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Game Armada Phantom Bounty: Part One

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Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part One was published originally in Jump Point 3.1.

Two hundred and sixty-five days. That’s how long they’d been hunting the Phantom. It seemed like they’d entered a thousand of these tiny, dark, hole-in-the-wall taverns, seeking leads from shifty informants, always just too far behind. Mila leaned against the metal prefab wall and tried to breathe through her mouth, but the scent of stale alcohol and vomit flooded her nostrils anyway.

Rhys stood at the bar, towering above the other patrons, his broad back all she could see as he haggled with the owner for information, likely bribing away the last of their meager credits. Her stomach churned just watching him. They had to be close this time. Because if they didn’t land that massive bounty soon, they wouldn’t be able to afford so much as a mug of this dive’s swill.

Mila ran a hand through her straight brown hair, and a toothless patron leered at her from his stool at the bar. She crossed her arms and shot him a challenging glare, which unnerved him enough that he looked away and took another swig of his drink.

A younger man with a ripped synth liavold-skin jacket and questionable hygiene inched his way up to the bar and stood off to the side, pulling on the silver hoop in his ear. Typical.

There was usually at least one lowlife in a place like this — wearing synth-skin of nearly extinct creatures. They thought it made them look badass, like they didn’t fear the law, like they were above it. Mila’s nails bit into her palms, and she forced herself to unclench her fists. He probably didn’t even know it was a fake. Real liavold skin never came in that shade of grey.

The lowlife stepped closer to Rhys, clearly trying to eavesdrop, and Mila pushed away from the wall to go run him off. But Rhys finished haggling before she made it to the bar, and he gestured at her toward the exit. Relieved, she followed him outside.

The yellow-white sun had finished its descent while she and Rhys had been inside the tavern, and one by one the century-old light globes running the length of Tevistal’s streets flickered on. A loud murmur echoed down the alleyway, voices in the night, evidence of the crowd that had been gathering a few streets over in the square to celebrate the new year.

Damn Traveler’s Day. Sure, the huge crowd afforded her and Rhys an easy way to blend in, but that went both ways. If they could stay low profile, then the Phantom could do the same, slipping away like always.

Rhys grabbed Mila’s arm as the tavern doors swung closed behind them, and she gazed up at him: at the sharp angles of his face, his tousled brown hair, at the rough beard he’d allowed to grow in as they’d chased the Phantom from system to system, barely sleeping.

Rhys’s green eyes were bright, glinting in the light of the globes as he leaned down close. Mila warmed at the look in them. If she was being honest, their recent sleepless nights had less to do with the Phantom and more to do with . . . other things. They had been sharing a bunk for almost a month now.

“Good news,” Rhys said. “Maybe.” A familiar smirk appeared on his face.

She cleared her throat. “Oh yeah? What did he say?”

“That we might actually catch our Phantom this time.”

Mila’s pulse quickened, and her hand involuntarily dropped to the laser pistol holstered beneath her jacket. “She’s here? Still in Tevistal?”

Rhys’s smirk faded, and he took Mila by the arm and led her down the alleyway toward the main street. “I want to believe it,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I paid the fixer his fee and . . .”

“And what?”

“He gave me an address to a hostel. RoomTab’s still clicking. Said he saw the Phantom yesterday.”

Yesterday. “Why do I hear a ‘but’ coming?”

Rhys halted as they exited the alley. “But I’m not sure we can trust him. It was all . . . too easy.”

Pressure grew in Mila’s chest, and she blew out a breath, surveying the crowd at the end of the globe-lit street. Rhys had solid instincts — one of the many reasons Mila had charmed the successful bounty hunter into forming a partnership with her. With his hunches and her tech skills, they made a great team.

“Well, what do you want to do?” she asked, a note of the desperation she felt seeping into her tone. “I think we should check it out. We need this.”

“I know.”

She met his eyes. “We don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“We’re too close. I say we check this out.”

Rhys worked his jaw and finally nodded. He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing the mobiGlas strapped to his forearm, and swiped his finger along the flexible clear screen to bring up a street map of Tevistal. After a moment, he concluded, “The address isn’t far from here. Travel advisory says it’s a high crime area.”

Mila snorted and swept her arm around. “And this isn’t?”

Fetid pools of water had gathered in potholes from the last rains, and the low prefab buildings here were dirty and dented, nothing like the tall, sparkling skyscrapers that had grown up further from the docks as the city matured. If Tevistal had an armpit, this was it.

Rhys laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t matter. Because you’re heading back to the ship. I’ll scout this out to see if it’s legit.”

“Like hell I am. No way.” Mila flared her nostrils and shrugged off his hand. “It’s dangerous. You need back-up.”

The Phantom had single-handedly attacked seven Phan Pharmaceutical research facilities in the past year and had managed to evade every agent of the law since. The UEE wanted the saboteur — dead or alive — on charges of terrorism, murder and armed robbery. Dangerous was an understatement.

“Let me scout it out,” Rhys repeated, his voice rough.

“We go together,” Mila responded through gritted teeth.

Rhys let out a low growl, but when it was clear Mila wouldn’t back down, he shook his head and started walking.

Mila released a breath and caught up to him. Rhys never would have suggested going alone before. He’d grown more cautious, more protective since they’d taken things to the next level. Controlling, even. It needed to stop, but right now wasn’t the time to address it.

The mobi directed them away from the crowds and deeper into the dockside slums. One cramped alleyway led to another, and the scent of burning garbage wafted over them as they passed homeless transients tending fires in front of scrap-metal lean-tos.

Hovers flew overhead, their lights illuminating the dark night as they ferried those who could afford it between the docks and the gleaming towers in the more affluent sections of the city. The soothing hum of their engines reminded Mila of another life, where she’d have been the one headed for better lodgings. But that old existence on Terra was long gone. And this — the chase, the hunt, taking down criminals with Rhys by her side — this was her life now. No regrets.

When Rhys’s mobi beeped to tell them they’d reached their destination, he deactivated it and drew his Arclight. “Down that alley. Building Two. Apartment Nine.”

Mila readied her own pistol and followed him into the dark alley. The prefab self-service “hostels” that filled this area were owned by investors who probably never set foot here. If you wanted to do something shady, this was the place for it.

Adrenaline flooded Mila’s body, making her pulse thrum faster. A cracked globe flickered above the low buildings, barely illuminating the letters engraved in the walls. She activated her pistol’s nightlight, but it didn’t help much.

A slow drip echoed from somewhere, and the only other sound was the pad of their boots on the pavement. Mila pointed her light at the nearest building and found the number etched in the side.

“One,” she said quietly.

A low rustle emanated from where she’d cast her light, and she and Rhys tensed. Metal hit metal, and Mila swung her weapon toward it. A skap tore out of the darkness and skittered across their path. Another dark shape, a blur of claws and fur, raced after the rat-like creature. As the predator and prey disappeared into the gloom, the skap let out a brief, interrupted shriek.

Mila released her breath with a shaky laugh. Maybe it was an omen. Maybe this would be the night she and Rhys finally caught their prey.

