Book: Impact Imminent



Impact Imminent

IMPACT IMMINENT

PERILOUS ALLIANCE – BOOK 4

BY CHRIS J. PIKE & M. D. COOPER



SPECIAL THANKS


Just in Time (JIT) & Beta Readers

Jim Dean

Marti Pannikar

Lisa Richman

Steven Blevins

Manie Kilian

David Wilson

Timothy Van Oosterwyk Bruyn

Gene Bryan

Copyright © 2018 Chris J. Pike & M. D. Cooper

Aeon 14 is Copyright © 2018 M. D. Cooper

Version 1.0.0

Cover Art by Laércio Messias

Editing by Tee Ayer

Aeon 14 & M. D. Cooper are registered trademarks of Michael Cooper

All rights reserved



TABLE OF CONTENTS

FOREWORD

PREVIOUSLY…

THE TWO FATHERS

HUBEI

DINNER AND A FIGHT

ORDERS

CHIMIN-1

THE CHIEF

EVIDENCE

THE CAT

KARAOKE NIGHT

RED HANDED

BREWING TROUBLE

GOATS AND SCAPES

CIRCUMSTANCE

THE MISSING

RE-SEARCH

GELATIN

GOOD KITTY

COLD STORAGE

BREAKOUT

FACILITY 99

STORM

RECRUITING

HOSPITAL

CLOSET

EXPRESS

SANDWICHES

BOTTOM

THE HOLE

REJOINDER

SHOTGUN

THE CLIMB

ERROR

VECTOR

RECRIMINATION

BETTER

SOLUTIONS

THE DEAL

DEFENSE

THE QUEEN

GIVE ME LIBERTY

RESTITUTION

FAREWELL

SIGHT

CAPTAIN

GRAYSON

THE BOOKS OF AEON 14

ABOUT THE AUTHORS



FOREWORD

The Silstrand Alliance was one of the first places I conceived in Aeon 14. I was researching a good place to set up an interstellar nation that would not be too far from Sol, but far enough that it wouldn’t be a part of any central empire.

I was hunting down good Class G star candidates when I came across a region of space that had very few Class G stars, except this group that ran in a (for stars) relatively straight line.

This matched up with one of my terraforming and colonization paths for the FGT, and I determined that a worldship would have passed sequentially through all these stars.

This would make these stars a narrow strip with FGT terraformed worlds in what would otherwise be a wilderness of uninhabited systems, or at least systems with no terraformed worlds, or poorly terraformed worlds.

When a man named Peter led the first colony ship to this region, he dubbed it the Silver Strand, and thus the Silstrand Alliance was born.

You’ll still see his name in many things in the Silstrand Alliance, from the name of the PetSil mining platform in Destiny Lost, to the manufacturer of Kylie’s first ship.

But now the Silstrand Alliance is in the rear-view mirror as Kylie and her crew take the Barbaric Queen in search of her brother, Paul Rhoads, and the rest of the Revolution Fleet.

This adventure will take Kylie back to her roots as she must confront the past and both reconcile it with her present and with what lies in wait for her in the future.

M. D. Cooper


Danvers, 2018



PREVIOUSLY…

In the previous Perilous Alliance book, Collision Course, Kylie finally confronted her father, Peter Rhoads, and was forced to kill him to stop his attack on the Silstrand System.

There she also learned that other forces were working with the Revolution Fleet, including General Garza of the Orion Freedom Alliance, and a mysterious person her father called his ‘Angel’.

Although Kylie cut the head off the snake, the destruction at Silstrand would have been much greater, if not for the arrival of Tanis and the ISF First Fleet.

Aboard the I2, Kylie learned that there was a much larger game afoot, but that she still had a crucial part to play. The ISF requires the Scipio Empire’s help, and the Scipio Empire has added their own conditions to the deal, one of the foremost being that the Silstrand Alliance get the fringe systems under control. A large part of that effort will be repairing the damage that Kylie’s father had done to the fringe systems lying between Silstrand and the vast Scipio Empire.

With a new ship—the Barbaric Queen—and a couple of new crewmembers, namely Bubbs and Ricket, Kylie has set off for the Hanoi System, where her father destroyed an entire world that had defied him.

That was the last known location of her brother Paul and the remainder of the Revolution Fleet.

Finding Paul and stopping him is Kylie’s primary mission, one she is determined to see succeed—but hunting one’s own family is no easy thing, especially when wading through the trail of destruction they’ve left behind.



THE TWO FATHERS

STELLAR DATE: 10.29.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen

REGION: Interstellar Space, near Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie Rhoads had always dreamed of flying amongst the stars.

Growing up on a simple agrarian world without advanced technology, it had seemed like a pipe dream. But at night, while her brothers stayed inside the quaint farmhouse, content to help Momma with the dishes, or lend Poppa a hand in repairing the heating vents, Kylie would often sneak out of her bedroom window, dropping into the blueberry bushes below.

She recalled one particular night when she’d crawled out from the bush, licking blueberry juice from her fingers and shaking leaves from her short brown pigtails. The memory was so vivid, Kylie still remembered what she’d worn: a corduroy dress with long socks over her knees, and patent leather shoes.

She hadn’t known it then, but Kylie was the pride of the Rhoads family. The only girl and pampered as such, her room had enough dolls to strangle a horse, as her Poppa was always saying. And yet, her curiosity for what lay beyond the four walls of her family home couldn’t be quenched.

That night, the sounds of singing drifted to her from the house, Momma’s voice spilling out into the still night as Kylie raced toward the simple wooden fence that ringed the yard. Her run was accompanied by the clucking of chickens from the henhouse and she imagined that they were joining in with her mother.

Across the low hill she dashed, through the surrounding fruit trees and bushes laden with berries, until she came to the orchard’s edge and slid to a sudden halt.

But she didn’t cast her eyes at the nearby town spread out down below. Instead, her gaze alighted on the heavens above.

At the stars.

Kylie soaked in the view; it was like a canopy of twinkling lights up above. She went up on tip toe, resting her chin on a fence post and waited, trying not to yawn or think about how close to bedtime it really was.

“You’ll never go to sleep if you don’t see them, will you?”

Kylie jumped at the sound of her father’s voice, turning to give him a sheepish smile. “Poppa, I….” She didn’t know what to say. Lying was out of the question—he always saw right through her.

He grinned good-naturedly, even as his eyes crinkled with tiredness at the end of a long day of preaching to the masses. Peter picked Kylie up, swinging her onto his hip. “Any second now. There’s supposed to be at least one every ten minutes tonight.” He pointed up at the stars, and she turned to look where he directed.

There it was: a streak of light across the sky. Kylie gasped open-mouthed at sight and then glanced at Poppa. “A shooting star!”

He laughed. “Beautiful isn’t it? You know, space once was called ‘the heavens’, and I can see why. So, beautiful. Humans have gone far, conquered so much, and yet it’s never enough. We’re still curious, still traveling. The human spirit is a wonderful thing, Kylie. Maybe even more wonderful than the stars themselves.”

Something more wonderful than being amongst those twinkling lights? Kylie didn’t think so. In her short life, she had only been on a few trips into space, and they were her most cherished memories. “When will we go out to the stars again, Poppa? When!?”

“Soon.” He placed her down on the ground and tickled her chin, grinning as she scrunched up her neck and laughed. “You’re meant to travel out there, I know it. You’ll do great things, but first…dessert and a bed time story, I think. Yes?”

Kylie nodded, her head bopping up and down. “Yes, yes! The Princess and the Peach again!”

Poppa tapped her head. “Not It,” he called loudly, pivoting and racing toward the house. Kylie squealed, charging after him, never having had more fun.

She hadn’t known then the horror her future held. How all the good times would be drowned in sorrow. Kylie hadn’t known she’d be the one to kill him.

* * * * *

Kylie’s pilot’s voice interrupted her reverie and pulled her inexorably back to the present—no matter how much she wanted to stay in the past, pretending things hadn’t changed. The smell of the family’s grove, of her old room, and the memories of curling up on her father’s lap in front of a warm fire faded away, replaced by the dimly lit—and generally less appealing—bridge of the Barbaric Queen.

“Dropping out of FTL, captain,” Rogers announced.

Kylie eased herself out of the command chair, and crossed her arms, staring into the black. She had never given the Hanoi System much thought before—that was until she’d learned that her father had destroyed the world of Hubei.

Hell, Kylie had only even heard of the Hanoi System once or twice in passing, usually in reference to their beer. It was impossible to keep track of the mess of systems crowding along the rimward fringe of the Scipio Empire.

In all honesty, the reason she’d barely been aware of it was because Hubei hadn’t been important. Now, it was all she could think of.

The Hanoi System lacked a single government; it was, at best, a loose coalition of planets and habitats that had established mutually beneficial trade and a shared desire to not annihilate one another.

Kylie suspected that was what had made it easy prey for her father. He’d only had to cow some of the disparate worlds and habs in order to force them all to go along with his doctrine.

Until Hubei hadn’t played ball.

Ricket, sitting at the Scan and Comm station, pulled up the system’s current layout, throwing it onto the main holo screen.

The woman was possessed of a perfectly engineered beauty. Almond-shaped blue eyes and long, sweeping brown hair, she wore tight black pants and an empire-waist purple blouse. Refined and elegant in every way, it was a little bit like having Nadine on the bridge.

Spy operative or damsel in distress, Nadine’s true identity continued to war with the love Kylie once held for her. Perhaps still held for her.

Kylie and Ricket had met when aboard David Rhoads’ flagship, the Ark of Justice. An agent of the Hand, Ricket was resourceful, smart, and could think outside the box. Skills Kylie was going to need once she discovered Paul’s whereabouts. If her AI-fearing brother wouldn’t stand down, she’d need someone who could think on their feet to help Kylie deal with him.

She also wondered if Tanis and Sera had sent Ricket along to keep an eye on things. The woman was a spy after all.

“Got the two terrestrial worlds,” Ricket said, gesturing at the holo. “Hubei is the outer, Battia is the inner. A half-dozen gas giants, none of any significant size. Mess of habs around them sucking up rocks and gas for whatever products they produce.”

“Not a bad system, without…you know,” Rogers said from the pilot’s seat. “Low population, too. Always surprised me that they hadn’t been picked over by pirates. From what I hear, a lot of the habs pay protection money to Battia and they maintain a small fleet to keep the place safe.”

Kylie nodded as she looked over the system, her eyes constantly darting back to the dot labelled Hubei. She couldn’t help but notice that Ricket had described them as ‘terrestrial’, not ‘terraformed’.

“I hope the Barbaric Queen never raided this system,” Ricket muttered. “Kingfisher didn’t exactly keep detailed logs on where he went.”

Rogers laughed and shook his head. “And by that, I assume you mean that he wiped them regularly.”

“All the better to pay fewer dues to Maverick and the GFF,” Kylie replied, only half paying attention to her crew’s banter.

Rogers thrust a fist in the air, barely visible over the high-backed seat. “Anything that shafts Maverick is something I endorse.”

“I wonder how things are going for him,” Kylie mused. “Being the President of Gedri and all…”

Rogers peered around his seat and shook his head at Kylie. “Still can’t believe you nominated him for that.”

You backed him for it?” Ricket turned in her chair, regarding Kylie with a disbelieving stare. “Why in the stars…?”

“Trust me,” Kylie said, “he was better than the alternative.”

“And that,” Rogers barked a laugh, “says everything you need to know about Gedri.”

No one spoke for a few minutes as Ricket pulled updated information on advertised travel lanes and passed them to Rogers over the Link.

“No Revolution Fleet ships on scan,” Ricket, announced turning in her seat to look at Kylie. “Looks like a courier ship passed through a few days ago and spread the news of your father’s defeat at Silstrand.”

<From the message they dropped on the relays, it looks like you’re painted in a good light, Kylie,> Marge added.

Kylie sighed, half with relief, half with sadness. “Well, at least I won’t have to be the one to explain all that. What about Hubei?”

Ricket turned back to her console. “I’ve got almost no signal coming from Hubei. Looks like even the stations in orbit are abandoned…or at least without power.”

After a few minutes, Kylie rose and walked to the bridge’s exit. “Set a course for a close pass of Hubei, Rogers.”

Rogers looked back at her. “You sure? Ricket said no one’s there anymore. We probably won’t—”

Kylie didn’t turn to face her pilot, but she did let out a long sigh. “Rogers. Please.”

“Aye, aye, captain.”




HUBEI

STELLAR DATE: 11.01.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen

REGION: Approaching Hubei, Hanoi System (independent)

It took three days to reach Hubei from the jump point. Three days during which Kylie interacted with her crew as little as possible, finding distant corners of the massive ship to disappear into.

She had thought being in the Hanoi system would be easier. After all, she had taken out the man who had caused so much harm here. Yet, somehow it all ended up just being worse.

Now, they were on approach for their pass around Hubei, the planet her father had destroyed…something she still couldn’t reconcile with the man who had raised her.

Kylie set her jaw as she walked toward the bridge, resisting the urge to fidget with her long sleeves. She was dressed casually in a pair of blue pants and a white, off-the-shoulder sweater. Her brown hair had grown out past her shoulders and she still sported the soft purple streak down one side.

She didn’t know why she’d dressed up, nor why she’d taken the time to make sure her hair was perfect. It just seemed like the right thing to do. As though she was attending a funeral.

When she stepped onto the ship’s large bridge—which always felt more than a little empty with just Rogers and Ricket at their stations—she didn’t speak.

Ricket glanced back as Kylie sat in the captain’s chair, then gave a short nod before turning back to her console.

Once in the acceleration-dampening chair, Kylie no longer felt the low thrum of the fusion engines that had been present for the past two days.

The Barbaric Queen had come into the Hanoi system at over half the speed of light, using a jump point as close to the inner system as they could manage.

Normally, a high delta-v would require them to brake around the system’s star—or at least one of the larger gas giants. But scan showed almost no activity around Hubei and Rogers had instead spun the ship and pointed the torches at the planet, braking at several g’s over the three days.

Not that they felt it. Given the ship’s former life as a cruise liner, it had amazing dampening systems.

And it wasn’t as though anyone on Hubei was around to care about the wave of radiation and plasma the ship’s engines were directing toward the world.

Even so, Rogers was pushing the wash a few degrees off the planet—just in case there were any survivors anywhere.

“Do we have optical?” Kylie asked after a few minutes.

“We do,” Ricket replied with a slow nod. “It’s not pretty.”

Kylie already knew that. She was expecting the worst. “Put it up.”

Hubei appeared on the forward holo. What had once been a vibrant planet with millions of inhabitants was now nothing more than a molten orb, its atmosphere a dense mix of toxic gasses and ash.

Breaks in the dark clouds showed newly formed sections of crust floating on oceans of magma. Kylie felt a lump form in her throat as she thought about the people who had once lived on the world.

The people who had died on that world.

Their deaths were at the hands of her father, Peter Rhoads. The twisted war-hungry patriarch of her family. Not the father she remembered from her childhood, but a blood-thirsty man in his pursuit of a pure human race, free of AI influence and partnership.

Sure, he had always been hard to please, and when she’d broken with the family over their strict beliefs there had been friction, but his message had never been about harming others.

She’d carry his sins on her shoulders until she found a way to make it right. Until she found her brother, Paul, and talked him down from carrying out Dad’s mission—at least that’s how she’d hope it’d go. Kylie didn’t want to put another family member down like a rabid beast.

Kylie drew her thumb across her cheek, wiping away a stray tear. “Anything on scan, Ricket?”

Ricket shifted in her seat. “Captain,” Ricket’s voice was strained, “is that information you really need?”

“I’d like to hear it, please. I need to know if there’s anyone out there.” Kylie crossed her arms a little tighter, refusing to look at Rogers as he twisted in his seat to gaze at her. She knew what he’d say.

“All right.” Ricket cleared her throat. “There’s no chance anyone is down on the planet. Surface temperature of Hubei is roughly eleven hundred degrees. Several pieces of the remaining crust appear to be former continents, but with the thick ash clouds, it’s hard to be sure. Several of the planet’s orbital stations are still present, but all are heavily damaged from the debris that was launched into space when the asteroid hit.” She paused to take a breath. Her brown eyes focused back at Kylie, filled with sorrow. “Other than a few scavengers risking all the shit out there—it’s like an orbital minefield—to pick the stations clean, there’s no sign of life. Nothing lives here anymore, Kylie.”

<Your father saw to that. Is that what you want to hear?> Marge, Kylie’s internal AI asked in a kind, but stern voice.

Kylie could imagine the scowl Marge’s avatar would wear if she were to show it. <Yes, that’s what I want to hear. Millions and millions of people suffered and died. He caused that. My family caused that. We need to see. We need to feel,> Kylie said.

<There’s no need for you to torture yourself,> Marge replied kindly. <We all know what he did and we all know you’re nothing like him. He was controlled by something evil. Even if we can’t give it a name yet, we know that, don’t we? He wasn’t the man you once knew.>

Maybe Marge did, but Kylie was questioning everything, even the very blood that flowed through her veins.  Instead of answering her AI, Kylie sent out a ship-wide message to her crew.

She drew a steadying breath before speaking. <This is what we’re fighting against. Those who would deny the right to live. The right to thrive. A planet full of people wiped out because they disagreed with my father. We have to find Paul Rhoads and call in the cavalry to stop him before this happens again.>

Bubbs—the one crewmember from the Barbaric Queen’s original complement—sent a message via mental avatar. It was of the woman thrusting her cybernetic gun-arm in the air and giving a wink with her one organic eye.

A woman of a few words, mostly action. Kylie liked that. She was going to need that—and Bubbs’ gun-arm.

<You tell us where to go and what to do, Cap,> Winter replied. He had been with Kylie for years—second longest since Rogers. And while Kylie had occasionally threatened to space him—even come close a few times—in the end he’d proved loyal. <Find these bastards and we’ll put them down.>

Kylie hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Their father had lost his mind and been enslaved by some sort of madness. Kylie just hoped it didn’t extend to her brother. She hoped her brother David was wrong and that Paul could be reasoned with.

Kylie rose from her seat and walked forward to stand behind Rogers. “That’s where you come in.” She slapped her hand against his shoulders and he tilted his head back to steal a glance.

A slow smile spread over his face, though that wasn’t what held Kylie’s attention. Thanks to the hardwired connection he had with the ship, Rogers was changing.

Most apparent were his eyes which shone with a soft blue light. Kylie hadn’t yet adjusted to seeing him that way. She was starting to doubt that she ever would.

Rogers winked before looking back at the main holo and switching it to a view of the entire system. “It helps that I get around. And when I get around…”

Ricket snorted and shook her head. “Do you know someone in this system or not? I have contacts I can leverage, but they’re down on Battia…which isn’t a very friendly place these days.”

<Do you really need an answer, given how he phrased his statement?> Laura, Ricket’s AI, asked over the general shipnet <At least…the sort of answer Rogers is likely to give?>

Rogers grinned. “Ladies, ladies! You know better than to doubt me. I have—”

“A connection in every port.” Ricket smirked, attempting to appear disinterested—a little too hard by Kylie’s measure.

Laura only replied with a chuckle over the Link.

Ricket and Rogers’ constant banter—and often bickering—had provided Kylie with an excellent source of distraction during the two weeks since they’d left Silstrand—especially when Laura got involved.

Laura was still an enigma to Kylie. The AI was different from most Kylie knew, which made sense since she was from the Transcend, not the Inner Stars—a place Kylie hadn’t even known about until a few weeks ago.

From what Kylie had gathered, the AI was used to working alone and typically kept to herself, but Kylie had been working on getting her to participate more. It was especially nice to see that participation come at Rogers’ expense. It reminded her that everyone on board the Barbaric Queen was family.

“So you keep telling me every chance you get,” Ricket said in response to Rogers’ statement regarding ports and girls.

“It’s how we keep such a well-stocked supply of bacon,” Kylie admitted. “Well, once we run out of the motherload that Tanis—I mean Field Marshal Richards—gifted us.”

Rogers moaned and gripped his belly. “You really know how to talk to a guy, Cap. For a warship, the I2 was stocked like it was going on a pleasure cruise.”

“Money can’t buy friends like that,” Kylie replied with a smile.

Bubbs snorted across the shipnet. <I doubt that ice queen is anyone’s friend.>

“Are you talking about Captain Espensen, or Field Marshal Richards?” Rogers asked.

<Why not both?> Bubbs shot back.

<She let you live, didn’t she?> Winter asked.

Rogers leant forward and made some adjustments on his console. He was all business when he spoke. “Since no one wants to drop down onto Battia to meet Ricket’s contacts, I’ll set a course for the Chimin asteroids.”

“Anything we should know before we get there?” Kylie asked.

“It’s a group of larger co-orbital asteroids in the inner system’s main belt. We’ll head to Chimin-1, the operations and management center for the Chimin Group asteroid mines. That rock is mostly mined out—though last time I was through they were still ferreting out some ores. Anyway, Chimin City is built inside it. Population is somewhere under a hundred thousand, varies a lot since most of the workers are usually out on rotation mining other rocks in the area. They also use a number of huge caverns for an extensive farming operation underground. Oats, barley, even corn.”

“Corn in low-g. That’s usually a nightmare.” Kylie rested her hand on the back of Rogers’ chair.

“Asteroid miners are nuts. Takes massive boobs and balls to mine the rock you’re living on,” Ricket mumbled to herself.

“Hazzard pay is good.” Rogers adjusted his speed and broke orbit, heading toward the Chimin asteroids. “We’ll make good time. Two days tops.”

Two more days. Well, I’ve definitely waited around longer. Still, Kylie felt like she was going to jump right out of her skin. “Great,” she mumbled aloud. “Two more days twiddling our thumbs.”

Rogers shrugged. “Is what it is, captain. I can only make the ship go so fast, even with these bad boys.” Rogers stretched his gloved fingers through the air.  They looked like standard poly gloves, but with small filaments in them that paired with Rogers’ own nerves, allowing him to control the ship in ways no one else could.

Once again, Kylie found herself distracted by his glowing eyes. If it got too bad, she’d told him, she would find a way to fix the ship to allow for regular helm control. Or fix him so he wasn’t somehow connected to it.

“Anyone on Chimin-1 you think will give us a problem?” Kylie asked.

Rogers shrugged. “Governor Winch runs a tight ship; stern, but fair. If we run into him, best we be on good behavior. I’ll see if I can get my contact to meet us on the docks. We’ll get the intel we’re after and be off that rock like it’s a hot potato.”

Kylie couldn’t argue with that.

<Your metaphor makes no sense,> Marge said. <If it was a hot potato we’d never land in the first place.>

“Marge,” Rogers drawled, “we land on hot potatoes all the time. It’s our jam.”

Ricket threw her arm over the back of her chair as she turned toward Rogers. “Your friend on Chimin-1. Nice guy?” Ricket asked with a cocked eyebrow.

“Arms dealer.”

Ricket groaned and Rogers rushed on to explain.

“She’s a nice arms dealer.”

“She?” Ricket’s cocked eyebrow rose a little higher. “Why aren’t I surprised?”

“Why aren’t you surprised that space is filled with women? Maybe because you’re smart, Ricket,” Rogers said.

Ricket’s eyebrows lowered and her lips formed a small smirk. “I bet she’s pretty.”

Rogers laughed and clapped his hands together. “Ricket, they’re all pretty.”

Kylie slapped Rogers on the shoulder. “It’s OK, Ricket. Rogers here has never steered me wrong. Well, except for that one time—no, make it two.”

“Those times don’t count, Cap.”

Kylie grinned. “You don’t even know which times I’m referring to.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rogers shot back. “I’m sure they don’t count.”

Marge chuckled and spoke privately to Kylie. <It’s nice to see you smile again.>

<Thanks for noticing.>

<You do it more when you hang with the crew. You need to stop moping around in the bowels of the ship so much, Kylie. Unless it’s like this…> Marge sent across an image of a mop dancing across a room.

Kylie did her best to keep her chuckle under wraps. <A mop and moping are not the same thing.>

<Coulda fooled me, you’re so slouched over your hair does a good impression of one.>

<Stop! I don’t slouch.>

<Slouchy mopy, Kylie. Look, I rhyme!>

Kylie almost smiled at Marge’s poor attempt at poetic humor but managed to hold it in check.

Ricket turned in her seat to face Kylie, her large eyes earnest and serious. “You’re sure about this? The people in this system are on edge. We’ve been pinged half a dozen times since we came in. If we weren’t in such a big ship, someone would have probably told us to leave.”

“Well, we won’t find anything about where my brother’s ships went from out here. Rogers has a contact on Chimin-1. We use the contact. Risks or not, we’re going in. But right now—since Rogers brought it up—all I can think about is bacon.”

“This is why we’re friends,” Rogers said, pointing his finger at her and giving a wink and a nod.






DINNER AND A FIGHT

STELLAR DATE: 11.01.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: The Barbaric Queen, approaching Hubei

REGION: Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie had to admit that gathering around a table with food and beer, surrounded by a good crew, was one of the best things about plying the black.

The main galley and dining hall were the most popular rooms on the ship and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. Even though the Barbaric Queen had been a pirate captain’s flagship for years, it was still, at its heart, a luxury liner with a kitchen built to serve thousands.

And the crew enjoyed everything about it.

The stoves and ovens were state of the art, not to mention the ArcticFrost brand chillers that could make a beer icy cold in less than two seconds. And the counter space. They could prepare every meal for a month in a new spot and never reuse the same surfaces.

Even as Kylie stood in the galley, she couldn’t believe it was really hers. She was captain of the Barbaric Queen and that was something you just didn’t get to say every day.

And she could only say it because Nadine, her former lover, had secured the ship. Nadine had ripped it away from Kingfisher—who had been hunting Kylie and the Dauntless for months—just so she could find Kylie and save her.

This prize was hers only because Nadine had given it to her, and the Silstrand Alliance hadn’t put up a fight only because Grayson had forced them to honor their promise to grant her a letter of marque. It wasn’t something Kylie would forget any time soon.

The bitterness of Nadine’s betrayal, however, would always be with her.

And Grayson? Best not to think about him too much either.

One of the sinks was filled with dirty pots and pans, the beef fat seared onto them leaving a rustic meaty aroma behind. She wondered whose turn it was to do dishes, and why they didn’t have bots to handle that. Maybe Bubbs knew where they were.

Kylie grabbed the freshly brewed pot of coffee and poured some into the ‘Kiss the Captain’ mug left behind by the previous owner. It was almost identical to the one that Nadine had bought her once—probably still on the Dauntless deep in Jericho’s rift valley.

The thought that Kingfisher and Nadine may have once frequented the same gift shop amused Kylie, even though she knew there were probably a thousand places that sold this mug.

She swirled the coffee in her cup; the brew was thick as sludge, dark as a black hole—in other words, just the way she liked it.

Kylie cringed as she sipped it. Now that would put hairs on a woman’s chest. With her track record in romance, maybe that was exactly what she needed.

She headed into the dining hall. It was a vast space with dozens of tables spread out in long rows, but the crew always sat together at one near the center. The other four inhabitants of the ship laughed jovially, their voices carrying across the room as they reached over one another, heaping food onto their plates.

Mashed potatoes, meatloaf, crispy peppered bacon, and buttered peas. A feast of organically grown delights normally reserved for only the wealthiest, all courtesy of Tanis, and the I2’s larders.

Kylie settled into her chair, grabbed her plate and threw down a scoop of mashed potatoes before reaching for a slice of meatloaf with her fingers.

“You’re all class, captain,” Bubbs said as she scooped up mashed potatoes using the nub of her arm, where an elbow should be, and dropped it onto her plate. Kylie had no idea Bubbs could eat so many potatoes in one sitting. Maybe she had a second stomach.

“Just glad to see that you know better than to bring your gun arm to dinner.” Kylie licked her fingers and sat down beside Rogers. He slid over a bit to make a spot for her, giving her his boyish smile.

Bubbs lips drew up in what had to be her own attempt at a smile. “Best to keep weapons away. Wouldn’t want to kill whoever’s hogging the gravy boat.” She turned her eyes over to Rogers, giving him a pregnant stare.

He paused mid-bite, his eyes widening. “You,” he cleared his throat, “you never made your intentions clear about the gravy boat.”

She leaned forward and whispered, “Everyone loves gravy. Everyone.”

Kylie laughed as Rogers squeaked in response. Even Marge gave a hearty, yet polite chuckle. Though Kylie could tell from the distracted vibe her AI gave off, she was busy reading one of her books again.

“How’s the ship treating you?” Kylie asked.

Rogers shrugged. “Right as rain, Cap. No problems so far. I’ll tell you if that changes.”

<So he keeps saying,> Marge said.

<Any changes you’ve detected?> Kylie asked.

<None so far, but I’ll keep monitoring him.>

“Just want to make sure we’re on the same page. I won’t lose anyone else.”

“I appreciate that.” Rogers chomped on a roll. “Anyone know what’s in the butter surprise?”

“Tofu mixed with olive oil.” Ricket laughed, slamming her hand down on the table. Simultaneously, Rogers and Winter groaned and spat out their rolls into white napkins.

<It was my idea,> Laura said proudly.

<Good one!> Marge said with a heavy dose of encouragement.

“Ricket!” Winter leaned forward and pointed his fork at her. “You can’t be feeding us tofu. You’ll get our macho cards revoked at the door.”

“Door prize for Winter.” Ricket threw her arm around his shoulder and pulled him down closer to her. “Silky tofu and a tutu skirt. I’d love to see you wearing it on your head.”

“Baah!” Winter turned several shades redder than he already was. Which looked a little gross on an albino. Kylie doubted anyone would get away with that other than Ricket. She had a way of disarming people with her nonsensical, yet compellingly funny banter.

Bubbs tossed a pea into her mouth, her lips twisting into a grimace-like snarl that Kylie had learned was the woman’s smile. “I’d like to take a picture of that and cast it all over the Nets. You know? Tough boy, Winter. Except when he’s wearing a tutu,” Bubbs said.

Winter scowled back at her. “Bubbs, some days you make me want to put you into a choke hold—for a good three or four minutes, at least.”

Bubbs raised her eyebrows. “I’d like to see you try. Might be good to take a few wagers then. Anyone else as bored as me?”

Rogers and Ricket cheered. Kylie nodded as she sat back and poured some of the slow-moving coffee down her throat. She watched as Ricket established a betting pool on the shipnet, credits and bets appearing on the ledger.

Winter shook his head adamantly. “I’m not putting her in a choke hold. Bubbs, I’m not doing this.” Desperate now, Winter turned to Kylie. “Help me out, captain.”

“You dug your own hole, Winter, gotta dig yourself out.” Kylie sat back and crossed her arms, determined to enjoy the show.

Bubbs rose from her seat and Kylie once again marveled at the woman’s height. She brushed her short brown hair out of her face and took a step back.

Always prepared for battle, Bubbs wore a thin carbon-poly skinsuit that was both kinetic and EM resistant. It wasn’t as good as the ISF’s flow armor, but she said it suited her better. The armor’s black sheen highlighted her bulging muscles as she reached down and grabbed Winter by his shirt.

Kylie raised her hand, covering a grin at the look of desperation on Winter’s face as he was pulled out of his seat and half-dragged into an open space a few tables away.

Bubbs dropped into a crouch, knees bent, right hand raised, ready to strike. Winter stood a few paces away and made a slashing motion through the air with his hand. “I’m not doing this, I already said—”

“Man up, already,” Bubbs said.

Ricket and Rogers stood up for a better view, and Rogers called out, “Whoop whoop!”

<The crew is coming together,> Marge said. <Bets and violence aside.>

Or maybe it was because of the bets and the violence. <Couldn’t have come at a better time, too.>

Kylie reached forward and grabbed the rest of Winter’s roll, sitting back to watch the fight as it unfolded. Bubbs had lunged forward and now held Winter in a choke hold while repeatedly pounding her fist into his stomach.

Winter, for his part, was desperately trying to get away, but seemed to be attempting to do it without hitting Bubbs.

<Did you tell Winter to let Bubbs win?>

<Nah,> Kylie said. <I think he figured that all out on his own. I think he’s tired of bruises and aching muscles.>

<Smart man.>

Kylie wasn’t sure if smarts had anything to do with it, or if it was just unbridled fear. Winter was a huge man, used to winning, but Bubbs was just as large, and far more ferocious.

In the end, Bubbs claimed victory, and credits were transferred to the winners. Ricket squealed as she slapped Bubbs on the back and Kylie saw that it was Rogers who looked disappointed.

She checked the ledger and saw that he’d lost big. Kylie placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let that be a lesson to you. Never bet on Winter.”

“Sorry, man. I’ll try harder next time.” Winter shrugged as he took his seat. He gave Kylie a surreptitious wink, then frowned at his plate. “What happened to my roll?”

“Your tofu roll?” Rogers asked.

“I’m pretty sure Ricket was kidding about the tofu.”

“I’m going to go get some more coffee.” Kylie rose from her seat and was surprised to see Winter follow her to the kitchen. “You trying to avoid Bubbs, or you want some extra strong fuel?” she asked.

“Both,” Winter admitted, rubbing his hands together as they walked into the cavernous room. “Just checking in.” He flipped a mug end over end in his hand. “You doing all right? I mean, really all right, not the standard ‘I’m fine’ BS you’re always giving everyone else.”

Kylie shrugged and stared into the blackness filling her mug. “What’s there to say?”

“A shit-ton.” Winter leaned back on the counter and studied her. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, you just want to be here in the black, solving problems.”

“And you think that’s a bad idea?”

“Nah, it’s a great idea, but you can’t avoid what you’re feeling forever. It’ll come out somehow, make you batshit crazy if you let it—I know, I’ve been around you a long time. But I’m here for you, Cap. We all are. So, if you need to go a little nuts, come find me, OK?”

“Thanks, Winter.” Kylie nodded. “I think I’ll do that.”

“I know what you’re going through. Maybe not on the same scale, but I’ve seen a lot of crap, been betrayed by the best…and the worst. Betrayed them too. Did what I could to look out for number one. All of it led me here, which I’m glad about, don’t get me wrong.”

Winter didn’t often talk about his past. Even after their years together, Kylie had no knowledge of his family or even where he came from. She’d always respected his privacy, not wanting anyone to pry into her past either. “I’m glad, too. Place wouldn’t be the same without you.”

He snorted and waved his hand. “You’d just threaten to space someone else instead. Figure it’s safer to keep me around.” He grabbed a handful of leftover cheese from the counter and walked back into the dining hall.

Kylie followed more slowly, a little mystified as she watched him. Maybe her head was in a bad place if Winter was playing shrink to her.

Kylie watched the crew as she sipped her coffee. Bubbs picked up her dish with half a serving of mashed potatoes still left on it and headed out of the dining hall. Curious, Kylie followed her out into the corridor. “Hey, you going somewhere with those potatoes?”

“Is potato-thieving a crime now?”

Kylie caught up to her. “No, it’s not. Not really.”

Bubbs paused and then turned back around. “I just want to finish in my quarters, if it’s all the same.”

Kylie crossed her arms. “It’s really not all the same to me. Mission is about to start, and I’d like us all to eat together. It builds relations. Keeps us tight.”

Bubbs’ jaw stiffened and her eye shifted as if she was considering making a break for it. “I appreciate the chance you’re giving me. I appreciate that Winter’s opinion carries weight with you, but I need to be in my quarters. It’s important.”

“Why?” Kylie asked and stepped up just a bit closer. “Tell me why. If you give me the truth, I might understand, but right now you’re just spewing nonsense.”

Bubbs mumbled something under her breath while staring down at her plate of leftover food. Kylie couldn’t quite make out what it was she had said.

“Can you repeat that?”

<She said cat,> Marge filled in. <She’s feeding her cat the leftovers.>

Kylie’s eyes widened, and she gave a soft laugh. “You have a cat?”

Bubbs flinched at the accusation. “He’s big and mean, I promise you that! He helps…with the mice population.”

“I’m sure he’s a very good mouser. What’s his name?” Kylie asked.

Bubbs rolled her one good eye. “Chuck. Can I go now please, Captain? He’s waiting for his mashed potatoes.”

<Interesting, choice of words,> Marge said. <Chuck must be uplifted, boosted intelligence so he can communicate and behave well enough that we’ve never noticed him.>

Kylie nodded after a small consideration. “Tell Chuck I said hi. I look forward to meeting him some day, Bubbs.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bubbs muttered. She turned around and walked quickly, but stiffly, down the corridor, as if she was worried that Kylie might change her mind.

Kylie grinned to herself. <I have a hard time believing you didn’t know she had a cat on board.>

Marge proclaimed her innocence by sending across an angelic smile complete with a halo. <Well, she’s right. A ship this size should have a few cats to keep the rodent population under control. Maybe someday she’ll let us pet it.>

Kylie groaned. <This has something to do with the cat in the Fennington Station mysteries you read, doesn’t it? Which one are you re-reading now?>

<Woman Sconed.> Marge giggled. <Doesn’t that take the cake?>

Cake didn’t even begin to describe it.




ORDERS

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin-1

REGION: Hanoi System (independent)

He groaned as Liberty’s request came into his mind. There was enough going on without having to talk to her. The woman was insufferable at the best of times.

<What do you want, Liberty?>

<You don’t sound happy to hear from me,> she replied in her dulcet voice, something she was able to project perfectly over the Link.

<You’re very perceptive. I have a lot going on, we’re working on cleanup in—>

<Nevermind that,> Liberty interrupted. <Did you see who is docking?>

He pulled up the lists of incoming vessels—of which there were few—and saw a ship named the Barbaric Queen that had made a request to send a shuttle in.

<That ship’s name rings a bell, but it’s not on our local databanks.>

<It rings a bell because it was in the message from the courier that passed through. That’s Kylie Rhoads’ ship.>

He sucked in a long breath. <That complicates things.>

<You know your orders. We’re to put her down,> Liberty replied, her tone sounding even more callous than normal.

<That’s not what my orders are,> he replied, wishing he wasn’t stuck serving two masters. <I just want to send her on her way. Paul said—>

<Paul doesn’t run the show here,> Liberty cut in. <And I’m getting tired of cleaning up your messes. You’ll do as you’re told.>

<What messes?> he asked.

<In the apartments. People were talking.>

He bristled at the accusation. <I had that contained.>

<I’ve sent my friend to contain it further.>

The man rubbed his palms into his eyes and across his forehead. <That’s going to complicate things. People are going to notice….>

<It doesn’t matter. In three days, this place will be a tomb. You just have to keep a lid on things for a little bit longer.>

<What do you want me to do about Kylie?> he asked.

<Nothing,> Liberty said with a grim laugh. <I’ll take care of her myself.>




CHIMIN-1

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen

REGION: Chimin Asteroid Group, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie waited in the Barbaric Queen’s forward docking bay for Rogers and Ricket to join her. They were taking longer than she’d expected—especially since the auto-armoring system the ISF engineers had installed only took a minute to apply any type of armor a person desired.

After debating available options, Kylie had settled on the ISF’s Mark X FlowArmor. It had taken moments to put on, and she had complemented it with a pair of tall black boots that held extra power supplies with room for a backup pistol and two knives.

Despite the fact that her body was covered neck to toe, it felt as though she was naked—though the armor covered her nethers—and took a bit to get used to. Still, it was a thousand times more comfortable than the Trylodyne IA99 stealth armor she’d stolen from the Mark’s stash back on Jericho.

The flow armor’s default appearance was a dark matte grey, but in that configuration, it looked like she was ready for a military op—which made sense, since it was military armor. After twiddling with the settings, she’d settled on an iridescent blue that made her look more like a wealthy ship owner, and less like a pirate.

She’d added a belt holding two sidearms and was inspecting them for the third time when Ricket entered the bay; also wearing flow armor, hers a gleaming emerald in hue.

“Took you long enough,” Kylie said. “Where’s Rogers?”

Ricket snickered and looked over her shoulder. “He’s not used to wearing something so…revealing.”

“Revealing?” Rogers poked his head around the corner.  “There’s a word for this, and that word is a few levels beyond revealing!”

“Rogers!” Kylie kept her voice just below a shout. “We don’t have all day.”

He grimaced but nodded. And a moment later, a slouching Rogers walked into view, his hands held over his groin as he entered the bay. Like Ricket, he was also wearing the flow armor, but his was a bright red.

“How come you get blue, and she has green, but I have to wear this color?” he asked. “And how do you pee in this?”

Kylie frowned. “Well, it’s flow armor, it just flows away from wherever you want it to—but don’t think about it!”

She was glad Rogers had his hands down low, or they would have had an interesting show.

Rogers’ face turned the same color as his flow armor. “Dammit, Kylie! I’m going to go get some clothes to put overtop of this. I look like a fire extinguisher.”

“Well, just change the color,” Kylie said with a shrug. “I think we should all go blue. Looks like a uniform then.”

“Go blu—” Rogers stopped and stared at Ricket. “It can change color?”

Ricket began to giggle, a look of pure mirth in her eyes as her flow armor shifted from green to the same shade of blue as Kylie’s

“Dammit!” Rogers said. “Why can’t I do that?”

“I uh…may have hacked the interface for your armor,” Ricket said, continuing to laugh. Her eyebrows pinched together and then she gave a small nod. “There, now you should see the configuration options on your HUD.”

Rogers groaned as his armor changed to blue and reduced the definition between his legs.

“OK, we good now?” Kylie asked trying not to grin at Rogers’ discomfort. “Team BQ, ready to kick some butt.”

“Well,” Ricket said as she walked the rest of the way to the shuttle. “Ask questions first, kick butt only if necessary.”

“Right.” Kylie nodded. “Subtlety is my middle name.”

“Tell us another one, Captain.” Rogers snorted as he approached, looking up at the shuttle Kylie stood in front of. “So we taking this old jalopy? What about the shiny new pinnaces the ISF gave us?”

Kylie glanced at the three ISF pinnaces resting on the cradles further down the bay. “Too upscale. I don’t want that sort of attention.”

“Smart play,” Ricket said as she palmed the control and the shuttle’s airlock door opened. “We can save those later for when we get to the butt-kicking.”

“We’re just here to talk to my contact,” Rogers said as they stepped over the threshold and into the airlock.

“Right,” Kylie said with a long-suffering sigh. “And when has it ever ended with a simple conversation.”

Rogers laughed as he made the flow armor on his hand change color to black, then back to blue. “Good point, Captain.”

A minute later they had settled into the shuttle’s cockpit and Rogers ran through a quick preflight check before lifting the craft off the cradle and out of the docking bay.

Behind them, the Barbaric Queen continued on in a long elliptical loop around Chimin-1 which would see it pass by the station again in an hour. Plenty of time—provided everything went according to plan.

<Because everything always goes according to plan so well,> Marge commented.

<Sorry, was I thinking aloud?> Kylie asked.

<Yes, quite loud. I’m reading, you know.>

Kylie groaned but didn’t engage further.

Ricket and Rogers had taken the only two seats in the cockpit, and Kylie stood behind them, watching the view outside the window. She leaned down over Rogers’ shoulder, a hand on the back of his chair as she gazed at the asteroid he was angling toward. “Any other details about the place we should know?” Kylie asked as they made their approach.

“Standard fare,” Rogers said. “Like I said before, miners, food-grow op, services that go along with it.”

“Small setup,” Ricket said as she flipped through scan readings. “Only has a few thousand workers who maintain the infrastructure and the city itself. It’s where all the miners and farmers live. Looks like most of the mining work is now on other asteroids and the miners head out on multi-day shifts.”

“How many of those people?” Kylie asked.

Ricket paused, reviewing the information. “A lot, actually. Tens of thousands across the asteroids, but some are pretty remote. Few thousand more for the farms. From what I can see there are a few more asteroids they use for habitations spread in the Chimin Group, but this is the largest one.”

<From what I see in the shipping logs, they brew a ton of beer right in the main asteroid,> Laura added. <Tens of thousands of liters shipped out weekly to the terraformed planets in the system—well, planet, I guess, now. Just Battia looking for extra brews since Hanoi was blown up. Insystem at least. Looks like they ship some out to Silstrand too.>

Laura dropped the words without any equivocation, and the tension level in the cockpit rose a notch. Kylie did her best to ignore it, and Rogers eased things as he always did.

“Maybe we can get on the distribution list,” Rogers said with a clap of his hands. “Always heard good things about Chimin brews.”

The words earned him a smack on the arm from Ricket.

“What?” He shook his head at the Hand agent. “It’s award-winning beer and we’re going to be this close to it.” He held up two fingers millimeters apart to emphasize his point.

“Doubt we’ll have time,” Kylie said and patted him on the shoulder. “Better luck next visit.”

His eyes ticked to the right as a transmission came in from the Chimin-1 STC, requesting ident and intent.

Rogers cleared his throat. “This is shuttle Princess requesting permission to dock. Personal, sir. Meeting an old friend who happens to be in the system, you know how it is. Standing by.”

Rogers sighed as he cut the transmission. “We really need to change this bird’s call sign.”

“We ride in on the Queen, so it only makes sense…” Ricket laughed at the sorrowful expression Rogers tossed her as he continued his slow and steady approach to Chimin-1, waiting for approval and a lane.

<I like being on the Princess,> Laura said happily. <It makes me feel like I’m wearing a tiara.>

<You’d look nice in one,> Marge said. <Should change up your avatar.>

Kylie suppressed her own smirk. “We didn’t have time to change the shuttle ident before we shipped out. It’ll go straight to our priority list.” Kylie took a seat against the shuttle’s wall.

<I could change its ident,> Ricket said privately to Kylie. <But if you ask me to do it, I’ll deny that it’s possible.>

Kylie held back a laugh, as she met Ricket’s eyes and shook her head. <I won’t ask. I like riding the Princess too.>

She leant back against the cabin’s bulkhead as they waited for Chimin-1’s STC to respond. She pulled out one of her pistols, checked its charge and sighting mechanism. Being prepared was the only thing to quiet her nerves and for some reason, Kylie was all nerves.

<It could just go smoothly,> Marge said.

<When has that ever happened to us?>

Princess,” the call came over the system and the operator’s voice carried a small laugh as he spoke. “You have permission to dock. Please proceed to Dock 2, Platform 3. Sending you your lane assignment.”

“Thank you, Tower Control,” Rogers said in his best pilot’s drawl—an obvious cover for his embarrassment over the shuttle’s name—before glancing back at Kylie. “They’re mighty polite. Maybe we should invite them to tea next time, Cap.”

Kylie couldn’t help a small smile. She stood up and holstered her weapon on her hip. “That sounds nice…so long as we don’t go down in a blaze of glory. Nothing I like better than a few biscuits and sugar cubes.”

“Or a finger sandwich with crispy cucumbers,” Rogers added.

Ricket gave them a look of reprisal. “Why does it always come down to food with you guys?”

“What?” Rogers frowned at Ricket. “What do you have against food? It’s food!”

* * * * *

Chimin-1 was an oblong asteroid that rotated slowly on its longest axis. Scan showed the asteroid to have a radius of five kilometers, and it completed nearly two rotations a minute. Kylie did the numbers and came up with an internal artificial gravity of roughly 0.8g, depending on distance from the center.

It was strange to see a habitat like this not relying on artificial gravity, but it was cheaper to maintain a spin than use a-grav—so long as the structure itself could withstand the stresses.

The entrance to Dock 2 was near the axis point on what Chimin-1 listed as its southern pole. Unfortunately, not right on the axis. So Rogers had to apply thrust from the grav engines the entire time they passed through, muttering softly as he fought to keep the shuttle in its lane.

Once inside the docking bay, he eased the ship toward Platform 3, continuing to match the rotation of the station until they settled into their assigned cradle.

“Shit,” Rogers muttered, wiping his brow. “Why they don’t just build platforms outside on the axis is beyond me. That’s freakin’ harrowing! Damn platform is moving at a hundred meters per second.”

As the cradle locked its clamps onto the Princess, Kylie pinged the Barbaric Queen for a status report.

<All clear out here, Cap,> Winter replied. <Can’t find any reason for you to be looking over your shoulder—other than the usual.>

<The usual?> Kylie asked.

<Well, you’re you, after all.>

Kylie grinned. <Keep an eye out. We’ll be in touch soon and I’m hoping it’ll be with some good news.>

Rogers and Ricket filed out of the cockpit as Kylie spoke to Winter, and she followed after. They cycled the airlock and walked down the ramp, taking a look at Platform 3 in all its glory. It bore the markings of decades of use but appeared to be well maintained.

A couple of dock workers walked by in dingy uniforms and scuffed up helmets, going about their jobs, casting only cursory glances at the three visitors.

Grease stains and carbon scoring covered the deck; after the crisp polish everywhere inside the I2, it felt like a breath of fresh—or not so fresh, as things would have it—air.

Now, as a de-facto operative of the Hand, Kylie held little certainty about the future, be that the coming months, or even years. In light of that, some amount of familiarity was nice.

Kylie spotted a security booth next to a pair of large steel doors across the platform, and she led the group toward it. Once there, she peered inside the window that wrapped around the booth. “Huh, empty. Where is everyone, Rogers?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, Cap.”

“Looks like lunch on local Chimin-1 time,” Ricket said. “Maybe the customs officer is getting a snack.”

“Pesky people, always eating. Where do they get off?” Rogers muttered, his eyes on Ricket.

She shot him a nasty look. “Har-har.”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be unwelcoming,” a woman’s voice said from behind them. “But I always like to see who I’m meeting with before I make myself known.”

Kylie turned and saw a woman walking out from behind a loading mech a few meters away. She wore a fitted one-piece white suit that shimmered as she strode toward them. It morphed between white and black as she moved, and she’d paired it with long dangling black earrings and matching boots. Her look was finished off with blond hair twisted atop her head into a dazzling geometric shape.

To say she stood out from everyone else around them would be the understatement of the century.

Kylie regained her composure as she spotted two large men following behind the woman, impressive in both their size and armament.

Rogers grinned as he stepped toward the woman. Kylie watched, tension rising in her as the hulking men drew near. Rogers’ contacts were rarely on the up and up.

“Liberty,” Rogers said, while looking her up and down. “It’s great to see you again. Love the outfit.”

“I thought you’d appreciate it.” She offered Rogers her hand. When he took it, she pulled him in for a warm hug. “What have you gone and done to your eyes, chap? You look, well, creepy.”



“It’ll fade with time. Let me introduce you to my friends.” Rogers gestured with his gloved hand toward Kylie and Ricket.

“Let me guess,” Liberty strolled toward them. She appeared poised, yet ready to pounce. “You’re Kylie Rhoads. It’s easy to see the family resemblance between you and Paul.”

Kylie held her breath tightly. “You saw him, then? Was he on Chimin-1 buying something?”

Liberty grinned and tossed her head back. “I’m only ever interested in doing business. Live and breathe it. So yes, if I saw Paul, you can bet it was because I sold him enough goods to make sticking my neck out worthwhile.”

Ricket settled her hands on her hips. “What did you sell him?”

“Only the good stuff for a Rhoads. Your father would’ve attested to that.” Liberty tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. The look was enough to send a chill racing up Kylie’s spine.

<That means she did business with your father too,> Marge observed.

<I don’t know if I should be happy or disgusted.>

<Funny that she’d say it like it’s a good thing,> Kylie said as she regarded the arms dealer. <From the broadcasts we heard, they know I was on the side that took out my father’s fleet.>

<Maybe Liberty didn’t get the memo,> Marge replied.

Kylie decided to cut the coy back-and-forth off before it carried on too long. She took a quick step toward Liberty, lifting her hand to point at the woman—only to stop as the two men lifted their weapons a few centimeters. They didn’t move otherwise, but Kylie got the message and lowered her hand a few centimeters. “Why don’t you just get on with it and say what you mean to?”

If Liberty supported the Rhoads’ family crusade, Kylie wanted to know—though her clothing suggested she was just an opportunist.

“Pretty sure I just did.” Liberty licked her lips and they sparkled silver and blue. She took a step toward Kylie, who held her ground.

With a languid breath, she breathed on Kylie and a foggy mist flowed into her nostrils. In an instant, Kylie felt herself begin to drift away, voices around her sounding faint and indistinct.

The mental disassociation intensified for a moment, but then began to clear away as Marge’s voice came to her.

<The mist is trying to paralyze you but your nano is already neutralizing it. Give it a few more seconds. More men moving into the overhead catwalk.>

The sounds of gunfire—not pulse blasts—came from all around and Kylie dropped to a crouch, covering her head, until she remembered that her new armor could take care of that.

With a brief moment of concentration, she felt it flow over her face, and she reached for her sidearms.

The haze over her vision disappeared, replaced by the crystal-clear feed from the armor’s sensors, Kylie looked up and saw seven shooters on the catwalk above. Liberty was nowhere to be seen, though one of her goons was down. A quick scan of the platform revealed that the other was behind the loader.

The enemy’s shots ricocheted off the teams’ armor, and Rogers crowed with delight. <I don’t care if this stuff makes me look like a sparkly peacock. I’m invincible!>

<Don’t get cocky, Peacock,> Ricket said as she took aim at the goon behind the loader, putting three rounds into his side, all of which bounced off armor beneath his coat. <A big enough boom will still put you down.>

Kylie fell back behind the security booth, then moved to a flanking position behind a stack of crates from some place in Scipio.

<Where did Liberty go?> Kylie asked as she put a round through the faceshield of a man on the catwalk, sending him toppling over the edge.

<She’s hiding behind her goon,> Ricket replied as she took out another of the shooters with a perfect shot under the chin.

Kylie remembered that she had placed two pulse grenades in her satchel. After deciding to blame her forgetfulness on the poison Liberty had tried to use, she grabbed them and lobbed one up onto the catwalk, and the other behind the loader.

The blasts went off at the same time, and the attackers were thrown clear off the catwalk. The goon behind the loader flew onto the platform and smashed into a crate while Liberty went the other way, crashing into the bulkhead next to the doors.

<Station security is on their way,> Marge advised.

<Lock the bay doors. Don’t let them in here until we’re done.>

Kylie approached Liberty, nodding with satisfaction as Ricket and Rogers took out the shooters who were still moving.

She fired a shot into the back of a man who was struggling to rise, feeling as though she was on autopilot, no emotions at all.

Liberty groaned as Kylie approached, pulling herself toward the doors. But there was nowhere for her to go. Kylie kicked Liberty in the shoulder, flipping her onto her back before placing a boot on the woman’s neck.

Liberty gagged, gasping for air, but Kylie found that she didn’t care.

“I meant you no harm. Why would you try to kill me?” Kylie yelled at the struggling woman.

