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Game Armada The Cup: Part Three

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Writer’s Note: Part three of The Cup was published originally in Jump Point 1.10. Before reading the final chapter, check out Part One and Part Two.

Recovering from her disappointing start in the Cup series, Darring has worked her way back to the front of the pack. She is on her way to victory in the Sorrow Sea — the Boneyard — when her ship explosively overheats . . .

Darring awoke in a quiet, sanitized room of white walls and beeping monitors. She lay in a medbay tub containing a pale, viscous gel. There were monitoring nodes on her neck and chest. She lifted her arm out of the fluid and tried sitting up. A strong hand kept her from doing so.

“Not yet,” the voice said. “Not until the doctor says it’s okay.”

She laid her head back against the tub wall and blinked repeatedly until the figure above her came into focus. “Zogat,” she said, her voice cracking, her throat dry and pasty. “Where — where —”

“Carrier infirmary,” he said, “in orbit above Ellis VIII.”

She tried sitting up again and felt a deep pain in her shoulder as she moved her arms. She reached across her chest and felt a layer of burnt skin, soft and supple due to the fluid, but still present. Terrifying memories flooded back. “My ship?”

Guul nodded. “Unsalvageable. It’s now a part of the Sorrow Sea.”

Darring massaged her sore shoulder. “What happened?”

“They do not know for certain. But your ship went through a rapid temperature increase that ignited the power plant. It’s a wonder it didn’t explode while you were still strapped in.”

“Do they know what caused it?”

“They couldn’t recover enough of the fuselage and its monitoring equipment to know the exact cause. But . . .” He paused, letting the word linger there in the space between them. “Remisk has confessed.”


“He’s confessed to it. Went mad, in fact, attacked a reporter, nearly ripped off her face. He says he put some kind of capsule into your tank; or rather, hired someone on your crew to do it, which, by the way, has been scrubbed. He even confessed to sending those thugs against us.”

She nodded, feeling a moment of relief. “Then Mo‘tak is finished as well.”

Guul cast his eyes down. He shook his head. “No, Hypatia. Mo‘tak has confessed nothing, nor has Remisk implicated anyone else. He’s gone catatonic, can’t speak, can’t move. He’s on something, but it can’t be detected. They fear he’ll die before he’s interrogated. He’s out, but Mo‘tak is still in and has condemned Remisk publicly in the most powerful words. The race has been suspended for a few days so that all remaining crews can conduct a mandatory check of their ships. Then it will resume.” He shook his head. “There are three things certain in the galaxy, as you Humans might say: Death, taxes and the MCR. The race will go on.”

Darring closed her eyes and laid her head back once again. She fought tears. “Yes, but it’s over for me.”

A pause, then, “Not yet.”

She tried asking how, but on cue, the room door opened and in walked Mo‘tak, straight and proud, wearing a fresh jumpsuit of gold and purple. Three reporters followed in his wake, one with a camera. He pulled his mouth back and said in a sincere voice, “Ah, I am so glad to see you awake. You had us all worried.”

I bet. She wanted to say those very words, but the strong pressure that Guul placed on her arm with his hand recommended otherwise. She forced her anger down and tried to smile. “It seems as if the Fates are on my side.”

Mo‘tak nodded. “Indeed. And it would also seem that Lady Luck has granted you favor as well. With my gift, you can now return to the race.”

“What gift?”

Mo‘tak seemed surprised, “Your friend hasn’t told you?”

“I was just about to,” Guul said.

“Well, then let me say it proudly for all to hear.” Mo‘tak adjusted his position among the reporters, giving them time to ready.

The Xi’an cleared his throat. “I and the Xu.oa family corporation want to again strenuously condemn Ykonde Remisk’s actions. His cowardly assaults are inconsistent with what I and the MCR are all about. The integrity of the race must be maintained. Thus, as a gesture of good will and healthy competition, I have donated my personal M50 so that Hypatia Darring can return to the race.”

It took a moment for the announcement to register in her mind. To help drive the point home, a vid screen activated to reveal a clean, gold-and-purple trimmed M50. It was brilliant, beautiful. Darring loved it, but worried about Mo‘tak’s motivation.

“No way,” she barked, pulling herself up in the tub. “I’m not putting one toe into that —”

Guul applied pressure to her arm once again. “What Ms. Darring is saying is that she would be honored to accept your gift and looks forward to further competition in the days ahead.”

