Book: Deception!



Deception!




Deception!






OUTCAST STARSHIP BOOK THREE


Joshua James Daniel Young



Contents


Outcast Starship Series

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15


Outcast Starship Series


(All available on Kindle Unlimited)


Annihilation!

Vengeance!

Deception!

Damnation!


One

“Don’t get rude with me, smart mouth. It ain’t my fault we’re stuck out here in the ass end of the gutter.”

“So what—you’re saying it’s my fault? I’ve been trying to tell you for five damned weeks that—”

“Now who’s being rude? Watch your tone before you wind up with a mouthful of broken teeth.”

Eli let his aching eyelids sink shut and rubbed the knots out of his brow. “All of you shut the hell up before I blast every one of you into next Tuesday.”

“I’m only saying,” River added, “we wouldn’t be here if—”

“Let it go.”

Someone drew breath to say something, but when Eli turned around and scanned the room, whoever it was thought better of it.

Eli measured the four people in the room. Jood stood ramrod erect to one side, with no trace of a fidget anywhere. He didn’t even blink, and his face registered no expression at all.

Yasha sat on the unused radiator, propping her arms on either side of her knees. She observed the argument between River and Waylon with her usual bright eyes and steady, unruffled demeanor.

River’s enormous bulk slouched in a chair by the door. She swiveled the seat back and forth, pretending to relax, but her face gave her away. She bared her teeth and her narrow eyes glinted at Waylon, who clenched his fists and swelled out his shoulders.

At least Waylon kept his distance. He might be in the habit of throwing his weight around and leaving a tide of bodies in his wake, but he knew better than to antagonize River beyond a certain reasonable level.

Eli made sure they all kept quiet, but he was way too tired to straighten out their latest squabble. He rotated back to the window and gazed out at the Niren Outpost. How the hell did he wind up here, of all places? He didn’t have to ask.

The Oviesk sun was going down over the Bruma glacier, while the Satkia sun rose behind the Mazaap Ice Sheet. The two screens of light shining over the Outpost at different angles sparkled through swirling ice storms. Flecks of snow and ice pelted the Outpost from all sides.

Why anyone would want to look at the window in this godforsaken place, Eli couldn’t fathom. The view depressed him beyond endurance, but he didn’t seem to be able to look away.

After a week of hiding in this hellhole, Eli couldn’t make up his mind whether staying or leaving would be worse. Inside or outside, here or somewhere else—what difference did it make in the end? None.

In front of his eyes, a massive steel-grey ship broke the atmosphere and descended on the Outpost. Eli stiffened as the craft heaved into view. He didn’t relax until he caught a glimpse of the identity code stamped on its hull. It wasn’t a Squadrons ship. He didn’t know or care what it was, as long as it wasn’t that.

He didn’t realize he was standing there, lost in silent thought, until River broke the stillness. “Sarge? What do you want to do?”

He found it nearly impossible to turn around and face his people. As hopeless and forlorn as the frozen landscape outside appeared, the situation inside this room made him feel even worse.

Too slowly, he swiveled. There they all were, exactly where he’d left them, and they were all looking back at him. They waited to hear him come out with some brilliant solution to their insoluble problem.

“We can’t stay here,” Waylon chimed in. “Declan Tanner has teams all over town searching for us. We can hardly leave this room without risking exposure.”

“Whose fault is that?” River fired back. “We wouldn’t be in this fix in the first place if Tanner wasn’t looking for you.”

Waylon rolled his eyes. “Can we not go through all that again? I offered about a thousand times to leave the ship, but you all said no. No one made you do that.”

“A thousand times?” Jood interjected. “I heard you do it once. I cannot remember hearing you do it since we arrived here at Niren.”

Waylon rounded on him, spitting tacks. “So now you jump in on her side! I should have known. Don’t ever spin me any of your shit about staying neutral. You’re a snake in the grass.”

“I never claimed to be neutral about anything,” Jood said. “I have as much interest in staying alive as the rest of you. I cannot imagine how you came to believe otherwise.”

“Waylon is right about one thing,” Yasha said. “We can’t stay here.”

“Then we have to leave,” River said. “We don’t have to take him with us. That would be suicide.”

“That’s enough of that,” Eli barked. “We’re not leaving anyone behind.”

“But Sarge,” River said.

“It wouldn’t do any good, anyway,” Eli told her. “Tanner is after all of us now, not just Waylon. It wouldn’t throw Tanner off our trail.”

“It doesn’t seem that much will,” Jood said. “When that man sets out to eliminate someone, he has a reputation for finishing the job.”

“Whose side are you on?” River snapped. “You make it sound like taking Waylon with us would be the best thing that ever happened to us, when in fact—”

“I already told you,” Jood replied, his alien face betraying little emotion. “I am on my own side, as I have always been. Our best chance of surviving Tanner involves taking Waylon with us. It seems obvious.”

“Excuse me,” Waylon spat, “but I’m not a goddamned breamer you can pack up in your storage hold and transport around the stinkin’ galaxy to trade for your lives. I’m a person, and I’ll be one to decide where I go and what I do.”

“You won’t go with us if we decide not to fly with you,” River cut in. “No one is saddling me with a glowing neon sign saying, ‘Hey, Tanner, the man you’re looking to kill is right here on our ship’. Jesus, asshole, use your brain if you have one.”

Waylon lunged for her. “You foul-mouthed, filthy, washed-out piece of—”

“You reeking pile of space trash!” River bellowed back. “You put all of us at risk with your back-stabbing, underhanded, traitorous—” She rocketed off her chair.

Eli saw the two rushing to close with each other. “Cool it, both of you. The Boomerang is my ship. I say who flies in her, and that’s the last word.”

River and Waylon completely ignored him. “I’ll cut your fat ass in half as soon as look at you!” Waylon roared. “You can thank me for putting up with your poison as long as I have.”

“Take a look in the mirror, you freakish piece of broken—”

The two of them caught each other and started throwing punches, slapping, yanking. The whole thing escalated so fast Eli barely had time to move in before they locked in a flying cloud of knuckles and teeth.

Yasha got off the radiator and approached. Jood didn’t budge. He spectated from the other side of the room, without a shred of concern for the outcome.

Eli ducked a punch from Waylon. It connected with River’s shoulder and bounced off her fleshy bicep. She wound back to return the blow. Eli straightened up to block it, and the inside edge of her elbow looped around his back.

Eli dove between the combatants. He jammed his hands against both their chests to pry them apart. He yelled at Waylon to back down, but their howls and curses drowned him out. Waylon didn’t seem to be aware of Eli’s existence. He glared at River, thundering obscenities that she returned to him in equal measure.

Yasha angled around their other side, but when she laid hold of River’s other arm, Waylon took advantage of the moment to dive in. He darted his head forward to butt River, and hit Eli’s temple instead.

Eli rounded on him, bellowing in pain and rage, but now that he made his move to get between them, he found he couldn’t extricate himself at all. His arms were trapped between them.

Fury exploded out of him. He whipped his own head around. With all his power, he smashed his forehead into Waylon’s jaw. Waylon’s skull flipped sideways and River pelted her knee into Waylon’s groin.

Waylon’s knees buckled, but he recovered just as fast. He spiraled one beefy arm away, slapped it down to his thigh, and yanked out his laser pistol. Eli saw him bringing it up to level it at River’s eye.

Eli gaped in horror at the scene devolving into his worst nightmare. Every instinct told him to stop this before he saw his pilot’s brains spattered all over the room, but at that exact moment, the door slammed open.

It slapped back with such force that the knob punched a hole in the cheap fiber wall. Before the four crewmates could disentangle themselves from each other, dozens of armed men streamed into the room.

Eli had never dreamed the situation could get any worse than it already was. He almost lost all hope in life when the attackers barreled into the room by the dozen. They rushed into a semi-circle formation, with their hand cannons bristling outward like porcupine quills.


Two

Eli, Waylon, and Yasha gawked at the gunmen in stunned shock. The invaders would have mowed them down in seconds if Jood hadn’t reacted. Without seeming to move, he streaked across the room in a blue and orange blur.

He zoomed in front of the gunmen and snatched two rifles. With one swift twist of his wrist, he snapped them upward and bent their barrels at a strange angle. At the same instant, the whole mob opened fire. Quick as thought, Jood swiped both his arms up and down again. He knocked the remaining guns downward, and they all blasted into the floor.

The four combatants sprang apart, but no one could move as fast as Jood. He dropped into a crouch and lashed his leg across the floor. He tripped the gunmen over, and they flopped into a heap of guns and flailing limbs.

“Go!” Eli roared, and shoved Waylon and River toward the window.

Waylon spun around to aim his pistol at the enemy, but Eli batted him away, too. He gave Waylon and River one last shove behind him, and they bolted for the window.

Eli checked the assailants. A few managed to wrest themselves out of the morass and point their weapons up at Jood. Down on the floor, a single man pinned under dozens of bodies wrestled a pistol out of somewhere and aimed it at Eli.

Yasha wheeled and grabbed the rifle slung over her shoulder. She swung it into position. The movement attracted Jood’s attention. He glanced that way and spotted the guy taking aim at Eli.

Jood pounced into the air and smashed his foot down on the man’s wrist. His weight crushed the bone, and the flesh squished into a pancake. The gun flopped out of the man’s hand, but the distraction gave the other attackers enough time to threaten the party one more time. They shouldered their weapons, and Yasha opened fire.

She sprayed lead all over the room. It exploded in Eli’s ear. He cringed away and charged for the window as Waylon dove through the glass into the snow. Eli rushed the window so fast he wedged River against the frame in his haste to get through it.

He glanced back. Yasha backed in his direction, unloading her rifle as fast as she could squeeze the trigger. Jood whizzed back and forth, jamming weapons, twisting them into different shapes, and snapping bone here and there. Eli didn’t bother to check what he was doing. He only cared about getting his people out of the building before they all got shot.

He pushed River toward the window, but getting her bulky form through the broken pane took longer than it should have. She snarled and cursed. “Leave me alone! You aren’t helping.”

He didn’t seem to be able to stop shoving, and her giant body didn’t seem to be making much progress. He looked back one more time. His guts seized when one of the gunmen yanked a Milkweed from his belt, pulled the ripcord, and lobbed it toward Yasha.

Jood ducked out of the way. The Milkweed bumped across the floorboards and rolled straight into Yasha’s ankles. She paused her fire and stared down at the floor. Eli reacted without thinking. He dove for her and grabbed her arm. He jerked her off her feet, and she slammed into him. They toppled. Eli closed his arms around her and heaved her to one side.

Their combined weight slammed into the wall, and a colossal crash hit Eli in the side of the head. He tasted blood, but adrenaline alone rocketed him to his feet. He towed Yasha with him and almost fell headfirst into a massive hole blown in the floor.

Across the gap, all the gunmen hopped up and shouldered their weapons. River screamed, falling through the window into the howling snow outside. Eli’s mind revolved around getting Yasha and Jood and himself through the same exit, but Jood was caught on the other side of that yawning chasm. He stood less than a foot from the nearest attacker.

Their eyes met, but as usual, Eli couldn’t read the Xynnar’s expression. As he watched, Jood shot straight up in the air. His enemies swiveled to blow him to kingdom come, but he was already a dozen feet above their heads. He dropped and streaked through the hole, out of sight.

Eli tried to push Yasha toward the window, but when she turned, she lost her balance and teetered. A broken plank under her foot gave way. She pinwheeled her arms, trying to right herself, and Eli floundered to catch her in time.

Her wide, staring eyes hovered before his gaze, and behind her back, all those guns unloaded straight into Eli’s face. He hunched his shoulders for any protection, and Yasha slipped from his grasp. She pivoted into thin air and fell.

He should have dived for safety, but instead, he launched toward the hole and landed flat on his stomach. He caught Yasha by the wrist. Her feet twirled above the room below. Voices yelled and shouted out of sight. His enemies advanced around the pit to finish him off.

Eli stared down into Yasha’s eyes. She gazed back up at him with a curious sparkling shine to her irises. She seemed to be trying to tell him something. He wouldn’t let her go—not ever. He could have taken the chance to get away, but that belonged to another reality. He only hoped River and Waylon could put their differences aside to get to safety in the Boomerang.

At that moment, someone dodged into his line of sight down on the lower story. Jood looked up at him. He scanned the rim, looking at all those gunmen pointing their cannon at Eli’s back.

Jood hopped up and grabbed Yasha’s ankle. With a mighty jerk, he tore her down, but Eli was holding on too tight to let go in time. Jood’s pull tugged both of them off the ledge, and Eli somersaulted over the side.

He crashed down next to Yasha. For a fraction of a second, Eli stared up at his assailants, clustered around the shattered remains of the ceiling. Their guns pivoted into position, but before they could fire, Jood seized Eli by the collar and hauled him away. The next second, Eli was staring up at solid fiber blocking him from his doom.

Jood shook Eli out of his stupor. “Come, Eli. The Boomerang is parked in the hangar.”

Eli didn’t have time to argue that they’d have to make a break through sub-zero temperatures to reach the ship. He cast a momentary glimpse around the room in which he found himself. Whores, roughnecks, freighters, and guns for hire stared back at him from the bar. Debris and rubble scattered across the floor, and a few broken tables and chairs separated the friends from the exit.

Eli’s heart sank. He could add the Niren Outpost to one of dozens of worlds where he and his crew would never be welcome again. The number where they were allowed dwindled with every passing year.

Jood tapped his elbow and gestured toward the exit. He, Eli, and Yasha skirted the debris under the shocked inspection of the patrons. The gunmen upstairs blasted their weapons through the hole, trying to shoot the friends, but they didn’t hit anything except more furniture.

Jood checked through the glass partition between the bar and the frigid conditions outside. Eli didn’t want to go out there without the appropriate environmental wear, but what choice did he have?

Yasha blew out a quick breath, slinging her rifle across her shoulder, but Jood showed no sign of hesitation. He punched the release mechanism and the partition hissed aside. A blast of pelting ice hammered through the opening.

Eli didn’t give himself an instant to think twice. He plunged into the howling tempest. The partition made an unmistakable answering whisper when it closed behind Yasha.

The next instant, all three plowed into blinding dark. Stinging sleet peppered their cheeks, and the deafening howls of wind screamed through the Outpost. The moment they left the bar, Eli lost sight of his friends. He staggered anywhere to get out of this weather. The next second, a powerful hand snatched his sleeve and yanked him sideways.

Jood kept hold of him, and now Eli recognized him and Yasha running at his side. The party wheeled around a corner and almost collided with another posse of faceless attackers parked across the street.

Jood tackled Eli flat into the snow as gunfire thundered over their heads. The ice numbed his fingers and face. Jood kicked snow in Eli’s face while clambering to his feet. Yasha yelled something unintelligible in his ear, and they all bolted into a black gulf between two more buildings.

Eli didn’t have a clue where he was or where he was going. He relinquished all decision-making to Jood. The Xynnar was the only one who could see well enough to guide them to the hangar.

Another smattering of lead smashed into concrete next to Eli’s ear. He ducked away from showering dust and rock, but when he tried to run, he bumped into another solid structure. He turned around, and another concussion of ice and wind smacked him in the eyes.

A wild yell ripped through the noise. Yasha dove in front of him, shouldering her rifle. She popped off ten or twelve rounds, screeching herself hoarse. Through the whirling veil of white, Eli saw a dozen black outlines blocking the only exit.

At that moment, a brilliant beam of glorious light stabbed him in the brain. Jood seized him and shoved him into the hangar. The wind died, and blessed warmth closed around them.

Jood slammed the door shut and barged up to Eli. “Go! Now!”

A familiar whine of engines spun Eli around, and he raced for the Boomerang. She already hung suspended twenty feet off the ground. River’s face peered down at him from the cockpit window.

The craft rotated in mid-air, and the aft hatch dropped in front of the fleeing party. Eli and Jood pounced onto it just as the door exploded off its hinges. Yasha sprayed lead everywhere, backing up to the ramp, but not fast enough.

The enemy unloaded on the ship and bullets smattered the hull. Jood stabbed the mechanism to close the hatch, but Yasha was still too far away. At the last second, Eli lunged through the opening, strapped both arms around her waist, and carried her by main strength into the bay.

She never let off her trigger. She jammed her finger down until the magazine ran dry. Eli stumbled on the catwalk and pitched onto his back with her on top of him. The hatch slammed shut, but cannon fire still dented the hull.

At that second, a devastating smash struck the ship as River punched the throttle down hard. The Boomerang punched straight up and ripped a ragged breach in the hangar.

Eli staggered to his feet, took a step toward the cockpit, and pitched onto his knees as the Boomerang spun through the atmosphere. He supported himself against the hull, but the G force turned every step into a battle. The ship veered from one side to the other, stalled, and a sickening undertow buckled his legs again when she lost throttle.

Across the bay, Jood stood straight up and walked several steps to pass Eli on his way to the cockpit. The vertigo didn’t affect him, but before he could leave the bay, a catastrophic explosion jolted the craft hard to port.

Eli’s feet pivoted out from under him. He hovered in a weightless void for a second, and then slammed down on the gangway. His head whirled, but the next instant, the tenders caught one more time and the Boomerang screamed upward at her maximum speed.

He heaved onto his hands and knees and willed himself to crawl the rest of the way to the cockpit. River fought the helm, her powerful arms shivering with the effort. Waylon sat at the engineering console, working the controls as fast as his hands would go. Jood watched over his shoulder, but didn’t interfere.

Eli leaned against the bulkhead. “What the hell is going on?”

“Splinter cannon unloading from the surface!” River bellowed over her shoulder. “We ain’t coming back to this Outpost anytime soon.”

“The starboard tender is damaged but holding,” Waylon called.

“Can we break the atmosphere?” Eli asked.

“Breaking the atmosphere will not be a problem,” Jood reported. “Finding a safe harbor after the fact will be.”

“Not to mention the Proteus parked four parsecs off the dispatch lanes,” Waylon added. “Looks like the Outpost is relaying our position to her. She’s powering up her external cannon and changing course to intercept us.”

“Great,” Eli muttered.

“We’re ten REMs from breaking the planet’s gravity,” River yelled. “We have thirty seconds before the Proteus gets within range.”

“Punch it!” Eli boomed. “Full throttle!”

She slammed down the throttle and the ship jumped. The vessel swerved when the starboard tender spluttered again. The Boomerang skidded sideways, but at that moment, another brutal concussion pounded into the aft end. The force hurled the ship away from the Outpost farther and faster than she ever could have run on her own power.

“The port tender’s fried!” Waylon called. “The starboard is at a quarter power and we can’t steer. We’re running on momentum alone.”

Eli made a grab for the command station and banged into the chair. He stared through the window as the Proteus pivoted straight at him. At that moment, River hit the throttle again. Only the starboard tender responded. Its pitiful efforts sent the Boomerang into a tailspin. She twirled past the Proteus.

The huge destroyer started to alter course, but she couldn’t move fast enough. Another cannon blast belched from the Niren Outpost and blasted the Boomerang into black space.




Three

The Boomerang creaked and groaned, drifting in the cloud of asteroids. River fired the starboard tender once, trying to angle the ship toward one of the larger rocks. Instead, the vessel pivoted too far to port and smashed into the asteroid.

The Boomerang ricocheted off and spun wildly. Eli flung his hands in front of his face as the hulking monster wheeled straight for the window. “Brace for impact!”

He cringed into the command chair. Another shivering bang vibrated the hull, and then dead quiet enveloped the ship. It rang in Eli’s ears. He didn’t want to look for fear he would see something too awful to believe.

River sighed. “It’s all right. We’re safe here for the moment.”

Eli peeked out. A solid wall of black stone occluded the front window. Other than that, he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He glanced at River. “What did you do?”

“I grappled the Boomerang to the asteroid. We ain’t going anywhere until we’re ready. We can repair the tenders.”

“And then what?” Waylon asked. “The Territorial Deputies from Niren will be hunting us.”

“Tanner’s men hunting us is bad enough.” River pivoted her chair around and fixed her beady eyes on him. “Niren was one of the last places in known space where we were safe, and now that’s gone.”

Waylon rounded on her, but Eli had had enough of that shit to make him sick. “Not one more word of that.” He got to his feet and towered over them. “Come up with a plan.” He pointed first at Waylon and then at River. “A plan. I don’t want to hear another word from either of you that doesn’t include a—a what? A plan.”

He headed to the bulkhead and paused to look back. He turned around and arched his eyebrow at them, one after the other. “Plan. A plan. Nothing else.”

Eli barged out of the cockpit and found Yasha in the storage bay. She rested one arm against the hull and peered up at a broken strut from the starboard tender. It poked through the ship’s metal skin. “How bad is it?”

“The strut is cracked,” she replied, “but it’s the propulsion fins I’m worried about. They’re bent, and it’ll take an age to weld all seventy back into place.”

“Can you do it? A simple yes or no will do.”

“I can’t, but I know someone who can.”

Just then, Jood came marching down the gangway. “If I may make a suggestion, Eli, I propose you and River and Yasha get busy on the port tender control relay while I make a start on the fins. I believe I can get them repaired the fastest of everyone on board.”

Eli turned away. “How about you sear me a steak and pour me a glass of 400 Mexico City while you’re at it? Come on, Yasha. Bust out the potentiator arcs and a couple packs of impulse diffusers. Meet me over by the port boost scaffold.”

She cracked a grin, and a wicked glint came into her eyes. “Will there be any 400 Mexico City left for me? ‘Cuz I ain’t no cheap date like these idiots.”

He snorted with laughter. “Show me how quick you can fuse the relays and we’ll negotiate.”

Eli walked away. In a few minutes, he straddled a bench in the galley. She straddled the same bench, facing him, with a mountain of burned-out control relays piled between them.

He plucked one off the stack, stripped back the blackened wires, and welded new wire into place. He melted insulation around the fibers and clamped new potentiators into place before he tossed the relay onto the floor. “Seventy-five.”

Yasha squeezed another clamp around the wires of her own relay and set it down next to her ankle. “Seventy-eight.”

Eli picked up another one. “You won’t get any 400 Mexico City if you beat me.”

She laughed. “What makes you think I don’t have my own supply stashed under my bunk?”

Eli made a face. “Are you kidding me? The way you drink, you’ll have finished it all off getting sauced with Waylon while the rest of us fly the ship.”

She stripped wire off another relay and squinted into the cavity. “Either that or I water down his drinks with floater emollient so he’ll get tanked before me without noticing that I’m only sipping mine. How do you think I manage to drink him under the table without running down my personal supply?”

Eli exploded with laughter. He should know better than to try to out-sass her. He was still struggling to think of something outrageous enough to top that when Waylon himself strutted into the room.

He scowled at Yasha. “What’s this about watering down my drinks with floater emollient?”

She bowed over her relay. “Nothing. Just joking around.” She set her relay on the floor. “Seventy-nine.”

“You better be,” Waylon snapped. Then he jerked his chin at Eli. “Can I speak to you for a sec?”

Eli put his relay down and got another one. “Go ahead and speak. I’m right here.”

Waylon shot a sidelong glance at Yasha. “I was… you know, kinda hoping we could speak in private?”

Eli stopped work to gape at him. “Private? This is the Boomerang, man. Private don’t exist on this ship. You know that.”

Waylon screwed his neck inside his collar. “You have a cabin. With a door.”

Eli blinked at him. Yasha put her next relay on the floor with the others. “Eighty.”

Eli chucked his own relay away. He sure as hell wasn’t gonna beat her this way. He straightened up and stepped over the bench. “Fine, but make it quick. These relays won’t fix themselves.”

“No, I will,” Yasha muttered. “Eighty-one.”

Eli left the galley and turned his footsteps toward his cabin. He called over his shoulder, hoping he could work out whatever was eating Waylon before they got there. “What’s this all about?”

Waylon didn’t answer until they got outside the cabin door. “I want to… leave the Boomerang.”

Eli wheeled around and stared at him. “Leave the Boomerang? Why?”

Waylon shrugged and glanced into the cabin. “Do you mind?”

Eli crossed the threshold, but he was too shocked to let that dog lie. “Explain yourself. What the hell’s going on? I’ve been busting my ass for weeks to convince the others to keep you on. You can’t leave! We need you.”