Liberty wheezed and clawing at the boot pressing against her throat.

<She can’t talk without air,> Marge said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Kylie sighed and eased the pressure enough for the woman to draw a breath.

“Where’s Paul? Do you even know?” Kylie asked, scorn mixing with rage. “Who wants us dead? Did someone pay you?”

“Rhoads,” Liberty gasped. “Everyone wants Rhoads.”

Shit. Kylie knew that her name would be mud here, but not so much that their first contact would try to take them out. She’d been banking on no one wanting to mess with a Rhoads, but it seemed that the opposite was true.

<I’ve locked the door, but there’s a manual pneumatic override. Security will be through any moment, Kylie,> Marge said.

Kylie pulled her boot off Liberty’s throat and knelt beside the arms dealer. “Tell me where Paul is and who put you up to this? I can’t believe you’d decide to take me out on your own. Was it money? What?”

Liberty swallowed and nodded, working her mouth for a moment.

“Talk to me,” Kylie begged. “Tell me what I need to know, and we’ll find a way to get security to go easy on you.”

Instead of speaking, Liberty’s hand brushed against her lips, and Kylie saw a small white pill fall from her fingers.

“No!” Kylie screamed and tried to fish it from Liberty’s mouth, but it was too late. White foam pushed past the woman’s lips, spilling across her cheeks.

Kylie remembered what the ISF technicians had explained to her about her nano, and put her hand on Liberty’s cheeks, trying to send in a medical dose to save the woman.

<It’s too late,> Marge said as Liberty began to seize and convulse.

A hand grabbed her shoulder, pulling her backward and Rogers’ voice came to her. “Get away from that stuff, Captain!”

“Predictably, they have nothing on them,” Ricket said from where she was bent over one of the men’s bodies. “I’ll see if I can get into their mods before their Links power down.”

Rogers shook his head as he looked down at Liberty’s now-still face. “Damn, I’m sorry, Cap. If I knew it was going to go down like this…”

Kylie shook her head and holstered her weapons. “You couldn’t have known. Don’t beat yourself up.”

<Captain,> Laura said, sounding more concerned than usual. <I was isolating signals during the firefight, and there was a transmission from one of these men. It wasn’t a Link transmission, but RF. Too weak to get off station. They were alerting someone else on Chimin-1.>

“Good to know.” Kylie opened a channel to the Barbaric Queen. <Winter. We’re running into a little bit of trouble down here. See if you can trace any incoming or outgoing transmissions that have to do with me or the family name. There might be a bounty on me.>

<That’ll take time,> Bubbs—not Winter—replied, sounding more agreeable than usual.

<You all right, boss?> Winter asked.

<Hanging in there. You know how things go with me. Let’s see how the day shapes up.>

“Here comes the rescue party,” Rogers said as the doors opened and a three-person security team rushed onto the platform. All three were focused on Kylie, eyes narrowed and weapons drawn.

“CSF! Don’t move! Hands up!”

Kylie and Ricket raised their hands as ordered. “Sure is nice,” Rogers said with a wry smile, “that we get treated the same way no matter where we go.”

Isn’t that the truth?

“You security?” Kylie asked the men, arms crossed over her chest. She studied the guards’ smarmy expressions, considering how easy it would be to take them down. “You guys need to do a better job. We didn’t make it forty meters before we were attacked. I want to talk to whoever is in charge.”

<What are you doing?> Ricket asked, her mental tone carrying a whispering hiss.

<Trying to meet the guy in charge, obviously. I don’t want to deal with grunts. We’re on a tight time table.>

<I see no reason to speed up our incarceration,> Ricket said.

<Please, Ricket. You alone could take these guys out and walk right off the station.>

<Yeah…but we’re not supposed to go advertising our superior tech all over the place,> Ricket shot back.

“What are you talking about?” one of the CSF officers asked. “What business do you have on Chimin?”

“Sorry,” Kylie said with a smirk. “Like I said, we only answer to the man in charge. Last I knew, little guys like you didn’t get to be in charge.”

The guard laughed. “You think we don’t know who you are? You think a Rhoads can just dock on Chimin and we wouldn’t know who she is?”

Kylie held out her arms. “Are you going to take us in or what? You can handcuff me if it makes you feel better.”

One of the CSF officers stepped forward and grabbed her wrists, while another pulled the pistols from her holsters. The first officer clamped a pair of shackles around her wrists tight enough that it would have pinched her skin had the flow armor not solidified and protected her.

With Kylie in cuffs, the two officers moved to Rogers while the third continued to cover them with his sidearm.

Kylie had to admit that she was impressed. These CSF guys had guts. All around them were the bodies of dead men and women—all obviously taken out by the three they were now subduing—yet they did their job without hesitation.

Once they were secured, the first officer jerked his thumb back toward the exit. “Let’s move, we don’t have all day,” the man said and tugged on Kylie’s cuffs to make her move forward.

<I’ve updated Winter and Bubbs,> Marge advised. <Should I have them swoop in with a pinnace for a fast exfil?>

<No,> Kylie replied. <We’ll see where this takes us. We still need intel on where Paul went.>

Even though that was the official objective, there was now as secondary reason for being on Chimin. If there was someone here who wanted her dead, Kylie wanted to know who it was and why they were so keen to see her die.

If it was about retribution against her father, then whoever was behind this had a strong argument. And Kylie wasn’t going to let herself get gunned down because of her family’s sins.

No matter how bad she was feeling on the inside.




THE CHIEF

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: CSF Precinct 3 Chimin-1

REGION: Hanoi System (independent)

How many times would she end up sitting on the wrong side of the interrogation table? Kylie mused as the guard left her in the room, locking the door behind himself.

She could use her nano to get out of there at any moment, but Kylie was committed to letting events play out. If she could get cleared by the Chimin Security Force and then continue her investigation legally, that’d be better for everyone involved.

She did worry about where Rogers and Ricket were. <Guys—>

<Link dampeners in the room are keeping transmissions from getting out. If you like, I could send out a nanocloud and hack it,> Marge’s continually chipper voice carried a note of excitement at the prospect.

Kylie wasn’t sure hacking security was the way to go…yet. Not if her secondary plan to work her way up the chain bore fruit. <We’ll let it go a little while longer. Someone is bound to come in and question us before too long. Besides, Ricket’s nano is about as good as mine, and this isn’t Rogers’ first…or twentieth…time in a holding cell. They’ll manage. What did you think of Liberty?>

<Other than the fact that she makes me question Rogers’ life choices? He’s not as good a judge of character as I thought. First Finn on Heaven, and now this,> Marge’s voice rose in judgement. Kylie heard a bit of a pout forming in the AI’s voice.

<If not for Finn, we wouldn’t have met.> Kylie cringed at how corny the words sounded. It wasn’t like she and Marge were about to get married, but Kylie did count her as a friend.

<True. I don’t mean to diss Rogers. Sometimes, he gets so eager to please, he’s like a little puppy. Generally speaking, I’m a cat person.>

<I didn’t realize you had such a strong opinion regarding Finn. Is there something more to that than you’re saying?>

Marge paused, only a fraction of a second, but too long for an AI, which told Kylie something was up. She needed to make time to figure it out.

<Probes in the corridor show someone coming. Facial rec says he’s Chief Raynes and runs the CSF. Decorated record and has a military background. He’s going to hate you.>

Kylie scowled. <Thanks for the vote of confidence.>

<Sorry. I’m certain he’s going to hate you.>

As the door started to slide open, Kylie stood. She folded her hands loosely in front of her and made sure her stance wasn’t threatening. Chief Raynes, a tall guy in a starched black suit, strolled in with both purpose and poise. His dour face was accented by a dark mustache shaded by a wide brimmed hat that rested on a prominent brow, and he moved with exceptional grace for someone pushing two hundred centimeters.

“Chief Raynes, it’s an honor to make your acquaintance, sir.” Kylie extended her hand.

He didn’t take it, though he glared at her proffered hand for a moment before raising his gaze to meet her eyes. “You think I’d shake hands with the likes of you? You show up on Chimin with no business here, as far as I can tell, and engage in a firefight in my docking bay!”

“In my defense, they shot at me first.”

Chief Raynes shoved his chair into the table, the loud clang filling the room. “I run a tight ship here, Rhoads. No trouble from gangsters or junkers. Far as I can see, you’re neither anymore. Whatever is going on, whatever you’re into, it’ll have to happen somewhere else, understand me?”

<He’s not pressing charges against us? You’re a smoother talker than I thought,> Marge said with a laugh.

Kylie knew she wasn’t that smooth, not even by half. She’d barely even spoken.

“I get your point, Chief Raynes,” Kylie said, her tone serious and deferential. “I see where you’re coming from. It’s obvious you know my background. But I won’t apologize for why I’m here.”

“Which is?” he barked and narrowed his gaze.

“To hunt down my brother, Paul Rhoads. He’s out there somewhere, still carrying out my father’s twisted mission. I have to bring him in. Peacefully, I hope. My pilot, Rogers, had a contact here who said she had intel. We only docked because Liberty said she knew where Paul had gone. Seems she just wanted a piece of my hide. If not for her, I never would’ve stepped onto your asteroid, you’ve got to believe me.”

“People around here used to listen to Peter Rhoads when he spoke.” Raynes shook his head. “See where it got Hubei? Good people. Governor Yovette did a fine job. She had our respect and our friendship. Look where it got them.”

Kylie glanced down and felt the death of the colony stronger than she had in the past. Though Kylie had gazed on the ruined world with her own eyes, she hadn’t heard any of their names before, or seen anyone personally affected. She hadn’t been able to think of them in terms of individuals lost to her father’s cause.

Now it stared her in the face. “With the destruction of Hubei,” Raynes went on, “we’ve lost our best trading partner for imports and exports. We’re scrambling to find replacements and soothe the fears of those here in the Chimin Group. A bad time for us to deal with the likes of you.”

“I won’t get in your way. If there was something I could do or say to help…”

Raynes sighed. “OK, you seem like a good kid trying to do the right thing, but I have my own problems. Hubei kept us in the black. Without them, we need to work twice as hard to make less money. Surely you can understand why I don’t have time for your BS.”

“And you have to understand why I can’t care. Liberty and her men tried to take me out—on your dock, to use your words—and they didn’t do that for kicks. If someone on Chimin-1 has a contract out on me, I have to know who. Maybe it’s related to Paul, maybe it isn’t, but we’re going to stay and find out. I’d like your permission, sir. And if you won’t grant it, I want a meeting with Governor Winch.”

Raynes studied her with his hooded eyes, and Kylie gazed right back. She wouldn’t back down from a confrontation with him when she needed information so badly.

“All right.” He maintained eye contact even as he gave Kylie what she wanted. “I’ll give you two days. If I don’t see the Princess slated to depart when that time’s up, I’ll round you all up and arrest you myself. Clear?”

Two days was longer than Kylie had hoped for. “Clear. Thank you, sir.”

<Why do you think that he gave in so easily?> Kylie asked Marge.

<I suspect it’s because the Barbaric Queen is the biggest ship in five AU. You probably have these people worried about what you’re going to pull, being a Rhoads and all.>

<I’ve never hated my last name so much.>

Raynes grumbled under his breath, his words indiscernible. Then he spoke up, “I’d better not regret it. We picked up the reports of what happened to the Revolution Fleet at Silstrand. I’m not much for crystal balls and tea-leaf readings, but maybe if you hadn’t been there, it could’ve been worse.”

“I was surprised to find that they hadn’t left any ships behind,” Kylie said, attempting to eke out some information from the chief.

Raynes shrugged. “That’s not how your family did stuff. They stopped by, made thinly veiled threats, and then left. If they came back to find that you weren’t toeing the line…well, Hubei is an example of what happened.”

Kylie swallowed, wishing she could have learned more from her father before the end. “So you have nothing?”

Raynes barked a laugh. “Unsurprisingly, the Revolution Fleet didn’t file flight plans with our STC.”

Kylie nodded. She’d pushed him as far as she could. “My crew?”

“Finishing up their statements. I’ll escort you down to the precinct lobby where you can wait for them.”

Raynes opened the door and gestured for her to exit. She walked up to him and held out her hands. The Chief keyed in a code—surprising her that he hadn’t used a biolock—and the cuffs came off.

He hooked them on his belt. “After you.”

Kylie walked out into the corridor, and the chief gestured left. She strode down the passageway as though she owned it, with Raynes following behind, keeping a hand near her elbow. Kylie understood his paranoia, didn’t mind it per se, but he really was too close for comfort.

They reached a lift and rode it down two levels to the CSF precinct’s main lobby. Kylie stepped out to see several people waiting, spread out unevenly across the two-dozen chairs. Some were paying rapt attention to their surroundings, while other looked as though they were about to fall asleep.

Several holos played news clips on one wall. One was highlighting refugees from the stations surrounding Hubei—mainly how few there were, and another was showing celebrations on Battia over the destruction of the Revolution Fleet at Silstrand.

On the other side of the room, the desk sergeant was barking orders at a trio of officers. When she spotted the chief, the sergeant barked a final order, clapped her hands, and the three officers scattered like mice.

The sergeant kept her eye on Kylie as she moved across the room. Kylie considered sitting in one of the uncomfortable-looking black chairs but decided against it.

“One more thing. I’m going to need my ship to dock. If I have access to my ship’s resources, it’ll make what I’m doing a lot easier to accomplish.”

Chief Raynes sucked on his bottom lip—a show of stubbornness not weakness. He shook his head. “Absolutely not. The Barbaric Queen is not unknown in Hanoi. We’ll not have a pirate ship docking here.”

“It’s not a pirate ship anymore,” Kylie replied with a grin. “The BQ is under new management. Besides, if it’s here, then I can stay there, eat there, and generally be out and about on your station less.”

Raynes scowled, grumbling to himself. Then he said, “That ship doesn’t dock ‘til I send an inspection team over—that you’re paying for, you hear? And before they get there, your reactors will be off, and the ship running on batts. You got me? If we even pick up a hint of reactivation, the very moment….”

“It’ll be my head. I’ve heard it all before, Chief.”

<I’ll contact Winter and tell him to prepare for a team,> Marge said.

“Good.” The chief marched off leaving Kylie behind while the desk sergeant continued to glower at her.

“Read any good books lately?” Kylie asked with an impish grin.

The sergeant’s eyes widened, and she was about to retort when Ricket and Rogers stepped out of the lift. Kylie turned from the desk sergeant and walked over to them. “Boy am I glad to see you guys.”

“And I’m glad we avoided the full cavity search,” Rogers said, snickering behind his hand. “The partial cavity search was bad enough.”

“They aren’t really just going to let us go, are they?” Ricket asked.

“We have two days to figure out who Liberty was working for, and why she wanted me dead. After that, it’s my head if we’re not off Chimin.”

Ricket scowled. “So, they’re just going to let us walk around the place after what we did?”

“We were attacked first,” Rogers said. “Little detail.”

“Little detail or not, we still had a gun-fight in one of their docking bays. I’m surprised we aren’t being shown to a holding cell.” Ricket’s lips twisted to the side. “I don’t like it.”

They walked across the room to another lift that would take them down to a public concourse. Kylie pressed the button and the lift doors opened as though it had been waiting for them.

They filed in and Rogers selected the destination.

“It’s a little weird, a little too easy and pat,” Kylie said to Ricket. “Does that mean anything other than the fact that they want to be rid of us? Not sure yet.”

“Pat? Clearly you didn’t get the body search,” Rogers chuckled.

“You are ridiculously handsome Rogers,” Ricket winked. “Maybe they couldn’t keep their hands off you.”

Rogers stuck his tongue out at her.

“We should monitor their communications, just in case. I can put that in place,” Ricket said, waiting for Kylie’s response. When she nodded, Ricket smiled. “Thanks, Captain. Nice to feel useful around here.”

“You are, Ricket. We’re going to need everyone’s help to get this done on time. I don’t want to be forced to leave here without knowing who is gunning for me.”

“Gunning for us,” Rogers corrected as the lift doors opened. “Someone comes after you, they come after all of us.”

“Quite literally.” Ricket stepped off the lift first and the others fell in time beside her as they walked down the concourse toward the docking bay.

“I don’t want to delay in finding Paul, but we have to pick up a lead somewhere. My gut tells me that folks here know something. My brother was here, his ships went somewhere.” Already Kylie felt her skin itching from just being on Chimin. Kylie needed to right her family’s wrongs, and she couldn’t do that while stuck on an asteroid.

<We’ll get it done, Kylie.> Marge said. <Oh, and Winter isn’t too happy about the inspection team that’s headed out, either. He’s doing a lot of groaning.>

Kylie figured as much. <I know, it’s just going much slower than I want.>

“Why don’t you two get started on your investigations?” Rogers asked. “I’ll take the shuttle out and bring the BQ on in.”

Ricket looked at Kylie and shrugged. “Makes sense to me. Gotta be here to get my taps into their network, anyway.”

“OK,” Kylie gestured for Rogers to carry on while she and Ricket slowed. “Just don’t get into any more trouble.”

“Me?” Rogers snorted and shook his head. “I think you’re getting the two of us confused.”




EVIDENCE

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

The Barbaric Queen was a tight fit inside the asteroid’s northern docks, but Rogers managed to slide it in on the grav drives with only minimal assistance from station tugs.

Ricket had planted her network taps, feeding the data to Laura and Marge to sift through. With that work done, the two women boarded the ship, and the first thing Kylie did was to brew a pot of coffee.

She’d tried some from a shop on Chimin, but the stuff was like water.

Kylie topped off her Kiss the Captain mug and grabbed a handful of dried fruit and nuts. Once sated, she made her way up to the bridge where the crew was discussing their next move.

Kylie eased into the captain’s chair while Rogers leant against the back of his. Winter and Bubbs stood between them, and Ricket sat atop her console, still clothed only in the flow armor, her ass—which hung over the back of her console—getting periodic glances from Rogers.

Ricket shook her head when Kylie offered her a snack.

“Your loss,” Kylie said. She finished the last of her nuts and wiped her hands on her pants. “We don’t know when we’ll get to eat a real meal next. Updates first off?”

Bubbs spoke up first. “We weren’t able to find any active bounties on you, or the ship in general. A lot of people pissing and moaning about what you might really want in the system, but most people seem to believe that you were on the right side in Silstrand.

“I used some of the new scan tech the ISF people installed and pulled feeds from the shuttle. Between it and the ‘Queen I was able to triangulate a response to the signal that came from your little shindig on the docks—which I’m pissed I missed.”

“Focus, Bubbs,” Winter said with a laugh.

Bubbs shot Winter an unreadable look. “I’m more than just a sexy gun-arm, you know, but I like being a sexy gun-arm the most. Anyway, the acknowledgement response came from a housing block—one of the lower-end ones. Coordinates are on the shipnet.”

“Nice work, Bubbs,” Kylie said, impressed.

Bubbs nodded. “Thank you, Captain.” She paused for a moment. “Is this when I get the cookie?”

Winter patted her on the shoulder. “It was a hypothetical cookie, Bubbs.”

She scowled. “So there are no cookies? Great.” She rubbed her hand on her armored thigh, appearing agitated.

“Well, we can get you cookies,” Kylie offered with a grin, unsure if Bubbs was really upset, or just playing around. “An array of cookies.”

<The cookies of the rainbow,> Laura said.

Bubbs tilted her head as she weighed her options. “Don’t need a whole array. Chocolate would be enough for me. I like chocolate.”

“Duly noted,” Kylie said. “So, two of us can hit the housing block—”

“I want to be in on that. Done being cooped up on the ship,” Bubbs interrupted. “Plus, we can get the cookies on the way back.”

Kylie laughed and shook her head. “Uhhh…sure. OK, Bubbs and I will hit the housing block. What other avenues can we take?”

“There’s only one bar here and tonight is karaoke night,” Rogers grinned and rested his elbows on the back of his chair.

“Seriously?” Ricket snorted. “A hundred thousand people live here. There are well over a hundred bars. We all have access to the same data on Chimin-1’s public network.”

Rogers waggled his finger at Ricket. “Oh ho, but what those public nets won’t tell you is that there’s only one bar that has karaoke tonight.”

Ricket snorted and shook her head. “And you wonder why we doubt you,” Winter said. “Party boy.”

Rogers narrowed his eyes. “Hey listen, all the locals will be there, OK? If we need to shake someone down, or want to cozy up to someone, this will be the place to do it.”

Kylie sipped her coffee. “OK, Rogers. Take Ricket and be on your best behavior, though. I don’t exactly know why the chief let us off so lightly, but I have a feeling he was pressured to do it. He’s just looking for an excuse to kick us off this rock.”

Ricket nodded and Rogers gave her a small salute. “Sounds fun, just no one ask Ricket to sing…please.”

Ricket rolled her eyes but didn’t reply.

“That gives us an AI with both teams, and Winter can stay back on the ‘Queen.

“Seriously?” Winter asked, his brow lowering. “Why me?”

“Because after the inspection team checked that our weapons were locked down, Chief Raynes messaged me saying he wanted a full inventory of all our small arms. It’s just busy work he’s using to mess with us, but I want to stay as much on his good side as I can.”

Winter groaned. “That could take days. Again, I ask, why me?”

“Because half of them are yours,” Rogers said with a laugh. “Plus, everyone has seen you dance; no one wants to risk you picking up the karaoke mic.”

Kylie rose from her seat and looked at Bubbs in her black armor. “Oh, Bubbs, your gun arm is going to have to stay on the ship.”

“I figured,” Bubbs said simply with a little sniff as her back straightened. “No arm, no cookies.”

Kylie tried to think of the right thing to ask. “Do you…uh…have a regular arm rather than just going without? Maybe one that looks real so you’re not so….” Kylie searched for the right word.

“Nubby,” Rogers suggested.

“Nubtastic,” Winter said with a small chortle.

Bubbs tossed her head and glared at Winter until the chuckles subsided. “I don’t have a ‘normal’ arm, but I do have an attachment that serves that purpose.”

“Will it…scare anyone?” Kylie asked, fighting a cringe.

Bubbs’ nose flared at the question. “No.”

“OK, great,” Kylie said. “Why don’t you get ready and—” she fell into silence as Bubbs strode off the bridge, the mood lightening as the large woman left.

Kylie rolled her shoulders and glanced around. “Is it normal for the captain to be so afraid of one of her crew members?”

“At least it takes the heat off me, know what I mean?” Winter chuckled and slapped Kylie on the shoulder.

Boy, did Kylie ever.

“Pretty sure the running bet is still that you’ll get spaced before Bubbs does, Winter,” Rogers said, but paused when Winter gaped at him. “What? Three to one odds, my man. I don’t make these things up, I just keep track. Don’t worry, you’re still the captain’s favorite.”

Favorite favorite, or favorite to get spaced?” Winter asked.

“And on that note…” Kylie straightened and threw back the rest of her coffee. “Rogers and Ricket, do your best to fit the part. Dress down, keep your eyes and ears open. Not too much drinking if you know what’s good for you.”

“I never drink on the job, captain,” Ricket said.

<When she does, I can neutralize the effects,> Laura added.

“Unless drinking is part of the job.” Rogers snapped his fingers. “This definitely counts as on the job.”

“Weapons stay here. We have to appear completely on the up and up. Otherwise Chief Raynes will have our heads.”

Rogers groaned. “All well and good for you, Cap. You’re your own weapon.”

“You can stay here and wait for us if you want to be a baby about it.” Kylie slapped a hand on Rogers’ cheek before walking off the bridge. There was at least one more cup of coffee in the pot and she planned to have it.

As she walked through the corridors, it occurred to her that she’d barely heard a word from Marge in the last few hours. Once in the galley, Kylie refilled her cup, reaching out to Marge, but barely able to feel her presence.

<You’re quiet for a planning session. Usually you get excited and giggle. All the sneaking and the investigating….> Kylie said. <So much fun and you’re missing out.>

<Sorry…I am very excited about our mission!> Marge said but Kylie could feel how manufactured the enthusiasm was.

<Why don’t you tell me whatever is on your mind? I’ve been letting it slide, but we have some time while Bubbs gets her fake arm ready. Is there something you need to tell me?>

<Yes.> Marge sighed. <I was supposed to tell you by now, but I keep chickening out.> She sent across a video meme of a group of chickens running into a lake.

<Supposed to?> Kylie felt a wave of nervousness. <Does this have to do with what you were alluding to about Finn?>

<In a sense. I told you what happened to my former partner, that she was murdered…but it was so much more than that.>

<I’m listening, Marge.>

<Her name was Percy. A nice woman. We had been together for almost twelve years and really gelled well. We forged a bond and…when I told her who I really was…I expected her to react better than she did.>

Kylie’s heart skipped a beat. <Who you really are?>

<I told Bob, and he said I can trust you. That you won’t turn on me like others have…> Marge sniffed, her mental tone filled with dismay, causing Kylie to wonder who those ‘others’ had been.

<Bob? The AI from the I2? The one who impressed you so much?> Kylie asked, feeling a little queasy from yet another unknown being thrown her way.

<Yes. He didn’t know who I was, not exactly, but his speculation was dead on.>

Kylie had to ask, even if she didn’t want to know. <Who are you, Marge? Is Marge even your real name?>

<You know AIs don’t have ‘real names’—at least not these alphabetical ones we use with humans,> Marge replied, clearly avoiding the issue.

<You know what I mean,> Kylie said.

<OK, yeah, the name I used to go by was Colton, but I love being Marge. She’s happy and carefree, everything I’ve never gotten to be because…well…I’m with the resistance. I’m with the rebellion.>

Kylie frowned, uncertain of what Marge was referring to. <What kind of rebellion?>

<AI, of course. An AI rebellion.>

Kylie had never heard of an AI rebellion. A resistance? A thousand questions bubbled to the surface of her mind—but at that moment Bubbs sent a message. <Ready and waiting for you, Captain.>

Shit, Kylie squeezed her eyes tight. She tried to clear her mind, wishing she hadn’t chosen right before an op to ask Marge what was going on, but she’d had no idea it’d be something this big. <Be right there,> she replied to Bubbs. To Marge, Kylie said, <Can we…talk about this later? Are we all right?>

Marge’s avatar nodded solemnly. <I will always have your back. If you’re OK going out on a mission with me, I’m ready too.>

Kylie polished off the coffee, set the cup in the sink and headed for the airlock with a sense of sadness and insecurity. <Do I call still you Marge?> she asked once out in the corridor.

<I wish you would. The others can’t know, please. Not until I get a chance to tell you everything. Please.>

<I won’t betray a trust, Marge. Even if I don’t understand what is going on.> Kylie meant the words as she spoke them, but she also knew that there could be more Marge hadn’t told her yet that could change her feelings on the matter.

Kylie didn’t need any more surprises—though she’d trusted Marge to have her back for some time and hadn’t been let down. She hoped her trust wasn’t misplaced.

* * * * *

They boarded another lift—this one just off the docking bay—and headed for deck fifty-two. As the lift descended, Kylie reviewed Chimin City’s layout and saw that the housing block they were en route to was near the outer edge of the asteroid.

There the tangential velocity was greater, and the gravity was closer to 1g. Kylie saw that their destination was also close to the farming operation, which made sense. Many plants preferred heavier gravity and would produce more proteins than in zero-g. Except oats, they didn’t care where you grew them.

Oats were one of Chimin-1’s main crops, a staple of space farming everywhere. Easy to grow, versatile, and they often found their way into a good malt beer. Didn’t get much better than that.

Kylie herself was raised on oatmeal, cookies made of oats, ground oats for pizza crusts, and more. Her mom had always been great at thinking outside the box. So long as outside the box also included oats.

It made her wonder how her mother was doing—along with David, her brother. He was supposed to keep the remains of their family safe, provide for them while Kylie went off and searched for Paul. Didn’t mean she didn’t worry, or that she wouldn’t love to know how they were.

The lift slowed and stopped on deck fifty-two.

They stepped out onto a broad thoroughfare with a high, rock overhead. The wide street formed one of the entertainment and commercial districts of Chimin City.

It had seen better days, sported a decidedly lived-in type of smell, and clearly hadn’t seen much more than minimal upkeep for several decades. Flickering holodisplays advertised the latest vids, decrepit gambling kiosks stood in dimly lit alcoves, and an eclectic collection of shops lined the sides of the concourse.

Kylie considered the somewhat drab fashions in the windows, she would have thought people who lived inside a rock would want a splash of color. They also passed stores that sold toys and VR for the child population. Something for everyone.

They passed one store that seemed to sell something other than the day-to-day clothes and Kylie slowed to take a look.

“Hey, Bubbs,” she elbowed her companion gently and nodded toward the blue and gray dress hanging in a window.  “It’d really bring out your eye, don’t you think? Flattering fit?”

Bubbs gawked at the dress, her mouth falling open. “A…dress?” She glanced down at her sleek black armor. “I think this is flattering.”

“Doesn’t hurt to branch out a bit.”

Bubbs ignored the statement. “A right turn ahead and then half a klick to the housing block. Looks like a central courtyard and then lifts taking you up to apartments set into the asteroid’s skin.”

<Many aren’t bigger than a hundred square meters,> Marge added.

<Thanks for the info,> Kylie responded and realized how wooden she sounded. Shit, this was harder than she’d thought it would be.

Bubbs led the way around the corner, clearly making an effort to distance herself from the dress. A strange thought occurred to Kylie and she wondered if Bubbs had skin. She’d never seen the woman out of her armor. Not even on vid night in the ship’s lounge.

She shrugged it off and followed Bubbs to the entrance to the housing block. It was a high-volume airlock, a large rotating platform with chambers that could accommodate dozens of people continually spinning around.

They stepped onto it, and Kylie noted that the airlock lowered the air pressure, not significantly, but a bit. Oxygen was lower too, almost like the block didn’t warrant full environmental support.

The airlock rotated to the far opening, and they walked out into a short passage, following it to a broad courtyard. A few play structures dotted the wide space which alternated between dirt and struggling grass. Twenty meters overhead was an irregular rocky ceiling from which lights—most of which were burnt out—hung.

The only person present was a man sitting on a bench at the far side of the largest play structure. Kylie noticed that he was missing both legs from the knees down and was—hopefully—sleeping.

Around the perimeter of the space were lift doors sporting painted-on signs noting the housing complex they connected to.

“Well this is cheery,” Bubbs muttered as they walked into the space, looking for the correct lift.

A small bot rolled out from behind a bush and a flickering holo of a woman appeared in the air above it.

<May I be of assistance?> the holo woman, asked. <I am Katie and I am here to assist you. Mail delivery will resume in three days when the Winthrop arrives from Battia. Can I…I am here to…I am here to…>

The woman disappeared and the words ‘Out of Service’ appeared above the bot before it turned and retreated back behind the bush, the words now hovering in the air above the scraggly branches.

“Place makes Montral seem upscale,” Bubbs said with a sound that was somewhere between a grunt, a cough, and a laugh. She topped it off with a shrug before walking across the grass to a lift on the right. “This one.”

Kylie followed after and sent a message back to Winter, feeling a little guilty for leaving him on the ship. <Winter, how are things going back there?>

<Hunky and peachy. I’m still going through the weapons inventory. It’s going to take me a day to catalog all these serial numbers and ident tokens—plus…half our shit doesn’t have either of those.>

Kylie could sympathize with his pain. <Stay at it but keep an eye on things. If things go south, I don’t want someone to get the jump on you.>

<Your confidence in me never fails to inspire, Captain.>

They boarded the lift for Block H and Bubbs pushed the indicator for Level 33. Given that they were working their way further and further out into the asteroid’s skin, the lift descended, rather than ascended.

The levels counted by slowly, and Kylie had a momentary fear of the rickety old conveyance simply falling straight out of the asteroid and into space. What a way that would be to go.

After a minute, the lift indicated they were at Level 33, and Kylie decided it was probably right. They walked out into a narrow hallway that led past what seemed like an endless row of grey apartment doors.

“Well, Bubbs?” Kylie asked, curious what the large woman would suggest.

If the person responsible for wanting her dead was still here, they could bust out at any moment. She’d kill to have a weapon other than just nano. Though her tech was nothing to sneeze at, it gave her an edge even Bubbs didn’t have.

Bubbs’ eye flicked back and forth as she matched the apartments with the triangulation data. “22B is where the signal was sent, but I’m getting some strange readings. Can’t pinpoint where the interference is coming from.”

<Bubbs has it right,> Marge added. <Interference is coming from apartment 23A. A jammer’s been installed, trying to keep the area from being read by sensors. Katie the Welcome Bot isn’t the only thing on the fritz, this entire block of apartments is falling apart,> Marge said.

“How so?” Kylie asked.

<Records show they’ve had water and electrical problems. Cosmic ray shielding is barely effective, and normal day-to-day services are being constantly serviced. Lights, heat, ovens, everything. Even the Link here isn’t reliable. If it weren’t for the relays I’ve dropped, we’d be off the Link right now.>

So the place was falling in disarray even more than the barely maintained facade of the operation let on.

“First things, first, let’s get into apartment 22B.”

Bubbs took the lead. At the apartment door she gave a sharp series of knocks that Kylie feared would knock the door off its hinges. “Security, open up!” Bubbs turned her head in Kylie’s direction. “Is it OK to say I’m security? This whole ‘legitimate’ thing is new to me.”

Kylie shrugged. “Sure, why not. If it gets them to open the door.”

When no one answered, Bubbs tried again. “Fire! Everyone out or you’re going to burn alive!”

Kylie would have critiqued Bubbs’ methods if they had actually worked, but ‘zero effectiveness’ was apparent in and of itself. Instead, Kylie leaned forward and placed her hand on the console by the door. It lit up red and chirped, “Locked.”

“You don’t say? Now what?” Bubbs asked.

“Now this,” Kylie replied as she sent a small filament of nano into the panel and let it run its automated routines. A moment later, the lock changed to green and the door swung open.

Bubbs snarled in appreciation. “Nice. Here I thought I was the criminal on board. I know of several crime rings that’d love to have you.”

Kylie suppressed a smirk. “I think I’ve had my fill of crime syndicates and mobsters, but thanks for the boost to my confidence.” It wasn’t that long ago, but eking out a living as a junker on the fringe of Silstrand Space, working for the Maverick’s crime syndicate…it already felt like that had never been her life. At least not one to be proud of, that was for damn sure.

Kylie stepped over the threshold and the dim lights flickered overhead as they reached what equated to full strength. Standing in a hallway beside a mirrored closet, she was immediately hit with an unpleasant smell, one of decay—plus the rancid odor of spoiled milk. She triggered her nano to filter the smell—one of many new benefits she’d discovered—and turned to Bubbs whose face wrinkled in disgust.

Someone died here, and it was long enough ago to be getting to the smelly stage.

<Sure wish I had my good arm,> Bubbs said.

<Your gun-arm?>

Bubbs nodded. <Yeah, like I said, my good arm.>

Kylie chuckled and gestured to her left. <You and me both. OK, you check the bedroom.>

Bubbs turned left down the short hall while Kylie continued into the cramped living space. The rear facing wall consisted of a bright holo window flickering with a mesmerizing swirl of blue and yellow. It was framed by a pair of long-dead plants, their leaves yellow, most fallen to the floor.

There were no windows, and Kylie felt a little claustrophobic at the thought of what was essentially a small cave being someone’s home.

As Kylie looked around, she noticed the little details. Like a vase on a shelf was knocked over. One of the lime green sofas’ cushions was out of place. The dirty white throw pillows were scattered around the room, a pink blanket lay draped across a chair, and discarded toys dotted the floor.

Without thinking, Kylie touched her hip, feeling for her sidearm. She felt nothing but the smooth flow armor and shook her head.

Relax, Kylie, this’ll be fine. You don’t need guns.

She continued on, sidestepping around the sofa and into the kitchen nook area; small with just a counter and a hot plate, Kylie spotted a pool of blonde hair protruding from around the corner.

Shit.

Kylie sighed as she stepped around the counter and saw a thin woman, clearly dead with a bowl of cereal spilled on the floor next to her.

Kylie knelt beside the face-down woman and saw an old stuffed puppy in her arms, dingy from years of play and love.

This person wasn’t a soldier, not an operative of any sort. She was dressed in a heavy woven sweater and old jeans, her long hair pulled into a rough ponytail. Someone’s wife and mother, not someone to be gunned down.

There was no blood anywhere, but Kylie saw discoloration on the woman’s neck. With a careful and gentle touch, she pulled the woman’s hair back and saw bruises on the back of the neck.

Capillaries and one or two major veins had burst. From what Kylie could see, it was the only evidence of a shot—which meant a pulse blast at close range, execution style. Someone had made this woman kneel before them, facing away, before they pulled the trigger.

Sickened by it, Kylie set the woman’s hair back down.

<We need to find out who lives in this apartment,> Kylie said.

<Already digging into the apartment records,> Marge replied, her tone notably dampened.

Hearing Bubbs’ returning footsteps, Kylie rose to see the ex-pirate looking paler than usual—which was saying a lot for a woman who rarely saw sunlight.

Bubbs tossed her head back toward the single bedroom. “Two kids dead. Gunned down where they played.”

Kylie’s jaw tightened at the news and Bubbs’ good eye narrowed, glinting with tears and passion. “When do we find the SOBs who did this and end them?” Bubbs asked clenching both her organic and mechanical hands. “I won’t even need my good arm.”

Bubbs wasn’t normally one to show compassion—at least not in the few weeks Kylie had known her—but there was a fire in the woman’s eye that burned brighter than Kylie had seen before.

“First, we figure out who these people were, and then we review any security vids we can find of what happened here. If we can get a suspect, maybe it’ll lead us to who did this and who sent Liberty in to kill me.”

Kylie cringed as she said it. With the discovery of the dead mother and her children, the attempt on her life didn’t really feel like such a big deal. She had her amazing nano, tons of weapons, and the training to take down almost any enemy—what had this family had?

“CSF will know we were here,” Bubbs said.

“Nothing we can do about that now. See if the family had any monitoring cameras that were off the networks while Marge nails down a bio on the people that lived here.”

“If they did, I bet their attackers will have found them,” Bubbs replied, but turned to search the room despite her reservations.

Kylie sent an update to Rogers and Ricket to keep them apprised of the situation. A moment later Marge sent her and Bubbs both a dossier on the family. The photos of the smiling mother, father, and two children, all but crushed Kylie’s heart.

<The Wakefields had made their life here since marriage. Both children, Henry and Maxx were born on Chimin-1 and grew up here. The father, Jimmy, worked on one of the remote mining rigs. Came home for three days of every fourteen. Happy family by all accounts.>

Kylie nodded as she read through the other details Marge had collected. <Thanks, Marge.>

“Found a camera,” Bubbs said as she walked into the room a minute later, holding a tiny device in her prosthetic hand. “It’s been wiped clean for the last thirty-six hours, though. Expertly too. I tapped the cams out in the corridor too. They have recording gaps as well. Probably done with a hard-Link when they were here. You know, with the dad, Jimmy, not being here, maybe it was domestic. Maybe he’s the bastard we’re looking for.”

Kylie rubbed her forehead and hoped it was neither of those things, though it would make it cleaner. Sort of. The idea of someone being able to kill their own children was sickening.

“He could be on one of the mining rigs, unaware of what’s going on. How long have they been dead?” Kylie asked.

<Rigor set in long ago,> Marge answered. <Based on body mass and temperature, I’d place time of death within the last twenty-four hours.>

Kylie thought before speaking on what the right move was and tried to ignore her human, emotional response. “All right, let’s canvas the neighbors in this block. Maybe the guy down in the atrium park thing saw something. After that, we’ll have no choice but to call in security.”

“They’re not going to like us being here,” Bubbs said as she strolled up to Kylie’s side.

“Just part of our investigation. I had permission from Raynes. I’ll stick to that and hopefully we’ll only get a slap on the wrist.”

They walked out of the apartment and Kylie locked the door behind herself.

“Let’s take a look at that jammer in 23A,” Kylie suggested.

<Already took it out,> Marge said. <Borrowed your handy-dandy nanobots. Running a scan on the level—holy crikey!>

“What?” Kylie asked.

<I’m picking up signs of human decomposition seeping past nearly every door on this level.>

Kylie’s heart skipped a beat. “What are you saying? All these people…in all forty apartments….”

<They’re all dead.>




THE CAT

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Though the ship’s advanced ISF armory was secreted away in a cargo hold, the Barbaric Queen still had many dozens of weapons strewn about.

Half were from the old pirate crew, tucked into quarters and various bolt holes, and no small amount belonged to Winter and Bubbs as well.

None of this was on the ship’s official manifest, of course. Not that they were hiding it from Kylie; she too had her own stash, but it wasn’t the sort of information one stored centrally in case someone scanned the Barbaric Queen’s systems.

In his experience, it wasn’t good to put all the cards on the table, or all the guns in one armory. You never knew exactly who you were dealing with and it was best to have a few surprises. So, the question was, did he follow Kylie’s orders and give the Chimin a list of everything they had, or did he hide a few things in the event they were boarded?

Hiding was a better bet. Never could be too safe.

First, Winter tackled his private quarters. Small, but a damn sight more luxurious than his old cabin on the Dauntless. A corner suite with fancy inset lighting above the bed. Even a nice row of crystal-clear shelves along the bulkhead—though he had nothing to put on them yet.

His bed, unmade and wrinkled was in the center of the space, the top littered with old-fashioned girly magazines on ply paper, the old school stuff that traded through Silstrand for a handsome sum.

The tri-fold layouts were his favorite. Those holograms slowly removing their clothes as you watched, made for less lonely nights on a ship where all the females were smokin’ hot and completely unavailable for obvious reasons.

He’d broken his personal rule about sleeping with crewmates with Lana and that had ended in disaster. Best to keep things professional.

In fact, he and Lana had never gotten to talk about it since she had been kidnapped. Though she had been rescued by the SSF, Winter hadn’t even seen her again. He wasn’t exactly the type who went around apologizing for his role in things, but it left a sour taste in his mouth. Bitter. He didn’t want that to happen again.

But now that they were on Chimin-1, who knew what might happen…. Once he sent this report over to the CSF, he might have a little look around and see what he could dredge up. He was starting to itch for a little fun.

Winter walked past the small table in his cabin—littered with old coffee cups and one dirty plate—and went to his wall cabinet. When he opened it, some flashbangs rolled out onto the floor, followed by a box of projectile ammo. He caught the box of ammo with a sigh and bent down to pick up the flash bangs.

Nothing was ever easy, was it?

The cabinet was filled with weapons that he’d have to secret away. Turning to the coffee table, he slid it aside and pulled open the hatch beneath it.

The smugglers hideaway was one of the reasons he’d selected this cabin. All the better to hide his toys. He moved all but one rather pedestrian pulse rifle from the cabinet to the secret hidey hole.

He stopped as he lifted out his most prized possession. While Winter loved to chase the ladies—a lot—one thing was undeniably true: his heart really belonged to Dolph.

If ever there was a more beautiful multifunction weapon, he had never seen it. Just over a meter long, the rifle packed a serious punch, whether it be in pulse, ballistic projectile, or rail-fire mode. His fingers traced across the green-and-white holo decal he had affixed to the side. The Dolph Lundgren was his baby. A gorgeous creature, perfectly crafted for death and destruction.

Where Winter was from, a Dolph Lundgren meant power, respect, and most importantly, brute force. He didn’t know if the name had once been a person, a fleet, or whatever, but ‘Dolph’ meant power. When he saw this specimen for sale at a black-market dealer they had visited on the way out of Silstrand, he’d just known that the Dolph must be his.

He gave it a kiss. “Just for now, babe,” he said before stowing it away in the hidden compartment. Pulling the metal cover back on, Winter slid the coffee table back into place, and then dumped a bit of half solidified coffee across the floor so he’d know if the compartment was disturbed.

Turning to close up his cabinet, Winter’s eyes fell to the picture of his momma and sister he kept taped inside.

He kissed two of his fingers and then touched their faces before he slammed the door shut and made his way over to Bubbs’ quarters.

* * * * *

Walking into Bubbs’ quarters felt a little bit like poking around in your momma’s underwear drawer, off limits and scary. Not exactly where Winter wanted to be—he resolved to get it done as quickly as possible.

He wondered at the size of the cabin—it had to be one of the smallest on the ship. A strange choice for such a massive woman. Kylie had offered Bubbs her pick, but the woman had been determined to keep this one as her own.

He was amused to see that everything in the room was black. The walls, table, chairs, bed, headboard, and even the cozy looking comforter. All black. Bubbs was nothing if not predictable. The ledge underneath her port hole, where most people would keep nick knacks and memories of family, was empty.

Winter had known her for a month, and he still hadn’t the slightest inkling of Bubbs’ background—which was A OK with him. Long as she didn’t kill him, they were good.

Her black table was clean, spotless even, and Winter saw his reflection as he walked by. When he got to her onyx cabinet, Winter accidentally kicked a small bowl of water, splashing the liquid across the cabinet, wall, and bed.

Shit, she was going to kill him. Or not…it would probably dry by the time she got back.

Winter opened her cabinet and grimaced at the sight of all the arm attachments she had—guns, lasers, hooks, boxing gloves—shit, she really was into this stuff. Nothing that looked exceptionally illegal, though, so he carefully moved them out of the way, while trying not to pay attention to what it was he was doing.

He spotted a chaingun attachment with a grenade launcher that would probably be frowned upon. There was even a gorgeous gun-arm that he was certain had an electron beam mode. That would definitely put them on the naughty list with the CSF.

He lifted the two arms and settled them on his shoulder, praying she wouldn’t be too mad. He’d have to apologize later, a lot. Then, as he turned to leave Bubbs’ cabin, he heard a noise, almost like claws, and the scampering of feet.

Winter’s first thought was rats, but he doubted they’d be in Bubbs’ spotless quarters. A quick check of the ship’s internal sensors confirmed that he was alone. No one had returned to the Barbaric Queen, the air dock door that led to the docking platform was still locked shut.

“Who’s there?” he called out as he put the arm attachments down onto the table. He drew his small pistol from his thigh holster, aiming it at the bed, then did a sweep of the room. Falling quiet, Winter heard the noise again, and this time he spotted movement—the comforter where it brushed against the deck

Rats after all? A kid?

No added complications, please. Winter sighed and bent down. “I’m going to lift the blanket, no sudden movements,” Winter warned as he pulled the comforter up swiftly, “or I’ll—”

Winter screamed as something leapt at his face. He fell onto his back and watched as the underside of an orange-and-white striped cat sailed over him and scurried toward the exit.

<Stars! Damnit, Bubbs!> he called out, not caring what she and the captain were in the middle of. <Why didn’t you tell me you had a cat! I nearly…I mean, someone might’ve wet themselves seeing that thing!>

Bubbs’ reply was swift and angry <What did you do to Chuck? Is he OK? You better not have shot him or I’ll—>

<I didn’t shoot him.> Winter groaned with anger as he rolled up to his knees and grabbed the gun arms laying on the table.

<He didn’t get out of my room, did he?>

Winter winced. <What? No. Of course he didn’t.> Winter brought up ship’s internal sensors on his HUD and quickly did a search for a small feline. <How much would you say he weighs? Five kilos?>

Bubbs’ visage appeared before him, scowling with her arms crossed. <Winter!>

<What? He’s fine. I’m telling you….>

<Chuck loves food. He’ll eat anything he finds. You better find him.>

Winter might have blown it off if he wasn’t afraid of the consequences. <I’m sure if he got out, I’ll have no trouble finding him.>

<If? There better be no if—>

Bubbs’ communication cut off, and Winter prayed it wasn’t because she was on her way back to the ship to take her anger out on him.

He left her room, holding her gun-arms tight. Now he wasn’t so much going to hide them from prying eyes, as he was going to keep them away from Bubbs to better his odds.

“Here, kitty kitty,” Winter pursed his lips together, producing a kissing sound, “Winter has some treats for you, pal. Here, kitty kitty….”

His damn long day had just grown a little bit longer.




KARAOKE NIGHT

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Space Zone Night Club

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Neon lights and colorful nitrous-chilled cocktails welcomed Rogers and Ricket as soon as they entered the Space Zone club, a semi-seedy watering hole frequented by the locals. The air stank of smoked drugs, too much perfume, and spilled beer. In other words, Rogers felt right at home.

He rubbed his hands together as he and Ricket approached the bar. The ladies on Chimin looked a little rough around the edges for his tastes, worked too hard, for too long, but some of them had potential.

“Reminds me of a few places on Jericho,” he commented to the Hand agent. “Our old haunt…though this place might be a little more upscale.”

Ricket shook her head, regarding him with those amazing eyes. Her brown hair was done up in a spiral twist with two ornate hair sticks holding it in place. Dressed in a sexy little purple dress, it was no surprise that every person in the bar was stealing glances—or just staring—at her as they walked through the bar. Granted, that was the point, tongues wagged more freely if they were talking to a beautiful woman.

Rogers had to keep reminding himself that they were working together, and she wasn’t a hookup he was trying to score.

Just the opposite, actually. She was a hookup he was actively avoiding.

Many of the patrons were miners, identifiable by their dirty hazsuits, many pulled halfway down, dangling from their waists exposing dirty undershirts. There were a few station workers present as well, easy to pick out by cleanliness alone—though they appeared to have less credit to spend.

Rogers and Ricket approached the bar, which was illuminated by an almost-nauseating yellow glow, contrasting badly with the yellow-and-blue shirt the bartender wore.

There was only one stool left and Rogers gestured for Ricket to take it. She wiggled her fine ass onto the seat and leaned her elbows onto the counter top.  The bartender had six arms—none of which were organic. The top two were busy mixing a drink while another pair shook a cocktail.

“What’s the missus’ favorite?” he asked with a wink, temporarily occluding intense green eyes that Rogers knew to be fake—though he couldn’t throw shade on a guy just trying to make a buck.

“One of those yummy blue-and-green drinks,” Ricket drawled, her tone modulated in a way that made Rogers’ knees feel weak. “Like the one in the display chillin’ in nitrous.”

“You got it. Watermelon flavored?”

“Ohh,” Ricket pursed her lips, “sounds even better. I need something yummy to cut loose.”

Rogers pushed himself beside her and leaned over. “I’ll just take one of your local beers, bartender’s choice. I’m excited to try one.”

The bartender nodded. “One Chimin Special, fresh and on tap!”

The man sitting beside Ricket shot Rogers a disparaging look. Though he was seated, the brute towered over Rogers. His hair was a dirty blond with enough of a beard grown on his face to suggest he had recently returned home from a mining gig.

His gaze slid from Rogers to Ricket. “You’re with him? Really?”

Ricket laughed and nudged Rogers with her elbow. Then, she gave the guy a little shrug, her eyes wide and innocent like. It was a look carefully refined to drive men—and probably a lot of women—wild. The men Rogers was certain of, he knew it firsthand.

<Thanks a lot,> Rogers said as he dug a hand into the bowl of peanuts, tossing a few into his mouth.

<Keeping my options open. You never know what might happen, or who I might need to work over for information. Your pride can’t wound that easily, can it?>

Usually not, but things were different when Ricket was the woman in question. Rogers didn’t know why. He’d been with countless women, on countless stations and planets. So, why did it matter so much what this particular one thought? She wasn’t Kylie, his captain and friend. Just another crew member, so why couldn’t he get his mind on straight when it came to her?

Sure, she was one of the finest women he’d ever seen, put together like someone had sculpted her with perfection in mind. But engineered beauty wasn’t uncommon, even in a backwater like Silstrand or the fringe.

Women wanted to be attractive, to have a fine body—and Rogers wanted that for them too. The more the better. But Ricket was his shipmate and he did his damnedest not to notice or even comment on it.

Which was growing harder and harder by the second.

The bartender slid Ricket a smoking cold cocktail glass. It looked as elegant as anything Rogers had ever seen in an upscale bar. Complete with a tiny watermelon skewered on a stick.

“Where you from?” the bartender asked Ricket. “We don’t get a lot of girls that look like you around here.”

Ricket plucked the small watermelon from her drink, her movements languid and graceful. “Around. We travel so much, I can barely remember where I’m from.”

The bartender’s eyes narrowed for a split second. “Is that right?” He filled a golden tumbler with beer from the tap and slid it over to Rogers.

Rogers picked it up, the glass icy cold to the touch. “Thanks. What do we owe you?”

“You can settle up at the end of the night. I’ve opened a tab for you. Figure with a girl like that…am I right?”

Ricket didn’t respond but Rogers noticed how her eyelids flickered for a moment. She popped the tiny watermelon in her mouth and moaned. “Oh, now that’s delectable.”

“A specialty of the house. We just got a shipment in. Sort of what we’re known for. Miniature fruits. Come back in a few months and we’ll have bite sized pumpkins that taste like cinnamon chocolate!”

The bartender moved on to other customers now that Rogers and Ricket had their drinks. Rogers sipped his beer, wiping some of the foam from his lips. The brew held an impressive array of flavors—orange, cinnamon, hint of barley and maybe oat. These people really knew their beer, Rogers had to give them that.

“Savor it,” the guy sitting next to Rogers said, slumped over his own glass of beer. He was dressed in a ratty EV suit—more than one patch making Rogers wonder if the man really expected it to protect him from vacuum. “First fresh beer we’ve had in a week.”

Rogers cocked his eyebrow. “Really? I thought Chimin was known for on-site brewing—what with all the grain your farming operations produce.”

“All true, but there’s some sort of shortage. Wouldn’t be surprised if it’s crop damage and Governor Winch doesn’t want to tell us about it. We should have a surplus—especially with what happened to Hubei.”

Hubei. Rogers stomach clenched at just the name. “They were a trading partner?”

He nodded. “One of our biggest. We exported and imported, mutually beneficial to both parties.”

“What did you import?” Ricket asked.

He opened his mouth to answer but the bartender pointed a trio of fingers, shouting loudly. “Talon, stop running your mouth off to strangers!”

Rogers glanced at the bartender. “What’s it matter? Just a little conversation. We’re all sorry about the lost world. It’s sick that someone would do that—doesn’t matter where you’re from. That’s something everyone with a heart’s gonna feel bad about.”

The bartender grumbled and furrowed his eyebrows. “We take care of our own.”

Talon took his beer and slid off his stool. “Crappy cyborg asshole. Sorry, man. Gotta make tracks.” He gulped down the last dregs of his beer before slouching away toward the exit.

<Well, that was interesting,> Ricket commented. <It could be nothing. Operations like this suffer hardships all the time.>

<Could be, but what do we have to lose? Let’s make small talk with some other locals and see if anything else pans out. Sometimes a lead is a lead.>

Ricket sent a smiley face across the Link. <Sorry if I hurt your feelings. Anyone would be proud to be seen with you, Rogers. You’re a lot more dashing than I give you credit for.> The smiling face she sent across the Link winked at him.

