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Game Armada Collision Course: Part 3

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This week concludes our special multi-part adventure, Collision Course. If you missed the first two installments, here’s Part 1 & Part 2.

Clara stayed as still as possible inside what remained of the frame of the Connie’s top turret. One hand gripped the manual override to the hatch leading into the half-destroyed ship. The other checked her suit’s scans. It confirmed her fear — someone else was here.

Suddenly, the decision to leave her Bucc’s systems running, lights blazing into the Connie cockpit, no longer seemed like such a good idea.

She didn’t think she could return to her ship unnoticed, so Clara activated the manual override on the turret hatch and entered what remained of the Connie. At least it provided her a bit of cover while she assessed her options.

Once inside, she glanced around to ensure there weren’t any surprises. The bulkheads had slammed shut when the ship’s back half blew off, leaving the front section mostly intact. She didn’t see any further breaches to the hull, and strangely, no bodies.

Clara shoved that mystery aside, EVAed into a dark corner and drew her rifle. She flicked off the safety and aimed the gun at the hatch. It was the obvious entrance point into the ship. Maybe she’d get lucky and catch whoever had just arrived coming through it.

Suddenly, an ear piercing whistle cut across comms.

“Now, that’s a nice ship,” announced Radu. “Not much of a Drake man, myself, but it’d sure be sad if something happened to it.”

Radu had his Gladius aimed at the Bucc, his fingers wrapped around the trigger. From this distance, the ship’s Scorpion GT-215 Gatling would rip the Bucc to shreds in seconds. But this gig only paid out for the return of the Connie’s black box. There were no bonuses for extracurriculars. He’d prefer to keep his hands clean, if at all possible.

“Come on, don’t be shy,” he continued over comms. “I’ll give you to the count of five to at least introduce yourself before I take my frustrations out on your ship.”

He gave it a beat, still no response.

“Five … four … three … two … one—”

“OK, fine.” Clara reluctantly replied over comms.

“Good, there you are. Quite the predicament, isn’t it?”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“Just so everything’s clear, your ship’s sitting in my crosshairs.”

“Yeah, I got that.”

“It’s not a threat, just the reality of our situation. I don’t know about you, but I’m not here looking for trouble.”

“What are you looking for then?”

“That ship’s black box. Everything else is yours. Deal?”

Clara gave it a beat to make it seem like she was thinking it over, “Fine … head on in and grab it.”

“This will go a lot faster if you just go ahead and assume I’m not an idiot.”

“Fair enough. How do you want to do this?”

“You’re going to bring the box to me.”

Various options sped through her head; almost all felt impossible. Clara glanced at her vitals. Her heart rate was elevated and O2 levels were depleting faster than normal. She tried to get her breathing under control and focus on the first step to surviving this — making it back to her ship.

“Don’t go silent on me now. We were just getting to know each other.” Radu nervously drummed his fingers on the flight stick. Her silence meant she wasn’t going to make this easy.

“What’s to keep you from killing me the second I bring you the black box?”

Radu smiled. Good. She wants to cooperate. “Listen, the fact I didn’t just start shooting up the place should buy me a little bit a trust. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead by now. Bring me the box, and as soon as I’m gone, that’s the end of it.”

Clara realized he had a point. Either this guy was telling the truth or was one devious bastard. Regardless, she didn’t see many paths out of her current situation that didn’t leave her cold and vented. Better to be alive and broke then dead and proud.

“Fine. Give me a minute to find the black box,” Clara said reluctantly.

“That’s the spirit.”

“You can call me Clara.” She offered, hoping the name would humanize her.


It was a small gesture, but hearing his name somehow made her feel slightly better.

Clara EVAed toward the front of the bridge. She stared out the cockpit window to find Radu’s ship, but the blazing lights from her Bucc made it all but impossible. So, she redirected herself and snagged the black box.

She stared at it for a moment while thinking through her next steps. Though it went against her every instinct, Clara flipped the safety on her rifle and returned it to the attachment point on her suit. It made no difference what ship Radu flew; she was outgunned.

“Got it. Coming out the top turret hatch.”

“Keep it nice and slow. No surprises,” cautioned Radu. He swung the Gladius slightly, lining it up with the top of the Connie. Moments later, Clara slowly emerged from the hatch and reorientated herself until facing his ship. Then she stayed in place.

“Now what?” Clara asked.

Radu realized he hadn’t thought through the actual exchange. He just knew he had to keep her away from her ship until it was done.

“Bring it on over.”

Clara held her position, staring down the ship’s Gatling gun aimed at her. Her heart beat so fast that it felt like it might explode out of her chest.

“Can you at least not aim that thing directly at me?”

Radu kept the nose of the ship where it was. “You’re safe enough. Just bring the box over, nice and easy.”

Clara drew a deep breath and slowly EVAed toward the Gladius. Each meter closer only made it more nerve racking. Her mind reeled and repeated the same phrase over and over again —

Just get back to my ship … Just get back to my ship …

“Am I bringing this all the way to your cockpit or what?” Inquired Clara.

“I’ll tell you when to stop.”

Radu watched Clara draw near. He wanted her close, but not so close that she was inside his ship’s weapon range.