Waylon furrowed his brow and clamped his lips closed. “Not everyone. Just River.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Eli said. “How the hell do you think we’re supposed to finish this job without you?”

“Well, shit, man!” Waylon chopped the air. “You’re the one who ran out on getting the Parker-Nolan Grenade in the first place. We were sitting right there outside Brimstone Station. We could have snatched the weapon and been done with it by now. You’re the one who pulled the pin and made a break for it. I never asked you to do that.”

“Did you crack your nut in that last fight or what? If we took that weapon and handed it over to Tanner, we would’ve had to hand you over, too. Don’t you realize that? You’d be dead by now.”

“Who says that would be the worst thing to happen?”

Eli blinked at him again with his mouth open. “You did not just say that. No way in hell.”

Waylon spun on his heel and paced across the cabin. He pivoted to face Eli from over by the bunk. “Look, man. I never asked you to save my waste of a life, and don’t even think about telling me you ran out on the weapon to save me, ‘cuz we both know that’s a lie. You did it to screw Admiral Wescott…and Declan Tanner.”

“So what if I did? So what if I don’t want those assholes forcing me into a situation where I have to watch my people die all over again? Can you blame me?”

Waylon shook his head. “This ain’t about you anymore, man. This is my life, and I want to leave the Boomerang.”

“Why? Just tell me that. What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing.” Waylon hung his head and rubbed his fingers together. “I’m not good enough for this ship.”

“You bastard!” Eli whispered. “Don’t you dare stand there and tell me you’re not good enough for this ship. If I say you’re good enough, you’re good enough, and that’s the last damned word. You’re staying. Now shut your mouth and get back to work.”

Waylon didn’t look up. “I can’t stay. I wish I could, but I gotta go. I already made up my mind. I wish I could say I’ll be back sometime, but that would be a lie, too.”

Eli’s stomach twisted in knots. The only other time in his association with Waylon he’d seen the big man act like this was when Waylon had told the crew about his past. In a fraction of a second, he’d seen Waylon as a human being like any other, a man with feelings and a conscience and…and all the things Eli would prefer to think Waylon didn’t have.

Waylon’s head swung up. His haunted black eyes locked on Eli, but he was seeing something else, something invisible. “I gotta go find Tanner. I gotta face that bastard on my own two feet before I die. I’m the one he really wants. It might not work to stop him from coming after you, but I gotta try to kill him, or at least distract him. I been running all my life and I’m tired of it. I don’t want to run anymore. It might not work, but I gotta try. That’s all I can say.”

Eli’s head spun, but he could see plain as day that nothing would divert Waylon from his chosen path. In a way, Waylon was already gone. He’d left the Boomerang a long time ago. He’d been moving toward this decision ever since the crew’s first confrontation with Tanner.

Waylon shrugged and glanced toward the door. It still stood open. Eli had forgotten to close it, but it didn’t seem very important anymore. In a matter of minutes or hours, the whole crew would know anyway. What then?

“You can set me down at Pi Squared Two,” Waylon went on. “Someone there will tell me where I can find Tanner.”

Eli’s hand flew to his head. “Jesus, man!”

“Sorry,” Waylon muttered. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”

Eli looked around him at nothing. Waylon—gone! He’d done everything to avoid this. He’d never really believed until right this minute that he’d ever have to face this horrid old world without Waylon. He didn’t want to. Even now, his mind refused to accept it.

He sank onto his bunk, too dazed to think straight. Waylon didn’t move or say anything else. Eli stared at the wall. Holy hell, what was he going to tell the others? River would be delighted to finally be rid of Waylon.

In front of Eli’s shocked eyes, River herself pivoted around the door jamb and strutted right into his cabin. She parked her giant body in front of him so he and Waylon couldn’t fail to miss her. She propped her hand on her hip. Eli couldn’t see the doorway beyond her.

She sliced her gaze back and forth between the two men. “I heard every word you just said.”

Eli shot off the bunk and held out his hand. “You have nothing to worry about, River. You won’t have to go down to the surface. We’ll drop Waylon at the docking station and then we’ll…”

“I want to,” she interrupted.

Eli blinked. “You what?”

“I want to. I want to go back to Pi Squared Two. I want to go down to the planet and search for Tanner.”

Waylon waved both hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! This is a real bad idea. I mean, me going down there is one thing, but if you…”

River rounded on him with a withering glare. “You think you’re the only one who has a history with Tanner? You think you’re the only one who wants to go back to Pi Squared Two to face him? Bitch, please.”

“Yeah, but—” Waylon began.

“You never met Tanner before that night on Tianwangxing 5,” she returned. “You’ve been running from him all your life. You’ve never even been in the same room with him. Isn’t that right?”

Waylon shrugged and looked away. “Yeah, but I’m…I mean, I’m me. You’re…” He waved up and down in front of her. “You’re you.”

River waited for him to say something else. When he didn’t, she snorted and confronted Eli. “I worked for Tanner for over seven years. I spent almost every day of that time in his presence. I know him better than anyone—certainly better than anyone on this ship.”

Eli couldn’t stop staring at her. “But…how?”

“He owns the Little Mermaid—the brothel on Pi Squared Two where you found me. He operates his business out of the same building. If anyone on board this damned ship has the right to face him, I do.”

Eli’s blood zinged in his ears. He hardly dared believe he was hearing this. Waylon leaving was one thing. If someone had told Eli that River Israel would willingly choose to go back to the brothel from which Eli had rescued her, he would have laughed that person out of the room.

There was no mistaking her, though. She pulled her head back on her bulbous neck and locked her teeth in a bulldog snarl. “I’m going no matter what you say, Sarge. I don’t like to leave you hanging, but if it means leaving the crew, I’ll do it.”


Four

Jood bowed from the waist and peered upward through the cockpit window. Thousands of colored lights winked and glistened and swirled in wild patterns against the sky. Skyscrapers towered over the Boomerang, to say nothing of the huge ships parked all around her. “Are we really going to do this?”

“Damn straight.” Waylon crammed a few more Milkweeds into his many pockets. “Where’s my…?”

Yasha slapped a clip of Riclium cartridges into his palm. “Do you have your InkPen?”

Waylon patted his hip. “Right here. You all set?”

Yasha picked up a rocket launcher from the floor. It looked suspiciously similar to Waylon’s. She snapped back the action and propped it on her hip, exactly the way he always did. “Ready when you are.”

Eli frowned at her. “You’re not coming in, surely.”

“Why not?” she asked. “I always wanted to see this place. I hear the shopping is second to none in the galaxy.”

“Yeah, but…” Eli began.

River interrupted by storming into the cockpit. “Who’s ready to have some fun?”

Jood turned away from the window. “That depends on what you consider fun.”

“Come on, Jood,” Yasha called on her way aft. “We all know you get your jollies on scaring the locals.”

Jood cocked his head. “Jollies? Is that some sort of dessert?”

The crew laughed on their way to the hatch—all except Eli. He took the hindmost position. He didn’t want to show his face on Pi Squared Two. He would have much preferred to drop Waylon and River at the docking station and let them get themselves killed in peace while the Boomerang rode off into the sunset.

Yasha and Jood wouldn’t hear of it, though. As soon as word got out that Waylon and River were going down to the surface to hunt up Declan Tanner, the whole trip had devolved into a glorified carnival complete with weapons, legal and otherwise.

Then again, Pi Squared Two didn’t have regulations on weapons. It didn’t have regulations on anything, except the minimum price of whatever local dignitary someone wanted to buy off. Everything else was fair game. No wonder Tanner had set up shop here.

Still, Eli found himself dragging his feet when it came time to leave the Boomerang and show his face on the streets and mototransport trains of the seething metropolis. The last time he’d dared disembark on this planet, he’d wound up killing several unnaturally large characters while breaking River out of the Little Mermaid.

In his wildest fantasies, he liked to pretend everyone had just forgotten about that. In his heart of hearts, he knew better than anyone that Pi Squared Two didn’t forget—not ever. What happened in Pi Squared Two remained branded into the town for all time. Nothing ever erased the past, not even killing everyone who knew or heard about it.

Now here he was, trailing Jood, Yasha, River, and Waylon, walking straight into town. Yasha carried her rifle and her rocket launcher right out in plain view, where everyone could see them. Waylon wore twin laser pistols on each hip and hefted his splinter cannon in both chiseled arms.

River kept her weapons concealed, and Jood was a live weapon all on his own. They might as well have sent up a flare that scattered the words Target rockets here across the starry sky.

The crew exited the aft hatch, and the glaring lights and flashing signs of town surrounded them. The streets buzzed with activity. Women in glistening sequined gowns strolled the sidewalks. Men in glossy suits did deals in doorways. Through the polished windows, Eli could make out gambling tables and hear the merry chime of machines jingling.

When he looked upward, billions of windows shone from the walls of skyscrapers high into the night. Every one of them housed some filthy transaction too perfidious to go down anywhere else in the galaxy.

Before he could return to scanning at the street, someone collided with him. A young kid about eighteen years old barreled out of the crowd, tilted off of Eli, and hustled in front of the group. The youngster immediately started walking backward to keep pace with the friends, and yammered nineteen to the dozen.

“Hey, man. You want some Cherry Pop? How about women? You want women? I can send you to the best place in town. What about you, ma’am? Say, that’s a real nice rifle. You need any ammo for it? I know the cheapest dealer around. You want any Milkweeds? Agranite? Gas canisters? My supplier has it all. You want some Fry? What about…?” He turned to start talking to River and stopped dead.

River pulled up and turned her unwavering stare at the kid’s face. He gulped hard. “River! River Israel?”

“What’s up, Miles? Still hustling, I see.”

“You…you came back?” the kid stammered. “You shouldn’t have. Oscar…he never stops talking about you. He keeps banging on about how he’s gonna get you back, and…” His gaze skidded a few inches away. The words died on his lips when he spotted Eli.

Eli read the bald truth written all over the kid’s face. Nope. Pi Squared Two didn’t forget. It remembered everything in glowing detail.

River angled her head the other way. “So Oscar’s still managing the Little Mermaid, huh?” She started walking again.

She bumped into Miles’ shoulder, barging past him. In a second, the friends formed ranks moving down the street. Miles took a second to wake up. When he did, he hurried to River’s side. He had to trot to keep pace with her. “You don’t want to go back to the Little Mermaid, River. Jesus, what am I saying? Of course you don’t want to go there. You can’t. I mean…” He burst into hysterical laughter and then bit his lip. “Where…where are you going?”

“Why wouldn’t I want to go back to the Little Mermaid, Miles?” River didn’t turn her head to speak to him, and she didn’t stop. “Of course I want to go back there. I want to relive all my wonderful memories from there.”

Miles glanced from one face to the next. Yasha and Waylon completely ignored him. Jood examined the boy with that unnerving mix of curiosity and indulgence. When Miles’ desperate gaze rested on Eli, the slightest hint of fear flickered in the kid’s features. Eli pitied him.

River, Waylon, and Yasha carved a swath through the clusters of people everywhere. The tide parted to let them through, and Jood and Eli walked in their wake.

Miles hesitated, and fell farther and farther behind. Then, out of nowhere, he came charging up the sidewalk next to them. He tried to race away, but River shot out one thick arm and snatched him by the collar. She jerked him nearly off his feet. “No, you don’t, Miles. You stay here. You’ll get in trouble doing that.”

She pitched him backward, and he stumbled into Jood. The Xynnar caught him lightly, spun him around, and frog-marched the poor kid along with them, all the time maintaining an iron grip on the back of Miles’ neck.

River veered around a corner and halted on the sidewalk. The whole party stared up at a massive skyscraper dominating a whole city block. It jabbed its countless lighted windows into the heavens.

Floor-to-ceiling windows ringed the ground floor. Through the glaze, Eli peered in on a familiar scene of men and women drinking, playing games, making out in corners, and exchanging money. Scantily-clad waitresses carried trays of food and drink in and out of the tables. Five bartenders worked behind the bar, supplying everything from weapons to drugs, contracts, alcohol, ships, and slave labor.

The moment Eli laid eyes on the establishment, all his misgivings evaporated. He knew this place only too well. He knew all the rules, written and unwritten. He knew how the patrons and proprietors thought. He knew the language. He knew without a shred of doubt that he could walk through the front door and handle anything the place threw at him.

A shiver went through the party. He didn’t have to look at his companions to know that each of them was experiencing exactly the same thing. They all knew places like this, and they could all handle it as well as he could.

River put her foot off the sidewalk, and the party crossed the street. She stopped by the front door. A powerful waft of smell came from inside and stung Eli’s nostrils. It smelled of perfume and alcohol and sweat and semen. It smelled of drugs and dirt and cloth. It smelled of the past, the past Eli was stupid to think he would ever leave behind. This was him. This was his present and his future, and he was just fine with that. This was his strength and his purpose.

River spun around and grabbed Miles. She slammed him against the glass window next to the door and stabbed her finger into his face. “Stay here, Miles. Don’t go inside. You hear me?”

He nodded fast, gaping into her eyes. “Yeah. Okay.”

River let him go and turned toward the door. She seemed to gather herself together, and then she pushed her way in.

The team halted in the entrance and took a long look around. Noise and conversation filled Eli’s ears. None of the patrons or waitresses paid the crew the slightest attention. On pure instinct, Eli checked the position and carry of every weapon in sight. The men wore their guns out in the open, and most of the whores carried weapons concealed under their foil-trimmed tutus.

One of the bartenders wore a snub-nosed Milkweed pumper slung across his back. One of the whores had a small handheld crossbow holstered to her naked thigh. She wore nothing else, but she did wear her hair twisted up and pinned with decorative hair sticks that might be daggers or sharpened needles.

River elbowed her way to the bar. Yasha and Waylon took their positions on either side of her. The bartender came over and yelled to ask them what they wanted, but no one answered him. All five friends faced outward into the room to keep the patrons in view.

The bartender walked away and started serving someone else. A man peeled himself away from two whores and approached the bar. He tried to wedge himself between River and Waylon to set a pitcher on the bar. His eyes popped when he took a second look and recognized River.

“River!” he shrieked. “River Israel! Do you remember me? I’m Sid…Sid the Sneak. Do you remember? Man, do I ever remember you!” He hooted and clapped his hands. He ended by rubbing his palms in an unmistakable gesture of enthusiasm. “Man, I never thought I’d see you back here.”

River didn’t even look at him. “Of course I remember you, Sid. Where’s Derringer?”

Sid’s features spasmed, but only for a second. “Derringer? What do you want him for?” He immediately recovered and hooted again. He jumped a foot in the air and licked his lips. His crazy eyes leered and rolled in their sockets. “Wow! River Israel! What a treat! Fancy you coming back here. Man, we’re gonna have some fun.”

“Just tell me where I can find Derringer, Sid,” she muttered too low. “Don’t waste my time.”

He whipped around and shot a hand in the air. “Hey, Fence! Look who’s here! It’s River Israel.” He rounded her, and kept making absurd faces. “So, uh… Where have you been these last few years? You don’t know how me and the guys missed you.”

He took a sauntering step toward her and lowered his voice to a slippery murmur. Eli’s skin crawled. He was just wondering if he ought to intervene when River slammed her meaty palm into Sid’s chest and shoved him away. He staggered and pitched into two other patrons standing at the bar.

River didn’t even turn to look at him. She marched into the crowd and walked up to a table where five men were playing cards. Two of them had whores perched on their knees, and one of them groped his hand between his whore’s thighs in front of everyone.

River bent over and started talking to the woman. She had to call right into the woman’s ear to make herself heard. She didn’t show any sign of seeing what the guy was doing.

The woman looked up and nodded at River. The two women exchanged a few snatches of conversation, and then the woman pointed across the room. River nodded back and touched the woman’s shoulder before she walked away.

Eli, Jood, Waylon, and Yasha kept turning in all directions, to keep the whole establishment in sight. Eli braced himself for a confrontation, but River kept moving in her own predetermined course.

She shouldered through the activity and commotion. She wove her way through tables and bodies to another bar in an opposite corner of the room. Solid people blocked it, but she worked into them and stopped, facing the bartenders hustling back and forth behind it.

Eli made another survey of the crowd. He didn’t know what River was looking for or how she was going to get it. These people didn’t appear to know the first thing about how the establishment operated, but they wouldn’t show it if they did.

River didn’t face into the room this time. She stood unnaturally still. She didn’t answer the bartender when he asked her if she wanted anything.

All at once, she turned her head and said in an undertone to the man standing next to her, “Long time, Derringer.”

He glanced over and his expression changed, but only slightly. He played it as deadpan as he could, considering how surprised he must have been. “Well! River Israel, as I live and breathe. What brings you back here?”

“I’m looking for Tanner. Where can I find him?”

Eli observed the man’s face over River’s shoulder. He nodded once, but he didn’t act surprised or cagey. “As far as I know, he’s still in the Oracles Sector. News on the street is he won’t be back until the end of the week. If you need something, you can ask Tiddler over there. He can get anything.”

“I don’t want nothing but Tanner,” she murmured. “It’s a shame he ain’t around.”

“What do you want him for?” The man took a leisurely sip of his drink, but he kept scanning the mirror behind the bar in search of something.

“That’s my business,” River replied. “By the way, how’s Kestra doing?”

The guy blanched before Eli’s eyes, but before he could reply, someone barreled up to River and a man threw his arm around her shoulder. “River! You’re back! I always knew you would come back here one day. How you doing?”

He draped himself over her, belching in her face. Eli braced himself when he saw River’s features harden. This must be the scumbag she’d come here to find.

He kept braying in her ear like an ass. Damp sweat glistened on his unshaven face, and his greasy black hair kept quivering out of position. He continually combed it back in a nervous tic.

River didn’t look at him. She held herself stiff and taut. She narrowed her eyes straight in front of her and growled through locked jaws. “Oscar.”

“Hey, these your new handlers?” He cackled, surveying Waylon, Jood, and Eli. “You’re really moving up in the world, ain’t you?” He swiveled around and leered at Yasha. “Hey, baby. You wanna make some money? We pay better than any other outfit in town. We can find you some new clothes and get you all dolled up. Marsha, she’s real good at—”

With no warning, River raised her burly fist and smashed it down hard on the guy’s knuckles. Blood and goo splattered across the bar, and he shrieked in horror. Quick as lightning, she snatched his flattened hand and wrenched it back. She cracked it too far and a sickening snap of bone echoed through the bar—at least, it sounded to Eli like it echoed. Maybe it only sounded that way to him because it shot through his system like the bark of gunfire.

The other patrons must have heard it, too, or they might have only heard Oscar squealing and screeching like a trapped rabbit. His high, piercing squeaks rent the air. Dozens of patrons rocketed out of their chairs to charge the group.

In a blink, Waylon, Yasha, and Eli pulled their guns. They swiveled into a semi-circle, aiming their weapons out into the room. They sandwiched their backs to guard River, who maintained her hold on Oscar’s mangled arm.

Eli’s blood burned behind his eyes. His brain shut down and he shifted into battle zone, where thoughts and considerations didn’t interfere with pure, raw instinct. His fingers itched around his two hand cannons. His gaze skipped from face to face, just begging someone to make a move.

The patrons froze. No one blinked, but a few twitched, making up their minds whether they wanted to gamble on taking a shot at the friends.

Jood remained standing perfectly still. He faced the bar and his sparkly, unwavering eyes fixed on the bartender, who’d already gotten his hand halfway under the bar. “You don’t want to do that.”

River paid no attention to anyone but Oscar. She yanked his arm around the other way and slammed his elbow straight, with the destroyed hand facing the floor. She popped the elbow to its limit and drove Oscar onto his knees. He crashed into a kneeling position, shrieking up at River.

“You piece of stinking shit, Oscar!” she bellowed at him. “You think I dragged my ass back here to work for you? You dare touch me? You’re nothing to me, do you hear me? You’re nothing!”



He kept letting out chilling, inarticulate screams that set Eli’s hair on end, but Eli didn’t watch River. He focused on the people in front of him, to the exclusion of all else. He discerned who did and who didn’t have the stomach to draw a weapon on three armed lunatics out for blood on the streets of Pi Squared Two.

The ones who didn’t began to relax their gun hands. They must have seen scenes like this a hundred times, though probably not in an establishment run by Declan Tanner. Knowing what he knew about this town, Eli would expect people to frequent the Little Mermaid hoping Tanner’s influence would ensure a relatively peaceful experience. They’d hoped wrong tonight.

River clenched her big fist again and punched it down hard on the back of Oscar’s elbow. He buckled shrieking onto his chest and she planted her foot against his neck, all the time twisting and yanking his arm at odd angles. “Start talking, Oscar, and I mean start talking fast. Where’s Tanner—and don’t give me that shit about him being in the Oracles Sector. Tell me where he really is before I break every bone in your body.”

He screeched louder than ever. “It’s true! He is in the Oracles Sector. I swear it. He left in the…”

She wound back her leg and delivered a brutal kick to the back of his head. His face bounced off the floor and he flopped down, inert.


Five

River stepped over Oscar’s unconscious body with deliberate care. She advanced into the room until Waylon’s cannon and Yasha’s rocket launcher aimed over her shoulders at the stunned patrons.

She scanned the establishment, shivering with rage and tension. “Anybody else have anything to say about my career prospects? Huh? I’m waiting.”

No one blinked. A few of the more courageous characters in the crowd eased their hands away from their weapons. Others made a show of turning back to their games or their whores or their drinks or whatever they were doing before civil order had completely broken down.

River took one more step forward. Eli didn’t have to see her face to know how terrible and deadly she looked right now. He’d made a point never to bring her anywhere near Pi Squared Two. He probably wouldn’t have been so careful if he’d ever suspected she would react like this. Then again, maybe she just hadn’t been ready to face her past like this.

She whipped her head to one side and barged up to one of the card tables. Three men went through the movements of playing their game. They pretended not to be aware of what was going on.

River seized one of them by the shirt collar. With one brutal yank, she hauled him out of his chair. “You! You’re Rufus Witherspoon, ain’t you? I remember you.”

He nodded up at her with eyes as huge as saucers. His mouth moved in silent shapes. Poor guy. Eli wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of River Israel right now.

“Where’s Tanner?” River snarled. “You seen him in here in the last week?”

The guy kept gulping and burbling like a suffocating fish. His mouth twisted and contorted, but no sound came out of his throat. Eventually, River hurled him back in his seat.

River rotated around, glaring at everyone. She strode back to where Eli and the others still threatened the whole room with their weapons. “None of them will tell us anything,” she muttered. “They’re all too scared of Tanner.”

“What do you want to do?” Eli asked, without taking his eyes off the room.

“This is pointless. Let’s get out of here.”

Waylon put up his cannon. “Where are we going? Don’t tell me we’re leaving. The fun’s just getting started.”

“We ain’t leaving—not by a mile.” River jerked her chin to one side. “Tanner keeps an office in the back of the building. He’s probably there.”

“What makes you think so?” Yasha asked. “What makes you think he’s really here?”

“They keep saying he’s in the Oracles Sector,” River replied. “If he was, they’d say he was across town or somewhere else nearby. They’d send us to look for him in another building. They wouldn’t come up with a destination so far away unless he was close—real close. Come on.”

She slapped the back of her hand against Waylon’s shoulder and swung around. She stepped over Oscar again. This time, she headed for a corner behind the bar. Waylon turned to follow her. Yasha and Eli took another moment to lower their weapons. Eli didn’t like taking his sight off his enemies—or potential enemies—but no one attacked.

Jood left his position at the bar. He slotted in behind Waylon to follow River. Eli double-checked his most likely targets, but when they still didn’t move, he dropped his arms. He pointed his guns at the floor. He and Yasha turned away.

The instant he turned his back to the room, the whole establishment exploded in chaos. Gunfire barked behind him, and broken glass crashed on all sides. Eli’s brain switched over and every thought shut down. He pinwheeled, firing in every direction. Yasha reacted just as fast. She hefted her rocket launcher, and a streak of fire erupted from the tube.

In a fraction of a second, smoke, lead, and lasers burst into an unholy cloud of whizzing death. Screams and bodies scattered in all directions. A mob of fleeing noncombatants wedged in the exit, all scratching and kicking and biting to get out of the building.