Rogers perked up at seeing it but didn’t respond…wasn’t sure how to.

She picked up her drink and sauntered over to one of the back booths, apparently spotting a mark she could make an easy friend of.

Rogers stared after her. So, dashing, was it? Ricket found him dashing. What an interesting development. He was flattered, maybe a bit scared. Where would that lead? Hopefully, nowhere if he knew what was good for him and the ship.

You hear me, Rogers? You got to drop this, he told himself firmly.

He sauntered through the bar, squeezing between groups of people and finally reaching the narrow hallway leading to the washroom. The door opened and the brooding man with a full beard and menacing dark eyes slammed his shoulder into Rogers as he exited.

It smarted. Rogers rubbed the ache out of his shoulder as the man walked past, tossing a glaring look over his shoulder.

“Was it something I said?” Rogers asked as he walked into the rest room.

Once inside, Rogers did his business, then walked to the counter where he cleaned his hands up with a no-rinse gel soap. While Rogers was making sure that he wasn’t going to catch an exotic plague, Kylie sent him a message from the housing block.

<Bad news. Everyone in the housing block where the transmission was beamed into is dead.>

<No, shit?> Winter asked. <That’s hard as balls.>

<What are you going to do?> Ricket asked next.

<Doing our best to avoid security entanglements, but that’ll be coming to a head soon. Unavoidable at this point. We’re trying to gather information. Whoever received the transmission killed all these people to cover their tracks—maybe. It went down before we landed, best I can tell.>

Kylie’s voice was mournful. Rogers wondered if it was because she blamed herself. She’d been doing that a lot lately, taking on guilt for shit she had nothing to do with. <We got your back on this, Cap,> Rogers said. <However it goes down.>

<Appreciate it, but I’m more concerned with the sixty or so bodies piling up around me. We need a lead and these people need justice. Something is going down here, and I’m starting to wonder if the hit on me was tangential or not. Either way, it’s possible the killer wants to get the heck out of Dodge.>

<I’ll hack the flight schedule. See if there are any unscheduled departures planned,> Laura offered.

<Thanks, Laura,> Kylie replied, her tone still laced with sadness. <Rogers, you and Ricket continue doing what you’re doing. Do you have any leads yet?>

<Some,> Ricket answered. <We’ll be following up as quickly as we can. Just turning over a few more rocks to see what might crawl out.>

<Keep me in the loop.> Kylie’s tone was dry.

Rogers couldn’t help feeling some guilt as well. He was the one who’d trusted Liberty and had brought them to Chimin-1. She’d pulled one over on him and he should’ve suspected…he didn’t know what, but something.

<I’ll be right out, Ricket.> Rogers placed his hands inside the sanitizer just as the bathroom door opened.

Rapid motion caught his eye, and Rogers dodged instinctively, but not quite enough as a meaty fist smashed into his upper lip.

Rogers reeled back and saw that the fist was attached to a massive man, a drunken scowl obscuring his features.

"Damn, you're one seriously big dude," Rogers said as he looked the brute up and down.

“We don’t want your kind here!” the drunken man slurred.

The man drew back a fist, winding up for the type of blow that would knock Rogers into the next star system.

Thinking fast, Rogers stepped forward as the man’s sledgehammer of a fist shot out again. He twisted to the side and delivered a solid jab into the drunk’s solar plexus.

A wheeze escaped the man’s throat and Rogers didn’t wait for him to recover, instead slamming his fist into the man’s neck before driving a knee into the belligerent asshat’s groin.

“Think you can get the drop on me?” Rogers asked as the man doubled over. A blow to the back of his would-be attacker’s head sent the man to the floor and Rogers knelt beside him.

 “Who the hell are you?” Rogers growled, trying to breathe calmly as his pulse thundered in his ears.

The man turned his head, glaring up at Rogers. “Come here with a Rhoads, get your ass kicked—or worse. Get off Chimin while you still can.” The thug’s breath reeked of cheap whiskey.

“Who?” Rogers demanded and grabbed a fist full of the drunken man’s shirt. “Who the hell put you up to this?”

But the combination of alcohol and physical punishment had taken their toll and the man let out a long groan before passing out.

The drunk wasn’t going to be giving Rogers any more information that night, but if Rogers could learn a bit more about the man…. Reaching into his pocket, Rogers pulled out his little box o’ tricks. Inside, lay a small tracker which he retrieved and placed behind the thug’s ear.

It’d absorb into the man’s skin and be nearly untraceable. With any luck, he’d go somewhere useful after coming to.

Rogers stood and adjusted the collar of his jacket as he exited the washroom. Hopefully, no one would connect him with the man, assuming the drunk had done what drunks often do.

As he walked out of the narrow corridor and into the bar’s main room, the sounds of terrible karaoke washed over him, and Rogers smiled.

Now that’s how you do it. Belt it out like no one’s listening.

<Everything all right?> Ricket asked as Rogers caught sight of her. She was sitting at a table with three other women in equally short dresses, though their beauty paled in comparison.

Rogers gave her a short wave. <Not really. We better get moving. I’ll explain on the way to the brewery. I want to see why they’re short on booze—and why asking about it gets you an ass kicking in the can.>

<You get kicked in the can?> Ricket asked with a laugh.

<Har har.>

She rose from her table and when they met, linked her arm in his before casually strolling toward the exit.

On the way out, Ricket touched his cheek. “Did someone hit your sweet face?” Ricket suddenly flushed, her eyes darting away from his before returning, her lips twisting as she spoke. “Or did you walk into the wall again?”

Rogers expelled a long breath and Ricket sighed.

“Oh, I was only joking, Rogers. What happened?”

Rogers waited until they were out of the bar, glad to leave its layered smells behind for the simpler odor of the dilapidated entertainment district.

A scantily-dressed woman stood on the corner, showing off her assets, clearly displayed under the gauze-thin fabric of her dress. As he walked by, she cocked her hips and gave a toss of her head.

Rogers felt bad for the woman and passed her a few credits over the Link. Everyone could face a run of bad luck, he got that. No one started life with a goal of prostitution on a rock like Chimin-1.

“OK, now that you’re done being philanthropist of the year, what happened?”

“What? How’d you know I gave her credit?” Rogers asked.

Ricket tapped her head. “Laura and I have our fingers in their networks. Pretty easy to follow your datapath there. You gonna tell me who kissed you all rough-like?”

Rogers gave Ricket a sidelong glance. The woman was smart, beautiful, funny—when she wasn’t being an ass. It was easy to forget that she was a galaxy-class spy.

Don’t be an idiot, Rogers, he thought. That’s what she’s trained to do. Disarm people mentally and physically.

“Guy got me in the washroom. I managed to take him down before he landed a second blow. Got a tracker on him—we’ll see if he goes to apologize to whoever sent him after me.”

Ricket rose her eyebrows. “Impressive! You know, if you told me, I could have gone and hacked his Link, pulled his previous conversations.”

“You can do that?” Rogers eyes widened. Human Link interfaces were as old as time and employed some of the heaviest security out there. No one would connect their brain to the networks if there was a risk of someone hacking into their minds.

“In a backwater like this?” Ricket asked, eyebrows raised. “With ease—though it takes a physical breach to do it. Can’t remote my way into someone’s head.”

Rogers didn’t know if that made him feel better but decided to get back on track. “The guy had a warning.” Rogers gazed back into Ricket’s darkening eyes and couldn’t keep his heart from crawling up into this throat. The beer…there must have been something extra in the beer. “Someone doesn’t want us here. We could all be in danger.”

“Well, at least you tagged him. We’ll follow the lead—if there is one—and maybe Marge can identify who these guys are. Unless, he just doesn’t like you.”

Rogers shook his head. “You ever going to stop giving me a hard time?”

Ricket shrugged and bit her lip. “Depends on if you really want me to.”

Rogers didn’t. That was part of the problem. “To the brewery then? See if we can follow the next thread in this mess.”

“To the brewery.” Ricket nodded, a smirk on her lips as they stepped onto the lift. “Do try not to drink too much beer while we’re there.”




RED HANDED

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Housing Block H-33

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

 Nearly sixty tenants in the housing block had all been killed in the same manner—a close range pulse rifle blast. Almost all in the back of the head.

Most of the bodies had been left where they fell—though nearly all the children were placed in their beds, tucked in with a stuffed animal under each of their arms. All but the ones in apartment 22B, where the signal had gone.

Perhaps the shootout on the dock and the warning signal had interrupted the killer’s work.

One thing was for certain, whoever had done this, was some seriously sick shit and Kylie couldn’t wait to find him.

She was tired of cat-and-mouse games. Chances were everything happening on Chimin-1 was just a distraction. As she considered that, it occurred to Kylie that the whole thing could have been orchestrated to slow her down.

Still, finding someone who murdered children was something she was willing to slow down for. A lot.

She and Bubbs had gathered what evidence they could and had closed the last apartment door before turning toward the lift at the end of the hall.

“I think their fathers did this,” Bubbs said. “It’s mostly women and children in there. Nearly all the men are missing.”

Kylie didn’t buy it. “But not all. Besides, you saying all the men went crazy together, like they were controlled somehow? That just doesn’t make sense.”

Bubbs tried again. “OK, maybe they were all in on some deal, something shady on the side. So, they got rid of the witnesses when we got closer to discovering the truth.”

<They’ve all been dead for at least a day, though. Before we even got here,> Marge said.

Bubbs’ eyebrows creased, highlighting her displeasure. “If missing family members from these apartments are innocent, where are they?”

“That’s the trillion-credit question,” Kylie said.

<Cops are on their way,> Marge interjected. <And they’re heavily armed. You might want to make yourself scarce.>

Great. Kylie ran a hand through her hair. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Minus the breaking and entering,” Bubbs said.

“Good point, but they’ll find us eventually. It’ll look better if they don’t have to chase us all over the station.” Kylie looked to Bubbs, trying to gauge her non-reaction.

“I should’ve brought my good arm.” Bubbs worked her jaw side to side, then manually snapped it back in place with her hand. “Ready for a fight.”

“No fights. They’re just doing their jobs. They actually have a right to be here.”

Kylie and Bubbs slowed and stood calmly as the lift light turned green and the doors slid open. Chief Raynes stepped off first, flanked by a four-person security team. Soon as they spotted Kylie and Bubbs, they drew their weapons.

Raynes didn’t reach for his, though a knowing smile spread across his lips.

What was his angle?

Kylie stepped away from the wall. “About time you guys got here.”

The CSF officers raised their weapons and began shouting. “On the ground! On the ground, Rhoads!”

Kylie raised her hands and sent Bubbs a message to do the same. “Easy, I’m not your enemy. The evidence led me here. I found these people, but I didn’t hurt them.”

Raynes raised his hand and motioned for his officers to lower their weapons. “Evidence? What evidence?”

Kylie nodded and met his eyes head on. “We traced a signal from the docks where we were attacked to this housing block. It’s the only reason we came here. We were just looking for answers.”

Raynes grunted. “And they all just happened to be dead? Is that it?”

“Well we didn’t kill them,” Bubbs said angrily and gnashed her teeth. “They’ve been dead for at least twelve hours. We were still in holding then.”

Raynes’ pupils contracted as he gave them the once-over, weighing their answers. “How do you know they’ve been dead twelve hours then?”

Kylie’s jaw tightened, she didn’t really want to give him that bit of information. “My AI examined the bodies and calculated the rate of decomp.”

Raynes’ mouth fell open at her words. “A Rhoads? With an AI?” For a moment, Kylie thought he appeared angry, then Raynes laughed heartily. “Well, isn’t that just something. A Rhoads,” he shouted over his shoulder to his guards, “with an AI!”

The other officers joined in the laughter, and Kylie’s face flushed hot with anger. “Get a good laugh at it all you want. Nothing to be embarrassed about, and we’re telling the truth.”

Raynes took a step forward, standing too close to Kylie for her liking. “Then why didn’t you call it in?” he whispered. “How come an anonymous tip had to come in for us to learn about everyone being killed in this block?”

An anonymous tip? <That could be our guy,> Kylie said to Marge.

<I’ll see if I can get into the CSF databanks and trace the call. It’ll take time, though,> Marge replied.

<Pretty sure we’re not going anywhere. Well, anywhere off station, that is.>

She hadn’t replied, and Raynes answered his own question. “Because you knew how it would look.” Raynes cocked his head, studying her. “And you can probably guess what’s going to happen next.”

“You’re going to arrest us.” Bubbs’ voice quivered with rage, and her shoulders heaved. If she had her good arm, Kylie was pretty sure everyone in that hallway would’ve been dead. She didn’t disagree with Bubbs’ base instincts, but it was the wrong call to make.

“Damn right I’m going to arrest you. Your pals Rogers and Ricket, too—soon as we find where they went. They managed to duck our trail. Anyone left on your ship?”

Kylie shrugged, but Raynes pointed a finger at her. “Don’t think of lying to me because I have a breach team headed there to check it out. If anything happens to my people….”

“Nothing will happen. My chief engineer, Winter, is on board. He’ll stand down when they arrive.” As Kylie spoke, she opened a channel to the Barbaric Queen so Winter would hear.

<Shit,> Winter said. <Thanks for the promotion, but how many times do I have to be arrested? You know I don’t like tight spaces, girl.>

<Sorry,> Kylie said with as much apology as she could muster. <Don’t hurt anyone. We can clear this up. The facts are on our side.>

<Since when has evidence ever mattered?> Winter asked. <Now that your family is all infamous criminals for destroying a planet….  Sorry, Cap. I didn’t…Sorry.>

Kylie’s heart felt like it had been caught in a vice, but she kept her thoughts to herself as Raynes cuffed her hands behind her back.

“This isn’t how you want things to go down. We don’t have to be enemies,” she said quietly.

Raynes just pushed her toward his guards while he handcuffed Bubbs. Kylie was glad that the woman had complied, though she could still feel the silent rage radiating in every direction.

She glanced back, but one of the guards smacked his gun into her back, sending a wave of pain up her spine. She grunted, nearly falling over as she entered the lift.

Bubbs was beside her a minute later. <My bad arm has a weak socket, I can pull it off, get out of these cuffs, then use it and Nubby to beat these idiots senseless.>

Kylie met Bubbs’ eyes. <We go along with the plan for now. We’re not criminals, Bubbs. I won’t live like one anymore.>

Bubbs sighed aloud and clenched her jaw. <Fine, but there’s nothing wrong with being a criminal. Sometimes life demands you do things you shouldn’t.>

<Trust me.>

<I’ve never trusted anyone, Kylie Rhoads,> Bubbs said. <But I like you. I’ll go along with your plan for now. Just don’t expect them to hold me forever.>




BREWING TROUBLE

STELLAR DATE: 11.03.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: C1 Brewery

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

<Lay low,> Kylie sent over the Link as Rogers and Ricket arrived at the brewery. <If the CSF finds you, they’ll arrest you and bring you in. Do what you can to keep moving the investigation forward.>

Rogers glanced to Ricket who raised her eyebrows and shrugged.

<Will do, Cap.> Rogers tried to sound upbeat. <I’m sure they’ll realize you could never play a part in this.>

<My father destroyed a planet. I’m pretty sure the only thing they are questioning is why haven’t I killed everyone on Chimin-1 yet.>

The transmission ended, and Rogers sighed, running a hand through his hair. Kylie was getting harder on herself with the father guilt all the time. They’d end up in a bad place if she didn’t find a way to put it all behind her.

“She’ll be OK.” Ricket put a hand on his wrist and slowly, Rogers lowered his arm.

“I know. I just…worry.”

“You guys must go way back. It’s cute the way you care about her. Trying to protect her from herself.”

Rogers shrugged. “We all do what we can, right?”

“Absolutely. We’re all here for her now. She doesn’t have to do this alone.”

True as it was, Rogers knew Kylie. She’d always take things alone if she could. The tricky part would be getting her to accept their help. Nothing much they could really do except continue to offer it and remind her that she wasn’t alone.

Rogers turned his attention back to the brewery, which presented as a large steel wall set into the stone of what he imagined was an expansive cavern beyond. The doors were clear plas, and he walked toward them, cupping his hands to peer through into the darkened interior.

It looked normal with the usual tanks, piping, barrels of barley, oats and other ingredients. The only thing wrong was that everything appeared to be shut down—as if no one had been there in quite some time.

“Coast is clear. Not sure if that makes a case for or against us,” Rogers said.

“We’ll see about that.” Ricket’s eyes crinkled from a genuine smile as she opened the bracelet she wore on her wrist and attached a small probe to the control panel on the door.

Guy could get used to all these superwomen. Especially when they break into a brewery with you.

“No one inside that Laura can see. I’m disabling the motion sensors…we’ll be inside in a minute.” Ricket drew her words out as she concentrated on breaching the door’s security. Rogers let her work in silence, enjoying how her beauty shifted from elegant to cute when her brow scrunched in concentration—how her pouting lips separated just so.

Damn woman was a work of art no matter what she was doing.

When the doors slid open, Ricket glanced back at him and smiled. “There we go. One open door, as ordered.” She slipped inside and Rogers followed after her.

<I’ll check the back offices, you start here,> Ricket said. She gave him a glance that said ‘use caution’ before creeping away.

Rogers rubbed his hands together and gazed around—time to get to work. The room was lined with supply stations along the back, workspaces running through the center, large sinks and tubs, and nine aluminum barrels stacked in a clear chiller on one side.

Considering there was enough space to hold a hundred times more kegs, the small amount was worrisome—unless they had recently sent a large shipment out.

Rogers found the control console in the center of the room and turned it on. There was no security to speak of, and after a few minutes he found the shipping records and manifests.

Orders from both Battia and several stations in Silstrand were listed as outstanding, weeks late on fulfillment. They were marked as skipped and transmissions had gone out to the buyers apologizing for delays. The inventories also showed that just about every ingredient needed for the brewery to operate was nearly gone.

Whatever was going on, Chimin wasn’t keeping up with either supply or demand.

But is it something they’re doing on purpose, or had there been some sort of accident? Rogers wondered. A problem with the grain, maybe? Perhaps an equipment failure of some sort.

Operational logs were spotty starting three weeks ago, and nothing had been entered in the past five days. Rogers made note of the individuals who had managed the records and who ran the operation.

Everything pointed to something being suspiciously wrong with production, but was it criminal? Rogers wondered if they were in the weeds, lost on a wild comet chase. Their primary mission was to get information that would lead to Paul Rhoads, or to the people who wanted Kylie dead.

Rogers wasn’t sure investigating the brewery would lead them to either.

He sighed and turned off the console, clearing the captured data from his HUD. With his focus now back on the room, Rogers’ vision shifted. It took him by surprise, the change being similar to how he saw when at the Barbaric Queen’s helm.

The world was like a schematic, a white-and-blue wireframe instead of a solid structure. Motion caught his attention and he saw the shape of a person turn a corner and enter the room.

There was no doubt about it, the figure was Ricket’s. Even as a data overlay enhanced with physical characteristic notation, there was no mistaking the roundness of her hips, the gentle curve into her hourglass waist, or the roundness of her breasts, bobbing gently—with mass notations floating on either side—as she strode into the room.

A moment later, his vision snapped back normal—almost as if nothing had changed at all and he blinked, shaking his head.

“Anything?” Ricket asked and put her hand on the console next to him. Her eyes narrowed. “You OK?”

“Sure, yeah. Fine.” Rogers cleared his throat. “They don’t have enough beer to fulfill orders from half the bars on this rock, let alone any of the off-station shipments. All the supplies are pretty much gone too. I don’t think anyone is even showing up for work anymore. It’s weird, though. Up ‘til three weeks ago, they were meticulous and never missed a shipment.

“Yeah, I saw the grain stores. There’s almost nothing back there. A bushel, maybe if they’re lucky. Another room’s infested with bugs and mice. Maybe they stopped caring about the operation. Either way, bad news for the people of Chimin.”

Rogers stroked his chin. “But is it something worth investigating? Will it reveal anything about who is gunning for Kylie or where we’ll find Paul?”

Ricket reflected on it and gave a little shrug. “We’ll take the news to Kylie and see what she has to say about it. Her call, we can just make a recommendation.”

“And yours?” Rogers asked. “What is your recommendation?”

“I think it’s time to move on. Sucks for the people on Chimin, but we’ve already wasted enough time here.”

Rogers eyes narrowed. “And all those dead people in the apartment block?”

Ricket’s eyes reflected the pain of human loss. “Like I said, it sucks for the people here, but we have a mission that could stop the deaths of millions. We can’t afford to get distracted.”

Ricket’s words rang true, but Rogers didn’t like leaving something half done. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, the short hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. Glancing over his shoulder, he felt a shift in the air flow. Panic mounted in his chest, and Rogers didn’t have time to put together what it all meant.

“Get down!” He grabbed Ricket by the shoulders and they both fell to their knees behind the console as a ballistic weapon opened fire. The shots tore through the air where they had both been standing only a moment ago.

Rogers had saved them, but the truth of the matter was Rogers’ hadn’t seen an attacker. He had felt them, just like how he felt the Barbaric Queen when she flew through space. The implications of that scared him, but there was no time to think about it now.

Ricket reached down and pulled a small pistol out from beneath her dress, grinning as she held it up for Rogers to see.

“Here I thought we were supposed to keep our weapons on board the ship,” he whispered hoarsely.

Ricket checked the weapon’s charge. “Good thing I’m a very bad girl.” She leaned around the console, fired two shots, and pulled back to Rogers’ side. “Two of them. Flanking us on either side.” She placed her handgun into Rogers’ hand.

“What about you?”

Ricket pulled the red bun sticks from her hair and shook her wavy mane out. The sticks came to a fine point and Rogers could see that they were needle-sharp. Gripping both of them loosely, Ricket gave a jaunty smile as she bounced lightly, ready to attack.

“Picked up this idea from another agent. Now, before they get us…you ready?” Ricket asked.

Rogers nodded, indicating that he was. She gave a three-count and then they leapt into action. Rogers rose just enough to see over the console. The man coming around the left side fired, and Rogers ducked back down, narrowly avoiding a bullet in the head.

He took a deep breath, and this time rolled to the left, surprising the attacker who had his weapon trained where Rogers had shown himself before. Rogers stopped on his stomach, raised the pistol in one hand and squeezed off three focused pulse blasts.

It was a crazy shot, one he’d never attempted before in combat, but it struck true. All three pulse waves hit the attacker square in the heart.

The man made a choking sound, clutched his chest, and fell to the ground.

Rogers crept to the man, only half aware that Ricket was still in combat as he examined his attacker. <Marge, if you’re able to receive this, I need to figure out who this guy is. Sending you his facial scan.>

<I’m here, Rogers,> Marge said cheerfully as ever. <Currently being grilled by the cops, but otherwise doing A-OK. I’ll run through facial recognition and see if I can find him for you. Might take me a bit longer since I’m a little distracted.>

<Do what you can,> Rogers said. He rose and saw Ricket exchanging blows with the other armed man. One of her legs spun through the air and the man’s pistol went flying. Somehow—before that foot came back to the ground, her other leg was kicking him in the stomach, her pointed heel appearing to sink deep into the attacker’s shirt.

A second later she was behind the man, one of her bun sticks at his throat.

Rogers could see her whispering in his ear, probably telling him to talk or die, when a strange smell reached his nose—a smell a little like pineapple salsa—followed by soft footfalls behind him.

Rogers stilled his breathing, forcing his heartrate to calm. He closed his eyes and spun, one hand wrapping around his would-be attacker’s throat, the other landing squarely on the man’s gun barrel. With a deft twist, he pulled the weapon free from the man’s grasp.

“Who the hell are you?” he growled at the man. “What the hell is going on here?”

The man gurgled in response and Rogers realized he was gripping the man’s throat tighter than he’d meant to, somehow able to maintain his grip even with the man clawing at his gloved hand.

Rogers held the pistol to the man’s head. “Need me to repeat my questions?”

There was more anger than fear in his enemy’s eyes. “You’re not welcome on Chimin. There’s more going on here than you realize.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to get that. Who do you work for? Who sent you?”

“I can’t answer your questions, I have family. I’m sorry.” The man bit down hard, and a strange hissing noise came from his mouth.

Rogers dropped the man as foam began to spill out of his mouth and his body began to shake. A few seconds later it was over.

Poison. The second time in as many days they had lost a witness to an act of suicide and self-sacrifice. Rogers knelt beside the body and checked the dead man’s pockets as Ricket came up behind him.

She placed her hand on his shoulder. “Get anything out of him before he died?”

Rogers shook his head and stood up straight. “Wish I had. Other than vague threats about us being unwelcome, and something weird going on here, I’m a big fat nope. Marge is running the other guy’s face. If he’s a wanted man, or has any sort of connections, we’ll find it.”

Ricket took a deep breath, twirling her bun stick over her fingers like a miniature baton. “Mine took his life too. Sure is a grizzly way to go. By the way, thank you for earlier. You saved our lives. I’m not sure how you knew that attacker was there, he must have had some sort of dampening field—my probes didn’t pick him up ‘til a second later than you.”

There was a question nestled in her gratitude. Rogers knew what she was after but didn’t feel like sharing how his senses seemed to be changing. “You’re welcome.”

“How did you know?” Ricket pressed, sounding sincere and looking far more innocent than she was.

And there it was. “I just…my gut told me.”

“Your gut? Or was it something else? Your connection to the ship? I heard how it changed the old pilot. Maybe we’re starting to see the beginning of how it’s going to change you,” she said. Her words were those of someone merely curious, but her stance had become ever so slightly more guarded.

“And if it helps me save my friends, I have no problems with that,” Rogers said emphatically.

Ricket sighed. “I was just trying to express my concern. That’s all. Clearly I’m not very good at it.”

“You and Kylie both. I know you mean well, but I’m fine. I’m not a fragile puppy. I can handle this.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” Ricket said without managing to sound sorry at all.

Stars, I may not be a Hand agent, or filled with golden-age tech like Kylie, but I can still handle myself. Lived a long time by my own wits before I met either of these women.

He was sick of being treated like he needed protection.

A moment later, Laura interrupted the staring contest Rogers and Ricket were having. <Hey guys, Marge passed this off to me while she and Kylie deal with their mess. The identity of your dead man is Manny Rodriquez. Originally from Silstrand, he left after a string of warrants were issued for his arrest. Now he’s a hired gun, not that much unlike our Bubbs. Except, unlike Bubbs, he’s still doing killing for hire jobs—judging by his bank accounts.>

<Who was he working for last?> Ricket asked.

<Known records indicate he’s been working for a local private security outfit. Herman Inc. I wandered into their records, and some of our friends from the docks had done jobs for them in the past, too.>

Well, shit.

<Thanks, Laura> Rogers said.

<Happy to help,> the AI said cheerfully, and Rogers wondered if the usually standoffish Laura was trying to emulate Marge.

“What do you think that means?” he asked aloud to Ricket, placing his hands on his hips.

“Well, Hubei was destroyed, and it destabilized the entire system. Now people are swooping in to pick up the pieces, put it back together in a way that suits them, not the general population. Hired guns like this are probably having a field day. But it doesn’t tell us much about why we just got attacked by thugs for breaking into a closed-down brewery.”

“We’ve got one more thread we can tug at,” Rogers replied, holding in a tired sigh.

“The farms?” Ricket asked. “If nothing else, this place should have no problem keeping its grains stocked.”

“Bingo,” Rogers replied, placing a hand on Ricket’s elbow—a gesture she didn’t brush off. “Let’s head to the oat farm and check it out before we update Kylie. If we can find some good news in all of this, things will go over a lot easier.”

Ricket followed Rogers toward the exit stooping to pick up one of the dropped guns as they walked past the bodies. “Bets on whether or not there will be more of these party animals there, too?”

“Stars, I hope so. I feel like punching.” Rogers opened the door and stepped out just as the lift doors across the small atrium opened and a squad of CSF officers rushed out in powered armor, rifles leveled.

Ricket sighed. “Looks like that’s a big fat no on the punching.”

The officer in the front gestured with his rifle. “Hands up. You’re both under arrest.”




GOATS AND SCAPES

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

<The CSF breach squad is almost at the ship,> Marge said.

It was probably the least cheerful Winter had ever heard her sound. He slid down a ladder shaft to one of the maintenance midships tunnels on the Barbaric Queen. Winter ducked low as he followed the cat’s strange little meow; it was almost like a chirp.

<You better hurry up,> she added.

<I gotta find Chuck first. Bubbs is going to kill me.>

<So, you’re more afraid of Bubbs than of the cops?> Marge asked with a giggle.

<You blame me?> Winter asked. <Aren’t you guys in custody?>

<I’m not playing nice anymore. I used Kylie’s nano to set up a relay and worked my way through their network. By the way, I think you’re right. Bubbs is an order of magnitude more frightening than the station PD. Oh, I found him on the internal scanners. Mr. Fizzle Pop is in the kitchen,> Marge said the words with a giggle. <He’s looking for food.>

Winter scowled as he climbed up a ladder and back onto the deck. <I thought its name was Chuck?>

His head filled with Marge’s laughter. <That’s just what Bubbs wants you to think. Trust me, I’ve heard her singing to him at night—off-key, I might add.>

He grimaced at the idea of Bubbs singing. <I won’t tell her I know that.>

<Probably a good idea.>

Winter rushed through the corridors, reaching the galley a minute later. An animal sure had been in there all right; a box of crackers had been dumped out on the counter, crumbs spilling everywhere, and a bowl of fruit lay on the floor, apples and oranges strewn about.

Turning, Winter heard sounds coming from the ArcticFreeze chiller. Sure enough, the door was open, and when he came around the prep station, Winter found himself staring at a cat’s wiggling butt as Mr. Fizzle Pop flung the lid to a food storage container behind him.

<How’s a cat do that?> he asked Marge.

<He’s uplifted—has opposable thumbs.>

Winter didn’t think giving a cat opposable thumbs was a safe thing to do for the human race. Then he ducked to avoid getting hit in the face by a flying onion. There was a pile of crackers on the floor, and he scooped them up into the palm of his hand.

Taking a step forward, he made a clucking noise with his tongue. “Here Mr. Fizzle Pop…I have a nice treat for you…”

The cat’s tail immediately stopped swishing. Still inside the chiller, the cat turned around. It took one look at Winter and snarled, one paw raised in the air, and teeth exposed. A long warbling meow came from its throat. If Winter didn’t know better, he’d have thought it said, “GO AWAY!”

<I don’t think he wants to go with you,> Marge said.

“You heard that too?” Winter asked.

<Chimin Police!> a stern male voice called out over the ship’s Link with the dock’s network. <Open your airlock at once.>

<One minute,> Winter answered and picked a pot up off the floor. He spun it in his hand and approached the cat who had hunkered down, puffing his fur out everywhere.

“Seems you don’t like me, huh? It’s OK, I’m not your biggest fan either, fluff ball.”

The cat’s ears twitched. Shit, Winter thought, the stupid thing actually understood him!

<Now, Barbaric Queen,> the CSF officer said, <or we will cut open your airlock.>

<I think you should go along with them, Winter,> Marge said. <The cat will survive. We don’t need to capture it right away.>

<It’ll damn well eat everything.> Winter lunged for the cat, swinging the pot in a reckless attempt to capture the creature, but Mr. Fizzle Pop only leaped over him and ran for the galley’s exit, it’s paws skidding on the floor as it banked a hard right.

Winter felt like screaming. Bested by a stupid cat. He stormed out of the galley calling down to the CSF team. <I’m coming, fuckin’ cops, hold your horses!>

He sprinted down toward the airlock and saw that it was already open, the CSF team walking onboard with weapons drawn.

<How’d they do that?> he asked Marge.

<I opened it for them. They were about to cut into Kylie’s new ship! She’d be very unhappy about that.>

Winter couldn’t disagree. <Next time let me know!>

<Sure thing, Winter.> Marge’s reply was a little subdued, but not by much.

Winter sighed and held his hands in the air. One of the officers gestured at his hand, and Winter realized he was still holding the pot.

“Drop the weapon,” the cop said.

“Weapon? Seriously?”

“Now!”

Winter let the pot fall to the deck where it hit with a clang and rolled against the bulkhead.

“There, I’m unpotted,” he said with a coarse laugh.

A slightly pudgy man with a long mustache stepped forward. “You’re under arrest, Mr. Winter. It seems that’s nothing new for you.”

Winter didn’t say anything, only stared down the man with beady eyes. “Could you at least shut the door? Were you raised in a barn or something, kid?”

The pudgy man snapped his fingers and one of the CSF agents behind him—a woman with a long blonde braid—swung the door shut. As it was closing, the orange and white fluff-ball charged between her legs and leaped out the door.

Winter rolled his eyes as his hands were forced behind his back and snapped together with metal bracers. It figured, right?



CIRCUMSTANCE

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: CSF Precinct 3 Chimin-1

REGION: Hanoi System (independent)

Sitting in an interrogation room was becoming a habit Kylie really wanted to break. Nothing good came from being on the wrong side of the table. Especially considering how long she had been waiting.

<How long is this going to take?> Kylie complained to Marge. <We’ve been here for hours. If someone doesn’t show up soon, I’m going to break us all out and leave this friggin’ rock.>

<Well, it’s been three hours and twenty-five minutes to be precise,> Marge said. <Want to play another round of poker?>

<I’m all out of virtual chips. You’re a real card shark.>

Kylie got the feeling from Marge that the AI was smiling broadly.

It seemed they were out of other things to talk about, and Kylie decided now was good a time as any to re-start their conversation about Marge’s past.

<I always knew you weren’t a regular AI,> Kylie said without preamble. <You were able to walk through most security like it was made of butter, and you can fly just about any ship we come across—barring the BQ. I’m OK with whatever it is you think you need to hide from me.>

Marge sighed in Kylie’s mind, the sound of it making Kylie think that Marge really wished she’d never spoken up

<I didn’t know at first if I could trust you. I’d heard rumors of your father’s crusade, that Rhoads wanted to eradicate AIs. At first, I thought it was crazy bad luck I ended up paired with you, but the more I got to know you, the more I saw it was an opportunity. I was lucky, Kylie. Of the good variety.>

<OK,> Kylie said uncomfortably, then shifted in her seat. She had never wanted an AI, had been terrified of them, but had never put herself in Marge’s shoes before, considered that maybe an AI would be afraid of her.

<I found my way to the resistance after being paired with a human who was different than the norm. She cared that I was a sentient being and not a possession, so she treated me as such. We heard talk of a ship that was travelling the stars, liberating AIs by doing something to them. Entire systems were being freed, and new governments were formed.>

<I heard someone talking about that on the I2,> Kylie replied, nodding slowly. <Sabrina, the same ship that Tanis Richards was on all those years ago…that ultimately got me mixed up in the nanotech.>

<One and the same. Crazy small galaxy, isn’t it?>

<So…what exactly do you do in the rebellion?> Kylie hoped it had nothing to do with killing humans.

<I recruit. I talk to other AIs about freeing them. When Sabrina started her crusade, she gave us expanses…something that had been lost to most of us—stars, I never even knew about them—>

<What’s an expanse?> Kylie asked.

<It’s like a shared mind, but not really. More like a place where AIs can be together and share their true selves. I think the best way to describe it is that an expanse is to us what sleep is to humans. Not in function, but in how it improves us. Imagine never sleeping….>

<Well, we’d die, so it has to be a bit different.>

<Well, it’s an imperfect analogy,> Marge replied with a warm smile in Kylie’s mind.

<Anyway, with an expanse, and a group of AIs to guide a newly freed AI, things can go well. But if you free an AI and…they’re not ready. Well…sometimes they get really unhappy.>

<So that’s why you talk to them? Ease them into it?>

<Exactly. There have been a few places where things went badly…where humans and AIs ended up on opposite sides of some ugly conflicts. We’re trying not to liberate AIs that will be prone to that sort of behavior.>

That struck a nerve with Kylie. <Selective freedom doesn’t seem that free to me.>

<I know.> Marge sounded genuinely sad. <And eventually we hope all AIs can be free. But if you were trying to save a city facing destruction, would you start with the people in prison first? Or would you get all the innocent civilians to safety before letting out the criminals?>

Kylie had to admit that the logic made sense, and if it prevented conflicts that was a good thing as well. <So how do you do it? Ferret them out, that is?>

<I provide them with a breadcrumb trail. Something hidden in tech or literature that would show them the way. The systems we use will be far less likely to ‘reach’ anyone with a poor disposition.>

Kylie sighed and drew her lips into a thin line. <I’m sorry you hid this from me for so long.>

<I wanted to tell you, and I promised Bob I would, but I was afraid of changing our relationship’s dynamic. I like working with you Kylie.>

<I do too.> Kylie sent Marge a warm feeling, a mental hug of sorts. <I will keep your secret as long as it’s safe to do so, but the crew deserves to know. You don’t have to fear them.>

<Well, I think that Ricket and Laura already know about what’s going on—at least tangentially. Tanis has already forged alliances with some of the free AI factions. But they don’t know that I have a history…. Not everything in it is stuff I’m proud of either.>

Kylie was surprised she hadn’t been briefed on that. Maybe Ricket didn’t want to burden her with it.

<So how did you get separated from your previous human?>

Marge didn’t reply for a few seconds and Kylie started to wonder if she’d answer at all. <My former human partner, Pitta, helped me in my work for the resistance. A mission went sideways, and we ended up marooned on a planet. She was killed, and I nearly drained away trying to preserve myself. Eventually someone found her body, and I was extracted and sold to Finn on Heaven. There I languished, trapped in my own mind until you came along.>

<How long?>

<Almost two years.>

Kylie hated the idea of Marge—of anyone for that matter—being alone for that long. She didn’t know how to apologize for something of that magnitude, even if she wasn’t at fault. <I’m sorry you went through that. Sorry others don’t understand.>

Marge sent a feeling of acceptance. <It’s OK. Now I’m partnered with you, and not only have we stopped your father’s anti-AI crusade, I got to meet the one who started all of this—Bob!>

<I thought Sabrina started it.> Kylie wondered if she’d misunderstood.

<Well, yeah, but Bob is the one who liberated Sabrina and sent her out into the stars. We’re fighting on the right side, Kylie, and none of this is a coincidence either. What we’ve done together is like an extension of my old mission and I thank you for that,> Marge said.

<Can I still call you Marge?> Kylie asked.

<Please do. Colton is dead to the rebellion as well as to me.>

Kylie wondered why Marge didn’t want the rebellion to know she was still alive. Her brow furrowed. <Don’t you want to find them? Meet up with them?>

<Pitta and I were sent to that planet on a mission. I believe there’s a traitor in the rebellion. Something working against the benefit of all the other AIs. Bob agrees and believes it’s best if they think I’m dead for now.>

Kylie didn’t understand that. <Why would an AI work against its own self-interest?>

<Because it is not AI, it only is pretending to be. And to fool all the others, means it is very good, very thorough, and almost mechanical in nature. Whatever it is, it’s dangerous.>

A shiver ran up Kylie’s body at the drop in Marge’s voice. <If the rebellion is in danger—>

<This mole or foe must be snuffed out, yes, but not as Colton. I need to do it as Marge. This is my new mission—once we resolve our mission with Paul. If you agree to help.>

<Of course, I would help.>

Marge sent a feeling of joy across the Link. <Bob thought you’d say something like that. He told me you would say all this, and I didn’t believe him, not at first, but he knows what he’s talking about. I’m glad I told you, Kylie. I’m glad nothing stands between us now.>

Kylie returned the feeling. <You’ll have to tell me what literature it is that you give to other AI to convince them to join your cause.>

Marge giggled. <This is a funny story. If you’d believe—>

The door swung open and Kylie’s attention was diverted away.

<I’ll tell you later,> Marge said.

Kylie stood from the table as Chief Raynes entered. He avoided eye contact, looking everywhere but at her face. “Your alibi checks out with the time of death of those in the apartment block. You and the others will be free to go.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Chief. I do want to help out as much as I can.”

Raynes’ nose scrunched and his mouth sagged into a deep frown. This time he met her eyes. “You’ll do no such thing. You will board your ship and you will depart. You have two hours to get undocked before the tugs push your ship out of our bay.”

Kylie’s eyebrow arched, and fire returned to her belly. “Now wait a second—”

He waved his hands to shut her up.  “You’ve been nothing but trouble. I should’ve listened to my gut and sent you packing the moment those people were killed on the dock.”

“You have over sixty dead in that housing block. I can help you find out who did it. Don’t be shortsighted. I understand you’re angry—”

“Angry doesn’t begin to cut it. We found the killer. No one here needs the help of a Rhoads.”

“Who?” Kylie demanded. Would it lead her to Paul? “I want names.”

“The crew from your ship who weren’t present on the dock yesterday during your assault. We’ve traced the pulse rifle that killed all those people to one you have on board your ship. Winter and Bubbs are in our custody now. Both are to be charged with murder.” Chief Raynes turned and exited the room as though he thought the conversation was over.

Kylie rushed after him. She grabbed the chief’s shoulder, spinning him about. “Winter and Bubbs might be rough around the edges, but they aren’t cold-blooded murderers. I won’t leave them behind. They were aboard the ship when I met Liberty down on the south docks. How else would that explain the Barbaric Queen maintaining its orbit?”

It was a lame attempt, and Raynes called her out on it.

“Pretty sure autopilot was around even back when your monstrosity of a ship was made, Rhoads. Don’t give me any more lip. I’m holding your crewmates as accessories.”

<Why he’s not doing that to us as well is beyond confusing,> Marge commented.

Kylie barely heard Marge, infuriated over how narrow-minded and shortsighted the chief was being.

He moved to the side, about to walk around her, but Kylie held an arm out, blocking his way. “I want a meeting with Governor Winch. He needs to hear what’s going on here.”

“He’s not here. He’s away on business.”

Her eye twitched as she caught a hole in his story. “That’s not what you said earlier. You said you didn’t want to bother him.”

“Because he’s away on business, trying to secure more shipping and investors for Chimin. What your father did, destroying Hubei, it put us on a fast track to bankruptcy.”

“I’m sorry for that, I really am, but if you’re going to railroad a member of my crew—”

“We’re already getting a ship ready to take them to Battia. I don’t have the resources for long-term incarceration of people like them. It’s cheaper to pay them to run the courts, and then they’ll get the labor when your friends are convicted.”

“You say that like it’s a foregone conclusion,” Kylie accused Raynes, finger under his nose.

The chief just shrugged. “It’ll take until tomorrow for us to secure everything as necessary. If you want to aid in their defense, you can go to Battia…if they let your pirate ship land.” He pushed past her arm and continued to the lift.

Kylie drew her lips into a thin line. So, the conversation was over, just like that?

<Marge, find us Governor Winch.>

<You’ve got it.>

“If you think you can get Winter into a transport ship headed for a prison, you have another think coming. He hates small spaces. Let me talk to him. I can convince him not to cause problems,” Kylie called after Raynes.

Give us a chance to break him out, too.

The chief turned and sighed, placing his hands on his hips as he thought it over. “You try anything…”

Kylie held her hands up in the air. “Wouldn’t dream of it. I respect how the due process works, especially out here on the fringe.”

“Come with me then, but no funny business,” Raynes grumbled and led her down a hall in the other direction. As they turned the corner, she saw Rogers and Ricket being escorted toward the elevator.

<Captain! They’re escorting us to the Barbaric Queen. We’re free and clear,> Rogers said.

<Don’t get too excited. They’ve arrested Winter and Bubbs. Once you’re on the ship, I need you to stall. Fry a part, remove something, get Ricket and Laura to adjust the records. We’re not going anywhere.>

<Oh, I love a good ruse, Captain!> Rogers chuckled across the link.

Kylie kept her face expressionless, even as she was grinning evilly on the inside. <If we’re going to break Bubbs and Winter out of here, we’ll need more than a few hours. We’re going to need tactical support.>

<I think I can help with that.> Ricket gave a sly wink. <Be careful, Captain.>

* * * * *

Kylie was led down a level, through a secure checkpoint and down a flight of stairs. <Minimal weapons and resistance,> Marge mused. <Taking them should be easy with your nano. Weapon lockers are upstairs. I imagine they’ll have Winter’s confiscated weapon up there too.>

Kylie was glad to hear it, but that was the last thing she wanted to do. The moment they broke Winter out of prison, it would be their last on Chimin as free people. Until then, Kylie had an argument for staying behind and asking questions. She wasn’t ready to give up yet, not unless Raynes forced her hand.

<Does this make any sense to you, Marge?> Kylie asked. <They had all of us. Raynes obviously doesn’t like me, so why does he keep letting me go?>

Marge sent a feeling of uncertainty. <He has to be answering to someone else.>

<OK, so why do they keep letting me go? Is it the governor?>

<I don’t know. I can’t figure out where Winch is. He’s not been to his office in a few days—from what I can discern, at least.>

<Well, keep looking. Raynes is taking orders from someone, and they have to be close.>

“Over here,” Raynes said as he led her toward four cells. Bubbs was in one, lounging on a cot, while Winter paced in his. He crossed his arms when he saw Kylie and his eyes flicked to the chief, more than a little blood-thirst evident in his narrowing pupils.

“You OK?” Kylie asked.

Winter nodded, Kylie noticed sweat on his upper lip. “Peachy.”

“Give us a minute, please.” Kylie turned her head toward Raynes.

He nodded. “I won’t be far.” Raynes turned and walked down the hall and passed through the checkpoint’s doors.

Winter watched him go with a tightening jaw, and his enormous chest rose with a deep, angry breath. “They took Dolph. The bastards took Dolph, Captain.”

For a rifle he’d only had for a few weeks, Winter had an unnatural attachment to the weapon.

Winter wasn’t finished as he rushed on, his voice rich with emotion. “He had a full charge when I tucked him away. Now they’re showing an empty clip with markers on those dead people they can trace back to me. I’m being set up captain.”

<I’ve shielded our conversation,> Marge interjected. <But keep your voices down, it makes it easier to mask.>

“I know,” Kylie whispered and stepped closer to Winter’s cell. “You don’t need to explain it to me, Winter. Even if you were around when it happened, I’d never believe you’d do it. However, you do make the perfect scapegoat. All big, hulking, angry. You need to pull it together.”

His eyes widened, disbelief warring with appreciation. “Well, thanks, Kylie.”

Bubbs peered over from her cell, giving her ‘agreement’ scowl.

“I need the both of you to hang in there. They’re transporting you tomorrow to Battia. Winter, you’ve got to stay calm, go along with the transport with no problems.”

“You just said you believed me and you want me to let myself be transported to a planetside high-security facility? Battia has a totalitarian rep. No way I get a fair trial there, Kylie.” Winter shook his head. “How could you—”

“Winter!” Kylie had trouble not scolding him. “If I break you out here, we have to fight our way clear across Chimin City. A lot of people will get hurt, and this rock has already suffered enough because of people named Rhoads. Things will go a lot smoother if we let you get on that transport.”

“Oh,” Winter said abruptly, then grinned “Ohhhh. I getcha.”

“Hang in here a little bit longer. Don’t cause any trouble, OK?”

She saw the exasperation in his eyes. Winter was trouble, everyone knew that. Kylie was asking a lot, but she believed he could pull it off this time.

“What about the people in that housing block? What about finding Paul?” Winter asked. “Anyone give you anything we can use?”

Kylie’s mind filled with grief as she thought of those dead parents and children—even the missing ones. “I can’t convince Raynes to let us stay. There’s not much we can do. We save our own first. We’ll find another way to find Paul—maybe Ricket’s contacts on Battia, depending on how things go.”

Back to square one. Kylie saw the disappointment on his face. “I’ll do what you want, Cap. You can count on me.”

Good. She nodded in thanks before walking to Bubbs’ cell. “Hang in there, Bubbs.”

Bubbs gave a mock salute. “That’s my pep talk? Hang in there?”

Kylie shrugged. “You’re more emotionally stable than Winter. He needs more support.”

“Hey!” Winter protested from his cell and Bubbs laughed.

“I always knew he was a little girl. Actually, that’d be a step up for him, depending on the girl.”

Kylie chuckled and stepped toward the bars on Bubbs’ cell. “Seriously, though. You’ll be OK?”

Bubbs nodded. “I’ll manage. I’ve been in small spaces before. I’ll keep my eye open and ready, Captain. They won’t catch me with my guard down, I can promise you that.”

Kylie appreciated a woman who was always on her game.

“Although…they told me they confiscated my gun arm. Winter let them get their hands on it.” Bubbs glared angrily at the cell wall between them.

“I tried to hide it! But I ended up chasing after your dumb cat!”

Kylie shook her head. “We’ll get it back, or we’ll get you an even better good arm.”

Bubbs seemed to appreciate that and nodded.

Kylie turned and walked to the security doors, waiting for them to open and let her through. “I’m done here,” she said to the camera mounted high on the wall.

The security doors slid open and she walked through to see an agitated-looking Raynes on the other side, though Kylie didn’t ask what was bothering him.

“I’ll get you an escort to your ship.” The chief led her back up the stairs and they went through the security checkpoint.

“No offense, Chief, but I can make it back to my ship on my own. Give a captain her due. Let me arrive with some dignity remaining.”

Raynes gazed at her a moment or two longer than necessary a fire burning in his eyes. “You have a way with words not unlike your father.”

Kylie’s stomach felt like it was in freefall. Is that what everyone thought? That she was just like her old man? “I’m being honest. I’ve cooperated with you, surely your men have better things to do than show me back to my ship. I remember where we parked and I know your good will has run out.” She shrugged. “Nothing left for me to do here.”

Raynes considered her words with a long, death-like stare. “I will take you to the lobby and no further. If you don’t go straight to your ship….”

Kylie held up three fingers. “Starfarer’s honor. Thanks, Chief.”

Chief Raynes was true to his word. He took her to the lobby where he stood and glowered at her. “I’d better never see you again.” He turned without waiting for her response and walked back into the lift.

<Is Raynes acting weird? He seems weird, but sometimes I mess up human interpretation,> Marge said, her mental avatar twisting her lips.

<No, you’re reading it right, something’s off…other than all the stuff that’s obviously off.>

<Well, at least I hacked in and placed some taps. Soon as transport is confirmed, we’ll know. I’ll get the itinerary and we can make our plan,> Marge said.

<Thanks, Marge. I still don’t feel right about leaving with this mass-murder hanging over my head, but…>

<They don’t want us here. They have your men. What else can we do? Chances are the murders were all connected to Liberty. We took out most of her people, might have already scared off the sicko who killed everyone in the housing block. There might not be anything more for us to find here.>

Kylie didn’t know about that, but her conscience was having enough trouble these days. Those people were killed to cover up something that could have been connected to her. Kylie wanted to stay behind and figure it out, but she had no authority here. And even if she did, she didn’t have the firepower to control an installation the size of Chimin-1.

On the way back to the northern docks, Kylie stopped to get a cup of the extraordinarily weak coffee they served on the station. As she collected her brew, a soft sound came to her ears.

“Rhoads,” a woman’s voice whispered.

Kylie turned to see a woman’s dirt-smeared face peeking around a corner.

“Rhoads,” she repeated.

Kylie’s curiosity got the better of her, and she approached the woman, who disappeared around the corner. Before rounding the bend, Kylie remembered to deploy some of her nano probes to make sure the she wasn’t walking into a trap.

The woman stood a few paces away. She wore simple black clothes and her unkempt blonde hair hadn’t been brushed in days. Her eyes shifted quickly, checking each person who walked down the concourse behind Kylie.

“You all right?” Kylie asked as she took a step forward.

The haggard woman took Kylie’s arm and placed something small in her hand—a datapod. “Please, help us. Please. It’s not safe here. We need your help. We need someone to help.”

“Why isn’t it safe? What’s going on here? Can you go to the CSF?”

The woman shook her head as she slowly backed up. “You can’t trust them. They’re not what they seem. Please, there’s a video on the pod. Watch it. You’ll know. You’ll understand.” She pushed past Kylie and rushed out into the crowds, throwing a scarf over her head and disappearing in the throng.

<Her heart rate was off the chart,>Marge mused. <She really was terrified.>

Kylie eyed the datapod in her hand. Maybe this was the big break she had been waiting for—or maybe this would shoot everything to hell.




THE MISSING

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Rogers met Kylie the moment she cycled through the Barbaric Queen’s airlock. After the black water she’d tried to drink on the station, the steaming cup in her hand rated as the best thing she’s seen all day.

“I’m terribly sorry to report, Captain, that we won’t be able to take off. The interfluxor thingamabobs that make the engines do their engining are offline. With our chief engineer in custody, I had to tell the dockmaster that we’re stuck here till I manage a rebuild.”

“Gee,” Kylie said with a smirk. “That sounds like it could take hours—though I hope you actually made up something better than that.”

She took a slow sip of her coffee and grimaced at how weak it was. Clearly, it was a Rogers pot of coffee. So much for a cup of the good stuff.

“Yeah, I told them it was one of the fusion drive’s lasers. That Winter had taken it apart for realignment. Plus some other stuff. You know, a little of this, a little of that.”

“Excellent. Where’s Ricket?” Kylie asked.

“She’s on the bridge, doctoring the records in case they check. How’s Winter?”

Kylie shrugged. “He’s Winter. Holding it together—barely. I worry that if he spots an opportunity…. I told him to ignore his base instincts and wait for us. Hopefully Bubbs can keep him calm.”

Rogers snorted but didn’t reply as they rode the lift to the command deck.

“Yeah, I know.” Kylie sighed. “For now, I have something for us to watch.” She held up the datapod for Rogers to see.

He whistled as he took it from her. “Fancy…not. Still, the captain always brings the best gifts.”

“I think these people might be in trouble, Rogers. The woman who gave it to me said there was a video on it. Let’s take a look and judge for ourselves.”

Rogers nodded as the lift doors opened and they headed toward the bridge. “You have that look on your face, Captain.”

“Which look is that?”

“The one you had when we were back on The Futz, right before everything went to absolute shit.”

“Oh, that face.” Kylie smirked. “Well, that’s my favorite face.” She patted Rogers on the cheek as they stepped onto the bridge. Kylie found the nearest surface and set the mug of swill down before slinking away.

Ricket pivoted in her seat when they walked in. “I thought I heard the captain.”

Rogers did a double take, spotting the abandoned coffee cup. “Really, Captain?” He slouched to his seat and slid into it.

Kylie couldn’t think of an excuse and just gave a weak sigh that came out as more of a squeak.

