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Game Armada The Knowledge of Good and Evil: Part Three

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Writer’s Note: The Knowledge of Good and Evil: Part Three was published originally in Jump Point 2.11. Catch up on the story by reading Part One and Part Two.

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 a few 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.”

Dirk and I face off outside the rail station. It’s dark now and only a few half-working shop signs illuminate the intersection we’re standing in. We’re like night and day. I’ve changed in every way imaginable and he looks just like he did back when I was a gear rat for him. The only difference is his clothes look newer. He’d gotten the jump on me and surprised me, but it seems like he’s wasting that. He’s just staring me dead in the eye with a grin on his face. He knows the score is 1-0 but it’s like he’s waiting for me to say something.

“Hello, Dirk.” I strip him of his title and acknowledge him at the same time. He flinches. I put on my best imitation of Mom Super’s passive expression and purposefully study him back.

Score: 1-1

“I knew i’, bu’ my boys didn’ believe i’. See . . . ‘m know you are smar’ rat. Got lock on tha’ long time ago. Yeah, a long time ago, green eyes. Never could hide those, could ya?”

Damn it. What did he mean about my eyes? Hell. Score: 2 – 1

“You know, debt like yours pile up over time. Interest. You los’ me a cool 20k cred deal long time ago an’ word on Bazaar says tha’ up got deals for mos’ tech’s except mine. Like ‘m got bad reputation on account a you.”

This is not good. Lost deals are more than their cred value and if what Dirk’s saying is true, I lost him a big break when that customer saw me beat up and blamed him. Chances are I never would have earned enough to pay him back. If I hadn’t been caught on the rail that day . . .

I hear footsteps behind me and feel the presence more than see it. Two others, at least. Unhappily close. I can’t let them get too close to me. Score: 3 – 1

“Three of you? I thought you were more of a man than that, Dirk.” The thugs stop where they are.

Dirk’s damn stare hasn’t left me. I can’t break focus or he’ll think I’m weak or can’t hold my nerve.

“I don’t have what you think I have, Dirk. No credits to my name. The Sisters don’t use them. Even this coat’s borrowed. I’m not good looking enough to sell for a slave. I’m not a rat anymore. So you have a deal to make or are you just sucking O2?” Straight bluff. Better than nothing. Score: I’m losing bad.

He laughs, looking away long enough for me to steal a glance at each of the thugs. Big boys, them.

I feel the sting of it before I realize what’s happening. Dirk’s backhand knocks me down. I clutch my face in pain and shock, knowing that if more is coming, I can’t stop it.

“Tha’ wha’ you think, rat? Tha’ them Sisters none work with creds? Wha’ you think all tha’ information them got for, looks? Sister’s got high-up clients. Keep ‘em secrets. Sell ‘em info. Manipulate people with damn information. Smug bitches.” He spits and takes his time before he looks at me again. “How ya think ‘em keep lights on an’ meals cooked? Null tha’ free. Rat like you supposed ta know tha’. Got some ta teach you with, rat. An’ them Sister’s got ‘nough ta paid wha’ you owe me.”

“You can go to hell.”

His eyes are burning with hate. “Won’ hurt for me ta keep eyes ou’ on them rats you school some. Jus ta make sure them null gettin’ hurt none. Wouldn’ wan’ tha’, would ya, green eyes?”

Dirk’s thug pulls the child I’d stayed to help out from the shadows. A huge black eye and bruises on his arms.

“Le’ me go, ya slag fak.” The kid fights against Dirk’s grip. Dirk slaps him hard.

I nearly scream at the sight of it. The kid just wants to learn something and these abusing faks are treating him like a piece of currency.

“Wha’ ya got say ‘bout knowin’ if ya don’t do wha’ ‘m tell ya there be more a tha same for tha whole lot a ‘em?”

He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a cube bigger than a fist and tosses it at me. I catch it and one of the corners jabs me in the palm.

“Take tha’ and pu’ i’ nex’ ta tha Sister’s precious Vault. Press tha’ button an’ wait till i’ blink at ya. Don’ mess with i’. Don’ scan i’. Don’ be rough with i’. I’ come back broke, or messed with or wrong an’ i’ gonna be them rats tha’ get i’. Like this one.” Dirk shakes the child by the arm.

I’ve got to distract them so the child can get away. I won’t have more of this on my hands. I don’t know how I’m going to do that flat on my back, but I have to think of something.

I see five figures come out from around the corner and suddenly they are running toward the scene Dirk and I are making. If they’re not more of Dirk’s men, then they might be slavers or worse. I brace and get ready to jump up and sprint.