“Building Two,” Rhys said, shining his light on the building where the animals had headed.

Mila barely breathed as Rhys pushed open the outer metal door. It swung in on rusty hinges, creaking in the silence.

Dim globes lit up the space automatically, revealing a narrow corridor that was strewn with litter and stank of piss.

Mila darted a glance at Rhys. His eyes were narrowed, and that hint was enough for Mila to know he was worried.

“It’s too quiet,” Rhys murmured.

“Maybe it’s pickpocket-the-pilgrims night,” Mila responded, but her sarcasm didn’t ease the tension. Rhys was right. These prefab buildings had paper-thin walls, yet the place was dead silent. Not a good sign.

They walked a few more paces, and Rhys pointed his weapon at a door on the right. “Nine. Watch my back. I go in first.”

As he turned the knob, every muscle in Mila’s body went tight. The door swung open, unlocked, and the bright lights inside flooded the dimly lit hallway.

Rhys stepped through the door, and Mila’s jumpsuit suddenly felt too tight. Sweat dripped down her back as she scanned the other doors and kept an eye on the one they’d come in.

Rhys returned, finished with his sweep of the small space. His face was a blank mask. “Empty. RoomTab’s been hacked.”

Heat coursed through Mila. She let out a grunt and shoved past him and into the room. So close. Her throat thickened, and she fought the urge to punch a hole through one of the thin walls.

The room contained a low mattress and a metal folding table and chair. A partition separated the sink and toilet from the rest of the room, but other than that, the room had been stripped bare.

Mila whirled around to face the hacked payment scanner. Wires had been ripped out and reconnected in a knot, forcing the RoomTab system to keep the water running and the lights on without payment.

“Search the room,” Mila said, her voice hard. “You find so much as a hair, you save it.”

Rhys gave her a pained look. “You know we won’t.”

“I’ll check the scanner.” Mila clenched her jaw as she rolled up her sleeve to activate her mobiGlas and access the payment scanner.

She brought up the program she’d written to hack basic systems. Technically it was illegal to use a program like this, but she’d written it so she could bring criminals to justice, hadn’t she? She’d never use one of her programs to break the law.

“This was rigged less than twenty-four hours ago. We just missed her.” Mila disconnected her mobi and slammed a hand into the room’s thin metal wall. The whole thing shuddered in response. “We need to —”

“Mila.” Rhys’s sharp voice was a warning, and she turned to face him. The heat drained from her as she saw what he held in his hands. He’d turned the folding table over and part of it rested on his thighs. A small bundle was taped to the underside of it. It let out a low beep. Then another.


Mila’s pulse skyrocketed, roaring in her ears. She kept her eyes glued to Rhys, to the thinly masked fear on his face, and reluctantly backed out the door. It had happened too fast. They should have listened to Rhys’s gut on this.

She paused for a moment outside the unit’s door, indecisive, then turned and took off running down the corridor.

Reaching the outer door, she threw it open and glanced back to find Rhys hurtling toward her. They stumbled into the alleyway together as a deafening blast rocked the flimsy structure, and the shock wave knocked them both to their knees. Heat rushed over them and stole Mila’s breath away.

Mila stared down at the pavement, ears ringing as the shock faded.

Rhys recovered first, panting, and pulled a shaking Mila to her feet. He held her close and searched her face. “Are you all right?”

It took Mila a second to find her voice. “Yeah. You?”

“Fine.” Rhys glanced back toward the building. “Do you think anyone else was in there?”

“You know it was empty. We gotta get out of here. If we get stopped here, we’ll be wrapped up for a day or more in questioning.”

Rhys nodded, looking as dazed as she felt, and they jogged down the alleyway and back out to the street. The explosion had summoned a small group of the transients, and they openly gaped at Mila and Rhys as they ran by.

Red crowded the edges of Mila’s vision, and her anger mingled with an old, dark pain. They needed to bring the Phantom to justice. Had to. It was a need that overwhelmed logic, a need she couldn’t deny, and Mila probably would have chased the Phantom even if the bounty had been far lower.

It was all because of Casey, even if Mila tried to pretend it wasn’t. Casey Phan, kidnapped and murdered when they were sixteen. The inept police force had just let the killer get away. Watching that crime go unpunished was the reason Mila decided to work for justice. The reason she abandoned her family to become a bounty hunter.

Casey’s father owned Phan Pharmaceuticals, and seeing the Phantom blow up the facilities, kill Phan Pharm workers, steal research . . . it had rekindled all of Mila’s old memories. She’d take out the Phantom the way she’d never been able to take out the screwed up person who had stolen Casey away.

When Mila and Rhys were almost to the crowded square, she halted and wiped the sweat from her face, still breathing hard. She was dangerously close to losing it, and she wasn’t about to have a breakdown in front of all the revelers between them and their ship.

Rhys stopped when she did. “What is it?”

“That was a set-up,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “That fixer knew he was sending us to die. Everyone must have known it. Someone warned the rest of the tenants to get out.”

She swung her body around, seeking something, anything, to take her anger out on. She slammed the toe of her boot into a piece of scrap metal and sent it flying. A sharp pain coursed through her foot, but she gritted her teeth against it and tried to ignore the burning sensation in her eyes.

She let out a little guttural scream and turned back to Rhys, her hands clenched into tight fists. “We need to beat the kak out of that fixer until he gives us the truth.”

Rhys grabbed Mila by the shoulders and leaned down so his eyes were level with hers. “Calm. Down.”

“No!” Mila pushed him away with both hands, but he held her tight and didn’t let go. She blinked against the continued burning sensation in her eyes. “We need this bounty.”

Rhys shook his head. “If that fixer knowingly sent us to a trap, I’m not about to advertise we survived it. This is his turf. We’re at a disadvantage here. You should know that.”

“We were just so close,” Mila replied, her voice shaking.

Rhys loosened his tight hold on her. “I’m calling it, Mi. This isn’t worth getting blown up over. There are plenty of other bounties to go after.”

But none like this one. Hot anger lit a fire in Mila’s chest, and she shoved Rhys away. “Coward.”

Surprise flashed across his face, and he stiffened. “Don’t be an idiot. This isn’t about bravery, it’s about survival. You wanted to hunt this one, so I agreed. For you. It was always a long shot. We’ll survive off less until something else comes along. We’re done.”

“No,” Mila shoved Rhys again, and he stumbled back a step. “We’re finding the Phantom. And if you won’t help, I’ll keep searching by myself.”

“What is it about this case that you’re not telling me? You’ve never been this stubborn about any of the others. It’s like you’re not thinking clearly.”

Mila swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed past him so he couldn’t see the look on her face. She’d have to tell Rhys about her past someday . . . when she was ready. And today wasn’t that day.

“Mila.” Rhys was by her side again. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She took a deep breath as she turned toward him, struggling to get her roiling emotions under control. He really thought he was making the right choice. But he was wrong.

“The trail was cold before,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “Whispers of the Phantom passing through, week-old transactions. Twenty-four hours, Rhys. Twenty-four! The Phantom was in that room a day ago. We can’t stop now. We need food. Devana needs maintenance and upgrades. And maybe . . . maybe after we finish this, we can take a break, right? Go to some pleasure planet, maybe Cassel . . . together.”

