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Game Armada Brothers In Arms: Part Two

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Writer’s Note: Brothers In Arms: Part Two was published originally in Jump Point 3.6. Read Part One here.

Gavin left Walt on Cassel. There was a time, back in his single days, when an extended stay on a resort world was the perfect sequel to a crappy job. Now he had a better offer waiting at home and two bottles of chilled Kōen Shōchū riding shotgun in the cockpit beside him. The better offer, of course, was Dell. The shōchū was his best hope to reboot his homecoming from Oberon.

It wasn’t exactly the grand entrance he’d planned on making. He felt his cheeks warm and was glad to be alone. With a sigh, he squeezed his eyes shut and let his head fall back into his seat. His helmet bumped against the cockpit frame. When he opened his eyes again, the HUD had died. He rolled his head to eye the waiting bottles of shōchū. Perhaps he needed the alcohol more than she did.

Rhedd Alert’s hangar was still. The lights were dialed down to a dull, sapphire glow. But while the hangar was quiet, Vista Landing never slowed down. The sounds of the complex were a pressure all around him; a constant hum of life that seemed intrusive after a long stint flying solo.

Gavin shed his flight suit and then grabbed the helmet and bottles of shōchū. The helmet got dumped unceremoniously onto a workbench. The shōchū went with him to their apart­ment. It was dark inside — he was too late. Dell was already asleep.

He leaned against the door while his eyes adjusted to the courtesy lighting in the bedroom. Dell lay on her side with her back to him. Her hair was a dark fan against pale pillows and sheets. There was no trace of the playful blue-dyed tips in the low light. He looked instead to the curve of her hip and the long line of her covered legs.

He left the bottles on a table, not wanting to risk waking her with light from the fridge. He stripped off his shirt on the way to the little closet. She’d left it open, and piles of clothes made odd shapes in the low light.

They smelled like her. He’d forgotten how much he loved that. He leaned forward, his head slipping between her hanging shirts and jackets. They didn’t have much, but this was home. They were settled, with no desire for any more living out of cockpits and dirty cargo bays. But if he couldn’t make this work, that’s exactly what they would be back to.

Gavin stooped and picked up the discarded shirt. There was work to do. Things to fix.

He closed the door as quietly as he could when he left.

He was at a workbench in the hangar when the light pad of Dell’s bare feet on the cold hangar deck sounded behind him.

“Hey, Slugger.” Her voice was playful, teasing him about the scrap with Walt. The taunting tone was good news, in a way. It meant that she wasn’t quite so angry. Regardless, he was still embarrassed about the fight and didn’t rise to her bait.

“I thought you were asleep,” he said instead.

She rubbed her hand across his shoulders, bumped him aside with her hip and then took a seat next to him on the bench when he moved. “I was asleep, but it sounded like a herd of Shoone came tromping through the apart­ment.”

He felt better hearing the smile in her voice. “Huh . . . I guess I’m glad I missed that.”

“What are you working on?”

Gavin started running through his list, wondering where to start. He gave up somewhere north of fifteen and simply replied, “Everything.”

“Did we get paid?” He nodded and her look of relief was frustrating. Depending on Dell’s ex-boyfriend for financial salvation wasn’t exactly how he’d envisioned his role as a business owner.

“How’s Boomer?” he asked.

“He can’t keep doing this. They patched him up, but he’s been banged around way too much.”

It was true. Dell’s dad had been put back together more than any other pilot Gavin had ever met. Maybe a few military pilots had had more rejuvenation treatment, but their facilities had to be far better than anything civies like Boomer had access too.

“You’ve got to get him to take it easy, Gav. Let him fly sup­port in the Freelancer or something.”

“Let him fly support? This is your dad we’re talking about. He’s at least half as stubborn as you are. And you know how he flies. He’s cool as gunmetal in a dogfight, but he flies like a crazy . . . flying . . . kind of . . . person.”

“Will you at least try? Please?”

There was no way Boomer was going to listen to him, but Gavin agreed. It wasn’t worth fighting with Dell about it. They’d been over that ground before. Plenty of times.

He prodded at the wiring harness of his helmet.

“The heads-up out again?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Here, let me do it.” She pulled the tools closer and set to work. “So . . . Walt stayed to drink his paycheck away with Barry?”

“Walt worked as hard as anyone in Oberon. Harder than most, actually. He can do what he wants with his cut.”

“While we’re dumping all of ours into repairs and supplies?”

“I brought you some shōchū,” he offered.

“I saw that.” She snuggled into his side and slid her arm around his waist. “Mmmmm . . . thank you.” A peck on his cheek. “I put it in the fridge.”

“You should have brought a bottle with you.”

She unwound herself from him and went back to work on the helmet. “It might work out better for you if we save that for a night when I’m not exhausted.”

That killed the mood. Gavin shifted the tools around on the bench. Dell must have sensed his change of mood. She sat up straight, her tone growing somber. “I’ve been doing some math,” she said.

“How bad is it?”

“Not good.”

He hoped that the grimace he made was reassuring. It probably wasn’t.

“Selling the salvage will keep us out of the red for a couple months,” she said. “Good job on that, by the way. I don’t know about the Idris, but that 325a is actually quite sell­able. Unless you want to keep it, that is.”

Gavin thought about it. “Sell it,” he said. “We can’t afford to upgrade any of our people, and I’m not bringing on any more pilots until we land some steady work.”

“On that topic, did Barry have something new for us, or did he come to Goss system just to carouse with your brother?”

He told her about the turret job and she brightened.

“This is good, Gav. You think this could turn into a steady stream of work?”

“Maybe, but we’ve got a team of combat pilots, babe. They’re not going to stick around for this kind of work.”

“Then screw them. Let them leave, and I’ll fly with you.”

“You fly worse than your dad. Besides, you wanted to be here to run the shop.”

“I’m here because I want this to work.” She put her tools down and entwined her fingers with his. “Believe me, I’d much rather be flying with you and Dad.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t want you out there. Bringing Boomer back in stasis is one thing, but you . . .”

She extracted her fingers and patted his hand, pulling away. “That’s an idea you’re going to have to get used to. Dad won’t be flying that old Avenger forever. Eventually, she’ll be mine. But right now,” she leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, “I’m going to bed.”

Dell stood, pressed his helmet’s wire housing into place with a click and left.

Gavin picked up the helmet and peeked inside. The glow from the reticle display shown within. She’d got it working again.

They had a good thing going, he and Dell. But chronic, nag­ging financial worry would eventually tear that apart. He just needed work that paid and that his pilots would stay for. Work that would keep Walt from chasing something shiny, interesting, and new. What he needed was that Tyrol escort job.

Gavin pushed the helmet and tools aside on the bench. He keyed up the console and placed a call to Barry’s mobiGlas. The accountant accepted the call.