I tense my body for the jump to my feet but stop as I recognize the silhouette of Sisters in their habits with hoods up. The five black-clad figures surround me.

The commotion is almost enough to distract Dirk and the child pulls hard once, but can’t break free.

The Sisters all look the same with their hoods up, but one speaks directly to Dirk. “What are you doing with that child?” Dirk grins and lets go. The kid runs for it.

The child’s departure is hardly acknowledged by his thugs as I sigh with relief. I remember the cube I’m holding and stash it in my large coat pocket.

“Whatever your business was here, it is done.”

Dirk spits on her shoe. “Null, bu’ i’ is now. See ya a’ nex’ school, Sisters.”

My attackers leave without another word. A Sister offers me a hand. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Yeah, mostly.” Shock is starting to wear off and I start to tremble a bit.

The Sisters move to support me. “Time to get you home.”

* * *

I stagger into my room and collapse. What the hell am I doing? How could I have gotten cornered out in the open? And Dirk knew who I was and that I live with the Order and . . .

I notice the cube thing in my pocket and feel compelled to take it out. 5×5×5 cm, only one button, and gloss black. Like nothing I’ve ever worked on before.

No big deal, right? Nothing I shouldn’t handle on my own. Nothing in the Library can hurt anyone. It’s just old stuff. Barely anything worth stealing unless you really like old gear and reading.

But that damn Vault.

All I’ve got to do is set the thing up in the Library and turn it on. It will do whatever the hell it wants. But the rats will be safe. Dirk said they will be.

If I don’t go along . . . The fak threatened my school and my kids.

But I’m doing this to keep the school open. Mom Super would understand, if I told her. And I just need to turn the thing on. Put it near the Vault. Easy enough. And if I get caught . . . I’m doing it to keep the school open. Mom Super would understand.

Dirk’s threat hounds me.

The Sisters talk about information and the sacred freedom, but have got a giant secret vault thing in the middle of it all. What the hell is that all about? And what Dirk said about selling information and high-class clients and the Sisters’ manipulation of people?

Somehow, I don’t feel as safe as I used to, even in my own room. Feels like I’m being watched by Dirk or the walls or god, but that doesn’t make sense.

The cube is black like a shadow, and I can’t stop looking at it every other second. Snatching it, I put it in my desk drawer and close it. I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Amazing how such a small gadget can carry so much trouble.

The knock at the door makes me jump, but the pattern is familiar. “Come in.”

Mom Super comes in looking concerned. “I’ve heard you had a run in with some rough men. Are you all right?”

“It was just an old misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“The bruise on your cheek and the situation you were found in speaks otherwise, young one.”

“Really, it was nothing. I just need to be more careful not to be in Bazaar after dark. That sort of thing happens all the time if you’re not careful, and I just made a mistake. Nothing to worry about.”

“All right. I will leave you to attend to yourself. If you have more you wish to talk about, I am always willing to.”

As the door closes behind her I know that Mom Super has more questions for me then she asked. I know I have more questions than I know how to ask.

Just sitting here thinking about . . . all the “whys.” I’m sweating. Fear, anger and shame all mixed into a toxic knot in my chest.

I get up and open my closet. The floor is mostly clean. I push what’s there aside and crawl in. After what feels like hours I finally nod off in the only place I can think of to run to, and it doesn’t help. Null a secure ‘gainst your own mind. Don’t exist, that.

Suddenly I hear my young voice in my head, “Ask the ‘why’s’ an’ you dies.”

Like hell am I going to let threats and street rhymes start running my life again.

I get up from the floor of my closet and go over and open my desk drawer. I take stock of my options for a moment before I grab the cube and sit down at my work bench.

I’ll start with passive scans.

* * *

Days have never felt as long as these do. I can barely eat. I’ve come up with nothing. Passives show nothing my eyes couldn’t already tell me. The case is sealed tight. Even the button seems to be formed into the glass. No seams or joints to pry open. I haven’t been this frustrated since I had to study Biology.

Things start to take a toll on me as I realize how trapped I am. I’m flying blind without more information. Dirk can hold his threat against the street children over me for years and continually get me to cooperate. It’s too late to tell Mom Super. I still need answers though, and what he said about the Sisters has me doubting everything I know about them.

I get Mom Super alone in the meal hall after dinner the third night. “Mom Super, can I ask you about some things I’ve been wonder . . . thinking about?”

“Of course you may, young one. I will answer as best I can.”