“Hey,” she said, pulling her arm away. “Don’t answer for me. I’m not a child, dammit!”

“Well, let’s leave Ms. Darring and Mr. Guul alone,” Mo‘tak said. “Clearly, they have much to discuss.” He leaned over Darring’s tub and stared into her eyes, his mouth inches from her face. “I’m so glad to see you well. Please do accept my offer. It would be a shame to lose one with so much talent.”

They scurried out, but left the image of the M50 on the vid screen. When the door closed, she rounded on Guul. “You don’t answer for me.”

Guul shook his head. “If you refuse this offer from Mo‘tak, he will have won thrice: by getting rid of Remisk, by getting rid of you, and by further damaging your reputation. Racing is as much about your public image as it is about skill. You already have a bad reputation. Don’t damage it further by being ungracious.”

“But it’s his ship!” she said, pointing to the vid screen. “He’s done something to it, I’m sure.”

Guul shook his head. “No, he’s not that stupid. There’s too much light on the competition now, too much that’s transpired. He can’t afford to offer this gift and then sabotage it. He’s done all he can do. It’s a matter of who’s the best now. There’s plenty of racing left, Hypatia. Go out there and prove to everyone, prove to Mo‘tak, that you will not be stopped, that you are the best.”

Despite the logic in his words, Darring wanted to refuse Mo‘tak’s gift. On the other hand, to beat Mo‘tak with his own ship would be so lovely. But it wasn’t just a matter of getting up and strapping into the cockpit. Every M50 had its own quirks, its own personality. There were always balancing issues, thrust issues, drift issues that needed to be identified and learned. The cockpit displays would need to be configured to her own preferences, which would take time to sort out. And it could take weeks for her to get comfortable on the stick and throttle. She had maybe 48 hours to make it all work. Her burns were healing in this goo around her, but her flesh was tight and still stung beneath her movements. Mo‘tak was setting her up to fail. He didn’t need to sabotage the ship, she realized. Her current condition was enough to slow her down.

And now Guul was taking advantage of their new friendship. He had no right to interrupt her and speak for her publicly. Guul may admire me, she thought as she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the tub. Now, he needs to respect me.

“Okay, Zogat,” she said, looking around for a towel. “You win. I’ll accept his offer. I’ll show him I’m the best, but more importantly . . . I’ll show you.”

* * *

Hello again, and welcome to another GSN Spectrum broadcast of the Murray Cup Race. After the tragedy rising from the Sorrow Sea, Darring’s near death experience, and Remisk’s shocking confession, the competition has gotten back on track and has settled into a sweet groove. From the midway checkpoint and out all the way to Ellis XII, the top racers have pushed their craft to the limit. Hypatia Darring has come back with a vengeance, accepting Mo‘tak’s M50 and taking two of the last three stages through the asteroid belt and back to the final checkpoint at Ellis VIII. The competition around Ellis IX, in particular, proved raucous, as Darring slowed to allow Mo‘tak to gain the lead while dogging Guul’s Hornet, forcing him to flirt with the Eye’s crushing tidal forces. No love was lost between those two during the following press conference. But now the Tevarin veteran has surprised everyone once again by taking the final obstacle course in the outer asteroid belt, showing a refinement that proves he will go down in history as one of the finest pilots ever to race The Cup. Now, the competition enters its final leg with only 65 racers remaining, and the top three positions held by Mo‘tak, Darring and Guul. Can these three power-houses hold out, or will someone else fly past and beat them all?

The final leg awaits. Let’s kick it back to Mike Crenshaw who’s in the thick of it. What’s the mood on the carrier, Mike?

* * *


That’s what Darring was. Just a raw nerve, always ready to spark if given a chance. Guul had hoped to share with her a little of his experience, teach her some wisdom, in a sport just as rough on the spirit as it was on the body and mind. And perhaps she had learned a little.

She was racing better, maneuvering better, taking to heart his philosophy . . . speed is life. But looking across the carrier bay floor at her as she ran a cloth across the belly of her borrowed M50, Zogat Guul could not tell if Darring’s improvement was motivated by skill or anger. Did it really matter? In the end, if she blew across the finish line in first place, it would all boil down to victory. And that was the ultimate goal of everyone in the race. Go home a winner . . . or just go home.

“Hypatia Darring has it out for you, doesn’t she?”