Eli braced his legs where he was and jerked his guns left and right. He blew away anything that moved. Every time a laser sizzled out of the murky cloud of gun smoke, he fired in that direction, and screams answered him. Explosions and detonations shattered the big windows along the street front.

Deafening cannon blasts and concussions rocked the walls. Through the fog of deadly fury, Eli became aware of Yasha at his side. She swerved to her right and unloaded another rocket that punched into an upturned table in the far corner. The table exploded in a mushroom cloud of fire. The bodies of five gunmen hiding behind it soared into the air.

Waylon hustled forward and pointed his cannon through the shattered front windows to the street beyond. Fifteen armed men charged into view, and he mowed them down in wide sprays of lead. The survivors ducked out of sight.

Eli swung around just in time to see a clutch of bodies rush into view from his other side. He rotated around to shoot, but Waylon got in the way. Eli couldn’t get a clean shot, but before he could adjust his position, the shadow figures charged straight at River.

She grabbed the first attacker by the head and dropped his face straight into her knee. He flopped, but she didn’t let him go. Still gripping his skull, she bared her teeth and let out a feral howl of murderous fury. She wheeled the flaccid body and whipped it around her head. Before her enemies could think twice, she attacked them, slashing their comrade’s carcass right and left. She flailed the guy at them, driving them back.

They tried to retreat, and ran into more debris littering the floor. River advanced, slicing the body everywhere they so much as looked for a path to retreat.

A few more explosions popped off, but Eli was too busy to see where they came from. His gaze skipped around the ruined bar for any head in need of a bullet, but none showed themselves.

Someone peeked out from under a pile of rubble, and he fired in that direction. One after another, the friends stopped shooting. River hefted her burden and flung it at her enemies, who dodged the corpse and turned tail.

This time, Eli made sure to keep his weapons raised and ready. He didn’t turn his back to the room again—oh, no. Broken glass crumbled behind him. When he glanced toward the bar, he saw Jood crouched behind it. His feet crunched in the shattered remains of glasses, bottles, computers, crates, and the unconscious forms of the bartenders.

Eli spotted a few weapons lying in pieces amid the wreckage. “You all right back there, man?”

Jood straightened up and wiped his hands on his jumpsuit. “All secure, Eli.”

“What did I tell you?” River growled. “He’s here, in the building. They wouldn’t try to stop us if he wasn’t.”

“Where did you say we were going?” Waylon asked.

“Over here.” River made her way toward the corner again, but this time, no one tried to stop her.

She pulled up next to an enormous panel loaded with hundreds of music plugs. The screen reading out their labels still blinked bright colors and flashing logos, stating the price to play those plugs, but the machine didn’t make any sound.

Waylon squinted at it. “Don’t tell me we have to move this thing.”

“We don’t have to move it.” River stuck her hand behind the machine and flipped something. A section of the wall swung out with the machine fixed to it. It pivoted aside to reveal a blank corridor cut into the building. “In here. This hall leads to Tanner’s office.”

She stepped forward, but before she could enter, Waylon laid a hand on her arm. “Hold up, girl. You had your fun. This one’s all me.”

River looked up at him to answer, but when she saw his face, she fell silent. She moved back to give him room, and Waylon advanced into the hall. River followed him with Jood behind her.

Eli and Yasha stayed where they were, pointing their guns outward into the room. Eli still didn’t like to leave, but the bar fell silent and still. He had no more reason to stay except to shoot people for fun.

He and Yasha backed to the opening. When he finally ducked inside, he discovered River waiting for them. She flipped a switch on the wall and the panel closed, just like that.

Eli stared at it. Tanner really had a flair for the dramatic. How many interplanetary crime lords kept their private offices in secret chambers behind hidden panels? It sure as hell didn’t fit with Tanner’s reputation as a brutal, merciless strongman.

The dim hall wound this way and that. It ended in another plain door. Two huge thugs stood guard on either side. One of them held up his hand. “Sorry, gentlemen. No weapons allowed inside.”

Waylon and River took up a position in front of them. “We want to see Tanner.”

“You gotta put up your weapons—all of you,” the guy told them. “We have our orders not even to announce you as long as you’re armed.”

The friends exchanged glances, but after a moment, Waylon handed over his cannon, and Yasha gave the bodyguards her rocket launcher and her rifle. Eli reluctantly turned over his guns too. He suffered both men to pat him down. They didn’t return to their positions until they’d satisfied themselves that they had removed every weapon from the party. They even pocketed Waylon’s InkPen.

The first bodyguard clasped his hands in front of him. “Whom shall I say wishes to speak to Mr. Tanner?”

“Waylon Brooks and River Israel,” Waylon told him.

The guy punched an intercom button next to the door. “Five to see you, sir—two men, two women, and one alien.”

Tanner’s unmistakable voice came from the other end. “Alien! What kind of alien?”

The bodyguard scrutinized Jood. “Xynnar, sir. He’s unarmed.”

A suitably uncomfortable pause followed. Eli’s nerves twanged. What would they find inside? Tanner and whoever he had in his office with him would almost certainly be armed to the teeth. That put the friends on the back foot, and that was one place Eli didn’t like to be—not at all.

Tanner’s voice crackled down the intercom again. “Fine. Who are the others?”

“Waylon Brooks and River Israel, sir,” the guy replied. “I didn’t get the other two’s names, but I can ask if you want me to.”

Tanner’s tone changed in a heartbeat. “Send ‘em in.”

The bodyguard turned the knob and pushed the door open. It wasn’t even locked. The party entered to find Declan Tanner seated behind a desk the size of Australia. He looked tiny, sitting in a monstrous leather armchair behind it.

As soon as he got into the room, Eli’s worst nightmare came true. A flank of men in black suits stood behind Tanner’s chair, and every one of them carried heavy weapons. His skin crawled taking his position in front of them.

They all wore dark glasses that hid their eyes, so he couldn’t see where they were looking, but they couldn’t see a completely unarmed party as a threat—all except Jood, of course.

Tanner leaned back in his chair. He pivoted it around in an attitude of benign indulgence. “Well, if it isn’t little old River Israel back again. I was real sorry to hear that you left the Little Mermaid, River. You were always one of our most lucrative draws. You must know that.”

“That didn’t stop you from torturing me and threatening my life, did it?” she snarled under her breath. “If you’d treated me better, I might still be here.”

He dragged his flinty gaze sideways to Eli. “I doubt that somehow. Some knights in shining armor go around the galaxy in search of damsels in distress to rescue. They aren’t happy until they find one.”

“I am not a damsel in distress,” River growled. “I can handle myself.”

“I can see that.” Tanner picked up a piece of paper from his desk and inspected it in exacting detail. “No damsel in distress could have made it past my team out front. So what is it you want? I gave you a contact frequency so you could let me know when you got your hands on the Parker-Nolan Grenade. You weren’t supposed to bring it here to my private office.”

“We don’t have the Grenade,” Eli cut in, “and we’re not going to have it. Even if we got it, we wouldn’t give it to you. We didn’t come here to give you what you want—quite the opposite.”

“What do you want, then, Mr. Bryce?” Tanner breezed. “I gave you more help than you deserve by passing you those security codes and the scramble cloud. If you pissed away your only chance to get the Grenade, don’t come crying to me.”

“It’s like this,” Waylon told him. “You made a big name for yourself around the galaxy hunting down anyone who played you wrong. Now you’re gonna find out what it feels like. Me and my friends here—we’re all sick to death of running from you. We figured it would work out better if we came hunting after you, and here you are. We’re here for you.”

Tanner raised his eyebrows. “Me! I’m right here. You found me. Are you happy now?”

“You’re going to tell us who hired you to come after us,” Eli told him. “And then you’re going to tell us who put you up to stealing that Grenade. And then you’re going to tell us who passed you those codes to give to us and why they put you up to stealing it in the first place.”

“On top of that,” Yasha chimed in, “you’re gonna tell us who contracted you to deliver ships and equipment and weapons to Whipshot 55. You’re going to tell us who provided you with Squadrons vessels and electronic systems programmed in a Mysterium language to target Earth.”

Tanner cocked his head at her. “And who may I have the honor of telling that?”

“Yasha Aliyevah,” she replied, “former lieutenant colonel of the Allied Space Squadrons.”

Eli whipped around fast. “Lieutenant Colonel! You never told me that.”

Tanner raised his eyebrows. “Sorry, Lieutenant Colonel Aliyevah, but…”

Former Lieutenant Colonel,” she corrected.

Tanner waved that away. “Have it your way, but I don’t kiss and tell. I don’t discuss client business with anyone, especially a bunch of thugs who broke into my office by force. If I knew who contracted me to do those jobs—which I don’t—I wouldn’t tell you.” He sniffed. “You’d be the last people I would tell.”

“That’s a real shame,” Waylon murmured, “’cuz you’re gonna tell us anyway.”

Tanner turned and made a face at Jood. “You know, you really ought to rethink who you associate with. I’m surprised a man of your obvious resource and talent would run with a crowd of measly fugitives like this.”

Jood tilted his head to one side and inspected the man with curious interest. “I find that comment highly ironic considering your record, Mr. Tanner. Do you really think we would enter your office like this if we intended to allow you or your…associates here to turn us aside? I expected a man with your history to have a better grasp of human nature.”

Tanner looked down at his paperwork again, but something in his expression made Eli think he might be hesitating, even slightly. “Human nature? You aren’t human.”

“Precisely my point, Mr. Tanner,” Jood replied. “I choose with whom I associate. No one makes me ‘run’ with this ‘crowd of measly fugitives.’ Would you not tend to equate my desire to associate with them as evidence that they possess a certain degree of mettle not entirely characteristic of their usual caliber of outlaw fugitive? I was referring to them, not to myself.”

Tanner tried again to cover up his discomfort, but Eli saw Jood’s words strike home. Tanner had probably never entertained the possibility that he would be facing a bona-fide Xynnar in his office, let alone one as articulate and rational as Jood.

Eli had learned a long time ago to listen to his friend. Tanner wasn’t used to it. Eli didn’t imagine a stuffed shirt like Tanner tolerating anyone telling him what was what, especially not someone he considered inferior.

He made another show of shuffling his papers. “You might be right. Anyway, I’m a busy man, so state your business and get out. I have work to do.”

Waylon answered in a deadly undertone. “We already told you. You’re coming with us.”

Tanner laughed, but Eli still detected a question in that low chuckle. “Get out of here. Quit wasting my time.” Without waiting for a reply, he sliced his finger at the men standing behind him. “Get them out of here.”

The instant the words passed his lips, Eli launched straight for him. He’d spent the whole dragged-out conversation preparing for this moment. He’d made up his mind what he would do when the order came down, and his friends did the same. They wouldn’t walk into Tanner’s office without some idea.

Eli rocketed off the ground and sailed across the desk, scattering papers everywhere. At the same moment, all the bodyguards leveled their weapons to blast the friends to pieces. They fired before they realized what Eli was doing.

Rockets, lasers, and lead destroyed the office, but they all flew right over Eli’s head. He ducked and slammed into Tanner with all his weight. The chair keeled over, and Eli landed on top of the man.

The bodyguards paused their fire to stumble out of the way, and Eli took advantage of the confusion. He whipped around and grappled his elbow around Tanner’s neck. Tanner roared in protest, but Eli’s mind went blank. His impulses acted on their own crazy plan.

Eli lunged for the nearest bodyguard, hauling Tanner with him. He seized the barrel of the bodyguard’s cannon and crammed the tube into Tanner’s forehead. In a fraction of a second, Eli backed up, facing down every last mother’s son of them. “Come on, assholes!” he roared. “Come on and shoot! Come on! Let’s see you do it! Shoot. Shoot! Come on!”

Tanner kept quacking orders and curses no one could understand. The bodyguards aimed their guns at the friends, but they didn’t fire. Eli’s heel slipped in some debris. He scanned the room, lost in raving madness. He couldn’t think of anything but hoping and praying someone pulled a trigger so Tanner would be dead.

He barked over his shoulder, “Disarm them! Get their weapons!”

Waylon stepped forward, but Tanner shrieked out, “Shoot, you idiots! Shoot ‘em! Shoot ‘em all! What are you waiting for?”

The gunmen hesitated a second longer, but when he kept yelling at them to shoot, two of them raised their weapons. They aimed behind Eli, toward the intruders. Eli saw the situation spiraling out of control. If those men started shooting, it was all over. Tanner didn’t care if he got hit in the crossfire, but he must know he wouldn’t. His people would make sure of that.

Eli made up his mind in a blink. He charged again, twisting the gun sideways. He plowed Tanner’s body straight into the bodyguard’s chest and tackled both of them to the floor. The blow jolted the gun out of the man’s grasp, and Eli spun it around to fire.

He caught a fleeting glimpse of something blurry speeding through the office. It halted in front of one bodyguard after another, only long enough for Eli to recognize Jood. Then he lost sight of the Xynnar in a wild haze of motion.

Jood froze in front of one gunman and smashed his elbow into the man’s face. He vanished and reappeared in front of another man as the guy compressed the trigger of his rocket launcher. Jood stuffed his fist down the tube and the gun exploded in its owner’s hands. The next instant, Jood materialized next to a third man. Jood bent the man’s arm back so the barrel pointed at his head and crushed the trigger. The charge detonated his skull to a pulp.

Yasha, Waylon, and River stormed through the office, finishing off the stragglers. Two bodyguards wheeled to aim at Jood, but he wasn’t there anymore. River grabbed one of them by his tailored blazer and hurled him face-first into the path of his comrade’s weapon. The gun went off, and the guy folded at his friend’s feet.

The other shooter stared at the bodyguard he’d just killed. In that moment of hesitation, Waylon lunged for him and smashed his fist into the man’s nose. His head whipped back, but when he tried to shoot, he found his own hands empty. Waylon grinned at him, turned his weapon on him, and fired.

Eli let go of Tanner only long enough to disentangle himself from his enemies. He hopped up and whipped the weapon around, but he discovered the room already quiet. Five bodyguards remained standing. Two of them were unarmed, and a third limped on a broken leg. His foot pointed around the wrong way, and he wasn’t wearing his glasses anymore.

Jood stood in front of the fourth, holding the man’s weapon aimed up at the ceiling. The guy stared at Jood’s unearthly visage with an expression of revulsion and horror.

Only the last man still threatened the team. He bared his teeth, panting for breath. He kept turning one direction and another, trying to cover everyone at once. Eli sized up the situation in a heartbeat. He grabbed Tanner and jabbed his rifle into Tanner’s shoulder blades. “Put it away! Put it away or your boss is dead!”

“Shoot, Wilkins!” Tanner boomed. “Shoot now!”

Wilkins didn’t shoot. He could see the writing on the wall as well as anybody except Tanner. Eli glanced behind him. Waylon, Yasha, and River gave him a clear path to the exit. “Put your gun down, Wilkins,” Eli called. “That’s the only way you’re walking out of here alive.”

Wilkins hesitated one last time. Eli backstepped and dragged Tanner toward the door. He nodded to Waylon, who opened it for him.

Waylon stuck his head out and exchanged a few words with the guards outside. He returned with all the team’s weapons. He handed Yasha her rocket launcher and her rifle. He slung his cannon over his chest.

Eli inched Tanner backward. Jood removed the gun from his opponent’s grasp. “Put the gun down, Wilkins,” he said in his steady voice. “Tanner does not deserve your life.”

Wilkins’ eyes swiveled behind his glasses. Then, in a quick jerk, he lifted his gun and held it up in one hand. “Good man,” Jood congratulated him and took the weapon away from him, too. “After you, Eli.”

Eli tugged Tanner toward the exit. The next minute, he was outside the office. Waylon covered the two bodyguards, and the friends gathered in the corridor.

“You’ll never get away with this!” Tanner bellowed. “You’re dead. Do you realize that? You’re all dead!”

Eli blocked those words out of his mind. He checked his people just long enough to see Jood hand the two guns to River. “Let’s go.”


Six

Waylon poked his head around the hidden panel. “All clear.”

Jood fell in at Eli’s side. “We cannot expect it to remain clear, Eli. No doubt Tanner prepared a contingency plan for a scenario just like this. We can expect resistance before we get back to the Boomerang.”

Eli compressed his lips. He had his hands full dragging Tanner along with him and maintaining a hold on the weapon he’d stolen. “Go out front, will you? If we do run into Tanner’s people, let them meet you first.”

Jood dipped him a brief nod. “I can do that. May I suggest that, if we get pinned down by fire, I block you while you take Tanner back to the Boomerang? Leave me behind and I’ll provide you with what cover I can.”

“I’m not leaving you, Jood,” Eli fired back. “You wouldn’t last ten seconds on this planet.”

“I didn’t mean leave me alone on the planet, Eli,” Jood replied. “I mean divert to another route to the Boomerang. I believe I can produce a sufficiently distracting diversion to keep Tanner’s people occupied while you escape with your prize.”

Eli had to laugh. “Okay. You talked me into it. Just so we’re clear that I’ll….”

A colossal explosion shook the ground. Everyone whipped around, but it took them a moment to understand what was happening. Not until Eli turned all the way backward did he see hundreds of armed attackers advancing down the street.

About ten of them leveled rocket launchers at the fleeing party. Projectiles whistled down the streets, spiraled into random buildings, and detonated with catastrophic force. Fountains of shattered glass sprayed the pavement.

Yasha slapped her weapon into her hands, but Waylon shoved her out of the way. “Get out of here, you fool!”

Yasha staggered into River. The two women and Waylon clawed past each other, scrambling for a side avenue, but Eli already saw more squads of Tanner’s men approaching from that direction.

Tanner struggled and yelled in his grasp. Through the din, Eli realized Tanner was calling threats and orders to his people. He was ordering them to tear Eli’s legs off and a whole lot of other stuff Eli didn’t want to hear.

Jood’s calm voice murmured in his ear, “I believe now would be the perfect time for me to create a diversion for your friends, Eli.”

Eli looked up and found the Xynnar regarding him with that expressionless face of his. “Yeah. It is.”

Jood nodded toward the side street. “Get back to the Boomerang, Eli.”

Eli knew he was right, but he hated to leave Jood. Not even knowing Jood was so much better equipped to fight these troops could convince him to leave Jood to do the job alone.

Tanner woke him from his reverie. “Attack, you cocksuckers! There’s only five of them! Cut ‘em off! They’re heading down Sovereign Street.”

Eli tightened his grip on Tanner’s neck and stabbed his gun barrel into Tanner’s ear. “Shut up, you slug! If we go down, you’ll be the first to die.”

He jerked the fool off his feet. Jood gave Eli one more nod, and Eli turned on his heel. He bolted after Waylon. A second later, a cacophony of explosions, screams, and rumbling vibrations thumped behind him. Eli didn’t want to know what Jood was doing back there.

Tanner didn’t make it easy to heft him through the streets. He kept pausing to put up a fight. Once, he succeeded in tugging himself out of Eli’s grip. He bolted to make a run for it, but Eli dove for him and tackled him flat on the sidewalk. He straddled his knees over Tanner’s chest and smashed his gun barrel into Tanner’s nose.

Tanner slumped and his eyes slipped out of focus. Eli crammed his weapon against Tanner’s throat and thundered into his face, “One more stunt like that and I’ll turn you over to River? You hear?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He manhandled Tanner to his feet and propelled him away. He didn’t care anymore if Tanner lived or died. In fact, he sincerely hoped the cocksucker ended up dead in a firefight. That would solve so many problems.

Yasha, Waylon, and River closed Eli and Tanner in a protective ring, racing across the city. They circumvented the strip where they knew Jood was fighting Tanner’s men. The little party entered a seedy neighborhood where they couldn’t hear the noise so well. Eli started to believe, just for a second, that they might make it back to the Boomerang with their lives.

Waylon paused at an intersection to check right and left. Silence reigned, and the darkened buildings showed minimal signs of life. He put out his foot to cross the street when a smattering of lead ripped down the street, coming from the left. Everybody pivoted in that direction. They all leveled their weapons to return fire when another rattle of cannon fire spat from the opposite direction.

Waylon and Yasha spun around to cover their rear. That left River alone to defend Eli and Tanner, and it wasn’t enough—not by a million miles. Eli’s heart sank when he saw two solid mobs of what looked like soldiers. They wore uniforms, and electronic scopes hung suspended from their helmets. The lenses reflected faint glimmers in the dim light.

Eli backed away, but that only brought him closer to the other group behind him. He and River bumped into Waylon and Yasha backing away from their enemies, too. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do but make a break for it back the way they came.

Eli whirled Tanner aside and shoved him up the street. In the back of his mind, he realized he was taking Tanner back toward the Little Mermaid, away from the Boomerang and their escape. This was exactly the direction he didn’t want to go, but that couldn’t be helped.

His friends waited a second longer before they moved in to defend his back. Eli broke into a run, propelling Tanner before him. He searched everywhere for any sign of danger, and he found it. He almost ran face-first into a third flank of those soldiers trailing the group.

Eli stumbled, and Tanner gave another mighty jerk. He almost broke free, but Waylon caught both Tanner and Eli in an unbreakable grip. “Here!” He wheeled Eli and jostled him into an alley. In half a second, the party ran into a fifteen-foot brick wall blocking their path.

Eli looked around him for a way out, but at that moment, lasers angled into the alley, slicing through brick and concrete and fiber. A bouquet of Milkweeds vaulted overhead and dropped amid the startled friends.

Eli dove for cover. He landed on top of Tanner cowering behind a mountain of reeking trash. Eli vented his ire on his prisoner by taking Tanner onto the pavement. “Stay down if you know what’s good for you!”

Tanner didn’t move. That would be stupid, because more cannon fire and lasers ripped into the alley from the street. Waylon, Yasha, and River fired back at the soldiers’ weapons, but Eli couldn’t make out their enemies from here. They were sitting ducks.

He didn’t bother to shoot. He needed to think. He had to come up with a way not only out of this stinking alley but back to the Boomerang—preferably without losing his hold on Tanner.

He glanced up at the wall. No way could he get up there. In front of his face, a whizzing missile launched over the wall and crashed into their midst. Eli ducked, but when a hand touched his shoulder, he looked up to find Jood crouched at his side. “Unfortunately, there were too many of them to distract them for long, Eli. My apologies.”

“Forget it,” Eli returned. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Any ideas on how we can make it back to the Boomerang?”

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Eli,” Jood replied, “but Tanner’s troops have the area cordoned off, including the parking lot where we left the Boomerang. It appears Tanner anticipated you—or at least an attack of this kind. It appears…”

Eli held up one hand. “Spare me the gory details, okay, man? Just tell me how the Christ we’re supposed to get out of here.”

“It should be simple enough,” Jood informed him. “All you need to do is release Tanner. We can easily disappear into the city and hide until he removes his troops. I would not be surprised if he had some tracking device on his person that draws these soldiers to you. Leave him and save yourselves.”

“No goddamned way,” Waylon boomed. “I didn’t come all this way to dump him. We’re taking him and that’s flat.”

“Is Tanner worth your life—all our lives?” Jood returned.

“You want to skate on back to the Boomerang and scamper off to whatever rabbit hole you got waiting for you? Go right ahead,” Waylon fired back. “I’ll stay here with the shithead. I ain’t leaving without him. I’ll leave this planet when he’s dead, or not at all.”

“You and me both,” River added.

“Jesus Christ, will you use your heads for a change?” Eli yelled. “We ain’t getting out of here with him. We can take off and…”

“No,” Waylon snapped.

Eli gestured toward Jood. “Will you listen to these idiots?”

“I have to say I agree with Waylon and River,” Yasha interjected. “This could be our best chance to bust Admiral Wescott for setting up the Mysterium to destroy Earth. Tanner is the only one who can tell us Wescott’s motive. I don’t think we should dump Tanner, either.”

Eli blinked at her. “You’re screwing with me.”

“Sorry,” she replied. “There has to be another way to get him out of here. It seems a shame to jettison him when we already succeeded in the hardest part of the job. We got him out of the Little Mermaid. Now we just have to get him off the planet.”

Eli raised his eyebrows. “Just? Just get him off the planet?”

Waylon hitched over to Tanner. He pulled out a thin device from his pocket. Big pink letters across the side read InkPen. He clicked a button, and a bright pink laser hummed from its end. “I got a good idea. We start carving pieces off him until we find the tracking device. We throw chunks to the dogs in our wake. That’ll slow ‘em down some.”