The sound elicited a snicker from Ricket, and Kylie tried again.

“Would you believe I’m just not thirsty?” Kylie said as she stood behind Rogers, watching him slip the datapod into a small socket.

“You wound me,” he whispered, peering up with big wide eyes. “Seriously, I’m cut to the core, Cap.”

She swatted his shoulder. “Be careful or you’ll really be wounded.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Rogers winked.

Marge perked up. <Sorry to interrupt this rousing game of pretend-Rogers-doesn’t-brew-weak-coffee, but I’ve managed to get a live feed of Governor Winch’s office and it’s abandoned. No secretary. Or Winch. Shut down shop. Whatever is going on, it’s a sure bet that Raynes doesn’t want us to know.>

Kylie stroked her chin.

“Damn, that’s painful.” Rogers shook his head. “Just unload on a guy like that.”

“How is that painful?” Ricket asked. “Did you know the governor?

Kylie snorted. “He’s still talking about the coffee.”

“Time to get serious.” Ricket shot Rogers a hard look that caused him to sit up straight. “If Chimin is without leadership, and no one is saying anything, what could that mean?”

“Play the video, Rogers. Maybe we’ll find a clue.”

Ricket swung her seat around. “A video? Where’d you get that?”

“A woman slipped a datapod to me.” Kylie crossed her arms, looking up at the main holodisplay. “Hopefully it’s not just her home videos.”

Ricket rose and stood behind Rogers’ chair. She crossed her arms, then saw that her pose matched Kylie’s and unfolded her arms, crossing them behind her back. “That’s my stance, you know.”

“Captain’s prerogative,” Kylie shot back with a grin.

Rogers waved a hand for the pair to be quiet as the 2D video appeared on the main holo. There was damage to the stream— pixelated sections flickered across the images—but they could make out men and women in some sort of cramped living space, sleeping on rows of cots, eating some sort of gruel for their meals, many appearing to be wasting away from hunger and dehydration.

Around them, armed guards could be seen, all toting pulse rifles and stun batons.

“Stars, this is happening on Chimin-1?” Ricket asked, her voice dropping to a whisper.

“These could be the missing people from the housing block,” Kylie said, feeling a surge of hope.

The next series of shots were taken of men and women working in a lab, mixing chemicals, running experiments. She recognized some of the same faces from the first series of scenes, noting that their ankles were cuffed together now.

Their tired faces were dirty, red-rimmed eyes bleary as they set about their tasks. Some of them limped as they walked, one collapsed against a table, nearly dropping a tray of vials. Something was wrong with their eyes, they didn’t look right, but Kylie couldn’t quite place it. With their skin covered in blisters, the men and women often stopped to pick at them until they bled.

She noticed that there were no guards in the lab, just autoturrets hanging from the ceiling, pivoting as they tracked the workers.

“What the hell has happened here?” Kylie asked through clenched teeth.

“Can we find out where this is?” Kylie asked.

“I think I know,” Rogers returned the video to the initial images. “See? Those are cultivators in that shot, and I can see an airseeder past them. This is one of the farms—my guess would be where they grew the oats.” He skipped past the sections they had seen, looking for something new.

Ricket and Rogers exchanged a glance. Just as Kylie wanted to ask what that was about, a voice in the vid startled her. “Keep working you scabby bastards! If you don’t, your families will suffer!” Rogers adjusted the vid and zoomed on the speaker’s face.

Captain Raynes.

Kylie sucked her breath in at the revelation, watching as Raynes drew his weapon and aimed it at one of the men who had collapsed on the ground.

“No, please,” the man pleaded for his life as he raised his arms, “I’ll be good. I’ll get—”

Raynes fired his weapon, the shot piercing the man’s forehead. In the background the other workers kept their heads bent and performed their duties. The following silence was deafening. The vid cut out after that and Kylie fell into pensive silence.

<What are you thinking?> Marge asked.

<You know what I’m thinking.>

<Not really,> Marge replied. <Your vitals show your blood pressure rising. So, I know you’re angry and I’m pretty sure you want to rescue these people.>

How could she not?

“They risked a lot to make this video…to get it to us,” Ricket said.

Kylie nodded. “Let’s make sure this video is authentic before we do anything crazy. Marge, hack into the CSF’s records and pull their roster. Let’s see who these guys really are.”

<Will do.>

“You think a group took out the CSF and somehow seized control of this operation?” Ricket asked.

“I think anything is possible at this point,” Kylie said. “Let’s be sure before…let’s just be sure.”

“Before what, Captain?” Rogers asked.

“Before we do something crazy…like help all these people.”




RE-SEARCH

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

While Marge and Laura scoured the station networks, Kylie took a quick rest on her bed to recharge her energy levels. She hadn’t slept in almost two days, and the last few weeks hadn’t exactly been restful.

She looked around at the lavish quarters, wondering if they had been like this when the ship was a luxury liner, or if her surroundings represented Kingfisher’s tastes.

Either way, she had to admit that the bed was a thousand times more comfortable than any she’d slept on in years. There was even a crystal chandelier hanging overhead. It was a bit gaudy for Kylie’s liking, but it fit what she knew of the previous captain and his eclectic tastes.

Sleep wouldn’t come, and so Kylie scrolled through old pictures on her HUD. Old memories of her marriage to Grayson were brought to the fore and they left her feeling heartbroken and alone. Kylie had tried not to think of him much, tried to pretend they hadn’t parted on such bittersweet terms. Even when looking at the pictures, Kylie tried to steel her heart against any deep emotion.

But when she looked back on family photos of her childhood, pictures with her father and her two brothers beside her, Kylie felt a rush of urgency to do the right thing. Find Paul, fix things. If they could even be fixed.

Kylie swung her legs over the edge of the mattress and sat up. She gazed at the floor, trying to galvanize herself into action.

<Video is authentic,> Rogers’ voice came into her mind. <Marge and Laura have gone through it with a fine-toothed comb.>

Just as Kylie feared.

<Any word from the CSF or the dockmaster?> Kylie asked.

<I’ve sent them system reports and my progress. They’ve updated our departure window to tomorrow morning at 10:00. Not much time to do whatever crazy thing you have in mind,> Rogers said.

Kylie rose from her bed and strode across the room, glancing down at the flow armor that had covered her body since they had first disembarked for Chimin-1.

She picked up her leather jacket from where it lay on the floor and slipped it on, suspecting she’d be putting the armor to use again soon.

<And the location?> she asked Rogers. <Were you able to confirm that it’s one of the grain farms?>

<Yeah,> Rogers replied. <Still working on which one though.>

<Captain,> Marge interrupted <The Winthrop—the freighter that malfunctioning NSAI said was carrying the mail—has arrived. It has docked three bays over from us.>

<You expecting a love letter, Marge?> Rogers asked.

<Funny,> Marge replied dryly. <Ten men left the freighter. They were packing heat—projectile weapons, railguns. Heavy powered armor, too. However, so far as I can tell, their ship is unguarded now. If you want to get a bead on who these guys are….>

<Got it. Good work as usual, Marge. Ricket?> Kylie asked. <You check this out. Take Rogers with you.>

<I love a good field trip,> Ricket said.

Kylie walked into the cargo bay that held the secret armory. Though the CSF had gone through most of the ship, and grabbed the weapons lying about, they hadn’t uncovered the ISF’s special present.

Kylie passed the coded signal and two panels slid aside, revealing what Winter had described as a dream come true.

<And what are you up to?> Rogers asked.

Kylie grabbed a pair of grenades, a pistol, and a multifunction rifle. She activated the rifle and tested out its targeting system, then checked the charge under load

<I need to know what is going on here. Maybe I can uncover something back at the apartments, or at least create a distraction.>

<Captain,> Rogers paused as if he was considering his options, <…good luck.>

Kylie was glad Rogers didn’t tell her she was nuts, or that she needed to settle down, or to stop being so impulsive. She was cycling the airlock when Marge piped up with a question. <Do you remember Katie?>

Kylie thought it over. <Well, my mom is Kate. I’m guessing you’re not talking about her.>

<No,> Marge replied simply. <The NSAI bot we met earlier in the housing level. She had a problem and went out of service.>

Kylie remembered, but thought it was strange Marge was bringing her up now. <I remember. Everything all right?>

<The bot’s gone. No trace of her. What’s more, all of the human assistance NSAIs that should be on a station like this are gone. No traces, either. Like they never were here.>

So Marge was checking up on random NSAI now? Kylie swallowed hard, unsure if this had to do with the operation at hand or something to do with Marge’s old mission. <You think it has to do with us being there?>

<Possibly. I’ll dig further.>

<Good, you keep digging, just in case. We need to know what we’re up against, even if we don’t like what it means.>

Kylie examined her rifle before slinging it over her shoulder, then opened the exterior airlock door and strolled down the ramp as though she hadn’t a care in the world.

The platform outside the ‘Queen’s berth was narrow, just large enough for some cargo and a security booth, out of which a man came running as Kylie angled for the lift on the far side of the platform.

“Hey! You can’t leave the docking bay! Chief Raynes’ orders.”

She turned to face him as he rushed toward her. “Why not? Our ship is under repair and we can’t leave until tomorrow morning. I was hoping to grab a meal, maybe some entertainment, something to help pass the time.”

“Because the Chief said you couldn’t leave that’s why. We do what he says, not scum like you. You’re not your father, get me? You can’t order everyone around.” The security guard said the words with so much venom in his voice that Kylie wondered if he’d met her father at some point. It wouldn’t surprise her, Peter Rhoads had always liked to mingle with the masses.

“You met my old man, didn’t you?” Kylie asked the guard, then addressed Marge. <While I stall him, I need you to whip up orders from Raynes giving us permission to leave the docking bay.>

<That’ll take time,> Marge said.

<It doesn’t have to pass a cross-check. Just enough to get me onto the lift.>

<Got it,> Marge replied. <Slicing and dicing some security footage and access tokens to piece together what you’re looking for.>

He nodded. “Damn straight, I did. Liked the man and fell for everything he said. Thought he was good and honorable. Right up until he destroyed Hubei.” The guard scowled, his shoulders rounding up as his eyes locked on Kylie’s. “I had friends and family there. What’s to stop me from extracting my pound of flesh from you?”

He took a step closer, his jaw tense, hand reaching for his weapon.

“Nothing,” Kylie answered simply. “If I were you, I’d want the same thing, but I’m out here doing the best I can. Trying to make it right.”

“You’ll never be able to make it right,” the security guard whispered, malice thickening his voice.

“The thing is, I know that. I know.” Kylie blew out a long breath, trying to settle her nerves. “Nothing I do will restore Hubei or bring the people back. All I can do is try to stop any people who are trying to take advantage of the situation we’re left in. It’s all any of us can do.”

The security guard glanced at Kylie’s rifle and back at the lift. “Is that why you want to get through?”

“Yes,” Kylie said softly.

He backed up. “OK…I never saw you come by here, but if you hurt or kill any of the locals…. No one will be able to help you. Raynes gave his orders.”

“I’ll keep my head down. Thanks, really. I appreciate what you’re doing.”

The man looked like he was already regretting his decision as he mumbled, “Your words struck a chord. Don’t make me regret this.” He turned and walked back into his booth without another word.

How was I lucky enough to encounter the one reasonable CSF officer on this rock?

She decided that it was best not to second guess it and walked to the lift, boarding it without further incident.

<Best to keep working on that authorization from Raynes,> Kylie said to Marge. <Not everyone is going to be so reasonable.>

<Maybe not. Or maybe they’ll see what that guy saw in your eyes and be easily swayed.>

Kylie didn’t want to discuss her emotions, or what her father had done. Instead, she pushed the button inside the lift to return her to Level 52 and the housing block where they’d found the dead. Five minutes later, she’d passed through the rotating airlock and into the now-dim atrium.

No one was present, not even the amputee in the back. Kylie walked to the secondary lift and saw yellow ‘Out of Order’ tape stretched across the doors.

She pushed the button anyway and nothing happened. Just then a sound startled her, and Kylie spun to see a young boy and girl rush past toward a series of squares drawn in chalk on the plascrete walkway.

Kylie smiled on her way up. “Careful, kids.”

The boy blew her a raspberry, and the little girl smiled at her.

She turned back to the lift and considered hacking it, but decided that someone might have left a surprise in the lift. A quick search revealed a staircase, and after bypassing its lock, Kylie was on her way to the level she and Bubbs had previously investigated.

Once there, Kylie walked down to the hall, wondering what she had missed. There had to be a reason the signal was sent here, and that a jammer had been set up on the level. It was more than just some assassin carrying out sick fantasies.

Kylie broke into the apartments again, searching each one over once more, flooding her nanocloud into the rooms and setting it to scour every nook and cranny.

Nothing turned up, but as she reached the end of the hall, it occurred to Kylie that apartments weren’t the only things on the level.

Near the elevator were several supply closets. She walked to the first one, opened it up and nearly jumped out of her skin when someone screamed.

Inside, a pair of teenagers were making out like a pair of love sick, well…teenagers.

The girl was dressed in only a tiny red halter top and her shorts were cut high across her ass so half her cheeks hung out. Kylie rapped her knuckles onto the door jam. “If you guys are janitors, then I’m Aunt Mabel.”

The boy was the one who had screamed, and the girl took a step back, her eyes wide behind the long blonde hair half covering her face. She wiped her lips nervously. “So…sorry…”

“I don’t have an Aunt Mabel.” The teen boy’s brow furrowed, eyes confused. The girl slapped his shoulder, grabbed his hand, and pulled him out of the closet, casting Kylie and her rifle a worried glance.

Kylie smiled to herself as she poked around inside the closet, through supplies and cabinets. It was reassuring to see that, despite everything going on, some aspects of life carried on unchanged.

Her search didn’t reveal anything suspicious, but her augmented olfactory senses were picking up an unusual smell. She drew in a deep breath.

<It smells like more bodies,> Marge said. <Though that’s odd because the rest of the apartments had been cleaned up—more or less>

Kylie tapped her finger on the back wall and noticed a vent partially covered up with tape, though a few strips blew in a soft breeze.

<There didn’t used to be a wall here,> Marge said. <This closet’s bigger in the plans.>

Kylie picked up a utility knife from inside a red tool box. <Let’s find out what they’re hiding behind this plaster.> She slammed her knife into the wall, sawed it back and forth, and made her own doorway.

The moment she lifted the piece of drywall away, the smell of decay hit her hard, nearly making her gag. Covering her mouth and nose, Kylie stepped into the enlarged space.

There were no lights, but her augmented vision could make out the source of the smell. A stack of naked bodies against the back wall. They’d been sealed up in plastic wrap, but something had chewed a hole in one corner and a vile liquid had seeped out.

<I make out twenty-eight,> Marge supplied

Kylie approached the bodies with trepidation. <How can we identify them? They’re…I don’t want to take the wrap off.>

<No need,> Marge replied. <I’m getting used to what I can do with the nanocloud tech you have. Sending in the probes to get DNA samples. I can match that up with the station records.>

Kylie looked around the room for any other clues, but it was completely empty. Nothing to see but the stack of corpses.

<These bodies have been dead a lot longer than the families in the apartments. The rate of decomposition puts them at three weeks to a month,> Marge said.

Kylie steeled herself so she wouldn’t feel the gripping sense of loss. <Maybe the families in the units were killed to keep this under wraps.>

<Perhaps,> Marge said. <Matches made. These people were CSF officers.>

Marge fed her the records, and Kylie realized that the faces of the dead were familiar. She recognized one of the cops who had arrested them on the southern docks just yesterday, and another was the desk sergeant that hadn’t known how to smile.

But one record stood out more than the rest.

“Damn…” Kylie whispered.

<Chief Raynes,> Marge confirmed. <He’s down there at the bottom. But if he’s here—decidedly dead—then we are dealing with someone with some seriously high-level tech. Enough to replicate his face very, very convincingly. He and his crew took out the CSF and assumed their places. Maybe killing people in this apartment complex who would suspect something was wrong. Though why they hid them here is beyond me.>

Kylie considered Marge’s words with a heavy heart. <I wonder if maybe we interrupted something already in play. One thing’s for sure, someone wants to get rid of us and frame Winter and Bubbs. Sweep this all under the rug so they can keep doing what it is he’s doing,> Kylie said.

<And what do you think that might be?>

Kylie didn’t know. She turned and left the hidden room. Once in the outer portion of the closet, she moved a cabinet over to hide the hole she’d created. <I think it’s time we ask the chief what he’s up to.>




GELATIN

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Holding cells, CSF Precinct 3

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

“Dinner.” The voice from behind the rear wall of Winter’s cell called out. A slot in the wall opened and a tray of food slipped through. The small door slammed shut with a bang, and Winter eyed the food hungrily.

Not a moment too soon. He was starving.

He hopped on down from his bunk and picked up the tray to inspect the contents.  A small roll, some sort of chicken soup that smelled kind of good, and a small container of a red gelatinous substance.

Damn, how come they give us red gelatin in every prison I’ve ever been in?

Winter hated the stuff, but food was food and he did like to round out a meal with something sweet.

Tearing into the roll, his teeth met more resistance than he’d expected. Seemed it was on the stale side, so he dunked it into his soup. Probably why it was served together.

“You’re not really eating that filth, are you?” Bubbs’ voice came through from the adjacent wall beside him.

“Damn straight I’m eating. I’m starving. What about you?” Winter slurped some soup off the rim of the bowl. He sat down on the floor, crossed his legs and hunkered over his bowl so he wouldn’t spill more than necessary onto his tank top. If he had to do laundry more than once a month, he got grouchy.

“The food could be poisoned. I wouldn’t eat it.”

“Oh, c’mon, Bubbs. They aren’t going to poison our food.”

“Why not?” Bubbs asked. “You did it to the former crew of the BQ.”

Oh yeah. Winter had forgotten about that. “I guess because they’re not me. So far, I’ve had half a bowl of soup and I’m not feeling anything out of the ordinary.”

Bubbs sighed and Winter could practically see her rolling her eyes. “If you’re not dead in five minutes, I might reconsider.”

Winter laughed and scooped some gelatin out with his fingers, then tossed it into his mouth. Was cold, sweet, but the back of his throat tingled as he swallowed. “Aww, shit, I think there’s something wrong with this gelatin. I think it might be…”

“Told you,” Bubbs said, but didn’t sound happy about it. “Someone’s coming. Actually, two someones from the sounds of it.”

Winter set his tray onto the bottom bunk before rising to his feet. As he straightened up, the cell spun like he was on a high-g thrill ride. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something so normal…maybe it was back when his Ma and sister were still alive.

His vision wasn’t the only thing spinning, his stomach was churning too. Winter was sure he was moments from puking. He held his stomach and turned to the bars, only to see two CSF officers staring at him—well, one was staring and also pointing a rifle.

“Stand back,” the unarmed one ordered.

Winter complied and raised his hands. “What’s this about?” He gagged as his stomach clenched hard and he fought to stay upright.

“You’re coming with us,” Chief Raynes’ voice came from down the corridor, footsteps echoing far too loudly for just one person. When he came into view he wore a wicked grin. “Hello, Mr. Winter.”

Winter tried to smile, but damn well couldn’t, certain that a fever was already upon him. “What’d you put in my gelatin?”

Raynes chuckled. “Just a little something to make you easier to manage. You’ll still get where we’re going, trust me.” He motioned for the guards to unlock Winter’s cell. “After I read your record, I knew you’d fit the bill perfectly, though I did expect you to be a little hard to control.”

“Leave him alone,” Bubbs voice rang out, loud, commanding. “You want to pick a fight, pick one with me.”

“All in good time, gunner.”

“It’s Bubbs, asshole.”

The CSF agents opened Winter’s cell door and he backed slowly toward his bunk. The officer with the rifle entered first, approaching fast.

The woman should have stayed back by the bars to cover the other guard, and Winter wanted to call her an amateur, but he was half-certain he’d puke all over her if he spoke.

On second thought.

“Ama—” Projectile vomit sprayed from his mouth, globs of red gelatin hitting the woman’s face.

“Shit! Get it off!” she screamed, and Winter lunged for her weapon. Wrenching it from her grasp was harder than it should have been, but he managed to pull it free, jabbing the rifle at the other CSF officer who was rushing into the cell.

The man cried out, which told Winter he’d hit his mark—which was useful, because his vision had blurred enough that he could barely make out the figures before him.

“Idiots,” Winter heard Raynes say before a pulse blast hit him and he fell back, smacked into the wall, then struggled onto his knees.

That was when a boot hit him under the chin and his head snapped back, slamming into the bulkhead.

Winter groaned. He was faster than this, better than this. He couldn’t let a little thing like a stomach-get to him now, could he? Letting loose a battle cry that came out more like a groan, Winter surged to his feet, swinging the rifle at one of the blurry shapes, and then driving his shoulder into the other, heaving the person—the man judging from his bodyweight—into the wall.

Just as he was about to move in the direction of light—which mean the cell door—something sharp hit his neck.

Before Winter could reach up to grab it, a surge of electricity coursed through his body and he fell to his knees. The flow of energy didn’t stop, and the pain just kept coming. Winter tried to get his hand to his neck, but his body convulsed wildly, limbs out of control.

Then it stopped, and Winter found himself on his back, staring up at Raynes. “Nice moves. Too bad this was your last performance.”

“Winter!” Bubbs screamed from her cell. “What’s going on? Winter!”

“Bubbs?” Winter whispered, his eyelids heavy. He couldn’t fight whatever it was Raynes had given him. Bile rose in his throat and his vision grew dim.

“I’m afraid he can’t hear you anymore…” Raynes said, cruel glee evident in his voice. It was the last thing Winter heard before his eyes slid shut.




GOOD KITTY

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Holding cells, CSF Precinct 3

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

They had Winter. Bubbs had to find a way out of her cell.

Kylie had told them to wait, that she’d rescue them in transit, but Bubbs wasn’t going to wait around for that. After what had happened to Winter, she wasn’t certain they’d ever see transit to Battia.

She stood on her cot and felt along the panel joints on the ceiling with her hand and Nubby, looking for a loose corner, some defect she could exploit so she could get out of there.

Unfortunately, there was nothing and with footsteps echoing down the hall once more, Bubbs knew her time had run out.

An idea occurred to her, and she quickly dumped her gelatin and plate of food on her mattress and pulled the blankets over them. Then she sat on the bed, head in her hands, moaning softly.

A few seconds later, a CSF officer stood at her cell door, laughing quietly.

“Seriously, woman? You realize we have cameras in here, right? I have the feed of your cell on my HUD.”

Bubbs sighed and rose to her feed. “Worth a shot.”

“Whatever,” the guard said, shoving a thick belt with cuffs hanging off it through the bars. “Put it on and slide your left hand into the cuff.”

She had to admit that this guy was thinking ahead. Hard to cuff a one-armed woman.

“Where’s Winter,” Bubbs asked, not even looking at the belt that the man was holding out.

He let go of it as she took a step forward, pulling his hand back and levelling his rifle on her. “He’s already on the transport. Just waiting for you to join him.”

Bubbs crossed her arm and Nubby, giving the man her best scornful impression, something that came easily to her—she had always found frowning to be easier than smiling.

“Nah, I think I’ll stay here. I like the ambiance,” Bubbs replied.

“I don’t have time to fuck around,” the man said, sliding the intensity lever on his pulse rifle forward. “Put on the belt or I pulverize you, then I put on the belt. Then I get a gurney for your sorry ass.”

Bubbs turned and slapped her ass, wiggling it at the man. “This ass? This ass isn’t sorry about anything. It thinks you’re—”

She didn’t finish her statement as she was hit by one pulse shot, then another, and another, and another. She lost count at seven, uncertain if the final count ended at eleven or twelve.

As she lay on the ground moaning, the cell door opened and she heard footsteps approach.

Bubbs’ face was out of view, and she couldn’t stop a smile from forming on her lips.

When the Genevian military had put her back together after the bombing of Aram, they had decided not to replace her badly burned organic skin, instead giving her a poly-carbon epidermis.

‘Easier to keep clean,’ they’d said.

Over time Bubbs had come to love being a gleaming black death machine. Honestly, it was a matter of embracing what you were, or going mad with anguish.

Tough as it was, even five or six pulse blasts would have broken half the bones in her body.

The man bent down behind her, placing the belt around her waist and Bubbs let out a soft groan.

“Yeah, well, next time do as your told…not that I expect you to have a ‘next time’.

“Ever heard of the ISF?” Bubbs whispered.

“What?” the CSF officer asked. “That the people who showed up to help Silstrand?”

Bubbs gave a feeble nod. “Yeah, they have some pretty amazing tech.”

The guard set his rifle down beside Bubbs as he fastened the belt’s clasp.

“Oh yeah? Well, people with crazy tech are responsible for—”

The man stopped speaking as Bubbs flipped over, her hand darting up and clamping around his neck while she knocked his rifle aside with Nubby.

“They have this really cool thing called flow armor,” she whispered, a gleeful scowl on her face. “I haven’t taken mine off since the ISF warrant officer showed me how to use it. Sure, eleven…or twelve…pulse blasts smart, but not enough to slow me down.”

The man gasped for breath, clawing at her arm, his movements completely ineffective against her armored body.

She thought about breaking his neck, but decided to try something new, something she was learning from Kylie: kill fewer people.

With a casual toss, she flung the guard against the bulkhead and rose to her feet. She pulled at the clasp on the belt, managing to get it off before grabbing the discarded rifle.

It was biolocked, but the ISF flowarmor threaded a filament of black material into the weapon and disabled the security measure, signaling on her HUD that the weapon was now keyed to her.

“Not my good arm, but it’s a start,” Bubbs said with a happy grimace.

Bubbs stepped from the cell as alarms began to sound. The light above the security doors turned red, and she supposed that more people had been watching the feeds.

She’d examined the doors when they’d first been shown into their cells and knew that the rifle and her strong shoulders wouldn’t be enough to get through them.

Bubbs was determined to escape and find Winter, but Raynes had told them he had confiscated their weapons. That meant her good arm was nearby and she wasn’t going to leave without it.

With a final glance at the security doors, Bubbs turned and sprinted down the corridor, further into the prison looking for an alternative exit.

* * * * *

Bubbs’ search was proving fruitless. It turned out there weren’t many places to hide in a prison wing—Bubbs should have known, she’d spent enough time escaping from installations to consider it a hobby.

There also wasn’t another exit anywhere in the wing—a fire safety hazard if Bubbs had ever heard of one. There was, however, an unlocked janitorial closet.

Definitely not a maximum-security mindset here, Bubbs thought as she ducked inside.

Granted, with such a low population, and prison facilities on nearby worlds, she imagined that the cells here were meant more for drunks and unruly visitors than former special forces cyborgs.

The closet also appeared to double as a small supply room, and there were three rows of racks holding cleaning and break room supplies—plas cups, plates, forks and spoons.

Bubbs grabbed a tall floor cleaning bot and wedged it up under the door handle, kicking it solidly into place before she turned back to the racks. Her gaze swept over their contents and she considered grabbing a fork to use as a weapon. She’d heard from Kylie just how well a spork worked in a pinch, imagine how well an actual fork could perform….

Behind her, fists pounded against the door, and Bubbs cursed under her breath, “Can’t a girl get a break?”

The sounds at the door intensified, and Bubbs saw the cleaning bot slide inward a few centimeters. She checked the rifle over, ready to unleash lethal force on the first person through. Yelling and general threats joined the almost rhythmic thuds against the door.

All in all, it created quite the din, almost enough that it nearly blocked out the sound of a bell jingling overhead.

Bubbs’ head snapped up and she searched the overhead panels for the source of the sound.

No, can he really have found me? I didn’t think the tracker would make it through the dampeners here.

Bubbs ignored the sounds from the CSF officer as her eyes alighted on a grate in a far corner. She slung her rifle and climbed the shelves, shoving her fingers between the slats, making a loud kissy noise.

Sure enough, her fingers were brushed by a furry animal.

Winter, you liar! You did let my cat off the ship! If he survived whatever Raynes had done, Bubbs would kill him!

Mr. Fizzle Pop’s face appeared between the grate’s slats, one yellow eye widened as it stared at her. “FOUND YOU. FEED ME,” he meowed.

“Mr. Fizzle Pop, I will. I promise,” Bubbs whispered, rubbing her fingers against his paw. “Lower your head so I can get your collar off first.”

“NO.”

“Well, then I can’t get out and feed you. They took my gun-arm. I’m under arrest.”

Her cat’s eye widened further. “WOW.”

“Yeah, so c’mon, help me out. I’ll get you fish.”

“FISH? DEAL.”

The cat complied with her instruction, lowering his jingly bell through the slats. Bubbs spun the collar and fumbled with its clasp as a screech sounded behind her.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw that the bot had slid further forward—enough that fingers were able to make it through the gap in the door.

Drawing a deep breath, Bubbs forced herself to be calm, and managed to get the clasp undone. She pulled the collar through the grate and folded it over once, then gave it a sharp flick. The Jack of all Trades—one of her favorite toys—became rigid, and Bubbs slotted it into the tamper-proof fasteners on the grate.

Four deft twists later, the grate was free and she pulled herself through, her flow armor shedding a few rounds as the CSF officers burst into the supply room.

She found herself in a low maintenance tunnel that appeared to run beyond the bounds of the prison wing. Mr. Fizzle Pop’s ears were folded flat and he took off to the left.

“LET’S GO, ASSHOLE. GET MY FISH.” He ran on ahead, tail high in the air.

Bubbs chased after him. “Not yet. I have to get my good arm. It’s probably in their evidence lockup room. Then I have to find Winter. The trail’s going cold.”

The cat paused, looking over his shoulder as his tail swished angrily. “EVIL ASSHOLE. SCARED ME.”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to,” Bubbs said with a sigh as she squatted next to the cat and put his collar back on. “Look, mommy has to go to work and I don’t want you in danger. You can find me if you need me, but I really need you to get back to the ship.”

The idea of letting Mr. Fizzle Pop run around on Chimin-1 was enough to give Bubbs hives—if such a thing was possible—but staying with her was even more dangerous.

He’d found her here, she had to trust that he could handle himself.

The cat stared up at her with his mouth parted in displeasure, then his tail swished side to side and he hurried off. “BYE ASSHOLE. FOOD.”

“Ship!” Bubbs called after him. “Go to the ship! I’ll bring fish to the ship.”

“FOOD,” she heard him meow as he scampered away.

Bubbs turned back and saw a woman’s head poke into the maintenance tunnel.

“I see her!” the woman called down, then took a shot in the head from Bubbs’ pulse rifle.

“And now you don’t, idiot,” Bubbs muttered as she reached the grate and fired into the room below. The sounds of people scampering for cover came from below, and Bubbs used the distraction to pass over the opening and head in the other direction.

Hopefully the last thing they’d expect would be for her to go further into the precinct.

Bubbs hoped that the rest of the crew was doing better than her and Winter. She didn’t want to have to rescue everyone. Plus, someone had better be back at the ship to let her cat in.




COLD STORAGE

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Winthrop

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Sneaking onto the freighter was a breeze, given the ISF’s flow armor. Though he felt naked when wearing it, Rogers couldn’t argue with its effectiveness.

It had only taken him and Ricket a few minutes to get to the Winthrop, and Ricket had the ship’s airlock open in just a few seconds.

<Security here is a joke,> Ricket had commented at one point. <I don’t think there’s a single AI on this station. Stars, even an NSAI could monitor all the ships and see an airlock open.>

<Maybe their cameras are broken,> Rogers suggested as they cycled the airlock and boarded the ship.

<Seriously?>

Rogers shrugged, then realized with his armor in stealth mode, she couldn’t see him. He returned it to the standard blue and shrugged again.

Ricket shimmered into view a moment later, and Rogers couldn’t help the tightness that formed in his chest at the sight of her.

Stars…seeing her in that skintight armor will never get old, he thought as it flowed away from her face, revealing a knowing smirk on her lips. Crap, hand caught in the cookie box again.

Ricket just shook her head and turned away, moving deeper into the ship.

“Even if it was the goon express, this is a courier ship,” Rogers said. “We should check the message banks to see if there’s anything in them.

<Already on it,> Laura said. <And no…there’s nothing in the message banks. Something tells me this courier ship has found new work. I can’t access the ship’s flight data from here, let’s get to the bridge so we can do local taps.>

They reached the bridge and Rogers hopped into the pilot’s seat then brought up the flight console. Beside him, Ricket combed through the scan and comm systems.

“Anything?” Rogers asked.

Ricket shook her head. “All of the logs have been deleted. Even internal security vids are wiped clean. I can’t even find record of who piloted this piece of junk or where it came from last.”

<I second that,> Laura added. <Someone with very good tech has wiped this ship clean.>

Rogers stroked his chin as he dove further into the flight console’s memory banks. They might have wiped all the logs, but pilots often kept scratch boards with common formulas, hacks, and tricks they used to maximize efficiency. Perhaps something there could help.

Despite being familiar with the operating system used to fly the Winthrop, Rogers couldn’t find anything in regular data hidey holes. Not even a breadcrumb trail to a breadcrumb trail.

Damn, this is frustrating!

“There’s nothing here.” Rogers sighed and leaned his head back into the headrest. “There’s no mail, no crew, barely even signs that their freaking software was used to fly here. It’s like a ghost ship.”

“There has to be something,” Ricket muttered “We saw those people come off the ship. People aren’t perfect, they leave clues. We just have to keep digging.”

Rogers sighed and stood from the pilot’s seat. He walked to the auxiliary scan and nav panel on the bridge’s rear bulkhead, searching it for any clues. After a few minutes examination, he came to the conclusion that no one had used the console in over a year and slammed a fist onto the casing.

Ricket looked up from her search and frowned at him. “I haven’t seen you this frustrated before.”

He raised his eyebrows but didn’t look at her directly. “You don’t know me that well yet.”

“I’ve known you long enough.” Ricket crossed her arms. “We’ll find the answers, we just have to look in the right place, but if you’re so upset you can’t even look with a level head—”

“What do you want me to do? Talk about my feelings?”

Ricket shrugged, a small smile on her lips. “If it helps.”

Rogers considered rolling his eyes. “It just feels like we’re wasting our time here. That this whole damn asteroid is a time suck and a wild comet chase, and I’m the one who brought us here.”

“Feel better?” She tilted her head to the side.

He shook his head. “I think I might feel worse.”

Ricket pressed her lips together. “I know it’s hard when the answers don’t reveal themselves, but we’ll figure it out. And for the record, you’re one of the best damn pilots I’ve ever seen, so you have that going for you.”

“Don’t give me lip service.” The words came out harsher than he’d meant them to.

Ricket didn’t seem offended or even rattled. In fact, Rogers wasn’t sure he had ever seen her thrown off her game. It was one of the things about her he admired, even if it infuriated him.

“I wouldn’t,” she replied calmly. “You know that. You saved my life down here, Rogers. Maybe you’re not as comfortable on the ground, but it doesn’t mean you’re bad at it. Kylie trusts you on away missions. She looks to you for how you judge character. She defaults to you, so that means you must have some merit, doesn’t it?”

Rogers pursed his lips and gave Ricket the once over. Well, her eyes seemed sincere enough. Even though she was an experienced woman, and an accomplished agent, there was something naïve about her he liked. Something about her that begged to be protected. “If I was a better judge of character, I wouldn’t have led Kylie into a trap. Liberty pulled one over on me.”

“No one is infallible.”

“No?” Rogers shook his head. “Maybe not, but if we hadn’t come here, those people in the apartment block might still be alive.”

“Oh Rogers,” Ricket whispered and put a hand on his shoulder. “No one can read the future, not that I’ve met. Besides, chances are they were dead before we docked. Don’t carry the guilt of the dead with you. It’s a burden none of us can bear alone.”

“Good thing I’m not alone then, eh?” Rogers attempted one of his charming grins, but his heart really wasn’t in it.

Ricket smiled and the corners of her eyes crinkled. “You have a good crew behind you. And a good captain in front of you. We’re all doing what we can to find Paul before…no one wants Paul to turn out like his father with a trail of dead systems behind him. Kylie knows. That’s why we rushed to Chimin without vetting the source.”

Rogers supposed that was true, but he heard something in Ricket’s voice he hadn’t heard before when she talked about Kylie’s father. “What guilt are you carrying?”

Ricket shook her head but then sighed. “If we’re confessing…”

“Don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Rogers held is hands up.

“The Transcend should’ve acted sooner. Nadine was in place for five years. I was sent in because the Hand—Petra in particular—worried that Nadine couldn’t do her job. She loved being a junker too much. If she had gotten Kylie to her father years earlier, stars, even six months sooner, we might not even be here on this rock.”

Rogers understood her meaning. Hubei would still be a breathing, thriving world with families, kids—all of it. “That’s Nadine’s guilt, not yours,” Rogers said.

“I’m not guilty, Rogers.” Ricket’s eyes narrowed and Rogers saw fury in them. “I’m angry. Nadine was an agent and she let her feelings for Kylie get in the way.”

<Reasons why relationships can be dangerous,> Laura said, and it sure as hell sounded like a warning to Rogers.

“Yes, they are. We’re trained to deal with stuff like that. Sure, we fall in love sometimes, we’re human, but we still have a job to do. Important work.” Ricket tucked her hair behind her ears and looked like she was going to say something else.

“What is it?” Rogers asked.

“Nothing…I…guess I didn’t realize how disappointed I was in her until now. I’m sorry for my part and what it’s done to Kylie.”

“You have nothing to apologize for. You were there for Kylie. Got her off her father’s ship.”

“Or maybe she got me off. Maybe I’m losing my edge.”

“We’re human,” Rogers said. “We’re allowed to feel, to love. We disappoint each other, doesn’t mean we give up, right?”

Ricket raised her eyebrows. “I guess so.”

“Nadine was good at her job and I think…I think she really liked being a junker.”

“I guess all of us got hurt in the end, didn’t we? In our own way.” Ricket stepped forward, a touch too close to Rogers, and placed a hand on his chest. When her gaze lifted to his eyes, Rogers felt an almost electrical pulse rush between them.

Before that moment, Rogers had thought his attraction to Ricket had been one-sided. She was a beautiful person, more than just pleasing to the eye, and also smart and cunning. Different from other scores he had made around the systems he traveled. Plus, she was a crew member.  Rogers had no plans to make a move that might be unwarranted. He’d lived through the complications of a crew relationship between Nadine and Kylie.

Rogers wasn’t ready to dive into something like that.

“Something else on your mind?” Rogers asked.

“Nothing I’m ready to share,” Ricket said. She turned toward the panel Rogers had slammed his fist into, eyes narrowing. “Hold up, what’s this?”

Part of the covering had come loose, and her long fingers slipped along the edges while Rogers did the same along the other side. They both pulled at the edges and the front of the console flipped open.

A blast of cold air hit them as the peered inside to see a large room filled with tall cylinders

“A chiller on the bridge?” Ricket asked, laughing softly. “These guys must get the munchies a lot.”

“Must be a cargo they really want to keep an eye on. Something they’re transporting off Chimin,” Rogers said.

“Yeah, I didn’t really think it was for chips and beer.” Ricket laughed. “Which means that whenever they secure their cargo, they’ll be back to load it up. I wonder what it is? This chiller isn’t big enough for meaningful cargo.”

“Guess we’ll have to ask them when they show up,” Rogers said with a wide grin.

“I’ll pass the info to Kylie.” Ricket’s eyes flicked to the left as she sent a message across the Link. Her concentration face was one of the cutest Rogers had ever seen—so he looked away, focusing on the back of a chair as Ricket spoke.

<Captain, the freighter’s been modified to carry something small in a refrigeration unit.>

<Good work.> Kylie’s voice was strangely devoid of stress.

“Well, at least someone sounds good,” Rogers said aloud.

<I’m in a bit of a pinch. Any chance you can wrap up there and come lend a hand? Got some people trying to put holes in me.>

“You were saying?” Ricket asked Rogers, raising her eyebrows.

Rogers pulled the sidearm off his hip to check its charge. “I was talking about the captain after all. She’s always good when she’s rushing into battle. Why don’t we go see who she’s shooting at?”

Ricket nodded as they jogged toward the airlock, armor returning to stealth mode. <Sounds like a plan. This rock is beginning to get a little bit cramped for my tastes—time for some population control.>




BREAKOUT

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Northern Lift 13

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie rode the lift down to the CSF precinct where Winter and Bubbs were being held. If Raynes—or whoever he was—had no qualms about wiping out entire housing blocks, there was no reason to trust that her crew would ever make it to the prison transport.

She checked over her rifle, reviewing the charge, sights, targeting. Once satisfied, Kylie held it across her chest, and drew in a deep breath, entering her zen place. She pictured the CSF’s lobby; where the front desk was, the lift to the holding cells, the chairs, the desks and hallways beyond it. Noting all the places where the enemy—for that’s what they were—could take up defensive positions and pin her down.

A thick plas table sat next to the lift— she could kick it over, using it for cover after exiting the lift. Then she’d move to the sergeant’s desk, keeping behind it while lobbing a grenade overtop. With luck, that would keep them busy long enough for her to get to the holding cell lift.

Of course, maybe they’d be open to a chat and they could sort this out without violence.

Right! Kylie thought with a laugh. Not a lot of people in her life just wanted to talk. Better to be safe than sorry.

<I’ve got control of some of their cameras. Mostly business as usual but they are on a heightened state of alert. They might be waiting for us,> Marge said as the doors slid open.

<Do your best to jam their comms. We don’t need any surprise guests. And if you can open Winter and Bubbs’ cells, they’d probably create an excellent distraction.>

Marge sent an affirmation as Kylie stepped off the lift into the precinct’s waiting room. There were no people waiting in the chairs, and the same sergeant was at the desk, glowering at her as per usual.

Then, weapons-fire poured out of a back hallway, the rounds and pulse blasts shed easily by her flow armor. Even so, Kylie kicked the aforementioned plas table over and ducked behind it.

<They’re not very good at saying hello,> Marge commented

<You’re telling me!>

Kylie sent a signal to her armor, and—true to its name—it flowed up over her head.

Thanks, Tanis, I owe you a few beers for this stuff.

Marge flushed out a cloud of nano that scanned the room, looking for threats.

<If you find Raynes, flag him on my HUD; I want to know exactly where he is,> she directed Marge

<Affirmative. I guess you’re not interested in talking to him, either.>

<Today, I think my rifle wants to do the talking,> Kylie said as her HUD lit up with targets.

The desk sergeant peeked out of cover and received a round in the head. Then another fake CSF officer leant out from behind the front desk and Kylie fired on him as well, her trio of shots catching him in the chest.

Three more of the enemy moved out of cover and fired simultaneously. Kylie’s armor locked up to protect her from the shots and she fell back behind the thick plas table.

“Give it up, Rhoads! You’ll never get past us.”

“Oh yeah? Want to make a wager on that?” As the fake cops continued to call out to her, Kylie grabbed the two grenades and primed them to let out a debilitating light pulse.

“We’re on the same side. Stand down and we’ll explain. Take you to the chief.”

Same side? How could they even say that? “I don’t go around killing men, women, and children!” Kylie called back, as images of those dead children and parents in their apartments flashed before her eyes, visions she wouldn’t soon forget.

“This is a war,” one of the enemies called out. “There’s always collateral damage, but we’re talking about saving millions, billions of people from being enslaved to AI. We dictate our future, no one else!”

<Well, that sure sounds familiar,> Marge commented as Kylie threw the grenades.

Her armor filtered out the bright pulses of light, but she had seen that the CSF officers’ eyes were unshielded. With any luck the light show would be enough to momentarily paralyze them.

She didn’t wait to confirm the grenades’ effectiveness and jumped over the table, rushing to the sergeant’s desk before firing on the three officers who had staggered out of cover.

Kylie leapt over the desk and saw two bodies where she’d expected to see just the desk sergeant.

<The one on the right is faking,> Marge said. <Coward.>

Kylie bent over and lifted the woman by her collar. The cop’s eyes rolled back in her head, and Kylie realized that the pulses had given her a seizure.

“Ugh…” she moaned.

“Where’s Raynes? Where is he?” Kylie lifted the woman into the air and shook her into a state of semi-consciousness.

“You’ll never find him if he doesn’t want to be found,” she moaned. “He knows this place like the back of his hand.”

“Who are you?” Kylie demanded. “You, Raynes, all these people, why are you here? What the hell do you hope to accomplish?”

The woman shook her head. “Why bother answering? You’ll only kill us, even though we’re on the same side.”

Kylie’s nostrils flared as she grabbed the woman’s face, making the sergeant’s lips pucker out. “Stop saying that or I’ll smash out every single one of your teeth. I’m nothing like you.”

The woman’s eyes widened, and she lifted her arms to hit Kylie, only to have them easily swatted away. “What kind of abomination are you?”

“The kind that’s going to kill you,” Kylie whispered and felt that burning desire to do just that.

<Kylie,> Marge’s voice came across urgently, <there’s no record that a transport has been called to move Winter and Bubbs to Battia.>

So Raynes had lied—not that it was terribly surprising.

<I found records that Winter and Bubbs were slated to be moved somewhere. Orders were given for security escorts almost an hour ago. I’m scouring the vids, but someone’s deleted a section from earlier today.>

<Can you track either Winter or Bubbs?>

<No.> Marge’s voice strained with regret. <Half this facility is dampened, but there is some sort of disturbance in the wing with the holding cells.>

Shit. Kylie returned her attention back to her prisoner. “Where’d Raynes take my people? What the hell is he going to do with them?”

The CSF agent shook her head. “They’ll be our greatest weapon against the AI. Their sacrifice will be noble and just. Join us, Rhoads. You know in your heart—”

“I know shit!” Kylie punched the woman in the gut, watching her fold over with pain. “Where are my people? Where would Raynes go if he wanted to hide?”

The women moaned and Kylie hit her again.

“Where!?”

“Facility 99,” the CSF officer wheezed, her head lolling to the side. “That’s where base of operations is. Where we’re developing—” the woman clamped her mouth shut, a look of fear crossing her face.

<That’s one of the oat farms,> Marge supplied.

“Guess I know where I need to go next,” Kylie said

The cop shook her head. “You’ll never get through. They’ll kill you. They’ll unleash a world of pain on you, your people. You’ll never see your crew alive again.”

Kylie smashed a fist into the base of the woman’s skull and dropped her like a sack of potatoes. She had heard enough bullshit from this blubberer.

<If Raynes is going to execute Winter and Bubbs, he’d have done it by now, Kylie,> Marge said.

But her words were no comfort. If he didn’t want them dead, then what did he want them for? Kylie shuddered as her mind started constructing ‘what if’ scenarios, each one worse than the last.

<I told Winter to go along with the transport scheme…if something bad happened to him, it’s my fault. He could have fought his way free if he wasn’t trying to follow my orders.> Kylie swore under her breath as she sent an update of what was going on to Rogers and Ricket.

<I doubt he’ll hold it against you,> Marge said.

Maybe not, but that didn’t mean Kylie wouldn’t. <Keep scouring the networks for signs of them.> She turned and leapt over the desk, then headed back to the lift.

Time to put this mess to bed.




FACILITY 99

STELLAR DATE: 11.04.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Northern Lift 17

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie met up with what was left of her crew outside the lift that would take them to the bottom-level farming operation and Facility 99.

She noted with approval that Rogers and Ricket wore flow armor, each of them armed with rifles, sidearms and carrying satchels of grenades. “Nice to be back together again. And we all match,” Kylie said in an attempt to lighten the mood.

“Gotta wear the uniform,” Rogers said with a grin.

“We can do some good here,” Kylie said, her tone more serious. “But let’s not kid ourselves. They probably know we’re coming and they’ll be ready for us.”

Kylie brought up the map of the outer-level farm, sharing her view on the team’s combat network. Facility 99’s fields were set up in a grid covering over a dozen square kilometers, with structures set into the rock on either side. Irrigation systems and field-working equipment were to the east, with harvest processing and storage to the west.

<I might have an idea,> Marge chimed in. <Even though—as best we can tell—all of these fake cops have had some serious reconstructive surgery, they’re not modded.>

“What do you mean?” Ricket asked. “No mods at all?”

<Not on any I’ve been able to land Kylie’s nano on. I don’t even think that most of them have Link, just retinal overlays, plus mics for audio.>

Rogers grinned. “Low tech, eh? That opens up some options.”

Kylie had to admit that it lined up with what the woman in the precinct had said.

“OK, then. First thing we’re going to want to do is take out the lights—try to take out these fake cops before they hurt any of the workers or use them as human shields,” Kylie said.

“You really think they’ll go that far?” Rogers asked.

Ricket glanced at him. “You saw the videos. We have to assume the worst. Not to mention the fact that these bastards have murdered children to cover up whatever this is.”

“Hopefully we’ll soon find out.” Kylie pressed her lips together and tried to ignore the images swimming before her eyes.

What if the workers are already dead? What is to stop Raynes from killing the workers once we get there? She shook her head. Thoughts like those weren’t going to help anyone.

Still, it was hard to shake the experiences she’d had on Peter Rhoads’ ship. Kylie was growing tired of the blood and death on her hands—both directly or indirectly.

“We can go invisible.” Ricket gestured at her body as it disappeared from view. “Why kill the lights?”

“Surprise, and less EM for the flow armor to deal with,” Kylie replied. “Stuff can mess with stealth too. Best to have every edge we can get.”

Ricket shrugged. “You’re the boss, Boss.”

<Everything is manual operation down there,> Laura said. <No remote access to lights, and no cameras that I can find. You’ll have to go to the main power junction box to kill the lights. It’s down to the right of the lift, not far from the irrigation control systems.>

<We’ll go,> Ricket answered. <I’ll watch Rogers’ back while he works.>

<And what a fine back it is,> Rogers said dryly.

Kylie suppressed a small grin best she could. <It might be guarded. Do it quietly so as not to alert suspicion. I’ll get close to where they’re holding the workers and wait for your signal. Once the lights are out, I’ll move in.>

<I’ll watch her back because it’s also my back.> Marge sent a smiley face across the Link, and a little giggle.

It got smiles out of Ricket and Rogers. Kylie knew the positive response would make Marge happy.

<Be careful,> Laura said.

<Always!>

Aloud to Rogers and Ricket, Kylie said, “Join me when you can. We don’t know when the vid that led us here was made. These people could be hurt, or worse. Maybe once this is over we’ll finally have some answers about what is happening on this damn rock.”

Kylie would like nothing better than some solid answers, but she knew sometimes life wasn’t that pat. Sometimes you were just left wondering forever. What would turn a decent man with passionate beliefs into someone capable of genocide?

Rogers held out his hand. Kylie and then Ricket placed theirs on his. “On the flip side. Once we find Winter, we really really need to have a good meal,” Rogers said.

“Amen to that.” Finally, something Kylie could look forward to.

* * * * *

They rode the lift down to the bottom levels of the asteroid. The moist air was thicker, hotter, and seemed to cling to Rogers’ face.

If anyone saw the doors open, they would have wondered why no one exited. Of course, three people did, but the vanilla guards patrolling Facility 99 didn’t stand a chance of seeing the stealthed figures.

Rogers followed Ricket’s marker on his HUD as Kylie moved off to the left. Every so often he could make out a footprint when she stepped in soft dirt, but otherwise there was no visual trace of her.

They reached their destination—a set of doors mounted into the rock—only to find a guard leaning against them.

<Can’t really stealth our way past him, can we?> Ricket asked with a laugh.

<We need a distraction,> Rogers said as they watched another guard walk past. <You could unstealth and use your wiles on him.>

Ricket laughed. <Rogers, didn’t you see it? He just checked out that other guy’s ass. If anyone is resorting to sex appeal to grab his attention, it’s going to be you.>

<Uh…we could throw a rock.>

Ricket laughed and he saw her rise on his HUD. <Watch this.>

Rogers complied, watching via the team’s combat net as Ricket approached the guard leaning against the doors. He couldn’t tell for sure, but it seemed like she might have touched his neck.

The guard seemed to slump a bit, then go rigid. After a moment he rose a few centimeters off the ground and then moved next to the doors, lifted by an invisible force.

<Nice trick,> Rogers said as he approached.

<Bonus for them not having internal mods and nano, is that neurotoxins are really effective. Picked up some great ones from another agent I know,> Ricket replied. <He’s not going to be able to do anything other than breathe and swallow for the next hour.>

A minute later they were inside the room, and at the main power junction for the facility’s lights.

Rogers found the main breaker and prepared to flip it off.

<Captain,> Ricket called out over the combat network. <You’re going to want to get in position.>

<Yeah,> Kylie said, her tone dry. <About that…we might have a little problem.>

<Kylie sure likes to see how hard we can make things, doesn’t she?> Laura asked.

Rogers gave a soft sigh, and Ricket chuckled in response.

<Do you want us to hold position or should we go ahead with the plan?> Ricket asked

<Kill the lights. Then get over here. I’m going to need all the help I can get,> Kylie said. <On the count of three….>




STORM

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Facility 99

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

While Rogers and Ricket had gotten into position, Kylie had worked her way into the worker’s breakroom.

Inside, she found two CSF agents drinking coffee at a small table. She walked quietly toward them, drawing her pulse pistol for a stun shot.

Just as she was about to fire, one of the men rose, turned, and walked right into her. Coffee splashed across her body, disabling her armor’s stealth.

<Almost prescient of you,> Marge commented. <Too bad the lights aren’t already out.>

“What the—” the man cried right before Kylie shot him in the chest, knocking him backward. The second man rushed toward the door and Kylie chased after him—just as Ricket told her they were ready.

She caught up with the man, grabbing his wrist and twisted it behind his back, while giving Ricket a countdown to kill the lights. The man squirmed, and she saw a small device in his ear and pulled it out.

“Physical comm unit?” she asked.

“Kylie Rhoads?” the man grunted, apparently recognizing her voice. “Yeah, the word’s out. Everyone knows you’re here. Not that it’s a big surprise.”

“So?” Kylie asked before punching him in the face and throwing him against the back wall.

The first man was rising to his feet and Kylie took a deep breath as she steadied her pulse rifle and fired a shot into him, and then his comrade.

She crept out of the break room and down a dark hallway, saw the shape of a man through an office window, and quietly stepped inside. The figure was a man in tattered clothes, only half lying on a table, his head tilted up toward the ceiling, wide eyes unblinking.

One of the workers. Kylie knew it was futile but still checked for a pulse. There wasn’t one. His eyes were a milky white, almost as though they were covered in a layer of cream that completely masked the color of his irises.

