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Game Armada The Knowledge of Good and Evil: Part Four

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Writer’s Note: The Knowledge of Good and Evil: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 2.12. Catch up on the story by reading Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

“Forgive me.” I feel cold though I know it’s not the library’s air. My finger just about to press the button on Dirk’s small, black, featureless cube. My muttered prayer ringing in my own ears. Someone else responds as I feel a hand close around my wrist.

“Forgive you for what?”

I wheel around and come to face the speaker as I pull hard to wrench my wrist free, falling to the ground. Mom Super is standing over me like a dark tower.

“For what are you asking forgiveness, young one? What is that device?” Her words are soft but with an edge of steel.

No. Anyone but her. Let me be delayed or shamed or caught, but not by her. Not Mom Super. I can’t . . .

I break down at the realization that I will either have to lie to Mom Super just so I can betray her more, or admit I’ve already lied and am about to try and destroy the Holy Vault for Dirk.

“Young one, what’s wrong?” Mom Super starts to come to my aid.

“No!” I shout. I can barely speak through my sobs. “No, don’t help me. You can’t. Because of what Dirk . . .”

“Dirk? The man you used to work for in the Bazaar? Is that who’s been attacking you? What did he do?”

I don’t know what else to do. “He didn’t . . . he hasn’t yet. But . . . if I don’t wipe out the Vault he’s going to kill the children.” I’m panting for breath.

I point at the dormant cube. “If I don’t use that thing to fry the Vault, Dirk’s going to kill them all.”

She looks at me with a rage I’ve never seen, but eventually breaks the stare that has me paralyzed. She steps to the desk and picks up the cube and studies it. I’ve never felt this dirty or guilty in my life. The nights I slept in trash were cleaner than this.

“You will explain this, young one. Now.”

“I . . . I.” Gulping down a breath, I closed my eyes and clenched my fist. I already lied to her. I can’t do it again.

“I had an old debt to Dirk. He found me. Said I was finally going to pay him back. Knew I was with the Sisters. Threatened to hurt the school children if I didn’t do what he said. I brought it,” I point to the cube, “back with me.”

I look for some sign of sympathy but I don’t see any. Shoulder to me, she is only looking at the thing in her hands.

“I didn’t do it! I studied it, the cube, and I found out what it did. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let it attack the Vault. So I took it back and told him I wouldn’t do it. And then he stunned me and the others, and now he’s kidnapped the children, and now if I don’t do it he’s going to kill them!”

I haven’t felt like it, but by the end I am almost yelling, my helplessness finally coming out as tired anger.

The silence is hot and heavy. My ears thunder with each heartbeat.

“You lied to us about what was happening to you and it has put the children we befriended in mortal danger. If you had told us earlier we could have had the authorities looking into the matter all the sooner. Now, their efforts may already be too late. And this?” She thrust the cube towards me, “Did you know what this would do then, if you turned it on? Did you lie to me about what you knew?”


“Then you have attacked us all. There is nothing I can do for you.” Mom Super pulls out her mobiGlas and enters some commands.

I stay where I fell, unable to motivate myself to move. Soon four Sisters arrive and pick me up. Mom Super turns her back without another look at me. The Sisters escort me out of the library, but I notice they are not leading me back to the rooms.

We get to the door that leads out into the world and another Sister, the Returned, meets us with a large bag. Her hood is up on her habit. I suddenly realize all of them have their hoods up. The way the Sister do around outsiders.

“Oh god, no!” I say it out loud when I only mean to think it.

She thrusts the bag into my arms.

I don’t have the energy for more tears.

“You must go, now.”

The massive door opens to the first hints of light across the sky. The other Sisters back away from me. I turn to go, not wanting to. Each step feeling like a new punishment.

As I step across the doorway, a sudden memory flashes across my mind of the abused and beaten child being held by Dirk. Then my mind conjures worse of what might happen to them now. Does Mom Super think that the Blues care about a bunch of street rats going missing? They’ll call every shelter in the city but they won’t step one foot onto the dirty streets of Bazaar to actually find them.