Her cheeks flushed at how her own words sounded, but Rhys’s eyes grew dark, and he cupped her chin in his callused hand and tilted her head up until their eyes met.

“One more time. We’ll try to find one more lead,” Rhys conceded, his voice rough. “But if we don’t . . . we can’t afford to keep ignoring other work for this bounty. So if the next lead doesn’t work out, promise me you’ll give it up.”

Mila pushed his hand away. “I’m sorry. But no. I can’t promise you that.”

The low hum of an approaching hover caught their attention, and they both looked up. Flashing lights. Local police.

“Let’s get lost in the crowd,” Rhys said. “But this conversation isn’t over.”

Mila pushed down her irritation and followed him. She’d convince him. Because they were not quitters.

They kept up a brisk pace until they were well into the main square, where the mass of people had gathered outside the Journeymen Hall. It was an interesting spectacle — a mix of normal-looking civilians and people dressed for the occasion. Some of these Travelers liked to mimic old Earth customs, more-so than those on Terra.

A cluster near Mila and Rhys wore silken cloaks and fantastic masks adorned with feathers. Another dozen had forgone the costumes, but their walking sticks were intricately carved and inlaid with gems and smooth stones. Another pair wore gold robes with masks carved to resemble predatory animals.

Rhys pushed through the crowd, carving a path to the far edge of the square where vendors had set up booths filled with all the goods and trinkets a crowd of pilgrims could want on Traveler’s Day.

The scent of roasting meat made her mouth water and her stomach growl, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since this morning’s breakfast on Devana. Rhys seemed to be of the same mind, because he led her to where the nearest food vendor had set up a grill.

“What kind of meat?” Rhys scoffed.

The middle-aged woman winked and waved the skewer at Rhys. “Special. Is a secret.”

“Ah, right. Might that be some special skap meat from dockside?”

The woman’s face soured. “Insults! I no sell skap.”

Mila wandered over to the next table, zoning out Rhys’s haggling. He was so tight-fisted with their creds. How could he not see how important catching the Phantom was to their bottom line?

The table Mila found herself at was strewn with trinkets. Incense burners, Christian crosses, Wiccan pentagrams, Buddhist statues, and a wide range of other eclectic-looking jewelry.

A bronze-toned pendant on a long chain caught Mila’s eye. She picked it up without thinking and turned it over in her palm. It resembled the shape of an infinity symbol, and small pearlescent stones in all different shapes and sizes dangled from the end of it.

“That piece is almost as beautiful as you.”

Mila started and felt her cheeks redden as she met the vendor’s gaze. The colorfully dressed woman looked to be in her early thirties and had pale skin and ice blue eyes like Mila’s, but that’s where their similarities ended. The woman’s space-black hair was styled in dozens of tiny braids, and she wore a nose ring that glinted beneath the sparkling lights hanging from the metal awning above.

“Um . . . thanks,” Mila said. “It is a nice piece.”

“Better than nice, girl. It’s the ideal gift to celebrate the new sun. That is, if you want to have good luck. That pendant’s been blessed by Cassa.”

Mila glanced back down at the pendant, at the way the twinkling lights overhead made the colors on each stone warp and change, like tiny rainbows. She wasn’t superstitious or religious, but the pendant reminded her of a ring she’d owned as a child. She wanted to try it on, hold the stones closer to the light and see them change, but she resisted.

“What kind of stones are these?” Mila asked.

“Those stones were collected from the null point between two binary stars. Only travelers with great luck and persistence can thread the needle to reach that point.”

A low laugh sounded from behind Mila, and she whirled to find Rhys standing there, two skewers of meat in hand. “Stones collected from between paired stars, eh?”

The woman’s serious expression didn’t change. “That’s exactly what they are.”

Rhys shook his head. “Maybe you should get off this rock some time. Because nothing hangs between binary stars; one or the other pulls everything in.”

The woman leaned across the table, and a slow smile spread on her blood-red lips. “The journey can teach us much, my friend. But build a life on false beliefs, and you’ll soon find your ship has drifted into a minefield.”

“You done here, Mi?” Rhys’s question came out like a command, and he looked like he was trying hard not to respond to the woman. He didn’t have a lot of patience for religious types, Journeywomen or otherwise.

The merchant ignored Rhys and looked at Mila expectantly. “The colors in that piece really do suit you.”

“It’s gorgeous. But maybe some other time.”

Mila sighed and reluctantly dropped the necklace into the woman’s waiting palm. Mila grabbed a meat skewer from Rhys without meeting his eyes and strode toward the center of the square. Why did he always have to be such a buzzkill?

She stopped at the edge of the crowd, watching an unfamiliar ritual unfold at the center of the square, and gnawed at the stringy meat. Skap meat or not, it was a thousand times better than the bland nutrition bars on their ship.

She finished it, tossed the stick, and started searching the crowd for Rhys. Time to convince him to continue their search for the Phantom.

She found him only a few yards away, watching her intently, and despite her earlier annoyance, a smile budded on her lips. He knew when to give her space, and he knew when she really needed him not to. His solid presence in her life had been the best part of these past months.

A flash of grey in her peripheral vision drew her gaze, and it landed on a man wearing a silver hoop earring and a fake liavold skin jacket. It was the lowlife from the tavern.

Mila’s pulse quickened, and she pushed past the people surrounding her to get closer. The lowlife was staring at Rhys, but when he noticed Mila heading for him, his eyes widened and he scrambled away, disappearing into the crowd.

Mila shouted and sprinted after him, shoving people out of her way, ignoring the obscenities they yelled in her wake. She was vaguely aware of Rhys falling into step behind her. That dock scum knew something, she was sure of it. He might even be a spy for the fixer. She couldn’t let him escape.

The cries of anger erupting in front of her let her know she was on the right path, and as she exited the main press of the crowd, she caught sight of a grey jacket disappearing around the corner.

She ran faster, a stitch growing in her side as she caught up. When the man faltered ahead of her, trying to decide which way to turn at the end of an alleyway, she launched herself forward, knocking him into the wall. They both hit hard and slid toward the grimy pavement.

Rhys was there an instant later, hauling Mila out of the way and pinning the man’s arms behind his back so he couldn’t pull a weapon. The man’s bloodshot eyes were wild, darting between Mila and the alley’s exit.

Rhys raised a brow. “Care to explain?”

Mila sniffed and wiped the dust off her pants. “What? Didn’t you notice him back at the tavern? This snake was eavesdropping on you. I bet he works with the fixer. And he was definitely watching you back there.”

“Is that so?” Rhys pulled his pistol and shoved the man against the building to frisk him. He pulled out a slide blade concealed at the man’s waist, then retrieved a small black case from his jacket. He tossed Mila the case, and she opened it, her heart still beating a staccato rhythm against her ribcage.

Inside lay a syringe and a vial filled with black, viscous liquid.

“Show us your arm,” Mila demanded.

The man was shaking as he pushed his sleeve up, revealing a web of veins stained black from his habit.

