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Game Armada The Knowledge of Good and Evil: Part Two

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Writer’s Note: The Knowledge of Good and Evil: Part Two was published originally in Jump Point 2.10. You can read Part One here.

“I know right. Debt ‘s debt.” Eve’ rat know that.

She stop cold. “You think that you are incurring a debt by staying here?”

“Ain’ I? Wha’ I’m suppose think? An I see one an’ ‘m null gon’ jus’ be here an’ . . . null tha’ . . . I won’ be your slave!” Start lookin for way out tha hall ta secure.

I stop cause Mom Super raise her hand. Slow like. Like she do ta quiet tha meal hall ‘fore meal. Hadn’ expected her ta be calm like tha’.

“If I gave a way to repay your debt, would you stay?”

Mom Super got wha’ she talk. Work got, ‘nough ta pay debt. Off some, an’ diff from Bazaar, lock tha’. Bes’ deal ‘m got ta stay with tha Sisters. Rules some, bu’ null like Blues or Bazaar Bosses got. ‘bout now ‘m start figure tha Sisters weren’ part tha Gov. If they’s Gov them give H-kit, like tha Gov.

Problem that. Big got problem when rat got no Hygiene. H-kit got thing like razor. Razor ta shave my head with. Razor I need an don’ have. Head gone ta fuzz a’ready. Tha’ mean ‘lot on streets. Mean rat got i’ in ‘em to go ‘gainst rhyme an’ honor. Mean might give up on tryin’. Creepers and slavers watch ta pounce on fuzz heads.

Walk out tha room an’ rage some ta Mom Super ta get razor. Mom Super ‘most yelled back. ‘fore ran off back ta my room.

‘magined her comin’ through tha door an chokin’ me. I seen creeper do tha’ once.

Mom Super got ask me straight later, “What would you do with a razor young one? Why do you need it so?”

Sisters an’ Mom Super don’ have null clue. I’m hoarse from yelling an wound tight. A’most missed tha ask.

“Wha’ ’m do?! Shave my damn head! Wha’ tha hell else Craz Oldie? Wha’ else i’ good for do with? You know how tha creepers like ‘em?”

“Your hair is a danger to you?” Mom Super ask.

“Hair too long an’ you be gone. Don’ sleep flat for creeps ta get at. Eat food paste or you waste. Know tha rhymes live long times. Stick ta’gether in bad weather. Hoardin’ creds will get you dead.”

Mom Super look ‘round at tha other three Sisters in tha door ta my room. One them reach in bag an’ pull out one sealed H-kit like tha kind I got from tha dispenser once month. Mom Super take i’ an’ hold i’ out ta me.

Snatch i’ null lookin’ at her an’ I head ta corner tha room an’ reflec on tha wall. Big reflec but I don’ need much an sit on floor. Back ta tha door but can see ‘em in the reflec. Them watchin’ as shave tha head fuzz quick like rats got do. Sisters standin’ in tha door outbound one-an-one til only Mom Super left.

“It’s a sad thing to see.” Mom Super say soft. “Red hair is very rare.”

Finish las’ pull move a’fore her sayin’ sunk in.

Turn an’ look at her. “Is?”

“Yes. Very.”

I don’ know, but tha’ look Mom Super got shake me cold for days.

* * *

Interestin’ now tha’ some Sisters would come an’ ask me if could fix some for ‘em. Each nex’ got harder thin’ ta fix. Sometime it some basic an’ big. Sometime it some complex an’ small. Air mover ta some bedrooms stopped. Solenoid switch on machine gone bad. Malfunct ligh’ in tha hallway. Sometimes, mobiGlas like tha kind spacer use. Other time some buggy engine. Eve’ time it got be some’ I neve’ seen or neve’ fix b‘fore. I think ta ‘self tha’ Sisters didn’ know tha’. ‘m learn them tech an’ gear while ‘m work.

Still ain’ got lock on angle Sister play ta. Got think ‘bout Bosses or creepers or slavers workin’ on some rat like. ‘magination come up with like wha’ ‘m hear on street ‘round Bazaar. Ain’ EZ ta stay smart ‘nough ta null trus’ thin’ tha’ sound like street gossip. Eve comin’ from me.

Got parts an’ gear ta fix for days when Mom Super show up a’ my shop.

