Book: The Daedalus Job



The Daedalus Job

The Daedalus Job




THE DAEDALUS JOB

©2020 M.D. COOPER

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Thanks to Beta & Just in Time Readers


Scott Reid

Gareth Banks

Gene Bryan

Chad Burroughs



Contents


ALSO IN THE SERIES

Foreword

I. Chal

1. STAR BRIGHT

2. HOT TOP

3. BURN FREE

4. BLOWOUT

5. RECOVERY

II. Paragon

6. THE BRIEFING

7. COURSE CORRECTION

III. Delphi

8. THE DARK LAYER

9. ONE LAST HUNT

10. AN OLD FRIEND

11. INSPECTION

12. THE DEAL

13. KORINTH

14. PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS

15. SCHEMES AND PLANS

16. COMMAND

17. THE UN-HEIST

IV. Changing Tides

18. YOUR MOVE

19. NEW ORDERS

20. NEW CREW

21. LAST FLIGHT OUT

22. AMISS

23. ONWARD

24. WHEELS WITHIN

25. DEEPER SUSPICION

26. JUMP NIGHT

V. Convoy

27. INTO THE MAELSTROM

28. MARS LANDING

29. THE RUSE

30. UNHELD

31. ADRIFT

32. LIES

33. JUGGLING

34. PUNCHLINE

35. DISTRACTIONS

36. ENEMY IN THE DARK

37. ONE WAY

38. THE DIVE

VI. Answon

39. IRON LANCE

40. BARYCENTER

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Other Books By M. D. Cooper

About the Author


Foreword

Hi, I’m Malorie. If you’ve read any of my books in the past, then you likely know that I write hard-hitting adventure stories that are firmly grounded in science, or extrapolations based upon the direction our current discoveries are taking us.

I feel that good science in a story almost adds a new character; sometimes a protagonist, sometimes an antagonist, but either way, an element that must be worked with or around by the other characters in the book. It forces both the characters and myself to come up with clever solutions that serve to make things more interesting.

However, no one reads a book exclusively for the setting. What we want to know is how the people in the story deal with the situations they’re in, and how they rise above them. Because, at the end of the day, humans are social creatures, and we relate to humans. We may seek out advances, wonder, beauty, but we always turn to share our discoveries with others.

Together we’re greater than the sum of our parts, and deep inside, I think we all know this.

But enough of that frou-frou stuff, let’s talk about Jax.

Would you believe that with over 90 books under my belt, I’ve never written a novel-length story with a male protagonist? I’ve coauthored two series of them, but in those cases, Lisa and James wrote the male characters, and I wrote the female. The closest I’ve come is a sergeant named Williams who appears in Outsystem and Venusian Uprising. He’s a definite favorite of mine, surly and generally pissed off, but an honorable man underneath.

But that’s not Jax. Not at all. Jax is a man living on the edge, with little to lose other than his ship, and less care for the rules of others. He’s not afraid to get drunk, shoot a place up, and fly off into the sunset.

Or is he? You’ll just have to find out.

Many of you might have noticed that this book does not bear the Aeon 14 banner atop the cover. I did this for a variety of reasons, partially because I’d like new readers to give it a shot without feeling like they have to dive into a ninety-book universe, and partially due to the publishing process and a need to keep my IP clean.

This story would fit perfectly into the seventh millennium of Aeon 14’s timeline, but it is also perfectly serviceable as a standalone.

However, if you’ve read my other books, you’ll see commonalities in technology, such as the Link, the Dark Layer, and the use of gravitons for artificial gravity, shields, and a host of other technologies.

Be sure to check out the “Welcome to the L” section below to learn a bit more about where Jax’s story takes place and what living in the Aquilian Nebula means for the characters of this story.

OK, back to the ink mines for me, happy reading!

Malorie Cooper

Danvers, 2020


Welcome To The “L”

For over a thousand years, the systems of the Aquilian Nebula—called the “L” by its inhabitants—have been cut off from the rest of the Milky Way Galaxy. The dense sphere of the L keeps them cut off from jump routes, and traversing the cloud requires a perilous nine-year journey through plasma storms triggered by the star-forming activity within the nebula.

The reasons colonists braved the cloud to settle the systems within its interior have been lost in the mists of time, but their small civilization has managed to prosper and flourish within the nebula.

The Delphi System was the first to be settled, followed by Paragon two hundred and seventeen years later. Though explorers and prospectors visited the Chal System early on, it didn’t see serious colonization efforts until five hundred and ninety years after colonists breached the nebula.

What was initially a cooperative effort between Paragon and Delphi met with both technical and political problems, stalling out the terraforming efforts and leaving settlers to fend for themselves.

The two planets selected for terraforming, Barras and Jordan, reached habitable levels, but never became the lush paradises promised to the families moving there. Ultimately, the governments of the other systems pulled back, their feud over how to proceed with the Chal System spilling over into general hostilities.

Other than a few isolated skirmishes, there have been no open conflicts between the systems, just a slow military build-up and a deepening cold war.

The Nebula and Its Stars

The Aquilian Nebula is a molecular cloud of plasma formed by the expanding remnant of a long-past hypernova. The cloud is thirty-six light years across, and the tidal force encompasses seventeen stars.

Most notable are three red super-giants located within the cloud. These grant the nebula a deep red hue. The center of the cloud is a relatively clear space, consisting of six stars: two G, one K, and three M.

The G-class stars, Paragon and Delphi, are near-Sol analogues, both formed from heavier metals at the core of the progenitor star. As such, they each have over a dozen major planets and rich outer asteroid belts. Chal, the K-class star, has a less well-appointed system, with only seven planets. All three stars move in rotating elliptical orbits around a common barycenter. The three M-class red dwarfs trail around the outer edge of the clear space within the cloud, drawing in a disk of dust and gas that pinches the inner space like an hourglass.

Delphi, Paragon, and Chal have orbits that take them through the hourglass’s lobes, making a travel choke point at the barycenter. Presently, Chal is in the ‘north’ side of the hourglass, while Paragon and Delphi are in the ‘south.’


The Daedalus Job


I

Chal


STAR BRIGHT



Somewhere in the Chal System…

My vision spun as I stumbled from the bar.

Around me, the light from the Aquilian Nebula splashed a reddish hue across the buildings. I couldn’t recall where I was, and a primal fear set in—a deep, visceral terror screaming at me that the red light was an omen of death and destruction to come.

A convulsive shiver rattled my bones, but a second later, I remembered and coughed out a laugh. “Damn nebula.”

People born in the L probably never had moments where the nebula’s gleam threw their minds into chaos—but since I didn’t grow up in a place where nights were bathed in a ruddy glow, it sometimes scared the shit out of me.

Steadier now, I grasped one of the poles supporting the bar’s low veranda, drew in a few deep breaths—nearly forgetting to breathe out one time—and then took a second look around.

“OK…looks like I’m on Barras,” I muttered. “Shitty with a side of asscrack…but which asscrack?”

My drunken confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that half the towns on Barras looked the same. Dusty roads lined with prefab plas buildings shipped in from Delphi centuries ago, when the first colonists touched down.

I kicked over the Link in my mind, and reached out over the RF bands, looking for a local network; finally finding one, I latched on for dear life.

<Kallie, where the fuck are we?>

For a moment, nothing came back.

Has my crew abandoned me?

It wasn’t a new fear, but so far, I’d drawn deuces, and it’d never come to pass.

Another minute of silence crept by, and a shiver of fear ran down my spine. Deciding I needed to take matters into my own hands, I straightened, unsteady on shaky legs, and gave surveying my surroundings another shot.

<Sorry, Capt’n,> Kallie’s welcome voice slid amidst my neurons a moment later. <Was just hip-deep in stripping the bow cannons, didn’t want to mess anything up. Are you asking where we are, or where you are?>

Her words took their time filtering into any semblance of order, and for a moment, I thought she was asking me where she was. <Um…what?>

<Shit. You must be drunker than Oln when he gets into that possum piss of his.>

<Stars, Kallie, why are you gibbering nonsense? Where in the L am I?!>

A number of terrible things I could’ve called her sprang to mind, but my fate was currently in her hands, so I bit my mental tongue and waited for her response.

<Well, you said, and I quote, ‘Gonna head into Willston and see if I can get my little man a drink.’>

A laugh bubbled up and was nearly joined by the contents of my most recent meal. <Really? I said I was gonna get my little man a drink? That’s friggin’ hilarious!>

<Yeah, Capt’n, you’re a barrel of monkeys.>

<So I’m in Willston?>

<Sure hope so.>

I stumbled across the road and looked up at the sign hanging over the bar. It read ‘Willston Saloon’. <Huh…pretty sure you’re right. So which way’s the ship?>

<East.>

<Which way’s East?>

A groan came across the Link, one long and guttural enough that I felt a heave coming on.

<Guh, please stop that.>

<Can’t you read the direction off your HUD?>

I shook my head slowly, then remembered she couldn’t see it. <No.>

<Why not?>

<Turned my HUD off.>

<Becaauuuuuse?>

<Makes me nauseous when I’m drunk.>

She didn’t speak for nearly a minute and I was starting to think that Kallie was rather annoyed with me.

She finally replied. <I’ll send Oln.>

<Oln?> I hated riding with Oln. I swear he hit every bump on purpose.

<Yeah, unless you want me to leave this cannon half-disassembled.>

<What about Tammy or Finn?>

<They’re sleeping.>

<So wake them up,> I ordered, feeling extra captain-y.

<Well, they’re not asleep asleep.>

I frowned, but managed to stop myself from shaking my head again. <I don’t get it.>

<They’re banging, Capt’n. Assaulting the pink fortress, Shuffling Snark cards, you know?>

<Oh…so you don’t want to ask them, then?>

<No!> Kallie bellowed. <I’ve already sent Oln anyway—half an hour ago, to be honest. My sixth sense was tingling.>

<I see how it is.> I sighed and sat on a bench near a watering trough. <Will you keep me company while I wait?>

<Captain….>

<OK, OK, go back to stroking your cannon.>

Kallie cut the connection and I chuckled softly. “Stars, why am I such an ass?”

There wasn’t a soul on the street, so my question went unanswered. Good thing too; as though I didn’t already know the answer. I leant my head back on the railing behind me and stared up at the Aquilian Nebula.

The red-hued space cloud enveloping the L was both the thing that kept me safe, and the thing that constantly reminded me that I needed said safety. The safety that came from being out of reach of the rest of humanity.

“Stuck in this shithole.”

I knew the words were disingenuous as soon as I uttered them. I was the one who had put myself in a position where I needed to run—braving the nebula, where no FTL was possible—in search of a refuge.

It wasn’t as great a feat as I often told myself it was. The Aquillia L Nebula wasn’t that big. If not for the pair of M2 red supergiants that burned on either end, it wouldn’t be so damn bright, either. Even so, anyone outside the nebula with even a half-decent scope could see the two G-class and one K-class stars that lay in a small pocket near the center.

Delphi, Paragon, and Chal. The three systems of the L.

Because the pocket contained just three stars, I felt like it really should be called the Triad, and I’d attempted to convince others of this on several occasions. Unfortunately, I never met with much success.

Over the years, I’d come to think of the L as home.

A golden star rose over the top of the saloon, and by its hue, I could tell it was one of the three.

“OK,” I muttered, rubbing a few brain cells together to jump start them. “If it’s night on Barras, and it feels like…summer-ish. Then that’s gotta be Delphi, which means that’s east.”

“No, dummy, that’s west,” a voice said from behind me. “Barras rotates backwards.”

A smile formed on my lips. “Oh, yeahhhhhh you’re right!”

“How did you come to be captain, again?”

I turned slowly, careful not to set the world spinning, and fixed my eyes on the brooding visage hanging above my head. “Oln. How did you get here so fast?”

“Fast? It’s been half an hour.”

“Huh…I guess I must’ve dozed off.”

Oln held out his hand, dark and calloused from working cargo and whatever other difficult tasks I gave him. Not that I picked on the man, he liked manual labor. He also liked building his muscles; the two went hand in hand, so far as I was concerned.

I was also more than happy to have someone with some extra muscle at my side when a fight broke out. Not that Oln was the most dangerous member of the crew, but he looked dangerous, and very often, that’s what counted most.

“Sled’s over there,” he gestured toward the blue and pink open-top vehicle a few paces away.

“Shit…how’d that get there?”

“Magic,” Oln said, laughing as he held my arm.

“ ‘Sno such thing.” I slurred the words, knowing I sounded like an idiot as he helped me into the passenger side. “Stop being a dumbass.”

Stars…I’m the one being a dumbass.

To his credit, Oln didn’t reply, though he did shake his head while walking around to the other side of the sled.

“Remember, Jax,” he said while settling into his seat. “If you gotta spew, do it over the side.”

“Where? In the back?” I twisted, looking at the sled’s bed. I’d intended it as a joke, but I forgot the poor attempt at humor when I saw three crates strapped down. “What are those?”

“I stopped by Skip’s warehouse and picked up that cargo. I figured since I was he—”

“You what?” I breathed out the words in an anxious whisper. “Was he there?”

Oln shook his head as he turned on the sled and pushed the throttle, turning it on the street to go back the way he’d come—or so I assumed. “No, the doors were open, and those three crates were pulled out, sitting on a hoverpad right by the entrance. I wandered around calling out, but no one was there, so I took ‘em.”

The adrenaline now flowing through my veins was washing away the alcohol, something that was annoying me almost as much as Oln’s idiocy.

“So let me get this straight, you just grab some random crates from one of the most infamous gangsters this side of Barras without knowing if they’re ours?”

A look of worry crossed Oln’s face. “Well…I mean, we’re expecting three…and there three are. How many shady people could Skip be doing business with?”

“How many?” I sputtered the words. “How—” The power of speech left me for a moment, and when I got it back, the words “All of them!” spilled out.

“So, like…this might be someone else’s shit?”

I shot the scraggly-haired man a dark look. “It just might be.”

“Should we take it back?”

I weighed the options and decided that if I had to kiss Skip’s ass, it would be with my crew backing me up. That summoned a rather awkward image, and I shook my head to clear it out—and nearly puked.

“No, let’s get back to the ship,” I replied after swallowing the bile. With Oln on task, next up was Kallie. <You’d better get that cannon back together. We might end up needing it.>


HOT TOP



Ten klicks from Willston…

The ride back to the Kerrigan was long enough for me to sober up and construct a plan of action. It was not, however, long enough for the nausea to subside, so when Oln came over the last rise, my stomach finally gave up the fight.

Leaning over—the correct direction, thank the L—I let loose what seemed like more vomit than one person should be able to produce.

“Fuck, Jax…what did you eat in that place?” Oln asked, sounding a little ill himself.

“Everything, from the looks of it,” I said, my voice gaining strength.

There was a bottle of water in the sled’s dash compartment, and I grabbed it, taking a few long pulls before focusing on the view ahead of us.

We were coming down the gentle slope of a narrow valley, just a few hundred meters across at the bottom. The hillside around us was covered in scrubby sage and yellow grass. Further down, things greened a bit beside a small creek, and next to that meandering waterway lay my pride and joy.

The Kerrigan.

She wasn’t the prettiest ship that ever flew the black, but the hundred-and-thirty-meter vessel had a special place in my heart. I’d bought her just a few weeks after passing through the nebula and arriving at the Delphi System. She’d been in rough shape then, but after some hard work—much of it with the help of Kallie, who I’d hired early on—the Kerrigan was as space-worthy as any other ship plying the black.

Even if she doesn’t look it most of the time.

My gaze settled on the ship’s dorsal cannon, and I saw that one of the barrels was missing, and two pieces of hull plate were laying near the closest airlock.

So much for spaceworthy.

The acerbic thought wormed its way through my mind, seeking an outlet, and I reached out to Kallie, ready to vent my spleen.

<What the hell, Kallie? I told you to get that gun back together. Did you redefine some of those words while I was away?>

Her rejoinder came back just as hard. <Well, if you’d changed the properties of spacetime to give me another hour to fix it, we’d be all set. But just because you want a thing done doesn’t make it happen.>

<And what if Skip decides he wants to blow up our ship?> I countered.

I could feel the eyeroll coming back at me over the Link. <Well, then he’ll discover that looks can be deceiving. Don’t worry. The cannon will fire when you need it.>

<If I need it. Don’t go jinxing us now.>

<I don’t believe in jinxing.>

“Sure do it often enough,” I muttered as Oln slowed the sled.

“What?”

“Nothing, Oln.” I jumped off the sled as we reached the open cargo doors on the bow of the ship.

My dismount wasn’t as graceful as I’d hoped, and I grabbed a landing strut to steady myself. Glancing around to be sure no one saw—Oln had continued into the bay—I dusted off my clothes and looked for any signs of vomit.

Looks like I’m—

“Got something on your back,” a voice said from behind me. “Looks…oh tri-stars, what the….”

I turned to see Finn, a relatively new addition to the crew and the sort that was handy when it came to getting information and skirting customs tariffs. He was staring at my shoulder, a look of revulsion on his face.

“What is it?”

Finn turned away. “I don’t want to know.”

Worried it was some sort of horrid local bug—Barras had a few nasty ones—I shrugged off my jacket and carefully looked at the shoulder in question.

“Stars…how’d that get there?” The object in question was a lumpy mass covered in white fur.

“But what is it?” Finn asked, peering through interlaced fingers.

Giving him an extended eyeroll, I flicked the thing off. “It’s a guzca worm, they put it in the local swill. You’re not really supposed to drink it—I wonder if that’s what messed me up so much.”

“OK…I gotta ask.” Finn took a step closer as I pulled my jacket back on. “How the heck did it end up on your shoulder if you drank it?”

“Musta blown back when I puked.”

“That’s not all that blew back,” Oln looked green as he walked out of the cargo bay. “You kinda smeared the side of one of the crates. There are like…at least four of those little caterpillar things they have here. One was moving. Aren’t those things poisonous?”

A wave of nausea came over me, and I bent over to complete the ceremonial emptying of my stomach.

“Yeah,” I groaned. “Where’s Tammy? I might need her to check me over.”

<Hey, boss,> Kallie’s voice entered my mind, carrying a note of caution with it. <Got three ground vehicles moving in from the south. They’re raising a lot of dust, so I can’t tell who it is, but my money’s on Skip.>

<Not taking that bet,> I replied, reaching down and checking that my sidearm was in place. “Oln, get those crates wiped off, but don’t open them or anything. We’ll just play this off as a misunderstanding.”

“Does that ever work?” Finn asked, a grin settling on his freckled cheeks.

“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged. “Sometimes.”

Finn checked his sidearm as well. “OK. If you say so.”

I gave the man a sidelong look. “Isn’t your smooth tongue what I hired you for?”

“My smooth tongue mostly stays in my mouth while I infiltrate someone’s network and steal all their secrets.”

“Did you hack Skip’s?”

Finn shook his head, cheeks reddening. “Well, no. I thought he was a friend.”

“Fuck.” I turned back to the approaching dust cloud. “The L really needs a better quality criminal.”

The man’s long, fair hair looked bright red in the morning light. “You know, the way you talk, folks might start to think you don’t believe you’re from the nebula.”

Shit, I need to watch my mouth. I decided to double down on my slip to throw him off the scent. “What if I’m not?”

“No one’s come through the nebula in centuries,” Finn scoffed. “Especially with Big Red Number Two throwing out so much plasma lately. A ship plowing through that would glow like a frickin’ nova.”

“Ya got me,” I said with a laugh. “Looks like I’ll just have to make do with the criminals we have here.”

“Crates are clean,” Oln said as he walked out of the ship’s bay, a heavy coilgun resting on his shoulder. “We gonna give Skip what-for?”

Finn’s eyes widened, and I shook my head. “Shit, Oln. Put that thing away. We want this to go peacefully.”

“Oh,” the big man grunted. “So…you don’t think there will be shooting? That seems kinda dumb. There’s always shooting.”

“Why’s everyone so pessimistic?” I asked, glancing around. “It’s entirely possible that we can deal with an issue like this in a calm manner.”

Oln only grunted and turned to walk back into the cargo hold.

“You know he’s going to just stick it around the corner,” Finn said.

“I do.” I let out a long sigh. “Good thing, too. We’re probably going to need it before long.” I switched to the Link. <Tammy, where are you?>

<Strapped in and ready to hit the boosters the moment you say go,> the pilot replied without hesitation. <If this goes the way of Oln’s normal fuck-ups, then we’re in for a rough ride.>

She’d replied on the general shipnet, and Oln gave an indignant snort from where he stood at the bay’s entrance. I gave him a warning look, and he folded his arms in defiance, but didn’t respond.

Thank stars. Last thing I need is those two bickering in my ear when I’m trying to deal with Skip.

The next three minutes passed in silence as we waited for the vehicles to arrive. The largest, a covered truck, stopped just behind the crest of the closest ridgeline. The vehicle was out of the ship’s line of sight, but I wasn’t a fool, so I still had eyes on it. A drunk, maybe, but a fool, no.

Whenever we touched down, we sent drones up to keep an eye on the area—unless we landed at a spaceport, which was why I liked to avoid those whenever possible.

My hand wanted to stray toward my pistol, to feel the comfort of its grip, but I knew that was no way to welcome someone like Skip. The guy wasn’t as paranoid as a hixjacker, but he ran a close second.

I suppose if I made a living skirting the law, I’d watch my back, too. Wait…that is how I make my living.

Even years into this life, I sometimes still forgot what a long string of dire circumstances had turned me into.

The two remaining vehicles, a larger van and a low-slung car that hovered half a meter above the ground, stopped sixty meters from the ship. I hid a smirk as the predictable group of thugs spilled out of the van. Hard cases who had likely seen some small action—who on Barras hadn’t?—but clearly had no military training.

They weren’t terrible at their jobs, though. A couple stood in the open while others moved behind the van for cover. Two walked toward the groundcar and stood on the far side.

<They’re sure loaded for bear,> Finn whispered over the Link. <Our pea shooters aren’t going to do much.>

<Then you need to practice in the range more. Only three of them have faceshields.>

Finn gave a soft snort. <If our survival is wholly dependent on my aim, then we’re fucked.>

I decided to ignore Finn and forced my lips into a smile as the door on the far side of the car opened, and Skip emerged.

Where his guards all wore mismatched armor that looked to have been handed down more than once, their boss was a different story entirely. Despite the backwater nature of Barras—even the capital often had cattle on the streets—Skip dressed in foppery that one would only expect to see in a posh club on Delphi. His long black hair was swept back in an elaborate wave, and a dozen necklaces hung over a voluminous white shirt that must have needed a serious amount of nano to keep so clean.

“Skip.” I raised a hand and waved, careful not to let my smile waver—though I really wanted go off on the man and ask him why he had to be such a drama queen all the time. “I wasn’t expecting a personal visit.”

The other man wore a smile that wasn’t unlike my own as he walked toward the rear of his car, which he stayed behind. “I wasn’t either. But then again, I wasn’t expecting you to rob me.”

“You know I wouldn’t rob you.” I did my best at a casual chuckle. Unfortunately, a wave of nausea hit me just as I laughed, and instead, I sounded like a warbling calf. Drawing a steadying breath, I continued, “Or at least, if I was going to rip you off, I’d be better at it. But really, that robbery shit’s too stressful; that’s why I just stick to transporting stuff someone else steals.”

“So you’re saying that your man there just accidentally grabbed the wrong crates?” Skip’s eyebrows rose in disbelief, and I suddenly wondered if there was something to the story I didn’t know.

“Umm…yeah. Is that so hard to believe?” I glanced back at Oln to see him fidgeting. Oh shit.

“Sure, if he hadn’t broken down the door to get in and get them,” Skip accused. “Maybe you are a thief, just a shitty one.”

“I…uh…might have leaned on the door a bit,” Oln muttered.

I glanced at Finn. <See? Told you he wasn’t entirely innocent.> A smile lit my face as I spoked to Skip. “Or not a thief at all. It was just a mistake. Oln’s not too bright, you know that—”

My words were interrupted by the man uttering a soft “Hey!” and I held up a finger in warning.

<Oln, you keep your mouth shut, or I’ll glue it shut next time we set down.>

<Sorry, Captain.>

I stuttered for a moment, trying to remember where I was, when Skip held up a hand.

“Your crew discipline issues aren’t my concern. You’re responsible for their mangy hides when you’re dirtside, so this is your problem. Where are the crates you stole?”

I didn’t take my eyes off Skip as I spoke. “Get the sled, Oln.”

While we waited, I walked down the ramp, Finn keeping pace. I didn’t want to give the impression that we might run back into the ship.

Some of the guards relaxed, while others tensed further. I picked out the pros by their total lack of tells, marking them on my HUD as the greatest threats, and passing that data to the others on the shipnet.

Skip was an unknown. I’d heard stories about his penchant for brutality, but with a person in his position, it was difficult to separate fact from fiction. For all I knew, they were lies spread to bolster his legend. Granted, on a place like Barras, he would have had to get his own hands dirty once or twice to survive this long, so he had to pose some level of threat.



“Did you bring the items I’m supposed to be transporting?” I asked, attempting to make this seem like a standard handoff.

“What makes you think I’ll trust you to run it for me now?” Skip sneered. “You’re not exactly in my good books.”

I felt my heart rate pick up at his words.

I was under contract on both ends of the haul. If I didn’t return to Delphi with the right crates, I was going to be up shit creek without a boat.

I need to find a better line of work.

Lifting my hands in a mollifying gesture, I said, “I get that, I totally do. But remember, I’m paying for the goods before I take them off your hands. I have Korinth’s chits on my ship.”

“Let’s take this one thing at a time,” Skip said, his tone not giving me any hint about what he might be thinking.

I nodded, and turned to watch Oln as he backed the sled out of the ship’s bay, eased it down the ramp, and parked it midway between the vessel and Skip’s car.

“I’m really sorry, Mr. Skip,” he said, ducking his head as he got off the sled and walked around to unstrap the three crates.

<Kallie,> I called up as Oln fumbled with the straps. <Have you spotted any other cargo in their vehicles? Is it in that truck behind the ridge? I don’t want to turn over what we have till we see the merch we’re shipping. I’d rather not sour things with Skip and piss off Korinth to boot.>

<Not positive, but the van is sitting lower than it should be. Either he’s got more goons in there, or it’s our goods.>

<Goods or goons, eh? What about that truck?>

A snort came over the Link from Kallie. <Oh it’s got serious EM. It’s a gun of some sort. Probably a big honkin’ rail that will tear you to shreds.>

<Encouraging.>

<Don’t worry, Cap. I have our main gun programmed to target the truck as soon as that bitch gets up over the hillcrest.>

Oln had finished pulling the straps free, and Skip nodded for one of his guards to examine the cargo.

While the lackey pulled out a scanner and ran it over the three-meter-long cases, I asked Kallie, <Did you get time to do a test cycle after you put our main gun back together?>

<What do I look like, a minor deity? Hell no. But it’ll fire. Don’t worry.>

I repressed a sigh. <Sure. Not worrying at all. Just be ready.>

<I was born ready.>

“Looks good, boss,” the man called over his shoulder, though he didn’t take his eyes off the crates as he spoke. “Something gross is smeared across the side, though.”

“OK.” Skip’s voice increased in volume as he walked around the car, and I saw his guards all shift into a heightened state of awareness. “Back up onto your ship, Jax. Our business is done.”

Shit. Here it goes. “Sorry, Skip. I’m not moving till I see our merch. Korinth isn’t the forgiving sort, and I need to make good on this haul.”

Not for the first time, I wondered what was in the crates that I’d been contracted to retrieve. Sending a starship between systems to pick up such a small load greatly reduced the possibilities. It also meant that Korinth had good reason to believe Skip had what he said he had.

At my words, Skip stopped his slow walk toward the sled, now in front of his car. “Um…no. That’s not how this is going to work. I’m not dealing with you anymore, Jax. You broke my trust, and that’s not something that you get back with a quick apology.”

I felt a wave of desperation hit me. A shootout with Skip was only going to end with a bunch of corpses…and mine might be amongst them. Even if we did win, future business on Barras would be complicated as a result.

Still, I couldn’t let a preening dandy like Skip walk all over me. That would damage my career almost as much as being dead.

“Look, Skip.” I lowered my voice, adding a deadly serious element—or so I hoped. “We’re making this deal. I’m giving you your shit back, and you’re going to hand over Korinth’s goods.”

“Nope, we’re taking this cargo off your sled, then we’re leaving. Good luck with…whatever.”

I sucked in a deep breath. “Yeah, that’s going to be a problem.”

Skip cocked his head, giving me an incredulous look. “Are you serious? Look at the hardware. We’re going to waste you, then take the chits Korinth sent and have a round at the Willston Saloon.”

“Over my dead body.”

The other man laughed. “That’s sort of the point.”

I fixed Skip with a cold stare that he returned without hesitation. During the exchange, we’d both advanced slowly and now stood a few meters apart on either side of the sled. Oln was still beside it, across from the guard who had examined the goods. I saw Skip’s eyes dart to the crates, a look of concern flashing across his face before he looked up at me.

<Shit! Kallie. These are the right crates. This is Korinth’s cargo.>

<What?>

<That heavy is going to come over the hill any second. Blow it the moment it’s in sight.>

<You got it!>

My hand had found its way to my pistol, and I saw that Finn had done the same. The eleven guards had drawn as well, each one tightening their grips on the weapons they held—though not yet aiming at us.

I still wanted to know for sure.

“Skip,” I drew the word out. “Is this, by any chance, actually the right cargo, and you just found a buyer who is willing to offer more money?”

The scumbag shrugged, a mocking smile taking shape on his lips. “OK, you got me. The PMF is willing to pay big bucks for this shit. More than enough to risk pissing off Korinth—though I plan to dump the blame all on you.”

“How’s that going to work if I’m dead,” I demanded, annoyed by Skip’s shoddy planning.

“Not sure.” His hand drifted down toward his weapon. “I’ll play it by ear.”

As he spoke, his eyes darted to the left, and I followed their gaze, seeing the heavy truck rise over the ridge. Once at the top, it stopped, and the bed cover began to retract.

<Any day now,> I called up to Kallie.

<Yeah, I know, hold on.>

<For how long?>

<Shut up, Captain!>

I was about to deliver a reprimand when the telltale whine of capacitance discharge met my ears. It was followed by the deafening SHOOM of a ship-mounted railgun firing in atmosphere.

By the time my mind had properly registered the chain of events, the truck—and part of the hillside—was gone.

I didn’t even look at the damage, trusting that Kallie would fire again if needed. My pistol was in hand, and I swung it toward Skip. Two rounds burst from the weapon’s barrel, but he’d already dropped, and the projectiles streaked through the space where he’d stood a second earlier.

I hit the dirt as well, crawling toward the sled, where Oln crouched.

“I shoulda brought my rifle,” the man muttered as he wildly fired his pistol over the crates. “Now I’m stuck out here with this pea shooter.”

Finn snorted as projectiles and low-v rail pellets struck the ground around us. “Well, at least we’ll die together.”

I didn’t hear any metallic impacts mixed in with the cacophony. “They’re not shooting at the sled. Means they’re gonna fl—”

The sound of Oln unloading half his mag cut me off. He’d emptied it into a guard who had eased into view on the left side of the sled.

“Flank us?” the man suggested with a wink.

“Yeah, that.” I glanced up at the ship. <Kallie, don’t we have point defense beams?>

<Sure we do.>

<Do you think you could fire them at the bad people out here?>

<Well, I’d like to, but I had to jury-rig some things in the fire control systems to get the main gun to shoot when it’s half-disassembled. It seems to have….>

<Seems to have what?> I asked as I flattened and fired at a pair of legs I could see from under the sled.

<Umm…introduced a little bug. I’m working on it.>

<I’ve got ya,> Tammy called out.

Her words were followed by the sound of Oln’s coilgun discharging from the mouth of the cargo bay. I watched from the overhead drones and saw three of Skip’s people fall before the rest moved to cover.

There was a brief lull in the battle, and I took the opportunity to call out to Skip, “We can still do our deal, and you can leave with the money. You don’t have to die here.”

“OK, I’ll admit that we didn’t expect your ship’s rail to be online. But it can’t hit us this close to the hull, so it’s still twelve against four!”

He didn’t sound as scared as I would have, but then I did the math and realized there must be reinforcements still in the van. So, more than twelve against four.

<He’s got more in the van,> Finn said a second later.

<Kallie, the moment you get beams up, cut that van to—>

A guttural roar came from the enemy, and I watched in horror through the drone feeds as Skip’s guards all charged at once.

Tammy fell back to cover, and though we emptied our mags, the goons flanked the sled, and a few seconds later, we were surrounded.

Skip ambled into view, laughing as he stopped in front of me.

“A valiant attempt, there, Jax. I really have to give you credit. It was a good fight. Now, you’re going to tell me where the chits are, and then I’ll make it quick.”

<Kallie?> I implored.

<Hold on…>

“No way I can get out of this alive?” I asked Skip, adding a bit of soft pleading to my voice in the hopes that it would trigger a modicum of compassion.

“Shit, Jax. I always thought you had more spine than this. Pleading? Face your death like a man.”

“A dead man has no pride,” I intoned, repeating something my father had often said. “There’s nothing I can offer you?”

A rather nasty chuckle leaked through Skip’s clenched teeth. “No. I could buy your ship ten times over with what this cargo’s worth. The PMF really wants it.”

“That’s gonna bring heat,” I replied, meeting the pompous dandy’s gaze. “If they want it, then it has to be something Delphi isn’t keen to say goodbye to.”

Skip placed a hand on his chest. “Oh, you bleeding heart. Are you really concerned about little ol’ me?”

“Not really.”

<Down!> Kallie’s words thundered across the Link.

I flattened as twin thunderclaps shook the ground, the sound of electron point defense beams cutting through the air. The bolts of blue-white lightning fired for a full second, casting the area in an azure glow.

I didn’t wait for the enemy’s shock to wear off, quickly slamming a fresh mag in my pistol and firing into the groins of two guards before unloading a dozen rounds into Skip’s abdomen.

By the time I twisted to look around, it was over. Finn was reloading his pistol, while Oln sat astride one of the guards, driving his fists into the man’s face. I glanced up to see Tammy walking down the ramp, Oln’s coilgun sweeping the area.

“Looks clear, boss,” she called out.

The drones didn’t show any signs of more guards, but there was no substitute for the Mark I Eyeball.

“Make sure.” I gestured for her and Finn to check the far side of the sled and the car. “Oln.” I nodded to the big man. “Get the sled back in the ship. We’re leaving.”

<I heard that,> Kallie called down. <It’s going to take at least a half an hour to get this gun put back together properly.>

<You’d better get cracking,> I replied. <Our railgun made a pretty big boom. Someone is going to want to see what got shot.>


BURN FREE



Aboard the Kerrigan…

Kallie, as per usual, had padded her estimates, so fifteen minutes later, we were getting ready for lift-off. I was annoyed at her inaccuracy, but held off bringing it up.

It’s really hard to plan when I can never tell if the numbers she’s giving me are way off!

All of Skip’s people were either dead or too injured to cause any trouble—Skip being a part of the first group. I’d been tempted to waste them all, but decided I didn’t need cold-blooded murder on my conscience.

Finn had set up a beacon with a delay that would alert the authorities to pay a visit once we were well on our way. No reason to hold things up with an annoying conversation with the cops before we took off. Granted, it was possible that said authorities might want to have a chat with me the next time the Kerrigan set down on Barras, but I was willing to make that gamble.

Not a lot of heavy freighters made runs between Chal—where Barras was located—and the other stars of the L. So long as I gave the locals time to settle down, no one would give me a hard time when I came back with goods they wanted to buy.

Relax. Skip was an ass. No one is going to miss him.

That small damn voice in the back of my head suggested otherwise, but I ignored it. There was no going back now. I’d blasted so much lead into Skip, we could have used his dick for a pencil—not that there was lead in the rounds, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to have a laugh at the idea.

Tammy looked back at me from the pilot’s seat, which sat in a clear sphere at the center of the bridge. “You gonna strap in so we can take off, boss?”

“Is something wrong with the dampeners?” I countered, cocking an eyebrow at the woman.

“Well, Kallie just put things back together in a rush, so who knows. Want to find out if she made a mistake when I throw ten gs at you?”

“Good point.” I sat and pulled the harness across my chest. “Let’s do this.”

<You know I monitor the feeds from the bridge,> Kallie said on the general shipnet.

“Know it?” I laughed. “I think we were counting on it. Everything secure?”

<Stowed and ready to roll. Let’s get out of here. I’d like to get Barras astern. Place has bad juju.>

<That’s what she said,> Oln chimed in.

<What?> Kallie sounded confused, and I held back a laugh.

<That baaaarely makes sense, Oln. Plus, I thought we had a rule. No more ‘bare-ass’ jokes. They’re beyond tired.>

<You had a rule.> I could hear Oln’s laughter echoing down the passage from the galley, where he spent most of his time when aboard the ship. <I never signed onto it.>

“Can we take off now?” Tammy asked, her voice laced with frustration.

“Have at it,” I ordered, waving my hand in her direction. “I too am looking forward to bare asses being behind me.”

<Captain!> Kallie groaned. <I thought we were simpatico.>

I glanced at the nearest optic and shrugged. <What can I say, killing Skip’s given me a high. Once we pass planetary geo, I want to look at those crates as well. I would have loved to know how Skip got his hands on something that the PMF would pay so much for that he’d double-cross Korinth.>

<And us,> Tammy added.

I couldn’t help a laugh. <Well, double-crossing us isn’t quite at the same level of doing it directly to Korinth.>

“As lovely as all this talk is, I’m taking off now,” Tammy announced. “I’ll just assume you were all paying attention and are ready.”

I realized that Finn hadn’t reported in, and checked the internal locators, surprised to find that he was on the bridge.

Turning, I looked at the consoles behind me and saw him at his customary station…asleep, his torso draped across the holodisplay.

“Finn!” I barked. “Wake up, get your shit together. No sleeping on the job.”

“I’m not sleeping, you’re sleeping,” he muttered without moving. “Not that anyone could so much as drift off, with all the yammering going on here.”

I felt an overwhelming urge to give the breacher a piece of my mind, but managed to reduce my mental tirade. “Aren’t you supposed to be monitoring comms?”

“Really?” He cracked an eyelid, his pupil rotating toward me. “This is Barras. I could monitor comms with one neuron. Most of what’s on the bands is fart jokes at the best of times. So long as Tammy doesn’t run us into anything, we’ll be fine.”

“Funny,” the pilot muttered. “I have the nav feeds up, and a vector charted and filed. Just let me know if NearSpace Traffic Control issues any alerts.”

“You got it,” Finn muttered, then closed his eye and began to mock snore.

“Wow, I sure am glad I picked the best of the best,” I muttered, then tapped the NSTC’s feeds myself, not trusting that Finn wasn’t going to actually drift off.

I watched as Tammy activated the launch systems, the grav drives sending waves of negative gravitons toward the planet’s mass below, easing the ship off the landing gear and into the air.

When the forward display read an altitude of fifty meters, the struts retracted, and the ship continued its rise into the air.

“Buh-bye, Skip,” I waved down at the deck. “Nice knowing you.”

“Classy,” Finn murmured from behind me. “Granted, he’ll make better fertilizer than he did a human.”

The ship bucked and shuddered at the hundred-meter mark, and I saw the atmospheric readings showing a stiff crosswind.

I reached out to Kallie. <Sooo…this is what everything being all set looks like?>

<Calibrating. If you hadn’t got us in this bind, we wouldn’t be rushing into space like this.>

<Me?!> I couldn’t help but add an extra note of indignance to my exclamation. <You were the one who was supposed to be watching Oln.>

<While you went off and got drunk,> she accused…like she was prone to do in situations like this.

I decided not to pursue the discussion as the ship continued to rise, reaching an altitude of five kilometers less than a minute later. The rate of acceleration evened out, and the next several minutes passed in silence, until the Kerrigan crossed the atmosphere-space boundary at ninety kilometers.

“Killing lateral thrust,” Tammy announced.

The readings on the forward holo showed the rate of acceleration tick down to zero, and the three kilometer-per-second delta-v with Barras began to taper off as well.

“Fusion drive is green.” Tammy spoke while adjusting her displays, moving the atmospheric information to the side, the passive scan from the ship’s systems dominating the center display, while feeds from the NSTC scrolled by on her left.

Kallie chimed in a moment later. <Confirmed, good for burn.>

“Hit it,” I intoned.

Tammy nodded from her seat. “Initiating plotted burn.”

Other than the comforting low-level vibration from the fusion drives, I didn’t feel a thing as the rate of acceleration crept up to forty gs.

“You did that slower than normal,” I commented.

“Well, on the off chance that Kallie’s ‘calibrations’ weren’t quite right, I figured I’d keep Finn from getting a broken back.”

<You know, it’s almost as though I didn’t put our main gun back together in record time and save everyone’s life,> Kallie groused. <I’m coming up there to glare at you all in person.>

“What else is new?” Finn whispered.

Tammy cocked her head to the side, as though waiting for Kallie to make a comment about being able to hear Finn, but none came.

“False alarm,” she chuckled. “OK, burn’s good, we’re in the pipe, boss.”

“NSTC looks to be happy with our vector as well.” I pulled off my harness and stretched my arms above my head. “Love how they just let you pick your lane here and only bitch if you screw up.”

“I mean, it’s efficient,” Tammy replied. “None of all that pompous ‘I’ve got your vector, Victor’ nonsense they require in Delphi and Paragon. I wish we spent more time in the Chal System. Feels so free here.”

“Sure,” Kallie said as she strode onto the bridge. “We just killed at least fifteen people, and no one’s said a thing. If that happened in Delphi, the anal probe would go on for months.”

“Kal!” Finn hissed. “What in the stars are you doing? Don’t say things like that. You know Chal’s getting more civilized these days, they just might decide to make an example of us.”

The tall blonde woman turned and fixed the man—who was still draped across his console—with a penetrating stare. “What? You worried the locals are going to start doing something other than issue stern warnings?”

“No, that’s not—well, fuck. There goes.”

“What?” I sat up straight and turned to see Finn erect, eyes alert as he scanned the holodisplay he’d been slumped over moments before. “There’s nothing from the NSTC.”

He shook his head. “No shit. Are any of you monitoring the feeds from Iydra Station?”

I shook my head. Iydra lay at the L1 position between Barras and its largest moon. We were headed in almost the opposite direction on an outsystem vector. “Why would we be?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because the Restaff was docked there.”

I wracked my mind, trying to remember why that name rang a bell. “Oh, wait,” I pulled up the ship’s registration. “Isn’t that one of the courier ships that sometimes does business with Skip?”

“Uh huh.” Finn’s voice carried a note of legitimate concern. “Also happens to be skippered by a certain recently deceased man’s brother.”

“Better than Skip skippering,” Tammy said with a laugh. “They’re two light seconds behind us, and we’re already at five kilometers per second. That ‘vette’s probably fast, but unless—”

“Tammy!” Finn shouted. “Have you learned nothing? Fate’s Eye is on us. Don’t give it more ammunition.”

“You know I don’t believe in that ‘Fate’s Eye’ shit,” she scoffed.

He shook his head. “I think you will.”

“Why?” the pilot asked.

“Because they just sparked up an AP drive.”

My eyes widened, and I tapped into the public feeds containing data on all nearby ships. Sure enough, the Restaff was flagged as being in violation of local emissions ordinances for running AP within twenty light seconds of Barras.

Alerts lit up across the public bands, announcing the no-fly zone in space behind the Restaff.

AP drives operated on antimatter, directing the pions that resulted from the annihilation process through a tuned nozzle where they degenerated into gamma rays. Essentially, it made the ship’s engine a coherent directed energy weapon—which was why the voices on the NSTC bands sounded rather unhappy.

“Wow, they are tearing the Restaff a new one,” I said. “I’ve never heard them get so upset, they usually just drop some fines and carry on.”

“Things are different now, with more Delphian money flowing into Chal,” Finn said. “I bet they want to look a bit less like the wild frontier for investors.”

“The ship’s not slowing.” Kallie shook her head in disbelief. “They’re going to have warrants out for their arrest in no time.”

“Constabulary is sending two patrol boats,” Tammy pointed at the feed scroll and then switched the main holo to show a view of Barras’s nearspace. “They’re leaving from the third moon, though, so it’s going to take them a bit to catch the Restaff.

“If they ever do.” Finn flicked his hand, and plotting data appeared on the screen.

My jaw tightened, and I resisted letting a few choice curses fly. The Restaff would reach us well before the constabulary’s boats were within intercept range.

I checked our fuel reserves, even though I already knew the answer. “Someone tell me our antimatter inventory is wrong and that we have more than a microgram.”

“Sure.” Kallie shrugged. “Inventory is wrong. We can burn the AP drive for weeks on end. Feel better?”

“Shockingly, no. Ideas?”

Tammy expanded the view on the forward holo. “We could shift course and come back around toward Barras in a wide arc. The Restaff would have trouble intercepting us without getting hit by planetary defenses or the constabulary’s ships.”

“Maybe.” I stroked my chin, wishing there were an obvious answer. “But if we get too close to the planet, they’ll probably tell us to heave to for questioning—especially if Skip’s brother tells them we’re smuggling contraband. He could make things rather unpleasant for us.”

“Is there a reason we don’t just blow those asshats out of the black?” Finn asked. “I mean. Technically we’re pirates, right? Isn’t that what pirates do?”

“Smugglers,” Kallie corrected. “We smuggle things, we don’t attack other ships and take their shit. We’ve got morals.”

The breacher snorted and shook his head. “That’s going to be a great defense when those raiders are cutting their way through our airlock.”

I gave Finn a sympathetic look. “It’s a tricky thing to defend yourself when the authorities are watching—though a lot less so when you’re in a system like Chal. We also don’t know what sort of loadout the Restaff has. Other than our main rail, all our offensive weapons are point defense beams.”

“Don’t play coy with me,” the breach specialist said. “I know you have limpet mines.”

“Which don’t work for shit in a pursuit like this,” Kallie countered. “They would have to drive right over the things.”

“Not to mention that we don’t have any of the paperwork necessary to even possess limpets,” I added. “Even in Chal, we’d be in some serious hot water if we got caught dumping them. Plus, with my luck, some captain would see it on scan and blab it as soon as they jumped into Delphi.”

Finn’s lips twisted. “Let me see what I can do about that. I might have to call in a favor.”

I was about to ask what he had in mind when Kallie muttered a curse.

Restaff is hailing us.”

“Was bound to happen. They don’t want trouble from both us and the constabulary.” I flipped my console to comms mode and saw that the hail was a standard ‘Open channel and respond’ command. I shrugged. “Sure, let’s see what they want. Maybe I can charm our way out of this.”

“Let me count the times that’s worked.” Kallie held up a fist and stared at it for a moment. “Yup, zero.”

Tammy giggled and turned her seat to face me. “It’s your resting asshole face, boss. You should try smiling sometimes. You know, that thing where you make the corners of your mouth not point at the ground.”

“Shut up, you two.”

I responded to the hail, noting that it was a full audio and visual. The standard comm setup on the bridge would filter out everyone else so the person on the other end wouldn’t get an idea about our crew complement.

An image of a man standing on another bridge appeared before me. He too had filtered out his crew—or he was alone, which I strongly doubted.

“Captain Bremen of the Kerrigan at your service. How can I help you?” I let the words hang, waiting the six seconds it took for the message to reach him and to receive a reply to return.

“I’m Captain Reeve,” he said through clenched teeth. “How about we skip the bullshit. I heard what you did to my brother on Barras.”

I didn’t have it in me to pretend at remorse. “Oh, you’re related to Skip? Then I assume you’re familiar with how big an ass he is. He had it coming. Are you really shocked that he finally bit it in a deal gone wrong?”

“You think he died?” Reeve barked a laugh. “You know the first rule. You want to be sure someone’s dead, put two in the head. Skip made it through, and he’s pissed. You’ve got our retirement fund on your ship, and we’re sure as fuck not going to let you get away with it.”

“Well, that sucks,” Kallie muttered. “And seriously, Cap. What is this, amateur hour? Everyone knows you double-tap the head.”

I shot a glare in her direction, silencing the engineer before I replied, “Where are you going to go? Everyone on Barras is probably watching this shit up here unfold. The authorities can’t just ignore it. You’ll be banned from the entire system at best.”

“What do I care?” Reeve held up his hands. “We’ll have enough to buy a nice little slice of property somewhere in Paragon. Never have to come back to this shithole again.”

“Not a bad plan,” Tammy whispered. “Can we do that too?”

I paused the feed on my end and directed a glare at the pilot. “Korinth has his fingers just as deep in Paragon as he does Delphi. We’d be dead in a month. Do you mind?”

Tammy gave me a sheepish look. “Sorry.”

Resuming the feed, I let a toothy grin settle on my lips. “I’m really excited for you, Reeve. But we had a contract, and we’re fulfilling our end.”

“What about the money?” Reeve demanded. “You didn’t leave it with Skip, so that doesn’t strike me as much of a fulfilled contract.”

An unexpected laugh burst past my lips. “Well, you can’t blame me for not leaving a fortune with a dead man. That’s just nuts!”

“He’s not dead.”

“I have only your word for that.” I was grinning ear to ear at this point.

“Stop being such a dumbfuck,” Reeve muttered. “If you have a half-decent nav comp on that tub of yours, you know we’re going to intercept you well before those patrol ships get anywhere close—not that they stand a chance, anyway. If I can’t have that cargo, no one can. Got it?”

I let the smile fall off my face. “OK, umm…let me talk with my crew for a minute.”

“I’ll give you three,” Reeve said in a magnanimous tone.

I cut the feed, and Kallie let out a groan. “That line is in every frickin’ vid. I wish criminals would be more original.”

“Really?” I cocked an eyebrow at her. “That’s your feedback?”

She nodded. “Yeah, but don’t worry. Finn and I worked something up, we’ll be alright.”

I turned to the networking specialist, and he gave me a look not unlike a cat with a mouse in its jaws. “Oh yeah. I’ve had this one waiting in the wings for some time, just looking for the right time to use it. It’s really quite amazing.”

I could feel my lips involuntarily press into a thin line.

“Right, yeah,” he nodded quickly. “In a nutshell, I got us a writ of marque and reprisal.”

I’d had a mental list of things Finn might have come up with, but status as a privateer was not even close to what I’d envisioned. I’m sure the surprise showed on my face.

“It’s not real,” he said quickly, his smile sliding to one side. “But it’ll take a few days for the locals to realize that.”

“You’re sure?” I asked.

“Check the closest relay buoy,” he replied. “You’ll see the marker for a registered writ next to our ship’s entry—don’t worry, it won’t show to civilian craft.”



I glanced down at my console and sent a ping out to the closest three buoys, not wanting to trust that Finn hadn’t just breached the closest one.

“Damn,” I whispered when they all came back indicating that the Kerrigan was a Class-One Privateer in Chal, cleared to engage legal targets anywhere in the system so long as the vessel was ten light seconds from any inhabited planets.

It was a license to kill. The only problem was that we were currently five light seconds from Barras.

I looked at the plot on the main holodisplay, and saw that if we maintained our current burn profile, the Restaff would intercept us a hair beyond the no-combat line.

“OK, he’s going to be up our ass before we can legally shoot at him. How do we keep him from firing until we’re in the clear?”