Rhys whistled. “Got ourselves a WiDoWer, eh?” He adjusted his Arclight so it lined up with the man’s face. “Now why were you following us?”

The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and he held his hands palm out as a drop of sweat slid down his forehead and into his eye. “I followed you ’cause I got info. I’ll trade for it.”

“What kind?” Rhys asked, his eyes hard. “The last info we got wasn’t worth much.”

“Harris — he set you up. But I know the truth.”

“No trades.” Mila closed on the addict, still holding his drugs in her grasp, and wrapped her other hand around his throat, squeezing. “If you knew about the trap, you should have told us before. We could have died.”

“Mila.” Rhys’s low warning did nothing to calm the rage buzzing in Mila’s head.

“No trades,” Mila repeated, squeezing tighter. The lowlife gasped for air.

“Mila.” This time Rhys’s voice broke through, and Mila dropped her hand from the man’s throat, then forced herself to step back.

Rhys narrowed his eyes at her, then turned back to the addict. “What do you want for the info?”

“Creds,” the man said, wheezing. “Ninety creds.”

“For drugs.” Mila opened the case and held the vial high so the addict could see it. “How ’bout this? You tell us everything you know, or I feed your precious sludge to the pavement.”

“No. No no no.” The man was sweating more freely now, and the desperation in his voice made Mila nauseous with sudden self-loathing. But she wouldn’t back down. She was done with haggling. With the trades. Done with all the lies and dead leads.

She placed the vial on the ground and positioned her boot over it. “You get one second to decide.”

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you! Don’t. It’s my last one. The Phantom was here. She was callin’ herself Elaine. Harris hooked her up with new tags. I got a shot of ’em on my mobi.”

“Show us,” Rhys demanded.

The man revealed the mobi beneath his sleeve and brought up the data. Mila swiped her arm across his screen and her mobi captured the tag numbers. Then she placed her boot back over the vial of WiDoW. The lowlife seemed to turn green in the dim light of the globes overhead.

“Where was Elaine headed next?” Rhys asked.

“Septa — she had a meeting on the platform. She’s got a way into Xi’an space. Someone powerful is helpin’ that girl. Musta paid off Harris big, ’cause I ain’t never seen him help set up a bounty hunter like he did to you two.”

Mila’s mind raced, considering the implications of what this snitch was saying. If the Phantom truly had a way into Xi’an space, they’d never find her again. She’d reach Rihlah, and the Xi’an wouldn’t do kak to help them catch a terrorist. They’d just pretend to, acting diplomatic while the Phantom got to live out her life, with the Advocacy and the rest of the UEE stuck waiting for her to voluntarily cross into Human-controlled space again.

“He could be lying,” Mila said. “Describe this Elaine.”

“Uh — red hair. I think it was a wig. I followed her back to that hostel and saw her leave with black hair. Dark skin. Late twenties. Kept her face all covered up. Never got a good vid.” The addict tapped his mobi again and brought up an image of a woman, covered up as he’d described.

All Mila and Rhys had ever seen were blurry images of this woman, no better than what this man was showing them. But what else did they have to go on?

She exchanged glances with Rhys, and Rhys gave her a slow nod.

Mila picked up the vial and shoved it back in the case. She wanted to destroy the drugs, force this scum into withdrawal, but the withdrawal could kill him. And Mila was no murderer and never would be.

She dropped the case back into the man’s hands and flicked his jacket with her finger. He flinched at the touch.

“If you need creds, you should start by demanding a refund from whoever sold you this knock-off.”

His brows went up in surprise, and he glanced down at his jacket, then back to Rhys, who still held his weapon. “Can I get my blade back?”

“Get out of here,” Rhys barked.

The man flinched again, then pocketed his drugs and took off running.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys’s face was red, his voice so low Mila knew he was pissed. “That’s not our agreement. I do the haggling. I handle the contacts. Not you. That’s our deal.”

Mila put her hands on her hips. “Well, it worked, didn’t it? We need to get back to our ship and get to Septa before our phantom disappears for good.” She turned heel and walked off without waiting for a reply.

Rhys didn’t speak a word as they made their way back to the docks, and his anger hung in the heavy silence between them, ruining what should have been a celebration and leaving her to her own thoughts. When they finally reached the well-lit entryway that led up to their Freelancer, Mila turned to Rhys.

His expression was blank again, showing nothing of what he might be feeling. Sometimes he was so damn hard to read. She pressed a hand to his chest, and his eyes softened slightly at her touch.

“I’m sorry. For how I acted back there. You’re right. I broke our agreement. I promise I’ll try to keep it together from now on —”

“Don’t. You got what we needed. But if this lead doesn’t pan out?”

“Fine. If it doesn’t pan . . . then we’re done searching.”

It didn’t matter. Because if the Phantom really was headed for Xi’an space, and they missed her one more time, it was as good as over anyway.

A look of relief passed over Rhys’s face. “Good. Then we agree. We’ll follow this lead, but if we lose her, we move onto something else.”

He hesitated, then reached into his pocket and drew out a small velvet bag. Mila’s lips parted as he pulled out a length of chain, the Cassa pendant hanging from it, its gorgeous pearlescent stones shimmering in the light of the dockside globes.

Rhys fastened the good luck pendant around Mila’s neck.

“But our credits . . .” Mila warmed at his light touch. “We didn’t have enough to waste on this.”

He shrugged. “Could be that Journeywoman was right about this thing after all. All we needed was a little luck. And it seems we got it.”

His voice came out husky, and Mila stood on tiptoes to kiss him. He responded with intensity, pulling her close, pressing her body to his. She wrapped her arms around his neck and lost herself in him.

When he pulled away, his eyes were dark. “Flight plan first. But while we’re waiting for clearance . . . ”

Mila gave him a small smile. “Meet me in the bunk?”

He smirked and pulled her close for another kiss. “And after that . . . we catch our phantom.”