“If you insist on this course of action,” Jood cut in, “I may be able to offer another option. Troops are concentrated around the Boomerang to block us from getting off the planet. There is another speed scout parked in the Forrester Lot south of Brazil Street. She’s called the Hummingbird.”

“Well, what the hell good does that do?” Waylon demanded. “We can’t get to the Boomerang, and she’s closer than the Forrester Lot. It would be a thousand times harder for us to get to the Forrester Lot.”

Jood turned to face him. If his kind was capable of facial expressions at all, he might have sneered in contempt at Waylon’s pathetically inferior intellect. “If I may suggest a different alternative, Waylon, I propose that the four of you cross this wall and make for the Forrester Lot. You will steal the Hummingbird and we can rendezvous somewhere else—Sayam Dash, for example.”

Eli gaped at him. “You’re serious! You’re out of your mind!”

“Hardly,” Jood went on. “I will return to the Boomerang. I will engage with the troops guarding her. Unless I am much mistaken, they will not be able to stop me from getting to the ship. They will then call for reinforcements, which will free the rest of you to get through to the Forrester Lot. Our opponents may even withdraw the guards from the Lot and leave the Hummingbird unprotected. We can only hope. In any case, you will take the Hummingbird to Sayam Dash.”

“What about the tracking device?” Waylon asked. “They’ll see that the tracking device is nowhere near the Boomerang. They’ll see it moving in the opposite direction.”

“I doubt that,” Jood told him. “I suspect they’ll assume their targets are trying to fight their way to the Boomerang to escape. They must have orders to prevent that from happening. They will be so all-consumingly focused on stopping anyone from reaching the Boomerang that they will neglect to check whether Tanner is approaching the Boomerang or moving away from her.”

“And you?” Yasha murmured. “How will you get the Boomerang off the planet?”

“One of two things will undoubtedly happen,” Jood replied. “Either I will prevail and fly away in the Boomerang, in which case I will meet you at Sayam Dash and that will be the end of this particularly entertaining adventure.”

“And if you don’t prevail?” River asked. “They’ll kill you.”

“They will not kill me. They will arrest me, which is effectively the same thing as me prevailing and flying away in the Boomerang to meet you at Sayam Dash.”

“How do you know they won’t kill you?” River asked.

Jood jutted out his chin. “I know.”

Eli studied him from the side. “You’re sure about this, aren’t you?”

“Quite sure, Eli. I would not suggest it if I was not. You know that.”

“Yeah. I know.” Eli turned away. “All right. How do we get over this wall, then?”

“It is simple,” Jood told him. “I will throw you over.”

Eli whipped around fast. “Throw us?”

“Indeed. It is not that high. As you may remember, I just jumped it myself.”

River narrowed her eyes at him. “You want to throw us over a fifteen-foot wall? We’d smash our heads on the pavement when we fell over the other side.”

Jood cocked his head to one side. “I really do not understand what I have done that would cause you all to suspect that I have lost my…let me see. What do you call them? My marbles? Yes, I believe that is the appropriate human term. You all think I have lost my marbles. You think I would suggest throwing you over a wall to your deaths when I have just proposed using myself as bait to save your lives. Honestly, the human mind baffles all logic.”

“Okay, okay.” Eli held up both hands. “If you’re sure, I’m willing to go along with it. Just…just make sure you make it to Sayam Dash.”

Jood turned around and fixed him with those shiny, unblinking eyes. “I will, Eli.”

Eli took a deep breath. “All right. I trust you. Just…” He stopped himself from insisting a second time that Jood make it out alive. Jood wouldn’t propose this plan if he wasn’t absolutely certain he could make it work. He was right about that, too.

Eli laid hold of Tanner and hoisted the bastard to his feet. Jood approached the wall. “You’ll never get away with this,” Tanner announced. “You’ll all die here.”

Waylon’s arm shot out, and he punched the man square in the jaw. He smashed Tanner down on his knees. “Shut your damn mouth.”

Jood scanned the wall. Then, with a catlike bound, he sprang onto the brick. He grappled one hand over the top, braced his legs against the surface, and held himself wedged there.

He cast a piercing gaze downward and held out his hand. “Who will go first?”

Yasha raised her arm and grasped his wrist. “Me.”

He strapped his orange-brown fingers around her forearm. He paused for an instant. Then, with really very little effort, he hurled her in a graceful swoop outward and up. He flung her over his head and twirled her over the wall. She dropped over the other side.

For what seemed like ages, he held onto her wrist, dangling her over the barrier. A moment later, she fell. Her disembodied voice echoed from out of sight. “I’m okay. Come on over.”

Jood extended his hand. “River?”

River puffed out her cheeks. “Okay.”

Jood slung her massive bulk over the wall as lightly as Yasha. He didn’t appear to have any trouble with Waylon’s muscular frame, either. He threw Tanner over next, and Eli heard the man spluttering and yelling when the friends caught hold of him on the other side.

Eli gazed up at Jood holding out his hand. Jood’s eyes shone even brighter than usual. “Do not say it again, Eli,” Jood told him. “You will only waste valuable time.”

Eli nodded. “Have it your way. Just make sure.”

Jood pointed his chin to the end of the alley. The fire and crashes came louder from there. The trash piles protected the two men from the lasers. “Give me sixty seconds to engage with them before you leave. That will provide enough time for me to draw them away.”

“Okay.” Eli wished more than anything he could impress on Jood one more time how important it was that he make it out of here, but that would only comfort Eli himself. Jood didn’t need reassurance.

He put up his hand, and Jood’s impossibly strong fingers clamped around his wrist. The next moment, he was sailing through the air and falling, falling down the other side of the wall.

Yasha and River caught him and brought him down to the ground. Eli’s hand felt too empty. Jood was gone—again.

Now it was Eli’s job to make good on the chance his friend gave him. He turned away and seized hold of Tanner. “Come on. We don’t have much time.”


Seven

Waylon jabbed his cannon into Tanner’s ribs. “Move it, asshole. Don’t give me an excuse to blow your head off right here.”

Tanner tried to wheel around to confront him. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Waylon bellied up to him and bumped his chest into Tanner’s. “It would be the greatest pleasure of my life. Now move it.”

He spun Tanner around by the shoulders and pushed him to a metal ladder attached to a tenement. He propelled Tanner up it at the point of his weapon.

Eli, River, and Yasha climbed up behind them. On the roof, Eli scanned the city. Waves of light shimmered as far as the eye could see. River pointed to a brilliant band south of their position. “That’s Brazil Street. That dark field beyond it is the Forrester Lot. See the marauder coming into land?”

Waylon cocked his head. “How do you know so much about this place?”

Tanner interrupted by laughing. He guffawed at River. “River knows everything about Pi Squared Two, don’t you, sweetheart? Do these guys know the sick shit you did for me when you were the most expensive act at the Little Mermaid? Huh? Did you tell your savior here how much you used to like it back then?” He jerked his thumb at Eli. “Bet they wouldn’t be too happy about dragging your fat ass around the galaxy if they knew.”

Eli clenched his teeth to break the guy in half, but River got there first. She stalked up to Tanner, and his smug expression changed when he saw the look on her face. “You don’t know me, Declan. You don’t know the half of what I’m capable of, but any day of the week you want to find out, I can give you a private session all by yourself. You might not like it all that much, but I will. I can promise you that.”

He fell silent. No one said a word. Eli thought he knew River pretty well, but he didn’t kid himself about knowing the full extent of what she was capable of. He didn’t want to find out. Some secrets were best not told, even to one’s closest friends.

“Let’s get out of here,” he muttered. “The sooner we can find that scout, the sooner we can get off this rock.”

Waylon kept his cannon pinned to Tanner’s spine, marching him down another ladder. River waited until they got to the bottom before she slung her weapons over her arm and started down.

Eli gazed off into the night. The Forrester Lot looked impossibly black against the myriad lights of Pi Squared Two. The parking lots and dispatch lanes where thousands of ships landed were the only real estate on the planet without flashing signs, advertisements, and businesses operating around the clock.

“It’s too quiet,” Yasha murmured at his side. “I don’t like it.”

Eli pretended to look around. Another towering wall butted up to either side of the building on which they stood. They had to climb up to the roof to get past that wall. “It’s only quiet because they’re all on the other side of town. They’re all defending the Boomerang from Jood.”

She glanced behind her, but Eli didn’t. He didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to see any battle of hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers against one Xynnar.

“He’ll be all right,” she told him. “You have to believe that.”

“I don’t, but he does. That’s all that matters.”

Eli took hold of the ladder and swung himself over. He shimmied down and joined the others. He left Waylon to handle Tanner and searched the surroundings for any sign of danger.

The closer the team got to their destination, the more the silence disquieted him, but he never let on to the others. He kept expecting at any second that more troops would leap out and destroy the party.

They pushed through five more blocks without seeing so much as a Moravian squirrel running through the gutter. They came in sight of Brazil Street. Eli ran into the others huddled behind a building. “What’s going on? What’s the problem?”

“Hold up a sec,” Waylon told him.

He rotated Tanner to face him and backed the prisoner against a wall. A curious grin twisted Tanner’s lips. With no warning, Waylon punched him a swift blow in the bridge of the nose. Tanner folded at the waist, and Waylon ducked under his crumpling form. He hoisted Tanner over his shoulder.

“What the hell are you doing?” Eli cried. “If you keep hitting him like this, he won’t have any memory left to tell us what we want to know.”

“He was walking faster these last few blocks.” Waylon settled the body on his shoulder. “He was planning to make a scene when we got out on Brazil Street. He was going to attract attention to himself. Someone would have seen him and tried to stop us. I had to keep him quiet.”

Before Eli could stop him, Waylon turned away and stepped into the open. The others hurried to keep up with him. He barged straight into a solid stream of bodies flowing in all directions.

The crew elbowed through the throng, across the sidewalk, and into the main stream of traffic. Eli scanned the crowd, but no one paid the strangers any attention. A bunch of armed characters carrying an unconscious body wasn’t out of the ordinary in this den of sin.

The next instant, they entered another dark alley on the other side. They made it across Brazil Street, and Waylon made his way to the end of the alley. A high wire fence blocked their path, and on the other side of it, the Forrester Lot stretched black and ghostly for miles beyond the horizon.

Ships of every size and description sat parked in the lanes. Massive destroyers, sleek marauders, bulky freighters, and glossy pleasure yachts stabbed their noses into the night.

While the friends watched, a monstrous battle cruiser levitated from the tarmac. It hovered there for a second and then blasted off in a tempest of wind and noise. It punched through the atmosphere and vanished.

Eli squinted against the dust and covered his eyes. When the noise died, he took another look through the fence. “Now we just have to find the scout. She could be anywhere.”

“Sneaking around and reading their designations one after another won’t work, either.” Waylon pointed to the watchtowers. “The instant we fire up the engines, they’ll be on top of us.”

“I’ll handle it.” Yasha set down her rocket launcher and unslung her rifle. She grabbed the wire.

Eli stopped her. “What are you doing? You’re not going out there.”

She didn’t look at him. Her gaze skipped from one craft to another. The sparkle in her eyes and the faint blush of excitement on her cheeks didn’t set his mind at rest in the least. “I’m the least inconspicuous of all of us. I’ll find her.”

Before he could stop her, she’d vaulted onto the wire and shimmied up the fence. She dropped into a crouch on the other side and scurried off into the lanes.

Eli swallowed the sting of bile. Now he, Waylon, and River hunkered down by the Lot for all the world to see, and that was saying nothing of Declan Tanner’s unconscious body lying in a crumpled heap. If even one of the guards in those watchtowers happened to glance in their general direction, they would never live to tell the tale.

The minutes dragged. Just once, Eli cast a glance over his shoulder. A general hubbub of what was supposed to be enjoyment came from Brazil Street. For some strange reason, Eli experienced a moment of cognitive distortion when he realized that he wouldn’t be over there for all the gold in the mint. He’d long ago lost his taste for gambling, drugs, women for hire, dancing, luxury, and all the other diversions that made Pi Squared Two such a prestigious destination for the trash of the galaxy.

If he had all the money in the world to spend, he wouldn’t be over there savoring the delights of Brazil Street. He would be… Eli couldn’t think of anything he would rather be doing than sitting here with these people. Could that be right? Was he such a glutton for punishment that he actually enjoyed this shit? The only thing missing was Jood.

When he thought about lounging in a tub full of hot soapy water with a beautiful courtesan massaging his shoulders, the scene seemed intolerably boring and stiflingly domestic. He’d spent too many decades living rough to go back to that life.

He gazed down at the side of Tanner’s face. The guy was worth more money than Rexus Minx, but he’d lost his hard edge somewhere along the line. Tanner had started out as a poor gunrunner, but success had made him soft. He’d traded his edge for fancy buildings full of whores who lived in fear for their lives, and vaults stacked with gold and deeds. Tanner and people like him would never feel comfortable on the rim of space, running around in creaky old ships. Never again.

Just then, Yasha came slithering down the wire. She squatted beyond the barrier. “Found her. She’s right over there—not a hundred paces down the fence.” She stuck her hand through the mesh. “Gimme your InkPen.”

Waylon stuffed it into her hand. “Are you sure about this?”

“She’s hidden from the guard tower,” Yasha whispered. “We’ve got a straight shot at her. They’ll never see us.”

“They’ll never see us until we lift off,” River corrected.

Yasha shot her a crazy grin and flicked on the InkPen. She gauged her position so her back blocked the pink glimmer from the nearest tower. She got busy sawing through the mesh.

“Does she have any security?” Eli asked.

“She’s a damned tank,” Yasha breathed. “From what I could see, we’ll have to deploy the paddles and row.”

“Oh, fantastic,” Waylon snarled.

Yasha pried back the cut wire. “Pass Tanner through.”

A series of grunts and curses followed, with Waylon and River fighting to cram Tanner’s floppy limbs through the hole. In the end, River pivoted over on her ass, wedged her heels against Tanner’s chest, and scraped him across the gravel.

Yasha grappled Tanner’s arms and heaved from the other end. At last, the rest of the crew crawled through, but Yasha had to slice several more strands of the mesh to make adequate space for River to fit. Fortunately, the guard towers were also far enough away to prevent anyone from hearing the scuffle involved.

Once on the other side, Yasha led the way down the fence. Sure enough, they found the Hummingbird parked as far to the edge of the Lot as it was possible for her to be. Her position gave the most favorable vantage point from which to steal a ship under the very nose of one of the most sophisticated tracking systems in the galaxy.

When Eli spotted her, he understood what Yasha meant. He almost doubted the ship had any heading control at all, but they could hardly turn back. Waylon hid behind the vessel while he shouldered Tanner.

Yasha and River sneaked up to the aft end, which, conveniently, also faced away from the watchtower. They tinkered with her hatch mechanism for a second, and the ramp folded to the ground.

Yasha waved everyone inside, and River tiptoed to the cockpit. Waylon found an empty cabin and laid Tanner on the bunk. Eli shut the hatch. He found River poring over the helm. “Can you lift her off?”

She frowned at the console. “Lift her off—yes. Lift her off without getting shot at—not a chance.”

Yasha slotted into engineering and tapped the instruments. “The supply manifest doesn’t list any ordnance at all. From what I can tell, her entire weapons complement consists of the pilot’s personal laser pistol and an artifact spear-thrower from the Xingxi Cluster, belonging to the captain.”

Eli slumped into the command chair. “What good does that do? Are we supposed to throw it at them when the shooting starts?”

She didn’t look up from her console. “He took it with him when he went into town. We’ve got a full load of fuel. That’s the only thing that’s gonna get us the hell out of here.”

“All right, then.” He took a firm grip on his console, but he had to keep reminding himself that this ship didn’t even have weapons ports, much less ordnance to shoot. “How fast can you activate?”

“She’s the same build as the Boomerang,” River replied, “so the same amount of time.”

Eli scowled. “They’ll blow us to smithereens before we get off the ground.”

“Take it or leave it, Sarge.” She tapped in the activation sequence. “Here we go.”

The tenders whined to life. The Hummingbird quivered. An official-sounding crackle hiccupped down the intercom. “Speed Scout Hummingbird, enter security code for launch clearance.”

River grumbled between gritted teeth. “Sit on it.”

“They’re pivoting their splinter cannon into position,” Yasha called.

Eli stiffened. His fingers tightened around his console. What he wouldn’t give for a couple of cannons of his own right now—but no. He had to get saddled with the one ship in the galaxy with no weapons at all. At least the Boomerang had something, even if it wasn’t much.

“How long to full throttle?” he yelled.

“Ten seconds,” River replied.

“Speed scout Hummingbird, you have five seconds to enter your security code for launch clearance. This is your last warning before we open fire.”

“River,” Eli warned.

“Sorry, Sarge,” she bellowed. “Can’t activate her any faster. That’s physics.”

“Don’t give me damned—” He didn’t finish before a pounding blow stuck the ship. The vessel groaned and sagged under the impact.

“Two seconds,” River roared.

“Hit it!” Eli thundered. “Full throttle.”

She stabbed her chubby finger at the helm. Nothing happened. The Hummingbird sat there and didn’t move. Her tenders screamed higher. The whole ship trembled and rocked on her landing struts, but she didn’t lift off.

Another stomach-turning blast smashed into the hull. “They’re targeting the tenders!” Yasha screamed in Eli’s ear. “They’re trying to stop us lifting off.”

“No shit!” he hollered back. “What’s the problem, River? Why won’t she launch?”

“Trying to,” she stammered.

Waylon lurched into the cockpit and staggered against the bulkhead. “What the hell is going…?”

“They’re powering up for another shot!” Yasha screamed. “The gunner at the next watchtower is pivoting into position. One more hit and we won’t have any tenders left to launch!”

“River!” Eli roared.

She raised her fist and smashed it down on the helm with a brutal growl. The minute her skin touched the console, the Hummingbird rocketed straight off the ground. She zoomed forward so fast the helm didn’t have time to react. She whizzed out of control, on a collision course for the guard tower.

Eli flung his arms in front of his face and yelled, bracing for disaster, when River seized the helm and slammed the vessel hard to starboard. The Hummingbird tumbled into a sideways somersault, wheeling over on her back. The Hummingbird was flying so fast she almost plowed into the ground to a fiery end when River smashed the helm hard over to port. She punched the throttle down even harder, and the Hummingbird screamed within inches of the dispatch lanes.

Eli’s guts turned to water, watching a huge destroyer rushing toward the cockpit window too fast to avoid. He caught a moment’s glimpse of the nameplate on the side: Waimakariri.

The next instant, River wrenched the helm back and the Hummingbird shot into space. She broke the atmosphere, and Pi Squared Two became a tiny fleck of light dwindling into a sea of black.


Eight

“Any sign of the Boomerang?” Eli leaned over the engineering station, but he couldn’t make out much on the antiquated screen.

“It’s kinda hard to tell,” Yasha told him. “This tub has limited scanning ability.”

Eli pushed himself back. He aimed a derisive kick at the bulkhead just for good measure. “She’s a floating coffin. What do they do with her—let her drift in space with no heading while they gaze out the window at the stars? That’s all she’s good for.”

She grinned up at him. “I wouldn’t be surprised. The husband and wife who own her are both in their nineties. The log says they left Madras seven years ago and they haven’t docked more than five times since. They may have lost their minds to Freighter’s Fever.”

“So what are they doing at Pi Squared Two?” River asked. “It sounds like a smuggler’s cover to me.”

“It doesn’t matter. Find the Boomerang, if she’s here at all.” Eli turned his back on the cockpit and headed aft.

“We’ll have to search the whole field one rock at a time,” Yasha called after him. “That’s the only way to be sure.”

“Do it.” He picked up his pace. He didn’t want to see the asteroid field of Sayam Dash beyond the window. The thought of checking each of millions of microscopic space crumbs didn’t appeal to him at all. Better by far to stick someone else with the chore.

Eli marched down the gangway, but everything about this scout rankled his nerves. The Boomerang might not be anything to write home about, but at least she was his. He was comfortable flying her and never once, not in twenty-five years, had she failed to launch when someone activated her engines. He would never forgive the Hummingbird for that, even if she had gotten him off Pi Squared Two in the end.

He returned to the aft hatch and found Waylon’s legs poking out from under a bulkhead. Eli propped his arm against the wall and peered through the hole. “Any luck with the ignition sequence? I don’t want to get caught with my pants down in this brick again.”

Waylon scooted out of the compartment and got to his feet, wiping his hands on the seat of his pants. “I can’t find anything wrong with her, but I’m the wrong person for this job. Jood’s the man you want. That freak can fix anything.”

“Well, we don’t have Jood, and I ain’t going anywhere near civilization until you or whoever can assure me that she’ll start when she’s told to start.”

Waylon cracked a wild grin. “Typical females, huh?”

Eli started to warn him against saying that kind of thing too loudly with Yasha and River around, but before he could get the words out, Yasha yelled aft from the cockpit. “Found her! We’re on the move.”

Waylon spread his palms. “See? What did I tell you? It’s a piece of cake.”

Eli stormed back to the cockpit, where River was powering up the tenders again. “That was fast. You got lucky, I guess.”

“Jood’s hailing us,” Yasha informed him. “He has the Boomerang stashed in a cave across the field. We never would have found him if we’d searched for a thousand years.”

“I don’t care, as long as the Boomerang’s there.” Eli sat down. “Take us in.”

“Not so fast,” River called over her shoulder. “The field is too thick and this crate has limited maneuverability. Correction—she has no maneuverability. We’ll have to shoot our way through unless you want to take another seventy-two hours steering around the other side of the field. Even if we did that, we would have to shoot our way in to reach the rock where Jood is hiding.”

“You said she has no weapons,” Eli pointed out. “We wouldn’t be able to shoot a watermelon in this tin can, much less an asteroid.”

“Jood is coming out to meet us,” Yasha reported. “He’s leaving his hiding place to escort us through. The Hummingbird might not have the Boomerang’s maneuverability, but she does have speed. It’ll come down to staying close to the Boomerang and keeping in her wake as she blasts her way through.”

Eli made a face at her. “Are you sure this barrel can match her? I don’t like putting too much faith in such a…” He bit off the last words. He was having difficulty coming up with epithets insulting enough to express his contempt for this ship.

“She’ll do it,” River grumbled. “I’ll make her do it. I’ll break her in half doing it if I have to.”

“Here comes the Boomerang!” Yasha called.

The instant she said those words, an unholy cloud of fire, dust, and debris exploded out of the asteroid field. Before anyone could move, the Boomerang rocketed between millions of boulders, blasting laser beams everywhere. She shattered them to smithereens and zoomed through the rubble clouds in her wake.

The Hummingbird’s tenders screamed to their highest pitch. The Boomerang danced here and there, back and forth, across the Hummingbird’s cockpit window. Eli’s gaze skated in all directions following her course. She launched cannon fire at a massive planetoid pivoting across her path and hurtled over the top, pelting it from all sides. She picked chunks off it, but she couldn’t destroy it entirely.

River snarled over the helm. “Start, you goddamned piece of—!”

The Boomerang coiled ever closer through the rotating stream of stone and ash. She punctured the rim of the field and corkscrewed around the Hummingbird. The Boomerang shot far out into space where Eli couldn’t see her. His heart leaped at the sight of her in flight.

“She’s circling back around!” Yasha yelled over the engine noise. “We have to—”

“Aargh!” River bellowed. She smashed her fist down on the pilot’s station one more time, and the Hummingbird launched with sickening speed. She fired straight ahead into the Boomerang’s wake.

The Boomerang didn’t hesitate a second. She plunged into the heart of the rubble field, firing lasers right and left. She destroyed asteroids tilting toward her and cleared a path through the densest clusters.

River howled louder than ever. She yanked the helm in all directions, but her efforts didn’t produce the same effect as the same movements on the Boomerang. The Hummingbird didn’t veer or pivot or somersault. Oh, no. That might resemble flying, and the Hummingbird did not fly. That was the one thing she did not do. She limped. She staggered. She lurched, but she didn’t fly.