Kallie laughed. “Easy. We surrender. He won’t tell us to slow, because he doesn’t want to let the constabulary boats catch up. He’ll push for a zero delta-v hookup. Everyone drops shields, then we kick limpets at him, and boom. Problem solved.”

I winked at my second in command. “I knew I kept you around for a reason.”

Seconds later, a request hit the boards from Reeve.

“Impatient,” Finn said. “That was only two minutes.”

Schooling my expression to one of angry resignation—which wasn’t too far off how I felt—I accepted the connection and once again stared into the brooding visage of the Restaff’s captain.

“What’s your decision?” he demanded.

“Well, I want to tell you to go fuck yourself with a stick wrapped in barbed wire, but that’s not really going to get us anywhere.”

I could see Reeve’s jaw tighten, but he didn’t respond.

Several seconds of uncomfortable silence stretched out before I let my shoulders slump. “OK, we surrender. We’ll cut our burn and let you come alongside to transfer the cargo.”

“No,” Reeve quickly shook his head. “Maintain your current vector. Well catch up and then match thrust for the transfer.”

“Ummmm,” I cocked my head to the side as though a fresh realization had just dawned on me. “What’s to stop you from blowing our ship out of the black once you have what you want?”

Reeve let out a loud laugh, shoulders heaving. “Oh…perhaps the thought of you returning to Korinth empty-handed and without the money. He’s going to do worse to you than I ever could.”

“Oh hell no.” I shook my head. “We’re keeping the money.”

“No.” the Restaff’s captain sliced a hand through the air. “I’m going to have to pay off a dozen tight-assed NSTC dicks just to get back to Barras and pick up my brother. I need the money for that.”

Keeping a grin from forming on my lips over how easy it was to play the man, I instead shook my head, brow lowered. “What if…we kick the money out right before we dump into FTL?”

“What’s to say you will?” Reeve asked.

“Same thing that’s going to keep you from firing on us after we give you all the shit.”

The other man put a finger to his lips and turned to the side, clearly talking with someone filtered out of the feed. Next to me, Kallie pantomimed an exaggerated yawn.

A minute later, he turned back to the optics and nodded. “OK, we’ll do that. But you fuck with us any further, and we’ll find you. Trust me, we’ll have the money to put out a hit on you no matter where you are in the L.”

I swallowed dramatically and nodded.

“We’ll be in touch.”

The connection went dead, and Kallie laughed.

“What a drama queen.”

“You’re pretty blasé about this,” Finn said to her.

We’ve been in tighter situations.” She glanced at me, and I nodded.

“More than a few times. I guess we should wake Oln up.”

Finn snorted. “I can’t believe he always falls asleep after take-off. That seems…ill-advised.”

“He wakes up fast,” Kallie replied. “C’mon, let’s go get the mines ready.”

“Just use two,” I called over my shoulder. “Those things aren’t cheap. Plus, we don’t want a boom so big that the authorities start asking questions.”

“Things don’t really ‘boom’ in space,” Tammy chimed in.

I fixed her with a glare as I reconfigured my board for weapons control. “Just fly the ship.”


4

BLOWOUT

Five minutes later, I stood next to Kallie as we stared at the EV suit closet in the main cargo bay.

“I have no idea how I missed this,” she muttered, tracing a finger around the hole in the closet door. “A round from the fight must have hit it in just the right place.”

“And then hit our one stealth-capable EVA suit.” I examined the neck seal, which had a sizable dent right where the latch was supposed to clip into place. “You sure we can’t swap it with our standard suits?”

“No can do,” Kallie said with a shake of her head. “The stealth suit uses different heat-transfer systems. If I had an hour, I could jury-rig something.”

“A real hour, or your version of an hour?”

The engineer sighed. “It doesn’t matter, we don’t have either.” She gave a half-hearted wave of her hand at the other suits. “And these ones will stand out like friggin’ beacons on the hull. The Restaff is already sweeping us with active scan to make sure we’re keeping our weapons powered down like they ordered. They’ll see us on the hull no problem.”

“Same with the repair bots,” I added. “Nothing for it, then. We have to pop those crates.”

Kallie turned and looked at the three long crates strapped down to stays in the center of the bay. “I’m going to have to take apart the limpets to fit their innards in the crates…though I guess if we get it into their ship, we only need to do one.”

I nodded. “Let’s get moving, then.”

Working together, we had the straps off the crates in a minute, and Kallie ran a check with a handscanner before nodding that it was safe—as much as we could tell—to open them.

Sucking in a deep breath, and whispering, “Here goes nothing,” I cracked open the first case, turning my face away—not that it would have helped if there was a trap.

Luckily, there wasn’t, and I looked inside.

“NSAI cores,” Kallie said, shaking her head. “Could be anything.”

“Cores bearing Delphian Space Alliance logos.” I gestured at the markings on the side. “This is some serious shit, Kallie.”

“Friggin’ frig fark!” She rattled off a few more impromptu curses before turning away and walking toward the bay’s exit. “Get them out. I’ll have Oln come grab the cases.”

“Where should I put them?” I asked, hoping she had a brilliant idea.

“How about out the airlock?” she shouted.

I sat back on my heels, wishing that were an option. There was no way that Korinth didn’t know exactly what he was buying.

“This isn’t just some random military hardware,” I said quietly to myself as I opened the other crates, confirming that they all contained NSAI cores.

It was clearly something that would give Paragon a serious edge over Delphi if the two systems went to war. That’s why the Paragonian Military was willing to offer Skip enough money to make it worth double-crossing Korinth.

The thought crossed my mind to take the cores to Paragon myself, but I hadn’t been joking when I told Reeve that Korinth’s reach was long enough to find a person anywhere in the L. If I sold the cores to Paragon directly, I’d live the high life for a week or two. Then I’d meet a spectacularly grisly end. Far better to get the goods to the man who’d hired me, and just not tell him about the money Skip never got.

“Little bit of hazard pay,” I said as I began lifting out the cores and setting them on the deck.

Each one was roughly fifteen centimeters cubed and rather hefty. There were five in each case, and once I pulled them out, I walked to one of the storage racks, looking for a suitable crate to put them in.

“Shit…all this for NSAI cores?” Oln asked as I searched through spare containers.

“Yeah, dunno what’s on them. Just get those cases to Kallie so she can put boom stuff inside.”

Oln barked a laugh. “Boom stuff. You’re a riot, captain.”

“A regular comedy show.”

The big man closed the cases, tucked two under one arm, and picked up the third by the handle. “Really looking forward to watching Restaff blow. Not often we get to legally take out another ship.”

I laughed and waved him out of the bay. Despite the fear gnawing in my stomach that something was going to go terribly wrong, I had to admit that he was right.

Granted, if we didn’t time things just right, both our ships would meet their end.

If the job were easy, anyone could do it.

There was still a good risk that officials in Chal would want to talk with us about…whatever was going to happen in the next half an hour. It was unlikely that we’d be boarded, but the cores were making me more than a little nervous.

In the end, I selected four crates filled with salvaged parts that Kallie had been hoarding for reasons unknown. I wrapped the cores in EM-dampening fabric and then carefully set a few in the middle of each crate, surrounding them as best I could with parts that would block a handscanner from realizing what was inside.

It wasn’t my best smuggling job, but our better hideaways on the ship took too long to access. I’d worry about a better hideaway if we survived the encounter with Captain Reeve.

The Daedalus Job

Seventeen minutes later, the Restaff closed within weapons range, further heightening the tension. From there, it took another nine minutes to finesse delta-v down to zero, the final maneuvers managed entirely by the navigation comps on the two ships using small pulses from the grav drives to carefully align them.

I’d taken time to check on Kallie and have a light snack before arriving on the bridge to see Finn watching the forward display while sucking on his bottom lip.

He glanced at me and gave a wan smile. “OK, when I proposed this plan, I didn’t fully appreciate how fucking terrifying it is to be this close to another ship moving this fast with no shields.”

“We have shields,” I gestured at the status readout on my console. “Just not on our port side.”

“Yeah…where the other ship is sitting with all those beam optics pointed at us.”

I chuckled while settling into my seat. “I keep forgetting that you’ve never seen ship-to-ship action. Things feel a lot different out here in the black, don’t they?”

Finn nodded, and I could tell that he was putting on a brave face. “I mean, I’ve been in some small dust-ups on stations, but this is…vulnerable. One mistake, and our ships rip each other apart like tin cans.”

“Then we don’t make any mistakes,” Tammy grunted. “Don’t worry. They think I’ve slaved the autopilot to their ship’s Non-Sentient AI, but that was just a sandboxed instance of it. Our nav comp is still running standalone. Not going to let some foreign NSAI pilot the Kerrigan. No way, no how.”

“As it should be,” I replied. “And definitely not Skip’s brother. Shocker he doesn’t accidentally ram that thing into stations half the time.”

<Umbilical is coming across,> Kallie called up. <We have the ‘cargo’ in the lock.>

<OK, I’m watching on the feeds. Good luck.>

I drew in a deep breath, forcing myself to relax. The only thing I had to do was talk to Reeve and make sure he didn’t suspect anything. Kallie would deliver the cargo, and Tammy would boost out as soon as the bomb was inside the enemy ship.

“Captain Reeve,” I said after reactivating the connection. “We’re ready to send the crates over. A drone will take them down the umbilical, you can keep it as a tip.”

The man shook his head and snorted. “Like I want your bot on my ship. Probably filled with rogue nano. You’ll send over one of your crew with it.”

“No deal,” I replied. “I’m not putting one of my people within your grasp.”

The man barked a cold laugh. “Either someone from your crew comes over with the crates, or I send a boarding party and we take them from you.”

“You do that, and we’ll destroy them,” I warned. “Why the need to have a crewmember bring them? Just send your own bot over, if you don’t trust ours.”

Reeve’s lips twisted into a cruel smile. “I want a hostage while we check over the cargo.”

I flashed him an annoyed look—which didn’t require an ounce of acting—and paused the feed.

<Kallie, we’ve got a problem.>

<Just one?> she drawled.

<You’re a hoot.> I rolled my head side to side in an attempt to ease the building tension. <Dickwad over there wants us to send someone with the crates. No bot.>

Kallie’s groan filled my mind. <He wants a hostage, doesn’t he?>

<Yeah. He just came out and said it, too. Gotta appreciate the honesty.>

<I’ll do it.>

<Kallie, no. We need you in case something goes wrong.>

<It has to be me. Oln is too big and scary-looking. He’ll put them on edge. Finn is smart on the networks and doesn’t totally suck in a gunfight, but he’s a bit unnerved by this whole situation already.>

I nodded slowly. <Yeah, he’s shared that with me too. OK. You do it, but you get out of there as soon as possible.>

<I’ll coordinate with Tammy and Finn on the shields, and set up timing in case they block comms for me. We’ll get it done, and then I’ll make you cook me dinner.>

I nodded emphatically. <Deal.>

Kallie’s presence disappeared from my mind, and I unpaused the feed, fixing Captain Reeve with a dark glower.

“OK. Have it your way. I’m sending over one of my crew.”

“Good.” The Restaff’s captain laughed, and not pleasantly. “We’ll be sure to give them a warm welcome. And if we pick up even a trickle of EM from your weapons, we’ll waste you. Our weapons are hot and locked on.”

Yeah. I’ve noticed, you asshole.

<Umbilical’s connected,> Kallie announced on the general shipnet. <Matching pressure in the airlock.>

I tapped the feeds and saw that she’d donned one of the tight, EV-capable shipsuits that didn’t hide any aspect of her well-toned figure. A quick-fit helmet hung off the back of the neck, drifting behind her as she passed into the connecting passage’s zero-g environment, pushing the three crates in front of her.

Normally I’d take a moment to appreciate how good Kallie looked, but this time, my gaze shifted and focused entirely on the two men with pulse rifles standing in the other ship’s open airlock.

Both were armored, with helmets latched on and faceshields sealed. I wished Kallie had done the same, but she must have decided it would be better to appear less threatening.

A timer appeared on the feed, a two-minute countdown for the limpet mine that was in the bottom crate.

Kallie took her time crossing the thirty-meter umbilical that stretched between the ships, moving languidly in the low gravity, while I couldn’t help but mutter that she should get a move on.

“She knows what she’s doing, boss. She’ll be OK.” Tammy’s tone belied the confidence in her words.

“I’ll remain tense and anxious, thank you very much,” I replied. “I don’t know how she’s going to get in and out of there in time.”

Tammy nodded. “It’ll be tight. We’re going to bring the shields up as close to their hull as possible. She only needs to get a few meters into the umbilical.”

“How many is a few?”

“Ten?” Finn ventured. “The further the better, since the tube isn’t going to last long.”

I nodded silently, hating the fact that it was Kallie and not me delivering the crates. There was no one in the ‘verse I cared for more than her. We’d tried out a romantic fling at one point, but it hadn’t worked. Thankfully, the attempt hadn’t messed with our working relationship, and she’d stayed on.

A part of me wondered if she remained as much for the action as my company. She seemed to enjoy the rush that came from our line of work.

The countdown read 1:21 when Kallie reached the other side, stopping just outside the airlock and grabbing a handhold. I flipped a control to pipe her suit’s audio pickups into the bridge.

“Here you go.” She pushed the crates into the other ship. “Enjoy your notoriety.”

“Wait,” one of the guards said as he caught the crates and lowered them to the deck. “We’re going to check them before you go.”

Kallie pantomimed a yawn. “Sure, whatever. I’m getting paid by the hour.”

The guard grunted something I couldn’t quite make out and proceeded to pull off the straps that had bundled the three crates together.

“Fuck…what’s this shit smeared on these?” one of the goons asked, and Kallie only laughed.

“Beats me. They were on Barras, could be anything.”

The man only grunted and took a moment to run a handscanner over the top one before opening the lid. Inside rested five NSAI cores that looked as close to the DSA ones as we could manage.

I prayed to whatever stars were listening that these two grunts wouldn’t know what the military cores really looked like.

Still standing at the mouth of the airlock, Kallie shifted, peering in at the cores. “Oh, wow, what are those for?”

“Nunya damn business,” the second guard said as they closed up the crate and set it aside, moving on to the second one.

“Gee…so huffy.” She leaned over further, placing a hand on the control panel inside—or I assumed that was what she was doing.

“You got it,” Finn whispered. “Just hold…yes!”

I got the distinct impression my crew was up to something I wasn’t aware of.

“What’s she doing?”

Finn looked both excited and terrified as he worked frantically at his console. “Well, we didn’t want most of the blast to come out the airlock. So we’re gonna hack their controls and flash cycle the lock. Send that boom inside the ship.”

“You had her drop nano on the controls!”

The breacher gave me a worried look. “Well, to be fair, it was her idea.”

I knew there was nothing for it now. I was far less worried about the two goons inspecting the crates catching sight of Kallie touching the panel than whoever might be watching the feeds. Namely Reeve. He struck me as a suspicious type, and—

“Hey!” One of the guards snapped their head up. “Get your hand off that control.”

“What?” Kallie asked innocently, then glanced at her left hand as though it had moved of its own volition. “Oh, sorry!”

“Shit!” Finn hissed. “They’re running a diag on the airlock control systems….”

I glanced at the time and saw that it was down to twenty seconds.

<Kallie! Move!> I shouted the command into her mind.

<Not yet!>

The exchange chewed two seconds off the clock, and I tasted blood from gnawing the inside of my cheek.

<You waiting for them to shoot you?>

<I move too soon, and they will.>

“Allllmost there,” Finn intoned from his station. “Alllllmost….”

“Finn—” I prompted.

<Go, Kallie, go!> the breacher cried out over the Link.

The countdown was at five seconds when she shifted, planted her feet on the edge of the airlock, and pushed off, flying backward down the umbilical.

“What the—” one of the guards rose, swinging his rifle toward Kallie.

A concussive blast came from his weapon, the focused pulse rippling through the air to hit Kallie center mass. She slammed into the side of the tube and tried to grab one of the ribs, her hands scrabbling for purchase.

Then a second blast hit her, and the umbilical ripped. Explosive decompression tore a gaping hole, and a second later, Kallie was gone, sucked out into the black.

Everything slowed down. I watched the airlock on the enemy ship close—whether in response to the decompression or Finn’s actions, I didn’t know. Then, less than a second after the Restaff’s hull sealed, the skin of the other ship seemed to bulge, straining as it desperately tried to keep what was inside from getting out.

The airlock failed first. The door tore free, followed by a burst of red flame and shrapnel, all of which splashed against the Kerrigan’s shields.

I barely noticed any of it as I shifted my focus to the ship’s external optics, desperately searching for Kallie, begging the stars for her to be within the Kerrigan’s shield bubble.

<Oln, get out there and find her,> I ordered the man.

<Cycling our lock,> he replied.

A few seconds later, I spotted Kallie’s body a dozen meters from the hull, drifting back toward the engines. She was twisting around, struggling to get her quick-fit helmet on. Rather than have Oln traverse the dangling umbilical, I triggered its release, using small jets around the airlock to push it away from the ship and give him room to get past.

Shifting my attention back to my engineer, I could see that she’d gotten her helmet on. It occurred to me, eleven seconds after she’d been sucked out the hole, that I could reach out to her on the Link.

<Kallie, are you OK?>

<Oh, nice of you to check on me. I’m no longer at risk of dying in the next minute, so…there’s that. Quite the show out here.>

I pulled up a view of the Restaff, giving an appreciative whistle at the large hole that had been blown in the enemy ship’s hull. They hadn’t fired yet, but I knew it would just be a matter of time before Reeve decided to get revenge.

With Kallie out in the black, we couldn’t move away from the other craft without moving away from her as well.

Activating the targeting systems for the main gun, I swiveled it around to aim at the other ship, while ordering Finn to bring our point defense systems online.

<I’m moving along the hull,> Oln reported. <Fifteen meters from an anchor point. Then I’ll tether to it and go get her.>

<Good. Quickly now,> I said in hushed tones as I watched Kallie drift further aft. She would reach the edge of the shield bubble in thirty seconds, making me wish we’d upgraded our shields with the capability to hold objects in as well as out.

You never need shit like that till you really need it.

Attitude jets on the Restaff fired, and the ship rotated, turning its gaping wound away from us. Moments later, the enemy’s beams lanced out, their relativistic particles harmlessly bending around the Kerrigan by our shields’ graviton fields.

“Our super conductor batteries are down to eighty-percent,” Finn announced.

“Bring the fusion plant back online,” I ordered. “I want enough juice to pound those bastards to dust.”

“You got it,” he replied, then gave a worried cough. “Oh shit.”

I saw it too. The Restaff sported a railgun and two fifteen-centimeter beams that were now in position to fire on the Kerrigan.

Next time, we send over two limpets.

Our own weapons were still twenty seconds from a full charge. I had enough juice to fire one now, but I wanted to give it to Reeve with both barrels.

<Tethered,> Oln announced <Pushing off to grab her. Don’t get fried before we’re back in.>

I sent a non-verbal acknowledgement, wincing as the Restaff fired all three of their main weapons, further draining our shield batteries.

“Their shields are still down, boss,” Tammy exclaimed. “What are you waiting for?”

“A finishing blow,” I replied, my voice deadly serious.

<Oh Oln, my hero!> Kallie said in mock-relief. <Come to save me.>

<Uh…sure…yeah. Let’s just get this line clipped to your harness.>

<Hurry,> I admonished, then crowed with delight as the weapons batteries reached full charge.

I selected multiple targets on the enemy ship, and let loose with four point defense beams and our railgun.

The beams struck the enemy’s own directed energy weapons while our main gun pulverized their rail. Secondary explosions rippled along Restaff’s hull, and a call lit up on my board.

I activated an audio-only connection, and Reeve’s voice echoed through our bridge. “We yield. Don’t fire again. Please!”

Dozens of snarky responses flowed through my mind, but I managed to keep them all in check. “Don’t worry, I won’t. Chal’s patrol boats will be here in about half an hour. They’ll give you a ride back to Barras.”

“Fuck you, Bremen,” Reeve swore. “You’re a piece of shit, leaving me to get caught by the lo—”

“You’ll wanna save your air, buddy, you’re leaking a bit here and there. Also, this is still a hell of a lot nicer than what you were going to do to me. Maybe a little bit of jail time will help you become a better person.”

“I’ll break out,” Reeve growled. “I’ll break out and I’ll find you and—”

“Sure, whatever. By then, I’ll have tracked down and killed Skip, so if you come to me, that’ll save me the trouble of hunting you down too. The only reason I’m not blowing you out of the black right now is because I imagine you might have one or two half-decent people on your ship, and I figure it’s worth giving them a fighting chance.”

<We’ve reached the hull,> Oln reported. <Her rebreather got damaged somehow, she’s getting loopy.>

<Not oopy,> Kallie warbled over the Link. <Roopy…wait, no…goopy.>

<Hurry, Oln,> I urged, then turned to Tammy. “Get down and help Oln. I’ll pilot from here.”

With a nod, Tammy was out of her chair and sprinting off the bridge.

It was a pain that our medic was also our pilot, but I hadn’t found anyone else better at either job—who was also willing to serve on the Kerrigan—so Tammy did double duty.

Often at the most inconvenient times.

<We’re in the lock,> Oln reported ten seconds later, followed by Kallie whispering, <We turned into rock?>

The fusion plant was fully warmed up, and I activated the engines, deuterium fusing into heavier elements, thrusting high-velocity reaction mass out the back of the ship and easing us away from the Restaff.

We were a kilometer away from the other vessel when Finn let out a shriek and screamed, “Brace!”

A star had erupted just aft of the ship. Brilliant blue-white light eclipsed even Chal’s bright orange glow. The shockwave was only a few milliseconds behind the photons, a torrential blast of energy bowling the Kerrigan over, and sending the ship spinning through the black.


5

RECOVERY

Alarms blared while the inertial compensators struggled to keep everyone in the ship from being tossed around like so much flotsam and jetsam.

After what felt like an eternity, the shockwave passed, and the attitude systems stabilized the ship, the groans of the strained hull fading into an eerie silence.

“Shit, Finn,” I muttered after drawing a shaky breath. “Was that what I think it was?”

“Antimatter,” he said with a nod. “Had to be. Energy is off the charts. Their bottle must have ruptured.”

I didn’t say what I suspected really happened—that Reeve had somehow breached his bottle on purpose in an attempt to take our ship out along with his. It seemed crazy, but perhaps he feared prison more than death.

“That blast sure did a number on our shields,” Finn muttered. “Still running diagnostics, but I think everything’s OK.”

I nodded absently, cross-checking our position and vector before plotting a burn to get us back on course for the closest FTL transition point. A small part of me wanted to check on Kallie—a big part, if I was going to be honest—but I knew that if there was any reason for concern, Tammy would let me know. Kallie had enough spacer’s mods that a half a minute in vacuum wasn’t going to do her any serious damage. Even a minute or two rebreathing her own air without CO2 scrubbing wasn’t a huge risk.

Focus, get us on track.

Tammy had us on a vector leading to a jump point two AU beyond the system’s seventh planet. Adjustments to get on course were minor. Once we transitioned, it would be a straight shot from there to the Delphi System, though the window before the next occlusion was closing fast.

Compared to interstellar space outside the nebula, the ‘clear’ bubble within the L was practically packed with dust and gas. The particulate matter wasn’t thick enough to pose a major risk for interstellar flight. However, the dense interstellar medium also meant that the L had something not normally experienced by most regions: inclement weather in space.

The three main stars within the nebula’s core all orbited a common barycenter. At present, Chal was on the ‘north’ side of the center of gravity, while both Delphi and Paragon were on the south. Roughly perpendicular to the orbits of the three major stars were four red dwarfs, lazily drifting at the edge of the nebula’s clouds.

Some people described the seven stars as a single system, but with as many as five light years between them at apastron, each star had a powerful influence over its own gravitational region, and were typically considered distinct star systems within a greater whole.

Chal and Paragon were both over three light years from the system barycenter, nearing apastron, while Delphi was moving toward the center of gravity. At times such as this—when most of the mass was spread wide—the red dwarfs drifted further into the nebula’s clouds, drawing more dust and gas into the center of the L, blocking direct FTL routes between the north and south regions.

The fact that FTL was possible at all in the L had initially struck me as a miracle. For ships to slip past the speed of photons, they had to transition from normal space into what was known as the dark layer. There, space was both truly empty and smaller. Ships could travel hundreds of times faster than the speed of light.

So long as they didn’t run into any dark matter—which tended to bring about a swift end to any unlucky enough to do so. Dark matter clumped where gravity from normal matter was stronger. This meant that it was thick within twenty to thirty AU of a star, and also clustered at the L’s barycenter.

When the red dwarfs drew more gas into the center of the system, the effect created an hourglass shape, drawing dark matter into the interior. When that happened, FTL was no longer possible for a few hundred AU at the center of the L, adding weeks to any trip between the north and south sides.

For now, a few north-south routes remained open, but in just a few weeks, they’d all close up for a few years. Maybe longer.

“OK,” I said after a minute of finessing our course. “I think we’re good.”

“You want me to check it over?” Finn asked.

“Nah, nav comp didn’t spit it back, and once Tammy’s back up here, she’ll complain about my piloting skills and make some minor adjustments of her own.”

Finn chuckled and shook his head. “She certainly likes things to be just so.” He nodded to her pilot’s seat. “I mean, she flies the ship from inside a hamster ball, so we know she’s one of those pilots.”

“Believe it or not, that gyro-thing was here when I bought the ship. I was going to get rid of it, but Tammy fell in love with it.”

“Weird.” Finn twisted his lips. “Oh shoot! I have to register our attack on the Restaff. Don’t want to get in trouble with the locals and get our writ revoked.”

I snorted a laugh. “Our fake writ?”

“Hey, without it, we’d be in hot water. Plus, it’s only half-fake.”

I decided not to ask exactly what that meant just yet.

“We’ve still got Korinth’s money tucked away. We could grease a lot of palms with that if needs be. Plus, when we bring the cargo to him, we’ll still get money for delivery. This is going to be a big haul. Everyone’s cut will be bigger than the initial amount quoted.”

“OK…well, I want my full share, don’t waste it on greasy palms. Who knows where those have been.”

I couldn’t argue with that. “Fair enough. Let me know if you need me to sign off on any part of the report.”

“Will do, Captain.”

I checked system scan and saw that the two patrol boats were slowing to examine the expanding cloud of dust where the Restaff had once been. I kept expecting them to hail us and demand an explanation, but so far, nothing had come.

I wonder if they hadn’t been looking forward to a fight with Reeve’s ship either, and are glad we did the job for them.

I set a monitor on the comm system to ping me if any hails came from the patrol boats, and rose from my chair. “Bridge is yours, Finn. I’m going to check on Kallie.”

“Surprised you stayed this long.”

Tossing a sour look his way, I left the room and ambled down the passageway. The first four doors—two on each side—were crew cabins, with the third on the right being the galley. I half-expected to see Oln inside, downing a meal. He was usually famished after any sort of mildly stimulating event, but the room was empty.

Past the galley, the corridor branched in a T, and I turned right, following it for ten meters before turning left onto the main port-side passage. The first door on the left led to the medbay, and I heard Kallie’s voice spilling out long before I reached it.

“Seriously, Tammy. Stop. Don’t you have shit to do? Like fly the ship?”

“Jax is flying,” the pilot replied.

I heard a groan from Oln. “Great. We’re doomed.”

Tammy laughed as I reached the doorway. “He’s not that bad. We’ll probably survive for ano—Oh. Hey, boss.”

I swept an annoyed glare across the room. “Glad everyone’s so blasé after we nearly died.”

“Nearly died?” Oln asked. “How so?”

“Oh, I don’t know, imagine if you’d been outside the hull when the Restaff blew. Your entire body would look like the burnt toast you love so much.”

Oln cocked his head to the side. “You know…I am kinda hungry.”

“Good.” I stepped aside to let him out of the room. “You’re cook for the crew tonight.”

“Me?” He placed a hand on his chest. “I saved Kallie from certain doom. I feel that that exempts me from cooking.”

“Yeah, but you also stole cargo from Skip and got us into this whole mess.”

A look of puzzled concern formed on the big man’s brow. “But if I hadn’t done that, we would have never gotten it at all, and then we’d’ve had to go back to Korinth empty-handed.”

I shook my head and pressed a hand to my temple. “Stars, Oln. I can barely parse half that sentence. Go make food.”

“Fine.”

With one less body—and a massive one, at that—in the small room, I approached the medtable and reached for Kallie’s hand. “Damn, you gave us a scare. How the fuck are you so brave?”

She gave a rueful laugh. “I have no clue…or maybe it’s just that all of you are chickenshit.”

“I’m not chicken!” Oln’s voice boomed down the corridor. “Remember who saved your ass.”

“OK, everyone but you!” Kallie shouted back. “You’re my hero!”

“Fuckin’ right I am.” His reply echoed through the ship.

I stuck a finger in my ear and wiggled it side to side. “You know you can use the Link to talk to people, right?”

She laughed, and the sound of it set my jangled nerves straight. “Where’s the fun in that?”

“Scans all show you’re doing fine,” Tammy said from the other side of the medtable. “But I want you back here for another check before you go to sleep.”

“Yes, Mooooom.” Kallie slid her legs off the table and slowly stood. She exhibited a slight waver, but then she rolled her head side to side. “OK…just between us girls, that was a rush. And I never want to do it again.”

“Wow.” I couldn’t help but smirk. “I got upgraded to ‘girl’.”

Kallie winked. “Provisional. Be on your best behavior, or I’ll drop you back down to ‘some dude’.”

“This how you treat your captain?” I glanced at Tammy.

“Don’t look at me.” She held up her hands. “You may be the boss, but Kallie is…well…Kallie.”

The engineer fixed me with a winning smile. “You know you love me.”

I pursed my lips. “I’m still kinda pissed. You took a hell of a risk.”

She shrugged. “You want no risk, find legit cargo.”

“Sounds boring,” I muttered.

“Exactly. Plus, you still owe me dinner. Don’t think getting Oln to cook tonight gets you off the hook.”

“Damn…remembered that, did you?”

Her lips split to reveal a wide grin. “Yup!”


II


Paragon


THE BRIEFING



Elsewhere in the L…

I leant forward in my seat and peered out the window of the military passenger shuttle, watching as Fallon Station steadily grew larger, eventually filling the view. Paragon Prime’s light glinted off each of the structure’s four rings as they spun lazily around the station’s hundred-kilometer central spire, and I marveled at the size of the structure.

Ring Three, Beta Quadrant, Deck Seventy-Nine, Block 73, Room 1192A.

Three times I repeated the location, recementing it in my mind. Not that it was necessary anymore. The mental mods I’d received after my recent promotion had made it a lot easier to store information and retrieve it instantaneously, but old habits died hard. Plus, I preferred to keep my neurons sharp and active.

I’d rather not turn into a wet-head like half the junior officers, forever amping up to keep up.

The thought of all the spoiled JROs, with their neural enhancements that their parents had bought, still made my blood boil. They’d had every advantage, but I still bested most of them. Coming out on top time and time again, in OCS and then as I climbed the junior ranks.

In many ways, the military was easy. There were safeties and safeguards. It wasn’t like growing up on a mining rig, where walking down the wrong corridor at the wrong time could mean your death.

“Relax, Sherry,” I said to myself, drawing in deep breaths. “You’re a major now. You don’t need to compare yourself to those laggards any longer.”

The fact was that most of the people I’d trained with and served alongside at the platoon level were long gone from the PMF. They’d done their time, satisfied their families with their faux sense of honor and loyalty, and gotten the hell out before being deployed on any serious mission.

Shit, Sherry. Stop getting yourself all worked up.

I knew it had nothing to do with those I’d served with in the past, and everything to do with whomever I’d be serving with in the future: the Primary Forward Command.

The PFC was the real deal. Where hulls kissed deep black in the empty lightyears between stars. A part of me feared what might come, while another craved it.

There was a strong chance I’d be given command of a small wing of patrol craft and sent to watch over an imaginary line between stars, but there was also a chance that I might be selected for something better.

If I had my way, it would be Intel.

Over the past several years, I’d done my best to operate as an unpaid analyst, reviewing whatever data I could get my hands on, putting it together to build accurate pictures of both the military and civilian situation in the L, accompanied by predictions about what might happen in the future.

Thus far, a few of my less likely predictions—ones that my peers had scoffed at—had proven to be true. I hoped my memos had found their way to someone who recruited for Intel. I knew that if I could just get a face to face with their recruiting team, I’d be brought in.

I knew it.

Something that helped fuel my optimism was that PFC Intel was based in the same quadrant of Ring Three that I was heading for. Granted, so was fleet maintenance, custodial bot repair, and a dozen other commands I’d sooner turn in my commission than serve under.

I shooed the errant thought away. I might want to, but I wouldn’t. I’d promised to serve with honor and distinction. Neither of those things involved running away when the going got tough.

But it’s not going to get tough. It’s going to be amazing.

My view of the ring was momentarily blocked by a dark grey hull. Bumps and protrusions flashed by until the ruddy glow of engines drifted past. I craned my neck to see the ship, only able to ascertain that it was a newer Century-Class cruiser.

“Either the Toroshi or the Lauren Wright,” I said to myself.

“You know your ships,” a voice said from nearby, and I turned to see the woman in the row behind me waving above the seatbacks. “Have you served spaceborne for long?”

“Not long at all,” I replied, laughing at the incongruity of the statement. “I’ve only been a muddweller so far. I don’t even know what I’m headed up for. I just have a room number and a time.”

“Oh!” The woman seemed genuinely impressed. “Well, if that’s the case, it will certainly be a lot more interesting than running around planetside. Though probably not any cleaner.”

“I grew up turning bolts on an RSM miner in the outer belt,” I replied. “Pretty much everything is cleaner than that.”

“RSM?” the woman said, drawing out each of the letters and making me wonder if she even knew what it stood for. “Not a lot of folks from those go in for commissions. Usually they’re working stiffs.”

“Officers work too,” I replied a little more defensively than I meant to.

My words were met with a laugh. “Easy now, I meant no insult. I mean, this is a downright comfortable military transport….” I could hear the sound of a hand patting the seat cushion. “Chances are that I’m an officer, too.”

“Are you?” I asked a little too impertinently. Then it occurred to me that the woman behind me might just outrank me by more than a little. I tacked on a “Ma’am” just to be on the safe side.

“At ease, Major. I didn’t identify myself as an officer, you don’t need to worry that I’m upset.”

I nodded nervously. It was PMF etiquette that if you were unaware of another person’s rank, and they didn’t inform you of it, you were not to be held accountable for any lack of formal address.

Granted, that didn’t stop some officers from taking a perceived slight and turning it into real retribution.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Now I was sure she was an officer who outranked me.

The woman behind me didn’t reply, and I turned my attention back to the growing station. The shuttle eased past the rings, approaching the southern docking bays.

Almost there.

Moments later, the ship was swallowed by grey bulkheads, then a massive bay came into view, littered with ships stretching hundreds of meters into the distance. The shuttle pivoted, and I saw an empty cradle rise up to meet us, arms stretching out like a mechanical kraken, eager to pull us into the depths.

“Stars, Sherry,” I muttered. “Too much poetry.”

I didn’t hear from the woman in the seat behind me, and I craned my neck to look behind, only to find both seats empty.

Did I imagine her?

“Set-down complete. Shuttle secured,” a voice said over the ship’s comm system. “Please gather your belongings and prepare to disembark out the forward exit.”

I rose from my seat and looked around at the other fourteen passengers. I hadn’t actually seen the woman behind me, but only six of the other travelers were women, and none had the appearance suggested by her voice.

Putting the incident from my mind, I gathered my things and exited the shuttle, pulling up a map of the station and the best route to a maglev platform.

Here goes.

The Daedalus Job

Twenty minutes and only two accidental detours later, I stood at the door to Room 1192A.

It was unmarked other than its number, which was stenciled with non-descript ink. I was still hopeful that it was Intel, though I could also imagine a lowly service command noted in a similar style.

It was eleven minutes before my appointment time, which meant that I was almost late. Everyone knew that the PMF brass set their mental clocks to run fast.

Being any less than ten minutes early to anything meant that you were late.

Not this time. Not for this.

I drew in a deep breath, steadied my nerves, and knocked twice before receiving a response over the Link that I may enter. I’d expected to see a number of different things within the room, but not one of them is what met my eyes.

The room was over fifty meters across, concentric circles of consoles wrapping around a raised dais in the center. Nearly every seat at the consoles was filled, and on the dais stood four people, all leaning over a holotable, pointing at the image it displayed.

“The L,” I whispered.

“Major Sherry?” a voice at my elbow asked.

I turned to see a chief petty officer standing near the entrance.

“Yes?”

“You’re expected, ma’am.” The CPO made a sweeping gesture toward the dais, and gave me an encouraging smile.

“Where? U-up there?” I stammered.

“Of course,” the petty officer laughed. “Go! Don’t keep them waiting.”

I nodded quickly, and began to walk down the aisle. I attempted to identify the people on the dais with my upgraded optics, but failed. Glancing around, I realized that I couldn’t pull an ID on anyone in the room.

Probably not custodial services, then.

My heart sang with excitement that I was probably in the heart of PFC Intel, but I forced myself to tamp it down. Whatever was about to happen was a test. I needed to keep a level head and be prepared to acquit myself well, or my next stop may very well be custodial.

As I drew closer, I realized that none of the four figures on the platform bore any rank insignia on their uniforms. Their bearing, however, made it clear that they were high-ranking. The woman closest to me turned as I approached and waved for me to join them.

“Major Sherry,” she said as I reached the holotable. “I’m Admiral Terezia.” She turned to the man next to her and proceeded to introduce the others. “This is Colonel Gene, Rear Admiral Emily, and Master Chief Cynthia.”

I quickly drew up and gave a smart salute, suddenly feeling like a cat at a feast of lions. “It is an honor to meet you all.”

“At ease, Major,” Admiral Terezia said. “As you can tell, we don’t stand on ceremony so much in here.” She gestured at the table. “Tell me. What do you see here?”

Swallowing nervously, I turned to the table which showed a view of the L. On my left, Chal was making its way toward apoapsis, while on the right, Paragon was doing the same. Near the middle, Delphi was approaching periapsis with the system barycenter.

Major dark layer FTL routes were marked out between the star systems. Active routes in green, currently impassible routes in red. A few were orange, indicating that a portage through regular space would be necessary to complete the journey. Most of the routes to Chal bore that color, with only a few terminating at Delphi still showing green.

“We’re two weeks from full occlusion,” I said after a few moments. “Shipping between Chal and Delphi is at a frenzy as everyone is trying to get through before things shut down and the clouds move in.”

“What else?” the admiral prompted.

“Well, the folks at the weather stations seem to think it’ll be a particularly bad occlusion with a lot of bleed-over. They’re requesting additional probes to monitor dark matter. I think they’re afraid that if the occlusion doesn’t clear in time, Delphi will plow right through it all. That’ll make a serious mess.”

“How so, ma’am?” Chief Cynthia asked.

I glanced at Admiral Terezia and then at the table. “May I?”

“Have at it.”

A connection option appeared on my HUD, and I confirmed that it was for the holotable. I accessed its controls and flipped it to a view of the dark matter in the L. The view was imperfect, as it took trillions of probes constantly popping in and out of the DL to create even a passable picture of what was happening in sub-dimensional space. Officially, the probes were managed and monitored by the Aquilian Nebula Space Weather Observation Network.

ANSWON was a neutral third party, not under control of either Delphi or Paragon, though they received funding from both systems.

In addition, the two major powers in the L maintained their own probe networks—not as well-distributed as ANSWON’s, but more accurate where their interests lay.

Much of that information was withheld from the public—and from officers at my rank—but I could tell from the fidelity of the dark matter around Paragon that the holotable was showing restricted-level information.

“I imagine you knew about our additional data,” Terezia said. “Consider yourself officially read in.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” I flipped the table’s display to show one of the models I’d been studying. “We all know what a standard periapsis looks like for Delphi, but with every other star in the L nearly apoapsis, we’re in for a hell of a passage. I’m no weather specialist, but these models—” I let them play out for a five-year span, “show half a decade of dark matter disruption around the system’s barycenter. At the peak, there will be a full light month of space that will need to be portaged to get between the north and south ends of the L.”

“Except for Delphi,” Rear Admiral Emily muttered. “For a year, those bastards will be in the north, beyond the dark matter disk.”

“That is correct, ma’am.” I nodded in agreement. “And already, they’ve begun strengthening their hold in Chal. I believe that when their system passes into the north, they’ll forcibly expunge all things Paragonian from Chal, and declare it fully for Delphi.”

“That will require a significant effort,” Colonel Gene shook his head. “We don’t have a large military presence in Chal, but the system maintains order through a web of handshake deals and thinly veiled threats. If Delphi thinks they can just walk in there and take over, they’ll have a guerilla war on their hands. It’ll require them to move a lot of resources from their home system—which they won’t do.”

The others gave favorable reactions, but I disagreed. “That’s been the norm for the last ten passages, yes. It’s why neither of our systems have managed to fully claim and hold Chal—it would weaken us too much. But this time is different.”

“How so,” Terezia prompted, and I was emboldened by the glint of approval I saw in her eyes.

Rewinding the display back to one year into Delphi’s passage around the barycenter, I explained, “You’ll see that from this point forward, and for the three years following, it’s faster to get between Chal and Delphi than Paragon and Delphi. During that entire stretch, we would need to have any fleet we send moving through normal space for at least a month. They would see us coming, and bring in reinforcements long before we reached their system.”

“What if they didn’t see us?” the master chief prompted.

It was clear that she was testing me.

I pursed my lips as I considered options. “That would be complicated. They would, of course, be watching us closely. If we sent a tightly grouped fleet into the clouds to strike at Delphi, they’d spot the disturbances with ease. We’d have to spread the ships out, have them come from hundreds of disparate vectors—but even then, as they closed with Delphi, it would become harder and harder to hide a sizable force.”

“So what would you do?” Terezia asked.

Suddenly, the winning strategy became crystal clear, and I quickly laid it out.

As I presented my idea, I couldn’t help but notice the others were exchanging glances and nodding.

They asked a few probing questions, and when I was done, Terezia nodded in satisfaction. “Major Sherry, you have a keen grasp of the theatre we operate in, not to mention the strategies and tactics that would be required to effect a victory over Delphi. I think you’ll do.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m glad my study has paid off. If I may ask, though, ‘do’ for what?”

Chief Cynthia clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Why, for fieldwork, Major. That’s where things really get done.”

“I’d tell you to pack, but you already are.” She nodded at the rolling case filled with personal effects that had trundled in behind me.

“Yes, ma’am. What are my orders?”

The admiral’s response floored me.

“We’re sending you to Delphi.”

I let out a choking gasp. “We’re not actually thinking of going to war with Delphi, are we?” I looked around at the four faces, wondering if things were afoot I had no knowledge of.

I half-expected secretive nods, but Admiral Terezia only laughed.

“Major Sherry. We’re PFC Intel. We never think of going to war. We think ‘what if’ we go to war. Then we pass that information up the chain to people who really do think about such things.”

I nodded, glad that she seemed lighthearted about it all—though I didn’t for a second believe that she wasn’t involved in decisions that happened further up the chain.

The admiral continued. “You’ll be going with Colonel Gene and Chief Cynthia. Your ride leaves in an hour, and they’ll brief you on the way.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I straightened and saluted. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Rear Admiral Emily laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t be thanking us just yet.”


7

COURSE CORRECTION

I’d feared the worst when it came to what our ride to Delphi would be like. Vids invariably showed spooks riding in rickety freighters when sent to infiltrate enemy territory—not that Delphi was exactly what one would classify as an ‘enemy’.

But as I walked along the concourse, peering into space at the ships lined up on external spars, my gaze finally rested on our craft, a sleek courier ship that looked as though it had only seen a few years in the black.

The station’s docking database listed it as the Firelight, and it was registered to a QnR Shipping Co. A quick check on the company showed it to be an import/export concern based on one of Paragon’s outer dwarf planets. Most of the company’s ships were the sorts of freighters I’d expected to be on, but they had a few fast movers that leased out to a variety of parties.

It was a solid background for the company. So well done that I couldn’t tell if the whole thing was an Intel front, or if it really was a shipping company that the PFC leased vessels from.

Either way, it would get us to Delphi in under a week, twice as fast as a bulk hauler would.

Colonel Gene had remained behind to speak with the admirals, but Master Chief Cynthia was at my side as we traversed the concourse, silent thus far on our journey.

“Will there be a crew other than us?” I asked as we neared the seventy-meter vessel’s access umbilical.

“No,” Cynthia replied. “This sort of ship typically crews three, so we’ll do just fine. Between the three of us, we shouldn’t have a problem keeping her sailing, either.” The woman winked, and I took her meaning.

The master chief didn’t need either officer for anything shipboard other than to answer comms and look pretty.

“I’ll do my best to stay out from underfoot,” I replied with a laugh. Then I glanced at our uniforms and raised a question privately. <What if we are spotted boarding the Firelight by a Delphian agent?>

<Don’t worry about it,> the chief replied. <We have a very high level of confidence that there are only two Delphian agents on Fallon Station. We have them pegged and are feeding them false intel.>

<How can you be sure?> I asked.

<Because both of them keep desperately trying to transfer to Ring 4 so they can spy on us, but we keep them from ever getting here. It’s honestly rather entertaining.>

We reached the umbilical a moment later, and Cynthia palmed the control, cycling the airlock station open. It took a minute to get down the tube, and when we had, the chief stepped into the ship’s corridor and stretched her arms.

“Ahhh, home sweet home. It’s good to be here.”

I gave her a quizzical look. “Home? You’ve been on this ship before?”

“No, never.” The other woman shook her head. “Just a tradition.”

The passage was only three meters long, ending in a T. The vessel’s small map—available on its public shipnet—indicated that crew quarters and the bridge were to the right, while cargo storage and engineering were on the left.

I followed Cynthia down the passage, noting that the ship was as clean inside as out, a far cry from the vessel I’d grown up in, and my billets planetside.

“I could get used to this,” I said with a laugh. “If I’d known that Intel rode around in birds like this, I’d have tried to transfer in sooner.”

The chief barked a laugh. “Don’t get too excited, Major. Usually we’re bunking in some shit freighter that takes forever to get anywhere. We’re only getting the royal treatment because of an intercept we want to run.”

“Is this when I finally get to learn what we’re up to?” I asked.

Cynthia glanced back at me. “Let’s get you settled. Once the colonel is aboard, he’ll brief us both.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said a familiar voice behind us.

I turned to see a woman in one of Intel’s nondescript uniforms step out of a door just past the airlock.

“You!” I exclaimed. “From the shuttle.”

The newcomer nodded. “That’s right, me. Or, as I like to call myself, Colonel Jacy.”

A flush came over me, and I stammered, “O-of course, my apologies, Colonel.”

“I don’t recall you being so formal on the shuttle,” the woman said as she approached, long, red hair bouncing on her shoulders as she closed the distance. “That’s the last time you’ll use my rank—or Cynthia’s. Safer that way.”

“I understand.”

“Good.” Jacy gestured down the passage. “Your room is second on the left. There are new clothes for you there, but first, let’s head to the bridge and get underway.”

The bridge was not significantly larger than a cockpit. There were four stations, all facing one another in a circle. In the center lay a holotank that currently displayed the bow-view no matter what angle you looked at it from.

Jacy had assigned me comms while Cynthia was responsible for engineering.

“Board’s green,” the chief announced after a minute. “Clearances?”

I nodded. “Our vector is approved, no tug required.”

“Good thing,” Jacy snorted. “Most of Fallon’s tugs are bigger than the Firelight. OK, here goes.”

A dull thud echoed through the ship as the umbilical and docking clamps let go. With the mechanical connection gone, the ship began to slide down the docking rails, flung away from the ring’s outer skin by inertial force. Magnetic fields added to the acceleration, and by the time the craft was clear of the ring, it had reached thirty meters per second.

Jacy deftly spun the craft and fired up the grav drives, shifting into our outbound lane at the maximum speed allowed within the station’s nearspace.

The bridge was shrouded in silence until we crossed the marker. We shifted vector again before Jacy fired up the fusion drives. A low thrum reverberated through the deck plate for the first few seconds, until the internal dampening systems filtered the vibration out.

“All within spec,” Cynthia confirmed. “We’ll be warmed up in two light seconds, and then you can apply full boost.”

“Good.” Jacy leant back in her seat. “I suppose we might as well have our talk right here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I nodded curtly.

“Oh, stars,” the colonel drew the word out, adding a nasal twinge. “You sound so military, I can see the starch pouring out of every…well…pore. You need to relax, Sherry. You grew up on a mining rig. Tap into that. Loosen up and talk like a real spacer, not some rod-up-the-ass prick.”

Jacy’s words hit me like a slap in the face, and though she was smiling, I decided to do as ordered and give as good as I got.

“Least I don’t have a full bird shoved up there.”

The colonel laughed. “Oh, I like that. Now whenever I hear ‘full bird colonel’, that’s going to come to mind. Nice.”

“The mission?” Cynthia prompted.

“Right.” Jacy nodded. “I’ll just get right to it. Recently, a syndicate in Chal got their hands on three crates of DSA defense NSAI cores. These cores contain data on the Delphian targeting systems, IFF signal patterns, sensor grids, and likely even have access code repositories, as well as functional encryption systems.”

“Shiiiit,” I whispered. “That’s like a back door into their…everything.”

Jacy laughed. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“How did some syndicate out in Chal get their hands on this?” Cynthia asked.

“The build-up,” I said. “They’re already doing it. The DSA is establishing themselves in Chal.”

The colonel gave me an appreciative nod. “That’s the assessment, yes. It’s normal for goods to leak when shipped through Chal—a little bit skimmed at each stop. Well, in this case, someone skimmed the wrong stuff and these cores got out into the wild. Even better, so far as we can tell, the DSA doesn’t know they’re gone yet.”

Cynthia shook her head. “That seems unlikely, but given how things can be in Chal, I’ll allow for it as a possibility.”

“How magnanimous of you,” Jacy said with a laugh. “Even if they’ve changed codes and the cores are locked out, their databases will be invaluable. Not only that, the Delphians will scramble to move assets around, and they’ll make mistakes. Opportunities abound.”

“So what’s the play?” the chief asked. “Standard handoff?”

“You wish.” Jacy laughed and slapped the console.

I found the gesture overdramatic, but then again it was likely that every aspect of her behavior was considered and constructed.

“Things are a bit trickier than that,” Jacy continued after a moment’s pause. “There’s an arms dealer in Delphi named Korinth that we’ve worked with from time to time. He put out feelers for what people would be willing to pay for DSA cores a few weeks back. We got word and made an offer. Things looked like they were progressing well, but then he canceled the buy.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked. “Do you think that the DSA got wind and made a better offer?”

Jacy shrugged. “A lot of people might have made a better offer. Or maybe smaller interests made good offers on just one core each, and Korinth decided he could do better separating them. We got an agent out to Chal in an attempt to beat Korinth’s courier, but they didn’t make it in time, and the other courier got the package. From what we hear, there was a bit of a dust-up, too. Either way, the cores are on their way to Korinth—already in the dark layer by now.”

“How will we beat them to Delphi?” I asked.