“Stop right there,” said Radu and Clara complied. “Now, you’re going to release the box and head back to the Connie. Once me and the box are gone you can go on living your life.”

Clara was close enough to see Radu inside the cockpit. She knew that once she released the black box, her position was a lot less secure.

If she gave him what he wanted, what were the chances that she’d be getting out of here alive?

Radu picked up on her hesitation. “We’ve made it this far, so don’t screw it up by doing anything stupid.”

She quickly ran through their interaction so far. He didn’t seem like he was going to straight out kill her, but he was right, he wasn’t stupid. If he left her with a ship, there was a risk she would come after him. No, he was going to leave her in the Connie and blow her Bucc. It was the safest option he had beside straight out icing her.

“Clara. I will not ask again.”

It was then that she saw a slight movement in his arm. He was adjusting his shot. It was now or never. Instinct kicked in and she swung the box around and released it when her back was lined up with her ship. The force of the box leaving her hands flung Clara back and toward the Buccaneer. She quickly rotated her body toward her ship and hit her EVA thrusters. The black box drifted free, tumbling away from both of them.

It took Radu a moment to realize what had happened. He begun to adjust his aim on the fleeing Clara, but saw something move in his periphery. It was the black box floating passed.

Without a moment’s further hesitation, Radu swung his Gladius around and went after the box. He didn’t care if she got away, but this would all be for nothing if he didn’t return with that black box. This was his last chance to score the credits needed to pay off Madrigal for the month. That’d give him some space to try and escape his whole situation. If he blew this, there definitely wasn’t enough time to complete a new gig that paid this well. Radu knew that black box was his lifeline — if he missed paying Madrigal that installment, he was as good as dead.

He yawed to squeeze past an asteroid the box had drifted past, and tried to position himself in front of its path. Before he could match its trajectory, it ricocheted off a rock and tumbled in a new direction. Radu fired all his reverse thrusters and adjusted his course once again.

Meanwhile, Clara EVAed to her Bucc as fast as possible, shocked to reach the ship without coming under fire. She hopped in and fired up the engines, thankful she’d left the rest of the systems on.

For the first time, she looked back to see Radu’s ship navigating through the asteroid field in pursuit of the box. That should give her enough time to flee.

She’d comm Miles the second she was in the clear and explain what happened. He’d be pissed, and probably never hire her again, but at least she’d be alive. She probably couldn’t afford an EZ Hab tonight, but once back at Port Olisar she could check with Diego about that gig at Garrity Defense. Maybe being a counter jockey wouldn’t be too bad after all. It’d be boring but safe.

The voice of Clara’s old friend Gunther filled her head. He used to claim that boredom killed more people than bullets. He even blamed Clara’s nasty WiDoW habit on her looking for something to do between gigs.

Suddenly, her head started to spin. She’d been clean for three months. She could stay strong as a counter jockey with a constant flow of credits in her pocket and plenty of time to kill … right?

She looked back to Radu’s ship to see him opening his canopy, the blinking light of the black box drifting towards him. For the first time, she realized that not only had she survived this crazy ordeal, but actually had the drop on him. There was still a chance for her to come away from this with both her life and the black box.

That glint of hope was all she needed.

Radu strained, reaching for the tumbling box. He glanced over to see the Buccaneer spinning in his direction. She was coming after him.

He grabbed the box with one hand, and brought it down to his lap. No time to close the canopy, he swung the flight stick just as the Bucc opened fire. The Gladius’ shield flared before him, absorbing the shots. Aegis’ voice assist kicked in to tell him what he already knew — his front shields were in a critical state and he should close his damn window. He needed to find cover and fast. He ducked low as it resealed around him.

Radu piloted the Gladius toward a large asteroid and skillfully swung it into cover. He just needed to escape this asteroid cluster and quantum anywhere that wasn’t here. But before he could even search for a QT destination, his rear shields came under attack. He abandoned the search and focused on weaving between asteroids to stay alive.

Clara stayed within range thanks to the Buccaneer’s two massive main thrusters. She watched Radu’s Gladius duck and dodge between asteroids. She could tell he was flying to buy time for his shields. She stayed aggressive on the attack, but picked her shots so she didn’t burn through her ammo too fast.

It’d been a while since Radu had been in a dogfight. Most of his jobs of late were unfortunately face to face, so he felt a little overwhelmed trying to keep one eye on his scans and the other on the asteroids. The large box in his lap wasn’t helping matters any. It quickly became clear that Clara was the better pilot. In his experience, there was only one way to beat a better pilot — do something totally unexpected.

Without overthinking it, Radu suddenly pitched his Gladius down and out of the asteroid cluster before rolling right. The cool, bluish-green colors of Yela filled his field of view and briefly distracted him. He angled back up toward the protection of the asteroid cluster when his rear shields came under attack again. That Bucc was more nimble than he expected.

The Aegis voice assist calmly assured him that his rear shields were down. He felt the ship shake and stutter. The hull was taking damage. He glanced at his control panel to see if anything important had been hit. That’s when he noticed the quantum fuel tank was draining and, with it, the possibility of a quick escape.