My back stiffens and I turn around to say something.

The Sisters have left and only the closing door remains where my former life among them had been.

No good watching a door close when I have to find the kids. I don’t even know how long I have. Dirk might not be patient enough to wait a week to do something to them. If he hasn’t already, just to make his life easier. I pull my mobiGlas from my bag and ignore the pang of guilt remembering where it came from and why. I’m no good to the kids if I’m not strong enough to take care of myself.

Just standing there, the weight from the bag is starting to drag on me and I remember I haven’t slept in . . . I don’t know how long.

But it’s time to hunt Dirk and get my kids back.

I have to get back on the street. I’ve been using a lot of old information, and what I know about Dirk doesn’t match what’s been happening. Attacking the Sisters makes no sense for a Bazaar Boss. And since when does a Boss kidnap kids and make death threats?

His old shop is a noodle stand now. I’d checked into that when I’d first started teaching school with the Sisters. Barely anyone remembered that it had been a tech shop at all.

I feel two steps behind. I’ve been playing this to Dirk’s tune the whole way and it’s only gotten me into worse trouble. I was and still am a street rat and I can use that. The streets are hard and you don’t get ahead without making some enemies. If I can nose out Dirk’s reputation, I might get a better idea where he’s operating from. That’s my top priority. Find the kids.

A plan starts coming together in my head. Dirk is like me. He came from the street. No matter how far he’s gone up in the world, he probably has loose ends around Bazaar, and if I can find them they might just lead me to where he’s holding the kids.

“I’m coming. Hold on.”

I’m on the rail at first light, headed towards Bazaar Street. I get off two stops early and as I walk I see some street children, but most bolt when they notice me looking at them. They seem used to being chased off, since they are close to places the Blues and shop owners actually care about. I spend a few hours avoiding main drags and looking down alleys for the right kid to approach.

I finally pick out an older kid, maybe thirteen or so, loitering at the entrance of an alley like she has a purpose to be there. She has a tool pouch too, bingo. I walk up to her. I’m far enough away from Bazaar still that I hope she won’t recognize me if she ever came to school. Street kids all try to look the same and they tend to do a good enough job. The kid sees me coming and sets her feet, ready to talk or run.

“Eh rat. Need lock some info. Got a name, need a place.”

“Ha. Creds talk Lady. Null comm free. Creds up front.”

The kid points to the ledge on the wall next to her. Her slang is different than I’m used to, almost Bazaar, but I catch the meaning well enough. I’ve got to pay her up front and place it out in the clear for others to see if I want information. Making sure I’m not a Blue and making me a target if I flash too much money. Smart move. I don’t have much money, just one ten credit. I take it out and put it on the ledge. The kid eyes me and then snatches the chit.

“Wha’ handle got tha’ need indexed, Up?”

“Boss Dirk.” The kid does a good song and dance. Even stroking her chin as she ‘thinks.’

“Yeah . . . Oldie name tha’. Wrong eve’. Dirk ain’ null Boss. Dirk’s a Big. Been ’round long time. Tech stuff most . . .”

Dirk as a Big Boss? That means lots of credits and a crew of people working for him. There were only two Bigs in all of Bazaar when I was a rat. Did Dirk off one and take his place, or stake his own territory? Too complicated, I just need the basics right now.

“I need a place, got business with him. Hard kind.”

“Res’ ’s fuzz, Up. Hard ta scanner.”

The kid points to the ledge again. I already overpaid and she knows it.

“Listen, you give me where and you’ll get fifty more cred when I’m done with Dirk. Deal?”

This time she actually does think about it for awhile. Even if she has a boss that takes a cut, this would make her week. Maybe her month.

“Yeah . . . Some got say he got place at tha towers. Some got say a place down in Black Street. Lock is tha’ him got both. Tower stuff is legit front for wha’ he got at Black. Chop an’ Break shop makin’ parts out a black salvage. Gang stuff maybe.”

I know the place by name and the fear that was put in me as a street rat. No one goes to Black Street. I pull up the map on my mobiGlass. “Where in Black Street?”

