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Game Armada Phantom Bounty: Part Four

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Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 3.4. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

Mila was a traitor. She’d risked her career as a bounty hunter . . . had betrayed her partner, Rhys, to free Casey. Was it all worth it? Had Casey been telling the truth about her father developing bioweapons?

Mila snuck a glance at Casey as she returned to the co-pilot’s seat. The dark-haired woman offered her a small smile, then harnessed herself into her seat. Mila’s childhood friend. A terrorist.

The emptiness of space loomed before them, nothing but darkness beyond Devana’s forward screen. Mila gripped the controls so tightly her hands ached.

“I’ve managed to mask our signal,” Casey said, “but it’s a temporary fix only. We have a half hour. No more.”

“How . . . ?”

Casey explained the method, and Mila shook her head, partially in awe of the hacking skills required, partially in dismay over the length of the resulting prison sentence if she were caught at it.

“Could have used that trick myself a time or two,” Mila muttered.

“Not if you want to stay on the right side of the law.” Casey cleared her throat. “After this is over. Of course. Just picked up the signal on the scanner. Gotta be my contact. The ship’s waiting a few clicks from the jump point.”

Mila’s hands grew tighter on the controls as she glanced at the scanner screen. Space normally held the dual promises of endless possibility and endless danger . . . but today it held only danger for her.

“Any sign of the Advocacy?” Mila asked tightly.

“Not yet. But . . . they’ll follow. They always do. Get me to my contact, and we’ll execute the plan.”

Mila tried to calm her breathing, but her heart was racing, and she couldn’t make it stop. It was supposed to be simple. Mila would pull up next to the contact ship; Casey would knock her out, then transfer to the other ship. When Rhys and the Advocacy found Mila, she’d tell them Casey took her ship and ran with it. Then everything could go back to normal. Or almost normal. Would Rhys believe the lie? Could she lie to him?

This was stupid. So stupid. She’d acted rashly. There was no way she could lie well enough to convince the Advocacy and Rhys that Casey had somehow escaped the containment pod, overpowered her, and then locked her inside. But Mila didn’t have another solution.

“Straight ahead.” Casey plotted new coordinates, and Mila followed the trajectory.

A long, sleek yacht came into view in front of them. A few thin lights gleamed along the length of the 890’s hull. The owner of this ship had plenty of money; Casey’s contact was the real deal.

“Freelancer,” came a voice over the comm. “State your business.”

Casey replied, “Tell S Whispering Wind approaches.”

“Around which sun does the finest planet orbit?”


Mila’s heart skipped a beat and she slammed a hand over the comm, silencing it. “Ilios,” she hissed. “Like the project?”

Casey’s brows rose for a split second, then her expression smoothed. “Exactly like that.”

“I thought you destroyed all that data.”

“S has cleared you for docking,” the comm interrupted, “but we’ll need to scan you at close range.”

Casey pushed Mila’s hand out of the way and hit the comms. “Roger that.”

“Tell me what’s going on,” Mila hissed. “What is this about Ilios?”

Casey sighed. “I can’t tell you about S. Or Ilios. If I did, I’d have to kill you.”

Mila tensed in her seat. There was no hint of humor in Casey’s voice. None. She was serious.

“I risked everything for you!”

“Look . . . all I can say is that People First has friends in high places. They support the cause. But not all friends are created equal. Many do things . . . for their own reasons. And can be persuaded to help if you offer the right terms.”

Mila pulled the ship up beside the much longer 890. “This contact is connected with People First? And what were her terms for you, to get you out of here and betray PF?”

The 890 commed them before Casey could answer. “We detect two life signs in the Freelancer. S says you were supposed to come alone.”

“I needed help getting here,” Casey replied tersely.

“S says both of you must board. Or we leave.”

Casey glanced at Mila with a veiled expression, “I’m sorry to drag you into this. But we both have to go over there.”

“No.” Panic rushed through Mila, and she tightened her grip on the stick. “No way. That wasn’t the deal. You go over. I stay here. Or I’m leaving.”


“Don’t call me that,” she said through gritted teeth. “My name is Mila now.”

“Mila,” Casey’s voice was low, soothing. “How do you think it’ll look if we fly away now? They’ll shoot us out of existence and jump without a glance back. You have to go over there. I’ll make sure S sends you back here.”

