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Game Armada Whisperer in the Dark

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Writer’s Note: Published originally in Jump Point 1.1, this story takes place before the events of The Lost Generation.

People complicate things. That’s what they’ve always been good at. Take a look at any functioning civilization and you will see chaos, confusion, and frustration. It could be human, Xi’an, Banu, Vanduul, whoever. We may look different, be built different, but boil us down and you’ll find the same insecurities, fears, and anxieties gnawing.

Tonya Oriel watched the yawning abyss outside the window. Kaceli’s Adagio in 4 gently wafted through the otherwise empty ship. Scanners cycled through their spectrums on the hunt for any flagged anomalies.

The void. It was pure. It was simple. It was permanent.

A calm serenity huddled around Tonya’s shoulders like a blanket, the kind that can only exist when you are the only person for thousands of kilometers. Everyone else can have Terra, Earth, or Titus, with their megacities teeming with people. Never a moment where there wasn’t a person above, beside or below you. Everything was noise. Tonya needed the silence.

Her ship, the Beacon, drifted through that silence. Tonya customized almost every hardpoint and pod with some form of scanner, deep-range comm system, or surveying tech to get her further and further from the noise.

The problem was that the noise kept following.

* * * *

After three weeks on the drift, Tonya couldn’t put it off any longer. She was due for a supply run and to sell off the data and minerals she’d collected. After repairs, new scrubbers, and a spectrum update, she hoped she’d have enough for some food.

The Xenia Shipping Hub in the Baker System had been the closest thing to a home she’d had for the past few years. Tonya set her approach through the shifting entry/exit patterns of ships. The station’s traffic was busier than usual. As soon as the Beacon docked, her screen buzzed with a handful of new messages from the spectrum. She passed them to her mobiGlas and went to the airlock.

Tonya paused by the entry and savored this last moment of solitude as the airlock cycled, then hit the button.

The sound of people swept inside like a wave. She took a second to acclimate, adjusted her bag and crossed into the masses.

Carl ran a small information network out of his bar, the Torchlight Express. An old surveyor for a long-defunct terraforming outfit, Carl traded moving minerals for slinging booze and information. Tonya had known him for years. As far as people went, Carl was a gem.

The Express was dead. Tonya checked local time. It was evening so there was no real reason why it should be like this. A group of prospectors sat at a table in the corner, engaged in a hushed conversation. Carl leaned against the bar, watching a sataball game on the wallscreen. His leathery fingers tapped out a beat to some song in his head.

He brightened up when he saw Tonya.

“Well, well, well, to what do we owe the honor, doctor?” He said with a grin.

“Don’t start, Carl.”

“Sure, sorry, doctor.” He must be bored; he only called her that when he wanted to pick a fight. Tonya slung her bag onto the ground and slid onto a stool.

“Anything interesting?” Tonya pulled her hair back into a tie.

“I’m great, Tonya, thanks for asking. Business is a little slow, but you know how it is.” Carl said sarcastically and slid a drink to her.

“Come on, Carl. I’m not gonna patronize you with small-talk.”

Carl sighed and looked around.

“At this point, I’ll take any patrons I can get.” He poured himself a drink from the dispenser. Tonya swiveled her mobiGlas around and showed him her manifest. He looked it over. “Running kinda light this time, huh?”

“I know. You know any buyers?”

“How much you looking to get?”

“Whatever I can,” Tonya said as she sipped. She could tell Carl was annoyed with the non-answer. “I need the money.”

“I might be able to get you ten.” He said after a long pause.

“I would give you my unborn child for ten.”

“With all the unborn kids you owe me, you better get started.” He said. Tonya smacked his arm.

One of the prospectors drifted over to the bar with empty glasses. He was young, one of those types who cultivated the dirty handsome look. Probably spent an hour perfecting it before going out.

“Another round.”

As Carl poured, the prospector looked at Tonya, giving his looks a chance to work their magic. They failed. Carl set a fresh batch of drinks down. The prospector paid and went back slightly deterred.

“I think someone liked you.” Carl teased.

“Not my type.”


“Exactly.” Tonya watched the prospectors. They were really in an overtly secretive conversation. “Any idea what they’re here for?”

“Of course I do.”

“Yeah? What’d they say?”

“Nothing… well, not to me anyway.” Carl pulled an earpiece out and held it out to her. Tonya wiped it off and took a listen. Suddenly she could hear their conversation loud and clear. Tonya looked at Carl, stunned.