“The courier ship was low-v when it transitioned,” Jacy replied. “Plus, with the interstellar medium thick around the barycenter, they’ll have a slow transit. Our little bird can kick up to 0.7c before transition, so we’ll be able to beat them to Delphi. Barely.”

Cynthia and I shared a worried look, and I asked, “So we’re going to hit another ship when it’s already in the Delphi System?”

“Why do you think you were selected for this op, Sherry? You’re smart, you get the big picture, and you know which end of the rifle to point at the bad guys. You’ve also lived a hard life on stations and know how to get around without being seen. We’ll be in and out before anyone knows. The ship’s a hunk of junk, too. We’ll just blow it once we have what we need, and that’ll be that.”

I couldn’t help but clear my throat nervously. “Is this the extent of our plan? Normally, I like a little more…you know…planning with our plan.”

Jacy grinned as she rose and stretched. “Don’t worry, when we get to Delphi, we’ll re-assess the situation. In the meantime, we’ll practice simulated breaches on the other courier ship—it’ll give us something to do.”

“What’s the ship’s name?” Cynthia asked.

Jacy flicked a hand toward the holo, and a boxy freighter appeared. “It’s this tub here. Named the Kerrigan.”


III


Delphi


THE DARK LAYER



Aboard the Kerrigan…

“I hate the DL,” I muttered while staring at the ‘window’ display in the Kerrigan’s galley.

“So flip it to something else,” Kallie said around a mouthful of chili. “There’s nothing out there, anyway. Why are you looking?”

“Umm…” I gave a nervous laugh. “I just feel like if no one’s looking, something might sneak up on us.”

The engineer rolled her eyes in the special way she reserved only for me. “The only thing out there is dark matter. And it doesn’t sneak. Not even a little bit. If you encounter any, then it’s too late.”

Lifting my coffee mug to my mouth, I finished the now-cold liquid. “Just makes me feel better to have an eye on it.”

“But you also hate it…and you feel the need to constantly tell me that…. So I wish you’d learn to look at something else.”

“I think I’d be able to if we weren’t so close to occlusion.”

“ANSWON provided an update right before we jumped. The passage is clear.”

“Sure.” I rose from the table and ambled to the counter where the coffee machine sat, one more cup’s worth in the pot. “Still, this one’s a doozy. I half-want to pop out of the DL and see if we can pull an update.”

“Say the word,” Kallie replied. “We can dump out for a bit, no problem.”

“We’ll lose time,” I countered.

The engineer groaned. “Jax. I’m trying to help you with your issue here. I don’t give a crap either way. In or out, I just want you to stop staring into the black and twitching like there’s a bad graviton emitter in the deck plates under your feet.”

I couldn’t help but laugh as I refilled my cup. “That’d be a sight. I kinda want to do that to Oln. He always sits at the foot of the table, we could mess with him so much.”

“Or see how long it took him to lose his shit and flip the table.”

“Valid concern.”

“Captain.” Kallie’s expression grew serious. “This isn’t your general paranoia surrounding the dark layer. What’s really on your mind?”

The coffee cup felt comfortably warm in my hands. It was ceramic, not plas, one of the few comforts I afforded myself. Feeling the heat of the drink was an important part of the ritual to me. It also helped ground me as I considered Kallie’s question.

What is bothering me so much?

I hadn’t reflected on my general attitude enough to realize my current anxiety was outside my normal range—and I certainly wasn’t surprised to see that Kallie had noticed.

“The meet with Korinth, I guess. I can’t think of any reason it would go sideways, but a simple handoff with Skip shouldn’t have culminated with us blowing up a fuckin’ starship, either.”

Kallie nodded. “I agree on that point. I suppose some level of trepidation is to be expected. But Skip and his wacko brother are one thing. Korinth is another entirely. He doesn’t screw around, he does his business, and that’s it.”

“Sure.” I took a sip from my mug. “But too often, business can involve maximizing profits in an unpleasant way. I’d rather not learn the hard way that we’re no longer of any use to him.”

The engineer nodded sagely. “OK…given how things have gone lately, maybe we need some insurance. Some way to make sure that he doesn’t ice us after we make the delivery.”

“I think that’s wise. Unfortunately, the only thing we have to give Korinth that he’ll consider to be of any value is the cores.”

Kallie nodded. “I wonder, could we not bring them to the meet?”

“No.” I shook my head. “He’ll just think we failed to pick them up. We need to bring them…but maybe….”

“Maybe what?”

I downed the rest of my coffee and set the cup down on the counter. “Looks like I’m going to get to check the ANSWON updates after all. Get ready to dump out of the DL for a bit.”


ONE LAST HUNT



Aboard the Victorious Strike…

It was vanity, I knew it, but I’d long since given up caring if others thought so.

Holomirror activated, I looked over my presentation, checking every aspect of my outfit to ensure that it was perfect. While regulation only required that I wore a DSA shipsuit—a blue and white skintight sheath that covered the body from neck to toe, and was fire, impact, and vacuum resistant—I felt that, as commander of a starcruiser, I should cut a more impressive figure.

Not that my body in a sheath that showed off every curve was unimpressive. Genetics, money, and rigorous care had granted me a figure that turned every head, even though I was pushing into my ninth decade.

But any young woman with good chromosomes could turn heads in a shipsuit. I preferred to add some mystery, do something out of the norm.

While it wasn’t strictly by the book, I liked to add the dark blue jacket from my rank’s formal uniform, tightly belted to accent my waist and hips. Polished boots rose to my knees, the low heels hiding a-grav generators that gave me added stability in a fight, or doubled as maglocks should artificial gravity fail.

Few ship commanders wore weapons; in fact, it was policy for crew to be unarmed when not in combat, but that was not a policy I followed.

A pulse pistol was always strapped to my thigh when aboard the Victorious Strike, a reminder to my crew that I was in command and that I had earned my position through strength of arms.

Satisfied that I was presentable from the neck down, I checked my face, tracing a short, but well-manicured nail down my cheek, noting a new crease that I’d have to deal with the next time I was in port. Otherwise my complexion was perfect, accented by the slightest shadow around my eyes, and a darkening of my brows to ensure that even my resting visage was a stern one.

I knew what my crew called me behind my back—‘the Brooding Queen’—and I liked it. Sometimes they called me ‘the Pirate Princess’, which I was less fond of, but I had to admit that a pirate would sell their hull-plating to cut the figure I did.

My shoulder-length hair glowed softly, the iridescent strands brushing my shoulders as I turned my head side to side.

“Perfect.” I smiled at how my lips twisted as I spoke, one side lifting first, even a compliment coming with a sneer. It made my crew uncertain of what I thought, and made the captains of the freighters I inspected fall all over themselves, desperate to please me.

I set the small cap on my head, ensuring it sat off to the side and that my hair fell straight from beneath it as I gave one final look at the holomirror, widening my stance and standing hands on hips, practicing the look that would ensure I got my way in any situation.

With a final nod, I turned off the display and strode from my quarters, pausing to return the salute of a passing ensign who had snapped to attention as I emerged.

“Good morning, Ensign Andre,” I said, holding my hand to my forehead as I awaited his response.

“Commander Sinclair.” He remained rigid. “May we find victory in the field today.”

“Indeed.” I lowered my hand, the signal that he could be on his way.

The man responded in kind and resumed his brisk walk down the passage.

I approved of Ensign Andre. The man took his work seriously, and set about his tasks with an efficiency that was commendable. He drank too much while in port, but so far as I’d seen, never touched a single drink or drug while on tour—not perfect, but at a level I was willing to accept.

The lift to the command deck was only a few meters down the passage, and I entered it without meeting any other crew—which was normal, we were twenty minutes into the first watch. Few officers would be about, as most of the third watch crew liked to visit the gym after their shift. An activity I approved of.

I checked the duty register and saw that Lieutenant Reah was still on the bridge, as he was required to be until I relieved him. It was a ritual we’d become accustomed to, him taking the twenty minutes I granted to finalize his morning status report and ensure that the first watch crew had everything they needed to assume their duties for the day.

The lift doors opened, and I stepped out into the short corridor that led to the bridge. My office was on the left, but I rarely used it, preferring to run the ship from the command chair as much as possible.

I liked to be seen.

The bridge’s doors slid open as I approached, revealing the circular room in the center of the Victorious Strike that was both the ship’s heart and mind.

The middle of the room was dominated by a three-meter-wide holotank, currently displaying what lay in a five-light-second radius around the ship. Surrounding it were two tiers of consoles, able to seat twenty crew, should the need arise.

Most of the time, I preferred to run the ship lean. I found that decisions were made faster if there were fewer people to deliberate with.

Two officers sat in the lower ring, and four in the upper. On my right, set between the bridge’s two doors, was my command chair, overlooking the bowl and providing its occupant with a clear view of the entire space.

Lieutenant Reah was already standing by the time my eyes alighted on him, a clear, “Commander on the Bridge!” ringing out, back of his hand pressed against his brow as he said the words.

The crew rose and stood at attention as well, holding their positions while the lieutenant and I completed our morning exchange.

“Good morning, Victorious Strike,” I said in response, my customary wry grin on my lips as I turned toward Reah. “Officer of the Watch, is everything in order?”

“Yes, Commander. All systems are operating within two percent of maximum efficiency, and shift changeover is completed, with all stations reporting online.”

“Very good,” I replied, returning his salute and lowering my hand.

He followed suit a moment later, and the bridge crew took their seats, resuming their morning activities.

“Is there anything noteworthy to report?” I asked.

Reah shook his head. “Inbound lanes are busy, as expected, but so far, all the ships we’ve checked over are well rated and have passed muster. Our friends aboard the Five Moons provided us with a full dump of Chal’s outer beacon data as it stood right before they jumped, so we have a list of seven more ships we expect to see dump out of the DL in the next few hours.”

I pulled the list up on my ocular HUD and pursed my lips as the names of the vessels scrolled past my vision.

“Wait.” I scowled at one of the names. “The Kerrigan is still on this list. Based on their v, they should have been here already.”

Reah gave a derisive snort. “Maybe they broke down. I wouldn’t be surprised. If they did, it’ll be a week before we see them. The northern L is almost fully occluded.”

I shook my head. “No, something’s up.” I glanced at the scan officer. “Ensign Luke. The moment you see the Kerrigan, inform me.”

“Yes, Commander,” the man replied. “Tuning the arrays for their approach and profile.”

“Very good.” I turned back to Reah. “Jax Bremen wouldn’t do a run this close to occlusion if he didn’t have a haul to make it worth his while.”

The lieutenant nodded. “Of course, Commander. The man does like to play it safe—for a smuggler.”

“He does, indeed,” I mused.

I’d stopped him twice before, both times finding small amounts of contraband on his ship. Enough to get him fined, but not face any serious sanctions. In both cases, what we’d found would have been sufficient to make his haul worthwhile, but I always suspected there was more. Perhaps this time we’d find the motherlode.

Nodding to Reah, I said, “You are relieved, enjoy your rest.”

“Aye.” He gave a curt nod. “I stand relieved.”

The lieutenant turned and walked to the far door, exiting the bridge as I settled into the command chair. I spent the first ten minutes reviewing the third watch reports, noting the ships they’d scanned, and flagging two for portmaster inspections when they reached their destinations. There wasn’t anything overtly wrong with their customs declarations, but amongst any dozen ships, there were always at least a couple of bad apples, and my instincts picked them out more often than not.

Following that, I dove into supply and requisition reports, checking over what we’d need to stock up on the following week when we docked with Geralt Station in orbit of Lothar. With the Victorious Strike at the tail end of a month-long patrol at the northern edge of the Delphi System, the list contained pretty much everything.

What we did have was a hold full of contraband, and a ledger loaded with fines. One of the reasons I was allowed to run the Victorious Strike the way I saw fit was because no other ship in the DSA had a record half as good as mine when it came to picking smugglers out of the legitimate traders.

Even so, I wouldn’t mind catching just one or two more before our tour was over.


10


AN OLD FRIEND



Aboard the Kerrigan…

The entire crew, barring Oln, had gathered on the bridge as we prepared to transition back into normal space at the edge of the Delphi System.

The brief shift before we reached the barycenter had confirmed that the route through to our destination was still clear, and we managed to make the journey in only nine days.

But despite the passage of time, the anxiety I’d felt since leaving Chal still hadn’t subsided. I suppose it made sense, since my worry was over things that had not yet come to pass.

Stars…why am I being so formal about my fear? I chuckled aloud in an attempt to dismiss the worry. Just say you’re fucking terrified that Korinth is going to ice us all.

“What’s so funny, boss?” Tammy asked.

“Your hair,” I muttered.

Of course, Tammy wore her hair short, and didn’t do anything unusual with it at all.

My comment earned me a dirty look from her and a groan from Finn.

“Sorry, just out of sorts, and trying to talk myself into a better mood.”

“By making fun of your pilot?” Finn asked.

“No, by telling myself jokes in my head, laughing aloud, making a snarky comment, and then being judged by my crew.”

Kallie snorted and shook her head as she met my gaze. “Is it working?”

“No.”

“We’re t-minus thirty from transition,” Tammy announced a moment later. “May there be nothing nearby when we come out.”

I felt another stab of fear take me, and after a few seconds’ deliberation, spoke up. “Dump five seconds early.”

“Five? You sure?” Tammy asked.

“Yes. Do it.”

“You got it, boss. Dumping out…now.”

The forward holo had previously displayed a number of vital readings over a black background. A second later, that was replaced by the ruddy light of the L with Delphi gleaming in the center of the screen.

“Home sweet home,” Kallie said in a quiet voice.

“I thought you were from one of the mining rigs on the rim,” Finn commented.

“Uh huh,” the engineer replied. “But where I was born and where I consider home are different.”

With a nod, I added, “Same. I wasn’t born on this ship, but it’s my home.”

“Needs a coat of paint,” Finn said. “And something pretty on the bulkheads. Ever thought of a nice mural?”

“Har har.” I pulled up the passive scan data, reviewing what the ship could see, while Finn stripped the nearest beacon’s signal.

The Kerrigan was one of a dozen nearby ships on insystem vectors that aligned with jumps from Chal. Several of them had jumped ahead of us before we left, and a few had been trailing behind. This was normal, as the dark layer functioned as a velocity multiplier. The faster you were traveling on entry, the bigger the boost you received.

I did note that three other ships were further behind where they should be. Either they’d transitioned out for an ANSWON report, or dumped out of the DL further from Delphi, not trusting the reports, and were drifting closer in normal space.

“Looks normal for an occlusion cycle,” Finn said. “Everything on the north side is coming in, while traffic going south to Paragon is amping up. Everything looks just as I’d expect it to.”

“Not keen on being one of the last ships in,” I said, counting only two freighters further outsystem than the Kerrigan. “DSA likes to take a gander at the stragglers. Usually, they’re smuggling shit.”

“We kinda resemble that remark,” Tammy said. “Thanks for the beacon data, Finn. Plotting my course. Do you want to register it, or should I?”

“I like to feel useful,” he replied. “I’ll do it. Gives me a reason to reconnect to the outer space traffic control. I have a friend who rotated out this way, I can pass along a message for any noteworthy news.”

“You sure have a lot of friends,” Kallie said, resting her chin on a hand. “How is that possible?”

“Dunno.” Finn winked. “Maybe I’m nice to people or something. You should try it.”

The engineer waved a hand in dismissal. “Nah…I’m all set. I don’t really want people to like me. Safer that way.”

“Safer from what?” Tammy asked.

Kallie fixed her with an uncertain look. “Uh…from people. I thought that was apparent.”

I couldn’t help but snicker, and she turned to me. “You especially.”

“Don’t worry,” I raised my hands in mock-defense. “I’m fully repelled by you.”

A look of consternation crossed Kallie’s face. “I feel like this misfired."

“Speaking of misfires,” Tammy frowned at her board. “I’m showing red on the starboard burner. Secondary thermal sensor on the bell. Should I ignore it?”

Kallie rose from her seat. “No, I should take a look. A few bits of debris got through the shields when the Restaff blew. Everything checked out before, but maybe something shook loose during transition.”

“Want a hand?” I asked.

“No. Remember? I don’t like people.”

The engineer stalked off the bridge to Finn’s soft laughter.

“I think that bit her in the ass more than she liked.”

“Leave my ass out of it,” Kallie shouted over her shoulder.

I turned and gave Finn a warning look. “There is no safe response. Do the smart thing.”

He nodded, still grinning.

<And I’m watching the bridge optics, Finn. Watch it.>

“Watch what? Your ass?” the breacher taunted, then frowned. “Huh.”

I couldn’t help but notice that his tone had changed from amused to serious in an instant.

“What is it?”

“There’s a shadow,” he said absently. “It’s being careful, but I spotted it.”

I pulled up scan, looking for what Finn had seen. “It’s damn hard to stealth this close to occlusion. Everything’s so bright, ships are always in front of something.”

“Uh huh.” Finn agreed. “That’s why I spotted them in two minutes.”

“There!” I put up the visual on the main screen. “Shit…it’s big, whatever it is.”

“Could just be an ore hauler coming in from the cloud,” Tammy suggested. “Those things are cold as fuck a lot.”

A laugh came from the bridge’s entrance. I glanced up to see Oln filling the doorway. “Tammy, you said ‘fuck a lot’.”

“Gawd…what did I do to end up here?”

“Focus, people,” I grunted. “That’s no ore hauler’s profile.”

Finn blew out a slow breath. “You thinking it’s DSA?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but that’s a big bertha, no little patrol boat.”

“Hard to say, without being able to tell distance,” Tammy chimed in.

<Kallie, how we looking?>

<Secondary sensor was right. Bell’s got microfractures. We can burn, but only up to fifty percent.>

I did my best not to clench my jaw. <Can we initiate?>

<Yeah, passing the details to Tammy.>

“Course laid in, boss,” the pilot said a moment later. “Good to burn?”

“Yes, ease into it. I don’t want them to think we’re nervous.”

“Could we just try to drift?” Finn asked. “From their angle, the barycenter is behind us.”

I shook my head. “We were conserving heat orbs in the DL. Ship’s hot, we probably stand out like a—Oh shit.”

EM emissions lit up around the dark ship, followed by a burn lancing into the dark as its engines came to life.

Finn groaned. “Aaand we’re being hailed. It’s the DSA alright.”

I nodded. “Put it up.”

The main holo shifted to show a woman with commander’s bars on her lapel standing in the forefront of a busy bridge. Unlike Reeve, she didn’t hide her crew, knowing it served as a show of force.

“Aw crap,” I muttered, shaking my head.

The woman was Commander Sinclair. My own personal nemesis.

“Captain Bremen,” she said. “How nice to see you. We’re passing a vector. Come alongside and prepare for boarding.”

The connection terminated, and Finn muttered a rather inventive curse word. Tammy was silent.

Oln laughed. “Well, I’m gonna get a bite to eat. Food in DSA brigs is shit.”

The Daedalus Job

After the brief conversation with Captain Bremen, I sat back in my chair, glad for a bit of sport in my day. I was considering swapping out the standard DSA shipsuit I wore to a double-layered one that was more impact resistant when Lieutenant Fledge reached out to me.

<Commander Sinclair. I see that we are on intercept with the Kerrigan.>

I was momentarily surprised by the statement. While it was unknown to my crew, Fledge was an officer in the DSA Intelligence Section. On the record—such as it was—he was stationed on my ship to watch over outsystem travel, looking for signs of Paragonian infiltration into Delphi. However, I suspected that he was also here to keep an eye on me.

Though my unconventional ways garnered me enough wins in the field to grant me the leeway to do as I saw fit, it also brought about enough jealousy in the ranks that some would be more than happy to see me trip and fall.

One thing I knew for certain, Fledge was no mere lieutenant. I had a suspicion that he outranked me. There was nothing overt in his behavior, just a hint every now and then that, push come to shove, he could do as he pleased.

<We are, Lieutenant Fledge,> I replied, using his rank on purpose like I always did to see if I could draw out a reaction.

<Good. I will accompany you.>

There it was, those little hints. Not a request to accompany me, but not an order that contained a reference to authority. A simple statement, as though his authority was both implied and understood.

It grated on me like nothing else. He was a burr in my side, the one thing I couldn’t control that lingered in the back of my mind with the potential to mar the perfect operation of my ship.

<Very well,> I replied, not granting him a modicum of deference. <Meet me in Bay 03.>

I didn’t wait for a response before I closed the connection.

Fledge rarely joined boarding parties, preferring to watch feeds from the inspection teams. Whenever he did come along, things were invariably more…problematic.

Yes, I think I’ll swap out for the heavier shipsuit.


11


INSPECTION



Aboard the Kerrigan…

The DSA was smarter than a pirate like Reeve. Commander Sinclair especially. They knew better than to grapple onto a ship like the Kerrigan. Even with a hundred-meter umbilical.

Not that a ship like mine would pose much of a threat to a cruiser like the Victorious Strike. The ship was over fifteen hundred meters long, bristling with weapons and sheathed in both ice and carbon plating. Even the limpets I had in storage would do little damage.

“The DSA shuttle is at our airlock,” Finn announced. “Seal is good.”

I rose from my seat, not looking forward to the next hour or so. “OK, let them know I’m on my way down. Any sign of the commander?”

Finn shook his head. “No, they didn’t provide any information on who is in the shuttle. My only communication has been with the pilot.”

“She’s probably there,” I muttered. “I don’t know why, but she has it in for me.”

<Probably the way you leer at her,> Kallie commented from wherever she was on the ship. <I won’t deny that she looks amazing in her uniform, but I suspect she wears it on purpose to elicit reactions she can then use against people.>

“Huh,” I grunted as I walked off the bridge. “I suppose I’m just not devious enough to deal with her.”

<That much is apparent.>

<Is the honeypot ready?> I asked the engineer over the Link as I reached the ladder and slid down to the cargo deck.

<Of course. I put it in a new spot, too, and then tucked some junk into the places they found before. Should have them searching for a bit, and then suitably satisfied when they find it.>

<Good, I’ll do my part, and with any luck, we’ll be on our way in a few hours.>

Kallie sent an affirmative response as my boots hit the deck plate at the forward end of the port-side passage. It was only a fifteen-meter walk to the airlock, and when I arrived, I was greeted by Commander Sinclair’s glowering visage staring at me through the window.

Yay.

I gave her a jaunty wave as I waited for the lock to finish its cycle, and when it opened, I was surprised to see another officer with her.

Well, that’s a first.

Two soldiers in light armor were behind them, and the pair moved into the passage ahead of the officers, both giving me a once-over before slipping past to check the port-side corridor.

“Clear,” one announced, and with that, Sinclair and the other officer stepped forward.

He was tall and slender, a clear spacer by birth. Close-cropped black hair framed an angular face with almost pouting lips. His was the look of a man who was used to getting his way.

Something in Sinclair’s body language told me she felt the same way—and didn’t like it.

“Captain Bremen,” she said upon reaching me. “So nice to see you again.”

I extended my hand. “Always a pleasure to have you grace us with your presence, Commander.”

<Ohhhh too thick, too thick!> Kallie’s voice came into my mind.

<Stop. She makes me uncomfortable enough without you yammering in my ear.>

Kallie began to respond, but I muted her as the commander spoke.

“This is Lieutenant Fledge. He’ll be joining us for the inspection today.”

Behind her, the airlock cycled, and I saw the team of DSA inspection specialists enter the airlock. Despite Sinclair’s and Fledge’s unnerving presences, those four would be the real threat. Should they find our hidey holes, we’d be in a world of trouble.

I knew the game the commander was playing—especially since this was our third round. She would tour the ship, questioning me about everything. She’d disrupt my bridge crew, pressing them for details about their personal lives, and judge them harshly. All the while, her inspectors would dig into every nook and cranny on the ship, leaving a trail of access panels and upended deck plates in their wake.

The crew would be unable to focus on distracting or herding the inspectors, which was the team’s goal.

But I trusted in Kallie. She’d gotten us through more than just the two prior inspections from Sinclair. The Kerrigan might look like a flying toaster, but my bird had a rep for getting cargo through intact and undiscovered.

Then again, I’d never moved something like DSA NSAI cores before.

For the first twenty minutes, things went as expected. I escorted the pair of officers to the bridge and granted them access to our flight logs, which they reviewed while questioning both Finn and Tammy about trivial issues that had nothing to do with moving cargo.

Then Sinclair laughed. “A writ of marque? Seriously?” She turned to me and looked me up and down. “I’d ask who you slept with to get it, but no one would consider that a favor worth granting a writ in return.” She shook her head in disgust. “I guess they’re just for sale now in Chal. How much did it cost?”

I shrugged. “I’m sorry, are you representing the government of Chal now? Is there a fee I need to pay for being granted such a writ?”

“Government,” Sinclair snorted out the word. “Chal is only civilized by the loosest usage of that term. To say they have a government is like saying that a murder of crows is a parliament.”

“Seems like an apt comparison to me,” I replied evenly. “Most governments excel at murder.”

“As do you,” Lieutenant Fledge commented. “Blew up another ship in the Chal System. Didn’t even give them a chance to abandon their vessel.”

“That is not required when exercising one’s writ in Chal,” I took extra care to keep my tone calm and measured. “And we registered the action. It was an act of defense, and we took no cargo or goods of any kind during the engagement, so there is nothing taxable to declare.”

“We’ll see about that,” the commander mused. “Tell me, how did you manage that initial explosion?”

“An IED,” I said. “Kallie whipped it up and stuffed it in a crate.”

Fledge turned to me and cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? And what did they think they were getting?”

I pursed my lips and sighed. “A few cases of high-grade beam lenses—which they actually did. We had to sacrifice some of them to make the ruse work.”

“So?” The commander joined the lieutenant in staring at me with a raised brow. I had to keep myself from chuckling at the image they presented. “Why would you bother with the IED, then?”

“Because I didn’t want to give it all to them. Plus, we were hoping to claim their ship as a prize, then it would have been well worth the tradeoff.”

“Instead, you blew it out of the black,” Fledge accused.

“No,” I shook my head. “And that’s also why we didn’t give them any warning to abandon ship. Our IED didn’t yield a blast big enough to destroy the Restaff. They either deliberately broke their antimatter bottle’s containment in an attempt to take us out with them, or it failed on its own.”

“Do you know how many times I’ve seen ships meet their end in antimatter explosions?” Sinclair asked, hands on hips that I was taking great care not to admire.

“Probably zero.” I tossed out the response with a nonchalant tilt of my head.

“Exactly.” She nodded for emphasis. “Zero times. So why do you think I don’t buy your tale?”

This time I couldn’t help but laugh. “Because you haven’t been to Chal?”

“Funny man,” she muttered. “We’ll copy all these logs and see if there are any steps that the DSA would like to take in response to your actions.”

“Copy away.”

A moment later, Sinclair cocked her head, a sneer that I suspected she thought was a grin spreading across her lips. “Well, well, Captain, looks like we have found some interesting cargo on your flying garbage heap. Let’s go have a look, shall we?”

I did my best to appear dejected. “Shit. Yeah, let’s go have a look.”

We found the inspection team in the forward engineering bay, deck plates piled against the bulkheads, and one of the backup plasma transfer lines disassembled.

<Shit, Kallie, is this where—>

<Yes, but those are further down. I put some high-capacity superconductor batteries in here as well. Hopefully they won’t look further.>

“My, my,” Commander Sinclair shook her head in mock-dismay. “Captain Bremen, SC batts with these charge capacities are outside the capacity allowed for civilian weapons. You know they can’t be brought into Delphi.”

I gave a dramatic sigh—hopefully not too dramatic. “Yeah, well, we have to survive in Chal, and every two-bit criminal in that system has batts at least this good. We’d run out of charge five minutes into a firefight with Delphian-legal ones. We tuck them away in an inaccessible place when we leave Chal. Otherwise we’d have to buy new ones every time we go back.”

Sinclair shook her head. “I don’t see why you think that’s anything I’d care about. Maybe if you weren’t a smuggler, you wouldn’t need to be loaded for bear every time you go into Chal.”

“Again,” I made a show of trying not to clench my jaw. “You probably need to visit Chal before you pass judgment.”

“I don’t need to do anything, Bremen. Well…other than confiscate these and fine you for them.”

Kallie was leaning against a nearby bulkhead, and she gave a derisive snort. “What are you going to do with them after that?”

“Turn them in,” Sinclair responded, a note of confusion in her voice. “What are you implying?”

“Nothing,” the engineer said with a languid shrug. “Just…everyone knows that the DSA makes scratch on the other end by selling shit like this back to ships headed to Chal. Hell, these cores have three sets of DSA confiscation stamps on them. They’re carefully obscured, but if you look hard, you’ll spot them.”

Commander Sinclair turned to face Kallie, stretching up to her full height. “Are you suggesting that the DSA participates in illegal arms dealing?”

The engineer held up her hands and shook her head vigorously. “No! Of course not. I think it’s more likely that you have crooked officers in your impound warehouses, or that your security is so porous that any crook can walk off with shit you’ve confiscated. I always suspect stealing and crooked officers before some sort of systemic plot to enrich the DSA on both ends…granted, that’s kinda stealing and crooked too.”

<Easy now,> I warned her. <Remember what you said, don’t lay it on too thick.>

The goal was to distract them and not have them look any further, not get us brought in on questioning for stealing from DSA impound.

While Kallie’s accusations appeared to be working on Sinclair, Lieutenant Fledge was a different matter. The man had dropped down into the opening the inspection team had made, and was peering into the plasma conduit.

“Well, well,” he said after a minute. “Batteries we can forgive. But what you’ve got in here is another issue entirely.”

“Mold?” I asked, glancing at Kallie. “I told you to scrub the backup lines.”

“What is it?” Commander Sinclair asked, her visage darkening further a she turned to Fledge. “More batteries?”

“No, nothing so mundane.” He climbed out of the opening and turned to the inspection team. “Pull out the next segment, but be very careful. We wouldn’t want to damage those military NSAI cores.”

“DSA military?” Sinclair asked, and Fledge nodded. She turned to me, a grin splitting her lips wide. “Well, well, Mister Bremen. It looks like I’ll finally get to have you visit my ship for a change.”

I glanced at Kallie and breathed out a defeated sigh. I was about to ask Sinclair how she wanted to handle bringing my ship in when Fledge spoke.

“Commander, we won’t be doing that. This is an opportunity I’d prefer not to waste. You can be certain that whoever has contracted the Kerrigan to move these cores has eyes watching us right now. Half the ships around us sell reports of every boarding that happens at the system’s edge. If we’re to catch the buyer red-handed, we can’t make it look like we found anything of note.”

Sinclair’s eyes widened, but she didn’t respond audibly. For several long minutes, the pair stared at one another, until she sagged and nodded. “Very well, but we’re still finishing our inspection.”

“Of course,” Fledge said. “I’d be shocked if it were just those three cores. They come in cases of five, you know.”

Kallie began clenching her hands into fists, and I gave her an understanding look. What Fledge was proposing was far more dangerous than ending up in a DSA prison.

They were going to make us set Korinth up.


12


THE DEAL

If it weren’t for the fact that we were going to have to lie to one of the most dangerous men in the L, I would have been rather amused by how pissed off Sinclair was over the situation.

The commander had been so pleased to have me dead to rights with some seriously illegal cargo on board, only to have DSA Intel swoop in and steal her thunder.

Even better? If we made sure Korinth got nailed to the wall, we were off free and clear.

Even more better? Sinclair’s inspection team had only found seven of the fifteen cores. Less than half. That meant we could still sell the rest.

“I think we have a deal, then.” I rose from the table in our small galley and walked to the chiller, where I pulled out a beer. “But I’m going to need official documentation, or we don’t do shit.”

“You’re pretty damn cocky for a man caught with his hand in the cookie jar,” Sinclair hissed from her seat at the head of the table. “We could still choose to haul you over to the Victorious Strike and introduce you to our brig.”

“Commander,” Fledge held up his hand. “Your pride is not worth putting a win like this at risk. Everyone is going to relax, and we’re going to make the exchange happen. It’ll all be logged and processed. We’ll see who he sells to, and then bring the whole operation down.”

“Except me,” I clarified. “Nothing happens until I have a guarantee with the DSA IS’s tokens on it.”

Sinclair’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, a lot of things could still happen without a guarantee in your hands.”

Fledge shot her a look before turning back to me. “Yes, I’m working on that as we speak. We’re on a bit of a time crunch, and a few light hours from a final authority. We’ll have to get underway before you get one with a complete set of tokens, but I’ll provide you something provisional in a few minutes.”

I pursed my lips, not liking the sound of that. “OK, that will do for now. What are we going to do about the cores? I assume you’re not going to let us take the real deal to Korinth.”

A grin split Fledge’s lips. “Actually, we are.”

“What!” Sinclair thundered. “No. I forbid it.”

“Relax, Commander.” The spook seemed entirely nonplussed. “They’ll be useless. I’ll make sure of it.”

The moment those words left Fledge’s mouth, I realized why he was far less worried about things going wrong than Sinclair. She realized it too.

“You plan to go with him,” she whispered, gesturing at me. “With this fool.”

I placed a hand on my chest. “Ouch.”

“And you are missing the big picture,” the IS man shook his head. “You’re out here swatting at flies, counting yourself a mighty victor when you take one out. But those flies are here because of a great stinking boar in our midst. I want to kill the boar. Then the flies have nothing to feast on, and they die off.”

“Wow…that feels worse than being called a fool. Granted, you both are so entitled, you don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about, so I’ll let it slide.”

“Oh?” the commander rolled her eyes. “Pray tell, Captain Bremen, what is it that we don’t understand?”

“Korinth isn’t the thing the flies are swarming around. It’s the entire L. So long as the three systems aren’t unified, there’s opportunity, and a buck to be made.”

Fledge barked a laugh. “This isn’t going to go anywhere. Commander Sinclair, you are dismissed. You may take your inspectors and return to your ship. I’ll take full responsibility for the cubes.”

“It’s going to take something more than a lieutenant’s word for me to do that,” she replied.

I had suspected that Fledge was undercover. What I hadn’t expected was that the commander was not fully read into his situation.

Oh, that must burn her cookies so much.

To my great dismay, they didn’t conduct their conversation aloud, though it lasted several minutes.

I finished off my beer, and after watching them in silence for another minute, shook my head and returned to the chiller. “Either of you want one? You’ll have to stay hydrated if you want to keep this up.”

“No.” Commander Sinclair shook her head. “I’m leaving.”

She stalked to the door and then stopped on the threshold. Her shoulders heaved, and she spoke without turning.

“Eventually I’ll catch you, Bremen. One day, you won’t have another deuce up your sleeve.”

“Then I’ll pull one out of yours,” I replied.

She didn’t say another word, and I sagged against the counter, silently thanking the stars that they’d given me the out they had.

“You still offering a beer?”

I looked up to see Fledge standing before me with a weary grin on his lips. “I could really use one right now.”

The Daedalus Job

The crew gathered around the white plas table in the galley, each member looking dour and unhappy in their own way as they regarded the man standing next to me.

“I’d like to introduce you all to our newest crewmember, Fledge. He’s going to be joining us for the handoff with Korinth. We make sure everything goes smooth as silk, and we all get off with a full pardon.”

Fledge nodded. “Jax is right. I have provisional approval, and we’ll have it all locked down before we reach Myka Station.”

“And what if you don’t get final approvals?” Oln asked. “Do I get to crush you?”

Fledge chuckled. “You can try. But it’ll just mean that the op is off and you all go to prison. It’s in your best interests to go along with this—oh, and if any of you let anything slip to anyone about the DSA knowing about these seven cores, the deal’s off for the whole crew.”

“Hey, whoa,” I turned to the IS man. “That’s not the agreement we had.”

“Our agreement was a smooth handoff. If the word gets out that I was here, then things won’t be smooth.”

I could tell by the look in his eyes that there was no wiggle room to be had. Chances were that after the handoff, we’d be sent on a long trip to somewhere unimportant; best for us and the IS if the Kerrigan wasn’t around when Korinth went down.

“We’ll be good,” Kallie spoke up before I did. “None of us want to mess things up. Don’t worry.”

“Good.” Fledge swept his gaze over the crew, then gestured for me to sit. “Now, we don’t exactly know how things are going to go down when we get to Myka. Korinth runs these sorts of things a lot of different ways. Sometimes the clients come to the product, sometimes the product goes to the clients. Hell, he could hold an auction right in the Kerrigan’s main hold. We’ll need to be flexible.”

“You won’t be visible, will you?” Finn asked. “Magically appearing crew won’t give people the warm fuzzies.”

“I won’t,” Fledge confirmed. “This isn’t my first op. We’ve got people on Myka, though. Thing’ll be well in hand. The main thing is that we stay flexible, and no one gets worried or antsy. In a week, you’ll all be free and clear, enjoying a vacation while things wrap up.”

The crew exchanged worried looks, and I knew I’d have to speak with each one individually to ensure that nothing funny went on over the next few days.

The Daedalus Job

The following morning, my daily inspection took me to the forward engineering bay were Kallie was still putting things back together.

“Come to lend a hand?” she asked.

“Ummm…No?”

She fixed me with a level stare and I raised my hands in surrender.

“OK, what do you need me to do?”

“I’m done with the plasma line, can you put all the deck plates back down?”

“On it.” I walked over to where the plates were stacked against the bulkhead and grabbed the first one, setting it into an open slot. “So what do you think of Fledge?”

“I hate him,” Kallie said without preamble. “Guy’s a grade-A douche. I’m also worried about him screwing with the seven cores. What if he frigs them up? How will we pass that off to Korinth?”

I knew what she was getting at. We had to assume that Fledge had the entire ship bugged and that our network was tapped as well. Speaking in code was one of our few methods of communication.

Granted, we didn’t have much of a code, so vague hints would have to do the trick.

Kallie was worried about the same thing I was. That Korinth would be expecting fifteen cores and Fledge only knew of seven. If the DSA learned that there were eight other cores that they’d not rendered safe to sell, our days would be numbered.

“We’ll have to keep Korinth in the dark as much as possible,” I said. “Hope that the DSA takes him down before he realizes we double-crossed him.”

“That doesn’t sound easy. Maybe we should just come clean? Read him in. Could be that Korinth would be OK working for the DSA on this one. He still gets paid either way.”

I knew she wasn’t actually suggesting what it sounded like. She meant tell Korinth that seven of the cores were useless and traceable by the DSA, while eight weren’t. It was an option, and one I wasn’t against keeping in my back pocket.

“Sure,” I nodded as I set another plate into place. “It can work the other way too. Insurance policies all around.”

Kallie grunted as she set a console’s cover back into place. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Smuggler’s insurance. Get you out of a jam when the hammer comes down.”

“Almost rhymed,” I said with a laugh.

She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Not a poet, don’t I know it.”

“I wonder where we’ll go after this,” I mused. “Our rep is going to be in tatters.”

“Well, we still have Korinth’s pay.” Kallie’s lips twitched as she referred to the money that was supposed to have been paid to Skip for the cores. “We can use that to hide out till things settle down.”

“So long as they do. We’re gonna want to make sure the big K is dead and buried before we move around in public again. We’ll need to go somewhere not in the three systems.”

The engineer snorted. “No way am I going out to a cloud-mining op. Those places are gross….”

“There are other options.”

“Not in the L, there aren’t. And no one’s left for a thousand years, not since the plasma storms intensified after Latara collapsed. We’re stuck in here, and have to make the best of it no matter what. Your pipe dreams notwithstanding.”

“I guess,” I chuckled while grabbing another plate. “Probably a shit-show outside the nebula, too.”

Kallie joined in with her own musical laughter. “Yeah, probably. Galaxy’s a total mess, I bet.”

I nodded and gave her a wink as I grabbed another plate, happy to be working on something mindless, something that didn’t require me to figure my way out of the maze we were in.

Because there was no way I was blindly trusting that Fledge would get us off free and clear.

No way in the L.


13


KORINTH



Aboard the Firelight…

“It amazes me, Sherry,” Colonel Jacy said to me as we watched Myka Station grow larger in the forward holodisplay, “how the Delphians manage to function at all. They’re so disorderly.”

“That’s what a person would see when they look at an anthill,” Cynthia replied before I could respond. “To an outsider, it appears to be chaos. But they have their own order. Their own methods.”

The colonel snorted. “Don’t give me that. You assume two things not in evidence, Cynthia. The first being that I don’t understand how the Delphians do things. I’ve spent nearly as much time in their system as ours over the past decade.”

“Then you should better appreciate how they function and are able to advance apace of us,” Cynthia countered.

“And the second?” I prompted.

“The second,” Jacy turned to fix me with a bemused look. “Is to assume that ants are efficient, or a functional model worth emulating. We would not be so happy with an ant morality. The Delphians less so.”

The master chief barked a laugh. “OK, so now that you’ve taken a casual remark far too seriously, what’s our next move? System traffic reports show the Kerrigan spending some quality time with a DSA cruiser.”

“Do you think the inspectors will find the cargo?” I asked.

Jacy shrugged. “Hard to say. The Kerrigan has a good reputation for getting things from point A to point B with minimal losses. Then again, the Victorious Strike has its own rather impressive reputation. Hard to say which will come out on top.”

Cynthia pursed her lips. “We have to continue under the assumption that the Kerrigan will come here to Myka for their designated meet.”

“Of course,” Jacy nodded. “But depending on when they finish with their unwelcome visitors, we’re looking at four or five days before they get here.”

“What are we going to do?” I asked. “Is the plan still to run an intercept?”

Jacy shook her head. “No, not while they’re in the black. Even if the DSA doesn’t find shit, they’ll still be watching the Kerrigan like the bloodthirsty hawks they are. No, we’re going to have to wait till they get to Myka.”

“The meet won’t be right away,” Cynthia said. “Korinth will wait a day or two to make sure there’s no heat on the Kerrigan. That’ll give us time to breach and get the cores.”

“And we’ll set up a backup plan.” Jacy gave me a smirk that sent a chill down my spine. “Did you do your homework on Korinth?”

The Daedalus Job

I sat at the club’s bar, nursing a fruity cocktail whose name currently escaped me. It was good, but I knew I wouldn’t be ordering another. I had to remain sharp for when Korinth entered and I began the operation.

<You’ll do fine,> Jacy said from where she sat in a distant booth. <Just stop sitting so straight. Lean over the bar a bit. Relax.>

<Easy for you to say,> I retorted with more vehemence than I meant. <You’re not the one about to throw herself at a dangerous arms dealer. He could take me out with a snap of his fingers.>

Jacy’s winning smile appeared in my mind. <I won’t let that happen. It’s why I’m here. To make sure he still behaves.>

<Or at least that you get retribution,> I countered.

<You’ve got credit, you’re a buyer. He’ll see that, and things will proceed according to plan.>

<You sure I shouldn’t try to buy them all?>

<It’s a given he won’t sell them as a package deal,> Jacy advised. <He’s made too many promises, so, honestly, don’t even try. A citizen who is unknown to him wouldn’t have the money to buy all fifteen. Make an offer for four. He’ll discuss price and work you down enough that you can only afford two. Don’t worry about that. So long as we can get you where the cores are, we’ll be OK.>

I nodded, taking another sip of my drink rather than replying.

<Just don’t offer more than fifty million to start. Seventy max.>

<Understood.>

Jacy didn’t respond, and I took a moment to enjoy the silence in my mind. The bar was another matter. People were lined up three-deep to get drinks, the scent and sound of all their bodies enough to drive my augmented senses into overdrive.

It reminded me of the watering holes I’d been to in my younger years…if they had been a lot cleaner. For all Jacy’s disdain of Delphi, I had to admit that the people here reminded me of those on the stations in the dark where my family had stopped for refit and refuel—so very much unlike the inner worlds of Paragon, where law and order ruled the day.

I wasn’t sure which I liked more, but I was loyal to my people. The general populace of Delphi may be decent enough, but their government and military were not headed by live-and-let-live sorts. If Paragon showed weakness, the Delphians would not hesitate to press that advantage.

And though Admiral Terezia said her job was to be prepared for war, I felt that striving to not have a war in the first place was a better mindset.

A woman pushed between me and the next seat, bellowing for her drink and nearly shoving her arm into my face.

Who am I kidding?

In that moment, the throbbing beat pounding out of the club’s sound system felt as though it was boring into my brain. The holos swirling overhead coupled with the cacophony began to overwhelm my senses.

How am I going to make a difference? How can some girl from the rigs have any part in stopping a war?

I couldn’t breathe, air entered my mouth, but didn’t feel like it was getting to my lungs. Were the station’s scrubbers failing? Were we all going to die from CO2 poisoning?

Sliding off my stool, I pushed away from the bar and shouldered my way through the crowd clamoring for their drinks—which was stupid, since they could use the Link.

It was all stupid.

But I was the stupidest of all.

The tables along the side of the room were more sparsely occupied, and an empty high-top beckoned to me. I threaded the crowd, wishing the towering heels Jacy had made me wear had a-grav stabilizers. The drink had affected me more than I’d anticipated.

I was at least glad I’d opted for the luminescent azure leggings and not the tiny skirt the colonel had suggested. Fighting to keep my ass covered while trying to walk was more than I could manage at the moment.

After what felt like forever, I reached the table—still unoccupied—and sagged against it, feeling a modicum of calm without any bodies pressed against mine.

<You OK?> Jacy asked. <Did Korinth arrive? My drones haven’t spotted him.>

<No.> I willed my mental tone to not betray the panic I felt welling up inside. <I just wanted to be able to intercept him when he gets here.>

<Fair enough. Just get another drink from a servitor. No one here has an empty hand.>

I nodded and glanced in the colonel’s direction as I pinged the bar for service. My gaze alighted on Jacy’s seat, and I was surprised to see that the woman was gone.

<Stop looking all over like that. I’m just dancing.>

I shifted to see the dance floor—which was currently in a zero-g mode, with at least sixty patrons all twisting and cavorting in the air.

At least half of them were stark naked, and several groups were having sex in a writhing cluster of bodies. Jacy was near the top of the group, not naked, but close. She’d worn a jacket earlier, but was now clothed in only a skimpy bikini and voluminous fur cuffs on her wrists and ankles.

She was twisting and gyrating in the air, her eyes closed, but somehow managing to avoid the grasping hands of other dancers who tried to pull her close.

Not the most courteous group, here.

Then again, we were in a club owned by a notorious criminal. Perhaps that was what everyone felt gave them license to behave however they pleased.

“What’ll you have?” a voice asked from next to me, and I turned to see one of the servitors at my side. Her body was sheathed in a glowing white catsuit that encapsulated an absolutely perfect human form. She looked entirely human, down to a slight appearance of annoyance in her eyes.

Who uses human staff on the floor?

“Ummm…a Black Star with a splash of Maid’s Milk.”

“You got it.” The servitor glided away, feet a dozen centimeters off the ground as she glided on a-grav fields.

<I can’t tell, are those human?>

<No, just really good simulacra. I can’t believe the Delphians are using them again. Everyone knows what happens if you make your bots look too human.>

I snorted a laugh. <The fall of civilization.>

<You think it’s a joke, but it’s not. It’s happened before.>

<Yeah.>

She was right, it had, and I knew it, but I still had trouble believing that it was the sole cause. A million factors had to be at play to bring about major societal collapse. Making machines that looked too human didn’t strike me as something that would be even a major contributing factor.

<He’s coming in.> Cynthia joined our conversation for the first time. <Should be entering in three minutes.>

I shifted slightly to get a better view of the VIP entrance. Our plan was for me to simply make a direct approach once he was settled in his reserved area at the back of the club.

It was a twenty-meter-wide hovering pad covered in couches and low tables, a small space for dancing in the center. At present, it was occupied only by two of the white-sheathed servitors, standing stock-still at either end.

The fact that a person such as Korinth would come here to have a good time—or to conduct business, whatever his actual motivations were—baffled me. There had to be at least one or two DSA IS agents in the room, probably another agency or two would be represented as well. One of the most powerful criminals in the L rarely moved about unobserved.

The servitor returned with my drink a couple minutes later, placing it in front of me just as Korinth made his entrance.

He was proceeded by a pair of guards in matte black combat armor. They boarded the hoverpad first, bounding up the floating steps to inspect the area before signaling that it was safe.

While they were still giving the seating area the once-over, I did the same with Korinth, tapping into Jacy’s drones to get a better view than I had from my high-top.

I’d seen a dozen pictures of him and knew what to expect, but it was still something else to see him in person. Over three meters tall, and weighing half a ton, he was quite literally a mountain of a man. Long, red hair flowed down his shoulders, which were clothed in a black jacket that was probably made of organic leather.

The rest of his clothing was black as well. Loose, but well fitted, and he cut an imposing figure as he stood on the far side of the dance floor, impassively surveying the writhing bodies before him.

An image of him simply reaching out and plucking a nubile body from the mass like a person would pick a grape from a vine crossed my mind. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d actually done it.

When he finally boarded his hoverpad, I expected to see the thing sag under his weight, but it didn’t shift a millimeter. Two more guards joined him, while a few more circulated through the crowds, operating more like police on patrol than hired thugs.

Shit…that’s probably because they are local police.

A person like Korinth didn’t operate in the open without buying off a lot of the local authorities.

<Well, I’m going in,> I said to Jacy. <Cover me and all that.>

<Just remember the talking points.>

I replied with a nod. We’d practiced this meet for two days, going over everything Intel knew about Korinth, and the most successful approaches that had been made in the past. Still, my first meet being with someone like him seemed ludicrous; how in the stars did Jacy and Cynthia think I could do this?

If they weren’t both known to Korinth, I would have turned and walked out of the club without a second thought.

You’ve got this, girl. Do it.

Drink still in hand, I pushed away from the high-top and skirted the edge of the dance floor, coming too close at one point, and nearly getting groped by a hand. I slapped it away, much to the delight of a group at a nearby table.

One of Korinth’s guards was waiting at the foot of the platform’s stairs. The man was half a meter taller than me, arms as thick as my waist folded across his chest, a bearded face above, glaring down at me.

“Fuck off,” he grunted before I uttered a word.

“No.” I stood my ground even though every instinct I possessed was screaming at me to run. “Korinth has come into some items I would like to buy from him.”

“He doesn’t do business here. Leave.”

Drawing in a shuddering breath, I looked the oak of a man in the eyes and shook my head. “If you cost him fifty million credits, he’ll be pissed.”

A barely perceptible shift occurred in the man, and he blinked slowly. A moment later, he nodded. “OK. Korinth will talk to you.”

He stepped aside, and as I put my foot on the first step, his massive hand came down on my shoulder, nearly crushing me.

“Just so you know, if you waste his time, you don’t just get asked to leave. I break your spine.”

I swallowed visibly, not faking the fear that struck me one iota. I’d faced death a thousand times, but always in combat, always armed and armored. Here, I had nothing but my wits and a pair of sharp heels. If I said the wrong thing, it could very well be my last night alive.

<Don’t let him scare you,> Jacy said. <I landed a microdrone in his beard. That dude makes one move, and a lovely little neurotoxin will find its way into his brain.>

I didn’t reply, but the information gave me a small measure of relief.

I straightened my shoulders and shrugged off his hand. “Try it, muscles, and I’ll cut off your dick and shove it down your throat.”

He barked a laugh, his shoulders heaving. “I kinda like you, girl. Get up there.”

His hand came off my shoulder, and I put all my concentration into navigating the floating steps in the impossible heels I wore.