“Follow me.” She say. Turnin’ she lead me down tha hall an’ back ta main floor and started headin’ ta big door ‘m null got through yet. “Your choice to remain here is a bold one, and you have proven good on your word and not tried to leave again. I believe we should make a gesture of good faith in return.”

Reached tha door. Aft’ she look ove’ her shoulder a’ me she press hand ta tha door release. Pressure seal door slide back an out. Sisters coat norm block view ‘fore I got glint. This time Mom Super step back an’ ‘most push me in.

Light ‘m step into blind me some.

Null tha’ bright jus’ more ligh’ than tha hallway. ‘m look a tha floor. Dark metal like tha hall but cleaner. Null dus’. None jus’ cleaner eve’ thin’ clean. New? ‘bout when ‘m think tha’ my eyes a’just ta light an’ ‘m look up.

‘m couldn’ breath.

Three high a stack rows tall. Leas’ ten meters. Rows wide an’ so long can’ see ’tha end from tha door. Them got books like ‘m in pics. Neve’ see real ‘fore. Oldie info that. VID term, an’ storage media a more types than ‘m know. Figures how some Sisters spend days in here.

Jump some when Mom Super say some an’ break tha quiet.

“You can come in here at any time you’d like, young one. This Library is our most holy place, but the freedom to access knowledge is equally sacred to us. We have been remiss to keep this from you. We have all sorts of information here. What is kept in the Holy Vault is only for members of the Order under seal of the confessional, but all else is yours to explore. The door will now open for you and the Sisters are always willing to help if you need anything.”

“Won’ do much good ta me lady. Can’ read none.”

How come eve’ time Mom Super smile ta me like that an’ I say some she got cry?

She daz like got hit hard, “That’s . . . I had assumed . . . with your skills, I mean. We will have to . . . um . . . How foolish of me.”

Mom Super stared me like. Like ‘m ghos’ or some. She drop her head an’ say some ‘m null hear. When she look ta me ‘gain got look like she ragin’ ‘hind her eyes. Lady move from tha door an’ point ta hallway. She lead though ‘m couldn’ tell where we goin’.

Thought I know tha whole Hall by now bu’ Mom Super stop fron’ door I neve’ been ta. She open i’ an’ make like ‘m suppose ta go in. Small. Got desk an’ VID screen on tha wall. Maybe half size my room.

Mom Super walk ta screen an’ press button ‘n tha side. Flash an’ then i’ come on. Aft’ few boot screens, comp vid Human walk from tha side like ‘em come in ta room like real person do. Got see move top tha screen. Cam doin’ sweep tha place. Done lock on us.

“I’ve brought you a new student.” Mom Super say. ‘most hide her anger.

“Wha’ Lady got ta be rage ‘bout?” ‘m think. “Tha’ her didn’ know ‘m null read?”

Vid screen Lady star’ gabbin’, “A student. One to be taught. Very good. Where shall I begin?”

“The beginning.” Mom Super say.

“Well and good. And you are the pupil?”

Cam move jus’ ‘nough ta know lock on jus’ me now.

‘m look ta Mom Super an’ she jus’ lookin back ta me. Wet eyes some. Figure tha’ ‘m got ta answer.

‘m mos’ cold ta bone. School dead danger ta street rat. Gov Schools free bu’ you spend any ticks there an’ wouldn’ make ‘nough. Some rats starve cause ‘em null make deals.

Know ‘nough ta got numbers. Know ‘nough ta speak straight an’ crook. Know ‘nough ta fix gear. School learned? Like Up folk? Like my cot?

“Sure.” All ‘m think ta say.

Screen prog stat gab ‘gain, “Please sit student, we are about to begin.”

“The program will teach you if you choose to learn from it. It can go as fast or slow as you need. You may consider this part of your work for us as well.”

Tha’ las’ from Mom Super an’ she outbound.

Wha’ got Mom Super raged? An’ ‘m got ta listen ta comp prog? Hell. Teach prog got ta work righ’ then. Null got time ta think ‘bout danger a learnin’ too much. ‘m got new work from tha lady. I neve’ work like this in my life.

* * *

Found new kind of hunger in tha’ room. Sit in tha’ classroom for long stretches. Only leave ta eat or relieve myself. I spend hours more a day there than had ta.

