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Game Armada The Cup: Part Two

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Writer’s Note: Part two of The Cup was published originally in Jump Point 1.9. You can read Part one here.

At the end of the first stage in the Murray Cup race through the Ellis system, Ykonde Remisk edged out Hypatia Darring with a boost flare that, while technically legal, was definitely dangerous. Both of these two Human racers finished ahead of their main competition, the veteran Tevarin Zogat Guul and the wily Xi’an Nyanāl Mo‘tak Xu.oa. Darring reacts to Remisk’s maneuver …

Darring jumped out of her racer, sped across the carrier bay floor, found Remisk in the middle of a media gang, and drove her fist toward his cheery face.

He ducked just in time.

One of Remisk’s crew grabbed Darring and held her back as she hurled accusations. “You son of a bitch! You could have killed me!”

Remisk recovered from the attempted assault and played it cool in front of the crowd, adjusting his collar and giving a weak smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Darring. I ran a clean race.”

“You tried to burn me alive!”

Shock and dismay spread among the faces of those gathered.

Out of the corner of her eye, Darring could see an MCR official coming their way with a concerned look on his face, but she didn’t care. She fought her way out of the crewman’s grasp and took another swing. Remisk caught her arm and held it tightly.

“Back off, Darring,” he said, “or I’ll file a complaint.”

“I’ll file one requesting your dismissal, you cheap —”

“Humans, come now, let’s remain civil.”

Mo‘tak pushed his way through the crowd and stood beside Remisk. He waited until the MCR rules official arrived, then continued. “Attend these words — I can assure you that from my perspective, Mr. Remisk violated no MCR rules. In fact, not only was his move brilliant in its simplicity, but it showed a deep dedication to the integrity of the sport. Remisk never once touched his ship to Ms. Darring’s. He showed incredible care in the maneuver. I can attest to that.”

“You can attest to kissing my —”

Guul stepped in and peeled Remisk’s fingers from Darring’s arm. He whispered into her ear. “Come on, let’s go. Not here, not this way.”

Mo‘tak chuckled. “You should listen to him, young one. Guul is a wise soul.”

Guul ignored Mo‘tak and pulled Darring through the crowd. “I said, let’s go.”

She relented, and they made their way out of the carrier bay and into a long narrow corridor that led to a small atrium with chairs and tables that looked out over Ellis III. The planet’s orbit was alive with the race as it continued with the remaining racer groups down list. It was a beautiful display, the rings of the course pulsing their light, and the blur of racecraft rushing through them at marvelous speeds.

Darring looked out at it, and her anger began to subside.

“Take a seat, Hypatia,” Guul said as he pulled one chair away from a table. Darring sat, crossed her arms, and kept looking out at the race.

Guul sat down across from her, taking care as he bent into the Human-style chair. “Now tell me … what was that all about?”

Darring did not respond at first, but she met Guul’s stern gaze with her own. Then she blinked, sighed, and said, “He cheated. He cut me off and blew fire into my face.”

“It is not a violation of the rules, and you know it.”

“Well, it should be.”

“You know,” Guul said, shaking his head and leaning back, “I would not expect a loose cannon like yourself to be such a slave to the rules.”

Darring finally smiled. “A residual from my father’s parenting. ‘Play by the rules, Hypatia’,” she said, imitating a deep manly voice, “ ‘win by the rules, and they can never have cause to take your victories away’.”

“It is a noble statement,” Guul said, “but, in racing, a touch naive. There are rules, and then there are rules. But you pull something like that again, especially with witnesses, and you’re the one that will be expelled, not Remisk.”

Darring sloughed off his warning. “He’s a jackass, and so is Mo‘tak.”

“That is true, but there’s nothing you can do about it right now. They will do what they have to do to win, and you must keep your cool. Besides,” Guul said, his gaze growing more serious, his face cast down toward the racers rushing past, “I want my last race to be against the best. And if you are expelled, then it will be against wanna-bes and has-beens.”

Darring wrinkled her brow with concern. “Why is this your last? You have many years ahead.”

Guul nodded. “Many years perhaps, but not as a racer. Every joint aches, every bone brittle, and my eyes are failing. It is time.”

Darring sat in quiet, not wanting to speak, not wanting to accept that her hero was near the end. And she had just met him. How could he be leaving now, when she had so much to speak to him about, so much to learn? Afterwards, he would likely return home (wherever that may be), and she’d never see him again. Time would be so precious during the race. When would she have another opportunity to talk to him, to learn from him? If this is his last Cup, she thought, then perhaps I should back off a bit, let him have a course or two, let him take the lead when

“What is that look?”