Once I reached the top, I paused and took stock of my surroundings. In the center of the pad, reclining on a wide couch, sat Korinth. Behind him were two of his guards, with another pair on either end of the platform, next to the servitors. A woman was at his side, though I didn’t recall seeing her climb the stairs—which was surprising, given the shimmering bodycon dress she wore.

There was a chaise lounge next to the arms dealer, and I sauntered toward it, my eyes locked on Korinth’s, though he hadn’t yet looked my way. I was almost at the chair when he finally deigned to look at me. Without a word, I draped myself over the side and held his gaze for nearly a minute before speaking.

“I’m buying what the Kerrigan is transporting.”

In an instant, all sound from the club disappeared, a wall of suppression cutting us off from the throbbing beat and roaring crowd. Link access went with it.

The sofa creaked as he leant forward.

“Are you, now? And how do you know about what that tub has in its holds?”

Korinth’s voice rolled over me like a thunderstorm, the echoes of his words reverberating in my bones long after his utterance ended. I wondered if it was a mod or the sound suppression system that caused the effect.

Or maybe it was just that he was so freakin’ massive.

I forced a smile onto my lips. “Well, I suspect that what I’m interested in isn’t just sitting in one of the ship’s holds. Probably somewhere a bit sneakier. Especially since I saw that they got boarded by a DSA cruiser a few days back. If the items I want were spotted by an inspection team, I can promise you that the situation would have played out differently.”

“You’re rather well-informed,” Korinth rumbled.

“I have a lot of credit to spend. I want to be sure I’m spending it in the right place.”

The mountain of a man regarded me silently for a minute, then finally nodded. “Yes, so my man told me. Strange that I’ve not heard of you before. I’m rather well-connected.”

A nonchalant shrug rolled off my shoulders. “I keep a low profile. I have funds, but not the clout you do to fund the protection a more public profile requires.”

“I can appreciate that,” Korinth replied. “My people have been running a background check on you. There’s not a lot to find.”

I barked a laugh. “Shocker.”

“Dealing with unknown entities is not something I enjoy.” His brow lowered, unblinking eyes narrowing. “I don’t think we can do business.”

Throughout the conversation, the woman at his side hadn’t so much as acknowledged my presence, her attention solely on the man she was draped over, fingers idly drifting through his long locks. But at this point, she met my gaze and winked.

“Go home, little girl. You’re done here.”

“I have fifty million for four,” I pressed, not wanting to botch the deal. “I can provide proof of the funds.”

Korinth turned his face from me, looking into the woman’s, their body language closing me out. A hand landed on my shoulder, and I knew that the meeting was over.

I’d failed.

I let the guard guide me off the platform, and the moment my foot touched the club floor, I was once again assaulted by the wall of sound. And the Link.

<That didn’t look like it went well,> Jacy said a moment later. <Did you get to make the offer?>

<Barely. He shut me down because I wasn’t known to him.>

The colonel didn’t respond for a moment, and I let out a curse, realizing I’d left my drink on the platform.

Someone who knew what the fuck they were doing would have bugged that somehow.

<Head back to your hotel room,> Jacy advised. <I’ll reach out tomorrow. No point in burning this cover of yours.>

<Understood.>

The Daedalus Job

I’d taken a long shower, well over thirty minutes, glad for the luxury of what seemed to be endless hot water that the Spintzer Hotel provided. Afterward, I let the servitor lather me in lotions while drying my body and hair. It wasn’t as human-looking as the ones in the club, with plastic skin and over-sized features, but it was still a far cry from the function-over-form machines we used in Paragon.

“Would my lady like to have a pedicure and manicure?” the machine asked.

“Why the fuck not,” I said, ambling out to the main room and collapsing in a chair. “After a night like tonight, I need it.”

I wanted to tell the bot that I was going to avail myself of every service it had before being sent back to Paragon in disgrace. Thankfully, I knew better than that. Chances were that everything the bot saw and heard was recorded and reviewed.

I was even more thankful a moment later when the bot gave me a strange smile and nodded. “Yes, that was bold of you to approach me like that.”

At first, the words didn’t make sense. I wondered why a servitor would say I was bold for using it when it was assigned to my room. Then I thought maybe it was one of the bots from the club, but that didn’t make any sense, either.

“I—” the word came out, but none followed.

The servitor laughed as she set down the small microblade she was using to trim my cuticles. Her left eye closed in a long wink, and then she reached up and pulled off the front of her face.

You!” I gasped out the word, summoning all my willpower not to leap right out of my seat.

“Yes, me,” the woman—who had been curled up against Korinth less than an hour ago—said in a soft voice before placing the servitor’s mask back into place. “I hope this isn’t a bad time for us to have a chat. Korinth can’t be seen talking with random people out in public—especially ones as mysterious as you—but that’s what he has me for.”

“And you’re authorized to negotiate on his behalf?” I asked, unable to think of anything else to say. “Or will this take some go-around?”

“Ballsy and right to the point.” The woman laughed. “I like it. Name’s Penny, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Penny.”

“And you. It’s refreshing to see a new face in this business. New players, new blood. I like it.”

Something in the way the woman said the words suggested that she wasn’t speaking entirely about people with whom to barter and trade.

“Maybe I’ve been around a long time, and you just don’t recognize me,” I suggested. “Easy enough to change a face and fake a new Link ident.”

Penny laughed. “Sure, ‘easy’ for people with our means. Not for most folks. You said you have fifty mil? Delphian, I assume, right? None of that Paragonian shit here.”

I wanted to respond to that, but knew it was a trap, a way to get me to either confirm or deny the system I hailed from.

Instead, I laughed, then said, “Will you take Challian tokens?”

The woman inside the servitor’s frame laughed along with me. “Oh, hell yeah. You’re a breath of fresh air alright. Let’s talk turkey, then we’ll verify funds. You’ll have to make a deposit.”

“Understandable,” I said, nodding as she moved to my other hand.

It occurred to me that I was in a rather vulnerable position. Penny was holding a long blade sharp enough to slit my throat. My back was against a chair, and she could put her weight on my thighs, keeping me in place while going in for the kill.

I did my best not to fidget and made peace with the situation. So long as I presented no threat to her, she wouldn’t to me.

“This is where you state your offer,” Penny said after she finished trimming another finger.

With a shrug I said, “I already did.”

“Right, four cores for fifty mil. Do you do stand-up comedy? You’d be a hoot. Make me a realistic offer.”

“I’ll need you to confirm what’s on the cores,” I pressed. “Then we can see if they’re worth more.”

“Fair enough.” Penny Linked with me and passed the detailed specs on the cores. It confirmed what Intel already knew about them. It was a treasure trove. “Best part is that the DSA doesn’t even know they’re missing.”

“Yet.”

“We covered our tracks well. They might never figure it out.”

I snorted a laugh. “I heard you have over a dozen of these things. Someone’s going to fuck up, and the cat’ll be out of the bag before long. They’ve got a limited shelf life.”

“Sure,” Penny tilted her head, looking me in the eye. “And the people who move fast will be able to make the most out of what they get their hands on.”

“Sixty mil,” I said.

“For three,” Penny countered.

“Three!” I almost shouted the word, then laughed. “Yeah, that’s not going to work. I need all four.”

The other woman stopped her work and sat back on her heels. “Oh? Why’s that?”

“Business.”

She stared at me, the servitor’s oversized eyes and frozen visage betraying nothing of what was going on behind them. “Seventy.”

“For four.”

She nodded. “Yes, for four.”

“Penny, you have yourself a deal.”

“I need ten million to hold, and verification of the full amount. We’ll be in contact to arrange delivery and final payment.”

She passed me an account, and I facilitated the transfer, the banking institution adding a verification that I did indeed possess the additional sixty million credits.

“Excellent.” Penny nodded. “Now, you do know that I’m a full-service bot, right?”

I’d forgotten during the exchange that I was still completely naked following my shower.

A shiver flowed through me as Penny slid the bot’s warm hands up my thighs.

“What are you worried about? I already touched you all over when I applied the lotion. Consider this a tip for a smooth transaction.”

I didn’t want to risk upsetting Korinth’s emissary, so I nodded slowly. “OK, let’s seal the deal.”

The other woman laughed. “Oh, I knew I was going to like you.”

It turned out that I liked her too.


14


PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS

Jacy set the food on my suite’s table with deft motions as she listened to me relate the conversation with Penny.

“That’s a new one,” she said when done. “Though I have heard that Korinth has worked through proxies before. Good thing you sealed the deal. Our other two agents struck out. No late-night visits from a sexy servitor for them.”

I wondered at the colonel’s choice of words, but decided not to pursue it. If she knew, she knew. If not, then there was no need to inform her.

Then my mind backtracked and latched onto the fact that I had not been the only agent sent in to make a deal.

“Shit…really? Was I a decoy or something?”

“Sherry. Seriously,” Jacy straightened her hotel staff uniform. “Do you really think that we’d only send in one junior agent, on her first mission, to get the most important data the IS has had the chance to lay hands on in over a century? People like Korinth expect agencies to try and get valuable data whenever it pops up. If no one made a clumsy play for what he’s selling, he’d get even more suspicious than he normally is.”

I shook my head and crossed my arms. “You could have at least warned me. I felt like shit that I’d botched the job.”

Jacy wasn’t even remotely bothered by my show of defiance.

“Good, because you weren’t exactly smooth. I expect better next time.”

“What next time?”

Her façade cracked, and the colonel winked. “Well, if this all goes off without a hitch, it makes sense to keep you in the field. Making a major buy with Korinth will establish you as a mover here in Delphi, and there’s a lot we can do with that.”

I walked to the table where she had laid out the meal I’d ordered. A particularly appealing tart sat on the edge of a plate, and a moment later, it was in my mouth. “Well,” I said around the food as I chewed slowly. “I suppose I can suffer like this for a while longer.”

“Don’t get too used to it,” the other woman warned. “Missions like this keep going while they work. But when they don’t…well, let’s just say that when things come to an end, they do so abruptly. You need to stay vigilant so you make it out the other side.”

I nodded, the idea of Korinth bursting through the door and pounding me to jelly coming to mind. That was just one of the ‘abrupt’ endings that could come about.

“So, what’s the word on the Kerrigan?” I asked.

“They’re making good time,” the colonel replied. “Just under three days out. You should expect the big guy to set up a meet sometime around then.”

“Yeah,” I grabbed another tart. “I suspect he’ll do it through Penny. She indicated we’d be in touch again.”

The colonel got a knowing look in her eye. “Think she was talking about an exchange of goods, or was it perhaps something else the two of you would be swapping?”

I’d taken a bite of the tart, so I nearly inhaled it, coughing violently before recovering enough to speak. “Um…pardon?”

“Sherry,” she placed a hand on my shoulder. “Did you really think I’d put you in the field without keeping an eye on you? Don’t worry, I’m not watching the nitty-gritty, but I have to make sure our new star is safe.”

I was certain my entire body had turned red as the nebula. “What?! You saw all that?”

“No, not all of it. I mostly just listened to the audio. I have to hand it to Penny—she’s one hell of a woman in bed. I’m a bit surprised that she kept her servitor’s disguise in place for the duration.”

I nodded. “I was too.”

I didn’t add that I’d enjoyed it like that, though I had no idea why.

“I’d better get on my way,” Jacy replied. “A lot to do, contingency plans to establish and all that. Cynthia is trying to find out who other buyers are—we’re going to see if we can buy more of the cores from them as well. I don’t harbor any illusions that we can get our hands on all fifteen, but a few more would be nice. Each one was destined for different ships and stations. So they’ll have some differences in data and capability.”

“Good to know,” I said. “And the DSA still doesn’t know they’re lost?”

“If they do, they’re keeping that info under wraps better than normal.”

I breathed a slow sigh. “Good, because if they knew…”

“Yeah, they’d come down like a hammer on any sale Korinth makes.”

Jacy patted my shoulder one more time, and then turned and pushed her cart out of the suite. I was left with my thoughts of the prior night’s encounter with Penny, and the fear of someone—Korinth or the DSA—bringing down the hammer on me.

<Hey, girl,> Penny’s voice came into my mind, as though I’d summoned her with my thoughts. <I’m hungry, want to get a bite to eat?>

“Shit,” I whispered, looking down at my bathrobe. <Sure, but I’ll need a bit. I haven’t gotten a replacement servitor yet.>

<Damn, I wish I had time to fill that role again, but it’s a busy day—you can imagine why. How’s about Chamile’s in an hour? I didn’t leave you too mussed up, you should be able to make that.>

<OK,> I felt a thrill at the invite, but did my best to tamp it down. Penny was a criminal, an agent for one of the most dangerous men in the L. Even if her interest in me was purely romantic, that didn’t mean I should take the meeting lightly by any stretch. <Should I look for you, or a servitor?>

<You’re a riot. I’ll be in red.>

Penny ended the connection, and I wondered what exactly the woman would be wearing; not that it mattered. From its listing on the networks, Chamile’s was not a large restaurant, so it should be easy to locate a dinner companion.

Jacy had set me up with a number of outfits, and I chose a white sheath dress that hugged my curves, and paired it with black heels and belt, and some bangles. Style wasn’t something I was skilled in, but I’d noticed that black and white always looked sophisticated and tasteful.

I straightened my hair and let it fall over my shoulders in gentle waves, then let the room’s beauty station apply light makeup to accent my eyes and lips.

“Here goes nothing,” I whispered as I walked out the door and into the short corridor that led to the lift.

It occurred to me that I should let Jacy know where I was going, but I decided not to. If she was watching my every move, let her see that I’d left, and figure it out herself.

The small voice in the back of my mind told me that my behavior was petty, but Jacy hadn’t been entirely honest with me, so why should I be any different with her?

That same small voice also hinted that after growing up on a mining rig and then going right into the military, I was enraptured by a lifestyle I’d never even imagined that I’d get to taste. It was like a drug, and I was loving it.

Besides, this is all what needs to be done to get the cores for the IS. I have to go on a date with Penny.

A date? I supposed that perhaps it was such a thing.

The Daedalus Job

Chamile’s was on the same deck as the hotel, just a few kilometers down the concourse, past a cornucopia of wares on display in the windows of shops that only the ridiculously wealthy could afford.

Even though it wasn’t my first time strolling past the rows of stores, it hadn’t become anything close to normal yet. That I was moving through society at this level was mind-blowing. Even more so that my government was allowing me to spend more money than the cost of a dreadnought on a few NSAI cores.

Madness, I thought with a laugh.

I considered flagging down a dockcar, but the walk was pleasant, and I enjoyed watching the denizens of Myka Station’s upper crust as they passed.

Flamboyant styles and mods were all around, but I had to admit that they weren’t as decadent as the propaganda back home tended to paint the Delphians. While they certainly were more extravagant than was the Paragonian norm, it wasn’t that much different. Despite the more austere society around my home star, I didn’t labor under the illusion that Paragon’s upper crust lived so differently from the people around me.

What’s the harm?

Before long, the restaurant came into view, a quaint single-story building set back from the concourse and surrounded by lawn and trees.

That was probably the thing that took the most getting used to. Paragonian stations had parks, but outside of those, there wasn’t a lot of greenery. Here, the station architects covered things in as much greenery as possible.

A man in a crisp black suit stood at the front of the property, and as I approached, he stepped aside. “You are expected, Madam Sherry.”

“Thank you,” I stammered, not expecting his immediate recognition. He also pronounced my name with an interesting accent, making it sound more like ‘Chair-ee’.

I rather liked it.

The path wound through the trees and brought me to the restaurant’s front door, where a woman also wearing a crisp black suit stood.

“Miss Penny is inside,” she said and pulled the door open.

I nodded wordlessly and stepped inside to see a dim interior with only two dozen tables, each supporting a flickering candle and nothing else.

There was only one patron in the room: Penny, resplendent in red, just as she’d promised.

She stood next to the table in the center, her body sheathed in a red catsuit that covered every part of her, barring her head. Yellow lines streaked up the fabric, tracing patterns around her curves, flowing toward the outfit’s high collar, giving the impression that her entire body was an eruption of magma spraying out of the floor.

“You’re on time!” Penny exclaimed, raising her hands above her head and sending a holographic spray of molten rock into the air. “What do you think of my outfit?”

I laughed and shook my head. “Well, it sure looks hot.”

She joined in and stepped around the table to wrap me in an embrace, and I was surprised to find that the outfit was hot. Not so much to be uncomfortable, but certainly noticeable.

“You always make me feel underdressed,” I said with a crooked smile.

“It’s not a competition. I think everyone should wear what they enjoy, what’s comfortable for them.”

“And you find that to be comfortable?” I asked as we sat.

“Of course!” Penny exclaimed. “I wouldn’t wear it otherwise.”

A man in the establishment’s immaculate white uniform appeared and set a paper menu in front of Penny, then myself.

“Thank you for choosing to dine with us today,” he said. “May I select a wine for you?”

I’d only had a few red wines in the past and never liked any of them. I was looking over the list, hoping to find something that sounded tasty with little alcohol, when Penny spoke up.

“We’ll have a bottle of a sparkling white…let’s do the Delores Fuente.”

“An excellent selection,” the man said with a gracious nod. “Would you like an antipasto board?”

“Gregory, why would you ask such a thing? You know I love your antipasto. I’m shocked it’s not here yet.”

For a moment, I thought Penny was upset, but then she winked at the man, and he quirked a smile in response.

“Someday, you’ll change your mind,” Gregory said. “And that day, I’ll be ready.”

“Sure, sure,” Penny waved him away. “Let us girls have a bit of time to get settled.”

“Of course.”

With the waiter gone, Penny turned her attention fully onto me, and I realized her eyes were glowing red along with her outfit.

“Stars, that’s all rather distracting,” I commented.

She held up her hands in mock apology. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Oh?” I picked up the glass of water that was already on the table. “Do you mean tonight, or in the future?”

“Perhaps both,” Penny replied. “But let’s start with tonight. The future will arrive soon enough.”

Gregory arrived a moment later with the wine and appetizer, and Penny went through the ritual of sampling the wine before declaring it to be “Most excellent.”

I had to admit that it wasn’t bad, fruity and light, though my mods told me the alcohol level was much higher than the taste would have led me to believe.

“To new beginnings,” Penny said as she held up her glass.

I responded in kind, and we tapped the rims before taking a drink.

The meal felt like it both raced by and swam by. We talked for hours about dozens of topics, laughing and almost crying more than once as conversations ranged all over the L. I thanked my years of study for keeping me from rarely tripping up, and even impressing her a few times with my knowledge of esoteric topics.

Penny revealed that she’d traveled to every corner of the L. Not just Paragon and Chal, but also each of the four red dwarf stars that traipsed through the edges of the nebula’s dense clouds.

“Do you ever wonder what it’s like outside the L?” I asked at one point. “What has become of humanity?”

The woman in red laughed and shook her head. “Stars, no. You’ve certainly read the histories. You know what the original colonists fled. It was chaos, every system at war with every other system, worlds burning, machine fleets laying waste to entire star systems.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “There was nothing but war for a thousand light years, but that has to have subsided by now.”

“If it has, it’s because everyone died. Blew themselves back to pre-spaceflight tech. That’s what’s so great about the L. Things in here are practically made to keep us from having all-out war. Everyone knows that the cost is too high, and there’s nowhere to escape to, now that the nebula has grown too active for passage.”

“Do you think it really is?” I asked.

“Pardon?” Penny snorted out the word. “Are you suggesting that ANSWON is lying about the nebula?”

I shrugged. “I’m not suggesting anything, I just don’t know how often people actually try to pass through it. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”

“I do wonder,” Penny mused, the words trailing off as she stared at a point past my head.

“Wonder what?” I prompted.

“Well…what if the governments of Delphi and Paragon know how things are outside and are actively keeping anyone from going out…?”

“Like some big evil fleet would come in and crush us?”

Penny laughed again. “Yeah, crazy, right? I mean, even if there was, at the thinnest point, the nebula is seven light years thick. We’d have over a decade to prepare for an attack…and frankly, there’s nothing in here worth spending a decade of travel worth taking.”

I couldn’t help but agree. The L was rich in resources, but it wasn’t unique in any way. There were thousands of star systems with as much or more mineral wealth, that weren’t cut off from FTL routes.

“Penny for your thoughts,” the other woman asked after I’d remained silent for a minute.

“Ha. You’re a riot.”

“Not many people get the reference.”

“I had a lot of spare time in my youth to study things.” I could see that Penny was going to ask about my early years, and I steered conversation away. “I was just wondering how many places there might be like the L. Places that take too long to get to where people can hide in plain sight.”

“A lot, I bet,” she replied. “Lots of clusters must be inaccessible via FTL, places like the Pleiades and Praesepe.”

“Would suck to be in those,” I shook my head in dismay. “The tidal cores of those clusters are dozens of light years across. It would be like pre-FTL days in there. Sublight to get anywhere.”

Penny raised her glass. “And that is what makes the L so special. We have the best of both worlds. We’re tucked away and safe, and we still have FTL.”

We toasted again, and conversation moved to different topics as another course was served.

Eventually, Penny begged off, citing a need to attend Korinth. I checked the time and saw that we’d spent almost four hours chatting—dancing with words, in most cases.

It had been more than a little enjoyable. It had been an utter delight.

We shared a long kiss under one of the trees in front of the restaurant before parting ways, and I couldn’t help but wonder what life would be like if I could spend the rest of it in the arms of someone like Penny.

I’d never even seriously considered a long-term relationship before, and here I was falling for a mark.

“Fuuuuck,” I whispered as I walked onto the concourse.

I knew that if Jacy found out that I had real feelings for Penny, she’d yank me off Myka Station so fast my head would spin. I’d find myself commanding a company of groundpounders, endlessly training for a war that we all hoped would never come.

I used to think that would be an acceptable future. Now, in the space of just a few days, the very thought of such a destiny felt like a living hell.

An incoming message from Jacy appeared on my HUD, a request to visit a shopping district on a lower deck to provide an update on my meeting with Penny.

I guess she figured out where I got off to. I laughed and then sucked in a steadying breath. “Game face, girl. Don’t screw this up.”


15


SCHEMES AND PLANS

“I’m surprised that Korinth himself isn’t here,” I said to Penny as she sat across from me in a darkened corner of one of the many nondescript bars that were dotted across Myka Station’s merchant ring.

She took a pull of her beer before replying. “You’re a hot ticket right now. Tried to kill Skip on Barras, blew up his brother’s ship, got a visit from one Commander Sinclair on the way in. Best if you and he aren’t seen together right now.”

I chuckled and signaled the bar for a brown ale via the Link before replying to the obvious question tucked into Penny’s words. “Yeah, this was a shit run, but we made it. Not even going to charge you extra for the wear and tear.”

A snort burst from Penny’s nose. “I should hope not. You know Korinth doesn’t work like that. The job is the job.”

“Hey, I’m not fighting it. I was just letting you know that the Kerrigan gets shit done. So, how are we going to do this?”

“I want to see the cargo,” Penny said. “Then we’re going to set up courier runs making deliveries to your ship. The couriers will take the items out as buyers complete their transactions.”

It was the moment of truth. Either I told Penny now that seven of the cores were duds, or I let it ride. Fledge insisted that he’d been discreet. No one would know until they tried to use the data. By then, the DSA would have moved in on everyone, and there would be no one to come after me and my crew.

Either way, I betrayed someone with the power to destroy me.

“OK,” I nodded, deciding that crossing an entire star system was worse than one gangster—albeit a very frightening gangster. “But with how things went on our way out of Chal, I set up an insurance policy.”

Penny’s expression grew cloudy, her dark brows pinching together. “Korinth doesn’t like to hear things like that, you know.”

“Yeah, well, once I realized what we were hauling, I decided that it was worth pissing him off if it meant staying alive.”

Penny’s hand came down on the table. “You opened the crates.”

I nodded, my expression entirely unapologetic. “Had to. Reeve had us dead to rights. I had to fake him out, which meant we had to use the crates, without their contents, to get a bomb onto his ship.”

“And then you decided it would be wise to double-cross us?” she hissed. “You’re a bit of an idiot, Jax, but I never took you for a suicidal fool.”

“Call me what you’d like, but we had to pop those crates. If we hadn’t, you’d never have seen their contents. Once we did, I knew my ship and her crew weren’t worth a fraction of the price you’d get for the cargo we were hauling—anyone wanting to keep us quiet would see elimination as a clear option. No offense.”

We stared at one another for long enough for me to get my beer and finish half of it.

“OK.” Penny finally appeared to have calmed down a little. “Tell me, then. What form has your insurance plan taken?”

“I only have eleven with me. Four are elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere?” she pressed. “Like on a DSA cruiser?”

“Do you think I’d be sitting here with you if Commander Sinclair found those things on my ship? That woman has it in for me like no other.”

Penny laughed, an authentic, not-evil guffaw—or as close as she ever got. “OK, fair enough, you’re not wrong there. She’s picked up more of our stuff than anyone else. You’re the only one who’s consistently gotten past her.”

I leant back in my seat and took another pull from my beer. “It’s a gift.”

“Back to the four items,” Penny prompted. “Where are they?”

“In space.”

She made a gagging sound. “What, you just kicked them out the airlock?”

“Now who’s being an idiot? They’re in a secure case with a beacon. I have the channel and their vector.”

“Where?” she rasped.

“Near the barycenter. They’ll be in a stable orbit for a few years.”

Penny’s eyes had grown cold once more. “How’s that insurance? I could torture the information out of you.”

I polished off the remainder of my beer. “Perhaps, but I also have a lot of info on the cores, who I picked them up for, and who I was to deliver them to. If I die, a lot of people are going to get a lot of really interesting details.”

“I don’t respond well to threats.”

I cocked an eyebrow, curious about her choice of words. “I don’t really care how you respond to threats—and only you would think that insurance is a threat—I care how Korinth feels about this.”

Penny’s lips drew into a line so thin I thought they might disappear entirely. “He’s not happy about it, that’s for sure. You’re just lucky I have a client who can retrieve those four items. All the rest have purchased smaller numbers.”

“See?” I spread my arms wide. “Problem solved. Once I get final payment for delivery, and am at a safe distance, we’ll send you the data, and your client can go fetch them.”

“No.” She shook her head, lips still almost gone. “You’ll retrieve them and bring them back.”

“Yeah…that’s not how the insurance works. If I come back with them, then what’s to stop you from killing me?”

Penny’s nostrils flared. “What’s to stop me from killing you right now?”

Shit, she’s getting irate. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe fifty or sixty million credits? You know I’m not trying to screw you. If I was, I could have just taken the lot to Paragon and made bank. But I didn’t. I came here and I was square with you. All I want is the ten mil I’m owed, and to be off Myka before I pass you the vector for the last four.”

She stared at me with unblinking eyes, her expression never changing. A minute passed, and I ordered another beer. It came, I drank it, then ordered another. All the while, I expected to see Korinth tear the door off the joint and then tear me limb from limb.

Or for half the people in the club to suddenly stand up and blast me into red paste.

But I wasn’t going to back down. Not because I had anything to prove, but because my crew looked up to me, depended on me. Because if this tradeoff didn’t go smoothly, then Fledge and his IS buddies—who had only fully ratified the deal minutes before I met with Penny—would throw everyone I cared about into the clink.

“Fine,” she finally said. “Korinth agrees to your terms. You’re going to get paid a percentage of the fee for each core that gets delivered, though. I need insurance, too.”

“Deal,” I agreed. “When do we start?”

“First courier will be on your ship in one hour.”

I nodded and rose. “Any concern over which item they get? There’s some difference between them.”

“No.” Penny didn’t lift her eyes from the empty glass in her hands. “Luck of the draw.”

“OK, I—”

She looked up with a steel in her eyes that killed the words in my throat.

“I’ll be seeing you, Jax Bremen.”

I swallowed, nodded, and walked out of the club.

Even though we had a deal, one that was laid out exactly as I’d hoped, I still felt like she’d just issued my death sentence.


16


COMMAND



Aboard the Victorious Strike…

I checked the time again.

It has to be going on by now. The Kerrigan has been in port for a day at least.

The Victorious Strike had reached Pilar Station, high above Lothar’s icy methane clouds, the day before, and resupply was underway. It would take another two days to complete, and I was itching to be out in the black again. Not being able to nail Jax to the wall was bothering me more than I expected, and the only way I knew to alleviate that angst was to board and punish some other smugglers.

There were still a few more ships trickling in from Chal, many of them delayed now, as they were required to portage across the occlusion.

I wanted to inspect every last one of them. I’d find something, I’d put someone in the brig. It wouldn’t feel as good as slamming the door on Jax and sending his ship off to be scrapped, but it would do.

The downside was that the next few years would be slim pickings. Trade with Chal would wind down, and while it would pick up between Paragon and Delphi, less smuggling happened between the two major systems.

On the plus side, once Delphi passed into the north side of the L, things would take a turn, and the DSA would get to flex its muscle in a way that the military hadn’t been able to for a century.

I was more than ready for that.

As I imagined future days of glory, a notice appeared on my HUD that a shipment of replacement SC batteries was going to be delayed by a day because of some other priority assignment.

I tapped into the supply systems and flipped through the lists of requisitions I had access to. A large amount of materiel was being diverted to a newly formed taskforce with the code name ‘Iron Lance’.

I flipped through the list of ships assigned to Iron Lance until I saw the Daedalus.

<Commander Petrov,> I reached out to the ship’s skipper. <What can you tell me about Operation Iron Lance and why it’s sucking up my resources?>

<Hello to you too, Commander Sinclair.>

I could hear the laugher in Petrov’s mental tone, and suppressed a sigh, thankful that he put up with my frequent lack of decorum when I was out of sorts. <Sorry, Petrov. Hello, how are you today?>

This time he did laugh. <I’m doing very well, Sinclair, and how are you?>

<Annoyed.> I bit off the single word.

<About Iron Lance taking your resources?>

<You’re so perceptive, Petrov. You should command a starship or something.>

<Why thank you, I think I’ll do just that. Anyway, I’m surprised you weren’t tapped for Iron Lance, to be honest. It’s a convoy escort, leaving in a week. Part of the build-up in Chal. We’re babysitting a bunch of DSA contractors and private corps across the occlusion to establish bases in Chal’s outer reaches.>

<Really…>

I mulled Petrov’s words over in my mind as I considered the possibilities. I had to admit that I too was surprised the Victorious Strike hadn’t been chosen for the mission.

And a little hurt.

<Honestly, it’ll be a milk-run. There are two hundred ships in the convoy, twenty-three of them DSA escorts. No one’s going to mess with us.>

<Shit, there are three MFPs going out.>

<Yeah,> Petrov laughed again. <We always joked that mobile fleet platforms are the least mobile thing in the fleet, but here they are, actually making a jump.>

I couldn’t help but be impressed. So far as I knew, MFPs were just a hair under the threshold of the maximum mass and volume jump threshold. At five kilometers in length and three wide and tall, they were, simply put, freaking huge.

In theory, ships bigger then MFPs could enter the dark layer, but they never came back out. So far as I knew, no one in the L had ever tried to jump anything bigger than an MFP—the knowledge of the limit had come with the original colonists who had braved the year’s long journey through the nebula to escape the never-ending wars raging outside.

<That’ll be a sight to see…both the jump and them plowing through the occlusion.>

<Absolutely. Fuel pods for their deceleration have already been sent ahead. It’s an epic undertaking.>

<And all under Rear Admiral Bensen,> I said, keeping my tone neutral.

<Yeah,> Petrov said in an equally guarded tone. <Which might hint at why you weren’t selected.>

Fuck.” The word resounded in the confines of my office and I made up my mind to deal with the issue head-on.

Half a minute later, Petrov spoke again. <Sinclair…your silence is worrying me.>

I was already in the lift, heading to Deck 11 where the gantry connected my ship to Pilar Station.

<I’m on my way to deal with this,> I said. <In person.>

<Umm…Sinclair, I don’t know that beating down Bensen’s door is going to help.>

It was my turn to send a laugh over the Link. <I’m not going to Bensen, I’m going to see Admiral Reginald. He’ll get me into Iron Lance…to be honest, I’d make a better commander for the task force than Bensen. He’s never even been to Chal.>

<Well…> Petrov let the word hang for a minute. <That’s better, I guess. Do you really think that the sector commander is going to look favorably on you arriving unannounced?>

<I’ve already let his adjunct know I’m coming. He’ll know why.>

<Oh, I have no doubt about that.> Petrov was laughing again. <I suspect there was a pool.>

<I have no idea why I’m friends with you.>

<I’m charming, and I’m the only one who will put up with you when you’re like this.>

I sent a mock gasp his way as the lift stopped and I stepped out onto Deck 11, pausing to give a cursory salute to a pair of ratings who were rushing by. They responded in kind, and I moved on, striding toward the airlock.

<Well, Reginald’s adjunct just got back to me. I have a meeting in thirty minutes.>

<Shit, what a mover and shaker you are. Good luck.>

I snorted aloud. <Thanks, but I won’t need it.>

<Luck, no…a bit of charisma wouldn’t hurt, though.>

<OK, I’m going now. You berating me won’t help up my pleasantness quotient.>

Petrov signed off with a final chuckle, and I shook my head, glad that he put up with me.

At the end of the gantry, I called a station car and rode it around the docking ring to the closest maglev station. From there, it was a ten-minute ride across Pilar’s spire and back out onto the DSA command ring. Upon arrival, it was a short walk to Vice Admiral Reginald’s sector command offices.

I had to pass through a few security checks, and by the time I reached his outer office, I only had five minutes to sit and collect my thoughts.

All too soon, that time was up, and the admiral’s adjunct was directing me to enter the old man’s inner sanctum.

One of the things that was hardest for me when coming in from the black was that I was no longer lord and commander of my own domain. I was under someone else’s rule.

Out in the black, I had near free rein to do as I saw fit, so long as I got results. On paper, I reported to Admiral Rigs, but she was based much further insystem, and left any day-to-day issues to the local command where I operated. That meant Reginald.

My efforts reflected well on him because he was partially credited with the funds my activities garnered. It put Lothar Sector at the top of the heap when it came to outer Delphi commands.

I was counting on my part in that to earn me a favorable outcome for this meeting.

The admiral’s office was larger than my ship’s bridge and could comfortably hold a hundred people in a pinch. With just he and I present, it felt cavernous—though that was lessened by the thick carpet and wood-paneled walls.

His desk sat in the center of the space, with a seating area behind, situated next to a concave glass bubble that protruded out into space.

The view caught the northern tip of Pilar’s central spire, and beyond, the dark blue clouds of Lothar. I could see one of the floating cities nestled in the planet’s icy upper reaches drifting by, Delphi’s light glinting off its great crystal dome.

The admiral was standing next to the window, staring out at the planet, hands clasped behind his back.

“I have to admit, I expected to see you sooner, Commander Sinclair,” he said without turning.

There was a wry note in his voice, and I chuckled in response. “I’m a bit ashamed of myself for not spotting the build-up for Iron Lance sooner.”

“Well, you had a lot of reports to file.” He turned to meet my gaze. “And I imagine that business with Korinth is on your mind as well.”

I nodded. “It’ll be nice to finally take that bastard down.”

“Don’t count on that happening,” the admiral shook his head as I reached his side. “He’s slippery. This isn’t the first time the IS has had him in their crosshairs only to have things misfire.”

“Well that puts a damper on things,” I muttered.

“No matter if he is taken down or not, this’ll put a dent in his operations. Korinth is really just a supplier. The enemies of the state are the people he supplies. This operation will take out a dozen malcontents who would like nothing more than to make a buck off the demise of others. In some ways, people like Korinth are both necessary and useful.”

I swallowed and nodded slowly. “I suppose, but he’s far from innocent.”

“Oh, for sure. And I’d love to see him rot in prison, but he’s greased a lot of palms. It’ll take time. For now, I’m happy to see your work take a chunk out of his clientele and reputation.”

“I suppose it’ll have to do,” I nodded in agreement. “Too bad Jax Bremen will get away with his part.”

“You really have it in for that man, don’t you?” the admiral asked, an eyebrow cocked in question. “He’s just a two-bit smuggler.”

“He flaunts the law,” I hissed. “Not only that, he enjoys it. How many people has he murdered, I wonder?”

“Well, so long as he does it in Chal and not Delphi, it’s none of our concern—at least for now. To be honest, the IS is smart to bring him into the fold. He could be useful for the build-up in Chal.”

“I keep hearing about that,” I said. “What exactly is the build-up aiming to achieve?”

The admiral shook his head and turned away from the window. “You’ll find out the details in due time. I imagine you can guess at what the politicians and upper brass are planning, but I’m not one to leak plans or speculate on such things.” He sat on one of the sofas. “Out with it. I know why you’re here, but I want to hear you say it.”

I took a seat across from him, slipped one knee over the other, and folded my arms across my chest. Unblinking, I said, “I want command of Operation Iron Lance.”

“You’re not flag rank.” His words carried no emotion. “And placing you in charge of an extra-system operation is outside my authority. Don’t forget. You report up to Admiral Alice. While I benefit from your frequent operation in my sector, you’re outside my chain of command.”

I shrugged. “And so is Bensen, but everyone knows that anything that happens within ten AU of Lothar happens only because you allow it.”

Rear Admiral Bensen,” Reginald corrected.

“Yes, sir, sorry. Rear Admiral Bensen.”

The vice admiral’s eyes narrowed. “Even if it were within my purview to place you in command of something like Iron Lance, you know that a commander can’t run an operation like that. That type of operation requires at least a Major Commander.”

I had expected that response, and was prepared to negotiate down to a temporary patrol assignment that placed me with Iron Lance. I’d do it even if it meant serving under Bensen for the time being.

“I see that look.” A smirk formed on the admiral’s lips. “I can tell you’re not ready to give up so easily. I put in for a commendation when your actions uncovered those cores on the Kerrigan. That’s not what came back, though.”

“Sir?” I cocked my head.

“You’ve been promoted, Major Commander Sinclair.” He rose and reached inside his jacket, pulling out the triple moons of a MC 06’s rank. “Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on this honor. Admiral Rigs sends along her compliments, as well.”

I blinked in surprise as Reginald removed the two moons from my uniform and replaced them with the new rank insignia. He nodded in satisfaction and took a step back, saluting me with a proud smile.

“Thank you, sir,” I stammered as I returned the gesture. “I…I really wasn’t expecting this.”

“It’s a bit early,” he said in agreement while lowering his hand. “But well earned.”

“What about Rear Admiral Bensen?” I asked, still stunned by the unanticipated honor.

Reginald returned to his seat and gestured for me to do the same. “I never intended for him to lead the task force. He’s an organizer, no one can shuffle materiel around like he can, but—and he freely admits this—taking a force into the field isn’t his forte. But it’s perfect for an officer like you, Sinclair. You’ve got the right instincts for the job. That’s why I’m giving it to you.”

I nodded, wondering what was next. “So, what is Iron Lance’s true purpose in Chal?”

“Clever.” Reginald smiled. “Which is why I selected you to command the mission. On paper, we’re escorting merchants who wouldn’t make the trip otherwise due to the occlusion However, the real purpose is to establish a permanent military presence in Chal.”

My mouth fell open, and I listened intently as he outlined the full scope of the mission. When the vice admiral was done, I sat in stunned silence for a minute.

“So, Major Commander. Are you still eager for this task?”

“Eager?” I almost gasped the word. “That hardly does it justice.”

“Excellent. Coordinate with Bensen from here on out. You depart in a week.”


17


THE UN-HEIST

“Each courier is coming here?” Fledge asked, a rather joyous smile gracing his lips. “This is even better than I thought. Seven separate ones?”

I nodded, glad that some of the buyers had purchased two cores. I’d be able to mix and match, ensuring that one of Fledge’s trackable cores would go out with each buyer. It was entirely possible that sending those out would come back to bite me in the ass later, but I hoped that if the DSA took down everyone who received a core, it would all come out in the wash.

And if not, I’d be far away from Delphi when the DSA realized that there were four cores on the Kerrigan they’d never found.

The problem, of course, was moving those four out with Fledge being none the wiser.

“I’ll set them up in the hold, each in its own case,” he said, and strode off the bridge.

“Dude sure is eager,” Kallie said, arms crossed beneath her breasts, with something between a frown and a pout on her face.

Finn nodded. “Yeah. I bet he is. His career is set. The guy who saved all these cores from getting into the wrong hands and took down Korinth? He’s gonna get medals, a plaque, maybe even a pat on the back, and a round of ‘attaboy’s from the brassiest of the brass.”

“A regular hero,” I muttered.

Truth be told, I didn’t really mind Fledge that much. He was a bit of a smug ass, but we’d bonded over a mutual dislike of Sinclair, and that was worth a lot in my books.

“Hey, Captain, didn’t you have something for us?” Finn asked right on cue.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small white square.

“What’s that, boss?” Tammy asked.

“A bonus for each of you,” I replied while giving her ‘shut up’ eyes.

The square was a stack of paper. Old tree-mulch stuff—or so I was told. Each sheet had instructions on it, tasks that needed to be done at a specific time and place over the course of the next few hours.

I gave one to Tammy, Finn, Oln—after we woke him up in the galley—and Kallie.

The final instruction was ‘eat me’. I got a few looks for that, but each of them did as they were told, careful to make sure they weren’t in sight of any optics when doing so.

It was possible that Fledge had seen me hand out the sheets if he’d been monitoring optics, but Finn had introduced a bug in the bridge’s feeds that reduced the resolution enough that it would be impossible to read the message on the papers.

It was the best I could do on short notice, and I hoped it would work.

Because if it doesn’t, we’re all going to be in prison by this time tomorrow.

I stood in front of my chair as the crew dispersed to carry out their tasks. The first courier was coming for just one core. Because of that, we had to swap one of Fledge’s neutered cores for a functional one. I had a strong suspicion that Korinth was going to have it examined before it and the subsequent ones made it to their final destinations. I was relatively certain that Fledge’s alterations wouldn’t be detectable—the DSA had almost as much riding on his skill as I did—but I wasn’t so sure that I’d let the first out of the gate be one of his.

I knocked once and then opened the door to Fledge’s cabin. The man was sitting on his bed, surrounded by holographic displays.

“Hey,” I began with mock hesitancy. “I know I don’t have to say this, but don’t leave your cabin, OK? If any of Korinth’s people see you, we’re all dead.”

The Intel man gave me a sour look and nodded. “You’re right, you don’t have to say it. I’m not going to fuck this up, just be sure you don’t either. Your pardon depends on it.”

“Trust me, I have a lot more at stake than you.”

He grunted in response, and I closed the door.

Time to get this show on the road.

I took a left at the T junction after the galley and slid down the ladder to the cargo deck. From there, it was a short walk through several of the special climate-controlled holds to the main forward hold where Kallie was set up.

She stood in front of a table positioned in the center of the hold. On the table was a case containing one of Fledge’s neutered cores. Along one wall, tucked into the rack that held spare parts, were three more cases. One held a single unaltered core, and we had to swap that for the one on the table.

Without looking directly at Kallie, I walked to the rack and grabbed a second case and brought it to the table.

Kallie had been staring at the airlock, which was currently guarded by Finn, but when I set the second core on the table, she turned and gave me a sharp look.

“What are you doing?”

“I figured we’d make the ‘luck of the draw’ thing legit. The courier can pick whichever they want.” I grabbed both cases and moved them around the table like I was playing a shell game.

“Captain…” she used her extra-exasperated tone, which wasn’t too different from her regular way of speaking to me. “We don’t need them to realize that they could make a grab for more and try something stupid.”

“No one’s going to do that. They’d get smushed by Korinth. Figuratively and literally. It’s a bad look.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not the one standing here next to the cores, having to deal with grabby-grabby hands. Please put it back.”

“Fiiiiine.” I picked up the case containing Fledge’s modified core and carried it back to the rack, leaving the other core in place.

Kallie gave me a satisfied look that I took to mean she was pleased with my performance. I responded with a sour glance and walked to the rear of the hold, where I climbed onto a meter-high crate and sat with my legs dangling over the side, pistol drawn and resting on my lap.

I tapped the airlock feed and watched people pass by through the outer door’s window. After a minute, a woman approached and flashed a hand signal in front of the clear plas.

“Checks out,” Finn said, opening the outer door.

The ship’s pressure had been equalized to match Myka Station’s, so there was no need to cycle the lock, but it functioned as a useful way to limit access to the ship, and so the courier was required to wait while the chamber went through a quick pressure check before the inner door opened and admitted her into the bay.

The woman was tall, well over two meters, and rail thin. Dark hair framed a pale face that was drawn into a scowl that didn’t change as she approached Kallie.

“This it?” she asked.

“No.” Kallie jerked her thumb at the crate I was sitting on. “It’s the one under the captain’s ass. Yes, this is it. Do you have the hard-toke?”

The woman slapped a small datacube onto the table, and Kallie slotted it into a network-isolated reader. A wise decision. I wouldn’t trust any cube a person handed me in a deal like this either.

“Just a second,” the engineer said, waiting for the reader to update with the information she needed.

The courier just nodded and looked around the hold. “Lovely ship you have here.”

“The best,” Kallie muttered. “OK, looks good. Credits transferred. Here you go.”

She pushed the case toward the courier, who grabbed it and stalked back to the airlock.

I dropped a coded message on a feed speculating about the length of the dark matter occlusion; Korinth would be watching and know that the first courier had made their pickup.

Once the woman exited the airlock, Kallie turned, gave me no small amount of side-eye, and then walked to the rack to grab the next core.

The following two pickups also went smoothly, and with only one more core on the rack, I slipped off the crate and nodded to Kallie. “I’m gonna get the other four.”

“Sure,” she nodded amicably. “Ten minutes till the next one arrives.”

<How’re things looking?> I asked Fledge over the Link while walking down the passage that led to the ladder shaft.

<Good,> the Intel man replied. <We have eyes on the first three couriers, and the tracking systems are online. We’ll see where they end up and get ready to make our grabs.>

<That’s great news!> I added extra exuberance in my reply. <Just a few more hours, and we’ll be free and clear.>

<Sure.>

Fledge’s single word didn’t instill a lot of confidence, and I hoped it was just him being surly and not a harbinger of future complications.

I climbed the ladder to the crew deck and walked toward the galley, where the other cores had been stored. The sound of popcorn kernels exploding inside a bag came to my ears, and I suppressed a smile as I walked into the room.

“Hungry, Oln?”

“Always,” he grunted in response. “Did a lot of reps this morning, gotta carb up.”

I just shook my head as I walked to the cabinet under the coffee maker and opened the doors to reveal the three remaining cases, each one holding one of Fledge’s neutered cores.

At that moment, Oln opened the microwave, smoke pouring out, followed by a burst of flame.

“Fuck!” the big man exclaimed and took a step back, tripping over a chair and falling next to me.

“What the hell! Oln, get that fire out before the suppression systems kick in.”

Small galley fires were more common than one would hope on less disciplined ships—such as mine. It wasn’t uncommon to have fire suppression dialed down to avoid dousing meals in water and foam just because someone burned something.

Oln stood and pulled open another cabinet, yanking out the fire extinguisher as smoke continued to fill the galley. Inside that cabinet were three more of the unaltered cores. I popped open the cases—each had room for four cores—and placed an extra, unaltered core in each while Oln fumbled with the fire extinguisher.

I was closing the third case when Fledge burst into the galley. “What the fuck!”

“I’m good,” I said, picking up the three cases and moving toward the door while the Intel man wrenched the extinguisher from Oln’s hands and sprayed foam into the microwave.

“Fuck, dude!” Oln shouted. “Now how am I gonna eat that?”

Fledge ignored him and caught up with me at the galley’s exit. The air was already clearing as the smoke was sucked into the vents.

“Are they OK?” he asked.

“Yeah, I just dropped one and gave it a once-over.”

I stepped into the passageway, and he joined me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You sure?”

“Do you mind?” I gave his hand a sour look before meeting his gaze. “The next courier is going to be here any moment. I’d like to have these in the rack before they arrive.”

Fledge pulled his hand back and nodded. “OK, just make sure your crewmembers don’t blow the ship up before we’re done.”

I pushed past and walked to the lift. I stopped at the intersection and glanced over my shoulder. “So far, so good.”

The Intel man shook his head and returned to his cabin. Five minutes later, I was back on my perch in the cargo bay, the last of the cases stowed on the parts rack, and my heart still pounding in my chest.

The next two exchanges went off without a hitch, and then there were only two cases left. One on the table in front of Kallie, one on the rack. Both contained two cores, one of Fledge’s and one unaltered one.

<We’ve got a problem,> Fledge messaged me. <I can’t get a response out of the tracker in the case on the table. We need to swap it out.>

<OK, I’ll come get a new one and bring it back down.>

<No, I’ll bring it down, I don’t want you clumsy fucks messing it up.>

I hopped off the crate and sauntered to Kallie’s side. “Numbnuts says this tracker’s not working and we have to swap it out.” I slapped the case as I spoke, and the engineer rolled her eyes. “I bet it’s fine. He probably just didn’t send the right init token.”

She turned the case around and popped the latches. I reached her side and leant over, my jacket obscuring the bay’s optics.

“What do you think?”

“I think you’d better get out of my light,” Kallie muttered and gave me a shove.

A moment later, Fledge burst into the bay, muttering a string of unintelligible curses as he reached Kallie’s side and pushed her next to me. He looked down at the case which held one cube and then glared at us both. “Just stay out of my way and let me do this,” He slipped a probe into the latching mechanism. “These things were damn hard to place, if you two—”

“Just re-init it,” Kallie interrupted. “But hurry, our next courier is almost here.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the Intel man muttered. “OK, it’s good. Don’t mess with it.”

Fledge closed the case and stormed out of the bay. Tammy was on return-intercept duty; it was her job to distract Fledge somehow so we could get the other cube back in. None of us doubted that he had the bay-feeds up on his visual HUD at all times.

I followed the ship’s internal feeds, watching as Fledge walked down the passage and climbed the ladder.

Any day now, Tammy…

Fledge walked down the passage to the T junction and turned toward the crew cabins. He was walking with his gaze downcast, and ran into Tammy as she walked out of the galley.

Buck naked.

“Whoa!” she exclaimed as she fell back and grabbed Fledge’s shoulder for stability.

“Hey…” his tone was filled with annoyance until his eyes swung upward, stopping on her breasts before darting to her face. “Shit, sorry!”

He took a step back, but Tammy crossed her arms and scowled at him, delivering a biting diatribe about watching where he was going and not feeling her up.

Luckily, Kallie had the presence of mind to pop the case open, and I put the second core back in a moment later, laughing under my breath as I settled it into place.

“Now that’s our Tammy,” I said, forcing myself to calm down as Kallie cast me a dirty look.

Finn wore a sour expression, and I gave him a wink before returning to my seat. “Not like we haven’t seen that before.”

“Shut it,” Finn shot back, then turned to the airlock. “He’s here.”

“He?” Kallie frowned. “Penny’s info said this courier is a she.”

Finn peered through the window as the outer lock opened and then shook his head. “Aw crap…there’s two of them.”

I checked and saw that Fledge had finally extricated himself from Tammy and was back in his cabin. I considered our options and hopped off my perch again and strode to the airlock where a man and a woman stood inside.

Flipping the voice channel on, I announced, “You, Blue-eyes. Out of the airlock. We’ve only got Blondie here on our list.”