“Talk to me, sweetheart.”

“Barry. Good, you’re still in-system.”

“Just about to leave Cassel, why?”

“What would a bid need to look like for someone to be com­petitive on that Tyrol contract?”

“Gavin,” Barry’s voice grew serious. “You’re new to this, but you have to know that I can’t give out that kind of information.”

Gavin’s mobiGlas vibrated against his wrist with an incom­ing message.

“I’m sorry, Barry. I wasn’t trying to cause troub—”

Barry cut him off. “Now, what I can do is point you toward the proper registration and submission forms. How you manage the pricing is your concern. Understand?”

On Gavin’s mobiGlas was a message from an unknown contact. The message was simple, containing only a Credit sign and a number.

A big number.


“Thanks, Barry. I appreciate it and understand completely.”

It took four days to clear just two turrets from the mouth of the first cave. Walt took out the first within seconds of arriving. He did it with what he swore was a purposeful and carefully aimed shot.

The second turret pulverized Jazza’s Cutlass, and they had to tow the wreckage back to Vista Landing for re­pairs. Jazza herself went home in stasis after taking hits to a shoulder and both of her legs. She did not rejoin them for the moon mine job.

On the fourth day — running low on patience, ammo, and foul language — they finally came up with a solution. It was ugly. It was dangerous. But as they worked deeper into the moon, it was the only thing they found that worked.

“All right, Boomer,” Gavin said, “hold behind that outcrop­ping.”

Boomer’s Avenger crept to a halt beside him. Deep inside the warren of caverns, the moon’s rotation was enough to give them a sense of up and down. Still, holding a relative position inside a small spinning moon was not as easy as one might think. Stabilizing thrusters fired continuously in short, irregular bursts.

Gavin checked his orientation and distance from the walls. He was in place. The tag team system they’d come up with had been working pretty well, using one ship to draw fire while a second swept in to blast each turret. It was tedious and sphincter-tightening work, but the moon was nearly cleared. Only a small handful of tricky defenses remained intact.

“Okay,” Gavin settled his hands on his flight controls. “On my mark.”

He left the mic open and triggered a timer on his navsat. He watched Boomer’s ship ease slowly into the turret’s line of sight to the steady countdown of the timer. Right on cue, Gavin hammered his thrusters and sped into the cave, just as the first blast from the turret struck Boomer’s shields.

Gavin yawed to the left, swinging the nose of his ship until he could see both the turret and Boomer’s ship. The old man’s Avenger bucked under the constant fire. The shields held, but the blast forced the Avenger back out into the tunnel before Gavin could take a shot.

Gavin fired, and the turret’s twin barrels swiveled with such impeccable precision and speed that they looked like identical empty dots. “Oh, sh—” the barrels erupted in a fusillade of crimson light.

Gavin fired again and had no clue if he was anywhere near the mark. The turret’s aim was flawless, however. There was an odd pulling sensation when the cabin lost pressure and his suit pressurized, squeezing around his limbs and chest.

Another barrage hammered into him and he felt the Cut­lass crunch ass-backward into the wall of the cavern. The ship rolled, nose pitching wildly to one side. Gavin saw an open blackness of empty space yawn into view. He punched it, hoping he was heading back out into the tunnel and not to his death inside the smugglers’ cave.

Relieved, he saw Boomer’s Avenger flash by beneath him. But dread gripped him again when the walls of the narrow tunnel loomed to fill his entire view. He reversed thrust, hunched tight around the controls and braced for impact.

It was bad.

He hit hard, and the impact sent him careening down the cavern. He tumbled over and over, willing his ship to hold together. When he finally forced himself to release the flight controls, the ship righted itself.

“Holy hells,” Boomer breathed. “Gav? You alive, buddy?”

His chest heaved like he’d been running. “I seem to recall some idiot bitching about this job being boring.”

Walt, exploring a tunnel in another part of the moon, an­swered, “That sounds like it was directed at me. You two okay?”

“No, I’m not okay. I just got blown up!”

“Simmer down, son,” Boomer said. “I’ve been blown up plenty of times. That was nothin’. I, uh . . . I don’t think you’re taking another crack at that turret until we get your ship patched up, though.”

“Oh, really? Ya think?” Gavin’s comms flashed on an incom­ing line. “Hold on, guys. Call coming in.”

Boomer laughed, saying, “They probably heard us planet­side and want us to keep the noise down.”

“Very funny. Actually, it’s Dell. Now shut it.” Gavin accept­ed the incoming line.

“Gav?” He couldn’t tell if Dell sounded scared or angry, maybe both. “We got a problem, babe. Jazza’s out of here. Says she’s taking a ship unless she gets her cut of the turret job before she goes.”

“What? What do you mean ‘out of here’?”

“She’s leaving,” Dell said. “Leaving the company, I mean.”

Walt cut in on the squad channel. “Hey Gav, I’m all finished in here. You want me to come take a look at tha—”

Gavin juggled channels. “Hold on, Walt.” He squinched his eyes closed, sore, frustrated and confused. “Dell. Where’s Jazz going? You mean she’s quitting?”

Boomer kept the chatter going on the squad channel. “Sounds like he’s getting an earful, Walt. Glad she didn’t call me.”

“Tell her Gavin just got blown up.”

“That would improve her day significantly.”

They both laughed.

Gavin spread his hands in an open-armed shrug for no one’s benefit but his own. “Would you please shut the hell up?”

They did. Dell did not. “What did you just say to me?!”

“Not you, babe. Walt and . . . you know what? Never mind all that. Just tell me again, what’s going on with Jazz?”

His mobiGlas vibrated. Gavin swore silently and balled his fists to keep from shooting something. From within his pressure suit, it was difficult to activate the mobiGlas. He managed it while Dell filled him in on Jazza’s desertion. She was going to look for work with one of the smuggling outfits hidden in the Olympus Pool. Paying work. Blah. Blah. Deserter.

Gavin finally powered on his mobiGlas display. There was a message from a contact marked “unknown,” but Gavin knew exactly who it was from.


“I tried to talk her out of it, Gav,” Dell sounded close to tears. “I really did.”

“Dell, listen to me.”


“Get Jazza back. All right? Do whatever it takes.”

“I’ll try, Gav, but . . .”

“Whatever it takes, okay? We’re going to need her. We’re going to need everyone and then some.”

“What’s going on, Gavin?”

He keyed his mic to transmit on both channels, “Everybody, listen up. They only got two bids on the Navy contract. We’re the low bid.”

“Is low bad?” Boomer asked.

“Dell,” Gavin said, “have Jazza join us in Oberon. We’re working ’round the clock until we’ve cleared the last few turrets.”

Gavin sat in his damaged Cutlass, cheeks stretched in an unfamiliar grin.

“Guys,” he said, “we just won the Navy job.”

