? In the end, if she blew across the finish line in first place, it would all boil down to victory. And that was the ultimate goal of everyone in the race. Go home a winner . . . or just go home.

“Hypatia Darring has it out for you, doesn’t she?”

Crenshaw’s face was all perky as if he had just said something infinitely clever and devious. Guul did not take the bait. “She is a tough competitor. Like a Tevarin, she shows her enemy no mercy.”

“But she held back around The Eye just to force you to lose. That’s the move of someone bearing a grudge. What did you do?”

What indeed. He could not fathom it. Perhaps he had come on too strong. Was it when he interrupted her and spoke for her publically at the hospital? She would not say when he asked; instead, she would change the subject or walk away. But direct action, direct speech was the Tevarin way. Surely she realized he was right. She had to compete. She had to accept Motak’s offer and finish the race. Not just for herself, but for the honor of her family. Surely she did not blame him for pointing that out.

“Scurry away, bug.”

Motak appeared, alone this time, and flicked his long fingers at Crenshaw as if he were swatting a fly. “Yon Tevarin warrior will not condescend to answer such a silly question. Shoo! Go bother someone else.”

Crenshaw pulled a rueful face but put his recorder and pad away.

When he was gone, Motak closed on Guul and offered his hand. “Good luck,” he said.

“You want to break my hand like you tried to break Hypatia’s?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, my friend. I merely want to wish you a safe final course. This is your last, isn’t it?”

Guul nodded. “Perhaps.”

“And you are braced to win it all and be remembered as the greatest racer in the history of the sport. For that, I wish you good luck.”

Guul took the handshake reluctantly. Motak’s fingers were firm but not vise-like. He moved until he was beside the Tevarin. They were similar in height, but Guul was thinner, leaner. Motak placed his free hand on Guul’s back.

“Look at it all one last time, Zogat. All of it. The bay, the racers, the media, the hustle and bustle of the crews. You will miss it. But I think you will miss that young lady right there most of all.”

Before Guul had a chance to speak, Motak pushed his hand hard against the Tevarin’s neck. Guul heard a high-pitched squeal, then his skin ripped apart.

It was a short, sharp pain, quickly over like a bee sting. But then he felt something crawling beneath his skin. He tried to move, but Motak gripped his hand harder. “Now, now, Zogat. Don’t strain yourself. You’ll die quicker that way.”

“What have you put in me?”

Motak maintained his composure and kept looking forward as if they were having a pleasant conversation. “The pupa of an Eealus Lime Worm. It loves the warm comfort of your blood. It moves with the beat of your heart. If it beats fast, the pupa moves fast. If slow, it moves slowly. Eventually, it’ll be flushed into the ruddy chambers of your heart, where it will divide again and again until it squeezes off all blood flow.”

“I should kill you right now.”

“But I think you won’t. You may still win this race. It may or may not reach your heart before the end. It all depends upon how much effort you put into winning. Do you go slow, keeping the worm from finding your heart, thus losing the race? Or do you go faster, letting your adrenaline build and build in order to beat the worm to the finish line?

“Now imagine it . . . me, Shoo-ur Motak, the greatest Xi’An racer in the history of the sport, crossing the finish line in first place, while the legendary Zogat Guul sputters at the last moment, his overwrought plant boiling to mush, or his ancient heart giving out from the exertion. It matters not. Either way, I blow across the finish line to glorious victory. Imagine the headlines in the news the next day.”

“I have to imagine nothing,” Guul said, feeling the worm work its way deeper into his body. “Whether I win or lose, Darring is still out there. If I fail, she will beat you.”

Motak chuckled, released his hold on Guul. “Don’t forget. She’s racing in my ship.”

He winked, gave a warm nod. “Good luck out there, old friend,” he said, as the media crowded around once more.

Guul leaned against his Hornet, trying to ignore the thing moving deeper into his back, far beyond any hope for simple removal. He could, if he wanted, have the nasty little grub removed surgically, but that would take too much time, and everyone was suiting up, strapping in, readying for the final course. He couldn’t get out now, not when the end was so close. He had to take his own advice. He had to finish the race. Motak was right: there was a chance to beat the worm to the finish line. And he could not leave Darring to whatever fate Motak had in store for her. What has he done to her — his — ship?

He looked across the bay floor, toward Darring. She was putting on her helmet, getting ready to climb into her cockpit. He tried catching her attention with a wave. She did not see him, or she was ignoring him. Whatever the reason, he did not care. He was grateful that he had had an opportunity in the twilight of his career to race against such a warrior, such a competitor as she. And he would make damn sure that he saw her win it all.

Speed is life. Indeed it is, he thought as he put on his helmet with shaking hands. But this time, speed also means death.

* * *

Guul was just ahead of her, Motak at her six. She was perfectly placed to take advantage of the Tevarin’s erratic behavior. He had been speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, as if unsure what to do. Or perhaps he was playing with her, working to sap her resolve, force her to slow down and deal with his uncharacteristic movements, thus giving the lead away to Motak. But that was silly. Guul did not want the ruthless Xi-An to win any more than she did. So, what was his game?