The blue-eyed man peered at me through the window. “This isn’t going down unless I’m inside and see the merch.”

“What are you talking about?” I shook my head in disbelief. “There’s no payment being made here. That’s all between you and Korinth. Your courier gets the merch, and you pay him however you have decided to. We’re not involved in that part.”

“I don’t care, I’m—”

“Buddy,” interrupted him. “You get the merch before you pay. What the hell is your problem?”

The blonde woman was giving him an exasperated look, and finally he turned and walked out of the airlock. “They better both be there.”

Oh shit…did Fledge hear that?

I pulled the upper passage feed onto my HUD, waiting for the Intel man to come storming out of his room.

“You’ll get what you get,” I muttered, hoping that would be enough to mollify Fledge should he have heard the comment.

The lock cycled, and a minute later, the woman came in. She was as nondescript as the other couriers, an aesthetic that people in her position endeavored to maintain. I kept an eye on her, but the exchange was as quick as the prior five.

“He going to give you any trouble?” I asked as she picked up the case.

“Phil?” she barked a laugh and shook her head. “Stars, if I can’t handle the likes of him, I need a new career.”

She left without incident, and fifteen minutes later, the final courier came and left. And with that, the exchange was done. Half the terrible situations I’d imagined—and written out contingencies for in my notes—hadn’t happened.

The only thing looming over us was the parting statement Phil had made.

I remained on my perch, brooding over that complication, while Finn aided Kallie in folding up the table and moving it to a storage rack. Just as they were slotting it into place, Fledge strode into the bay and made a beeline for me.

“All the couriers are being tracked visually and via the cases,” he said by way of greeting. “Almost had some fun with that second-to-last guy, though.”

I could tell it was a leading statement, and decided to tackle any doubts head-on. “Can you believe he was going to try to muscle his way in? I bet his plan was to bribe us to let him take a second core—at least, based on his parting remark.”

Fledge’s expression grew clouded for a moment, and then he nodded. “I guess that makes sense. We’ll keep an eye on him.”

I snorted a laugh. “Well, I mean, that’s the plan, right?”

The Intel man’s gaze grew distant for a moment, his tell that he was having a conversation over the Link.

“Shit…” he muttered, shaking his head. “We’ve got a problem. You’re going to need to come with me.”

I blinked at Fledge. “I’m not going anywhere with you. This ship is being watched by seven of Korinth’s goons out on the dock. I even saw Penny stroll by on the external monitors.”

His lips pressed into a thin line. “Well, we’ve been summoned to Command. How do you propose we handle that?”

I looked up to see Kallie approaching.

“I’ve got an idea, but you’re not going to like it, Fledge,” she admitted.

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “I haven’t liked much of anything during the past week, lay it on me.”


IV


Changing Tides


18


YOUR MOVE

<Sherry, has Penny made contact yet?> Jacy asked me as I sat on the sofa in my posh hotel suite. <Our sources indicate that all the couriers have picked up their packages. All that remains is for us to get ours.>

<Are you following the couriers?> I asked, curious if they were going to make a play for the others.

<A few, these are some sneaky bastards. I also think that DSA’s Intel people might be onto the operation. I spotted a known agent of theirs tailing a courier.>

“Shit,” I muttered aloud. <That’s gonna put a wrinkle in things.>

<Maybe,> the colonel replied. <DSAI probably watches a lot of these couriers to see what’s moving where. Nothing to get too twitchy about.>

It occurred to me that the colonel might try to ‘liberate’ some of the other cores after we got the four Penny had promised. It made sense; they’d do more good in our hands—not to mention that the four promised cores were still at some as yet undisclosed location.

I could understand why Jacy would like even one core in hand instead of four in the black.

<Sherry?> Jacy prompted.

<Oh, sorry, just lost in thought for a bit. I’ll give it another hour and then re—Speak of the devil. Hold on, Jacy.> I flipped my active connection to the channel Penny had reached out on. <Hey, Penny, glad to hear from you, I was starting to worry.>

<Worry?> Her silvery laugh filled my mind. <Love, I’m not going to leave you hanging. In fact, Korinth has decided I should accompany you to the pickup—just to make sure everything goes smoothly.>

<Oh?> I did my best to hide too much surprise. Having Penny along would make any potential handoff to Jacy trickier, but it could give me leverage if things went sideways. <I’d certainly love to have you along. I was feeling a bit sad our tryst was coming to an end.>

<Girl, it only has to end when we want it to. OK, I have to tie some things up. Meet me at Alma’s in an hour, and have your things, because I’ll have passage on a ship ready by then.>

I sent a smile across the Link. <I’ll be there with bells on.>

<I’d like to see that.> Penny’s tone was suggestive, but I was saved from wondering how to respond by her severing the connection.

Flipping back to Jacy, I said, <We have a meet set, and it looks like we might ship out today to retrieve the cores.>

<Good, keep me informed. Either I or Cynthia will shadow you in the Firelight in case backup is needed.>

The colonel signed off, and I rose from the couch. “I’ll miss you, opulence.”

I had a lingering suspicion that whatever ship Penny had rounded up wouldn’t be nearly as nice as the Spintzer Hotel.

Not by a long shot.


19


NEW ORDERS

“You see,” Kallie said as she wheeled the large cart with a thick steel tub on top into the cargo bay. “I like to be prepared, to have some additional low-output power generation just in case.”

“Radioisotope thermoelectric generators,” I said to Fledge, curious to see if someone so far up the food chain was familiar with the technology.

“Right, I know what an RTG is.” He nodded. “Stuff that heats up as it decays. As ancient as spaceflight itself.”

The engineer gave him an appreciative look. “Glad you know your shit, Intel Man. Normally, I like to run Curium-244, which has a nice long half-life, around eighteen years, but on our last run, we got 242, which only lasts a couple weeks. It’s still radioactive as fuck, but I want the good batts, so we’re getting this shit off the Kerrigan.”

I could see a look of disbelief form on Fledge’s face. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“You want me to get in that tub?”

She nodded, a wide grin on her lips. “Uh huh.”

“But that shit is still hot. Thermally and radioactively.”

Kallie nodded again. “Uh huh.”

“I’ll die.”

“Seriously, Intel Man, we don’t want that. I have a nice suit that will keep you safe—for half an hour or so. But all we need to do is get to a cargo lift, and you can get out while the lift is moving. Easy peasy.”

Fledge continued to stare at Kallie, finally turning his gaze toward the cart. “OK, but only because we’re in a rush.”

“Where do we meet?” I asked. He gave me a suspicious look, and I shrugged. “I’ve never escorted a vat of radioactive slag, it would be weird if I did. Since we’re likely under some scrutiny, it would be best if I don’t do anything too abnormal.”

“Meet me at Alma’s Amplitude,” Fledge said after a moment’s consideration. “I’ll be there by 16:20, station time.”

It seemed a bit long to me since it was only 15:15 at present, but the more time before I had to visit DSA command, the better, so far as I was concerned.

“I’ll leave first, then,” I said. “Run a few errands and then end up there.”

“Sounds good,” Fledge said. “I’ll just clean up my space and then we can go, Kallie.”

He walked out of the bay, and I turned to my engineer.

“You holler if anything goes sideways. I won’t be too far till after you leave with our garbage.”

“He can probably hear you,” she said. “He has all the feeds tapped.”

“Good.” I nodded. “I wanted him to hear it. Stay safe.”

Kallie only scowled at me as I turned and walked toward the airlock. I stepped inside, and as it was cycling, she finally replied.

<You too.>

The Daedalus Job

I half expected to get a call from Kallie or one of the other crewmembers that some catastrophe had struck. From Fledge going on a tear, to DSA soldiers storming the Kerrigan, to Oln going on a drunken rampage.

Stop it, I chided myself. You always live on the edge. No safeties. Don’t get all soft and sentimental here.

Despite my internal rhetoric, I knew that wasn’t me anymore. I had people. People I cared about. Kallie and Tammy for sure, Oln on a good day, and I was warming up to Finn.

I was looking over stock at a food-service company I was considering using, only half paying attention to what I was looking at, when Kallie finally sent me the news I’d been waiting to hear.

<We’ve left. He was a real whiner about the whole thing, but now he’s snug as a bug in a rug—if that rug was made of radioactive trash.>

<Stars…glad you’re out of there. Any trouble on the dock?>

<No one gives trouble when you’ve got a rad cart. The path ahead seems to clear out on its own.>

I filed that away, wondering why we’d never used rad disposal as a cover before.

<OK, I’m on my way to Alma’s. Wish me luck.>

<All the luck, Captain. I don’t like this one bit.>

<Me either.>

Myka Station had a lot of sections devoted to commerce and pleasure. Alma’s was a place that did both. Frequented by independent captains like myself, as well as people looking to hire us, it was a favorite haunt of mine.

It also had a lot of offerings when it came to creative methods of relaxation after a long trip. I didn’t avail myself of those too often, but today would have been the perfect time to blow off some steam in the full-sensory VR rooms.

Instead, I took a seat at the bar, ordered a White Caesar, and waited for Fledge to arrive. When he did, I was glad that the man was smart enough to not sit right beside me. He wasn’t in any sort of disguise, and if I were seen with someone who was known to be a member of DSA’s Intel, I’d find the rest of my life to be rather unpleasant.

Luckily, there were a few other DSA officers in the bar, and Fledge sat with them.

<Glad you made it,> he said to me.

<Glad you did too,> I replied. <Not too hot in the slag tub?>

<Not fun, but manageable. I’ll have to recommend random inspections of those. I imagine a lot of things are smuggled in them. Can’t pick up heat signatures, and the rads throw off a lot of scan.>

I suppressed a groan. There goes that idea. Can’t believe we wasted it on this chucklehead.

<So, what now?> I asked. <Where do we go to meet with your folks from Command?>

<Well, I was initially thinking a barfight, and we’d have you arrested, but there’s another op going on here tonight, so that’s out.>

I breathed a sigh of relief. I really liked Alma’s, I didn’t want to get banned from the place.

<So we’re going to have a maglev pick you up at platform L17. It’ll stop, read out of service, and the door at the rear will open. Get on, and it’ll take you to the meet. You need to be there in ten minutes.>

<And you?> I asked.

<I’m staying put. Managing all these couriers and following the cores is a full-time op. A big team is working to take Korinth and all these buyers down.>

<Good luck.>

I meant it. My survival was hinging on Korinth crashing and burning—and no one fingering me for distributing four unaltered cores.

<Thanks.> Fledge’s tone seemed genuinely appreciative, and I wondered if—if I didn’t end up in a body bag—I’d made a useful ally of him.

I paid for my drink and left the bar, threading the narrow corridors near Alma’s until I came to platform L17. The status boards showed the next train as two minutes out, with a destination of one of the outer service rings. It was a seven-day shift, and things were quiet. Only two other people were on the platform, and from the way they were pressing into each other, I doubted they were going to catch the next train.

Sure enough, when it stopped two minutes later, they didn’t even notice. As Fledge had indicated, only the rear door on the final car opened, and I stepped inside, taking a seat in the empty car.

The train passed through two more stations, barely slowing as it traversed each, finally coming to a stop in a stretch of dark tunnel.

I turned and looked at the doors, unsurprised to see them open and a pair of DSA soldiers step in. They looked me over and took up positions on either end of the car. Next in was a commander, followed by a two-star general.

The officers approached and then stood silently for a moment, clearly waiting for me to rise and acknowledge them in some sort of formal fashion.

“They aren’t going to get any more comfortable,” I said, gesturing to the seats across from me.

The general sighed and took one while the commander continued to stand.

“You’ve got an interesting reputation, Jax Bremen,” the general said. “Lots of little minor infractions, but nothing major.”

“Well.” I leant forward and interlaced my fingers. “Nothing at all, now. We did the op, we delivered the cores to Korinth’s buyers. It’s all a done deal.”

“Mostly,” the commander commented.

“Oh?” I cocked an eyebrow.

“We have to ensure that the cores make it where they’re going.”

I shook my head. “Nope, that’s not the deal. The agreement clearly states that our involvement ends with the handoff. That’s when we get our pardons.”

“So long as you didn’t try to double-cross us,” the commander continued.

The general raised a hand. “You’ll have to forgive Commander Mars. She’s a little…invested in this.”

It was clear they were doing good cop, bad cop. It wasn’t a terrible rendition, but clear to someone who had done the act more than once.

“I never caught your name,” I said to the general.

Neither he nor Mars wore any name tags, and the Link provided no idents on them, either.

“That’s correct,” the general replied. “Nor will you. The only thing you really need to know is that you work for DSA Intel now. Commander Mars is your handler, and she reports to me.”

“I’ll pass.” I made to stand. “I’m not really cut out for military life.”

“Please.” The general’s tone bore a clear threat, and he gestured for me to sit.

I complied. His response didn’t surprise me, but I had established the stakes. I did what they wanted, or they’d make me disappear.

“OK, let me hear it.”

The general glanced at the major, a slight smile on his lips. “See?”

Mars only shrugged in response, then turned her unblinking gaze back to me.

The general continued. “Fledge’s report of the cores he altered shows that they were part of a larger shipment, fifteen in total. We’ve also learned that Korinth plans to retrieve more of the cores from some sort of secret location to complete his transactions.”

“Not surprised,” I said with a shrug. “People move things via multiple couriers a lot.”

“True. And we want the Kerrigan to be that ship.”

I couldn’t help but give a derisive snort. “How do you propose that we make that happen? It’s not like I can reach out to Korinth and say, ‘Hey, you know those additional cores I’m not supposed to know you have? Well, want me to go get them for you?’ I’d be dead in an hour.”

“We could be so lucky,” Mars grunted.

“Really?” I turned to face her. “I haven’t known you for more than five minutes, and already, you’re the shittiest handler I’ve ever had.”

“You’ve had a lot?” she countered.

Wouldn’t you like to know. “No…I guess that makes you the best as well. Yay for me. I’m so lucky. Do I buy you flowers?”

“Shut up,” Mars muttered.

“You’re going to have to figure something out,” the general brought us back on track. “You’ll be meeting with Korinth for final payment. We’ve thrown up some administrative issues for a few of his ships. You can mention you’re ready to get off Myka and do a new job if he has any.”

“And you think that’ll be enough?” I asked.

“Like I said,” the general’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll figure something out.”

“You could—”

A connection activated over the Link, and I held up a finger. “It’s Penny, hold on.”

<Jax, where are you? You ran off before I could make final payment for your services.>

<I had some errands to run. I can meet you somewhere, though.>

<I heard! I met a friend at Alma’s and actually saw you leaving as I arrived. I called out, but you were lost in thought, or something.>

I wondered how I could have missed that. Alma’s hadn’t been too loud when I was in there. I guess I really was focused on getting to the maglev platform for the lovely meeting I was now having.

<Sorry about that,> I replied. <Are you still there? I can swing back around in a bit.>

<No, I’m at your ship. Kallie’s letting us in. We’ll be waiting for you.>

“Fuck,” I whispered as Penny closed the connection. “I have to get back to the Kerrigan.”

“Oh?” The general raised his brows. “Already tired of our company?”

“No—well, yes. But that’s not it. Penny’s aboard my ship. I just tapped the feeds, and she boarded with another woman. Not sure who she is.”

“Goes by Sherry,” Mars said in a neutral voice. “We think she’s a buyer for some of the other cores. This is good. I bet your job just got a lot easier. So much for all that complaining about having to ‘convince’ Korinth.”

“Yeah,” I rubbed a hand across my cheek. “Lucky me.”

“Excellent.” The general nodded enthusiastically. “We can get this wrapped up. I didn’t want to hit Korinth until we had an idea where the other cores were. If you’re going to get them, we’ll have no problem grabbing him.”

“Except Penny,” Mars said. “You know she won’t divulge the location to Jax here until they’re almost at the target.”

Close, just the other way around.

“Right,” the general nodded. “Which means we need to get someone in the crew with Jax.”

The commander pursed her lips. “I don’t know if that’ll be possible. I have a few operatives I could put on it, but I can’t be sure they’re not known to Penny. She has eyes everywhere.”

The general sighed and fixed me with a stern glare. “Mars will follow behind on a stealth ship. Not too close, but close enough. No funny business, Captain Bremen. You get the cores, then let Mars know. She’ll bring in the cavalry and take care of them and Penny and her buyer.”

I knew that there was no upside for me here; I was on the event horizon of a black hole with a neutron star directly above.

Still, as a smuggler captain, I had to ask, “What’s in it for me? Does Intel pay?”

“We’ll work something out,” Mars said.

I highly doubted it would be anything other than staying out of prison with the promise of more dirty work to stay out of prison.

“OK, then let’s head back. I need to get to my ship before either Penny or Kallie is dead.”

“They don’t like each other?” Mars asked.

“Well, Kallie’s an acquired taste, and Penny doesn’t like to try new things.”

The train car began to move, and a grin settled on the general’s lips. “You’re going to have your work cut out for you, Bremen.”

Don’t I know it.


20


NEW CREW

The airlock did a fast cycle, and I rushed into the cargo bay to see a couple of personal travel cases sitting in the center of the space.

<Where are they?> I asked Kallie.

<Here, in the galley. Can I kill them?>

<Not yet.>

I dashed down the passage to the ladder and practically leapt up to the next deck. I’d half expected to hear gunfire within the ship, but what I encountered when I ran into the galley was even more terrifying.

Kallie, Tammy, Penny, and Sherry were all playing Snark. Penny—who wore a tight red shipsuit that squeaked softly when she moved—was in the captain’s chair, and Kallie was sitting on a crate.

“Don’t worry,” Penny said with a laugh as I skidded to a halt. “I’m sure you’ll get out of the bilge eventually.”

“Oh shit,” I gasped for breath, placing a hand on the table to steady myself. “I thought things were about to come to blows.”

“They are.” Kallie ground out the words. “Penny cheats…and she squeaks. I think she’s doing it just to mess with me.”

“Do not.” Penny set her cards down and rose. “But now that the captain is here, we’ll have to suspend our game. Jax, I’d like you to meet Sherry. She’s coming with us on a little jaunt to pick up her items.”

<Did we find all of Fledge’s taps?> I asked Kallie.

<All? Not entirely sure. A lot? Yes. I’m reasonably certain we found them all. I’m also watching network traffic like a hawk.>

“Is she, now?” I asked. “And did you bring payment for the next batch’s delivery? The Kerrigan doesn’t fly for free.”

“You’ll get it when they’re delivered,” Penny replied. “Not a moment sooner.”

I decided not to argue with her in front of the crew and her client—who had a strange air about her, something I couldn’t place.

“OK, then.” I looked to Kallie. “How are we on servicing? Full up on fuel, food, and water?”

“To the brim,” she said with a nod.

“Good, then let’s get this show on the road.”

I turned and walked out of the galley and past the crew quarters. I was almost at the bridge’s entrance when Penny caught up to me.

“What about our cabin assignment?”

I couldn’t help but notice that she hadn’t used a plural. That was good, since I would have preferred one more sweep over Fledge’s old cabin before I put Penny in it—not to mention laundering the sheets.

“That one,” I gestured at our other empty cabin. “I’ll have Oln put your things in it.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Penny said quickly. “Sherry and I will get them, and then meet you on the bridge.”

“Great,” I drew out the words and rolled my eyes. “I’m so happy to have you aboard, Penny. I’ll have to send Korinth a fruit basket.”

Something sparked in the woman’s eyes, and she gave me a narrow-eyed look. “He might need it after this.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, but she’d turned and walked away.

I decided not to borrow trouble and continued to the bridge.

I found Finn and Oln within, Finn hunched over his console, intent on whatever he was working on, and Oln asleep in my seat.

“What’s the word?” I asked Finn as I walked up to Oln and stared down at the man. For such a veritable mountain of a human being, he breathed like a child when asleep, never snoring once.

“Did our pre-departure plaswork when our new crew came aboard. Figured either we were taking them somewhere, or we were giving them the boot and then running for our lives, so either way….”

“Fair enough,” I laughed.

Oln still hadn’t stirred.

I bent over, my lips centimeters from his ear. “Oln!

His fist swung toward my head, but I was ready for it and stepped back. A pair of lidded eyes glared at me. “What?”

“Go make sure the station lines are detached and sealed properly.”

“Sure.” He slowly rose to his feet and stretched, his back sounding like the popcorn he’d burnt earlier. “Too many women in the galley.”

I nodded. “Noticed that. They’re gone now. Go get yourself a snack so you don’t pass out on the long walk to engineering.”

“Funny.” He grunted the word while lumbering toward the exit.

“So…where are we gonna tell the tower we’re headed to?” Finn asked. “No one’s going to believe we just wandered off to the barycenter during an occlusion.”

“We have some cargo destined for Lothar coming in a half hour. That’ll get us on the move. Once we get there, we’ll see what we can pick up bound for Chal.”

“Chal?” Finn cocked an eyebrow. “We might not want to go back there too soon. You know, angry Skip and all.”

“Is that it?” I asked. “Maybe angry local government that we didn’t have a real writ of marque?”

“Hey, it was real…just not legally acquired.”

I shrugged. “Well, we’ll worry about that when we get to Lothar. Worst case, we say we’re going to Chal, then have some sort of ‘engine trouble’ on the way,” I held up my fingers to make air quotes, “and then come back. I doubt Penny is going to want to go to Chal anyway.”

“You never know,” Penny said from the entrance to the bridge. “I go where Korinth sends me—which means I tend to get around.”

“Well, you pay for the ride, and we’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

“What about…Earth?” she asked with a laugh.

I couldn’t help but narrow my eyes as I gazed at her. “Even you and Korinth can’t afford a trip to Earth.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you know what humor is, Jax.”

“No clue.” I sat in my chair. Turning my back to Korinth’s left hand made my skin crawl, but it was going to happen a lot over the next couple of weeks. “I’m filing our flight plan, and then once we get a bit of cargo, we’ll be on our way.”

“Oh?” She walked past my chair and leant on Tammy’s hamster ball. “Do we need cargo?”

“Uh huh.” I nodded. “We ship things, it’s what our ship does. I picked up a load of crap from the DSA. Stuff they needed sent out in a hurry for some convoy they’re running.”

“The DSA?” Her voice took on a serious note. “Is that wise?”

“It pays up front, which is nice when other passengers are not willing to do so.”

She took a step toward me. “Shit, Jax. You just got paid a shitload of credits today. You blow them gambling or something?”

I couldn’t help a mischievous smile. “I have expenses. Either way, I took the DSA cargo because we’re bonded to haul for them, and it eases suspicion. Letting their cargo handlers aboard is not something people with something to hide usually do. We’ll be fine. Just watch your mouth on the ship, and you’ll be fine too.”

“You mean they might sneak recording equipment aboard?” she asked.

“Uh huh. I’m sure you’re used to it.”

Penny nodded, and I could see that she was genuinely dismayed. “Yeah, just thought I could speak freely for once.”

I reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a few slips of paper. “Here, these can be handy.”

“Seriously?” She cocked an eyebrow.

“Yeah, if someone hands you one, read it, then eat it. Onboard cameras are set to a lower res, so they can’t make out words.”

“Ummmm.” She scratched her head. “How do I make marks on it? I don’t exactly carry around archaic writing implements.”

“There are a few in the galley next to the coffee maker. Have at ‘em.”

Korinth’s left hand walked off the bridge, squeaking softly with each step.

“Daaaaamn,” Finn whispered.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “You know that the most brightly colored things in nature are the most dangerous, right?”

The man nodded. “Yeah, and Tammy is pushing for something more than just cabinmates on long trips.”

“Uh oh,” I shook my head. “Your days of philandering are coming to a close.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “Still, I do spend most of my time on this ship. Makes sense to have peace here.”

My thoughts turned to Kallie, and I nodded slowly. “I can’t fault you there.”

I knew the ship’s engineer would be in the main bay, there was no way she’d let DSA cargo handlers onto the Kerrigan without being present. I quickly filed the flight plans for Lothar, sending them to be tweaked by Tammy, who entered the bridge while I was working.

“Looks good, boss,” she said after a few minutes. “I made a couple of adjustments to the burns, you know, just to be more efficient.”

“Of course you did,” I laughed at our ongoing joke. “Good thing I have you around.”

She flashed a grin over her shoulder and leant back, feet on her console. “They’ll assign a tug for sure, so nothing for me to do till we’re a thousand klicks out.”

“Just don’t fall asleep.” I rose and glanced at Finn, who was staring intently at Tammy. “Or get too distracted.”

I only got a wink from Finn as I walked off the bridge, followed by an innocent whistle from Tammy. The galley was empty when I passed it, and I didn’t see any sign of Penny or Sherry.

It suddenly occurred to me that every woman on the ship had a name ending in an ‘ee’ sound. Is there some sort of insidious plan going on? They’d better not team up against me.

Luckily, the chances of Penny and Kallie joining forces for good or evil were more than damn slim.

I found my engineer in the cargo bay, sitting on the same crate I’d been perched on earlier in the day. Wordlessly, I hoisted myself up beside her and sat cross-legged, staring at the main airlock in silence.

“You’re nuts,” she finally said.

I nodded silently, wondering if I should tell her about the fact that we now worked for DSA Intel. I didn’t think it would go well, and having her angry when the cargo was delivered wasn’t a great plan.

Then again, having her angry while trapped on a ship in the black wasn’t great either.

There was no easy road forward, but in the end, I decided I cared for her and her opinions too much to leave her in the dark. Plus, she was probably waiting for me to tell her what had happened at the meeting anyway—and likely assuming the worst.

I placed my hand on hers, and she didn’t pull it away. We established a point-to-point Link connection, and I drew in a deep breath.

<The DSA made us assets. We work for a commander named Mars under some general I wasn’t able to identify.>

<I figured it would be something like that. What’s our mission?>

Her mental tone was calm, almost relieved in a way.

<We’re to get the cores and then signal Intel to come get them—along with Penny and Sherry. They weren’t able to plant anyone with us that wouldn’t raise suspicion with Korinth, though.>

<We on our own then?> she asked.

<Sorta. Mars is going to follow along in some sort of stealth ship. She didn’t offer details.>

Kallie nodded. <And I assume they think Penny knows where the cores are, not us.>

<Yeah, a notion I didn’t bother to disabuse them of. Pretty sure that would have been the end of any sort of ‘mutually beneficial agreement’.>

She didn’t respond immediately. After a minute of companionable silence, my hand still resting on hers, she said, <Penny and Sherry are both operators. You can see it in how they move. Sherry’s not as smooth as Penny, but I wouldn’t be shocked if she has some military training in her background.>

<What are you insinuating?>

<Well, they both know that we were the ones with the cores, and how many we had. If Intel takes them, it’s going to come out pretty fast that we were playing both sides.>

It was my turn to nod slowly as I considered implications. <I mean, that was always a risk. I wasn’t worried that Korinth would roll on us. Plus, since Fledge only ever saw seven cores, we had plausible deniability if Intel found more—and let’s be honest, I really doubt the DSA will take Korinth down.>

<That was my take, too. He’s operated with impunity for years. Probably has some high-up people in his pocket. But this’ll be a different story. If your Commander Mars boards us out in the black and puts the screws to Penny and Sherry….>

<Yeah. Things could go sideways fast.>

Kallie turned and her gaze locked on mine. <Then it’s decided. Once we’re out in the occlusion, Penny and Sherry die. Then we hand over the cores, and when Korinth comes for details, we say they were killed when the military boarded the ship.>

<Means we need time of death to match…or be damn close.>

<It does,> Kallie agreed. <I’ll think about how to do it. Given that those two are fighters, we can’t just shoot them in the back. They’ll need to see it coming.>

<Fuck, Kallie. Why did we go down this road? Why couldn’t we have just been an honest courier ship?>

She barked a laugh and whispered, “There’s no such thing in the L.”

Neither of us spoke until the DSA’s cargo arrived at the main bay door. Kallie hopped off her perch and ambled toward the entrance, opening up the double-sealed hatch.

Outside were a dozen three-meter crates on hoverpallets, escorted by two guards and a pair of handlers. One of the handlers walked forward, a tablet in his hands.

“You Captain Bremen?” he asked.

“Kallie Holms, the first mate,” she replied. “I can sign for this.”

“Sorry,” the man shook his head. “Release says it has to be the captain.”

Kallie shot a barrage of daggers at the man via her steely glare, but then shrugged as though she didn’t care and stepped back, sending a glance in my direction.

I slid off my perch and walked toward the group, noting that the two guards had sent a small drone into the bay. It scanned me and the area, but remained just a meter inside, making no further moves.

The handler extended the tablet to me. “Need you to pass an encrypted token that you’ve received the cargo.”

I frowned at the tablet’s readout and the cargo on the dock. “I haven’t received anything yet. It’s still on the dock. I’m not signing for anything that’s not in my hold.”

The DSA stevedore rolled his eyes. “Well, at least mark on the first part that you’ll take the cargo.”

I scanned that section and nodded. “OK, I can do that.”

The tablet required me to make a hard-Link to it for the encrypted token, and I pressed my thumb to the nano-port, letting a passel of the tiny machines flow into it, making a connection.

Most people in my position didn’t have nanotech at that level and would have needed to use a wrist jack. The man raised an eyebrow at me, but didn’t say anything further.

I wouldn’t have noticed anyway, as the moment I made the connection, I received a message packet from Commander Mars. Taking care not to look startled, I pulled my thumb away and handed the tablet back to the handler.

“OK, bring it in.”

He complied, and I retreated to lean against the bulkhead while Kallie supervised the operation, having them put the cargo in the center of the hold, and then ensuring the crates were securely latched to the deck.

The message wasn’t small and I knew I didn’t want to read it with an audience, so I let it stew in the back of my mind while I waited. Kallie inspected every crate in detail, noting every scuff, bump, and scratch, and then had the cargo handlers verify each seal and sign off on her own tablet that they agreed with the results of her inspection.

Can always count on her to dot every i and cross all the t’s.

Once that was complete, I finalized the form on the DSA tablet and handed it back to the DSA man.

“Thanks, see you around,” I said.

He only nodded and turned to walk out, signaling the guards and other handler to follow. The drone still hovered inside, and I wondered if they were going to leave it.

If they did, it wouldn’t last long.

Once they were back on the dock, one of the guards glanced at me and saw that I was staring at the drone. He seemed to get the picture and sighed. A moment later, it ducked out of the hold and left the ship.

“I’m going to hit the head before the tug arrives,” I said once the doors were closed. “Let me know when we’re ready on your end.”

Kallie gave me a suspicious look, to which I quirked a smile in response.

She finally said, “See you on the bridge.”

“You got it,” I replied.

I retreated to my cabin and settled on my bunk to open the message from Mars.

“You’ve got double duty, Bremen,” her voice came into my mind sounding as though she were sitting next to me. “We have some suspicions about a ship in the convoy leaving Lothar in a few days. We want you to apply to join the convoy, and then infiltrate this ship. We’re shifting the destination of your cargo to Chal and filing the required reports with Lothar. Your application into the convoy will be accepted without extraneous review.”

“Shit,” I muttered, wondering how I’d play this development with Penny.

Then the information about the convoy unfolded in my mind. It was a merchant caravan, but one with a serious escort. A dozen DSA ships were assigned to protect over fifty freighters and assorted military support craft. It looked more like a flotilla that would establish a solid beachhead than just the DSA escorting a convoy through the occlusion.

After a minute’s review, Mars’s voice came back. “The ship we need you to infiltrate is the DSS Daedalus. It’s a cruiser that has several holds full of rather valuable cargo. We need you to tag that cargo with specialized trackers, as we think it’s going to end up somewhere it’s not supposed to.”

“Double shit,” I muttered. “Why the hell can’t you just have the captain do that, if it’s a DSA cruiser?”

As though answering my question, Mars said, “The fact that those cores ended up in your hands means someone is skimming serious hardware in Chal. Someone high up, which means we can’t trust normal channels. We’ve already changed the command on the convoy to remove one variable. You’re going to help remove others. However, on the off-hand that the trackers fail, we’re going to need you to remove some of the cargo as well. I’ve attached information on what we need swapped out.

“Everything you need is now sitting in your hold. Good luck.” There was a pause, and then Mars continued. “You’ll still need to get those cores, so the sooner you can get the coordinates out of Penny, the better. I can pick them up while you focus on the convoy. But don’t let her see the DSA gear. She can’t know what you’re doing. Oh, and the officer in charge of the convoy escort is Major Commander Sinclair.”

My heart skipped a beat. “Triple shit and a fuck to boot.”

<Boss?> Tammy’s voice came into my mind. <Tug’s here, we’re ready to go.>

<OK, I’ll be there in a second.>

My life had just become infinitely more complicated, but at least one thing would be easy. I didn’t need Penny to share the location of the four cores I’d set adrift. The only problem was, they were in a crate that DSA Intel would be able to trace back to my ship.

I rose from my bed and took a deep breath. I’d have time to sort through that; right now, I had to be the captain. There would be plenty of time to panic later.


21


LAST FLIGHT OUT



Aboard the Kerrigan…

We were under our own steam, the tug having departed hours prior, and our primary burns were done. A correction was coming up in an hour, and then a solid burn for a day before declaration and vector matching with Pilar Station in orbit around Lothar.

Tammy was on the bridge while Oln and Finn were playing a combat sim in one of the smaller holds. Penny and Sherry had retreated to their cabin, and I had the upper passage’s feeds pinned to my HUD so I’d know the instant they left.

Kallie was in the aft engineering bay on the lower deck, the perfect place to have a private conversation.

When I reached the space, she was bent over a console, shaking her head. I tried to approach slowly, but she turned and glared at me before I’d taken more than a few steps.

“What?” she barked the word.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, walking to her side.

The engineer shook her head. “Just the usual. The repair on the port engine housing wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, and our burn is ever so slightly asymmetrical. I’m adjusting max thrust on our starboard main until I can shift our center of balance enough to compensate.”

“I have ‘the usual’ going on, too,” I replied.

“Oh? Was there some secret message on that tablet?”

“How’d you know?”

Kallie snorted and folded her arms. “Because after you got onto the bridge and we disembarked, you went to the can, muttering about how you’d been holding it forever. Kinda TMI, don’t you think?” One of her perfectly shaped eyebrows arched in question.

“No, I don’t think it’s TMI. A man can mention that he’s in an urgent situation without need for judgment.”

Her eyebrow stayed up. “Sure, whatever. Wouldn’t want to get in your way while you were making a beeline. Stop changing the subject, though. What was the message?”

I gave her the highlights, which included who was in command of the convoy.

“So let me get this straight. Mars wants us to board a DSA cruiser while Sinclair will probably have her hand up our asses?”

“That’s a disturbing image. Good thing she only has so many hands. I volunteer Oln and Finn.”

Kallie fixed me with a serious look. “Jax. How are we going to do this? Axing Penny and Sherry was going to be hard enough, but doing this as well? Who does Mars think we are, demigods or something?”

“Based on some of her conversation with the general—and now this—I kinda wonder if they’re strapped for resources. Either that, or maybe Mars hates us and wants us to get caught.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Kallie muttered. “OK, so now for the next question. How do we access those crates’s contents without Penny and Sherry knowing?”

“Very carefully, I guess. We also need to make a plan for assaulting the Daedalus. Mars gave us the layout and breaching instructions…which I think we’ll specifically not use.”

Kallie nodded vigorously. “Agree with a side of agree. Oh! I have an idea.”

“Do tell.”

“You know how Finn and Oln are obsessed with combat sims?”

“Yeah, it’s all they do lately, when they’re not falling asleep at their posts—something I suspect is connected to the sims.”

“Well, one of the sims they’re playing has to do with a war between Delphi and Paragon. Honestly, it’s propaganda bullshit, but it does have a mission where you attack a captured DSA cruiser.”

“Oh ho.” I nodded vigorously. “We get into the crates, get the specs on the gear they gave us, and then you alter the game to be our training system?”

“I’ll need Finn’s help, but yeah, that’s the gist of it.”

I rubbed my hands together. “OK, this is going to be fun.”

“That’s just one problem covered, there are still a lot of other ones.”

“Yeah, but it’s an auspicious start.”


22


AMISS

“You’re going to wear a groove in the deck, Pen.”

She paused mid-tirade and glanced at me in annoyance. “Yeah, well, I doubt anyone would notice on this tub.”

“If you don’t like it, why did you pick it?” I asked, leaning back on the pillows—which, while not a patch on the Spintzer Hotel, were still a damn sight softer than what I was used to in the military.

“Because it’s a shitty tub,” Penny countered as she squeaked back and forth across the small cabin. “No one would expect us to be doing something as important as getting those cores in this ship.”

I nodded absently, wondering if that’s all that was going on. That Penny would bring me along on this trip—with no other backup—seemed suspicious. Sure, she had hired this ship and crew in the past, but they weren’t especially loyal to her. Not only that, but they were sitting on a lot of credit after their recent haul and didn’t really need the work.

A whole lot didn’t add up.

I was, however, glad I was here. Not just for Penny’s company. That last-minute delivery of DSA hardware had piqued my interest. I planned to take a few walks in the main bay to take a look at it. I wasn’t sure if I could get inside, but it was worth a shot.

“What if the DSA learns we’re here?” I asked. “I mean, they won’t care about me, but what about you? That could complicate things.”

The woman in red shrugged. “Not for me. That’ll be Jax’s problem. I doubt they knew we’re here, though. They wouldn’t have let him take any sensitive cargo if that was the case.”

“You’re that dangerous, are you?” I purred.

Penny stopped and turned to face me. “You should know that by now. I earned my place at Korinth’s side, with blood, blood, and more blood.”

“Other people’s, I hope,” I said. “Or is that why you wear the red?”

Penny snorted. “A bit of both. Still, it’s nice not being as big a target as Korinth, it helps me get my job done. Though I’d like to do a bit of a side job….”

She let the word hang, and I nodded. “Go on. What are you thinking?”

“Well, I’m a curious sort, and I’d really like to see what the DSA needed to get to Chal so badly that they put it on the Kerrigan instead of using one of their own transports.”

“So you want me risking getting my cores to take a peek in the DSA’s crates? Whatever they’re shipping, it’s not worth that. If we get caught, you don’t get paid.”

Penny waved a hand in dismissal. “What do I care about Korinth’s money? I just like to turn over all the stones.”

“I don’t know. I’ve seen Korinth. I’d be concerned. Really concerned.”

“He’s got more money than the DSA at this point, what’s a few million more?”

“Oh!” I gave her a considering look. “Then maybe he’ll let me have the cores for free, given the fact that they’re just floating around in space somewhere.”

Penny sat on the bed next to me. “I don’t recall saying that’s where they were.”

“Deductive reasoning.”

The woman in red’s visage grew cloudy, and she cast a glance at the door. “They’d better be safe and secure. If Jax did anything to damage them….”

“Make up your mind.” The words came out stronger than I’d intended, so I added a giggle for good measure. “First you want the money, then you don’t. Then you are willing to risk the cores to learn what is in those crates, now you are angry about Jax using them as leverage over you.”

“I’m not—what makes you think he’s doing that?”

I winked. “Deductive reasoning.”

Penny turned and leant over me, placing her hand beside my left one while her hip pushed against my right side. My breath quickened. I couldn’t help it. Yes, the woman was a criminal who played with both Delphi and Paragon like they were her personal chess pieces—or rather, her boss did—but there was something intoxicating about the power she wielded.

That thought spurred another, and a tendril of doubt slipped into my mind.

Despite being his underling, Penny didn’t exhibit any sort of strong loyalty to Korinth. Her behavior was more like that of an equal…or maybe someone who was disillusioned.

It occurred to me that perhaps Penny was double-crossing Korinth in some way. Delivering the cores to me and taking the money for herself. Seventy million credits was enough to live like a goddess in Chal.

Or maybe she would just throw Jax under the hull. The poor guy seemed to be everyone’s whipping boy. He was certainly someone to consider if I was going to hook up with Jacy and Cynthia after we got the cores—if I couldn’t get the coordinates to them before we arrived. If that happened, then they’d need to dock with the Kerrigan.

And that would mean blowing my cover. Unless everyone aboard died.

Is getting intel to stop a war worth murdering this ship’s crew?

I wasn’t so certain.

“Where are you at, Sherry?” Penny asked. “You’ve got the thousand-klick stare there.”

“Just thinking about our situation. I wouldn’t want to crack that cargo too soon. We’re nearly two weeks from where the cores are, right?”

“Close,” Penny nodded, not giving anything away.

“Right, so let’s wait till we’re in the DL. People always lower their guard when they’re in the deep dark.”

“Sure.” Penny shrugged. “What’re we going to do until then?”

I looked up at the woman looming over me, and traced the back of my index finger along her smooth jawline. “Oh, I have some ideas.”


23


ONWARD

I was enjoying my last few minutes in bed, planning out the day’s activities, when a comm connection hit the ship. It was from the last person I wanted to talk to, but the one I couldn’t ignore.

<Commander Sinclair, to what do I owe the pleasure?>

<Major Commander,> she corrected in a sour tone—the only one she had, so far as I knew. <And there’s no pleasure in it.>

<Great, well, now that we have that out of the way, what do you want?>

It occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t antagonize her so much, but I was playing my own game. If I kissed ass, she’d be suspicious that I was up to something. However, if I acted like she expected me to, belligerent and annoyed, she might believe that my place in the convoy was nothing other than what it seemed.

<You should be in jail.>

Oh, so that’s how this is going to be. I sighed. <Sure, but I’m not, so you’re just going to have to deal with that.>

<I can’t believe the DSA cut a deal with you.>

I winced. Finn and Kallie were both certain that Penny hadn’t hacked our comm systems, but I still would have preferred that Sinclair didn’t bring up my work for Intel. Of course, I couldn’t tell her not to bring it up. Not without telling her who else was on my ship.

<Maybe I’ve been working for the DSA all along,> I suggested. <Maybe you’re just a pawn in a larger game.>

<I’m no one’s pawn, and if you are running for Intel, you’re playing both sides. I know your type, Jax. You’re scum through and through.>

Despite the fact that Sinclair had a stick the size of a comm tower up her ass, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was right. The political situation in the L walked a tightrope, and I didn’t really take part in activities that helped that balance. If the nebula fell to war, I’d have some part in the blame.

<OK.> I sent the single word, not caring enough about Sinclair’s opinion to attempt to convince her I was some sort of saint.

<I knew you’d see it my way.> Her tone was smug, and I wished there was a way to deliver a physical slap across the Link.

<Is there anything you want?> I asked. <Other than to call me names. We’re three light seconds out from the convoy’s muster. At our current velocity, we’ll be there in two hours. Would you like to come aboard and inspect our cargo?>

<As if I have time to deal with the likes of you. Just know that I’ll be watching you, Jax Bremen. One slip-up, and I’ll—>

I sent a yawn across the Link, cutting her off. <Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to transmit that. You were saying?>

<Your days are numbered, Bremen. I don’t care who’s dick you sucked back at Myka to end up here, but that shit doesn’t fly with me. You better follow orders to the letter, or I’ll blow your ship out of the black.>

Sinclair was a smart commander. She’d earned her rank, and was a hard-nosed, by-the-book woman. But in all honesty, her reaction to my being in the convoy seemed a little over the top. Even for her.

Either that, or she really doesn’t like me.

<I understand, I’ll be on my best behavior.>

<Good.>

The connection terminated, and I pulled myself out of bed. “What a way to start the day,” I muttered while stumbling to the san. “I think an extra-long, hot shower is in order…and maybe a drink.”

The Daedalus Job

The bridge of the Victorious Strike hummed with its usual activity as I terminated the connection with Captain Bremen. It was a soothing thing to see everything proceeding as it should—at least on my ship.

I took a deep breath, forcing my heart rate to lower as I considered the conversation with Jax. I’d meant to lay down the law, to let him know that whatever deal he’d struck with Intel wasn’t going to get him any special treatment from me.

Instead I railed at him like a crazy person.

It made no sense. No one got under my skin like that. Why him?

Maybe because he really doesn’t seem to care. He never says it, but something in his posture…or bearing. Whatever it is, it just feels like even if I did blow his little bucket of bolts out of the black, he wouldn’t give a shit.

That made him unpredictable, which was quite simply the worst. Especially when it came to a man who had no clear loyalties and would do anything for credit.

“Major Naomi,” I addressed my newly assigned CIC commander who sat below me in the next ring down. “What’s the convoy status?”

“Ma’am,” she said without turning, her hands dancing over her console with admirable speed. “All ships in the escort are ready and in formation. The Mobile Fleet Platforms are still forming up, but will be ready in thirty minutes.”

“And the civilian ships?” I asked.

“They’re all in their lanes except for three that are wrapping up debarkation—and that new ship that’s coming in from Myka.”

I resisted a sigh. “They can catch up, we’ll be boosting slow enough at the outset.”

“That was going to be my suggestion as well,” Naomi replied. “They’ll be able to meet up faster if they adjust vector to intercept once we’re underway, and we won’t have to wait.”

“Perfect.” I nodded. “Relay the updates to them.”

No way I’m talking to Jax again if I don’t have to.

I reached out to Admiral Reginald to inform him of our departure time. <Sir, I’m pleased to report that task force Iron Lance will be initiating our burns four hours early.>

It took a moment for the admiral to reply, but when he did, I was surprised at his words. <What about the Kerrigan? My report says that it still hasn’t arrived.>

<Yes, sir. We’re sending it a new vector to intercept us once we’re underway. They’ll catch up in seven hours.>

Again there was a pause. <I appreciate your efficiency, but I don’t want that ship alone for so long. It has important cargo aboard. Send an escort to meet it before it passes out of our nearspace.>

I wanted to ask the admiral why something so important was on a smuggler like the Kerrigan in the first place, and why it couldn’t just be transported to one of the escort cruisers. There was more than enough room in the DSA ships to fit whatever the courier-sized ship could hold.

But I knew that he was aware of all those facts, and if he’d wanted that outcome, the admiral would have suggested it himself.

<Yes, sir. I’ll send the Daedalus in to escort them. They’ll intercept the Kerrigan in less than an hour, if Captain Bremen holds to our assigned course.>

<Thank you, Major Commander. You’ve done well. Good luck on your mission.>

<Thank you, sir.>

I closed the connection and watched eagerly as the final three civilian ships began to move away from Pilar Station.

Soon, I would be leading my first major convoy across the occlusion and into Chal. There was no doubt in my mind that this would be the beginning of a swift rise to flag rank and the command of my own fleet.

It was sure as stars.

The Daedalus Job

When I walked onto the bridge, Penny was in my seat. Mostly. Today, the woman wore an iridescent blue gown that likely contained as much fabric as the rest of the bridge crew’s clothing combined.

It hung off her in sheets and completely engulfed my seat. Her head was off to one side, and for a moment, I thought she’d been maimed, but then I realized she was laying across the armrests, her feet dangling over the side.

“Get off there,” I muttered, glancing around to see Tammy and Finn in their customary places. I’d already encountered Oln in the galley, which meant that Kallie and Sherry were the only crew unaccounted for.

As Penny flipped herself around with a fluidity of motion I wouldn’t have expected under so much cloth, I checked the ship’s locators to see that Sherry was doing laps in the main hold, while Kallie was in the rear engineering bay.

“Sorry, Jax, just keeping it warm for you.”

“ ‘Captain’ to you,” I muttered, taking my seat.

Penny gave me a mock pout and gestured at Tammy. “But you let her call you ‘boss’.”

“She’s special.”

“And I’m not?” Penny opened her eyes wide and blinked slowly.

“No.”

A moment later, all pretense at child-like innocence was gone from her face and posture. “Well, shit. You sure don’t know how to have fun.”

“I know all about fun,” I replied. “I have lots of it when there are no unwanted passengers on my ship. Tammy, how’re things looking?”

Penny’s expression darkened at my curt dismissal, and she took a seat on the far side of the bridge. It was Kallie’s favorite spot, and I hoped she didn’t come up for a visit. Penny was itching for a fight, and Kallie would likely give it to her.

“We just got a new vector from the convoy—which is named, get this, ‘Iron Lance’. Why does the military always use such lame names for shit?”

“Probably something Sinclair picked,” I muttered.

“Pardon?” Finn spoke up for the first time. “Why would she have named it?”

“Because…” I knew my crew would not be happy to hear this. I’d held off telling them, but I couldn’t any longer. “Major Commander Sinclair is running the show.”

My statement was met with groans of dismay. Even Penny joined in.

“Well, isn’t that just the shit,” she said. “That woman has cost Korinth more credit than anyone else in the DSA.”

<How are we going to run our op with her watching over our shoulders?> Finn asked a second later.

Kallie and I had brought both he and Tammy into the fold regarding our plan to board the Daedalus. Oln was still in the dark, but he’d been playing the altered combat sim so much, he could probably run the breach in his sleep at this point. The only wildcards were Penny and Sherry, but we’d take care of them once we got to the cores.

Based on the route Iron Lance planned to take through the occlusion, the Kerrigan would be able to ‘suffer a small engine failure’ and veer off course just long enough to grab the cores.

We’d hold off on breaching the Daedalus until that—and the cleanup of our two unwelcome guests—was complete.

Just so long as things don’t come apart at the seams before then.

“Oh, look at that!” Tammy said with a strange laugh. “We’re getting our own private escort till we meet up with the flotilla. It’s the Daedalus.”

<Is that someone’s idea of a joke?> Finn asked. <We can’t breach the ship yet. We can’t do it till we’re into the occlusion. We’ll be spotted out here for sure.>

<Relax,> I said. <Check the convoy’s assignments. The Daedalus is one of their picket ships. Makes perfect sense that they’d assign it to shepherd us.>

The statement spawned an idea and I turned it over, wondering if we could use that to our advantage later.

<Oh,> Finn sounded relieved. <That’s good. No way are we breaching this close to Delphi.>

<Don’t worry, not till the occlusion. And we’re still a day at sublight and three at FTL till we get there. So you can breathe easy.>

This time, Finn snorted aloud. <I’ll breathe easy when this is over and we’re all at some far-flung mining outpost, spending our money and talking about how we’ll never go back to Chal or Delphi.>

“Message from Commander Petrov of the Daedalus letting us know that they’ll shadow us on the way in, and instructing us not to change course,” Tammy announced. “You know, since I’m actually paying attention to comms.”

“I saw it.” I sent an acknowledgment and left the channel open in case the DSA cruiser wanted to send us any other directives.

For the next thirty minutes, nothing changed other than the position of dots on the forward holodisplay. The convoy steadily boosting away from Lothar, and us creeping toward their position. The Daedalus passed a few thousand kilometers over our bow and came about slowly, boosting to match our v, and then remained ten thousand kilometers astern.

It made me nervous to have a cruiser right on the Kerrigan’s ass, but that was going to be the norm for the next few weeks, so I knew I had to get used to it.

“I’m going to inspect the ship,” I said, rising from my seat. “Let me know if anything changes.”

I wandered the upper deck first, grabbing a snack in the galley before passing by the ladder shaft and lift. Aft of those were a few rooms we used for storage and maintenance equipment. At the very rear was the access hatch that led out onto the hull. It was also just under the dorsal cannon, and power conduits ran on either side, delivering power from the central superconductor batteries and reactors to the weapon.

Shield emitters were also mounted on either side of the ship’s dorsal ridge, and each of those had secondary batteries in closets accessible from the passage I was in. I took a look at them, verifying that their indicators matched the readouts on the shipnet.