“How will you make sure?”

“I just will. Now suit up. We’re wasting too much time. S definitely won’t be happy if the Advocacy shows up at her door. But I’m pretty sure you understand that.” Casey left her seat and headed back to suit up herself.

Mila stared at the yacht, trying to decide if she could outmaneuver it and escape. But then what? She had to get rid of Casey, not keep her on board. She let out a frustrated sigh, unbuckled, and headed back to her gear. She ignored Casey, not meeting her gaze.

Her injured shoulder, shot by Casey, cried out in pain as she pulled her suit up. She slapped a new numbing patch on it and continued dressing. As she closed the suit up, her hand touched her necklace.

Mila’s heart twisted as she pulled the bronze token over her head. She stared down at it, at the infinity symbol, the special iridescent “good luck” stones dangling from it, and a new wave of regret washed over her.

Rhys had spent some of their last creds on this. To make her happy. Mila took the necklace and tucked it in the space between the bunk and the wall. She didn’t deserve it. And it hadn’t brought her good luck anyway, had it?

When Mila got back to the cargo hold, Casey was suited up, her helmet under one arm.


“Yeah,” Mila mumbled.

They both latched their helmets on, then Mila depressurized the cargo hold and opened the back ramp. She and Casey pushed off the ramp and drifted toward the 890’s rear lift. When they were inside the empty space, the cage lifted under them, and artificial gravity gently resumed. A light turned green above them, and Casey took off her helmet. Mila did the same.

They stared at the double doors before them, waiting in tense silence.

The doors finally slid open, revealing a broad-shouldered man in a dark grey flight suit. “S will see you now.”

The man stepped into the lift, one hand gripping a pistol, and gestured for Mila and Casey to enter the ship.

Mila squared her shoulders and met the man’s hard glare with one of her own. She wouldn’t be afraid of these thugs. She’d faced off against dozens of wanted criminals and come out on top. She could do it again.

Another pair of guards met them in the next corridor where it widened. One of them patted Casey and Mila down and removed their mobiGlas as the other kept his gun trained on them. When they were satisfied, they led them down the corridor and into a well decorated lounge.

Mila’s eyes darted around. The lounge was on two decks, and more guards looked down at them from behind the rail of the upper deck. By the taste displayed here, Casey’s contact was old money. It could have been owned by Mila’s parents or any of their friends on Terra. Silk panels from Rihlah, famous Terran brocade applied to the benches, a delicate glass and metallic table at the center, and a very impractical glass chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Iridescent stones decorated the chandelier, and Mila’s hand almost went to the spot where her good luck necklace used to be. They looked just like the stones on it.

Two more guards entered, bringing the total to five on the main deck. Mila’s lips parted as a woman, apparently the mysterious ‘S,’ walked in behind them.

It was the woman from the market stall where Rhys had purchased her necklace.

Mila did a double take. No . . . there were differences. This S was petite, with space-black hair and light blue eyes, just like the woman at the stall. But the woman before her wore a well-tailored suit and robe, not loose skirts. And her hair wasn’t done up in braids, and she didn’t have a nose ring. She looked more . . . well-preserved — her skin smooth, a product of youth treatments. This was not the same woman . . . but Mila would be willing to bet they had some relation to each other.

The woman walked up to them with a smile, and exchanged kisses on the cheek with Casey.

“Brought a friend?” she asked, raising a brow at Mila.

“Like I said. I needed a ride.”

“And who is this?”

Mila didn’t answer, just tried to keep her expression blank. She couldn’t let this woman know she knew anything about her.

“She’s just an old friend of mine,” Casey said, her voice light.

The woman’s eyes darkened, her polite demeanor fading a fraction. She gestured to one of the guards.

“Come with me, Elaine. Let us talk over here.”

Casey followed her to an ottoman near the center of the room, while the guard grabbed Mila’s arm and pulled her to the edge of the space and out of earshot of Casey and S’s quiet conversation. Did S know who Casey was originally? She’d called her Elaine, the name she’d used on Tevistal.