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      Hello everyone,
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      A recorded hymn played as they sent Arun “Boomer” Ains­ley into whatever great adventure awaits in the everafter. Gavin set the service in the Rhedd Alert hangar, and the recording sounded terrible. The last somber note rebounded off the room’s hard surfaces and harsh angles.
      He wished they could have had a live band. He would have paid for an orchestra, if one were to be had on the orbit­al station. Even a bugle would have been a better tribute for the man who had brought Dell into his life. For the man who taught him and Walt so much about living a free life.
      Dell’s arm felt small around his waist and Gavin pulled her in close to him, unsure if that was the right thing to do. He turned to kiss her hair and saw Walt’s lean form looming beside them. Walt’s face was fixed in a grim mask.
      Gavin knew his brother well enough to know that Walt was berating himself inside. He didn’t deal well with guilt or re­sponsibility, and Gavin suspected that was a big part of why Walt always ran.
      The gathering started to break up. Pilots and the hangar crew busied themselves with tasks around Rhedd Alert’s battered fleet of fighters. Dell didn’t move, so he stayed there with her. Walt rested a hand on his shoulder.
      “Gavin. Oh gods, Dell. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
      Jazza leaned in and spoke in a low tone, almost a whisper. “Landing gear up in ten, boss. Your rig is on the buggy.” She motioned with her chin to where his ship waited.
      Dell turned into him and squeezed. “Be careful.”
      “I will, babe.”
      “You come home to me, Gavin Rhedd. I’ll kill you myself if you make me run this outfit on my own.”
      He pressed his lips to the top of her head. Held them there.
      “Wait. What?” Walt’s jaw was slack, his eyes wide. “Tell me you aren’t going back out there.”
      Jazza bumped Walt with her shoulder, not so much walking past him as through him. “Damn right we are, Quitter.”
      “You know what? Screw you, Jazz. All right? You used to quit this outfit, like . . . twice a month.”
      “Not like you. Not like some chicken sh—”
      “Jazz,” Gavin said, “go make sure the team is ready to roll, would ya?” With a nod to Gavin and a parting glare at Walt, she moved away into the hangar.
      “Let it be, Walt. We really do need to go. After last time, we can’t risk being late for the pickup.”
      “Screw late!” Walt’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed around the edges. “Why the happy hells are you going at all?”
      “Walt —”
      “Don’t ‘Walt’ me, Gavin. There is a pack of psychopaths out there trying to kill you!”
      “Walt, would you shut up and listen for two seconds? We don’t have a choice, okay? We’ve got everything riding on this job. We’re months behind on this place and extended up to our necks on credit for fuel, parts, and ammo.”
      “They can damn well bill me!”
      “No,” Gavin said, “they can’t. Your shares reverted back to the company when you quit. But I’m legit now. You think we lived life on the run before? Just you watch if I try to run from this.”
      Walt turned to Dell for assistance, “Dell, come on. You gotta make him listen to reason.”
      “Boomer’s shares transferred to me when he died,” Dell said. “We’re in this together.”
      “Okay, boss,” Jazza called. The three of them looked to where she stood with a line of determined crew. “It’s time.”
      Walt watched the big bay doors close as the last of Gavin’s team left the hangar. His fighter and the few remaining ships looked small and awkwardly out of place in the big room. Standing alone next to Dell gave him a great appreci­ation for that awkwardness.
      “I’m so sorry, Dell. If I’d been there —”
      “Don’t,” she stopped him with a word, and then contin­ued with a shake of her blue-tipped hair. “Don’t do that to yourself. I’ve been over the tactical logs. He got beat one-on-one, and then they OK’d him. There was nothing you could have done.”
      “I still feel rotten,” he said. “Like, maybe if I hadn’t left . . . I don’t know.”
      “Gavin blames himself, too. That’s just the way you two are built. But believe me, there was never a soul alive able to keep my dad out of the cockpit. He was flying long before you Rhedd boys tumbled into our lives.”
      That gave him a smile. A genuine smile. It seemed to bright­en Dell’s mood, so he did his best to hang onto it.
      “Come on,” she said. “It’s been a long couple of weeks. Join me for some coffee?”
      He did, and for a time they spoke softly at the tall tables in the hangar’s kitchenette. Dell caught him up on life aboard Vista Landing since he had left. She was clearly exhausted and not simply from a sleepless night and her father’s funeral. Her shoulders sagged, and dark circles under her eyes were the product of weeks of labor and worry. The constant apprehension of the Hornets’ vi­cious attacks had apparently exhausted more than just the pilots. It seemed odd that the attacks felt strangely personal.
      “You know what I can’t figure out?” he mused aloud. Dell looked at him, tired eyes politely expectant. “What the hell are these guys after?”
      She nodded, “Yeah. There’s been a lot of speculating on that question.”
      “Hard to say, isn’t it? Could be political wackos opposed to the research in Haven. Or maybe it’s one of the old gangs that don’t like us going legit. Could be it’s a group of Tevarin lashing out against UEE targets. Who knows?”
      “Naw. If they were Tevarin, we could tell by how they fly.”
      “Then you tell me, if you’re so smart. I mean, you were out there. You fought them.”
      Walt shrugged and took a sip of cooling coffee. Something she said nagged at him. “Hey, you said you had navsat tac­tical logs from the fight, right?”
      “Yeah.” What remained of her energy seemed to drain away with that one word. Walt cursed himself for the insensitive ass that he was. He’d just asked her about re­corded replays of her father’s murder.
      “Dell. Ah, hell . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
      “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been over and over them already. Really, I don’t mind.”
      They moved to a console and the lights dimmed automat­ically when she pulled up the hangar projection. She se­lected a ship, and oriented the view so that the hologram of Boomer’s Avenger filled the display. No, Walt reminded himself, it wasn’t Boomer’s ship any more. Dell was his heir and — along with his debt — Boomer’s assets now belonged to her.
      Dell bypassed the default display of the structural hard­points and dove into the ship’s systems. Something caught his eye and he stopped her. “Wait, back up.” She did, and Walt stopped the rotating display to look along the under­carriage of the ship. He let out a low whistle.
      “That, Walter Rhedd, is a Tarantula GT-870 Mk3.”
      “I know what it is. But where did you get it?”
      “Remember those pirates that gave us so much trouble in Oberon? I pulled it before we sold the salvage.”
      He certainly did remember, and the bastards had kicked the crap out of two of their ships with their Tarantulas. “How’d you get it mounted on an Avenger?”
      “Hammer therapy,” she said. He gave her a confused look, and she held up one arm, curling it to make a muscle. “I beat the hell out of it until it did what I wanted.”
      “Damn, girl.”
      “Did you want to see the flight recorder?”
      They watched the navsat replays together in silence. It looked like one hell of a fight. Chaotic. Frantic. The Rhedd Alert fighters were hard pressed.
      Jazza had moments of tactical brilliance. As much as she rubbed him the wrong way, Walt had to admit that she made her Cutlass dance steps for which it wasn’t de­signed. Gavin orchestrated a coherent strategy and had committed extra fighters to drive off the attack. Some­thing was wrong, though. Something about the fight didn’t make sense.
      Walt had Dell replay the scene so he could focus on the marauders. It didn’t look like much of a fight at all from that perspective. It looked more like a game and only one team understood how all the pieces moved. The Hornets flew to disrupt, to confuse. They knew Gavin would send a force forward to protect the transport. He’d done it every time they had met.