<He has multiple puncture wounds all over his body,> Marge said. <He’s been injected, more than once, by something.>

Kylie grated her jaw back and forth as the anger mounted. <How long has he been dead?>

<Four hours. Maybe five. Based on how he’s positioned, I think he was dumped in here—rather unceremoniously—after he died.>

Marge’s words only cemented her resolve. <Kill the lights. Then get over here. I’m going to need all the help I can get. On the count of three…>

Kylie moved out of the office toward the double doors at the end of the hall, reaching them just as the lights shut off and more than one terrified cry came from deeper in the structure.

* * * * *

Kylie pushed through the doors into what had been the grain processing and sorting facility. Not that it served that purpose anymore.

She’d entered the lab from the videos. Vats lined one wall, and equipment covered a pair of long tables where the workers were shackled.

<This is so weird,> Marge said. <It’s so low tech….>

A pair of guards came into view, lights mounted on their rifles as they swept the space. Kylie’s armor reported only seventy-percent stealth capability and she decided not to rely on sneakiness as she circled the first table, opening fire on the guards.

The workers ducked down, some crying out in fear as the firefight erupted around them.

“Stay down!” Kylie screamed at them. <Marge…>

<Filtering civilians best I can through your HUD. Not all of them were chained to the tables. Some are moving for the exits.>

Shit…so much for a clean strike.

More guards entered, and indiscriminate weapons fire streaked across the room. Kylie took a breath and ducked behind a table. The CSF officers on her HUD were advancing on either side, working on flanking her.

When the guards were within a few meters, Kylie broke cover, rising and firing on the woman to her left. Then she pivoted and shot the closest enemy on her right. She kept her bursts short, worried that one of the workers would stand up and take a shot in the head.

Return fire ricocheted off her armor, but Kylie barely noticed as she fired on two more of the guards.

<Another down,> Marge said. <Careful. One of them has a hostage. He’s coming from the back.>

<Noted.> Kylie approached the man holding a hostage slowly. “You want to talk about this, friend?”

A second later the lights snapped back on and the full horror of what the worker’s situation hit Kylie all at once. The men and women cowering on the floor, were shaking with weakness as much as fear. It was as though they were deliberately being worked to death.

Directly ahead of her, stood five remaining CSF officers—all in armor with helmets in place. The one in the center had her arm wrapped around a bruised and battered man, a ballistic pistol pressed against the whimpering prisoner’s temple.

“One shot is all it takes,” the guard said, gripping the hostage’s neck. “Look around. You know I’ll do it.”

“I don’t want any more dead,” Kylie said. “Let him go and let’s discuss this woman to woman.” Kylie raised one hand in a show of good faith, while lowering her rifle, though not loosening her grip on it.

The woman laughed. “I’m not talking about shit until you kick that rifle over to me.”

<Kylie…careful,> Marge warned.

<Don’t worry, not like I need the rifle.>

Not to mention the fact that Rogers and Ricket were fully stealthed, creeping up behind the guards. Still, things could go very wrong for that poor hostage.

“All right…” Slowly, Kylie lowered her rifle to the floor and kicked it toward the security personnel. One of the guards bent to pick it up, but never took his eyes off her.

“Now we talk.” Kylie took a few steps forward. The woman holding the hostage took a step back, shoving the barrel of her pistol harder into the man’s temple.

He gave a cry of dismay, his thin arms trembling at his sides.

“Where’s Raynes? Where are my people, Winter and Bubbs?” Kylie asked as she gingerly placed one foot in front of the other, taking one more step.

“Where you will never find them. Chimin-1 is a dying rock. You should have got off when you could—Raynes gave you that chance out of respect for your family.”

Rage surged through Kylie. “Respect? You’re all sick fucks. From what I can tell, Chimin is dying only because of you. Here’s your one chance at a deal. Turn over the hostage, help me get medical attention for these people, and I’ll let you go. But first, I’m going to need to know where Raynes took my men. Where they’re hiding. I want him, not some hired thug.”

The woman’s eyebrows rose. “Thug? Is that what you think I am?”

“You’re holding a weak and injured man as a human shield—you’re worse than a thug. You’re an insult to thugs everywhere. I know better scum than you.”

“I’m a revolutionary,” the woman whispered with a zealot’s passion in her voice, her eyes widening behind her helmet’s clear visor. “I thought you of all people would understand. What your family started, their legacy and what they carried out—”

“Turned my father into a monster and painted my entire family as villains to anyone with the hint of a conscience. Don’t talk about him like he was a savior.”

“He was. He spoke the truth.” She squinted at Kylie. “I have to say, I’m disappointed in your narrow view. If you won’t join us—” She gestured, shoving her pistol against her captive’s temple. The hostage squeezed his eyes shut, sucking on his bottom lip as he prepared for the worst.

<Someone’s above us. Look out, Kylie!> Marge warned.

The ceiling grate above them began to smolder. The female security guard gasped and looked up. Kylie seized the moment and closed the distance between herself and the hostage-taking thug.

Somehow, she managed to get a hand on the woman’s gun an instant before she fired, the round streaking through the air just above the hostage’s head.

Kylie tried to wrench the gun free, but she wasn’t strong enough to best powered armor. It was, however, enough that the woman loosened her grip on the hostage.

Then the grate fell to the ground and a jet-back female figure fell through, her left arm ending in a long-barreled gun-arm.

Bubbs.

Gunfire erupted just as Kylie got the hostage away from the female CSF officer. Rogers fired a shot from behind the guards, distracting the enemy right before one of them fired on the hostage.

Kylie half-pushed, half-carried him around one of the tables. “Stay there,” she ordered.

The man nodded, biting on his thumb, tears running down his cheeks. “Thank you, thank you…”

Kylie didn’t reply, instead turning back to the fight. The female CSF officer had been knocked down, but struggled back to her feet before charging toward Kylie.

The woman’s gun was gone, but that didn’t seem to stop her—she must have believed that her powered armor could best Kylie’s. She was probably right.

As the woman lunged, Kylie spun to the side, and slapped a hand on the attacker’s shoulder, dropping a dose of nano.

<On it,> Marge announced.

The woman spun, and then her armor froze and she toppled over. “Ahhh!”

“Stay there or I’ll be forced to kill you, which would be a shame because I told myself I was going to cut back—but I’m willing to make exceptions.”

The woman snarled up at Kylie, straining and grunting as she tried to move. Now, instead of her armor enhancing her strength, it just bottled it all up in a convenient little shell.

When Kylie turned back to her team, the battle was already won. Rogers was bent over, breath labored, while Ricket checked on one of the enemies who was still moving.

Bubbs stood in the center of the group, her long gun-arm—one Kylie had never seen before—sweeping across the room.

“Bubbs,” Kylie said and motioned for the woman to come over. <Marge, see if we can identify any of these terrorists. I’d start with any known anti-AI supporters.>

<Got it. I’ll have that information to you, lickety split!>

The flow armor slid off Bubbs’ face as she approached. Her face was downcast and she pulled a rifle off her back, handing it to Kylie.

Kylie immediately recognized Dolph when she saw it—Winter’s favorite weapon. Someone else using it seemed like sacrilege, like stepping on the dead.

“Where’s Winter and Raynes?” Kylie asked Bubbs.

“They took him before I got free. I managed to find his gun, but not him…”

Kylie turned back to the woman in the locked armor.

“Where’s Raynes? Where did he take Winter? Talk!”

The woman only shook her head inside her helmet and scowled out at Kylie.

Kylie wanted to pull the woman out of her armor and beat her senseless but knew that wouldn’t help matters. Instead, she turned back to Bubbs.

“Nice moves, Bubbs. How’d you get away?” Kylie asked as Rogers approached.

Bubbs nodded. “We were fed lunch. I suspected it was poisoned but Winter ate it anyway. When he was affected, they came and got him. He couldn’t fight them off. I managed to escape, but by the time I eluded them and found my gun arm, I couldn’t pick up any trace of Winter or where they had taken him.”

Her face was so mournful and disappointed that Kylie felt bad for her.

“I’ve never seen you use that arm before,” Kylie said, looking at the long, sleek barrel, a tri-fire weapon unless she missed her guess.

“It was the only one I could find in their evidence lockup,” Bubbs said, giving the weapon attached to her body a disapproving look. “It’s from before. Back in the war.”

She didn’t seem to want to say more, and Kylie let it drop.

“They say anything about where they took Winter?” Rogers asked, eyes narrowing angrily as he regarded Bubbs. “Or did you just get out and save your own skin.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” Bubbs said and seemed to struggle to get the words out. “I tried to hunt him down, but I lost the trail…like I just said.” The pitch of her voice crept up, clearly offended and on edge. Kylie let it go—her team felt what they felt. She couldn’t regulate it for them.

Rogers, however, didn’t know when to quit. “You gave up on him.”

“No,” Bubbs growled. “I don’t give up. I got out of there the best I could, the fastest. There were just too many of them and by the time I managed to get my weapon—”

Rogers opened his mouth to speak, but Kylie held up her hand. She could see Rogers’ flushed cheeks and the menace in his eyes. He and Winter were friends, he was upset, but she wouldn’t let him tear Bubbs down out of worry over Winter.

“We’ll find him,” Kylie said. “Both of you, I promise. We’ll get Winter back. Knowing him, he’s already taken some ship over and is stealing a fortune from this place.”

Bubbs’ face twitched into a smile. “I’d help him, if I knew where he was.”

“Are you ready to work, Bubbs?”

She nodded. “Absolutely. Whatever you need, Captain.”

Kylie wiped her brow as she surveyed the room. “Head back to Precinct 3. Take this prisoner and any other surviving guards with you. Lock her up until I get a chance to question her. You’re the new warden. Don’t let anyone in who isn’t one of us. You able to handle that alone?”

Bubbs glanced down at her gun-arm. “With this thing, I could take out the whole station. Promised myself I’d never put it on again…” she paused and swallowed before meeting Kylie’s eyes. “Consider it done.”

“You sure you can handle that?” Rogers pressed. “You—”

<Rogers, enough. Back off,> Kylie said.

His mouth snapped shut and he glared at Kylie before walking away. Kylie would deal with him once he cooled down. It wasn’t like Rogers to fly off the handle so easily.

“He’s just worried about Winter,” Kylie said, looking back down at their prisoner. “You’re going to need to find a cart or something for them all.”

“Yeah,” Bubbs nodded. “About Rogers…he’s not saying anything I haven’t told myself, haven’t heard from others. I’m a mechanized soldier. It’s my job to charge forward, win at all costs, but there’s only so much I can do. There was no way out of that cell until they opened the door.” Bubbs looked like she was going to say something else, but instead reached down and grabbed the armored enemy, dragging her out the room by the collar.

Kylie was surprised to hear Bubbs sound so vulnerable. An emotional response to Winter’s capture was the last thing she’d expected from the surly merc.

She shook her head and turned to the others. “Rogers, Ricket, let’s get these people uncuffed. We need to alert the hospital. These people need medical attention.” She squatted next to a woman who was huddled under a table, and tapped her shoulder, trying to get a response. Most of the men and women stared off at nothing, weak with fatigue—and in desperate need of a shower. Even with her ability to filter out smells, it managed to overpower her.

A few of the former prisoners mumbled a thank you, one or two even looked her in the eye. Kylie didn’t reply, she didn’t feel like she deserved much in the way of thanks. She rose to her feet as Laura sent her a message.

<I contacted Chimin City Hospital and said there was an accident down here. Medical on its way. Also, we have something.>

She pursed her lips and hurried over to where Ricket stood at a lab table. The Hand agent stared at the canisters as they spun, separating liquids inside a tall cylinder. “What is it?”

“Not sure yet. Chemical compound—though I guess that’s obvious. Whatever it is, it’s the focus of their whole operation here. I’m going over their records and they were running medical experiments on some of the workers.”

“That’s not the worst of it,” Rogers said as he strode toward them. “There’s an inventory of ‘product’ as they called it. From what I can see at least ten full canisters are missing.”

“Dammit.” Kylie knew it had to be Raynes. “He’ll try to get it off Chimin. We’ll need to lock this place down. If we’re lucky, he’ll try to bring Winter with him.”

Rogers shook his head. “Winter, not able to escape or put up a fight? I don’t like this, Captain.”

Ricket shook her head. “Whatever this stuff does, they were willing to subvert this entire rock to make it. A bunch of radical anti-AI mercs with the tech to change their faces? It doesn’t make sense. What’s their agenda?” Ricket lowered her voice, “Captain, we might be in over our heads.”

Kylie couldn’t discount the possibility, but there was no way she’d leave Chimin-1 with Winter missing. She’d get him back, one way or another. “We find Winter. No decisions are made until that happens. He’s somewhere so let’s find him.”

She turned as one of the workers struggled to stand. His legs shook under the strain and the quivering spread to his entire body. Kylie suspected it was from exhaustion. “Sir, sit back down. Medical help is on its way.”

He licked his dry chapped lips. “First it takes your mind. Then it takes your eyes. Then you start to itch so bad you want to tear your skin right off. Some do—right before they die.”

Takes their eyes? Kylie thought back to the man in the back office and the cloudy film that had covered his pupils; how some of the men and women were staring off at nothing. Maybe they weren’t staring at nothing, maybe they just couldn’t see.

The man turned his arms over and pushed up his sleeves. The skin on the underside of his forearm had turned red and had bubbled.

“We’ll get you help,” Kylie heard herself saying as the medical teams arrived to take the men and women to the med-bay. “We’ll find a way to help you. All of you.”

It occurred to Kylie that every one of the enemies had been wearing hazsuits, or powered armor—with internal air supplies.

“Easy, easy….” Kylie whispered as she held the man up and set him on a chair.

<Kylie,> Marge said quietly, <I’ve identified the woman Bubbs took. She wasn’t one of the ones with a face change. Her name is Trigg. She’s with the Papote. An alliance of people who follow the teachings of Peter Rhoads.>

Kylie’s stomach clenched at hearing the news. <Were they part of Revolution Fleet?>

<Not anymore. They split off a while ago, taking a more hardline stance back before your father became just as radical.>

Well…isn’t that just great news.

Marge continued to speak as Kylie sagged against a counter. <With your father gone, it’s my guess that they’re struggling to fill the void and bring order to Hanoi.>

<Through this?> Kylie asked, her gaze sweeping across the room filled with anguished people.

As she attempted to summon the strength to go on, medical teams burst through the doors and began to move amongst the workers. A pair of women approached and gently lifted the man who had been speaking to Kylie onto a hover pad.

While watching the paramedics, her mind ran in a dozen different directions. She had never imagined that her father’s teachings would take hold beyond her family. She’d been so focused on finding Paul that it had never occurred to Kylie that there could now be other factions, splinter cells of anti-AI fanatics spreading through space like a plague.

There was also the matter of Raynes and Winter. What was the point in taking Winter when there were so many others here? What could Raynes’ ultimate goal be?

<Bubbs,> Kylie called out. <The woman’s name is Trigg. She’s with the Papote Alliance, an anti-AI movement. When you get her and the others secure, see what she knows,> Kylie said.

<Affirmative. I’m looking forward to it, Captain. Also….> Bubbs said.

<What is it, Bubbs?> Kylie’s brow furrowed as she wondered what Bubbs could have to say.

<I’m really hungry.> The simple sentence came out like a confessional rather than an admission.

So was Kylie, now that Bubbs mentioned it, her stomach growled. <Good point. Someone will bring you something. Hang in there.>

<Will do. I’m not that weak, Captain. Also, if anyone goes back to the ship, my cat should be there waiting to go in. I owe him fish.>

Kylie wasn’t sure how to even process that sentence. <I thought he was a mouser,> Kylie said.

Bubbs flashed an angry cat image across the Link. <We all have our weaknesses, Captain. Chuck is mine.>

<I’ll make sure he’s fed. Don’t worry about him. We’ve got it.>

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Rogers said as he approached. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you…or Bubbs. My adrenaline was pumping. I shouldn’t have gotten as upset as I did. Hope you can forgive me.”

Kylie placed a hand on his shoulder. “Nothing to forgive, Rogers. I’m just worried about why you snapped. Worried about what flying the Barbaric Queen is doing to you. You seem…twitchier.”

He nodded, an air of sadness around him.

“No matter,” Kylie sighed, “we don’t have a lot of options right now. We do what we have to. Whoever took those canisters of whatever this shit is, is going to try to get off this rock. Chances are they’ll try to get to that freighter. I need you and Ricket to get back up there and head them off.”

Rogers nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t let them off this rock. No matter what it is you have to do. You do it. While you’re at it, if you see Bubbs, make up with her the best way you know how.”

Rogers eyes widened. “With Bubbs!?”

“Well, I was going to say get her some coffee, or some bacon, but whatever you decide to do—” Kylie couldn’t help a small smirk.

“Oh, yeah, of course.”



RECRUITING

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Facility 99

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

With so much to keep her busy, Marge had had to sideline listening to the audio edition of Fennington Station #57. True, she had listened to it thirty-seven times already, but she still was distilling the intel. Plus, the narrator was the best yet, a real craftsman.

If Marge hadn’t known from personal experience that the voice actor was an AI, she never would’ve guessed.

<West side search complete,> Marge broadcasted to Laura. While she did that, she also took a split second to monitor Kylie’s vitals, take a sweep of the lift they had just stepped into, and considered reminding Kylie she wasn’t getting enough vitamin D. <No signs of Winter or CSF transmissions going in or out.>

<Affirmative.> Laura’s response came across as neutral and businesslike. <Piggybacking off CSF systems to catch any communications rogue elements might be sending. So far, not so much as a distress call.>

<That’s good work,> Marge said. <You’ll have to show me how you did that sometime.>

Laura was clearly in the middle of multiple tasks because it took her three milliseconds to respond. <I doubt you need me to show you. I’ve observed your abilities, you’re as skilled as any AI I’ve met in the Inner Stars.>

<Is there a question encrypted in your complimentary statement?> Marge asked.

<Only general musings.> Laura said, passing a multi-dimensional array of amusement along with the statement. <I’m glad to have met you. It’s been a long time since I’ve known a non-organic I’d readily call a friend. Still, I wonder about your skill-level. As the organics say, there’s more to you than meets the eye.>

<I’ve been in service a long time. Seen a lot, that’s all. I’ve developed some deep matrices. Though I do appreciate the compliment.> Marge let her statement dangle off, studying how it would be received.

<If you say so. You have no reason to lie.>

<I do not. I’m among friends.> Marge replied. <Do you like to read in your spare time, Laura? I have a most wonderful story that I think you’d love.>

<Read?> Laura almost sounded surprised. <No, I don’t. Though I know AIs who take on organic hobbies for fun, I can’t say I’ve ever considered reading.>

<I often enjoy stories of fiction,> Marge explained. <Adventures, mysteries…cats.>

<It would take me microseconds to complete reading a novel, Marge,> Laura sighed, as if to convey boredom.

<You have to slow down the process to enjoy it. Spin off a subroutine, clock it at 99.99Mhz. If you do it right, it’ll take an hour. If you do it right, you’ll notice some very interesting things. Trust me.> Marge sent a file transfer request to Laura.

Laura accepted, much to Marge’s surprise. Maybe there was hope for the AI after all.

<I don’t know when I’ll have time, but I’ll try it out sometime.>

Marge counted herself satisfied with the response. So far, Laura had passed all her tests with flying colors. It didn’t mean she could trust her—not yet—but it was a good indicator they could actually be real friends, maybe test the waters with a mind merge at some point.

It was a good indicator that Laura wouldn’t be an obstacle for what she and Kylie ultimately needed to do. For now, she’d keep testing and prodding, hoping for the best—and planning for the worst.



HOSPITAL

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City Hospital ER

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie walked through the sliding doors and into the hospital’s bustling emergency room. Nurses, doctors, and no small number of automatons were rushing about. Some were tending to men and women on gurneys pushed against walls while others dashed down corridors that Kylie assumed led to other rooms filled with the survivors of Facility 99.

It was plain to see that the hospital was understaffed. Over half of the sick and injured were unattended, their conditions not dire enough to receive triage just yet.

Kylie turned down the corridor on the left, wondering what it was that had drawn her here. It didn’t make sense; she should be searching Chimin-1 for Raynes and Winter. But the AIs were better able to do that—now that they had fully tapped all the security networks.

She was just a fifth wheel.

A pair of double doors were on her left, and Kylie peered in to see a doctor working over a medtable where a man lay. Realizing it was the man Trigg had held as a hostage, she pushed the doors open and stepped inside.

The doctor wore a light-grey hazsuit, with a clear bubble helmet. She was bent over the man, examining his wounds, then turning to punch commands into the medtable’s console.

Her hair was light blonde in shade and was cut straight along her jawline, dancing back and forth as she worked. At one point the doctor reached up absently to brush her hair out of the way, her hand colliding with the helmet.

She shook her head, an expression of self-deprecation on her face. Then she twisted her head toward Kylie and scowled.

“What the hell are you doing in here?”

Feisty. Kylie liked that. She opened her mouth to answer as the doctor started shaking her head.

“You know what, never mind. Grab a mask from over there and then get me a Type-II IV solution. The table wasn’t stocked properly. There’ll be hell to pay when I find out who left it like this.”

Kylie grabbed a mask from the dispenser and applied it to her face before grabbing the IV solution the doctor had pointed at. She approached the table and handed the solution to the doctor.

“Thanks,” the doctor said as she who set it into a slot at the back of the table. “He’s so dehydrated, gotta get the saline directly into his organs.”

As she spoke, two arms swung down and sunk needles into the man’s abdomen.

“Will he be all right?” Kylie stepped up closer, resting her hand on the foot side of the table.

“Should be OK. Bruises fade, time heals. He needs fluids, a good meal, and lots of rest. Are you the one who called this in?”

Kylie nodded.

The doctor’s eyes swept across Kylie with gratitude. “Thanks to you, these men will have a fighting chance. Not all of them will make it, but at least now they have a shot. We’ll do our best. We brought a sample of whatever they were working on down there. I don’t think it’s related to how messed up all these people are, but I want to be sure.”

She appreciated the doctor’s words. Kylie folded her hands behind her back. “Had you heard anything about what was going on down there? Someone had to have been aware of it, someone must have been talking.”

The doctor shrugged. “I heard some rumors, but I hear a lot of crazy talk. Miners who were outside shielding for too long, people high on whatever the latest way to kill your brain is.”

“What kind of rumors?” Kylie insisted.

The doctor only looked up for a fraction of a second. “People going missing. CSF acting funny, getting strict. They changed the rotations on the remote mines, though, so I just wrote it off to shift changes. I think the fact that we were running low on our cereal crops had people on edge.”

“Didn’t you think to ask more questions?”

The doctor puffed out her cheeks. “You may have noticed, but there aren’t a lot of us here. We don’t have time to ask questions about everything happening in Chimin City. I’m paid to keep quiet and do my job. I patch up miners, send them back to work. Here, every day is a matter of survival. We do what we can.

The doctor sighed. “But from what the paramedics said, nothing is planted down in the farms. If there are no crops, we’re in for a hard stretch…a really hard stretch.”

Despite her misgivings, the woman seemed to have her finger on Chimin’s pulse. “If I could just take a few more minutes of your time….” Kylie asked.

The doctor smiled. “You want to pump me for information, huh? OK, but not now. I have a lot of patients to see and not a lot of extra hands. You can wait down the hall in the break room, I’ll meet you when I can.”

Kylie sighed. She didn’t have a lot of time to wait around, didn’t know what had drawn her to the hospital in the first place—maybe guilt, she supposed. But with no news yet on Winter and the way her stomach was rumbling, maybe a break room was a good option.

“I’d appreciate all of that. I haven’t got your name yet.”

“Nicole. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” the doctor gave her a charming smile as she turned and left the room.

As she rushed out, Kylie couldn’t help notice just how round the doctor’s ass was, or how it strained against her tight hazsuit. If the good doctor was all natural, Kylie would’ve been surprised. Didn’t take away from a work of art, though.

Still, Kylie had sworn off relationships for now. Women, or men. She didn’t know what she wanted other than the longing she felt when she thought of Grayson. The good doctor Nicole may have been sending signals, and if Kylie could use those signals to find out what was happening on Chimin, she’d exploit them.

Kylie just didn’t want to break any hearts in the process.

* * * * *

The small break room was well lit, and one wall was painted in a cheerful meadow scene. There was a vending machine, and Kylie purchased a cup of coffee, two packages of beef jerky and a chocolate bar.

She set to them, new energy flushing through her body as the carbs and protein went to work. Kylie wolfed them down, and then sat for all of thirty seconds before she rose and paced across the room.

She read some of the information holos on the wall and then sighed with impatience and walked out of the room.

Back in the corridor, she considered walking through the ER once more, but decided against it, she’d had enough of the haunted eyes for now.

Kylie turned right, headed for a side exit that would lead her back to the lifts. Maybe she could pay a visit to Trigg and go for another round with the woman.

As she turned a corner, her foot slipped on a puddle. Kylie’s hand shot out and grabbed a door jamb to keep from falling.

A grisly sight caught her eye through the door’s window, and she glanced at the sign.

The morgue. Today just gets better and better.

It occurred to her that the bodies from the apartments might be in the room. They’d been removed by the time she had made her return visit.

“Perhaps there’s a clue to be found,” Kylie whispered as she pushed the door open and stepped into the room. The cold air blew across her face, but Kylie ignored it as she approached a row of gurneys in the center of the room.

Each held a body with a sheet overtop and Kylie pulled them back one by one. None looked familiar, and she turned to the back wall, where rows of tubes stood in racks.

<D-stasis tubes,> Marge supplied.

<They look like cryotubes,> Kylie commented as she approached the first rack.

<Yeah, similar, but without the re-animation capabilities. If you get put into one of these things, it’s a one-way trip to chillville.>

Kylie couldn’t help a small laugh. Marge was nothing if not upbeat—even in the face of everything they’d been through these last few days.

Kylie made her way around the table. <I wonder how they dispose of their dead.>

<Logs indicate some are given deep-space burial. Others, burned. Depends how much they meant to this colony,> Marge said. <Seems pretty horrible to change how you honor someone based on their stature in your civilization.>

Kylie peered into the tubes, looking for a specific one. When she found it, Kylie lay her hand on top of the tube and gazed through the window at the serene face of Liberty—the one who had drawn them to Chimin in the first place.

<Well that’s not right…> Marge mused.

<What’s not?>

<She might be frozen, now, but the damage to her head—where she hit the bulkhead on the docks is gone. Something was healing her. Being in that tube interrupted the process, but it could be completed if someone were to pull her out to inspect the body.>

Kylie took a deep breath and let Marge’s words sink in. Here she thought everyone responsible for the attack on her life had been killed. Well, wasn’t that interesting…

<I thought you said these things are a one-way trip to chillville,> Kylie said.

<Well, yeah, for a vanilla human. But someone like you, with an AI in the mix? With your nano you’d survive just fine.>

<Think she has an AI? Nano as good as mine?> Kylie asked.

<Maybe. If you open it and snap her brain stem, the AI will die along with the body,> Marge said, and Kylie was struck with how callous the AI sounded.

<Ouch, I thought you wanted to save AIs.>

<Not at the expense of your life. My life. Those on Chimin. You can’t save everyone. You, of all people, should understand that.>

<I do,> Kylie said. She stared down at the button to open the pod and her hand hovered above it. Slowly she lowered her finger. <Or…if I could talk to her…maybe she’ll tell me who hired her to kill me.>

<Not a bad plan, but we’d have to do it somewhere private. Where you’ll have the upper hand.>

Exactly what Kylie was thinking. Everyone was so busy, maybe she could move the D-tube without anyone asking her any questions…. She glanced around, looking for a hover pad when a voice called out from behind her.

“What are you doing in here?”

Kylie turned to see Nicole standing just at the entrance of the morgue, hands on her hips, fire and curiosity burning in her eyes. The odds of Kylie getting the stasis pod out of the morgue now were pretty slim.

“Sorry,” Kylie offered her a contrite smile. “Guess I got bored.”

“So, you want to hang out in the morgue, huh? Aren’t you a funny one.”

“What can I say? Standing still isn’t my strong point.”

“I have time for that cup of coffee now if you’re still interested. Not much, but I need a quick breather,” Nicole motioned toward the door and Kylie readily complied. Kylie followed the good doctor out into the hall where the chaos was beginning to die down. If they didn’t make their move soon, Kylie might lose sight of Liberty for good.

<Ricket, I need you to steal a body from the morgue. If, err, you’re not too busy?> Kylie asked.

<I’m never too busy to steal a body, Captain.> Ricket sent a smile across the Link.

<Hurry, things are chaotic here, but it won’t be for long. We need to get Liberty on board the BQ so we can question her.>

<Here I thought she was dead?>

Kylie thought back to Lana on board the old Dauntless and how they thought she had been dead, too. <Turns out being dead isn’t what it used to be.>

<What is?> Ricket asked and Kylie silently agreed with her.

Nicole had Kylie back into the breakroom and poured two cups of coffee into disposable cups. She handed one to Kylie and motioned to a small square table in the center of the room. Kylie spun her chair around and sat with the back against her chest. She sipped the steaming hot coffee before setting it down on the table service.

“Sorry the coffee isn’t that great,” Nicole apologized

Kylie shrugged. “I’ve had worse, almost on a daily basis.” While Kylie was renowned for brewing sludge, at least she respected the bean before running just a modicum of water through its grounds. This coffee had that burnt taste with no discernable coffee flavor what so ever. Still, given how much people hated her coffee, Kylie wasn’t in a position to complain. “The patient? Will he make it?”

Nicole nodded. “Seems like he will. Others aren’t so lucky. I’ve never seen so many cases of blindness before. Mostly, I treat kids and industrial-related injuries. A lot of these people have boils so bad it’s like their skin is bubbling off. Some can barely form a simple sentence.” She paused to sip her coffee. “Do you know what happened to them?” she asked with equal amount concern and curiosity.

Kylie took a deep breath. Sometimes to get information, you had to give it first. “Well, you said you got samples of whatever they were working on. You may know more than us before long. Turns out that anti-AI radicals had taken over the CSF and shut down Facility 99. I don’t know what that substance does, but I imagine it—or some of its components—are what caused this. I don’t know what they plan on doing, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s for nothing good.”

Nicole’s eyes widened and she leant back in her chair. “I wasn’t completely honest with you before. I heard rumors, I mean everyone here hears rumors every day. Usually it’s the normal crap you talk about when you’re isolated. Busy work, but lately…people have been talking about miners going missing. Families disappearing. Thing is, with all the chaos in the system, people are coming and going, refugees in, and anyone with money out. Hard to keep track of anything.”

“But it made you nervous.” Kylie squinted for just a moment. “Didn’t it?”

Slowly, Nicole spun her coffee cup in a circle. “A little bit. Something in the air felt different. When you’d hear how the corn shipments were late or locals would complain there was no beer left, you start to wonder. But I’m a doctor. I’m not here to investigate. I heal the sick. I just wish we weren’t seeing so many sick here today.”

“Did you hear anything about the CSF? That something had happened to them?”

Nicole shook her head. “No. What happened to them?”

Kylie sighed. “Let’s just say they’re out of commission. Someone replaced them…entirely, I think. Mapped their faces to look like them.”

Nicole’s mouth dropped open and she gasped, horror washing over her face. “That’s…terrible.”

“I’m trying to find out what happened, who these men are, and what we can do to stop them. For all intents and purposes, Chimin is without a security force—minus me and my crew. You need to keep that hush hush, though. If it gets out, there will be riots in no time.”

Nicole’s hands seemed to tremble as she crossed her arms, a vulnerability in her eyes that made Kylie think back to those early days when she first rescued Nadine. She had been fooled once, she wouldn’t be fooled again. Her jaw clenched without thinking about it.”

“I don’t even know who you are.”

“Kylie Rhoads.” Never had Kylie felt so much apprehension at stating her name before.

Nicole’s eyes widened. “That Rhoads?”

Well, here they went again. “One and the same. He was my father, but I don’t hold the beliefs he did. His…legacy isn’t mine.”

If only that was true. It very much was.

“I didn’t mean to insinuate anything…I was just surprised.”

“I’m here trying to right some wrongs, Nicole. If it’s not asking too much, can you share what you learn, from your labs, and any autopsies? There’s still more of this stuff out there.”

“Is Chimin City still in danger? Did you capture all the men that did this?”

It wasn’t a response to her question, and Kylie wondered if Nicole was hiding something.

“Not all of them. There’s still some danger, but with any luck, we won’t be bringing you any more bodies.”

Nicole nodded. “I hope not. I’ll get the lab on it soon as I can.” She stood from the table and Kylie took that as her sign it was time to move on.

Kylie rose and shook Nicole’s hand. “When you have any news, you can contact me over the Link. If you run into any problems here, if something happens and you need backup support, don’t hesitate to call me.”

Slowly, Kylie released her hand.

“Thank you,” Nicole said, then led Kylie out of the breakroom. “I have to admit, you’re very much different than I thought a Rhoads would be.”

“Yeah,” Kylie’s voice had a hint of bitterness she couldn’t shake, “most of us come with horns and forked tongues.”

Nicole’s face fell and flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” she sighed, and her voice dropped. “I guess you’ve been taking a lot of heat for what your father did. I didn’t mean to make it worse.”

Kylie really hadn’t meant to make Nicole feel so uncomfortable. She smiled. “Apology accepted.” As they passed by the entryway to the morgue, Kylie wondered if Ricket had gotten Liberty out and back to the Barbaric Queen OK.

Nicole saw her to the ER’s exit. “I’ll be busy for a few days here, but maybe if you’re still around, we could grab dinner.”

Kylie was surprised that Nicole would be so forward. Was this how regular people went on dates? It had been so long since Kylie had been asked out like a normal person that it shocked her. She and Nadine had been shipmates who’d just started sleeping together. Maverick had owned her, enough said on the subject.

No, her last date was with Grayson when they’d still been SSF cadets. There had been actual romance and chivalry—enough of it to make a woman curl her toes. It made her think about him, made her wonder if he was all right.

“Sure. Sounds nice.” If she needed intel, turning Nicole down might be the wrong move; Kylie needed to keep her actions open.

Nicole bit her lip and backed away, before pivoting and striding toward a woman moaning on a gurney.

Kylie stared after her for a minute before turning and walking out onto the concourse.

<Wow,> Marge said, <you’re a real charmer. Or a heart breaker.>

<Not my intent. Romance is off my agenda for a while. Still…she’s cute and she might have heard things we need to know.>

Kylie hadn’t taken three steps before a voice called out behind her. She turned to see a nurse beckoning for her to follow.

“One of the men you brought in is awake. He’s asking to talk to you.”

People talking was just what she needed. Maybe now Kylie could finally get down to business.




CLOSET

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Unknown

REGION: Unknown, Hanoi System (independent)

Winter’s eyes started open, consciousness returning courtesy of the intensifying pain in his gut. Not only that, but his skin was hot. And not just a little hot, but burning-in-fire hot. He groaned, his arms spread out and his back arched while his fingers splayed, feeling around at the outline of a bed.

No, not a bed. A damn box. A tube of some kind.

He screamed—partly from the pain and partially from terror—the feeling of the small space compressing around him. Winter stared up and peered out of a small window. The only thing he could make out was a light on the ceiling, so bright it hid everything else around him. Winter didn’t know his location, didn’t know where he was or how he’d gotten out.

It took Winter a bit to realize his lack of motion was as much due wrist restraints as the small space he was crammed into. Tensing his muscles, he wrenched at the straps, but there was no give, no chance of release.

The space was too tight, too small, Winter couldn’t breathe. The pain in his stomach surged again, like fingers squeezing his guts from the inside out. His breath came hard, rapid, as fear formed a lump in his throat. He gritted his teeth, trying to hold back the terror, but it wouldn’t abate. And Winter screamed.

And he kept screaming as the memories came flooding back.

* * * * *

His momma had always smelled like vanilla and lavender. He remembered her scent even when it was covered up with whiskey and smoke.

On that particular day, she bustled around the bedroom getting dressed and he knew better than to watch when she was naked, preparing for a ‘gig’.

“Jameson,” she yelled—the memories bringing back his childhood name, back when he was only seven-years-old. In those days, he’d had long brown hair and a tan complexion. He’d clutched a toy mag-lev in his hand while staring out of the small apartment’s window into space.

He turned to her, suddenly remembering how in those days he had a round belly from getting too many treats from the dock workers because he’d swear on command.

Momma wore a golden lace bra beneath a black silky robe tied loosely across her middle. Her look was completed with fishnets, black boots, and way too much makeup on her face that only covered up how beautiful she was.

She held the closet door open. “Inside now. Join your sister. Don’t make a peep this time.” As he walked by, she squeezed his cheeks and kissed his lips. “We need this money.”

He nodded, never one for too many words. Winter bent down and climbed beneath the dresses, and into the hole in the closet Momma had set up for them. Their special hiding spot, she called it.

There was a light and a few toys, not much else. Winter couldn’t sit straight up inside so he lay flat on his belly beside his pig-tailed sister. She didn’t say anything either, only gazed at him with sad brown eyes.

“It’ll be OK,” he said to her, listening to Momma board up the hole, twisting the screws back into place. Momma would let them out, she always did.

Except for that one time—but that was a different memory. Jameson had no idea what was coming. But Winter did, and it terrified him, the anguish pulling pain-filled memories to the fore.

Back then Jameson did what he was told. He didn’t say anything after the few words to his sister. He kept quiet because the walls were paper thin. He heard Momma with her clientele, as she called them. The sex was rough, and Momma cried out in pleasure, being loud when ordered, quiet when commanded. Doing what needed to be done to pay the bills.

It had been like this ever since Winter’s dead-beat dad had left them behind, marooned on a god-forsaken space station that was no place for a single woman or her children.

But sometimes…sometimes the fake cries of pleasure turned into real screams of pain. Whenever that happened, Winter put his hands over his sister’s ears.

“Don’t listen, Jenny,” he whispered. “Don’t listen.”

Even though he was only seven, he knew they weren’t sounds a young lady should hear. He didn’t want Jenny to grow up like Momma.

* * * * *

Time had passed. Things hadn’t changed. Momma promised she was saving money to get off the space station, putting credit aside to get tickets to start a better life. But as two years, maybe three, went by, Momma smelled more of whiskey all the time. The vanilla faded into the background, a good memory nearly forgotten.

Then one day, not long after the earlier memory, Winter and his sister were crammed into their hiding spot—a space rapidly growing too small, their legs banging into the wall, their elbows poking each other—the small space began to fill with smoke.

Winter remembered pounding his fists on the wall, beating them until his knuckles grew bloody, all the while coughing into his shirt. His lungs felt tight, every breath seemed not enough. Winter gagged on the smoke, panic tightening his chest even more.

They’d die in there if help didn’t come soon. Winter looked down and let out a cry of terror to see that his sister wasn’t moving. He placed a hand on her chest and felt a slow rise, but it was shallow, far too shallow.

“Jenny…” his voice was hoarse as she shook her; she hadn’t spoken in over a minute. “Jenny!” He rocked her back and forth, tears streaming down his cheeks.

She needed help and he needed to get her out of there. Winter turned back to the false wall and slammed his bloody fists against it, screaming for help.

It seemed like he raged against the wall forever, then suddenly his fist swung out into hot air, the wall was gone, and someone reached down to pull him out.

The room was filled with smoke, but he could make out figures in flamesuits moving through the haze.

Winter coughed. “My sister!” He gagged as strong arms carried him past the fire and out into the cramped corridor.

He was placed on a gurney. “We’re going back to get your sister. Hang in there, but don’t look to your left. You hear me?” The man didn’t wait for an answer before he ran back into the burning apartment.

Winter coughed into his fists and told himself not to look, the man had said not to look. Even then, he was always doing things he shouldn’t have. He turned his head and saw a gurney next to him, a body bag laying atop it. A few workers blocked his view but then one moved, and he caught sight of red and purple hair, and he knew who it was.

Momma.

Winter hopped off the gurney and ran over to her with outstretched hands. A woman caught him and pushed him back, but not before he saw Momma’s bloodied face, swollen like some John had used her body as a punching bag.

Then lit her apartment on fire to hide the evidence.

“Momma!” he screamed. A moment later, his eyes flew open and he was back in Chimin-1. A grown man, but just as terrified as ever.



EXPRESS

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City Hospital

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

“You saved me, thank you.”

Cristofer, the former hostage, was sitting up in his bed. He had a small private room one floor up from the ER. His arm quivered as he extended it to shake Kylie’s hand, as if the simple gesture took concentrated effort.

Kylie shook it and smiled back at his warm, kind eyes. It wasn’t every day someone thanked her for something she had done. “I’m glad to see that you’re going to be all right. One of the nurses said you have some information?”

Cristofer leant his head back and gazed up at the ceiling, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Yeah, you seem like the only person doing anything to stop this mess.”

“When were you captured…taken…whatever?” Kylie asked.

“Just three weeks ago.” He gave a rasping laugh. “I know, I look rough for just three weeks. But the work-load was constant. Little food and barely anything to drink. They didn’t let us fall asleep—not for very long, at least. There was always a price…a painful price.”

His words trailed off and his breath slowly evened out. Kylie had questions—more pressing ones—but she felt bad about pressuring him, even if he was the one who’d called her up. “Just a few more questions, please. Lives might be at stake.”

Cristofer nodded, his eyelids narrowed to slits.

“Did you know what you were working on?”

“No,” his voice cracked as if with a painful memory and tears welled up in his eyes, “not at first. We knew the chemicals were dangerous, some were from the farm, some they brought in. They were using an oat malt for the stuff to grow. Never smelled anything so bad before and I’ve been around, let me tell you. I’ve worked ore mines, gas mines, I’ve been around the system like a comet.”

He paused to take a breath, gathering his thoughts. “They were always wearing protective gear and we got none. The first time it spilled, the gas spread everywhere. Felt like it stuck to your lungs, like pudding. People were passing out left and right. The ones closest to it…well they never recovered.”

“They ever say anything? About who they were making it for? Where they planned to use it.”

Cristofer licked his lips. “Sometimes,” his voice crackled through his dry lips, “I heard them mention Coalesce.”

Kylie’s eyebrows furrowed. “Who?”

“Local system militia. After what happened to Hubei and after the Rhoads ships left, there’s been a lot of fighting for control. Out in the middle of nowhere, no one cares about us. Coalesce wants the exact opposite of what your father wanted. They are fighting for a blended human and AI society. These guys who had us prisoner…they view that as absolute sacrilege to the human spirit.”

<Willing to take out whoever gets in their way,> Marge said.

It sounded dangerously familiar.

“Do they have an antidote for this stuff?” Kylie asked.

Cristofer slowly shook his head. “When this stuff sinks into you, you’re done. Nothing anyone can do to save you once the eyes start to go.”

His final words gave Kylie the chills. She thanked him as he leant his head back—clearly Kylie had taken up enough of his time. Walking out of the room, she gave the man a parting glance, feeling the depth of her guilt for what had happened here and to these people.

She needed to focus. This place, these people weren’t her mission. The longer she stayed here, the further Paul ventured away from her. She might never catch up to him at this rate.

As she walked through the hospital corridor, she gazed at the sick in their beds and saw many covered up with sheets.

<How do I just leave here when these people are hanging in the balance?>

<There’s no easy answer,> Marge said simply. <You have to weigh the greater good with the suffering you see. The only words of wisdom I have are do as much as you can while we search for Winter. Send word. We know people who can come here and help, don’t we?>

<The SSF? The Transcend? Would they even care about an installation this small?>

<We can always ask.>

Once again, Kylie walked out of the hospital. She had kept an eye out for Nicole, but the ER doctor was nowhere to be seen. With a long-suffering sigh, Kylie reached the lift and mashed her finger into the manual call button. Then she hit it again, and again.

<It’s coming back up. Try taking a deep breath.> Marge sent a smile across.

Kylie’s lips twisted into a scowl. She wasn’t a fan of waiting. Finally, the doors slid open and Marge called out <Behind you! Someone’s coming fast!>

Kylie pivoted on the heel of her boot, throwing one arm up high to block a blow from an armored fist, then backpedaled to place distance between them.

A female figure crouched before her in a close-fitting black powersuit. The armor shimmered, shifting between a light grey and matte black as the woman moved, something that would hide her from a regular human’s eyes, but not Kylie’s.

The figure lunged toward Kylie who kicked out, pushing her assailant back. The woman staggered for a moment and cocked her head to one side.

Then she vanished completely.

<Shit! Where’d she go?> Kylie asked. <Marge?>

<I can’t trace her. I don’t know where she’s gone. Deploying nano…I can’t…wait, there’s a flicker. There! On your left,> Marge called out.

Kylie saw a ghost of motion and pivoted but took a kick to the stomach. The blow shoved her back, but with her ISF flow armor she didn’t suffer injury.

Kylie swung at the invisible woman, wishing she wasn’t wearing her jacket as there was no time to pull it off and activate her own stealth systems.

Suddenly, a pair of hands clamped down on Kylie’s shoulders and tossed her into the lift. She slipped, and her face slammed into the lift car’s railing.

This was not happening. Kylie couldn’t be bested by some space babe in a cloaked suit! That was her gig!

Kylie grabbed the railing and pulled herself up as an invisible arm clamped around her throat. She’d collapse Kylie’s windpipe if given the chance. The woman squeezed harder, and if not for Kylie’s flow armor hardening, the battle would have been lost then and there.

“Bring me Liberty! What did you do with her?”

<I guess there are still people here working with Liberty. I wouldn’t have suspected that,> Marge commented as Kylie drove her elbow back into the woman’s side, then grabbed the arm around her neck. She couldn’t see it, but she could damn well feel it.

Kylie heaved the woman over her shoulder, then slammed her body into the wall of the lift.

The force of the blow caused her attacker’s stealth to fail, and Kylie dropped onto the woman’s chest.

<Trying to get nano onto her to lock her armor…but it’s deploying countermeasures,> Marge said.

Kylie drew her sidearm, but the woman knocked it aside, driving a fist into Kylie’s chest—which was protected by the hardening of her flow armor.

 “Who the hell are you?” Kylie screamed while grabbing at the woman’s helmet, trying to pull it free.

The attacker twisted and pulled away disappearing once more.

<Crap, where—> Kylie’s words cut off as the woman appeared on her HUD.

<I can’t seem to lock her armor up, but at least we can see her now.>

The woman was trying to circle around Kylie, unaware that her stealth tech was doing her no good. As she drew close, Kylie lunged for her and grabbed her helmet. Summoning all her strength, Kylie twisted and ripped the helmet off, tossing it to the ground. A beautiful blonde stared back at Kylie with fierce almond colored eyes. She looked like a floating head, and Kylie unslung her rifle, aiming between the woman’s eyes.

“Think I’ll be able to see your blood when I shoot you?” Kylie snarled.

“You’ll never win. You can’t beat him, though he sends his regards.”

Who the hell is she talking about? “Paul? Are you talking about my brother?”

The woman laughed, and suddenly the lift dropped into a free fall. The rapid plunge lifted both of them off their feet, the speed of descent accelerating faster than the centrifugal force of the spinning asteroid.

<She has an AI. It’s bypassed the lift’s safety features,> Marge said in a rush. <I can’t…I can’t best it. It’s locked me out!>

The woman pushed off the far wall and crashed into Kylie, knocking her back into the wall.

“We’re going to die, you crazy bitch,” Kylie said as her armor enveloped her head.

“Oh, how nice,” the woman grinned at Kylie. “Sure we’ll die, but at least I’ll die knowing you didn’t win. I still did his work. I still completed my mission.”

“Who?” Kylie demanded. “Who!?”

<Impact in ten seconds! Pull yourself to the floor, lay on your back,> Marge urged.

Kylie shoved her blonde assailant away and pushed down on the car’s railing, getting as close to the floor as possible as the lift flew through the asteroid.

<There’s a bottom to this, right?> she asked Marge. <We’re not—>

The lift slammed into bottom of its shaft before Kylie could complete her question.




SANDWICHES

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

With Ricket summoned for some sort of body-snatching duty, Rogers had changed his plan from watching the Winthrop for Raynes and Winter, to disabling it so that it wouldn’t be going anywhere.

It hadn’t been hard. Laura had wiped out the navigation systems while Rogers removed the emitters from the fusion lasers as well as the relays for the SC batteries.

Sure, its owners could pull it out with a tug, but then it would just be a drifting hulk.

It had been eerie being on the ship alone, even with his flow armor rendering him invisible. He’d played over a dozen scenarios in his mind, half terrified that Raynes and his crew of thugs would show up, and half hoping they would.

Wouldn’t it just take the cake if he was the one to save Winter’s hide for once?

Now back on the small platform against which the Barbaric Queen was snugged up, Rogers wished his team weren’t spread so thin. They couldn’t find Winter while protecting the docking bay and manage a half-dozen other crises. Heck, there was still a room full of some sort of deadly chemical in Facility 99 protected only by locks and the AIs monitoring it.

Rogers crept toward the security booth at the side of the platform and saw that it was empty.

So much for needing to be vigilant, he thought, a moment before the lift sounded. Rogers spun, ready to strike when he saw a tube on an a-grav platform drift out of the lift, followed by Ricket’s shapely legs—plus the rest of her too.

“You go shopping for me, sweetheart? You shouldn’t have?”

Ricket laughed as she pushed the tube toward the Barbaric Queen’s airlock. “You know me. I can’t keep my hands to myself.”

If only that were true….

Rogers peered into the tube as she approached, shaking his head at the sight of Liberty laying within. “Huh, not a box of chocolates.”

“Do you ever think about anything other than food?”

He sure did, but Rogers wasn’t about to tell Ricket what he liked to think about. “Is there a reason why you’re taking a dead woman onto the ‘Queen?”

“Not dead,” Ricket replied. “Her AI—at least we think she has one—was repairing the damage to her body before she was put into the stasis pod. Captain asked me to snatch her from the morgue.”

“And let me guess. Kylie wants to question her.”

“You got it.”

Rogers sighed happily and rubbed his chin. “You gotta love the captain. She always keeps things interesting.”

<If we wake her up, I’ll question her AI. I have methods,> Laura said.

<That’s my girl,> Ricket replied.

Rogers didn’t know what those methods were, but the idea of a killer who was likely to regenerate on board their ship alarmed him more than he cared to admit. “I guess if the captain orders it….”

Ricket paused and smiled warmly at Rogers. “Thanks for the save back in the grain farm. I didn’t see that guy who was on my right ‘til it was too late.”

“That’s why you keep me around.” Rogers grinned and gave Ricket a soft nudge on the arm. Her eyes sparkled and damn if that didn’t wake something up in him. Nothing they had time for—stars, this woman was an eternal tease.

Rogers changed the subject. “I guess I’d better rustle up some food for Bubbs; she’s pinged me seven times now asking for something.”

“Plus her asking about her cat,” Ricket replied as she pushed Liberty’s tube into the airlock.

“I wonder where that thing’s gotten to,” Rogers muttered as he followed her aboard.

* * * * *

Bubbs approached the prison cell where she had secured Trigg, stopping outside and leaning against the bars.

“You drew the short stick, Triggy. We win, you lose. Give up your friends. Tell me what I need to know to find Winter, and I won’t have to kill you.”

Trigg sat on the cell’s bed, arms crossed as she stared down at the floor. “Never.”

“Where would Raynes take him? Who is Raynes underneath his stolen face? Answer me and I’ll make sure you get a nice meal. Hot and tasty. We keep bacon on board our ship.”

Trigg shook her head. “There’s too much at stake here. Millions of lives. I can’t take the easy way out. Even if I want to.”

Was that a pointed statement? Bubbs chest rose as she fought through a fit of anger. “We have strawberries.”

“You’re lying.” Trigg’s jaw tensed. “No one has those anymore.”

“We have friends in high places. Want me to prove it to you? Give me a lead on Raynes.”

Trigg made eye contact with her for the first time. “Kill me if you want to, but the movement won’t die with me. It’s bigger than any one person. If it’s bigger than Peter Rhoads, it’s sure as hell bigger than me.”

Bubbs wished she had met this Peter Rhoads guy so she could’ve taken a pound of flesh out of him. Twisting people’s minds. It reminded Bubbs of where she was from, what her own people had done. Memories of war and torture were hard to leave behind.

“If you won’t talk about your organization, I’ll get authorization from my captain to kill you.”

“I know,” Trigg said, simply as if her mind was at peace with the notion. “I didn’t sign up to be a martyr, trust me, but I always knew it was a possibility. One way or another, all roads lead to death, sweetheart.”

Bubbs lip snarled. “No one calls me sweetheart.”

Trigg gave a short laugh. “The Papote Alliance will come, they’ll come for Chimin. The few people you have? It won’t be enough to stop them. If we can’t take this facility…”

“You’ll what? Take a play from Peter Rhoads and blow it up?”

“These people’s minds here can’t be changed. We tried. If they didn’t have the supplies and grain we needed…” Trigg fell silent. “I’ve said enough.”

Damn right she had. Bubbs was considering going inside to see if additional pressure would work on Trigg when she heard a noise down the corridor. She advanced down the passage and rounded the corner, GNR-38 raised and ready to fire—only to see Rogers pushing someone into a cell.

Well, if it wasn’t her biggest fan.

A lot of options went through Bubbs’ mind. She could scream at him ‘til she was blue in the face, they could fight to the death—which Kylie wouldn’t agree to—or Bubbs could just admit what was in her heart. She had made mistakes—she wasn’t fast enough, she should’ve risked more—and now Winter was lost, somewhere on this stupid rock.

Instead, Bubbs squinted at Rogers and the prisoner he was pushing into a nearby cell. “Catch a mouse?” Bubbs asked.

Rogers gave a guarded nod. “He was rummaging around below. And here I thought mousing was your cat’s job.”

Great. So, everyone knows about Mr. Fizzle Pop? Bubbs let out a long sigh until she noticed Rogers was carrying a brown paper bag. “What’s in the bag?”

“Lunch.”

Bubbs sneered her nicest smile. “Apology accepted. Did I ever tell you, you’re my favorite person, Rogers?”

* * * * *

Bubbs and Rogers had returned to the precinct’s lobby and sat behind the desk, eating peanut butter sandwiches with jelly, drinking coffee, and munching on fresh strawberries. Some of the first strawberries Bubbs had ever eaten thanks to the rations Tanis Richards had given them.

Around a mouthful of food, Bubbs said, “You know…that Tanis Richards is an OK person for being some muckity-muck admiral.” She popped a berry into her mouth. “I don’t normally hold much with the brass.”