The two of them engaged in an intense, quiet talk for a few minutes and then Casey lifted the sleeve of her suit and peeled off a piece of her skin. False skin. Mila went cold at the sight of it. Casey hadn’t mentioned any hidden data . . . or details on the price for her passage. Casey scraped a chip from the skin and passed it to S.

Casey was selling data, probably Phan Pharmaceutical data. Had she lied about everything? Was she just stealing data to sell to competitors? Anger started to bloom in Mila’s chest, and she fought to keep her mouth shut. All that mattered now was that Mila get out of this alive and unscathed.

Casey finished her transaction and returned to Mila.

“What was that?” Mila hissed.

Casey’s expression was tight. “She’ll let you go back to your ship just as soon as she checks my payment.”

A new guard ran through the door. “Madame. The Advocacy was spotted by our scout. We need to jump. Now.”

“Wait — no.” Mila looked toward the door they’d come in. “Send me back. Send me back now.”

S shot them a glare and gestured to the guard behind Mila. “Take them each to a room until after the jumps.”

Jumps. This was starting to get a lot more complicated.

“Let me go back to my ship!” Mila’s voice rose.

Casey dug her nails into Mila’s hand and leaned close, whispering. “They won’t let you now. Keep it together if you want to survive this.”

Mila lurched to the side, trying to make a desperate run back out to her ship.

The guards closed in on her, grabbed both her arms, and dragged her the other way. She went limp, no longer fighting it as the realization of what had happened sunk in.

They took her up a flight of stairs and opened the first door they came to, pushing her inside.

“Harness up. We’ll be jumping soon,” one of the guards said.

The door slid closed and she heard the lock engage. Mila took a panicked look around the small room, and then sank down in the jump seat. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she buckled in. She’d messed up.

She’d always been able to get out of scraps before. Always. But not this time. She just kept sinking deeper into a pit that appeared to have no bottom.

The ship hummed softly as it powered up, and in mere minutes she felt the woozy sensation of the first jump. Another soon followed, and Mila’s hope died as they travelled further and further away from her ship.

When the Advocacy found the empty Devana . . . they’d know. They’d know she’d helped Casey escape. They’d think she was working with her.

And it would be true.

The stomach-lurching feeling of the third jump let Mila know her old life was over for good. Now she was a criminal . . . on the run. She could try to say Casey had kidnapped her, but why would she have? There was no good way out of this. And Rhys knew the truth; he’d known about their shared past. If the Advocacy pressed him . . .

Would Mila even get off this ship alive?

When the yacht powered down, Mila unharnessed herself and paced the small room.

Hours passed, and a guard brought Mila food and water. The reconstituted food tasted like death, like a last meal before the end, and a terrible one at that. She could barely wrap her mind around what she’d done — how much her life had changed in just a few hours. Then the locks disengaged on her door again, and she turned as it slid open.

Casey slipped through and quickly closed it. “The guards are busy . . . for the moment. This might be our only chance to talk.”

“You lied to me. You knew.”

“No. I didn’t. I’d hoped to get you back to the ship.”

“I can never go back now, Casey. Not ever.”

“Shh. I’m Elaine here.” Casey looked completely calm, unbothered by the fact that Mila’s entire life was hanging in the balance.

Mila rushed Casey and shoved her against the metal wall. “They’re not gonna let me walk out of here, are they? I’m an unknown entity. I was never supposed to be here.”

Casey winced with pain and her forehead creased with worry. “S — Sybil — will make sure she knows who you are before she lets you leave now. And when she finds out you’re a bounty hunter . . .”

“Well, I think I know something about her. There was this woman selling trinkets at the market—”

“A younger sister. You don’t say a word about knowing anything, understand? She’ll kill you if she thinks you know anything about her. She operates under the illusion that we don’t know anything.”

Mila backed away from Casey, feeling dizzy. “You lied to me. You’re selling data—”

“Not bioweapons! When we do jobs, we collect harmless, or even beneficial, research and sell it to fund our cause. But I’m funding my escape with it this time.”

“What is it? What did you just sell?” Mila’s voice rose as she spoke, and she tried to calm herself down, but her mind was racing.

“The formula for a medical treatment that hasn’t been patented yet.”

“How can I believe that?”