Crenshaw’s face was all perky as if he had just said something infinitely clever and devious.

Guul did not take the bait. “She is a tough competitor. Like a Tevarin, she shows her enemy no mercy.”

“But she held back around The Eye just to force you to lose. That’s the move of someone bearing a grudge. What did you do?”

What indeed. Perhaps he had come on too strong. Was it when he interrupted her and spoke for her publicly at the hospital? She would not say when he asked; instead, she would change the subject or walk away. But direct action, direct speech was his way. Surely she realized he was right. She had to compete. She had to accept Mo‘tak’s offer and finish the race. Not just for herself, but for the honor of her family. Surely she did not blame him for pointing that out.

“Scurry away, bug.”

Mo‘tak appeared, alone this time, and flicked his fingers at Crenshaw as if he were swatting a fly. “The Tevarin warrior will not condescend to answer such a silly question. Shoo! Go bother someone else.”

Crenshaw pulled a rueful face but retreated nonetheless.

When he was gone, Mo‘tak closed on Guul and offered his hand. “Good luck,” he said.

“You want to break my hand like you tried to break Hypatia’s?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, my friend. I merely want to wish you a safe final course. This is your last, isn’t it?”

Guul nodded. “Perhaps.”

“And you are braced to win it all and be remembered as the greatest racer in the history of the sport. For that, I wish you good luck.”

Guul took the handshake reluctantly. Mo‘tak’s fingers were firm but not vise-like. He moved until he was beside the Tevarin. Mo‘tak placed his free hand on Guul’s back.

“Look at it all one last time, Zogat. All of it. The bay, the racers, the media, the hustle and bustle of the crews. You will miss it. But I think you will miss that young lady right there most of all.”

Before Guul had a chance to speak, Mo‘tak pushed his hand hard against the Tevarin’s neck.

Guul felt a slight pinch and jerked away. A warm flush spread across his skin. “What did you do?”

Mo‘tak maintained his composure and kept looking forward as if they were having a pleasant conversation. “To win against racers as skilled as yourself and Darring will be quite the honor,” he said, as the media crowded around once more. “Good luck out there, old friend.”

Guul rubbed his neck. The Xi’an had done something to him, but Mo’tak had again done his scheming in such a way that left very little evidence. Perhaps if Guul called the MCR authorities over now, they could find something, but more likely his accusations would prove to be unfounded. He looked out at everyone suiting up, strapping in, readying for the final course. He could choose not to race. If Mo’tak had drugged him as he suspected, then it would be quite dangerous to climb into his cockpit. But he quickly shoved the thought aside. He couldn’t get out now, not when the end was so close. It wasn’t in him. He had to take his own advice. He had to finish the race.

He looked across the bay floor, toward Darring. She was putting on her helmet, getting ready to climb into her cockpit. He tried catching her attention with a wave. She did not see him, or she was ignoring him. Whatever the reason, he was grateful that he had had an opportunity in the twilight of his career to race against such a warrior, such a competitor as she.

Speed is life, he thought as he put on his helmet with shaking hands. But as always, speed also might mean death.

* * *

Guul was just ahead of her, Mo‘tak at her six. She was perfectly placed to take advantage of the Tevarin’s erratic behavior. He had been speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, as if unsure what to do. Or perhaps he was playing with her, working to sap her resolve, force her to slow down and deal with his uncharacteristic movements, thus giving the lead away to Mo‘tak. But that was silly. Guul did not want the ruthless Xi’an to win any more than she did. So, what was his game?

They raced in high orbit above Ellis VIII. The final stretch was a long, loping crazy-eight of rings that flashed brilliant reds and greens and whites, keeping a tempo with the natural flow of the racers as they shot past one another near the intersect. It was a dangerous place, for racers coming out of those rings could slam into one another and ricochet into space. Even if your ship survived, the time it would take to recover from such a collision would be race-ending.

Two orbital grandstands just outside the course held spectators and prominent dignitaries that had come out to see and share in the glory of the winner. The MCR allowed the energy and excitement of the crowds to be broadcast into the cockpits of each racer as GSN announcers gave the minute-by-minute account of the final laps. Some racers thrived on the energy of the crowds. Some reveled in the noise. Darring muted it all, preferring instead to concentrate on the racers around her.