“Dun know Lady, got some fuzz ’bout . . .”

Dodging again to try and get more cred. I’ve already promised what I don’t have. I can’t shake this with another empty bribe. I need to offer her something else. Her tool belt is welder style, but without a torch in the holster. She has some tech tools, but most are heavier, like for vehicle or ship work. She’s old enough she might be able to get work at the welding depot at the commercial spaceport. Working there gets you certifications. Certs means fees and a steady job. They take walk-ins and train them up, but don’t advertise it. That had been my backup plan for a few years now. Maybe it’ll be enough.

“Lock tha’ you got ship tools. Wha’ some rat doin’ with them? Got think tha’ ships is can get you out from here? How you going to get work on ships? I know some welders that work ships. Got ta be good at welding. You torch some?”

The sudden shift in conversation puts the kid on her heels. She looks away, trying to come up with one answer to all of my question.

“I torch some! Had ta trade ta meds when ’m got sick las’ freez.” The anger in her voice is a thin disguise for pain. Having to trade a prize possession for medicine. That depression didn’t kill her afterwards says a lot.

“Trade you straight info for info. Spaceport always needs welders. They’ll train you and get you basic certs. You use their gear and get paid daily. No lie. I plan on doing it but got business with Dirk first. You got your info now. So, you for info for me or not?”

That’s my last chip in a game I’m losing. I probably won’t get a second shot with someone else without more credits to start things off. The kid looks at me hard for awhile. Trying to weigh the worth of what I told her, whether it’s a lie.

“Rats an’ works know ’bout Big Dirk. Put out ’cast ta whole local ta work for him. Dirk double scans ’em for Gov or Blues an’ take ’em ta eight hundred wes’ sixteen thousand south.”

She taps my map to set the point.

“Got info out a rat tha’ run. Place got hangars ’round an’ one tower some. Only place like i’ ’round. Lot some folk head tha’ way. Null come back. Some ships come an’ get chopped. Some come an’ go. Rat tha’ ran say ’em work dead hard an’ then got sold ta slavers.”

The information almost sounds first hand. Maybe this kid could help me.

“You the rat that got out? Might need a guide around the place.”

No answer for that and the kid looks like she wants to bolt now.

“’m null go there. Craz that. Go at i’ from tha wes’ an you’ll get pas’ tha cams easy. Tha’s all ’m got tell. Ain’ eve’ glint zap on ya. You craz Up goin’ there. Ain’ none Up got business there.”

The kid give me one last look and walks away down the alley to places I shouldn’t follow. It’s a bad idea to push someone that just did you a favor on the street. My old street habits are starting to come back more as I check my surroundings and catch at least one person’s eyes lingering on me longer than they should have. I take in the rest of the passing crowd and don’t see anything that looks like a setup. I’m feeling paranoid. If Dirk really is a Big he could have people anywhere.

I get chills thinking that, and the kid’s comment about not having a weapon repeats in my head. I put up my hood and check that the map saved the location of Dirk’s chop shop. I make sure to avoid the area near the lingering eyes as I leave and don’t look back. I’ve got a lead, even if it’s a trap. I’m still the only hope my kids have.

I only hope I’m not too late.

The place I’m watching has to be Dirk’s. It fits the description and it’s in the most dangerous area of Bazaar, where even rats never go. Blues don’t come here, not like they care about Bazaar or rats. I saw three bodies on the ground on the way here. No way to check if they’re alive or dead without the chance of getting stabbed for interrupting someone’s high. My perch in the abandoned organics storehouse across from the compound is cold and the smell makes the sandwich I stole taste terrible. I only manage to force down a few bites, and my stomach is rebelling against even those.

From here I’ve been able to pick up some transmissions from the four-story office tower and the hangar’s fire suppression and alarm systems. My directional antenna found a dead spot in the office building, though. Second floor, northwest corner. Everywhere else has at least some sort of signal coming out. I even got the model number and command access of the robot vacuum next to it, but that area is dead. Like someone’s trying to hide something there. It’s my best shot.