If I ask too directly about what Dirk said I’ll give myself away, but I have to look inquisitive like I’ve been holding questions back.

“Only a few things I guess. It’s hard not to, ya know? Things just come up. Like, what do you do with all the information you collect besides study it and put it on shelves?”

“We sell it, or many times give it away. Sometimes we simply keep it and do nothing at all with it.”

That one stuns me a bit as I test Dirk’s words against the ramifications of that claim. It sounds like a canned answer but it rings like the truth.

“How do you get all the stuff you collect in the Library? Just Pilgrimages?”

“Sometimes information is bequeathed to us. At times it is given freely. Other times it is given into our care at great price by the faithful or others. At times when information is received as confession, it is not to be released until morally necessary or after the confessor’s death, and then always without connection to that person. It is one of our most sacred duties to ensure such things are not lost, but to acquire them often requires that we allow some stipulation and even restriction to certain information. That is what we keep in the Holy Vault.”

“What does ‘morally necessary’ mean? I mean, what sort of thing could a person know that would be so important?”

“That is the first follow-up question you have asked.” Mom Super caught my genuine curiosity by the tail like a cat nabbing a mouse. I sit frozen, trying not to react.

“It’s a very good question,” she continues. I let out the breath I’m holding. “Information of itself does not have moral character. It is the situations and circumstances surrounding information that determine its moral value. If it would be morally wrong for us to withhold or suppress something about a crime or event, then we cannot withhold it. If we have been sworn to the confessional about something that has no influence on the world, then that is reserved for a time. It comes to subjective assessments at times, so we must remain humble and vigilant of our own biases.”

That’s close to what Dirk described, but a whole lot different. “But what if information from the Vault or confessional or whatever would hurt people? Even if you released it for the right reasons? To manipulate things?”

Shit, did I just say that out loud?

“Is that something you’ve heard, young one?”

“Just once, Mom Super.”

For a split second, I think I see a tiredness on her face like I haven’t seen before. Maybe it’s sadness. After I blink, it’s not there anymore.

“Whenever the Order releases information from the confessional vault early, it must always have some sort of effect. If it were to mean nothing, then there would be no reason to release it. Those who entrust their secrets to us have the utmost faith in our stewardship and discretion.” Mom Super sighs and takes a larger breath than normal. “Some may see what we do as manipulation or meddling. Perhaps especially if they are on the wrong side of what is revealed. That too would be subjective, I think.”

Dirk had only given me a half truth and twisted it besides.

“That has to be really hard. Who decides if that happens?”

“I do,” Mom Super says quietly. “I think I will retire, young one. You should rest as well. Street school seems to take much out of each week.”

Even without trying to figure out what just happened to Mom Super, I’ve got a lot to parse. The Sisters do sell information, but it’s not back-alley trades like Dirk wanted me to think. Sure the info from the Vault changes things when it gets released, or the Sisters wouldn’t lock it away. They’ve even got a hang-up about the freedom of info, so it’s got to be a big deal that the Vault exists at all. If it’s all true, what she just told me changes everything but doesn’t make anything easier.

Cracking tough eggs is what a gear rat does, but it will mean covering all my tracks after I hack into the thing. I don’t call myself a gear rat anymore, but I sure as hell still have skills. More even, than I ever had as a rat, thanks to Mom Super.

I head back to my room. I can’t be stupid about this, but if what Mom Super said is true, then I can’t let Dirk have what he wants. A set of antennae and a mobiGlas can do a whole lot if you know how to make them dance right.

* * *

My active scanning finally shows me the innards of the thing, but what’s there doesn’t make sense. Why would you make a piece of equipment with a decryption suite, a tiny swap drive, a transmitter, and a power supply that will only last a few days? There’s no storage drive that could hold any reasonable amount of information. It doesn’t have the gear to transmit the information out to somewhere else.

I decide to turn it on. The cube starts to send signals on the same frequency that I’m used to seeing on my readouts when I’m near the Vault. So that matches up, but too much still doesn’t.

I set my scraped-together diagnostic tool to imitate the Vault’s transmissions, my room being far enough away that I’m certain the cube can’t actually reach the real Vault with so little power. The cube’s transmissions start to cycle through known encryption handshakes. It’s trying to connect, all right. I pick a protocol that’s old and obscure for my decoy to use and wait. Almost two hours of nothing, then it happens. A sudden spike in the communication between the cube and my imitation Vault transmitter. Then suddenly nothing. And my gear stops responding.