Clara cursed under breath. Either Radu had a tick ten times worse than hers or he was flying erratically to keep her from achieving missile lock. He definitely had flying skills, but not enough to shake her. She finally locked in, but just as he reached the edge of the asteroid cluster. She fired off a missile anyway.

The Gladius dropped chaff in response. Moments later, there was an explosion and an expanding cloud of debris before Clara. She eased off the throttle so she didn’t run head first into anything that could damage her ship. She stole a quick glance at her scans and didn’t see Radu’s ship.

I can’t believe I did it …

Just as that thought passed through her head, something darted across her scanner towards Yela. She looked again at the debris cloud before her but didn’t see any ship parts. Her missile must’ve struck an asteroid instead.

Clara checked her scans one more time; since nothing else appeared in the area she flipped her ship and flashed her engines to pursue.

You don’t give up, do you? thought Radu, as he watched the Bucc break away from the asteroid cluster and pursue him towards Yela’s surface. At least the distance gave his ship’s shields a chance to recharge. His Gladius shuddered when entering Yela’s thin upper atmosphere. He’d been there plenty of times to know that wasn’t normal.

As he sped toward the surface, the shaking only got worse. He feared that at any moment the ship’s left wing might rip off. He’d planned to land on the side of Yela shrouded in darkness and hide, but setting down in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem like a good idea anymore. If he couldn’t get his ship off the ground, then he was screwed. Yela’s nightside temperatures were brutally cold. He had to find an outpost.

Radu exhaled once the Gladius finished atmospheric entry without losing the wing. He shook his head while glancing at his scans; the Bucc was still in pursuit. He opened his map and started searching for the nearest outpost. His heart sank when he saw the nearest emergency shelter wasn’t anywhere close. His doubted that his damaged ship could limp there before Clara’s Bucc caught up.

He looked out the cockpit and scanned the pitch black horizon. Yela’s ring hung in the sky just above it, with Crusader sitting above. Both were bright and beautiful. Radu pried his eyes off the vista and scanned the horizon. The faint light from an outpost caught his eyes. He double checked his map but nothing appeared at that location. His Gladius shuddered and briefly stalled before kicking back in. Radu knew he didn’t have long. He’d have to land and take his chances with what was below.

Where’d he go? The blip had disappeared from Clara’s scans. She’d been expecting him to get low and find canyons or other cover, but she should’ve been close enough to still see the ship’s signature. She flew over a ridge then saw a faint light below. That had to be him.

Clara lowered the Bucc. Amidst a small plain encircled by mountains sat a small outpost, barely lit. As she drew near, the Bucc’s lights spotted a small wisp of smoke rising from a Gladius that had crash landed nearby.

The ship didn’t look like it could get off the ground, but Clara still swung the Bucc back around at it. She hit it with the ship lights and saw it was abandoned. She unloaded a barrage of bullets into it to ensure it wasn’t going anywhere.

She then spun the Bucc toward the outpost and eased the ship in that direction. She lined it up with the outpost door, then hit her comms.

“Want to guess how many missiles it’ll take to destroy that outpost?”

“I’d rather not,” Radu replied, still drawing deep breaths from his sprint there. He’d made it through the outpost’s airlocks and had immediately slumped to the floor. His back pressed up against the wall with the Connie’s black box once more on his lap.

“Well, if you don’t want to find out, then you better bring me that black box.”

Radu shook his head, exhausted, “I can’t.”

“I saw you grab it.”

“It’s not that. I need the creds. If I don’t have them by tomorrow, I’m dead. Why do you care so much?” Radu pulled himself onto his feet and ventured past the open metal security gate and deeper into the outpost.

The place was in disarray, but someone had been here recently. Half eaten Big Benny’s containers littered a metal table in the middle of the room. Numerous boxes were stacked on metal shelves. Ballistic ship ammo was spread across the countertops and scattered across the floor where a box had tipped over. He leafed through some paper scraps lying about.

Out in the Bucc, Clara stared at the outpost’s door, searching for an answer to a different question: was Radu’s life was worth taking to stay in Eckhart’s good graces?

The adrenaline from the dogfight and pursuit was finally wearing off and exhaustion setting in. All she could muster in response was the truth.

“I can’t screw up this gig. It’s my last lifeline to anything respectable. I’m all out of last chances and I just really needed something to break my way for once. Kinda felt like it was … until you showed up.”

Inside the outpost, Radu popped the lid on a crate he had found tucked in the corner. Then looked at the room around him again. There, two more matching crates over on the side. Suddenly, everything clicked and he knew what he had to do.

Radu crossed to the black box and picked it up. Then he hit his comms. “I’m coming out and I’m not armed. Don’t shoot.”

He stepped into the airlock and cycled it. From her Bucc, Clara fingered the trigger just in case. She watched Radu step outside holding the black box. He walked to the bottom of the outpost step and set it down.

“It’s yours,” he said. “I’ll go back inside, so you don’t have to worry about me stealing your ship or anything like that.”

“But why?” was all Clara could muster in response.

“You said you needed a last chance. Well, I need a lot more than that to get out of what I’m mixed up in. Sounds like this thing will help you out more than me.”