“Go on in, Miss Brock.” A lieutenant held the door open for her. “Major Greely and his guest are already inside.”

The major’s guest. How wonderful. Morgan Brock smoothed the front of her pleated skirt and then swept through the doorway into Greely’s conference room. The major and his “guest” stood near the head of the table. Greely was looking more Marine than Navy in his shirt sleeves. The man had arms as thick as most men’s legs.

“Brock. Good of you to come personally. Let me introduce you to Gavin Rhedd, one of the co-owners of Rhedd Alert Security.”

Rhedd was younger than she’d guessed, a handsome man with a sturdy frame. He’d made the curious decision to wear a weathered, civilian flight suit to the meeting. Per­haps he needed to convince everyone that he was, in fact, a pilot. Still, the rig fit him well. He looked uncomfortable but not self-conscious standing beside the granite slab that was Major Greely.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Brock.”

She refused his extended hand and put an end to the pleasantries.

“So you’re the cherry that low-balled my contract.” She made it obvious that it wasn’t a question. “Let me be en­tirely clear. The termination clause stipulates that I par­ticipate in a transition meeting. Let’s not pretend that I’m pleased by the opportunity.”

“Well okay, then,” Greely said. “I suppose that will do by way of introductions. Let’s get started, shall we?” He took a seat at the head of the table and motioned for each of them to sit. “Now, the award and protest periods are over.”

“There will be an appeal filed,” she said.

“I don’t doubt that, Morgan. But my office and Navy SysCom have every reason to believe that the award will be upheld.”

“I’ve invested two years cleaning up the run through Min and Nexus,” she said. “And we both know the workload is scheduled to increase dramatically. I’m not handing that over without a fight.”

She stopped when Greely held a hand up, “The UEE wants us to find ways to enfranchise independents in those systems. You want to argue that point, do it with the politicians. But right now, I need a mission brief, and I think we’d all appreciate this meeting moving along quickly.”

Brock let the major win the point. If nothing else, she knew when to pick her battles. There was nothing to be gained from antagonizing him. There were more profitable targets for her ire. Content with the cool tenor of the meeting, she turned her attention to Gavin Rhedd.

“Yes, well,” the young man cleared his throat. His fore­head glistened where it met his close-cropped hair. “I’ve read through the, uh . . . the After Action Reports.” Rhedd swiped through several projections on an old clunker of a mobiGlas. “Every ten days we escort a new shift rotation to the Haven research facility on Tyrol V. But what can you tell me about the security require­ments for the staff transfer between the transport ships and Haven?”

The kid didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Maybe her Tyrol contract wasn’t quite the lost cause Major Greely made it out to be. Brock’s smile felt genuine as she started describing the ship-to-settlement transfer process.

This job was going to eat Rhedd Alert Security alive.

Min system was dark. In Goss, the jump points flowed with shimmering cascades of color. They boiled the Olympus Pool’s bands of gold, amber, and blood-orange in a dazzling display of celestial mystery. Min, on the other hand, was entirely different, and Gavin wondered how many ships and lives Min’s jump gates had claimed before they were suc­cessfully charted.

The approach was well marked now. Nav beacons lit a ten-kilometer channel leading six Rhedd Alert escorts and their charge, a Constellation Aquila with UEE designations, to the jump gate. The automated beacons broadcast a steady stream of navsat and transit status data in addition to lighting the visual entry vector.

The gate itself loomed large. It was an empty disc, invisible if not for the faint light from the beacons. That light bent, distorting into the maw of interspace that, if entered cor­rectly, would disgorge them out into the Nexus system. Stumbling onto an unknown jump point had to be a terri­fying experience. He’d seen images of dark gates, like the ones in Min, when the beacons were offline. Even knowing what to look for in those images, it was difficult to distin­guish the subtle smudge that represented a portal through time and space.

“Gate Authority Min,” Gavin read from a scripted authori­zation request, “this is Rhedd Alert Security, performing in compliance with Naval Systems Command regulations, approaching VFR and in support of UEE research vessel Cassiopeia. Request clearance for transit from Min to Nexus and confirmation of the approach.”

They didn’t need the call and response to make the jump to Nexus, but their contract required record of specific communications at all jump gates, as well as of the UEE staff transfers at each end of the run.

The gods only knew how many times he and Walt had hopped systems unannounced. In reflection, it probably should have felt strange entering a jump gate with legal tags and without local law breathing down his neck. But times change, and if Gavin got his way, they were changing for the better.

He received the expected challenge and responded with ship IDs that matched the tags for each member of the convoy. Gavin had stumbled over the formal exchanges on the first few missions. No one had complained, but he felt better now that he had a degree of comfort with the cadence and timing of the exchange. Hopefully, that degree of comfort inspired confidence in his new pilots and the UEE scientists aboard the Cassiopeia.

They got their clearance and Gavin sent the order to enter the jump gate. He took point with Jazza, each of them in place along either side of the Aquila. They slid into the gate with a familiar falling sensation. The cockpit seemed to stretch, elongating out and away from him in a rush of sound and color. It felt like someone had set a hook in his insides and pulled, stretching his gut tighter and tighter. Then something snapped and he was reac­quainted with the increasingly familiar constellations of Nexus space.

“Gate Authority Nexus,” he said, “this is Rhedd Alert—”

“Gavin,” Jazza’s voice was crisp. He was already check­ing his navsat displays when she continued, “We’ve got three ships inbound. Three hundred kilometers. Make that two-fifty! Gods, they’re moving fast.”

“Jazz, take Mei and Rahul to see what our new friends want. Walt, you and Boomer play goalie. If these guys take a run at the Cassiopeia, make them reconsider.”

A chorus of “copy that” erupted on comms and Gavin switched channels to address the UEE crew aboard the transport. “Cassiopeia, this is Red One. Accelerate in line with my mark and do not deviate from course.”

“Contact,” Jazza sounded calm, clinical. “They’ve got three F7 Hornets in a variety of configurations. They’re beat to hell with patchwork armor, but coming in fast.”

“They have any markings or insignia? What are their tags?”

“Nothing I can see through the mismatch of weapons and scrap parts.”

“Look out, they’re firing!” Mei said. “Holy hells, these guys are quick.”

“Gav,” Walt asked, “do we run?”

The After Action Reports from Brock showed a steady decrease in aggressive actions over time. Letting a new pi­rate outfit establish a foothold at one of their critical jump points seemed like a very bad idea.

“We fight,” he said. “We can’t afford to retake this ground every two weeks if we run scared now.”

“Whatever you’re going to do, do it fast,” Jazza said. “It’s three-on-three over here, and it seems these guys like to play with their food.”

“Walt,” Gavin said. “Take point. If they have friends, I don’t want to get herded into a trap.”

“Copy that.”

“All right, Jazz. I’m on my way to you.” Gavin pulled up hard, inverted over the Cassiopeia and accelerated toward the jumble of fighters.