I realize I been starved for information when I’m given more than I can handle but not as much as I want. I’m addict ta it and the drug is free. Learning is no debt. Maybe that why the bosses on the street don’t want rats ta get it. Teach program pushes me hard. It keep lessons comin’ as fast as I complete ‘em.

“High Impact Learning” what teach prog call it. Cumulative points, none percentages. Almost neve’ have to hear lectures. Everything a conversation.

English, Grammar, Ancient Earth History, Math, Biology, Psychology, Sex Ed, Mechanics, Social Studies, Interstellar Commerce, and Physical Activities all covered. Standard Ed for UEE. Even know what the UEE is now.

80 to 90 hours a week I work on my school. Would spend more if I didn’t need to eat an’ sleep so much. An’ Sisters still wan’ me ta fix gear. Got hard time ‘tween fix gear like ‘m good at an’ wan’ ta learn book work. Book work start ta win that. I write essays, I listen ta books, I track my health for PE. I even start going back into the library to read books for school.

So much time passes without my realizing.

Got back to the room one night and see myself in the mirror. I stare into it for almost an hour. I been missing the inches I’m growing up and hair I’m growing out. Shit.

It makes the girl looking back at me in the mirror even look like a girl. She looks like me, except with hair and tits. At first I’m scared to notice.

Tits are still small enough they’ll be easy to hide, but I have hair. Does hair mean what the street says it means? Hell, if I can keep street learning from mixing with book learning now. The impulse to shave it off in haste and fear grips me hard. I almost do it. Almost.

Instead, I dare myself to leave it. That seems to work. I dig through my hygiene kit for the comb I never use. I watch fixated as I pull the comb through my hair and feel the tug against my scalp. I’ve been moving it out of my eyes for how long? Crap. I null know. Been dealing with it but always absentmindedly. Never looking in the mirror. I look in the H-kit again and see the razor. Still in its wrapping. Back in the mirror I catch someone that looks like I’m supposed to but different. She has red hair. Touching it is like touching danger itself. It’s part of me. Maybe it’s a warning to the world that I’m more dangerous now.

I fall asleep to the feeling of hair on my neck. It’s warm. They never tell you about that part on the street. They don’t tell you a lot.

Education Levels pass by. I start out at level 3. Don’t even count the months. Day comes, night comes. Frustration and anger. Success and wonder. Don’t care much about how long it takes, the information is what matters. By the time I get to level 10 work, I’m doing the good stuff like tech.

Days do get long though. The Sisters spend most of their time in the Library. If too many of them are in the Library at one time the halls start to feel dead. That pulls me there. The library is the only place in the Hall that feels alive sometimes. Once I started to read some, I started going there and found that books can be alive all on their own. Sometimes the books even have people in them. Some alive. Some dead. Some real, others not. I get to watch those characters live, play, fight and win. The second time I close a book hiding tears, Mom Super catches me.

“You should take a break from the tragedies for a while I think, young one. You might try these for a spell,” she said leading me to a bookcase I hadn’t randomly selected for raiding yet. “They are not as intense but may be to your interests.”

She may be strange sometimes, but she can read me easy enough.

I look on the shelf she’s led me to and only see some old storage drives. They look ancient. “I don’t want to break them.”

“You won’t, dear, they are quite sturdy.”

With Mom Super’s blessing I take one down and over to the nearest terminal. Takes me a second to figure out the connectors and boot sequence for the thing. Old, like most things around here. I get it working and open the primary file. On it are technical manuals for COMM Tech and COMP Tech for a ship I’ve never heard of. Even ship drive schematics from only a hundred years ago. Tear down instructions, maintenance schedules, even revisioning logs from one version of a thing to the next explaining what changed and why.

Everything a spacer might want to know about her ship.

I’m still a gear rat, just with more skills now. It’s not tech to take apart, but I’ve been creating universes in my head for the books I read. I know I can do the same for this tech. That and all the tech jobs for the Sisters. I know how to fix a dead VID terminal from a hundred years ago, and I know how to imagine an’ make things real.

So I study. As I do, more technical data, notes wit helpful hints for using the terminal, even meals all start showing up at my new hermitage at the terminal in the Library. It’s infuriating. Who? What do I owe them? It’s touching. It’s dangerous not to know who I owe what, but I accept it all the same because I have a plan now. Anything that helps is worth taking. When I get out of here, I wont be just a gear rat. I’ll be a pilot.