“You have mics on your tables?!” She whispered. Carl shushed her.

“I deal in information, honey, so yeah.” Carl said, almost offended that he wouldn’t listen in on his customers.

Tonya took another sip and listened to the prospectors. It only took a little while to catch up. Apparently Cort, the prospector who tried to woo Tonya with his ruggedness, got a tip from his uncle in the UEE Navy. The uncle had been running Search & Rescue drills in the Hades System when their scanners accidentally picked up a deposit of kherium on Hades II. Being the military, of course, they couldn’t do anything, but Cort and his buddies were fixing to sneak in there and harvest it for themselves.

Kherium was a hot commodity. If these prospectors were on the level, they were talking about a tidy little fortune. Certainly enough to patch up the Beacon, maybe even install some upgrades.

Even better, they obviously didn’t know how to find it. Kherium doesn’t show up on a standard metal or rad scan. It takes a specialist to find, much less extract without corrupting it. Fortunately for Tonya, she knew how to do both.
“You’ve got that look.” Carl said and refilled her glass. “Good news?”

“I hope so, Carl, for both of us.”

* * * *

Carl offloaded her haul at a discount so she could set out as quick as possible. Last time she checked, the prospectors were still at the Express and from the sound of it, they wouldn’t leave for a couple hours, maybe a day.

Tonya disengaged the Beacon from the dock and was back in her beloved solitude. The engines hummed as they pushed her deeper into space, pushed her toward a lifeline.

The Hades System was a tomb, the final monument of an ancient civil war that obliterated an entire system and the race that inhabited it. Tonya had it on her list of places to study, but every year Hades was besieged by fresh batches of young scientists exploring it for their dissertation or treasure hunters looking for whatever weapon cracked Hades IV in half. So the system became more noise to avoid.

Tonya had to admit that passing Hades IV was always a thrill. It’s not every day you get to see the guts of a planet killed in its prime.

Then there were the whispers that the system was haunted. There was always some pilot who knew a guy who knew someone who had seen something while passing through the system. The stories ranged from unexplained technical malfunctions to full-on sightings of ghost cruisers. It was all nonsense.

There was a loose stream of ships passing through Hades. The general flight lane steered clear of the central planets. Tonya slowed her ship until there was a sizeable gap in the flow of traffic before veering off toward Hades II.

She passed a barrier of dead satellites and descended into Hades II’s churning atmosphere. The Beacon jolted when it hit the clouds. Visual went to nil and suddenly the ship was bathed in noise, screaming air, and pressure. Tonya kept an eye on her scopes and expanded the range on her proximity alerts to make sure she didn’t ram a mountain.

Suddenly the clouds gave way. The Beacon swooped into the light gravity above a pitch-black ocean. Tonya quickly recalibrated her thrusters for atmospheric flight and took a long look at the planet around her.

As was expected, it was a husk. There were signs of intelligent civilization all around but all of it was crumbling, charred, or destroyed. She passed over vast curved cities built atop sweeping arches meant to keep the buildings from ever touching the planet itself.

Tonya maintained a cruising altitude. The roar of her engines echoed through the vast empty landscape. The sun was another casualty of this system’s execution. The cloud systems never abated so the surface never saw sunlight. It was always bathed in a dark greyish green haze.

Tonya studied the topography to plot out a course and set the scanners to look for the unique kherium signature she had programmed. She engaged the auto-pilot and just looked out the window.

Being here now, she kicked herself for not coming sooner. It didn’t matter that this was one of the most scientifically scrutinized locales in the UEE. Seeing the vastness of the devastation with her own eyes, Tonya felt that tug that a good mystery has on the intellect. Who were they? How did they manage to so effectively wipe themselves out? How do we know they actually wiped themselves out?

A few hours passed with no luck. Tonya had a quick snack and ran through her exercise routine. She double-checked the settings on her scans for any errors on the initial input. A couple months ago, she was surveying a planet and found nothing, only to discover on her way back that there had been one setting off that scuttled the whole scan. It still bugged her. It was an amateur mistake.

She brought up some texts on Hades. Halfway through a paper on the exobiology of the Hadesians, her screen pinged. Tonya was over there like a shot.

The scope gave a faint indication of kherium below. She triple-checked the settings before getting her hopes up. They seemed legit. She looked out the front. A small city sat above endless sea of dead trees lay ahead. It looked like an orbital laser or something had hit it excising massively deep craters from buildings and ground.