Satisfied that everything was in order, I opened the door that led down a narrow access passage to the aft ladder shaft. From there, I climbed down to the main deck. The shaft had an exit on the narrow catwalk that ringed the main cargo, and I pulled out the hatch and stepped out.

I was welcomed by the sound of feet hitting the deck, and I leant over the railing, watching as Sherry completed another lap around the bay. She cut an impressive figure. Lean, but well-muscled, barely sweating after what had to be a dozen kilometers worth of running.

She stopped next to the DSA crates and walked in a circle for a minute before doing several sets of body-weight exercises. After that, she stretched, using a nearby crate to lean against or hold onto several times.

I knew that she’d spotted me watching her, and I didn’t care. It wasn’t her impressive figure that had my attention, but rather her proximity to the DSA cargo. Finn and Kallie had added their own tamper detection to the crates, and so far, nothing had been triggered, but it still made me uncomfortable.

I pushed off the railing and did a circuit around the catwalk, checking on several panels, ensuring that the ship’s systems were in order before reaching my starting point. I gave Sherry a final look—she was running again—and ducked back into the ladder shaft. I climbed down to the same level as the floor of the main bay and pulled open the door that led away from the bay and toward the maintenance passage that ran just under the skin of the hull.

The port and starboard maintenance passages granted access to the lateral shield emitters, as well as our primary and secondary comm arrays.

Ever since our guests had come aboard, Kallie, Finn, and I had taken turns inspecting the access panels for any signs that someone was tapping comms to send out external messages. No matter what she said, I just didn’t believe that Penny had boarded the Kerrigan without some sort of backup nearby.

I reached the panel for the port-side comm array and opened it up, looking at the readouts. Everything was nominal, and I almost closed it up, but decided to check calibration.

Flicking open a small panel on my wrist, I pulled out the short hard-Link cable tucked in there and connected it to the panel’s port. I could have made a wireless connection, but I was feeling especially paranoid today.

Once jacked in, I ran a full diagnostic, which matched the information on the readouts. Once that was complete, I set the array to run an active two-seventy sweep of space off our port side, storing a reading of all active RF signals.

<Tammy,> I called up to the bridge. <Give me a hundred-eighty-degree roll. Hold it for five, and then roll back.>

<You got it, boss.>

I didn’t feel a thing, but through the comm array, I could see the radio signals in space wheel about. When the ship stabilized, I tapped into the starboard array and performed an identical sweep. Once it was done, I pulled up known standard candles of RF noise: the beacons surrounding Lothar, the distant light of Paragon Prime, several points beyond the nebula, and a series of nearby navigation buoys.

One by one, I checked each source to ensure the port and starboard signals matched, using a variety of characteristics. Each one did, with minor differences that one would expect due to the movement of the ship and other local EM conditions, such as Lothar’s rotation and the stellar wind.

I was about to mark the data as passing when I decided to check the Daedalus’s beacon.

The data showed it to be identical. I did a second sweep and then waited for the ship to roll back. Once it had, I ran a port-side sweep and shook my head in disbelief. The data was identical.

There were two other arrays on each side of the ship, and a fifth on a tower just fore of the main cannon. I ran sweeps with them as well, looking at the signal that was detectable with each array, and found the same anomaly.

They all showed variances within statistical norms, save the Daedalus’s.

I dug in deeper, looking at data from nav buoys that three of the comm arrays could see at the same time.

Shit.

Each array showed small differences in the RF signals. I ran a calibration routine against a set of signals, adjusting each array and resetting their baselines. Then I did another sweep.

Double shit.

Simultaneous readings of the same sources showed discrepancies again. I could see one of the arrays disagreeing, but to have all three show variances that looked like perfectly random differences in data captured at a different time and place was unusual to say the least.

I reset all the arrays to their prior configurations and closed the panel.

<Hey, Finn, I’m bored. Want to join me for a run-through of the combat sim?>

<Uhh, sure, why not. Nothing going on up here.>

I messaged the pilot. <You have the bridge, Tammy.>

She responded with a laugh. <I always have the bridge, boss.>

<Smartass.>

Five minutes later, Finn and I were in one of the smaller forward holds where the full-sensory VR system was set up. Unlike more basic models, or simply using a neuro hookup for full immersion, this system made you feel like you were in the virtual reality.

Grav columns lifted players off the deck while still making it feel like there was a solid surface beneath one’s feet. Everything from air currents to surrounding smells matched the game’s environment. Even the weapons we held in our hands had a-grav systems to alter their weight and feel like their VR counterparts.

It was only a hair’s breadth below the level of equipment the DSA used to train their own soldiers: simulated combat honing real muscle memory and twitch reflexes.

Once in place with weapon in hand, I activated the simulation. The hold around me disappeared and was replaced with the deep black of interstellar space—well, as black as it got in the L.

Looking up, I saw a small shape hanging above my head, an irregular blob, glinting dimly in the L’s light. Our target, the DSS Abernathe, an eerily similar cruiser to the Daedalus.

I considered how the Daedalus was currently the same distance from the Kerrigan as the ship in the simulation.

Next to me, drifting toward the target on the same vector, was Finn. He looked serious, like we were actually preparing to hit a real target, and not just moving to a private location to have a conversation about a discrepancy in our arrays.

<So what’s the deal, Captain? I assume you didn’t pull me in to run a two-man drill on a ship that takes four to breach.>

<Perceptive of you,> I said with a respectful nod. <I just ran a calibration routine on our comm arrays.>

<Oh, I know, Tammy was bitching about it. She had to finesse things with our asymmetrical engine output.>

I waved a hand in dismissal. <She’s a big girl, she can manage it.>

<OK, I’ll go tell her that, see how she takes it.>

<Let’s focus, ‘kay? There’s an irregularity in the data.>

<Isn’t this Kallie’s domain?>

<Normally, yeah,> I nodded. <But with Penny sitting up there with you on the bridge, it sure would look like I had found something if I suddenly called on her to play a game after doing the calibration runs. Besides, our problem isn’t hardware, it’s software. And that’s your domain.>

I sent the data over, not pointing out the anomaly, curious to see if he’d spot it on his own.

<Damn,> he muttered. <The variances are too uniform. Too perfect.>

<Variances in what?> I asked, not expecting that answer.

<It’s just too clean. Usually there are spikes and dips from background events. Look at this reading from one of the nav buoys. A nearby ore hauler fired up its engines between the two scans. That should have caused significant signal attenuation, but when the second scan ran, the base data has that attenuation filtered out.>

<Oh…> I shook my head. <I didn’t consider that. I was going to point out how the Daedalus’s beacon data is one hundred percent identical on each array.>

<Sure,> Finn nodded as we drifted through space. <That’s the smoking gun, I saw it right off. I thought you wanted me to look for something deeper.>

<I guess this is why I hired you,> I said. <So what does it mean?>

<It means that there’s some sort of pre-processing filter in the data stream ahead of our processing units.>

<Hardware or software?>

I could see Finn purse his lips. <Well, it could be hardware, but they’d have to get it in all the arrays. Given the number of outfits Penny brought, I don’t see how she could have fit that much equipment in her bags.>

<It could have been Sherry, too, but I agree that it’s unlikely.>

<I’d previously scheduled a visual inspection of the forward NSAI processing cores today. They’re in the same closet as the bow comm array units. I’ll look things over then and see what we’re dealing with. Either way, it’s safe to say someone’s doing something bad on the ship.>

<Still,> I mused, hand to chin, <they can’t listen in on end-to-end encrypted comms.>

<No, but they’ll know who we’re talking to. More importantly, if they have a pre-processing filter in place, they can hide data from us. Either something important, or their own conversations.>

<Any chance it’s something Fledge left behind that we just didn’t spot?>

Finn shook his head. <No. Kallie and I ran more rigorous calibrations than this back at port. If this hack had been in place then, we would have seen it.>

<What if it was dormant then?> I countered.

<OK, that’s fair. Still, I’m more suspicious of the two criminals we have aboard now than the Intel guy we had a week ago.>

<Can’t fault you there. OK, let’s hit this ship and do a short assault before we wrap up.>

<I’m always game to shoot some pretend DSA soldiers.>

I couldn’t resist a laugh. <Getting your bloodthirst on?>

<Maybe. I just want to stay alive when we do the real thing.>

<Fair enough. So do I.>


24


WHEELS WITHIN

I’d lost track of how many laps I’d done around the Kerrigan’s bay. It was in the hundreds at this point, a few done under the watchful eye of the ship’s captain.

Of course, it wasn’t the distance that mattered, it was time. Less about the time spent exercising, and more about time spent examining the crates.

Each time I rested against them, I deployed new microdrones and retrieved old ones, sampling everything I could think of, from old lading stickers to scuffs, dirt, even the type of paint for the markers and warnings.

It was a messy way to collect data, but it was giving me a bit of a picture. I’d narrowed down the manufacturer of the crates and a few places they’d been, plus places they hadn’t been. Because not all the crates were the same age and with the same history, I was looking for commonalities.

Granted, that assumed the crates all spent time together in the past. It could very well be that the first time they’d ended up in one place was in the Kerrigan’s hold. It was unlikely, but possible.

It wasn’t as though I had anything else to do. I’d made contact with Jacy through the ship’s comms, carefully hiding any trace that I’d accessed the system. She knew to hold back until we broke ranks with the convoy—which I expected not to happen until we were in the occlusion.

The other reason I was spending so much time running was because I couldn’t trust anyone on the ship. Not the crew, not Penny. If any of them figured out who I was, the next run would take me straight out the airlock.

A small voice in the back of my mind hinted that since my survival hinged on laying low, my effort to determine the origins of the cargo, and thereby postulate its contents, was a risky gamble to make.

But boredom won out. We were still three days from jump, and then it could be as long as a week till Captain Bremen brought us to the cores.

It was a bold move for him to make that pickup while hauling DSA cargo in a military convoy. He didn’t seem fazed by it, though, which meant he was used to operating outside the law.

At the same time, I was curious if he could be brought to work for the PMF. He seemed to have no love for the DSA, and was clearly being used as a pawn by both them and Korinth. Turning him into an asset could be highly beneficial.

As I rounded the crates one more time, the microdrones I’d deployed caught sight of a figure entering the bay. It was Kallie, the ship’s engineer.

“Gonna wear out my deck plates,” the woman said as she approached. “You know we have a gym with a treadmill, right? Decent VR as well, you could feel like you’re running anywhere.”

“I like the feeling of open space around me,” I replied, coming to a halt a few paces from her. “I always feel like I can tell with a sim. This is the biggest open space on the ship, so here I am.”

“Makes sense.” The other woman planted her hands on her hips. “I’m curious, though, why is it that you’ve touched every single crate exactly two times?”

I felt my blood pressure spike. I had done that, so focused on meticulously collecting my data, I hadn’t added any randomness to my actions.

“A game,” I replied. “Something to distract myself while killing time. I didn’t realize it was so obvious.”

“Well, it is,” Kallie’s tone was not entirely unfriendly, and I wondered what she was getting at. “Are you curious what’s inside of them?” she walked toward one of the crates at the corner of the stack and patted the side.

“I mean, who wouldn’t be?” I had to remember that my cover wasn’t an honest woman. She had no need to pretend at any virtuous morality. “The DSA rushes some cargo onto my bird, and then sends us off on a convoy to Chal, the lone system on the far side of the occlusion? Things are afoot, Kallie.”

“ ‘Afoot’?” The engineer laughed. “I like you, Sherry. I mean, not a lot, don’t get excited, but definitely more than Penny. You seem like a real person.”

“Penny’s not real?” I lifted my brow at the idea.

“She’s an endless stack of masks. I’ve never seen the real Penny, and I doubt you have, either.”

I couldn’t find fault in Kallie’s assessment. Korinth’s liaison, his ‘left hand’, as I’d heard Penny called, was clearly a woman who calculated every move she made. Even in forming an intimate relationship with me, it was clear that there had been no small amount of calculation.

Penny wanted to keep me close and under her thumb. Yet at the same time, she barely knew me, which meant there was no way I was her backup plan.

Is there someone else aboard already in her pocket? Is it Jax? Certainly not Kallie, those two women are not fans of one another. Granted, that would be a great cover.

One thing I’d learned thus far, I enjoyed the analysis of situations like this a lot more than being in one.

Kallie was staring at me in silence, and I realized that I needed to respond with more than a noncommittal grunt. “Uh, yeah, she’s not exactly transparent. I’ll give her that.”

“You aren’t too far behind, though.” The engineer’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know how much I trust that this is just a game. If I do a full scan of this cargo, what am I going to find? Signs of tampering? A hint at who you really are?”

“Me?” I placed a hand on my chest. “I’m nobody. Just a buyer looking to turn a profit on some quality hardware. I’m the sort of person who isn’t important at all.”

Kallie walked toward me, circled around, eyes looking me up and down. “I don’t know, Sherry. People like you are usually the most important. The movers behind the scenes. I mean, take this ship, me, Jax. We don’t look like much, no one would say that we’ve shaped shit. Yet you have no idea the stuff that we’ve smuggled between Chal and Delphi, between Delphi and…Paragon.”

She came back around to face me as she spoke the last, her face only a decimeter from my own.

“Personal space, Kallie.” I took a step back. “And great, you’re super-awesome smugglers. Are you looking for work? Think I might have jobs for you to take after this?”

“I don’t take jobs,” the engineer folded her arms across her chest. “That’s the captain’s territory.”

I nodded, though I didn’t believe for a second that Kallie didn’t have some say in everything the Kerrigan did. The engineer wanted something; whether it was a confession or a promise, I wasn’t sure, but there was no benefit in further conversation.

“Well, I’ll leave you to whatever you’re up to, then.” I walked to the crates and grabbed my water bottle from off the deck. A couple of my microdrones were still in the stack, but the likelihood of Kallie finding them was smaller than the drones.

Kallie didn’t move. “OK, see you for chow in a few hours.”

“You bet.” I began to walk away, when she reached out and put a hand on my arm.

“And, Sherry?”

“Yeah?”

“Touch the crates again, and I’ll cut this off. Get it?”

I looked down at her hand on my arm like it was a repulsive insect. “Sure, whatever.”

She let go, and I walked away, the space between my shoulder blades itching till I was out of sight.


25


DEEPER SUSPICION

<Go left,> I said to Finn, directing him to cover the other side of the corridor as we approached another intersection.

This one was tricky. Directly across from us was a steep staircase leading up to the next level. The right side led to an enlisted mess, while the left was our route to the storage bay we needed to reach.

<You got it,> he replied.

We reached the end of the corridor, and I poked a stick cam around, looking down my side before turning it to look down his.

<Clear,> I announced, holding my position as he eased into the corridor.

<You guys need a hand?> a new voice asked, and I turned to see Kallie standing behind me.

<Shit, Kal. I almost jumped out of my skin.>

<You need to be more prepared, Jax. Shit can go sideways real fast on a mission like this.>

I shook my head. <Well, at least the enemy won’t just appear out of thin air.>

<So you think. Anyway, we need to talk, and it looks like this is our new meeting room.>

Finn glanced over his shoulder and saw us both standing next to the bulkhead, not watching the approaches.

<I’m gonna get shot, you know,> he complained.

<You’ll get over it. Come see what Kallie found.>

He retraced his steps and looked down at the engineer’s hand, where a holoimage of a microdrone floated.

<Is that from the game or something?>

<No,> Kallie shook her head. <Sherry was using it to inspect the DSA crates.>

<I wondered if she was up to something,> I muttered. <Then I found that our comm array has been tampered with. That consumed my attention, prompting Finn and I to have a meeting here.>

Kallie was giving me a level stare. <You found what? And you didn’t tell me?>

<I didn’t want to alert Penny or Sherry that we were on to them. I figured they’d expect me to go to you if I found something serious.>

I gave her a stern look, and she had the good graces to look contrite. <Oh…so I guess me running to the VR hold probably gave away what I’d found.>

<Yeah, if they have any probes watching. Which they probably do.>

<Well…sorry about this. Hope I didn’t tip our hand.>

<What’s done is done. Load the drone’s software into the game so Finn can take a look. Between running and shooting, we’ve been examining the filter added into the comm system. I’m curious if there are any similarities between it and the drone.>

I heard a sound down the cross-corridor and poked my camera around the corner again. A trio of enemy soldiers had just walked out of the mess hall. None of them were armored, but two had pulse pistols strapped to their thighs.

Rather than engage them, I motioned Kallie and Finn to retreat down the passage to a maintenance closet. Once inside, I took up watch, observing the passage via the camera, which I’d left outside on the deck.

Two of the soldiers turned and climbed the stairs to the next deck, while the third turned down the passage we were hiding in.

<OK, I found some similarities, but so far, just common code libraries,> Finn reported a moment later. <Nothing that would….>

<That would what?> Kallie prompted.

<Look at this,> he replied.

Neither spoke for a minute, and I was tempted to ask them for a view into what they were examining, but decided it was better if one of us stayed alert.

Anyone watching the game from outside would see activity indicating it was underway, but if we paused to have a private conversation, that would be readily apparent.

When we first started having private chats in the sim, I was worried that Penny or Sherry would be able to tap in and hear us, but Finn explained that it would be very difficult for them to pull that off. The sim had a team-versus-team mode, and the only people more paranoid than the military when it came to the enemy learning their plans were gamers.

Outside the closet we were all crammed into, another pair of DSA personnel walked past. This time not soldiers, but ship’s crew, both chiefs, and I worried that one of them would spot the stick cam laying on the deck. No one was better at spotting something out of place than a chief with a few minutes on their hands.

<OK, yeah, this is a match,> Finn muttered as one of the chiefs stopped and looked down at the stick camera.

Not bothering to alert the others, I kicked open the closet’s door, slamming the hard plas into the first chief’s head and flipping him over backward. A focused blast rippled out from my pulse rifle and caught the other man in the face. As he fell, I turned back to the man the door had hit, and gave her a point-blank blast to the forehead. The second enemy was rolling over, groaning loudly, and I finished him off as well.

<Shit,> Finn whistled. <That’s a lot of brain on the deck.>

<Wanted to make sure they can’t call for help.>

<We’ve got enough,> Kallie said. <Either they’re working together and sharing tech, or Sherry’s going solo. Thing is, these microdrones have the same origin as the software filter in the comm system.>

<Yeah, and there’s more,> Finn added. <The software…it’s not from Delphi. It’s Paragonian.>


26


JUMP NIGHT

We’d finished the game, gotten to the cargo bay and tagged the contents with trackers, disabling some of the more sensitive equipment.

Kallie had been spotted in the sim and we’d had to shoot our way off the cruiser—not a great resolution, but not terrible, either.

As I lay in my bed, staring up at the overhead, a host of concerns whirled through my mind. The fear of actually having to shoot our way off the Daedalus being one of them.

In that scenario, we’d take one of the shuttles and get to a rendezvous point, where the Kerrigan would pick us up. It wouldn’t be quite as easy as that, but at least we had a plan.

Sherry was a different matter. It was likely she was a member of the PMF Intelligence Section. And Paragonian IS—something that more than one ‘piss’ joke had been made about—was known to be even less pleasant to deal with than DSA Intel.

In truth, I hadn’t had many conversations with Sherry. She’d joined us for a few of the crew meals, and skipped a couple of others. She’d chatted a bit with Tammy and Finn, but seemed to be avoiding the rest of us.

Even so, she didn’t seem like an evil, sadistic operative who would just as soon kill us as pass the salt.

Honestly, she seems kinda nice…minus the whole hacking our ship and trying to look in our cargo part.

A knock sounded on my door, and I pulled a feed from the corridor. It was Penny, in a simple, black sheath dress. It was probably the most basic thing I’d seen her wear in…ever.

I signaled the door to open, and she gave me a coy smile before stepping in. “I rather wondered if you’d leave me out there.”

“Thought crossed my mind.”

It hadn’t.

“So, here we are,” she said as the door closed. “Tucked into the convoy, and a day from the jump point. Korinth will be pleased.”

“Did you send him an update?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, he has enough eyes that he’ll get all the details he needs. We just have to do our jobs.”

I pushed myself up on my elbows. “I always do my job. Never lost so much as a crate when running for Korinth.”

“Well, except for the four cores we’re going to fetch.”

“They’re not lost,” I countered. “They’re perfectly safe, and I know exactly where they are.”

“So you say.” She took a few steps forward and stopped at the foot of my bed. “I don’t know what this’ll do for our relationship, though. Korinth isn’t really excited about you playing games with him—neither am I. Spending a few weeks aboard your flying tin can isn’t what I’d call a good time.”

I groaned. “Just what I love to hear. Can you insult my ship some more? It’s like a soothing bedtime lullaby. In case you didn’t pick it up, that’s sarcasm.”

Her look softened. “OK, I’m sorry. I’m not really pissed at you, I’ve been on a lot worse than the Kerrigan. I’m just annoyed with Korinth. He’s been…sloppy lately. I worry about how things are going to go.”

“Well, if things go tits up, then maybe you should consider yourself lucky that you’re here, and not back on Myka.”

She lifted an eyebrow and shook her head. “Let’s not get carried away. I had a lot of friends on Myka, the DSA would have a hard time pinning me down there. I mean, look at us. We’re surrounded by a DSA task force that could crush the Kerrigan without a second thought.”

“Yeah, but why would they? We have some of their oh-so-precious cargo, and no one knows you’re here.”

“You sure about that?” Penny asked, her voice sounding weary. “I didn’t advertise where I was going, and we futzed the sensors on Myka when I boarded, but someone might have seen me. I can’t discount the possibility.”

“What about Sherry?” I asked. “What if she spilled the beans?”

“Possible,” Penny allowed. “She could have told her employer—whoever that is—or maybe sold the information to the DSA. But I doubt she told the authorities, what with her being aboard and all.”

“True.” I nodded. “The DSA isn’t exactly known for their measured responses.”

Penny lowered herself to the bed while nodding, settling near my feet. She reached out and placed a hand on my calf. “Yeah, I know how it can be better than most. Best I can hope for is that the DSA never gets wind that I’m aboard, and that the scoop operation goes off without a hitch.”

I looked down at her hand, then up at her face. “Are we this familiar, Penny?”

Her fingers traced a path up to my thigh. “I don’t know, are we? Would you like to be? You’re a smart man, Jax Bremen, a clever man. Clever people can go far working directly for someone like Korinth.”

I snorted. “No thanks. Direct employment for people like Korinth redefines ‘go far’ to ‘get dead’. I like being the master of my own destiny. I choose where the Kerrigan’s bow points, not some mob boss who never leaves the lap of luxury of some planet or station.”

Penny’s eyes hardened. “You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t understand.”

“I know you’re terrible at seduction,” I scoffed. “Or did you have some other goal here? Did you think that if you whisper some sweet nothings in my ear, I’ll just tell you where the cores are?”

“Do you think so little of me, Jax?” she asked sweetly. “What if I really do just want the pleasure of your company?”

“My company you can have, and often, but nothing more. You’re far too dangerous to get close to. I know what the female of your species does.”

“Humans?” she asked.

“No. Spiders.”

Penny snatched her hand back, a withering look in her eyes. “You might regret calling me that, Jax Bremen.”

“Great. I’ll add it to my list. So long as you pay, I’ll have all the regret it takes. Will that be all?”

Penny rose and strode to the door. She stopped, facing it for a moment, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to take her, to grip her ass while I plunged—

No. The woman was poison. An addictive drug that I didn’t need in my life.

I’d just divested myself of the fantasy when she turned her head and said in a husky voice, “For now.”

She opened the door and stepped through right as Kallie was walking past. My engineer took one look at Penny, then at me laying on my bed, and gave me a disgusted glare.

The door closed, and I flopped back onto my pillow.

“Fuck.”


V

Convoy


27


INTO THE MAELSTROM



On the bridge of the Victorious Strike…

Mine was the first ship out of the dark layer.

I watched in satisfaction as helm brought the ship into its assigned location, and then I rose from my command seat and walked down to the holotank in the center of the bridge.

One by one, the ships of the convoy appeared in the display, most within a thousand kilometers of their target exit point. Two of the civilian ships were on the edge of their safe zone, and one of the MFPs was completely outside the group, but otherwise, it had been a decent jump for a mixed flotilla.

Not that I’m going to let any of them know that.

I sent out a flurry of orders, passing some through Naomi, and sending others directly to the ships that I was particularly annoyed with. A pair of corvettes had boosted away from the convoy to escort the platform back in, when an EM flare lit up on the tank, and one of the ships flashed a distress beacon.

“That better not be what I think it is.” My hands clutched the rim of the console as scan focused on the area.

“Commander Sinclair.” The scan officer looked up and met my gaze. “It looks like one of the tagalongs came out and hit the Forerunner. Our ship is unharmed, but the civilian freighter didn’t have shields up…it took significant damage.”

“I told those people to keep back a hundred thousand klicks.”

The scan officer nodded. “Looks like the others did, I don’t know what this ship thought they were up to.”

“I can handle liaising with them, ma’am,” Naomi said. “We can get a repair ship over there and make sure they’re patched up.”

I wanted to tell her to let them drift, but I knew we couldn’t leave a ship in distress alone in the black. Especially on the edge of the occlusion.

“OK, do it, Major. Make sure it’s quick, I’m not slowing the task force down.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

It was inevitable that whenever a large convoy crossed an occlusion, independent operators would follow in its wake. But it was highly unlikely that any marauders would attack ships that were a light second or two from a force as strong as Iron Lance.

Nearly forty ships were trailing behind the convoy, many moving at irregular vectors after they’d boosted to catch up before transitioning to the dark layer. Based on our final scan before dumping to FTL, another ten ships would be arriving before long.

I pulled up the ANSWON report and saw that we were only three light minutes from the edge of the occlusion. The fringes were just sparse dust and light gases, but a light hour further in, the clouds had already closed in at the barycenter, looking like a red-tinted hurricane.

This early on in the cycle, there was no risk to a shielded craft passing through from the clouds themselves. The biggest danger was from EM activity. As the nebula’s clouds interacted with the bow shock from Delphi’s solar wind, static charge would begin to build up. At times, it would discharge in sheets of white lightning as photons excited into elevated states raced across the maelstrom, seeking equalization.

That activity could blind a ship and make them an excellent target for pirates lurking in the clouds.

Like the Kerrigan.

Anger over having to include Jax Bremen’s ship in our convoy still simmered in the back of my mind. In the time it had taken the Kerrigan to travel down to Myka and then back out to Lothar, I’d received confirmation that that they did indeed have a writ of marque in Chal. How they’d gotten it was beyond me—though I planned to dig into that further once we reached the system.

And do whatever I could to see it revoked.

At least Bremen’s tub had exited the dark layer where it should have: near the rear and on the port side. Right in front of the rear cruiser phalanx, one of which being the Daedalus. If I could trust anyone in Iron Lance to do their job, it was Commander Petrov.

Just try something, Jax. I dare you.

The Daedalus Job

“Jump looks good,” Tammy announced. “We’re right in the pocket. Better than half the DSA ships, if I do say so myself.”

“You can say so all you want, Tammy,” I replied, smiling with satisfaction as I imagined Sinclair seeing our perfect jump.

Eat your heart out, bitch.

“Oh shit!” Finn exclaimed, flinging a readout onto the main holo. “Look at that! Captain Jorge came out too late and creamed that corvette.”

“Damn,” Penny whistled from her seat—a different seat than she’d occupied previously, as Kallie was also present on the bridge. “He’s gonna be in hock. He was hauling for Korinth. If that cargo got damaged, it’ll be his hide.”

“Good to know you’re worried about the people on the ship,” Kallie muttered. “Not like they’re worth anything.”

Penny barked a laugh. “Certainly won’t be, if they lost their haul. Jorge is gonna have to take up ranching on Barras.”

Kallie shot me a dark look, as though this was all my fault. It wasn’t anything new. She’d been all cold shoulder ever since she saw Penny come out of my cabin.

I hadn’t bothered trying to explain it to her. I’d been fully clothed, and no one’s hair was messed up. She knew from experience that the aftermath of my sexual encounters looked a lot different.

Besides, you called it off with us. You don’t get a say in who I sleep with. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. OK, Jax. Ease up, you’re acting a little ragey.

“Any orders from Sinclair?” I asked, knowing I could look myself, but wanting to change the topic on the bridge to her and not me.

“Just to maintain position and vector while they clean up that mess with Jorge’s ship and get their wandering platform back in the fold,” Tammy replied. “If they hold course, we’ll pass a light minute away from our pickup point, though. Nice and easy.”

I gave a tired sigh. “Good. Just a few more days then, and this’ll be over.”

“A few?” Penny asked. “Care to be more specific?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “You won’t know it’s happening till it’s happening.”

“Fine.” She slapped her hands on her seat’s armrests and rose. “Be that way. I’m going to go find Sherry and fuck her silly.”

“Uhh…good luck with that,” Finn said with a laugh. “She’s probably doing laps around Oln in the gym or something.”

“Screw you,” Penny muttered as she walked past Finn and into the passage.

I glanced at Kallie and saw that she was grinning—until she realized I was looking at her. Then her eyes narrowed, and she turned back to face the main display.

<OK, she’s doing it,> Finn said, using the game chat system we were now proxying through for private conversations. <Sherry’s using the comm array. She’s sending a message to one of the ships following behind the convoy. A small corporate courier called the Firelight.>

<No chance we can hear what they’re saying, eh?> I asked.

<Nada,> Kallie chimed in. <It’s encrypted end-to-end. We’d be dead before we cracked it.>

<You, maybe,> Finn replied. <I plan to live till the eventual heat death of the universe.>

<It’s not going to have a heat death,> Kallie countered. <It’ll come back down for a big crunch.>

The network breacher shrugged. <Like it matters to us. I think ‘heat death’ sounds cooler, so I’m going with that.>

<Why are you such a dumbass?> she shot back.

<Me?> Finn demanded. <You’re the one who has been one eye-twitch away from frothing at the mouth for the past week. You need to chill.>

<Everyone needs to chill.> I stood and eyed them both <Yeah, things are tense, but we can’t be at each other’s throats. We’re a team, we’ve been through plenty of shit. We’ll make it through this.>

<We’ve never done a job like this before.> Kallie’s eyes met mine, and I could see a modicum of fear in them.

I gave her an encouraging nod, glad that she wasn’t scowling at me for once.

<And in a week, we’ll be able to say that we have done it, and then nothing will be out of our reach.>

<Yay, pep talk,> Tammy joined in for the first time. <Can someone bring me some coffee? I’m exhausted, and I don’t want to pass out till the last of the barnacles jump in.>

“On it,” I said. “Be back in a flash.”

<What about Sherry?> Kallie asked.

<Well, I assume Penny’s going to make good on her promise. And usually, our Paragonian friend goes for a run when they’re done assaulting the pink fortress, so I’ll corner her in a side passage then. We’ll see what sort of arrangement we can strike.>

“Seriously, boss.” Tammy turned and half hung out of her seat. “Coffee. I’m fading. And unless someone plans to assault my pink fortress, I’m going to need it fast.”

Finn stood. “I volunteer as tribute.” He pushed past me and dashed down the passage to the galley.

“You didn’t need to do both,” Kallie called after.

“Oh, he can totally do both,” Tammy said, a wide grin on her lips. “Can you pervs get off the bridge already? There’s crew morale to be fixed.”

An hour later, I waited just inside one of the smaller maintenance corridors for Sherry. Based on her progress through the ship thus far, I had a minute before she reached me.

I took a slow breath, then let out all the air, voiding my lungs as much as possible. After repeating the process twice more, I felt ready.

“Hey, Sherry,” I said as she turned the corner and nearly ran into me. “Careful there.”

“Crap! Sorry, Captain. I didn’t expect anyone to be up this late.”

“You know me,” I shrugged. “I like to prowl around at off hours. What brings you down this passage?”

Sherry put a hand on the wall and grabbed her ankle, pulling her leg up behind her back to stretch it out. “Oh, you know. Kallie doesn’t like me running around the DSA cargo, so I’ve made a bit of a route through the ship. Without taking these maintenance passages, I’d have to double back, and I hate doing that. With these, I get to make a circuit.”

“Oh,” I nodded in understanding. “I thought maybe it was because you wanted to check on your taps into the comm arrays. Or maybe send another message to the Firelight—though you don’t have to be here to do that.”

Sherry’s face paled for a moment before she recovered, brow lowered. “Firelight? What’s that?”

“A ship,” I replied. “Small courier, about three light minutes behind us right now. We saw you send a message to it after we jumped in. We also know you’re Paragonian.”

“So what?” she replied with a shrug. “Lots of people are Paragonian. Is that some sort of crime?”

“Maybe. What about hacking our comm arrays?”

She didn’t reply, just gave an angry stare.

“OK, look. You’re caught, you’re wondering what we’re going to do. I’m also guessing that you don’t want Penny to know you have a ship out there tailing us. I don’t blame you. What we want to do is come to an arrangement with you that helps us deal with the mess we’re in. And we want to be paid for it, too.”

“Aren’t you just the gentleman,” she replied. “Why are you doing this?”

“I have my reasons. Let’s just say that it gets you the cores, and out of Penny’s clutches.”

“And Penny?”

I shrugged. “She won’t be a problem anymore.”

“You’re going to kill her?” Sherry’s eyes were wide, confirming that she’d developed more than a passing interest in Korinth’s left hand.

“No, she’s worth far more alive,” I lied. Sherry might just have enough of an attachment to Penny that if we told her our real plans, she’d balk. “We’re going to hand her over to the DSA to score points. Just like we’re getting with the PMF for giving you the cores.”

“Who says I’m with—”

“Please, Sherry. Don’t insult my intelligence. You have military bearing and deep pockets. Sure, you could represent a legitimate Paragonian business interest, but I would bet my left nut that any company putting you out here is in bed with the military either way.”

She nodded. “OK, yeah, that’s fair.”

“And is it true?” I pressed.

“You’ll just have to wonder. So that’s it? We give you the fifty million, and you tell me where the cores are?”

I crossed my arms. “Pretty sure you were going to pay Penny more than that. Seventy.”

“Sixty.”

Neither of us blinked as we locked eyes, engaging in a silent battle of wills.

“Deal.” I held out my hand. “We’ll give you two hours’ warning before we make our move.”

“Sounds good.” She nodded. “That it?”

“Well, how good is the Firelight’s stealth?”

“You’re worried about the DSA shooting her down?”

I shrugged. “Just thinking about your safety.”

“It’s not like I haven’t been paying attention. You plan to have a malfunction and veer off course. I’ll make sure my people are close, and when you call for aid, they’ll come in, pick me up, and we’ll be gone—and you’ll have our gratitude.”

“The PMF’s gratitude,” I corrected.

Sherry winked. “Maybe.”

“There’s just one more thing.”

She shifted, her brow lowering. “You’ve already dragged us out here for this little charade when you could have just told us where the cores are.”

“Uh huh,” I nodded. “And then Korinth might have just killed us all back on Myka.”

“You really think so?”

“We got boarded by the DSA on the way in. I’ve seen him ‘purge’ a crew when he thinks they know too much. Better safe than sorry.”

“You think turning Penny over to the DSA is going to help smooth that over with him?” Sherry snorted.

“We’ll figure it out. Things are sort of seat-of-the-pants out here. That’s why we’re going to need your help with a diversion.”

“Oh, this’ll be good, I’m sure.”

“All we need you to do is get the convoy’s attention after you get the cores. You’ll be too far away for them to catch you, and beams range will be restricted in the occlusion. Perfectly safe.”

This time, Sherry laughed outright. “I’ll be in a glorified pinnace, and there are dozens of DSA warships here. Trust me, there’s no such thing as ‘perfectly safe’.”

“I hear you…. Still, it’s not that risky.”

“We’ll be the judge of that. If we can, we’ll help. But don’t count on it.”

I nodded. “Fine. You’ve got a day to relax and bang Penny to your heart’s content. Then shit’s getting real.”

Turning away, I caught her laugh and soft reply.

“Girls really don’t ‘bang’, you know.”


28


MARS LANDING



Aboard the Kerrigan…

Still shaking my head after my chat with Sherry, I worked my way around the ship to the starboard maintenance passage. Once there, I opened the control panel for the secondary comm array.

Finn had established a workaround that wouldn’t alert Sherry—and maybe Penny, if they weren’t being honest—when the array was used. Given who I was contacting, that was very important.

<She’s still on her run,> Finn informed me. <So far as I can tell, she hasn’t reached out to Penny, either.>

<OK. Make sure Oln stays in the galley. If Sherry tells Penny about our plans, we’ll have a fight on our hands.>

<Think that was wise?> he asked.

I really didn’t.

<No, but what else was I going to tell her? I’d rather not piss off both governments and Korinth. If we thread this needle just right, everyone will think we did right by them, when really, we’ll have crossed them all and gotten paid.>

<Have to admit, I sure like that last part.>

<Remember, make sure Oln doesn’t kill her. Other than that, he can do whatever is necessary.>

<Uh…yeah, I’ll totally be able to restrain him if he goes hog-wild.>

<Knew I could count on you.> I closed the connection with a laugh and then turned to the task at hand.

Mars had sent a message coded into a status update we received from the DSA escort. The instructions told me to tightbeam my message just over the bow of a freighter on the fringe of the ships following in the convoy’s wake.

The captain of the freighter was someone I’d drank with a few times. Anyone who spotted RF coming from the Kerrigan would think I was just chatting up an old friend.

Not an old friend, a new frenemy.

<I’m so lonely, I wish I had some company.>

It wasn’t the message I was supposed to send, but it was far more amusing than the coded greeting Mars had instructed me to use. She’d know it was from me.

<Yeah, I wish you were here so I could slap you silly.>

Damn…I guess two can play this game.

<Soon, I hope. That sounds like a game I’d like to play. How’re things back there? Crazy what happened to Jorge’s ship, eh?>

<What an idiot.> Mars snorted. <I’m just waiting for the last of the tagalongs to jump into the middle of the convoy and get blown up.>

<Well, if they don’t come out of the DL soon, they never will. We’re not far from the occlusion now.>

<Going to be a smooth ride, I hope.>

<For sure,> I replied optimistically. <I think the worst of it will be past in just over a day.>

<We’ll all be toasting one another in a bar on Barras in a couple of weeks. So long as we don’t get sick.>

I was surprised she knew about my recent experience on Barras. Granted, I’d gotten pissed out of my mind there more than once, so she might have just read it in my file or something.

<I’ll just stay away from shit with those damn worms in it.>

<Wise choice. I need to go, but reach out again when you have a moment.>

<Sure thing, always good talking with you.>

<Wish I could say the same.> Mars’s tone was sardonic. <Bye.>

Worst. Handler. Ever.

The Daedalus Job

That night, I joined the crew for our meal, a rather impressive spread including steak, several types of veggies both cooked and raw, and a great vat of potatoes.

For all his faults, Oln was a good cook, once he was persuaded to actually do the work. This meal was courtesy of me telling him I was going to bill him for the power his VR system drew if he didn’t make it.

I almost chuckled as he bustled around the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on our dinner. Three years together, and he still hadn’t figured out that I always forced him to cook the night before a job.

<I see that look in your eyes,> Kallie commented. <Poor Oln, being manipulated by you.>

<You never know, maybe he’s fucking brilliant, and just doesn’t want to do any extra work. He might just be letting us think he’s an idiot.>

<I don’t know about that, I’ve seen Oln do some pretty stupid shit. Like one time—>

I held up a hand. <Kallie, please. We’re about to eat a meal he made. The last thing I need is to hear some story about his idiocy.>

She smiled and shook her head. <OK, I’ll allow it.>

I soaked up the radiance flowing off her. She hadn’t smiled a lot lately, so it was nice to finally see it again. It made me feel like everything would be alright.

<Stop looking at me like that.>

<Sorry.>

“OK, everyone,” Oln proclaimed as he set down a bowl of thick, brown gravy. “Dig in!”

“Gotta say,” Penny winked at me. “For a shitty little tub, the Kerrigan sure puts out a good spread.”

“I’ve had a lot worse,” Sherry nodded in agreement as she skewered a steak and set it on her plate. “Granted, your ship’s appearance is clearly a ruse.”

“A ruse?” I hoped she wasn’t about to make things difficult. “We’re just honest traders.”

The Paragonian spy barked a laugh. “Oh, c’mon, Captain. We all know you’ve done some lucrative hauls.”

There was a moment of silence, broken by Oln’s oblivious laugh. “Sure have! I mean, that VR rig would have taken years for me to save for before some of our recent jobs.”

He looked up to see everyone at the table staring at him.

“What? Would someone pass the potatoes? This boy’s gotta keep the starches high.”

“Sure,” Tammy said with a giggle. “We wouldn’t want our boy to waste away.”

“Perish the thought.” Sherry joined in the laughter.

Kallie steered conversation away from our prior exploits by shifting to stories of other ships in the convoy.

I watched everyone as the conversation circled the table, noting how Tammy always took delight in a story, carefree and amused, while Finn often frowned, clearly working out details and judging validity. Oln usually nodded the whole time.

I was often too hard on the big guy. He wasn’t dumb, he just didn’t think things through too much before doing them. The epitome of living in the now.

Right now, for him, that was a good meal among friends. Nevermind that two of them would just as soon see the rest of us dead—a feeling that was largely mutual.

Sherry was a little less reserved than usual, joining in the banter and laughing periodically as Kallie got into her stories about the foibles of the merchant captains who made up the convoy.

“Wait, wait, wait!” she held up her hands. “Are you telling me that Captain Jorge actually let them use his ass as a dartboard? Like…willingly?”

Kallie nodded vigorously. “I kid you not, that’s just a regular day for him. I don’t know how he manages to command a ship, because every time I see him drunk, he’s begging people to abuse him.”

“I wish I’d known that,” Penny muttered. “I mean, I’d heard rumors, but I figured if he commands a ship, he can’t be that big of a dumbass.”

“Something yesterday’s collision confirmed,” Tammy said with a nod. “I guess any dolt can captain a starship.”

All eyes at the table turned to me, and I snorted. “Jorge doesn’t pilot his ship. That bad jump probably wasn’t his fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Kallie wagged a finger. “You know that.”

“Oh, I do.” I nodded vigorously. “On a ship, all shit flows toward the captain.”

“Must be why you’re the bilge rat so often in Snark,” Kallie prodded.

The meal went on with stories and good-natured barbs for over an hour before Sherry and Penny finally begged off. We helped Oln with the cleanup, and then Tammy retreated to the bridge while the other four of us trekked down to the VR setup and jacked in.

“Do we have to do the cruiser assault again?” Oln asked. “It’s getting really dull. We could do this one in our sleep.”

“Let’s do a new twist today,” I suggested. “Let’s get in and out without killing a single enemy.”

“What?” Oln almost growled the word. “Killing Delphies is half the fun.”

“Just for kicks,” I replied. “Last time.”

“Fine. Then let’s play the mission where we assault Earth.”

“Deal.”


29


THE RUSE



Aboard the Kerrigan…

At exactly 09:17 ship time, an explosion shook the Kerrigan, and the port engine cut out. Instead of killing thrust, the starboard burner’s programming decoupled from the central control, and shifted to max power.

I watched Tammy frantically fight with the ship, using every trick in the book to keep us flying as straight as possible. She dove us under another nearby freighter, then let the ship careen hard to port to avoid one of the DSA cruisers.

When we were clear of the convoy, she rotated the ship to adjust course, corkscrewing the vessel through the black to keep us on the right heading.

The ship’s a-grav systems were good, but even they couldn’t quite keep up with the centripetal force from the maneuver. Everyone on the bridge was swaying side to side, fighting feelings of nausea, when Penny burst through the door.

“The fuck! What blew—?” She looked around at our grim, unworried expressions. “Ohh…this is all theater. Well done. I didn’t expect you to blow part of your ship to pull this off.”

I laughed and shook my head. “We didn’t. Well, not too much. Just a secondary fuel line, and a big light show in the exhaust bell from a bad mixture. Won’t take more than a few minutes to bring the engine back online.”

“Good,” Penny settled into Kallie’s seat. “I don’t fancy being dead in the water in the middle of the maelstrom.”

“Me either.”

Sherry arrived a moment later. “Damn, you guys put on a good show.”

She sounded genuinely surprised, despite us having warned her about the event. I still didn’t know if she’d shared details with Penny or not. We’d find out soon enough.

“All about the presentation,” Tammy said, her tone light, though her face was still a mask of concentration. “Three minutes till engine cut.”

“And here’s our hail from Sinclair,” I said. “Took her a bit longer than I thought it would. Maybe she was napping.”

<Bremen, what the hell is going on over there?>

She sounded angrier than expected, but also resigned, as though she’d anticipated some sort of calamity to strike the Kerrigan sooner or later.

<Thanks for the concern, Commander. We blew a fuel line. We’re working on killing our engine and getting things switched over to secondaries once we make sure nothing else was damaged.>

<I’m not concerned about you.> Sinclair’s voice dripped with disdain. <I want to be sure your cargo is safe. How are you accelerating with just one engine?>

<We took some damage in Chal, if you recall. Lowered efficiency on our port engine. We had to run at a lower overall thrust to balance things. When we lost that engine, the software reset on the other one, and flipped over to an older burn profile.>

<So shut it down,> the commander demanded. <And kill that mayday you’re blasting. Everyone knows you’re in distress.>

<Yeah, sorry, working on it. Mind if I focus on that and not you?>

The connection died, and I took that as her answer.

“How we looking?” I asked Tammy.

“Right in the pipe, boss. Aw shit, now some of the sea urchins are coming to see if we need help.”

Sure enough, two of the ships following behind the convoy were boosting on vectors to intercept us. One was the Firelight, and another the freighter Mars had been using as cover, the Hard Case.

“What are those dumbasses doing?” Penny muttered. “Think they’ll get a reward or something?”

“They’ve reached out, explaining that they’re responding to the mayday and ready to offer assistance,” Finn replied. “So far, none of the DSA craft are moving to intercept.”

“They will,” I muttered.

“You almost sound like you want them to.” Penny looked at me and then at Finn. “Why would that be?”

“ ‘Want’ isn’t exactly the right word. They will because we’re hauling their cargo, and they don’t want us rendezvousing with random ships in the occlusion while it’s aboard. We have a plan to handle that, it just works best if they do it when I expect them to.”

“You’ll forgive me if this doesn’t make me feel good,” Penny bit off the words. “I can’t believe I ever thought it would be wise to put my life in your hands.”

Me either. You’ll come to regret that soon enough.

“We’ve got all the bases covered,” I said. “Things are well in hand.”

“Sure they are. You gonna tell those ships coming over that you don’t need them?”

Before I had a chance to respond, Oln meandered onto the bridge, stretching and yawning. “Shit. How am I supposed to sleep when it feels like I’m on some sort of thrill ride?”

“You’re not supposed to,” I grunted. “It’s two hours into first shift.”

“Sure.” He nodded. “Yeah, totally awake for the job.”

As he talked, he walked to the far side of Tammy’s sphere and placed a hand on it to steady himself.

“You on the sauce, Tam?”

“No, just had a blowout. Remember our plan to get away from the convoy to get the cores?”

Oln nodded sagely. “Yeah, I do. Finally getting that done, then, eh?”

“Sure are,” I replied. “Say, remember that thing I said I might need you to do today? I need you to do it.”

He turned to look at me, eyes wide. “Really?”

I could see Penny’s eyes narrow as she turned her attention from our resident mountain to me. I locked my gaze onto hers.

“Yes.”

With more speed and fluidity than one would expect a musclebound giant to possess, Oln pulled his right hand off Tammy’s sphere, balled it into a fist, and swung it around toward Penny.

I was impressed. At the last moment, she brought her arms up and crossed them in front of her face, blocking the fist that was as large as her head.

It wasn’t enough, though. He might not be the most perceptive person in the world, but Oln was a born brawler.

His left fist was already in motion, and slammed into the side of Penny’s head. The blow lifted her out of her chair, and she flailed her arms, trying to regain her balance, only to catch another fist in the solar plexus.

She fell to the ground, gasping for breath. Oln gave her a curious look, then brought a fist down to the base of her skull, slamming the woman’s face into the deck.

“Fuck!” Sherry exclaimed. “I thought you said you weren’t going to kill her?”

Oln nudged Penny with his boot. “She’s alive. She has a reinforced spine, I could tell by how her torso went rigid when I first hit her. She’ll be fine.”

Finn was already out of his seat, pushing past Sherry to kneel next to the prone woman. He pulled a pair of binders from inside his jacket, and cuffed Penny’s hands behind her back.

“OK.” I nodded to Oln. “Get her to Hold 7 and lock it down. Secure her to the deck as well. I don’t want her to be able to so much as lift her head.”

“We’ll make sure she’s not going anywhere,” Finn said.

“Killing burn in three, two, one,” Tammy announced.

A second later, the feeling that my head was constantly moving in circles stopped, and the bridge suddenly seemed to spin the other direction.

I kept one eye on Finn and Oln as they carried Penny off the bridge, and the other on Sherry.

“We’re two hundred thousand klicks from the cores,” I informed her.

“Dead ahead?” she asked.

“No.” I shook my head. “We’re not idiots. It’s close, though.”

A marker lit up on the main holo, giving a rough indication of where the cores were.

“Glad to see you didn’t point your ship right at them.” Sherry nodded in satisfaction. “Looks like my ride is ten minutes out. I assume you’ll give me the precise coordinates once they arrive?”

“I’ll give them to you once I get the money.”

She shook her head. “Always about the money with you.”

“I don’t have a government paycheck.” I folded my arms across my chest. “This is how I get paid. You want the goods, you pay.”

“And if I don’t?”

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Then you don’t get the cores. I turn them over to the DSA instead. So you tell me, which government should get them?”

“Fine,” Sherry hissed. She reached into the loose jacket she wore and pulled out a datacube. “Certified credit transfer.”

Nodding, I took the cube and walked to my console, slotting it into a sandboxed reader slot. The system ran a check on the cube, and then verified its contents. There it was, sixty million certified credits.

“Auth the transfer.” I gestured to my console.

“The coordinates.”

I nodded and passed her a vector via the Link. “This is where you’ll find them, and this is the crate’s beacon pattern. We’ve already picked it up. Hard to hear in the maelstrom’s background noise, but it’s there.”

Sherry nodded, and I knew she was using our comm arrays to listen for the beacon and triangulate its location. A minute later, she nodded. “OK. I’m satisfied. If you screw us over, my employer will not be happy.”

“Yeah, yeah. Threats, threats, I know the drill.” I gestured to my console again, and she walked over to it and passed an auth token, verifying it with a nano signature.

“There. The credits are transferred.”

“Then our business is concluded. I’ll escort you to the airlock.”

The Daedalus Job

I strode across the Victorious Strike’s bridge and dropped into my command seat with a grunt. Of all the people to cock things up, of course it would be Jax Bremen. I knew something like this would happen.

“I recommend the Daedalus again, ma’am,” Major Naomi suggested. “Petrov is a steady ship captain. He can handle the Kerrigan.”

“I hate the idea of saddling him with sheep-dog duty a second time,” I mused. “But you’re right, Major. He’s the best man for the job.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Should I pass the order?”