Gavin had survived dozens of scraps before starting Rhedd Alert, but always as the aggressor. Being on the defensive was something new. It seemed strange that these crazy bastards were hitting six armed escorts.

“Jazza,” he was a couple hundred clicks out and had a good look at the scrum, “I’m coming up underneath you. Time to make this an unfair fight.”

“These guys are good, Gavin.” She grunted and her Cut­lass rolled in a loose corkscrew, putting her behind one of the marauders. She fired and its shields blazed. It pitched, nose down and thrusters reversing, to push up and above Jazza’s ship. The other two marauders swung into position on either side, and the three of them slashed toward Gavin like a knife blade.

He rolled to his port side and tried to accelerate around them. At least they couldn’t all fire on him at once that way. Rahul strafed overhead, pouring fire into one of the Hornets, but the marauders held their formation.

“Jazza, form up on me. Let’s split these bastards up.”

“Got it.”

They met and swept around to rush the trio of mis­matched Hornets. The marauders found Mei before he and Jazza were in firing range.

“Ah, hell . . .”

A barrage of precise bursts from wing-mounted laser cannons tore into Mei’s ship. It ripped entire sections from the hull, and escaping oxygen belched out in a roiling ball of flame.

“Damn it!” Gavin couldn’t see if Mei got out. He and Jaz­za blasted their way through the marauders’ formation. The Hornets scattered and reformed again behind them. “We’ve got a man down. Walt, we might need your help over here.”

“That’s what you get for staying to fight, Gav. We should have made a run for it.”

“We can talk about ‘shoulda’ later,” he said. “Get back here and . . . wait. Belay that.”

“They’re running,” Jazza sounded bemused. “Feels like they had us on the ropes, but they’re bugging out.”

Gavin watched thruster trails from the retreating ships. In moments, they winked out of Nexus space.

Cassiopeia is secure,” Walt said. “Are you guys clear?”

Jazza didn’t exactly answer him. “Now what do you think that was all about?”

Gavin’s HUD looked clear. Relieved, he found Mei’s PRB. Everyone was alive and they appeared to be alone on the Nexus side of the gate. Walt and the Cassiopeia were nearing the extreme range of his display.

“Walt, hold where you are. Stay sharp and sweep ahead. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they attacked three-on-six.”

“Maybe,” Jazza said, “they knew they’d kick our ass.”

“Or maybe this was a feint,” Gavin said. “Let’s not get caught with our pants down if there are more of them out here. Jazz, you and Rahul watch my back while I get Mei. We’re taking the first shots if they come back through.”

There was a general clamor of agreement. Gavin was beginning to suspect that military comm-chatter was much more sparse and far less democratic than Rhedd Alert’s constant banter. Still, aside from Walt second-guessing his every move, Gavin was proud of the team.

“I wonder if they’re waiting on the other side?” Jazza asked.

Walt was quick to respond. “We are not going through that gate to check.”

“Relax, Walt,” Gavin said. “A win is a win. And good rid­dance.”

At this point, Walt’s objection wasn’t a surprise. “Lucky win, you mean. In a fight we didn’t need to have.”

Gavin ignored him.

Though she was unconscious, the biometrics in Mei’s suit reported only minor damage. Her ship, on the other hand, was another story completely. Gavin started running some mental math, tallying the costs of parts, labor, and med tech fees. The results were cringe-worthy.

The attack would make this mission a financial loss, but the contract was still the leg-up Rhedd Alert needed. And the attack was probably an aberration, Gavin reflected, re­minding himself that Brock’s After Action Reports showed a steady decrease in hostilities over the past several years.

Unfortunately, they were about to find out just how little those reports meant.

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      Jump Point Now Available!
      Attention development subscribers: the April 2019 issue of Jump Point is now available in your subscription area. You’ll learn all about developing the updated flight model which premiered in Alpha 3.5, track the history of flight controls in the RSI Museum and find out everything you ever wanted to know about Leyland’s Tortoise in an all-new Galactapedia. Plus a lore featuring MaxOx!
      Interested in becoming a development subscriber? You can learn more here.
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      Welcome to Inside Star Citizen, the triumphant return of our weekly development update show. In this episode we learn about a new particle lighting system, public telemetry, Crusader’s city in the clouds, and upcoming improvements to a classic ship.