While I’m planning out my approach I see armed people going between the hangars and the office. They’ve got about twice as many much-worse-off-looking adults surrounded. I see one of the group being herded turn and make a run for the fence. He doesn’t make it ten steps before a shot catches him in the back.

He falls to the ground, spun by the force of the shot hitting him. I’m thankful I can’t hear the sounds he makes thrashing on the ground. At least he’s still alive, I think blackly. The guards pick the runner up by the arms and drag him back to the hangar. It doesn’t look like they’re taking him to a medic. Dirk’s thugs mean business.

After watching all that I decide to make some modifications to my recently acquired stunner to give it more kick. I had lifted the cheap stun pistol from a rich Up kid I saw taking vid of Bazaar folks like it’s some sort of zoo. It might fry the first time I use it, but I’ll have to take that risk.

It’s only taken me a few hours to get here, set up, and find all this out. I put in a call to Mom Super but she didn’t answer. I don’t blame her. The Sisters have locked me out of the systems at the convent, but I had a direct tunnel to my education program that I never turned off. Like a private connection. It only lets me get to that room’s equipment, but it’s a way for me to get a message into the convent where someone might see it.

I’ve turned up the volume on the speakers and recorded a message. That message includes the video of what I saw earlier and explains what I’m doing so that someone will know even if I don’t get out. Now I’m just waiting here in this stink, second-guessing myself.

The sun has started to go down finally and my nerves are buzzing again. I’ve got thirty minutes before the next guard patrol will check this side of the grounds. If the kid I got this information from decided to sell me out, I’ll know soon enough. I double check my connection to my jury-rigged life-line and start towards the fence. At the fence I check it for a charge or alarms and don’t find any. My snips make quick work of the wire and I slip through.

A quick optic and radio scan shows cameras in the area, but none I can’t dodge. Thank god for small miracles. There’s still about fifteen meters of open pavement between the hangar I’m using for cover and the door to the service stairwell I picked out. I peek around the corner of the hanger and see that the main door is closed. I take a deep breath and start towards the office building.

About halfway there I hear the sound of ship engines and look up. Landing lights trace the ground a little ways away. I dash to the door and watch the ships appear and then travel out of sight from where I am. The hangar I had come from opens and a truck full of armed people drives out and off in the same direction. My heart is pounding and I know I didn’t run hard. I’ve got to pull it together. I turn my attention to the door.

A standard lock that’s not networked. No risk of external hack like that. Too bad for them, I’m right here. I pop the front panel off and start working. I almost have the bypass ready when I notice the inconspicuous block with two wires in it. Explosives.

I break out into a sweat as I realize how close I am to setting it off with what I’m about to do. How could I have been so stupid? This is craz. A bomb in a door? I was about to actually blow this and the kids would still be in danger. How can I do this if I can’t even get through the first door?

My hands are frozen as I look at what’s in front of me. It takes everything I have not to turn and run. My mind starts to latch on to things about the door to replace my runaway emotions. This is a prefab, like the ones on rail cars. Doors like this are cheap but not cheaply made. They cut corners on features, not substance. Like only having one power source.

That’s it. If I can cut the power to the lock, it will come free just like on a rail car. Hopefully no power will also mean no boom. It takes me just a second to find the thick connector that is the power plug and grab a hold. I take a deep breath and hold it, then I pull hard. I hear a hollow pop and the status lights inside the door panel all fade out. No boom and I’m still here. I let out the breath I’m holding long and slow. I have to keep moving.

After a few more seconds of frantic work in the dark I’ve got it rigged to stay open for when I come back. I hear the sounds of the truck coming just before I slip into the dim stairwell. About half the lights are missing and the unpainted walls show water spots and neglect. Not a camera in sight.

The second floor door is high tech but still not networked. The indicator shows locked. The access panel is on the other side. I rack my brain for something to get past it. After a few painful minutes of nothing I lean against it in despair. It moves. The latch must not have been caught.

I can’t believe it. I open it just enough to roll a camera sphere out as I pull up the feed on my mobiGlas.