The Boomerang knew how to fly. Eli’s heart lodged in his mouth watching her zip between colossal chunks of rock. She shaved inches off their sides and pummeled them with fire until they detonated within microns of her nose. She swirled their dust in her engine wash and left them in her dust.

No matter how hard River bashed the helm with her fists, the Hummingbird couldn’t match the Boomerang for maneuverability. The Hummingbird maintained speed, but she kept to a nearly straight course with sadly little deviation.

Jood must have realized that the Hummingbird couldn’t keep up, because he changed his strategy in minutes. He kept whizzing back and forth in front of the Hummingbird’s nose. He destroyed every asteroid that came near the Hummingbird, to clear a path for her through the field.

“That’s it!” Yasha yelled. “That’s where he’s hiding her.”

The Boomerang made a big, ostentatious loop around one of the largest rocks. She came screaming around the other side, did a pirouette around the Hummingbird, and descended. She vanished into a black pit in the surface.

“That’s the cave,” Yasha told Eli.

“Can you get her inside?” he asked River. “Don’t tell me she can’t even manage that.”

“I’ll hang off until it rotates in our direction,” River announced.

She cut throttle and hovered near the boulder. It pivoted in space. As it turned its face toward the Hummingbird, River gave the throttle the tiniest possible nudge. The ship responded, thank the stars. Eli would have seriously considered blowing her to scrap if she hadn’t.

The Hummingbird drifted into the cave, and River extended the landing gear. She set down next to the Boomerang. The crew waited until Jood extended the Boomerang’s life support envelope around both ships.

Eli was never so glad to get off a ship. The Boomerang had never looked so good. He clapped Jood on the shoulder. “You made it. Any trouble getting off the planet?”

“None to speak of. She suffered a hull breach, but I repaired her on the way here.”

Eli patted the bulkhead. “Good old girl. Did you have to kill many Deputies to get out?”

“There are no Deputies on Pi Squared Two,” Jood replied.

“Yes, there are,” River interjected. “They don’t do much, but they are stationed there.”

“None of them came out to guard the Boomerang,” Jood told her.

“They were wearing Deputies’ uniforms,” Yasha pointed out.

“They were wearing uniforms,” Jood corrected, “but none of them had any Territorial insignia. I surmise that Tanner either stole or bought blank uniforms to give his people the appearance of authority. In reality, the troops that came out to stop me from retaking the Boomerang were all his private mercenaries. I would bet any stakes you like on that.”

Eli waved that away. “It doesn’t matter. As long as you didn’t kill too many Deputies, I don’t care what you had to do to get out. I’m just glad to get back on board this old tub.”

“I did not kill any Deputies. As you know, the Territorial Deputies Squad implants tracer chips in its members’ occipital subdermal tissue to identify their bodies should they fall in battle. The chips carry a very faint radioactive signal that I can see through their skin. None of the troops I killed on Pi Squared Two carried any such chip.”

“That’s good enough for me. Now let’s deal with this mess.” Eli rotated around to meet Waylon, who was marching a now-conscious Tanner up the ramp. The big, bad boss didn’t look so big and bad with his hands tied behind his back and black bruises discoloring his face.

Tanner jerked and struggled. “You idiots! You’re all dead. I hope you realize that. I’ll never rest until I cut every one of you to pieces.”

Waylon yanked his arm to shove him into the storage bay. “You can see we’re all still very much alive, you thick-headed chump, so it looks to me like you’re the idiot. None of your hired guns are gonna come and bail you out of this, so I suggest you keep your big mouth shut. It’s just you and us right now.”

Tanner gave another ineffectual twist to free himself. He wheeled on Waylon, spitting curses, but Waylon charged him and caught his elbow under Tanner’s chin. He smashed Tanner against the bulkhead and hissed low, “It’s just you and me, Tanner. Just you and me. Give me one reason to start in on you. Just one reason, so help me, and I’ll be on my way to the fair. Understand?”

Tanner glared at him through narrowed, flashing eyes, but he stopped fighting long enough for Waylon to remove his elbow. Waylon straightened up and pushed the man down the gangway. “Move it, shithead, and don’t give me any static again.”

Waylon jerked Tanner to a halt in front of Eli. Eli sized up Tanner. “What are we gonna do with this?”

“I’ll handle it,” Waylon snarled.

“You washed-up, pathetic piece of trash!” Tanner roared. “You’ll pay for this. You’ll never work in this galaxy again. I’ll hunt you down. I’ll destroy you. I’ll put you in the ground. I’ll make you beg for death before I’m finished with you.”

Eli rolled his eyes to Heaven. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that before?”

“Give me the word, man,” Waylon muttered. “Just give me the word and I swear to Christ I’ll make him tell us what color panties he likes to wear under his fancy suit.”

Eli jerked his chin at Waylon. “Put him in my cabin. He won’t get in our way there.”

Waylon whipped Tanner around and hauled him, howling threats, all the way down the catwalk. Waylon propelled Tanner through the open door, and Tanner staggered into Eli’s cabin.

He caught his balance and spun around again. “I never forget anyone who crosses me. I’ll feed your flesh to my texyrators. You think you know what pain is? You have no idea. I’ll make you—”

Waylon pulled out the chair at Eli’s desk, seized a handful of Tanner’s jacket, and crammed him down into the seat. Tanner braced his legs to stand up, but Waylon pinned him in place.

“You pieces of shit!” Tanner shrieked. “I’ll cut your legs off! I’ll drain the blood from your veins and make you watch my havoc hounds drink it. I’ll skin you and make your skin into covers for my recliners. I’ll—”

Yasha gasped behind Eli’s back. “Jesus, is he always like this?”

“Only when he’s scared.” River strode past Eli to enter the room. “Leave him to me, Sarge. It’ll be a pleasure to break his kneecaps.”

Eli grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Pain won’t do it. He’s too strong mentally. It’ll take some finesse to make him tell us what we want to know.”

“I don’t want to know anything. I just want to have some fun with him before we jettison him out into space.” Waylon turned his head from side to side, inspecting Tanner in minute detail. “How about it, Declan? You wanna have some fun with me? You and me can have a whole lot of fun.”

“You filthy ogre! You’ll never get away with this!” Tanner’s voice cycled to a piercing screech. Now Eli understood what River meant. Tanner was scared—real scared. Anyone would be, looking up at Waylon’s scarred visage. Eli wouldn’t want to be sitting in that chair, not for anything.

Tanner jerked against the seat again, but Waylon held him down. Tanner rounded on Eli and the others, who gathered in the doorway to watch. “My people will be looking for you. You think they’ll give up just because you stole a ship and flew away?” He burst into hysterical laughter. “They’ll find me and then you’ll pay. You’ll pay for this! I swear to God I’ll hunt you down. You’ll be sorry!”

Waylon let him go. He deliberately turned his back on Tanner and murmured low to Eli, “Leave me alone with him. He’s mine.”

“Bullshit!” River snapped. “You’re not getting a piece of him until I get my share.”

Eli held up his hand. “Don’t damage him in any way. Understand? Make sure he’s in a functional condition in case we need to trade him or negotiate later on. Got it?”

Waylon nodded. “Don’t you worry about that. I know exactly how to get inside his head.”

“His head, too,” Eli told him. “That needs to be in a functional condition, too. I mean it, Waylon.”

Waylon turned and locked his gaze on Tanner. “I heard you.”

“You can’t do this, Sarge,” River interrupted. “You can’t give Waylon a shot and not me. That ain’t gonna wash.”

Eli had to smile at her. “You’ll get your pound of flesh, too. Don’t worry about that. Tanner ain’t going nowhere. Now come on, all of you. Let’s get out of here and leave Waylon and our guest to reminisce about old times.”

He herded River, Yasha, and Jood out of the cabin and shut the door. When the group assembled on the catwalk outside, the cabin sounded unnaturally quiet.

“What are we going to do with him?” Yasha stared at the door. “We can’t just drag him around the galaxy with us indefinitely.”

“We won’t,” River growled under her breath. “He won’t leave this rock alive if I have anything to say about it.”

“He might be useful to us later,” Jood pointed out. “If we encounter any of his people searching for him the way he says they are, having him alive and operational would definitely be an asset.”

“If he isn’t alive and operational,” River fired back, “they won’t be searching for him, will they? No one works for Tanner without the promise of payment—top payment. The instant they find out he’s dead, they’ll break off and leave us alone.”

Yasha looked up at Eli. “What do you think? We could save ourselves a lot of trouble just dumping him and disappearing.”

“You were the one who was so excited about keeping him,” Eli countered. “I wanted to dump him and disappear on the surface, but you said no. You said we ought to keep him, and now you’re changing your tune. Which is it?”

“Excuse me, Eli,” Jood cut in, “but before we decide what to do about Mr. Tanner, we have a different problem in need of attention.”

Eli cocked his head. “Really? What is it? You said the ship was all right.”

“Not the ship.”

“What, then?” Eli asked.

Jood pointed his chin behind Eli. Then the Xynnar led the three of them down the gangway. He halted in front of the crew quarters—one of two that Jood himself shared with Waylon. Yasha and River shared the other.

Jood paused there. With a dramatic flourish, he opened the door. It swung back to reveal the double bunk inside the room. The four crewmates stared in at a lone figure seated on the lower bunk, which just happened to be Jood’s.

In front of their shocked eyes, the figure looked up and gave them all a sheepish, uncertain smile.

It was Miles.


Nine

Eli curled his lip at the kid. “What in the name of Christ is that doing here?”

“He stowed away,” Jood replied. “He stashed himself in a locker in the galley. He must have left the Little Mermaid when we parted from him at the entrance. I can only assume he scurried to our parking spot and infiltrated the Boomerang long before the alarm went out that we had kidnapped Tanner. The boy never would have gotten near the ship otherwise, because the troops were swarming all over the place by the time I got back to her. I found him in the locker after I hid her here. I didn’t think you would want him stored in a locker, so I put him here until you could decide what to do with him.”

River shouldered past the two men and barged into the cabin. “You shouldn’t be here, Miles. You could get your head blown off. Don’t you know it’s a capital felony to stow away on someone else’s ship?”

He grinned up at her with wide, almost admiring eyes. “I had to do it, River. You know I did. You know I’ve been searching for a way out of the Little Mermaid for years. You did it; now it’s my turn. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have left. We both know that’s shit.” He burst into an even wider grin, if that was possible. “This is so great! You really did a number on Tanner, didn’t you?”

“Holy Mother of God!” Yasha muttered. “Listen to this fool!”

Miles looked from one face to the next. He looked more and more delighted as the seconds ticked by. “You guys must really be something else to get off Pi Squared Two the way you did, with all of Tanner’s men searching for you. I don’t know any other crew in the galaxy who could pull off a stunt like that. I knew you did well for yourself, River. I mean, the great Eli Bryce! Everyone admires you, sir. There’s no shame in admitting that. Everybody knows how you stuck it to the Squadrons and the Mysterium both, and then you stuck it to Tanner by stealing River.”

Eli smacked his lips. “I did not steal River—not from Tanner or anybody else.”

River lifted one stout hand and slapped Miles across the back of the head. “Are you irretrievably stupid, or just too naïve to know your ass from your elbow? Shit, Miles, Tanner is locked up with Waylon in the cabin next door as we speak. Now his whole damned army is hunting us. Do you have any idea what they’ll do to us if they catch us? What am I thinking? Of course you do, and now that you’re here, they’ll do the same thing to you.”

Miles stared at her in blank shock. “You—you snatched Tanner! You…you took Tanner off of…” He gasped, and his face lit up like a veritable Christmas tree. “That is so, so cool! You guys are the best! I knew I didn’t make a mistake hitching a ride with you. I mean, that shit takes some serious balls! No one would have the balls to do that except you, sir. No one dares to cross Tanner. You know that, but you did it, didn’t you? You broke into the Little Mermaid and you got him off the planet.” He shook his head, gasping and exclaiming in amazement. “That is…that is just…just awesome.”

Eli rolled his eyes again. “Jesus Christ, spare us!”

Miles launched off the bunk. “What can I do? I can be a useful guy to have around. You just ask River. I want to help. I’ll show you I can be a part of this crew. You’ll see. I can’t wait to get started flying with you, sir.” He pulled himself up to his full height in front of Eli. “Just tell me what you want me to do. I…” He almost laughed, but he forced himself to get serious, as far as he was able. “I await your commands.”

Eli shot a hateful glare at River. “Get rid of him.”

“We still have the Hummingbird,” Yasha pointed out. “We can send him back to Pi Squared Two in that. It might take a while, but he’ll get there.”

“We’d have to get him out of Sayam Dash,” River added.

“It will not be very hard,” Jood told them. “We can send him through this side. He will have no trouble reaching open space.”

“If he returns the Hummingbird to Pi Squared Two,” Yasha continued, “the Deputies can return it to its rightful owners.”

“I don’t give a shit about that!” Eli thundered. “Get rid of him. I don’t care if we have to jettison him into space. He isn’t flying with us, and that’s flat.”

The delighted smile evaporated off Miles’ face. “You can’t send me back. You can’t send me back to… River!” He rounded on River. “Don’t send me back, River. You can’t.”

River whipped her head sideways and barked over her shoulder. “Shut up, Miles! Don’t say a damn word, all right? You’re in enough trouble as it is. Don’t say another word if you know what’s good for you.” She returned to facing into the circle. “Sorry, Sarge. The Hummingbird is our best bet, and he won’t have any trouble steering her.”

“As long as you get her started for him, that is,” Yasha told her.

Miles danced around outside the circle, talking fast. “You can’t send me back! You know what it’s like there. You of all people know that.” He accosted Eli. “Please, sir. I can do lots of stuff. I can repair ships. I can fly these speed scouts like nobody’s business. I know more about Tanner’s operation than anyone—except River, maybe. Come on, sir. River, please. You got away. You can’t send me back.”

Eli clamped his eyes shut. “Somebody shut that up before I do something drastic.”

River spun around and grabbed Miles. “Come on, Miles. You have to get out of here.”

She wrestled him out of the cabin. In a second, Eli heard their footsteps crashing down the gangway, fading into the distance. Miles’ shrieks echoed off the walls. “Please, sir! You can’t send me back to Pi Squared Two! Please! Don’t do this to me! I’ll do anything! Please! They’ll kill me! You know they will! Please! Please!”

Something slammed out of sight, and the noise cut off in a blink. The ship echoed with a weighty silence. It rang down the centuries and woke ghosts Eli would rather leave sleeping in their long-forgotten graves.

He hung his head and rubbed his eyes. “Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?”

Yasha patted his arm and murmured in his ear. “Take it as a compliment. People know you—or at least they know about you. They know you wouldn’t leave someone in need. That’s a better reputation to have than one like Tanner’s.”

“That’s just damned great,” Eli spat back. “I have a reputation of going around rescuing every stranded puppy in the galaxy. Now I’ve got myself saddled with a useless, sniveling, starstruck fanatic who thinks it’s cool that we kidnapped Declan Tanner and got a whole army of mercenaries gunning for us. Jesus H. Christ, we can’t even show our faces outside this asteroid field without getting our asses shot off…and he thinks it’s cool!” He threw up his arms and turned away. “Forget it. I give up. I quit. I’m going to retire.”

Yasha chuckled. “That’s a good one.”

“I suspect the young man might not be as useless or as sniveling as you make him out to be, either, Eli,” Jood remarked. “We all heard him on Pi Squared Two. He knows how to procure things, and from the interaction between him and River, I would suspect he was intimately involved in Tanner’s operation. I have a feeling he may be…perhaps not as useful as he would like us to believe he is, but certainly useful. We may be able to turn him to our advantage and, at the same time, assuage your conscience, Eli, by not sending him back.”

Eli whipped around and scowled at him. “You’re not suggesting we keep him! That’s out of the question.”

“Why?” Jood asked. “It’s not as though we are short of space on the Boomerang, or even overly burdened with unneeded crew. Since we lost Quinn and Dr. Knox, we have been running with a skeleton crew. Unless the boy proves to be an intolerable nuisance or no use at all, I see no reason not to keep him, especially since getting rid of him would cause all three of you obvious emotional distress.”

Eli wanted to snarl something fittingly derisive about emotional distress, but Yasha burst out laughing. “We don’t need to consider our ‘emotional distress’ in deciding what to do about him. That would be pushing it.”

“On the contrary,” Jood returned. “The majority of Eli’s command decisions are based on that consideration alone. In this particular case, I believe there are adequate rational grounds to make the same choice of keeping the young man with us at least temporarily. Hence the added bonus of calming any emotional qualms his death or dismemberment might cause you.”

“No one said anything about dismemberment,” Eli countered.

“They suggested sending him back to Pi Squared Two on board the Hummingbird,” Jood replied, “which amounts to the same thing.”

Yasha laughed even harder. “You really understand human nature, don’t you, Jood?”

“It is not in the least hard. Humans are so transparent. Their motivations are simplistic and rudimentary—not at all like their alien enemies. I still find it difficult to fathom how humanity has managed to survive so long against such superior intellects. I can only deduce they do it by their sheer stubborn will to live. Xynnar do not understand this aspect of human nature, and they do not take it into account when outlining strategies to destroy Earth. In the years since I started flying with Eli, I have seen this factor at work many times, and I have come to understand it. I do not believe that Xynnar, the Mysterium, or any of a dozen other alien species who want to sack Earth will ever understand it. I have only come to learn of it through daily contact with humans over the course of decades, and the enemies of humanity will never have that.”

Yasha put her arm around his shoulders and squeezed. “That gives me hope. Thanks, Jood. Now, can we get back to the subject of our two guests?”

“Am I to understand, then, that we will keep the young man?” Jood cast a significant glance at Eli.

“Just do me a favor, will you?” Eli muttered. “Tell him to stop snowing me with compliments, and for the love of Christ, tell him to stop calling me ‘sir.’ I can’t stand that.”

Jood turned away. “I will discuss the situation with River. I am sure she can give us a more detailed idea of his talents and strengths, to say nothing of his contacts in Tanner’s network.”


Ten

Eli and the rest of the crew stood in a semi-circle outside Eli’s cabin. He couldn’t remember a time in the last twenty-five years when the door had remained shut and locked for so long.

He knocked, and Waylon answered. He leaned his shoulder against the door jamb. “Well?” Eli asked. “Any progress?”

Waylon shook his head, scowling grimly. “Nothing. He’s a lot stronger than I expected. He won’t crack for anything.”

The whole party turned their attention to Tanner. The man sat in the same seat, with his arms bound behind his back. Besides his ankles strapped to the chair legs, he didn’t appear damaged in any way.

Tanner’s expression told a different story. His gaze skipped around the ring of faces. He panted fast, and spittle sprayed between his bared teeth. Sweat saturated his face and hair. It soaked his shirt so the fabric clung to his chest underneath. He made little rasping noises in his throat from breathing so fast.

“We don’t have time for this,” Eli snapped. “If he won’t tell us what we want to know, we’ll have to…”

“Hold on a sec, Sarge.” River stepped into the room. “Let me try.”

Everyone stared as she sauntered over to Tanner. She gazed down at him for a moment, but Eli couldn’t see her expression. Tanner’s expression, on the other hand, changed when she approached him. He went through several rapid permutations of disgust, contempt, and fear.

She shifted her weight to one foot and inclined her head to one side. Eli squirmed, imagining what she was doing to him with her very presence. She’d scared Tanner into shutting his mouth on that rooftop. She’d told him he didn’t know what she was capable of, and Eli believed her.

Without rushing at all, she bent down and pressed her mouth to Tanner’s ear. She whispered low, and his gaze skipped around the room faster than ever. She kept whispering too softly for anyone to hear.

All at once, he jerked away. “All right! All right! I’ll tell you. Just…” Tanner whipped around and yelled right at Eli. “I don’t know, all right? I don’t know who hired me to find you guys.”

“You lying sack of shit!” Waylon snarled. “You were looking for me for years before this job.”

“I was looking and not finding,” Tanner shouted. “It was an anonymous tip that told me you were working on the Boomerang. Someone contacted me through a series of intermediaries. I don’t know who the real client was, and I didn’t ask. The job was to steal the Parker-Nolan Grenade from the Squadrons.”

“What about me?” Waylon asked.

Tanner bared his teeth, but no one could mistake that face for a smile. “You were supposed to be an added bonus. You were part of the payment—a little something just for me. I never would have found you if the client didn’t tell me you were on the Boomerang, and I never would have gone after the Boomerang without you.”

“What about the scramble cloud and the security codes you sent us?” Yasha interjected. “They could only come from the Squadrons themselves. Where did you get them?”

Tanner nodded fast. “I know that! When the client passed me the codes, I guessed it was some high-ranking Squadrons officer—maybe even the highest—I don’t know.”

“The highest?” Waylon retorted. “Who could that be?”

“The Allied Space Squadrons are governed by the United Earth Defense Committee,” Yasha explained. “It’s an international union of twenty-five countries. Almost all its members are the prime ministers or elected presidents of the member countries.”

Almost all,” Tanner interrupted. “Not all.”

Waylon made a face. “Will someone kindly tell me what the hell he’s talking about?”

Yasha frowned, but not at Waylon. She was furrowing her brow at Tanner. “The only ones who aren’t elected officials are the Tsar of the Tadjik Republic and the Sultan of Saharistan.”

Tanner cackled with insane laughter. “You’re forgetting someone, sweetheart.”

Eli glanced at Yasha. “What is he talking about?”

“I’m not sure.”

River stepped forward. “I’ll find out.”

Eli grabbed her. “No.”

The others rounded on him. “What are you doing, man?” Waylon demanded. “We have to find out.”

Eli shook his head. “This is getting us nowhere. He already said he doesn’t know who hired him to twist our arms to steal that weapon, and he already said he doesn’t know who passed him the codes. Getting into a political debate about Squadrons brass won’t accomplish anything.”

“If he can’t tell us that, he’s useless to us,” Yasha pointed out. “He’s a millstone around our necks. That’s the only reason we kept him.”

Waylon clapped his hands together so loudly that Tanner jumped. Waylon rubbed his palms and chortled in a disgusting chuckle. “Goodie. I’ve been waiting way too long for this.”

River waved toward the door. “You folks might want to leave the room. This is gonna get messy.”

“And don’t forget the earplugs,” Waylon added. “It’s gonna get noisy, too.”

River laughed, and they both advanced on Tanner. He gaped up at them. “You can’t do this.”

“Watch carefully, mister,” Waylon muttered. “I’ll show you that I can.”

“Are they really gonna…?” Miles broke off. He stared into the room with eyes as big as saucers.

“This is a big waste of time,” Yasha told Eli. “We should just put him down now, jettison the body, and make a run for it. Quick and clean. The longer we hang around here, the more time we give his people to find us and rescue him exactly the way he says they will.”

“Ain’t no one rescuing this reeking smear of shit on the sole of the universe’s shoe.” Waylon dragged his InkPen down Tanner’s cheek. “Tell me something, dude. Which eye do you value the most? This one?”

He clicked his InkPen on. Miles made a small choking noise in his throat.

“Not to throw a bucket of cold water on your fun, Waylon,” Jood interjected, “but I believe Tanner may be more valuable to us intact.”

Waylon didn’t turn around. “Take your buckets of cold water somewhere else, my friend. He ain’t walking out of here—not intact or any other way. You can take that to the bank.”

“As you are so fond of reminding me, Waylon, we are not friends,” Jood intoned. “I believe we can use Tanner to flush out his mysterious client. If it is Admiral Wescott, as we suspect it is, we can catch him in the act and either kill him or get him arrested for high treason.”

“We already tried that,” River shot back, “and we were the ones who got thrown out, not him.”

“We were caught doing something flagrantly illegal that time,” Jood reminded her.

“What do you suggest?” Eli asked.

“Don’t think you’re gonna rob of us of the pleasure of taking this asshole apart,” River added. “We’ll take him elsewhere, if that’s what it takes.”

“I would never dream of robbing you of the pleasure of anything, River,” Jood replied. “I ask only that you postpone your plans a short while longer until we can use him for as much as he is worth.” He turned back to Eli. “We can take Tanner back to Pi Squared Two and use him to contact his client. We can compel Tanner to relay a message to his mysterious client that the Parker-Nolan Grenade has been secured and is ready for delivery. The client in question will return to Pi Squared Two to collect the weapon and to transfer payment to Tanner. When he does that, we can catch him in the act of taking possession of stolen goods.”