      To watch Reverse the Verse LIVE each and every week, tune into
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      Writer’s Note: Brothers In Arms: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 3.8. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.
      A recorded hymn played as they sent Arun “Boomer” Ains­ley into whatever great adventure awaits in the everafter. Gavin set the service in the Rhedd Alert hangar, and the recording sounded terrible. The last somber note rebounded off the room’s hard surfaces and harsh angles.
      He wished they could have had a live band. He would have paid for an orchestra, if one were to be had on the orbit­al station. Even a bugle would have been a better tribute for the man who had brought Dell into his life. For the man who taught him and Walt so much about living a free life.
      Dell’s arm felt small around his waist and Gavin pulled her in close to him, unsure if that was the right thing to do. He turned to kiss her hair and saw Walt’s lean form looming beside them. Walt’s face was fixed in a grim mask.
      Gavin knew his brother well enough to know that Walt was berating himself inside. He didn’t deal well with guilt or re­sponsibility, and Gavin suspected that was a big part of why Walt always ran.
      The gathering started to break up. Pilots and the hangar crew busied themselves with tasks around Rhedd Alert’s battered fleet of fighters. Dell didn’t move, so he stayed there with her. Walt rested a hand on his shoulder.
      “Gavin. Oh gods, Dell. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
      Jazza leaned in and spoke in a low tone, almost a whisper. “Landing gear up in ten, boss. Your rig is on the buggy.” She motioned with her chin to where his ship waited.
      Dell turned into him and squeezed. “Be careful.”
      “I will, babe.”
      “You come home to me, Gavin Rhedd. I’ll kill you myself if you make me run this outfit on my own.”
      He pressed his lips to the top of her head. Held them there.
      “Wait. What?” Walt’s jaw was slack, his eyes wide. “Tell me you aren’t going back out there.”
      Jazza bumped Walt with her shoulder, not so much walking past him as through him. “Damn right we are, Quitter.”
      “You know what? Screw you, Jazz. All right? You used to quit this outfit, like . . . twice a month.”
      “Not like you. Not like some chicken sh—”
      “Jazz,” Gavin said, “go make sure the team is ready to roll, would ya?” With a nod to Gavin and a parting glare at Walt, she moved away into the hangar.
      “Let it be, Walt. We really do need to go. After last time, we can’t risk being late for the pickup.”
      “Screw late!” Walt’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed around the edges. “Why the happy hells are you going at all?”
      “Walt —”
      “Don’t ‘Walt’ me, Gavin. There is a pack of psychopaths out there trying to kill you!”
      “Walt, would you shut up and listen for two seconds? We don’t have a choice, okay? We’ve got everything riding on this job. We’re months behind on this place and extended up to our necks on credit for fuel, parts, and ammo.”
      “They can damn well bill me!”
      “No,” Gavin said, “they can’t. Your shares reverted back to the company when you quit. But I’m legit now. You think we lived life on the run before? Just you watch if I try to run from this.”
      Walt turned to Dell for assistance, “Dell, come on. You gotta make him listen to reason.”
      “Boomer’s shares transferred to me when he died,” Dell said. “We’re in this together.”
      “Okay, boss,” Jazza called. The three of them looked to where she stood with a line of determined crew. “It’s time.”
      Walt watched the big bay doors close as the last of Gavin’s team left the hangar. His fighter and the few remaining ships looked small and awkwardly out of place in the big room. Standing alone next to Dell gave him a great appreci­ation for that awkwardness.
      “I’m so sorry, Dell. If I’d been there —”
      “Don’t,” she stopped him with a word, and then contin­ued with a shake of her blue-tipped hair. “Don’t do that to yourself. I’ve been over the tactical logs. He got beat one-on-one, and then they OK’d him. There was nothing you could have done.”
      “I still feel rotten,” he said. “Like, maybe if I hadn’t left . . . I don’t know.”
      “Gavin blames himself, too. That’s just the way you two are built. But believe me, there was never a soul alive able to keep my dad out of the cockpit. He was flying long before you Rhedd boys tumbled into our lives.”
      That gave him a smile. A genuine smile. It seemed to bright­en Dell’s mood, so he did his best to hang onto it.
      “Come on,” she said. “It’s been a long couple of weeks. Join me for some coffee?”
      He did, and for a time they spoke softly at the tall tables in the hangar’s kitchenette. Dell caught him up on life aboard Vista Landing since he had left. She was clearly exhausted and not simply from a sleepless night and her father’s funeral. Her shoulders sagged, and dark circles under her eyes were the product of weeks of labor and worry. The constant apprehension of the Hornets’ vi­cious attacks had apparently exhausted more than just the pilots. It seemed odd that the attacks felt strangely personal.
      “You know what I can’t figure out?” he mused aloud. Dell looked at him, tired eyes politely expectant. “What the hell are these guys after?”
      She nodded, “Yeah. There’s been a lot of speculating on that question.”
      “Hard to say, isn’t it? Could be political wackos opposed to the research in Haven. Or maybe it’s one of the old gangs that don’t like us going legit. Could be it’s a group of Tevarin lashing out against UEE targets. Who knows?”
      “Naw. If they were Tevarin, we could tell by how they fly.”
      “Then you tell me, if you’re so smart. I mean, you were out there. You fought them.”
      Walt shrugged and took a sip of cooling coffee. Something she said nagged at him. “Hey, you said you had navsat tac­tical logs from the fight, right?”
      “Yeah.” What remained of her energy seemed to drain away with that one word. Walt cursed himself for the insensitive ass that he was. He’d just asked her about re­corded replays of her father’s murder.
      “Dell. Ah, hell . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
      “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been over and over them already. Really, I don’t mind.”
      They moved to a console and the lights dimmed automat­ically when she pulled up the hangar projection. She se­lected a ship, and oriented the view so that the hologram of Boomer’s Avenger filled the display. No, Walt reminded himself, it wasn’t Boomer’s ship any more. Dell was his heir and — along with his debt — Boomer’s assets now belonged to her.
      Dell bypassed the default display of the structural hard­points and dove into the ship’s systems. Something caught his eye and he stopped her. “Wait, back up.” She did, and Walt stopped the rotating display to look along the under­carriage of the ship. He let out a low whistle.
      “That, Walter Rhedd, is a Tarantula GT-870 Mk3.”
      “I know what it is. But where did you get it?”
      “Remember those pirates that gave us so much trouble in Oberon? I pulled it before we sold the salvage.”
      He certainly did remember, and the bastards had kicked the crap out of two of their ships with their Tarantulas. “How’d you get it mounted on an Avenger?”
      “Hammer therapy,” she said. He gave her a confused look, and she held up one arm, curling it to make a muscle. “I beat the hell out of it until it did what I wanted.”
      “Damn, girl.”
      “Did you want to see the flight recorder?”
      They watched the navsat replays together in silence. It looked like one hell of a fight. Chaotic. Frantic. The Rhedd Alert fighters were hard pressed.
      Jazza had moments of tactical brilliance. As much as she rubbed him the wrong way, Walt had to admit that she made her Cutlass dance steps for which it wasn’t de­signed. Gavin orchestrated a coherent strategy and had committed extra fighters to drive off the attack. Some­thing was wrong, though. Something about the fight didn’t make sense.