“No, I’ll handle it.” I brought the current position of the ships up on my console’s holodisplay to confirm he was a good option, and then reached out. <Commander Petrov. I assume you’ve seen our little stray fall away from the herd?>

<That I have. Plus two of our unofficial charges who are moving to render aid.>

“Shit,” I muttered aloud. <I want you to break formation and handle it. Don’t let those other ships dock, either.>

<Understood, ma’am. Should I send a crew over to assist in their repairs?>

I tapped a finger against my chin, considering the suggestion. I was loath to send a DSA engineering team over to a ship like the Kerrigan. Not that I greatly feared their crew, but I worried that dealing with Bremen may create more headaches than Petrov needed.

<I’ll leave that to your discretion, Commander. If you think it will speed things up, have at it.>

<Very good, ma’am. I’ll see that it’s taken care of and get them back.>

<Be snappy, we’re not slowing the convoy down to wait for them.>

<Understood.>

I stared at the holodisplay, which showed the ships of the convoy moving away from the Kerrigan, and the Daedalus peeling off to intercept.

The likelihood that this was some sort of trap was nearly inconceivable, but seeing those two ships moving forward from the rear while the Kerrigan drifted alone made me wonder if sending only one cruiser was wise.

“Major. Put two corvettes on a wide escort with the Daedalus. I just want to make sure nothing untoward happens.”

Naomi’s brow lowered for a moment, but then she nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll get right on that.”

Just you try something stupid, Jax. Just do it. The L would be a lot better off without you.

The Daedalus Job

I stood in the passage watching Sherry quickly pack, one hand on my pulse pistol’s grip. She appeared to be almost ready, a neat person who didn’t unpack her bags much—likely something she’d picked up in the military.

<Daedalus is moving in,> Tammy advised. <Thirty-five minutes or so till it arrives. A few more to finesse the delta-v to zero.>

<Thanks. Gonna be tight. Finn and Oln done?>

<I don’t know, do I look like their boss, boss?>

I didn’t respond, and instead checked the feeds to see the two men strapping Penny spread-eagle to the deck with cargo stays. She was motionless, her breathing suggesting she was still out cold. I didn’t trust that she was, but the two men had stripped her down to her underwear to check her for weapons.

Normally, I’d have considered that excessive, but the woman had a reputation for killing people with almost anything. I would have done the same.

Satisfied with their progress, I reached out to Kallie. <You in position?>

<Oh, nice of you to check on me. I’ve just been hanging out here all alone, hoping I don’t get flung off the ship.>

<You could have waited till we stabilized to exit.>

<With everyone watching us? They would have seen the airlock open, and you know it.>

I did, and she was right, which was why she’d spent the last hour on the outside of the hull, wedged under the cannon, maglocked on for dear life.

<I do, I just worry. I have been checking on you, just didn’t want anyone to get suspicious.>

<I saw that Penny’s taken care of.>

<Yup, just waiting on Sherry. Her money checked out, so…in a nutshell, we’re fucking rich.>

A laugh came from Kallie. <Well, given that we never paid Skip, we were pretty damn rich beforehand. But yeah, now we’re extra rich. Hell, with our cuts, we could each almost buy our own ships.>

Her words made my stomach drop, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s just what she’d do. It had occurred to me that the wealth we would end this trip with might cause some of the crew to go their own way. But I’d really hoped she wouldn’t.

“I’m ready,” Sherry said, turning toward me, two cases hovering behind her. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

I backed away from the door and let her out. “Starboard lock.”

“Got it.”

<Kallie,> I called up. <Trigger the secondary.>

A concussive explosion detonated in the port airlock. It wasn’t so large as to blow the seals, but it would register as a visible shockwave on the ship’s hull.

<Firelight, say again, Firelight,> I called out. <We see you on close approach. We just had a crew member injured, and our internal power is flaking out. Do you have medical facilities?>

<Firelight here, Jacy Higgs speaking. Yes, we have a Kr99 medtube. If your crewmember’s in one piece, they’ll be just fine.>

<Thank stars,> I sent across a relieved sigh. <Dock on our port side and we’ll transfer her over. Thanks a mil.>

<Don’t sweat it, glad to help.>

“They’re on approach now,” I said.

“I know.” Sherry looked back and winked at me. “I was listening.”

“You know that’s rude.”

She laughed and only shook her head. “Everything we’re doing is rude. I’m OK with it.”

A connection hit our arrays from the Daedalus, and I accepted the connection. <Daedalus, this is Captain Bremen. How can I help?>

<Bremen, this is Commander Petrov. I need you to inform the Firelight that they are not to dock with you. We’ll render any aid you need.>

<Shoot, I would, Commander, but I have injured crew, and the Firelight has medical facilities that can help them.>

<Keep them stable, the Daedalus has a better medbay than that courier.>

I drew in a deep breath. <No can do, Commander. I can’t wait the half hour till you arrive. This is a private craft, and—>

<You’re hauling DSA hardware. You’ll follow our directives.>

<I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have to do that. I appreciate your concern, but my crew comes first. I hope you understand.>

There was a long pause before a response came back from the Daedalus.

<Very well. Do your crew transfer, and then have them move off.>

<Will do.>

I wondered if I should have fought the directive more, but decided I had already pushed him enough.

On the display next to the airlock door, the Firelight came into view and slowly grew larger. Jacy and Tammy were keeping in touch, bringing the ships together a meter at a time. Two minutes later, there was a light thud. As if on cue, Oln and Finn appeared behind me, both men holding kinetic rifles.

“Is that really necessary?” Sherry asked, eyeing the pair.

“I sure hope not,” I said and opened the inner airlock door.

Sherry stepped inside and turned to face me. “Tell Penny…”

Her voice faded, and I raised an eyebrow. “Tell her what?”

“That…that I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Don’t be sorry, Sherry. No one’s sorry in this business. That sort of sentiment will get you dead.”

She heaved a sigh. “Maybe that’s the problem with this business.”

I didn’t reply, and the airlock door closed, sealing her in. It took a minute to match pressure with the Firelight, and then the outer door opened. Sherry glanced over her shoulder at us, and then stepped into her ship.

Once her vessel sent over a positive seal notification, I closed our outer door, and called up to Kallie. <You good?>

<All set. Get them outta here so I can come back in.>

<Tammy, tell ‘em to get lost.>

<On it,> came the pilot’s reply.

A few seconds later, there was another soft thud as the ships released grapple, and the Firelight drifted away. I checked the scan data and saw that the Hard Case had backed off as well, likely under orders from the Daedalus.

Which means Mars is out there somewhere.

I didn’t know if she was alone in a small shuttle, or in something larger with her own team. A small part of me wondered if Mars and the general were really even DSA Intel. For all I knew, I was working for some rogue group, stealing hardware for them from the Daedalus.

What a shit-show.

I glanced back at Oln and Finn. “Get to the bay and start unpacking.”

“Unpacking what?” Oln asked.

“Oh, you’re gonna love this,” Finn said as he grabbed Oln’s arm and pulled him down the passage. “Trust me.”

The airlock’s outer door opened, and the lock ran a purge and clean cycle, something one might see happen if a lot of something nasty got inside and the seals needed to be cleaned. When it was done, Kallie was standing inside. When the lock cycled and the inner door opened, she took off her helmet, a grin on her face.

“I liked that more than I should have. Think we can become real pirates, Jax?”

I barked a nervous laugh, not having expected her to say anything close to that. “I’ll give it some thought. Good thing we fixed our stealth EV suit, eh?”

She shrugged. “Well, we could have grabbed one from the DSA cargo if this didn’t work, but yeah, wouldn’t have wanted either Sherry or Penny to get wise to that.”

“Speaking of ‘that’,” I gestured down the passage. “Let’s get geared up.”

“Lead the way, Captain.”

I couldn’t help but notice that she was smiling. At me.


30


UNHELD



Aboard the Firelight…

“Do you have it?” Jacy asked as I stepped across the threshold into the familiar confines of the Firelight.

“I sure do,” I nodded. “Vector and beacon specifics. Putting them on the shipnet now.”

A broad smile spread across Jacy’s face. “You’ve done well, Sherry. Very well. We had four separate teams working on this mission, and only one other managed to get their hands on a core. Unfortunately, it was a dud.”

“A dud?” My eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

“Follow me.” Jacy turned toward the ship’s cockpit. “We nabbed one from a courier before they made their delivery. Not Cynthia and I, another team. They ran initial diags on it, and it looked good, but once they dug in, it turned out that all the data was out of date. Possibly by decades.”

“Fuck,” I muttered. “Does that mean this was all for nothing?”

The colonel laughed. “I sure hope not. We’ve put a ton of work into this operation. We think that maybe the DSA got to the cores aboard the Kerrigan at some point and did something to them—or swapped them out. Not sure. Either way, these cores may be the only untainted ones out there, since our friend Jax likely dumped them before the DSA stepped in.”

“Shit,” I whispered as we stepped into the cockpit, where Cynthia sat at the controls. “Jax…he suspects I’m Paragonian.”

Suspects?” Jacy turned toward me. “Did you confirm?”

“I confirmed nothing. I didn’t deny I was of Pargonian origin, but that’s all I gave him. He was pretty sure we’re PMF, though.”

“Fuck,” Cynthia groaned. “And that DSA cruiser is almost in weapons range.”

“Relax,” Jacy held up a hand. “If Jax wanted us dead, he could have told the DSA as soon as he suspected. Look.” She pointed at the forward display. “The Daedalus is slowing to match v with the Kerrigan. They’re not coming for us.”

I let out a long breath. “I don’t know what game he’s playing, but it’s a dangerous one. He locked up Penny before I left.”

“He did?” Jacy frowned. “Then who did you pay?”

“Him,” I laughed. “Only sixty, as well. Saved us a few million.”

“That complicates things,” Jacy shook her head. “More for him than us. I wonder if fifty million is enough to betray Korinth. Granted, it burns your cover too—if Penny survives.”

“Doubtful,” Cynthia chimed in. “Her days are numbered. Jax is probably going to turn her over to the DSA for a fee. That’s one smart smuggler. He’s going to get paid double for every part of this job.”

“Yeah,” Jacy’s smile faded. “Smart.” She shook her head as though clearing her mind. “Let’s go. I want to get the cores and get away from this shit-show as soon as we can.”

The Daedalus Job

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Oln asked, wide-eyed, when I entered the main bay with Kallie in tow. “Seriously…have you all known this shit was here, and just didn’t tell me?”

I held up a hand. “OK, before I answer that, I just want to say that after nearly two weeks, it’s really nice just to have it be only us aboard. It’s been constant pins and needles, worrying about saying the wrong thing.”

“I feel you there,” Finn nodded vigorously. “Been driving me bonkers.”

“OK, so did you know about this gear?” Oln asked Kallie.

“If it’s on my ship, I know about it, big boy.”

Oln’s eyes widened further. “What do you mean if it’s here you know about it? Does that mean…in my cabin, the—”

“Yeah,” Kallie nodded. “I know about that.”

“What about the—”

Kallie smirked. “That too. All of it.”

“Shiiiiit.” Oln stood dumbly for a moment, then looked up at the overhead. “Tammy, did you know about this gear too?”

<Uh huh.>

He turned back to me, then looked at the two open crates, one filled with weapon cases, and the other with powered stealth armor. “So why didn’t anyone tell me about this stuff?”

Kallie walked up to him and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Because we figured you’d blab to Penny and Sherry.”

Oln scowled for a moment, and then shrugged. “OK, I guess that’s fair. So what are we doing with it all?”

I opened another crate that contained a much larger set of armor and beckoned the big man over. “You know how we’ve been practicing attacking a DSA cruiser in your sim?”

“Yeah, the most boring mission ever.”

“Well, you know there’s a big ol’ cruiser approaching right now.”

Oln cocked his head, then looked at the gear Finn and Kallie were pulling out of the crates. “Shit, this hardware looks like the stuff in the game.”

“Yeah. Oln. We turned the game into a training sim for this mission. That’s why we were doing the same thing over and over again.”

“So, wait. You’re telling me that we’re gonna gear up and hit a DSA cruiser…like, one filled with enemy soldiers…and we’re gonna do it just a few light seconds from a big whack of DSA ships commanded by a woman who hates us?”

Finn snorted. “Shit, when you put it that w—”

“This is awesome!” Oln bellowed.

He pushed me out of the way and began pulling his armor out of the crate.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” Finn said. “Still can’t believe you’re giving those DSA cores to Sherry, though. You realize she’s Paragonian, right? Like, PMF.”

“I do.” I nodded as I walked to the next crate and lifted it off the stack, prising it open and pulling out the gear I’d selected.

“And you think it’s wise to give them DSA cores?”

“Not especially, no.”

Finn glanced at Kallie, who was grinning like a cheshire cat.

“There are two crates,” she said. “They got one filled with…parts for the old toilet on the lower deck, if I don’t miss my guess.”

I pulled up the scan data and saw that the Firelight was taking an indirect route to the coordinates I’d given Sherry. I wished I could have trusted her, but I knew it wasn’t possible. Even so, I still hoped that we could deal with her ship while earning some points with her government for trying.

Or, if things went tits up with the DSA, I could grab the four cores and take them directly to Paragon myself.

Always good to have a deuce up your sleeve.

“Shit.” Finn whistled. “You’re friggin’ wily, Captain. I have to admit, when you first hired me on, I figured you for a bit of a dumbass, but you’ve got this whole thing wired.”

Kallie snorted. “Don’t get too carried away.”

“Just remember, everyone. When we’re done with this job, you’re all getting ten million extra. Even share.”

“Fuuuuck,” Finn breathed. “Ten mil? On top of our cut from Skip’s chits?”

“And don’t forget the delivery fees for the first eleven cores,” I added. “I know we’re going to catch a lot of heat if things go sideways, but we get away, and all we have to do is lay low, work up new IDs, and then live like royalty.”

“Stars,” Kallie whispered. “You’re right, it’s so good to be able to just say this shit. We should buy a space station or something.”

“Where? Paragon?” Finn asked.

“Nah. In Chal. A fringer. Those places are gold mines.”

I held up my hands. “OK, everyone, don’t get carried away. Let’s focus on this mission. We still have to rob the Daedalus.

“Wait.” Oln poked his head around the crates. “Rob?”

“Yeah,” Kallie chuckled. “I guess Intel’s worried that some of the stuff they’re hauling is going to get skimmed and sent to the wrong place, so they want us to lift it and bring it back.”

A booming laugh filled the bay, and Oln’s meaty hand slapped a crate. “Oh, this just gets better and better.”

“Well, sort of,” I said. “Downside is that we’re doing the no-kill version of this mission. If we do it right, we get in and out, and no one knows.”

“I hate that version. Can I kill just one person?”

“We’ll see. If you’re super sneaky, maybe I’ll let you.”

<Don’t encourage him,> Kallie chided. <He’ll demand it at the worst time.>

<Bold of you to assume this isn’t going to turn into a disaster on its own.>

<Ye of little faith.>

We continued to get suited up, friendly banter echoing back and forth, the kind of banter that had been absent the past two weeks. Here we were, about to embark on the most dangerous mission we’d ever even considered, and the atmosphere was relaxed and jovial.

It’s a good crew, all right.

<Captain? We have a problem on the bridge. Can you come up here?>

“Shit,” I hissed, swapping to the game’s chat system. <Kallie, grab whatever’s handy and come with me to the bridge. Something’s up.>

<Weapons? What’s up?>

<Tammy called me ‘captain’,> I said. <And I just checked feeds. Hold 7 is empty.>

“Fuck,” Kallie growled. “Shoulda just killed that bitch.”

“Finn, Oln, you two keep gearing up. Kallie and I will deal with this.”

“ ‘This’?” Oln asked.

I didn’t reply, snatching a nearby pistol and tugging my armor’s base layer into place. Kallie was ahead of me and up the ladder by the time my hands hit the rungs.

<Hold up,> I ordered. <I’ll go in the main door, you get into position in the maintenance hatch. I’ll bet she doesn’t even know it’s there.>

<I wouldn’t make that bet, but it’s better than us tripping over ourselves.>

By the time I reached the top of the ladder, Kallie was already gone. Pausing before I rounded the corner that led to the bridge, I checked my pistol over, ensuring it had a full magazine and charge.

The feeds in the passage showed it to be clear, but the optics in the bridge were disabled. I hoped Tammy and Penny were still in there, because I didn’t have time to check every room.

“You want to have round two with Oln?” I called out as I crept down the passage. “He’s down in the bay, it can be arranged.”

“You’re a funny man.” Penny’s voice came from the bridge—meaning nothing, insofar as her actually being in there was concerned. “I think I’ll go with these odds.”

“Why don’t you show yourself?” I asked as I eased past the galley. “We don’t have all day for whatever shit you have planned. The Daedalus will arrive soon.”

“Oh yeah, they will,” Penny said. “I had Tammy ask them to send a repair crew. They’re going to be here soon.”

I couldn’t help a long-suffering groan. “What did I do to deserve you, Penny?”

“None of this would have happened if you’d just brought all the cores.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “Something else—probably equally bad—would have happened. How’d you get out of the hold, by the way?”

“Oh, I have a few tricks for that,” she called out. “Not that I’ll tell the likes of you.”

By then, I’d reached the end of the corridor and stepped into the bridge’s entranceway. On my right, on the other side of my captain’s chair, stood Penny, holding a gun to Tammy’s head. I couldn’t help but notice that she had the trigger pulled.

“Reverse trigger,” I commented.

“Observant,” Penny replied. “You shoot me, I let go, she dies. Or, you know, I spasm or twitch or something, and she dies.”

“Hi, boss, sorry about this,” Tammy added. “I should have been paying closer attention.”

“It’s OK.” I turned my attention to Penny. “What is it that you want? Because I promise you, even if you kill a few of us, you’re going to lose. There’s too much heat out there. I just have to send message that you’re aboard, and the DSA will be here before you can say ‘my ass hurts’.”

“Well, after being strapped to the deck in your hold, my ass does hurt, so there’s that,” she grunted. “I’ll admit that I kinda want to put a few rounds in your head, Jax. I took you for one of the few honest smugglers out there. That’s why you were selected to get the cores from Skip. Then you pull this shit—leaving some behind, and then double-crossing me in a deal with Sherry? Did you at least get the seventy million?”

“What? She was going to pay you seventy?” I shook my head. “That little—I only got sixty. Granted, it’s a lot more than you were going to pay me.”

Penny smirked. “Serves you right.”

“You still haven’t said what you want,” I prompted, waving my pistol for emphasis.

“You know, you never asked why I came on this trip.”

Great, more circles. Can this woman ever give a straight answer? “I just figured you’d lie, so there was no point in asking.”

She looked wounded, and if I didn’t know better, I would have believed her. “Well, if you had taken the time to ask, I would have told you it’s because I’m looking to break ties with Korinth. The DSA has been closing in around him. This business with the cores was too risky, if you ask me, but he wouldn’t listen. I’d be shocked if Intelligence Section didn’t pick him up in the next week or so. The guy’s done.”

“You were going to take Sherry’s money and run.”

She nodded. “Yeah, and if I timed it right, it would have happened after he was arrested, so no one could blame me for just taking off and starting fresh elsewhere.”

“That’s a dangerous game,” I commented.

“Boss, Daedalus just launched a shuttle with the repair crew. They’ll be here in twenty,” Tammy interjected.

“Fuck.” I pursed my lips and shook my head, wondering if I could shoot the pistol out of Penny’s hand before it killed Tammy. “How’s that going to help you get away from Korinth, Penny? You gonna hide in a cupboard while they’re aboard?”

“No,” she shook her head. “They’re not going to find me because I’m not going to be here.”

“You’re not?” I cocked an eyebrow. “You going to do some magic and disappear?”

“I saw what you’re doing with that cargo. What it is. You’re going to hit that cruiser. Must be a big haul, to risk pissing off me and the Paragonians.”

“You figured that out too, eh?”

Penny laughed. “Sherry’s cute, but she’s not that good. I figured it out long before I brought her here. Granted, I don’t care where she’s from. Her credit’s good—or at least, I assume it is.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, it is. It’ll spend just fine. And yeah, the cruiser’s a good haul. You’re not wrong there.”

“I gotta hand it to you, Jax. I never imagined you’d have the balls to do all this. You always came off as a bit of a simpering whiner.”

A voice came from behind Penny. “He fools a lot of people with that. Drop the gun, or I drop you.”

I grinned as Kallie leant out of a hidden panel next to the forward display, a stubby rifle aimed at Penny.

“Uhhhh, Kallie?” Tammy spoke up again. “You know that if she dies I die?”

“I can blow the gun out of her hands,” Kallie said.

Tammy gave an indignant squeal. “You mean the one right next to my head? No thanks.”

“OK!” Penny drew in a slow breath. “I’ll make this easy, I just wanted time to chat. I’ll let her go, but first I want to make an offer.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I have, in my luggage, a fresh ident core that would work for the Kerrigan. I also know how to swap it out. Just think. Do your heist, get away, no one ever sees the Kerrigan again. You could be anyone.”

“In exchange for your freedom?” Kallie asked with a sneer.

“For a place on your crew.”

I blurted out “Pardon?” at the same time that Kallie bellowed, “Fuck no!”

“See?” Penny chuckled. “This is why I needed insurance—so you couldn’t react rashly. Sorry, Tammy.”

The pilot snorted. “Oh, you will be.”

“Will I?” Penny glanced at Kallie then turned back to me. “I’m curious. How many people does your breach of the Daedalus require? Can you do it with three?”

I knew what she was getting at. If the Daedalus was sending a repair crew, Kallie would need to be aboard the Kerrigan to manage them. I could just call back and say that we didn’t need aid, but that would just arouse more suspicion. In all honesty, it might help to assuage it.

I passed that assessment over to Kallie via the Link, and she let out a long groan.

<I hate this, Jax. All of it. Every bit. Can you trust her to go with you on a mission like this?>

<Fuck no, but what choice do we have?> I asked. <She’s no slouch, she’s cunning, and probably already knows the inside of a DSA cruiser. And she’s right. You have to stay here.>

<I guess she has a lot to lose—and she’s not going to turn herself in on the Daedalus. Not while you hold the real location of the cores as your bargaining chip.>

“Seventeen minutes,” Tammy said in a quiet voice.

“Just give me a second,” I muttered, then reached out to Finn. <I need you to take Kallie’s loadout and make some modifications.>

<Uhhh…what’s going on up there? We’re ready to assist.>

<It’s in hand,> I replied. <Just make these changes, and we’ll be down in a few minutes.>

“Give me a show of good faith,” I said to Penny. “Let Tammy go.”

Her lips thinned. “That’s a big show.”

“We’re all going to have to trust one another. I’m going to trust you on a mission where you could blow my head off, so I need to see you show the same faith.”

“OK.” Penny nodded and moved her weapon away from Tammy’s head. “Go.”

The pilot dashed across the bridge and stood on the far side of her sphere, eyes shooting daggers at Penny. “You gonna shoot her now, boss?”

“No.” I lowered my pistol. “I’m not. She’s right, the job takes four people, and Kallie has to stay behind now.”

“I could go,” Tammy insisted. “Kallie can fly the Kerrigan.

“She can’t divide her focus with a bunch of DSA-types aboard. No, this will have to work.” I sucked in a slow breath. “Right, Penny?”

“Right.” She nodded. “Think of it this way, Tammy. I’m leaving my stuff behind, which means the last bit of leverage I have—a new ident core—will be here with you. I’m totally at your mercy now.”

Tammy let out rage-filled groan. “For the record, I hate this.”

“Not more than me.” Kallie climbed out into the bridge. “But fifteen minutes isn’t going to be long enough to fool the Daedalus’s repair crew into believing we really need their help. Tammy, we’re going to need to lose control again.”

The pilot nodded. “I have an idea.”

“Let’s go,” I said to Penny. “We need to gear up and clean up. I guarantee that one of those DSA goons is going to try to take a gander at their cargo.”

Penny gestured down the corridor. “After you.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Nice one. After you.”


31


ADRIFT



On the hull of the Kerrigan…

Twice in the half hour following the bridge confrontation, the Kerrigan suffered misfires in its attitude control thrusters. As a result, it was now drifting with its engines facing away from the Daedalus and the retreating convoy.

This meant we were able to exit via the main bay, making our egress quick, efficient, and unseen by the many eyes likely watching the Kerrigan.

The powered stealth armor we wore bore no markings, and while it wouldn’t fool a close-range active scan, it rendered us all but invisible to any passive sensors. Each set of armor bore a-grav thrusters on the feet and back, with stabilizers on the wrists.

They’d make for a slow transit between the ships, but we’d be almost impossible to detect.

Oln and Finn carried heavier packs on their front and back that contained equipment to help get our haul off the DSA cruiser, while Penny and I had the lighter gear for moving through the ship undetected.

If all went well, in two hours, we’d be drifting in the black, waiting for the Kerrigan to grab us before we alerted Mars that we were ready for her to come get Penny.

At which point Penny would have to die.

I felt more conflicted about that than I expected. Back when I was able to think of Penny as just Korinth’s assassin, knocking her off didn’t cause me a moment’s concern.

But now it appeared she had more in common with us than I originally thought. Just another person trying to make it in the L, caught up in shit that she’d rather just get away from.

In a perfect world, I’d come up with a way to appease Mars and keep Penny alive, but other than a last-minute gamble to hand over the cores in exchange for her life, I couldn’t think of one—other than killing Mars.

Unfortunately, that only added more uncertainty.

<Better get a move on,> Kallie said. <ANSWON just sent an update. They expect a plasma storm to sweep through in a few hours. Nothing too serious, but nothing you’re gonna want to be caught in with just a suit to protect you.>

<I’d kinda like to wait until the Daedalus settles into position, though.>

<They’ve shared their plot, I don’t think you should wait. If you head out now, you can intercept them as they do their final maneuvers.>

I snorted into my helmet. <Easy for you to say. You won’t be the one drifting in space, lightyears from any star system.>

<You scared?> Kallie taunted.

<Yes, as any sane person would be. There’s a reason no one expects a breach like this. It’s nuts.>

<Our kind of nuts,> the engineer replied with a laugh. <Guh…this guy on the Daedalus’s repair shuttle is being such a whiny bitch about docking. Driving me batty. He wants to come in the main bay—which their shuttle could just barely fit in, if we had no cargo. I need to focus on him. Good luck.>

I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of the shuttle I could see approaching on our port side trying to squeeze into our bay. It was twenty meters long and at least nine high. There probably wouldn’t be room to get out after the doors opened.

<Good luck to you too. Watch for our coded messages.>

<Oh, Tammy and I will be,> Kallie replied. <I’ll have no nails left by the time you get back, just saying.>

I tried to think of what to say, but nothing came to mind, so I closed the connection and surveyed the team. <OK, people, let’s move down the starboard side and get to the bow. The girls have worked up a vector for us. When we get there, we’re gonna jump.>

<This is the worst job ever,> Finn muttered.

<Are you kidding?> Oln’s voice was filled with unbridled glee. <This is the best job ever.>

It took us a few minutes to get situated, and in that time, the shuttle completed its docking. I was tempted to tap in and listen to whatever conversation Kallie was likely having with the DSA repair team, but opted not to.

I needed to focus.

The four of us crouched on the bow of the Kerrigan, just behind the forward shield emitters and scan domes. On our HUDs, a timer counted down to zero far faster than I’d like it to have. It passed thirty seconds.

Then twenty.

Ten, then five.

Four, three, two, one…

<Jump!>

Four barely visible figures sprang away from the ship’s bow, hurtling into empty space, the red hue of the maelstrom surrounding us as we drifted toward nothing.

To our left, the Daedalus crept toward us, engines facing in our direction—though a little above. They were almost at zero thrust, just a dim red glow in the bells indicating that any energy was being expended to slow the massive ship.

Nine hundred meters long. Over half a cubic kilometer of ship. A frigging beast.

Not as big as some of the other DSA ships in the convoy, but still a lot of craft to navigate—especially when it was filled with people who would be very happy to make us dead.

None of us spoke, focused on keeping EM emissions to a minimum as we drifted through the black. I was certain that every single one of us was running and re-running the calculations to ensure our trajectory would connect with the cruiser at the correct time.

OK, Oln probably isn’t.

While we were within the occlusion, our position was still close enough to the edge that, behind us, we could see the red sheet of dust and gas that was stretching toward the L’s barycenter.

The leading tendrils from the clouds coming in from all sides looked like the grasping fingers of some angry god, but they still hadn’t wrapped around the barycenter. Eventually, they’d encircle the center of the L, creating the look of a black hole drawing in an accretion disk. That would last for a few months until gas began to accumulate in the center of gravity and form a glowing ball of light.

That would persist until Delphi swung through the occlusion, dispersing the clouds with its solar wind. But that was still years away.

For now, we had a front-row seat to one of the most beautiful interstellar phenomena I’d ever witnessed.

We were still fifteen minutes from intercept, so I took a moment to marvel at how dynamic the L was. Seven stars that were typically only a few light years from one another, speeding around at what would be a breakneck pace anywhere else.

There was a poetry to it. Frantic life born of the remnants of a supernova, the death of one star forming a cradle for more. Eventually, one of the stars inside the L, possibly two, would be flung outward. They might get caught by one of the red giants in the nebula’s clouds, or perhaps they’d fly out beyond Aquilia’s clouds.

That would be the death of the nebula. At present, the mass within the L kept the red giants’ solar winds from blowing the clouds out into space. But once that balance changed, the giants would slowly disperse the cloud until it was just a thin haze, traveling with the moving group of stars.

I let my mind wander with those thoughts, thankful it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime.

I had no desire to leave the L, despite the fact that things seemed to be a never-ending shit-show here. It was still better than the life I’d left behind outside the nebula. At least here, there were a limited number of players. No chance of some marauding space force showing up and destroying everything a person had built.

Forcing them to flee for their lives.

An alert on my HUD drew me out of my reverie, and I turned my attention back to the looming shape of the Daedalus. Its engines had lit up, blue plasma streaming into space as the ship performed a braking burn.

Three minutes till we hit hull.

I checked our trajectory yet again, making small corrective adjustments with my armor’s grav emitters, watching as the others did the same. I was surprised to see Oln do so as well, but then realized that Finn or Kallie must have set his onboard comp to follow ours.

Smart.

Bit by bit, we tightened our formation, which had begun to spread as we drifted though the black…or the ruddy, as it was right now.

I took one last look at the forming cyclone, watching as some of the predicted plasma storms began to spread sheet lightning across the clouds. Electrons freed by the plasma raced across the tendrils of gas, seeking equalization.

With luck, we’d be back on the Kerrigan before we even got close to the storms. Then we could toast to our success and enjoy the light show.

The counter on my HUD ticked down past sixty seconds, an overlay showing the projected intersection point on the cruiser’s hull. We’d touch down amidships, just aft of the dorsal turrets. From there, Finn and Oln would move to a maintenance hatch aft of the rear portside shuttle bays, while Penny and I would make our way forward to the starboard midship bays.

Based on the layouts we had from Mars, there were five holds we’d need to reach. We would then affix tracking modules to crates and cargo in three, and extract items from the other two. We’d meet near the rear bays, package up all our cargo, and leave the ship.

From there, we’d have a bit of a wait for the Kerrigan to fetch us. That was the part that worried me most. I still suspected Mars was up to something.

Which was why we were breaching and doing our exfil at different locations than she’d instructed.

The timer passed ten seconds, once again pulling my focus back to the task at hand. We were traveling seven meters per second relative to the Daedalus, and in the final seconds, our grav-emitters brought us down to zero, four sets of boots settling onto the ship’s ice-sheathed hull with a feather touch.

Once we hit the ship, our a-grav systems reversed and held us to the vessel with a tenth of a g. Not so much that the ship’s sensors would detect it, but enough to keep us from flying off into space.

I held up a fist to Finn and then Oln, both men knocking their gloved hands against mine before turning and bounding aft, carbon-blackened ice reflecting dully all around.

Penny touched a hand to my arm, and then leant in and touched her helmet to mine.

“Let’s go,” she said, the vibrations passing through our faceshields.

“Lead the way.” I gestured forward.

This time, there was no quip from the woman; just a curt nod before she set off.

Wish us luck, I implored the stars.


32


LIES



Aboard the Firelight…

“OK, optics have the crate,” Cynthia announced, putting up an image of a black crate, nearly a meter square, tumbling slowly through space.

“Our little pot of gold,” Jacy said, turning to grin at me.

I nodded vigorously. “A hard-won pot, as well.”

“Oh?” the colonel chuckled. “I don’t know, you and Penny seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. I think there were some fringe benefits.”

My lips pressed together, and I decided not to respond, instead pulling my helmet on and sealing it to my shipsuit’s collar.

<I’ll grab it.>

Cynthia sent an affirmative response, and I pulled up a 3D view on my HUD, watching as the ship slowly matched the crate’s vector, easing closer and closer until the crate and ship’s delta-v reached zero, with the prize appearing to hover just outside our rear cargo hatch.

I walked into the small rear bay, only ten meters across, and sealed it off from the rest of the ship. The rear door used a double seal, not an airlock, so when I opened up the doors, the room would be exposed to vacuum. Normally, one would use a grav field in this situation, to hold in atmosphere, but we wanted to reduce EM and hide the fact we were taking on a package.

Once the bay registered as sealed, I disabled the lights and initiated a venting process that involved flushing supercooled gas through the space, cooling the interior to match the Firelight’s hull temperature.

<OK, equalized,> I sent up to the pair in the cockpit. <Opening up.>

The inner doors opened first, the two sections scissoring apart, revealing a two-piece outer door. It separated a moment later, the sections sliding out over the hull, revealing the grasping clouds of the occlusion beyond.

Directly in the center of the view was the crate. It was spinning slowly, and I activated the bay’s a-grav controls, extending the ship’s field to draw the crate closer, manipulating the controls to arrest its languid tumble. A minute later, it lay on our deck, and I closed the doors.

Air flooded back into the bay, and heaters kicked on, casting the space in a ruddy IR light. Once atmosphere was fully restored, I pulled off my helmet, and unsealed the bay from the rest of the ship.

Jacy was in the room seconds later, striding toward the crate.

“I can’t wait to be done with this. Tail end of a mission is always so stressful.”

“Really?” I was surprised to hear it. “I thought this would be old hat for you by now.”

The colonel shrugged. “It is, but that part never changes—the fear that we screwed up and all of this was for nothing….”

Her words reinforced my own worry, and I quickly punched in the access code Jax had passed me, relieved when the crate’s lid released.

“OK, well, it’s the right crate, at least.”

The colonel and I slid the lid off and looked inside.

“Motherfucker!” Jacy swore and slammed a fist into the lid. “What is this shit? Wait…is that actual shit?”

I couldn’t even find the words as I looked down at a pile of miscellaneous parts that looked to be the remains of a used ship-board toilet.

Jacy’s eyes met mine. “Why would he lie?”

“I don’t know,” I shook my head vigorously. “Unless he was just playing me and planned to give the cores back to the DSA…or to Penny. Fuck, I don’t know.”

“I hate dealing with criminals.” Jacy clenched her teeth, and I could hear them grinding. Then she stopped, ran a hand through her hair. “OK, new plan. We go stealth, wait for the Daedalus to move away, and then storm the Kerrigan. Either they have the cores, or they know where they are. We’ll find out one way or another.”

From the fire in Jacy’s eyes, I knew there was no arguing with her.

“OK. I’m in.”

“You sure?” the colonel asked. “You’re going to have to look people in the eyes, people you’ve befriended, and hurt them. Maybe kill them. You can stay back and let Cyn and I handle it.”

I shook my head, back straightening. “No. I screwed this up. I want to be a part of fixing it.”

Jacy gave me a nod of approval. “Good. I knew I didn’t make a mistake when I brought you on.”

The words helped, gave me a sense of purpose and belonging—though that was still overshadowed by my failure.

You’re going to pay for this, Jax Bremen.


33


JUGGLING



Aboard the Kerrigan…

<Grapple is secure, Kallie,> Tammy sent.

<OK, activating external control on the door,> I replied.

I watched the DSA shuttle’s door cycle open, wondering how we got here. One thing was for certain: it sure as fuck wasn’t my fault.

I just work here.

It was my instinct to blame Jax. Most of the crap we got into happened because he leapt before he looked—granted, most of our successes were for the same reason. Still, things being his fault was typically a safe bet.

This time, though…this time I couldn’t lay our issues at Jax’s feet. The captain was threading a dozen needles with a harpoon gun fired at fifty meters.

That first job from Korinth to pick up the cores had sent up red flags, but the pay was good, and it was from the big man. If you wanted to stay in the black, you didn’t say no when Korinth offered work.

The double-cross from Skip wasn’t on Jax, either. Nor was fighting off Reeve, being picked up by Sinclair, or finding ourselves at the mercy of Fledge. The fact that we’d disbursed the cores to the couriers without disaster striking was a miracle.

Even having Penny and Sherry aboard was tolerable. It was this business of being Commander Mars’s pet breach team that was the real problem. Without that, this whole mess would be over with.

And I wouldn’t be staring at four DSA techs looking about as happy to be here as I am to have them.

The airlock cycled faster than I’d’ve wished, and a minute later, I was staring at a chief warrant officer who looked like he’d just sucked on a whole basket of lemons.

“You are…?” he prompted without any greeting.

“First Mate Kallie,” I replied as evenly as possible. “And who do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

“I’m CWO Aarons. These are warrant officers Olley, Higgs, and Alice. I understand that you need help getting your port-side fuel lines fixed? You also took damage to the bell in Chal, right?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “Our calibrations to even out our burn are what caused us to lose control after the failure. Getting that bell fixed would be great, but I don’t know that we have the time to do it out here.”

“Agreed. We don’t,” came the man’s brusque reply. “We’ll get your line fixed and see what we can do about your thrust control systems. Probably ancient and barely functional.”

I’ll show you barely functional.

That was what I wanted to say.

“I’ll take any help I can get. This way.”

I couldn’t help but notice that the two techs in the rear—who were carrying a crate of supplies between them—were looking around a lot more than the others. As we passed by the door into the main bay, they took special note of the location of the DSA cargo we were hauling.

One shook his head, and I could only guess at what they were thinking.

Hands off, buckaroo. You take one step into that bay, and I’ll space your ass so fast….

The Daedalus Job

The breach kit finally finished its work, and the Daedalus’s airlock opened up, allowing Penny and I to enter. We shared a look and then pulled ourselves into the cruiser, letting the low-g in the airlock pull us down to the deck.

This was the point of no return. The moment when we would know if Mars was playing us or not. Granted, I couldn’t think of any reason she and her general would have sent us out here just to get caught on the Daedalus when they could have had us arrested back at Myka Station on a host of trumped-up charges.

At least, I hope there isn’t a reason.

Our armor warmed to the same temperature as the interior of the cruiser, optical and EM pass-through systems coming online. It wasn’t the best stealth gear I’d ever seen, though it might have been the best I’d worn.

According to the breach kit, the airlock wouldn’t register the cycle, but the moment the interior door opened, we moved into the corridor, not wanting to be trapped within if an alarm had been triggered. A few meters’ walk took us to a T-intersection. To the right was the docking bay, which would be occupied at present. It lay between us and our target, but I’d decided to take a more circuitous route. Since we were ostensibly working for the DSA, killing their personnel wasn’t ideal.

We moved down the left passage, keeping close to the bulkhead, leaving two meters of space for anyone we came upon.

My hope was that we wouldn’t see a soul on the route I’d picked out—a fool’s hope, but a hope nonetheless. Cruisers like the Daedalus were mostly engines, fuel, batteries and weapons systems. The ship was listed as only having five hundred crew aboard, all of which could fit in a tiny fraction of the ship.

Our initial destination was a ladder shaft, or what the military considered to be a ladder. It ran at a sixty-degree angle, only going down a few decks at a time before ending on a landing and switching direction.

We crept down the steps, our a-grav systems helping us to avoid making sound. We passed the first two decks without issue, but as we came to the third, voices below alerted us to the presence of crew nearby.

I dropped a probe and saw a pair of ratings standing next to the ladder, chatting about some shipboard gossip concerning a new type of flooring installed in the officer’s mess.

Glancing up, I nodded to Penny, indicating that we could make it past them, and continued down to the third deck. The two men were chatting about how the new flooring didn’t require a wax polish, but the CWO3 in his great wisdom had been apoplectic that the floor hadn’t been properly waxed, and ordered it done by hand.

The ratings who had done the work used an abrasive polish and ruined the floor, bringing Commander Petrov’s wrath down on the whole lot.

One of the two men talking thought it was hilarious, while the other was just shaking his head.

Our destination was down a passage that the two men were standing in. There was just enough room for Penny to get by, so I gestured for her to go first. Once she had succeeded, I tapped a finger on the bulkhead near the ladder.

“What was that?” one of the men asked.

He turned just enough that there was room for me to get past, and I did so, following after Penny to the first hold on our list.

We reached it a minute later, and once inside, disabled the surveillance systems, which included EM detection.

<Shit,> Penny said with a nervous laugh. <Those two guys looked right at you while you were moving. You’re lucky these passages are a bit on the dim side.>

<And that neither of them had optical augments,> I added. <In all honesty, I keep waiting for a platoon of soldiers to descend as the culmination of some elaborate trap.>

Penny sighed. <I’m so glad to be here.>

<You’re the one that invited yourself.>

We moved among the crates in the bay, searching for the high-value items that Mars had flagged for us to add the extra tracking modules to.

I located the first one and bent to open the control mechanism for the crate’s hoverpad. The pad would power the tracker. Penny opened the crate and inserted small microtrackers into various components, adding a layer of detection, should the contents get parted out.

<Oh, these are nice.>

<What are they?> I asked, connecting the tracker to the power supply and then setting it to activate once the crate was in motion.

<Ranging and targeting systems for MABs.>

I whistled in the confines of my helmet.

MABs were Mobile Assault Batteries, colloquially referred to as “tanks” for reasons no one could recall. If there were spare parts for MABs on the Daedalus, then somewhere in the convoy—maybe on the cruiser we were in—would be the MABs themselves.

<I wonder what the DSA plans to do with those in Chal?> I muttered as I rose.

<Well, I’ll tell you what they’re not doing,> Penny muttered. <Patrolling a space station. I can’t believe the DSA is really doing this. I figured they were just flexing a bit.>

<You think they’re going to bring Chal into the fold for real?>

She shrugged as we moved to the next crate. <Maybe? ‘Attempt’ is probably a better word. They’ve tried before, but it’s always sputtered out. Paragon won’t have it, and the locals are too fiercely independent now—that’s my take, at least.>

<The alignment is different this time. They have a real chance.>

<Maybe,> Penny replied. <Let’s just get this done.>

I snorted. <You’re the one that’s all chatty-chatty.>

We finished adding trackers to the rest of the crates in the first bay a few minutes later. The second bay was on the port side of the ship, and we had to pass out of the quiet cargo regions and across the ship’s central access shaft to get to the far side.

Housing the central lifts within the Daedalus, the shaft was the heart of transportation within the craft. Because it gave access to all decks, it was protected by automated sentries and human patrols.

We stood at the door, watching as a woman walked by, rifle slung low, hand on the grip.

<OK,> Penny announced, pulling the breacher off a panel next to the door. <If this thing is to be believed, the sensors will be offline, they won’t see us.>

<What about the turrets?> I asked.

<No dice. They can’t be disabled from here. We’ll just have to hope the stars show us favor.>

I nodded, surprised that Penny invoked the stars as well. The expression was much less common within the L than without.

With that, we opened the door and stepped through. Despite the name, the shaft was really more of a twenty-meter-wide tunnel. The right led to the bow, while the engines were situated on our left.

A dozen maglev rails encircled the space, some on the ‘roof’ and others on the sides and deck. The lift cars were capable of rotating, so even if the ship’s internal a-grav was offline and the vessel was under thrust, the bottom of the lift cars would always be ‘down’.

The railed gantry we stood on dipped under two rails and came up the other side to where the door led toward yet another passage and our destination beyond.

Penny led the way, and I followed after, an eye on two nearby turrets that sat between the tracks. Both sported pulse cannons and beam weapons. Other turrets nearby swept large-bore projectile barrels back and forth.

It was enough to make a person’s skin crawl.

We ducked low while passing under the rail, and I did my best not to cringe as several lift cars raced by. The wind from them pulled at us, and halfway through our passage, my foot clipped a bracket that held the railing in place.

The sound was small, but it caught the attention of the guard who was a dozen paces away, near where we had entered the shaft.

Penny and I both froze as the turrets swung toward the origin of the sound. The entire area seemed to fall silent for several long seconds until another car whistled by. With its sound for cover, we moved again, reaching the far side as the turrets resumed their sweeps, and the human guard continued her rounds.

We waited until another car sped past before opening the door and slipping through, moving briskly through the passage to the next bay.

Once inside, I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. <Fuuuuuck. That was close.>

<Woulda found out how good this armor really is,> Penny said with a nod.

<Yeah. Let’s get a move on.>

<Sure.> She nodded and moved the crates. <I have to ask. Why are you bothering with this part of the mission?>

<What do you mean?>

<This, adding these trackers? I mean, I know who’s doing the skimming in Chal. How do you think I found out about the NSAI cores you smuggled back into Delphi?>

I almost laughed aloud. <So you could just tell Mars who’s doing it?>

<Mars? Fuck no. I hate that bitch. I’d save that info for someone a lot further up the chain. Maybe Admiral Rigs. She knows how to make sure things get done right.>

Her casual references made me wonder what sort of contact she’d had with DSA Intel. It occurred to me that people I thought were working against Korinth might be working for him in some roundabout way. Wheels within wheels.

Add to that the fact that I really couldn’t trust Penny, and I was starting to feel like I was trapped between a sea of rocks and hard places. The only consolation I had was that at the end of all this, I’d still hold the location of the four NSAI cores, and both Penny and Sherry would be dead.

Maybe Mars too, if I could figure out a way to play my cards right. Then the Kerrigan could disappear, and we could start new lives with our newfound bounty.

I was willing to bet there’d be really lucrative smuggling between Delphi and Chal, once things heated up in a few years.

While Penny handled the trackers, I moved to the furthest bulkhead from the door. In our study of the cruiser, we’d learned that a major comm trunkline ran behind the panel. Mars’s instructions were to tap the Daedalus’s external arrays in a different location, but per our SOP, we weren’t doing anything the way she wanted.

Finn would have already tapped the comm system further aft, and once I did so here, I’d be able to reach out to him, as well as see if things were going well aboard the Kerrigan.

It took a minute to get the panel open, and another to affix the breach tool to the correct line. I was a little less nervous using it now, certain that if Mars’s plan was to fuck us over, she would have done it already.

Two options remained for the Intel commander. Either she was on the up and up, or she wanted the hardware we were lifting.

<Team two. You there?> I asked. We were only a minute behind schedule, so Finn should still be waiting for our message.

<Loud and clear. Right on schedule back here, unlike you, slowpoke.>

Just like our workaround aboard the Kerrigan, we were using one of the Daedalus’s training simulators to communicate, both logged on with names that matched off-duty crew. In the unlikely chance there was a way for anyone aboard the cruiser to listen in, they would just think we were talking about an objective in the game.

<Did you take a look at mamma bear?> I asked, referring to the Kerrigan.

<Sure did. Right as rain out there. We have our haul queued up. Moving to the second location.>

<Understood. See you soon.>

The Daedalus Job

“No wonder this thing blew,” one of the DSA technicians muttered as he pulled a junction seal out of the fuel line.

I couldn’t recall which one he was, Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dumber.

“What a fucking mess.” The chief shook his head in disdain. “I’m surprised this ship hasn’t just detonated in space.”

I wanted to say, ‘No shit, sherlock. Anyone worth their salt would be able to tell I planted that bad seal, but nope, you just assume that people like me don’t know how to run a ship.’ Instead, I only nodded sheepishly, doing my best not to think about grabbing Oln’s heavy repeater and turning these asshats into mulch.

The vision kept me going as they continued to deride the condition of the Kerrigan. I’d begun to seriously weigh the risk when a message came in from the Daedalus.

It was short and in code, but the gist was that all was well. My interpretation was that thus far, Penny hadn’t betrayed us, and Oln hadn’t fucked anything up yet.

Just a matter of time on both those things.

I was about to yell at one of the techs for doing something stupid when Tammy reached out from the bridge. <Got a call from the Firelight. They’re…uh…pissed.>

I sighed. <I’ll take it.>

<…then you’re going to wish you’d never left port!> The voice wasn’t Sherry’s.

<Hi, this is First Mate Kallie. Tammy tells me you’re upset about something?>

<Yeah,> the person seethed. <You could tell us where the cores really are.>

I monitored the signal hitting our comm array, noting that it came from an empty location in space. I wasn’t surprised that the Paragonian ship had stealth capabilities. I was, however, surprised that they’d make a run at us while the Daedalus was so close.

<We gave you the coordinates,> I added a note of innocence to my tone. <You should have them by now.>

<What we have is a bunch of trash from your piece of shit ship.>

I sucked in my cheek and began to gnaw on it. <You know? I’m getting pretty friggin’ sick of people badmouthing the Kerrigan. I don’t know what to tell you about the cores, sorry.>

<Put Jax on.>

<He’s unavailable.>

We continued to go back and forth for another few minutes, and I tapped into the scan systems and began to search the space around the ship. I didn’t believe for a minute that the Firelight was anywhere close to where their messages were coming from. Any half-competent operator would drop a buoy and relay messages.

However, I could calculate time lag and map how far away the enemy ship could be.

After a few more responses, I determined that they were within ten thousand kilometers. Taking a stab in the dark, I took a guess they’d be directly below us.

I deployed two small drones, each only a few centimeters across. They moved around the ship, speeding through the thickening dust and gas, sending back scan data.

Using the three-dimensional eye that created, I looked for the stealthed ship, a vessel that would appear to be little more than an eddy in the currents around us.

Where are you, you little bastard?

I didn’t need a precise location, just a general direction.

Then my verbal adversary made a threat I couldn’t ignore.

<I’m going to tell the DSA that you have those cores on your ship. Give the correct coordinates, or it’ll be the end of your little charade.>

Shit. I had the probes run an active sweep, sending a blast of RF, looking for any echo. For a moment, nothing came back. Then a return hit the Kerrigan’s sensors.

They were several hundred kilometers away from where I’d been looking.

I’ve got you now.

<Sorry. No sale.>

The probes both fired a signal at the Firelight’s location, and a moment later, the limpet mine I’d planted on their hull detonated.

Suck it, bitches.

Ship’s scan registered the blast, some nine hundred kilometers away. Immediately, the Daedalus activated its shields, and moments later, Tammy followed suit.

<Kerrigan, what was that?> The message came from the comm officer aboard the Daedalus who I’d spoken to earlier.

<I’m not sure…we’re picking up an explosion. Where’s the Firelight? I’m not picking it up on scan anywhere.>

<Kerrigan, hold position.> It was Commander Petrov. <Say again, remain on your current course. We’re moving to investigate.>

I wanted to deliver a snide remark, but I managed to reply with only, <Understood.>

Chief Aarons gave me a sidelong look, and I suspected he was in communication with the Daedalus as well. He nodded after a moment, then ordered his team to double-time it.

OK, Jax, you’re really on the clock now.


34


PUNCHLINE



Deep within the Daedalus…

Penny and I were just finishing up placing trackers on the third batch of cargo when a call blared over the Daedalus’s 1MC and general shipnet.