My setup is wiped clean. I panic and turn off my mobiGlas as fast as possible, hoping the wipe routine didn’t jump the link to my more precious hardware. The cube’s indicator light blinks three times and goes off, like an acknowledgement of what just happened.

It’s an info-nuke! Dirk doesn’t want to steal anything from the Vault. He’s trying to destroy it!

My mind starts racing. Why would he do that? The information in the Vault has to be valuable, but you can’t sell something you’ve destroyed. Dirk’s only good for petty theft.

I stop and think about what I know about Dirk and realize it’s all old information. Not as useful or complete as I would want. I’ve been assuming I knew what he wants.

Why should I care what he wants; this is an attack on the Sisters and feels all wrong.

* * *

I don’t sleep. Can’t sleep. I have to figure out why Dirk would want to wipe out the Vault. I have to get this cube back to Dirk and keep everything away from Mom Super. I . . .

I can’t do this. I can’t take this into the Library. I can’t betray the Sisters and Mom Super. I won’t. I’ll find some other way to protect the children. They’re street rats, maybe just warning them could be enough. What if it’s not?

I have to break into the operating system of the cube and find out more about it. That might show me what’s really going on.

The operating system turns out to be a labyrinth. This should be delicate work and I’m doing it with a sledge hammer. There’s no time to be more careful. Every time I make too many mistakes it tries to wipe out whatever device I have connected to it. Whoever made this used some high-caliber tech and didn’t skimp on accessories. Expensive, that. More than Dirk could afford, that’s for damn sure.

I know I have to give it back to Dirk and he’s sure to have some way to look at whether it’s done its job. Eventually, I find what I expect. Log files of everything it’s done and every connection attempt and signal received since it was turned on. I even see the entry for the wipe it did of my original decoy. Still no clue as to why it exists or who made it. I edit the logs about my intrusion. Then I find a hidden partition with more logs. Then I discover a second operating system that only runs when the device isn’t connected to anything. I sandbox that and get it to boot and find a whole new set of log files and double checks I bypass or change. I work forty-eight hours straight trying to make sure Dirk can’t detect what I’ve done and leave the record of the falsely completed Vault wipe intact.

Then, just before I start my last script to cover my tracks in the software, I decide to run a full power scan of the insides again and take stock of what’s there.

And I find something extra. After a while of looking at it I figure the only thing it can be, a write-once memory chip. The kind that only allows you to put information on it once and then it’s stored permanently.

If there are logs of what I did that the system put there before I could stop it, then I’m screwed and Dirk will know everything I’ve done and all my work to fake this is worthless.

* * *

The write-once memory on top of my guilt, the lack of sleep, and a bit of desperation push me to decide I’m going to stand up to him. I have to tell him I won’t do this. To hell with him finding out that I’ve played with his toy. I’m not going to let myself get bullied by some low life and his thugs. I can warn the children and then they can take care of themselves until I come up with something better. I’m sure word’s gotten out around the rat camps by now to stay away from Dirk.

Taking the ride to Bazaar Street feels different. Maybe it’s the cube in my pocket. The rail car seems hot, but I’m the only one sweating. I’ve got a plan and an angle. There is even a slim chance of a way out. Walking out of the rail car, the open air is chilled. The Sisters and I head towards Work Row.

There are still children there waiting for school to start, even in this cold. I make a mental note to bring jackets and some heat units next week as we set up.

The end of the alley darkens as three men stand blocking the way. I recognize them instantly. Dirk and his muscle.

The other Sisters look at me. This is still my turf to them, and they must not recognize them as the men who attacked me. I tell them to keep unpacking and go to face the trio alone, but two Sisters follow me. At least this time I have backup nearby and a way out behind me.

They form up behind me. A sign of support. A chip in the game of appearances that poor people play. They’ve come to my aid, and I almost betrayed them to Dirk’s five cubic centimeter invasion.

Dirk locks on to them right away. “‘m got talk ta green eyes ‘lone. You others can outbound.”

“Yours first,” I say.

Dirk shifts attention to me then gives a nod. The two thugs turn around and walk back around the corner, with one keeping an eye down the alley.

I give the Sisters my best try at a reassuring smile. They bow slightly and return to the work of settling the children for school a little further away. My hand reaches into my pocket for the cube. It’s like holding a loaded gun I don’t have control of. I swallow down my emotions and set my feet as I stop in front of them.

I look my old boss dead in the eye, “I won’t do it, Dirk.”

Everything is very still and very dangerous for what feels like minutes.

“Ya know, ‘m think you smart some, green eyes. Guess not. Them rats gonna pay for this.”