“What good will that do?” Yasha asked. “Taking possessions of stolen goods isn’t a crime on Pi Squared Two.”

“Neither are murder, torture, kidnapping, extortion, blackmail, or gross destruction of property,” Jood replied. “What River and Waylon plan to do to Tanner after the exchange is all perfectly legal there. Meanwhile, we will have caught the client and we can determine then what to do with him, according to his crimes.”

“To do that,” Eli pointed out, “we would have to secure the Grenade. The moment Tanner sends word that he has the weapon ready for delivery, the client will check with Brimstone Station. He would have to find evidence that the weapon had in fact been stolen.”

“Precisely,” Jood replied.

Eli raised his eyebrows. “You want to steal the weapon after all? How?”

“We still have the security codes for the Rexroth Moratorium, where the weapon is stored.”

“But not the scramble cloud,” Eli reminded him. “We wouldn’t get anywhere near the Station without it.”

“The Hummingbird has a scramble cloud,” Yasha cut in.

“I told you she was a smuggler’s craft,” River barked out.

Eli locked his teeth. “Don’t even suggest we take the Hummingbird to Brimstone Station. She’s a death trap.”

“I’m not suggesting that,” Yasha replied. “I’m suggesting we take her scramble cloud and use it on the Boomerang. She’s the same build as the Hummingbird. All we’d have to do is scramble her identity signature and cover up her nameplate. We wouldn’t have to disguise her in any other way. We’d be in and out in a matter of minutes.”

Eli snorted. “You’re dreaming.”

She bit back a small smile. “Just saying.”

Eli cast a sidelong glance at Tanner. When he did, he discovered River and Waylon watching him. They had their backs to Tanner.

He looked back and forth between them. “Are you two okay with this? Can you wait a little longer to pay him back?”

The two of them exchanged glances. When River faced Eli, she pinched her lips in a tight line. “Do you give us your word you’ll hand him over to us when this is over? You won’t pull your Saint of Heavenly Compassion act on him?”

When Eli looked over at Waylon, he read on both their faces just exactly what it was costing them to keep Tanner alive. Eli knew they held a vendetta against Tanner, but he hadn’t comprehended until right now just how deep it ran for both of them.

They would never back down. They would never give up on exacting their most gruesome revenge on Tanner. When Eli really thought about it, no one in the known galaxy deserved it more than Declan Tanner.

Tanner didn’t deserve compassion—not the kind Eli got in the habit of bestowing on people he thought were suffering needlessly. He’d sacrificed dozens of lives and a promising career in the Squadrons on the faint hope that he could save a bunch of Xynnar. He’d failed in the end, but it had earned him one friend.

Eli might have made a lot of mistakes showing compassion at key points in his checkered career, but this wasn’t one of them. He didn’t want to save Tanner from River and Waylon’s wrath, and he couldn’t if he tried. He would only alienate them both if he interfered, and that was a price he wasn’t willing to pay. They were both too valuable to him.

He squared his shoulders and faced them both down. “You have my word. When this is all over, you can have him, and I won’t stand in the way. Let us carry out this plan of Jood’s. Once we find out who hired him to get the weapon, you can do what you want with him. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you get what’s coming to you—both of you.”

They looked at each other one more time, and then River nodded. “All right. It’s a deal.”

Eli turned away and headed for the cockpit. “Lock him in and take your stations. Let’s get off this rock. We have a Station to assault.”

Yasha and Jood fell in behind him, but in the back of the crowd, another voice stabbed Eli’s ear. “This is gonna be so great! What can I do? Do you want me to take the helm? I can man the external cannon, or I could load your ordnance feed, or I could…”

Eli whipped around so fast he crashed into Yasha. He stopped dead in his tracks, and Miles bounced off his chest. “Shut up, kid.”

Miles stumbled, catching his balance, but when he recovered and found Eli glaring down at him, his eyebrows shot up in the middle. His lips twitched and he shrank in on himself. “Um…okay…sorry, sir. I mean…okay. I won’t, you know… Sorry.”

He broke eye contact and lowered his gaze to where Eli couldn’t see his pitiful expression anymore. Eli ground his teeth. These damn people knew exactly how to push his buttons.

He snorted again. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Miles,” the boy whimpered.

“I know that,” Eli snapped. “What’s your last name?”

He glanced to one side. “Blunt.”

Waylon guffawed with laughter from the back of the group. “You’re damn right you are.”

River punched him hard in the shoulder. “Shut up, Waylon.”

“What the hell!” Waylon yelled. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Leave the kid alone.” River shot a hateful glare around the party. “Not one of you is gonna beat on this kid, or put him down, or cut him to shreds, or whatever else you think you’re gonna do. If you keep him on the Boomerang, Sarge, you better treat him right. I won’t stand you kicking him around.”

“Who’s kicking him around?” Waylon grumbled.

Eli studied the boy, but with his head down, Eli couldn’t see more than his hair. “Look at me, kid.”

The boy peeked up at him. “Yes, sir?”

Eli bit back the urge to snap. “What did you do when you worked for Tanner?”

Miles’ eyes lit up. “Everything, sir. I used to, you know, run errands, purchase stuff, communicate between clients and unit commanders, ensure orders were carried out and organize punishment when it wasn’t. I took care of the girls at the Little Mermaid when Oscar messed ‘em up, and I maintained the ships in the fleet. I located buildings and businesses I thought Tanner might want to buy, and I presented all the research to him to choose the ones he wanted. I hired enforcers to guard his enterprises. I was responsible for posting undercover security among the patrons to keep tabs on the ones we considered a threat, and to preempt any effort to infiltrate our defenses. You saw that, sir.”

Eli frowned, first at him and then at River. “That’s impossible. No one could do all that.”

“It’s true, Sarge. I can’t think of anyone closer to Tanner than Miles. He practically ran Tanner’s operation—all except the part where Tanner used to tear apart the people who crossed him. Miles never had anything to do with that. Tanner did that all by himself, with no help from anyone.”

Eli scowled even deeper. “If that’s true, why were you running around the streets hustling Cherry Pop and all that?”

Miles started to smile, and then tried to stop himself. His eyes kept sparkling while he wiggled under Eli’s inspection. “I was just running around, and I saw you. I always made it my business to know everyone who came to town. I usually approached strangers. They’re used to hustlers, especially young ones. It gives me a chance to send them to Tanner’s establishments or to steer them to our suppliers.”

Eli scrutinized him closer. He didn’t look like much, this scrawny, cringing, fidgeting toad. Eli still didn’t want him on his ship, but maybe Jood was right that he might come in handy.

“Fine,” he told Miles. “You can ride with us. Just stay out of the way. Don’t let me hear any shit about taking the helm or loading ordnance or any of that. We have enough qualified people for that. Just make yourself scarce.”

The kid nodded fast. “Okay. Yes, sir. Anything you say.”

Eli glared at him even harder. He hadn’t thrown away his career in the Squadrons so he could have anyone bowing and scraping and calling him ‘sir.’ He hated that, but for some reason, he didn’t push it with this kid. If Miles did as he was told and didn’t destroy them all, Eli might be convinced to put up with him a little longer.


Eleven

“Scramble cloud deployed,” Yasha reported. “We’re coming into communications range of Brimstone Station. They should be hailing us any time now.”

“Nice and easy,” Eli murmured. “We’re the Hummingbird, remember.”

River glared at the helm. “We could never be her. Don’t insult the Boomerang like that.”

Eli didn’t rise to the joke. The huge security aperture dialed open as a familiar voice chirped down the intercom. “Dispatch to speed scout Hummingbird. Come in, Hummingbird.”

Yasha depressed the button. “Hummingbird receiving. Standing by for docking orders.”

“Dispatch to Hummingbird,” the answer came back. “Docking orders confirmed. Clear to dock.”

“Copy, dispatch.” Yasha let go of the button. “Take us in.”

River eased the Boomerang through the aperture. The huge Station swallowed her in its great maw of shining steel and scaffolding. She drifted into the landing hold and set down on a docking platform that looked like it had never been scratched in its life.

The whole station boomed when the aperture rotated shut and slammed. Eli stuffed down rising nerves and stood up. “All of you stay put. Yasha, you’re with me.”

He left the cockpit, only to get accosted by Miles all over again. He hurried down the gangway at Eli’s side. “Let me come with you. Please, sir, you won’t regret it. I swear you won’t.”

“You’re not coming with us, kid, and for the love of God, don’t ever say the word ‘please’ to me again as long as you want to live. Okay? I can’t stand that. Now go back to the galley and stay there. If I want you, I’ll let you know. Until then, keep your mouth shut.”

Miles paused, but only for a second. Eli and Yasha barged past him, and Eli popped the hatch. The ramp swiveled down and crashed onto the platform.

Miles rushed up and bumped into Eli from behind. He retreated a few steps, gathered himself, and attacked again. “Do you know where the Rexroth Moratorium is? I mean, do you know how to find it? I do. I can take you straight to it. I even know the door keys between here and there, and you’ll need key codes for the lifts, too. Take me with you. You won’t regret it.”

Eli shot out a hand and grabbed him by the shirt. “How do you know about that? How do you know we’re going to the Rexroth Moratorium?”

Miles dangled from his collar. His wild eyes darted back and forth across Eli’s face. “I…I heard you asking Tanner about it. You mentioned getting a weapon from there, and I knew all about the Parker-Nolan Grenade from Tanner. I know where to go. Let me come with you. You could be wandering around this Station for weeks and never find it.”

Eli cast a ferocious glance at Yasha, but she only shrugged. “What the hell, right? Can’t hurt.”

Eli flung the kid away. “You better not be playing me, kid.”

Miles straightened his clothes. “I’m not.”

Eli turned his back on him. “Well, just keep quiet out there, and for shit’s sake, don’t fall over or trip over yourself or run into me. Just act natural, if that’s possible for you.”

He marched down the ramp, kicking himself all the way. He ought to have his head examined. The Boomerang was becoming a flying orphanage for homeless and hopeless cases—starting with Eli himself.

The trio exited onto the platform, and Eli scanned the landing hold. He expected to see guards posted, but to his surprise, he didn’t see anyone—no medical staff, no soldiers, nobody.

Miles tapped his arm and pointed to one side. The boy led the way to a panel against the wall and activated it by touching a screen.

“What the hell are you doing?” Eli snarled.

“I’m registering our arrival,” Miles whispered. “We’re the elderly couple from the Hummingbird, remember? I’m signing us in and putting us on the roster for medical appointments with the Station’s sick bay. Yasha here needs her cardiac pacemaker recalibrated, and you…” Miles shot Eli a wicked grin. “You need your spinal discs replaced. You need your pain medication rescripted, and you’re in such pain you can hardly walk.”

“Oh, just great,” Eli muttered.

Yasha snickered. “Thanks, Miles.”

“What about you?” Eli asked.

“I’m your caring grandson. You picked me up at the Kitiuk Outpost, and I’ve been taking care of you ever since. You can’t function without me.” Miles’ fingers kept flying over the screen. “There. Our appointments are in two hours. That should give us enough time to find the Grenade and get out of here.” He pressed his thumb to the screen, and a bright green beam scanned down over his hand. “The sick bay is two levels beyond the Rexroth Moratorium. My thumbprint will give us access to every door and lift between here and there. The computer will anticipate us moving toward the sick bay and back again.”

Eli scrutinized the kid with new eyes. “How do you know so much about this place?”

“I came here a few times with…with my father. I was born with a heart murmur, and he brought me here for treatment. He registered his own thumbprint to take me where I needed to go, so the system doesn’t recognize me.” He nodded over Eli’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Miles sauntered across the platform toward a lift at the far end. Eli had a flashback of their last disastrous visit to this Station. “Won’t anyone notice that we aren’t limping on our last legs?”

“The Station’s security network is computer-controlled,” Miles replied. “Unless something tips them off that there’s been a security breach or intruder alert, the computer won’t check.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” Eli muttered.

“I am.”

Eli didn’t question. He was too glad to get inside the lift. The car whizzed them upward, and Miles stopped on the seventh level. The closer they got to the Rexroth Moratorium, the more Eli’s insides burned. Were they really going to walk in, pick up the Grenade, and walk out without a squeak? It was all too easy.

He cast a sidelong glance at Miles striding down the immaculately clean corridor. Should he trust this kid? How convenient that, just when Eli decided to throw over Declan Tanner and use the crime lord to bust Admiral Wescott, someone came out of the woodwork who gave him the keys to Tanner’s whole operation. It was all far too convenient for Eli’s taste.

What if Tanner—or worse, Wescott—had planted Miles to be of so much use to the Boomerang and her crew? Eli wouldn’t put it past Wescott. Wescott had given them the security locking codes to get into the Rexroth Moratorium. Why not plant a mole on the Boomerang who could get Eli and his friends inside it?

He made up his mind to keep a sharp eye on Miles for any sign of betrayal or treachery, but the kid only grinned at him. He kept shooting Eli those wild, crazy, happy grins, like he didn’t have a blinkin’ clue of the danger surrounding him. He was too naïve and happy to be any good to himself or anybody else.

Still, River trusted him and had stood up for him. That was saying a lot. She didn’t trust anybody, especially not anybody who worked for Tanner or had anything to do with the Little Mermaid.

Miles claimed he’d enforced Tanner’s orders and arranged punishment when orders weren’t carried out. That would suggest to Eli that Miles himself must have been intimately involved in oppressing River and the rest of the Little Mermaid staff.

Then again, Miles had said he used to take care of the girls who worked there. He must have been good to River, to make her stick up for him like that. She had done nothing but defend him since he’d first showed his face on the Boomerang. She’d backed up his story and threatened anyone who raised a finger against him.

Miles startled Eli out of his thoughts by shooting out an arm. He stopped Eli and Yasha in the middle of the corridor. “There it is,” he whispered.

Eli looked around. “What is?”

“The Rexroth Moratorium,” Miles hissed. “It’s right over there.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“See that seam in the wall?” Miles nodded behind Eli. “That’s the entrance.”

Eli scowled at it. “I don’t see any entrance.”

“Don’t!” Miles gasped under his breath. “Don’t make out you’re looking at it. You’ll attract too much attention.”

Eli pretended to scan the rest of the corridor. “There isn’t anything there.”

“Don’t you remember the schematics of the station?” Yasha interjected. “The Rexroth Moratorium is hidden between two other weapons holds.”

“There’s a motion detector cutting across the corridor right here,” Miles informed him. “The minute we cross it, the guards will tumble out to stop us.”

“Well, what the hell good does that do us?” Eli snapped. “How the Christ are we supposed to get near the damn thing?”

“We’ll just have to be quick,” Miles replied. “We’ll rush the wall, enter the code, grab the Grenade, and then…”

Eli raised his eyebrows. “And then?”

Miles broke into a brilliant grin. “Then… I don’t know. Isn’t that what you guys are so good at? You got off Pi Squared Two. You can get out of here.”

“You’re talking about fighting our way out,” Eli snarled “You want us to fight every soldier on this damn Station when we’re completely unarmed? Why didn’t you tell me before we left the ship?”

Miles opened his mouth to say something, but Yasha interrupted. “We couldn’t have brought any weapons anyway. The Station’s security detectors would pick them up. Our cover would be blown.”

“We’re not getting off this Station alive against—what is it, four hundred soldiers?”

“Probably more like eight hundred,” Yasha replied.

Eli spun away. He barged across the corridor to get away from them where he could think, but Miles grabbed his elbow and yanked him stumbling back. Eli crashed into the kid and almost laid him out flat.

Eli rounded on him. “What did I tell you about bumping into me?”

“Sorry, sir,” Miles mouthed.

Yasha shoved between them. “Look, we came this far. Let’s just get the weapon and get the hell out of here.”

Eli glared at her. Oh, sure. Fighting her way out of eight hundred Squadrons soldiers? That was morning teatime for her.

She turned to Miles. “Show me where the line is.”

He pointed at the floor. “Right here.”

“You have the codes?” she asked Eli.

He nodded.

“All right, listen up,” Yasha ordered. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Miles, you and I will stand here and engage the soldiers. Eli, you charge the wall. Get the codes entered and the door open as fast as you can. Grab the weapon and get out. With any luck, we can make it back to the lift before we get trapped up here.”

Eli didn’t say anything—first of all, about her issuing orders to him when he was supposed to be the one in charge. He also didn’t point out that the instant he crossed the security line, the Station’s system would shut down not only the lifts but the docking aperture. None of them was getting out of here. No way in hell.

He didn’t say any of that—oh, no. He’d long ago found himself on a conveyor belt bearing him forward, always forward. The option to get off it or to divert to some other course escaped him. He couldn’t even remember when it had happened. That didn’t matter. No paltry safety considerations mattered. Nothing mattered anymore but following this lunatic course to its end—wherever the hell that turned out to be.

Yasha turned her back to the Rexroth Mortarium. She pulled Miles in at her side and gave Eli one last significant nod. He slotted behind her and faced his fate. There it was, a blank wall. The key code panel was a tiny series of buttons embedded in the steel. No one could see them without looking straight at them.

All at once, Yasha gave him a shove. “Go!”

Eli stumbled forward. Before he even touched the panel, a deafening shriek of an alarm ripped through the Station. It pierced Eli’s brain and almost jolted him out of his mind. He almost forgot what he was doing, but at that moment, his hand landed on the cold metal.

His fingers faltered punching in the code. Screams and concussions ricocheted all around him, but he dared not look behind him. He concentrated everything on entering the numbers. Before his eyes, a section of wall slid out of the way.

He stared through it, too stunned to accept what he was seeing. The Rexroth Moratorium was nothing more than a tiny box a foot square at most. Inside it sat a case not much smaller than the chamber. Its swiveling handle pointed upward, just inviting someone to pick it up.

Eli almost hesitated, but a smattering of lead zinging down the corridor woke him from his trance. He grasped the handle and pulled. A massive explosion hit him in the face and hurled him back. He flew across the corridor and slammed into the opposite wall. How he kept his hold on the case, he never knew.

The next instant, someone landed on top of him. He shook the stars out of his eyes to find Yasha draped over his prostrate body. She embraced him around the shoulders like a lover, but she kept her head tucked down low next to his ribs.

To his right, soldiers completely occluded the lift. They fired their cannon down the corridor, with lead glinting off the walls. Their shots struck sparks and whizzed away to the far end of the corridor.

A few projectiles punched Yasha in the back. Eli stared in disbelief as they burned through her shirt. She bounced against him, but no blood came out of the wounds. She grunted with the impact, but she didn’t slacken her hold on him. She was wearing body armor, a thing she said she never did.

She must have thought now, of all times, might be the right occasion to wear it. Eli should have paid more attention. She knew a hell of a lot more about operations like this than he did.

The most amazing part of the scene, though, was Miles. He took a running dive and skidded down the corridor on his stomach. He sailed straight into the soldiers. In a fraction of a second, he’d barreled into their legs and flattened five of them. He snatched one of their cannon and turned it on its owner. Without leaving the floor, he mowed down the whole pack of guards in a matter of moments.

He wheeled to his feet, his usually perplexed features transported into a mask of fury. He leveled the cannon into the lift and sprayed another ten soldiers riding to join the fight. They didn’t even have time to aim before he cut them down.

His furious bellows echoed through the corridor. He whipped around fast and opened fire on the opposite end of the hall, where another detachment of guards appeared from another lift.

In the midst of the mayhem, Yasha launched off Eli. She raced to the fallen soldiers and grabbed up one of their weapons, too. In a second, she and Miles had backed against each other, covering both ends of the corridor.

Eli floundered to his feet and grabbed the case. In a heartbeat, Miles and Yasha blocked him in.

“Right turn!” Miles shrieked.

“What?” Yasha yelled back.

“Over there!” Miles called. “That door over there.”

“The lift!” Yasha hollered. “We have to take the lift to the landing hold.”

“The soldiers will be taking the lift,” Miles told her. “They have command codes that override the whole system. Come on!”

Eli and Yasha stumbled in the direction he told them. He smashed his thumb against another panel. “Where are you taking us?” Eli asked.

“I told you. We’re going to the sick bay. The system doesn’t know the elderly patients are the ones who cracked the Rexroth Moratorium.”

Eli didn’t have time to question before Miles shoved them through the door and pulled it closed behind them. The instant they got through, he waved to Yasha. “Put your gun down.”

“What? You’re cracked!” she screamed.

“We’re going into the sick bay,” Miles whispered. “It’s through that door over there. If the doctors and nurses see us carrying weapons, they’ll know we’re the ones who triggered the alarm. Put your gun down and act like a patient.”

To demonstrate his point, he laid his cannon on the floor and straightened his shirt. Yasha blinked at him in stupid shock, but in the end, she put her cannon down, too. The trio collected themselves as much as possible.

“Can you hide the case at all?” Miles asked.

Eli looked down at the box in his hand. “I don’t think so.”

“Never mind. Come on.”

Miles hurried to the next door and unlocked it with his thumbprint. The party entered a clean, white waiting room. A bunch of ordinary citizens sat around reading. A spotless receptionist occupied a chair behind the desk.

Miles gave her his most disarming smile and escorted Eli and Yasha to another lift across the waiting room. They stood in front of the lift while he pressed his thumb to the control panel and entered something on the screen.

He turned around and bestowed on Eli the most innocent, mindless, childlike smile possible. Eli couldn’t stop staring at the kid. He couldn’t for the life of him reconcile everything he’d seen from this kid in the space of a few minutes. One minute he was acting the gullible fool, a victim of Tanner’s evil machinations. The next minute, Miles had transformed himself into a hardened warrior with the same courage and determination as a trained soldier like Yasha.

The lift seemed to take an age, but when the bell chimed and the doors slid aside, Eli, Yasha, and Miles stepped inside as though this was the most ordinary occasion imaginable.

The lift dropped. Silence enveloped the compartment. Eli’s fingers itched to grasp some weapon, but nothing appeared in his hand. He only had this case with the Parker-Nolan Grenade hidden in it. Every second of silence plagued his nerves, with adrenaline scorching his insides. When would it end? When would that door open to reveal a thousand guns all raining lead on him?

A tinny voice announced, “Loading Hold Level. Have a nice day.” The doors opened. Miles and Yasha took one step onto the platform. Directly in front of Eli, another lift hissed and disgorged swarms of soldiers. The volume switched on, and cannon thundered in his ears.

He lunged forward to pull Miles and Yasha back inside the lift, but they’d already bolted forward to charge for the Boomerang. Eli started to shrink back to protect himself, but at that moment, a winking laser slashed across the lift in which he stood. It pivoted back the other way and glanced off Yasha’s arm.

She shrieked and leaped out of the way just in time to avoid being cut in half. She and Miles ran straight into the path of the soldier’s attack.

The shot produced an electric effect on Eli. He launched out of the lift, barreling for the pair. Yasha veered around the Boomerang, and the tenders whined high and loud over the racket of countless guns.

Eli rushed behind her, but another barrage of laser fire deflected off the floor around his feet. He skipped sideways and slid on the slippery metal. He banged into the landing strut and huddled behind it for protection. High over his head, the security aperture remained locked for all time. No one could get in or out of the Station.

He glanced around for any way to reach the hatch, and saw Yasha disappear behind the ship. Her voice bounced off the walls. “Come on, Miles!”

Miles stumbled and fell, struggling to save his own life, but when he jumped to his feet, he didn’t break for the ramp. He swerved and rushed the panel on the wall.

His fingers flew over the screen in a lightning dance, but now he stood completely exposed to the full brunt of enemy fire. He ducked his head between his shoulders, but he didn’t leave the panel. He turned his back to the soldiers and their fire thumped all around him.

A steady rumble made Eli look up. He stared in shock as the aperture clunked and started to unwind. It spiraled wider, wide enough for a ship to squeeze through. The Boomerang vibrated through the strut. All at once, she started to turn. She lifted a few inches off the platform and rotated toward the soldiers.

At the same instant, Yasha, Waylon, and River barged down the ramp. They rounded the Boomerang with guns blazing, and the ship opened fire, too. They plastered the landing hold with laser and cannon fire until the guards had no choice but to retreat back into the lift.