“You sure?”

Radu nodded his head then walked back inside the outpost. Clara sat there shocked, still not certain this wasn’t a trap. Finally, she climbed out, cautiously crossed the distance and snagged the black box. She returned to her ship and hit her comms.

“Thanks … need me to send for help or something?”

“Don’t worry about it. Actually, it’s probably best if you get outta here before you get caught up in what’s coming.”

Clara felt compelled to asked what he meant but realized he was giving her this out. Who knew what might happen if she didn’t take it. With that, Clara lifted off. The Bucc disappeared into the night.

Radu accessed his mobi and commed Madrigal. The NovaRider enforcer eventually picked up.

“Well, well, look who it is. You got my creds?”

“Actually, I called so we could discuss a deal.”

“Yeah, I don’t really do deals.”

“You will after hearing what I have to offer.”

“Oh yeah, what’s that?”

“Details on a Nine Tails stash house. Think if I got you that, you could consider my debt paid in full?”

Radu took the silence as a good sign.

“How can I guarantee it is what you say it is?”

“‘Cause here’s the second part of the deal — you’re going to come pick me up at it right now. That way you can see for yourself. I don’t know the market price on SLAM right now, but I’m pretty sure a couple crates of it will make your bosses happy.”

Radu turned and walked out of the outpost.

“You better hurry though. Considering the day I’ve had, who knows what might happen next.”

Radu clicked off the comm, and made his way to his wrecked Gladius, hoping that his spare rifle was still intact.