They raced in high orbit above Ellis VIII. The final stretch was a long, loping crazy-eight of rings that flashed brilliant reds and greens and whites, keeping a tempo with the natural flow of the racers as they shot past one another near the intersect. It was a dangerous place, for racers coming out of those rings could slam into one another and ricochet into space. The time it would take to recover from such a collision would be race-ending.

Two orbital grandstands just outside the course held spectators and prominent dignitaries that had come out to see and share in the glory of the winner. The MCR allowed the energy and excitement of the crowds to be broadcast into the cockpits of each racer as GSN announcers gave the minute-by-minute account of the final laps. Some racers thrived on the energy of the crowds. Some reveled in the noise. Darring muted it all, preferring instead to concentrate on the racers around her.

She maneuvered her M50 to the right of Guul, taking advantage of the loop. He swung his Hornet out a touch too far, and she slipped right in beside him. His wing grazed the invisible walls of the ring course, letting the tip of it cut through the barrier like a shark’s fin cresting a wave. He’d lose time for that, but he didn’t seem to care, keeping his craft pressed against the loop to ride it all the way around. He’s getting old, she thought, letting a smile slip across her lips. Can’t handle the rigors of such a sharp turn anymore. Then she thought better of gloating. She wanted to beat him, to make him see her as a racer, an equal, not as a puppy dog to counsel. But she didn’t want him to leave the race. There was still plenty of track left, plenty of twists and turns, and Motak was right on them.

The Xi-An thrust his 350r down to run right below her belly, keeping an interloper behind him in a souped-up Avenger from making a move. Darring banked to the right and felt the tug of strong G’s despite being held tightly in the chair. Her skin had healed well and there was little pain left in her shoulders, but such a move reminded her of the frailty of flesh and her own mortality. Bank too strongly, and you could pass out.

“You’re not winning this one, Motak,” she said into her comm link. Only her crew chief could hear it, but he shared her sentiment. He gave her directions which she accepted and moved her craft to the left as they cleared the loop and headed for the final intersect.

Guul came up to her side again, but he was still moving oddly, letting his wings wobble on the rebalance. She shook her head and focused on Motak, who had gunned his plant, showing significant burn out of his exhaust nozzles. He wouldn’t dare cross her cockpit now, not with the MCR looking on so intently. In fact, Motak had acted reasonably well since his vanity display at the hospital. He’d let his racing skills speak for themselves. So perhaps he wasn’t such a rotten son-of-a bitch after all. But she wouldn’t be keeping his gift after the race.

Red blips danced on her navcomp, showing the racers that could be hazardous as she crossed the intersect.

She drifted up in the lane, taking the traditional approach for a right-side cross. Motak followed, but Guul struggled to drift up, taking too long, letting his craft fall behind once more. She fought the urge to acquire his frequency and link into his comm. Motak tried to force her down. She gripped her stick and moved with him, not letting him gain advantage. The blips on the screen grew brighter. She keyed her focus, thrust her M50 forward and sailed into the intersect.

Lagging ships flew past her at the right angle, trying desperately to keep up with the pack. One nearly clipped her wing. She banked left just in time. She tried finding Guul and Motak in the flurry of crimson blips on her screen. It was impossible. She banked left, right, left again, swirling through screaming racers.

Darring flew out of the intersect, righted her ship once more, and prepared for the final run. She checked her navcomp. The madness there settled to show those that had gotten through and were in pursuit. Damn! Motak settled again beside her, and Guul was not far behind, though struggling still. Can’t I shake these bastards?

Finally, Guul made the move she was expecting. The Tevarin thrust his Hornet forward, clipping between her and Motak at such velocity that he was nothing but a blur. Her heart raced alongside him. She gunned her plant, falling just behind him, watching as the blips on her navcomp were replaced by the long green pulsing line of the final straightaway. She could hardly contain her excitement. She, Hypatia Darring, in second place on the final lap around Ellis VIII. The perfect position to be in to make a final move and win it all. And there was Zogat Guul, the master, egging her on, forcing her to put away her silly feud and chase him, chase him for glory, for fame, for personal fulfillment. She giggled like a little girl.

Speed is life.

They hit the final stretch together. One full lap around rocky Ellis VIII. Full bore speed. There was nothing like it in all the galaxy. She could not contain her excitement. She screamed into her comm link. Motak tried to muscle his way into her space. She refused him. He tried again. She pushed her M50 even faster, keeping pace with Guul, letting the green lights of the navcomp draw her forward.

Guul slowed, fell alongside her, slowed again, letting her take the lead. Bullshit! she thought, frustration growing as she punched a panel and said to him, “What the hell are you doing?”

She was greeted with coughing, spitting and moans. Something was terribly wrong. “I’m glad to speak to you once more, Hypatia.”

“Do you remember what you told me? What you made me promise you? If I were in a position to win, I’d win. And now here you are, about to win, and you’re falling back. Explain.”

