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