The picture shows a bright white hallway with an elevator at one end and only a few other doors. I see one camera but it is pointed at the elevator. Two big men with pistols on their hips come out from the farthest room and get in the elevator. I freeze even though they can’t see me. The indicator shows it going down. I say a silent prayer hoping they are going out to meet the new arrivals. I find the door that looks like it should lead to where I’m going. I wait a few seconds more, and then walk into the hall and head for my target.

It has an old manual handle and is unlocked. My heart skips a beat at the thought of a trap. I take the stun pistol from its holster and open the door.

I look around but find myself alone in a big room. I close the door quickly and quietly, finding myself surrounded by computer panels and monitor lights. My mobiGlas beeps. I’ve lost connection to the outside. My eyes take a moment to adjust to dim lighting once more, as I put the stunner away.

I head to the station that looks most important. It’s a system monitoring terminal that has stats on dozens of sub-systems, all of them seemingly run from this room. I sit down and dig in. The setup is incredible. Star charts, financial information, shipping schedules, even payroll information for dozens of companies. All of them must be fake and controlled from here. This is how Dirk is laundering his salvage. The kid had said one side of Dirk’s operation is legit. Not for long. There is another set of information here that’s being kept separate. Ship manifests with destinations in Banu space. Pictures of people chained together and prices per shipment labeled only as ‘cargo.’ I skim through them quickly but I don’t see any of my children in the pictures. I copy as much as I can to my mobiGlas’s storage. This is all good, but it’s not why I’m here.

After some digging I find access to the cameras and pull up all the local feeds.

I get one of each floor’s elevator door, the main entrance, the front gate, a small room with a single chair in the middle, and a few showing parts of the fence. The last feed I check is an entirely black picture. It seems out of place in such a spartan set of things to record. I check it again. It’s a live feed. Then I see something. Black moving in the black. Something small. Someone.

My heart jumps. That has to be them. The label on the feed is Hangar 4 Storage. I’d seen that each hangar has a number painted on the side and know that 4 is on the north side of the building. It’s away from all the action outside right now, but the only way in from the outside is a huge cargo door. I pull up the controls for the door and try to open the cargo door remotely. As I do, I see a red warning flag pop up and the system locks. I must have triggered something!

I need to get out of this room.

They may already know I’m here, and if they don’t they will soon. I jog out the door and make a mental note as my mobiGlas beeps its reconnection to the network.

I head around the side of the building to the north and get within sight of the number 4 hangar. Lights are flashing on each of the buildings and a siren goes off. I hear shouts behind me and the sound of ship engines revving to launch prep. I head straight to the hangar door’s access panel. This one is standard, like the one to the stairwell, but this time no explosives. I get it to open after just a few tries and I scramble underneath and into the safety lighting.

A door just inside has ‘Storage’ on it stenciled in white. I run to it. It’s another manual door but it’s been chained shut.

My wire cutters can’t get through something this thick. I didn’t bring a torch. A chain? That’s stopping me? I got past explosives and around guards and into computers and now I can’t get past a chain? I kick the lock in frustration.

Flakes of rust float from the chain to the floor.

The rundown hangar has rusting bits and pieces all around. On the ground I see a pipe about two meters long. Jackpot!

I grab the pipe and examine the chain. It’s got some links that have been repaired before. I remember the materials book I studied. The chain is more likely to break than the pipe because of the welded links. I struggle a bit to wedge it between the door and chain. Once it’s securely set, I put my whole weight into pulling. The pole starts to bend but I keep the pressure on.

I hear a pop. Then a clang and the pipe goes slack, almost tumbling me to the floor. At the same time the chain and lock fall to the floor loudly. I recover, grabbing the door handle and pulling.

Light from the hangar lights flows into the small room as seven sets of eyes all stare back at me. The smell of human waste hits me like a wall. One child is lying on the floor. All the others are standing, backs against the wall. I can see the bruises. The ripped clothes. The gauntness. The fear. But they are still alive. Thank god, they are still alive.

One speaks in a whisper, “Sister?”

I almost say yes, but Mom Super’s betrayed face flashes in my mind.