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      They moved to a console and the lights dimmed automat­ically when she pulled up the hangar projection. She se­lected a ship, and oriented the view so that the hologram of Boomer’s Avenger filled the display. No, Walt reminded himself, it wasn’t Boomer’s ship any more. Dell was his heir and — along with his debt — Boomer’s assets now belonged to her.
      Dell bypassed the default display of the structural hard­points and dove into the ship’s systems. Something caught his eye and he stopped her. “Wait, back up.” She did, and Walt stopped the rotating display to look along the under­carriage of the ship. He let out a low whistle.
      “That, Walter Rhedd, is a Tarantula GT-870 Mk3.”
      “I know what it is. But where did you get it?”
      “Remember those pirates that gave us so much trouble in Oberon? I pulled it before we sold the salvage.”
      He certainly did remember, and the bastards had kicked the crap out of two of their ships with their Tarantulas. “How’d you get it mounted on an Avenger?”
      “Hammer therapy,” she said. He gave her a confused look, and she held up one arm, curling it to make a muscle. “I beat the hell out of it until it did what I wanted.”
      “Damn, girl.”
      “Did you want to see the flight recorder?”
      They watched the navsat replays together in silence. It looked like one hell of a fight. Chaotic. Frantic. The Rhedd Alert fighters were hard pressed.
      Jazza had moments of tactical brilliance. As much as she rubbed him the wrong way, Walt had to admit that she made her Cutlass dance steps for which it wasn’t de­signed. Gavin orchestrated a coherent strategy and had committed extra fighters to drive off the attack. Some­thing was wrong, though. Something about the fight didn’t make sense.
      Walt had Dell replay the scene so he could focus on the marauders. It didn’t look like much of a fight at all from that perspective. It looked more like a game and only one team understood how all the pieces moved. The Hornets flew to disrupt, to confuse. They knew Gavin would send a force forward to protect the transport. He’d done it every time they had met.
      “See that?” he said. “They break apart there and get called immediately back into formation. They never leave a flank exposed. Our guys never get a real opening.” He pointed out one of the attacking Hornets. “That one calls the shots.”
      “That’s the one that OK’d Boomer.”
      Reds and greens from the navsat display sparkled in Dell’s eyes. Her voice was emotionless and flat. Walt didn’t want to see her like that, so he focused again on the display.
      The marauder he’d identified as the leader broke from the melee. Gavin gave chase, but from too far behind. Boomer intercepted, was disabled, and his PRB flashed red on the display. The Hornet took a pass at the transport before turning to rejoin its squad. Then it decelerated, pausing before the overkill on Boomer.
      “Why take only one pass at the transport? They’ve hit us, what? Six times? Seven? And once they finally get a shot at the target, they bug out?”
      “You said, ‘us’,” Dell teased. “You back to stay?”
      Walt huffed a small laugh. “We’ll see.”
      “We’ve been lucky,” Dell offered in answer to his question. “So far, we’ve chased them off.”
      “You really believe that? They had this fight won if they wanted it. And how do they keep finding us? It’s like they’ve taken up permanent residence in our damned flight path.”
      That was it. He had it. The revelation must have shown on his face.
      “What?” Dell asked. “What is it?”
      “Back it up to the strafe on the Aquila.”
      Dell did, and they watched it again. He felt like an ass for making her watch the murder of her father over again, but he had to be sure of what he saw.
      And there it was. Strafe. Turn. Pause. A decision to com­mit. An escalating act of brutality. And then they were gone.
      “She’s not after the transport at all. We were her target this whole time.”
      “Wait,” Dell said, “what she? Her who?”
      “Please tell me your ex hasn’t drunk himself out of a job with the Navy.”
      “Barry? Of course not, why?”
      “Because I just figured out who killed your father.”
      Morgan Brock called the meeting to a close and dismissed her admin team. Riebeld caught her eye and lifted one hand off the table — a request for her to stay while the others shuffled out of the conference room.
      Riebeld kept her waiting until they were alone, and then stood to close the door.
      “I take it,” Brock said, “that our Tyrol problem persists despite the escalation?”
      “I got word during the meeting” — he took a seat beside her at the table, voice pitched low — “that they should be making the jump to Nexus soon.”
      “Our discreet pilots? Are they deployed or here at the sta­tion?”
      His answer was slow in coming, his nod reluctant. “They are here.”
      Brock checked the time. Did some mental math. “Disguise the ships. We will leave at 1700 and meet them in Nexus just inside the gate from Min.”
      “Morgan,” Riebeld’s eyes roamed the room, “these guys aren’t taking the hint. I don’t know what losses we have to hand them before they back down, but . . . I don’t know. Part of doing business is losing bids, am I right?” She didn’t disagree and he continued. “Maybe . . . Maybe we ought to write this one off?”
      “A comfortable position to hold in your seat, Riebeld. Your commission is based on the contract value. I barely turned a profit on that job for years. I did it willingly, with the expected reward of windfall profits when traffic to Haven surges.”
      “I get that,” he said. “I really do. But at some point we have to call it a loss and focus on the next thing, right?”
      “Then suppose that we let the Tyrol job go, and Greely and Navy SysCom see what they want to see from bou­tique contractors. I can already imagine anti-establishment politicians pushing for more outsourced work. Hell, they will probably promise contracts to buy votes in their home systems.”
      She watched him squirm. It wasn’t like him to wrestle with his conscience. Frankly, she was disappointed to learn that he’d found one.
      “If Rhedd Alert won’t withdraw willingly,” she said, “then they will have to fail the hard way. Prep the ships, Rie­beld. We have done very well together, you and I. You should know that I won’t back away from what is mine.” He seemed to appreciate her sincerity, but Brock wanted to hear the cocksure salesman say it. “Are we clear?”
      “Yes, ma’am,” Riebeld swallowed and stood. “Perfectly clear.”
      “Any luck?” Walt pulled up Barry’s record in his mobiGlas and hit connect.