On my own SHIP.

* * *

One day word comes that one of “our ships” has just entered the system and is returning. It takes me a second to remember that this isn’t a plot from a novel.

“We have ships?” I ask the Sister. “And that word is plural. The Sisters have more than one ship?”

I don’t get an answer, but she tells me that everyone is assembling in the entry hall. Normally, it’s a common side hallway. I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave as long as I’ve been here. It barely registers that the door is there as I join the Sisters in waiting.

Standing among so many people all in one place starts making me uncomfortable. I realize that I’m more used to being alone now. We all stand with the foremost in a semicircle facing the door. I make my way to the front to be near Mom Super. The Sisters close around us making sure not to give me a straight path out the only exit to the place. The door opens inwardly like it did that night years ago. Years. I shiver thinking about it.

A lone figure is standing outlined by dust and setting sunlight in the shadow being cast by something tall outside. A full face helmet covers her head and the rest of her is covered by a space suit. A sleek, black, beautiful, and expensive suit. I immediately try to take inventory of the suit and its status lights. It’s the gear rat in me still looking for something to fix and charge her for. Or maybe I just want one like it.

As my eyes try desperately to make out the suit better, I realize she’s carrying two metal cases. Each about one meter long and half a meter tall. They aren’t very thick, but they are obviously very important by the size of the locks on them.

She steps forward to meet Mom Super and puts down the cases beside herself as they come to a stop in front of one another. The door closes behind the newcomer and, once shut, she removes the helmet.

Long dark hair fall past the shoulders of a young looking woman with tired, teary eyes. As the normal dusk light settles in the hallway, she speaks.

“Mother Superior! I have returned in honor to my Oath, in honor to our order, and freely of my own choice. I bring the knowledge collected on my pilgrimage. Twice copied for us and again two more for our sisters of the other Hall. I return to my sisters the ship given me, the money given me plus a great sum more, and I return myself in hopes of peace and understanding among my sisters.”

The last words echo off the high walls and fall silent. Mom Super just steps forward and hugs the woman. Others attend to the cases. One case heads toward the meal hall. The other, handed to a Sister who heads to the library. As it opens to allow her and the second case in, I see her turn and head toward the Holy Vault, but the door closes before I can see how she gets in.

Other Sisters in the hall start talking about the new woman and calling her the Returned.

The Returned and Mom Super walk toward the meal hall together. It’s too early for dinner, but everyone is following them, so I do too. I catch more conversation about “the sacrament” as we fill the benches. The short table with five stools that normally sits empty next to the Mom Super now has the Returned at it with the case in front of her. She stands and bows slightly, first to Mom Super and then to the room of Sisters.

I think, “Since when do the Sisters bow?”

They’re a religious order, sure, but they aren’t like the Xeno Cults or Tech Worshipers. I always thought they used the religious angle so they’d be left alone.

The Returned unlocks the case with some sort of code, a key, and then a voice print. She opens it and reveals 20 blocks that look like data drives.

Mom Super Calls out, “The Holy Sacrament of New Knowledge.”

The Sisters all reply as one, “Thanks be to God.”

Each Sister produces a mobiGlas from their pocket and puts it on. I’ve seen some of these models before, worked on them. I haven’t seen so much tech gear in one place in years. It’s like watching flowers bloom as each one winks on.

Someone touches me. I jump.

I’m just on edge is all. This is a lot to take in. A Sister I don’t recognize had done it. Her newly revealed mobiGlas is running a boot sequence as she points to the front of the room. Mom Super, calling me over.

I approach Mom Super, and she begins to smile. Never a good sign. Things go craz when Lady does that. She reaches out a hand to me, “Take it young friend. We would not keep this moment from you.”


She laughs a little.

“We’re going to share access to the information the Returned has brought us,” she says. “You may search for whatever you like, however you like. We ask only that you share what you find interesting. Just follow the lead of the Sisters. It has been some time since we had a guest present for the sacrament, but it is allowed.”

A weight falls into my outstretched hand. I know what I dream it to be, but what it can’t be.