She turned to him, shrugged innocently. “What look?”

Guul leaned forward. “You’re thinking about throwing the race for me, aren’t you? You’re thinking, ‘Give the old Tevarin one more victory.’ Well, forget such nonsense. My people are warriors, Hypatia, and we have a saying: ‘Honor your enemy, praise him if you must, but never lose a chance to kill him.’ Here, you and I are friends. Out there,” he said, pointing to the race, “we are foe. Promise me, that if we find ourselves neck and neck on the final lap, and you have an opportunity to win, that you will. That you will show me no mercy, no quarter, and then at least I will know that if I lose, I have lost against the best. Promise me.”

His face was so serious, Darring knew that he would not let her leave the room until she promised and did so sincerely.

She nodded. “I promise.”

Guul stood. “Excellent. Now, I owe you a dinner. Hungry?”


They walked together through the corridor, took a turn toward the carrier’s mess. It was a good idea to get a full meal before heading to Ellis IV, and some rack time as well. The next several legs of the race would be tough, and Darring would have to face her crew chief soon and figure out if any serious damage had been done to her engine. It was not a conversation she was looking forward to.

“Have your crew chief speak to mine,” Guul said. “He’s an old M50 pilot and has been around as long as I —”

Guul did not finish his words. They had turned a corner and there stood three Humans wrapped in dark clothing to match the faint light of the corridor. The three did not hesitate.

One pulled a knife and slashed towards Darring’s throat. She leaned back instinctively and felt the wind of the brutal attack across her chin. The blade did not find flesh, however, and she tumbled back against the wall.

The other two were on Guul immediately, but despite the Tevarin’s confession of joint pain, he moved quickly, subduing one in a headlock and guarding off the fists of the other. Darring tried to get to him, but her assailant was not finished. He slashed again with his blade, this time toward her stomach. She knocked his arm back with a move she had learned in Basic, then drove her fist into his kidney.

As the man lurched back, recovering from the blow, Darring recognized his face. He was from Mo‘tak’s entourage, the one who had shielded his boss and nodded to her as the Xi’an had walked away. She gnashed her teeth, scowled, and drove her boot into his crotch, knocking him to his knees. She continued her assault against his face, striking him twice before he managed to turn, kick out his leg, and swipe her feet from beneath her. Darring fell hard, her hip reeling from its concussion against the corridor floor.

He was on her again, but she was ready. She timed her move, brought her knees up quickly and flung him up the corridor. She tried rising to pursue, but the body of another assailant flew over her and hit the wall. She looked toward Guul and found him making mincemeat of the third man’s face. His companions, bloody, beaten and clearly not wishing further punishment, collected themselves quickly and dashed away.

Guul released the third man, pushed him back against the wall. Darring tried moving against him, but despite his mangled face, he got away from her grasp, grabbed his blade and shot away down the corridor in the opposite direction of his accomplices.

Darring went to Guul’s side. He had slipped down the wall and was holding a bloody gash across his stomach. Darring moved his hand away to look at it. “Bastards,” she said, helping him to his feet. “Bloody bastards. Come on, let’s get you to the hospital.”

Guul shook his head and pushed her away. “No. Just get me to my crew. It’s not that bad. I’ve had worse.”

“But we have to tell someone about this. Tell them it’s Remisk and Mo‘tak.”

“How do you know that?”

“One of the men . . . I saw him in Mo‘tak’s gang the other day.”

He nodded. “But you can’t prove it.”

“Come on, Guul,” she said, letting her anger rise again. “Don’t play stupid. You know who ordered this.”

“You may be right, but they are far too smart to leave evidence lying around. And if you’re wrong, then it will reflect badly on you, especially after your unprovoked assault against Remisk. Mo‘tak has too many friends among MCR officials. This will go away as quickly as it was attempted.” He pointed down the corridor, toward the atrium and out to space. “We’ll beat them out there.”

Reluctantly, Darring nodded. She did not like the plan, but let it rest. The most important thing now was to get him to someone, anyone, who could help.

Putting an arm around his waist, she helped him back to his crew.

* * *

“You’re late,” Mo‘tak said, sitting quietly in the dark of the room. Remisk took no time to express his agitation.

“It’s got to stop, Mo‘tak. It’s gone too far.”