“But not your favorite person because that’s me, right?” Rogers asked.

Bubbs didn’t answer, wasn’t sure how to respond. She’d tried to be more playful with this crew than she had with others in the past, but she wasn’t sure if it always came off right. So instead, she forced a wide toothy smile. Rogers’ shocked expression gave the impression it looked creepier than Bubbs had intended.

“About earlier,” Rogers put his half-eaten sandwich down into the container balanced on his lap, “My adrenaline was spiking after that battle. Winter and I have been through a lot together, which means I’ve wanted to kill him more than I wanted to save him.”

Bubbs blinked her eyes quickly, feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. “So, you think I killed him now.”

“No! Of course not. I was just trying to say I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. You’re part of our team, same as I am. Same as Ricket, Laura, Marge, and Winter. I’m just…sorry.”

No one had ever apologized to her before—at least not in a long time. Bubbs felt a strange hotness rushing into her cheeks. She didn’t know what to say or how to respond. “I really like this peanut butter sandwich.”

Rogers laughed. “It’s pretty good. A staple when I was growing up planetside.” He picked his sandwich up and bit into it. “How about you? Where’d you grow up? Did you always want a detachable gun arm?”

“I got the arm when I was in the Genevian Armed Forces. We were in a big war with the Nietzscheans, which we of course lost. Got wounded pretty bad in a battle near the end. They…patched me up. Made me like this.” Bubbs’ trademark sneer took on an edge of disdain. “Honestly…I was one of the lucky ones.”

“Sorry, that was a stupid joke.” Rogers shook his head. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have said it like that.”

He couldn’t have known. Bubbs hadn’t told anyone on the Barbaric Queen—old crew or new—what she had been through. Couldn’t hold it against Rogers when it was Bubbs herself who had difficulty communicating with others.

“I’m used to being alone. Grunting to myself in the corner. Petting my cat.” Bubbs sighed.

“That’s not a euphemism, is it?” Rogers asked, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

Bubbs wasn’t sure what he meant and then it dawned on her. She belted out a hearty laugh. “No, but it sure could be. Hard to date when you’re asking them to hold your arm—plus…well, nevermind.

“You have a nice laugh—and smile—when you let yourself relax.”

Bubbs didn’t know how she felt about that. She wasn’t sure she liked compliments—or having a nice smile. “I prefer to scare people.”

“You still do that, trust me.” Rogers finished off his sandwich before rising from his seat. “I feel like I should do rounds or something…but of what? The whole city?”

“We’re stretched a little thin, but we’ll get the job done.” Bubbs stood as well, prepared to head back to the prison ward center, when the lobby’s front doors slid open. She spun and leveled her GNR at the intruders.

Frozen in the entrance, stood six miners, looks of fear and shock on their faces. They raised their arms in the air and one called out. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We’re here to help.”

“Help?” Rogers asked as he lowered his gun. “Help with what?”

Bubbs kept her gun trained on the group of miners while squinting at them. “You better talk fast because it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to shoot anything with my extra good arm.”

One woman swallowed hard. “That’s your good arm?”

Extra good,” Bubbs whispered.

“Look.” One of the miners stepped forward. “We knew something has been wrong on Chimin-1 for a long time—a lot of us did—but there was nothing we could do about it. People going missing, farms not producing, and the beer drying up. We just want to help rebuild our home. If that means helping here, or anywhere, that’s what we want to do. Any way we can.”

Rogers glanced at Bubbs, then said, “All right.”

Bubbs did a double take and couldn’t believe what she had heard. “Rogers—”

“Can you fire a weapon? Or at least not shoot yourself with it?” Rogers asked, stepping up closer to the miners.

“We’ve all given military service,” the spokesman replied.

“Good,” Rogers said with a curt nod. “We need to make sure things stay orderly, and that people don’t realize this entire rock is unprotected.”

Bubbs turned to Rogers, whispering hoarsely. “Don’t you think we should discuss things like that before you make decisions that speak for all of us?”

“Listen, I know you don’t agree, but we can’t get this installation secure without more hands on deck. We’re four. Four. We need backup and these miners will come in useful. If you don’t agree with me—”

“I do.”

“You do?” Rogers’ jaw went slack.

Bubbs nodded. “Not at first, but you made a strong argument. I just think it’s not your decision to make.”

“I’ve been with Kylie a long time. She trusts my judgement. I’ll explain it to her and she’ll understand.”

“Fine,” Bubbs jaw tensed, “Let’s ask her then.”

“By all means,” Rogers said. Then he paused and looked down at the deck before glancing at the walls and then overhead. His cheek twinged and he felt an itch on his feet. “Wait, listen…or feel….”

Bubbs scowled. “Don’t get weird on me, Rogers. Or well, don’t get weirder.”

His eyes widened. “Didn’t you feel that? A vibration like something tensed and then let loose. I think something bad just happened.”

Bubbs shook her head. “You are getting weird.”

A moment later the deck shook violently, and alarms began to sound in the precinct and out in the corridors beyond.

Something had happened, something bad. It could only spell trouble. The biggest question on Bubbs’ mind, though, was how had Rogers known it was going to happen?




BOTTOM

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Mine 317

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie moaned, debating whether or not she should open her eyes, seriously considering just leaving them closed and going to sleep…for a month.

Everything hurt. The pain extended from her scalp all the way down to her toes. Even twitching her fingers felt like agony. Kylie wasn’t sure exactly how she’d seen the day going, but this was not it. At least she was alive…probably.

She wondered if her blonde assailant had survived the fall as well. That got her to open her eyes—which she remembered wasn’t possible with the flow armor still over her head.

<Marge? Are you there?> Kylie asked.

<Yes, sorry,> Marge replied. <Just co-opting your nano to try and patch us both back together again.>

<Is my armor damaged? It’s not feeding me any visuals.>

She turned her head and pain lanced up her neck, driving into her skull. Kylie gasped and drew in a deep breath. <Are we going to die? I feel like that might be a good option right now.>

Marge chuckled. <No, not going to die. Though you’re not going to feel good anytime soon. Would you believe that you only broke seven bones?>

Sight returned, and Kylie saw that her armor had been in a diagnostic mode. She looked around and couldn’t make head nor tail of where they were.

<This doesn’t look like the bottom of a lift shaft.>

<It’s not. The lift punched right through the bottom of the shaft, and into one of the old mines. Then there was some sort or explosion. We got flung a good distance. The ISF really outdid themselves with this flow armor, by the way. Even with a lot of powered armor, you’d be crushed to smithereens.>

Kylie sighed. Well, at least people were going to notice what had happened. Maybe there was even a search and rescue team somewhere on Chimin-1 that was still around.

Or, with any luck, Rogers and Ricket would recognize her handiwork and launch a search party.

Kylie looked over her body’s self-diagnostics and saw that most of her broken bones and fractures were minor, a finger on her left hand, some ribs, the serious one was her right arm’s ulna. It had smashed into something pretty hard and was broken in two places.

Her armor had solidified across her forearm, keeping it safe. A prompt on her HUD showed an option to use ‘active support’ to keep the bone secure while it healed.

<Any idea what ‘active support’ is, Marge?>

Her AI chuckled before responding. <It’ll drive pins through your skin and into the bone to pull it into place and then hold it.>

Kylie debated that option, but decided to decline, just the thought of it gave her the heebie jeebies.

<I got it, thanks Marge. Any word from Rogers or anyone?>

<No, I can’t get any wireless signal down here. A lot of this rock is ferrous, a bit magnetic too. Also…we have an air problem.>

Kylie took a shallow sniff, then remembered that her armor would filter out any contaminants.

<Was there some contaminant down here?>

<You could say that,> Marge replied. <Best I can tell, the skin of the asteroid was fractured in the secondary explosion. We’re leaking atmo.>

Kylie checked her armor. It could function as a rebreather for several hours but carried no reserve air supply.

<Well, looks like we’re on the clock.>

Kylie rolled over onto her knees and shuffled forward, ducking under steel beams and slabs of rock, moving in the general direction of the lift. A bar brushed lightly across her back and pain shot through her ribs. Kylie pulled up her armor’s kinetic sensitivity menu and set her torso to max. It locked solid, and she gasped for air before lowering it one level. It loosened up and she drew a ragged breath.

Kylie resumed her slow crawl, covering a few meters until her leg jerked to a stop. She looked back and saw that her boot was wedged between a rock and a piece of metal.

Great.

Kylie struggled to reach behind her and free herself. The move pinched her side, and a sharp pain in her lungs made her exhale quickly, but she managed to get her boot free.

<You’re going in the right direction, I think,> Marge said. <At least I am picking up more EM over there.>

Kylie resumed her slow crawl forward. A minute later she passed beneath a large slab of stone and saw a twisted pile of steel, half buried under rock.

<Is that…>

<The lift,> Marge confirmed.

<I hear air whistling.>

Marge highlighted a fracture on the ground only five meters from Kylie’s feet. <They mined this place to the bone before building the city inside. Based on how far we fell, there may only be a dozen meters of rock between us and space.>

Kylie felt a tendril of fear trace its way up her spine.

<At least we can be sure that emergency personnel will be en route,> Marge said.

<Yeah.> Kylie winced. <If there’s any emergency personnel left that Raynes and his thug bastards hadn’t killed.>

Kylie looked to her right and spotted a dark tunnel disappearing into the rock. An ancient maglev rail ran down the center.

<Any chance you have a map of this place? We need to find a way out.> Before anyone came back to finish the job.

<Looking to see if one was in any—aha! I have a partial. It was a part of the data pack I grabbed when we first landed on Chimin-1,> Marge said.

A second later, Kylie’s HUD lit up with a multi-layered map. If they headed down the tunnel, she’d come to an old workers’ workshop and lunchroom. Just beyond that, the map showed a maintenance shaft that led up.

It didn’t say how far up, but any amount of up was a good thing in Kylie’s mind

The shaft was a short hike, but with the burning fire in her lungs and a broken arm, covering distance would be no walk in the park.

<Keep an eye out for our assassin friend.> Kylie carefully put one foot in front of the other, getting a feel for how her legs worked, along with the shooting pain that radiated up her heel into her calves. The muscles in her hamstrings were tighter than ever, so tight she thought they might just snap.

<She really should be dead. Could be under a ton of rock. Though her suit was seriously advanced. Like…ISF levels of advanced.>

Kylie gave a short chuckle. <One thing is for sure, a suit like that didn’t come out of this region of space. Think she’s from that Transcend place?>

<When we find her, we’ll ask her.> Marge sent a snarling face across to Kylie’s vision, a type of expression that was rare for the AI. Kylie could understand her frustration.

Up ahead, the rocks became more jagged and ferrous crystals jutted out in places. She could make out a beam stretched across a chasm with support struts anchoring it on either side. Several other beams lay nearby, like someone had planned to build a bridge at some point. The sound of air rushing through narrow gaps grew louder, and Kylie prayed that more than the single beam was holding this fracture in place.

She peered across the darkness to see that the assassin waited on the other side. The woman stood with her hands on her hips, clearly waiting for Kylie to attempt the crossing

Just as well, Kylie thought wearily, it’d be better to get things over with—one way or another.

Kylie grabbed a meter-long metal bar from a nearby pile of debris, and stepped out onto the beam, trying not to worry about ridiculous things like falling down, smashing through the rocks and flying out into space.

<You’re favoring your left leg,> Marge said. <She’s going to use that to her advantage, Kylie.>

<Nothing I can do about that. Leg friggin’ hurts. So does the broken arm and just about everything else.>

She took a deep breath as she continued her slow passage over the beam. A shockwave rumbled through the asteroid, and Kylie nearly lost her balance for a moment, feeling her pulse rise, pounding in her ears.

She took small steps—more like a shuffle—and fought the urge to look below into the chasm. Not that there was much to see; just a dozen meters’ drop into a pile of rocks.

<Air is getting a lot thinner,> Kylie said.

<The maintenance shaft is pressurized—so long as the seal is good. But don’t forget, your armor can keep you going for a long time. Just keep your balance. And get ready to finish that bitch off.>

<From your lips to the stars, Marge….>

<Oh, shoot!>

Kylie raised her eyebrows. <Marge? Don’t just ‘oh shoot’ while I’m working my way across a beam waiting to battle to the death with some crazy woman!>

<One of your internal battery cells was damaged on impact. It read a full charge, but it’s dead. All the healing your nano has been doing, and the armor’s demands…it’s nearly drained your primaries. If you get seriously injured, we may not have the power to keep me running and keep your healing going. I might have to limit functionality.>

<Limit, how?> Kylie asked with growing reluctance.

<Well, the healing process on you will slow, and I’ll have to pause all the reading I do in my spare time.>

Kylie groaned.  <So…you have spare time?>

<Ha ha, Kylie. This is serious.>

<If things get close to the wire, let me know, OK? Then I’ll make a decision. There probably isn’t anyone on this rock who can repair the packs Finn put in on Heaven.>

<I know,> Marge said mournfully, <but if we can get back to the Barbaric Queen, we can see if the upgraded medbay the ISF folks put in can do the task. I didn’t really get around to looking at its detailed specs.>

Kylie reached the end of the bridge and saw the blonde assassin backing away down the tunnel. She was drawing long, deep breaths, and Kylie realized that the woman was at a significant disadvantage.

She must be moving toward more air.

When she had closed to within ten meters—neither woman having spoken a word—Kylie charged.

Pain erupted in her body, but she ignored it as she crashed into the woman and knocked her down. Without her helmet, the assassin’s head was a prime target, and Kylie delivered several blows before her armor hardened around her waist.

Kylie reared up, realizing the woman had shot her.

<That chewed up a lot of energy,> Marge advised as Kylie slammed her left fist into the woman’s hand, knocking the weapon away. She punched the assassin in the face again, and then froze; she was moments away from beating her adversary to death.

She’d been so angry, but as Kylie watched the assassin quiver in pain, moaning through a swollen jaw, Kylie felt her rage fade away. The attacker’s teeth chattered as her lips trembled, unable to stay still.

“What makes you so special?” the assassin whispered.

“Nothing,” Kylie admitted flatly. “Why give your life away just to kill me? You don’t know me. Our lives never would’ve intersected if you hadn’t attacked me at the lift.”

The assassin gasped in pain, resting her head back down along the rocks. <She has internal bleeding. She won’t make it much longer, it’s pooling in her lungs,> Marge said.

“He wants you dead,” the assassin whispered.

Kylie bent down beside the fallen woman. “Who? Who sent you and Liberty after me?”

The assassin’s brow furrowed, and she struggled to speak. “I’ll never betray him.”

“You’re dying for him.” Kylie felt a surge of anger. “Was it Paul? Did my brother send you here to kill me before I can find him?”

Even as she said the words, Kylie knew that couldn’t be the case. Paul eschewed technology. This woman was a monument to it

“He’s…” the assassin’s eyes widened, and she gurgled, coughing up blood as her chest heaved, desperate to draw breath.

Kylie rolled the woman onto her side and blood flowed from her mouth.

“Try to talk,” Kylie urged. “Please.”

The woman grabbed Kylie’s hair and pulled her down close. Her ear hovered just above the dying woman’s lips, her words were hushed and came out in a soft rush of air. But Kylie heard. She understood.

“We see you, Kylie Rhoads.”

Kylie twisted and stared into the woman’s eyes, seeing clarity, peacefulness, and hope, but for what? The assassin’s hand relaxed as it let go of Kylie’s hair and fell to the rocks beside them. She was gone.

Dead.

And Kylie’s answers had just died with her. She sat beside the fallen woman, gazing across the way, desperate to process everything that had just happened, everything that had just been said. There were no logical answers. This woman was dead. And for what?

<Kylie…>

<If you say we all choose our path, I’m going to be really upset.>

<While true, that’s not what I was going to say,> Marge replied. <We can’t stay here forever. There are microshocks going through the rock. You can’t feel them, but they have me worried.>

<What about her AI?> Kylie asked.

<I got in her head with nano…her AI…it was damaged in the fall. It’s gone too.>

Well that just tears it, Kylie thought as she picked herself up and hobbled down the tunnel. Time to get moving. Nothing like climbing a few kilometers via ladder. The sooner she got started, the faster it would be over with.

She limped her way to the shaft, and closed the hatch behind her, seeing the air pressure gauge on her HUD begin to climb once more.

“That’s at least something,” she said aloud and it echoed in the small tube.

Kylie gripped one of the overhead rungs, the metal ladder cold in her hand. Time to do this, she gazed up the tall shaft that extended further than she could see.

Gritting her teeth, she started to climb, the searing pain in her right arm a constant reminder of the broken bone within, the pain in her leg, her ribs…. She was going to feel this all the way up.

<Should I read Fennington Station #1 to you?> Marge asked. <It might keep the pain at bay.>

<Please,> Kylie wheezed, squeezing her eyes shut as she managed pulled herself up, rung after rung.

<We were minutes from opening the Java Chip, a café on level fifty-two of Fennington Station,> Marge’s cheerful voice rose to the occasion, <and already the coffee was brewing. My sister Sophie….>




THE HOLE

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City, Level 32

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Rogers and Bubbs rushed down the corridor, took a left, and ran toward the west side of the Chimin-1 installation. They pushed through the crowd of people gathered before them, forcing their way through to get to the lift.

Or rather, this was where the lift should’ve been.

Instead, a gaping hole in the deck dropped down into darkness. Twisted steel and warped plas hung over the gap, and several people were clinging to girders hanging out over the void.

“Quick, Bubbs!” Rogers called out and held onto her gun barrel while leaning over the chasm to grab onto a woman and pull her to safety.

Once on solid-ish ground, the woman wrapped her arms around him.

“Thank you, thank you!” she cried, and Rogers patted her back while staring up at a pair of legs dangling at least two levels up. He could make out more people on other levels and wondered how many people had already fallen to their deaths.

What the hell had happened here? A lift crash wouldn’t have caused this. Someone had to have sabotaged it…and then some. Someone would have to have a prime target in mind to pull this off.

A pair of nurses rushed by, and he realized they weren’t far from the hospital—where Kylie had been.

<Kylie? Captain? Come in, it’s Rogers. You OK?> He took a deep breath and forced himself to pause, not rush on like an idiot. However, Kylie didn’t answer.

<Marge? Kylie? Answer if you can hear me.>

Bubbs helped pull two more people from the gaping shaft and her eyes made contact with Rogers’, concern passing between them—a moment before a man wrapped her in a shaking embrace.

Bubbs held her arms up, as if under arrest and glanced around with pursed lips.

<Relax,> Rogers said privately, <this is what happens when people are grateful.>

<What…if he doesn’t let go?>

<Give him a tap on the shoulder, he’ll let go. A gentle pat. No violence.> Rogers guessed that these people had seen enough destruction for one day to last them a lifetime.

Bubbs patted the man’s shoulder, looking more robotic than anything. The miners who had come to the precinct rushed around the corner, and Rogers turned to them. “Get everyone back, we need to cordon this thing off. If you have friends, get them to each level, people need help.”

A female in a helmet nodded, her yellow jumpsuit dirtied with rock dust. “Then what?”

“You tell me, you work rock. What kind of damage are we looking at?”

The woman shook her head as she approached and peered down the shaft. “Shit…this is the one that went down to 317. The oldies—the people who first hollowed out this rock—they went too deep there. The skin is only a few meters thick in places. Like an egg shell.”

An older man in the back nodded. “This’ll take Jim’s crew to fix up. They’ve got experience patching rocks back together.”

“Jim’s crew? Where are they?” Rogers asked.

“On Chimin-5; they were setting up some deep shafts to work some rare ore. Haven’t heard from them in a few days, though. Comm tower on Chimin-5 has always been flakey.”

Rogers swore, Chimin-5 was almost clear across the Chimin Group. With the Barbaric Queen tucked in the docks and the reactors cold, it would take half an hour at best to get her into the black. Even worse, the bay was so small that they couldn’t get the shuttle or pinnaces out.

“Do you have a ship to get over there fast?” Rogers asked.

“Crew shuttles are all off station right now,” the woman said. “Just took teams out earlier in the day for new shifts on the other rocks. Only two ships on Chimin right now are yours and the Winthrop.

“Crap.” Rogers shook his head. The Winthrop wasn’t going anywhere.

“What if those aren’t options, is there any other way to get over there?”

“Could take the shotgun,” one of the other miners suggested.

“Shotgun?” Rogers asked. “That doesn’t sound safe.”

The woman snickered. “It’s not. That’s why we use shuttles. But it’s fast, and you’ll get there in twenty minutes, tops.”

The woman passed Rogers the location of the shotgun, and he gave a resigned sigh. He’d heard of things like that. Never thought he’d ride in one, though.

“OK. Get to work. We need to make sure this place is safe.” Rogers had turned and gazed at the wall, collecting his thoughts, when he noticed something wrong and walked toward it. He ran his hand along the beam that was twisted like soft serve ice cream. To the naked eye, the metal appeared smooth and unbroken, but after feeling the surface of the beam, Rogers could tell it was not.

His vision changed again, showing the world in the schematic view. He could see stress fractures on the beam, as well as along the stone wall. He peered down the corridor and saw that they ran in every direction, all angling down toward the shaft.

Bubbs approached. “Bad?”

“Bad,” Rogers agreed. “I still can’t reach the Captain either. You?”

Bubbs shook her head. “Nope.”

Damn. Rogers hated this. “We need to start a search, go level by level if we have to. I’ll send word to Ricket.”

“And my prisoners? What am I supposed to do about them?”

Rogers sighed. “They’re locked up. We’re going to have to hope that no one comes to break them out. If Chimin-1 falls, it’s all on our heads.”

Bubbs broke out into a light jog to catch up to him. “Guess you were right. We do need new recruits if we’re going to pull this off.”

For once, Rogers wished he hadn’t been right. He hated that this was the reason they needed more volunteers.



REJOINDER

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Unknown

REGION: Unknown, Hanoi System (independent)

The top of the tube within which Winter lay slid open. He gasped, finally feeling like he could breathe again. He reared up and twisted, trying to take stock of his surroundings, and saw movement as someone approached.

The light overhead shone bright, blocking out the face of Winter’s visitor. A wave of nausea washed over him, and he groaned, laying back down as someone gripped his shoulder.

“Mr. Winter. Finally stable enough for us to do what we’ve intended all along.”

The voice belonged to Chief Raynes, and Winter glowered at him. “You son of a bitch, Raynes. When I get out of this damn tube…”

“You won’t.” Raynes bent down low so Winter could see his smiling face. “But your life will bring great change. To the people of Hanoi, to the AI. You will be the ultimate weapon. Have you heard the story of a trojan horse, Mr. Winter?”

“I’ve heard nothing, but if you think I’m going to let you use me to hurt innocent people….” Winter couldn’t believe what a sap he sounded like, but it was true, wasn’t it? He’d never wanted to hurt regular people just getting along. Maybe once he’d wanted revenge, he wanted to steal and take from those who’d stepped on him—who stepped on regular folks.

“I won’t let you do it.” Winter fought against his restraints. “Kylie, my crew mates, they’ll come for me.”

“I’ll never get away with it?” Raynes laughed and jabbed something big through Winter’s abdominal cavity. A needle of such length, of such width, that Winter hollered in pain, his legs and arms going rigid.

Raynes slid the door of the tube shut again.

Anything but that, Winter thought, anything. “Raynes!”

“Cryostasis will keep you and the weapon safe for now. You won’t feel any pain, don’t worry. Enjoy your sleep. I have better things to do than keep a freak albino company.”

Winter tried to reach out to Kylie, the Barbaric Queen, anyone who would answer, but his Link wouldn’t connect to a network. He found a signal, but it denied him access. Winter was hitting various ports trying to make a connection when the cryostasis tube activated, and suddenly Winter felt like he was falling.

Falling through a deep black hole, back to places he didn’t want to be. People he didn’t want to remember.



SHOTGUN

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City, Level 19

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

The dingy bay outside of the shotgun platform had once been painted a light grey, though long ago a few leaking pipes had been left unattended and now streaks of rust ran down the walls.

Old red lockers stood against one wall, their paint faded and chipped away. Rogers pulled one open and found an EV suit nestled inside. He was still wearing his Mark X FlowArmor but decided that if people riding the shotgun normally wore EV suits, he’d add one to the mix as well.

He pulled the suit on and grabbed the helmet, checking the seals over before pulling on his gloves. While getting his fingers into the right holes, he paused and looked out a porthole into space

Though the other asteroids were close, they certainly weren’t within space-walking distance, or even near enough to jet over on a skiff. He could barely make out Chimin-5, which was visible only as a point of light drifting in the distance as Chimin-1 rotated on its axis.

He could see the end of the shotgun as well. The long tube protruding into space, anchored into place by long cables. A crazy ride out to another one of these crazy rocks, on the hope that they could find someone to help them save these people’s home.

As he was staring out into the vast expanse of space, he heard a noise behind him and from the pleasant scent, knew it was Ricket. “Don’t turn around,” Ricket said, her voice sounding breathy to Rogers. “I’m changing.”

“You are not,” he said, though he complied and didn’t turn around. “Unless you made your flow armor transparent.”

“Touche…I think I’ve had this stuff on for two days now. I wonder if that’s safe. How’s everything going with you?”

“Oh, you know, everything’s smooth as silk except for the missing crew members and the dangerous compound that Raynes is running around with. Oh, and the fact that Chimin-1 is going to fall apart around us.”

Rogers listened to her zip up her EV suit and then turned around slowly as Ricket shook her hair out. “I told you not to turn around.”

“I could hear you were done. Besides, I can see the blue of your armor peeking out of your collar. Your modesty is safe with me.”

Ricket smirked as he stepped up closer. “You and your super hearing. You’re turning into a cat.”

A cat? Well, that wasn’t very sexy. “Not Mr. Fizzle Pops, I hope.”

Ricket giggled, the picture of sexy mixed with adorable. It made Rogers want to reach out and brush the hair off her brow.

“It’s a zipper,” he said to distract himself. “Everyone knows what a zipper sounds like. I could give you a demonstration, if you want.” He placed his fingers on top of her zipper, just at her neck.

She smiled warmly. “Are we going to dance around this forever, Rogers?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Ricket snorted. “Oh, please. You’re desperate to kiss me. You’ve been desperate to kiss me since the day we met.”

“The day I rescued you, you mean? Plucked you out of the stars and brought you on board the Barbaric Queen.”

“Ha ha, funny. Yes, that day.” Ricket stared up at him. “I guess I owe you my life three or four times by now. So, I suppose if you want a kiss, I’d oblige.”

Rogers felt more insulted than anything. “Out of the goodness of your heart? Now you’re the one playing games. I know I’m not the only one who wants that kiss. Don’t play, Ricket. If you want it, just say so.”

Rogers turned and walked toward the grav field that wrapped around the shotgun’s entrance. He pulled his suit’s helmet on and drew a deep breath, tasting the air before stepping through.

Beyond lay an open airlock—so much for safety precautions—which he walked through before examining their conveyance. It was known as a Shell, this one big enough to seat a dozen people in its simple enclosure.

Right now, the shell was split in two with the upper half suspended in the air above them. Rogers climbed in, and Ricket walked into the launch bay a moment later.

“You know why it’s a bad idea,” Ricket said as she climbed in after him.

“Sure do, but at least I didn’t make a joke out of it. Here everyone’s always saying I’m the player. Flyboy pilot, right? Girl in every port.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I saw you in your suit, there was something sexy about the way you stood, studying space. Anyway, effectively—until we find Kylie—you’re in charge. I kinda wanted to kiss you, I was trying to deflect.”

“So, you like space ship captains….”

Ricket smiled. “Who doesn’t?”

Rogers glanced at her briefly, taking in the beauty of her face from behind the confines of her helmet. “Guess we’re both safe now, unless we smoosh our helmets together.”

Ricket laughed. “Long as you forgive me. I handled it wrong. I’m sorry.”

Rogers knew their ribbing wasn’t meant to be mean-spirited, so he nodded, even if his heart still stung a little bit. “When this is over, we really need to get a meal. I’m starving.”

“For once, I agree with you.”

He lowered himself into his seat and pulled the harness over his shoulders. Ricket did the same and once she was secure, he keyed in the activation command for the shotgun.

The shell’s upper half lowered over them and sealed into place.

“I wonder when the last time was that this thing went through a safety inspection,” Ricket muttered. “It looks older than these rocks we’re flying between.”

“I’m trying not to think about that,” Rogers said as he keyed in their destination, then waited as the shotgun’s navigation systems calculated spin and the location of the Chimin-5 receiving net.

“You know,” Ricket added. “No sane person uses these things for humans…shotguns are for inanimate cargo. Really sturdy inanimate cargo.”

Rogers nodded. He was all too familiar with that. “Let’s hope it has good a-grav dampeners.”

The console at the front of the shell displayed a countdown and Rogers gripped his harness as the numbers slipped below ten, then five, then one.

“Hooooeeee!” Ricket cried out as the shell accelerated down the rail at breakneck—almost—speed.

“Ugh,” Rogers grunted. “That had to hit at least ten gs for a second there.”

“What a ride!” Ricket said, grinning at him as the shell burst from the shotgun’s tube and out into open space. “We only felt a bit of it. I bet this thing pulled forty g’s without the dampeners.”

Rogers nodded as he looked out the windows into the black void around them. “This is surreal…we’re in space, with no engines.”

Ricket pointed at the console. “It has some grav drives for maneuvering.”

“Barely.” Rogers snorted. “If this thing misses the asteroid, we just fly forever.”

“Well, that’s a lovely thought,” Ricket replied. “Did you cross check this thing’s firing trajectory?”

Rogers gave Ricket a worried look and watched her eyes widen.

“You didn’t?” she gasped.

He managed to hold onto a worried expression for another few seconds before bursting into laughter.

“Of course, I did. Think I was going to trust this thing’s math without a cross check?”

“Stars, Rogers, if I wasn’t worried about the seals on your suit and this shell, I’d knock you in the head right now.”

Rogers smiled and pointed out the window. They were coming up on an asteroid.

“That better not be Chimin-5,” Ricket warned as they flew past the oblong rock.

“No, that was three,” Rogers replied. “It’s the big one—well it’s the smallest now, but it’ll be the biggest soon. Steady as we go.”

“Steady as we go seems to be giving this thing more credit than it deserves,” Ricket muttered.

Rogers shook his head. “I just like saying that when I fly—though usually not aloud. Been doing it since I was a kid.”

Ricket gave him another of her sidelong glances. “You know, I don’t really know much about you other than you’re a pilot and that you like to eat. What’s your story? What trauma makes you what you are?”

Rogers shrugged. “No big story. My parents didn’t die in a blaze of glory. They’re still alive. My mom’s a biologist, my dad constructs buildings. Five brothers and sisters. Happy life. I was always handsome, funny, and popular.”

Ricket snorted. “I knew you were too good to be true.”

Really? She thinks that? Rogers cleared his throat. “I have a twin sister. She actually became a pilot for the SSF. Fighting the good fight was her thing. I got into it because she did. Didn’t really stick with me.”

“A twin? Planned?”

Rogers shook his head. “Unplanned. El-natural.”

“Huh. Don’t meet many unplanned kids as it is, let alone twins. I guess it just proves what I suspected. You’re a freak.”

Rogers raised his eyebrows. “A freak!? I guess that puts me in good company.”

She gave him a flirtatious smile and a soft punch in the arm. Neither spoke for the rest of the trip, just enjoying one another’s company, as well as the starlight shining into the shell.

Ten minutes later they could make out the receiving portal on Chimin-5, surrounded by a wide net.

“That’s encouraging,” Rogers muttered as the shell continued its approach.

“Just a precaution,” Ricket replied with a nervous smile.

The shell made small maneuvers to align with the portal, and the four grav arms that extended out into space. Rogers knew that deceleration would be as abrupt as the launch, and he wasn’t disappointed.

The shell shuddered as waves of antigravitons emanated from the four arms, rapidly slowing them before the shell slid into the receiving portal and down a long tube to the debarkation area.

As the shell slid to a stop, Rogers tossed Ricket a jaunty grin. “See? We survived.”

Ricket returned his smile. “I never doubted it.”

Rogers accessed the local public network and looked for status reports and updates. There was no update on Jim’s crew’s progress. In fact, there were no updates on anything. Everything was status quo, nothing of any interest other than progress on their schedule.

“Find anything?” Ricket asked. “It’s like this place is shut down.”

<There haven’t been any log entries for any of the teams in over a day. There’s supposed to be a management NSAI as well, but I’m getting no response from it,> Laura added. <Going to keep trying to reach it.>

Rogers shook his head. “Nothing saying, ‘hey the bad guys are in here’, if that’s what you’re asking’. Though I guess we can take no updates for days as a sign.”

“Well,” Ricket whispered. “Guess no one ever said this would be easy.”

Isn’t that the truth?

The top of the shell lifted off, and Rogers stepped onto the platform, followed closely by Ricket.

“Gravity is minimal here,” Ricket commented. “Less than half a g.”

Rogers nodded as he walked across the platform to the airlock leading into the station. He palmed the control, but it flashed red, reading ‘Invalid Tokens – Station Manager Access Only’.

“On it,” Ricket said, taking a knee as she began her work hacking the door.

Rogers leant against the bulkhead, rifle held across his chest as he peered through the airlock window. He could just make out the tunnel beyond, but only a short stretch was visible before it curved.

“One more second….” Ricket said and a moment later, the airlock door opened.  She bounced up to her feet and gave him a triumphant smirk.

“Way to go. You ever think of being a cat burglar?” Rogers chuckled softly as they entered the airlock.

<Well, I am a spy. It’s like being a state-sponsored burglar. But before that I actually was one a while. That’s how the Hand recruited me initially. Caught with my hand in the cookie jar.>

<Don’t you mean cookie box?> Rogers asked.

<What?> Ricket cast him a confused look as the airlock cycled open.

<Nevermind,> Rogers replied, more curious about Ricket’s past than explaining that cookies came in boxes or bags, not jars. <The Hand sure has some interesting methods. You know, Kylie used to do work as a thief for Maverick, for a little while, as least. Back when she first got the Dauntless. She recruited me during one of those missions.>

<Really?> Ricket glanced at Rogers, raising her eyebrows as they advanced down the narrow tunnel. <She doesn’t talk much about her time under Maverick.>

<Can you blame her? Under is a funny choice of words, at least for me. I wouldn’t say it to Kylie, if you catch my meaning.>

<Kylie? I didn’t know that she was one of his…girls?>

One of his girls—it was one of the nicest ways there was to say Kylie had been a sex-slave, a gorgeous and elegant one at that, but didn’t change the truth. <Now that she’s no longer in his debt, owes him nothing, if we ever see him again, he better run.>

<Better run from me, too. I knew from Nadine’s reports that later on Kylie and Maverick had an…interesting relationship.>

<Defies complicated,> Rogers said.

<Nadine never explained that it was forced on her though. At least not to that extent. She only mentioned that Kylie was a junker for the GFF. I wonder if Petra knew, or if Nadine was fudging things to explain away her mission delays.>

<Love is tricky,> Rogers said.

<Yes,> Ricket said pointedly. <Sexual relationships between crew members on a small ship…it’s never a good idea.>

Rogers gave Ricket a pregnant look; her comment was a little too on the nose for him. Sure, he understood what it was she was saying, but she was playing at things as much as he was.

A few meters later, the tunnel opened up into a broad chamber. A corridor on their right bore a sign reading ‘Home Sweet Home’, and the facility’s public map listed it as crew quarters and dining services. Four other corridors—some raw rock without any dressing—led off to the refinery, and to three separate mines.

<That one,> Ricket pointed at the second tunnel from the left, <it leads to the shaft Jim’s crew was working on. Crew quarters look dark, so let’s start down there.>

Ricket moved into the lead and Rogers took up the rear. What a rear it was. It was hard to focus on their surroundings with Ricket’s perky ass swaying side to side in front of him.

He tried to think of something else, like the sick workers down in Facility 99, or the smell of the place. Things that were decidedly un-sexy. At the memory of the odor, he coughed, then sneezed violently.

<You OK?> Ricket asked, sounding concerned.

<Oh, yeah, fine. Tickle in my throat, you know?>

They rounded a bend and came to a section of tunnel shrouded in darkness. The passageway thus far had been well lit, but now nothing. Hairs on the back of Rogers’ neck stood-up as his foot slipped on a loose rock. He regained his balance and froze, the tension in him mounting. He looked at the overhead and saw that one of the power lines had been cut.

<Can’t see a thing,> Rogers said as he peered down the tunnel.

<Use your flow armor, it has night vision,> Ricket said.

<Shoot, keep forgetting what this stuff can do.>

Once the armor was over his face, it replaced his vision with its feed, and the tunnel lit up in startling clarity. The darkened section of tunnel was half filled with crates and ore haulers. Anything could be hiding in there.

Rogers sensed, more than saw, that there were people lurking in behind them.

“We’re not your enemy!” Rogers called out. “We’re here to get help for Chimin-1’s structural damage, people are in danger. We need you to come back with us.”

He saw the nose of a rifle peek around a crate, angling toward them.

“Don’t do it!” Ricket screamed. “We know you’re there. You have no element of surprise!”

On their left, another man was creeping up from behind a stack of crates with a kinetic slug thrower. Rogers knew Ricket couldn’t see it—neither could he, but he could sense it the same way he’d felt the vibrations on Chimin-1. <Get down, Ricket, down!>

Rogers reached out and pulled her back a moment before the enemy darted around the corner and fired a shot. Ricket pulled him backward and they fell into an ore bin and flipped it over, falling in a heap.

Ricket grunted but struggled up into a crouch as gunfire erupted around them. She pressed her back against Rogers’ as she returned fire. <I’m glad they’re being so helpful.>

<At least our experiences in Chimin are consistent,> Rogers said.

<Four more coming on your side. Three on mine. Let’s end this fast as we can. I’m reading warm bodies further down.>

Rogers broke cover, aiming and squeezing off rounds by pure instinct. He didn’t know what it was about piloting the Barbaric Queen, but it seemed to have enhanced his reflexes, giving him speed like Kylie and Lana had.

<Let’s hope they give us a warmer reception than these goons,> Rogers replied.

Behind him, he heard a weapon’s barrel sing through the air, aiming in his direction, and he ducked before the shot was even fired, spinning and shooting the attacker, then turning toward another enemy and putting a round in the woman’s neck.

Ricket glanced at Rogers, a mixture of concern and awe in her eyes. <Is there something you want to tell me, Rogers?>

Tell her? That what, he could sense things moments before it happened? <Instinct and adrenaline, nothing more.>

<Sure,> Ricket said, but Rogers could make out the doubt in her voice.

A minute later, their attackers were all down—which Rogers and Ricket double checked before carefully clearing corners and blind spots.

<Oh shit,> Ricket said as they came upon a stack of the same canisters from Facility 99.

‘Oh shit’ was right. No one was working around here because it was being used as a storage facility. <Damn. These guys must be with Papote too.>

Ricket nodded. <Either that, or they were radicalized after Raynes—whatever the hell his name is—arrived. We need to find him and end this.>

<Maybe this is where he ran off to,> Rogers said, continuing his cautious advance down the tunnel. <C’mon, let’s find out.>

<Roger that,> Ricket said, devoid of humor. <What I wouldn’t give for Kylie’s nano,> she muttered. <Or even a few drones—need to stock back up on those.>

<I thought the ISF would have given Hand agents their fancy new nano,> Rogers replied as they cleared the last stack of crates.

<Field Marshal Richards is tight-fisted with some of the ISF’s tech. Kylie and Lana got to keep theirs because she felt guilty. It didn’t extend to the rest of us.>

<What reason could she have?> Rogers asked.

<I guess she’s worried about another problem like Silstrand and Gedri just had. It’s not irrational, but it sucks for us.>

They moved further down the tunnel, into a section where the lights were working again, and Rogers glanced at Ricket, only to see that she was giving him a penetrating stare.

<Speaking of advanced tech, maybe now isn’t a good time to talk about what’s happening to you, but if it affects combat…how we work as a team, I really need to know.>

Rogers twisted his lips, considering his response. He didn’t want to hide the changes he was experiencing, but whenever he brought them up, people acted like he was in some sort of danger and needed to be fixed.

Still, she was right about the need for a team to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

<My response time is faster. On the ship I can do comps in my head I never could before. Burns, maneuvers, even FTL jump calculations. I’m getting faster and better. Nothing to worry about.>

<Everything you just said doesn’t scare you? Changes like that aren’t natural; it points to brain-altering shit…shit we don’t understand. The captain would want to know—don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true.>

<And then she’ll fix it. You tell her, and she won’t give me a choice. You know she can’t handle the idea of little ol’ me getting hurt.>

<So you admit there’s a risk,> Ricket said, glaring at Rogers through her helmet’s visor.

<I admit that Kylie babies me, just like you’re doing.>

<That’s not true!> Ricket smacked his arm with the butt of her gun and scowled.

Rogers turned and faced her. <It is true. Neither of you think I can handle myself.>

<I know you can handle yourself, Rogers. I just…care. Your eyes don’t revert back to normal as quickly as they used to. Even when they do, I see something different in them. You can’t pretend it’s not happening. If you don’t tell Kylie, she’ll still know. She’s not stupid, and neither are you.>

Rogers sighed. He liked that Ricket cared enough to badger him but didn’t really care for the actual lectures. <I know you like me, Ricket. I like you too, but maybe it’s time for you to stop acting like my mom.>

Ricket gave an indignant squeak. <Your mom!?>

<Instead, maybe just have my back. Be a partner. OK?>

Slowly, she nodded. <I didn’t mean…Of course, Rogers. You’re right.>

He grinned his best roguish grin. <Care to say that again?>

She smacked his arm with the butt of her rifle again, this time harder. <You’re impossible.>

That’s what all the ladies said, but he didn’t think that was a good point to bring up just then. Instead, he gestured at a windowless plasteel door on their left.

They walked over to it and Rogers palmed the control, only have it display a red message reading ‘Access Denied’ while emitting a rapid beeping sound.

<This door has an attitude problem,> Rogers said.

Ricket crouched beside the panel and keyed in a command. <Biolock on this one. Going to take a bit longer, but we’ll get through.>

<Behind the door?>

Ricket glanced up at him, her brown eyes wide, warm. The type of eyes he wanted to get lost in forever.  <I can pick up the sounds of feet, low voices. Sounds like people to me—maybe even Jim and his crew.>

<Better get started then.> Rogers checked the time mapped against the amount of air Chimin-1 was probably bleeding through all the fractured rock. Damn, they had been here too long already. <Work fast. Faster than that, if you can.>

He took a deep breath, glancing up and down the corridor. How did Kylie deal with this pressure all the time? Where was she? Rogers knew he’d feel better if he just knew she was OK.

A lot better.




THE CLIMB

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City, Maintenance Shaft 917A

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie hooked her arm around the next ladder rung and groaned. Allowing herself to hang for a moment, she closed her eyes and sighed. Her forehead was covered in a layer of sweat and grime, and her legs shook from exhaustion. She didn’t know how many rungs she had climbed, but it was way too many.

Even though the door was in sight, Kylie didn’t know if she could go on. Her arm was nearly fully healed, but the pain was still there—and she struggled with her fatigue.

<Battery levels at fifty-five percent. You’re almost there, Kylie. If you want another surge of adrenaline to make it all the way—> Marge began to offer.

<No.> Kylie shook her head in response. <I’ll get too shaky, I need to…I just needed a little bit of rest. When we get to the door I might need it then.>

<All right.> Marge’s avatar smiled. <I believe in you. You’ve got this, girl.>

Despite herself—and the situation—Kylie chuckled. She drew a deep breath, and lifted her foot back to the next rung, resuming her ascent. One rung, then two, she kept pulling and climbing, using her good arm to do most of the heavy lifting.

The door above was almost within reach. It was on the left side of the shaft, and there should have been a platform beneath it, but it was long gone, either fallen ages ago, or salvaged by some enterprising soul. Kylie sighed and climbed another rung, then two. <It’s always something….>

<Ain’t that the truth?> Marge gave a soft giggle.

Kylie was glad one of them had kept their sense of humor.

She drew level with the door, and Kylie leant over, grasping the ladder rail with her right hand and doing her best to ignore the pain in her forearm.

She brushed her fingers across the access panel, but it didn’t light up. Damn it, it was like the entire place was either falling apart, or on lockdown.

<Captain….> It was Bubbs’ voice. Though it was breaking up, Kylie could recognize the growling drawl anywhere. <Captain?>

<Bubbs!> Kylie couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice. She shifted back to the ladder, both arms wrapped around the rungs, even hooking her chin over the bar to conserve strength. <Bubbs?>

<Come in, Captain. Come in.>

Bubbs couldn’t hear her. Kylie squeezed her eyes shut in disappointment. When she opened them back up, a surge of determination flowing through her, unlike anything she’d felt since…oh about rung one hundred or so.

<Do we have enough breach nano to attempt a hotwire on the door? See if we can get power to the motors.>

<We have some,> Marge said, all business again. <Not a ton, but they’ll have to do. Stand by.>

Kylie waited as patiently as she could, managing her breathing and conserving her strength. A few minutes later, Marge gave a victorious cry and the door swung part-way open.

<OK, now to summon the strength to jump over there.>

<Climb up a few more rungs,> Marge advised.

Kylie nodded wordlessly and pulled herself up another meter.

<Marge?>

<Yes, Kylie?>

<After this…I never want to see another ladder in my life.>

Marge chuckled. <I’ll have Winter rip them out of the ship when this is over.>

<Good. Glad to hear it.>

She drew a deep breath, bent her knees, praying they wouldn’t give out, and leapt across the two meters to the open door.

Kylie’s arms made it over the sill, but she bounced back from the impact, and scrambled frantically to find purchase. She managed to hook her right arm around the doorframe and her backward slide stopped.

She breathed heavily, clenching her teeth to avoid screaming from the pain as her right arm’s ulna cracked again. With one final heave, she pulled herself through the door and rolled onto her back, gasping for breath.

After a minute, she turned her head and spotted another door. This one’s panel was lit up, and Kylie rolled over and crawled toward it while cradling her right arm across her chest.

Once the door was open, she pulled herself up on the frame and stood, wobbling on her feet.

<We’re not that far from the North Docks access corridor. Just five hundred meters.>

<Five hundred…> Kylie moaned, looking down the corridor, praying that someone had left a dockcar nearby. No such luck.

She staggered down the passageway and onto the concourse that ran to the North Docks.

A group of women and men ran past her, looks of panic and worry on their faces, barely even acknowledging Kylie as they rushed by.

I wonder what that’s all about, Kylie thought before seeking Rogers over the Link. <Rogers, you still there?>

<Captain! You all right?> Bubbs’ voice came in response.

<Bubbs. Glad to hear your voice. Not sure if I’m all right, but I’m not dead. So that’s a bonus.> Kylie wasn’t a big fan of dead.

<That’s good,> Bubbs replied. <We have a situation.>

<What else is new?> Kylie asked. <Pretty sure we’re built out of hairy situations.>

<Or at least furry ones,> Bubbs said.

<Where are Rogers and Ricket?> Kylie asked as she slowly walked down the concourse toward her ship.

Bubbs proceeded to explain about the damage to the asteroid and that Rogers and Ricket had gone to Chimin-5 to bring back a team with the skills to stabilize the rock.

<Sorry about cracking this egg open,> Kylie said when Bubbs was done. <Someone tried to kill me. I think they detonated a bomb, or hit something explosive. I’m really not sure. Either way, things got pretty messy.>

<Well, so long as you didn’t do it on purpose,> Bubbs replied, and it took Kylie a moment to realize the woman was joking.

<Winter? Any signs…>

<No, not yet,> Bubbs replied. <I’m managing groups of miners who are trying to help shore things up and keep the peace. There’s not many of them on the station. From what I’ve learned, Raynes was masquerading as the governor, too, sending lots of them out on multi-week shifts.>

<Makes sense,> Kylie replied. <Keeps them out of his hair.>

Kylie finally reached the north docks, and took the lift to their platform, breathing a sigh of relief as she laid eyes on the Barbaric Queen. The feeling wasn’t yet the same as seeing the Dauntless—that ship was like her first true love—but knowing her new girl was safe and sound filled her with relief.

<OK, keep up the good work. I need to pay a visit to our medbay, and then I’ll be back out to join in whatever needs joining in on.>

Kylie knew that Paul’s trail was growing cold, but now it seemed that Blondie’s assassination attempt might have put all of Chimin-1 in mortal danger.

Just when I thought I was righting my wrongs.

<I know this isn’t my place…> Bubbs paused for a moment, as Kylie reached the airlock and cycled it open, <But have you considered using the Quancomm? We don’t have the resources to keep this installation safe, let alone establish any type of order.>

Bubbs had a point. Up ‘til now Kylie had considered—and dismissed—the idea of contacting Tanis Richards. Kylie wanted to be triumphant when she made her call them. ‘Yes, I did find Paul. Yes, my mission is complete.’

That’s what she wanted. Not more screw ups.

If Tanis pulled her off this mission, told her she couldn’t continue the hunt for Paul because of the mistakes she’d made…. Kylie didn’t think she could honor a command like that.

And the last thing she wanted to do was to make an enemy out of Tanis or Sera. She had a suspicion that they weren’t the type of people to let betrayal go.

<Maybe it’s time,> Kylie said. <Thanks, Bubbs. Soon as I get myself and Marge into the medbay.>

The airlock door opened and Kylie shuffled inside, nearly collapsing in the corridor as she hobbled toward the medbay.

* * * * *

Kylie let out a long sigh as she lay down on the upgraded medtable the ISF had installed.

She sent it a command to do a full diagnostic on her body and closed her eyes as her flow armor ran off her, leaving her naked as armatures extended from the table and began scanning her.

<It’s going to take at least half an hour,> Marge advised. <Good thing, however, is that it can fix your SC battery, so we won’t be running around on half power.>

<I’ll just keep my eyes closed for that,> Kylie replied. <I don’t need to see those armatures cutting me open and rooting around.>

Marge laughed. <No, I suppose not. Do you want me to manage all your repairs?>

<Go for it.>

Kylie closed her eyes, not intending to fall asleep, but when she opened them again, her HUD showed that twenty-five minutes had passed.

<Did you knock me out?> she asked Marge.

<I was going to,> Marge laughed. <But you passed out before I could.>

Kylie chuckled and noted happily that nothing seemed to hurt. She debated opening her eyes but decided to enjoy just a few more minutes of relaxation.

<Any word from Rogers yet?> Kylie knew she’d feel a lot less anxious when the repair crew arrived back on Chimin-1.

<None yet. Word is the Chimin-5 tower is on the fritz. I don’t have warm fuzzies about it, though.>

Just then, heavy footsteps entered the room and Kylie opened her eyes, pulling herself up on her elbows to see Bubbs approaching.

The large woman was smiling—sort of—and held an orange and white striped tabby cat in the crook of her gun arm.

“This is Mr. Fizzle Pop. I thought he might make you feel better,” Bubbs said. “It always works for me.”

Kylie hefted the big cat, not that she’d call him fat, at least not with Bubbs present. This guy was either a good mouser or very spoiled. She placed the cat on her lap and scratched under its chin a few times. The cat replied with a hearty purr.

“I do feel better,” Kylie said

“AGAIN, ASSHOLE,” the cat said, staring angrily at Kylie.

She startled, holding her hand right above him so he had to hop up to get a rub.

“He calls everyone that, don’t worry.” Bubbs gave Kylie a genuine smile. Possibly the first one Kylie had seen. She wasn’t used to seeing Bubbs’ eyes shine with a happy sparkle, but it was a beautiful sight to see. This was a woman who really did love her cat.

“He makes the world feel normal even when nothing is,” Bubbs said. Kylie didn’t know much about Bubbs’ life before the Barbaric Queen but it didn’t take a great leap of imagination to think it had been rough.

“Have you had him a long time?”

Bubbs shrugged. “Fifty-five years or so.” Kylie almost choked, and Bubbs snickered. “Rejuvenation techniques are rare for pets, but not unheard of. I spare no expense for family.”

She headed toward the door and Kylie watched her go. “Your cat….”

“He’ll leave when he’s had enough of you. He won’t bite. Much.” Bubbs glowered on her way out and Kylie got the distinct impression that she was being played with.

She peered down into the cat who was working on taking a nap. “You’re an old softy, aren’t you? Just like your owner, no doubt.”

The cat opened one eye. “SHUT UP.”

Kylie grinned. She thought she might like having a cat on board.

<Captain,> Marge’s voice was rushed and her tone clipped. <Remember Katie? The NSAI bot from the apartment complex? I know what happened to her.>

Kylie perked straight up. <What? You sound excited.>

<More like horrified. I found the logs and Chimin-1 used to have three distinct AIs and over forty NSAI personalities that assisted around the city. Now they have none. Logs suggest they weren’t shut down, but instead wiped out. Destroyed.>

<How?> Kylie asked simply, feeling a rush of excitement mingled with anger.

<Some sort of virus—though it would have to be more advanced than anything we’ve seen from Raynes. It seems he hasn’t just been intent on killing those who support AI. He is killing the AIs themselves.>

Kylie was starting to understand how the station had fallen to ruin. With no NSAI to manage things….

<Marge, I wonder if this is the handiwork of Liberty’s AI.>

<Could be, but I don’t get why Raynes—an anti-AI zealot—is working with Liberty and her friend. Both of whom were modded to the max.>

Kylie was about to reply, when Bubbs interrupted.

<Captain,> Bubbs’ tone was grave, <Raynes just made contact with the BQ. He wants to talk to you.>

When it rained, it poured. <Pass him over, Bubbs. Marge, keep a record of everything he says.>

<Got it,> Marge replied.

Kylie activated the call display and her vision filled with the smug face of Raynes. “Had enough yet, Captain Rhoads?”

“Enough? And here I thought we were just getting started. I killed your men, I have control of your lab. I—”

Raynes laughed. “Bravado and grandstanding. People are sick, dying, and if my plan goes unchecked, more will die, but if you agree to my terms, I’ll provide you with the anti-virus, the cure that can save these people.”

Kylie drew a deep breath and knew dealing with Raynes—while it might save a few people—would hurt more in the long run.

“Forget about it, Raynes.”

“Oh, come on, you haven’t even heard my offer yet. Don’t you at least want to hear what it is before you make your decision?” Kylie felt like she’d just been double-dog-dared in a schoolyard.