“Look, we don’t have time for this.” Casey placed her hands on Mila’s shoulders, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “You know about her family. She’s going to find out about you. There’s no way she’s letting you just go back to your regular life now. You have one choice.”

Mila shrugged off Casey’s hands. “What?”

“You come with me. I’m going to try to convince her to let us disappear together.”

“No!” Mila began to pace the room again. “I can’t just . . . leave the Empire.”

“If you stay — you just freed me and left your ship stranded next to a jump point. They’ll know you helped me. You have no other choice.”

“You think I don’t know what it looks like? You have to help me get off of here. Have them drop me off somewhere so I can . . . somehow make it right.”

“You know too much! About me — about PF — about Sybil.”

Red crowded around the edges of Mila’s vision, and it took everything she had not to wrap her hands around Casey’s neck and squeeze. “I helped you. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me. You have to help me fix this. Help me get out of here.”

Casey folded her arms across her chest and glanced back toward the door. “I can’t.”

“You. Will.”

“They’ll catch you—”

“And it won’t matter to you either way. You’ll be long gone, hiding in Xi’an territory.”

Casey met Mila’s eyes and sighed. “Fine. Get yourself killed if that’s what you want.” She reached into her suit pocket and pulled out a translucent swipe card.

“Stole it off a guard.” Casey smiled ruefully. “This should get you into the corridor at the end of this one. They have a little 85X there. I know we’re stopping at a planet soon. Backwater, but plenty of places to hide. I’ll distract the guards for you. When I knock twice on your door, wait five minutes, then it’s time for you to go.”

Mila stared down at the card in her hand.

“Thank you again, for helping me. I owe you my life.” Casey wrapped her in a quick hug that Mila didn’t return. “I really am sorry. Try to be safe.” Casey gave her one last sad smile. “If you change your mind . . .”

“No,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “I’m going to fix this.”

The knocks came after Mila had given up on Casey ever following through.

Two knocks.

Mila grabbed her helmet off the floor and hugged it to her chest.

Heart pumping a chaotic rhythm in her chest, Mila waited through five tense minutes, then swiped the card Casey had given her. The door slid open to reveal an empty corridor beyond. She barely breathed as she gingerly stepped into the corridor and looked both ways. She turned right, as Casey had directed her to, and hurried toward the end. It curved right, taking her to a new door.

She said a quick prayer to the Banu god of luck that the room beyond would be empty, then scanned the card.

The door opened into a hangar bay. The 85X sat at the center of it.

An alarm sounded, and red lights began to flash in the bay.

Mila was sweating freely as she latched her helmet on.


Someone tackled her from behind, shoving her down on the floor. She fought back, twisting in the man’s grasp until she saw him face to face. A guard, the one who had warned Sybil about the Advocacy’s arrival.

Mila slammed a gloved fist into his unprotected face, and he stumbled backward. She desperately climbed forward, trying to get into the 85X cockpit, but the guard followed her.

Depressurize Bay. The small words flashed in the corner of the cockpit’s interface. As the guard grabbed her leg, she hit the button on the screen. A whole new set of alarms joined the ongoing din. The man’s eyes widened, and he scrambled away from her, toward the hangar door. He scanned his key card, trying to make it open, but it was sealed shut. He would die if she didn’t do something.

Mila paused the depressurization and lurched out of the ship. She crashed into the man, seeking the pistol he held in his grip. She slammed an elbow into his gut again, and he released the gun. She picked it up and trained it on him.

“Last chance to get out!” she yelled. He stared at her wild eyed and scanned his card again.

This time the door opened. Several guards waited beyond, but he yelled something to them and they didn’t try to enter.

The door slid shut, and Mila climbed back into the ship, tossing the pistol into the seat beside her.

She brought up the Starmap, her hands shaking with adrenaline, praying that it would display more than a void. They were in orbit over a settled world! She chose a landing site to the west of the closest city. She could abandon the ship there, hide in the wooded hills, wait it out until she was sure Sybil and her guards had given up waiting for her to emerge. She chose her destination, and then completed the prep sequence.

The countdown began. She harnessed herself into the seat as the hangar bay opened, revealing black space behind.

She throttled up and took off, leaving the 890 behind.