Tonya took a closer look. The craters went about six hundred feet into the ground, revealing networks of underground tunnels. They looked like some kind of transport system.

Tonya looked for a suitable landing spot with cover from overhead flights. If she was still here when the prospectors showed up, her ship would be a dead giveaway and things would get complicated.

She strapped on her environment suit and respirator. She could check the ship’s scanners through her mobiGlas but threw another handheld scanner/mapper in with her mining gear just in case. Finally, she powered up her transport crate, hoping the anti-gravity buffers would be more than enough to lug the kherium back.

Tonya stepped out onto the surface. The wind whipped around her, furiously kicking up waves of dust. She pushed the crate in front of her through the blasted forest. Gnarled branches clawed at her suit as she passed. The city loomed overhead, black silhouettes against the grey-green clouds.

Her curiosity got the better of her so Tonya decided to take a ramp up to the city streets. She told herself the detour would be easier on the crate’s battery. Smooth streets are easier for the anti-grav compensators to analyze than rough terrain.

Tonya moved through the barren, empty streets in awe. She studied the strange curvature of the architecture; each displayed an utterly alien yet brilliant understanding of pressure and weight dispersal. This whole place seemed at once natural and odd, intellectually fascinating and emotionally draining.

The kherium signature was still weak but there. Tonya maneuvered the crate around destroyed teardrop shaped vehicles. Pit-marks in the buildings and streets led her to suspect that a battle had taken place here however many hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The crater closest to the kherium was a perfect hole punched through the middle of the city into the ground. Tonya stood at the edge, looking for the easiest way down. The crate could float down but she would have to climb.

In a matter of minutes she secured a line with safeties for herself and the crate. She stepped over the edge and slowly rappelled down the sheer wall. The crate was making what should be a simple descent a little more complicated. The anti-grav buffers meant that any kind of force could cause the crate to drift away, so Tonya needed to keep a hand on it at all times. To make matters worse, the wind started picking up, flinging small rocks, branches and pieces of debris through the air.

A shrill scream tore through the air. Tonya froze. She heard it again and looked for the source. The screaming was just exposed supports bending in the wind.

Suddenly she realized, the crate had slipped out of her grasp. It slowly drifted further out over the crater, the swirling wind batted it around like a toy. Tonya strained to reach it but the crate floated just out of reach. She kicked off the wall and swung through the churning air. Her fingertips barely snagged the cargo before she slammed back against the wall of the crater.

Her vision blurred and she couldn’t breathe from the impact. The HUD went screwy. Finally she caught her breath. She took a moment or two before continuing down.

The scanner from the Beacon couldn’t isolate the signature any clearer to determine depth so she had to rely on her handheld. The kherium looked like it was situated between two tunnels.

Tonya secured the crate, climbed into the upper tunnel, and tied off her ropes. She checked her suit’s integrity in the debris-storm. The computer was a little fuzzy but gave her an okay.

She turned on a flashlight and activated the external mics on her suit. The tunnel was a perfectly carved tube that sloped into the darkness. Tonya couldn’t see any kind of power or rail system to confirm her transport tube theory. She started walking.

Hours passed in the darkness. Tonya felt a little queasy so she decided to rest for a few minutes. She sipped on the water reserve and double-checked her scanner. She was still above the kherium and it was still showing up as being in front of her. That much hadn’t changed.

She heard something. Very faint. She brought up the audio settings and pumped the gain on the external mics. A sea of white noise filled her ears. She didn’t move until she heard it again. Something being dragged then stopped.

IR and night vision windows appeared in the corners of her HUD. She couldn’t see anything. In the vast stretches of these tunnels, there’s no telling how far that sound had travelled. Still, she went to the crate and pulled the shotgun out. She made sure it was loaded, even tried to remember the last time she had cause to use it.

Tonya started moving a little more cautious. She doubted it was the prospectors. For all she knew it could be some other pirate or smuggler down here. Regardless, she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The tunnel started to expand before finally giving way to a vast darkness. Tonya’s night vision couldn’t even see the end. She dug through her supplies and picked out some old flares. She sparked one.

It was a city. A mirror city to be precise. While the one on the surface reached for the sky, this one was carved down into the planet. Walkways connected the various structures built out of the walls on the various levels. She’d never heard of anything like this before. Everyone speculated that it was civil war that destroyed this system. Was this a city of the other side?