“This is yours, young one. A testament to your hard studies that have made even the Sisters envious of your diligence.”

A slim black and blue case rests in my hands. Careful inspection shows no maker’s mark or logos. I open it like the treasure chest I know it is.

A mobiGlas. Top of the line model with a blue crystal scrawl along the side. The world starts to go fuzzy.

None. That danger. No! ‘m null cry! If I cry ‘m weak an’ tha ‘thers will . . . I look around through my tears. I see smiling Sisters with whom I have always been safe. Will always be safe. I still can’t let myself. I choke back the tears and look Mom Super in the face. Unable to meet her eyes fully.

“Uh, thanks,” is all I get out past the tightness of my throat. I turn and bolt to my seat; desperately not wanting to be the center of attention anymore.

The same Sister who nudged me earlier whispers that they will wait till I’m ready.

Sheer panic.

I fumble with the mobiGlas and finally get it turned on. In a moment a blinking cursor presents itself on the screen. Ready.

I look at Mom Super, out of breath. She nods.

Suddenly, I feel cold in the vastness of the information I have access to. So much; more than I could learn in a hundred lifetimes.

It takes hours listening to this or that thing a Sister finds or just pushing through one set of data or another. The hardwood benches normally don’t bother me, but four hours of economic reports, social news and statistics is a bit long to just sit around with my legs falling asleep. Mom Super got up then and dismissed us. Before I duck out to my room with my new prize, she calls me over.

Mom Super sets her face hard. Formal. I get a knot in my stomach just recognizing the look of it. “The advent of the Returned brings with it an authority second only to my own. Upon this authority, a proposal of change may be brought to the Sisters.”

Seems like Sister business. I stay out of that stuff. Old habit not to get tangled, that.

“It may not seem so in your situation, dear, but freedom is paramount to us. Free will and the right to choose are more important than choosing the right or moral thing.” she explained. “The information we gather empowers the choices we make. We even share our knowledge or collect private information at times. We choose what we share and what we do very carefully.”

“Even my speaking at your trial was a choice, young one.”

My heart skips a beat at that. We’ve never discussed that day or why I’m here. It’s an unspoken understanding. She doesn’t give answers to the questions I pretend I don’t have. Her eyes are holding back a sadness covered by a smile.

“I made my choice to interfere and bring you here. It upset many of the Sisters, but your being here has convinced the others of an ugly truth many of them do not want to learn.”

I try to look casual as one of my legs threatens to fall asleep again. “What’s that?” I ask, fearing the problem I know now I cause. Tha problem tha’ I am.

“That we have failed the people of this and other planets. That we are called to teach as well as learn. That our Order must teach the children of the streets, advocating for them as they themselves cannot. We must use what we learn and are told to help empower our fellow Humans.”

“Them can’ be taught Mom Super! What I mean is— that street rats teach each other that knowing too much is bad and will get you killed. They’re so scared, everyone believes the rhymes. Hell, there are even rhymes about not questioning the rhymes. And . . .”

She puts up her hand to stop me.

“Which is the sort of thing this Order does not know or understand fully, but you do.”

She takes a deep breath.

“I never intended to make you the focus of this effort of mine to reform the Order, but you have such unique gifts . . .”

Old Lady stops and stares at me. Her sadness is gone and something more like power burns in her eyes now.

“Will you help us create schools for these children?”

Rage, anger, joy, fear, panic, scheming, dread, hope and shock run through me as I consider what Mom Super just dropped in my lap.

“The choice is sacred. We, I, will think nothing different of you no matter your answer.”

Minutes pass and my mind races. Eventually two thoughts rise to the top of the internal chaos: Mom Super needs my help and if the rats learn the power of information, the street won’t own them anymore. They will have power like I never did. Maybe even like I have now.

An anger and a determination like I’ve never known rises in me and my skin bristles. I can pay my debt to the street, my debt to the Sisters, and the debt of every rat from Bazaar to Backtrack.

‘Unique gifts’ is what she called them. Yeah, those I’ve got. A sly grin spreads across my face.

I look Mom Super in the eye and recognize what’s in her eyes now because I feel it too.

“When do we start?”

* * *

I once thought getting to leave again would be a big deal to me, but it’s not. I never felt trapped at the convent. Well, not after I learned to read, anyway. The world makes more sense now, but it isn’t any different after reading about it.