Mila headed directly planetside, sparing little attention for the ship at her back. If they shot up the runabout, she would have no more worries herself. There was nothing she could do but speed to her landing site.

She pictured Rhys. His handsome face, his reassuring words, the way he’d held her. That smirk she’d probably never see again unless she got caught or found a way to fix this impossible situation.

As she entered the planet’s atmosphere, she spared the time for a few tears.

A few days ago she’d been hunting the Phantom.

Now she needed to become one.

Five Months Later

Mila wove her way through dark alleyways, keeping her head down, a hood concealing her face. A lock of her newly short-cropped blonde hair fell into her eyes, and she blinked as it irritated them. The green colored contacts she wore felt dry, scratchy. But at least from afar she wouldn’t be recognized.

She glanced back at a huddle of transients gathered round a rusty heater, and turned down the next alley. She’d reached the hostel sector.

It was dangerous being back in Tevistal so soon after the Incident, but she’d run out of options and time. A dozen small-time jobs had funded her existence along the way, but now there were even more bounties on her head.

She’d been hunted for months, had been nearly caught, but so far she’d always gotten away. And this was the one place they’d probably never expect her to return.

Mila gritted her teeth and walked down the dark alley between two hostels. A cracked globe flickered, guiding her to a hostel entrance. She pushed open the door, and the scent of piss wafted over her. It barely registered. This place was only half as filthy as most of the places she’d slept the past few months.

Voices rang through the thin metal walls. Arguments. The sound of two people moaning and grunting. An old vid playing at full blast.

Mila found an unoccupied room and went inside. Dim sensor lights lit up the room. The place had a film of filth coating it, but it would do.

She shut the door behind her and activated the second-hand mobiGlas on her wrist. Her hacking program did a quick job of activating the RoomTab. The lights and power came on in response, and she pulled her mobi away. It would stay on until she ran her program again. No creds needed. Which was good, because she didn’t have many left.

A glance around the now well-lit room brought a flood of memories back. The pain came with it, weighing Mila down. She sank to the dirty mattress.

She and Rhys had tracked the Phantom to a room like this once.

Mila did something she hadn’t done for weeks. She brought up the news search she’d saved to her mobiGlas, to see if anything had changed since she’d last checked.


She rewatched the vid of Casey’s father being arrested with the sound turned off. Owen Phan’s face was the same regal countenance she remembered from growing up. When Mila had first heard that the truth about the biological weapons had leaked, it had been a relief to learn that Casey had at least been telling the truth about that. And even more importantly, Mila’s mother had been kept completely clear of the breaking scandal. Knowing that Phan wouldn’t be making weapons anymore was the only glimmer of light in these recent dark days.

Almost without thinking, Mila accessed another archived news story.

An image of herself flashed in the air before her. Or at least what Mila used to look like. It was the photo the Advocacy had been using on her bounty.


The article speculated on the nature of the terrorism, on the relationship between Mila’s parents and Phan Pharmaceuticals, and on Mila’s motives. Even with the revelation of the biological weapons it hadn’t changed the fact that the Phantom had wreaked havoc for months. Casey, and by association Mila, were still considered criminals.

The article had included a small photo of Rhys as well. He had been held for questioning, but with no proof of any wrongdoing on his part he had eventually been released.

Mila reread the final line.

Evony Mila Salinas is still at large, with several bounties on her head for crimes ranging from petty theft to terrorism.

She scanned back up to see Rhys’s face one more time, but it was like a knife through her heart. She turned off the mobi.

She needed to get to Xi’an territory fast, and she only knew of one woman who could get her there. Sybil.

But she’d been unable to dig up anything useful on the woman. All she knew was that she was related to that peddler who had sold trinkets in the Tevistal market square on Pilgrim’s Day. So that’s who Mila needed to find. Sybil might have her guards shoot Mila on sight after what she’d done . . . but Sybil had helped Casey — for a price.

And Mila was desperate enough to pay just about any price Sybil asked. She’d learned a few weeks ago that Rhys was hunting her down, trying to bring her in, that her time was running out.

Maybe . . . maybe if he did find her again in Xi’an territory, free of Advocacy influence, she could explain. She could hope for his forgiveness, if nothing more.

But until then, she’d be a Phantom. Doing what she needed to stay free.


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      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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