      Walt had Dell replay the scene so he could focus on the marauders. It didn’t look like much of a fight at all from that perspective. It looked more like a game and only one team understood how all the pieces moved. The Hornets flew to disrupt, to confuse. They knew Gavin would send a force forward to protect the transport. He’d done it every time they had met.
      “See that?” he said. “They break apart there and get called immediately back into formation. They never leave a flank exposed. Our guys never get a real opening.” He pointed out one of the attacking Hornets. “That one calls the shots.”
      “That’s the one that OK’d Boomer.”
      Reds and greens from the navsat display sparkled in Dell’s eyes. Her voice was emotionless and flat. Walt didn’t want to see her like that, so he focused again on the display.
      The marauder he’d identified as the leader broke from the melee. Gavin gave chase, but from too far behind. Boomer intercepted, was disabled, and his PRB flashed red on the display. The Hornet took a pass at the transport before turning to rejoin its squad. Then it decelerated, pausing before the overkill on Boomer.
      “Why take only one pass at the transport? They’ve hit us, what? Six times? Seven? And once they finally get a shot at the target, they bug out?”
      “You said, ‘us’,” Dell teased. “You back to stay?”
      Walt huffed a small laugh. “We’ll see.”
      “We’ve been lucky,” Dell offered in answer to his question. “So far, we’ve chased them off.”
      “You really believe that? They had this fight won if they wanted it. And how do they keep finding us? It’s like they’ve taken up permanent residence in our damned flight path.”
      That was it. He had it. The revelation must have shown on his face.
      “What?” Dell asked. “What is it?”
      “Back it up to the strafe on the Aquila.”
      Dell did, and they watched it again. He felt like an ass for making her watch the murder of her father over again, but he had to be sure of what he saw.
      And there it was. Strafe. Turn. Pause. A decision to com­mit. An escalating act of brutality. And then they were gone.
      “She’s not after the transport at all. We were her target this whole time.”
      “Wait,” Dell said, “what she? Her who?”
      “Please tell me your ex hasn’t drunk himself out of a job with the Navy.”
      “Barry? Of course not, why?”
      “Because I just figured out who killed your father.”
      Morgan Brock called the meeting to a close and dismissed her admin team. Riebeld caught her eye and lifted one hand off the table — a request for her to stay while the others shuffled out of the conference room.
      Riebeld kept her waiting until they were alone, and then stood to close the door.
      “I take it,” Brock said, “that our Tyrol problem persists despite the escalation?”
      “I got word during the meeting” — he took a seat beside her at the table, voice pitched low — “that they should be making the jump to Nexus soon.”
      “Our discreet pilots? Are they deployed or here at the sta­tion?”
      His answer was slow in coming, his nod reluctant. “They are here.”
      Brock checked the time. Did some mental math. “Disguise the ships. We will leave at 1700 and meet them in Nexus just inside the gate from Min.”
      “Morgan,” Riebeld’s eyes roamed the room, “these guys aren’t taking the hint. I don’t know what losses we have to hand them before they back down, but . . . I don’t know. Part of doing business is losing bids, am I right?” She didn’t disagree and he continued. “Maybe . . . Maybe we ought to write this one off?”
      “A comfortable position to hold in your seat, Riebeld. Your commission is based on the contract value. I barely turned a profit on that job for years. I did it willingly, with the expected reward of windfall profits when traffic to Haven surges.”
      “I get that,” he said. “I really do. But at some point we have to call it a loss and focus on the next thing, right?”
      “Then suppose that we let the Tyrol job go, and Greely and Navy SysCom see what they want to see from bou­tique contractors. I can already imagine anti-establishment politicians pushing for more outsourced work. Hell, they will probably promise contracts to buy votes in their home systems.”
      She watched him squirm. It wasn’t like him to wrestle with his conscience. Frankly, she was disappointed to learn that he’d found one.
      “If Rhedd Alert won’t withdraw willingly,” she said, “then they will have to fail the hard way. Prep the ships, Rie­beld. We have done very well together, you and I. You should know that I won’t back away from what is mine.” He seemed to appreciate her sincerity, but Brock wanted to hear the cocksure salesman say it. “Are we clear?”
      “Yes, ma’am,” Riebeld swallowed and stood. “Perfectly clear.”
      “Any luck?” Walt pulled up Barry’s record in his mobiGlas and hit connect.
      Dell sat at the hangar console trying to reach Gavin and the team. Her brow furrowed in a grimace and she shook her head.
      “Damn. Okay, keep trying.”
      Barry connected. The accountant wore his uniform. He was on duty, wherever he was, and his projected face looked genuinely mournful. “Hey,” he said, “long time no see, man. Listen, I can’t tell you how sad I am about Boomer.”
      “Thanks.” Barry had known Dell and Boomer for most his life. He’d probably been torn between attending the service and allowing the family to grieve in privacy. Regardless, commiseration would have to wait. “We need your help, Barry. Please tell me that you have access to the propos­als for the Tyrol contract.”
      “Of course I do. And who’s we? Are you back with Dell and Gavin?”
      “I am,” he felt Dell’s eyes on him when he said it. “Anyway, we need a favor. I need to know the ship models and con­figurations proposed by the incumbent.”
      “Morgan Brock’s outfit, sure. No can do on the ship data, though. That information is all confidential. Only the price proposals are available for public review, and those only during the protest period.”
      “Come on, Barry. We’re not talking trade secrets here. I could figure this out with a fly-by of their hangar in Kilian. I just don’t have time for that. I need to know what ships those guys fly.”
      Barry breathed out a heavy sigh, “Hold on. But I can’t send you the proposals, okay? You guys are already on thin ice with this contract as is.”
      “Tell me about it. And thanks, I owe you huge for this.”
      Walt waited, throat dry. He scratched at a chipped edge on his worn mobiGlas with a fingernail.
      “All right,” Barry read from something off-screen, “it looks like they’re flying a variety of Hornets. Specifically, F7As. I can send you a list of the proposed hardpoints, and I hap­pen to know that Brock herself flies a Super Hornet.”
      The mobiGlas shook on Walt’s wrist. His face felt hot, and he forced his jaw to relax. “Barry, if you have any pull with the Navy, get some ships to Tyrol. It’s been Brock this whole time. She’s been setting us up to fail. And she’s the bitch that OK’d Boomer.”
      “I’m going, Walt. That’s final.”
      Walt rubbed at his eyes with the flat part of his fingers. How did Gavin ever win an argument her? Forbidding her involvement was a lost cause. Maybe he could reason with her. “Listen. When’s the last time you were even in a cockpit?”
      “I know this ship. I was practically born in these things.”
      “Dell —”
      She threw his helmet at him. He caught it awkwardly, and she had shed her coveralls and was wriggling into her flight suit before he could finish his thought. She stared at him with hard eyes and said, “Suit up if you don’t want to get left behind.”
      Dell was as implacable as gravity. Fine. It was her funeral, and he realized there was no way his brother had ever won an argument with her.
      They finished prepping in silence. Walt pulled the chocks on her Avenger when she climbed up into the cockpit. He gave the hulking muzzle of the Tarantula an appreciative pat. “You have ammo for this bad boy?”
      “I have a little.”
      “Good,” he smiled. “Let’s hope Brock isn’t ready to handle reinforcements.”
      Walt mulled that thought over. It was true that Gavin had split their team in each fight, but Rhedd Alert had never sent in reserves. Each engagement had been a fair and straightforward fight. Brock wasn’t likely to know anything about their resources, however limited, beyond the escort team. That could work to their advantage.