      Dell sat at the hangar console trying to reach Gavin and the team. Her brow furrowed in a grimace and she shook her head.
      “Damn. Okay, keep trying.”
      Barry connected. The accountant wore his uniform. He was on duty, wherever he was, and his projected face looked genuinely mournful. “Hey,” he said, “long time no see, man. Listen, I can’t tell you how sad I am about Boomer.”
      “Thanks.” Barry had known Dell and Boomer for most his life. He’d probably been torn between attending the service and allowing the family to grieve in privacy. Regardless, commiseration would have to wait. “We need your help, Barry. Please tell me that you have access to the propos­als for the Tyrol contract.”
      “Of course I do. And who’s we? Are you back with Dell and Gavin?”
      “I am,” he felt Dell’s eyes on him when he said it. “Anyway, we need a favor. I need to know the ship models and con­figurations proposed by the incumbent.”
      “Morgan Brock’s outfit, sure. No can do on the ship data, though. That information is all confidential. Only the price proposals are available for public review, and those only during the protest period.”
      “Come on, Barry. We’re not talking trade secrets here. I could figure this out with a fly-by of their hangar in Kilian. I just don’t have time for that. I need to know what ships those guys fly.”
      Barry breathed out a heavy sigh, “Hold on. But I can’t send you the proposals, okay? You guys are already on thin ice with this contract as is.”
      “Tell me about it. And thanks, I owe you huge for this.”
      Walt waited, throat dry. He scratched at a chipped edge on his worn mobiGlas with a fingernail.
      “All right,” Barry read from something off-screen, “it looks like they’re flying a variety of Hornets. Specifically, F7As. I can send you a list of the proposed hardpoints, and I hap­pen to know that Brock herself flies a Super Hornet.”
      The mobiGlas shook on Walt’s wrist. His face felt hot, and he forced his jaw to relax. “Barry, if you have any pull with the Navy, get some ships to Tyrol. It’s been Brock this whole time. She’s been setting us up to fail. And she’s the bitch that OK’d Boomer.”
      “I’m going, Walt. That’s final.”
      Walt rubbed at his eyes with the flat part of his fingers. How did Gavin ever win an argument her? Forbidding her involvement was a lost cause. Maybe he could reason with her. “Listen. When’s the last time you were even in a cockpit?”
      “I know this ship. I was practically born in these things.”
      “Dell —”
      She threw his helmet at him. He caught it awkwardly, and she had shed her coveralls and was wriggling into her flight suit before he could finish his thought. She stared at him with hard eyes and said, “Suit up if you don’t want to get left behind.”
      Dell was as implacable as gravity. Fine. It was her funeral, and he realized there was no way his brother had ever won an argument with her.
      They finished prepping in silence. Walt pulled the chocks on her Avenger when she climbed up into the cockpit. He gave the hulking muzzle of the Tarantula an appreciative pat. “You have ammo for this bad boy?”
      “I have a little.”
      “Good,” he smiled. “Let’s hope Brock isn’t ready to handle reinforcements.”
      Walt mulled that thought over. It was true that Gavin had split their team in each fight, but Rhedd Alert had never sent in reserves. Each engagement had been a fair and straightforward fight. Brock wasn’t likely to know anything about their resources, however limited, beyond the escort team. That could work to their advantage.
      In fact, “Hey, Dell. Hop out for a tick, will you?”
      “Like hell I will.” The look she shot down at him was pure challenge. “I said I’m going and that’s that.”
      “Oh, no. I’ve already lost that fight. But you and your cannon here got me thinking about those pirates in Oberon. Tell me, did we ever find a buyer for that old Idris hull?”
      “No. It’s buoyed in storage outside the station, why?”
      Dell looked at him skeptically and he grinned. “We’re going to introduce these military-types to
      some ol’ smugglers’ tricks.”
      Gavin held the team at the edge of the jump gate between Min and Nexus. “All right gang, listen up. You know the drill and what might be waiting for us on the other side. Jazza, I want you and Rahul up on point for this jump. I’ll bring Cassiopeia over after you and the rest of the team are in. Anyone not ready to jump?”
      His team was silent as they arranged themselves into position with professional precision. The pilot aboard Cassiopeia sounded the ready and Gavin sent Jazza through. The others were hard on her heels, and Gavin felt the always-peculiar drop through the mouth of the jump gate.
      Light and sound stretched, dragging him across the inter­space. Another drop, a moment’s disorientation, and then Nexus resolved around him.
      Without warning, Mei’s fighter flashed past his forward screen. Incandescent laser fire slashed along the ghost grey and fire-alarm red ship, crippling Mei’s shields and shearing away sections of armored hull. Mei fired back at a trio of maddeningly familiar Hornets in a tight triangular formation.
      Jazza barked orders. “Mei. Rahul. Flank Gavin and get Cassiopeia out of here. Gavin, you copy that? You have the package.”
      He shook his head, willing the post-jump disorientation away. He didn’t remember bringing up his shields, but they flashed on his HUD and his weapon systems were armed.
      “Copy that.” Gavin switched to the transport channel, “Cassiopeia. Let’s get you folks out of here.”
      The crew onboard the UEE transport didn’t need any more encouragement. Gavin accelerated to keep pace with the larger ship as two Rhedd Alert fighters dropped into posi­tion above and below him. Together, they raced toward the jump gate to Tyrol.
      The Hornets wheeled and dropped toward them from one side. Gavin’s HUD lit up with alerts as Jazza sent a pair of rockets dangerously close over his head to blast into one of the attacking ships. Her ship screamed by overhead, but the Hornets stayed in pursuit of the fleeing transport.
      Alarms sounded. They needed more firepower on the Hornets to give Cassiopeia time to get clear. He yelled a course heading, and Cassiopeia dove with Mei and Rahul on either flank.
      Gavin pulled up, turned and fired to pull the attention of the attackers. He spun, taking the brunt of their return fire on his stronger starboard shields.
      The impact shook the Cutlass violently, and his shield integ­rity bar sagged into the red. Gavin turned, took another wild shot with his lasers, and accelerated away from Cassiopeia with the Hornets in close pursuit.