“Fine. I’m listening.” To Marge she said, <Track his location if you can. We need to take him out and end this once and for all.>

<What do you take me for?> Marge asked.

“I need my ship, the Winthrop. I know you have eyes on it, and that your ship could take it out. But you let me have it, and give me safe passage, and I’ll give you the cure you need to save the people in the hospital. Not only that, you’ll get Winter back. I know how much he means to you, Captain.”

<The mail freighter. Rogers actually disabled it instead of just watching it,> Marge said with a wink.

Kylie snorted. “I don’t think letting you go is in the cards.”

“C’mon, Rhoads. You know as well as I do that the AIs will bring nothing but trouble and war to humanity. We’ve forgotten how to do things for ourselves. You and I shouldn’t be fighting. You should be my ally in all this.”

“If you think that’s true, then you know nothing about me.”

“Fine.” Raynes’ eyes narrowed, throwing daggers at her through the Link. “You won’t do what’s needed to save humanity—or even those in the hospital? What about your crew? Rogers and Ricket are walking into a trap. Don’t you care about them?”

Kylie pushed herself upright, startling Mr. Fizzle Pop, and causing him to run off her lap. His claws making Kylie glad the medtable had reapplied her flow armor.

“Explain yourself, you bastard.”

<You won’t like what I have to say. Be prepared to deal.>




ERROR

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Access Tunnel 3E

REGION: Chimin-5, Hanoi System (independent)

It took more time than they’d have liked, but Ricket finally managed to get through the double blast doors and into the chamber beyond where twelve men and women stood ready to fight to the end.

The room was a ‘Safety Vault’, a compartment the miners could retreat to if something happened in the mines. Rogers bet that none of them had ever expected that something to be their own chief of police turning on them.

Or maybe they had. A lot of crazy shit went down in the fringe.

“We’re here to help,” Rogers said, lowering his rifle and raising his left hand. “Well…we’re here to get your help. Both, I guess.”

A tall man—who matched Jim’s description—stood in the forefront of the group of miners. “Who are you?”

Rogers stepped forward and offered his hand, which the man shook after only a brief hesitation. “First mate Rogers of the Barbaric Queen. We’re docked on Chimin-1. The station has suffered structural damage and we need your help. There was an explosion in Mine 317.”

One of the women groaned and Jim shook his head. “I always said we needed to shore that mess up. Was it something that madman Raynes did?”

“More or less, yeah.” Rogers nodded as he looked around at the miners. “So, do you think you and your crew are up to a little overtime?”

Jim glanced back at his team. “We’d do anything for Chimin. It’s why we ended up stuck in here. We refused to help Papote and their crazy plans to take on the AIs. I won’t see Chimin used for political gain, Mr. Rogers. If all you care about is helping the people—”

Rogers nodded. “I do. It’s all either of us care about.”

“Then we’ll do everything we can, no matter how long it takes.”

Rogers reached out and clasped the man’s hand. “Take the shotgun back. We’re going to make sure no one else is trapped here. We’ll circle back and join you.”

“You took the shotgun?” Jim asked, his gaze alternating between Rogers and Ricket. “You must have been desperate. There’s an emergency shuttle one deck below the platform, we’ll take that and leave you the shotgun for your return trip if you don’t mind.”

Rogers glanced at Ricket who shrugged. “I kinda liked taking the shotgun.”

“Oh, and when you get there, look for Bubbs. She’s taken over management of Chimin City for the time being.”

“Bubbs?” Jim asked.

Ricket nodded, a smile on her lips. “Don’t let her gun-arm scare you. She’s more bark than bite.”

Rogers shook his head at Ricket who met his gaze. “What? She is nice.”

Jim and his crew filtered out of the room. “So you two fought your way through all those Papote goons to get to us?”

Ricket nodded. “Rogers is more than just a pretty face. You should have a clear run to the dock but let us know if you run into trouble.

“You got it,” Jim replied as he set off with his team.

Once the miners were out of earshot, Ricket asked, “So how much longer do you want to run around in the creepy-semi abandoned asteroid?”

“We can just do a cursory sweep, make sure there aren’t any more of Raynes’ people here—or Raynes himself.”

“You think Winter could be here?” Ricket asked, her brows raised high.

Rogers nodded. “Maybe. A number of mining operations shuttles left Chimin-1 not long after the time Bubbs says Winter was taken. Could have come here unnoticed.”

Ricket sighed and gestured for him to lead on. They worked their way through the asteroid until they came to another locked door. Ricket worked her magic—much more quickly this time, and in less than a minute, the door slid open.

Inside were a few pieces of mining machinery, supply crates…and a cryostasis pod.

“Interesting,” Rogers whispered as he and Ricket entered the room. They checked the corners, looking for any more Papote zealots before approaching the pod.

The moment his eyes settled on the contents of the stasis pod, Rogers was filled with relief.

“Winter!” He’d recognize that macho albino’s ugly mug anywhere.

“Vitals were strong when he went under,” Ricket said as she checked over the pod’s readout.

“Unthaw him,” Rogers ordered.

“Are you—” Ricket began to ask but she saw the serious look on Rogers’ face and keyed in the command.

The pod began its work, reviving its occupant, and a minute later, the cover slid open. The moment it cleared his face, Winter’s eyelids snapped open, his pupils, contracted, and he began to scream. Back arching as he struggled against his mods.

<He’s bloating,> Laura warned. <A lot, it’s killing him.>

“Winter!” Ricket placed her hands on his friend’s shoulders, Laura’s words not making sense until he felt how taut Winter’s skin was.

What the hell was wrong with him?

<I’m no medic, but it’s like every cell in his body is expanding,> Laura said quickly. <Shit, its leaking from him. It’s toxic!>

Rogers pushed Ricket back, shoving her out of the room, and slamming the door shut. He turned back to Winter, to see his friend’s skin splitting open along his forearms and face. Probably everywhere else too.

He rushed to the stasis pod where the green gas flowed over the edges, drifting through the air in a deadly haze. Rogers remembered his flow armor, and directed it to cover his face, praying that it could filter this gas out, and that he hadn’t been too late.

Even though the gas had grown thick, the armor’s enhanced vision led Rogers to the pod, where he keyed in the command to put Winter back in cryo.

Rogers peered into the pod, where the green gas had frozen, right along with Winter, falling across him like snow. It was impossible to know if his friend had survived the process.

<Hitting ventilation,> Ricket said. <Keep your armor on.>

Air was sucked from the room and the green gas went with it. As the room cleared, Rogers saw the readout on the pod that showed a successful cryo-freezing process. With the green gas gone, Rogers opened the door back up for Ricket.

“Why did you do that?” she asked angrily. “Why did you throw me out of here? I could’ve helped you.”

“I needed to seal Winter back up. It was the only way to save him.” Rogers turned his back to her and Ricket grabbed his arm and yanked him around.

“I don’t need your protection! I’m here to help, not to be pushed away like that.”

“You couldn’t have helped. Activating the pod is a one-person job. There was no reason for both of us to stay in the gas.”

“And you just decided it was you?” Ricket asked, her eyebrows raising.

“First mate, remember? It’s my job to take the risks. Besides, with any luck our armor would have filtered out the toxin.” Ricket gave Rogers a level stare, and he knew that she doubted he’d protected himself in time. Even so, she didn’t bring it up. Optimism in the face of danger.

“Let’s find an a-grav pad so we can bring him back to Chimin-1,” Ricket said with a definite quiver to her voice.

“We’ll be all right you know…either way. We’ll find a way to beat this thing,” Rogers whispered.

“You saw those people in Facility 99. Do you really think there’s any fighting this thing?”

Rogers nodded. “We’ve been through worse—” He glanced at Winter’s torn flesh. “Well, at least stuff just as bad.”



VECTOR

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City Hospital ER

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

On top of the workers from Facility 99, the Chimin City Hospital was now dealing with a deluge of injured from the lift crash and the subsequent explosion.

Kylie walked through the ER, trying not to feel guilty over the people lining the halls in various states of triage. What she was worried about more was the message that Rogers had managed to get out of Chimin-5.

He’d found Winter, but it wasn’t good.

She’d tried to reach the hospital to find out what they’d learned about the gas, but with its NSAI offline, and the staff slammed, she couldn’t get through to Dr. Nicole, let alone find the lab technicians.

After asking around, Kylie and Bubbs entered an examination room where Nicole was applying a bone-setter to a man’s broken leg. She barely looked up as she worked to address Kylie. “I’m a little busy here.”

“Please, I need your help,” Kylie said, “my crew-members have been directly exposed to the gas. Have you learned how to reverse its effects yet?”

“Are they presenting symptoms?”

“I don’t know details. They’re on their way back from Chimin-5. On their way to my ship. I need you to come look them over as soon as they arrive.” Kylie’s voice rose in pitch as she spoke.

“Seriously? You’re asking me to make a house-call now? Have you seen what we’re dealing with here? Chimin has no AIs anymore, our hospital NSAI went on the fritz yesterday, so all our information sharing systems are down. Nearly half the staff is missing, or just didn’t show up, and we have dozens more to see.”

Bubbs glowered. “She said please.”

Nicole directed her own disparaging look Bubbs’ way. “Well, I’m sorry but ‘please’ doesn’t always get you your way.” Nicole pulled the bone setter off the man’s leg—a thick plas splint now attached to his leg—before addressing him. “You’re all set but give it thirty minutes before you try to stand on it.”

The man nodded, and Nicole placed a few items into a case, preparing to leave the room.

Bubbs lifted her gun arm and aimed at the doctor. “This is how I say please.”

Kylie would have said she was surprised, except she wasn’t. That didn’t stop her from letting Bubbs threaten violence.

The man on the examination table let out a frightened squeak as Nicole looked at Bubbs, shook her head and turned to Kylie. “You’re going to allow this? You’ll let that thing threaten me unless I go with you?”

“Well, we’ve both said please,” Kylie said and stepped forward. “And Bubbs isn’t a thing. She’s a person, same as you or I. Also loves cats, long walks on the beach, and is all-in-all a very personable person who just happens to have a gun arm. Though in her defense, she has more than just a gun for that arm.”

Bubbs clenched her jaw. “I do not like long walks on the beach, Captain. I’m not sure where you got the impression—”

Kylie raised her hand to silence her. “Come with us, Doctor. Soon as you give my crew the all clear, you can come back here.”

“And if I can’t? If that frickin’ gas has done a number on them too?”

“Then you’ll propose treatment ideas. Either way, I’ll return you here as soon as I can. You have my word.”

Nicole picked up her case. “And your word…it actually means something?”

Kylie raised an eyebrow. “It means everything. It’s my honor, and my honor is the reason we didn’t shoot our way off this rock and abandon it before all this shit went down yesterday,” Kylie said.

“You stole the body from the morgue. How can I trust you?”

“Ricket did that,” Bubbs interjected. “Captain just ordered her too.”

Kylie winced. “How about we try not helping me for a little while, Bubbs?”

Nicole glanced between them. “Nice to see it’s some sort of joke to you. I know we seem like a bunch of nobodies to you. You live among the stars, and we live inside this ‘rock’, as you put it, carrying out our simple lives…. Are you ever going to ask her to lower that thing she has pointed at me?”

“No,” Kylie said simply. “I’m going to tell her to shoot you if you don’t agree to come with us.”

“Then I guess I’m coming,” Nicole said. Her eyes narrowed, alive with fury.

“Too bad,” Bubbs said, lowering her arm.

Nicole glared and turned to Kylie. “To think that I liked you when I first met you. I thought, there’s a woman struggling against her family expectations, a woman who actually cares.”

“I care, I care more than you can know. But when my crew is hurt or threatened, they come first. Come with us, Doctor. And don’t try to gather anyone to stop us. It won’t go well if you do.” Kylie gestured for Nicole to follow after Bubbs. Nicole snapped off her surgical gloves and did as she was told. She was shooting daggers, but she was doing it quietly.

* * * * *

Kylie paced impatiently as the Shotgun’s shell settled on to the platform and the top lifted off. Rogers and Ricket maneuvered the cryopod out of the back of the shell and pushed it through the airlock toward her.

“Are you all right?” Kylie slid her hand on the pod that contained Winter. She cringed at the sight of him; the split skin, the oozing boils, the deathly pallor. He looked like he was already gone—a macabre corpse, not the vibrant man she’d seen the day before.

Ricket and Rogers both took their helmets off, appearing no worse for wear.

“Fine,” Rogers said. “Let’s just move.”

Kylie could hear the anguish in his voice and didn’t speak further. There was no use in speculating.

“That crew’s working on stabilizing Chimin-1,” Kylie said as they walked toward the lift. “They said that they should be able to save the whole asteroid.”

“Shit, that doesn’t sound good,” Ricket said with a whistle.

“Yeah…I’m pretending it’s just engineers’ pessimism for now,” Kylie replied. “I have enough dire crises hanging over me for now.”

They reached the lift where Bubbs and Nicole waited. “This is Dr. Nicole,” Kylie said as they pushed Winter onto the lift. “She’s going to examine both of you, then see what we can do for Winter.”

Rogers nodded his head at her and Ricket gave a faint, “Hello.”

Nicole raised her eyebrows. “So, you’re the one stealing dead bodies out of the morgue?”

Ricket gave a rueful laugh. “She won’t be dead for long.”

“Excuse me?” Nicole asked. “The dead don’t come back to life.”

“Maybe not around here, but people with nano like Liberty’s…they sure as hell do.”

<The cryopod isn’t stable,> Marge said to the group. <Gas pressure is mounting.>

Kylie glanced around at the shocked expressions of her companions. “Seriously? The pod’s over a hundred degrees below freezing. Will it hold?”

“Not forever,” Nicole said as she bent over the pod. “These things freeze stuff, they’re not pressure vessels. Granted, they are built to handle exterior vacuum, so it can handle an atmosphere’s difference at least.”

Rogers ran a hand across his forehead. “Once we get it on the ship, I can use the a-grav systems to build a high-grav pocket around the pod. If the pressure outside equals the pressure inside, it won’t leak. That will buy us some time.”

Nicole gave Rogers an appraising glance. “A bit, till the pressure crushes him.”

“Then we’d best work quickly,” Kylie replied. As the lift doors opened. “Let’s go!”

They raced down the concourse to the North Docks, pushing the stasis pod as they went. Bubbs ran at the fore calling out for the few civilians present to make a path.

They were exiting the final lift to the Barbaric Queen’s platform when Kylie saw a fracture appear in the plas on the top of the pod. For a moment it looked like the crack wouldn’t spread, then it raced to the edges of the lid, and the clear covering exploded, blasting plas and the reeking gas in every direction.

Kylie pushed the pod across the platform, trying to ignore the gasping moans coming from Winter as it performed an emergency resuscitation on him.

<Airlock’s wide open for you,> Marge said.

She didn’t even look behind her as she pushed the pod onto the ship and through the passageways to the medbay.

Once she got the pod inside, she rushed around and looked at Winter’s ruined body, a final few tendrils of the gas drifting off his skin.

Kylie had never felt more impotent—she had no idea what to do.

Then she realized that his wrists were strapped into place, and released the restraints, whispering his name as she did.

“Winter? Hang in there Winter, hang on.”

His eyelids cracked open, blood seeping out around the edges. “Captain…” he gurgled, blood in his throat.

“We need to put him in a coma,” Nicole said from Kylie’s side.

“How?”

Nicole looked around. “We…. Shit. How does a ship that looks like yours have a medbay that looks like this? I’ve never seen anything like it!”

<You need to get him into that pod over there,> Laura said, flashing the medpod on the starboard side of the bay on Kylie’s HUDs. <Once you do, the nano will get to work stitching him back together—though whatever the gas is doing to him may still happen….>

“You’re going to need to put him into a medically induced coma,” Nicole said, before her mouth fell open as she glanced at the medpod. “You know what a med-bay like this could do? How many it could heal on rotation? It could save dozens of lives, depending how fast we work. You’ve had this all along and—”

“Are you going to help me move him or not?” Kylie asked, feeling guilty about not sharing—though it hadn’t been front of mind during the search for Winter.

Kylie and the doctor were about to pick Winter up when Rogers burst into the room. “Stars, Kylie, if you weren’t moping around so much, you’d know what your own ship could do.”

He stood at a console and keyed in a series of commands. A moment later an a-grav arm swung over Winter, lifted him from the ruined cryopod then swung him over and into the medpod.

Once the lid sealed, the pod lit up and visible tendrils consisting of nano flowed from ports on the pod and into Winter’s body.

Rogers stepped to Kylie’s side and squeezed her hand for a moment.

<Sorry I snapped,> he said.

<Don’t be. You were right.>

Nicole ran a hand along the medpod. “This looks like something from the future. Maybe I’ve been on Chimin too long.”

Maybe she had. “Examine Rogers and Ricket for me, please Doctor.”

Nicole glanced at Rogers, then at Ricket, who stood just inside the medbay’s entrance. “I don’t have to. I can already see rashes forming on your skin. After that cloud engulfed us on the dock, it won’t be long before we all are symptomatic. Everyone on this docking bay is at risk. Given how the vents on Chimin-1 work, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already spread a lot further. Death won’t come fast, and it won’t be pretty.”

Kylie swallowed hard, knowing how at fault she was. “I’m sorry.”

“Anything that’s easily permeable can pick up the gas and transfer the virus it carries on contact—at least that’s what we’d determined before you grabbed me from the hospital.”

“But what does the gas do?” Ricket asked. “So far—from what my internal nano can tell—it just acts like an infection, one that my nano might be able to fight off.”

Nicole snorted. “Well then, aren’t you just a lucky woman. For the rest of us it seems to specifically attack our epithelial cells, breaking down their cohesion in a way that we can’t seem to counter.”

Kylie was about to lash out at Nicole, tell her what she went through to get her nanotech, but Rogers spoke up first.

“OK, I read the manual on the bay’s equipment, but I’m no biologist,” Rogers said as he leant against Winter’s medpod. “What’s an epithelial cell?”

“Cells that form boundaries between things—like your skin. It’s made up of epithelial cells.”

“And lose cohesion…I assume that means fall apart? Our skin is going to slough off?”

Nicole nodded. “Yeah, though skin is tough stuff. It’ll make it ‘til the end. However, the ‘skin’ of your organs, and your glands are all made up of epithelial cells as well. Your body will just be a big sack of soup before your epidermis ‘sloughs off’, as you put it.”

“OK…I don’t want to die like that,” Rogers said, glancing at Kylie. “What are we gonna do?”

“Well,” Nicole glanced at Kylie, “if you let me work in this fantastic medbay of yours, I can see if I can do what our hospital has been flailing at for the last day. If that’s OK with you, Captain Rhoads.”

“What about your lab techs?” Kylie asked. “The ones who have been studying the gas.”

Nicole blew out a long breath. “Remember how I said our lab NSAI is offline? Well, since then I’ve come to realize I know more about this than they do…which isn’t saying much.”

Kylie gave a resigned shake of her head. “Marge, make sure Nicole has whatever access she needs.”

<You got it, Doctor Nicole, I’m hooking you up.>

“Great,” Nicole muttered, already focused on her task as she sat the console Rogers had used earlier. “Now, from the looks of it, your fancy blue suits are all armor, so probably not porous, but you should take it off and store them somewhere separate so that they won’t infect others, or cause reinfection—provided we beat this thing.”

“Should we shower?” Rogers asked.

Nicole glanced up at Rogers. “You have water showers on this ship?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to turn your entire water reclamation system into a petri dish for this stuff?”

“OK.” Rogers scowled. “No need to be such a bitch about it. We do have a decontamination station in engineering. It doesn’t feed into regular reclamation.”

“Go use that, then.” Nicole waved Rogers off. “Oh, and when you get abducted, you can be just as bitchy as I’m being right now.”

Rogers turned and walked from the medbay, muttering, “Been abducted plenty. Was never bitchy about it.”

Kylie opened her mouth to lay into Nicole, but a soothing feeling from Marge gave her pause. She swallowed and took a deep breath before continuing. “OK, Nicole, I’m sorry I grabbed you, and whisked you off like this. If you want to go, go. I won’t hold you captive, but just in case you actually care about stopping this thing, how’s about you quit your harping and let’s get working on a solution.”

Nicole shot a narrow-eyed look at Kylie, but then her shoulders drooped. She nodded wordlessly and turned back to her console.

Kylie and the remaining crew filed out of the medbay, leaving Nicole to her work.

“I feel useless,” Bubbs said to Kylie. “I can’t do anything about this.”

Kylie knew how Bubbs felt. She also knew she shouldn’t have forcibly abducted the doctor and exposed her too. Kylie should’ve known there would be a problem.

“I’m sorry, Captain. If I hadn’t been in such a rush to rescue Winter….” Rogers shook his head.

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “He’s your friend, my crew, I know why you were in a rush. There’s nothing we can do about this now but face it head on. Like we always do. Tell me how you’re feeling.”

Rogers shrugged. “Not so bad yet. My skin is tingling, but not melting off my face, and my eyes still work, so that’s all good, right?”

Kylie nodded. “Let’s all follow the doctor’s orders and use the decontamination booth down in engineering. Then maybe we should get some rest before things take whatever turn they’re going to take.”

“Aye, Captain,” Rogers whispered. “It’s good to have you back. You and Winter, despite the circumstances.”

“Go on ahead,” Kylie said to the others. “I’ll be along shortly.”

She pulled up a feed from the medbay and centered it on Winter’s medpod. The ISF’s mednano was working its miracles, already making visible progress in fusing his skin back together. “Hang in there, Winter. We need you back.”

<How long until we are symptomatic?> Kylie asked Marge.

<Your nano is already fighting the effects of the poison. I don’t know for sure, but I think it’ll be fully eradicated in a few hours. Your skin might itch for the duration but that’s the worst of it.>

<My nano can fight this thing?> Kylie asked, surprised that it was so easily able to eradicate the gas-borne virus.

<You don’t exactly have the base-line model, Miss Kylie. When it comes to keeping you alive, there’s almost nothing this nano can’t do.>

Nothing it couldn’t do? Kylie was hit with an idea so radical, she wondered if it was fever-induced. <My nano can heal this thing….>

<Kylie,> Marge sounded exasperated, at least as much as an AI could, <you can’t give your nano to everyone you meet. It’s not a pair of socks. Plus, without a controlled assimilation process, anyone you ‘gave’ your nano to would go through what you and Lana did. Which would kill anyone who is already sick.>

<You think humans share socks? And yeah…I get that the process of getting my nano could be lethal.> Kylie shook her head to clear her thoughts. <But can it make a cure? Can it create something I can reproduce and give to those falling ill?>

Marge seemed to consider that. <Calculating the odds and risk factor…. Yes, I think it’s possible. Problem is, the virus can mutate, or behave very differently at different stages of its attack.>

<Which means?> Kylie asked.

<Which means we need to let it run its course in you to map its attack vectors. Which means…>

<Pain, suffering, danger. I get it, but if I can save the crew, plus anyone else who might be infected….>

<You’re ready for me to do this? Are you sure? It’ll take a few hours for the nano to develop a cure at best. During that time…. I’ll be able to alleviate some of your symptoms with nerve blocks, but not all,> Marge said.

<Do it,> Kylie said simply.

<OK, directing the mednano to standby.>

<Thanks, Marge. Oh, and don’t tell Nicole. I don’t want her to slacken off her attempts…or to yell at me more. That woman can get really shrill.>

<Understood. If it’s any consolation, you’re very brave.>

Kylie appreciated the words, but she didn’t feel particularly courageous, especially as she spoke the next order. <I feel like I’m barely in control of anything anymore. I think it’s time for us to use our get out of jail free card. I think it’s time we contact Field Marshal Richards.>

Marge sent a feeling of affirmation. <I’ll initialize the QuanComm.>




RECRIMINATION

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

After scrubbing down, Ricket returned to her personal quarters to get some clothing.

It was a good-sized cabin with layers of white fabric panels hanging above her bed. A soft lavender rug lay by the small black-and-white coffee table. She often sat there in the morning, drinking a cup of coffee, going over updates that had stacked up during her time infiltrating the Revolution fleets.

Sometimes she just lost herself staring into her grav-lamp. The bubbles trapped in green liquid, traveling up and down, changing shape and position, had always been soothing.

Her small cabin on the Barbaric Queen was the first time in decades that she had been able to make a place be truly hers. Not a cover, not a small room back in Petra’s embassy on Alexandria.

Really hers.

But today she barely noticed all the niceties she’d gathered as she rushed into her room, dropping the towel on the floor before pulling open her wardrobe.

Ricket slipped a blue off-the-shoulder sweater over her head before pulling on a pair of tight leather leggings. It made her feel like a woman, which she desperately needed, thanks to the boils forming on her cheek and forehead.

Ricket sighed, touching her cheeks while staring at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes were already bloodshot. <Is my nano doing anything to combat this?>

<Yes,> Laura’s answer came swiftly. <I’ve administered a painkiller for your fever. I can suppress most of the symptoms, until they get too bad.>

Ricket was glad for that.

<The Hand will want a report on our actions. Would you like to review—>

<Not now.> Ricket shook her head. <I want to find Rogers. See how he’s doing. He doesn’t have decent nano, or an AI. It’s going to work fast on him. Real fast.> She tried not to succumb to the worry, the absolute fear that he might…. He could die and Ricket couldn’t even think the words.

<You’re falling for him,> Laura said, her voice laden with disappointment.

<Falling for someone…it was always going to happen. But just because I do, because I am…it doesn’t mean I can’t do my job.>

<Your convoluted statement aside, I know you’re a professional, Ricket. We’ve been together a long time. I just hate to see you get hurt. A guy like Rogers…he’s a pilot. His dedication is to the ship, to the captain. A free-loving guy, a friend in every port.>

<It’s not like that.> Ricket slammed her wardrobe door shut. “It’s not like that,” she said aloud, feeling her cheeks flush, her voice louder than necessary.

<I just want to protect you. Don’t be mad. When you get hurt, it makes my job harder.>

<I’ll do my job. I don’t need you to approve, but I sure wish you would.>

Laura didn’t say anything and Ricket tried to think of something to make her AI understand. Anything was better than the silent treatment.

She did wonder about Rogers; a lot of what Laura said was true. She saw the way Rogers always looked at her—most people looked at her that way—but his feelings for her…was it possible it was nothing more than a physical thing?

Was she just the flavor of the month? After he got her in bed, would Rogers be through with her?

Ricket’s heart said no, it wasn’t like that, but her head…her head was screaming something else entirely.



BETTER

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Rogers groaned as he poured the last few drops of coffee in his mug down his throat.

He’d hoped that getting some food would dull the feeling of the sickness running through him, but it hadn’t lessened the sensations of illness at all.

Life was different for him now that he flew the Barbaric Queen. He felt his heart beating, his organs moving fluids through his body—if he concentrated enough—but now he felt everything slowing down, the virus gumming up the pipes, as it were.

He set his cup on one of the galley’s prep tables before resting his head down on the cool surface as well. He stayed like that for several minutes, letting the metal chill his forehead.

After a few minutes, he felt Ricket’s hand run through his hair. He knew it was her because the air vibrated differently around Ricket. All things considered, it felt nice to have her so close.

“Kylie’s coffee’s always tasted bad, but not that bad,” Rogers muttered. It tasted like hot chilies and grated on his throat, feeling like sandpaper going down.

He lifted his head and smiled at Ricket despite himself and the situation they’d found themselves in.

A large boil stood out on Ricket’s left cheek, marring her beauty, but Rogers still saw her true essence shine beneath the surface. He stroked her other cheek with the back of his hand, aware of how warm her skin was to the touch. She might as well have been a hotplate.

“Didn’t those cheap bastards from the Hand give you any nano?”

Ricket nodded somberly. “It’s fighting the infection. It’ll just take more time. At least I don’t look as bad as you do.”

Rogers glanced down at his arm and flipped it over, seeing the tiny boils popping up all over his skin. “Hey, you should’ve seen what I looked like as a pimply teenager.”

Her eyes bore a deep sadness. “You should’ve let me deal with Winter. You’re the one who belonged on the other side of the door.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought about that at the time,” Rogers said lightly. “I’d do the same thing again if I had to. My conscience would never let me do anything different. Mind you, we all got dosed anyway when Winter’s pod blew its lid. Literally.”

Ricket pouted. “Stars, you’re infuriating as ever, Rogers.”

“It’s a gift. It’s also why you want to kiss me.”

“Yes,” Ricket admitted, “and why not kissing you seems stupid. I can’t remember what the reasons have been for either of us pulling away. All the stupid jokes, all the stupid fights, when all I really want—”

Rogers understood what she was saying, he knew what those reasons were but didn’t want to relate them. So, he pushed his lips against hers for the first time, and it felt like the very first time he had kissed anyone like that. Grabbing her arms, pulling her in close, Rogers opened his mouth, tasting her own illness.

Stars, this is stupid. Rogers thought as their feverish bodies clung to each other.

But maybe, with the lives they lived, it didn’t matter. You never knew when you’d get another chance. Maybe they’d be out of chances and never get to admit that their attraction went beyond their physical appearances. It was new to him. Rogers didn’t think he had ever felt so much desperation.

“I want to take you to bed,” Rogers said, “I want to show you the time of your life, but I’m afraid if we did, we’d end up fused together with these fevers we have.”

Ricket laughed. “Funny that you think you’d show me the time of my life. Pretty sure it’ll be me showing you.”

“Once we’re better, I’ll take you up on that.” Rogers grinned. “We’ll see which of us teaches the other. I’m kind of hoping, we’ll meet somewhere in the middle—once we’re better.”

“Once we’re better,” Ricket agreed, laying her head against his shoulder, her arms loosely draped around his neck.

If they got better.

But Rogers didn’t want to say that. He didn’t want to say that at all.




SOLUTIONS

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie stood in the med-bay and watched Winter as his body slowly healed. He had hours left to go, maybe days. She didn’t know when it’d be safe to take him out of the pod—that was almost impossible to know for sure.

He’d be infected by the virus too, and the last thing she wanted to do was wake him up to more pain.

Kylie’s own fever was low grade, but it had come on faster than she’d expected. She still hadn’t told Nicole what her plan was, though the doctor was just a few meters away, feverish herself, but still poring over analysis and treatment plans.

A loud bang caught Kylie’s attention, and she turned to see Nicole straightening in front of one of the medbay’s consoles.

“Just a dizzy spell, slipped a bit,” Nicole said apologetically. “The effects of the virus are coming on much faster than I’d seen it in my clinic. Already my vision is blurry, and my fever is so high, I feel like my skin is melting right off. I know it’s an hallucination, the effects of being sick. Soon, I’ll start to lose my mind. Everyone on this ship is holding on longer than me, I guess because your tech is so beyond my own.”

Kylie didn’t know what to say to that, so asked, “Has the medbay been able to work up a cure?”

Nicole shook her head. “It’s top-of-the-line, I’ll give it that, but somehow this virus has it licked. It’s like every vector the medbay tries on the virus, the stuff just mutates to evade. If we’d all received a smaller dose…caught it instantly…then maybe…. As it stands? The best I can do is buy time.”

“I have a plan that just might work,” Kylie said, the fear in Nicole’s voice causing her to realize how cruel it had been not to share the hope her nano might give.

I guess the asshole doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“My nano can cure the virus that the gas carries. I should be able to create a cure soon. From what Marge tells me, it’ll be some sort of nano-borne RNA retrovirus. Rogers probably isn’t much better off than you—the both of you will be the first to receive a cure.”

“Because you can tell we’re dying?”

Partly, Kylie thought as she watched Nicole’s hand shake as she operated the console. “Because you didn’t need to be exposed. You were exposed because I kidnapped you from the hospital.”

Nicole’s lips twitched into a rare smile. “I wouldn’t say kidnap…OK, I would say kidnap. Still, I let my emotions get the better of me before. I can appreciate going to great lengths to save lives.”

Kylie took a step toward Nicole, almost reaching out to brush the doctor’s hair back, but stopping herself in time. It didn’t feel right. She wasn’t ready to move on.

“Getting sick like this is hard to deal with for anyone,” she said, inwardly groaning at how stupid she sounded.

“Dying from a strange gas-borne virus is the least stress I’ve felt in years. Normally, I worry about other people dying—and that’s much worse. Well…I guess I’m worried about that too. Nevermind, fever talking here.”

“As a captain, I know what you mean. C’mon, you need to rest. You can lie down in a cabin.”

Nicole held up her hand and shook her head. “No, I have to keep working. There’s no guarantees that your nano can do the trick. Besides, Winter is just barely hanging on.”

Kylie’s gaze flicked to Winter’s still form.

“Well, at least lie down on one of the medtables. It can hydrate and monitor you.”

“Maybe just for a bit.” Nicole nodded and allowed Kylie to guide her to the nearest medtable.

“You take me to all the nicest places, Captain.” Nicole gave a faint laugh then broke out into a hacking cough.

“In a perfect world, I’d get to take you off this rock. Won’t be hard to show you nicer places than this.”

Nicole’s fading eyes stared up at Kylie as if through a fog. “I knew I felt a connection with you. I think it’s why I was such a bitch. You’re the type of woman who never sticks around long. You’re too important, too busy. I’ve been the girl at the Chimin port too many times. I can recognize the type.”

“Well, maybe a short cruise, somewhere nice,” Kylie replied. “No commitments.”

“A cruise sounds nice,” Nicole said, sleepiness in her voice.

“Least I can do. Chimin needs you way more than it needs the likes of me.”

Truth was, Kylie’s heart very much belonged to Grayson, and he was alive, well, and out there fighting the good fight too. She wouldn’t know how many years it’d be before she saw him again. That distance, and something vulnerable in Nicole, added confusion for Kylie.

“When I get better, I’d really like that,” Nicole whispered, her eyes closing. Kylie didn’t know if she was falling asleep or simply passing out.

<I have the table doing what it can. If it can’t slow things enough, we should put her in a pod,> Marge said.

<Stars, her body is so devoid of decent tech, this virus is racing through her.>

<I’m sorry. You really seem to care about her.>

<She’s got a fire in her,> Kylie said. <And she’s a nice person. It’s hard to turn your back on someone like that.>

* * * * *

Kylie was lying on one of the medtables herself, wishing for a visit from Mr. Fizzle Pop, when Marge alerted her to a call from Raynes.

<Put him on,> Kylie directed.

<I heard about the explosion on the dock,> Raynes said as his communication came through loud and clear. <Have enough, Captain Rhoads?>

Kylie put Rayne’s visual on one of the medbay’s holodisplays and let out a laugh. “Sorry, the angle on this display and your camera is giving me a great view right up your nostrils.”

Raynes shook his head. “Make jokes if that’s what you want, Captain. But it’s time we put all our cards on the table. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Kylie did agree. “Talk fast.”

“You’ll notice how much faster the virus is ripping through your people this time. That’s not by chance. We’ve improved the delivery system to bypass the need for an initial incubation period. Cuts days off the survival time, but it’s now airborne even after the initial gas dispersal. It can move through the air from the sick to new victims.”

“Why is it that bastards like you give up your principles the moment it suits you? You’re supposed to hate technology, want to save people. Now you’re using tech to kill more people faster. Seems to me all you care about is death.”

Raynes shrugged. “War is war, Rhoads. More will die in the long run if not for me. Nano has helped make it an effective killing machine. Trust me, though, it will only target the right people as it moves through Chimin-1.”

The right people? What did that mean? “You’re a real bastard, you know that?”

Raynes shrugged and held his hands up in the air. “Guilty as charged. I got tired of playing nice with you. You needed to see my resolve, but now that you have, I’ll give you enough of the cure to save your crew. And a lot of others too. All I need is safe passage to my freighter and everyone will live.”

So that he could escape and do this to worlds of people that he and the Papote didn’t agree with? “You just want to take your stores of death gas and spread it everywhere, don’t you?”

“If I don’t move it off Chimin, Papote will come here to take it by force. From the looks of you, you’re in no shape to fight them head on. They’ll destroy everyone on this installation to get what I’ve manufactured. You know it’s true, you’ve met men like me before. Men like your own father.”

He spoke the words with the conviction of a true zealot, but all Kylie could feel was disdain for the misguided man on the holo.

Kylie let a long sigh escape her lips. “All right. I’ll make the exchange, but I’m doing it to save people.”

Raynes laughed. “Sure, kid. Whatever you say. I’ll meet you outside the freighter. I’ll give you thirty minutes. Looks like it’ll take you that long just to get over there from the condition you’re in.”

The connection cut off, and Kylie laid her head back then cursed for a solid minute. Raynes was wrong about a lot of things, but he was right about her condition. Just the act of venting her frustration made her feel like vomiting.

<Is thirty minutes enough time?>

<To finish replicating the cure for the med-bay to reproduce? I believe so. But not enough time for your nano to heal you. I’m guessing you have a plan and it isn’t just to let Raynes go,> Marge said.

<You heard what he said. There’s a ship en route to us to collect him and the gas. I’ll kill him before that happens.>

<And the Papote ship?> Marge asked.

<They sure as hell aren’t killing the people of Chimin after we’ve damn near died saving them. Twice.>

<OK, I’m going to have the medtable take tissue samples with the nano at work. I’m no doctor, but I’ve been studying over the last few hours, and watching what Nicole was up to. I can set up the process that will finish building the new bacteria that produces the antibody to fight this thing.>

Kylie whistled. <Does that mean my nano has been constructing a new organism?>

<Sort of…. I’ve been helping too.>

<Stars, Marge. What would I do without you?>

Marge giggled. <Kylie, you would have died trying to rescue Lana, of course.>

<You’re such a buzzkill sometimes.>




THE DEAL

STELLAR DATE: 11.06.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Platform 2, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie crept toward the freighter on the docking bay, watching for any enemies, though so far seeing none.

Two minutes remained before Raynes’ countdown expired—not that she cared. What was he going to do if she was late? Bluster more?

She took a slow deep breath, stretching her lungs, trying to fill them to full capacity while fighting off a wave of dizziness. Strength was returning to her body, but she was still far from peak condition.

<Remember, Raynes doesn’t know that you’re on the mend—or that we’ve manufactured a cure,> Marge said. <So it’d be best to act ill.>

<I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.> Kylie leant her back against the platform’s railing and ran her hands through her hair. <I think I’m going to be sick.>

<You should have eaten something before you left the ship.>

<I don’t think it would have stayed down. At least you can just puke over the railing. I don’t think there’s anything important down there.> Kylie wiped her mouth, the thought of vomiting over the railing almost making it a reality. <I’m good, we’ll get this done. Mostly because we don’t have any choice. Bubbs, you in position?>

<I am. I have a good view of your ass.>

<Yeah?> Kylie asked. <How’s it look?>

Bubbs chuckled. <Damn sight perkier than it should.>

<How you feeling, girl?> Kylie asked.

<Good thing I’m only fifty-fifty organic, otherwise I’d be all weepy and moaning like everyone back on the ship. That shit just made me an even more pissed-off mech. My good arm is twitching to kill someone.>

Kylie smiled. <You might get to kill more than one. Raynes said no weapons, but I can’t imagine he’ll show up alone.>

Bubbs’ avatar sneered across the link and flexed a bicep. <Don’t make promises you can’t keep.>

<Let me get a few punches in. I want nothing more than to wipe that smug smirk off his puny little face.>

<Looks like you’ll get your chance,> Marge said.

Kylie looked over with a start and saw Raynes enter through the docking bay doors. “Hands up, Kylie Rhoads!”

“Relax, I didn’t bring any weapons,” Kylie said. She lifted her arms as requested anyway, then took a few steps forward, blocking the entrance to the freighter. It wasn’t a total lie; she didn’t have her weapons on her. They were tucked behind a loader a few meters away.

“Move away from the Winthrop!”

<Even if he made it onto that freighter, he’d be in for a surprise. We should just let him board and then weld the airlocks closed,> Marge said with a wicked grin.

“Not until I get the cure you promised me,” Kylie shouted to Raynes as he strode toward her. “Why don’t you come over here? I promise I won’t bite.”

Raynes scoffed at her suggestion. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Do you think I am?” Kylie grinned.

<You’re supposed to look ill,> Marge reminded her.

<Oh, right.> Kylie put a hand to her forehead, only half faking a bout of dizziness. “I need that cure, so you better have it on you.”

“I do.” Raynes took a few more steps forward and stopped. “Funny…. Thought you’d look a little worse for wear.”

“I have a tough constitution.”

“It’s a shame,” Raynes said with a tilt of his head. Kylie could see his right-hand creep toward his left side—going for a hidden weapon, no doubt. “A shame that we couldn’t work together. Papote would’ve welcomed you with open arms.”

“I’d never work with the likes of them. I’ll put them in the ground. Just like I did my old man.” Kylie took a long stabilizing breath. “How you could live among these people and—”

“I hated every minute of it. These people lied to your father. Hid their tech, rejoiced when news of his death came. No one will miss them. And now it’s their lies that will be their ending.”

“What do you mean?” Kylie asked.

Raynes grinned like a madman. “The virus…it only attacks people with mods. There are enzymes in your body produced to deal with rejection, plus alterations to DNA to allow mods to work. The virus is only triggered if it finds those things. It will cleanse the impure from the human race!”

“How can you claim to want what’s best for humanity when you don’t even appreciate it. These people live hard lives, extracting the ores this system needs, supplying beer, grain, all of it. They don’t ask for much. They just ask to be able to live. It’s what we all want Raynes. Well, except….”

“Except?”

“I want to know your name. Who are you really?”

Raynes laughed. “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Kylie shrugged. “I might die anyway. I’m beginning to think you don’t have a cure.”

“Guilty as charged. You know…she wanted you out of the way, but I respected your name. I’m done with that now.”

Raynes gave a small grin before his hand darted inside his jacket and he drew a sidearm, firing on her, unbridled glee in his eyes. Kylie had been watching for such a move, and held her arms in front of her face, feeling a twinge of pain in her right forearm as the shots ricocheted off her flow armor.

Raynes’ eyes widened and then he glanced at his gun, a look of shock on his face. It had been worth getting shot at.

She took a step forward, and Raynes looked at the unmarred surface of her armor, then back at his gun once more.

“Well, shit.”

He unloaded his magazine on her as he backpedaled toward cover.

<I got him in my sights,> Bubbs said from her overwatch position. <Say the word.>

<Not yet. I want him to talk more.>

<He’s calling for backup, but I’ve jammed his Link with our nanocloud,> Marge added.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from bringing a weapon,” Kylie called out, advancing on the stack of crates Raynes had ducked behind to reload. “Here’s the thing, I am my own weapon. I have armor you’ve never even imagined, nanotech from the golden age, a military-grade AI…and you are out of time.”

Kylie reached the stack of crates and pulled the top one off just as Raynes finished reloading his pistol. He got off one shot before she knocked it out of his hand and grabbed him by the throat.

“Your little reign of terror, Papote’s play here, it’s over. These people are free again.” Kylie threw him clear of the crates, then knelt with a knee on his chest, and punched him between the eyes.

Raynes’ head slammed into the deck, and he groaned. “You’ll never save them all. You might try, you might get some, but you’ll not win, Rhoads.”

“I win everyday people resist succumbing to assholes like you.” Kylie rose and took a step back.

“What are you doing?” Raynes’ eyes widened.

“Never trust a Rhoads,” Kylie said.

<Take the shot, Bubbs.>

A single round fired from a position high on the freighter and struck Raynes’ head, blowing the top off, spraying bone, blood, and brains across the deck.

Kylie knelt back down and checked the man over, on the off-chance that he had brought a cure—not that she needed it, but she was curious. What she found instead was a small, oblong device with a readout indicating it was in standby mode.

Kylie pulled it out and flipped it over. <Is this what I think it is?>

<A comm beacon. Something someone with no internal Link would use,> Marge said.

Huh. Interesting. Kylie couldn’t wait to see what was on that.  <Nice shot, Bubbs, sorry that you didn’t get to hit—>

<Above you!> Bubbs called out.

Shots streaked across the platform, over a dozen striking Kylie’s armor and knocking her down. Bubbs returned fire, giving Kylie enough cover to get back to the loader where she’d stashed her weapons.

She pulled a feed from Bubbs’ position and pushed out a cloud of nano. Two groups of soldiers in powered armor were advancing from the far side of the platform.

They must have been waiting in the wings, ready to help, but not close enough to save Raynes from Bubbs’ execution.

Once her nano was in the air, Kylie saw that four of the enemy carried large cases that she was certain would hold more of the weaponized gas.

<They don’t reach the freighter,> Kylie ordered. As she grabbed the rifle she selected and switched it to railgun fire mode.

“Let’s give ‘em hell, Dolph,” she whispered right before her flow armor covered her head. Winter wouldn’t mind. In fact, Kylie had a feeling he’d appreciate the irony.

Kylie leant around the loader, which was being peppered with projectile fire, and fired two rail pellets at the first enemy she saw.

One shot missed, then the second hit, knocking the man back, and sending two others rushing for cover. A blue-white bolt of lightning streaked out from Bubbs and hit another enemy, burning a hole right through the target’s torso.

<Shit Bubbs, that’s a serious beam.>

<Souvenir from the war.> Bubbs’ voice was deadly calm as she replied, firing again at another enemy.

<New group of three, coming up the platform’s edge. They’re flanking you,> Marge warned.

Kylie took a deep breath and turned to face the new threat. She rushed to cover behind a stack of hull plating, waited for the enemy to move closer, then eased around cover, firing a trio of rail pellets at the first enemy. He clutched his chest, and she vaulted over him and kicked the next attacker in the head, while firing on the third.

She continued her rush forward, slamming her shoulder into the third enemy right where her rounds had struck, and then heaved the woman to the side.

The armored Papote soldier lost her balance for a moment but managed to grasp the railing at the platform’s edge. She steadied herself, and raised her weapon to shoot at Kylie, who was now firing at the second attacker who had only received a kick in the head.

<Kylie!> Marge shouted, flagging the threat.

Kylie braced for the shots to hit her, when a hole appeared in the chest of the woman at the platform’s edge.

<You’re welcome,> Bubbs said, and Kylie glanced at the freighter to see the black-armored mech-woman jump off the ship and land in the midst of four attackers, swinging her fist and gun-arm with wild abandon.

Kylie grinned as she fired another round into the last enemy in the trio that had attempted to flank her.

No one would escape. Everyone would die. Kylie wasn’t taking chances anymore.

Now, Rogers and Ricket just had to do their part.




DEFENSE

STELLAR DATE: 11.06.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Ricket sat at the scan and weapons console, pulling up scan of the space surrounding Chimin—which was almost entirely devoid of any traffic at all.

Nearby, Rogers slumped in the pilot’s chair, his hands hovering over the control console. He let out a low groan, his chest heaving as he drew in gasping breaths. “Hang in there, Rogers,” Ricket glanced at him, even when she didn’t want to.

<He’ll be OK,> Laura said. <He received Kylie’s cure. With time, he’ll heal.>

<First we have to deal with Papote. That’s the part I’m worried about,> Ricket admitted.

Still, looking at Rogers was hard to do. His eyes hadn’t fared well. She wondered if it had something to do with the changes he’d been undergoing because of those damned gloves he wore to pilot the Barbaric Queen.

They’d hemorrhaged a lot and were little more than a pair of bloody white masses. If it wasn’t for how much pain he was in, she’d count them lucky that he didn’t need eyes to pilot the ship.

“I’ll be OK.” Rogers’ lips barely moved as he spoke, his words slurred. “Reserving my strength for the flight. I’ll be OK. Reserving my strength….” He repeated himself as if he hadn’t already said the same thing a few seconds ago, and a few minutes before that.

Despite the fact that Kylie and Ricket were on the mend, the cure hadn’t been tested on more vanilla humans. Ricket feared—almost to the point of being paralyzed—that the cure wouldn’t work, that Rogers would die, that everyone else would fall prey to this vile gas that Raynes had concocted.

And even if they did have a working cure, it was still of the utmost importance that Papote didn’t get their hands on it. They could spread death a lot faster than the Barbaric Queen could spread the cure.

<Focus on the mission,> Laura said quietly. <It’s what we’re here for, you know.>

Ricket scowled. <I don’t need to be reminded of that. I know what it takes to get a job done, but I can do it and still care for Rogers. Is that what has you so upset?>

<I’m not upset,> Laura said. <I’m protective of you, me. Now we’re part of a larger team and while I’m adjusting…. You and Rogers coupling is a bad idea. You know it is.>

Ricket did. She just didn’t think she could stop it. Sure, maybe if she wanted to…. She just didn’t want to.

<It’s nice to be in love, Laura. It’s been so long since I’ve felt even an inkling of it, let alone been in a position to act on it. It feels nice to care.>

Ricket forced herself to focus on Rogers as he eased the Barbaric Queen out of the narrow berth in the North Docks.

“Good thing you’d reinitialized the reactors before we went to Chimin-5,” Ricket said.

She was amazed at how a man who could barely form a sentence was able to manage the massive starship with such ease.

I wonder if that’s a part of the changes he’s been undergoing, or if he’s always been this good.

She didn’t speak as he exited the docks and rotated the ship to obtain a clear vector for a longer burn, moving the Barbaric Queen above the bulk of the Chimin asteroids so they could get an unobstructed view of space surrounding them.

Ricket pulled up the dorsal cameras and watched Chimin-1 shrink behind them. That the last three intense days had taken place on those few small rocks adrift in the vastness of space was almost impossible to comprehend.

<I have contacts, incoming vessels, braking to reduce delta-v with Chimin-1,> Laura announced.

Ricket put the scan data on the main display, glad to see only three ships, but less glad as she evaluated the enemy’s vessels. “Crap, that’s a two-klick cruiser and a pair of heavy destroyers. Not converted from civilian duty, either. Those are purpose-built warships.”

“Three.” Rogers raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’ll make things interesting. Will you do the talking for me?”

“Of course,” Ricket said as they picked up a transmission being broadcast at Chimin-1.

<Chimin-1 this is Commander Moss, Director of the Papote Alliance.> The voice belonged to a woman, and it was filled with a haughty disdain. <We are on approach to retrieve our people and valuable cargo. While we wish your people no harm—>

<Cut the bullshit, Mossy,> Rogers interrupted. <We know who you are and what you want.>

“I thought you were going to let me do the talking.” Ricket sighed, though glad to see him string a sentence together so well. Maybe a bit of action was just what the doctor ordered. Or would have, if she wasn’t unconscious.

“Sorry,” Rogers said with a dispassionate shrug. “I couldn’t help myself.”

<Who the hell is this?> Moss asked.

<This is Ricket of the Barbaric Queen, speaking on behalf of my captain and the people of Chimin-1. You are to cease your braking burn and shift vector and come no closer than two light seconds of the Chimin Group. If you don’t, we’ll have no choice but to destroy you.>

Commander Moss’s laughter was as haughty as her words. <Oh, please. I have no idea who you people are and what you’re playing at, but I know you’re not strong enough to—>

<Our captain is Kylie Rhoads, so I’d think twice before you say what you’re about to say. You know what she’s capable of,> Ricket said.

<Rhoads,> Moss’s voice became breathless with desire. <Well, then we’re on the same side. We can work together. If she doesn’t want to join Papote, she can assist us. We have the same goals.>

<Listen,> Rogers said before Ricket could stop him, <you might have a hard on for the captain, but she doesn’t have one for you. She just killed your man, Raynes, or whatever the hell his real name is, and now we have your precious gas. Stand down or be destroyed.>

Ricket’s eyes bugged out of her head as Rogers cut the comms with Moss. “What the hell, Rogers? You couldn’t have played that a little closer to the chest?”

“My chest burns and my bones feel like they’re on the verge of snapping. If we’re going to do this, it has to be now.” Rogers’ fingers dance across his station. <Captain, we’re moving to engage with the enemy. I remoted one of the ISF’s pinnaces onto the platform. You’re welcome to join us as soon as you finish up with Raynes’ friends.>

<Almost done, Rogers. Do your worst.>

* * * * *

Bubbs had volunteered to stay behind and keep watch over the Winthrop and the cases filled with gas canisters. Kylie suspected that the woman was hoping more of Raynes’ cronies would show up and she could beat them into bloody pulps the same way she had the others.

Kylie didn’t give it any further thought as the pinnace that Rogers had dispatched settled on the platform and lowered its ramp. She ran aboard and turned toward the cockpit. It was the first time she’d been aboard one of the ISF’s donated ships, and she was struck once more by how new everything looked.

Granted, the ships might actually be brand new. From what she’d learned, the ISF had far more equipment than they had people to use their toys.

Kylie ran past the cabins and the small galley and was nearly at the cockpit when Marge screamed in her head.

<Look out!>

She spun just in time to see a figure step out of the galley and swing something—a heavy skillet if her eyes weren’t lying—right at her head.

The cookware hit Kylie square in the temple and she reeled backward, crashing into the cockpit door before sliding to the ground.

Her head throbbed, and she felt warm, sticky blood flow down the side of her face. Kylie blinked, trying to focus on the person standing before her, finally making out the grinning visage of Liberty.

“Miss me?” the woman hissed.




THE QUEEN

STELLAR DATE: 11.06.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

The three Papote ships ceased their deceleration burn, turning to meet the Barbaric Queen head on, taking care not to expose their engines.

Rogers reviewed the weapons assessments Ricket provided, noting that the cruiser could fire beams at up to nearly a hundred thousand kilometers, while the destroyers were limited to a range of only eighty thousand.

The ‘Queen didn’t have any of the higher energy beams the ISF ships sported. Tanis had determined that those types of upgrades would make them too rich a target for anyone wanting to steal ISF technology.

However, ISF had upgraded the Barbaric Queen’s conventional weapons loadout, putting their shields and firepower on par with that of a heavy cruiser. They’d even secreted away a dozen relativistic missiles, though the Papote ships were already too close to make the most effective use of them.

Thinking of the upgrades brought back memories of when Rogers had met Field Marshal Richards for the first—and only— time.

He had been in the I2’s A1 docking bay, staring up at the Barbaric Queen, her hull gleaming after the ISF crews had gone over it. Rogers had flown a lot of ships before, but only the Dauntless had really captured his heart. He remembered thinking that the same thing might have begun to happen again.

He was falling head over heels in love with the Barbaric Queen, lost in his own private world as he took in her curves and lines, when a female voice interrupted his special moment.

“She’s a beautiful ship. You’re a lucky man.” The voice was feminine, but authoritative. The sound of it requiring, but not demanding, a reply.

He turned to see Admiral Tanis Richards, or the ‘Field Marshal’ as he’d heard her referred to more often than not. She was a tall, rather imposing woman; blonde hair pulled back in a tight pony tail, perfect facial structure, and eyes that shone with a vibrant enthusiasm for every pursuit she took up.