      “See that?” he said. “They break apart there and get called immediately back into formation. They never leave a flank exposed. Our guys never get a real opening.” He pointed out one of the attacking Hornets. “That one calls the shots.”
      “That’s the one that OK’d Boomer.”
      Reds and greens from the navsat display sparkled in Dell’s eyes. Her voice was emotionless and flat. Walt didn’t want to see her like that, so he focused again on the display.
      The marauder he’d identified as the leader broke from the melee. Gavin gave chase, but from too far behind. Boomer intercepted, was disabled, and his PRB flashed red on the display. The Hornet took a pass at the transport before turning to rejoin its squad. Then it decelerated, pausing before the overkill on Boomer.
      “Why take only one pass at the transport? They’ve hit us, what? Six times? Seven? And once they finally get a shot at the target, they bug out?”
      “You said, ‘us’,” Dell teased. “You back to stay?”
      Walt huffed a small laugh. “We’ll see.”
      “We’ve been lucky,” Dell offered in answer to his question. “So far, we’ve chased them off.”
      “You really believe that? They had this fight won if they wanted it. And how do they keep finding us? It’s like they’ve taken up permanent residence in our damned flight path.”
      That was it. He had it. The revelation must have shown on his face.
      “What?” Dell asked. “What is it?”
      “Back it up to the strafe on the Aquila.”
      Dell did, and they watched it again. He felt like an ass for making her watch the murder of her father over again, but he had to be sure of what he saw.
      And there it was. Strafe. Turn. Pause. A decision to com­mit. An escalating act of brutality. And then they were gone.
      “She’s not after the transport at all. We were her target this whole time.”
      “Wait,” Dell said, “what she? Her who?”
      “Please tell me your ex hasn’t drunk himself out of a job with the Navy.”
      “Barry? Of course not, why?”
      “Because I just figured out who killed your father.”
      Morgan Brock called the meeting to a close and dismissed her admin team. Riebeld caught her eye and lifted one hand off the table — a request for her to stay while the others shuffled out of the conference room.
      Riebeld kept her waiting until they were alone, and then stood to close the door.
      “I take it,” Brock said, “that our Tyrol problem persists despite the escalation?”
      “I got word during the meeting” — he took a seat beside her at the table, voice pitched low — “that they should be making the jump to Nexus soon.”
      “Our discreet pilots? Are they deployed or here at the sta­tion?”
      His answer was slow in coming, his nod reluctant. “They are here.”
      Brock checked the time. Did some mental math. “Disguise the ships. We will leave at 1700 and meet them in Nexus just inside the gate from Min.”
      “Morgan,” Riebeld’s eyes roamed the room, “these guys aren’t taking the hint. I don’t know what losses we have to hand them before they back down, but . . . I don’t know. Part of doing business is losing bids, am I right?” She didn’t disagree and he continued. “Maybe . . . Maybe we ought to write this one off?”
      “A comfortable position to hold in your seat, Riebeld. Your commission is based on the contract value. I barely turned a profit on that job for years. I did it willingly, with the expected reward of windfall profits when traffic to Haven surges.”
      “I get that,” he said. “I really do. But at some point we have to call it a loss and focus on the next thing, right?”
      “Then suppose that we let the Tyrol job go, and Greely and Navy SysCom see what they want to see from bou­tique contractors. I can already imagine anti-establishment politicians pushing for more outsourced work. Hell, they will probably promise contracts to buy votes in their home systems.”
      She watched him squirm. It wasn’t like him to wrestle with his conscience. Frankly, she was disappointed to learn that he’d found one.
      “If Rhedd Alert won’t withdraw willingly,” she said, “then they will have to fail the hard way. Prep the ships, Rie­beld. We have done very well together, you and I. You should know that I won’t back away from what is mine.” He seemed to appreciate her sincerity, but Brock wanted to hear the cocksure salesman say it. “Are we clear?”
      “Yes, ma’am,” Riebeld swallowed and stood. “Perfectly clear.”
      “Any luck?” Walt pulled up Barry’s record in his mobiGlas and hit connect.
      Dell sat at the hangar console trying to reach Gavin and the team. Her brow furrowed in a grimace and she shook her head.
      “Damn. Okay, keep trying.”
      Barry connected. The accountant wore his uniform. He was on duty, wherever he was, and his projected face looked genuinely mournful. “Hey,” he said, “long time no see, man. Listen, I can’t tell you how sad I am about Boomer.”
      “Thanks.” Barry had known Dell and Boomer for most his life. He’d probably been torn between attending the service and allowing the family to grieve in privacy. Regardless, commiseration would have to wait. “We need your help, Barry. Please tell me that you have access to the propos­als for the Tyrol contract.”
      “Of course I do. And who’s we? Are you back with Dell and Gavin?”
      “I am,” he felt Dell’s eyes on him when he said it. “Anyway, we need a favor. I need to know the ship models and con­figurations proposed by the incumbent.”
      “Morgan Brock’s outfit, sure. No can do on the ship data, though. That information is all confidential. Only the price proposals are available for public review, and those only during the protest period.”
      “Come on, Barry. We’re not talking trade secrets here. I could figure this out with a fly-by of their hangar in Kilian. I just don’t have time for that. I need to know what ships those guys fly.”
      Barry breathed out a heavy sigh, “Hold on. But I can’t send you the proposals, okay? You guys are already on thin ice with this contract as is.”
      “Tell me about it. And thanks, I owe you huge for this.”
      Walt waited, throat dry. He scratched at a chipped edge on his worn mobiGlas with a fingernail.
      “All right,” Barry read from something off-screen, “it looks like they’re flying a variety of Hornets. Specifically, F7As. I can send you a list of the proposed hardpoints, and I hap­pen to know that Brock herself flies a Super Hornet.”
      The mobiGlas shook on Walt’s wrist. His face felt hot, and he forced his jaw to relax. “Barry, if you have any pull with the Navy, get some ships to Tyrol. It’s been Brock this whole time. She’s been setting us up to fail. And she’s the bitch that OK’d Boomer.”
      “I’m going, Walt. That’s final.”
      Walt rubbed at his eyes with the flat part of his fingers. How did Gavin ever win an argument her? Forbidding her involvement was a lost cause. Maybe he could reason with her. “Listen. When’s the last time you were even in a cockpit?”
      “I know this ship. I was practically born in these things.”
      “Dell —”
      She threw his helmet at him. He caught it awkwardly, and she had shed her coveralls and was wriggling into her flight suit before he could finish his thought. She stared at him with hard eyes and said, “Suit up if you don’t want to get left behind.”
      Dell was as implacable as gravity. Fine. It was her funeral, and he realized there was no way his brother had ever won an argument with her.
      They finished prepping in silence. Walt pulled the chocks on her Avenger when she climbed up into the cockpit. He gave the hulking muzzle of the Tarantula an appreciative pat. “You have ammo for this bad boy?”
      “I have a little.”
      “Good,” he smiled. “Let’s hope Brock isn’t ready to handle reinforcements.”
      Walt mulled that thought over. It was true that Gavin had split their team in each fight, but Rhedd Alert had never sent in reserves. Each engagement had been a fair and straightforward fight. Brock wasn’t likely to know anything about their resources, however limited, beyond the escort team. That could work to their advantage.