“How so?”

“They could have been killed. Both of them. That’s not what I signed up for.”

“What did you sign up for?”

“Sabotage is fine. Damaging an engine, clogging a fuel line, denting a wing, forcing a racer back with an illegal move. These are all fine. Win or lose, succeed or fail, it’s all part of the unspoken game. But trying to kill people is another matter entirely.”

Mo‘tak chuckled. “What would you rather do? Race the final course with only me to contend with, or with Guul and Darring as well? The Tevarin is a beast, and that welp is far better than anyone gives her credit for. If they remain in the race, you’ll go down in history as the man who had a chance, but failed to win the Triple Crown.”

You will fail regardless, Mo‘tak said to himself. Once I’ve dealt with Guul and Darring.

“It’s over, Mo‘tak,” Remisk said, emphasizing his point with a swipe of his arm. “I’m not doing your dirty work anymore.”

Mo‘tak turned on an overhead lamp resting on a table at his side. Beneath the cast light lay a small, gold-colored box, which he carefully opened. A small syringe lay in its center. He picked up the syringe and held it as if he were going to give someone a shot. “Oh, I think you will. You still have things to do for me. And if you don’t, I will share with the MCR rules committee what is contained in this needle.”

“What is it?”

Mo‘tak shrugged. “The very thing that has given you an almost inhuman focus, an ability to anticipate moves three, four turns ahead.”

“That’s a lie! I’ve never taken drugs in my life.”

“I’ve been planning this for a long, long time, Remisk. So let me lay it out for you. A young, successful pilot wants to make a name for himself. He wins the Goss Invitational by a nose and begins to think he really has a shot at winning the Triple Crown. He goes to a small-time dealer and asks, “What can you give me that can’t be detected by scanners?’ The dealer gives him this, which I gave the dealer — a Xi’an concoction called e’tâm. For us it produces a mild meditative state, but when introduced to Human brain chemistry, it creates a state of hyper awareness, an almost extrasensory perception. MCR scanners at their current settings cannot detect it. And you have been taking microdoses for months.”

“You’re a liar!”

Mo‘tak ignored the accusation. “And here’s the catch. There’s enough in here to keep you vital to the end of the race. Take it, and you’ll be fine. If not, somewhere around Ellis IX, as your ship is being pulled by the gravitational forces of that giant gas ball, you will go into withdrawal, fall into a deep sleep and be crushed by the tidal forces of its wild weather.” Mo‘tak held up the syringe for Remisk to see, letting a few drops squirt from the needle tip. “What will it be, my friend? Life or death?”

Remisk stood in the darkness for a long time. Then finally, he rolled up his sleeve, and offered his forearm. “You’re a bastard.”

Mo‘tak punched the needle into a vein. “No, Remisk. I’m not. I’m just a businessman, protecting his investment.”

He pushed the entire dose into Remisk’s arm, then laid the empty syringe in the golden box. Remisk got up and rolled down his sleeve. He turned to leave, but Mo‘tak stopped him.

“Oh,” he said, reaching into a pocket and producing a silver capsule. He pitched it to Remisk. “Get this to our man on Darring’s crew and see he puts it where we have discussed. We want to make sure that upstart has a pleasant ride through the Boneyard.”

Remisk left. Mo‘tak lingered in the dark, chewing the inside of his left cheek, considering the future. He sighed. He should never have relied on Remisk, on a Human, to do the work. They could never be trusted. He’d never had one pleasant experience with them in all his life. Not as a racer, not during his years of mandatory military service, not as a young adult, and certainly not as a child, when Human pirates had scattered his family and killed his mother. There wasn’t one in the bunch worth a damn.

But Remisk . . . could he be trusted to finish the job against Darring? Mo‘tak shrugged. It hardly mattered anyway. Whether he did or did not, Remisk’s time in the race was coming to a close. With the dose I gave him, Mo‘tak thought, getting up and leaving the room, he won’t survive the Boneyard either.

* * *

Hello again, and welcome to another broadcast of GSN’s continuing coverage of the Murray Cup Race. After a rough start that saw Hypatia Darring warned and reprimanded for her unsportsmanlike conduct, things have calmed down. Ms. Darring has kept her cool and has fought her way back to contention with a stunning head-to-head struggle around Ellis V against veteran Zogat Guul. Though these two are reported to be close friends, no love is lost between them as they make their way through these dangerous courses. But now the most contentious portion of the race is upon us. The Sorrow Sea, or as most of the racers call it, the Boneyard, looms large in the cockpit window. Can anyone brave the shattered hulls and sharp asteroids that hazard this course? Let’s find out . . .