“I’m here to get you out.” I hold out my hand to encourage them. “We have to go before the guards come.”

That seems to get through to them. One, then two more start to come out of the filthy prison they’d been kept in.

Another one is standing at the back of the room next to the child who hasn’t moved from the floor.

“’em can’ null walk none.” The standing one says, looking at his companion on the floor. I rush in and scoop up the child in one hand, trying not to gag on the smell.

“Out, everyone, and then through the door, then left keep going till the fence.”

Seeing me take their weakest as a burden sets the rest of them in motion, but as I come out of the filthy closet I see a pair of trucks loaded with vicious looking people heading straight for us.

All the children have stopped with me just inside the door. They’re looking at me. I can feel the one I’m holding barely breathing.

I will not let them take you.

I slam my fist into the door release and the door comes rattling down.

I pull the stunner from its holster, aim at the door’s control panel and pull the trigger. Nothing. I pull it again. Nothing.

“Got a hold tha trig down ta shot.” One of the children said it so softly I almost didn’t hear it. It was the one in my arm.

I do as she tells me and hold down the trigger. Seconds tick by and I hear the trucks stopping. The door is starting to move again. Suddenly my stunner fires and fries the controls. Someone on the other side doesn’t like that and points a weapon through the three centimeter opening and starts to fire.

The children duck behind what larger scrap pieces are around. Someone shouts and the shooting stops. The alarm sirens are still wailing but I can hear more commotion on the other side of the door.

“Rat! ’m know you there!” It’s Dirk. “Give up, rat! You null comin’ out a there ’less ’m let you out!”

The children start moving to better cover. If there is one thing a street kid knows, it’s how to find a place to hide. I look down at the one in my arms, passed out and filthy. Helpless.

“I’m not going to let them take you.” I say softly. Then I turn my face to the door and let out all the rage and anger I can call on. “You’re not my boss anymore, Dirk. You’re nothing to me now. You’re bigger than us, and you’ve got guns, so you think you can do whatever you want. And maybe you can, but I’m not gonna make it easy. I’m gonna fight for these kids. I’m stronger and smarter than you think, Dirk. All us rats are.”

A shot rings out and I duck back behind the beam I’ve crouched next to. The bullet punched a hole in the door. Someone sticks a hook through the hole and I hear an engine rev outside. The whole door starts to creak and strain.

Another shot, hole and hook. A second truck revs up and I see the panels of the door flexing under the pull. I have to find a way out of here. I remember specs of old hangars sometimes having ventilation at the ceiling. My eyes shoot up, looking for some sign of that and I find it almost immediately.

“You all have to climb. Get into the vents. It’s a way out. Come on.”

These children have been through hell and still they amaze me as they start to climb, helping each other. I nearly cry as they break every rule of the street by doing that. The first of them gets to the opening. One after the other they disappear into the closest thing to safety I can get them to. It’s little comfort but a better chance than they had locked up.

The last one through turns around to me, “Get heading, Sister. Got get out.”

I’m still holding the child in my arms and I realize I can’t climb and take her with me.

“Go, I can’t make it, I’m too big. I have to stay and take care of them.”

I get an intense look from more than one set of eyes.


The walls start to shake, the eyes disappear from the vent and dust falls from every angle as one side of the massive front door comes crashing down. It’s still obstructing the way but once the other side pulls free . . .

I move as far back among the scrap metal and tools as possible. I can barely see through the dust. There is yelling and flashlights shining into the newly opened gap. The trucks rev their engines again and then suddenly — they stop.

Gun and laser fire pop off and I can hear a new siren. No, sirens. They’re growing louder and closer. The trucks rev up again but this time I can hear them heading away.

The new sirens get louder still and then I see flashing blue lights streak past. Then again. And again. The Blues? How?

As the dust clears some vehicles pull to a stop outside the wrecked hangar door and several large men in plain clothes get out, guns drawn.

I shrink down, still keeping an eye on them, hoping they’ll leave if they don’t find anything.

Another vehicle stops and, like a ghost in a dream, I see Mom Super get out with a uniformed Blue next to her.