Eli skated out from his hiding place and raced behind them. They started to back him up the ramp, protecting his retreat, but when he got halfway up it, he glanced to the side. “Let’s go, Miles.”

Miles turned in his direction. A happy grin spread across his face, but the instant he left the panel, the aperture started to close again. He paused and frowned.

Eli thrust out his hand. “Come on, Miles!”

Waylon backed into Eli. “Get inside! Hurry up!”

The Boomerang lifted off the deck. She spiraled backward again to face the aperture, but it had already irised too far closed to let her through. Yasha and River closed on either side of Eli. The soldiers saw the team preparing to escape, and they threw caution to the wind. They rocketed out of the lift and charged.

Miles spun around. He put out his hand to touch the panel when a thunderous spray of lead peppered him in the back. It cut him off at the knees, and he buckled. He pitched over with his extended arm still stretched in mid-air.

“Miles!” Eli yelled.

Miles made one limp effort to get on his hands and knees. He reached for the panel and flopped on his face.

“Miles!” Eli fought to get through the friends to reach the boy. He couldn’t let the kid fall like this—not when he’d sacrificed everything to help them.

Waylon gave Eli another shove up the ramp. “Let’s go. The weapon! We have to get out of here.”

In front of Eli’s staring eyes, Miles vaulted off the floor and dove for the panel. His bare palm slapped against the glass, and the display switched from red to green. With a squeal, the aperture swiveled open, slammed to its widest limit, and stayed there. Miles collapsed and didn’t move again.

At the same instant, the Boomerang leaped off its struts and the landing gear retracted. The tenders screamed to a dizzying pitch. Waylon seized Eli’s arm and muscled him up the ramp. “Come on!”

Eli whipped around, his brain fuming in rage. He crammed the case into Waylon’s grasp. “Take it! Get inside!”

He didn’t wait a second longer. He spun on his heel and dove off the ramp. He took a flying leap and slid to Miles’ side. Lead pounded in his ears, but he paid no attention. He heaved the body over his shoulder and bolted for the hatch.

River barreled down the ramp and planted her enormous frame between Eli and the soldiers. She bombarded the enemy with cannon fire while Eli hefted Miles into the Boomerang.

River and Yasha backed in behind him, and the Boomerang rocketed through the aperture in a trail of vapor.


Twelve

“Park her in the Unlimited Hangar,” Eli told Jood.

Jood looked up from the engineering console and cocked his head. “That will be expensive.”

“Expensive and far more secure than any of the parking lots. Get us a private dock upstairs.”

Jood returned to fiddling with his instruments. “As you wish. The cost will be coming out of your account, not mine.”

“Exactly. I don’t want to take any chances.”

Eli got up and left the cockpit. Jood was the only one left in it. Yasha, Waylon, and River stood in a huddle outside the galley loading their weapons. “Where’s Tanner?”

Waylon jerked his chin toward Eli’s cabin. “Sleeping it off. You want me to take him in?”

“With your cannon hanging out for the locals to see? I don’t think so. Jood and I will take him back to the Little Mermaid so he can make his little phone call. You three wait for us at the meet-up location. Keep it clear of any cockroaches that might decide to interfere with our business.”

“I don’t like it, Sarge,” River interjected. “What if Tanner tries to pull a fast one on you?”

“I’m counting on it. That’s why I’m taking Jood. He can handle anything that comes up.”

River shook her head. “Sorry, Sarge, but you need someone who knows Tanner’s system. If he decides to make a play for freedom, which he’s certain to do, he won’t do it with muscle and lead. He’ll do something sneaky that you and Jood might not see coming.”

“I can’t take you. I’m sorry, River,” Eli told her. “Too many people know you, and word will have spread that you came back and that you were involved in the raid to steal Tanner.”

She smacked her lips. “And too many people don’t know you and Jood? He sticks out more than any of us.”

“I’ve already made up my mind. Get your shit together. We’re docking.”

He started to turn away when another voice called him from inside the galley. “Let me go, sir. Please. I can help you. I can. Let me keep an eye on Tanner.”

Eli glanced over. Through the open galley door, he saw Miles laid out on the table. His slit pants leg flopped over the side of the table, and bandages concealed his leg from the thigh to the ankle. His blood-stained shirt stuck to his ribs. His hair fell over his forehead where dried blood crusted a wicked laser slash from one temple to the other.

Eli sauntered into the galley. “You stay right where you are, kid. You did enough getting us out of Brimstone.”

He came to a halt next to the table and gazed down at the boy. Miles sank back on the table. His eyes danced over Eli’s face, and he kept compressing his lips. His nostrils flared. “This ain’t exactly the way I thought I’d be flying on this ship, sir.”

“Forget it,” Eli told him. “Do you know how many times Waylon’s been laid out on this table? Consider it a badge of honor.”

Miles tried to smile, but he wound up coughing instead. “Thank you, sir. Thank you for taking me on.”

Eli pointed at him. “Make that the last time you thank me. Now I need you to guard the Boomerang while we’re gone.” He headed for the door. “I’ll bring you back some more painkillers. Just don’t go dripping blood all over my ship.”

Miles broke into a weak smile. “Yes, sir.”

Eli walked out of the galley. He didn’t like leaving the boy alone on the Boomerang, though not because he didn’t trust Miles. He wanted to transport the kid to the hospital to get his injuries tended by a real doctor, but Miles had refused.

Jood joined him in the bay with the others. Eli pointed forward. “Go get him.”

Waylon brought Tanner from the cabin. The man certainly looked slightly worse for wear, but that couldn’t be helped. Yasha released the hatch, and they strode outside.

Eli checked the lay of the land before they left the Boomerang behind. The Unlimited Hangar definitely cost more than he was in the habit of paying for parking, but in this case, he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.

It was bad enough he and his band of stragglers planned to use Declan Tanner as bait in the shadiest of all shady deals. The Unlimited Hangar might not offer unlimited security, but it was better than nothing.

Eli slipped his bank card into the exit door and his balance came up. When he finished this whole Tanner business, he needed to find himself some paying work. He didn’t want to go begging from his own crew.

The hangar’s huge levered roof arched overhead. A light blinked in front of Eli and the exit door peeped. The crew crossed a line of white tape on the floor, and the light blinked again. A chirpy female voice said, “Security field activated. Please enter your locking code to complete transaction.”

He punched in five numbers, and a smiley face appeared on the display. “Transaction complete. Have a nice day.”

“Yeah. You have a nice day, too,” Eli muttered.

He turned away and the team approached a small metal door to leave the hangar. Waylon marched Tanner into the open and yanked him to a halt. He did something behind Tanner’s back, and Tanner’s hands sprang free. He rubbed his wrists, but he didn’t shout threats anymore. He just glared at the friends.

Waylon strutted around in front of him and growled through gritted teeth. “One wrong move and you’re finished. Understand?”

“Get yourself fucked,” Tanner spat back.

Waylon’s eyebrow lifted ever so slightly. “Maybe when I’m finished with you, I’ll come back to the Little Mermaid and have me some fun. I’m sure when the girls find out I was the one who cut your stinking balls off, they’ll give me a free ride. What do you think of that?”

Waylon turned his back on Tanner without waiting for an answer. Eli moved to Tanner’s elbow. “Save your cracks for the afterparty. Do you three know where you’re going?”

“We know.”

“All right. See you there.” He nodded to Jood. “Let’s go.”

He nudged Tanner, and the three men moved onto the streets. Pi Squared Two looked exactly the same as last time, exactly the same as every time. It never changed. He, Jood, and Tanner walked shoulder-to-shoulder down the street. Tanner behaved himself all the way to the Little Mermaid. He nodded and greeted people on the street. He didn’t make any attempt to get away.

The farther they went, the more Eli began to understand what River had been trying to warn him about. Tanner was planning something. He was too smart not to, but he didn’t plan to make a great big noisy, violent scene. That would be stupid with Jood around. No, Tanner would pull something underhanded that Jood and Eli would never expect.

They turned a corner. There was the Little Mermaid, all repaired and open for business as though nothing ever happened. Eli didn’t see Oscar or any of the other scumbags from last time. New people would be standing guard over Tanner’s assets. Eli never doubted that.

He took a step off the curb, but Jood grabbed Tanner. “One moment, if you please, Eli. I believe there’s a better way to get inside the building than going through the front entrance.”

When Eli checked Tanner, he saw the asshole’s expression fall. Sure enough, he just barely managed to disguise his disappointment, and Eli realized his mistake. “All right. What do you suggest?”

“There are four other entrances into the building. Two are unguarded.”

“How do you know that?” Eli asked.

“I saw them the last time, when we entered Tanner’s office. I believe we can return to his office with a minimum of exposure.”

Eli waved to one side. “Lead the way, then.”

Jood marched Tanner a few blocks down the street. Then he cut into an alley next to the building. He halted between two large trash canisters.

Eli frowned at the concrete wall in front of him. “This isn’t a way inside.”

Jood positioned himself between Tanner and Eli. He took hold of both men’s arms and jumped. He soared into the air and landed on the roof of the building next to the Little Mermaid. He carried Tanner and Eli on either side of him, then put them down in front of an elevated tunnel that entered the Little Mermaid several stories above the ground. It was completely unguarded.

Tanner clamped his lips together. “You bastard.”

Jood ignored him. “After you, Eli.”

Eli peeked into the tunnel, but he didn’t see anybody. Jood took hold of Tanner’s elbow and marched him inside. In half a second, they’d crossed the street and entered the other building. They descended a flight of stairs to the corridor outside Tanner’s office, but this time, no bodyguards stopped them.

When they came in sight of the entrance where the bodyguards used to be, Tanner checked himself. His eyes widened, surveying the corridor, and he hesitated for the first time since Eli had first encountered him. Tanner glanced right and left as though he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Jood tried the door handle. It turned easily, so he propelled Tanner into the office. He sat Tanner behind the desk and towered over him. “Make the call.”

Eli paced the room, but no armed gunmen stood ready to blast him into the next solar system. The place was utterly deserted.

Tanner opened a drawer. He took out a black case and opened it on his desk. He switched it on and positioned his fingers over the instrument panel. Eli looked over his shoulder only long enough to make sure that Tanner was doing what Jood told him to.

Tanner bent over the device, but before he could touch it, a broken rasp cut the silence. “Stop! Don’t let him…”

Eli whipped out his sidearm, but when he spun around to aim it, his jaw dropped. Miles staggered out of the corner behind a large wardrobe. He took two steps and stumbled into a chair. The stain on his side had grown since Eli had left him in the galley. He sagged against the chair and his face drained of color as he supported himself on his injured leg. Blood darkened the bandage.

He nodded toward Tanner. “Don’t let him…don’t let him enter the code.”

Eli gaped at him in shock. “I told you to stay put, kid.”

Miles’ head drooped, but he didn’t take his eyes off Tanner. “The code…he’s going to enter an alarm code to call up his people.”

Eli looked back and forth between Miles and Tanner. He saw the truth writ large across Tanner’s face. Tanner narrowed his eyes at Miles, and his lips quivered. “You traitorous son of a bitch. I’ll kill you for this.”

Miles took his hand off the chair to point at the device, but he had to grasp the chair again to hold himself up. “The code…the right code… It’s 15-45-15. That’s the right code to contact the client to deliver the Grenade.”

Jood bent over Tanner’s shoulder and poked him in the arm. “Go ahead. Enter it.”

Tanner kept shooting daggers at Miles. “I trusted you. I gave you everything and this is how you repay me.”

“What the hell?” Eli demanded. “How did you get here before us?”

Miles shrugged in his direction, but he never took his eyes off Tanner. “I just had a bad feeling about you coming here alone. You should have let me come with you.”

Eli lowered his weapon. “You shouldn’t be here, kid.”

Miles summoned the last scrap of energy and pointed at Tanner. “Enter the code.”

Tanner crouched over the device. “You’ll never get away with this. You’ll never get off this planet.”

“I know that,” Miles murmured. “I don’t matter, but they will. They’ll make it off and then they’ll be shut of you. We all will.”

Tanner tapped at his device, and Jood nodded. “Now the message.”

Tanner worked in a fever, but his shoulders kept tensing. Eli shot another sidelong glance at Miles. “Is there anything else you want to tell me about this place?”

Miles drew a shaky breath. “He has signals he uses with people on the street. There’s a chance he already gave the signal and triggered the defense troops. They’ll attack you on the way out of here.”

“You little cocksucker!” Tanner hissed. “You’re a dead man.”

Miles bestowed a small smile on him. “I was a dead man when I started working for you.” He turned back to Eli. “You have to leave here as soon as he enters the message.”

“He just did,” Jood added.

Miles nodded toward the door. “Go now. I sent the bodyguards away, and I gave orders to the people out front, but it won’t last. The troops will be here any second.”

Eli rushed him and took hold of his arm. “You’re coming with us.”

Miles tried to push him away. “Leave me here. I can be more use to you here.”

Eli smacked Miles’ hand down. “Shut it, kid! You heard what I said.”

He grabbed Miles and hauled him to the door. Jood lifted Tanner out of the chair. Tanner gave his best effort to get free, but Jood overpowered him.

Eli popped the door, but nothing disturbed the corridor outside. Jood pushed Tanner through it, and Eli half-carried Miles. They hustled toward the stairs leading to the tunnel. They got halfway up it when a smattering of voices echoed to Eli’s ear.

He wheeled around, hauling Miles with him, and charged the stairs. “Here they come!”

The instant those words escaped him, gunfire broke out behind him. He ducked and Jood dove over his head, flying down the stairs. Eli didn’t see where he was or what he was doing.

Tanner took advantage of the distraction to attack. He launched at Eli and grabbed for the sidearm holstered at Eli’s belt. He got his fingers around it before Eli realized what was going on.

He let go of Miles and the kid folded in a pile. The next minute, Eli lashed his arms around Tanner, wrestling the man back with all his strength. He yanked Tanner away from his sidearm and tackled him against the stairs.

Tanner bellowed in rage kicking and punching. Eli tucked his head and locked his shoulder into the man’s midsection. He didn’t come this far to let the bastard get away.

He grappled Tanner’s arms down and smashed his knee into Tanner’s sternum. Tanner’s strength slackened, but for only a second. The next minute, he hurled himself against Eli’s hold.

Guns exploded behind Eli’s back. He sent up a silent prayer to Jood to cover him for just another second, just long enough to get Tanner out of the building.

Eli attacked Tanner with fresh energy, but the man fought back with equal power. He demanded all Eli’s effort and concentration just to hold him down. Out of nowhere, someone bumped into Eli’s shoulder. Miles snatched Eli’s sidearm and toppled on top of Tanner. He crammed the weapon into Tanner’s cheek.

“One move and I shoot,” Miles snarled at Tanner. “Get up and get moving while you can.”

For what seemed an eternity, Tanner and the kid stared each other down. Eli held his breath, but sure enough, Tanner twisted over on his stomach, levered onto his feet, and stumbled up the stairs.

Eli cast one last glance downward. Beyond the blur of Jood whizzing back and forth, a glut of mercenaries in unmarked uniforms blocked the corridor. Crashes and explosions blasted through the halls, but nothing made it past Jood.

Eli spun around and stumbled after Miles and Tanner. The kid jabbed the weapon into Tanner’s skull and propelled him up the stairs and down the tunnel. The trio burst onto the roof. Miles glanced over the edge, and Tanner made his move. He shot out his fist and punched Miles to the ground.

The boy crumpled, but Eli had already launched at Tanner in a rage. He caught the gun out of Miles’ hand and whipped it around, ready to fire. He would have blasted Tanner’s skull to dust if Jood hadn’t charged out of the tunnel at that moment.

He rushed Eli, not appearing to notice Eli standing there holding Tanner at gunpoint. “We must go now, Eli. They will have the building surrounded in a few minutes. If we do not go now, we will never get away.”

Eli turned away with a sick feeling in his stomach. He understood now how River and Waylon felt about this asshole. Eli didn’t just want Tanner dead. He wanted to make him suffer. He wanted to watch Tanner writhe in agony for days, maybe even weeks.

He seized a handful of Tanner’s hair and yanked him to the edge. “Jump, shithead, if you want to live.”

Eli didn’t wait a second longer. He pushed Tanner off the roof and jumped after him. The two men landed in the alley. Jood alighted at his side with Miles slung over his shoulder. “This way.”

Jood hurried into the street. Eli almost stopped dead when he saw the whole avenue deserted. Not a person moved anywhere. All the bars and brothels and gambling dens of Pi Squared Two stood empty. Eli could have fired Waylon’s cannon down the street and not hit a living soul.

Tanner gave a sadistic laugh. “You can kiss your precious Boomerang goodbye, Mr. Bryce.”

Eli reacted before he thought. He wheeled around and smashed his sidearm into Tanner’s nose. “Shut your mouth.”

Jood headed down the street. “I suggest we get out of—”

A cacophony of gunfire cut him off. The next instant, troops veered around the Little Mermaid and opened up. Tanner yelled out, “Hold your fire, you idiots!” but no one heard him.

Jood grabbed him and whipped him around, protecting him with his body. He pulled Miles off his shoulder and huddled over both of them. He whisked them off the street, but when they crossed to the opposite sidewalk, they had nowhere to go but into an empty gambling hall.

Lead ripped through the front windows and showered broken glass on the party. Eli had only his twin sidearms to return fire, and that wasn’t going to do the job. Jood hustled to the bar and pushed Tanner onto the floor behind it. He laid Miles next to him and pointed at Tanner. “Stay back here if you know what is good for you.”

He charged away and left Eli to guard the prisoner. When Eli hunkered behind the bar, he found Miles staring up at him with huge eyes. The kid scooted back to prop his back next to Tanner.

“You okay?” Eli glanced down at Miles’ leg and side. “You’re losing blood fast.”

Miles gulped hard, and his gaze skipped to one side. “This place…over there. Open it.”

Eli followed his gaze to what looked like three small coolers under the bar. He frowned. “What, that?”

“Open it,” Miles gasped.

Eli pulled the handle. All three sections opened in one compartment. He blinked at several large-sized cannons and a few rocket launchers stacked inside, along with crates of ammunition and cartons of Milkweeds.

He shot a glance at Miles. Tanner ground his teeth. “You little shit!”

Eli frowned, first at the weapons and then back at Miles. “How did you know?”

Miles raised his eyes to a big neon sign over the bar. It read in curling italics, The Fun House. “Tanner owns this place. I stocked it myself.”

Eli shoved his sidearm into the boy’s hand. “Cover him for me.”

He snatched a rocket launcher and a fistful of rockets. He leaped out from under the bar and raced to the street. He dropped a rocket down the tube and aimed.

Jood darted back and forth across his view. The troops had already started to circle the Xynnar, surrounding him with weapons. Eli took a deep breath and fired. The rocket coiled down the street and pounded into the troops. It missed Jood by inches.

Bodies flew in all directions. Shattered pavement shot into the air, and debris rained across the street. Eli didn’t check the effect of his shot. He dropped another rocket into the tube and aimed for the corner from whence the troops were streaming. He decimated the building to rubble that cascaded onto their heads.

Jood streaked toward him and raced past. He rushed into the Fun House. Eli backed after him, shooting anything that moved. A few mercenaries charged him, but he dove under the bar and came back out with two cannons fully loaded.

Jood grabbed Miles and Tanner, one under each arm. Eli heard Miles talking to Jood in hushed gasps. When Eli checked over his shoulder, he saw Jood making for the back of the bar.

Eli waited only long enough to blow away any of the troops that dared to follow. Then he turned tail and ran for it.


Thirteen

Eli shot a terrible glare at River. “What are you doing here? I told you to wait at the meet-up spot.”

“Yasha and Waylon are there, but no one else is.” She scowled at Miles’ unconscious body. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He followed us. He beat us to the Little Mermaid. He tipped us off that Tanner was going to enter the wrong code into his transceiver. He told us everything. We never would have made it back without him.”

Eli laid Miles back on the galley table. He brushed the boy’s bloody hair off the gash in his forehead, but he wanted to puke when he looked at the leg. The entire bandage was saturated in blood. He stripped back the shirt to reveal a hideous, swollen gouge between Miles’ ribs. It bubbled with air escaping from the boy’s chest cavity.

Jood marched Tanner into the room and pushed him down on a bench. “We have half an hour to get to the meet, Eli. I suggest we take Tanner and the weapon and get into position.”

“Help me with this first.” Eli popped a med kit and grabbed the SubQ. “He’ll bleed to death if we leave him like this.”

“I’ll stay with him, Sarge,” River offered. “I’ll fix him up.”

Eli made a face. “You made me promise I would turn over Tanner when this is all over. Do you really want to leave him for Waylon to play with?”

River bared her teeth at Tanner.

Eli bent over the kid. He dumped disinfectant onto the through-and-through wound in Miles’ thigh and fired up the thermal incisor. He didn’t stop working until he’d recauterized both wounds that Miles had ripped open hobbling all the way across town to save Jood and Eli from their own impulsive actions.

He threw the bloody incisor back in the kit and wiped his equally bloody hands on his pants. His back hurt, and now he could look forward to another showdown with Tanner’s client. He could be damn sure that wouldn’t go over without a battle, either.

Eli stared down at Miles’ ghastly white face. “Who is this kid? How does he know so much about Tanner’s operation?”

River shifted from one foot to another. “He’s been working for Tanner since he was ten years old. Tanner trusted him with everything, but Miles never could stomach Tanner’s way of doing things.”

“But why?” Eli murmured. “Why would Tanner trust someone that much, especially someone so young? It doesn’t make sense.”

“He’s nothing to me,” Tanner snarled from his place across the room. “He’s dead to me. I’ll kill him myself if he lives to walk off this ship.”

River turned around to look at him, but Eli didn’t. He still found it a stretch to believe that this kid could pull off the kind of heroics he had. Eli wouldn’t have expected that from someone twice his age.

When River spoke, she murmured so low Eli almost didn’t hear her right. “He’s Tanner’s son.”

Eli’s head shot up and he blinked at her. “What?”

“He’s Tanner’s son. Tanner is his father. He groomed Miles to take his place. He angled Miles into position to manage all his operations, but Miles wouldn’t do the dirty work Tanner wanted him to. He bucked Tanner’s wishes, and Tanner—”

“You foul bitch!” Tanner shrieked. “I’ll—”

Jood silenced him with a backhand to the mouth. Tanner whipped back and hit the lockers before he slumped and hung his head. A pathetic whimper came from his split lips.

River puffed out her cheeks. “Tanner tried to twist his arm to make him…you know, tougher. He tried to force Miles to use stronger tactics to enforce Tanner’s wishes. It didn’t work. It only poisoned Miles against him more than ever. Miles went out of his way to be nice to people that Tanner did wrong. He took care of the girls at the Little Mermaid, and he protected a lot of people from Tanner’s wrath. He was….” She paused. “He is a good guy—one of the best. You won’t find a better man anywhere.”

They stared down at Miles, laid out unconscious on the table. Eli kicked himself for ever letting Miles get injured like this. He had a gem in his possession and he’d wasted it. Now he didn’t see Miles surviving this.

So that was how River got Tanner to tell what he knew—or didn’t know—about his mysterious client. She’d threatened Miles, but it hadn’t worked. Miles was already set on leaving. He must have been waiting for years for a chance to ditch Tanner, and he’d chosen the Boomerang.

They all had. They’d all chosen the Boomerang. She was their redemption and their haven, their one last hope. Now Miles would die in her, exactly the way he wanted to.

Eli turned away and sliced his finger at Jood. “Bring him. We’re already late.”

He returned to his cabin and reloaded his sidearms. Miles wouldn’t be coming to bail him out—not again. This one came down to lead and grit, the way Eli liked it. He sure as hell wouldn’t be playing his Saint of Heavenly Compassion with these bastards. He would pay them back for Miles and any other good people who’d suffered for their sins.

He stormed aft and met up with Jood and River. River carried a huge cannon, and Jood marched Tanner by the back of the neck. They left the Unlimited Hangar and slipped through the quiet streets.

Eli checked around corners before venturing to the meeting spot, but no one came to Tanner’s rescue this time. They found Yasha and Waylon hiding in a shadowy hole. “Any sign yet?”