Guul coughed. It sounded thick, bloody. “It isn’t important that I win, Hypatia. I’ve won enough in my life. It’s time for others to shine. It’s time for you to shine. Now, go beat him. And remember what I told you.”

He cut their link. Darring shouted, but he was gone. Guul fell back, and back, until she could not see him anymore.

Motak pounced, took the lead. Shit! She gunned it, moved down in the lane, set her craft just below Motak’s. The sleek, long body of his 350r shadowing her smaller M50. There was no doubt his craft had the endurance; in a rough and tumble, he’d prevail. She had to get out from his shadow, his influence. The only way to do that . . .

She tried pushing her plant, thumbed the throttle hard, but it did not register. She tried again. Her dashboard controls blinked, once, twice, then resettled with different settings, measurements, displays. What the

“How’s my ship?”

Darring’s heart sank. “Motak!”

“It is indeed,” he said, his voice fuzzy over the comm link, “and now that I have your undivided attention, I will reclaim what is mine.”

Nothing she did registered. She tapped panels, flicked switches, tried raising an MCR official over the comm. Everything was null, but her ship responded quickly to Motak’s remote commands. He banked to the left; she did the same. He banked right, she followed. The Xi-An finally settled his 350r beside her, waved smugly at her through his cockpit window, commanded her ship to move slightly ahead, then said, “I’ll let you take the lead for a little while, my dear, then I’ll dramatically pull forward at the last minute, flying on to victory, while you spiral out of control, hitting the royal grandstand and killing dozens. You’ll be remembered as the Butcher of Ellis.”

She pushed and prodded at the stick, banged at the dashboard. She even struck the eject controls. Nothing. “I’ll kill you first, you sorry son of a bitch.”

“And how will you do that, my dear? You have no control over anything . . . and your Tevarin is gone.”

As if on cue, a flash soared past them both, a flush of red and gold nozzle fire. It was burning, its plant pushed beyond integrity. Darring squinted to see who it was. She recognized the blue Tevarin lettering on the hull.

Guul.

His Hornet barreled ahead, all flame and fury. Darring could hear Motak curse beneath his breath. She tried again to take control of her stick. Nothing. She tried calling out to Guul, but all she could hear was Motak’s agitated mumblings as he commanded her ship to move up and ahead of him. Darring watched intently as Guul flipped his burning craft around, shifted it to align perfectly with her own, and headed straight for her.

Her comm link crackled with another voice. “Move!” it said, ragged, faint. “Dive! Dive!”

“I can’t!” she screamed back, but there was no response. Only Motak’s maddening cackle could be heard. “Say to him whatever you wish, my dear. He cannot hear you.”

Guul banked left. Darring’s ship moved to shadow the Hornet. He banked right; she banked in kind. Guul’s weakening voice continued its pleading for her to get out of the way. Tears streamed down her face; her voice broke from exertion. Motak laughed and laughed.

Her ship began to spin like a cork-screw on its long axis. She closed her eyes, waited for impact, whispering softly to Guul, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”

Then she remembered.

Beneath the dashboard of every M50 lay a panel, and inside it, a power cut-off valve, independent of the main electrical and command systems. Could Motak have forgotten it? He might have, so foolishly overconfident in his scheming and back-stabbing, and spending too much time in his 350r to remember all the systems of his secondary ship. But it might be: A mistake . . . finally.

Through the dizzying haze of her spinning, she reached beneath the dash, found the panel with shaking fingers, ripped it open, and pulled the valve.

You lose, Motak!

The plant died, and with that sudden lack of propulsion her ship spun to port. Zogat Guul slipped right past her, hitting Motak’s ship square in the front, exploding on impact, and sending their shattered, burning hulls into the void.

The cockpit came alive, her stick again responsive. She pulled her ship out of spin, reignited the plant, and blew across the finish line ahead of all others.

Her pit crew went wild, matching her own screaming, but for different reasons. They were joyous, elated, happy that their racer — the youngest Human to ever win the MCR — had just done so, and in a blaze of glory. They were happy, and they deserved to be.

She was not. Oh, she was happy to have won, to have taken the Cup, to have proven to her father that her choice in career was not foolish. She laid her head back into her chair and cried. Cried joyous tears for Guul. She understood fully now his words, echoing loudly in her mind. Speed is life, and there was no life without speed. She understood that now. The Cup was just one race in a thousand that lay ahead of her, and there would be no true happiness until she had raced them all and chased down that beast that lay in front of her, that lay in front of all racers. In his fiery death, Zogat Guul had finally caught the beast. Now, it was her turn to chase it, and she would do so for him, for Guul . . . forever.

Beyond the finish line, beyond the grandstands, beyond the accolades and cheering fans, beyond the media, and even beyond her father, Hypatia Darring gunned her power plant and kept racing.

 


 

The End

 


 

Tagged: Fiction, The_Cup, Robert_Waters, Subscriber
Comments (0) | last updated on February 4, 2014