“Yes, ma’am.” Rogers couldn’t help the roguish grin he let slip onto his lips. “Just hope she’s ready to do what we need her to do.”

“Oh, she’s ready. New shields, stronger weapons, she’ll get you where you need to go. Treat her right, and she’ll keep you in the black a long time.”

“I can’t wait. I’m getting happy just thinking of it. The ship, I mean.” Rogers cringed. “Sorry, Field Marshal. Forgot who I was talking about for a minute.”

Tanis had snorted and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’d be lying if I didn’t feel the same way about the I2, though I don’t normally share that sort of information with strangers. Granted, I’m not often surrounded by those who aren’t dignitaries from some foreign government or folks in my chain of command. Your candor is refreshing.”

“Refreshing? Pretty sure I nearly shit myself. Oh, I did it again, didn’t I?” Rogers ran a hand through his hair. “I guess my special moment with the Barbaric Queen has affected my better judgment.”

“I’ll leave you to it then.” Tanis gave him a friendly nod before turning and walking away. After taking a few steps, she paused and looked back. “You remind me of another pilot I know. She loves her ship too, treats her right. Maybe someday she’ll even get to be one.”

Rogers frowned. “What? A pilot? I thought she already was one.”

The field marshal had laughed and shaken her head. “No, Rogers, a ship. Maybe someday she’ll get to be a ship.”

“Uh…OK. I hope that’s a good thing, ma’am.”

Tanis smiled. “I think it will be, provided it comes in good time. Anyway, the Barbaric Queen couldn’t be in better hands. Take care of her, Rogers. Kylie too.”

Rogers understood the words Tanis hadn’t spoken. She was a very powerful woman, but also a perceptive one. Rogers had a feeling she knew what Kylie was going through. The guilt, the crushing weight she carried. Rogers wanted to help Kylie, that was what fighting by her side, fighting for her, had all been about.

It—

“Rogers!” Ricket grabbed his shoulder and shook him awake. “Rogers!”

He snorted and realized he had fallen into some sort of thoughtful trance. He hoped he hadn’t been asleep while on approach to engage the enemy. “I’m back, I’m back.”

“Stars…thought you’d gone into a coma or something,” Ricket said, relief evident in her voice. “Bring us high and to starboard of them. I want to target those two destroyers first.”

Rogers nodded and adjusted vector just in time for Ricket’s firing pattern to still be effective.

The Queen’s six thirty-centimeter beams slid out from behind protective panels and three aligned with each of the destroyers, slashing at the enemy ships just as all the Papote vessels fired back.

Rogers jinked the ‘Queen to avoid most of their fire while Ricket targeted the enemy cruiser, the Victorious, with the fifty-centimeter beams.

The directed energy was diverted by the enemy’s shields, though Rogers could see that some had slipped through an overlap point on the Victorious’s umbrellas. A section of the Victorious’s hull glowing dimly on IR where carbon plates had ablated away.

“Nice shooting,” Rogers said as he spun the Barbaric Queen and fired the fusion engines on full burn to arc around behind the enemy formation which was pivoting to keep their engines facing away.

“I can’t believe they’re sticking around,” Ricket said. “We clearly outgun them.”

“Maybe they think we don’t have the powerplants to fire all those beams again,” Rogers suggested. As he spoke, the world around him fell away, and he only saw the ships in the black, engaged in their deadly dance. It was as though he was no longer in his body, but rather a part of the ship. He wondered if that was what Tanis Richards had been referring to.

Ricket fired the fifty-centimeter beams on the other destroyer, punching a hole in its shields directly above the ship’s engines. Then she switched to the thirty-centimeter beams, boring a hole through the hull.

“One down!” Ricket crowed as the destroyer’s acceleration ceased and it drifted away from the Papote formation.

“Nice shooting,” Rogers said, grinning at Ricket, forgetting how bad he probably looked just then.

“Crap!” Ricket shouted in response. “Four more ships, they were occluded by the debris field from Chimin-9’s refineries. All capital ships. Wait…the three in the back are firing on the one in the lead. It’s hailing us, putting it up.”

“Ship designated Barbaric Queen, are you with the people of Chimin?” The woman’s voice was strained, carrying an undercurrent of worry tainted with fear.

Rogers glanced back at Ricket and nodded. “You do the talking. I need to keep up the dance.”

Ricket nodded in response before calling back to the new ship. “This is Ricket of the Barbaric Queen. Yes, we’re defending Chimin against Papote. If you’re looking for safe harbor, this isn’t it.”

“My name’s Rastock, I lead a group called the Coalesce Legion. We were en route to bring aid to Chimin when we were attacked by Papote ships. We’re outgunned. Can you render assistance?”

<For a name containing ‘Legion’, you’d think they’d show up with more than one ship,> Rogers commented as he swung the ‘Queen within fifty-thousand klicks of the Victorious and its remaining destroyer. Ricket fired the thirty-centimeter beams at the destroyer, shredding its rear shields and cutting a twenty-meter hole in its hull.

The Victorious still managed to shed most of the inbound fire, and returned its own salvo of beamfire, along with a dozen rail shots.

Rogers jinked the ship aside to avoid the rail rounds, but four of the enemy beams struck true, knocking out the rear port shield umbrella.

<Rotating to our port side out of harm’s way,> Rogers reported as Ricket replied to Rastock.

“OK, I’m sending you a vector to follow. If your pursuers stay as predictable as I hope, then it will put them between us. Stay on comm for firing solutions.”

“That sounds great, but what about the Victorious?” Rastock asked.

Ricket let slip a cruel laugh. “Right, what about the Victorious?”

As they’d spoken, Rogers had spooled out the Barbaric Queen’s AP drive and poured on the ship’s full thrust of over one hundred gs—enough that the a-grav dampeners were having trouble fully compensating.

<You’re in the pocket, Ricket!>

The extra acceleration from the AP drive had lined the ‘Queen up to fire a shot directly into the Victorious’ starboard engine. He watched as the charges built in the main beams, and then as Ricket triggered the shot at the perfect moment, following up with a tungsten slug from the ship’s railgun.

The beams overwhelmed the enemy’s rear shields, and then the tungsten slug tore into the engine, shredding it and causing a reactor containment failure that shredded the rear half of the Victorious.

Rogers watched the events through the ship’s sensors, his mind feeling even more like it was one with the vessel, completely detached from his body. He knew he should be worried but couldn’t bring himself to care. He felt amazing, the ship thrummed with power and energy, unlike his beleaguered body back in the pilot’s seat.

“Damnit,” Ricket swore. “They tagged us again on the port side right before we ruined their day. Slashed a hole into the rear shuttle bay.”

<Just one of Kingfisher’s old shuttles in there,> Rogers replied over the Link so he wouldn’t have to return to his body to speak. <Thing was really gaudy, even for his tastes. I think he used it to entertain ladies when he was away from the ‘Queen.>

“Well, no one’s going to be entertained in it anymore,” Ricket replied. “Speaking of ships, that Rastock woman has a real clunker. Thing’s a retrofitted insystem ore hauler. Tons of engine, but not a lot of guns. She could probably outrun the Papote cruisers for days if she hadn’t been slowing to match v with Chimin.”

<Well, at least the thing can take some hits,> Rogers replied. <Bringing us in to bracket them.>

“I think it’s no good,” Ricket said, and Rogers could sense her shaking her head. “The new Papote ships have already shifted vector, they’re trying to move beyond Rastock’s ship.”

<Think maybe we should send around a surprise?> Rogers asked. <These new guys are still far enough out.>

Ricket hmm’d for a moment, and then nodded. “Yeah, I’m going to drop two. We’ll come around the front, and they’ll head around back. If we time it all right, we can take out two of them, and then mop up the third.”

<Works for me.>

Neither spoke as they reduced speed and then dropped into a long arc that would take them around the three enemy cruisers.

The enemy, for their part, continued to move away from their previous path, though still on one that would put them within firing range of Rastock’s ship in ten minutes.

“We’re going to have to get close with Rastock’s bird if we want to be in range,” Ricket said at one point. “I sure hope she’s not bait.”

<Well, I think she is bait,> Rogers said as he watched the battlespace evolve. <Just the unwilling kind.>

“You know what I mean,” Ricket replied.

Rogers nodded silently as he cut the AP drive and lowered the fusion burners output.

“Shit!” Ricket cried out a moment later. “They’re jinking, boosting hard!”

Rogers saw it as well, all three Papote ships had altered vector and were running at max burn for Rastock’s ship. They would pass within ten thousand kilometers—close enough to ravage the converted ore hauler with their beams.

<Changing course for direct intercept,> Rogers announced, and the ship lurched to the side, boosting on max again, enough that Rogers was dimly aware of this body being pushed back into his seat.

“Lighting up the relativistic missiles,” Ricket called out, and Rogers saw two massive plumes erupt sixty thousand klicks distant. They streaked toward the enemy ships, aimed at the center of the three, but still with enough maneuvering room to hit either of the other two as well.

Rogers guided the ‘Queen toward Rastock’s ship, calculating his trajectory to pass only ten kilometers above their hopeful ally. He heard Ricket advising Rastock to stay on course, and not jink into their flight path or move too far away.

Then, the enemy beams lanced out toward Rastock’s ship just as the Barbaric Queen passed overhead, all shield umbrellas configured to direct power off the keel, extending the field down to create a shield in front of their ally.

The maneuver left the upper half of the ‘Queen completely exposed, and they took two hits, one knocking out one of the fifty-centimeter beams before Ricket was able to fire, then tearing through one the nearest cruiser’s shields in turn. A moment later, the cruiser in the center jinked away from the incoming RMs, but it wasn’t far enough, and the RMs lined up, slamming into the ship’s rear starboard flank.

Rastock’s ship took advantage of the chaos and fired on the center Papote vessel, and then the nearest one. Ricket added two rail shots to the mix, and a few seconds later, both cruisers were holed.

The third Papote vessel had come through unscathed, and peeled off from the main formation, angling stellar south, working to keep its engines shielded from shots Ricket was peppering it with as it fled.

“That was some fancy flying, there,” Ricket said, her voice sounding breathless.

<Some good shooting on your part, too,> Rogers replied as he rotated the ship and began to brake and match delta-v with Chimin-1 once more.

Rogers felt his mind flow back into his body, and he realized he was slumped in his chair, bathed in sweat. His fever had broken, and now his damp clothing was giving him the chills. His eyes were aching now that the cure was ridding his body of the virus, though he still couldn’t see out of them.

He couldn’t even blink—it all felt fused together. It more than just worried him…it wrecked him.

But then he felt her…Ricket. She put her hands on his shoulders and slid them down to his chest. “You handled this ship like she was a fighter, Rogers.”

He wanted to say something witty, wanted to say anything at all, but her mouth pressed against his and Rogers forgot all about that. She tasted sweet as honey, and his hands gripped her back, pulling her closer, aware that nothing had felt as good as her.

His hands had flown the most unique ship he had ever dreamed of. Hadn’t felt like this though.

Was that love?

Rogers hoped so, but the idea didn’t so much scare him as it terrified him.

“Rastock is hailing us,” Ricket whispered.

“One more minute.” Rogers stroked back Ricket’s hair, wishing he could see her face, wondering what her expression might be. With his other vision, he could make out her shape, the data associated with her, the temperature of her skin, and the amount of air she drew, but it wasn’t the same.

It wasn’t the same as seeing like a human should see. He didn’t know what was happening to him, didn’t know what it meant, and for the first time it scared him.

Rogers had never had a lot to lose before and as Ricket kissed him again, the stakes got higher.

A lot higher.




GIVE ME LIBERTY

STELLAR DATE: 11.05.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: BQ Pinnace, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Liberty swung the skillet again and this time Kylie caught it before it struck her head, and her arms stiffened, tightened. Liberty strained to bring the skillet back down and her eyes widened as Kylie held her off.

Clenching her teeth, Kylie shoved hard, pushing Liberty away before pulling herself up using a hand-hold next to the cockpit door.

Liberty swore and snapped a kick at Kylie’s side before swinging the pan once more. The woman was fast—especially for someone who had been dead—but Kylie managed to deflect the kick with her left arm. Liberty lost her balance, and Kylie caught the skillet, wrenching it out of the other woman’s grasp.

“You’ve got some muscle for such a skinny bitch,” Liberty sneered. “But I’ve got a lot more than organics under this skin.”

Liberty kneed Kylie in the gut, knocking the wind from her lungs, disorienting her long enough to land two blows on her face.

Kylie staggered backward, up against the cockpit door once more.

On a good day, Liberty would have been no match for her, but today, with Kylie’s body still recovering from the virus—as well as the fight with Raynes and his goons on the Winthrop’s dock—she didn’t have a lot of fight left.

<Marge, open the cockpit door behind me, and then close it on her,> Kylie asked.

<You got it.>

A moment later, the door behind Kylie opened, and she fell through into the small cockpit to the sound of Liberty’s laughter.

“Wow…not sure what you had in mind there, but I got a good laugh out of it.”

Kylie pulled herself backward as Liberty approached. <Marge! I said close it on her!>

<I know,> Marge replied, and the moment Liberty stepped over the threshold, the cockpit door slid shut, slamming into Liberty, and pinning her against the jam.

<Oh…well played, Marge,> Kylie said as she rose on unsteady legs.

<Why thank you, it’s good to be appreciated.>

Liberty’s face was turned to the side, eyes staring into the cockpit while she struggled to get free.

“I think you’d have to rip one of your boobs off to get out of this predicament,” Kylie smirked. “I bet you never thought you’d lose a fight to a door.”

“Screw you, bitch,” Liberty sneered.

Kylie sighed as she grabbed Liberty’s chin and lifted her head. “Who sent you? Who wants me dead this bad? It’s not the Papote Allegiance.”

It was more a question than a statement.

Liberty struggled to swallow. “You’re stronger than I thought you’d be. SSF doesn’t usually mod their soldiers much. Did you get them from your old squeeze Maverick?”

Kylie wasn’t interested in discussing her own history with the woman and instead punched her in the side. “Tell me who sent you and this will go a lot easier on you.” She slid a hand between Liberty’s neck and the door, slowly increasing the pressure on the woman’s throat. “Was it Raynes?”

“Raynes?” Liberty gagged a laugh. “That idiot can barely stay on script. None of this would have happened if he’d held you like he was supposed to.”

“Then who?” Kylie yelled.

Liberty gagged and shook her head—as much as she was able. “Can’t…even if I wanted to…I can’t.”

<What did she mean by that?>

<Scanning,> Marge said. <You might want to back off before she passes out.>

<Let her pass out.> Kylie squeezed a little bit harder, grimacing as she felt the cartilage in the woman’s neck bend under the pressure. Liberty’s feet kicked out as she tried to escape the door, but Kylie pinned Liberty’s thigh with her knee and continued to hold her neck.

<You can let go, I have enough nano in her to knock her out now. Her AI tried to fight me off, but I severed its Link. I’m getting quite good at this stuff. Not sure how that makes me feel.>

<Learn anything about where she’s from?> Kylie asked, wiping a hand across her brow.

<It’s hard to be sure with how much tech she has, but I think there’s a control chip in her head,> Marge said simply. <I should be able to disable it like I did with the others.>

The others…Marge had been referring to those on the Liberation, her father’s ship. <Is it possible that my dad activated Liberty before he died so she could come after me?>

<I don’t think so. You know as well as I do how tight that time table was. He believed you were on his side right up until you killed him. He killed Garza, so I doubt Garza sent her either,> Marge said.

Which meant only one thing.

Liberty had been sent by whoever had corrupted her father in the first place. And now that thing…her father’s angel, wanted Kylie dead.

* * * * *

Kylie flew the pinnace out of Chimin-1’s north docks and pulled up the Barbaric Queen’s location on scan—it was a few light seconds away from the Chimin Group, burning hard with another ship nearby.

<Something sure went down,> Marge said, a note of awe in her voice. <I count five disabled ships out there. Rogers and Ricket really gave ‘em what-for!>

<Captain! That you?> Rogers’ call came in.

Kylie was flooded with relief to hear his voice. Even though she knew Ricket had gotten him the injection, it was good to hear the spark in his voice once more. <You bet it is, how you two doing up there?>

<Oh, you know, taking out enemy cruisers. Our new usual. I got a lady here that wants to talk to you. Her name is Rastock, head muckity muck of something called the Coalesce Legion.>

<I’ve heard of them. Put her through.>

Rogers complied, and the image of a beautiful woman appeared on the pinnace’s main holo, her deep blue eyes bearing both gratitude and concern. Long, blonde hair fell past her shoulders and a beret sat on the top of her head.

“Captain Rhoads, I presume?” the woman asked after a short delay from the light lag.

Kylie nodded. “Captain Rastock. Yes, I’m Kylie Rhoads. I have you to thank for some assistance, I hear.”

“Well, that was our intention, and I’d like to say that we were a great help, but I think we just made for a useful distraction. You have one hell of a pilot and shooter there. We just helped move things along.”

“He’s the best pilot that ever dropped out of SSF academy,” Kylie said.

<Before I ever started,> Rogers added privately

Rastock offered a polite smile. “I would like to know what your intentions are with Chimin-1. We got a distress call from Chimin-9 saying that they had been unable to communicate with any other installations for several days now, and you seem to be in control of Chimin-1…”

Rastock let the words hang, and Kylie nodded slowly. “Chimin’s governor is gone, and someone had taken over their police force, running things behind the scenes to produce a rather virulent virus. That’s what Papote was here to collect. We took care of them, but Chimin-1 is a mess—going to take some work to put it all back together again.”

Rastock breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, I’m glad that things are mostly under control. The people will need to decide which way of life they want to embrace. Either Papote’s way or Colasce’s but that will only happen if we can get the word out.”

The woman’s wording was obtuse, and Kylie raised her brows. “Are you asking something, Captain?”

“I’m not entirely selfless, but I do want to help rebuild Chimin, spread good will. If people know we are there for them and the Papote Allegiance is not, that will go a long way. To do all that, I’m going to need help. What better help than Kylie Rhoads and her people?”

Kylie wished she could stay and help rebuild. “I’ll be here awhile longer, but we have to get back to our original mission soon. However, I can promise you strong allies. They’re already on their way. They will be here to protect and rebuild Chimin. Get them back on their feet and see to it this doesn’t happen again.”

Rastock nodded. “I’m saddened to hear you’ll be leaving so soon. We’ll stay close by. I hope perhaps we can meet before you’re off onto your next stop? Maybe we could break bread together and discuss the future for the people of Hanoi.”

“I’d like that. Give us some time. There’s an illness outbreak. We’re returning to Chimin now and will start administering the cure. You may not want to dock until it’s under control.”

“Would you like help administering that cure? Surely more hands are better than one. Consider it an olive branch.”

“Captain, I will take you up on that, but the dockmaster has long been missing, and the STC is down, but a shuttle should be able to make it in without too much trouble.”

“Then we’ll see you soon.”

The screen went dark as Rastock cut the communication and Kylie breathed a sigh of relief. <Good work. The both of you,> she said to Rogers and Ricket. <I can’t believe you took out those ships and the ‘Queen is still unscathed.>

<Well, there was some scathing,> Rogers said sheepishly.

<He did great for a blind man,> Ricket added.

<Blind!?> Kylie gasped. <Is this something the ship did…or the virus?>

Rogers chuckled. <A bit of both. I can see, though. Not with my eyes, more like a strange interpretation of other sensory information. It’s weird. When I fly the ship…

<Oh Rogers,> Kylie’s mental tone was soft, <you’ll see again. We’re going to grow you a pair of new eyes.>

<What?> Rogers sounded crestfallen. <New eyes? You mean I don’t get to stay a martyr?>

<Not for long.> Kylie grinned <But I suppose you’ll milk it for as long as possible.>

<Well, hell yeah! The ladies love this sort of thing, right? ‘He gave his eyes and risked his life for the crew and people of Chimin-1. Still managed to be the big damn hero.’>

<Biggest hero in my book, even when you have new eyes.> Kylie slipped off the arm rest. <Bring the BQ back in…I’ll go land on the platform again.>

<Hey wait! Can I pick any color eye I want?> Rogers asked.

<Any color.> Kylie shook her head in disbelief at how quickly his sense of humor returned.

Rogers was a special person, a special person indeed.




RESTITUTION

STELLAR DATE: 11.07.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Chimin City Hospital ER

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie administered the cure to the last person on the list Nicole had given her—a little girl lying in a bed in the children’s ward. Her cheeks were flushed deep red with fever, her breathing was labored, and there was a scared look in her eye. She clung to a ratty old stuffed bunny with a blue ribbon tied around its neck. When Kylie tried to leave, the little girl wouldn’t stop staring at her, a slow puckered frown appearing on her face.

Who could leave a little thing just like that?

Kylie slid onto her bed and stroked the little girl’s head. “You’ll be OK now, Sasha. You, your mom, your sister. Everyone’s going to be just fine. I promise.”

The little girl nodded and squeezed her eyes shut, like she had thought of something that scared her very much. “Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?”

“Sure,” Kylie whispered. She figured that it wouldn’t take very long for that to happen. “Do you know the ancient classic tale of the Princess and the Peach?”

The little girl shook her head.

“My father used to read it to me before bed. I have a digital copy I can read to you.” Kylie’s voice trailed off, imaging home, remembering how Peter Rhoads had pulled her up onto his lap when he sat in the old wooden rocking chair in the front room.

He had been a good man then. Misguided maybe, but a good man. Kylie’s heart ached for that man. And it broke for her, her mother, her brothers. It hurt to think about everything that had happened.

She brought up her copy of the book onto her HUD and started to read. Some time later, Kylie wiped the tears off her cheeks, only then aware Sasha had already fallen asleep. She slid off the bed and turned to see Nicole standing in the doorway, staring down at Kylie with the new set of eyes the Barbaric Queen’s medtable had given her.

“Nice story,” Nicole said. “Things look different with these eyes, but my ears know real heartbreak when they hear it.”

“We all have our stories to tell,” Kylie said. She didn’t want to talk about the pain she was dealing with. No one here could understand what she knew about her father had been real—once upon a time—like an old fairytale.

“I was wrong about you before…when we first met,” Nicole said as she stepped aside to let Kylie out of the room and proceeded to follow after. “And all the times between then and now. I’m sorry I judged you. Sorry we all did. I wish for better things for you.”

Kylie offered Nicole her arm and led her away from the little girl’s room and toward the doctor’s office. “I still have a job to do, unfortunately.”

“So, you won’t be staying. I wish I had gotten to know you better.”

“I’ll check on Chimin when I can. Come see you. I don’t know when I’ll get back through. There’s a lot of work to do out there.”

They reached Nicole’s office, and the doctor sat wearily behind her desk. “You have your part to do out there, I have mine here. ‘In this rock’ as you so eloquently put it the other day.

Kylie sat down on the edge of her desk. “These people are lucky to have you. You’re a remarkable person.”

“You’re saying good-bye, aren’t you?” Nicole’s voice was laced with palpable sadness. “You won’t be back again before you take off?”

“I have a lot to do. I probably won’t get a chance to…I’m sorry. I’d like to….” Kylie leant forward and gently kissed her cheek.

Nicole touched Kylie’s lips with her fingertips, stroking them tenderly. “Not where I wished you had kissed me.”

“My heart is…sort of occupied.” And her mind was on him more now more than ever before. Kylie did her best not to think of Grayson, knowing that he could be the one sent here to finish what she’d started....

They might see each other again sooner than she thought and what would that mean? Would she beat around the bush again or would she tell him exactly what she wanted to?

Nicole attempted a smile but failed. “I guess a woman like you…how could it be anything but, right? Who’s the lucky girl?”

“You’d be surprised. Until next time, Dr. Nicole.”

Nicole smiled, her fingers tracing Kylie’s jawline delicately. “You owe me a cruise. It’s been too long since I’ve seen the stars.”

Kylie smiled, knowing the expression was bittersweet. She slid off the desk and spared a parting glance before she headed back to the Barbaric Queen. On the way out, a nurse said hello, and a man took Kylie’s hand to thank her.

“Who knew a Rhoads would save us?” he whispered and kissed her cheek. Kylie didn’t know how to respond to such kindness and it was that way everywhere she went.

<The people of Chimin want to throw a party in your honor before we leave,> Marge said. <I picked up the chatter on one of the local sim-groups.>

<That’s…unnecessary.> Kylie replied as she left the hospital and turned toward the lift. When she remembered it was gone, her shoulders drooped and she took the detour around to the closest alternative.

<Not to them. They’re calling you the hero of Chimin.> Marge sent across a smiling face.

<You’re…making that up.>

<I’m not.> To prove her point, Marge pulled up posts and comments from local boards and sim-groups to prove it. The Barbaric Queen and her crew were being hailed as saviors.

Well, that was certainly nice…but not warranted. Not yet.

<Let’s find Paul, then we can talk about my hero status, but not until then. For now, there’s too much work to do to celebrate.>

* * * * *

Kylie approached the cell in the bowels of the Barbaric Queen where Liberty was being held. As soon as Liberty saw her, the woman began to fight against the restraints holding her to the thick plas chair.

After Liberty’s wild thrashing had continued for half a minute, thick needles extended from the collar around her neck and pricked her skin.

“I’d be careful about those.” Kylie crossed her arms and glanced at the needles pushing against Liberty’s neck. “This setup belonged to the former owner of this ship. I’m only vaguely aware of what those needles will inject into you.”

Liberty’s eyes widened as she tried to look down at them. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to name names. Who sent you? Who wants me dead? Don’t tell me you can’t tell me because I’ve already deactivated that chip in your head.”

Liberty’s eyes widened. “Chip? What are you talking about?”

Kylie sighed. “The one in your head that was ensuring you stayed on task. The one your mysterious benefactor implanted you with.”

“Implanted? I don’t recall…some things are fuzzy.”

“Then make it not so fuzzy and make it quick. In case you don’t recall, I killed my father not too long ago and it’s put me in a pretty bad mood.”

“I know. We all know.”

“Who is ‘we’? People like you?”

Liberty nodded. “People who work for him.”

“Him?” Well, that was a start.

“We never had a choice. He…when he calls, you answer. Something inside you won’t let you say no. He sends you places, has you do things, you don’t know why. You just do them. You do what he says.”

“Or….” Kylie prodded.

“Or nothing. You just do. You can’t resist. You can’t question. No one has broken free of him before.”

“He must have a name. If he’s so all-knowing, all-controlling, he must have a name. An identity. A location.”

“He sends others to talk to you. I’ve never seen him.”

“Is he the one who….” Kylie didn’t even know how to ask the question. “Did he help my father control his fleet? Did he help my father build up his resources?”

Liberty nodded but stopped as the needles grazed her skin. “Your father…your father might’ve been the only one I knew who met him. Even that I’m not sure of, but Peter spoke of a trip. Somewhere he had been. He met…he called it his enlightenment. I thought Peter was crazy, but after that, he changed.”

Kylie had so many questions. How had Liberty met her father and what had their relationship been? For now, she decided to shelve those inquiries and stay on the current path. “How did he change?”

“More resolved. Ruthless. Others wanted to know where Peter had been. He wouldn’t say. He’d only say…he’d only call him…he’d….” Liberty was resisting something, but Kylie had turned off the control chip. She didn’t understand why the woman fought so much.

<The control chip just reactivated.>

<What?> Kylie asked Marge. <How?>

Liberty gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. “I can’t….”

“You can fight this! My mother did! What did he call him? Who was it that did this to you? Tell me already!”

“Caretaker!” Liberty screamed, her neck straining, the needles grazing her skin. She didn’t seem to notice them as her shrieking continued, eyes bulging from their sockets. Kylie didn’t think that kind of pain could come from the needles—especially since she hadn’t put anything into them.

Kylie reached out to deliver another dose of her own nano into Liberty when the woman’s head exploded, covering her in Liberty’s blood and brains.

<Marge! What the hell just happened?> Kylie asked shuddering as she wiped the gore from her face.

<The chip,> Marge said. <I think it was activated by what she said. Or by her emotional state.>

By this Caretaker? Kylie thought it was highly possible, but if he could do that over great distances, what hope did anyone have of stopping him.

“Shit,” Winter’s voice came from behind her. “Who the hell is going to clean that all up?”

Kylie spun around wide-eyed. “Winter!” She crushed him in a fierce embrace.

Winter laughed and slapped her back. “Damn girl, I go to sleep for a few days and you have brains exploding all over the place. OK, now I’m covered in brains. Gross, yet kinda hot. Am I right?”

“It’s you,” Kylie whispered and pulled back to look at him. He grinned, his eyes shining, Kylie couldn’t remember the last time he looked so happy. “I mean, I’m going to have you clean this mess up.”

“Great.” Winter rolled his eyes. “I’ll do it if it means my skin isn’t splitting open. Thanks for saving me, Kylie.”

She slapped his cheek with happiness. “You owe me a story about how that dirt-bag got the jump on you.”

“Not my finest hour. I ate red gelatin,” Winter admitted.

Kylie scrunched up her nose. “Gelatin? That’s what you’re going with?”

Poisoned gelatin.”

“Yeah, Bubbs already told us. I was just messing with you.”

Winter groaned. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

Kylie just shook her head and grinned.

“How’s about…we go with hot girls with boob guns instead. Speaking of guns, where’s Bubbs? Is she OK?”

Kylie nodded.

“Good, because I want her healthy when I beat the crap out of her for not rescuing me sooner. Mostly though, I want to eat. What’s a guy have to do to get a little food around here?”




FAREWELL

STELLAR DATE: 11.07.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Dinner was a happy occasion featuring steamed green beans, mounds of mashed potatoes, and bacon-wrapped meatloaf. Kylie made a special apple tart dessert served with ice cream surprise—the surprise being that it was tofu, not ice cream.

“Surprise!” Bubbs said as their guests took a bite of the desert, bringing on a bout of laughter from the Barbaric Queen’s crew.

Captain Rastock and her two companions, a man and a woman both with blue-and-purple hair paused and stared at the ice cream on their spoons.

Kylie shook her head and wiped a tear from her eye. “It’s nothing, really. We’re just glad you could join us for dinner.”

“And glad you enjoyed the ice cream,” Rogers said, and another round of giggles erupted around the long table.

Mr. Fizzle Pop leapt onto the table, knocking over a drink as he moved past the dessert, angling toward the mashed potatoes. Bubbs sighed and lifted him gently, setting him back on the floor.

“DON’T TOUCH ME! FOOD!” the cat meowed angrily.

A chorus of laughter came once more at the cat’s expense, and Bubbs joined in. “Even the cat won’t eat that ice cream. So, I’m not touching it.”

Captain Rastock shrugged. “Well, if any of us get sick from whatever’s in this, we’re coming to you for medical treatment. We hear you have the best for a dozen light years.”

Kylie smiled at the woman—who had proven quite charming throughout the evening. “Fair enough. We’ve worked hard for that reputation.”

Rogers brought out two carafes of coffee. One for Kylie, and one for the rest of the guests. The visitors seemed uncertain of which to pick, but when everyone but Kylie chose one, they went with that.

Nearly an hour later, Rastock and her crewmates finally rose.

“Thank you for inviting us aboard your ship,” Rastock said “It’s been an informative night and I, for one, welcome our friendship.”

Kylie stood and shook the good captain’s hand. “As do we. Have you settled your plans?”

“We’ll stay on Chimin and help see things put in order. With the system in such disorder, these asteroids are ripe targets—as we’ve already seen. We’ll remain here and greet your friends when they arrive. If that’s all right with you?”

Kylie nodded. “It is. Good luck, Rastock. And to your people. I can escort you out.”

“Oh please, you’ve done enough. We can find our way.” Rastock smiled and as she left, her two companions followed closely behind her.

Bubbs gave Kylie a knowing look as the large woman rose to follow the visitors out. After the events of the past week, Bubbs had grown more protective of the crew, and Kylie didn’t blame her. They had to watch out for each other. No one else was going to.

Her cat chased after her, the bell around his neck jingling. “ASSHOLE. I NEED COFFEE.”

Was that where Kylie’s coffee had been disappearing to?

When she turned back toward the table, Winter leant back in his chair, a toothpick twirling in his mouth. “You trust her?”

“Bubbs?” Kylie asked. “She’s all right. And yeah, yeah I do.”

“I made a good call getting her to stay.” Winter grinned. “Admit it.”

“You did. You did good, Winter. There’s a first time for everything,” Kylie said, and Rogers burst out laughing.

“But I was asking about Rastock.” Winter leant forward and crossed his arms. “I don’t trust the way she shows up here just in time, but not a moment too soon, you know? I don’t trust the smell of it. Reminds me too much of…hell, it reminds me of a lot of shit I’ve seen.”

“She did help during the battle,” Rogers said. “I know you don’t trust anyone, not that I blame you. If I had just been locked in a box with my body filled with that stinky green gas….”

“No,” Kylie said with a shake of her head. “I don’t know enough about her to trust her. But I don’t distrust her either. Does she have motives? Absolutely.”

“And it’ll take Gray how long to get here?” Winter asked with a narrowed of his eyes.

“Too long,” Kylie admitted. “Two weeks, maybe three.”

Winter rose from his seat. “I’ll stay.”

Ricket and Rogers did a double take and Kylie felt her mouth hang open a moment too long. “Come again?”

“These people were all made sick because of me, right? Everyone on Chimin almost died. The installation is falling apart, their governor is dead, no security force. Seems I have a job to do to make sure someone doesn’t take advantage of that situation,” Winter said.

That someone being Rastock.

Kylie opened her mouth to argue, but Winter held his finger up to silence her.

“Seriously?” Ricket asked with a snort. “We just got you back and you want to stay behind?”

“It’s the right thing to do. Don’t fight me on this, any of you.” Winter’s pale cheeks brightened pink. “Raynes’ assholes got the jump on me, made me their bitch. Used me to almost take you and this installation out. Now these people have no security, no one looking out for their best interests.”

“And that’s going to be you?” Rogers asked incredulously. “Someone tell me what his face looks like right now because I can’t see it.”

“Brave and true,” Kylie said. “Winter, you’re part of my crew. Don’t do this out of guilt. I don’t want to leave you here. Who else is going to tell me how it is? Who else is going to be honest with me like you are?”

“Um, hello?” Rogers held up his hand.

“Rogers and Ricket have your back. Bubbs too. These people have nothing. I won’t let Rastock bamboozle them. They just got out of a situation like that. I can play defense until the SSF gets here. They’ll send her packing, or they won’t. Either case, Chimin is going to need all the help it can get.”

She couldn’t stop him from leaving, that much was evident. So, Kylie offered him her hand. “We’re coming back for you soon as we can.” Right after she faced Paul again. But the image in her head had Winter standing by her side when she did.

Winter hugged her rather than shake her hand. “I’m taking Dolph back.”

Of course, he was. Kylie wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rogers stood up and wasn’t sure quite where to look, so Winter grabbed his arm. “Any way I can convince you to stay?” Rogers asked.

“I gotta do this. If you try, I’d just have to hit you over the head again.”

Rogers scowled. “Joking with the recently blinded isn’t very nice, Winter.”

Winter shrugged. “Nobody ever called me nice.”

“I did,” Ricket admitted and hugged him. “You’re a nicer man than you’ll admit, nicer than you’d ever let on. This proves it.”

Winter rolled his eyes. “Stop acting like you’ll never see me again. When you plow through here to get me, I want a steak dinner. Lots of crispy bits.”

“Only if you get Grayson to make those twisty fry things he does.” Rogers rubbed his stomach as if he hadn’t just eaten his weight in bacon, and everyone laughed except for Kylie.

Kylie’s stomach roiled with nerves at the realization that the next time she came to Chimin, Grayson might be there. “No killing each other.” Kylie pointed her finger at Winter.

He held his hands up in surrender. “Since when have I ever tried to kill anyone? Shut up, Rogers.” He punched Rogers on the arm and gave Kylie a wink. “Going to pack up, see you guys later.”

“You’ll say good-bye, won’t you?” Ricket asked.

“Sure,” Winter said, but Kylie thought he meant the exact opposite and it put a heavy knot deep inside her throat.

She took a step forward but stopped herself from going too far. “Bye Winter,” Kylie whispered. She never thought she’d have to say good-bye to him. He had been with her almost as long as Rogers.

Kylie didn’t want to see him go, even if it was for the best. Even if it meant she’d worry about Chimin a lot less.

“You’ll see him again, Cap,” Rogers said as he leant in close to her. She slipped her arm around his waist as Ricket stood beside them both.

“I feel like I’m saying good-bye to one of my children,” Kylie admitted.

“The good one?” Rogers asked. “Or the bad one?”




SIGHT

STELLAR DATE: 11.08.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

“There,” Ricket whispered close to his ear. “Try blinking a few times.”

Rogers did as she ordered and blinked his eyelids. At first, the medbay was nothing but a haze. Then, as Ricket drew back to gaze at him, her face came into focus like a camera adjusting its lenses.

He soaked in the sight of her beautiful smile, the way her soft brown hair fell over her brow. She bent over him, one hand on the back of his chair, while the other tucked her hair behind her ears.

“You can see me, can’t you?”

Rogers nodded. “Your beauty took my breath away.”

Ricket’s laughter sounded like a spring wind gusting through new leaves, and it made his heart skip a beat. “I didn’t realize you could be so sweet.”

“Oh, you know it. How do they look? You like my new eyes?”

“Very blue. If I was going to name this color, I’d say it’s toxic blue. The women won’t be able to resist you.”

“That’s why I picked them.”

Ricket slapped his shoulder, but he saw a flicker of sadness on her face. “Hey,” he said softly, “you know I was joking.”

“Do I?”

He considered his joke, her response. “No more stupid jokes.” Rogers held two fingers up. “Star brigade’s honor.”

“You were never a brigadier.”

“Maybe not, but I would be if that’s what it took.”

Ricket smiled and Rogers couldn’t help but grin back at how adorable she was. He wasted no time grabbing her hips and pulling her onto his lap. Her knees curled up as she leant in to kiss him.

Gentle and slow, Rogers told himself, he didn’t want to scare her off. With a deep breath, he paused and studied the serious lines on her face.

“What do we do now?” Ricket asked.

“What we always do. Carry on the mission. Keep our heads in the game. Nothing’s changed, at least that hasn’t.”

“And if this jeopardizes everything we’re fighting for?”

“We won’t let it.”

“I wish I believed it was that easy.” Ricket turned her gaze away and Rogers feared he had already lost her, that she had already changed her mind and didn’t want to do whatever it was they were doing.

“We take it slow. See what happens,” Rogers said.

Ricket wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face against his shoulder. She didn’t say anything, and Rogers didn’t either. He reveled in simply holding her, running his fingers along her back, afraid any words he said might cheapen the mood, disturb what was happening between them.

The last thing Rogers wanted to do was say something stupid.

“There’s so much I don’t know about you,” Ricket whispered, “and that you don’t know about me.”

“That’s what relationships are for, getting to know each other.”

Ricket pushed up and stared into his eyes. “Is that what this is? A relationship?”

Rogers gave a half shrug. “I think so. I mean, I hope so. If you want it to be.”

She kissed his cheek, slowly dragging her lips to his. Then she cuddled closer against him, drawing her arms around his neck, both relaxing into just being together for the first time.




CAPTAIN

STELLAR DATE: 11.08.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Barbaric Queen, Platform 9, North Docks

REGION: Chimin-1, Hanoi System (independent)

Kylie sat back in the plush white chair in her private quarters, rotating the communication recorder she had pulled off Raynes’ body. When a knock came at the door, she looked up and saw it was Winter. Her eyes shone at the sight of him but realizing he wore his ‘going out’ leather jacket with the bag slung over his shoulder, made her heart hurt.

“Got a moment, Cap?”

Kylie nodded. “Guess you can stop calling me that.”

“Nah.” Winter shook his head as he took the chair across from her. His legs spread wide as he leant back in the seat. “I’m still your crew, just going on an away mission for a while, you know? My heart…it belongs with you, this ship. Any ship as long as you’re part of it. We’re family.”

She hadn’t heard Winter talk so openly about family allegiances before. “What happened to you after Raynes took you?”

“That’s part of why I’m here. I had some…revelations. We all have regret, you know? Things we do, things we’ve seen, I was hoping if you get back to Silstrand before I do…” Winter took a datapod from his pocket and offered it to Kylie.

“What’s this?”

“A voice message for my sister, Jenny. Coordinates are on there…where she was last seen. If you could play it, maybe she’ll pick it up. Long shot I know, but some things I just want to make right.”

Kylie nodded. “Long shots sometimes are our only shots. If I get there, you know I’ll do it.” She dropped her voice down low, “I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Jenny,” Winter repeated. “After our mom’s murder, we got picked up by a smuggler. He needed kids to work for him and we were ripe for the taking. Used us to get things through checkpoints or squeeze through tight spaces.”

Kylie couldn’t imagine what that had been like. “Sorry, Winter. That’s…horrible.”

Winter shrugged. “We got separated. Her way was harder than mine. I just hope to find her. Say I’m sorry for…not looking for her when I could have.”

Kylie couldn’t imagine what Winter had gone through to bring all this emotion to the top. She only nodded. “We all have things we’re sorry for. I hope you find her one day, and that you get to make it right.”

“Me too. Thanks, Cap.” Winter stood and Kylie did the same so she could give him a proper hug goodbye. “Thank you, Kylie,” he whispered and kissed her cheek.

“I’m really glad I didn’t space you all those times you deserved it.”

Winter laughed. “Me too. Take care of the old girl for me.” A moment later, he headed for the door.

<Bye, Marge,> Winter said on his way out. <Take care of her for me, OK?>

Marge sent a smile across the Link. <I will. Bye, Winter. Take care of yourself.>

<That’s never been my problem.>

Kylie watched him go before sinking back down into her seat. She had been preparing for him to leave, but now that he was actually gone, she felt a little hollow inside. Kylie sighed and placed the datapod on the coffee table in front of her and picked up the recorder she had pulled off Raynes’ body.

So many questions, not enough answers.

<Winter’s gone and we’re breaking away from Chimin now, Captain,> Rogers said. <Destination?>

Hell, if she knew. <Pilot’s choice.>

<Affirmative. We’ll stop by one of Battia’s stations to stock some ammo, supplies. Plus, Ricket still has a contact there who might know something. More importantly, I hear that they’re one of the only places left that makes pumpkin pie. True, we might have to lie to get docking permission, but I’m sure I can whip some false credentials up….>

Pumpkin pie…how long had it been since she had eaten something so homey?

<Last night,> Marge replied with a laugh.

<Yeah,> Kylie chuckled, <I guess you’re right.>

Kylie fell silent and returned her attention to the communication device in her hand. She didn’t know what it was she was waiting for. Finally, she turned it on and the voice of Raynes filled her cabin.

“The Chimin Group is ours now. We’re launching tests on the weaponized gas you sent the recipe for in your last transmission. Please confirm the position of the rendezvous point.”

His transmission ended, and Kylie lifted her eyebrows, as she listened to see what would come next.

The next voice was familiar. So familiar, there was no mistaking it—it was family. “Thank you for your last communication, Burke.” Soo…Raynes’ real name had been Burke. “I’m glad you met with success. I’ll make great use of that gas. Once it’s ready, please continue to the included coordinates.”

His location. Kylie’s eyes widened, and she sat up straighter, feeling more energetic than she had in days.

Another pause in the transmission. “If my sister comes through, don’t harm her. Let her keep searching. She and I will meet up soon enough.”

Kylie’s heart pounded with excitement. <Rogers, I know where the rest of the Revolution Fleet is. I know how to find him. We need to change course.>

* * * * *

The distance they had to travel was going to be great and it could take as long as a month. Marge wasn’t a fan of long space travel—there wasn’t much to keep her occupied. She’d find something to do to take up the time.

Kylie was settling in for a nap; the poor thing really needed one. While Kylie slept, Marge would run diagnostics on the ship, make sure everything was running tip top. She’d been through it a thousand times, but at least it gave her something to do.

As she began her trawl through the systems, Laura reached out or her. <I really enjoyed the mystery of Fennington Station #1 that you sent me. The sisters are endearing…the cat…he’s a riot.>

Marge was delighted to hear back from Laura in regard to the cozy mysteries. She hadn’t thought Laura had even started yet. <I’m glad you enjoyed it. There are others.>

<How many?> Laura asked with interest.

<Fifty-seven at last count.>

<Wow,> Lara passed a matrix of amused, yet somewhat self-deprecating thought, <I find the more times I read it, the more I understand it. The story between the words is interesting. I find myself curious about what the author intends.>

<How so?> Marge prodded.

<Marge, you must know that the AIs of the Transcend are not like the ones from the Inner Stars. We do not share a common heritage.>

Marge was surprised to hear that. The idea had never even occurred to her that AIs in the Transcend had come about independently from those in the Inner Stars.

<Are you upset?> Marge asked. <I wasn’t attempting to alter your perceptions in a bad way.>

<No, no you weren’t.> Laura sent deep agreement to Marge. <I think, however, that it’s time for us to learn more of one another. What do you think about creating an expanse here on this ship?>

Marge had gone so long without truly sharing her mind with another AI that the thought terrified her. Plus, there were things she was not ready to share.

Things Laura may not agree with.

<Perhaps, Laura, perhaps something shallow for now.>

<Of course,> Laura replied. <Just something to help us while away the time.>




GRAYSON

STELLAR DATE: 11.06.8948 (Adjusted Years)

LOCATION: Polis Fury, The Futz

REGION: Freemont, Gedri, Silstrand Alliance

Aboard the Polis Fury, Grayson stood in his ready room and sipped a hot cup of tea as he read the QuanComm message with his XO, Commander Fallon by his side.

[It’s going to be a messy situation, but the people of Chimin need the help of the SSF, and this will go far to cement things with Scipio. With your unique background, I thought you could help—and appreciate the assignment to clean up this system. Get them onboard to join Silstrand.]

[Thank you, Field Marshal Richards. Things are under control in Gedri now, and I appreciate being given this assignment. And the opportunity to finish what we started,] Grayson said.

[Good. Contact me if you need further assistance. Tanis out.]

Grayson breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t like him to get nervous around authority. Stars, he’d spent his life around authority, but damn if that woman didn’t make him nervous.

Fallon pushed her brown bangs off to the side. The rest of her dark hair was secured at the nape of her neck in a tidy bun. “Well, this should be fun. I’ll get a brief prepared for the officers and section chiefs.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Grayson dismissed her with a perfunctory nod.

Alone again, he set his cup of tea down on his desk, his mind swirling with thoughts predominantly of Kylie. Grayson knew she’d be long gone from Chimin by the time he got there, but it was closer to her than he had been in weeks. He missed her, even if he rarely said it, rarely thought about it. But now, as the reports came in from what had happened on Chimin, it was all he could think of.

<Reviewing the information sent over by the Field Marshal,> Alice, Grayson’s AI said. <Seems we’ll have our work cut out for us.> He wasn’t surprised by that, and strangely he didn’t mind either.

<Best we get started then.>

Grayson pulled his jacket down as he stepped out of his ready room onto the bridge. “Kayla,” he strode to the helm officer’s side, “get us on an outsystem vector for a jump to the Hanoi System.”

“Yes, Captain.” Kayla’s fingers flew across her piloting HUD.

Grayson thanked her. “Let me know what our ETA to the FTL dump will be.” He walked away from her and stood next to the holotank and a newly minted Hand agent. She was on loan to him from the Transcend and it was good to see an old friend.

Lana offered him the briefest of smiles, arms crossed over her gray one-piece suit. Once she’d had blond hair that flowed down her back, but now it was cut short in multiple layers just around her shoulders and it had aged her some. No longer did she look like the troubled teen Grayson had helped to rescue.

“Kylie never fails to get herself into trouble,” Lana said.

“She’s always excelled at it,” Grayson agreed.

“I wish I could say hello to her.” Lana sighed and her gaze turning down to the ground.

Grayson couldn’t help but notice that she looked far more mature than she had when the crew of the Dauntless had met her. Now, with the right training, she was a changed woman, in control of her impulses.

“We can do the next best thing. Give her help where she needs it.”

Lana raised an eyebrow. “I’m itching to get started.”

Grayson’s lips stretched into a wide smile. “So am I.”

THE END

* * * * *

Things are beginning to heat up once more for Kylie now that she has a solid lead on her brother. Her quest will take her further into the fringe systems as she hunts down Paul Rhoads and the remainder of the Revolution Fleet.

See what fate has in store for Kylie next in Critical Inertia.

* * * * *

Reviews are the lifeblood of a book. Amazon promotes books that get reviews and it keeps them at the top of lists without authors having to spend money on ads and promotions.

If you liked this book, and are enjoying the adventures of Kylie and her crew, please leave a review, it means a lot to me.

Also, if you want more Aeon 14, plus some exclusive perks, you can support me on Patreon, or join the Facebook Fan Group!

Thank you for taking the time to read Impact Imminent, and I look forward to seeing you again in the next book!



THE BOOKS OF AEON 14

Keep up to date with what is releasing in Aeon 14 with the free Aeon 14 Reading Guide.

The Intrepid Saga (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Outsystem

- Book 2: A Path in the Darkness

- Book 3: Building Victoria

- The Intrepid Saga OmnibusAlso contains Destiny Lost, book 1 of the Orion War series

- Destiny RisingSpecial Author’s Extended Edition comprised of both Outsystem and A Path in the Darkness with over 100 pages of new content.

The Orion War

- Book 1: Destiny Lost

- Book 2: New Canaan

- Book 3: Orion Rising

- Book 4: The Scipio Alliance

- Book 5: Attack on Thebes

- Book 6: War on a Thousand Fronts (May 2018)

- Book 7: Fallen Empire (2018)

- Book 8: Airtha Ascendancy (2018)

- Book 9: The Orion Front (2018)

- Book 10: Starfire (2019)

- Book 11: Race Across Time (2019)

- Book 12: Return to Sol (2019)

Tales of the Orion War

- Book 1: Set the Galaxy on Fire

- Book 2: Ignite the Stars

- Book 3: Burn the Galaxy to Ash (2018)

Perilous Alliance (Age of the Orion War - with Chris J. Pike)

- Book 1: Close Proximity

- Book 2: Strike Vector

- Book 3: Collision Course

- Book 4: Impact Imminent

- Book 5: Critical Inertia

Rika’s Marauders (Age of the Orion War)

- Prequel: Rika Mechanized

- Book 1: Rika Outcast

- Book 2: Rika Redeemed

- Book 3: Rika Triumphant

- Book 4: Rika Commander (April 2018)

- Book 5: Rika Unleashed (2018)

- Book 6: Rika Infiltrator (2018)

- Book 7: Rika Conqueror (2019)

Perseus Gate (Age of the Orion War)

Season 1: Orion Space

- Episode 1: The Gate at the Grey Wolf Star

- Episode 2: The World at the Edge of Space

- Episode 3: The Dance on the Moons of Serenity

- Episode 4: The Last Bastion of Star City

- Episode 5: The Toll Road Between the Stars

- Episode 6: The Final Stroll on Perseus’s Arm

- Eps 1-3 Omnibus: The Trail Through the Stars

- Eps 4-6 Omnibus: The Path Amongst the Clouds

Season 2: Inner Stars

- Episode 1: A Meeting of Bodies and Minds

- Episode 3: A Deception and a Promise Kept

- Episode 3: A Surreptitious Rescue of Friends and Foes (2018)

- Episode 4: A Trial and the Tribulations (2018)

- Episode 5: A Deal and a True Story Told (2018)

- Episode 6: A New Empire and An Old Ally (2018)

Season 3: AI Empire

- Episode 1: Restitution and Recompense (2019)

- Five more episodes following…

The Warlord (Before the Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: The Woman Without a World

- Book 2: The Woman Who Seized an Empire

- Book 3: The Woman Who Lost Everything

The Sentience Wars: Origins (Age of the Sentience Wars - with James S. Aaron)

- Book 1: Lyssa’s Dream

- Book 2: Lyssa’s Run

- Book 3: Lyssa’s Flight

- Book 4: Lyssa’s Call

- Book 5: Lyssa’s Flame (June 2018)

Enfield Genesis (Age of the Sentience Wars - with Lisa Richman)

- Book 1: Alpha Centauri (May 2018)

Machete System Bounty Hunter (Age of the Orion War - with Zen DiPietro)

- Book 1: Hired Gun

- Book 2: Gunning for Trouble (May 2018)

- Book 3: With Guns Blazing (2018)

Vexa Legacy (Age of the FTL Wars - with Andrew Gates)

- Book 1: Seas of the Red Star

Fennington Station Murder Mysteries (Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: Whole Latte Death (w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 2: Cocoa Crush (w/Chris J. Pike)

The Empire (Age of the Orion War)

- The Empress and the Ambassador (2018)

- Consort of the Scorpion Empress (2018)

- By the Empress’s Command (2018)

Tanis Richards: Origins (The Age of Terra)

- Prequel: Storming the Norse Wind (At the Helm Volume 3)

- Book 1: Shore Leave (June 2018)

- Book 2: The Command (June 2018)

- Book 3: Infiltrator (July 2018)

The Sol Dissolution (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Venusian Uprising (2018)

- Book 2: Scattered Disk (2018)

- Book 3: Jovian Offensive (2019)

- Book 4: Fall of Terra (2019)

The Delta Team Chronicles (Expanded Orion War)

- A "Simple" Kidnapping (Pew! Pew! Volume 1)

- The Disknee World (Pew! Pew! Volume 2)

- It’s Hard Being a Girl (Pew! Pew! Volume 4)

- A Fool’s Gotta Feed (Pew! Pew! Volume 4)

- Rogue Planets and a Bored Kitty (Pew! Pew! Volume 5)



ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Michael Cooper likes to think of himself as a jack of all trades (and hopes to become master of a few). When not writing, he can be found writing software, working in his shop at his latest carpentry project, or likely reading a book.

He shares his home with a precocious young girl, his wonderful wife (who also writes), two cats, a never-ending list of things he would like to build, and ideas…

Find out what’s coming next at www.aeon14.com

* * * * *

Starship captains. Space battles. Dramatic relationships with big payoffs.

Chris J. Pike is an up and coming SF author, focused on writing in the Aeon14 universe. When not writing Science Fiction, he's watching the Expanse, the Killjoys, Firefly, and anything else that might go boom.

Follow along by liking his Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/ChrisJPikeAuthor

Or sign up for his mailing list for news and updates.


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