She maneuvered her M50 to the right of Guul, taking advantage of the loop. He swung his Hornet out a touch too far, and she slipped right in beside him. His wing grazed the invisible walls of the ring course, letting the tip of it cut through the barrier like a shark’s fin cresting a wave. He’d lose time for that, but he didn’t seem to care, keeping his craft pressed against the loop to ride it all the way around. He’s getting old, she thought, letting a smile slip across her lips. Can’t handle the rigors of such a sharp turn anymore. Then she thought better of gloating. She wanted to beat him, to make him see her as a racer, an equal, not as a puppy dog to counsel. But she didn’t want him to leave the race. There was still plenty of track left, plenty of twists and turns, and Mo‘tak was right on them.

The Xi’an thrust his 350r down to run right below her belly, preventing an interloper behind him in a souped-up Avenger from making a move. Darring banked to the right and felt the tug of strong G’s despite being held tightly in the chair. Her skin had healed well and there was a little pain in her shoulders, but such a move reminded her of the frailty of flesh and her own mortality. Bank too strongly, and you could pass out.

“You’re not winning this one, Mo‘tak,” she said into her comm. Only her crew chief could hear it, but he shared her sentiment. He gave her directions which she accepted and moved her craft to the left as they cleared the loop and headed for the final intersect.

Guul came up to her side again, but he was still moving oddly, letting his wings wobble on the rebalance. She shook her head and focused on Mo‘tak, who had gunned his engine, showing significant burn out of his exhaust nozzles. He wouldn’t dare cross her cockpit now, not with the MCR looking on so intently. In fact, Mo‘tak had acted reasonably well since his vanity display at the hospital. He’d let his racing skills speak for themselves. So perhaps he wasn’t such a rotten son-of-a bitch after all. But she wouldn’t be keeping his gift after the race.

Red blips danced on her radar, showing hazards as she crossed the intersect.

She drifted up in the lane, taking the traditional approach for a right-side cross. Mo‘tak followed, but Guul struggled to drift up, taking too long, letting his craft fall behind once more. She fought the urge to link into his comm. Mo‘tak tried to force her down. She gripped her stick and moved with him, not letting him gain advantage. The blips on the screen grew brighter. She keyed her focus, thrust her M50 forward and sailed into the intersect.

Lagging ships flew past her at the right angle, trying desperately to keep up with the pack. One nearly clipped her wing. She banked left just in time. She tried finding Guul and Mo‘tak in the flurry of crimson blips on her screen. It was impossible. She banked left, right, left again, swirling through screaming racers.

Darring flew out of the intersect, righted her ship once more, and prepared for the final run. She checked her radar. The madness there settled to show those that had gotten through and were in pursuit. Damn! Mo‘tak settled again beside her, and Guul was not far behind, though struggling still. Why can’t I shake these bastards?

Finally, Guul made the move she was expecting. The Tevarin thrust his Hornet forward, clipping between her and Mo‘tak at such velocity that he was nothing but a blur. Her heart raced alongside him. She gunned her engine, falling just behind him, watching as the blips on her radar were replaced by the long green pulsing line of the final straightaway. She could hardly contain her excitement. She, Hypatia Darring, in second place on the final lap around Ellis VIII. The perfect position to make a final move and win it all. And there was Zogat Guul, the master, egging her on, forcing her to put away her silly feud and chase him, chase him for glory, for fame, for personal fulfillment. A laugh of pure joy escape her lips.

Speed is life.

They hit the final stretch together. One full lap around rocky Ellis VIII. Full bore speed. There was nothing like it in the galaxy. She could not contain her excitement. She screamed into her comm. Mo‘tak tried to muscle his way into her space. She refused him. He tried again. She pushed her M50 even faster, keeping pace with Guul, letting the green lights of the radar draw her forward.

Guul slowed, fell alongside her, slowed again, letting her take the lead. Bullshit, she thought, frustration growing as she punched a panel and said to him, “What the hell are you doing?”

She was greeted with coughing, spitting and moans. Something was terribly wrong. “I’m glad to speak to you once more, Hypatia.”

“Do you remember what you told me? What you made me promise? If I were in a position to win, I’d win. And now here you are, about to win, and you’re falling back. Explain.”

Guul coughed. It sounded thick, bloody. “It isn’t important that I win, Hypatia. I’ve won enough in my life. It’s time for others to shine. It’s time for you to shine. Now, go beat him. And remember what I told you.”

He cut their link. Darring shouted, but he was gone. Guul fell back, and back, until she could not see him anymore.