Maybe that’s what happened to the Sisters. They started living in the Library too much, and Mom Super is trying to get them back into the real world.

We work out when and where the first ‘Street School’ day will be. Two Sisters and I gather in the entry hall to take the rail to Bazaar Street. I wear one of the Habit coats to try my best to blend in with the Sisters. The area around the convent isn’t luxury, but it’s not slums either. I see a Blue on the rail and flinch as he gives up his seat for one of the Sisters, like we’re important or something. Strange feelings creep on me the rest of the rail ride. By the time we get there I want off the rail car so much I almost miss how the Bazaar has changed.

The Sisters look to me and I take the hint: I’m supposed to lead them. I start for Work Row. Rats gather in Work Row when they are on hard times or young and looking to become Gear Rats. It’s just a bigger than normal alley, but it serves well enough. Lots of exits for it too. The way rats like it. The way looks different now that I’m taller, but I get us there without any wrong turns.

Seven or eight kids are sitting on ledges and crates. I turn to the Sisters and nod. They nod back, and we move to an area near the middle of the groups where one wall is mostly empty. One Sister pulls out a small projector and places it on the ground. The other moves next to her and connects her mobiGlas. Some of the rats move closer, curious about the tech. They scatter back as I move next to the projection on the wall and pull back my hood.

“We would like to teach you all whatever you want to know,” I say and try to look at as many of them as possible.

One of the older ones speaks up. “Ja Lady? An’ wha’ make think you gots some us rats wan’? An’ wha’ i’ cos’ us? Fancy Up tech you got ain’ free. Lock tha’. I Checked.”

A joke and challenge. What will it cost? How do I say it won’t cost them anything? Free translates to gullible. Why didn’t I think about this before now? I have to answer fast or they might all spook and leave.

“Because . . . ‘cause rat like you ain’ got wha’ we got teach. Know tha’ lock ‘cause ‘m was rat an’ Sisters taught me more than any rhyme. Null cos’. None debt. All i’ takes is time.” It’s hard to try and force what used to come so naturally to me and what I say is a poor combination of the slang and proper speech, but it might work.

The children look around to each other. I think I caught them more off-guard by how I said it then what I said.

“Tha’ craz. You some oldie rat?” A young one says next.

They’re talking! Don’t blow this.

“Oldie rat? Sure. Craz? None that. What you wan’ a know small-y?”

The young one that spoke goes and comes back with someone else, another child that looked sickly. The sickly one showed a lump on his skin.

“Wha’ tha’ oldie?”

It looked like a cyst or rash maybe, but it could be something worse. Shit. “Tha’ bad some. Gots go ta medics, but null do ‘t here. Bazaar Medics got ta pay off bosses. Ride rail three stop and go ta tha medic down the street ta left. Same like got here. Treat you free like medics here are s’pposed. Somethin’ obvious like this them got ta take in and go on it. Lock truth, that.”

I try to give the sick one my rail pass. The other one shoves it away.

“We got creds ‘nough ta ride rails. Sure them gots ta go on it if we shows up, eve’ we rats?”

“Yes. Them gots ta work it. Lock sure.”

The eyes of the whole group judge me and my words for what feels like eternity. Finally the two depart, and the rest of our class stare at them as they go.

The old one pipes up again,”Wha’ else you got ta learn us rats Sister?”

Acceptance? At least for now. I paid our entry fee by helping those two. They’ll let us try. I choke back a memory as I wonder if I would have ever let the Sisters teach me if I’d still been on the street. We got some brave ones.

“Wha’ you want ta know?” I say through a smile.

* * *

Now, I leave the convent with a group of Sisters every week. Some street children, we don’t call them rats, have even made it a part of their routine to show up to school. Not every time of course; being too predictable can get you killed on the street. Some never come back again. Each time that happens, I have nightmares until I see one that has been missing for weeks return again. Never show my relief for fear of scaring them off by singling them out. Street children don’t use names, and even being recognizable is dangerous. Blending into the group protects everyone. I had to stop some Sisters who were developing nicknames and assigning numbers to the kids to track lessons. It would ruin everything if the kids knew they were being tracked with a name or number.

“Is that why you don’t have a name?” One of them asks me.

Direct dmg, that.