She came to an intersection and the first real sign that the fighting had spread here. A barricade of melted vehicles blocked one of the tunnels. The walls were charred from either explosions or laser-blasts. A shadow had even been burned into the wall.

Tonya stood in front of it. The Hadesian seemed to have a roundish bulky main body with multiple thin appendages. A thousand year old stain on a wall is hardly much to go by, but even as a silhouette, it looked terrified.

A cavernous structure was built into the wall nearby. Tonya approached to examine the craftsmanship. It was certainly more ornate than most of the other buildings down here. There weren’t doors down here, just narrow oval portals. There was some kind of tech integrated into the sides.

Tonya decided to take a look. It was a deep bowl with rows of enclosures built into the sides. All of them were angled towards a single point, a marble-like cylinder at the bottom of the bowl. Tonya descended toward it. There was a small item sitting on top. She kept her light and shotgun trained on it. It was made from a similar marble-like stone as the cylinder. Tonya looked around. Was this some kind of church?

She leaned down to get a better look at the item, careful not to disturb anything. It was a small carving. It wasn’t a Hadesian shape. Not one she was familiar with. She weighed whether she should take it.

Tonya’s head suddenly swam. She stumbled back and steadied herself on the enclosures. After a moment or two it passed. A subtle stabbing pain started to ache in her arm. She stretched it, trying to work out the ache. She took a last look at the small carving.

Tonya stepped out of the ornate building and brought up her scanner. The kherium was close. She followed the scanner’s directions into the dark and twisted tunnels. Her eyes stayed locked on the growing glow of the screen. She tripped over something. The scanner clattered across the floor. It echoed for a minute.

Tonya shook her head slightly. This place… She turned her lights back right into the face of a rotted corpse, its mouth open in a silent scream.

“Hell!” she yelled as she scuffled away from it. She looked around. There was another form on the floor about twenty feet away. A strongbox sat between them. The initial shock subsided.

Tonya got up, grabbed her scanner and walked over to the first body. Its skull had been cracked open. There was no weapon though. No club or bar nearby. That was odd. The other one had clearly shot himself. The gun was still in his hand. They were definitely human and based on their clothes; they were probably surveyors or pirates. She didn’t know what kind of elements were in the air here so she couldn’t give an accurate guess how long they’d been dead but suspected months.

She shuffled over to the strongbox and kicked it open. Kherium. Already extracted and carefully wrapped. Sweet relief drifted through the exhaustion.

“Thanks guys.” Tonya gave them a quick salute. “Sorry you aren’t here to share it.” Something flitted across her IR window.

Tonya snatched up her shotgun and aimed. It was gone. Her breathing became rapid and shallow as she waited. Her finger hovered over the trigger. She pumped the gain on the external mics again and scanned the hall. The whole time, telling herself to calm down. Calm down.

Every movement of her suit amplified a hundred times in her ears. She tracked the rifle through the tunnel, looking for whatever was in here with her. Something came through the static. Close.

“Welcome home,” it hissed.

Tonya fired into the dark. She spun behind her. Nothing down there. She racked another round and blasted anyway. The shots blew out the speakers in her helmet.

She grabbed the strongbox and ran.

Ran through the slippery, sloping tunnels of pitch-black, now in total silence. She passed the intersection, where the Hadesian still raised its arms in terror. She kept looking back. She could swear something was there, just beyond the range of the IR, watching from the static.

Tonya sprinted up a rise to see the grim overcast light of the exit, now just a pinhole. Her legs burned. Her arm killed. All she wanted to do was go to sleep but she wasn’t going to stop. If she stopped, she knew she would never leave.

She pulled herself up the rope and pushed through the blasted forest back to the Beacon. Thirty seconds later, the thrusters were scorching earth. One minute later, she broke atmo.

As Hades II drifted away, she tried to steady her nerves. Her environment suit slowly twisted on the hanger in the decontamination chamber. She noticed something.

The respiratory functions on the back were damaged. The fall in the crater must have done it. It bashed up the feeds and she was getting too much oxygen. The headaches, nausea, and fatigue… even that voice. Even though it chilled her still. They were all probably just hallucinations and reactions to oxygen poisoning.


Tonya set a course back for the Xenia Shipping Hub in Baker. She had goods to sell, true, but right now, she wanted to be around people.

She wanted to be around the noise.

Back in the decontamination chamber, the tiny Hadesian carving sat on the floor.


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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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