      In fact, “Hey, Dell. Hop out for a tick, will you?”
      “Like hell I will.” The look she shot down at him was pure challenge. “I said I’m going and that’s that.”
      “Oh, no. I’ve already lost that fight. But you and your cannon here got me thinking about those pirates in Oberon. Tell me, did we ever find a buyer for that old Idris hull?”
      “No. It’s buoyed in storage outside the station, why?”
      Dell looked at him skeptically and he grinned. “We’re going to introduce these military-types to
      some ol’ smugglers’ tricks.”
      Gavin held the team at the edge of the jump gate between Min and Nexus. “All right gang, listen up. You know the drill and what might be waiting for us on the other side. Jazza, I want you and Rahul up on point for this jump. I’ll bring Cassiopeia over after you and the rest of the team are in. Anyone not ready to jump?”
      His team was silent as they arranged themselves into position with professional precision. The pilot aboard Cassiopeia sounded the ready and Gavin sent Jazza through. The others were hard on her heels, and Gavin felt the always-peculiar drop through the mouth of the jump gate.
      Light and sound stretched, dragging him across the inter­space. Another drop, a moment’s disorientation, and then Nexus resolved around him.
      Without warning, Mei’s fighter flashed past his forward screen. Incandescent laser fire slashed along the ghost grey and fire-alarm red ship, crippling Mei’s shields and shearing away sections of armored hull. Mei fired back at a trio of maddeningly familiar Hornets in a tight triangular formation.
      Jazza barked orders. “Mei. Rahul. Flank Gavin and get Cassiopeia out of here. Gavin, you copy that? You have the package.”
      He shook his head, willing the post-jump disorientation away. He didn’t remember bringing up his shields, but they flashed on his HUD and his weapon systems were armed.
      “Copy that.” Gavin switched to the transport channel, “Cassiopeia. Let’s get you folks out of here.”
      The crew onboard the UEE transport didn’t need any more encouragement. Gavin accelerated to keep pace with the larger ship as two Rhedd Alert fighters dropped into posi­tion above and below him. Together, they raced toward the jump gate to Tyrol.
      The Hornets wheeled and dropped toward them from one side. Gavin’s HUD lit up with alerts as Jazza sent a pair of rockets dangerously close over his head to blast into one of the attacking ships. Her ship screamed by overhead, but the Hornets stayed in pursuit of the fleeing transport.
      Alarms sounded. They needed more firepower on the Hornets to give Cassiopeia time to get clear. He yelled a course heading, and Cassiopeia dove with Mei and Rahul on either flank.
      Gavin pulled up, turned and fired to pull the attention of the attackers. He spun, taking the brunt of their return fire on his stronger starboard shields.
      The impact shook the Cutlass violently, and his shield integ­rity bar sagged into the red. Gavin turned, took another wild shot with his lasers, and accelerated away from Cassiopeia with the Hornets in close pursuit.
      Navsat data for the jump into Nexus crept onto the edge of Walt’s HUD. Several seconds and thousands of kilometers later, the first of the embattled starships winked onto the display. His brother and the Rhedd Alert team were hard-pressed.
      Walt watched Brock and her crew circle and strike, corralling the Rhedd Alert ships. Gavin tried to lead the attackers away, but Brock wouldn’t bite. By keeping the fight centered on the UEE transport, she essentially held the transport hostage.
      Time to even the odds.
      Jazza tore into one of the Hornets. Walt saw the enemy fighter’s superior shields absorb the impact. He marked that Hornet as his target, preparing to strike before its defenses recharged.
      He killed his primary drive and spun end to end, slash­ing backward through the melee like a blazing comet. His targeting system locked onto the enemy Hornet, and his heavy Broadsword blasted bullets into it.
      Mei’s battered fighter dove through the streaming wreck­age, but the Super Hornet, presumably Brock, waited for her on the other side. A blast from her neutron cannon tore through the Rhedd Alert ship. Mei ejected safely, but their team was down a ship.
      “Gods,” Gavin’s voice was frantic. “Get the hell out of here, Walt. Form up with the transport and get them away from the fight.”
      Walt ignored him. He came around for another pass and triggered his mic to an open-area channel. “The game’s up, Brock.”
      His words cut across the thrust and wheel of close com­bat, and for a moment the fighters on all sides flew in quiet patterns above the fleeing Cassiopeia.
      “You know,” Walt said, “if you wanted us to believe you were after the transport, you should have saved your big guns for Cassiopeia instead of overkilling our friend.”
      “I suppose I should be disappointed that you have found me out,” Brock’s voice was a pinched sneer, and every bit as cold and hard as Gavin had described. “On the other hand, I’m glad you’ve shared this with me. I might have been content disabling the majority of your so-called fleet. Now, it seems that I will have to be more thorough.”
      She fired, he dodged, and the fight was on again in earnest. Walt switched his comms to Rhedd Alert’s squad channel. “Brock was never after Cassiopeia, Gav. She’s been after us.”
      “Maybe I’m a little distracted by all the missiles and the neutron cannon, but I’m failing to see how that is at all relevant right now.”
      “We’re no match for the tech in her ships. If she goes after the transport, they’re toast.” He rolled into position next to Gavin. Together, they nosed down to strafe at a Hornet from above.
      “Great,” Gavin said, “then why did you tip her off?”
      Walt suppressed a wicked grin. “Because,” he said, “she can’t afford to let any of us get away, either.”
      “If you have any brilliant ideas, spit ’em out. I’m all ears.”
      “Run with me.” For all Walt knew, Brock could hear every word they were saying. She would tear them apart if they stayed. He had to get Gavin to follow him. “Run with me, Gavin.”
      “Damn it, Walt! If you came to help, then help. I’ve got a pilot down, and I’m not leaving her here to get OK’d like Boom­er.”
      “This ain’t about doing the easy thing, Gav. Someone I truly admire once told me that this game is all about trust. So ask yourself . . . do you trust me?”
      Gavin growled his name then, dragging out the word in a bitter, internal struggle. The weight of it made Walt’s throat constrict. Despite all of their arguments, Boomer’s death and his own desertion when things got hard — in spite of all of that — his brother still wanted to trust him.
      “Trust me, Gavin.”
      Brock and her wingman swept low, diving to corral Cassiopeia and its escorts. Jazza redirected them with a blazing torrent of laser fire and got rocked by the neutron cannon in return. The shields around her battered Cutlass flashed, dimmed and then failed.
      Walt gritted his teeth. It was now or never.
      “Jazz,” Gavin’s voice sounded hard and sharp, “rally with Cassiopeia and make a break for it.”
      Walt pumped his fist and accelerated back the way he’d come in.
      “Walt,” Gavin sounded angry enough to eat nails, but he followed, “I’m on your six. Let’s go, people! Move like you’ve got a purpose.”
      Walt pulled up a set of coordinate presets and streaked away with Gavin close behind him. The two remaining Hor­nets split, with Brock falling in behind Gavin to give pursuit. Even together he and Gavin didn’t have much chance of getting past her superior shields. Instead, he set a straight course for the waypoint marked at the edge of his display. When incoming fire from Brock drove them off course, he corrected to put them directly back in line with the mark.
      Brock was gaining. Gavin’s icon flashed on his display. She was close enough to hit reliably with her repeaters. As they approached the preset coordinates, Walt spotted a rippling distortion of winking starlight. Correcting his course slightly, he headed straight for it. Gavin and Brock were hard behind him.
      “Come on,” Walt whispered, “stay close.”