      Navsat data for the jump into Nexus crept onto the edge of Walt’s HUD. Several seconds and thousands of kilometers later, the first of the embattled starships winked onto the display. His brother and the Rhedd Alert team were hard-pressed.
      Walt watched Brock and her crew circle and strike, corralling the Rhedd Alert ships. Gavin tried to lead the attackers away, but Brock wouldn’t bite. By keeping the fight centered on the UEE transport, she essentially held the transport hostage.
      Time to even the odds.
      Jazza tore into one of the Hornets. Walt saw the enemy fighter’s superior shields absorb the impact. He marked that Hornet as his target, preparing to strike before its defenses recharged.
      He killed his primary drive and spun end to end, slash­ing backward through the melee like a blazing comet. His targeting system locked onto the enemy Hornet, and his heavy Broadsword blasted bullets into it.
      Mei’s battered fighter dove through the streaming wreck­age, but the Super Hornet, presumably Brock, waited for her on the other side. A blast from her neutron cannon tore through the Rhedd Alert ship. Mei ejected safely, but their team was down a ship.
      “Gods,” Gavin’s voice was frantic. “Get the hell out of here, Walt. Form up with the transport and get them away from the fight.”
      Walt ignored him. He came around for another pass and triggered his mic to an open-area channel. “The game’s up, Brock.”
      His words cut across the thrust and wheel of close com­bat, and for a moment the fighters on all sides flew in quiet patterns above the fleeing Cassiopeia.
      “You know,” Walt said, “if you wanted us to believe you were after the transport, you should have saved your big guns for Cassiopeia instead of overkilling our friend.”
      “I suppose I should be disappointed that you have found me out,” Brock’s voice was a pinched sneer, and every bit as cold and hard as Gavin had described. “On the other hand, I’m glad you’ve shared this with me. I might have been content disabling the majority of your so-called fleet. Now, it seems that I will have to be more thorough.”
      She fired, he dodged, and the fight was on again in earnest. Walt switched his comms to Rhedd Alert’s squad channel. “Brock was never after Cassiopeia, Gav. She’s been after us.”
      “Maybe I’m a little distracted by all the missiles and the neutron cannon, but I’m failing to see how that is at all relevant right now.”
      “We’re no match for the tech in her ships. If she goes after the transport, they’re toast.” He rolled into position next to Gavin. Together, they nosed down to strafe at a Hornet from above.
      “Great,” Gavin said, “then why did you tip her off?”
      Walt suppressed a wicked grin. “Because,” he said, “she can’t afford to let any of us get away, either.”
      “If you have any brilliant ideas, spit ’em out. I’m all ears.”
      “Run with me.” For all Walt knew, Brock could hear every word they were saying. She would tear them apart if they stayed. He had to get Gavin to follow him. “Run with me, Gavin.”
      “Damn it, Walt! If you came to help, then help. I’ve got a pilot down, and I’m not leaving her here to get OK’d like Boom­er.”
      “This ain’t about doing the easy thing, Gav. Someone I truly admire once told me that this game is all about trust. So ask yourself . . . do you trust me?”
      Gavin growled his name then, dragging out the word in a bitter, internal struggle. The weight of it made Walt’s throat constrict. Despite all of their arguments, Boomer’s death and his own desertion when things got hard — in spite of all of that — his brother still wanted to trust him.
      “Trust me, Gavin.”
      Brock and her wingman swept low, diving to corral Cassiopeia and its escorts. Jazza redirected them with a blazing torrent of laser fire and got rocked by the neutron cannon in return. The shields around her battered Cutlass flashed, dimmed and then failed.
      Walt gritted his teeth. It was now or never.
      “Jazz,” Gavin’s voice sounded hard and sharp, “rally with Cassiopeia and make a break for it.”
      Walt pumped his fist and accelerated back the way he’d come in.
      “Walt,” Gavin sounded angry enough to eat nails, but he followed, “I’m on your six. Let’s go, people! Move like you’ve got a purpose.”
      Walt pulled up a set of coordinate presets and streaked away with Gavin close behind him. The two remaining Hor­nets split, with Brock falling in behind Gavin to give pursuit. Even together he and Gavin didn’t have much chance of getting past her superior shields. Instead, he set a straight course for the waypoint marked at the edge of his display. When incoming fire from Brock drove them off course, he corrected to put them directly back in line with the mark.
      Brock was gaining. Gavin’s icon flashed on his display. She was close enough to hit reliably with her repeaters. As they approached the preset coordinates, Walt spotted a rippling distortion of winking starlight. Correcting his course slightly, he headed straight for it. Gavin and Brock were hard behind him.
      “Come on,” Walt whispered, “stay close.”
      On the squad display, he saw Gavin’s shield integrity dropped yet again. Brock was scoring more frequent hits.
      “A little farther.”
      Walt focused on the rippling of starlight ahead, a dark patch of space that swallowed Nexus’ star. He made a slight course correction and Gavin matched it. Together, they continued their breakneck flight from Brock’s deadly onslaught.
      The small patch of dark space grew as the three ships streaked forward. Walt opened the squad channel on his mic and shouted, “Now!”
      On his HUD, a new ship flared onto the display. It appeared to materialize nearly on top of them as Dell’s Avenger dropped from her hiding place inside the blackened hull of the derelict Idris.
      Walt punched his thrusters. The lift pressed him into his seat as he pushed up and over their trap. He heard Dell shouting over the squad channel, and he turned, straining to see behind him. Bright flashes from Brock’s muzzles accompanied a horrible pounding thunder. Dell had left her mic open and it sounded like the massive gun was threat­ening to tear her ship apart.
      “Heads up, Gav!”
      Dell’s voice hit Gavin like a physical blow.
      He saw his brother climb and suddenly disappear behind an empty, starless expanse. Then Boomer’s Avenger materi­alized from within that blackness, and Gavin knew that his wife was inside the cockpit. She was with him, out in the black where veteran pilots outgunned them.
      His body reacted where his mind could not. He shoved down, hard. Thrusters strained as he instinctively tried to avoid colliding with her. A brilliant pulse like flashes of light­ning accompanied a jarring thunder of sound.