<Battle stations, say again, battle stations, full alert! Set Condition Green in all sections. Forward on odd decks, aft on even decks. Priority access only in the main shaft.>

I glanced at Penny’s barely visible figure as she set the cover back on a crate. <That’s not a good sign.>

<Not at all,> she replied. <Let’s go. I don’t want to be stuck amidships if things go sideways.>

I’d left a small drone in the passage and checked its feeds before opening the door. On our left, two soldiers were disappearing around a bend; things were clear on the right. The lighting had switched to add a green tint, indicating battle conditions on the ship.

<Let’s move.> I gestured to the right.

We moved at just shy of a run, working our way aft to the first bay Oln and Finn had hit. There, we’d move the equipment they’d loaded onto a pair of hoverpallets to the egress point.

The corridors down below were still nearly empty; only twice more did we see ratings rush by, likely headed to weapons duty stations.

Three agonizingly long minutes later, we reached the bay where the cargo was waiting. Once inside, Penny and I quickly removed our helmets, a-grav packs, and weapons. We stashed them in a case on one pallet. Weapons went into two separate rucksacks, and then we pulled on the loose style of DSA shipsuit over our light stealth armor.

A vigilant individual might notice some bulges here and there, but considering that the ship was in Condition Green, I hoped no one would be paying too much attention to our uniforms.

I palmed the door control and gave my pallet a push to get it started. The moment I stepped out after it, a cry came from behind.

“Gangway!”

I pushed my pallet to the right side of the passage, letting a trio of soldiers rush by. A moment later, the echo of weapons fire came down the corridor, and I glanced back at Penny.

“Follow after with these.”

I grabbed my rucksack and rushed after the soldiers, certain they were going to lead me to a beleaguered Finn and Oln. The DSA troops took a left at the first intersection, then a right at another. The map on my HUD showed us getting closer to the rear bay near where Finn and Oln had entered.

I expected the soldiers to keep going straight, when they veered right and into the bay itself.

Well, this isn’t good.

I followed them in to see the two crates next to a shuttle in the middle of the bay. Finn and Oln were nowhere to be seen, though the fifteen DSA troops in the bay were performing a sweep, looking for them.

<Penny,> I called back, not worried about the EM. <C’mon. Forget the cargo.>

<Are you kidding? This shit’s worth a fortune.>

<Finn and Oln are pinned down.>

I was about to move into the bay when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin to see Oln standing next to me wearing his stealth armor, the active camouflage systems offline.

<Shit, since when did you turn into a ninja?>

<Since always,> he shrugged. <We knew it would be hard to get here, so we faked them out with those two pallets. The ones with the stuff we were supposed to lift are down at the airlock.>

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, and I resisted a laugh.

<OK, good work. Lead on.>

Penny was coming around the corner behind me, and I waved her on. <We’re good, let’s go.>

She nodded and pushed one of the pallets ahead before moving behind the other one to follow after. I took control of the first pallet, wishing Finn and Oln had selected programmable ones so we wouldn’t have to shove them around.

We turned another corner to see Finn standing in the airlock with their two palettes.

<Good to see you,> I said with a nod. <Cycle it out. Oln, stealth yourself again, you’re screaming ‘hostile’.>

The airlock was only big enough for one pallet at a time, which meant it would take at least five minutes to get each one off the ship. Once outside, we’d wrap them in stealth material, connect them, and then push off to wait for pickup.

Just five more minutes.

The airlock was situated at an L-intersection. Behind us was the passage that ran toward the center of the ship, and on our left was a corridor stretching aft to engineering. Either one could sprout enemies at any moment, so Penny and I drew our rifles and tucked them amongst the crates and gear on the pallets, ready for trouble.

<I wish we’d gotten to kill someone,> Oln groused from behind us. <These DSA idiots are too easy to fool.>

Penny snorted. <Or you had a DSA Intel officer set you up with gear specifically calibrated to fool their own systems. Fuck…the calibrations for this stealth gear might just be the most valuable thing we have in this heist.>

<It’s not exactly a heist,> I reminded her. <Remember, we’ll be handing it all over to Mars.>

<Right, because she’s soooo trustworthy. Getting in bed with Mars is going to bite you in the ass.>

I gave a soft snort. <Is that a euphemism?>

<Maybe.>

Glancing back, I realized that Oln had his stealth disabled again. <Dude. What are you doing?>

<What do you mean?> he asked, voice dripping with fake innocence.

<You’re just in armor. Activate your stealth and stop trying to start a fight.>

<Fiiiine.> He disappeared from view.

<What’s the plan if we do get in a firefight?> Penny mused. <The Kerrigan can’t outrun the Daedalus, and you certainly won’t last more than a few minutes against its guns.>

I glanced at her, wondering how much she needed to know. On one hand, I didn’t want to give her anything she could use against me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to give her so little that she took desperate action for fear of us having no way out.

<We still have the cores.>

Penny turned to face me, mouth hanging open. <You what?>

<We dropped more than one crate out in the black. Only one of them has cores.>

<Fuck!> Penny held her mouth in front of her face to mask a laugh. <You’re smarter than you look, Jax Bremen.>

<It’s a strategic move.>

<I’m beginning to understand that.>

<Fuck.> Oln groaned. <Are you two just going to move into the same cabin when we get back to the ship?>

Penny turned and tossed a wink in his general direction. <Maybe not right away.>

I wished I were stealthed. The heat in my face told me I was flushed, and I knew I’d certainly hear about it later. Worse, I was pretty sure that Kallie would throw a cold shoulder my way for the rest of my life if I slept with Penny.

Behind us, the airlock cycled open, and Finn beckoned.

<Next?>

Oln took the next pallet and pushed it into the airlock. It began its cycle again. The second and third pallets moved outside the ship without any interruption, but as we were waiting for the lock to cycle open for the fourth, a lieutenant turned down the corridor and began walking toward us. He was focused on the deck before him.

Penny and I shared a glance, our weapons held behind the final pallet, both wondering when he would see us. Finally, when he was only five meters away, he frowned, stopped, and looked up at us.

“Sir!” We both snapped off salutes.

“What the hell are you two doing here? Don’t you know we have possible intruders?”

“Yes, sir,” I nodded. “This gear is for the team working on the Kerrigan. We were holding off here until the bay was clear.”

“Well, it’s cleared now, get in the—Wait. Why is the airlock cycling?”

There was a deafening shoom next to my head, and the lieutenant flipped over backward, landing on the deck with a dull thud.

“Shit, Oln.” I glanced back at the now-invisible man. “What the fuck was that?”

I could hear the man’s smile as he spoke. “He’ll live.”

<He saw me,> Finn said as the airlock door cycled open.

“Yeah.” I clenched my jaw and glanced in Oln’s direction. “Just some warning would have been nice. Get in there with Finn, we’ll come through on the next cycle.”

Before Oln moved the pallet into the airlock, Penny and I grabbed the case containing our helmets and a-grav packs, leaning it against the wall.

I was considering walking over to the lieutenant to check him over when a pair of armored soldiers rounded the corner, weapons drawn.

“Halt!” one called out. “Don’t move.”

Behind us, the airlock door was still closing, and another shot was fired from its opening. This one a projectile.

The round struck one of the two soldiers in the faceshield, knocking them back. Penny had her rifle leveled a moment later, firing on the second, as I grabbed the case and dove behind the corner.

She was right behind me, and we stacked up at the corner, her low and me high, unleashing a barrage on the enemy. The soldiers returned fire, but their pulse rifles weren’t a match for our kinetic weaponry, and they fell back around the bend.

<You’re welcome,> Oln sent from within the airlock.

<We won’t be able to get out here. Get the pallets wrapped with the stealth coverings, and kick off from the ship,> I ordered. <Signal the Kerrigan when the coast is clear. We’ll find another way off.>

<You sure?> Finn asked. <How will you do that?>

<Did you launch the worm?>

<Yeah, it’ll be ready now.>

<OK, good luck, Finn. We’ll see you back on the Kerrigan.>

“Let’s move!” Penny began to creep down the passage leading further aft. “We have to get this shit off and get back in stealth.”

I gave an affirmative grunt and followed after, clumsily carrying the case and my rifle. “Find the first place we can duck into.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” she called back angrily. “Good idea, I was thinking I’d go for the fourth.”

A dozen meters down the passage, there was an alcove big enough for us both to tuck into. We quickly pulled off our shipsuits and put our helmets on, then reattached the a-grav units and other pieces of armor. I poked a stick cam out into the passage.

<Coast is clear.>

<Where are we going?> Penny asked.

<How do you feel about stealing a ride and being a bit of a distraction?>

<I like the first part, not so excited about the second.>

I laughed as we stepped out into the hall. <You’ll warm up to it.>


35


DISTRACTIONS



Aboard the Victorious Strike…

“Commander Sinclair!” the scan officer called out. “There’s been an explosion near the Daedalus’s position.”

“Put it up,” I ordered.

The central holotank flipped to show an expanding plasma cloud some nine hundred meters off the Kerrigan’s bow. The blast expanded in a way that was consistent with occurring up against a solid object.

“Was it a shot from that smuggler’s ship?”

“Analysis says no, ma’am. Our resolution isn’t good with the clouds closing in. We’re getting the Daedalus to pass their scan.”

“Good.” I toggled my command seat’s display to show a view of the Daedalus and Kerrigan relative to the explosion. <Petrov, what the heck is going on out there?>

The convoy was three light seconds from the lone ship at this point, and I waited impatiently for the response.

<Commander, we’re moving to investigate. We think it’s the ship that docked with the Kerrigan right before our repair team arrived. They fell off scan for a bit. Small profile, and it’s getting noisy out here. Those plasma storms are wreaking havoc.>

<Do you think the ship is stealth capable?>

The delay was longer this time. <Perhaps, I’ll be—Wait, we just got a message. One moment, ma’am.>

I shifted in my seat, growing increasingly impatient. After a minute, Petrov finally replied.

<The ship that suffered the damage was the Firelight. They think the Kerrigan sabotaged them somehow.>

<Why would they do that?> I asked, wondering what sort of game Jax was playing.

<Shit…the Firelight’s skipper claims that the Kerrigan has DSA NSAI cores aboard and they’re selling them off.>

I was out of my seat before I knew it. “Helm! Lay in a course for the Kerrigan. Best speed.”

“Aye, ma’am,” the navigation officer announced, only to have scan speak up a moment later.

“We have contacts starboard, ma’am.”

“Contacts?” My first thought was pirates—though I couldn’t imagine any bold enough to attack Iron Lance. “How many?”

The scan officer looked up, worry clear in her eyes. “Hundreds.”

The Daedalus Job

<You ready?> I asked Tammy. <I think they just got a message.>

<Airlock is sealed. If there are any troops in the shuttle, it’ll take ‘em a bit to get through.>

<And guns? I’d really like something to shoot these buggers with.>

The pilot’s laugh filled my mind. <Want me to walk in there with a rifle for you, or do you want to pop out into the passage to get yours?>

I swept my gaze across the rear engineering bay. Chief Aarons was watching Higgs and Alice set a new segment of fuel line into place, while Olley futzed with one of the intermixers.

They weren’t screwing it up too much, but it was going to take me a few hours to get things to my liking.

<Why don’t you—>

My message to Tammy was interrupted by Olley spinning toward me and drawing a pulse pistol. He fired without hesitation, but I’d already dropped to the deck, and the concussive shockwave rippled over my head.

“Don’t move,” Aarons said as he turned toward me. “You’re going to tell us where the cores are, or we’ll tear this ship to shreds. Order your crew to assemble in the main hold.”

I pulled myself up into a half-seated position and smirked at the DSA chief. “What crew?”

“The crew on this bucket of—”

A wave of pulse fire came from the doorway behind me, and I flipped over to my hands and knees, scrambling out into the corridor as return fire came from the four DSA techs. The moment I got into the passageway, the door slammed shut, and I clambered to my feet.

Tammy stood on the other side in full armor. She grinned behind her clear faceplate and handed me a rifle. “This is both awesome and fucking sucks. They’re in our engineering bay…they can control the whole ship.”

I nodded. “Yeah, and there’s more than one way out. We have to flush them back to their shuttle.”

“It’s the two of us against four of them. You could use the service bots,” Tammy suggested.

“I’d rather not. I’m going to need them after all this is over. You get up to the catwalk in the main bay, I’ll lead them in there. We’ll pin them down and get them to surrender.” I heard a sound from down the passage. <They’re through the other door. Go.>

<How are the two of us going to pin them down?>

<You’re wearing the DSA stealth armor,> I reminded Tammy. <Fire on them from multiple positions.>

<Oh shit, yeah.>

Tammy moved down the passageway and disappeared. I had to get the techs to follow me forward, up a ladder, and then back aft to the main bay.

All while not getting shot.

“You friggin’ asshats better get off my ship if you know what’s good for you!”

I threw a few more expletives their way and then moved down the passage, stopping at a cross-corridor and taking a position. The ladder was six meters further down the passage, and I hoped I’d be able to hold them back long enough to make it.

Sure enough, Olley and Alice swung into view moments later, both firing straight down the passage, their pulse blasts hitting the ladder. I waited for them to advance a few paces, then ducked out of the cross-corridor and fired a trio of widespread blasts that hit them both. Alice cursed, and they fell back to the aft intersection.

I took the opportunity and moved toward the ladder, stopping at the base to fire again down the passage before climbing up. Just as I was clearing the deck, a pulse shot hit my right foot, slamming my ankle into a rung, and numbing half my leg.

Pulling myself up the ladder, I rolled onto the deck and fired a few blasts down the ladder shaft before using my rifle as a prop to help me get on my feet.

If I die because I got a pulse blast to my foot…

It was twenty meters to the bay door, so I hobbled as fast as I could, praying I’d make it before one of the DSA asshats finished me off.

A shot hit my left shoulder and spun me around. I caught sight of Alice’s head poking up the ladder shaft, and thumbed my rifle over to projectile mode, spraying a dozen rounds down the passage.

She screamed an obscenity and dropped out of view, giving me enough time to push off from the bulkhead and stumble to the main hold’s entrance. I fell through and hit the deck hard.

The DSA crates were ten meters away, but they might as well have been a thousand. There was no way I could crawl to them before Alice and Olley reached me.

“Kallie!”

I looked up to see Tammy hanging over the railing above.

“Catch!”

She tossed a small object to me, and by some miracle, I caught it, instantly recognizing a flashbang. I thumbed the control and chucked it into the passage, turning to scramble toward the crates.

I heard a cry of dismay a few moments later, and entreated the stars, hoping it would be enough.

Heavy footfalls sounded in the corridor and someone shouted, “Stop!” just as I reached the crates and took cover behind them.

When I’d come up with this plan, I’d hoped to have time to put on some armor, or grab a second weapon. But all I could manage was to stand up and clutch my single weapon, praying that Tammy would think of something.

<You look like shit, are you going to be able to aim?> the pilot asked a second later.

<I have no clue. Maybe?>

<Here’s an idea, when they move in, kill the gravity. They’re not wearing armor, so they can’t maglock. It’ll be a breeze for me to tag them, then.>

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of that. <Shit, yeah, of course!>

<OK, lure them in.>

“Hey, assholes!” I called out. “Come and get me!”

Tammy groaned over the Link. <Maybe in a way that doesn’t scream ‘this is a trap’.>

<Look, I hit my head. Twice, I think. A bit foggy here.>

I tapped the bay’s feeds, setting the views of the two entrances on my HUD to watch them both. After a few moments, Alice poked her head in through the door I’d used and then disappeared. Shortly after, Aarons did the same on the other.

“Just give it up, bitch,” the chief called out. “We’ve got you cornered, and if you make it hard for us, we’ll make it hard for you.”

“Shit, Aarons,” I couldn’t help but laugh as I replied. “You mean to layer all that innuendo in there?”

“You know what, screw you. This is going to be hard either way.”

“A top and a bottom. I like it.”

Aarons didn’t respond, instead he moved into the bay, taking cover behind the equipment rack on the starboard bulkhead. Alice followed his lead, moving behind a small stack of crates near the door to reach the far side, while Olley followed after. Higgs came in a few moments later, hunkering down behind Aarons.

“Last chance,” the chief called out.

“Yeah, for you to get to your shuttle!” I replied, slipping my right leg through a cargo strap to keep me behind cover.

I saw Aarons nod to Higgs, and a moment later, he and Alice moved out into the open, weapons aimed toward the rear of the DSA crates, advancing steadily.

<Now!> Tammy said.

I killed the a-grav in the bay just as Alice and Higgs were taking a step. Their actions pushed them into the air, sending them cartwheeling forward toward the crates.

A shot came from the catwalk, hitting Higgs in the leg. A few seconds later, a shot came from another location, catching Alice in the gut.

Both were flung back toward me, and I fired pulse blasts at each while Tammy fired on the other DSA techs. She hit Aarons in the side, but Olley proved harder to flush out.

“Those crates are empty, Tammy,” I said loudly.

“Oh!” she laughed. “In that case—”

“I surrender!” Olley called out, flinging his pistol out from behind the crates.

<Maybe shoot him anyway,> I instructed.

<Kallie! I can’t do that. He surrendered.>

<OK, fine. But I might slap him a few times for shooting me.>

The pilot chuckled. <That seems fair. So…what now?>


36


ENEMY IN THE DARK



Aboard the Victorious Strike…

“Commander Sinclair, the profiles are too small to be anything other than fighters or missiles,” the scan officer announced after a minute of triangulation.

I nodded, guessing missiles over fighters. I couldn’t imagine pirates mustering up hundreds of brave souls to fly a mission in the growing maelstrom. If lost out here, there would be no chance of rescue.

“Major Naomi, instruct all cruisers to deploy drones to protect their assigned ships. Have the MFPs move to the far side of the convoy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Naomi responded.

The main holo showed a two-lightsecond sphere of space. On the left was the convoy, spread across fifty thousand kilometers, the ships spaced widely enough that no vessel had to travel in another’s engine wash to have room to maneuver.

It also meant that if any vessels did get hit by incoming fire, debris from impacts wouldn’t strike other ships. Too many commanders packed ships close together, but that just gave fighters and missiles a cornucopia of targets. Even this deep in the clouds, the beams on a DSA cruiser could deliver hull-penetrating energy at twenty thousand kilometers.

On the right side of the display were the incoming objects. Markers noted their delta-v, a rather sedate 0.01c, roughly three thousand kilometers per second. That was slow for missiles, but well within the norm of close-range fighters. I still held by my belief that the objects would be unmanned.

Even though the speed was relatively slow, it gave us only three minutes to react.

“Helm, bring us out to the van,” I ordered, marking a position in the battlespace.

It would put us in front of a cluster of three other cruisers. Though the Victorious Strike couldn’t withstand the barrage by itself, the combined beams of the four cruisers would be enough to destroy dozens of missiles.

“Aye, Commander, coming about. Full burn.”

The deck shuddered as the lateral thrusters spun the ship, followed by full burns from the four aft fusion engines. A few seconds later, the vibrations settled into the low hum of tritium being fused into helium and lithium.

Our destination was just over seven thousand kilometers away, and with a 100g burn, we’d make it just before the missiles were in effective beam range. A low murmur of activity spread across the bridge as the long-range attack stations prepared their weapons and tested SC battery charges, while the point defense beams were powered on and their systems ran short discharge tests.

The other cruisers in the task force maintained their position, remaining perpendicular to the path of the incoming objects, exposing more of their lateral beams than if they faced the targets head-on.

I nodded with satisfaction as one by one, the ships began to rotate, ensuring that no part of their hull was exposed for more than a few seconds. If we were facing missiles, that wouldn’t matter as much, but if there were fighters in the mix, it would make their beams less effective.

Like the other heavier DSA vessels, the Victorious Strike had been sheathed in ice. That wasn’t the norm when on patrol, as it ruined any attempt at stealth, but when the ship was part of a convoy escort, there was no reason to hide. Here, the cruisers’ purpose was to take a beating, drawing fire while the corvettes and destroyers used their greater mobility to engage and destroy the enemy.

As we passed beyond the three cruisers that would provide us additional covering fire, the incoming objects began to jink wildly, changing course so rapidly, it appeared that they were winking in and out of existence on scan.

“So,” I nodded grimly. “It’s missiles. All batteries, prepare to fire on targets once they reach maximum effective range.”

The Daedalus Job

<Back! Back!> I pushed Penny behind me and out of the intersection.

We were trying to circle around to the bay where we’d seen the shuttle earlier, but every time we tried to move forward on the ship, we ran into patrols. The enemy soldiers were carrying portable scanners that were sweeping the corridors with multi-spectrum EM.

Our armor’s stealth could avoid passive detection systems, but active scan was a different story altogether. We may as well paint ourselves in neon and run down the passages screaming our heads off for all the good it would do.

<Back where?> Penny hissed. <There’s another patrol coming up behind us. If you don’t stand and fight these assholes, they’re going to push us right back into the engines.>

The engines!

An idea began to form in my head. At this point, there was no way the enemy would rest until they found us. We had to get off the ship without a trace, and we had to die.

Or at least appear to.

<Weapons free. It’s time to fight.>

<About time,> Penny said with a laugh. She slipped in front of me and waited at the corridor. <When I say ‘go’, you go high, I go low.>

I sent an affirmation and waited for her signal. Ten seconds later, she shouted <Go!> in my mind, and I leant around the corner, unloading a full magazine at the four DSA soldiers moving down the passage. Penny kicked off from the wall, using her armor’s a-grav to slide across the deck, adding her fire to my own.

The two soldiers in the formation went down under the hail of fire—along with their scan unit. The other pair returned fire, but a lucky shot from Penny hit one right above the thigh, while I pummeled the last man in the face with kinetic rounds.

His faceshield cracked, and he went down with a scream.

<Move!> I turned and sprinted down the corridor, away from the carnage.

<You’re going the wrong way,> Penny shouted in confusion. <We need to get to the shu—>

<We’re not going that way. Cradle your gun, hide the heat, we need distance.>

We made it thirty meters aft to the next intersection, a narrow passage that led toward the ship’s main shaft on our left, and toward more maintenance passages on our right.

I led Penny to the right, and five minutes later, we’d taken a dozen turns deep into a warren of accessways that snaked around the ship’s fuel tanks and power generation systems.

<What’s your plan?> she demanded when I finally stopped under a plasma duct that glowed brightly in the IR band.

<There’s an auxiliary engineering bay not far from here,> I explained. <We get there, chase off any crew, and make it look like we’re hunkering down. Then, when the enemy closes in, we blow it.>

<That’s a terrible plan. I want to go on record as saying I totally hate this plan. All the hate. Full hate.> With the EM noise surrounding us, I could see Penny cross her arms in defiance. <You know how I said I was impressed with you, Jax? I take it all back. You’re a total idiot. The only bigger fool here is me, for ever stepping aboard your piece of shit ship.>

<I’m going to pretend you didn’t besmirch the Kerrigan. Look at the plans for this ship. What’s just down a short corridor from the auxiliary engineering bay?>

I watched as Penny’s posture changed. <Oh shit…there’s a ten-person lifeboat there. If the explosion is big enough….>

<Exactly.> I nodded in encouragement. <We just have to make sure the boom is big enough that it would have destroyed the lifeboat as well.>

<And not us.>

<You got it.>

<OK.> She shifted to stand with hands on her hips, and I could feel the invisible glare. <That gets us off this thing, but they’re going to see us. You can bet they’ll be scanning.>

<We have that covered. This whole plan hinged on them not spotting us after we leave the ship. Finn uploaded a worm Mars provided. It’ll hide us from their scan if we give off a particular signal. We’ll just fly right to the Kerrigan and get away free and clear.>

<Damn.> Penny nodded. <OK, this could work, but I’m giving more credit to Mars—who I fully expect to double-cross us at some point. Good thing I have my own distraction going on right now.>

Cold dread swept over me. <You what?>

<Don’t worry, just something to keep Sinclair busy so she leaves us be.>

I was tempted to ask for details, but I was worried it would be something that would break my focus on the task at hand. I decided to get just enough information to calm my fears. <Will it harm the Kerrigan?>

<No, it should help them.>

Penny wasn’t an idiot. She knew the Kerrigan was our ride out of the maelstrom—at least, the one that didn’t involve being in a DSA brig. She probably had some sort of ulterior motive, but at least her objectives aligned with mine for the moment.

<OK, then let’s move.>

It took us four minutes to reach the auxiliary engineering bay. The room had two entrances that led forward, and the one narrow passage that led aft to the lifeboat.

The bottom of the ship was only fifteen meters below our feet at this point, only crawlspaces and conduit between the deck plate and the hull.

We entered through the starboard door, moving toward the cluster of consoles in the center of the room where three specialists worked. I moved to one side, while Penny moved to the other.

A quick three-count, and we disabled our stealth.

“Hey there,” I said, my rifle a meter from one of the tech’s faces, the barrel at eye level. “I think it’s time for you guys to go.”

“Shoo, fly,” Penny added, her grin clearly visible from behind her cleared faceplate.

“What the hell?” one of the specialists blurted out. “What are you doing here?”

“Shit,” Penny glanced at me. “Is he deaf or an idiot?”

“Don’t think the DSA would have anyone who’s deaf. That’s pretty easy to fix. Lot of idiots, though. I’m going to go with that.”

Penny turned to the man who had spoken. “I’ll say it real simply for you. Leave.”

Now!” I raised my weapon and fired a round into the overhead.

That finally had the desired effect, and the specialists ran from the room, Penny and I following after, closing both doors.

<So what’s your plan?> she asked as I placed our breacher tool on the room’s security panel, shutting down the optics and internal sensors.

<I have four thermite grenades. There are a pair of superconductor batteries right below us. We set up the grenades in the center of these consoles and mount our rifles behind these cabinets on either side of the room. Their auto-sentry mode isn’t great, but it’ll buy us a minute. When the mags run low, the thermite goes, and a minute later, things go boom.>

<Seems simple enough.> Penny tossed me her rifle. <Set it up. I’ll get the doors open to the lifeboat so we don’t have to wait.>

A momentary fear passed through me, concern that she’d just take the escape craft and go, but since I hadn’t told her how to keep from being detected by the Daedalus, she’d have to wait for me.

“OK.” I jerked my chin toward the rear passage. “Get to it.”


37


ONE WAY



Aboard the Kerrigan…

There hadn’t been any signs of activity in the Daedalus’s shuttle, but Tammy and I weren’t taking any chances. She set up one of our hull bots with two of the DSA rifles aimed at the airlock, while I escorted our prisoners one by one back to their shuttle.

None had suffered life-threatening injuries—at least, not once we staunched all the bleeding with biofoam—and they were all conscious.

Aarons was extra surly, complaining about every bump from his perch atop the hovercart that drive him through the passages.

“You’re gonna fucking pay for this,” he muttered over and over.

“You know,” I said through gritted teeth, “just repeating that won’t make it true. It might earn you a blow to the head, though.”

“That’s mistreatment of prisoners!” the chief exclaimed. “A violation of Delphian Rules of Combat.”

I shrugged. “I’m not Delphian, and we’re not in Delphi. Also, you’re not a prisoner, you’re a thief being kicked off our ship. This is a sovereign vessel, and you attempted to take it over. By rights, we could just execute you.”

“You’d never get away with it,” he hissed.

“Maybe not, but you friggin’ sure are making me think it might be worth risking.”

We turned down the passage that led to the airlock to see Tammy and the bot standing guard.

“The ones inside are staying out of sight,” she said. “Once we throw out the last piece of garbage, we can slam the door on their asses.”

“How do you two think you’re going to get away with this?”

The DSA chief’s question was followed by a dull thud from outside the hull.

“Hear that?” I asked. “That was one of our bots putting a limpet mine on your hull. In a moment, it’s going to shear off your comm stack, and we’ve already dumped most of your fuel. It’s going to take you a bit to get back to the Daedalus. Granted, they won’t let you dock till that little boom-boom problem gets taken care of. By then, we’ll be long gone.”

Tammy gave him a wicked grin. “So you’d better behave.”

“I demand to talk to Captain Bremen!” Aarons bellowed. “He’ll be tried for treason!”

“Too late,” I said with a nonchalant shrug. “I killed him.”

<Damn…why’d you say that?> Tammy asked. <Now you’re going to be number one on their most wanted list.>

<Dunno. Felt right at the time.>

Aarons only sputtered as the cart stopped at the airlock’s entrance.

“Time for you to go,” I said.

He shot me one final scowl and hobbled off. I sealed the airlock after him and dusted off my hands.

“One problem down. I guess I should respond to Commander Petrov. He’s been blowing up our comm system for the last twenty minutes.”

Tammy laughed as she lowered her rifle, a look of relief settling on her features. “I’ve listened to a few of his messages. He is not a happy man. Are we ready to fly, or do I need to do a flip-flip to get anywhere in a straight line?”

“I’ve got one of the bots working down there—just testing seals and stuff at this point. I’ll need to give it all the once-over and reset the thrust balancing system. Ten minutes, I think.”

The pilot cocked an eyebrow. “A real ten minutes, or a Kallie ten minutes?”

I shot her a dirty look. “Real.”

“Kay, I’ll be up on the bridge. The breach team should be signaling us any moment now.”

“A few moments ago, to be precise.”

“Don’t fret,” Tammy put a hand on my shoulder. “They’ll all make it back.”

I winked back at her. “Well, I wouldn’t object if someone got left behind.”

“Answer Petrov before he blows a gasket.”

“Yeah,” I rolled my shoulders. “Let’s do this.”

Tammy nodded and walked off. I looked down at the bot, which still held the rifles aimed at the airlock, and psyched myself up. Time for one more gamble.

<Daedalus, this is Kallie, first mate aboard the Kerrigan. How can I help you?>

It only took a second for the response to come. <What the hell is going on over there? Where are my people? If you’ve—>

<Your people were captured attempting an act of piracy on a sovereign vessel, Commander Petrov. A ship with a writ of marque from the government of Chal. We’ll be filing charges against you when we arrive.>

<Filing—> Petrov cut off for a moment, and I imagined him sputtering incoherently. <You might as well file it with the maelstrom, for all that will do. Chal’s government isn’t going to side with you over us.>

<You’re probably right.> I added a laugh. <Anyway, what did you want again?>

<What have you done to my team?>

<Well…all but one of them got shot, but they’ll live. They’re aboard their shuttle, about to head back to you.>

There was a brief pause before Petrov replied. <I’ll have you up on charges.>

<Maybe back in Delphi. But we’re not in Delphi, and we’re not going there.>

<And what’s to stop me from blowing your ship to fine dust?>

I was surprised at the intensity in Petrov’s voice. He seemed angrier than I would have expected—especially since his people were all alive.

<Well, probably the limpet mine on your shuttle’s hull.>

<This is a dangerous game you’re playing….>

<What can I say? I love to play ‘destroy’. Here’s our game. You don’t do shit, we leave, and your shuttle doesn’t blow up. Once we send the all-clear signal, you can retrieve your people. Otherwise, boom.>

<And what about the rest of your crew?>

Petrov’s words hit me like a planet, and I felt a wave of lightheadedness.

If he had Jax and the others…all my leverage would be gone. He’d trade lives for lives, and we’d still be out here—unless Finn had gotten the worm in place.

There might be hope.

<OK, show me proof of life for my people, and I’ll show you yours.>

<The two of them are still evading us. If they survive, I’ll let you know.>

I bit my lip, hoping that whichever pair was on the run made it to their egress. It also meant we could expect a signal for pickup soon.

While trying to decide how to respond, I slid down the ladder to the lower deck and entered the engineering room.

The bot was running pressure tests on the line, and they looked good. I sighed with relief, glad that we’d be back under full power soon.

<Well?>

<Oh!> I spoke in a surprised tone. <I just sort of figured that it was unspoken that if my people die, yours do too.>

<The only thing keeping your ship from being blown to atoms are the lives of my people in that shuttle. If they die, then you’re gone.>

<What about the cargo we have aboard?> I asked. <I doubt the DSA wants it destroyed.>

The commander gave a cold laugh. <Honestly, it can’t be that important if it’s aboard the Kerrigan. Probably just a popcorn machine for the mess hall. They can order a new one.>

<OK, let’s play this out, shall we? It’ll be fun.>

I killed the connection and walked along the repaired line, inspecting the work. The DSA techs had been sloppy, but it would hold well enough. The intermixer showed green, as did the thrust balancing system.

<We’re good to go,> I called up to Tammy. <Just…start off easy. I’m not totally confident in their repair job.>

<Lot of that sentiment lately.>

<I know.> I patted the bulkhead. <My poor girl’s been through a lot.>

The engines came to life, and I felt their pulse through my armor’s boots. It was hard to tell if it was right, so I knelt and put my hand on the deck.

“Yeah, girl, you’re doing just fine.”

I rose and turned to the console when a tightbeam message hit the comm arrays.

<Finn here. Oln and I are out. Jax and Penny are finding an alternate exit. Worm is loaded. Come get us.>

A whoop of joy burst from my lungs. <Tammy, you hear that?>

<Girl, I have the heading loaded in. Let’s go scoop ‘em up. Finn and I have a date with my bunk tonight.>

The Daedalus Job

“The Kor’s Light just took a hit. Hull breach reported,” Naomi announced.

“Fuck,” I muttered. That was the third civilian ship to suffer damage.

It turned out that while the majority of the objects were missiles, a smattering of attack drones had been in the mix. NSAI-powered balls of weaponry that were each dealing a good bit of damage before our ships managed to destroy them.

Combined with the missiles, the whole situation was a massive pain in the ass.

If the attack had been made against a fleet consisting purely of military craft, not a single shield would have been breached. But this attack wasn’t on the escorters, but rather the escortees, and the non-sentient AIs piloting the missiles and drones did their best to avoid the military craft entirely, careening around the battlespace in an effort to strike the softer targets.

Even so, a considerable amount of my attention was five light seconds behind us, back with the Daedalus and the Kerrigan. I knew it wasn’t rational, but I wanted to see Jax screw up and end up in prison. The knowledge that he’d made a deal with Intel and not suffered an iota of punishment for transporting stolen DSA cores still burned me, and I wanted to see him get his.

“Ma’am,” Naomi glanced over her shoulder. “Status report from the Daedalus. I don’t have all the details yet, but they caught sight of Jax Bremen and a criminal named Penny aboard their ship.”

I opened my mouth to blurt out an enraged reply, but the major’s expression stopped me. “What is it?” I asked instead.

“They also report that…well…the Kerrigan has disappeared from scan.”

This time, the cry of rage was unstoppable. I shouted my unbridled fury at the overhead. “Motherfuckers played us all! This…” I waved my hand at the battle displayed on the holotank, “…is just a distraction.”


38


THE DIVE



Aboard the Daedalus…

“There’s no way out!” a strident voice shouted over the 1MC. “Surrender, and you’ll be treated fairly.”

“Fairly?” I asked with a laugh as I finished mounting the rifles in the cabinets. They were wedged between tiedown brackets, and should stay in place for a few shots. After that, they stood a decent chance of firing wildly all around the room.

Which really isn’t the worst thing.

“You won’t be mistreated—so long as you don’t resist.”

There was more than a hint of implied threat in the speaker’s tone. I got the impression that ‘resistance’ might not have to be much more than a finger twitch in order to garner reprisal.

“You know…I think we’ll go down in a blaze of glory. Come and get us.”

<You’re so original,> Penny called up. <The boat is ready, c’mon.>

<They need to see me,> I replied. <Wait a mike.>

<A mike?> she asked with a laugh.

Shit. <Yeah, a minute, is that a weird term?>

<For a civilian.>

Our conversation was interrupted by a spray of plasma as cutters simultaneously began to burn through each of the bay’s doors.

Bastards are serious.

I hunkered down at the entrance to the escape passage, the cluster of consoles in the center of the room giving me cover. The holes grew larger, and when they were about ten centimeters across, I took aim and fired through one, and then the other.

The plasma flow stopped and I heard swearing. A second later, two flashbangs flew in, and I turned away, letting my armor absorb the EM and optical flash. When I turned back, a spray of bullets ricocheted around the room, and I added my own to the mix. A second later, the cutters started up again, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the doors folded in half.

Not wanting them to think I’d gone, I fired randomly at the doors until the starboard one was kicked in.

There was a full second of silence after the steel hit the deck. Then a soldier eased into view, immediately taking fire from the rifles mounted in the cabinets. I added a few shots to the fray, and then the second door came down.

I lobbed a smoke grenade and stayed low, scampering back down the passage as the engineering room fell to chaos. When the thermite grenades detonated, the explosion was followed by swearing, then screaming.

<OK, coming!>

I dashed down the passage and down a short ramp to where the lifeboat was nestled in a small bay.

The door was wide open—somewhat to my surprise, I’d half expected her to have boat locked down, leaving me to die—and I jumped in to see Penny at the piloting console.

“Seal it up!” she ordered.

I was already on it, latching the door closed, then I fell into a seat and let out a long breath.

Penny glanced back at me and shook her head. “You’re on fire.”

“Fuck!” I looked down at my leg where a blob of thermite was burning through my armor. I grabbed the ablative plate, twisted and pulled it free. “Shit, where do I put this?”

“Toss it back out, that shit could burn through the hull!”

Heart in my throat, I unlatched the door and threw the piece of armor out into the passage and pulled it shut just as a vibration hit the ship.

“Dropping!” Penny shouted.

Only the a-grav system in my armor kept me from slamming into the overhead as the lifeboat rocketed down the shaft and out of the Daedalus. Debris struck the hull, and the craft began to spin uncontrollably. I hit a bulkhead, then the deck. I managed to grab a seat’s harness and pull myself toward it, dimly aware of some sort of shrieking sound.

<The code, Jax! What is the code? They’re going to blow us—>

I passed the frequency and signal pattern to her while clipping the seat harness onto my armor.

<OK…we’re broadcasting. Glad the antenna wasn’t hit, this tub took a beating.>

<The Kerrigan> I tapped into the scan feed. <Do you see it?>

<It’s there,> Penny flagged the ship. <Looks like they’re moving in close to the Daedalus. Must be picking up the boys. I guess Mars’s little trick is working.>

<Looks like.> I breathed a sigh of relief and accessed the comm array. <Kallie, are you there?>

<Jax, friggin’ mother of…are you OK?>

<Yeah, we’re fine. Just got shat out of the Daedalus’s ass.>

A laugh came from the engineer. <Fitting. We’ll grab you once we bring Finn and Oln in. Gotta hurry, too, we’re getting mighty close to those plasma storms.>

I’d seen it too. Another twenty minutes, and we’d be in the thick of them. Not the sort of situation I wanted to navigate a lifeboat through.

<OK, we’ll sit tight till you give us a vector.>

“Shit,” Penny muttered. “Jax, we have a problem.”

“What?”

Daedalus is bringing weapons online. I think they plan to spray and pray.”

I blinked. “Does that mean fire wildly?”

“Yeah. Sure doesn’t mean piss while drunk.”

<Hurry, Kallie, Daedalus is going to fire. Get the guys inside and boost out. You’re too big a target.>

<Dammit! OK. If you get hit, though, I’ll be pissed. We’ll come back around for you.>

Penny had slowed the lifeboat’s spin, and I saw the Kerrigan through the small forward window. There was a glint of light below the engines that looked like the main bay doors closing, then the burners came to life.

The ship boosted away from the Daedalus just as the cruiser’s beams began to sweep all around us. They were the point defense DEW weapons, short-range, but more than enough power to do damage.

One tagged the Kerrigan’s shields, and I watched the ship quickly change course. Concentrated fire came from the cruiser, slicing through empty space where my ship had been a moment before.

“Clever way around the worm, looking for weapons impacts, not ships,” Penny muttered. “Petrov didn’t strike me as being that smart. Must have a good bridge crew.”

“We should move, too.”

“Yeah,” Penny nodded and brought the lifeboat about, firing its small engines to put distance between us and the Daedalus.

I kept my eyes on the Kerrigan, watching as it pulled further and further away from the cruiser. Twice more, it took beamfire on its shields and quickly jinked to avoid further strikes.

Then the unthinkable happened. The port side engine exploded.

I watched the ship spin out of control, one of the external fuel tanks pulling free and slamming into what remained of the engine’s thrust control bell.

A dozen beams from the Daedalus struck the tank, and it exploded in a fiery blast.

“Did they make it?” I demanded of no one. “Did they get free?”

“I can’t tell,” Penny said, sounding almost as desperate as I. “I think so?”

Seconds later, a hole appeared in the hull next to my head, burning through the seat across from me and out the other side of the lifeboat.

I didn’t even have time to utter a curse before the lifeboat’s engines died, and all systems shut down.

<Well, fuck,> Penny swore. <Now what?>


VI


Answon


39


IRON LANCE



Aboard the Victorious Strike…

Naomi turned to me, her eyes betraying the same weariness I felt. “Daedalus is boosting back toward the formation.”

“Good. I don’t want to slow down. We have four more days till we’re clear of the occlusion. I don’t want to spend a second more than we have to in this place.”

“No argument from me, ma’am,” the major replied. “The civilian craft are all reporting repairs as nearly complete, so we can resume full boost.”

I nodded silently, glad of the news. I wasn’t looking forward to filing the report regarding the damage we’d suffered in the attack, nor was I happy about the total loss of the Kerrigan. The idea of seeing Jax Bremen and his crew in my brig had occupied a great deal of my thoughts over the past few weeks.

You have to put that from your mind, Sinclair.

In two weeks, the convoy would reach its destination, and then the real work would begin: establishing a solid beachhead in Chal. A defensible position from which the DSA would begin to exert control over the system, finally bringing it to order.

If all went to plan, in a few years, there would be no place in the L for scum like Jax. The nebula would come to order, and then Paragon would have no choice but to return to the fold.

Granted, if there’s a bit of a war first, I wouldn’t object to that.

In the meantime, we had work to do….


40


BARYCENTER



In the DSA lifeboat…

<OK, try now,> I directed Penny. <I bypassed everything but the control mechanisms directly on the thrusters.>

<Here goes nothing.>

I straightened slowly, my back killing me from contorting myself half-through the lifeboat’s deck to access the drive systems. I glanced at the two blobs of hull sealant closing up the holes the Daedalus’s beams had cut into us, trying not to think of the storm that raged just a few centimeters beyond.

The lifeboat could only withstand so much abuse, the sealant even less. If we didn’t get clear of the maelstrom soon, we wouldn’t ever make it out.

A vibration shook the lifeboat, and I felt the craft come about.

<Yes!> Penny crowed from her seat at the pilot’s console. <Now to figure out the best way to get out of this mess. If we move perpendicular to the clou—>

<We don’t have the fuel,> I said. <One of the tanks ruptured. There’s only half of one remaining.>

<Shit! Why didn’t you say that?> Penny turned to glare at me through her helmet’s faceshield. <If that’s the case, we’ll never get out of here. We’re fucked either way.>

<We have an option,> I said in a quiet mental tone. <We go to the barycenter.>

<What? Just because it’s the eye of the storm doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a mess. Last I heard, it’s full of dense gas and chunks of rock all grinding together in some sort of protoplanet. Not my idea of a vacation spot.>

I met her gaze, my eyes dead serious. <There are people there. They’ll be able to help us.>

<People?> she snorted and turned back to the console. <You must have taken a blow to the head. I’ll see if I can plot a way out. Maybe if we ride the winds….>

I moved toward her and placed a hand on her shoulder. <I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. There’s a ship. Plot a course.>

She turned again, her eyes meeting mine. <You’re serious. A ship. Crewed. People.>

<Yeah. It’s ANSWON’s HQ. They keep it down at the barycenter.>

<Why?> Penny’s mouth hung open as she asked the question.

I couldn’t help but laugh. <You know, I never really got a straight answer from them on that.>

<What ship?> she asked. <What ship could have withstood being there for so long?>

<An old one,> I replied, barely able to give voice to the words in my own mind. <The GSS Dakota.>

Her mouth hung open even further. <A generation ship?>

<Yes,> I nodded. <One of the big ones. Big as a space station.>

<Here. In the L, at the barycenter.>

Penny’s statements sounded more incredulous with each one she uttered.

<Set the course, you’ll see.>

Wordlessly, she turned to the console and plotted a course. The lifeboat turned and began to ride the tendrils of cloud down into the center of the interstellar storm, to the center of the L.

I had no idea what sort of reception I’d receive there—well, I had some idea, but I hoped dire circumstances would mitigate those. The Dakota had been what I’d come to find, all those years ago when I’d braved the long journey through the nebula to reach the L. An unimaginable treasure, a relic of ancient times.

But it was not my prize to have, and I’d been stuck in the L ever since. Initially, I’d been focused on getting out again, but now I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave. Despite its issues, the nebula was safe, and the very needs that had driven me to seek out the Dakota were no longer a factor.

Not only that, but there was my crew…and Kallie.

I did my best not to worry about them, telling myself the Kerrigan had survived; that they were fine.

Penny and I traveled in silence for the better part of a day, eventually killing the lifeboat’s meager thrusters when we were down to five percent fuel.

<We’ll need it to drop into orbit around whatever’s there,> she explained, though I hadn’t raised a question. <You know, to drift until we die.>

When we were three lightseconds from the center of the maelstrom—which was still only lightly occluded with the nebula’s clouds—I sent a message identifying myself and our situation.

Then we waited.

It was almost ten minutes before a response came back.

<Jax Bremen. I thought we told you to never show your face here again.>

The Daedalus Job

Jax has been separated from his crew, but he hasn’t given up hope that he can find and save them. But before he can do so, he’ll need to deal with the people who want him dead.


And there are a lot of them.


Check out book 2 of the Outlaws of the Aquilian Nebula, Maelstrom Reach to see where the Jax’s adventures in the L take us all.


FROM THE PUBLISHER


Thank you for reading The Daedalus Job, book one in Outlaws of Aquilia.

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Other Books By M. D. Cooper

Outlaws of Aquilia

THE DAEDALUS JOB

MAELSTROM REACH

MARAUDER’S COMPASS

The Sentience Wars: Origins (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)

- Books 1-3 Omnibus: Lyssa’s Rise

- Books 4-5 Omnibus (incl. Vesta Burning): Lyssa’s Fire

- Book 0 Prequel: The Proteus Bridge (Full length novel)

- 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

The Sentience Wars: Solar War 1 (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)

- Book 0 Prequel: Vesta Burning (Full length novel)

- Book 1: Eve of Destruction

- Book 2: The Spreading Fire

- Book 3: A Fire Upon the Worlds (2020)

Enfield Genesis (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/Lisa Richman)

- Book 1: Alpha Centauri

- Book 2: Proxima Centauri

- Book 3: Tau Ceti

- Book 4: Epsilon Eridani

- Book 5: Sirius

Origins of Destiny (The Age of Terra)

- Prequel: Storming the Norse Wind

- Prequel: Angel’s Rise: The Huntress (available on Patreon)

- Book 1: Tanis Richards: Shore Leave

- Book 2: Tanis Richards: Masquerade

- Book 3: Tanis Richards: Blackest Night

- Book 4: Tanis Richards: Kill Shot

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 Sol Dissolution (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Venusian Uprising

- Book 2: Assault on Sedna (2020)

- Book 3: Hyperion War (2020)

- Book 4: Fall of Terra (2020)

The Warlord (Before the Age of the Orion War)

- Books 1-3 Omnibus: The Warlord of Midditerra

- Book 1: The Woman Without a World

- Book 2: The Woman Who Seized an Empire

- Book 3: The Woman Who Lost Everything

Legacy of the Lost (The FTL Wars Era w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 1: Fire in the Night Sky

The Orion War

- Books 1-3 Omnibus (includes Ignite the Stars anthology)

- Book 0 Prequel: To Fly Sabrina

- 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

- Book 7: Precipice of Darkness

- Book 8: Airtha Ascendancy

- Book 9: The Orion Front

- Book 10: Starfire

- Book 11: Race Across Spacetime

- Book 12: Return to Sol (2020)

Non-Aeon 14 Anthologies containing Tanis stories

- Bob’s Bar Volume 1

Building New Canaan (Age of the Orion War – w/J.J. Green)

- Book 1: Carthage

- Book 2: Tyre

- Book 3: Troy

- Book 4: Athens

Tales of the Orion War

- Book 1: Set the Galaxy on Fire

- Book 2: Ignite the Stars

Multi-Author Collections

- Volume 1: Repercussions

Perilous Alliance (Age of the Orion War – w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 1-3 Omnibus: Crisis in Silstrand

- Book 0 Prequel: Escape Velocity

- Book 1: Close Proximity

- Book 2: Strike Vector

- Book 3: Collision Course

- Book 3.5: Decisive Action

- Book 4: Impact Imminent

- Book 5: Critical Inertia

- Book 6: Impulse Shock

- Book 7: Terminal Velocity

The Delta Team (Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: The Eden Job

- Book 2: The Disknee World

- Book 3: Rogue Planets (2020)

Serenity (Age of the Orion War – w/A. K. DuBoff)

- Book 1: Return to the Ordus

- Book 2: War of the Rosette (2020)

Rika’s Marauders (Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1-3 Omnibus: Rika Activated

- Book 1-7 Full series omnibus: Rika’s Marauders

- Prequel: Rika Mechanized

- Book 1: Rika Outcast

- Book 2: Rika Redeemed

- Book 3: Rika Triumphant

- Book 4: Rika Commander

- Book 5: Rika Infiltrator

- Book 6: Rika Unleashed

- Book 7: Rika Conqueror

Non-Aeon 14 Anthologies containing Rika stories

- Bob’s Bar Volume 2

The Genevian Queen (Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: Rika Rising

- Book 2: Rika Coronated

- Book 3: Rika Destroyer (2020)

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 2: A Deception and a Promise Kept

- Episode 3: A Surreptitious Rescue of Friends and Foes

- Episode 3.5: Anomaly on Cerka (w/Andrew Dobell)

- Episode 4: A Victory and a Crushing Defeat

- Episode 5: A Trial and the Tribulations (2020)

- Episode 6: A Deal and a True Story Told (2020)

- Episode 7: A New Empire and An Old Ally (2020)

- Eps 1-3 Omnibus: A Siege and a Salvation from Enemies

Hand’s Assassin (Age of the Orion War – w/T.G. Ayer)

- Book 1: Death Dealer

- Book 2: Death Mark (2020)

Machete System Bounty Hunter (Age of the Orion War – w/Zen DiPietro)

- Book 1: Hired Gun

- Book 2: Gunning for Trouble

- Book 3: With Guns Blazing

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)

- Book 1: The Empress and the Ambassador

- Book 2: Consort of the Scorpion Empress (2020)

- Book 3: By the Empress’s Command (2020)


About the Author


Malorie Cooper likes to think of herself as a dreamer and a wanderer, yet her feet are firmly grounded in reality.


A ‘maker’ from an early age, Malorie loves to craft things, from furniture, to cosplay costumes, to a well-spun tale, she can’t help but to create new things every day.


A rare extrovert writer, she loves to hang out with readers and people in general. If you meet her at a convention, she just might be rocking a catsuit, cosplaying one of her own characters, or maybe her latest favorite from Overwatch!


She shares her home with a brilliant young girl, her wonderful wife (who also writes), a cat that chirps at birds, a never-ending list of things she would like to build, and ideas…


Find out what she’s working on at www.aeon14.com.

Follow her on Instagram at www.instagram.com/m.d.cooper.

Hang out with the fans on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/aeon14fans.


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