“Five minutes more,” Jood reported.

He pushed Tanner against a wall, and Waylon and River blocked him in with their weapons. The party waited in tense silence until a pair of headlights swiveled through the streets beyond their hiding place.

Eli backed into the gloom and watched with one eye around the wall as a lone figure tripped through puddles to the spot. A man emerged into the faint gleam of a streetlamp, and Eli scowled at the all-too-familiar visage of Admiral James Quincy Wescott.

Wescott scanned the surroundings and checked his watch. Eli didn’t feel like dragging out the suspense. He stepped out of hiding and advanced to where Wescott couldn’t fail to recognize him. Yasha trailed him, followed one by one by River, Waylon, and Jood, hauling Tanner with them.

They lined up in front of Wescott. The admiral blinked and then he cracked a crooked grin. He snarled through clenched jaws. “Well, if it isn’t Eli Bryce. Long time, no see.”

“You’re forgetting something, Admiral,” Yasha interrupted. “It hasn’t been such a long time since you’ve seen me, has it?”

“You told Tanner I was working on the Boomerang,” Waylon added.

Wescott shrugged and spread his palms, but he wouldn’t stop glaring and gnashing his teeth like a vicious animal. “That was all just business. You can’t blame me for that.”

“You deployed those drones to destroy all of Earth,” Eli countered. “My only daughter was killed by them. Do you think for a second I don’t blame you for that—on top of everything else—because it was only business? You sent the Dmitri to destroy the Boomerang and us.”

“You hired freighters to deliver Squadrons ships and equipment to the Mysterium,” Yasha chimed in. “You’re arming the Mysterium to attack Earth, and you wanted us to steal the Parker-Nolan Grenade to leave Earth defenseless. Was that just business, too? You’re one of the highest-ranked admirals in the Squadrons. You swore an oath to protect Earth and you’re doing the opposite. Is that what you call business?”

Wescott’s eyes flashed at each of them, one after another. “Where is the Grenade?”

“It’s far, far away from here,” Eli told him. “You’ll never get your hands on it.”

Wescott snorted. “I doubt that. You wouldn’t trust it anywhere but on board the Boomerang. I bet if I sent the Territorial Deputies to raid your ship, they would find it there.”

“The Deputies will never do that,” Eli countered, but he wasn’t so sure now.

Wescott’s crooked smile broke out again. “The Squadrons control the Deputies. They’ll do it if I order them to.”

“You won’t order them to, because you won’t live to give the order.” Yasha dropped her rifle into her hands and trained the barrel on him. “You’re dead.”

Wescott laughed out loud. He guffawed in their faces. “I must admit I didn’t expect such a ragtag band of misfits to pull this off—I don’t mean you, Yasha. You’re a different caliber, although why you want to run with this riffraff, I’ll never understand. Then again, you couldn’t have secured the weapon without my help. Never mind. I know where it is and I’ll get it. I have a need for it you can’t understand.”

“Try me,” Eli retorted.

Wescott laughed even louder. “And give away all my secrets? Haven’t you learned anything in the last twenty-five years, Eli?”

“If you mean, have I learned to destroy assholes like you wherever I find them, I already knew that before I left Earth and I’ll do the same thing now.” He leveled his sidearm at Wescott.

Wescott shrugged and pretended to scan the area. Eli expected him to say something equally cutting, but at that moment, a spine-chilling whistle screamed out of the heavens and detonated into a building right next to the admiral.

The structure blasted to pieces in a shower of flying brick and mortar pelting everywhere. Eli ducked, and the whole neighborhood erupted in gunfire. He grabbed Tanner and shoved him toward the hiding place. He couldn’t see a thing, and he had no idea who was attacking or from where.

Yasha and Waylon rotated in front of him with their guns pointed outward, but as soon as they retreated to where they hoped to find safety, another flank of troops opened fire from their other side. They aimed directly into the hole and trapped the friends, with no way out.

Lead flew thick and fast, but before the enemy could destroy the party, Jood shot into view and blocked the opening with his body.

“What the hell is going on?” Eli bellowed in Yasha’s ear. “Who’s attacking us?”

“How the hell should I know?” she roared back. “Maybe Wescott alerted the Deputies Squad before he came out to meet us. They could have coordinated with Tanner to—”

Waylon interrupted, thundering to high heaven. He charged out of the space and barreled Jood out of the way. Waylon fired his cannon straight into the guns threatening them.

Eli tried to call him back, but Yasha pushed Eli forward. “Go!”

She propelled him and Tanner into the gap created by Jood and Waylon. Before he knew what he was doing, Eli had towed Tanner into the open. Yasha ran alongside them, but Eli couldn’t turn back to return to the Boomerang without running straight into the troops.

He swiveled and found himself running toward Wescott. The admiral hid behind a building while cannon fire ripped down the street. For a second, Eli realized the two flanks of attackers were firing directly at each other, with the crew trapped between them.

Eli made it three paces when Admiral Wescott scuttled out of his position and bolted for his vehicle. Eli saw his quarry escaping and he locked his jaws. Oh, hell no. Not a chance. He put on speed to overtake Wescott. The admiral slipped on the damp pavement, dodged around a pile of broken rubble, and plunged toward the craft.

At that moment, another rocket came diving out of the atmosphere and catapulted into another building. It vaporized in a cataclysmic boom that rocked the ground. The impact almost jolted Eli off his feet, but he scrambled forward to seize Wescott.

At the same instant, a third flank of soldiers rushed into view from Eli’s right. Yasha planted her legs and turned her weapon on them, but that left Eli alone with Tanner. Tanner lurched sideways and barreled into Eli. He bowled Eli into a pillar and made the last headlong rush to catch up with Wescott.

Wescott dashed to his vehicle. The door swiveled upward before he got there. He slotted into the cockpit and the craft lifted off just as Tanner charged the open door. “Let me in! Let me in!”

Wescott worked over his controls. Eli caught a fleeting glimpse of that brutal mouth twisted in hateful triumph. He paid Tanner no attention at all. The craft levitated off the pavement, its engines cycling to full power.

Tanner grappled the door rim, still shrieking, “Let me in! You can’t leave! Take me with you! You owe me!”

Wescott rotated the craft away from the fight. It rose a few feet higher. Tanner kicked his dangling feet off the ground. The door pivoted down and closed on his fingers. “Wescott, you bastard! I’ll get you for this! Hey! You can’t do this!”

Eli picked himself up and ran underneath the craft. He jumped and caught Tanner by the ankles. When he dropped, Tanner fell on top of him, still yelling into the air, “Wescott! Hey! Come back here!”

The vehicle turned and the tenders fired. It launched shrieking away over the city and vanished.

Eli stabbed his gun barrel into Tanner’s eye socket. “Don’t even think about doing that again.”

At that moment, another bone-shattering explosion crashed into him from behind. It ripped his feet off the ground and hurled him and Tanner forward together. He struck something impossibly hard and he lost consciousness for a second.


Fourteen

When Eli opened his eyes, he tasted blood on his tongue. Blasts and explosions pounded his ears from all sides until his brain shut down. He almost passed out again, but he hauled himself up through blinding pain.

A few feet away, Yasha straddled a single figure crumpled at her feet. She howled through the din, releasing one barrage of cannon fire after another into the distance. Eli didn’t bother to see who she was shooting at.

He flopped onto his hands and knees and crawled toward her. He touched the still figure and his stomach turned. He cast a hopeless glance around the area. Two sheets of laser fire sliced the dark, coming from different directions. The third flank, whoever they were, no longer blocked the one avenue of escape.

He swallowed down the blood in his mouth and scooped his arms under Jood’s still form. He strained his back lifting the Xynnar onto his shoulder. He didn’t dare check his friend for injuries. He didn’t want to find out what could be so bad as to knock Jood out.

Eli crouched there for a moment, gathering his resolve. Then, under Yasha’s fire, he braced his knees, lunged to his feet, and barreled into the alley. He concentrated all his power on running without dropping Jood, but his vision kept swimming in and out of focus. He wanted to be sick. He wanted to pass out. He wanted to die, but his legs just kept on running no matter what.

Yasha’s screeches approached behind him. Her fire sounded closer. She was following him, thank Heaven. He staggered and fell against a nameless building. He wavered there on the brink of oblivion. Think, Eli. He had to think. He had to find his way back to the hangar, but he wasn’t even sure where he was. His addled brain didn’t recognize anything around him.

Yasha drew level with him. Her gaze skipped to his face and her expression changed. He must be really bad. “You okay?”

Eli tried to speak, but his mouth didn’t seem to work. She set her mouth and turned away. She slotted another Riclium clip into her rifle. He glanced down at her hands. They trembled ever so slightly working over the weapon. He didn’t ask if that was her last clip. He didn’t have to ask.

He faced front and consolidated his hold on Jood. He propelled himself off the wall and half-staggered, half-lurched forward. He didn’t check where he was going. He only knew he needed to keep going, keep going away from the crash and scream of rockets and the zip of lasers behind him.

He wove through darkened streets. Once, he caught a peek of a lighted street ahead and he turned aside. He stuck to the shadows, going anywhere. At one point, Yasha ran up next to him and grabbed his sleeve. Without wasting breath, she swung him sideways and gave him a push before she grasped her weapon and fired behind her again.

Eli swerved and found himself staring up at the glossy dome of the Unlimited Hangar. It heaved into view right in front of him. All he had to do was…

Another cataclysmic blast exploded next to his ear. He toppled, and Jood’s weight flattened him. He hit the tarmac and winced, but when he scrambled around to grab Jood again, he spotted Yasha. She lay folded on her side a few feet away, her cannon draped from her lifeless fingers.

At the same moment, a posse of soldiers charged around another corner—at least, they looked like soldiers. They wore those unmarked uniforms. That meant they were Tanner’s people.

Tanner.

Eli lunged to his feet and seized Yasha’s gun. He shot up and whipped the weapon to his shoulder. He planted his legs over her and Jood and started firing. He didn’t care how many rounds remained in the weapon. He would defend these two with his life if that was all he had left.

He bared his teeth in a primal roar to the end of time. He fired again and again. He targeted individual fighters over there in the enemy ranks. He no longer thought of them as soldiers. They were Tanner’s men. They were Tanner, and they deserved to die.

He blasted them down one after another. He pounded lead into their skulls and into their chests. He turned to one side, running his gun barrel down the line. He thundered his challenge to them with the last particle of his strength.

He pulled the trigger and the gun clicked in his hand. It was empty. Eli let it drop. He didn’t have the energy to hold it up any longer. The enemy measured him from a few yards away. From here, he could make out the unique features of each man. They peered at him through their sights. Their fingers closed around their firing mechanisms.

This was it. There was no one left alive. Miles was dead. Now Yasha and Jood had fallen. He had no idea where River or Waylon were. They must have fallen back in the alley.

Another sickening crash assaulted his ears, but nothing hit him. Nothing blew up. All the mercenaries looked up, and their mouths dropped open as the hangar dome slid back. A single vessel teetered out of the hangar and rotated in the air to face the enemy.

Eli stared up at the Boomerang in blank disbelief. He hardly recognized her in his altered state. He strained to peer through the cockpit window, but it wasn’t River behind the helm.

Miles stared down into Eli’s eyes.

Without warning, cannon fire erupted from the Boomerang’s underbelly. Twin lasers skipped over the pavement. They burned two identical tracks up the tarmac and cut into the soldiers. Explosions rocked the ground, and Eli buckled to his knees. He covered Yasha and Jood to protect them from flying shrapnel.

Rockets, Agranite charges, and Milkweeds spiraled over his head. The Boomerang kept up a constant bombardment as she descended into the street. She landed in front of Eli. Now he had to carry Yasha and Jood up the ramp.

Continuous detonations pounded the walls beyond the ship’s nose, but he didn’t hear them. He picked up Yasha and took her into the bay. He laid her on the floor and went back for Jood.

As soon as he got inside, the ramp closed behind him and the Boomerang sprang upward. The force whipped Eli’s legs out from under him, so he had to crawl to the cockpit.

He discovered that crazy kid sitting in the command chair. The minute Miles saw Eli, he staggered out of it and toppled against the helm. He caught the controls and steered the Boomerang into orbit.

Eli sagged into the seat and grabbed his console. “Cut throttle.”

Miles rotated around. “Sir?”

“Cut throttle,” Eli snapped. “Cycle back to town.”

Miles swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”

He hauled the helm around. He slowed the ship into an unhurried approach. The twinkling lights of Pi Squared Two expanded beyond the window. “Where are we going?” Miles almost whispered.

“The hospital.”

They touched down on the roof. Eli stood back just long enough to watch the techs trundling Jood and Yasha inside.

One of the nurses came over and stood in front of Eli while he signed the intake forms. She took the clipboard from him, and her eyes made a significant sideways movement toward Miles.

He was too busy watching the stretchers bearing Yasha and Jood inside to notice. “Do you want to assume a standard orbit until they’re released, sir?”

Eli faced him. “I’ll assume a standard orbit, son. You’re staying here.”

Miles’ jaw dropped. “But I thought… You said I could come with you. I did everything for you. You can’t leave me here. If Tanner’s still alive, he’ll hunt me down. Everyone in town is loyal to him. I would have nowhere to go. How can you turn against me after all I did for you? It isn’t fair. I thought you were different. I thought since River…”

Eli laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re in no condition to pilot the ship, son. Go inside and get your injuries tended to. I’ll come back in a couple of days and pick you up along with the others. Right now, I gotta go find River and Waylon.”

Miles swallowed hard. “You promise you won’t leave me here? I mean, I can be a really useful guy to have around. I can help you find them. I can help you find Tanner. I know everyone in Pi Squared Two. You won’t leave me behind, will you?”

Eli squeezed his shoulder. He resisted the urge to put his arm around the boy. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Now go inside and get yourself cleaned up. That’s an order.”

He started away. Miles burst into that happy, boyish grin. “Yes, sir.”

Eli returned to the Boomerang. He pretended not to see Miles waving from the roof. He sat down at the helm and steered her over town. He made several passes over the skyscrapers and brilliant streets before he slipped back to engineering.

He scanned the surface for at least fifteen minutes before he picked up three heat signatures over by the Forrester Lot, but they weren’t in the Lot itself. They hung around the gravel outside the fence.

He descended to fifty feet. When he stared through the cockpit window, he saw River and Waylon, and they weren’t alone.

Eli landed in the gravel, but he left the engines running. He strolled up behind Waylon. Neither Waylon nor River acknowledged him at all. They faced the wall of a large building, where the third figure plastered his back against the concrete.

“You’ll pay for this!” Tanner shrieked. “You can’t do this! I own this town! I own both of you!”

He jerked his head back and forth, yelling at one and then the other. River and Waylon pointed their guns at him, but they didn’t fire. They just stood there listening to him bray.

Eli eased up next to Waylon. “You folks make it out all right?”

River glanced over at Waylon. “Did you hear something, man?”

“I heard a little pig squealing for his mama,” Waylon rumbled. “That’s what I heard.”

River studied Tanner. “It seems a shame to put him down so soon. He doesn’t deserve to go so peacefully.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Waylon inclined his head the other way. “I always thought he needed a lesson in style. Those shoes are way too shiny for my taste.”

“You know what?” River remarked. “I think you’re right.”

Without moving a muscle, she pulled the trigger on her weapon. A streak of laser fire shot out of the barrel and hit Tanner in the foot. It sliced through his polished leather shoe.

He screeched and hopped onto his other foot. His mouth contorted in curious shapes, but he screamed too loudly and too frantically to make intelligible words.

Waylon and River inspected him. They listened to him shriek as though it was the most fascinating music they’d ever heard.

Tanner eventually settled to whimpering and whining. He rested his injured foot on top of the other. He did his best to glare at the two comrades, but the longer Eli watched this, the more the man resembled an animal trapped between two deadly predators, with no intention of letting Tanner walk away with his life.

River spoke to Waylon out of the side of her mouth. “You know what I heard? I heard Declan Tanner really likes dancing. I heard he goes out dancing every weekend.”

“Is that a fact?” Waylon returned. “I never heard that.”

“It’s true—if you believe the rumors, that is.” River leaned forward and spoke loudly with exaggerated care. “Do you like dancing, Declan? Are the rumors true?”

Tanner bared his teeth. “You pathetic, dim-witted pieces of—”

Waylon clucked his tongue. “Tsk, tsk, Declan. That’s no way to answer a civil question.”

“Let’s find out,” River suggested. “Let’s see how much he likes dancing.”

“By all means,” Waylon agreed.

“You want this one?” River asked.

“No, no,” Waylon tutted. “This one is all yours.”

“I couldn’t dream of it,” River returned. “I had the last one. You go ahead.”

Waylon looked over at her. “Only if you’re sure.”

“Quite sure.”

“If you insist…”

“I do.”

Waylon raised his weapon to his shoulder. Tanner went ballistic. “You can’t do this! Do you know who I am? I’ll torture the pair of you until you…”

Waylon squeezed off a single round that smashed into the gravel next to Tanner’s other foot. He sprang off the ground screeching in fright, but the shot struck the gravel without injuring him. He hopped onto his injured foot and immediately jumped back, screaming even louder.

River laughed in his face. “You dance real good, Declan. I’m impressed. I never thought you could dance as well as that.”

“I’m not impressed,” Waylon remarked. “Sorry, Declan. I really expected better from you.”

River cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. “Really?”

“Absolutely,” Waylon returned. “I always thought the late, great Declan Tanner was a man of refinement, you know? I mean, he always flounced around town in fancy suits and spent his time in luxury apartments and all that. I would expect a guy like that with gold and jewels dripping off his arms to take a few dancing lessons.”

River compressed her lips. “Good point. He’s got a point, Declan. You gotta admit that.”

Eli listened to them going back and forth. Tanner pivoted right and left with each excessively polite remark, but he didn’t appear to be taking in the finer points of their debate. He rasped and gasped, and his lips trembled dry and thin against his teeth.

Waylon studied him with his head on one side. “You know what I think?”

“Tell us,” River encouraged.

“I always thought he was a shade too tall,” Waylon announced. “I mean, when I met him, I expected him to be shorter. It seems to me we should rectify that problem.”

“Do the honors,” River urged.

“You think?” Waylon asked.

“Why not?” River returned.

“I don’t know,” Waylon breezed. “Seems a shame to spoil what the Good Lord has made.”

“Pshaw,” River chided. “Spoil it.”

“Yeah?”

“Would you like me to do it?” River offered.

Waylon straightened up. “No, no. I think I’d better.”

“Good man.”

Waylon leveled his gun, hesitated, and lowered it. “What do you think, Declan? Did it ever occur to you that you might be just the slightest bit too tall?”

“You freak!” Tanner screeched. “You’ll never—”

The cannon thumping against the wall drowned out the rest. When the dust settled, Tanner rested all his weight on one foot. The other leg ended at a ragged stump of ankle, with no foot in sight.

Eli cast one last glance at the three of them. Waylon and River didn’t even see him. They concentrated all their attention on Tanner, and they still had a fair expanse of real estate to cover before they finished picking pieces off him.

He could say something else to them, but he elected not to interrupt their proceedings. He’d made them a promise not to intervene. He turned on his heel and walked back to the Boomerang.

From the pilot’s station, he saw the three of them suspended in time. Tanner had ruled this corner of the galaxy for decades. Now his skeletons rattled their bones and came out of their closets to return his cruelty in spades.


Fifteen

Two weeks later, Miles strode down the ramp to where Eli was welding a crack in the port dorsal stabilizer. “Jood asked me to tell you he reprogrammed the ignition sequence. He changed the activation parameters, and he’s waiting in the cockpit to go over them with you.”

Eli didn’t look up. “I’ll just finish this first.”

Miles stood back, watching him weld. “I can finish that if you want to go now.”

Eli kept his mask over his face. “Thanks just the same, but I like to finish what I start.”

Miles didn’t say anything for a while, but Eli still felt him scrutinizing the process. Maybe the kid thought he could do it better. After a suitable pause, he ventured, “Can I ask you something?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Why did you take River away from Tanner?”

Eli whipped down his mask and stared up at him. “You don’t know?”

“She never said anything about it.”

Eli stared at him. “You’re supposed to be the one who knows everything about Tanner’s operation. If you don’t know that…”

“There were things he didn’t even tell me about,” Miles said.

Eli bowed over his business. “Yeah. Something like that.”

Miles waited for him to say something else. “Well? Why did you?”

Eli winced. “If you don’t know, then I don’t think she would want me to tell you.”

A clang attracted their attention across the parking lot. Eli straightened up, with his mask and his welding iron dangling from his fingertips. A hundred yards away, the wire gate around the Forrester Lot swung open, and two figures entered. They started the long walk through the lanes toward the Boomerang.

Eli moved close to Miles’ shoulder, watching River and Waylon advance to their position. Both of them carried their weapons propped on their shoulders, and they talked back and forth as they walked. “In fact,” Eli murmured under his breath, “I know she wouldn’t.”

Before Miles could answer, River and Waylon halted in front of them. Eli looked back and forth between them. “You two all good? Did you get what you were looking for?”

“All good,” Waylon returned.

“We’re done here,” River replied. “We can go whenever you want, Sarge.”

Just then, Yasha came down the ramp. She brightened up when she spotted the two prodigals returning. “Hello, you two. Has our friend gone to meet his eternal reward?”

“He already met it,” River replied.

Miles snapped his fingers. “I sure wish I could have been there to see it.”

River turned away. “No, you really don’t.”

Yasha and River headed up the ramp. Miles hurried after them. “So where are we going next? What’s the plan? Are we going after Wescott? What are we going to do with the Parker-Nolan Grenade now that we have it? Do you want to find a buyer? I know everybody. I can get us a real good price.”

Yasha turned around and confronted him. “You don’t have to come with us. Now that Tanner is gone, you might do better to stay here. You could take over his operation and run it your own way. You don’t have to live in fear of him anymore, and Pi Squared Two could probably use a guy like you filling the power vacuum.”

Miles stared up at her with his big, misty eyes. His lips formed silent words, and the others waited for him to answer. All at once, he compressed his lips and sniffed. He gazed out over the lanes at the hundreds of ships parked there.

“You know, that’s what makes you guys so great!” he breathed. “You’re always thinking about the other guy. It’s never about you. I really got lucky when I hooked up with you guys. I can’t wait to get on with our next mission. What will we do? Where will we go? I can get in touch with my contacts to find out where Wescott went when he left Pi Squared Two. I can find out who he’s been communicating with while he was here. You’d be amazed how everybody around here knows everything about everybody else. You want me to? I can do it.”

Waylon snorted. “Is he always gonna be like this?”

“Almost getting killed doesn’t seem to have dampened his enthusiasm any,” Yasha remarked.

“At least he doesn’t call me sir anymore,” Eli cut in. “I didn’t think I could let him live as long as he was doing that.”

They all laughed, and climbed into the Boomerang. Waylon, Yasha, and Miles split off toward the galley. River and Eli returned to the cockpit, where Jood occupied the command station. “Did Miles deliver my message, Eli?”

“Yes, he did.”

Jood started to get up. “If you take your station, I’ll show you the new activation sequence.”

Eli slipped behind the engineering console. “You enter it. I’m sure there will be plenty of time for that where we’re going.”

River slotted into her seat and took the helm. “Where are we going, Sarge?”

“I’m not sure yet. Just take us out. Wherever it is, it won’t be here.”

She wound up the tenders, and the Boomerang lifted off her struts. A familiar quack echoed down the intercom. “Speed scout Boomerang, enter security code for launch clearance.”

Eli tapped the instruments in front of him, and an answering call came down the line. “Speed scout Boomerang, you are clear to launch.”

“Hit it,” Eli told River.

She touched the throttle and the Boomerang streaked out of the atmosphere into space, leaving another chapter closed behind her.

Deception!

FIND OUT

WHAT HAPPENS

NEXT!

Click here to read

DAMNATION!

(Outcast Starship Book 4)



Copyright © 2020 by Joshua James & Daniel Young

Published by down7media, LLC

Cover art by Tom Edwards (TomEdwardsDesign.com)

Edited by Scarlett R. Algee (ScarlettRAlgee.com)

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Deception!

Click here to read

DAMNATION!

(Outcast Starship Book 4)


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