      On the squad display, he saw Gavin’s shield integrity dropped yet again. Brock was scoring more frequent hits.
      “A little farther.”
      Walt focused on the rippling of starlight ahead, a dark patch of space that swallowed Nexus’ star. He made a slight course correction and Gavin matched it. Together, they continued their breakneck flight from Brock’s deadly onslaught.
      The small patch of dark space grew as the three ships streaked forward. Walt opened the squad channel on his mic and shouted, “Now!”
      On his HUD, a new ship flared onto the display. It appeared to materialize nearly on top of them as Dell’s Avenger dropped from her hiding place inside the blackened hull of the derelict Idris.
      Walt punched his thrusters. The lift pressed him into his seat as he pushed up and over their trap. He heard Dell shouting over the squad channel, and he turned, straining to see behind him. Bright flashes from Brock’s muzzles accompanied a horrible pounding thunder. Dell had left her mic open and it sounded like the massive gun was threat­ening to tear her ship apart.
      “Heads up, Gav!”
      Dell’s voice hit Gavin like a physical blow.
      He saw his brother climb and suddenly disappear behind an empty, starless expanse. Then Boomer’s Avenger materi­alized from within that blackness, and Gavin knew that his wife was inside the cockpit. She was with him, out in the black where veteran pilots outgunned them.
      His body reacted where his mind could not. He shoved down, hard. Thrusters strained as he instinctively tried to avoid colliding with her. A brilliant pulse like flashes of light­ning accompanied a jarring thunder of sound.
      Gavin forced his battered ship to turn. The Cutlass shud­dered from the stress, and Gavin was pressed into the side of the cockpit as the nose of his ship came around.
      He saw the first heavy round strike Brock. The combined force of the shell and her momentum shredded her for­ward shields. Then round after round tore through the nose of Brock’s ship until the air ignited inside.
      “Dell” — the flaming Hornet tumbled toward his wife like an enormous hatchet — “look out!”
      Brock ejected.
      Dell thrust to one side, but the Hornet chopped into the hull where she had hidden. The explosion sent ships and debris spinning apart in all directions.
      He swept around to intercept her spinning ship. Walt beat him there. Thrusters firing in tightly controlled move­ments, Walt caught her Avenger, slowed it and stopped the spin.
      Gavin rolled to put himself cockpit to cockpit with his wife.
      She sat in stillness at the controls, her head down and turned to one side.
      “Come on, baby. Talk to me.”
      She moved.
      With the slow deliberateness of depressurized space, she rolled her head on her shoulders. When she looked up, their eyes met. Dell gave him a slow smile and a thumbs-up. He swallowed hard, and with one hand pressed to his heart, he shut his eyes silently in thanks.
      Gavin spun his Cutlass and thrust over to where Brock floated nearby, his weapons systems still hot. He paused then, looming above her as she had hesitated over Boomer.
      Her comms were still active. “What now, Rhedd?”
      He remembered her from the meeting with Greely. Tall, lean, and crisp. She seemed small now, drifting not more than a meter away from the battle-scarred nose of his Cutlass.
      “Gavin?” Dell’s voice sounded small after the ruckus of the fight.
      Walt eased into view alongside him. His voice was low and calm, “Easy, buddy. We weren’t raised to OK pilots.”
      “She’s not worth it,” Dell said.
      Brock snarled, “Do it already.”
      He had studied Brock’s reports for months. She had more ships and more pilots than he could ever imagine employing. What drove her to harass them and kill one of his crew for this job?
      “I just want to know why,” he asked. “You’ve got other contracts. You’ve probably made more money than any of us will see in our lives. Why come after us?”
      He held Brock’s eye, the lights from the Cutlass reflecting from her visor.
      “Why?” she repeated. “Look around you, Rhedd. There’s no law in these systems. All that matters here is courage to take what you want, and a willingness to sacrifice to keep it.”
      “You want to talk sacrifice?” he said. “That pilot you killed was family.”
      “You put him in harm’s way,” she said, “not me. What little order exists in these systems is what I brought with me. I carved my success from nothing. You independents are thieves. You’re like rodents, nibbling at the edges of others’ success.”
      “I was a thief,” he said, “and a smuggler. But we’re building our own success, and next time you and I meet with the Navy,” Gavin fired his thrusters just enough to punch Brock with the nose of his ship, “it’ll be in a court­room.”
      She spun and tumbled as she flew, growing smaller and smaller until the PRB on his HUD was all he could see.
      A pair of Retaliators with naval designations were moored outside the Rhedd Alert hangar when Gavin and the crew finally limped back to Vista Landing.
      Crew aboard Cassiopeia had insisted on helping with medical care and recovery after the fight. The team scheduled for pick-up at Haven was similarly adamant that Rhedd Alert take care of their own before continuing. Technically, no one had checked with Navy SysCom.
      Did the Navy fire contractors face to face? For all he knew, they did.
      Gavin saw to the staging of their damaged ships while the others hurried the wounded deeper into Vista Landing. When he’d finished, he exchanged a quick nod with Barry Lidst who stood at ease behind Major Greely.
      “Major,” Gavin held out his hand, “I assume someone would have told me already if I was fired.”
      His hand disappeared in the major’s massive paw. “I sup­pose they would have, at that.”
      “Then to what do we owe the honor?” Dell and Walt joined them, and Gavin made introductions.
      “‘I’ first, then ‘we,’ ” Greely repeated, “I like that, Rhedd. I appreciate a man who accepts consequence personally but insists on sharing accolades with his team. Tell me, son. How’d you get Brock?”
      Gavin nudged his wife. With a roguish grin, Dell pulled her arm from around Gavin’s waist and stepped over to pat the Tarantula on her battered Avenger.
      “Nice shooting, miss.”
      Dell shrugged, “Walt pulled my tags, nav beacon and flight recorder before we left. I was sitting dark inside a decoy when the boys flew her right down the barrel.”
      Barry leaned toward Greely and in a completely audible whisper said, “It might be best if we ignore the illegal parts of that.”
      Greely waved him off. “This is what the ’verse needs. Men and women with the courage to slap their name up on the side of a hangar. A chance for responsible civilians to create good, honest jobs with real pay for locals. That an ex-military contractor tried to muck that up . . .”
      Gavin and the team got a good, close look at what angry looked like on a Navy officer. It was the kind of scowl that left an impression.
      “Anyway,” Greely composed himself, “not a soul in the ’verse would blame you for writing us off as a bit of bad business. I’m here to ask that you stick with it.”
      Gavin was reluctant to bring their financial situation up in front of their one paying client, but they were tapped out. Rhedd Alert didn’t have the cred to buy ammo, much less repair their downed fighters. “Actually, sir. I think we may need to find something a little more lucrative than getting shot up by disgruntled incumbents.”
      “About that,” Greely rested his hand on Gavin’s shoulder. He led him to look out one of the large hangar windows at the Retaliators buoyed outside. “My accountant tells me there may be some room to renegotiate certain parts of the Tyrol contract. But that job won’t be enough to keep your team busy now that Brock’s out of the way.”
      Gavin laughed. “On that point, I most certainly hope you are right.”
      “Well . . . I’ve got more work for an outfit like yours. I hope you’ll accept, because you folks have surely earned it. Tell me, Rhedd, are you familiar with the Oberon system?”
      Behind them, Walt dropped his helmet.
      The End
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