      In fact, “Hey, Dell. Hop out for a tick, will you?”
      “Like hell I will.” The look she shot down at him was pure challenge. “I said I’m going and that’s that.”
      “Oh, no. I’ve already lost that fight. But you and your cannon here got me thinking about those pirates in Oberon. Tell me, did we ever find a buyer for that old Idris hull?”
      “No. It’s buoyed in storage outside the station, why?”
      Dell looked at him skeptically and he grinned. “We’re going to introduce these military-types to
      some ol’ smugglers’ tricks.”
      Gavin held the team at the edge of the jump gate between Min and Nexus. “All right gang, listen up. You know the drill and what might be waiting for us on the other side. Jazza, I want you and Rahul up on point for this jump. I’ll bring Cassiopeia over after you and the rest of the team are in. Anyone not ready to jump?”
      His team was silent as they arranged themselves into position with professional precision. The pilot aboard Cassiopeia sounded the ready and Gavin sent Jazza through. The others were hard on her heels, and Gavin felt the always-peculiar drop through the mouth of the jump gate.
      Light and sound stretched, dragging him across the inter­space. Another drop, a moment’s disorientation, and then Nexus resolved around him.
      Without warning, Mei’s fighter flashed past his forward screen. Incandescent laser fire slashed along the ghost grey and fire-alarm red ship, crippling Mei’s shields and shearing away sections of armored hull. Mei fired back at a trio of maddeningly familiar Hornets in a tight triangular formation.
      Jazza barked orders. “Mei. Rahul. Flank Gavin and get Cassiopeia out of here. Gavin, you copy that? You have the package.”
      He shook his head, willing the post-jump disorientation away. He didn’t remember bringing up his shields, but they flashed on his HUD and his weapon systems were armed.
      “Copy that.” Gavin switched to the transport channel, “Cassiopeia. Let’s get you folks out of here.”
      The crew onboard the UEE transport didn’t need any more encouragement. Gavin accelerated to keep pace with the larger ship as two Rhedd Alert fighters dropped into posi­tion above and below him. Together, they raced toward the jump gate to Tyrol.
      The Hornets wheeled and dropped toward them from one side. Gavin’s HUD lit up with alerts as Jazza sent a pair of rockets dangerously close over his head to blast into one of the attacking ships. Her ship screamed by overhead, but the Hornets stayed in pursuit of the fleeing transport.
      Alarms sounded. They needed more firepower on the Hornets to give Cassiopeia time to get clear. He yelled a course heading, and Cassiopeia dove with Mei and Rahul on either flank.
      Gavin pulled up, turned and fired to pull the attention of the attackers. He spun, taking the brunt of their return fire on his stronger starboard shields.
      The impact shook the Cutlass violently, and his shield integ­rity bar sagged into the red. Gavin turned, took another wild shot with his lasers, and accelerated away from Cassiopeia with the Hornets in close pursuit.
      Navsat data for the jump into Nexus crept onto the edge of Walt’s HUD. Several seconds and thousands of kilometers later, the first of the embattled starships winked onto the display. His brother and the Rhedd Alert team were hard-pressed.
      Walt watched Brock and her crew circle and strike, corralling the Rhedd Alert ships. Gavin tried to lead the attackers away, but Brock wouldn’t bite. By keeping the fight centered on the UEE transport, she essentially held the transport hostage.
      Time to even the odds.
      Jazza tore into one of the Hornets. Walt saw the enemy fighter’s superior shields absorb the impact. He marked that Hornet as his target, preparing to strike before its defenses recharged.
      He killed his primary drive and spun end to end, slash­ing backward through the melee like a blazing comet. His targeting system locked onto the enemy Hornet, and his heavy Broadsword blasted bullets into it.
      Mei’s battered fighter dove through the streaming wreck­age, but the Super Hornet, presumably Brock, waited for her on the other side. A blast from her neutron cannon tore through the Rhedd Alert ship. Mei ejected safely, but their team was down a ship.
      “Gods,” Gavin’s voice was frantic. “Get the hell out of here, Walt. Form up with the transport and get them away from the fight.”
      Walt ignored him. He came around for another pass and triggered his mic to an open-area channel. “The game’s up, Brock.”
      His words cut across the thrust and wheel of close com­bat, and for a moment the fighters on all sides flew in quiet patterns above the fleeing Cassiopeia.
      “You know,” Walt said, “if you wanted us to believe you were after the transport, you should have saved your big guns for Cassiopeia instead of overkilling our friend.”
      “I suppose I should be disappointed that you have found me out,” Brock’s voice was a pinched sneer, and every bit as cold and hard as Gavin had described. “On the other hand, I’m glad you’ve shared this with me. I might have been content disabling the majority of your so-called fleet. Now, it seems that I will have to be more thorough.”
      She fired, he dodged, and the fight was on again in earnest. Walt switched his comms to Rhedd Alert’s squad channel. “Brock was never after Cassiopeia, Gav. She’s been after us.”
      “Maybe I’m a little distracted by all the missiles and the neutron cannon, but I’m failing to see how that is at all relevant right now.”
      “We’re no match for the tech in her ships. If she goes after the transport, they’re toast.” He rolled into position next to Gavin. Together, they nosed down to strafe at a Hornet from above.
      “Great,” Gavin said, “then why did you tip her off?”
      Walt suppressed a wicked grin. “Because,” he said, “she can’t afford to let any of us get away, either.”
      “If you have any brilliant ideas, spit ’em out. I’m all ears.”
      “Run with me.” For all Walt knew, Brock could hear every word they were saying. She would tear them apart if they stayed. He had to get Gavin to follow him. “Run with me, Gavin.”
      “Damn it, Walt! If you came to help, then help. I’ve got a pilot down, and I’m not leaving her here to get OK’d like Boom­er.”
      “This ain’t about doing the easy thing, Gav. Someone I truly admire once told me that this game is all about trust. So ask yourself . . . do you trust me?”
      Gavin growled his name then, dragging out the word in a bitter, internal struggle. The weight of it made Walt’s throat constrict. Despite all of their arguments, Boomer’s death and his own desertion when things got hard — in spite of all of that — his brother still wanted to trust him.
      “Trust me, Gavin.”
      Brock and her wingman swept low, diving to corral Cassiopeia and its escorts. Jazza redirected them with a blazing torrent of laser fire and got rocked by the neutron cannon in return. The shields around her battered Cutlass flashed, dimmed and then failed.
      Walt gritted his teeth. It was now or never.
      “Jazz,” Gavin’s voice sounded hard and sharp, “rally with Cassiopeia and make a break for it.”
      Walt pumped his fist and accelerated back the way he’d come in.
      “Walt,” Gavin sounded angry enough to eat nails, but he followed, “I’m on your six. Let’s go, people! Move like you’ve got a purpose.”
      Walt pulled up a set of coordinate presets and streaked away with Gavin close behind him. The two remaining Hor­nets split, with Brock falling in behind Gavin to give pursuit. Even together he and Gavin didn’t have much chance of getting past her superior shields. Instead, he set a straight course for the waypoint marked at the edge of his display. When incoming fire from Brock drove them off course, he corrected to put them directly back in line with the mark.
      Brock was gaining. Gavin’s icon flashed on his display. She was close enough to hit reliably with her repeaters. As they approached the preset coordinates, Walt spotted a rippling distortion of winking starlight. Correcting his course slightly, he headed straight for it. Gavin and Brock were hard behind him.
      “Come on,” Walt whispered, “stay close.”