Mo‘tak pounced and took the lead. Shit! She gunned it, moved down in the lane, set her craft just below Mo‘tak’s. The sleek, long body of his 350r shadowing her smaller M50. There was no doubt his craft had the endurance; in a rough and tumble, he’d prevail. She had to get out from his shadow, his influence. The only way to do that . . .

She tried pushing her plant, thumbed the throttle hard, but it did not register. She tried again. Her dashboard controls blinked, once, twice, then resettled with different settings, measurements, displays. What the

“How’s my ship?”

Darring’s heart sank. “Mo‘tak!”

“It is indeed,” he said, his voice fuzzy over the comm, “and now that I have your undivided attention, I will reclaim what is mine.”

Nothing she did registered. She tapped panels, flicked switches, tried raising an MCR official over the comm. Everything was null, but her ship responded quickly to Mo‘tak’s remote commands. He banked to the left; she did the same. He banked right, she followed. The Xi’an finally settled his 350r beside her, waved smugly at her through his cockpit window, commanded her ship to move slightly ahead, then said, “I’ll let you take the lead for a little while, my dear, then I’ll dramatically pull forward at the last minute, flying on to victory, while you spiral out of control, hitting the royal grandstand and killing dozens. You’ll be remembered as the Butcher of Ellis.”

She pushed and prodded at the stick, banged at the dashboard. She even struck the eject controls. Nothing. “I’ll kill you first, you sorry son of a bitch.”

“And how will you do that, my dear? You have no control over anything . . . and your Tevarin is gone.”

As if on cue, a bright streak soared past them both, a flush of red and gold nozzle fire. It was burning, its power plant pushed beyond integrity. Darring squinted to see who it was. She recognized the blue Tevarin lettering on the hull.


His Hornet barreled ahead, all flame and fury. Darring could hear Mo‘tak curse beneath his breath. She tried again to take control of her stick. Nothing. She tried calling out to Guul, but all she could hear was Mo‘tak’s agitated mumblings as he commanded her ship to move up and ahead of him. Darring watched intently as Guul flipped his burning craft around, shifted it to align perfectly with her own, and headed straight for her.

Her comm crackled with another voice. “Move!” it said, ragged, faint. “Dive! Dive!”

“I can’t!” she screamed back, but there was no response. Only Mo‘tak’s maddening cackle could be heard. “Say to him whatever you wish. He cannot hear you.”

Guul banked left. Darring’s ship moved to shadow the Hornet. He banked right; she banked in kind. Guul’s weakening voice continued pleading for her to get out of the way. Tears streamed down her face; her voice broke from exertion. Mo‘tak laughed and laughed.

Her ship spun like a cork-screw on its long axis. She closed her eyes, waited for impact, whispering softly to Guul, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”

Then she remembered.

Beneath the dashboard of every M50 lay a panel, and inside it, a power cut-off valve independent of the main electrical and command systems. Could Mo‘tak have forgotten it? He might have, so foolishly overconfident in his scheming and backstabbing, and spending too much time in his 350r to remember all the systems of his secondary ship. But it might be: A mistake . . . finally.

Through the dizzying haze of her spinning, she reached beneath the dash, found the panel with shaking fingers, ripped it open, and pulled the valve.

You lose, Mo‘tak!

The power plant died, and with that sudden lack of propulsion her ship spun to port. Zogat Guul slipped right past her, hitting Mo‘tak’s ship square in the front, exploding on impact, and sending their shattered, burning hulls into the void.

The cockpit came alive, her stick again responsive. She pulled her ship out of spin, reignited the plant, and blew across the finish line ahead of all others.

Her pit crew went wild, matching her own screaming, but for different reasons. They were joyous, elated, happy that their racer — the youngest Human to ever win the MCR — had just done so, and in a blaze of glory. They were happy, and they deserved to be.

She was not. Oh, she was happy to have won, to have taken the Cup, to have proven to her father that her choice in career was not foolish. She laid her head back into her chair and cried. Cried joyous tears for Guul. She understood fully now his words, echoing loudly in her mind. Speed is life, and there was no life without speed. She understood that now.

The Cup was just one race in a thousand that lay ahead of her, and there would be no true happiness until she had raced them all and chased down that beast that lay in front of her, that lay in front of all racers. In his fiery death, Zogat Guul had finally caught the beast. Now, it was her turn to chase it, and she would do so for him, for Guul . . . forever.