My lungs burn as I take in a dust-filled breath trying to shout to her, but I only cough. I get up and all eyes move to me and the child I’m carrying. I stumble out from behind my hiding place. I have to get to Mom Super.

That thought drives me forward. I stumble and fall. One of the Blues catches me, taking the child gently from my hands and laying me down against a wall.

“Are you hurt?” the Blue asks, “are there others?”

“The vents,” I cough, “in the vents.”

The Blue shines a light to the vent opening where six children are looking back at her. I motion them down with my arm and after a long pause they start to climb out. More Blues are coming in and helping the children. Blues helping street rats. This time the tears do come.

Mom Super is here now, next to me.

“Are you all right? Are you injured?”

The concern in her eyes and voice shame me. I don’t deserve her caring about me.

I take off my mobiGlas and hold it out to her. I clear my throat with a cough.

“I got as much information about Dirk’s operation as I could. Financials, dummy corps, contacts. It’s more than enough to shut him down if you give it to the Blues. This can keep the rest of the children safe.” I’m so exhausted my arm shakes with the effort of holding up the weight of the mobiGlas.

Mom Super takes it and moves past my hand towards me. Her arms surround me in an embrace. I don’t even know what to do. I let my hands fall to my side, feeling unworthy to hold the only Mother I’ve known.

“Well done, young one.”

A week later, the Blues have all the information I collected and I have my mobiGlas back. The children have been put in protective custody. Dirk’s operations have been shut down, though he is nowhere to be found. The news is talking about fixing poverty in the city. Street School has started again, with kids coming from all over. This week over a hundred come. They call us the Big Sisters now, like the Sisters took Dirk’s title. All of this and I’m getting ready to leave.

Mom Super has said that I can stay at the convent but I know I can’t. I put the children we were trying to help in danger and I almost attacked the core of the Sisters’ religion. I’m going to go to space and see all the things I’ve read about. I’ve always been just a guest here. I’ve never been one of them. I’m packing the last of my things when she comes to see me.

“Hello, young one,” she says. My back’s to the door.

“I’m not so young anymore,” I answer. “I’ve grown a bit since you gave me that name.”

Mom Super has a grin in her voice. “Gave you a name, did I? You refused to tell me what to call you. So I choose a description by which to call you. Hardly a name I think.”

There’s an unspoken ending to that sentence. I can feel it.

I turn around to see Mom Super standing in the doorway wearing her best habit. I guess it makes sense she would wear it on the day that I leave.

“We have something for you.”

“We?” I ask.

“Come, young one. It is time I do what you claim I have done already.”

There’s no way to refuse Mom Super when she has a plan.

She motions with her hand and I follow her out of the living area, past the meal hall and into the library.

Where rows of Sisters stand waiting in front of the book cases.

Three stories full. Rows about twenty feet long of sisters in their ceremonial best. One sister stands in the middle of the assembly on the main floor with a camera. Mom Super walks to stand next to her. I’m frozen just inside the door trying not to panic.

Turning in place Mom Super looks at me and then up to the gathered Sisters. She speaks loudly, “One has come among us whom we now know. One has been our guest who has had no name. One among us is leaving, following the call of her heart. These are all the same person. She had meant to do us harm but only in the cause of saving others, which she then did of her own accord. It would be right to record her name and good deeds in the histories of our Hall, but it would not be right to do so without using her name. What say you?”

A figure from the left of me steps forward, “We propose that she be given a name.”

Another figure steps forward, this time from my right. “We have come to consensus in this.”

“Step forward,” Mom Super says as she motions me toward her. I walk in a daze and stop when she signals.

Mom Super lays a hand on my shoulder. Her gaze drills into my eyes as she speaks. “This one has been found worthy and good among us. An inspiration to the study of knowledge and an example of courage. A changed person, remade by the force of her own will. What will you name her?”

A chorus replies as one.

“Luther, the reformer.”

The End

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      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!”
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      “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.
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      “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.”
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      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.
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      “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?”
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      “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.
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      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.
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      “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.”
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      “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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