I try to recover but my shock was already apparent. I’ve never thought about that before.

“I don’t know,” is the best I can come up with. Then I change the topic back to school things.

To call it school is a bit of a stretch. The Sisters and I meet in a wide alley with some street children. We tried to start with basic language skills, but these kids are too practical for that. The teaching program I used is too rigid for them. The Children want information they can apply right away. So we just teach them what they want to learn or what we think might interest them: their legal rights if they get arrested. The going price for a part on the legitimate market. How to get a free rail pass or medic check. The way to count change and write numbers. The sort of thing a street child can use right now or use to get ahead. It seems to be working. They seem to like it more and are bringing others with them if they come.

The rhymes are the biggest obstacle to our efforts. When I was on the street I couldn’t go a day without one of them saving my life or helping me get by. All the street kids are going through the same sort of life that I had. Now an ‘Oldie Rat’ like me is asking them to forget what some of the rhymes say or even go against them? Sometimes, I hate myself, thinking it might get them hurt or killed.

Mom Super was right about needing my unique gifts too. Street slang is thick and almost incomprehensible to most of the Sisters. Sometimes I’m translating both directions. I’ve started teaching it to the more adventurous Sisters, but it’s slow and frustrating.

I don’t know how it happened, but one evening while working with a new child, teaching him about staying clean, I look up and all the other Sisters have left. We all tend to come as a group and leave as the day goes on. I’m one of the last most days, but I’ve never been alone. I didn’ know why bu’ that got me scared some.

When the lesson was finally done, I put the hood up on my coat and begin walking to the rail station. I’ve got this uneasy feeling, and I start to walk more quickly. I hear a sudden burst of noise to my left and turn my head to look at it, but the hood blocks my view. The verge of panic comes, and I move even faster. The train is there but as I approach the doors close and it pulls away. The next won’t be for 20 minutes.

I gasp for breath as I lean against the ticket kiosk.

What the hell? What am I afraid of? Walking around alone? My mind is just clear enough now to be angry at myself. At least one Street child must have seen my panic and will ask about it next week. Maybe it will even scare some away for a while. Am I really this stupid?

That thought carries me through the next few minutes. The sun is setting, but I try to relax as I wait.

Then someone walks up to me.

“Oh, you ‘lone, Sister? Ain’ i’ late?” the man says.

Strangers don’t just walk up to you in Bazaar Street.

“Or ‘hapse you ain’ Sister. Null tha’. is i’ rat. Yeah. Gear rat. Street rat eve’.” The man had taken another few steps towards me and stopped again when I backed away.

What did he say? All the panic of minutes ago shoots back into my mind and stiffens my spine. I don’ eve’ got a slag.

I turn to look at the man for the first time. He’s rough and poor looking, but better dressed than I’d expected. He is shaved but unremarkable. I see the shadow of a face I remember well.

Boss Dirk.

“Ya remember me? Got. I remember you, Rat. I remember that you owe me.”


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      A recorded hymn played as they sent Arun “Boomer” Ains­ley into whatever great adventure awaits in the everafter. Gavin set the service in the Rhedd Alert hangar, and the recording sounded terrible. The last somber note rebounded off the room’s hard surfaces and harsh angles.
      He wished they could have had a live band. He would have paid for an orchestra, if one were to be had on the orbit­al station. Even a bugle would have been a better tribute for the man who had brought Dell into his life. For the man who taught him and Walt so much about living a free life.
      Dell’s arm felt small around his waist and Gavin pulled her in close to him, unsure if that was the right thing to do. He turned to kiss her hair and saw Walt’s lean form looming beside them. Walt’s face was fixed in a grim mask.
      Gavin knew his brother well enough to know that Walt was berating himself inside. He didn’t deal well with guilt or re­sponsibility, and Gavin suspected that was a big part of why Walt always ran.
      The gathering started to break up. Pilots and the hangar crew busied themselves with tasks around Rhedd Alert’s battered fleet of fighters. Dell didn’t move, so he stayed there with her. Walt rested a hand on his shoulder.
      “Gavin. Oh gods, Dell. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
      Jazza leaned in and spoke in a low tone, almost a whisper. “Landing gear up in ten, boss. Your rig is on the buggy.” She motioned with her chin to where his ship waited.
      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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