Beyond the finish line, beyond the grandstands, beyond the accolades and cheering fans, Hypatia Darring gunned her power plant and kept racing.


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      Dell turned into him and squeezed. “Be careful.”
      “I will, babe.”
      “You come home to me, Gavin Rhedd. I’ll kill you myself if you make me run this outfit on my own.”
      He pressed his lips to the top of her head. Held them there.
      “Wait. What?” Walt’s jaw was slack, his eyes wide. “Tell me you aren’t going back out there.”
      Jazza bumped Walt with her shoulder, not so much walking past him as through him. “Damn right we are, Quitter.”
      “You know what? Screw you, Jazz. All right? You used to quit this outfit, like . . . twice a month.”
      “Not like you. Not like some chicken sh—”
      “Jazz,” Gavin said, “go make sure the team is ready to roll, would ya?” With a nod to Gavin and a parting glare at Walt, she moved away into the hangar.
      “Let it be, Walt. We really do need to go. After last time, we can’t risk being late for the pickup.”
      “Screw late!” Walt’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed around the edges. “Why the happy hells are you going at all?”
      “Walt —”
      “Don’t ‘Walt’ me, Gavin. There is a pack of psychopaths out there trying to kill you!”
      “Walt, would you shut up and listen for two seconds? We don’t have a choice, okay? We’ve got everything riding on this job. We’re months behind on this place and extended up to our necks on credit for fuel, parts, and ammo.”
      “They can damn well bill me!”
      “No,” Gavin said, “they can’t. Your shares reverted back to the company when you quit. But I’m legit now. You think we lived life on the run before? Just you watch if I try to run from this.”
      Walt turned to Dell for assistance, “Dell, come on. You gotta make him listen to reason.”
      “Boomer’s shares transferred to me when he died,” Dell said. “We’re in this together.”
      “Okay, boss,” Jazza called. The three of them looked to where she stood with a line of determined crew. “It’s time.”
      Walt watched the big bay doors close as the last of Gavin’s team left the hangar. His fighter and the few remaining ships looked small and awkwardly out of place in the big room. Standing alone next to Dell gave him a great appreci­ation for that awkwardness.
      “I’m so sorry, Dell. If I’d been there —”
      “Don’t,” she stopped him with a word, and then contin­ued with a shake of her blue-tipped hair. “Don’t do that to yourself. I’ve been over the tactical logs. He got beat one-on-one, and then they OK’d him. There was nothing you could have done.”
      “I still feel rotten,” he said. “Like, maybe if I hadn’t left . . . I don’t know.”
      “Gavin blames himself, too. That’s just the way you two are built. But believe me, there was never a soul alive able to keep my dad out of the cockpit. He was flying long before you Rhedd boys tumbled into our lives.”
      That gave him a smile. A genuine smile. It seemed to bright­en Dell’s mood, so he did his best to hang onto it.
      “Come on,” she said. “It’s been a long couple of weeks. Join me for some coffee?”
      He did, and for a time they spoke softly at the tall tables in the hangar’s kitchenette. Dell caught him up on life aboard Vista Landing since he had left. She was clearly exhausted and not simply from a sleepless night and her father’s funeral. Her shoulders sagged, and dark circles under her eyes were the product of weeks of labor and worry. The constant apprehension of the Hornets’ vi­cious attacks had apparently exhausted more than just the pilots. It seemed odd that the attacks felt strangely personal.
      “You know what I can’t figure out?” he mused aloud. Dell looked at him, tired eyes politely expectant. “What the hell are these guys after?”
      She nodded, “Yeah. There’s been a lot of speculating on that question.”
      “Hard to say, isn’t it? Could be political wackos opposed to the research in Haven. Or maybe it’s one of the old gangs that don’t like us going legit. Could be it’s a group of Tevarin lashing out against UEE targets. Who knows?”
      “Naw. If they were Tevarin, we could tell by how they fly.”
      “Then you tell me, if you’re so smart. I mean, you were out there. You fought them.”
      Walt shrugged and took a sip of cooling coffee. Something she said nagged at him. “Hey, you said you had navsat tac­tical logs from the fight, right?”
      “Yeah.” What remained of her energy seemed to drain away with that one word. Walt cursed himself for the insensitive ass that he was. He’d just asked her about re­corded replays of her father’s murder.
      “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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