      Gavin forced his battered ship to turn. The Cutlass shud­dered from the stress, and Gavin was pressed into the side of the cockpit as the nose of his ship came around.
      He saw the first heavy round strike Brock. The combined force of the shell and her momentum shredded her for­ward shields. Then round after round tore through the nose of Brock’s ship until the air ignited inside.
      “Dell” — the flaming Hornet tumbled toward his wife like an enormous hatchet — “look out!”
      Brock ejected.
      Dell thrust to one side, but the Hornet chopped into the hull where she had hidden. The explosion sent ships and debris spinning apart in all directions.
      He swept around to intercept her spinning ship. Walt beat him there. Thrusters firing in tightly controlled move­ments, Walt caught her Avenger, slowed it and stopped the spin.
      Gavin rolled to put himself cockpit to cockpit with his wife.
      She sat in stillness at the controls, her head down and turned to one side.
      “Come on, baby. Talk to me.”
      She moved.
      With the slow deliberateness of depressurized space, she rolled her head on her shoulders. When she looked up, their eyes met. Dell gave him a slow smile and a thumbs-up. He swallowed hard, and with one hand pressed to his heart, he shut his eyes silently in thanks.
      Gavin spun his Cutlass and thrust over to where Brock floated nearby, his weapons systems still hot. He paused then, looming above her as she had hesitated over Boomer.
      Her comms were still active. “What now, Rhedd?”
      He remembered her from the meeting with Greely. Tall, lean, and crisp. She seemed small now, drifting not more than a meter away from the battle-scarred nose of his Cutlass.
      “Gavin?” Dell’s voice sounded small after the ruckus of the fight.
      Walt eased into view alongside him. His voice was low and calm, “Easy, buddy. We weren’t raised to OK pilots.”
      “She’s not worth it,” Dell said.
      Brock snarled, “Do it already.”
      He had studied Brock’s reports for months. She had more ships and more pilots than he could ever imagine employing. What drove her to harass them and kill one of his crew for this job?
      “I just want to know why,” he asked. “You’ve got other contracts. You’ve probably made more money than any of us will see in our lives. Why come after us?”
      He held Brock’s eye, the lights from the Cutlass reflecting from her visor.
      “Why?” she repeated. “Look around you, Rhedd. There’s no law in these systems. All that matters here is courage to take what you want, and a willingness to sacrifice to keep it.”
      “You want to talk sacrifice?” he said. “That pilot you killed was family.”
      “You put him in harm’s way,” she said, “not me. What little order exists in these systems is what I brought with me. I carved my success from nothing. You independents are thieves. You’re like rodents, nibbling at the edges of others’ success.”
      “I was a thief,” he said, “and a smuggler. But we’re building our own success, and next time you and I meet with the Navy,” Gavin fired his thrusters just enough to punch Brock with the nose of his ship, “it’ll be in a court­room.”
      She spun and tumbled as she flew, growing smaller and smaller until the PRB on his HUD was all he could see.
      A pair of Retaliators with naval designations were moored outside the Rhedd Alert hangar when Gavin and the crew finally limped back to Vista Landing.
      Crew aboard Cassiopeia had insisted on helping with medical care and recovery after the fight. The team scheduled for pick-up at Haven was similarly adamant that Rhedd Alert take care of their own before continuing. Technically, no one had checked with Navy SysCom.
      Did the Navy fire contractors face to face? For all he knew, they did.
      Gavin saw to the staging of their damaged ships while the others hurried the wounded deeper into Vista Landing. When he’d finished, he exchanged a quick nod with Barry Lidst who stood at ease behind Major Greely.
      “Major,” Gavin held out his hand, “I assume someone would have told me already if I was fired.”
      His hand disappeared in the major’s massive paw. “I sup­pose they would have, at that.”
      “Then to what do we owe the honor?” Dell and Walt joined them, and Gavin made introductions.
      “‘I’ first, then ‘we,’ ” Greely repeated, “I like that, Rhedd. I appreciate a man who accepts consequence personally but insists on sharing accolades with his team. Tell me, son. How’d you get Brock?”
      Gavin nudged his wife. With a roguish grin, Dell pulled her arm from around Gavin’s waist and stepped over to pat the Tarantula on her battered Avenger.
      “Nice shooting, miss.”
      Dell shrugged, “Walt pulled my tags, nav beacon and flight recorder before we left. I was sitting dark inside a decoy when the boys flew her right down the barrel.”
      Barry leaned toward Greely and in a completely audible whisper said, “It might be best if we ignore the illegal parts of that.”
      Greely waved him off. “This is what the ’verse needs. Men and women with the courage to slap their name up on the side of a hangar. A chance for responsible civilians to create good, honest jobs with real pay for locals. That an ex-military contractor tried to muck that up . . .”
      Gavin and the team got a good, close look at what angry looked like on a Navy officer. It was the kind of scowl that left an impression.
      “Anyway,” Greely composed himself, “not a soul in the ’verse would blame you for writing us off as a bit of bad business. I’m here to ask that you stick with it.”
      Gavin was reluctant to bring their financial situation up in front of their one paying client, but they were tapped out. Rhedd Alert didn’t have the cred to buy ammo, much less repair their downed fighters. “Actually, sir. I think we may need to find something a little more lucrative than getting shot up by disgruntled incumbents.”
      “About that,” Greely rested his hand on Gavin’s shoulder. He led him to look out one of the large hangar windows at the Retaliators buoyed outside. “My accountant tells me there may be some room to renegotiate certain parts of the Tyrol contract. But that job won’t be enough to keep your team busy now that Brock’s out of the way.”
      Gavin laughed. “On that point, I most certainly hope you are right.”
      “Well . . . I’ve got more work for an outfit like yours. I hope you’ll accept, because you folks have surely earned it. Tell me, Rhedd, are you familiar with the Oberon system?”
      Behind them, Walt dropped his helmet.
      The End
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