I look over my shoulder again at the students. “They aren’t rats. They’re children.”

I return my attention to Dirk and barely see the shock pistol before it fires. My body convulses as I black out.

* * *

I wake up to the sound of crying and someone shaking me. I finally get my eyes open and sit up. Pain racks my body so much I almost puke. My eyes are adjusting to the darkness. Darkness? The shock pistol. Must have been out for hours. I see two sisters huddled together. One is where the crying is coming from. The other is consoling her.

I look around the normally orderly alley and see chaos. Clothes and scraps of clothes. Debris scattered.

And blood. Too much blood. I look at myself and the Sisters again. None of it seems to be from us.

I make it to my feet without falling back down and stumble over the a stack of crates in the middle of the empty area we normally use for our classroom. On it is a note.

“I’ve got your rats. Do it or they die.”

Oh God.

It’s me that cries now.

* * *

The rail ride back is endured alone in my own head, as my mind fills with panic and rage. Why couldn’t I have just done what Dirk told me to? The rail car races its way along, but I silently will it faster.

Half running into the warm halls of the convent should have made me feel relief, but it only heaps on dread as I recognize one of our number heading off in the direction of Mom Super’s rooms. Most likely to tell her what happened. I don’t have time to think about that though, Dirk’s threats are real now. He’s changed more than I realized.

The others shepherd me to my room and at least one stays outside the door as I stumble through it. The uncommon sound of rushing feet comes down the hall just before Mom Super bursts in. She has right to do that anywhere in the convent, but she usually knocks on my door.

“Young one, are you all right? I’ve been told you and the others were confronted by a group of rough men. What happened? What did they want?”

Mom Super, panicked? I have to deflect this now.

“The Sisters report children have been injured or taken away by the same men who attacked you. Can you explain this?”

“Some thugs jumped us. They want us to shut down the school. We have to pay some sort of protection money and they’ll leave us alone. That’s all.”

Mom Super’s not buying it, “I don’t see how you could be this casual, young one. This is not some old secret of circumstance you should be keeping alone. You must tell me what they really wanted. Violence almost befell the Sisters on your behalf as well. That makes this a matter for the whole of this Order. It is a step too far to believe those men want only to extort some . . .”

“I’m taking care of it, all right! The kids are gonna be safe. It’s just thugs.”

I haven’t flown off the handle like that in years. Mom Super can see the wall I never let her past, and acknowledges it with a stern look.

“You want me to take your word without any explanation when I should be calling the authorities. I am charged with the safety of this Order and its members. What of these children? Is it so that you can protect them but you cannot protect yourself?”

“I’m taking care of it,” I repeat.

“I have a responsibility I cannot ignore. I should have already reported the assault and possible kidnapping. The police will have to know sooner or later.”

“The police getting into it will be a death warrant for those kids. You told me you wanted me to help you bridge the gap into Bazaar Street because you can’t understand it and I can. I’m the only one that can get those kids back.”

“What choice do I have then?” She pauses. “I expect to be told what has happened after it is settled.” Mom Super looks at me hard for a moment longer than comfortable and then leaves in anger.

Damn it all, she had to even bring trust into this? I feel the cube in my pocket nagging at me. I have to do it. Damn you to hell, Dirk.

* * *

I’ll have to wait a few hours till everyone is asleep. Mom Super’s suspicion means I’ll be watched if I try and go to the library now, and I can’t let anyone stop me. I lie down but can’t rest. Minutes pass as slow as hours, and my skin itches as the waiting ticks on. My alarm goes off and I roll out of bed feverish to be about my task.

The halls are empty as I make the trek to the library entrance. I’m half surprised when it opens for me. The lights in the library are dimmed to night settings. Weaving through the stacks to the Vault I see no one and jump at every sound.

I pull the cube out from the bag I’m carrying it in and place it on the desk nearest the Vault.

Even through the pain and fatigue induced haze I still stop my finger above the button just before I press it. I have to do this. For the children. I can’t wait or they’ll die. I close my eyes.

“Forgive me,” I say. Like the prayers the Sisters use, but to myself more than anything. Someone else responds as I feel a hand close around my wrist.

“Forgive you for what?”


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      Welcome to Inside Star Citizen, the triumphant return of our weekly development update show. In this episode we learn about a new particle lighting system, public telemetry, Crusader’s city in the clouds, and upcoming improvements to a classic ship.

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    • Przez Game Armada
      Writer’s Note: Brothers In Arms: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 3.8. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.
      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
      Przeczytaj całość
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