Mo‘tak was on her left, Guul on her right, and somewhere behind her, Remisk waited to pounce. It had been like this for a long time, shifting back and forth through broken hulls of previous racers and multi-ton asteroids, some so large that their gravity tugged on her hull as she passed. Her radar displayed the Boneyard in all its glory, and there were many paths to take through the obstacles; some shorter, some longer. This was a timed course, but the lanes sometimes narrowed to force racers to poke and prod one another, thus making it one of the deadliest in the race. The broken hulls of the hollow racecraft around her confirmed its danger.

She shifted left and took one of the shorter paths. Doing so would put her closer to the finish line, but the obstacles here were ridiculous in their distribution. She turned left, barreled tightly through a wide hole of an ancient hull. The racer right behind her broke formation and flew down another path. At her speed, Darring could not tell if it had been Remisk or not, but one less bee in her bonnet was okay by her.

Mo‘tak was still on her left, however. Guul had broken formation as well and had chosen a longer path, but one less constricted with debris. She could see his little red blip on her radar, and several others training in on him from all angles. He was in deep shit, she knew, if any of those other racers worked in silent unison to push him off course. His modified Hornet would have trouble with excessive obstacles, but then that’s why he took the longer route. He was no idiot.

Mo‘tak turned his 350r sharply and shot above her. Images of Remisk’s scorching exhaust flooded her mind, but this time, she ignored her impulse and kept course.

Speed is life.

A Banu racer in their heavily upgraded Avenger slipped in alongside her. There were a few Banu in the race, and Darring could not remember the name of this one, but she remembered the distinct green-and-black striped hull. They tried forcing her into the craterous side of the asteroid ahead of them. Darring took her thumb off the thrust, acting as if she were going to slow and allow the Banu to take position, but at the last moment, she gunned her thrusters, shifted sharply up so that the belly of her M50 skimmed mere inches from the crater floor, kicking up dust from its ejecta blanket, and blowing it back into the cockpit of the Avenger on her tail. The Banu had to turn sharply to the left, giving advantage once again to Darring.

I can play dirty too!

Darring laughed into the ear of her crew chief who was warning her to take it slow and not risk getting her hydrogen scoops clogged. He was worried about her engine, which had been refitted after its overexertion around Green. There was still so much race left, and he was especially concerned with Ellis IX, the gas giant that would place serious pressure on her hull. He didn’t want her engine to go down a second time as well. But she was enjoying herself. She was enjoying the Sorrow Sea, the Boneyard, in all its wondrous danger.

Only Mo‘tak annoyed her now. The rest of her competition had fallen behind or had taken different routes. The route ahead of her was still tricky, but it was hers. She commanded it now, and she leaned back in her restraints and let her engine run.

And now Mo‘tak fell back, and his blip on her radar stopped flashing red in danger. She was free, and the finish line was close.

A warning light suddenly flashed on her cooling monitors. She looked down and saw that her engine’s heat dissipation had fallen sharply. She pressed controls, tapped panels, and now other warning lights were flashing.

Something was wrong with her fuel. It was rising in temperature, too fast, too hot, and the cooling system could not dissipate the excess heat fast enough. It was burning her engine, and her hull shifted and sputtered, pressing her forward against her restraints.

She tapped her comm link. “Something’s wrong here! Engine reaching critical heat.”

“Check your heat release override valve on the —”

She tried doing as her crew chief advised, but before she could move her arm, fire exploded into her cockpit, engulfing her torso and helmet. She panicked, trying to pat the fire out with her gloves, but that did nothing. The flames grew larger and larger, working their way under her jumpsuit, piercing the protective lining at her neck, and burning her face and shoulders.

“Power plant breach imminent!” screamed the safety system in her ear. “Power plant breach imminent!”

Through searing pain, Hypatia Darring reached beneath her cockpit seat, tapped the eject pad, and blew her cockpit enclosure into space. Thrusters beneath her seat erupted, and she tumbled after the cockpit, still strapped into her chair, gasping for air.

Five seconds later, before she lost consciousness, Darring watched her M50 explode into a thousand pieces.


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      “Dell. Ah, hell . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
      “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been over and over them already. Really, I don’t mind.”
      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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