      On the squad display, he saw Gavin’s shield integrity dropped yet again. Brock was scoring more frequent hits.
      “A little farther.”
      Walt focused on the rippling of starlight ahead, a dark patch of space that swallowed Nexus’ star. He made a slight course correction and Gavin matched it. Together, they continued their breakneck flight from Brock’s deadly onslaught.
      The small patch of dark space grew as the three ships streaked forward. Walt opened the squad channel on his mic and shouted, “Now!”
      On his HUD, a new ship flared onto the display. It appeared to materialize nearly on top of them as Dell’s Avenger dropped from her hiding place inside the blackened hull of the derelict Idris.
      Walt punched his thrusters. The lift pressed him into his seat as he pushed up and over their trap. He heard Dell shouting over the squad channel, and he turned, straining to see behind him. Bright flashes from Brock’s muzzles accompanied a horrible pounding thunder. Dell had left her mic open and it sounded like the massive gun was threat­ening to tear her ship apart.
      “Heads up, Gav!”
      Dell’s voice hit Gavin like a physical blow.
      He saw his brother climb and suddenly disappear behind an empty, starless expanse. Then Boomer’s Avenger materi­alized from within that blackness, and Gavin knew that his wife was inside the cockpit. She was with him, out in the black where veteran pilots outgunned them.
      His body reacted where his mind could not. He shoved down, hard. Thrusters strained as he instinctively tried to avoid colliding with her. A brilliant pulse like flashes of light­ning accompanied a jarring thunder of sound.
      Gavin forced his battered ship to turn. The Cutlass shud­dered from the stress, and Gavin was pressed into the side of the cockpit as the nose of his ship came around.
      He saw the first heavy round strike Brock. The combined force of the shell and her momentum shredded her for­ward shields. Then round after round tore through the nose of Brock’s ship until the air ignited inside.
      “Dell” — the flaming Hornet tumbled toward his wife like an enormous hatchet — “look out!”
      Brock ejected.
      Dell thrust to one side, but the Hornet chopped into the hull where she had hidden. The explosion sent ships and debris spinning apart in all directions.
      He swept around to intercept her spinning ship. Walt beat him there. Thrusters firing in tightly controlled move­ments, Walt caught her Avenger, slowed it and stopped the spin.
      Gavin rolled to put himself cockpit to cockpit with his wife.
      She sat in stillness at the controls, her head down and turned to one side.
      “Come on, baby. Talk to me.”
      She moved.
      With the slow deliberateness of depressurized space, she rolled her head on her shoulders. When she looked up, their eyes met. Dell gave him a slow smile and a thumbs-up. He swallowed hard, and with one hand pressed to his heart, he shut his eyes silently in thanks.
      Gavin spun his Cutlass and thrust over to where Brock floated nearby, his weapons systems still hot. He paused then, looming above her as she had hesitated over Boomer.
      Her comms were still active. “What now, Rhedd?”
      He remembered her from the meeting with Greely. Tall, lean, and crisp. She seemed small now, drifting not more than a meter away from the battle-scarred nose of his Cutlass.
      “Gavin?” Dell’s voice sounded small after the ruckus of the fight.
      Walt eased into view alongside him. His voice was low and calm, “Easy, buddy. We weren’t raised to OK pilots.”
      “She’s not worth it,” Dell said.
      Brock snarled, “Do it already.”
      He had studied Brock’s reports for months. She had more ships and more pilots than he could ever imagine employing. What drove her to harass them and kill one of his crew for this job?
      “I just want to know why,” he asked. “You’ve got other contracts. You’ve probably made more money than any of us will see in our lives. Why come after us?”
      He held Brock’s eye, the lights from the Cutlass reflecting from her visor.
      “Why?” she repeated. “Look around you, Rhedd. There’s no law in these systems. All that matters here is courage to take what you want, and a willingness to sacrifice to keep it.”
      “You want to talk sacrifice?” he said. “That pilot you killed was family.”
      “You put him in harm’s way,” she said, “not me. What little order exists in these systems is what I brought with me. I carved my success from nothing. You independents are thieves. You’re like rodents, nibbling at the edges of others’ success.”
      “I was a thief,” he said, “and a smuggler. But we’re building our own success, and next time you and I meet with the Navy,” Gavin fired his thrusters just enough to punch Brock with the nose of his ship, “it’ll be in a court­room.”
      She spun and tumbled as she flew, growing smaller and smaller until the PRB on his HUD was all he could see.
      A pair of Retaliators with naval designations were moored outside the Rhedd Alert hangar when Gavin and the crew finally limped back to Vista Landing.
      Crew aboard Cassiopeia had insisted on helping with medical care and recovery after the fight. The team scheduled for pick-up at Haven was similarly adamant that Rhedd Alert take care of their own before continuing. Technically, no one had checked with Navy SysCom.
      Did the Navy fire contractors face to face? For all he knew, they did.
      Gavin saw to the staging of their damaged ships while the others hurried the wounded deeper into Vista Landing. When he’d finished, he exchanged a quick nod with Barry Lidst who stood at ease behind Major Greely.
      “Major,” Gavin held out his hand, “I assume someone would have told me already if I was fired.”
      His hand disappeared in the major’s massive paw. “I sup­pose they would have, at that.”
      “Then to what do we owe the honor?” Dell and Walt joined them, and Gavin made introductions.
      “‘I’ first, then ‘we,’ ” Greely repeated, “I like that, Rhedd. I appreciate a man who accepts consequence personally but insists on sharing accolades with his team. Tell me, son. How’d you get Brock?”
      Gavin nudged his wife. With a roguish grin, Dell pulled her arm from around Gavin’s waist and stepped over to pat the Tarantula on her battered Avenger.
      “Nice shooting, miss.”
      Dell shrugged, “Walt pulled my tags, nav beacon and flight recorder before we left. I was sitting dark inside a decoy when the boys flew her right down the barrel.”
      Barry leaned toward Greely and in a completely audible whisper said, “It might be best if we ignore the illegal parts of that.”
      Greely waved him off. “This is what the ’verse needs. Men and women with the courage to slap their name up on the side of a hangar. A chance for responsible civilians to create good, honest jobs with real pay for locals. That an ex-military contractor tried to muck that up . . .”
      Gavin and the team got a good, close look at what angry looked like on a Navy officer. It was the kind of scowl that left an impression.
      “Anyway,” Greely composed himself, “not a soul in the ’verse would blame you for writing us off as a bit of bad business. I’m here to ask that you stick with it.”
      Gavin was reluctant to bring their financial situation up in front of their one paying client, but they were tapped out. Rhedd Alert didn’t have the cred to buy ammo, much less repair their downed fighters. “Actually, sir. I think we may need to find something a little more lucrative than getting shot up by disgruntled incumbents.”
      “About that,” Greely rested his hand on Gavin’s shoulder. He led him to look out one of the large hangar windows at the Retaliators buoyed outside. “My accountant tells me there may be some room to renegotiate certain parts of the Tyrol contract. But that job won’t be enough to keep your team busy now that Brock’s out of the way.”
      Gavin laughed. “On that point, I most certainly hope you are right.”
      “Well . . . I’ve got more work for an outfit like yours. I hope you’ll accept, because you folks have surely earned it. Tell me, Rhedd, are you familiar with the Oberon system?”
      Behind them, Walt dropped his helmet.
      The End
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